The Big Short

The Big Short is the film that addresses the marketing collapse of 2008. It’s suddenly the talk of the town, because it took the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Picture over The Revenant and Spotlight. Perhaps the latter two films canceled each other out and The Big Short rose to the top. But as one of the strongest predictors of what may win the Oscar for Best Picture, that single award has completely upended that race.

In some ways, The Big Short is like those two other films. Like Spotlight, it’s an investigatory film, chock-full of excellent actors giving top-notch performances, all unfolding at a rather rapid pace. Like The Revenant, its reach exceeds its grasp, and while it comes up short, what there is up there on the screen is whip-smart, tough and well worth the visit.

Of course, the big challenge of the film is how to explain subprime mortgages, etc., in an interesting way. To do this, the film takes risks, and generally succeeds. For one, it breaks the fourth wall in a way that no recent film has, with lots of explanatory narration and direct address. It also breaks from its narrative line with quick asides to real people (e.g., Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez)—introduced by their real names—trying to make sense of what’s going on with metaphors and attitude. The editing is quick, and the pace reminds old-timers of His Girl Friday.

The acting is good to great. Good is Steve Carell, who nearly leaves his comic persona behind him with a focused and uncomfortable intensity that works for his character. It’s not a brilliant performance, but it’s a solid one, and he locks down on his character the whole time—a challenge for many another comic-turned-dramatic actors. Also good is producer Brad Pitt, now apparently casting himself as the moral center of his productions (this film and 12 Years a Slave). Very good is Ryan Gosling, who essentially the carries the film in terms of tone and perspective. Great is the inestimable Christian Bale, who proves once again that he is quickly becoming an American treasure (though he’s not originally American). A good-looking actor who consistently hides that fact, he is willing to go to great lengths to create unusual characters that are not always easy to relate to but are completely believable. Think The Mechanic, think The Fighter. This is his best work since that latter film, and it proves he can go places that most actors wouldn’t even understand, much more be able to go there.

There are many, many other solid performances in the film, and it can function as something of an actors’ showcase. Following three threads of the whole falling market story, the editing is sharp and intelligent. If there’s one fault, it’s that the quickness and acuity can occasionally fall into the film’s being just a little too smart-aleck (used for the sake of a G rating for this analysis) and smug for one’s good. It’s a risk the film takes, and one can’t fault it too much for being just a little too happy with itself as it cuts through layers of human graft and stupidity.

Philosophically and politically, after all the attitude and head-smacking, it ends on a profoundly depressing note. The little guy can’t win, there are conspiracies within conspiracies, and the big/rich guys have all the politicians and market leaders in their pockets. I would love to believe that this will be the opening salvo in a new wave of investigations and ethical reform. But I don’t. The film is a funny, smart, well acted reminder that we are all being played.

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Room

Room may well be the most moving, intimate, emotional and gut-wrenching mainstream film this year. It’s tender, sweet, tense, wondrous, lyrical and biting—all at different times. Featuring a shattering performance by Brie Larson (pretty much a shoo-in for Best Actress) and directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Frank), this accomplished film seemed to come out of nowhere and has arrived as a fully formed, mature work of art.

For those who don’t know the story, (major spoiler alerts ahead), the film throws us into the middle of Ma (Larson) and five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), kidnap victims held hostage by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). The film’s beginning is nearly as shocking as seeing Meryl Streep’s tear-stained, tortured face at the start of Kramer vs. Kramer. The reality of the situation is stark, and it takes us a while to orient ourselves to this reality.

But this is not another film about escaping physically. They do get free, or at least they are freed from physical captivity. But the second half of the film is about the thrilling and painful adjustments to “normal life” once Ma and Jack are back “home.” The world is huge and colorful for Jack, but he has his own games and securities that he developed in “Room,” all which demand adjustments in the big, bright and loud world.

Ma’s journey is a different story. She has had to hold things together in “Room” for her son, and sometimes it has clearly taken everything she had to stay mentally and physically strong for him. Now back at her childhood home, she is at times angry, confused and hurt at some of the changes in her family, and her decompression can be unnerving to watch and experience.

