My Ten Favorite Films of the Year

February 22, 2015

It seems I’m late to this party…but I just kept seeing films and thinking about the list and wanting to see some more films…and at least I’m weighing in before the Oscars. Maybe that means I’m just in time for the biggest party of them all.

Remember, I don’t necessarily think of these as the “best” films of the year, though several of them are nominated for Oscars. They are my favorites of the movies I saw among last year’s crop.

In alphabetical order:

Boyhood – it is unprecedented and I love every frame. This is a remarkable film, and I love Richard Linklater for thinking of the idea and taking a chance with a bold experiement and love his ensemble of actors for going along on the journey.

Boyhood

Ida – one of the most beautifully photographed films I’ve seen and a Holocaust story that feels as original as it is compelling.

Ida

Maleficient – the way Maleficient fully embraces the masculine and the feminine to overcome the patriarchy is empowering. I find the film thrilling.

Maleficient

Obvious Child – this film reinvigorates the romantic comedy with is originality and unpredictability. There is much more here than meets the eye when considered in the context of the conventions of the genre that are referenced and overturned.

Obvious Child

The Case Against 8 – in a year of good documentaries, this one has the strongest narrative elements for me. It’s a wonderful piece of storytelling.

The Case Against 8

The Lego Movie – is brilliant and entertaining, so watch out one-percenters. Everything in this film is AWESOME!!!

Lego

The Theory of Everything – every year there’s one conventionally made film that engages me with its craft and authenticity, and I also loved that this is Mrs. Hawking’s story (based on her memoir) as much if not more than her more famous husband’s story.

The Theory of Everything

The Way He Looks – this is one of the most beautiful coming of age stories I’ve ever seen, and the fact that it addresses the challenges of disability and coming out in such a tender way endears the film to me all the more.

The Way He Looks 2

Whiplash – uh, wow! Knocks my socks off, is a game changer for my scholarly work on the depiction of teachers in popular culture, and is an all around amazing film. SEE THIS!

whiplash

Wild – a surprisingly good telling of a story that could have gone so wrong in so many ways but for the craft in Nick Hornby’s adapted screenplay, Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction (especially the timeline transitions always perfectly motivated), and Reece Witherspoon’s strong performance.

Wild
If I had eleven, I’d add Like Father, Like Son…you really should see that one, too…


LITTLE ACCIDENTS

February 20, 2015

Check out Little Accidents this week at a/perture. Following the 4:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. screenings on Saturday, February 21, producer Summer Shelton will be present to answer audience questions (see my Q & A with her below).

Little Accidents is an interesting title because some of the accidents in this coalmining town nestled in the rural mountains are not so small, including the mining accident that frames the narrative, and all of them have a ripple effect throughout the community that seems to go on and on.

First-time feature writer and director Sara Colangelo tells the type of story I have a predilection for – an intimate drama with links to larger social issues. There is a delicacy to the storytelling and a peeling away of layers of identity to reveal underlying connections among unlikely people, which creates a lot of tension, inspires empathy from the viewer, and reveals some of our most common shared experiences and greatest shared fears as human beings.

A great deal of the success of the movie rests on the casting and performances Colangelo gets from a trio of leading actors and supporting performers.

Jacob Lofland (Owen) proves that his turn in Mud was no fluke. There is never a false note in his portrayal of a teenager dealing with the loss of his father and a huge secret that gnaws at him.

Little Accidents 1

Elizabeth Banks shows welcome range here in a departure from her comedic roles, and Boyd Holbrook is a compelling presence throughout. Chloë Sevigny does not have a lot of screen time as Owen’s mom, but their interactions have a detached authenticity – if their relationship were different, perhaps some of the little accidents, or at least the consequences, would have been mitigated.

Or course, then viewers would not be able to engage this particular story. This is a small film that has a big impact on the human heart.

Little Accidents 2

Interview with producer Summer Shelton:

Mary: You seem to be drawn to intimate dramas, Summer. How do you select which projects you want to work on?

Summer: It’s a potpourri of ways: sometimes I start out just drawn to certain filmmakers wanting to help be a part of developing their body of work, or there may be cast or producers on board that I’d like to work with, and sometimes projects find me. With Little Accidents, it was a bit of all of the above, Sara wrote a beautiful script and her shorts films were so visionary and beautiful, and I had wanted to work with Anne Carey for a while so she brought me onto the project due to my background making regional films. I feel very lucky to be a part of Sara’s feature debut. She is very talented.

