A good year for women on film, as exemplified in new releases The Eyes of My Mother, Miss Sloane, and more
Matthew Lickona 5 p.m., Dec. 9
Marty took the year off. This is what passed for excellence in His absence.
Jafar Panahi made this infuriating and intensely personal "fuck you" to the Iranian government while the director was placed under house arrest and banned from making movies for 20 years. Shot on home video equipment and a cell phone, This is Not a Film was smuggled out of the country on a thumb drive hidden in a cake. It would have been my first five-star review for The Reader had the film received a commercial booking. SDAFF screened a BluRay at SDMA as part of their quarterly screening series. I have yet to read anything but glowing reviews. Knowing that there's a 35mm print in circulation, silly me decided to wait for the theatrical release. I could kick myself for not taking SDAFF up on their offer.
Rachel Weisz hands in this year's top performance as a modern day Hester Pryne, trapped between a dull marriage to a dutiful but dull judge and passionate love affair with a charming stranger. This one demanded the big screen. Terrence Davies creates a world of such rich and delicate beauty that it can't help but lose some of its voltage on even the finest flat screen. This would have been my second five-star review for The Reader had David Elliott (he gave it four stars) not beat me to it.
A 10-year-old French girl moves to a new town where she's mistaken for a boy. Enjoying the attention her gender-bending masquerade attracts, our young heroine decides to keep up the ruse. Even when the deception gets out of hand, director Céline Sciamma never lets this stray into sentimental, movie-of-the-weak territory. Another film of such intense aesthetic sublimity, it's hard to imagine how this will play in your living room.
My kind of chick flick. A window fan blows the heat out of a sweltering Toronto kitchen as Michelle Williams kneels on the floor, her cheek pressed against the glowing oven door, her heart burning with desire. Happily married doesn't always mean happily ever after, and the tension between the two sets the tone for an unordinary journey through the summer of a young, even childlike bride who is suddenly confronted with the prospect of infidelity. Williams floats between her five-year marriage to cookbook author Seth Rogen and her attraction to new neighbor Luke Kirby, the man ultimately responsible for consummating the most memorable zipless fuck of her life. And while Kirby might make Williams regret her decision to marry young, he's no heavy homewrecker. The only villain in this piece is human emotion. The unpredictability of love (and its consequences) drives writer-director Sarah Polley's story, and Williams continues her unbroken string of flawless performances. As for Rogen, if Hollywood can keep him away from Judd Apatow and comic books, he just might have the makings of a leading man.
A self-serving Polish sewer engineer spends 14 months offering underground refuge a group of Jewish outcasts in this gripping, fact-based story. Occasionally a talented filmmaker (almost always of foreign extraction) comes along and manages to get a Holocaust movie right. No misplaced sentimentality or weepy-violins here: Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness is this year's anti-Schindler.
For their follow-up feature to the delirious Tony Manero, director Pablo Larraín and star Alfredo Castro decide to rein in the untamed emotional pyrotechnics, relying instead on a backdrop of fascism to add just the right amount of violent intervention. The effects of the terrorism don't hit the screen until about an hour in, but it's hard to forget that Larraín's opening image places his audience underneath a tank plowing through a war-torn Chilean neighborhood. Post Mortem doesn't quite pluck a responsive chord like Tony Manero continues to do, but the director's growth as a visual storyteller is undeniable. The deliberate pace may bother some. Personally, Larrain's masterful display of compositional tension over physical action helped to fortify me against the pending perils of a summer's worth of digitized detonations. The last shot in the film will push you back in the seat with more force than a dozen blasts of Dolby.
The economy, being what it is, forces even seasoned hit men to take a pay cut. How can you not love this premise? Brad Pitt had his weakest opening ever with this pitch black dark comedy, but you couldn't prove it by me; after three viewings I still find myself wanting more. Many, including my partner, were quick to dismiss the film: "In order to hammer home its point about American morality with regard to money as manifested on the macro level by the 2008 financial crisis and on the micro level by the machinations of some truly unpleasant urban lowlifes, Killing Them Softly asks the audience to believe that the patrons of an illegal high-stakes card game would ever select, by way of background ambiance, a televised speech from President Bush. Also, that a couple of thugs sent to beat a man half to death would warm up for the occasion by listening to a speech on Federal intervention in the marketplace." The end justified the means: director Andrew Dominik's lead-footed approach to politics payed off for me with his final summation that it's corporations, not political parties, running the country. Even if you have no use for the film's message there's a top-drawer heist sequence and enough creatively foul-mouthed goons to make it a highly entertaining modern day noir.
Schindler's List recreated in butter. Harriet Tubman, too. This one had my name written all over it. Jennifer Garner and Ty Burrell star as "the Royal Family of butter carving" in what can only be called the funniest satire since Borat. Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write: Jennifer Garner is nothing short of brilliant! As the Sarah Palin-ish shrew who goes head to head (and pat for pat) against Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a 9-year-old African American oleo chiseler, Garner unveils a heretofore unseen set of comic chops. Not that he didn't have it in him, but the film's biggest thrill is Rob Corddry's supporting performance as Destiny's potential adoptive parent. His repartee with a black child whose been bounced from one crazy white foster family to another is a revelation. Generally associated with low-brow delights (Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Hot Tub Time Machine), Corddry fends off cynicism long enough to give the film an unexpected emotional core.
