Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Top 10 U.S. Releases of 2014


Click here for some context on this list, or here for its companion list.

Stay tuned for #1-#7!  In the meantime...

8. The Missing Picture Especially compared to the two films further down this list, Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture inspired no controversy at all—except, perhaps, on the question of when exactly it opened. A tiny commercial bow was planned late last year for LA, though evidence suggests no ticket-buyer saw it until last March. Such are the vortices of minutiae into which a Top 10 list gets pulled, when the point is to showcase artistry as keen, inventive, and affecting as Panh's, narrating his country's and his family's experience of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in the 1970s. Forsaking a talking-head approach to history, Panh assembles an eclectic archive of stock footage, movie clips, superimpositions, and abstract sound elements that testify to the unstable, prismatic qualities of public and personal history, even as his soft-spoken account of genocide and systemic oppression evokes the stubborn, harrowing factuality of the past. Famously anchoring the film's mix of styles and source materials are Panh's handmade dioramas of Cambodians usurped, imprisoned, indentured, and buried. Watching the film again for the first time since TIFF 2013, I realize how many times I've misremembered these wood-carved villagers as clay sculptures: they're as poignantly expressive as stop-motion figures, as palpably stamped with their creator's doting attention, to such an extent I conflated the two. Whittling and painting them by the dozens—suggesting a mass-production of bodies, but evading tyrannical-conformist connotations by subtly humanizing each doll—Panh tells a gruesome history in terms that he and his audience can bear. Still, The Missing Picture remains, of course, a deeply sobering experience. You could see it as a document of traumatic repetition: not just of immersion in an intolerable history but of daily, painstaking labor that simultaneously puts the past to sleep and wakes it back up. The viewer gets enfolded in a similar ambivalence: you'd love for the man and the country to be able to forget, but you also recognize the necessity of never forgetting how a nation of people were stripped of every individual possession but their spoons; how 250 grams of rice somehow fed 25 people per day; how a nine-year-old boy reported his starving mother for stealing a mango in a field; how the regime's oddly poetic prohibition on poetry ("the spade is your only pen, the rice field your only paper!") unwittingly inspires painful, poetic reflection among those few who survive. Through the titular, oft-repeated conceit of the "missing picture," Panh asserts that despite his film's expressive diversity, notwithstanding every photo and figurine and audio collage, this period in Cambodia's past is defined by what nobody can show. The kernel of history remains out of reach and surpasseth understanding. The Missing Picture may in that sense be a film structured around an omission, but look how beautifully and bravely it struggles to fill that gap.

9. American Sniper You know what Clint Eastwood's movie about the "most lethal sniper in American history" lacks even one of? A single scene where Chris Kyle embraces that tag. Every time someone tries to print the legend to his face, he opts for non sequiturs, quick subject-changes, or J.M.W. Turner-esque grunts.  Clearly, the film has roundly reimagined Kyle from his real-life namesake, who seemed only too proud to trumpet and embellish that mythological reputation, for reasons that invite a separate inquiry. Just as clearly, the film's Chris Kyle—an utterly coherent characterization of its own, more challenging to hawks or doves than the real Kyle was—is caught within a vertiginous experience that his own legend does nothing to ease or elucidate. Nationalistic, mission-oriented, smart, dim, haunted, gruff, focused, arrogant, repeatedly humbled, empowered and chilled by a red-meat upbringing, prone to racist word and deed, prone to selfless thought and act, capable of moral reflection but seemingly uneasy with it, capable of giving and receiving and reneging on love, Chris emits a plethora of contradictory attitudes and positions. Sniper never reduces these, even as its hurtling momentum, its inductive approach to character, and the exigencies of battle preclude it from flaunting its own complexity or apologizing for its compromises. "It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man," William Munny apostrophized in Eastwood's grim and heavily lacquered Unforgiven, an accomplished film that foregrounded its own rhetoric; it anticipated and even wooed an audience of artistically inclined revisionists, assuring us that it grasped its moral paradox, that it felt the clamp of guilt. American Sniper, faster, brighter, bloodier, and lodged inside contemporary quagmires, radiates a similar but less articulated moral despair.  Its agonies are expressed everywhere from the arrogant, overwhelming roars of American warcraft to the utterly un-rousing score to the sickening, raspberry blasts of blood that accompany every kill. It neither characterizes a single Iraqi in depth nor presses very far into most of its American characters nor shows almost any Iraqi (with one Guignol, discordant exception) doing anything I wouldn't imagine an American doing in the reverse position... if we can even imagine ourselves in the reversed position. Sniper's reception suggests that many pro- and anti-war audiences and critics expect films on this subject to come right out and flatter them in undiluted terms. This film doesn't do that.  Exceptionally well-made, well-shot, well-mixed, and with a tension in the cutting that few Eastwood movies and few modern war films have achieved, American Sniper is as cinematically deft as it is culturally divisive.  Op/eds and awards pundits keep trying to spin it as the anti-Selma.  I look at the pair of them, one an exhortation for justice and the other a hydrochloric assault on ethical conviction—one a study of a group challenging The System, the other a study of a man who, for better and worse, subsumed himself to a system—and I think these two Best Picture nominees are the two bravest, and the two most worth saving.  In serious terms, with both feet planted in the real world, they showcase complex men and communities that too few movies ask us to consider, much less to assess in such rounded, inspiring, but discomfiting ways.  Which, speaking of...

10. Selma A great tweeter called @DanBlackroyd came up with these apt words, angry but beautiful and totally on-point, following that notoriously low tally of Oscar nods: "Selma will be written about for years to come. Its legacy is intact. The Academy needed Selma way more than the other way around. Trust." He's so right. But if you wanted to parse the thought differently, part of why the Academy needs this movie, and why this movie merits more awards, is that it's the rare film that unabashedly needs us—that reaches for us and involves us. It's not the kind of historical drama that unfolds behind plate glass.  Beyond its epic yet intimate staging of events in the mid 1960s (superlative), beyond its close but woeful presaging of events in the mid 2010s (urgent and humbling), observe the consummate engineering of the film. Its broadest arc moves from an opening, monolithic close-up on one man to a closing, diamantine montage of thousands. It pivots on sequences like the second attempted march toward Montgomery, which King unexpectedly halts.  Minutes go by before the film spells out his thought process, enlisting us in the meantime to do the necessary work, to practice thinking like an activist, to deduce why this counter-intuitive move could possibly make sense in the moment... which does not, by the way, mean forbidding us or the other characters from questioning King's wisdom.  Selma inspires us to feel and to cogitate, and to act in our communities.  To act as communities!  The film percolates with expansive ideas and also with subtle filigrees of framing, figuration, and form.  Not just in content but in its texture and its frequently self-effacing technique, Selma honors the candid but deceptively complicated man at its center, and it honors even more that ethos of coalition, resilience, and solidarity for which both Kings and Lewis and Abernathy and Nash and Rustin Cooper and Boynton and Young and Williams and their many colleagues all stood (and sometimes knelt, and occasionally fell).  Selma sparks our memories, solicits our horror, and mobilizes our sense of what's right—not for each of us individually, but for all of us together.

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Top 10 World Premieres of 2014


Click here for some context on this list, or here for its companion list.

Stay tuned for #1-#8!  In the meantime...

