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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best Films of 2014
















THE BEST FILMS OF 2014
  By Joshua Handler

2014 was not the best year for film.  That is not to say that it didn't have a number of truly excellent films - it did.  There were quite a few studio blockbusters that were genuinely outstanding like Guardians of the Galaxy, Edge of Tomorrow, and X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Godzilla and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were also quite good.  Independent and world cinema, as usual, were superb.  We had films like Obvious Child, Ilo Ilo, Zero Motivation, The Raid 2FrankThe CongressTwo Days, One Night, Pride, and a host of others.  And documentaries were typically excellent.  Point and Shoot, Life Itself, 20,000 Days on Earth, and Finding Vivian Maier were among the many standouts.

By what you just read, it probably sounds as if this was actually a great year for cinema.  In many ways it was, but when I look back at how hard it was to make a top 10 list for last year, it shows me just how disappointing this year was because this list was incredibly easy to make.  There were so many terrible or disappointing films this year that it made ones like those below stand out even more.  The films below are outstanding pieces of work that moved cinema forward and/or gave me a unique cinematic experience.  If this were a different day, many of my honorable mentions might have made my top 10 list.  But, this is December 31, 2014, and these are the films that I think are the best of 2014.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
(tie) 1. WHIPLASH (Dir. Damien Chazelle) - Winner of the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, Damien Chazelle's Whiplash is an adrenaline rush.  It gives a rush like nothing else released this year.  And it's a masterful film to boot.  J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller give the best performances of their respective careers.  Chazelle's direction is economical and his screenplay is intense, scary, and funny.  And the finale is one of the best-directed sequences I've ever seen.  It's nerve-wracking, satisfying, and subtle.  Whiplash is the epitome of why I go to the movies.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
(tie) 1. THE NOTEBOOK (Dir. János Szász) - The least-known film on this list happens to be the best (along with Whiplash).  Winner of the 2013 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination a year ago and swiftly picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution, the film did not receive the Oscar nomination and was unfortunately forgotten by just about everyone (if they even knew about it in the first place).  This is a movie I saw back in January and fell in love with.  After the first viewing, I saw it two more times and interviewed Mr. Szász.  The Notebook is a masterpiece.  It is one of the greatest World War II films ever made.  Why?  Because it unrelentingly shows the horrors of World War II from two emotionless twins' perspectives with a twisted worldview.  Oscar-nominated cinematographer Christian Berger's rich cinematography gives the film a classically creepy fairy tale-like atmosphere, Szász' direction is cold and hard-hitting, and the finale, like Whiplash's, is horrifying, intense, and powerful.  And every performance is perfect.  The Notebook is a film that deserved/deserves more attention and is a film that I knew wouldn't be topped even after my first viewing.

Photo: Paramount Pictures
2. SELMA (Dir. Ava DuVernay) - A landmark film.  Ava DuVernay's Selma is the historical drama of the year, if not the decade.  It could even be considered one of the greatest historical dramas of all time for many reasons.  The film refuses to stoop to cliché and stares down the violence that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement, something that very few, if any, filmmakers have ever attempted.  The film lends psychological and political complexity to a movement usually depicted through rose-colored glasses and features a towering performance from David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.  Oyelowo portrays King not as an icon or an angelic figure, but rather as the flawed, yet brilliant human being that he was.  Additionally, the film feels eerily relevant due to the parallels that can be drawn between it and the state of modern-day race relations in America.

3. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Dirs. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne) - I've talked about this movie to death, so please read one of my two articles about it to see why it's another Dardenne Brothers masterpiece.

Photo: The Weinstein Company
4. THE IMITATION GAME (Dir. Morten Tyldum) - The most progressive biopic produced in years, The Imitation Game marks Morten Tyldum's English-language debut following his acclaimed 2011 film, Headhunters.  The Imitation Game tells the tragic story of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who led the effort to crack the German Enigma Code during WWII, which eventually led to the final Allied victory.  However, despite his heroic war efforts, he was betrayed by his country because he was gay.  As entertaining, electrifying, and crushingly sad as films get, The Imitation Game is a beautiful ode to a hero who too few people know about.  Graham Moore's screenplay is quick-witted and smartly-plotted and Alexandre Desplat's score is gorgeous.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are magnetic.  While a traditionally-structured film, The Imitation Game distinguishes itself from other "prestige biopics" due to its modern politics and huge heart.  Never has sitting around cracking codes been so thrilling.

Photo: RADiUS-TWC
5. SNOWPIERCER (Dir. Bong Joon-ho) - Bong Joon-ho has made a name for himself with his Korean-language films, The Host, Memories of Murder, and Mother.  With Snowpiercer, Bong marks his English-language debut.  This visionary piece of work is one of the most imaginative, thrilling, clever, and all-out insane sci-fi films in years.  Bong and Kelly Masterson's screenplay is tightly-structured, and Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and cast give universally superb performances.  With each scene, the film becomes increasingly exciting; I couldn't wait for the next scene to come to see what Bong had cooked up, but at the same time, I didn't want the film to end.  If this is not the epitome of a great piece of work, I don't know what is.

Photo: The Weinstein Company
6. THE IMMIGRANT (Dir. James Gray) - James Gray's depressingly underseen The Immigrant is an overwhelmingly immersive personal epic with another heartbreaking performance from Marion Cotillard.  Darius Khondji's sepia-toned cinematography makes the film look like an old photograph come to life and Christopher Spellman's score is one of the year's best.  The Immigrant is the kind of slow-paced, beautifully-lensed, deeply moving immigrant drama that unfortunately no one makes anymore, which makes us all the more lucky to have a filmmaker like James Gray around to take a risk and make this kind of film.

