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Under the Skin

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on March 29, 2014 at 4:40 PM Comments comments (0)



UNDER THE SKIN   ***

Jonathan Glazer

2014


 


 

IDEA:  A woman drives around the streets of Glasgow picking up men. Luring them to her pitch-black lair, she seduces them, quite literally, to their deaths.


BLURB:  Mesmeric then ponderous, fascinatingly oblique then frustratingly vague, Under the Skin is an entrancing curiosity, a dark sci-fi fable designed to induce shivers first and tease the mind forever after. The results can be mixed: for every magnificently oneiric visual – naked bodies literally being swallowed in gulfs of blackness, superimpositions that create nearly prismatic planes – there are stretches that seem to lack the same kind of purpose or vigor, stalling in places that should instead be serving to develop, or deepen, the film’s richly existential themes. At times, the ideas don’t feel fully borne out, or are otherwise unable to efficiently surface through Glazer’s abstractions. At others, the chilled moods and textures evoked by DP Daniel Landin spark them to life, slips of potent commentary on social and gender programming emerging miraculously from the void. When the film threatens to drift away in a gossamer wisp or become just another dreamy mood piece, it is grounded, finally, by a beguiling Scarlett Johansson, whose humanizing force ensures that the tricky ontological questions manage to register at all. How we can interpret her character’s strange, hurried self-awakening – the way she begins to understand her skin, her body, and what may or may not be going on beneath that exterior – is all thanks to Johansson’s subtly modulated behavioral cues. In the end, we, like her, will become all too aware of how insufficiently our appearances represent us, but also, somewhat tragically, how inseparable we are from them. Glazer doesn’t always get there, but the seeds he plants only grow the more one ponders.

Top 10 - 2013

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on January 12, 2014 at 4:25 PM Comments comments (1)



For many critics and cinephiles, 2013 was an especially exemplary year for film. Some hail it is as one of the best movie years in, well, years, citing past consensus favorites like 1999 and 2007 as recent, comparable benchmarks. As far as I’m concerned, however, every year is an exemplary movie year: if you dig deep enough (which means watching films that may not show at your local multiplex) and see enough, any year will prove richly satisfying. 2013 was, like 2012 and 2011 before it, one of those richly satisfying years.

There were notable themes among my favorite films. One of the most significant was individuals separated from their environments, and even sometimes from themselves, in terms physical, psychological, or philosophical. These characters were torn precariously between modes of independence and codependence, singularity and acquiescence, stoicism and resignation, their futures as unsettled as their very unspooling presents. Whether it was staring into an existential void, battling the elements, or wrestling with self-contradictions amidst society’s seemingly unfeasible demands, characters in 2013’s best films had to learn how to make it on their own, for better and for worse.

Also prevalent were investigations into truth, family, reality, history, and the cinema itself, some of which took the form of boundary-pushing documentaries. These films, in their vibrant storytelling and invigorating formal experimentation, reaffirmed that film is as personally, culturally, and politically important as ever.

Sadly, there were films I wanted to see that I wasn’t able to before I made the list. These include, but are not limited to: To the Wonder (what’s a Malick fan to do?), Post Tenebras Lux (or is that a 2012 film?), In the House (ditto), August: Osage County (something tells me it wouldn’t have made it…), Fruitvale Station, and The Great Beauty.


Without further ado, my top 10 films of 2013:



10. Stranger by the Lake / Alain Guiraudie

The other gay-themed film to premiere at Cannes 2013 (and by far the better one, if you ask me), Alain Guiraudie's ultra-minimalist erotic thriller ingeniously utilizes a single location and a few actors to craft a deft and haunting examination of the perilous traps set by love and passion. Allowing us access to no other place but the beach where men go to carry out anonymous sexual flings, Guiraudie paints a portrait of geographical and psychological demarcation that questions the extent to which we're willing to set boundaries in our lives and in our relationships. The final shot, a near-pitch black image of our protagonist stranded in the night, was among the most heartstopping movie moments of the year.

