Back again. So much for staying current -- got to give it another try. I thought about giving up on film commentary, foreseeing little likelihood of my return to film programming, but somehow found a reason to keep going. Even if I’m never back in business at the
I may have a role in programming at a revived Mohawk Theater in . And I still
have to justify in some way all these hours I spend watching movies. North Adams
Having once again regained the urge to write about film, I’ve got four months of viewing to catch up with. I’ll do so conversationally, mostly in double-feature pairings, in roughly descending order of my recommendation. One advantage to my delay in writing about these films is that they sort themselves out, into the pictures that linger in the memory and those I have to work to remember at all.
Another advantage is that the year-end critical consensus has been tallied, and I can reference the FilmComment critics poll of top fifty films of 2015, and the Metacritic compilation of Top Ten lists to rank the thirty most admired films of the year (plus my usual link to MC numerical tabulation of critical ratings). So my opinions are offered in the context of more general evaluation, and I know what I need to see before finalizing my own annual ranking. As I write, the Oscar nominees have been announced, and I’ve not seen any of the supposed “Best Pictures,” but nonetheless have seen a lot -- too many -- of the year’s releases.
Two of my favorites from 2015, not prominent on the other lists, are about tortured contemporary artists, biopics with a difference, portraying writer David Foster Wallace and songwriter Brian Wilson. I’m more a fan of Wallace’s nonfiction than fiction, but I loved The End of the Tour (MC-82,
NFX), admired the way Jason Segel improbably disappeared
into the persona of DFW, and enjoyed the subtle push-pull of admiration and
antagonism in Jesse Eisenberg, as the Rolling Stone writer doing a
profile of DFW at the peak of his reclusive renown. James Ponsoldt is a director who seems to get
better with each film, here following three films examining alcoholics with one
about a lucid but fragile recovering alcoholic.
This film offers a snapshot in time, of the author confronting his ambivalent
fame, implicitly revealing the self-doubt that would lead to his suicide, but
more importantly demonstrating his sensibility in an oblique but seemingly authentic
manner. Like My Dinner with Andre,
it makes more than you could imagine out of two guys talking.
Love & Mercy (MC-80, FC #29, NFX) was another film I went into with reservation, but came out with commendation, convinced by stellar performances and subtle storytelling. Paul Dano, in his best performance by far, plays Brian Wilson in his ’60s Beach Boy heyday, and dependable John Cusack plays him in drug-addled despair and eventual comeback in the ’80s, an unlikely combination that works remarkably well, under James Pohlad’s direction. In episodes of the later period, which are interwoven in the editing, Elizabeth Banks as future wife saves Cusack from the clutches of nefarious therapist Paul Giamatti. While this may be the authorized version of the musician’s life, it remains convincing in its portrayal of the thin line between madness and creativity, and excels in its detailed portrayal of genius at work in a recording studio.
Like almost everyone else, I truly enjoyed the latest Pixar animation, Inside Out (MC-94, FC #9, MC #4, NFX), in which director Pete Docter follows Up with an insightfully mind-blowing film for all ages, subtle and spectacular, funny and moving, more true to life than all but the best live-action. There are two planes of narration: the “real” world, where an 11-year-old girl named Riley makes an unhappy move from
(where hockey’s her delight) to Minnesota ; and the world inside her head, where five basic
emotions control her memory and motivation.
For a long time, Joy (Amy Poehler’s voice, as infectious as Leslie
Knope’s) has predominated, but now Anger, Fear, and Disgust take turns at the
controls, while it’s Sadness who has to save the day. The visualization of mental terrain is
dazzling and witty, the pace never flags, laughs and tears go hand in
hand. See it to believe it. San Francisco
Amazed that such a film could begin with Disney’s Wonderland logo, I finally caught up with their recent mega-hit Frozen (2013, MC-74, NFX), which was more in the Disney Princess vein, with a few up-to-date twists to the old-fashioned tale, but did have some spectacular animated sculptural fun with ice crystals. Another CGI feature I really enjoyed was Paddington (MC-77,
NFX), in which only the title character of the Michael
Bond books -- a Peruvian bear who comes to London in search of a home -- is
animated (and voiced wonderfully by Ben Whishaw), from red hat to his magically
realistic fur. Sally Hawkins and Hugh
Bonneville are the couple who take him in, and Nicole Kidman is the villainous
taxidermist who wants to stuff him. Paul
King directs this veddy, veddy British production, again suitable for all ages.
