Sunday, December 29, 2013

My annual top ten list was published in The Dispatch this past Thursday. Here is the full list:

(Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel, UK)

"The cameras are even freed from the bounds of normal movement, thrown from the ship on tethers, skipping along the waves in ways that provide a truly unique and stunning visual experience that completely changes the cinematic paradigm. No other film this year approached its sheer formal audacity, and the result is a documentary that transcends the medium and revolutionizes the form."

(Joshua Oppenheimer, UK)

"It begins as a sobering look at what motivates and corrupts the human spirit to the point they could commit such atrocities, but when the murders put themselves in their victims’ shoes during the reenactments, becomes something even more profound; a look at a group of cold blooded killers coming to grips with the gravity of their sins. Watching that dawning realization of extreme guilt makes for an extraordinarily moving, and cathartic experience."

(Steve McQueen, USA)

"From the stunning performances by its tremendously talented cast (led by a jaw-dropping turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor), to the hauntingly observant direction by McQueen that finds beauty even in the ugliest of events, “12 Years a Slave” is a raw, unblinking look at one of the darkest chapters of American history that is destined to go down in history as a modern classic."

(Harmony Korine, USA)

"Director Harmony Korine assaults us over the top sex and violence, slyly playing on the demands of a hungry audience, turning their demands for more into a resounding, neon-lit condemnation of the culture of spring break hedonism. Are you not entertained?"

(Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)

"Using gorgeous hand drawn animation (something all too rare these days), Miyazaki tells a tender story of a man who conceived something beautiful, only to see it used for death and destruction."

(Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)

"At once feverish and elegant, debauched and spiritual, “The Great Beauty” is a gorgeous paean to artistic inspiration and societal decay masquerading as intellectualism and spirituality."

(Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong)

"Gorgeously photographed, Wong creates an intoxicating exploration of love and honor with the grace and elegance of a ballet."

(Richard Linklater, USA)

"An honest, beautifully rendered portrait of true love, not in the cinematic fairy tale sense, but in the real sense, as their love settles into something more deeply felt than either realizes. Linklater reminds us why Celine and Jesse are perhaps the most real and meaningful couple ever to grace the silver screen."

(Keith Miller, USA)

"Simple, organic, and never manipulative, Miller's agreeably sparse style never veers into maudlin territory, creating a straightforward and quietly shattering experience. An incredible American indie."

(Abbas Kiarostami, France)

"Brilliantly assembled, Kiarostami constructs the film with the eye of a consummate craftsman, slowly, elegantly peeling back layers of identity, with haunting results. A beautiful enigma."

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, Austria), Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, USA), Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France), At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA), To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, USA), Drug War (Johnnie To, Hong Kong), All is Lost (JC Chandor, USA), Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, USA), Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA), Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton, USA)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

It is somehow fitting that director Clio Barnard would name the protagonist of her sophomore feature after her 2010 debut, The Arbor.

Like the lower class English neighborhood that lent the earlier film its name, young Arbor (an astonishingly believable Conner Chapman) comes to represent something much larger than himself.  He is at once his own person and a whole kind of person, making The Selfish Giant an illuminating and troubling window into the plight of impoverished Britons. Arbor is something of a troublemaker, to be sure. He gets into fights, skips school at will, and is openly defiant of teachers and authority figures. His best friend, Swifty (Shaun Thomas), is a much calmer boy, but is swept up in Arbor's trouble making and soon the boys are both suspended from school. But idle hands are the devil's playground, as the saying goes, and soon Arbor and Swifty are looking for ways to occupy their time, and soon turn to stealing copper wire to help support their destitute families.

Arbor (Conner Chapman) and horse Tarmac Tommy (Ragdoll) in Clio Barnard’s SELFISH GIANT. 
Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka.
The film takes its title from a story by Oscar Wilde, about a giant who kicks all the children out of his garden, but when the garden falls into perpetual winter decides to allow the children to return and play. In the end, he discovers that one of the children was the Christ child, and is devastated by his death. As Barnard was making the film, however, she found that the story began to shift, so much so that she even considered changing the title. But there remains a "Selfish Giant" figure here in the form of the innocuously named Kitten (Sean Gilder), a brutal scrap yard owner and Dickensian profiteer of child labor who pays them low wages for dangerous work.

