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Everybody Wants to be Us

Graduate Student at Loyola University Chicago. Check out the blog for what I'm currently obsessed with in film and culture. Michael Fassbender, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Winslet, Christian Bale, Jesse Eisenberg, David Lynch, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Daniel Radcliffe are regulars here.

#Best of 2011

BEST PICTURES REVIEWED: “The Descendants”

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On the sidewalks of Chicago I’ve been seeing the word “Forgive” painted in simple white script.  All over the city on my walks, this sign reminds me of this daunting action. Humbling ourselves to ask for forgiveness is no easy task, but appears more pleasant to laying down our pride and anger to forgive another. To complicate matters, how do we forgive “those who trespass against us” especially when they neither seek nor want our pardon? In his newest film “The Descendants” the Jesuit educated writer/ director Alexander Payne explores the barriers and challenges to forgive others. With his dark comedic style and intuitive sense of character, Payne offers some great insight on relationships and forgiveness.

Payne jets to the beautiful landscapes of Hawaii for “The Descendants.” The film stars George Clooney as Matt King, a father and husband whose wife is comatose due to a water skiing accident. Matt muses on everything he wants to apologize for when she wakes. His frequent business trips have created a distance in their marriage and family that he is ready to fix. At her bedside, Matt looks expectantly at his wife, praying for a chance to make Rup for it all. Yet two powerful revelations hit Matt just as he’s preparing this full transformation: his wife Elizabeth will die soon and she was having an affair. The second piece of information comes from his acerbic eldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) after Matt brings her home from a teen drug treatment center. Torn between his distress and anger, Matt must find a way to put Elizabeth to rest and raise his two daughters alone.

Payne cleverly dramatizes Matt’s dueling emotions towards his wife through vividly drawn and brilliantly acted characters. Alex represents his impulse to hate Elizabeth and discard every happy memory. He and Alex become allies in trying to discover the full extent of Elizabeth’s infidelity. They track down and confront her lover, finding he too has a spouse and family. Matt and Alex find a new understanding in their relationship through their shared anger at Elizabeth. With Scotty his 10 year old that knows nothing but a loving and admirable woman who she hopes will wake up again, Matt tempers his anger. In Elizabeth’s father Scott (Robert Forster), Matt is reminded of the woman he fell in love with, but often neglected because of his work.

Each scene leads Matt to confront another aspect of his wife. Elizabeth, portrayed by Patricia Hestie, could almost be considered the main character. Every conversation revolves around this mute and stationary character. In her hospital room, Payne alternates between wide shots that ensure Elizabeth is in our sights and close up shots on her agape, vacant face. We see Elizabeth from about every angle a person can be judged. Yet she remains a mystery and curiosity that we are discovering alongside Matt. Spurred on by Alex, Matt rages at his wife, laying out fresh and imagined grievances, quite different from his early scenes at her bedside. Seeing Scott mourn for his daughter, Matt finds pity for her. In Scotty’s sadness, Matt feels the loss of the mother of his children. And through an unlikely stranger played by Judy Greer, Matt learns he must forgive Elizabeth despite everything.

Payne sets Matt on a journey towards forgiveness that feels full and real because of these characters and their powerfully real interactions. Even compared to his role in “Up in the Air,” this is Clooney’s best leading performance. Definitely the most emotionally demanding role he’s chosen, Clooney traverses a range from anger to tenderness expertly. In “The Descendants” even Clooney”s fans will be surprised at how this normally cool, suave, and all-knowing actor is allowed to fail, look foolish, and be pitiful. In one such scene, after he chokes out an announcement of Elizabeth’s death to her closest friends, he watches their cars drive away and simply sinks to the ground. Matt is just like the rest of us, dealing with the pressures of life that can overwhelm our ability to stand. Most times it’s the actor that illuminates the character, yet Payne may have crafted a character with Matt King that allows audiences some insight into the actor. Clooney feels set free here and takes full advantage.

