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Wendy and Lucy (2008)
A shattering, quiet film.
This is minimalist film-making at it's finest. A message film in the most subtle of ways. On the surface it's a simple, beautifully told story of a young woman falling apart due to economic crisis as she is looking for her lost dog. But writer/director Kelly Reichardt imbues her film with this underlying look at the self-centeredness at America. She's not saying that every single person is worthless (there's a wonderful subplot with an old man who helps Wendy), but that the average American is just too focused on their own selves to not even notice this innocent, decent young woman who is falling apart. People walk by and see her sleeping in her car but instead of thinking of what they can do to help, they just laugh and keep walking. Even a seemingly decent person like the mechanic Wendy takes her car to when it brakes down, doesn't notice how far down she is. Or maybe he just doesn't really care.
Maybe it would be different if Wendy was openly looking for help, but she isn't. On the inside she is completely falling apart, but she puts on this front of indifference as if everything is alright with her. She tries to reach out to her sister and her husband, but they immediately act as if calling them is begging for a handout so she falls back on the lie that everything is fine in her life. But if you look at her for more than five minutes, you can tell that things are far from decent. Stories like this happen every day and no one bothers to realize it. Throughout the film you can hear, or see a few times, a train rolling through the scene and passing on. Reichardt uses this to symbolize the fact that America just rolls on by people like Wendy who are in such a state of decay, but they are moving too fast to stop and notice that she exists, let alone what a poor state she's in. It's a remarkably intelligent film under the veil of a beautiful story of a woman losing her dog.
Reichardt's remarkably subtle, intuitive direction leads this film but it would have been nothing without Michelle Williams' revelatory performance. She brings all of these emotions of anger, depression and even joy at the end right underneath the surface, but then holds them just below. It takes a highly skilled actor to make you instantly realize what's going on inside of them, without allowing themself to pour all of that out. So in the moment where she does breakdown externally, it makes for a much more severe impact than if she had been crying the entire film.
I personally found Wendy to be a very relatable character. She's an isolated, lonely person but she's that way because she chose to be. It's not that she thinks all people are worthless, but the people she meets are just so self-centered and uninteresting that she doesn't bother taking the time to try and become friends with them. And likewise, they don't take the time to notice anything about her. Instead she has friendship in her one true companion, her dog Lucy. So at the beginning of the film when she loses Lucy, I wept in sadness. And at the end, when they are finally reunited, I wept with joy.
Rois et reine (2004)
A perfect film in every single way.
Kings & Queen is the first film I've seen from writer/director Arnaud Desplechin, but I can already tell that he is a master director and, perhaps even moreso, a master storyteller. This is a film filled with an ensemble of highly complex, emotional, tragic, comedic, realistic, compelling and human characters. As an outsider into the universe that Desplechin creates these people seem normal in most ways, but what makes them so real is that in each character's head they are the focal point of their universe. Which is an obvious thing to say since that's true about every human being, but it's rarely demonstrated in films. Most films feel like they are their own universe and the characters are just people in that universe, moving along as characters and not necessarily their own personal worlds. That isn't the case here, though, as all of these people maneuver as their own individual universes inside of the overall scope that Desplechin as masterfully created. They aren't just one-note characters; they are their own kings and queens of their world, if you will.
This film focuses on two very different characters going through two very different stories. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) is a woman who is faced with many grueling dilemmas. She is living with a history of loss and pain, and only gets more of this as she learns that her father has bowel cancer and only a few more days to live. Along with this she has to try and manage her son from her first marriage and her upcoming third marriage to a new man who her son doesn't like. There is so much on her plate, yet she always tries to keep her emotions in check and tries to keep a joy in her life. This bleak, emotional melodrama is split with the character of Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric) who is her polar opposite. Ismaël, Nora's second husband, is someone with no harshness in his life. He has a sort of magic around him at all times, no matter what state his life is in. He too is facing hard times. The IRS is attacking him and we are introduced to the character as two men from a psychiatric hospital show up at his doorstep and drag him away to their hospital. This story is filled with immense life and highly absurd comedy, which is a perfect mix for the painful melodrama of Nora's journey.
One of the many geniuses of Kings & Queen is how Desplechin weaves these two different stories together so seamlessly. Not only do the characters feel remarkably real, but they feel as if they belong to the same universe. It's so rare these days to find an ensemble film where everything fits into the same world, instead of these big chunks of different characters that feel as if they are just mashed together from completely separate films but the writer/director tries to put them all together. Films like that always feel bloated and awkward as they transition from one entirely different universe to another. Kings & Queen features two highly unique types of journeys, but the transitions are never awkward and the film is never bloated. Whenever we are watching Nora, in the back of our minds we are still thinking about where Ismaël is on his journey through the film. And likewise, whenever we are watching Ismaël, we are thinking about Nora as well. This is a huge compliment to Desplechin as it is the perfect example for how he puts these people in the same universe, instead of entirely different films.
