Saturday, April 5, 2014

Best of 2013: Oddities


As I've been doing every year, here is an unscientific and completely biased tally of cinematic observations from 2013.

  • Worst film of the year: The Bling Ring
  • If you didn't like this film, you can't be my friend: Short Term 12
  • Best Opening Credits: The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
  • Best Last Shot: Prisoners
  • Best film poster: Her
  • Most underrated performance, female: Anna Kendrick in Drinking Buddies, Kate Hudson in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Scarlet Johansson in Don Jon
  • Most underrated performance, male : Daniel Bruhl in Rush, Bobby Cannavale in Blue Jasmine
  • Best future adult actor, female: Onata Aprile, What Maisie Knew
  • Best future adult actor, male: Tye Sheridan, Mud
  • Best death scene in a film: The Counselor
  • Best action scene: Orcs vs. dwarves as they come barreling down the river in The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug
  • Most ambitious film: Her
  • Most queasy sexual tension in a film: Mia Wasikowska in Stoker
  • Most WTF sexual moment in a film: Cameron Diaz on Ferrari windshield in The Counselor
  • Come on Hollywood, find something better for this actor: Emily Watson (The Book Thief)
  • Best vocals in a film: Broken Circle Breakdown
  • Most unnecessary remake: Carrie
  • Film I hated that everyone else liked: Dallas Buyer's Club
  • Film I liked that everyone else disliked: The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
  • Best line reading in a film: Julie Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said
  • Most wasted actor in a film:  Julie Christie and Anna Kendrick in The Company You Keep
  • Keep your paws off my film, Harvey Weinstein!: the inept hacking for the American version of The Grandmaster
  • Most in need of editing: Wolf of Wall Street (snip-snip Mr Scorsese and Ms Schoonmaker)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Poster perfect: ENEMY

Whatever you may say about Enemy (and there is a lot to say; I cannot wait for the film to open) the new Jake Gyllenhaal mind-bender from filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies), the poster for the movie gets the job done.

The burden of a whole city rests on Gyllenhaal's head, and there's that spider that appears to be attacking what...the city? his mind? The pastel background, Gyllenhaal's downward glance, the melting edge of the head suggested by the jagged skyline; whatever it is, the poster manages to capture the meditative, surreal, mind-fuck tone of the film.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival finds

[This originally appeared on Moviewallas.com]


One of the best our city has to offer, the 2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) is here.

Running across two weekends, the fest features an impeccably curated selection of movies that are likely to suit every taste. Whether you like mainstream cinema, or have an affinity for smaller independent films, or if you prefer documentaries, you will find all manner of gems. And that doesn’t even include the short films program, the Cinegay selection, or the special program of films from Chile that are being highlighted at this year’s SDLFF.

Some people give me a funny look when I mention film festivals. If the idea of seeing a movie at a film festival seems too particular, or too intellectual, or too fringe, can I please assure you that it is none of those things. You show up and buy a ticket just like you would for any other film. You are more than likely to have the filmmaker or cast members in attendance. And witness a Q&A session with them at the end of the screening. Where else can you get the opportunity to hear directly from the creators of a film you have just seen. In many instances, this may be the only opportunity to watch the film because the film may not get subsequent wide distribution. Also if you tell yourself that none of the films will be of interest to you since you are not latino, then you will be dead wrong. Three of the films screening here are already on my list of the best of any films I have seen so far this year.

Below are some of the films that are playing at this year’s festival. It is only when I listed them together that I realized that are all strangely, in one way or another, about brothers and sisters.

SOMBRAS DE AZUL (Shades of Blue, Mexico): A young girl shows up in Havana for the first time, and settles down to spend a few days in the city. As she starts to roam the Cuban sights, you realize from her mental conversations (directed to a lover? father? friend?) that she has run away from her past life. She frequents the city attractions, spends time with another resident at the lodging house, and finds herself surprised at developing a friendship with a local man who she first met when he tried to steal her camera. Part travelogue, part confessional, and altogether authentic, the experience of a person in a strange new land amounts to a film of unexpected depth. This is assured, confident filmmaking, characterized by remarkable acting. An example of how the honest and truthful telling of a personal story is all it takes for a movie to hum with universal truths. What a remarkable achievement this quietly devastating film is.

STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS (USA): This is another stellar example of an immersion in the lives of a few individuals that results in a greater understanding of what it means to be human. Mariana is a single parent who makes a living cleaning homes. At the end of each school day, her daughter is entrusted with bringing her autistic younger brother Ricky back home. One day, Ricky wanders off after school and doesn’t return home. How does a parent deal with the nightmare of a lost child, as hours slip into days? How is a mother to forgive her daughter for the consequences of her carelessness? How is a severely autistic child to come home when he isn’t wired to be able to do so? Who can you truly rely on in a difficult time, particularly if you are stationed close to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder? Austere, stark, and almost documentary-like in its quiet observations, this film demonstrates that the best cinema places you squarely in the shoes of someone else and lets you breathe that person’s existence. And by doing so, moves you to contemplate your own place in the world. It absolutely breaks my heart that a film as undeniably brilliant as this will not get a tenth of the exposure it deserves. At the film’s conclusion, the audience I saw it with leapt into applause. I couldn’t join them because I was too choked up to respond. This film is the reason we bother to watch movies at all.


LAS ANALFABETAS (The Illiterates, Chile): This film is a character study of the kind of person we seldom see films pivot around: an irritable, impatient, prickly, and proud individual. The kind of person who has decided that they will not (can not?) play by the rules of society. The kind who is deeply, resolutely set in their ways. And then consider the plot: an illiterate individual learns how to write. This could have been the sort of soggy, insufferable dredge that this premise might dictate, but the movie completely bypasses that trap. After her sublime turn in GLORIA, here is Paulina Garcia again in a completely different incarnation, shorn of all vanity and playing an individual that is instantly recognizable. The film also has the good sense to not provide every answer, leaving it up to the audience to contemplate the reasoning behind certain actions. A movie will stay with you longer if you are left with just enough ponderables to keep you wondering.


