Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The 4th Annual JC Awards

In celebration of the upcoming Academy Awards this Sunday night, I will unveil my 4th Annual JC Awards for the films of 2010. These are in individual categories, for my top films of the year, just scroll down.


Gold: Javier Bardem, BIUTIFUL
Silver: Ryan Gosling, BLUE VALENTINE
Bronze: Paul Giamatti, BARNEY'S VERSION

Filling out the ballot:
James Franco, 127 HOURS


Gold: Natalie Portman, BLACK SWAN
Silver: Annette Bening & Julianne Moore, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT*
Bronze: Michelle Williams, BLUE VALENTINE

Filling out the ballot:
Nicole Kidman, RABBIT HOLE
Tilda Swinton, I AM LOVE

*Two separate performances? Yes. But it's the symbiotic performance from the two of them that make 'The Kids Are All Right' a near masterpiece. I can't logically say that either one is better than the other. So... deal with it.


Gold: Mark Ruffalo, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Silver: Andrew Garfield, THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Bronze: Christian Bale, THE FIGHTER

Filling out the ballot:
Geoffrey Rush, THE KING'S SPEECH
Justin Timberlake, THE SOCIAL NETWORK


Gold: Lesley Manville, ANOTHER YEAR*
Silver: Olivia Williams, THE GHOST WRITER

Filling out the ballot:
Marion Cotillard, INCEPTION
Dianne Wiest, RABBIT HOLE

*True, Manville has stated that she is a lead performance, and I agree with that. To be totally honest, I wanted to give her the gold, and I couldn't do that in Best Actress. In the end, she was absent from the screen long enough for me to legitimize putting her in Supporting.


Gold: The Kids Are All Right
Silver: Another Year
Bronze: Black Swan

Filling out the ballot:
The King's Speech
The Social Network


Gold: Darren Aronofsky, BLACK SWAN
Silver: Danny Boyle, 127 HOURS
Bronze: Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION

Filling out the ballot:
Derek Cianfrance, BLUE VALENTINE
Luca Guadagnino, I AM LOVE


Gold: Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, & Cami Delavigne, BLUE VALENTINE
Silver: Stuart Blumberg & Lisa Cholodenko, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Bronze: Michael Arndt, TOY STORY 3

Filling out the ballot:
Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION


Gold: Aaron Sorkin, THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Silver: David Lindsay-Abaire, RABBIT HOLE
Bronze: Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy, 127 HOURS

Filling out the ballot:
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, TRUE GRIT
Alex Garland, NEVER LET ME GO


Gold: Matthew Libatique, BLACK SWAN
Silver: Wally Pfister, INCEPTION
Bronze: Jeff Cronenweth, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Filling out the ballot:
Roger Deakins, TRUE GRIT
Yorick Le Saux, I AM LOVE


Gold: Lee Smith, INCEPTION
Silver: Rodrigo Cortés, BURIED
Bronze: Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Filling out the ballot:
Jon Harris, 127 HOURS
Andrew Weisblum, BLACK SWAN


Gold: Guy Dyas, INCEPTION
Silver: Dante Ferreti, SHUTTER ISLAND
Bronze: Jess Goncher, TRUE GRIT

Filling out the ballot:
Therese DePrez, BLACK SWAN


Gold: Antonella Cannarozzi, I AM LOVE
Silver: Louise Stejrnward, MADE IN DAGENHAM
Bronze: Amy Westscott, BLACK SWAN

Filling out the ballot:
Mary Zophres, TRUE GRIT


Gold: Clint Mansell, BLACK SWAN
Silver: Pasquale Catalano, BARNEY'S VERSION
Bronze: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Filling out the ballot:
John Adams, I AM LOVE
Hans Zimmer, INCEPTION


Gold: Inception
Silver: 127 Hours
Bronze: Black Swan

Filling out the ballot:
The Social Network
True Grit


Gold: Barney's Version
Silver: Black Swan
Bronze: True Grit

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

UPDATED! My Ten (er, Sixteen) Best Films of 2010 (now - finally - as a list)

As mentioned when it was previously posted, when I made my original list that I hadn't seen all of the films that I wanted to see for 2010. Having totally satisfied my list of films that I had wanted to see, I decided to update the list to include those that I thought should have made it in the first place. I decided not to remove any films because... why not? They're all stupendous films. And since I've had a chance to re-watch films, I feel a lot more comfortable placing them in the classic list format. So, mostly everything is the same as before, but if you're interested in the four (yes, four!) new entries, feel free to take a look.

