TOP FIVE: The 2015 Academy Awards

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It only rains approximately 5.7 days a year in L.A. Naturally, one of those days would fall on Hollywood’s biggest night. I was set to attend a viewing party, but the universe had other plans. Suffice to say, it was a rather chaotic Oscar Sunday on my end, down to an actual technical malfunction that had me at Best Buy one hour before showtime to rectify the situation. $45 dollars later, I was back home with Chinese take-out, a box (okay, 2 boxes) of my favorite candy, my TV set-up and ready to go. As the rain started up again, I lit some candles, and settled in for a cozy night alone just a few miles away from the festivities…happily at home, just Oscar and me, for the first time in years.

Here are my top 5…


The 5 Best Moments of the Night


5. Pretty much every single winner who continued to talk well into and AFTER the “wrap it up music” – with no regard that wrap it up means WRAP IT UP!

4. Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech that quickly turned into a social commentary on wage and gender equality (and Meryl Streep’s total “YOU GO GIRl!” jumping out of her seat whoop-whoop in support).

3. I knew she could sing, and I’m a fan, but who knew THAT voice would, or could, ever come out of Lady Gaga? Go Gaga, you nailed that Julie Andrews/The Sound of Music tribute!

2. Graham Moore’s acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game, taking a moment to give a shout out to the “weird ones.” Best speech of the night, by far.

1. John Legend and Common’s moving performance of “Glory” from the film Selma. It gave me chills. When they cut to David Oyelowo and Chris Pine in the audience and both had tears streaming down their face, I nearly lost it. (p.s. what is it about seeing a man cry that’s so damn sexy?)


The 5 Best Dressed Starlets of the Night


5. | DAKOTA JOHNSON in Yves Saint Larent.

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4. | REESE WITHERSPOON in Tom Ford.

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3. | JENNIFER LOPEZ in Elie Saab.

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2. | LUPITA NYONG’O in Calvin Klein Collection.

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BEST DRESSED. | ROSAMUND PIKE in Givenchy.

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Header image credit: Oscar” by lincolnblues used under CC BY 2.0

Photo sources:
Dakota Johnson
Reese Witherspoon
Jennifer Lopez
Lupita Nyong’o
Rosamund Pike

Advanced Style

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On a dreary, rainy Saturday afternoon the weekend before last, I found myself in bed under the weather, making it the perfect recipe to kill some time exploring the never-ending streaming cosmos of my Netflix Queue. In a documentary sort of mood, the moment my eye caught the bright red feather boa laced around the neck of a lively looking older woman, I settled in for the afternoon’s entertainment.

Enter: Advanced Style.

What started out as a passion project for blogger Ari Seth Cohen, has sparked a book deal, a documentary…a movement. Ari’s blog, Advanced Style, is a celebration of aging, told through the expression of personal style. Unlike most fashion blogs of today, it chronicles women over 50, well into their 90s, who choose to defy the notion that aging means a woman cannot still savor a sense of style. It challenges the perception that the fashion industry, which unapologetically continues to cater to younger generations, shouldn’t discount women “of a certain age.”

In a collaboration with filmmaker Lina Plioplyte, Ari’s blog comes to life in documentary narrative form, following 7 of the New York women made famous through Advanced Style, ranging in ages 62-95. While their eclectic style, set against the vibrant background of New York City is the film’s premise, there’s something much deeper being explored here. Our youth-obsessed culture continues to create the belief that aging, something that’s as natural as breathing, is an experience to be feared. A culture that perpetuates the idea that over a certain age a woman should “tone it down,” effectively losing a part of herself in the process.

Sure, society’s preoccupation and constant nostalgia for youth, do drive certain facets of a woman’s relationship to fashion and beauty as she ages. Then again, maybe there are women that hit a particular age and simply decide that their priorities have changed, or perhaps fashion has never been a big part of their lives to begin with? What palpable comment is Advanced Style making when it comes to aging and appearance?

Advanced Style Dogwoof Documentary

What the film does brilliantly that puts everything into context as I questioned this, is to address the concept of style. The message is clear: Style is eternal – it cannot be bought. Of course, you’re buying things in a monetary sense to help subsidize an expression, but true style is born out of how you choose to present yourself to the world. It’s your voice before you even open your mouth. It’s what you’re wearing. It’s how your hair is styled. It’s the statement made through bold lips, lined eyes, and brush strokes. Most significantly, it’s your attitude, how you carry yourself. Your attitude is directly linked to your appearance.

Think not?

Throw on a pair of sweats to run errands (which I’ve been known to do and thoroughly enjoy!) and you’ll manage just fine; but take the time to style your hair, do your make-up, and put on something that makes you feel fabulous, and even I, can feel the difference in how I interact with the world. Your style…essentially, your brand, is what a woman should not lose as she ages.

Advanced Style is about those women who choose style, who choose to hold onto their brand. Their version just happens to be more colorful than what we’re likely used to seeing on most women in their twilight years. Alternatively, mature women who opt for a less colorful or eclectic approach to their style shouldn’t be discounted either. As long as they envelop their version of “style,” in whatever manner that means to them, that’s really what it’s about. Although, I can’t help but wonder given the number of women featured in Advanced Style throughout the years and its growing popularity, that perhaps…just perhaps, there are more of us colorful, eclectic types like the women featured in the documentary than there are not?

As I watched the film, it also got me to thinking about how I wanted to age. I have some time before I should even entertain the idea of freaking out about it really, but already, I can see it. I can’t say I look forward to birthdays with as much enthusiasm as much as I used to. I’ve already surpassed many of the big, celebratory milestones of youth-hood when I turned 30. The great news is that the 7 ladies profiled bring a fresh, affirming approach to aging.