Larson has gotten most of the attention here, and deserves it. It’s that career-making performance for this child actor with lots of credits, but who hasn’t had a breakout role until now. Though I think that Saoirse Ronan’s performance in Brooklyn is somewhat more accomplished, Larson’s hyper-realistic style (think a younger Julianne Moore) and opportunity for big moments will put her into the winning column for the Oscar.

Her work is nearly equaled by an astonishing performance from young Jacob Tremblay, who here makes the best possible case for bringing back the juvenile Academy Award. He is extraordinary. His character is a real child, with sweetness leavened with attitude. It’s the best child performance since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.

Behind these two performances is the strong hand of Lenny Abrahamson, who created a personal film unlike any other this year. One rarely has the feeling that a film is exactly the one the director wanted to make, but this assured film seems the result of a director who knew what he was after, and got it. The camerawork, the performances, the music—these all combined to create a cinematic vision of an unimaginable journey, filled equally with pain, joy, agony, and hope.

Room is more than a story of a kidnapping, or even of the challenges of making adjustments to freedom. It has moments of such pain that we can barely stand the experience, followed by images, music, and perspectives so transcendent that we look anew at the world we’ve gotten so accustomed to. The sum of Room’s parts is enough to earn one’s great respect. But beyond its constituent parts, its overall effect is touching, occasionally heart-stopping, and, if you allow it, transformative.

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Oscar 2016–first thoughts

OK, they nominations are out. And the celebrating, sniping and whining has begun. But the nominations are not exactly shocking, and are in fact fairly predictable. There are a few surprises, though, and while not shocking, are at least attention-getting. Here are some thoughts on the whole thing….

Best Picture

The Revenant (http://film-prof.com/2016/01/11/the-revenant/) came up with 12 nominations, the most of any film this year. Nothing is guaranteed in terms of capturing the top prize, however, and those who watch the Oscars closely notice that there is a rise and fall with certain films. Some appear certain to win and then seem to fade; others gain steam and attention during the voting season. (That’s exactly what happened last year with Boyhood and Birdman.) This year, the early money was on Spotlight (http://film-prof.com/2015/12/15/spotlight/), but the recent win of The Revenant at the Golden Globes, combined with its relatively recent release, may shift weight toward this epic.

Probably the only surprise here is the presence of Room, which was thought to be admired more for Brie Larson’s performance than for the film itself.

Bridge of Spies is not first-rate Spielberg, and I was a little surprised to see it in the list. But with the expanded list—now allowing for up to 10 films instead of the former five—a solid film by a first-rate director may well belong here.

There is no Straight Outta Compton, Carol or The Hateful Eight nominations for Best Picture. Let the endless and mostly groundless speculations continue. Whatever anyone tells us that it means, it doesn’t.

Best Director

The big “snub,” a term I have to dismiss when it comes to Oscar nominations, is Ridley Scott, who should have been nominated for The Martian. This one I can’t understand, especially since “his spot”–another thought I don’t have a lot of respect for–was taken by Room’s Lenny Abrahamson. That’s a surprise, but it’s probably more a sign of respect for the film than a rejection of Scott.

If The Revenant’s Iñárritu wins Best Director, it will be the first back-to-back directorial win since 1950. Since The Big Short’s Adam McKay and Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy might cancel each other out, it may well be Iñárritu’s year again. Then again, if the group gets in a short-lived cutting edge mood, they may go for George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road as a combination comeback/career award.

Best Actor

Leonard DiCaprio in The Revenant. For this performance and for his career. End of story.

Best Actress

It is likely to be Brie Larson, recent Golden Globe winner for Room. The Academy put lead actress Rooney Mara into the Supporting Actress category for Carol, as they did with lead Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl. So that takes those two completely out of this race. In a year of excellent performance with none that towers over the others, there are other considerations. Cate Blanchett (Carol) already has two Oscars, so she’s out. Jennifer Lawrence’s nomination for Joy is her sign of respect, with no hope of a win. Charlotte Rampling’s nomination for 45 Years is a sign of respect for a solid career and a great performance. No win here, either. It seems to come down to two young women—Larson for Room and Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn. I would be happy with either, but Ronan is a few years younger and is a rather sure thing for a future Oscar, and her performance was woven in so tightly into the fabric of Brooklyn that it doesn’t quite call attention to itself as much as some Oscar-winning performances do. My early call: Larson.

