Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
My favorite directors:
Wong Kar Wai
My favorite movies: Updated 18/4/2013.
1. Solaris (1972, Tarkovskiy)
2. Breaking the Waves (1996, Von Trier)
3. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989, Miyazaki)
4. A Room with a View (1985, Ivory)
5. Scenes from a Marriage (1973, Bergman)
6. Hiroshima mon amour (1959, Resnais)
7. Love Streams (1984, Cassavetes)
8. Once Upon a Time in America (1984, Leone)
9. A Letter to Three Wives (1949, Mankiewicz)
10. The Piano (1993, Campion)
11. Funny Face (1957, Donen)
12. Alfie (1966, Gilbert)
13. Love in the Afternoon (1972, Rohmer)
14. Fanny and Alexander (1982, Bergman)
15. Marie Antoinette (2006, Coppola)
16. Doctor Zhivago (1965, Lean)
17. The Little Mermaid (1989, Clements, Musker)
18. Ballad of a Soldier (1959, Chukhray)
19. A Very Long Engagement (2004, Jeunet)
20. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Allen)
21. Room at the Top (1959, Clayton)
22. Wings of Desire (1987, Wenders)
23. Gattaca (1997, Niccol)
24. Peter Pan (1953, Jackson, et al)
25. Written on the Wind (1956, Sirk)
26. Peyton Place (1957, Robson)
27. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989, Kloves)
28. Howards End (1992, Ivory)
29. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006, Hosoda)
30. Twelve Monkeys (1995, Gilliam)
31. Love with the Proper Stranger (1963, Mulligan)
32. The Last Metro (1980, Truffaut)
33. Frankie & Johnny (1991, Marshall)
34. Women in Love (1969, Russell)
35. When Harry Met Sally... (1989, Ephron)
36. The Tango Lesson (1997, Potter)
37. City Lights (1931, Chaplin)
38. Cold Mountain (2003, Minghella)
39. Summertime (1955, Lean)
40. Pride & Prejudice (2005, Wright)
41. Leaving Las Vegas (1995, Figgis)
42. Darling (1965, Schlesinger)
43. The Bostonians (1984, Ivory)
44. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971, Altman)
45. An Affair to Remember (1957, McCarey)
46. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945, Kazan)
47. Oliver! (1968, Reed)
48. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974, Scorsese)
49. Muriel's Wedding (1994, Hogan)
50. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961, Edwards)
51. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, Weir)
52. Beauty and the Beast (1946, Cocteau)
53. The Go-Between (1970, Losey)
54. Georgy Girl (1966, Narizzano)
55. Minnie and Moskowitz (1971, Cassavetes)
56. Children of Paradise (1945, Carne)
57. Shirley Valentine (1989, Gilbert)
58. Imitation of Life (1959, Sirk)
59. Leave Her to Heaven (1945, Stahl)
60. Nashville (1975, Altman)
61. Castle in the Sky (1986, Miyazaki)
62. Sweet Dreams (1985, Reisz)
63. Roman Holiday (1953, Wyler)
64. Badlands (1973, Malick)
65. Great Expectations (1946, Lean)
66. Ikiru (1952, Kurosawa)
67. Orlando (1992, Potter)
68. Nicholas and Alexandra (1971, Schaffner)
69. A Passage to India (1984, Lean)
70. Gypsy (1962, LeRoy)
71. Sleuth (1972, Mankiewicz)
72. Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Penn)
73. The English Patient (1996, Minghella)
74. White Christmas (1954, Curtiz)
75. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (1968, Miller)
76. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, Kaufman)
77. Stardust Memories (1980, Allen)
78. Platoon (1986, Stone)
79. Late Spring (1949, Ozu)
80. Quartet (1981, Ivory)
81. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, Demy)
82. Beauty and the Beast (1991, Trousdale, Wise)
83. Paris, Texas (1984, Wenders)
84. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008, Fincher)
85. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, Murnau)
86. Three Sisters (1970, Olivier, Sichel)
87. The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003, Jackson)
88. Band of Outsiders (1964, Godard)
89. Bambi (1942, Armstrong, et al)
90. Wuthering Heights (1939, Wyler)
91. The Sea Gull (1968, Lumet)
92. Natural Born Killers (1994, Stone)
93. The Red Shoes (1948, Powell & Pressburger)
94. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, Wyler)
95. Dumbo (1941, Armstrong, et al)
96. Wuthering Heights (2011, Arnold)
97. Charade (1963, Donen)
98. From Here to Eternity (1953, Zinneman)
99. Billy Liar (1963, Schlesinger)
100. Age of Consent (1969, Powell)
More than an Aniston Oscar vehicle
It's not hard to guess why critics and audiences might be turned off by Cake. For the first half, Jennifer Aniston's Claire is snarky with a comeback for everything, manipulates and abuses everyone around her, and indulges in a constant, expensive pity party, and we aren't told why. Once the meat of the story reveals itself, however, Cake is astonishingly clever, delicate, and emotional.
Claire Bennett is the apparent victim of an unexplained accident that left her with chronic pain, a bad attitude, and a trail of broken relationships. After a woman in her pain support group commits suicide, Claire tracks down the woman's husband in a curiously misguided search for answers.
It's not the most unique premise, but screenwriter Patrick Tobin takes the story in unexpected directions, avoiding clichés and handling the subject matter with surprising grace. Director Daniel Barnz could have used some more time in the editing room -- certain side characters and subplots get either more or less time and background than they deserve; why Anna Kendrick's character made it past a rough cut is beyond me -- but in his hands a wordy screenplay becomes visually interesting, moves along at a comfortable pace and is backed by a reflective, unobtrusive score. His direction, and so the movie, really won me over at the climax, where after an hour and a half of sarcasm and one-liners Claire shuts up for once and finally lets the pain in. It's a beautiful, heartrending scene, and the decision to rest Cake on Jennifer Aniston's shoulders was absolutely the right one.
I never thought much of Adriana Barraza in Babel and have only seen her in a couple of other movies but she adds so many personal touches to the role of Claire's maid/cook/home health aide/best friend, she has a real talent for empathy and nuance. Jennifer Aniston, though, is the standout. She clearly reveled in the chance to break away from Rachel and she aced it. There's a tiny moment where Sam Worthington's character tells her she's messed up, and she plays the reaction shot so completely differently from anything she's done in the past - that's when I really started believing her in the role and she only got better from there. She nails her character's dry sense of humor and selfishness, and knows exactly how much charm to give her to make her watchable if not likable. It's a seriously committed, seamless, career-defining performance and she'd be my pick for this year's Oscar.
Verdict: watch it for Jennifer Aniston, walk away pleasantly surprised.
Short Term 12 (2013)
Short Term 12 feels like home
Short Term 12 opens with a story that lets us know immediately how irrational and threatening the charges at the titular care facility can be, how scary the job is, and how bleak prospects are for children upon leaving the facility. It sets itself up perfectly to be a Hilary Swank save-the-kids vehicle filled to the brim with plenty of crying scenes, lives changing for the better, and other assorted white savior nonsense. But instead, the film unfolds delicately and organically, never playing up the drama or belittling its characters or ingratiating the audience; director Destin Cretton has crafted a marvelously intimate and observant masterpiece that reaffirms what a powerfully emotional and cathartic medium cinema can be when filmmakers eschew cheap tricks in favor of intelligent, realistic and heartfelt storytelling.
