Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Movie Quote | Bergman

"No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul"

- Ingmar Bergman

Saturday, September 12, 2015

First Half of 2015 | Best of Movies | Part II

In this second part, we continue our trek up to the top of the list of the best films from the first half of this year. And we are aptly at the halfway point, having previously covered earlier selections.

5. DOPE: Every minute of this film is alive. A loving send-off to urban eighties films such as FRIDAY and BOYS IN THE HOOD, this movie manages to transcend genre. The coming of age story of an intelligent young black man trying to break free from his surroundings with help from his two just as poorly adjusted friends, is giddy and inspired and sexy. I believed these characters and rooted for them. A film can achieve this level of specificity only when it is allowed to be a singular vision, in this case, coming from the mind of Rick Fumuyiwa, who wrote and directed this film. Thank goodness for smaller films that still get made without studio meddling. On the list of this film's achievements is also the altogether winning breakout performance from its lead actor, Shameik Moore. What a sweet, sweet film this is.

4. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD:  A woman in 1890s Victorian England must decide between three men who individually represent authenticity, stability and lust. Thomas Hardy knew a thing or two about women navigating a man’s world while circumventing the roles thrust upon them. And the surprise of this film is to realize how much is unchanged in the century and a half since Hardy wrote the novel on which the film is based. At one point, the lead (played luminously by Carey Mulligan), says, "It is difficult for a woman to express feelings in a language made by men to express theirs". Instead of a literate Merchant Ivory adaptation or a feminist injunction, this big-screen adaptation goes by a different ideal: swoon. It understands that true love is about the flicker of glances, the unsaid things between locking eyes. And Carey Mulligan and Mathias Schoenaerts glower like the best of cinematic foils. This is a film that is far more interested in images than in words. 

3. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: What a fun little spy thriller this is. When was the last time a movie actually thrilled you, made you giddy with what was unfolding on screen. I found myself yelling (thankfully in my internal voice) at the screen: "Run, run, they are right behind you". And I am for the most part a dour, unexcitable moviegoer. Like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY last year, THE KINGSMAN knows about joy.  Not exactly a spoof yet also tipping its hat at Bond and Bourne films alike, THE KINGSMAN knows that the one thing most scarce in spy thrillers these days is good old-fashioned fun. And so it demonstrates how being silly and preposterous is not mutually exclusive with being clever. Maintaining a balance of polished urbanity and preposterous cheekiness on a minute by minute basis, the film also occasionally crosses lines of propriety with glee. Why haven't you seen this film yet? 

2. EX-MACHINA.      This is the other true find of this year. A canny examination of what it means to be human, the film is a sly, sexy, sci-fi head-trip. Where films like AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and even 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY have struggled to crystallize the inherent irony with artificial intelligence - that the more successful we get with imparting intelligence to machines, the closer the machines will get to refusing to take orders from humans - EX-MACHINA drives home this concept with admirable simplicity. Much of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between a female robot just starting to bloom under the first stirrings of consciousness, and two humans who only seem to be playing the roles of Creator and Emancipator. Willfully intellectual and magnifcently violent, with some of the best production design this year, this film is a gift that any self-respecting cinephile ought to unwrap in a hurry. 

1.  MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.  You are told to avoid the superlative when writing about film, but the heck with that. If you have lost the ability to completely, obsessively, unapologetically fall in love with a movie, then maybe you shouldn't write about films at all. George Miller's MAD MAX:FURY ROAD is stark raving mad, but then don't you have to be a little bit insane to get into the history books. In this fourth installment set in the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max films, a woman revolts against her master and escapes with other young girls enslaved for the specific purpose of bearing children. Along the way Max becomes a reluctant accomplice as a chase across the desert makes up the majority of the film. If you want to watch something agreeable and neatly contained and with a traditional storytelling arc, then may be this film is not for you. But watch this film to understand how to make every frame matter. Watch it as a masterclass on three-dimensional story-boarding, on the project management of physics in an action sequence. Watch how effortlessly it makes the audience a participant; you will forget to breathe. FURY ROAD is a challenge to the whole new generation of action filmmakers working today, urging them to follow its audacious path into the genre's future. 

And so, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD takes the undeniable, unshakeable number one position amongst films that made their way to the big screen in the first half of the year. Odds are that it may retain its perch at the top when the end of 2015 rolls in.

First Half of 2015 | Best of movies | Part I

And just like that, half the year is gone.

But it has also left behind the afterglow of noteworthy films. Films that transcended form or genre. Or those that did a stellar job while fully ensconced within their genre. I have never strained to come up with films to put on best-of lists, and do not frankly understand those who complain that such and such was a bad year for cinema. If you are not finding anything worthwhile to watch, perhaps you have not been looking in the right places. 
Here are films released between January and June that represent for me the best of the year so far. We start from the back and make our way to the top.

10. PADDINGTON: Any film that stands up for the true definition of family is fine by me. A film with this plot ought to get weighted by treacle. But not this adaptation that somehow manages to invest rationality to a talking teddy bear who gets adopted by a human family. I am frankly surprised that more hasn’t been made about the look of this film. The film needs to be watched for its visual flair alone which at times easily crosses over into the magical. Nicole Kidman has a great time vamping up a storm and it is no secret that Sally Hawkins makes every movie better. But it is the title character, wistfully voiced by Ben Whishaw who makes this film stick in your mind as a credible piece of whimsy.

