Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sundance Wrap-Up: Blue Valentine and the "Best Ofs"

Three more movies... But in truth I'm not sure which day we're on. I may have scrambled up the chronology just like Blue Valentine does. I am typing this on Saturday for publication on Sunday about movies from Friday. Where am I? WHEN AM I? I spent today being sick so no more movies. The sickness is why, even though it seemed like i was seeing a bajillion movies, I really wasn't. I worry that I missed a few great pictures and that I saw too many that ended up with or already had distribution deals that I could have seen later. But it's my first Sundance trip. I was doin' it wrong. Better luck next time.

The Romantics
Old college friends gather at a seaside home to celebrate the upcoming wedding of Lila (Anna Paquin) and Tom (Josh Duhamel). Laura (Katie Holmes), their maid of honor, used to be Tom's girl and it's immediately clear that that relationship hasn't fully run its course. The other friends (Malin Akerman, Elijah Wood, Adam Brody, Rebecca Lawrence and Jeremy Strong) know this. Lila even knows it in a way. What follows is a curiously artificial dramedy, with a few diverting moments and a central question that is provocative (do you marry the person you want deeply or the person who you obviously need). I couldn't connect with this movie from the beginning and knew I was in trouble when I started enjoying Malin Akerman more than the other actors. Maybe Rachel Getting Married spoiled me forever but after that film's gloriously complicated conflicting real time wedding awkwardness everything else involving toasts, rehearsal dinners and wedding jitters, excitement just feels pedestrian and canned.

The biggest problem here might be the casting. At first it didn't bother me as these are all adequate to good actors, but I realized midway through that I didn't buy for a second that they had all known each other for years. They're all TV pretty without the movie star soulfulness required to hurtle this type of material or make it sing. When I began to write this I had completely forgotten that Adam Brody was even in the movie. The characters make reference to their past incestuous dating history -- that's where they get their name "The Romantics" -- but none of the performance outside of maybe Lila/Laura/Tom convey anything like past romantic history. The performances convey general horniness for other hotties instead. Where is the backstory textural performance stuff? Worse yet, moody evasive Laura and nearly mute Tom supposedly have a fiery deep sexual connection that we're meant to believe springs from their love of poetry, English lit and deep philosophical conversations. I don't know about you but when I think about Katie Holmes and Josh Duhamel, intellectual all-nighters and poetry recitation aren't the first or even the two-hundred and thirty-first thing that spring to mind. D+

Blue Valentine
Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) have been married for years. The marriage isn't what it used to be. This beautifully rendered film, twelve years in the making, is co-written and directed by one-to-watch Derek Cianfrance. The lived-in feeling of the acting reminded me of Mike Leigh so it didn't surprise me to hear that Williams and Gosling had both been involved with the project for years, and helped shape their characters in substantial ways. We follow Cindy and Dean through two parallel linear chronologies charting both the birth of their relationship and the death of it. In the best moments, this plays less like a conceptual gimmick and more like a revelation, allowing you to see how the past and future are always connected. This reminded me of the brilliant stage musical The Last Five Years. Since I love both Years and Mike Leigh a great deal, trust that these comparison points are enormous compliments.

Michelle Williams proves again why she's one of the best young actresses working and Ryan Gosling is straight up fantastic nailing often daringly conflicted character details: he understands Dean's confidence and inferiority complex as well as both his volatility and gentleness. He's as specific here as he was in Half Nelson but the characterizations don't feel at all alike.

<-- Gosling, Williams and their screen daughter Faith Wladyka at the premiere in Park City

Two hander dramas only sizzle if the actors are in synch and the chemistry is strong here. As an added bonus both young stars are entirely believable in parenting scenes with their screen daughter and that isn't always the case [*cough* Brothers]. Blue Valentine isn't perfect, the ending feels only halfway worked-through and I understand Katey's quibble about the confusing geography (where are we exactly in both past and present?). It's often depressing and I know the movie won't play for everyone. But though it might be a minor achievement, it's definitely an achievement. A must see for fans of either actor and of romantic dramas in general.

This is the writing and directing debut for Josh Radnor, better known as "Ted Mosby" on How I Met Your Mother. This is a touch like watching a mumblecore film performed by the cast of Friends. I don't mean to sound mean or glib, since it's a harmless and even optimistic movie. But there's a lot about it, from Malin Akerman's alopecia -- I don't understand how Malin Akerman is an indie actress now? Help me! -- to a huge plot thread involving a little foster care black boy, that plays in an artificial overscripted way rather than lived-in and felt. In short, it's a situation dramedy, that might work better as a TV show.

