REEL DEAL: MOVIES THAT MATTER
Best Narrative Films 2011
Best of lists abound at year’s end. I hav seen close to 400 films this year between festival going and press screenings and even paying (yes! I like to see films in movie theaters with a real audience. Nothing like a dark room full of strangers watching a light flickering across a screen and illuminating a story.) So instead of pitting a $100 million + budget feature against a less than $500 thousand film I will get a few big pictures out of the way. Scorsese’s HUGO, Spieldberg’s WAR HORSE and 8mm, David Fincher’s GIRL with the DRAGON TATTOO and Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE are each beautifully crafted spectacles and deserve to be see on the biggest screen possible. Note: Scorsese’s HUGO is not a 3D kids film but a movie about the director’s love of film that like Miracle on 34th St will cross generations in it’s appeal and become a classic. TREE OF LIFE is almost pure cinema. The story is told in hypnotic visual exposition with the sparse but will acted script secondary. GWTDT would have been best served as a black and white noir film. The Fincher version looses much of its narrative tension in full color blow up but remains an enjoyable spectacle of craft. Instead I an going to list films that I suggest be my idea of programing an at home REEL DEAL: Movies that Matter Film Festival. Some you may have heard of and many most likely not. So visit the video store, search for streams or make your REEL DEAL: Movies that Matter netflix Festival list. You will also be able to see commentary on each film. Most have trailers on the Internet that you can usually watch on YOUTUBE. Just goggle them: name of film and add the word “trailer”. If you google the film’s website you can search to see if it is available either on streaming or dvd. Don’t forget to invite friends over, put out the pop corn, pretzels and beverage of choice. And remember to leave time for post-festival discussion. Not a film on this list is just entertainment, but should entertain and stimulate the viewer. Movies that matter are not “fast food” and deserve digestion and discussion. Your feedback is always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
REEL DEAL’s Top 25 Narrative Films of 2011
in alphabetical order
A Few Days of Respite
A Sundance World Narrative discovery, A fifty-ish academic and a 30 something Algerian man fleeing Iran secretly cross the border between Italy and France where a local woman, French actor Marina Vlady, sensing their predicament, shelters them until one is picked up and these two lovers are sent back to Iran where homosexuality is forbidden and punished by a choice between death or an imposed sex change. A beautiful reverie of romance, pleasure, kindness and fear.
Director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation normalizes Iranian people caught in the very universal drama of white lies and their consequences as a couple struggle to protect
their child. Universal human situations : parental aging and the burden it presents to adult children; Deciding where and how to raise a child. A narrative film that is so specific in capturing the human condition that it flows like a complicated documentary.
What happens when as an adult you discover your now dead mother and your father in his 70’s had a secret that they kept from you all your life. Could it be the reason you are having such a hard time maintaining an adult relationship with a person of the opposite sex? Why is your best relationship with man’s best friend your little dog? These are some ot the questions Ewan McGregor begins to ask himself when his 74 year old father comes out, gets a younger lover and as played by Christopher Plummer has the time of his life. Director Mike Miles’ smart and tender comedy looks at a father/son relationship and suggests how nothing may have been be as you remember it . Through flashbacks we the audience see a child well behaved but somehow lost .. as he is as an adult. Mills keeps the humor human and forgiving. Doing so he has lifted the lid off some of the questions children rarely get to ask their parents. Plummer steals the movie … but that is ok. No it is not a “gay” movie but a movie about honesty and courage and what a son can actually learn as an adult from his father .
Under-rated director Miguel Artete (Star Maps is a hidden treasure) turfs out Coen Brothers’ mid-America to tell a story of how the small town values are eroded away when greed and cronyism replace integrity and honesty in business. With a level of comedic tension worthy of the best of the OFFICE a fine cast including Ed Helms, Anne Heche and John C. Reilly tell a story of an insurance salesman who goes to a convention in the big city and find himself like a fish out of water gulping for air while everyone else parties on. Preston Sturges humor tinctures the clever written script and rescues the story from falling into the gross and vulgar humor peppering so many HANGOVER genre box office hits.
