The 10 (+1) Best Films of 2015

2015 didn’t produce as many special films as the previous two years, but it was strong and it was consistent.  So consistent that, I admit, I had a hell of a time putting the films below in any kind of order, and, as you can see, couldn’t help but add an extra slot.  It was also unpredictable.  Some films that I was sure would top this list didn’t even make it (see The Hateful Eight, Anomalisa and the extremely disappointing The Tribe) while a number of erstwhile afterthoughts became favorites.  We saw some great films from prolific auteurs, but perhaps even more from filmmakers just starting out.  And the especially encouraging thing is that these first, second or third efforts weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with boundary pushing or stylistic bombast.  Instead, they exhibited traits more often acquired over the span of much longer careers: patience, respect for characters, knowing what not to say.  Some of these films have rather tough outer shells, but if you give them some time and just little bit of effort they’ll surely deliver you cinematic pearls.

A few spoilers below, but nothing, in my opinion, that would detract from one’s overall viewing experience.

  1. James White (Dir. Josh Mond)

1

James White is the story of a rudderless, twentysomething New Yorker (Christopher Abbott, of Girls fame) caring for his dying mother as he simultaneously struggles to make sense of his own life.  Films that deal with terminal illness can skew sappy, but director Josh Mond and his actors understand that the film’s heaviest aspects work well enough without embellishment.  The writing, too, puts the bulk of the focus on characterization, filling the smallest of moments with just as much detail as the more vital ones.  The look of the film is appropriately naturalistic, but with just enough flourish to feel the filmmaker’s identity.  Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera often stays tight on James’ face, obscuring everything around him.  This technique is especially well employed in the opening sequence, which also sports some impressive sound design that allows both the character and the audience to drift between thumping club beats and the sweet croon of Ray Charles.  

James White boasts a truly breakout performance from Abbott, who showcases an exhaustive range of emotion without ever chewing scenery, and Cynthia Nixon as James’ mother Gail has never been better (sorry Sex and the City fans).  But these standouts aside, it’s the dynamic between all of the characters (the best friend and girlfriend characters are wisely given equal shrift) that allows the film to reach an impressive level of authenticity.  The ending may feel like it comes a little early, but I admire the film’s focus on a very specific and intense period of the protagonist’s life and the director’s restraint in refusing to give us much closure.  James White is Mond’s first feature length directorial effort (he was a producer on the excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene); it’s a fine debut, one of the year’s best, and I look forward to whatever it is he’s able to cook up next.

  1. Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

2

Let me just say this at the outset: Room does not make this list without the astoundingly capable performance of ten year old Jacob Tremblay, and the film does not work nearly as well overall.  Despite its disturbing premise, at its core Room is a film about growing up, and to execute that well you need a child actor mature enough to convey the pain and awe inevitably required.  Held prisoner in a single, bomb shelter-like room by a very sick individual known simply as “Old Nick”, Tremblay’s Jack and his “Ma” (Brie Larson in an Oscar winning performance) pass the many days with creative games, stories, and their almost religious routines.  Ma was kidnapped and confined to Room (not “the room”, or “a room”, just “Room”…more on that later) almost a decade prior.  Jack was born in captivity, the product of Old Nick’s sexual abuse, and as a way to shield his fragile young psyche from the horror of their predicament, we learn that Ma has concocted an elaborate mythology explaining the pair’s claustrophobic existence.  “Room” is their entire world, and every object within (like Bed, Rug and Chair Number Two) is monolithic, finite and elemental, no need for articles.  But Room is just as much about what happens to Jack and Ma after their harrowing escape, a painfully tense sequence providing one of my favorite shots, or series of shots, I suppose, of the year (see picture above).  

The latter half of the film deals with the post captivity adjustment period; the initial elation that eventually gives way to frayed family relationships, intense media scrutiny and the crushing question of “now what?”  Jack struggles to process the big, loud world all around him, often wishing to return to Room, while his mother struggles to reintegrate herself into a world that kept on moving while hers was effectively on pause.  While certainly exacerbated by their unique situation, both characters deal with many of the same issues we all deal with as we mature, and it’s Jack’s sense of wonder, especially, that hit me the hardest on an emotional level.  Even the way he uses language conveys ideas in their most basic form.  “There’s so much of place,” he says to himself at one point, and I think everyone comes to that simple realization at one point or another in life.  Room leaves you with the sense that despite Jack’s ordeal, the rest of his life will be the real adventure.

  1. Inside Out (Dir. Pete Docter)

3

There was one animated film released in 2015 that I absolutely could not wait to see.  Helmed by a seasoned and celebrated filmmaker, it seemed poised to provide a ground-breakingly fresh take on the medium.  That film was Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, and while it was certainly an interesting and thought provoking piece, it ultimately disappointed.  Pixar’s Inside Out, on the other hand, stunned me with its creativity and depth of emotion.  Directed by Pete Docter, the member of the Pixar stable of creative minds that brought you Up and Monsters Inc., Inside Out takes place mostly within the mind of a pre-teen girl, Riley, just after a family move from the midwest to San Francisco.  We, the viewers, largely experience this transitional period via the perspective of Riley’s personified emotions (Joy, Fear, Disgust, etc.), voiced by the likes of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling.  The film sucks you in with the details of Riley’s mental machinations, running the audience through the rules and principles that govern her inner world in a way that’s always fascinating and never comes off as unnaturally expository.  These fresh and funny details might carry Inside Out well enough, but it’s the film’s emotional gravitas that really makes it something special.  I mean, who knew a character named Bing Bong could afford me one of the most deep, cathartic cries I’ve had in years?  It’s a movie that aims to literally bring the fear, excitement, nostalgia and bravery of growing up to life, and unexpectedly, amazingly, Inside Out nails it on its own unique terms.

  1. The Revenant (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

8

The Revenant was one of the year’s most lauded films: Golden Globe winner for Best Picture (Drama), 12 Academy Award nominations and three wins, including the third in a row for Cinematographer Emmanuel “El Chivo” Lubezki, second in a row for Director Alejandro Iñárritu, and a hitherto elusive first for Leonardo DiCaprio.  It came on the heels of Iñárritu’s big winner last year, the more successful Birdman, and where Birdman was playful, meta, often silly (though with a surprisingly affecting emotional core), The Revenant is grave, dour and relentlessly punishing.  As engrossing as much of the film was, there was an emotional disconnect for me.  DiCaprio’s 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass, mortally wounded in a bear attack, betrayed and left for dead, finds himself in such a cartoonishly insurmountable situation that when he ultimately claws his way back to civilization it threatens to undercut the realism that had been so well earned by the film’s cast and production team. Granted, The Revenant follows what the real-life Glass recounted in his own writings (aside from the shoehorned-in creation of a “half breed” son), but there are scant other sources to corroborate this decidedly tall tale.  There’s nothing wrong with a good old fashioned yarn, but regardless of the story’s authenticity, Iñárritu’s reach for an emotional response ends up feeling like overreaching.  

Clearly I found flaws in this film, but what it does right it does very, very right.  The Revenant looks amazing, from the production design to the costumes to the hair and makeup to Lubezki’s nimble and naturally lit camera work.  He utilizes his signature long tracking shots superbly; the early encampment attack scene is the stuff of nightmares (if you thought those long takes in Children of Men were intense…).  DiCaprio is fully committed and very good, even if his character is a little flat, but Tom Hardy actually steals the show with his nuanced handling of the story’s “villain.”  Oh, and the score is pretty great too.  The Revenant definitely misses a few marks narrative wise, but it’s skillfully made and ambitious as hell, and for that I must doff my critical cap.

  1. The End of the Tour (Dir. James Ponsoldt)

endofthetour_mixedmedia_splash650

My knowledge of David Foster Wallace is more so as an icon, a literary legend, than as an actual writer.  His first novel, The Broom of the System, was the inaugural selection of a short lived booked club I participated in several years ago, and I admit that I only made it about halfway through.  I didn’t dislike it, and it wasn’t impenetrable, it just didn’t pull me in hard enough to urge me towards the conclusion.  My cursory understanding of the author remains based on the facts (and lore) of his life: young, midwestern college professor publishes 1,000+ page opus Infinite Jest in the mid 90s; book has major impact on the literary world while author is thrust into the media spotlight; author has recurring struggles with depression; author commits suicide in 2008 having never published another completed novel.  This is, of course, a facile description of Wallace’s life and career and does little to get at who the man really was, which is why The End of the Tour was, for me, such a fascinating film.  