Best in show: Pablo Schreiber, brother of Liev, who has done a lot of television but who I was unfamiliar with. He plays a late twentysomething man who really loves his commitment-phobe girlfriend (Zoe Kazan) but is aching to take a next step of one sort or another in his life. He provides one of the most endearing, openly emotional reactions to a pregnancy announcement, I've ever seen captured on film.

happythankyoumoreplease was the last film I saw and when it ended I knew I had had enough so perhaps I was just grumpy (no movies for a week!). But I do think it provided welcome takeaway positivity. Whenever you're feeling grateful to the universe, say "thank you" and chase it with "more please." C

If I were passing out prizes

Best Pictures: The Kids Are All Right, I Am Love, Blue Valentine and Please Give
I'm not really sure how much I loved these four movies. I like to let things settle but I'd love to see each of them again as soon as possible. The festival climate sometimes messes with your reactions to movies.
Documentary: Last Train Home (runner up: Catfish)
Screenplay: The Kids Are All Right (runner up: Cyrus or Please Give)
Art Direction: The Runaways (runner up: Nowhere Boy)
Costume Design: The Runaways (runner up: Nowhere Boy)
Best Cinematography: I Am Love (runner up: The Runaways)
Best Editing: I Am Love (runner up: Blue Valentine)
Best Use of Music/Score: Blue Valentine (runner up: I Am Love)

Actress: Annette Bening for Mother & Child and The Kids Are All Right (runner up: Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine)
Actor: Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine (runner up: James Rollston, Boy)
Supporting Actress: (tie) Kristin Scott Thomas & Anne-Marie Duff in Nowhere Boy (runner up: Rebecca Hall, Please Give)
Supporting Actor: Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right (runner up: Jonah Hill, Cyrus)
Ensemble: The Kids Are All Right (runner up: Please Give)

Some people's favorite movie moments tend to be centered around action. I am more turned on by musical numbers so I have to shout those out... along with a couple other categories.

Best One Liners: Please Give (runner up: Cyrus)
Best Sex Scene:
Tilda Swinton and Edoardo Gabbriellini in I Am Love (runner up: Gosling and Williams in Blue Valentine)
Best Use of Nudity: Body art in Vegetarian
Best Gimmick:
Ryan Reynolds in a coffin for the entirety of Buried
Seven Best Musical Moments:
"You Always Hurt the Ones You Love" (I think that's the song?) performed by Ryan Gosling (with an assist from Michelle Williams) in Blue Valentine ; "Thriller" performed by the cast of Boy; "Blue" performed by The Bening in The Kids Are All Right; "Cherry Bomb" performed by Dakota Fanning and cast in The Runaways; "Aborigine" performed by Rocky McKenzie and cast in Bran Nue Dae; "Don't You Want Me" performed by John C Reilly (with an assist from Marisa Tomei) in Cyrus. Dancing at the Late Night Lodge performed by Nathaniel and Parker Posey. Sorry, I'll shut up about that now. But can you blame me for obsessing?
SUNDANCE IS OVER. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming. i.e. Oscar nomination hoopla and this site's own Film Bitch awards.


Danny King said...

Can't wait to see Blue Valentine. Gosling (Half Nelson) and Williams (Wendy and Lucy) were responsible for two of my favorite lead performances of the 2000's.

whitney said...

happythankyoumoreplease will be the last film Scott and I see, too. We requested tickets to award winners before we knew what they were, and it turned out to be all films we haven't seen yet. Which will make the grand total for me: 34.

Clover said...

Blue Valentine seems to be that kind of film that really means a lot to everyone involved. A very special passion project, at least by what I've been reading.

And I'm glad you'll soon be back to your film bitch nominees. I just saw Where the Wild Things Are and wanted to recommend a line for Best Line Reading.

It's one of the last lines (if not the last) of the film, when KW (Lauren Ambrose) says to Max "Don't go. I'll eat you up I love you so.". I thought it was beautiful.

joy said...

With Blue Valentine, Shutter Island and hopefully Meek's Cutoff, Williams is gonna have a great year.

The race for next year's best actress seems to be heating up already... I think both Annette and Jennifer Lawrence can maintain the buzz until award season begins.

rosengje said...

I'm kind of surprised Blue Valentine went to TWC. Haven't they been sitting on Ryan Gosling's previous movie All Good Things for quite some time?

Ian said...

"Blue Valentine" sounds like this year's more serious cousin to "(500) Days of Summer."

Mony said...