Happy New Year, everybody! Like everyone else, I too am looking forward to 2011, but you can't move forward without taking a slight glance back. And what better way to do that than a good ol' 'Best of' list? Hope you enjoy.

Original Review Here

I hope that my inability to formulate a legitimate "top ten" list isn't being confused with me being unable to pick a "best film of the year". Blue Valentine is definitely that. No film in 2010 was more honest, more appropriately directed, and more complete story. That story is simple: Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) meet by chance and fall in love. Six years later, they're married with a young daughter, and with time, have fallen out of love. It's a transition from total devotion to total detestation, from seeing the hope in the future, to being in the future and not liking what you see. From the joy of blossoming love to the life-crushing sorrow of divorce. Directed by Derek Cianfrance - his first narrative feature film - the story swings back and forth between the budding and crumbling love, often juxtaposing the moods and feelings in a way that's sometimes poignant, sometimes heartbreaking. The film's gritty, handheld, Cinéma vérité style is apt as it strengthens its gaze on everything in love that is not beautiful. It has stark sexuality that really presents love making for what it really is, equal parts erotic and painful. There's sex of passion and then there's sex of routine, and Blue Valentine is able to show both in authentic fashion. Blue Valentine is, as I said in my initial review, a modest masterpiece; so carefully told, but still filled with such abrasive, unforgiving energy. It's not the most uplifting tale you'll see in theaters, but it sill make you think about love unlike any other film in years.

Original Review Here

Marriage is hard. This is the thesis of Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. And just because Cholodenko's film is about a married lesbian couple, doesn't mean she pulls any punches. The original testament still stands strong. Following Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) as their children decide to build a relationship with their sperm-donor father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), it follows these people with such careful grace that it feels pretty damn real. As Paul works his way into their family - much to the chagrin of the two mothers - his effect on all of them turns out to be larger than any of them could have imagined. The main cast shines brightest here with Bening, Moore, and Ruffalo all doing an extraordinary job encompassing these simple yet multi-faceted people. Nothing is exploited for dramatic effect, instead the veteran actors play everything with subtlety, making it seem like they are actually embracing the own characters' instincts. The film got some unfortunate, misguided publicity when certain writers claimed to be a politically-motivated piece, which couldn't be farther from the truth. The wonder behind The Kids Are All Right is how well Cholodenko (herself, a lesbian) is able to stay away from glorifying Nic and Jules, and letting them speak for themselves. Bonus points to Alice In Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska and future Spider-Man prospect Josh Hutchinson for playing the two children with the appropriate amount of angst and humor to make the unconventional family seem authentic. After all, this film's main theme is the American family dynamic. It will still have all the same issues, even without the standard patriarch.

Original Review Here

On initial viewing, Black Swan may baffle. The second time around, it will mesmerize. After that, Darren Aronofsky's ballerina thriller will leave you awash in some of the most courageous cinematic storytelling you will ever see. In his follow up (or as he would say: "companion piece") to 2008's The Wrestler, Aronofsky again focuses on a person's ugly inner struggle to find glory and beauty in her performance art. This time, it's not about wrestling, but the New York ballet. As Nina, the newly anointed Swan Queen in the Lincoln Theater reprisal of Swan Lake, Natalie Portman breaks hearts in a performance that is played with the ultimate intensity and physicality that the role calls for. As Nina faces performance pressure from her maddening mother (Barbara Herschey), sexual advances from her authoritarian director (Vincent Cassell), and sarcastic jokes from her rival dancer and understudy (Mila Kunis), Portman showcases her emotional disintegration in an agonizing, sometimes disturbing fashion. As Aronofsky shows Nina's journey from the ethereal, virtuous white swan, to the unadulterated passion of the black swan, he takes you on a ride of thrills, a few low-rent scares, and several moments where you cannot look away - even though you want to. But whatever you may think of Black Swan's reliance on hackneyed horror movie tricks, you cannot deny that its story unfolds with zeal and rebellious stubbornness. Now, all of this legitimized by the work from Portman, whose brilliance here cannot be understated, as she truly makes Black Swan what it is.