It’s not about re-claiming your youth, it’s about being who you are, where you are, and not going quietly. It’s leaving this earth knowing you honored your truth. Even if it’s as simple, yet complicated, as how you present yourself to the world everyday. The takeaway is simple: Find your style and honor it. Rock it to the end. “Style is ageless.”

Advanced Style is available on Netflix streaming. It’s the perfect way to spend a dreary, rainy Saturday afternoon should you find yourself in a similar situation in the near future.

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Images via Advanced Style Film.

Hollywood Costume Exhibit

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What: Hollywood Costume Exhibit
Where: The Historic Wilshire May Company Building
Location: 6067 Wilshire Boulevard, Miracle Mile
Cost: $20.00


Unlike some years, I’ll remember fondly how I kicked-off 2015…and that’s in-style. Literally. While most likely spent January 1st curled up on the couch nursing their New Year’s Eve hang-over, we found our way through the easily maneuverable LA streets to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences new home on Wilshire Boulevard. Currently inside the historic Wilshire May Company Building, resides a tribute to Hollywood history. The caveat is that this history is told through fabric and shoes, handbags and hats.

Hollywood Costume creates the rare opportunity of introducing movie-lovers to the iconic wardrobe worn by some of the most legendary actors to ever grace the big screen. The exhibition highlights over 150 costumes spanning the Golden Age of Cinema (the late 1920s) to the present day. Its aim is not only to allow the costumes themselves to step out of the screen and into the general public, but to further acquaint fiction with reality by inviting an up-close and personal look at those behind these emblematic looks, the costume designer.

Hollywood Costume ATG FINAL CU{Front entrance.}

The exhibition’s message is clear: without costume designers and what they bring to the table, one of the most pivotal aspects to the cinematic process is valueless. Costumes encourage character development, create a sense of time and place, and most importantly, drive the narrative. Ultimately, without the right look an “actor” is just “an actor,” but with the right attire, an “actor” becomes someone we see as a character, separate from the movie star on-screen. This is why we see Indiana Jones, and not Harrison Ford; why we see Batman, and not Christian Bale; and why we see Dorothy Gale, not Judy Garland.

Hollywood Costume TIX_ATG FINAL{Tickets.}

Like the characteristics of Hollywood itself, the exhibition expressively features a dramatic, and moody approach. Dim, yet strategic lighting showcases the glitz of a dress or the cut of a suit. The room instantly encourages viewers to travel back in time, to when you first met these pieces on-camera. The treat here is not only seeing wardrobe that’s instantly recognizable, but absorbing the words and video interviews of those personally involved with building the looks, reminiscing over how and what it took to create these iconic movie characters.

See the white ivory William Travilla dress that exposed Marilyn Monroe’s legs as she famously stood over the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch (that same dress sold for $4.6 million at a 2011 auction). Stand in front of Julie Andrew’s Mary Poppins costume. See Beyoncé as a “Dreamgirl.” Take a moment to re-visit Julia Roberts’ memorable red evening gown in Pretty Woman. Look at Rocky’s actual boxing shorts. See one of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra ensembles. Batman, Superman, Captain America, Spiderman, Darth Vader; and Bond…James Bond, all make an appearance. And the highlight, staring at Dorothy’s famous (estimated $3-$4 million dollar-valued) ruby slippers from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.

It’s hard to capture the breadth of what’s contained in the exhibition in words. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the galleries. I shot the exteriors, but the following images are courtesy of The Academy to give you a taste of what’s inside:

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{Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson / Kate Winslet as Rose DeWitt Bukater, Titanic, 1997}

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{Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels, The Birds, 1963}

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{Front: Chris Evans as Captain America / Henry Cavill as Superman (2013)
Top: Christopher Reeves as Superman (1978)
Back: Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man / Christian Bale as Batman}

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{Julia Roberts as Vivian Ward, Pretty Woman, 1990}

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{Daniel Craig as James Bond / Harrison Ford as Han Solo / Uma Thurman as The Bride (Kill Bill)}

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{Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network, 2010 / Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, Argo, 2012}

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{Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.}

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{A special tribute to the range characters played by the incomparable Meryl Streep. Looks from The Iron Lady, It’s Complicated, Mamma Mia, and Out of Africa.}

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{Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser / Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, American Hustle, 2013}

Needless to say, it was an unforgettable way to spend my first afternoon of 2015. Nearly three hours later, we emerged, filled with a rich and renewed appreciation for costume design. It’s pretty astounding when you think about how much clothing impacts a film and your memory of it. I don’t necessarily recollect every aspect of a film, but can instantly be transported to that world (or a time in my life) when seeing even a short clip of a sweeping camera movement over an iconic costume.

Hollywood Costume does a phenomenal job of curating and combining my two favorite “F” words: film and fashion. It salutes and elevates key players and key moments in the art of cinema.

Just a note that if you plan to visit Hollywood Costume, that it is a timed exhibition. This means that guests are admitted into the presentation at designated time slots on specific days to prevent over-crowding. It’s encouraged that you buy your tickets in advance on-line. (Hint: use promo code “MayCo” for a special discount).

The exhibition closes Monday, March 2nd.

Get there quick…you won’t regret it!

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{Program.}

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{Full exterior, Wilshire May Co. Building. Saying goodbye after an incredible day.}

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*Interior photo sources via The Academy website press kit.

Best Dressed: The 2015 Golden Globe Awards

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Closing out a much-need, productive, yet relaxing 3-week vacation on the couch with my (they-just-don’t-know-it-yet) BFFs Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and the 72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards wasn’t too shabby. At the very least, having the festivities of the show to fall back on did wonders at distracting me from my end of vacay blues.

