Monday, March 31, 2014

Movie Review: Noah

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky.
Written by: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel.
Starring: Russell Crowe (Noah), Jennifer Connelly (Naameh), Ray Winstone (Tubal-cain), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah), Emma Watson (Ila), Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem), Nick Nolte (Samyaza), Mark Margolis (Magog), Kevin Durand (Rameel), Leo McHugh Carroll (Japheth), Marton Csokas (Lamech), Finn Wittrock (Young Tubal-cain), Madison Davenport (Na'el), Gavin Casalegno (Young Shem), Nolan Gross (Young Ham), Skylar Burke (Young Ila), Dakota Goyo (Young Noah).

It should not have been a surprise to anyone who has followed his career that Darren Aronofsky would tackle a Biblical epic like Noah. All of his films – Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010) – have been about obsessive characters – characters who push themselves to their absolute physical and/or mental limits in search of some sort of transcendence – something greater than themselves. His version of Noah really is no different than many of his characters, in that he is obsessed to the point of madness to accomplish his goals. It is a different sort of Biblical epic than the classic, more straight forward interpretations – as Aronofsky pushes Noah further than most would. His Noah has more than a little in common with the Jesus Christ portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ – in that both are human who have been given a task by God, and struggle, not knowing whether they can finish their task, or if they are even worthy of being asked.

Russell Crowe plays Noah, the last in the line of Seth in a world otherwise dominated by the descendants of Cain. He lives with his wife, Naameh (Jennifer) and three sons – Shem (played as an adult by Douglas Booth), Ham (played as a young adult by Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) – living apart from society, and subsisting on what they can gather. The Creator gives Noah a vision of death by water, and then the sprouting of new life. He does not know how to interpret this vision, so he sets out, along with his family, on a dangerous journey to find his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) – picking up an abandoned girl, Ila (later played by Emma Watson). Along the way, they meet The Watchers – fallen angels who went to help humanity after they were expelled from the Garden – and have been cast out of God, their form merging with the Earth, so that now they basically look like giant rock monsters, with glowing eyes. They do not want to help Noah – having given up everything for humanity, only to be betrayed by them – but one of their ranks sees a little of Adam in Noah – and so he does guide them to Methuselah. His advice to Noah is simple – He speaks to Noah, and Noah has to trust that he speaks in a way he understands. Aided by Methuselah, Noah has another vision – this time of an Arc. He is even able to convince The Watchers to help him. Flash forward 10 years – they Arc is nearly complete, his children have grown – Ham has become rebellious and questioning. And the line of Cain does not like the signs they are seeing. Led by their King, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) – they want to survive. Noah on the other hand sees them as the violent, wicked people they are – and is determined to help The Creator wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. He and his family will be the last people alive – and when they die, the animals will be alone to live as The Creator intended.

Noah is at once Aronofsky’s largest film, one of his most ambitious (after only The Fountain) and his most flawed. Working with a larger budget than ever before, there are times when Aronofsky seems to be somewhat compromising to give the studio the big budget, action packed epic they paid for. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Watchers – who are rendered rather well in CGI as Rock Monsters, but whose appearance and presence seems to be mainly so Aronofsky can stage an epic battle between them and Tubal-cain’s army as they try and storm the Arc. This sequence, though well handled, does seem to be more out of a Lord of the Rings movie than the Biblical epic Aronofsky is making. The special effects in general are top notch throughout – there are no real animals in the film (which makes sense, because realistically, you couldn’t herd them all onto an Arc without God’s help) and the flood scene is thrilling – meaning I don’t really think having giant rock monsters in the film was necessary. The presence of Tubal-cain at all – especially as the film goes along – seems to be more because they wanted to have a flesh and blood villain, someone for the audience to hate, than for any real relevance to the plot. As the film progresses, Noah discovers that his adopted daughter is not barren as he thought, and is pregnant – ruining what he sees as God’s plan to end humanity – and he tells his family that if the child is a girl than he will kill it. This leads to perhaps a few too many scenes of Noah stalking around the Arc like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, terrorizing his family as he comes to the brink of insanity. Noah is a complex character, but the rest of the cast is basically given one note to play – and while actors like Connelly, Winstone, Lerman and Watson (not to mention the voices of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella as The Watchers) add something to their one note characters, I do wish they were given more to do than sit back and let Crowe overtake them.

Yet for all the flaws in Noah, I couldn’t help but be drawn into the film than Aronofsky was making – and his vision of Noah as a man striving to be worthy of The Creator and the task he has been given, even as it drives him insane. His Noah, in Crowe’s best performance in quite some time, is more human than most figures at the heart of biblical epics. Aronofsky takes the implications of what Noah is asked to do seriously – and takes the effect that such a burden would take on Noah seriously. Like The Last Temptation of Christ, it does not question whether there is a God, or even God’s wisdom – but it does look at the gravity of what is being asked of its protagonist and how such a task will affect him. For people who take the Old Testament as literal truth, Noah will probably offend – but for most religious people, I think Noah asks tough questions in a thoughtful and intelligent way. I am agnostic, and am not going to try and tell people how they should feel about Noah – but I don’t see any way a reasonable person can be all that offended by the film.

There are stunning sequences throughout Noah – Noah’s walk through the Tubal-cain camp when he thinks he’s going to find wives for his sons, that turns into a spectacular vision of hell may be my favorite. But also quieter moments – the climax, where Noah finds he cannot make the sacrifice he felt The Creator wanted him to make – and his quiet conversation with Ila later are genuinely, emotionally moving.

Aronofsky can be an easy director to mock – in an age of cynicism, he’s films by comparison are often quite earnest – he takes the questions he raises seriously, and see them through to the end. It’s this quality I admire about him as a director – that and his ambition. At times, he makes big, messy films – that can be quite flawed. Yet there is not a film of his that lacks for ambition or where he doesn’t push himself. The Fountain is certainly a flawed film – yet there are moments as great as anything we’ve seen in American film in the past 10 years. Noah isn’t that good. It’s a more straight forward, studio epic – made with Aronofsky’s typical seriousness, where I think he made a few concessions to up the thrill factor. But at its heart, this is another ambitious film for Aronofsky. I don’t think he pulls everything off in Noah – but I admire him for trying.

Criticwire Survey: Advance Screenings

Q: Paramount held "Noah" back from many critics until the day of release, inviting only a handful of critics to see it in advance. Two questions: Does it affect your mindset going into a movie knowing the studio didn't want critics to see it before it opened? And is there anything wrong with making critics wait to see a movie at the same time the public does?

