My Ballot: Chlotrudis 21

rocks in my pockets

Another year, another Chlotrudis Awards ballot. I always try to see as many nominated films as I can; this year, I got to all but five titles.* The 21th annual ceremony is this Sunday at 5:00 at the Brattle Theatre, with animator and Chlotrudis Short Film Festival alum Signe Baumane (director of Buried Treasure nominee Rocks In My Pockets, pictured above) attending.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ENSEMBLE CAST

Archipelago
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Like Father, Like Son
We Are the Best!
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

I’m not sure it has even a slight chance of winning (although you never know with this group), but Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow is the strongest ensemble here; with everyone utilized effectively, I came away from it caring about every last character.

Should have been nominated: Inherent Vice for across-the-board strong work from stars (Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson) and unknowns (Katherine Waterston, Hong Chau, squeaky-voiced singer/harpist Joanna Newsom).

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

David Crank – The Double
Adam Stockhausen – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Suzie Davies – Mr. Turner
Marco Bittner Rosser – Only Lovers Left Alive
Ondrej Nakvasil – Snowpiercer
Johanna Bourson – The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

The Grand Budapest Hotel, obviously (and not only because Stockhausen went to my high school)—while not one of my favorite Wes Anderson films, if it deserves to win in any category, this is it (although I’d rate the futurist-retro The Double a close second).

Should have been nominated: Despite possibly not being as great as I may have once thought, you can’t deny that Mood Indigo was the most ambitious and original film of the year solely in terms of its batshit insane design.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Emmanuel Lubezki – Birdman
Philipp Kirsamer – A Coffee in Berlin
Lyle Vincent – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Robert D. Yeoman – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ryszard Lenczewski – Ida
Daniel Landin – Under the Skin

On the sole basis of pure, bold visual splendor and high contrast, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night would get my vote, but it looks like a half-dozen other modern black-and-white films I’ve seen. Under The Skin, packed with how-did-they-get-those incognito shots of its cast and an excess of rich textural imagery looks like nothing else, ever.

Should have been nominated: The stationery tableaus in Force Majeure, whether inside the Overlook-worthy resort hotel, the gleaming white mountain vistas or that still incredible slow-burn (freeze?) of an avalanche shot.

BEST EDITING

Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrone – Birdman
Sandra Adair – Boyhood
Anja Siemens – A Coffee in Berlin
Bill Weber – The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden
Justine Wright – Locke
Steve M. Choe and Changju Kim – Snowpiercer

One of two new categories for Chlotrudis this year, I admired both the unobtrusive year-to-year transitions in Boyhood and the continual sense of movement in Snowpiercer. And then, there’s Locke, which follows one character in his car for 85 minutes and is still beautifully cinematic and convincingly suspenseful while combining multiple takes into a seamless whole.

Should have been nominated: The One I Love, precisely for reasons that would constitute major spoilers.

BEST USE OF MUSIC IN A FILM

A Coffee in Berlin
Frank
God Help the Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Only Lovers Left Alive
Under the Skin
We Are the Best!
Whiplash

The other new category. I’m particularly fond of Stuart Murdoch’s musical numbers in God Help The Girl, the evocative jazz/folk of A Coffee In Berlin, the dazzling, tricky big band arrangements of Whiplash and Mica Levi’s groundbreaking ambient work in Under The Skin. Still, none of them have the impact (or pure, exhilarating fun) of both the original and period punk songs in We Are The Best!

Should have been nominated: I can’t argue with eight good-to-great nominees, but I would’ve also found room for the heady mélange of Arabic pop (plus White Lies’ magnificent Joy Division-esque “Death”) in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Cold in July, Nick Damici and Jim Mickie, based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale
The Congress, Ari Folman, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon
Joe, Gary Hawkins, based on the novel by Larry Brown
A Most Wanted Man, Andrew Bovell and Stephen Cornwell, based on the novel by John LeCarre
We Are the Best!, Lukas Moodysson, based on the comic book by Coco Moodysson

Although surprisingly faithful to Pynchon’s novel, Anderson’s take on Inherent Vice works because the filmmaker puts his own stamp on the material while totally fricking getting what Pynchon is all about. I too had trouble following the typically convoluted narrative, but as I watched part of the film again, I was beyond thrilled to see every single scene a second time.

