Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscars 2015: Reaction to the Nominations

The Oscar nominations were announced this morning and, like every year, there were some snubs and surprises. But, I must say, this year felt especially surprising. Considering what a great year it was for film, a lot of the nominees struck me as being generally unimpressive, while far more deserving work was passed over. Not only were the notable omissions surprising, they felt very unjust. When one makes predictions about awards ceremonies, it's important to keep personal opinions out of it or you will always be disappointed. But, nonetheless, a lot of these nominations just feel wrong. So, today, I really feel like a bit of an Oscar grouch.

Pictured: me right now
As the Oscars draw closer (they air on February 22nd) I will offer a more in-depth analysis and make predictions in all of the categories, but for now, here are my first thoughts on today’s nominations. You can find the whole list of nominees here.

Every year the Oscars has a couple of wildcard films that might break their way into the field. This year, it was American Sniper, which had a slow start in terms of building awards buzz due to a very late release, but started doing well at the later guild awards. It proved to be the major surprise this year. I had not predicted it to be a best picture nominee but after it started picking up a bunch of technical awards, it became clear it was going to be on the list. And it beat out deserving contenders like Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, and Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler had only an outside chance of making it so I’m not too surprised by this, but Gone Girl was seen as a definite contender and got snubbed not just here, but in multiple categories. The worst snub for me, though, was the absence of Foxcatcher because is actually did perform well with the nominations. It picked up two acting nominations, a directing nomination, and a screenplay nomination (and, with the exception of Mark Ruffalo’s nomination, none of those were guaranteed). So, when all of these elements are so strong, how is the film not recognized as a best picture of the year? On the plus side, Selma got a nomination, which I was starting to think would not happen seeing as how it got snubbed in every other category other than Best Song. I’m also glad to see Whiplash, once seen as a long shot in this category, get recognized. That’s the type of film that makes a case for having the extended field of Best Picture nominees—a really great movie that otherwise might not have gotten recognition. Also, we can pretty much just agree now that Boyhood is going to win Best Picture, right? It's pretty much guaranteed at this point, and it is certainly worthy of the trophy.

I’m glad to see Wes Anderson get his first ever director nomination for The Grand Budapest Hotel. And Richard Linklater and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu are, deservedly, the frontrunners to take home this award. But the other two nominations were surprising. I for one am really glad that Bennett Miller got recognized for Foxcatcher—he does such amazing work, especially with his ensemble. But the other award leaves me scratching my head. Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game? Really? What about that directing was extraordinary? Like everything about that movie, it was decidedly good to average, and his inclusion here over the more deserving contenders like Ava DuVernay and David Fincher is frustrating.

My shock at the warm reception for American Sniper continues here. With such a competitive category, Bradley Cooper is a definite upset, beating out much more deserving candidates such as David Oyelowo, Ralph Fiennes, Timothy Spall, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Especially Jake Gyllenhaal. After being nominated for pretty much every other award out there, how does Gyllenhaal, who gave by far one of the best performances of the year, not get the Oscar nomination he so richly deserved?

The big surprise here is the always deserving Marion Cotillard, who delivers what is supposed to be an incredible performance in Two Days, One Night, but who has been mostly out of the running at most major Oscar ceremonies. Who did she beat out? Jennifer Aniston for Cake. Was Aniston ever a real contender to win? No. Everyone’s going to lose to Julianne Moore. But Aniston really did deserve it with a career-defining performance. I’d hoped to see her work recognized, and after all of her accolades up until now, it’s surprising that it is not.

No huge surprises here, but…Robert Duvall for The Judge? Really? I mean, he has gotten a bunch of nominations for this, including a SAG and Golden Globe nomination, but…really? The Judge is so generic and his performance so solid but ordinary that a nomination for Duvall honestly seemed unlikely to me. I thought he’d be bested by Josh Brolin for Inherent Vice, but no. Duvall is probably the most surprising not surprising nomination this year.

Patricia Arquette, Keira Knightley, Emma Stone, and Meryl Streep were all locks. But with a fifth nomination up in the air, everyone wondered who would sneak in! Would it be Jessica Chastain for A Most Violent Year? How about Naomi Watts for St. Vincent? It even looked like longshot Tilda Swinton, who gave what I thought was the best performance of the year in Snowpiercer would actually make it into the running. But, no. The fifth nomination went to Laura Dern for Wild. Dern is undeniably a talented actress, but her role in Wild is…I don’t know. Her nomination feels mostly settled on rather than earned. Like when Mitt Romney got the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

These are good nominees. I like these nominees. Good job, Oscars. You did a good. I am still mad at you, but, for this category at least, you did a very good. Nightcrawler gets its only nomination here and, while it deserved more, at least its something.

The huge upset here is Gone Girl, which I thought had a shot at outright winning this category. The screenplay was masterful and, in what was widely considered a fairly weak field to choose from, its snub here is especially shameful. Especially over a group of fairly unimpressive nominees, seemingly chosen for the film’s overall prestige as opposed to actual writing talent. I wasn’t nuts about Inherent Vice or its screenplay, but can certainly understand why it was nominated based on ambition alone. I’m hoping Whiplash pulls off a win—after a strange decision by the academy to classify it as an adapted screenplay instead of an original one, it stands out as by far the most deserving of these candidates.

Oh wow. Oh wow wow wow. This is probably the biggest upset of the day with The Lego Movie failing to get a nomination. I’m pretty sure everyone is scratching their heads over this one. But it does blow the field wide open. Instead of The Lego Movie, the academy honored three films from smaller, independent studios—The Boxtrolls, Song of the Sea and Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya. The award will probably go to one of the higher-profile competitors. How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6 are worthy frontrunners.

Often one of the most difficult categories to predict, it’s hard to be too surprised by anything…but it is nonetheless surprising that the film about Roger Ebert, Life Itself, which was very well-received and beloved by the film community, failed to make it. Look for Edward Snowden doc CitizenFour to take home the title.

Not much to say about these—the biggest snub in this category is the Belgian film Two Days, One Night for which Marion Cotillard got an acting nomination, BUT that film was snubbed a while ago when it failed to even make the shortlist for the nominations. The winner will be either Poland’s Ida or Russia’s Leviathan.

Not much to say here. Some great choices, really. I’m glad Mr. Turner got nominated. That was some gorgeous cinematography, to be sure.

This is a neat category for me as it features some really creative costumes, in a category that typically goes to those who simply make the best period piece costumes. Even the two period pieces had some really interesting things going on—Inherent Vice’s biggest success was that it really captured an era and the costumes were a big part of that. And while Mr. Turner had the standard “gorgeous period piece costumes” there was a lot more quirkiness going on than in most. It’ll be interesting to see which route the academy goes down in terms of actual voting—will the showboaty pieces of Into the Woods and Maleficent  win out over the more realistic—but still pretty wacky—costumes of the other nominees? Time will tell.

