February 28, 2014

4th placeMuch like the Grammy’s, the Academy’s selection process is questionable. Though it may seem that more often than not The Oscars do a good job of picking the cream of the crop, there are any number of outstanding films in a given year that will undoubtedly be left behind. So a few of us have decided to profile some of the films we felt were especially deserving of your consideration, from the past year.

Zilla Rocca toasts Drinking Buddies, Jordan Pedersen tells us why Frances Ha understands a generation, Son Raw explains Fruitvale Station’s necessity, Aaron Frank shares Inside Llewyn Davis’ study of the artists’ plight, Brad Beatson covers the generation-spanning thriller, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Jeff Weiss explains why James Franco should win all the Versace statuettes for Spring Breakers. Part 2 will be up later this morning, tackling this year’s Best Picture nominees. Thoughts on these films or other favorites from 2013? Let us know in the comments.

Drinking Buddies

Drinking BuddiesWhen I walked out of the theater after watching Drinking Buddies, I needed a drink. I don’t think ten minutes went by in the movie without someone popping out a cold one. It’s a hang-out movie about people in their mid-twenties making awkward decisions over gallons of booze. I feel like if you’re over 28 years old, you will understand this film. If you’re 25, you are living this film right now.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson work together at a craft brewery. Jake Johnson is in a long-term post-college relationship with Anna Kendrick. Olivia Wilde is dating Ron Livingston. Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick are digging each other. The rest of the movie, which was mostly unscripted and largely improvised, is just these four people around each other dealing with these wild emotions. It’s like dangling a steak in front of a lion for 90 minutes.

This movie is so incredibly painful and thrilling to watch because by the time you hit your 30’s, you have been each one of these people. Jake Johnson is the good guy who wants so badly to be a good boyfriend and potential husband to Anna Kendrick, but he is cursed to work with Olivia Wilde, and she’s tip-toeing that line between “girl that’s a friend” and “girl that’s a friend that I often want to sleep with.” Johnson and Wilde spend the film pushing each other away then pulling each other back. It is psychological torture to watch. Quietly, he is spending a lot of time with a woman that he is not dating. Quietly, she is an alcoholic who lives in squalor and needs a man to validate her. Their entire relationship is a staring contest. And you, the audience member, have already blinked a thousand times because their chemistry is nuclear.

Anna Kendrick is the girl who hits 26, has the long-term boyfriend and career, is thinking about marriage and babies, but she too wants to walk on the wild side. Her impulses and desires to have a lost weekend don’t match the life she’s thought about living, and she becomes guilt-stricken after making a move on Ron Livingston, the only person with his shit together. He’s an older man having fun with Olivia Wilde, but he trusts his instincts. He knows what to do and how to handle the blowback. He kisses Anna Kendrick then breaks up with Olivia Wilde, because he can’t be a liar to himself. To open a new door, he must close the old one.

Olivia Wilde wants to open every door. It’s incredible to watch her performance—you don’t realize that she is a walking monster; she’s a charming, funny daytime drinker. But she drinks when the sun is up for a reason. She is ruled by whatever she feels in the moment. Her thinking goes from Monday to Tuesday, living to make every wrong turn. She is the perfect counter to Jake Johnson. He is the ultimate “dude.” He provides safety. She provide him an attractive daily intermission from monogamy. She can screw other guys but get a back rub from him. He can rub her back but go home to wifey without a guilty conscience, because he didn’t technically cheat. It’s ‘unspoken commerce: I give you this, you give me that. The amount of booze they consume together is enough to make a sequel to Leaving Las Vegas, and yet they continue to walk this agonizing tightrope, day after day.

What I love most about Drinking Buddies is how much restraint it exhibits. It’s a comedy without gross-out gags, drama with mild conflict, and not everyone gets a happy ending. Drinking Buddies is about people struggling with what they want, what they should be doing, and what they ultimately will do. You have so much fun hanging out with these people that you want to get a six-pack the second you walk out of the theater. But you don’t want to be these people. At the end, you want to slap them, then hug them, because you were one of them at some point. — Zilla Rocca

Frances Ha

Frances HaOn Transatlanticism, Ben Gibbard writes of life in increments: a tear in your dress, the place in line you don’t want to lose, the glove compartment and its stupid name. He reminds us that ours is a life compounded from tiny fragments, and that it’s more about those little pieces than the Grand Sweep of Our Time on Earth.

