Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Grab your pencils: Oscar voters receive ballots

Ballots went out today to the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the 2015 Oscar nominations. It is an occasion we here at Last Cinema Standing like to take to remind voters of less heralded work from throughout the year that deserves attention. Now, I have done this a couple times, and not once has anything I mentioned been nominated, so I won’t sit here and pretend like I have that kind of influence. However, you’re here, and you’re reading this, so consider this list a primer for films you should check out and work on those films that should be recognized and applauded.

Here are five Oscar-worthy feats the Academy should consider this year:

Best Supporting Actress: Günes Sensoy for Mustang

Gunes Sensoy in Mustang.
Writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang is a true ensemble piece about five rebellious sisters growing up in an oppressively traditional family. Sensoy plays Lale, the youngest of these sisters. Due to her age, she is somewhat shielded from the worst of the treatments doled out to her sisters, namely their forced arranged marriages. Much of what the audience sees is shown from Lale’s point of view as the sisters are degraded, punished, and abused in the service of an outdated cultural code.

Sensoy has the difficult task of communicating both the girls’ flagging will and their steadfast resolve. As her sisters are systematically broken down by circumstance, Lale remains on the front line, fighting the battle against a structure she does not support and had no say in building. A young actress in her first and only role to date, Sensoy carries much of the film and its thematic resonance on her shoulders, and rather than buckle under the weight, she soars.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Andrew Haigh for 45 Years

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in 45 Years.
I have not written about it yet, but in the coming days, I will be writing a lot about Haigh’s brilliant marital drama 45 Years. It is a subtle, masterful bit of storytelling that takes the time to build its characters and their world brick by brick, laying a foundation so solid that when it is overturned, the audience is left in as desperate a state as the characters.

Haigh, who also directed the film, adapted the script from award-winning author David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country.” Turning a relatively brief story into a feature-length film is no easy feat, but Haigh adds layers of depth and detail to the writing and incorporates that work into the film in a way that would translate to no other medium. The performances in 45 Years are almost effortlessly breathtaking, but they are rooted in a screenplay that puts an emphasis on creating strong, nuanced characters.

Best Editing: Ramin Bahrani for 99 Homes

Andrew Garfield in 99 Homes.
Writer-director Bahrani has edited most of his own feature films, and he has always brought to the process the same distinct feel for the rhythms of daily life that is evident on the page and behind the camera. While none of his films would likely be considered a thriller, they all share with the genre a certain pacing and sense of ever-mounting tension. 99 Homes might be the closest to a traditional thriller Bahrani has yet come, and he absolutely nails the flow and energy of the film.

There is a relentlessness in the main character’s march toward self-destruction that Bahrani perfectly mirrors in his cutting. There are flashy moments throughout, and the climax is a white-knuckle spectacle that owes much of its success to the way it is constructed, but Bahrani is also subtle. For every montage or quick cut, there is a tender, quiet moment in which Bahrani the editor steps away to allow Bahrani the director to guide the emotion of a sequence.

Best Art Direction: Mark Digby, Katrina Mackay, and Denis Schnegg for Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina.
There was a lot to love in writer-director Alex Garland’s creepy techno-thriller – from the clever writing to the cagey performances and the sleek editing – but one thing sticks in the mind long after the final credits roll. That is the alternately icy and sensual production design, as well as the sparse but pointed set decoration. Science-fiction films often do well in this category at the Oscars for creating worlds we have never seen before, but the work is rarely this restrained or this unsettling.

The compound where about 95 percent of the action takes place is more of a laboratory than a home, and as the story progresses, that vibe becomes more and more pronounced, to the point where anyone who steps inside may seem like part of the experiment. The low ceilings and narrow hallways contribute to an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, and as the noose tightens around the characters, it starts to feel as though they may never escape this place or its icy grip.

Best Original Score: Disasterpeace for It Follows

Maika Monroe in It Follows.
I am on the record as believing the hype surrounding writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s low-budget, high-concept horror picture outpaced its actual merit. It is a good but not great little movie that does a fine job inducing dread and paranoia in the audience. The one exceptional element, though, is the score by composer Rich Vreeland, working under his stage name, Disasterpeace.

The music draws on the best tropes horror music and repurposes them in a propulsive, synth-heavy set of near-electronica compositions. It is like an unholy lovechild birthed by the coupling of John Carpenter’s simple piano motifs from Halloween and Tangerine Dream’s bubbly yet sinister pop anthems for Risky Business. In other words, it is like nothing you have heard before.

New movie review: The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass in the western survival saga The Revenant

It is rare that I am left speechless after a film. I might not have a lot to say about a bad movie, or I might need time to gather my thoughts after a great one, but I pretty much always have something to say. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, however, left me absolutely without words. It is a densely packed, gorgeously realized, elliptically told story of survival and vengeance in the Old American West, but every time I sit to ponder it – as I have done almost without end now in the day and a half since seeing it – new elements cry out for consideration.

The certainties are these: Iñárritu, who won three Academy Awards last year for writing, directing, and producing Birdman, has made another impossibly grand work of art; Leonardo DiCaprio, already one of the finest actors of his generation, has delivered a career-topping performance; director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, who has won the last two Oscars for cinematography, has somehow found new ways to expand the visual language of film; and never has there been told on screen a more harrowing or epic tale of revenge than that of Hugh Glass.

Glass is a frontiersman hired by Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) to guide his fur-trapping expedition up the Missouri River. They start off with a crew dozens strong, but after repeated attacks by the native Arikara tribe, they are down to just 10 men. Among them are Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). To avoid the Arikara, who know the river well, they set out on an overland route hundreds of miles to a U.S. Army fort where they can find relief.

Along the way, while out alone and hunting for game, Glass stumbles upon a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs. Glass is mauled in one of the most vicious and brutal attacks I have ever seen. The bear methodically tears away at Glass’ legs, chest, hands, back, neck, and face, and in a final insult, even when Glass manages to kill the bear, it falls dead on top of him, pinning him to the ground. When his traveling companions find him, he is gushing blood from just about every part of his body and his legs are broken. They reasonably conclude he will die, but as long as he is breathing, they vow to carry him.

