Carol. Directed by Todd Haynes. A superbly crafted film that continues Todd Haynes’ interest in tender, forbidden romances set in repressed 1950s America (see 2002’s Far from Heaven), Carol is one of the best films of 2015. It’s a shame that it did not get an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, or Best Director for Haynes, but that’s the way it happens with AMPAS sometimes; they don’t always give praise to the most deserving candidates, even the ones who are close in the running. (I’m guessing that Todd Haynes was 6th or 7th place in the Oscar group for directors, just barely missing the vote.) The film is so lushly photographed and designed, the former by Edward Lachman and the latter by Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler and Jesse Rosenthal, in addition to gorgeous costumes by Sandy Powell (I love the blue plaid jumper-dress that Rooney Mara wears the first time she visits Cate Blanchett’s house). Mara and Blanchett give exquisite performances, Mara in particular because her character – Therese, not Carol – is the one through whose eyes we see the film’s events unfold and Mara portrays Therese’s confusion and the slowly blossoming understanding about her sexuality quite delicately. The subtle screenplay by Phyllis Nagy (an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt) allows the protagonists’ feelings toward one another to simmer quietly (probably why so many moviegoers have described Carol as “slow,” “boring,” “cold,” etc.), but that’s what makes the inevitable display of passion so convincing – especially since it’s tastefully directed by Haynes, not at all exploitative or even explicit (a very 50s fade-out is employed before anything too sexually graphic can be shown). Other good supporting performances add further layers to the film – Kyle Chandler as Blanchett’s hurt, angry husband; Sarah Paulson as Blanchett’s best friend and ex-flame; Jake Lacy as Mara’s boyfriend; John Magaro (also seen recently in The Big Short) as a friend of Mara’s who has a crush on her – but what really ties the whole film together is the score by Carter Burwell, themes which strike the right balance between the laments of woodwinds and the hopeful strums of a harp. As happy as I am that Ennio Morricone will most likely win his long-overdue Oscar this year (for the score he composed for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight), I think that Burwell’s score is the superior work.
Creed. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Both a crowd-pleaser and a fine addition to the Rocky franchise, Creed has a great lead performance by Michael B. Jordan as Adonis (Creed) Johnson, a child born out of wedlock when legendary boxer Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers back in the day) had an affair shortly before he died in Rocky IV (1985), and an exceptional (and probably Oscar-winning) supporting performance by Sylvester Stallone, adding more nuance and emotion to his four-decade-long life as Rocky Balboa. Jordan’s acting grows stronger with each film he makes; Fruitvale Station (2013) was a better film overall for Jordan and for writer/director Ryan Coogler, but Creed is an important step in both men’s careers in terms of national recognition and professional opportunities moving forward. The film runs a little long at 132 minutes; certain scenes could have been trimmed, generally the ones with the relationship between Jordan and Tessa Thompson (I guess it’s interesting that that her character’s hearing problems link up with Mickey Goldmill’s deafness in the early Rocky movies, but I think it hurt the film that there was so little development in her character considering how many scenes she was in and how long they all seemed to be) and also the one where Jordan sits outside the locked Front Street Gym. Creed wouldn’t be a true Rocky story without clichés about hard work and redemption, so there’s plenty of that to go around in Coogler’s film, and Phylicia Rashad’s extended cameo as Apollo Creed’s widow sometimes toes the line between touching and corny (mostly because of the dialogue, not the actress herself), but in the best scenes – probably every one of Stallone’s scenes and definitely all of the boxing matches – there is a vitality that gives the franchise a much-needed shot in the arm. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography is especially impactful, most of all in Tessa Thompson’s concert scene (from what I recall there was a focus on blue, purple and red lighting), in the one-take fight between Adonis and Leo “The Lion” Sporino (played by Gabe Rosado), which lasts for two rounds without any edits, and in the big match at the end between Adonis and “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew, a real-life champ with an amusingly not-ripped physique; which is to say, we’re not exactly talking Alexander Skarsgård and his Legend of Tarzan abs, which by comparison resemble a challah loaf), which is also well-executed. I can’t imagine why Alberti didn’t get a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for her and her camera operators’ energy and striking use of Steadicam while Robert Richardson did receive one for his mostly unimaginative work on The Hateful Eight… that’s the Academy for you, though.