Overall, the show kept me engaged. Though there were a few “WTF?” moments (paging: the weird vibe between Jeremy Renner and J-Lo), Tina and Amy did a great job. However, I always feel that the Globes (like the Oscars) should really incorporate their hosts into the show more. The Globes have to be the easiest hosting gig in town. Aside from the opening monologue, you only see them on-stage a few more times and it’s usually just to introduce someone, rather than keep the energy of the show alive.

I was happy to see some much deserved wins of the night (J.K. Simmons, I’m looking at you!); but also slightly disappointed at the unexpected upset for best actor in a motion picture. Admittedly, The Theory of Everything was the one big award-contending film I didn’t get to in 2014, but plan to catch soon. That being said, I was pretty sure David Oyelowo was a shoe-in for that honor for his formidable work as MLK in Selma. I guess we’ll see where The Academy stands on this issue next month.

And can we take a moment to reflect on the greatest speech of the night? Mr. George Clooney is in love. So in love. What a beautiful acceptance speech and the kindest words a man can utter to his new bride. The man had me choking back tears. Side note: I read that the tux he was wearing to accept the Cecil B. DeMille Award was, in fact, his recent wedding tux. Too sweet.

Aside from who takes home the statue – this is the night to star-gaze at all things fashion. I caught a bit of the red carpet pre-show, but ultimately was annoyed that we didn’t get to see steady wide shots of the gowns for any length of time because they were usually being interviewed at a medium. So, I did what any gal had to do…the internet. I got my full fashion fix the next day over a morning cup of tea.

I’ll preface, as I usually do, that when thinking about my favorites of the night – I went for total package glamour. This meant not only a show-stopping ensemble, but impeccable hair, make-up, and accessories. These ladies nailed it.

Here are my top 5 picks of the night…

5. | KATE HUDSON in Versace.

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 4. | AMY ADAMS in Versace.

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3. | KATE BECKINSALE in Elie Saab.

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 2. | JENNA DEWAN-TATUM in Carolina Herrera.

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BEST DRESSED. | EMMA STONE in Lanvin.

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Header image credit: Absolute Power” by vaibhav ahuja used under CC BY 2.0 | Modifications: filtered, text added to original.

Photo sources:
Kate Hudson
Amy Adams
Kate Beckinsale
Jenna Dewan-Tatum
Emma Stone

2014 Best in Cinema: Features.

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I can’t say with conviction that 2014 will go down as one of my favorite years in cinema. Of the nearly 70 films I saw this year at theaters across Los Angeles, there were very few times I walked away with that “wow” feeling. It’s that awareness that spending two hours of your life with a film, eventually become countless hours, because you can’t stop thinking about the lives and stories of the characters long after you’ve left the cineplex. As I think about it, my last “wow” came as the screen faded to black during Steve McQueen’s masterpiece, 12 Years A Slave. More, I can’t say that I saw many films this year that made me want to delve further into how I felt about them, to try to rationalize what I saw on-screen by dedicating a one-off blog post as I did for 2013’s Fruitvale Station.

This doesn’t mean 2014 wasn’t a strong year in cinema. What 2014 certainly did was create a space as one of the more memorable times in the industry, as the art of filmmaking continues to push itself harder. Through films like Boyhood, Locke, and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – it’s clear that the intricacies of physical production when it comes to telling a narrative is changing. Filmmakers are becoming more and more aggressive and innovative in the craft of storytelling.

Sometimes this aggression and innovation helps a story (i.e., Boyhood), other times it might hurt it (i.e., The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), but as the saying goes: “you can’t blame a guy (or girl) for trying.” Naturally, there is some nobility in that.

Here are my top 10 picks for the best feature films of 2014…


Boyhood_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_10Film: Boyhood
Date: 07.11.2014
Location: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Director Richard Linklater holds a very special place in cinema. He’s responsible for what I personally consider to be one of the best trilogies of all time, the “Before” series. Unlike nearly every sequel ever created that often falls into the trap of becoming one big diluted and uninspiring cliché; the “Before” films, like fine wine, get better and better with age. Five minutes after I sat in the chair to watch Jesse and Celine’s 20 year love story continue in 2013’s Before Midnight, I knew I was in for something exceptional…and it was. Before Midnight was my favorite film of 2013. Taking a moment to preface this, I went into Boyhood with extremely high expectations, that weren’t wholly fulfilled. Ultimately, why Boyhood is deserving to make any top 10 list is because Linklater experimented with the genre of film itself in one of the most unique and innovative methods in film history. Filmed over the course of 12 years, this is a coming-of-age tale more rooted in reality, for a fictional narrative, than ever seen on-screen. Every year Linklater and the same core group of actors would gather to further Mason’s tale of Boyhood. My biggest complaint about this film was that outside of the gimmick, while extremely commendable, the film wasn’t conflict-driven enough. Sure there were scenes capturing difficulties at any given point of Mason’s 12-year story-line, but given that we’re following a young boy into the complexities of manhood – it was surprising how little actually happens to our protagonist. One might argue that compared to your average human being navigating the journey of growing up, that Mason had a rather easy, uncomplicated life. Due to this weakness in the script, the audience doesn’t emotionally connect to, or cheer on or our “boy” with solid investment because of the inherent lack of true conflict. That being said, the dedication and commitment to see this film to completion, coupled with outstanding chemistry among the actors skillfully maintained over a 12 year period, rectifies its weaknesses. Undoubtedly, it must have been a labor of love for everyone involved given the demands of making it, and should be applauded, rightfully. It’s a delightful film to watch.