First-day employee Nate (Rami Malek) is our window into the isolated, fascinating world of Short Term 12, a home where at-risk adolescents can stay for up to a year - though some, like soon to be released Marcus (Keith Stanfield), have been there much longer. Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and secret couple Grace and Mason (Brie Larson and John Gallagher, Jr.) round out the line staff, who are instructed not to play the role of therapist but merely to maintain a safe environment for their charges and keep them in check. A new arrival (Kaitlyn Dever) shakes things up both at the facility and in Grace's personal life as her familiar battle scars threaten to dredge up events in Grace's past that she would rather not confront.
Larson is unrecognizable here. She comes across much older than her 23 years, weighed down by the weary maturity of a girl who grew up too fast. As compassionate and sisterly as Grace is with her charges, Larson's deadened eyes and perennial half-smile suggest hidden darkness and pain that she slowly and surgically reveals at exactly the right moments.
But the greatest strength of her performance is the way she executes her explosive arc flawlessly while never stealing attention away from her costars. John Gallagher, Jr., Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever are assigned the stock roles of nice guy, rebellious black kid and sultry goth girl but all do so much to add layer upon layer to their characters until they are as complex and well-defined as Grace is. Stanfield and Dever in particular are revelations, delivering the film's most heartbreaking moments in the form of a violently angry rap and a disturbingly metaphoric children's story. Larson is at the center of all this, but the beauty of her performance is that no matter how much Grace is struggling in these scenes, she never draws the focus to herself and blends quietly and perfectly into the ensemble.
There are plenty of high-emotion and high-volume scenes like Dever and Stanfield's respective breakdowns, but Cretton weaves the film with a steady hand and a level head - it never gets overwhelming and in spite of some questionable plot developments in the third act he maintains a measured state of earthy normalcy. His even direction, coupled with the natural performances and a shrewd, quiet sense of humor in the writing about the characters' hysterics and interactions, take what could have been overcooked to the point of after-school special melodrama and make it play out like a regular day in the life of these characters. Montages of the kids' day-to-day activities, throwaway shots of people sitting or playing together, wards looking at their birthday cards or redecorating their bedrooms - it's the simple things that carry the most meaning, and that cumulatively make Short Term 12 feel very much like home.
Less informative than his Wikipedia article
There's a scene in Long Walk to Freedom, just after Mandela is finally released from prison, where hundreds of people crowd his car and cheer and dance for him, and my immediate thought was "but he hasn't done anything." And that about sums up the movie: in spite of its 150-minute runtime it really gives no insight into who Nelson Mandela was or why he was important. There are hints of a great movie in there, but it probably should have been a mini-series instead; the runtime constricts it so much it feels like more like a highlight reel than a biography. There's no arc, no momentum, and no aspect of Mandela's life is prioritized enough to leave a mark. Dramatic things just happen with no context, no significance, no direction.
Naomie Harris though is extraordinary as the ferocious Winnie. Her anger and passion are so raw and pure; she is the heart and fire of the film and it's at its best when she's on screen (which unfortunately is not often). Idris Elba nails the accent and physicality but, amazingly, isn't given much else to do. His scenes mostly lie on the same emotional plane and all that's asked of him is to look poised and deliver speeches. Nelson Mandela was a fascinating and controversial man and deserves better than the run-of-the-mill, dramatically inert snooze that is Long Walk to Freedom.
Highlights: - Idris Elba's old man dance - Naomie Harris' authoritative, vigorous performance - A gorgeous wedding scene
Grade: - Not even good enough for a middle school history class
Flores Raras (2013)
Elegant, rapturous throwback to old Hollywood
Reaching for the Moon is the kind of movie everyone hopes for but no one makes: a gay romance where "gay romance" is not the premise. Director Bruno Barreto focuses instead on how Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares challenged and changed the world and each other in other ways, and that was absolutely the right choice - these women and their story are fascinating and make for top class entertainment.
And it is entertaining. Considering the characters' issues and the story's ending it could have been drab, but the film is always lively and engaging. It flies by. Bishop takes herself very seriously, but Barreto maintains a sense of humor about it and makes fun of her just enough to keep her melodrama under control. An added bonus is that Miranda Otto gets to show off her underrated and underused comedic chops; one particular drunk scene is priceless. Glória Pires is dynamic and fiery as Lota but Otto is the real star, channeling Greta Garbo and Deborah Kerr in a gracefully commanding performance. She doesn't shy away from Bishop's spikiness, but her screen presence is so compelling that as much as we might be frustrated with her character, we can't take our eyes off her. Thanks to her constantly surprising performance, an eclectic ensemble cast, breathtaking visuals, and assured direction, Reaching for the Moon pulses with energy and is a breath of fresh air in an era of stuffy and bland biopics.
Highlights: Shots of Rio de Janeiro that belong on postcards; a performance from Miranda Otto that would have won an Oscar in 1937; the assertion that some things are more important than whether a person is gay
Verdict: Watch this with your parents instead of Blue Is the Warmest Color
American Hustle (2013)
A great story directed into the ground
The definition of "hot mess." David O. Russell takes a bunch of ideas for scenes, throws them together and calls it a movie - but most of the scenes, while fun on their own, make no sense in context and don't work together at all. The movie is a chore to sit through; almost everything in the first hour along with Jennifer Lawrence's character could have been cut and nothing would be missed. The chaos and complete lack of structured narrative clearly has appealed to some but for me it was unengaging and annoying.
Bad editing isn't always a kiss of death, but unfortunately the screenplay is trash and the acting a mixed bag. None of the dialogue sounds organic, the plot is predictable, characters are manipulated beyond recognition to suit the story or mood (poor Amy Adams plays about 7 different women here). Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner do what they can and create the only mildly sympathetic characters in the ensemble, while Amy Adams struggles admirably to make sense of her ridiculous character; Christian Bale's Robert De Niro impression is dull and Jennifer Lawrence could not be any more wrong for the part.
The most frustrating thing about American Hustle is that there is a great story buried there somewhere - but Russell drives it into the ground. He has stated that he values character over plot and that much of the movie was improvised, and he clearly casts actors he enjoys working with rather than actors who suit the roles, and in some cases his approach could work out, but here it's a recipe for bizarre, trashy disaster.
Highlights: - Bradley Cooper's chest hair - Amy Adams screaming on a toilet - Maybe the best soundtrack of the year
Grade: - At least it makes Goodfellas look better by comparison
Europa Report (2013)
Worthy if not entirely successful addition to sci-fi
Borrowing heavily from Danny Boyle's masterpiece Sunshine and somewhat from Ridley Scott's embarrassingly amateurish Prometheus, Europa Report appropriately falls somewhere between the two extremes but stands out due to its impressive naturalism (a rare find in the genre) and attention to detail.
The first hour is basically exactly the same as Sunshine - scientists on a deep-space mission begin to unravel individually and as a group after the death of one of their own. Unfortunately, Europa Report lacks the masterful character development of its predecessor, so the hour goes by very slowly as it's very difficult to muster up any interest in what's happening to characters who mostly exist only as ciphers. The naturalism is a hindrance here, as there's nothing interesting going on visually either. Interpolated documentary-style clips of Anamaria Marinca and Embeth Davidtz telling the mission's story into cameras are all the film has to spice up this segment, and while both actresses do good work and there are some truly provocative lines thrown in, those clips add up to a grand total of about 10 minutes - so the other 50 remain lifeless and inert.