The biggest surprise here is that the spooky underscoring from Gone Girl’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—who previously won in this category for The Social Network—fails to score a nomination. Once again, Gone Girl gets snubbed. But the snub that hurts me most is Antonio Sanchez not getting recognized for his percussive score for Birdman, which was very distinct, unique, and which served the film beautifully. Compare that to the very nice, but pretty typical scores you find in Mr. Turner and The Theory of Everything and it’s clear to me which score is more truly original.

While the songs “Grateful” and “I’m Not Going to Miss You” were not expected, the other three nominees were the big ones that everyone was ready to see announced. So, there are no huge surprises in this category. I love Begin Again, and the tune “Lost Stars” is lovely, but look for Selma’s powerful closing anthem “Glory” to be the frontrunner on Oscar night.

I’m at a loss as to how Birdman was not nominated here, considering that the editing work convincingly made the film seem like a single take. How does that not get recognition? In a just world, this award will go to Whiplash for its final scene alone—an epic, nine minute drum solo that was cut together from, I believe, 23 hours of footage.

I don’t really know much about sound editing. So I default to wanting Birdman to win because I want Birdman to win most awards. I’m sure that the producers of Unbroken—once seen as a legitimate Oscar contender and potential Best Picture nominee, are glad that their film walks away with a sound editing nomination.

THIS CATEGORY ENRAGES ME. HOW. THE. FUCK. DID. INTERSTELLAR. GET. A NOMINATION. FOR SOUND MIXING. A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT SOUND MIXING IS. WELL, YOU KNOW HOW IN MOST FILMS, YOU CAN HEAR THE ACTORS TALK OVER THE BACKGROUND NOISE? THAT’S DUE TO SOUND MIXING. THAT IS, IN FACT, SOUND MIXING 101. AND INTERSTELLAR FAILED MISERABLY. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. The film has been widely criticized for its atrocious sound mixing (enough so that Christopher Nolan had to actually make a statement to clarify that the sound mixing job was not a mistake). Its nomination here is appalling—for me, of all the disappointing surprises at this morning’s nomination, this one is by far the worst. While Gyllenhaal, for example, deserved a nomination, I wouldn’t say those that were nominated instead of him are undeserving. Here, with Interstellar’s sound mixing nomination, actively bad work is being rewarded. And that is horrifying to me. Fuck you, Academy. Seriously. I hated the movie. But even if I had liked it, the sound mixing would have been terrible. That is, simply, a fact.

I’m really angry about this.

The shortest list of nominees on this list, there weren’t any super big makeup jobs this year apparently. Steve Carell’s prosthetic nose and Tilda Swinton’s old age makeup will probably ultimately lose out to The Guardians of the Galaxy. You know Drax the Destroyer? No CGI. That look was all makeup. You know Groot? Not animation, that was all makeup. Okay, that one was a lie.

The award for which film makes the biggest explosions is thankfully free of Michael Bay this year and showcases the above-average offering of big blockbuster films. Which is why I’m sad that Interstellar will probably beat out the other, good films which are nominated here. I know the effects were good, but…I just really hated the movie. And you know what else I hated? THE SOUND MIXING IN THAT MOVIE?! HOW THE FUCK WAS THAT NOMINATED?! I’M STILL NOT OVER IT!

The sophisticated sounding award for “which film looks the best” offers us an interesting array of nominees this year. The pretty period piece look for The Imitation Game versus the much darker and surreal period piece look for Mr. Turner. The whimsical signaturely Wes Anderson look of The Grand Budapest Hotel versus the grand, dark, fairy tale world of Into the Woods. And then there’s the poorly mixed sound look of Interstellar.

I love the short films. These are highly competitive awards and, every year, offer some pretty outstanding nominees. Now that the nominees have been announced, see if you can find a chance to view these films (for my fellow New York residents, the IFC Center offers screenings of all the Oscar-nominated shorts every year). The only well-known nominee this year is the animated short film Feast, which preceded Big Hero 6. It was good—very sweet, but I will admit I wasn’t blown away by it as many were. I’m excited to see what the other nominees have to offer and I hope that you are too.

And those are all of the categories! One last thing, I was very pleased with how the nominees were announced. Most years, they only announce a few major categories (best picture, best director, the acting categories, etc.) and then release the rest of the nominations online. But for the first time, they actually announced all 24 categories this year. And I think it’s about time. Every category is important, and every category is there to honor outstanding work in the field of film. And I’m glad that sound editing, for example, was given the same revered treatment as best picture.

Share your thoughts on the nominations below! Which nomination pleased you? Which nomination/snub pissed you off the most?

The correct answer is Interstellar's nomination for sound mixing. And before you ask, yes, I am already doing a writeup on why I hate Interstellar so much. Stay tuned, and get pumped.

On a personal note, it's exciting to announce that I started this blog pretty much one year ago-- the first post here was my reaction to LAST year's Oscar nominees. Thanks to those who have read and enjoyed the blog! There are many more cinematic and other cultural endeavors to come!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014--#1: "Birdman's" Powers of Deception Make it the Best Film of the Year

It is time. After a week and a half of constant posts, I finally reach the final entry in my list of best films of the year. First, let's take a look at the complete list (you can read the honorable mentions here):

11: Selma
10: Foxcatcher
9: Whiplash 
8: Nightcrawler 
7: Gone Girl
6: The Babadook  
5: The Grand Budapest Hotel
4: Boyhood
3: Begin Again   
2: Snowpiercer

And now for my best picture of the year. Let's get right to it. It's Birdman.

It soars to the top spot! I promise no more bird puns, but I had to make at least one.
Or, perhaps I should use its full title of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) which seems pretentious (because it is) but actually does make sense in the film. Clunky but fitting title aside, it's a film that is engaging, it's a film that is surprising, it's a film that is exhilarating, it's a film that is satisfying, it's a film that is thought-provoking. It is ambitious without being complicated. It is perfectly balanced-- with each scene giving us new insight, with story and character treated with equal importance. It is more than just a film-- it is an experience. One that thrilled me as I was watching it and continued to stay with me long after I had left the theater.

Birdman is about a former movie star named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who attempts to restore his artistic merit by writing, directing, and starring in a play on Broadway. But, while this story is told expertly, the achievement of Birdman lies in how the story is told rather than what the story is. The best way I can describe the film is to say that it is a cinematic magic trick. The job of magicians is to use illusion to challenge their audience's notions of what is happening in front of them. This is exactly what Birdman does-- it uses various filmmaking techniques to disorient its audience, creating a spectacle that one could not have expected. Birdman  keeps us guessing, forever making us question our own perceptions of what is actually happening on screen. Birdman is not a film that wants its audience to get too complacent. When we think we have the film figured out, something happens to subvert and challenge our views. Just like how a bad magician can (and does) make some people hate magic, this film had the potential to be a complete disaster, but in the hands of director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, it is a rousing success. Like a well-performed piece of magic, the film is a true spectacle, that can leave a willing audience astonished.