HELI (Mexico): This film nabbed the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. And I can see why: it creates some of the best sense of foreboding that I have seen in a movie in some time. It is that feeling that something truly awful is going to happen any moment – that is sustained through much of the narrative. This film will resonate with those who admire darkly bitter, deeply violent films. From the very first scene that elicited a gasp from the audience in the screening I attended, this film is unrelenting in its single-minded pursuit of exploring the worst in human behavior. Set in a deeply rural Mexico where government and lawlessness coexist as one, the film revolves around a family whose lives implode when the teenaged daughter has the misfortune of falling for a young army cadet who tries to get away with a stolen batch of cocaine from his superiors. Pulpy and gonzo, the film may not be for everyone, but there is no denying the high voltage charge it carries.

LEVANTAMUERTOS (Death Strokes, Mexico):  This films clocks a few days in the life of a man who works in a coroner’s office. Frequently dispatched to take care of bodies of the recently deceased, things get into a tailspin when he is forced to use many of his vocational skills to conceal a death that may have occurred at this hands. Like HELI, this film carries a foreboding air that is heightened by a morbid tone and dark humor. The relentlessly scorching summer heat in the small town in Mexico that this film is set in almost justifies the extreme actions of many of the characters. Had this film been able to build on these characters and setting, it would have been a great Lynchian outing. But even though the film loses some of its power in the last act, it makes for a good ride to the dark side.

MY SISTER'S QUINCEANERA (USA)A latino family in a small American town is the focus of this film which observes them in the week leading up to the quinceanera of the oldest daughter. What is refreshing about this film is that everyone in it is inherently decent; there are no bad characters here. The younger sister feels a little left out since her turn for a quinceanera is yet to come. Her older brother hangs out with his best friend and is trying to hold off the onset of adulthood and responsibility as much as possible. This is one of the better depictions on film that I have seen of the struggle to decide whether to remain in the same small town one has grown up in versus escaping to another place for college.  The film has a wonderful, gentle understatedness about it; there is nothing overly dramatized or shrill in the movie. Also there is a naturalness about the actors, maybe because many of them are related in real life. This is a quiet gem of a film.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Yes...but not for this film

OSCAR NOMINATION REACTIONS, final thoughts

I have already wondered and vented about this year's Oscar nominations. But one final thought.

Is it just me, or did it seem like there was a preponderance of acting nominations that were deserving, but curiously for the wrong film. This happens often enough. Kate Winslet got nominated in 2008 for The Reader when she was far more indelible in Revolutionary Road. Nicole Kidman was nominated seven years earlier for Moulin Rouge when she had already put in a far more controlled, considered performance in The Others.

This year there were many examples of misspecified nominations:

Leonardo DiCaprio playing The Great Gatsby
  • Leonardo diCaprio picked up a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his all-giving, all-inhabiting incarnation of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf Of Wall Street. But he ought to have been recognized for a more restrained, layered take in The Great Gatsby, where DiCaprio took a character that has long been a cipher in American literature and opened him up. To the extent that I finally understood not just Jay Gatsby's behavior but also of those around him. DiCaprio's achievement is one of unlocking an iconic character, and he has not received near enough credit for that. 
Christian Bale in Into The Furnace
  • Christian Bale rode the coattails of American Hustle to secure an Oscar nomination for a role that is memorable more for its physicality than any emotional resonance. But consider Bale's orders of magnitude superior work in Into The Furnace this year, where Bale became his character, by fully embodying the blue-collar integrity and despair of a man trying to do right. It is a wonderfully humanistic performance, but American Hustle so sucked up all of the energy around year-end film discussions that the smaller Into The Furnace went by mostly unnoticed. 
Bradley Cooper in The Place Beyond The Pines
  • Bradley Cooper received his second consecutive nomination with American Hustle. But like Bale, his role is patched together from hair and silliness. It is a befuddling nomination. If voters wanted to recognize a supporting actor from that film, wouldn't Jeremy Renner have been the more grounded selection? And if Cooper had to be recognized, should it not have been for his more devastating turn in The Place Beyond The Pines, for a movie that earns its epic feeling chiefly through the arc of Cooper's character. 
Matthew McConaughey in Mud
  • Matthew McConaughey is likely going to walk away with the Best Lead Actor, Male win for Dallas Buyers Club. And who is going to argue with rewarding one of the more fascinating and risky career resurgences of a leading Hollywood actor in recent memory. When he gets the prizer, the voters will be acknowledging the cumulative weight of his work in Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud and even The Wolf Of Wall Street. Incidentally, I fail to understand why McConaughey's work in the past two years has somehow reached that critical mass where he is worthy of being granted a best actor award, whereas someone like DiCaprio who has been putting in consistently high-quality work for more than a decade has yet to have his ship come in. But regardless, McConnaughey has been nominated for Dallas Buyers Club, a film that is not just misguided, but inept. Certainly, there is that tremendous physical transformation by way of losing a frightening amount of weight for this film. But did academy voters not see Mud, which also came out in the same year, and had McConaughey tackling a character far more complicated and amorphous. And dangerous. It is a character that could have crumbled into howling caricature, or worse suggested existence only as a plot device. But McConaughey walks the line in Mud, and comes out having depicted an individual who is heart-breaking in his inability to stop being who he is. Mud was the film for which he should have been nominated. 
Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Jennifer Lawrence's character in American Hustle is problematic. And the folks at the Film Experience have articulated the problem with this performance so much better than I ever can. So that there isn't much more I can or want to say. Only that while Jennifer Lawrence imbues that role with a truly amazing vitality, it ultimately remains a character that is not very believable. As many have commented, the film might have been more rooted in authenticity if the roles played by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence had been switched. So while I admire, I really do, Lawrence in American Hustle, I do not for a minute believe it to be anything more than Lawrence in American Hustle. Compare that with Lawrence's other big role in 2013, in the obscenely successful second part of the Hunger Games franchise. Katniss Everdeen, the teenaged heroine of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games books is meant to be a wiry naif of a girl. During the course of the three books, Katniss grows up not only physically but also by way of her emotional and ethical construct. Jennifer Lawrence, the actress is neither skinny nor convincingly a teenager. And yet, when you watch Lawrence from the first frame of Hunger Games, Catching Fire, there is no doubt in your mind that this is Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence transcends the character's physical outline and so fully emotionally inhabits Katniss' psyche that it is hard now to imagine anyone else playing this role. What greater argument can then be made in defence of the contention that Lawrence should have been nominated for Hunger Games, Catching Fire instead of American Hustle

The Oscar ceremonies will be upon us in a few days, and this is enough ink spent on ruminating about the nominations already. Lets find out how the reality of the wins match up against the endless prognostications that have been going on for entirely too long. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Best of 2013: Performances

When it came to performances in 2013, it was the best of times.

