Sunday, July 6, 2014

Best of 2014 So Far - Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actor of the First Half of 2014
  1. Ed Harris - Snowpiercer
  2. John Hurt - Only Lovers Left Alive
  3. Aaron Paul - Hellion
  4. Jeremy Renner - The Immigrant
  5. Peter Sarsgaard - Night Moves 

Best Supporting Actor of the First Half of 2014 (Festival Screenings Included)
  1. Redacted for Spoiler Calvary 
  2. Ethan Hawke - Boyhood
  3. Aaron Paul - Hellion
  4. Jeremy Renner - The Immigrant
  5. Peter Sarsgaard - Night Moves 

Best of 2014 So Far - Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actress of the First Half of 2014
  1. Mira Grosin - We Are The Best!
  2. Juliette Lewis  - Hellion
  3. Tilda Swinton - Snowpiercer
  4. Uma Thurman - Nymphomaniac
  5. Mia Wasikowska - Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Supporting Actress of the First Half of 2014 (Festival Screenings Included)
  1. Patricia Arquette - Boyhood
  2. Tilda Swinton - Snowpiercer
  3. Uma Thurman - Nymphomaniac
  4. Brit Marling - I, Origins
  5. Mia Wasikowska - Only Lovers Left Alive

Best of 2014 So Far - Best Actress

Best Actress of the First Half of 2014
  1. Mira Barkhammer - We Are The Best!
  2. Marion Cotillard - The Immigrant
  3. Charlotte Gainsbourg - Nymphomaniac
  4. Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
  5. Jenny Slate - Obvious Child

Best Actress of the First Half of 2014 (Festival Screenings Included)
  1. Essie Davis - The Babadook
  2. Marion Cotillard - The Immigrant
  3. Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
  4. Elisabeth Moss - The One I Love
  5. Jenny Slate - Obvious Child

Best of 2014 So Far - Best Actor

Best Actor of the First Half of 2014

  1. Macon Blair - Blue Ruin
  2. Ralph Fiennes - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  3. Tom Hardy - Locke
  4. Tom Hiddleston - Only Lovers Left Alive
  5. Joaquin Phoenix - The Immigrant

Best Actor of the First Half of 2014 (Festival Screenings Included)

  1. Ralph Fiennes - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. Brendan Gleeson - Calvary
  3. John Lithgow - Love is Strange
  4. Alfred Molina - Love is Strange
  5. Dan Stevens - The Guest

Best of 2014 So Far

Top 10 Releases for the First Half of 2014

1. Blue Ruin
2. Under the Skin
3. We Are The Best!
4. Only Lovers Left Alive
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
6. Snowpiercer
7. Obvious Child
8. The Unknown Known
9. Locke
10. The Immigrant

Top 10 Releases for the First Half of 2014 (Including Festival Screenings)

1. Boyhood
2. The Babadook
3. Blue Ruin
4. Under the Skin
5. Love is Strange
6. We Are The Best!
7. Only Lovers Left Alive
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel
9. Snowpiercer
10. I, Origins

Monday, June 2, 2014

20 Eternal Sunshine Details You May Have Missed

I must have seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a dozen times since it premiered a decade ago and I still find myself noticing new things with every repeat viewing. Here are 20 such details there's a decent chance you didn't catch the first time through:

1. Opening Confusion
In the first moments of the film Joel looks confused. On my first few viewings I took this for grogginess but in fact this is because he doesn’t recognize the doctor-issued pajamas he is wearing.

2. The Stolen Letter
When Joel is gathering items that remind him of Clem we get a brief look at the letter Patrick later steals. Besides Joel's line about being “exactly where he wants to be” we also can glimpse this response from Clementine:  “When we made love right on the ice it was absolutely freezing on my ass…it was wonderful.”

3. The Same Staircase
When Joel notices the pages missing from his journal he is unwittingly sitting in the spot where he first met Clementine.

4. The Lost Song
The second time Joel meets Clementine he says he’s unfamiliar with  “Oh My Darling, Clementine” even though we later see that he knew it the first time they met. This might be because the memory of when his mother first sang the song to him was obliterated when he tried to hide Clem there to escape the memory erasers.