Gaze upon the wig of Michael Keaton in all of its spectacle!

Perhaps the most blatant way that Inarritu challenges our experiences of reality is in his use of long shots. Or, should I say long shot, as the film has been shot to look like it was all done in one take. The use of these long shots in films is a tried-and-true technique which has the effect of making a scene feel more realistic. Montages and quick cuts and shorter shots within a scene tend to make us subconsciously aware of the filmmaking, but long shots simply make it seem the onscreen action feel more natural. The famous long shot that opened last year's Gravity served to make us feel like we were actually in space. The use of a long shot in Atonement showing a war scene helped make the horrors of war seem more personal to us. In perhaps the most famous long shot of all time, the opening scene of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, a bomb is placed in the trunk of a car and the camera does not break until the bomb detonates. Here, the extended long shot helps ramp up the tension as we wait for the bomb to go inevitably go off.

Filming Birdman as (almost) one take takes these principles to the extreme. It lesser hands it could feel like a gimmick, and is certainly not everyone's cup of tea, which is probably why this effect has not been attempted too frequently. The most famous, and most successful until now, film to appear to be filmed in one shot was Alfred Hitchock's underrated Rope. Here, having the film in one take makes the viewers feel like their in the same room as two murderers, and adds a sense of unease to a potentially mundane film (at least by Hitchcock's standards). The long take perfectly compliments the natural style of the film. But, in Birdman, the one long take has the opposite effect. Granted, it still is a naturalistic style and makes the action on screen feel more realistic, but this sensation is in complete opposition to what is actually occurring in the film. Birdman offers us a series of bizarre images that sit firmly in the realm of the fantastic, and which are at clear odds with the natural tone the filmmaking puts us in the mood for. It's a disorienting feeling, which makes these impossible images feel more plausible. And when I say "bizarre images," I mean both the blatant and the subtle. Blatantly strange images include the fact that Riggan appears to have superpowers. This is introduced to us early in the film--the first time we see Riggan, he is levitating in the air wearing his tighty-whities. After that, he does everything from move objects to his mind to conjure a giant robotic bird to attack New York City.

Or, you know, fly.

The film leaves all of this ambiguous--at the end we still do not know whether Riggan's powers are in his mind or a part of reality (or some mixture of the two), but this interesting ambiguity would not be possible if not for the wonderful contrast the use of long shots evokes. Then there's a street musician harbinger of sorts who plays the drums--the film has a fairly constant underscoring (more on that later) but, in one moment, Riggan and Mike walk by a street musician who is playing in time to the drum music that we have heard all along. Does this mean that the entire score up until that point has been played by this one background character? Is his presence here, now, coincidental? This drummer shows up later-- again, playing in time to the score, but this time, he is inside the theater itself where he has no business being. It's a strange moment to be sure, one very purposefully put in there for the purpose of throwing the audience off balance. On top of these clearer moments of breaking with reality, the filmmaking also confuses us with some more subtle tricks of the camera. Someone can walk across a hall, and when they get to the end of the hall, the time has changed from day to night. Someone can be talking to someone downstairs, walk up the stairs, and see that same person waiting for them on the upper lever, when they could not have gotten there so quickly. These more subtle details are perfect--your brain registers them but brushes them off, but they add to the unique plane of reality on which Birdman resides. Inarritu manages to actually warp space and time.

Riggan, followed by the titular Birdman.

One of the more interesting breaks from reality in Birdman involves the character of Birdman himself. As mentioned before, Riggan himself is a former movie star, and we learn he was best known for playing a superhero called Birdman. But, it becomes clear early on that the character of Birdman speaks to Riggan in a voice that only he can hear. Initially, we only hear Birdman speak to Riggan in Riggan's dressing room, where he keeps a poster with the character prominently displayed on his wall. And we initially believe that it is the poster speaking to him--that the face of Birdman on the poster is the origin of the gruff voice we are hearing. But, then, in one pretty abrasive scene where the voice taunts Riggan while he trashes his dressing room, he hurls the poster towards the wall where it breaks. There is silence, and then all at once, the voice of Birdman says "I always liked that poster." The audience (and perhaps Riggan too) realizes for the first time that the voice is larger than the poster itself, and that the origins of the voice are a part of Riggan's own delusions. In this moment it becomes clearer that the true course of the film is plotting Riggan's descent into madness, and the character of Birdman, and his prominence in the film (up until he becomes fully realized on screen) is a tremendous gauge to help us track Riggan's constantly loosening grip on reality. The character, while believable in appearance as a form of superhero, becomes a clearly menacing figure here, with the birdlike qualities taking on a predatory, vulturelike being forever urging on Riggan's own self-destruction.

Riggan in his dressing room, the poster of Birdman watching.

We should talk about Riggan. The main gimmick of the film beyond the appearance of being one shot is the casting of Michael Keaton as Thomson. I shouldn't have to spell this out, but it's no coincidence that Michael Keaton of all people was cast to play a movie star whose career took a rapid decline after he stopped playing a famous winged superhero with a gravelly voice. Keaton's easily could have phoned it in here, and allowed the stunt casting to do the heavy lifting of his performance, but he does not, and turns in a subtler performance than I think most people would have thought the actor who played Beetlejuice was capable of. Despite all of the film's ambiguity, the movie feels grounded because of Keaton's work. He is understated, never giving away too much. Ultimately, we find that Riggan resides in a world of madness and sadness. At one crucial point (perhaps one of my favorite scenes in the film), Riggan enters a colorfully-lit liquor store to the sound of a shrieking voice raspily reciting the "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow" soliloquy from Macbeth, delivered by the titular character after his wife has died. What an apt selection--like the famed Scottish king, Riggan is consumed by grief and insanity, allowing both emotional facets to prove destructive to him and those he holds most dear. At the start of the film, Riggan seems primarily bitter and tired. It isn't until a wild-eyed Riggan fantasizes terrorizing the city that we see how disturbed this man is, and how tenuous his grip on reality actually is. Throughout the film, Riggan never behaves the way we expect him to; when Riggan catches his co-star whom he despises and his daughter kissing, we expect him to fly off the handle--which he has done for a lot less-- but instead he seems to shrug it off and goes out for a smoke. But none of these surprising choices ever feel inconsistent. These actions are not what we think Riggan would do, but they makes perfect sense once he does them, and that's because Keaton's performance is so defined and clear. We trust him. We trust that he is this tormented character we see on the screen.

Riggan, in the aforementioned colorfully-lit liquor store. See? I wasn't lying. That is the most colorfully-lit liquor store ever.

