nother winter typically means another batch of hopelessly middlebrow Oscar nominees. This year, however, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences actually displayed some cojones, opting to honor some legitimately daring, interesting films and individual performances. A survey of Stylus movie reviewers’ personal picks in the top categories indicates that, perhaps, the notoriously fogey-ish Academy is taking baby steps in the right direction. In three of the four acting categories, our favorites matched up an alarming 3/5 with the Academy’s.
But, like the critics we are, we’ve found fault in several areas. That’s why we’ve decided to create our own Oscar ballot for the “important” categories. The rules of the game were simple enough: We ranked our top five picks—whether Oscar-nominated or Oscar-ignored—in the categories of Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. (We purposefully skipped Picture, since our list of the year’s best films already ran in this space two months ago.) What will follow throughout the week are the results of this exercise: Stylus at the Movies’ official Oscar ballot, from King Kong to Kings and Queen. Enjoy.
Amy Adams – Junebug
Sometimes tiny miracles really do happen. This year, Amy Adams, and her Oscar nomination, come immediately to mind. Unless you're a Buffy cultist, she was, prior to Junebug, just that cute candy-striper with the braces from Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Though she's readily jumped through the obligatory hoops (chatting it up on talk shows and whatnot), I tend to believe that this is a performance that really speaks for itself. Sundance put the wheels in motion, and the chips have fallen happily into place from there.
The morning this year's Oscar nods were announced, I commented that if enough voters bother to watch their Junebug screeners, she has a real chance to pull an upset. It's all there—range, charm, charisma, sadness, soul. That scene where she exclaims, "That's so fucking cool!" leaves me grinning from ear to ear every time I watch it. Eclipsing Naomi Watts’s furious solo session in Mulholland Drive and Ben Stiller’s strategic stroking in There’s Something About Mary, Adams’s late-night stab at half-hearted masturbation is as heartbreaking and revealing as any moment in movies last year. Her Ashley is the sort of flesh-and-blood three-dimensional human being we so rarely encounter on screen. Or, you know, maybe I'm just smitten.
Maria Bello – A History of Violence
It's the sex scenes we'll remember. In David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, they're bookends to a not very life-affirming meditation on how violence permeates the modern psyche at all levels of society. The film is a punch to the gut, a high-art examination of man's lowest tendencies, masquerading as a conventional action movie (or is it the other way around?). In it, Bello is note-perfect as Edie Stall, devoted wife to Viggo Mortensen's Tom.
And sexy as hell, incidentally. In Scene 1, she's dressed as a cheerleader, eager to recreate the teenage years they never spent together. Here, they're acting out the small-town American dream as high school sweethearts making tender, awkward love, afraid to be caught by their parents. Later in the film, when the marriage has all but crumbled, she has angry, animalistic sex on the stairs of her house with a man that has come to repulse her, yet continues to stir attraction on a base level. In many ways, she anchors the film, as these scenes are so crucial to the deconstruction of the Stalls' Rockwellian existence. She's the control character against which everything disintegrates.
Catherine Keener – Capote
Given the dominating title performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Bennett Miller’s Capote, Catherine Keener’s turn as author and Capote compatriot Harper Lee may be the most minor of this year’s supporting roles. Keener says little. She is not often onscreen. But when Keener is present in the film, the devotion Harper Lee feels for her friend Truman Capote—and the hurt she hides when he dismisses her success with To Kill a Mockingbird—is so precisely printed on Keener’s face and in the distance she maintains, that she is impossible to ignore. This is a startling thing.