Luckily the film picks up for an exhilarating finale - this is where the realism and care with details really shine. Prometheus' most apparent flaw was that its crew of world-class scientists were incredibly stupid and resorted to B-movie levels of horrible decision making to falsify an atmosphere of terror and advance the plot. Europa Report does a much more convincing job of illustrating how these people's desperate thirst for knowledge brings about their demises - their decisions never once feel improper or manipulated and so the final act is infinitely more harrowing than any scene in Prometheus because we can understand exactly where the characters are coming from. And the "twist," while not unexpected, is awesome in the truest sense of the word.
Sharlto Copley also deserves a mention for a fantastic performance - he gets maybe 90 seconds of development and still his key scene has a massive impact and is probably the emotional peak of the movie. Marinca manages to hold our attention throughout tons of long-lasting closeups and does beautiful work towards the end of the film, while Michael Nyqvist is simply not a magnetic enough actor to keep my interest when he's the only thing on screen.
Sebastian Cordero is definitely one to watch - the film overall is exceptionally directed and the editing, particularly in the finale, is visceral and kinetic. Unfortunately, as hard as he tries to avoid an unwelcoming, stagnant atmosphere, the screenplay limits his creativity, and the sluggish beginning and middle acts drag the overall product down a fair bit. Regardless, it's one of the more provocative movies of the year and is a worthy addition to the recent group of sci-fi films like Sunshine, Another Earth and so on that focus less on the science and more on how it affects and intertwines with humanity. I just wish it had been a little less cold.
More to offer than a controversial premise
A fascinating, intellectual and profound exploration of the psyches of four uniquely damaged characters: two boys who never quite left the womb, growing up in a small and affluent community far removed from reality, with one father figure MIA, the other passive and disconnected, and only their mothers for comfort and company; and two women, who never conquered their fears of aging or their struggles with self-esteem and sexual confidence, and whose intimate love for each other and need to feel young and desired manifest themselves in dangerous liaisons with each other's sons.
The premise is disturbing and unrealistic but a major strength of the film is that the characters' actions feel believable and understandable: but never condoned or really condemned. We are given such insight into their island-like community, their lifestyles, their dynamics and their psyches that it's perfectly clear why they fall into these simultaneously symbiotic and parasitic relationships. There is a nuance and an apathy to the directing that encourage the audience to focus more on the "how" and "why" rather than the "what." The film is never sexy or erotic because there is so much loneliness, pain and desperation in the sex scenes. The ocean metaphors strengthen the storytelling but never overwhelm it, and there is one particularly profound scene when Watts and Wright's granddaughters are lifted out of the very water that pulled them under and destroyed them.
The film lags around the mid-point, once the quartet has fallen into a rhythm and so there is no more conflict or tension, but picks up again once their group dynamic and Watts' character's happiness are threatened. The ending is disconcerted and unexpected, but on reflection, given the film's themes and the characters' self- destructiveness, it couldn't have convincingly ended any other way.
Wright and Watts do career-best work here (people who think Watts is often overwrought will like her here, I think) - both give understated but incredibly complex performances and create living, breathing, three- dimensional people out of these initially unbelievable women. Their guilt, neediness and agony are ever-present in their eyes even as the characters try to remain composed and rational. The boys aren't given as much to do but Xavier Samuel perfectly captures the confidence and faux-invulnerability of adolescence. It's also the first time Watts has laughed on screen in what must be years now, which is nice to see!
Overall, in spite of some silly dialogue, it's riveting, labyrinthine, and unique - it's been a very long time since an English-language film explored female sexuality and psychology as intimately and impartially as this one does. It feels more at home with 90's French dramas like La belle noiseuse and La cérémonie than it does in 2013. I'm not entirely surprised it's received such a hateful and crude reaction online, but it has a lot more to offer than a controversial setting, and I hope audiences will be able to look past the premise and see it not as an "issue film" but as the perceptive and devastating character study that it really is.
Drinking Buddies (2013)
Delightful, breezy slice of life
I've been highly anticipating this in the hopes that it would be this year's Celeste & Jesse Forever and it didn't disappoint at all: it's more light-hearted and less penetrative, but has the same keen eye for relationship dynamics, sly humor, realistic characters and fantastic soundtrack. It's the most true-to-life romantic comedy I've seen in years. The characters were so relatable, totally reminded me of people in my life, and Joe Swanberg doesn't need plot twists or external drama to push the story along because it unfolds so naturally through the character interactions and developments.
It doesn't dig very deep into its characters, but I felt that was accurate and appropriate: we don't know much about the characters because they don't let people get to know them. Daily interactions are shallow, jokey; the deep conversations and self-revelations only really happen at 4am by a bonfire after a few drinks. I think the film would have been much worse if it had a Katherine-Heigl-movie moment of all the characters spilling their feelings and wants and grievances to each other because that is not how life goes - at least not for these people.
Olivia Wilde is outstanding and while it's not the powerhouse role I've been waiting for her to take on, it does further establish her as an impressively natural and charismatic talent simply in need of the right roles. She's hilarious and buoyant and handles her dramatic moments - however fleeting or quiet - with expert skill. Jake Johnson was the perfect match for Wilde as they have incredible chemistry and their charming banter keeps the movie energized. Anna Kendrick basically plays herself, but she's very good, as is Ron Livingston with a curiously enigmatic performance.
It won't appeal to everyone, because as it is so realistic, not much happens. It's more focused on the almosts and the might-have-beens than the happeneds. But it's so delightful, funny, observant, and coyly ambiguous, I really hope people give it a chance. It's not going to revolutionize cinema or anything but it has an authenticity, spark and lively wit that the genre generally eschews in favor of saccharine clichés and melodramatic crying scenes.
Breathe In (2013)
Delicate and refreshing take on a tired subject
Unhappily married man falls for beautiful woman half his age whom he believes will free him from his imaginary prison: this plot has been done so many times, very rarely with any creativity or passion, and so Drake Doremus' latest addition to the anthology, Breathe In, doesn't inspire much excitement at first glance. But Doremus successfully sidesteps the staple clichés of the infidelity drama and has crafted an oddly delicate, taut, and surgical film that captivates and succeeds in spite of a few minor plot conveniences.
Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce) is an ex-guitarist whose passions and hobbies have been stifled in favor of a suffocating teaching job and a quiet home life in a New York suburb with wife Megan (Amy Ryan) and daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis, a real find). During Lauren's senior year of high school, the family hosts pleasant but guarded exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones), whose presence chips away at an evidently already fragile marriage and Keith's resentfully upheld responsibilities.
Doremus' breakthrough picture Like Crazy (also starring Jones) drew its fair share of detractors for its unconvincing plot developments and shockingly naive characters. He still doesn't have a complete handle on how to let plots develop organically, and Keith and Sophie are destructive and weak-willed if not naive, but Doremus is clearly growing as a writer: the bumps are less jarring, the characters more understandable. Breathe In is expertly precise and poetically delicate: sensational arguments and wild sex scenes are excluded in favor of subtle tremors in relationship dynamics and a tentative, genuine mental connection between the two leads. A plot line that lends itself easily to melodrama is instead executed with restraint and grace: Keith and Sophie don't even kiss until over an hour into the film and instead grow closer through fleeting glances, shared passions, mutual desires to break free, and support and curiosity that neither have received from another person in a very long time. Refreshingly, for once, it's not at all about sex - it is sensual, but the leads connect on a profound, intimate level rather than a physical one and, strangely enough, there are times when you can't help but want them to be together.
