Category Archives: Film Reviews

Top Ten Films of 2014

1. Whiplash

No movie wowed me and enthralled me and inspired me in 2014 like Whiplash. Featuring Miles Teller in a star-making performance and J.K. Simmons in the most memorable and iconic role of his long career, this is a tightly edited, endlessly entertaining movie that literally hits every right note. The vastly talented writer/director Damien Chazelle has crafted a near-perfect film, one that always surprises and impresses, and ultimately works in every way.

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2. Boyhood

Richard Linklater is a director to treasure. His Before trilogy is one of the landmark projects in recent film history, and he has equaled it, if not surpassed it, with his magical 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood. Who else but Linklater would have spent so long making a movie that ultimately is just about people, and their struggles, and their triumphs, both in childhood and in adulthood. Ellar Coltrane is a natural in the main role, and Ethan Hawke brings depth to his role as his father, but it’s Patricia Arquette’s emotionally affecting role as his mother that will stay with me the most.

B2

3. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal has been slowly and quietly becoming the best actor of his generation, with startling work in End of Watch, Prisoners, and Enemy. Nightcrawler is his best, most haunting performance yet, easily the most embarrassing oversight of this year’s Academy Award nominations. He is downright brilliant as a down-on-his-luck man who resorts to crime scene videography to make a living. Rene Russo had one of the great comebacks of the year with her complex supporting role, and writer/director Dan Gilroy keeps the tension building until an end chase scene that is both shocking and disturbing.

B3

4. Gone Girl

David Fincher films have become events for me at this point, with particularly Fight Club and The Social Network being all-time favorites, and no one but Fincher could have been a better match for Gone Girl. He brings his meticulous eye for casting, pacing, and black comedy to this fascinating tale of deception and resentment. Gillian Flynn masterfully transformed her terrific novel into a wickedly entertaining movie—like Gyllenhaal, her lack of an Oscar nomination is baffling, especially given that Paul Thomas Anderson’s incomprehensible script for Inherent Vice made the cut. Rosamind Pike, like Rooney Mara in Fincher’s previous The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, gives a magnetic performance.

B4

5. Life Itself

As a lifelong fan of Roger Ebert’s film reviews, both written and televised, I have waited for the day his unique life would get the documentary treatment. Steve James, who made the monumental Hoop Dreams, does Ebert proud with this informative and hugely emotional film, one that includes insights from Martin Scorsese and Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene, as well as heartbreaking images of Ebert’s last few months alive before his death in April 2013. His fascinating relationship with director Russ Meyer is given proper screen-time, but it’s his 25-year love story with his wife Chaz that may resonate most of all. As hard as parts of it are to watch, I loved every minute of this film, and I can’t wait to see it again.

B5

6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The one great blockbuster of 2014 is the best Apes sequel of them all. Andy Serkis returned as Caesar in this action-packed and exceedingly dark sequel to Rise. The character of Koba is a commanding screen villain, and the visual effects are truly spectacular. Matt Reeves directed one of the best horror films of the last five years—2010’s Let Me In—and with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he shows that he can tell absorbing stories in any genre and on any budget.

B6

7. The Skeleton Twins

Easily the most underrated film of 2014, The Skeleton Twins offers an enormously effective blend of comedy and drama, with Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader in their best film roles to date. What starts as potentially indie-cliché—the gay brother who attempts suicide moves in with his estranged sister—becomes something unexpectedly moving. The scene of Wiig and Hader lip-syncing Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is one of the 2014 movie highlights.

B7

8. A Most Violent Year

J.C. Chandor is three for three with A Most Violent Year. His debut Margin Call featured a heart-racing story and an impressive ensemble cast, while his All is Lost featured one sole actor—Robert Redford, in the performance of his career. His latest teams powerhouse actors Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in a sometimes unbearably tense crime drama set in 1981 New York. With shades of The Godfather and some of Sidney Lumet’s best work, A Most Violent Year is captivating from beginning to end.

B8

9. Birdman

Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone lead an all-star cast in one of the most beguiling and thrilling movies of the year. Emmanuel Lubezski’s stunning cinematography, which makes the whole movie look like one long shot, has to be seen to be believed, and director Alejandro Inarritu thankfully lightened up a little to tell a story that mixes tragedy with some truly biting comedy. Keaton is a revelation in a role that calls back to the actor’s own days as Batman, as well as his high level of talent that was on display in films in the 1980s but rarely in the last two decades.

