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Best of 2014 | Yazdi’s Favorite Films

Why do we watch films?

I tend to get introspective this time of year when starting to think about the best films of the past 12 months. I am a listomaniac so I relish coming up with the films; that is not the problem. It is the paring down to come up with the top ten, or even the top fifteen that is excruciating. I have never understood those who bemoan that there are hardly any films worth celebrating from the past year. For me this is akin to those who complain that there is never anything good to watch on Netflix; I do not know what to tell them when I have more than 200 films on my Netflix queue.

This year I am more list-happy than usual. So apart from the list below of my overall personal favorites of the year, I will also be posting a list of the top mainstream films, as well a list of the best films watched at film festivals in 2014.

I think we watch film because film is the great equalizer. Once the lights go down and it is dark in that theater, it puts us all at the same station. All the inequalities of our each individual real worlds, those inherited and those thrust upon us, dissolve away. Social, economic, professional and physical labels all look the same in the dark; they are invisible. And for a short while, we can get lost uniformly in someone else’s world.  Which is why my criterion for picking movies for the year-end list has remained the same year after year: that each movie should have altered something within my emotional circuitry.But let me come back to my original question. Why do we watch films. Why should film matter. This year, being in India during the last week of the year, these questions became somewhat irrelevant. Because film in India is so intricately woven into the fabric of what makes this country what it is, that to isolate cinema and ask of its meaning is purposeless. All those who bemoan the death of publicly screened movies should book a plane ticket to Mumbai and walk into a theater here. And watch how the masses consume film. How they truly lap up film. Like a child consuming a ripe mango. With an almost obscene relish. With an abandonment of the real world that is at first embarrassing, and then unexpectedly comforting. Families come, hand in hand and filter into rows like ants. They jump out of their seats with righteous pride when the Indian national anthem is played before the start of the film, waiting until the last note is played before settling back. They squeal with glee. They talk at the screen. They warn the characters of impending danger. They openly cheer at the protagonist. They talk to each other.  They clap. They eat: covertly brought snacks from home as well as foods purchased during the intermission (yes, there is an intermission, if not formally built into the movie in Indian films then forcibly and often ineptly cleaved into American films). If I sound nostalgic it is because this is how I consumed cinema growing up and I now miss this reckless embrace of cinema, this utter surrender to the joy of it, that is somehow absent in the West. Just this year I shrugged off threats of bodily harm received when I asked someone to stop talking during a screening in San Diego. And yet, and yet, during a screening in India this week, I did not have the heart to ask the same of the audience here; besides it would have taken me the full running time of the movie to make my way through to everyone who was talking during the movie.

What does it say that my top four films (and five out of the top fifteen) are foreign movies. Only that the best in cinema, as always, comes from everywhere, and those who willfully choose to watch only American/English movies do so to their great detriment.

And so here are my personal picks for the best of the year:

