Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Online Film Critics' Poll - The Nominees Are...

Just after the Golden Globes ceremony and only a few days before Oscar nominations are announced, we have the nominees for the International Online Film Critics' Poll. These film awards like the others mentioned, award excellence in all the major categories, such as Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Cinematography, etc. But what makes them different is the fact that this is a biannual award, so for this year, the eligible films are from 2013 and 2014. That means along with such current films as The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher and Birdman, such celebrated films from last year such as 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska and Her are also eligible.

This is the fourth time for these awards and this is the first time I have been asked to vote for them. I'm honored to be part of this process and it was quite a difficult decision coming up with only five nominees for each of the 14 categories. It was even more difficult to select a winner in many of these categories, although a few of them were relatively easy choices for me (such as Best Editing, see below). As a critic involved in these awards, I was able to nominate the films a few weeks ago and now this week, vote on the final nominees. Again, with only five nominees from each category over the course of two years, there were going to be numerous omissions. Take Best Actor for example. Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) were not even among the final five choices - talk about a strong category!

So without further ado, here are the nominees. My selection is in bold:

Best Picture

12 Years a Slave
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Director

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu - Birdman
Richard Linklater - Boyhood
Wes Anderson - The Grand Budapest Hotel
Paolo Sorrentino - The Great Beauty
Roman Polanski - Venus in Fur

Best Actor

Michael Keaton - Birdman
Ralph Fiennes - The Grand Budapest Hotel
Mads Mikkelsen - The Hunt
Benedict Cumberbatch - The Imitation Game
Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine
Adele Exarchopolous - Blue is the Warmest Color
Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl
Julianne Moore - Still Alice
Marillon Cotillard - The Immigrant

Best Supporting Actor

Edward Norton - Birdman
Ethan Hawke - Boyhood
Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club
Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons - Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress

Lupita Nyong'o - 12 Years a Slave
Emma Stone - Birdman
Sally Hawkins - Blue Jasmine
Patricia Arquette - Boyhood
June Squibb - Nebraska

Best Ensemble Cast

12 Years a Slave
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

Best Original Screenplay

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years a Slave
Gone Girl
The Imitation Game
The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Cinematography

The Great Beauty

Best Production Design

Mr. Turner
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

Best Editing

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

Best Original Score

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

Best Visual Effects

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

I'll report on the winners when they are announced in late January.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Genius at Work

Mr. Turner is a film about the energy and passion that drives a creative genius. For this film, that description refers both to its titular subject, J.M.W. Turner, famed 19th century British painter, as well as the film's director, Mike Leigh.

For most filmgoers - myself included - this is a work about an artist who will be a bit of a mysterious figure, as Turner is largely unknown outside of Britain. Born in 1775, he was a renowned painter of landscapes, often focusing on the subject of seascapes and ships. He was an artistic and to some degree, a financial success early in his career.

Interestingly, Leigh made the decision to only look at the last two decades of Turner's life in this film. We see a brute of a man, one who goes about his daily work with a certain flair, be it at his studio at home or at a gallery with his colleagues. He has great self-assurance of who he is as an artist, but his personal relationships, save for his father, are less than cordial. He has little time for his daughters, while he treats his devoted housekeeper with disdain.

One of the most fascinating things about this film is the focus on the work of Turner; reportedly Timothy Spall, who portrays the artist, spent more than a year learning how to paint. Turner is seen at every available moment either drawing something in his sketch pad or painting in his own distinctive way, sometimes spitting on the canvas, to add a bit of tone to the work.

The love of this period's paintings is detailed in great degree in the film. There is one marvelous scene in which Turner enters a gallery filled with canvases that line every wall, some of the works even approaching the ceiling. Other painters are there, some to view and debate the works of their colleagues, while others make final touches to their paintings. Ladders and wooden planks are part of this busy scene; this is a look at the beauty as well as the frenzy of the artistic scene in Britain at this time. This is one of the most revealing scenes in the film; it's also one of the most visually remarkable as well. The production design of Suzie Davies on this film is first-rate and marvelously detailed; her work is as much a part of the success of this film as anyone's efforts.

