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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It's That Time of Year

It's Oscar season, when the studios bring out all their prestige movies to vie for Oscars attention. I've been going to the movies (and catching up with some earlier releases) as much as possible.  Here are some thoughts on 2013 movies.


I've loved everything Alexander Payne has done, except for his last movie The Descendants, which just didn't quite come together for me.  I'm so glad he's back in fine form for Nebraska, a black and white, comedy/drama road movie starring Bruce Dern as a senile man visiting his hometown with his son (Will Forte) on his way to collect prize money he believed he won.  Having spent many an hour visiting family in small-town Kansas, I cannot overstate how true this movie feels to this section of the country.  The small downtown square, the steakhouse restaurants, the relatives silently watching TV, the old cemetery.  I've visited all of these places, and director Payne portrays them with what I think is the correct measure of humor and compassion.  Holding it all together is Bruce Dern in an amazing role as Woody, a man who says little but has seen much.  The movie keeps him in its sights the whole time, and he ends up being the soul of the movie. I really hope he wins the Oscar.  Another gem from Payne.

Grade: A

Enough Said

I'm a big fan of director Nicole Holofcener, especially her past two films Please Give and Lovely and Amazing. She's kind of like a female Woody Allen, keeping his wit but adding a little extra humanism.  Enough Said centers around Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), a divorced mother sending her child off to college and beginning a new relationship with Albert (James Gandolfini), a sweet-but-sloppy man who just also happens to be a friend's ex-husband.  The central pair are great working from a terrific script by Holofcener, who knows how to write a perfect awkward situation and make you empathize greatly with her characters.  I wasn't a huge fan of the subplot of Eva's friends, but everything else was spot-on.  After so many trite and predictable romantic comedies, here's on that really feels real, and hits all the right beats.  Knowing James Gandolifini is gone only adds to the poignancy of this story.

Grade: A-

Captain Phillips

Paul Greengrass is a great director of tense situations, from the 9/11 drama United 93 to The Bourne Ultimatum.  He brings his style to the story of the hijaking of a US ship by Somali pirates to Captain Phillips, a tense procedural charting the entire saga.  I was interested and engaged in this movie, but I also think it was a little long.  Gravity was also a survival movie, but I think it's running time of 90 minutes helped to keep the claustrophobia at just the right level.  By the last third of this movie, I was simply tired from the ordeal.  That said, I do think the final 10 minutes or so of the film are awesome, showcasing some of the best work Tom Hanks has ever done.  New actor Barkhad Abdi is also excellent as the leader of the pirates, and Greengrass does a pretty good job of showing the unequal economic dynamics that would lead to this situation. Overall, it's a good and tense action film that doesn't quite rise to greatness.

Grade: B

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club tells the unlikely true story of a 1980s homophobic rodeo rider Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) who becomes an unlikely AIDS activist when he is diagnosed with the disease and runs smack into a corrupt and slow medical establishment.  He ends up running a club for AIDS patients where they can get life-prolonging medication away from the corrupt medical establishment.  McConaughey continues his great comeback (Magic Mike, Mud, etc..) with another great performance.  He brings the right level of charm and sleaziness to the role that fits his character perfectly.  Jared Leto (who seems on track to win the Supporting Actor Oscar) provides much of the heart of this movies as Rayon, a transvestite AIDS patient who becomes Ron's partner-in-crime.  Leto is great in the role, showing a sly humor and sweet and damged soul in each scene.  As good as the actors were, I wish the script had been a bit more creative.  It starts where you think it will start and pretty much runs a predictable course.  It's a great true story, but a good rather than great film.

Grade: B

On DVD....

Drinking Buddies

This "mumblecore" film is one of my favorite discoveries of the year.  It's about a pair of co-workers and friends at a Chicago brewery (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson), their partners (Ron Livinston and Anna Kendrick), and what ensues after they spend a cabin weekend together.  Like much mumblecore, most of the movie is improvised dialogue of people talking about relationships.  If you like this sort of thing (and I do!!), this is a really good one.  Each character feels entirely believable, and the movie goes into some unpredictable scenarios.

Grade: B+

Sunday, November 3, 2013

12 Years a Slave and Gravity

Conventional wisdom has it that this year's Oscar race will come down to two heavy hitters: intense historical drama 12 Years a Slave and the groundbreaking space spectacle Gravity.  It's an exciting contest, and one I'm thrilled to watch play out after seeing both of these remarkable films. You can count me on team 12 Years, but I loved them both.

12 Years a Slave

As central as the horror of slavery is to our American history, it's interesting that more films haven't been made about the subject.  Those looking for a straight-up dramatic view have usually gone to TV's Roots, an important milestone more than 30 years old.  With 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen has done something perfectly right: made a film that's so essentially about its specific protagonist but also able to hold the weight of other stories in its orbit.

