Monday, October 31, 2011

The Netflix Files: Oct 17-31

Only one entry for the past two weeks (it's been buuuuuuuusy), but at least it was a memorable one.

Fellini Satyricon (1969) dir. Federico Fellini:
Filled with spectacular, wild imagery, Fellini's take on the Satyricon by Petronius is an eccentric, sometimes meandering, slice of mythology. One of the director's major forays into color (along with the better-regarded Amarcord), Satyricon isn't one of the revered director's best. It might even be said that this film marked the slow start of a general decline in his work. That said, it's one hell of a way to "go out" on. The sets, more fanciful than realistic (think Titus, not Gladiator) along with the rest of the production design, are part of what carry this psychedelic venture through ancient debauchery. And, by and large, it succeeds; the style effectively fills the void for substance. So even though the central characters aren't particularly memorable (they're moved by the plot, rather than the other way around), the way Fellini tells the string of episodes is remarkable. Not that it doesn't get bogged down. As was common with some of his later films, Satyricon gets indulgent at times, to the point where it feels like it needs a handful of reels removed. Still, it's hard not to be impressed with Fellini's execution, and the way it vividly creates and image of the wildness of ancient Rome. An imperfect vision, but nonetheless a remarkable one.

Grade: B+

Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: "The Skin I Live In"

There is a scene in The Skin I Live In, the latest film from celebrated Spanish director Pedro Almodovar (Volver, Talk to Her) where a man in a silken tiger costume tries to rape a woman wearing a flesh-colored body suit. And as it turns out, that's not the craziest thing that happens in the film. But if you're up for a little craziness (okay, make that a lot), then Almodovar's plastic-surgery-revenge-horror-thriller (take a moment and let that genre cocktail sink in), might be just what you need, even if it's not among his finest efforts.

The film, which reunites Almodovar with Antonio Banderas, focuses on plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who develops a special type of synthetic skin capable of withstanding tremendous amounts of damage. The good doctor is also keeping a woman (Elena Anaya) locked up in room in his lavish Toledo home, for reasons completely unknown at the start of the film, even though the start is really near the story proper's conclusion. Like many a good tale, Skin involves a framing device and a lengthy flashback. And, like just about any Almodovar film, it also blends elements of noir, camp, and brooding melodrama. The script, also written by Almodovar, may be adapted from Thierry Jonquet's novel "Tarantula," but just as the Coen brothers did with No Country for Old Men, Almodovar has made the story entirely his own.

The emotions driving the film may not go much more than skin deep, but at the very least the execution offers up plenty to savor. As always, the color red sneaks its way into the frame at every opportunity, and Jose Alcaine's cinematography richly captures the mostly interior-set scenes. We're dealing with material that, without spoiling anything, could have easily turned into Hostel-style shlock. Thankfully, we have a master at the helm to keep things under control. Horror and thriller elements may be involved in the story, but Almodovar doesn't go over the top; he keeps the major freak-out element grounded within the rest of the narrative. So when the film really hits its stride, it's hard to look away, even at the comparatively tame scenes (rarely does a shot of a woman tearing up clothes feel so stylish and intense). Carried along by Alberto Iglesias' lush, frantic score, Skin features the director's eye for captivating imagery at its finest. That is, for part of the time.

Where the film gets into trouble isn't in the ending (there's no silly last-minute twist of any sort), but rather the beginning. Rather than elegantly setting up the story before moving into the big flashback, the first portion of the film is a scattershot sequence that keeps throwing things at the audience in hopes that something will stick. It's structural issues like this that keep scenes like the above-mentioned tiger man rape incident (I had to stop a second after realizing that I did, in fact, just type that) from achieving greater impact. With so little to latch onto at the start of the film, it's difficult to get invested or really care. The early sections also fall victim to exposition, which is especially irritating when we're told something, only to see it again in the flashback. Almodovar knows how to show so exquisitely, and it's puzzling as to why he sometimes resorts to telling like this.