Original Review Here

With the kinds of protagonists that Mike Leigh has, who needs antagonists? From the well-meaning abortionist in Vera Drake, to the all-around naughty boy in Naked, Leigh always tends to endear us toward the most complicated (or more flatly, flawed) characters. In Another Year, we have Mary (played with fiery grace by Lesley Manville), whose connection with reality is so disjointed that she becomes horribly depressed when she finds that her nephew (about twenty years younger than her, no doubt) isn't sexually attracted to her. Mary is a train wreck, belonging in the pantheon of wonderfully dreary Mike Leigh creations. Leigh's striking ability to remove any judgment from his camera leaves us to our own devices and allows us to see these people on the screen for who they really are. But Another Year is mostly focused on the senior marriage of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and how their long, deliriously happy relationship is contrasted by the crumbling lives of their friends and family around them. When everyone is struggling to keep their head above water, they must do their best to latch on to that stable buoy, so that they don't drown. But Tom and Gerri are genuinely good people. They don't mind helping Mary and others in their time of great need, and it's that great wisdom that keeps them from sinking along with the others.

No Original Review (got lazy with this one)

Banksy is considered to be amongst the most revolutionary artists of his time, specializing in high concept street art, moving well past the low-rent graffiti that tattered the art form's beginnings. But Exit Through The Gift Shop is not a film about Banksy. It's a film by Banksy about Thierry Guetta, a French, former clothing retailer who has evolved into a budding filmmaker and an opportunistic street artist. Through Guetta (and is eventual alter ego: "Mr. Brainwash"), Banksy documents the evolution of the wondrous subculture most know little about and introduces us to some of the best artists of the genre: Space Invader, Sheppard Fairey, and of course, the notorious Banksy himself. All these artists thought Guetta was putting together the ultimate documentary to legitimize their work, but that wasn't achieved until Banksy got a hold of the thousand hours that Guetta compiled over the years. With Guetta, he instead hurdles toward an ego-driven explosion, changes his name to Mr. Brainwash and becomes his own kind of street artist. The film is startlingly funny; a scathing review on the bastardization of the modern art scene in America. With exclusive footage of all these reckless, felonious men, it's quite a feat that Thierry stands out as the biggest eccentric, but he's one of the most magnetic film characters I've seen in years. Like Catfish, there are many who think Exit Through The Gift Shop is just an elaborate hoax - Banksy's most expansive, ambitious project yet. If that were the case, it wouldn't surprise me, but Thierry Guetta would be his greatest creation yet.

Original Review Here

I can't remember the last time I saw a good "part three" of anything. So, needless to say, I walked into Toy Story 3 with some reservations. By the end, I concluded that it would've been difficult to make anything closer to perfect than this conclusion to the Pixar franchise. All the usual characters are back, but Andy is now gearing up for college and the whole gang is wondering what will become of them once he's gone. The stakes here have risen quite a bit since the days when Woody and Buzz had to find their way home from Pizza Planet. Addressing themes ranging from maturity to loyalty, even mortality is tackled in this supposed "kid's film" (including one powerful moment with the entire gang that will have you clutching the edge of your seat). Not that that laughs aren't there anymore. Watching Mr. Potato Head fit himself into a tortilla, or seeing Buzz get switched into "modo español", gave me some of the best laughs I'd ever had from any of the three films. But I'd dare anyone to keep a dry eye while watching this, especially during a particularly touching moment by the film's end where Andy has to make his final decision about what to do with his most cherished friends. It's fitting that Toys Story 3 ends up being the last film written about on this post, because watching this film was the moment that I realized that my childhood had ended. I am now an adult. The film perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the series - a series that freely encapsulated the spirit of my maturity up until then. With this breathtaking film, that part of my life was closed, but a new door was opened. Toy Story 3 opened it.

Original Review Here

Grief is something that is universal to everybody, but few films really visualize it better than John Cameron Mithcell's Rabbit Hole. Six months after the death of their young son, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are still struggling to cope. Through group therapy sessions and visits with various family members, we see how hard they try to make everyone think that they're doing alright. Sometimes, the harder you try, the more obvious you become. Credit incredible performances from Kidman and Eckhart for making Rabbit Hole sincere and honest, while still keeping the emotions explosive. Mitchell, known for his kinetic (if not eccentric) independent films, dials it down a bit here. He keeps the visual motifs solemn and intimate, setting the stage for his actors and letting them work. Which is a successful approach when you have such a great cast. Beyond some of Kidman's best work, the film gets great performances from Sandra Oh as a veteran in group therapy, Dianne Wiest as the wise, sometimes boozy mother of Becca, and Miles Teller as an artistic young man who has a lot more to reveal than we realize at first. The screenplay was written by David Lindsay-Abaire (based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play), and is filled with a lot of pain, but also has a surprising amount of warmth.

