Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Fifties for 2013: Best Ensemble

One more acting category before we proceed to other pastures.  Please note that Spectacular Now would have been a potent contender for me if I had seen it by the time we started this feature.

Nick's Picks

ClipFill the Void — Frances HaIn the Fog — No

Joe's Picks

ByzantiumFrances HaThe Place Beyond the PinesShort Term 12The Spectacular Now

JOE: To begin with, not to bypass Greta Gerwig's significant contributions to her film, but can we talk about making difficult on-paper characters work? That's what I think Mickey Sumner and Michael Zegen do as, respectively, borderline unbearable and horrible-at-times friend Sophie and idle hipster shithead Benji. It helps that, for once, Noah Baumbach isn't out for blood at all times. Still, I think so much about those characters and the ability of the audience to find them at odd angles comes from the performers' dedication to allowing the audience to laugh at them while not entirely dismissing them. I'd love a supercut of all the times Benji and Frances bat the word "undateable" back at each other, for example. Each time, it means something a bit different. Anyway, the great performances don't stop there, and whether it's Adam Driver doing his Adam Driver thing (blunt and sexy and Wrong For You) or Grace Gummer doing her Grace Gummer thing (all the brittleness that her mom and sister shrug off their shoulders resting comfortably atop hers) or Charlotte D'Amboise looking at Frances and wondering how (or if) she's going to tell this girl what's good for her. Whose Frances supporting performance tickled your fancy the most?

NICK: You mentioned most of my favorite players in Frances Ha, a movie of which I have fond but not total recall. D'Amboise is a treat every second she's up there. Otherwise, bits and players run together a little for me, while I principally recall a mood and a milieu. The great ensemble work is responsible for that, particularly in scenes like the bad dinner party where Frances is being a doofus and Grace Gummer is sucking lemons about having invited this nut to live with her, even temporarily. Am I crazy for thinking I was on Sumner's side of her fights with Gerwig more often than the reverse? We might have related to the movie differently, or I might just be mistaken, but it's a tribute to the whole ensemble, Gerwig included, that it evokes so many points of view and so many possible takes on multiple, colorful characters that you don't dislike even if you're not too eager to meet them in real life.

I've already said a fair bit about Clip, with its gutsy Serbian youngsters playing dissolutes, brats, aggressors, self-exploiters, and risk-addicts, and about Fill the Void, whose characters are the diametric opposite of everything I just said about Clip while still negotiating a complex web of tensions. I don't think even these films would rival Frances Ha for my winner in this category, if I were picking a winner. My fifth pick was No, just in over War Witch and Place Beyond the Pines. Even though I know you liked the film, you didn't list it here. Not that impressed?

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Fifties for 2013: Best Supporting Actor

Joe's Picks

Keith Carradine, Ain't Them Bodies SaintsEmory Cohen, The Place Beyond the PinesJohn Gallagher, Jr., Short Term 12Ben Foster, Ain't Them Bodies SaintsPeter Sarsgaard, Blue Jasmine

Nick's Picks

James Franco, Spring BreakersJohn Henshaw, The Angels' SharePeter Kazungu, Paradise: LoveYiftach Klein, Fill the VoidBen Mendelsohn, The Place Beyond the Pines

JOE: Nick, I came sooooo close to putting Ben Mendelsohn on my own list. For a movie I had a decent number of issues with, the uniformly strong cast went a long way toward keeping things on the right track for me, while Cianfrance worked his themes out. Of course I was highly tempted to once again throw my beloved Dane DeHaan some recognition, but ultimately, my surprise at Cohen's layered surliness won the day. Such a recognizable character for someone so closed off, and the friendship/bully axis he works with DeHaan unlocked a good deal of that movie for me.

I ultimately—and perhaps unfairly—disqualified Franco from my field because I was so disillusioned at how Spring Breakers became so enamored of him and promptly ignored the women whose story I thought we were following. He's certainly the performance from the first half of the year that people are still talking about. Buzz justified, I guess you'd say?

NICK: Weirdly, I wouldn't say that.  I actually don't like Franco's performance as used in the film.  Where you see it as pulling focus from the girls (and I don't disagree), I hate how it locks down the preternaturally mobile and expressive camera into a series of Behold the Master close-ups and medium shots.  As a formal element, Alien is my least favorite thing in Spring Breakers.  But as much as I associate Franco with cockiness and am therefore tempted to blame him for showboating, I think the performance itself is a pretty sensational act of self-transformation and witty repackaging.  He almost lost his slot to an opposite performance—Alec Baldwin's small and utterly unshowy part in Blue Jasmine, playing to me the most plausible human being in the film—and he'll probably fall out later.

Say more about why Cohen isn't "overdoing it," which is the same critique Franco's vulnerable to, and one I've heard lobbied against Pines in general and Cohen in particular.  Then I promise I'll reply about Mendelsohn!