Thankfully these issues don't sink the whole ship. In addition to the excellent technical aspects, the performances from Banderas, Anaya, and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes, are all quite strong. Like the film around them, their work tends towards the surface only (Robert's desire for revenge never feels quite as passionately twisted as it should), but they are ultimately effective and play off of each other well. Banderas in particular is a nice surprise, playing his role quite straight, and never giving into the temptation to make him a mad scientist caricature. Almodovar has recently been known for his collaborations with leading lady Penelope Cruz, but Skin stands as a firm reminder that the director is more than capable of drawing strong work from his male leads as well. It's probably a good thing that the lead of the story is a man as well, because without Robert, I suspect just about every man who ever sees this film will walk out terrified to ever get on their girlfriend's bad side, especially if she's a surgeon. The Skin I Live In might not be the most accomplished or memorable of Almodovar's filmography, but at the very least it shows the director trying to change his game. One character tells Robert that stories always end up repeating themselves. Thankfully, the same can't be said about Almodovar's career.

Grade: B

Friday, October 21, 2011

Review: "Take Shelter"

It's fitting that the narrative structure of Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, which involves images of violent weather, resembles a hurricane. The opening act is filled with jarring lightning, followed by weaker rains, before settling into the eye, and then moving back into the storm. It's not so much a constant path of escalation as it is a big cycle. And this cycle, in addition to any number of elements, is part of why Nichols' film stands as one of the best offerings of the year.

Take Shelter centers on Curtis LaForche (Boardwalk Empire's Michael Shannon), a man who lives in the Midwest with his wife Samantha (the delightfully ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and the couple's deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). As the film opens, Curtis witnesses a monumental wall of storm clouds approaching, and finds himself drenched in murky, oily rain. Are these visions, or a sign that Curtis himself may be succumbing to mental illness? Without spoiling anything, let's just say that writer/director Nichols does gives solid enough answers to the film's central question, but it does little to mitigate the film's power.

In the opening act, the first wave of the above-mentioned metaphorical hurricane, we get these dreams/visions surprisingly frequently. Had the film continued with this frequency, it could have easily lost its potency, and devolved into some art house cousin of a silly, big-budget paranormal thriller. Instead, after grabbing our attention and thoroughly unnerving us, Nichols grounds the film, saving the character development for the middle portion of the story. It's an interesting structural choice that pays off beautifully, as it gives us a taste of what is to come, without sliding into full-blown insanity strictly in the final act. And it's in this oh-so-vital middle section that Take Shelter is able to truly evolve and make its two major climaxes feel earned.

Having been wrongfully snubbed by the Emmys for his stellar supporting work on Boardwalk Empire, star Michael Shannon is given a moment in the spotlight to shine, and the way he takes the reins makes his performance a force to be reckoned with. It's generally subdued work, but when Shannon really needs to emote, whether in a series of confessions to friends and family, or in his one outburst, it all comes through. There are two critical aspects to Curtis: the man who wants to find a solution to the problem, and the man who is so afraid of upsetting his idyllic family life that he withholds information. Shannon captures these two facets with exceptional skill, resulting in a performance that mixes elements of naturalism and theatricality so as to make it all feel seamless. Backing him up is break-out actor of the year Jessica Chastain, in her 400th (4th? Eh, close enough) role of the year. As in The Tree of Life and The Help, Chastain once again plays a house wife, but it speaks volumes about her skills as an actress that there's not one ounce of Mrs. O'Brien or Celia Foote to be found in Samantha. Though the character initially starts off as a standard supportive-but-confused spouse, she evolves over the course of the film to become a strong standalone character, even if the script isn't entirely as concerned with her as it is with Curtis. I mean it as the highest compliment when I say that Take Shelter is the weakest of her four performances this year; if ever someone deserved to be an It Girl, it's her.