After Keaton, the next most prominent role belongs to Edward Norton, who similarly plays a role that is a caricature of himself. He plays Mike Shiner, a critically-beloved actor in the play Riggan is directing and, like Norton, is a method actor who is notoriously difficult to work with. Norton does the best work that I personally have seen from him, with a performance that proves he is very game for self parody. While Riggan is at the forefront, Mike is the film's secret weapon, and serves as a sort of multi-purpose tool--in that he serves multiple functions as the script demands, and that he is an asshole on many levels. If Mike needs to be a brilliant actor who Riggan looks up to and is envious of, that's what he can be. If Mike needs to be a thorn in Riggan's side who is impossible to work with, that's what he can be. If Mike needs to be a completely vapid attention-whore who thinks only of himself, he can be. If Mike needs to be a vulnerable and sensitive philosopher who shows keen insight and an ability to assess himself and others, he can be. If he needs to be the comic relief, he is, and if he needs to be the emotional weight of the scene, he is. Yet, Norton is able to tie all of these facets of Mike Shiner together into a consistent bundle. It feels correct when he is at odds with Riggan, and it feels correct when he is Riggan's advocate.

This shot kind of perfectly sums up Riggan and Mike's relationship.

Both Riggan and Mike have given circumstances that mimic that of their performers. And it is not a coincidence that they're the characters who we know the most about from promotional material. If you watch the trailer (watch this one--it's pretty phenomenal on its own), you can get the sense that Keaton and Norton are playing characters who mimic their realities. So, imagine my surprise at finding that almost every other actor was playing pretty aggressively against type. Naomi Watts--arguably the next biggest star in the film--plays a mostly unknown actress who is struggling to find her confidence and footing. Emma Stone, an actress who pretty consistently stays out of the tabloids and seems to be on her best behavior pretty much always, plays Riggan's daughter Sam, a rebel fresh out of rehab.

Drugs were a bad choice, but Edward Norton was an even worse one. Stay away, Emma Stone! Stay with Andrew Garfield--you two are adorable.
Zach Galifianakis, the over the top scene-stealing comedic actor, ends up playing the least humorous character in the film, serving as a complete straight man to the wacky antics of Riggan. Then there's the role of a New York Times theatre critic whose reviews can make or break any production, and whose approval Riggan is desperately seeking. In terms of reputation, the critic is most clearly linked to Ben Brantley-- the current New York Times chief theatre critic. But, in Birdman the character is named Tabitha and she's played by Lindsay Duncan--rather than simply cast someone to play a thinly-veiled depiction of Brantley, the film goes the other route and finds its own character who they very clearly distinguish from Brantley. Even Inarittu himself is completely against type here. Inarittu is best known for his brilliant "Trilogy of Death," consisting of the films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, which all feature grand interweaving ensemble casts and multiple plotlines. Here, the film is so laser-focused on Riggan and so small-scale and intimate, that it's amazing to think that this is the same director (and more amazing that he handles this film with as dept a hand as he did the grand sweeping non-linear anthology). So, once again, the film subverts our expectations by putting Keaton and Norton front and center, and then letting everyone be so against type.

Michael Keaton, with Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis who give performances that are very much against their usual type.

First watching Birdman, I let myself be swept up in the experience. But afterwards, I really got to consider how good this movie is. Obviously, the editing and cinematography is incredible, but every detail is done so well The art direction is extraordinary--the few moments of special effects are simply glorious and manage to feel at home in the world of the film even though they're so otherworldly--they're artsy enough to feel appropriate but not to much to be distracting. It also features one of the best flying sequences I've ever seen on film. The score, by Antonio Sanchez is brilliant--it is almost entirely percussive and, much like in Whiplash, the use of drumming helps ramp up the tension and aggression of the film. And the writing is impeccable. The dialogue feels great, but the film also manages to tackle some rather difficult issues with an almost journalistic sense of impartiality. It presents ideas for us to think about without taking a firm side. This is perhaps most present in a scene between Riggan and Tabitha, the film critic over the nature of artistic criticism. Riggan makes solid points that have been stated many times before by artists, but continue to hold water here--the critic stifles artistic creativity and their abundance of power is dangerous in that it inhibits audiences from making up their own minds. But, to the film's credit, it also gives Tabitha her own due. She is not the trope of the evil critic (even though she has some particularly harsh words for Riggan). As she argues, she is not destroying art, what is destroying art is people like Riggan who lack true innovation yet use celebrity to elevate their own projects. Both sides are valid, and the film presents them as such--it does not deal in a black and white scope and encourages audiences to think about the arguments rather than necessarily choose a victor.

Just like how, in an epic boxing showdown between Riggan and Mike there is, similarly, no victor.

There are many memorable scenes of humor and poignancy, but the bit of writing that stuck out to me is one particular scene--or, really, three scenes. Since the film is about the production of a Broadway play, we at times see scenes from that play on screen--and one scene in particular (the final scene in the play Riggan has written--an adaptation of the Raymond Carver Story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love") is shown three times. The writers had an impossible task here. For one thing, they had to write in Riggan's voice, and for most of the film we are meant to be on the fence about whether Riggan is any good as an artist or not, so the scene can't be all that good. And yet, the scene has to carry immense emotional weight in each of its iterations. It is the final scene of the fictional Broadway play, yes, but it is also heard, again, THREE times in the movie, each time under very different circumstances, and each time carrying a different meaning. The first time, the scene is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Riggan, at his most apathetic and already growing weary of Mike, walks on stage to find that Mike has a prominent erection (the audience notices too and begins laughing) after he tried to force himself on Lesley (Watts' character, who happens to be dating Mike at the time) on stage to make the scene more "real." The moment is quite dark, but so uncomfortable there is something almost comedic about the dialogue as the erect penis of Edward Norton derails any insight one possibly could have derived from the scene.

The second time we see the scene is also comedic-- with Riggan entering from the audience in his tighty-whiteys after a series of mishaps. Riggan's seams are starting to fray here-- he is desperate and unhinged and the scene once again becomes about his own circumstances, the awkwardness of the surrounding events making the scene within the scene feel clunky and unimpressive yet again.

And then, the third and final time we see the motel scene is glorious. Unlike the other times, it is presented under the most serious of circumstances--as Riggan walks on stage we know that his life is literally on the line. The tension in the scene is remarkable. And the cast takes their time with it. For the first time, we actually absorb the words of the scene and they are incredibly sad and powerful. The lines Riggan speaks were always written by Riggan to begin with, but in this third iteration of the scene only, they seem to be coming from him. He speaks his own lines not as a character, but as Riggan himself, discovering their relevance to his situation only as he is saying them. And in them, reveals Riggan's own personal fear. "I don't exist. I'm not even here. I don't exist. None of this matters." At the end of this scene, the movie reaches a crucial point, a crucial moment. One that risked being over the line and misguided. But, instead, the moment feels incredibly earned. After one of the film's most deafening moments of silence, the Broadway audience bursts into thunderous applause, and I almost wanted to join in.

