Thursday, November 19, 2015

Interview with "James White" director Josh Mond

“James White” might just be the total opposite of Amy Schumer’s summer fling, “Trainwreck”, yet it is very much about a trainwreck. Starring Christopher Abbott (of “Girls” fame) and a never better Cynthia Nixon, James White is about a man – or boy, if you will – who has to deal with so many issues, both physical and mental, that watching it we are just waiting for the moment when it all implodes and the breakdown occurs. I recently spoke to the film’s director, Josh Mond. His connection with the filmmakers at New York’s Borderline Films – Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos, and Josh Mond – is becoming a cinematic movement. These three guys write, direct and produce each other’s films. So far we’ve had Campos’ directorial debut “Afterschool”, and three years later a bigger splash, Durkin’s brilliant “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, which gained many awards for Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen. Campos followed up “Afterschool” with an ever better feature, “Simon Killer”. Josh Mond is up next; his directorial debut, “James White”, is the best of the lot so far.
“I really feel like we’ve set up a world where we get to work with our friends, not even just each other but so many others like for example our DP Mátyás [Erdély] (who also photographed Son of Saul) right down to our costume designer. We really just want to build and continue our relationship with people like we are with each other.” The shoot was short, but incredibly emotional: “We shot the film in December of 2013, a total of 22 days I think. We had 18 days in New York and 4 days in Mexico.” Mond and aforementioned cinematographer Mátyás Erdély give us a high-wire act, an impeccable artistic feat, with Erdély using his camera for abnormally efficient close-ups on his main character to enhance the claustrophobic feel of the movie. “I thought it was just right for the story we were telling. With the help of a handheld camera we could present the energy that this character experiences. As for my DP, Mátyás, I’m pretty sure his body is still hurting a little bit from carrying the camera around all the time. It really is arduous work what we tried to do, but we figured the movie can be powerful if shot this way.”
After having met and developed a friendship during the shoot for “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, Christopher Abbott and Josh made a short film together, “1009”, that served as sort of an experimental precursor to “James White”. “A lot of it was shot very close to the face, and later, when I was editing the short, it suddenly struck me only then and there in the editing room that he was doing stuff that I didn’t realize he was doing before. So I called him and I told him that I was writing that part for him now. After a while he just read a bunch of drafts and gave me some notes. He was then a part of it already. I can’t wait to work with him again.”
From the very first scene of “James White”, our main protagonist James is bouncing and dancing around drunk/high, mid-day in a dingy nightclub. It’s a hallucinatory scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film. The camera comes in and out of focus on an extreme handheld close-up, which puts you in the head of an immature, self-centered young man who gets one reality check after another from there on in. “We wanted to start the movie out like he’s high, at his highest moment, or really his lowest,” said Mond. From there James leaves the nightclub and ends up at a shiva for his estranged father at the house of his mother, played by Cynthia Nixon, who’s battling cancer. Nixon is a wonder to behold, as she delivers an awards-worthy performance of intense feeling. Nixon’s own mother died of similar circumstances only a few months before the shoot had begun, and Mond’s mother, Corinne, inspired “James White” as she too succumbed to cancer. “Things were really beginning to gel for the company, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was sold to Fox Searchlight, we had a great deal with them, and then I got a phone call to come home right away because she only had a few hours left. I got a chance to see her and then she passed away not too long after that.”
When asked about any filmmaker who might have had an influence on him, Mond right away mentions Michael Haneke, whose movies always deal with the uncomfortable, the taboo, the complications of humans. In light of his mother’s cancer, James White tries to cope with the whirlwind of emotions by continuing to go out, get drunk, get high, sleep with women, and exude violent behavior. It’s not a happy movie, and you might need a drink or two after having watched it, but the artistry is phenomenal. After its incredible bow at Sundance in January, where it was praised in every way, an experience that Mond calls “surreal”, the 28-year-old director’s film is about to get released to a public that might not be ready to deal with the many “heavy” issues at hand, but that would be a mistake. It’s a topic that one way or another we’ll have to all deal with in our lifetime. Mond says, “I realized that what makes you connect most to a movie are the things that you feel uncomfortable sharing.”
Mond talks about the first of many meetings he had with Nixon for the movie, the bond they built, and the connection they had with a disease that seems insufferably permanent in our world. He said about that meeting, “Cynthia was just very generous and truthful with what she shared; Chris and I met with her a couple times. It also helped me deal with the emotions I didn’t understand at the time. There was shame, guilt, sadness, anger, fear, all of the above.” Josh’s sister helped him heal as well: “she called and said, ‘you may think this is the worst thing that could ever happen, but you’re so lucky you got to spend that time with her and share (this) with her, because it’s a really beautiful thing.’”

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Interview with Screenwriter Nick Hornby on "Brooklyn"

