Friday, November 8, 2013

My First Film Festival: Telluride 2013

Wow.  What and experience.  As I've told several people since returning from Colorado, this was the single best experience of my life.  It was everything I'd hoped it would be.  I hope to be able to convey some semblance of what our trip was like in this blog post.  So, here we go:

Wednesday - Day Before the Festival

We flew from Denver to Telluride on a charter jet early Wednesday afternoon.  Unfortunately, our bags didn't quite make it to us until early the next morning since they couldn't come on the same flight due to weight restrictions, and something about the air being too warm in Telluride.  The flight in was gorgeous.  I'd never seen the Rocky Mountains up close before and the view was breathtaking for the entire 1 hour 15 minute flight.  When we landed, it was a little unnerving because the airport is tiny and the runway looks like it's about a foot long from up high; but everything went smoothly, and we got a shuttle into town just in time to check into our condo and pick up our festival passes before the concert that evening in the town park.  

The concert was in conjunction with the Festival honoring the collaboration between the Coen Brothers and T-Bone Bennett, and featured the Punch Brothers (a fantastic bluegrass band) playing some original songs and songs from Coens' movies.  We left the park right after "Man of Constant Sorrow" since it looked like it was about to rain really hard, and went and found an Italian restaurant in town.  After a fantastic dinner (I had a custom designed pizza with chicken, bacon and pesto, and Grace had a beet salad), we headed back to our condo for a good night's sleep.

The Town and the Festival
Before we get too far, I just wanted to give you a quick idea of the layout.  The town is no more than a couple miles from one side to the other, and there's 10 movie theaters sprinkled throughout during the festival.  One theater, the new Werner Herzog converted from ice skating rink and seats 650 people.  Other theaters are converted from school gyms, libraries, and other buildings.  The one thing they have in common: you can't tell these theaters aren't always movie theaters.  The seating, projection, and sound are so well done.  In fact, I'd go as far to say that the Werner Herzog Theater had the best sound and picture of any theater I've ever been to.  Also, sprinkled throughout the town is a plethora of restaurants and coffee shops, all within walking distance of our condo, which was located under the tick-mark legend on the map to the left.  So while we certainly got our exercise, it was really nice not having to rely on public transportation or worry about a rental car.  One other unique aspect of this festival, besides the setting, is the fact that they don't announce the program until the day before it starts.  Since they also don't issue press passes, this leads to most of the people who attend being cinema lovers who are eager to see whatever the programmers have in store.  As far as I can tell, they've never disappointed, and they sure did an amazing job selecting films for the 40th anniversary, which featured a 5th day of films, one more than the typical 4 day festival.  So one thing we did on Wednesday night before bed was map out first day of films on Thursday.  As it was the first day, films didn't start until the afternoon.

Thursday - Day 1 of the Festival
We slept in until mid-morning since the first film we'd decided to see wasn't until 3:30.  Grace had her heart set on going on a hike while we were up in the mountains, so we took advantage of our free time in the late morning and set out on a trek up the Bear Creek Trail, a fairly steep 2.5 mile hike up the side of one of the surrounding mountains.  Given that we were more than 9,000 feet in the air already and I haven't exactly been good about working out recently, it was quite a strenuous workout for both of us, but man, what a view!  

Luckily we got back in time to go to our condo to clean up and then make it all the way to the Werner Herzog Theater about 1 1/2 hours before the first ever showing in this theater.  It turned out that 90 minutes was about the minimum amount of time you wanted to show up before the bigger, more popular screenings and still get a seat.  Our passes let us into any screening we wanted, but you still had to get a good place in line.  Luckily we made the cut for all of the films we attempted to attend, due primarily to our impeccable planning.  Seriously though, you really do have to plan carefully to make sure you have enough time to get to the screenings you want to see.

All is Lost

This film is the second feature from writer/director J.C. Chandor  (Margin Call), and features a one man tour-de-force performance from Robert Redford as a man stranded on his sailboat in the Indian Ocean.  There is almost no dialog, but the depth of emotion conveyed by Redford without words was incredible.  Even more impressive was the physically demanding performance as he's tossed about in or out of his boat in the storms.  Redford, who is in his late 70s, seems to handle it with the finesse if a stunt man 30 years younger.  It wouldn't surprise me to see him his second Best Actor Oscar nomination this year, having not been nominated since The Sting in 1973.  The film remains tense throughout, and constantly held my attention without bombarding us with plot unnecessary characters.  It was simply a man's struggle to survive.  As a point of comparison, I found it be an interesting mix of Cast Away, Life of Pi, and Open Water.  Probably one of the coolest aspects of seeing this at the festival was having Redford in attendance (with the director) to introduce the film.  While we weren't able to make it to the tribute that they had for him, it was so cool just to be in the same room watching the film with him, and being among only the 2nd audience to see the film.

After the conclusion of the film, we made a mad dash across town to get in line for the 7:00 of the Coen Brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, at the Galaxy Theater (which is in the town's elementary school).  In addition to this being the first showing of the film in the United States, this screening also featured a Q&A panel afterwards with the Coens, T-Bone, and the star, Oscar Isaac, so I was particularly keen on attending this screening.  Luckily we got there in time to get a queue card, which are basically line placeholders they hand out one hour in advance of showtime.  This way you can walk around a little before the show, use the restroom, etc.