Woodley and Amara Miller who play Clooney’s daughters are wonderfully cast and flank the veteran actor like expert players. Woodley, a TV star on ABC Family, handles the role of the caustic and profane older sister with skill and grace. Woodley is able to deliver cutting lines and looks without ever seeming like a brat. Woodley brings out Alex’s desire to continue hating Elizabeth, while hinting at the young woman’s love for her mother. Alex says bitterly, “I’m just like you. In fact I’m exactly like you.” She means the line to wound, but Woodley shows us that Alex’s disappointment in her mother is rooted in her admiration for the woman. Payne has found a natural talent in Amara Miller who plays Scotty. It was refreshing to see a child actor who actually fit the age of the character. Miller is able to bring some of the mischievousness of Alex, while retaining that childlike hope that draws Alex and Matt away from their anger. Miller and Woodley are fearless, holding their own with and challenging Robert Forster and Clooney. They also deliver some of the best laughs with their surprising outbursts.

Payne’s films have been called sardonic in their portrayal of small town characters. In “The Descendants” I only saw great affection for the characters and a story of family that feels universal and necessary. The laughs here never come at the expense of the characters, but out of the relatable foibles and rashes of anger. We laugh deeply because the situations feel so grounded in truth. Payne shows us forgiveness is a journey, almost literally taking us across various Hawaiian Islands as Matt contemplates his family’s future. That journey takes Matt from confusion to anger to sorrow and finally lands in love; a love for Elizabeth despite her sins and the people she’s left behind who need peace.

Best of 2011

Out of 101 films, here are my favorites!

1) Midnight in Paris

This film gets better each time I see it. Woody Allen captures the magic of Paris beginning with a beautiful opening montage of the city in bloom. Owen Wilson gives a balanced and brilliant comedic performance as Gil, an aspiring writer who discovers his literary muses on his midnight walks through Paris. It’s easy to pass over how great he is in early viewings of the film, but I think he brings that trademark Woody Allen neurosis while making the dialogue all his own. Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston, and Allison Pill are wonderful as Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. I treasure this film more than any other of 2011 because of the way it admires the magic of cities. The history, personality, and architecture of the great city can enthrall you more than any other art form.  See “Midnight in Paris” and then see it again and then go out and discover the wonders of your city.  

2) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo


Everything from the frenetic and beautiful credit sequence to the last surprisingly heartbreaking scene worked for me in David Fincher’s adaptation. This was my first encounter with Lisbeth Salander having not read the books or seen the Swedish films from last year. Fincher’s camera makes you co-investigator with Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist panning across evidence, collecting important details, and keeping you guessing.  Rooney Mara undergoes a fierce and convincing transformation into Lisbeth.  She gives one of the best performances of the year as the girl you don’t want to cross, but would love to be on your side.  Daniel Craig shows a whole new side as the intuitive and sometimes bumbling journalist and investigator. I would watch these two do just about anything.  The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is perfection, particularly Lisbeth’s theme which plays like a haunting lullaby.  

3) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2


The greatness of Deathly Hallows 2 (and the entire series) is rooted in the brilliant production design by Stuart Craig and the consistently enigmatic performance by Alan Rickman.  In the opening Gringotts heist scene, Harry, Hermione, and Ron walk through the wizarding bank lobby which is exactly identical to dazzling sight in the first film. Yet the stakes have completely changed and everything Harry does means life or death.  In the Snape’s memory scene, again we the the delicate blend of continuity and character development through Rickman’s work.  The scene melds new footage of Snape’s past with footage from all 7 films.  We see Snape look at young Harry in Sorcerer’s Stone, noticing now a mixture of disdain and wistful interest. That’s the wonder of JK Rowling’s books: nothing is ever as it seems. The last film was an exhilarating send off for Rowling’s fans. Yet also accessible to Muggles who enjoyed an action packed resolution to Harry’s quest to defeat Voldemort.  Radcliffe, Rickman, and Maggie Smith lead a cast of top notch performances. 

