The Bestest 2013: Filmmage

Despite the current state of independent film (increasingly fewer screens, economically challenging business models, compressed distribution windows) 2013 proved to be one of the best years in a decade for films large and small. In some ways almost every film I loved was a new take on an old subject (horror, spring break, slavery, the 60’s, the 70’s). The actors and actresses we love continued to reinvent themselves, trumping everything that has come before with performances seemingly inspired by the past and the future.

1) Inside Llewyn Davis – Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan)

A Coen brothers film about a folk singer is still a Coen brothers film. Llewyn Davis is a perfectly crafted moody time-bomb of a character, drifting from couch to couch in the cold winter of 1963 New York. As in all  their films, the Coens here cover quite a bit of ground in what seems like a simple story. It is both an examination of the West Village folk scene right before Dylan changed the game completely, and  also an uncannily authentic look at New York intellectuals and their blue collar counterparts.

But like many of their most recent films, “Llewyn Davis” is a film where the music itself is an important leading character. Oscar Isaac gives an award caliber performance both playing a folk singer and performing as one. He carries a kind of fragile humanity right behind the surface of a loathsome exterior. Less accessible, or perhaps just less upbeat than many of their films, “Llewyn Davis” is a patient, incredible precise slice of a time and place, and even greater gem for fans of new and old folk music.

2) Her – Dir. Spike Jonze (Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansen)

“Her” is easily one of the most creative romantic films in eons. Like “500 Days of Summer,” “Upstream Color,” “Like Crazy,” and “Eternal Sunshine,” but obviously something completely different, Spike Jones has crafted one of the weirdest, but most genuine love stories of all time. In his semi-futuristic world, true love is neither physical nor it is even reciprocal in the truest sense of the word. It is more of a state of mind, or state of intellectual compatibility.

It would be hard to imagine this film without the effortless vulnerability of Joaquin Phoenix, and the seductiveness of Scarlett Johansson who exists only as a voice through an earpiece. To fall for an operating system is really no different than falling in love with a character from a book, a voice on the radio, or a picture in a magazine, except that the idea also understands you. Like a dream captured on film, “Her” falls like fresh snow, slowly, beautifully and ephemerally.

3) 12 Years A Slave – Dir. Steve McQueen (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender)

In sheer contrast to Tarantino’s “Django,” McQueen’s masterpiece is a brutal, but beautiful reflection on our shameful past. There is nary a smile or laugh to be had, just an endless sea of largely horrible masters and powerless defeated slaves. As in his previous films (“Shame” and “Hunger”) McQueen can’t help but make you confront history and suffer through long, graphic reenactments.

Every character is clearly defined, most of the time without words, but with angry or hopeless expressions. This is not really a film to enjoy so much as to confront, endure and then ultimately appreciate. Although filled with cameos from everyone from Brad Pitt to Paul Giamatti, the film belongs to Chinwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. Good and evil personified. Although not for everybody, perhaps it should be required viewing for everybody.

4) Fruitvale Station – Dir. Ryan Coogler (Michael B. Jordon, Octavia Spencer)

There is no waste in “Fruitvale Station,” it is a perfect little film based on a totally avoidable tragedy. In his directorial debut, Ryan Coogler was able to tell a story that took place in his hometown, and approach it with the kind of unemotional distance you wouldn’t have thought possible. Michael B. Jordan, whom we have watched grow up on “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights” is Oscar caliber playing the real life Oscar Grant who was shot to death by BART police on New Years Day 2009.

Like Cassavetes, Coogler’s debut is a subtle hand held masterpiece, as he manages to get close enough to Oscar Grant to expose him as a massively flawed but hugely empathetic person. In lesser hands this story becomes a racial-political statement that exposes history yet again repeating itself shamefully. But somehow the story just flows along so quickly and easily that before you have time to poke holes it is over. Simplicity in filmmaking is the hardest thing to accomplish, but here it is impeccably executed.

5) Before Midnight –Dir. Richard Linklater (Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy)

Beyond the “Godfather” trilogy I can’t think of another trio of films that I have loved as consistently. Where the Godfather films are sprawling epics, Linklater’s films are precious- basically just one long rolling conversation between two people who think and speak as cleverly as most people wish they could, and have a relationship both as fleeting and occasionally perfect as any.

