January 23, 2014
By the end of December, the Oscar race becomes an all-out sprint, as critically acclaimed films struggle to squeeze in through the window of eligibility (the deadline for the next year’s ceremony is the end of the current year). As a result, around this time of year awards-caliber films are bumping elbows with films like, well, Grudge Match over the years. The eclectic and overcrowded holiday season has bulldozed the box office prospects of many a hopeful blockbuster. However, some films deserve to be rescued from the carnage.
When I wasn’t inseparable from my couch this break, I was in a movie theater where the so-called “Polar Vortex” couldn’t disturb me. The following are my recommendations for films that were buried under the winter glut. In addition, I recommend you see Frozen again (or for the first time, if you haven’t seen it already).
Saving Mr. Banks from director John Lee Hancock and Walt Disney Pictures was all but forgotten when the Oscar nominations were announced (it garnered a lone nomination for best score), but undeservedly so. Banks, which relates the making of the film Mary Poppins through the eyes of the book’s author, P.L. Travers, is disarmingly charming. The script by Kelly Marcel details Travers’ childhood in the Australian outback alongside her clashes with Walt Disney’s production of Mary Poppins, with moments that are uncharacteristically dark for a Disney movie (including a scene in which a popular Poppins song is juxtaposed with Travers’ father’s alcoholic antics carries Emma Thompson’s lead performance is characteristically skillful – both reserved and heartfelt. Tom Hanks as Walt Disney is not given the room to provide the same layered portrait of the man behind the mouse, but he manages to find the right balance of fuzziness and outright manipulation that defined Disney. Though fiercely and sometimes frustratingly traditional (especially in its pursuit of a happy ending), Banks is a well-constructed delight.
If Saving Mr. Banks is a fine example of a major studio product, Her is the opposite — the work of an auteur whose fingerprints are evident. The film is the personal statement of writer/director Spike Jonze, whose presence in it is quite unmistakable. Her tells the story of a divorcee (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with a computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Perhaps this plot would be fodder for comedy if the film itself were not so truthful. It may be set in the near future (which, as depicted by Jonze, is beautiful and inviting with cherry red hues and a 50s clothing aesthetic), but the emotions of Her are authentic ones. This is due to both the versatility of Scarlett Johansson’s vocal performance as Samantha and Joaquin Phoenix’s fragility as Theodore. The audience bears witness to moments so intimate that it can feel almost uncomfortable, for the leads of Her command more emotional investment than filmic relationships between two flesh-and-blood humans. Her examines love through an entirely new and evocative lens, but that does not prevent it from being the most touching love story of the year.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about unfulfilled dreams, and how their pursuit can lead to walking in circles. It is a meandering movie and a potentially frustrating one, and thus bears more than a passing resemblance to real life. Llewyn Davis examines the struggles of an artist, a folk singer in 1960s New York. Thus, it could easily suffice as a mere a showcase for the talents of its lead, Oscar Isaac. However, Isaac’s performance is just one of the film’s merits, as it is perhaps one of the most piercing and perceptive stories in the Coen Brothers’ filmography. The music as produced by T. Bone Burnett is captivating, with each stripped-down folk song offering new insight into the longing of Llewyn and his fellow folk singers (among them guileless Justin Timberlake and a pissed off but magnetic Carey Mulligan) to succeed. The exception is the gimmicky “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a production that is meant to capture laughs, and achieves spectacularly. The film itself is grey, and not just in terms of cinematography. Llewyn faces a constant stream of missed opportunities and rejection by other characters who barely recognize the talent the audience sees immediately. Through all his strife, Llewyn soldiers on just as all artists must.
These three movies are a welcome break from the high-profile sequels and remakes that dominated this Christmas season. Banks, Her and Llewyn may not boast the box office numbers of their big-budget counterparts, but they offer their own rewards with richly-drawn characters and exploration of themes ranging from the nature of love to the labor of the creative process. Instead of settling for short-term pleasure, these films will occupy your mind after the popcorn bucket is emptied and the credits have rolled. They may just cause you to reflect on your own life, and for this they are more valuable than any visuals.