Top films of 2013

By now it should be fairly obvious that this blog is solely dedicated to my end-of-year lists. Clearly, it hasn’t been used for something more analytical or insightful (as if I could write something that would be either of these things.) Since I moved earlier this year, I’ve been able to see films that I would have never been able to see. It’s pleasing to finally see the films I want to see, even though it does take a hit on my wallet.

Coming off of one of the worst years for cinema in some time, 2013 was bound to look good. It couldn’t possibly be worse. Even without the contrast, this year was a great year. It’s a year that I actually had a somewhat difficult time narrowing down, something that can’t be said for the past couple of years. Most of the films I anticipated delivered, and, as always, there were a few surprised that sneaked up here and there.
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10. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

Killing
It’s entirely fascinating: watching people that gleefully committed the worst atrocities imaginable feel empathy – all because of art. It’s not something I’d ever want to see again; it left me shaken for at least a week. But it’s something that needs to be seen.

9. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)
Upstream
The questions are endless in Carruth’s sophomore effort. It’s a film that is greeted with scratching heads and a good deal of admiration. Beneath its non-linear editing and abstract imagery is a thematic concern that is universal: the connection of people and the general idea of fate. Once you latch onto its core, the questions seem meaningless.

8. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Gravity
Recently, there seems to have been a backlash to Cuarón’s long-awaited follow-up; “It’s a roller-coaster ride with some nifty effects.” Frankly, this strikes me as unfounded and lazy. There’s a thematic circle present within its imagery (yes, there’s more to it than the resemblance of a fetus – although that should be more than enough to clue you in that there’s something to the film) and an emotional current that’s consistent. When was the last time you marveled at the intelligence and tracking shots in a blockbuster?

7. Short Term 12 (dir. Destin Cretton)
ShortTerm12
On paper, Cretton’s film seems similar to a Degrassi episode. But this is the strength of perfect casting and knowing when to hold back. The film, for all of its dramatic arcs, never reaches that point. It remains genuine and endearing throughout, and it boasts a performance from Brie Larson that will completely surprise you. The best way to describe it, as I once told a friend, is that it’s akin to a Dardenne picture, except it’s optimistic.

6. Blue is the Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Blue
Yes, the sex scenes are explicit, and they go on for a little too long. But we’re talking about a seven minute scene in a film that is close to three hours. It should say something about how prudish some are that a small (though essential) segment of the film is the moment we choose to focus on. What should be focused on, I think, is how exquisitely handled the depiction of a girl becoming a woman is. Adèle Exarchopoulos gives the year’s greatest performance, convincingly depicting every single beat of this character. She builds the emotional center with her trance-like stares and infectious smile. 

5. Ernest and Celestine (dir. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renne)
Ernest
With its warm watercolor palette and inventive style, Ernest and Celestine manages to create a world that echoes the stories we heard as a child. At its center is an entirely charming depiction of two vastly different beings becoming the best of friends. Instead of relying on pop-culture references, its humor relies on the absurdities of prejudices. In an age where children’s animated films are predominately demeaning, it manages to stand out as something unique.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
Llewyn
The Coens make their return after three years with a character driven picture that is as emotional as anything they have ever done. While it may share some commonalities with their recent films, the Coen film it echoes the most is Barton Fink: the depiction of artistic creativity in a certain industry, witty dialogue, and its readily unlikable protagonist. Its narrative structure and direction may be a bother for some. For me, it’s something I’ve long desired from the duo.

3. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)
Her
The comparisons to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind may initially seem justified, but they seem a tad unfounded when you really step back to compare the two. Indeed, they both share common traits: the slightly quirky/melancholic protagonist, depicting a relatable love story under its sci-fi trappings, etc. Her, however, seems to have something grander on its mind. Through its refreshingly warm dystopian view, it attempts to examine human behavior, and our dependence on technology. What seems miraculous is that the film actually makes you feel for the other end; there’s a sense of urgency and feeling for a voice. You do what you thought was the unthinkable: you understand why the protagonist (played wonderfully by Joaquin Phoenix) behaves the way he does.

2. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)
Stories
Sarah Polley departs the world of fictional relationships to make her first foray into documentary filmmaking. What could have been an utter disaster (Why should I watch your home movies?) is anything but. Through documenting her family history, Polley remarkably opens a closet of rich ideas and themes: it questions the very idea of narrative, family, and truth. People (including me) tend to groan when they hear about documentaries. This is the documentary that moves past the endless talking heads and ham-fisted agendas. It stands alongside the films it tries best to emulate. When you’re standing alongside Kurosawa and Kiarostami, I’d say you’re in good company.

1. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
BeforeMidnight
The days of roaming carelessly around your desired European village are long gone. Linklater’s romantic depiction in his Before series has reached the point where consequences and responsibilities are apparent. While it remains undeniably romantic, it takes a sidestep from its romanticism to stop and put thought into their relationship by replacing the stone-cobbled streets and sun-drenched buildings with an entirely bland hotel room. The blank canvas is ready to be painted with the inevitable. It’s a daunting task: the second half of your two-person picture taking entirely place in one room. Hawke and Delpy, who are better than ever here, make it work. The sequence, set entirely in real time, is comprised of two people that have been together long enough to know where to stick the knife and when. For a series that is noted for its realistic romantic portrayal, the series begins to feel like it’s going to end on the most upsetting note imaginable. Fortunately for cinephiles everywhere, it doesn’t. Itt ends with a scene that is almost as perfect as its predecessor’s. After Before Sunrise, I dreaded the idea of a sequel, fearing that it would taint my love for the original. After the perfection of Before Sunset and the announcement of Before Midnight, I became cautious. They’re going to define us the ending to Sunset? They better know what they’re doing. They do. It’s obvious now that the three know what should be done with the series. Come 2022, I’ll be welcoming Before Dawn with open arms.
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As always, these lists tend to seem rather pointless in hindsight; multiple viewings and time can change your admiration a tad.  Looking back at the 2011 list, I can already see the changes I would make: the number one spot would remain the same, but Certified Copy would be moved up to the second spot. As of now, however, I’d say I’m comfortable with this list and its order.