I really liked director Steve McQueen's first two films: Hunger, about the hunger strike of IRA members, and Shame, about a sex addict in modern New York.  Those two films were unrelenting, purposefully artistic, and hard to shake.  McQueen takes this same formal intensity to the live of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated free black man kidnapped into slavery in the 1840s.  The film follows him through a couple of masters, but never loses sight of his particular experience.  McQueen films the movie as a set of specific incidents, focusing and concentrating on each scene and giving the audience time to process each moment.

It's an intense movie, and certainly has scenes of violence that are hard to watch.  McQueen strikes a good balance, though, of not blinking through the savagery and yet also not seeming exploitative.   The performances are amazing across the board.  Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a performance of quiet intensity that carries us through his story, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is unforgettable as an abused slave, and both Michael Fassbender (who has been in all of McQueen's movies) and Sarah Paulson dig down deep to bring psychologically terrifying performances as slave masters.

 There are a few movies I see and am so immersed in that I am almost unaware of regular time passing. 12 Years a Slave was definitely one of them.  As the movie ended, I was literally overwhelmed by the story and the work of art I had seen.   It's a brave and brutal movie, and an essential work of filmmaking.

Grade: A


I am definitely a superfan of Mexican Director Alfonso Cuaron, and have been anticipating Gravity for quite some time.  He directed two of my favorite movies of the last decade, the teen road trip movie Y Tu Mama Tambien and the dystopian sci-fi Children of Men.  He managed to make both movies effortlessly profound, and he has another great success with Gravity.

Gravity is, first and foremost, a brilliant technical achievement.  No one has ever done a movie set in space with such remarkable imagery, sense of weightlessness, and beautiful and haunting cinematography.  When thinking of Gravity, which I saw a few weeks ago, I'm constantly thinking of moments and images, such as the first long tracking shot, and a beautiful shot when Ryan (Sandra Bullock's character) sheds her space suit and simply floats.

The vastness of space is so great, and the sense of suspense so all-encompassing, there is almost no need for a backstory, and some critics have quibbles with this element of the movie.  I found it moving, and it gives us just enough details to help us understand Ryan's trip to space, and her desire to survive.

I'm not the biggest Sandra Bullock fan, but she does a terrific job here, being on screen just about every single moment and carrying a big action movie on her shoulders without ever leaning too hard on her movie star charisma.  I was a little more mixed on George Clooney.  I typically enjoy him in films, but I think the movie would have been better served by a less well-known actor in this pivotal role.  He seemed to be gliding by on his charm.

 I think Gravity will be remembered for a long time to come. I know its special effects will eventually be topped, but I think it will stand as a milestone.  It seems like a more humane 2001: A Space Odyssey to me, with its final moments (space to earth) working as a sort of counterpoint to 2001's Apes throwing a bone (earth to space) opening.  It's a blockbuster that deserves its audiences and its acclaim.

Grade: A/A-

Quick Notes

Here are very quick reviews of some other 2013 recent views:

Mother of George

A movie about Nigerian immigrants in Brooklyn, and how tradition follows them into the modern world.  A visually stunning singular take on a culture.  Slow at times, but always beautiful to watch.

Grade: B+

The Great Gatsby

When it works, it's quite a bit of fun and when it doesn't it tends to crash a bit.  I enjoyed the colors, the energy, and the parties, but I didn't buy many of its tender and emotional moments, and not sure director Baz Luhrmann had the right take on one of my favorite books.

Grade: C+

World War Z

Didn't hate it, but didn't find much to grab me.  Zombies come to attack, and Brad Pitt works against them.  Those looking can find deeper meaning, but it lost me by the end.

Grade: C


This Spanish movie is a silent take on Snow White, with bullfighting as a major plot point.  Gorgeously shot, and I loved the creepy ending.  Not as entertaining and charming as The Artist, but still fun to watch.

Grade: B

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Catching Up

As often happens in August and September, thoughts of school take away my blogging time.  Here are thoughts on some end of summer and beginning of fall movies, ranked in my order of admiration/recommendation.  As Oscar season heats up soon, I hope to be blogging more regularly!

Short Term 12

This tale of a group home, its troubled teen residents, and its sometimes equally troubled staff, is an uncommonly assured debut for director Destin Daniel Cretton.  It looks at its characters with great compassion but also with honesty, not glossing over the real pain they have gone through and the questionable decision they make.  In another director's hands, the material could have been manipulative, but the movie has a loose, observational feel and honestly earns all its tears and smiles and laughs.  The entire cast is remarkably good, and Brie Larson is a revelation as Grace, a supervisor with major boundary issues and unexamined issues in her own life.  This movie was so engaging, I wanted it to be a bit longer to flesh out the stories of a few more of the kids.  Easily one of the best of the year.