Read the full review HERE.

  1. Carol (Dir. Todd Haynes)

9

Based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Todd Haynes’ adaptation is, above all, a gorgeous film.  Its 1950s setting, the cars, the clothes, the hair, are fertile ground for cinematographer Edward Lachman (who also shot Haynes’ fantastic 2002 period drama Far From Heaven), and his choice to shoot on 16mm film (as opposed to 35mm or digital) gives every color a muted yet saturated hue that feels absolutely authentic.  It’s this aesthetic authenticity that really sets the stage for two wonderfully understated performances by the film’s leads, Cate Blanchett in the titular role and Rooney Mara in her best performance to date as Therese Belivet.

Carol is a simple story of a same sex love affair that happens in a time and place where such things are still very much taboo; we’ve heard these stories before.  What sets this one apart is its execution.  Carol is a film of glances, gestures and things left unsaid, much like real life.  This is not easy to pull of and it’s a credit to the actors and filmmakers that we’re able to sense the beats of the central relationship’s evolution with so little overt expression.  Haynes, thankfully, trusts his audience enough to take this approach.  Carol, has a sociopolitical bent (and ends on a healthy yet well earn note of affirmation), it must; but we also get to know the characters well enough that they come off as real people and not just stand ins for a larger debate.

  1. Amy (Dir. Asif Kapadia)

4

The rise and fall of the troubled artist is a perennial tale, and Amy Winehouse is as worthy a subject as any.  Asif Kapadia’s skillfully rendered film is mostly comprised of intimate archival footage, and it stitches together a rich cinematic fabric documenting the English musician’s life and career.  The director’s tactful sensibilities would matter little, though, if it weren’t for the magnetism of his film’s subject.  Before seeing Amy I’d possessed a passing appreciation for Winehouse as a talented neo-blue-eyed-soul singer.  Afterwards, that appreciation morphed into a very real sense of respect for her artistry and vision, and further into sadness.  Not just a sadness for the loss of great music that might have been, but the sadness one feels seeing someone you care about in pain.  Of course I didn’t know Amy Winehouse, but Amy kind of made me feel like I did.

A true prodigy from musical stock, Winehouse began serious vocal training at age 11, took up guitar at 14, and was a featured vocalist in the National Youth Jazz Ensemble by 17.  Ten years, two albums and five Grammys later she was dead.  But unlike most coverage of her explosive career and ultimate demise, Amy refuses to exploit the woman at it’s center. It leaves viewers with more than a sense of Hollywood tragedy; it demands an appreciation for her truest legacy: her music.  Like other singers who, in the true jazz tradition, use their voice as an instrument (Van Morrison comes to mind), Winehouse’s vocals are often unintelligible.  But Kapadia’s choice to use titles during much of the performance footage allows the audience to enjoy her immense talent as a lyricist as well.  Musicianship aside, Winehouse comes across as a genuinely lovely person with a lust for life that no doubt contributed to her astuteness at capturing raw human emotion in song, and Amy makes us feel her absence.

  1. The Look of Silence (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

10

Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to 2013’s The Act of Killing, an incredible film that actually found itself in the same position on Moving Pictures’ top ten list that year, tackles the Indonesian genocide from a different angle.  Rather than focusing on the perpetrators, The Look of Silence turns its lens to the victims.  The film’s central subject is Adi, the younger brother of a brutally murdered “communist sympathizer” (read: anyone whose views and lifestyle were not compatible with the military dictatorship that took over in the mid 60s); and when I say brutally, I mean brutally.  Oppenheimer’s film spares the audience no terrible details.  The director once again heavily utilizes the treasure trove of interview footage he amassed over many years spent in Indonesia talking with members of the current regime (yes, the people who carried out these mass killings fifty years ago are still in power).  But Silence adds further layers to the tragedy with its focus on Adi and his elderly parents (both seem unsure of their own exact age), showing us how grief can seep into the soul like a sickness.

Adi, a local optomologist, uses his occupation to secure face time with those responsible for his brother’s death.  As each slowly realizes Adi’s true motives, their responses range from righteous indignation to cold blankness to outward hostility; one high powered politician even suggests that if people continue to ask questions like Adi’s, maybe there needs to be another purge.  One passage, in which Adi visits an aging uncle, ruthlessly illustrates the extent of the complicity that permeates these communities.  Another late scene hints at some hope of healing for the younger generations, but it’s a cold comfort given all that precedes.  There is, without a doubt, significant artistry is the way The Look of Silence is put together, but it’s also a confidently quiet film which understands that the gravity of its subject matter is conveyed best with simple presentation, rather than editorialization.  During the film’s coda, Adi’s frail and senile father skuttles along the laundry room floor, frightened and confused.  “I’m lost,” he says, and in his words we hear the cry of an entire generation.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller)

5

We have to ask ourselves two questions when critiquing art of any kind: what is the artist trying to accomplish and how well does the piece achieve their self-established goals?  Fury Road is, reductively speaking, a sci-fi action film, but Australian filmmaker George Miller has spent decades fleshing out the idiosyncratic universe of the Mad Max film series that he created.  This most recent installation, the director’s crowning achievement, is essentially one long post-apocalyptic chase sequence, and its use of pacing, staging, editing and effects (mostly practical, as opposed to CGI) nails everything an audience could possibly want out of such a scenario.  But Fury Road ended up so high on this list because it’s able to do and say so much more than what one would expect of it.  It is an overachieving film in every way.

On the surface the world of Fury Road, it’s set pieces, it’s rituals, it’s characters’ garb, could seem like a random assortment of wackiness for its own sake.  But if one considers the context and other bits of information Miller provides, all of these details are grounded in a thoughtful understanding of the world in which his characters desperately exist.  Aesthetically speaking the film is marvelous, both in its most kinetic moments and most quiet ones.  It’s at times a ballet of mayhem, at others a dystopian opera.  Fury Road deals with some relatively elevated themes as well.  Commentary on climate change and water scarcity (something even the most privileged developed countries will have to deal with much sooner than we think) are front and center.  The film has a strong feminist message as well, and makes no bones about it; another refreshing departure for the genre.  Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is effectively the lead, Max is merely the audience’s vehicle through which to witness her efforts to liberate her subjugated sisters.

This is a film one really must see to understand.  It may not be for you, but it would be wrong to lump it into the same category as the mindless Hollywood action offerings that are all too common.  Mad Max: Fury Road is an action film with explosions and blood and guts, but it also has a heart and a head; these days that’s something very rare and special indeed.

  1. Son of Saul (Dir. László Nemes)

6

There are so many films about the Holocaust that they’ve basically formed a distinct subgenre, and I’ve seen quite a few of them.  It is, of course, a vital story to tell; as a memorial, as a warning, and, perhaps, for the little catharsis it might provide.  But I’ve never seen a Holocaust film like first time Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul.  Covering only a day or so inside the walls of Auschwitz, 1944, it maintains a laser focus on Saul, a Hungarian Sonderkommando on a singular mission to provide a proper Jewish burial to a young camp victim who may or may not be his estranged son.  There are millions of stories that have emerged from this nightmare period of history and dozens of films that deal with its subjects and themes; what makes this story stand out is the way it’s told.  Nemes utilizes the now rare “Academy Ratio” (which makes the frame much closer to a square than a rectangle), long, point-of-view shots and a very shallow focus that blurs everything outside of Saul’s immediate sphere.  Tamás Zányi’s incredible sound design lends another layer to this immersive film, creating a cacophony of cries and whispers almost as disturbing as the obscured atrocities surrounding the protagonist.  The result is a feeling of claustrophobia and disorientation that puts the audience inside the experience, rather than allowing them to merely observe.  Géza Röhrig as Saul, a former teacher, current poet and first time actor, is mesmerizing in the largely wordless role; his face says it all.