The rest of the cast equips themselves quite capably, though the only other figures of note are Curtis' co-worker Dewart (Shannon's Boardwalk co-star Shea Whigham) and Curtis' mother (Kathy Baker), who has one but one nicely played scene. Aside from Shannon (and to some extent, Chastain), Take Shelter is Jeff Nichols' show, and the director's skill with creating atmosphere resonates from the first frame to the last. Bolstered by a pitch perfect score by David Wingo, there's a quiet sense of foreboding, and even dread, to almost every scene in the film. The opening act so effectively gets in your head (without being over the top), that the comparatively mundane middle remains flooded with varying levels of tension. I will admit, however, that while Nichols' skills as director are just about faultless, the film's few minor flaws do stem from his work as a writer. Though generally tightly structured in its detailing of Curtis' mental instability (and quite well-edited), the script feels as though it needs just a few minor revisions. A scene involving Samantha telling Curtis to get his act together comes off as a rush of exposition, one that Chastain seems to want to hurry through as quickly as possible to get on to the next scene. A second incident, one involving Curtis' older brother Kyle (Ray McKinnon), though not bad in its own right, feels redundant. There are enough encounters where people ask Curtis how he's doing, and by the time Kyle shows up, it feels like Take Shelter should be onto something else. And just when the film seems like it's ready to end on a more open-ended note, Nichols segues into the actual conclusion. The actual ending is strong (although a bit on the blunt side), but the transition is in need of a little smoothing-out.

All that said, these are but minor dents in the film's armor. Having won raves at Sundance and Cannes earlier this year, Take Shelter has been high on my radar for quite some time. Thankfully, this is one of those times where the hype has been justified. There are elements of the supernatural in Take Shelter, but Nichols keeps it all grounded to the point where it mesmerizes, rather than distracts. What could have flown off of the rails into bombastic insanity emerges as a beautifully rendered character study underscored by an intense atmosphere of doom. By the time it's over, Take Shelter will leave you shaken, to the point where, the next time you see dark clouds on the horizon (like the ones I saw when I left the theater), you might stop for a moment and think about a good hiding place.

Grade: A-/A

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Netflix Files: Oct. 10-16

Anthony Zimmer (2005) dir. Jerome Salle:
After finally shaking off my rage towards last year's The Tourist, I decided that it would be worthwhile to check out one of that film's key inspirations: the French thriller Anthony Zimmer. As it turns out, The Tourist wasn't merely inspired by Salle's film; it's pretty much a remake with a different location and slightly different characters/set-ups. It's also nothing remotely noteworthy, which I guess is somewhat tolerable, since it means that The Tourist didn't defile some great work of cinema. What Salle's film has going for it, aside from the chemistry between Yvan Attal and Sophie Marceau, is in its pacing and construction. The Tourist's Venetian setting wins in terms of glamour, but Anthony Zimmer is far and away the better-made film. Salle actually injects a sense of style to the proceedings, even though the story still suffers from the same silliness that plagued The Tourist. Additionally, the male lead is no longer a spineless wimp throughout the entire film, which adds an interesting dynamic to the central relationship. Still, it doesn't do enough to raise the film above the "disposable fun" category.

Grade: C+

The Trip (2011) dir. Michael Winterbottom:
Though billed as a comedy, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's reunion with Michael Winterbottom has quite a bit of melancholy running through its veins. Playing loose versions of themselves (their names are even the same), the pair play friends who, on an assignment for a magazine, travel across the English countryside surveying notable restaurants. As the two bounce off of each other on the road and at the dining table, they talk about life, their careers, and who between them can do the best Michael Caine impression (both are pretty damn good). It's not so much laugh-out-loud funny as it is amusing, but Coogan and Brydon have strong enough chemistry to carry the film through its repetitive a point. The Achilles Heel of The Trip, which features some surprisingly lovely shots of the English countryside during its transitions, is that it runs nearly 2 hours. When the film finally takes a detour from formula, and has the pair walk around some cliffs, it's easy for your mind to wander. So even though the increasingly melancholy tone of the piece is genuine, it simply takes too long to get there, draining it of some impact. The Trip is a solid, and at times extremely enjoyable and insightful film, but it's desperately in need of some trimming. As the men of Monty Python would say, "Get on with it!"