Pearce gives his best performance in years here as vulnerable and secretly needy Keith; he perfectly captures the crushing regret and childish idealism of a midlife crisis, and his slow unraveling at Sophie's touch is beautiful to watch. Jones, for the third year in a row, deserves some serious attention for her work here - Sophie is a stereotypical faux-intellectual, confident she sees all and knows all, and Jones retains that adolescent conceit while imbuing her with a deep, affecting loneliness and pain and a quiet but steely veneer masking it from the world. It's less showy, but more intricate and adult than her work in Like Crazy. Mackenzie Davis' first major movie role is pretty demanding and full of pitfalls, yet she creates the most sympathetic character in the film. Amy Ryan unfortunately isn't given much to do, and occasionally her character feels uncomfortable villainized, but she gives Jones a look at the end of the film that says much more than a 10- minute screaming scene ever could and confirms that she is one of the most insightful and communicative actresses around. There's not much dialogue in the film, and most of it is layered with subtext rather than explicitly revealing, so a great deal of responsibility falls on the cast's shoulders, and they more than carry their weight.
Critics of Like Crazy probably won't be won over by Breathe In as in terms of direction, style and writing it follows many of the same formulas - a simple piano score, natural and unaffected cinematography, many close-ups and scenes where nothing at all is communicated verbally. The characters are less likable this time, and while they are more fleshed out and therefore easier to relate to, it's difficult to find someone to root for. But Doremus is maturing: there's less reliance on plot contrivances to move the story along, and instead he lets the tiny fissures, the soundless sensuality, and the growing tension drive the film to its explosive and agonizing finale. There is some great character- and dynamic-building here, and once Doremus has a better grasp of storytelling, he will really be a force to be reckoned with.
The East (2013)
An outstanding addition to Brit Marling's repertoire
Since 2011's Another Earth landed at Sundance and nabbed the Special Jury Prize, Brit Marling has quickly cemented herself as one of the most exciting and challenging new talents. When she feels a genre hasn't been explored to its full potential, she takes it further. When she notices women her age are typecast in boring roles, she writes her own. She's a visionary filmmaker with something to say and the talent and ambition to make sure she's heard - her second collaboration with director and co- writer Zal Batmanglij, The East, is no exception, and is perhaps the peak of her already illustrious career so far.
The film follows Jane Owen (Marling), an undercover security agent, as she leaves behind her doting boyfriend (Jason Ritter) to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group known as The East, who have publicly targeted massive corporations for their covered-up crimes against humans and nature. In between reports to her icy, amoral boss (Patricia Clarkson), Jane slowly grows fascinated with the group, its morals and goals, and its core (Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Shiloh Fernandez, Toby Kebbell), observing with a mix of horror and infatuation as they execute their violent "jams" on the corporations' key members.
The East will inevitably draw comparisons to Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene because of the subject matter and its ingenue leading lady.The East is not as much of a psychological profile, but there are interesting similarities - like Durkin, Batmanglij and Marling never really villainize or condemn their subects; instead, they make a point of showing the East's appeal. We, the audience, begin to understand why these troubled young people would find solace and purpose in what is essentially a band of guerrilla terrorists, and, in turn, why Jane is so hypnotized by them. It makes for an uncomfortably provocative watch: as we learn more about the characters, their backgrounds, and the corporations' crimes (which are based in fact), it's hard to determine who the "bad guys" are. I saw the film at a festival where Batmanglij gave a short Q&A after and he revealed that he, Marling, and Page had lived with similar groups (without the terrorism) before and were sympathetic with the East's cause, if not their methods. The sympathy shows in the writing and most of the time that's a good thing, but there are times when it gets closer to bias and muddies otherwise brilliant storytelling - but these are blips in the overall outstanding product.
Marling is, as always, enigmatic and hypnotizing, but she is an observer and lets the other characters do the talking; it takes highly skilled actors to command empathy for villains and the cast doesn't disappoint. Alexander Skarsgard is incredibly charismatic and persuasive, and he fills in the blanks admirably whenever his development is cut short. Patricia Clarkson surprises in an unusual role for her - she hints that her character might be more evil than any of the terrorists she is hunting. Jason Ritter and Hillary Baack are affecting in their small roles, and Julia Ormond dominates her five minutes of screen time - her last scene is perhaps the most haunting in the film. Ellen Page gives a career-best performances and reminds us that she's a force to be reckoned with if only she were given the chance to show off more often. She commands the screen with intimidating animosity from the second she walks on screen and has some genuinely heartbreaking moments later on.
In spite of occasional misfires, the screenplay is exceptional especially in its efficiency: there is so much going on that there isn't much time to devote to individual characters or relationships - Marling and Ritter's suffers the most - but Marling and Batmanglij make every second count as each line is weighted with enough subtext to tell us the stories implicitly and thoroughly nevertheless. The major characters are very well-drawn; even though we only get glimpses into Skarsgard, Page and Kebbell's pasts, we feel we know them inside and out. The film moves along at a fluid, adrenaline-pumping pace and the tension is genuine and organic rather than forced - the audience's investment in the story grows from affection for the characters and connection with their ideals rather than cheap editing tricks, manipulative music and stylized lighting or sound. Music is used so sparsely that when The National's "About Today" plays over a silent montage of Marling's character breaking down, its emotional weight surprises and stuns. The ending is comparatively underwhelming, but the overall package is one of the best, most provocative thrillers in years and firmly establishes Batmanglij and Marling as a sensational and important pairing.
The Company You Keep (2012)
Provocative throwback to another era
The Company You Keep has a startlingly star-studded cast and I was surprised to see that most of them were in small, thankless roles. People like Sam Elliott, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper and Stanley Tucci have a couple, three scenes at most and aren't given much of anything to sink their teeth into. What I think this suggests is an immense respect for Robert Redford - there are very few directors who could assemble actors of that caliber for roles that probably anyone could play. And that respect is merited - with Company, Redford proves once again that he is an exceptionally talented director who deserves to be taken more seriously than he is.
It begins with the abrupt arrest of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), an American terrorist who had been living in hiding for decades since she was connected to a robbery that resulted in the murder of a security guard. Her arrest sparks renewed interest in the case and as a reporter (Shia LaBeouf) starts to dig deeper, a lawyer and newly single father (Robert Redford) realizes he is about to be uncovered and flees, leaving his daughter to stay with his younger brother (Chris Cooper) while he searches for an unknown something.
The foundation of Company is a clever, taut screenplay reminiscent of classic 70's American thrillers. It shocks the audience with reveal after reveal, always bringing up more questions and arousing more suspicions, but does so without a hint of self-importance and gracefully avoids inflated tension. Redford's graceful direction brings the electric writing to life and creates a suitably foreboding atmosphere - it's gritty, but not too dark; fast-paced, but not so much that it sacrifices plot or character; emotional, but not saccharine. For such an outlandish plot, Redford makes it feel as real as it possibly could. Too many modern thrillers like this try to make every beat into a high emotion scene, or build around the twist so it's as dramatic as possibly. Company avoids that - there is a refreshing lack of forced grandeur, and in its wake we get a surprisingly intimate film filled with truly fascinating characters and provocative moral questions that the screenplay doesn't answer for us.