And then suddenly, Gibbard discards all the detritus, and on the title track he goes as widescreen as the rest of the album is close-up. He writes about oceans forming and a people overjoyed to cross them. It’s all a metaphor about a girl, of course. But the Sweep is DeMille-ian.

It’s a lot like when Frances (Greta Gerwig) goes to Paris in the final third of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Up until then, you might describe the film as fairly tactile, maybe even a bit grubby. It’s the story of Frances’ friend-love affair with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), and then how that falls apart and sets off a chain reaction in Frances’ life. But it’s not epic. The film’s milieu is coffee shops and charmingly worn Brooklyn apartments, your twenties spent walking two miles to find an ATM and sharing cigarettes in windowsills.

But then Frances goes to Paris. It’s an unmitigated disaster of a decision, the point where water breaks through the hull of her existence. The stakes of the film ratchet up to almost unbearable levels. It stops being a film about the silly shit you do in your twenties and starts being about how you live the rest of your life.

The keenest insight of Frances Ha, though, is that these things are the same. Ours are lives in fragments, and they are at the same time the grandest of things. Many films perceive the trees but miss the forest; others are so concerned about the forest that they forget it’s made of trees.

Frances Ha is the rare film that actually understands our weird-ass, underpaid and overeducated, idealistic but easily placated generation. And it doesn’t spend its time poking fun at how meta we are, or mistaking insight for a well-placed Icona Pop song. It’s sympathetic and critical, the jolt of tough love that so many of us need.

Frances Ha is indeed a story in increments. But it’s a story that appreciates how important these increments are. And that’s what makes it something like a miracle. — Jordan Pedersen

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale StationFruitvale Station is important to me for a couple of reasons. First, if you’re a young male in a metropolitan area who dressed a certain way in his late teens or early twenties, the sadly inevitable conclusion will almost certainly make you feel some type of way. Point blank: if you’re a black male, that could have been you and if you aren’t, you’re probably best friends with someone who “fits the profile.” This isn’t some tragedy from a few hundred years ago meant to provoke horror or white guilt, it’s a film about a very real person. That this person died for no discernible reason and that people like him continue to do son on a shockingly regular basis isn’t news, but in a media climate promoting bread and circuses maybe it should be. I doubt a film where we see a flawed man live his life before getting senselessly gunned down by the police had a chance in hell to even provoke a conversation about a police culture verging on the paramilitary or a gun culture unbelievable to every other first world nation, but this is one of those cases where if even one person left the theater with a new perspective on life, you can count it as a victory.

Subject matter (slightly) aside, this is also the rare contemporary work of neo-realism that doesn’t suck. A genre mostly relegated to style exercises by the more pretentious or Marxist minded of a film studies classroom, neo-realism often descends into pointless misery relying on cheap emotional stunts to elicit an audience reaction. Fruitvale Station isn’t completely absolved of this—no one throws weed into the ocean when they’re broke—but the mostly matter-of-fact pacing serves the film well, and no matter how predictable, the ending’s violence should put anyone’s stomach in knots. Ultimately, this isn’t necessarily the year’s best film but it is its realest, and that’s something America needs to think about — Son Raw

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn DavisInside Llewyn Davis is a complicated film with several themes at work, so it’s no wonder it was left out of the main categories at the Oscars. Major awards go to films with universal appeal, so when The Master or Inside Llewyn Davis aim at something more specific, they’re typically relegated to smaller categories and technical awards.

While these two films shared a similar fate, The Master is much larger in scope. Paul Thomas Anderson pointed out the failings of religion and secularism, as well as the unintended consequences of man’s constant search for meaning. Some of the themes in Inside Llewyn Davis are relatable to a mass audience, but for the most part it highlights the love/hate relationship between the artist and their craft.

Inside Llewyn Davis serves as an apt metaphor for the Cohens’ own relationship with film. Prior to its release, Joel Coen said that the film doesn’t have a plot, which is why they added the cat. The main character isn’t all that interesting either, but Oscar Isaac utilizes his role to serve as a vehicle for expressing the frustrations and anxiety of an artistic career, the constant back and forth between questioning everything and falling back in love with the craft, and the circumstances which affect one’s outlook: pregnant girlfriends, peers topping your success, and approaching middle age.