In this chapter Delpy and Hawke are now married with children and living in Europe. At this point we know both characters quite well. We both love them and hate them. They bicker and spat, hold hands and kiss, reminisce and dream, and then start all over again. Like the previous films nothing much happens, except of course one of the most curious and naturalistic modern love stories of our time. [Read more…]

The Bestest, Filmmage 2012

Another great year for films large and small, but in reality I think it was the bigger films that were better than the indie’s. Perhaps it’s that the indie film marketplace has never been more difficult than it is today. Art house screens are disappearing and the ones that exist are often not much bigger than the screen in your living room. Add to that the compression of release windows, and you’ll find most indie’s on Netflix or Amazon within a few months. But the big films were smarter, longer and largely better than any year for the past decade, and any of the most respected auteurs working had films this year (Tarantino, Haneke, Wes Anderson, PT Anderson, Speilberg, Russell). Half of this list is already streamable and the other half, should probably be seen on the screen, so go make it happen.

1) Searching For Sugar Man – Dir. Malik Bendjelloul (Sixto Rodriguez)

Every year there is a film that transcends all others, both in creativity and also in its earnestness. “Searching For Sugar Man” is just that film. It is really two films in fact, the first a bizarre backstory about how an obscure folk singer became the most important musician in apartheid South Africa without ever having a clue. The second film within a film is about the journey to rediscovering one of the most criminally under heard musicians of the 70’s.

Most music docs put the music at the forefront because the stories behind the musicians are already broadly known (The Last Waltz, Marley) but “Sugar Man” is a story of a man nobody knew. A man who lived in quite, simple, peaceful, obscurity in a very modest apartment in Detroit making a living as a day laborer. But Rodriguez, whose records I discovered only a decade ago, and like Nick Drake who struggled to find an audience around the same time, had a voice like and angel, and wrote words even more piercing and honest than Dylan. But unlike Drake, he survived, and never seamed to carry any anger about his lack of success. He was and is still a beacon of light who exudes a kindness that makes his music so unquestionably beautiful. This film is a true masterpiece.

2) Django Unchained – Dir. Quentin Tarantino (Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz)

Picking up where “Inglorious Bastards” left off, “Django” is the perfect canvas to enjoy watching bad guys get slaughtered comically while the good guys tow that fine line. The violence is funny, but the drama is real, and for almost three hours, Tarantino entertains you mashing up spaghetti westerns with “Roots.” In almost anybody else’s hands a bloody slavery revenge film would watch like a sloppy mess, but Tarantino is a film buff with brass balls, so anything goes.

Christoph Waltz is again brilliant as German bounty hunter, who ends up freeing Jamie Foxx’s Django from chain gang early on to help him kill the Brittle brothers. Like all of his films Tarantino spins a great yarn of a story, juxtaposes good and evil, uses music as well as can be imagined, and extracts exquisite performances from everyone. Django the character, represents the underdog who not only overachieves, but blows up roof when given the chance. Of the two anti-slavery films this year, “Django” wins if for nothing other than originality alone.

3)  Beasts of the Southern Wild – Dir. Ben Zeitland (Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry)

You have never seen a film like this before. That is because the topic is so specific and the performances are real you’d swear you were watching real life unfold, albeit a strange and almost surreal one. This world is the one inhabited by the remarkable Hushpuppy, a six-year old survivor from the Bathtub region – an impoverished island like area off the coast of New Orleans. She lives in a ramshackle trailer with her alcoholic father until the storm comes, and turns everything into a swampy jungle.

Cast largely with first time actors, and shot on a shoestring in the ravages post Katrina Bayou’s “Beasts” plays like a slow motion, waking dream. And although each character seems pathetic and worthy of our sympathy they are all beautiful fighters, who neither want our pity nor expect it. Life in the Bathtub is filled with fragrant colors and characters who form a dysfunctional family, rag tag yet indestructible. You will not see another quite this rich in so many ways this year.

4) Moonrise Kingdom – Dir. Wes Anderson (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Francis McDormand)

Most people either are or aren’t Wes Anderson fans. There is no middle ground. If you’re a fan, this will be one of your favorites- right up there with “Rushmore” and “Fantastic Fox.” Everything is so small, nuanced and twee that it would be almost impossible to not appreciate his obsessive detail focus.  In fact the film almost looks like you are looking into a dollhouse of tiny real people, scattered across a rustic wonderland filled with strange caricatures.

Largely a story of young love and the minor adventure that ensues when the community gets involved in the search, this film is mostly about getting know a dozen or so genuinely unique characters: Ed Norton’s super serious boy scout leader, to the Bill Murray and Frances McDormand’s detached parents, to the Bruce Willis wacky Captain Sharp. The film is a visual feast, but also one of the most creative films of the year where watching very happen couldn’t be more entertaining.