Photo: Drafthouse Films
(tie) 7. THE OVERNIGHTERS (Dir. Jesse Moss) - Jesse Moss' The Overnighters is a film that will make you think differently about life, and it demonstrates how real life is almost always stranger than fiction.  Moss' unsentimental approach to the film and his non-judgmental attitude towards his subjects make this a hard-hitting film about working towards the American Dream.  The final third of the film also contains some "twists" that dramatically change the meaning of many of the preceding events.  These twists, though, are just part of what makes The Overnighters the profound filmgoing experience that it is.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
(tie) 7. THE SALT OF THE EARTH (Dirs. Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) - The Salt of the Earth is Wenders and Salgado's loving portrait of Salgado's father, famed photographer Sebastião Salgado, a man who dedicated the first decades of his career to capturing the lives of the "salt of the earth" before becoming an environmentalist and dedicating time to photographing the planet's beauty.  As moving and jaw-droppingly beautiful as any film this year, this is truly an achievement in biographical documentary cinema.  The Salt of the Earth isn't a purely reverential portrait of the elder Salgado, but rather a complex two-handed study.  The younger Salgado explores the mysterious enigma of the father he barely knew, and Wenders explores the work and career of Sebastião Salgado.

Photo: IFC Films 
8. BOYHOOD - A beautiful look at coming of age in modern-day America, Richard Linklater's Boyhood is both an achievement in directing and editing (editor Sandra Adair had to edit down twelve years of material into a cohesive 165-minute feature).  Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltraine, and Lorelei Linklater give four of the most fascinating performances I've ever seen, as I was able to watch their growth as actors over the course of the film.  Boyhood is a film that defines an era.

Photo: Fox Searchlight
9. WILD (Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée) - An exhilarating biopic of redemption, Wild is one of the only "inspirational" films that I wouldn't hesitate to say actually inspired me.  Through a series of clever techniques, Jean-Marc Vallée and crew place the viewer inside Cheryl Strayed's head, depicting her as a flawed, relatable woman whose journey I became immersed in and connected to.  Wild rises above the typical clichés of the biopic genre because of Vallée's direction and Nick Hornby's screenplay.  This isn't a film of big emotions and big performances.  Strayed's victories are internal victories, not massive moments of outward celebration, which makes the film all the more powerful. And finally, Reese Witherspoon gives a stripped-down, raw performance that proves once again why she's an actress we all need to pay attention to.

Photo: Open Road Films
10. NIGHTCRAWLER (Dir. Dan Gilroy) - Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, Nightcrawler is a haunting, creepy, blackly comic film with a career-best performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Nightcrawler pulses with energy and wit and is a dark vision expertly executed.  And, it's great to see Rene Russo back in action.  Her scenes with Gyllenhaal are chilling.  Nightcrawler is a frightening piece of social commentary and a film that I cannot wait to revisit.



Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Into the Woods, Foxcatcher, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Ernest & Celestine, Gone Girl, They Came Together, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ilo Ilo, Top Five, 20,000 Days on Earth.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

SELMA Review

Left to right: David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.
Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima, © 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
SELMA
2014, 128 minutes
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language

Review by Joshua Handler

Ava DuVernay's Selma is a landmark film.  Up until this point, there has not had a film focused around Martin Luther King, Jr.  There also hasn't been a great film about the Civil Rights movement because no filmmaker was willing to make the plunge and explore the movement in all of its political and psychological complexity.  Enter Ava DuVernay, an African-American woman who had never directed a large studio film before.  She was best known as a director of acclaimed indies (she won the 2012 Sundance Best Director Prize for Middle of Nowhere).  With a screenplay by first-time screenwriter Paul Webb (DuVernay reportedly did a page-one rewrite, but didn't receive credit for it), an untested director (with this sort of film, at least), and a cast stacked with big-name actors and soon-to-be big-name actors, this film could have gone horribly wrong (as films with this much talent behind them have in the past), but luckily, everything (and I mean everything) went right under DuVernay's masterful direction.

Selma takes place during a three-month period in 1965 when Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to secure equal voting rights for African-Americans.  While the time period covered may be short, the statement that Selma makes is one for the ages.  In this day and age, it's disturbing to see just how little progress we've made since the days of MLK.

Unlike other Civil Rights films, Selma depicts the time period with honesty, pain, and a sense of urgency.  Through her understated direction, DuVernay depicts the violence and persecution that the African-American people endured in the 1960s with passion.  Under DuVernay's direction, nothing is sensationalized, and everything feels relevant.  Selma never feels like just another historical drama, and DuVernay never treats it like one.  She treats this material as if it is a current event, never letting nostalgia or crowd-pleasing tactics get in the way of the intensity and danger of the events depicted.  DuVernay develops each and every character to immerse us in their struggle.  

To further immerse us in the time period in which Selma is set, DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb explore the politics and psychological drama behind the key players in the story.  This gives the film yet another layer of complexity and makes it and its characters all the more fascinating to watch.

David Oyelowo's performance is nothing short of a revelation.  He completely embodies Martin Luther King, Jr.  Like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, Oyelowo portrays MLK as a fragile human being full of self-doubt, not as an icon.  Oyelowo cuts to the heart of MLK and portrays him with subtlety, passion, and fire.  The speech sequences are so convincing that I completely forgot that I was watching an actor and not the real MLK.