Son of Saul also includes details of a prisoner uprising that actually did happen at Auschwitz in ‘44, and how Saul’s goals come into conflict with those of the larger group; but the film is ultimately more about feeling and experience than narrative.  Some have bemoaned its so-called first-person-video-game presentation, charging the filmmakers with exploitation.  I, on the other hand, found Son of Saul to be authentic and subtle, a thriller so intimate that it forces us to confront the Holocaust up close, and never forget how horrible human beings can truly be if we allow fear to breed hatred.

  1. 45 Years (Dir. Andrew Haigh)

7

In many ways, 45 Years director Andrew Haigh’s approach couldn’t be more different than George Miller’s.  This list’s number three film thrives, nay depends, on maintaining a near constant state of kinetic energy; not only via the characters’ movements through Miller’s wasted landscapes, but also through its editing and visual style.  45 Years, on the other hand, uses stillness, silence and a steady gaze to generate a level of tension that stands up to many of the white-knuckle sequences in Fury Road.  What’s not so different about these films, however, is their impeccable attention to detail, the way that little specificities, teased out just enough, can so quickly thrust the viewer into a thoroughly realized world.  45 Years’ premise sounds almost silly on paper: the comfortable, pastoral existence of an old English couple, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling in an Oscar nominated performance), is compromised when the body of Geoff’s long ago girlfriend is discovered, perfectly preserved, in a block of ice in the German Alps.  This woman, Katya, was killed during a climbing accident years before the now-couple met, and her life and death have been minimized to a few passing conversations.  But over the course of a few days leading up to their 45th anniversary party, long buried memories are resurrected, and Kate’s curiosity and Geoff’s evasion begin to fray the emotional fibers that have so long held the two together.  

Stylistically speaking 45 Years is nothing earth-shattering, employing classic Euro-cinema techniques such as long static shots, naturalistic performances, frank sex and ambiguous narrative turns.  But it’s all done so well.  Haigh and Cinematographer Lol Crawley create some fantastic imagery, though much of it is born of a tastefully selective eye rather than a particularly masterful manipulation of craft.  It’s the ever so lived-in nature of the characters’ world and the easy rapport of the actors that make the film superlative; the routines, the stealthily divulged histories, the characters’ unique quirks (Geoff’s tarzan-like chest thumping was a favorite of mine).  45 Years is a film that seems to simply exist, effortlessly.  If I had to pinpoint what made it my favorite film of the year, though, it’d have to be the ending.  The proceedings build, appropriately, to the anniversary party, which seems to take on 45 years worth of significance.  The final shot in particular, its use of music and Charlotte Rampling’s delicate performance, delivers one of the most haunting finales I’ve seen, with implications for the characters that reverberate through the credits and far beyond.  I guess the more simple way to put it is this: 45 Years is the best among several great films I saw this year because it’s the one I’m still thinking about.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Ex Machina…for the best hard sci-fi film in ages, and the year’s most memorable dance sequence!

Spotlight…for a very well made journalistic procedural with solid performances and a genteel handling of its difficult subject matter.

Sicario…for yet another visual masterpiece from cinematographer Roger Deakins and a wonderfully menacing score from Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Queen of Earth…for a weird-as-hell, retro psychological horror film featuring the greatest Elizabeth Moss performance ever (outside of Mad Men of course).

Advertisements

Moving Pictures’ PFF 24 Coverage

The weekend before last I had the good fortune to catch two stellar screenings at the Philadelphia Film Festival in less than 24 hours.  While I was unsuccessful in finding the time to see any of the other titles I’d been interested in, I did succeed in doubling my number of PFF screenings from last year…so that’s something.  Anyway, I hope you enjoy Moving Pictures’ decidedly modest coverage of PFF 24, and let us know your thoughts about any films you saw in the comments section!

JAMES WHITE

james-white-01

Writer/Director Josh Mond delivered a humble, soft spoken introduction to James White at the Ritz East to a nearly packed house.  A young man, bearded and beanied, Mond told us that his new film was “made with a lot of love” and appealed to those in attendance to “give it a chance”.  As the film progressed I found myself wondering if its story of a rudderless, twentysomething New Yorker caring for his dying mother was at all autobiographical.  The titular character, played by Christopher Abbott (many may know him as Marnie’s first boyfriend, Charlie, on the HBO series Girls), in many ways resembles Mond in appearance and mannerism.  The fact that I had occasion to make this connection at all is a prime example of the perks of the festival format, how closer proximity to the filmmakers themselves can add meaningful context. But regardless, James White stands on its own as a formidable achievement.

Films that deal with terminal illness can skew sappy, but Mond and his actors understand that the story’s heaviest aspects work well enough without embellishment.  The writing, too, puts the bulk of the focus on characterization, filling the smallest of moments with just as much detail as the more vital ones.  The look of the film is appropriately naturalistic, but with just enough flourish to feel the filmmaker’s identity.  Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera often stays tight on Christopher Abbott’s face, blurring everything outside of his immediate sphere.  This technique is fantastic in the opening sequence, paired with impressive sound design that allows both the character and the audience to drift between thumping club beats and the sweet croon of Ray Charles.

James White boasts a truly breakout performance from Abbott, who showcases an exhaustive range of emotion without ever chewing scenery, and Cynthia Nixon as James’s mother Gail has never been better (sorry Sex and the City fans).  But standouts aside, it’s the dynamic between all of the characters (the best friend and girlfriend are smartly given equal shrift) that allows the film to reach an impressive level of authenticity.  The ending may feel like it comes a little early, but I admire the film’s focus on a very specific and intense period of the protagonist’s life and the director’s restraint in refusing to give us any closure. James White is Mond’s first feature length directorial effort (he was a producer on the excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene); it’s a fine debut, and I look forward to whatever it is he’s able to cook up next.

MACBETH

macbeth-movie-images-screencaps-fassbender-cotillard48

The following morning I attended a noontime screening of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, at the Prince Theater on Chestnut Street.  Given the playhouse venue and storied curse on the material, our PFF representative referred only to “the Scottish film” during his cautious introduction.  Many know the broad strokes of the play from high school English class, but the blood red titles outlining the initial scenario were a welcomed preface for something as dense as Shakespeare.  I’ll admit at the outset, I am far from an expert on The Bard’s work; I often lost track of what characters were talking about, having to rely on context clues.  Shakespeare’s work can be hard to understand primarily because it’s written in Elizabethan English, but it’s also packed with allusions, metaphors, puns and other devices that create a sort of literary onion, and there are always more layers to pull back.  Add to this the thick Scottish accents and Kurzel’s straightforward, period rendering (so many Shakespeare adaptations these days are modern interpretations) and it’s admittedly not the most accessible piece.  It’s a testament to the performances and the direction, however, that instead of feeling alienated, I wanted to watch it all again.

If you’re not familiar with the story (maybe your English class read Romeo and Juliet or The Tempest), here’s my two sentence synopsis: a high ranking military leader in medieval Scotland is goaded by his wife to kill the king and assume his crown after receiving a prophetic message from three witches. Having taken the throne, the tyrannical King Macbeth is driven mad with guilt and paranoia as his misdeeds pile upon themselves.  Kurzel takes some liberties by creating a handful of wordless scenes not found in the source material that help orient the audience without having to invent new dialogue. The inclusion of an opening scene of a child’s funeral speculates most liberally on the characters’ motivations.  It’s followed by a slow motion depiction of an important battle that is merely recounted in the original text; it’s a muddy, bloody and beautiful sequence almost reminiscent of the prologue of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.  

Fassbender is excellent as Macbeth, quite subtle for a role that could easily be played as fully unhinged.  I did, however, find his reading to be almost too understated at times, though that could possibly be attributed to my muddled understanding of a significant chunk of his lines.  The royal banquet scene, where Macbeth is haunted by the apparition of a slain compatriot, is a standout.  Cotillard is fantastic in the iconic and revered role of Lady Macbeth; fittingly cold, but also infusing the character with a level of sexuality that helps explain the sway she holds over her husband.  The actress’s rendition of the “Out, damned spot” speech is the climax of a very special performance.  And despite the strong lead performances from internationally famous actors, the lesser known Sean Harris actually ends up stealing a number of scenes (his tortured reaction after discovering the king’s murder) as Macduff, Macbeth’s ultimate foil.  There were just a few moments in the film’s third act that dragged for me, though I wouldn’t presume to blame it on the writing.  