Original Review Here

When describing a movie like Barney's Version, I think it should be noted that it is so unapologetically Canadian that it never had a real chance of becoming a hit in the United States. Now that we've gotten that off of our chests, lets get to the movie itself: a brilliantly told, wonderfully acted tale about a man so grouchy that opening the flip on his cell phone feels like a burden. That man is Barney Panofsky (played with the brilliant wit we expect from Paul Giamatti), an Alzheimer's-riddled soap opera producer who had to marry two different women before meeting the love of his life. Based on the much-acclaimed novel by Mordecai Richler, the film is meant to represent Barney's version of a life story that has painted him as a lousy curmudgeon to everyone he has ever loved and cared about. Not that it means that Barney will show himself as a terribly sympathetic figure - far from it. Director Richard J. Lewis, along with Giamatti, combine to make the sinning Barney much more compelling than any saint could ever be. The film is with wonderful supporting performances, including Rachel LeFevre and Minnie Driver as the first two victims of Barney's hand in marriage. Dustin Hoffman plays Barney's father with great humor and provides the film with some unorthodox wisdom. But special attention should be paid to Rosamund Pike's performance as Miriam, Barney's true love. So beautiful and patient, Pike's portrayal of such open-heartedness helps you totally realize Barney's lovestruck feelings for her.

Original Review Here

Christopher Nolan is able to do something that sometimes feels impossible: he makes large, commercial action films that actually provoke introspective thought. When you consider that Nolan is behind the brilliant, non-linear psychological thriller Memento from 2000, you could see that intellectual approach early on. With Inception, though, the English writer-director is at his high-concept best, creating a labyrinthine plot centered around dreams, and dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams... do you understand the kind of movie we're dealing with now? On the surface, the entire idea seems over-the-top and too clever for its own good, but credit should go to Nolan and his all-star cast - led by Leonardo DiCaprio - that it is able to unfold without ever befuddling those watching. This is a talent that Nolan showed with both his Batman films, and here he is really at his element. It helps that the film is impeccably made, with career-best work from cinematographer Wally Pfister, and Nolan crafting some wholly dazzling fight sequences and car chases. But car chases are always more interesting when you care about who's being chased, and Nolan's screenplay is so invested in its characters, never allowing the strict rules of the film's universe to bog down their development. With a superb supporting cast that includes Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a particularly exceptional Marion Cotillard, Inception is the best studio action film in years.

10. 127 HOURS
Original Review Here

When I spoke to a friend about Danny' Boyle's 127 Hours, they complained: "If there was any film that was made to have all the credits in the end, it's this one. When you see 'Based on the Book by Aron Ralston', it kills all the suspense!" I respectively disagreed. A lot of the charm within this beautifully executed film with how it plays with our expectations. I had imagined that we were all aware (though I was surprised to find out otherwise) with the story of Ralston, an adventurous, sometimes mischievous mountain climber who had to amputate his own right arm after it became trapped underneath an immovable boulder in the Blue John Canyon in Utah. By letting us know at the beginning that he definitely survives, we're able to admire so many of the smaller things that this film does so well. Like showing Ralston as a man, and not a victim. Played with fantastic wit by James Franco, Ralston's bright, life-affirming attitude in the face of ultimate doom is infectious and something to behold. Franco does it right, displaying Ralston's glowing sense of humor without ever trying too hard or becoming contrived. But the main star here is Boyle, who followed the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire with a return to what made him so unique: creating films with frenetic energy and a breakneck pace, blurring though a screenplay that is composed mostly of Ralston being trapped at the bottom of a canyon. It could have been methodical and solemn and no one would have complained, but Boyle makes it a rambunctious, sometimes funny story of a man's will to live.