  1. THE LUNCHBOX:This film excels at the one thing that often evades Indian cinema: subtlety. A neglected young housewife builds a connection with an older widowed man when lunches she packs for her husband mistakenly get delivered to the other man. The film’s accomplishment is in how deftly it transcends the cliché of two strangers helping each other out. It does so by avoiding a face to face meeting between the two; much of their interaction occurs through handwritten notes accompanied with the lunchbox. The delicate tone so wistfully maintained early in the movie is ruined in the last act when the script tries, very unwisely, to force a romantic beat to the interplay between the two, but when you have as fine an actor as Irrfan Khan at the peak of his abilities it pulls the film through.
  1. ENEMY:What a glorious mind-fuck this film is. A man becomes aware of another who looks exactly like him; even as he tries to reach out to him, the lives of the two start to bleed into each other. Are the two doppelgangers the same person? Is the entire film a documentation of a mind coming undone. Or is it about the necessary duality in each of us. Based on the book by Jose Saramago, the film has no interest in providing easy answers; those insistent on a FIGHT CLUB like reveal should look elsewhere. But the stories of the two men (played with impressive dexterity by Jake Gyllenhaal) play out with a pleasing directness that it should remedy concerns about the film being too opaque. Extra credit: ENEMY will easily make it on any list of movies with the most shocking/perplexing/WTF endings. ENEMY is currently streaming on Netflix
  1. LOCKE: Like BOYHOOD and BIRDMAN, detractors have called LOCKE a gimmick. But what you might call a gimmick is to me the cinematic equivalent of jumping off a cliff without a safety net. All three films could have fallen flat on their faces on the basis of their innovation. All three are on my best of the year list. The entirety of LOCKE is filmed around a single character driving a car over the course of one night. That is it. As the night wears on, we realize this is a story about a man having arguably the worst night of his life. Tom Hardy plays this individual with slippery insight and writer director Steven Knight takes time to peel away at his motivations. We know the crises this man is facing and has to necessarily resolve while he is driving, but we do not know if he has had these coming to him. Not everything about the film works, but I will never begrudge a film that is able to commit original sin.
  1. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: What richness of contradictions we have here. In a film called A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, you will find very little blood. For a film set in the late 70s, it easily speaks to contemporary themes of corporate greed and responsibility (which is not surprising considering this is from a filmmaker whose first film was MARGIN CALL). And for a mobster crime drama, it is surprisingly moody, some might say glacial even. I believe it is this slow burn that turned off many reviewers. But the simmer pays off as the movie builds a genuine sense of unease, of impending doom. Not interested in indulging in the conventions of the genre this film belongs to, J.C. Chandor instead has crafted the film as a character study of a man trying to do right. In an inherently criminal playing field. Two years in a row now, Oscar Isaac has provided indelible portrayals of men undone by self-destructive behavior that is inseparable from who they are (with FINDING LLEWYN DAVIS and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR).
  1. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING:Much attention has been given to this handsome biopic about Stephen Hawkins, based on a memoir written by his wife. To the handsome cinematography and exacting recreation of a time and place from the past. To the handsome love story of a man many consider more intelligent than any that lived and the woman who stood beside him through his cruelly unimaginable physical deterioration. In fact there is a burnish of handsomeness through much of this film, a sense of rigorous craft with which the film has been put together. I will not begrudge any of those things. But that is not the reason this film is on this list (when say, THE IMITATION GAME is not). The film’s great accomplishment in my mind comes from its second act, when it follows Hawking and his wife through their latter years, much after the moony romanticism from their early years has faded. And it is the unflinching, level-headed honesty with which it regards these characters through the passage of time that the film rises above genre biopic conventions. The script’s refusal to readily submit to pat moral judgments about the two or to obviously tip its sympathies toward one or the other in the couple makes for the best part of this film. The most robust of loves are vulnerable to the cruelties of everyday happenings and it is a wise film that is able to go deep into these murky waters and come out with integrity.
  1. NIGHTCRAWLER: A man trains himself to be a crime photographer in Los Angeles and shows uncommon acumen in negotiating the use of his footage to the local television news stations. There is always something a bit off with the title character, masterfully played by Jake Gyllenhaal, but one of the joys of the film is to realize with sinking fear that there is no line this man will not cross to capture newsworthy crime footage.A film free from moral tether is a film liberated. And Dan Gilroy uses this setting to provide commentary on much of our contemporary mores. In its final act the film descends into a rarified other dimension of queasy disquiet, where you start at the screen the way you cannot look away from a road accident. What great, twisted fun this movie is. This film should have been celebrated at year end as this generation’s NETWORK. And yet it got precious little love. In fact the San Diego Film Critics Society was the only reviewing group to lavish awards on the film.
  1. MR PEABODY AND SHERMAN:The most intelligent individual on the planet, who just happens to be a dog named Mr Peabody takes a human kid (Sherman) through several adventures by way of a time-travel machine. This first feature film based on the Peabody and Sherman television shorts from several decades ago is frankly a minor miracle. It is giddily, wonderfully alive. It is cunningly devious in pulling in history lessons in the guise of time-travel adventure. It is visually as glossy and gleaming and wondrous as any film released in the year (animated or otherwise). But the greatest reason I consider this film a minor masterpiece is the slyness with which it slips in its message of acceptance. When late in the film, strangers in a crowd start saying, one after another, “I am a dog” in defence of Mr Peabody’s right to keep Sherman as his son and family, it was one of the most emotional cinematic moments for me all year. MR PEABODY AND SHERMAN is currently streaming on Netflix.
  1. BOYHOOD: A boy grows up and a film for quietly observes him. It observes him and it observes those around him including his separated parents. Much has been made of the fact that director Richard Linklater had his camera watch the same actor over a period of 12 years, and many have brushed this aside as a gimmick. And yet no one had thought to do this until now. But set aside the thrill of watching the contours of a face change on screen, watch hair bow to the wind of contemporary styles. Even if Linklater had hired separate actors of different ages to play this role, this would still be a great film. Because he makes the brave choice on every page of his script to avoid epiphany, to steer clear of melodrama, to have this be a story of banal everyday happenings. But isn’t that the nature of memory, a series of disconnected unremarkable personal remembrances. Having a film be able to capture the inscrutable and to do it with grace and understatement and to have it mean something is no small accomplishment.
  1. BIRDMAN:This film could have been insufferable. But instead it becomes the cinematic equivalent of jumping off a cliff without rope or safety net. It is the story of a has-been star of superhero films who makes one last ditch effort at being relevant by taking on a role in a Broadway play. That is nominally the synopsis of the plot. But I see the film as a study of a person slowly coming undone. A study of a person trying to handle demands both professional and personal, and losing control of the real from the imagined. We could be far more mentally unhinged than our self perception, this film is trying to tell us. And then there is the part about how the film has been shot: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, known until now for films with disparate story lines that converge together (AMORRES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, BABEL) does the exact opposite with this film. Oh, and the one thing that there is universal agreement on, is that nobody knows what to make of the ending.
  1. PRIDE:This is the epitome of the feel-good movie. That nobody saw. Why this film didn’t get more love at the box office is baffling. The film carries a 92% rating on the Tomatometer, and the movie all but guarantees that audience members will leave the theater in a cloud of elation. So write the name of this this film down for the next time you are at a loss of what film to rent. The film is based on the real-life events surrounding Welsh mineworkers on strike during Thatcher-era UK who got unexpected and unsolicited support from a gay and lesbian activist group out of London. At first the mineworkers wanted nothing from this group, but gradually warmed up to how they might assist their cause. This film is a case study on how to avoid the sentimental, the hackneyed and the contrived. Every scene here rings with authenticity. And the film pulses with a hard-earned and quiet combination of dignity and anger. Even as it gets to dismal and dark places, the film ultimately demonstrates, with enviable subtlety that the disenfranchised are all the same. Seek out this film at any cost.
  1. THE EDGE OF TOMORROW:This is a fully realized piece of science fiction that is thrillingly alive. How many films about man versus aliens have we seen by now, and frankly what more is left to say? It turns out, plenty. In the hands of Doug Liman, this movie gets shot by shot, scene by scene, component by component, everything right. The movie takes a simple doozy of a premise (based on the book ALL YOU NEED IS KILL) – that of a reluctant soldier caught in a time-loop in which he keeps dying again and again and looping back through the same few days before his death until he is able to find a way to prevail during the alien warfare – and builds a funny, richly executed narrative around it. Say what you will about Tom Cruise but he never phones in a performance, and Emily Blunt has never been better playing a fully convincing badass sergeant. There is an obvious homage to GROUNDHOG DAY with Blunt’s character named Ritam and the battle scene that plays again and again in France is meant to evoke the Normandy invasion. But forget all that and just enjoy what is the best action film of 2014. The film understands that the best sci-fi stories are about ideas, and not about spaceships and aliens. It is blissfully good.
  1. THE WAY HE LOOKS;This film (HOJE EU QUERO VOLTAR SOZINHO) was Brazil’s submission to the Best Foreign Film category at the 2014 Academy Awards. It tells the story of Leo, a somewhat shy teenager. He is blind and aware of his place in school due to his disability. Leo’s best friend since childhood has been Giovana and the two are inseparable; in many ways he sees the world through Giovana’s eyes. Enter the unreasonably amiable new student at school, Gabriel and Leo and Giovanna’s friendship will need to be redefined. Who hasn’t experienced the dynamics with a friend change due to the necessary introduction of a new person Nothing in this film is what we haven’t seen before. And yet, the film is written, acted and played out with such a matter of fact honesty and simplicity that it rises up to be one of the better films of the year. The Way He Looks makes its observations without fuss, without drama, and without prurience. So what if the lead character is blind. So what if he happens to fall for another guy. Without tilting into caricature, the film strikes authenticity while never submitting to melodrama. One The Way He Looks can do. more good than a hundred after-school specials about tolerance. Yes The Way He Looks may just be a teenage love triangle set in Brazil, but it is the best example of its kind to make you realize that sometimes a truthful story told with a good heart is all it takes. When films these days are seemingly only interested in hipster posturing and cynicism, the most provocative thing of all may be a film that gifts viewers with genuine sweetness. THE WAY HE LOOKS is currently streaming on Netflix
  1. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON:Two couples find out that their five-year old sons had been switched at birth.Think about this premise, and then imagine what most filmmakers might have done with it. To see what Hirokazu Kore-Eda does with this story is to recognize why he is one of the master filmmakers. The film presents a fascinating moral quandary. The discovery of a son you weren’t previously aware of is one thing. But that still cannot match the anxiety of knowing that the child you did rear as your own now legally belongs to other parents who could forcibly take him away. This story could have lent itself to any manner of tonal or stylistic construct. This might have been a bitter, angry film. It might have been a legal procedural. It might have been a deep, soggy wallow of a movie. But LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is none of those things.  Instead the film is elevated because the treatment given to this material is one of quiet observation. Kore-eda has been called an heir to Ozu for reason, not least because of his ability to watch his characters from afar without judgment. And this movie is no exception. It has no interest in melodrama; you will not find a shrill note here. And then there is the one thing about Kore-Eda’s work that makes him one of my favorite filmmakers: he refuses to create villains. There isn’t a mean character in any of his films.  How easy it would have been for this film to tip over, if even very subtly, with its sympathies toward one of the two couples. It would have been easy to call the rich couple out for their patronizing, intellectual detachment, or call the other couple out for being irresponsible and crude. But the film resolutely does not. It quietly makes it clear that each set of parents are well-meaning and generous in their love for their children.  They may be flawed, but both sides are inarguably decent. It is in this recognition of the decency of those who love a child that the film ultimately provides an abiding definition for family; the only one that matters.  That it does so apolitically, unemotionally and with authenticity, is cause for gratitude. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is currently streaming on Netflix
  1. TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT:Are there more humanist filmmakers working right now than the Dardenne brothers? They have been making exceptional films for a long time, but with TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT they hit a perfect stride, bringing forth a clear, focused story with uncanny insight. And empathy. A woman who returns to work after a long break due to illness finds out that her job has been eliminated and her salary will be distributed as bonus amongst the 16 workers who covered for her during her absence. When she pleads to have her job back, she is told she can have it if she can over the course of a weekend, convince each of her coworkers to give up their bonus. Presented as a simple ethical quandary, this story is about all of the issues that matter today: the crumbling economy, people losing jobs, and the increasing loss of humanity in the great industrial shuffle. This film has one of the best depictions of a functioning clinically depressed individual on screen. And Marion Cotillard, in an Oscar nominated lead performance, breaks your heart. Each time she rises above everything that is pushing her down: her crippling depression, the loss of her job, the pain of having to asking another economically strained colleague to give up their bonus for her sake, every time she smiles in spite of all of that, it is an inconsequential victory. But it breaks your heart. Cotillard plays this character as a broken person. But she never strains for audience sympathy. And in a key scene toward the end of the film, her immediate reaction to a situation quietly demonstrates that she may be emotionally broken, but she has all the strength of character where it matters most. In all the films in all of 2014 that I saw, this is the only one with a fully, acutely human character. The only one breathing the warm exhale of life.
  1. FORCE MAJEURE: What a film this is. Pushing all the right buttons for me, I watched it with rapturous wonder. At different times, somber, probing, achingly funny, wise and damning, this is cinema for those who love cinema. What is it about? Conceptually, oh about a hundred things, but it is nominally about a seemingly perfect young family that completely unravels when they are presented very suddenly with a life-and-death situation. One spouse reacts a particular way and will not be forgiven for that by the other spouse. The most pervasively dominant of all human instincts, the one that prevails even over the basic instinct to protect our own is that of survival of the self. The film’s principal moral inquiry is whether we as a society are less forgiving of men than women when faced with such situations. First of all, FORCE MAJEURE is majestic from a technical standpoint. Some filmmakers have a spark to their work; you can sense a grandness, a flourish to every scene in their films. You can sense this in the films of Fincher, Nolan, the Coen brothers, and Welles. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is a master aesthetist and earns the right to be compared to those filmmakers. There is an obvious pivotal scene in FORCE MAJEURE around which the entire film pivots and that alone is worth the price of admission for its technical grandeur. But set that money shot aside; even then, the film is remarkable for how neatly and studiously the shots have been culled together, with beautiful long, long takes that both present as challenges to the actors, some of them kids, and at the same time allow them to do remarkable work. The script here makes wry observations about the the soft, vulnerable, unexamined, scrupulously ignored underbellies of relationships as it focuses its gaze on several couples. And even when the gaze is terse, there is an intelligence to the examination that is exacting, precise. And lest this sound too lofty, I want to assure you that there is easily earned humor at every turn in this film. And wit. At one point, upon returning to their room after a testy dinner conversation, the wife tells her husband: “What’s wrong? That’s not us!” It is a marvelous way to think of one’s relationship. This is the quintessential film that will trigger intense debate after viewing. FORCE MAJEURE is currently streaming on Netflix

