For Your Consideration: Oct. 31, 2014

There comes a time in every child’s life when they get too old to don a costume and harvest candy from benevolent strangers (or so I’m told). For years, I dreaded the moment I would no longer be able to go trick or treating, and wondered what in the world people did on Halloween instead. I’ve yet to find the perfect answer, but the movies offer some balm for the wounded soul. To mix things up, we took a few liberties with our theme this All Hallows Eve. Everyone loves a good haunted house, and these movies are all set in houses “haunted” in some way by the supernatural.

– Elaine

“Rebecca” (1940)

Cast: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, Reginald Denny, Nigel Bruce, Gladys Cooper, C. Aubrey Smith

Available on YouTube, on disc from Netflix

There’s a moment in “Rebecca” when the camera pans slowly towards a set of majestic, double doors. Flanked by columns and guarded by a black spaniel, the doors are menacing, the patterns on them looming like eyes, filling the frame with dread. It’s part of the vague feeling of unease that fills the entire movie. The title character never appears, but casts a long and deepening shadow over the entire production. She was the former mistress of Manderley, the grand English estate of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a man whose tortured eyes hint at the secrets behind his stoic manner. His young bride, played by Joan Fontaine, has no idea what she’s in for until she arrives at Manderley, contending with a new social class, a housekeeper slavishly devoted to her former mistress, and most problematically, the pall Rebecca casts over every corner of her new home and husband. Manderley looms large throughout, paradise and prison for its inhabitants, a place where anything feels possible.

– Elaine

“After Life” (1998)

Cast: Arata Iura, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naito

Available on disc from Netflix

The purgatorial holding zone of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “After Life” isn’t a terribly unpleasant place: it looks an awful lot like a run-down school or social services building, out in the middle of a quiet, mist-shrouded countryside. But here all the recently dead gather, given a week to choose one memory from their life – at the end of the week, they will re-enact and then relive that moment for eternity. These ghosts shuffle through abandoned hallways and courtyards, guided by a staff of patient and earnest “counselors,” pondering just what it meant to be alive. Melancholy, poignant, and ultimately affirming, Koreeda’s film suggests that just as the thought of death haunt the living, the memory of life haunts the dead.

– Ethan

“Spirited Away” (2001)

Cast: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Takashi Naito, Yasuko Sawaguchi

Available on disc from Netflix

Anime master Hayao Miyazaki has always been known for his fantastic, elaborate creature designs – monsters that can alternatively fright and delight. His 2001 masterpiece is probably the best showcase for this particular talent, as the supernatural bathhouse encountered by our young human protagonist, Chihiro, is chock full of witches, gods, freaks and spirits. Again, most “haunted house” films regard intrusions by other-worldy into our realm; “Spirited Away” goes the other way around, showing us what happens when a girl stumbles into the place where things that go bump in the night make their home. Since it’s Miyazaki we’re talking about here, the spirit world turns out to be a place not just of monsters (memorably the terrifying, ravenous No-Face), but of beauty, heartache and sympathy as well.

– Ethan

Top 10 Films of 2013

Getting in just under the wire, we here at The Best Films of Our Lives wanted to be sure to get in our last word on the year in film that was 2013, before tomorrow night’s Oscar ceremony is over and we can all start finally getting excited about how awesome “Interstellar” is going to be.

As with last year, we gave ourselves a little extra time compared to most film critics and bloggers, who put their lists out in late December/early January. As (semi-)average film-goers, it takes a while to catch up with some of the titles we want to be sure to consider. As it happened, even with that extra deliberation, Elaine and I ended up being remarkably in agreement this year – 2 out of our top 3 were the same, including our unanimous choice for the best film of the year. Yes, it’s that good. What do you think, dear readers? After a little extra reflection, where did your year-end list end up?