9  WILD TALES: One reviewer called this film a tinder-box of delights, and I can do no better than that. There is something almost primordial about this Argentinian film. Six unrelated tales round up an anthology of stories all dealing with that point when a person snaps, unable to finally stay grounded in rationality, unable to take it anymore. And what brilliant flameouts these are. You the viewer will watch the film with jaw dropped, sometimes raising your fist in solidarity with the oppressed and sometimes in horror at things going too far. Witty, unpredictable, over the top, and gleefully violent, this is one great time at the movies. WILD TALES was rightfully nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar; it was released commercially in the US in 2015.

8. SPY: Comedy is the hardest thing to do in cinema, and to do it well within genre conventions harder still. Melissa McCarthy finally gets lead material worthy of her skills, and one of the great joys of SPY is to watch how the movie is quietly, stealthily feminist. Look hard, look well, you will not find a single fat joke here. And McCarthy’s character may be caught off-guard when her fervent wish to be an on-the-ground spy is finally granted, but she is never inept; these filmmakers have no desire in watching their lead fumble. And the secondary characters, in justifiably career-best performances from Rose Byrne to Jason Stratham to Bobby Canavale all gamely work together at equal pitch. So many things are not right with the media we consume these days; we have substandard teenage films playing in multiplexes and the Kardashians dominate television. SPY somehow restores my faith in big-budget Hollywood films. 

7. McFARLAND, USA: When a good sports film works, it really works. A fallen from grace football coach (Kevin Costner) gets assigned to a school in the titular small town in Central California and realizing that the predominantly Hispanic kids in the school are uncommonly good at running, he decides to coach them for a cross country track team instead. This film has a good sense for place. Of farming towns populated by migrant families that pick produce. Of cultures that assimilate. Of people living simple lives. And that is enough. Even as the film proceeds exactly as expected, by refusing to insult its characters and regarding them without judgment, its observations ring with truth. This film will not be on many best-of-year lists, but it merits wider recognition.

6.  INSIDE OUT: It may seem a phenomenally glib concept: to have the emotions in a person's mind take actual talking forms of Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and so forth. But believe the hype. I did not, thinking this film would be yet another Hollywood effort to dumb down the complexity of human intellect. But I was wrong. It turns out that by breaking down human behavior into simpler motifs, it is possible to give agency to so much of what we normally shrug off as the unexplainable.  I understood myself a little better after seeing this film. And how often can you say that about a movie. A teenage girl's difficulty with adjusting to a new life in Northern California after being uprooted from her Minnesota upbringing is given beautiful and shockingly authentic life as the emotions in her head go on a grand, Homeresque journey. After a troubling period of subpar quality fare, Pixar returns to exalted form with this film

We will climb our way to the top of the list in Part Two.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Movie Quote | Guadignino

"I think a script is great when it starts with the structure and works with the structure without falling into the typical three-act system in which the audience is ahead of the movie. I hate that; but that is like 99% of what I (get)." 

- Luca Guadignino, director of I AM LOVE and the upcoming A BIGGER SPLASH
(only my most anticipated film of the year) in interview with Nick Vivarelli at 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Netflix Recommendations | June 2015

Of all the film-related questions I get from friends, the most common - by a long stretch - is a request for Netflix recommendations. How can one not find treasure amongst the thousands of titles on Netflix. Allow me to help you.

I have mentioned this before, but the website Instant Watcher keeps an up to date tally of films that are scheduled to imminently expire on the Netflix streaming option. The site also provides listings of the most popular and critically regarded films on Netflix, across a wide variety of categories. So it is always worth checking out this website prior to picking what to watch on Netflix.

Here are my recommendations for relatively recent films (released theatrically in the past 12 or so months) that are currently streaming on Netflix; each film is remarkable in its own way:

  11. ILO ILO

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Best of 2014 | Performances

A film is its actors. A film is good because of actors that are inherently good or those brought to a state of goodness when gifted with a smart script and guided by a canny director. Actors are the paint on the canvas, a major determinant of how we react to what we see on screen.

The celebrated actors are lauded enough; Meryl Streep has no need for another nomination. It is the ones who have quietly elevated their films that deserve to be recognized more, their names shouted from roof tops (my throat has been sore screaming “Marion Cotillard!” for months now). And so, as before, I have created a list of those whose work has shone for me during the past year. They are listed in the order of my regard for their work. And I have not limited my recognition to a fixed number in each category. Why not spread the love?