Swifty is good with horses and therefore gains the favor of Kitten, who loans his horse for use in transporting their ill gotten gains. Arbor, however, is more impulsive, passionate, but volatile, and therefore not as trusted by Kitten. This puts a rift of sorts between the two boys, as Arbor begins to lash out for attention - from his parent, from Swifty, from Kitten, from anyone who will listen. It's a desperate cry for help that will eventually lead to tragic consequences that will change and define them all.

Swifty (Shaun Thomas) and Arbor (Conner Chapman) in Clio Barnard’s SELFISH GIANT
Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka.
While not as formally daring as the narrative/documentary hybrid, The Arbor, which gained Barnard recognition for its audacious use of actors lip-syncing to pre-recorded interviews of actual participants in the subject, The Selfish Giant, with its keen sense of time and place (featuring accents so thick the film is shown with subtitles), has a kind of lived-in naturalism that calls to mind the work of Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank). It's a kind of throwback to the British "kitchen sink" drama, whose stark realism reveals a social ill, in this case the dark underbelly of poverty. This is nothing new, of course, films that wallow in the miserablism of the poor for cheap emotional gain. Barnard never seems to be exploiting her subjects, even when the film veers into tragedy in the third act. What she conjures instead is real compassion rather than pity. The Selfish Giant isn't so much about the plight of the poor as it is about boyhood friendships, and their deep bond that takes on the air of a strange sort of platonic romance.

Barnard explores the depth of their bond, not just with each other, but with their families, becoming magnified in the film's heart-wrenching final act. Downton Abbey's Siobhan Finneran is especially heartbreaking as Swifty's beleaguered mother. Freed from the confines of the specific stylistic conceit of The Arbor, Barnard is able to stretch her legs explore her characters in a much deeper way. The Selfish Giant is an assured and disciplined work, raw like a festering wound, and devastatingly blunt, establishing Barnard as one of the strongest voices in British independent cinema.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE SELFISH GIANT | Directed by Clio Barnard | Stars Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Rebecca Manley, Siobhan Finneran | Not rated | Opens Friday, December 20, in NYC.

From The Dispatch:
The result is something beautifully nostalgic, unchallenging perhaps, but a lovely and satisfying crowd pleaser. Hancock displays a keen understanding of why "Mary Poppins" is so beloved, and pays loving tribute with consummate grace. Its portrayal of the artistic process is surprisingly adept, anchored by tremendous performances by Thompson (who turns the prickly Travers into a multidimensional character whose stern demeanor masks a deep pain) and Hanks, perfectly cast as Disney. 
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Specialty distributor GKIDS has quickly become the foremost purveyor of foreign animation in America. While Disney continues to distribute the works of Hayao Miyazaki (including his final masterpiece, The Wind Rises), GKIDS has been quietly bringing little-seen animated works from overseas that may not otherwise have found an American audience stateside, providing small scale, hand drawn alternatives to bigger, louder studio products.

GKIDS first gained recognition when The Secret of Kells scored a surprised Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature in 2009. The distributor scored two more nominations in 2011 for A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita, and have several more chances to score nominations this year, where the major studios' animated projects have mostly proved disappointing.

Their best shot at Oscar glory is Ernest & Celestine, a lovely little French film directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner, based on the Belgian book series by Gabrielle Vincent.

It's the story of a young mouse named Celestine who spends her days underground, training to be a dentist by sneaking into the world above populated by bears, and snatching young bears' teeth from under their pillows, leading to the bears' legend of the tooth fairy. The mice use the teeth to supplement their own, helping them build vast cities beneath the surface. Each night, Celestine lays in her bed doodling pictures while listening to stories about the "big bad bear," reinforcing the children's fear of the lupine citizens above. Celestine doesn't believe these horrific legends, and is determined to prove to her people that bears aren't as bad as they've been lead to believe.

Up above, Ernest is a destitute bear just trying to get by. Cold and hungry, he works as a street musician for change while avoiding the stern policemen who frown on panhandling. One morning, he finds Celestine sleeping in a trashcan after a tooth reconnaissance mission went terribly wrong. But instead of eating her (as was his first impulse), he befriends Celestine, and the two embark on a strange and remarkable journey, leading to a confrontation between the bears and the mice, but the unlikely friendship between Ernest and Celestine will force them all to examine their age old prejudices in ways they never expected.