It was a strange feeling to walk out into the beaming 2:00pm sunlight of a brisk fall day having just witnessed such a visceral imagining of one of fiction’s most towering tragedies, but it left me with an even deeper appreciation of Shakespeare’s massive role in Western Culture five hundred years later.

The End of the Tour

First, a note from the writer:

Hello Readers!  

I hope you’ve all been enjoying your summers; mine has been quite busy to say the least.  On top of the usual summer happenings, in the last few months I started a new job and got engaged.  It’s all been wonderfully hectic and hectically wonderful, but these events coupled with the typical summer lull in quality films ended up creating an over 5 month gap in Moving Pictures publications, a pattern which I am now very happy to interrupt.  This will be a relatively short review, but it will be followed in the coming weeks by a very meaty piece that I’ve been chipping away at for some time: The 21 Best Films of the 21st Century.  

With summer drawing to a close we’re careening headlong into the beginning of awards season.  There will be lots to talk and write about in the coming months and I’m excited to share it all with Moving Pictures’ readers, and I hope very much to hear your thoughts as well.  Thank you, as always, for reading.  

Cheers!

endofthetour_mixedmedia_splash650

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My knowledge of David Foster Wallace is more so as an icon, a literary legend, than as an actual writer.  His first novel, The Broom of the System, was the inaugural selection of a short lived booked club I participated in several years ago, and I admit that I only made it about halfway through.  I didn’t dislike it, and it wasn’t impenetrable, it just didn’t pull me in hard enough to urge me towards the conclusion.  My cursory understanding of the author remains based on the facts (and lore) of his life: young, midwestern college professor publishes 1,000+ page opus Infinite Jest in the mid 90s; book has major impact on the literary world while author is thrust into the media spotlight; author has recurring struggles with depression; author commits suicide in 2008 having never published another completed novel.  This is, of course, a facile description of Wallace’s life and career and does little to get at who the man really was, which is why The End of the Tour was, for me, such a fascinating film.

Aside from the cliched flashback framing, The End of the Tour eschews most biopic tropes.  A major reason for this is the film’s source material: the non-fiction book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by Rolling Stone staffer David Lipsky, the bulk of which consists of transcripts of recorded conversations between the journalist and author during the final few days of the latter’s Infinite Jest book tour.  The primary source basis and narrative framework for which it allows creates a film mostly involving one-on-one conversations, and it’s fertile ground for two very talented actors.  Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky is fantastic as usual; though never a chameleon actor, his ability to access and exude authentic emotion helps counter the fact that his own personality, speech patterns and mannerisms come through very strongly in all of his roles.  He also happens to be perfectly cast as the ambitious journalist.  It’s Jason Segel as Wallace, however, in a mesmerizing and career upending performance, who does the real shape shifting.  The look, the physicality, the voice, and most importantly the depth of emotion, allow the actor’s persona to completely recede.  His facial expressions, the way he pauses mid sentence, corrects and censors himself, the cadence of his speech, the beat of the words, it’s all so real.  I watched some videos of Wallace to gauge Segel’s impression, but it’s not really even an impression; or rather, it’s more than an impression.  He has the glasses and the hair and the bandana (if anything I think he goes a tad overboard on the accent), but what Segel’s created is not just a likeness of Wallace, it’s an authentic voice.  The fact that much of the dialogue comes straight from recorded conversations is more than a device, it gives the actors a reason to believe what they’re saying and focus primarily on embodying the real life characters they portray.  Though some of Wallace’s loved ones and fans have protested the very concept of a feature film portrayal of the author, citing his own beliefs on celebrity and fame, I can’t help but think of the end product as a truly honest attempt to convey his personal philosophy in a uniquely unfettered way.

The End of the Tour is about many things (loneliness, fame, friendship, the creative process) but the framework is simple: a dialogue.  As tight and professional as the film looks, director James Ponsoldt’s camera draws little attention to itself; this is the right move.  Donald Margulies’s  screenplay does a canny job of blending the tones of the firsthand conversations and the ones that required recreation or invention.  But ultimately this is an actors’ film, and as a viewer it struck me early on that I was watching two of the best performances of the year.

The 10 Best Films of 2014

As catalogued in Moving Pictures’ very first article published just over a year ago, 2013 was a spectacular year in film.  2014 was no different.  In fact, there’s an encouraging emergent pattern suggesting that the Hollywood establishment is starting to catch back up, after years of wandering the cultural wastelands, with what constitutes art (and real entertainment) worthy of recognition.  After years of watching my favorite films go unnoticed I’d come to expect the narrow taste of the Academy. But this year, like last year, more than half of the films on Moving Pictures’ top ten list were also nominated for Oscars.  Are award nominations a true barometer of a film’s worth?  Of course not.  But with awards come funding, access and support for future projects.  For that reason, 2014 was an exciting year even beyond the fine cinematic specimens listed below.

This list comes a little late, I know, and there’s a slew of evidently top notch films that I unfortunately have not yet had a chance to see.  In the interest of full disclosure, I missed out on the well received Selma, American Sniper, Leviathan, Listen Up Philip, Mr. Turner and Winter Sleep.  I plan to see them all, and I encourage anyone reading this to do the same, but I can’t in good critical conscience release a 2014 year in review piece beyond Q1 of 2015. Perhaps it speaks to the embarrassment of riches heaped upon filmgoers last year that I simply didn’t have the time.  At any rate, I hope you enjoy these thoughts and please share yours in the comments section below.

10. A Most Violent Year (Dir. J.C. Chandor)

a_most_violent_yearEdging just into this year’s top ten is a film about, more than anything else, a time and place.  1981 was New York City’s most violent year on record up to that point and director J.C. Chandor infuses every frame with a dark yet penetrating quality that brings the period setting to dread-inducing life.  Oscar Isaac continues his artistic hot streak as the complex and conflicted Abel Morales, a business/family man who slowly but steadily becomes a second rate wiseguy in the face of mounting crises.  Jessica Chastain turns in an excellent (and Oscar-snubbed) performance as Abel’s wife Anna, the perennial devil on her husband’s shoulder.  It’s refreshing to see a strong female character with the agency to be a bad person, though Chandor’s nuanced characterization suggests explanations for her behavior via her own backstory. And while A Most Violent Year also happens to be beautiful to look at, its real success lies in its ability to bring together all of it’s moving parts to viscerally convey the rot of NYC in ‘81.

Read the full review HERE.

9. Two Days, One Night (Dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)

two-days-one-night-picture-5-640x449

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I write these words, Two Days, One Night is the most recent film I’ve seen (just three days ago).  This latest outing from sibling French directors and Cannes darlings the Dardenne Brothers is a tight, minimalistic meditation on human nature in the form of a modern day fable.  Anchored by compatriot Marion Cotillard’s naturalistic and desperate performance, the filmmakers utilize a spare visual and narrative style that boils Two Days, One Night (an appropriately unadorned title) down to is most rudimentary, and most meaningful, elements.  Cotillard’s Sandra is a young mother and wife already teetering on the edge of a deep depression when she learns she’s been laid off from her factory job at a solar panel plant.  Faced with the possibility of having to move her family into public housing, and more importantly, her own dark impulses, Sandra has one weekend to convince her coworkers one by one to forgo a hefty bonus in favor of keeping her on.  This singular premise provides a nimble vehicle through which to explore a wide range of human emotion and behavior.  The final product is a work of truth and authenticity that, in the end, reveals itself to be about so much more than one woman’s fight to save her job: it’s a different kind of fight entirely, and one that we’ve all faced at one point or another.