ELAINE’S PICKS

10. “Don Jon”

“Don Jon” would have gotten much less attention had it not been the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but this little movie about a man so addicted to porn that he cannot find real fulfillment is funny, sweet, and refreshingly simple. Scarlett Johansson, more appropriately cast than ever before, is hilarious as Barbara Sugarman, Jon’s shallow, possessive dream girl, while Julianne Moore, who plays an older woman Jon meets later in the movie, brings a funny frankness to the screen. It is Gordon-Levitt, however, that seems out of place in his own movie, too old and too confident for this coming-of-age story. Jon is a deeply vulnerable and lost young man beneath his bravado and his muscles, but Gordon-Levitt is too smooth, too knowing, and simply a decade too old to play him convincingly.

9. “Frances Ha”

“Sorry I’m so slow, I have trouble leaving places,” says Frances (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something New Yorker who trips when running, turns down a stable job for no good reason, misreads social cues, and can’t seem to leave her college years behind. Yet “Frances Ha” is interested precisely in the stumbling, the pauses, and the uncertainties of this period of life, a whirl of confusion, spontaneity, and possibility. Gerwig carries the film magnificently, at once sweet and irrational, funny and exasperating, full of potential yet unsure of how to realize it. Though director Noah Baumbach’s portrayal of “millennial” New Yorkers is so exaggerated it becomes annoying rather than comical, “Frances Ha” is a vivid, vibrant depiction of one awkward young woman’s search for her place in a world that is actually too awkward for her.

8. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

Most people groaned when they heard “The Hobbit” was split into three movies, but it does give Peter Jackson two extra chances to get it right. In “The Desolation of Smaug,” he mostly did. Capturing the charming, childish spirit of the book, the second installment was a wild, adventurous ride that inspired renewed interest in the peoples and kingdoms of Middle-Earth, delivering places and characters filled with freshness and wonder. From Dwarves riding in barrels to Stephen Fry in an orange wig to Smaug the Dragon, the movie maintained an energetic pace throughout nearly three hours, and set the stage for what will hopefully be an even better finale.

7. “Philomena”

“Philomena” is the simplest movie on this list. It has no flashes and no bangs; it is neither ostentatious nor innovative. It simply has a story to tell, one of a woman searching for the child she was separated from half a century before, a story that it unveils modestly but powerfully. The star of the show is undoubtedly Dame Judi Dench, who, with a quiver of her lip, can convey Philomena’s 50 years of silent suffering, while the rapport between Philomena and her sidekick, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) adds a touching subplot to the search for her son. Where the movie succeeds is in its portrayal of faith and religion, depicting both the folly and power of faith, along with its many divergences and permutations. With its poignant story and its excellent cast, “Philomena” may not be the loudest or the most memorable film of the year, but it is an emotional, enjoyable exercise in storytelling.

6. “The Wind Rises”

“All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” These were allegedly the words that inspired Hayao Miyazaki to make “The Wind Rises,” his animated tribute to the designer of Japanese warplanes during World War II. And that is exactly what Miyazaki does here, showing us that a thing of beauty, regardless of what it is used for, is still a joy forever. Perhaps it is irresponsible or ethically dubious for Jiro to design these killing machines, but to him the airplanes are the stuff of dreams. Maybe it was lost in translation (I saw the dubbed English version), but something—the somewhat stilted dialogue or Jiro’s impenetrable character—kept “The Wind Rises” from being as complete a film as some of Miyazaki’s other efforts. But there are enough moments of delight—from love represented by the flight of a paper airplane to a terrifying earthquake that lifts the earth and its people up by their roots—to make it truly something beautiful.

5. “Her”

This is the loneliest movie I’ve ever seen. From Joaquin Phoenix’s melancholy eyes to his high-waisted pants, from the whiteness of his bed sheets to the sepia-hued memories of his wife, “Her” exudes a loneliness and a desperation that seeps out of the screen and slowly fills the theater. Set in the future, this movie about a man, the oh-so-Dickensian Theodore Twombly, and his romance with his computer’s artificial intelligence system, Samantha, never wallows in its melancholy, hilarious at one moment and romantic at the next. What’s great about it is how completely director Spike Jonze embraces the futuristic world he creates; almost all of the characters accept the plausibility of a human/OS relationship, and while we know it cannot possibly end well for Theodore and Samantha, we are drawn into their relationship. Because after all, which one of us hasn’t sought solace from our computer screen?

