Now seems like an ideal time to start talking about Christmas gifts, and not the predictable Man of Steel or Turbo fodder that boys and tikes will be clamoring for their parents to get them. Admittedly most of the titles below wouldn’t be exactly ideal for youngsters, save the #1 pick of the week, for reasons you’ll quickly understand below. The rest of our top 5 releases of the week nonetheless make for an excellent package for cinephiles, and I dare say that I’ve rarely seen such a well fortified batch released on a single weekend. Do help yourselves!
Top 5 New Releases
Fans of David Gordon Green’s early independent work must have enjoyed his turn back to the indie scene this year after a string of mainstream flops including The Sitter and Your Highness (I just figured out the title’s a stoner joke, to give some indication of my humorous intuition). As somebody who has yet to reach back into those old, minor key gems, Prince Avalanche was a delightful introduction into the sweetly sad tranquility of Green’s indie oeuvre. Paul Rudd continues what’s been a career peak of playing selfishly misguided manchildren with an emotional faculty too honest to make them a disposable joker, and while Prince Avalanche‘s willfully minimal, even intellectually diminished story keeps it from greatness, Green gets major points for conjuring one of the year’s most sincerely tearjerking movie moments. “I love you so much.” I can only get so far as liking, but I like it very much indeed.
One of two films taking advantage of the 50-year landmark after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I suppose I’m more than slightly more forgiving of Oliver Stone’s film than of Peter Landesman’s Parkland, a film intentionally and obviously timed and crafted to exploit the anniversary of the event. In the case of JFK, I must plead a certain ignorance of having not seen it, but many who have claim it amongst Stone’s best, a perusing, investigative thriller that doesn’t take the national tragedy at face value. I’ll have to pop it in sometime, though probably not as part of its 50 year commemorative push. Maybe in three years for its own 25 year anniversary.
A stealthy player at its Berlin premiere, in its late December run, and only now in its somehow surprising DVD release. I suppose it’s only surprising because I assumed it reached shelves ages ago, but the film distinctly feels that way too. Not startlingly new, but in some ways startlingly in the present, its tale of Germany before the wall came down feeling not an iota less relevant for having happened 30 years ago. Nina Hoss is intensely watchful and watchable as the eponymous doctor caught between her caring sympathies for her patients and her own childlike desire to escape her physical and personal breaches of privacy in East Germany. Not quite a showy display, it’s nonetheless a magnetically deliberate one, and it would’ve doubtlessly featured in my Best of 2012 list had I rightly expanded the field to a top 20.
Is it too soon to punch out a Criterion for such a recent 21st century release? Maybe for The Kid with a Bike, Le Havre and Tiny Furniture, but Frances Ha belongs so clearly on Criterion from first glance that they can be excused for slightly jumping the gun on its classic status. I can say some assurance that Frances Ha resonates at a distinct enough frequency to hold up both classically and currently. It was one of my three favorite films of 2013’s first half and holds up very fine indeed amongst the intense flux of fall season prestige fare. Droll and sneakily self-deprecating in its humour, even sneakier is its swift sense of embittering heartache that laughs off the bogus indie romanticism of something like, say, A Case of You (also distributed by IFC, but don’t let that trick you). It should be an instant classic for the college (or post-college) crowd, but Baumbach and Gerwig’s surprise generation-capsule may still have a long and bright future ahead of it.
If this seems an overly obvious #1 pick for this week, then let’s face it. You’re deliberately trying to go against the grain, because for as easily loveable as City Lights is, it’s not without its vital kick of social resonance. Criterion’s deep love affair with Charlie Chaplin’s film isn’t simply because they’re so sweetly goofy in their physical comedy, but because Chaplin never ignored the needs of the society surrounding him. That may be clearer in Modern Times and The Great Dictator, but it’s arguably never more poignant here, the core romance of City Lights rising and dropping at the Tramp’s hat, remaining heartbreakingly in limbo to the very end. Call it an obvious choice if you must, but it’s no mistake or error that this is Chaplin’s most universally beloved film, or my personal favorite.
Also New on DVD/Blu-Ray
It’s another week resplendent in alternative options, but first thing’s first: one final thought on Man of Steel, a film I could’ve liked if its superhero mythos weren’t so painfully asinine. Many will likely still hold kindly to the film, but one aspect that still has me tussling is its apocalyptic finale, a long stretch of the film that, aside from the arbitrary superman nonsense, is jarring in a quite astonishing way. Revisiting that scene on its own, I was simply agape with dread and terror for the immense loss of life implicit in the onscreen destruction. Zack Snyder may have no interest in those felled civilians, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. As a self-contained display of terribly awe-inspiring destruction of humanity, I admittedly can’t think of anything quite like it. If only it weren’t packaged inside such a flaccid, facile glorification of “THE HERO!!!”
Not quite as heinous as Man of Steel’s manipulation, I still felt SeaWorld documentary Blackfish used its subject’s psychological thriller vibe to cover up its lack of cohesion or commentary. Too sloppy for my liking, but with it makes its subject palatable enough to a thrill-seeking audience. Kids may get some thrills out of Turbo, Dreamworks’ film about a snail who wants to race against cars and, via overly convenient superpowers, gets the chance. Adults, however, will be too privy to its dull familiarity.
It’s a better alternative, still, than Paradise, Juno writer Diablo Cody’s directorial debut about a girl who questions life and religion after a near death experience. In the film’s critical backlash, even Cody has realized that directing isn’t her bag. Lastly of import is the 25th Anniversary Edition of popular anime feature Akira, of whose plot I know significantly less about, but in time I may find myself drawn to it. Maybe if they ever get a dreadful American remake off the ground.
Streaming Pick of the Week
Arcade Fire’s Afterlife and Phoenix’s Chloroform Music Videos
Directed by Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola, respectively
Taking a break from feature length Netflix titles this week, I’d like to bring attention to two music videos that I’ve found simply extraordinary for different reasons. Both are directed by American filmmakers who’ve made astonishing heart-in-mouth films this year, both with musical groups they’ve worked with notably in the past. One is Phoenix’s techno-beat “Chloroform”, directed unmistakably by Sofia Coppola, as one could tell from the panoramic slow-mos of girls weeping as the band’s silhouette plays irresistibly before them. It may earn the ire of Coppola’s critics for focusing on a typically privileged subset, but there’s something beautifully universal about being overcome with emotion in such a public way.
Not too far from Coppola’s work is that of Her director Spike Jonze on Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife”, which was recorded live at the YouTube Music Awards. The awards show itself was a messy catastrophe, but with grace notes afforded by Jonze’s spry videos. The best of them surprisingly and delightfully starred Greta Gerwig, whose character arc in the video is of somebody getting over a breakup – or just dying, hence the song title. Ignoring the simplicity of the set-up, the short has possibly my favorite single shot of the year, a long take of Gerwig just dancing with complete abandon. It takes a lot to dance so infectiously and genuinely emote for the camera at the same time, but Gerwig is just too instantly charming a screen/stage presence to deny. The video may end in a notably more saccharine manner, with kids joining her and Arcade Fire onstage, but a single moment like the hallway shot goes oh so far.