8. Foxcatcher (Dir. Bennett Miller)

FOXCATCHERFoxcatcher is a divisive film.  While many applaud its craftsmanship and powerful performances, many others have trouble with its decidedly dour tone and narrative flaws.  It’s true that the third act feels a little clumsy, reading conversely (and perplexingly) as both rushed and dragged out, but personally I land squarely in the former camp.  It helps that the filmmakers’ inspiration is such a fascinatingly bizarre (and for me, local) story of true crime.  Visually speaking, director Bennett Miller and cinematographer Greig Fraser have concocted a film that’s gorgeous in it’s drabness, yet also containing some of the most arresting shots of the year.  It’s the interplay of the film’s 3 leads, however, that really makes Foxcatcher special.  Channing Tatum and Steve Carell play beautifully against type, and Mark Ruffalo, marvelous as always, provides the film’s least showy yet most complex performance.  While not perfect, Foxcatcher is an interesting step in the right direction for all involved.

Read the full review HERE.

7. Whiplash (Dir. Damien Chazelle)

Whiplash-5547.cr2This is a film about the dark side of art, the agony that often outweighs the ecstasy.  Promising up-and-comer Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a first-year student at a prestigious music conservatory with aspirations of becoming a great jazz drummer (or as he puts it, “one of the greats”).  When he’s accepted into an elite ensemble helmed by an infamous, drill instructor of a conductor (J.K. Simmons in an Oscar winning role), the young musician is pushed to the brink of both genius and insanity.  Aside from its harrowing depiction of Neiman’s punishing craft, the film also says a lot about what such a lifestyle can do to personal relationships.  Whiplash is a keenly conceived and deftly executed tale of creative obsession, a student/teacher tug-of-war that culminates in one of more epic filmic finales in recent memory.  And my god, the music!

6. Force Majeure (Dir. Ruben Östlund)

Force Majeure filmWhat a strange and beautiful and ugly film.  Strange in it’s blend of wildly divergent tones, from disaster film to family drama to dark comedy.  Beautiful in it’s construction of the bright and sleekly contoured world of it’s characters, with IKEA-like set pieces that appropriately mirror the film’s Swedish origins. And ugly in its examination of our most unflattering primal instincts. Without divulging too much, Force Majeure is the story of a family vacationing in the French Alps whose entire dynamic and stability is upended by one subtly terrifying moment.  Said moment comes early on and the rest of the film deals with the fallout, though the penultimate scene (and maybe this is just my own phobias talking here) was one of the most tense and unsettling of the year for me.  Possessing the measured pace and patience that characterizes many international imports, Force Majeure is a dazzlingly uncomfortable train wreck from which one simply can’t look away.

5. Nightcrawler (Dir. Dan Gilroy)

maxresdefaultWriter/director Dan Gilroy’s scathing yet hilarious indictment of media sensationalism run amok and the callow characters who inhabit its landscape has been accused by some of being too on-the-nose.  It’s message it glaringly clear, yes, but there’s no fault in being bold when said phenomenon is still obviously a huge real-world problem.  Beyond that, Nightcrawler is so vividly and expertly realized (whether through Jake Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing performance or Robert Elswit’s laser cut photography) that anything less than its delightfully outlandish plot would be somehow inappropriate.  Gilroy, a first time director, clearly knows how to pull together an A Team of collaborators both in front of and behind the camera, and his dialogue, especially, uses sharp humor to deliver disturbing ideas in a way that’s challenging but not inaccessible.  This, my friends, is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

4. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Birdman13It’s both shocking and encouraging that a film like Birdman could win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  It’s experimental in structure, self deprecating metafiction in style, and reads mostly as a comedy tonally (usually a non-starter in terms of Oscar buzz).  Ultimately the accolades do more to elevate their bestower than the recipient, which speaks entirely for itself as a formidably made, haunting and deeply funny achievement. Birdman’s use of music, camerawork, and performances coupled with its ability to pack a wide ranging and immaculately rendered depiction of human emotion into one film made it one of the most fun and affecting viewing experiences of the year for me.

Read the full review HERE.

3. Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater)

25-boyhoodThe Birdman/Boyhood dichotomy created an exciting competition and conversation that came to define this year’s awards season.  Both are amazing movies, vastly different in style and substance, and representing divergent value systems around creating art.  While Birdman is a towering technical achievement heavy on style with a wink-wink type premise, Boyhood (director Richard Linklater’s grand experiment twelve years in the making) is a no filter, small-moments-focused piece that is more or less content to simply observe.  As in life, there are dramatic moments, but much of the film’s almost three hour runtime is taken up by the more mundane.  It speaks volumes to the caliber of each performance that this never gets old, and it’s that ability to create those (sorry for the cliche) slices of life, just as much as the decision to film the same actors over a twelve year period, that makes the world of Boyhood feel so lived in and alive.

Read the full review HERE.

2. The Overnighters (Dir. Jesse Moss)

the overnighters review

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This dynamic, funny and heartrending documentary was my sleeper favorite of 2014.  I knew relatively little about it as I entered a free screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival, but I would imagine it was just as surprising and moving an experience to those who had followed the film’s trajectory more closely.  Most documentaries these days are “issue” films, and while there are many issues at play in The Overnighters (the environment, the economy, the justice system), it’s the characterization, the narrative drama and even the Malickesque camerawork that let this film stand up to and above some of the most expertly crafted fiction available.  The confluence of quality, substance and format is what makes The Overnighters such a lasting experience.  Pastor Jay Reinke, the film’s principal subject, is a figure of such desperation, joy and sadness that one could easily imagine finding him between the pages of a tragic novel.

Read the full review HERE.

1. Under the Skin (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Undertheskin-3This is a film that few people saw and probably even fewer enjoyed.  I don’t think that’s right, but it’s certainly understandable.  Under the Skin is a challenging film to be sure; scarce on dialogue, it utilizes a potentially B movie-style narrative conveyed through a schizophrenic combination of both cinema verite and painstakingly manipulated imagery.  It works, and amazingly well, for two reasons, the first being Scarlett Johansson’s transformative, otherworldly performance.  The second is director Jonathan Glazer’s level of taste and his skill and patience to follow through with such a genius concept so uncompromisingly.  This filmmaker’s dedication and command of craft, just as much as the artistic style itself, evoke the term Kubrickian perhaps more appropriately than anything else I’ve seen since the death of the genuine article.  Under the Skin took ten years to make, but it should (and hopefully will) be remembered for ten times that.

Read the full review HERE.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson)

The Immigrant (Dir. James Gray)

Gone Girl (Dir. David Fincher)

Life Itself (Dir. Steve James)

Last Days in Vietnam (Dir. Rory Kennedy)

Moving Pics’ Oscar Picks

Nate D. Sanders Auctions Collection Of Academy Award Oscar Statuettes Set To Be Auctioned

 

 

 

 

 

When people talk about “the holidays”, to me that means Columbus Day through the Oscars.  What can I say, I’m a festive guy.  The 87th Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday will salute another stellar year in film, and below you can find Moving Pictures’ list of who could take home statues and who really deserves them.  Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

BEST PICTURE

  • American Sniper
  • Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

  • Boyhood

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel

  • The Imitation Game

  • The Theory of Everything

  • Selma

  • Whiplash

Should Win: Boyhood

Will Win: Boyhood

Thoughts: Full disclosure – I have not yet had the chance to see Selma, American Sniper or The Theory of Everything.  I just ran out of time (and money to go to the theater), but I have to say, I’d have a hard time imagining any of these films unseating Boyhood, for me.  It was an early favorite for Best Picture and despite a serious challenge from Birdman and the late steam gathering of Sniper, I think things will hold together for Richard Linklater’s 12 year project, and it could be one of the most deserving Best Picture winners in quite a while (as would several of these nominees).  Linklater has been a prolific presence for years, churning out creations ranging mostly from solid to brilliant.  As much as I still consider the Before trilogy to be his crowning achievement, Boyhood delivers an embarrassment of riches in it’s indelible performances, epic scope and understanding of the human condition.  It’ll be a real treat to see the always down-to-earth Linklater take the stage (as producer) to receive the recognition he so thoroughly deserves.