The Danish Girl. Directed by Tom Hooper. One thing is certain: Alicia Vikander gives an outstanding performance in The Danish Girl as Gerda Wegener, wife of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe (one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery), even if it makes zero sense for Vikander to be put in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar category since her character has just as much screen time as the character(s) played by Eddie Redmayne, and we are perhaps even more deeply involved in Vikander’s character’s mindset than we are in Redmayne’s. For his part, Eddie Redmayne tries to invest the two performances of Einar and Lili with some depth – you would hope for as much, given that The Danish Girl tells a groundbreaking story in the history of transgender transitions – but as A.O. Scott put it, Redmayne’s work here consists of “significant gestures, freighted glances and the kind of showiness that masquerades as subtlety.” There is something very interesting in the truth that Redmayne’s countenance, the pale and freckled landscape dotted with crow’s-feet and large dimples, doesn’t look complete until lipstick, eye shadow and mascara have been applied; makeup gives his face a strange but compelling beauty, which I think make Lili believable as her own person. The problem, however, is that excessive smiling, with Redmayne’s grin that reminds me of clowns, is not the same as understanding Einar’s/Lili’s viewpoint better. Because of the disappointing feeling that Redmayne’s performance isn’t enough to do justice to the story of Einar/Lili, The Danish Girl ends up feeling as much like manipulative Oscar bait as so many people have said. True, one cannot find too much fault in the costumes, the art direction/set decoration, most of the cinematography and other technical elements, and the three main supporting performances by Matthias Schoenaerts, kind-eyed Sebastian Koch and a surprisingly decent (given her track record) Amber Heard are also respectable. Unfortunately, Alexandre Desplat’s melodramatic score pervades every scene, drenching the proceedings (which already suffer from mediocre screenwriting) in sappiness, laying the sad sentimentality (or sentimental sadness?) on far too thickly. In small doses, Desplat’s score might be considered lovely (even if it sounds like a retread of his earlier work on Girl with a Pearl Earring mixed with the more tender sounds from Wojciech Kilar’s Dracula score), but hearing the same musical themes repeat over and over (and over) throughout the film is enough to drive any viewer batty. And, of course, there’s the problem of The Danish Girl missing or changing certain key facts, events and details from the lives of Einar/Lili and Gerda, which I could tell even from what I was seeing in the film, which sometimes seemed too obviously Hollywood-ized to make the story as easily comprehensible as possible for a two-hour running time.
Mississippi Grind. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Anyone who has seen Robert Altman’s California Split (1974) and John Dahl’s Rounders (1998) will see a kindred spirit in Boden & Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, a tale of male bonding over gambling that is entertaining and beautifully shot by cinematographer Andrij Parekh (most of all in Memphis: examples 1, 2, 3 and 4), even if the film never completely rises to all of the dramatic challenges it sets out to tackle. The usual hallmarks of gambling-addiction movies are there, chiefly the protagonist (Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn in an ace – pun intended – lead performance) who never knows when it’s time to fold and call it quits, and the more extroverted, energetic pal (Ryan Reynolds, who does a surprisingly good job given how terrible he usually is in romantic comedies) who convinces him to delve deeper into the game. The nice thing is that the roles eventually reverse; Mendelsohn becomes even more reckless while Reynolds pulls back and realizes the life he is missing out on with on again, off again girlfriend Simone (Sienna Miller, an OK performance) by putting the journey down the Mississippi River to a legendary New Orleans poker game as his first priority instead. Mississippi Grind doesn’t feel fresh or innovative – although the blues-filled soundtrack (including Memphis Slim and Rosco Gordon) lends an authentic touch to the sense of Americana, besides the road-movie genre that the film can be placed in – but there is a terrific scene where Analeigh Tipton (who works with Sienna Miller in their prostitute/escort business) watches and listens to Mendelsohn playing Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” on an old, rickety piano. As the camera tightens to a close-up on her face, Tipton says in her whispery voice that she’s going to make it someday, succeed in a legitimate line of work. It’s in moments like that that Mississippi Grind does best: impressive acting meets solid camerawork.
True Story. Directed by Rupert Goold. I seem to recall True Story getting quite the critical drubbing when it was released to theaters last April. I wasn’t as disappointed as I expected to be; I actually found the film pretty compelling. I think people were so confounded by the idea that Jonah Hill and James Franco would co-star in a straightforward, no-frills drama that they didn’t know how to react to it. It’s true that Jonah Hill has not yet found his footing as a dramatic leading man, having spent so many years cutting his teeth on dumb comedies (or with smaller roles in dramedies, like his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball) that he probably needs to ease his way into more serious territory and get some more experience. But Hill does alright in the film, making his portrayal of disgraced New York Times journalist Mike Finkel believable as a guy hungry for a story that will redeem him. I also thought that James Franco was excellent as murder suspect Christian Longo; I don’t know why, but I was reminded of Franco’s role in “Freaks and Geeks,” Daniel Desario, from back in the days when he didn’t inundate anyone with anything – he was just a young, working actor, and he was damned good. Franco totally sells the role of Longo, his soft voice making the character seem potentially innocent before eventually turning the tables on Hill, the façade giving way to quietly horrific grotesquerie. As for the supporting cast, it’s good to see Robert John Burke, Gretchen Mol, Ethan Suplee and Maryann Plunkett, but most of all I’d like to shine a spotlight on Felicity Jones, who plays Hill’s partner, Jill Barker. At first I was afraid that Jones was playing a bland, stereotypically one-dimensional girlfriend role (not unlike her part as Jane, Stephen Hawking’s wife, in The Theory of Everything, if you ask me), but the scenes in which she talks to Franco on the phone and visits him in prison are effective in conveying the depth of her character’s fear and anger. Maybe my judgment is affected by the fact that I am almost always fascinated by true-crime stories, and perhaps the score by Marco Beltrami and the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi did even more to further sway my vote, but I was glad I watched True Story. It’s not the absolute best of 2015, but it deserves a look.