Grade: A-

Fruitvale Station

The story of the last day of Oscar Grant, this is another astonishingly powerful debut, this time from director Ryan Coogler..  While the last moments are almost unbearably heartbreaking, he brings a looseness and lightness to much of the film that allows us to live in the tension of life and death.  He definitely makes some young director mistakes with two scenes that irritatingly hit the nail on the head, but these only take away a small part of the movie's power.  Michael B. Jordan (from The Wire and Friday Night Lights, two great TV dramas) gives a remarkable performance, as does Octavia Spencer as the moral center of Oscar's life, and the film.

Grade: A-

The Act of Killing

A shocking, troubling, and paradigm-shifting movie unlike any I've ever seen.  In the 1960s, genocide occurred in Indonesia, and the perpetrators are still looked at as heroes in much of the society.  In the film, documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer films then recreating scenes of their past.  Their moral code is so warped and bizarre, it's like watching scenes from an alternate reality.  I can't say I enjoyed every moment of the film, but I've thought about it just about every day since I've seen it, and the ending scene is among the most powerful things I've ever seen put on film.

Grade: A-

Blue Jasmine
Sometimes a performance is so powerful it is a force of nature, and that's what Cate Blanchett is in Blue Jasmine.  Every second she's on screen (which is just about the whole time), you can't take your eyes off her Blanche Dubois by way of Park Avenue character.  She's so good that I almost want to forgive the movie it's weaker moments, mostly involving Woody's out-of-touch view of modern life in general and San Francisco in particular (what waitress could afford that large apartment Jasmine's sister Ginger lives in?).  Nevertheless, it's well-cast and well-acted by the whole cast (Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay in particular) and the Blanchett gives a performance for the ages.

Grade: B+

The Spectacular Now
A "teen movie" that portrays teens that feel real.  Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are completely engaging as Sutter, a gregarious alcoholic and Aimee, the more reserved young woman with whom he begins a relationship.  While billed as a romance, the movie really becomes more about Sutter and his struggles to find his way out of some difficult situations.  My major quibble with the movie is that it doesn't give Aimee, an equally if not more engaging character, the same attention it gives to Sutter.  Woodley, who I liked a lot in the overrated The Descendants, outdoes her previous role here.  

Grade: B+

What Maisie Knew

A modern adaptation of a Henry James novel, this movie is about selfish parents (played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) who damage their emotionally astute young daughter, played beautifully by young Onata Aprile.  If the movie is familiar in parts, its unique for completely committing to the child's point of view.

Grade: B

To The Wonder

I've seen all 5 of Terrence Malick's features, and have been either ecstatic (The Tree of Life, The New World, Badlands), or greatly admiring (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) towards all of them.  I love his dreamy aesthetic, his obsession with nature, and his elliptical voiceovers.  And yet, here comes the movie that almost seems like a parody of his work, with too many shots of the central couple (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) looking longingly at one another.  The Tree of Life was so amazing because it presented a young boy's story of growing up and family dynamics as somehow universal and connected to the universe.  To the Wonder also reaches for religious or transcendent themes, yet it comes across as a little banal.  Still, there is always much beauty to admire from Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and I don't regret seeing it.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Summer Views

Ah, summer.  The time when I can settle in to many many movies.  I've watched a lot, so I'll keep my thoughts to 2013 releases.  I've been impressed by the many quality movies I've seen in the first half of the year, which is typically something of a wasteland of film.

Before Midnight

The story of Jesse and Celine, which began in Before Sunrise (1995), continued in Before Sunset (2004), and finds its third act in Before Midnight (2013), is a stunning achievement in modern independent cinema.  Director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have taken viewers through almost two decades in the relationship of a couple who first met on a European train.  I saw Before Sunrise a few years after it was released, and have religiously kept up with the couple since then.  In my own age I'm about a decade behind them, but I feel like I know them so well.

Here's where I put in the inevitable spoiler alert, since I myself tried to avoid hearing anything about this movie.  If you haven't seen the first two, see them now!  The first two films were real-time exercises in the central pair talking to one another, with almost no significant intrusions from the outside world.  Before Midnight twists the formula a bit.  It actually begins with a scene of Jesse and his teenage son and includes a long scene where the couple talks to other guests at a vacation home.  Eventually, though, the couple are alone again, and we are in for a lot of one-on-one talking.