5. Blank Books 
There are countless subtle erasures during the sequences in Joel’s memories. Examples range from the books going blank in Barnes & Noble to the image of Clem disappearing from Joel’s coffee mug. In the crumbling memory where the car falls from the sky, one of Clementine's legs is missing.

6. Drive-In
When Joel sits crying in his car the night before he decides to get his memory erased, he is parked at the spot where Clem and Joel watched the drive-in movie.

7. Dots
When Joel’s is talking to his neighbor about his Valentine’s Day plans the marker spots from his earlier brain scan are still visible on his temple.

8. Sentimental Road Map
Some of the items that rush by when the Lacuna team is making a map of Joel's memories include a Speedway Auto Racer game, a playbill of Julius Caesar starring Al Pacino, and a copy of Tom Waits "Rain Dogs." In the original script there is dialogue where Joel and Clementine discuss Waits. The name of Clementine's hair color "Blue Ruin" is taken from a track on the album

9. Whispers of a Memory
When Joel visits the beach in the beginning he peers into the house where, unbeknownst to him, he went the first night he met Clem. As he leaves there is the faintest whisper of her voice on the soundtrack. It’s tough to make out but it sounds like Winslet saying “David and Ruth Laskin” just like she did on that night. It is an early, very slight indication that the procedure may not have erased 100% of his memories.

10. Cowgirl
The cowgirl outfit that Young Clementine wears turns up in various scenes throughout the films. It can be spotted on one of Clem’s potato people and in a Polaroid visible during Kate Winslet’s “ugly doll” monologue and the gathering items scene.

11. Drinks
When Joel brings Clementine back to his apartment at the end of the film he is surprised by the lack of liquor in his apartment. This is because the memory erasers drank it the night before.

12. Run Away
Both times Joel meets Clementine he gets nervous and leaves their encounter early.

13. Obsolete Technology
Despite taking place in and around 2003 (Joel's journal confirms the timeframe) much of the technology seen in the film is years out of date. One computer used to erase Joel's memories is an Amstrad model manufactured in the late 80's and Lacuna still records patients on cassette tapes, to name just two examples.

14. Awkward Silences
During the conversation on the train the film’s music score only kicks in while Joel and Clem are talking.

15.  Side Effects
In the scene where Patrick visits an emotional Clementine one of the reasons she lists for her anxiety is the feeling that she's getting old. The line goes by quickly so it's doesn't feel significant but upon reflection it makes perfect sense that she feels like the years are rushing by considering the procedure has zapped out much of her recent memory.

16. "My Skin's Coming Off!"
In the panic attack scene Clem also exclaims that she feels like her skin is coming off. A figure of speech maybe, although perhaps she has a faint memory of the picture Joel painted that depicts her sans skin.

17. Agent Orange

With her hair and signature sweatshirt, Clementine is strongly associated with the color orange, so  the film works in the color in a variety of subtle ways, my favorite being that memories of Clem are represented on Lacuna's brains scans by orange dots.

18. Crash and Burn
The  model plane which David Cross is flying when Joel and Clem first meet reappears destroyed as Joel's last memory is being erased. There are also other, less obvious planes slipped in throughout the film including the planes on "Baby" Joel's pajamas and a framed picture of a plane on the wall of David Cross and Jane Adams' apartment.

19. Losing His Mind
During the baby Joel scene you can spot a drawing on the fridge of a decapitated boy, perhaps reflecting Joel's current struggles with regaining control of his mind. Also note: another plane in the drawing.

20. Final Flickers
As Joel’s final memory is erased there are several flash frames which zip by too quick to register. Here is a sampling:

More "Details You May Have Missed"

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Spirit of Gordon Willis Lives

I had to hand it to cinematographer Darius Khonji. Not only does James Grey's The Immigrant evoke memories of The Godfather Part II with its scenes of huddles masses trying to get through Ellis Island in the early part of the 20th Century, but Khondji's visuals actually lean in to the comparison. If you have the slightest film knowledge it is impossible to watch the film without thinking of Gordon Willis's brilliant work on the earlier film with its musty yellow hues and dark shadows. 

And here is the amazing part: Khondji's work earns the comparison. It is at once a tribute to Willis's work and its own stunning creation. It's belongs in a prominent place on the best looking films of the new century.