Devos and Amalric lead a highly impressive ensemble cast through this epic journey of tragedy and comedy. Everyone helps Desplechin in making their characters so rich and alive. You can tell that each actor has put a long history inside of their roles that we only get to see a portion of throughout the course of the film. Mathieu Amalric is an absolute revelation a, and easily the most remarkable of the cast. I wouldn't hesitate to go so far as to say that it's one of the best performances I've ever seen. He is filled with charisma and life, but also with a hint of insanity just below the surface. His Ismaël is an extremely bipolar narcissist who greatly impacts everyone that comes across. I can safely say that I've never seen a performance like it and that he dazzled me for every moment he was on screen. Emmanuelle Devos is almost as impressive, bringing so much emotion to a point just below the surface where you can tell how much everything is affecting the character but she holds it down for most of the film, so that the scenes where she lets that emotion pour out are much more compelling and say a lot more about her character at that time in the story.
La question humaine (2007)
I wish more people would see this.
A highly intelligent, interesting film that does a great job of showing the impact that the ripples of Nazi Germany still have on the modern world. It's half a study of that, half a character study of Mathieu Amalric's character, a psychologist for a large, anonymous company. This character is completely breaking down throughout the film as a result of living in such a shady, paranoia filled society. I have to admit that there is some stuff that went over my head. There's a subplot involving an almost underground society of these business types who take these boats to a place where they pop drugs and rave. I'm sure that the whole thing has a symbolic meaning but for me it just provided a stunning catharsis and more depth into Amarlic's character. His performance in the film is absolutely stunning. It's a very quiet, subtle portrayal that is one of the most...calculated performances I've seen in quite a while. You can tell that he put so much thought into every move that the character makes. Every turn of the body, slight movement of the eyes, it's all important for the performance. But the genius of him as an actor is that you realize he is putting importance into all of those moments, but he is so great at putting himself into the character that you just think it's important for the character and don't think about the man acting as the character until after the film is over. A very intelligent, complex performance in an intelligent, complex film.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
An absolute masterpiece.
Sam Mendes' masterpiece Revolutionary Road doesn't take any time to introduce us to it's characters or show us how they met and fell in love. From the very first scene, we know who Frank and April Wheeler are and why they are so tragically unhappy. The Wheelers thought that they were special, somehow superior to the drones of classic suburban America that they began living among. Perhaps it was the realization that they were living such a dull, unimpressive life that made them feel superior, but in the opening stages of the film they slowly realize that they have stopped being outsiders and instead have become just another uninteresting couple in this uninteresting world. To open themselves back up to life and that superiority, April creates a dream fantasy to move to Paris and they both buy into it for as long as they can.
This dream of Paris, however, is just a band-aid for a wound that won't stop bleeding. For a little while they live on a high, basking in the glow that this fantasy has brought them. But soon they realize that they can never escape this disaster of an existence that they accidentally slipped into too long ago for them to even remember what made them so interesting in the first place. Their despondency with life quickly turns into aggressive hatred towards each other as they fall further and further apart in a series of brutal arguments that only get worse and worse. The tragedy of this film, and these characters, is that in the end they don't hate each other. Frank and April Wheeler love each other deeply, but that love is so strong that the only way to distract themselves from a life they never dreamed of living is to turn such a strong emotion into unimaginable hatred towards each other. They are in love and want to be happy together, but everything in their lives succeeds in driving them further and further apart into an ending that shook me to the core.
Of course, when it comes down to it, this tragic tale of suburban misery is an actor's showcase. And boy, what a showcase it is. I've seen a few people express hate for the film and it's performances because they feel that it was all too melodramatic and scenery chewing. But I personally think that's the genius behind these performances. Not because the actors are melodramatic, but because the characters themselves make their own arguments melodramatic and explosive just so that they can feel something. These people are craving for something that they can never have, a kind of life you would see in the movies. And if they can't have a happy life where they travel around Paris having fun, they can at least feel alive in the most tragic way possible by taking out their aggression on each other at every turn. All of the shouting and flailing of the arms, I think that was all in the realism of the characters and their need to shout louder and be more theatric than the other person. They used this explosiveness to establish dominance in the argument and relationship and in that respect, the performances were flawless.