Movie studios have no obligation to make movies available to critics before they are screened for the public. I know professional critics don’t like being referred to as part of the “publicity” department for the movies they review – and rightly so – but from the studios perspective, that is precisely what they are. It isn’t free for the studios to give critics advance screenings – they have to rent the theaters and have other costs – so if they feel they aren’t going to get any financial benefit from screening for the critics, why would they do it? It's actually surprising they don't withhold more screenings from critics - blockbusters are criticproof anyway at the box office - but perhaps it's just the realization that in the age of internet, you cannot really escape critic reviews for anything more than a few hours after the first public showing anyway, so they may as well keep the critics happy.

When they don’t screen movies for critics it means one thing – the studio doesn’t have faith in the film. That could be because they know they have a crappy film on their hands, and as I say above, at that point why would they pay to have their film bashed? It could also be, and I think Noah falls into this (much, much rarer category) that they are simply nervous about the reaction – not whether it’s good or bad, but about the content of the film itself. Noah generated a lot of controversy in religious circles for a long time before it screened for anyone. But it was all based on speculation. Once it screens, it’s now based on the movie itself, and has a greater chance of effecting its box office. The studio knew the reviews would be good – which generally, they were – but also knew their target market are not ones who pay attention to critics, so they decided they didn’t matter, and didn’t screen the movie for them. In this case, it wasn't a matter of keeping every critic out - there were quite a few reviews of Noah out days before the film was released, but only selecting a few critics to see it.

I’m not a professional critic, and I never get to see anything in advance, so no, it doesn’t change my judgment – and it shouldn’t change anyone else’s judgment either.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: Raising Arizona (1987)

Raising Arizona (1987)
Directed by:   Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (H.I. McDunnough), Holly Hunter (Edwina 'Ed' McDunnough), Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona), John Goodman (Gale Snoats), William Forsythe (Evelle Snoats), Sam McMurray (Glen), Frances McDormand (Dot), Randall 'Tex' Cobb (Leonard Smalls).

I have probably seen Raising Arizona more times than other movie I don’t like very much. The first time was shortly after I “discovered” the Coen brothers at the age of 15 with Fargo – and fell in love, so I wanted to see their other work. Raising Arizona was on TV late one night, so I stayed up and watched it – and honestly, that first time through, I hated it. A few years later, when I was talking to a friend about how much I loved O Brother, Where Art Thou? – my friend expressed confusion. To him, O Brother was more similar to Raising Arizona than any of the Coens other films, and he knew I hated that one, so he wondered why I liked the more recent film. This got me thinking that perhaps it was simply the fact that Raising Arizona was the first real Coen “farce” I saw that made me hate the first time through. Since I had gotten used their style – and grew to love it – watching other Coen comedies like The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, perhaps another look was order. So I watched it again – this time on good old VHS – and although I liked it slightly more than the first time, I still didn’t think much of it. About five years later, I came across the DVD of Raising Arizona in one of those $5 Wal Mart bins. It was the only Coen movie I didn’t own, so I figured what the hell and bought it. Once again, that nagging suspicion bothered me – perhaps the film is better than I remembered it. So I watched it again – liked some it, didn’t like most of it and that was that. That was probably about six years ago now, when once again, I decided to watch Raising Arizona as part of this series on the films of the Coen brothers. Once again, I hoped I would see what so many others see in Raising Arizona. Once again, I was disappointed to discover I didn’t. It’s been four times now, so I’m pretty sure if I was ever going to learn to like Raising Arizona, it would have happened by now.


The film is a farce about a not very bright criminal, H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage), who robs convenience stores, but never carries a loaded gun because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He meets Ed (Holly Hunter), a police officer, during his many arrests, and the two eventually fall in love and get married. H.I. tries to go straight – and Ed is desperate for a baby. When they find out she is barren, it is devastating. However, a rich man, Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife have just had quintuplets. The McDunnough’s feel this is unfair – so they decide to kidnap one of the kids for themselves. After all, the Arizona’s will still have four kids, and that’s more than enough for anyone, right? Things get complicated when the Snoats boys (John Goodman and William Forsythe) break out of jail, and come to their old friend H.I. for a place to stay. And when H.I. gets angry at his boss Glen (Sam McMurray) for suggesting that he and his wife (Frances McDormand) are interested in swinging. And when Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb), an insane bounty hunter, goes to the Arizona’s and tells them he can get their boy back. All of these people eventually realize who the baby the McDunnough’s have really is.

Most of my problems with the film can be traced back to the performance by its star – Nicolas Cage. Unlike many, I’m not a Cage hater – I actually think I’m one of his biggest supporters. While it’s true that few actors of his stature have made as many horrible movies as Cage has, it’s also true that when he gets the right role, there are few actors better. Fans may have to sit through any number of movies like Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, etc. but once every few years they are rewarded by a Cage performance as singular and brilliant as Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Cage’s performance in Raising Arizona is almost undoubtedly the one the Coen Brothers wanted him to give. His performance sets the comedic tone of the whole film, and the rest of the cast is just trying to keep up. The performance bugged me however because I never for a minute truly believed it. Cage is gifted at going over the top – and that is essentially what he does here for the entire runtime – but his performance is so cartoonish that I never truly bought into the character. Holly Hunter is much better – she is only slightly more subtle than Cage is, but it makes all the difference in the world. She is hilarious at times – but it almost seems like she exists in a different world than the rest of the cast. Goodman (in his first of many Coen brother films) and Forsythe try to match Cage’s zaniness – and Goodman in particular comes close during an extended fight sequence between the two, which has some great moments in it, yet for me didn’t quite work because every time the scene started to work, there was more of Cage’s mugging to distract from the film. As Leonard Smalls, Randall “Tex” Cobb – a former boxer and wrestler – shows why his acting career never really took off. He is awful and one note. The best performances may well be by McMurray and McDormand as well as Trey Wilson. These three know they are in a farce, but don’t go so wildly over the top that you can never believe them.

There are things I like about Raising Arizona. It has one of my favorite movie quotes of all time when the Snoats go to rob a bank and tell everyone to freeze and get on the ground, only to have one old man respond “Well, which is it, young feller? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? Mean to say, if'n I freeze, I can't rightly drop. And if'n I drop, I'm a-gonna be in motion.” And I appreciated the very Coen like ending of the movie – H.I. and Ed may not quite be punished for their sins like many a Coen character, but they don’t get a happy ending either – which is appropriate.