B9

10. Chef

One of the best food movies I’ve ever seen, Jon Favreau’s enchanting comedy is loads of fun, blending scenes of borderline food porn with a moving father-son story. Favreau, who made the great Swingers before he moved on to studio tentpole land, made a welcome return to low-budget entertainment with this film, which features charming supporting performances from Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, and Emjay Anthony, as Favreau’s son. Chef may not be the most insightful or unpredictable movie of 2014, but more than any other film on this list, it’s one that made me feel great.

B10

#11-20 (in alphabetical order)

American Sniper

The Babadook

Big Hero 6

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Enemy

The Fault in Our Stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Love is Strange

Lucy

X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Film Review: Oculus

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The horror film genre has always been my favorite, and yet it’s so rare these days to find new, original, effectively scary films. Thankfully we seem to have finally outgrown that terrible period of torture porn that existed during the time of the Saw sequels, and maybe, just possibly, we have moved on from all the dreadful remakes of classic 70s and 80s horror (maybe because there’s simply nothing left to remake). Now we are seeing more and more micro budget films from producer Jason Blum, and while not all have worked, these original small-budget horror movies have been a positive influence on the current genre scene.

Every year I’m looking for good horror, both mainstream and indie, and it’s especially a thrill when one comes out that I know next to nothing about. Oculus was one of those finds. I hadn’t even hard about it until a week before its release, but as soon as I saw the positive reviews and storyline of the movie, I knew it was a must-see. One of my first short stories I ever wrote in the third grade was about a haunted mirror, and I was curious to see how a modern horror film could be made with this eerie but potentially silly hook.  Thankfully, writer/director Mike Flanagan understands that, especially in horror, less is more, and for most of Oculus he lets the tension build and build, only showing us small traces of the evil that is to come.

One element I loved about Oculus was the emphasis on two dual story lines, one in the past concerning a family of four who contend with an unexpected demon, and one in the present concerning those two children, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), now grown up, facing their fears with the mirror once and for all. At first the cuts back and forth to each storyline was jarring, but by a half-hour in the rhythm works extremely well.

The performances are on a very high level for a film like this, especially Gillan, and, best of all, the scares come fast and fierce, especially in the second half. The twist ending I didn’t see coming, either, and usually I’m able to guess where these kinds of narratives are headed. Oculus isn’t on the same level as 2012’s supremely chilling Sinister, still the best of the Blum-produced movies. There are a few lulls in the movie, and Flanagan actually shows a little too much, I think, in the last half-hour. But overall, Oculus is a solid horror film that’s different from the usual fare. You might not look at your mirror the same way again.

three-stars

 

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Film Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Marvel’s newest blockbuster is easily the studio’s most thrilling and engrossing chapter yet, lacking the humor that traces the Iron Man films and The Avengers, and instead packed with more visceral excitement that reminded me of The Dark Knight. While the second Captain America film isn’t quite on the level of Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, it is still a terrifically effective studio tentpole that will rival anything that comes out this summer.

Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (who are much more known for TV shows than features) could have made a mediocre, routine sequel—this film probably would have made hundreds of millions regardless—but they raised the bar as to what a movie like this can be. At times I felt like I was watching a tension-filled thriller from the 70s, what with Robert Redford and the DC setting.

The first Captain America movie was fun but this one has a more resonant and exciting story, with Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) teaming up with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannsen) battling a Soviet agent that gives Captain America his most powerful foe to date. Samuel L. Jackson gets more to do this time around as Nick Fury, and it’s particularly fun to watch Redford, who was so beautifully subtle in last year’s All is Lost, play a vile villain.

Evans is probably the blandest lead actor in all these Marvel movies but his chemistry is strong with Johannsen and his character’s personal story is so interesting that Evans comes off much better here than he has in previous Marvel films. There is still the problem in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that I’m seeing more and more these days in blockbusters, of too much CG, too much destruction, too many hundreds of faceless bad guys getting shot down.