Until next year.


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Top Films of 2012

When attempting to assemble a list of the ten best films of 2012, I realized that, while a great year for foreign cinema, the year overall was incredibly underwhelming. Even if you don’t compare the year to 2011 (one of the greatest years for film in years) it still seems slim. Sure, there were a couple of greats sprinkled throughout those long twelve months, but not the kind of greats one would expect to top a year-end list. Every time I would sit down in the theater during Oscar season, I was hoping that this film, whatever it was, would be the film to improve the year – and more often than not, I came out of the theater disappointed, underwhelmed, or, in one particular case, furious (okay, so maybe I wasn’t seething with anger when I walked out of Les Miserables.)

It’s amusing to look at my ‘most anticipated of 2012‘ list now. One film was delayed to 2013, one film delivered – albeit, in ways I wasn’t quite expecting, and the rest just left me underwhelmed, from varying degrees. Most of the films that ended up on my list were films that, as always with these end-of-year lists, snuck up on me. Truth be told, the last two entries were kind of tossed on. I had to think of which films could fill in the gaps, and these two, while very good, didn’t strike on an initial watch as films I’d be talking about now. I suppose that says something about how grim of a year I thought this really was. All complaining aside, let’s get onto the list.

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10. ParaNorman (dir. Chris Butler, Sam Fell)

Paranorman

For the second year in a row, Pixar’s recent outing doesn’t end up as one of my year-end favorites. Instead, I get a film that snuck up on me entirely with more creativity, delight, and just all-out fun than any other animated picture. I’m usually not won over by claymation films; it’s not so much the animation itself as it’s the material imbedded within it. This was a film that paid homage to a great deal of horror films while still managing to stand on its own with an admirable – although not entirely original – thematic concern.

9. Killer Joe (dir. William Friedkin)

KillerJoe

William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is politically incorrect, morally frustrating, and sometimes just cringe-worthy – but I’ll be damned if it’s not a daring piece of cinema. The film went into places that I was not expecting (I don’t think anyone could have claimed they did, unless if they were familiar with the material), and I couldn’t help but grin at the absurdity that was taking place in the final ten minutes. All of these strengths should be bestowed upon one person: Matthew McConaughey. An actor that is known for his accent and ability to not keep his shirt on delivers an impressively nuanced performance. I’ll never think of KFC the same way again.

8. Elena (dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev)

Elena

While it may lack the compelling narrative of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return (2003), it makes up for it with a strong lead performance, and a final shot that packs a hefty punch. Just like The Return, the film tends to focus on mundane activities, almost entirely of static shots with little to no editing. It builds and builds, until it reaches a point where you’re so absorbed with the material that you know what’s going to happen but hope it doesn’t. I can’t claim that I understood its cultural undertones because, well, I’m not Russian. That’s besides the point, though. There’s enough to gain for one to consider it worthwhile.

7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

OnceUponaTimeinAnatolia

This makes Elena‘s minimalism seem amateurish. This is a film that takes its time with everything – and I mean everything. One could easily claim that this material could have been done within the realm of 90 minutes, and they would be right – but then the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. For its snail-like pace and left-and-right detours, it still never manages to build up to a grandiose final act one would expect. It leaves us with a revelation that we must ponder.

6. This is Not a Film (dir. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi)

ThisIsNotaFilm

The premise is simple: A director, Jafar Panahi, is confined to house arrest while he awaits the verdict by the appeals court. While confined to his house, a friend of his documents his nearly every move over the course of the day. What we get from this situation is the psychological study of what a director truly is. Because Panahi is unable by law to film anything, we’re left with an artist stripped away from his passion. It’s fascinating to witness. It’s almost as if Panahi, no matter his limitations, can only view reality in some cinematic way – which makes the situation all the more heartbreaking.

5. The Kid With a Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)

TheKidWithaBike

The Dardenne’s The Kid With a Bike is a film that works wonderfully just from its simplicity. It manages to elicit emotions out of the simplest story. You expect the film to go in directions of melodrama, but it never does. The Dardenne’s are aware of this. They are aware of how this story would play out.  It earns every beat without being manipulative.

4. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

TheMaster

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has the commonality with the rest of his films (There Will Be Blood being the exception): it centers on a protagonist trying to make a connection. Yet besides a similar theme, the film manages to set itself apart from the rest of Anderson’s work by being surprisingly dense. It isn’t a rewarding film by any means; the last couple of scenes are ambiguous to say the least. It’s a film that begs for repeated viewings, and even more-so, begs for close examination of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, who gives what is undoubtedly the finest performance of the year.)

3. Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax)

HolyMotors

Abstract to its core, Leox Carax’s Holy Motors is an enigma. An enigma that leaves very little room for answers. It’s a film that defines cinema; going through the very nature of genre, creativity, acting, and technology. It’s about what cinema is and what it isn’t. Is it hinting at the death of cinema? Is it merely trying to breathe life into cinema? It very well may be both. It will frustrate, make you hum a little tune, offer a deal of pathos – sometimes all at the same time. It’s one of the most refreshing films in quite some time. Showcasing a filmmaker being as creative as he can be, and that’s something to be admired.

2. Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

ZeroDarkThirty

The best directed film of the year is a film that mostly relies on procedural-esque dialogue. As incredible as the sudden moments of action and the raid are, I find the film to be most compelling when it focuses on the actual investigation.  It’s all paced perfectly, from the constant frustration and dead-ends to a final shot that sums of the film in a nutshell. The narrative is held together by Maya (the incredible Jessica Chastain), a woman that has only one person in mind. Ignore the overblown controversy and focus on the masterful filmmaking at hand.

1. Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

Moonrise

I debated around for a bit if Zero Dark Thirty deserved this position. I fully acknowledge that, for the most part, it is a better piece of filmmaking. My heart, however, can’t help but lean heavily towards Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, a film that I can say I truly love. Anderson’s idiosyncrasies mesh with the material perfectly. None of it comes off awkward or stiff, like Anderson’s outings tend to be (as of late, at least.) The focus on two lovestruck pre-teens brings a deal of heart that is almost overwhelming, as does the choice of handheld. It brings us back to a time that anyone can relate to, except it goes past the point that every child pondered, into directions that only Anderson could imagine.

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There we go. Maybe I’ll stumble upon a couple of other 2012 films that will shape this list into something greater than it should be (Tabu perhaps?) We shall see.

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A.I. Artificial Intelligence (dir. Steven Spielberg – 2001)

The production history for A.I (2001) is a notorious one. Stanley Kubrick had created a story that revolved around artificial intelligence. The film was put on the hold for decades, going through various changes in its story, all due to the fact that Kubrick didn’t believe the technology at the time was sufficient enough to convincingly portray artificial intelligence. The production became more certain once Kubrick witnessed the technology displayed in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). After Kurbick’s death in 1999, Spielberg, who was previously attached as producer of the film, immediately dropped every project he had on the line to direct the film.

Set sometime in the future, the production of a new form of humanoids has begun. They’re capable of displaying affection, emotion and love. Monica (Frances O’Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards) are parents of a child that is in a comatose state. After Henry brings home David (Haley Joel Osmond), a humanoid that looks exactly like a young little boy, as a temporary replacement for their son, Monica reacts in disgust. She insists that he’s not human, that he can’t replace her son who has blood with a “boy” that is created on a whim. As time goes by, she develops an bond with David, much more-so than Henry. But something unexpected happens: their biological son Martin (Jake Tomas) is alive and well. This is where the family drama comes into play. Martin holds a sense of hostility towards David, acting in ways young brothers do – but David has no sense of human interaction. He gets tricked into doing unethical acts, even if there’s just a spark of doubt beneath that blank exterior, all at the expense of David’s pleasure. When David’s life becomes threatened by a misunderstanding, Monica makes the unfortunate decision to drive David out to the woods and abandon him. The rest of the film is essentially a tale of Pinocchio; a quest to find a figure known as “the Blue Fairy,” who can grant any wish imaginable (in David’s case, it’s to “be a real boy.”)

The film’s narrative structure sounds ambitious on paper, at least for the standard Spielberg has set for himself, but its ambition is muddled with trite ideas that never amount to a coherent piece. There are interesting ideas presented, such as the bond between a hotshot humanoid Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) and David, but it never results to anything substantial. Every detour the film takes after David’s departure feels trivial; the flesh fair is transparent, the on-the-run Gigolo feels like an excuse for Spielberg to show off yet another set-piece, etc.

Yet while the back half of the picture is a failure, the first half can be labeled as something of an accomplishment. Indeed, David and Monica’s bond is almost a complete success (it would be a complete success were it not for the fact that Henry is merely used as a plot device.) The relationship established between the two is gradual. Even on its simplistic terms, there’s something to admire. Once Monica abandons David, the film never seizes to rid of the underlying melancholy prevalent through every frame. When David is sitting on a crumbled up building in a flooded New York City, the question that comes to one’s mind is: What is his mother doing? Is she suffering from guilt? Is she wondering what her little boy is up to? Does she even care?

At the end of the film, David is in a capsule with his robotic bear, miles below the sea, face to face with the Blue Fairy, wishing that he was a real boy. The camera pans out as a fairytale-esque narration kicks in. End. Wait, that’s not it, flash-forward 2000 years later to a frozen David, the Blue Fairy in place, and aliens – that’s right, aliens. The aliens manage to take David back to the Swinton house, but there’s a problem: it’s empty. Everyone’s gone. The alien informs David that the only way he could possibly interact with his mother again is if he had some form of her DNA. Surprise, Teddy managed to get his hands on – and keep – a lock of Monica’s hair when David cut it 2000 years ago. David gets to live one last day with his mother. It’s a remarkably emotional moment, all due to the fact that the first half works. Its emotional success doesn’t make its contrived, sentimental scenario any less superflous.

Spielberg once said that he doesn’t have a distinct style, that he adapts to the screenplay’s mood. This is alarmingly true in A.I. But is that something to scoff at? In this case, I’m indifferent. I’m not going to deny the fact that it is endlessly fascinating to watch Spielberg attempt to make a Kubrick film. There are Kubrick-esque moments that succeed in their aesthetic but fail in their tone due to Spielberg’s sensibilities seeping through every now and then. I’m also not going to deny that the film would have almost certainly been a better, albeit entirely different, picture had Kubrick directed it. Therein lies the problem, though: even if Spielberg hadn’t directed the film, it still would have been under great scrutiny with skewed expectations, all because of the simple fact that Kubrick’s name was once attached to it.