As the terrain grows increasingly unnavigable, Glass’ broken body becomes more of a burden. Fitzgerald and Bridger, along with Hawk, agree to stay behind, wait for him to die, and give him a proper burial. Fitzgerald’s impatience, however, leads him to kill Hawk, lie to Bridger about an impending Arikara attack, and attempt to bury Glass alive. He succeeds in all these goals, but alas, Glass has no plans to die and sets out on shattered bones and festering wounds across 200 miles of frozen earth to seek his revenge.

The film is based on the Michael Punke novel of the same name, which itself is based on a heavily fictionalized account of the real Glass’ life. Iñárritu and co-writer Mark Smith’s screenplay sticks fairly close to the source material, which is a smart move given the unreliable nature of tales from the Old West. Glass is the kind of historical figure people tell tall tales about, a Paul Bunyan type who certainly existed but may not have been as great as the stories. By freeing themselves from the burden of history, Iñárritu and Smith are able to focus on the universal traits of human nature they are keen to explore.

Glass goes through more pain and suffering – both physical and emotional – in his journey than any of us is likely to experience in a lifetime. In this way, The Revenant is a dark testament to the spirit of man, but at the same time, it is a reminder of the indomitability of nature. Every character in this film is at the mercy of the natural world – the frigid temperatures, the rushing rivers, the jagged rocks, the animal kingdom, etc. For as invested as we become in the human concerns and trials of Glass, Iñárritu and editor Stephen Mirrione are quick always to remind us of the natural surroundings, ever-present and eternal.

Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous photography in The Revenant.
At more than two-and-a-half hours, The Revenant is long, but it earns every second of that runtime by offering the audience the chance to bask in its stillness, its quiet, and its beauty. In one of the most gorgeous shots of the year, we witness DiCaprio trudging through the snow toward his destination, and the camera pulls back to reveal a sea of pristine white ground. He is moving, but he is not going anywhere. His purpose is clear to him, but against this backdrop, it seems much smaller. He seems much smaller.

Iñárritu and Lubezki’s compositions make this point again and again in wide shots that establish the vastness of the world and in close-ups that demonstrate the havoc that world wreaks on the characters’ faces and bodies, not to mention their spirits. Lubezki has a facility for capturing thematic resonance with stirring imagery. His camera movements as ever are swift, fluid, and never without purpose, but here he finds magic even when he lets the camera linger on the embers of a fire floating up to the heavens, the leaves of trees rustling, or a boat floating along a foggy river. In a word, it is mesmerizing.

On the whole, Iñárritu and his collaborators have created the ultimate sensory experience – from Lubezki’s awe-inspiring photography to Jack Fisk’s world-building production design to the sound department’s remarkable sonic landscape. Every piece of the puzzle reveals something special, unique, and wondrous about what The Revenant ultimately is, and perhaps the most important piece to fall into place is the acting.

The idea that DiCaprio is chasing an Academy Award has taken on a life of its own, and it seems true that if he cannot win an Oscar for this performance this year, then he may never win one. However, DiCaprio is a multi-millionaire philanthropist and world-famous, widely respected actor with a dream life most of us could not imagine. A little gold statue is not going to change any of that. This makes it all the more impressive then that he seems hell bent on stretching the boundaries of his considerable gifts and plumbing the depths of every character that comes his way.

Tom Hardy in The Revenant.
He embodies Glass in all the ways it is possible to become another person. Movie stars often have trouble disappearing into roles, leaving audiences impressed but not moved. DiCaprio has even used this quality to his advantage in a number of parts. In The Revenant, however, there is not one moment where we are seeing anything but Glass, and as DiCaprio transforms, we are transported into his world. Even apart from the technical skill and dedication of learning two native languages and eating raw bison liver, DiCaprio delivers a performance of raw spiritual intensity that belongs to the ages.

Off in the other half of the story, Hardy, Poulter, and Gleeson bring the same level of energy and emotional acuity to their smaller, supporting roles. Hardy is particularly good as Fitzgerald, the antagonist who sets most of this bloody saga in motion. Fitzgerald is a grizzled man of the mountains as much as Glass, but he is blinded by greed and an overwhelming instinct for self-preservation. Hardy expertly brings this out in his mannerisms, his inflections, and his general sense of being.

The Revenant is an all-encompassing feat of filmmaking. It is about resiliency and frailty, vengeance and forgiveness, death and resurrection. It is meditative but propulsive, grisly but gorgeous, audacious but restrained. From Iñárritu to DiCaprio to Lubezki to Fisk to Mirrione to Hardy and everyone else on this production, the film is evidence of a group of talented individuals creating art at the absolute heights of their powers. At this point, I have spent more than 1,300 words describing this film, and I have only scratched the surface of its impact – because sometimes, there are no words.

See it? Yes.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

New movie review: Joy

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Joy in writer-director David O. Russell's new film Joy.

Joy Mangano is a smart, industrious woman who has made a fortune inventing and selling practical products for everyday people. Her two most famous inventions are the Miracle Mop and Huggable Hangers, the latter of which is the highest selling product in the history of the Home Shopping Network. Mangano is a brand unto herself, and in interviews and on television, she comes across as someone excited to share her ideas with people and still a little baffled, two decades on, at the enormity of her success.

That version of Mangano does not really make an appearance in writer-director David O. Russell’s Joy, which takes the bare bones of the true-life story and adds in other true stories and flights of fancy from Russell. The result is a film that always seems on the verge of spinning out of control, and the only reason it does not is because of the fantastic central performance by Jennifer Lawrence holding everything together.

Lawrence plays Russell’s version of Mangano, though in the film, she is known only as Joy and never given a last name. Joy is a divorced, single mother of two, whose mother (Virginia Madsen) lives upstairs and whose ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) lives in the basement. When the movie begins, her father (Robert De Niro) also moves into the basement. These are contrivances to set up the idea of a woman who feels trapped by her circumstances and just needs the right motivation or idea to break out of it.

You will not have much trouble picking up on this, but if you miss it, Russell lays it out for the audience with a children’s science book about cicadas, which can hide underground for up to 17 years. Joy points out what a random number this is, particularly as it matches the length of time she has kept the entrepreneur and innovator inside herself hidden. Get it? The film trades throughout in this kind of heavy-handed symbolism, which never builds to any coherent thematic idea. They are just thoughts floating around until Russell likes one enough to employ it.

Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Joy.
When Joy decides to come out of hiding, it is with her newest invention – the Miracle Mop. Sparked by sudden inspiration, she takes to her daughter’s room and sketches out the initial designs in crayon. She builds it, finds investors, and sets about selling the new product door to door and parking lot to parking lot. Her ex-husband, who is also her best friend, suggests a meeting with his old school chum (Bradley Cooper) who works at a new kind of television channel: QVC.

At this point, the movie starts going through the motions of telling a classic rags-to-riches story, complete with a second mortgage, a failed first attempt to sell the mop, threatened bankruptcy, and a last-ditch effort to save her company, her invention, her home, and her family. There is some business about a patent dispute – as there is with just about every film about an inventor or an invention – but even while integral to the plot, it seems peripheral to the storytelling. Russell just does not seem to know what kind of movie he wants to make.

This is perhaps because it was not Russell’s story to begin with. Annie Mumolo, the Oscar-nominated co-writer of Bridesmaids, developed the story for her own original screenplay, which stuck more closely to the details of Mangano’s life. When Russell came onto the project, he added enough of his ideas and changed enough of the script to get a co-story credit and sole writing credit, which is fine, and Joy feels very much like a Russell movie.

Let’s imagine for a second, though, a world in which Mumolo’s original script is made by a strong, independent-minded female filmmaker – say, Sarah Polley. Maybe in that world, Joy is a film with the guts to tell the straight story of a brilliant female inventor who has a plan, works hard, and achieves success. Maybe in that world, it is a film filled with rich female characters, all with their own inner lives and motivations. Maybe in that world, the film is a great work of art that says something interesting about women’s place in society and in business in particular.

Instead, we live in this world, in which Russell has attached superfluous genre tropes to his filmmaking, populated the edges of his story with grotesque female caricatures, and failed to say anything meaningful about Joy’s place in the culture. Ultimately, Russell’s film is a lot of smoke and no fire with one clear exception – Lawrence.

At 25 years old, Lawrence is a world-famous star, an Academy Award-winning actress, and a giant box-office draw. She also has been the lead of only about a dozen or so feature films, something that is easy to forget given her cultural ubiquity. She is still learning and growing just about every time she steps in front of a camera, and in Joy, she delivers her best work yet. She may not be portraying the real-life Mangano, who was almost 15 years older than Lawrence during the events depicted, but she is certainly channeling that woman’s inner strength and intelligence.

The film around her may be a muddle, but there is nothing confused about Lawrence’s performance. It is an aspirational character, the kind more actresses deserve the chance to play and the kind more young girls deserve the chance to go to the movies and see. Lawrence makes the most of the shamefully rare opportunity to show a bright, powerful woman, and her work is a sight to behold, worth the price of admission on its own. Unfortunately, the movie simply does not live up to that standard.

See it? No.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

New movie review: The Big Short

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling star in director Adam McKay's housing crisis comedy-drama The Big Short.

“We’re going to see a dead kid. Maybe it shouldn’t be a party.” – Gordie Lachance in Stand By Me

Screw the people who did this to us. You may recall the housing market crash of seven or eight years ago that essentially flattened the planet. We have a pretty good idea of every individual at the top of every corporation responsible and all their underlings who helped. They are easy to find because instead of ending up in prison, where they rightly belong, they are mostly still running other companies. Those who are not are living secluded dream lives on their millions and millions of dollars. So, yeah, screw ’em.

Co-writer-director Adam McKay’s The Big Short is a snotty, acid-tongued rebuke of all the people and systems that got us into this mess. The film is often a little too smart ass for its own good – perhaps to be expected from the director of Will Ferrell comedies such as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers – but it is punk-rock, activist filmmaking of the highest order, a grimy, angry takedown of all the liars and bastards who tanked the world economy.

Finn Wittrock and John Magaro in The Big Short.
Written by McKay and Charles Randolph, based in part on the book by Michael Lewis, the script has the notable distinction of having no heroes. There are people you could choose to root for – Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Charlie Gellar (John Magaro), or Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) – but let’s not kid ourselves. Regardless of how much concern they show, every main character in this movie is trying to get rich off the destruction of the housing market. It is simply a question of how much guilt will be associated with all that cash.

For a guy like Baum, the answer is a lot of guilt. Baum hates the high-finance world and would dismantle the whole thing if he could, while he also harbors guilt over the suicide of his brother. Gellar and Shipley are two young guys with a small company who see a way to make some money and get in way over their heads. The deeper they go, the darker things get, and the harder the load is to bear on their souls. Burry is an analyst who saw the crash coming from a mile away and just wants his investors to acknowledge he is right so he can make them a lot of money.

Most of these guys are just stumbling their way through the world of Wall Street, trying to make money and come out the other side with their consciences clean – diametrically opposed positions, the film seems to argue. Such is not the case for Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). He is a shyster who just happens to be right. He tells Baum and his group they can make a killing betting against the traditionally solid housing market, which is what Burry has already told his investors.

The engine that drives the film is the investigation as Baum and his team and Gellar and Shipley set out to determine just how precarious the market is. They put boots on the ground and head to Florida to meet the people hawking and taking these bad loans. They dig into the scary, tragic reality of bankers doing everything they can to undermine the system and prey on the most vulnerable groups of people. As the evidence mounts, it becomes increasingly clear this whole house of cards is set to tumble.

However, it takes a trip to a bankers’ convention in Las Vegas to convince Baum just how beyond repair the situation is. If the film has a soul – it could be argued that it does not – it is Baum, and Carell is magnificent at portraying a man who thinks of himself as fed up, but deep down, he maintains some kind of optimism. This scandal, this fraud, and these crooks are what finally rob him of his hope. By the end of the convention, he is ready to double down on the impending crash. After all, no reasonable person could meet the people at the helm of this ship and foresee any conclusion beyond shipwreck.

