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BEST MOTION PICTURE
1920: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene)
1921: The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)
1922: Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau)
1923: Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)
1924: Greed (Erich von Stroheim)
1925: The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin)
1926: Faust (F.W. Murnau)
1927: Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
1928: The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
1929: Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel)
1930: All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone)
1931: M (Fritz Lang)
1932: Freaks (Tod Browning)
1933: King Kong (Merian C. Cooper)
1934: It Happened One Night (Frank Capra)
1935: The Informer (John Ford)
1936: Modern Times (Charles Chaplin)
1937: Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir)
1938: Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz)
1939: Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming)
1940: Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock)
1941: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
1942: Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
1943: Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)
1944: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
1945: The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder)
1946: It's A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
1947: Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
1948: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
1949: The Third Man (Carol Reed)
1950: Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder)
1951: Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder)
1952: High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)
1953: From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
1954: The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)
1955: Marty (Delbert Mann)
1956: The Searchers (John Ford)
1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)
1958: Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
1959: Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai)
1960: Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
1961: Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa)
1962: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
1963: Hud (Martin Ritt)
1964: Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick)
1965: The Sound of Music (Robert Wise)
1966: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone)
1967: Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville)
1968: Once Upon A Time in the West (Sergio Leone)
1969: Z (Costa-Gavras)
1970: El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
1971: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
1972: Deliverance (John Boorman)
1973: Badlands (Terrence Malick)
1974: Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
1975: Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
1976: Network (Sidney Lumet)
1977: Star Wars (George Lucas)
1978: Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick)
1979: Alien (Ridley Scott)
1980: The Elephant Man (David Lynch)
1981: Gallipoli (Peter Weir)
1982: Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)
1983: A Christmas Story (Bob Clark)
1984: Amadeus (Miloš Forman)
1985: Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis)
1986: Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
1987: The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci)
1988: Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata)
1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg)
1990: Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)
1991: Barton Fink (Joel Coen)
1992: Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)
1993: Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg)
1994: The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont)
1995: Braveheart (Mel Gibson)
1996: Fargo (Joel Coen)
1997: L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
1998: The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick)
1999: The Green Mile (Frank Darabont)
2000: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel and Ethan Coen)
2001: Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch)
2002: Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes)
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson)
2004: The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenábar)
2005: The Proposition (John Hillcoat)
2006: Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón)
2007: There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2008: In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)
2009: Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
2010: True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen)
2011: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
2012: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2013: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
2014: Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
2015: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
*****PSIFONIAN FILM AWARDS*****
°Best Motion Picture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAo5VuxKoJM
°Best Director: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exZMVLgqHl0
°Best Actor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MGlGUwXKNI
°Best Actress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3A-SsRZG6w
°Best Supporting Actor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83D6Alg65Mo
°Best Supporting Actress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSStv5oU8uo
°Best Cinematography: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkfVn3l2IaU
You like films that examine disillusionment usually in the form of corruption from something that sells itself as beautiful or noble but beneath reveals itself to have an ugly underbelly. Disillusioned either with humanity (There Will Be Blood), or war (The Thin Red Line), or God and Genius and Beauty itself (Amadeus), or the Gangster life (Goodfellas), or Hollywood (Mullholand Drive) and so on.
Knight of Cups (2015)
Furthering the divide.
If To the Wonder was Terrence Malick's stab at a true tonal poem in visual form, Knight of Cups is what would happen if Malick gobbled a fistful of mescaline and went on walkabout in the Hollywood Hills. There is a freneticism to his latest film which feels at odds with Malick's usually languid tendencies; an urgency that is unexplored territory for the notoriously pensive director.
Ever since his 2011 opus The Tree of Life, Malick's films have taken on a bit of an autobiographical bent. I have long postulated that Malick's twenty-year hiatus between his second and third films was something of a research mission, where he drew material for future films from his own personal experiences, and that the intervening years allowed him to contemplate the philosophical ramifications of it all. If The Tree of Life was an ode to Malick's bygone childhood and To the Wonder an elegy to his tumultuous first marriage, Knight of Cups feels like a meditation on the disillusionment and discontent he must have felt on the Hollywood scene.
Following the lead of Hunter McCracken and Ben Affleck, the Malick surrogate in Knight of Cups is Christian Bale. His character, Rick, is an in-demand screenwriter, but we never actually see him work. Instead, Rick acts as more of a silent voyeur to the glamorous lifestyle of the rich and famous. He attends parties that devolve into bacchanals (one passed-out guy in a satyr costume really brings that imagery home), he canoodles with bombshells in open-topped convertibles, he explores vast marble manses that overlook the bum-packed streets of L.A. He's clearly doing well, but Rick seemingly exists in a state of an existential crisis.
The film's title speaks to a tarot theme, and indeed if Knight of Cups could be said to follow any sort of structure, it is through a fortune reading of Rick's life (which are revealed in title cards that split the film into chapters). Rick's headlong dive into the sensual overload Hollywood provides is an attempt at escaping something that pains him, and the source of much of that agony is translated in short bursts of filial backstory throughout the film. His younger brother (Wes Bentley) is living hand-to-mouth in increasingly desperate circumstances, and when they get together we learn of a third brother who may or may not have committed suicide. This really happened to Malick, and it was a theme explored in The Tree of Life (where it is implied Jack's brother died in Vietnam). And as in his 2011 opus, there are seeds of a parental theme. For me, one of the more enduring images of Knight of Cups is Dennehy's stout-shouldered presence as Rick's father. If we graft our memories of Brad Pitt's paternal performance in The Tree of Life to Dennehy's work, it creates a very fascinating arc of an old man bitter at how he treated his son growing up, and of a son bitter at becoming his father.