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

  • Richard Linklater – Boyhood

  • Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher

  • Morten Tyldum – The Imitation Game

Should Win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Will Win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Thoughts: In such a close race it often comes to pass that the Academy splits the Best Picture and Best Director awards, but that doesn’t mean Iñárritu didn’t earn it.  This is an especially exciting acknowledgement because it acts as an affirmation of his move in this new direction.  Iñárritu has made some really excellent films in his career, but a jarringly successful departure like Birdman makes it clear that he’s just getting started.

BEST ACTOR

  • Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
  • Bradley Cooper – American Sniper

  • Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game

  • Michael Keaton – Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

  • Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Should Win: Michael Keaton

Will Win: Eddie Redmayne

Thoughts: The last time somebody won the Best Actor Oscar without winning the SAG Best Actor (which Redmayne did) it was 2003.  While this is looking like it’ll be a generally on-the-money year as far as winners go, the Academy gets it wrong a lot.  The late(r) in life comeback narrative didn’t work for Mickey Rourke’s Oscar campaign for his marvelous performance in The Wrestler a handful of years back, and it may not work for Keaton either this time around.  At least Rourke lost to a deserving Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, rather than the technically savvy yet Oscar-baiting performance from up-and-comer Eddie Redmayne.  It’s a real shame too, because I don’t see Keaton getting another chance like this any time soon.  More so than any other category this year, this is the one where I really, really hope I’m wrong.

BEST ACTRESS

  • Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
  • Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything

  • Julianne Moore – Still Alice

  • Reese Witherspoon – Wild

  • Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl

Should Win: N/A

Will Win: Julianne Moore

Thoughts: I unfortunately only got the chance to see one of the performances in this category and it wasn’t Julianne Moore’s, but I can totally buy the consensus that this one is hers to lose.  Moore has been a personal favorite since her work with Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights and Magnolia and she’s been nominated for four previous Oscars.  Whether it’s her best or not, this is an award that will rightly give props to not only a performance, but an exemplary career.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Robert Duvall – The Judge
  • Ethan Hawke – Boyhood

  • Edward Norton – Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

  • Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher

  • J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

Should Win: Edward Norton

Will Win: J.K. Simmons

Thoughts: If it were up to me, I give this one to Norton over the sure-thing J.K. Simmons.  And you know what?  I’d give it to Hawke or Ruffalo over Simmons as well.  That’s not to say that Simmons isn’t great and that Whiplash isn’t an excellent film, it’s just that this category is so strong this year.  Norton, especially, delivers perhaps the best performance of his career as the cocky thespian Mike Shiner, and his introductory scene with Michael Keaton in Birdman was one of my favorites of the year.  This would be a deserving role for Norton to earn his first Oscar, but it seems, unfortunately, that he’ll have to wait another year at the very least.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
  • Laura Dern – Wild

  • Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game

  • Emma Stone – Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

  • Meryl Streep – Into the Woods

Should Win: Patricia Arquette

Will Win: Patricia Arquette

Thoughts: This is probably the least exciting category of the night for oddsmakers because it’s going to Patricia Arquette, hands down.  Her co-star and on-screen ex-husband Ethan Hawke may steal a few more scenes but Arquette anchors the film, as well as the bumpy life of it’s leading man…I mean, boy.  I’ve always liked Arquette (if you haven’t seen her work in True Romance or David Lynch’s Lost Highway, do yourself a favor and check these films out), and she comes from a hardworking show biz family that raised her on the principles of art over fame and passion over pretension.  She’s won every major award of the season for this role, but I’m sure Sunday’s finale will be especially sweet.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Emmanuel Lubezki
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman

  • Ida – Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski

  • Mr. Turner – Dick Pope

  • Unbroken – Roger Deakins

Should Win: Emmanuel Lubezki

Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki

Thoughts: This will mean back to back wins for Lubezki and he deserves it even more this time around than he did for last year’s Gravity.  His one-continuous-shot approach is more than a gimmick to be sure, it gives the kinetically charged Birdman the perfect vehicle for it’s free flowing style, and beyond the virtuosic camera work Lubezki realizes a fully formed vision boasting impeccable lighting, a canny sense of space and some truly arresting images.  It’s a film about theater which theater itself could not possibly recreate.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • American Sniper – Jason Hall
  • Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson

  • The Imitation Game – Graham Moore

  • The Theory of Everything – Anthony McCarten

  • Whiplash – Damien Chazelle

Should Win: Whiplash

Will Win: American Sniper

Thoughts: Whiplash is the little-film-that-could this year and beyond J.K. Simmons’ career best performance the reason for it’s success is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s taut yet colorful screenplay.  It works to the film’s benefit that it landed in the Adapted category (even though it’s an expanded version of a short film of the same name also written by Chazelle) since this allows it to be free from the competition of Wes Anderson, Linklater, and the team behind Birdman.  But I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the Academy will give it to American Sniper.   While Clint Eastwood’s film has been gaining some late traction, I don’t think it will be enough to put it over the top in any of the other major categories, and Adapted Screenplay could be the Academy’s way of tipping it’s collective hat to Sniper.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
  • Boyhood – Richard Linklater

  • Foxcatcher – E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson

  • Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy

Should Win: Nightcrawler

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Thoughts: Because it feels like it’s going to be a year where the Academy will spread things around, this will be the top prize for Grand Budapest.  It’s a playful yet methodically made film, truly a delight, but Nightcrawler is more impressive in terms of this particular award.  For one thing, it’s a first time effort from writer/director Dan Gilroy, and the only thing as exciting to this writer as the film itself is the thought of what else its helmer will come up with.  It doesn’t hurt when you’ve got a ridiculously good leading man (Jake Gyllenhaal, in the most egregiously snubbed performance of the last few years) and one of the business’s best DP’s (Robert Elswit) behind the camera, but Gilroy’s screenplay merges dark comedy, timely satire and straight up white knuckle action in a way that only comes along once in a blue moon.

A Most Violent Year

amvy_day27-260.CR2We open with a black screen, a faint whisper of heavy breathing and the rhythmic patter of rubber on macadam.  Cut to a man in sweats running toward the camera, bathed in the dark blue pall of predawn; he never looks down or side to side, only forward.  This is Abel Morales, the protagonist of J.C. Chandor’s latest film, A Most Violent Year, and it’s a fitting introduction. As Abel jogs purposefully through the bombed-out urban terrain of 1981 New York City to the soulful, melancholy sounds of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, one immediately senses the dire state of that time and place.  1981 was indeed New York’s most violent year on record up to that point, tallying 1826 murders (after a slight decline through the mid 80s, that number peaked at 2245 in 1990; in 2014 it was 328).  The summer of ‘77 power outages/riots and “Son of Sam” killings were in the not-too-distant past and the crack epidemic was on its way.  Industry was gone and the economy stagnant; it was a desperate time.  Beyond the formidable performances, gorgeous cinematography and spot on art direction, A Most Violent Year reaches its fullest expression when viewed within the context of New York City’s dense history, as a microcosmic parable about one of it’s darkest chapters.

Despite his perfectly manicured appearance and storybook lifestyle, Abel Morales (a fantastic Oscar Isaac) is a man at the end of his proverbial rope. With a high risk/high reward real estate deal pending, Abel finds his up-trending heating oil business suddenly targeted by a slew of violent truckjackings, seemingly at the hands of an unknown competitor.  Soon thereafter he comes under investigation for corruption and fraud by the local D.A. (Selma’s David Oyelowo), and things take a frightening turn on the homefront, too, when Abel’s young daughter finds a loaded gun amongst the front porch shrubbery of his family’s chic new home.  Add a finicky union boss, antagonistic colleagues and a missing truck driver to the equation and he’s got a full fledged falling-sky scenario on his hands worthy of the Book of Job.  Amidst it all, Isaac’s Abel labors to hold his small empire together while maintaining what he describes as the “most right” path.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to said path, oddly enough, is Abel’s own wife Anna (Jessica Chastain).  The daughter of a mid-level Brooklyn mobster, she goads her husband toward more nefarious measures at every turn and questions his very manhood when he opts to pursue more level-headed tactics.  Chastain, whom many believe was snubbed by the Academy this year, really sinks her teeth into the meaty role and for such a quiet film she vamps it up quite a bit, but only just enough to avoid disrupting the tone.  It’s Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Drive), however, who anchors the story with his subdued yet roiling performance.  He convincingly preserves Abel’s moral compass throughout the bulk of the film, but also manages to convey a crucial turning point with only the nuance of a look and a nod.  The entire film builds toward this moment, and it’s implications deal squarely with the efficacy of righteousness.  It’s an age old question played out through the agonizing decisions of one man; it’s no mistake that the character’s name is Morales.