This film would not work however without a steady hand by the director and Mike Leigh provides such talent. At two and one-half hours, this is a movie that takes its time, yet it never feels dull or slow. We get to know Turner's work along with his relationships with others and it's the conflict in these scenes that give us an understanding into what he was all about. His scenes with his father, whom he dearly loved, are quite touching, as are the moments he spends with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey, in a natural, engaging performance), an innkeeper whom he falls in love with. 

Leigh gives us a world of complex colors; you're as likely to see a beautiful countryside shot as you are the muted tones of an artist's studio. Working with cinematographer Dick Pope, the director has created a stunning looking work that is always arresting. One particularly beautiful moment has Turner walking by himself in a field while a few hundred or so yards away, several wild horses gingerly make their way up a small hill; it's a scene worthy of a painting.

As Turner, Timothy Spall is brilliant - I'm not sure I can praise him enough for his work in this film. He grunts and deliberately ambles his large frame though many of his scenes; he's a big man, often seemingly ill-willed, one who goes through life with utter assurance of his brilliance. Yet he is not an egotistical man; at one point he turns down a fortune to sell his paintings. He wanted others to see his work after his death, so money meant little to him, as long as he was able to afford his lifestyle. Spall is utterly convincing at giving us a multi-layered character.

We do see him let down his guard and become a more tender human when he meets Booth; she understands his intensity and is attracted to him. His transformation is quite touching, especially as it's not stated in night and day terms; it's more subtle than that. Their relationship helps Turner grow and expand his vision as an artist, as well as letting him find happiness in his life. Spall gives us a Turner of some humor as well as gentle affection in these scenes and he's equally convincing here as in the rest of the film. 

One other performance deserves praise - that of Dorothy Atkinson as Turner's housekeeper Hannah Danby. She is a quiet woman, physically troubled with psoriasis, going through her daily routine of tending to Turner's whims and needs, speaking only a few well-chosen words. She is in love with Turner, yet the only affection we see from him directed toward her are brief moments of lust. It's as though she is a human canvas to Turner, someone - or something - he can do what he wants to with. The fact that we are so moved by her performance in this unglamorous role is a testament to the work of Atkinson.

Mr. Turner is the work of a director at the height of his powers, one who makes us empathize with a man who displayed extraordinary talent while going through life with a less than sunny disposition. Mike Leigh treats us to a portrait of a unique individual who loved life and could find inspiration in simple beauty. After watching this film, one can say the same for Leigh; it's rare for a film biography to reach the emotional understanding this work has and we the audience should treasure it.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Unraveling Mysteries

The Imitation Game is an engrossing film that deals with solving mysteries of various sorts. On the surface level, there is the puzzle of the German war code that must be solved if England and the Allies are to win World War ll. There is also the mystery of how Alan Turing, the leader of the team assigned to unraveling this code, has to deal with the fact that he is a homosexual, who must, for all intents and purposes, hide this fact, for fear of retribution and possible punishment. It's a valuable film experience, one that has its slip ups at times, but one that ultimately succeeds in its quest to tell the story of this complex and troubled individual.

Right from the beginning of this story, Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) lets his superior know how valuable he is as a brilliant mathematician for the ultimate goal of solving the German Enigma machine that sends out coded messages that have proven impossible to decipher, as there are tens of millions of possible combinations of letters. Cocky and moody, Turing is disliked by his fellow team members; Turing himself believes that some of them are not worthy of this demanding task. He takes the step of contacting Winston Churchill to request that he be the leader of this project, thus enabling him to fire and hire others as he pleases. He is granted this request, as well as an appeal for funds, so he can build a machine that will read the coded messages; this machine was one of the first computers.

