For Your Consideration: Oct. 24, 2014

People usually hesitate to call the Independent Film Project’s Gotham Awards the official start of the awards season – as the East Coast-little sibling to the Spirit Awards (which are already themselves the awkward cousin of the Oscars, Golden Globes, et al), the Gothams are hardly an influential affair. But hey, they’re the first group to actually start putting out competitive categories, and there’s just something so damn fun about an end-of-year list. This year’s list of nominations seem as suitably discerning as ever, with “Boyhood” leading the way and love for “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Under the Skin,” among others (I’m particularly intrigued by their Best Actor nod for Oscar Isaac in J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” – an interesting way to sneak around the review embargo that’s been placed on the film so far).

In any case, we’re going to kick off the season by celebrating Gotham Awards past – here are three films that took the top prize from the New York indie scene.

– Ethan

“Half Nelson” (2006)

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie

Available to purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

“The Notebook” may have catapulted Ryan Gosling to the A-list, but it was “Half Nelson” that made him a critics’ darling too. His turn as a drug-addicted inner-city junior high school teacher is riveting (and remains his only Oscar-nominated role), but revisiting the film the real shocker is how well Shareeka Epps, as Gosling’s student-turned-confidante, holds her own. Combine those two with Anthony Mackie’s electric performance as a neighborhood dealer who draws Epps into his business, and “Half Nelson” is a great example of what the 21st-century indie scene has offered so far: raw, rough talent, standing out in a well-written, on-the-fly production.

– Ethan

“Frozen River” (2008)

Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Jr.

Available to purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

This pick also serves as a bittersweet tribute to Misty Upham, who died under tragic and rather mysterious circumstances a few weeks ago. Courtney Hunt’s drama finely balances elements of a crime thriller with scathing indictments on the American economy and immigration policy. As Ray Eddy and Lila Littlewolf, two women who form an uneasy partnership to smuggle immigrants across the St. Lawrence River from Canada to a Mohawk reservation, Leo and Upham are a well-matched odd couple, never quite falling into the sappy screen clichés of unlikely friendship. Amid the snow and ice, the film smolders, fueled by Ray and Lila’s desperation to support themselves and their children in a society where they’ve run out of options.

– Ethan

“Winter’s Bone” (2010)

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt

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

Doesn’t it seem an eternity ago that we had no idea who Jennifer Lawrence was? It’s been a whirlwind few years, but even after a blockbuster franchise and an Oscar, “Winter’s Bone” remains Lawrence’s best work (sorry, David O. Russell fans, it’s true). The film bears a passing resemblance to “Frozen River,” as another chilly, rustic thriller about a woman driven to extreme measures to protect herself and her family – but “Winter’s Bone” drops to an even darker place, where drugs, poverty and violence are inescapable. The menace in Debra Granik’s vision of the Ozarks is palpable, especially whenever John Hawkes is on screen as Lawrence’s hostile, enigmatic uncle. Watching “Winter’s Bone,” it’s not hard to see how Lawrence won the lead in “The Hunger Games” – Ree is nothing if not the real-life version of Katniss Eberdeen, and all the admirable for it.

– Ethan

The Old Familiar Faces

Whoever is making the official Cannes Festival posters is on a roll. Last year’s art-deco-meets-pop-art appropriation of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward was sparkling, woozy, a fairly perfect approximation of the filigreed hype that builds up every year on the Croisette in a one-sheet. If that poster revealed a bit too much by just barely hinting at the emptiness behind the pomp and circumstance, this year’s is everything that Cannes WANTS to be: namely, the coolest, sexiest, most suave dude in the room, and don’t you forget it. It has me thinking I put Marcello Mastroianni a couple rungs too low on this list a few years back.

Even if we didn’t have Marcello undressing us with his eyes from every theater wall and computer screen, this year’s Competition lineup would be another confirmation of Cannes’ particular brand of gentlemen’s club-cool – which is to say, an atmosphere generally populated and promulgated by older European men. At this morning’s announcement of the full 2014 slate, Cannes director Thierry Fremaux claimed that the festival was looking for new, fresh filmmakers, and that 15 female directors were included in the Official Selection. True only to a point – while the Un Certain Regard and Director’s Fortnight sidebars may be a bit more diverse, the official Competition  lineup remains as stodgy and masculine as ever: out of 18 films, only 5 were helmed by directors making their first Competition appearance, and only 2 were directed by women. That is not to say, especially at this early date, that any individual slots were wasted or unjustifiable, or even that Cannes’ preference for regulars is a terrible thing – one just does wish that the most renowned celebration of international cinema in the world could find ways to make diversity a regularity.