  1. Eddie Redmayne, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING / David Oyelowo, SELMA
    Eddie Redmayne in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
  2. Jake Gyllenhaal, ENEMY
  3. Jake Gyllenhaal, NIGHTCRAWLER
  4. Timothy Spall, MR TURNER
  5. Ghilherme Lobo, THE WAY HE LOOKS
  6. Tom Hardy, Locke
  7. Irrfan Khan, THE LUNCHBOX
  8. Oscar Isaac, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
  9. John Lithgow, LOVE IS STRANGE

  1. Marion Cotillard, TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT
    Marion Cotillard in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
  2. Keira Knightley, BEGIN AGAIN
  3. Kalki Koechlin, MARGARITA WITH A STRAW
  5. Michelle Monaghan, FORT BLISS
  6. Tess Amorin, THE WAY HE LOOKS
  7. Emily Blunt, EDGE OF TOMORROW


  1. Edward Norton, BIRDMAN
  2. Ethan Hawke, BOYHOOD
  3. Robert Duvall, THE JUDGE
  4. Alfred Molina, LOVE IS STRANGE
  5. Chris Pine, INTO THE WOODS

Keira Knightley in THE IMITATION GAME
  1. Keira Knightley, THE IMITATION GAME
  2. Patricia Arquette, BOYHOOD
  3. Emma Stone, BIRDMAN
  4. Naomi Watts, BIRDMAN
  5. Carrie Coon, GONE GIRL
  6. Jessica Chastain, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
  7. MacKenzie Foy, INTERSTELLAR
  8. Tilda Swinton, SNOWPIERCER
  9. Marisa Tomei, LOVE IS STRANGE

Friday, May 29, 2015

Best of 2104 | Mainstream Films

And the last of my three yearend lists is of films that swim mainstream. They are the best that non-independent cinema offered during the year. The ones that did the big budget Hollywood studios proud.

1.                   EDGE OF TOMORROW
3.                   GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
4.                   THE JUDGE
5.                   X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
6.                   JOHN WICK
7.                   NEIGHBORS
8.                   INTERSTELLAR
9.                   SNOWPIERCER
10.               BEGIN AGAIN
12.               MILLION DOLLAR ARM

Best of 2014 | Film Festival Finds

To share the riches, this year I have created 3 separate best films list: my personal best films, best of movies watched at film festivals, and best mainstream films.

I preach loud and long the joys of film festivals. I do not want to imagine a world without them. I just would not see half the films that shift my wiring if it weren't for film festivals. Below are the best films I caught at festivals in 2014. These are all, without exception, superlative. In fact I could not bring myself to trim down to 20 films, so there are 21 here, because why not.

1.            MARGARITA WITH A STRAW (Toronto International Film Festival: TIFF)
2.            FORCE MAJEURE (TIFF)
3.            NATURAL SCIENCES (CIENCIAS NATURALES, Los Angeles Film Festival: LAFF)
4.            FORT BLISS (San Diego Film Festival: SDFF)
5.            HUMAN CAPITAL (Tribeca Film Festival, TFF)
6.            STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS (San Diego Latino Film Festival: SDLFF)
7.            MEETING DR SUN (San Diego Asian Film Festival: SDAFF)
8.            5 TO 7 (Tribeca Film Festival)
9.            SOMBRAS DE AZUL (SDLFF)
12.          X/Y (Tribeca)
13.          SOMETHING MUST BREAK (Tribeca)
15.          FANDRY (Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles; IFFLA)
16.          ALEX OF VENICE (Tribeca)
17.          TOKYO FIANCE (TIFF)
20.          MEET THE PATELS (LAFF)
21.          BAD HAIR (Tribeca)

Best of 2104 | Personal Favorite Films

Why do we watch films?
I tend to get introspective this time of year when starting to think about the best films of the past 12 months. I am a listomaniac so I relish coming up with the films; that is not the problem. It is the paring down to come up with the top ten, or even the top fifteen that is excruciating. I have never understood those who bemoan that there are hardly any films worth celebrating from the past year. For me this is akin to those who complain that there is never anything good to watch on Netflix; I do not know what to tell them when I have more than 200 films on my Netflix queue.
This year I am more list-happy than usual. So apart from the list below of my overall personal favorites of the year provide here, I will also be posting a list of the top mainstream films, as well a list of the best films watched at film festivals in 2014. And of course the best performances of the year.
But let me come back to my original question. Why do we watch films. Why should film matter. This year, being in India during the last week of the year, these questions became somewhat irrelevant. Because film in India is so intricately woven into the fabric of what makes this country what it is, that to isolate cinema and ask of its meaning is purposeless. All those who bemoan the death of publicly screened movies should book a plane ticket to Mumbai and walk into a theater here. And watch how the masses consume film. How they truly lap up film. Like a child consuming a ripe mango. With an almost obscene relish. With an abandonment of the real world that is at first embarrassing, and then unexpectedly comforting. Families come, hand in hand and filter into rows like ants. They jump out of their seats with righteous pride when the Indian national anthem is played before the start of the film, waiting until the last note is played before settling back. They squeal with glee. They talk at the screen. They warn the characters of impending danger. They openly cheer at the protagonist. They talk to each other.  They clap. They eat: covertly brought snacks from home as well as foods purchased during the intermission (yes, there is an intermission, if not formally built into Indian films then forcibly and often ineptly cleaved into American films). If I sound nostalgic it is because this is how I consumed cinema growing up and I now miss this reckless embrace of cinema, this utter surrender to the joy of it, that is somehow absent in the West. Just this year I shrugged off threats of bodily harm received when I asked someone to stop talking during a screening in San Diego. And yet, and yet, during a screening in India this week, I did not have the heart to ask the same of the audience here; besides it would have taken me the full running time of the movie to make my way through to everyone who was talking during the movie.
I think we watch film because film is the great equalizer. Once the lights go down and it is dark in that theater, it puts us all at the same station. All the inequalities of our each individual real worlds, those inherited and those thrust upon us, dissolve away. Social, economic, professional and physical labels all look the same in the dark; they are invisible. And for a short while, we can get lost uniformly in someone else’s world.  Which is why my criterion for picking movies for the year-end list has remained the same year after year: that each movie should have altered something within my emotional circuitry.
What does it say that my top four films (and five out of the top fifteen) are foreign movies. Only that the best in cinema, as always, comes from everywhere, and those who willfully choose to watch only American/English movies do so to their great detriment.