In fact I am so sated with the quality of acting this year, from stellar films as well as films not so stellar, that 2013 feels like an aberration. An unearned treat, that will likely not present to us again in future years. Just look at the embarrassment of riches amongst female actors; I have fourteen (!) names in this category and not the heart to strike a single one off because each is so fully realized. 

As in past years, I refuse to shorten my list of best actors in each category. If the purpose of such lists (as silly as they may be) is to grant recognition to those who were able to find that inscrutable ether where actor becomes character, then why not spread the wealth. 

So here are my picks for the top performances, more or less in the order of their effect on me. 
Brie Larson in Short Term 12

Best Actor, Female
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
Julie Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Olivia Wilde, Drinking Buddies
Paulina Garcia, Gloria
Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Veerle Baatens, The Broken Circle Breakdown
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
Judy Dench, Philomena
Suzanne Clement, Laurence Anyways

Best Actor, Male
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners
Christian Bale, Into The Furnace
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
John Gallagher Jr, Short Term 12
Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
Robert Redford, All Is Lost
Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby
Oscar Isaac, Inside Lleywn Davis
Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt

Best Supporting Actor, Female
Kate Hudson in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Kate Hudson, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Melonie Diaz, Fruitvale Station
Lea Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color
Scarlett Johannson, Her and Don Jon
Onata Aprile, What Maisie Knew
Juliette Nicholson, August: Osage County
Reese Witherspoon, Mud
Paula Patton, Disconnect

Best Supporting Actor, Male
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Tye Sheridan, Mud
Michael Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave
Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Jason Bateman, Disconnect
Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Matthew McConaughey, Mud
Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back
Jonah Bobo, Disconnect
Paul Giamatti, Saving Mr Banks
Alexander Skarsgard, What Maisie Knew
Woody Harrelson, Into The Furnace
Bradley Cooper, The Place Beyond The Pines

And even with so many names I cannot shake off the feeling that I have overlooked a few others. I honestly fail to understand those who have been complaining that it hasn't been a good year for films. 

And the GOUN responded

OSCAR NOMINATION REACTIONS

The day before the Oscar nominations were out, weary already of the same safe names popping up in each category for most awards shows, I made a plea that the God of Unexpected Nominations (GOUN) prevail this year. That we see some unusual, unexpected, brave names pop up on the list of nominations.

You should be careful what you ask for. For the GOUN responded in force. But with one exception, the unexpected names were not a happy surprise for me!

Christian Bale pulled a surprise Best Lead Actor, Male nod for American Hustle that came out of the left field. Listen, I will defend Bale as the best in class amongst his generation of actors; see his quietly devastating turn in Into the Furnace this year itself to find a definition for brilliance in acting. But his work in American Hustle is mostly underwhelming, his presence in the film remembered more for his physicality than any real opportunity to dazzle either overtly or with quiet resonance. It is just not a memorable performance, and it irks all the more, because Bale's nomination kicked out Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) or Robert Redford (All Is Lost) for arguably career-high acts. It is obvious Christian Bale's nomination swept in with the groundswell support for American Hustle which peaked right around the time of the nominations announcement. But even then it is hard to make an objective case for how Bale possibly measures up to the grounded, devastating turns from both Hanks and Redford.

Tom Hanks, not nominated
for Captain Phillips
And with the growing support for American Hustle, Amy Adams pushed her way into the party too. Considering the magnificence of the Best Lead Actor, Female roster this year (with more than ten names that could rightfully earn a spot), Adams' pick particularly galls. Because her nomination came at the expense of pushing out the likes of Adele Exachopoulos (Blue Is The Warmest Color), Julia Louis Dreyfus (Enough Said), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight) and Brie Larson (Short Term 12). There were many who were impressed by Adams' showy performance in American Hustle, but I am not amongst them. Especially considering how the Academy had an opportunity of recognizing newer, fresher, riskier performances and they instead settled for the obvious.

Robert Redford, not nominated
for All Is Lost
But no surprise nomination galls me as much as the one for Jonah Hill for Best Supporting Actor, Male for The Wolf Of Wall Street. What were the voters thinking; are there people who actually believe that there was any wit, any authenticity, any humanity to Hill's repetitive one-note deranged sidekick character in that film? To equate Jonah Hill to Joe Pesci's achievement in similar Scorsese films from a decade ago (Goodfellas, Casino) is a considerable insult to Pesci. Worse, my reaction approaches something close to nausea at the thought that we will soon be seeing trailers for 22 Jump Street with the words "starring two time Oscar nominee, Jonah Hill". My brain cannot come to terms with the evident reality that Jonah Hill now has two Oscar nominations (his other being for Moneyball in the same category last year) when the likes of Ryan Gosling or Ewan McGregor have had zero Oscar nominations to date. It is a cruel world.

Sally Hawkins, nominated for Blue Jasmine
The only surprise nomination that I am grateful to the GOUNs for is for Sally Hawkins' nod in the Best Supporting Actor, Female category for Blue Jasmine. After Hawkins' egregious omission in the lead actor category nominations a few years ago for Happy Go Lucky, it is gratifying to know that voters have finally recognized the value of her consistent, high-quality work in film after film.

Speaking of long-overdue recognition, we ought to truly celebrate Michael Fassbender finally (finally!) getting his first Oscar nomination for 12 Years A Slave (Best Supporting Actor, Male). Easily one of the best regarded actors working today, it was getting to be an embarrassment that Fassbender hadn't even been nominated to date, let alone win an acting accolade. After being passed over year after year (Shame, Fish Tank, Hunger), it is good to know that we can now stop talking in hushed tones about the unfathomable lack of recognition of Fassbender's work by the Academy.

Michael Fassbender, nominated
for 12 Years A Slave
Other than those, most nominations, particularly in the acting categories were expectedly mainstream. If the Academy voters are going to be adventurous and look outside of the box, it is not going to be this year, which came up with another safe lineup.