Gosling in The Big Short.
McKay and Randolph’s only major misstep is in the character of Vennett, who narrates most of the action. He is smarm incarnate, completely convinced of his own intelligence and shallowly unburdened by guilt or conscience. By giving the film over to this jerk – who it should be said is played to utter perfection by Gosling – the tone of the piece feels off, and the emotional beats the filmmakers work toward do not land the way they otherwise might.

It is commendable that McKay has made an enjoyable film out of a fairly dry topic. You will likely hear of the repeated gimmick of using popular or attractive celebrities to explain complex banking and investment terminology. Margot Robbie in a bubble bath is a particular highlight, as is Selena Gomez at the blackjack table. It is all well and good, and it sure is a lot of fun, but something about the approach just does not sit right with me.

The reality is people lost their homes, their pensions, and their lives. The entire world only now is starting to claw its way back out of the abyss. This was wanton destruction perpetrated by lowlife scum who got away with it because they did not use guns or knives but power and influence. They are the worst kind of criminal. By serving up its information with a side of humor, The Big Short hopefully will help a lot more people understand what really happened to the economy almost a decade ago, but I have trouble laughing along with any of it. The only thing I feel is anger.

See it? Yes.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

New movie review: Youth

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star in writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's Youth.

Two years ago, filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino wrote and directed the Academy Award-winning The Great Beauty. Every element of that film, right down to its plot, owed a debt to Italian master Federico Fellini. In both style and substance, it was a direct riff on the classic La Dolce Vita. As such, it was a remarkably successful film, tapping into the bombast and irreverent energy of that earlier work. Though it may not exactly have been an original idea, Sorrentino at least showed he had a point of view and certainly demonstrated a directorial flair.

Now, Sorrentino is back with Youth, which borrows from the same playbook but lacks the passion or commitment of either The Great Beauty or the films that so influenced him. Youth is stuffed to the gills with ideas and imagery, but the whole ultimately adds up to much less than the sum of its parts. Every time the film gets close to pinning down some deeper truth or meaning, Sorrentino backs away, seemingly less out of fear than preoccupation. He perhaps has too many thoughts to get out and cannot focus on just one at a time.

Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, an internationally famous composer, now long retired, who is on holiday at an exclusive spa in the Alps. He is something of a miser, failing to find joy in much of anything, and his doctors, friends, and family have diagnosed him as apathetic. He seems to feel that diagnosis is accurate and does everything he can to embrace it. He is joined at the resort by daughter/assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), legendary filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), up-and-coming actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), and a whole cavalcade of grotesques.

Generally speaking, it is folly to compare two filmmakers’ work directly, but in every decision he makes, Sorrentino invites the comparison to Fellini. In fact, he seems to relish it. The cast of characters – or caricatures, depending on your point of view – he assembles for Youth seems culled straight from a casting session for one of Fellini’s more whimsical flights of fancy. In addition to the central group, there is an obese former soccer star, an older married couple who never speaks, the recently named Miss Universe, a few pop stars playing themselves, and a teenage prostitute, among others.

These people mostly hang around the edges of the story, and most of them hardly say a word. They provide color to a relatively staid central plot, but that color is meant to give the illusion of depth. In practice, Sorrentino never seems interested in exploring any of their inner lives and instead settles for the mere suggestion they have inner lives before shifting the focus back to our central four.

The plot such as it is revolves around an emissary from Queen Elizabeth II who tries to persuade Fred to conduct again for a special ceremony. He refuses for personal reasons, and the rest of the film ostensibly explores what those personal reasons could be. Mick and a group of young writers are putting the finishing touches on a screenplay for the movie Mick wants to be his legacy, while Jimmy is resting before going off to shoot a Serious Film – the capital letters are mine. Lena is waiting to go on a trip with her husband, who is also Mick’s son, but he leaves her for one of those pop stars I mentioned. She is thus left adrift emotionally and geographically, so she remains at the spa.

Rachel Weisz in Youth.
For a movie featuring fantastic leading performances from Caine and Keitel, Weisz is actually the standout. Given a lot less to play by the script, Weisz takes a fairly cliché character – the adult daughter still hurt over the way her father treated the family – and gives the role a memorable spin, providing the kind of strength and motivation lacking in many of the other characters.

Caine is still a force to be reckoned with onscreen, and Sorrentino does well to play off his lead’s public persona as a debonair man about town who does not really care what others think of him. As Fred, Caine is charming and off-putting in equal measure, and from an audience standpoint, he is just a lot of fun to watch. Keitel is great as well but with a far more problematic character. Sorrentino wants us to be a lot more interested in Mick’s supposed crowning achievement than he gives us any reason to be.

At its core, the film is about artists concerned with their legacies while confronting more immediate matters such as aging and ill health. Sorrentino draws explicit parallels between the younger Jimmy, who is best known for playing a robot in a dumb science-fiction movie and wishes people knew his more serious films, and the older Fred, whose best known compositions are his “Simple Songs,” though he has written more complex and impressive works.

In theory, such contradictions and concerns could be fertile ground for exploration, introspection, and character development, but again, Sorrentino does not seem interested in exploring. It is more like a survey of all the ways these characters might feel about their lives and legacies. The film never seems to have a specific view on any of the ideas it presents but rather meanders from story to story, haphazardly tripping over stray profound thoughts along the way.

It must be acknowledged, however, that in all this wandering, Sorrentino manages to find some beautiful imagery and stunning compositions. It is almost remarkable for a movie that wants so badly to be about the importance of substance over style just how flashy the filmmaking is and how empty its ideas are. The alpine vistas are obviously gorgeous, but even the interiors are given energy and interest by Sorrentino’s camera placements and shot choices. If only the story had generated as much intrigue, Youth really could have been something.

See it? No.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Long, winding road: 2015 Oscar chase underway

Writer-director Tom McCarthy's journalism thriller Spotlight is an early frontrunner for Best Picture at the Oscars.

With the announcement yesterday of the Screen Actors Guild nominations and this morning of the Golden Globe nominations, we are deep into what many awards watchers call Phase 1 of the Academy Awards race. This is the time when critics groups around the country and other awards-giving bodies narrow the field of Oscar contenders to a select few films that can weather the storm of awards campaigning. Phase 2 kicks into gear later this month and early January when the industry guilds announce their nominees. For now, let’s see where the race stands.

