Ah, the end of the year. Oscar-hopefuls will be arriving in limited release in New York and LA, expecting to expand in January to the sticks, critics' 10-best lists arrive on the internet airwaves, and Yahoo! will post the year's best celebrity haircuts which I will inevitably glance at and forget just as quickly as I read it on my way to checking my email.
As I've said before, I don't go out to the movies very often, but even I was aware of the abysmal year 2010 was for movies; the few fine performances I witnessed, including Casey Affleck's tour-de-force in The Killer Inside Me, will probably not see the light of awards season as they so badly deserve, except maybe inside this self-contained film blog. So here is a list of the best epiphanies at the cinema that I've experienced this year, and hope others will as well.
1. Adam Scott (Actor)
Adam Scott is a kind of actor who has already achieved a cult status despite his young career; his TV series are usually canceled prematurely, his leading roles in movies do not typically find distribution, but he has already proven to be one of our finest and unsung actors. I first noticed him in April when he joined the cast of "Parks and Recreation," one of the finest sitcoms on TV but endangered due to low ratings; we'll see how it does this January when it returns as a mid-season replacement, and how Scott's role as a government man is expanded. Then in July I had my first taste of HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me," which debuted with sound and fury concerning the painfully realistic sex scenes, then died in silence when it ended after a season. In it, Scott played a married thirty-something tired of being treated as a sperm machine by his wife, desperate to conceive. It was not a showy role, but Scott underplayed it perfectly, nailing the nuances of a man nearing the end of his rope. A month later, however, was the paydirt which imprinted Scott's name into my memory. I did an internship at a film festival, and was asked to watch The Vicious Kind and write a review for the program book. The movie is nothing astounding; a loose remake of East of Eden, it recycles the family comedy/drama style of film seen in more Sundance indies than I have fingers. However, Scott steps up to the plate and delivers a home run as a broken-hearted man who deals with his pain by developing an acidic, misogynist view of women. There is no way of saying this without sounding hyperbolic, but it's both a role and performance which reminds me of Marlon Brando's cry of wounded masculinity in Last Tango in Paris. The film debuted at Sundance but wasn't picked up for distribution; before I finished my internship, I shipped the 35mm print to a drive-in film festival in New Jersey. And finally, during Thanksgiving my family and I gathered around the TV to feast on the delicious wit and heartfelt sincerity of the gone-too-soon "Party Down," about a catering company and their attempts to make it big in Hollywood. As failed actor Henry Pollard, Scott infuses Henry's deadpan antics with a sad, often mournful and unspoken frustration at his failure--and when we finally do see him act, he's actually good, which only adds to our frustration that he hasn't succeeded, just like my own opinion of Scott. He hits all the right notes, he's easy on the eyes, and I can't wait to see Scott cemented as one of this generation's most versatile actors, getting on a good show that is able to stay on the air (crosses fingers for "Parks and Recreation") or a challenging lead under a renowned director's guidance. What's a non-gay way to ask him to go camping with me?
2. The Rain People (1969, Francis Ford Coppola)
Coppola's most renowned films typically feature male protagonists and their emotional descent into darkness; it was therefore a wonderful surprise to discover one of his earliest films is about a woman running from her life, trying to navigate her way through her marriage. Shirley Knight is luminous as Natalie Ravenna, a pregnant Long Island housewife who gets into her car and drives off without a destination when she wakes up and can't feel freedom anymore. She first drives to her parents for guidance or support but their old-fashioned outlook towards femininity and marriage blinds them to her dilemma. Her collect calls to her husband, which seem to be echoed in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, also offer little emotional support. Little is explicitly stated about who Natalie is, but the perfectly placed flashbacks allotted to Natalie and the two broken men she meets on the road manage to fill in the blanks just enough to paint a picture of how their choices in the past have made them the damaged people they are now. Taking place just before the counter-culture of the 1970s, it reflects the post-Friedan crossroads of femininity; there was a desire for freedom to be more than a housewife but not the social support to let women know that their conflict and emotions were completely, utterly humane. Coppola's film plays like a female version of Five Easy Pieces, but it's so much more than that, including perhaps the most sympathetic film he ever made.
3. Greta Gerwig in Greenberg
It would have been easy for Noah Baumbach to create the role of Florence, romantic foil for Ben Stiller's emotionally off-kilter title character, as a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," a girl whose sole function is to be wonderfully optimistic, have a quirky taste in fashion/music/the English language and inspire the sojourn young man to be the best version of himself. Thankfully, Gerwig chose not to go down this route, and her Florence is a wonder to behold. Insecure and fresh out of a long-term relationship, she jump-starts the film by not wanting "to go from just having sex to just having sex," and sadly she does let people walk over her, including Greenberg. It is her face, solemnly looking onto the road while she drives, that mattes the film's opening credits. Gerwig never draws attention to herself, never tries to make us like her because of her quirks, she's not a size 0--she's one of the most real love interests in recent memory. In so many ways, it's her journey more than it is Greenberg's of self-reflection that makes the film a joy. Watch this, and you'll like her more than you realize.
4. Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me: Or, Affleck is really fuckin' intense.
Perhaps had I seen Affleck's performance in The Assassination of Jesse James, the revelation of the dark places Affleck is willing to go as an actor might not have been such a surprise to me; I saw a short clip of him in that movie during the Oscars and to be frank, I thought his resembled a mentally challenged person. But I know that nothing could have prepared me for the depths he dove to portray an amiable small-town cop whose mask slowly comes off to reveal a cruel, sadistic rapist and killer. There are some actors who could have been willing to go into that dark place and there are some who would have been convincing as a serial killer, but there's a miniscule overlap for those who could do both. In the end, it's not the fact that Lou Ford physically abuses lovely ladies (played by Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson) to a bloody pulp that's most terrifying; it's how comfortable Casey Affleck is inside Lou's skin.
5. Barbara Romaner in Mahler on the Couch
Of everyone on this short list, Barbara Romaner and her respective film are probably the two things you've never heard of; Father-and-son directing duo Percy and Felix Adlon's film has not received distribution outside film festivals, including the one where I interned at (Napa-Sonoma Wine Country Film Festival). But mark my words: Ms. Romaner, whose looks and graceful presence reminds one of a German Marion Cotillard, is destined for great things. Alma Schindler, something of a real-life Catherine from Jules and Jim and original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, was only 22 when she married Gustav Mahler, 19 years her senior and a fledging composer. Though they were very much in love, he made her give up her dream of composing if she was to become Mrs. Mahler. After 10 years of an emotionally stifled marriage and the death of one of their two daughters, Alma sought an affair with architect Walter Gropius, and this revelation lead Mahler to seek the professional guidance of Sigmund Freud, an event which bookends the Adlons' film. The film itself is tonally schizophrenic, possibly the result of having two directors; the half concerning the Mahler marriage is like has a bohemian joie de vivre which would've made Truffaut smile, the sequences with Freud lift Woody Allen's neurotica. But it's Romaner which gives Alma, and the film, the vitality it needs to fly, for it is Alma's love of life which will set everything into motion. The scene in which Alma reads a page from Gustav's Fifth Symphony and the camera simply lingers on her face as she reacts to her husband's letter of love to her, is astonishing. This role is, amazingly, Romaner's first role in a film after a long history of being on the stage, and the beginning of a beautiful career.