Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Month in Review: October 2011

Best Film (Theaters): Take Shelter
Whatever metaphorical ambitions may or may not be present in Take Shelter, it's hard to deny that this is truly first-rate film-making. Jeff Nichols' sophomore effort, drenched in dread from its opening sequence, takes its time telling its story. Rather than lay out a non-stop series of escalating madness, he gives us a surprisingly calm middle section before charging into the finale. The result, contrary to expectation, pays off in spades. Bolstered by rich performances (including heartbreaking work from Kathy Baker in a single scene), strong visuals, and a eerie score, this is one film that will stick with you long after it's over.

Best Film (DVD/Streaming): Fellini Satyricon
For all of its flaws in the storytelling department, this chaotic visual feast from Federico Fellini still leaves one hell of an impression based on the visuals alone. Fellini so brilliantly captures ancient Rome in the visuals and design that you can almost forgive the film's somewhat meandering tendencies and lack of strong characterization.

Best Direction: Jeff Nichols - Take Shelter
If Take Shelter is only Jeff Nichols' second outing as a writer/director, then the man would seem to have quite the career ahead of him. Rather than fall into a sophomore slump, Nichols' second film is a force to be reckoned with, not only due to the fine performances, but also to his marvelous direction. Nichols knows how to create an atmospheric sense of dread and foreboding that always feels perfectly judged, never flying off the rails into hysteria or beat-you-over-the-head repetition. Nichols is already at work on his third film (not due until 2013), and as of now I can tell you that thanks to Take Shelter, the man can consider my ticket sold.

Best Male Performance: Michael Shannon - Take Shelter
Already lighting up the small screen with his intimidating turn on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, Shannon returns to the big screen with a vengeance here, and delivers one of the year's finest performances. Mixing elements of naturalism and heightened drama with surprising finesse, Shannon makes his character's multiple angles come together cohesively. Whether he's mumbling quietly to himself or shouting in paranoid rage, he's a force to be reckoned with.

Best Female Performance: Elena Anaya - The Skin I Live In
The Skin I Live In may not rank as one of Almodovar's best, but at there very least there's some nice work from the cast, including Elena Anaya as the mysterious Vera Cruz. No, she doesn't come anywhere close to achieving what Penelope Cruz did in Volver, but she creates a fascinating character all the same, one whose full complexity doesn't come to the foreground until quite late in the game. Once all of the pieces have come together, everything that came before gains a whole new meaning, and Anaya's performance, while not necessarily a revelation, makes quite the impression, even if it's a bit on the surface-y side of things.

Best Screenplay: 50/50 by Will Reiser
'Write what you know,' the saying goes, and for Will Reiser, this piece of advice couldn't have been more appropriate. Based on Reiser's own experiences with cancer, 50/50, which could have easily been stupid, bipolar, or simply in bad taste, moves between comedy and drama so seamlessly that it's almost miraculous. The general sensitivity towards the characters (barring one unfortunate exception) and the way Reiser moves through Adam's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt's) journey helps the script avoid the potential pitfalls of its genre hybrid, and the result is a heavy dose of well-earned laughs and tears.

Best Ensemble Cast: 50/50
50/50 may only be about one man's struggle, but the film is still more than adept at capturing how Adam's story affects those around him. Gordon-Levitt is reliable as always, and he's backed up by strong work on all sides. Whether it's his out-of-her-league therapist (Anna Kendrick), his clingy mother (Anjelica Huston), or a chemotherapy cohort (Philip Baker Hall), all of the roles are played beautifully, and help make 50/50 an even richer experience. These aren't merely plot devices for Adam to bounce his feelings off of; they're fully formed characters, and the film is better off because of this.

Best Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno - Fellini Satyricon
Though Federico Fellini will perhaps always be known for his black and white classics of the late 50s and early 60s, when it came time to transition to color, the revered director pulled it off with spectacular results. DP Giuseppe Rotunno's work on Satyricon is, in short, stunning. He captures Fellini's wild and sensationalistic vision of ancient Rome with a rich array of light, color, and shadow, across myriad sets and locales. Film is often described as painting with light, which seems completely appropriate here, considering that any frame of Satyricon, thanks to Rotunno's work, would make quite a piece of still art.

The Rest of the Bunch: The Trip, Trespass, Anthony Zimmer
What I missed/need to catch up on: Martha Marcy May Marlene

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