9. American Sniper You know what Clint Eastwood's movie about the "most lethal sniper in American history" lacks even one of? A single scene where Chris Kyle embraces that tag. Every time someone tries to print the legend to his face, he opts for non sequiturs, quick subject-changes, or J.M.W. Turner-esque grunts.  Clearly, the film has roundly reimagined Kyle from his real-life namesake, who seemed only too proud to trumpet and embellish that mythological reputation, for reasons that invite a separate inquiry. Just as clearly, the film's Chris Kyle—an utterly coherent characterization of its own, more challenging to hawks or doves than the real Kyle was—is caught within a vertiginous experience that his own legend does nothing to ease or elucidate. Nationalistic, mission-oriented, smart, dim, haunted, gruff, focused, arrogant, repeatedly humbled, empowered and chilled by a red-meat upbringing, prone to racist word and deed, prone to selfless thought and act, capable of moral reflection but seemingly uneasy with it, capable of giving and receiving and reneging on love, Chris emits a plethora of contradictory attitudes and positions. Sniper never reduces these, even as its hurtling momentum, its inductive approach to character, and the exigencies of battle preclude it from flaunting its own complexity or apologizing for its compromises. "It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man," William Munny apostrophized in Eastwood's grim and heavily lacquered Unforgiven, an accomplished film that foregrounded its own rhetoric; it anticipated and even wooed an audience of artistically inclined revisionists, assuring us that it grasped its moral paradox, that it felt the clamp of guilt. American Sniper, faster, brighter, bloodier, and lodged inside contemporary quagmires, radiates a similar but less articulated moral despair.  Its agonies are expressed everywhere from the arrogant, overwhelming roars of American warcraft to the utterly un-rousing score to the sickening, raspberry blasts of blood that accompany every kill. It neither characterizes a single Iraqi in depth nor presses very far into most of its American characters nor shows almost any Iraqi (with one Guignol, discordant exception) doing anything I wouldn't imagine an American doing in the reverse position... if we can even imagine ourselves in the reversed position. Sniper's reception suggests that many pro- and anti-war audiences and critics expect films on this subject to come right out and flatter them in undiluted terms. This film doesn't do that.  Exceptionally well-made, well-shot, well-mixed, and with a tension in the cutting that few Eastwood movies and few modern war films have achieved, American Sniper is as cinematically deft as it is culturally divisive.  Op/eds and awards pundits keep trying to spin it as the anti-Selma.  I look at the pair of them, one an exhortation for justice and the other a hydrochloric assault on ethical conviction—one a study of a group challenging The System, the other a study of a man who, for better and worse, subsumed himself to a system—and I think these two Best Picture nominees are the two bravest, and the two most worth saving.  In serious terms, with both feet planted in the real world, they showcase complex men and communities that too few movies ask us to consider, much less to assess in such rounded, inspiring, but discomfiting ways.  Which, speaking of...

10. Selma A great tweeter called @DanBlackroyd came up with these apt words, angry but beautiful and totally on-point, following that notoriously low tally of Oscar nods: "Selma will be written about for years to come. Its legacy is intact. The Academy needed Selma way more than the other way around. Trust." He's so right. But if you wanted to parse the thought differently, part of why the Academy needs this movie, and why this movie merits more awards, is that it's the rare film that unabashedly needs us—that reaches for us and involves us. It's not the kind of historical drama that unfolds behind plate glass.  Beyond its epic yet intimate staging of events in the mid 1960s (superlative), beyond its close but woeful presaging of events in the mid 2010s (urgent and humbling), observe the consummate engineering of the film. Its broadest arc moves from an opening, monolithic close-up on one man to a closing, diamantine montage of thousands. It pivots on sequences like the second attempted march toward Montgomery, which King unexpectedly halts.  Minutes go by before the film spells out his thought process, enlisting us in the meantime to do the necessary work, to practice thinking like an activist, to deduce why this counter-intuitive move could possibly make sense in the moment... which does not, by the way, mean forbidding us or the other characters from questioning King's wisdom.  Selma inspires us to feel and to cogitate, and to act in our communities.  To act as communities!  The film percolates with expansive ideas and also with subtle filigrees of framing, figuration, and form.  Not just in content but in its texture and its frequently self-effacing technique, Selma honors the candid but deceptively complicated man at its center, and it honors even more that ethos of coalition, resilience, and solidarity for which both Kings and Lewis and Abernathy and Nash and Rustin Cooper and Boynton and Young and Williams and their many colleagues all stood (and sometimes knelt, and occasionally fell).  Selma sparks our memories, solicits our horror, and mobilizes our sense of what's right—not for each of us individually, but for all of us together.

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Counting Down Two Top Tens for 2014



Tying a ribbon on a Top 10 list and calling it a day is hard. (I know, I know: almost as hard as four tours in Iraq or walking into a phalanx of billy-clubbing police!) Here are some movies I saw a year and a half ago at festivals in other countries, which have taken permanent root in my mind; there is one I literally saw this afternoon, down the block from where I live, and instantly adored. Watch as I judge films that dextrously show new possibilities in the form against those that reflect or uncover deep social needs (though many of the best do both). And while we're at it, let's induce false rivalries or frames of comparison among movies that seem incorrigibly esoteric against those that are merrily commercial! It's all silly, and impossible, and obsessively absorbing, and great fun.  You already know all that.  So enough of the hemming and hawing that delayed my 2012 and 2013 lists for months, during which I did none of the re-watching that I considered necessary, in order to make sure my lists were "right."  What would that even mean?

The rankings were made more difficult this year by the fact that I had way more A– grades than usual but no actual A's among U.S. releases. In other words, I'm not that much more beholden to my favorite movie of the year than I am to my 17th favorite, and I had no runaway cause célèbre.  It seems nuts not to see Mr. Turner or Heli or Exhibition or A Most Violent Year on here, or even films I rated slightly lower on balance but think about constantly, like the intoxicating Under the Skin, the exquisite and subtly suggestive Love Is Strange, the heartwarming but unsentimental Ilo Ilo, the soft-spoken but tough-minded melodrama Beyond the Lights, or the shimmering, sobering Timbuktu.  I've included a couple movies that I'm suspicious might reveal more "cracks" on second viewing and also excluded some, like The Immigrant (featuring the year's best performance, by Marion Cotillard), that I relished on first pass and only admired more on two successive viewings. There's no higher compliment I could pay to my chosen titles than to observe how movies as staggering, lifelines as invigorating, experiments as successful as the ones in this paragraph were kept from the roster.

Enough. What will follow over the coming days are two overlapping Top 10s, one here and one here, in keeping with my website's delineation between U.S. releases and world premieres in each calendar year.  Can't be up too late rhapsodizing, but here are the first thoughts that come to mind in relation to the movies I'm seating in first class as we board our flight into, hopefully, another spectacular year in the cinema ...

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Liveblogging the 2014 Golden Globes

10:02: I'm a ridiculous person, but thanks to everyone who read along.  And it's never too late to comment, or to read about some of my favorites of the year, or to learn about 120-year old movies, or to count down till the Top 10 list next weekend. Keep coming back! 

10:00: And BEST PICTURE (DRAMA) goes to a movie Meryl has re-christened Boyhoooood. The Ellar-Lorelei-Ethan-Patricia family is having the best time up there.  They feel like a family!  (But Patricia is clearly being pierced by her whalebone corset.  It's a new century, girl! We have Spanx now, and Tadashi Shoji! No need to go full Edith Wharton if it's hurting you. Or just let it hang out! What I'm saying is, the pain isn't worth it.)

9:59: Imitation Game's won nothing, right? I'm really asking.  Even though it seems like I'm just rubbing it in.

9:58: Only in this immediate context, I feel a bit sorry for this American Sniper ad.

9:57: And I assume it's going to be Boyhood? But it could be any of them, kind of, Foxcatcher aside? Right?

9:56: FOR ONCE, Meryl is going to present Best Picture!  Hasn't that literally never happened?

9:54: When Eddie Redmayne wins BEST ACTOR (DRAMA), his fellow nominees all get visibly misty-eyed, especially Gyllenhaal and Oyelowo, but whether they're sad about losing or inspired by him or just tired past their wits or 45% constituted of champagne, it's all impossible to say.