4) Hugo


My favorite director created a film that expresses all the things that are special and wondrous about films. Films not only capture our dreams, but also remind us of who we are and what we want to be.  Films can bring people together and mend broken spirits. Martin Scorsese takes the story of Hugo Cabret and creates something both personal and universal.  The use of 3D in “Hugo” is completely essential. The technology creates greater depth in each frame, enveloping the audience in the comings and goings in this Paris train station. Ben Kingsley is devastatingly good as filmmaker turned toy maker George Melies.  Asa Butterfield is an exciting new performer.  ”Hugo” is the real deal.

5) Shame


Unbroken takes, long silent stretches, and lots of explicit sex make “Shame” difficult to sit through.  Yet, these aspects make the film thrilling to behold. Michael Fassbender gives the best performance of the year as the isolated and broken Brandon. He can barely make it through the day without a sexual encounter. He looks predatory when he’s searching for his next “fix”, yet afterwards he seems empty and confused. His compulsions take him to dangerous places as his volatile sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay with him.  Their interactions are so uncomfortable as we try to piece together a relationship plagued by past traumas.  It’s a great film that forces us to relate our own brokenness and loneliness to Brandon’s. 

6) Moneyball


Some people see problems and concede change isn’t possible. Others see problems, find solutions, and decide change is the only way forward.  ”Moneyball” is a wonderful rendering of the true story of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics. Instead of accepting the status quo, Beane takes a controversial view and lets it guide his entire approach to managing the team. Instead of looking for flashes of talent, the Oakland A’s looked for the right combination of skills and outcomes to fashion a team that could win at a price they could afford. I’m not a baseball geek, but I could relate to Beane’s desperate love of the game, brought vividly to life by Brad Pitt. Beyond all the baseball minutiae what captured me about “Moneyball” was its theme of embracing overlooked talent.  We all have something to offer and need someone to unlock those gifts.  Pitt as Beane unleashes the talent of Peter (Jonah Hill) to the great benefit of the team.  Hill and Pitt make a great screen pairing; sparring and riffing off of each other.  

7) King of Devil’s Island

This Norwegian film was the biggest surprise for me this year. Based on the true story of a revolt at the Bastoy boys prison, “King of Devil’s Island” is a powerful story of friendship and triumph over abusive power. At every level, the boys of Bastoy surrender their freedom to the oppressive rule of the Governor (Stellan Skarsgård). His power is challenged by a defiant new inmate Erling (Benjamin Helstad) who is determined to escape. When model inmate Olav (Trond Nilssen) begins to challenge the sanctimonious Governor for the crimes he wishes to ignore, the walls of control come crashing down. Despite being opposites, Erling and Olav build a friendship that keeps them from surrendering to despair.  The score by Johan Söderqvist is a haunting and beautiful piece of music.  I want fly to Norway just to buy it.  ”King of Devil’s Island” won Norway’s Oscar equivalent for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Nilssen, and Score. I hope it gets a release in the US.

8) Drive 

My opinion of Nicolas Winding Refn’s violent film has changed so drastically since I saw it. Leaving the theater, I could feel the film pounding against my chest, as if I had been shot. Yet, it has some of the most dreamy and beautiful scenes of the year.  That close mixture of sweetness and savagery makes “Drive” impossible to ignore.  The soundtrack of retro electronic pop ballads have permanent rotation on my iPod. Every time I hear the songs, I’m back in the theater, amazed and horrified by what is on screen. More than any other film, “Drive” got under my skin and finds a way to pop up in my day to day.  As the nameless driver, Ryan Gosling is perfect. His piercing eyes let you know he will never relent.  His sleek white Scorpion jacket becomes stained with the blood of so many enemies who underestimated his silence for disinterest and weakness. 

9) Bridesmaids


No film made me laugh more than Paul Feig’s ”Bridesmaids.”  Screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo bring to the screen real female characters and relationships. The fear of being out of sync with the person who knows you best is explored with heart and humor.  Wiig gives a brave lead performance, taking Annie to some dark places for our comedic enjoyment.  The diverse cast of female talent in “Bridesmaids” shows a range of comedic power. In each woman you find something wholly familiar and unique.  