And so here are my personal picks for the best of the year:
15. LUNCHBOX: This film excels at the one thing that often evades Indian cinema: subtlety. A neglected young housewife builds a connection with an older widowed man when lunches she packs for her husband mistakenly get delivered to the other man. The film’s accomplishment is in how deftly it transcends the cliché of two strangers helping each other out. It does so by avoiding a face to face meeting between the two; much of their interaction occurs through handwritten notes accompanied with the lunchbox. The delicate tone so wistfully maintained early in the movie is ruined in the last act when the script tries, very unwisely, to force a romantic beat to the interplay between the two, but when you have as fine an actor as Irrfan Khan at the peak of his abilities it pulls the film through.

14. ENEMY: What a glorious mind-fuck this film is. A man becomes aware of another who looks exactly like him; even as he tries to reach out to him, the lives of the two start to bleed into each other. Are the two doppelgangers the same person? Is the entire film a documentation of a mind coming undone? Or is it about the necessary duality in each of us. Based on the book by Jose Saramago, the film has no interest in providing easy answers; those insistent on a FIGHT CLUB like reveal should look elsewhere. But the stories of the two men (played with impressive dexterity by Jake Gyllenhaal) play out with a pleasing directness that should remedy concerns about the film being too opaque. Extra credit: ENEMY will easily make it on any list of movies with the most shocking/perplexing/WTF endings. ENEMY is currently streaming on Netflix

13. LOCKE: Like BOYHOOD and BIRDMAN, detractors have called LOCKE a gimmick. But what you might call a gimmick is to me the cinematic equivalent of jumping off a cliff without a safety net. All three films could have fallen flat on their faces on the basis of their innovation. All three are on my best of the year list. The entirety of LOCKE is filmed around a single character driving a car over the course of one night. That is it. As the night wears on, we realize this is a story about a man having arguably the worst night of his life. Tom Hardy plays this individual with slippery insight and writer-director Steven Knight takes time to peel away at his motivations. We know the crises this man is facing and has to necessarily resolve while he is driving, but we do not know if he has had these coming to him. Not everything about the film works, but I will never begrudge a movie that is able to demonstrate original sin.

12. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: What richness of contradictions we have here. In a film called A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, you will find very little blood. For a film set in the late 70s, it easily speaks to contemporary themes of corporate greed and responsibility (which is not surprising considering that this filmmaker's first movie was MARGIN CALL). And for a mobster crime drama, it is surprisingly moody, some might say glacial even. I believe it is this slow burn that turned off many viewers. But the simmer pays off as the movie builds a genuine sense of unease, of impending doom. Not interested in indulging in the conventions of the genre this film belongs to, J.C. Chandor instead has crafted the film as a character study of a man trying to do right. In an inherently criminal milieu. Two years in a row now, Oscar Isaac has provided indelible portrayals of men undone by self-destructive behavior inseparable from who they are (with FINDING LLEWYN DAVIS and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR).

11. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING: Much attention has been given to this handsome biopic about Stephen Hawkins, based on a memoir written by his wife. To the handsome cinematography and exacting recreation of a time and place from the past. To the handsome love story of a man many consider more intelligent than any that lived and the woman who stood beside him through his cruelly unimaginable physical deterioration. In fact there is a burnish of handsomeness through much of this film, a sense of rigorous craft with which the film has been put together. I will not begrudge any of those things. But that is not the reason this film is on this list (when say, THE IMITATION GAME is not). The film’s great accomplishment in my mind comes from its second act, when it follows Hawking and his wife through their latter years, much after the moony romanticism from their early years has faded. And it is the unflinching, level-headed honesty with which it regards these characters through the passage of time that the film rises above genre biopic conventions. The script’s refusal to readily submit to pat moral judgments about the two or to obviously tip its sympathies toward one or the other in the couple makes for the best part of this film. The most robust of loves are vulnerable to the cruelties of everyday happenings and it is a wise film that is able to go deep into these murky waters and come out with integrity.

10. NIGHTCRAWLER: A man trains himself to become a crime photographer in Los Angeles and shows uncommon acumen in negotiating the sale of his footage to local television news stations. There is always something a bit off with this man, masterfully played by Jake Gyllenhaal, but one of the joys of the film is to realize with sinking fear that there is no line this man will not cross to capture newsworthy crime footage.  A film free from moral tether is a film liberated. And Dan Gilroy uses this setting to provide commentary on many contemporary mores. In its final act the film descends into a rarified other dimension of queasy disquiet, where you stare at the screen the way you cannot look away from a road accident. What great, twisted fun this movie is. This film should have been celebrated at year end as the current generation’s NETWORK. And yet it got precious little love from the press. In fact the San Diego Film Critics Society was the only reviewing group to lavish awards on the film. NIGHTCRAWLER is currently streaming on Netflix.