Whenever I get an opportunity to talk to Nick Hornby, the conversation always shifts away from the topic at hand and instead veers towards our unadorned love for Bruce Springsteen’s music. Hornby’s love for music in general shows in every book and every screenplay he writes: “High Fidelity” was a love letter to the “record store”, “About a Boy” had countless references to pop music, and in “Wild”, Witherspoon’s lonesome hiker marches on her epic way, humming the 1987 Springsteen song, “Tougher Than the Rest” before declaring, “Sing it, Bruce!”
“I listen to music a lot during the working day,” says Hornby. “Loud/fast/urgent or moving and emotional or, sometimes, repetitive contemporary classical. I don’t listen to it while I’m working, but during breaks, and it all finds its way in somewhere.” Then the conversation shifts back to Springsteen: “Apparently Steve Pond was in the front row of the Springsteen DVD show for the upcoming River box set,” he says.
The 58-year-old British author and screenwriter has more than just that Springsteen box set to get excited about these days, as he’s been getting Oscar buzz for his delicately touching screenplay “Brooklyn”, an adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name. “The awards talk,” he murmurs. “Well, I’m glad I live in my town rather than yours! It’s pretty constant in L.A. If you tried to start that conversation [in the UK], where people don’t follow how it works and don’t really know we’re already part of the race, you’d seem a bit presumptuous. But most of the time it’s just the kind of excitement a writer never gets in a working day.”
Before Hornby started writing screenplays, Hollywood adapted two of his novels into great movies: “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity” (which features an amusing cameo from The Boss himself – Bruce Springsteen). Both were critically acclaimed and nailed the blue collar Hornby touch that makes his writing such an authentic treat, so much so that rumors actually exist of a possible Hollywood sequel to “About a Boy”. Surprised about the question, Hornby puts it to rest: “I don’t know where those rumors came from. I can’t imagine writing a sequel to any of my novels at the moment.”
The difference between the cinematic and the novelistic approach is night and day; both have their merits, but concessions have to be made when it comes to the silver screen: “Well, a script is an unfinished thing. It needs the work of a few hundred other people before it gets to where it needs to be. It doesn’t and shouldn’t belong to you. Even an unpublished novel is still a novel. And you have so much room and time in a novel – every single line in a screenplay has to fight against every other line for oxygen.” No matter the concessions, Hornby seems to be a natural at the cinematic game: he got a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for 2009’s brilliant “An Education”, received a WGA nomination for last year’s two time nominee “Wild”, and his latest endeavor – John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” – is one of the most buzzed about titles for awards contention this year. His wife, producer Amanda Posey, has played a key role in bringing Hornby to the big screen. “My wife and her producing partner actually asked me to do Brooklyn, and I can’t say no to them!” he says. “I loved the book and could see a way of doing it.”
All three of his screenplays feature strong female lead roles and he is quickly becoming the best writer for women in Hollywood. “It’s probably not a coincidence that the last three screenplays have been about young women”, he says. “”An Education” taught me that if you write a big, strong part for a young woman, you get the opportunity to work with the best actresses in the world, because there is, ridiculously, nothing else for them.” It’s a sad fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the headlines, with many actresses strongly coming out and fighting for equal pay and others just not finding the amount of work necessary to sustain a career. “The best male actors are not so interested in independent cinema, because they’re getting these huge paydays from studios, plus they get big parts as well. Reese, Carey, Saoirse and all the others just don’t see roles of that magnitude most of the time. It’s ridiculous, of course. The talent is out there, in spades, and the market too. But this imbalance works to the advantage of those of us who want to make movies that have a chance of lasting.”
“Brooklyn” is a beautifully made film about good, well-intentioned people trying to do their best in life. The gorgeously crisp and colorful cinematography by Yves Belanger is to die for, as is the direction by John Crowley, which is stylishly slick enough to harken back to a time when handsomely made, feel-good pictures worked marvelously well in Hollywood. This is an old-fashioned movie done right, a heartfelt effort by people who very much care about story and character. Nick Hornby’s screenplay captures his usual impeccable ear for small talk. Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis, an Irish girl who moves to New York to start a new life, but finds herself doubting that decision once there. The movie will make her a household name, and there’s already talk of a possible Oscar nomination for her performance – which originally had Rooney Mara cast in the lead role – and for the film itself, which is exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing treat the Academy eyes year after year. “Saoirse is incredible,” he says. “It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the world pulling that off. So subtle, so moving… she pulls you in and doesn’t let go.”

Hidden Gems of 2015

Every year people lament the state of contemporary cinema. People claiming that Hollywood is churning out way too many abysmal sequels, prequels, adaptations and seems to be running out of ideas don't seem to realize that if you manage to work past the endless stream of negativity, there is hope. Now, more than ever before, there are countless ways to find hidden gems that might not have even played at your local theater. It's not just VOD anymore, an entirely different market exists consisting of movies that skip the theatrical release and go straight to home viewing through services like Amazon and Netflix. No one can see everything, there's tons of cultural noise out there, and with close to 300 movies released every year, it's easy for a great movie to get lost in the shuffle. Well, that's where I come in. The following 11 titles did make it to theaters, barely, but deserved more attention. Don't mind chiming in with your own picks.

One of the strangest most interesting movies I saw this spring starred Ethan Hawke. In the Spierig brothers' "Predestination", Hawke plays a temporal agent who constantly time travels to find a criminal that has obsessed him for god knows how long. To explain what happens in this movie is probably as hard as explaining Christopher Nolan's "Inception" upon first viewing. Mind bending and brilliantly conceived, "Predestination" is a movie that sometimes trips on its own format. In fact I guessed a few of the big twists before they actually happened, but it really is just a blast to sit through a film juggling this many ideas and that just simply wants to blow your mind – even if that's not always the case. The film takes pride in its lack of subtlety and in trying its best to shock, provoke and entertain in equal doses. For a year that finally seems to be recognizing the impact of female-driven cinema, "Predestination" provides a smart and vital additional angle to this year's feminist narrative. It reminded me of a great Agatha Christie book with a modern, 21st century, transgender twist. This is the best Wachowski brothers movie that they never ended up making.
"Tangerine", an ultra-low budget film shot on an iPhone for chump change and directed by Sean Baker, comes at you like an exhilarating force of nature. It doesn’t care if it shocks you or riles up your senses. It’s a fervent product of Sundance and one of many indie summer releases that first premiered over there this past January. It’s an imperfect movie but one filled with abundant energy in its every frame. Groundbreaking is the right word, for it is ultimately the first of its kind: a film shot on an iPhone with transgender actors taking on leading roles. Witness how evolving awareness of transgender issues has sparked a wealth of fresh cultural expressions. Jeffery Tambor is gut wrenchingly great in TV’s best show "Transparent" (with "Fargo" not too far behind if you must know) and if you haven’t heard of Caitlin Jenner then you’ve clearly been living under a rock. The film takes place on Christmas Eve in California and deals with a transgender sex worker who just finished serving a short sentence in prison and finds out her pimp/boyfriend cheated on her. She obviously doesn’t take the news very well and sets out to find the “fish” he cheated on her with. What ensues is a screwball comedy that never winces; in fact, it bites. It’s a hell of a good time, but more importantly it’s incredibly stylish filmmaking . Of course the fact that it was shot on an iPhone already makes it an important milestone film, but the L.A subculture that it introduces makes it all the more fresh and happening

The Gift
The biggest big studio surprise of the summer was, sadly, a movie that many people had not heard much about. With 108 reviews on RottenTomatoes “The Gift” has an outstanding RT rating of 93%. Its metascore on Metacritic stands at 77. So what happened between the critics and audience awareness? As with most mini-budget movies, the marketing was micro — but despite that unavoidable reality, it ranked #3 at the box-office when it premiered and since earned an impressive $28 million on a budget investment of $5 million. Directed by “Zero Dark Thirty” actor Joel Edgerton, “The Gift” is a tense, creepy psychological thriller that has so many twists and turns in its screenplay that you never know what’s coming next. Edgerton directed, produced, wrote and starred in a movie so inspired that it’s reminiscent of Hitchcock and “The Turn of the Screw.” Starring a nastily corrupt Jason Bateman and the vastly undervalued Rebecca Hall, we need more of her at the movies, “The Gift” is a razor-sharp dissection of marriage and friendship that reminds us how we can never escape our past. Go in knowing as little as possible and come out knowing more than you were prepared to find out. It's a nifty little B-movie that ends up turning the screw off your head.