Best Supporting Actor

The big question here is not who is the best. The question is whether or not the Academy is going to go sentimental and give it to Rocky, I mean Sylvester Stallone, for Creed. This is the best performance of Stallone’s career, in a well-made culmination of a franchise with lots of feel-good history. The other players in this category are excellent actors, but they don’t stand out as much as the Sentimental Favorite does. My personal favorite is Tom Hardy from The Revenant. But my guess is that the other four performances will cancel one another out, as they are all good work from good-to-great actors. I think sentiment reigns in this category.

Best Supporting Actress

Having taken two leads and put them in this category, things are a little shaky. Kate Winslet won the Golden Globe for Steve Jobs, to her obvious complete surprise. Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) may win as a sign of respect for this performance and her career. Alicia Vikander may well win for The Danish Girl for her work. This one has me wondering at this point….

Best Foreign Language Film

Hungary’s Son of Saul has gotten great buzz. Great reviews. First film from this country to be so nominated. And it’s about the Holocaust! It’s got all the signs of a winner.

Best Visual Effects

This technical category is exciting only because of the variety of effects, and how they are used, in these films. The nominated films use effects to create dystopia, life on Mars, frighteningly realistic bear attacks, and aliens. Star Wars: The Force Awakens may get the nod here as an award for helping make the year a fiscally successful one.

Best Animated Feature Film

I thought that Inside Out had it wrapped up, but then Anomalisa opened to great reviews. But now that the buzz for that has subsided, the money is on Inside Out again.

Ho, Hum

First of all, let me repeat that these awards are SUPPOSED to be about what people in the various guilds of the industry think is best in their respective categories. Social experiments occur in and around Hollywood, as they should. But striving for some kind of “diversity” in nominations is, how do I say this gently?—ludicrous.

Of course there is racism in the industry, as there is anywhere humans are present. #OscarsSoWhite is the latest harrumph from some corners of the world, as only The Revenant’s Iñárritu, as a Mexican, meets the proper criteria for being considered diverse. It’s true that Michael B. Jordan could have been nominated for Creed, but he got a lot of attention for it, and it didn’t necessarily belong in the top 5. He has a great career ahead of him, nomination or not. Idris Elba’s lack of a nomination for Beasts of No Nation was something of a surprise, as there was a great deal of energy invested in getting him one.

But instead of griping about the lack of diversity, why don’t we look at who got the nominations and the quality of their work? Maybe, just maybe, these were the best five in terms of quality. True racism (whether we call it reverse racism or not) would be to nominate someone because there were black, or Asian, or transgender, or whatever. Let’s just look at the work, shall we?

It could easily be argued that in 2002, when Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball and Denzel won for Training Day, that this was because they were black, and the Academy wanted to grab the moment for social significance (and the self-patting on the back that accompanies such moves) rather than sheer quality. Hers was an excellent performance, but was it really better than Judi Dench as Iris or Sissy Spacek for In the Bedroom. And surely Denzel wasn’t the best actor that year. Sean Penn’s I Am Sam, and Russell Crowe’s A Beautiful Mind were as good, if not better. (Crowe, in fact, was just a phone’s throw away from getting his second Oscar for this film.) And is the Academy racist for not voting for Will Smith as Ali that year (see how ridiculous this can get?)

There is racism galore in this world, in our country, and in this industry. But we have to look more deeply into the whys of the lack of “diversity” in the nominations than in the nominations themselves. But those thoughts are for another time entirely! For now, let’s enjoy the “race” as it plays out.

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The Revenant

Cold. Beautiful. Brutal. Fierce. Intense. Stunning. Violent.

And that’s just Tom Hardy’s performance.

But seriously, The Revenant (recent winner of the Golden Globe for Best Picture/Drama) is a far-reaching work of art that is worth seeing while falling just short of greatness.

The film is what you might get when you mix The Searchers with Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Gravity, All is Lost, The Passion of the Christ, Gladiator and Old Boy. It’s a visually gorgeous epic on a grand scale, a tale of survival and revenge set against the forbidding but breathtaking mountains of Montana and South Dakota in the 1820s. In its scope and beauty, it recalls the epics of David Lean. The cinematography is both exquisite and technically impressive (sometimes too much so). The acting is top-notch, and not just from soon-to-be-Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio. Probably the most ambitious film of the year, it’s an instructive follow-up to last year’s Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (from the same director).

