Already saw the latest Hunger Games movie? Not a Hobbit fan? If your holiday plans involve hitting the movie theater for a good flick, the award-winning filmmakers and scholars of the Department of Radio, Television, Film share their best picks:
Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (Descendants, Sideways), based on a script by Bob Nelson, is an understated gem and perhaps the best movie of the season. Featuring black and white photography shot on film, it is a visual throwback to an earlier era and in its simplicity achieves a rare elegance in this day of age.
It features an Oscar-worthy performance by Bruce Dern as an aging alcoholic, and in a supporting role, little-used June Squibb nearly steals the show. Stacey Keach is excellent as an old suspect friend and nemesis and while the other supporting cast are not nearly as impressive, Mr. Payne’s subtle direction makes the most of their performances.
The story embodies the highest potential of the road movie, where the journey becomes a physical representation of an inner process. In this case, the character Woody Grant’s (Dern) journey from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million dollar sweepstakes prize is really a journey through time and a reckoning with the forces that shaped him. In the process, Mr. Payne paints a devastating, often hilarious, but finally empathetic portrait of the heartland and its oft maligned residents.
Favorite film of all time: Bicycle Thieves (1948), directed by Vittorio DeSica — although this may change on any given day to Metropolis (1927), directed by Fritz Lang, or Wings of Desire (1987), directed by Wim Wenders.
Favorite movie snack: Popcorn
For those of you who will be in Manhattan during the holidays, I recommend taking advantage of two classics being shown at the IFC Center. First, there is the archetypal holiday film, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. Yes, I know you’ve seen it on TV dozens of times, but if you haven’t seen it on the big screen, then you’ve never really seen it. If you have kids, this is a great film to introduce them to the idea that old black-and-white movies can be really great.
Speaking of the need to see films on the big screen, IFC is also showing Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, the mysterious and revolutionary 2001: A Space Odyssey for two weeks starting December 25. Arguably the greatest work of art ever committed to film, 2001 seen in large format is an indescribably transcendent experience. It’s rated “G,” so take the kids. They won’t “understand” it any more than you or I do, but they will be just as awed.
Favorite film of all time: My favorite film changes often, but at the moment, thanks to the Hitchcock class that I’m teaching, it is North by Northwest (1959), starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.
Favorite movie snack: Popcorn mixed with Milk Duds
Go see Philomena. I loved this film. Given the subject matter, I was afraid of a melodramatic treatment, but the excellent direction of Steven Frears and acting by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan made this story accessible and moving without ever going over the top. The story follows an older Irish woman who searches for her son who was taken from her as an unwed teenager. Her relationship with the journalist who helps her through this arduous process is funny and intimate. The movie does what I believe a good expose’ should do: it artfully lets us into the inner world of the characters and makes a statement that is both personal and ultimately political, in this case showing us the abuses of a protected institution. Philomena highlights women’s history and the issues of choice and sexual freedom that affect us still.
I also adored the Coen Brothers’ new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Isaac. It’s about a folksinger from a Brooklyn working class family who hangs out in 1960s Greenwich Village trying to make a career as a musician. The film was almost like a documentary in its portrayal of the characters and the period. Llewyn lives at the mercy of his friends and family but sticks to his music no matter what. The obstacles he faces are both external and internal, since he sabotages himself at every turn. I loved that the folksinger was portrayed as a talented artist to whom a music producer says after an audition, “I don’t see money here.” The movie was funny and sad; no happy, transformative endings here. The Coen Brothers continue to succeed in making great movies, bringing their wonderful and unique artistic vision to the screen.
Favorite movie of all time: Fellini’s 8 ½
Favorite movie snack: chocolate-covered almonds
I strongly urge moviegoers to go see Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film about a struggling folk singer in NYC circa 1961. In narrow release now, it opens nationally on Dec. 20. Inside Llewyn Davis is a complex, albeit melancholy narrative that will resonate with any artist trying to “make it.” The music and cinematography are so integral to the film, they should be listed as supporting cast. You may not walk out of the theater saying “Wow, that was great!” but give it some time or an extra viewing, and you will.
Winner of the Cannes Film Festival, the movie is being touted as the Coen Brothers’ best work yet. That’s pretty impressive considering their catalog of films like Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and O Brother Where Art Thou?.
Favorite movie of all time: The Godfather, Part II
Favorite movie snack: Goldberg Peanut Chews