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens' latest film feels very much like a Coen Brothers film.  I mean, they all do, but this one especially does when compared to their last film, the more accessible, Oscar nominated True Grit.  It features, as I've already alluded to, the musical choices and influences of T-Bone Burnett  which pretty much guarantees a pretty high level of quality in that department.  Set in the midst of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1960's, the film follows a struggling musician (Oscar Isaac, probably best known as Cary Mulligan's husband in Drive) as he moves from one couch and misadventure to the next.  Plot isn't really important here, but rather the music and the performances, particular the leading man.  Oscar Isaac sings and plays all of the music his character does in the film, all in real time, without a click track.  He played each take so consistent, that they were able to cut between takes without there ever being a drop in tempo.  This is virtually impossible, but somehow he pulled it off.  I personally think he has a good chance of getting a nomination for the award that shares his name.  As per usual, the Coens get a huge kick out of torturing their protagonists, and Llewyn Davis does not escape their cruelty.  Their typical dark brand of humor is laced throughout; from a runaway cat Llewyn's forced to look after, to a deranged, drug addled jazz musician (played brilliantly by John Goodman) he takes a road trip with to Chicago, to a hilarious recording session with none other than Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (of Girls fame).  Tonally and aesthetically, I'd say this is a mix between O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man, but truly is a fine work all its own.  This probably won't be a crowd favorite, but to those who love and appreciate most of the Coen Brothers' work, this will be one of the year's highlights, as it was for me.

On a high from seeing two great movies, and still with plenty of energy as this was only the first day, we decided to take on one more film starting at 11:45 PM at the The Palm Theater, located nearby in the gym of the middle school.

Under the Skin

Set in Scotland, Under the Skin is the latest film from British director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), and stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien vixen whose purpose is to lure men into her lair in order to steal their skin.  This film is strange, to say the least, and at first reminded me of a Euro, feminist, art-house take on the original Terminator.  Most of the conflict starts when Scarlett's character begins to explore her humanity and feelings of empathy for her prey.  It goes to some pretty dark places, but is ultimately an interesting, entertaining film.  I probably would have enjoyed it more if it hadn't been so late when we watched it, but as it is, it was probably one of my least favorite films we saw at the festival.  That said, most of what we saw was very strong, so that shouldn't be seen as a strong indictment.  

Friday - Day 2 of the Festival
Since we got to bed at 2:00 AM the night before, it was a bit of a struggle to get back to the Palm by 7:30 AM in advance of the 9:00 screening of Nebraska, but we really wanted to attend this screening due to the Q&A afterwards.  What a great decision it turned out to be...


I'll go ahead and tell you, this film is the best thing we saw at Telluride.  It's the latest film from American auteur Alexander Payne (most recently directed The Descendants), and stars 77 year old Bruce Dern as a man who thinks he's won $1,000,000 when he receives one of those Publisher's Clearing House type scams.  While he lives with his wife in Montana, he's determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska where the letter says he can claim his prize.  Finally, after being picked up by the cops several times walking on the highway, his son agrees to drive him down to Lincoln.  Shot in black and white, Nebraska is a beautiful, poignant film about stagnant familial relationships, unrealized dreams, the importance of where we come from, and surrounding ourselves with those who mean the most to us.  I laughed and I cried, and at the end everyone stood and cheered.  A delightful film if there ever was one.  I know this is starting to become cliche, but I honestly think Bruce Dern could get an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves it.  All of the performances were spot on, and it's all the more impressive due to the heavy mix of local non-actors with professional actors.  This isn't a film that sells itself, but I'm confident everyone who sees it will love it.  It's my favorite film of the year so far, and this is a strong year.

The Q&A afterwards was equally rewarding with Bruce and Alexander speaking about the experience of making the film, and director Jason Reitman did an excellent job leading the discussion.  It was a little ironic that he was there doing the Q&A, because we were on our way to his film next at the Galaxy at 1:30, after which he would do a Q&A himself.

Labor Day

As I mentioned above, this is the latest film from Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Thank You For Smoking) and it is much different than his other films, which are mostly hilarious, but poignant comedies.  Labor Day is good old fashioned melodrama, with equal parts thriller and romance. If that doesn't sound good to you, that only speaks to the poor film making prevalent in those genres in recent years (particularly melodrama and romance).  Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard (who was also in attendance), the story focuses on an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) who hides out in the home of a reclusive woman (Kate Winslet) and her young son.  The film shifts in tone several times, but each time it feels earned.  Reitman handles the material with a deftly, and gracefully, all while maintaining a high level of tension throughout the entire film.  I don't see this being a major awards contender due to its release date, but Grace and I enjoyed it immensely   Let's just say there wasn't a dry eye in the theater at the end.  Definitely check it out when it hits theaters in January.

Afterwards we had about an hour to grab a bite to eat before getting back in line at the Galaxy two hours in advance of the 7:30 sneak preview of 12 Years a Slave.  Not only was this the first ever showing of the film in front of an audience, but there was also a lot of buzz around this screening as Brad Pitt was to be in attendance as he is a producer and actor in the film.

12 Years a Slave

This was a film I had been hoping would be at the festival, as I am a huge fan of the director, Steve McQueen, a British artist turned filmmaker whose previous films, Hunger and Shame, are both intense, heavy, compelling, beautiful, haunting pieces of cinematic art.  12 Years a Slave is no different.  Based on a true story and set in antebellum America, the film tells a harrowing story about a free black man from New York named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who gets abducted and sold into slavery and ends up on a plantation in the deep south. McQueen pulls no punches, as the film portrays plantation life in what is likely a more realistic fashion than any other film to this point.  Ejiofor's performance is emotionally raw and hits you in the gut.  Also powerful is the performance by newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, as a hard working slave that unfortunately has eye of the plantation owner, ruthlessly portrayed by Michael Fassbender, much to the disdain of his wife (Sarah Paulson).  There are scenes of rape, savage beatings, and bloody whippings, all shot with an unflinching boldness that probably couldn't (or wouldn't) have been confronted this directly by an American director.  Underlying the savagery is a desperation and hope for survival, and a longing for humanity.  I believe this will be the definitive film of American slavery, much as Schindler's List is for the Holocaust.  

