Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – David O. Russell

ImageAfter becoming familiar with him in handsome, hyper-masculine, smooth-operating roles in films like The Hangover (2009), He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), and Limitless (2011), it’s refreshing and a little confusing to see Bradley Cooper in a role that is vulnerable, self-conscious, and socially inappropriate.  When bipolar Pat Solitano (Cooper) returns to his parents’ house after an eight-month stint in a mental hospital, his goal is to reunite himself with his estranged wife, Nikki (Brea Bee).  Pat is almost childlike in his straightforwardness and unflinching sincerity, openly saying things like, “I don’t have an iPod.  I don’t even have a phone.  They won’t let me make any calls.  They think I’m going to call Nikki.  I would call Nikki.”  He spends his time reading novels from Nikki’s high school syllabus, going on solitary jogs while wearing a garbage bag, and plotting ways to get a letter through Nikki’s restraining order — and we as viewers fall in love with him, despite the fact that, as one kind young lady points out, he says more inappropriate things than appropriate things.

The young lady is Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recent widow and the sister-in-law of Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz).  Pat and Tiffany meet at a dinner party, where Tiffany demonstrates her own social peculiarities by asking Pat about his medication in the middle of dinner; leaving mid-meal because she’s “tired”; and, on the walk home, bluntly telling Pat that she’ll let him sleep with her if he turns the lights off.

Pat is put off by Tiffany, later telling his therapist that she is a “loyal married-to-a-dead-guy slut,” but a friendship develops between the two of them when Tiffany agrees to bring a letter to Nikki.  Her demand is that Pat, in return, be her partner in an upcoming dance competition — which he reluctantly agrees to do.

The first half-hour is the strongest section of the film.  The setup is punchy and nicely paced, both amusing and poignant, and we are introduced to a host of characters, each of whom brings his or her own idiosyncrasies to the table.  Pat’s father, played by Robert De Niro, reveals himself to have some mental problems of his own, showing signs of OCD with his rituals and superstition concerning the Eagles football team.  He also has the ability to explode violently, not unlike Pat, and this feeds into Pat’s denial of some of his problems: “Look, I’m not the explosion guy, okay?  My father is the explosion guy.”

If this film should be congratulated on anything, it is its upbeat and sympathetic depiction of mental illness.  Finally, here is a romantic comedy about two people who are real outsiders.  We learn through Pat’s therapy sessions that he was sent to the mental institute because he caught Nikki cheating on him and almost beat her lover to death.  Now, he has emerged with a new outlook: excelsior is his motto (Latin for “ever upward”), and he is determined to find the silver lining in every situation.  And yet we see how his bipolar disorder hampers his progress, and how he struggles to suppress violent outbursts, both verbal and physical.

Tiffany has her own slew of problems, including depression, a vicious temper, and what sounds like a possible sex addiction.  She is no quirky, adorable Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she is gritty, rude, and startlingly frank.   But beneath her rough exterior is a sensitive side, which is somehow surprising and not predictable in the film — perhaps because her standoffish façade seems so genuine.

Mental illness is something that is generally not taken seriously enough, and I was impressed with Russell’s apt choice to take a look into what living with various disorders can be like.  Both Pat and Tiffany struggle with their disorders, with the unpleasant side effects of medication, with the desire not to be perceived as “crazy” by those around them.  And yet their characters are not defined solely by their mental illness, and they lead rich lives, which is what makes them so likable to us.  They are untraditional characters, but they still serve as the traditional hero and heroine of the story.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not live up to the beginning, nor does it do the characters justice.  Pat and Tiffany grow closer through their dance rehearsals, but each does his/her share of manipulating and being dishonest to the other — a problem that is never really reconciled.  And the film’s third act is, sadly, all sorts of cliché.  High stakes are placed on Pat and Tiffany’s success in the competition; the two have a falling out when Pat misses a day of rehearsal to go to an Eagles game; Pat receives encouragement from his father to pursue true love; etc.  Everything is set up for a neat, Hollywood ending, which is a disappointing way to conclude a story that begins so cleverly.  While a happy ending is definitely appropriate for a story that is all about silver linings, I wished that the happy ending had been less generic.  It is a neat, tidy, and ordinary ending for two characters who are anything but neat, tidy, and ordinary.

The film is certainly an enjoyable ride — and the first ten minutes feature the most hilarious and justifiable reaction to the end of A Farewell to Arms that I have ever seen (Pat finishes the book, says, “What the f—k?” and flings it out the window).  But the flat, conventional ending will leave the viewer feeling a little less than satisfied when the lights come up.

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Promised Land (2013) – Gus Van Sant

ImageThis film was a collaboration by a lot of people I love.  Story by Dave Eggers, screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, score by Danny Elfman.  Directed by Gus Van Sant, the love of my life.  I was very excited to see this movie.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a salesman for the natural gas company Global Crosspower Solutions.  When he and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) arrive in a small Pennsylvanian farming town, their goal is to convince landowners to grant Global permission to drill for natural gas trapped underground — a process known as fracking.  Steve and Sue are surprised to find members of the community expressing concern about fracking’s environmental ramifications. The situation is aggravated by the arrival of Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a young representative of an environmental group, determined to stop Global at all costs.

The setup is something we’ve seen before: a grassroots movement pitted against a large, greedy corporation.  This rendition, however, isn’t quite so black and white.  While Dustin presents a compelling argument for a wholesome cause, there is something slightly off about him.  His comments to Steve are a little too snide, and his charismatic rapport with the townspeople seems somehow disingenuous.  Steve, on the other hand, is earnest and likable, despite the fact that he is promoting potentially environmentally unsound plans.  His interest in introducing fracking into the town is sincere, motivated by the financial collapse of his own rural hometown, and — most importantly — right off the bat he is introduced to us as the film’s hero.  We learn to like him, to laugh along with his jokes, to appreciate his friendships, and to root for his romantic pursuits before the fracking conflict even begins.