But, for me, the whole movie is like that fight sequence between Cage and Goodman. In many ways, that fight sequence is the high point of the movie – along with H.I. stealing some diapers it’s the biggest set piece in the movie. Both of those sequences contain some brilliant work by the Coens behind the camera. And yet, every time I think the movie is about to truly take off, and be as great of a comedy as I know the Coen’s can make, there is something that grinds the movie to a halt, and stops all comic momentum. It’s usually Cage mugging, or saying something in his affected accent.

Could Raising Arizona been a better movie had the Coens toned it down a little? I think so. Reading through the memorable quotes section on IMDB for the film, I found myself laughing more while reading than I did as I watched the film. There is a reason why some love Raising Arizona – hell I’ve even seen some people call it the best film the Coens have ever made. For me though, I can just never get on its wavelength. There are moments I adore – and I like the film more than I did the first time through – but it still has to rank among the weakest Coen films for me.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: Blood Simple (1985)

Blood Simple (1985)
Directed by:  Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Starring: John Getz (Ray), Frances McDormand (Abby), Dan Hedaya (Julian Marty), M. Emmet Walsh (Private Detective Loren Visser), Samm-Art Williams (Meurice).

What struck me most about watching the Coen Brothers debut film, Blood Simple for the first time in a few years was just how fully formed the Coens worldview and style was right from the start. Like many of the Coens films, this is a movie about characters that sin, and have to be punished for sinning. As the excellent piece on The Dissolve about Fargo a few months back said “The Coens don’t hate their sinners, they just don’t let them get away with their sins” – which pretty accurately describes the characters in Blood Simple. This is also a movie where, like in many Coen movies, the characters make precisely the wrong decision at pretty much every point along the way. This is not what Roger Ebert would define as an “Idiot Plot” – which is basically a plot that could be solved in minutes if all the characters weren’t idiots – because given the information each character has at the time in the movie, their decisions make sense – at least to them. As an audience, we know they are making mistakes, but the poor dumb bastards in the film don’t know that.

The story seems complicated but is reality and befitting the film’s title, is really a simple one. Ray (John Getz) works as a bartender for Marty (Dan Hedaya) and is having an affair with Marty’s much younger wife Abby (Frances McDormand). Marty finds this out from P.I. Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), who he then hires to kill the pair of them. There is a lot of confusion, misunderstandings and double crosses – so nothing works out like any of its characters plan it will – and body count rises throughout.

The Coens don’t waste any real time on the psychology of the characters. The whole movie is set in motion by Ray and Abby’s affair – and yet we never really learn how or why their affair started – or for that matter, how Abby got married to Marty in the first place. Like many Coen brothers movie the plot can be summed up by the tagline to their great No Country for Old Men – “You can’t stop what’s coming”. That would work for Blood Simple as well – the characters are doomed from the outset, but don’t realize that yet. They make decision after decision that makes complete and total sense to them at the time, but winds up just digging themselves deeper into a mess of their own making. The film is masterful in terms of plot construction – every scene leads directly from the scene that preceded it, and directly into the next one. There is no time wasted on anything unnecessary to the plot. The film is a modern film noir – but neatly twists some of the genre’s clichés.

The film, it must be said, a little rough around the edges at times – this is to be expected when you’re dealing with first time filmmakers. When the Coens released a Director’s Cut 15 years after its initial release, the runtime of the movie didn’t change. They simply tightened a few scenes here and there to make it flow just a little bit better.

The performances, for the most part, are good but best of all is M. Emmet Walsh, who is great as Visser. He thinks he’s smarter than Marty, sizes him up from the start, and thinks he has to play him so he can get the same money, for less work, and leave no witnesses against him. It’s a good plan – only it doesn’t quite work out the way he plans, because others get in the way. Walsh was a wonderful character actor – often doing good, small roles, and in Visser he had the role of his career. This is a movie about only slimy characters – and he’s the slimiest of them all. Dan Hedaya is also excellent as Marty – who like Visser – thinks he is smarter than he really is. John Getz has the type of role that Fred MacMurray played in Double Indemnity or Tom Ewell in Detour – he never seems to realize just what a sucker he is. Frances McDormand, in one of her earliest roles, is also quite good – although she is hampered a bit by the fact that her character never really figures out what is going on – she’s confused, as well as an emotional wreck, at the end of the movie – and given what happened to everyone else, she may never figure out what happened.

There are two virtuoso – nearly wordless – sequences in Blood Simple. Without giving too much away, I’ll say the first one involves one character trying to dispose of a dead body, which doesn’t want to co-operate, and the other is the climax – that has two characters involved in a bloody battle, even though they cannot see other – they are opposite sides of a wall.

Blood Simple lacks the ambition of much of the Coens work. It really is precisely what it seems like – a modern day noir, with only a few characters and locations (the film was an indie, made on a very limited budget). But the film is fiendishly clever and stylistic – and did what the Coens hoped it would – put them on the map. It is often ranked among the greatest debut films of all time – and it deserves to be there. The Coens have topped Blood Simple a number of times in their career – but for pure bloody pleasure, Blood Simple works just about perfectly.

New Director Retrospective Series: Up First The Coen Brothers

One of the things I mentioned a few times on this blog is that for the next little while anyway, reviews of new releases would be scarcer than normal. The reason being is that my wife and I welcomed our second daughter on February 28th. While it was easy to sneak out to late shows before, until Claire starts sleeping through the night, that’s going to be harder – so unless it’s a kids movie that I can take my older daughter to, or something I HAVE to see (like Noah and The Grand Budapest Hotel – two I hope to get to in the next two weeks) I won’t see as much as normal. By the summer, it should return to something more normal – as long as Claire follows in her sister’s footsteps and starts sleeping through the night at the same time.

The upshot of this is that while I don’t have the luxury of going out to see movies, I’m stuck at home with a (mostly) sleeping baby and a wife who heads up to bed at 8 every night – meaning I have a lot to time to watch movies at home (hence, why I’ve been able to review new movies like Nymphomaniac and Veronica Mars). Mainly though, I’m spending my time going through older movies – movies that for the most part I have seen before, but not properly reviewed. I went through Wes Anderson’s films very quickly in order to get the pieces posted by the time The Grand Budapest Hotel opened – but that’s not really the way I want to do these director retrospectives. Typically, what I want to do is go through the films one at a time, in chronological order, and review them and then write a wrap up piece. As I think the Coen Brothers are the best filmmakers in the world right now and just made the best film of 2013 with Inside Llewyn Davis, I figured I’d start with them. On tap, I’m already about halfway through Jim Jarmusch’s films – and I hope to have up reviews of all of them in April before his latest, Only Lovers Left Alive opens (meaning, that for a time, I’ll probably be posting both Jarmusch and Coen reviews). Possible future editions include Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh and Michael Mann. Had I come up with this idea earlier, I may well have done Darren Aronofsky before Noah or Lars von Trier before Nymphomaniac – maybe even Denis Villeneuve before Enemy – but I didn’t. Perhaps before their next films. If anyone has other suggestions, I’d be glad to hear them – with the caveat that I don’t really want to delve deeply into a director who has more than about 15 films on their resume – not at the present time anyway – as that would simply be too great a time commitment. Anyway, onto the Coens.

