Never Let Me Go (dir. Mark Romanek)
None of the criticisms of this film feel off-base, except for maybe the widespread belief that the film is overscored (I'm happy to firmly plant my flag on the other side of the fence and say that Rachel Portman's score, while a little overzealous at times, is beautiful and quite complementary to the narrative). The adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of the same name was, for my money, an incredibly effective and emotionally devastating film (take note of the word "devastating," a much harder and more lingering emotion to evoke than "depressing"). I was impressed up and down with this film, while recognizing its inherent flaws. The talks of over narration have been exhausted to death, but it's a fair criticism and one I agree with, particularly in the film's final moments. The film is bookended with a shot of Kathy (Carey Mulligan in a fantastic and understated turn that's more than what it seems) staring crestfallen at Tommy (Andrew Garfield). To open with the shot is unnecessary and sucks some of the emotional weight out of the final scene, though this is by no means a "spoiler" movie. Yes, there is a conceit at the core of this story that hangs over the narrative, but the film is more concerned about matters of the heart than the soft sci-fi elements. Every actor hits the right tone, particularly Keira Knightley as Ruth, who would have a shot at a supporting actress nomination had the film been better received. Andrew Garfield handles his role so deftly. The performance may seem easy--he has the actorly advantage that is his eyes, which seem determined to absolutely break your heart in this film. I can't think of anything more wrenching this year than watching Garfield's Tommy as his eyes register earth-shattering news and realities. Of his two trumpeted turns this year, I much preferred Garfield here (and for the record, I thought he was very good in The Social Network). I'm going to talk lastly about the film's awards prospects, which many people seem to believe are nonexistent at this point. They could be (read: probably are) correct. However, I'm not sure it's over. If I'm recalling correctly, Babel came out of its earliest festivals with similarly split response. The Reader was not without its very loud, vocal detractors who cried foul at its inclusion in the best picture roster, most likely at the expense of The Dark Knight. Never Let Me Go is not this year's The Lovely Bones--a rather easy and frankly lazy comparison I've heard more than once. Firstly, it's not based on source material whose literary merit was constantly in question, even before the release of the film. Never Let Me Go is prestige and (if you ask me) prestige done very well. There are people who are sticking by it. Roger Ebert's beautifully written rave review underline a possible generational divide. Could the older members of the Academy respond to this film in a way that could surprise? I'm not trying to break a story and I could be wrong, but again, I'm not sure that it's over for Never Let Me Go and for that I'm thrilled.
Grade: B+ (A-? I really feel like it's going to end up being the latter...I literally have thought about this film in some capacity every day since I've seen it)
The Town (dir. Ben Affleck)
In a completely schizophrenic moviegoing experience, I viewed The Town mere minutes within viewing Never Let Me Go. I should probably revisit it at some point, but right now it's being judged rather unfairly. It's a very well-crafted piece of work that marries commercial and artistic sensibilities very well. It's not a great leap forward stylistically from Affleck's freshman effort Gone Baby Gone, which has something new to behold upon each subsequent viewing and ranks among my favorite films of the 2000s. However, while I can think of about a dozen moments from Never Let Me Go that are burned into my memory, I'm finding it hard to latch on to any singular moments in The Town. It's impressive, but definitely a fast fade. Ben Affleck turns in a fine performance, though I've never subscribed to the belief that he's a terrible actor, despite the terrible projects that often seem to find him. He's fine, but ultimately a bit miscast and I wonder if sideman Jeremy Renner wouldn't have been a more interesting choice for the lead. Blake Lively...what can I say? Full disclosure: she was one of the driving influences behind my desire to see this film. It was probably one part morbid curiosity (who doesn't enjoy a hot ghetto mess of a performance?) and one part optimistic curiosity (can she carve out another Amy Ryan, scene-stealing characterization of a female Bostonian ne'er do well?) The result was kind of neither. Lively is not in the film nearly enough to make a real impression, and when she's on screen she kind of seems in over her head and really out of place with everything that's going on. Ditto, I'm sorry to say, for Jon Hamm, who's not nearly as hair-raisingly atonal as Lively, yet manages to radiate a certain air of standard-issue--not a good fit for such a prominent role in a major motion picture. Like I said, I appreciated it very much when I was watching it and Ben Affleck is mostly in very deft control as a director. I'm curious to see what he does next, especially if he moves away from the gritty white Boston crime milieu. But "forgettable" definitely is a word that comes to mind after some distance.
Dogtooth (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
One of two films I've seen this year that's truly unlike anything I've ever experienced, cinematically (Enter the Void also shares that distinction, though I've yet to wholly decide if it's to that film's credit or detriment). Greek director Lanthimos paints a horrifying, bare bones and often sickly humorous portrayal of a patriarch who keeps his three adult children (two daughters and a son, all non-actors), under strict lock and key. They never leave the large grounds of their house, which includes a pool and a tennis court, but is still confining and stifling. The children are completely arrested. They speak with a very basic intelligence that would, at first glance, betray how truly warped they are. But the first glimpses are startling. They have been taught the wrong words for things (they are told the word "pussy" means a "big light," which...not so much). An employee of the father is brought to the house blindfolded, presumably for money, so that she can fulfill the simple biological function of servicing the son's burgeoning sexual needs. That is all the plot that one needs (this is not a "plot" piece of cinema, at least not in the traditional sense). I likened it very much to Passolini's Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, with the notable exception being that it widely strips away any artifice. Dogtooth presents more of a blank, unintellectualized portrayal of sadism, rather than a heavy-handed comment on sadism, to its credit. The most arresting scene in the film is not a violent one. It involves a dance performed by the daughters for their parents anniversary party. It's so interesting to watch the audience reaction to this moment--it's met with shocked silence, followed by uproarious laughter, and then more shocked silence. That is the film's lure. And love it or hate it, it's definitely one that stays with you long after the last frame.