" don't know about you but when I think about Katie Holmes and Josh Duhamel, intellectual all-nighters and poetry recitation aren't the first or even the two-hundred and thirty-first thing that spring to mind"

Lol, so true, I can't even picture them in a movie together, I don't rate either actors nor the rest in the movie. Josh seems to be miscast a lot or the actress opposite him is miscast as he has another movie as the love interest of Kristen Bell, like really I am suppose to believe that? Anyways wouldn't have watched this movie anyway.

I have been reading good things about Blue Valentine, and I am happy for Michelle Williams, out of the cast of Dawson Creek, Her and Joshua Jackson were my favourties.

I also read good reviews for Kids are Alright, I might check that out, as well as Buried.

Ryan T. said...

I'm now even more excited to see Blue Valentine. I mean I was already, but gah!

I had high hopes for happythankyoumoreplease so I'm hoping it was more you being in a bad place and less it being a mediocre movie. Then again it's probably just me and my HIMYM fanboy-ism at work. It did win a prize though.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Thanks for the awesome Sundance coverage, Nathaniel. I'm looking forward to each of your Top 4 titles, esp. I Am Love.

As for dancing with Parker Posey... I like to think I'm generally above such pedestrian, primal things like envy. But anything that involves Parker Posey and another man immediately stirs up envy in me. In other words, you are very right to obsess. I obsess over dancing with Parker Posey and that's never even happened in real life.

Andrew David said...

That's sad about The Romatics... any movie with both Anna Paquin and Elijah Wood makes my list, but I don't really want to be disappointed.

Stefano said...

I absolutely want to see "The Kids Are All Right"!!! I have one question about: how many Joni Mitchell songs does Annette Bening sing in the film? I've yet read she performs "All I Want" in a duet with Mark Ruffalo (is it true?), and now I read she also sings "Blue" (always from the same album). Any other song? And how does Annette sing? I'm afraid I've never heard her singing, except for her hilarious performance in "Don't Rain on My Parade" from "American Beauty".
And for which role do you think she would have more Oscar chances this year? "Mother and Child" or "The Kids Are All Right"?

Jim T said...

Thanks for the coverage Nathaniel. And the awards!

Arkaan said...

The Last Five Year + Mike Leigh?

I am so there.

adam k. said...

Just how ensembly is The Kids are Alright, Nathaniel? Could they get away with calling everyone supporting? I mean of course they COULD, but would you be pissed? It seems like Annette and Julianne are the two real leads, but if it's more of an ensemble, I could see both of them competing in supporting.

Honestly though - not that I have seen it - I kind of see the most likely result being a nod for Mark Ruffalo and no one else. Kind of like how Robert Forster was the only one nominated for Jackie Brown, despite its being a "black" film. It's the easiest and least threatening route, with the added bonus of Mark being overdue. That would be sweet to see, even if it didn't happen for Annette or Julianne.


Stefano -- they're talking about the Blue album when Annette sings. Maybe I got the song wrong but it's a fab scene!

Adam -- dunno. I'm not sure how nominatable Ruffalo is. He has that problem (shared by Paul Bettany and Jeff Bridges) of making really complicated performances Seem totally natural. And you know AMPAS loves performances that feel like a lot of work the best.

whitney said...

Just kidding. We are not going out to Park City today. We're Sundanced OUT. So we'll just have to wait for happythankyoumoreplease to come out later this year. Oh well. We saw some great things this year.

Mr. Movie Geek said...

Merely thinking of Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Mike Leigh, and The Last 5 Years in the same thought sequence makes me squeal with excitement. The fact that someone else has even HEARD of The Last 5 Years makes me squeal with excitement! "Blue Valentine" certainly sounds right up my alley, and I'm super glad you enjoyed it.


Mr Movie Geek --- You don't even wanna know how much I love "The Last Five Years" I love it like looney bin crazy would kill for it love! whackadoo love. love it muchly, too much.

aclp said...

Katie Holmes is a horrible, horrible, horribel actress. She is shallow, wounded, silly, fake, bratty, always has the same mannerisms, has a weak voice and looks stupid and immature.

aclp said...

Michelle Williams, on the other hand, is wonderful and seriously underrated.

She may become the best of her generation.


Amanda -- in order to unlock Katie Holmes talent she will need to break off the flow of Thetans from Tom Cruise. That tends to make actresses 18 times as good as they ever were before that. [case studies: Mimi Rogers, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz]

Stefano said...

Annette singing Joni Mitchell... this is going to be my favorite movie scene of the whole year!!! (And "Blue" is such a fantastic album!)

Lucky said...

Hmm... if Catherine Keener was the queen of indies, can we say that Maggie Gyllenhaal and Zooey Deschanel were the princesses?

Anonymous said...

Like I said as far as Young American Actresses there's always Michelle Williams.