So a lost opportunity for not recognizing Daniel Bruhl's wonderfully complex work in Rush. And likewise a failure to recognize the unfussy, lived-in and intelligent performance from James Gandolfini in Enough Said, and honor him posthumously. No repeat this year of Oscar's few instances of best acting nominations coming from foreign films as Blue Is The Warmest Color went unrecognized altogether. And most troublesome of all, no acting nominations for Scarlett Johansson, who just might be MVP this year amongst actors for her contributions to Don Jon and particularly, Her.

I know I have visited this already, but honestly, what to make of the runway train that is American Hustle, which has been charging through the awards season deflecting in its path. It is evident now that David O. Russell has, bar none, the best publicity machinery in town. He has now pulled three best picture nominations in the last four years. And even more impressively garnered a whopping 11 acting nominations in the same four years (2 for Jennifer Lawrence, 2 for Amy Adams, 2 for Bradley Cooper, 2 for Christian Bale, 1 for Melissa Leo, 1 for Robert DeNiro, and 1 for Jacki Weaver)! No wonder these actors keep coming back to him film after film. But as much as I was an ardent supporter of Silver Linings Playbook and an admirer of The Fighter, American Hustle is just not as good a film. It is entertaining yes, and proficiently made, but it is by no means an example of excellence in cinema for the year. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler called it "explosion at the wig factory" at the Golden Globe awards, and they were not terribly off the mark. I like to call it "walking in slow motion toward the camera", because it would seem that is all it took for the actors to nab nominations. Should American Hustle pull a surprise win for best film at the Oscars, it will be an embarrassment that future movie goers will not look upon kindly. So at this point, I will be ecstatitc if 12 Years A Slave picks the top prize. But if Academy voters have a problem with the subject matter of that film (don't even get me started on that), and find it too nakedly Oscar-bait, consider me signed up to stand behind Gravity to nab the top prize. Anything, but the film with its actors working in slow motion toward the camera.


Monday, February 24, 2014

Best of 2013: Movies


A film about a lonely man in the not too distant future, who finds that the one who understands him best is not even a real person. A film about what might have led a wrongfully enslaved man to take the whip at a fellow slave. A film about a zombie whose heart literally de-calcifies under the warmth of love.  A documentary about now venerated Indonesian paramilitary leaders who reenact for the camera, with queasy detail, how they killed thousands in the mid to late sixties. A film that watches a kindergarten teacher’s life come undone when he is accused of molesting a child. A film about a solitary man in a damaged boat who is lost at sea and hungering survival. A film about how exceptional artistic talent in a person may not always be matched with a good heart. An animated film about the unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse.

These were only some in the stellar roster of 2013 films. This makes it hard for me to understand those who bemoan that this wasn’t a good year for cinema. I struggled to pare down my list even to the top fifteen films.

As in past years, I went by the simple tenet that each of the movies on this list needed to have turned something on within my emotional circuitry. How else to explain why many of the year-end critical darlings (American Hustle, Nebraska, The Wolf Of Wall Street) are not here. And also why two (!) films about zombies, ordinarily my least favorite genre, made it to the list.

So counting from the bottom up, here are my favorite films of 2013:

15. MUD
Two teenaged boys happen upon a mysterious man on an island. If this does not sound overly compelling to you, it is because films like this just don’t get made these days. Is this a coming-of-age story about a child learning to deal with divorce? Is it a modern reimagining of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn? Is it a commentary on fathers and sons? Or is it about the fragile, easily misunderstood nature of romantic relationships? Maybe all of those things. But what this also is is as close a film as I have seen about masculinity in America. In spite of an uncharacteristic veering toward the mainstream in its last act, Mud confirms Jeff Nichols as a truly original American filmmaker. Instead of the inept, insulting, overly publicized Dallas Buyers Club, this is the Matthew McConaughey film everyone should be seeing.

14. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Films based on true stories so often strive to get the factual components right that they sometimes compromise on humanistic considerations. Not so, for Captain Phillips about the 2009 hijacking of an American freightliner by Somali pirates. Like all of his films, director Paul Greengrass uses the action genre only as a means to keenly observe individuals under sharp duress. To its great credit, the movie never once tries to sell Captain Robert Phillips as any manner of hero. His actions in the moment remain ordinary, reasoned and expected. But it is in the cumulative weight of all of his actions that his humanity emerges. This is a class example of how to do real-event films right. Oh, and the last five minutes provide a better example than any of why Tom Hanks’ name belongs in the league of the acting greats.

13. BLUE JASMINE
The gods have smiled upon us with top tier Woody Allen. The plot in Blue Jasmine is framed around two disparate sisters. Jasmine, long married into an Upper East Side life of privilege and affluence is suddenly left without social standing when her husband is revealed a grand embezzler; think Bernie Maddoff. And she is forced to come live with her very middle-class sister in San Francisco.  Borrowing freely from A Streetcar Named Desire, Allen’s writing here is so brilliantly on the mark that every scene locks into the next with a pleasing click. Allen has always been adroit with the female characters he writes. But Cate Blanchett takes possession of this role and runs with it, wrestling the film whole out of Allen’s hands, to the movie’s great betterment. There is tremendous indictment for Jasmine’s character the way Allen has written it; she represents the ugly underbelly of the privileged one-percenters. But Blanchett refuses to let this character become a caricature and roots it firmly into the believable. Jasmine may be deeply flawed and deluded, but she is never less than completely human.

12. PRISONERS
The father of a pre-teen girl that has gone missing is willing to cross any line in the search for his daughter. Sounds like a cheesy, early-eighties B movie, doesn't it? But Prisoners is a film of considerable achievement.  The last time I experienced a queasy anxiety this potent was while watching The Silence Of The Lambs, and I cannot think of higher praise than to say that Prisoners can stand confidently beside that movie. On the face of it, this is a robust psychological thriller. But what elevates it is how it works as a provocation on many morally muddled issues. About the eagerness and haste to ascribe guilt to a person who fits the bill of the perpetrator of a heinous crime. About how the best amongst us can condone the worst of behaviors when overwhelmed with anger, and unconfined despair. About the scarred, troubled debate surrounding the ethics of using torture to extract critical information. About trusting a potentially fallible law enforcement system versus taking vigilante action. If a thriller can spur debate on such issues topics, it has done its job well. Featuring egregiously overlooked performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, this is a remarkably tight film even at a two and a half hours length. Also, Prisoners boasts likely the most perfect last scene of any film this year.

