Please Give (2010)
Director Nicole Holofcener directs affecting movies that are the definitions of small gems. I was very impressed with her latest outing about two families intersecting over New York real estate. It's about guilt, relationships, and what gives us meaning in life. The actors are across the board great. Can Catherine Keener do any wrong? I've rarely seen an actress who can play heartless bitch (Being John Malkovich) and warm-hearted mother (Into the Wild) equally well. As the good-hearted but conflicted furniture dealer, she makes her character both very sad and very funny. I also absolutely loved Rebecca Hall as a selfless granddaughter and Amanda Peet as her completely opposite sister. This movie is definitely one worth checking out.
If director Nicole Holofcener finds the humanity beneath her flawed characters, director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) makes you wallow in dysfunction even longer before you find the humanity. Greenberg stars Ben Stiller as a 40ish man who is paralyzed by his disdain for the world. When housesitting for his absent brother, he begins a relationship with his brother's nanny, played by mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig. What follows is funny, painful, and very interesting to watch. Baumbach is a master of writing witty and insightful dialogue that reveals the inner lives of his characters. I was very struck by Gerwig's naturalism, fearlessness, and believeability in her role. While much younger than Greenberg, she also feels stuck in a life she never imagined for herself. I'm a little more mixed on Stiller. While I think he was good in the role, it's difficult to watch him and not think of past characters he's played. I think it would have been interesting to see this movie played by an unknown actor, so the audience could look at his character with fresh eyes. Nevertheless, if you like movies about dysfunctional and sometimes unlikable people (as I do), I would recommend this movie.
The Informant! (2009)
Matt Damon gives a good performance as a con artist in Steven Soderbergh's movie that is, let's face it, rather dull. There's no one to really root for or care about in the movie, so it ends up being a bit of a slog. A big dissapointment.
Michael Jackson's This Is It (2009)
Would you like to watch a documentary where Michael Jackson doesn't actually sing or perform his best, or well at all? If you do, this is the movie for you. Cobbled together after MJ's death, this seemed very opportunistic to me. Slightly entertaining to see what the show would have been like, but not insightful or revelatory in any way.
Before it was released, Nine was considered a shoo-in to sweep the Oscar nominations. Then it was released and..... it pretty much flopped. The problem? The biggest one is that it's a musical with very few memorable songs. Adapting a great movie (Fellini's 8 1/2) into a pedestrian musical was perhaps not the best idea, although I've heard the stage version is better. The performances range from poor (Kate Hudson) to fair (Daniel Day Lewis, Nicole Kidman) to good (Penelope Cruz). Sole greatness comes from Marion Cotillard. Her two numbers ("My Husband Makes Movies," "Take It All") are easily the highlights of the movie and the only time where it approaches real emotion.
The Messenger (2009)
Overshadowed by the Best Picture-winning The Hurt Locker, also about the Iraq War, The Messenger has many merits of its own. Chief among them are the lead performances by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as soldiers who notify next of kin when a soldier is killed and a very good supporting performance by Samantha Morton as a grieving widow. The episodic structure of the movie mostly works well. You can see the varied reactions that occur when families hear about their loss. My favorite included Steve Buscemi as a father whose grief immediately turns to anger. I was engaged with the movie the whole way through, but in the end it lacked the raw power and energy of The Hurt Locker. Still, a well-crafted independent movie.
Inland Empire (2006)
I'm a pretty big fan of David Lynch. Mulholland Drive is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I also love Blue Velvet. I'd heard that Inland Empire stretched the limits of understanding for even David Lynch fans, and I'd have to agree. For the first hour (of the three hour film), I was enthralled. It's about an actress (Laura Dern) making a movie that seems to have a curse on it. Then, she enters a house on the set and.....chaos ensues. After this point, it's very difficult to make sense of the plot. It includes a sitcom starring rabbits, a house of prostitutes doing The Locomotion, and some Eastern European hitmen. While Mulholland Drive definitely takes some strange twists and turns, in that movie there is definitely a way to interpret it using dream logic. I'm confounded as to the meaning of Inland Empire. That said, many of the set pieces have a typical Lynchian artistry to them that haunt you long after the movie is over. Laura Dern also gives a bravura performance that keeps you connected to the movie. It's haunting, strange, and incomprehensible.
The Fountain (2006)
Speaking of movies that take some work to comprehend, here's another one. From the very diverse director Darren Arronofsky, who seems to be able to pull off any genre with artistry, from drug movie (Requiem for a Dream) to neorealism (The Wrestler) to sci-fi/fantasy (The Fountain), comes a very pleasant surprise. It's about..... a Spanish explorer (Hugh Jackman) on a quest from a queen (Rachel Weisz) and a doctor (Jackman again) and his dying wife (Weisz again) and a yogi/astronaut (Jackman again) on a quest many hundreds of years in the future. It's a low-budget fantasy movie that nonetheless is gorgeous to behold. Jackman, in particular, also injects real emotion and life into this conceptual mind bender. I'm not sure that it completely, 100% works, but I really enjoyed it and found myself unexpectedly moved.
Lovely and Amazing (2001)
I had good memories of seeing this movie in the theater, and it has held up well. Director Nicole Holofcener (of the current Please Give) crafted this drama about a family of women, their self-worth, and what makes people feel valuable. Again, Holofcener is a master at getting nuanced performances from her great actresses (Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, Brenda Blethyn), and she brings a lovely balance of humor and pathos.
A Woman Under the Influence (1975)
Gena Rowlands gives a soul-baring, fearless performance as a housewife struggling with mental illness and an abusive husband (Peter Falk). This movie is no TV movie, though. Director John Cassavettes was renowned for his realistic style of filming, and this movie is akin to being stuck in a room with the characters for 2 1/2 hours. I admired the film greatly, and I think Rowlands' performance is astonishing. And yet, by the end of the movie I felt myself more drained than excited by the filmmaking. It goes on for a little too long, especially when Rowlands' character leaves the movie. I'm glad I saw it, but I don't think it's one I'll be watching again.
Bigger Than Life (1956)
This recently rereleased comes from director Nicholas Ray, best known for Rebel Without a Cause, and it was a very exciting discovery for me. James Mason plays a mild mannered school teacher whose illness, and an experimental drug he takes, lead him to rebel at 1950s society. Throughout the film, Ray takes many shots at the typical suburban middle-class morality of the time. While he was obviously forced to include a requisite "happy ending," it's clear that his message is much darker. For those who like Mad Men, here's another movie that helps highlight the uneasiness many artists were feeling in the 50s/60s. Highly recommended.