9:53: I don't know who Benedict and Keira brought with them as their dates to this thing but they don't even stand for Julianne Moore winning BEST ACTRESS (DRAMA) and one of them checked her phone while Julianne walked up there, so as far as I'm concerned they are beasts and should be outside getting trained or even walked.

9:50: "When your producers tell you you're running long, there's only one thing to do. Ladies and gentlemen, Matthew McConaughey." The joke has no time to ripple, because McConaughey immediately starts doing this weird Yoknapatawpha thing with his voice, and everyone is uncomfortable. And by that, I mean I am.

9:48: What've we got left? Julianne and the Actor and Picture (Drama) prizes? Am I forgetting anything? Did Modern Family already win?

9:44: Robert Downey, Jr., presenting BEST PICTURE (MUSICAL/COMEDY) to something that sh... Whoa!!! It's The Grand Budapest Hotel!! Wes had to put down his glue stick and plastic scissors so fast in order to get up there!  Not too many powerful or actual women on that stage with him, but he at least gets more laugh than any scripted "funny bit" all night. (Well, at least since the Amal Alamuddin joke, which remains the night's clear peak.)

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Sunday, January 04, 2015

Celebrating Cinematic Anniversaries in 2015



New Year's has always been my favorite holiday. I was born on October 9 but due on October 1, and if you dial that back nine months, you see I'm not kidding about "always." Even before I gleaned this tidbit, and before the ritualized annual viewing of When Harry Met Sally..., I always liked this holiday's equal soliciting of introspection, retrospection, and speculation, plus its hospitality to the greatest activity of all time, which is list-making. (I'm more of a stay-home-and-think New Year's celebrant than a crash-the-hotel, let's-get-drunk-on-the-minibar type. And despite what we pretend on New Year's, people don't change.) For many years, starting in high school, I would make a list on New Year's Eve of 24 movies I wanted to see and 24 books and 24 plays I wanted to read in the coming year. Though I never finished them, I made great discoveries that way. I also found these to be more motivating resolutions and easier ones to keep than "exercise more," "learn Spanish," or "chug less Mountain Dew."

This year, I'm reviving that habit. Each month I will write short reviews of at least two films celebrating an anniversary in 2015, starting in January in 1895 (often cited, however debatably, as the birth-year of "the movies") and ending in December in 2005. One will be a film I've never seen but clearly should have. Another will be a title I'm eager to revisit—not necessarily a "best" or a personal favorite, but the kind of artistic or cultural landmark that scores high on my recently-reinstituted VOR scale. Beyond filling out some viewing holes and clarifying my takes on challenging milestones, I'm hoping this cycle will re-habituate me to at least publish capsules about films I watch, will further clarify what I mean by "VOR," and might approximate the phantom film-history survey I rarely get to teach in my day job but would happily offer for free. And it'll keep me on track for other major changes to the entire site I'll be unfolding over the year.

Am I aware that I never finish website projects? Yes. But New Year's Day is the global day of optimism! And it's just two movies per month—more when time permits, and/or when being a Libra impedes my ability to choose. Best of all, I've already gotten a head start in the waning weeks of December. So I hope you'll keep me going through this marathon with your comments and clicks, and I hope you'll enjoy following along!

For our first installment, we begin in 1895, as crucial a year in the history of sexuality as in the history of movies, which brings us quickly to Thomas Edison's laboratory and the Dickson Experimental Sound Film...

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Friday, January 02, 2015

Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 5


Liv LeMoyne, Mira Barkhammar, and Mira Grosin in the aptly titled We Are the Best!

After installments 1, 2, 3, and 4, we reach the final dozen partnerships I want to salute from the last year of ticket-buying and festival-hopping.  Please note that I hadn't seen Selma when I plotted out this series, or else I would have recognized its sprawling and sterling supporting ensemble of activists—Stephan James, André Holland, Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Henry Sanders, Keith "Short Term" Stanfield, Niecy Nash, Oprah Winfrey, Colman Domingo, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and more. They convey so much with few if any King-like moments to seize the spotlight, evoking several historically august personages without pulling focus or acting "important." And I still haven't screened Leviathan, A Most Violent Year, Cake, The Good Lie, Top Five, Inherent Vice, American Sniper, or several other commercial releases that seem like viable plays for this type of recognition... to say nothing of the many, many festival titles I've missed.  But conceding all those necessary omissions, there's still so much to savor.

41. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive - Talk about directorial conceptions that would be hard to penetrate: Only Lovers is a mordant hipster globe-hopping comic romantic political vampire story about devotion over time, the dying world, the gutting of Detroit, dysfunctional relatives, and rad taste in guitars. It's funny, spooky, taciturn, and strange. As much as Tilda Swinton seems like an osmotic chameleon—capable of turning into anything she touches, the weirder the better—I refuse to believe it doesn't take work. Even though Tom Hiddleston joined the movie late, when Michael Fassbender had to bail, he seems like he's always been there: not just throughout pre-production, but for the last 2,000 years. One imagines that pretending to be in love with Swinton or Hiddleston would be easy, but wittily conveying several centuries of familiarity and un-gloopy admiration is surely a special skill. I was in the seeming minority in being spellbound by Jarmusch's Limits of Control a few years ago, which also featured Swinton and John Hurt, but that was unmistakably one man's weird vision; actors offered themselves as manipulable pawns. Only Lovers Left Alive is just as idiosyncratic, yet it feels co-authored by everyone in it, but especially by its leads, like a funky hallucination they had together. Pull up a popsicle and enter the dream.

42. The Miners and the Queers, Pride - Matthew Warchus directed one of the year's largest ensembles; there must be two-dozen actors with speaking parts and legible arcs in Pride. The clear mapping of everyone's journeys, both common and private, plays like an unpretentious miracle. More than most films in this feature, Collaboration is the explicit theme of Pride, and its ethos of empathetic mobilization is impossible to refuse. It's hard enough these days to drum up people's energies in solidarity of their own tribes, as evidenced by how little business Pride did compared to what it deserved. WTF, gays?? But it's even harder to mobilize people on behalf of folks who don't remind them of themselves, particularly across the urban-rural gulf. Even free-thinkers and anti-patriarchs like Xavier Dolan (Tom at the Farm) and Josephine Decker (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) seem openly terrified of crossing that particular divide. So at risk of just effusing over this movie's blatant message and with all due respect to how expertly it pulls off its projects, the common cause hammered out within the story between the Welsh laborers and the lavender Londoners was one of the most transformative spectacles in a year of cinema. Extra points for the film's repeated attention, witty but pointed, to the vestiges of sexism among even the most emancipated or outwardly effeminate of men.

43. Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait - Have you ever painted a self-portrait? Have you ever done it with your paintbrush on one continent and your canvas on another?  And also while the canvas is on fire?  That's more or less what Mohammed and Bedirxan accomplish in the year's most bracing movie, and arguably its most urgent.  He's a renowned film artist who has expatriated to France to escape the burgeoning Holocaust at home, and also to safeguard and disseminate footage of that violence that has already been entrusted to him. She, a Kurdish activist more recently settled in Syria, is now a stalwart holdout. Intent on documenting the ravages and tending to the mostly-abandoned children of Homs, she is eager for an expert's advice about what to shoot and how to export the footage. These two never met until "their" film premiered at Cannes. What is indescribably horrifying to watch is also indescribably ennobling to behold: two swimmers caught in strong, bloody currents, clinging to each other across time zones, surviving the cataclysm, inciting us to action and inspiring us to realize our own potentials as witnesses and testifiers.