Leonardo DiCaprio has really impressed me a few times this decade, but his performance in this picture makes his past work look like child's play. Hell, he makes the rest of the actors in this piece seem like amateurs. He steals every second of this film with an explosive, emotionally powerful performance that served to devastate, terrify and move me all at the same time. A brutal portrayal of an ultimately sympathetic and tragic character and without a doubt one of the best performances of the year. Even though DiCaprio completely steals the film, that's not to say that the rest of the performances are anything but sensational. Kate Winslet is the perfect match for his talent in the arguments of these characters and each of them provide their own level of internal fear and external explosiveness. Michael Shannon has been an actor who I've admired quite a bit over the past few years, stealing scenes in all of his films while he went unnoticed and underrated by the world at large. Needless to say, when I found out that he had a performance with Oscar buzz in a prestige picture like this (a performance that would eventually earn him an actual Oscar nomination), my expectations were pretty high off the bat. He took those expectations, ran with them, and then shattered anything I could have expected from him. His performance is absolutely frightening and I couldn't be more pleased that his talent is getting recognized all over the place, especially by the Academy themselves. His explosive argument with DiCaprio's character unsettled me in a way that few films ever have, and that was based entirely on the flawless performances from the two actors.
Les chansons d'amour (2007)
Beautiful in every way.
A perfect blend of playfulness, joy, sexuality and complete and utter tragedy. All of this is weaved in through the story and, more importantly, the songs themselves. The actors expertly portray every moment of it all, pouring their hearts into the songs whether it's a bouncy battle between two lovers with another lover in between or a lonely sister wishing for just one more hour of hope. I don't want to spoil a really big moment that provides all of that tragedy, but something happens relatively early on that floored me. Louis Garrel is an excellent lead and portal into all of these different people, and the supporting cast rounds everything off without missing a beat. The beautiful Ludivine Sagnier, the heartfelt Chiara Mastroianni and one of the most gorgeous women I've ever seen, Clotilde Hesme, are all brilliant. It swept me off my feet practically right off the bat and kept me floating throughout the whole thing. A fantastic movie, one of my favorites of '08 and of all time, for that matter.
Tremendous. Hawkins is to die for.
Sally Hawkins owns every second of this movie with what is easily the best female performance I've seen from 2008 so far. Her Poppy is a character that I can definitely understand why people find so gratingly annoying, but I loved to death. She is a goofy, exuberant, wildly alive person who sees no problem in enjoying life to the fullest. Sure she has setbacks (in the first scene of the film, her bike is stolen) but she doesn't see the point of living life with a sour face and as a result she does whatever she can to embrace everything, and try to help other people embrace life as well. As someone who goes through life looking mostly at the negative, I really admired Poppy and wish that I could live like she does. And Sally Hawkins didn't hold back on that brightness for a second, breathing so much joy into every moment she was on screen. She brought immense life to the character, to the story and to the film.
It's a wildly hilarious story that put a smile on my face through most of it, but definitely tapped into Mike Leigh's ability to devastate from time to time. This is most prominent when it comes to the Eddie Marsan's character, Scott, Poppy's driving instructor and polar opposite. Whereas she is an optimist in every sense of the word, he is an absolute pessimist. Their back and forth starts off incredibly humorous and provided an insane amount of laughs for me throughout most of their scenes. But then we start to understand his character a bit more, as Poppy probes into his childhood and home life and we see that he begins having an attraction to her. But his bleak outlook on life means that he can't approach her like one normally would, and instead is ashamed when she sees him standing across the street from her flat, just watching it. Their final scene is incredibly poignant for both characters, as Poppy sees what kind of impact her approach to life can have on other people that she doesn't even realize. Marsan's performance began as aggressive and charismatically hilarious, but ended up being absolutely tragic.
A wonderful, very well-acted and directed film that is one of my favorites of '08.
Zwick's best film; extraordinary.
Defiance succeeds where most Holocaust films crash and burn. In most films of this nature, they try to force tragedy down the viewer's throat by depicting everything cinematically so you can say "Oh, look how well they shot that scene with the the four Nazis raping and killing that girl". It has a habit of coming off as exploitative to me, instead of just depicting the true events. They put so much effort into showing just how awful everything was, and as a result it feels artificial. I personally don't think a film can ever depict a real life tragedy as despicable as that, and Defiance succeeds because it doesn't try to. Zwick puts the focus onto the characters and their experience, instead of attempting to show the overall brutality of the event. He makes it a character film instead of a Holocaust one.