The film received a long standing ovation, directed at the filmmakers and actors in attendance (as seated left to right in the picture above): the moderator, Pitt, Ejiofor, Nyong'o, Fassbender, and McQueen.  At the Q&A the mood was solemn and emotional.  Fassbender mentioned this was the first time he'd seen the film and was having trouble finding any words to say.  Pitt mentioned something to the effect of, if he never produced or acted in another film, he was fine with this being his last.  This is and will likely remain one of the most memorable film screenings of my life.

After such a heavy film, we decided we didn't want to go straight to bed, so we hopped back in line at the Galaxy for the next film, The Lunchbox.

The Lunchbox

Set in Mumbai, India, the premise of the film involves the highly elaborate lunchbox delivery system prevalent in the city.  Basically, lunchboxes are prepared by a wife or by a lunch service, and picked up by a delivery man.  After being transported by all forms of vehicles, it safely and promptly arrives at the exact office building, and the exact desk of the exact person it is intended for; except for when it doesn't.  A young wife and mother wants to "spice up" her stagnant relationship with her husband, so on the advice of her aunt who lives upstairs, she mixes up the usual lunch she makes for her husband and makes something a little more extravagant.  She's pleased when the box comes back to her completely empty, but when asking her husband about his lunch, she discovers he didn't receive the correct box.  Curious, she decides to continue her quality meals, and find out who enjoyed it so much by putting a note in the box.  Thus begins the pen-pal relationship with a soon-to-be retired widower that is the comical and emotional center of this film.  Without going into any more details, The Lunchbox is a light, but melancholy film about loneliness, fate, and human connection.  My overall enjoyment of the film was probably hurt some by the late start time (10:30) as well as the heavy film that came before, but I did still like it quite a bit and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys good adult dramas. 

Saturday - Day 3 of the Festival
Saturday morning we struggled to get out of bed at 7, as we'd attended late night screenings the previous two nights.  However, there's nothing like the crisp mountain air to help wake you up as we boarded the gondola to travel up the mountain, and then back down the other side into Mountain Village, where the Chuck Jones Theater is located.  We were headed there for the 9:00 tribute to T-Bone Burnett and the Coen Brothers.  The tribute included a long montage of music-centric clips from the films on which they collaborated,  which happen to be some of my all-time favorites: The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Though?, The Ladykillers, and Inside Llewyn Davis.  After the montage T-Bone and the brothers took the stage for a Q&A.  While you don't get a ton of information from these guys, it's just a joy to be in the same room with two of my favorite filmmakers of all time and listen to them talk.  

After the tribute, we hopped on the gondola and headed back to town and made our way to the small, cozy Nugget Theater downtown.  While waiting in line for the next film, we actually had to wait a little longer than we thought because Brad Pitt and the 12 Years a Slave cast and crew were having a private screening.  They exited the theater near where we were standing, and it was funny to see the ladies scramble with their phones to get some candid shots of Brad and Michael Fassbender (Grace included).  After the commotion, we were finally allowed to enter the theater.

Starred Up

This film takes place entirely in a British prison, and centers around a 17 year old boy who has been "starred up," or promoted, to the adult prison because of the multitude and severity of his crimes.  This also happens to be the same prison his dad is in, and we soon come to understand why this boy has ended up on the path he is on.  Another major character in the film is an independent social worker of sorts who has anger management classes to help the prisoners who want to help themselves.  Starred Up is essentially a family drama set in the confine of a maximum security prison, so it also includes all the tropes that come with a prison movie.  I found it very intense and enjoyable.  Grace found their accents hard to discern, so for some it might be better on Blu-ray with the subtitles on. Next we hurried back up the mountain via the gondola to catch the next film on our list.

The Past

The Past is the latest film from Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi. His previous film, A Separation, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  Set in Paris, The Past features a wonderful performance from the beautiful Berenice Bejo, who was nominated for her performance in the Best Picture winning film The Artist.  She plays a woman who is trying to move on with her life, but needs her estranged husband to come sign divorce papers so she can marry her new boyfriend, played by Tahar Rahim from A Prophet.  What starts off as an awkward family drama turns into something more when we spend time with the characters and learn of why there are certain tensions and uneasiness.  Farhadi is a master of piecing together a mysterious drama, and telling stories about imperfect human beings that can't be easily defined.  There is no white and black, rather his films dwell and relish in the gray.  A beautiful film, while perhaps not as beloved as A Separation, The Past is worthy of your time and is another great film in Farhadi's oeuvre.

After only our second film of the day, Grace and I decided to have a nice dinner and retire early to catch up on some sleep.

Sunday - Day 4 of the Festival


First thing in the morning we headed back to our most visited theater, the Galaxy, for a showing of the latest film starring the most talented young actress working today, Mia Wasikowska.  Based on a true story, Mia plays Robyn Davidson, a young woman who decides to set off on a 1,700 mile trek across the Australian desert.  She does this basically to find herself and possibly to relate some to her deceased father who had also been an adventurer, having himself journeyed across similar distances in African deserts.  The best part of the film is Mia's performance, by far.  Overall the story is somewhat inspiring, but the stakes never seem too high, and the purpose of the trip is too ambiguous to really latch onto.  While I think Tracks a decent film, it's certainly one of the weakest we saw at the festival.