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Top 10 Most Anticipated of 2012

Boredom strikes and the urge to make another list rears its ugly head yet again. I figured I would compile a list of my most anticipated films of the year. It seems like a rather promising year, more-so than last year. Terrence Malick’s untitled film and Kar Wai Wong’s The Grandmasters  were omitted due to their sketchy release schedule. Had there been a confirmed date for either film, they would have been on the list.

It was hard to narrow down the list of films I’m anticipating to ten, so, of course, some films didn’t make the cut. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2011), Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (2011), Rian Johnson’s Looper (2011), and many other films, didn’t make the list.

10. Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Okay, so I’m not exactly thrilled with the idea of Matthew McConaughey being the lead in Jeff Nichols’ third film. But it’s Jeff Nichols, one of the greatest young directors around. Michael Shannon teaming up with Nichols, even though it’s a supporting role, for the third time just sweetens the pot. I heard Nichols say in an interview that this is the film he has always wanted to make. It has been in his pocket for over ten years. It’s in the main competition at this year’s Cannes, which means there should be a release sometime in the Fall.

9. Seven Psychopaths (dir. Martin McDonagh)

The director of In Bruges (2008) reteams with Colin Ferrel in another dark comedy. Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, and Christopher Walken are there as well. Need I say more?

8. Rust and Bone (dir. Jacques Audiard)

I have no idea what’s going on in the french trailer for Rust and Bone. Something about a whale, a melancholic Marion Cotillard, and a very wet t-shirt. This should fancy any cinephile’s taste. But we’re talking about a film from the director of what I thought was the best film of 2009. Now, if we could only get a proper english trailer.

7. Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin)

I had heard an overwhelming amount of positive response over this during Sudance – then it won the top prize. Even though the films that come out of Sundance tend to be hit-and-miss, I was interested. After watching the recent trailer, my interest skyrocketed. It looks like a mix between a Malick film and Pan’s Labyrinth – in other words, it looks like a film that caters to my taste on every level.

6. Brave (dir. Mark Andrews)

I think this will be it. This will be the film to bring back Pixar to their former glory. After the critical flop that was Cars 2, they’re returning to (what looks like) their creative roots. This prediction may seem off base when talking about the American trailers, but the Japanese trailer is just so utterly fantastic that it makes it look like a completely different film. The Miyazaki influence is strong, more-so than any other Pixar project.

5. Lawless (dir. John Hillcoat)

Yes, the only trailer released for Lawless was poorly put together. It made the film look like pure cheese, which is the last thing I would expect from Hillcoat, and Shia Labeouf looks like he’s trying to be Jimmy from Boardwalk Empire. But damnit, I can’t help but get excited over this one. Hillcoat directing a crime-drama starring Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, and Tom Hardy. That is one damn fine ensemble.

4. Cosmopolis (dir. David Cronenberg)

David Cronenberg is returning to his roots – and when I say returning to his roots, I really mean it. The idea of Robert Pattinson starring in this kind of universe is rather exciting. This is his chance. It will either be a disastrous casting decision or a genius one. I have enough faith in Cronenberg to believe that this was the right decision. Plus, you know, there are giant rats roaming about in New York City.

3. The Hobbit (dir. Peter Jackson)

I had so much anticipation for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit after seeing the trailer that I watched the extended edition of the trilogy over the following three days. Just seeing Gandalf grace his presence in The Shire one last time was enough for me to return to the trilogy. Early negative word on the 48-frames-per-second be damned. Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins is perfect casting.

2. Killing them Softly (dir. Andrew Dominik)

2007 was one of the best years for film. One of the biggest highlights was Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). It was a film that had an undeniable influence from Malick, yet managed to have a voice of its own. His follow-up is a crime-drama starring Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Richard Jenkins. If he can maintain the unique vision he displayed in his 2007 film, then we’re in for a real treat. If only they had stuck with the original title, Cogan’s Trade.

1. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Five years later and we finally have a follow up to There Will Be Blood (2007). There isn’t much known about the film; it was shot in 70mm, it centers on a faith-based organization, and it has more Hoffman. That’s enough to get me jazzed, but nearly all of my anticipation stems from the fact that this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Will he be able to top his masterpiece? Will the five year wait be worth it? Only time will tell, but it’s most certainly at the top of my must-see list.

As you can probably tell, most of my anticipation stems from who is directing what. With the exception of The Hobbit, little of my interest lies in plot. Of course, these lists are basically arbitrary, and by the time the end of the year comes and I compile a list of my favorite films of the year, most of these films might not even end up on it. If I had made this list last year, Take Shelter (2011), A Separation (2011), and Certified Copy (2011) wouldn’t have been on there. But these things are fun to make.. right?

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Ebertfest 2012

I have never attended a film festival before. I live in a fairly small town that isn’t anywhere close to a note-worthy film festival. I’ve always had the desire to go to one. Just the general idea of screening films all day long, with people involved with each film there in person to do a Q&A, was exciting. So when my friend asked if I would like to attend Ebertfest with him, I immediately jumped on it.

There are numerous reasons for this rash decision. At the time, way back in November, the line-up had not been announced. Festival passes were on sale. So the thing was kind of a gamble, although after looking over the previous year’s line-ups, I figured it was a rather safe bet. The idea of going to the festival with a close friend – who happens to be a movie lover as well – just sweetened the deal.