It's not just his blood relatives that gnaw at Rick, either. His estranged wife (Cate Blanchett) shows up, and while we don't really get much insight into what has brought ruin to their relationship, as much of their conflict is drowned out by thundering ambient score, all we have to do is transpose what we know of the crumbling marriage in To the Wonder here. I don't want to say that Knight of Cups needs the previous two films to truly understand it, because I do believe that a film should be able to stand alone and be understood, but it nevertheless does benefit from that extra shading. The consistency among the three films is bolstered by Emmanuel Lubezki, who was the cinematographer for this loose trilogy.
When it comes to the look of Knight of Cups, Lubezki scarcely lets the camera stay still, scanning through Day-Glo nightclubs and desolate L.A. scrublands with equal majesty. There's something almost Koyaanisqatsi-esque to this film, and honestly, I feel that Knight of Cups actually succeeds where I feel To the Wonder fell short: you could dice away all of the dialogue and I could still follow it and understand its message. Malick's journey into the abstract pays off here in a better way, as it frees him to indulge in some extremely trippy interludes (including a black-and-white slice of performance art that really feels like it was guest-directed by David Lynch).
And while Malick's notorious under-use of his A-list casts persists here (by the time Natalie Portman, the last in a long line of gamine gals that flit in and out of Rick's life, shows up, they've all blurred together), the actors haven't been the true focus of his films in decades, if ever. That said, several faces I never thought I'd see in a Malick film bob and weave through the film with surprising regularity. Hey, Joe Lo Truglio! Whoa, is that Nick Kroll? Who the hell thought Fabio would ever appear in something like this?
Knight of Cups boasts some striking imagery, but as he continues to carve a path through the realm of the abstract, stripping away plot and characterization in favor of mood, his fandom will be increasingly divided like the Red Sea. Some will shy away from his newfound tendencies as being desperate self-parody; others will applaud him for his boldness. I can't say for certain on which side I fall, but that's what makes it so exciting.
Ex Machina (2015)
A strong, confident debut.
Artificial intelligence is not only a possibility at this pointit's an inevitability. With people screaming at their iPhones for Siri to get them directions to the nearest steakhouse, it might as well already be here. Yet in between the films that show the advent of A.I. as a doomsday scenario (think Terminator), or those that show it as opening the doors for potential comedy (think Chappie), few think about the philosophical implications of such a moment.
What happens when an artificial consciousness is created? Does it seek freedom to make its own choices? Does it desire to be human, or to advance itself and make itself obsolete (unlike organic creations, machines are designed to be refined and bettered, so this sort of fabricated, accelerated evolution will inevitably spell doom for the first A.I. just when it seeks to propagate itself)? Can an artificial being genuinely love . . . and if it can, can it also fake it?
These are the questions posed by Ex Machina, a sleek, sensual cocktail of Pygmalion and Frankenstein written and directed by Sunshine scribe Alex Garland. Set in the painfully near (it might as well be next week) future, an A.I. has indeed been created, but before its existence is announced to the world, it needs to undergo a Turing test (as fans of The Imitation Game will recall, that is the examination one gives to a machine to determine if it can successfully pass as human). So the A.I.'s uber-reclusive creator decides to bring in a third party to administer this test. Enter Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a shy, introvertedaren't they always?coder who works for the creator's company in Initech-esque anonymity until his name is plucked from a lottery for a one-week jaunt to the boss's jungle compound.
When Caleb arrives (by chopper, no less; meeting the boss is like traveling to Jurassic Park), he has no idea what his role is . . . especially when he meets the mogul himself. Nathan (a bald, bearded, deliciously scene-stealing Oscar Isaac) is Steve Jobs mixed with Howard Hughes and juiced up by a laissez-faire frat-bro persona. Nathan's a fascinating character; he lives in seclusion with only a mute Japanese housemaid (an alluringly riveting Sonoya Mizono) for company, and yet he is the sort of guy you'd love to kick back and hang out with. His heavily extroverted presence is definitely at odds with Caleb's awkwardness; that is quickly mitigated when Nathan meets Ava.
Ava, by the way, is the A.I. Nathan has constructed. Rather than an OS voice like Her's Samantha, Ava is a full-body construct, played with powerful sensitivity and fragility by Alicia Vikander. At once a natural beauty and at the same time clearly artificial (several parts of Ava's body are stripped of skin, revealing the fascinating intricacies of her android innards), Ava knocks Caleb for a loop. Caleb is to have seven sessions with Ava, in order to see if she passes the Turing test. Throughout the week, he spends time with Ava, bonding with her, trying to see what makes her tick. Before long, however, it becomes less about trying to find what she is and more about who she is, and Caleb begins to wonder if perhaps the test is less about her and more about him. He begins to suspect there is more to this experiment than just a simple Q&A. Despite Nathan's beer- swilling and backslapping, Caleb can't shake the feeling that something is off about the whole thing . . . and, of course, he starts to wonder what will happen if Ava fails the test.
Garland, whose screenplay history include two of Danny Boyle's best films, lends a much more stately approach to his directorial debut. The film takes its time, finding the vulnerabilities in its characters without feeling the need to frame them in claustrophobic close-ups. Indeed, part of the pleasure of Ex Machina is the loving care the film takes with its cinematography. The lush exteriors of Nathan's jungle Shangri-La, the gentle hues of its electronic walls and floors, all of it feels so pleasant to the eye without feeling intrusive and showy. The compound is as much of a character is its four inhabitants.