Before Inside Llewyn Davis came out in December – the film I ended up calling the best of 2013 – I did a piece ranking the 15 features of the Coen brothers’ career up until that point. Now, since I have seen Inside Llewyn Davis and I think it’s one of their best, that ranking obviously needs to be updated. But thinking back on where I would rank the newest film something occurred to me -  it has been a few years since I have seen some of the Brothers work. When I did my ranking, I was going mainly on memory, but there is definitely value in going back and revisiting their films – one at a time, in chronological order – to help map their progression and perhaps in doing so, I’d have a better “ranking” – if such a thing exists.

I was going to do a detailed introduction, but I think the best way to do this is to simply dive straight into the films themselves. At the end, I will do a conclusion and an updated ranking. Below is how I saw the films before venturing back through them all – I can already tell you – there are some significant changes in the rankings.

15. Raising Arizona
14. Intolerable Cruelty
13. The Ladykillers
12. The Hudsucker Proxy
11. Burn After Reading
10. True Grit
9. Blood Simple
8. Barton Fink
7. Miller’s Crossing
6. The Man Who Wasn’t There
5. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
4. The Big Lebowski
3. A Serious Man
2. No Country for Old Men
1. Fargo

Movie Review: Tom at the Farm

Tom at the Farm
Directed by: Xavier Dolan.
Written by: Xavier Dolan based on the play by Michel Marc Bouchard.
Starring: Xavier Dolan (Tom), Pierre-Yves Cardinal (Francis), Lise Roy (Agathe), Evelyne Brochu (Sara), Manuel Tadros (Barman).

There are not many 24 year old who can claim they have directed one film that has garnered praise from around the world – and Quebec native Xavier Dolan has already made three. His debut film, I Killed My Mother, made when he was a teenager announced a major new voice in Canadian cinema – and his follow-ups Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways  seemed to confirm that talent. He is still a raw talent – none of his films have been perfect. But Dolan has more than enough time to hone his craft. One day, I have little doubt he will make a truly great film.

Unfortunately, his fourth film Tom at the Farm is not that film. Dolan seems to be trying out a different genre each time out, and this time he has elected to make a thriller – something that aspires to be Hitchcockian. If nothing else, Tom at the Farm shows that Dolan could make a great thriller one day. The best aspect of the film is the way Dolan slowly, but surely, builds tension. But as the movie goes along, it becomes increasingly implausible – and the film never quite hits high gear. For the first hour or so of this 95 minute film, I was anxiously awaiting what was going to happen next – only to have the film end without it really doing anything.

Dolan stars in the film as Tom – a gay man from Montreal who travels out into the Quebec farm country to attend his boyfriend’s funeral. We learn next to nothing about his boyfriend – not even how he died (apparently, it was some sort of accident). Tom arrives at his boyfriend’s childhood home, and is immediately welcomed in by Agathe (Lise Roy), his boyfriend’s mother, who doesn’t know her son was gay – an illusion Tom does not break. Next, he meets Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), his boyfriend’s older brother he didn’t even know existed. Francis runs the family farm, and makes it clear to Tom that Agathe is never to know her son was gay. Francis has even gone so far as to invent a girlfriend for his late brother – a girlfriend Agathe is furious with for not attending the funeral. From his introduction – waking Tom up in the middle of the night with a chokehold – it’s clear that Francis is more than slightly unhinged. Tom wants out of there as soon as possible – but for some reason, he finds himself drawn back to the farm after the funeral. And soon, he cannot leave at all – pretty much being held hostage by Francis, who is alternately violent and abusive, and kind in a way that hints that perhaps he’s not as much unlike his brother than he wants to believe.

For the first hour, much of the film works. We sense that Dolan and his characters are withholding information from us that will set in motion the films climax, but this works because Dolan is gradually building the tension, and revealing more and more about Francis and Agathe – who at first seem to be one dimensional characters that gradually become more complex as the movie progresses. The film also benefits from a wonderful score by Gabriel Yared – inspired by Hitchcock favorite Bernard Hermann. In short, for an hour, I couldn’t wait to see where the film was leading me.

Which is what makes the final half hour of the film such a disappointment – a jumble of ideas that goes by too quickly to be believed. Tom essentially reveals a certain degree of Stockholm syndrome in one scene, and then just as quickly seems to snap out of it. The film also introduces another character – Sarah (Evelyne Brochu), who’s pretty much every action makes no logical sense at all. There is one neat scene in this section – involving a local bartender who reveals the secrets Francis refuses to – but then the movie devolves into a strange, slow motion chase scene climax that simply has no tension. Perhaps this is because Tom at the Farm is based on a play – but if the play ended the same way as the movie does, than Dolan should have realized what worked on a stage, wouldn’t work nearly as well on screen.

Tom at the Farm is not a bad film by any means – the first hour is in fact quite good. But because the first hour works so well, the last half hour seems even worse than it would have had the first part not been as strong. Dolan is still a talented filmmaker – certainly someone to watch, and one of the most interesting directors currently working in Canada. But Tom at the Farm is a disappointment.
Note: The film opens in Montreal tomorrow, and one supposes will open around Canada shortly – as far as I know however, it still doesn’t have a deal for America – yet his debut film, made 4 years ago, just got a release South of Border last year, so you never know. I saw this film at TIFF 2013, and my review is based on that screening.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Movie Review: Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang
Directed by: Laurent Cantet.
Written by: Laurent Cantet based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates.
Starring: Katie Coseni (Maddy), Raven Adamson (Legs), Madeleine Bisson (Rita O'Hagan), Claire Mazerolle (Goldie), Paige Moyles (Lana), Rachel Nyhuus (Violet), Tamara Hope (Marianne), Rick Roberts (Mr. Kellogg), Briony Glassco (Mrs. Kellogg).