As a result, the film’s tone is uneasy.  It’s unclear which side of the conflict is the “right” one — which side Van Sant is intending us to root for.  This vague cognitive dissonance is really what makes the film interesting.  Somehow, Van Sant manages to tell a story that is both understated and thrilling.  The pace is slow, but I found myself literally thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen next.”

The cast does much to carry the story.  Krasinski finally breaks out of his Jim Halpert persona to bring a performance that is subtly unsettling.  He uses his “nice guy” identity to his advantage, exaggerating it into a caricature.  McDormand is also, unsurprisingly, wonderful, once again demonstrating her ability to be at once gruff and lovable.  Sue provides comedic relief, as well as a perspective to contrast with Steve’s: while he struggles with the ramifications of what they are doing, she insists that “it’s just a job”.  Her desire to return home to her teenage son is a (slightly under-developed) subplot.

The film wraps up with a twist, which is always fun, although this twist is perhaps a little too extreme.  As an audience we want to feel surprised and exhilarated, not completely bamboozled.  But in the end, the film is satisfying.  The story is rendered in the small scale — a showdown between two men over a small amount of land — but has clear larger relevance.  Perhaps not a particularly optimistic movie, but a certainly creative and interesting examination of the roles individuals play in the larger machine.

10 Best Films I Watched in 2012

10. Bright Star (2009) – Jane Campion

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I wrote a review of this a few months ago.  I’m starting to go a little crazy for Ben Whishaw; there’s something enigmatic about him, and although I’ve only seen him in a few films, he seems to have a real range.  Here he plays Romantic poet John Keats in a tragic love story that is, as New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott points out, surprisingly steamy considering no clothes are ever removed.  This movie falls somewhere between Pride & Prejudice and Shakespeare in Love.

9. Seven Psychopaths (2012) – Martin McDonagh

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I also reviewed this one — saw it twice in theaters.  This film is cleverly metafictional, with a dash of absurdism and a little existentialism.  Hilarious, dark, and devilishly exhilarating.  Sam Rockwell really steals the show as Billy, a devoted friend with some psychopathic tendencies.

8. The Green Mile (1999) – Frank Darabont

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This is a gruesome story with some Tom Hanks levity and a little magical realism.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is the way it unfolds in chapters, smaller stories encapsulated in the larger one. Stupendous performances all around (including, again, Sam Rockwell in particular).

7. Rope (1948) – Alfred Hitchcock

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This is not one of Hitchcock’s better-known films, nor is it one of his best, but it’s a pretty fascinating experiment in both form and content.  Two young men strangle their classmate, hide his body in their apartment, and then host a dinner party.  The entire film takes place in the apartment, and the story is filmed exclusively in long takes, ten minutes at most (the length of a film camera magazine).  The experience is not unlike that of watching a play, with the added bonus of Hitchcock’s characteristic fluid camerawork. Even more interesting are the homoerotic undertones between the two killers.  This film is either incredibly progressive with its putatively homosexual leads, or condemning, with its rendering them murders.  I can never decide.  An unusual film, strangely mesmerizing to watch.

6. Laura (1944) – Otto Preminger

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In this hard-boiled detective film, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is hired to investigate the murder of the beautiful Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney).  Intrigue, romantic tension, and plot twists (multiple!) ensue, as well as some really interesting narrative paradoxes.  There are also moments of this movie that genuinely frighten me, which is unusual for a movie made so long ago.

5. Ratatouille (2007) – Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava

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There were points when I had to pause this movie because I was laughing too hard.  It is hilarious, heartwarming, and a little bit bizarre.  I cannot get enough.

4. Vanilla Sky (2001) – Cameron Crowe

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This film opens with pretty formulaic setup — Tom Cruise plays David, a handsome and successful businessman, who meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl Sofia (Penelope Cruz) and is immediately attracted to her — but warps unexpectedly into something closer to science fiction.  I won’t say too much because I think the less you know in advance, the more exciting the ride is.  The film is both emotionally and mentally stimulating, and I found myself thinking about it for days after I watched it.  (It also has a killer soundtrack.)

3. The Ides of March (2011) – George Clooney

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I am beginning to realize that Ryan Gosling is more than just the guy from The Notebook.  He is magnetic in this, holding his own against George Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman (be still my beating heart, I love that man).  In this political drama Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, junior campaign manager to Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney) who finds himself entangled in political subterfuge.  This film is smart, dirty, and unsettlingly relevant.

2. Funny Games (2007) – Michael Haneke

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I am obsessed with Michael Pitt.  He is a dream.  He’s terrifying in this — cool, aloof, methodical, dressed in pristine white.  Funny Games could so easily be just another slasher film, but Haneke takes the clichéd premise (two young men come to a family’s house to torture and kill them) and twists it around, experimenting with both narrative structure and character.  This film is captivating not because of its gore — most of the violence actually occurs off screen — but because of the mesmerizing, anomalous world that Haneke creates.  Just when you think you’ve figured out the rules of the game, they change.

1. The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick

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Surprise, surprise. I wrote a sort of obsessive review of this movie when I watched it this summer.  Something about The Shining just facilitates obsession — there are so many patterns, dangling threads, layers of meaning.   You almost experience Jack’s madness yourself trying to figure everything out.

The end.  Suggestions for more movies to watch are always welcome!