First, the good. See this on the big screen, as it has some of the most coldly beautiful images you’ve seen in years. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Oscars for Gravity and Birdman) may well pick up his third Academy Award in as many years for his work here. In an era of watching movies on one’s iPhone, this may be the year’s best advertisement for seeing films in movie theaters, where such magnificent and striking images belong.

With weaker actors, the landscapes may well have overwhelmed the characters. Fortunately, that’s not the case here. If awards were given for commitment or sacrifice, DiCaprio would have won them all this year for his work here. But he goes far beyond that with a performance that holds the film together almost wordlessly at times, and with a fierce drive of a character bent on staying alive and exacting his revenge. In terms of awards, it’s his year, but well deserved for this performance. Few actors could beat the weight of a film this size.

Equally as good is Tom Hardy as the [spoiler alert] villain. Hardy so inhabits his character and blends so well into the harshness of the landscape that it may seem all of a piece, thereby hiding his artistry. But he is as good if not better than DiCaprio, and brings balance and clarity to Hugh’s (DiCaprio) struggle. Hardy is a great talent, and we can only hope for a long career of such rich work.

Making yet another appearance in an award-winning or popular film this year is the apparently ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson, holding up his end of the film after solid performances just this year in Ex Machina, Brooklyn and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And while there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch, it’s good to see that Will Poulter (The Maze Runner and The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader) is making a successful transition to more adult, thoughtful films.

The downsides have to do with the plot and the weaknesses of the visual style. Criticisms have included a rather weak storyline, and that’s true. To go back to David Lean, his greatest epics balanced a grand visual style with a story that resonated with “big ideas” such as war, brotherhood, historical moments, great loves, nation-building, etc. Here we have a rather thin tale of a man trying to survive, but driven largely to stay alive by revenge. Yet that is qualified and then [spoiler alert] undone by what seems a half-hearted commitment to a “Revenge is mine, says the Lord” idea.

That idea is first expressed by a passing Native American in a kind of almost throwaway line, and then is repeated with little dramatic import at the end. If this climactic thought and action were going to be something important in the plot, it needed to be more of a struggle than it appeared, and it could have added the kind of “will he or won’t he” frisson that ramped up tension in The Searchers when we wondered not only if John Wayne’s character would find his niece, but what he would when he found her. Instead, the lack of commitment to the though—the very thought that changes the climax!—undermines an already thin story.

More than that, the struggle for revenge ends with the kind of hand-to-hand combat we tend to find in second-rate action films. I suppose it’s more dramatic to have those intent on killing one another do some personal space fighting, but it comes off as more of a cliché than a climax.

Finally, the technically accomplished cinematography repeats some of the elements we found in last year’s Birdman, but to lesser effect. That film appeared to be comprised of one long take. While that aspect of Birdman was dazzling, what kept it rooted in humanity were the great expressive characters (and the talented actors playing them) and the high personal stakes of the central story—and many of the subplots as well. The style meshed perfectly with the content, and they fed each other.

Here the long takes tend to distract in the way that the bravura beach sequence in Atonement tended to. Impressive, yes, but it can take one out of the film. Same here with some sequences, especially with the attack scenes. Instead of focusing on the drama or narrative consequences of the actions, these scenes tend to come across as a bit choreographed and self-conscious. It reminded me of the visual style used by Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life, a swooping, angled approach to the film’s material that completely worked in that film, and then completely didn’t work when it was employed in his next film, To the Wonder. What was exhilarating and meaningful in Birdman was exhilarating and distracting here in The Revenant.

 

The Tree of Life, which failed in part because of dinosaurs and Sean Penn, reached high and succeeded greatly, even if it didn’t quite accomplish all its high goals. The Revenant is like that—full of ambition, drive, creativity, and brutal force—and while not quite fulfilling its potential, is the great epic of the year.