At the end of the day, though, no matter how the project starts, I am drawn to stories that either shed light on a place or community that may be overlooked with relatable “everyman/everywoman (ish)” leading characters in pursuit of a truth or overcoming an obstacle.

It is funny you point out that I’m drawn to drama; I think the material I’ve been lured to can be attributed to the talented filmmakers who have created such rich complex characters. Not too long ago, someone was pitching me an idea and started, “I have this idea for a film I’d like to make; I don’t know if you’d like it because it is a comedy,” and I actually had to interject quiet quickly and let them know that I do indeed actually like to laugh. One of my latest films People, Places, Things is a very heartfelt comedy.

I like a good story regardless of genre.

Mary: What are your strengths as a producer?

Summer: I have been fortunate to collaborate with amazing writer/directors and work on projects from development to distribution. I have a strong background in physical production so I can take an abstract idea and figure out how to make it tangible onscreen. I have learned from great mentors (Ramin Bahrani, Anne Carey, Declan Baldwin, Louise Lovegrove and through Fellowships with the Sundance Institute and Film Independent) that a film is made several times –on the page, on the set, in the edit room, in the sound mix and in front of an audience—all require a producer to understand how to preserve the vision of the film within every iteration and know how to support a director through every incarnation. I like helping people, so I wanted to learn how to make a movie soup to nuts exposing myself to both the creative and the technical side as much as possible so I can lead and support everyone throughout the process.

Mary: I know you were a teacher in North Carolina before you decided to make a career change. When did you decide the film business was for you, and what path did you take to get where you are?

Summer: I never aspired to be a filmmaker; I didn’t really know what it meant to make a career out of making movies. I thought you just had to be in them. So I start out trying to be an actress, doing some auditions, acting in a few things and in undergraduate study at Pfeiffer University, I did a lot of theater, but while there in theory classes, I became fascinated by the power of words and images. I thought I would have a career in marketing or advertising. I continued my studies in Liberal Arts at Wake Forest University where I got my Master’s as I taught high school English.

After I got all the degrees I thought I needed as a safety net, I was just at the age where I thought why not go to film school for a year and see what happens. It was a now or never type of thing. Lucky for me it was during that year of film school at UNC School of the Arts that Ramin Bahrani (Winston-Salem native) came back to make his third feature Goodbye Solo. He needed someone to help doing local casting. Making that film and working with him over the next several years was my other film school, I learned so much from him. He is so smart and generous with his knowledge. Since then, getting where I am has been just seizing every opportunity and just going for it. I feel like I have just spirited an eight-year marathon making movies all over the place. It is great to be back here with the opening of Little Accidents while also doing a guest adjunct position at UNCSA for the next few weeks. I have always loved teaching and giving back in what ways I can to help others.

Mary: This is writer-director Sara Colangelo’s first feature project. I think it’s an auspicious beginning. Do you know what she’s working on now?

Summer: Presently, Sara is working with the Sundance Institute Film Forward program, screening Little Accidents in classrooms and in smaller communities around the country that may not have access to independent film, as well as developing a television pilot, which is set in another American industrial landscape.

Note: I served on Summer’s thesis committee when she completed her graduate work Wake Forest University and am very proud of the work she has pursued since.


Talking about the Oscars

February 20, 2015

I’ll appear on WFMY (Channel 2) tomorrow around 8:15 a.m. to chat about the Oscars. If you local, awake at that hour, and not otherwise occupied, tune in!


GHOSTS OF JOHNSTON COUNTY — Screening Tonight

February 19, 2015

Tonight (Thursday, February 19) you have one shot at seeing a compelling new documentary at a/perture cinema at 6:30. Co-director Eric Juth, an adjunct instructor in the Art Department at Wake Forest University will be on-hand for a Q & A session following the screening.

Mary: Congratulations on completing Ghosts of Johnston County! For people who don’t know anything about the story, how would you describe the film?

Eric: Thank you, Mary. Ghosts of Johnston County is a story about a struggle – ongoing for over 9 years – lead by a core group of North Carolinians who are demanding accountability for torture and other human rights abuses committed during the “war on terror.” The focus of this group, and the link to North Carolina, is Aero Contractors, a secretive air transportation company based at the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield. Flight records and witness accounts testify to the key role that Aero played in the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition program,” transporting over 30 individuals (at least) to secret detention facilities abroad at the behest of the CIA. At these facilities detainees were held indefinitely and routinely tortured during their interrogations. Importantly, there appears to be no credible evidence linking some of the former and current detainees to terrorism.
One former detainee is Abou El-Kassim Britel, an Italian citizen whose story is woven into the film. Britel was flown by Aero Contractors from Pakistan to Morocco in 2002. He was brutally tortured at both of these locations, and to this day suffers lasting physical and psychological damage. It is for people like him, who suffer in silence and remain mostly invisible to the public here, that the activists are compelled to work.