March rolls around, the line-up is announced and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Citizen Kane (1941) with Roger Ebert’s commentary; A Separation (2011) with the possibility of the director attending; Take Shelter (2011) with both Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon; Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) with Patton Oswalt. These were the films that stood out to me the most. With the exception of Big Fan (2009) and Joe vs. the Volcano (1990), I hadn’t heard of any of the other films. Some of them intrigued me, but I didn’t look into them enough for me to gain any type of anticipation. Besides, that’s the point of this festival, isn’t it? The titles are, after all, selected by the man himself, titles that he thinks deserves more recognition.

Day one: We’re settled into our hotel and ready for the first film of the festival. We arrived about an hour early and were shocked to find out that a line (seen above) had formed for Joe vs. the Volcano. I wasn’t expecting a huge turn out for a film that was considered a flop upon release. It was a sign of what was to come. So we waited for a good forty minutes, doors opened, and we made our way up to the balcony (we decided beforehand that the balcony would be our preferred seating area.)

It’s impossible to do the Virginia Theater justice. It seats (I believe) 1500 people, boasts a gigantic screen, and a section for an orchestra. That sounds great on paper, but what really made the theater was the look of it. The walls were high, the paint was peeling, and the seats were noisy. It had character.

Out comes Chaz Ebert to introduce the 14th annual Ebertfest. Roger Ebert was feeling ill, so his greeting was rather short. The curtains open and the film begins. I don’t even know where to begin with this one. It was not at all what I was expecting. I had seen the other two collaborations between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, although I suppose I should have adjusted my expectations a tad, as this film wasn’t directed by Nora Ephron. I’m not sure if I’d call it a good film. I do admire it to a degree. I admire that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan did a film like this, admire the look of the film, and I kind of admire the campiness of it all. The special guest for the film was Stephen Goldblatt, the DP of the film. The Q&A with him was more interesting than the actual film. Following the film was The Truth About Beauty and Blogs (2011), a short film that I really didn’t care for. Following that fifteen-minute short was Phunny Business: A Black Comedy (2011). I knew nothing about this film going in. I was assuming from the title that it would be focused on a black comedian. What I got was a really good documentary on an entrepreneur that created one of the most popular, star-studded comedy clubs in Chicago.

Day two: We were a little smarter the following day. We decided to get there about an hour and fifteen minutes earlier. The line was even longer. The first film was Big Fan, a film I had never seen because, well, I didn’t have much of a desire to see it. It was a solid film with a really good performance from Patton Oswalt. Unfortunately, Oswalt couldn’t make it, which meant two things: Kind Hearts and Coronets screening was cancelled and no Q&A with him. However, Robert D. Siegel, the director of the film, was there to do the Q&A. Kinywarwanda (2011) followed. I was aware of the general synopsis of the film. What I wasn’t prepared for was its non-linear narrative structure, which, unfortunately, lessened the film for me. We were so starving by the end of the film that we left as soon as it ended, missing the Q&A. Because Kind Hearts and Coronets was cancelled, we had the night to ourselves. Luck was on our side; the 70th anniversary restoration of Casablanca (1942) was screening for one time only. It was glorious.

Day three: I believe the line was even longer this day. On Borrowed Time (2011) started the day. A documentary on a filmmaker, Paul Cox, who has been diagnosed with liver cancer. The film recalls his life and his passion for film. I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard of Cox before (get on it, Criterion!) The Q&A was a profound session with Cox himself. The second showing was one I had been waiting for: Wild and Weird. Ten short films from the silent era accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. All I wanted after it ended was for them to screen Metropolis (1927), with the orchestra showing off their creative energy in the grandest fashion. A Separation was the film to end the night. This was the first time I had seen the theater completely full. Now, I had seen the film three times prior to the viewing, so I wasn’t anticipating it as greatly as other films. I was, however, looking forward for Andy to see it. Thankfully, he loved it – in fact, it was his favorite film of the festival. Unfortunately, there was another no-show. The Q&A wasn’t set in stone, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that Asghar Farhadi didn’t show up.

Day four: This was the last full day at Ebertfest. Higher Ground (2011) was the first film. I knew nothing about this film other than the fact that Vera Fermiga directed it. A rather impressive directorial debut – and performance – from Fermiga. It felt about fifteen minutes too long and some of it was too on-the-head, but there are still admirable qualities to be found. The second film of the day, Patang (The Kite) (2011), was a visual feast. I do admit that the film tested my patience, though that could be due to the fact that I was, of course, starving. The following film was the film I had been waiting for: Take Shelter. I had seen the film once back in November and was immensely impressed by it – so much so that I decided to check out Jeff Nichols’ first feature, Shotgun Stories (a film I strongly urge you to seek out.) The Q&A followed with Jeff Nichols, Michael Shannon, and the Sony Pictures Classics head. This was, hands down, the best Q&A of them all. It’s easy to see why Nichols and Shannon enjoy working with one another so much. They seem to understand each other, both on a professional and personal level. As serious as the man can be, Shannon is a really funny guy. After the informative Q&A, we decided to wait at the theater. Being the big fans of Shannon that we are, we wanted to meet him. There were a group of people huddled around a door, so we decided to wait there. Twenty minutes pass and he appears. Signs a few autographs, takes a few pictures, then leaves the building. The guy was incredibly gracious, so much so that he took even more pictures outside. A woman grabs my phone, Andy and I stand next to him, and a picture is taken. It seems like a blur now, but I could not have been more nervous. I was literally shaking afterwards. A pathetic show.