Riggan and Mike, arguing outside of the Broadway theater.

I'd like to discuss this "crucial moment," but I should mention that it is a spoiler, so if you have not seen the movie, please skip to the next paragraph. It's pretty momentous and I don't want to give it away. Okay, skip to the next paragraph...NOW! Now that it's just us Birdman-viewers and those who foolishly read ahead, you know that I'm speaking, of course, of Riggan bringing a loaded gun on stage and shooting his nose off (by the way, how great was it that his face-cast was so birdlike? You can't escape the mask, Riggan!) This moment had me on the edge of my seat. It has been foreshadowed throughout the entire film. In one of the scenes in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," we hear the characters tell an anecdote about an old man who tried to shoot himself in the mouth and missed (sound familiar, Riggan)? Mike tells Riggan that he should bring a real gun on stage to make the moment more real, which, while not a good thing, it undeniably does. Interestingly, while Mike's talk of realism is portrayed as ridiculous (his tantrum about the gin being replaced with water on stage was childish and obnoxious), Riggan's assessment that the critics love Mike proves correct--in Tabitha's review, she praises the realism of the moment of Riggan shooting himself, which Mike stated when he encouraged Riggan to bring on the gun. Further foreshadowing includes the fact that Riggan's character, of course, kills himself at the end of the play, so it makes sense that Riggan would try to kill himself at the end of the film. Plus, we know Riggan has a history with suicide. He clearly considers jumping off of a building earlier in the film, and relays to his ex-wife (an excellent Amy Ryan who shined in her two scenes) that he tried to drown himself a few years prior, only to turn back when he kept being stung by jellyfish (those jellyfish, by the way, are one of the first shots of the film, but you forget all about them until this story is told, when they instantly pop back into your mind--brilliant). Then, there's Riggan's dream about going down on a plane with George Clooney (not coincidentally another movie Batman). So, the death of our main character is foreshadowed endlessly. And yet, I could not believe it as he walked onto the stage. Every indication was given and yet it still felt like a shocking moment. And then, beyond when he tries to kill himself on stage, we cannot forget his final moments in his hospital room when he again jumps out of the window. Once again, ambiguity serves the film well, and it refuses to answer anything definitively. When Riggan's daughter looks out the window and, looking downwards, looks horrified, only to look upwards in wonder, what is she seeing? Is she seeing her father seemingly plummeting to the ground, only to swoop up suddenly in flight? Or, did she see her father splatter on the ground and, taking after her dad, have a break in reality where she mistakenly imagines that she's witnessing him flying? Is it something else entirely? There are many possible answers, and none of them are right or wrong, but all are fascinating to consider.

Emma Stone, in one of the film's final moments.

There is so much to Birdman. It is such a technical accomplishment, but it is also a philosophical smorgasbord, filled with many grand ideas with many interpretations. It is filled with so many small details that I'm sure I will keep noticing new things every time I watch. Each viewing will only bring more understanding and more appreciation of this film. So, as much as I love it, I know I will love it even more a few months from now. And, until I reach that point, this film will stay with me, like the many faces of Riggan Thomson. For he is vengeance. He is the night. He is...Birdman. And Birdman is the best film of the year.

There's so much to say about this film that I didn't even have a chance to talk about the scene where Riggan runs through Times Square in his underwear. It's a funny scene. He looks silly. But, also, I guess most superheroes run around in their underwear anyway.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014--#2: "Snowpiercer" and its Brilliant World-Building Make it an Instant Sci-Fi Classic

This is the tenth in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #3 pick, #4 pick, #5 pick, #6 pick, #7 pick, #8 pick, #9 pick, #10 pick#11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too.

The aquarium scene from Snowpiercer, my pick for the second best movie of the year, and one of my new favorite sci-fi movies of all time.
While this film is not a huge player in the Oscar conversation (more on that in a bit), one shouldn't be too surprised to see it on a list such as this one. It's a critically-acclaimed film which has appeared on numerous top ten lists as the year came to a close (its wikipedia page lists close to fifty). And yet, despite its acclaim, I'm sure I have at least a couple of readers who are thinking "What's Snowpiercer? And why have I never heard of it?" Well, there's a reason you haven't heard of it and his name is Harvey Weinstein. Yes, Harvey Weinstein,  head honcho of the Weinstein Company and quite possibly the most powerful man in show business, picked up this film's American distribution rights and then immediately tried to bury it. Why? Let's examine the complicated history of getting Snowpiercer into theaters.

Pictured: the board of directors at The Weinstein Company

Snowpiercer is the English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Joon-ho has built up a solid reputation and, while widely unknown in the U.S., is perhaps best known here for his film The Host. No, not the Stephenie Meyer one, but the brilliant comedy monster movie that is really worth checking out. Based loosely on a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige, the film has an all-star cast, including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner, and Jamie Bell. With such a pedigree, the Weinstein Company reportedly picked up the film before it was even completed, based on just a script and a couple of scenes of footage. The film then was released in Asia and Europe to mass critical acclaim. When it came time to release it in America, however, Harvey Weinstein apparently watched the film and told Joon-ho to cut twenty minutes off the runtime and add a voiceover monologue at the end so that people wouldn't get confused. Joon-ho, rightfully, pointed out that the ending was not confusing--nobody had complained about it and both audiences and critics seemed happy. He didn't want his movie watered down, and so he said no to Harvey Weinstein.

This is why the Weinstein Company did not advertise the film at all, and released it in only a couple of theaters initially. It is only due to high audience turnout (thanks to several internet campaigns to raise awareness of the film) and positive critical response that the film eventually got a wider release. And it is, in fact, currently available on Netflix. If you haven't seen it, go watch it now. It is brilliant.

The cast of Snowpiercer

I mention all of this because I think it's important to remember how much goes into getting a movie into theaters--and how quality alone doesn't mean everything. But also because Snowpiercer's path to a release actually seems pretty fitting. It was never going to be a mainstream film-- it has a more cult-film atmosphere and aesthetic. As I watched it, the two films that came to mind were Blade Runner and Brazil. They're very different films--all three films have an aesthetic that is all their own--and deal with different subject matters, but all three films possess a certain offbeat and innovative feeling to them. These are sci-fi films that seek to push the boundaries of our imaginations--they utilize the inherent creativity of the genre to allow them to create something that more vividly paint a portrait of humanity. And, by the way, like Snowpiercer, Blade Runner was a flop with audiences when it was first released (and wasn't a huge hit with critics either). And Brazil not only didn't perform well in theaters, but like Snowpiercer, had difficulty getting into theaters. Executives at Universal Pictures wanted director Terry Gilliam to change the film so that it had a happy ending, and Gilliam refused, so they refused to release the film. Gilliam started taking out newspaper ads urging them to release it, and resorted to doing private screenings of the film for critics and film schools. It didn't make it to theaters for the general public until it won Best Picture at the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards. So, Snowpiercer is in good company.