His method of hiring new agents for his project is to run a difficult crossword puzzle in the newspaper; those who solve it are invited to come on for another word test. One of the individuals who passes this test - in record time - is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who will soon win the heart of Turing. It is her intellect and charm that win Turing over and help him continue with his work. She convinces Turing to be a bit more understanding with his fellow code solvers, so as to win their trust. Their relationship is at the heart of this film.

There have been any number of critics that have complained about historical inaccuracies in this film. For my part, I don't care if there has been some alteration of specific events; this is a filmed version of this story and not a documentary. The filmmakers are most interested in Turing's story and personality - how did he create his machine, how does he, as a gay man, handle himself in a relationship with a woman? Yes, I would have liked to learn more about the inner details of his machine - the reproduction is fascinating with all those wheels and wires - what is going on here and how does it work? That is a problem, but the screenplay more than makes up for this shortcoming by focusing more on Turing himself.

As Turing, Cumberbatch is brilliant portraying this complex and troubled man. His face captures us and makes us feel empathy for the mathematician; his voice is quiet, yet assured and his mannerisms avoid the usual clichés. He walks a tightrope between self-assuredness and doubt that he can solve this project; when he has moments of success, they are quiet triumphs for the most part; Cumberbatch communicates Turing's emotions beautifully, either by a subtle shift in posture or movement of his eyes. This is an outstanding performance - the actor's work is the strongest recommendation of this film. You never see his acting technique on display - he's simply believable every moment he's on the screen.

The other notable performance is by Knightley. The camera loves her face; she is able to win us over the first time we see her on screen. She has excellent chemistry with Cumberbatch (and in reality, everyone else in her scenes) and is the voice of reason and well as a warm ray of light as opposed to the coldness of Turing in many scenes. One wishes however, that she was given more to do than what's written for her in the screenplay.

The one major fault I have with the film is the implementation of flashbacks of Turing's school days as a young man. We learn that he was mistreated by many of his classmates, who found him an outsider, based on his odd behavior (one scene has him separating the peas from the carrots on his plate). We also discover his relationship with another quiet boy who has an intellect similar to that of Turing. These scenes really explain little - save for one defining moment; it would have been better to eliminate these scenes, as the screenplay as well as Cumberbatch's performance tell us all we need to know how singular the character of Alan Turing truly is.

Thankfully the strengths of The Imitation Game far outweigh its flaws. Morton Tyldum's direction is effective and concise, while the cinematography of Oscar Faura and the costume designs of Sammy Sheldon are particularly handsome and appropriate. This is a film of priorities; Turing had to sacrifice his personal pleasures for the good of his country; ironically, his country punished him later in his life. This idea carries the film and carries it well; life for all of us is full of disappointments. It's how we deal with them that makes the difference.

Friday, December 19, 2014

An Emotional Jolt - and an Amazing Film

When the final image of Whiplash faded to black, my head hit the back of my chair and I was jolted back into my seat - it was as though I was hit in the stomach. Whiplash has that type of emotional punch; it's pure cinema that grabs the viewer from the first frame and never lets go. It's the best film I've seen this year.

The story is quite simple, which is fitting for a film that is not plot-driven, but rather, one that makes the most of the emotions of its two main characters. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a college-aged young man who enrolls in the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan (the actual name of the school is fictional, but certainly based on Julliard). He's a very talented jazz drummer with dreams of becoming the next Buddy Rich (we hear and watch old tapes of Rich performing at various times in the film; Neyman listens to these tapes and memorizes every note).

His instructor at the school is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a crazed madman/genius, who instills fear and discipline in his students. He doesn't see that what he's doing is anything out of the ordinary, believing that he can drive a musician to his personal best, "beyond his limits" as he says in the film. One scene of Fletcher barking orders to Neyman about playing a particular section of one jazz composition faster and faster until it hardly seems humanly possible is a riveting moment in this film and a clear sign of both Fletcher's method as well as Neyman's drive to be the best.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle takes us on a wild roller coaster of a ride in this film; the title "Whiplash" a well-chosen one (it's also the name of a jazz composition heard several times in the film). Not only are the class sessions frantically hypnotic in the cross-cutting between the images of Fletcher hurling insults at Neyman and the young drummer doing all he can to follow his instructions, the mood shifts of the film are quite startling as well (editor Tom Cross performed brilliantly on this film).