On the surface, this is a relatively simple story of men rising up and protecting people who were in trouble. But at it's heart, there is much more. As I said, it's definitely a character drama and most of the film focuses on the relationships between these people in crisis. Each of the three main brothers (there is a fourth brother who doesn't get much attention) get a significant amount of screen time and their own individual stories of love, tragedy and emotional extremes. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) is the oldest brother and as a result he takes the position as the leader of the group. Craig portrays him wonderfully as a flawed hero, rising to protect so many people but being unable to handle the pressure that comes with it when he's saved them all but now has no idea what to do with them. Zus (Liev Schreiber) is a brute of a man who wants to help these people, but is more focused on getting revenge for the loss of his family. Asael (Jamie Bell) is a boy who develops into a young, experienced man over the course of the film.
At it's core, Defiance is a story of three men who rise up out of their tragic circumstances to become something more than just Jews who persevered. They became heroes because they survived while helping others to do the same. But no hero is perfect and that's where the film really drew me in. The drama that was stirred up between these men, whether they were fighting against the Nazis, against the people they saved, or even against each other, absolutely fascinated me. Tuvia has to live with the pressure of trying to provide a decent state of living for all of the people he saved. About halfway through the film, Zus lets his need for violent revenge get in the way of what is truly important and he leaves the woodland society the Bielskis built to go and fight for a group of Russians who are busy killing Nazis. And Asael's transformation is actually what fascinated me the most. In the beginning he is too overwhelmed with sadness to be of much help to anyone, but as Tuvia gets sicker and sicker near the end, Asael rises up and becomes a leader for the group in the time when they need a leader the most. He becomes what Tuvia was in the beginning to these people; a shining light in a time of unimaginable darkness.
The characters definitely make this film the brilliant work that it is, and that is in no small part thanks to the actors who portray them. Daniel Craig finally has the chance to lead a big, widely seen epic like this, thanks to his fantastic work as the new James Bond. And he doesn't take his new status lightly, seen here in a tremendous performance. He brings so much quiet pain to Tuvia throughout the film, but he is most impressive when he lets the rage building inside him out into the open. He is mostly seen as a peaceful person who just wants to protect people, but when he lets that aggression out he is truly terrifying. Liev Schreiber's performance is the exact opposite. Although he doesn't express it in a theatric manner, for most of the film his Zus is looking for blood. It's in those quiet moments, like a relationship with a woman they saved or his breakdown after learning that his wife and child are dead, that his performance is the most impressive and is why he was the highlight of the cast. Jamie Bell is one of the best young actors working today and he proves that again with what I believe is his best performance yet. Of course they aren't the only actors in the project and everyone else, from their three love interests to all of the other unique characters living in the society they built, gives solid supporting work.
Being a Zwick epic, Defiance is not only filled with layered, tragic characters but also contains a bounty of massively entertaining, beautifully orchestrated action scenes. The technical aspects, from the cinematography and score down to the sound and costume design, are all tremendous and come together to create a believable, authentic setting for these characters to make this emotional journey.
Brideshead Revisited (2008)
Technically, it's a marvel. The cinematography, costume design and score are all absolutely gorgeous. But I couldn't get into the story. Usually stuff like this interests me quite a lot, but the characters all felt so wooden and stale that I could never invest myself in what was happening in the story. There are moments that are clearly supposed to be emotionally powerful, but I felt nothing. The acting was disappointing. Matthew Goode was very stiff and uninteresting. I could say the same for Emma Thompson. Hayley Atwell, however, added another strong supporting turn to her impressive year. With this, The Duchess and Cassandra's Dream she really came into her own this year. I can't wait to see more from her. Ben Whishaw managed to rise a notch above the rest of the film, giving an interesting, unique portrayal. I wish there could have been more focus on him and he hadn't just disappeared with half an hour left. Overall a visually impressive work with two solid performances that couldn't draw me in no matter how hard it tried.
Gran Torino (2008)
The best performance of Eastwood's career.
I've never been a fan of Clint Eastwood, as a writer or director. In fact I've hated almost every single film he's directed or starred in. When I first saw the trailer for Gran Torino, I couldn't stop laughing. I thought it looked absolutely ridiculous and full to the brim with clichés and stupidity. So all things were pointing to this being one of my least favorite films of the year. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be quite the opposite. Gran Torino is one of the best films of the year, Eastwood's best directorial work since Mystic River and it contains the greatest performance of his career.