11. YEH JAWAANI HAI DEEWANI (YOUTH IS INSANITY) 
We are in the middle of the golden age of Indian cinema; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. How else do you account for a year that brought us the swooning, wilting romanticism of Lootera. Or the transgressive construct of the three leads in the marvelous Shuddh Desi Romance.  Or first among equals, consider Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani that takes a few young characters and visits them at two different times in their lives. Like the sublime Wake Up, Sid from the same director, this film speaks authentically to what it is like to be young and searching. And searching and searching. Do we change with time, or are we hostage for life, to our fundamental personalities? A little of both, the film argues. This is a quietly observant movie masquerading as a big masala blockbuster. Sharply written, cleverly assembled, and warmly acted, it does Indian cinema good.

10. WORLD WAR Z  
This was the most fun I had at the cinemas in 2013.  Yes, unlike the source book on which the film is based, the movie misses out on the opportunity to comment on how a zombie apocalypse would become an instant social equalizer within the world. But as a pure popcorn summer film, this movie got its job done. Other summer blockbusters did too, but the reason World War Z is on this list is because of its final act. Eschewing the usual mass explosions and hazy mayhem that round up the final minutes in popcorn films (Man Of Steel and Iron Man 3, I am looking at you), World War Z had the good sense to set its final act in a closed off laboratory, where the protagonist has to wade through zombies to get at a potential anti-serum to abet zombie infection. Claustrophobic, tight and breathlessly paced, this final act understands that tension will trump mindless action. I left the cinema with a smile on my face. 

9. GRAVITY  
Much has been made of the bravura filmmaking in Gravity, the new technical standards set by the film, the impeccable choreography that plays with POV. And how Gravity has single-handedly found reason for the elusive moviegoer to make the trip to the cinema. That is all true, yes, but the thing that got to me was not the visual hijinks, it was the ability of the film to get into the final gasp headspace that few movies have been able to: when confronted with certain death, do you close your eyes and wait, or do you get into that state of reckless delirium where you roar out raging, as hopeless as it may be.  Like All Is Lost with which it shares its DNA, it is not bad for a nearly plotless survival film to evoke existential questions. 

8. ENOUGH SAID  
Too bad director Nicole Holofcener already used the title Lovely And Amazing for a previous terrific film because it would have been great for her latest, Enough Said. A mature, wry observation piece on the behaviors of mature, wry characters is reason enough for being grateful. But to Holofcener’s credit, while the film primarily focuses on its forty-something leads, the writing also finds some of the most realistic teenagers depicted on screen. I cannot sing enough the praises of the actors in this film; whoever thought to put Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini together - not exactly an obvious pairing – must have had the hand of cinematic gods on their shoulder. No one in film, or television right now, does better reaction shots than Louis-Dreyfus. And Gandolfini uses every facet of his scrappy, dog-eared, warmly intelligent persona to make for a credible male romantic lead. The film pulls off one sleight of the hand after another in fleshing out, with remarkable skill, so many relationships: mothers and daughters, ex-wives and ex-husbands, employers and employees, friends and confessors. It all works. 

7. THE WAY WAY BACK  
This film is a wolf-howl to all the misfits of the world. And I howled right back at it. Directed by the writers of The Descendants, this film follows an awkward teenager as he fumbles to come unto his own during a summer vacation when his single mom decides to spend time at the beach house of her jerk of a boyfriend. Even as the story turns familiar corners – the teenager finds someone who takes him under his wing and reinforces his confidence; he stands up to his mother’s boyfriend; he connects with a girl his own age – the film is constructed with so much charm that those developments shine as examples of doing cliché right. Of all the films I saw in 2013, this was the only one I truly, consciously felt sorry to see end. You cannot be passionate about films and be closed off to how movies make you feel. For me the heart always trumps over the head. And this film has heart to spare. 

6. WARM BODIES 
A film about a young girl who brings out the protective instinct in a zombie shouldn’t amount to much. But this film crept up on my inner romantic. I have an affinity for the films of Jonathan Levine to begin with, and here he takes on an exhausted genre and betters it. Plus how can you not warm up to a film that finds the means to throw in a Romeo and Juliet balcony scene in the middle of its narrative? You will not find this film on any other year-end lists, but I have fierce love for it. 

5. DISCONNECT  
At about the halfway point into Disconnect I forgot that I was watching a film. I was in it, breathing it. I have gratitude for films that wrestle me down and take me over. This one did. The film pans across several stories, all of which deal with our increasing dependence on electronic communications. It would have been easy for the film to be a shrill diatribe against those unable to interact with other human beings and who instead use the internet to connect to strangers online. But the film explains why sometimes a stranger online might be able to provide support (that the closest of family or friends may be unable to), because they are the ones who have been through the same devastating experience and therefore best understand your situation. Superbly acted with soulful turns from Jason Bateman, Andrea Riseborough, Paula Patton and Jonah Bono, and expertly put together, this is a film that deserved a wider audience. 

4. BEFORE MIDNIGHT  
What happens after you have acquired the one true love of your life. The one you have pined for all along. What happens after you get this person. What then. You find that this impossibly perfect person you have long idealized is shockingly human. With neuroses and all too banal insecurities! Featuring better writing than other film this year, this is the third outing of Richard Linklater’s Before series, which has followed two characters, Celine and Jesse every 7 or so years, from the terrifying exhilaration of finding the right person, to the despair of knowing the impossibility of being with that person, to now having miraculously settled in with that person. Celine has been fiercely intelligent as seen through Jesse’s eyes up until now because she has so long been the object of his unattainable desire. But now that they are married, they start to see the painful, ugly sides of each other. While the first two films were giddily in flight, Before Midnight has its feet planted firmly in dusty reality. And the grounding effect brings unexpected power to the wondrous writing in this film; it is too close for comfort, but also thrillingly authentic. The two characters are now no longer the starry aspirations of the audience member; with this film, Jesse and Celeste have become the audience members. 