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Friday, August 16, 2013

The Fifties for 2013: Best Supporting Actress

Longtime readers know that every year, once I reach the point when I have seen 50 commercial releases in the U.S. market, I post a feature called The Fifties, where I celebrate the best achievements in typical film-awards categories from these early months of the year.  Most of these movies and performances are destined to be forgotten at year's end, either because no one can remember past Halloween or because the kinds of films that get released in winter, spring, and summer rarely translate into critics' prizes or Oscar fodder.

In recent years, my buddy Joe Reid—who gives great Twitter and who writes for Tribeca and The AV Club and his own blog and just about everywhere else—has appropriated the tradition of The Fifties, and this turns out to be an especially beautiful thing.  Partly because he tends to hit the 50 threshold around the same time I do; this year, without trying, we even hit it on the same day.  Partly because we love movies and gushing about movies in many of the same ways, but we don't always see the same movies.  Our overlap at this point is almost exactly 50%.  In terms of our departures, Joe saw lots of new Sundance and Tribeca titles, does a better job keeping up with what The Kids Are Watching, and has access to press screenings that enable him to peek further than I can into what's coming in the months ahead.  I saw some 2013 micro-releases at last year's Chicago and Toronto festivals, am more of an early-year bloodhound for Cannes, Berlin, and Venice hits that are finally bowing in U.S. cinemas, and I see a lot of short-run arthouse stuff that Joe also likes but sometimes can't fit into the crowded schedule of films and TV he already has to cover.  He makes sure I catch up with Chronicle and 21 Jump Street and keep an eye out for Short Term 12 and What Richard Did.  I natter at him about Paradise: Love and The Turin Horse and let him know that Lovelace isn't all that.  But we both struggle with Upstream Color and Place Beyond the Pines, we both show up at Tyler Perry joints, and we both agree that The Heat is the best mall-purchased present anybody gave us this summer.

We also only agree about half the time about movies we do share in common, and we can't find many patterns in when we do or don't, or why.

So for this year's Fifties, Joe and I will both name our picks in each category and then have a back-and-forth about our selections, our conspicuous omissions, our differences of opinion, and what we're looking forward to in the coming months.  We have enough overlap that our choices are worth collating, but we also diverge enough in our habits that you're essentially getting a supersized sense of what's been out there so far.  We'll start with Best Supporting Actress, a category I had atypical trouble filling out; in fact, I already wish I'd recast somehow in the troubling fifth spot.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Color Purple

I read Alice Walker's The Color Purple for the first time in the backseat of a car during Spring Break of my junior year of high school, while my parents drove me from Virginia to New Jersey to start looking at colleges.  I would say, "By the end of the book I was audibly crying," except that would imply I wasn't already crying at several earlier stages.  As soon as I finished the book, I read it again, and then I read Damage by Josephine Hart (!), and then Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and then The Color Purple again, and I cried again.  After well over a thousand miles of driving up and down and around the northeast (thanks, Mom and Dad!), I had a new favorite novel.  The cheap, tan, pulpy paper became somewhat damp from the stickiness of car travel and the saltiness of teenaged tears.  You can still make out the giveaway waviness in a few pages of my copy, which I bought for that trip in 1994 and still keep in my office.

The image above might be my favorite from the film, not remotely dulled for me by its ubiquitous reproductions (in slightly stylized form) as the poster image for the movie and the cover art for my paperback.  There is so much here: an elegantly simple device to communicate the passage of time; a distinctive but unfilled outline, heralding the imminent arrival within the frame of a new, debuting, but instantly iconic actress; a gesture to the Old Southern art of cut-paper silhouettes, evoked as gently here as it is brutally, dazzlingly reprised in the art of Kara Walker; an echo of prior images when Celie's and Nettie's candlelit shadows played pat-a-cake on two walls of a bedroom, such that we instantly grasp adult Celie's Bible and other books as her next-best-thing substitute for a vanished and deeply-missed sister; the rough, milled texture of the wallpaper, connoting the texture of those pages Celie is turning; and an indelible, two-ply image of reading itself as both a lonely activity and a life-saving rescue.  The low contrast and other qualities of the light here make the image unmistakably sad, even if you don't know the context.  At the same time, the shot is just warm enough—softer and more tender than the harsh, lapidary colors sneaking through the curtains at left—that you also sense the intimacy of the scene.  You'd imagine that, having read five books during a week of car travel, or three books a total of five times, that I must not have been much of a talker.  In fact I was, especially with my equally garrulous parents, but they knew I loved to read and had no problem leaving me to it even in the tight space of a four-door.  What they thought about hearing me cry with my nose in a novel I have no idea; I can't remember if I talked to them about what I was reading.  But I do recall, with fondness and wistfulness, that sense of feeling totally alone when I was reading, even when the people I loved most in the world were eighteen inches away.  This shot is a perfect index for that kind of feeling.  "I'd like to thank everyone in this book for coming," Alice Walker writes on her never-bettered dedication page, and for hours of reading The Color Purple, Celie and Mister and Shug and Nettie and Sofia and Squeak and the rest were the only people I recognized around me.

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