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.

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.

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?

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!

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.

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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