11. I Am Love
No Original Review (got lazy with this one)

In 2009, Tilda Swinton gave a virtuoso performance in a grossly under-appreciated gem of a film called Julia. A year later, the remarkably talented (and fearlessly ambitious) Swinton seems poised for the same fate. Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love is a highly-stylized melodrama, fraught with wondrous images and settings (beautifully shot by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux) and pulsating with a sexual ferocity that would put Leonardo Bertolucci to shame. There's very little that can disrupt the powerful Recchi's; an Italian family that heads a highly influential corporation in Milano. Emma (Swinton) is the heart of the family, a German woman who married into the business, and is a gentle and gracious mother to her three children. She has no problem fading into the background and taking the thankless role. But when her son befriends an intensely passionate chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), and introduces him to Emma, she is overcome with emotion for the first time in a very long time. What follows is a lucid affair that shakes the foundation of the Recchi familt unlike anything they've ever experienced. I Am Love is an impeccably made film in all the ways it should be. Like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, it references images from the early Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Mervyn Leroy, calling on the Golden Age of Hollywood to further impress its European austerity. But the biggest star here is Swinton, who continues her trend of taking a collection of eclectic, challenging roles and transforming into fully-fledged, compelling characters.

Original Review Here

I many ways, Catfish really embodied the kind of film that I had wished The Social Network would have been. So slick and ominous in showing how Facebook has really changed the way we communicate with each other. It has completely transformed our lives, but as this film shows, it also allows some to completely transform into a totally different person. The is a documentary effort from the two, young filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. When Ariel's photographer brother, Yaniv, develops an email relationship with a talented, eight-year-old painter named Abby, Schulman and Joost decide to document it. But the more interesting relationship is the Yaniv creates with Megan, Abby's older half-sister. Text messages and phone conversations are exchanged, but when the three young men try to meet Megan and Abby face-to-face, they are not prepared for what they find. Most of the thrill behind Catfish comes from not knowing what to expect, so I'll cease from telling anymore details, but suffice to say, it goes places and meets people you would have never imagined. Some have accused Catfish of a being a fake - to which I'll respond with how little I care. The story within Catfish strikes me as too uniquely bizarre to be made up, but it's captivating no matter how real or not real it may be.

Original Review Here

This is the kind of film that fits right into the Academy's wheel house: period piece, uplifting, respected cast, World War II (if only for a few brief moments). So, it has that going for it. It is also one of the most fulfilling cinematic experiences of the year. As the stammering, socially inept Prince Albert ("Bertie"), Colin Firth gives a captivating performance that perfectly dictates the film's formal, but off-kilter style. Directed by Tom Hooper, the film's sputtering (my friend described it as "constipated") visual approach is surprisingly arresting and executed exceptionally. It becomes smoother as Bertie's relationship with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (a terrific Geoffrey Rush), becomes stronger. As co-leads (I dismiss anyone who would consider the part of Logue a supporting one), Firth and Rush work beautifully together. With opportunities to exploit the more over-the-top aspects of their characters, neither actor takes advantage. Instead, they rely on - and expound upon - the words written in the exquisite screenplay (penned by David Seidler) that bridges this odd couple into a real friendship that does not feel contrived or put-on. Boosted by a wonderful supporting cast, that includes Guy Pierce, Michael Gambon, and a warm, humurous turn from Helena Bonham-Carter as Bertie's wife Elizabeth, The King's Speech takes full advantage of its talented cast and produces one of the year's better acting ensembles.

Original Review Here

Roman Polanski's taut, intelligent thriller The Ghost Writer, came and went in American theaters earlier in the year (to its credit, it was a success in foreign markets), but those who went out of their way to see it, were able to see something that hadn't been accomplished in decades: a ripe, well-told Film Noir. Ewan McGregor is ominously credited as "The Ghost", playing a downtrodden writer who decides to ghost write the autobiography of a hot tempered, former prime minister (an excellent Pierce Brosnan) who's caught in the middle of a political scandal. In the minister's Long Island home, that's when he's introduced to Ruth (Olivia Williams in a wonderfully nuanced, ferocious performance), the minister's abrasive, sometimes adulterous wife. As The Ghost is lead down the rabbit hole by Ruth, a complex conspiracy begins to reveal itself. Trying to write, The Ghost uncovers secrets that have been hidden for years, and in trying to find out the truth, a flock of oddball characters come out of the woodwork (featuring some nice supporting work from Kim Catrell, Tom Wilkinson, and Eli Wallach), and more complications present themselves as others are resolved. The Ghost Writer's greatest achievement is its ability to take formal Noir archetypes and present them as fresh and intriguing - and it helps that it's buoyed by a handful of excellent performances, including a mild-mannered, precise turn from McGregor, and the sometimes charming, often explosive work from Brosnan. But Olivia Williams steals the show with a performance that is equal parts allusive and creepy, dominant and dormant - and she has the biggest surprise for everyone.