9. MR PEABODY AND SHERMAN: The most intelligent individual on the planet, who just happens to be a dog named Mr Peabody takes a human kid (Sherman) on several adventures by way of a time-machine. This animated film based on the Peabody and Sherman television shorts from several decades ago is frankly a small miracle. It is giddily, wonderfully alive. It is cunningly devious in pulling in history lessons in the guise of time-travel adventures. It is visually as glossy and gleaming and wondrous as any film released in the year (animated or otherwise). But the greatest reason I consider this film a minor masterpiece is the slyness with which it slips in its message of acceptance. Late in the film, when strangers in a crowd start saying, one after another, “I am a dog” in defence of Mr Peabody’s right to adopt Sherman, it was one of the more emotional cinematic moments of the year for me.  MR PEABODY AND SHERMAN is currently streaming on Netflix.

8. BOYHOOD: A boy grows up into adulthood and a film quietly observes. It observes him and it observes those around him including his separated parents. Much has been made of the fact that director Richard Linklater had his camera on the same actor over a period of 12 years. Many have brushed this aside as a gimmick, and yet, and yet, no one had thought to do this until now. But set aside the thrill of watching the contours of a face change on screen, watch hair bow to demands of changing styles. Even if Linklater had hired separate actors of different ages to play this role, this would had still been a great film. Because he makes the brave choice on every page of his script to avoid epiphany, to steer clear of melodrama, to have this be a story of banal everyday happenings. But isn’t that the nature of memory, a series of disconnected unremarkable personal remembrances. Having a film be able to capture the inscrutable and to do it with grace and understatement and to have it mean something is no small accomplishment.

7. BIRDMAN: This film could have been insufferable. But instead it becomes the cinematic equivalent of jumping off a cliff without rope. It is the story of a has-been star of superhero films who makes one last ditch effort at being relevant by taking on a role in a Broadway play. That is nominally the synopsis of the plot. But I saw the film as the study of a person slowly coming undone. A study of a person trying to handle demands both professional and personal, and losing control of the real from the imagined. Each of us could be far more mentally unhinged than how we perceive ourselves, this film is trying to say. And then there is the part about how the film has been shot: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, known until now for films with disparate story lines that converge together (AMORRES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, BABEL) does the exact opposite with BIRDMAN, filming it to make the entire movie seem like a single unbroken shot. Oh, and the one thing that there is universal agreement on, is that nobody knows what to make of the ending.

6. PRIDE: This is the epitome of the feel-good movie. It just so happens that nobody saw it. Why this film didn’t get more love at the box office is baffling. The film carries a 92% rating on the Tomatometer, and the movie all but guarantees that audience members will leave the theater in a cloud of elation. So write down the name of this film for the next time you are scratching your head as to which movie to rent. The film is based on real-life events surrounding Welsh mineworkers on strike during the Thatcher-era who got unsolicited support from a gay and lesbian activist group out of London. At first the mineworkers did not want to have anything to do with this group, but they gradually warmed up to the unexpected allies. This film is a case study on how to avoid the sentimental, the hackneyed and the contrived. Every scene here rings with authenticity. And the film pulses with a hard-earned and quiet combination of dignity and anger. Even as it gets to dismal and dark places, the film ultimately demonstrates, with enviable subtlety that the disenfranchised are all the same. Seek out this film at any cost.

5. THE EDGE OF TOMORROW: This is a fully realized piece of science fiction that is thrillingly alive. How many films about man versus aliens have we seen by now, and frankly what more is left to say? It turns out, plenty. In the hands of Doug Liman, this movie gets shot by shot, scene by scene, component by component, everything right. The movie takes a simple doozy of a premise (based on the book ALL YOU NEED IS KILL) - that of a reluctant soldier caught in a time-loop in which he keeps dying again and again and looping back through the same few days before his death until he is able to find a way to prevail during the alien warfare – and builds a funny, richly executed narrative around it. Say what you will about Tom Cruise but he never phones in a performance, and Emily Blunt has never been better playing a fully convincing badass sergeant. There is an obvious homage to GROUNDHOG DAY with Blunt’s character named Ritam and the battle scene that plays again and again in France is meant to evoke the Normandy invasion. But forget all that and just enjoy what is the best action film of 2014. The film understands that the best sci-fi stories are about ideas, and not about spaceships and aliens. 