Two emergent directors in world cinema were well-received in the past year, by critics and by me -- Christian Petzold from
and Asghar Farhadi from Germany – though neither delivered their very best work. In Iran (MC-89,
FC #8, MC #16, Phoenix NFX), Petzold continues with Nina Hoss one of the great
director-actress collaborations in cinema history, his fixation on her face definitely
a communicable obsession. I wouldn’t put
their most recent in a class with Barbara and Yella, but it’s
still remarkable. Petzold makes movies
about movies, as well as real life in real social situations, in spite of the
films from German Expressionism to film noir, Sirkian melodrama, Hitchcockian
suspense. The story is implausible --
about a survivor of the concentration camps looking for her husband in the
ruins of Phoenix after the war – but its implications -- not least in
the transformations of Nina Hoss’ face -- are profound and far-reaching. And it all sets up a final scene that
justifies and transcends everything that went before. Berlin
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi made About Elly (MC-87, FC #27,
NFX) before his Oscar-winning A Separation or The Past, made
post-exile in , but this earlier film wasn’t released here till 2015. Again the cinematic point of reference is
obvious -- this story of a woman vacationing with friends, who disappears and
thereby transforms the lives of those left behind, owes something to L’Avventura,
but is far from imitative. Seven old
friends, plus Elly, the acquaintance of one matchmaker, take a weekend
excursion from France to a derelict villa on the Tehran Caspian Sea. Interactions and consequences
ensue, ambiguous situations lead to levels of deceit and conflict in what
seemed a tight-knit community. There’s
likely a political parable involved, but what sustains interest is suspenseful
characterization and moral quandary.
Less noticed generally, but even more to my taste were two films set in
. There’s also
a hint of L’Avventura in La Sapienza (MC-74, FC #46, NFX),
in which a Swiss architect tries to revive his love of the profession by taking
a tour of Italy that focuses on the Baroque buildings of Borromini, which are
made suitably magical by the cinematography.
He has a young architecture student in tow, to remind him of the ideals
of his youth, as he refreshes his taste for building. Meanwhile his wife, on her own quest for
revival, becomes attached to the student’s sister. Director Eugene Green, an American who has
lived in Italy since the 70s, has a distinctively Bressonian style,
involving the actors’ direct, impassive address to the camera. He speaks up for mystical beauty in the face
of rationalized design, favoring spirit over reason. The title refers to a France ’s, but ultimately to wisdom and knowledge. Maybe not for every taste, but I found this
film oddly compelling. church of Borromini
I feel much more confident recommending Human Capital (MC-63, NFX), though it got middling critical reception here after great success in
. Paolo Virzi directs
-- and dissects class conflict, inequality, and unequal justice -- in this
multi-layered, interlocking story. A waiter
at a private school celebration is run down on his bike afterwards. Which attendee is responsible? In three segments, from the points of view of
three different characters, we eventually piece together the whole story. For some reviewers it was too disjointed in
style and tone, for others too tied up with a bow, but I found it satisfying
throughout. (One dissed it as American
Beauty, Italian Style, but I can’t see anything wrong with that.) Good to look at, satirical and dramatic,
and well-acted overall, especially Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the stunned wife
of a wealthy hedge fund manager, whose son is the primary suspect in the
hit-&-run, and Matilde Geoli as the boy’s girlfriend, not to mention
Valeria Golino, a particular favorite of mine. Italy
Speaking of magnetic actresses, the past year saw the definitive emergence of Alicia Vikander. In Ex Machina (MC-78, FC #34, MC #5, NFX), most of the time she’s only half there -- the other half transparent to her robotic innards – but she makes quite an impression with the part that’s there. Ava is the creation of reclusive billionaire tech genius Oscar Isaac, and Domnhall Gleason is the employee summoned to give Ava the Turing Test, to determine whether the machine can convince the observer that she is human. With Ms. Vikander, what do you think? The two male actors are effective as well, as all three play games of cognitive cat and mouse. With this nice piece of speculative fiction, Alex Garland successfully completes a rare novelist-into-screenwriter-into-director transformation, giving the film a sleek look and many intellectual twists, before descending to a genre denouement.