I hope the Academy's cinematography branch remembers back to Khondji's work come ballot-marking time. Although the category is dominated by year end best picture favorites, which The Immigrant most definitely won't be, in recent years the branch has demonstrated the willingness to reach out to worthy low grossing art house titles like The White Ribbon and The Grandmaster. Khondji himself has a history of being overlooked with a single measly nomination to his credit for Evita, despite a resume full of landmark visual achievements like Se7en, Delicatessen, and his numerous collaborations with Woody Allen and Michael Haneke.

A few months ago The Film Experience did a poll of the greatest working cinematographers and although Khondji didn't make the group list, after The Immigrant I feel very smart for having him on my personal ballot.

Check out the Cinematography Oscar Chart to see where The Immigrant stands among 2014's contenders so far.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Review: We Are The Best!

Why go through all the trouble and grueling practice of becoming a skilled musician when you can just form a band with your buddies and declare yourselves badass rock stars, meager talents be damned? When you are an awkward 13-year-old looking for an outlet for your raging emotions the latter is a lot more tempting than the former. At that age the appeal is all about the attitude anyway. You and your friends are for coolness and freedom and the rest of the world is against it. When you puberty is kicking your ass, this makes for a comforting oasis of simplicity in a world that has quickly become far too complicated.

Such is the case for Bobo and Klara, the two Swedish junior high school girls who are the focus of Lukas Moodysson's We Are The Best!. Bobo is stuck in a protracted ugly duckling stage that leaves her spitting at her reflection in the mirror, while Klara hides her burgeoning beauty behind a mohawk and an anti-establishment attitude. She spends every lunch insisting that Punk is most emphatically not dead to all the New Wave kids, which in 1982 is pretty much everybody. Together they form a complete social circle of two.

One night at the local rec center they receive some taunting from some older boys in a band, and they retaliate by reserving the band rehearsal space away from the boys, even though neither of them has so much as touched a guitar. A few minutes of banging on drums and screaming into a mic is all they need to get hooked. It is a testament to Klara's boundless enthusiasm that she skips right past the question of whether or not they should form a band to declaring that not only are they in a band, but that band is the greatest on Earth. After all, when has Punk ever let a lack of polish stand in the way of rock glory?

Lukas Moodysson's film rallies around Punk music but at heart it is really a love letter to the best friends that make adolescence bearable. Around the time Bobo and Klara belatedly decide that some musical talent would not go missing in their band, they decide to expand their group to recruit  Hedvig, the talented yet painfully unpopular girl they spot playing classical guitar at the school talent show. Bobo is worried that Hedvig's Christianity will clash with the band's punk attitude, but Klara, ever the optimist, assures Bobo they can wear her down.

The charms of We Are The Best! are low key, but considerable. What traditional plot there is consists of the girls practicing for a minor nearby holiday concert that the invites local youth acts to perform. There is no big School of Rock finale and they only succeed in writing one song, and that only just barely. Yet even if they never become a proper band they do improve more than we are expecting, and if you can't get behind their gym class-bashing anthem "Hate the sport!" then you and I weren't friends in middle school.

Without all the off-the-shelf plot stuff to worry about We Are the Best! is able to take its time watching how these girl navigate the rocky shoals of early adolescence. They deal with boys, inadvertently hurt each others feelings, and battle the pervasive fear that everyone else will develop and become normal while the forever stay exactly the ill-formed weirdos they are now. And through it all there is the simple joy of yelling "Fuck you!" into a microphone. We Are The Best! made me silly happy. Walking out of the theater I made a mental note to slip a copy to my nieces when they are entering their teens.

Verdict: 8 out of 10

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Review: Night Moves

Up until now director Kelly Reichardt has been vigilant about keeping formula movie plotting from getting within a mile of her movies. To watch Wendy and Lucy or Meek's Cutoff is to leave behind the familiar rhythms of mainstream movies and be absorbed in the lives of characters unbound from the constraints of standard, Robert McKee-approved, three-act story structure.

It's that freedom of movement that starts to go missing as Reichardt's Night Moves unfolds. This time out Reichardt has a point to make and a particular destination she wants to reach, so rather than granting her trio of eco-terrorists free reign, the screenplay starts to nudge them towards the predestined ending, regardless if they were heading that way on their own. You can feel the moment when the gears grind into motion, and the characters stop driving the plot and start getting pulled along behind it.