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Thursday, January 01, 2015

Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 4


Ukrainians gathered on Independence Square in Maidan

(Catch up on Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and afterward, keep reading through the big finish.)

31. Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein, The Last of the Unjust - Critics largely treated Unjust as though it were extra recommended reading attached to the prodigious syllabus that is Lanzmann's Shoah. But the projects are very different, and this is a prodigious event in itself. Murmelstein, once the Chief Rabbi of Vienna and later the appointed supervisor of the Jewish ghetto and concentration camp at Theresienstadt, remains for many people an emblematic face of Nazi collaboration, and he knows it.  So not only is he rare for being the unambiguous center of an epic-length Lanzmann documentary but he arrives to his interviews as Lanzmann's subjects seldom do: fully aware of the frameworks and biases that many, many people will apply to his testimonies, if they even listen at all.  He seems to have decided that all he can tell is the truth, his truth, and hope for some benefit of the doubt. The documentarian seizes on Murmelstein's candor and his amazing recall of salient details, including the horrible fates of prior Theresienstadt supervisors.  The narrative appeals to the part of Lanzmann that likes to complicate received narratives, even if Murmelstein isn't always prepared (who is?) for such astringent, indefatigable probing.  He tows a line of asking for understanding without begging for sympathy, with Lanzmann both helping him draw that line and repeatedly shoving him off it. As heavy as the film is, it's remarkable how invigorating it is to see a weighty conversation about an absolutely intractable circumstance get the screen-time and thorough contextualization it deserves, sustained by a vigorous inquirer and an impressively reflective subject.

32. Roger Ebert and Steve James, Life Itself - A lighter documentary, but far from insubstantial, particularly since neither Ebert nor James is interested in doting hagiography. Affection for Ebert flows across Life Itself and from multiple sources; anyone eager to honor his memory or his durable, capacious careers as journalist, critic, and media personality would do well to rent the film. But the scenes that stick are those where James wants to shoot something Ebert doesn't want filmed (like the excruciating suction of his esophagus), or where Roger and his wife Chaz are of different minds about how much to broadcast of his ongoing medical challenges or of bad news arriving in real time. Occasional conflicts like these help make Life Itself a Steve James film, not just a loose facsimile of Ebert's memoir or a straightforward extension of his self-perceptions. The same could be said of the fair hearing Gene Siskel gets in Life Itself, neither sidebarred nor sentimentalized nor set up as the obvious lesser of two equals.  Just as Jamesian is the prismatic view of complex professional pressures, the tough ligatures linking work to family or individual to community. It says plenty about Ebert that he wanted an actual filmmaker to document his life, not just a trusted friend, and that he'd want the movie to be good, not just fond.

33. Cheng Pei-Pei and Ben Whishaw, Lilting - It's difficult to play two characters who, beyond misunderstanding each other, have absolutely no context for grasping or reading each other.  It's even harder to do that without the actors suggesting that they themselves are out of sync, or without resorting to the kind of broad, superficial semaphores of impatience that suggest a clean, improbable rapprochement is just around the corner. Cheng Pei-Pei and Ben Whishaw clear all these obstacles in Hong Khaou's delicate film. They offer Lilting such a strong center that it survives the vaguer storytelling and characterizations all over its margins. Cheng is an elderly, unassimilated Chinese immigrant to the UK who has recently lost the son who placed her in an assisted living center. She does not realize he did so only temporarily, until he could screw up the courage to come out to her as gay and convince her to live with him and his boyfriend, whom Cheng's character already doesn't like. The son died before he could clarify anything, so now the mother and the boyfriend glare at each other across linguistic, cultural, and generational barriers, and across chasms of secrecy and grief, while also contending with other, private matters that add to their sorrow and anger. Much of this is communicated via silent expressions; even when they speak through a translator, all we need to know is written on the features of Cheng's and Whishaw's faces. The film is a tiny labor of love, kept aloft by the year's unlikeliest star pairing, and one of its most moving.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 3


Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham in Happy Christmas

(Catch up on what I'm doing here and here. And yes, I recognize that these are getting longer.)

21. Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, and Marietou Touré, Girlhood - The complaint writes itself and is practically rhetorical: "Why'd Boyhood get so much attention and Girlhood so little?" To be fair, Céline Sciamma's study of four Afro-French teenagers, and of one in particular, won't open in the U.S. until hopefully next year. At that point, many of my readers will have their best shot at nullifying this objection by buying lots of tickets and endlessly chatting up the movie.  Once that comes to pass, we can all admire first-timer Karidja Touré's artful projection of vibrancy and heartache in the lead role but also the sinuous rapport of all four actresses at the center of the film, playing characters who are often but not always lifelines for each other. The relations synthesize most gorgeously during their exuberant, full-length, indigo-lit sing-along to Rihanna's "Diamonds" but their spirit, as bruised and boisterous as the song, courses through the whole film. Sciamma taps into it deftly and created the context in which it could thrive, but she couldn't access it and we couldn't savor it if her actresses hadn't conjured it.

22. Everybody in Goodbye to All That - Maybe they really do make this kind of movie all the time in France, but it's nonetheless remarkable when an American filmmaker understands character this way: not just as a carefully sculpted centerpiece, dominating a table to which spectators and fellow actors dutifully pull up a seat, but as a porous environment, a weather system, a loosely bonded atomic cloud through which motives, desires, personalities, ideas, and situations pass and accumulate. That's how writer-director Angus MacLachlan approached Otto and how Paul Schneider plays him, with a relaxation and a sense of ongoing discovery rarely connoted by adjectives like "impeccable," which Schneider nonetheless deserves. So do the other members of the cast, most of whom are women. Melanie Lynskey's brave and angry wife, Ashley Hinshaw's friend with benefits, Anna Camp's hot-and-cold churchgirl, Heather Graham's simmering old flame, Audrey Scott's believably all-seeing daughter, and especially Heather Lawless's resilient free spirit: these are not just refractions of Otto, but permeable, evolving creations of their own, as Otto is, and at no cost to their dramatic coherence. Smaller parts rendered by Michael Chernus, Amy Sedaris, and national treasure Celia Weston are just as indelible. They don't just honor the personalities implied by the script.  They contribute to an idea about life that the script hopes to promulgate: that we're all making it up, co-creating, but hopefully not lying.  Men and women alike, they are all midwives to this insight, expert and utterly un-arrogant.

23. Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham, Happy Christmas - "He's only saying it because they're friends," some readers will grouse. "He's only saying it because we're friends," one particular person might be saying, with typical, self-effacing modesty. "Oh my god, for real," say actual spectators of Happy Christmas and Goodbye to All That, who know the truth. Lynskey is the only well-known actor I can also call a friend; the filming of Happy Christmas, not far from my home, was the occasion for finally spending real time with her.  But private sympathies aside, her project choices consistently incline toward ensemble pieces, and when we're all lucky, not just her, these are the effects. Happy Christmas gifts all its actors with roles that draw off past personas (Kendrick's chipper edge, Lynskey's dejection and carefully tended hope, Dunham's jovial listening and self-ironization) while nudging most of them into new territory (Kendrick's a mess, Lynskey's a mom, and I did say most of them).  For a certain kind of indie audience, this is an irresistible cast. The comfy scenes, including a hilarious post-credits stinger, where these three bat around ideas for the Lynskey character's next book have the punchy whiff of the actresses simultaneously creating and goofing off. But they aren't playing themselves, and this isn't all a joke: witness one of the film's best moments, where Kendrick's and Dunham's characters pose genuine queries to Lynskey's about motherhood; she is gratified but also made nervous by their too-quick glorification of her role and her choices.  Name the last movie where this many women asked this many rarely-broached questions and evoked such multi-dimensional investments and responses on all sides, spoken and not.