9. The Act of Killing / Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous

Few documentaries prove the old adage "truth is stranger than fiction" better than The Act of Killing, a bizarre, brilliant, ethically dubious act itself, in which Oppenheimer and his filmmaking team (many, tellingly, listed simply as "anonymous") tasked former Indonesian death squad leaders with reenacting their crimes for the camera - all in the style of their favorite Hollywood genres. The result is even stranger than you would imagine, an eye-opening account of systemic corruption, national brainwashing, history-writing, collective delusion, and, finally and most unbelievably, a moral awakening spurred on by, of all things, cinema itself. Politically conscious filmmaking in this day and age hardly comes more radical or provocative than this.

8. Leviathan / Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel

Another documentary, this one just as unorthodox but in an entirely different way. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel set out on a commercial shipping vessel in the Northeast, where they attached tiny cameras to various surfaces, humans, and even creatures aboard and around the massive boat. The footage that came from it is utterly hypnotic, collaged together in ways that turn potentially mundane sights like fishing, gutting, and underwater views into ecstatic, constantly shape-shifting abstracts. A shot of dead fish sliding up and down a waterlogged deck, with the camera positioned at ground level, is one of the most strangely beautiful things I've ever seen. No second feels wasted - this is cinema of the most experiential kind, a testament to what the medium can do with just its most basic, primal visual faculties.

7. Stories We Tell / Sarah Polley

I promise I did not mean to have these three documentaries listed one after the other. But here it is, and how well it goes with the previous two films' playful formal and narrative experimentations. Sarah Polley's film, however, is its own uniquely and creative thing, an intimate investigation into her family history that blossoms into a profound, all-encompassing map of human frailty, fallibility, and dignity. But it doesn't settle at just that, either. As the story unravels, it begins to branch out in all kinds of unexpected directions, with revelations emerging out of revelations like an infinite series of Russian nesting dolls. The film then becomes a treatise on the very form through which it speaks, a consideration of stories and storytelling, and the new, ever-oscillating meanings and perspectives they acquire when they're told and re-told. It's a complex, multi-faceted patchwork that conjures, before our eyes, vivid personal histories, ones that almost imperceptibly become ours, too.

6. Gravity / Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón's awesome, dizzyingly immersive 3D spectacle was as taut and exciting a moviegoing experience as one could have, in this past year or in any year. Emmanuel Lubezki's sterling, vertiginous camerawork makes you feel as if you're as unmoored as Sandra Bullock's isolated Ryan Stone, trying desperately to grasp at the spinning world around you as you ineffectively attempt to fight off the zero Gs. But Gravity is not merely a visceral ride or a display of cutting-edge special effects: the reason it works so well, why it strikes such a resounding human chord, is because it effortlessly taps into our fears and anxieties, and in ways so visually simple (not simplistic) that we hardly even need to think about them before they've hit us straight in the gut. Who can't relate with just not being able to hold on? Or, by the same token, not being able to let go? Cuarón's film distills these concerns into a highly original and, yes, nerve-wrackingly visceral visual language. Then, he shows us the human species' greatest, most intuitive strength: perseverance.

5. All is Lost / J.C. Chandor

A wonderful companion piece to Cuarón's film, All is Lost is also a survival tale focusing on an individual battling the tempest of a volatile, unpredictable, and perhaps indifferent world. Where Gravity took to a more macrocosmic portrait of adversity and endurance, Chandor finds his lone hero (lovingly titled "Our Man") in a more socially and economically precarious situation. It also, wonderfully, does away with dialogue almost completely, leaving us in a state of contemplation and diligent observation similar to that of Redford's main character. While the film takes place entirely in the middle of the Indian Ocean with only one person ever seen on screen, it never wants for thematic or visual inspiration. Every shot and beat of this thing is exhilarating, with Chandor and his superior team of artists drawing out not only the mythical implications inherent in such a story, but also the more unexpected sociological ones. It doesn't take long for us to recognize "Our Man" as a regular, rough-hewn American upended by economic crisis, beginning to slowly and painfully realize society may have moved on without him.

