Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Haywire (2012) – Review

Review: Haywire is both a modern and throwback action film. The film centers on Mallory a burned spy who wants revenge on her employers. Director Steven Soderbergh seems to want to make a retro spy thriller with this film, and yet still have the action and physicality of something comparable to the Paul Greengrass Jason Bourne films. The result is a film that is entertaining with very good action set pieces that take full of the film’s star Gina Carano and her MMA background but is also paced oddly with long backstory/exposition scenes that seem to drag awfully, especially when played against the frantic, highly kinetic action. To an extent, it seems as if Soderbergh is in love with the physicality of his star, building everything around her ability to show off what she can do – fighting, jumping, running, climbing, and so on. But, her character is maybe the weakest in the film, as she shows little emotion and does not give enough of herself to the audience (be it through lack of skill, directing or writing). Thus, the audience does not connect and the film is merely spectacle, which only makes the slower moments negatively affect the film even more. Also with many action films being structured to always be moving forward, the pace at which many of the film’s moments play at seem by comparison to be static. Not to say that change is not good – many spy films are slow building pieces that encompass great action scenes but usually they are built around their characters and not the action as this is. Soderbergh has a bit of a confliction. He wants to make it sort of in the 1970s style, which is especially apparent in the music and tone, but have it also work as a modern action film (which to say is not something that is impossible, but this feels more like a test run on the idea than the idea being mastered). In many ways it is comparable to last year’s Drive, a film that was paced very to be slow but had moments of intense hyper violence. However, Drive works because it has wonderful fleshed out characters, while this does not (even though this has a lot more action). There is a lot to really like about Haywire – the action is fantastic, the acting from the supporting cast is very good, the style is cool and interesting – but it just does not quite come together completely.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steven Soderbergh should be complimented for trying something different in a genre that is plagued with film after film that are essentially the same, regardless of whether Haywire completely worked or not. I would like to see him return to the genre again in the future. He also served as the cinematographer and editor on the film. It is very well shot and its photography is one of its best aspects. Soderbergh lets the action play out, not using a ton of cuts, which again showcases Carano’s fighting talent much in the same way Asian-made martial arts films do for their stars. David Holmes provides a great retro-sounding score to the film that sets the tone very well (here is an example). Howard Cummings’s production design is also good, especially in the locations that he uses. The cast overall is good. Gina Carano works a bit like a blunt force weapon in the film. She is all fight and not much else, but with a few more roles under her belt I can see her becoming a good action star. Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas are both their usual selves (which is a good thing), while Ewan McGregor plays off type (and while he is good in the film, I am not sure he was physically right for the role). Channing Tatum is probably the most unexpected member of the cast performance wise, as he is very good. And, of course, Michael Fassbender is brilliant in his supporting role – sly and sort of weaselly.

Summary & score: As far as action films go, this is a good one, but Haywire is not quite among the genre’s best. 7/10

Monday, January 30, 2012

Movie of the Week – Return of the Jedi

This week’s movie is Return of the Jedi (1983).

The third in the original Star Wars trilogy finds Luke, Leia and friends on Tatooine to rescue Han Solo, but there is a much bigger mission at hand – destroying a second Death Star and for Luke, personally, facing both his father and The Emperor. While George Lucas co-wrote the screenplay and executively produced the film, Richard Marquand directed it. John Williams returns to score the film. Production designer Norman Reynolds returns also, but cinematographer Alan Hume (he also shot a few James Bond films) joins the crew. The principal cast all returns as well, with the notable new additions being Ian McDiarmid as The Emperor and Warwick Davies as Wicket (his first film). The film is not as beloved as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back (mostly because of the Ewoks and the fact that they have to destroy another Death Star), but it is very entertaining and has a number of great moments (and is still far better than any in the new trilogy). Lucas’s special edition’s added effects and scenes are not too bad in this one (aside from the awful singing alien that serves no purpose). For fans of the trilogy this is (of course) a must as it is a necessary companion piece to The Empire Strikes Back. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD

Friday, January 27, 2012

LeapBackBlog 2011 Film Awards – Part 5: Films

Film in 2011 saw many very good films. Deciding what made the lists and what did not was very difficult this year, and there are more than a few great films, performances and technical achievements that I had to leave off. The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done, and 2011 again features a lot of amazing breakthrough performances), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.