One of many stylized and unique still shots from Snowpiercer.

The film itself is a postapocalyptic dystopian world where global warming has made earth's climate completely inhospitable. All life on earth is now confined to a train which is forever circling a track around the world--a sort of large-scale Noah's Ark. The train is divided by class, with those at the front of the train living in luxury, while those at the tail end of the train live in squalor, their lives made miserable by a police squad acting supposedly under the orders of Wilford, the conductor and inventor of the train. The film follows a group of citizens living in the tail of the train who launch a rebellion to make it to Wilford and take over. The premise is ridiculous-- Icy Postapocalyptic Doom Train sounds more like a Nicolas Cage film than a philosophical drama--but it succeeds by its strength at world-building. The world of the train is so defined that we believe it could exist. Much ado has been made about how another sci-fi film this year, Interstellar, strove for scientific accuracy, and that certainly is an admirable goal. But while the premise of Snowpiercer may be more unrealistic, it feels more fully defined. The film gives us just enough information and detail (I particularly liked the touch that, since the train take a full year to go around the world, the new year is marked by them going over a particular bridge) to let us buy the premise.

One of the most interesting things about the world of Snowpiercer is how much it changes over the course of the film. The first third of the film is spent in the tail cars with the lower class citizens, and that world has its own distinct look and feel. But as our rebel heroes move further through the car, the world of Snowpiercer expands and we see that the world of the tail was not at all indicative of how most lived their lives. In the tail of the train, there is hardly any color--it's dark and everything is black or grey or dark brown.

Pictured: everything being black or grey or dark brown.

So it's jarring when, at one point, the rebels move to another car and we suddenly find ourselves in a vibrant greenhouse.

Pictured: suddenly finding ourselves in a vibrant greenhouse.

In that one scene, we realize that we can no longer hold ourselves to our previously held notions of this world. Each new car they enter feels like a gift and a surprise. There's a magical aquarium room, a weird rave room (what's the apocalypse without a rave, after all) and an absolutely terrifying classroom filled with happy happy children who sing songs about how everyone is going to die. Snowpiercer keeps its audience on its toes--setting up a world and then subverting our expectation. Each scene brings something new and exciting. And the power is in the details. Everything is mapped out so meticulously. As soon as I finished watching it, i thought "I have to see this again to notice what I missed."

The aforementioned classroom scene. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention they're all doing the Nazi salute. It''s weird.

And then there are the performances. Chris Evans has proven his acting chops before, and brings a lot of depth to his most prominent role as Captain America in the Marvel movies, but he is given a much darker and weightier role here. He plays Curtis Everett, the leader of the rebellion, and his casting is no coincidence--here, he is once again heroesque, and his reputation certainly adds to his believability in this leadership position. But Curtis has a dark side. He's brooding, he's insecure, he's angry, and there's more to him that one typically sees in most action heroes. Another standout performance is South Korean actor Song Kang-ho as Namgoong Minsu, a prisoner and drug addict who designed the security system for the train and, with his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) helps the rebels get to the front. Namgoong is fascinating--his allegiance is never fully clear. He's apathetic, he's rude, he's gruff, and criminal. But then he's tender and kind with Yona, he waxes poetic, and appears to be surprisingly sensitive. There's the always wonderful John Hurt as the old revolutionary Gilliam (a clear nod to the aforementioned Brazil director) who fulfills the trope of the wise advisor to a tee, but with a bit more to him than originally meets the eye. The whole cast is great, and the train is filled with colorful characters (including a creepy and terrifying bald man whose job it is to distribute eggs).

Namgoong and Yona.

But the best character by far is that of Mason, the minister of the train, played by Tilda Swinton. I love the film as a whole, but even if I did not care for it, it would be worth seeing to see Swinton's performance. Always an interesting actress, I always held her in high regard, and this performance STILL blew me out of the water-- I couldn't believe what I was seeing. In the world of film villains, there are two types--there are quiet antagonists who are believable in their plans to take down their rivals, and then there are over-the-top villains who are almost cartoony in their evils schemes. At their best, these over-the-top villains can use their oddness to be menacing. What could have (and does, if not performed will) potentially come across as silly, in the hands of a gifted actor instead comes across as hugely unsettling, the character's weirdness unnerving us in terms of just how inhuman they are. The best example I can think of is probably Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight--this is a character who manages to achieves a certain level of malevolence that a more realistic character simply could not. Well, Swinton's performance as Mason is the single best over-the-top villain since Ledger's Joker. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Mason is even BETTER than Ledger's Joker. It's simply a breathtaking performance--you cannot take your eyes off of Swinton every time she's on screen. It is, in my opinion, simply the best performance of the year, and one of the best film performances I've ever seen.

Pictured: acting brilliance
As portrayed by Swinton, Mason is a grotesque and simply vile creation. A minister who is in charge of keeping the tail-dwellers in line, Mason does not even attempt to hide their contempt for these lower class citizens, treating them with nasty condescension, and a palpable amount of glee when doling out brutal punishments (in the first ten minutes of the film, someone's arm is chopped off under Mason's callous command). Mason relishes every moment of holding power, and when happy, Swinton has a wild and dangerous glint in her eye. But, we also get to see Mason at a disadvantage after they lose their seat of power, and in these instances, Mason becomes cockroachlike, with the traits of self-indulgence and cowardice being put on full display. Perhaps fitting for this film, we believe that Mason will do absolutely anything to survive--Mason's complete lack of empathy and regard for others suddenly being taken to the extreme. Mason is so off the charts wacky that we know they're capable of anything and everything. And yet, Swinton plays Mason with ease. There is a grace to her odd movements. As weird as Mason is, we believe that such a character would exist because Swinton brings Mason to life with such ferocity.

Mason gives a speech about shoes and metaphors.
Even better is the fact that this portrayal is so concretely linked to Swinton's work. I didn't find this out until after I'd seen the film twice, but in the script, none of Swinton's character-work would be apparent. Mason was originally written to be a fairly standard answer-man. Written for a man, Mason was a straight-laced by the book law enforcer, overly officious and cruel, but otherwise a somewhat typical member of a ruling militaristic regime. Swinton met with director Bong Joon-ho to see if there would be a part in the film for her. Joon-ho didn't think there was, but on a whim, asked if she'd read for Mason. The rest is history. In Swinton's hands, Mason became a genderless oddity (one who wears frocks but is still referred to as sir--where Mason lies on the gender spectrum is never directly addressed in the film) and an absolute nightmare of the bizarre. Swinton is captivating to watch.