10) Jane Eyre


This was my favorite film for much of 2011.  Mia Wasikowska perfectly brings forth Jane’s fierce integrity and longing for happiness.  Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation brings the right amount of Gothic terror and romance.  His vision brings the dark Thornfield Manor to life, leaving us wondering what is really going on with Mr. Rochester. Michael Fassbender is also great as the brooding and temperamental Rochester.  He and Wasikowska build a cerebral chemistry in their long verbal matches, which explodes into a physical one.  

11) Martha Marcy May Marlene


Sean Durkin’s ”Martha Marcy May Marlene” will have you questioning everything you see and feel.  As Elizabeth Olsen’s troubled character becomes more unhinged between her past in a cult and present with her distant sister, we also become confused. Martha’s paranoia bleeds into the story and film making.  It’s the best kind of manipulation.  Olsen gives a completely open performance.  The camera puts every inch of her under our examination, making this difficult character impossible to not to emphasize with.  

12) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


Forget international espionage and jet-setting to exotic locales. The real danger is the person you’ve known and trusted for years who holds the power to destroy you and your country. In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” George Smiley must uncover a mole bleeding British intelligence to the Russians. To find the source, he must wrestle his darkest memories and question everything he thought was secure.  Gary Oldman gives a masterful performance as the economical and exacting Smiley.  For the first 20 minutes, he hardly says a word, but when he does he commands the screen.  On the surface, Smiley seems passive and still, yet Oldman brings a steady urgency to the character.  He conveys a sense that this mild looking bureaucrat could take off at any moment.  The supporting cast is full of Britain’s best actors all at top form.  

13) Bill Cunningham New York

The best discovery of the year was meeting the legendary New York times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham in Richard Press’ documentary.  On bike or on foot, Bill Cunningham is documenting the runway of New York streets and finding the eccentric, fun, inventive, and special tastes of ordinary people.  Cunningham could care less about celebrities and lives a life of remarkable simplicity. He lives for his work; dedicating each minute to finding something beautiful on the streets to celebrate.  ”Bill Cunningham New York” is the film I want everyone I know to see and love.  More than that, Cunningham has become a personal hero with his overwhelming integrity and loving personality. 

14) Fright Night


I like my vampires like Colin Farrell’s Jerry: deadly, intelligent, and sexy as hell. “Fright Night” is the most fun I had at the movies.  It builds suspense, while keeping you laughing at the clever lines and vampire mythology.  Anton Yelchin is great as the sardonic former nerd trying to save his loved ones from the bloodsucker next door. Farrell is doubly deadly as he can hunt his victims with reckless ferocity, but gently seduce them into his bloody embrace.  

15) The Descendants


Alexander Payne finds a whole new side to George Clooney’s cool persona in “The Descendants.”  Here we see him failing to connect to his teenage daughter, while becoming unglued as they search for his comatose wife’s lover.  ”The Descendants” makes great drama and tender comedy of the strains in our closest relationships.  The way back for Clooney’s Matt King is forgiveness and Payne takes us on an engaging journey through Matt’s anger, denial, and acceptance of his wife’s indiscretions. Shailene Woodley is a brave new talent as Matt’s caustic older daughter.  

16) Win Win


What does it take to do the right thing? Tom McCarthy’s excellent film “Win Win” answers “Whatever the fuck it takes.” Paul Giamatti plays a small town lawyer drowning in financial troubles of a small practice, broken boiler, and two kids to raise. Everyone is passing him by, taking the short cuts he neglected to become a respected member of the community. Since respect does not pay the health insurance bill, Mike decides to take guardianship of Leo, a disoriented and feisty old man, and pockets the $1500 monthly fee.  When Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up, Mike’s luck begins to change as Kyle makes his rag-tag wrestling team a contender, but complicates the benefits he’s getting as Leo’s guardian. McCarthy’s “Win Win” explores the stresses and the challenges to doing what is right.