Carmen Ejogo is another standout as Coretta Scott King.  Though she only appears in a handful of sequences, they are some of the most important and moving of the entire film.  Ejogo's expressive face and confident screen presence make her stand out in a truly superb ensemble.

Bradford Young's cinematography is magnificent, as usual.  Of particular note is the evocative, which adds extra subtext to each scene.  Additionally, Young's unconventional, yet very effective framing makes his work all the more noteworthy.  It's wonderful to see that his talents are being utilized on high-profile films such as this and A Most Violent Year.

Overall, Selma is an intimate, yet epic, painful, yet hopeful masterwork about one of the darkest periods in American history.  Selma is traditional in many respects, but has such unconventional direction that it truly rises above almost every film that has been released this year.  When people look back at 2014 and the films that defined it/moved cinema forward, they will look to Richard Linkater's Boyhood and Ava DuVernay's Selma.  Selma is a high point for American Cinema.  It is a shining example of why cinema is still as important and powerful as ever.  

4/4

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

THE INTERVIEW Review

Courtesy of Sony Pictures
THE INTERVIEW 
2014, 112 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence

Review by Joshua Handler

The controversy surrounding Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's The Interview is outrageous. The only people this film will actually offend is the North Korean government.  But, I'm not going to focus this review around the controversy, since this is a review of the film's merits (or lack thereof).  I'll say it here: The Interview is no This is the End, but it is still quite funny and highly enjoyable. 

The Interview tells the story of TV show host Dave Skylark (James Franco) and producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) who are given the rare opportunity to interview North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park).  However, before going to North Korea for the interview, the FBI charge Skylark and Rapaport with the task of assassinating Kim Jong-un.

Many comedies nowadays don't push their ripe premise far enough.  However, with The Interview, directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg go for broke. There were many moments where it seemed inconceivable that Rogen and Goldberg would go as far as they threatened to, but during those moments they went far past where they threatened to.  They hold nothing back, and in doing so, have created a comedy that is more shocking than funny, but it is still quite funny.  

While The Interview isn't the genius political satire that it should've been, it is such an immensely enjoyable experience due to Rogen and Franco's natural chemistry, some wonderfully crude sight gags, and an outrageously exciting finale.  And, the film's MVP is Randall Park, who gives a game performance as Kim Jong-un.  Diana Bang also adds some energy as Sook, a member of the North Korean government.

Above all else, though, The Interview's heart is in the right place.  The film is not mean-spirited.  It's a simple comedy that wants to poke fun at an easy target and give its audience an enjoyable night out at the movies.  Rogen, Goldberg, Franco, and everyone else involved obviously had no malintent with this film, but their good intentions backfired.  

Overall, The Interview is a good film that's been overshadowed by a ridiculous amount of controversy.  While its go-for-broke style of crude humor will not be for everyone, it will not disappoint fans of Rogen, Goldberg, and Franco's previous comedies.  

3/4

BREAKING: THE INTERVIEW TO RELEASE AT CINEMA VILLAGE IN NYC

BREAKING: THE INTERVIEW TO RELEASE AT CINEMA VILLAGE IN NYC

The following is a press release regarding the upcoming theatrical release of THE INTERVIEW. The film is also available now for purchase and rental on VOD.

CINEMA VILLAGE SAVES CHRISTMAS FROM THE TERRORISTS

Independent Arthouse Hosts Manhattan's Exclusive Run of Sony's THE INTERVIEW 

Opens on Thursday, December 25



December 24, 2015, New York, NY - - New York City's Cinema Village announced today that it will open the most discussed movie of the year, THE INTERVIEW, directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, on Thursday, December 25th as Manhattan's exclusive venue.  The independently run theater and cinematic first-responder, located at 22 East 12th Street (between 5th Avenue and University), joins 200 theaters across the nation to show the film after the major chains continued to refuse to show it.  The film will be shown daily at 10:00 a.m.12:30 p.m.3:05 p.m.5:30 p.m.8:00 p.m.10:30 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. Tickets are available now throughwww.cinemavillage.com.

Davd Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) are the team behind the popular tabloid-TV show "Skylark Tonight".  After learning that North Korea's Kim Jong Un (Randall Park) is a huge fan of the show, they successfully set up an interview with him, hoping to legitimize themselves as actual journalists.  However, as Dave and Aaron prepare for their journey to Pyongyang, the CIA steps in, recruits them, and assigns them an incredible mission:  Assassinate the dictator.

ABOUT CINEMA VILLAGE
Built in 1963 in the shell of a turn-of-the-century fire station, the independent Cinema Village is the oldest continuously-operated cinema in Greenwich Village, and one of the oldest continuously-operated art cinemas in the city. And they're not going to let some crummy as-of-yet unspecified terrorists push them around. Not on Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Five Reasons to See TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

Courtesy of Sundance Selects
FIVE REASONS TO SEE 
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
By Joshua Handler

I normally don't write pieces on films I've already reviewed other than the occasional interview, but I feel that it is of paramount importance that audiences see Two Days, One Night (my review), the latest film from master directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Kid with a Bike).  The film follows Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a depressed working-class woman who must try to convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses in order for her to keep her job over the course of one weekend.  Usually, the Dardennes don't work with A-list actors, but with Two Days, One Night, they decided to make an exception and have Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard lead the film.  This unholy pairing of director and actress has created one of the most moving, humane, and suspenseful films of 2014.  Here are my five reasons as to why you should see it:

1) Marion Cotillard - There is no doubt Two Days, One Night would've been good with another actress in the lead, but one of the main reasons why it reaches greatness is because of Marion Cotillard.  When performing in an American indie or in French, Cotillard loses herself in her role.  While Cotillard loses her makeup and fancy clothing in Two Days, One Night, that is the least of why her performance is so powerful and profound.  Cotillard gives a face to working class women everywhere.  Sandra is full of guilt and self-doubt, but is always working for a noble cause: the well-being of her family.  Cotillard's expressive face says more than words ever could.  Take the opening scene - Sandra receives a call from a friend telling her that she's been fired.  She barely says a word, yet we can see by the tortured look on her face that something is wrong.  Sandra bursts into tears upon hearing this piece of news, yet by the way that Cotillard portrays it, it seems as if one of these meltdowns is normal for her (which would make sense given that she's depressed).  It is subtle pieces of Cotillard's performance like this that send it into the ranks with Meryl Streep's performance in Sophie's Choice and Vivien Leigh's in A Streetcar Named Desire.

2) The Dardennes' Mastery of Filmmaking - No one makes films like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.  They manage to capture small moments of grace and beauty in hardship, yet they never exploit their characters or the people they represent.  The Dardennes' respect and admiration for their characters is remarkable and on full display in Two Days, One Night.  They find honor and worth in the simple, humble lives of their characters.  And, in Two Days, One Night, there is a distinct lack of sentimentality.  The Dardennes trust Cotillard's ample abilities and the power of real life to carry the film's emotion.  They know that there is no need to artificially create emotions when their lead actress and the inherent drama in their story can create real ones to move the audience.

3) The Characters - As mentioned above, the characters in Two Days, One Night (and any other Dardenne film for that matter) pop off of the screen.  One of the most admirable aspects of Two Days, One Night is the portrayal of Sandra's husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione).  In films like this, the husband is typically a terrible person.  However, Manu is loving, caring, and Sandra's biggest supporter.  It's refreshing to see a husband on film whose love and faith in his wife don't waver.  Because of the Dardennes' naturalistic dialogue and the actors' energy and raw talent, every character, however small, is complex and infinitely compelling.

4) It is a Welcome Alternative to Traditional Holiday Films - With typical awards films like Unbroken and Into the Woods (both good films) releasing on Christmas, it can get a little repetitive watching massive spectacles.  Two Days, One Night is the antithesis of the studio awards film.  This is a little low-budget gem with a big enough heart to compensate for the pounding that the cold, heartless blockbusters have given us over the past 11 months (though I will say that blockbusters have been unusually heartfelt this year).  Not to mention, with Unbroken and Into the Woods being as dark as they are, it's nice to find a film like Two Days, One Night that truly will make you smile.  As dark as Two Days, One Night can be, it's ultimately a film about hope in the face of adversity, making it uplifting and inspirational.

5) It Will Satisfy Everyone - As a friend of mine pointed out following the New York Film Festival screening of Two Days, One Night, this is a film that will transcend the language barrier.  Two Days, One Night's themes are so universal and the characters are so real and relatable that just about everyone will connect to it.  Cotillard's performance is so immersive that it alone would convince just about anyone to care for her plight.  One of the most brilliant aspects of Two Days, One Night is the Dardennes' reluctance to end it in a conventional manner.  The way in which they end Two Days, One Night is deeply beautiful and far more satisfying and profound than if any other filmmaker(s) had made it.  Two Days, One Night is a realist David and Goliath tale, something that nearly everyone loves.  This film has something for everyone.  There's unbearable suspense, a strong romance at the core of the film, and more than enough drama to satisfy even the most jaded filmgoers.  And the Dardennes' exploration of the morality of Sandra's situation will cause hours worth of dinnertime conversation after the movie is over.  

Two Days, One Night is one of the few films this year that I wouldn't hesitate to call a masterpiece.  I've screened it three times, each time marveling more at the brilliance of the filmmaking and acting on display.  Two Days, One Night will be considered an "arthouse" film because it will only open in limited release at arthouse theaters, yet it is anything but.  Two Days, One Night is a universal film with themes of love, hope, and sacrifice that will go down as a highlight in the distinguished careers of The Dardennes and Marion Cotillard.

Two Days, One Night opens today, December 24, in New York City.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

WILD Review

Reese Witherspoon as "Cheryl Strayed" in WILD.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
WILD 
2014, 115 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language

Review by Joshua Handler

Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild is a film that actually inspired me.  So often, I see movies that are inspiring, but that don't cause me to think about my own life and to want to live better.  Wild is based on the autobiography of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who trekked over 1000 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail after a series of personal tragedies.  Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby don't include big hands-in-the-air "I-made-it" moments.  Instead, they give weight to moments of introspection and the quiet, internal victories that Strayed experiences throughout her trip.

There is so much that makes Wild more than just a typical biopic.  Hornby and Vallée use voice-over and Strayed's internal monologue to provide us a door into this woman's fractured soul.  Strayed is wracked with guilt, pain, anger, and regret and these emotions affect her throughout her journey.  Instead of giving us big scenes where Strayed shows us these emotions, Vallee frequently gives us brief glimpses into Strayed's emotions through sounds and flashes of memories.