Should have been nominated: Although the dialogue is kept at a minimum, screenplays are more than just spoken words, and, love it or hate it, you wouldn’t expect Under the Skin to be a literary adaptation if you had never heard of the book (like myself).

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando BoBirdman
Justin Simien – Dear White People
Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Pawel Pawilkowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz – Ida
Steven Knight – Locke

It varies in performance and direction, but you can’t say the same about Dear White People’s screenplay—whether aiming for satire or reaching towards epiphany, it’s extremely sharp and relatable without seeming at all run-of-the-mill.

Should have been nominated: Love Is Strange for how eloquent and perceptive it is about such timeless concerns as fidelity, companionship, enduring love and what makes a home.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Edward Norton – Birdman
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Michael Fassbender – Frank
Tom Hiddleston – Unrelated
J.K. Simmons– Whiplash

Simmons fully deserved his Oscar, but he doesn’t need any more awards. I thought Norton was overrated, liked Hiddleston more in Archipelago, and admired Fassbender’s unconventional turn as Frank. And yet, Hawke’s recent roles (like last year’s Before Midnight) suggest he’s just hitting his peak as an actor; with Boyhood, you even get the added bonus of seeing how far he’s come over the dozen-year filming period.

Should have been nominated: Josh Brolin in Inherent Vice is the obvious answer (may his Lt. Bigfoot suck on chocolate-covered bananas forever); however, had more people seen Pride, Ben Schnetzer would be feted the world over for a charismatic performance many will seek out once he inevitably has a breakthrough role in another movie.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Lydia Leonard – Archipelago
Agata Kulesza – Ida
Suzanne Clement – Mommy
Imelda Staunton – Pride
Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer
Eva Green – White Bird in a Blizzard

Swinton and Green were both fabulous, but also a little too campy for me to cast a guilt-free vote to either. So, I defer to Leonard for giving her all to one of the most unpleasant characters to ever grace a movie screen and still eliciting my sympathy anyway.

Should have been nominated: Uma Thurman, whose one delirious scene in Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is the most exciting thing she’s done since Pulp Fiction.

BEST ACTOR

Michael Keaton – Birdman
Jesse Eisenberg – The Double
Masaharu Fukuyama – Like Father, Like Son
Tom Hardy – Locke
Adam Bakri – Omar
Miles Teller – Whiplash

Although I admired its technical prowess and novel concept, I found Birdman a little overrated (although I’d rather it be a Best Picture Oscar winner than, say, American Sniper). However, take away Iñárritu’s stylistic frippery and you’re left with Keaton (thankfully) giving the most multi-layered, resonant performance of his career.

Should have been nominated: certainly Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel; although Chlotrudis has honored Philip Seymour Hoffman repeatedly throughout his too-short career, his final leading turn in A Most Wanted Man was good enough to drive home what an immense loss his death was.

BEST ACTRESS

Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Robin Wright – The Congress
Paulina Garcia – Gloria
Agata Trzebuchowska – Ida
Anne Dorval – Mommy
Tilda Swinton – Only Lovers Left Alive

I doubt she has any chance of winning, but Dorval’s work is as integral to Mommy as Dolan’s direction: her character Die is a hot-mess-of-a-maternal figure/protagonist up there with any ever essayed by Gena Rowlands, Joan Crawford or Shirley MacLaine.

Should have been nominated: Worthy nominees all of them, although I still think Arquette is more supporting than a lead, and I’d immediately replace her with Essie Davis, who, fantastic direction and concept aside, absolutely makes The Babadook a must-see.

BEST DOCUMENTARY

Finding Vivian Maier
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Life Itself
Particle Fever
Tim’s Vermeer
To Be Takei

The films on the stupendous mind behind El Topo and the film critic for The Chicago Sun Times are standouts here and both wonderful studies on how film enhances a life (albeit to two extremely disparate ends). I ultimately went with Life Itself because it celebrated Ebert without slipping into hagiography and ended up a well-rounded, actually profound portrait of possibly everything that gives life meaning.