And yet it's not exactly like the couple of old, not for long anyway.  The younger Jesse and Celine had philosophical  conversations about anything and everything, but now they mostly talk about their relationship.  The pleasures, joys, and regrets.  Eventually it becomes mostly about anger, and here is where the actors shine. Delpy, in particular, goes deeper and rawer than she ever has in the past movies.  As you watch the two argue, many will take sides, while others will seen the truth and hurt in both.

This is a somewhat painful film to watch, and yet I was happy the whole time simply for the opportunity to spend time with Jesse and Celine again. I did miss their freewheeling conversations of past films, but I think what the director and stars put together is a more real representation of what people who have spent lots of time together would actually talk about.  While I perhaps love the other two films more, this is a very worthy addition to the series, and I certainly hope they reunite in 2022.

Grade: A-

56 Up

Is the Up series the nonfiction equivalent of the Before Sunrise movies?  Director Michael Apted started his project when he interviewed a group of 7-year-olds in 1964.  They came from all social classes in Britain.  For every 7 years since, he has returned to these same characters, and all of them are still alive.  Just as I am excited to see Jesse and Celine in the Before movies, I'm happy to return to these friends every 7 years.

Overall, 56 seems to be a solid and happy time for many of the subjects.  Many have gotten divorced, but they've found new happiness with new partners, children, and sometimes grandchildren.  The rich have stayed rich, while the middle- and lower-classes have, on the whole, shown a variety of stasis and mobility.  Watching this movie, I wondered how it would look in an American context.

The Up series are some of my favorite documentaries, and I was happy to follow Apted again.  I do wish he had been a bit more probing in some of his interviews, but again I can't wait for another 7 years to see what the 60s have in store for each charcter.

Grade: B+


After his low-key (albeit powerful) debut, Shotgun Stories, director Jeff Nichols made quite a splash on the indie- ilm scene with 2011's Take Shelter, a quiet tour-de-force with remarkable performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.  In his latest, Mud, Nichols makes what is perhaps a more conventional film, but loses nothing of his substantial gifts in the process.

Mud is the story the boy Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who discovers an abandoned boat on an island near his Arkansas home, as well as a fugitive named Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey.  The story is concerned with his relationship with Mud, but also with his own parents, his first crush, and the changing Arkansas town around him.

Director Nichols brings many mythic American images to this movie, and to me it especially evoked Mark Twain, with Ellis a sort of Huck Finn taking a peek at adult emotions around him and growing up in the process.  It's old-fashioned in the best sense, taking its time to tell a story. Is it perfect? Of course not.  It takes a genre turn at the end I could have done without.  Nevertheless, it's one of the best coming-of-age movies I've seen in a very long time.

Grade: A-

Much Ado About Nothing

I am a bit of a Shakespeare nerd, so I'm an easy target for any Shakespeare film.  Much Ado About Nothing is directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy, The Avengers).  He filmed the whole thing over 12 days at his Santa Monica mansion, using many of his regular actors.  On the whole, this provides a breezy, fun take on Shakespeare, enhanced by the black and white cinematography.

I was unfamiliar with the cast members, but was extremely impressed by a couple of them, especially Nathan Fillon as the blundering constable Dogberry and Amy Acker as Beatrice, one the prickliest of fascinating of Shakespeare's heroines. Acker was so good, in fact, that at at times I felt she outshone Alexis Denisof as Benedict, her partner in sparring.

Watching Much Ado About Nothing I was constantly entertained and smiling, but I also fondly remembered scene's from Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version, which I remember liking a bit more than this version.   A fun movie that, in my book, doesn't go into the all-time great Shakespeare adaptations.

Grade: B

20 Feet From Stardom

Here is the probably the most smiles I had at any movie this year thus far.  It's a terrific documentary about backup singers, starting with those from the 60s who sang with such artists as Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Ike and Tina Turner.

The movie is great because the women are charismatic and fascinating.  There are about five women the movie follows closely, and each one has an incredible story, historic performances, and great charisma in front of the camera.

The movie certainly touches on issues of gender and race, as these black women lent their considerable talent to male artists.  Some felt exploited, while it seems like others are happy to be partners.  It's a really fun movie and a few moments will give you some major musical chills.  A crowd pleaser in the best sense of the word.

Grade: A-

Side Effects

Side Effects is, purportedly, accomplished director Steven Soderbergh's last movie he will release.  I think Soderbergh is a highly interesting director, able to bounce easily between the populist (Ocean's 11, Erin Brockovich, Magic Mike), the Oscar film (Traffic), and the truly indies (sex, lies, and videotape, Bubble).  If this is truly his last film, it's an highly entertaining one, lying on the populist end of his output.