We got back in line at the Galaxy for one of the sneak previews, Prisoners, from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve.  Featuring stellar performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as the father of a kidnapped girl and the investigating detective, respectively, this film sets the tension level high and never gives the audience a reprieve.  After two little girls are abducted from their neighborhood on Thanksgiving, the desperation of their parents is palpable, and they begin to take matters into their own hands in light of the perceived ineffectiveness of the police.  

Prisoners also features performances from heavy hitters such as Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrance Howard, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano.  It explores themes of vigilante justice, justified immorality, and doing anything to protect your family.  Since this film is currently in theaters highly recommend you go check it out, pronto.  It's not a light film and it set heavy on us as we chose to take the late afternoon off to relax and eat a nice dinner before catching up with Gravity that evening.


This much anticipated film from Alfonso Cuaron has opened since the festival, and with great box-office success.  The word of mouth has been good, and the reason I mention it is because I agree 100% with what seems to be the general consensus.  Gravity is an incredible technical marvel  and should be seen on the biggest screen possible in 3D.  Normally I hate 3D, but this film is made for it.  It looks amazing.  We caught the film at the large, new Werner Herzog Theater, and both the sound and visuals were breathtaking.

The film does a great job of making you feel like you're in space with these astronauts who are out there on a mission to repair a satellite or something.  The specifics aren't important, because it doesn't take long for all hell to break loose, and the overall sense of claustrophobia and impending doom is very effective.  The main thing that didn't work for me was the character moments.  There are times when the film tries to get the audience to empathize with a character, and there are moments obviously meant to be cathartic, but for me it really had little impact.  Overall, it was a thrilling cinematic experience, but left me wanting a little in regards to overall emotional gravitas. 

Monday - Day 5 of the Festival

Before the Winter Chill

We started out our final day of the festival with this little French drama starring Kristin Scott Thomas from director Philippe Claudel.  Claudel's fantastic first film, I've Loved You So Long really put Scott Thomas on my radar when I saw it back in 2008.  Their collaboration here doesn't produce as powerful a result this time around, but overall the film was enjoyable, featuring typical French themes of love, passion, and infidelity.  The overall mystery that unfolds over the course of the films is also intriguing, while not necessarily mind-blowing.  

After the film, we walked across town to the Town Park for the Labor Day Picnic   Besides only being allowed to take "one protein" (come on, I'm a growing boy!), the food was fantastic and the weather was perfect.  I particularly enjoyed the ice cream sundae bar for desert.

Burning Bush

Next, we headed over to a very small venue, Masons Hall Cinema, for a double feature.  Actually, it was all the same film, but broken up into two segments: Part 1 followed by Parts 2 & 3.  Burning Bush tells the story of the student who set himself on fire in the middle of Prague in protest of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1969.  The majority of the film actually focuses on the legal battle against the communist government after the government launched a smear campaign against the young man in order to squash any possible revolution.  Although a bit long, the film tells a compelling story and offers plenty of tense moments.  In the end, the power of this true story and its impact on the history of Eastern Europe does ultimately reveal itself, and for me, there is little that is more inspiring than stories of people struggling for freedom.  

Palo Alto

The last film we saw, in the beautiful and ornate Sheridan Opera House, was directed by Gia Coppola (Francis' granddaughter) and based on short stories written by James Franco.  A descriptive tag-line could be "California teens behaving badly."  It has its moments of genuine angst and human frailty, but overall it came across more as tales of spoiled rich kids whose parents didn't discipline them when they were younger.  The film-making quality is average, and the performances are decent.  James Franco is effective as the creepy, rape-y soccer coach.   Unfortunately not the best film to go out on, but it certainly wasn't a terrible experience.

As a whole, the festival was amazing, and I really, really hope to go back soon.  Click here for a list of the films I saw, ranked from best to worst.  Thanks for reading (to the 3 people who make it to the end), and please let me know your thoughts in the comment section.

Monday, August 26, 2013

2013 Telluride Film Festival

Grace and I will be attending the Telluride Film Festival this weekend in the mountains of Colorado and I could not be more excited.  This is our first film festival, and from what I've read, we've made a good choice.  I've also read a rumor that the Coen Brothers are one of the 3 filmmakers being honored this year at the festival, which would take an already exciting experience and push it over the top for me.  I'm not sure if I'm taking my laptop with me or not, so I might not be able to blog from the festival, but I promise I will do it up right when I get back. Just wanted to let y'all know to keep your eyes peeled.  

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Best Films of 2013 So Far: Mid-Year Review

The first half of 2013 has flown by and provided cinefiles with several incredible films, a few of which I fully expect to be on my end-of-year list.  We'll jump right in, but click here for a running, ranked list of every 2013 film I've seen to date.

10. War Witch

War Witch was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards.  Set somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, it centers on a 12 year-old girl who is kidnapped by a rebel army and forced to become a solider.  Due to her ability to discern enemy troops in the area like sixth sense, she is referred to as the "War Witch" by the leader of her captors.  However, after a particularly harrowing battle, she is convinced by a rebel commander that the best course of action is to leave with him and desert the rebel army.  Needless to say, she is never far from danger as she journeys to find members of her extended family, and even tries to start one of her own.  The film is very violent and far from lighthearted fare, but it still offers inspiration through this girl's desperate story of survival.

9. Side Effects

Side Effects is the most recent (last?) theatrically released film from prolific director extraordinaire, Steven Soderbergh.  With many of his recent films, Soderbergh has been exploring within different genres and elevating them to new heights due to the incredible casts he's able to attract and his technically superb direction.  The genre being elevated in Side Effects is the psycho-sexual thriller, with the backdrop of American drug companies and the culture that constantly needs/desires to medicate and be medicated.  Jude Law stars as a psychiatrist who prescribes his new patient, played by Rooney Mara, a new experimental drug, primarily because it earns him a significant amount of ancillary income by participating in the new drug study.  After things go horribly wrong, the blame game begins, with everyone's motives and responsibilities being called into question.  As a pure genre exercise, the film is enjoyable and a satisfying drama worth checking out.