The cast, as expected, are uniformly excellent. If there is a weak link it's Shia LeBeouf, whose real-life smug vanity suits the character but can only carry him so far when he's up against acting titans. He seems amateurish in his one-on-one scenes with Redford and Sarandon even though neither of them give especially domineering performances. Redford is an appropriately sympathetic lead but the supporting actors steal the movie - Susan Sarandon sets the bar very high right from the off. In her two or three short scenes, she reveals everything about her secretive, stony character; her microexpressions tell all. Cooper, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott and Richard Jenkins light up their segments with their presences alone, while Brendan Gleeson delivers a hauntingly conflicted portrayal.
Julie Christie, though, is the standout. If this has to be her last screen appearance, it's comforting to know that she went out with a loud bang, playing a character so unlike anything she's ever done before. Her Mimi is ferocious and spirited, but her steely conviction can't quite mask the naive little girl who never really grew up hiding underneath. She communicates a world of internal conflict with a simple raise of her eyebrows, a pang of regret merely by letting her mouth fall open; she's a master of her craft, fully realizing her character in maybe 15 minutes of screen time where most of her lines hit the same note.
If there's one problem with the movie, it's that it's too short. A significant plot point towards the end isn't given the time and attention it deserves, considering its weight and implications. It felt like a wasted opportunity for an amazing, thematically fathoms-deep ending. However, the ending as it is is satisfying and well-done nonetheless, and cleanly wraps up an expertly crafted breath of fresh air for the genre. If only it had come out 35 years ago where it would have been right at home and probably would have garnered a better reception.
Animal Kingdom (2010)
Bloodcurdling thriller and a highly impressive debut
"Constant trepidation" is a good way to describe the atmosphere of David Michod's Animal Kingdom. It's a tense, slow-burning crime drama depicting loss of innocence and a case of survival of the fittest in the man-made world. In spite of the blatantly metaphorical title it's quite a subtle film with a razor-sharp screenplay and uniformly astonishing performances.
Animal Kingdom is the story of Joshua Cody, a 17 year old student who moves in with his grandmother and uncles, who happen to be a family of crime lords, after his mother commits suicide. It's implied that there was a disconnect between J (as he is known) and his mother, and he is basically a blank slate at the beginning; the film chronicles his struggle to adapt to the world he's been thrust into and the gradual decay of the innocent life he once knew.
Director David Michod deserves extremely high praise for creating one of the most impressive debut films in years. His command of the film is evident in its consistently precarious atmosphere, its slow, eerie pacing and its objective tone. Michod's screenplay makes no judgments about the characters, making it clear that there is evil on both sides. It's hard to find anyone to root for, and all we can hope is that J somehow makes it out unscathed. This is a mark of brilliant screen writing: he refrains from judging his characters, so the audience never knows what to expect. There's no "he's going to get what he deserves" or "he's the good guy, he'll win" - anyone could die at any minute. Just like out there in the animal kingdom.
Michod also deserves praise for his characters and dialogue. It seems like in modern crime films there's a go-to dialect for writers, go-to stereotypes for the characters to fit into. There's none of that here. The characters are distinct and very fleshed out, which is refreshing considering the genre usually calls for black-and-white, good-and-evil. Given the awe-inspiring directorial and screen writing work he did with this film, I'd bet that Michod will soon become one of the generation's best filmmakers.
But Michod can't take all the credit. At the heart of the film are strong performances, particularly newcomer James Frecheville and Ben Mendelsohn, but no one approaches the meticulous brilliance of show- stealer Jacki Weaver. Weaver plays J's grandma Janine, the matriarch of the family who doesn't do any of the crime herself but instead chooses to feed off of her sons. It's one of those performances where the actor does so much more than the screenplay and director ever asked of them: the one-second-too-long embraces, the bared teeth, the unblinking and appraising stares Weaver's Janine is an enigma and an actress, and her subtle performance reveals layer after layer of a complex, chameleonic sociopath.
Animal Kingdom has enough scares and tension to please the general thriller fan, but it rises above most films of the genre due to its groundbreakingly objective writing and direction, deep understanding of its characters, solemn exploration of the themes, and the best performance of 2010 by Jacki Weaver.
Higher Ground (2011)
Brave, intelligent and insightful debut from the luminous Vera Farmiga
Farmiga's Higher Ground is the life story of Corinne, a girl who gets married young and moves with her husband into an evangelical Christian community. She embraces the faith and the community embraces her, but she gradually feels more repressed and dejected about life and is criticized for breaking the unwritten rules of her society. What's interesting about Higher Ground is that, contrary to some initial controversy about the subject matter, religion really isn't the subject at all. Farmiga is telling a story about the human condition, one that we can all relate to: a story about those moments where we lose our faith, lose sight of who we are and don't know where to turn or what to believe in.
Farmiga brings to Higher Ground the same things we've learned to expect from her as an actress: unflinching honesty, deep insight, effortless naturalism and a dash of humor sprinkled in. Her examination of the conflicts between hope and faith and doubt pulls no punches: but it doesn't throw any either. Higher Ground has been criticized by evangelical groups for "attacking" their faith and social structure, but the film is actually very reverent and respectful. Farmiga treads carefully and never judges the religion at all - in fact, she makes the community and lifestyle seem appealing at times. We can see what attracts Corinne to the community and understand where she finds her solace. Christianity is just the backdrop of Corinne's story and Farmiga's message; the real focus is on the universal struggles for acceptance and hope.
Farmiga's direction can't be praised enough; she was so precise, careful, respectful, and she knows how to get the best out of her actors. However, the film certainly has flaws. There were many throwaway subplots that were totally unnecessary - not only did they not advance the plot at all but they did nothing to support what Farmiga was trying to say with the film. Farmiga does her best with these scenes, but ultimately the screenplay needed some fine-tuning.
The actors are unanimously impressive. Farmiga takes center stage as Corinne, but she's a generous actress and lets her co-stars shine most of the time. Vera's younger sister Taissa is fantastic as young Corinne; she shows great promise and could reasonably act on the same level as her sister one day. Joshua Leonard as Corinne's husband is lovable and sympathetic, but he's not afraid of revealing his character's flaws - it's brave, I think, for an actor not to care whether an audience likes him or not. Donna Murphy, Nina Arianda and John Hawkes have small roles but perform to their usual high standards.
It's Vera Farmiga, though, who is the anchor of this film. She plays Corinne as a many-layered, complex, ultimately human woman who struggles to find her way through life. It's hard for films to portray abstract ideas like Higher Ground does, but Farmiga has such a deep understanding of her character and the film's themes that she makes it look easy. There is no doubt that one of the best actresses working today has huge promise as a director as well.
Another Earth (2011)
One of a kind and the best of the year
Very rarely does a film come along that changes your perspective on the world around you as well as the world inside your head. Even more uncommon is a science fiction movie that, despite an impossible premise, remains grounded in reality and never forgets that at its core, it is a deeply human story. Mike Cahill's Another Earth, which opened to glowing reviews at this year's Sundance Film Festival, does both of those, and in spite of its minute budget, it's one of the more impressive science fiction films of recent years.