Golden Globes

Best motion picture, drama: Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, Room, Spotlight

Best motion picture, comedy: The Big Short, Joy, The Martian, Spy, Trainwreck,

Screen Actors Guild

Best ensemble: Beasts of No Nation, The Big Short, Spotlight, Straight Outta Compton, Trumbo

Gotham Awards

Best feature: Carol, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heaven Knows What, Spotlight*, Tangerine

*Spotlight won the award

Independent Spirit Awards

Best feature: Anomalisa, Beasts of No Nation, Carol, Spotlight, Tangerine

Critics groups

New York Film Critics Circle: Carol
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Spotlight
National Board of Review: Mad Max: Fury Road
Boston Society of Film Critics: Spotlight
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association: Spotlight
New York Online Film Critics: Spotlight

The one film you see showing up pretty much everywhere is writer-director Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which I called at the time of its release an American masterpiece, so I don’t have much to be upset with so far this season. Even where it did not win the top award with critics, its presence was felt as Michael Keaton nabbed best actor from the New York Film Critics and the film was listed as one of the top 10 films of the year by the National Board of Review.

Ever since it garnered near-universal praise on the festival circuit, Spotlight has been considered a heavy favorite for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and nothing in this early part of the season has derailed those hopes. Among the other films drawing both praise and awards recognition nearly across the board are Todd Haynes’ Carol, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, and Adam McKay’s The Big Short. We are a little more than a month away from the Oscar nominations even being announced, and a lot can change, but for now, Spotlight is shining brightest.

In the acting races, this may be one of the most wide-open years in recent memory with no clear frontrunner in any of the four categories. A slight consensus is starting to build around a group of nominees, but even that is subject to fluctuations throughout the season and which groups have seen which movies. So, let’s break it down by category.

Best Actor

Paul Dano in Love and Mercy.
This will be a theme here: There are a few performers the conversation has revolved around, but no one has yet jumped to the front of the pack. That may happen in Phase 2, or it may not. That is what makes this year so exciting. For Best Actor, the leading hopefuls appear to be Leonardo Dicaprio for The Revenant, Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs, Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl, and Johnny Depp for Black Mass, with Will Smith (Concussion), Matt Damon (The Martian), and Paul Dano (Love and Mercy) also hanging around the edges.

As far as critics groups, Dano, Dicaprio, Damon, and Fassbender have taken the major awards, while only Dicaprio and Fassbender showed up on the Screen Actors Guild list. The Golden Globes only muddied the waters by naming Dicaprio and Fassbender in the drama category, Damon in comedy, and Dano in supporting. Cranston and Redmayne got in with both the Screen Actors Guild and the Globes, while Depp was named by the Screen Actors Guild and Smith by the Globes.

It seems possible that even with five slots in Best Actor, six of these actors could find themselves with Oscar nominations if Dano gets in for Supporting Actor with the Academy. It is a fair question to ask whom Dano is supporting as Brian Wilson in the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy, but we will talk about so-called “category fraud” more in the actress races. Right now, here are my nominations predictions: Dicaprio for The Revenant, Cranston for Trumbo, Fassbender for Steve Jobs, Redmayne for The Danish Girl, and Damon for The Martian.

Best Supporting Actor

Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies.
Apart from Dano, the biggest players in this field appear to be Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies, Sylvester Stallone for Creed, and Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation. The guys in Spotlight, particularly Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, were expected to be major players, and while the critics have borne this out, they were shut out with both the Screen Actors Guild and Globes, though Ruffalo was nominated for best actor in a comedy for Infinitely Polar Bear. Also in the mix are Christian Bale and Steve Carell for The Big Short, Michael Shannon for 99 Homes, and Jacob Tremblay for Room.

Rylance has taken the lion’s share of critical kudos, while Shannon, Elba, and Stallone have also picked up recognition. Throw in Dano, and you could have your five, but Bale looks to be building steam as well. For the win, it is anyone’s guess, although I know a lot of people would love to see Stallone pick up an Oscar for the role he created almost 40 years ago. For now, here are my nominations predictions: Ryalnce for Bridge of Spies, Stallone for Creed, Elba for Beasts of No Nation, Ruffalo for Spotlight, and Bale for The Big Short.

Best Actress

Rooney Mara in Carol.
Here is where we start to see some shenanigans. Every year, people complain the Best Actress race gets limited to a select few performances and a ton of great actresses get left on the sidelines in more obscure work. Well, this year, there are more superb performances by talented actresses in contention than there have been in a long time, and this has led to some awards campaigners trying to sneak actors and actresses into categories where they do not belong.

Of course, this goes on every year, but this year seems particularly egregious with Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl and Rooney Mara in Carol being campaigned for supporting awards. The strategy is as shameful as it is outright delusional since both actresses are clearly co-leads in their films. The Academy is under no obligation to listen to the campaigns and has ignored such attempts at manipulation in the past, notably when Kate Winslet campaigned for Supporting Actress for The Reader but was correctly nominated and won for Best Actress.

As of now, it is hard to say where the Academy will fall on this issue. The Screen Actors Guild took the bait and nominated both Vikander and Mara in supporting, while the Globes did not and nominated them both in lead. The Best Actress frontrunners as it stands are Brie Larson for Room and Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn, in addition to Mara’s Carol co-star Cate Blanchett. If Vikander and Mara are properly placed, that is probably your five. If not, look to Jennifer Lawrence in Joy and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years for your alternatives.

Larson, Ronan, and Rampling have been the critical darlings thus far, and I expect Ronan and Larson to battle it out for the win. My predicted nominees in the category are: Ronan for Brooklyn, Larson for Room, Blanchett for Carol, Mara for Carol, and Lawrence for Joy.

Best Supporting Actress

Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs.
The biggest problem with trying to slide around in categories is that it pushes other great, truly supporting performances out for leads. Case in point, Elizabeth Banks delivers one of my favorite, mostly unheralded performances of the year in Love and Mercy, and with five slots to play with, she would be a good bet for a nomination. However, if Vikander and Mara go supporting, they are almost certain nominees, leaving only three spaces for true supporting performances. If Banks misses out as a result, it would be a shame.

