Saturday, January 24, 2015

FILM: Still Alice

Still Alice features a heart-wrenching performance by Julianne Moore portraying a smart, successful woman in her 50s struck with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The film captures her experience and the impact to her husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children (Kristin Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish). Moore’s performance combine with subtle, skillful direction, cinematography, score, and make-up to give subjective impact to the main character’s decline. In some scenes to visualize her disorientation, the focal length tightens so that she is sharp while the world around her blurs. In one scene, where she’s been running and suddenly finds herself lost on what should be the familiar ground of the university campus where she teaches, her panic becomes palpable as the focus tightens and the sound zeroes in on her sharp intakes of breath. In some scenes, the score by a string ensemble subtly deconstructs, to where the strings are just slightly out of synch in time or wavering in tune, not dissonant but kind of the sound of an orchestra tuning before the performance starts. In another scene, where she is viewing a video that her past self has recorded for her future self, the video of her past self is in crisp focus, clear voice, and sharp colors, while her actual present self is subtly muted in color and less distinct. All of these elements of film craft are skillfully combined to great effect to convey her experience. The main character gives a powerful speech at the center of the film, but unlike other works with heavy-handed speeches inserted into the book (Atlas Shrugged, for example), the speech scene is moving and integral to the story. Bring Kleenex, but do see this film (unless the subject is too close to home, in which case a pass is completely understandable). Julianne Moore is squarely in Best Actress territory here, and I’d also call out Kristin Stewart’s performance as one of the daughters, and the co-writer/director team of Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (who also brought us the wonderful Quincea├▒era).

My Favorite Films of 2014

So now that the Academy of old white guys have nominated the best films of (the last six weeks of) 2014, I'll throw in my totally idiosyncratic list of films that I liked in 2014. I'm not keen on picking "bests", so I'll just tell you what I liked, in no particular order, other than I'll put up front the ones I think have been unjustly overlooked and get to the bigger names later, making up my own categories as I go along.

Chef. For me, one of the most enjoyable films of the year. Firstly, it's about food and people who love food, so of course this film had me at amuse bouche. And the shots of the food were absolutely mouthwatering. But more than that, I loved the theme of a guy trying to figure out how to pursue his passion and artistic expression at the same time as meeting the practicalities of doing something that pays. It was a film about finding professional integrity, with a nice side order of father-son relationship. It was a feel good story with a fresh creative angle, inspired in part by the real life story of Roy Choi (who consulted on the film, and don't miss the behind-the-scene shot after the credits of Choi giving Favreau a cooking lesson). I think Jon Favreau, who wrote, directed, and starred in this did a great job of all three. As a foodie, I naturally also really enjoyed The Hundred-Foot Journey. Food, France, and Helen Mirren are a guaranteed recipe for something wonderful, and it was. But for real heart, character, and story, I think Chef was carnitas while Journey was a light air-filled souffl├ę.

Calvary. A stunning story with a commanding performance by Brendan Gleeson as a priest in a small coastal Irish parish. The film opens with an explosive revelation that colors the rest of the film, as we watch the priest tending to his parishioners over the course of a week that may be his last. The townsfolk are a colorful lot who don't always appreciate the priest's efforts, but the story is an amazing one of faith, redemption, raw humanity, and a priestly calling in the midst of a broken church and real broken lives. Kudos to writer/director Jon Michael McDonagh, who also brought us the outstanding 2011 film The Guard.

Fading Gigolo. Remember when Woody Allen used to put out movies that were fun, funny, witty, insightful, and in love with New York? This is totally one of those movies. Although Woody Allen is in it, and it feels like peak vintage Woody Allen, it was written and directed by John Turturro, who also stars in it. I think Oscar has some kind of grudge against writer/director/actors, but Turturro does a great job of all three in this quirky, very original, very enjoyable film about a middle-aged florist who is pimped out by his friend to call on lonely or bored rich women, and ends up falling in love with an Orthodox Jewish widow. Only in New York. (Ironically, I found this to be a "better Woody Allen film" than the actual Woody Allen film this year, Magic in the Moonlight, which was clever and enjoyable, but no Midnight in Paris, and didn't have any of the warmth and humanity of Fading Gigolo.)

Love is Strange. A wonderfully tender and keen exploration of marriage and family relationships. When an older gay couple suffers a financial setback, they have to give up their apartment, and both temporarily impose on family and friends until they can get back on their feet. Great performances from Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in the lead roles. Director Ira Sachs ("Keep the Lights On") really steps up, delivering a lot of heart while still keeping it real.

Locke. It is absolutely astounding that a film set entirely in a car with one guy driving and talking on the cell phone about pouring concrete could turn out to be a completely gripping human drama, but trust me, it absolutely is. Obviously it's a bit more than just concrete, but that's the backdrop. The night before the biggest day of his career, the foreman of a skyscraper project has to make a life-changing decision that risks his job and his marriage. Tom Hardy's tour-de-force performance is riveting. Great job by English writer/director Steven Knight.