Through the sounds, memories, voice-over, and internal monologue, I never felt as if I was simply observing Strayed.  I felt as if I was living this adventure with her.  I got to walk in her shoes.  Most biopics observe their main characters, but in Vallée's biopics, Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, he allows us a portal into his character's heads so that we can travel with them.

Vallée and Hornby's work, however, would be all for naught without a lead performance to match it.  Reese Witherspoon's understated, conflicted performance in Wild anchors the film and guides us over its course.  Witherspoon's portrayal of Strayed is neither flattering nor sweet.  She gives a performance that leaves no stone unturned.  She shows Cheryl at both the peak and at rock bottom.  Under Vallée's careful direction, Witherspoon dials back any of her movie-star persona to create an ordinary flawed woman beaten down by the world.

When discussing movie stars' performances in films where they must shed their star persona, people tend to mistake the star's ragged looks for good acting.  What Witherspoon gives in Wild is an unglamorous performance, but also a truly great one that very few actresses could have achieved with such powerful effect.  Witherspoon's Strayed is troubled, but she is also funny, kind, and caring.  Witherspoon expertly balances all of these parts of Strayed to create one of the most vibrant and realistic female protagonists I've seen on screen this year.

It's inspiring to watch Wild because Vallée and Hornby have created a female heroine who stands up against large, yet very relatable, realistic odds to change herself and lead a better life.  The "inspirational biopics" we have been seeing now like Unbroken and The Theory of Everything are about people who are larger than life.  Strayed is not larger than life.  She's an insignificant everyday woman who, as a sign in her therapist's office points out, is a small part of a big universe.  But, it's seeing that someone like you or I could change so significantly that makes this story more inspirational than other films about more significant figures.

Overall, Wild is a piece of filmmaking that I genuinely believe can better those who view it and can make people think about how they're living their lives.  It rises above cliché time and again thanks to Vallée's sympathetic, understated direction and Nick Hornby's intelligent screenplay.  The performances are excellent across the board (Laura Dern gives a heartbreaking performance as Strayed's beloved mother), but it is Witherspoon who owns this film.  Never has she been given the opportunity to shine like this before.  I think that people's image of her will change dramatically after seeing her transformative work in Wild.  Witherspoon kept me with her throughout the film and made Cheryl's eventual redemption feel earned through her subtly changing performance.

4/4

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

ZERO MOTIVATION Review

Nelly Tagar as Daffi. Photographer: Yaron Scharf
ZERO MOTIVATION
2014, 96 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler


This review was originally published during the Tribeca Film Festival in April. The film opened today at Film Forum in NYC.

Winner of the Tribeca Film Festival's Best Narrative Feature Award and Nora Ephron Prize, Talya Lavie's Zero Motivation is the most entertaining movie about boredom ever made.  The film tells the story of a group of young women serving in the IDF at a desert station in Israel.  The women are petty, bratty, rotten, and selfish, all of these delightful qualities emphasized by the fact that they are bored working in an office all day.

In addition to being the most entertaining movie about boredom ever made, this is the most apolitical movie about the IDF ever made.  In most Israeli or Palestinian films I've seen, particularly those about the army, there's always some kind of political slant (and I've seen films that have leaned towards every side of that conflict), but Zero Motivation zeroes in on the pettiness of the soldiers' everyday lives as they complain, fight, and try to beat each other's Minesweeper scores.

The film is told in three parts through the eyes of two characters, Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar (Dana Ivgy).  There isn't one narrative through-line for Zero Motivation, but rather the film is told in little anecdotes, each funnier than the next.  The actresses all give strong performances.  Their comedic timing is impeccable.

Almost every single character in this film is unlikable, which is what makes them infinitely compelling.  They're live wires which means they're extremely unpredictable.  These women literally have zero motivation to succeed or to support their country.  They are constantly reminded that their fellow soldiers are laying down their lives while they're bitching about having to file papers.  The women in this film forget that they're serving in the military where people's lives are in danger - they're so caught up in their own little world.  Because they're caught up in this world, they fail to see the larger picture.

But, they're human.  In one way or another, we can relate to these characters, whether we'd care to admit it or not.  These characters could have been caricatures, but they aren't because Lavie makes them relatable.  These are just bored women at work.  Everyone can relate to wanting to play an addictive game like Minesweeper on a slow day at work.  Unfortunately, though, in these womens' workplace, people's lives are on the line.

Overall, this is an auspicious debut for Lavie.  It is a supremely entertaining, confident, occasionally demented, and very human film.  If this is how great the quality of Lavie's films will continue to be, I cannot wait to see what's next.

4/4

Monday, November 10, 2014

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Adam Kimmel

Adam Kimmel
Courtesy of the artist
FROM THE MOUTHS OF FILMMAKERS:
ADAM KIMMEL
By Adam Kimmel and Joshua Handler

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked some of the most exciting and original voices in modern cinema to submit responses to a few questions about why/if they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view, and how those films have been influential on their careers.

The responses below are from Adam Kimmel, cinematographer of Capote (Independent Spirit Award-nominee for Best Cinematography), Lars and the Real Girl, and Never Let Me Go (Independent Spirit Award-nominee for Best Cinematography).