So off-beat, upcoming and female talents like Asia Argento, Ryan Gosling, Jessica Hausner and Ned Benson will try to make their impressions in Un Certain Regard. Hausner’s exclusion perhaps stings the most, considering her last film, “Lourdes,” was a critical smash at Venice a few years ago and seemed to prime the Austrian director for the next step up. For Gosling, the slot is actually fairly generous, considering we have little but his association with Nicolas Winding Refn to go on for what his behind-the-camera style might be – we’ll see how he fares with “Lost River” (formerly “How to Catch a Monster”). Meanwhile, the Competition slate will again show off new works by established heavyweights like Olivier Assayas, Mike Leigh, the Dardenne brothers and…

…good god, is that Jean-Luc Godard’s music??!

Indeed it is! The New Wave legend, unfazed by the passing of one of his last comrades-in-arms, Alain Resnais, a few months ago (or, you know, being 83) is back with something called “Goodbye to Language” – filmed, I kid you not, in 3D. As not that big a fan of Obtuse Godard, I’m not exactly chomping at the bit. As for the fact that Irish director Ken Loach is back for the 12th time (and reportedly the last) in Competition, my favorite tweet of the day generally sums up my reaction on the matter:

Those Dardennes, of course, have to be considered threats, once again, to pick up the Palme d’Or, considering they’ve taken home at least one prize from the jury each of the five times they’ve gone in Competition. They have a much starrier effort than usual, with Marion Cotillard headlining an economic-crisis drama, “Two Days, One Night,” that has been described as a “Belgian Western.” Though I’ll tell you, I wrote my senior thesis on Westerns and I still have no idea what the hell that means.

Sight-unseen a lot of people are calling it for Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep,” as the director’s last film, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” took a good shot at the prize three years ago. Personally, I’m keeping my eye on “Leviafan,” the fourth film by the Russian Andrei Zvyagintsev. He’s one of those 5 new-comers to the Competition, but Zvyagintsev is, in my opinion, the best thing to happen in twenty years of post-Soviet cinema, and “Elena” could’ve duked it out with “Tree of Life,” “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and “The Kid with a Bike” if it had been in the main event in 2011.

Elsewhere, American audiences will be more familiar with names like David Cronenberg (back with another bizarro Robert Pattinson collaboration, “Maps to the Stars”) or Bennett Miller, whose “Foxcatcher” wisely sat out the 2013 awards season and was rewarded with this prestigious slot. Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo will bring some of the Hollywood buzz to this otherwise continental affair; as will Chloë Moretz and Kristen Stewart, featuring in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” which stars Juliette Binoche as an actress pushed into isolation when a younger actress (Moretz) takes over her signature role. Some empathy there, I’d imagine. Finally, Tommy Lee Jones continues his attempts to keep the prestige Western alive with “The Homesman” (following his directorial debut in 2005, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” which also earned a Competition berth).

There’s plenty more to talk about, including Mike Leigh’s Timothy Spall-starring biopic of J.M.W. Turner (a passion project of his for years), Michel Hazanavicius’ first film since “The Artist,” and let’s not forget Naomi Kawase and Alice Rohrwacher, the two women who did make it. But take a look at the full Competition lineup for yourselves – what are you most eager to see?

67th Cannes Film Festival – In Competition

  • “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Olivier Assayas (Germany, France, Switzerland)
  • “Saint Laurent,” Bertrand Bonello (France)
  • “Winter Sleep,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey, Germany, France)
  • “Maps to the Stars,” David Cronenberg (Canada, U.S.)
  • “Two Days, One Night,” Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium, Italy, France)
  • “Mommy,” Xavier Dolan (Canada)
  • “The Captive,” Atom Egoyan (Canada)
  • “Goodbye to Language,” Jean-Luc Godard (Switzerland)
  • “The Search,” Michel Hazanavicius (France)
  • “The Homesman,” Tommy Lee Jones (U.S.)
  • “Still the Water,” Naomi Kawase (Japan)
  • “Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh (U.K.)
  • “Jimmy’s Hall,” Ken Loach (U.K., Ireland, France)
  • “Foxcatcher,” Bennett Miller (U.S.)
  • “The Miracle,” Alice Rohrwacher (Italy)
  • “Timbuktu,” Abderrahmane Sissako (France)
  • “Wild Tales,” Damián Szifrón (Argentina)
  • “Leviafan,” Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russia)