17) A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg’s film creates a full and engaging portrait of a great thinker by exploring the most important relationships in his life. Carl Jung begins the film as the eager healer, teeming with enthusiasm for Sigmund Freud’s talking cure.  The volatile patient Sabina Spielrein allows him to work with his idol, but also challenges his professionalism. These pioneers of human behavior are revealed to be as petty, obsessed, and damaged as we are.  Jung most of all, played wonderfully by Michael Fassbender, is a hypocrite and victim of his pride. Jung tries to reject Freud’s theories, wanting their to be “more than one hinge to the universe” while also engaging in an affair with Sabina that proves the sexual roots to his identity.  The film is seriously funny with a series of quotable lines and verbal skirmishes.  Keira Knightly gives her best performance here, embracing Sabina’s madness, but also her intelligence and grace.  

18) The Interrupters


"The Interrupters" as a film does exactly what you might expect. Through Steve James’ camera we are taken into communities plagued by violence. Yet, "The Interrupters" isn’t an issue film or cultural vegetables to be taken with our noses closed. It’s a film about a city- my city- and the people that live in it. The people featured in the film, especially the three leads Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra, will stay with you long past your screening. I would place the film closer to Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee’s cinematic portraits of New York.  Like "Mean Streets" or "Do The Right Thing" "The Interrupters" agitates the heart not the head and will change how people see Chicago by simply showing it truthfully.

19) We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” may be one film I love but cannot recommend to anyone. How could I knowingly encourage someone  to witness the unending suffering Tilda Swinton’s Eva goes through? How could I lead a friend to meet the cold Kevin and be forever haunted by Ezra Miller’s murderous stare? Despite the grizzly subject matter, there is great beauty in the film. We float between Eva’s memories of raising Kevin, constantly wondering why Kevin is so dangerous. Between her recollections, we struggle through Eva’s lonely life as a pariah in the community. Eva takes abuse from everyone and never fights back, as if she deserves punishment for giving birth to a murderer.  Tilda Swinton gives one of the best performances of all time.  

20) Beginners

"Beginners" is an incredibly touching and inspiring film that balances quirky indie qualities with great humor and drama.  I was completely involved in the film and affected by many scenes.  There is so much to love about this specific slice of life.  I think by getting the details so right of these people and their conversations, Mike Mills makes an emotionally accessible and enchanting film. 

I could easily rearrange the films on this list or exchange with ones I had to leave off. Just missing the cut were “The Trip”, “Super 8”, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, “Melancholia”, “Attack the Block”, “Tree of Life”, “Higher Ground” and “50/50”.  

Personal Space: “The Descendants”

On the sidewalks of Chicago I’ve been seeing the word “Forgive” painted in simple white script.  All over the city on my walks, this sign reminds me of this daunting action. Humbling ourselves to ask for forgiveness is no easy task, but appears more pleasant to laying down our pride and anger to forgive another. To complicate matters, how do we forgive “those who trespass against us” especially when they neither seek nor want our pardon? In his newest film “The Descendants” the Jesuit educated writer/ director Alexander Payne explores the barriers and challenges to forgive others. With his dark comedic style and intuitive sense of character, Payne offers some great insight on relationships and forgiveness.

Payne jets to the beautiful landscapes of Hawaii for “The Descendants.” The film stars George Clooney as Matt King, a father and husband whose wife is comatose due to a water skiing accident. Matt muses on everything he wants to apologize for when she wakes. His frequent business trips have created a distance in their marriage and family that he is ready to fix. At her bedside, Matt looks expectantly at his wife, praying for a chance to make Rup for it all. Yet two powerful revelations hit Matt just as he’s preparing this full transformation: his wife Elizabeth will die soon and she was having an affair. The second piece of information comes from his acerbic eldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) after Matt brings her home from a teen drug treatment center. Torn between his distress and anger, Matt must find a way to put Elizabeth to rest and raise his two daughters alone.