"His bark is worse than his bite," is what one student tells Neyman, referring to Fletcher and indeed, there are two scenes in the film where we see a softer side of the man. He may be a bit of a madman, but he is human. Likewise, there are scenes of Neyman setting aside his drums for a moment or two, to attend a movie with his father or to nervously approach a young woman he has had his eyes on for some time.

But it is the relationship of teacher and student and the scenes in the classroom that form the heart of this film. Think of the most intense, the most difficult teacher you've ever had - and now multiply that times six - and you'll start to get an idea of the aura of Fletcher. His motives are clear - he demands the best from his students and if he has to, he'll belittle them. His insults are largely unprintable here, the sexual connotations and humiliating language he uses are extreme. He's also not above getting right in someone's face, at one point, reducing Neyman to tears. Simmons has a field day in this role, dressed in black turtleneck and slacks, his bald head giving him the look of a driven madman. It's a tour-de-force performance.

Teller has a less flashy role, but he is excellent, especially when we witness his confusion. Is he really willing to take all the abuse of his teacher? Teller is believable throughout the film, almost always presenting an air of remarkable self-confidence. That will alienate him from almost everyone in his life, but he realizes the sacrifices he must make if he is to be the best. This is a determined, yet scared individual and Teller brings this across very well in his portrayal.

The big band jazz performances in Whiplash are excellent; if you only went to see this film for its music, you'd probably be satisfied. But the process of how the final performances come about are what gives this film its drive and inner core. The relationship of teacher and student has rarely been more intensely examined on film.

Besides being a powerful, emotional, primal experience that succeeds brilliantly - the final musical sequence, some twelve to fifteen minutes in length is wonderfully realized - this is a film with a rich message. It asks all of us how far we are willing to go to realize our dreams. True success may actually result in us falling a bit short of those dreams - then again, we may realize out highest goals after all. Whiplash certainly poses the thought that whether or not we reach our ultimate goal, the journey, no matter how anguished or stress-filled, is an examination in our lives that helps us better understand who we really are. This is not the first film to ever make this type of analysis, but it's easily one of the best to ever do so. Bravo to Damien Chazelle for making such a powerful story that's told with such cinematic flair. I can't wait to see Whiplash again!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Power - and all its horrors

Foxcatcher, the latest film from director Bennett Miller, is an absorbing examination into how often power can represent nothing more than fools' gold. Beautifully directed, with engrossing performances from the three lead actors, this is one of the most troubling as well as one of the richest film experiences of recent years.

The film is based on the true story of the Schultz brothers, Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo), both of whom won gold medals at the 1984 Olympics wrestling competition. The film focuses more on the plight of Mark, who despite his personal success, has played second fiddle to his brother Dave, who is happily married with children and is being wooed by the USA wrestling federation to be a national coach. Mark, meanwhile, is not married and is a loner, training in isolation and living on meager wages. The opening shot of him in practice with a dummy, is a marvelous cinematic moment that introduces us to the sparseness of his life.

One day, Mark receives a phone call, asking that he come to meet John du Pont (Steve Carell) at his expansive estate in Delaware. Du Pont, a member of the famed family that made a fortune in chemicals, is an avid wrestling fan and has built a state of the art training facility; he woos Mark with this as well as a generous paycheck and wants him to train there in order to win the upcoming World Championships as well as a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. For Mark, this is an opportunity he cannot pass up; not only will it help him focus more on his training, it will reward him with the chance to have a father figure in his life (his parents died when he was a young boy).