 

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Golden Globe Awards–2016

Quote from the Golden Globes website about the members who vote:

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) is a non-profit organization, the members of which are international journalists based in Southern California. The HFPA has about members who disseminate information about movies and television to the world through their various publications throughout the world.

Host/comic/actor Ricky Gervais was right last night. The Golden Globe Awards are really not worth anything. That is, they aren’t worth anything in terms of art, and really aren’t worth much to anyone else unless folks who market films can fool some folks that they should see a film because it won a Golden Globe. Remember that there are fewer than 100 members (perhaps fewer than 90). It’s right up there with the small number of voters on the Nobel Peace Prize committee, whose awards can often be taken with the same reservations.

In truth, the Globes are not quite the complete joke they were even a few years ago, though this year’s categories raise a question or two. In years past, the relatively small group of foreign journalists could be essentially bought with parties and trinkets, and they have rather nakedly nominated some folks because it would be nice (and lucrative) to have them appear on the awards show. Case in point from distant past: Pia Zadora winning anything for 1982’s Butterfly and 2010’s three nominations (including Best Picture) for The Tourist, which happened to feature camera-friendly Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.

This year’s entries are not quite as laughable, and will likely function best as precursors for the Oscars, which is really the Golden Globes’ true role. There is no one standout film this year, and The Revenant winning Best Picture (Drama) is as good a choice as any.—as is giving the director award to its director Alejandro Iñárritu (director of last year’s Birdman) . Leonardo DiCaprio’s win was well deserved, both in terms of this film and his career (yes, he’s been around that long, and has been doing fine but often unrecognized work for years). DiCaprio deserves the accolades, but in truth there was no other male performance that has stood out this year, so the award may well have been for a career rather than the performance itself.

As intelligent and worthwhile as these three awards were, the foolishness that is the Golden Globes surfaced in its two categories for Best Picture/Actor/Actress. In what seems like a better categorization process than that of the Oscars, the Golden Globes divide pics and acting between drama and comedy. Since comedy is often so painfully misunderstood and ignored, it seems like a good idea. But apparently the application process is often wanting. The Martian as a comedy? It’s so ludicrous a thought that it seems beyond criticism, the awards critique equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

You know how funny it was, right? Stranded on Mars, fighting for survival, many folks worried on the ground and others risking their lives in outer space—remember all those hysterical scenes? And that Matt Damon—what a card! To be honest, I’m glad the film was recognized as Best Picture (Comedy) and that Damon won something for his star turn—which was more difficult than it looked. But (pardon the irony) seriously? A comedy? Yes, many of us take the foolishness of the HFPA and the awards for granted, but following the foolishness to its obvious end—as happened here—is beyond ridiculous. But hey, it’s only the Golden Globes, right?

In terms of anything remotely affecting reality, Brie Larson’s win for Room puts her squarely in line for an Oscar, which might bring more attention to the film, and will certainly not hurt the career of this young and talented actress. Kate Winslet looked genuinely shocked at her win for Best Supporting Actress for Steve Jobs, which also picked up a screenwriting award for Hollywood favorite Aaron Sorkin. (He looked as shocked as Winslet at his win.)

Sylvester Stallone’s win for Best Supporting Actor for Creed was a sentimental gesture, to be sure, but in truth was more than that. Mark Rylance, for example, (up for Bridge of Spies in this category) is a far better actor than Stallone could ever be, but Stallone’s performance in Creed as the finest work he’d ever done. He also “stuck out,” a near-essential to winning awards in his film in a way that some of the other performances didn’t. (Rylance’s work, as it often is, was beautifully subtle). And where was The Revenant’s Tom Hardy, and why was he missing in this list?

Jennifer Lawrence winning for Joy was a yawn. She is beloved by the Hollywood Foreign Press, and the others in her category (Best Actress/Comedy) were too old and already decorated, in films that were too small, or were “out there” loud actresses that may be funny but are not the well-rounded talents that Lawrence is. As Gervais said while introducing Morgan Freeman as the most respected actor in the room—while acknowledging that “that isn’t saying much”—this category, this year, wasn’t the strongest, and Lawrence’s win isn’t much of a triumph.

Other thoughts on the winners: Inside Out won over the recently lauded Anomalisa may help its chances with the Academy Awards; the same for Son of Saul in the Foreign Film category. (It seems a truism at this point that a sure way to a win for foreign films or documentaries is to have a Holocaust drama….)