To quickly address Oscar hopes, the film is not likely to be recognized on Oscar night, but is seen as a dark horse contender for a nomination in the categories of art direction, adapted screenplay, and, yes, best supporting actress. The Supporting Actress category has been thin this year (there have been a ton of amazing supporting performances from women which have been ignored--Carrie Coon in Gone Girl? Rene Russo in Nightcrawler? Hello?!) and as such, only four nominees have really risen to seem like strong bets for a nomination (those being Patricia Arquette, Keira Knightley, Emma Stone, and Meryl Streep). That leaves a fifth nomination totally up for grabs. And while the best bet is Jessica Chastain for A Most Violent Year, Swinton actually has a chance to get an Oscar nomination--with her recent Critic's Choice nomination for this role suddenly launching her back into the race. Whether she or another wildcard fills that fifth and final spot is irrelevant, and while I obviously hope Swinton is the one who gets recognized, the fact remains that Swinton does truly amazing work.

Here's one last picture of the truly bizarre and wonderful Minister Mason.

And the success of the character of Mason speaks to the success of Snowpiercer as a whole. It embraces the weird and accepts that its audience will be able to keep up. The beauty of creating such a vibrant and unrealistic world is that it allows a film to approach a subject from a heightened angle, which sometimes allows that subject to be better discussed than in a more realistic setting. This past year, in fact, I was amazed by how in two films which discussed the subject of grief--The Babadook and Cake, the horror film was the one which so distinctly had more insight and provided a more thought-provoking statement (although, that being said, Jennifer Aniston's performance in Cake really is worth all of the hype it has been getting). Snowpiercer is the same way--the story of Curtis and his rebels takes a lot of twists and turns along the way, and examines some of the toughest and largest philosophical questions one can ask (such as whether humans are inherently good, or whether the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few) with finesse. It is a meticulously crafted film--one of the best science fiction movies of the past decade, and one of the most striking, curious, and ambitious projects of recent memory. See it because it's an amazing film. And, if that's not good enough, see it because it will piss off Harvey Weinstein.

And it will make John Hurt happy.

Friday, January 9, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014-- #3: "Begin Again" and the Platonic Love Stories of John Carney

This is the ninth in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #4 pick, #5 pick, #6 pick, #7 pick, #8 pick, #9 pick, #10 pick#11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too.

My best films of the year list probably looks familiar to a lot of people. It consists of a bunch of acclaimed movies which have been awards contenders for quite some time. And then we get to this entry-- not just any entry, but my choice for the third best film of the year. That means it's the bronze medalist in a year of great films. And I imagine many people are thinking the same thing: "Begin Again? What the hell is Begin Again? He put this movie in front of Boyhood for crying out loud!" This is, after all, a film that nobody is talking about. If you've heard any awards consideration for it at all, it's been in the category of best song. So, why have I named it the third best film of the year? Well, let's examine what this movie is about, and why I responded to it so strongly.

Begin Again is directed and written by John Carney, and it's his first feature film since 2007's surprise hit Once. If you haven't seen Once, you should do so immediately-- it is one of the sweetest and simply lovely films and history has been kind to it. It went from being mostly unknown to being turned into a Tony-Award winning musical, and its signature, Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly" has been covered numerous times. Because of the love people have for Once, there was a lot of excitement when Begin Again came out, but in the end, it didn't register as well with audiences or critics. It did get mostly positive reviews (83% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is higher than other Oscar-y films like The Theory of Everything) and even the more negative reviewers, like A.O. Scott in the New York Times, admit the film was enjoyable. But, in all, it seemed like everyone was comparing it to Once. Once embraced its own minimalism; it starred complete unknowns Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, their characters didn't even have names, and it was shot on a rather low definition camera. It felt unpolished, and there was a distinct charm to this-- the whole thing felt like an underdog. But, in Begin Again, Carney had a lot more tools up his sleeve. The unknown singers in the lead roles have been switched out for bona fide stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo (who are both getting Oscar buzz this year...but for different films). The story is a lot more conventional, the camera work much more professional. And then there are the songs-- both films are musicals. In Once, the songs were written and performed by Hansard and Irglova themselves. This time, the songs are penned by much more pedigreed songwriters. It seemed to be Carney's intention to use these advancements and a larger budget to elevate what he was doing in Once, but many seemed to feel that they cheapened the film instead. The roughness of Once went away, but so did its charm and its passion (according to others). As such, the reviews were that the film was good...but not as good as Once.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in Once.

I can't argue with this--Begin Again is charming, but something is definitely lost now that Carney has more recognition and pedigree. But, Begin Again's polish gives it another perspective that Once could not attain. I think it's unfair to try and compare the films as being one better than the other. To think that they are the same film which can be placed side by side shows a complete lack of understanding of the messages of both films. I think of them more as companion pieces. Through the themes explored in both films, Carney establishes them as being linked together-- a similar story told from a different perspective. And I think viewing one will enhance your opinion of the other.

Both films fit into a genre that I like to call a Platonic Love Story. They're very rare, and Carney probably does them better than anyone. In his platonic love stories, Carney unites two characters who might not be romantically connected, but nonetheless have a certain intimacy. More than that, they need each other. He isolates characters who are currently at their lowest points, and who need each other to raise them from that place. It's a romance of a sort, and it's beautiful to watch. In Once, the guy's songs inspire the girl, and she in turn inspires him to make an album and try to gain recognition. In Begin Again the characters are older and come from a different position. Rather than being on the verge of success, both have already found success and lost it. Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, a record producer who at one point was at the top of the game, but has since fallen due to a variety of common hardships (most stemming from his implied alcoholism). Knightley plays Gretta James-- she has just been left by superstar singer Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, in his film debut) and is dejected. Dan is the one who first realizes the connection. She needs him to recognize her potential and help her create an album that she wants to create. He, meanwhile, needs her because she inspires him in a way he has not been inspired since his glory days. Just like in Once, both characters absolutely need each other, and Carney is wonderful at illuminating the ways friends and colleagues can influence and improve our lives. And I say friends because, while Carney always hints at a romantic relationship, both have other distinct romantic interests-- Gretta still pines for Dave, and Dan still has feelings for his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), so it's never meant to be a romantic relationship between Gretta and Dan. But it's clearly a special one, and a beautiful and passionate one. They are connected by music which, Carney seems to think, is even better than love.