4. “Before Midnight”

It’s been almost 20 years since Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) first walked, talked, and fell in love in Vienna’s streets. In our third encounter with their lives, they are no longer the dreamy young people who remake the world with their words, but the film does something even more incredible: it shows us love as it ages. It is perhaps unfair to compare this film to the others on the list, as it works in conjunction with its two predecessors, but even without them, “Before Midnight” is a graceful, intelligent meditation on love, life, and time, as it comes to all of us.

3. “12 Years A Slave”

Though the film’s title, “12 Years A Slave”, leads us to believe that it is about Solomon Northup’s enslavement, the film is as much about what he sees as it is about him. At various moments in Steve McQueen’s film, the camera hones in on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s eyes of infinite sadness as he watches the unspeakable unfold before him, at once helpless and complicit. At some point while watching the movie, we forget that it is a movie and become witnesses ourselves. McQueen is not interested in pointing fingers or exacting revenge, but simply shows us the institution that was the scourge of our nation and continues to be our shame, his work serving as a rebuke of last year’s fantasy bloodbath, “Django Unchained.” With its beautiful cinematography and stellar performances from Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, and Sarah Paulson, “12 Years A Slave” is one of the most excruciating cinematic experiences, but also one of the best.

2. “The Square”

There is a moment in “The Square,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about the Egyptian revolution, when the camera pans over a surface, weirdly beautiful, purple and patterned like an exquisite tile. And then the camera zooms out, and we realize that it’s a human back, the back of a young man who has just been tortured by the Egyptian army. Jehane Noujaim’s documentary is not only the most important film of the year, a year when protests rocked the world and overthrew governments, but a beautiful one, capturing the difficulty and the complexity of such movements, the energy and the frustration of people who want democracy but are somehow always thwarted in their quest. Born of the square from which it takes its name, this powerful documentary hopes for the best for Egypt, and for the sake of all of those lives we meet for 108 minutes, and the lives of those protesting in squares around the world, I hope it’s right.

1. “Stories We Tell”

It was impossible to compare this movie with “The Square.” One is an intensely personal, meticulously crafted piece, while the other a documentation of a mass populist movement still taking place. That being said, Sarah Polley’s exploration of her mother’s life and secrets is an incredible composition about memory, the act of remembering, storytelling, and, at base, the act of living. Reconstructing an ordinary life from the testimonies of her friends and family, Polley’s film is so personal, so human that it’s almost impossible to talk about it without drawing from your own experiences. She introduces us to her family so casually that we feel like a part of it, and she exposes the threads and the choices that make up a person’s life so clearly that it’s hard to look away, and even harder not to draw parallels with our own.

The film opens with a quote by Margaret Atwood: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all but rather a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness… It isn’t afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or someone else.” There’s a reason Polley calls the film “Stories We Tell,” because we all tell stories of our lives, rendering our choices into a narrative that makes sense for ourselves. It’s just that the rest of us don’t often think about them as stories to be told, or have a filmmaker so talented to tell them.

 

ETHAN’S PICKS

10. “Nebraska”

Anchored by a perfectly cast ensemble, what could’ve been a caricature of Midwest culture and father-son road trips blossomed into an unexpectedly touching tragicomedy. Alexander Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson sympathize with the nostalgia and regret of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, pitiful and endearing) without indulging in it themselves: they have too much affection for the confused, worn-out man he has become, irascibility notwithstanding. Payne’s characters are familiar and humorous, exaggerated only to necessity.

9. “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

This divisive Palme D’Or winner is an ambitious tale of discovery that defies easy coming-of-age narratives. In “La vie d’Adele,” conversations, scenes and sequences all linger beyond their “natural” endpoints – more true to the messy, unedited reality of life. As she matures – somewhat – from questioning teenager to conflicted young adult, Adele (always-beautiful-when-crying newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos) finds through her lover Emma (an enigmatic Léa Seydoux) that romance can be complex, consuming, and destructive.