After all, her part calls less for acting than reaction, playing off Capote’s flamboyant behavior as he scurries around Kansas and New York. Keener could easily have cast this small role aside and gotten on with the business of performing well in unimpressive movies. She also could have fallen in line with many recent biopics, pairing a great male survivor with his slightly-less-great-but-supportive woman: Lee Krasner in Pollock, Margie Hendricks in Ray, Mae Braddock in Cinderella Man, June Carter in Walk the Line, and even Katherine Hepburn, playing second fiddle to Howard Hughes, in The Aviator. Instead, Keener gives Harper Lee a life and set of emotions that are effected by those of her male companion but do not immediately hinge upon them. Also, in Keener’s restraint, she makes believable Lee’s extraordinary success in the face of Capote’s internal struggles. Thus, Keener’s performance is both inventive and refreshing. Women in American history have been successful, too. Who knew?
Juliane Kohler – Downfall
To land the role of Eva Braun in the most important German film of the decade is almost a recipe for career disaster. How does an actress play the girlfriend of the most famous tyrant in history? And how does she play it without detracting from the crucial central performance, itself a staggering career-high turn from forgotten cornerstone of acting, Bruno Ganz? Juliane Kohler not only answers all these questions and more, but goes one step further and runs with the baton handed her by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. His quiet determination to render Adolf human, a man before all else, gives Kohler all the room she needs to terrify us with a portrayal of Eva Braun that is as upsetting as it is mesmerizing.
A forty year-old actress of some repute in her native Germany, Juliane Kohler is mainly known to audiences worldwide for her superb performance in the 2001 art-house hit Nowhere in Africa. Proving herein that she is no slouch when it comes to taking the reins of a complex, unforgiving character, her Eva Braun is a monster with madness in her eyes. When onscreen, the mood of the film changes dramatically as her truly frightening presence permeates the frame. Confident and dangerous, Kohler’s Braun is as memorable as Ganz’s Hitler, an achievement not to be underestimated.
Michelle Williams – Brokeback Mountain
For all the deserved critical hosannas heaped on Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal for their star turns as repressed shepherds in love, let us (nor the Academy) not forget the women of Brokeback. Anne Hathaway, and especially Williams, are not naive wives left to wile away the hours in domestic bliss and ignorance while their husbands play grab-ass in the Wyoming mountains. Both learn the truth, whether it’s through a growing, resigned awareness over time (Hathaway), or, in Williams’ case, a sudden, painful realization thrust in her face. Ang Lee’s movies, despite their varied subject manner, all share the common theme of repression, and Williams has to suffer in silence just as much as her husband and his boyfriend do, without the outlet of Brokeback to relieve even a little of her frustration.
Williams would deserve Oscar love purely for her confrontation scene with husband Ennis (Ledger), but it’s what bubbles up before and after that really makes her performance powerful, and profoundly moving. Starting out as the happy, occasionally lusty young wife, and slowly turning into a miserably depressed cuckold as she watches her domestic prison close inexorably around her, it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago Williams was churning out teen soap opera bubble gum on Dawson’s Creek. Here’s to catching a break and making the most of it.
George Clooney – Syriana
In a movie filled with relatively brief but uniformly strong performances from an ensemble cast, the highest kudos have to go to Clooney, who disappears into the role of weary CIA operative Robert Barnes (based in part on real Agency man Robert Baer) so completely that the audience forgets it is watching one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. It’s not just the new beard and the few extra pounds of flab, either—Clooney makes Barnes’ exhausted professionalism and flickering idealism an almost tangible presence in and of itself. Surrounded as he is by compromise, corruption, and a system that appears beyond change, Barnes exudes just enough integrity that we believe, if only for a moment, that there is still hope. Until there isn’t, of course.
Clooney invests Barnes with the hang-dog expression and stolid energy of a man who understands he’s just a cog in a wheel, but still allows himself enough optimism to believe the wheel is turning toward a more or less desirable destination. When he learns otherwise, the understated heartbreak Clooney unveils is more symbolic of Syriana’s wonderfully modulated tone and message than any other aspect of the film. Barnes is an elegy for a lost national innocence, and Clooney is wise enough to give him his measured dignity rather than the histrionics we might have received from a lesser actor.