8. Shadow Dancer 

James Marsh is certainly more well known for his documentary films, such as Man on Wire and Project Nim, but his latest is a return to fictional film making and worthy attention.  Set in the early-mid 1990's, Clive Owen stars as a MI-5 operative that begins managing a new informant deep within the IRA, played by the up-and-coming British actress, Andrea Riseborough.  She only cooperates in the hopes of protecting her young child, but back-handed governmental dealings and bureaucratic mismanagement lead to some difficult decisions for each of them. Exploring themes of family loyalty, political freedom and violent vs. nonviolent protests, this espionage thriller is chock full of genuinely tense, thrilling moments.

7. Stoker

Stoker is the first English language film from Chan-wook Park, the iconic Korean director whose previous film Oldboy might be the most popular Korean film ever made.  Equal parts crime mystery, coming-of-age drama, and psycho-sexual thriller, Stoker features Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman as an atypical dysfunctional mother/daughter mourning the death of their beloved father/husband.  When the mysterious uncle, played creepily by Matthew Goode, comes for a lengthy visit, the dark truth about this family gradually comes to light. Although previous directors have tried with lesser success, this film proves the conversion from Korean cinema to America can be made without losing anything in translation.

6. Chicken with Plums

This French film, from the directors of animated film, Persepolis, is about an Iranian musician who loses his will to live after his wife breaks his beloved violin.  The ever talented Mathieu Amalric is fantastic in the lead role.  Whilst waiting for death to take him, he thinks back to happier times in his life, and events that ultimate kept him from being with the woman he truly loved.  Although often absurd and even silly, this odd, whimsical little film ultimately left me feeling an overwhelming sense of melancholy and longing. I was surprised by the strength of the feeling after not being entirely on board earlier in the film.  If this sounds at all appealing and you decide to check it out, I recommend giving it time to unfold and work its magic.  

5. Upstream Color

Shane Corruth's second directorial effort has perplexed audiences this year similarly to when his first film, Primer, confounded the film festival crowds nine years ago.  Corruth, who also writes and stars in his films, is known for his complicated plots that require at least a couple viewings for most to piece it together.  The thing that separates Upstream Color and makes it an ultimately better film is the emotional core that Primer lacked.  This core is personified by Amy Seimetz, who stars opposite Corruth.  Her character is put through the ringer of emotions, and she pulls each of with a rawness and truthfulness that most actresses only wish they could access.  As a whole, Upstream Color is a fascinating blend of sci-fi, mystery, drama, and romance, and shouldn't be missed by any self-respecting film lover.

4. Lore

I had never heard of Lore until I noticed it on a list of new rental releases, and decided to check it out due to the high Tomatometer.  The story centers around a young teenage girl and her siblings as they try to travel across Germany to their grandmother's house at the end of World War II.  They are completely on their own because their parents are Nazi officers, and are arrested early on.  Along the way they find themselves in some harrowing circumstances and are pushed to their limits physically and emotionally; however, for me, their personal journey eventually takes a back seat to the overarching theme of denial displayed by the German people in relation to the atrocities performed against the Jews in the concentration camps.  These children will have to come to terms with the sins of their parents, and it will no doubt affect them the rest of their lives.  Lore is a good story well told that makes a lasting impression.

3. The Place Beyond the Pines

This second film by writer/director Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines is a sprawling dramatic crime epic, told in three distinct segments.  Each segment focuses on different characters within two different family units.  Like Lore, this film also explores the effect that the sins of fathers has on their children.  The film features notable performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, but the entire cast does a tremendous job with this material. Although almost 2 1/2 hours long, it never feels bloated, rather I thought it could have been even longer.  I've been particularly vague on the plot, as I don't want to spoil it for anyone.  Just do yourself a favor and see this film.    

2. Before Midnight

Before Midnight is the third film in the series from writer/director Richard Linklater for which he collaborated with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who star in the films and also write.  I did not call it a trilogy, because I sincerely hope they continue to make more films about these characters; but if it is just a trilogy, it's one of the best trilogies in film history.  Going into Before Midnight, I thought there was no way this movie could live up to the hype of the first two films. I mean those films, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, are already revered classics even though they came out relatively recently (1995 and 2004, respectively).  Gladly, I was wrong.  Before Midnight might not be as enjoyable or delightful as the first two, but it is just as profound and truthful, maybe more truthful than is comfortable.

I realize I've simply been gushing about the films without telling you anything about them. Let me give a quick, spoiler-free synopsis.  In 1995, Celine and Jesse (played by Delpy and Hawke) meet on a train in Europe, and end up spending a day together in Vienna and basically fall in love.  They are soul mates and meant to be together, but unlike a fairy tale, real life is complicated.  In 2004, we see these same characters in Paris, and we learn what's happened to them over the past nine years.  In 2013, again nine years has passed and we catch up with them in Greece.  OK, so that was a terrible synopsis, I just don't want to potentially spoil anything for someone who hasn't seen them.  Start with the first film, and watch all three.  You'll be glad you did.

