What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers):
*Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)
*The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
*A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 2014)
*Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014)
*Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
*Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)
*The Oscar nominated animated shorts
*The Oscar nominated live action shorts
1. A Most Violent Year was fantastic, and after All Is Lost in 2012, J.C. Chandor is officially on watch as one of the most intriguing new filmmakers. It's a film that's advertised and marketed completely wrong, but I understand why. Trailers are supposed to make you want to see the movie, so of course they make it look like a gangster film. It's not. It's actually about the head of a fuel distribution company trying to figure out who's hijacking his trucks during the worst year for violent crime in the history of NYC. What I love about Chandor's films is how much restraint they show in the service of the slow build that never quite culminates. Both of his last two films show a man watching everything he has slowly fall apart, but refuse to fall apart himself. Robert Redford in All Is Lost and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year never lost their cool, but you could perpetually see in their face how much loss they were experiencing internally. And Oscar Isaac has vaulted himself on the list of best young actors in the world.
2. I'd spent the last 21 years assuming that Anna Paquin's Oscar win for The Piano was the result of a combo "she's young and cute" and "we have no one better to give it to this year." Man was I wrong. Now that I've finally seen the movie (which I'd been meaning to for all of those 21 years), I can verify that she earns that Oscar with every second of her amazing performance. She was only ten years old in the movie, but the work she does with her accent, her gestures (signing to her mute mother), and how she handles being the catalyst of the film's pivotal plot twist, are all truly wonderful, and would be Oscar-worthy for any actor three times her age.
3. Mr. Turner has some gorgeous opening credits, and a few individual shots that are stunningly composed and lit, but overall I was pretty disappointed. Mike Leigh has distinguished himself as a great chronicler of the every day mundanities of British life, creating a sort of romanticism around the normal. But with Mr. Turner, his subject matter was one of the great visual artists of the last 200 years. J.M.W. Turner is not a figure for which we want to see the mundanities. And yet that's what the film gives us: his dealings with his father and house keepers, the annoying process of mixing paints, the way he creepily grunts and snorts before saying "expose your breasts" to the prostitute he visits, and so much more that really has very little to do with the subject of why he matters as a subject. If the movie really had something to say about his art, then all of the extra little details might have felt in service of something. But with no centrality to the narrative, everything else is just sort of there.
4. Into the Woods, Calvary, and Dear White People are all good films that I'm glad I finally saw, but none really connected with me on an emotional level. Into the Woods was the most fun, because it's very well crafted and you can tell the actors are enjoying themselves, especially Emily Blunt. Though Streep heavily overacts (and is definitely not deserving an Oscar nomination unless we're just at the point where we're reserving her a slot every year regardless of what she actually does) and Johnny Depp needs to make a fucking movie where he's not wearing ten pounds of make-up and prosthetics. How long has it been?? It's almost like he's actually afraid of looking in the mirror and seeing himself. Calvary and Dear White People are stories of great emotional and intellectual ambition, and mostly service those ambitions well, but something never quite comes together in either of them for me. My big question is: What was the set like on Dear White People? Did the mixed race cast continue to discuss and have fun with the issues in the film when the cameras weren't rolling? How integrated were their after-hours activities? These are the things I wonder.
5. I'll write about the Oscar Nominated Shorts later this week when I do my big Oscar prediction piece, but my favorites were Feast & Me and My Moulton (animated), and Aya & Boogaloo and Graham (live action). Overall, I wasn't as impressed with the shorts this year as I have been in years past. Feast was the only one that I'd call truly great. They're all watchable, but it didn't feel like there were many risk-takers in this year's crop. Especially in the live action grouping, none of them made me think "Man, I wonder what that director will be able to do with a feature film?" Oh well.
This was originally written and posted on Facebook on February 16, 2015