But for most of the running time, this is a great action thriller that is well-worth seeking out not at home, but on the big screen.

three-and-a-half-stars1

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Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

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I have had a love/hate relationship with Wes Anderson ever since his 1998 film Rushmore failed to impress me when I was in high school, when pretty much every film fanatic around me praised it to the high heavens. I find The Life Aquatic  intolerable, and his Darjeeling Limited disappointing. I did, however, enjoy Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, as well as his debut Bottle Rocket. Until 2014, I only truly loved one of his films, but now we can finally add another to the list. Easily Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a thrilling, hilarious, and hugely imaginative roller coaster ride of an art film, adding Ralph Fiennes to Anderson’s collective of actors in a rousing performance as M. Gustave. Seemingly every great actor in Hollywood has been packed into this movie, from Edward Norton to Jeff Goldblum to Tilda Swinton to the Anderson staple Bill Murray. Some of these performances add up to mere cameos, while others breathe life into characters that have a lot more to do than you might expect. I especially loved Willem Dafoe’s devilish Jopling, as well as Tony Revolori, totally winning as M. Gustave’s lobby boy. Adam Stockhausen’s production design is, in all capital letters, REMARKABLE, and I loved the different aesthetics used by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman to capture the jumps back and forth in time. While the plot occasionally moves too fast, sometimes losing potential moments of intimacy and heart that made The Royal Tenenbaums such a treat, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a splendid time at the movies.

three-and-a-half-stars1

 

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Film Review: Noah

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The rock monsters. Oh, I know somebody who would love the rock monsters in Noah, but that’s another story. Noah is a film that played for me, oddly enough, like the Coen Brothers’ mediocre 2004 film The Ladykillers. It doesn’t happen like this very often, but it happened with Noah: for about forty-five minutes I was bored stiff, mostly uninterested in the movie, but then a change occurred, and once the characters became stranded on the ark, my interest in the story finally kicked in. I was scared going in, since the only Darren Aronofsky movie I haven’t liked is his big-budget The Fountain, with Hugh Jackman; it seems that the smaller the budget, the better his movies. The bloated Noah did worry me for part of the running time, but when the action slowed down and Aronofsky focused more closely on the family unit, I found myself much more involved. It helped, of course, that Russell Crowe here gives one of his best performances of late—no singing in this one also helps. Emma Watson and Logan Lerman are fine in supporting roles, and the ending is satisfying. Two weeks after seeing it, I don’t remember much about it, haven’t really reflected on the experience at all. It doesn’t come close to Aronofsky’s two masterpieces, Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. But Noah is definitely worth a look on home video.

two-and-a-half-stars

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Film Review: Divergent

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When I read Veronica Roth’s runaway YA bestseller two years ago, I was one of the few unable to be swept away in her story and prose, so color me surprised when I had a great time watching the new film. It starts off in a similar fashion to The Hunger Games, but once Tris picks Dauntless, the film’s pacing ramps up and rarely lets up for the remainder of the running time. Shailene Woodley brings just the right amount of vulnerability and strength to the lead role of Tris, and Theo James is both hunky and remarkably relatable as Four. The only performance that disappointed me here was, oddly enough, Kate Winslet’s take on Jeanine, who always seemed a touch too nice when I wanted Winslet to go into full-scale villain mode. Winslet has never played a baddie before, and not until the very end of the movie did her character show true menace. I also found it distracting to see Ansel Elgort play her brother (he plays her love interest in The Fault in Our Stars) and Miles Teller play another member of Dauntless (he plays her love interest in The Spectacular Now). This isn’t the movie’s fault, but aren’t there more than three young actors in Hollywood? Overall, though, Divergent was an entertaining, if not entirely original, yarn that kept me interested from beginning to end, and I’m intrigued to check out the sequel when it drops next year.

three-stars

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Top Ten Films of 2013

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1. Gravity

Was there any doubt? Gravity has catapulted to the list of not just one of my favorite films of 2013, but one of my favorites of all time. Nothing I have seen in a movie theater in the last five years has wowed me, moved me, thrilled me, and literally took my breath away like Alfonso Cuaron’s groundbreaking masterpiece. Sandra Bullock finally got the role of her career, in a rare big-budget studio movie that allows a woman to carry almost the entire story on her shoulders. Many great films were released in 2013, but only Gravity truly changed the ever-evolving cinematic landscape.