OSCAR NOMINATIONS REACTION: Wake up, Academy voters!

In the wee hours of Thursday morning last week, Oscar nominations for the best in cinema in 2014 were announced.

 

And with one glorious exception, the academy voters either checked off expected boxes, or worse made angering, stupefying omissions. Were it that they had only checked off the expected boxes, we would have shrugged our collective shoulders, never expecting much adventurousness from this group. But this year, there is reason for outrage. The nominations tell more about the academy voters than they are probably willing to publicly admit.

 

I hate to jump in with the pitch-fork carrying mob, but there really is much that causes ire. Below are five truly angering nominations:

 

  1. Best Director: Besides BIRDMAN, BOYHOOD, THE IMITATION GAME, and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, the biggest, most shameful of all Oscar nominations this year revolves around the fifth pick. It went to
    Ava Duvernay, director of SELMA. The Academy will have to wait for another time to nominate its first Female Director of color.

    Ava Duvernay, director of SELMA. The Academy will have to wait for another time to nominate its first female Director of color.

    Bennett Miller for FOXCATCHER, which in itself is mildly shocking considering the lack of critical consensus for this film, or how little steam the movie has gathered at the year-end awards circuit. But the biggest shock is that the FOXCATCHER nomination came at the expense of snubbing SELMA. And most egregiously, for passing on the opportunity to create history by the first-time nomination of a female director of color (which would have been the case with Ava Duvernay, who helmed SELMA). I am not suggesting that SELMA should have been picked just to please our liberal political notions. No, SELMA has been consistently and universally considered a front-runner in this year’s race and it is difficult to argue against its worthiness; it’s a magnificent, heartfelt film. Yes I acknowledge that one shouldn’t read deliberate political intent with the Oscar nominations, but both FOXCATCHER and SELMA are based on real-life events, and would it not be irresponsible not to read something from the fact that a cold film about White male privilege gone awry unexpectedly derails a film about an important chapter in the African American history in America.  Now that we can have up to ten best picture nominees, the five films with the best director noms have generally been considered an indicator of the top five film in the eyes of the voters. But what is perplexing about the FOXCATCHER nomination for Bennett Miller is that it comes without a corresponding Best Film nomination. When ironically, SELMA picked up a Best Film nomination, but no love for its director, go figure. Is this a reflection on the predominantly older, predominantly white and predominantly male demographic of Oscar voters?

  1. Best Male Actor: Here’s the other stinker. No one is going to contest nominations picked up by Benedict Cumberbatch (THE IMITATION GAME), Eddie Redmayne (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), and Michael
    No love for Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHT CRAWLER

    No love for Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHT CRAWLER

    Keaton (BIRDMAN). But check out the remaining two selections: STEVE CARELL (again, for that for that troubling FOXCATCHER) and Bradley Cooper (AMERICAN SNIPER). Effectively leaving out Jake Gyllenhaal. Really? Honestly, forget allegiances or favoritism. But can any objective person watch Gyllenhaal in NIGHTCRAWLER and pick Carell or Cooper over him. Even if voters were clueless that Gyllenhaal is doing career-best work right now (coming off his underappreciated stints in PRISONERS last year and ENEMY this year), what sane person can watch FOXCATCHER, AMERICAN SNIPER, and NIGHTCRAWLER and go with either of the first two films for acting nods. It boggles the mind. Gyllenhall plays the title character in NIGHTCRAWLER as a person of troublingly intensifying moral disarray; he is off-kilter from the start but one of the joys of the film is to recognize the trecherous shrewdness of a person for whom, we realize too late, that no line is too far to cross. His work in this film is achingly wry, at once hostile and funny. But there is no love for Gyllenhaal by the voters.  I am generally a fan of Steve Carell, but his performance in FOXCATCHER is so cold and stylized and deliberately impermeable that one wonders if he was picked more for the prosthetic transformation of this face than any histrionics. And what is with Bradley Cooper and the Academy? Listen, he is a capable enough actor, who works very hard and his screen presence is always likeable, but he never has never had the gleam of genius or the exceptional in anything he has done to date. In AMERICAN SNIPER he put on weight and threw himself into the role of real life soldier Chris Kyle with admirable passion. But his rendition does not bring particular insight into the pathology of this character who remains a rather one-dimensional individual. Cooper’s third consecutive nomination (SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, AMERICAN HUSTLE and now AMERICAN SNIPER) is frankly befuddling. Daniel Day-Lewis, he is not. So what gives with all this love? And honestly, what more does Gyllenhaal have to do to get recognized?

  1. Best Female Supporting Actor: Meryl Streep nabbed a record 17th nomination in this category for INTO THE
    Jessica Chastain in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, bereft for being left out of the Best Female Supporting Actor race, at the expense of an undeserving Meryl Streep nod.

    Jessica Chastain in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, bereft at being left out of the race ?