Day five: The final day ends with Citizen Kane (1941). This was a special screening. The screening features Roger Ebert’s famous commentary for the film. The reason for this is so the Virginia Theater could hear Roger’s voice one last time. So there we sat, in what I think was a completely full theater, watching Citizen Kane in a completely different light. I had never listened to his commentary before (contemplated it several times.) The commentary was remarkable. You haven’t seen Citizen Kane until you’ve seen it with Roger’s commentary.

There’s one occurrence that I feel I must mention. On Saturday, I spotted Roger Ebert. He was on the first floor, sitting in an area that looked as if it were designed for him. I immediately went into the gift shop to pick up one his books to get signed (ended up getting Scorsese: By Ebert.) Just like Andy, who had met Roger at a book signing months ago, I froze. I had no idea what to say to the man. I have been watching/reading his reviews for ten years. I still watch his reviews. And there he was, sitting in front of me. It was surreal.

What a joy. Being surrounded by (mostly) cinephiles. Wake up, watch films all day, go to sleep. Sure, I had a few complaints (you would think that people who are attending a film festival would remember to silence their phones.) If only it had lasted longer. It’s very doubtful at the moment, but if the two of us are willing to spend the time and the money, Telluride here we come. Again, that was just small talk we had in the theater to pass the time.

Until next year..

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Top Films of 2011

Another year ends, another mandatory ‘top films of the year’ list. This begs a question: was this a better year in film than last year? According to a few people I’ve talked to, that would be a resounding no. Do I agree with them? I can’t say that I do.

Enough with the pointless intro. Onto the list!

10. Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

Sean Durkin’s Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene is the most promising debut of the year. It’s an unsettling slow-burn of a film that doesn’t necessarily focus on the ways of a cult like one would assume. Rather, it’s more of a character study of a woman that is forced back into society after choosing to abandon the ways of a fairly simplistic – yet demented – cult. The film switches narratives to present day to the days of the cult in a very clever fashion. The last image is haunting and will stay with you. But the best thing to come out of this film is Elizabeth Olsen: an Olsen sister that actually matters.

9. Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)

Woody Allen returns after a decade of lackluster films (yes, that includes Match Point (2005)) with a whimsical, delight of a film. Gil (Owen Wilson, who is easily the best Woody Allen replacement) lives a mundane life. He’s engaged with a wife that doesn’t seem to understand him in the slightest. A car pulls up, he travels back to an era that is suited for him, and the rest is, well, history. It’s the kind of film one expects Woody Allen would do.

8. The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius)

No, it’s not the best film of the year. It doesn’t rank alongside the great silent films. But it’s immensely charming, and a refreshing film to see, one that will hopefully inspire people to look back into the silent era. It’s a very good film that often borders on greatness. This greatness lies in the scenes that play with modern methods of filmmaking (the use of sound taking over). However, this does propose a question that some people have criticized the film for: do some of these modern techniques the overall creative decision to make the film silent? No. I would have been surprised if this didn’t happen, given the material Hazanavicius is dealing with.

7. Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a film that solely relies on its aesthetic. It oozes a style that’s reminiscent of Melville, while still being original in its own right. This is both a positive and a negative quality. I find the film mesmerizing while watching it. The techniques on display just works for me: the slow motion (take note, Snyder), the long takes, and the two camera set-up. This ultimately boils down to the good old “style over substance” argument. This doesn’t matter much, because the style is just so absorbing. If it weren’t for the problematic ending, I would rank the film a little higher. Nevertheless, this is a splendid action film. Hopefully more directors follow suit.

6. Shame (dir. Steve McQueen)

Steve McQueen followed his promising debut Hunger (2008) with Shame,  a film that focuses on a sex addict (Michael Fassbender) whose life is in ruins after his sister (Carey Mulligan) decides to stay with him. McQueen’s technical precision is as apparent as it was in his debut. Fassbender gives his strongest performance yet. He makes his addiction to sex actually seem like a disease (something I wasn’t sure if I would be able to buy.) The film’s approach almost seems like an extremely controlled documentary, and I mean that in a good way. The film never delves into melodrama, even when you think it might. The final hour is a harrowing experience, one that reminded me of the last stretch of Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.

5. Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami

I went into Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy knowing next to nothing about it. While watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004). As it progressed even further, that comparison slowly diminished. The film presents two characters that roam about Tuscany. We are unsure whether or not the two were once together or if this is their first encounter. The film never spells it out for us; it leaves us clues that could contradict each opposing theory. My take on it? This is their first encounter. That theory holds much more thematic weight, questioning the bond of two people. Either way, it’s a mesmerizing picture, one that just begs for multiple viewings. As usual, Juliette Binoche is sublime.

4. Take Shelter (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is a film that relies on character. He establishes this blue-collar family in the smallest of details, much like his debut film Shotgun Stories (2007). He paints the married couple as faithful and loving people. They have a daughter who is in need of pricey medical assistance. Once Curtis (Michael Shannon) begins to have visions of an apocalyptic future, the emotional backbone of the story kicks in. We want so desperately for Curtis to be straightened out. The further he sticks with his beliefs, the more the family dynamic crumbles apart. By the time this happens, we can only hope that he is indeed right, that everything he’s doing will ultimately come true, for his sake and the family’s. All of this builds up to one of the most unnerving scenes in years. The entire film rests its weight on Michael Shannon’s shoulders, and he succeeds in spectacular ways. He makes you believe that he cares for his family, that everything he is doing is for their safety, while still maintaining that creepiness he is known for. It’s a powerhouse of a performance.

3. Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese)

I must admit, when I saw the awful trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, I was a tad cautious, even though the film was coming from someone who might just be the greatest director working today. That skepticism quickly faded away. This isn’t about an orphan roaming about a train station with a little robot figure, as much as the marketing would like you to believe. Rather, it’s about an orphan (Asa Butterfield) that is confined to the walls of the train station, controlling the various clocks scattered around. The rest shouldn’t be spoiled. I’ll just say that eventually an old-time filmmaker comes into play.

This is undoubtedly Scorsese’s most personal film. As a youngster, Scorsese was confined to his apartment due to his allergies. He would spend all of his time watching movies. The cry for film preservation is in full force, but it does so without being overtly preachy. It’s about one’s mark in time, and how much an impact that one person can have. It’s a film for people that love cinema.

2. A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is a film that strips away cinematic flare for realistic storytelling. The camera feels as if it was placed to document the feud between two couples. I feel as if some critics have done a disservice to the film when labeling it as Hitchcockian thriller. To suggest that the thrills come from the story, for me, would be false. I found most of the tension to come from character, particularly from the immensely powerful ending (my heart was pounding on subsequent viewings.)

A Separation had the best ensemble of the year. It’s nearly impossible to choose a standout, though I find myself being more and more impressed with Peyman Moadi’s nuanced performance. Multiple viewings are necessary – not to find out who’s in the right or who’s in the wrong, but to pay attention to all of the detail that is in the script. Everything is implemented perfectly. It’s a film that doesn’t paint the characters as good or bad, but as real humans. You don’t see films like this often.

1. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s fifth film in a career that nearly spans forty years is his best film (that’s right) yet. It’s a film that attempts – and succeeds – to portray our existence in the vast scheme of things. It opens with the death of a sibling, triggering the mind-blowing creation of the universe sequence, then centering the narrative on a family living in 1950s Waco, Texas. The focus is on Young Jack (the under-appreciated Hunter McCracken), who is having to deal with his controlling father. It marks the transition between adolescence and adulthood.

It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint what exactly The Tree of Life is doing. Articulating our existence, how nostalgia can be perceived in a different light as time goes by, etc. The fact that Malick succeeds in his ambitious vision makes his grueling wait in between each of his films worth it. This is a master filmmaker showcasing his grandest vision yet. It’s as if each film Malick made was building up to The Tree of Life (he did have the idea way back in the 70s.) The director is notoriously reclusive, but the few bits of information that is known about the director can be found in the film (one of his brothers committed suicide, was notified of his death via telegram, etc.)  One must come to the conclusion that nearly everything else shown on screen is autobiographical. It’s hard not to admire the audacity.

I haven’t even touched on the flat-out gorgeous cinematography, the almost-too-fitting score, Brad Pitt’s career defining performance, and the best discovery of 2011: Jessica Chastain. The Tree of Life is a film I will revisit over and over. It has offered me a different experience – one that is emotionally draining – with each subsequent viewing.

There you have it. I watched nearly every film I intended on watching. Tinker, Tailer, Soldier SpyPoetry, and Weekend just missed the cut. We Need to Talk About Kevin was ultimately a disappointment, though I do feel Swinton’s performance deserves the praise. The Descendants had too many problems for me to find it to be very good (one of those problems being the completely useless voiceover narration.) Other films, such as Melancholiashouldn’t even be mentioned.

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A Separation (2011) – A Brief Look

A Separation (2011) opens with a point-of-view shot from an unseen figure talking to a married couple who are going through the process of a divorce. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to file for a divorce with Nader (Mayman Moadi) because he insists on taking care of his Grandfather who has Alzheimer’s. When Nader gives this reasoning, Simin fires back, claiming he cares more about his Grandfather, who doesn’t even know who he is, than his daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi).

This is A Separation in a nutshell. A divorce, with an eleven-year-old daughter, who is “going through adolescence,” that has to endure it all. It is not until an accusation towards her father that may or may not be true that she sees the true color of both parents. She wants them to stay together, but this accusation grows bigger and bigger, making their reunion seem more and more unlikely.

The accusation is from Razieh (Sara Bayet), a woman who is hired to look after Nader’s Grandfather. She has a young daughter that accompanies her. Her daughter is observant and rarely speaks a word. She points out to her mother that the Grandfather has urinated himself. Razieh brings him to the bathroom to clean him up. She asks if he can take off his pants and get in the bath – he doesn’t respond. She’s hesitant for a second, then calls up someone to inquire whether or not taking his pants off is a “sin.” She does it, with her daughter witnessing through a glass window.

Razieh tells Nader that she is unable to look after his Grandfather anymore due to her beliefs. She tells Nader to contact her husband Hudjat (Shahab Hosseini), who will be able to fill in for her position. The only catch is that he can’t mention anything about her day job to her husband. The following day, he’s a no-show. Razieh shows up instead, claiming her husband was taken away last night and is unable to look after his Grandfather today. Razieh agrees to do the job for one more day. Upon doing the show, she spills trash on the stairs, and loses the Grandfather. She wonders the street and spots him on a sidewalk.

The following day Nader comes home to his apartment to find it locked, both Razieh and her daughter absent. He finds his grandfather tied to his bed, lying on the floor. Had he arrived 10 minutes later, he would have been dead. Razieh and her daughter show up later to find a frustrated Nader. He questions where she went, why his Grandfather was tied to the bed, and why money is missing from his room. She claims she needed to go out and swears that she didn’t steal the money. Razieh is hostile and pushes her out of the apartment. The next thing we see is her getting up from the steps.