Payne cleverly dramatizes Matt’s dueling emotions towards his wife through vividly drawn and brilliantly acted characters. Alex represents his impulse to hate Elizabeth and discard every happy memory. He and Alex become allies in trying to discover the full extent of Elizabeth’s infidelity. They track down and confront her lover, finding he too has a spouse and family. Matt and Alex find a new understanding in their relationship through their shared anger at Elizabeth. With Scotty his 10 year old that knows nothing but a loving and admirable woman who she hopes will wake up again, Matt tempers his anger. In Elizabeth’s father Scott (Robert Forster), Matt is reminded of the woman he fell in love with, but often neglected because of his work.

Each scene leads Matt to confront another aspect of his wife. Elizabeth, portrayed by Patricia Hestie, could almost be considered the main character. Every conversation revolves around this mute and stationary character. In her hospital room, Payne alternates between wide shots that ensure Elizabeth is in our sights and close up shots on her agape, vacant face. We see Elizabeth from about every angle a person can be judged. Yet she remains a mystery and curiosity that we are discovering alongside Matt. Spurred on by Alex, Matt rages at his wife, laying out fresh and imagined grievances, quite different from his early scenes at her bedside. Seeing Scott mourn for his daughter, Matt finds pity for her. In Scotty’s sadness, Matt feels the loss of the mother of his children. And through an unlikely stranger played by Judy Greer, Matt learns he must forgive Elizabeth despite everything.

Payne sets Matt on a journey towards forgiveness that feels full and real because of these characters and their powerfully real interactions. Even compared to his role in “Up in the Air,” this is Clooney’s best leading performance. Definitely the most emotionally demanding role he’s chosen, Clooney traverses a range from anger to tenderness expertly. In “The Descendants” even Clooney”s fans will be surprised at how this normally cool, suave, and all-knowing actor is allowed to fail, look foolish, and be pitiful. In one such scene, after he chokes out an announcement of Elizabeth’s death to her closest friends, he watches their cars drive away and simply sinks to the ground. Matt is just like the rest of us, dealing with the pressures of life that can overwhelm our ability to stand. Most times it’s the actor that illuminates the character, yet Payne may have crafted a character with Matt King that allows audiences some insight into the actor. Clooney feels set free here and takes full advantage.

Woodley and Amara Miller who play Clooney’s daughters are wonderfully cast and flank the veteran actor like expert players. Woodley, a TV star on ABC Family, handles the role of the caustic and profane older sister with skill and grace. Woodley is able to deliver cutting lines and looks without ever seeming like a brat. Woodley brings out Alex’s desire to continue hating Elizabeth, while hinting at the young woman’s love for her mother. Alex says bitterly, “I’m just like you. In fact I’m exactly like you.” She means the line to wound, but Woodley shows us that Alex’s disappointment in her mother is rooted in her admiration for the woman. Payne has found a natural talent in Amara Miller who plays Scotty. It was refreshing to see a child actor who actually fit the age of the character. Miller is able to bring some of the mischievousness of Alex, while retaining that childlike hope that draws Alex and Matt away from their anger. Miller and Woodley are fearless, holding their own with and challenging Robert Forster and Clooney. They also deliver some of the best laughs with their surprising outbursts.

Payne’s films have been called sardonic in their portrayal of small town characters. In “The Descendants” I only saw great affection for the characters and a story of family that feels universal and necessary. The laughs here never come at the expense of the characters, but out of the relatable foibles and rashes of anger. We laugh deeply because the situations feel so grounded in truth. Payne shows us forgiveness is a journey, almost literally taking us across various Hawaiian Islands as Matt contemplates his family’s future. That journey takes Matt from confusion to anger to sorrow and finally lands in love; a love for Elizabeth despite her sins and the people she’s left behind who need peace.