    WOODS. No one is going to deny that Streep is the legend amongst our living acting legends. But can we all agree, please, for the love of all that is good in cinema, that she cannot become a de facto Oscar nominee just for showing up in a film. INTO THE WOODS is not without its charms and is a respectable adaptation of the Sondheim Broadway musical. But it is an ensemble film and there is nothing in Streep’s performance that elevates her from the remaining cast members. If she is recognized from that film, then so should have Anna Kendrick. Or Emily Blunt. But no, the academy voters appear to put a tick against the Streep name every year, with collective zombie minds. Last year it was for AUGUST, OSAGE COUNTY, and this year for INTO THE WOODS. I will be the first to defend Meryl Streep’s 25th nomination, but provided it is for a film where her work has been stellar. The Streep nomination this year came at the cost of Jessica Chastain’s remarkable work in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. Or the opportunity to recognize the late-career revitalization of Rene Russo in NIGHTCRAWLER. This laziness on the part of voters is beyond frustrating. You are Academy voters. Watch the films. It’s your job. Be discerning.

 

  1. Best Foreign Film: Apart from the SELMA debacle, the snub that stung me the most was the unexplainable
    The head-scratching omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film category

    The head-scratching omission of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film category

    leaving out of FORCE MAJEURE from the Best Foreign Film nominations. I watched many films in 2014, close to a hundred I believe. And FORCE MAJEURE holds the top spot on my personal list of best films of the year. This film crackles with so much confidence, and wit, and anger, and intent in every one of its scenes. Just the technical prowess of the film is something to behold, as one incredible episode follows another with wonder. The incredible cinematography, the grand score, the churning, squeaking, disquieting Sound Design. But set the technical aspect aside. Just watching the film take a minor natural disaster and having that detonate the marital bliss of what appeared until then, a strong family, is one of the giddiest pleasures to be had at the cinemas all year. Granted I haven’t seen LEVIATHAN, TIMBUKTU, TANGERINES and WILD TALES, also nominated in this category (and they all come with remarkable critical lauding) and I am keeping an open mind until I have watched these other films. But IDA (which did get an Oscar nomination) and FORCE MAJEURE were leading the pack with all other Foreign Film nominations (The Golden Globes, BAFTA, Independent Spirit Awards, Jury prize win at Cannes). To have FORCE MAJEURE suddenly fail to pick up recognition at the Oscars seems particularly cruel.

 

  1. Best Animated Film: I love animated films. On their own terms. Within the confines of their intended goals.
    THE LEGO MOVIE: Academy voters deem its commercial success recognition enough for this film.

    THE LEGO MOVIE: Academy voters deem its commercial success recognition enough.

    Some of the greatest films of all time in my mind are animated films. And they often show up on my list of the best films of the year. But 2014 was surprisingly tepid. There wasn’t a single film in this category that came close to greatness. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON-2 took the deft internal struggle from the original film – of a teen trying to do right and giving the benefit of doubt to a long considered enemy – and traded it in for grandeur and spectacle in the sequel, losing most of the emotional authenticity in the bargain. THE BOXTROLLS and BIG HERO 6 have their heart in the right place, but no one is going to rush to call either one a classic any time soon. If those three films are to earn nominations, I do not understand why the similarly accomplished (but not great) films THE LEGO MOVIE and THE BOOK OF LIFE got left out. Was the tremendous commercial success of THE LEGO MOVIE held against it?

 

The nominations this year unfortunately did nothing to detract from the narrative that Academy voters are lazy, do not see too many films, are racially disconnected from the rest of the nation, and are overeager to recognize the same individuals repeatedly and often sight unseen.

 

At least they did not nominate Amy Adams blindly again this year (for the mediocre BIG EYES). Which brings me to the one silver lining in all of the nominations this year. The one instance in which I raised a pumped fist up in the air with delight. The one instance where the Academy voters demonstrated uncharacteristic flair. Which is with the nominations for Best Female Actor. Yes, Rosamund Pike (GONE GIRL), Reese Witherspoon (WILD), Felicity Jones (THE THEORY

Hurray for the recognition of Marion Cotillard's transcendent performance in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

Hurray for the recognition of Marion Cotillard’s transcendent performance in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

OF EVERYTHING) and Julianne Moore (STILL ALICE) are deservedly the top contenders this year and got the expected nods. But it was the fifth spot that was open for the taking, and many had assumed it would go to Jennifer Aniston for CAKE. But thank our lucky stars, Academy voters did the right thing and picked Marion Cotillard for her remarkable, heartbreaking turn in the French film TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT. IFC films which is distributing this film, did little to push this movie so Cotillard could be considered in this category, and it was mostly through word of mouth that interest in her performance got around. To see this film is to recognize why Cotillard is one of our great living actors. Under the direction of the Dardennes brothers, likely the more humanist of all filmmakers working right now, Cotillard plays a character who has to, over a weekend, convince her ten coworkers to give up their annual bonus so that she can keep her job. And the wonder of her performance – and it is hard not to grasp at hyperbole when talking about it – is how contrary it is to expectations. Where one might have expected this character to be angry, or belligerent, or panicked, or indignant, Cotillard plays her instead as broken and fragile, and deeply aware of the troubles of others. And thereby single-handedly brings the audience in her corner. And we never leave her. Not after we have lived those two days with her. Not after the film is over. Not for months afterward. How great that amongst all their unexplainable, infuriating snubs, the Academy voters found the grace to recognize Marion Cotillard for her great work in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. And I will choose to be grateful for this one right amongst many wrongs.

 

San Diego Film Critics Society announces nominations for the best of 2014

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How quickly the year is coming to its last reel. Since the past two weeks, film reviewer communities everywhere have been announcing their year end picks for the best of the year. Closer home, the San Diego Film Critics Society announced today their final nominations in various categories.

 

The San Diego Film Critics Society (SDFCS) consists of 18 members (including Moviewallas) who write about film in our city, and include the major print and online film outlets in San Diego.

 

This year’s SDFCS nominations includes a diverse list that has something for everyone. In fact, we had ties in the tie-breaker round (!) for Best Film and Best Male Actor, and hence have 6 names instead of the usual 5 in those two categories. Some picks are similar to those from other critics groups in the country (including those from New York, Los Angeles, and Boston). And there are some unique picks such as nominations for Venus In Fur and Heli in the Best Foreign Film category.  The SDFCS may also be the first critics group to hand a Best Male Actor nomination to the redoubtable Brendan Gleeson for his work in Calvary.

 

Without further ado, here are the final 2014 SDFCS nominations. Do not forget to provide us your feedback on the nominations in the Comments section.

 

BEST FILM

BOYHOOD

GONE GIRL

NIGHTCRAWLER

SELMA

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

 

BEST DIRECTOR

Alejandro González Iñárritu, BIRDMAN

Dan Gilroy, NIGHTCRAWLER

David Fincher, GONE GIRL

Richard Linklater, BOYHOOD

Wes Anderson, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

 

BEST ACTOR, MALE

Brendan Gleeson, CALVARY

Eddie Redmayne, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Jake Gyllenhaal, NIGHTCRAWLER

Michael Keaton, BIRDMAN

Ralph Fiennes, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Tom Hardy, LOCKE

BEST ACTOR, FEMALE

Felicity Jones, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Hilary Swank, THE HOMESMAN

Marion Cotillard, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

Mia Wasikowska, TRACKS

Rosamund Pike, GONE GIRL

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, MALE

Edward Norton, BIRDMAN

Ethan Hawke, BOYHOOD

J.K. Simmons, WHIPLASH

Mark Ruffalo, FOXCATCHER

Riz Ahmed, NIGHTCRAWLER

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, FEMALE

Carrie Coon, GONE GIRL

Emma Stone, BIRDMAN

Keira Knightly, THE IMITATION GAME

Patricia Arquette, BOYHOOD

Rene Russo, NIGHTCRAWLER

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacabone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo, BIRDMAN