5) Argo – Dir. Ben Affleck  (John Goodman, Alan Arkin)

Ben Affleck is on a helluva run these days. “The Town,” “Gone Baby Gone” and now “Argo” are all nearly perfect films. There is nothing flashy, but everything is rock solid: cinematography, acting, and the overall texture. Perhaps it took him a while to get rolling, but his films are beginning to have the substance of Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts.

“Argo” tells the story of the Iran hostage crisis, and the outrageous plan to free them by staging a fictional film. Affleck is perfect in his role of producer, but John Goodman, Alan Arkin and the rest of the cast are superb, bathed in a crisp 1980 authenticity. There was no film easier to watch than this one in 2012.

6) Lincoln– Dir. Steven Spielberg (Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field)

Watching “Lincoln” is like eating vegetables, but the ones that taste good – onion rings perhaps. Weighing in at nearly 3 hours, it flies by. In it we learn much about the politics of getting the 13 Amendment passed, but mostly we learn about Lincoln. If we believe the film, we learn that he was laugh out loud funny, a consummate and talented storyteller, and perhaps our country’s most gifted politician.

Daniel Day-Lewis makes very few films, and as a result he is staggering in nearly all of them. This might even be his best role yet, not only physically becoming Lincoln, but creating a character so nuanced (he sounds a bit like Bill Clinton on vicodin) you’ll forget at times he isn’t the president. Conversely, Spielberg makes loads of films, and they cover a massive amount of ground, but with “Lincoln” he plays right at the intersection of his passions: history and quashing bad guys. It’s really good.

7) Robot and Frank – Dir. Jake Schreier (Frank Langella, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon)

I love this film. It is small in scale but huge on humanity, realism, empathy and a bunch of other good qualities. Frank Langella, who just seems to be getting better with age, this time plays a cranky white collar ex-thief who is sent a robot by his son to keep him company. Living in quiet isolation in a quaint New England town, he occasionally ventures into town with stops at the library (which is closing) where flirts with Susan Sarandon as soon to be out of work librarian.

Although the film moves briskly through a pretty straightforward plotline, it is wonderful in that it juxtaposes the technological advantages present with the beautiful simplicity of the past. No film this year personalizes the both the realities of growing old, with the genuine human need to have meaningful companionship as a reason to survive. And yes there is a surprise twist, pay close attention.

8) Zero Dark Thirty – Dir. Kathryn Bigelow (Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton)

If you watch and love “Homeland” you will no doubt like “Zero Dark” but perhaps a little less than if you didn’t watch the show. As great as the film is, unlike “The Hurt Locker” which was just raw, gritty, fresh, and unexpected, this time you are seeing a story you have likely been following for a dozen years, and whose theme and setting is much more topical today that it was even five years ago.

That said, this is truly solid filmmaking with an incredibly deep cast, led by Jessica Chastain, but featuring a deep bench of familiar faces. Given that we know how the story begins and ends, watching the fat middle unfold is surprisingly intense and compelling. Katherine Bigelow has all of a sudden seemed to hit a kind of Ridley Scott stride.

9) 2 Days in New York –Dir. Julie Delpy (Chris Rock, Julie Delpy)

I miss the “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” era Woody Allen films, which is why I was so delighted to see Julie Delpy pick up where he left off. Everything is there in spades, the cramped but homey NYC apartments, the improbably contrived situations, the hilarious rapid-fire dialogue, and lovable characters. Instead of a nebbish Allen, we get a hipster Chris Rock, and an irresistible Delpy and her real life father.

This film is far superior to its Parisian predecessor, and might be the best performances to date from Rock and Delpy. The dialogue is relentlessly comedic, and revolves around the disastrous visit of Delpy’s French relatives as they descend on her tiny Manhattan apartment. The film is both laugh out loud funny, and genuinely sentimental.

10) Cloud Atlas – Dir. Tom Twyker / Wachowski’s (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry)

In a year filled with long movies, “Cloud Atlas” is the one probably deserves the longest running time, as it is derived from an enormous original work, and actually tells 6 interconnected but separate tales spanning 300 years. Although you might find the underlying “past lives spiritualism” a bit hokey, there is much to love even at a superficial level.

Of the many visual and plot gimmicks, the most clever, and almost always effective trick is that Hanks, Berry, and the rest of the play different characters in each of the six stories which begin on a Polynesian island in 1849 and end in futurist Seoul, Korea 2044. The scale and ambition of the film is among the most ambitious of the year, so despite holes here and there, I think it fair to describe it as remarkable.