Beginners is both humorously quirky and very sad (maybe even a little melancholy at times), sometimes within the same scene. It is the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a man who has never had a meaningful relationship in his life. But after his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), dies, he meets a girl, Anna (Melanie Laurent), who might change all that if he is willing to let her in. Mike Mills crafts the film to be split between just before and just after Hal’s death. Mills also addresses social themes that resonate powerfully today, giving the film a meaningful subtext. Beginners is a treat of a film highlighted by some of the year’s best performances, a brilliant script and an indie sensibility.

Featuring some of 2011’s best performances and a fantastic script, The Descendants is about Matt King (George Clooney), a father who has to take sole responsibility for raising his two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) for the first time, after his wife is gravely injured, while also having a lot of pressure put on him as he makes a huge decision affecting his whole extended family. It takes place in Hawaii and writer-director Alexander Payne incorporates the state and nature heavily into the narrative. The Descendants is quite funny, but it is the deeper dramatic moments and character relationships that make it special (much like Payne’s other great film Sideways).

Nicolas Winding Refn reinvents the action crime drama with Drive, a film about a stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a wheelman. He makes a connection with a girl, Irene (Carey Mulligan). But when he tries to help her out, taking her husband’s place in a heist, he finds that a gangster (Albert Brooks) has put a contract on his head when the heist goes wrong. Aesthetically speaking, this is a cool film, with stylized ultraviolent beats, interesting photography and marvelous found and scored music. Drive is unlike any crime drama released this year, let alone any other film. It is an engaging (maybe even haunting) visceral experience.

Hanna is a fairytale told in the gritty action thriller genre, but also works as a coming-of-age story. Joe Wright’s film is about a 16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) who is raised in solitude and trained to be an assassin by her father (Eric Bana) to keep her safe from a brutal intelligence agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett) who wants her for herself (dead or alive). Once Hanna is ready, her father sends her out into the world to find and kill Marissa. But, Hanna she is not prepared for the relationships she encounters. The film is a lustrous display of incredible aesthetics and performances. The score, production design, cinematography, and directing all help to present Hanna as the entertaining and artistic piece it is.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) have come to the end of their journey in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. They face bleak odds as they prepare for the final battle with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). David Yates has done a masterful job framing the last four films in the series, but the Deathly Hallows (Part 1 and 2) is his crowning achievement. Part 2 features beautiful, heroic and tragic performances, wondrous aesthetics and most importantly a completely satisfying ending this beloved saga. With all the urgency and despair that surrounds the narrative, Yates has an exceptional knack of infusing humor and moments of quiet, getting the tone just right.

The Help is about Skeeter (Emma Stone), an inspiring writer who returns home to Jackson, Mississippi, to find she no longer fits into the societal construct, headed by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), made up of children raised by African-American maids who grow up to think of them as second-class citizens. Skeeter decides to write a book from the maids’ perspective enlisting the help of two such maids: Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer). Tate Taylor’s film is tremendous because it addresses the social issues raised without the heavy-handed preachy delivery usually abundant, and the characters are fully fleshed out, relatable and real. The Help (along with Beginners) is not only good, but also a socially important film.

A mystery along the lines of films like Oldboy and Memento, Incendies has a dynamic and shocking story, which completely engrosses its viewer. Denis Villeneuve’s unflinching tale is about twins (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) living in Canada who travel to the Middle East to uncover a secret regarding their family, fulfilling their mother’s, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), last wishes. Nawal’s story is incredible and takes on many genres, but primarily that of a thriller. Villeneuve’s film also tackles the issue of how futile and meaningless it is to hate another solely based on religion. Incendies is relevant and stunning, but best of all it has a fantastic journey for its viewer.

Charlotte Bronte’s gothic romance has been adapted for cinema many times (one of my favorites being the 1943 version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine), but Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre still feels fresh and new. His Jane (Mia Wasikowska) is a strong feminist character, quick with wit and strong willed, wanting a better life for herself. Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is very charismatic yet with an internal secret tearing him apart. Fukunaga captures the tone and atmosphere of the novel and characters wonderfully, and the film is beautiful aesthetically to behold with brilliant cinematography, production design and especially its score.