Mary: You started working on the film as a graduate student with a co-director, Michele Ferris-Dobles. How did you learn about this story?

Eric: I have been aware of the practice of extraordinary rendition since 2005 or 2006 when reports about the program first began to surface, in the New York Times and The Washington Post, for example. That there was an ongoing effort in North Carolina to expose the state’s involvement with this business of “torture taxis” came to my and Michelle’s attention through an article published in the February 9th, 2012 edition of The Washington Post: “Ten years later, CIA ‘rendition’ program still divides N.C. town.” After coming across this article, we decided to investigate the situation in Johnston County, to see if there might be a story that lent itself to documentary storytelling.

Mary: What was it that drew you to the story in addition to the inherently dramatic tensions that emerged in this rural community?

Eric: The film is largely structured around the home-video footage of Johnston County resident Walt Caison. Caison documented many of the public protests and vigils on his personal camcorder. I am not sure if we would have had a film were it not for the footage provided by Caison, (or at least we would have had a drastically different film.) There is an immediacy and presence in his footage that I am not sure Michele or I would have been able to capture, especially as outside observers to the situation. The idea of composing the film in “dialogue” with Caison’s footage appealed to both of our sensibilities; it displaced our role as “authors,” allowing the story to “speak for itself” in some ways.

Mary: I’m sure there were challenges in telling a story about a secretive CIA operation. After all, the idea is not to draw attention to a program like this. What was the biggest challenge in making this film, and how did you and Michele address it?

Eric: A major challenge for us was in trying to represent the perspective of Aero Contractors and/or their supporters. Admittedly, despite us generally being in agreement with the sentiment of the activists, we were not interested in making an advocacy film for them. What we were trying to do was understand the situation in Johnston County, and present it in as nuanced a way as possible. For example, I spoke to Airport Director Ray Blackmon over the phone. I had a very productive conversation with him, and when all was said and done, I was only was asking for him to offer his thoughts about the activists – nothing about Aero Contractors directly. To his credit, he seriously considered participating in the film. But in the end he declined the offer after having discussed it with the airport Board of Directors. Fortunately, I was able to track down footage from a European television documentary from 2008 that briefly includes footage of Blackmon. Since our film is largely constructed around archival materials, we were able to weave this footage into the story. (Even in the footage we appropriated, Blackmon declines to be interviewed, but at least that camera crew captured his refusal….)

ghosts

Mary: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share with readers?

Eric: A key motivation in making this film was to show that the U.S. Government’s use of extraordinary rendition and torture by proxy during the “war on terror” has not been forgotten, despite the current administration’s decision to “look forward and not back.” If the film can be said to be an activist film, it is to counter to this “politics of forgetting.”

Follow The Ghosts of Johnston County on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GhostsofJohnstonCounty


ZERO MOTIVATION

January 18, 2015

A promising feature debut for Israeli writer-director Talya Lavie, Zero Motivation chronicles boredom, hijinks, infatuations, disappointments, and imperfect but enduring friendship between two women soldiers stationed at a remote, desert army base.

Zohar (Dana Ivgy) is hard-edged, smart, completely unmotivated by everything in the office except computer games, and beneath her crusty exterior, a bit vulnerable. Her best friend Daffi (Nelly Tagar) seems as hapless and helpless as she is unhappy, but there is just a bit more to her than meets the eye.

It’s rare to see two such flawed but authentically drawn characters set amid an equally original and complicated set of supporting players and, furthermore, to have them surprise us, make us laugh, and perhaps even elicit a tear or two. Neither of the best friends seems cut out for the Israeli army, but the same can be said for most of their office cohort.

Lavie breaks the film into three interlocking stories, and the structure is effective here in delineating major narrative arcs while also allowing room for overlaps. Sometimes this technique can fracture the narrative, but Zero Motivation coheres as a film and is surprisingly entertaining.

Zero Motivation


The WWWII Invasion: THE IMITATION GAME, FURY, and UNBROKEN

January 18, 2015

I’ve been waiting to write in tandem about the three major WWII releases this season. Each offers a bit of nostalgia alongside something fresh, and one works better for me than the others.