Shaun the Sheep
"Shaun the Sheep" features some of the best dialogue-free scenes in recent memory. The film has scarcely any spoken words, as it just relies on its visuals to entertain us, and does a marvelous job at that. Clearly influenced by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton's physical screwball comedy, directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton have fashioned a classic out of such a simple story. A complete freak accident sends a farmer tumbling down the road to a bigger city where he loses all memory of his life and accidentally becomes a famous hairdresser for the celebrities. It's up to his flock of sheep to get him back to the farm, but not without going through the most insanely crafted screwball adventures imaginable. Just like Wallace and Gromit, the cast of characters were well known in the U.K. prior to the film's release, but if audience reaction and the deluge of rave reviews is any indication, this won't be the last we hear of them. The stop-motion animation is breathtakingly beautiful with layers of details in ever frame. The British deadpan wit is also in prime display here, with a little Monty Python-esque skit comedy thrown in for good measure.  I’d probably put this in an exclusive category of stop-motion classics such as “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and of course “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

If I said that 75-year-old Lily Tomlin has never been better than in this phenomenal movie by Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) would you be impressed? Well you should be, because Tomlin’s had a phenomenal career: “Nashville,” “The Late Show,” “9 to 5,” “All of Me,” and “Flirting With Disaster” have all had a little Tomlin-esque spiciness sprinkled at their core and all the better for it. She was also, once upon a time, Robert Altman's muse -- which quite frankly tells you everything you need to know about Tomlin. What she does in “Grandma” is heartbreaking and nothing short of astounding. She brings the spiky, zesty nature she’s always been known for, but plays with our emotions until we reach a finale that seals the deal on the truly amazing quality of her work. Tomlin's Elle Reid is a foul mouthed, all-too honest lesbian granny that aides her suddenly pregnant granddaughter to find enough money for an abortion. Taking place in a single day, the film is an episodic romp that gets deeper and more fragile as it goes along. It's not necesarilly a film about aging as much as it is about the deeper connections we miss in life. David Edelstein said it best when he remarked "Grandma marks a new era in gay cinema — one’s that confident and mature enough to acknowledge regret." Expect a torrent of awards love to come Tomlin's way in the months to come, she'd probably be my pick for the New York Film Critics Circle "Best Actress" Award.

Infinitely Polar Bear
Mark Ruffalo gave the best performance in "Spotlight", but that wasn't even the best acting he gave this year. In "Infinitely Polar Bear" he's a manic-depressive mess of a father that tries to win back his wife by attempting to take full responsibility of their two daughters while she gets out of the city to complete her business degree. Ruffalo creates one of the most entertainingly inappropriate, but ultimately disturbing accounts of mental illness in recent memory. His mannerisms and gestures look scarily real, but so do the twitches and spasms that run throughout his body, a sign of the physical and mental unrest that inflicts this tangible character.  The director is Maya Forbes, a Harvard graduate and first time filmmaker that based the movie on her own experiences as a child in Cambridge where she was raised by her father who had bipolar disorder. The movie is an ode to her dad, a lovingly rendered portrayal of a man trying his best, but chased away by inner demons. Much of what happens in Forbes' movie can be crushingly real or even unbearably painful, but she seems to find light in every dark shade present. She doesn't direct the movie as much as live through it which, given the backstory, is quite a heroic and formidably therapeutic attempt. Ruffalo, one of the very best actors of his generation, completely floored me.

Heart of a Dog
The brilliant Laurie Anderson's film is more than just an ode to her deceased dog Lolabelle. This exploration filled non-fiction film is about the deepest questions we can possibly ask ourselves as human beings. The themes range from death, love, memory, surveillance all the way to the nature of language. It's all beautifully narrated by Anderson, who's soothing voice reveals the depths of pain she has encountered in the past few years with the death of her husband Lou Reed, her mother Mary Louise and beloved dog Lolabelle all coinciding one by one. Her narrative voice becomes a kind of melodic flow rather than a plain spoken worded ordeal- it intensifies the stories she tells us and is an integral soundtrack to her personal journey. Most of all this is a film about mortality, the one theme that eats us up as human beings, the meaning of which will never fully be explained in our lifetime. That doesn't mean we can't keep asking ourselves questions about it, that's part of who we are and what makes us feel relentlessly alive. We might never come to terms with it, but there's something wondrously mysterious about it all - the meaning we try to find out of this personal journey might never be fully comprehended, but there's a real beauty in coming to terms with the unknown. I don't use the term very often, but "Heart of a Dog" is the definition of a "work of art".

Mississippi Grind
I'm a sucker for gambling movies. I'm also a sucker for road trip movies. Mississippi Grind is both of those, so of course it makes this list. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar) are also one of the very best Indie filmmakers in the business. In Mississippi Grind, the highly talented Ben Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a gambler who is unquestionably down on his luck facing personal and financial ruin until he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a young poker player who also craves the adrenaline of a quick financial gain. They bond through their love of card playing, dice rolling, and chip throwing. They go from Iowa to New Orleans in search of the big win, and their journey turns "Mississippi Grind" into a road trip movie. Curtis claims "The journey's the destination," but the same can be said about the film which seems to have taken pieces of Altman's "California Split" and Karel Reisz's "The Gambler". Both leads are perfectly cast. Mendelsohn is at times mesmerizing and Reynolds shows us that he has acute acting chops if given script pages with some meat to chew on. Together they make a formidable pair of losers. Two men who would appear to be fun to be around but are reckless and therefore dangerous to be associated with. And therein lies the beauty and intricacy of Mississippi Grind. Shot on film, Mississippi Grind almost has that 1970's film feel. It's methodical in its pace and is not afraid to rely on the charm of its characters to further elaborate its narrative.

James White
Opening in very limited release on November 13th, "James White" is already destined to be overshadowed by the marquee holiday titles aiming for box office gold and awards love. Starring Christopher Abbott -- of "Girls" fame -- and a never better Cynthia Nixon, the film might just be the total opposite of Amy Schumer's summer fling "Trainwreck", yet this film is very much about a trainwreck. A man -- or boy if you will -- has to deal with so many issues, both physical and mental, that watching it you are just waiting for the moment when it all implodes and the breakdown occurs. What you don't realize is that the breakdown has already started: from the very first scene he's bouncing around drunk mid-day in a dingy club, and things only get worse after that. Nixon plays this boy's mother, whose cancer that was previously in remission has come back in full stride, and next thing you know she's at stage 4 and with only weeks to live. Meanwhile her son, trying to cope with the whirlwind of emotions, continues to go out, get drunk, get high, sleep with women, and exude violent behavior. It's not a happy movie, and you might need a drink or two after having watched it, but the artistry is phenomenal. After its incredible bow at Sundance in January, where it was praised in every way, director Josh Mond's film is about to get released to a public that might not want to deal with the many "heavy" issues at hand, but that would be a mistake. "James White" is an impeccable artistic feat with Mond using his camera for abnormally efficient closeups on his main character to only enhance the claustrophobic feel of the movie.