This is all based on a true story, one that is known to many people. I won't give away the conclusion of this film, if only for people that don't know all the juicy details, but one can tell watching the film that there are many problems that will arise in the relationship between du Pont and the Schultz brothers. While Mark is initially more than happy to be appreciated for his talents, his feelings about du Pont soon change, given du Pont's strange behavior. Dave, who at first turns down the chance to move into du Pont's facility - named Foxcatcher Farms, for the hunting grounds his mother owns - eventually does move in; the results will be tragic for him.

All three of these principal characters are well defined. Mark is the loner, looking for self-pride, hungry for appreciation. Dave is much more self-confident; indeed, he is the most normal of the three. Happily married and given the gift of being able to coach other wrestlers, he relates extremely well to others and can serve as a problem solver between Mark and du Pont. Du Pont himself is an obsessive, spoiled rich brat who believes that his wealth can buy him power, if not friendship.

The three leads are first-rate. Ruffalo has been delivering understated performances for years now; given the subtleties of his craft, he has been sadly under appreciated as an actor. Here he lends a calming voice to this stormy situation and it's fascinating to watch Ruffalo move from quiet satisfaction over his lot in life - he usually has smile on his face and a cheerful greeting for others in his early scenes - to a sad reservation that he is in the middle of a nightmare. In one scene, he is asked by du Pont's documentarian to say something nice about his boss. Ruffalo has trouble coming up with the words and can barely even look at the camera. He's great in this brief scene.

As Mark Schultz, Channing Tatum is a standout. He has the physical presence (he put on weight for this role) and he also delivers on an emotional front. His character is out of his comfort zone almost from the start of this story and Tatum is able to show us the frustrations and confusion of Mark Schultz as his world starts to spin out of control. Despite his successes on the wrestling mat, he remains confused about the larger world; his speech patterns are that of a man who lacks confidence, especially as he has no idea about the consequences of his decision to work with du Pont (at one point in a meeting with his brother Dave and du Pont, Mark can barely speak; Tatum psychically withdraws into himself at this moment, afraid to speak his mind; it's a marvelous scene). Given his work in previous films such as 21 Jump Street and White House Down, I must admit I wondered if Tatum would be right for this role; boy, is he ever!

As John du Pont, Steve Carell turns in a performance that is 180 degrees from his comic turns in The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Anchorman 2 (or his most famous role as the boss on television's The Office). His physical transformation is stunning, as he wears a prosthetic nose and carries his head high, at a slightly tilted angle, to show his imagined power. He speaks in monosyllabic phrases, saying only what needs to be said, as though his words were instruments of power, as much as his money. Even the way he walks is creepy, gently stepping across a wrestling mat, as though every step was a momentous decision. Carell gives us a sad, troubled man who must dominate his world if he is to continue having meaning in his life. His performance is the centerpiece of this story and Carell is unforgettable.

Having now made three absorbing films, all about obsessive (or borderline obsessive) behavior of three men in America - Truman Capote in Capote (2005), Billy Beane in Moneyball (2011) and now John du Pont in this film - director Bennet Miller must be considered one of the most important filmmakers in America, if only for the subjects of his movies. Yet there is much more to his craft than the actions of his characters; Miller continually creates a small world that is moody and atmospheric, one in which his characters function amidst chaos. Miller is fascinated by individuals who take on challenges, intelligent men who fight until the end for their quest, be it the truth in a murder investigation or the right way to go about putting together a baseball team or a wrestling squad. There is great drama in these situations and Miller treats these stories with insight that offers us not only the visions of these men, but also the reactions of others who treat them as inferior or warped. It's not a pretty world in much of Miller's work, but it's one that is fascinating, especially in its questioning of how far these individuals can and will go to conquer their demons. I wrote that Miller must be considered one of the most important filmmakers in this country; I believe he is also one of our finest directors.

