It’s Christmas time and I feel like Santa Claus about to deliver to you so many really excellent films that you could spend most of your day and most of your night not shopping but inside a theater somewhere in New York City. Blame it on the Oscar rules. In NYC we’re very lucky.
Directed by Tom McCarthy
McCarthy looks at the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the very foundation of the Roman Catholic Church. He roots this difficult subject in Boston and centers on Cardinal Law, telling the tale about how the Boston Globe, despite it being a Catholic town, refused to back down and shows how critical good reporters and editors are to telling the truth free from political pressure and backroom negotiation. Spotlight rivals and perhaps bests All the President’s Men and may be the best American film of the year. Co-written by McCarthy with Josh Singer and set in the Globe’s newsroom with a special team of reporters assigned to long-form reporting on subjects. The cast is ensemble perfect. Mark Ruffalo as relentless reporter Mike Renzendes stands out, but only because Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber root him in the storytelling. I will not forget one of the pivotal scenes when Mike confronts the all powerful and seasoned politician Cardinal Bernard Law; Len Cariou as Law deserves a best supporting actor nomination.Yes it is a story about faith, betrayal, commitment, reporter integrity and freedom of the press.
Director/Writer James Vanderbilt
The shocking story of how political operatives for a Presidential candidate brought CBS and its news to its knees and demanded the firing of both one of television’s most respected and loved newscasters (Dan Rather as played by Robert Redford) and a 60 minutes producer (Mary Mapes played by Cate Blanchett), who won an Emmy for breaking the Abu Graib torture story. He was banished from network television and she never again worked as a producer. What did they do to warrant this public punishment? They raised the question: Did George W. Bush lie about his military service? His father had gotten him an appointment that kept him in the US but did he ever show up for duty or was he AWOL? They and CBS execs thought they had vetted their sources enough to run with the story but it blew up in their faces, not over the truth of the allegations – they were side stepped – but in minutia over the techniques used to authenticate the documents in their possession. Blanchett and Redford click in their characters’ professional relationship. A chilling exposé of power trumping truth. A must see in this day of Citizens United super pacs and influence.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Much is made of this relatively low budget but absolutely gorgeous-to-look-at film that explores the love affair of an upper class, privileged woman and a young woman who came to New York City to advance her career goals. Cate Blanchett has never been more elegant. Her ravishing beauty is enough to stun anyone, especially a young woman new to the city, played by Rooney Mara. Kudos to cinematographer Ed Lachman for the sense of light and temperature that radiates from the screen. Praise to production designer (Judy Becker) and art director (Jesse Rosenthal). Yes, Carol is a love story but it is just much more than that. Phyllis Nagy’s almost perfect script, like Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the book the film is based on, captures the subtext that I saw in this film about class, privilege and seduction.
Carol is a married woman with a child, whose marriage is on shaky ground but her husband does not know it. Out shopping she sees Therese, a young sales clerk (Rooney Mara) and subtly flirts with her. Therese, looking like a young innocent but curious Audrey Hepburn without knowing it, is being seduced by Carol’s glamour and sense of entitlement. Todd Haynes’ direction makes it seem perfectly normal and at the same time dangerous in the ‘50’s world.
Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler), played with the kind of sensual masculinity that is rare in movies today, has no clue; but when he discovers what is going on behind his back he’s livid. He tells Carol to stop, to remember she is his wife and the mother of his child. The two women subtly negotiate a way of being together. When Carol discovers that her lustful desire is being met with Therese falling in love, she realizes it has become more complicated than she wanted and calls on a previous female love (Sarah Poulson) to intercede and set Therese straight about what this affair is and is not.
Everything about this production rises above the Sapphic pulp fiction novels and, like Highsmith, demands interior scrutiny by the viewer. Director Haynes nuances the desire and tensions between the women and makes clear how little choice Carol, no matter how privileged she is, has in the pre-feminist ‘50’s. Carol turns out to have much more at risk than Therese. She may lose her child and that has to resonate with any woman who falls out of love with her partner regardless of sexual orientation. Carol is a story dramatically and beautifully told.
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Haigh first made his mark with WEEKEND, a coming of age love story between two men in London on a weekend that compacted the life of a relationship into a 72 hour affair. In 45 Years he looks at a couple who have stayed together 45 years. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney are the couple and bring a life of acting to 45 Years. How did they do it? Despite the revived romance same-sex civil marriage has brought to marriage, the divorce rate continues to spiral and single-parent families are exploding across the demographic statistics. 45 Years is not a sentimental love story but a realistic look at what glues two people together. It’s not just children. As they are planning their anniversary celebration something happens that ignites old memories that were long thought forgotten. See it.
Directed by Ken Jones
Jones is the chief programmer of the New York Film Festival and has worked alongside Martin Scorsese for a number of years.What he does here is bring to life a sacred book for all cinephiles. Truffaut, a Cahiers du Cinéma writer with one feature film released, called 63 year old Alfred Hitchcock and asked to interview him about each film he directed. Hitch said yes. Questions that every cinema student or director would love to ask. Jones has French directors of merit comment on the different sections. Not just a tribute to Hitchcock but a learning experience and exploration of his genius
LADY IN A VAN
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Downton Abbey’s reigning Dowager, Maggie Smith, plays with glee an impossible old lady with a big dark secret who lives in a van parked on the street. Based on a true story that happened to one of Britain’s most successful playwrights (and writer of this film) Alan Bennett. Miss Shepard is living in a beat-up old van. There is nothing nice about this old woman. She is cranky, selfish, and insensitive. For some reason Bennett is fascinated with her and lets her stay in her van in front of his house and finally allows her to park the van in his driveway. He rides a bike around London. He thought she would be there for a few days, but it turned into a decade. Lady in a Van is a bon bon of a movie.
It’s been a year of excellent documentaries about female musicians. Liz Garbus’ insightful and disturbing What Happened Miss Simone?, followed by AMY (Amy Winehouse). SXSW premiered a crowd- pleasing Mavis Staples, and DOC NYC had both Barbara Kopple’s Sharon Jones and Amy Berg’s Janis:Little Girl Blue.
JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE
Directed by Amy Berg
Janis died at age 27 in a LA motel room of a heroin overdose in the middle of a recording session for a new album. Amy Berg knows we all know that. So her Janis does not overly dwell on the “Behind the Music” dark backstory. Instead she gives us a vibrant Janis who got out of Port Arthur, TX, as soon as soon as she could. First Austin, TX for college, next San Francisco (where I became friends with her while both of us were living in North Beach). Berg covers the essentials and includes some very much neglected facts. She has on camera Janis’ black lesbian lover from her coffee house singing days who fills in missing information; she interviews Big Brother members, lovers like Country Joe McDonald and ends with her last and perhaps most important love, a hippie hobo traveling the world. Berg made the right decision by making the core of her film Janis performing live. I suspect that the only place Janis felt whole and happy was singing on stage. It is evident in the collection of live performances Berg brings to us. Kudos to Berg and her fellow producer Alex Gibney for capturing the magic that was Janis live.
(cc) Jim fouratt firstname.lastname@example.org