99 Homes
Ramin Bahrani’s tense but terrific film stars Andrew Garfield as Dennis Nash, a man whose family home gets foreclosed by arrogant, money-hungry real estate mogul Ray Carver, devilishly played by Michael Shannon. Circumstances lead the desperate Dennis to work for Carver to get his home back. Both are excellent, and Laura Dern as Dennis' mother is heartbreaking in an exceptionally resonant role, showing us the immense talents this underused actress possesses. Bahrani brings an authentic documentary-style feel to the whole thing, using hand held cameras to swerve with the characters and raise the tension. This is about a society gone astray, hell a country gone astray, and a poisonous system that doesn't just seems unfair, but criminal. This is a movie for its time about its time, that is frighteningly urgent and has more than enough relevance to pack a punch. Late film critic Roger Ebert was a staunch supporter of Bahrani’s films and for good reason. He’s a unique voice that finally makes his big studio picture debut here. You can tell there’s a studio behind him here because “99 Homes” does have to make some concessions in its final cut and is not a perfect movie, but the artistry is major and Bahrani creates a movie that'll give you nightmares.

Sebastian Schipper’s high-wire act of a movie is more than just a stunt. Shot in a single 138-minute take, but not one cut, it’s a grim, but powerful look at a Spanish girl named Victoria who meets 4 German men in the wee hours of the night in Germany and embarks on a harrowing journey with them. Schipper and his ace cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen  make the camera move poetically through the after hours of Berlin with elegant ease, never has Berlin looked this menacing, but breathtaking in a movie before.  Grøvlen's camera seems like its own acting beast and breathlessly dictates the white knuckled tension.  I fear many might shrug it off as just a gimmick, but that would be very far from the truth. Yes Schipper's film is in fact a phenomenal technical achievement, but one done with the alerting sentiment that there needs to be a good story behind the gimmick. There are some scenes of unquestionable tension here as hoodlums, clubbers, hustlers, romantics navigate in an out of the story, but character development rarely gets forsaken.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Contenders - Best Foreign Language Film

Weighing in on the Foreign Language Film contenders has become a sort of tradition for me at AD. Of course my commendable efforts to try and watch as many of the films as possible pales in comparison to Nathaniel Rogers’ current project/obsession over at The Film Experience, where he’s literally trying to watch all 81 submissions. When I bump into him at TIFF every year, he’s almost guaranteed to tell me that he’s off to see some random country’s Oscar submission. I of course haven’t seen all of them, but I have seen most of the buzz-worthy titles and I do want to thank the people who have helped me with screeners along the way. Such a project would not be possible without all the film festivals. Just recently, Montreal’s Le Festival Du Nouveau Cinema — which ended this past Sunday — helped me find the missing pieces of the puzzle, with screenings of their impeccably well organized program.
This year we hope that the major snubs that happened last year in this category — with Two Days, One Night and Force Majeure not getting nominated — do no repeat themselves. The fact that the Academy lets the countries themselves pick the film is somewhat of a problem and leads to a biased agenda. Iran obviously picked the 171 minute Islamic epic Muhammad: The Messenger of God over imprisoned filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s scathingly brilliant social critique of Iranian society Taxi. Thailand not only didn’t choose Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s masterful Cemetery of Splendour, but in fact banned it from ever showing in the country due to a few “un-patriotic” details shown in the movie. Germany said no to Sebastian Schipper’s incredible 134 minute one take wonder Victoria in favor of safer bait-y fare Labyrinth of Lies, and China decided to choose — huh? — Go Away Mr. Tumor, a romantic comedy based on a webcomic over Jia Zhangke’s heartbreaking dissection of Chinese societal ills Mountains May Depart. I’m only scratching the surface here, but many other countries opted for the safer, non-political route with their films, which makes the category all the more controversial.
Take as an example Cemetery of Splendour. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is quite possibly the most forward thinking, prophetic filmmaker of world cinema today and yet his country treats him like a traitor. So much so that Weerasethakul has recently stated that he will not be making another movie in his native country ever again, instead opting to explore the South American movie scene. It’s their loss, as Weerasethakul is a filmmaker that is considered by many to be the best current director in the world. His films do not follow the conventional narrative and instead opt for dreamy surrealness, popping your eyes out with the most incredible imagery, knocking your senses out with an unabashedly masterful use of sound and luring you in with its haunting storytelling.
Moreover, what kind of political statement would be made if Jafar Panahi’s Taxi was nominated. Panahi has been under house arrest for more than five years now and has been banned from making any kind of movie for the next 20 years. Yet, he remarkably continues to find loopholes and make the most creatively ingenious films imaginable and then finds a way to sneak them out of the country and into film festivals worldwide. Taxi won the Golden Bear this past Fenruary at the Berlin Film Festival. For a lesson in how to make movies with the most dire of constraints infringing on your creativity, just watch any of Panahi’s three post-house arrest movies, especially 2011’s This is Not a Film, the best of the bunch. His situation has not only changed the way he makes movies, but in the process has made him a wholly better filmmaker.
