Posts Tagged ‘Fruitvale Station’

Another year, another Top 10. The last 12 months have been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cinema. Yes, big-budget tentpole films are getting bigger-budgeter tentpoler and yes, sequels, reboots and remakes have taken center stage while original stories struggle to find an audience. BUT, this also was a year full of unexpected surprises and visionary spectacles.

We saw the vast expanse of space and the horrors of slavery like we’ve never seen them before. We watched heroes triumph, villains fall, and a folk singer with a tabby cat.

Enough nonsense, let’s do this.

10. Blue Jasmine

We can all imagine how it might be challenging for a 1%-wealthy person to live like the rest of us after losing it all. But in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, we witness the remarkable collapse of Jasmine, a wealthy socialite whose fortune evaporates after her husbsand’s Maddoff-esque antics are exposed.

Cate Blanchett’s performance is captivating and her Jasmine teeters on the edge of a mental breakdown. She is poised confidence on the outside with a boiling madness flowing in her veins as she refuses to accept her new reality (a struggle represented by frequent flashbacks to her posh former life at the arm of Alec Baldwin’s wealthy criminal).

The film is an homage to A Streetcar Named Desire and alternates between the heady psychosis of Jasmine and the proletarian challenges of her sister, whose life is abruptly invaded by Jasmine’s presence and who is made to feel lesser for her stature despite Jasmine’s superiority being little more than an empty shell. It is witty, sharp, provocative, fascinating and one of Allen’s best works.

9. Fruitvale Station

The tragic irony infused in this retelling of the life of Oscar Grant, a real-life 22-year-old man who was accidentally shot and killed on New Year’s Day 2009, is thick enough to cut with a knife. Here we have a man who suffered a needless death at the hands of a transit police officer (he later claimed to have been attempting to reach for his tazer and not his gun) and from the first moments of Fruitvale Station we know how the story ends.

That dark cloud hangs over the proceedings like the hand of fate as Grant tries to be a better man for his young daughter and girlfriend. The film portrays only the last day of Grant’s life, presenting him as neither sinner or saint, and asks the question of what might have been if this man had been allowed to live.

But part of the film’s strength comes form the world it arrived in, with the nation’s attention turned to the death of Trayvon Martin in a tragic incident all-too-easily comparable to that of Oscar Grant. The makers of Fruitvale Station could not have predicted the racial debate their film would arrive in, but they didn’t need to. What Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin show is that the question of race relations in America is far from settled, and despite our progress these tragedies continue to occur.

8. Blackfish

A documentary does not have to be shocking to be good. One of my favorite docs, for example, is The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which tells the story of a Donkey Kong arcade champion. But the power of documentaries is that they portray real-life events, and when that medium is used the expose the obfuscated actions of powerful organizations, the result is nothing short of magical.

So it is with Blackfish, a documentary about the killer whales of Sea World and particularly Tillicum, a male Orca that has been involved in — if not the intentional cause of — several deaths and injuries of park trainers. Sea World has spent the last several months actively denying the allegations raised in Blackfish, but the diligence of the filmmakers is hard to question.

Through a series of interviews and truly breathtaking footage, we watch Tillicum move from one park, where he was kept in the oceanic equivalent of a jail cell and a trainer died, to Sea World, where he was attacked by the female Orcas and yet another trainer died. With the help of some amazing – and at times disturbing – archive footage, we watch an employee drug repeatedly to the bottom of a water tank, his foot pinched between an Orcas’ teeth. We see park employees scrambling to obscure the view of a whale who rises up out of the water to solute the crowd, exposing several bleeding wounds on his side where the other whales have “raked” him with their teeth. And we watch a female Orca pressing her face against the glass making piercing cries after her child was taken from her.

We hear the interviews of former park trainers, who decry the barbarity of what they saw and the heavy-handed attempts to silence dissent. And in perhaps the most memorable interview, we hear a salty sea dog reminisce about his days as a whale trapper. You can’t help but believe him when he says he’s seen some things in his day, but it’s the whaling that haunts him most.

The film is profound and at times horrific, and makes you feel complicit in a crime for ever having attending an Orca show.

7. All Is Lost

After Life of Pi and even Captain Phillips, there is a temptation to dismiss JC Chandor’s All Is Lost as just another tale of a man at odds with the sea. But even with Pi’s tiger, and Phillip’s gun-toting Somali pirates, it’s All Is Lost that dazzles with the relentless abuse inflicted upon its protagonist, in this case a grizzled Robert Redford in an almost wordless role.

Chandor — who made his debut in 2011 with the spectacular Margin Call — goes all in on his star, and the bet pays off. Redford is outstanding, relying on nothing but expression and demeanor to convey the terror in his eyes as his ship is first punctured by a stray shipping container and then besought by stormy seas. It’s a surprisingly action-filled performance for the 77-year-old actor, who is tossed about relentlessly by the crashing waves before making his way onto a life raft in a seemingly hopeless attempt to survive.

6. The Kings of Summer

In Kings of Summer (full review here), three friends tired of the overbearing pestering of their parents head into the wild to build a shelter, forage for food and live as men. It’s a simple premise, but one that is presented with an almost intoxicating level of free-spirited liberation as our heroes run, jump, laugh, scream, and do as they please.

The performances are spectacular, particularly Moises Arias in a scene-stealing breakout role, but also Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso who each deliver fully-realized characters as the other kings and Nick Offerman and Megan Mulaly as the doting parents. The dialogue is hilariously witty, trading between the ebullient simplicity of youth with the dour, stoic practicality of adulthood all while moving through perhaps the most charming story of the year.