Eisenberg does some of his best work to date as Josh, the brooding mastermind of a group of small-time revolutionaries. We first meet him hovering on the edges at a gathering of environmental activists. The activists are premiering an achingly earnest would-be viral video that warns of impending environmental catastrophe. There is much congratulation about this being a good step and how it will hopefully "wake people up". Josh lurks in a corner, seething at the ineffectuality of their do-gooderism. If there is going to be change it is not going to come from poorly edited footage of deforestation on YouTube.  He has bigger plans to grab the public's attention and eventually his target comes into focus: a hydroelectric dam. It is never made clear how Josh believes the destruction of the dam will lead to tangible progressbut he is sure it's something. 

He enlists two accomplices: Dena, played by a fully adult Dakota Fanning, and Harmon, an ex-military loner played by Peter Sarsgaard with that knack he has for making dangerous low-lifes appealing. One of the film's most interesting layers is how little Josh's accomplices share his fanatical zeal. Dena bought her way into the team with her family's wealth and takes on the mantle of eco-terrorist with all the seriousness of a college student deciding to take a semester off to backpack across Europe. Harmon is openly dismissive of Josh's idealism, but appears eager to put his military training to use. Any anti-establishment violence will do.

As with her masterful Meek's CutoffReichardt is skilled at developing the group's unspoken power struggles, in this case the subtle way the two men vie for the attention of Dena. Josh might be the true believer, but Harmon's utility and confidence with the opposite sex makes him an intimidating alpha male. Josh, by contrast, is sullen and hesitant. We get the sense that his radical fervor is fueled not by idealism but by the desire to be perceived as a potent male rather than the socially stunted nobody he sees in the mirror.

Night Moves' best stretch is its gripping middle third where the three plotters execute their scheme. Reichardt's unadorned realism strips the romance out of the thriller elements, showing how something as dramatic as a terroristic attack is carried out step by banal step by ordinary people. This sequence climaxes with a terrific scene of Hitchcockian suspense where the group comes close to being discovered at the worst possible moment.

After this high point I'm afraid it's all downhill for Night Moves. There is a contrived downward spiral involving guilt and paranoia driving apart the three perpetrators. I never bought that someone who participates in a terrorist plot, no matter how naive, could be so blindsided by the idea of an innocent bystander getting hurt. The tension starts to leak out as the story veers away from being a thriller and into the stuff of tragedy. Tragedy requires strong, structured plotting to set up and pay off the downfall of the characters, and it makes an uneasy fit with Reichardt's shapeless naturalism. It doesn't help that the film loses the group dynamic and relies on the nearly silent Josh to hold the screen solo for much of the second half.

Despite these flaws I would still have to give Night Moves a passing grade. Even as the script falters Reichardt consistently finds strong images and unexpected ways to present the material. I loved how the big destructive payoff was played entirely on the faces of the stars as they absorb what they've done. Big credit as well to Christopher Blauvelt's ace cinematography. A shot of a row of despoiled trees manages to sum up all the film's environmental outrage in a single image. For moments like those, for the performances, and for the middle 40 minutes which fires on all cylinders, my thumb tilts in the up direction, if only just so.

Verdict: 6 out of 10

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Rushing Or Dragging

My regret at somehow managing to miss Damien Chazelle's Whiplash while at Sundance continues to growNot just because it got rave reviews and won the biggest prize at the fest, although it did irk me no end that I managed to somehow miss out on one of the buzziest titles to emerge from Park City. The salt in the wound was that a large part of that buzz centered on JK Simmons, one of my favorite character actors going back to when I first made his acquaintance as a white supremacist rapist on HBO's OZ.

Knowing that Sundance buzz often evaporates when it comes down to lower altitudes, I was holding off adding Simmons to my Oscar charts but now that I've seen the above clip I feel certain that Simmons is a real deal contender. Whiplash only needs to prove a modest art house hit, and judging by it's consistent rave reviews following Sundance, it looks like a safe bet to not only clear that bar, but to be a break out box office winner as well.

Few thing make me happier than reliable character actors receiving long overdue awards attention. Between Simmons in Whiplash, Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner and (a longer shot but fingers crossed) Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, 2014 is shaping up to be a good year in that regard.