Much of the pleasure is in the twists and turns, so I'll just say the movie is about a depressed young woman (Rooney Mara) who gets medicine from a new psychiatrist (Jude Law).  Soderbergh plays with storytelling and perspective throughout the movie, and the stars are up to the challenge.  After her amazing cameo in The Social Network, her Lisbeth in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and now this performance, Mara has what it takes to be a major star.

This movie isn't one where you'll love the characters, but more of a chilly genre picture, like something Hitchcock might have made.  I thought it was a whole lot of fun, and well worth checking out.

Grade: B+/B

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Frances Ha, Stories We Tell, and The Place Beyond the Pines

As often happens in the post-Oscar hangover, my blog drops off a little.  Never fear-I'm still here, and I've even seen a few movies worth seeing.  Here are some quick thoughts on 3 recent movies I've seen, all well worth checking out.

Frances Ha

Frances Ha is a collaboration between director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig.  How you feel about Frances Ha will probably come down to how you feel about the actress Greta Gerwig.  Gerwig started in various "mumblecore" movies before coming to prominence in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, where she more than matched her co-star Ben Stiller.  I find Gerwig daffy, genuine, charming, and a totally unique screen presence.  I'm more than happy to follow her in this sort-of-autobiographical movie.

Frances Ha is basically about that time in your 20s when you're trying to find your way into yourself as an adult.  Frances is a dancer who has an intense friendship with her roommate Mickey.  When Mickey moves on to more adult pursuits, Frances feels left behind, and we follow her through various misadventures through Brooklyn, Manhattan, and other locales.  Did I mention it's all in black-and-white, hearkening back to both French New Wave films and Woody Allen's Manhattan?  After Baumbach's caustic former movies (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding), it's really nice to see him breathe and take a gentler approach without losing his wit.

Is this movie weighty or life-changing? No, but it's about a very specific person making her way in the world, and she's a joy to watch.

Grade: A-

Stories We Tell

In her first two directorial features, young Canadian actress Sarah Polley gave almost shockingly mature depictions of passionate and troubled marriages both old and young in, respectively, Away From Her and Take This Waltz, both movies I enjoyed and admired immensely.  In this documentary, Polley turns the camera onto her own troubled family history.

To tell too much of this movie would be to spoil so much of the discovery.  Polley interviews many members of her family, as well as others, to come to essential biological truths about her own past.  As she gets to these truths, however, we notice how many emotional truths are so much more important.

While this is a very specific movie about Polley's own family, it's also about how we tell and remember stories, and who has the right and privilige to tell them.  In the film's final scenes, Polley quietly chooses to put one person's story at the forefront, and not another person's, and that choice is brave, personal, and moving, just like the film.  See it.

Grade: A-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Director Derek Cianfrance made his feature debut with Blue Valentine, one of the best movies of the past few years with masterful performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

In The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance reunites with Gosling for a different type of story.  While Blue Valentine zoomed in on one troubled marriage, Pines follows troubled characters across generations.  If Frances Ha is as light as a feather, The Place Beyond the Pines is a heavy load, where every character's decisions will inevitably have intense and long-lasting repercussions.

The movie is kind of a triptych, with a different character's story taking center stage in each third of the movie.  The best third is certainly the first, where Ryan Gosling stars as a traveling motorcycle stuntman aiming to provide for his son and the mother of his child.  At this point I think its undeniable that Gosling is one of the most talented and charismatic actors of the modern screen.  He does so much that you miss him when he's not the central focus of the movie.  The other sections are good, but not as enthralling as the first third.  All in all, this was a solid and engaging movie worth seeing for its directorial vision and weighty themes. While some parts work better than others, it's a solid piece of craftsmanship the whole way through.

Grade: B

Monday, April 15, 2013

My Top 10 of 2012

A day of jury duty gave me the chance to finally finish up my Top 10 list.  While there are a few releases I still want to catch up with, here are the best of the 61 2012 releases I saw.

Runners-Up (And it was a strong year!):

Life of Pi:
While the bookends of this movie are pedestrian, the lengthy middle section of Life of Pi is a marvel to behold.  The great Ang Lee (who won the Best Director Oscar) connects modern visual effects to a touching story of a boy and his tiger.  

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present:
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see performance artist Abramovic at MOMA.  This documentary (my favorite of many fascinating nonfiction films this year) traces her preparation for the landmark show.  A fascinating look into a controversial performance artist.

No, Chile’s entry into the foreign film race, is kind of a Latin American Mad Men with higher stakes.  A light hearted, loose,  yet weighty look at how a simple message of hope can prove a trigger for real change.  Bonus points for how the cinematography matches the 80s video look.

A Royal Affair:
Another foreign language film nominee, this one from Denmark.  The luminous Alicia Vikander stars as Catherine, a Queen of Denmark who teams with the king’s physician to bring modern life to a backwards country.  Impeccably filmed, extremely entertaining, and educational in the best sense.