8. “Her”

What will the future be like? It’s the question of most science-fiction, but Spike Jonze’s film is not most sci-fi. Less concerned with the bells and whistles of his near-future society (although there are those – I can’t wait to see Los Angeles’ new public transit rail system come to fruition), Jonze is interested in relationships, in the way we connect to each other. The writer/director never loses sight of the inherent tension in its central romance, between emotionally rudderless writer Theodore (an engrossing Joaquin Phoenix) and his energetic operating system (voiced adroitly by Scarlett Johannson); this is not a film where you’re rooting for those crazy kids to end up together. Subtle, personal and fantastical without becoming too twee.

7. “Gravity”

A monument to the experiential power of cinema. Cuarón’s space-survival tale made the last decade of souped-up CGI and 3D-enhanced blockbusters look all the more superfluous by comparison; cutting-edge technology doesn’t just make our explosions look more realistic, it can change the way we tell a story. To that end, “Gravity” didn’t break much narrative ground, but it brought a kinetic, visceral immediacy to astronaut Ryan Stone’s plight that was fresh and thrilling.

6. “Inside Llewyn Davis”

The Coen Brothers’ melancholy ode to the self-destruction of near-genius. Like Salieri in Milos Forman’s “Amadeus,” Llewyn Davis is good enough to recognize greatness and to know that he doesn’t quite have it; but while Salieri had his Mozart, a concrete figure on whom to pin all his frustrations, Llewyn seems up against the entire world, and lashes out accordingly, indiscriminately. A gorgeous soundtrack and artfully smudged cinematography by Bruce Delbonnel complemented Oscar Isaac’s terrific lead performance for yet another exceptional Coen film.

5. “Before Midnight”

The fictional equivalent of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries, Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (as it stands so far) has turned into a delightful cinematic mainstay, an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, in real time. “Before Midnight” saw our hapless couple Céline and Jesse, almost twenty years removed from that romantic first encounter in Vienna, attempting to deal with the maturation of love and the complications of married life. This was probably the most uncomfortable film of the trilogy – the two have moved on from naive intellectual arguments about love and philosophy to very concrete, personal conflicts, years in the making – but at the same time that served to build the authenticity and uniqueness of these characters. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are so extraordinarily linked in with Jesse and Céline at this point that it’s difficult to even remember that they are actors.

4. “The Wind Rises”

A most heartfelt farewell from one of cinema’s greatest dreamers. Perhaps only an artist who has flown so far could give us so touching a reflection on imagination and innovation, encapsulating the bittersweet passion of creation. Joyful and subtly troubled, Miyazaki’s embellished version of the life of aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi is almost certainly the legendary animator’s most personal film ever: an appreciation of all those who have supported him and an expression of his creative regrets. No need to apologize, Miyazaki – we’re just thankful you shared your journey with us.

3. “12 Years a Slave”

In his twelve years in bondage, Solomon Northup witnessed horror; and in seeing it, in looking into the pit at the very heart of humanity, he felt it, too. Steve McQueen’s extraordinary drama – which, looking back even after a few months, I can see that I instinctually resisted at first, passing off my own efforts to hold the film at arm’s length as McQueen’s problem – is clinical, composed, thoroughly unsentimental, but not disconnected. There is outrage here, and despair, but expressed in the most controlled, painterly of methods: in the silent shattering of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance, or the cold co-existence of brutality and mundanity in the same frame. McQueen knows well the voyeuristic impulse of film, the sense of culpability involved in being a witness to something unspeakable, and uses it to his audacious advantage.