4. Frances Ha / Noah Baumbach

If you wanted to put it simply: delightful. Lovely. Warm. Sprightly, quick-witted, clever, and funny. Frances Ha was one of the most purely pleasurable films of the year, a shimmering black and white urban coming-of-age comedy that bounced along on notes of delicious deadpan humor and offbeat character interactions. That's only half of why it's the fourth best film of the year, of course. What really makes this one stick with you is its open-hearted and poignant portrait of a woman awkwardly stretched between life roles, paving uncertain pathways towards adulthood, independence, success, and self-actualization. Greta Gerwig, as the arrested-in-development title character, gives one of the most winsome performances of 2013, and she is as fully fleshed out as a character who doesn't quite know who she is yet could possibly be. Whether you're 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or even 100, Baumbach's film is impossible not to relate to, a paean to (trying) to grow up and out that rings with utter truth. In the end, it offers no false consolation, only the acknowledgement of life's small, messy vagaries. That's comfort enough.

3. Her / Spike Jonze

Her takes a vaguely sci-fi premise - a man falls in love with his sentient operating system - and mines it for robust, unspeakably soulful insight on relationships, technology, and the vicissitudes of the human condition. Jonze's clever script works through multiple strands and contexts all at once: his film may be a slice of speculative futurism on the surface (and it's a damn good one - everything he puts on screen reverberates like a prophecy), but its sci-fi trappings are incidental to its profoundly moving dissection of love, relationships, and the process of learning and growing through experience. A masterfully subtle Joaquin Phoenix guides us through a relationship that, like real human ones, is dependent on two wholly autonomous, free-thinking, evolving participants. Simply but ingeniously, Jonze substitues one side of that relationship for a rapidly evolving tech, a device not unlike ones we enjoy today, that briefly meets its human counterpart eye-to-eye before, inevitably, outgrowing it. Her pinpoints the juncture in a relationship where both sides - human or not - recognize how they're fundamentally changing through each other, and must reconcile their former selves with the ones they're evolving into. This is a remarkably compassionate, sanguine vision of a near future that charts not our decay, but our immeasurable capacity to flourish.

2. Nebraska / Alexander Payne

In another year, Alexander Payne's faultless Midwestern portrait would have been my number one film. Directing from a wry and tender script by Bob Nelson, Payne's father-son road trip with the perfectly paired Bruce Dern and Will Forte takes us on an unforgettable foray into the stark beauty of America's heartland, its vibrant inhabitants, and its humble small town values. The regional detail is spot-on - scene after scene feels ripped from any midwesterner's life, with people and places that are so naturalistically rendered we never believe for a second they're fictional. The film presents, like Stories We Tell but in a more linearly narrative fashion, a kind of geneological excavation, with every moment and character interaction revealing new depths in this complicated and wounded family history, one that includes not just the battle-axe wife played by June Squibb and a host of hilariously mum sons, brothers, and cousins, but an entire township of colorful past friends and acquaintances. Everyone in this film knows each other somehow, and learning how they do and what they make of it now, all these years later in their fading little town, is a journey of endlessly beguiling surprises. And I haven't even mentioned just how hysterical Payne's film is, how I literally had tears streaming down my face from laughing so hard. Like the members of our own families, these beautiful characters are frustrating, strange, lovable, hilarious, and, in the end, completely real.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis / Joel and Ethan Coen