11) Your Sister’s Sister – Dir. Lynn Shelton (Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt)

This is bona fide chick flick that even self respecting dudes will no doubt relate to. In part this is because at some point, everyone probably wishes that they could go back in time, not have kids, mortgages, and the anxiety of adult life. This film feels more like a play shot on film than a film, but it doesn’t really matter because this is all about the dialogue.

Mumblecore superstar Mark Duplass is increasingly becoming a legitimate, card-carrying movie star, but it is in roles like this where he really thrives, as a dude kind of lost in the middle of his life. Thankfully he is shuffled off to recuperate at the beautiful cabin belonging to his best buddy (Emily Blunt) where he finds her irresistible lesbian sister. The rest unravels like a beautiful sweater.

12) Silver Linings Playbook – Dir. David O. Russell (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper)

It is hard to see this film without lofty expectations unless you’ve been hiding under a rock. That said David O. Russell, manages to take what could have been a painfully cliché mass dramedy and turn it into a near perfect romantic comedy. Bradley Cooper’s manic lead, is spot on, as a recovering bi-polar former teacher looking to restart his life from his parents blue collar Philadelphia home.

Ripping what seems like a page from Frederick Exley’s brilliant novel “A Fans Note,” DeNiro plays the football obsessed patriarch (although his team is the Eagles not the Giants) and delivers his best performance in years. As good as Cooper is though, Jennifer Lawrence, is adorable and more important believable as the girl who will help him start again. This film won’t hurt your brain, but is very easy to swallow, and makes you smile throughout.

13) Liberal Arts – Dir. Josh Radnor (Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins)

After seeing the film at Sundance, I assumed it would be the runaway indie comedy of 2012. Perhaps it’s that the film has a whole bunch of personal relevance, having spent a bunch of lost weekends on the set (re: campus) when I was younger. In the film a 30-something graduate returns to his alma mater, Kenyon College, for a weekend to watch his second-favorite professor (Richard Jenkins) honored after a lifetime at the school.

While there he falls in love both with the past, and a beautiful, precocious girl half his age played by the most talented Olson sister (Elizabeth). Although it won’t stretch your brain too much, there are plenty of bittersweet reminiscences and a handful of wonderful cameos including a brilliant one from Allison Janney as a cougar-esque English teacher. This film was criminally under seen.

14) The Deep Blue Sea – Dir. Terrance Davies (Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston)

Rachel Weisz is one of the most underrated actors working today. She always delivers perfectly understated performances, but this time around her patience and sadness is as good as anything this year. The film has an incredibly slow but compelling pace, in part due to the fact the film is remake of a film, adapted from a 1955 play. But director Terrance Davies manages to execute the authenticity of the time a place (post WWII London) to a tee.

But the story is largely about love, or the lack thereof, and features Weisz in an almost Sylvia Plath “Bell Jar” role, despondent, but with a sliver of hope shining faintly. She is married to a rich older man, but this gives way to an affair with much younger but volatile man. For people looking for an upbeat feel good film, this is not the one, but “The Deep Blue Sea” harkens back to an older more formal kind of filmmaking.

15) Marley – Dir. Kevin McDonald (Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff)

Who doesn’t love Bob Marley? Maybe there are two other artists in the history of rock music who are as universally loved as he is, but oddly most people know almost nothing about how he started and how his life ended. Although this is not a film that shines a particularly bright light onto the mind and soul of Marley, it does a more than adequate job of outlining the basic details of his life, all set to a wonderful soundtrack of rarities and hits.

Directed capably by Kevin McDonald, “Marley” features interviews with friends, family, band mates and business associates, concert footage, rare photos, it is a delight to revisit Marley as a younger man making his way, and established start, and then one dealing with a fatal illness. There are no real revelations here, but I’m not sure there needs to be.

16) The Sessions – Dir. Ben Lewin (John Hawkes, Helen Hunt)

When I saw “The Sessions” at Sundance last year, it was called “The Surrogate.” I loved it for many reasons, but mostly it was the combination of the fact that it was based on a true story, and the blunt courage of the actors. In it the great John Hawkes plays man trapped in an iron lung for most of his life, and his relationship with a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt in easily the finest performance of her career.

Although much of film involves quite graphic and awkward sex between the two, the film really revolves about the relationship the two develop over the course of their sessions. In an age increasingly divorced from actually human contact (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) watching two people interact as intimately as this reminds us how important it is to be alive and living in the physical world.

17) The Master – Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (Joachin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman) You will either love or loath this film about a the leader of a Scientology-like cult, and one of his rabid followers. More sheer power from PT Anderson.

18) Bernie – Dir. Richard Linklater (Jack Black, Shirley McLaine) Off character brilliance from Jack Black as a small town mortician caught up in murder, and winding weirdly towards a something genuinely original.