Overall, The Imitation Game is both the most anticipated and the most satisfying of the three depictions of WWII. Of course, this isn’t your typical war movie. Instead, this film tells the story of real-life mathematician Alan Turing who led the English team that cracked the enigma code and won the war.

His personal story is as tragic as his contribution to the war effort is triumphant if mostly unheralded. During his lifetime, homosexual activity was criminalized and he was persecuted and prosecuted, and the story of how he, essentially, won the war was kept secret for security reasons.

The idea of using flashbacks and flashforwards around the Bletchley Park project to fill in the gaps of his character’s backstory is a good one, but at times, the attempts feel a little too spot on or a little too clumsy.

While I am no expert on Turing’s life, written accounts suggest there is more nuance and depth to the man and his lived experiences than turn up on the screen. Still, in terms of having a great story to work with, it’s hard to top this one, and Benedict Cumberbatch brings what he can from his considerable skillset to the portrayal of Turing.

Imitation Game

Fury was a bit of a surprise for me on two levels: there were several sequences that were completely engaging and illuminating, and the film takes a story about the “greatest generation” to a new generation by using visuals the evoke certain popular video games.

Thanks to my friend Laura for tipping me off about the video game aesthetics. I wrestled with the imagery a bit when watching the movie, but don’t know much about video games (her son is a gamer). My students confirmed the connection when we were talking in class last week.

The general narrative is not new. There is a battle-weary sergeant (Brad Pitt) leading a tank crew deeply bonded by experience (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal), and a new guy (Logan Lerman), who becomes the emotional center of the film as he comes of age amid harrowing circumstances.

Three sequences that bring the sergeant and the newbie together as the latter “comes of age” are appropriately intense, but the rest of the film is a bit of a blur. Maybe that’s the way war is, but it is something we have seen before.

Fury

My least favorite among the three films is Unbroken. The tedium of internment is, no doubt, repetitive, but that is not a recipe for good cinema. I was hopeful that director Angelina Jolie would bring a fresh perspective to the story and excited to see Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini after his explosive performance in Starred Up, but left the theater feeling this film is a bit less than the sum of its parts. Not bad, mind you, but not as extraordinatry as Zamperini’s own story.

Unbroken


BIG EYES

January 1, 2015

There are many elements (mostly visual) that I have admired in Tim Burton’s films over the years, but I haven’t enjoyed one of his movies as a complete work as much as Big Eyes since Ed Wood, which is still my favorite among his films.

In a way, the stories are inverse narratives.

Ed Wood examines the eponymous character from the outside in as we look at the director of such widely reviled films as Plan 9 From Outer Space who strives against great odds and with limited talent for creative expression.

The scene in which Wood (Johnny Depp) commiserates with Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) is remarkable for showcasing a lovely paradox: they are battling some of the same obstacles and for similar reasons, but the expression of their creative visions could not be more different; the two directors are at once exactly the same and completely different.

If you can accept the paradoxical nature of things and appreciate the inverse narrative, you’ll understand why I see Margaret Keane simultaneously as one of the most oppressed women I’ve seen on the screen lately and also a bold, feminist icon.

Much is made of the fact at the beginning of the film that Margaret (the sublime Amy Adams) packs up her daughter and her art supplies in the 1950s and leaves her “suffocating” husband back when women just didn’t do that.

She finds a job and begins making a new life with her daughter in San Francisco. Only when her husband threatens a custody fight does she abruptly marry a charming amateur artist/real estate developer, Walter Keane (nobody plays delusional like Christoph Waltz).

Always smarmy to the viewer, it is easy to see why Margaret is sucked into the relationship with Keane, who very soon begins capitalizing on and taking credit for her distinctive Big Eyes paintings.

The duality that Burton plays with in both Ed Wood and in Big Eyes is complex and compelling.

While we watch Wood as outsiders and both empathize with and cringe at his artistic efforts, we are drawn into Margaret Keane’s interiority, celebrate her efforts to resist, understand the constraints and reasons she does not break free sooner or more forcefully, and indulge in the ways her journey is emblematic of the path taken by so many women during the Second Wave of feminism.

While I did not find the film as intense or inspiring as Wild, another film in theaters currently, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, the performances, and – not surprisingly – the art direction, which evokes Vertigo, makes great use of foreshadowing with a Perry Mason clip, and calls to mind various delights from Burton’s visual treasure trove.

But, the real selling point: it’s impossible not to pull for Margaret Keane.

big eyes


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