Speaking of, all four of our characters are perfectly cast. Gleeson's scrawny melancholia is a stark contrast to the muscular, overpowering energy Isaac brings to the show. Mizono, who never utters a single word throughout the piece, drifts through the film like an ethereal spirit who nevertheless speaks volumes with a single stare. And then there's Vikander, whose hushed baby-bird performance belies something much more serious at play. If Ava can reason, then she should know what happens if she were to fail the test and Ava reasons that if she passes, that does not necessarily spare her from that fate (machines, after all, always have a few bugs to be worked out).
Ex Machina has a few hiccups along the way. At one point, a character has a crisis of self-identity and carves into their own arm to ensure they are flesh-and-blood, rather than mesh-and-circuit; while interesting in its own right, this moment comes out of nowhere and leaves without any sort of believable build-up or payoff. It would've made for an interesting directional shift, but the film doesn't take that route, and so we're left with a potential scene that feels like a path to an alternate ending that is quite jarring. But for the most part, the film keeps on its steady course, building up to an ending both fantastic and frustrating.
Ex Machina feels very much like a Philip K. Dick novel if someone wiped away the grunge. It's tactile, sterile . . . and at the same time, gentle.
Slow West (2015)
The Western love child of Wes Anderson and the Coens.
The first thing I noticed about Slow West is how much better Michael Fassbender's American accent has improved, especially in comparison to his drawl in 12 Years a Slave. There are still traces of his foreign heritage in his voice, but he's got the cadence and timbre of it down-pat here, which is certainly a boon here, as he also adopts the role of narrator in writer/director John Maclean's tough yet quietly funny romp through the frontier.
Why is it tough? Because Maclean doesn't hesitate in showing that the West was unforgiving; people die with almost alarming suddenness and violence, and not a single one of them gets a languishing death soliloquy. It's all a great shock to young Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit- McPhee), a Scottish émigré who ventured out West not to seek fame or fortune, but rather the love of his life, who fled their homeland after an accident Jay feels responsible for. Jay, the upper-crust scion of a well-to-do family, is unprepared for the harshness of the climate, and the opening credits have barely begun to roll before he's looking down the barrel of a gun. It's only by the grace of God and the quick reflexes of gunslinger Silas (Fassbender) that Jay gets out unscathed.
Silas, a gruff and opportunistic sort, takes the job of "chaperoning" Jay through the territory, ostensibly to make an easy buckbut there are truer, darker intentions lurking within him. See, Silas is a bounty hunter, and his target happens to be one John Ross (Rory McCann) and his daughter Rose (Caren Pistorius), the latter of whom happens to be Jay's inamorata. Neglecting to mention that his beloved is a wanted fugitive with a $2,000 price tag on her head, Silas tries to instill Jay with enough street smarts to get him through the journey. Unfortunately, some lessons take more quickly and harshly than others.
And yet, the film has a light touch of humor to it that, when paired with the frank grimness of the West, works wonders. Maclean peppers the film with sublime sight gags and, in one instance, an outlaw's recollection of a former colleague's disappointment at not having his own wanted poster that could've come right out of the works of Mark Twain. Maclean's film also owes a debt, I feel, to True Grit; the two films feel like they could be spiritual twins.
Unlike most of the genre, Slow West doesn't revel in the wide-open Leone-esque expanses of the frontier. Instead, it's squared off in a narrow frame by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, giving it a more intimate flair. Nevertheless, the film is quite lovely to look at. The color palette is striking and, if I didn't know better, I'd have thought Wes Anderson had decided to saddle up for a Western. Certain shots pop, like young Jay wading through the ashen remains of an Indian camp or of a character being abandoned in the desolate prairie with nothing but his longjohns and a blanket.
Smit-McPhee, quickly proving himself to be able to transition from his child actor years to adulthood, stands his ground admirably in the part. He also has a skill with silent comedy; most of the audience's guffaws came at Jay's befuddled reactions. Fassbender, who I feel works best when he isn't trying to crank up the intensity, feels very relaxed, giving perhaps his best performance in years. The bulk of the film focuses on just these two actors, although occasionally they share screen time with some colorful characters, including Ben Mendelsohn as a wily, cigar-chewing outlaw. Mendelsohn has been a personal casting choice for a Blood Meridian adaptation, and this would make a hell of an audition reel for it.
Despite its humor, Slow West does have an air of solemnity to it. There is the air of lost love, and not just in Jay's desperate struggle to reunite with Rose. There is also a somber sense of loss for that world. In one crucial scene, Jay meets a German anthropologist out in the wilderness, who openly laments the oncoming extinction of the native tribes in the area and the damages of white expansionism. At one point, the man smiles forlornly and says, "In a short time, this will seem like a long time ago." That line, more than any other moment in the film, lingers in the mind.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014)
There's more to life than a little money, ya know.
I admit that I am a sucker for a film about people who are driven to perform impossible tasks, even in the face of insanity. It's one of the reasons why I mark Werner Herzog as one of my favorite directors. Indeed, he's carved out a career by telling stories, both real and imagined, of men obsessed with conquering the elements to achieve their goals. But Herzog has, so far as I know, not explored the concept of someone being consistently driven to do something that truly is impossible. This idea is the kernel that sparks Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, the first film I saw at my local film festival today.