Should have been nominated: In a particularly weak year for docs, I’m guessing the only reason The Overnighters didn’t make it on the ballot was because not enough people saw it. Go see it.

BEST DIRECTOR

Joanna Hogg – Archipelago
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu – Birdman
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Jan Ole Gerster – A Coffee in Berlin
Pawel Pawlikowski – Ida
Hirokazu Kore-eda – Like Father, Like Son

Do I go with an innovative, monumental achievement by one of the best filmmakers of his generation (Linklater) or an impressive new talent more filmgoers should know (Gerster)? A tough choice and I’d just as well hope for a tie. Since I want to vote for A Coffee In Berlin in at least one category, I’m going with Gerster.

Should have been nominated: Although it’s not like he hasn’t been noticed elsewhere, I believe Damien Chazelle directed the hell out of Whiplash in the same way that Richard Kelly did with the similarly ridiculous and sublime Donnie Darko. Now, Chazelle just has to avoid making a Southland Tales-like debacle next.

BEST MOVIE

Birdman
Boyhood
A Coffee in Berlin
Ida
Like Father, Like Son
Mommy

This list contains my top three films of the year. I’m tempted to throw a bone to A Coffee In Berlin because it will likely win no awards in this category (outside Germany, of course). In the end, however, my heart says Boyhood, which incidentally deserved the Oscar so much more than Birdman.

Should have been nominated: I know it was probably too polarizing to make the cut here, but personally I’d so rather re-watch and try to decipher Under the Skin again than, say, the likable but problematic Birdman.

BURIED TREASURE

Borgman
Ilo Ilo
Rocks in My Pockets
The Strange Little Cat
The Way He Looks

Although I didn’t really get The Strange Little Cat, there’s not one especially weak entry in this bunch. After being put off by its first ten minutes, I even came to enjoy Ilo Ilo. Rocks In My Pockets is vastly better than last year’s animated nominee in this category, and Borgman remains a demented gem. However, none of these surpass The Way He Looks in wit, heart and overall execution.

Should have been nominated: The film I wanted most to make this category made it in; I wasn’t the only one stumping for it, so perhaps I should’ve pushed for The Overnighters instead.

(*The films I didn’t see: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, Joe, Cold In July and Omar.)

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The Best Films of 2014

boyhood

1. BOYHOOD
I know, what a boring pick for the top of my list, but honestly, Boyhood was always going to be number one ever since I first saw it at a film festival in April. Richard Linklater’s most profound works scrutinize how the passage of time shapes our perception of narrative—think of the single-day spans of Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, the brief, connected-but-not-really vignettes of Slacker, or even mere existence or being as a philosophical construct in Waking Life. This is arguably more ambitious than all of them, not to mention flashier and blatantly driven by a gimmick. But the cumulative effect Linklater and his cast achieve is unprecedented, realizing a new way of seeing and storytelling only possible via the moving image. Time will tell how well Boyhood ages, but at present, no other film has affected me to the degree where I feel like I’m witnessing something both so singular and universal.

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2. MOMMY
Whether it becomes his breakthrough or not, Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature is surely a great leap forward artistically—and both his first and third films have already placed in my year-end top ten lists. Here, Dolan bespeaks a life experience that’s unexpected coming from a 25-year-old, but it’s the very thing providing a solid foundation for all the messy, emotional catharsis and outsized stylistic tropes on top (the rich soundtrack, the psychologically constricting aspect ratio, the costumes). As the title character, Anne Dorval is monumental (and might’ve been an Oscar nominee if she was better known outside Quebec), but don’t let that distract you from Dolan’s accomplishment—sections of Mommy are easily more poignant, breathtaking, passionate and sublime than anything else I’ve seen in years.

coffee in berlin

3. A COFFEE IN BERLIN
Perhaps my favorite thing about participating in a group of indie film lovers is hearing about titles I never would have thought to seek out on my own. A friend from this group recommended this German film, which played for one week in Boston (as many foreign or indie titles do); it’s the type of low-budget black and white gem (like Duck Season) you immediately want to urge every person you know to see (and if you have Netflix streaming, you can do so today). Beautifully photographed, well acted and enhanced by a lovely, low-key score, it’s a charming, sharply observed, one-day-in-the-life miniature—the antithesis of any impersonal “event picture” that we have way too many of.

