Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Saturday, January 31, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway
Country: USA/Canada

Almost ten years after the fact, Brokeback Mountain still somehow feels revolutionary. Though there have been movies with gay male protagonists in the years since that time – the most high profile arguably being the Best Picture nominated Milk - the continuing dearth of gay characters as romantic leads in big studio films means that Brokeback still seems like a rarity among rarities. In that respect, its impact on Hollywood was not equal to its notoriety, however, when you step away from all the outside social and political baggage attached to it, what’s left is a beautifully crafted masterpiece, a love story and a film that transcends any boundaries that might ghettoize it as a “gay movie” or otherwise as a work of limited or niche appeal so that it can be seen, simply, as a great movie.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: Elephant (2003)

* * * *

Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Kristen Hicks, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen

Gus Van Sant's Elephant is a film about the ordinariness that surrounds tragedy, how days that end marked by horror can still begin in typical fashion, the change occurring suddenly and altering everything forever. Released only four years after the Columbine massacre and centering on a school shooting that bears more than a passing resemblance to that event, the film inspired some heated reactions at the time of its release, with critic Todd McCarthy (then with Variety) denouncing the film as "pointless at best and irresponsible at worst." But though Elephant is a movie about a violent event, it presents that violence in a matter of fact way, without glorifying it, and without trying to explain the actions of the killers or even necessarily to understand why things like this happen. There's no understanding something like this, so Elephant merely acts as a witness - distanced, unemotional, observing events as they play out rather than attempting to guide them. In hindsight that's probably why the film inspired such intense reaction: answers are comforting; bald recounting of tragic events are not.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: Selma (2014)

* * * *

Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo

Having now seen Selma, I am genuinely baffled as to how it is that there are people walking away from the film concerned about whether or not Lyndon B. Johnson is portrayed fairly. If that is your main takeaway, then I'm sorry but not only have you missed the point of this film entirely but in certain respects you've also proved the point of this movie by tacitly admitting that you're only willing to engage with it by way of a "white savior" narrative. If you're concerned about Johnson's legacy, then by all means come out of this film outraged at what has become of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but if your concern is that Johnson is depicted as a politician who was willing to confront the issue of racial inequality but only wanted to do so at a time when it would be less politically inconvenient for him, then please give your head a shake and maybe ask yourself why that matters so much. The movie isn't about Johnson, after all, but about the experience of the people most intensely affected by racial inequality and how, only fifty short years ago, they were still being forced to fight for their simple right to human dignity, let alone the ability to exercise their right to vote. That despite how powerful, moving, and artful this film is, so much of the discussion it has provoked seems to center around how Johnson is portrayed pretty much says it all regarding how far we have not come as a society when it comes to issues of racism, particularly at the institutional level.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Appropriate Behavior (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Desiree Akhavan
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson

Don't let the horrifically generic title fool you, Desiree Akhavan's feature debut Appropriate Behavior is a sharp and funny comedy that manages to feel fresh even as it cribs from the almost 40-year-old Annie Hall. A film about a bisexual Iranian (which, in and of itself, is revolutionary in a minor way) living in New York and struggling to get over a breakup with her girlfriend, Appropriate Behavior is a well-observed comedy about the specific kind of mid-20s narcissism which dictates that every feeling must be worked up into a the most dramatic feeling ever because otherwise you might lose everyone's attention - even your own. Appropriate Behavior may not be a movie that will speak to everyone, but it has something that a lot of movies seem to lack these days: a voice.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Screen Actors Guild Winners

Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture: Birdman

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Motion Picture: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Motion Picture: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture: Unbroken

Ten Years Later... the 77th Academy Award Nominees

On this day in 2005

It has been suggested that a waiting period of at least ten years should be imposed before rewarding the "best" in film in any given year. Doing so would remove the hype element that dominates the proceedings and often declares certain films frontrunners before they've even been screened, which has the effect of setting expectations too high and of creating a sense of backlash before a film even hits theaters, and it would also give the films a chance to age and see how they hold up. So, with that in mind, I'm switching things up a bit with Ten Years Later... and looking at the Oscar nominees for the 2004 film year, focusing primarily on the nominees of the "big six" categories.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review: Inherent Vice (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix