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Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 2


Jafar Panahi, or is that Kambuzia Partovi, in Closed Curtain

(For context on this series, visit Part 1. For continuations, see Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.)

11. Cast and Crew, Boyhood - One of my favorite morsels in this year's Hollywood Reporter Actress Roundtable came when Patricia Arquette described the experience of having to be these characters on- and off-camera during short spurts over a 12-year period.  Playing a mom to two young kids who had to buy her as their mom, or at least as a second mom, involved the usual interruptions of motherhood. Thus, when one of them needed a sandwich, there was no more line-running or ruminating on the character, just a trip to the micro-budgeted craft-services table to see who wanted what.  In her way, it feels like Arquette is speaking for lots of folks involved in Boyhood, from Ellar Coltrane to the perfectly-cast grandparents to the people who paid for the shoot, edited the footage, and stocked the lunch table with sandwich stuff. They all kept it real. So, fine, I'm in the camp that admired Boyhood without quite absorbing it as a religious experience.  On the sheer scale of artistic accomplishment, I see a prodigious if uneven experiment, a great performance by Ethan Hawke, and an above-average family chronicle with angles and textures a more conventionally produced movie couldn't have, for better or worse.  But as a collective enterprise of trust and long-term devotion, among collaborators who showed us a family and were a family, this was awfully special.

12. Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi, Camp X-Ray - I have, thank goodness, never been to Guantánamo or to any facility resembling it, so I can't fairly assess this film's encapsulation of that environment or of the experiences people have there, on either side of the jail bars. But Stewart and Moaadi certainly convinced me I was privy to a nascent, plausible, and variously friction-filled relationship, hard to put into words, between a mysterious captive and an erstwhile captor, herself a vulnerable underling by virtue of her age, her inexperience, and her gender. Their performances really land.  And as an Army brat, I particularly admire Stewart's strong, persuasive hold on what many young soldiers are like. Movies often seek to show that, but few past the smell test.  In a year where Stewart also showed agility and sensitivity in scenes with Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche, she was best with Moaadi.  He continues Stewart's laudable run with world-class duet partners.

13. Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald, Citizenfour - Doesn't it seem silly to group what this trio pulled off, and the context in which they did so, alongside the collaborative work of even the best actors and storytellers?  Yes and no.  One thing this team understood was that the filming of Snowden's disclosures wasn't finally separable from the disclosures themselves; image and representation are seminal, as boon and as danger. With that knowledge in mind, they construct a scene of History in Action that we can trust, even as they acknowledge the labor that goes into even the most "unvarnished" depiction—and even as they hope out loud that information might just this once travel at a speed of light before cults of personality and image-making inevitably overtake it.  What a heroic and endlessly debatable enterprise. What a rare look at such a pivotal circumstance, reflecting so much thought about what these people were doing, at concentric levels of critical remove from their own minute-by-minute and all-but-unprecedented experience.

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Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 1


Kevin Allesee, Julian Walker, Nikki Jane, Gary LeRoi Gray, Wanita Woodgett, and Torrey Laamar in Blackbird.

"The thing that counts the most with me is the friendships, and the love, and the sheer joy we have shared making movies together. My friends."

If you don't know who said that and when, it is conceivable that you are reading the wrong blog, but that's okay.  It just means our lives are very different, which is fine.  The first reason these words linger in my mind today, even more than it does every day (no, seriously), is that during a month when everybody's making lists of the best single films and most outstanding individual accomplishments of the year in film, I realize how little we salute collaborations.  Outside of acceptance speeches or unbreakable ties on Ten Best lists, it's hard to pay tribute to the aspect of movielove that isn't about beholding solo artists' achievements but about relishing teamwork among filmmakers, or bonds between characters, or resonances across films.

The other reason is that New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are always occasions when I dwell on my own gratitude for the relationships that sustain my life and enable my good fortune.  This blog isn't the place to repay more private debts, but much of the thankfulness I feel is toward movie artists, for how they inspire, educate, and move me—often via their own visible camaraderie.  I genuinely feel happier in my life and better able to communicate, empathize, rebound from hardships, and admit my limitations because of the impressions of life, however reassuring or confronting, that I glean in the cinema.  So here are 52 occasions, one per week of the year, when the currents running between characters or the collaboration nourished among creative artists filled me with joy, admiration, humility, or insight.  I've limited myself to movies either released in 2014 or bowing at festivals in the last year, hopefully to arrive on screens near you in 2015.  I didn't love every movie, but that's the whole point: all of these relationships were gems to me, even the ones that were nestled in the rough.

1. Regina Hall and Kevin Hart, About Last Night - In their support of Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant and in their frisky, cantankerous rapport with each other, Hall and Hart generated the closest thing I saw in any 2014 romantic comedy to the vivid, spiky ensemble work that sustained the genre in the classic decades.  They don't play down to the genre, or defer to their co-stars.  Contemporary and frequently raunchy as they are, they act like they're in Libeled Lady, or a sexed-up, 21st-century Palm Beach Story.  As tasty as the whole film was, I wanted to keep watching their characters, even though you wouldn't necessarily want to be them or count on them in real life.  And with so many filmmakers giving Hart a long leash to improvise or ceding him his own unchallenged spotlight, which he's often very good at filling, it was great to see an actress go so fully toe-to-toe with him (among other bodily contacts).

2. Catherine Breillat and Isabelle Huppert, Abuse of Weakness - With typical flintiness, Breillat answered my question to her at TIFF '13 by saying that Huppert was the only professional actress she had any interest in working with.  As a piece of acting, Huppert's rendering of a palsied, embittered, undisguised surrogate for Breillat is often impressive but somewhat uneven, though less so than the film, which starts out strong, stagnates for a while, but sticks its pointed landing.  Setting all that somewhat aside, as an instance of making oneself a conduit for a forceful, sui generis filmmaker with something angry, complex, and somewhat inchoate to say about an extremely difficult time in her life, Huppert's work is exceedingly generous without being at all soft.

3. Alex and Ali, Alex & Ali - I hope more people get to see this documentary about a man from the U.S. South and a man from Iran who were friends and lovers a half-century ago, when the latter's family hosted the former as an exchange student, and who are now attempting to reconnect at a very different time, personally and politically.  The story is as harrowing as it is happy, and I won't reveal how they resolve their very difficult circumstances, but their willingness to be filmed at all was inspiring enough.  Their candor about thorny matters of head and heart, unfolding unpredictably in real time, is all the more so.  Sobering and valuable storytelling, straight from life.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sometimes an Unimaginable Nomination

Today, the screenplay for The Imitation Game has reaped a Golden Globe nomination—one of five for the film, bestowed by the same taste-makers who famously yukked all the way through Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and The Tourist.  On this auspicious occasion, I set aside the The Imitation Game's revisions of history, its pedestrian style, its confusing structure, its weakly differentiated supporting characters, its indiscernible grasp of the machineries and thought processes at its core, its patently improbable Eurekas (what if they're all talking about Hitler??!), and its obnoxious re-closeting of Alan Turing, and I celebrate instead its poetry.  Sometimes it is the screenplays that nobody could imagine that produce the most unimaginable lines, and repeat them unimaginably often, eliciting levels of praise that were never to be imagined.

Since this already-indelible locution is apparently but one gleaming face of a multi-karat screenplay, an example to hold up to the rest of the industry, I thought I would convince any doubters out there by proving just how deftly that unimaginable line speaks for or summarizes some of the other films that just received their own invites to the Golden Globe derby.  Surely their own screenwriters couldn't have put things better themselves...

Gone Girl: "Dear Diary, Sometimes it's the husband you imagined a little more of who's got something coming he never could have imagined."

Force Majeure: "Sometimes it's the husbands you imagined more of who do the thing you never could have imagined but no, I didn't imagine it!"