I’ve come up with ten titles that I believe are the standouts in the Foreign Language Film category. With all the complaining I’ve done set aside, most of these titles are actually pretty great movies and represent some of the better parts of world cinema.
Son of Saul
Lazslo Nemes’ Son of Saul. is a holocaust movie shot from the point of view of a concentration camp prisoner forced to burn the bodies of gas chamber victims after leading them to the trap. The movie is an immeasurable accomplishment, with scenes of staggering beauty and incredible pain. Nemes’ masterpiece reinvents the Holocaust movie by focusing more on the psychological nuance of the tragedy rather than just shock. If there was a better, more artistic movie at TIFF 2015, I didn’t see it. The movie opens with Saul finding out that the last group he led to the gas chambers included his 7-year-old son. Saul is a man so persistent in giving his deceased boy a proper burial that he risks his life and the lives of his co-prisoners just to find a proper rabbi for the kiddish ritual. His risk-taking can sometimes be maddening, but there is something to be said about a man who still believes in keeping his tradition and religion intact, even in the face of unspeakable horror. The Jews around him are building up a resistance and are prepared to fight, but Saul seems completely aloof, focusing instead on finding a rabbi and having a burial. Using a hand-held camera can sometimes end up being damaging to the overall narrative of a film, but here it compliments the story and gives it a fresh spin. The fact the first time filmmaker Nemes was just 28 when he wrote and directed this masterpiece speaks volumes about his talent. Some scenes are so deeply realized and profoundly thought out that it feels like you’re in the hands of veteran master. The film uses its camera to find dizzyingly surreal moments for its characters and supplies a uniquely original take on a used up cinematic genre.
The Assassin
The Taiwanese submission, The Assassin, is Hsiao-Hsien-Hou’s first film since his critically acclaimed Flight of the Red Balloon back in 2008. It justly won him the Best Director prize at Cannes earlier this year, which is the obvious award the film should be getting, as it is truly a master class in directing a movie. Just like his other fantastic movies, the filmmaker takes his time here, making every shot look like a beautifully painted stroke. His martial arts film is not concerned with plot as much as it is about trying to convey indelibly breathtaking imagery: “There are already so many martial arts films with that style, why bother making another one,” he told Film Comment. Tackling the Wuxia martial arts genre, Hsien-Hou’s film is about a female assassin in 7th century China named Nie Yinniang who embarks on a mission to kill the family that abandoned her when she was just a child. Yinniang is played by a beautifully talented actress named Qi Shu who can evoke more feelings and hurt in a single stare than most actors can in words and gestures. The movie isn’t about the fighting, yet when it does occur it is done in such an artful, seductively nasty manner. The way the whole thing is shot looks like something we’ve never seen before, a movie that is almost certainly a work of art and that can have each and every one of its frames frozen in time for us to gasp at its beauty. The Northeastern Chinese sets were built not on soundstages, but outdoors, so that natural light could be used. The cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bing is thus filtered with so much beauty, it’s like looking inside a jewel box. This might not be the Academy’s cup of tea, but the solid reviews it’s been getting will almost certainly make it one of the lasting true contenders for the category.
Dheepan might have won the Palme D’or earlier this May at Cannes, but that wasn’t enough to persuade the French to choose it for the Oscars. Dheepan is a remarkable film, in Sri Lankan with French subtitles, but Mustang — this one is Turkish with French subtitles — is just as remarkable. Opening on November 20th, it’s not only a genuinely infuriating and touching movie, but it might also be one of the very best of its kind, a film about female empowerment in a small society completely lacking in it. The story of the five Turkish girls of Mustang becomes a love poem for, as Brian Tallerico stated, “the millions of women who have looked at the world around them and found they needed more.” The tale of five spirited young sisters imprisoned in their deeply repressive male oriented family home is an unequivocal triumph for its first-time female director Deniz Gamze Erguven. She directed the movie while pregnant: “It was a commando operation. I was exactly halfway through my pregnancy when we wrapped, and we were shooting twelve hours a day, six days a week. It put me in the same position of fragility as the girls, which wasn’t a bad thing since it meant we were all in the same boat.” She shoots her movie like a pro with a primal understanding of the cinematic form and her characters. What’s even more astounding is her work with the young actresses, all of whom more or less have never acted in a movie before. There are shared similarities to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, another female driven, female directed film. Erguyan replied that she “saw The Virgin Suicides when it came out and read Jeffrey Eugenide’s book, but Mustang is not a derivation of it.” Mustang is about teenage angst in a freedom constrained society. “I wanted to talk about what it’s like to be a girl and a woman in modern-day Turkey, where the condition of women is more than ever a major public issue. I frequently left Turkey for France and everytime I’d go back to Turkey I felt a form of constriction that surprised me. Everything that has anything to do with femininity is constantly reduced to sexuality, it’s as if everything a woman or even a young girl does is sexually loaded.” It’s a story that is sadly quite relevant in that part of the world — with arranged marriages, strict dress codes and proper “non-seductive” behavior being prescribed for women.