4. THE WAY HE LOOKS: This film (HOJE EU QUERO VOLTAR SOZINHO) was Brazil’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. It tells the story of Leo, a somewhat shy teenager. He is blind and aware of his place in school due to his disability.  Leo’s best friend since childhood has been Giovana and the two are inseparable; in many ways he sees the world through Giovana’s eyes. Enter the unreasonably amiable new student at school, Gabriel, and Leo and Giovanna’s relationship will need to be redefined. Who hasn’t experienced the dynamics with a friend change due to the introduction of a new person to the mix. Nothing in this film is what we haven’t seen before. And yet, the film is written, acted and played out with such a matter of fact honesty and simplicity that it rises up to be one of the better films of the year. THE WAY HE LOOKS makes its observations without fuss, without drama, and without prurience. So what if the lead character is blind. So what if he happens to fall for another guy. Without tilting into caricature, the film strikes authenticity while never submitting to melodrama. One THE WAY HE LOOKS can do more good than a hundred after-school specials about tolerance. Yes THE WAY HE LOOKS may just be a teenage love triangle set in Brazil, but it is the best example of its kind to make you realize that sometimes a truthful story told with a good heart is all it takes. When films these days are seemingly only interested in hipster posturing and cynicism, the most provocative thing of all may be a film that gifts viewers with genuine sweetness.  THE WAY HE LOOKS is currently streaming on Netflix

3. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON: Two couples find out that their five-year old sons had been switched at birth.  Think about this premise, and then imagine what most filmmakers might have done with it. To see what Hirokazu Kore-Eda does with this story is to recognize why he is one of our master filmmakers. The film presents a fascinating moral quandary. The discovery of a son you weren’t previously aware of is one thing. But that still cannot match the anxiety of knowing that the child you did rear as your own now legally belongs to other parents who could forcibly take him away. This story could have lent itself to any manner of tonal or stylistic construct. This might have been a bitter, angry film. It might have been a legal procedural. It might have been a deep, soggy wallow of a movie. But LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is none of those things.  Instead the film is elevated because the treatment given to this material is one of quiet observation. Kore-eda has been called an heir to Ozu for reason, not least because of his ability to watch his characters from afar without judgment. And this movie is no exception. It has no interest in melodrama; you will not find a shrill note here. And then there is the one thing about Kore-Eda’s work that makes him one of my favorite filmmakers: he refuses to create villains. There isn’t a mean character in any of his films.  How easy it would have been for this film to tip over, if even very subtly, with its sympathies toward one of the two couples. It would have been easy to call the rich couple out for their patronizing, intellectual detachment, or call the other couple out for being irresponsible and crude. But the film resolutely does not. It quietly makes it clear that each set of parents are well-meaning and generous in their love for their children.  They may be flawed, but both sides are inarguably decent. It is in this recognition of the decency of those who love a child that the film ultimately provides an abiding definition of family; the only one that matters.  That it does so apolitically, unemotionally and with authenticity, is cause for gratitude.  LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is currently streaming on Netflix

2. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT: Are there more humanist filmmakers working right now than the Dardenne brothers? They have been making exceptional films for a long time, but with TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT they hit a perfect stride, bringing forth a clear, focused story with uncanny insight. And empathy. A woman who returns to work after a long break due to illness finds out that her job has been eliminated and her salary will be distributed as bonus amongst the 16 workers who covered for her during her absence. When she pleads to have her job back, she is told she can have it if she can over the course of a weekend, convince each of her coworkers to give up their bonus. Presented as a simple ethical quandary, this story is about all of the issues that matter today: the crumbling economy, and the increasing loss of humanity in the great industrial shuffle.  This film has one of the better depictions on screen of a functioning clinically depressed individual. And Marion Cotillard, in an Oscar nominated lead performance, breaks your heart. Each time she rises above everything that is pushing her down: her crippling depression, the loss of her job, the pain of having to ask another economically strained colleague to give up their bonus so she can keep her job, every time she smiles in spite of all of that, it is an inconsequential victory but it breaks your heart still. Cotillard plays this character as a broken person, but she never strains for audience sympathy. In a key scene toward the end of the film, her immediate reaction to a situation quietly demonstrates that she may be emotionally broken, but she has all the strength of character where it matters the most. In all the films in all of 2014 that I saw, this is the only one with a fully, acutely human character. 

1. FORCE MAJEURE: What a stunner this film is. Pushing all the right buttons for me, I watched it with rapturous wonder. At different times, somber, probing, achingly funny, wise and damning, this is cinema for those who love cinema. What is it about? Conceptually, oh about a hundred things, but it is nominally about a seemingly perfect young family that completely unravels when presented very suddenly with a life-and-death situation. One spouse reacts a particular way and it is clear he will not be forgiven for this for a long time. The most pervasively dominant of all human instincts, the one that prevails even over the most primal instinct to protect our own is that of self-survival. The film’s principal moral inquiry is whether we as a society are less forgiving of men than women when dealing with this.  

FORCE MAJEURE is technically majestic. Some filmmakers have a spark to their work; you can sense a grandness, a flourish to every scene in their films. You can sense this in the films of Fincher, Nolan, the Coen brothers. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is a master aesthetist and earns the right to be compared to those filmmakers. There is a pivotal scene in FORCE MAJEURE around which the entire film pivots and that alone is worth the price of admission for its technical grandeur. But set that money shot aside; even then, the film is remarkable for how neatly and studiously the shots have been culled together, with beautiful long, long takes that both present as challenges to the actors (some of them kids) and at the same time allow them to do remarkable work.  The script makes wry observations about the the soft, vulnerable, unexamined, and scrupulously ignored underbellies of relationships as it focuses its gaze on several couples. And even when the gaze is terse, there is an intelligence to the examination that is exacting, precise. And lest this sound too lofty, I want to assure you that there is terrific humor at every turn in this film. And wit. At one point, upon returning to their room after a testy dinner conversation, the wife tells her husband: "What's wrong? That's not us!" It is a marvelous way to think of relationships. This is the quintessential film that will trigger intense debate after viewing. FORCE MAJEURE restores my faith in cinema. FORCE MAJEURE is currently streaming on Netflix

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Oscar Nomination Reactions: Many middle-fingers (and one high five) to Academy Voters

In the wee hours of Thursday morning last week, Oscar nominations for the best in cinema in 2014 were announced.