I was aware of the tale, real or imagined, that surrounds the film long before the first frame was shot; according to urban myth, a young Japanese woman was found frozen to death in the snows of Minnesota in the early 2000s. The woman had evidently been attempting to find a suitcase stuffed with a million dollars in cold (heh) hard cash, buried somewhere along the wintry stretches of highway. The woman had evidently gotten this idea because she'd seen the burial of the money in the Coen Brothers' film Fargo.
Another pair of brothers, David and Nathan Zellner, were inspired by this tale and made this film. Quite simply, Kumiko is an absurdist fable, the tale of a folly that we want so very much to be surrendered . . . and at the same time, we hope that the hopeless can be achieved. The loving references and homages to the Coen film start right from the beginning, with a close- up shot of Fargo's epigraph; specifically, the line that insists "This is a true story." The Coens, in order to inject an air of realism to their work, added this to their film despite it being completely untrue.
The message, however, didn't seem to find its way to Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a morose, mopey Tokyo office lady in the waning days of her twenties. Kumiko is the furthest thing from a social butterfly there is, instead preferring the company of her pet rabbit in the squalid flat she occupies alone. She is regarded by her boss to be aimless in life; her mother harps on her consistently about not being married. What little enjoyment Kumiko gets in life is in her treasure-hunting jaunts. One such quest leads her to a beachside cave, where she finds a battered, grimy VHS copy of Fargoa tape that will set her on her destiny. She is entranced by the film's promise of an unclaimed fortune buried in the white wastes of Minnesota, but soon that enthrallment becomes obsession, which soon inches into something close to madness by the end.
It's hard enough to understand such an obsession in the first place, and even more so when there's a language and culture barrier, and even more so when the protagonist in question barely strings a sentence together for much of the first half of the film. Yet there is something endearing about Kumiko, whose dead-end life desires some sort of liberty. We are charmed even further by the film, which takes the bleak absurdity and finds great humor in it; the film is peppered with many hilarious visual moments that had my audience roaring with approval. And yet there is an emotional resonance to the tale, and an unsettling sense of inevitability. It's not that it's predictable, though it is; it's that we know we're on a collision course with tragedy and we're powerless to stop it.
Fed up at last, Kumiko (with the aid of a pilfered company credit card) buys a plane ticket to Minneapolis, and immediately we see just how unprepared for this journey she is. It's the dead of winter, she's not dressed for it, Fargo is a long ways away, and she can barely speak English. And so Kumiko drifts towards her destination by meeting eclectic characters along the way, including a kindly old widow (Shirley Venard, who feels like she could be a retired Marge Gunderson at times) and a helpful sheriff's deputy (the director Zellner in a self- inserted cameo that nevertheless feels earnest and heartwarming; his scenes with Kikuchi are the film's highlights, to me). Yet the wheels on Kumiko's plan, nascent as it is, are coming off fast, and she refuses whenever someone tries to explain to her why her plan won't work.
Kikuchi, who has carved a niche in playing withdrawn characters in films such as Babel, The Brothers Bloom and Pacific Rim, effectively portrays Kumiko's despondency and plaintive insistence that it's real, all of it's real, and anyone who doesn't believe her is a fool. There is desperation in her voice, and watching her is like seeing a zealot beginning to lose conviction even as the proof of her faith is evaporating before her. These moments are backstopped by lighter scenes; there is, for example, a gut-busting bit of cultural insensivity when the deputy, unable to bridge the language gap between himself and Kumiko, can think of nothing else except to take her to a local Chinese restaurant.
The film is not without its flaws, and some of them are nagging. Who left the tape for Kumiko to find in that cave? Why did she not research the film, even in the pre-IMDb days, and read the trivia that stated the Coens had made it all up? Why was she seeking out the city of Fargo, when the crime in question and the resulting action in the film take place elsewhere? Imperfect though it is, though, Kumiko still works, and at times it is transcendent. The final moments of the film, rather than wallow in grimness, feel uplifting, almost joyous. Herzog may very well not have taken this tack if he'd told this tale, so perhaps it is for the best that he didn't.
Lost River (2014)
A compelling bit of cinema despite the warts.
Charting the career of Ryan Gosling has been like examining the exploits of a half-crazed explorer who, after conquering the seven continents, decided to wander out into the great white wastes on the map where there be dragons. After a meteoric rise in popularity with films like The Notebook and critical adoration in Half Nelson, he decided to eschew the mainstream heartthrob role and take on parts that were more off the beaten path. First came Lars and the Real Girl. Then came his laconic-but-instantly-iconic role in future best bud Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Just when he seemed ready to zig back to mainstream adoration, he zaggedby taking a seat in the director's chair himself.
And so we have Lost River, a film that could pretty much be considered the neon-bathed blood child of Santa Sangre and Beasts of the Southern Wild. When the film premiered at Cannes last year, it was met with resounding criticism (not unlike the previous Gosling film to debut there, Refn's Bangkok-set Only God Forgives). Yet if something elicits that level of vitriol, that means it at least must be seen.
In truth, the film is borne out of Gosling's influences, which he wears on his sleeve quite garishly. There's a little Lynch, there's a little more of Refn, there's even some Gaspar Noe and Derek Cianfrance peppered throughout the place. It makes for a bizarre and unsettling mulligan stew that might behell, probably isa touch radioactive.