Do you believe that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view films of the past and why (if you don't feel that it is important, please tell why)?
I think that maybe the answer is in the question. If someone is an aspiring filmmaker, than they are aspiring to tell stories or evoke feelings to total strangers in a personal way, and I think there are few people who can say they haven't been affected by someone else's effort to do the same. This is not to say that someone can't have such original vision that they can't create something that's never been seen before, but the beauty of art is that you can stand alone in what you do and still recognize all the others who have come before you and done the same, and without compromising your individuality, be a part of something collective and ongoing. So yes, if you can look at film as an collective and evolving art form then it becomes clear that to be a part of it as a contributor or as an observer (which also is a contributor) can be greatly enriched by acknowledging the linage from which it flows.
Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why (if you don't feel it is important, please tell me why)
It's interesting to think of independent and world cinema as different from cinema as a whole. I guess I mean that the geographic or budgetary specifics that cause certain films be be labeled as such are less defining to me then the degree to which they succeed. If people were to judge painting or classical music the same way, what did it cost to make or what language did the composer speak, wouldn't it be the world's loss to consider these inferior to more costly and widely distributed work? If something succeeds in moving or entertaining or provoking you, then isn't that enough to consider it worthy of your time? People love movies because they have the capacity to make us feel and laugh and think and lose ourselves into something completely outside of us while still bringing ourselves along for the experience. This has been the same since long before films were made, in literature and verbal storytelling and gathering around the campfire to use your imagination through the prism of someone else's experiences. This is what people have always been drawn to as a way to expand our understanding and perspective. That having been said, I think that limiting yourself to any narrow angle of view, whether it's Hollywood/Studio/English-language/Star-driven films, or whether it means only seeing whatever is foreign to you, is asking to be disappointed or uninspired by the state of the art. 
How did viewing indies, films from around the world, and classics help/influence you when shooting CAPOTE, NEVER LET ME GO, and the other films you've shot? 
I have a difficult time when I try to define how specific influences inform my choices. I like to think that inspiration is a cumulative process and that at any given point along the way, your creativity is a manifestation of everything that has inspired you so far. When I look at any film I've shot, I see the best of what I was capable of at that point in my process, and I can also see fragments of things that had made impressions on me up until then. But I love that point in preparing a film when you stop asking yourself where things come from second guessing yourself and begin to really trust that you're inside the story and the director's vision of it, and that all the influences and inspirations that have led you up to this point are now inseparable from where you are and the work you are doing.  
I'm still so fascinated when someone is able to take a story or an image that exists in their own mind and imagination and express it in a medium that allows me to sit there and watch it, and cultivating that process with a director is a great privilege and responsibility that I'll never take lightly.
What's one American indie (doc or narrative)  one non-English-language film (doc or narrative) and one classic (define that one any way you wish) that you would recommend that film-lovers and/or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
In recent American Indies, I really enjoyed Jim Jarmusch's Only Lover's Left Alive and was moved and impressed by Beasts of the Southern Wild - both were really fulfilling experiences for me.
In foreign language films, I thought The Great Beauty stood out as a brilliantly realized, original, and confident piece of work, but so did Blue is the Warmest Color for such transparent performances. I also really admire the Dardenne brothers and Jacques Audiard's recent films.   
Under the heading of Classics... The Godfather has to start that list for me, but it's a long and varied list but with a definite bend toward cinematography that I feel is inseparable from the story it's telling. So almost anything shot by Gordon Willis, Owen Roizman, Caleb Deschanel, Conrad Hall, Emanuel Lubezki, and on and on.
From the Mouths of Filmmakers continues on Wednesday.

Friday, November 7, 2014

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Review

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne star in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING.Liam Daniel / Focus Features
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
2014, 124 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and suggestive material

Review by Joshua Handler

Eddie Redmayne has proven himself to be a promising talent over the last few years with lead or significant supporting roles in films like My Week with Marilyn and Les Misérables.  With The Theory of Everything, Redmayne shows that he's an actor who must be taken seriously.  This is an actor's film and the acting is the reason to see this film about the extraordinary life of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking.  Theory begins with Hawking as a young student at Cambridge University.  It then shows how, at the age of 21, he was diagnosed with ALS, and because of this disease, he was expected to live two years.  However, through his incredible strength and the dedication of his first wife, Jane, he is still living today, over 50 years later.

As mentioned, Redmayne disappears into his role, giving this otherwise standard biopic a sense of vitality and energy.  Redmayne is heartbreaking, especially during the opening hour.  During this portion, Hawking loses more and more control of his bodily functions, something which Redmayne portrays with an extreme attention to detail.  This performance could very well win him an Oscar.

As Jane, Felicity Jones gives a deeply heartfelt performance.  Ever since Jones' underrated work in 2011's Like Crazy, I've been impressed by her (Jones' work in the underrated The Invisible Woman was also very strong).  So, it's no surprise to me that she shines in this film.  She gives a surprisingly fierce performance, and she and Redmayne have wonderful chemistry.

Another strong point in this film is Benoît Delhomme's magical cinematography.  Delhomme keeps the film grounded in reality, but gives the film an otherworldly sense that makes the film cinematic and lively.  The energy from Delhomme behind the camera matches the actors.

Overall, The Theory of Everything is a solid biopic that will please just about everyone.  But, it simply isn't extraordinary.  Because Theory follows the same beats as most other biopics, it's very hard for me to love it as a whole.  When I watch a movie, I, like every other film critic, ask myself, "Would I pay to go see this movie and why?"  For Theory of Everything, I would pay, if only to witness the stunning performances and cinematography.  (As a side note, I will say that James Marsh does a good job directing - it takes a director of serious talent to elicit performances like those in this film).  I wholeheartedly recommend viewing The Theory of Everything, but wouldn't necessarily recommend seeking it out over other recent releases like Birdman, Whiplash, and next week's Foxcatcher or Rosewater.