Colin Farrell – The New World
A man whose shamefaced longings are matched only by his unassailable ideals, Captain John Smith has a brooding intensity straight out of an Emily Brontë novel. Colin Farrell, dark hair cascading over jutted brow, superbly captures the uneasy balance of a man in awe of the paradise he’s corrupting. Although Smith ranges from an ecstasy of discovery to a crushing knowledge of reality, Farrell works with virtually no visible character development. Instead, the actor creates individual moments of existence—a brief portrait of guilty exuberance segueing into the physical embodiment of calloused desperation.
The strength of this unusual portrayal lies in the passion of Farrell’s expression; his eyes burn with illicitly worshipful glances and his brow furrows in a frustration that leaps from the screen. These broad but powerful strokes complement Smith’s stature: his young lover worships him as a god, his men cling to his anchor of authority, Smith sees himself as the forefather of a primal utopia. The first shot of the film places John Smith in the context of grandiose redemption—his chained hands reach toward the sun and a new world of possibility; his eyes carry the hope of perfection. In this remarkable performance, Colin Farrell must strive against the glory of this opening image in an inelegant but fascinating realization of limited humanity.
[L. Michael Foote]
Paul Giamatti – Cinderella Man
This could be the year the Academy gives the Average-Looking Guy his due. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the frontrunner in the lead category for Capote, and the odds (I'll have to double-check this with my bookie) are on Giamatti for his portrayal of boxing manager Jim Gould in Ron Howard's Cinderella Man. Conventional wisdom suggests that if he takes the statue, it'll be a compensatory gesture aimed at rectifying his lack of a nomination last year for Sideways. If that's the case, it'll obviously be a discredit to his fine performance here.
By no means does this replace Sideways as the definitive Giamatti film, but it's another dead-on bit of acting from a man seemingly incapable of turning in sub-par work. As in Alexander Payne’s movie, he functions as the counter-point to the narrative’s alpha male, and the performance is initially endearing for its not-Russell-Crowe-ness. Part of Giamatti's appeal is that he's such an interesting guy to look at; the way his lumpish features will twist to perfectly articulate the rage of the common man. Unfortunately, we don't get a lot of that in Cinderella Man, just a lot of the understated good-guy charm that comes with confidence and careful choice of material. And, deep down, I think we all know he should've won the Oscar as Pig Vomit in Private Parts.
Jake Gyllenhaal – Brokeback Mountain
Jake Gyllenhaal brings to life the post-modern idea that society reproduces itself at increasing rates. No sooner has Toby Maguire reached the heights of fame then another, more compelling Toby Maguire comes along to replace him. Jake Gyllenhaal is lithe, with an uncertain swagger reminiscent of Dan Duryea’s livewire cool. In Ang Lee’s film, he battles the demon of narrow margins, like a gay George Bailey, rattling against the bars of his cage and the close-mindedness of his society.
There’s violence in the boy, somewhere, underneath his all American ease. It’s an impressive and bold performance, a good choice at this stage of his career and a fine counter-point to the slick posturing of Jarhead. Jack Twist is a conflicted man, not overly complex, but played with just enough depth to indicate a regular guy’s torment. Strangely enough, the performance reminded me of Brando in Zinnemann’s The Men; there’s something raw in his talent—unprofessional and refreshing.
Mickey Rourke – Sin City
If Sin City has a heart—and amidst its profusion of filth, depravity and sadism, it often seems doubtful that it has anything approaching even the vestiges of a single noble human trait—it lies buried deep within the hulking, massive brute Marv. And if the film has one performance that transcends its overriding aesthetic of hyper-exaggerated self-referential neo-noir, that transmutes caricature into character, it lies in the surprisingly assured and soulful turn by Mickey Rourke as this relentless golem driven by a simple code of brutal chivalry.
