Blackfish (2013) – Gabriela Cowperthwaite
This troubling documentary begins with the case of Tilikum, a killer whale who has spent nearly his entire life in captivity. Over the couple of decades he has currently been in captivity, he’s gruesomely killed three people over that period and, yet remained on open display the entire time. Why was that third trainer allowed into the water with Tilikum after the whale had already aggressively pursued and killed two people? From there, the film goes into the state of killer whales in captivity in general. The film is a relentlessly disturbing and infuriating film. Featuring interviews from several ex-Sea World trainers and ex-whale hunters, the film delves deeply into the emotional trauma visited upon the whales during their capture and captivity. The treatment of the whales is occasionally heart-rending; the film makes the case, backed up by a fair amount of neuroscience, that killer whales are incredibly intelligent beings, capable of deep emotions, from joy to sorrow to . . . yes, rage. The idea of animal consciousness is something I’ve been interested in for years, so I knew a lot of the neuroscience they cite, but the on camera interviews with troubled trainers and hunters are gripping. Seeing an intimidating, heavily muscled dude with a biker beard and a do rag well up with tears as he says that a whale hunt was “the worst thing I’ve done in my life” carries incredible impact. The scenes where the film quotes from Sea World statements about killer whales and the way they’re treated in captivity and then shows footage, completely deadpan, that totally contradicts the official story evokes a powerful anger. And, since Sea World features cameras covering nearly every angle of the park, we get to see a surprising amount of actual attack footage. Some of it, like a lengthy sequence in which a killer whale repeatedly drags a trainer to the bottom of the pool, only to release him and then catch him again, is absolutely harrowing. The film is a masterpiece, frankly, and it caused a tremendous amount of angry outrage in me about the plight of these beautiful animals that, all things considered, are probably the animals who most resemble us in terms of their interior lives. I highly, highly recommend this harrowing, disturbing, enraging movie. This is, so far, the best documentary I’ve seen all year and that includes some really good films, like Sarah Polley’s wonderful Stories We Tell and the engaging and emotional A Band Called Death. This one outdoes them all, though. Catch this one now; you’ll definitely be hearing about it again come Oscar time.
The World’s End (2013) – Edgar Wright
I’ve somehow managed to avoid seeing both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, though after this wonderful movie, I’m going to be rectifying that and darn quick. Obviously, the film is about five friends who return to their home town to attempt to complete an epic pub crawl they attempted twenty years before. What Gary King, wonderfully played by Simon Pegg, is really trying to do, however, is recapture that moment in his life when everything was the best. He tells us openly at the beginning of the movie that the night of the attempted pub crawl was the best night of his life; he sees a certain kind of sadness in this fact, but not the kind he needs to see. The movie then is an exploration of nostalgia and the ever changing reality of life. Have I forgotten anything? Oh, yeah, the town has been taken over by aliens. The film is quite funny, very clever and occasionally genuinely emotionally moving. There are a lot of surprisingly sincere and compelling moments as the friends struggle to reconnect with each other after so much time apart and Pegg finds the pain that really underlies Gary and lets it peek out where you can see it at all the right moments. The rest of the cast is excellent as well: Martin Freeman particularly shines in the second half of the film after a *ahem* character change; Paddy Considine is endearingly hangdog; Nick Frost is pitch perfect as the friend still nursing bitterness over the past. There’s a wonderful cameo that, oddly enough in this modern spoiler economy, I had no idea about and I’m not going to spoil it for you. Also, what’s up with Rosamund Pike? I’ve never really been impressed with her, but she’s aged very, very well. I found her really appealing and attractive in this movie, as compared, for instance, with Die Another Day, ten years ago, when I didn’t think she was hot at all. The film is really superlative right up to the end; once the final pub sinks into that huge elevator, the entire movie falls apart if you ask me. The climax seems to be a rejection of what the movie has seemed to be about to that point; the movie has seemed to be working toward a climax in which the characters achieve some kind of maturity, but it throws it all away to celebrate their immaturity in the climax. And after that climax, things really go off the rails. I have no idea what point they were trying to make with that. But it’s nine-tenths a great comedy.