The Second Mother
Two particularly interesting films about motherhood are vying for a nomination this year. They couldn’t be more different from each other. Director Anna Muylaer’s The Second Mother tackles the generational and class divides happening in her native Brazil. Actors Regina Casé and Camila Márdila shared the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting at Sundance and the film won the Audience Award at Berlin. This is the story of a Sao Paulo nanny named Val who has to live with the guilt of having left her daughter Jessica until she re-enters the picture and decides to crash at Val’s workplace, When Jessica arrives, cohabitation is not easy and has Val pondering the past and re-envisioning her own future. Everyone will be affected by the personality and candor of Jessica with Val finding herself right in the middle of it. Muylaer’s film is trying to show the dividing class structure in Brazil and how it’s being -rightfully so- destroyed by the next generation. Jessica doesn’t understand why her mother gets treated so poorly, especially by the matriarch of the family who seems to have her values and nose stuck up in 21st century bourgeouis-ism. The story is also a touching ruminification on mother-daughter relations. Regina Case’s performance as the mother is eccentric, neurotic, but ultimately moving Muyaler’s direction is passionately laid out. When it comes to female directors “if your film is doing well, it’s because of us.” she told AD. Look for a great interview by Jazz this week with the star and filmmaker of this great movie.
Goodnight Mommy
The mother in Goodnight Mommy couldn’t be more different than Val – in directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s film she has come back from a mysterious accident with her face bandaged up due to plastic surgery and an overall newly found aggressive behavior. Her two sons start to suspect the worst, Is this really their mother? After all, she wasn’t this brutally honest and frank with them before. The notion that an imposter has taken over the matriarchal role seems somewhat preposterous at first, but the hysterical behavior the mother starts to impose on her children starts to worry both the children and the viewers themselves. The rest of the movie is too spoiler-filled to really go in-depth, but the surprise ending is one of the few welcome “twists” in recent cinema. This is a hard, tough watch that doesn’t give us any easy answers, but the filmmaking is breathtakingly, horrific imposing an almost Freudian aspect to the mother and son genre. Audience response has been warm to Goodnight Mommy, but can older more conservative voters respond the same way film geeks/fanboys have online? One thing’s for sure: Franz and Fiala impose tough, controlling, obsessively detailed frames to their movie and make something disturbingly special.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Roy Andersson’s films resist definition. As one critic pointed out: ‘Why would you write about a Roy Andersson film? You might as well dance about a cake.’ Don’t pay attention to the pretentious title, this Swedish film is actually quite an amazing miracle. The 2014 Golden Lion winner at Venice is an episodic, deadpan dramedy from Andersson’s brilliant, twisted psyche. The conclusive piece of his “living” trilogy that started with 2000s Songs From the Second Floor shows us the abyss of human existence and the pointlessness of some human lives. A knowledge of Kafka’s works might help, I was also reminded of Waiting for Godot in this seemingly modern tale of two unsuccessful and troubled travelling salesmen – it all feels like a metaphor for something otherwordly that cannot be comprehended. There’s nothing conventional or familiar about it. Roy Andersson’s movies are like that. You better brace yourself for a sequence of images, scenes and characters that may or may not fit together but are guaranteed to surprise, amuse and shock you. Andersson tackles death here, but tries to give it a twisty irrevocably deadpan style. sometimes you’re not sure what his point is but that’s part of the charm. I’ve heard some people say that they were bored to tears by the film, but then again this isn’t a film for short attention spans. As we stand it’s one of the bigger titles of the race, with much critical baggage on its back, and a respectable box office intake, but will voters adhere to its rebellious narrative?
The Club
The Club is Pablo Larrain’s latest provocation. It just won another Best Film award, this time at Montreal’s Le Festival Du Nouveau Cinema, which concludes a year where the film won prizes left and right including the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February. After directing the excellent No, he sets his eyes out on the controversial sex abuse scandals of the church that happened in his home country. If Tom Mccarthy’s Spotlight didn’t show the perpetrators or the victims of these horrendous crimes then Larrain doesn’t shy away from doing so. The Club is about the evil men that committed the abuse and the isolated, small town house they live in for penance. It’s also about the victims, in particular one disturbed victim that seeks revenge. There are four men, a nun -whom has comitted a different kind of sin- and an overall gloomy atmosphere to the whole thing. To make matters worse a fellow priest who has just joined the house shoots himself in the head, a Church head comes to visit to inspect and possibly close down the house. Rage follows, but so does the fact that what is supposed to be prison for these men is actually a retreat, filled with recreational activities and a free pass they do not deserve. Larrain meticulously crafts the film with the eye of a proven filmmaker, he doesn’t shoot the film as much as live in it by trying to understand his characters and their motivations “I try to love my characters as well, even though they could be the meanest person in the world, and have done things that you could consider immoral or wrong.” the director told IndieWire earlier this year. The formula works wonders with The Club.
The Clan
Pablo Trapero’s The Clan owes a lot of its narrative style to Martin Scorsese’s crime movies, with a rock and roll soundtrack, frenetic long takes and absurdly violent crime scenes. Trapero won the Silver Lion for direction this past September for this harrowing Argentian true story of the Puccio Clan, a family who kidnapped and killed in the 80s. It is all rendered with such horrific grittiness onscreen that it’s not hard to look away in some scenes. Trapero has taken the route of forcing us to identify with his heinous main characters, which makes this film more closely related to a Rob Zombie movie like The Devil’s Rejects than it does to any other crime film. It is however a little more restrained than the aforementioned filmmaker’s twisted visions, but nevertheless we are given the task of watching a family patriarch -deviously played The Secret in Their Eyes’ Guillermo Francella- embark in the most disturbing kidnappings, for political reasons, all in the meantime having his family abide and become more than just passive accomplices. Some of the victims are kept in the downstairs basement, where the screams can be heard from the upstairs family kitchen. The family doesn’t say a word, adhering to the father’s twisted agenda – yet the only one with a moral compass is his oldest son Alex, who starts to rebel against his old dad. The director has said that “What’s interesting for me was to tell the story of the relation between a father and his son and this is universal” . The film has become a phenomenon in his native country, breaking opening weekend box office records and having been seen by more than 2 million people in its first month of release alone.
Labyrinth of Lies
Of course, any World War II film about justice has to be part of the discussion. Giulio Ricciarelli’s film Labyrinth of Lies is about the conspiracy by the German government to cover up many of the crimes committed by Nazis during the second world war. It takes place in 1958 and has a young prosecutor investigating the case. His efforts are, however, obstructed by the powers that be who’d rather not be reminded of the past. In a particularly flabbergasting scene, the prosecutor asks his young colleagues what the word Auschwitz means to them. None of them come up with an answer. Unlike the other pictures on this list, Labyrinth of Lies does not enter the Oscar race with any prestigious Film Festival awards or critical acclaim on its belt, just look at its metacritic score 62, instead this is the kind of film that will have audiences saying it is a great movie. A potent crowd pleaser. Most pundits think this will get nominated. It is a safe, sometimes meandering, but often interesting story that only seems to be scratching the surface of the harsher truths at stake here. Ricciarelli directs it with all kinds of prestige-picture flair, but this isn’t even close to being the best German film of 2015.
Fresh off winning the top prize this year with Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, Grimur Hakonarson’s Icelandic film Rams was high atop my must see list for this article. Taking place in a secluded part of Iceland the film is about two sheep herding brothers who are so good at what they do that they are rewarded for their prized rams. Yet all is not well with this pair of siblings as they don’t talk to each other anymore nor do they even try to make eye contact. Tragedy strikes the small town when it is discovered that a brain and spinal eating disease has rummaged the village’s sheep and that the villagers must kill off their entire herds. This of course doesn’t sit very well with our two brothers who somehow try to take matters into their own hands, with both comic and tragic results. The brothers must fight together by putting aside their own egos aside and taking extraordinary measures to save the remaining sheep. This means breaking a 40 year silence between them, with one brother saying to the other, “No sheep – just the two of us.” Rams is about a deeply rooted culture threatened by extinction, it is about famillial ties that cannot be broken, but most importantly it is about a heritage that is very dear to the Icelandic people and that seems to bring people together in times of crisis.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Emergence of Denis Villeneuve in Sicario