I'm not sure I've ever seen a career reinvention that so totally obscures the actor attempting it; buried beneath a sheath of scars and bandages and prosthetic make-up, all overlaid by Sin City’s graphic novel veneer, Rourke is all but unrecognizable. And yet I'm guessing it's precisely this deliberate (albeit necessary, by the demands of the film) disappearance that allows him to dredge down deep to find the humanity in Marv, in Sin City, and in himself. In an interview on the DVD, "guest" director Quentin Tarantino gushes, with his usual enthusiasm, that Rourke is not only perfect for the role of Marv, but in fact is Marv, going so far as to imagine that Frank Miller somehow conjured Mickey Rourke into being when he drew Marv in the first edition of Sin City. As preposterous as this sounds, I'm almost inclined to agree; at the very least, the character of Marv seems to have resurrected one of Hollywood's lost causes, allowing him a second life.
Bruno Ganz – Downfall
One moment Hitler is screaming at his generals. Then he’s dispensing an almost fatherly sweetness to his loyal secretary. Then he’s engaging in his beyond-fucked psychodrama with fiancée Eva Braun. Then he’s playing with his dog. Then comes more screaming, often laced with a self-pitying whine about the ingratitude of the German people. The fact that this is believable, and even, in a creeping way, understandable is the result of a tour-de-force performance from Bruno Ganz in Downfall. In some ways, Ganz deserves an Oscar for performing the impossible, even the unthinkable—making Adolf Hitler human without rendering him sympathetic. Ignore the caterwauling about the irresponsibility of making Hitler “likable”—Downfall is less about Hitler’s character per se than it is about understanding the twisted group dynamics and inevitably tragic outcomes that lead down the road from charismatic leadership run amok.
Part of Downfall’s success is due to the remarkable script, as Bernd Eichinger chronicles the last days in Hitler’s bunker with insight and razor-sharp intelligence. But most of it is Ganz taking a role that most actors (let alone German ones) would regard as nothing more than career suicide, he emerges triumphant, showing us Der Fuhrer’s charm and even occasional compassion while never letting us forget the raving monstrosity at the core of Hitler’s character. To pull off the balance at all is difficult enough, but to do it with such skill and subtlety should be enough to keep people talking about Ganz’s performance in reverential tones for years to come. It’s a remarkable performance in a remarkable film, one that packs more viscerally immediate social value than the other (frequently outstanding) political movies Oscar has chosen to honor this year.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Capote
I'll probably get a lot of shit for this from some quarters, but I've never been all that impressed with Philip Seymour Hoffman. To me his overarching talent—more than his occasional flashes of character-actor brilliance, more than his relentless ubiquity—has always been his sheer solidity, his thereness. His presence always seemed to fill more of the screen than he physically inhabited, like he was spilling out of himself in torrents of restless enthusiasm and occasional scenery chewing. He so overwhelmed his characters that they were obliterated, thus leaving only another iteration of Philip Seymour Hoffman himself on the screen.
As Truman Capote, Hoffman finally finds his first total triumph, not by allowing free reign to this expansiveness, but by actually letting the character overwhelm him. There have been numerous such attempts at vanishing acts recently, especially in the biopic genre, which of necessity demands it. These performances generally walk the line (ha!) between mimicry and inhabitancy, generally falling on the side of the latter, with only the rare genius boring through to that elusive core of the subject. And yes, Hoffman does have the apparent Capote down—the hi-pitched lisp, the florid mincing gestures, the comportment of exploitative condescension and fawning self-congratulation. If it had been just this and nothing more, Capote would have been a failure. But somehow, Hoffman is able to cross the divide between the adequate and the sublime precisely by reducing himself, by all but eliminating the robustness he's made his career on, subsuming himself into this diminutive literary gnome, channeling a legend into an instantly legendary performance. He finds the soul of the man, and finds the soul of the actor in himself. This may sound easy and obvious, but it occurs too rarely to not effusively praise such a fine example.