2. “Upstream Color”

Shane Carruth’s debut film, “Primer,” was a maddening, intentionally incomplete puzzle of a film, playing with the limits of science and genius to explain the world. Almost ten years later, his long-awaited follow-up revealed that “Primer” was no fluke. The juxtaposition between Carruth’s tight, expert craft and the out-of-control situation in which his characters find themselves creates a philosophical clash of near-Tarkovskian proportions. Like Kris and Jeff, we float, woozy, through Carruth’s mysterious images, searching for the meaning behind it all. Amy Seimetz’s grounded performance takes care of the emotional heavy lifting as Carruth’s style leaps to the beautiful obscurity of Malick.

1. “Stories We Tell”

Strikingly composed and painfully personal, Sarah Polley’s beautiful, unforgettable narrative about her own mother and the secrets she left behind pushes beyond every expected boundary of both form and substance. Her story is engrossing enough, heartbreaking in its tragedy and hopeful in its affirmation of love and family, but Polley pushes further, questioning the compulsion and fickle subjectivity of storytelling. Why do we insert narrative on to our own lives? It is easy enough to look back and remember meaning and motive, but life in the moment, like this film, is unpredictable, chaotic, a jumble of masked fears and desires. Diane Polley was an actress; her daughter’s film suggests that we are all nothing less.

Reviews: A Thrifty Three Pack

Did you think I hadn’t been seeing any movies just because I haven’t been posting reviews very often? You silly reader you. There is always time, even in grad school, to see new movies – absurdly over-priced NYC limited-release movies. It’s still a few weeks before I’m out of the end-of-semester woods, and by then I’m sure my backlog will be even worse, so here’s some quick reviews to sate your appetites.

(BTW, get pumped – the 7th Annual EMO Awards are only about a month away!)

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s clinical, composed direction takes on Kubrickian proportions in this thoroughly unsentimental slavery drama. As with his previous films (“Hunger,” “Shame”), “12 Years a Slave” never quite works as a story – it is too controlled, too stiff in its imagery and characterization to stay engaging on a narrative level. The filmmaking itself constantly forces its presence, pushing us away from Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) the man in favor of Solomon Northup, symbol of wrongful oppression.

That might be for the best anyway, as there will always be something problematic about exploring the mundane, institutional evils of slavery through the story of an exception. Northup, a free black man from upstate New York kidnapped and sold into servitude in the 1840’s, was an extraordinary case in that, as the title of the film suggests, he eventually found an escape. As Mark Harris wrote on the subject, it is somewhat difficult to suggest the truly destructive, systematic injustice of slavery through the individual suffering of one man who ultimately got out. The most heart-rending, excruciating moments in the film often happen around Solomon, not to him – indeed, it is better not to see this as the story of Solomon Northup, but the story of what Solomon Northup saw.

And to that end, McQueen’s camera observes in stunning, audacious fashion. There are shots (in particular a searing, supremely unsettling scene of a hanging) so bold, so dense they bowl you over. Far from the baiting, self-consciously significant dramas that the subject matter calls to mind, this is incisive filmmaking of a kind middlebrow Hollywood is usually terrified to touch. It earns its acclaim with complexity and an actual, debatable point of view.

Ejiofor endures with solemn spirit, but the movie’s fire belongs to Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as a tempestuous plantation owner, his cold wife, and the slave girl that captures his obsessive gaze. While our protagonist is often swallowed by McQueen’s direction, treated as just another piece of the mise-en-scene, this trio seem to burst out of the frame, their unrestrained energy spilling forth into the audience’s nightmares.

As for the distracting parade of star cameos in smaller roles (Benedict Cumberbatch! Brad Pitt! Paul Giamatti! Taran Killam!), generally the less said, the better.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Wind Rises

To be perfectly honest, I get slightly choked up just thinking about this movie. It’s rare for an artist to “sign off” in such an open manner (no, Steven Soderbergh’s multiple resignations from filmmaking don’t count) – and doubly so for that notice to be as gentle, melancholic and introspective as this. But then, could we expect anything more from Hayao Miyazaki? The animation grandmaster’s last feature film (he will reportedly continue to make shorts exclusively for the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo) encapsulates – and not accidentally – much of what his entire career has meant, both to his audience and clearly, to him personally.