3/4

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Bradford Young



Bradford Young
 FROM THE MOUTHS OF FILMMAKERS:
BRADFORD YOUNG
By Bradford Young and Joshua Handler

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked some of the most exciting and original voices in modern cinema to submit responses to a few questions about why/if they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view, and how those films have been influential on their careers.

The responses below are from Bradford Young, cinematographer of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Pariah, Mother of George (his work on all three won him the Excellence in Cinematography Award: Dramatic from the Sundance Film Festival), Middle of Nowhere, and the upcoming films A Most Violent Year, Selma, and Pawn Sacrifice.

Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why (if you don't feel it is important, please tell me why)?
I think it's extremely important for filmmakers and filmgoers to be connected to all forms of independent and world gestures towards storytelling. In spite of vicious commercialism in all corners of the craft, independent American cinema is one of the last bastions of an ethos and pathos that looks at cinema as a tool of culture, an art form. World cinema, as the other, still remains connected to local culture. It's driven by a national identity that is concerned with serving the interest of the people, at least in principal. These pieces of art are important to see because it reminds us that we can be practitioners of our craft and active viewers without being subjected to corporate interests. We can honor ourselves by honoring our right to be independent.  
Do you believe that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view films of the past and why (if you don't feel that it is important, please tell why)? 
If you don't know where you come from, you do not know where you are going. We operate in an art form that was forged by Birth of a Nation. If we do not know this history, we are bound to repeat and reinforce stereotypes and questions of representation that are deeply problematic in that film. In fact, I see plenty of those images being reinforced by filmmakers in the 21st century. We must know from which we came.   
How did viewing indies, classics, and/or films from around the world help/influence you when shooting SELMA, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, PAWN SACRIFICE, AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS, PARIAH, or any of the other films you've shot? 
My interest in filmmaking, and cinematography specifically, was birthed the first time I saw the movies of Haile Gerima, Charles Burnette, Kathleen Collins, Djibril Diop Mambety, and Andrei Tarkovsky. These filmmakers were and are aware that in order for a film to feel like something it must look like something. I always return back to their work no matter the project. In my eyes, they still remain the most important filmmakers in my life. 
What's one American indie (narrative or documentary) and one non-English-language film (narrative or documentary) that you would recommend film-lovers or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
American Narrative would be Ashes and Embers by Haile Gerima. American documentary would be The Exiles by Kent McKenzie. Non-English narrative would Touki Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambety. 
From the Mouths of Filmmakers continues on Friday.

Monday, November 3, 2014

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Robert Greene

Robert Greene
FROM THE MOUTHS OF FILMMAKERS:
ROBERT GREENE
By Robert Greene and Joshua Handler

Due to a busy schedule, I haven't had much time to publish From the Mouths of Filmmakers. It should be back on the usual schedule now.


Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked some of the most exciting and original voices in modern cinema to submit responses to a few questions about why/if they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view, and how those films have been influential on their careers.

The responses below are from Robert Greene, director/producer/editor/cinematographer of the upcoming film, Actress (in theaters this Friday) and Fake it So Real.  Greene has also edited a number of films including Listen Up Philip and Approaching the Elephant.

Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why (if you don't feel it is important, please tell me why)?
I think knowing about cinema is crucial to making films and that having at least a working knowledge of cinema history enriches everyone’s experience of watching movies. For aspiring filmmakers, you have two choices: either watch so many movies that your inspirations and influences get so buried and convoluted and merge with your own distinct ideas that you create a unique way of seeing or obsessing over a certain filmmaker, or copy his/her style, assimilate, move on, repeat. Yes there is a chance that you can make a great film with no knowledge of cinema. There are probably young filmmakers all over the world doing things that would blow our minds. But I think that we really shouldn’t be making movies anymore unless we’re doing something different, pushing the form forward or telling stories in an interesting way, and to do that, you almost surely need to know what came before you.
Do you believe that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view films of the past and why (if you don't feel that it is important, please tell why)? 
Yes - almost everything you think is being invented now was done better before. If you watch as much as possible, you’ll know this and you won’t think your ideas are as revolutionary, and you’ll have a shot at making something sing.
How did viewing indies, films from around the world, and classics help/influence you when directing ACTRESS, FAKE IT SO REAL, and the other films you've directed, and when editing LISTEN UP PHILIP, APPROACHING THE ELEPHANT, and the other films you've edited? 
At this point I’ve assimilated my influences enough that I’m working off of instinct mostly. But still, the films I make myself and with other people always have touchstones that we reference. For ACTRESS, it was Wiseman and Sirk and seeing how those masters' ways of seeing could influence how we depicted Brandy’s story. For APPROACHING THE ELEPHANT, the idea was to make an old school direct cinema portrait, so we thought about the Maysles and others in order to "do the style," so to speak, without mimicking. And Alex Ross Perry begins every film with a set of references - for LISTEN UP PHILIP, it was HUSBANDS AND WIVES, Philip Roth, and a few others - and those references become shorthand for how we discuss putting the thing together. With all these, the goal is to reference but never copy, letting our knowledge of the medium guide us, while always playing by feel and instinct.
What's one American indie (doc or narrative), one non-English-language film (doc or narrative), and one classic (define that one any way you wish) that you would recommend that film-lovers and/or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
Every aspiring filmmaker should see a Frederick Wiseman film. I’d start with WELFARE or maybe THE STORE or even LAW & ORDER or HIGH SCHOOL. I’d also send people to Kon Ichikawa’s TOKYO OLYMPIAD, which is a film that uses virtually every cinematic technique ever invented. And my very favorite film of all-time is Peter Watkins’ EDVARD MUNCH, which might be the most original film I’ve ever seen. Jump in deep. Also watch all Cassavetes, almost all Godard, a lot of Fassbinder, the best Herzog, at least five Ozu’s, and get a good mix of Welles/Dreyer/Allen/Akerman and then start really watching.
From the Mouths of Filmmakers continues on Wednesday. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