Denis Villeneuve is not a filmmaker who sees the light at the end of the tunnel. If you’ve ever seen any one of his movies you’ll know that there is a sense of dread and uneasiness to every frame, the feeling that nothing good will happen and that everything is just wrong. Yet, the 47-year-old director hasn’t exactly tackled melancholic stories in his career either: His movies have included child abductors, terrorists, drug lords, hitmen, high school shooters and depressed alcoholics. Yet since his American debut, Prisoners, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, he has steadily but surely built up a following that is making him a reputable force to be reckoned with. That film’s polite but good reviews were transformed over the last few years into an undeniable cult following. The grisly murder mystery at the center of the story has typical B-movie tropes, but he has a knack for making a script better just by the way he films, paces, and directs. About this he says, “All my life, I’ve searched for good screenwriters; I love writing, but I’m not a good screenwriter and I take forever to complete a script. For the first time ever, I’m receiving screenplays from Hollywood that actually intrigue me. I had heard so many horror stories about foreign filmmakers going to Hollywood that got fucked by the system. Martin Scorsese warned me in fact that ‘You need to remain intact, that’s the most important thing.’ ”
Prisoners was a big step forward in getting his name across. He admitted, “It was a film that was horribly American, almost a kind of western.” Villneuve followed it up with Enemy, a film he shot prior to Prisoners, also starring Gyllenhaal. About Enemy he stated, “That was a very personal film adapted from a Portuguese novel by José Saramago. When I read it I felt the same sensation as when I was a kid and saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was very much about masculine identity.” This will probably not be the last time he works with Gyllenhaal either. “We very much were a creative team with Enemy, Jake was very into the whole process. We we’re feeding off of each other – so much so that I find the film is almost a documentary on Jake’s subconscious.”
On a personal note, I lived through the Montreal film scene when Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallee, and an 18-year-old Xavier Dolan among others, revolutionized French-Canadian cinema, and in the process gave themselves a shot at the Hollywood studio system. It was a very exciting time, but it was always Villeneuve that I kept an especially close eye on. People who saw his movie Maelstrom back in 2000 knew this was a talent to watch. The film, narrated by a doomed fish, features a career-making performance by Marie-Jose Croze as a depressed, suicidal woman who gets romantically linked to the son of the man she killed in a hit and run accident. The style was grimly unique and had a surrealist aspect to it that was almost too frightening to watch. Or maybe it was just the images Villeneuve conjured up with his camera – he could find the most basic looking detail in a frame and accentuate its impact just by the way he positioned a camera or had the cinematographer light up the scene. “It’s strange, when I finished Maelstrom I told myself, no more movies with a female lead. My first three films had that. Yet with my following film, Polytechnique, I made a film about the female condition and Incendies, the Middle East female. It just seems like women inspire me and that’s a good thing.”
The Polytechnique school shooting in Quebec was still a big deal many years after it happened; it affected a generation and Villeneuve was one of those people. Shooting a film about the tragedy was a daunting task, and the film he made was not without controversy in Canada.  During a class, a gunman shot 28 people, killing 14 women, before committing suicide. He began his attack by entering a classroom at the university, where he separated the male and female students. He told the women that he hated feminists, claiming that he was “fighting feminism” and calling the women “a bunch of feminists.” He shot all nine women in the room, killing six. He then moved through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, specifically targeting women. ”Polytechnique is an organic film, a beast. The film is alive.” The film jumps back and forth in time, meditatively trying to find some peace with the tragedy. Villeneueve’s film tries to tackle the human cost of gender warfare and comes up with varying but troubling answers. Think Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, but French-Canadian. Shot in beautiful black and white by Pierre Gill, it’s an astonishing statement by a filmmaker who wants his voice to be heard. It justly won the Best Picture Genie award (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), his second one after 2008’s Maelstrom triumph. The following year he triumphed again with Incendies, winning his third Best Picture Genie. 
The fact that Villeneuve is becoming such a hot commodity is not surprising. Before he broke through in the States, he had made four highly impressive French-Canadian films. After each one I thought, “this might break through and get him known”, but it never happened. It’s a tough business, but the films got progressively better, and when his career finally reached its peak with Incendies, his trailblazing 2010 Oscar nominated masterpiece, audiences could no longer ignore the talent. “I didn’t have time to rest. The last day of shooting Polytechnique I directly went to day one of shooting Incendies. These were two projects that I really took to heart, but they mentally and physically drained me.” Political, angry, and thoroughly engrossing, Incendies is a Middle Eastern nightmare that gets progressively more disturbing as it goes along. Brother and sister lose mom, find out their dead father is very much alive, learn that they have a sibling they never knew existed and decide to go to a violent Middle Eastern country to find out more of their mother’s past. It’s pure Villeneueve: aggressive, violent, and thoroughly pessimistic about human nature. “The anger that was in the source material really, profoundly touched me,” he recounts.
This journey has brought Villenueve to – what is so far – his best American movie with Sicario, a movie he calls a “dark poem”. Villeneuve is slowly but very surely getting to a groove of studio filmmaking that will likely propel him to join the very best in Hollywood. If that isn’t already the case, it sure as hell will happen in the next few years. Sicario is a monster of a movie. Villeneuve stages the action like a true master, moving his camera to the beat of the violence. It’s with these action scenes that you realize just how talented the man is. They seem like very simple scenes to shoot, but they aren’t.  It’s a good thing then that Sicario’s full-throttled sequences are refreshing, plentiful, and the highlights of the film, as they encompass a wide array of claustrophobic feelings and put you right in the thick of the action, especially in a highway shootout that is bound to become an iconic piece of cinema.
Dealing with the Mexican-American problems at the border and beyond, Sicario is highly relevant right now. It is nothing new that this year’s political campaigning has had Mexico very much at the forefront of the discussion. All the unusual talk of wall-building notwithstanding, there are core issues to be dealt with in the future. Talking to The Guardian at Cannes earlier this year, Villeneuve has said that “The movie is about America … how America fantasizes that it can solve problems beyond its borders, and about the collateral damage that results … and the legality and moral issues around that … It’s a movie that deals with idealism and realism and the tension between both … It takes place on the Mexican border, but it could have just as easily have been set in Afghanistan or the Middle East or various countries in Africa. In North America, we allow ourselves to do things that other countries can’t afford to.”
A lot of the film’s brilliance has to do with the cinematography that Roger Deakins brings to the table. This is Deakins’ second collaboration with Villeneuve – they make a great duo – and the film is almost as much a showcase for Villeneueve as it is for the famed cinematographer. Villeneuve seems to be giving carte blanche to Deakins with every movie, which isn’t a bad idea, and the two complement each other to great degrees. “I always profoundly felt Roger wanted to make the movie. One thing I adore about Roger is his discipline and his rigor. He exudes so much respect from the cast and crew. When I started editing the movie I was just floored by what he had done.
Sicario has been compared to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic for its investigation of the Mexican drug cartel and both starring Benicio Del Toro. That’s where comparisons should end, though. Relying heavily on atmosphere, a pulse pounding score from Jóhann Jóhannsson and a never better Emily Blunt, Villeneuve shoots the whole thing like a pro, giving us epic wide screen shots that take advantage of the breathtaking locations and his usual gloomy visual style. Its bow at Cannes came with a standing ovation and positive reviews, however it’s only now that the film is truly lifting off. Positive word of mouth – and there’s plenty of it for this movie – will propel this film into awards contention. Benicio Del Toro’s turn as the titular Sicario – a hitman by definition – is mysterious, mesmerizing and brutally brilliant. 
Blunt also deserves to be part of the Best Actress conversation. She’s just one of the very best actresses around and her role as Kate Macer is an important one for Villeneuve as well. “There is obviously a lot of work to be done for women’s rights, there aren’t any good parts for women in movies these days … I think of this as my contribution.”  Sicario had a bumpy road pre-production, as the movie’s backers wanted the Kate Macer role rewritten for a man. It was something his screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, had been “advised” to do, but Villeneuve and Sheridan refused. “It isn’t easy to get a film made where the protagonist is a woman – there’s less money, people are afraid, and it’s really sad that it’s still like that today,” Villeneuve said. “It’s ludicrous, and this film shows that attitude is dépassé…” safe for Enemy and Prisoners, Villeneuve’s five other films have dealt with female identity. Much of this might have to do with his upbringing, which was dominated by two very prominent figures – his grandmothers – whom he calls “very powerful women.”
The movie feels epic in scope, but is actually very intimate in detail, which is a big part of why it works so well. Villeneuve never forgets that at the end of the day, it has to do with story and character. The fact that the 47-year-old director rarely gives interviews only enhances the intrigue of the man. I had the chance to meet him a couple of times in Montreal, and he gives off a shy but amicable feeling that is the polar opposite of his films. His passion for cinema is clearly felt, but so is the way he never fully reveals himself in conversation. 
Hollywood has clearly been impressed by the man. Villeneuve has already wrapped up his next film, Story of Your Life, a science fiction film starring yet another female lead, Amy Adams. He’s also been given the outrageously important task of directing the sequel to Blade Runner, with a script by original helmer Ridley Scott, and Harrison Ford to star. “I don’t have the pretense to say I will do as Ridley Scott. I am totally different.” Of course Roger Deakins will be the cinematographer. Villeneuve has stated that his ”mind is more in America than Europe right now.” We hope it stays that way.