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 2. Before Midnight

One of the greatest love stories ever put on film, this third chapter in the Jesse and Celine saga is perhaps the richest yet. Before Sunset, the first sequel, is one of my favorite movies ever made, so to say I greatly anticipated this new installment is an understatement. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke pulled off a remarkable feat with this film, keeping the trademark long takes alive while also stranding our two beloved characters in the pits of marital Hell. Hawke and especially Delpy give astounding performances, in a film that completes one of the most remarkable movie trilogies of all time.

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3. Stuck in Love

Easily the year’s most underrated movie, Stuck in Love might have scared potential viewers away with its lamer-than-lame title (its original title Writers is much preferred). Josh Boone’s observant and moving debut is The Perks of Being a Wallflower good, about a family of writers all trying to come to terms with both their creative processes and their complicated love lives. Greg Kinnear gives one of his best performances as an acclaimed novelist still yearning for his ex-wife, and Nat Wolfe and Lily Collins are just as terrific as his son and daughter. Add in witty dialogue, a killer soundtrack, and a most unexpected cameo, and you have the film that most surprised me this year.

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4. The Way, Way Back

The other great coming-of-age dramatic comedy of 2013 was The Way, Way Back, a dazzling entertainment that made for the most pure fun I had at the movies last summer. Liam James gives a touching breakthrough performance as a teenager stuck at a Florida family vacation home with his single mom (Toni Collette) and her douchebag boyfriend (Steve Carell, effectively playing against type). His only joy comes from working at the local waterpark, where the sarcastic manager (an Oscar-worthy Sam Rockwell) takes him under his wing. Everything works in this hilarious, feel-good gem.

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5. The Place Beyond the Pines 

No, not every great film comes out in the second half of the year (or the last three months of the year, which Academy members seem to believe). Released back in March, Derek Cianfrance’s absorbing second feature plays out like a rich novel, with a unique narrative structure that brings the viewer in and out of characters’ lives, only to circle us back around again. Ryan Gosling is just as memorable here as he was in the director’s debut, Blue Valentine, and Bradley Cooper delivers a performance that is much more nuanced than the one he got the Oscar nomination for (American what?). Cianfrance is a master storyteller, and I eagerly await what he does next.

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6. All is Lost

The most stunning omission from the Academy Awards nominations this year was Robert Redford’s tour-de-force of a performance in J.C. Chandor’s riveting and poetic All is Lost. Gravity is mostly Sandra Bullock alone in space, but even that film had George Clooney to lend a helping hand in the first half-hour. All is Lost is all Redford, all the time, with no dialogue, and with increasingly mounting tension, as he finds himself stranded at sea with seemingly no way to get home. This is one of those haunting films that slowly pulls you in, never lets go, and wrings tears out of you in a final scene of rousing catharsis.

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7. Nebraska

Alexander Payne is six for six now, with the moving Nebraska his best work since Sideways. Bruce Dern gives one of the year’s most quietly affecting performances as Woody, an aging alcoholic who thinks he’s won a million dollars, but it’s Will Forte, the year’s unlikeliest dramatic actor, who holds the movie together, and gives it heart. The black and white cinematography looks stunning on a giant screen, making the desolate landscapes feel almost otherworldly. The involving script by Bob Nelson keeps surprising you, all the way through to an ending that is heartbreaking, the same time that it is surprisingly hopeful.

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8. The Wolf of Wall Street

It’s long. It’s outrageous. It’s filthy and crude. And it’s also a masterpiece. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of Martin Scorsese’s truly great movies, an ambitious piece of energetic filmmaking that feels like it was made by someone half his age. Leonardo DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career (which, in a truly great and varied career, says a lot), and Jonah Hill wows in a role that both mortifies and charms the viewer’s socks off. The hilarious Quaalude scene is enough to put this movie on any top ten list; that the rest of the film is just as wildly entertaining and gloriously unapologetic makes it one of Scorsese’s best since Goodfellas.