Another Earth chronicles the discovery of a new planet in our solar system, a planet that mirrors ours exactly - down to the people that inhabit it. On the night of the discovery, MIT-bound Rhoda Williams drunkenly crashes into the car of Yale professor John Burroughs, killing his pregnant wife and son and leaving him in a coma. Four years later, Rhoda is released from prison and sets out to atone for her crime; Rhoda's journey coincides with more in-depth studies and discoveries about "Earth 2," and this is where the story really begins.
Another Earth certainly has science-fiction elements, but Earth 2 generally remains in the background, while the human story of atonement, regret, and second chances takes the forefront. In fact, the best scene of the film has nothing at all to do with Earth 2: it's a scene of Rhoda and John bonding over a video game. Earth 2 is not much of a plot point, but more of another character in the film; it represents for Rhoda and John the chance at another life, the possibility of something different, and its ubiquity in every shot suggests to the audience that those possibilities are always there.
This is the kind of science-fiction film I wish there were more of. The genre usually calls for explosions, thrilling action sequences, and a handsome movie star as the lead; Another Earth presents silence, introspection, and a deeply flawed main character who doesn't know how to maneuver within the life she has ruined for herself. People in the cinema complained that Earth 2 was never fully explored, and that the conflict should have focused more on that, but that's a story for another, in my opinion, inferior film. Another Earth is interesting not for its exploration of scientific possibilities but for its study of how people react to and are changed by the extraordinary.
Mike Cahill, the director, and Brit Marling, the lead actress, co-wrote the screenplay, and I hope this is only the first of many future collaborations between the two. Their passion for science shows, as does their commitment to creating a profoundly real character study and limiting the fiction to the background. Marling as an actress is a revelation. She clearly has a deep understanding of Rhoda; the way she carries herself is precisely in tune with Rhoda's development, she's not afraid to play the role as awkward, inept, scared, and above all, flawed. William Mapother's John Burroughs isn't as fleshed out as Rhoda is, but he excels in a plum role that we haven't seen him take on before. He is spiky and angry, and throughout the course of the film he beautifully and gradually reveals his character's broken core. The score by Fall On Your Sword mimics the film in a way, containing hints of electronica with a moving, emotive theme at the center.
Another Earth, simply put, is one of a kind. It puts a fresh spin on the science-fiction genre, and I hope one day it will be looked back on as revolutionary for the way it gives the human story prominence over the fictional aspects. It's not only the best movie of 2011 so far, but it's become one of my favorites of all time as well.
Smashed is a very unusual take on alcoholism: it's funny without becoming critical or irreverent, bleak but not overwhelmingly so, realistic and observant but not preachy or manipulative. It's so intimate that it's often uncomfortable to watch - during the most intense scenes there are barely any cuts, making for an immersive, almost awkwardly intrusive experience - but the grounded, winning cast bring light to it at its darkest moments. It's definitely the Winstead show, she has more than her fair share of extended close ups, monologues and Oscar clips and she nails it all. Her introduction at her first AA meeting exudes vulnerability and was so heartbreaking as I've never seen her like that before, and at other times she builds Kate on a foundation of humor and apathy that brings out the comedy in the movie'a sometimes ridiculous situations. The other actors do good work too, especially Aaron Paul who shares an easy chemistry with Winstead and does a wonderful job of shading a thinly written character - but the movie rests mostly on Winstead and she's more than capable of bearing the burden.
What I liked and admired the most about it is how unblinking and thorough it is. A lot of movies about addiction tend to focus on just one aspect of the victim's/victims' life - how it's affecting their workplace, their friendships, their marriage, or their relationship with the self, etc. Not and - or. I expected the same from Smashed; the trailer at least suggested that the marriage would be the main focus. But surprisingly it was all-encompassing; we see Kate's entire life unraveling around her, and the writing and directing don't shy away from anything. I especially liked that Kate isn't painted as a victim, she makes her own choices and has to deal with her own consequences. It's not a pity party. People and life are cruel to her but you get the sense that she almost feels she deserves it. I don't know that I've seen such an objective and insightful movie in this "genre" since maybe Panic in Needle Park.
I was also happy with the attention to detail regarding Kate's hygiene - Winstead looks dirty and gross for most of the movie and that's how it should be. I get tired of movies about women in tough situations who always look like they just walked out of a salon. Smashed seems destined to fly completely under the radar, which is a real shame - it's one of the unsung gems of the year so far with a stunningly good performance from Winstead and paints an exquisitely detailed portrait that leaves you feeling like you've learned something, like you understand, like you've gone through the journey along with her.
Wuthering Heights (2011)
Since her feature film debut with Red Road in 2006, Andrea Arnold has been building quite a reputation for herself as a visionary filmmaker. She has shown an aptitude for harsh landscapes and even harsher characters, for using dialogue only when it's absolutely necessary, and for making films that are so up close and personal they're often uncomfortable to watch - Wuthering Heights is her magnum opus, making the best of all her directorial quirks to create an unusual take on tired material and resulting in a fascinating, disarming viewing experience.
As usual, Arnold's adaptation leaves out the second half of the novel and focuses intensely on Heathcliff and Catherine's relationship - she, though, places huge emphasis on their lives as children; a smart move, as by the time they're grown up you can see hints of their childhood feelings, passions and experiences still influencing them. Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer are captivating performers, very primal and instinctive which suits the tone and setting of the movie, and they are mostly silent which allows most of the development and interaction to come through physicality. A rare smile from Glave is more impactful than any line in the movie; the way Beer lightly touches him says more than words ever could.
Where Wuthering Heights truly stands out is in its infrastructure. It's incredibly bleak and barren, the sound of wind battering the microphones often drowning out the actors, and the regular landscape shots suggest a loneliness and a desolation that do wonders for the atmosphere. Arnold doesn't shy away from the dark, violent parts of the source material, and since the movie moves so slowly with very little happening, the violence seems more disturbing by comparison.
This, in my opinion, is the way the story is meant to be told. On release, readers were shocked by Emily Bronte's daring, and the book wasn't very popular because it's such an uncomfortable read - yet most movie adaptations romanticize it to some extent. Wuthering Heights is not a sweeping romance. It's not one of the great love stories. It's a tale of hereditary cruelty, frightening passion, selfish, twisted characters, distressing physical and emotional abuse, and Arnold understands that. Her filmmaking techniques might be unconventional, but in a sense, this is as by-the-books as any Wuthering Heights movie ever has been.
The second half of the film features an intensely physical performance from newcomer James Howson and an icy, erratic one from Kaya Scodelario, and is talkier than the first half - it's a nice contrast. It implies that as the characters grow, they learn to hurt each other with more than just their bodies. If I have one complaint it's that we don't see much of the adults, but that's not to suggest that their segment is in any way lacking the piercing power or derelict beauty of the first. A gorgeous shot of Scodelario with the sun in her hair might be the most memorable of the entire movie. Arnold ends the film with Mumford and Sons' The Enemy, the first full-length piece of music used, which effectively marks the ending as an event, closing the story with firm finality, and combined with a montage of flashbacks it lets the audience reflect on the journey these characters have taken with each other, and how much it's changed them by the end.