In Testament of Youth (MC-76, NFX), we see Alicia in the flesh. Period flesh, well-covered, in James Kent’s traditionalist direction of this adaptation of Vera Brittain’s classic WWI memoir. Alicia as Vera is headstrong and passionate, devoted to dreams of study at
as much as to heartthrob Kit Harington (better
known as Jon Snow). When war comes and
her love enlists, she gives up the academic career she longed for and goes to
the front as a nurse. The men of her
generation are mown down, and she becomes a devout pacifist. Leagues better than Downton Abbey, set in the same period, this film doesn’t escape
the ghetto of British heritage productions, but Alicia Vikander assures its
place near the top of that ilk. Oxford
Can’t really say the same for Far from Madding Crowd (MC-71, NFX), despite the endearing presence of Carey Mulligan as Hardy’s heroine Bathsheba Everdene. Director Thomas Vinterberg makes the odd transition from Dogme 95 to Masterpiece Theater classicism, creating a film that is entirely too pretty. Carey is certainly given more spunk and agency than was Julie Christie in John Schlesinger’s 1967version, where Bathsheba was more a flirt at the mercy of fate and men, but Julie will remain definitive for me. Schlesinger’s film is more burnished monochrome than picture postcard, and has a superior trio of actors in Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp. In their respective roles, Matthias Schoenaerts is too impassive, Michael Sheen okay but not as impressive, and the other guy just a caricature of the dashing redcoat. Still, as a sucker for adaptations of 19th-century British novels, I enjoyed watching both versions back to back.
For modern romantic comedies, two stand out in my recent viewing, though of disparate generations. I had forgotten the director of Results (MC-73, NFX) until the final credits rolled, where the name Andrew Bujalski explained why I’d found the film surprisingly intelligent and offbeat, and so authentic in its Austin TX setting. Guy Pearce is the gung-ho owner of a fitness center and would-be lifestyle guru, Cobie Smulders is a personal trainer who works for him, and Kevin Corrigan is a depressed client from
who just inherited a lot of New York loot and wants to get into shape, learn how to
take a punch. This triangle plays out in
ways, and in rhythms, you don’t expect, against the grain of rom-com
conventions. I can’t do better than A.O.
Scott’s characterization of this small gem: “a beautifully played game of underhand
slow-pitch screwball.” Texas
Another rom-com that avoids many of the stupidities of the genre, I’ll See You in My Dreams (MC-76, NFX), comes courtesy of Blythe Danner, who convinces us that romance is ageless, and so is comedy. Writer-director Brett Haley is well-served by his cast. His leading lady showcases all her talents, including singing. The salty chorus of widowed girlfriends features
Mary Kay Place, Rhea Perlman, and
June Sprigg. Blythe’s pool cleaner crush
is Martin Starr, growing well beyond geekdom, and her late-life flame is Sam
Elliott, a silver fox if ever there was one.
It’s not immediately obvious how it will all turn out. Relax and enjoy, you’re in good hands.
Having worked with a friend on a book about his travels in
, I’m always eager to revisit Irish settings. Ken Loach does the same, extending the story
of The Wind that Shakes the
Barley with Jimmy’s Hall (MC-63, NFX).