It's essentially a parable about racism, but it's handled with such grace that it never feels heavy handed or preachy. The story is admittedly idiosyncratic, but that's part of its charm. It's something new and unique, yet charmingly old fashioned. The more organic watercolor animation is such a breath of fresh air in a world populated with CG animation. It feels like a storybook, and its hard not to get swept away in the gorgeous imagery. Ernest & Celestine is proof positive that you don't need flashy computer graphics to create a wholly immersive world. It is telling, I think, that the two best animated films I have seen this year, this and The Wind Rises, are both traditionally animated films. Computers are capable of creating some jaw dropping visual wonders like in Disney's Frozen, but there is just something special about hand drawn images.

Not only are they more personal because of the work that goes into them, but they are also more expressive, more tangible, more relatable. As CG animation becomes more and more realistic, hand drawn animation feels more and more like works of art. What once was the norm has become a specialty, a rare breed, and films like this should be cherished. While foreign films like this are really more targeted to adults and art house audiences in the States because of their subtitles despite the GKIDS label, there is an agreeable innocence to Ernest & Celestine that should appeal to everyone. It takes an admittedly strange tale and turns into something wonderful, an utterly delightful tale of two misfits who find common ground through their mutual friendship. It's a simple message, beautifully conveyed without pretense, wrapped up in one of this year's animated treasures.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ERNEST & CELESTINE | Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner | Voices of Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner, Anne-Marie Loop, Patrice Melennec | Rated PG for some scary moments | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

From The Dispatch:
It feels bloated, packed with too many characters and plot threads, many of which are not in the book on which it is based. Jackson and his team have taken from Tolkien's apocryphal works and volumes of Middle Earth history to pad out his "Hobbit" trilogy, and "Desolation" nearly buckles under the weight.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Online Film Critics Society, of which I am a voting member, released the nominations for its 17th annual awards. 12 Years a Slave  led the nominations with 8, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. followed by Inside Llewyn Davis with 6. Hayao Miyazaki's final animated film, The Wind Rises, received 5 nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. The Best Picture nominees included some outside the box choices that haven't been as prevalent this awards season, such as Johnnie To's Drug War and Short Term 12, and lifted Blue is the Warmest Color and The Wind Rises out of the Foreign Language and Animated ghettos, respectively, and also gave some love Frederick Wiseman's expansive documentary, At Berkeley. Jem Cohen's Mueseum Hours showed up in Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay, and Mads Mikkelson scored a surprise Best Actor nomination for The Hunt. This year's nominees are:

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Before Midnight
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Drug War
Inside Llewyn Davis
Short Term 12
The Wind Rises

Best Animated Feature
Despicable Me 2
From Up on Poppy Hill
Monsters University
The Wind Rises

Best Film Not in the English Language
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Drug War
Museum Hours
The Wind Rises

Best Documentary
56 Up
The Act of Killing
At Berkeley
Stories We Tell

Best Director
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Spike Jonze – Her
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Hayao Miyazaki – The Wind Rises

Best Actor
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Joaquin Phoenix – Her

Best Actress
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
Adèle Exarchopoulos – Blue Is the Warmest Color
Brie Larsen – Short Term 12

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey – Mud
Sam Rockwell – The Way, Way Back

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Scarlett Johansson – Her
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Léa Seydoux – Blue Is the Warmest Color

Best Original Screenplay
American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Inside Llewyn Davis
Museum Hours

Best Adapted Screenplay
12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
In the House
Short Term 12
The Wind Rises

Best Editing
12 Years a Slave
Drug War
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Cinematography
12 Years a Slave
The Grandmaster
The Great Beauty
Inside Llewyn Davis

Winners will be announced Monday, Dec. 16.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

From The Dispatch:
It’s also perhaps one of Disney’s most beautiful films. The design of Elsa’s icy powers is absolutely breathtaking, and the Broadway ready songs are some of the most memorable since their impressive successes of the 1990's, when “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” and “Aladdin” all brought Disney out their doldrums of the 1980's.
Click here to read my full review.

From The Dispatch:
It is a thoughtful blockbuster, a young adult film with a heart and a brain, and it's also a crackerjack sequel that is a perfect set-up for its two-part sequel, "Mockingjay." Fans will be begging for more while series newcomers will find themselves pleasantly surprised by a film that doesn't pander. It is a blockbuster worthy of its hype.
Click here to read my full review.