From the Mouths of Filmmakers: Anna Martemucci

Anna Martemucci
FROM THE MOUTHS OF FILMMAKERS:
ANNA MARTEMUCCI
By Anna Martemucci and Joshua Handler

Recently I've been disturbed by the amount of people who don't seek out independent films, non-English-language films, and classics.  So, I asked some of the most exciting and original voices in modern cinema to submit responses to a few questions about why/if they think indies/non-English-language films/classics are important to view, and how those films have been influential on their careers.

The responses below are from Anna Martemucci, director of HOLLIDAYSBURG, a film created as part of Starz TV series THE CHAIR. Martemucci also co-wrote BREAKUP AT A WEDDING and the upcoming PERIODS.

Do you feel that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view independent and world cinema and why (if you don't feel it is important, please tell me why)?
I think it's incredibly important, especially now that we're living in an age where studios are becoming more and more reliant on franchises, superheroes, and the phenomenon of "pre-awareness" to stay afloat, any type of movie that does not have those elements has a much harder time finding an audience, and that's a lot of movies. So if you're someone who loves film, or just loves being told a good story and feeling connected to the world, I think it's important to be vigilant about finding "the good stuff" (whatever that means to you).  Recognize that "the good stuff," or the stories that end up mattering the most to you, may not be at your multiplex anymore. The age when my teenage sister went to the theater to see PULP FICTION in our small Pennsylvania town and came back looking like a changed person, is not the age we live in now. Now she would have to find Pulp Fiction on Netflix or Hulu probably. She would have had to seek it out. Chris Moore admits that as a producer, he doesn't think he could even get GOOD WILL HUNTING made today, let alone get it into theaters across the country.  I get so excited when I see a film that speaks to me, and largely these days, I find those films through word of mouth, and digitally…not in the theaters. For people who live anywhere but a major city, it's even more like that.  It's so important, I think, to find the stories that you really connect with, because when that happens, it enriches human experience. There are so many beautiful, funny, heartbreaking, scary, thrilling, quiet, action-packed, whatever-you-want, just awesome stories being told in the world of "independent film" (which is basically all non-studio-funded movies), and it's just a matter of finding the ones you love and letting them enrich your life.
Do you believe that it is important for aspiring filmmakers and filmgoers to view films of the past and why (if you don't feel that it is important, please tell why)? 

If you want to be a filmmaker, you have to watch films. That would be like deciding to fly a plane without ever having seen a plane before, let alone taking lessons. I don't believe that learning the language of film takes film school or classes of any kind: it takes a love of film and the ability to absorb stories. Film hasn't been around that long; it's a relatively new medium for humans, and that makes it all the more exciting to me. There are so many things that haven't been done before, so many untold stories and so many untried ways of telling them. It boggles the mind! We need all kinds of people telling stories through film, because it's through stories that we get a deeper understanding of the world around us, and film and TV and online content--narrative stories basically--are the predominant delivery systems for stories right now. So while it's very important to watch movies if you want to make them, I am also not a believer that an aspiring filmmaker has to have seen EVERYTHING. That notion is a trap that can keep you from taking yourself seriously as a budding filmmaker. You don't have to be an encyclopedia of film history in order to allow yourself to be a filmmaker. Simply put: it's great to watch a lot of movies because it's great to explore what it is to be human. If you're an aspiring filmmaker, when you find the movies that speak to you the most, watch them over and over again and learn from them. 
How did viewing indies, films from around the world, and classics help/influence you when directing HOLLIDAYSBURG, or writing any of the films you've written like BREAKUP AT A WEDDING or PERIODS.? 
It helps tremendously. If it wasn't for the movies from the past that I love, being a filmmaker would feel like driving with a blindfold on (plane and car metaphors are where it's at for me right now). For each movie I've been involved in, there have been different influences. When making anything, there's always a pool, sometimes large, sometimes very small, of films that we're pulling inspiration from. The feel of the dialogue from RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, the photography from UNCLE BUCK, the feeling of chaos from David O. Russell's FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, etcetera. Literally any element, small or large, from movies that you love can be used as inspiration. Making a movie, to me, is a little celebration of all the things I've loved from a life of watching movies, and from life itself, and finding a way to capture the spirit of those things, and celebrate my love of them in the form of a new movie. It's a fun game to play.
What's one American indie, (doc or narrative), one non-English-language film (doc or narrative), and one classic (define that one any way you wish) that you would recommend that film-lovers or young/aspiring filmmakers see?
I recently saw a documentary that killed me, in a good way--there was just so much humanity on screen. I dare you to watch this film and not cry. It's called BLOOD BROTHER, directed by Steve Hoover, and it's available on Netflix.  
CINEMA PARADISO by Giuseppe Tornatore is a must-see (and one of my favorite reasons to love being an Italian). 
Wes Anderson's RUSHMORE is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I consider it a modern classic. 
From the Mouths of Filmmakers continues on Thursday.