Winter's Bone (dir. Debra Granik)
The critical narrative tethered to this title in its initial release had me entering fully prepared for a Frozen River or even an An Education experience. That is, a story containing an exceptional, star-making female lead performance practically crying out for a film deserving of such actorly talent. What I got was an engrossing, arresting movie-going experience that completely blindsided me. I can't really put my finger on all of the elements that I look for in a film I'm going to recommend. It's a personal and often nebulous thing, trying to saliently communicate one's cinematic sensibilities. I can say (don't worry, I'm going somewhere with this) that I have never enjoyed a film that felt dishonest. Winter's Bone is so lived-in and observant in terms of the world it occupies, and I'm not just talking about the Ozark mountain setting, about which I admittedly know little. I'm talking about the lives of these characters, which is established very clearly in the beginning, with every word uttered and every action taken speaking to that in a compelling way. Not to call Frozen River dishonest, but there was this lingering air of "let's evoke audience guilt" that hung heavy. Winter's Bone is stark and frank in a completely organic way. Much praise and ballyhoo has been heaped upon Jennifer Lawrence and (to a lesser extent) Dale Dickey, both turning in fabulous turns worthy of high accolade. The entire cast is in top form, as are the sound department (so atmospheric, yet not showily so), and Debra Granik's sure directorial hand. People seem to be cooling considerably, not on their reaction to the film, but about its award prospects (not to imply that a great film isn't its own reward, regardless of awards citation). I could be wrong, but I think the critics will take care of Winter's Bone come year's end. Look for Jennifer Lawrence to get a best actress nomination. Her name will be on the lips, (who is she even competing with for breakthrough citations at this point?). I wouldn't be surprised, especially in a field of ten, if Winter's Bone lands on the best picture list, though obviously it's not a slam dunk.
I Am Love (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Here is a film about which my initial effusiveness is cooling. I enjoyed it slightly less on a second viewing, though Tilda Swinton's work is still searing, convincing, peculiar and specific (as always). It's almost epic in its scale and splendor. However, a scene can be largely without dialogue and still overstate many of its greater ideas. It's very easy to get swept up in I Am Love that one almost overlooks how many of the visual cues verge on the obtuse--for instance, the first time Emma (Swinton) tastes food made by Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). This is not to say that it's not a lovely and in many ways accomplished film. It's very evocative, mostly when it's not trying so hard to be. The overwrought conclusion and the even more overwrought score (seriously, people are praising this score, but calling Never Let Me Go overscored? Both composers are a little wand-happy, but the latter, considerably less so...) keep this film from an A.
The Kids Are All Right (dir. Lisa Cholodenko)
The ingredients for a great film (rather than the quite good, if far too tentative and easy result) are present. Great cast? Check. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore seem perfectly in their element here, as does Mark Ruffalo. The kids are great too. Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are the unsung assets to The Kids Are All Right, gifting the film with aching, believable uncertainty and mortification at the behavior of the "adults" in their lives. Humor? Check. I laughed. I laughed quite a lot, actually. So, why does it seem like I like The Kids Are All Right slightly less than everyone seems to love it? Firstly, it's clear that screenwriters Cholodenko and Stuart Bloomberg love each of the characters they've created. That's evidenced by their need to protect them and their inability to put them into situations where they are required to make hard choices. Annette Bening navigates around the film's pussy-footing nature with aplomb. She will eke out a full-realized characterization and performance, even if it's not necessarily given to her on the page. Julianne Moore is given quieter notes to play, as is Ruffalo. Great performances often seem effortless and no one is phoning it in here. I'm always glad to see Moore breaking away from her impressive, yet morose "woman on the verge..." thesp-ing that often pigeonholes her and prevents her true versatility from shining through. However, the film's wispy keeps it from rising to true greatness or even memorability. Here is a story crying out for just a bit more shading, complexity and hardness than what is given.
Prodigal Sons (dir. Kimberly Reed)
Proof that I need to make more of a concerted effort to watch documentaries, and not just those that manage to creep into the larger consciousness, some based on merit and others based on accessible and timely (read: facile) subject matter. An aside: I've yet to watch Waiting for Superman, so I can't comment. However, the trailer, combined with reactions from those I trust, as well as Guggenheim's previous documentary (An Inconvenient Truth), which smugly masqueraded common knowledge as incendiary samizdat which "the man" doesn't want you to know about all have my expectations cold as ice (rant over). Prodigal Sons, a documentary about director Kimberly Reed's return to Montana for a high school reunion marries the piercing emotionality of Tarnation with the polished, formal elements of Steve James or even Errol Morris. It's a wonderful combination. We watch as she attempts to reconcile her relationship with her very troubled adopted brother Marc. I almost want to hold my feelings about this film close to my chest, as its such an arresting experience to watch the story unfold before you and become something completely different than what is promised, yet no less satisfying. It's strange...I tend to be repelled, at least on principle, by the prospect of personal documentaries. And yet, when done well, they are the most affecting.
Machete (dir. Robert Rodriguez)
Whether being viewed simply as an exercise in B-movie cinematic excess, or as a mindless action film (or both), Machete fails to turn either trope on its head in a way that is memorable or interesting.