Nebraska (2013), directed by Alexander Payne
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), directed by the Coen Brothers
The end of the year always ends up being a bit of time for catch-up for me. It’s kind of a strange system really, because the expected time period for a best of the year list always coincides with the release of most of the films likely to be on said list.
So it can be a bit of a scramble. And one you can never really win, because so many of the films other critics, who live in bigger cities with more limited releases and press screenings, list as their favourites films won’t even open to the general public until January.
Regardless, I do my best and it always ends up I see a few late-in-the-game list-changers. These two may just prove to be them.
Of all the quiet quirky indie directors finding critical success right now (Jason Reitman, Noah Baumbach) I would likely count Alexander Payne as my favourite. About Schmidt is an underrated gem and a revisit of The Descendants this year once again proved its worth to me.
While I find the style of some of his peers rather cold and detached, I believe Payne uses his somewhat aloof style for good rather than hipster. A love for his characters shines through in his films, even as he presents them in a rather straightforward, un-sentimental way.
Nebraska is up there with his best. It’s funny, touching, interesting, full of great characters, all the things you want out of a quiet indie. In both setting and character it’s a sparse film, its black-and-white cinematography saying so much with so little, much like its main character.
Bruce Dern has been largely forgotten in the world of cinema until this comeback of sorts. Dern has been around forever it seems and had memorable roles in Coming Home and The King of Marvin Gardens in the ‘70s. I know him best as The Detective in Walter Hill’s The Driver, where Dern plays the hell out of a know-it-all cop who doesn’t know much at all.
Anyway, he’s a great actor, with an expressive high gravelly voice and a gaze which can burn through film. In Nebraska he’s an absolute delight to watch. Never sure of just how “with it” Woody is, Dern speaks little but expresses much through intonation, body language, a look. a grunt. Dern, as he often does, makes sure to have some fun with the role.
The tale itself is a road trip, a father/son story, a loving satire of small town American living and more. Never condescending, Payne handles his yokel characters with a Stephen Leacock-level of love and bafflement. This spirit is infectious for a viewer.
Another quiet, infectious film is the Coen Brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, a film I admire more every time I think about it.
It’s the tale of a folk singer in the Greenwich Village scene in the ‘60s, before Dylan blew up and folk became mainstream. Davis is a singer devoted to artistic purity but suffering its economic side effects, sleeping on couches and bumming cigarettes.
This is the Coen Brothers in their best mode, as far as I’m concerned, with its closest relative being A Serious Man, another film I admire more as time goes by. Both films surround a character trying to do their best but running into the roadblocks of the world and their own personalities and limitations.
If anything Llewyn Davis is the serious man. There is a sombre tone to the proceedings, driven home by its subdued colours and tear-jerking soundtrack. We are meant to feel sorry for Davis, but we are also asked to understand him, whether we agree with his approach or not.
So many movies in this vein try to raise unworthy characters to sainthood (Frances Ha, Greenberg…Like all the Baumbach jabs I’m getting in these reviews?), whereas the Coens presents Davis as a contradictory man, allowing nuance to be the entire point.
With Davis, an opinion of the character is never shoved down the viewer’s throat and I don’t believe we’re ever asked to love him more than we want. He is in many ways unloveable, which, to me, makes him, and the film, even more endearing. Maybe I’m weird.
It’s also a warm and typically funny movie from the Coens. Few directors have such a lovingly baffled view of the world and, much like Payne in Nebraska, they find joy in pointing out and celebrating the odd intricacies and foibles of humans and society, while recognizing the absurdities. It’s satire to a degree, but with much more patience.
Inside Llewyn Davis is amongst the Coen Bros’ best and among the year’s best too. But that’s a subject for my next post… Tune in around this time next week.
Both Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis are in cinemas now.