Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a jubilant exploration of the dark side of the America Dream (money, crime, narcotics, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll). The Wolf of Wall Street forms a loose trilogy with Goodfellas and Casino, and, I dare say, this is Scorsese’s best in the last fifteen years. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Jordan Belfort is unapologetic, fierce and in-your-face; he turns him into an incarnation of greed and arrogance. This is not a likable man. But dripping with some kind of intoxicating charisma, Belfort wants to confess all. DiCaprio’s ability at playing to the camera makes this descent into hell irresistible.
The Act of Killing is a daring reinvention of the documentary form, as well as a mind-boggling demonstration of man’s infinite capacity for evil. Director Joshua Oppenheimer pulls off the impossible: he confronts great, incomprehensible evil and puts a human face on it; evil looks like a gentle grandfather. Anwar Congo is a fit, well-dressed man who would go unnoticed until he starts to speak about his past. Congo was one of the street thugs who became a death squad leader after the military overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965. Anyone deemed problematic by the new regime (intellectuals, artists, ethnic Chinese) were immediately branded communists and marked for execution. According to the film, one million people were killed in the span of one year. But by focusing on Congo, the movie also serves as a reminder of our inherent sense of empathy. You can’t possibly forgive the man for what he’s done, but you can’t just dismiss him as a monster, either.
Inside Llewyn Davis is set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961 with its protagonist Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, who does his own singing and guitar playing). A gifted folk singer, he fully embodies the definition of ”struggling musician.” He’s a talented freeloader, crashing on his friends’ couches and living off the pass-around basket after gigs. Llewyn’s face is a picture of irritation and disappointment that only changes when he’s performing. Sulky and desperate, rarely pleasant company, Isaac turns in an impressive performance and makes it easy to feel the extent of his frustration. And when he sings, he sings in a voice that sounds like it needs to be heard. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel has set the tone of Inside Llewyn Davis with a beautifully diffused color palette, giving it a melancholy feel, a wistful sadness, a lasting glance at Llewyn’s deep depression. You may not like Llewyn much, but you don’t laugh at him, either. The Coens take care of that for you, ending the movie with a bitter twist that suggests that Llewyn could have benefited from better luck and timing. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coens’ more intimate movies (this one doesn’t have the mass market appeal of No Country For Old Men), but like Llewyn’s music, it comes from the heart and is deeply felt.
Director Steve McQueen’s (Shame and Hunger) film is stylistically traditional, but its viewpoint is confrontational and uncompromising, as any ripped-from-the-headlines drama. This is not a sprawling Spielbergian tearjerker, nor is it an aloof, artsy undertaking. 12 Years a Slave does not waffle over the brutality of its subject matter. McQueen gives us a close-up look at what a prolonged bout of whipping does to the human body. More important, he also shows us the effect such violence has on the mind and soul, creating scars that endure for generations. 12 Years a Slave creates an honest, believable experience. The result can, at times, be estranging—Solomon is a tragic, achingly sympathetic figure; he is, at all times, a victim; he is no hero. Nonetheless, the snowballing emotional effect is devastating: the final scenes here are as angry, as memorable, as overwhelming as anything modern cinema has to offer—a film difficult to watch but impossible to turn away from.
Stories We Tell is not only moving, but narrative wizardry. It is a ghostly journey through truth and fiction that will haunt you long after viewing. Director Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz and Away from Her) turns the camera on to herself and family to tell the relationship between her parents, Michael and Diane Polley, including the revelation that the filmmaker was the product of an extramarital affair. Polley incorporates interviews with her siblings from her mother’s two marriages, interviews with other relatives and family friends, Michael Polley’s narration of his memoir, and Super-8 footage shot to look like home movies of historical events in her family’s life. Stories We Tell is not only a beautiful film, but it leaves you contemplating the nature of documentaries, the heart of storytelling and the complicated relationship between them both.
A Hijacking is a riveting and realistic Danish thriller from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Based on a true story, Lindholm takes us on a harrowing journey when a Danish freighter is taken captive by a band of Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean. Now this storyline seems ripe for Hollywood blockbuster material—explosions, bigger than life heroes, and a score to punctuate everything with an exclamation point. But no. Lindholm goes in the completely opposite direction of that, giving us a slow-burning and intimate portrait of the hijacking victims’ psychological breakdown.
Much Ado About Nothing looks suave and sophisticated. It is actually not something I would have expected from the mega-talented Joss Whedon ( Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers). Shot in twelve days at Whedon’s (breathtaking) California home on a budget that would qualify as a coffee run on The Avengers, the film is a delightful, engaging version of one of the Bard’s most popular plays. His cast, many with Whedon projects on their résumés, deliver very memorable performances: Amy Acker as Beatrice and Nathan Fillion as the inept constable Dogberry who steals every scene. Much Ado About Nothing relays the genuine enjoyment had during its filming; delectable itself is the opportunity to see Joss Whedon flex his creative muscles in the name of what must have been a labor of love.
|James Franco – Spring Breakers|
American Hustle – Amazing performances by the fantastic four.
Pacific Rim – A fun blockbuster with an original script and diverse cast.
Director Martin Scorsese is back to form in this manic, cocaine-induced ride through Jordan Belfort’s rise to mega-wealth, sudden fall, and unfortunate rise again. Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a tour de force performance. Style-wise, Scorsese has thrown everything including the kitchen sink into this bleak comedy: narration, flashbacks, breaking the fourth wall, sex, drugs, improvisation—excess, excess, excess—and some unfortunately clunky editing. If for no other reason, this film is in my top ten because of the instant classic “Quaalude-cerebral-palsy” scene between DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. Let’s just hope tomorrow’s Ivy League MBA grads don’t make an idol out of Belfort as they did of Gordon Gekko.
Céline and Jesse are back in this voyeuristic trip into the couple’s own midlife doubts and fears. The very loquacious movie gets things rolling eighteen minutes in with the question of their possible split. Two minutes later, as they do some routine grocery shopping, it’s clear that Jesse and Céline will be fine. Yet, you want to stick around for the next one hour and twenty-eight minutes, just because they are so engaging; and the scenes are so beautifully shot.
Despite the selfishly irritating title character, Llewin Davis (subtly and truthfully played by Oscar Isaac), I found myself totally enwrapped by the look of the film. The cinematography and art direction are transportive. With its glowing light, soft focus, and faded colors, the Coen brothers have created a captivating and melancholic treat for the eyes and ears. It’s a simple story that goes no further than full circle, allowing the viewer to simply ride along and live inside this slice of a musician’s life.
David’s honorable mentions:
The Act of Killing – Shocking and innovative doc.
Stories We Tell – Proving we all have stories to tell.
A Hijacking – Somali pirates from the corporate perspective.
Short Term 12 – It was Brie Larson’s year.
Museum Hours – A meditation on life and Pieter Bruege.
The Great Beauty – La dolce vita!
Francis Ha – A clueless millennial in black and white NYC!
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon – Hong Sang-Soo journey into circular bewilderment.
Prince Avalanche – Well tempered drama/comedy with a dash of surrealism.
The Past – Asghar Farhadi’s multicultural separation drama!