15. The Social Network
Original Review Here

I have budged - and I have expanded this list long enough to include the zeitgeist film of 2010, David Fincher's The Social Network. It didn't feel right to talk about '2010 - The Movie Year' without including it. A film about Facebook - at least, on the surface. More specifically, it's a film showcasing the dynamo effect that Facebook has presented in our everyday lives. It's about Mark Zuckerberg (a wonderfully nuanced performance from Jesse Eisenberg), the computer whizz who borrowed an idea from twin, blonde, All-American rowers (both played by Armie Hammer), and creates the most popular website in the history of the internet. It's about the flies in the ointment; including Napster creator Sean Parker (played with deviant charm by Justin Timberlake) who bursts in quickly, wines and dines Zuckerberg, and steps in to cash in on the big prize. It's about the casualties of war, including Mark's best friend Eduardo (a brilliantly subtle, but complex performance from Andrew Garfield) who helped build Facebook as the CFO in its earliest stages, only to have it taken from him by the naive Zuckerberg and the conniving Parker. It's about the heartbreak of being rejected; being rejected by college Final Clubs, the popular clubs, and even Elizabeth Albright (Rooney Mara), a smart, beautiful girl who wants to like Mark, but struggles to keep her ahead above water around his smug. It's about a lot of things. But what's really fascinating about The Social Network is not the ascendance of Zuckerberg, but its display of the contemporary American construct and how much Facebook has contributed to the creation of that.

Original Review Here

Few films in 2010 were as funny, perplexing, audacious, or generally interesting than Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass. It stars Edward Norton in two different roles: the renowned thinker and classical philosophy professor Billy Kincaid, and his drug-dealing, Oklahoma-accented twin brother Brady. When Brady fakes his own death in order to get Billy to come back home to Oklahoma, Billy is already furious. When Billy discovers that he's really supposed to be a live alibi while Brady makes a high stakes drug deal, Billy cannot believe it. What follows is a stunning, sincerely unpredictable sequence of events that includes crossbows, literature, and lots of weed. The film bares little resemblance to Walt Whitman's classic book of poetry of the same name (though it does make an appearance in the film's final scene), except when you consider how thought-provoking both pieces are. Writer and director Tim Blake Nelson (who also stars in the film as Bolger, Brady's loyal but dimwitted best friend) crafts a screenplay filled with extreme eccentricities, and makes a film that fully embraces them. There isn't an over-the-top note that isn't exploited, but Nelson is able to take the film's tonal imbalance and make it work, because he believes totally in the story that he's telling. He never lets up and you never know what is going to happen next, and that's why watching Leaves of Grass is so fascinating. Add nice supporting performances from Keri Russell, Melanie Lynskey, Susan Surandon, and Richard Dreyfuss, and Leaves of Grass becomes an intoxicating movie experience.

There are still more films that I struggled with leaving off the list. Here they are.

-David O. Russell's The Fighter is a dynamic ensemble piece about boxer Mickey Ward and his tumultuous family. Combining wonderful performances and inspired direction, it is one of the more enjoyable sports films in many years.

-Noah Baumbach's Greenberg was a terrific comedy with a woefully under-appreciated performance from Ben Stiller.

-Buried was a wonderful experiment in cinematic storytelling - limiting the entire film to being inside a coffin.

-Debra Granik's Winter's Bone has an incredibly nuanced performance from soon-to-be movie star Jennifer Lawrence and creates one of the most eerie movie atmospheres in a while, set in the drugged-out shadows of the Ozark mountains.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Another Year (****)

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh


You may never see a film that appreciates faces the way that Another Year does. Not the kind of faces we're used to staring at in most Hollywood films, but a different kind. Faces with cracks and crevasses, absent of protruding chins or perfectly slim noses. The film opens and closes with two spectacular shots of faces that express such a bevy of emotions including: despair, heartbreak, loneliness, perhaps a slight glimpse of hope. Mike Leigh has never been interested in manipulated movie beauty, and Another Year's list of faces includes many English acting veterans like Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Peter Wight, and Imelda Staunton. Some may prefer the faces of Megan Fox or Chaning Tatum, and those certainly are more aesthetically pleasing faces, but Mike Leigh can't tell this solemn tale with those faces, because those faces can't tell this kind of story.