Dan Gilroy, NIGHTCRAWLER

Richard Linklater, BOYHOOD

Steven Knight, LOCKE

Wes Anderson, Hugo Guiness, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

 

BEST ADAPATED SCREENPLAY

Anthony McCarten, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Gillian Flynn, GONE GIRL

Joel Coen, William Nicolson, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, UNBROKEN

Nick Hornby, WILD

Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

 

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE

FORCE MAJEURE

HELI

IDA

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

VENUS IN FUR

 

BEST DOCUMENTRAY

CITIZENFOUR

ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME

GLEN CAMPBELL: I’LL BE ME

LIFE ITSELF

THE LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM

 

BEST ANIMATED FILM

BIG HERO 6

BOXTROLLS

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

THE LEGO MOVIE

THE NUT JOB

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Fredrik Wenzel, FORCE MAJEURE

Hoyte Van Hoytema INTERSTELLAR

Jeff Cronenweth, GONE GIRL

Robert Elswit, NIGHTCRAWLER

Roger Deakins, UNBROKEN

 

BEST EDITING

Barney Pilling, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

James Herbert, Laura Jennings, EDGE OF TOMORROW

John Gilroy, NIGHTCRAWLER

Kirk Baxter, GONE GIRL

Sandra Adair, BOYHOOD

 

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pincock, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Dennis Gassner & Anna Pinnock, INTO THE WOODS

John Paul Kelly, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Maria Djurkovic, THE IMITATION GAME

Nathan Crawley, INTERSTELLAR

 

BEST SCORE

Alexandre Desplat, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Alexandre Desplat, THE IMITATION GAME

James Newton Howard, NIGHTCRAWLER

Antonio Sanchez, BIRDMAN

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, GONE GIRL

 

BEST ENSEMBLE

BIRDMAN

BOYHOOD

SELMA

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

THE IMITATION GAME

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Way He Looks | Review

 

Of all the genres in all of cinema, my favorite is coming-of-age films. Because when done right, they can reflect on life just about better than any other art form.

 

THE WAY HE LOOKS, Brazil's entry to the Oscars

THE WAY HE LOOKS, Brazil’s submission to the Oscars

THE WAY HE LOOKS  (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho) is Brazil’s submission to the Best Foreign Film category at the 2014 Academy Awards. By the third scene, I had decided that I had unreasonable love for this film, and from that point on, it did not once betray my judgment. Written and directed by Daniel Ribeiro, it tells the story of Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) a somewhat shy teenager. He is blind and aware of his place in school due to his disability. His parents want to protect him even as they struggle to let him be independent. Leo’s best friend since childhood has been Giovana (Tess Amorim) and the two are inseparable. In many ways he sees the world through Giovana’s eyes. One need only watch Giovana looking at Leo to know how she feels about him. Enter the unreasonably amiable new student at school, Gabriel (Fabio Audi), and Leo and Giovanna’s friendship may need to be redefined.

 

Nothing in this film is what we haven’t seen before. And yet, the film is written, acted and put together with such a matter of fact honesty and simplicity that it rises up to be one of the better films of the year. We have seen these young love triangles a hundred times before; Jules et Jim kicked off the entire French New Wave for crying out loud. But it is the assured control over this material that singularly elevates this film to something of a discovery. The refusal of the film to make a big deal about major developments is what is truly surprising, in comparison to say Blue Is The Warmest Color from last year, which carried an unbearably heavy agency to it. The Way He Looks makes its observations without fuss, without drama, and without prurience. So what if the lead character is blind. So what if he happens to fall for another guy. Without tilting into caricature, the film strikes authenticity while never submitting to melodrama. One The Way He Looks can do more good than a hundred after-school specials about tolerance.

 

MV5BMTQ5NjYxODk2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTgyNTU4MjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Who hasn’t experienced the dynamics with a friend change due to the necessary introduction of a new person. Best friends get married. They move to other cities to be with other people. They follow other professional tracks in life. In recent years Frances Ha and Bridesmaids have dealt with these situations with some degree of depth. But see how this material is handled in The Way He Looks; the respect the script grants these characters, to be contrary and complex, to be hurt and to stumble, and to grow and find their footing, is something to behold. To watch a movie capture something universal without heavy chest-beating is a minor miracle.

 

Like the best films, this one is populated by characters who are all inherently good. Which is like life; people we interact with in the real world are seldom all out evil. Films that understand this – and refuse the easy out by creating conflict through a single malevolent character – are already leagues ahead of other movies. See how this first time feature filmmaker, Daniel Ribeiro, treats even the least likeable character, that of the school bully Fabio. He constantly taunts Leo. He is cruel, yes, but not necessarily because Leo is blind. It is because Leo is an easy target, a misfit, different because of his blindness. Fabio makes fun of Leo, first alone, and then when he is with Gabriel. And at some point the film asks the audience, do you want to be Fabio? Do you want to be this insecure person who is unable to accept anyone who is different? It is strikingly mature handling of this material, when it would have been so much easier for the film to simply paint Fabio as a villain.

 

If there were justice in the world, this script would get nominated for year-end awards. Watch this film if only for its writing, particularly with sly observations about how the world deals with someone who is visually impaired. And like much of the no-fuss aesthetic that defines this movie, the film does not linger on its dialog, as exacting and truthful as it is. When Gabriel is first making friends with Leo, he off-handedly asks Leo if he ever noticed something in a particular movie. And then realizes with a start that Leo couldn’t have seen that film since he is blind. Touches like this make you realize that this is the work of a gifted storyteller.

 

Any lover of good films should make plans to watch The Way He Looks because of all the things its gets right. It gets the acute hurt that a person with disabilities feels when they are made fun of. It gets the love of parents who are protective of their child and the horror they must feel to forfeit those small parts of their child’s environment they can safeguard from harm (another masterful film Margarita, With A Straw which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year also dealt with this situation with uncommon empathy).  The film gets the hesitation, the tentative thrill-and-despair dance of acknowledging first love, just right. It gets just about everything right. Most of all, The Way He Looks is worthy of veneration for how it makes a hero out of Giovana, because it understands that best friends, real friends, will eventually sacrifice their own thumping affections for the sake of their friend’s happiness.

 

Yes, The Way He Looks may nominally just be a Brazilian teenage love triangle. But it is the best example of its kind to make the case that sometimes a truthful story told with a good heart is all it takes. The hell with CGI. The hell with histrionics. The hell with unnecessarily complicated non-linear, non-narrative mumbo-jumbo. Give me something as simple and well-intentioned and humorous and kind as The Way He Looks any day of the year. When films these days are seemingly only interested in hipster posturing and cynicism, the most provocative thing of all may be a film that rewards viewers with genuine sweetness.

 

 [THE WAY HE LOOKS is playing in San Diego at the Landmark Ken Cinemas, November 14-20]

 

 

2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update Two

images-9The man ahead of me in the line has just arrived from the Telluride Film Festival. While you wait to get into a film screening, you strike up all sorts of conversations. And this man gives me his opinion of what cinema will be celebrated at year’s end. BIRDMAN, the latest from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a wonder he says. Adding that it is about a filmmaker trying to take control of the world around him. That sounds a bit like Fellini’s 8 ½, I offer, and he says no, no BIRDMAN is far more serious than that. The entire film has been shot to simulate a single continuous take, so it gets high marks just for that he further explains. And Michael Keaton is Oscar bound he prognosticates. As is Steve Carrel, for FOXCATCHER he says, another film bound for Academy awards honors. The biggest disappointment for him has been WILD in which he complains that Reese Witherspoon is horribly miscast. I mention that I am part of that small minority that believes that Jean-Marc Vallee’s previous effort DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB was a terrible film. Then WILD is not going to change your mind about this director, he says. What was his best film he saw at Telluride, I ask? Oh, it’s the Argentine film WILD TALES he says with much excitement, and it is playing at Toronto and I must buy a ticket. And then we get into the cinema, leaving my head spinning. And that is the opinion of just one person at the festival. Throw together all the world’s cinephiles and you wouldn’t sleep for fear of missing an important film at the festival.