Personal Space: “The Descendants”

On the sidewalks of Chicago I’ve been seeing the word “Forgive” painted in simple white script.  All over the city on my walks, this sign reminds me of this daunting action. Humbling ourselves to ask for forgiveness is no easy task, but appears more pleasant to laying down our pride and anger to forgive another. To complicate matters, how do we forgive “those who trespass against us” especially when they neither seek nor want our pardon? In his newest film “The Descendants” the Jesuit educated writer/ director Alexander Payne explores the barriers and challenges to forgive others. With his dark comedic style and intuitive sense of character, Payne offers some great insight on relationships and forgiveness.

Payne jets to the beautiful landscapes of Hawaii for “The Descendants.” The film stars George Clooney as Matt King, a father and husband whose wife is comatose due to a water skiing accident. Matt muses on everything he wants to apologize for when she wakes. His frequent business trips have created a distance in their marriage and family that he is ready to fix. At her bedside, Matt looks expectantly at his wife, praying for a chance to make Rup for it all. Yet two powerful revelations hit Matt just as he’s preparing this full transformation: his wife Elizabeth will die soon and she was having an affair. The second piece of information comes from his acerbic eldest daughter Alex (Sharilene Woodley) after Matt brings her home from a teen drug treatment center. Torn between his distress and anger, Matt must find a way to put Elizabeth to rest and raise his two daughters alone.

Payne cleverly dramatizes Matt’s dueling emotions towards his wife through vividly drawn and brilliantly acted characters. Alex represents his impulse to hate Elizabeth and discard every happy memory. He and Alex become allies in trying to discover the full extent of Elizabeth’s infidelity. They track down and confront her lover, finding he too has a spouse and family. Matt and Alex find a new understanding in their relationship through their shared anger at Elizabeth. With Scotty his 10 year old that knows nothing but a loving and admirable woman who she hopes will wake up again, Matt tempers his anger. In Elizabeth’s father Scott (Robert Forster), Matt is reminded of the woman he fell in love with, but often neglected because of his work.

Each scene leads Matt to confront another aspect of his wife. Elizabeth, portrayed by Patricia Hestie, could almost be considered the main character. Every conversation revolves around this mute and stationary character. In her hospital room, Payne alternates between wide shots that ensure Elizabeth is in our sights and close up shots on her agape, vacant face. We see Elizabeth from about every angle a person can be judged. Yet she remains a mystery and curiosity that we are discovering alongside Matt. Spurred on by Alex, Matt rages at his wife, laying out fresh and imagined grievances, quite different from his early scenes at her bedside. Seeing Scott mourn for his daughter, Matt finds pity for her. In Scotty’s sadness, Matt feels the loss of the mother of his children. And through an unlikely stranger played by Judy Greer, Matt learns he must forgive Elizabeth despite everything.

Payne sets Matt on a journey towards forgiveness that feels full and real because of these characters and their powerfully real interactions. Even compared to his role in “Up in the Air,” this is Clooney’s best leading performance. Definitely the most emotionally demanding role he’s chosen, Clooney traverses a range from anger to tenderness expertly. In “The Descendants” even Clooney”s fans will be surprised at how this normally cool, suave, and all-knowing actor is allowed to fail, look foolish, and be pitiful. In one such scene, after he chokes out an announcement of Elizabeth’s death to her closest friends, he watches their cars drive away and simply sinks to the ground. Matt is just like the rest of us, dealing with the pressures of life that can overwhelm our ability to stand. Most times it’s the actor that illuminates the character, yet Payne may have crafted a character with Matt King that allows audiences some insight into the actor. Clooney feels set free here and takes full advantage.

Woodley and Amara Miller who play Clooney’s daughters are wonderfully cast and flank the veteran actor like expert players. Woodley, a TV star on ABC Family, handles the role of the caustic and profane older sister with skill and grace. Woodley is able to deliver cutting lines and looks without ever seeming like a brat. Woodley brings out Alex’s desire to continue hating Elizabeth, while hinting at the young woman’s love for her mother. Alex says bitterly, “I’m just like you. In fact I’m exactly like you.” She means the line to wound, but Woodley shows us that Alex’s disappointment in her mother is rooted in her admiration for the woman. Payne has found a natural talent in Amara Miller who plays Scotty. It was refreshing to see a child actor who actually fit the age of the character. Miller is able to bring some of the mischievousness of Alex, while retaining that childlike hope that draws Alex and Matt away from their anger. Miller and Woodley are fearless, holding their own with and challenging Robert Forster and Clooney. They also deliver some of the best laughs with their surprising outbursts.