Abuse of Weakness_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_9Film: Abuse of Weakness
Date: 04.26.2014
Location: Director’s Guild of America, Hollywood

Solely because this film is based on Director Catherine Breillat’s own true story, does Abuse of Weakness seem even the least bit fathomable. And yet, the more you examine it, the more all too human it legitimately becomes. Breillat recreates her story through Maud, portrayed by the incomparable Isabelle Huppert, as a filmmaker who suffers from a life-altering stroke. Maud desperately wants to continue her work despite her newly acquired physical limitations, resulting in her having to re-learn even the most basic of human functions. Though she eventually learns to adapt to her physical restrictions, albeit it with much struggle, what becomes all too clear as you follow her journey toward building a new life while focusing on her work – is how much Maud hasn’t accepted or adapted to the emotional ramifications of her situation. She knowingly pursues an admitted con man, Vilko, to play her main character in her new film. The result of this choice creates one of the most maddening narratives of the year. Vilko’s timely and charming presence, spent making her feel important, while being of help through the difficulties of adjusting to her handicap, sets the stage for the con to come. Vilko swindles Maud out of all of her money over the course of the film. The caveat here is that though she’s aware of his history, he still manages to build trust with her in such a way that she willingly writes checks to support his questionable endeavors. The complicated part about their relationship is that Maud is clearly an intelligent, successful woman. As such, it’s hard to believe that she cannot see the outright manipulation taking place before her eyes. One might question whether or not Maud let it happen for the sake of having his presence in her life, and therefore, purposely continues to turn a blind eye as she loans him money to the point of bankruptcy. Alternatively, it’s possible she considered it a genuine loan and simply wanted to help out a friend in need, who helped her. When it comes to what took place in reality, Catherine Breillat asserts that she was purely taken of advantage of due to a “diminished mental state” at the time, which is also entirely possible. However, I interpreted Maud’s actions to be more gray. By virtue of how intelligent and strong, yet vulnerable and lonely Maud is characterized throughout the film, it’s hard to truly ascertain her motives other than that she seems to appreciate the attention. Abuse of Weakness is a remarkable exploration of how much and how low one will go to feel valued, and to hold on to a human connection, even as the ugly truth is staring you in the face.

 


Two Days, One Night_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_8Film: Two Days, One Night
Date: 11.07.2014
Location: Egyptian Theater, Hollywood

Marion Cotillard gives a stellar performance as Sandra, a Belgian woman who spends her weekend after an extended medical leave of absence for depression, convincing her co-workers to forgo their bonus checks so that she can keep her job. Upon learning that a majority of them voted for her dismissal in favor of their bonuses, the film follows Sandra as she swallows her pride and personally visits each co-worker, petitioning them to re-consider their stance. It is a portrait of a woman desperately seeking not only monetary, but emotional security as they seemingly continue to slip away from her over the course of Two Days, One Night. What a complicated, yet delicious predicament, when you consider that most not only relish bonuses, but that her co-workers are in dire financial straits themselves and can certainly use it. It’s an examination of a modern-day version of Darwinian theory, rooted in the foundation of what provides both physical and emotional self-preservation, our jobs. It speaks to a variety of themes: the survival of the fittest and stepping on others to get ahead; humbling oneself to ask for help when needed; but more so, having the capacity to help our fellow-man by making the responsible choice, even as it comes as a personal sacrifice.


Enemy_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_7Film: Enemy
Date: 03.26.2014
Location: Laemmle Theaters, Santa Monica

Adapted from José Saramago’s 2004 novel “The Double,” Enemy takes on the arduous task of creating two characters and two worlds that brilliantly merge together toward what has to be one of the most mind-blowing endings in film history. Enemy introduces us to Adam, an off-beat history professor, who one day finds that there is another person in the world who looks exactly like him. Determined to meet his doppelganger, named Anthony, Adam eventually locates his double and is immediately transfixed by the life Anthony leads. What ensues is a rather complicated and hard to describe narrative that forays from a well-executed mystery, to an intense thriller, leading toward an almost science fiction-like finale. Incredibly, as much as this film takes the audience on a perplexing, hallucinatory journey with the incredible Jake Gyllenhaal at the wheel; it does an impressive job of balancing your interest enough to keep you invested. The duplicity, and eventual mergence, of Adam and Anthony’s world is unlike anything seen on-screen this year. Enemy’s unusual plot-line, unique premise, strong performances, and phenomenal cinematography all lend to its success, but what must be its core strength is how much it can brazenly confuse the hell out of its audience, yet still produce a top 10 film!


Obvious Child_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_6Film: Obvious Child
Date: 06.13.2014
Location: Landmark Theaters, West LA

On the surface, Director Gillian Robespierre’s first feature-length narrative may appear to be your typical, quirky, small-scale, independent film. Surprisingly, what she created was a prototype that illustrates how a typical, quirky, small-scale, independent film can still cultivate finesse and substance. Obvious Child follows Jenny Slate as Donna Stern, an up-and-coming comedienne who learns she’s pregnant after a one-night stand. Unlike most films that would then accompany Donna as she agonizes over what to do about her unplanned pregnancy, this film breaks stereotype by immediately making it known that Donna has already made a firm decision to have an abortion. The film subsequently escorts our protagonist over the next few weeks as she waits for her procedure, not once doubting her decision, but certainly doubting where her life is going. The unique thing about Obvious Child’s narrative structure is that after she’s made the decision to proceed with her abortion, her one-night stand reappears during those weeks, interested in pursuing a relationship. Again, Donna maintains her decision about the abortion, but takes the risk of letting her one-night stand and the father of the baby into her life. What both Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate create through Obvious Child is in effect, the backwards romantic comedy, more comparable to real life. Not all women necessarily agonize over unplanned pregnancies knowing their station in life isn’t right for a child. Not all women meet their Prince Charming, fall in love, get married, and then start a family. Sometimes it happens the other way around. Unlike the formulaic romantic comedy, Obvious Child, takes a regret-free and often crudely hilarious exploration at life, love, and sex with refreshing authenticity.