J.C. Chandor is an exciting new writer/director clearly intent on not pigeonholing himself stylistically.  He earned an Oscar nomination in 2012 for the screenplay of his financial crisis focused debut Margin Call, a real-time, dialogue-heavy and very topical film.  The following year he garnered hearty praise for the Robert Redford vehicle All Is Lost, a one-man-show with almost no dialogue whatsoever.  This latest effort’s adeptness with the period setting and timeless themes cement Chandor as a director to watch.  It also provides further evidence that Chastain and Isaac are two of the finest actors working today.  Simply put, A Most Violent Year is brooding, taut, precisely made and not to be missed.

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice MovieI think Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most, if not the most, important filmmakers working today.  When I say important, I don’t necessarily mean that his films are more socially consequential or tackle more weighty ideas than those of his contemporaries.  What I mean is that PTA’s catalogue displays a talent for working with actors, an ability to write and capture authentic human emotion, a visual style both aesthetically interesting and rich with meaning, a canny sense a humor and an appreciation of the form and history of filmmaking that is unparalleled amongst his peers; and that’s important.  That being said, I was disappointed with the director’s new film, Inherent Vice, not because it’s poorly made, but because the material itself, perhaps even the idea to spend time turning it into a feature length film, seems somehow beneath this filmmaker.  As I left the theater, and even in the waning minutes of the film itself, the one idea I couldn’t get out of my head was that despite its sensory pleasures and the sporadic chuckles it provided, Inherent Vice feels sort of pointless.

To be brief, Vice is the story of stoner P.I. Doc Sportello’s meandering quest to thwart the demise of an ex-girlfriend’s new beau, then locate said ex-girlfriend when she disappears, then later reunite a surfer-saxophonist-turned-informant with his family (or something) and uncover the true nature of “The Golden Fang” (which could be an Asian drug ring, a boat or a dentists’ guild). It’s all quite convoluted, as you might imagine, but that’s not necessarily a problem.  The labyrinth of colorful characters and secret plots could function as a mirror of the foggy haze in which the perpetually stoned Sportello operates.  I can dig it.  But the script is overly concerned with the messy narrative, spending too much time and breath exploring plot machinations that are hard to care much about and eschewing opportunities to do pretty much whatever else it wants with the rich setting.  PTA knows how to create moments, to build scenes that feel like short films in and of themselves, bending tones and themes at will, but the characters in Inherent Vice don’t ever seem to talk about anything besides the immediate plot.  Having never read the book, or anything by Thomas Pynchon for that matter, it’s hard for me to tell where the source material ends and the film adaption begins, but this outing certainly lacks the unique voice that I’ve come to appreciate as a hallmark of Anderson’s writing.

The star studded ensemble does what it can given the mostly flat characterization, but at the end of the day their efforts, too, seem wasted. Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro; these are some of my favorite actors, but their characters are so cartoonish that one struggles to make any kind of connection.  There are a few genuinely funny moments (this is supposed to be a comedy after all): Martin Short’s coked-out dentist is thoroughly amusing, Brolin’s completely absurd final scene is bizarrely entertaining, complemented beautifully by Phoenix’s reaction shots, and “Moto panekeiku!!” has become an oft interjected phrase in my own home since the film’s theatrical trailer debuted.  But Inherent Vice, like many films, seems to suffer from the unfortunate treatment of unveiling most of its best lines and gags in the trailer, a surefire way to set audiences up for disappointment.

As I read this review back to myself it seems like I hated this film; I didn’t. It’s better than 90% of what makes it’s way to your local United Artists or Cinemark.  It’s a just bummer that the best director in world under the age of 50 chose to spend the last 2 years making a mediocre stoner detective comedy when we already have The Big Lebowski.

Foxcatcher

foxcatcher-channing-tatum-steve-carell-1On January 26, 1996 John Eleuthère du Pont fatally shot Olympic Gold Medalist Dave Schultz in the driveway of his home at du Pont’s sprawling Foxcatcher Farm in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.  A prominent member of one of America’s oldest and wealthiest remnants of the perennial aristocracy, du Pont sponsored scores of amateur athletes throughout the 80’s and 90’s, housing them at a state of the art training facility at his home outside Philadelphia.  du Pont died in prison in 2010, and aside from an insanity plea that was thrown out by the judge during trial, his motive for killing Schultz was never definitively determined.  Foxcatcher, the latest from director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), attempts, to varying degrees of success, to contextualize this murder by illuminating the backstory and examining the relationships between du Pont, Schultz and his brother Mark.

The film picks up in 1987 at a quiet evening training session for the brothers Schultz.  Mark (Channing Tatum), a gold medalist in his own right, is in the thick of a rigorous training regimen in the run-up to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.  Under the tutelage of his older and more celebrated brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), Mark struggles to make ends meet, eating ramen noodles in his sparse apartment and scraping together what money he can with low-paid speaking engagements to indifferent middle schoolers. Dave is an affable family man, Mark more brooding and bitter, but it’s clear that the brothers are very close, displaying something more akin to a father/son relationship.  After the two receive an invitation from the eccentric millionaire to recruit and train a team of wrestlers for the Seoul games (whom du Pont dubs “Team Foxcatcher”, complete with branded tracksuits), Mark believes their ship has finally come in; Dave is more dubious, however, and declines the offer, and with that Mark packs his belongings for the long trip to Pennsylvania.

It’s blatantly apparent from his first appearance that something is off with John E. du Pont (a fantastic, cast-against-type Steve Carell).  His stilted speech and affected mannerisms bely a lonely, sheltered, obscenely opulent upbringing, and it’s clear that du Pont’s interest in wrestling is as much about his need to be accepted and revered as it is about the sport itself.  After a successful trip to the ‘87 World Wrestling Championships Mark and John begin to develop a close bond, seemingly aided in large part by copious amounts of cocaine, but mostly due to a mutual loneliness and need for connection and camaraderie.  Ties begin to fray, however, as du Pont grows increasingly adamant that Dave be involved.  The personal and physical strain leave Mark reeling through a potentially disastrous showing at the ‘88 Olympic trials, one of the  film’s strongest passages and the centerpiece of Tatum’s seething performance.  This sequence at once shows the depths of Mark’s emotional problems, the strength of his relationship (and athletic partnership) with Dave, and his crazed determination as a sportsman.

It’s around that point that Foxcatcher seems to lose it’s way a bit.  Miller seems unsure of how to move the film from the beginning of the third act to the conclusion, and the last 20 or so minutes read conversely (and perplexingly) as both rushed and dragged out.  It may be that Carell, with a creep-o level amped to 11 throughout the proceedings, has nowhere else to go in the ramp up to his character’s crime.  The result is an ending that fizzles rather than pops, and it’s what keeps Foxcatcher from becoming great.  The cast is this film’s strong suit, and the performances elevate it to the point where most viewers will forgive the writer and director for not sticking the landing.  Ruffalo turns in the most nuanced performance, and an important late scene reveals the imperfections of a character who is otherwise held up as the film’s level head.  Channing Tatum proves again that he’s not just a hunk of meat, imbuing Mark with real pathos and a palpable sense of emotional pain.  His level of restraint reminded me of Pacino in The Godfather: his sporadic outbursts are all the more jarring because he’s so quiet throughout most of the film.  Carell sometimes verges on caricature (I watched a YouTube video of the real-life du Pont and he was markedly less creepy), but he taps into a real sadness that many say lurks in the heart of all comedians.  It certainly works well enough that I respect the radical casting choice by Miller.