Did you hear the one about the 38-year-old virgin in the iron lung who hired a sex surrogate to take the cherry off the sundae? The trailer unspooled like a checklist of everything culpable in American cinema: a cute, fact-based, feel-good “disease of the week” romcom equipped with an endless supply of close-ups, plus William H. Macy as a cuddly Father Flanagan type. But instead of the handful of mean-spirited snickers (or an early exit) the trailer promises, The Sessions rewards its viewers with an extraordinarily moving emotional experience. (I admit it: I cried.) Instead of resigning himself to playing a talking head, John Hawkes shatters the built-in limitations of his character, pulling off what could amount to the most challenging role of his career. And those who want to see more of Helen Hunt — she plays the therapist with the can opener to Hawkes’s heart — will have their chance. This is the first time in eons where onscreen nudity is not only justified, it’s essential to the script. What helps to elevate the story above your average Lifetime Channel presentation is writer-director Ben Lewin’s (Paperback Romance) sensitive attention to detail. This isn’t a one-character/one-trait affair; Lewin endows even the most seemingly insignificant role with depth and dignity. A love story with an iron lung at its core is a definite hard sell, but Lewin proves that there’s no such thing as a bad story, only bad storytellers. Don’t let the subject matter keep you away from this remarkable movie.
Halfway through the picture it dawned on me that writer-director Martin McDonagh was doing the impossible. "Borrowing" from a lot of terrible movies, McDonagh assembled the bits and pieces of everything that is wrong with contemporary cinema, and still managed to produce a wholly original amusement. It boasts one of the best casts of the year -- Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Gabourey Sidibe, Mr. Harry Dean Stanton, and Mr. Christopher Walken -- so why didn't anyone bother seeing it? The title probably scared them off. As genre parodies go, this is much tighter, more satisfying, and a lot shorter than Django.
Honorable Mentions: The Kid With a Bike, The Master, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Elena, Perfect Sense, Monsieur Lazhar, 3-2-1, Frankie Go Boom. People Like Us, Americano, Dark Horse, and Chronicle.
Films I've Yet to See That Could Alter the Final Outcome: The Turin Horse, Rust and Bone, Amour, and The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.
This Year's Best (Only?) Animated Film: A Cat in Paris.
Best Documentaries: Pina, L Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Pink Ribbons, Inc., Searching for Sugar Man, How to Survive a Plague, and Hellbound.
Acting (Female): Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea), Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz), Helen Hunt (The Sessions), Elizabeth Banks (People Like Us), Charlize Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman), Jennifer Garner (Butter), Nadezhda Markina (Elena), Rosemarie DeWitt (Your Sister's Sister, Promised Land, Nobody Walks), Lizzy Caplan (3,2,1...Frankie Go Boom, Bachelorette), Brit Marling (The Sound of My Voice, Arbitrage), Elizabeth Olsen (Silent House), Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy), Salma Hayek (Americano), Greta Gerwig (Lola Versus), Molly Ryman (Things I Don't Understand), Kristen Schaal (Butter), Olivia Thirlby (Nobody Walks), Moon Bloodgood (The Sessions), Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed, 10 Years), Sheetal Sheth (Yes, We're Open), Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect, Nobody Walks), Anna Faris (The Dictator), and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild).
Acting (Male): Mohamed Fellag (Monsieur Lazhar), Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), Simon Russell Beale (The Deep Blue Sea), Rob Corddry (Butter), Chris O'Dowd (3,2,1...Frankie Go Boom), Robert Wieckiewicz (In Darkness), John Hawkes (The Sessions), Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Killer Joe), Alan Arkin (Thin Ice, Argo), Christopher Walken (7 Psychopaths, Dark Horse, A Late Quartet), Richard Jenkins (Killing Them Softly, The Cabin in the Woods), Frank Langella (Robot & Frank), Chris Diamantopoulos (The Three Stooges), James Spader (Lincoln), Patrick Wang (In the Family), Charlie Hunnaman (3,2,1...Frankie Go Boom), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), Michael Shannon (Premium Rush), Michael Hall D'Addario (People Like Us, Sinister), Sir Ben Kingsley (The Dictator), Ezra Miller (Perks of Being a Wallflower), Brian Geraghty (10 Years), Channing Tatum (10 Years, Magic Mike, 21 Jump Street), Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly), Dave Boyle (Yes, We're Open), and Vincent Curatola (Killing Them Softly).
Guilty Pleasures: Rock of Ages, Resident Evil: Retribution, Bad Ass, For a Good Time, Call..., Hit and Run, Fun Size, and Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie.
The Cinematographer as Auteur: Roger Deakins (Skyfall) and Bojan Bazelli (Rock of Ages).
Best Picture(s) with Scenes Depicting Naked Fat People: Take This Waltz, Hit & Run, and 2 Days in New York.
Worth the $5 Surcharge for 3-D Glasses: Life of Pi and Resident Evil: Retribution.
Worth the $5 Surcharge for Earplugs: Marc Shaiman's score to Parental Guidance.
New Year's Resolution: More film festival coverage!
Best Simulated Vomiting: A tie between Isla Fisher in Bachelorette and Ray Liotta in Killing Them Softly.
Old Friends Who Let Me Down: David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis), Michael Winterbottom (Trishna), and Tran Anh-Hung (Norwegian Wood).
At It or With It, So Long as I'm Laughing: Two legendary comedians (and Kevin James) prove to be at their best when at their worst in A Thousand Words, Parental Guidance, and Here Comes the Boom. This two-bit triad is responsible for more laughs (albeit unintentional) than 90% of what passes for "legitimate" comedy nowadays. In gratitude, I don't dare place any of them on my 10 Worst list.
You Loved It, I Didn't: Wes Anderson is the only major director I can think of whose films have progressively worsened through time. Moonrise Kingdom is cinema's answer to water-boarding. With his alternate see-saw/center-scan compositions, Anderson's cutesy adherence to formalism got old fast. I'd call it Pee-Wee's Playhouse for the Goth generation, but that would be a great insult to a brilliant television show.
Walk-Outs: Les Miserables and A Joyful Noise.
The 10 Worst Films of 2012