Take This Waltz:
This one bounced off and on my Top 10 list, and eventually landed in number 11.  That said, I thought about this movie about as much as any of the movies on my top 10 list.  Director Sarah Polley directs (with great skill) this tale of a trio of Toronto hipsters navigating tricky relationships.  Michelle Williams adds another amazing performance to her resume. It's a little messy, and you may hate the characters, but it's a singular film.

10. Anna Karenina: I was both excited and apprehensive to see a film version of my favorite novel of all time.  While director Joe Wright didn’t give me the Anna I envisioned, he did give his own daring conception of Anna and the stifling world around her.  His choice to film the movie in an abandoned theater was brilliant, given a fascinating theatricality to the whole affair.  My major caveat is that I wanted even more of Levin and Kitty’s stories.

9. Oslo, August 31st: There isn’t a misstep or false moment in this portrait of Anders, a drug addict on leave from his treatment program to go for a job interview.  It’s portrait of lost opportunity and possible rebirth is profound, deeply personal, and occasionally formally experimental.  Director Joachim Trier (who made the wonderful Reprise in 2008) is one to watch.

8. Django Unchained: Following the Kill Bill movies and Inglourious Basterds, here is another revenge fantasy from Quentin Tarantino, and this one is his best film since Pulp Fiction.  A daring and bold takedown of all the myths of the old South, this movie is both tremendously fun and genuinely moving.  It’s close to 3 hours, and not a minute too long. 

7. Silver Linings Playbook: Director David O. Russell gives us a big-hearted movie about Pat Solitano, a bipolar man who is struggling to reclaim his old life.  A kind of modern screwball comedy, this movie has it all: laughs, tears, and a great climax. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have the most chemistry between two stars I’ve seen in a long time.  

6. The Kid With a Bike: Movies about goodness are perhaps the hardest to pull off, as they so often descend into sentimentality.  Leave it to the Dardenne brothers, the Beligan filmmakers who are modern masters, to portray with great sincerity nothing less than the saving of a lost soul.  Young Thomas Doret and Cecile de France give beautifully naturalistic perfroamnces.

5. Moonrise Kingdom: This movie crept up my Top 10 list until it landed at 5, and it seems the movie most likely to climb even higher as the years proress.  I was actually skeptical of this movie before I saw it, as I felt like director Wes Anderson had become repetitevely twee in The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson returns to the heights of his best movies with Moonrise Kingdom.  It is as impeccably and artistically constructed as any of his movies, filled with humorous dialogue, and also achingly poignant and romantic.  I can’t stop thinking about that last scene.

4. Argo: This year’s Best Picture winner was probably the most flat-out entertaining of the year.  Ben Affleck directs this true (with some Hollywood license) story of an escape from revolutionary Iran aided by the wonders of Hollywood.  The performances are great, the directing top-notch (sorry for that Best Director snub Ben!), and I hardly moved a muscle for the entire movie.

3. The Master: Easily the most divisive movie on my list.  Strange, gorgeous, off-putting, fascinating, confusing, and epic are all words I can use to describe this movie. I’ve now seen it twice and its mysteries continue to haunt me.  It takes the beginning of a Scientology-like cult as it starts, and becomes something even more haunting and mysterious. As in There Will Be Blood, P.T. Anderson shows us the darker side of a period American history (this time post-WWII), forcing us to hold up a mirror to the worst in our culture, even while giving us haunting and beautiful images.

2. Amour: Simply shattering.  The great Austrian director Michael Haneke is often accused of cold-heartedness, but here he makes a movie named “Love.”  A true love story about what love looks like in the last days of life, this is a movie I will never forget.  I wept through at least half of this movie, and bow down to the great work done by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as the pair who have to learn how to exist in a new pardigm.  

1. Lincoln:  My best movie of the year was never really in doubt.  Director Steven Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner, and actor Daniel Day Lewis are a trio made in heaven.  A historical movie that doesn’t try to do it all but
instead focuses on a historic moment in Lincoln’s life, the passing of the 13th Amendment.  This movie is incredibly smart about the intricacies of the personal and the political, and never for a moment did it feel boring or educational.  An American masterpiece I’m sure will be remembered for a very long time.

It was a great year for the movies, and I hope 2013 can match it!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

What Ebert Meant to Me

Roger Ebert, a true giant of film criticism, has died.  I literally gasped when I heard, and then the tears came.  It's because I feel like I knew him, having spent countless hours hearing him talk and reading his reviews.  Other writers can give you the play-by-play on all the ways he influenced our film culture, so I'll stick with what he meant to me.