As far as cinematic nostalgia goes, 2011 was full of it – from The Artist and Hugo remembering cinema’s early years to J.J. Abrams fondly reminding many of us of our childhoods with his Spielberg-like sci-fi adventure Super 8. It is about a group of kids, headed by Joe (Joel Courtney), who set out to make a zombie film only to witness a terrible train crash, which unleashes a government secret. Much like Abrams’s other work, Super 8 is fast-paced, full of action and has important character moments – it may be the most entertaining film of the year. It also features a wonderful young cast that even rivals The Goonies. For fans of the genre, this is a very welcome addition.

Writer-director Matthew Vaughn dropped out as director of X-Men: The Last Stand a few weeks into production, but he made amends returning to direct and co-write this prequel/reboot. X-Men: First Class is by far the best in the series and is really the X-Men film fans have been waiting to see. It is about the rise of the X-Men through the friendship that forms between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) while fighting a common enemy Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Setting the film in the 1960’s works fantastically as aesthetically the film is marvelous, especially its production design. I cannot wait to see the next installment with these actors and filmmakers.

Honorable Mentions:

Thursday, January 26, 2012

LeapBackBlog 2011 Film Awards – Part 4: Leading Performances

Film in 2011 saw many very good films. Deciding what made the lists and what did not was very difficult this year, and there are more than a few great films, performances and technical achievements that I had to leave off. The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done, and 2011 again features a lot of amazing breakthrough performances), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.

Leading Performances:

The Descendants is built on its fantastic performances headlined by standout work from newcomer Shailene Woodley and George Clooney. He had a very good 2011 with this film and co-starring, co-writing and directing The Ides of March. In the last few years, Clooney has been making a name for himself as an acting heavyweight with performances in Syriana, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, and The American. However with The Descendants, he does the best work of his career. There is still signs of his swagger that he brings to his work, but he is also very vulnerable and seems completely at a lose and out of his depth, which is perfect for his character Matt King a parent having to take sole responsibility for his two daughters for the first time while also being saddled with unwanted outside family pressures.

Viola Davis is a pillar of strength in The Help. It is easy to say the film is about perseverance and that her character Aibileen embodies all the qualities that come which the heroine of such a narrative, as that is true. But, The Help and Aibileen strive for more. Davis triumphs because of the depth and humanity she brings to the role. Yes, she is a strong woman as her character, but there is also a real fear as well. Without this fear, her story and actions would not resonate and mean as much as they do. The Help is one of the year’s best films because of the work of Davis and the other great actresses. Otherwise, it might have turned out to be another thinly veiled morally self-aggrandizing hollow film like Crash (one of the most overrated films of the last decade).

Winning the 2011 Cannes Film Festival Best Actress award for her performance in Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst does the best work of her career. Her character Justine has such an interesting arc – going from seemingly happy in the opening moments to being completely incapacitated by depression, only to find strength and purpose within herself when the world is about to end. She does not fear it, unlike all the other characters in the film. The range that the performance demands would be difficult for even great actresses, but Dunst seems to make it her own bringing such beauty and sadness to Justine. It is such a nuanced and subtle piece of work that I can only expect great thing from her in the future (as this is probably my favorite female performance of the year).

No one had a better 2011 than Michael Fassbender. He starred in four films (Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, and Shame), giving brilliant performances in each (all of which could have probably made this list). However, it is with Shame that he does his most interesting work. As sex addict Brandon, Fassbender gives a haunting performance in which he seems to degrade himself into something subhuman. He completely gives himself over to the character (which must have been hard to deal with when the cameras were not rolling – the pain, anger and bleakness of it). Carey Mulligan gives another great supporting performance (in addition to Drive) and Fassbender plays off her very well. It is phenomenal work and one of the bravest performances of the 2011.