A few scenes later and she’s in the hospital. She had a miscarriage. Razieh claims that the push from Nader caused the miscarriage. The husband finds out and doesn’t take it too well. It all ends up in a case against Nader for murder. He claims that he had no knowledge of her pregnancy and that he just pushed her gently outside. The film makes it deliberately ambiguous who is in the right here. The camera is positioned so we can’t see if he did indeed push her in a harsh manner.

The case builds and builds, with accusations flying left and right. Nothing can be proved. Nader’s push may or may not have caused the miscarriage. The miscarriage could have been from the car that hit Razieh while trying to get ahold of the Grandfather (this bit of information isn’t supplied until the end.) Had Nader known this all along, why she tied him up in the first place, the case would have no weight in the first place.

None of this matters. The case’s outcome is completely irrelevant. In the center of it all, the neutral character is Termeh. She witnesses her mother’s manipulative nature (deliberately telling her negative – but truthful – things about her father) and her father’s selfish nature (refusing to admit his previous knowledge of Razieh’s pregnancy – even when the daughter catches him in a lie.)

The case doesn’t get going until thirty five minutes in. This is where one of the more impressive qualities of the film lies. Moments that seem entirely irrelevant and details that appear to be minimal gradually appear to have great importance to the characters and their situation. When Simin encounters two movers that won’t move a table because they weren’t paid enough, she pays them. She doesn’t negotiate with them. She wants the task done in the quickest possible way, no matter the cost. This is a stark contrast to when Nader demands his daughter to get the change from the gas station employee, insisting that he doesn’t get a tip because he didn’t pump the gas. She refuses, he demands. She asks for the money back and is told from her father to keep it. He won’t give the money to an individual unless he sees it fit. The two views come into play when Simin demands Nader to pay his way out of this mess. He was aware of her pregnancy, knew that he pushed her out of the apartment – but he can’t prove thathewas responsible for her miscarriage. His stubborn nature won’t allow him to take the easy way out.

Spilling the garbage on the steps may seem to have little importance to the story in the beginning, but it only adds another layer of ambiguity in the case. Razieh cleaned the garbage off of the steps, making them wet. Nader is well aware of this as well, and goes as far to point out that she could have simply slipped while walking down the steps.

When Razieh wants to tell Nader something in the beginning of the film, she knocks the door and waits. Once she is accused of stealing his money, she opens the door without waiting. She wants him to know the truth. She didn’t steal the money. Her character is defined as a religious person, so much so that she believes she must quit her job because the simple act of taking off a man’s pants violates her beliefs. We can only assume that she didn’t steal this money. This assumption becomes more likely at the end. The case between the two families is nearly settled. Nader finally agrees to pay them to drop everything, but only under one condition: Razieh must admit that she is certain that Nader was responsible for her miscarriage. She can’t do so, as she isn’t certain that Nader’s action was responsible for the miscarriage. She believes that the car hitting her might be the reason. She can’t go through with it and coffesses to her husband. He storms out in a fit of rage.

An interesting tidbit involves Nader’s attempt to countersue Razieh. If he can prove that his Grandfather’s life was at risk from being tied to the bed – a task that seems easier to prove than the miscarriage – then Razieh will be arrested. Nader believes he can prove this by showing the bruise that had to have been left from tying him up. He begins to unbutton the shirt to show the bruise, stops, and buttons the shirt back up. We can only assume that he recalls of a moment earlier in the film where his father was pressed up against the bathroom door, not moving at all. The father pushes the door open, knocking the father over. This scene is important for two reasons: it completely nullifies the case against Razieh, and it shows, despite what we learn about Nader, that he can be an ethical person.

Of course, the frustrating aspect of this whole situation is that Nader isn’t aware of the car accident. He isn’t aware that his Grandfather, who is incompetent in performing the most basic tasks, wondered outside of the apartment during the middle of the day, only to be rescued by the woman he believes is lying. Rescuing a man that is barely aware of what is around him could have been the cause of an unborn baby’s death. Had Nader known this, the whole situation could have been worked out differently. This would seem like a contrivance in any other film, but it works out in the film’s universe. Razieh can’t tell her husband that she was looking after the Grandfather due to her husband’s temper. When he first finds out about Razieh’s day job, staying in an apartment who is housed by “a single man,” he explodes with anger. She has a clear person to label for the cause of her miscarriage once she falls on the steps, whether it was the cause of it or not. She is only forced to tell him the truth – everything about the car accident and the Grandfather – at the end because she believes she will sin.

This all ends with an absolutely powerful sequence in a small courtroom. Termeh is given the option to choose which parent will have custody – Nader or Simin. “Have you chosen?” asks the unknown figure. “Yes,” she says. “Who have you chosen?” No response. “Are you sure you’ve chosen?” “Yes..” She asks for the parents to leave the room, while tears are dripping down her face. She has witnessed the worst of her parents, and now she is stuck in predicament that will change her life forever. We don’t know which parent she chooses. Why should we?

Sure, a lot of the film’s brilliance can be found in the limitation – and utter hypocrisy – of the court system (did I mention that this film is Iranian?), the complete lack of glossy, cinematic tricks, and religious stances. But the daughter’s situation, while not appearing prominent at first, is the meat of the story. One can’t help but feel for her by the end, wishing that things could have gone differently, that characters could have spoken wiser. That would defeat the entire point, unfortunately. No character in this film can be defined as the bad guy – they’re just human. Each character has both negative and positive traits. No one can be blamed. The film begins with a divorce, takes a side-step that involves a case in which characters are defined, then manages to get back on track at the very end, ending with a question that has the greatest importance.

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