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4. UNDER THE SKIN
The most polarizing title on this list, and arguably the most innovative (even more than Boyhood). This loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel follows an alien visiting Earth, disguised as a voluptuous woman (Scarlett Johansson) through whose eyes nearly all of the action unfolds. As she discovers and adapts herself to the strange new world around her, director Jonathan Glazer encourages the viewer to follow the exact same process where the entire film is concerned—in time, the unknowable gradually, effectively becomes relatable. Finally building on the promise suggested early in her career, Johansson is a revelation, and so is the film, driven by startling imagery, an intricate sound design and the sustained excitement of continually leaping into the unknown.

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5. LOVE IS STRANGE
I’ve long admired director Ira Sachs’ films, albeit from a distance, always wishing for a little more; this Manhattan drama about a long-term older gay couple at last delivers it. That two straight actors portray them doesn’t matter, as both John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are touchingly convincing as life partners, contributing career-best performances. Their search for a place to live following an injustice that is the result of an act of devotion and love plays at times like a gentle comedy of errors, but ends up somber, suffused with meaning and quietly tragic. But it is really less a political film and more a nuanced look at familial relationships, personal spaces and conflicts that arise when there’s a less-than-ideal overlapping of the two.

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6. THE OVERNIGHTERS
An oil fracking boom brings thousands of men seeking employment to Williston, North Dakota. As demand exceeds supply, leaving many of these transplants homeless yet hopeful for openings, local Lutheran Pastor Jay Reinke opens up his church to shelter them in exchange for assistance with chores and adhering to a moral code as he sees it. In the tradition of Capturing The Friedmans, not all is what it seems in Jesse Moss’ illuminating documentary. As details accumulate and hidden intentions come to light, even the simple notion of wanting to do “the right thing” proves ever more complex and loaded—particularly as Reinke comes to an about-face regarding his own intentions.

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7. SNOWPIERCER
Whether or not South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language picture, a wild dystopian epic set almost entirely on a moving train is your cup of tea, you have to admit it pulls few punches. Like his other features (The Host, Mother), Bong’s latest is nearly unclassifiable, a heady mass of tonal shifts, a legit genre flick (in this case, action) but also satirical in parts, with performances both unexpectedly restrained (Chris Evans) and deliriously over the top (Tilda Swinton!). Most of all, you sense there’s a consistent vision finessing it all, ensuring the final cut entertains as much as it thoughtfully examines—in this case, the intricacies of class struggle.

WE ARE THE BEST!

8. WE ARE THE BEST!
Having finally gotten something out of his system after years of delving deeper into depraved, depressing subject matter, Lukas Moodysson has returned to the relative sweetness of his earlier work. Adapted from his wife’s graphic novel, this almost plays like a companion piece to Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In, roughly set in the same time and region (Sweden, early 1980s)—it has a similar intuitiveness and insight about pre-teen misfits, only here it’s an all-girl punk band rather than a boy in love with the vampire next door. It’s as uplifting and closely observed a coming-of-age tale as Moodysson’s earlier masterpiece Show Me Love.

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9. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Hyped as the world’s first Iranian Vampire Western, Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature is certainly that (though only a “Western” via its Morricone-inspired score) but also much more. To reference Let The Right One In again, it’s similarly just as much of a love story, albeit one with David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch running through its veins. Although she liberally borrows, Amirpour is an original talent in her own right—stylistically arresting for sure (gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, stirring placement of pop music) but also foraging a unique, texture-driven narrative approach that stands out in a sea of young auteur wannabees.