As I’ve already argued, “Loach is no slouch,” and though this
film is not among his best, it’s well worth viewing, for the Irish countryside
and the generally good acting from many unfamiliar faces. What’s familiar is the didacticism of Loach’s
(and screenwriting partner Paul Laverty’s) politics, as he demonstrates that a
decade after independence from Ireland , the Irish people’s opponents are the same, “the
masters and the pastors.” Jimmy had
emigrated to Britain , met some success, but came back to America when the depression struck. Before, he had organized a community hall for
education, arts, and entertainment, including dancing and debate. Now the young people beg him to re-open the legendary
gathering place, but the Powers That Be resist and defeat him. Ireland
The times and the types are quite different in What Richard Did (2013, MC-80, NFX), Lenny Abrahamson’s taut and effective precursor to Frank and Room. The title character, an Irish prep school golden boy played with tremendous conviction by Jack Reynor, makes a very grave mistake, and the drama is whether he will own up to it, or instead, friends and family will allow him to exercise his inherent privilege and get away with it.
Staying in Ireland, we revisit the Troubles in ’71 (MC-83,
NFX), which in turn led me to revisit the 1947 Carol Reed film Odd Man Out, starring James Mason as an IRA man injured and on the run through the
Belfast night. Here the man out and on
the run is a teenaged British soldier, portrayed with great range of emotion by
Jack O’Connell. Yann Demange’s direction
is immersive and on-the-fly, as O’Connell gets into one difficult situation
after another, being chased by both sides after a botched mission. The situation is specific, but the film comes
off as a sadly universal parable of occupation and insurgency, rough stuff but with
the ring of truth to it.
It is, however, nowhere near as rough as O’Connell’s earlier film, Starred Up (MC-81, NFX), which had a reputation for brutality that kept me away -- until I wanted to see more of our boy Jack. The title describes his situation, sent from a juvenile facility to an adult prison as punishment for bad behavior. Fresh meat indeed! -- and you can be sure it gets pounded to pulp. Even though his pa is in the same joint (Ben Mendelsohn, with his usual muffled menace), there’s no protection for the boy, and no give in him either. A sympathetic anger management counselor (Rupert Friend) tries to befriend him, but is no match for prison bosses who only want to subdue the boy, make an example of him. Frankly I would have been happy to have subtitles on David Mackenzie’s film, since I missed half the dialogue to unintelligible down-&-dirty British accents. Nonetheless, Jack O’Connell is surely destined to be starred up, in an entirely different way.
Ben Mendelsohn shows a different side in the surprisingly delightful Mississippi Grind (MC-77,
could have been another tired tale of two guys (Ryan Reynolds is the other, and
shows himself more than just a pretty face) on a life-defining roadtrip, but
directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck make it nimble, surprising, and
well-grounded in real locations (and local music!). In fact, the inspiration for the film came
when they were shooting Sugar, and making seem like a field of dreams to a young pitcher
from the Iowa . They decided to return to the area for this
light-on-its-feet travelogue, following the Dominican
Republic Mississippi River down to . Mendelsohn
and Reynolds are two compulsive gamblers, one pathetic and one blithe, who team
up to hit every big casino on the river, on their way to a high-stakes poker
game in the Big Easy. You may think
you’ve seen this movie before, but you’re in for some surprises, especially
from two actors at the top of their two-handed game, and two directors as well.
I confess this “double feature” pairing only reflects that I happened to watch both in the same evening, and found both so much better than I expected, but nonetheless there’s some geographic proximity to Slow West (MC-72, NFX), and oh yes, Ben M. turns up again in a small role. As does the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender, as a bounty hunter who takes under his wing, for good or ill, a teenage Scottish laird in search of the peasant girl he loved and lost, when she and her father fled from murder charges to the Wild West. First-time writer-director John Maclean’s film is a landscape-loving, people-despising mash-up of the Coen brothers’ True Grit and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, with a dash of Wes Anderson, and a host of other offbeat approaches to the Western genre, with
standing in prettily for 1870 New Zealand . All this
yields an intriguing mix of whimsy with walloping action scenes of frontier
That does it for films that I can confidently recommend. Click through for comments on another two dozen recent films, among which you may find a number to your taste.