What is so incredible about Rooney Mara’s work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that her role was played ironically by Noomi Rapace in 2009 (2010 for U.S. audiences), and yet Mara brings so much to the role and is just as iconic (different, but equally as good, if not better). For those that have not seen her in Tanner Hall or the brilliant small supporting part she plays in The Social Network, her work here is the breakout performance of the year, as Mara is now a star and one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actresses. Mara plays Lisbeth Salander to be confident in troubling situations, but awkward and vulnerable when it comes to more personal relationships. She is mesmerizing, the audience misses her when she is not onscreen and anticipates her return (which can be said of the best performances).

In what is one of the most subtly and subdued performances of the year, Gary Oldman is absolutely phenomenal as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Smiley is such a difficult role to portray cinematically, as he is so boxed up emotionally. But, Oldman is able to give the audience just enough to make Smiley relatable allowing the audience to feel what he feels, while still being true to the character. He is one of the best character actors working today. I am not sure a lesser actor could have pulled this performance off. It is not flashy, but easily one of the most intricate and best performances of 2011. Oldman also has a very good small part in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

Elizabeth Olsen’s performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene is another of 2011’s many wonderful breakthroughs. Martha is also yet another difficult character to play, as so much of it needed to be shown subtlety so that her episodes dealing with constant fear and dread can come off feeling real (whether it actually is or not). The narrative structure of the film juxtaposes Martha on the compound with after she escapes and is staying with her sister (seemingly now a wreck). Olsen’s complete change in demeanor in each is remarkable. She also plays off fantastic character actor John Hawkes, who plays the cult leader, very well – and this being her first real dramatic performance.

Like good friend George Clooney, Brad Pitt has established himself as one of the best actors working right now (with recent performances in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, among others). Pitt had a good 2011 as an actor as well with very good work in The Tree of Life and Moneyball. In Moneyball, Pitt plays maverick baseball GM Billy Beane – struggling to produce a good team without any money and also struggling with his own sense of self worth. Pitt plays it as if Beane is a loner, outside the system – a bit like a stoic cowboy out on the range. He has become a fabulous actor and I look forward to his future work.

With the role of Hanna in Hanna, I cannot imagine anyone else playing it (let alone as well) other than Saoirse Ronan. Physically, this is an extremely challenging role, as Ronan needed to both hit all the right dramatic notes in the coming-of-age story and all the action beats in the thriller aspect. She is completely believable as an action star, handling the fight sequences with grace and confidence. But, she is an even better dramatic actress. Hanna is a character completely virgin to the world, raised in solitude, and Ronan brings wonder be it guarded to the role. Building on her excellent breakthrough performance in Atonement, Ronan is one of the best young actresses right now.

Ever since Michael Shannon’s performance in Revolutionary Road, he has been an actor to watch. With his performance as Curtis in Take Shelter, Shannon captures the sheer panic of someone who feels like they are losing their mind. He does a lot of the dramatic work with his face and eyes, gradually letting the feelings of desperation, alarm and agitation take hold. This seems to be one of the forgotten performances of 2011, but it is certainly one of the best. Almost the whole narrative is predicated on Shannon’s work, and he is brilliant.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

LeapBackBlog 2011 Film Awards – Part 3: Directors

Film in 2011 saw many very good films. Deciding what made the lists and what did not was very difficult this year, and there are more than a few great films, performances and technical achievements that I had to leave off. The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done, and 2011 again features a lot of amazing breakthrough performances), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.


J.J. Abrams had a difficult job going into Super 8 – making a Steven Spielberg style film with child actors (and not have it suck or be a lesser experience to say E.T.). Super 8 is brilliant. Abrams gets phenomenal performances from his young actors, keeps the action coming but still has important character moments and captures the perfect nostalgic tone and look for the film. It is a masterful job of directing, as Abrams further makes an argument for himself as an action auteur.

Terrence Malick seemingly is not interested in telling a story using a Hollywood style narrative, rather he is much more concerned with what the images and motifs in his films garner meaning wise in their viewers. Much like Sergei Eisenstein, Malick juxtaposes images to instill emotion and meaning. The Tree of Life seems to be his greatest departure from conventional narrative style. There is still a story and characters, but the meaning comes from the visual and audio experience. And with this film, Malick has created something quite powerful and to a degree spiritually engaging.