Skeleton Twins_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_5Film: The Skeleton Twins
Date: 9.13.2014
Location: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

If there was one film of 2014 that did a near-perfect endeavor of inviting the audience to a familiar portrayal of a place, time, and relationship, it’s as a result of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader’s seamless stint as bother and sister in The Skeleton Twins. Estranged twins Maggie and Milo reunite after each attempt suicide on the same day, using rock bottom as the foundation toward mending their broken relationship. Writer/Director Craig Johnson creates a realistic version of fiction through the struggles plaguing Maggie and Milo, both as individuals and as a unit. On some level, we can relate to their problems, and see hints of our own inadequacies and insecurities in them. Further to that, the film’s setting during the nostalgia of the fall season, not only forms ornate visuals to carry the story, but somehow feels symbiotic. We watch our protagonists literally “fall” from grace in many areas of their life throughout the course of the film, but also “fall into” each other, effectively returning to what they know, what’s always been there. Maggie and Milo find home in each other in such a way that becomes more than just the basis for a feel good film, which it undoubtedly is, but an illustration at how core relationships, particularly between siblings, ground us in a way that no other relation can.


Love is Strange_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_4Film: Love is Strange
Date: 09.02.2014
Location: Private Screening, Culver City

When it comes to romances, a 40-year love affair is ideally expected to have already been sealed through the bonds of marriage, living and growing together, happily ever after. When Ben and George, played by the delightful John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, consummate their fate and finally marry once the state of New York recognizes gay marriage; a joyous occasion ultimately becomes yet another obstacle. George loses his job soon after exercising his right to marry, causing the newlyweds to have to look for alternative housing options in New York’s highly competitive market. Sadly, after decades spent together under the same roof, our newlyweds are forced to separate and move in with others as they seek a permanent solution. Love is Strange couldn’t be a more quieter film in terms of execution. Outside of the daily relational conflict, as a result of their separate living situations, not much else happens in terms of plot point apart from the beginning and end of the film. And yet, it’s because of the natural chemistry between Lithgow and Molina that make it such a treat to watch their story unfold on-screen. Somehow between the daily nuances that erupt from living apart, their commitment and relationship remain the most normal part of the film, cultivating a loving silhouette of a same-sex couple. Love is Strange paints a believable portrait of the many facets of love and our relationship to people because of it, suitably referring to “love” as “strange.”


Locke_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_3Film: Locke
Date: 04.29.14
Location: Landmark Theaters, West LA

One might say that Tom Hardy’s assignment as Ivan Locke is this year’s All is Lost. Locke receives a phone call that a one-night stand is about to give birth to a child he never knew about. On the night before an important career highlight takes place, Locke gets into his car to make the long journey to the hospital to meet the woman he thought he’d left behind months before, but not before having to make the difficult phone call to his wife while on the road. Locke is one man, one location, and one phone call after another that skillfully details the destruction of a life carefully built. Hardy’s impeccable performance within the mere confines of a car for 85 straight minutes, unwaveringly captivates the audience. This stems from the sharp narrative structure, savvy direction, and stunning camera-work, that instantly pull you in for the ride…literally. Like Robert Redford, Hardy alone carries the weight of a story that on paper would come across as extremely difficult to pull off. The risk was worth it. With every conversation, we watch Locke’s personal and professional life fall apart in one of the most unique manners ever told on-screen. Simply put, Locke takes the practice of filmmaking to a whole other level, leaving behind a cinematic masterpiece as the perfect thumbprint.

 


Selma_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_2Film: Selma
Date: 12.22.2014
Location: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Selma couldn’t be a more timely film given the continued and growing animosity that took center stage between urban American communities and law enforcement in 2014. It speaks to how far we’ve come, yet how far we have to go. Selma’s uncommon approach to what might have otherwise been conceptualized as a traditional biopic, effectively bypasses the core traits of a historically based film. Essentially, it avoids the typical chronological engagement of its subject from childhood through death. Instead, it intelligently enlists its audience by thrusting them right in the middle of King’s fight against oppression; assuming, rightly, that King really needs no introduction. The accomplished work of David Oyelowo as King brought by far, the most formidable performance on-screen this year. Director Ava DuVernay, along with writer Paul Webb’s dialogue-heavy script creates a sophisticated snapshot in time, following three short months of his life in 1965. Therefore, what Selma does do with extreme grace is re-acquaint audiences to King’s legacy through the turmoil and specific actions of the preeminent march from Selma to Montgomery, without diminishing the established intellect of the audience. It trusts its audience to know everything they need to, to appreciate this work of art, the man, and the message. Unanimously, we do.


Whiplash_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_1Film: Whiplash
Date: 12.02.2014
Location: Laemmle Theaters, North Hollywood

Definition: to “jerk or jolt (someone or something) suddenly; to affect adversely, as by a sudden change.”

Miles Teller gives a redeeming and phenomenal performance as Andrew, a student at a music conservatory that will go to no end to become one of the greatest musicians of all time. To get there, he craves the approval and tutelage of Terence Fletcher, played with staggering and nail-biting intensity by J.K. Simmons; whose career goal is to find the next best Charlie Parker. The battle that ensues between teacher and student is arguably one the most ruthless, complex, and inspiring stories captured on film. It explores the lengths one will go to in pursuit of being “the best.” When thinking about the definition of “Whiplash” along with the errorless execution of this masterpiece, I cannot help but be more and more impressed by writer/director Damien Chazelle’s mere second feature film. Every single aspect of this film is as succinct and apt as its title. From the razor-quick editing, to the sharp dialogue, to the physical demands of Andrew as he strikes the drums with tireless energy to prove his worth, to Fletcher’s enduring need to not give it to him. The inexhaustible intensity that continues to build from the first frame to the last, comes at the price of authentic transformation to everyone involved with this film, even as a viewer. You certainly don’t leave this film the way you came into it. As a viewer you walk out of this experience with a physical and emotional case of Whiplash, unable to fully let go of Andrew’s harrowing journey. Four weeks before the end of the year,  did I finally find my “wow” film of 2014.