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10. FORCE MAJEURE
An average (if affluent) nuclear family vacations at a ski resort. Everything seems fine until a sudden, impending disaster, and more importantly, the father’s impulsive behavior during it. On the surface, Ruben Östlund’s celebrated film has the simplest of set-ups, but the real fun comes in its aftermath, for every action carries consequences. Rarely has an “entertainment” probed so hilariously, uncomfortably deep into examining how a split-second decision reveals so much of what’s present behind superficial domestic bliss and posed smiles for the camera. And don’t miss the twist ending, which slyly rearranges the family dynamic even further.

11. THE WAY HE LOOKS
A low-key, charming coming-of-age Brazilian film that completely understands the highs and lows of being a teen and never patronizes its blind, gay male lead character.

12. LIFE ITSELF
An entertaining celebration of Roger Ebert not only as the man who brought film criticism to the masses but also as an avid reader, traveller, raconteur, loving husband and occasional sonofabitch.

13. ARCHIPELAGO
Belatedly released in the US (along with two other features), Joanna Hogg’s 2010 film manages the neat trick of putting some of the most loathsome, irritable characters ever to grace a screen and render them (or at least their actions) approachable and sympathetic, even.

14. WHIPLASH
A ridiculous film, but also an exhilarating one. The reliable Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are both excellent as a student/teacher, servant/master pairing, but the real “star” is arguably director Damien Chazelle, who leads the film (and prevents it from falling apart) like a rogue, if talented bandleader.

15. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Although not as emotionally resonant as Moonrise Kingdom (or Rushmore, or The Royal Tenenbaums), I’m always happy to see Wes Anderson find a wider audience without diluting his ever-distinct sensibility (and I’ve never found Ralph Fiennes more likable).

16. THE ONE I LOVE
An ambitious, intriguing premise alone does not a make a film, but half the fun of this quirky, sort-of-sci-fi indie is in anticipating to see how (or if) they’ll pull it off. The set design and score are superlative, and Elisabeth Moss suggests she won’t have trouble securing work (or will get typecast in Peggy-like roles) after Mad Men ends.

17. LEVIATHAN
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s best since The Return isn’t as richly open-ended as that earlier film, but as a critique of Russian political and religious institutions vs. the individual citizen, it’s remarkably subversive, and, fueled by copious amounts of vodka, talkier and funnier.

18. NIGHTCRAWLER
Jake Gyllenhaal is wonderfully All In as an opportunistic ambulance-chasing videographer in this meticulously sleazy Los Angeles Network update that also features strong work from Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed.

19. INHERENT VICE
Speaking of sleazoid-L.A., I’m still processing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pynchon adaptation, but then some time passed before I unabashedly loved The Master, so I recognize this as an inscrutable but limitless text that I’ll probably gladly visit again and again.

20. WILL YOU STILL LOVE ME TOMORROW
Two decades after The Wedding Banquet (an early Ang Lee effort), here’s another Taiwan-related film about coming out of the closet, showing how far we’ve progressed since then (and also how other things never change), but this affably goes further, fleshing out an impressive ensemble cast with thoughtful, honest observations about fidelity, truth and the way we treat one another.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

The Babadook
Bird People
Birdman
Borgman
The Case Against 8
Citizenfour
The Dog
The Double
God Help The Girl
Goodbye To Language 3D
Ida
The Imitation Game
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Land Ho!
Like Father, Like Son
A Most Violent Year
Mr. Turner
Only Lovers Left Alive
Pride
Le Week-end
Unrelated

Three Recommended Films

The Overnighters

The Overnighters

 

I’ve been lax on movie reviews since TIFF; still planning on doing my annual year-end best movie list later this month. Until then, a few thoughts on three good-to-great titles that may have fallen through the cracks for some.