Aesthetically speaking, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a masterpiece of visual art. The film is striking – from the slow-motion living painting shots to the majesty of the alien planet approaching Earth. von Trier also achieves marvelous performances from his actors (especially Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg). Thematically, Trier has produced an intellectually and spiritually intriguing film that warrants multiple viewings (which is always a great compliment for a film). More than any film in 2011, Melancholia is a cinematic experience.

Hanna is also a wonderfully artistic film – especially for what is an action film akin to a Jason Bourne and/or James Bond movie. Joe Wright and his crew have exploited every aspect of the film to create interesting aesthetics. But, Wright succeeds in getting a difficult and fully formed performance from his young lead Saoirse Ronan, as well. The film is very engaging both from an artistic and narrative perspective (as the best films should be). Something that stands out in Wrights work, Hanna being no different, is his use of long takes, and this film has a couple amazing ones (Erik’s fight in the Subway, and the Container Park scene).

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 had a ton of expectation and anticipation and David Yates delivered a completely satisfying film. He faced the daunting task of getting everything important in, giving each character his moments and still keeping the pacing ever moving forward (which is the downfall of many a film, not just epics). And to this degree, Yates does a brilliant job. He gets everything right. His work on the franchise has been wonderful throughout, but this is his best film. Yates does it all – garnering great performances, enchanting aesthetics and a narrative that resonates.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

LeapBackBlog 2011 Film Awards – Part 2: Supporting Performances

Film in 2011 saw many very good films. Deciding what made the lists and what did not was very difficult this year, and there are more than a few great films, performances and technical achievements that I had to leave off. The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done, and 2011 again features a lot of amazing breakthrough performances), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.

Supporting Performances:

My Week with Marilyn is completely built around its performances – notably those of Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne and Kenneth Branagh. In particular, Williams, who barely missed out making my yearend awards, and Branagh stand out. He has the somewhat daunting task of playing real life screen legend Laurence Olivier, who is very well known (especially in England). The performance is great as Branagh must mask absolute frustration with the situation he has put himself in (having to deal with Marilyn, notoriously flaky and sort of whimsical about her working schedule) while also being completely infatuated with and in awe of her. He also somehow makes one of the great actors of his generation come off insecure, and it is believable.

Drive is another film that is built on its performances (and visual style). Albert Brooks plays the villain of the story, a gangster of sorts who is owed money. While Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan are both very good, Brooks’s performance stands out because of his approach – he is not a very menacing bad guy, at least he does not seem to be. And then, all of a sudden, he is scary, forceful and yes menacing. His scenes with Gosling near the end of the film make the narrative work – the audience is not quite sure if Drive is going to end happily or not (a rarity in cinema). Who would have thought that Brooks would create the best villain of 2011 (runners up: Bryce Dallas Howard in The Help and Ralph Fiennes in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2)?

On the female side of the breakthrough aisle, 2011 belonged to Jessica Chastain (on the male side: Michael Fassbender). She appeared in six films, giving very good performances in all of them. However, she is brilliant in The Help, Take Shelter and especially The Tree of Life. While most of the praise seems to be focused on her performance in The Help, in The Tree of Life she has a much more difficult role, and is really the emotional centerpiece of the film. She plays a woman trapped by love and devotion, who is slowly crushed. Chastain is so good because she gives off so much happiness and light that when things get dark it is all the more heartbreaking, as all the energy and life seem to drain from her face. It is an extraordinary performance.

Elle Fanning’s work in Super 8 is probably not going to be on most people’s list when it comes to best supporting performances (because blockbusters and genre films are always gravely overlooked), but it should be. Anyone who saw 2010’s Somewhere saw a young actress teaming with talent. Super 8 gave Fanning a chance to carry a large portion of the emotional weight of the film – making the audience fall in love with her, through the nostalgia of fist love – and thus giving more meaning to Joe Lamb’s mission to save her. Not only does Fanning steal the film, from a performance standpoint (I would like to direct your attention to her scene just before the train crash or her work as a zombie), she also boosts the other young actors around her – all of whom are very good as well.