A look back at my thoughts on the best films of 2012 and 2013, too.

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*Header image credit: My DVD Library by snkhan used under CC BY 2.0 | Modifications: cropped, filtered, and text added to original.

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2014 Best in Cinema: The Documentary.

2014 Best in Cinema_The Documentary ATG FINAL

I’ve said it before, so I’ll simply quote myself again: I don’t think there’s a genre I’m more fond of than the simplicity of a well-made documentary film. I suppose it’s because it embodies what I think makes this particular aspect of cinema a force unlike any other – and that’s the synergy that comes from telling a story rooted in and based on reality, fused with the artistic ability to capture that moment in time through one of the most powerful mediums ever created.

2014 brought great new additions to the documentary genre, stories that satiate that part of myself that’s always curious and hungry to know more about the world and the people who inhabit it. Interestingly, all of the films on this list share a common harmony: they immediately captivated me by providing an intensely voyeuristic look at the life of complex and all too “human,” human beings. As I reflect back over why these films spoke to me so much, I realized that it’s not entirely about the subject being explored outside of the people themselves. Of course, the idea that the government is watching us (which is arguably problematic) or the body of work that a person leaves behind (albeit admirable) is of immense interest, for me it’s really about spending time in another person’s existence that often engrosses me as a viewer. Ultimately, what I find appealing is the how and the why of it all when it comes to the human condition set against a film’s circumstances.

With that, here are my top 5 picks for the best documentary films of 2014…


CitizenFour_ATG FINAL_5Film: Citizenfour
Date: 11.25.2014
Location: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood

While in the middle of making a film about post-9/11 surveillance, Director Laura Poitras starts receiving encrypted messages from “Citizenfour,” requesting her assistance in educating the public about the amount of covert monitoring taking place from top U.S. Government agencies. “Citizenfour” eventually identifies himself while holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room as Edward Snowden, a systems administrator. Poitras refocuses her energies on documenting Snowden and the journalists responsible for placing the spotlight on the government’s highly questionable surveillance of everyday Americans,  birthing the film, Citizenfour. The film spends much of the time in that Hong Kong hotel room, examining Snowden as he remains in hiding while the information he’s provided leaks…and the world reacts. You can literally feel the risk and the danger involved not only to him, but everyone involved in the making of this film. Essentially, it’s exposing exactly what we shouldn’t know. The unfathomable amount of surveillance taking place is the premise of the film, however, one cannot help but be drawn to the seemingly fearless, and somewhat arrogant, protagonist. As a viewer watching Snowden literally threaten his liberties as an American citizen by blowing the whistle on these operations, I questioned repeatedly what his true motives were in connecting with Poitras. Was it simply to expose these programs for the sake of the people as a genuine gesture? Was it for fame, or perhaps revenge? It’s difficult to say when walking away from this film. Snowden maintains a rather nonchalant attitude toward the entire situation. What this film does well is cleverly and unabashedly manipulate its audience through creating a real-life behind-the-scenes thriller, unfolding just as it happened in 2013, before our very eyes. Poitras takes the much-feared “Big Brother” concept and subsequently spits it back at the U.S. Government, who have coincidentally been tracking her movements for years as a documentary filmmaker as her work continues to gain traction. With access to Snowden’s information and the production of this film, she’s now in effect watching them. You have to admire the ballsy poetry in that.


Elaine Stritch_ATG FINAL_4Film: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Date: 03.12.2014
Location: Laemmle Royal, Santa Monica

Four months before her passing, opened the film that would be one of her very last times on-screen. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me comically and movingly follows the legendary actress in her late eighties as she moves through a seemingly endless work schedule and busy life, just before she’s set to retire near her family in Michigan. It eloquently re-acquaints those familiar with her seven decades of contribution to the art of performing, while introducing those to the highlights of her life who may not have known much about her body of work. What’s emblematic about this piece, is not only the intimate look at life as you age, but knowing that you are near the end of it and looking back with intensity and honesty. Stritch does a phenomenal job of letting us see her: the good, the bad, the funny, the sad…and the pant-less. She is simply being herself and taking the viewer along for the 81 minute ride. I saw this film in March of 2014, and stopped and gave a heavy sigh when I heard of her passing in July 2014. I have to admit, knowing she’d had nearly 90 years of life on earth to take with her, I instantly smiled, remembering this film. She got it right and lived an incredible and complicated life to prove it. This is the tale of an entertaining woman, born to entertain.


Finding Vivian Meyer_ATG FINAL_3Film: Finding Vivian Maier
Date: 04.02.2014
Location: Landmark Theater, West LA

Finding Vivian Maier is a mysteriously beautiful and complicated portrait of a woman who would have rather remained unseen, yet devoted most of her life seeing others through the lens of her camera. After a box of negatives is sold at an auction, a young filmmaker eventually uncovers over 100,000 photographs taken during her lifetime. Though many around her often saw a camera on Vivian Maier, they never knew what talent was behind an otherwise ordinary Chicago-based nanny. Since the discovery of her archives and exhibition of her work, she’s quickly become one of the most celebrated street photographers of the 20th century. While her photographs undoubtedly evoke emotion and artistry, and captured the human essence with unassuming grace, it was the woman behind the lens that’s the real story. I cannot think of a more complex character I’ve been introduced to on-screen in recent years than that of the portrayal of Vivian Maier. She is depicted by those who knew her as a series of contradictions. Some described her as “Mary Poppins-like,” while others alluded to her as being abusive. What there seems to be no question about from anyone who knew her, was that she was slightly strange and treasured her privacy immensely. Those closest to her had never even seen her photographs. It begs to question not only how Vivian, who died in 2009, would feel about her posthumous fame, and whether or not she might have lived her life differently knowing the world would eventually respect her talent; but also if we ever truly know a person, even if they’re standing right in front of us.