Heath Ledger – Brokeback Mountain
My personal favorite performance of 2005, Heath Ledger’s turn as Ennis Del Mar remains fresh despite these putrid months of Oscar scrabbling. The showy role spans two decades of self-hatred, but Ledger’s characterization lends dimension to a performance that could easily be reduced to scenery-chewing and tragic anhedonia. In several scenes of blistering intensity, Ledger fluidly explores the boundaries of his conflicted persona. When repression takes a back seat, however, comfortable jowls and unconcerned mutterings hint at Ennis’ practicality. A painful dynamic emerges between the unassuming man and the longings that torment him. Up on Brokeback Mountain, Ennis placidly drinks whiskey and attends to his duties until, when confronted with his own secrets, the man spirals into nauseous panic.
Ledger captures this tension between simple lies and messy self-knowledge by creating a character of earthy realism and then pummeling him with a terrifying abstraction. At once a probing dissection of masculinity, an ode to unfulfilling romance, and a sorrowful examination of a man fleeing happiness, Heath Ledger’s performance is iconic and heartbreaking. A man standing in the face of overpowering fatalism, Ennis bows his shoulders, turns to his companion, and resignedly admits that there “ain’t no reins on this one.”
[L. Michael Foote]
Viggo Mortensen – A History of Violence
Okay, so Cronenberg is basically some kind of sick fucking genius. But we already knew that. What we didn’t know was how easily he would be able to elicit such a nuanced performance from that no-good ranger from the north. His celebrity notwithstanding, Mortensen could have very well been on his way to one-trick ponyville in 2005, or end up with a typecast to last all the middle ages (See: Bloom, Orlando).
In A History of Violence, he takes on another brave role of a much different nature, tackling the idea of the archetypal male in a dark, thoughtful meditation. Not that it takes much character preparation to have a brilliantly vulgar sex scene with Maria Bello, but Viggo’s control (or lack thereof) of his Tom/Joey character breeds the sort of contemplation that will always second-guess itself. Careful not to reveal everything behind his great red curtain, Mortensen keeps the viewer at bay, letting us in on only so much at a time. With no apparent strain, he is able to connect with feelings of dread and confusion, focusing them all in a cluster of would-be human behavior tutorials.
David Strathairn – Good Night, and Good Luck
That George Clooney’s sophomore directorial effort, an impetuous, monochrome-tinted cinematic dramatisation of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s attack on Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his post-WWII Nazi “witch-hunts,” would emerge as one of the slickest and acutely realized “little movies” of the year was not part of the plan. Yet here it is, bagging award after award, attracting the most triumphant acclaim this side of Ang Lee’s male-bonding mountain adventure.
This is a story that is as much about the politics of journalistic integrity and corporate control as it is about its center-man, Edward R. Murrow, indisputable “patron saint” of broadcast journalism. Calm, sharp, spurring, with a cigarette perpetually cocked between his fingers, Murrow was a paragon of poised subtlety, a dogged realist with heavily principled convictions holed up beneath his skin. In a revelatory role, David Strathairn was all that and more, unfeigned and incisive with the camera, hermetic and momentous with his newsroom colleagues. His unflinching impersonation of Murrow owned, at once, the script, the newsroom, and the screen; no small feat when Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, and Robert Downey Jr. are your coffee-room partners. A big role for a small man—and he nailed it completely.
Emmanuelle Devos – Kings and Queen
As Nora, a repressed Tragedy to Mathieu Almaric’s feral Comedy, Emmanuelle Devos endures many a melodramatic twist, but still comes out on top, looking dignified and spiffy. The stop-start and solemn-frenzied dialectics that director Arnaud Desplechin employs are partially to thank for Devos’ fine work. But what makes her a markedly intelligent performer is her perpetual readjustment to suit the expectations of those around her, a Queen made protean by over-presumptuous Kings.