Foxcatcher is a layered film that thankfully is handled with great intelligence by Miller and his screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. Here is a film that could have been preachy or melodramatic, given the story's grim details. Yet, this film, in the final analysis, is a study in character relationships; the three principals are so well defined on paper and in the flesh by these fine actors. John du Pont, Mark and Dave Schultz are more than players in a bizarre true story; they are indeed power brokers who become lost in glory. For filmgoers that want to experience the work of a director that scrutinizes human behavior and shows all the warts, Foxcatcher is a must see.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Documenting the Life and Work of a Genius

"I didn't know what you couldn't do. I didn't deliberately set out to invent anything. It just seemed to me, why not?" - Orson Welles, speaking about Citizen Kane.

At the 1971 Academy Awards, John Huston, accepting the Honorary Oscar for Orson Welles, said that "Genius is a word that must be used very sparingly, especially in this world of films." Quite true, but everyone agrees Orson Welles was an artist who truly deserved the title of genius; his body of work is clear evidence of that. In a new documentary by Chuck Workman titled Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, we are treated to an in-depth look at the incredible path that Welles took en route to becoming arguably the most creative genius of American cinema - perhaps world cinema - during the 20th century.

Workman, an Oscar-winner, who is best known for his short films (he made a new one each year for more than two decades for the annual Oscar telecast), has crafted a painstakingly detailed work that denotes the special moments in Welles' life, from his schooling in Woodstock, Illinois as a youth to his work for the Federal Theater in the 1930s all the way through his final films in the 1960s and 1970s. Welles would constantly amaze those who worked with him; fellow actor Norman Lloyd recalls at one point in this film that when you were present at a play directed by Welles, "you had an experience in the theater you never had anywhere else."

Every famous moment in Welles' career is highlighted here, especially his memorable War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, one that scared thousands of people from coast to coast. We read excerpts of letters to Welles about this event, some of them quite positive in their praise for his storytelling, others written in a pejorative tone ("inhuman" is the term used by one angry individual). There are clips of Welles himself being interviewed about the public's reaction; he was quite surprised to learn of the controversy he created. He recalls that there were police in the studio while the broadcast was going on looking for the proper person to arrest.

While this moment made Welles a household name across America, it was his work in films that cemented his reputation, as a true original, one who "freed the camera," as Martin Scorsese mentions in one clip. Workman has a good deal in the film about Citizen Kane, but he also devotes much time to his other films, especially works such as The Trial and Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight. Given that these two films are rarely seen works, this is a wise decision on Workman's part.

Workman also devotes time to several of Welles' unfinished films such as Don QuixoteThe Deep, The Dreamers and The Merchant of Venice. What's fascinating about this section of the documentary is being able to watch scenes from these films, as we are reminded that Welles actually shot sections of these works, unlike other famous directors who also had unfinished projects. Unfortunately, Welles had so many of these unfinished movies - for reasons ranging from financial problems to personal ones - that his reputation suffered from this facet of his life. One illuminating clip has director Henry Jaglom recalling that while so many in Hollywood wanted to meet Welles and have lunch with him, too many people were worried that "he was not predictable." Welles himself says in one of this film's clips, "Do you know that I always liked Hollywood very much? It just wasn't reciprocated."

What I love most about this documentary is that Workman keeps the talking heads aspect to a minimum; there are insightful interviews with writers - especially Simon Callow, who wrote the most authoritative biography of Welles - as well as with a few directors - there is a hilarious moment of Paul Mazursky recalling his first meeting with Welles - that are entertaining and informative. But it is the inclusion of so many clips of Welles himself offering up his thoughts on one of his films or his struggles to complete a film that make this documentary so entertaining (in an interview with Workman, he told me that he was fortunate in this aspect, as Welles made so many television and industry appearances in his career, so he had much to choose from).

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is highly recommended not only because it is a complete look at the work of this genius; it also delivers great insight into the contradictions that were at the heart of Orson Welles' life. As with any great artist, the troubling moments in his career defined him just as much as the celebrated triumphs.