THE OVERNIGHTERS
Sometimes, as much as we loathe to admit it, even the notion of wanting to “do the right thing” has unfair and unavoidable consequences. Jay Reinke, pastor of a Lutheran church discovers this firsthand during the oil boom that brings thousands of hopeful men looking for work to his small town in North Dakota during the early days of the Great Recession. Naturally, these inquiries far exceed the available jobs, with many men ending up homeless, living in their cars as they seek/wait for employment. Reinke, a community pillar decides to help out and provide shelter for these refugees, whom he dubs “overnighters”. In exchange for becoming part of the church’s community by assisting with the cleaning and cooking, attending services and adhering to what Reinke determines as a moral code, he puts them up in the parish’s dormitories and rec rooms; the program proves so popular that he even allows an overflow of men to permanently set up camp in their cars and trailers in the parking lot—and, in a few cases, his own home with his wife and children.

This last act of goodwill is where Reinke first runs into trouble, as it violates the town’s parking and vagrancy laws. From there, what on the surface initially appears as another documentary regarding an extraordinary do-gooder gets more twisted as the both the town and members of the church inevitably grow weary of this influx of mostly unemployed outsiders. Reinke struggles to keep his program and his ideals in place; then, a shocking revelation about one overnighter threatens not only the program itself but Reinke’s standing in the community. Jesse Moss’ film would captivate solely for examining how both personal and political approaches to socioeconomic problems are unescapably at odds, resulting in a complex web of misunderstood intentions and shifting perceptions. What pushes it one step further is Moss’ good fortune to have Reinke as his subject—the pastor’s ultimate candidness in the film’s last fifteen minutes transforms THE OVERNIGHTERS into an astonishing character study that’s really all about truth and consequences.

THE WAY HE LOOKS
I don’t believe I’ve seen a more effortlessly charming and likable film all year than this Brazilian import about Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo), a blind male teenager who falls in love with a new classmate, Gabriel (Fabio Audi). Neither Leonardo nor his BFF Giovana (Tess Amorim) have ever kissed anyone, and you get the sense that Leonardo has never openly considered his homosexuality before—and that Giovana really wants to kiss him. Daniel Ribeiro’s film is not exactly groundbreaking—the vision-impaired lead is more of a novelty than his sexuality—but more notable for how sharply written and well-acted it is. With the exception of Leonardo getting bullied for his impairment (of all things), this is a fully plausible and low-key but confident coming-of-age tale nearly up there with THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER in how it completely understands and conveys the highs and lows of adolescence and gives us three flawed leads that you nevertheless want to root for.

THE DOG
John Wojtowicz was the inspiration for Al Pacino’s character Sonny in the 1975 classic DOG DAY AFTERNOON. Like Sonny, Wojtowicz robbed a Brooklyn bank one hot August day to procure funds for his male lover’s sex change—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of interesting facets about the man and his life. Interviewed in the years before his 2006 death from cancer at age 60, Wojtowicz is, to be blunt, a sonofabitch and one compelling character. He not only shows no remorse about the robbery, he’s seemingly unapologetic about everything. We learn of his service in the Vietnam war, his involvement with post-Stonewall pioneering gay rights movements and his tender relationship with his mentally-disabled older brother—all of it intriguing stuff, but still none as fascinating as the events leading up to the robbery and his loving, tortured relationship with Ernest Aron, whom desperately wanted to change his sex against Wojtowicz’s initial wishes from him to remain male. Although a noticeably low-budget production, THE DOG more than holds your attention through the sheer force of its subject’s personality, not to mention the friends or family members populating his story—most notably Wojtowicz’s inimitable mother, who could have stepped right out of a Scorsese film (or at times, a John Waters picture).

Worth Living: LIFE ITSELF

life itself

From a contemporary viewpoint, it’s unexpected to discover that Roger Ebert had no academic background or concentrated expertise in film when he secured his post as The Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic in 1967. Of course, there were few college-level film studies programs at the time. As a serious, committed journalist, Ebert simply accepted whatever job he was assigned and likely allotted each one the same effort and consideration in fulfilling his duties as a writer and reporter. It’s not hard to argue that Ebert made film his life’s work, even before he became a celebrity via the weekly movie review television series he co-hosted with his hometown rival, The Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel. And yet, this documentary, directed by Steve James (HOOP DREAMS), might not exist had Ebert not kept such a high profile while publicly battling cancer for the last seven years of his life.

