Monday, January 27, 2014

The Best Films of 2013

2013 was an excellent year for the cinema, especially American films. Let's get right to my list of the year's best films.

1) Inside Llewyn Davis (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen). After almost thirty years of giving us unique films, the Coen brothers are still making singular works of art. Inside Llewyn Davis may just be their most personal film to date; a look at a down and out folk singer in the early 1960s, this is a sublime film, an episodic tale that details the difficulties of achieving success. We are presented with a not-so-sympathetic loner who is often his own worst enemy, yet we identify and root for this character, as he's honest to a fault. The direction of the Coens has never been so accomplished, so effortless, as they tell this offbeat story honestly, without having to resort to oblique camera angles. At times funny (the song "Please Mr. Kennedy" is hilarious and the recording of this song is marvelously performed and directed), at times typically Coen-esque in its weirdness (John Goodman's character) and at times haunting (the scenes of the title character baring his soul in his folk club performances), this is the year's most charming and unusual film.

2) Saving Mr. Banks (directed by John Lee Hancock). Yes, this film is that good. Ostensibly the story of how P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, came to work with the Disney studios - primarily Walt's creative team - this goes far beyond that level, giving us flashbacks of Travers' life as a little girl in Australia. Her relationship with her father - at first joyous and then filled with heartbreak - becomes the source of her emotional journey within herself as she writes her famous tome. A wonderful performance by Emma Thompson (how was she not nominated for an Academy Award?), an underrated one from Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and marvelous supporting turns from Colin Farrell as Travers Goff (P.L. Travers' father) and Annie Rose Buckley as the young P.L. Travers. Sensitively directed by John Lee Hancock (the opening and closing bookend shots are beautiful), gorgeous cinematography by John Schwartzman (he could have easily been nominated for an Oscar), beautifully edited by Mark Livolsi (who definitely should have received an Academy Award nomination; the "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank sequence with its cross-cutting is prime evidence of that); also a touching score by Thomas Newman (especially his cue for Travers Goff). The most delightful surprise for me at the cinema this past year.

3) Her - Writer/director Spike Jonze takes the time-honored story of the lonely guy and sets it in the near future, where said guy falls in love with his computer's operating system. This is quite an original take on love as sensitive Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is quite incapable of expressing his emotions to fellow humans, opens his heart to Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), his techo-crush. Jonze comments on many things in this film, especially how tied in we are to technology, so much so that even though we talk to our fellow man, we rarely communicate. The look of the film - with its pinks, oranges and browns - is quite eye catching - and in the end, we have been treated to a beautifully told, imaginative, offbeat, haunting love story.

4) 12 Years a Slave (directed by Steve McQueen) - This is a powerful film, not because it deals with slavery, but because of this particular story of bondage. Based on the titular book by Solomon Northup, a free man who was abducted into slavery, this is a brilliantly told tale of what this character must deal with in order to survive. Thus we are not given a sweeping statement about the evils of slavery as a system, but rather a gripping personal story of restraint and understanding amidst terrible conditions; to my way of thinking, this approach leaves the viewer with a more immediate punch to the gut. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a marvelous, multi-layered performance as Northup; other standouts are by Michael Fassbender as a plantation owner filed with rage and hate and Lupita Nyong'o, who movingly portrays a female slave who is treated with great shame by Fassbender's character (she should win Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards; this was a superb performance). Beautifully photographed by Sean Bobbitt, especially the scenes set just before sundown that lend a haunting tone to the film (he should have been nominated for an Oscar), this was a technically wondrous film - kudos also to editor Joe Walker, production designer Adam Stockhausen and costume designer Patricia Norris - this is an excellent recreation of this era in America. How important it was for McQueen and his collaborators to bring this little-known story to the big screen so future generations would never forget.

5) My Sweet Pepper Land (directed by Hineer Saleem) The story of a young man and a woman from Kurdistan: Baran (Korkmaz Arslan), a former war hero, who takes on the role of chief of police in a small town near the border with Turkey and Iraq, and Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), a single woman who wants to teach the children of this village. While they have the greatest intentions in mind, they are constantly rebuffed by the elders of this land who are tied to their ancient traditions. The dialogue and action are simply told and though we are watching the story of a vastly different culture than ours in America, we identify and sympathize with these two individuals, as we come to know their uncertainties of their lives. Inevitably, they turn to each other for support and love. This is a gentle, moving film that is understated, thanks to the sensitive direction by Saleem. Winner of the Gold Hugo for Best Feature Film at the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival.

6) All is Lost (directed by J.C. Chandor) - A story as old as time - a man (in this case, Our Man) lost at sea, doing everything he can to stay alive. Robert Redford lends a brilliant performance, one that calls upon him to use his wits and brawn as he battles the elements (this is a demanding role; at 77, Redford is more than up to the challenge.) This is pure cinema, a film with virtually no spoken language, save for a brief opening monologue by Redford and then later, one well-chosen obscenity. Director Chandor is quite adept at creating visual turmoil on the character's small boat and life raft; he is ably assisted in this by cinematographers Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini. Alex Ebert's minimalist score is another major element of this film, as it lends the proper emotional tone; this is a score that one almost doesn't notice (certainly the Academy didn't, as it was unfairly passed over for an Oscar nomination.) While this film succeeds on its most basic level as a story of survival, it is the religious, almost existential tone of life and death that elevates this into a moving work of art.

