Quite frankly there are many major films of merit released in the last six weeks of the year to qualify for consideration in the upcoming awards season. Let me tell you about a few that, even in such vaulted company, may have become overshadowed by the enormous campaigns of the big contenders. All of the films I will write about are worthy of your attention.
Let’s go to the movies!
Nebraska dirAlexander Payne
Nebraska is like a slow drive through any Midwest rural town on a grey fall day after the trees have been stripped of leaves and color; where communities that have FOX’s news channelled into their local donut shops and American Legion halls where retirees gather. The middle class dream has collapsed on itself and their children have fled elsewhere for work.
We meet a family where the father teeters on early dementia, (Bruce Dern in a remarkable performance anchored in discipline and focus) a wife (June Squibb) whose tart tongue masks a love as solid and impenetrable as a heart made of steel, and their two sons in dead-end jobs they are lucky to have. Dad receives a letter which he believes says he has won a million dollars (the magazine sales trap). Despite his wife and sons telling him it’s a scam, he refuses to believe it and defiantly begins to walk to the big city to pick up his winnings.
Will Forte (making a huge leap from Saturday Night Live sketch material to dramatic role lands perfectly) decides to let the old man have his journey and drives him, stopping along the way in towns of his dad’s youth where the rumor of his new found wealth jolts people into all kinds of money-driven welcome. Sad, yes. Human, very. What elevates Nebraska from a Flannery O’Connor heightened character storytelling is the texture, tone, and skilled eye of Payne. His ability to understand and navigate the emotional and self-delusional terrain of ordinary people whose youthful dreams have all become the emotional expression of miles of flat landscape. Dern, Forte and especially Squibb are knocking on Oscar’s door.
Inside Llewyn Davis dir Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen brothers bring their uncompromising ability to re-create atmosphere to Greenwich Village at the early 60s at the peak of folk music gestation. Recreating a time and place to what was that is no more; a place with cheap walk-up apartments and basement coffee houses where musicians and poets who would become household names began.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a mediocre folk singer and a stand-in for all the musicians who set up and strike out. He is a loser in more ways than one. He sleeps around (sofa hopping), crosses the boundaries of friendship, including getting his best friend’s girlfriend pregnant, much to her disgust (Carey Mulligan seething with contained contempt). Llewyn was in a folk duo but his partner jumped off the Washington Bridge. It is this death that is the subtext throughout the film with no one really getting over it while not talking about it. The Coen brothers’ attention to authenticity shines not only in the Village but also the Upper West Side European-style multiple room apartments that housed Jewish intellectuals and their families.
Casting is so perfect that Ellen Chenoweth is certainly deserving of the Oscar in the new Casting category. Just try to forget the pitch perfect Robin Bartlett in one of the many secondary roles as the amateur folk singing professor’s wife. It is the ensemble work that holds and tempers this least misanthropic Coen Brothers work.
Both Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis are elegies to a disappearing America and are steeped in a soulful mourning for loss of the American middle class myth
Four films about the triumph of capital!
Capital, Money is the Master dir Costa-Garvas
Renowned Director, Costa-Garvas, (Missing, Z, Amen) turns his sophisticated and incisive eye on the velvet-wrapped cutthroat world of international banking and the financial firms who collectively are more powerful than any individual government and their hedge fund CEOs. At this level of capitalism,it’s all elegance laced with killer competition. Winning trumps any ethical or moral filter. Costa-Garvis shows how this winner-take-all gamesmanship is played with all the gentle savagery of a private school lacrosse team playoff.
Gabriel Byrne plays a rising executive whose loyalty is only to himself. When at a family gathering, the patriarch calls him out for betraying workers’ solidarity, Byrne simply smiles and leaves. Think if you will, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. All of them after making the fortunes that allowed them to do and buy anything they wanted to continue to play at the highest cut-throat level because winning becomes the single pleasure unsated. Capital shows the nice Wall Street face of financial dons and the new mask for organized crime,
The Counselor dir Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott has never been afraid to lift the scab of the respectable veneer of business (American Gangster), space (Alien) or war (Black Hawk Down). In The Counselor, he takes a hard look at the violent underpinning of the business of international drug dealing; the manipulation of people for profit and the conspicuous consumption of material goods. Michael Fassbender brings his sleek, cool persona to the role of a counselor, engaged to Penelope Cruz, who has no idea of the sinkhole of deception when he is seduced into saying yes to a one time business arrangement with a stylish cunning drug lord (Javier Barden). Enter Cameron Diaz, the most wicked female character we have seen in action drama since the earliest days of an ambitious Barbara Stanwyck. Diaz fleshes out the man- and woman-eating beauty who can as easily paint her nails as she can gun down anyone who stands in her way.
The Counselor sheds the mask of civilized hedge fund game-playing to reveal the insatiable, immoral desire to use and/or abuse anything that stands in the way of being the richest drug leader in the cartel. Itis a chilling and disturbing look at how capitalism works in the free market drug world.
The Armstrong Lie dir Alex Gibney
Academy Award winning director Alex Gibney followed Lance Armstrong for four years documenting his comeback fight to win the Grand Prix of cycling. Lance, a cancer survivor was an inspiration to the world of a man who would not give up until he won back his title. Nothing, neither a personal relationship, friendship, legal proceedings nor accusations of drug doping would undermine his goal. Like a functioning sociopath, he kept his eye on his goal. All that matter was winning. He would do anything to win. Finally, after years of denial, he was forced to admit he lied. He had been doping all along. Gibney lost his feel-good hero modeling story and had to refocus on Armstrong’s guiltless betrayal of his fans and violations of multi-million dollars endorsement contracts.
Armstrong’s spinning to somehow admit to doping while appearing to be sorry only for the fact he got caught is just like Wall Street mortgage dealers and CEOs of financial services industry when their dishonest tactics were exposed as the world economy fell. So far, for this betrayal of the public trust no one, including Armstrong, has gone to jail. Rich people simply reach into their deep pockets of tax-sheltered funds knowing paying fines is their get out of jail card.
Gibney’s integrity shines through. The Armstrong Lie reveals just how infectious this libertarian survivable of the fittest philosophy has penetrated not only sports put the actual career goals of many a smart, young educated student in the West today.
Narco Cultura dirShaul Schwarz
This first time director fearlessly looks at the most recent version of the American Dream; how Latino youth on both sides of the Mexico /US borders are romantizing gun-toting drug dealing killers as role models. The yearning for lifestyle rewards from drug trafficking’s financial gains is seducing youth with few options to choose other than a life of crime over low paying service jobs.
The ruthless competition between the Mexico drug lords spills over the border and the body count is in the hundreds. Like last year’s Miss Bala, Narco Cultura shows the devastating effect the drug war and its profits are having on undermining the very core values of hard work and respect for others that has been a cornerstone of Latin life and replacing it with a winner-take-all ethos regardless of the loss of life and/or property. This is a portrait of capitalism at its most brutal expression.
(cc) jim fouratt