Informing her ulcer-stricken dad of his condition, Devos makes a stab at optimism by summoning an unintentionally twisted smile. Wary of a suicidal lover’s accusations that she’s Just Not There for Him, she meekly (if lovingly) implores him to come back inside. We expect these men to throw up their arms and acknowledge Nora’s good intentions, but her efforts to project (and in some cases, feign) goodness are thwarted by their vanity. Countless men are fed up with her selfishness—some die by it—but her real problem is overdoing every gesture. Her gushing pathos threatens to make her a non-stop fountain of effusive warmth, but she errs on the side of benevolence, and earns our love, if only that. Where some actresses would hit every note just right, Devos works overtime to be a bit off—too much the victim when visiting her spiteful son, not empathetic enough with a hospitalized ex—and duly suffers the consequences. She lets every change in register unfold across her face, as if wearing a distinct mask for every man in her life were an affirmation of her love. Pour moi, it is.
Q’Orianka Kilcher – The New World
With very little conversation or farcical altercation, Terrence Malick examines the social position and cultural practices of the Powhatan natives on an indispensable plane. Nothing resembling traditional cartoon love-story sentimentality transpires here; a broken Pocahontas asks, "Why does the earth have colors?" A general belittlement of the film's abrupt tonal changeovers is warranted here, but these jumps in chronology and personal credence are astoundingly in tune with the whirl of the story at hand. Without the gentle innocence, remarkable calm, and undoubtedly colorful performance of newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher, Malick’s film would fail to work in a number of places.
This is one of those performances where, after you’ve seen it and honestly analyzed it, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Kilcher emblazons far more maturity than her meager fourteen years (the age at which she began filming The New World) imply; she is almost flawless in every scene she appears in, and her face is fascinating in the way it conveys beauty in heartbreak and a quiet hope in longing. Along with Colin Farrell’s John Smith, she makes this film utterly real and relatable despite its almost-alien nature. She unlocks the door to our subconscious, promptly drags out the babied 1995 Disney flick, and metaphorically beats it to a pulp with her sublime portrayal of the Indian princess. The breathtaking image of Kilcher delicately waving her arms in the breeze to the sky above is nothing short of indelible.
Laura Linney – The Squid and the Whale
Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale begins with the Berkman family playing a “friendly” game of tennis. “Try and hit it at your mother’s backhand,” father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) says to his playing-partner son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), “It’s pretty weak.” And in a rapid succession of shots, Bernard and Walt celebrate as their volleys careen off Joan Berkman’s (Laura Linney) left side. Naturally, this scene ends with the mother-father fight that initiates and underlies the film’s divorce story, but Linney’s facial expression the moment after Daniels’ Bernard rips a ball off her chest—an expression of vitriolic rage—is the scene’s most lasting image. It encapsulates the subtlety of Linney’s performance.
In the demanding part of the mother worn to the end by her husband and attacked more than once by her impressionable son, Linney does not immediately revert to simple and simplistic expressions: loud shouting, crying, flailing of arms. Joan Berkman is more sensitive than that. She depends on the strength of her tone of voice, on her efforts to restrain laughter when her husband proves his complete absurdity. Linney depends, in the end, on subtleties of expression. As a result, in a role that could easily have become that of the mean-hearted, cheating wife, Linney makes Joan Berkman no more a villain than her husband—and no more a hero(ine). She is, instead, confused, angry, wishing that things had gone better, and evoking the kind of sympathy that Baumbach’s story needed to succeed.
Naomi Watts – King Kong
It's hard not to get lost in those baby blues—even if you're a crazy-ass monkey with a serious alpha-male complex. Cast as Ann Darrow in the latest rendition of King Kong, the term "less is more" seems to be practically stamped across Naomi Watts’s face. She lets it tell her very complicated story of conflicted love, allowing her eyes to act as the gates for vocalization.