5. American Hustle

In the late 70s, a con man and his accomplice are forced to assist the FBI in taking down other ne’er-do-wells in exchange for their freedom. What ensues is a loopy tale of deception, greed, pride and corruption that balloons out of control and is only half as crazy as the real Abscam case it’s based on.

At it’s heart, American Hustle is the story of Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a beer belly and a garish combover. But orbiting his world are Amy Adams as his mistress/partner, Bradley Cooper as an increasingly unstable FBI agent who thinks he’s in charge, Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s absolutely unstable wife who most definitely is in charge and Jeremy Renner as a well-intentioned politician who is unfortunately dragged into the mess.

It’s an All American tale of dirty people doing dirty deeds in the pursuit of fortunes and the unsuspecting victims who get left with the bill. In American Hustle (full review here), everyone’s a crook, except the crooks and especially the crooks, but they’re not always the same people that get punished.

4. Before Midnight

It’s a common complaint levied against romantic comedies that they end precisely where they story should begin. Sure, our hero just ran through the rain to profess his love at our heroine’s doorstep, but it’s what happens after they kiss that’s truly interesting. The morning after, as it were, is when the drama begins.

It’s that sense of realism, not relying on casual tropes but interested in a true examination of what “love” is, that has always endeared the Before franchise to fans. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train and spend the next day walking through the streets of Vienna talking about, well, everything. Nine years later in Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine meet again in France only now he’s married with a son and she’s in a relationship, but the attraction remains.

And now, 18 years after their initial serendipitous encounter on that train, Jesse and Celine are married and vacationing in Greece with friends. They are full-fledged adults, having spent a significant portion of their lives together and having settled fully into the routine machinations of married life. When their friends gift them with a hotel room in a nearby town the pair get some privacy, only to see the romantic getaway devolve into a bickering argument spurred by miscommunication and misunderstanding and the latent frustrations of what they’ve each given up to be together.

In Before Midnight, we see that the previous two films have been leading to this and appropriately, the third film is the best one yet. It takes an almost unbearably honest  approach to the idea of marriage as our pair go from loving each other to hating each other and back again in the space of a single conversation. If that’s not modern romance, I don’t know what is.

Allow me to add my voice to the many that have come before me. Please, give us Before Noon in 2022.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

Is there anything more universal than the feeling that life has conspired against us, stopping us from catching a break? That’s the emotion that sums up Inside Llewyn Davis, a period piece about a struggling folk singer in an unending cycle of near-misses, disappointments and failures. He’s a drifter, relying on a rotation of friends’ couches to provide shelter from the cold while playing dive bars for a pittance and peddling a box of records like every other no-name head of hair with a guitar.

But the beauty of the Coen Brother’s film is how it pulls back the camera and shows the events as if from the perspective of some omniscient being. Llewyn’s situation is less a matter of bad luck as it is a series of self-destructive decisions. He passes up opportunities because of his high-minded artistry, neglects the few sympathetic people in his life and refuses to accept the hands that are offered to him. It’s a cosmic joke the audience is aware of from our perch in 2013 – at one point a producer suggests there’s no money in Llewyn as a solo act, but maybe if he played backup vocals in a trio being put together, which sounds an awful lot like Peter, Paul and Mary? Llewyn thanks him for his time and walks out.

It’s a highly symbolic tale, filled with themes and imagery that suggest the importance of being at peace with one’s self. But on the surface is a deeply comedic drama about a misanthropic folk singer who is perhaps defined by his failure and layered with the best soundtrack of the year.

2. Gravity

The most lasting image from Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (full review here) is that of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone spinning uncontrollably in a vast expanse of black space. She is utterly helpless, adrift in an inhospitable environment with the taunting image of a blue Earth before her eyes and no way to reach it.

That image comes early in Gravity’s 91-minute running time, suggesting that some change is coming to her situation, but its impact is no less terrifying. In Gravity, Cuaron presents us with the most comprehensive and transformative representation of the horror and grandeur of outer space. It is a symphony of sensory and emotional cues, as we witness with white knuckles the catastrophic destruction of shuttles and space stations obliterated by debris from the frantic perspective of our protagonist trapped in a race against time.

What Cuaron has accomplished with Gravity is a pure spectacle, raising the bar for what is possible with film technology while still delivering a deeply emotional tale of survival. Every moment of screen time is exhilarating, filled with breathtaking and pulse-pounding images that go beyond what was previously the frontier of “edge-of-your-seat” thrills.

1. 12 Years a Slave

In Steve McQueen’s brutal, haunting film, we see the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in pre-Civil War New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he suffers unspeakable horrors for more than a decade before regaining his freedom.

The power of the film comes from two sources. First, the caliber of performances delivered by the cast, and in particular Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. Second, the directorial choices of McQueen, who’s camera lingers on the atrocities until they become unbearable only to linger a few moments more. To wit, in one particular scene we see Ejiofor’s Solomon hung by the neck, the tips of his toes barely reaching the ground, for what feels like an interminable eternity before he is finally cut down and collapses in a wheezing heap. It is as raw as it is uncomfortable to watch but also carries with it a profound dramatic weight.

The desire of that scene and others like it (and the decision to depict them so graphically) is not just a thirst for audience effect. No movie could ever truly capture the horrors of slavery and McQueen knows this, and so when we reach these dark portions of the story he does not pull away, he leans in, filling the screen and presenting us with the inescapable wrongs of our shared past. He forces us to confront one of the ugliest scars of American history in a visceral way that only film can.

Paired with the heartbreaking humanity of Ejiofor’s performance, McQueen’s work is a triumph, exposing a dark past in the hope of a brighter future.

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