1. Mud 

Jeff Nichols is one of the best American writer/directors working today and can do no wrong.  "Preposterous," you say?  "What proof do you have," you ask?  Exhibit A:  His first film, Shotgun Stories, garnered much praise on the film festival circuit in 2007 and has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.  It's a fantastically tense family drama set in rural Arkansas, and features a tour de force performance from Michael Shannon.  Exhibit B:  His second film, Take Shelter, came out in 2011, again to much critical praise and adoration, earning a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.  This film also features an amazing performance from Michael Shannon (my favorite performance of that year) as a man struggling with schizophrenia.  It's also set in a rural setting, this time Ohio, and contains one of the most memorable endings I've seen in quite some time.  

Exhibit C: The film of the hour, Mud.   Again set in rural Arkansas, this time Michael Shannon gets a supporting role while Matthew McConaughey get's the starting gig.  This film has been compared to a modern Huck Finn tale, and I personally think it will go down as one of the most effective southern gothics ever caught on film.  The film also features a couple strong child performances, including the main character played by Tye Sheridan who got his break in Tree of Life.  That kid has a bright future if he can stay off the smack.  To continue the theme of critical support, Mud sports a healthy 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.  So I'm not alone in saying that this is an impressive cinematic treat, and one I fully expect to still be pretty high on my list at year end.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Double Whammy - Best Films of 2012 and 2011

Since I was a slacker last year and didn't actually publish a list for 2011 (besides on, which no one saw), I've decided to do a double list and cover the best films from the last two years.  After looking at my original 2011 list, I was glad I had a year of pondering and hindsight with which to view these films, and see more 2011 releases during 2012.  Perhaps all of my lists should be a year late?  Truthfully, there were only a few additions and some reordering, but mostly it was the same films I thought worthy a year ago.  Since I am covering so many films with this double list, I won't write anything about the honorable mentions; however, please know that if I mention a film on this blog post, I am giving it very high praise.  I've seen approximately 100 films from 2011 and 73 films from 2012.  Overall, I mention 21 films from each year.  These are the best of the best.

One thing I hate that people say at the end of a year is, "this was a terrible year for movies."  I can't remember the last time I actually thought that.  People who say that simply don't watch enough films or don't make an effort to seek out the good films.  That said a quick juxtaposition of the films of 2011 and 2012 led me to believe that 2011 was more "top heavy" while 2012 was deeper with quality films.  For example, my top four films of 2011 would have been at least number two in 2012, but there were more films of note in the runners up to my 2012 list.  

One last note:  If you wonder why I didn't mention a certain film, perhaps I didn't see it.  In 2012, I started keeping a diary on Letterboxd, as well as a running, ranked list of films from 2012.  Click here to see the entire list.  Now without further ado, the best films of 2011 and 2012:

2011 - 50/50 
50/50 is based on a true story about a young man, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who finds out he has cancer at the very young age of 27.  It's a poignant look at a young man's life who hasn't had time to reach his full potential, and how the relationships with those you love are all that matter when it comes down to the end.  The film at times takes a humorous approach to the story, but it always feels genuine.  Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick also shine in their supporting roles.

2012 - The Raid: Redemption
The Raid: Redemption is the second film by Gareth Evans featuring Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais, the first being the excellent Merantau.  The Raid plays almost like a video game, in which the main character, Iko, has to get to the top of this apartment building deep in the slums in order to arrest or kill the drug lord.  The plot offers some twists and turns along the way, but the thing that makes this films stand out is the fantastic action sequences.  They are very well choreographed and feature everything from hand-to-hand combat, sniper rifles, machine guns, etc.  If you love pure action movies or martial arts movies, this film is the best of both I've seen in a while.

2011 - The Tree of Life 
The Tree of Life is a beautiful film, and features honest, revealing sequences of a child growing up and becoming disillusioned with his father, his resulting anger, and his loss of innocence, if you will.  This film was number one on probably the majority of 2011 lists.  It's obviously a great film, but personally it didn't resonate with me as I think it did for many others.  Technically the film is a marvel, and you'd expect nothing less from Terrence Malick.  The acting is also amazing and so naturalistic, especially the children.  I think for me, most of Malick's films simply come across as too precious and this one in particular is almost too vague to the point of exclusion.  That said, I cannot argue that the film is not in many ways a masterpiece, as the music and imagery are at times breathtaking.    

2012 - Monsieur Lazhar
Monsieur Lazhar takes an old movie cliche (teacher with a heart of gold) and adds something fresh to the conversation.  As I mentioned in my Letterboxd review, centered around multiple tragedies, the film does not wallow in misery, but rather focuses on the healing process, with hope and dignity, all while also commentating on the state of the modern education system and the stifling limitations placed on teachers.  The title character, played by Mohamed Fellag, is fully fleshed out, and acted with grace and subtlety.  The story itself is moving and uplifting without manipulation, a rare feat in this day and time.  

2011 - The Artist
The Artist, an ode to silent films and Hollywood, won best picture for 2011; however, it was scorned by many critics for being too light and of little substance.  Here's what I think about that:  who cares if it's light, as long as it de-lights! Am I right?  That's what this film did for me.  My wife and I enjoyed this film in the theater as much as any other film in 2011, and you can't help but leave this movie with a smile on your face.

2012 - Seven Psychopaths
Seven Psychopaths is the second feature films from Irish playwright turned screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh.  His first film, In Bruges, is easily one of my favorite films of the past decade, so needless to say, I was looking forward to this one.  while it didn't live up to the overall impact that In Bruges had on me, Seven Psychopaths is still a special film.  It's certainly not covering any new territory with it's meta approach to story telling, but with McDonagh's patented use of violence and humor, it adds a unique twist to this incredibly niche genre.  Think Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels meets Domino meets Adaptation. Lastly, McDonagh get's some pretty good performances from his cast, particularly Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken.