In this way, Davis is able to amplify the supporting characters and his relationships with his family, peers and girlfriend to illustrate a much greater point, which is that art is hard, but it’s important, and you should never give up if it’s what you love. Through Isaac’s character, we also get a sense of the indelible selfishness of an artist, and the tenderness that often comes along with it. The cinematography evokes this cold existence quite beautifully, so we’re left hoping Davis at least picks up one award. — Aaron Frank

The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond The PinesThe Place Beyond the Pines is a linear story driven by consequence. It begins when Ryan Gosling, a stunt motorcycle rider who travels with the circus, returns to Schenectady, NY (which translates to “place beyond the pine plains” in Mohawk) and reconnects with Eva Mendes. When they’d last been in town, the two got down, and now he finds out they have a son together. So Gosling quits the circus and settles there. He quickly has to deal with Eva’s boyfriend, whom she lives with, and repeatedly tries to convince her that he can provide for their family. Due to his limited skill-set, he ends up partnering with a mechanic who persuades him to knock off banks, leading to his eventual collision with local cop, Bradley Cooper.

The linear storytelling enables filmmaker, Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), to tackle a multitude of problems while allowing the characters to become secondary to the reality at hand. Everything that happens is plausible so the suspense can build naturally, leaving no time to contemplate what will happen next. And even though the action drives the movie, you realize that every character is fully developed in its wake.

The second half of the film concerns Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling’s sons, 15 years later. Bradley Cooper, who’s pursued a career in politics, reluctantly takes in his son after his ex-wife insists. The boys ditch school to get high together and later they’re busted for buying X. As a viewer, you’re pained with knowing that their fathers’ shared history will soon lead to a fateful conclusion.

The Place Beyond the Pines is the type of film that sits with you for awhile after viewing. Reflecting back, you realize all that was covered: unplanned pregnancy, income inequality, interracial relationships, crimes of passion, institutional privilege and corruption, the effects of negligent parenting, and so on. You can feel for every character and understand their actions entirely. It’s the rare film that doesn’t preach but hits on human issues, all while creating an edge-of-your-seat thriller in a wholly unique light. — Brad Beatson

Spring Breakers

spring_breakers_ver15_xxlg-500x500“Look at my shit.” Say it with me once more, but this time stretch the syllables like Sativa across an open Swisher. “Looook.At.Mah.Sheeeeyeeeheeat.” Intoned by James Franco as Alien as Riff Raff, it’s a mantra after enlightenment has already been attained. The American dream of the 21st Century: the esoteric weapons of a Ninja Turtle and two Disney starlets half-nude and sprawled across your bed piece of art. SPRING BREAK. When Franco says that word it’s not a vacation, it’s a vacant guarantee of perpetual hedonism. Consumption as holy writ.

Say it again, softly underneath your breath. I won’t repeat the words. You’re already saying them. Now say them louder until your neighbors are violently flinging open their doors and begging you to stop. Harmony Korine lifted the speech from Riff Raff’s comic rant: “iN BRaZiL BaD BiTCH STRiPPER” ViDEO that wasn’t filmed in Brazil. ” Dangeruss was an elaborate deke to distract you. After all, who better to riff on than Riff Raff, an artist who made millions on making people wonder whether it’s all a joke. Has anyone blurred those lines any better than Horst Simco Jody Highroller? For the last 24 months, he’s been cackling all the way to the Versace money bin. And who better than James Franco to perfect him– the thespian king of almost kidding, meeting the neon icon who eats nothing less than $10,000 crustaceans.  But neither of them are kidding. Their day-to-day deconstructions of celebrity are more art than Marina “Hova” Abramovic’s latest high concept mean mug. Spring Breakers might not be the best movie of the year, but it is the most awesome. It’s Apocalypse Now in bikinis with The Doors discarded for Skrillex. Ask the ghost of Ray Manzarek.

Spring Breakers is a snuff film, Belly for bros, “Godard meets Girls Gone Wild,” both pastel fantasy and a love letter to fiddling while Florida burns. There’s a delirious perfection to the way Franco drawls out words. Be-Yawn-Say. Usually actors and directors occasionally wink to let you know that everyone is in on the laughs. Spring Breakers never lets you in on the joke. And this is one of many reasons why it’s amazing and also why many regard it as a piece of shit. But occasionally, you get the art you deserve. This a necklace made out of skulls, Shakespearean tragedy written out of Tweets, trash used as a tourniquet.

Franco is the ringleader. The madman deep-throating guns like a deranged porno, feuding with Gucci Mane, smiling with the grills and at once conveying horror, humor, and emptiness. It’s amazing that this film could get made in America in 2013, but it couldn’t have been made at any other time. This performance deserves an Oscar with an asylum for a trophy case. Love it or hate it, you can’t look away. —Jeff Weiss

 

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