Most movies about female adolescence ring false. There are many reasons for that – starting with the fact that they are usually written and directed by older men who try to put themselves in the shoes of young women, and fail, and also because most movies insists in casting women in their 20s – who are impossibly hot – as teenagers who feel out of place and are picked on. While Laurent Cantet’s Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang certainly has its problems – the biggest being it’s long running time – it at least feels real and authentic. Based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates and starring a group of non-professional mainly Canadian teenagers who look like teenagers (even the girl the rest describe as the hot one is believably hot, not supermodel hot). It is a film that above all, gets the feeling of awkwardness and confusion of what it must be like to be a teenage girl – especially one in the pre-feminist era of 1950s suburban America.

The movie is about a group of awkward, but seemingly normal young teenage girls in 1950s America. Maddie (Katie Coseni) narrates the movie, that starts out innocently enough, as she and her friends try to navigate a world where the boys and men in their live rule – be it their fathers (most of whom are absent and/or uncaring), teachers, who love to belittle them, or teenage boys who take advantage of them, and pretty much every other man they meet. This is a world ruled by men – the girls know it, there mothers (who are many weak willed and beaten down by life) know it, and perhaps most importantly, the men know it. They can do what they want, because who is going to stop them?

Buts Legs (Raven Adamson) is different. There is an anger in Legs that grows throughout the course of the movie. Her mother is long gone, her father doesn’t care, and Legs is tired of being a victim – tired of being pushed around by men. She forms a “gang” that she calls Foxfire – and everything starts out innocently enough – graffiti, revenge on a nasty teacher, and then she takes things too far, steals a car, and ends up in juvie for months. When she gets out, she is even more determined than ever to be free – to live just as she chooses – and she needs her girls around her. Renting a larger, dilapidated house, the gang sets up shop. But money is tight, so the girls need to do something to make ends meet.

Like Cantet’s last film, the Palme D’Or winning The Class, he makes good use of non-professional actors in Foxfire. No, the performances in Foxfire do not have the same polish as pros would have – the actors sometimes sound awkward or unsure of themselves, but it works in the context of the movie, where the girls are often awkward and unsure of themselves. The one exception is Raven Adamson, who rips into her role as Legs and never hits a false note. She is most beaten down of any of the girls – the one most looking for a surrogate family and support system, and she’s willing to do almost anything to get what she wants. As the film moves along, she puts on more and more bravado – and what started out as a group of friends who call themselves a gang, becomes something more than that – almost cult like. I have heard people compare the film to Lord of the Flies, and that’s a good comparison, but while watching the film, I found myself thinking about Fight Club. As more and more members join, and start taking their belief in the gang to fanatical extremes, the original group starts to drift apart. For some of them, it’s just because they grow up – start to see that life isn’t quite as black and white as Legs makes it seem – plus Legs is going to further extremes, taking more risks, and what was once fun, no longer is.

Foxfire is not a great film – but it is a very good one. Cantet’s film clocks in at 143 minutes, and that’s at least half hour too long, and as the movie progresses, it starts to get repetitive. I also wish he had found a better way to end the movie – the strange kidnapping and hostage drama that ends the film – involving an Ayn Rand spouting corporate fat cat – feels strange, and plays like the filmmakers did not know how to end the movie, so they add in a false drama to give the film a better climax. It wasn’t necessary. At its best, Foxfire is a necessary corrective to all the movies that pretend to be about “girl power”, but are really just about a bunch of hot girls in skimpy clothing acting like assholes, just like men. At its best, Foxfire is more than that, so while it doesn’t reach the heights of The Class, it is still another very good film by Cantet.

Note: I saw this film way back in 2012 at TIFF – and I was starting to think it would never be released, until yesterday when I saw it was available in Canada on iTunes. I definitely think it’s worth checking out – and I’m sorry it never got a proper release in North America.

Movie Review: The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna
Directed by: Sini Anderson.
As the lead singer of Bikini Kill in the early 1990s, Kathleen Hanna inspired many and infuriated almost as many. She was a beautiful young woman, a former stripper, who talked like a Valley Girl, was not above using her sexuality to draw attention to herself and her band – who was also a committed feminist, who sang about topics like rape and incest. She also had an undeniable stage presence – the clips of the band in concert are a highlight of the film, as Hanna is full of energy – and like all great “front men” she was able to weave a spell over the audience.

The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna was directed by Sini Anderson, who is obviously a fan of Hanna’s. While the film acknowledges that there were many people who questioned Hanna back then – some harshly – the documentary doesn’t really interview them to get their point of view. They exist only as a few snippets of articles that the film shows, and in the memory of Hanna and those who know and love her. The film doesn’t really try to be objective about Hanna or her beliefs – in that way, it isn’t so much like the fanzines and newsletters Hanna published and gave out at their shows – pure advocacy for the cause. While including some of the naysayers may have made The Punk Singer a more complete – and perhaps complex – documentary, I’m not sure it would have been much better. This is basically Kathleen Hanna in her own words – and taken as purely that, the film is very good.

The movie is a fairly standard musician biopic documentary – telling about Hanna’s rise from obscurity into semi-stardom. I say semi-stardom, because while Bikini Kill got a lot of press when it was at the peak of its popularity in the mid-1990s, the band never really made all that much money. They were a sort of offshoot on the grunge movement in Seattle – Hanna was friends with Kurt Cobain, which may be why Courtney Love cold cocked her at Lollapalooza one year (according to Hanna, it was completely unprovoked – which makes sense since Courtney Love is insane). The band forms despite the fact that none of them really know how to play their instruments that well (they learn on the job) – and Hanna had never been a lead singer before (she was a slam poet, but someone advised her if she wanted attention, to join a band – no one listens to poetry).

What is different is Hanna herself. In the poem that opens the movies she says she’s a “woman who won’t shut up” – and that’s a fairly good description of her. She has opinions, and she lets everyone know what they are. Her lyrics are not subtle – but in your face, much like her singing style – although they do have a strange beauty to them at times. The songs are not always pleasant – they’re not always brilliant – but they do contain a strange poetry.

The film is equally fascinating in dealing with Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill life – her solo project, Julie Ruin, which she recorded herself in her bedroom, followed by another band – Le Tigre – and then a long, undiagnosed illness, before coming back with The Julie Ruin. Hanna may not quite be a household name – but her work has left a mark. She is a woman who still believes in feminism when so many people question whether it still exists (it does) and whether it’s still important (it is). And she’s going to sing about it no matter what anyone thinks.