Obvious Child. As one of their poster taglines says, "the most winning abortion-themed rom-com ever made". A fresh original romantic comedy about a one-night-stand, an unplanned pregnancy, and a young stand-up comic in Brooklyn barely keeping it together. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre comes out with a hit (this film, an expansion of a short film she made, is her feature length debut), and lead actress Jenny Slate, in her first big role, is pitch-perfect.

St. Vincent. Great performance by Bill Murray as a sour old curmudgeon who begrudgingly gets dragged into a friendship with the young boy next door and his hard-pressed divorced mother. Also great performances from Jaeden Lieberher (why do kids never get taken seriously when they give great performances?) and Melissa McCarthy. Very funny and full of heart. Nice job by writer/director Theodore Melfi in his feature debut.

The Lunchbox. A charming, bittersweet romance of letters exchanged anonymously between a disaffected housewife and a lonely widower, enabled by a mix-up in Mumbai's famous lunchbox delivery system. The letters go back and forth with the lunchbox, and sometimes as much is communicated with the food she prepares as in the notes. Utterly charming and touching and so much more satisfying than a predictable by-the-numbers Hollywood rom-com. Nice performances from Irrfan Khan ("Life of Pi") and Nimrat Kaur, and kudos to writer/director Ritesh Batra in his debut.

Like Father, Like Son. Based on a true story of two families in Japan who discover years down the road that their sons were switched at birth due to a hospital mix-up. An engaging and heartfelt exploration of what truly makes a family and what is ultimately important in life.

The Rocket. An engaging story of a boy born in a Laotian hill tribe under a sign of bad luck, determined to prove he is not bad luck after all, amidst the whole family being uprooted by a government project to build a dam that will flood their village. If you enjoy being transported to a very different kind of life, this film delivers beautiful scenes of Laotian village life, their ways and struggles, in a rainforest jungle peppered with old missiles, bombs, and other war detritus. Youngster Sitthiphon Disamoe gives an exuberant performance in Aussie writer/director Kim Mordaunt's first non-documentary feature.

Hmm, are all of the best films done by writer/directors? Seems to be a trend here...  Moving on to more mainstream movies that still escaped the notice of the Academy...

Selma. It is deservedly a Best Picture nominee, but how David Oyelowo was overlooked for best actor is staggering, not to mention Carmen Ejogo for best actress as Coretta Scott King, and director Ava DuVernay. The film was a moving and powerful dramatization of events leading up to a pivotal moment in our nation's history.

The Lego Movie. This should win best animated feature, yet it's not even nominated. If you missed this film cause you thought it was just a kids movie, you really missed out. Sure your kids will love it too, but it is fun and wickedly funny for all ages. I declare this the Best LOL Film of 2014.

Maleficent. Maybe the Academy thinks Disney movies don't count as serious film consideration? I beg to differ, and this is exhibit A. It was a fantastically clever story, doing for Sleeping Beauty what Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz, giving us a fresh creative back story that turns the original inside-out. And kudos to Disney for giving kids more credit and once again smashing the handsome-prince trope and instead giving us a much more mature fantasy. The whole package was beautifully visualized. Shame on the Academy for seeing nothing Oscar-worthy here beyond the costumes. Angelina Jolie was superb.

Into The Woods. A beautiful visualization of the Sondheim musical. Not sure if the Academy actually watched this film, or if they just automatically nominate Meryl Streep for anything she does. She was great as always, but Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick were terrific too.

And finally a few places where the Academy did get it right:

Grand Budapest Hotel. Another brilliant picture from the fantastically creative mind of writer/director Wes Anderson. He vividly creates an evocative forgotten pocket kingdom of the Austro-Hungarian Empire post-WWI, with the appropriate grayness of its present and nostalgia for its past. All this as the backdrop for a tale of intrigue worthy of James Bond, with the hero being the ultimate hotel concierge rather than a spy. Crazy, funny, bittersweet tale. Anderson has been nominated before, but this may just be his year.

Boyhood. Art Linklater has played with the idea of time and real life before, with his Sunrise/Sunset trilogy taking an intermittent look at a romantic relationship, checking in every several years. But this latest film is his most audacious, following a boy from age 6 through 18 in actual years. Like his other films, it's very "real life" like (in a real way, not in a "reality TV" way), all character, no big drama, and minimal plot, but just enough to keep it interesting. The amazing film achievement here is its fluidity. Time moves as it does in real life. There are no typical Hollywood markers where it goes dark and a caption says "A Year Later". Time passes in a simple cut. It's also amazing that he was able to keep such a consistency of style and quality to the film over the 12 years it took to make it. Truly an artistic film achievement.

The two geek genius holiday blockbusters, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, are both great stories about great men, excellently acted and realized. Eddie Redmayne, in particular, deserves praise for his performance as Stephen Hawking.

Ida. Seems a leading contender for foreign film, and rightly so. An intriguing story of a young girl raised in a convent in Poland, who, just before taking her vows, discovers an estranged aunt and unravels a dark family secret from the darker days of WWII. The black-and-white film does a great job conveying the atmosphere of 1960s Communist Poland.

There are certainly films we still need to catch up on (Gone Girl and Birdman, for example), and we look forward to what 2015 has to offer (including Still Alice, which is only being released for real now, even though the old white men got screeners for it in advance and are counting it as a 2014 film).