Blue Jasmine (2013) – Woody Allen
I haven’t really been keeping up with Allen’s recent “not in New York” successes. Based on this masterpiece, I may need to go back and catch up with some of them. This one isn’t a comedy; in fact, it kept reminding me of Crimes and Misdemeanors, though the subject matter is very different. It’s just that each scene taken by itself feels less than riveting, but as the films continue the scenes build toward a cumulative devastation that isn’t deniable. Cate Blanchett is brilliant as the title character, a formerly wealthy woman left bankrupt when her philandering husband (Alec Baldwin) goes to prison for financial malfeasance. The character is essentially unsympathetic; she’s a relentlessly shallow person in the flashbacks to her life of privilege and a relentlessly entitled one in her present impoverished circumstances. The rest of the cast is very good. Sally Hawkins totally disappears into the role of Jasmine’s working class sister, Ginger. Bobby Cannavale is naturalistic and fantastic as Ginger’s temperamental boyfriend. Andrew Dice Clay finds a really great bitterness, particularly in a scene toward the end, as one of the victims of Baldwin’s financial dealings. Michael Stuhlbarg is wonderful as a sexually voracious dentist (yeah, that’s what I said). But it’s Blanchett’s show and she owns it completely. She absolutely commands your attention. She’ll get an Oscar nomination for this if there’s any justice in the world. She might even win and that wouldn’t be a problem for me. It’s a bleak movie; to the degree that there’s a theme, it seems to be the problems caused by deception and the even greater problems caused by the truth. That should let you in on the fact that it ain’t a comedy. It comes recommended pretty well without reservation. I don’t know that it would with a different lead actress, but there’s no standing up against Blanchett’s emotionally raw and deeply powerful performance.
In a World . . . (2013) – Lake Bell
You might think a movie that featured Ken Marino, Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro and Rob Corrdry would have to be funny. You’d be right. (Thought I was going a different direction with that, didn’t you? DON’T ASSUME YOU KNOW ME!) Lake Bell’s had some success as an actress, mostly on television, but she doesn’t just act in this one. She also produced it; and directed; and wrote. It’s her first time doing all three of those things. And, by God, she’s a talent to watch. Keep an eye on this young woman. In this film, she draws on her own experience as a voice actress. The story is, fundamentally, about three voice actors and the big new trailer that’s about to come up on the market for someone to narrate. Which of the three will be the next to utter that epic phrase, “In a world . . .” Complicating matters is that one of the voice actors, Sam, is the mentor to one of the others Gustav, who is sleeping with the third, Carol, who is the daughter of Sam. Got that? Well, it’s a wickedly funny movie; Bell is pitch perfect as the neurotic, vaguely awkward Carol and Fred Melamed is wonderful as the overbearing, bloviating Sam. Bell’s performance is the kind of comic turn that will never get recognized by the Oscars, but that’s their loss. It’s one of the best female performances I’ve seen all year. Able support comes from all the comics listed above; Martin and Marino are particularly good and Corrdry’s part is a surprisingly dramatic one. It’s a wonderful, charming movie. The movie isn’t just funny; there are some really surprising dramatic moments, moments that actually catch you off guard and make you see these absurd people as real human beings. I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. Here’s hoping for more (a lot more) from Lake Bell. Clever, witty script; wonderful, funny performances; unique subject matter. This is what a movie comedy should be.
You’re Next (2011) – Adam Wingard
This film could very easily have just been another in what seems to be a never-ending line of cheapo home invasion thrillers. I mean, here’s the synopsis. Three crossbow/ax/sledgehammer/etc. wielding killers in white animal masks terrorize a family gathering. I mean, yeah. I saw The Strangers. Or, well, I didn’t, which maybe makes the point even better. But this film is a sharp satire on a number of things. It’s packed with dark, wicked humor. There’s likely to be a completely dead-pan moment of absolute hilarity right after a dude gets his throat graphically slit. Actually, not “likely to be;” there actually is. That’s a real instance from the movie I’m using. And I mean, like five seconds after the throat slit. The point seems to be that this family, a sort of alpha-family of the upper class, an apple-pie, hilariously cheesy American family hides a lot of darkness. Everyone’s pretending to be polite and lovey-dovey, but the metaphorical knives come out at the dinner table before the real ones come out a little later. The cast is really uniformly excellent, each inhabiting their roles to perfection. The tense relationships don’t get any better once the killers arrive, which underlines the absurdity even further. When two brothers discuss running for a car, one of them slams the other for being too fat to run properly. I mean, God. But the film delivers the thrills that this kind of movie promises. Sharni Vinson is perfect as the Australian fiancée of one of the family sons. She’s the one that the killers didn’t know would be there and, it so happens, she’s got some secrets of her own. Secrets that make her extremely good at killing people; “Frankly, that’s a little weird,” one of the killers muses toward the climax, but it’s true. This charming, sweet little woman knows her way around a meat tenderizer. But is she better than the three trained killers descending on the house? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Definitely go see this movie in a theater; the energy level at my screening was through the roof. Uproarious laughter and the occasional shouted instruction to the characters bounced all around the room and added tremendously to the wonderful experience. “That’s the stupidest ****** idea I’ve ever heard,” someone shouted at just the right moment and it wasn’t a slam at the film, but a slam at the wonderfully crafted character and the bad decisions she just kept making. And, yeah, that meat tenderizer scene, that first moment when we get to see the young fiancée come out of her shell and just straight jack somebody up? One of my favorite movie moments of the year so far; you should have heard the audience come unglued. Even at home, I have a feeling this one will hold up as a surprising, grimly funny movie that transcends its genre, but go to the theater for the full experience.