Grade: B-

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: "Trespass"

I really have to wonder why Nicole Kidman chose to take part in Joel Schumacher's Trespass. Did she want an easy paycheck? Did she owe someone a favor? Did she want to get kissed by Cam Gigandet? Did her double duties as star and producer of Rabbit Hole wear her out and cloud her judgement? I would hope that it's one of the above, because there's really no reason why an actress of her caliber is slumming it in this second (third? fourth?) rate home-invasion thriller. The man in the director's chair certainly doesn't help matters.

Ever a hit-and-miss director, Joel Schumacher has been on something of a downward spiral recently, and Trespass does absolutely nothing to reverse the trend. Kyle and Sarah Miller (Nicholas Cage and Kidman, respectively) are a wealthy couple with a teenaged daughter. Kyle does...well, honestly, it doesn't matter. You just need to know that diamonds are involved. One night, while trying to keep their daughter Avery (Liana Liberato) from going to a friend's party (she sneaks out anyway), the couple are overtaken by burglars. What starts as a seemingly regular robbery spirals out of control as the burglars' identities and backstories come to light.

All in all, it's not a terrible premise for a thriller, but in the end it's execution that counts, and good lord, are there problems with the execution. Though it establishes the Miller family and gets to the robbery efficiently, the more Trespass goes on, the further down the rabbit hole of stupidity it goes. The script, by Karl Gajdusek, certainly deserves a lot of the blame. Characters, both burglars and victims, make increasingly dumb decisions just so the plot can agonizingly protract itself. It says a lot about a movie when the smartest (I'm using that term lightly) character is the angsty teenaged daughter. Aspects like this ruin whatever B-movie funTrespass might have held for its audience, barring a few unintentionally funny lines. But the bigger, and more distracting, offender is Schumacher's direction, which appears to have been limited to telling his performers to say each line louder than the last. So for all of the screaming, pointed guns, death threats, broken glass, and attempts at improvised kidney-removal surgery (yes, you read that correctly), there's rarely a moment when any tension materializes.

It's really a shame, because there's enough talent among the cast to make this feel like a wasted opportunity, rather than shameless junk. Ben Mendelsohn, last seen giving a chilling performance in Animal Kingdom, makes a perfectly compelling ring-leader, while Kidman and Liberato give passable performances (though they're often reduced to yelling at the top of their lungs). Cage, often the subject of ridicule these days, does OK for himself too, dialing it down and never going any more over the top than the rest of the ensemble. There are, however, two dead weights in the cast who drag it all down. First is Jordana Spiro as the lone female burglar. The script tries to liven up the character by giving her a drug addiction, though all it really adds it the opportunity to see Ms. Spiro strut about in her underwear for no justifiable reason. Her acting certainly doesn't help matters; at least when most everyone else is yelling, it's believable, regardless of how shrill and exhausting it all is. That is, except for Cam Gigandet. To say that this is an actor who has gotten by on his looks would be an understatement. Where I previously remembered him as the worst part of Easy A, now I get to remember him as the worst part of Trespass. You can almost feel what little stardom he has evaporating as the movie goes on. To be fair the performance is actually acceptable for the first act or so of the film. Unfortunately, in an attempt to keep us on our toes, Gajdusek inserts one of his dumb little twists. Turns out Gigandet's character is a bit of a closet psychotic who wants to 'rescue' Sarah. I rest my case.

On the technical front there's really nothing worth mentioning. Lighting is acceptable and appropriately moody without being ridiculous, and the score, while predictable, never becomes intrusive. I might have to reconsider that last sentence though, because I spent a good deal more time watching Ms. Kidman's weave unravel (it truly is a wonder) than I did really soaking in the film's production values. However, to sum things up, as far as production values go, it's perfectly adequate, with virtually nothing that would make you think that Trespass was originally headed straight to DVD. Worse films have made their ways into theaters, not that this gets Trespass off of the hook. Schumacher's latest is little more than a lukewarm thriller that features characters who aren't worth caring about, and a plot that switches directions and character motivations so often that you only have a mild interest (at best) in who lives or dies. There's neither enough legitimate moments of suspense, nor a camp factor to make the ride enjoyable, even with a clean 90 minute run time. Rather than wind up being casual, dumb fun,Trespass is merely dumb and forgettable, to the point where, as I write this, it's already fading quickly from memory.