Aesthetically the film is gorgeous in it’s drabness, but Miller (with the help of cinematographer Greig Fraser) concocts some lovely visual flourishes as well: Carrel running spastically through a stable, silhouetted against stampeding horses; Tatum’s head hitting the mat, a single bead of sweat (or tear?) running down his face.  All of the wrestling scenes, in fact, are very interesting to watch; they’re almost instructional, and they gave me a new appreciation for the sport as a game of strategy and physics rather than simple brute force. I also appreciated the use of archival footage of the du Pont family in the film’s opening sequence, the way it contextualized both Carell’s character and the films principle set piece.

Foxcatcher is a flawed but fascinating film that delivers on performance and presentation but falls a bit short on narrative.  It’s disappointing in its lack of cohesion, yes, but as a showcase of some of the year’s best performances it’s an arresting and haunting experience.

Birdman

birdman-movie-still-16Even from its opening credits Birdman percolates with frenetic energy.  As I registered the expressive jazz percussion, the incomprehensible visual flashes and the thematic thesis of Raymond Carver’s epitaph, I took a moment to settle into my seat in the second to last row of Old City’s Ritz 5, preparing myself for what was to follow.  I left the theater two hours later knowing I had seen something special; something smart, original and very funny.  This is a film that feels through and through like the jazzy score it employs: flowing, free form, sometimes dissonant, always impressive.

Birdman is a major achievement for director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu.  I’m a huge fan of his earlier work (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), but by 2006’s Babel he’d begun to drown in his own solemnity.  This film, however, is a breath of fresh air, ultimately more of a comedy than anything else, but still managing to allow for moments of real sadness and existential crisis.  Michael Keaton (in a career-resuscitating performance if there ever was one) plays Riggin Thompson, an over-the-hill actor known singularly and perpetually for his role as the franchise super hero “Birdman” (clearly a reference to the actor’s real life resume).  Keaton’s Thompson is now directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (a short story written by the aforementioned Raymond Carver) in an attempt to prove himself as a serious actor (“…and that’s why I turned down Birdman 4.”). But money problems, an antagonistic critic, a mercurial co-star and Thompson’s own insecurities threaten to derail the production at every turn.

The film unfolds over the course of several days and largely takes place among the narrow, winding backstage hallways of New York City’s legendary St. James Theater.  Emmanuel Lubezki’s meandering camera is a perfect fit for the setting and subject matter, elegantly framing the film’s visual and thematic motifs of “what goes on backstage”.  For his work here, Lubezki could easily find himself with another Best Cinematography Oscar, one to keep the statue he received for last year’s Gravity company.  Birdman is essentially composed as a single two-hour-long shot, an effect achieved by masterful blocking and a few cleverly hidden cuts.  Rather than reading as gimmicky, this technique adeptly typifies the frantic pace of a large scale theatrical production, a dizzying milieu of co-star confrontations, potential production disasters and epic dressing room freak-outs.

Keaton, a very talented actor, is tasked with portraying a decidedly mediocre actor, and his success in that regard exemplifies his understanding of the craft. He bumbles when needed, delivers stiff line readings when it makes sense for the story, but also delivers moments of real, raw emotion that he’s rarely had the chance to put across.  Several actors in Birdman riff on versions of their perceived selves, the best example being Edward Norton (in what might be a career best performance) as the impetuous thespian Mike Shiner. Norton’s method actor is pretentious, yes, but also acts as the film’s ambassador of artistic integrity, a worthy foil to Keaton’s Hollywood big shot. Their first scene together, working through the beats and undercurrents of a particular scene, was without a doubt one of my favorite cinematic exchanges of the year. Norton exudes a cocky, almost jock-like, quality that’s even more intimidating because of just how good he is.  Zach Galifianakis is also quite good, if a little too silly at times, as Keaton’s best friend and long suffering producer, but he plays the straight man so well (and against audience expectation) that it might have been a more interesting choice to have him fully commit to that role. Naomi Watts is excellent as usual in a relatively less showy role, and Emma Stone’s turn as Thompson’s daughter/assistant displays her range more so than any other role to date.

My only substantial criticism of Birdman is that it drags a bit towards the end. There were several scenes that I was sure were the last, and at times I had trouble making sense of what the film was trying to say with it’s most surreal and expressionistic sequences (entertaining though they may be).  This flaw, however, does little to dampen the overall impact, and I found myself caring less and less about it as time passed.

Perhaps I was charmed by the film’s pointed potshots at the critical profession. In one key scene Thompson confronts a powerful theater critic who seems intent on destroying his play, not because of the quality of the play itself but because of who Thompson is: an artistic lightweight in over his head, a wannabe, certainly not a “real” actor.  But as Thompson angrily retortes, the critic risks nothing, the artist, everything.  The same could be said for Iñárritu and Keaton, both of whom took a big risk in creating such an offbeat, self-parodying film.  The risk paid off, and Birdman is one of the best films of 2014.

The Overnighters

3_overnighters__medium

 

Last Sunday I was finally able to catch a screening at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival (on the very last day no less) and, as always, it was quite an experience.  I’ve seen some great films at the PFF over the years, though never as many as I would like.  Last year I even got the chance to volunteer as a ticket taker, which I would highly recommend; you’ll meet some lovely people and earn some free passes.  The PFF is not nearly as prestigious as Sundance, TIFF or NYFF, but seeing a film at one of the the festival’s numerous venues, from the Ritz to the Roxy (the Philadelphia Film Society’s new flagship theater), always feels like an event.  A few years back I caught a screening of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours with James Franco several months before its wide release.  Last year I had the privilege of seeing Terrence Malick’s painterly 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven, which looks and feels like something that should be on display at the Barnes.  This year I was as pleased as ever with my singular selection, the heartbreaking and endlessly relevant documentary The Overnighters.

Jesse Moss’s film focuses on both a town and a man: Williston, North Dakota and local Pastor Jay Reinke.  An unexpected oil rush in the midst of a natural gas boom renders the town overrun by busloads of men fallen on hard times, searching for a new beginning, many of whom are left stranded and homeless when they don’t find it.  It’s Pastor Reinke who creates a makeshift shelter in the repurposed facility of his Concordia Lutheran Church in the face of vocal outcries from the community and, to a large extent, his own congregation. The Overnighters gives ample screen time to these wayward men, and their stories could spawn a documentary unto itself, but this film is ultimately about the struggles and motives of Reinke.  While it touches on big picture environmental concerns and failures of the justice system, this film works best as a character study of Reinke himself, a figure of such desperation, joy and sadness that one could easily imagine finding him between the pages of a tragic novel.

Some cursory research suggests that this is by far the most serious work Moss has done to date (though according to IMDB he directed something called Extreme Civil War Reenactors, which understandably piqued my interest). After the success of The Overnighters (it earned a Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance) I’m excited to see what other opportunities come his way. The film remains on task while still providing some gorgeous and haunting imagery of the desolate North Dakota landscape and captures moments of genuine intimacy: a dire family meeting in Reinke’s living room; Reinke’s wife, faltering in her support as she speaks to the filmmaker in her kitchen, flipping burgers on a hotplate; the Pastor, gleefully pulling off to the shoulder of a lonely highway, waving, childlike, to the passing passengers of “an Amtrak”, suspending for a moment the gravity of his calling.

This is a documentary for people who don’t like documentaries; a work of drama and humanity that will suck you in from its opening scenes of Reinke processing new overnighters, running down the rules (“no profanity!”) and listening to their stories.  Seeing this man in his element, his machine of service firing on all cylinders, one can almost understand his compulsions. But a shocking turn by the film’s end reveals the complexities of the Pastor’s plight, giving new meaning to everything that came before.  I’m very much hoping (and am confident) that The Overnighters will get some awards attention this season, the biggest benefit of which would be a wide release. It’s a shame that so many quality films like this run the risk of never quite seeing the light of day, but that’s the beauty of attending an event like the PFF: getting the chance to see exceptional work, unhindered by the filter of commercial viability.  If you get the chance to attend next year’s festival, do it. If you get the chance to see The Overnighters, do it.  You won’t be sorry you did.