Ralph Fiennes and screen-writer of the moment John Logan sets Shakespeare’s play some where to the right of Hurt Locker in time and place and makes Will as relevant today as he was centuries ago . Fiennes and Gerard Butler sizzles as warrior rivals heating up the screen in brutal passion and homoerotic rivalry that makes one think of football or hockey players on the playing field and in the locker room. Vanessa Redgrave delivers her best performance in years as the martial infected, authoritarian Queen-Mother.She makes Barbara Bush seem like a pussy cat in comparison. Emotional incest has never been so naked on the screen.
Sideways/Election/Citizen Ruth director Alexander Payne again mines the contemporary US psychic through a prism of dysfunctional relationships that look good on the outside but are festering inside. A tragedy jump starts change and the exquisite ensemble cast make poignant rather than sensational the crisis. Clooney’s best performance ever in a Hawaii setting that is less paradise than anywhere America.
With the sleekness of a Maserati soundlessly driven full throttle on a European autobahn, Drive manages to take the action genre and make it into an art film that pleases the eye, tingles the senses and never stoops to gratuitous violence or Tarentino misogyny to hammer home its POV. Ryan Gosling delivers the ultimate action film, mystery hero performance as if he was in a Prada sports commercial playing a Samurai messenger or an Armani styled contract killer. The soundtrack is to die for!
Extremely Loud and Very Close
A film that makes 9/11 finally emotionally accessible as did Judgement of Nuremberg the Holocaust, without overwhelming the viewer’s subjectivity. Dir Stephen Daltry (the Hours) artistically navigates a quite desperate story of a family in grief. Sandra Bullock’s restraint as the mother of a 13 year old boy trying to come to terms with the death of his father at the World Trade Center while he holds in a big secret, is central to the success of the film. We journey with the boy in a hunt to unravel the clues he has about his dad and in doing so meet a cross-section of NYC humanity personified by a stream of class A character actors including, the remarkable Viola Davis, Zoe Caldwell, Max Von Sydow and downtown legend Lola Pasalinkski. Not since Brandon de Wilde in SHANE has a child actor navigated with such insight and sensitivity the world of loss in a way that allows all of us to grieve and heal. Eric Horn plays the boy, who feels guilty coming to terms with the loss of his father. His Academy Award alert performance manages to both keep the film from falling into sentimental bathos as it universalized the story.
Ides of March
George Clooney directed. Seemingly torn from a liberal politician’s nightmare of self-destruct. Will feel familiar but it has the moral conflict of a Green drama mashed up with Ayn Rand selfishness. Ryan Gosling proves he is capable of playing just about any kind of complicated young white male. Rest of ensemble is pitch perfect with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffery Wright, Marisa Tomei and Paul Giametti indelible.
In the Family
A small miracle of a film that herald’s the debut of a promising new director Patrick Wang who soars above first film pit holes and resonates Abbas Kiarostami, Kelly Reichard and John Sayles sensibility in cinema language. Wang, a theater actor uses the camera to tell a complex story of loss, grief and justice. Set in a small town in Tennessee, the plot is two men, one a Chinese contractor and the other a Christian white professional recently windowed wh o meet, fall in love and begin to make a life and a family for the mother-less six year old Joey. Creating a life of normalcy in a small conservative Southern town is challenging. No activists, these two men just want to create family in the way any two people in love do. When Joey’s dad is killed in an automobile accident, his other dad remains committed to making a family for Joey who he has bonded with as he grieves the loss of his partner, Joey’s biological dad. Homophobia which has been shoved under the carpet with Southern politeness and racism slithers out. Joey is court mandated to his birth dad’s sister and her husband. Most people turn away as his chosen dad seeks to get his son back. Until a retired married Southern patriarch played by seasoned theater actor Brian Murry offers his legal services pro-bono. Sounds like a LOGO afternoon special but what Wang has created is a complex film of human drama that through the use of camera technique and understatement allows the reverberations of emotion to be played out without being hammered verbally home. Like the best of Kiarostami work what is seen on the screen is what moves the story and not the written narrative. Those human moments that speak through silence, physical gesture and reflection. Reichard’s and Sayles influence is seen in the subtle unfolding of the story without dramatic high tension moments. Wang lets ordinary peoples actions reveal how this community acts. In the Family was written, directed, and produced by Wang also who plays the lead character on a minuscule budget. It is a remarkable achievement and a gem of independent film making that will speak across difference to any one who has loved a child and/or lost a partner. Or who cares about creating a modern definition of what was called traditional family In the family trailer
Letters From The Big Man
Director Christopher Munch has made 5 features including Sleepy Time Gal and Harry + Max that have an uniquely and unforgettable vision and rightly so has become a film festival favorite. Letters From the Big Man is set in the North West where a government hydrologist walking out of a relationship and wanting to be alone while sorting out her feelings and her future. But she is not alone. This is Big Foot land and he smells her as does a hiker dude. This is not a horror tale but it is a story you have not seen before and will find hard to forget. Lily Rabe holds each frame with the spirit of a young Katherine Hepburn and the self reliance of a young Barbara Stanwyck. And the Big Man does appear.