2011 - I Saw the Devil 
I Saw the Devil is a film from director Kim Jee-woon, one of many extremely talented Korean directors causing South Korea to be among the film producing countries most respected by cinefiles all over the world. This film is pretty much the quintessential Korean film, as it takes the most prevalent theme from Korean movies, revenge, and turns it on its head.  There are so many scenes of tension and violence in this film, and they escalate over the 2 hour and 21 minutes run time to the ultimate climax.  I can see how this film could polarize certain audiences, but I think it's use of violence and torture, to achieve what I consider to be its end goal of completely flipping tables on the audience, is unique to this genre and its audacity should be applauded.  

2012 - Django Unchained
Django Unchained is the latest film from auteur Quentin Tarantino, and if you know me at all, you know this guy is my favorite director of all time.  So I'm sure it surprises you that this film is so "low" on my list.  I don't want this to be about "why this movie isn't higher on my list," but I will say that the overall story didn't work well for me compared to his other works, and the overall intensity was lacking compared to Inglourious Basterds, which is of a similar ilk.  What did work, however, is Quentin's ever masterful use of dialog to develop characters and captivate an audience. Set in the Antebellum South, Jamie Foxx plays the title character Django, a freed slave who hopes to rescue his wife from an evil plantation owner, Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio) with the help of bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Waltz and DiCaprio are both fantastic, as is Samuel L. Jackson as the Candy's head slave.  In his oeuvre, Django Unchained is probably my least favorite film besides Death Proof, but I think that speaks volumes for the overall quality of his work.  

2011 - The Sunset Limited
As I mentioned when I wrote about this films two years ago, "based on a play by Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited ponders the existence of God, the state of humanity, and other weighty topics, as discussed between Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. Cormac's dialogue doesn't just crackle, it detonates as it's delivered by these infinitely talented and experienced actors, each delivering tour de force performances. Jones plays a tired old professor, who attempts to commit suicide, and Jackson an ex-con who intercepts him at the last second. However, we see nothing of this event, only them talking about it in Jackson's dingy New York City apartment, right after the incident. Jackson, a jail-house convert, diligently shares his Christian faith with Jones, but Jones, who is much to intelligent for his own good, argues vehemently for his own pessimistic world view. The film itself doesn't seem to take sides, letting each man win and lose an argument or two. I certainly felt the pain and desperate persistence in Jackson as he battled for this man's life and soul, but at the same time I empathized with Jones' negative views on the nature of man and his dismal outlook on the future. Much like other McCarthy works The Road and No Country for Old Men, this film left me thinking after the credits rolled, and to me, that's a sign of a good film, or at least a well written one."

2012 - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the first feature film from director Benh Zeitlin, and was 2012's official "indie darling."  He also co-write the screenplay and co-composed the score, which was my favorite score of the year.  I find it odd that of all the Oscars it was nominated for, Best Score wasn't one of them, but I digress.  The story centers on a little girl called Hushpuppy, living with her dad in a region south of the New Orleans levy that they call the "Bathtub."  This charming yet heartbreaking film creates its own fantastic reality with a mix of harsh circumstances and imagined mythological creatures.  The performances by the mostly non-actors, especially in the leading roles, are impressive and lend to the films sometimes realistic feel.  Zeitlin must also be a magician to have achieved what he did with a minuscule budget and inexperienced child actors, and overall, I'd say that the best word to describe this little film is in fact, "magical." 


2011 - 13 Assassins 
At first glance, 13 Assassins is a traditional samurai movie, but in the hands of Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, it is much more.  True to his sadistic side Miike sets up the films by showing us how despicable the bad guy is with gruesome, despicable acts.  It turns out this guys is literally on his way to becoming an untouchable member of their governments highest council, which would been almost certain doom and unending war for Japan.  The focus then turns to a few noble men who put together a task force to eliminate this threat to their country's peace.  The film does a good job introducing us to each character and establishing the relationships and comradery between these 13 killing machines.  The last 40 minutes or so of the film is an epic showdown between these warriors and the hundreds of men protecting the evil  lord.  The technique and execution of this battle is masterful.  The camera captures all of the action clearly, and the stakes are always clear.  Far from being a gimmick, this is one of the most memorable endings sequences in a film in recent years. 

2012 - The Kid with a Bike
The Kid with a Bike is such a simple title for this multilayered film about a young boy who seemingly is wanted by no one.  At first, I feared this film would be another entry into the ever growing "tragedy porn" genre, but it transcends the typical tragic story by basing a lot of its characters and their decisions in reality.  The effect is a moving, poignant, ultimately uplifting experience.  The Dardenne brothers need no introduction to foreign film enthusiasts, but this was only the second of their films I'd seen, the first being The Child.  I now certainly want to seek out their other work, as they offer a realism and complexity to their stories and characters that is rare and should be valued.


2011 - Take Shelter 
Take Shelter is a masterpiece of suspense and tension.  I've only seen this film once, but I've probably thought about it more than any other film from the past two years.  Jeff Nichols' first film, Shotgun Stories, was among my honorable mentions in my first blog post, The Best Films of 2008.  Both films feature stunning leading performances from Michael Shannon, who has become on of the most fascinating actors working today (a particularly love his work on HBO's Boardwalk Empire).  The story is about a man with who begins having cataclysmic premonitions and sees them as a warning of events to come.  The ending sequence is the most polarizing since No Country for Old Men, and your interpretation of it will probably weigh very heavily in your ultimate determination of this film's value.  I loved ever second of this film, and would love to dissuade you if you felt otherwise.

