Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Month in Review: August 2011

Another month, another wrap-up of the best of what I've seen. Unfortunately, August hasn't proved to be my best month, whether at the theater or in terms of DVD choices, so the love isn't spread around as much as I would like. Some months I'm able to really stick to my rule of giving no film more than 2 awards. August 2011? Not so much...

Best Film (Theaters): The Help
Tate Taylor's adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel may not boast first class film making, but it is a nicely handled, emotionally resonant piece of social change story telling. The screenplay isn't the best in terms of focus, but Taylor, the artistic/tech team, and the wonderful cast help turn this potentially corny story into something filled with moments that illicit genuine laughs and tears. And, not to get too ahead of myself, but don't be surprised if this one shows up in a few categories come awards season.

Best Film (DVD): The People vs. Larry Flynt
Perhaps Milos Forman's most politically charged works made in English, Larry Flynt also features his most unlikely protagonist. But even though the film may gloss over the seediest aspects of Hustler Magazine, it isn't so kind to Larry Flynt that it asks us to support everything he does. Its goal is simply to use an unlikely candidate to stand up for First Amendment rights, and thanks to Forman's keen eye behind the camera directing a fine cast, the film is a resounding success.

Best Director: Milos Forman - The People vs. Larry Flynt
Though it's not quite up there with his work on Cuckoo's Nest or Amadeus, Larry Flynt represents yet another triumph for Forman. With his ability to generate comedy out of human interaction (rather than overwrought set-ups and punch lines), this story of the world's most unlikely First Amendment crusader manages to be insightful, well-acted, and highly entertaining.

Best Male Performance: Woody Harrelson - The People vs. Larry Flynt
Remember when I said that I wasn't spreading the love around this month? That said, I really didn't see anything that was worth giving this too over Harrelson, who embodies both the hick-ish Everyman and sleazy porn publisher sides of the titular Larry Flynt. It's not necessarily the most subtle performance of Harrelson's career (for that, take a look at The Messenger), but as one of Forman's typical larger-than-life protagonists, he certainly gives it his all. The result is a (thus far) career-best performance.

Best Female Performance: Viola Davis - The Help
In Doubt, Viola Davis practically stole the show with one scene. In The Help, she has considerably more screen time, and proves that her work in Doubt was anything but a fluke. Though Skeeter (Emma Stone) may be the center of the story (well...sort of), Davis' Aibileen is easily the heart. The actress brings a beautiful warmth to her role, completely selling the idea that she's been more of a parent to the white children she's raised than their actual mothers, and does so without becoming manipulative. In addition to the rest of the cast, she helps The Help overcome its tendency towards corniness, and allows it to rise closer to its full potential.

Best Ensemble Cast: The Help
As I've said before, The Help is not necessarily a great film. It does, however, feature a fantastic cast, with even the most insignificant of roles making a solid impression. Stone is solid, Davis is the heart of the picture, Sissy Spacek is a riot, and Bryce Dallas Howard makes a fantastic villain. Then there's Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain, who are absolute joys to watch from the get go. The pair would have likely run off with the movie had it not been for Davis bringing in the powerhouse acting moments. Can you say "SAG Award nominee"?

Best Screenplay: The Devil's Double by Michael Thomas
The screenplay may have its significant flaws, but one has to at least give Michael Thomas some credit for turning Latif Yahia's story into an Arabic Scarface. It may sacrifice depth and the chance to better examine the characters and their surroundings, but at the very least, it keeps events moving, and covers quite a bit of ground without short-changing any aspect of the story.

Best Cinematography[TIE]: Larry Smith - Eyes Wide Shut & Andre Szankowski - Mysteries of Lisbon
Neither of these films blew me away (though I prefer the former), but they did have one thing that was consistently exemplary: their photography. In Eyes Wide Shut, we see Kubrick combine his love of long steadicam shots mixed beautifully with hazy lighting (from Christmas decorations and neon signs) that conveys the dream-like state the film is aiming for. It's the one aspect of Kubrick's final film that is a complete success. Long, beautiful shots are also prominent in Raul Ruiz's last film, and Szankowski does a fantastic job of keeping the camera in motion, often while navigating around any number of extras. The use of digital may sap the scenes of the richness of certain colors, but Szankowski's impeccable work still shines through this technical bump in the road.

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