And with one glorious exception the academy voters either checked off expected boxes, or worse, made angering, stupefying omissions. Were it that they had only checked off the expected boxes, we would have shrugged our collective shoulders, never expecting much adventurousness from this group. But this year, there is reason for outrage. The nominations tell more about the academy voters than they are probably willing to publicly admit.

I hate to jump in with the pitchfork carrying mob, but there really is cause for ire. Below are five truly angering nominations:

  1. Best Director: Besides BIRDMAN, BOYHOOD, THE IMITATION GAME, and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, the biggest, most shameful of all Oscar nominations this year revolves around the fifth pick. It went to
    Ava Duvernay, director of SELMA. The Academy will have to wait for another time to nominate its first Female Director of color.
    Ava Duvernay, director of SELMA. The Academy will have to wait for another time to nominate its first female Director of color.
    Bennett Miller for FOXCATCHER, which in itself is mildly shocking considering the lack of critical consensus for this film, or how little steam the movie has gathered at the year-end awards circuit. But the biggest shock is that the FOXCATCHER nomination came at the expense of snubbing SELMA. And most egregiously, for passing on the opportunity to create history by the first-time nomination of a female director of color (which would have been the case with Ava Duvernay, who helmed SELMA). I am not suggesting that SELMA should have been picked just to please our liberal political sensibilities. No, SELMA has been consistently and universally considered a front-runner in this year’s race and it is difficult to argue against its worthiness; it’s a magnificent, heartfelt film. I acknowledge that one shouldn’t read deliberate political intent with the Oscar nominations. But both FOXCATCHER and SELMA are based on real-life events, and wouldn't it be irresponsible not to read something into the fact that a cold film about White male privilege gone awry unexpectedly derails a film about an important chapter in the African American history in America.  Now that we can have up to ten best picture nominees, those with the Best Director nominations have generally been considered an indicator of the top five films in the eyes of voters. But what is perplexing about the FOXCATCHER director nomination for Bennett Miller is that it comes without a corresponding Best Film nomination. When ironically, SELMA picked up a Best Film nomination but had no love for its director, go figure. Is this a reflection on the predominantly older, predominantly white and predominantly male demographic of Oscar voters?
  1. Best Male Actor: Here’s the other stinker. No one is going to contest nominations picked up by Benedict Cumberbatch (THE IMITATION GAME), Eddie Redmayne (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), and Michael
    No love for Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHT CRAWLER
    No love for Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHT CRAWLER
    Keaton (BIRDMAN). But check out the remaining two selections: STEVE CARELL (again, for that troubling FOXCATCHER) and Bradley Cooper (AMERICAN SNIPER). Effectively leaving out Jake Gyllenhaal. Really? Honestly, forget personal allegiances or favoritism. But what objective person can watch Gyllenhaal in NIGHTCRAWLER and pick Carell or Cooper over him. Even if voters were clueless that Gyllenhaal is doing career-best work right now (coming off his underappreciated stints in PRISONERS last year and also ENEMY this year), that many voters watched FOXCATCHER, AMERICAN SNIPER, and NIGHTCRAWLER and picked the first two films for acting nods boggles the mind. Gyllenhall plays the title character in NIGHTCRAWLER as a person of troublingly intensifying moral disarray; he is off-kilter from the start but one of the joys of the film is to recognize the trecherous shrewdness of a person for whom, we realize too late, that no line is too far to cross. His work in this film is achingly wry, at once hostile and funny. But there was no love for Gyllenhaal from the voters.  I am generally a fan of Steve Carell, but his performance in FOXCATCHER is so cold and stylized and deliberately impermeable that one wonders if he was picked simply for the prosthetic transformation of this face. And what is with Bradley Cooper and the Academy? Listen, he is a capable enough actor who works very hard and his screen presence is always likeable, but he has never demonstrated the gleam of genius in anything he has done to date. In AMERICAN SNIPER he put on weight and threw himself into the role of real life soldier Chris Kyle with admirable passion. But his rendition does not bring particular insight into the pathology of this character who remains rather one-dimensional. Cooper’s third consecutive nomination (SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, AMERICAN HUSTLE and now AMERICAN SNIPER) is frankly befuddling; Daniel Day-Lewis, he is not. So what gives with all this love? And honestly, what more does Gyllenhaal have to do to get recognized?
  1. Best Female Supporting Actor: Meryl Streep nabbed a record 17th nomination in this category for INTO THE
    Jessica Chastain in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, bereft for being left out of the Best Female Supporting Actor race, at the expense of an undeserving Meryl Streep nod.
    Jessica Chastain in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, bereft at being left out of the race ?
    WOODS. No one is going to deny that Streep is the legend amongst our living acting legends. But can we all agree, please, for the love of all that is good in cinema, that she cannot become a de facto Oscar nominee just for showing up in a film. INTO THE WOODS is not without its charms and is a respectable adaptation of the Sondheim Broadway musical. But it is an ensemble film and there is nothing in Streep’s performance that elevates her from the remaining cast members. If she is recognized for that film, then so should have Anna Kendrick. Or Emily Blunt. But no, the academy voters appear to put a tick against the Streep name every year,with collective zombie minds. Last year it was for AUGUST, OSAGE COUNTY, and this year for INTO THE WOODS. I will be the first to defend Meryl Streep’s 25th nomination when it happens, but provided it is for a film where her work is stellar. The Streep nomination this year came at the cost of Jessica Chastain’s remarkable work in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. Or the opportunity to recognize the late-career revitalization of Rene Russo in NIGHTCRAWLER. This laziness on the part of voters is beyond frustrating. You are Academy voters. Watch the films. It’s your job. Be discerning.