Tom (Broadbent) and Gerri (Sheen) are married, and we can tell that they have been so for many decades. Their dependence on one another is not needy or uneven, but complimentary. They garden and cook together. Tom is an engineer and Gerri is a behavioral counselor at a hospital. They have a son named Joe (Oliver Maltman) who visits ever so often and is filled with as much joy and charm as his parents. They are a happily married couple, possessing a sense of stability that seems almost impossible to most people. So, it makes sense that they have a lot of unhappy friends who latch onto them in an attempt to acquire some of that happiness; namely Mary (Manville), a secretary who works with Gerri, whose desperation to cure her loneliness constantly clouds any sense of reason she may have with reality. When invited to a dinner with Tom and Gerri, she comes prepared with a cleavage-blooming outfit... just in case.

After a few drinks, Mary usually will expound on her woeful tale on getting married too young and finally falling in love too late. But Tom and Gerri have heard this story before, so they just let her bottom out and send her to bed. Tom and Gerri also have a friend name Ken (Wight), who smokes too much and carries a belly in front of him the size of a wrecking ball. He can't seem to find a shirt that'll fit him. But he's a funny, jovial sort of fellow, and Tom and Gerri are more than happy to have him over. Ken likes Mary and his eyes light up when she arrives at the home. But Mary doesn't fancy herself someone who would demean herself with someone like Ken. Instead, she wastes her time trying to cozy up to Joe. It doesn't matter that she's known him since he was a ten-year-old boy. In several cringe-worthy moments, Mary embarrasses herself flirting with and grabbing Joe, and he does his best to humor her, but mostly because he doesn't want to hurt her feelings.

I can understand why these people would connect themselves to Tom and Gerri. Their modest home is like a haven for good spirits, and their own unbelievable chemistry and unflinching commitment after so many years seems like an ideal in a time where most marriages crash and burn. They are very similar, both incredibly warm and kind. But their slight differences make their relationship stronger. Gerri is more patient and its easier for her to stand Mary's advances toward her son, while Tom is more outspoken, never being able to buy into the B.S. that certain people like Ken and Mary display in their search for self-pity and compliments. They're a solid rock in a field of hollow stones. They're not walkovers either. You should see their seamless expressions of disappointment when Joe brings home his new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez), and Mary decides to use that moment to make an ugly scene. They're there for their friends, but never ahead of their family.

This film was recently nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award (as Leigh has been several times before), though Leigh's dependence on long-winded improvisations from his actors makes you wonder where the screenplay is. Does it matter? Maybe if this material were in other hands, but Leigh is a true cinematic master and he shows it with this film. Consider Secrets & Lies, Naked, or the more recent Happy-Go-Lucky. All films that were more interested in observing its characters than having them follow some hackneyed plot point, and Another Year follows that tradition. Do Tom and Gerri represent stability? Does Mary represent regret? Does Joe represent exuberant youth? If you're looking for that kind of stuff, I'm sure you can find it. But Leigh's films doesn't let that overtake what he's most interested in. Leigh is more interested in having Tom represent Tom and Gerri represent Gerri.

When the film premiered in Cannes in early 2010, most of the noise being made was about Lesley Manville's performance. And in a film that is wall-to-wall with tremendous acting from Broadbent, Wight, and everyone else, Manville is able to stand out. Mary is a total train wreck emotionally, doing her best to hide her real age, even to herself. She throws fits like a sixteen-year-old, but always comes crawling back like a haggard dog. It probably seems like quite the achievement to upset the mild-mannered Tom and Gerri, but she does have moments of charm. It's a testament toward the greatness of Manville that this pathetic person never becomes uninteresting or redundant, always making room for a bit of warmth to shine through. That Manville wasn't able to crack through for an Oscar nomination is a bit of shame, but its a rarely seen English film, and the Academy only likes England if its the England from WWII (**cough**The King's Speech**cough**).

The film is broken into four segments: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Each part with a different tone and visual look. With each rotating season, things evolve and people fall in and out of trouble. The only thing that stays the same throughout is Tom, Gerri and their lovely home. Another Year is so poignant and graceful in its swaying through themes of growing old and friendship. And my God, those faces. At the beginning, it's a tight scowl coming from a disgruntled insomniac (Imelda Staunton, in a very brief but effective appearance). Before the film's end, it's the wallowing, depreciating face of Mary. It's the kind of image that sums up this kind of film perfectly; the kind of film that tells the truth about life. As Gerri wisely says at one moment in the film, life is not always kind to people, but Tom and Gerri is a testament to one thing: if you look hard enough, real happiness is possible.