19) Looper – Dir. Rian Johnson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt) The mind-bending “Looper” sends assassins from the past into the future to kill and then dispose of bodies in the past. Yup, awesome even for non-sci-fiers.

20) Amour – Dir. Michael Haneke (Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Riva) The story of two retired music teachers, and their daughter who reenters their life and flips it upside down.

21) Arbitrage – Dir. Nicolas Jarecki (Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth) This wonderfully topical film about a loathsome hedge master of the universe whose world is crumbling around him.

22) Sleepwalk With Me – Dir. Mike Birbiglia (Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose) A breezy little romantic comedy starring an incredibly lovable aspiring comedian and the incredible girlfriend who for some reason still loves with him.

23) Dark Horse – Dir. Todd Solandz (Selma Blair, Christopher Walken) Another painfully sad suburban tale of loneliness and longing from the indie sad sap Solandz. Heartbreakingly hilarious.

24) Oslo, August 31 – Dir. Joachim Trier (Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner) As stark and patient a film as you are likely to see, also as bleak and depressing as you are likely to watch.

The Bestest 2011– Filmmage

Some have argued that 2011 was a terrible year for films. Perhaps they should clarify that it was the Hollywood system with its upside down economics that massively under-delivered, leaving room for little films, documentaries and comedies to shine through. I was able to see most of these films at festivals or stream them on Netflix or Amazon not long after they had quickly come and gone in theaters. Which invites the question, when will theaters follow the book and record store path, and become unnecessary? I’d like to think that films are always better on a big screen that forces you to put away your phones, tablets and remote controls and tune off the internet and tune into the movies themselves. That said, it seems incredible that even now certain films find themselves without an easy way of being seen. There still exists a kind of limbo where films leave a theatrical run and exist, but are inaccessible on pay-per-view, streaming, iTunes or even DVD. Perhaps this is the real problem. Why shouldn’t people be able to choose what they want and where and when they want it if they are willing to pay. Perhaps a year from now there will be a solution; until then it is somewhat reassuring that films’ loss has been usurped by an increasingly more sophisticated television marketplace where the best talent has come to work.

1) Tree of Life – Dir. Terrance Malick (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn)

This is not a movie for the masses, but it is one for the ages. Beautiful, sweeping, serene, explosive, pretentious, chaotic, non-linear, heart-wrenching, uplifting, metaphoric, and nostalgic- all of these words help describe the most challenging and provocative film of the year. “Tree of Life” is a masterpiece that is equal parts “2001”, “Koyaanisqatsi” and “Stand By Me,” mixing images, emotions and glimpses of a time gone by.

To enjoy this film it is helpful to prepare yourself for it emotionally. Far from your typical Pitt-Penn Hollywood fare, auteur Terrance Malick, who has only made 5 films in four decades, has created a visual, sensual film that relies on mood and images far more than on dialogue or plot. Ultimately it is the story of a family in Waco, Texas who experiences a tragedy that is described only vaguely, but expressed metaphorically as merely a part of the cycle of life, the randomness of nature, and the unpredictability of the human experience.

The cinematography is brilliant, with lush bucolic domestic small town USA serenity and other-worldly natural and scientific images that convey the interconnectedness of life. Brad Pitt’s strict, dominating father is as compelling as anything he has ever done, but exposes the tension between a parent’s desire to impose morality and the constraints of being human. In the end this film is the ultimate exploration of what it is to live a life in a world filled with natural and omnipotent forces well beyond our comprehension.

2) Drive – Dir. Nicolas Winding (Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks)

Over the past decade Ryan Gosling has emerged as the undisputed king of cool, a real life chameleon of an actor who most likely picks the best movies and the broadest range of characters.  In “Drive” he blends the icy cool of Steve McQueen with the understated sparseness of Brando. This is a film, however, with everything: violence, stylized cinematography, incredible chase scenes and a rich cast of colorful supporters.

At its core “Drive” is an action film, but it is also a drama. Gosling’s mechanic/stunt man has wheels that never stop turning, and a plot that never slows down. There was not another film this year that moved so quickly, but lingered just long enough to capture every detail.

3) The Trip – Dir. Michael Winterbottom (Steve Cooghan, Rob Brydon)

Like a bromance for Ivy leaguers, “The Trip” is a relentless romp through the English countryside where two friends trade impersonations, eat wonderful meals, and reassess the current state of their respective lives. The always wonderful Steve Cooghan plays a version of himself, a still single playboy on hiatus from his much younger American girlfriend. Buddy Rob Brydon fills in for her on this magazine-sponsored foodie tour.