I won't kid you by pretending that her beauty and grace don't have a direct impact on the effectiveness of this particular performance. On the other hand, I won't lie and say that the ease in which she hits all the right notes isn't a genuine wonder to watch. In many ways, she anchors the film’s more clichéd elements while elevating its less apparent themes. What’s in a look? I’m not entirely sure, but she’ll get you every time. Those goddamn baby blues.
Reese Witherspoon – Walk the Line
It was inevitable, yet perfectly timed: Just as Hollywood was starting to wake up to the tuneless reality that its golden girl Reese Witherspoon’s saccharine-flavored roles were gradually becoming too likeable and watery for their own good, Reese decided to get all serious—and all seriously ambitious. And though Walk The Line was not, perhaps, the rousing crowd-pleaser Cash aficionados were hoping for, few (if any) could argue with the fact that it was Reese who brought the “rousing” to it.
As Joaquin Phoenix/Johnny Cash love-thing June Carter, there was something about her presence that exuded timeless exuberance and searing vivacity, a sugar-rush of positively unglued flair teeming with oomphs of Southern sass. But more than her she-really-can-sing vocal aptitude, the most satisfying part of the performance was Reese herself, having the naughty, self-glorifying time of her life without desperately pleading to be taken seriously. Because, in truth, that last part came naturally to all of us. And though the Academy seal was clearly there from the start, with contents this endearing, any resistance soon becomes futile. The only question that remains: Who would have thought Elle Woods had this in her?
George Clooney – Good Night, and Good Luck
Shot in monochrome and dripping with uncomfortable 1950s black and white issues—sexual relations in the workplace; the ethics and power of television, and the simplistic “with us or against us” politicization of the populace by an overzealous statesman—Clooney’s second big screen feature succeeds in informing us that little has changed in American life. Cutting his teeth under the tutelage of Steven Soderbergh, Clooney sailed into an interesting and entertaining directorial debut in 2002 with his biopic of Chuck Barry, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. As co-writer and director of Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney has proven beyond any doubt that he has matured quickly into a capable and erudite talent behind the camera.
As a filmmaker, Clooney seems to have commanded the instant respect of his peers, able herein to draw an impressive cast of character actors into his bosom, eliciting understated, powerful performances from all of them. His choice of film stock and occasionally quirky editing suggests the sensation of a director comfortable in the chair, unhurried and confident, not trying to prove anything. Perhaps most startling of all is his determination to make an overtly political film that drives home a frighteningly relevant point, without hitting us over the head with polemic. In this sense, Clooney stands almost alone amongst contemporary big name American directors, fearless and simmering with dissent in a time when everyone else is silent. Much like David Strathairn’s Ed Murrow, Clooney is the man we should be listening to, intelligent and masterful. Not bad for an ex-TV actor with great hair.
David Cronenberg – A History of Violence
David Cronenberg insists on pain. A History of Violence is his most evenly sour film since Dead Ringers, the atmosphere of uncanny dread sizzling like a family portrait slowly catching fire. Cronenberg gives the impression that he’s holding back some fierce, crude evil, just letting enough shred through to glimpse an unimaginable total horror. But, of course, he then bursts the dam and shoves it down our throat and up our ass for as long as we can take it, twisting so it doesn’t fit.
Here, the director takes his cue from such noir classics as Detour and Out of the Past. Like Ballard, he has the knack of tuning these pulp stories to a different frequency, one that slowly unsettles, broiling our insecurities, before snapping into a wild, violent lash that makes the realisation of our fears more unbearable still. A History of Violence transforms the familiar into the unknown, makes us all aliens, terrorists trapped inside our very own skins: no one gets in, no one gets out.
Terrence Malick – The New World
For once, I would love to see someone write thoughtfully about a Terrence Malick movie without using any of the following words: "awe," "dreamlike," "elegiac," "enigmatic," "ethereal," "existential," "expressionistic," "grass," "haunting," "immersive," "impressionistic," "luminous," "lush," "lyrical," "meditative," "metaphysical," "moody," "mysterious," "mystical," "nature," "philosophical," "poetic," "rapturous," "reflective," "reverie," "romantic," "sea," "score," "sky," "spiritual," "transcendent," "tree," "vision," "voice-over," "wind," "wonder."