TIFF 2014 publicity still for THE NEW GIRLFRIEND

TIFF 2014 publicity still for THE NEW GIRLFRIEND

THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is the latest film from Francois Ozon. It wasn’t so long ago that Ozon was the reigning enfant terrible of French cinema, having helmed movies that gleefully crossed the line. But with wit that went beyond the shock value; SWIMMING POOL, WATER FALLING ON BURNING ROCKS, and CRIMINAL LOVERS were the films that put him on the map. Then he turned respectable with UNDER THE SUN, 8 WOMEN and POTICHE. How curious that in what seems like only a matter of years, Xavier Dolan (who is not even 25 years old) has taken over the enfant terrible title, bringing into question Ozon’s ability to still rock the boat by making films that simultaneously provoke and impress. THE NEW GIRLFRIEND is not going to change Ozon’s calling card, not least because this film has the unfortunate timing of coming out on the heels of the somewhat similarly themed LAURENCE ANYWAYS from Xavier Dolan last year. No matter how you cut it, Dolan’s a superior film.

With THE NEW GIRLFRIEND Ozon is clearly paying homage to the films of Douglas Sirk (with a dash of Almodovar, for good measure). So it is necessarily a melodrama, which is not a liability if handled well (Todd Haynes did an admirable job doing just that with FAR FROM HEAVEN). But THE NEW GIRLFRIEND, through most of its running time, feels like a helicopter trying to land in gusty winds; it keeps circling and circling, but is unable to settle on ground.

The film tells the story of Claire (Anais Demoustier) who is trying to shake off the sorrow following the death of her best friend Laura, who has also left behind a bereft husband David (Romain Duris) and infant child. Trying to deal with her grief and offer comfort to David, Claire walks into his home unannounced, to find him dressed in women’s clothing. David explains that he wants to be both father and mother to his child, and while Claire fails to understand this at first, she eventually becomes David’s accomplice in exploring his feminine sensibility. Much to the dismay of Claire’s husband who begins to suspect Claire’s time spent away from work. This can play as a light-hearted farce, as a serious look at the fluidity of sexuality and identity, or even as bitter satire of the overzealousness of political correctness in contemporary mores. But to play this material as a Douglas Sirk melodrama presents with inherent issues. For one thing Ozon over-commits to the Sirk sensibility to the extent that David’s home has furnishings reminiscent of sixties décor. It is difficult to shoehorn this visual palette into a story set in contemporary times without coming off jarringly anachronistic. And what should have been frothy and giddy comes off labored, and worse, dated. The film suffers as a whole from seeming like something that was made at least a couple of decades ago, not least from the way certain characters react to situations. I wish that Ozon’s desire to do Sirk had led to him setting this story in the sixties, which would make the look, and more critically, the behavior of the characters in this story a lot more believable.

 

2014 TIFF publicity still for TOKYO FIANCEE

2014 TIFF publicity still for TOKYO FIANCEE

TOKYO FIANCEE is first-time director Stefan Liberski contribution to all the stories in all the films about star-crossed lovers. It is based on a popular European novel by Amelie Nothomb about a French-speaking Belgian girl (Pauline Etienne) obsessed with Japan who happens to go to Japan and fall in love with a local Japanese boy (Taichi Inoue) who is obsessed with France. There have been many films about this sort of cultural dislocation. In particular such films that are also wittingly or otherwise romantic, tend to have a way of getting twee. TOKYO FIANCEE is very much a film about cultural dislocation, but it keeps the whimsy somewhat in check, doling out only homeopathic doses of it, for the most part. These are individuals you enjoy spending time with, even as you wonder why your own life did not come pre-filled with this sort of charm offensive. Heck, the lead is even named Amelie which should remind of you a certain Audrey Tatou confection that is much beloved but extra-frosted all the same. While the film spends the first half by playing with the mores of this sort of cinema (honest, if a little indulgent look, at the fish out of water), the latter part of the movie ultimately finds a defiantly unique voice. About being dispossessed in youth, and trying to locate a sense of self in a scary uncontrollable world.

Films like this live or die by their lead actors. Who have to carry the entire film, convincing every audience member that their company is worth having. And this film is worth watching, and you must do so, for Pauline Etienne. Looking uncannily like a young(er) Carey Mulligan, Etienne grounds the film with an openness that is disarming. Even when the plot calls on her to be charming beyond reason, she makes us believe that this person would indeed have this effect on these other individuals. Fragile, irrational, lost, impetuous, and searching, Etienne’s Amelie seems to convey these all with enviable flair. Even in the Q&A session after the end of the film, Etienne came across as effortlessly disarming. Discover this actor before the world catches up to her wonders. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

 

2014 TIFF publicity still for CART

2014 TIFF publicity still for CART

CART is a South Korean film loosely based on true events in which female workers at a supermarket who were abruptly notified of being laid off prior to the expiration of their contracts went on a strike to protest. What initially started as a frightening but also empowering stance to take on the system, eventually led to grave and worsening outcomes. What starts out seeming like a feel-good David vs. Goliath tale descends into a reckoning with reality in which corporations almost always prevail over workers. There is no doubt this film has a sincere focus, and it spends a fair bit of time investing in the individual lives of several of the key characters, if only to make clear the cascaded effect of social injustice on those beyond the direct victims. All of which is almost undone by a shrill background score that cues up every scene with the exact sentiment that the audience member is supposed to be filming. This very nearly destroys the film, but unlike say the nakedly melodramatic MARY KOM, this film makes it clear that hope may be the most elusive currency when a group of individuals decide to take on those who control them. This is an angry film, and necessarily so. And it is acted with honest conviction by a group of persuasive screen presences. Even with its flaws, including an over-eagerness to elicit sympathy, the cinema of the disenfranchised is essential. And CART is a good entry in this genre.

 

2014 Toronto International Film Festival | Update One

images-8You do not realize how much you have missed the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) until you settle down in the darkening theater just as your first film screening is about to begin and the title card warning against video recording pops up on the screen, and avid festival goers howl “aawrrr” at the screen. All at once. I have no idea as to what started this. Or what it means. It is an old TIFF tradition, present at least since the first time I started attending this most equitable of film festivals in 2006. But somehow the sound of all of us unknown movie lovers howling in unison at the screen like dogs at the moon, is unexpectedly comforting.

The first day of screenings is a wet one, with rains pelting cinephiles waiting in lines snaking across multiple blocks ahead of each screening at each venue. The rains seem cruel, but this is a sturdy lot of moviegoers, unfazed by lightning and instantly soaked clothing and squishy shoes. Toronto, ordinarily a city of enviable infrastructure and efficiency, seems to have added its own impediment this year with road constructions on every other street in downtown area where the TIFF Lightbox headquarters and surrounding other festival venues are located. Add to that streets closed off to road traffic specifically for TIFF activities/premieres/red-carpets, and it makes for quite an obstacle course to get to the film venues on time for those who do not live in the immediate vicinity. But as I said, this is a town where cinema is religion, and the masses show up in hordes for the festival.

