BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Written by: Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly and Lowell Landes

Since Beasts of the Southern Wild was my pick for the best movie of 2012, I thought I would revisit it here since my original review was an ecstatic, somewhat over-the-top reaction from the Cannes Film Festival.  Having seen the film twice now, I still maintain that it is a masterpiece, and one of the best translations of childhood consciousness that I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Many of the criticisms of Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature revolve around its treatment of race as it relates to poverty.  The harshest (and most recent) of these comes from Richard Brody of The New Yorker, who wrote:

The movie itself is this year’s The Help, a romanticized and mythologized vision of poor Southern blacks (in this case, a father and daughter in a Louisiana bayou community called the Bathtub) that also sentimentalizes the very notion of self-help (“The Self-Help”) in a story that spotlights a tough, poetic, independent-spirited child facing dangers in aquatic adventures.

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Our Favorite Movies of 2012

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1.  Beasts of the Southern WildNo matter how skilled a filmmaker is, rarely does a movie come along that creates a cinematic world that is seething with a new kind of life, a world or vision that movies haven’t seen before.  Director Benh Zeitlin, working with a do-it-yourself low budget commune of filmmaking talent and some extraordinary “non-professional” performers, does that with Beasts of the Southern Wild.  The ferocious story of Hushpuppy (the amazingly talented child actress Quvenzhané Wallis) and her small, increasingly hopeless village on the other side of a Louisiana levee is filled with fantastical, visually stunning sequences as well as low budget narrative economy.  It is this year’s biggest contradiction, and its biggest success.

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2. Amour– Michael Haneke’s second movie in a row to win the Cannes Film Festival’s highest honor (the Palme D’or) is the director’s most empathetic and devastating work to date.  As the camera lingers in the apartment of Georges and Anne (legendary French performers Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva in devastatingly good form), we become privy to the elderly Parisian couple’s tender, haunting final moments together.  It is a slow crawl toward death, absent plot twists or Haneke’s sadism.  Watching it yields no pleasure, but everything from the incredible performances to the wonderfully precise camera movement lingers long after the movie ends.

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REVIEW: Django Unchained

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Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino (screenplay)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kerry Washington

Django, like the ‘D’ at the beginning of his name, is silent.  This is no small feat, given that he is the main character in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and should be stopping to yak at any given opportunity, preferably before a burst of ultra-violence.

Of course there is plenty of bloodshed in Django Unchained, so much in fact that it paints a white plantation red, mostly with the blood of its owner and his employees.  It is Tarantino’s second historical revenge fantasy in a row, following the revisionist WWII epic Inglourious Basterds.  Here, though, he crucially refuses to revise the horrors of American slavery, and depicts them in ways that are startling and horrific.  The blood from the shootouts may be gratuitous and expressionistic, but it’s the beating, dog mauling and whipping that feel brutally real even if the movie they are in is often highly stylized.

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REVIEW: Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell (screenplay), Matthew Quick (novel)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver

Silver Linings Playbook ends on the thrillingly odd culmination of a dance competition and an NFL football game, the result of a high stakes parlay bet between an obsessive compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan (Robert De Niro) and a rival gambler who favors the Dallas Cowboys (Paul Herman).  It is a fitting conclusion given that the rest of the movie, for all its seeming narrative conformity, is a rampant, lively piece of work that does what it wants, when it wants.

Part of the reason for this is that its two main characters, two damaged, mentally unstable people played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, do that as well and director David O. Russell is just trying to keep up with them. It could also be the other way around, though.  Russell has such a lively way with camera movement and atmosphere that the constant sense of motion and organized chaos seems exhausting. For the most part the performers, especially Lawrence, are more than up to the task.  She makes Tiffany such a force of nature that the miscasting of Bradley Cooper is barely noticeable.

Like in Russell’s last movie, The Fighter, this is more of an ensemble effort than based off of a single performance.  It is about Pat Jr. (Cooper) recovering from a mental breakdown after catching his wife cheating and beating the other guy within an inch of his life, but it is also about his dad (De Niro) and mom (Jacki Weaver) coming to terms with his condition.  It forces an American family to confront mental illness, a bold thing to do in a country that increasingly resists that confrontation to its own detriment.

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REVIEW: The Kid With a Bike

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The Kid With a Bike
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Written by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile de France, Jérémie Renier and Egon Di Mateo

The Kid With a Bike is the first encounter I’ve had with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian auteurs who seem to take the art house world by storm with each new movie.  This film, their latest, is an emotionally rich story of Cyril (Thomas Doret), a young foster child trying to find his way in a world with increasingly closed doors.

As there often is in movies like this, one person is shamelessly on Cyril’s side even though he is stubborn and rage-filled.  Samantha (the fantastic Cécile de France) is at the same medical clinic that Cyril storms through in an attempt to evade officials from the foster home he has escaped from.  He clings to her with such force that it takes two men to pry him off of her, though she makes no concerted effort to help them.  “You can hold me, but not that tight,” she says to him.

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REVIEW: Amour

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Amour
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Written by: Michael Haneke (screenplay)
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert and William Shimmell

Michael Haneke’s latest film is a good poster child for why mainstream movie audiences fear and avoid many foreign films; it is quiet, slow and relentlessly depressing.  After winning the Palme d’Or in 2009 for The White Ribbon, Haneke officially established himself as a “Cannes auteur,” a director whose latest work would forever and always have a place in the festival’s cannon.

Amour is wondrously, deliberately hopeless.  Its depiction of an elderly woman’s slow, painful crawl toward death after suffering a series of strokes is not peppered with melodrama or any sort of dramatic flourish.  Haneke seems to think this would make the situation too comfortable, too much like a movie.  The goal of this film is to show the situation in as realistic light as possible, but from a removed distance.

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REVIEW: Argo

Argo
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio (screenplay), Joshuah Bearman (article)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman

I think Argo is going to win Best Picture, if the studios play their marketing cards smartly and don’t push too hard before the end of the year.  This isn’t because it’s the best movie of the year, but it’s the kind of movie that Academy voters can agree on.  It’s very suspenseful, it has a good ensemble cast decked out in ’70s hair and it’s in part about Hollywood helping rescue hostages in Iran.

Ben Affleck has been steadily building up his directing chops in his previous features Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and in leaving contemporary Boston behind here he has created his most assured movie yet.  Argo is consistently engaging, from its washed out ’70s look to its fluid, precisely orchestrated camera movements.  The first 20 minutes, where the U.S. embassy in Iran is stormed by protesters, are brilliantly conceived.

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