Much of the film is loosely adapted of Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name. An off-screen narrator reads sections of this text, which is fleshed out with archival photos and interviews from newspaper colleagues, fellow critics, producers, filmmakers and Ebert’s wife, Chaz. As a framing device, James periodically inserts footage he shot of Ebert in the last six months of his life, mostly in his hospital room and at rehab. Even though Ebert’s radically-altered appearance is well-known, it’s still shocking to see him like this, especially compared to the iconic, rotund, bespectacled Midwesterner one remembers from his TV show. But his presence does not inspire pity or feel exploitative, for if a pattern emerges throughout his life’s story, it’s that he lived it as deeply as anyone could. His passions naturally included movies and writing about them, but also reading, storytelling, drinking (until he gave it up in his late thirties), traveling, and once he met his wife, love and family.

LIFE ITSELF celebrates Ebert but also recognizes his other, less perfect qualities too, as any well-rounded portrait should. The film’s most entertaining section is a series of SISKEL AND EBERT outtakes where he and Gene verbally spar with each other, each man dishing out snark towards the other but with an uproariously “professional” passive-aggressiveness that gets to the heart of why their anti-chemistry made for compelling TV. It’s refreshing to hear one of Ebert’s longtime colleagues say, “Roger was a nice guy, but he wasn’t that nice.” Reconcile that with the affable thumbs-up guy persona he cultivated so well via such pursuits as a 1980s documentary he made about the Cannes Film Festival or the popular blog which became his voice after cancer took away his speech. Sure, he wasn’t the best or most innovative critic of his time—a few interviewees acknowledge as much, and perhaps the film could’ve used even more of this dissent. Still, just imagine a world without Roger Ebert. As a populist, he brought film criticism to a wider audience than anyone else before (or arguably since). One comes away from this film comprehending the sincerity with which he did this and how it also applied to his own design for living–especially in the shadow of inevitable death.  Grade: A-

Sustainable Popcorn: SNOWPIERCER

Snowpiercer-2013-3

Adapted from a French graphic novel, SNOWPIERCER imagines a near future where an experiment to end global warming backfires stupendously, sending Earth into a new ice age where the only survivors forever travel on a train continuously circling the globe, powered by a perpetual motion engine. The super-long vehicle is divided into classes, with the wealthy ticket holders basking in a insulated multi-car utopia up front, and the poor have-nots huddled in the dank rear, subject to the militaristic regime led by Wilford, the train’s unseen creator and controller. After 17 years of living in squalor, Curtis (Chris Evans) leads the rebellion against the regime as he and his cohorts attempt to make their way through the numerous guarded gates and cars that separate the train’s tail from the engine room where Wilford reigns.

Although the film sounds little different from your average summer action/sci-fi popcorn flick, it’s considerably more than that, thanks to its director, Bong Joon-ho. A South Korean making his first primarily English language effort, it’s tempting to say he goes where numerous fellow Asian auteurs have gone before (and failed) and still makes a terrific film anyway. And what a great cast he’s assembled! Evans is good as the hero/everyman (he’s rarely seemed less of a douche); his cohorts include Edgar (a wiry Jamie Bell), Tanya (another typically strong performance from Octavia Spencer) and Gilliam (ancient-yet-still-kicking John Hurt), his nearly limbless mentor. Bong also enlists two of his actors from his 2006 film THE HOST to play safecracker Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung), whom the rebels similarly enlist in their quest. Ed Harris plays Wilford as a rational and droll yet heartless despot. Still, no one makes quite the impression Tilda Swinton does as Mason, Wilford’s henchman (well, the part was written for a man). Decked out in a frumpy wig, false teeth, unflattering coke bottle-lenses and a Scottish accent far goofier than her own, Swinton’s only onscreen for about twenty minutes total, and you can’t take your eyes off her—she’s fascinatingly, charismatically grotesque.

