Movies, movies, movies: It’s that time of year

As I’ve confessed before, I’m a movie geek. I love quirky, obscure films as well as the critics’ darlings. I revel in the technical, behind-the-scenes details about filmmaking. That’s why I enjoy the discussions at my Meetup film group. People like Al, Brad, Julie, Celine, Rebecca, Rui, Peter, Marisa and Kristine bring new insights to our discussions.

Here’s my perspective on some of the current batch of award winners and nominees, as well as some that should have made it but didn’t.

But first, something completely different….

The Kevin Smith trilogy: Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma

The film group had a rousing discussion of Kevin Smith’s work recently, focused on these three films. I watched them all again and discovered new things about each. If you think Smith’s films are goofy and sophomoric, I would like to disabuse you of that idea.

Clerks (1994) is about two convenience and video store clerks, Dante and Randal, trying to get by and figure life out. Best line: “This job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers.” Jay and Silent Bob appear as two stoners. Dante and Randal occasionally engage in philosophical musings about life and love. It’s shot in black and white on a very low budget and filmed in and around Monmouth County, New Jersey. Scene cards announce mood changes like Syntax, Purgation, Catharsis and Denouement.

YEE.tifChasing Amy (1997) has more plotline and higher production values as it follows two friends and partners who have created a popular comic book series, Bluntman and Chronic. Their Holdup Studios is in Red Bank, NJ. The main plot concerns Holden (Ben Affleck) falling in love with a bisexual woman who turns out to prefer girls, much to Holden’s distress. Jason Lee is terrific as his partner. Jay and Silent Bob play pivotal roles when Silent Bob finally speaks and explains to Holden about why he’s still “chasing Amy” and why Holden should recognize his mistake and deal with it.

Dogma ((1999) is on my all-time favorite film list. I will tell you just a snippet of the story: Two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) want to return to heaven and think they have found a theological loophole that will get them back in. The cast is amazing (Chris Rock, George Carlin, Alan Rickman, Selma Hayek, plus Jay and Silent Bob.). I have always thought of Dogma with glee as an anti-religious film and that suits my irreligious attitudes. But it is really a film by a disappointed Catholic who wishes his church would do better. Well, I still love it.

Dogma opens on the boardwalk in Asbury Park and continues to a church in Red Bank. It’s set in Springsteen country, the geographic soulmate to Chicago.

2013 favorites

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

The_Great_Beauty_posterThis film has already won the Golden Globes’ award for best foreign language film. As I wrote in my diary, this is a gorgeous film meditation on love, life and death, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Toni Servillo plays Jep, an Italian journalist who would be called a flaneur in 19th century Paris. He’s a party animal, but after his glorious 65th birthday party near the beginning of the film, he begins to reflect on his life … and what lies ahead. Rome has never looked so beautiful with this splendid cinematography and amazing tracking shots. The film is poetic, sad and very funny as Sorrentino takes witty jabs at the church, journalism and anti-aging techniques. The film is often compared to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but I think that comparison is superficial. Jep is a much more self-aware person than Fellini’s Marcello.

Sorrentino also wrote and directed one of my favorites (a possible cult film?) of 2013: This Must Be the Place (2011). I wrote about it here.

Two documentaries: The Act of Killing and 20 Feet from Stardom

The Act of Killing is a stupefyingly chilling film about the men who led the death squads that killed more than a million people in Indonesia in the 1970s and are celebrated as heroes. Director Joshua Oppenheimer gets them to reenact their deeds in whatever dramatic genre they choose, in costume and makeup. The result is goofy and horrendous.

20 Feet from Stardom celebrates the backup singers (almost all women) who give rock and roll stars the sound we love. Several singers are profiled in the film, as are many of the musicians they worked with, including Bruce Springsteen. The singers nearly all worked in the background for their entire careers, as my review describes. But nevertheless it’s a great, happy film and now is available on DVD.

Five best-picture nominees (I won’t pick winners)

Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne. How often do you see a film in black and white? It takes some audacity to do that in a straightforward way. The film is partly striking road movie and partly wrenching human story. Excellent performances by Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb.

American Hustle, directed by David O Russell, has been called homage to a wig factory. The re-creation of ‘70s hair and fashion is outstanding and cringe-inducing. Did we really dress like that? American Hustle has a great, witty script and a joyous set of plot twists and turns. A lot of great acting, but Christian Bale’s personal transformation is amazing. His extra 40 pounds and the elaborate comb-over make him unrecognizable. For two other films—The Machinist and The Fighter—he lost so much weight that he looked near death. The physical changes almost make you overlook the acting, which is superb.

HerPosterHer by Spike Jonze. I’ve written about this and compared the “Her” story to that of the Richard Powers novel, Galatea 2.2. This is an excellent film and really thought-provoking, both about our attachment to technology (mea culpa) and our difficulties with personal relationships. It deserves a lot of awards–for the film, for Joaquin Phoenix as the lead, and for the original script. Her has generated much online discussion, about the film and its implications, including this insightful article about Spike Jonze in Paste Magazine.

Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron, who directed two of my favorite films ever—Children of Men (2006) and Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). I saw Gravity in 3D at an Imax theater and the physical effects are simply breathtaking. Sandra Bullock’s performance is very good. But I don’t think this film in any way deserves the best-film award. It’s simply too much bells and whistles, too little drama, plot and character development.

12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is also breathtaking in a different way. It’s a shocking slap in the face to those who forgot what slavery was like—the human condition that the United States enabled for so many decades. At least two excellent performances—by the leading actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o as supporting actress. 12 Years won the Golden Globe for best film and it may be the sentimental favorite to win the Oscar.

Three films that deserved more attention

Inside_Llewyn_Davis_PosterInside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ film about Greenwich Village in 1961 was one of my favorites of the year and many critics placed it in their top five or ten for best film. But it didn’t get much Oscar love. Just a couple of nominations for technical awards. I acknowledge my own bias—the film is about the music business and lets me reminisce about life in the sixties. But I still think it deserved better. If not best film, then for directing and original screenplay.

Blue Jasmine, an excellent film by Woody Allen, may earn a well-deserved best-actress award for Cate Blanchett. There are other fine performances in this film—Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Carnevale and Andrew Dice Clay (yes, really!), as well as an excellent, thought-provoking script.

Blue is the Warmest Color by Abdellatif Kechiche was shockingly neglected in every category. I was surprised that it wasn’t nominated in the best foreign language film section. It did win some regional film awards in that category, including France’s Lumiere Award and the Palme d’Or. And the young lead–Adèle Exarchopoulos—received several regional acting awards.

I reviewed Blue here briefly in December and said: This controversial film about a young woman and her older woman lover in Lille, France, is beautifully filmed and to my mind, too long at three hours plus. The much-discussed sex scenes are quite beautiful and almost painterly in their composition. Most importantly, the film raises issues of male viewpoint, social class and life choice between the two lovers and their friends and families; those issues are fruitful discussion topics.

It was a good year for films, in my opinion. Perhaps that’s why some of my favorites were neglected.

Related posts

Samantha vs. Galatea. My review of Spike Jonze’s fanciful and fascinating film, Her.

Reliving the Sixties: My review of Inside Llewyn Davis, in which I compare Llewyn Davis’ story to Bruce Springsteen’s–only with a better ending.  Imagine how happy I was to hear Bruce say exactly that in his long interview with Ann Powers, NPR’s pop music editor. Bruce says: “My life was, it was Inside Llewyn Davis with a happy ending, you know. I was, you know, I was that guy. I was the guy sleeping on the couch in midtown and taking the subway to Greenwich Village.”