Review: C-/D+

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: "50/50"

Putting the words 'cancer' and 'comedy' together doesn't really make sense on paper, unless it's part of some scathing, hugely irreverent satire on the latest episode of South Park. As a subject matter/plot device, it's easy for cancer to transform narratives into either the relentlessly depressive, or the shamelessly manipulative. As far as comedy goes, the notion that the genre could play host to a story about such a disease makes us recoil; it makes us wonder if the resulting film will somehow exploit or mishandle the material to even grosser effect. While I have no doubt that some such film either exists or will exists, the makers of 50/50 can rest assured that their film is both tasteful and honest, all while succeeding at both its dramatic and comedic moments.

After a brief opening where we see Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) taking his morning run, Jonathan Levine's film doesn't waste much time cutting to the chase: Adam has cancer in the form of a malignant tumor in his lower back. We know barely anything about Adam save that he has an artists girlfriend named Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and that his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) drives him to work because he never learned how. Other than that, we don't get to discover Adam's character until we see him go through the various stages of treatment. It's a structure that could have led 50/50 to fail; without knowing much about him before, we're left to care for him strictly out of his situation, and not out of who he is as a person.

Yet somehow director Jonathan Levine and his marvelous cast pull it off. Rather than try and turn the film into and all-out comedy, or some sort of rauch fest a la Superbad, Levine and company navigate the potential minefield that 50/50 presents effortlessly, never once coming to an uncomfortable point in their execution of the material. Whether scenes are dramatic, comedic, or switch between the two, it all flows together fluidly, making the film a comfortable viewing experience, despite its look at such a terrible disease. This isn't to say that the film glosses over Adam's struggle. But, instead of beating us over the head with shots of Adam's chemo-ridden body, or packing every encounter between Adam and his therapist (Anna Kendrick) with tearful confessions about his life, the script gives us just enough to understand. What begins as a young man trying his best to cope with terrible circumstances, seamlessly evolves into a graceful look at the protagonist figuring out how to live his life, and how to manage his various relationships.

Apparently a fan of movie titles with the numbers 5 and 0, Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in strong work as a man with a disease that's hit him far too young. From his initial denial, to his forced calmness, to his eventual realization that he very well might die, Gordon-Levitt handles every facet with great skill, and his chemistry with the supporting cast works on all fronts. Those around Adam built as characters simply via their reactions to his situation, but the cast makes them all work. The stand-out of the supporting players is a toss-up between Anjelica Huston (as Adam's clingy mother) and Kendrick. The former's character is a bit of a smother mother, but the script doesn't dismiss her and assume that Adam's initial attitude towards her is 100% justified. Kendrick, in a more prominent role, takes a character who could have been nothing but a sounding board for Adam, and makes her a standalone character. There aren't any scenes oriented around her role, but Kendrick and the script bring out just enough in her interactions with Gordon-Levitt to give us a sense of who she is. Seth Rogen, as Adam's friend Kyle, while still something of a goof-off/schlub, reins it in here, delivering one of his more measured performances, if not his most measured, to date.

The lone exception from the cast is Dallas Howard, or rather, her character. It's not that the actress herself misses the mark, but the script makes her an antagonist when it doesn't really need to. All this is good for is to set up another potential relationship, and really, isn't the cancer a big enough "villain?" This one small issue aside, however, the characters are nicely drawn, and help the film's resolution (along with the tears it inspires) feel earned. Special mention should also go to Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as older patients who befriend Adam in chemotherapy; their roles are small, but every scene the pair have is vital to understanding Adam's evolution over the course of the film. It's characters like these, along with Adam himself, that make the film's sense of humor work so well.