3. HER  
This film is messy. And it is absurd. But it is also wonderful. And often profound.  And wildly original. A man in the not too distant future falls in love with his computer operating system. One may approach this film with some trepidation since this concept sounds like a joke (like Lars And The Real Girl). What happy surprise to find then that Her is a meditation on the human need for connecting, and to be understood. Yes it is a story set in future, but that is only a ploy; the film speaks to how we live now. And it comments in its own way on how becoming an adult is in many ways realizing that ultimately everyone will disappoint you, and to move on in life in spite of that. That to mature in life is to realize that everyone is evolving at a different pace than your own. The film does two glorious things. One is that it abandons a tired narrative structure which sets the actors free to do gentle, quiet work, such as Joaquin Phoenix's work in this film. Or the astonishing voice-work from a Scarlett Johansson at the peak of her gifts.  And the other thing is that Her creates its own, particular, visual world. We see a future Los Angeles so achingly beautiful such as it will probably never exist. This is the most ambitious film of the year. 

2. 12 YEARS A SLAVE  
Like the best films, this one reflects the universe through the experience of a single person. Only it is a universe nobody wants to talk about. There are many who complain that 12 Years A Slave is getting lauded based on its subject matter alone, that it is yet another tiresome exercise in politically correct chest beating. They are dead wrong. Plain and simple, this is a magnificent film; that and only that is the reason for the accolades the movie is receiving. Devastating, unflinching, and angry, the movie asks: how dare we forget our not too recent history. In the 19th century, America traded more slaves than other country, and much of the nation’s economy is built on that. It is part of American history and we need to be talking about it. Now.  By sticking close to the true story of Solomon Northop, a free black man in New York who was tricked and pushed into slavery in the antebellum south, the film is able to comment on the psychology of oppression. Director Steve McQueen’s camera refuses to back away from the horror of the situation, and in its unflinching gaze manages to do what other films on slavery weren’t able to. It doesn’t allow the audience the luxury of looking away. 

1. SHORT TERM 12  
We have stopped expecting what earlier generations did from films when they saw say, It's A Wonderful Life or Casablanca or Singing In The Rain or Citylights. We have stopped expecting a film to be a fully rounded emotional experience. One that makes us simultaneously reflect on the inequities of life and be happy with our own condition. Sentimentality has become a pejorative cinematic ideal. But sentimentality when well-earned and done with authenticity can make for the most potent of film experiences. And this is what makes Short Term 12 an exceptional achievement.  It is the rare film that can claim possession of that emotionally purity. Set in a facility for foster care adolescents and the young employees who work there, this film could have wallowed in pious sanctimony at every step. Instead it takes every one of those tricky situations and makes them honest and grounded as the film builds to great power. I surrendered to the thrill of this film on a minute by minute basis, waiting for the film to falter, but it never did. Its greatest merit may be that it flies its flag of humanism proudly in the face of cynicism and non-traditional story-telling that has come to define excellence in cinemas these days. I have unreasonable love for this film. 

So good a year this was at the movies that I cheated and picked top fifteen films instead of the customary ten. And even then, there were many that had to be left out. Honorable mentions go out to The Act Of Killing, All Is Lost, August: Osage County, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Broken Circle Breakdown, Drinking Buddies, Ernest Et Celestine, Frances Ha, The Great Gatsby, The Hunt, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Place Beyond The Pines, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Rush, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, What Maisie Knew, and Wolverine

What a year for cinema. 


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Plea to the GOUN (God Of Unexpected Nominations)

It is the night before the announcement of the 2013 Oscar nominations.

And the many pundits have as always provided a comprehensive handicapping of nomination odds in every category. Every slot in each nomination category has been intensely debated and predictions made, often with insight and passion. Over the past week, I have been eagerly reading content put out by some favorite bloggers and checked with some remarkable online sites that have worked through the odds in the major categories. The writers have bemoaned, championed, lamented, raged, anguished and conceded over many a name in many a category. And they have come up with their lists of who will be nominated and who should be nominated.

Listen, I know that within the parameters of the larger world, the Oscars mean precious little. And the fuss around the nominations means even lesser. But even so, for those who are passionate about film, this is the time of the year to be saying what needs to be said about movies. To debate the disappointments, to amaze at the unexpectedly good, and to most of all, defend our irrational (and less frequently, rational) favorites. How else to explain the sly but giddy joy that comes from judging another person based on their year-end best films list? Even as I type now, I am well aware that the votes have already been cast, and the tallies made. And the nominations are now just waiting in covert darkness a few hours before Chris Helmsworth announces them at the crack of dawn.

Brie Larson in SHORT TERM 12
So what do I have to say at this juncture that hasn't already been said? I have a plea to the God of Unexpected Nominations. May he prevail this year. I know that when it comes to Oscar nominations, there is a wide, wide rift between those who deserve and those who get. Merit is only the third or fourth thing that matters, usually being overridden wholesale by politics, drum-beating, and past bodies of work. But even by those standards, a few names somehow slip past the studio and academy voting machinery every year and show up unexpectedly on the nominations list. Remember that time when EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE picked up a best film nomination? Or when CHOCOLAT did? The best of the unexpected nominations come out of left field, but they are poetically, perfectly, righteously right.

And this year I cross my hands and pray to the God of Unexpected Nominations that voters have for once, truly experienced fatigue from the relentless studio marketing telling them what is great, and who they should vote for. And that many voters have shunned the consensus and gone for something different. Because lets face it, come tomorrow, the most ink will be expended on the unexpected names that have popped up in the major categories. And by unexpected, I do not by any stretch mean the undeserving.

Greta Gerwig in FRANCES HA
While 2013 was am uncommonly great year for films in general, female acting shone even more joyously. When was the last time that there were so many amazing female performances within a 12 year period. With such an embarrassment of riches, it is inevitable that many outright tremendous performances will go unacknowledged following the nominations announcement. As the good people at The Film Experience have mentioned, in the category of Best Female Actor alone one can consider two completely different line-ups. One safe line-up would include the names of the previously lauded, the usual suspects, those who voters tend to automatically name-check. This would include Judi Dench (PHILOMENA), Sandra Bullock (GRAVITY), Emma Thompson (SAVING MR BANKS), Meryl Streep (AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY) and Cate Blanchett (BLUE JASMINE). There is a high likelihood that these are the five names that will pop up on the nominations list tomorrow. Each of these are past winners. And each are more or less household names. Winning another Oscar is not going to fantastically alter the career orbit of either of these five actors.