The atmosphere is entrancing. Glowing, burnished wintry blues, emeralds and ochres envelop us in a state of sustained, trancelike rhapsody. Mellifluous music haunts the heavy air like a specter. A man, ashen, despondent, exhausted, wanders through the milieu in a stupefied blur, arriving at crossroads in which he will decide whether to continue wandering in circles, or if he will find a more concrete and gratifying path. It's 1961 in a folksy Greenwich Village; then it's on the road to Chicago. Then past Akron, back to New York. A circle. It feels less like reality than a bewitching, sad dream, or maybe a long ago memory you could have sworn was a dream, or a dream you could have sworn was a memory. The inimitable Coen brothers' newest film is a thing of miraculous, diaphanous beauty, a wispy, wistful, elegiac tone poem that is also one of the most vivid, tangible things I've ever encountered through a movie screen. It is a tribute to the artist's struggle, of which it is one of the most bruisingly accurate I can think of. Llewyn is an artist, which means he is passionate and creative, unwilling to compromise his vision. It also means he is caught in a cycle of self-doubt, indignation, melancholy and self-sabotage, stubborness and uncertainty. He is unwilling to sacrifice his artistic integrity, even if it will lead to success. He knows a part of himself needs the dejection and the pain to keep creating the art he's creating - to be keyed into the pain of life in order to express it, unfettered. He also knows there's no money in living like that. It's the artist as masochist, Sisyphus, tortured and self-tortured genius. The Coens turn him and his world into something sublime. Long after the movie ends, you keep exploring its alleyways, its diners, its empty streets and snowy highways and dusky cafes. It becomes a part of you. How seamlessly the Coen brothers craft their masterpieces. Their latest is the best film of 2013.


And the great, very worthy runners-up:


12 YEARS A SLAVE

For its restraint and bluntly elegant artistry, and its powerful depiction of an institution that infected body, mind and soul in ways we can never let ourselves forget. Spectacular performances.

THE WAY, WAY BACK

For its achingly poignant coming-of-age arc, realistic grasp of teenage introversion, and its emotionally walloping mother-son catharsis. And its hilarious ensemble.

MUD

For its Twain-esque magical realism and novel-esque script, and its heartbreakingly lovely central performance from young Tye Sheridan.

AMERICAN HUSTLE

For its jazzy, free-riff vibe and surprisingly substantial tale of fraud, one-upmanship, disguise, survival, and reinvention.

COMPUTER CHESS

For its full commitment to being loopy and bizarre and totally original, and for its rather brilliantly realized formal conceit.

Coming Soon

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on January 8, 2014 at 11:45 PM Comments comments (0)



Yes, it's almost here. You've been waiting for it. A list of 2013's best films. You might've seen other lists, lists from critics and bloggers and random moviegoer friends, but you haven't seen my list. My list is the real list. If you want to know what 2013 really had to offer in the cinema department, you'd best pay attention to the list I've put together. I've watched the films and I've deliberated their every detail. Serious business. But I am still catching up with some stray contenders, so keep patient for a little longer, if you can. 

Coming soon. Stay tuned.

Her

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on January 6, 2014 at 3:30 PM Comments comments (0)



HER   ***1/2

Spike Jonze

2013

 

 

IDEA:  In the near future, a man falls in love with his newly purchased operating system, causing him - and us - to reevaluate the nature of relationships in the digital age.


BLURB:  With Her, Spike Jonze has created something truly unique in the pantheon of sci-fi cinema, a wise and ultimately sanguine vision of a future that seems like nothing less than the completely natural outgrowth of our present. The typical dystopian blues and grays are replaced by womblike crimsons and oranges; the machines are varying degrees of sentient, but they are not out to harm us; and very much like the world we live in now, everything is encased in a kind of glassy, snow globe-like cocoon, its inhabitants as close as they’ve ever been but just as equally as far. It is an ingeniously designed environment, with Hoyte Van Hoytema’s marvelous shallow focus cinematography rendering its cozy-but-eerily sterile spaces as segmented cells in which humans mustn’t feel the responsibility to interact. Instead, all of their difficult vagaries are intimately shared and combined with our rapidly evolving tech. How do we conduct our relationships when a friend or lover is as likely to come from bytes and algorithms as they are from neurons and synapses? Perhaps no other film has gotten so profoundly at the 21st century condition of living in a society overwhelmed in its involvement with, and reliance upon, the digital domain. Jonze takes a look at that society, but doesn’t recoil. He simply sees, and acknowledges, a new era, a next step in the timeline of social evolution in which we consider not how far we’ve fallen, but how much we're still yet to learn.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 30, 2013 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (0)



THE WOLF OF WALL STREET   ***

Martin Scorsese

2013



 

IDEA:  An account of white collar criminal Jordan Belfort, whose phony brokerage firm and money laundering tactics made him and his minions millions - and allowed them to lead lives of unchecked lechery.


