Directed by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Written by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore and Tony Danza
For the first half of Don Jon I was prepared to write it off as a gross, occasionally charming debut feature, but the destabilizing element introduced in the second half (Julianne Moore) throws the movie completely off the beaten path in the best possible way. Before Moore’s character Esther enters the picture it came dangerously close to reveling in the kind of misogyny that it attempts to send up.
At first, there is just Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and, as he says, his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls and his porn. The flashy montages of gyrating asses and blowjob lips quickly show which of those takes precedence in his life. And, like the main character of (500) Days of Summer’s misreading of The Graduate, he is woefully misguided about the reality of the situation (he thinks it’s real).
Directed by: Lena Dunham
Written by: Lena Dunham (screenplay)
Starring: Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Grace Dunham and Laurie Simmons
Lena Dunham is an expert when it comes to enhancing lives that would normally be lived in miniature. In her excellent feature debut, Tiny Furniture, Dunham magnifies the life of Aura, a recent college graduate who moves back home and seems stuck in neutral. In addition to writing and directing this film, Lena also plays the title character and has her actual mother and sister star as fictional versions of her mother and sister. Tiny Furniture is the definition of an independent film, and its formal sophistication and biting wit show up lesser attempts like Paranormal Activity.
Dunham landed a gig on HBO with the Judd Apatow-produced Girls in part because of Tiny Furniture. The premise of that show is largely the same as this debut film on a larger scale. Dunham plays a young woman struggling professionally, financially and sexually. She does this quite well, reciting her own dialogue with an off-beat delivery that is a hybrid of a mumblecore character and actual human being.
Thankfully, Dunham also knows how to compose a shot as well as a sentence. Though it’s clear that Tiny Furniture was made on a bare bones budget (some of the side characters are the wrong kind of awkward on camera), it is a very aesthetically pleasing film to look at. This is mostly because the upper class New York lifestyle that Aura’s mother (Laurie Simmons) and sister (Grace Dunham) inhabit is posh to begin with.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed by: Sean Durkin
Written by: Sean Durkin (screenplay)
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy
Many prominent American indies have started to favor the Before/After plot device. Blue Valentine and the more recent We Need To Talk About Kevin are both examples of that style being used as a substitution for substance. Sean Durkin’s debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene shows that device finally being used in excruciatingly well-done ways.
Along with Margin Call, this film about a young woman traumatized by her time in a cult marks the best American writer/director debut of 2011. Durkin’s films is decidedly less slick than J.C. Chandor’s drama about the financial collapse in 2008, but they both become unflinchingly honest if very different portraits of American identity. The point of relation in this film comes from Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), whose strength after escaping the cult seems impossibly strong.