Of course, all of that applies. But what else is there to say, really? And what good is it to dust off the same set of tried-and-true adjectives and conversation points every seven or twenty years? To invoke another cliché: Either you get it (i.e., love it) or you don’t. For my money, Our Hero is now four for four.
Gus Van Sant – Last Days
Gus Van Sant’s 1989 American road outlaw/narcotics film, Drugstore Cowboy, should have picked up some considerable Oscar buzz when it was released in October of that year. It had everything an Academy Award-winning picture should have: stellar writing, acting, lensing, and direction. It had to have been the high drug count, right? Truth be told, it was most likely the fact that the film had no initial studio budget or production support until late in the shooting process. Gus Van Sant has made some shifty career decisions (that Psycho remake, for one), but his overall impact on cinema, especially the independent wing, is right up there with Tarantino, Smith, Lee, or Jarmusch.
Three films into the latest phase of his career (following the mainstream Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester), Van Sant has been displaying, developing, and eventually mastering a system of “elsewhere” filmmaking, where activities occurring within the camera’s focus are just as dire as what characters are doing outside the frame. Of late, he’s shot his films in a very tight, very claustrophobic widescreen format, effectively implicating people in frustratingly ensnared lives. Van Sant is a certified expert when dealing with screen-space ambulation, but he’s consistently, ghoulishly attentive to the way spiritual turmoil inserts itself in the human body and our physical surroundings. Last Days seems to understand the void represented by Cobain's life and the sparseness his death left behind, and as such, it's appropriate that the film itself seems to exist and operate from inside a very condensed area. Duly, Van Sant’s latest represents a surrogate exercise, a film both troublesome and altruistic; he forces his audience to grasp the importance of minor dialogue, substantial musical clues, and eternally shifting images. In turn, the director reveals himself to be as sly and humane as the late Nirvana frontman.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Tropical Malady
As a London Calling-only novice, I can’t promise Apichatpong Weerasethakul any Clash mix-tapes in the near future, but my heart is free for his taking. While he’s only one of many directors pushing the boundaries of post-Warhol cinelanguor, the way Tropical Malady dilutes stagnant naturalism with a giddy affection for the strange and new is one of a kind. To call its tentative first half “well-observed” isn’t just understatement; it’s misclassification. Something is askew here. Smiles are protracted a little too long; a lounge singer just happens to invite one of our forlorn heroes up onstage for a duet. And though a misfortune like Tong’s sick dog would seem to complicate his and Keng’s courtship, it’s merely an additive to the rueful sensuality in which the flower of their love blooms.
In counterpoint to the year’s other acclaimed gay romance, and despite Malady’s military environs, the world seems too perfect here, too accommodating to romance. This is what intimidates Keng and Tong, rendering emotional sincerity a double-edged sword; they’re burdened not only with reciprocating each other’s feelings, but with asserting the depths of their own. As in Weerasethakul’s stunning Blissfully Yours, the waters of Happiness are only so ominously calm so that the tides of melancholy can ripple beneath. And indeed, those tides precipitate a wave that swallows Keng and Tong whole and re-defines them completely. Their feelings find corporeal definition, but are incompatible even in heightened form. They need a conduit monkey to communicate with each other, for chrissakes, said monkey being emblematic of Weerasethakul’s fearless search for truth within the opaque. But despite Keng’s new role as Tong’s captor, a bond lingers. When a title informs us that Keng undergoes a “strange feeling,” it’s just that: he’s confronted with emotions utterly overpowering yet just as indeterminate. Keng can contemplate all he wants, but efforts to quantify are doom-laden. For even trying, Weerasethakul is a maverick.
By: Stylus at the Movies
Published on: 2006-02-27