Here is the link to my interview with Chuck Workman about this film. I spoke with him at the Chicago International Film Festival this past October. His insights are a valuable companion piece to his documentary.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Finding Answers amidst Despair

This time of year, a good number of films that have numerous things to say about inner strength premiere on screens across the country. Many of these works are properly noble, with stories of courage in the face of brutality; these are often big studio projects crafted to catch the attention of the Academy for Oscar glory.

Then you have a film such as The Homesman. Set in the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s, this is a film that is strikingly original in many ways. It's not a Western and it's certainly not a revisionist Western, though it has some of the trappings as such. Rather, it's a character study of two lonesome people, brought together by pure fate, who take on a difficult task, all the while trying to find meaning in their immediate lot in lives - as well as in their relationship with each other.

Tommy Lee Jones directed, co-wrote the screenplay and stars in the film; clearly his dedication and love for this project is heartfelt. Working together with the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Wolf of Wall Street, Argo, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Babel), Jones' direction is assured, as he takes his time with each scene, showing the absurdity along with the reality of this strange journey. At times reminiscent of the Coen Brothers' True Grit, at times displaying influences of Night of the Hunter, Jones directs with one eye on the past and one looking at a highly original vision of the heartland. The compositions are arresting, with Jones and Prieto shooting with long lenses, often showing the wagon that is at the center of this tale dwarfed by the wide-open prairie.

The story - one of the most unusual I've encountered in recent years - is how a strong, independent woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) must travel from her home in Nebraska in a covered wagon containing three young local women who have recently gone mad. Their husbands cannot handle them - one of the women cannot even speak - so it falls to Cuddy to take these poor souls to Iowa where a minister and his wife will care for them.

Shortly after her journey begins, she happens to see George Briggs (Jones) sitting upon his horse under a huge tree with a noose around his neck. If the horse moves too far, Briggs will hang, so he begs Cuddy for his life. She cuts him down, but only after he agrees to help her with her demanding task.

The film plays out on two levels: the physical and mental difficulties of transporting these three women hundreds of miles across the plains and secondly, the ongoing bond between Cuddy and Briggs. She is a God-fearing, hard-working woman who is not married; her plain looks and strong will have scared off her would-be suitors (as we see in early on in the film). He is independent, living only day to day, in search of a warm place to sleep, a decent meal and a drink or two of whisky. Their conversations rarely amount to much, but they do proceed from single syllables to at least a few words now and then, as each needs the other, if only to survive the trip.

He hates this job, but there's some good money for him at the end of the trail, while for her, it's a journey that is a self-examination of her soul. Will she pause long enough to consider how others view her? She is single-minded, which makes her an ideal choice for this journey, but she suffers from a lack of inner pride; perhaps Griggs can help her overcome that.

About thirty minutes before the conclusion, a plot twist brings Briggs to a new awareness of how cruel and unfair life can be; Jones is particularly good on screen at this moment. While there are times his performance seems like many others he has given in previous films, his portrayal of Griggs as a man wandering through a maze is excellent. Likewise for Swank, who has the steely presence to make her character come alive.

I mentioned director of photography Prieto before; the man is clearly at the top of his game. His use of light is magnificent in this film, from the flames of a fire in a cave late at night to the bright blues and muted whites of a bleak, cloud-filled winter's sky. He even slightly overexposes the prairie images a few times in the film; the effect is subtle, but perfect in keeping with the film's tone of nature overwhelming these individuals.

I previously wrote that late fall and winter is the time of year we get "important" films from Hollywood. This is not one of those sincere, uplifting films that takes itself seriously. Rather, The Homesman, thanks to its intelligent screenplay, beautiful direction by Jones, arresting photography by Prieto, and two notable performances by its leads, is a film of constant wonder at the role humans play in life. We may be insignificant in the large picture, but we can do good for others, even if we don't realize exactly how we need to go about it. The Homesman does not give us easy answers, but rather asks some tough questions and for that, it's a work that is at once haunting and at the same time, mysterious.