Foxcatcher: "Sometimes it's the philatelist Mommy imagined nothing of who's the only one who imagined anything of you, you ungrateful ape."

Birdman, or Sometimes It's the Celebrities of Whom One Imagines Nothing Who Do the Play that No One Can Imagine and that Might Be Imaginary.

Whiplash: "Sometimes it's the jazz drummers no one imagines anything of who just POUND AWAY! and forget that art is also about imagination."

Interstellar: "Sometimes the things we can barely imagine, Murph, are more real than we imagined. But a ghost? You're imagining that. D'oh!"

Boyhood: "Sometimes the kid whom no one imagines anything in particular of grows up and just, I dunno, just wait and see what happens, man?"

Big Hero 6: "Sometimes you have to imagine a distant future to see things you've never imagined, like convenient, personalized health care."

... and of course ...
"Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine." – Joan Clarke. And Cheryl Strayed.

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Monday, December 01, 2014

Prepping for the Final Sprint



Fall festival furor meant that I missed my annual fall-preview post where I rank my enthusiasms for upcoming film releases with the help of some noted diva.  Too bad, because I really had an inspired choice in mind this year.  He'll still be with us in 2015.  But, as December bows and awards season commences (way to go, Marion, Darius, and Jennifer!!), maybe it's not too late to forecast what I still have left to see before I wrap up the year and fail miserably to post a Top Ten list.  A few of the remaining big-ticket releases I saw earlier this fall, like Still Alice, Mommy, Wild, and Two Days, One Night, but since I'm only a minor-league player, most of it will be news to me when it's also news to you. Unless you're major.

STUDIO RELEASES
Inherent Vice - Idea of adapting Pynchon puts a smile on my face. So does trailer.
   B– - Tries something different. PTA doesn't repeat himself. But I didn't get it.
American Sniper - Hot on Cooper lately (hush!), and seems like good fit for Clint.
   A– - Fearsomely edited. Tonally complex. Much more than Red State red meat.
Into the Woods - Not expecting sublimity, don't love the show, but pipped for cast.
   C+ - Fine, meat-and-potatoes staging. Cast is game. Garish look. Effort shows.
Unbroken - Smells weirdly programmatic: "Please, sir, may I inspire you today?"
   D - Disconcertingly poor. Neither gets inside Louie nor helps frame his travails.
Big Eyes - Burton and Waltz both seem to be running in place lately. Is Amy, too?
   D - A failure of direction. No two elements match; most are weak on their own.
Exodus: Gods and Kings - Would have been lower but critics I trust don't mind it.
Annie - Y'all know me well enough to know it's Quvenzhané 4-Ever around here.
Top Five - In theory, I'd be more jazzed about this, but TIFF crowds seemed cool.
   C - Funny, warm passages snuffed by awkward framework, ungenerous spirit.
Big Hero 6 - Already out for weeks now, but I don't feel flooded with incentive.
   B+ - For the second year in a row, Disney exceeds my expectations. Delightful.
The Gambler - If it weren't for Jessica Lange, this would be easier to dismiss.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Sorry, but Smaug's still in Time Out.
The Interview - I'll have to see this because a student is writing about it. Pity me.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Some secrets are meant to be kept.

EXCITING INDIES
Leviathan - Won't open in Chicago until Jan 9, but Zvyagintsev's so up my alley.
   B - Impressively engaging given length and measured tone. Still, hardly subtle.
Selma - I loved DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere. Advance audiences are beaming.
   A– - King's dream deferred, as triumphal story, team effort, palpable lament.
The Strange Little Cat - No film this year elated more friends. On DVD Jan 13.
   B - I wasn't as enchanted as some friends, but it's a curious, engaging, unusual.
A Most Violent Year - I really admired All Is Lost. All the signs look good here.
   A– - Every performance, every technical element, every writing conceit works.
Mr. Turner - Should I be even more enthused? A little Spall goes a long way.
   A– - Leigh again manages an intimate epic. Puts most "period" films to shame.
Goodbye to All That - Junebug was such a transformative experience for me.
   B/B+ - Oddly broad at moments, but so behaviorally and observationally rich.
The Two Faces of January - Admirers really admire. Viggo's had a banner year.
   D - Not easy to adapt Highsmith with zero psychological pull or erotic charge.
Bad Hair - People love this Venezuelan import, arriving at Facets on Friday.
   B+ - Acute characterizations, observant of its city, mature on sex and gender.
Beloved Sisters - I've heard interesting things. Apt companion to Amour fou?
The Tale of Princess Kaguya - I'm no animation nut, but one hears good things.
   B/B+ - Some tightening wouldn't hurt, but loveliness and feeling only deepen.
Happy Valley - Is it bad hosting to take brother to sex-abuse doc when he visits?
Red Army - Festival crowd-pleaser and likely Oscar nominee. But still. Meh.
Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles - What's new to say?

BEST-KEPT SECRETS
Maps to the Stars - So brilliant to kill off Cannes buzz and hide the release date!
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - If they'd build it in Chicago, I would come.
   B+ - Deliciously stylish. Sound design especially impressive. Elegant pastiche.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper - Broomfield inspires ambivalence, but is this a peak?
Cake - Good way to get Aniston an Oscar is to obscure whether this has opened.
   D - One feels good intents here, but tone, structure, storytelling are fairly dire.
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks - If Gena wants to dance, she needn't ask twice.
Black or White - What a perfect time to release a tone-deaf race-relations drama.
The Pyramid - Seriously! It turns out a movie with this title opens in four days!

GUESS I BLEW IT
Fury - Must-see factor never got very high, but Ayer, Pitt, Lerman, Peña appeal.
   C+ - Overproduced, highly uneven, but has some mad, Steel Helmet conviction.
The Boxtrolls - Liked Coraline, ParaNorman fine, but I'm missing something.
   C - Dense with visual detail, but expended labor exceeds storytelling dexterity.
Men, Women, and Children - Just fucking with you! Though I do love moralizing.