life itself_AtG FINAL_Film: Life Itself
Date: 07.06.2014
Location: Laemmle Theater, Encino

What Life Itself did best was honor the final days and life story of the legendary film critic, Roger Ebert. It shares the 40 year career of Ebert’s hand in bringing the art of film criticism into the mainstream, ultimately influencing how and what people might see at their local cineplex. In other words, he created a voice so strong, that film criticism became a form of entertainment in and of itself. Beyond that, it’s an homage to a 70-year life, lived thoroughly. The film energetically paints the intricacies of the man: his complicated relationship with Gene Siskel during their wildly successful television show; his steadfast and loving relationship with wife Chaz; his battle with alcoholism; and the battle he would never overcome, cancer. I can think of no better person to bring this tribute to fruition other than director, Steve James, whom Ebert championed for his 1994 film, Hoop Dreams. Ebert famously wrote, “It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.” To this day, Hoop Dreams is still widely considered the best documentary film of all time. It’s only appropriate then that James return the favor…and he did. Masterfully. He created a film that championed the life and career of Roger Ebert.


Rich Hill_ATG FINAL_1Film: Rich Hill
Date: 08.17.2014
Location: Laemmle Theater, North Hollywood

When thinking about what makes documentary filmmaking an unparalleled style of storytelling, it’s when the film does such an effective job of pulling the viewer into the world of its central narrative figures, that it’s hard to let go as the screen fades to black. The realization that unlike fictional features, documentaries are designed to encapsulate a real moment in time. The knowledge that these true-to-life stories continue even after the camera stops rolling, adds another level of depth to the medium. Such is the case with Rich Hill. It is an expressive profile of three young boys and their families as they live day-to-day in Rich Hill, MO – population: 1,393. The irony is that its inhabitants are far from “rich” in every sense of the word. The film subtly enters Andrew, Appachey, and Harley’s world sharing the harsh socioeconomic conditions plaguing small town America, and how our youth is navigating the journey. It sheds light on how our surroundings shape us, and therefore, our place in the world, our future. While there are certainly exceptions, it sparks debate on whether or not those born into poverty can ever truly gain footing in life and become more than their circumstances. Sadly, it suggests how this struggle simply passes onto the next generation, forcibly creating an unbreakable cycle. And yet, the resiliency of the human spirit, despite circumstances, takes center stage. It’s a narrative told so beautifully, so elegantly, it leaves you wanting more. You get to know the boys in such a way that you care about what happens next, having become invested in their lives and their stories. You cheer them on, hoping they break the cycle – knowing that it is more the exception than the rule. I personally encourage you to see this film. It’s 2014’s best.


A look back at my thoughts on the best documentary films in 2012 and 2013, too.

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*Header image credit: My DVD Library by snkhan used under CC BY 2.0 | Modifications: cropped, filtered, and text added to original.

*Movie poster images sourced via IMDB.

AFI Fest 2014

AFI FEST 2014ATG FINAL

{Night #1 at AFI Fest.}

I think I touch upon this aspect every year, but I have a love/hate relationship with film festivals. Undoubtedly, I love seeing the films – ranging from world premieres to the smallest of independent cinema selections from around the globe. It’s a cinephile’s dream to have access to films that satiate every visual and narrative craving imaginable. And I must admit, the buzz around Hollywood during the 8 day AFI Film Festival couldn’t be more vibrant.

Unfortunately, where film festivals tend to lose me is that I’m not a fan of waiting over an hour, sometimes an hour and a half, in line to see each film. Therefore, by my calculations, I spent what would be the near equivalent of an 8-hour work day just in line alone to see the films! Yuck! It also sucks that people, even at big industry festivals, still lack basic movie theater etiquette at times. (Though I wasn’t at this screening, I know someone who was, and this is a prime example, albeit an extreme one.)

AFI Line ATG FINAL{Waiting in line…just me and my Cinepass.}

Since many of the big gala films that AFI screens already have a distributor and a theatrical release date on the books, I tend to lean toward seeing lots of the smaller independent and foreign films that won’t likely see US theatrical distribution right away, if ever (though I’m pretty sure all of the films I saw will release at some point soon.)

I saw 6 films this year, spanning from foreign drama, to indie horror, to bringing the headlines front and center in documentary form. Here’s a quick re-cap of AFI Fest 2014 (with trailers if available) in the order seen…


Film: Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit)
Genre: Foreign Language Drama
Rating: A-
Overall: Marion Cotillard can usually do no wrong in my book and this is another classic example. She gives a stellar performance as a Belgian woman who spends her weekend after an extended medical leave of absence for depression, convincing her co-workers to forgo their bonus checks so that she can keep her job. Upon learning that a majority of them voted for her dismissal in favor of their bonuses during her leave, the film follows her as she swallows her pride and makes each visit after she gets approval from her supervisor to hold a re-vote first thing Monday morning. It is a portrait of a woman desperately seeking both monetary and emotional security as they seemingly continue to slip away from her over the course of Two Days, One Night. What a complicated, yet delicious predicament, when you consider most people not only relish bonuses, but that as she makes each visit you realize her co-workers are in dire financial straits themselves and can certainly use it. The film takes a nice twist near the end, that ultimately speaks to stepping on others to get ahead and begs to question: what would you do?

