Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Best of the Month: February + March 2012

Best Film (Theaters): The Kid with a Bike

The Dardennes brothers' latest film is a small, somewhat flawed film, but that doesn't stop it from being something of a gem as well. The writing and direction are restrained and honest, and the cast members give top flight performances. The final scene is troubling because it comes off as too open-ended for its own good, but just about everything before is lovely. It won't go down as one of the Dardennes' best, but it's still a strong entry in their filmography.

Best Film (DVD/Streaming): The Servant

A deceptively simple domestic drama/thriller, Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter's adaptation of Robin Maugham's novel is a taut tale of power dynamics filled with striking cinematography and strong performances. Though the ending has a bit of a stylistic shift - it feels like the result of a Bergman and Lynch mash up - the storytelling is handled so well that it hardly matters. It's strong enough before it turns weird, but the strangeness of the last 15 minutes gives the film something to help it stand out. 

Best Director: Danny Boyle - Trainspotting

Boyle's ability to energize nearly any subject matter works wonders in his 1996 breakout film. The subject matter - drug addiction - isn't glamorized by any means, but Boyle's style keeps it from being a grim slog to sit through. Cementing the film's greatness is the way Boyle and his tech team stage Renton's (Ewan McGregor) withdrawal hallucinations, all set within his childhood bedroom. It's a mesmerizing and terrifying piece of work that demonstrates Boyle at the peak of his power.

Best Male Performance: Lior Ashkenazi - Footnote

Half of the father-son duo at the core of Joseph Cedar's film about rivalry in academia, Ashkenazi narrowly bests his excellent co-star to deliver the film's finest performance. His role may not have the depth that comes with the father character's age, but he compensates by being so absolutely committed that it's hard to take your eyes off of him, even when the film's pacing falters. 

Best Female Performance: Cecile De France - The Kid with a Bike

She's one of France's biggest stars (and deservingly so), but her role in the Dardennes' latest is built fully on character rather than any sort of star persona. A dedicated turn every step of the way, De France makes her character worth following, even though the screenplay never fully fleshes out her motivations. This is wonderful, restrained work from one of world cinema's brightest talents. 

Best Screenplay: The Servant by Harold Pinter

His adaptation of Maugham's novel is a swift, sharp delight from the opening scenes, all thanks to his astute writing. Pinter keeps the action mostly confined within the house, yet the story never grows dull or feels repetitive, nor does it ever come off as stagey. A master class in building slow-burning suspense out of a seemingly harmless (and even boring) setting.

Best Ensemble Cast: Trainspotting

Character development may not be one of Trainspotting's strong suits, but the ensemble is, at least, completely dedicated to bringing Boyle's hectic vision to life. McGregor is excellent, as are Johnny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd,  and the somewhat underused Kelly Macdonald. 

Best Cinematography: Gabriel Beristain - Caravaggio

Jarman's film achieves much of its success thanks to Beristain's magnificent job of capturing the anachronistic, minimalist sets as well as the look and feel of the titular painter's works. It's gorgeous to behold, with wonderful mixes of motivated light and shadow, yet it never threatens to get in the way. 

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