As a kid, I always loved movies.  What Siskel & Ebert did for me was turn me, in my formative young teen years, into a self-identified cinephile.  I watched them religiously every Saturday night at 6:30 pm. I keept a spiral notebook filled with each week's reviews, and which way each of their thumbs faced.  I owned several of his film guides, which he released each year, and used them well when checking out the local video store.

What made Siskel & Ebert so special?  They showed me that movies don't have to simply be entertainment.  They are works of art worthy of being immersed in, studied frame by frame, puzzled and argued over.  What I specifically loved about Roger was his sense of wonder that never dissipated.  You could tell he didn't go into movies with his knives out, he went in trying to love what he saw.  Some criticized him for being too soft, but he was just that open-hearted.  He knew how hard it was to make a film, and he gave every filmmaker the respect they deserved.  He also allowed films to connect to him personally, and not just in a cerebral way.

In my own criticism, I aim to enter each movie in the same spirit.  While I can look back and criticize as much as many critics, I also try to allow myself the immersive experience of enjoying film.  The magic of cinema to make me laugh, cry, or get angry will never get old to me.

With both Siskel & Ebert gone, I honestly feel like it's the end of an era.  Before the age of the internet, I didn't have such unfettered access to so many film writers, and they were my erudite guides into loving film.  Goodbye, Ebert.  There'll never be another like you.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

BTP Awards: Actors and Actresses

I continue the Ben’s Talking Pictures 2012 awards with my choices for the best Actors and Actresses.  This was a great year for both categories, with many towering performances on both lists.


Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
After breaking out in a huge way in 2011 (The Help, Tree of Life, Take Shelter), Chastain gets another juicy role as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.  Since the script gives Maya little outward emotional heft to work with, Chastain has to so often give us this character’s inner life through only her eyes, her body, and her tone of voice.  With such a diversity of great performances so quickly, Chastain is the new Meryl Streep.  

Cecile de France, The Kid With a Bike
How often do we reward performances of everyday goodness on screen? Cecile de France plays Samantha, a hairdresser who ends up caring for the very troubled Cyril in this profoundly quiet and beautiful Belgian movie (look for it on my Top 10).  She creates a vivid depiction of a regular woman who quietly and confidently does a remarkable thing, and its incredibly moving.

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
A true knock-out movie star performance.  Can anyone believe Lawrence is only 22? As Tiffany, a troubled woman falling in love with the bipolar Pat, Tiffany brings equal doses of emotional pain and screwball zaniness to her very real depiction that rivals her amazing performance in 2010’s Winter’s Bone.  If Lawrence keeps her grounding and continues to make such great career choices, she has a huge career ahead of her.

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
I have almost no words to describe the emotional impact of Riva’s performance as Anne, a woman dealing with a quick descent towards the grave.  Riva has to make intense physical and mental changes between scenes, and there is not a second in the film that isn’t believable and searing.  A work of art.

Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz
Margot, Michelle Williams’ character in Take This Waltz, makes many choices that the viewer will inevitably question and disagree with.  It’s a testament to Williams’ immense talent, then, that I was with Margot on her journey every step of the way.  As a young married woman testing a flirtation with a neighbor, Williams does her typical stellar work.

My Pick: Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
#2 Pick: Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz)

Runners-Up: Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone), Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair), Naomi Watts (The Impossible), Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea)

Matches with Oscar: Oscar agreed with me on the 3 frontrunners, Lawrence, Chastain, and Riva.  Naomi Watts was quite good as well and made my runners-up list.  While I was completly charmed by Quevenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, I had to give more credit to the director than such a young actor.


Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
After making almost no impression on me in The Hangover, I was completely bowled over by Cooper’s performance.  As Pat Solitano, a good-hearted but very damaged bipolar man, this movie rests on Cooper’s shoulders.  We follow every twist and turn the story takes and root for Pat, because Cooper makes him so specific and real.

Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
Day Lewis disappears into his roles, staying in character during filming even when the camera is off.  It really shows in his towering performance of Lincoln, which is one for the ages.  Day Lewis probably gets my vote as the best actor currently working.  Just contrast this quiet, restrained, but powerful performance with his unhinged, violent Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood (his last Oscar win).  Absolutely remarkable.

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Watching Phoenix as Freddie Quell brought to mind a young Brando.  The inner sense of danger, the unknowable soul, the complete devotion to method acting all work to make this performance something very strange and terrifying.  Phoenix commits body and soul to this performance, and it’s one for film history.