Nevertheless, there's something beautiful about Lost River, which at its core feels like an American folk tale given a 21st-century jolt. Set in the dying titular town that may or may not be a Detroit analogue, a single mother named Billy (Christina Hendricks) desperately tries to keep herself and her two sons afloat, even as the mortgage payments fall behind and her home is about to be repossessed. Billy, a waitress by trade, can't make ends meet . . . until, that is, she is met with a proposition by her bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn, skeevy as usual despite gussying up in a suit and tie this time) to take a job at a nightclub that specializes in the freaky-erotic.
Meanwhile, her elder son Bones (Iain De Caestecker, who comes off as a younger clone of Gosling here, right down to the brooding silence) recognizes the dire straits they're in and pitches in by stripping dilapidated ruins for copper wire, only to cross paths with a strutting, skinheaded psycho named Bully (Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame). When he's not trying to keep out of Bully's line of sight, Bones cares for his baby brother Frankie while at the same time making eyes at his neighbor, a pretty girl with the unlikely name of Rat (Saoirse Ronan). Through her, Bones learns of the mythology of Lost River, and how there may be a monster lurking in its watery underbelly. Gosling has kickstarted two stories here, and while both exist in the same milieu, they are nevertheless wildly divergent.
And that, part and parcel, is the biggest flaw of Lost River. Kubrick once said that a director is a taste machine, sifting through various ideas and seeing which ones work the best. Gosling is a cinematic gourmand, devouring his influences with relish and spewing them out with gusto. Unfortunately, he probably ought to have limited himself to one course instead of two.
The Bones subplot, while boasting some truly gorgeous imagery (you really can't beat Benoît Debie's Korine-esque cinematography), feels vacuous. I think a large part of it is that, despite Ronan and Smith giving it their all and both crafting unique characters and giving bold performances, that young De Caestecker just doesn't have the necessary screen presence to hold our attention for long . . . and, quite frankly, I feel that Gosling himself wasn't terribly interested in this particular plot of the film. He knows enough to give it some pep in certain scenes, but whenever the film switches over to Billy's perspective, everything galvanizes, and we know where Gosling's heart is.
And it's easy to see why: this is where Gosling is allowed to drop plot and let image and atmosphere take hold. When Billy joins the act, she meets a beautiful burlesque dancer (Eva Mendes) who is something of her Charon into the dark world this nightclub represents. And what it represents is a sick fascination with death, blood, deformity. When we first see Mendes's character, bathed gloriously in violet, she brings to mind the creepy ceremony from Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre, and when Billy allows herself to be part of the show itself by encasing herself in a clear plastic woman's outline, Gosling's crazed creepiness hits Lynchian levels of inspiration. It doesn't hurt that Mendelsohn, who feels like a love child of Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell's characters in Blue Velvet, gets to channel both those guys in these scenes (in one instance, he croons a Hank Williams tune while oozing menace).
For a debut, Lost River definitely shows a great bit of promise for a fledgling director. Gosling's biggest challenge now is refining his technique, paring down his influences and finding an original bent to take. There is a unique voice in there somewhere, buried under all the homages. And while Lost River feels aimless, it's still hypnotic.
On the road to nowhere.
Every now and then, a person -- more often than not, a youth -- gets fed up with the mundane existence of civilization and seeks to find their roots and awaken a spiritual cleansing in the wilderness. Unfortunately, there are many instances of such experiences ending tragically. The stories of Timothy Treadwell and Christopher McCandless are prime examples, emphasized by the films depicting their final days. But in the end, it isn't about how they died, but rather, how they lived.
Even though her journey does not end in heartbreaking sorrow, it almost comes off as the endgame for Robyn Davidson, the young adventuress depicted in John Curran's latest film, Tracks. Played with no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth wisdom by Mia Wasikowska, Robyn's ambition is to follow her father's footsteps and trek across 2,000 miles of Australian desert. Where Treadwell sought to connect with the animals he so loved and McCandless attempted to discover his own identity, Robyn sets off on her journey for no reason other than the hell of it. She first shows up in a middle-of-nowhere town called Alice Springs, seeking to procure some of Australia's feral camels for her journey. She spends the better part of a year learning to train the beasts, showcasing just how focused she is on her goal.
Lighting out for the territories is a common feeling we've all shared at one moment or another, and Wasikowska -- who has always come off as a very sheltered soul -- epitomizes the sort of loner that would seek to go out on such an excursion. She insists on setting out alone for the majority of it, with no radio or a weapon. The only human contact she intends to have will be scattered checkpoint stops with an American photojournalist chronicling the expedition (Adam Driver), and even then, she has no real desire to even do that. "You wanna die out there or somethin'?" one character asks her, and she all but acknowledges this as her ultimate goal.
Director John Curran emphasizes the feeling of forced loneliness in this film. Wasikowska's Robyn steadily severs ties with any and all people she comes across in her journey. Her desire to be truly alone is made abundantly clear, especially in regards to the barren isolation of the Australian outback. However, I think that Curran's film feels a bit too intimate and not nearly as sparse as the subject matter would require. There is a wonderful moment where Robyn stumbles onto a homestead, almost like an alien, not reacting to the farmer's words of welcome. In her wanderings, it's almost like Robyn had forgotten the basic rules of human interaction. Shame that this wasn't further explored.
Indeed, Tracks does seem to meander with no real compass or, indeed, idea of why or where it's going. In this regard, it's like its protagonist. However, Robyn's journey ends in some small triumph. This film ends on a more worrisome "what was the point?" note.