Wuthering Heights isn't for everyone - my first screening had a lot of fidgeting and walkouts - but there's no denying that it's an impressively ambitious, challenging movie and that I think is something to be respected. Whether or not daring like this actually works depends on the talents of the director, and Andrea Arnold has proved here that she has what it takes to go against the grain and successfully produce a unique, beautiful work of art.
Great Expectations (2012)
Great expectations just about met
The past few years have seen an increase in creative adaptations of classic novels. Mike Newell's Great Expectations may seem uninspired compared to challenging and inventive films like Anna Karenina or Wuthering Heights, down to the easy casting of Helena Bonham Carter as a crazy old woman and a score that sometimes sounds lifted piece by piece from Pride & Prejudice. Newell surprises, though, and has imagined a solid and remarkably captivating and evocative counterpart.
For those who never took freshman year English, Great Expectations is the story of a common orphan, Pip (Toby and Jeremy Irvine), who lives with his horrid shrew of a sister (Sally Hawkins)and kind-hearted father figure husband (an excellent Jason Flemyng). One day, Pip runs into an escaped convict (Ralph Fiennes) who terrifies him into stealing food and a file; the convict takes a liking to him before he is recaptured and taken away.
Pip is later selected by neighborhood freak Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter, stretching herself) to play with her adopted daughter Estella (Helena Barlow and Holliday Grainger). He believes Miss Havisham wants to mold him into a gentleman so he can marry and provide for Estella, until she helps him become a blacksmith and bids him goodbye. Years later, Pip falls into a large fortune from an anonymous benefactor, and after making himself presentable, he returns to Estella.
I've been careful to limit my excitement since Newell's involvement was announced. 20 years ago he would have been the perfect choice, but after he attempted to make an action scene out of every dramatic beat in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and bastardized the poetic beauty of Love in the Time of Cholera, I'd lost faith. Great Expectations, though, is a return to form for a once-upon-a-time master of the genre. While it occasionally suffers from genre confusion (Bonham Carter's scenes play out more comedically than they perhaps should have), his habit of making things more action-y than they really are actually enhances the material here - the fire and boat scene are a thousand times more adrenaline- packed than in the novel - and the enthralling pacing, expertly crafted visuals, and lively dialogue and performances add up to a very fine film.
The visual aspects deserve special mention for how much they bring to the movie. It feels as if the cinematography and art direction are working to illustrate and expand on the writing, rather than simply constructing a picturesque background (which Newell was guilty of in Cholera). Scenes at Pip's home look heavenly, with golden lightning and wide shots making his world look endless and welcoming. By contrast, when he becomes a gentleman, close-ups, dreary costumes and dark, windowless rooms contribute to a more claustrophobic and icy atmosphere. The cleverness of the lighting is particularly pronounced when Pip and Estella reunite after years: we see a close-up of Irvine, with only darkness behind him, then one of Grainger in a hallway lit by brassy lanterns, positioned almost as if they are lighting a path for him to follow. The last time we see Estella, as a changed woman open to Pip's affections, is the first time we see her in a wide open space. These visual cues are simple and unintrusive, but enhance subtext and recreate the poetry of Dickens' novel.
Irvine is a capable and likable enough lead, but the film belongs to the supporting cast. Bonham Carter's interpretation of Miss Havisham is intriguing, if not perfectly executed. It recalls her performance in Big Fish, where she toes the line between outlandish and pathetic. Grainger's Estella is beautifully acted - her delivery of "I am what you made me" is chilling. Jessie Cave and particularly Jason Flemyng give adorably heartfelt and rustic performances, while Olly Alexander is hilarious and brings heaps of life to a normally dull character. The true star, though, is Ralph Fiennes. It's a shame this didn't get an Oscar push, because with a strong narrative and a proper campaign, he could have been a serious threat. Fiennes completely sinks into his character; there isn't a trace of his past performances as well-groomed, eloquent gentleman. He's frightening and savage, but oddly sympathetic, and in his more intimate scenes he absolutely devastates. There are memories of an entire life behind his eyes. Without a doubt this is one of his best performances and sadly it seems it will go unrecognized.
It's not quite a perfect film - it's very short and so some characters and themes get lost in the shuffle, and certain tonal shifts feel jarring and inappropriate - but it's a damn good one. Newell seems to have finally found a functional dynamic for a period piece, a happy balance between contemplative and spirited. Due as well to his phenomenal cast and production team, he's done a wonderful job of bringing a difficult and gloomy novel to life.
The Descendants (2011)
Charming, clever and often rather touching
Alexander Payne's long-awaited The Descendants is a touching portrait of relationships and the obstacles in their way, how difficult it can be to connect with those closest to us, the fear of conveying emotion, how others act as mirrors for us to understand and express ourselves.
The Descendants begins with an unfortunately long voice-over from our protagonist, Matt King (George Clooney). His wife, Elizabeth, has suffered head trauma and is hospitalized with a coma. Matt is dealt blow after blow when he learns that she was cheating on him up until her accident. He gathers his daughters (Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley) and sets out on a literal and emotional journey to inform their friends of Elizabeth's condition and to track down her partner.
Alexander Payne's directorial style is present here in his reliance on narration and awkwardly funny, "am I allowed to laugh?" tone. Unfortunately, the story and the characters are so personal, it's as if Payne gets in the way at times. His attempts to make The Descendants more authentically Hawaiian, notably through the use of indigenous music, feel gimmicky rather than natural and jolt the audience out of what is otherwise a thoroughly engrossing and gripping journey. Payne has a habit of using narration to great effect, but here it's unnecessary and uninteresting: in spite of a couple witty one-liners, most of the narration (done by Clooney's character) is redundant and out of character. All we need to know is already in the film, rendering the opening monologue especially useless, and while Matt is portrayed as private and emotionally distant, we are constantly interrupted with his life story. Clooney may have the perfect voice for narration but even that isn't enough to cover up its obtrusiveness.
Apart from Payne's sometimes intrusive direction, though, it's a great film, one that's helped by an outstanding screenplay and incredibly natural performances. The editing leaves something to be desired, as The Descendants takes much too long to set everything up and many scenes feel awkward and irrelevant; however, the writing is strong enough to keep an audience interested. The success of the film depends on whether the family at the film's core is convincingly loving, yet grating and distant, and on that front, the film excels - the characters are wonderfully written, and we get a strong sense of their histories, idiosyncrasies, and dynamic. Payne and his co-writers find the humor in confrontation: his characters are at their worst, but funniest, when fighting. It takes a talented writer to create comedy from earnestness, and the Oscar buzz for The Descendants' screenplay is well-deserved.
In a movie that focuses so intently on just a few characters and not much plot, a lot of pressure is put on the actors. Clooney and Woodley in particular exceed expectations, both bringing so much depth to their respective characters and playing off each other to create a hilarious, but raw, emotional, and above all realistic father-daughter relationship. Clooney is at his best here, doing a wonderful job of expressing a deeply internal conflict: he creates an aura of emotional distance, but quietly makes it clear that he is struggling to remain composed in the face of so many emotional blows. His performance is extraordinarily nuanced, and he brings so much meaning and significance to something as trivial as a hand motion, or a quick glance. Clooney is meticulous and powerful, letting the tiniest change in body language signal a huge emotional shift.
