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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.

Sad.

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.

Melancholia/The Descendants

I wrote these mini-reviews at my blog’s former (and current…) home but will re-post them here because both films come out on DVD today. I saw them one after the other on a movie theatre marathon adventure in December as I scrambled to catch up on flicks before the end of the year. Anyway, enjoy!

Melancholia (2011), directed by Lars von Trier

Thanks to an outrageous media storm some may know this movie as the one by that Nazi guy. This is because von Trier made some really miscalculated jokes at Cannes about Hitler and got himself kicked out of the festival. He’s not a Nazi, he’s just European and has a weird sense of humour. Let’s move on.

I have a lot of respect for von Trier as a director. I think Breaking the Waves and Antichrist were brilliant. I’m not a nut about him but I always find his films interesting at the very least. And Melancholia is certainly that. The movie is about two sisters. One half of the film is about Justine (Kirsten Dunst) getting married while battling crippling depression and a dysfunctional family. The other half centres on Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her family as a previously undiscovered planet hurdles towards earth. Yeah.

This is a slow, methodic, beautiful, trying, devastating film. It’s hard to say I enjoyed it because this isn’t really the kind of film one “enjoys” really. I found it interesting. At times it is staggering in its power, helped in part by its use of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, one of my favourite pieces of music. It’s certainly compelling but does at times border on boring. As all von Trier films it is excessive in its “art film” sensibilities but like all von Trier films it is backed up by enough talent and ambition to justify it.

Out of all the films I saw it certainly left me with the most to think about. It’s still rolling around up there. I can’t say I loved it but I’m glad I saw it.

The Descendants (2011), directed by Alexander Payne

Because a movie about the end of the world didn’t quite get me depressed enough I decided to then go and see a movie about death. Tis the season and all that (?).

The Descendants is about a family that lives in Hawaii. The mother gets in a boating accident and is in a coma, one she will not come out of. The father, Matt King (George Clooney), collects his messed up 17-year-old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) from boarding school and, along with younger daughter Scottie, they, as a family, begin the process of telling friends and family and saying goodbye. And then Alex reveals to Matt that his wife, her mother, was having an affair.

The Descendants is a dramedy, or a comama, if you will (I might), of sorts. As can be expected from the director of Sideways and About Schmidt the film is heartfelt and somewhat desperate, but somehow touching and inspiring. It’s a very emotional movie, as one would expect from a film about family and death. But Payne has a knack of making emotional films about serious subjects without making them feel manipulative or overtly sentimental. Instead they feel cathartic. At points it is also hilarious. At others fun.

This is a beautiful movie with a touching, compelling story, full of great performances and a gentle, mature touch from director Payne.

Melancholia and The Descendants are available on DVD and Blu-ray.