Scorsese and De Niro teaming up again

It’s no secret that Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors that ever lived. Just look at the list of classics: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, The King of Comedy, Once Upon a Time in America, Brazil, The Untouchables, Midnight Run, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Heat, and Casino. Is there any other actor that can claim to have been in this many great movies and given this many great performances? That’s of course a topic for another story, but notice how Casino was listed last. That’s where many people believe De Niro “gave up” serious films and for the next two decades resorted to choosing movies that didn’t live up to his talents. In fact, there are people in their twenties today who think De Niro is best known for the Fockers trilogy! That’s just criminal and doesn’t do justice to the now 72-year-old legend.
Well, there is great news this week that made movie geeks rejoice. While being interviewed by Digital Spy for his latest film, The Intern, De Niro was asked about the long-planned Scorsese collaboration, I Heard You Paint Houses. “We are doing it… We should be doing it sometime next year,” De Niro said. “We’re slowly, slowly getting it in place.” This is quite possibly the best news a die-hard movie fan could hear, especially with the fact that De Niro and Scorsese are not getting any younger and that Joe Pesci is rumored to be coming back after announcing his retirement back in 1999. Scorsese, Pesci, De Niro -– does it get any better than this? Their collaborative efforts are right up there with Bergman/Von Sydow, Hitchcock/Stewart, and Huston/Bogart.
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Although Scorsese has been as productive and brilliant these last few years as ever before, replacing De Niro with DiCaprio as his muse, De Niro’s career arc has been a different story. Maybe years of method acting and gaining/losing drastic amounts of weight for iconic roles took a toll on him; how else can you explain the constant duds that he’s been churning out year after year?
It’s of course not all that bad, and shades of the brilliance he once showed in abundance have poured down in a few well-chosen movies here and there. If you do catch Nancy Meyers’ The Intern, you will notice a sweet, soulful performance from De Niro that is the clear highlight of the movie. These kinds of performances from De Niro are few and far between these days, but they do happen. A few weeks from now, he’s set to appear in the highly anticipated Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by David O’ Russell, his third film with the filmmaker. The buzz is that De Niro’s performance is great –- we all hope it is -– and that he could garner an eight Oscar nomination for it.
Despite his recent duds, here are six examples post-Casino De Niro performances that prove he’s still got it and will “bring it” next year when the new Scorsese film is shot.
Conrad Brean in Wag the Dog (1997)
A presidential sex scandal hits and his advisers try to cover it up as fast as possible. What do they do? Hire a Hollywood producer and a professional spin doctor played by De Niro. “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow,” says De Niro’s Conrad Brean, who cooks up a phony international crisis with Albania. De Niro plays Brean as a poker-faced genius who makes you believe a spin doctor can save the day by telling lies: “We’re not gonna have a war, we’re gonna have the appearance of a war,” he says with much-garnered confidence. Just like in Ronin, De Niro seems like a match made in heaven for David Mamet’s poetic street dialogue. He’s never been this wittily relaxed before.
Sam in Ronin (1998)
“You ever kill anybody?” De Niro’s Sam is asked in Ronin. “Yeah I hurt somebody’s feelings once,” he replies in a deadpan way. In my opinion this was the last De Niro-esque performance of his illustrious career: it’s raw, edgy, and dangerous. John Frankenheimer’s movie has some of the best car chase scenes ever put on celluloid and has altogether remarkable chemistry between stars De Niro and his director, two old-school giants. Playing a CIA strategist turned mercenary, De Niro turns out be a pretty badass James Bond in a role that has him spouting out words by screenwriter David Mamet –- who also wrote a great latter De Niro role in Wag the Dog. “You worried about saving you own skin?” Sam is asked midway through the film. “Yeah, I am,” responds De Niro, “It covers my body”.
Paul Vitti in Analyze This (1999)
It’s not uncommon for De Niro to play a gangster, but it is uncommon for it to be in a comedy. Analyze This was one of the first times we saw De Niro’s comedic side. Playing respected mobster Paul Vitti, he visits Billy Crystal’s shrink to try and take control of his crumbling psyche. It works. “You got a gift my friend. You, you, you’re good,” tells Vitti to his frightened shrink. De Niro is hilarious, encompassing to perfection a viciously intimidating side to his gangster, but adding self-contained humor to his role. “Fuck Freud,” says Vitti to a scared shrink who tries everything to get rid of him as a client. The chemistry between Crystal and De Niro is contagious and feels so naturally delivered. The misbegotten sequel that followed should be forgotten, and this original movie always remembered.
Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents (2000)
Playing father-in-law from hell Jack Byrnes, De Niro perfected the comedic gold that he started with Analyze This just a year before Meet The Parents. Byrnes is a retired horticulturalist who might also be an ex-CIA agent. It helps that co-star Ben Stiller and De Niro seem to be feeding off of each other’s manic energy. “Have you ever purchased pornographic material?” hilariously asks De Niro to Stiller’s ill-received and aptly named Greg Focker during a now iconic lie detector test. Everything about the De Niro’s performance works here, from his sizing up of Stiller’s character, to telling him that he’s going “down, down to Chinatown,” and even down to the smallest details as in the way he calls Greg “Focker”, this is pure comedic gold.
Nick Wells in The Score (2001)
It took four decades for the two Don Corleone’s -– De Niro and Marlon Brando –- to finally make a movie together. The fact that it was The Score might disappoint some, but it shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s actually a good caper movie. A weaker actor might have overplayed the character of Nick Wells -– an aging thief who is persuaded by a rookie, played by Edward Norton, to execute one last heist -– but it’s De Niro’s steadiness that becomes part of the movie’s subtle, refraining style. Norton and De Niro basically compete to see who can under-act the other (it sounds dull but it isn’t). He’s positively mesmerizing and overshadows the Brando scenes quite a bit.
Pat Solitano Jr. in Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
De Niro richly deserved his Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook. Playing Pat Sr., a sports bookie with a major case of OCD and an even unhealthier obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles, De Niro found a role worthy of his incredible talents. In a memorably touching scene, De Niro wakes up his son in the morning and, failing to convey the repressed emotions in his mind, all Pat Sr. can do is subtly cry and hug his son. In another poignant moment he tells his son to seize the moment, and seize the fortune that has been dealt in his hand: “When life reaches out at a moment like this it’s a sin if you don’t reach back, I’m telling you it’s a sin if you don’t reach back! It’ll haunt you the rest of your days like a curse.” It’s the best De Niro performance in 20 years and proof that the legendary actor still has it in him to deliver.