That's not to say it's without flaws, of course. As a whole, the film is very clichéd (the angry old man mentors the naive, fatherless boy, the angry old war veteran is haunted by his past, etc.) but that's easy to look past because it's not a film about the story; not really. It's about this character and his transition throughout. Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a bitter, angry old man. He spends his days drinking beer on his porch with his dog, admiring his beautiful lawn and the 1972 Gran Torino he has sitting in his garage. When he's not on his porch, he's growling to himself, talking to his dog about his disgust for the Koreans who have moved into his neighborhood. Walt is a traditional man, and it's easy to see why things in his life make him hate his family (his grandchildren where football jerseys and shirts revealing their bellies to his wife's funeral, for instance) and isolate himself to his home.
His disgust for the world is put to the test when a group of Hmong gangbangers attack the young boy who lives next door to him, and Walt steps in with a rifle when they cross over onto his lawn. He saves the young boy, Thao (Bee Vang) and as a result the Hmongs in the neighborhood start to worship Walt and consider him a savior to the people living there. At first Walt turns away their love and admiration, but slowly they beat it into him to the point where he accepts their gifts and starts to associate with his neighbors. They bring down the wall of anger that Walt has built up around him over the years, and when they start to move into his life he realizes that he has more in common with these people he detested than he does with his own family. He finds a common understanding with the Hmong family next door, and accepts Thao's request to help him with chores around the house. What results from this is your typical story of an old man mentoring the young, fatherless boy, but Eastwood has a way of making it all feel fresh. Nick Schenk's screenplay definitely helps in making it feel more original than one would expect. To my knowledge there has never been a scene in a story like this where the old man takes the young boy to his barber to show him how to talk like a man, by insulting everyone your friends and doing nothing but complaining about how much life breaks your balls. Something I didn't expect from this film was just how intentionally hilarious it was. The scenes with the barber (the always under-appreciated John Carroll Lynch) are some of the funniest stuff of the year.
Walt invests himself into the Hmongs life and when the gangbangers come back and start harassing Thao and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), he feels a responsibility to step in and protect them. Walt wants to do something meaningful at the end of his life, something to repay for the sins he committed in the war and defend the few people who he feels are good in this world. It's all a little typical, but as I said earlier, Gran Torino isn't really about the story. It's a character study of a haunted old man who opens his door and finds that the people he despised are actually more akin to himself than his own family, and the fact that he'll do anything to protect the people he's come to care for throughout the film. Clint Eastwood directs this all with that old Hollywood feel he's been pouring into his films this decade which makes it feel very cinematic, which is a good thing in the context of the film.
The real shining aspect of this film, however, is his performance which is astonishing. He imbues Kowalski with an air of Dirty Harry and it works so well for the character, because this all feels like it could be the final installment of the Dirty Harry franchise and it would be the best film in that solid series. Eastwood doesn't hold anything back, slurring off every racist remark in the book within the first half hour and making it all feel so believable. And despite all of the racism and bitter resentment for everything in the world, Kowalski remains an insanely likable character (the fact that I found a lot to relate to in him definitely helps, but it mostly comes entirely from Eastwood's brilliant portrayal). I enjoyed watching him for every second he was on screen and as his heart warmed to the Hmongs (without ever getting sentimental or anything close), so did mine. The Hmong actors all give pretty terrible performances (especially Her), but it's easy to look past that when the film is anchored by such a tremendous lead. On the surface, Gran Torino seems like something typical and potentially ridiculous. But don't let that deceive you. This is a subtle, powerful film with an ending as devastating as it is moving.
Nothing Is Private (2007)
Breaks stereotypes while remaining mostly realistic.
Towelhead's themes of racism, sexual development and the horrors that lie in the dark abyss of suburbia basically come down to one thing: stereotyping. The film goes through many different lives and stories, all through the eyes of 13-year old Jasira (played with great bravery and intelligence by Summer Bishil). Through her eyes we see how everyone around her is just stereotyped immediately by the people living in this world and even by the audience. The aggressive Arab-American, the ignorant redneck pedophile, the horny black teenager, the pregnant hippie, etc. All of these typical characters are alive in this world and while they do have some of the characteristics that you would expect from the stereotypes of the character, Alan Ball does a good job of making them more diverse, complex and simply human than you would expect.
There were some things I really liked and some that I really didn't like. It all felt kind of awkward to me, but I think that helped the themes of the story in a way. Either way, Aaron Eckhart gave a really fantastic performance. He uses that boyish charm and those unimaginably handsome looks to make a horrifically despicable character borderline likable until his final scenes. One of those performances where you know that he's only going to bring horrible things to the main character's life and he makes you so uneasy when he's in a room alone with her, but you can't take your eyes off of him. A truly fascinating performance. I really think he's one of the very best actors working today. Peter Macdissi and Summer Bishil were also great, just a little less-so than Eckhart.