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9. Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s very best film in years features his most complex lead female character since Annie Hall, a diverse and exciting cast, and one of his most engaging stories since 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. Cate Blanchett is well deserving of the Oscar, giving a powerhouse unhinged performance as a privileged New York socialite who loses everything and is forced to move in with her lower class sister (a terrific Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Stand-up comedians Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay impress in supporting roles, but what impresses most is Allen, who at seventy-eight is still churning out sparkling scripts and, most importantly, continues to write beautiful characters for women.

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10. Short Term 12

The last 2013 film I watched before making my final list pushed Enough Said and Prisoners, previously tied in the final slot, down into the second ten. Short Term 12 is an insightful slice of life, lovingly written and directed by Destin Cretton, about a group of twenty-somethings who supervise underprivileged teenagers at a residential treatment facility. The acting crackles with a raw intensity, especially from United States of Tara’s Brie Larson, who is a revelation as Grace. The stories of the facility’s inhabitants always feel truthful and never maudlin, and I loved the way Cretton opens and closes the movie with two memorably told stories, and two even more memorable sprints. Short Term 12 is one of the year’s best!

 #11-20 (in alphabetical order)

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Behind the Candelabra

Bridegroom

Enough Said

Frozen

The Heat

Inside Llewyn Davis

Philomena

Prisoners

You’re Next

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Review: Nebraska

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It seems appropriate that I would watch Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska just a few days apart from each other. Both films go beyond just telling a story. The Coen Brothers and Alexander Payne create entire worlds, with specific settings, stylish cinematography, and eclectic groups of actors, all of which work together to put something truly special and memorable on film. Nebraska is an even better movie than Inside Llewyn Davis, because it has a more complete narrative that sees its two main characters all the way through to an enormously moving finale. It’s a magnificent film, easily one of the best of 2013.

Payne is one of my favorite directors. I have loved all five of his previous features (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendents), and Nebraska is yet another gem to add to his filmography. He has a gift for getting incredible performances from his actors, whether they’re well known stars like Jack Nicholson and George Clooney, or character actors who you might never have seen before. He is known for finding non-actors to populate the bit parts in his movies, to give the settings more realism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the smaller roles in this were filled with locals, too. He does a great job in each of his films blending comedy and drama; typically there’s at least one scene of riotous comedy, as well as a significant dramatic moment toward the end that takes your breath away. Nebraska has both of these scenes, and lots more.

Shot in stunning black-and-white, Nebraska tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a 70-something alcoholic who receives a letter in the mail claiming he is the recipient to a million-dollar prize. Thinking it’s the truth, he starts to make the long trek between Michigan and Nebraska by foot, until his son David (Will Forte) elects to drive him. David and his mother Kate (June Squibb) know the letter is bogus, but David doesn’t care; he looks at this trip as one of the last he will ever have with his aging father. They stop in their old hometown a couple hundred miles before Lincoln, and of course get bombarded by everyone when they mistakenly think that Woody has won the prize money. In the process, David discovers more about his father than he ever could have imagined.

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The film has received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, but arguably its most deserving nomination of all didn’t happen. Yes, Bruce Dern is magnificent in the lead, giving his character a signature walk, a jaded dip of the head, a couple of blinks in almost every shot that tell the audience he’s only partway present. Yes, June Squibb is a hoot as his wife, offering the most laugh-out-loud lines of dialogue in the movie, especially in a perfectly executed scene when she tells off members of her extended family. But there is one actor who holds the movie together, who gives it the heart and soul, and that’s Will Forte. Naturally, that’s a sentence I never expected to ever write.

Payne likes to gives all sorts of actors chances (Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen, for example, were pretty low on the D-list before he gave them career-best roles in Sideways), and it was a bit of inspired genius to give Forte, known for his wild comedy on SNL and in films like MacGruber, a totally ordinary dramatic role, one that essentially carries the whole movie. He is a revelation here, totally convincing as a 30-something man whose life has grown stale in work and relationships and who sees this bogus letter as a way to spend time with his dad. Here’s hoping for more dramatic roles in the future for Forte, as well as for other SNL alumni who might never have had a chance like him.

All of the performances are stellar. Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk are also solid here, with Odenkirk especially coming into his own as a dramatic actor with this and Breaking Bad. Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray (Buzz from Home Alone!) are scene-stealers as a pair of lazy brothers. Finally, an actress named Angela McEwan, who plays an old flame of Woody’s, has one superb scene about halfway through the movie, reminiscing about the man she wanted to marry, which is followed in the end by a brief moment that was moving enough to bring tears to my eyes. With an emotional stare, and no words, McEwan says so very much. Amazing.