2014 TIFF publicity still for FORCE MAJEURE

2014 TIFF publicity still for FORCE MAJEURE

The film FORCE MAJEURE arrived to TIFF already on the waft of rapturous reviews out of Cannes. And it did one of the more difficult thing for movies to do: live up to high expectations. What a film this is. First of all, it is majestic just from a technical standpoint. Conceptually, it is the examination of the consequences of a single act that plays out as a tightrope walk of grand suspense. Some filmmakers have a spark to their work; you can sense a grandness, a flourish to every scene in their films. You can sense this in the films of Fincher, Nolan, the Coen brothers. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is a master aesthetist. There is an obvious pivotal scene in FORCE MAJEURE around which the entire film pivots and that alone is worth the price of admission for its technical grandeur. But set that money shot aside; even then, the film is remarkable for how neatly and studiously the shots have been culled together, with beautiful long, long takes that both present as challenges to the actors, some of them kids, and allow them to do remarkable work. And the sound design is pristine; the creaking of ski lift bars, the vacuum cleaner in a hotel lobby, the roar of an avalanche – all enhance the film.

I have deliberately not mentioned8 the plot. Not that this would be a terrible spoiler, and these days so much of a film’s plot are generally known even before release. But I enjoyed this film as much as I did because I knew little about it going in. Even so, I hope the principal moral inquiry at the center of this film is not given away by reviews. I will say this much though: the movie is set around the inhabitants of a ski resort in Sweden. And as the film proceeds about its business, it makes wry observations about relationships – the soft, vulnerable, scrupulously ignored underbellies of relationships – as it focuses its gaze on several couples. And even when the gaze is terse, there is an intelligence to the examination that is exacting, precise. And lest this sound too lofty, I want to assure you that there is easily earned humor at every turn in this film. And wit. In one scene, two characters start to argue in the elevator of the ski resort, and their words are getting to an increasingly dangerous place. The elevator stops, and a hotel staff member steps in with a large cart, forcing the characters to back all the way to the rear. The scene ends there. And you smile realizing that this couple is getting literally pushed into a corner. At another point, a wife asks this of her husband upon returning to their room after a testy dinner conversation: “What’s wrong? That’s not us.” It is a marvelous way to think of one’s relationship.

This is the quintessential film that will trigger intense debate following its viewing.

 

images-9The second film I watched today was MARY KOM, which is a biopic of India’s first female Olympic boxing medalist. Mary Kom, born Chungneijang in a rural corner of northeastern India, rose to prominence in a sport dominated by men in a country where female athletes already have a tougher ride. Outspoken and spirited, she earned the ire of many within the Indian Boxing Federation by voicing her complaints about the abysmal lack of support for athletes. She stepped away from the sport at the peak of her popularity after she was married and had kids, only to return back and re-challenge her position as the most winning female medalist in boxing. Her journey involved challenges with her parents who were justifiably concerned about her prospects, a hard to please boxing coach, as well as numerous adversaries in the professional matches.

When you have a true story that is this strong, the best thing a director can do is to get out of its way. Unfortunately, this treatment relies too heavily on melodrama that comes of as mostly unearned. So that the true accomplishments of this individual come off rote and shallow. Were this film not so bent on manipulating the audience into an emotional response, it could have been a quieter, more powerful endeavor. Mary Kom is played in the film by Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, who in spite of having impressively worked on the physical transformation for the role is unable to capture the essence of this individual. Part of the problem may be with a superficial, paint-by-the-numbers script that jumps from adversity to adversity, and has too few scenes that clamp down on the motivations of the central character. We have seen this story in any number of sports films, and there is a reason the ROCKY films are so effective. There are a few parts that work well in MARY KOM, including Mary’s relationship with her husband. The universal female struggle to find balance between career and family is so much more heightened when your career happens to be competitive sports; that the film misses the opportunity to tap into this respectfully and with depth speaks to its failure. By the time the Indian National Anthem played in the last act in a shamelessly jingoistic attempt to rouse audience fervor, I had had enough.

Tomorrow will be another day at TIFF. Stay posted.

 

Love Is Strange | Review

images-11I like all sorts of films. And amongst those films that I like, I hold a special place for those that are interested in depicting the decency of its characters. Most stories pit the protagonist against a person who means him harm, but in my opinion those are lesser stories, lazier stories that take the easy way out. The more accomplished ones, the more human ones, are those in which all of the characters are inherently decent. Filmmakers who refuse to create villains, but instead watch generally well-meaning individuals crash and bump into each other’s orbits by virtue of who they are, come the closest to approximating life on the cinema screen. Because no one in real life is all-out evil; there are few bonafide villains in most people’s lives. And it takes a giftedly perceptive writer to be empathetic to every character on the pages of his script. Ozu’s films are watched by film-lovers more than half a century after they were made for this reason alone. In contemporary cinema, Asghar Farhadi, the director of A SEPARATION and THE PAST is able to pull this off. And the lovely, remarkable films by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, the heir to Ozu, are case examples of how to do this right. Kore-Eda’s latest movie, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON is my favorite film of the year for its impossibly clear-headed commitment to seeing the inherent decency in its assembly of characters The new film LOVE IS STRANGE joins that rarefied cadre of films.

My favorite moment in LOVE IS STRANGE comes at about the halfway point when the two sixty-plus year old leads of the film are squeezed into the bottom half of a teenager’s bunk-bed. George and Ben (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina), together for almost four decades, have been recently forced to seek roof in separate homes. On that bunk-bed, they are finally together after a long time, and Ben says “After thirty nine years together, I am used to the presence of your body next to me in bed. These new living arrangements are putting a serious damper on my sleep patterns”. He says it only half jokingly.

And it is a rare moment of self-pity (no matter how aching) in a film that is not particularly interested in wallowing, or in yelling what it wants to say.

As the film opens, it catches George and Ben getting married in the presence of a small group of family and friends who gather in their New York City apartment to celebrate after the ceremony. Like the elderly couple at the center of AMOUR, you can tell that the decades George and Ben have spent together has brought them to a place of unquestionable burnished commitment. They are used to each other and understand each other and know each other. Lithgow and Molina, taking their cues from a gentle, keenly observant script rise to the challenge of this film with remarkable dexterity; you will not find a scene in this film where they are unconvincing. History has finally allowed George and Ben to legally cement their relationship; one can sense that these two have waited their entire lives for this privilege. But this simple act of commitment snowballs into much undoing. George who teaches music at a Catholic school is told that he can no longer keep his job. The mortgage to their apartment no longer affordable, George and Ben have no option but to sell their home, and move out, if only temporarily, until they find another place they can rent in the city. After living together so long the two are suddenly, in effect, homeless. And you realize that this is the space the film has wanted to explore all along.

What are their family and friends, as well meaning as they might be, to do to help them? This being New York City, nobody has room to spare for two guests. Ben goes to live at the home of his nephew, his wife and young son (Dan Burrows, Marisa Tomei and Charlie Tahan). Ben is offered temporary housing at the home of friends who are cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez). With the best of intentions, the presence of a house guest in an already cramped home space is bound to create tensions. Tomei’s character, a stay at home writer, tries her best to concentrate on her work while Ben is eager to talk to her all day. She is patient, and perceptive, but slowly the strains begin to show. The teenaged son Joey, already upset at having to give up his (bunk) bed and room to uncle Ben is further unsettled by the his best friend’s apparent friendship with his uncle.

George soon realizes that the home of his friends is one that is constantly committed to entertaining others. There is loud music and singing and coming and going of many, and literally no place for George to hide.