My biggest problem with the doc is the same one I have with many musician docs – so perhaps I’m the only one who feels this way – and that is that Anderson rarely (if ever) lets a whole song play. I had to hit Youtube after the movie to hear full songs by Hanna in her various bands, because I only got a small flavor for her work by watching the documentary. That’s a shame – because some of the music is great – and to me, if you’re going to celebrate the life of a musician, you should celebrate their music. Scorsese gets this, which is why his docs on Dylan and George Harrison contain more music than most other docs like it (and perhaps that’s why they’re both 4 hours long). It’s a shame this documentary doesn’t allow the songs to play in full. Hanna may not be Dylan – but she has something to say worth listening to.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Movie Review: Nymphomaniac Volume II

Nymphomaniac Volume II
Directed by: Lars von Trier.
Written by: Lars von Trier.
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg (Joe), Stellan Skarsgård (Seligman), Shia LaBeouf (Jerôme), Jamie Bell (K), Mia Goth (P), Willem Dafoe (L), Stacy Martin (Young Joe), Christian Slater (Joe's Father), Kate Ashfield (Therapist), Udo Kier (The Waiter), Caroline Goodall (Psychologist).
After the first two hours of Lars von Trier’s epic Nymphomaniac, I said I was still trying to wrap my head around his film – wondering aloud where the film was going and stating that if Von Trier stuck the landing, he may have made his masterpiece, but if he didn’t, the film could still be considered a disappointment. Now that I’ve seen the other half of the film – I have to say, I’m still trying to wrap my ahead around it. It isn’t Von Trier’s masterpiece – take your pick from Dancer in the Dark or Dogville for that – but I think it may just be a great film in its own way. Von Trier never wanted the film split in two (there’s even a disclaimer at the front of the two films stating as much) – but while the two halves certainly add up to a great whole than they are individually, there is also an obvious tonal difference between the two. Nymphomaniac Volume I, despite some very heavy moments, was also quite comedic at times. Other than a very early scene in Volume II – where two African brothers debate, in a language Joe (now played by fulltime Charlotte Gainsbourg) doesn’t understand, which one gets to put his penis where – while their large erections bobbing in front of Joe’s face – there is very little in Nymphomaniac Volume II one could classify as funny.

The first film is about Joe chasing the high of her early sexual experiences – seen in Volume II as a religious experience as Joe achieves orgasm by herself alone in a field and begins to float – and having fun doing it. The cliffhanger that ended Volume I – where Joe loses the ability to feel anything during sex anymore – is what runs through Volume II – as Joe tries any and everything to regain that feeling. First, it’s just with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), the lunk head she cannot simply dismiss like the rest of her lovers – as the two, now living in domestic non-bliss, and raising a child, fuck every chance they get – Joe hoping he can fuck the feeling back into her – and then it’s other men as well. Much of the first hour of Volume II has Joe becoming addicted to her afternoon S&M rituals with K (Jamie Bell), who lays out specific ground rules for their sessions – telling her they will never have sex, but she must except willing to his total domination. K whips her with a riding crop as she’s strapped to a couch – or will punch her in the face when and if he wants. There is no safe word, so she cannot back out once they get started. The second hour of Volume II has Joe moving away from that – and starting her own business, as a collector for the mob – which here is represented by one man, L (Willem Dafoe). It turns out she’s good at this work – she is able to read and manipulate men. There is a powerful, extended sequence where Joe lays bare one man’s sexual identity in front of him – perhaps even he didn’t know what he was – and then Joe provides a way to relieve his own shame. Through all of Volume II Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) pops up – though less often than in Volume I – as Joe continues to tell the man who has knowledge of everything but doesn’t truly understand any of it. He knows everything about religion, but has no faith. He knows all about sex, but early in Volume II, he confirms what many probably deduced from Volume I – he has no actual experience with it. From that moment on, the ending of the movie pretty much becomes unavoidable – especially since this is a von Trier film. Joe is another of his wounded female martyrs, excepting abuse from the male dominated world in the hopes of achieving a form of transcendence. Since Von Trier starting his cycle of films in this vein – in Breaking the Waves in 1996 – the female characters have certainly evolved. Whereas Emily Watson in that film and Bjork in Dancer in the Dark ultimately accept their fate, Nicole Kidman in Dogville and Gainsbourg in Antichrist eventually fight back. Joe here has something in common with both – accepting what she must from Jerome, but not for Seligman.

To a certain extent, one can say Von Trier has been making the same film over and over again. There are certainly references in Nymphomaniac to his previous films – he pretty much entirely recreates the opening scene from Antichrist in Volume II – with (thankfully) a different result. And Stellan Skarsgard’s Seligman is similar to Paul Bettany in Dogville – a man who thinks he is above the rest of the men in the heroine’s life, who turns out to be worse than all of them – because at least the rest of them don’t pretend to understand them. The final scene in Nymphomaniac makes it pretty clear that even though Seligman has listened to Joe’s entire life story - expressed sympathy and support at times, analysis at others – he doesn’t understand anything that she has said – not really anyway.

Like all of Von Trier’s films, Nymphomaniac is at times funny, at times provocative and at times disturbing. Von Trier is not a subtle filmmaker and at times his films can become endurance tests – to see how much misery the audience can stomach. In this way, I think the two week break I had between Volume I and Volume II helped a little bit. I was amazed at how quickly I was able to sink back into Von Trier’s world. Like most of his films, he gets fiercely committed performances from his actors. Gainsbourg is once again game from anything he throws at her – and he seems to want to push her further each time out to see how far she’s willing to go and so far, he hasn’t given her anything that she’s not willing or able to pull off. It’s another brilliant performance by her. Skarsgard is also wonderful as Seligman – another horribly unflattering character by him for Von Trier of masculinity. In Volume II, Jamie Bell is also great as K – who is so seemingly polite even while he dregs up the violence from inside him, and Mia Goth – who plays Joe’s “protégé”, is good enough that I wanted her character to be fleshed out some more.

Von Trier wants to provoke his audience – and he certainly does in Nymphomaniac. The film has generated a lot of press – although if that will turn into monetary returns, I don’t know. Some may be curious about all the sex in the film – but as anyone who knows Von Trier could attest even before seeing this one, the sex in the movie is not erotic. In no way, shape or form is the movie pornographic. Ultimately, I think Nymphomaniac is a mostly brilliant movie – one that pushes the audiences buttons. It’s certainly not a movie I’m going to stop thinking about anytime soon – Volume I swam through my head for two weeks, and Volume II is still there days later. It’s not an easy film – and I do think Von Trier tries to stuff too much into it, even at four hours long. But it’s a film that will stay with you – no matter if you love or hate it.

Criticwire Survey: Filmmaking Experience & Film Theory

Q: Jazz critic Ted Gioia recently lodged a complaint that "music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting" because most music critics lack a musical background and theoretical tools. Do movie critics need filmmaking experience or an understanding of film theory to do their jobs?