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It should be noted how thrilling it was to see a modern film up on the screen shot in gorgeous widescreen black and white. How many B&W movies do we get a year? One, maybe two, if we’re lucky. The Coen Brothers got to shoot one in 2001 with The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Steven Spielberg famously chose it for Schindler’s List. There is a haunting quality to black and white that color can never give, and I loved its use of it here. The same way Woody Allen used B&W to give a dream-like quality to the city he loves in Manhattan, Payne uses it to show the vast and empty landscapes of the mid-west. Black and white ultimately makes a movie feel timeless, and it is a tool that enhances the dramatic power of this movie. I hope this film’s success will inspire more directors to use black-and-white to tell their stories.

Nebraska is one of my favorite films of 2013. It’s the first that Alexander Payne has ever directed without having co-written the script as well (Bob Nelson penned the screenplay), yet every frame of this movie feels like him. The performances are excellent, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the journey is funny and moving, sometimes at the same time. There are only a handful of directors you can count on to make a great film each time out, like Alfonso Cuaron and Martin Scorsese. Add Payne to the list. I will follow this man anywhere he goes.

four-stars

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Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

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The Coen Brothers make films in all kinds of genres. Comedies, dramas, westerns, thrillers. Their last five films — No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, True Grit, and Inside Llewyn Davis — couldn’t be more different from each other in terms of the stories they tell and the tones they are told in. But what unites these films, and almost all of their movies really, are two elements. One, the characters in their movies are always specific and well drawn, from the lead, all the way to the bit parts. There is no random actor in any scene of Inside Llewyn Davis. The assistant to Llewyn’s agent is just as memorable as, say, John Goodman’s abrasive backseat driver.

And two, they always create entire worlds, the way the director of a science fiction film would create another planet on screen. Set in 1960s New York and Chicago, this film has an incredibly vivid and memorable world to revel in. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best of the year-end releases, and the greatest film the Coen Brothers have made since No Country for Old Men. That it missed out on a much-deserved Best Picture nomination is a bit of a head-scratcher. Aside from a slightly rushed third act, and an ambiguous ending that makes the end of No Country look like a Happily Ever After, this is a terrific film.

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Oscar Isaac gets the kind of breakthrough role all younger actors can only hope for. Llewyn Davis is having a rough time. He’s a talented guitar-playing folk singer who can’t catch a break. He’s crashing on couches from night to night. He might have impregnated a girl who hates him and who wants to have an abortion. His agent can’t do much for him. Very few believe in him. He gets stuck with someone’s cat and spends most of the movie with it as his unlikely companion. Of course, this is a Coen Brothers movie, so don’t expect a simple plot. Story elements are planted in the first hour, and then few are paid off. It’s very much an episodic journey, with most of the supporting characters popping up for a scene or two, then never showing up again. This is very much Llewyn’s story, and there’s never the sense that he is going to get a happy ending.

The Coen Brothers always get natural performances out of their actors, and this film is no exception. Oscar Isaac has been solid before, in films like Drive and 10 Years, but this is the first time he carries a movie, and he does so effortlessly. His performance is one of the most assured of the year and should have received more attention this awards season. His character has many layers, with moments of humility, moments of rage, and everything in between. Part of the reason the movie feels anticlimactic at the end is that I never wanted the journey with this character to end. Justin Timberlake and Garret Hedland show up in small parts, but the most memorable are Carey Mulligan, as a scorned woman who may or may not be carrying Llewyn’s child (her intense hostility makes for some big laughs), and John Goodman, chewing the scenery in the backseat of a car.

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One of the great joys of the film is the music. The movie opens with Llewyn singing, and at least eight or nine songs play throughout the running time. It has been a long time since I watched a movie and wanted to rush out and buy the soundtrack, but it happened big time with Inside Llewyn Davis (even the song with  Adam Driver shouting “OUTER SPACE” is fun). Another pleasure is the gorgeous cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, which has a beautiful dream-like hazy quality. While this movie was mostly passed over for Academy Award recognition, at least Delbonnel’s cinematography got a much deserved nod. I love that the camera-work is never too precious; one scene that made me laugh was a ride on the subway from the POV of a cat.