2012 - Skyfall
Skyfall is a James Bond film, which is already more than I can say for it's predecessor, Quantum of Solace.  Sam Mendes does a bang-up job bringing us what we Bond lovers really wanted.  Babes, guns, and memorable bad guys.  This movie is the ultimate in escapism entertainment.  Between Skyfall and No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem will probably be type cast as a creepy bad guy from now on, because he is so good at it.  From the voice to the hair and the face... The guy is fantastic.  Overall, I was so happy to see a return to form for James Bond that ultimately might be my favorite Bond film of all time.  I'm not throwing the Bond franchise a bone by putting it on this list.  It deserves to be here.


2011 - Certified Copy 
Certified Copy was written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian artist turned filmmaker, although the film is set in Italy and is in Italian, French and English.  This was my first experience with Kiarostami's work, and to say I was impressed would be a gross understatement.  The film stars Juliette Binoche as a woman who meets an author who just wrote a book on the value of a copy versus an original work of art.  This is the subject, which the title hints at, of much of their discussion, especially early in the film, as they travel through and tour scenic Italian villages.  The film is romantic to its core and draws obvious comparisons to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset; however, there is an air of mystery that extends its intrigue beyond the Linklater films (don't get me wrong, I love those films as well).  The nature of the relationship between the woman and the author is never truly revealed, although there are many clues along the way to support multiple readings.  Ultimately, Certified Copy is superbly satisfying in its absolute, but deft avoidance of a clear answer.  It enthralls and holds its allure without the cheap pleasure of exposure.  It's wonderful. 

2012 - The Master
The Master might be most cryptic film on either of these lists.  Paul Thomas Anderson, perhaps the most revered American auteur, has crafted a film that is far less accessible than his previous film, There Will Be Blood.  Is it a simple historical look at the beginnings of Scientology through the eyes of one of the early "believers?"  No, probably not.  Is it humanistic diatribe against all things spiritual or a character study of two men, the primal man versus the enlightened?  I don't know.  Whatever it is, it's a fascinating work of art featuring two of the best actors working today (Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) putting on a master class for the audience (pun intended).  Amy Adams is also fantastic in her role as the wife of the leader of the cult.  And leave it to PTA to shoot the film on an archaic format (70mm), which looks warmer, clearer and more vibrant than any of the digital films released last year.  As perplexing as this film is, it's worthy of much praise just for the technical aspects.  It's also I film I'm eagerly waiting to see again.

2011 - Win Win 
Thomas McCarthy knows how to write and direct interesting dramas with complex characters and meaningful stories like no one else working today.  His stories are simple but effective, never cliche, and with the backdrop of very real, American issues.  His latest, Win Win, stars Paul Giamatti as a full time lawyer and part time wrestling coach just trying to make ends meet for his family.  Along the way he makes some mistakes and has to deal with the consequences.  Like all of McCarthy's films, there's plenty of humor throughout and as with The Visitor, the ending caught me off guard with its quiet, subtle, profundity.  It's not a flashy pick, but for a while it was my favorite film of 2011.

2012 - Holy Motors
Holy cow, where do I start with Holy Motors? I'll just borrow from my Letterboxd review that I wrote the night I saw this film with my wife at a little art house cinema in Coral Gables. "I think I just saw a surreal masterpiece, but I'm still processing this beautiful, wacky film. I'm sure there are as many interpretations of this film as there are people who saw it. It came across to me as a love letter to acting. Sure, the director (Leos Carax) is obviously saturated in film, mind, body and soul; but his leading man (played by Denis Lavant) is the focus here, going through the motions, bearing his soul in every imaginable, or unimaginable, scenario. We rarely, if ever, see this man's true self, but instead he is the empty vessel which is constantly filled and subsequently emptied of the full range of human emotions and physical configurations. There are so many hilariously, awkwardly weird scenes in this film. They don't fit together in a neat package, but do form a strange, ambiguously profound tapestry. Heck, it's just a blast to experience, and obviously hard to describe without sounding like an uppity douche. Check it out for yourself!"

2011 - Drive
Drive was a movie custom made specifically for me.  I love every fiber of this movie; from the captivating opening sequence, to the pulpy noir feel, to the '80s-esque synth driven soundtrack, to the forbidden romance, to the awesome driving sequences, to the mysterious hero (Ryan Gosling), to the damsel in distress (Cary Mulligan), to the romantic rival that's in over his head (Oscar Isaac) to the loyal friend who is equally in over his head (Bryan Cranston), to the fabulously realized bad guys (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman), to the guns that go BOOM, to the gritty violence, to the director (Nicolas Winding Refn) that is 100% completely in control of every second of this perfect film.  I've heard some say it's all style, no substance.  No.  The style is the substance, and the simplicity of the story is its perfection.  This was by far the most cinematic movie of the year and it was fully realized, nothing to be added or cut.   Nothing came close to dethroning Drive from the #1 spot after I saw it on September 16, 2011. Nothing.

2012 - Moonrise Kingdom
News flash: Wes Anderson makes quirky, stylized films with moody, childlike adults and sophisticated, responsible children.  His films are filled with a nostalgia for childhood, unorthodox family units, and forbidden romances.  Most people either love his films or they hate them.  I love them, and Moonrise Kingdom combines all of his themes into his most charming, perfectly framed, perfectly cast film yet.  I saw it twice in theaters and was equally delighted during and after both screenings.  I'll admit I had a hard time figuring out the rest of the top ten, but #1 was easy.

Honorable Mentions:
A few other noteworthy films from each year, in alphabetical order:

A Separation
Girl Walk // All Day
The Guard
The Ides of March
Jane Eyre
Midnight in Paris
Of Gods and Men
The Trip

The Cabin in the Woods
Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Kill List
Killing Them Softly
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Oslo, August 31
The Sessions
Sleepless Night