LATE DATES ON DVD
Archipelago - I've stumped for Unrelated for six years. Thrilled about follow-up.
   B - Hogg repeats aspects of style and subject from debut; good, but feels forced.
Listen Up Philip - The Schwartzman film for folks with Schwartzman allergies?
   C - Moss, Pryce impress. Still, even more purgatorial experience than intended?
Oculus - 40% the admiring reviews, 40% the ambitious premise, 20% Starbuck.
   C+ - Too many rules? Too few? Adds up only vaguely but has a weird elegance.
The Drop - Tim Robey fired me right up, but I just couldn't get there. Out soon.
Locke - In fact, managed to drop a ball on Tom Hardy twice. Foolish both times?
   C+ - Worthy stab at something different. Comes close to working. Good cast.
The Good Lie - Blinked during CIFF and missed its brief release back in October.
Manuscripts Don't Burn - Not Rasoulof's best-reviewed movie, but I'm intrigued.
Venus in Fur - Very clever play. Sounds like Polanski, Seigner surprised people.
   B - Fruity, sleek, and tricksy at the same time. Even its mustier ideas have juice.
Camp X-Ray - Gutsy. Stewart's had a good year, and I've admired her many times.
   B - Credible enough on Gitmo, richer as character drama. Very smartly acted.
Starred Up - Jack O'Connell hubbub started here. Seems like right place to begin.
   B - Adds welcome layers as it goes, and well-acted. Just didn't feel all that new.
Fishing Without Nets - Somali-pirate documentary promises to be eye-opening.
Horses of God - Has sounded enticing since two Cannes ago when it premiered.
Exhibition - Not as warmly received as Archipelago or Unrelated, but still Hogg.
   A– - Inventive, quietly gutsy meditation on human coldness that isn't a critique.
Burning Bush - Critics all admire this prohibitively long Agnieszka Holland epic.
Omar - What the eff is wrong with me? An Oscar nominee by a good filmmaker!
   B - Sturdy melodrama places plot over style, but it sure thickens. Tense, bold.
Bad Words - Nobody I know was enraptured, but I giggle at every clip I've seen.
   C– - Such a nasty pall. So besmirching of Bateman; amazing he's responsible.
Hateship Loveship - Notices were hardly fawning but I admire Wiig for reaching.
   C - Too harsh to say it's bad, but it's very hazy, and disappointingly forgettable.
Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian - Even if it's a botch, likely indelible.
Finding Vivian Maier - Getting the impression I flubbed, but it seemed so trendy.
   B - Intriguing, but "investigative" framework too often looks right past the art.
Muppets Most Wanted - Because Kermit. Because Rowlf. Because Beeker. Becau
The Fault in Our Stars - Not excited, but since I've twice been taken for Green...
   B - The performances and the lucid emotional through-lines really disarmed me.
Particle Fever - Near-universal raves. Pertinent to some (non-lab) work I'm doing.
About Last Night - I like many members of its cast and want to support Headland.
   B - Zippy script, inspired cast. Nicely balanced between the earnest and profane.
Manakamana - Iron Ministry recently reminded me how much I admire this style.
A Good Marriage - Once more, got hopes up Joan was Back. Then it got dumped.
   C+ - Adroit audience manipulation. Nervy themes. Allen! And still it feels flat?
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear - Boy did this polarize people when it premiered at Berlin.
Jimi: All Is By My Side - Seems like an idiosyncratic biopic. I'm curious, anyway.
Miss Lovely - Hard to predict if it's got a hold on its luridness or just revels in it.
Frank - "Fassbender as DeadMau5" could technically go well or be The Worst.
   C - Eccentric enough I can see it lingering, but it's both arch and sentimental.
Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas - For my Cannes completism.
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors - The Indie Spirit nomination intrigues me.
Cheap Thrills - My site may not make this obvious but I'm game for dicey horror.
Devil's Knot - Just how far am I willing to take the Reesurgence? Nobody bit...
Chef - ...whereas, in this case, everybody bit, but I can't stop feeling suspicious.
Moebius - I tried with Kim again on Pietà and it wasn't bad but also wasn't great.
Breathe In - A fully improv'd drama gives pause. But there are jewels in the cast.
300: Rise of an Empire - I have a right to know just how fun Eva Green is in this.
   D+ - Green's fun, but stuck in a cauldron of Tarsem-ish, Cheney-ish jingo-kitsch.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me - Keep being promised I'll like it even if I didn't like her.
   B– - Both a valentine and something more pointed and rounded. Chilly breezes.
Divergent - Look, they filmed parts on my block, and Roth's an alum of my Dept.
   C - Unimaginative filmmaking works against the speculative pull of the story.
Dormant Beauty - Huppert is an ineluctable draw, but even she's made lame films.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Not a Marvel fan. But, Mackie in uniform.
Ivory Tower - Given my vocation, I ought to make this a priority. But is it hacky?
Blood Glacier - You guys, this movie is called Blood Glacier. It's Blood Glacier.
Rob the Mob - Nina Arianda is the kind of actress worth following into tiny films.
G.B.F. - Joe Reid and other friends imply that I'll be charmed at the very least.
In Secret - Watching Lange hate a movie she's in is a rare, succulent pleasure.
White Bird in a Blizzard - Araki's never been my cuppa. Shailene's more the draw.
Palo Alto - "A Coppola picked up a book by James Franco" is not an enticing start.
   B/B+ - Another Coppola proves me wrong! Familiar ideas, insinuating direction.
God's Pocket - Worth tracking Hoffman wherever he went, but I'm still too sad.
Cesar Chavez - I've sat through many biopics with less stirring subjects. Peña!
The Double - I've had over a year to make good on this, and nothing's working.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - So stoked for Keira these days, I'll try anything.

And now, please do your part by saving me from myself! Let me know where I'm investing too much optimism or, even better, clue me in to a diamond I've overlooked. And keep checking back here and on my U.S. Releases of 2014 page for updates as I cross titles off these lists.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Happy 50th, Chicago Film Festival!

I've known since I moved here that I shared a spiritual link with the Chicago International Film Festival, and this year the case only gets stronger. On October 9, the festival will turn 50 on the same day I turn 37, and as happens every year, the programmers will whup even my relatives and loved ones in the competition for Best Gift.  Tickets go on sale to the public today, though one of the perks of joining Cinema/Chicago and supporting the organization is getting a two-day head start on those purchases.  I suspect I won't be the only patron who feels I am being showered with presents.

For their golden anniversary, the leadership has curated a selection that, according to Programming Director Mimi Plauché,"ties back to the history of the festival and also looks forward in so many ways." That commitment to its own heritage begins with the Opening Night selection of Liv Ullmann's Miss Julie, extending CIFF's streak of programming all of Ullmann's directorial efforts since her first in 1992 (including a new personal favorite of mine, Private Confessions, which won Pernilla August a richly deserved Best Actress award here in 1996).  Ullmann will be back to introduce the film and take questions, as will Hollywood directors and CIFF loyalists Oliver Stone and Taylor Hackford, who will screen some favorites among their own work: Natural Born Killers and the extended cut of Alexander in Stone's case, The Idolmaker and White Nights in Hackford's.  CIFF will also host the North American premiere of the newly restored Why Be Good?, released simultaneously as a silent and a talkie in 1929 and previously thought lost.  The star, Colleen Moore, plays a character named "Pert," which is all I need to know. She will be familiar to CIFF audiences as the inspiration for the Franju-esque graphic that CIFF has used as its logo since its inception, since she helped to found the whole institution.  Archival pleasures extend as well to a four-film cycle of Isabelle Huppert's greatest post-2000 hits, selected by the actress herself and screening all in 35mm at the Music Box: The Piano Teacher (blistering), Comedy of Power (diabolical), Copacabana (atypically comic), and White Material (unmissable).  Whether Huppert herself will alight for the occasion was not clear, but a girl can dream.

Miss Julie, despite being an Irish-set and substantially Irish-funded production, also commences in its way CIFF 2014's spotlight on Scandinavian cinema, which encompasses among many other films Ruben Östlund's festival smash Force Majeure, which I couldn't get into in Toronto; Norway's 1001 Grams, already submitted for Oscar consideration; Sweden's The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which at least gave Roy Andersson some competition in the race for memorable film titling; encore screenings of Breaking the Waves and Fanny and Alexander; a portmanteau of recent Nordic short films; and Iceland's Of Horses and Men, already a cult favorite, with an indelible poster and this IMDb logline: A country romance about the human streak in the horse and the horse in the human. Love and death become interlaced and with immense consequences. The fortunes of the people in the country through the horses' perception. You can bet I'm skipping the one-night-only screening of Birdman to be there.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Welcome, Class of 2018!



Northwestern University, where I teach, runs on the quarter system (elsewhere called the trimester system), so classes don't start here until next week.  Admittedly, this timely welcome I'm offering to our incoming first-years will be belated for students on most other campuses, though I wish everyone in school, at any level, a fantastic year.

I was so happy to score the gig giving the opening-day address to all 1150 first-years in our Arts and Sciences college.  My remarks were inspired equally by questions and worries I've heard from my own freshman advisees over the years, and by my own memories of excitement and uncertainty my first year in college, and by things I never stop thinking about.  For example, Project Runway.  And the Oscars.  Frequent readers of this site or listeners of Nathaniel's podcasts won't be surprised by any of that.