Keira Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method is probably the bravest and most shockingly physical of the year (especially for an actress considered to be a starlet). She was not afraid to go full out playing Sabina Spielrein, a woman that went from being physically disabled due to mental issues to being the first woman to write a psychoanalytic dissertation and even becoming a psychoanalyst herself. Knightley’s performance of pre-psychoanalysis Sabina is striking and even off putting, as it is hard to watch – Knightley seemingly mutilating her body and appearance. Thus, when she arrives on the other end as a confident powerful woman, it is remarkable and very engaging.

The journey that Christopher Plummer goes on with his character in Beginners is uplifting and sad, for different reasons. Finding oneself seems like it would be easy, but it is often hard due to outside pressures (be them societal or parental or what-have-you). Hal, Plummer’s character, has lived almost his entire life hiding his true self, and finally has the courage to let himself be himself. Seeing the sheer joy in Plummer’s performance is what makes his story so inspiring. The dynamic he has with his son, played by Ewan McGregor, also plays heavily into his performance. There is such a trust and love between them. This chemistry and Plummer’s performance in particular set up the entire narrative and character for McGregor, making the film the brilliant piece it is.

Snape has been one of the most interesting characters in the Harry Potter universe, his background and motives always cloudy. In the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, in a magnificent scene (The Prince’s Tale), all is revealed. It is in this scene that Alan Rickman shines. Snape’s reveal is harrowing, heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time. Rickman, over the course of the series, has built Snape to be seemingly mean spirited, unforgiving and without feeling, thus his performance in the reveal, watching him fragment emotionally, is quite powerful. In a film with many fantastic and memorable moments, this is probably paramount among them.

For many of the characters in The Help, the film is very much about perseverance in the face of flat out hate and/or ignorance. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are given the brunt of the emotional work to do. The film has many standout supporting performances – Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain are both wonderful, but Spencer’s just has more dramatic impact to it. In lesser hands, her Minny Jackson could have been just another stereotypical sassy woman. Spencer brings true humanity and organic strength to the role, giving the film so much more importance and magnitude, as it resonates even today. This would not be the case without her strong work.

Midnight in Paris is a magical film with lots of great (name dropped) characters, but chief among them is Corey Stoll’s Ernest Hemingway. Regardless of what Hemingway may or may not have been like in reality, Stoll’s Hemingway commands the screen and steals every scene he is in. And, he is both laughably eccentric and completely believable (I am still not sure how Stoll pulled it off). Of all the performances on this list, Stoll’s has the least amount of screen time (and probably by a large margin), but his is one of the most memorable of 2011.

Like Jessica Chastain, Shailene Woodley seemingly came out of nowhere (unless you watch The Secret Life of an American Teenager on ABC Family) to give one of the best performances of the year. Not only that, but she stands her own against George Clooney in The Descendants, arguably giving the best leading male performance of the year (and maybe even his career). Every year there are a few actors who give breakthrough performances, capturing our hearts, minds and emotions breathing fresh life into the art form that we love, and it is special to see it when it happens. Woodley’s performance is particularly impressive as she not only must play against Clooney in emotional scenes, but she also has to be his strength in the film.

Monday, January 23, 2012

LeapBackBlog 2011 Film Awards – Part 1: Technical Achievements

Film in 2011 saw many very good films. Deciding what made the lists and what did not was very difficult this year, and there are more than a few great films, performances and technical achievements that I had to leave off. The LeapBackBlog Film Awards are comprised of what I think were the best and most interesting films, the strongest performances (taking into consideration who the actor is and what else they have done, and 2011 again features a lot of amazing breakthrough performances), the narrative style that drew me in (best directing), and exquisite craftsmanship (best technical achievements). But really, these are lists of my favorites from the year.

Technical Achievements:

Manuel Alberto Claro – Cinematography – Melancholia
Melancholia is probably the most visually interesting and striking film of 2011. Every image that director Lars von Trier and cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro create has an impact on the viewer. Claro’s work, exploring the end of the world, has both such a grand scale to it and still captures the intimate character moments. The color and framing of many of the set pieces – almost like a series of moving paintings – are mesmerizing. There is so much energy, yet they are somewhat peaceful as well. It is my favorite aesthetic work of the year.