BLURB:  For much of its running time, Martin Scorsese’s latest opus leans heavily on the appeal of base, juvenile pleasures, seeming to think nonstop displays of frat-level debauchery are reason enough to keep us engaged. He might be on to something. The Wolf of Wall Street is entertainment at its most gleefully wanton, an audience-baiter that milks every ounce of mileage it can from endless assortments of sex, drugs, nudity, vulgarity and the twisted rush of watching very rich people behave very, very badly. An electric Leonardo DiCaprio is at the center of it all, and his character’s volcanic vileness seeps through the picture, infecting everything with a primordial, animalistic hellishness that might just constitute Scorsese’s most perversely amoral world yet. It’s a compelling portrayal, though one Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter don’t bother giving much nuance. Nearly every beat of their restless three hour bacchanal is pitched at the same shrill, overbearing volume, with narrative texture hardly even a peripheral concern. That may very well be the point: a man rotted from the inside out by his self-consuming addiction to wealth and power is someone perhaps best served by a portrait that mirrors his exhausting hollowness. But is that evidence of Scorsese actually saying something about white collar profligacy, or is it him merely using the opportunity to indulge in his own authorial excesses? It’s exceedingly hard to tell. While the question lingers, its implications – for him, for the film, for us – prove tantalizing.

American Hustle

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 26, 2013 at 7:55 PM Comments comments (0)



AMERICAN HUSTLE   ***

David O. Russell

2013



 

IDEA:  An FBI agent ensnares a conman and his equally devious partner into a sting operation targeting the mayor of New Jersey. Things get complicated when the conman's volatile wife enters the picture, and even more heated when the mafia gets involved.


BLURB:  America is a country founded on the promise of opportunity and free enterprise, a place in which anyone of any stripe can become whomever they want to be and find happiness – and prosperity – in the process. The magnificently sleazy, conniving rogues in David O. Russell’s baggy but very entertaining American Hustle take that concept and exploit it for all it’s worth. These shaggy conmen and hustlers are the deliciously perverse incarnation of the American Dream: they are deceitful and dishonest, but only under the name of reinvention and survival. The roles they play are more than a way of life, but, perhaps, the way of life. One of Russell’s and his cast’s most thrilling accomplishments is how they make these lowlife scumbags paragons of profound human frailty. They are never forgiven for what they’ve done, but they are understood, and the dimensions they continue to acquire throughout Russell's and Singer's incredibly smart script keep us constantly reevaluating our sympathies. With surprising depth, they illustrate how fraud becomes a mask for distress, how vulnerability is suppressed and converted into one-upmanship, and how loyalties get tangled between and within levels political, familial, and romantic. Russell is rather scattershot in covering all of this abundance, often losing focus amidst the commotion. But it’s the characters, wily, complicated, and wonderful, that have us on our toes, and the brilliant cast of actors who get to bring them to life take full advantage of the opportunity. They play us good.

A Picture's Worth One Thousand Words 43

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 24, 2013 at 11:30 PM Comments comments (0)

    Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, 1983

Nebraska

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 27, 2013 at 9:15 PM Comments comments (0)



NEBRASKA   ****

Alexander Payne

2013



 

IDEA:  An old, ornery alcoholic father convinces his son to drive him to Nebraska thinking he's won a million dollars. On the way there, they stop by the town where the old man grew up, his past - and genealogy - revealing themselves in the process.