Inside Llewyn Davis had me in its grip from the opening minutes and kept me there for most of the running time. Watching the first half, I was sure this film would make my top ten list, but it unfortunately starts drifting a little too much in the last forty-five minutes, and its abrupt ending made me say, just like at the end of August Osage County, “That’s it?” I didn’t need a phony Hollywood ending with Llewyn reuniting with his long lost son or daughter, but the film ends up feeling like there was still another 10-20 minutes to go. There’s so much to love here that I’m still a fan of the film, but the ending needed a little more resolution. Overall this is a fine film, with a strong cast, superb cinematography, and stand-out songs, and is well worth checking out.

three-and-a-half-stars1

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Movie Review: Her

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Spike Jonze’s Her is a strange, quirky film that stands out in a sea of epic dramas and star-studded comedies this awards season. It has one of the most inventive concepts of any film I’ve seen in a long time, a story set in the near future about a man who falls in love with his operating system. Of course in the hands of another director this film might have been too goofy, or too cloying, or worst of all, a total bore. There were possibilities of missteps along the way.

Thankfully, Spike Jonze is at the helm, and he is one of those talents who always takes risks and commits one hundred percent to the story he is telling, even if it involves John Malkovich’s brain or Charlie Kaufman’s peculiar writing process. While Her’s running time ultimately stretches about twenty minutes too long, this is a fascinating love story for the twenty-first century well deserving of its five Academy Award nominations.

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Joaquin Phoenix, who continues to be stellar in movie after movie, plays Theodore Twombly, a greetings card writer dealing with the imminent divorce of his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). He buys the first of its kind—an OS1, which includes the world’s first artificial intelligent operating system. He boots it up, picks a female voice, and starts chatting with a woman who sounds and feels like she is right there in the room. The sultry voice (Scarlett Johannsen) names herself Samantha, and Theodore immediately starts bonding with her. Soon enough, she’s his girlfriend. Weirder than that, no one around him, including his friend Amy (Amy Adams), seems to think this is anything to worry about.

What struck me the most about Her was its cold, depressing view of the near future. There are endless shots of Theodore walking to and from work, talking into his ear piece, as dozens of people around him stare at the ground and talk into their ear pieces, too. Nobody looks at each other. Human interaction has been cut to a minimum, and no one seems to mind. This vision is striking because it looks to be where we are headed. Scariest of all, as I watched the film, I started to feel like the main idea, of people falling in love with their operating system voices, actually wasn’t that far-fetched.

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Her can be looked at in two ways. On one level, it’s a sweet love story, of Theodore finding himself, as he tries for a connection with someone else, even if it’s not an actual person. The interactions between Theodore and Samantha are often funny and lively, and rarely awkward. But on another level, Her is almost like Gravity and All is Lost, in that it’s essentially a person by himself most of the movie, talking to somebody who isn’t really there. As artificially intelligent as Samantha is, she doesn’t really exist. So every time I wanted to root for Theodore, not just to be with Samantha, but to be happy, the little voice in the back of my head kept distracting me by saying, he can’t ever be happy with her. This second level makes the film emotionally frustrating at times.

The performances enhance the reality of this environment. Phoenix is perfectly cast and appropriately dopey here, in a role just as sharply drawn as his Freddie in The Master. Her is a great film for actresses. Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde do great work with tiny roles, and Amy Adams is delightfully frumpy here in a performance much warmer and better realized than her turn in the overrated American Hustle. Scarlett Johannsen has one of the great sultry screen voices, and was a perfect choice for Samantha. More impressive is her range of emotion that makes the character, by the film’s second half, feel in every way like a real person.

While Her doesn’t reach the levels of artistry of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, few films can, and this is a step in the right direction for Jonze, after his visually stunning but dramatically stilted Where the Wild Things Are. The look of the film is incredible, the score by Arcade Fire is one of the year’s best, and the performances are uniformly excellent. This one will certainly make you think about the scary places we may be headed. Here’s hoping the reality in Her is decades away, and not years.

three-stars

HER

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