Shailene Woodley, however, is the star of the film. Her performance here (which, by the way, is sure to attract major awards attention) is wildly different from the tragedy that is The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but under a director of Payne's caliber she shows huge promise. Clooney's performance is undoubtedly one of his best, but his Matt is so restrained and aloof - the emotional power of certain scenes might not have been expressed if Woodley wasn't there to do it. She delivers pure, raw, unadulterated feeling, and does it so naturally and intuitively. Alexandra is spelled out in the screenplay as potty- mouthed, irreverent, and carefree, but Woodley defines her so much more distinctly, more definitively. She fleshes her out into a full person, and therefore contributes so much to the family dynamic that is the center of the film.
It may be Payne's first, however small, directorial misfire, but The Descendants nevertheless is a charming, moving, often hilarious film firmly built on a fantastic screenplay and actors who fully inhabit their roles. We learn, grow, laugh, and cry with them as they travel the distance not only between islands, as they search for friends and enemies (look for a heartbreaking cameo from Judy Greer), but the distance between each other as well. Payne's direction gets in the way sometimes, but The Descendants is a journey worth taking.
Acidly funny, traumatic, haunting, overwhelming - an experience not to be missed
Lars Von Trier has become somewhat infamous over the decades of his illustrious career. His films have been labeled misogynist, misanthropic, and manipulative, as they often chronicle the downfall of a young, beautiful woman. None of that, though, applies to his newest film Melancholia - perhaps that's why Von Trier himself doesn't like it. Melancholia is his tamest and perhaps most subtle film yet: there can be no emotional manipulation when we already know the Earth will die, and the obnoxiously overt symbolism in Antichrist is missing here and is replaced by a startlingly intimate, human character study. For those reasons, because it's so confined to the real world, to human relationships, and we can see ourselves in it - it may be his most daring and stunningly powerful achievement to date.
Melancholia is split into two chapters, titled Justine and Claire. Chapter 1 details Justine's (Kirsten Dunst) wedding party, organized by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We immediately get the sense that something is off with Justine, and soon learn she has a past of battling depression which resurfaces at her party. The first chapter ends with Justine destroying her life, at which time we transition into Chapter 2 and learn that something is coming that threatens to destroy all life. A previously unknown planet, named Melancholia, is coming towards Earth, and despite Claire's husband's (Kiefer Sutherland) assurances that it will simply fly by, Claire and Justine know it won't - and it doesn't.
Melancholia has huge promise, but is not perfectly executed. The two chapters lack congruity and as a result, "Claire" drags quite a bit. Von Trier is also guilty of letting his old habits seep into the film occasionally in the forms of awkward, unnecessarily primal scenes, clunky, oddly formal dialogue, and hammer-to-the-head symbolism. His lack of self-restraint, though, thankfully isn't enough to taint his successes. Even when he gets it wrong, Von Trier is one of the best and most unique working directors, and while Melancholia missteps a couple of times it remains another notch on Von Trier's belt. Few directors have the eye for satire and brutal humor that Von Trier does: "Justine" finds the dark comedy in serious family matters and as a result is every bit as acidically funny as it is mellowing. Von Trier never loses focus of his characters, though, and he allows the comedy to act as a backdrop for a harrowing study of depression, rather than losing control and having it maim the seriousness of Melancholia's core themes. And while Chapter 2 may drag, it builds itself back up again to one of the most satisfyingly stunning, overpowering and draining finales in cinema history.
Melancholia relies heavily on the use of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde prelude, which permeates the film at all the right moments. The movie crescendos along with its musical theme, ebbing and flowing with oceanic power, alternating quiet calm with astonishing darkness. Melancholia feels alive, it has a pulse, and in spite of Von Trier's occasional blunders, watching it is a beautiful, awe-inspiring experience. It's almost like a poem in its unpredictable shifts in tempo and tone, layered with subtext, addressing and expressing the human condition in a way that other art forms can't - what Melancholia lacks in fluidity, it more than compensates for with its haunting imagery, meaningful symbolism; it is truly an artistic achievement.
The film would not be as successful, though, without a transcendent performance from Kirsten Dunst. Dunst has shown glimpses of her potential throughout her career, and finally here she is given a role that lets her show the world what she can really do. Depression this extreme has rarely, if ever, been captured in film, and she tackles it bravely and relentlessly. We can see the light slowly burning out in her eyes, we can feel the disdain, hatred and shame all communicated in a single glance. It seems that in every scene, Dunst reveals yet another layer of a deeply complex character until she is the most naked - emotionally and physically - that she's ever been. Her descent is simply stunning to watch. She receives excellent supporting from Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard, and most notably, her on-screen sister Charlotte Gainsbourg. Their sisterly dynamic is tangible and deeply explored; Gainsbourg and Dunst make up one of those all-too-rare pairings that is exhilarating to watch just for their chemistry together. Gainsbourg's outward emotionality is the perfect match for Dunst's cold incisiveness, and it's thanks to these two that the film expresses its themes of duality so well.
It's true that Von Trier stumbles a couple of times (one sex scene in particularly seems forced, out of place, and, for lack of a better word, Von Trier-esque), but it's also true that this movie wouldn't have worked in the hands of a lesser director. In Melancholia he has created a near-masterpiece and a uniquely rewarding experience, a science-fiction film where the characters and not the science take center stage, a drama that grows organically from its characters and not from ridiculous writing. Melancholia is equal parts bitingly funny, traumatic, haunting, and overwhelming, and is an experience that should not be missed.
Elle s'appelait Sarah (2010)
Fascinating movie with a provocative message
Sarah's Key weaves two stories together into a touching portrait of how history affects us all, long after it's happened. In July 1942, Sarah Starzynski and her Jewish family were rounded up and taken to the Vel' d'Hiv with thousands of other French Jews, where they lived for days in absolutely inhuman conditions until they were shipped to concentration camps. As they were being arrested, Sarah locked her brother in a secret closet so that he would be safe, and vowed to escape and come back for him.
The second plot line revolves around Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who is on the verge of buying the apartment that Sarah lived in. She undertakes the task of finding out as much about Sarah and her family as she possibly can, uncovering secrets about her family, France, and herself along the way.
Usually movies like this don't work out. I walked in expecting a sickeningly sentimental film, yet walked out devastated and with a heavy heart. Sarah's Key is absolutely harrowing, pulling no punches when it addresses France's involvement with the Nazi regime, and revealing the lingering effects that the Holocaust had on the psyches of those who survived it. The modern story isn't quite as gut-wrenching, but it is elevated by Kristin Scott Thomas in one of her best performances yet. She acts at times as a substitute for the audience: we can feel the devastation and heartbreak she feels with each new revelation and discovery. Also worth mentioning are Melusine Mayance, who gives one of the best child performances ever and in a perfect world would receive an Oscar nomination, and the moving score by the criminally underrated Max Richter which elevates the film's key emotional scenes.
From the reviews I've read of Sarah's Key, the general consensus is that it could have done without the modern-day plot line. I disagree. It gave history a personal touch, which I feel most historical films lack, and acted as a conduit so that the audience could get more involved in the film. Thomas's last lines remind us of what I think the filmmakers wanted us to walk away with: that history lives on even in those who lived after it, and that is important to take to heart in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.