BLURB:  Nebraska is a picture-perfect portrait of a place and a people, rendered with sensitivity, character, and a kind of region-specific detail that’s so precise it’s nigh miraculous. Its depiction of the American Midwest is as fine as the cinema has seen: whether capturing the majesty of its vast, unadorned landscapes or representing its small towns and their communities, it is attuned to the humble, understated temperament of the country’s heartland in a way that goes beyond the provincial and into a kind of transcendent familiarity. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson never step a foot wrong in giving us a totally naturalistic sense of the individual and shared family histories that have been built into this geography. Their insight into the ways familial relationships stall and evolve, regress and reshape through time and circumstance, is poignant and true. The faces chosen to bring the story and its characters to life are just as exemplary: Bruce Dern, June Squibb, and Will Forte make a hilariously mercurial father-mother-son dynamic, but it’s the bit parts, the little guys, that show just how attentive Payne is to the social fabric he’s weaving. Every single person, primary or peripheral, has the right look, the right sound, the right feel – while they may be polarized by the vagaries of life and family, nobody is out of place in this beautifully modest slice of Americana.

A Picture's Worth One Thousand Words 42

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 6, 2013 at 9:35 PM Comments comments (0)

    Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man, 1956

All is Lost

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 2, 2013 at 6:50 PM Comments comments (0)



ALL IS LOST   ****

J.C. Chandor

2013




IDEA:  A man wakes up to find his sailboat flooded. A floating cargo container has punctured the side of his ship. He beats on, his prospects dwindling.


BLURB:  Harnessing the water, the skies, and the grizzled yet improbably fit countenance of Robert Redford, All is Lost crafts an experience of staggering physical and emotional fluency. Chandor knows what he’s doing and more: his prudence, his visual acuity, and his open embrace of solitude and silence put into heartrending relief a story of personal and social crisis. The minimalism is such that the film operates on simultaneous levels of metaphor. As a simple survival tale of man versus nature, it’s riveting; as a more mythic visualization of detachment and loss, aging and despair, it’s even grander; and as a 21st century lament to economic disaster and social ostracization, it reaches its most gut-wrenching peaks. The images of our stoic old man slowly relenting to the whiplash of the natural world as well as the negligent attitudes of a passing society are painful in their familiarity. This may be a film about struggle, about resignation and decline. In those dire circumstances, however, it finds life unequivocally affirmed.


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About the Author


Jonathan Leithold-Patt is a 22-year-old film student at Columbia College Chicago. Besides watching lots and lots of films and writing about them, he is an avid painter.

Devoted to the Movies

Selected Reviews

2001: A Space Odyssey

The 400 Blows

A Prophet

A Separation

An Education

Amour

Apocalypse Now

The Apu Trilogy

Badlands

The Battle of Algiers

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Bicycle Thief

Birth

Black Swan

Blue Valentine

Brave

Broadway Danny Rose

Les Carabiniers

Caché

Certified Copy

The Children Are Watching Us

Chungking Express

Claire's Knee

The Class

Climates

Close-Up

C.R.A.Z.Y.

The Cremator

Deconstructing Harry

Dersu Uzala

The Descendants

Django Unchained

Drive

The Earrings of Madame de...

Exit Through the Gift Shop

The Exterminating Angel

Fata Morgana

The Fighter

Frances Ha

Fury

The General

Get Low

Holy Motors

Hugo

The Hurt Locker

I Was Born, But...

The Ides of March

In a Year with 13 Moons

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

La Jetée

Juliet of the Spirits

Kes

The Kids Are All Right

The King's Speech

The Lady Eve

Late Spring

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Little Fugitive

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The Lord of the Rings

Louisiana Story

M

Mamma Roma

Man with a Movie Camera

Martha Marcy May Marlene

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Melancholia

Miller's Crossing

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle d'Amérique

My Life as a Dog

Naked

The Night of the Hunter

Nights of Cabiria

Ninotchka

Oliver Twist

Once Upon a Time in the West

Paisan

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Persona

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Il Posto

The Purple Rose of Cairo

Ratcatcher

The Red Balloon

The Right Stuff

Sátántangó

Seven Chances

Shame

Sister

The Social Network

Solaris

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring

The Straight Story

Super 8

Take Shelter

Ten

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

El Topo

Toy Story 3

The Tree of Life

Tropical Malady

Trouble in Paradise

Ugetsu

Viridiana

Walkabout

Where is the Friend's Home?

The White Ribbon

Witness

Zazie dans le Métro