For Byrdon, with two kids and a loving wife at home, the trip is a much needed break, and although he has no real complaints, there is the nagging envy of his single friend and his life of freedom. Of course the fundamental irony is that Cooghan longs for the boring familial existence of his friend. Shot across the beautiful English countryside, and filled with a relentlessly clever script, “The Trip” is a trip through the adolescent preoccupations that fill the male mind.

4) Martha Marcy May Marlene – Dir. T. Sean Durkin (Elizabeth Olson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy)

There was not a more beautifully creepy film in 2011 than this one. There was also no more surprising and seductive a performance than that of Elizabeth Olson, the younger sister of her more famous twin sisters. The story begins as a disoriented Marcy (Olson) flees a rural farm, and stumbles into town where she frantically calls her older sister from a pay phone.

Alternating between an initially peaceful seeming commune in Upstate New York, to an opulent and tranquil lake house in rural Connecticut, the film is a puzzle that leaves you unsettled and mesmerized at the same time. But the core beauty of the film is in its infinite ambiguity. Something tragic happed to the siblings while growing up, but it is never clear. What happened to their parents? What else happened on the commune? How did she get there? This film is a dreamy mediation on how life just tosses us around leaving us no choice but to keep moving.

5) Win Win – Dir. Thomas McCarthy (Paul Giamatti, Bobby Cannavale)

No matter how many times I see Paul Giamatti play the same sad-sack depressive, I still can’t help but like him even more. Like Nicholson or DeNiro, he has a very specific presence that draws you in immediately. For most actors such a distinct persona relegates them to recurring character acting bits. But Giamatti is a star, the anti- Tom Cruise in every way. The film is directed by the criminally underrated auteur Tom McCarthy whose “Station Agent” and “The Visitor” are among the finest independent films of the decade, and whose delicate touch and understanding of human nature exude a kind of beautiful realism throughout “Win Win.”

In the film, he plays a floundering small town lawyer who moonlights as a wrestling coach for a hapless bunch of losers. Then in walks a small miracle in the form of a damaged teenage boy who has shown up in town to stay with his grandfather, whose estate Giamatti is “managing.” Despite appearances, this film is very much a comedy but does so with a subtlety that creates a different kind of texture. It is a film about the infinite gray areas that defines modern life and how right and wrong they are and rarely so simple. Many lives are saved in this film, but mostly it is about the title that reminds us to do the right thing.

6) Cedar Rapids – Dir. Miguel Arteta (Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche)

It is hard to imagine a better John C. Reilly performance than what he did in “Cyrus” last year, but in “Cedar Rapids” he officially one-ups himself by playing  an even more amped-up caricature of his everyman personna. Here he plays an oafish insurance agent letting it all hang out at a conference held at a cheesy Cedars Rapids business hotel.  Tthe film really belongs to Ed Helm’s beautifully naïve and somewhat tragic hero. His character has literally never been out of his small town, and to him Cedar Rapids represents not only the big city, but the moment when the picket fences give way to the real world.

Although there is a serious thread that lurks just below the hysterical surface of “Cedar Rapids,” there is as much humanity in this film as in  any of the more serious films that were released this year. In between endless comedic innuendo, ace director and true master of the indie dramedy, Miguel Arteta, explores loneliness, escapism and the massive walls people create to keep others from knowing who they really are. You will just as easily laugh as cry as pump your fist rooting for the underdog to wake up and grab life by the horns.

7) Margin Call – Dir. J.C. Chandor (Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey)

You’d be hard pressed to find a better cast and a more topical film than the shockingly under-seen Wall Street fiction “Margin Call.” Set over a twenty-four hour period, it chronicles the discovery of and reaction to the impending Armageddon of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown at one venerable Wall Street firm (insert whichever: Goldman, Lehman, Morgan …).

But unlike the glitz of “Wall Street,” this film is shot in dark saturated tones, and despite its blue chip cast, it is performed with thoughtful restraint. What “Margin Call” manages to capture is the pervasive schizophrenia that drives Wall Street. On the one hand greed, while not good, is more the evil that drives the capitalist system than it is an inherent quality of the people who work there. In the end you realize that modern capitalism has become an untamable monster that has evolved uncontrollably over hundreds of years. To unwind the problem seems impossible, but something has to change.

8) Midnight in Paris – Dir. Woody Allen (Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams)

Prolific, profane, provocative, and occasionally prophetic, Woody Allen seems nowhere close to having said everything that he has to say. In his finest film since “Deconstructing Harry,” Allen cast Owen Wilson as himself, to explore the timeless question of whether or not every past generation lived in an era more romantic than the ones that followed. Nostalgia here is a drug that is both blinding and euphoric, yet necessary and unavoidable.