Stuart Craig’s production design across the entire Harry Potter film series has been incredible (as he has designed all eight films). With the Deathly Hallow: Part 2, he not only had huge action set pieces including the destruction of Hogwarts but also he need to be sure to reinforce the emotional journey of the characters (captured beautifully in his set for the seaside cottage – it is spares and a little bleak, but there is ever hope present). The series would not have been anywhere near as special without his work throughout.

John Williams’s wrote such an iconic piece of music for the series’ first film (Hedwig’s Theme) that it has been hard for new composers to measure up (though I did really like Nicholas Hooper’s Half-Blood Prince score especially When Harry Kisses Ginny). Alexandre Desplat, having scored both Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2, takes bits of Williams and Hooper’s scores and melds them with his own original work creating music that captures the tone of the film perfectly while living up to what came before (particularly his piece called Severus and Lily; it is tragic and beautiful).

Maria Djurkovic – Production Design – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy very easily could have been straight forward when it came to the 1970s Cold War Era design, but Maria Djurkovic decided to make it phenomenally compelling – both on a design level and in how it worked within the story. Her sets within MI6 in particular are wonderful, commenting on the paranoia and terror of the times. I love the executive offices and conference room being stand-alone soundproof bungalows within the greater room. The personal spaces of each character also entirely fit their personas and reinforce them to the audience. It is unique and exceptional work.

Sarah Greenwood – Production Design – Hanna
As good as Djurkovic’s work is Sarah Greenwood’s might be even better. Hanna is a fairytale action film taking place over many locals giving Greenwood a broad canvas – and she uses it beautifully. Her set for the CIA’s Moroccan base is aesthetically interesting, as is the CIA headquarters building in Germany. But her use of the rundown Brothers Grimm’s theme park is the best part. It encompasses the fairytale aspect of the film perfectly, while also being visually compelling.

Emmanuel Lubezki – Cinematography – The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki work incredibly well together, as evidenced by the sheer beauty and power of their films together (The New World and The Tree of Life). With The Tree of Life, Lubezki uses light and nature to tell a story, illuminating the characters and shrouding them as the emotional journey dictates. His photography is beautiful and truthful. While Claro’s work on Melancholia has more of an artistic impact, Lubezki is able to speak to the wonder, sadness and innocence within us all. It is brilliant work. 

My favorite score of the year, Dario Marianelli’s compositions for Jane Eyre are aligned with the tone and motifs of the story – that of a tragic life and romance (that to a degree is happy in its end, but also sad). The score is also cliché free, something many romance genre pieces cannot attest to. Marianelli has many beautiful pieces of music (here are three: Wandering Jane, A Game of Badminton and Yes!) within the score, but as an overall piece of music it speaks to the emotional core of the film and its characters, working with the visuals and performances to tell one of the great love stories.

Chris Seagers – Production Design – X-Men: First Class
Something fantastic about X-Men: First Class was it taking place in the 1960s while accommodating multiple locals. This gave production designer Chris Seagers the ability to not only work in the world of superheroes, but also in an iconic stylish period. His sets pop – from Sebastian Shaw’s Nazi office/lab to The Atomic Club and Shaw’s submarine. Seagers captures the tone of the film completely, having fun with the era and genre while creating cool and aesthetically interesting spaces for the characters to occupy.

The only artist to make this list last year, Eduardo Serra returns once again with stunning photography. The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 has such a grand scale to it, as the battle against Voldemort in many ways is the battle to save the World. Part 1 was very gloomy and bleak for the characters, and that visual pallet returns for Part 2. However, the film has much more kinetic and confined energy versus Harry and friends essentially being on their own in Part 1. Serra’s photography gives the film the needed sense of dread, and he captures the final struggle between Harry and Voldemort magnificently.

In their first film score, The Chemical Brothers have given the fairytale actioner Hanna one of the year’s most memorable. It is so good, in fact, that it could stand alone as one of the group’s albums. Container Park in particular is incredible. But aside from the music being great, it also fits the style of the film very well, capturing both a child-like tone for the innocence of Hanna and still being menacing and dark playing into the narrative. I also really like Hanna’s Theme, Escape 700 and The Devil in the Beats