How greed trumps morality in the 24 hours Wall Street collapsed seen through the eyes of two young traders to be. Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons ethics tango is a sight to behold. The entire superb ensemble cast stuns. Director/screenwriter J. C. Chandor’s remarkable debut heralds a major new Director/Writer talent.
Kelly Reichard with now four low budget, critically acclaimed features is considered by many in the world cinema community an American Master. Screened mostly in Festivals with short theatrical runs Reichard’s work has had as much influence thanks to streaming distribution on young filmmakers today as has had Quinton Torrentino and Jim Jarmish. Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy showed up on critics best list when released. Her work is on the opposite end of Hollywood spectacle. Yet her story telling and scripts have attracted first class actors. Meek’s Cutoff is a Western directed by a woman with an eye for small detail and authenticity. Her cast including Michele Williams, Bruce Greenwall, Shirley Henderson and Will Patton who populate a small moving covered wagon caravan led by a braggadocio who is at a loss as to how to problem solve and will not admit it. Meek’s Cutoff shows how men and women deal differently with adversity, hardship and the unknown. It is a powerful study in how different men and women handle the same situations. This is no feminist track, gender roles are very defined. But it is the small moments of crisis that we see how theses people interact as men and as women. Surprisingly there is sensibility in this low budget western that resonates John Ford and Howard Hawks in the composition of framing and the respect for simple people handing complicated circumstances which are out of their experience.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN; Simon Curtis’s delicious truffle of a film. With drawing room lightness, sophistication and an Oscar deserving performance by Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, Williams shows how MM drove men crazy be they Sir Lawrence Olivier or a 19 year old movie set gofer (exceptionally played by Eddie Redmayne) who is assigned to be at her beck and call for a week. Williams’ ability to bring to the surface
the three Marilyns is remarkable: public MM, the working MM manufacturing the public MM and the rarely captured in most MM characterizations, the private MM which was both what essentially captivated men and caused her to ultimately feel inadequate. Williams does not mimic MM in the way Meryl Streep does Margret Thatcher in IRON LADY. Ultimately her MM is more alive on screen than the acceptable but surface Streep’s Thatcher. Williams should be Oscar bound.
Dee Rees had a Sundance short and was encouraged to expand it into a feature. At the Sundance Institute she gestated the project through all the opportunities offered and finally birthed her first feature PARIAH proving how important the Institute is in bringing through its various workshops an almost impossible story to sell to success. A black teenager finds herself attracted to girls and her Christian lower middle class mother freaks and her cop Dad simply ignores. No hood tale: this is black domestic life far removed from the sentimentality of Tyler Perry. Cast and director/writer Dee Rees while telling a specific story universalizes the emotions in a way that invites all kinds of viewers to sit together in a dark room and feel touch by the journey of this one teen exploring her AG gender expression (butch masculine female identity) and her desire for and love of women.
South Korean director Chang-Dong Lee’s insight into how art (poetry) makes an impossible life situation livable. Indelible performance by older actress Jeong-hie Yun transcends culture and location and is unforgettable.What director Matthew Porterfield has accomplished on a small budget is makes one think of Botticelli or Caravaggio and their celebration of that luminous glow that emanates from post-adolescent skin. Anxious to see what he does next.
Punture Complicated advocacy films with high drama stories are rare today. But Puncture which world premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival picked a hot subject: clean needles ...not in the hood, but in the hospital, cast superstar Chris Evans as the lead, a committed attorney with a bad coke problem who takes on busting the medical supply industry and its price fixing monopoly and callous putting profit over health. Evans proves he is far better an actor than the eye candy superstar roles he usually gets cast in. With a script that avoids the pitfalls of most dramatic movies with good intentions and a cast up to the complexities that make good intentions more complicated, Puncture succeeds in exposing greed and the wreckage of addiction. Based on a real life attorney, this film mic checks the heath care supply industry.