Yes, there were some fascinating and surprising choices in the television awards, but this website is not www.TV-prof.com. : )

As for the show itself, acid-tongued Gervais presented a variety of humorous, tough, and occasionally awkward moments (especially with Mel Gibson). But his overall take on the Awards—that they are worthless and that the show is ridiculous—worked well in context. He is an acquired taste, to be sure, and he can be cruelly mean-spirited at times. But his ever-growing apparent discontent with the show as it progressed was funny and a much-needed antidote to the poisonous stuffy self-congratulatory spirit of the awards (which is only a preview to the greater self-importance demonstrated at the Oscars).

All in all, the Golden Globe awards proved what an unusual year it is for films, in that there is no one film that is dominating artistically (written while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is mopping up financially). Ultimately, Gervais is not just funny but correct. These are relatively useless awards. For the marketers, winning an award might draw a few folks in. For the artists themselves, it’s a happy thing to win but the award has nowhere near the significance of an Oscar. As a bellwether for those interested in what might be coming up for the Oscars, it’s at least fodder for the 24-hour entertainment news folks. And writers like me.

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The Thin Man (1934)

At once primitive and shockingly modern is one way to describe the 1934 classic, The Thin Man. It seems creaky and hopelessly old-fashioned in the way it sets up its crime story. Then we get to the heart of the film, which isn’t the plot at all, but the relationship between Nick and his wife Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy). If you’ve never seen it, stick with the murder story even through the awkward rhythms of the plot and the acting of the rest of the cast. They are standard (most of the women and all of the men), with a bit of overintensity from Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane in the early sound Tarzan films and mother of Mia Farrow).

Thrown together in less than two weeks, the film was not considered anything other than an ordinary quickie. But those two marvelous leads and their even more marvelous chemistry led to four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, and to such a successful run that it spawned five sequels. And the chemistry is still delicious. These two not only love each other, but enjoy each other immensely, and consider it part of the marriage contract to be as witty and engaging as possible with one another at all times. (Personal side note: I remember my mother telling me that seeing this film was her first insight into the concept that for some people, being married could be fun.)

Powell, a consistently underrated and too-soon-forgotten actor, owns the film with the more extroverted performance. Today we are more sensitive to the incredible amount of drinking he does, and that can cut into our enjoyment of his work. But it’s worth putting that aside to enjoy the physical and verbal humor of the actor. He completely and delightfully possesses every scene he’s in in a way that few actors do.

Equally as good is Myrna Loy as his wife, who supports, loves, and cajoles her husband. She is his equal partner in every area of their lives, and her naturalness and connection with her husband feels more fresh than most of today’s cinematic relationship. It’s something of a crime that Loy was never nominated for an Oscar. She certainly should have been for this. Yes, her work makes Powell look better. But she does far more than that, adding spice, stability and a mental quickness to the role that isn’t necessarily in the script.

(1934, in fact, was in year in which the Academy got a lot wrong. Bette Davis, who should have won for Of Human Bondage, wasn’t even officially nominated that year, and became a famous write-in nominee, which led to her win the next year. Claudette Colbert won for Best Actress in 1934 in the unprecedented sweep of It Happened One Night. She was fine, but Loy and Davis were better.)

The cinematography of The Thin Man was by the legendary James Wong Howe, Oscar winner for The Rose Tattoo and Hud in his later years. The print I saw was fine but not full restored, and I’m sure some of the blacks were less murky in the original. But some of the scenes were as deliberately dark as The Godfather, Part Two, a daring move in the early sound years.

The film also just barely gets away with some questionable lines that probably would have not gotten past the censors even later that year. They are not only funny to us now, but the film lets us know that everyone involved is in on the jokes. Think “drawers” and “tabloids.”

The Thin Man is a great visit to the past. If you want to see what a quickly made film looks like from the early sound period, this is a great example. If you want to see two great performances involving some of the best marital chemistry in film history, this should be your next stop.