Being separated from each other after decades of co-habitation is one thing, but finding a physical state of stability in their respective new residential arrangements is even more elusive. In many way the condition of Ben and George evokes that of the older parents from TOKYO STORY, who realize that their presence in the lives of their grown children has a intrusive effect, and show strive to respectfully step away.

This could have been a film about the First World problems of the privileged. But with its shrewd script, completely underplayed tone, LOVE IS STRANGE (just as LIKE FATHER LIKE SON) provides a definition of family that is vital. Not just for Ben and George but for all those around them. It is the only definition that matters. As Roger Ebert liked to say, no matter when it opens, this movie will be the best film playing in town.

Natural Sciences | Los Angeles Film Festival 2014

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Nothing in the world is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, wrote Victor Hugo more than a hundred years ago. And so it is with the lead character in the quietly amazing Argentinian film NATURAL SCIENCES (CIENCIAS NATURALES).

 

Lila, a teenager in a boarding school at a rural mountain town has suddenly reached a juncture in life where her paramount need is to find her biological father. Her mother who works a bare, hard life on the farmland will not give her any information regarding the man. Freezing winter is fast approaching but Lila is undeterred in her pursuit. She has tried to run away from school in search of her father, once on a horse through the snow-covered hillsides, and once in a car she doesn’t know how to drive. The school Principal is perplexed, then angered by this sudden, irrational desire on the part of someone who had until then been a quiet, unremarkable student. Reasoning or discipline prove ineffective. Lila is consumed by her mission and is unstoppable. A more sympathetic faculty member, who teaches Natural Sciences at school, also tries to deter Lila. But recognizing that Lila will not relent and likely concerned for her safety, she joins Lila in her quixotic quest. With nary a clue about the man they are looking for, the two hit the road.

 

This should sound like the sort of sappy, road-trip movie that Hollywood likes to dole out with some regularity. If you are more generous, this may seem to you like one of those well-meaning, heartfelt indie films about strangers connecting through unusual circumstances. But NATURAL SCIENCES transcends those categories altogether.

 

This is an accomplished film from first-time director, Matias Lucchesi, who retains a strong, confident hold over this material at all times. Pick a scene from this film, pick any scene, and notice the rigor with which it has been constructed, how it completely bypasses familiar traps, or cliché. You can notice this on a minute by minute basis, in the precise writing, the affectless acting and direction that does not draw attention to itself. In its hard-won naturalness and rigor around all of filmmaking components, NATURAL SCIENCES draws easy comparison to the austere, stark and no less devastating Chilean movie from last year, THURSDAY TILL SUNDAY (DE JUEVES A DOMINGO).

 

The actor who plays Lila (Paula Galinelli Hertzog) necessarily carries the film on her young shoulders. And effortlessly brings it to a place of believability, capturing the sullen, untalkative affect of the teenager whose world is dominated by a singular myopic obsession. She may seem possessed by the fever of an irrational pursuit, and may not have the means to articulate it fully, but she is also inherently a good person, a person trying to discover herself as a grown human being and unable to do so without locating her roots first. And how about Paola Barrientos who plays the teacher who accompanies Liza on her search; one of the hardest things for an actor to do on screen is to transmit empathy, and Barrientos does it with a rare authenticity that never once tilts into cheap sentimentality. What great fortune for this director to have been able to recruit these two actors for his first film.

 

This is a film of quiet wonder. It tells a story that may initially seem familiar, but in how it goes about telling it, the film is note-perfect . I cannot wait to see the next project from this filmmaker.

 

NATURAL SCIENCES is the best film I saw at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. And by a wide margin.

 

[Natural Sciences is an Argentinian film currently making the festival rounds and was screened at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival.  It is awaiting distribution in the U.S. You can watch the trailer here].

 

 

Heli | Review

 

HELI from Barcelona based director Amat Escalante is a bit of a live wire. Depending on how it resonates with you, it will either be enervating, or have you walking out of the theater. There is something to be said for films that are that deeply polarizing.

Unknown-44This film nabbed the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. And I can see why: it creates some of the best sense of foreboding I have seen on film in some time. It is that feeling that something truly awful is going to happen any moment – that is sustained through much of the movie’s running time.

Escalante has a firm grasp over the narrative. From the very first scene that elicited a gasp from the audience at the screening I attended at the 2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival, this film is unrelenting in its single-minded pursuit of exploring the worst in human behavior. Set in a deeply rural Mexico where government and lawlessness coexist as one, the film revolves a family whose lives implode when the teenaged sister of the main character, Heli, has the misfortune of falling for a young cadet who tries to get away with a stolen batch of cocaine from his army superiors. Seen through an apathetic gaze, the movie casually watches the family go through the sort of hell-on-earth nightmare that cinema is seldom able to capture.

I would have appreciated this film more had it been a purer examination of the degradation that permeates the drug cartel trade in Mexico. The nihilistic tone would have then justified the horror the film effortlessly slips into in its last act. But HELI curiously chooses to venture into deliberate pulp. Which undoes the power of the movie. What had initially seemed a graphic display of hellish reality comes off like envelope-pushing shock intended to rattle the audience. Even then, this film will resonate with those who admire darkly bitter, deeply violent films.

Pulpy and gonzo, HELI may not be for everyone, but there is no denying the high voltage charge it carries.

HELI is screening at the Digital Gym Cinema (2921 El Cajon Boulevard) in San Diego June 13-19. 

2014 Tribeca Film Festival | Review | Something Must Break

 

SOMETHING MUST BREAK (Original Swedish title: Nanting Maste Ga Sonder) is an astonishing film.

 

It tracks the progression of a relationship between two unlikely individuals with a rigid honesty that is a little reminiscent of BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR. Sebastian works in the backrooms of a furniture store in Stockholm. Andreas comes from a more affluent background.

 

Publicity still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK

Publicity still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK

One day, as bullies taunting Sebastian for his androgynous looks are about to get violent, Andreas steps in to help. Gradually the two, both in their early twenties, start spending time together with the start and sputter rhythm of individuals not entirely sure of where they are headed. As the relationship progresses to something deeper and physical, Andreas is caught off guard, unable to reconcile the significance of this development with his otherwise traditional life. He doesn’t even consider himself gay. Long unmoored with regard gender identity and comfortable with it, Sebastian too suddenly finds himself starting to gravitate toward the possible emergence of a female persona of himself: Ellie. And the all-consuming connection between Andreas and Sebastian inevitably takes a dark turn. Think of this as a stark, spare version of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH.

 

This could have been a preachy film. But it has no interest in polemics or political statements. Like its central character, the film is not too concerned about labels that viewers may ascribe to it…too uncomfortable, too gay, too extreme. It simply tells this specific story without filter, without condescension, without judgment. Where most films, either out of tact or politeness, stop when a character closes the door, this one walks in behind the door with the character. Sebastian makes plenty of terrible choices and mistakes. The film (based on a novel of the same name) has no intention to edify Sebastian or turn this individual into some sort of role model, and in doing so actually humanizes him. I do not know that I have seen a better on-screen treatment of a person forging through a gender identity crisis. What is particularly commendable is that while Sebastian is the more atypical character, the film is as much interested in Andreas as it is in Sebastian. And one can argue as to which of the two goes through a greater transformation during the course of this story.

 

Publicity Still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK

Publicity Still for SOMETHING MUST BREAK

I give this film credit simply for being what it is about. And being in-your-face unapologetic about it. It may be a film about the first connection between a man who wants to be a woman and another man who starts to question what it is to be masculine. But in its honesty, it demonstrates the universal struggle of any person who learns to come into their own, and the pain as well as the grace of the process.