Adele Exarchopoulos in BLUE
IS THE WARMEST COLOR
But consider just as much, another braver, more exciting line-up for the same category: Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Adele Exarchopoulos (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR), Julie Delpy (BEFORE MIDNIGHT), Greta Gerwig (FRANCES HA) and JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS (ENOUGH SAID). Each of these actors have provided revelatory, utterly disarming performances. Regardless of the considerable value of an Oscar nomination to their career trajectory, so magnificent is their work in these films, that it seems just wrong to have them go unacknowledged.

Of those in the safe playlist I am not going to argue with the brilliance of Cate Blanchett in BLUE JASMINE. If ever we needed evidence of a contemporary acting god, you have it right there with Blanchett in this film. In fact one can make the case that even with the surplus of amazing female performances this year, Blanchett is the true deserving overall winner. Sandra Bullock too has earned her stripes with an unexpectedly intense turn in GRAVITY, a movie that like ALIENS more than a decade ago, no one would have guessed would yield a lead acting nomination. But the other three on the safe playlist, Judy Dench, Emma Thompson, and Meryl Streep, as reliably solid as they are, do not stir anything in your heart with their performances this year, do they? Which of these performances had you hearing angels sing? Why pick them just because we are familiar with them?
Julie Delpy in BEFORE MIDNIGHT

Can an Academy member who has seen BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, put their hand over their heart and say that Dench, Thompson or Streep were better than the absolutely transparent, all giving, all consuming portrayal of the central character in that film by Adele Exarchopoulos? Can any of the other contenders match the purity and complexity of the character played by Brie Larson in SHORT TERM 12? Who else but Greta Gerwig can portray a character so immature, flawed, and irresponsible and yet so utterly real as the one we learn to love in FRANCES HA? And how about Julie Delpy in the third installatoon of the BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET/MIDNIGHT series who gives a frustratingly recognizable performance as a fiercely intelligent person who is just as prone to everyday neuroses as the next person. Or how about the sunlit wit of and warmth of Julia Louis-Dreyfus in ENOUGH SAID. Note that I have deliberately avoided mention of Amy Adams who has done great work before, but in my opinion does not merit company with the other names on this list for her grand-standing, showy, all-clothes-no-soul performance in the overrated AMERICAN HUSTLE.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in ENOUGH SAID
So please, the God of Unexpected Nominations, please make it so that at least one of the names from the second line-up pops up tomorrow with the nominations in the Best Female LeadActor category. And follow suit in other categories.

How wonderful would it be if Scarlett Johannson were recognized as an actor at the peak of her abilities in DON JON and HER. Or if the immeasurably ambitious, soulful and altogether unique HER got noticed in multiple categories, including perhaps for Best Picture. Or if ERNEST AND CLEMENTINE is seen by enough voters to nab a nomination in the Best Animated Film category. Or if the criminally overlooked Kyle Chandler were noticed for his two scene, but no less heart-breaking role in THE SPECTACULAR NOW.

Nothing would make me happier than to see a sea change in the habits of the Academy members who ought to realize it is time to vote with their personal instincts and biases, instead of kowtowing to popular trends. It is not going to happen, but a person can hope, can they not?


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Weekly Film Quote

"It’s a melancholy comic fable about the here and now, thinly disguised as an outlandish vision of the there and later." - A. A. Dowd, in the review of the film HER


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Frankenstein, the Action Hero!

Judging by its box-office receipts, everyone went to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in the past two weeks. If so, that loud noise you heard from outside the cinema during the previews was the sound of Mary Shelley turning over in her grave.

Behold, the trailer for I, Frankenstein!

Frankenstein, the action-hero.

Really? Is this the evolution of the-bottom-dollar-justifies-it-all mentality? Have Hollywood executives drunk on heady commercial projections from business models, not felt the slightest tinge of remorse in converting Shelley's self-loathing, tortured monster (guilt-ridden as much by his physical grotesqueness as the terror he notices in the eyes of those who see him) - into a muscled, leaping-into-the-air-with-fiery-explosions-behind-him action hero caricature?

It is one thing to plunder the graves of film, television and written classics (and sometimes not-quite-classics) to remake/re-boot/re-whatever a new version for current moviegoers. But it is quite another to bludgeon an early work of seminal literary relevance (in this case, horror) into a jaw-droppingly banal action trope. Watch Frankenstein beat up droves of CGI alien creatures. Watch Frankenstein demonstrate martial arts prowess mid-air, his cape fluttering with expensive art direction. Watch Frankenstein break chains and leap onto roofs of speeding subway trains [Watch also, by the way, Bill Nighy sheepishly pick up a paycheck]. Watch Frankenstein stare into the eyes of his female love interest as things burn in the background. Having made good use of his annual 24-Hour Fitness membership, this Frankenstein is clearly not one to be tortured by his physical grotesqueness. This is Frankenstein by way of recent physically beefed-up cinematic avatars of literary brothers Sherlock Holmes and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer.

I am quite aware of just how righteously indignant I sound. But I would be thrilled to discover that I have been abjectly wrong on this: that this trailer does the actual film shameful disservice, and that come February we will be surprised to watch a clever and entertaining movie. Until then forgive me while I snicker every time I watch this trailer.

Weekly Film Quote

"A great movie is a movie I cannot bear the thought of never seeing again" - Derek Malcolm (The Guardian)

ENOUGH SAID: The Films Are Alright

[This article originally appeared on Moviewallas.com]

Several years ago, Nicole Holofcener directed a film called LOVELY AND AMAZING, criminally unknown to many, but beloved by those who saw it. It’s too bad that Holofcener already used that title, since it would have been apt for her latest film, ENOUGH SAID. The new film is both lovely and amazing.

Holofcener is a wonderful aberration in the world of cinema. Her movies are talky, inwardly drawn, and almost always centered on a thirty- to forty-something female character (or many such female characters). Stand-ins for what Holofcener wants to say about the world - about how we live, and how we interact with each other - one can sense that the lead characters have matured with the director through successive films. This should tell you then that her films do not exactly set the box-office ablaze. Which might change with her latest offering; it will surely be her most profitable venture. Holofcener has always had a knack for good writing, and with ENOUGH SAID she (intentionally?) moves about as mainstream with her storytelling as she ever has. Couple that with some particularly on the nose casting, and you get a warm pudding of a film. You would have to be a Grinch to resist its charms.