Film: Clouds of Sils Maria
Genre:  Drama
Rating: B-
Overall: Juliet Binoche is always a force on-screen; and while not leaving behind those acting ticks that often make Kristen Stewart rather one-dimensional as an actress, she held her own against Binoche. I appreciated the rich and complicated relationship between them. This in and of itself makes the film interesting. It’s clear that the play Binoche’s character, Maria, is acting in again 20 years after it first made her famous (with the caveat that she is now playing the older woman as opposed to the youthful lead), is supposed to mirror her relationship in the film with Stewart, who plays her young personal assistant helping her prep for the role. On paper, I can get behind this story within a story concept that’s linked thematically in such a way that fiction becomes (movie) reality. However, I found the plot pretty convoluted in a way that doesn’t make me want to revisit it again with fresh eyes to come to a more firm conclusion about out what’s going on. That being said, kudos to Binoche for her work in this rather complex film, and to director, Olivier Assayas, and DP, Yorick Le Saux, for giving the audience a strong sense of place in the gorgeous setting among the Swiss Alps. Binoche and Stewart have great chemistry, but the lack of a clear narrative paired with lots (and I means lots) of dialogue makes the film hard to follow. I’m not opposed to listening closely to scenes filled with nothing but dialog, but I feel as though if I were to watch this again, I’d still be as unmoved as I was the first time – but somehow still enthralled by the ever-lovely Juliet Binoche.

Film: It Follows
Genre:  Thriller/Horror
Rating: B
Overall: As far as thrillers go, this one does a great job at keeping things entertaining. I had a hard time adjusting to the premise at first, but what’s realistic about a deadly figure that follows you relentlessly in any form it chooses (even as people you know) trying to kill you, until you pass it on to the next person you have sex with and it starts following them relentlessly? The twist is that that person has to stay alive, otherwise once it claims that victim, it simply backtracks down the chain and comes after you again. It’s a cinematic catch-22 if I’ve ever heard of one. With a clear salute to genre films of the 80s, It Follows was a welcome change of pace among the more hyper-dramatic films on the schedule.

IT_FOLLOWS_523x2751(Trailer unavailable. Image via.)

Film: Heaven Knows What
Genre:  Drama
Rating: B+
Overall: Heaven Know What deals with addiction in the most raw and realistic way I think I’ve ever seen on-screen. This is unquestionably because the lead actress, Arielle Holmes, re-enacts her own personal account of being a young drug addict on the streets of New York based on her unpublished memoir, by playing a fictionalized version of herself as Harley. How the film came to be as I researched more about its origins, is almost as interesting as the plot itself. Holmes admits she was still indulging in the lifestyle during production and this is likely why the film is so intense and unique. I walked out the theater exhausted after delving into her world. Admittedly, I was quite annoyed by how much shouting takes place in this movie and the over the top use of music, to the point that it gives you a headache; but once I distanced myself from that and reflected back, it occurred to me that this had to be intentional outside of building conflict. Harley’s world (as well as Arielle’s reality) was hardly ever quiet I’m sure, and the need to use perhaps dimmed the noise some. The even sadder part of this story is that it is a love story. It quickly introduces Ilya, a user himself, and the boy she would do anything for while being unable to do much of anything for herself, except get high. The good news is that Arielle seems to be alive and well and is causing quite a buzz because of this performance, so you have to believe that Harley does learn to do for herself…eventually.  This was, by far, the most emotional and demanding film I saw at the festival.

HEAVEN_KNOWS_WHAT_523x2751(Trailer unavailable. Image via.)

Film: Happy Valley
Genre:  Documentary
Rating: B+
Overall: I was expecting something much different from this film than what I got, but it’s not a bad thing at all in this case. When I heard that a film about Penn State and Jerry Sandusky was on the docket at the festival, I agreed to see it thinking this film was going to go more in-depth about the actual case behind Sandusky and his now tarnished legacy. What I got was something infinitely more interesting: how a town reveres a college sport and those who make it a success as near God-like and how ultimately, it birthed an environment for decades of abuse to continue. The film shockingly touches upon the Sandusky scandal and the cover-up of his actions years before he was actually punished. Yet, a large portion of the film focuses on how this God-like perception of Joe Paterno blinded an entire community from holding him more accountable when it came to right and wrong. While fans were quick to discard Sandusky when the allegations proved to be true (though he was God-like in his own right up until then), Joe Paterno still somehow remained a hero in spite of his knowledge and lack of aggression to do something about it. Happy Valley does an admirable job of highlighting why and how this scandal went on for so long (in large part due to skewed priorities), begs to question who is to blame; but most importantly, proves why man, who can be beloved, should never be revered.

Film: Girlhood (Bande De Filles)
Genre:  Foreign Language Drama
Rating: B
Overall: What I think this film did best, as any sign of a well-crafted film does, is take you to a sense of place and time, back to those awkward years between adolescence and adulthood. What’s interesting about watching this film as an American female, is that you realize pretty quickly that those awkward years don’t look drastically different for Parisian females either. While the circumstances and cultural nuances differ, girlhood is that time when you’re simply trying to find your way. Following Marieme’s tale from innocence to not so innocent, provides for a strong narrative and the female lead, Karidja Touré, captures that journey with eloquence. That being said, the slight weakness to the film in my opinion had more so to do with pacing. When telling a coming-of-age tale, it’s always difficult keep a satisfactory pace. You want to give time to every narrative point, while showing growth/change over time. I recall instances where I felt scenes were a tad too long and could be cut to further move the story along. Aside from this, Girlhood is an endearing cinematic experience and was a wonderful way to end AFI Fest 2014.


 (You can read also read about AFI Fest 2012 and 2013, respectively.)

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