Sidestepping his usual, more fantastic subject matter, “The Wind Rises” has Miyazaki taking an unexpected last-minute left turn into historical biography. Based (albeit very, very loosely) on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the aircraft engineer who designed the infamous “Zero” fighter planes used by Japan in WWII, “The Wind Rises” pits its director, for the first time ever, against the constraints of reality. That Miyazaki uses this challenge as an opportunity to liberate our notion of what a biopic can be speaks to his limitless imagination. As we follow Jiro from his schoolboy days up to the start of the war, Miyazaki periodically interrupts with flights of fancy both figurative and literal – delightful dream sequences (involving Jiro’s spiritual mentor, a projection of Italian aviator Giovanni Caproni) play alongside soaring shots of aircraft on the wing, transforming our world into something as beautiful as the lands of make-believe we’ve seen in the director’s previous works.

More than ever though, the pure exuberance and joy of these passages is tempered by the specter of human violence and destruction. In a deft choice, Miyazaki leaves World War II itself off the screen; the pall of that future trauma is left hanging over Jiro’s dreams, as the engineer struggles with the knowledge that his designs, which he pursues out of aesthetic and scientific wonder, will be used to devastating ends. The film has drawn criticism from both ends of the political spectrum in the director’s home country, and that’s not surprising – it walks a fine, complex line between optimism and elegy, finding a sympathetic message of pacifism in the life of a man who created killing machines.

Part of that sympathy could be chalked up to the fairy tale Miyazaki has concocted out of his protagonist’s personal life. But really, Jiro’s storybook romance with a young girl named Naoko is the only weak link of the film, as it does drag somewhat in the film’s final third. It’s not the tubercular love interest that makes Jiro such a relatable figure – it’s his creative passion and gentle, human decency.

And that is, in the end, what drew us to Miyazaki’s films. Throughout “The Wind Rises,” Jiro is clearly intended as a surrogate for the director, constantly sketching and drawing at desks that look suspiciously like animation tables. So if we must say goodbye, there really is no better way to part than this: with a man who, deep down, was always just a boy who dreamt of flying.

“The Wind Rises” played in limited release in NY and LA for a week; it will return to theaters across North America in February.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

Blue Is the Warmest Color

Nothing you may have read or heard about “Blue Is the Warmest Color” can accurately prepare you for the actual experience. Yes, there are some extended lesbian sex scenes; but anyone who’s just looking for titillation would have much more satisfying options elsewhere. Yes, the IFC Center in New York is letting in high-school-aged viewers in flagrant disregard of the MPAA’s NC-17 rating; but while I have absolutely no problems with this and commend that theater’s notion that adolescents should have the opportunity to see their real lives, in all their messy, awkward glory, up on the big screen, implying that this is a coming-of-age story doesn’t really give the whole picture either.

The brilliance of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s approach is in his patience – “Blue Is the Warmest Color” clocks in at almost exactly three hours, because the filmmaker seems less interested in telling a story than observing one. On every structural level, Kechiche simply waits, taking us past the point where every other film tells us we should stop. Conversations meander, showing off not just critical information but superfluous detail; scenes and montages linger, revealing both action and reaction; time passes, because real life doesn’t have pat endings. A ten-minute sex scene seems entirely appropriate when the leads need a full minute or two just to decide whether to kiss.

What seems to start off as a French take on “An Education” winds up going much, much further, a tale not just of discovery but of disillusionment, mundanity and loss. The central relationship, between young, aimless student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and the older, confident artist Emma (Léa Seydoux) is not treated as something representative or universal, but the confluence of these particular two individuals: it’s not even that it’s about sexual orientation so much as personality, ambition, desire. This is not your life; this is Adèle’s.

The fact remains that Kechiche is a straight man filming younger, straight women simulating lesbian sex, and that does make elements of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” problematic (Kechiche’s obsession with Exarchopoulos’ rear end in particular struck even me as unnecessary). But good lord, if we are to have that debate (and we certainly should), let it be about a film this formally intriguing and well-performed.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars