Noah Baumbach's last couple of movies ("Margot at the Wedding," "Greenberg") were so glum and dour that they gave off the sensation of physical weight; they literally dragged you down. So it comes as something of a surprise that "Frances Ha" is such an effervescent bobble – a fizzy pop confection that's equally indebted to the French New Wave, Woody Allen and the collection of soul and disco songs sprinkled throughout the soundtrack (has a Hot Chocolate jam ever been put to better use?) Inspired by Baumbach's co-writer/muse/girlfriend/star Greta Gerwig (in a truly breakout performance), "Frances Ha" investigates the incredibly specific emotional space between two female friends and the way that life, cresting the 30-year-mark, seems to become less about hope and promise and more about compromise and concessions. It's a movie about easing into adulthood in a city (New York) where everyone thinks that they're still eighteen. Captured in timeless, velvety black-and-white, "Frances Ha" is a movie so effortlessly joyful that it almost bounces across the screen. As a struggling dancer dealing with the dissolution of her longtime relationship, a fractured relationship with her former best friend/roommate, and a series of creative endeavors that never seem to pan out, Gerwig's Frances is someone who pinballs through life without much thought. You get the impression that she would devolve into one of Baumbach's surly, self-centered misanthropes if she ever slowed down long enough to evaluate the situation. Thankfully she never does. [Read our review]
"The Kings Of Summer"
It's hardly been a great year for American comedy on the big screen -- not when the biggest hits have been "The Hangover Part III" and "Identity Thief," anyway. But there's one shining exception that's been brightening up the landscape since Sundance, and is starting to make its way into theaters. We've had high hopes for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts since his short "Successful Alcoholics" a few years back, but we're not sure we were prepared for how truly excellent his first feature, "The Kings Of Summer" is. An interesting companion piece to "Mud," the film tells the story of two best friends (future megastar Nick Robinson, "Super 8" actor Gabriel Basso) who, fed up with their overbearing parents (including Nick Offerman, in his best non "Parks and Rec" performance to date), and with the help of show-stealing oddball Biaggio (Moises Arias), build a house in the woods where they can act like grown-ups. Existing in a timeless not-quite-reality that tips its hat to '80s classics like "Stand By Me" and "The Goonies" while blending it with an up-to-the-minute sense of humor that betrays Vogt-Roberts' links with the current comedy scene (big-name stand-ups like Kumail Nanjiani and Hannibal Burress have cameos), it's certainly the funniest film we've seen in 2013 so far, minute by minute. And yet it's also proof that capital-C comedy doesn't have to be as disposable as its studio counterparts; it spins the trend of the last few years on its head, and rather than following adults caught in arrested development, it's about kids who are racing prematurely to an adulthood that they're not quite ready for yet. What's more, in contrast to the flat, ugly look of most cinematic laughers, it's a genuinely beautiful-looking film, capturing those endless summer days where anything seems possible. Like every debut feature, it's imperfect, but this is what Vogt-Roberts can do first time at bat, we're dying to see what he comes up with second time around. [Read our review]
If Alexander Payne went to England and decided to cheekily remake "Natural Born Killers," it would probably look something like "Sightseers," Ben Wheatley's latest humanist horror comedy. It doesn't have the quite the same collect-your-bearings whoosh of Wheatley's last film, "Kill List," but it's equally impressive for different reasons. Instead of wild tonal shifts there are subtle fluctuations in mood and style; this is a "straight" comedy twisted and inverted and dipped in coal-black tar. It helps that Wheatley and his stars/co-writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram so fully inhabit this world that, while barbed and satirical, the movie never comes across as condescending. It's terribly sincere, even when its characters are doing terrible things. As a pair of dumpy suburban England schlubs who decide to go camping, Lowe and Oram become these characters, people who are probably together because no one else would have anything to do with them. When the trip goes from hilariously banal to genuinely bloody, it seems like a natural progression – everyone has been on the vacation that they would kill to get out of, these two just take that literally. "Sightseers" is easily one of the funniest movies released this year, and even more so because each laugh carries with it an equally jolting shock. So bloody good. [Read our Cannes 2012 review]
“The Place Beyond The Pines”
If Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" was the perfect debut rock album, simple and toothsome and pure, then "The Place Beyond the Pines" is the "difficult" sophomore album, where the musicians have decided to add all sorts of potentially problematic embellishments, things like strings and children's choirs and 8-minute-long prog breakdowns. It doesn't knock you for the same emotional loop but you can't help but goggle at its seemingly bottomless ambition and novelistic zeal. Employing a uniquely assured structure, "The Place Beyond The Pines" is equal parts family drama and sprawling crime epic, and while its thematic concerns ("the sins of the father" is a big one) sometimes threaten to topple what is an occasionally wobbly enterprise with a number of moving parts, it still manages to resonate emotionally. Ryan Gosling is a motorcycle stunt driver-turned-bank robber who falls in love with Eva Mendes' small-town girl and ends up fathering a child. Bradley Cooper is the cop intent on bringing him down and… That's all you can say about the movie's plot without threatening to ruin some of the many wonderful twists and turns. The movie jumps forward in time without so much as a title card indicating as much; with just two movies under his belt, it's clear that Cianfrance is a director obsessed with what time does to relationships and his gorgeously naturalistic, assured approach to the depiction of time is part of what makes "The Place Beyond The Pines" so powerful. As far as second albums go, it's a wonder. [Read our review]
“Beyond The Hills”
It’s winter in rural Romania, but it’s more than the chill of the season that’s instilling a damp discomfort in the bones of the characters in Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond The Hills.” The arrival of Alina (Cristina Flutur) to a strictly orthodox religious compound to visit her friend, and possible former lover Voichita (Cosmina Straten) to convince her to leave so they can be together, sets off a chain of events that are grim, surreal and undeniably powerful. Mungiu, who came to international attention with “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” once again employs his favored long takes, with minimal movement, to possibly even subtler effect here, with results that are no less devastating. This is really the story of two kinds of obsession that can crush the soul -- faith and love -- and how the zeal of the former, can overtake the latter to the point of obliterating all compassion. Stratan and Flutur shared the Best Actress prize in 2012 at Cannes and it’s easy to see why. They both deliver tremendous turns, finding nuances of pain, longing, devotion and more that enrich Mungiu’s thematically ambitious film. It's a film in which possession of the soul -- by God or the devil -- locks humanity out of the heart, but the commitment of love could be the most powerful force to fight it. [Our review is here]
"Behind The Candelabra"
The most impressive trick (among many) that the glitzy, gaudy, exuberant Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” pulls off is in dealing even-handedly with a star who was so much larger than life that the temptation to render him as a caricature must have been all but overwhelming. But Steven Soderbergh, with characteristic restraint and intelligence, avoids this trap, a feat made doubly impressive by that fact that, in basing the film on ex-lover Scott Thorson’s book, the material would easily have been there for a character assassination. But ‘Candelabra’ isn’t a hagiography either, it's a nuanced and surprisingly touching look at late-life Liberace, his moments of monstrousness (having Thorson undergo plastic surgery to look more like a younger version of himself is possibly the oogiest) balanced by moments of great tenderness and love, the rawer and realer for coming from beneath layers of lurex and sequins. But of course all the directorial good intentions in the world would be nothing without the performances to embody all these subtleties, and in Matt Damon’s wide-eyed, gradually wising-up Thorson and Michael Douglas’s jaw-droppingly brilliant Liberace, Soderbergh finds the beating heart of the picture. Both actors are on career-best form here, though Douglas, perhaps deservedly will grab the majority of the limelight for his revelatory turn -- nothing he’s done before even hinted at the level of commitment and humanity he brings to Lee. Of course, it’s a sad irony that ‘Candelabra’ with its meticulous period detailing and flamboyant sets and costumes, is one of Soderbergh’s most big-screen-worthy films, but it will be a small-screen experience for many U.S. viewers, still, the film’s greatest strengths are its storytelling and characterization which simply sing, off screens of any size. [Read our review from Cannes 2013]