The Descendants Directed by: Alexander Payne Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel) Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause
Snap reactions and the surprised double-take have always been two important tools in George Clooney’s acting kit. Alexander Payne is noted as a director for having actors explore realms outside of that familiar skill set. Perhaps most infamously, Payne stripped Jack Nicholson of his raised eyebrows and charisma in About Schmidt and had the actor play a shy, desperate man. It’s one of his best performances.
In The Descendants, Payne has Clooney blend in. His washed-out mess of hair and beach bum attire look misplaced and familiar at the same time. Emerging from that sly, smirky facade is an actor capable of true grit.
The Trip Directed by: Michael Winterbottom Written by: N/A Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan and Margo Stilley
The Trip blends the line of fiction and reality so seamlessly that by the end you’re left uncertain of what you’ve seen. As it unfolds it is clear that you’re watching a movie, but there’s something different about it. It could be that there was no actual shooting script and that the actors are playing themselves (in a Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of way), but it’s not just that.
What Michael Winterbottom’s film does so brilliantly is comment on reality with a very close fictional version. Its comedy is born out of deep personal truth. This undertaking requires tremendous efforts from the two lead performers, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Steve is asked by The Observer to travel around the UK and try the finest restaurants. His semi-girlfriend backs out, so he asks Rob, who is happily married.
Submarine Directed by: Richard Ayoade Written by: Richard Ayoade (screenplay) Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor
Richard Ayoade will probably emerge as a “unique” new voice of independent cinema after this debut feature. Submarine is exactly the kind of movie that can be a cross-over hit in America. It’s got everything critics and its built-in audience adore: a spunky sense of humor, an aesthetic flare and a sensitive young male protagonist.
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a younger version of Harold, though this movie contains no Maude. Instead, there’s a younger Lulu out of Something Wild, bob haircut and all. When Oliver meets Jordana (Yasmin Paige) he’s immediately drawn to her. To win her over he must take part in the cruel bullying of a larger girl. He does, and he feels subsequently guilty, but he views it as something he had to do for his muse.
By looking at the title of this post and choosing to read on, you are, at the very least, open to the idea of a weird movie. This is an important step, I think. “Weird” is an abstract concept, one that for the purposes of this post means where what you’re seeing collides with your perception of reality. Think of the final minutes of 2001: A Spacey Odyssey or, more recently, the beginning and the end of The Tree of Life.
What makes us associate the weirdness with those examples more than, say, traditional Hollywood comedy? Comedy is rooted in expectation. When a situation defies our expectation of what we think should happen, we laugh. You don’t expect Brad Pitt to bite the bullet in Burn After Reading so quickly and brutally, so when he does it comes off as comical, but him walking on a beach with other lost souls in Tree of Life is just out there.
The Debt Directed by: John Madden Written by: Matthew Vaughen, Jane Goldmen, & Peter Straughan (adapted screenplay) Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum (original screenplay) Starring: Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas
Basic themes of guilt and revenge last a lifetime in The Debt. It deliberately doesn’t want to be that movie that lets its characters move from one body to the next and forget their brutality. Nobody is let off the hook; no matter how justified their actions seem in the beginning, at the end your feelings for all of them will likely be mixed.
There are few causes more justified than tracking down an escaped Nazi so they can be put on trial for their crimes. This is the goal of three young Mossad agents, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephen (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington), sent to track down an evil Nazi doctor (Jesper Christensen) who performed cruel experiments on prisoners during the war.
Source Code Directed by: Duncan Jones Written by: Ben Ripley (screenplay) Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan, and Jeffrey Wright
Duncan Jones made noticeable ripples in the independent film landscape back in 2009 with Moon. The main source of its appeal was that it was a low budget sci-fi film with idealism burning at its core instead of special effects and an actor (Sam Rockwell) that brought enough gravity to make you care.
When a filmmaker makes a splash on the indie scene they are sometimes rewarded with a mainstream money-maker. Take a look at Marc Webb, the director of another 2009 indie film, (500) Days of Summer, who is now at the helm of the Spiderman reboot. Jones landed a less lucrative big budget enterprise, but one with a unique vision that is suited to his taste.
Scream 4 Directed by: Wes Craven Written by: Kevin Williamsen (screenplay) Starring: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Emma Roberts, and David Arquette
Scream 4 makes you wonder what other veteran directors would do if they were offered the chance to comment on the modern state of their respective genres. How would Alfred Hitchcock approach Hanna? How would Billy Wilder tackle Your Highness?
Sadly, instead of real filmmakers taking a stab at the confines of their own genres, we get films like the Scary Movie franchise, which set out to mock, scored a few laughs in the first few films, and then became a mockery. The state of modern movies is just that: movies unintentionally mocking their genres, so much so that it may be hard for many in a modern audience to realize Scream 4 is doing it intentionally.