As he did with THE HOST, Bong’s crafted an entertainment that works on multiple levels. Yes, SNOWPIERCER is every bit the visually astonishing, CGI-assisted, heart-pounding, violent, action-packed thriller a genre fan could want, but it’s just as much a provocative character study steeped in allegory with a faint, absurd, at times gallows humor always skirting around its edges. Every scene and action taken seems assured and the pacing never loses momentum. The production design is as visionary as you’d hope for, particularly in the second half as the rebels make their way up the train, worlds upon worlds opening up within each new car. And the leap-of-faith ending is a fully realized spectacle, both on a technical and an emotional level. Not merely a successful move into English language cinema for its director, SNOWPIERCER is also of a piece with his three previous Korean works (I have yet to see his first feature, BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE). At this moment, it doesn’t feel hyperbolic to say he’s one of our greatest living filmmakers.  Grade: A

2014 Mid-Year Roundup

“Seasons (Waiting On You)” by Future Islands is my favorite track of the year so far, and I only first heard it a month ago (I missed the band’s career-making Letterman performance from early March); unlike last year, I’m not as quick to pick a single favorite album (it’s not Singles…yet), although I could’ve easily added five more to the shortlist below (I’m limiting it to ten). As for movies, I do have a clear single favorite of those I’ve listed here–looking forward in seeing how well it holds up to a second viewing during its theatrical release later this month.

In alphabetical order:

ALBUMS

Ben Watt, Hendra
The Both, The Both
Cibo Matto, Hotel Valentine
Emm Gryner, Torrential
Future Islands, Singles
Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms
Neneh Cherry, Blank Project
Owen Pallett, In Conflict
Suzanne Vega, Tales From The Realm Of The Queen of Pentacles
Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines

FILMS

Boyhood
God Help The Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ida
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Mood Indigo
Only Lovers Left Alive
Under The Skin
We Are The Best!

What’s The Motivation: NIGHT MOVES

Night-Moves-Film-2014

One phrase my professors repeated throughout film school was “show, don’t tell.” Seems like a pretty obvious tenet until you consider how many filmmakers do exactly the opposite, from Hollywood hacks to indie auteurs. Watching this film, I was struck by how much its director, Kelly Reichardt, has proven herself a master when it comes to encouraging her audience to react to what’s implied rather than what’s said. She does this to such a degree that, along with the deliberately slow pacing she utilizes, her work tends to be more challenging than your average American indie film, and occasionally more rewarding.

NIGHT MOVES might be her most accessible effort yet, primarily because it’s a thriller, a genre which almost requires a certain threshold of narrative momentum by default. It follows three eco-terrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) who attempt to blow up a dam in rural Oregon. As movies with similar subject matter go, it is almost nothing at all like last year’s THE EAST. Whereas that film blatantly spelled out all of its characters’ intentions, this one doesn’t even consider them. It doesn’t matter why these three want to destroy a dam—in fact, the first half requires us to mentally piece together that this act is going to happen by viewing the preparations leading up to it. For Reichardt, the story’s real thrust comes after these characters commit the act, and more pressingly, what its consequences are (both those foreseen and unexpected).

In its second half, the film shifts entirely to Eisenberg’s character’s point-of-view, with Fanning on the periphery and Sarsgaard almost nonexistent. Eisenberg gives the solid performance you’d expect from him—a little impatient, increasingly paranoid yet emotionally kept under wraps. Fanning, however, is more revelatory: this is the first adult role I’ve seen her in, and she positions herself as someone intelligent and assured, yet also vulnerable and eventually, sideswiped by her own actions. It’s kind of unfortunate that the second half doesn’t center on her instead, for Reichardt stumbles a bit when it comes to resolving the growing conflict between her and Eisenberg. I didn’t fully buy it because the motivation, while present, wasn’t enough to justify the too-abrupt outcome. Until then, NIGHT MOVES is a well-constructed and convincingly haunting thriller, but it lacks that crucial moment of grace and/or self-realization that Reichardt’s previous, equally inconclusive films all had.  Grade: B