"This Is Not a Film"
When Iranian new-wave top dog Jafar Panahi was silenced by his country’s government (essentially barring him from continuing his film career), it was assumed that, save some renegade attempt to escape the country, we probably wouldn’t hear from the auteur for some time. Color us surprised when “This Is Not a Film” surfaced at Cannes -- smuggled out of Iran, hidden in a birthday cake -- a documentary done in video-diary style that deals with the filmmaker’s house arrest and aborted movie project. But what we got wasn’t simply the confessions of a muted artist: in conversation with fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who is also listed as a director), Panahi is encouraged to describe and act out scenes from his terminated script in great detail, an undertaking he commits to until becoming forlorn during the process, recognizing the futility of the endeavor and yearning for his rightful canvas. And yet, within the film, we can’t help but think that certain moments are too convenient to be unstaged. Take, for example, the young garbage collector he runs into in the hallway -- as he joins him on the elevator, they engage in a great conversation about this teen’s life and future while stopping at every floor to collect residents’ trash. It’s all done in a single shot, focused on this kid, with the chat interrupted every so often by his duties on each floor. Panahi keeps the camera rolling, waiting patiently for his subject to return and the dialogue to resume. Sounds like something he might direct, no? There are numerous instances like this, such as the insistent neighbor in need of a dog-sitter that feels like a subplot or the fact that film conveniently takes place on Chahārshanbe-Sūri/Wednesday Feast, a holiday dating back a few centuries that both celebrates the oncoming of Spring and is a ritual that promises warmth and good health. Normally this kind of documentary manipulation would raise flags for some, but given Panahi’s current predicament and subsequent longing for the medium (and additionally the film’s unmanufactured feeling), it comes off as an intensely personal, resonant rebellion, an incredibly beautiful movie and one of his best films to date (read our review).
"Safety Not Guaranteed"
It's hard not to be a little wary when a buzzy, quirky indie comedy becomes a crowd-pleasing hit at Sundance -- we've suffered through too many films like "Happy Texas" and "Hamlet 2" in the past to walk in without being a little cautious. But we found ourselves utterly charmed by Colin Trevorrow's "Safety Not Guaranteed," a very funny time-travel comedy (or is it?) with a great big beating heart. The story follows stuck-in-a-rut intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza), who accompanies cynical magazine reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow work-experience-seeking kid Arnau (Karan Soni) to investigate a man who's placed a classified ad looking for a companion to go time traveling with him. Using a real life incident as a loose jumping off point, Derek Connolly's script is consistently sharp and amusing, but there's a rich vein of sadness running throughout, principally thanks to a committed performance from Mark Duplass that's one of the year's best -- mistrustful, a little angry and seemingly a little away with the fairies, but gradually warming as he lets Darius into his scheme. And Plaza and Johnson -- principally known for their TV work on "Parks and Recreation" and "New Girl" -- suggest that they should be getting a lot more big-screen work down the line with firmly winning performances. Some of the star cameos (that we won't spoil here) are a touch distracting, and the ending feels a little rushed (it's telling that it was submitted to Sundance with a different conclusion), but for the most part, Trevorrow handles the tricky mix of tones beautifully, and displays an excellent sense for the visuals. An accomplished and surprising debut that takes the premise in unexpected places, Trevorrow and Connolly have marked themselves a filmmaking team to watch (read our review).
"21 Jump Street"
It shouldn't have worked – yet another tired reinvention of a preexisting property (in this case a beloved but marginal eighties television series), gussied up with of-the-moment stars and a more comedic bent (something found, time and time again, in the television-series-adaptation subgenre -- see also: "The Addams Family," "The Brady Bunch," and "Charlie's Angels"), shepherded by a pair of directors making the shaky transition from animation to the much woollier world of live action. And yet it exceeded all expectations. A tremendously funny, heartfelt, razor-sharp deconstruction of cop movie clichés (the best, probably, since "Hot Fuzz"), a wondrous celebration of the awkwardness of high school, and a fucking funny studio comedy, it was sprightly and warm and all the more powerful because it was so unexpected. You loved "21 Jump Street" in spite of the material, not because of it. It showed us that Jonah Hill could still be funny after his more dramatic turn in "Moneyball," but more importantly that Channing Tatum, heretofore an unknown comedic quantity but always exceedingly handsome, could make you giggle with the best of them. And those animation dudes ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller)? They totally nailed it too, adding an additional layer of zingy vibrancy to an already electric script, and proving that Brad Bird wasn't the only animation-to-live action success story in the past few months. The movie comes out on home video this summer and, quite frankly, we can't wait to see it again (read our review).
"The Cabin in the Woods"
Things weren't looking good for Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's genre deconstruction/celebration "The Cabin in the Woods." It was shelved for an epic amount of time (only Kenneth Lonergan would probably find it "brief") while the studio worked out financing issues and, for a spell at least, it was a candidate for muddy post-production 3D conversion or, at the very worst, a hasty direct-to-video release (a fate that will befall it in many countries overseas). But then people actually started seeing it and got really excited. This truly was some next-level shit – a canny exploration of what makes horror films so powerful (and why we keep showing up to them) and a bold rejection/condemnation of the torture porn tropes and found footage aesthetics that have come to dominate modern scary movies. Oh, and it was fucking funny. When the film got its public debut at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival, people went bananas (reports claiming that the Paramount Theater levitated off its foundation are probably exaggerated, but not by much). Although the film didn't connect as strongly with mass audiences (although it's considered a "sleeper hit," you have to wonder what it could have done if it had been released after Whedon's little art house film "The Avengers") and more than a few critics found it befuddling and arch (it's neither), "The Cabin in the Woods" is the kind of movie that will ultimately live on as a deserved cult classic, perfect for drunken film studies students and bored kids at slumber parties alike. Boo! (read our review)