For Your Consideration: Dec. 19, 2014

Earlier this week, the U.S. government announced that it would resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, ending over half a century of Cold War-inspired isolation. It’s a momentous occasion – and one that has been unfortunately drowned out, in entertainment circles at least, by the ongoing saga of Sony’s “The Interview.” That’s a topic that we can’t even begin to cover in an FYC, but something we can do is celebrate a movement towards peace and constructive engagement between Washington and Havana. All those years we were perhaps banned from seeing Cuba in the flesh, but it was never banished from our art – here are three films set on or about the island.

– Ethan

“I Am Cuba” (1964)

Cast: Sergio Corrieri, Salvador Wood, José Gallardo, Jean Bouise, Raúl García, Luz María Collazo, Alberto Morgan, Celia Rodriguez

Available on disc from Netflix

A major Soviet-Cuban co-production meant to solidify relations between the two communist nations in the wake of the U.S. decision to break trade and diplomatic relations with Castro in 1961, “I Am Cuba” was a wet dream of socialist art on paper. Directed by Mikhail Kalatazov (fresh off the formally daring one-two punch of “The Cranes Are Flying” and “Letter Never Sent”) and co-written by acclaimed poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the super-project was intended to be a relatively straightforward propaganda piece about the suffering, enlightenment and eventual political liberation of the Cuban people, told through four unique stories. But the highly experimental, idiosyncratic camerawork by Kalatazov and cinematographer Sergei Urasevsky (employing extreme wide-angles, acrobatic crane shots and a rudimentary Steadicam-type setup that was utterly ahead of its time) alienated viewers and left both governments disappointed, and the film was suppressed and forgotten for decades. Martin Scorsese, discovering the film in the 90s, became a tireless champion and enthusiastically supported a restoration and re-release that has properly situated “I Am Cuba” as a rightful masterpiece.

– Ethan

“Before Night Falls” (2000)

Cast: Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, Olivier Martinez, Héctor Babenco, Andrea Di Stefano, Santiago Magill, John Ortiz, Sean Penn, Diego Luna

Available to rent or purchase from Vudu, iTunes or Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix

Based on the autobiography of the openly gay Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, “Before Night Falls” catapulted Javier Bardem to international stardom and solidified artist Julian Schnabel’s cult place in the independent film scene. Arenas’ struggles to find himself as a writer and a gay man are refracted and compounded through the repression of the Cuban state, in a film whose visual eruptions of energetic beauty and passion match the pent-up frustration and fear of Arenas’ tumultuous self-discovery. Small touches of Schnabel’s trademark surreality, like Johnny Depp’s double performance as both a brutal prison warden and a flamboyant transvestite, capture the paradoxical spirit of Cuba in the 60s-70s.

Ethan

“Chico & Rita” (2010)

Cast: Lenny Mandel, Limara Veneses, Emar Xor Oña, Mario Guerra

Available streaming on Netflix and Hulu, available to rent or purchase from Vudu, iTunes, Amazon Instant

As hopelessly romantic and charming as a Disney fairy tale, but unafraid to treat its star-crossed young lovers like adults, this beautifully animated Spanish musical drew a fair amount of acclaim (and an unexpected Academy Award nomination) for its delightful and infectious Cuban jazz score. Fiercely evocative of 1940s Havana, “Chico & Rita” stands out even now for its willingness to be sensual, heartbreaking, affecting. It’s an unexpectedly mature love story that nonetheless has the good sense to give the people what they want, both musically and narratively.

– Ethan

For Your Consideration: May 16, 2014

From a biopic of Joseph Mallord Turner to a comedy pitting gay rights activists against striking miners, from a mountainous meditation on isolation to Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, this year’s Cannes Film Festival is filled with gems from near and far, diverse in both its topics and its nations. While we’re sure that one day we’ll be strolling down la Croisette and bringing you reviews live from France, for now we picked three of our favorite films that have taken home the coveted Palme d’Or. 

– Elaine

“The Cranes Are Flying” (1957)

Cast: Tatiana Samoilova, Aleksei Batalov, Vasily Merkurev, Aleksandr Shvorin, Svetlana Kharitonova

Available for instant streaming, with subtitles, on YouTube and Hulu Pluson disc from Netflix

“The Cranes Are Flying” opens, like many a film, with a pair of young lovers walking home in the morning, laughing about their night out, making plans, and shushing each other for being too loud. But then it takes an unusual turn. As Boris is about to leave his beloved Veronica, he suddenly remembers something and sprints back up the stairs of the apartment building, the camera following him in a dizzying blur as he completes each ascending circle. It’s a startling choice by director Mikhail Kalatozov, but one that returns in lyrical, poignant fashion as the movie continues.

It is one of many colorful touches in this artful, sensitive testament the Russian people and their struggle in the Second World War. Unlike many Soviet depictions of the Great Patriotic War, it does not shy away from the uglier aspects of the time, from draft dodging to the black market to the wounded and dead. Its realism makes it a rich historical document; the lead performance by Tatiana Samoilova, who passed away earlier this month, makes it unforgettable. Made only four years after Stalin’s death, “The Cranes Are Flying” marked the beginning of Russia’s thaw with the West, and remains to date the only Russian film to win the Palme d’Or. Should Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan”, a meditation on the human condition based on the Book of Job, claim the top prize this year, it would be joining mighty company.

– Elaine

“Paris, Texas” (1984)

Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Aurore Clément, Nastassja Kinski

Available streaming on Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, iTunes; on disc from Netflix

Roger Ebert once wrote that “Paris, Texas” is a story of “loss upon loss.” When we first meet Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, in one of the all-time great screen performances), he’s wandering the deserts of Texas – no family, no purpose, barely even a name or a memory. Wim Wenders’ gentle, deliberately paced masterpiece will both build Travis back up from and strip him down again to that state, as we slowly piece together the path that led this ragged, broken man to abandon civilization altogether. The hole that he’s stumbled into is self-made, but will he manage to clamber back out again?

A modern rejiggering of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” Wenders’ unanimous Palme winner is first and foremost about a man who doesn’t fit in society, and his search for a woman burdened with being his only link to redemption. The German director’s main narrative addition to the formula, however, is the presence of Travis’ son – a suggestion of fatherhood as an alternate path for Travis to escape his self-destruction. But beyond that, what sets “Paris, Texas” apart is Wenders’ peculiar brand of magical realism: like “Wings of Desire,” the setting and narrative trappings are the stuff of mundanity (Peter Falk getting a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, Harry Dean Stanton ambling into a dive bar as the worn-out sign creaks in the desert breeze), but the archetypical sense of questing for fulfillment and absolution catapults the film into the realm of fable and myth.

– Ethan

“Barton Fink” (1991)

Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito

Available streaming on Netflix, Amazon Instant, iTunes

Even for the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” is a weird, weird film. You could call it the Coens’ David Lynch movie, their Kafka movie, their Faulkner movie, and their Wallace Beery movie and technically you’d be right on all counts. If it’s about anything at all, it’s about artistic frustration – supposedly spawned during the troubles the brothers had while writing “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink” follows a successful Broadway playwright (Turturro) who quickly finds himself completely out of his element when offered a Hollywood studio contract. What follows is a hodgepodge of literary allusions, religious overtones and horror film tropes that somehow adds up to a comprehensive and utterly bizarre vision of what it’s like to have writer’s block. Turturro and Goodman are standouts but as always the Coens brilliantly cast right down to the smallest bit players; Michael Lerner’s portrayal of the Louis B. Mayer-esque studio head Lipnick is a particular delight.

– Ethan