If I had to compare Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice to any other movie, it would be Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep. On the surface the two might not seem to have much in common, the former being a '70s set comic noir about a hippie P.I. who spends most of his time stoned, the latter being a classic '40s noir with an archetypal Bogart performance as P.I. Philip Marlowe; but the two films have a similar storytelling strategy, in that there are a lot of elements in both stories and none of them really matter. Like The Big Sleep, Inherent Vice has a plot that can be hard to follow, its many threads difficult to tease out from one another, and like The Big Sleep, not knowing exactly what's happening makes absolutely no difference when it comes to enjoying it because it's not actually about the story, but about the characters and the mood. Inherent Vice is a film about a vibe and it makes that feeling so palpable that even when you're lost in the haze of its narrative, there's still no place you'd rather be.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Whale Rider (2002)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton
Country: New Zealand/Germany

In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness. It was waiting. Waiting to be filled up. Waiting for someone to love it. Waiting for a leader.

Whale Rider is one of those films that only comes around once in a great while, a work which at once feels bracingly intimate while at the same time attaining the larger than life level of mythology. Taking the form of a standard coming of age narrative, Whale Rider is a story about the necessity (and pain) of progress, and the ways in which traditions can be honored precisely by making them less rigid and more inclusive. Released in 2002, it's a film that has aged very well due to its deeply engaging story, its sensitive but frank depiction of its characters, and its luminous central performance. At 13 Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest person ever nominated for the Oscar as Best Actress (Quvenzhane Wallis has since taken that distinction, earning her nomination at 9) and while the Oscars have as much (if not more) to do with the hype of the day than anything else, 13 years after the fact her performance remains a marvel, an open, heart-on-the-sleeve, almost inconceivably mature depiction of a girl straining against the boundaries of gender and cultural norms to become the person she feels she's meant to be.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Oscar Nomination Surprises

#5: Marion Cotillard Nominated for Best Actress

Marion Cotillard's inclusion in the Best Actress race is surely one of the most pleasant surprises of yesterday morning's announcement (given the intensity of reactions across the internet to some of the exclusions from the nominations, some might argue that this was the only pleasant surprise). Though Cotillard did fine with the various critics association awards, the likelihood of her landing a Best Actress nomination seemed pretty remote, particularly after her film Two Days, One Night failed to make the cut for the final round of voting in the Best Foreign Language Film race. Every year the Oscars seem to be based less on merit and more on the "buzz" created by distributors with enough money to launch aggressive campaigns, so it's heartening to see AMPAS voters turn towards a small movie that had no big studio push behind it and make a selection that appears to be based solely on the quality of the work.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscar Nominations

And the nominees are:

Best Picture
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Oscar Nomination Predictions

Nominations will be announced first thing tomorrow morning. My predictions:

Best Picture
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Review: Untold Scandal (2003)

* * *

Director: E J-yong
Starring: Bae Yong-joon, Jeon do-yeon, Lee Mi-sook

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses is not a gentle novel. It's about two cruel people who, for their own amusement, spread their poison through their community, destroying everyone who crosses their path while also inadvertently destroying themselves. It's a nasty little piece of work (and I mean that in the best possible way) with sharp edges everywhere, so adapting it to the screen and making the story overtly sentimental is kind of a weird choice and, in the case of Untold Scandal, not an altogether successful one. At the same time, it's understandable by filmmaker E J-yong would have decided to go in that very different direction given that the book has already been adapted multiple times in a number of different mediums and given that at least one of those previous adaptations (Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons) is basically perfect. Untold Scandal is not perfect, but it is an interesting adaptation that up until the third act has a real bite to it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: The Return (2003)

* * * *

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko, Natalia Vdovina

Where has he been? Why is he back? Why now? What is he up to? What does he want? Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Return raises these questions not to answer them, but to create a mood of deep unease and to allow the viewer to burrow into the mindset of the two adolescent protagonists. Like those two kids, you never know quite where you stand in The Return, whether you're watching a man who is genuinely trying to connect with his children but just doesn't know how to relate to them and pushes them further away with his strange behavior, or whether his purpose is more nefarious and his intention is that he will be the only one to return from the trio's camping trip to a remote region. The result is an absolutely spellbinding film that keeps you guessing (and second guessing) right up until the end.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Into the Woods (2014)

* *

Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: James Corden, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick

Once upon a time, there was a giant who lived in the sky with his wife, minding their own business, causing no harm to anyone. Then one day a boy climbed up a beanstalk and began regularly committing home invasions and absconding with their belongings. When the giant attempted to take back what belonged to him, he was killed. When his wife attempted get justice for her husband, she was swarmed and beaten, and her killers lived happily ever after on the proceeds of her stolen goods. The end. It's a bad sign when you end a film in sympathy with the characters you're told are the villains and somewhat bored with the ones who are supposed to be the heroes. Yet that's how I felt by the time the final curtain dropped in Into the Woods, a two hour and four minute film that manages to feel about twice as long as it is, and like its story both drags and is too abrupt all at the same time.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Golden Globe Winners

As they're announced:

Best Motion Picture Drama: Boyhood

Best Actor, Motion Picture Drama: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress, Motion Picture Drama: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Actor, Motion Picture Musical or Comedy: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Director, Motion Picture: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Foreign Language Film: Leviathan (Russia)

Best Screenplay, Motion Picture: Birdman

Best Supporting Actress, Motion Picture: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Best Actress, Motion Picture Musical or Comedy: Amy Adams, Big Eyes

Best Original Song: "Glory," Selma

Best Original Score: The Theory of Everything

Best Supporting Actor, Motion Picture: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Golden Globe Predictions

Best Motion Picture, Drama: Boyhood

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy: Birdman

Best Director, Motion Picture: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Actor, Drama: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Best Actress, Drama: Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy: Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture: Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Screenplay, Motion Picture: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Animated Feature Film: The Lego Movie

Best Foreign Language Film: Force Majeure

Best Original Score, Motion Picture: Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game

Best Original Song, Motion Picture: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Top 10 Week... The Runners Up

Now that I've counted down my favorites of the year, I thought I'd give some love to the films, performances, and scenes that made my long list but just missed the cut for the final lists. All entries are listed alphabetically.


The Revenge, Blue Ruin

In Blue Ruin Macon Blair plays a gentle but deeply troubled man who lives on the fringes of society and is haunted by the past. When he learns that the man who murdered his parents is about to be released from prison, it becomes apparent that he has spent years plotting to get vengeance... which doesn't make him any better at pulling it off. Though he tries to emulate the typical everyman movie hero, the fact that he manages to complete his kill is more a matter of luck than it is of skill, as this wonderfully tense scene demonstrates.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Top 10 Week... Films of 2014

#10: Snowpiercer

Call it the little engine that could. Despite having to do battle with its own distributor (The Weinstein Company, continuing its strategy of eating its young), Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer emerged unscathed by the notorious Weinstein scissors and found an audience despite being cast adrift in its release. A story of dystopia set entirely in one location (a train hurtling around the frozen globe), Bong makes effective use of the inherent claustrophobia of the setting, giving the story a great amount of urgency that combines with the naturally kinetic energy of the narrative's video game-like structure that sees its heroes advancing one level at a time, one fight at a time, to make this one of the year's most entertaining and well-assembled films.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Top 10 Week... Performances by Women in 2014