Jean-Louis Tritignant, Amour
Emmanuelle Riva got her more-than-deserved praise for her transcendent performance in Amour, and yet Tritignant seems to have been sidelined in awards season.  That’s a real shame, becuase he is every bit her equal in this two-handed drama.  Georges has to (mostly) stay physically intact as he deals with his wife’s decline, but his emotional fall is just as difficult to portray as Anne’s physical decline.  His closing scenes in this movie are some of the most moving of the year.

Denzel Washington, Flight
I had issues with Flight’s script, which seemed a little messy and unstructured, but I still enjoyed watching the movie because of Washington’s grounded, masterful performance as Whip Whitaker.  Many actors take addicts as a chance to overact, but Washington keeps his character grounded and true-to-life as he shows his slow unraveling.  

My Pick: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
#2 Pick (Can I just call it a tie?): Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln

Runners-Up: Gael Garcia Bernal (No), Thomas Doret (The Kid with a Bike), Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained), Denis Levant (Holy Motors), Liam Neeson (The Grey)

Matches with Oscar: 4/5.  I put in Tritignant while Oscar chose Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables.  I enjoyed Jackman in Les Mis, but he didn’t hold a candle to the others on my list, or even to Hathaway in the same film.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Jackie Brown's Perfect Ending: Hit Me With Your Best Shot

One week after my first foray, I'm happy to join in for another version of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," hosted by The Film Experience.

We're celebrating Jackie Brown on the basis of Quentin Tarantino's 50th Birthday.  I was also excited to rewatch this movie since I remembered it fondly but hadn't seen it since it's release in 1997.  It more than lived up to my memories, bringing an entertaining, low-key charm to it's great characterizations and iconic imagery.

When it came to best shots, there was no way I was going with anything that didn't involve Jackie Brown (the fabulous Pam Grier) herself.  As great as the surrounding characters are, the whole movie is a valentine by Tarantino to 70's era-blaxploitation star Grier.  One thing I love about Tarantino is his over-the-top love for cinema both high and low, and you can sense his giddy thrill every time he gets to frame a shot staring his screen goddess.

As I watched the movie, I was surprised how absent Jackie is from the beginning of the  plot, not making her main entrance (except for the opening credits) until about 30 minutes in.  We hear the name "Jackie!" and she turns around, looking ready for whatever comes.  This is one of my runner-up shots.

Throughout the movie, Tarantino gives us jailed Jackie, distressed Jackie, sneaky Jackie, superfly Jackie, and triumphant Jackie.  For her coolest look in the film, I also almost went with this shot, with Jackie at her sly, confident best.

Yet, in the end, I chose the last moments of the movie because it's just about a perfect ending, and a touch out of character for Tarantino.  I'm a sucker for endings poignant rather than sad or happy, and this fits the bill. Think of the over-the-top, violence-laden endings of Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained, and then compare it to this quiet but emotionally fraught ending.  Jackie's finished with her scheme, outwitting both the criminal Ordell and the feds.  She's free and ready to take off for Spain.  Yet something is missing... she fell in love with bail bondsman Max Cherry, but something has kept him from declaring his love.

Is her lifestyle too intense for him? Does he not feel he's good enough for her obvious superfly qualities? Did they meet too late in life?  Hard to say, but the last shot and the lyrics of the awesome "Across 110th Street" give us a nice clue.

The Best Shot...

Been down so long, getting up didn't cross my mind
I knew there was a better way of life and I was just trying to find 
You don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure
Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Forbidden Games

As as an enormous long-time fan of The Film Experience, I’m thrilled to join Nathaniel and other great bloggers for this edition of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” where participants choose their favorite shot from a chosen movie.  This week is “Forbidden Games,” a 1952 French film by Rene Clement.

Childhood is such a mysterious thing.  We’ve all gone through it, and yet seem to forget so much of what it was like.  One of the things I love about being a teacher of third graders is the chance to see a period of life through children's eyes.

In Forbidden Games, Rene Clement invites us to do the same, experiencing the terrors of the world through two fiercely committed children.  These children are living in the cold, hard world of World War II, and the adults around them are not much help.  As death, destruction, and heartbreak happens around them, they remain focused on a feud with their neighbors.

This shot perfectly encapsulates much of the movie.  Young Paulette is working through her feelings of grief through her care for the graves of dead animals.  Religion is also new to her, and she is also constructing a childhood theology of how it works, with help from young Michel.

As they play their childhood games of creating graves for dead animals, this shot shows the intrusion of the uncaring adult world as Michel’s father creeps up the stairs to disillusion them further.  I also love how the subtitle froze on this scene.  As the children say “Our Father who art in heaven,” MIchel’s actual father (and adult reality) comes not from heaven, but from below...

Forbidden Games is a strange and haunting movie (available on Netflix instant watch) that was new to me, and it’s unique take on the antiwar genre is well worth seeing.