On the technical front there's not much worth mentioning, although there is some nice visual work in a scene where Adam strolls out of a treatment session high on pot. The closest to a standout are the musical contributions from Michael Giacchino (Up), which accent the film nicely when used, without ever becoming melodramatic or saccharine. Like the film itself, the score (along with the soundtrack choices) always feel tasteful. Based on the life of one of Rogen's close friends, 50/50 beautifully captures the honesty of the account. What could have so easily been uncomfortable, manipulative, is instead an exceptional look at one man facing one of life's greatest adversities.

Grade: B/B+

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Review: "The Ides of March"

Ryan Gosling has, along with Bryce Dallas Howard and break-out star Jessica Chastain, had something of a banner year, first with Crazy, Stupid Love, and then Drive, one of my favorite films of the year thus far. An immensely talented actor (best of his generation?), 2011 was the year that Gosling finally embraced his leading man/star potential, and it's paid off quite well. His final offering for 2011, George Clooney's political drama The Ides of March previously tipped for Oscar consideration, seemed like a bang-up way to close out the year. But even though it's a solid entry on the actor's (and everyone involved) filmography, Ides is a curiously limited film, one that is intriguing enough through its run time, but perhaps not good enough to linger long in one's thoughts.

Adapted from Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North," (itself said to be loosely based on the '08 campaign of Howard Dean), Ides centers on Stephen Myers, an expert media strategist working for Democratic hopeful Mike Morris (Clooney) during the critical Ohio primary. Myers is seen as one of the best media minds in the country, and an invaluable asset to any campaign he works for. But as its Shakespearean title suggests, however, something is rotten in the state of Ohio. As Myers navigates the shark-infested waters of the campaign, he gets a crash course in dirty politics that leaves him a profoundly changed man.

Starting off on a weak note, The Ides of March does improve from its somewhat tepid opening sequences. The characters and their relationships aren't as engaging, charming, or witty as the film would like us to believe, and it makes the introductory act the least cinematically pleasing of the lot. When the story finally hits its central conflict, however, it's generally all up hill from there. Clooney may not have much of an eye for compelling images (hand this story off to Polanski, and you'll come back with an elegant, sleek cousin to The Ghost Writer), but he certainly tells the basic story well, even though he cuts a crucial scene short just so another character can explain it to another later. Some may not be too enthused by the film's politics (the left-leaning ideals are worn proudly on the film's sleeve), but at least they're contextualized in the form of press conferences, debates, and town hall meetings.

Unfortunately, as the film progresses and the story gets stronger, the characters get weaker. Despite its all star cast, The Ides of March doesn't necessarily use them well, nor does the screenplay give them much to work with. Gosling is reliable, as always, and has some strong moments in the final act, but in spots he seems to either coast, or verge into bug-eyed territory. He can at least be thankful, though, that his character has enough that's meaningful to do and say. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, two of our greatest character actors, give solid turns in opposing supporting roles (Giamatti's being given a bit more to work with). Unfortunately, the script doesn't take their characters far enough. I'd heard beforehand that each of their characters had a "big moment" that could lead to a place in the upcoming awards season. Having seen the performances, I'm wondering what on earth those moments were, because neither actor makes a lasting impression. As far as women are concerned, Marisa Tomei is given a key role, but not an interesting character, though she certainly fairs better than poor Jennifer Ehle (can we please stop giving this woman thankless roles?). Surprisingly, the film's best performance comes from Evan Rachel Wood as a young intern on the Morris campaign, who mixes ambition and vulnerability to create the film's most sympathetic character. Clooney, in front of the camera, is absent from screen for surprisingly long portions, but in his one major scene he nails it, and the tension he and Gosling create is fantastic, albeit fleeting.