I think there is actually a few different questions here. The whole “lifestyle reporting” question is  a problem in film criticism, as we have become a culture obsessed with celebrities. For the most part, it barely interests me at all – and it’s gotten to a point where I very rarely read interviews with celebrities anymore – because it’s never about their work, which is the only thing about them that I find interesting. But as the profession of film criticism becomes harder and harder to actually make a living at, critics are now expected to be “film reporters” as well as critics – meaning they have to write about a lot of crap that has very little to do with criticism – they have to be Oscarologists, box office experts, do set visits, do fawning celebrity interviews, get into twitter battles with other critics and fans etc.  It’s boring.
The second question as to whether film critics need filmmaking experience, I don’t think so, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Other than a six minute high school film – which at the time I described as being in the style of Jim Jarmusch – basically because in the whole six minute film, I had three shots, I have never attempted to make a film – but more experience would definitely not hurt what I write. Certain filmmakers I would love to see do some film criticism – Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino (even if I would disagree with him more than not), Paul Thomas Anderson spring to mind, because when they talk about other films and filmmakers they usually have something interesting to say. Others, like Steven Soderbergh, I think would drive me nuts as critics. Still, I think knowing what goes into making a film – and how long and difficult a process it can be – would help – at least in terms of some critics treating the films they are reviewing with respect.

As for film theory, yes, I think it’s necessary to have an understanding of at the very least the basics of film theory. No, I don’t think it is necessary to gather that understanding in an Academic setting. There are tons of film books you can read, lots of great film criticism, DVD commentary tracks, etc. in which one can gather that knowledge without spending 4 years in a film program – not that I think there is anything wrong with that either.
I don’t think I really need to tell anyone reading this that I do not spend much time either delving into the particulars of how a film is made or talking about film theory. That’s just not the way I write about films. I try to imagine the audience of what I write as I try to explain the about the film in question, what it’s about, and the effect it had on me while I was watching it. I know that some find my approach simplistic – others I know think I take film too seriously and just want to know if a film is “entertaining” (I’ll always remember one conversation I had about a film, where I when I asked if I liked it, I responded by saying that I thought the film was poorly acted, ridiculous in terms of plot, and was about to go on when I was interrupted and asked – “Yeah, but was it fun?”) the but it works for me and I’m comfortable with how I write.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ranking the Best Actor Oscar Winners: 10-1

And we're here - the best of the best. The 10 Best Performances ever to win the Best Actor Oscar.

10. Peter Finch, Network (1976)
Not only can you make the case that Finch wasn’t the strongest lead actor of 1976 – my vote would clearly go to Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver – you could even make the argument that his wasn’t even the strongest lead actor performance nominated for his own movie – William Holden, as an aging network executive is brilliant. But neither of those things are a shot at Finch, but rather a testament to what a strong year 1976 was. As Howard Beale – the long time anchor who gets fired, and then becomes a hit because he’s “Mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”, Finch in his last screen performance (he won the Oscar after he died) is wonderful. The Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky film was a daring satire in 1976, and has pretty much become truth in 2014, but strangely that doesn’t diminish its power – nor does it dim just how great Finch is here. Did he deserve to win? Not really – but that’s only because his competition was so strong. This is still one of the best screen performances in history.
Is It Their Best Work: Perhaps – but Finch was brilliant in Sunday, Bloody, Sunday – a completely different kind of movie.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Robert DeNiro’s performance in Taxi Driver may just be my favorite performance in history – so I would have voted for him.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: If they wanted to reward a late John Wayne performance, they would have been better served waiting for this year’s The Shootist.

9. George C. Scott, Patton (1970)
As Patton, the great George C. Scott was given the role of his life. He wasn’t the first choice – a long list of actors turned were considered before him – but he was the best choice. Scott had already played an insane military man in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – and he used a little bit of that insanity in playing Patton – a WWII General who saw the war as his own personal one – and uses it to inflate his own myth even while the events are still going on. This is a great role for an actor – not only because it allows Scott the opportunity make big speeches, on a huge canvas – or allows him to cut loose for nearly three hours of screen time – but because of the different levels he does get to play, even when he seems to be playing everything at the same volume. Patton was, among other things, an actor – playing the role he knows he needs to play to inspire others. Scott gets this, and it adds another level to this role. Normally, I am not a fan of pro-war movies – but Patton is unabashedly pro-war, and I love it – and above all else, I love Scott in it.
Is It Their Best Work: I’ll probably always prefer his work in Dr. Strangelove – but I won’t argue with those who say Patton is his best.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Scott would have gotten my vote – but Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces would have been a close second.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Fernando Rey delivered on his many great performances for Luis Bunuel in Tristana.

8. Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Cage takes a lot of crap – much of it deserved – for his choices and his overacting. But the reason I remain a fan of his is that because once in a while he delivers the kind of insane performance that only he can give. I’m not talking about some of his guilty pleasure performances – like say Face/Off, Con Air or Drive Angry – but the kind of inspired genius that perhaps Cage just stumbled upon, but he still pulls it off better than anyone else could – performances like Wild at Heart, Adaptation, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans – and this one. As a Hollywood screenwriter whose career is over because of his drinking, who heads out to Las Vegas for the express purpose of drinking himself to death, Cage really is brilliant. I’ve always argued that Elisabeth Shue is even better than Cage (and it’s a shame she never got another role close to as good as this one) – but Cage is nearly as great – and certainly drains all the romanticism out of being a movie drunk. There is nothing glamorous about his performance – as he slowly dissolves into nothing. This is also director Mike Figgis’ best work – and a lot of that has to do with Shue and Cage. Mock him if you want to, but when he finds the right role there are few actors better than Nicolas Cage.
Is It Their Best Work: I’d probably lean towards Adaptation – but it’s close.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Anthony Hopkins in brilliant in Oliver Stone’s Nixon – and he may well have gotten my vote.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Robert DeNiro delivered two great performances this year – in Casino and Heat – take your pick.

7. Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I’ve seen some ridiculous estimates of how little screen time Anthony Hopkins has in The Silence of the Lambs (the lowest one I think said 10 minutes – most seem to settle at around 20 minutes – my own “unofficial tally” was that the scenes involving Hopkins’ Lector make up around 40 minutes of the 2 hour runtime, although his face may not be on screen for each of those minutes). But does it really matter? Hopkins’ Lector feels like the star of the show in Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece of a horror film – a sick genius who plays games with the equally great Jodie Foster (who really is the film’s lead) and charms the audience into liking him, despite the fact we know he’s a serial killer and cannibal. What’s most amazing about this performance is how none of the other Hannibal movies or TV shows, none of which come close to this film (as much as I love the TV show Hannibal – and Mads Mikkelsen in it) have been able to dim this performance’s impact. Hannibal Lector often shows up at the top of people’s list of the greatest movie villains of all time – and if that is overstating it a little – it’s not overstating by that much.
Is It Their Best Work: If it’s not, it’s close with Nixon and The Remains of the Day.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): I cannot really argue with this one.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: John Turturro delivered his greatest performance in the Coen’s Barton Fink.

6. F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus (1984)
F. Murray Abraham never really became a movie star – although in the 30 years since Amadeus, he has worked steadily as a character actor, and in fact this past year deliver a one scene performance of perfection in the Coen brothers Inside Llewyn Davis. But the role he will always be remembered for is in Milos Forman’s Amadeus – where Abraham brilliantly plays Saleri, a decent composer who has a lot of connections and success, but who knows just how brilliant the younger Mozart is – even if no one else quite seems to realize it. Saleri hates Mozart for how easy everything comes to him, while he toils and struggles to produce lesser work. His Saleri is one of the great portraits of jealously and self-loathing ever captured on film. You can (and many have) complain about the historical accuracy of Amadeus – but that seems to be to beside the point. This is a masterful film – and a large reason for that is just how good Abraham is. That he never came close to topping it is perhaps somewhat understandable – this is a performance that is tough to beat.
Is It Their Best Work: Yes – he never really came close to it again.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Abraham was the clear choice – as enjoyable as his co-star Tom Hulce was.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Harry Dean Stanton as a man without a past (seemingly) in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas delivered a brilliant performance.

5. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront (1954)
Say what you want about Elia Kazan’s motivations for making On the Waterfront – they are valid – but you cannot deny that the result is a masterpiece – one of the most influential films ever made, with one of the best and most influential performances in American movie history by Brando. Brando’s genius was that he could do both big and small moments, and pull them off perfectly. He was a natural, and the camera loved him because he was at ease in front of it. The scene in the back of the taxi, where his brother pulls on gun on him could have allowed an opportunity for Brando to go big – but instead, he plays it quieter than we expect – he’s not angry at his brother, as much as he’s disappointed in him. There is a reason why Brando is a legend – and On the Waterfront gives you one of them.
Is It Their Best Work: With Brando it’s hard to tell. There is so much great work out there (but considering he still has another win coming up, I guess not).
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Brando was undeniable that year.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: George Sanders was great as one half of a couple coming apart in Voyage in Italy.

4. Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Nicholson was the perfect choice to play RP McMurphy – the rule breaking convict who pretends to be insane to get out of jail, and finds himself in deeper trouble in the mental hospital. The performance captures everything about Nicholson that makes him one of the greatest actors in screen history – the charm, the danger, the charisma, the sexuality. Yes, it gives him ample opportunities to be his usual screen persona – and Nicholson doesn’t shy away from those – but the performance is far more than Nicholson’s usual bag of tricks. Nicholson has won three Oscars – and if anyone career deserves three, it’s Nicholson’s – although the other two weren’t from his best work. His performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is.
Is It Their Best Work: Yes – and given how great a career he has had, that is saying something.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Some great performances were nominated – none as good as Jack’s.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Gene Hackman was wonderful in Arthur Penn’s underrated crime film, Night Moves.

3. Robert DeNiro, Raging Bull (1980)
Robert DeNiro impressed voters with his physical transformation for Raging Bull – or really two transformations, first turning himself into the Jake LaMotta who was a great boxer, and then turning himself into the Jake LaMotta was an overweight mess. Those types of things win Oscars. Yet the performance is far deeper than that – a portrait of jealously and rage so potent that Roger Ebert correctly compared the movie to Othello. Filmed in gorgeous black & white by Martin Scorsese, the film captures the violence of the sport of boxing – and the violence of the man at its center. DeNiro goes all in – and delivers one of the best screen performances of all time – and of his great career. His “You fuck my wife” exchange with Joe Pesci is as perfect as any scene in film history.
Is It Their Best Work: No – but that’s only because he’s even better in Taxi Driver. It’s close though.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): As good as everyone else was this year – particularly Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man – this wasn’t even close.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Jack Nicholson has been nominated so often, it feels strange to say he was overlooked – but they didn’t nominate him for The Shining, so he was.

2. Marlon Brando, The Godfather (1972)
There may not be a more iconic performance in cinema history than Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. We know his big moments – the first scene involving the cat, his speech to the heads of the five families, his sad death. Every one of those moments is brilliant – and pretty much every moment in the film is as well. Yes, you can certainly make the case that it is Al Pacino’s Michael who is the central character in the movie – Brando spends a large part of the movie unconscious – but Brando’s presence looms over each and every scene in the movie. The studio didn’t want him, but Coppola knew he was the right actor. Brando did whatever he wanted to do onset, and the result is one of the great creations in screen history. How anyone can argue against that is beyond me.
Is It Their Best Work: Again, with Brando it’s so hard to know for sure. A Streetcar Named Desire? On the Waterfront? Last Tango in Paris? The Godfather? Is there a wrong answer.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): Seriously, this isn’t close – and I love some of the other nominees.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Charles Grodin is wonderful in Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid – especially in the final scene where he realizes how empty his “victory” is.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood (2007)
As Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis gives one of the greatest performances in movie history. From the wordless 15 minute opening scene, right up until the explosion of violence that ends the film, there is rarely a moment where Day-Lewis is not front and center in the film – and there is never a moment he isn’t mesmerizing. His character is one of the most arrogant and misanthropic people in history – he loses everything for his piece of the American dream – and ends up miserable and alone. Last year, when I did my top 10 films of all time, I put There Will Be Blood on it – it is a little recent to be on there, but the film has so quickly become one of my favorites, one of my most revisited, and one of the most complex of all American films, I felt it deserved that place. Picking Day-Lewis over the likes of Brando (x2), DeNiro and Nicholson will no doubt be controversial – but I’m right.
Is It Their Best Work: Yes – and considering how much I love him in many of movies, that is quite an accomplishment.
Who Should Have Won (Out of the Nominees): This wasn’t close. Viggo Mortenson is great in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises –and he was a very distant second for me.
Who Was Overlooked Completely: Philip Seymour Hoffman was great as he implodes in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Brad Pitt has never been better than in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Gordon Pinsent deserved some of the love that went to Julie Christie for Away From Her.