Payne’s films have been called sardonic in their portrayal of small town characters. In “The Descendants” I only saw great affection for the characters and a story of family that feels universal and necessary. The laughs here never come at the expense of the characters, but out of the relatable foibles and rashes of anger. We laugh deeply because the situations feel so grounded in truth. Payne shows us forgiveness is a journey, almost literally taking us across various Hawaiian Islands as Matt contemplates his family’s future. That journey takes Matt from confusion to anger to sorrow and finally lands in love; a love for Elizabeth despite her sins and the people she’s left behind who need peace.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)- America Magazine →

From my review for America Magazine

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” brilliantly explores the ways in which painful aspects of our past sometimes explode into our daily lives. Durkin makes this powerfully clear by interweaving flashbacks of Martha’s life at the cult and shots of her mundane life with her sister. At first, these transitions are an artful way to present Martha’s past. But Durkin gradually increases the pace and abruptness of these cuts, obfuscating the difference between past and present. It becomes difficult for Martha, and us, to distinguish between her memories and reality. She even asks Lucy, “Do you ever have the feeing you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” Increasingly, Martha cannot distinguish between her memories of Patrick and the creeping suspicion that he may be trying to recapture her.  

Best of the Year… So Far *Day 96*

Movie-wise I cannot believe its only June. I’ve seen about 70 movies, 30 of them 2011 releases. With films still to come from Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, and Steven Soderberg along with the mega releases of SUPER 8, Deathly Hallows 7.2, and The Muppets, this seems like a good point to highlight the best I’ve seen at the cinema. I hope that viewers and critics will remember these gems come year end, because they have each exhilarated and enchanted me these last six months.

1) JANE EYRE: Dir. Cary Fukunaga. Stars Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, and Judi Dench.

I’ve praised Cary Fukunaga’s film twice on the blog, seen it three times in theaters, and often recall the vibrant images and beautiful dialogue lifted from Bronte’s masterpiece. Wasikowska and Fassbender are marvelously adept with language and even more masterful at translating the passion, longing, and demons of these characters.

2) BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK: Dir. Richard Press. Stars Bill Cunningham

This documentary opens up a life committed to beauty, integrity, and the city. Bill Cunningham has been photographing the changing street fashions in New York for 50 years and has managed to maintain his dignity and freedom by not accepting money for his work or putting himself before his passion.

3) BRIDESMAIDS: Dir. Paul Feig Stars Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Rose Byrne

A relentlessly true and incredibly funny story of friendship and trying to get your life back on track. Kristen Wiig is incredible as Annie, the hapless maid of honor to her best friend Lillian. Melissa McCarthy makes a breakout performance as the crude, yet loyal Megan.

4) NOTHING PERSONAL: Dir. Urszula Antoniak Stars Lotte Verbeck and Stephen Rea

A slow, spare, and engrossing love story between two misfits: a female hitchhiker escaping a tragic past and a hermetic widower. Lotte Verbeck and Stephen Rea go from being at odds, to friends, to family, to a kind of love that breaks their isolation and opens them up to life again.

5) TRUST:Dir. David Schwimmer. Stars Liana Liberato, Clive Owen, Catherine Keener, and Viola Davis

I could have easily exchanged this 5th spot with three other films, but when I think of a movie that impacted me emotionally while respecting its audience and its characters, David Schwimmer’s TRUST deserves a mention. Liana Liberato stars as Annie, a bright, energetic teen who gets taken in by an Internet predator calling himself “Charlie”. Annie and her parents, played by Clive Owen and Catherine Keener must find a path to heeling after Annie is sexually assaulted.

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