Child of God (2013)
A by-the-numbers take on a brilliant novel.
When word broke out that James Franco, wannabe wunderkind who has taken to adapting classic American literature to the big screen to, well, mixed results, would be adapting my favorite author's work, I prickled with righteous indignation. I don't care much for Franco and indeed find him to be a jack of all trades but indeed master of none: he is a subpar actor, his writing leaves a LOT to be desired, and his direction feels a little too over-reliant on flashy tics that add an unnecessary layer of pretension to the proceedings. And here he is, adapting the work of the master: Cormac McCarthy.
At first, Franco announced he would be tackling McCarthy's masterpiece, the ultraviolent scalp- hunter saga "Blood Meridian", but after a while, he decided to cut his teeth on a smaller -- but by no means lesser -- work of ol' Cormac's. And this is how he came to deliver "Child of God" onto the masses.
Despite its brevity, "Child of God" is by no means an accessible novel: it's lean, mean and has a soul blacker than night. The novel is just like its protagonist, Lester Ballard, a loner who skulks about the Tennessee backwoods like a dog suffering the early onset of rabies, indulging in varying degrees of vicious activities, from assault to necrophilia to, eventually, murder. Ballard is not your typical protagonist, and yet the way Cormac McCarthy approached him, he was made both revolting and at the same time strangely empathetic, as he managed to submerge the reader into Ballard's festering brain. "A child of God much like yourself" is how McCarthy's opening lines describe Ballard, signifying that the madness and malice that ferments within the man is a seed to be found in any of us. And despite its grim premise, "Child of God" is astoundingly, gut-bustingly funny, like the worst sort of dead-baby joke.
Unfortunately, I feel that Franco has missed the levity, instead emphasizing the straight serial- killer premise. This isn't to say that Franco doesn't hew close to the novel; if anything, he is a little too faithful, even relying on having blocks of text from the novel playing out on the screen. It's an admirable slice of avant-garde, even if I feel that Franco is forgetting the first rule of filmmaking: show, don't tell. Even though McCarthy's prose is magic, Franco should've known (as the Coen Brothers and John Hillcoat knew before him) that McCarthy's words can be translated visually to bring the same harrowing, to-the-bone effect.
That said, Franco does show a great deal of passion for the material. But even beyond the use of McCarthy's words, the most crucial aspect of an adaptation of "Child of God" is the man who will be playing Lester Ballard. And in this film, Ballard is played not by Franco, but by his buddy and frequent collaborator Scott Haze. Whether or not you approve of Haze's performance, you can't say he doesn't go for broke in his portrayal of Ballard. Haze's Ballard is beyond laconic; he speaks in strangled, guttural inarticulations that sound almost caveman-like. I do think that there are times that he lays it on a bit too thick, and I think his drooling, leering presence lacks any of the bizarre charm that made Ballard such a fascinatingly funny character in the book. Haze plays Ballard like a "Deliverance" refugee, and while it isn't bad work on its own, I do feel that Haze is a bit too superficial in his take on one of McCarthy's greatest creations. He makes up for it in intensity, though, gotta give him that.
It also doesn't help that Franco's film has a cheap aesthetic to it, lacking any of the grim Gothic atmosphere of the book. It's my biggest issue with Franco as a director: he has no real concept of effective mise-en-scene, instead opting to point the camera and let things play, cutting an odd times that feel far too arrhythmic to be deliberate. Much like last year's interesting-but- too-shallow "As I Lay Dying", Franco gets the story right but tells it in the most simple, A-to-B- to-C way possible. It's worth the watch for Haze's performance (and also for Tim Blake Nelson, who feels like he should've featured in any and every Cormac McCarthy film before this), but it only serves to prove that we're lucky that we dodged a "Blood Meridian" adaptation by James Franco.
Spellbinding Southern tale from all involved.
There is probably no actor today as unique or vibrantly energetic in his performances as Nicolas Cage. I have claimed before that Cage is perhaps the greatest actor with the worst resume in cinema history. But even though he's got a backlog of rather unsavory films, Cage has never failed to go for broke, ripping into each and every role with great gusto. However, the heir apparent to Christopher Walken has been lambasted as a washed-up actor these last ten years, with most people seemingly overlooking the fact that Cage has given some standout turns since his heyday (his 2009 turn in "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" should have netted him an Oscar nod, for instance).
His latest outing pairs him with another once-promising figure: David Gordon Green, who after a handful of thrilling debut films seemed to go off the deep end, following riveting films like "George Washington" and the underrated "Undertow" with the execrable "comedies" "Your Highness" and "The Sitter". However, Green seems to be returning to his roots with "Joe", an adaptation of Larry Brown's down-and-dirty Southern Gothic tale of a hard-luck ex-con who crosses paths with a teenager with a bad home life. Cage plays against Tye Sheridan, the stoic youth who starred in "Mud" last year, and if anyone thinks that his casting makes this film a carbon-copy of Jeff Nichols's homage to Mark Twain, "Joe" will shatter your notions before too long. It's got a much bleaker edge to it.
Cage plays Joe Ransom, a backwoods wreck of a man who runs a gabby gang of laborers who semi-illicitly poison trees for a lumber company. He's a raw, taciturn sort, driving through his rural community in a beaten-down truck stuffed with his employees while chain-smoking and seemingly drowning out the chatter of his buddies. Cage, who is known for being an explosive presence in his films, keeps the lid pretty tight on the pot here, yet there are moments when he lets the steam sing out. It's clear Joe's temper has gotten him in hot water in the past, as seen when a past victim (Ronnie Gene Blevins) takes a shot at him only fifteen minutes into the film. Joe's got his demons, for sure.