#10: Elizabeth Banks, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

I said it in my review of the film and I'll say it again now: Elizabeth Banks is the secret MVP of The Hunger Games. Across three films, she has built a character who goes much deeper than her gonzo, attention drawing appearance. There is great humanity in Effie Trinket and of all the major characters in the story, she has perhaps the most complex relationship with Panem, in that she has benefited from her place in it and revels in part of its culture, but also has a strong attachment and affection for the victims of the Capitol's brutal dictatorship. Those mixed feelings come across in the way that she engages with the rebellion with her being grateful to be with the people she considers friends but at the same time displaying a hint of wistfulness for the life that she's left behind and all its privileges and rewards. Banks' performance is the breath of fresh air that keeps the story lively when it might otherwise have sunk beneath its somber tones, buoying it up with quick, short notes of comedy. Performances like this one rarely get rewarded, but God do they ever bring something necessary to their stories.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Top 10 Week... Performances by Men in 2014

#10: Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

There will eventually come a day when motion capture performances are embraced as deriving from as legitimate an artistic space as life action performances. Until then Andy Serkis will continue to give wonderful, amazingly nuanced performances that challenge the notion of a motion capture performance as little more than the act of providing a frame over which to drape CGI. As Caesar, the evolved chimpanzee who provides the bridge between the declining human race and the ascending apes, Serkis is the soul of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and its predecessor). Both drawn to and repulsed by humans due to his previous experiences with them, Caesar fights not only with himself, but with the other apes in the community, driven by his desire to create the best possible world for his children to live in. Serkis brings the perfect mixture of confidence, wistfulness, regret and hope to the performance, and in the process makes a chimpanzee one of the most "human" characters to grace the screen in 2014.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Top 10 Week... Scenes of 2014

#10: Opening Monologue, Dom Hemingway

Dom Hemingway opens with Jude Law as the eponymous character looking straight into the camera and delivering a 2 minute monologue about how glorious his penis is. He compares it to Picasso (because it's a work of art), declares that it should be studied in science classes (because it defies nature), asserts that it would win a medal if medals were given out for such things, insists that sonnets should be written about it and wars fought over it. It (the monologue, not the penis) is ridiculous, it is sublime. It is the perfect introduction for the character and more than sets the tone for the film that is about to unfold.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Top 10 Week... Posters of 2014

#10: Blue Ruin

The perfection of this poster is best understood if you've seen Blue Ruin. In a typical revenge thriller, the guy holding the gun would be the one seeking revenge, but the scene depicted in the poster is just one of the many scenes in which things go terribly awry for the protagonist. It's a great "mood" poster, too.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: The Gambler (2014)

* *

Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: Mark Wahlberg

As a wise man once said, you gotta know when to walk away and know when to run. The protagonist of The Gambler unfortunately knows how to do neither, preferring instead to go all in at all times, even when he's got nothing left to put up. It can't even be said that he skates by on the strength of good will - he engenders nothing but bad will at every step, and the only people who extend him any credit based on that are the ones who are just looking for an excuse to mess him up or worse. The Gambler is the story of a man who has sunk all the way to the bottom, yet finds a way to dig just a little bit deeper down, wearing his recklessness like a badge. As told by director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan, it makes for a perfectly flashy little genre movie, albeit one that becomes just slightly less compelling with each big risk its protagonist makes.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Melancholia (2011)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Country: Denmark/Sweden/France/Italy/Germany

There is no hope in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. The film begins at the end, with the earth being destroyed, obliterated into dust by a bigger, rogue planet. This is not a story of apocalypse averted, but rather a story of the end – inescapable, painful, and lonely – a story of depression and desperation. It is a film which begins with a dark, operatic, and entrancing prologue that sets out the narrative’s entire trajectory, and ends exactly as expected and in truly nightmarish and intense fashion. Yet, for all that, it is not a film bereft of comedy, nor is it a film which is relentlessly gloomy. Melancholia is a glorious, fascinating piece of work from one of cinema’s most consistent provocateurs.