7) Nebraska - (directed by Alexander Payne). A tale of a husband, wife and son who finally get to know each other after a lifetime of disillusion. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who is showing slight signs of dementia in his seventies, receives a letter saying he has won a million dollars in a contest. His cantankerous wife Kate (June Squibb, in a hilarious performance) and his son David (Will Forte) try and convince Woody that he hasn't won anything, but to no avail. So David drives Woody from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect his "winnings" and along the way, they come to communicate with each other as never before. Bob Nelson's original script is clever and wistful and is populated with any number of unique characters, who add to the offbeat tone of this work. Payne captures the ironies and beauties of this story equally well; the emotions he presents are honest and well-earned. The black and white photography by Phedon Papamichael alternates in tone between shimmering and bleak; his work is a perfect synopsis of this charming film in which small actions mean a great deal.

8) The Act of Killing (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directed by Christine Cynn and Anonymous) A truly original work, at times bizarre, at times stomach-churning, but always fascinating, this is the story of a few individuals who oversaw the killings of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Indonesians in the 1965-1966 military uprising in that country. Director Oppenheimer interviews these men - now in their seventies - about their roles at that time and finds that most feel little remorse about their acts, as they have moved on in their lives, marrying and fathering children (one of these killers talks about his experiences in a voice over as he goes shopping with his family in a high-end mall). Oppenheimer also has these individuals recreate the killings and they are glad to oblige, making a film-within-a-film that is brutally detailed. Taking the chances it does, The Act of Killing is a startling and historically important documentary.

9) You Will Be My Son - Tu seras mon fils - (directed by Gilles Legrand) Although this film's year of creation is listed as 2011 on, it had its first commercial run in the United States in 2013; hence its inclusion in this list. A stubborn proprietor of a wine estate in Bordeaux looks to the son of his vineyard manager to run his operation; in doing so, he discredits his own son. Niels Arestrup, gives a memorable performance as Paul, the winery owner; here is a man who revels in his past glories, yet is sparing in his love toward others. Arestrup is currently one of cinema's greatest actors and I hope he will enjoy even greater success outside of Europe. The tale has elements of the Cain and Abel story as well as that of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, as far as the privileged son pitted against the son who is not loved. There is also a nice element in the screenplay about the passage of time, both in regards to a wine improving after years in the bottle as well as individuals inheriting wisdom from one's elders. The film argues that with time, understanding another's viewpoint is the key to living a successful life.

10) I Will Be Murdered (directed by Julian Webster) A documentary about the 2009 killing of Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer in Guatemala, who opposed the philosophy of president Alvaro Colom Caballeros. Rosenberg, in a effort to arouse his fellow citizens, produced a short video in which he predicted his own assassination at the hands of the government; that video, shown on national television within days of his death, created a national sensation. Very well directed by Webster, who details the latter half of the film with the facts of the investigation of the murder; shocking secrets are slowly revealed and things are not as they seem on either side. A gripping thriller.

11) Philomena (directed by Stephen Frears) The true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish woman who had her five year-old son taken from her by the nuns at the convent/school where she was forced to work when she was a young woman. The story takes place some fifty years later as she is assisted in her search for the truth by Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC reporter, who desperately needs some meaning in his life. The two characters by their very nature - Lee with her basic goodness and Sixsmith with his organizational talent - help the other get through an emotional time in their lives, resulting in a moving friendship. Dench delivers a magnificent performance as a quiet woman who never abandons her Catholic faith nor her belief in the goodness of her fellow man; this is one of the finest moments in her treasured career. Coogan offers a natural performance that works beautifully here; he also penned the screenplay which is filled with perfectly realized dialogue, be it about the big picture or some small, touching moments. Effortlessly directed by Frears, this film goes straight to the heart without underlining the emotions of the story.

12 (tie) The Verdict (directed by Jan Verheyen). A successful corporate man in Belgium suddenly has his life changed when his wife is brutally murdered. The police capture the suspect, but because of a judicial technicality, he is released, causing public outrage and a need in the victim to seek retribution by any means possible. Excellent performances throughout, especially by Koen de Bouw as Luc Segers, the victim and Johan Leysen, as his attorney. Verheyen directs with a cool, detached vision and his overhead shots in the courtroom sequence are reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock. Verheyen also wrote the screenplay, which contains some of the finest trial closing arguments ever presented in cinematic history. The ending is ambiguous - was this man, as well as society in general - served justice?

12) (tie) The Armstrong Lie (directed by Alex Gibney) Leading documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) tackles the sorry story of cyclist Lance Armstrong, who admitted his cheating ways that helped him win seven consecutive titles at the Tour de France. As usual, Gibney takes a very complex story and organizes it elegantly; on its own, this makes for a riveting documentary. But this is also a look at how Armstrong deceived the filmmaker, who asked him to record his efforts to win another title without the use of banned substances. It is on this level that the viewer is forced to look at just how big the Armstrong lie really was. The film also addresses how we revere sports champions and how we as a public almost need these celebrity athletes in our world. Gibney does more than criticize Armstrong, as he also focuses on his early triumphs as well as his battle with cancer and his charity work, so his portrait is a complete one. But he also deals with journalists and teammates that opposed him for years before the truth finally was revealed; to Gibney, these dedicated souls are the heroes of this unfortunate tale.