Should Vikander and Mara end up here, they are your frontrunners and will compete for the win. They will most likely be joined by Winslet for Steve Jobs, Jennifer Jason Leigh for The Hateful Eight, and Helen Mirren for the surprisingly popular Trumbo. Kristen Stewart is on the fringe for The Clouds of Sils Maria, and Vikander has also earned recognition for her performance in Ex Machina, which I would also call a lead but is at least a little more of a judgment call than her role in The Danish Girl.

The critics so far have spoken up for Stewart, Mara, Leigh, and Vikander for both performances, while the Screen Actors Guild added Rachel McAdams for Spotlight, and the Globes highlighted Jane Fonda for Youth. Anything could happen, and a lot of it is going to depend on category placement. My current predictions are: Vikander for The Danish Girl, Winslet for Steve Jobs, Mirren for Trumbo, Leigh for The Hateful Eight, and Stewart for The Clouds of Sils Maria.

Final thoughts

It is a lot of fun when we don’t know anything. We never really know anything about how these awards are going to go, but this year feels especially like anything can happen. By this time, we usually have one or two performances steamrolling through the season on the way to the Oscar stage, but so far, we just have a lot of great work being recognized by many different groups. To me, that’s cool, and it represents the most important reason these awards exist – to highlight stellar artistic achievements.

On a personal level, I have a few rooting interests. Dicaprio and Fassbender are my two favorite actors, and I would love for either one of them to accept an Academy Award. Shannon is another of my favorites, and I think 99 Homes deserves more recognition than it has gotten, so to see his name crop up in so many places has been a delight. The same goes for Vikander and Ex Machina. In the top category, Spotlight is hands down the best American film of the year, and if it does lead the way all season, I would be perfectly fine with that.

There is a lot of time left, and right now, we cannot count out any possibility. Everything could change, or maybe nothing will, but regardless, it will be a fun ride. So, let’s strap in.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

New movie review: Macbeth

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard star in director Justin Kurzel's Macbeth.

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth may be one of the five or 10 best literary works ever written. Contained within its tale of greed, corruption, madness, guilt, vengeance, and sorrow is just about every element of modern drama. The Scottish Play is simply staggering in its depth of insight into human character and the machinations of evil, while at the same time being one of Shakespeare’s most accessible pieces. The language is high-minded but quotable, and the story moves like a locomotive, shifting seamlessly from big action to subtle emotion.

Mind you, this is all on the page in Shakespeare’s words, which have little changed in the 400 years since they were first performed. For filmmakers looking to adapt the Bard’s work, the process can be something of a litmus test. Great directors will find something new in these old masterpieces and infuse the work with energy, style, and originality such as Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, itself a Macbeth adaptation. On the other hand, bad directors fail this test, either by slavish adherence to the text or by misunderstanding its inherent greatness.

Happily, director Justin Kurzel’s new imagining of Macbeth falls to the positive side of that spectrum. A moody, atmospheric showcase for a uniformly stellar cast, Kurzel presents a world that has turned into hell and is populated by a thousand little demons fighting to be the devil. By going darker and quieter than the text suggests, Kurzel and screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso downplay the action and political maneuvering in order to highlight the despair and sorrow that result.

The opening battle, though exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, is not depicted as a gloriously waged war but rather as an anonymous slaughter. Hidden in fog and caked in mud and blood, the living and the dead alike seem to sink into the earth. It is in this place, hovering between life and death, that Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) first spies the Weird Sisters who will set him on a doomed path of mayhem and destruction.

He is told he will be thane of Cawdor, a prediction that quickly proves true. He is told he will be king of Scotland, which at the urging of wife Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) he makes true through murder. However, he is also told it will be his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) whose sons will be kings, and from this looming prophecy, Macbeth’s paranoia and madness grow until he unleashes a furious plague of death and terror on all those who stand in his way.

Cotillard in Macbeth.
Throughout the film, Kurzel displays a fantastic feel for the momentum of the story, expertly picking his spots to go big and flashy but smartly pulling back and letting the characters speak for themselves when the moment calls for it. Macbeth, the play and film, is filled with visions of ghosts and unimaginable horrors, but Kurzel’s restraint means that when he finally unleashes his ghastly imagery, the full visceral and emotional impact is felt.

However, the film is more than just its gorgeous tableaux as Kurzel and his screenwriters demonstrate a complete understanding of the tragedy of Shakespeare’s story. In an opening scene that is the invention of the filmmakers, the Macbeths lay to rest their dead child, creating a perfectly judged subtext for both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that informs their actions for the rest of the plot. They are consumed by a quest for control. Determined not to let fate, which took their only child, dictate their destinies, their final tragedy is the realization that it was fate all along that led them to this place.

I said back in August when I named Macbeth among my most anticipated movies of the fall that one of its chief draws would be to watch two of the greatest characters ever written portrayed by two of the best actors of their generation. Fassbender and Cotillard do not disappoint and in fact exceed all reasonable expectations. They are shockingly good in roles that require madness and cunning, fury and tenderness, confidence and fear.

Fassbender is easily the best Macbeth since Toshirô Mifune in Throne of Blood, which Fassbender has said in interviews is his favorite Macbeth adaptation. One of the best things about this performance is the consistency Fassbender finds at the core of the character. Macbeth is a madman from the beginning, but a madman wielding a sword on the battlefield is a different beast from one wielding a crown in a kingdom. By tapping into the underlying threat of insanity throughout, Fassbender shows how it is not power that drives Macbeth mad but instead guilt that tears away at his soul.

Cotillard deftly handles the arguably trickier task of playing the woman who sets in motion this terrible chain of events but whose soul cannot bear the carnage she has wrought. Even apart from the fact English is not her first language, Cotillard demonstrates a facility for Shakespeare’s words that rivals that of the great Shakespearean actors.

It is a brilliant, show-stopping moment when Cotillard delivers the famous “Out damn spot” speech, which Kurzel chooses to shoot almost entirely in a single, extreme close-up. Before our very eyes, Cotillard transforms Lady Macbeth from just another demon possessed by avarice into a weary shell of a woman who can no longer bear the thought of how hollow she is. Cotillard is a gifted performer who takes an already great sequence and turns it into a scene for the ages.