So too does fifteen-year-old Gary Jones (Sheridan), who drifts into town with his silent sister, laconic mother, and a true example of the tragedy of the Deep South in the form of his father, Wade. Played by Gary Poulter, Wade is a strutter, a wannabe tough guy held together by drink but who can't even hold down a job for a day, and he takes out his boozed-up rage on his family. Wanting to provide for his family as well as try and get his old man back off the skids, Gary approaches Joe for a job. The boy proves his worth as a hard worker, eventually drawing him closer to Joe himself, who takes pity on the kid's home life. But the closer the two get, the more things start to get complicated. Joe's rage is starting to cycle back up, and Wade's bitterness is fueling his own violent tendencies that start to show in his own son at times.
What David Gordon Green strives for with "Joe" is a sense of pervading realism, and so he populated his film with first-time local talent rather than seeking Hollywood professionals. Almost every single speaking part save for Cage and Sheridan comes from people that lived in and around the area they shot the film. In particular, Gary Poulter was a homeless drifter with a checkered past who crossed paths with Green. Poulter brings a pathetic, harrowing realism to the part; he's lived this life and he seemed like a man who knew little else. Even when Wade lets his fists fly, you can't help but feel pity for the gnarled old bastard, because Poulter brought an almost beautiful complexity to the role. Poulter died soon after completing filming, having drowned due to alcohol poisoning; the tragedy of his life colors another facet in the character that enriches his performance.
Cage and Sheridan themselves are no slouches in this film, either. Sheridan is proving to be quite the young talent, and I wouldn't hesitate in calling him one of the best actors in his age group. He holds his own against Cage, and the two play off of each other marvelously, perhaps even more effortlessly than Sheridan did against Matthew McConaughey. He'll do great things in the coming years for sure. And Cage proves here that one should never underestimate him; his volatility and effortless charm make Joe a compulsively engaging protagonist while at the same time emphasizing that he is not the man he could be, should be.
Early in the film's runtime, Joe's hatchet crew stumbles upon a copperhead. That snake is just like the picture itself: sleek and dangerous, with a poisonous bite that could spell fever into an unwary film-goer. David Gordon Green certainly captured Larry Brown's whiskey-soaked novel with great skill; if he could get around to tackling the novel's even better sequel, "Fay", that'd be even better.
The Immigrant (2013)
Cotillard, Phoenix and Renner in the land of opportunity.
James Gray's latest tale of melancholic woe and spirits in emotional turmoil takes us back to when America was the land of opportunity for the tired, poor, huddled masses. The director's fifth feature is once again centered in New York, where past entries like "Little Odessa" and "Two Lovers" took place, but "The Immigrant" takes us back ninety years, putting a classical spin on his typical tale.
Though it's lensed with a soft focus emphasis that lends the film a dreamlike patina, "The Immigrant" doesn't shy away from scratching below the scabbed surface of the American dream, even in the first scene. The Cybalska sisters, Ewa and Magda, are among the many crowded in line at Ellis Island in 1921, waiting to be welcomed into America (through the rigorous immigration process that shows that getting into the States was just as difficult then as it is now). The elder Ewa (Marion Cotillard, whose haunting beauty and old-school look made her the perfect casting) is a former Polish nurse who tries to advise her sickly younger sister to look well, but unfortunately, Magda is consumptive and kept in isolation from the other immigrants. Ewa herself is corralled when she is suspected of being "a woman of low morals," but before she can be deported, she is "rescued" by a man named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix, also perfectly era-appropriate), who trawls the immigration station in hopes of picking up potential new additions to his troupe.
For you see, Weiss runs a burlesque show made almost entirely of young foreign ladies who escaped the ravages of the Great War to seek their fortunes here. But he takes a special kindle to Ewa, who nevertheless finds herself disliking her new livelihood and employer. Despite his rather sad-sack pursuit of Ewa's affections, Bruno still pimps her out to rich patrons. It may seem very von Trier-esque, but indeed this was not uncommon in the Big Apple back then. Yet Ewa refuses to be downtrodden, even though she has convinced herself that she is a condemned woman (referenced in a crucial scene in a Catholic confessional). She even flees from Bruno's employ at one point, only to end up back where she started in Ellis Island . . . and who is waiting to bail her out by Weiss again?
There is, however, a glimmer of hope for Ewa, in the form of a dashing Houdini-esque magician named Orlando. Played with relaxed charm and verve by Jeremy Renner, Orlando makes a perfect foil for Phoenix's Bruno. Orlando would traditionally be the hero of this story who gets the girl in the end, but James Gray is not interested in telling a traditional tale, even if he has taken many tropes from older works. Orlando's presence presents its own problems for Ewa, and the brewing conflict among the three central characters affects her most of all.
And Gray certainly lucked out in casting Cotillard; the actress knows how to convey a soliloquy's worth of emotion with a single glance, and Cotillard's mournful, ethereal presence is used in full force here. Her dialogue is minimal, mainly reactionary save for her confessional, and yet she says more in this performance to express her situation than Cate Blanchett did in "Blue Jasmine" could with all of her broad rhapsodizing (no disrespect meant to Cate). Cotillard has played in this era before, and the fact that she has the throwback beauty that would've made her a star even in the silent days makes her presence in this film all the more soulful. (Also, full props on the French actress mastering the Polish accent, even whilst speaking the language!)