Honorable mention: American Hustle, Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, The Motel Life

Most disappointing film: The Wolf of Wall Street

Other bests:

Performance by an actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Performance by an actress: Judi Dench, Philomena

Supporting actor: (tie) Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers ClubMichael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Supporting actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her

Adapted Screeplay: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave

Cinematography: (tie) Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska; Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis

Editing: Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger, Gravity

Original Score: Alex Ebert, All is Lost

Original Song: T Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, Ethan and Joel Coen, Ed Rush, George Cromarty, "Please Mr. Kennedy" - Inside Llewyn Davis

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Finding Love in a most unusual way

I've always thought that the saying "There's nothing new under the sun," was only true in general, especially when it comes to the cinema. Yes, we've seen romantic comedies, political thrillers, war films, historical epics, etc. etc. before, but thanks to a lot of creative people, we are treated to new ways to tell these stories. In Her, writer/director Spike Jonze takes the time-honored story of the lonely guy and manages to create one of the most unique, charming and insightful films of this or recent years.

Her tells the story of Theodore Twombly, an insightful, funny man (Joaquin Phoenix) whose profession is writing deeply felt letters for customers at a company called The offices of this firm are immaculate, with spacious working quarters all done up in bright reds, pinks and pastels - no doubt to put the employees in a relaxing mood in order to promote their finest work (the production design of K.K. Barrett is quite eye-catching). There is a need for this company, the movie seems to be saying somewhat subconsciously, because most people are unable to express their inner feelings, as they spend too much time obsessed with technology, be it video games or the latest electronic gadgets designed to make communication easier with their fellow man.

Twombly is excellent at what he does, yet he can't seem to express his own inner emotions to real people; he is going through a divorce as we meet him. He has one female friend, a co-worker named Amy (Amy Adams) whom he can talk to, but that's about it. He spends a lot of time at home, usually with technology; one of his delights is playing a video game with a foul-mouthed ghost that has more personality than he does. As for sex, he resorts at one point to a phone call with a woman who simulates an orgasm and asks him to do some rather kinky things.

Notice the orange, pink and brown colors that make up the world of the not-too-distant future.

Clearly, Theodore needs something new in his life and he finds it when he purchases an operating system - OS1 - that provides the user with a virtual assistant; in this case, it is a "woman" named Samantha who is the voice that will communicate with Theodore and help him organize his email and, as it turns out, his life in general. Scarlett Johansson, provides the voice of Samantha, and she's wonderful at this role, as she's smart, sexy, funny and unpredictable (what red-blooded man wouldn't be interested in her?) 

At first, Samantha does the menial tasks that she is trained to do (she mentions that she can read a book in 1/200th of a second), but soon, she expresses her feelings toward Theodore. Though he's a little unsure at first, it doesn't take him long to do the same for her. He truly is in love.

What I admire about this film is the world that Spike Jonze gives us. When Theodore lets his co-workers know that he's having a relationship with his operating system, they accept it and want to know more about his new love. Jonze comments on how normal technology is in our lives, so this sort of relationship doesn't seem out of place. The very fact that Theodore is at his happiest in his life when he talking to Samantha is a clever analysis of how phony face-to-face conversations have become in our world - how many people have anything truly clever to say anymore when faced with everyday dialogue with friends and colleagues? Indeed, Theodore, who is so talented when writing letters for someone else he's never even met, only opens up his true feelings when speaking to his operating system. (In a clever piece of business, he purchases a pocket-sized computer with a small oval opening, which represents an eye, so Samantha can "see" the real world for herself. It's Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in a more personal, sensitive approach).

Joaquin Phoenix's performance as Theodore is a wonder, as he gives us a man who is vulnerable, confused, at times happy, often sad. Given the uniqueness of this story, this is a challenging role and Phoenix delivers one of his best performances, one that is 180 degrees opposite from the dominating individual he portrayed in last year's The Master.

Credit also to director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose soft-light, slightly dreamy lighting creates the perfect tone for this slightly futuristic look. This is an entirely different vista than the one the Swiss-born cinematographer gave us in 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film that was graced with harsh office lighting and dimly lit residences. Here is a supremely talented craftsman at the height of his talent.

But of course, this is the baby of Spike Jonze, who's directed such wonderfully irreverent films as Adaptation (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999). Both of those films were written by someone else, but here Jonze wrote the screenplay and it's both a touching love story as well as a biting social commentary. His direction is sensitive, as he presents us with all the ironies and romantic inspirations of the story without being too blunt.

At one point Samantha tells Theodore, "I'm evolving just like you." Their relationship has to grow or it will die and it's a key to understanding this sincerely-felt tale. Real life as we know it today is bittersweet, so why should it be any different in the future?