On the technical side, its a solid film, though there's nothing extraordinary about aspects like costumes or set design. Cinematography, by Phedon Papamichael, is merely adequte, barring the excellent final shot. The standout, a surprise in this sort of film, is Alexandre Desplat's score, a low-key blend of beats and strings that adds a subtle touch of intrigue and danger to the film's atmosphere. Unfortunately, the use (or misuse) of the characters comes back to bite the film. The feeling of betrayal is never made as compelling to the audience as it is to the characters, most of whom fall into one-note territory. The script also falls victim to two obvious pieces of foreshadowing, one which feels contrived, and one that feels like a last-minute attempt to show that the story has been brought full-circle. The Ides of March is like candidate Mike Morris in many ways; it has undeniable strengths that should make it a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, those strengths are undercut by flaws that diminish its impact. Is this an intelligent, adult-oriented film? Yes. Is it anything remarkable, or will it be remembered in the years to come? Probably not.

Grade: B-

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Month in Review: September 2011

Though September started off pretty strong with viewings, things quickly deteriorated (school, extra-curriculars, yada yada yada). As such, I was left with only six movies to choose from, which means that the wealth isn't as spread around as much as I would like.

Best Film [Theaters] - Drive
Acting as a perfect mix of style over substance, Nicholas Winding Refn's latest isn't terribly deep, but it takes Hossein Amini's skeletal screenplay and injects it with enough style to make it a memorable art-house action ride. Despite thin characters, Drive gives us enough time with them before launching into its gritty final act. Filled with nice performances (MVPs are Ryan Gosling and Bryan Cranston), strong production values, and some killer soundtrack choices, Drive may be a bit on the shallow side, but that doesn't make it a lesser achievement; this is cinema in its most badass form.

Best Film [DVD/Streaming] - The Thing (1982)
Though the story has been told before, John Carpenter's take on The Thing easily deserves to stand as the definitive version. From the deceptively simple opening, to the increasing amount of dread and paranoia, this is horror done right. Even in its nastiest moments (Carpenter doesn't exactly shy away from the graphic stuff), it remains compelling and scary as hell, if a little silly in spots. Even when scenes don't end with a jump, The Thing, much like the titular monster, still manages to get under your skin with unnerving results.

Best Direction: Nicholas Winding Refn - Drive
Despite all of the names in Drive's ensemble, the real star is the man behind the camera. Refn, who's no stranger to intense, violent films (Bronson) still knows where to draw the line between art and exploitation. But where Bronson sometimes skirted said line uncomfortably, here the director tones it down without compromising his style. The violence is often graphic, but Refn never lingers on the most intense images for the sake of upsetting your stomach. He's more concerned with giving us just enough to make us wince before showing us how the characters react to what has just happened. Like Joe Wright's Hanna, Drive is an example of a potentially iffy screenplay brought to life by superb directorial choices.

Best Male Performance: Ryan Gosling - Drive
Gosling's Driver may not have a name or much of a backstory, but don't mistake him for a blank slate. What starts out as a seemingly empty performance evolves into a compelling turn, as we see a man harnessing his inner violence. Whether Gosling is upset (his mesmerizing stare after the motel room fight) or intimidating (the strip club confrontation), he's utterly commanding from start to finish.

Best Female Performance: Jessica Chastain - The Debt
Further cementing her status as break out actor of the year, Chastain delivers yet another solid turn in John Madden's Cold War thriller. As Rachel, the Mossad agent tasked with capturing the twisted Dr. Vogel, Chastain's mix of vulnerability and toughness comes through with a nice, understated polish. Rather than play upon similar techniques as her previous films, she gives a performance that is completely unlike her work in The Tree of Life or The Help, which only makes her newfound It Girl status that much more deserved.

Best Ensemble Cast: Drive
Despite the relatively one note characters, Drive's cast more than made the most of what they were given to work with. Though no one is quite award worthy (though Gosling's sheer magnetism is certainly worth mentioning), the cast is filled with good work on all fronts, even those who aren't utilized to the fullest (Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman). In a film that was truly a director's show, the cast still managed to make an impact.

Best Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel - Drive
In case you hadn't caught on by now, I really really liked Drive, and can think of no better recipient for cinematography than Sigel. Though the color palette is slightly washed-out (I'm assuming this is due to shooting on digital), Sigel's lighting and camera movements are quite striking, capturing Refn's gritty, neo-noir vision of Los Angeles with refined style.