I wish I could give this advice to many more college students, and maybe other students as well, about controlling stress, admitting vulnerabilities, cultivating patience, and prioritizing happiness, even amidst hard work.  In hopes of doing that, I'm posting the text here, complete with what every campus address needs: a full-scale FYC for Secrets & Lies and a couple sung bars of "Let It Go."  Make the most of the coming year, everybody, or the coming four years!

Wildcat Welcome Address – September 17, 2014 – Nick Davis

If you have further or different advice you'd offer to entering undergraduates, please share it in the Comments.  And feel free to circulate, with attribution.  (Don't just lift it, or I'll be all up in your business like a Wendy interview.)

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Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Fifties 2014: Actor, Actress, Director, Picture


ACTOR

NICK'S PICKS:

Macon Blair, Blue Ruin: Communicates the everyman quality of the character without condescending to him. Never turns into a killing machine.

Jim Broadbent, Le Week-end: Just as he was nearing Maggie Smith levels of typecasting, he plays someone angrier, sadder, hornier, more fun.

Pierre Deladonchamps, Stranger by the Lake: Not a wallflower or an idiot but shows us the character's nerves and his unreliable conscience.

Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel: Distinctive enough he isn't just doing "a Wes Anderson character," and he's dapper, funny, and sad.

Sergio Hernández, Gloria: We sense his desire for Gloria and the certainty that he will disappoint her. You resent him but still sympathize.

Runners Up: Tom Cruise, Edge of Tomorrow; Jake Gyllenhaal, Enemy; Archie Alemania, Norte, the End of History
On the Radar: Tom Hiddleston, Only Lovers Left Alive

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Friday, August 01, 2014

The Fifties 2014: Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Art Direction


SUPPORTING ACTRESS

JOE'S PICKS:

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood: Because shouldering an entire alternate perspective isn't easy, and she sells her big moments.

Jillian Bell, 22 Jump Street: For going all Rebel Wilson on this shit, stealing the entire movie, and probably booking herself about six further gigs.

Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow: For handling the tricky balance of both subject and object at once. Parcels herself out incredibly smartly.

Gaby Hoffmann, Obvious Child: For continuing the Hoffmannassaince with a whole bunch of new colors and a quiet confidence of someone who can steal scenes without really trying to steal scenes.

Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer: For getting on a tricky wavelength and going for it, like she always does, and succeeding, like she pretty much always does. And some spillover goodwill for Only Lovers Left Alive, sure, yes.

Runners Up: Krysten Ritter, Veronica Mars; Mia Wasikowska, Only Lovers Left Alive; Melanie Lynskey, Happy Christmas; Kathy Bates, Tammy

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Best Supporting Actress 1973: Nominees and Outside Possibilties



This is a picture of me sitting on a hilltop in a fetching blonde bowl cut, while Nathaniel, not unusually dressed as Madeline Kahn, warily approaches. Despite my years of conscientious service, he's actually asking me to bow out from this month's installment of the Supporting Actress Smackdown, dedicated to the roster of 1973, and to let five interlopers sit up front with their big tits.

I guess when the new passengers are extraordinary film critics Bill Chambers and Karina Longworth, peerless popular film historian Mark Harris, sickeningly young movie smarty-smart Kyle Turner, and multiple-Emmy-winning actress Dana Delany, I might see the logic of moving to the back seat. Hell, for that crowd, I'd ride in the trunk.  Just like you, I cannot wait for this episode of the Smackdown and its associated podcast, both because I so admire all the panelists and because—in a major reversal from last month—I think the Academy did an absolutely splendid job filling out this field.  If there'd been room for me on this varsity squad, I'd have said the following... and in 73 words apiece, because you know I don't play:

Linda Blair, The Exorcist
★ ★ ★ ★
I get it: Blair’s performance encompasses major assists from makeup, effects, and a pissed-off Mercedes McCambridge. Awarding her may not be the appropriate channel for recognizing the impact of the characterization. But when the impact is that astounding… Plus, I like her muted, underplayed chipperness and frightening fatigue in the opening acts. You feel that an already-recessive personality is being further endangered, which is more interesting than a precocious dynamo coming under attack.

Candy Clark, American Graffiti
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Nobody's bad in Graffiti but many are boring. Dreyfuss begs to get noticed; others could stand being more noticeable. Oscar's singling out of Clark makes sense: she famously campaigned, but she's also got a peculiar, genuinely comic presence. From the start, foggily contemplating which celebrity she most resembles, she looks perpetually like she's entertaining other, weirder thoughts than the script's, without detaching from scene partners, getting too broad, or leaning into kooky-blonde caricature.

Madeline Kahn, Paper Moon
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Kahn can unmask Trixie's core and animate a whole scene simply by belting "Son of a bitch!" with impressive vulgarity. She gets aroused just hearing about hotel rooms, daddy. Silencing her seditious, over-sharing traveling companion with one look, she gets her laugh while disclosing how terrified Trixie is of blowing even this shoddy chance for—money? companionship? adulation? Still, she sometimes settles for surface. Often more involved in her performances than her films.

Tatum O'Neal, Paper Moon
★ ★ ★ ★
Yes, she's a lead, from first shot to last. More caveats: like Blair, she benefits as much from savvy typecasting as from inspired technique; huge swaths of her performance unfold in isolated close-ups, enlivened as much by editing as by anything Tatum is doing. But? She's sweet, sad, conniving, funny, and ill-tempered without being insufferable. She radiates constantly how unhappy she'd be living in some nice lady's house. She makes the movie work.

Sylvia Sidney, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams
★ ★ ★ ★
It's one thing to establish a lasting impression in the first 20 minutes. It's another to convey such steely self-absorption within that narrow window that we believe you'd inspire the biggest chip Joanne Woodward ever had on her shoulder... and she's had a lot of big ones. And to be funny, but not comic, while doing it! And to render a memorably upsetting death scene. Extra points for eye-rolling at that baby’s picture.

Clearly no complaints this time around, even though I'm still not sure whom I'd have voted for—probably Sidney, since hers is the most obvious display of proficiency without editing or effects boosting her along in any way. But really, this category couldn't have gone too wrong.

That said, I always love seizing Nathaniel's monthly focus on a given year to (re)visit as many movies as I can. This month I watched over two dozen releases from 1973 I'd never seen before and re-watched several others, plus some slightly older films that qualified for Oscar in 1973. For the purposes of today, here's what I learned about 18 eligible members of the competitive field from which Oscar culled Blair, Clark, Kahn, O'Neal, and Sidney. Many of these performances, including those nominated for other major awards, might have given those gals a run for their spots (though honestly, consensus seemed pretty strong that these would be The Five). No longer promising 73 words a piece, though. Take what you can get...

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Fifties 2014: Ensemble, Foreign Film, Costumes, Sound


ENSEMBLE CAST

NICK'S PICKS:

Gloria: A star vehicle and beguiling two-hander that expands gracefully to include relatives and background players of real color and depth.

Hide Your Smiling Faces: The movie I wanted the best parts of Mud to be, with an eye for child actors and adults who do a lot with a little.

Ilo Ilo: Where the kid, the parents, and the nanny all feel intimate with each other and strange to each other. Everyone nails the dramedy.

Only Lovers Left Alive: Another smallish ensemble, but drawing dissimilar actors so fully in line with Jarmusch's peculiar idiom is a feat.

Unrelated: Where almost every actor has at least two roles to play, except the lead, who has no role to play. Gives and takes all marvelous.

Honorable Mentions: Boyhood (missed my cutoff)
Runners Up: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, Begin Again, Borgman, Neighbors, Obvious Child, Young & Beautiful, Cold in July
On the Radar: Non-Stop, The Grand Budapest Hotel, It Felt Like Love

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