Set in and elegantly filmed in Paris, Wilson plays a writer engaged to a woman he doesn’t really love, in a city that he loves for what he imagines it to be. Most Allen films rely on a gimmick, but in “Midnight in Paris” it is a time warp that allows you to look back to a time with both a longing and logic that suggests the importance of living in the now. Wilson has never been better and more authentic than he is here, McAdams plays her prissy idealist perfectly, and Allen is  at peace as both a realist and a cynic for the ages.

9) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Dir. Tomas Alfredson (Gary Oldman, Colin Firth)

Most Le Carre novels and films rely on keeping very close track of the details and paranoia of the complicated spy business of the Cold War. Although I’ll admit to being lost for large chunks of the film, the gray-toned cinematography and ambiguous calm and texture of this film is mesmerizing. Gary Oldman’s M16 agent George Smiley is the perfect manifestation of  clever bureaucratic competence that drives the workings of multi-national geo-politics.

The plot, if you can follow it, is oddly straightforward. There is a Russian mole in the British secret service. With a broad cast of potential infiltrators, Smiley is tasked with flushing out the rat. The film captures the colors and nuance of the era effortlessly, creating a familiar yet disorienting feeling that makes the film compelling despite its complexity. If there is  a film that deserved to be seen more than once this year, it was this one. Sometimes history plays like fiction and modern society seems much more complicated than yesterday’s.

10) The Arbor – Dir. Clio Bernard (Andrea Dunbar)

You have never seen a documentary as creative and unusual as “The Arbor.” Based on and incorporating the stage play of the same name, written by a 15 year old girl from the projects outside of Manchester, the film takes archival footage of the young Andrea Dunbar and mashes it up with reenactments of the play itself and lip-synced performances by actors of  real interviews with the late Dunbar’s family and friends. The play feels like Bukowski or R. Crumb as told by a young girl.

As hard as it is to imagine, the film flows fluidly, creating a lovely distance from the heartbreaking reality of the actual story. Dunbar’s working class roots, and self-destructive short life, create a gritty tragic backdrop against which to explore the lives of the children she left behind. History and self abuse repeat themselves here, but even on the dingy streets and neglected buildings of Manchester there is hope, redemption and forgiveness. [Read more…]

Until seeing this film, I might have felt comfortable admitting that I have no particular interest in dance as an art form. Perhaps this is because I have never experienced a form of dance that genuinely resonated with my emotional orientation. But Pina Baucsch, the German modern dance innovator, created a theatrical, emotive sensual style unlike anything I have ever seen. In the same way that the Velvet Underground defined both a sound and a haunting interpretation the human condition, Bausch created an atmosphere of beautiful, fluid, jarring expression.

As if her choreography alone didn’t create a unique texture, German auteur Wim Wenders embraced 3D technology to add further dimensionality to translate the nuance and emotion of modern dance. Like Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Pina” is proof that 3D filmmaking, appropriately used, can enhance the theatrical experience well beyond what it does for animation and action films. Ultimately the film blends her original pieces, with interviews, archival footage, and interviews into something something unlike anything that has come before it. “Pina” is milestone film and miraculous tribute to one of the great artists of the modern age.

http://www.snoozebutton.com/2011/12/9287/

The Bestest 2010 Filmage

I write this while sitting on a plane back from Sundance, where I managed to see eight films in 48 hours. To be at Sundance and dedicate yourself to films intensely, even for a few days,  is one of the most liberating experiences I can imagine for a few reasons. Beyond the abundant quality and gritty humanness that tends to be woven into the fabric of most Sundance films, the stories behind the making of these films serve to inspire you to do more, try harder, and to never surrender. The fact that the festival runs at the beginning of each year, provides eleven months for you to follow through with the energy and the possibility that Sundance affords those who care to hold a mirror up to themselves. Of the eight films I saw this year, six were devastating yet beautiful sketches of modern life and familial dysfunction, most will never find a large audience, but to affect a few people passionately is to have accomplished more than most people will ever say. The good news is that now you can watch a seemingly infinite number of films, many of which in the past would never have had any kind of distribution before, instantly on a whim thanks to Netflix, xbox, Roku, and AppleTV and others.  The release window is now incredibly fast for challenging films like the ones that come out of Sundance, as evidenced by the fact that ten of the films on this list are already available on demand.