But Cotillard doesn't have to do the heavy lifting alone. Joaquin Phoenix, who's worked with Gray three times before this, continues to show why he may be the premier actor of his generation. Bruno Weiss seems to be a self-loathing man who just can't bring himself to play the hero in the traditional sense, resorting only to the shady and seedy in order to get ahead in life. Phoenix does a fine job of showing that there is a great depth to Bruno, and we sympathize with the schmuck; he works well on the stage, but when the curtains are drawn, he's at sea. Jeremy Renner, who came very close to playing the role that Phoenix made instantly iconic in "The Master", has a fantastic presence and works very well against both Joaquin and Marion. One does hope that Gray works with him in the future, hopefully in a leading part to take full advantage of his talent.
"The Immigrant" may rest mostly on its trinity of actors' shoulders, but it is a rich experience thanks to Gray's operatic direction, which feels like an homage to the days of both Chaplin and Coppola. I do find it to be an almost incomplete film, as I feel its ending felt more like a respite than a true completion. Perhaps it's due to the fact that I feel Gray could do so much more in this era, and tell more of this woman's story. But as it stands, I find "The Immigrant" to be a fine film with a great deal to say, and it acts as a beautiful showcase for Cotillard.
Makes "Elysium" look like "Sesame Street."
If you thought that Neill Blomkamp's "Elysium" was a bleak enough dystopia, brace yourself for Bong Joon-ho's latest film. "Snowpiercer" is what George Orwell would write if he wanted to set "1984" aboard the mad Blaine the Mono from Stephen King's "The Waste Lands". Grim and fatalistic, this picture packs a chilly, compelling punch.
The apocalypse has already happened, with the planet transformed into a frozen block of ice over the next twenty years. The last dregs of mankind sought refuge aboard an ever-moving train (the titular "Snowpiercer") barreling through the icy landscape. The central conflict of "Snowpiercer" deals, of course, with a major class struggle, with most of the refugees hunkering in the ghettoized tail section of the train. The privileged few live in the front cars (I'm sure any similarities to the basic concept of the bus boycotts that started the civil rights movement are intentional), and the ragged masses congregating in the rear are sick of the oppression, and rebellion begins to foment.
The de facto "Everyman" leader is Curtis (Chris Evans), a taciturn fellow who quietly waits for the right time to strike. In the meantime, he acts as a big brother figure to his friend, Edgar (an eager Jamie Bell), while enjoying camaraderie with his fellow "tailies," including sweet-natured mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer, an unexpected but wonderful addition to a dystopian drama) and wizened elder Gilliam (John Hurt, always expected and always welcome in a dystopian drama). Almost immediately, this feels like a futuristic retelling of a drama set on a train bound for Auschwitz.
Indeed, any time the boat is rocked, Gestapo-like representatives from the front come to admonish the poor, huddled masses. They are headed by Mason (a wickedly over-the-top Tilda Swinton, who might very well be the most fiery character in the film), who seems to relish in her duties, which include forcing miscreants to shove their extremities into the frigid wastes while praising the all-powerful Wilford, the "Big Brother" figure of this story who inhabits the very front of the engine. Wilford also seems to order the cherry-picking of certain tailie children, never to return. Eventually, Tanya's son is taken, which sparks the revolution, which encompasses the first half of the film with vicious, "Oldboy"-esque brawls and rapturous moments of rebellion (there's one scene involving a kid running through darkness with a fiery torch; I swear, all it needed was a Vangelis score to complete it!). Once they have gained the upper hand, the rebels enlist the help of an drugged-up Korean engineer (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter to help them in their quest for the front.
"Snowpiercer" is beautifully imaginative with its rather simplistic story, and indeed, Bong Joon- ho gets to assemble a hodgepodge of dystopian bleakness and utopian bliss. Full credit to the set designers for creating distinct "levels" the further up the train our heroes go. And indeed, the Holocaust references really do hit home as the film goes on. One car, for instance, involves children being indoctrinated about how great their glorious leader Wilford is with a Hitler Youth-esque sort of rigmarole. Indeed, the fact that the cheeriest spot in the entire train is the potential source for future atrocity and oppression is made abundantly clear, and the pregnant, propaganda-spewing teacher (a beamingly insane Alison Pill) is ten times more terrifying than the axe-toting guards sent to subdue the revolt.
Chris Evans makes for a wonderfully stoic protagonist, and even though the role could easily fall into bland territory, I feel that his inherent "American"-ness that made him a wonderful choice for a certain Marvel hero hearkens back to the days of Charlton Heston. That said, he gets a heartfelt soliloquy in the end that stands as his finest bit of acting to date. The rest of the ensemble fleshes out their characters quite wonderfully; special mention must be made to Swinton's slimy Goebbels-esque surrogate, Spencer's lived-in dignity that aided her so much in "Fruitvale Station", and the appearance of a certain actor at the very end that puts a face to Big Brother at last.
There is naught a dull moment in "Snowpiercer"; by the halfway mark, so much has been packed in, and yet at the same time, it never feels too much. Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes of footage from the film and add a voice-over. "Snowpiercer", like "Blade Runner" thirty years before, isn't as inaccessible to audiences as one might think. It knows exactly what it is, exactly what it wants to be, and exactly how to show it. It may lack the spit-shine polish of "Blade Runner", but it makes up for it in sheer grit.