And that is where both Once and Begin Again absolutely thrive. They are both musicals, but more than that, they are about music. And they are about the thrill of actually creating music. They are about how music can bring people together in a visceral way that other mediums simply cannot. It's evident in Once and, while other critics might not agree, to me it is absolutely evident in Begin Again as well. Begin Again starts with characters at their lowest points, and basically chronicles them as they get their lives back on track. And these milestones occur with music. Music helps lift Dan out of his depressive funk, it helps him connect with his daughter (an excellent Hailee Steinfeld) for probably the first time. Music is what helped Gretta and Dave connect, and it's also what causes them to break up (she discovers his infidelity by listening to a love song he wrote and realizing it's not for her). Music helps her get over him by writing a simple and bittersweet song called "Like a Fool," which she leaves as a voicemail message on his cell phone. Music, of course, brings our two protagonists together. There's a particularly wonderful scene where they go through New York, each wearing one headphone and listening to a soundtrack they make up as they walk. It's a beautiful scene-- don't we all wish that we could have our own underscoring like they do in the movies?

And then, of course, there's the album itself. Dan produces an album of Gretta's songs-- the first time she has ever had the confidence to record her own material-- which they record in various locations around the city, capturing the ambient background noise as they go. Along with Gretta, they have a troupe of other musicians and, while their characters are never fully explored, we nonetheless get a sense of their talent and passion. In one particularly funny scene, an accompanist at a children's ballet school (played by David Abeles, who was in the Broadway production of Once) is approached to be a part of the album and quits his job in the middle of playing a scale, so desperate is he for a chance to play actual music. And the scenes of recording the music itself also embrace the ways music can unite us. In one particularly delightful scene, a group of children who happened to be passing by end up joining in on the recording and singing backup vocals. The whole thing is simply a celebration of music and musicians.

And this would all be for naught if the music itself wasn't so good. Begin Again features a great series of songs-- the producers seem to be pushing the Adam Levine-performed "Lost Stars" towards what is a likely Oscar nomination, but the rest of the songs are just as good or better. Not only are the songs themselves good, but the songs are shot beautifully and treated well. They're inspiring, they're emotionally enriching, and, at its best, they elevate Begin Again to moments of true magic. At no point is this more evident than at the beginning of the film. The film opens with Keira Knightley playing at a bar to a largely apathetic audience-- the background chatter distracting while she plays. But as she leaves the stage, the camera pans to Mark Ruffalo, with a manic, slightly disturbing grin on his face. Then, the film backtracks and we see what happened earlier that day (which involves what must have been the worst day in Dan's life-- he was fired from his job, humiliated in front of his daughter, and eventually made it to this bar to, presumably, get quite intoxicated). But he hears Gretta playing her song and, unlike the rest of the audience, takes note. As she plays, we start to hear what he hears-- he's arranging the song in his head. And as he does, the other instruments on the stage start playing themselves. It is pure magic. Just watch this scene. This scene alone would put this movie on my top ten list.

Keira Knightley and her one-woman band

Carney is wonderful at character studies. His characters are, without exception, very natural portrayals, and there's no exception here. He paints with realistic strokes, and brings out wonderful performances in his actors, even when they're not actors. Adam Levine, for example, impressed me. Levine could have played Dave by basically just playing himself, but actually makes the character distinct, and very interesting. Dave is unfaithful to Gretta and is, in many ways, a complete and unapologetic asshole, and yet we don't hate him. When he asks Gretta for another try, she considers it, and we can see why. Levine's performance embraces both sides of Dave--those that make him endearing and those that make him unbearable.

But Dave's not the only supporting character who feels real. As Dan's daughter Violet, Steinfeld gives one of the more realistic portrayals of a teenager I've seen in recent years, considering the caricaturey ways that age bracket is usually written. We can see her hardness-- mostly put on to express her facade of adolescent indifference--but we can also see her fragility, and her eagerness to relate with her emotionally distant father. Then there's Mos Def, who does some great work as Dan's former business partner, now at odds with Dan who he feels is stuck in the times. It could have been a throwaway role-- the corporate and clueless executive who is too focused on money-- but Def allows us to see where this guy is coming from. And then there's James Corden, who plays Gretta's friend Steve-- a side character who nonetheless feels fully realized and provides some much needed moments of levity, especially in the movie's early moments.

But the stars are, of course, Knightley and Ruffalo. Knightley does great work-- Gretta is instantly likable, and has some truly poignant moments (the aforementioned phone call stands out). She's smart, she's talented, she's capable, but she's also emotionally vulnerable. It's so rare to see insecure characters like this portrayed on screen, and Gretta's self doubts are at once unwarranted, and refreshing to see in a feature film. But, despite her good work, you never truly buy that Knightley wrote any of these songs. That is one advantage that Once definitely has over Begin Again-- because the actors wrote all of the songs themselves, they feel effortlessly authentic. Here, Knightley's voice is sweet and her performance is good, but the connection with the songs is clearly not that of their writer.

Ruffalo, on the other hand, is extraordinary. As he proved in Foxcatcher, and as he has proved in numerous films before this year, Ruffalo is one of those rare actors who can elevate absolutely any project that he is a part of. His performance as Dan Mulligan is beautiful. Unlike Gretta, who can more easily acknowledge her insecurities, Dan is completely in denial. He puts on a face of bravado, even in the face of incredible and obvious failings. He can be a jerk, but it's because he feels like he deserves a life of misery. Ruffalo plays Dan as one part anger and one part desperation. As he storms through his former office-- a gesture he feels will be strong and make a statement but is in fact pathetic-- we feel like we're seeing this man fall apart. Despite not, at that moment, having been shown any real positive qualities to this person, we still feel for him. As the film moves along, Dan begins to change-- we see the excited Dan more and more, the one who is an actual force for good and not for self-destruction. We get to see a person in their element. Once again, Carney doesn't paint his characters in black or white, he just shifts our perspective on Dan, and Ruffalo manages to make both Dans feel cohesive. It's a simply beautiful performance that really humanizes the character. He makes him a character you want to root for.

Once was made when John Carney was first starting out. Much like the guy in his film, he was an unknown artist, hoping to make a product good enough to speak for itself and gain acclaim on its merits alone. I've always loved that Once gained acclaimed because of the attention that "Falling Slowly" brought it. That implies to me that, in the world of the movie, the same song likewise brings attention to the guy's album and he finds the success that he is looking for. Once was Carney's big break, and it examined that notion of the artist trying to get ahead. Now, in Begin Again, Carney must examine what it's like to stay ahead once you actually have said success. And for me its examination of its central themes is just as complex and layered as it was in Once. I can't speak to why others have not responded as overwhelmingly to the film as I did. After all, art is subjective, and if people weren't moved by it then there's nothing I can do. But I, for one, found it incredibly inspiring. I left the theater eager to create in a way I had not been in quite some time. Its musings on love and heartbreak and the uniting power of art were incredibly powerful to me. It's a love letter to artists everywhere. Check out this overlooked film and, if you can let yourself be carried by the magic of music, you're in for one of the absolute best movies of the year.

And afterwards, you can sullenly eat some ice cream!