The Thanksgiving holiday, naturally, threw a crimp into things. And then, following that, I had some travel for work that took up all of last week and is taking up much of this week--although on Friday I'll have my thoughts on "Black Swan" up for you all.
However, things have been relatively busy on the movie viewing front with some films released early this year that I am just now getting a chance to see. It's the critic's busy time of the year and I'm knee deep in screeners for the Detroit Film Critics Society and trying to see as many movies as I can before having to turn in my article on the 10 Best of 2010. There's a stack of screener DVDs on my table about a foot high--I've made it through a handful, but thankfully there was a lot I'd already seen this year. But rather than write full reviews about movies that have been out for awhile, I figured I'd just post some quick thoughts about what I've seen and, as the list grows, I'll post more of these entries.
So, here goes. . .
- I know that most critics fawned all over The Kids Are All Right earlier this year, and it's not hard to see why. The concept--children of lesbian parents seek out their sperm donor father--is fresh and can go in many different directions and when you have a cast with Annette Benning, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo at the center, it's hard to fail. But this film just never connected with me. Don't get me wrong--the three leads are reliable as always, particularly Moore, who does a fantastic job creating the neglected and self-doubting half of the couple. But the characters struck me as selfish and largely unlikable and the film nearly sweats through the celluloid to be as progressive as possible, constantly pointing out how cool it is that the lesbian parents are just like other parents, that Ruffalo's character is a hipster restaurant owner and that everyone lives in a world where they shop at Whole Foods and drink wine while listening to NPR. It's liberal porn--and this is coming from someone with liberal tendencies. The film tries so hard to impress moviegoers with its new-world attitude that it forgets that the characters are insufferable, immature and unlikable. I'm in the minority on this one, I understand. But this one just didn't do it for me.
- On the other hand, I found Winter's Bone to be just as fascinating as I'd been told. Jennifer Lawrence gives one of the year's best performances as a teenager in a backwoods, meth-addled community, searching for her father before their home is repossessed. Director Debra Granik creates a tense and moody film set in a closed off culture of poverty-riddled drug addicts who are nearly all linked by blood and deeply entrenched ideas of gender and loyalty. The film is tense and riveting, boosted by John Hawkes' fantastic portrayal of a grizzled hillbilly with a heart of gold. A wonderful little mystery-thriller that manages to take us into areas of the world movies usually don't show.
- I find it hard to believe that in this awards season Get Low has been so seldom mentioned. A wonderfully low-key story about a Tennessee recluse (Robert Duvall) who decides to throw a funeral party for himself before he passes, the movie is a great showcase for the veteran actor. Duvall is as ornery, funny and powerful as ever as Felix Bush and he's matched by Bill Murray who is his usual sardonic self as a funeral parlor honor looking to make some good money off Bush's send-off. The film moves deliberately, but it's never boring--it's funny and touching in equal measure, particularly when Sissy Spacek shows up as Felix's old flame. A charming and surprisingly resonant little movie that didn't get the attention it deserved earlier this year.
- I also was surprised to find Stone fade from the spotlight so quickly. Ed Norton gives a solid performance as a prisoner eager to be released and Robert Deniro delivers some of his best work in years as the self-righteous parole officer who is faced with his own inherent sinfulness. The film comes off a bit heavy handed and Milla Jovovich is a little one-note as the seductress willing to do anything to free her husband. But Norton and Deniro elevate the film above its script and director John Curran manages to pose some thought-provoking questions about sin, grace, hypocrisy, redemption and forgiveness.
- Similar in theme, Conviction is another prison-set drama, albeit one that's a bit more uplifting. Hilary Swank takes on the role of Betty Anne Waters, an uneducated woman who went back to school to become a lawyer after her brother (Sam Rockwell) was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she doesn't believe he could commit. The film hits all the predictable biopic notes like clockwork and its reliance on formula keeps it from garnering the power the story deserves. But Swank does a fine job portraying Waters as a fierce and loyal sister and Rockwell--continuing to prove he's one of the most intriguing working actors--knocks it out of the park as the convicted brother. Minnie Driver and Juliette Lewis contribute some wonderful supporting work. "Conviction" is a little too pat and manipulative to be a great film, but it's worth a look for the fine performances on display.
- Similarly, I found Noah Baumbach's Greenberg to be a charming, funny and sweet little comedy that gives Ben Stiller some of the best work of his career as a misanthrope who house sits for his brother and strikes up a tentative romance with his assistant (Greta Gerwig). Stiller's funny as the caustic, juvenile and bitter Greenberg but it's Gerwig as a young 20-something suffering an identity crisis who really commands the movie--it's a fantastic and wonderfully nuanced performance. My only complaint is that Greenberg spends so much of his time complaining and moping that I found myself wishing the movie had been about Gerwig's character instead, who is easily more intriguing and mysterious. Still, worth a look.
- How you feel about Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will likely depend on how you feel about Joan Rivers herself. The film is a fascinating look at the comedienne's career and it's amazing to see how relentlessly self-promoting she is. No one can deny her work ethic or the dedication she puts into her career. Her many fans will likely find this to be one of the year's best documentaries. Those who aren't big fans will probably admire the movie and acknowledge her workmanship, but I doubt they'll be convinced that she's any less self-centered, bitter or prideful than they did before going in. I'm not entirely sure where I stand on her yet.
- And finally: "Four Lions" hasn't opened wide yet, so I can't review it. But trust me--this is one to keep an eye out for. If you're not aware of this one, I'll just give you a hint as to what it's about: it's about suicide bombers. And it's a comedy. If they play their cards right, this is a film that will get people talking--and it should.