This time, the lead character is a masseuse, Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who is trying to navigate post-divorce life with the hallmark embarrassments and despairs that are characteristic of this filmmaker’s work. Struggling with both professional and personal impediments, she forges a friendship with an impossibly self-assured woman who appears to have it all (played by Holofcener mainstay Catherine Keener who is as usual fine here, although I can’t help thinking that with a bigger budget, Cate Blanchett might have been hired for this role). Eva also tentatively starts what might be a romantic connection with the laid-back, affable Albert (James Gandolfini, in one of his final film roles). Each has grown daughters from prior marriages. And individual careers. And each is of that age when a person knows who they are, and have settled into the shape of their adult personality, not willing to alter it for another person. Willfully allowing their separate worlds to collide will have its implications.

It is curious that many longtime Holofcener champions as well as those unfamiliar with her work have complained that this movie is reminiscent of a sitcom. Were it that every television sitcom were this perceptively written, finely acted, and tethered to the very grounded realities of day-to-day living.

Publicity still from ENOUGH SAIDThe genius of this film - and I don’t use the word ‘genius’ lightly - is in the casting. Whoever thought to bring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini together - not exactly an obvious pairing - must have had the hand of cinematic gods on their shoulder. These two are magic. And one cannot help be wistful knowing that we will never see them act together again. Plus the movie adds further evidence to the theory that every film is bettered by the presence of Toni Collette.

I have long been part of the militant minority that has been singing loud the praises of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Is there another actor working in film or television right now that does better reaction shots? Her facial reactions are Film School class good. There is something right with the world when a stellar television actor gets to headline a film. There has been some surprisingly nasty reaction, thankfully from a minority, to Luis-Dreyfus’ performance in this film; those not recognizing the wit in her acting will be awfully late to the party. With her lauded turns on HBO’S VEEP and the underrated, now cancelled show NEW ADVENTURES OF OLD CHRISTINE (with which this film shares much of its sensibility), Louis-Dreyfus’ star is on the rise. And one oddly resents sharing a personally known secret treasure with the rest of the world.

And what is one to say of James Gandolfini. That someone thought to consider him as a male romantic lead is cause for celebration. That he utterly pulls it off - using every facet of his dog-eared, scrappy, warmly intelligent persona to full effect - comes as a surprise; it shouldn’t have, but it does. That film cameras will never focus upon Gandolfini again is reason for considerable sadness.

There’s a scene early in the movie where Albert drops Eva outside her home at the end of their first date. In lesser hands their lines would have come off as silly or worse cheesy. But to watch Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus make that dialog sing is to know the value of good actors.

This film reminded me, in its modern, urban, everyday sensibility of the movie THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT. Like that film, ENOUGH SAID pulls off one sleight of hand after another in fleshing out, with remarkable skill – and efficiency – so many relationships: mothers and daughters, ex-wives and ex-husbands, employers and maids, confidantes and confessors. All of it works.

One may get the impression that the film is overly serious; this is hardly the case. Even as it has an understated gentleness to its rhythm, and an underlying wiseness lurking underneath, the film is mostly genuinely funny on a minute-by-minute basis. The movie’s singular strength though may be in the ease with which it demonstrates the need for, and the great difficulty in, practicing acceptance in any relationship. About how what might seem an unbearably annoying trait to one individual may be endearingly charming to another.

A.O. Scott in the New York Times called this film a minor miracle and I can see why. It is the sort of unshowy, unfussy, and uncommonly well-written film that rarely gets made these days.


MY STOLEN REVOLUTION: smiling through the unthinkable

[This originally appeared on Moviewallas.com]

At first obvious judgment, the documentary MY STOLEN REVOLUTION  may seem a feminist rebuke to Iran's troubling recent history with crimes against women.  But this film, at times a little rough around the edges, is also about other things. It is foremost a love-letter from the filmmaker to her brother. And the entire film is also in many ways her attempt at the exorcism of guilt.

In our routine dealings with the world, we interact with countless strangers: people in whom we may invest attention only for the short term, and others we may outright ignore. But, this film asks: how many of the strangers we encounter on a daily basis harbor histories of the unbearable, the unthinkable?

The filmmaker (Nahid Persson) a former student activist in Iran, who belonged to a liberal counter-establishment revolutionary organization in her youth, managed to leave the country just barely before the government started to crack down on members of the group. Now living in the United States and watching the recent resurgence of violent student-led protests in Iran more than three decades later, she is driven to reach out to the other members of her original radical group. This leads her to travel around the world to reconnect with these individuals, who like her, have settled into mostly quiet, domestic lives. It is surprising how unremarkable and ordinary the eventual destination can be for a path that started out with an unquenchable revolutionary fervor. As she meets these other women, they begin to recount, in frank detail, their experiences in the Iranian prison system after getting arrested in their youth, a fate the filmmaker narrowly escaped. The weight of her guilt becomes more evident when it is revealed that her younger brother, recruited into the revolutionary group for barely a month, was subsequently arrested and suffered the worst of outcomes. Unlike her, his fate did not allow for fleeing Iran prior to imprisonment.

All documentaries carry the burden of being truthful even as we know that the presence of a camera in front of a person fundamentally alters their behavior. This film presents several filmed interactions between individuals that couldn't possibly be entirely authentic. How could a lack of spontaneity and an inevitable rehearsed-ness not have crept in with the best of intentions.  But ultimately the film transcends those concerns and manages to pack an emotional wallop because it has the good fortune to have as its subject, these women of remarkable strength. Whose ideological passions, burning still after all these years, cut through the limitations of the documentarian's camera.

Weeks after having seen this film, what has stayed with me is this. It is the smiling face of one of the women: a face of uncommon peace that against all odds retained a calm grace even when recounting particularly horrific transgressions at the hands of Iranian prison guards. The five women who speak candidly to the camera in this film have all made peace with their past lives. How is it conceivable that individuals who have been through the unspeakable can have their future lives not irreversibly haunted by those experiences? How can bitterness not poison everything that follows for those who survive the horrific. Every person who makes it through a holocaust, who has been a political prisoner, who has been victim to military human rights violations, who has seen genocide first hand -  must have had to grapple with this. MY STOLEN REVOLUTION gains most power when demonstrating the seemingly insaturable human capacity for mending after surviving what would seem a wholly destructive experience.

'My Stolen Revolution' was screened at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival and is awaiting distribution.