All of this builds to an epic conclusion in which Macbeth’s actions have transformed his world into a literal inferno – a bit of poetic license the filmmakers take to bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill. Everything he built and everything he cherished, he has burned it all to the ground. He mounts one final charge against the forces of fate, but surrounded by the ash and rubble of a shattered world, he must confront the truth. His destiny was decided long ago.

See it? Yes.

Monday, December 7, 2015

New movie review: The Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander star in director Tom Hooper's rich historical drama The Danish Girl.

I sincerely hope that 50 years from now, people look back on how we live today and wonder how we did it. If two or three generations from now kids cannot fathom the way the world worked in 2015, society will have achieved some kind of success. Nothing against today, of course, but we all hopefully want the same thing – for our children’s lives to be better than ours. So far, in the course of human history, we have done pretty well.

In the U.S., for instance, every generation can say it did better than people 50 years previously. We have problems. We always have, and we always will. Perfection is impossible, but progress should never be. Advances in technology, communication, medicine, and human rights have made this the best time to be alive in our collective history, but if future generations do not blow us out of the water with their amelioration, something will have gone horribly wrong.

I thought about all of this a lot while watching director Tom Hooper’s stylish historical drama The Danish Girl. Just as sure as Lili Elbe was born in the wrong body, she was born in the wrong time. It has never been easy to be a transgender person. Still today, despite increased visibility and tolerance thanks to celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, the battle for basic rights and respect rages on. Now, imagine the first couple decades of the 20th century, when even a basic malady might get you subjected to shock treatments, radiation therapy, or whatever other quackery was en vogue.

Lili’s short, sad journey through life was marked by all of these and more, but it was marked also by compassion, strength, and love, which Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon go to great lengths to tease out in The Danish Girl. Through its lush cinematography and elegant production design, the film argues – rightly, in my opinion – that the experience of discovering your truest self is as much sensory as it is emotional. The camera lingers on fabrics and textures that illuminate Lili’s inner world, even as she is trapped in the body and life of popular Danish painter Einar Wegener.

Coxon’s script is based on the David Ebershoff novel of the same name, which is a highly fictionalized account of Lili’s life story. Where the historical Lili’s life was more complex and decidedly tragic, Coxon, and Ebershoff before her, draw out the romance at the heart of Lili’s life in her marriage to fellow painter Gerda Wegener. By focusing so acutely on the love story, the filmmakers give the plot an easy-to-follow through line and give modern audiences something more tangible to grasp.

Eddie Redmayne, fresh off an Academy Award win for last year’s The Theory of Everything, plays Lili, and he brings the same commitment and passion to this performance as he brought to that previous biopic. It is a cliché to say that an actor “disappears” into a part, but for Redmayne’s dual role as Einar and Lili, the description is apt. He is tasked with portraying two characters – one long hidden; the other fading away – in a constant struggle for supremacy.

It perhaps goes without saying – yet here I find myself saying it – Redmayne’s work as Lili is the kind of transformative, heady work that, yes, wins Oscars but also takes audiences deep inside the life and mind of the character. However, I found myself even more impressed by his performance as Einar, who is wholly a construct, a façade that can no longer hold back the truth. It is painful to watch as Einar fights to keep up the charade he has propagated while Lili refuses to be denied her right to existence any longer. It is a role with a high degree of difficulty, carried off wonderfully by Redmayne.

Vikander in The Danish Girl.
This makes it all the more remarkable that Alicia Vikander not only holds her own but often outshines Redmayne as Gerda, whose life is thrown into chaos by Lili’s sudden awakening. Vikander was amazing as the possibly sentient robot Ava earlier this year in Ex Machina, and here she brings out a different side of herself, though no less strong or impressive.

The script treats the story of Gerda, who is a talented artist in her own right, as equally important to that of Lili. This allows Vikander to dig deeply into the role of a woman who fears she is losing her husband but also must come to grips with the fact she may never have had one in the first place. She is supportive and understanding, but she refuses to put her life on the back burner, and Vikander infuses her character with a depth of sensitivity and soul few actresses could match.

Though it is not factually accurate, the story Coxon chooses to tell of Lili and Gerda feels emotionally honest. It is a love story, though ultimately a platonic one. Once Einar is irretrievably lost, leaving only Lili in his place, Gerda must decide what it was she loved about Einar and whether she can give that same love to Lili. It is a tale of acceptance and tolerance that would not be out of place today, nearly 85 years since the real Lili died. So, maybe I am wrong, and we have not come as far as I would like to think, but in 50 years, who knows?

See it? Yes.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Auteur for hire: When visionary directors take on franchises

Ryan Coogler (left) directs star Michael B. Jordan on the set of Creed.

Earlier this week, in my review of Creed, I called Ryan Coogler one of the most talented young directors working today. I was not the first or only writer to say this, and Hollywood certainly seems to have taken notice as news broke Friday that Coogler is in talks to direct Marvel’s Black Panther movie. It would be a major step up for the director of the independent hit Fruitvale Station and the rather modestly budgeted Creed, but should Coogler sign on, he has definitely earned the shot.

It is almost a cliché in the film industry right now for studios and production companies to seek out acclaimed indie directors and hand over the keys to some of their more lucrative and important franchises. Sometimes, this strategy works well as with Colin Trevorrow jumping from Safety Not Guaranteed to this summer’s biggest hit Jurassic World. Other times, it does not as with Josh Trank moving from Chronicle to this summer’s biggest flop Fantastic Four.

In both those cases, the directors had just one previous feature film under their belt and had yet to prove themselves capable of handling something more than a small-scale production. That would not be the case with Coogler, who has shown with Creed he can more than handle himself with a big budget on a big stage. Let’s leave aside for now the question of why a black director of at least equal talent to white directors Trank and Trevorrow needed an extra film to show studios his capabilities – though this is certainly a topic for another day.

The now-defunct Grantland had a great analysis of this phenomenon over the summer and addressed the way directors used to climb the ranks rather than simply being catapulted to the top. Among the primary arguments is that directors used to make midsize movies like Creed before jumping to blockbusters. Apart from being something of a proving ground, these mid-level movies also allow a director to develop a recognizable style.