  1. Best Foreign Film: Apart from the SELMA debacle, the snub that stung me the most was the unexplainable
    The head-scratching omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film category
    The head-scratching omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film category
    omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film nominations. I watched many films in 2014, close to a hundred I believe. And FORCE MAJEURE holds the top spot on my personal list of the best films of the year. This film crackles with so much confidence and wit and anger and intent in every one of its scenes. Just the technical prowess of the film is something to behold, as one incredible episode follows another with wonder. The incredible cinematography, the grand score, the churning, squeaking, disquieting Sound Design. But set the technical aspects aside. Just watching the film take a minor natural disaster and have that detonate the marital bliss of what appeared until then, a strong family, is one of the giddiest pleasures to be had at the cinemas all year. Granted I haven’t seen LEVIATHAN, TIMBUKTU, TANGERINES or WILD TALES, also nominated in this category (and they all come with remarkable critical lauding) and I am keeping an open mind until I have watched these other films. But IDA (which did get an Oscar nomination) and FORCE MAJEURE were leading the pack with all other Foreign Film nominations (The Golden Globes, BAFTA, Independent Spirit Awards, Jury prize win at Cannes). To have FORCE MAJEURE suddenly fail to pick up recognition at the Oscars seems particularly cruel.

  1. Best Animated Film: I love animated films. On their own terms. Within the confines of their intended goals.
    THE LEGO MOVIE: Academy voters deem its commercial success recognition enough for this film.
    THE LEGO MOVIE: Academy voters deem its commercial success recognition enough.
    Some of the greatest films of all time in my mind are animated films. And they often show up on my list of the best films of the year. But 2014 was surprisingly tepid. There wasn’t a single film in this category that came close to greatness. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON-2 took the deft internal struggle from the original film - of a teen trying to do right and giving the benefit of doubt to a long considered enemy – and traded it in for grandeur and spectacle in the sequel, losing most of its emotional purity in the bargain. THE BOXTROLLS and BIG HERO 6 have their heart in the right place, but no one is going to rush to call either one a classic any time soon. If those three films are to earn nominations, I do not understand why the similarly accomplished (but not great) films THE LEGO MOVIE and THE BOOK OF LIFE got left out. Was the tremendous commercial success of THE LEGO MOVIE held against it?

The nominations this year unfortunately did nothing to detract from the common narrative that Academy voters are lazy, do not see too many films, are racially disconnected from the rest of the nation, and are overeager to recognize the same individuals repeatedly, often sight unseen.

At least they did not nominate Amy Adams blindly again this year (for the mediocre BIG EYES) for which we should be thankful. Which brings me to the one silver lining in all of the nominations this year. The one instance in which I raised a pumped fist up in the air with delight. The one instance where the Academy voters demonstrated uncharacteristic flair. Which is with the nominations for Best Female Actor. Yes, Rosamund Pike (GONE GIRL), Reese Witherspoon (WILD), Felicity Jones (THE THEORY
Hurray for the recognition of Marion Cotillard's transcendent performance in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
Hurray for the recognition of Marion Cotillard's transcendent performance in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
OF EVERYTHING) and Julianne Moore (STILL ALICE) are deservedly the top contenders this year and got the expected nods. But it was the fifth spot that was open for the taking, and many had assumed it would go to Jennifer Aniston for CAKE. But thank our lucky stars, Academy voters did the right thing and picked Marion Cotillard for her remarkable, heartbreaking turn in the French film TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT. IFC films which is distributing this film, did little to push this movie so Cotillard could be considered for this category, and it was mostly through word of mouth that interest in her performance got around. To see this film is to recognize why Cotillard is one of our great living actors. Under the direction of the Dardennes brothers, likely the more humanist of all filmmakers working right now, Cotillard plays a character who has to, over a weekend, convince her ten coworkers to give up their annual bonus so that she can keep her job. And the wonder of her performance - and it is hard not to grasp at hyperbole when talking about it - is how contrary it is to expectations. Where one might have expected this character to be angry, or belligerent, or panicked, or indignant, Cotillard plays her instead as broken and fragile, and deeply aware of the troubles of others. And thereby single-handedly brings the audience in her corner. And we never leave her. Not after we have lived those two days with her. Not after the film is over. Not for weeks afterward. How great that amongst all their unexplainable, infuriating snubs, the Academy voters found the grace to recognize Marion Cotillard for her great work in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. And I will choose to be grateful for this one right amongst many wrongs.