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Brooklyn

Brooklyn is a lovely, adult, gentle and well-made film that’s anchored by one of the best, if not the best, female performance of the year. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of this year’s most raucous well-made film, Mad Max: Fury Road. As loud, aggressive, wild, mechanical, and edgy as that film is (as well as anchored by another great performance), Brooklyn is quiet, tender, and as warmly human as any recent film.

The center of the film is, of course, the immensely talented Saoirse Ronan, probably still best known for her Oscar-nominated performance as the young 12-year-old brat Briony in Atonement (though some may remember her in The Lovely Bones, Hanna, or The Grand Budapest Hotel). As much as her Atonement character was all elbows and attitude, Ronan’s character here, Eilis, is soft, sweet, and initially unsure of herself and what she wants. Ronan, now 21, will be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and may well deserve a win. She’s already won several from different groups, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award. The wonder of the performance is all in the eyes and the mind. Eilis begins as someone brave enough to move away from her family to America and begin a new life, yet is unsure of what she really believes about life and love and how to navigate either. She is often asked a question or faced with a new situation, and she clearly doesn’t yet know how to respond. What we see is a flurry of thoughts and feelings go through her mind, and reflect only subtly on her face. We see the confusion without her really looking externally confused. Other actors would play it either blankly or with too much external expression. Ronan finds that place of strong feeling yet confusion of thought so difficult to express on film.

Then her character begins to grow in confidence, and Ronan’s performance flowers with her character’s emotional progress. You can still feel the pressing into growth and maturity, but you can also see the expanding surefootedness of Eilis as she falls in love, begins to truly own her job, and examines different futures than she ever imagined. Ronan keeps the quiet, internal nature of Eilis, but allows her to grow from within rather than “act” more mature. Even in its quietness, it’s a strong and stunning performance. Ronan is officially one of the Great Young Actresses of our age.

Doing solid work in a crucial part is Emery Cohen, perhaps best known for playing the son of Deborah Messing’s character in television’s Smash. In his first romantic lead, Cohen plays the Italian boyfriend of Eilis (a bit of a stretch considering Cohen’s Russian Jewish background). Here he plays a rarely shown character—a young man who is respectful, kind, gentle, and real. There’s nothing phony or corny about him.

Another (spoiler alert) young man who gets involved in her life is played by chameleon Dohmnall Gleeson, son of near-legend Brendan Gleeson. Consider these characters played by Dohmnall: the kind, loving, gently Jim here in Brooklyn; the evil and Hitler-like General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Caleb in Ex Machina; geeky/cute/funny Tim in About Time, and so many others, including Harry Potter. To say he has range is obvious. Here, as with the other actors, he underplays, and he fills a vital in both the narrative and in the success of the film.

Worthy of mention is the ever-dependable Julie Walters, most recently of Indian Summers, but perhaps best known for Billy Elliott and Educating Rita. Here she in a minor role, but one that adds flavor to what could have been a clichéd and bland role. And finally, there is Jim Broadbent, who never seems to know how to make a wrong move onscreen. After just having seen Spotlight and the documentary Deliver Us from Evil, it was refreshing to see a Catholic priest who was kind and helpful, and whose only agenda was to continue to be so.

The mise-en-scène reminds me of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. With cinematography by Yves Bélanger (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), the images appear to be rather straightforward. They often set the actors in settings that can seem overwhelming at times, but they are really an extension rather than a limitation of the characters. This is clean, unselfconscious, yet sensitive filmmaking.

While the film focuses on the deep humanity of its characters, the real theme is what home is. Eilis has two places she could call home—Ireland and Brooklyn. She also has a variety of situations between the two places that could cause her to make her final home in either place. Here is where the cinematography comes in again. It films some scenes as if there were some doubt or tension with the places and relationships she finally decides upon, and it seems to tell us that perhaps she’s found her home in the place she eventually leaves behind her. So in spite of its quiet exterior, the film’s a bit sneaky in its own way.

Brooklyn is a beautifully photography exquisitely acted film that is one of the best of the year. It’s deeply human, and in that alone is a standout in a year of noise and Big Themes. It harkens back to the days of David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), an aching, painful, transcendent film that moves in ways that can’t be completely expressed. Brooklyn is like that, and for that alone, is not to be missed. And director John Crowley, best known before this for Closed Circuit and Intermission, is one to keep an eye on.

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