To wit, Coogler’s stamp is all over Creed. It is his film through and through, and it is better for it. Jurassic World shares no DNA with Safety Not Guaranteed other than its director’s title card. For me, this is the most dangerous and troubling aspect of the rush to anoint the next Steven Spielberg or the next Stanley Kubrick or what have you – we already have a Spielberg and a Kubrick. I want a Coogler, someone with a unique vision and the talent to bring it to life.

Rian Johnson (right) directs Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper.
I got to thinking about this topic a little last year when it was announced Brick and Looper director Rian Johnson would helm the eighth film in the Star Wars franchise. I will admit to being a little bummed out, and part of me still is. Johnson is a fiercely original storyteller, and I would prefer he spent his time telling all the wonderful stories he clearly has in his head rather than trying to play in someone else’s sandbox.

At the same time, like Coogler, he has shown himself to be a gifted auteur who is likely to bring his own personal style to whatever he works on, something Last Cinema Standing contributor Sean Patrick Leydon touched on earlier this year when writing about Johnson’s terrific, under-seen The Brothers Bloom. Johnson’s Star Wars and Coogler’s Black Panther, should he choose to make it, will be excellent films because they are excellent directors. That will not change with the franchise.

It may be a little proprietary of me to wince just a little when an independent director I admire signs on for a blockbuster studio picture, like a music fan whose favorite punk band just signed to a major label. This was already at the forefront of my mind yesterday after I caught a screening of Sam Mendes’ Spectre, the Oscar-winning director’s second entry in the James Bond series. It is a hell of a lot of fun, of course, but it sure does not feel like a Mendes movie.

Remember when Mendes, a theater director by trade, made his feature debut with the instant classic American Beauty? He then made the deconstructionist gangster picture Road to Perdition, the Gulf War thriller Jarhead, and a pair of fiercely different marital dramas, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go. Mendes is an immensely talented filmmaker, and his 007 movies are worth seeing – Skyfall should be in the conversation for best Bond film – but wouldn’t it be cool if he made another movie like his first few? Maybe that’s just the fan in me talking, but then again, that’s who goes to the movies.

New movie review: Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan stars as Irish immigrant Eilis in director John Crowley's romantic drama Brooklyn.

It sometimes seems we lack appreciation for simplicity, particularly in our entertainment. Call it the Lost effect or whatever you want, but audiences and critics especially now demand immense complexity from television shows and films. This has led showrunners and filmmakers to mistake illogical mythologies and labyrinthine plotting for depth of character and richness of storytelling. As it is, entertainment that engages the mind but not the heart is doing only half its job.

Director John Crowley’s Brooklyn does not make this mistake. Crowley, working from a script by Nick Hornby based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, takes a simple story and tells it well. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman living in a stiflingly small Irish town in the 1950s who embarks on a journey to America, leaving behind her mother and older sister. In the U.S., she gets a job, makes friends, and falls in love with an Italian-American boy, Tony (Emory Cohen). Tragedy brings her back to Ireland, where she is forced to choose between her old life and the new one she has made for herself overseas.

Simple enough, but Crowley and Hornby infuse the characters and situations with humor, heart, and emotional honesty. There is never a false moment, and while the plot may be relatively small shakes in the grand scheme of things, Eilis’ conflict seems great because we care deeply about what happens to the character and want what is best for her.

Emory Cohen and Ronan in Brooklyn.
Ronan, who is still all of 21 years old, has not had a lengthy film career, but it sure has been an interesting one. Oscar nominated for just her third feature, Atonement, she has consistently chosen compelling parts in daring films by talented directors, including Joe Wright’s Hanna, Peter Weir’s The Way Back, and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, not to mention her turn in last year’s Best Picture-nominated The Grand Budapest Hotel.

In Brooklyn, Ronan takes another left turn to explore the life of a girl who lived not so long ago – an age at a time that could make the character many of our mothers or grandmothers now. It is her most sensitive, subtle performance yet as she inhabits the sweet, soulful psyche of an immigrant who feels displaced both at home and abroad. Ronan easily taps into Eilis’ gentle naïveté but adds an undercurrent of strength and resiliency that is less on the page than in the performance.

Credit is due to the filmmakers, however, for bringing to the screen a movie filled with strong, well developed female characters when a lot of movies in theaters these days struggle to come up with just one. The boarding house Eilis lives in is populated by a witty, funny group of women who joke and snipe but ultimately support each other, and Eilis’ mother and sister are an intriguing study in people burdened by old-world values as the new world springs up around them.

The male characters are somewhat less developed but no less interesting. Cohen, playing the American love interest, and Domhnall Gleeson, Eilis’ suitor back in Ireland, deliver grounded, sympathetic performances as two men in love with the same woman. There are shades of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront in Cohen’s tremendous portrayal of a lunk-headed guy who falls in love with a shy girl from the neighborhood – there are also shades of Eva Marie Saint in Ronan’s performance. 

Domhnall Gleeson and Ronan in Brooklyn.
As for Gleeson, here are his credits for the last two years: Frank; Calvary; Unbroken; Ex Machina; Brooklyn; The Revenant; and a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It is a hot streak few other actors can lay claim to, and he has earned every one of those roles with consistently brilliant performances in wildly different parts. He has little screen time in Brooklyn, but the character is crucial to the film’s arc, and Gleeson leaves enough of an impression that we understand fully Eilis’ dilemma.

The key to the story is that neither man is a villain. They are well meaning people who see in Eilis the same things the audience sees. One simply represents her old life and the other her new one. In choosing between these two men, Eilis is really choosing between the past and the future. The culture she was raised with values the past deeply, and she values her culture, so it becomes a question of how willing she is to leave behind the life and people that made her who she is.

Apart from a few gorgeous shot set-ups, particularly when Eilis is checking in at Ellis Island, Crowley’s direction is unfussy and effective. He matches Hornby and Tóibín’s simple but sophisticated story with a straightforward style that leaves the plot room to breathe and gives the actors space to shine. Brooklyn is not the fanciest or flashiest movie you will see this year, but it is something better: admirable.

See it? Yes.