Every so often a film comes a long that is so visually beautiful that it seduces the eye and makes one forget traditional forms. Putty Hil, a SXSW Film find, is such a film. It feels generational and suggests how a hippie detoxed of all politics would be like today. It’s ennui is at the opposite end of Larry Clark’s vampire lust for youth vitality as it celebrates youth and beauty and nature. Death is not a part of being young and the central tension in Putty Hill is dealing with the death of ‘one of us.” What director Matthew Porterfield has managed to do visually on a small budget reminds one of the beauty and celebration of youthful sensuality that both Botticelli and Correggio captures on canvas. What Porterfield does next catches my breath
Hot topic nature vs nurture sidesteps theory and GAGA’s its way to how real life rains down on a loving family when nature takes on nurture. Told as a simple story of a child growing up in a binary policed gender world whose gender expression fools other children and the freedom and fun the child has until the real world of order demands conformity. How a sensitive but confronted mother helps bring her child into adolescent without outrage while worrying about her child’s future. Crafted with the aesthetic rigor of a Bresson film, Tomboy shows how the challenge of good parenting butts up against a child’s sense of ‘why not.
With Michael Shannon (HBO Broadway Empire, Revolutionary Road ) delivering the best actor’s performance to beat as the sort-of-hero in a frank look at mental health issues and biblical threats. While neither overtly political or religious director/writer Jeff Nichols’ story telling in this low budget gem centers on the tension between spiritual crisis, reality check, and fear of the unknown without dressing it up in religious tropes. Unsettling and provoking this is indie film making at its finest.
Two young people hook up at the beginning of a weekend and over it discover despite the casualness of the encounter deep feelings and impossible possibilities. A perceptive look at a contemporary relationship, one a smart working class lifeguard and the other a sassy queer theory damaged artist. Weekend feels like a Mike Leigh film but director Andrew Haigh has subtly shot it like an art film. So frame by frame it is seductive to the eye. Weekend trailer
Based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a cop from Nebraska who became a ‘peacekeeper” in Bosnia who discovered that fellow peacekeepers were protecting know sex-traffickers of underage Eastern European girls in return for free use of the their services . These peacekeepers were formally employed by the UN. Director Larysa Kondracki skillfully reveals the complicated web of political intrigue, exploitation, profiteering, diplomatic neutrality and desperate circumstances moving the action like a political thriller. Rachel Weisz brings a sensitive resiliency and engaged outrage as she attempts to intervene and discovers that in the world of international diplomacy a different standard of morality sometimes take precedent over justice. Vanessa Redgrave plays a professional diplomat who fails to share Bolkovac outrage for political reasons. Monica Bellucci makes complex a woman who tricks the girls into prostitution. An interesting meditation on the role of “peacekeepers”, mercenaries and “contractors” and raises the question, relevant to today’s Iraq with 16,000 contractors replacing the returning troops, under what order and law do these soldiers of fortune operate in the name of freedom. Weisz is terrific as a peacekeeper raising hell.
Again the combination of Director Jason Reitman and screen writer Diablo Cody as in Juno centers a story on a “post-feminist” woman who seemingly has it all and disrupts all kinds of politically correct feminist stereotypes. And that exploded in the lobby post screening I was at. Scary . Charlize Theron is the small town high school girl with the most cake: prom queen, football hero boyfriend, most likely to succeed who goes from small town celebrity to big city fame only to wake up 15 years later alone and hung over. With unbridled, politically incorrect obsession she goes back home to reclaim her high school sweetheart. His being married and a new father does not even give her pause. She is use to getting what she wants. A horror story festering with female hormonal passion and egg harvesting hunger. Not pretty but riveting with Theron fearless in her character building. Diablo is also fearless and guaranteed to again provoke an uproar from feminist critics who reject the patriarchal theory that female is biologically determinate claiming that it produces female enslavement. This dialectic is core to the YOUNG ADULT as it was in JUNO.Theron matches Michelle Williams’ MM and off to the Best Actress races for the both of them. Outstanding also is sit -com comedy actor Patton Oswalt who takes the serious part of a disabled ‘nice guy” and runs with it straight to the Oscars nominations for Best Supporting.