Every year is a great year for films if you are willing to look hard enough. It would appear that the broad unifying theme among my favorites for 2010 would be bleak, gritty, and hyper-real films that depict a realistic human condition, versus those that provide a superficial escape.  In fact, almost no film featured here is merely light hearted and fun. Even “The Kids Are All Right,” and “Cyrus,” two movies that come the closest,  deeply explore characters who are fighting the good fight for happiness.  So, if you are looking for cheery fare, this Bestest will seem more like the Worstest.  So enjoy, or at least endure, these films that put modern life into perspective.

1. Animal Kingdom – Dir. David Michôd (Guy Pearce, James Frecheville, Joel Edgerton)

There is an odd calm that hangs in the air during the first few moments of the ultra-cool Aussie film “Animal Kingdom.” In it, a teenager, Jay, sits on the couch staring blankly at a game show. Next to him sits his mother. Time passes and then the paramedics show up, try to revive her and then wheel her away. The boy picks up the phone, calls his grandmother and informs her that his mother has just OD’d and he doesn’t know what to do. You can tell he is a good kid, but he is neither scared nor sad. It is this same voice that so matter-of-factly narrates the hugely compelling, rapid unraveling of Melbourne’s scariest family.

Jay’s estranged mother’s family consists of four brothers, each scarier and more unpredictable than the next. Two rob banks, another deals drugs, and the fourth and youngest just seems to reluctantly do what he is told by the chiseled, tattooed others. But despite their indisputable thuggishness, these guys are strangely, and handsomely charming, and each of them also has a genuine goodness about them. On top of the heap sits their mother, a relentlessly upbeat lady, so genuinely in love with her boys that it is almost as if she is genuinely proud of what they actually do. But as Jay says in the beginning, “like all crooks, they are scared, they need to block out the thing they must know, which it that crooks always come undone, one way or another.” “Animal Kingdom” is a great film, and watching it is like placing a big ball of twine at the top of a steep hill and watching it race down, getter faster and smaller with each rotation, but impossible to take your eyes off of.

2. Winter’s Bone – Dir. Debra Granik (Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes)

Every year there seems to be a film cast entirely with unfamiliar faces, shot on a small budget that captures an incredibly specific slice of overlooked America. Films like “Frozen River,” “Sling Blade,” and “Lars and the Real Girl” hold a microscope up to the small communities, seemingly isolated from the rest of the country, that still have a character grounded in something other than the mass ubiquity reflected on television. “Winter’s Bone” is a film every bit as powerful, unexpected and real as anything you will see this year. It tells the story of a small Ozark town where the local economy has become increasingly dependent on meth production, populated with bleakly colorful characters all connected by hostile blood ties, and haunted by paranoia and revenge.

But the story is really the journey of a 17 year-old girl named Ree Dolly, played remarkably by Jennifer Lawrence, and her search for her missing father. The estranged Jessup Dolly, a notorious meth cooker, has gone missing and has left the family home as collateral for his bail, leaving two small children and his disabled wife hanging by a thread. The film is honest and authentic, yet moves along at just the right pace to make you feel their race against time. It never feels contrived or over dramatized. As Ree sets out, combing through her disparate family members, there is a stunning intensity and control, amidst a kind of raging chaos. There is always something thrilling about directorial breakthroughs and star-making performances that could only exist far away from the pressure associated with box office receipts and Oscar nominations. “Winter’s Bone” is not only the most natural feeling film of the year, it is the year’s most compelling.

3. A Prophet – Dir. Jacques Audiard (Tahar Rahim, Neils Arestrup)

The ambiguity of guilt, especially when the “guilty” is an orphaned, illiterate teenager born into a hostile racially divided world, serves as the jumping off point for one of the most powerful  crime films in a long time. “A Prophet” is one of those films that resists the urge to answer questions, but is satisfied to pose them through the hollow eyes of an actor who most convincingly grows into a man in front of the camera. There has neither been a prison nor gangster film as good as this since the Coppola and Scorsese classics, and certainly nothing this profound, in the past decade.

Much of the film is shot on the drab and decaying grounds of a French prison, but really this is the story of two people. The first is played by Tahar Rahim, who at 19 is thrown into prison with $50 to his name, and no friends or relatives waiting in the outside world. There he meets one of the unofficial Corsican prison leader played by the explosive Niels Arestrup who gives the new inmate a chance, after forcing him to murder a fellow Muslim inmate within days of arrival. But the story of these two men, one learning how to survive, and the other losing his long held control has such a perfect symmetry that it keeps the film from ever seeming too heavy or relentless to bear. This is a classic in a genre with incredibly high and thick bars. [Read more…]