Fruitvale Station

MV5BMTQ0OTU1MDkxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjI5OTA3OQ@@._V1_SX214_I’ve seen nearly 40 new films this year and I can’t think of one that left me so equally upset and melancholy all at once. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film, in part because I have mixed emotions about the series of events. No matter what way I look at it, there’s absolutely no rationale that equates to the senseless death of a 22-year-old young man, young father…young human being.

Fruitvale Station follows the true story of the unfathomable shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle in front of hundreds of people on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station as it returned from San Francisco on New Year’s 2009. After a night of partying to ring in the New Year in the city, what started as a night of celebration quickly took a wrong turn. Grant got into an altercation with another passenger on the train that ultimately lead to the detainment of Grant and several of his friends. Given the tensions on the platform that night likely only fueled by alcohol, the atmosphere, remnants of anger from the fight that started on the train, and the reported aggression of the officers from the moment they arrived on the scene – the situation was bound to get out of control; because, unfortunately, it had all the ingredients to do so. All over what was later described, in essence, as a mistake.

Writer/Director, Ryan Coogler, in his first feature-length film boldly undertakes what is arguably one of the most controversial real-life cases in recent times; treating such sensitive material, still fresh in the minds of many, with grace and an emotional intensity that grabs the viewer from the first frame and doesn’t let go until the last. In a powerful move narratively, Coogler opens the film with actual raw video footage captured on a passenger’s cell phone of Officer Mehserle (though the name was changed for the film) pulling the trigger on Oscar Grant as he’s already being forcefully held down by a second officer. Though the footage is highly pixelated, the tension of the scene is palpable. Instantly, you’re invested wanting to know how we possibly got here.

Consciously saturated by the tension and uneasiness from the opening sequence, Coogler shifts the audience to a recreation of events and our journey toward impending collapse begins. Structurally, the film rewinds focusing entirely on Oscar Grant’s last 24 hours alive, carefully inserting the viewer into what Grant likely also thought was just another day – not his last. This significant approach immediately humanizes the film, shaping a more tangible and compelling narrative. Like Oscar Grant, the viewer in their seat is simply living through another day, never really knowing where life might take them at a moment’s notice.

The film, eloquently shot in many of the same Northern California locations where Oscar Grant himself spent his final hours, does a phenomenal job chartering solid character development given the short amount of time that we spend with the protagonist and his family. Actor Michael B. Jordan, who seamlessly melts into the portrayal of Grant, persuasively captures varied facets of a diverse human being dealing with the nuances of the day, both good and bad. Through Jordan’s performance, we see ourselves in Oscar Grant to the extent that, we too, experience a myriad of emotions in 24 short hours given the circumstances faced in a single day.

Pointedly, the film examines Oscar’s attempts to address some of his demons, namely his moral struggles with selling drugs as a means to support Sophina and 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana. Thematically, Coogler returns frequently throughout the story to Oscar’s redemption; seemingly highlighting his personal attempts to get his life back on track. This lays the framework for the audience to invest even more deeply into our lead because we see his sensitivity and his endeavors to right wrongs.

As a viewer, this is where I found weakness in the script and where I think “Hollywood” might have stepped in and perhaps lent their formulaic interpretation to the story. While the character is solidly defined within the ramifications of the narrative, something seemed amiss. More specifically, where I question the balance of the film is in the representation of Grant himself. Hollywood is notorious for reshaping events and modifying character traits in many “based on a true story” tales with the aim to tug at the emotions of the audience, and it almost always works. As such, it did cross my mind while entranced at the movie screen if Grant did spend the last 24 hours of his life reassessing his place in world as much as the film depicts? Did he really have a heart-wrenching experience of rescuing a dog who had just been hit by a car? Help a pregnant lady get access to a restroom? Engage in such a vulnerable conversation about promising to come home safely to little Tatiana? Did Grant head to the beach and contemplate his faulty choices in life just before dumping out drugs into the ocean in an attempt to start anew on the eve of his death?

While the film is far from portraying Grant as some sort of angel, devoid of any human flaws; there was a problematic element of coincidence in him finally realizing that he needed to make some serious life changes (and did) hours before he was shot. If this were true, it would make his death all the more tragic. Perhaps this ultimately was the case. It was New Year’s Eve, so it would be an appropriate time to reflect on where you see yourself going. Clearly not being there personally, one would hope that Coogler kept to the spirit of what actually happened as best as he could to honor the truth. The caveat being, that in the art of cinema, the goal is to connect with the audience; usually by painting the protagonist as a tortured hero.

Where I think the feature adaptation got it best, was during the narrative’s climax as the audience returns to the Fruitvale BART station, now more informed about Oscar Grant as a person and where he stood in the world. With an equal level of intensity introduced at the beginning of the film from the actual cell-phone captured footage; Coogler masterfully re-enacts the series of events, capturing the chaos, the tension, and the emotions flaring on the train platform that night to perfection. Surely, having hundreds of eye witnesses and raw footage to reference almost corners Coogler into retaining a high level of authenticity, but pressures everyone involved with the film to get it right.

Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with the parameters of the tragedy. Fresh off the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case just few days earlier, I went into the theater with a heightened sense of possible racial motivations leading to another case of injustice. As I watched the film, something became clear and this is where the mixed emotions I mentioned earlier come in. Ultimately, I was disappointed in the entire situation and everyone involved. It was clear that the atmosphere on the BART station that night was getting out of control. It was New Year’s, people were drinking, there was an altercation, and because of this the environment was naturally elevated toward hostility. While there was absolutely no basis for the officer to shoot Grant in the back (though his excuse was that he thought he was reaching for his taser), I couldn’t help but wonder why Grant and his friends didn’t just cooperate instead of resisting arrest and shouting epithets at the officers? Likewise, why were officers being so unnecessarily aggressive and shouting epithets at these young men? I cannot say with absolute certainty that Oscar Grant is no longer with us because of a bigoted cop who exclusively pulled the trigger on another urban youth out of pure hatred based on what I have seen of the footage and the interpretation depicted in the film. Part of me truly believes all of this could have been avoided if everyone involved had checked their emotions and calmed down. There’s fault all around in this, but at the cost of young life. This is equally upsetting and saddening.

The officer involved was sentenced to 2 years and served 7 months time in the shooting death of Oscar Grant. This is where I do question racial and social injustices. Would this officer only have served 7 months if Oscar Grant were not a young black male? If Oscar Grant where a wealthy, Caucasian-American youth, would a “mistake” like this garner more time in prison? Furthermore, I fail to understand why an officer of the law couldn’t tell a taser from a handgun? Given that Mehserle wasn’t in a life threatening situation, why wouldn’t he check which weapon he had in-hand or be level-headed enough to just be more conscious? Yes, it was a stressful scene, but as an officer of the law I would challenge his judgement. I’d argue that use of either mechanism; gun or taser, when your “suspect” is already pinned by a fellow officer seems like unnecessary force – accident or not.

Symmetrically, just as the film opens, the film also closes with real footage. This time, of a memorial tribute to Grant’s memory on New Year’s 2013, depicting a now older but solemn Tatiana, Grant’s only daughter. Book-ending the film with raw video of where Grant’s life took a turn for the worse and how it is remembered is a notable move by Coogler. This method of inviting and exiting the viewer to events of Fruitvale Station reminds the audience, that while you are watching a 90 minute Hollywood interpretation, a young man is still dead. This exit propels the viewer out from the screen and into that reality; where that reality is that many of life’s complications and subsequent turmoil are caused by emotional decisions made in the heat of the moment, that have consequences that last for a lifetime.

Stepping off the page and out of the movie screen, where things are left frustratingly unclear is in my research after seeing the film thirsting for details, wanting to know more about that night. I read that eye witnesses testified that Grant and his friends didn’t resist arrest, yet the officers were extremely forceful. Adversely, I read quotes from officers on-site that night that say otherwise – that the scene was one of the most intense nights in all their years in the field and the young men were resisting arrest. As a viewer trying to wrap my head around what truly happened, but finding contradiction in my investigation, only contributes to deeper mixed emotions and leaves more unanswerable questions that does justice to no one. While there are two sides to a story, there’s also the truth – and an even bigger contention that speaks more highly of humanity is that we have people who cannot come to a consensus of what that truth is despite a life lost. This is quite disturbing no matter what way you look at it.

Well-crafted, well-acted, with questionable motives in character development, yet ultimately fair, but still very tragic; Fruitvale Station is a reminder that one of these days could be our last and for no substantial reason other than an arguable “mistake.”

Let’s learn from this one.

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*image courtesy IMDB

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Me and Celeste and Jesse Forever

celeste-couple

Though the title of this post is rather dramatic (catchy though, huh?), one of my unexpected favorite films of 2012, Celeste and Jesse Forever is the epitome of one of those cinematic experiences that I’ll never forget; so much so that I’m still reveling in the residuals of its effects on me as a fellow Angeleno seven months after seeing it. The film not only introduced me to arguably the best soundtrack of the year, it also captured the complexities of relationships humorously and touchingly; and better yet, captured the essence of Los Angeles in some of the best cinematography I’ve seen of the city in some time. It even inspired me to finally take a tour of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

I followed the seemingly complicated efforts to get a digital release of the album made available and after hearing the news a few months back from the Music Supervisor himself, Jonathan Hafter, (gotta love the power of the blogosphere, you can read more here) – I finally purchased the soundtrack from iTunes. Unfortunately, some of my favorite songs weren’t included on the official soundtrack release, so I bought all of the singles (noted on a Spotify playlist) separately. Let’s just say I spent a great deal of this insanely gorgeous L.A. weekend vibin’ out the likes of Sunny Levine (my new fav), BLO, and Vetiver among others.

Soundtrack Links:
iTunes
Spotify

I see hundreds of films every year. There are tons of characters and stories that stick with me as a result, and my devotion to all things cinema oftentimes leave me in a state of never committing to having a single favorite. (Til this day, I cannot answer that question, it gives me a headache even attempting to do so.) Sometimes there are those stories that unexpectedly open your eyes to new things and this is one of those films. I can’t explain why – some hit you harder than others. Perhaps it’s because you were in the right mood, at the right place, at the right time. I walked into this story thinking at best, it would be a fun popcorn flick. I certainly didn’t expect it to resonate so much.

If you’re looking for new tunes (which I happen to listening to as I write this post!) and a great independent film, join me and Celeste and Jesse Forever. 🙂


{Film review excerpted from a previous post.}

Celeste & Jesse Forever – This was one of those films that I left the theater with such a high thinking THIS is why I LOVE movies. Celeste and Jesse are the best of friends, but terrible as husband and wife. The story picks up with their struggle at sustaining a friendship while in the midst of a divorce and pursuing other romantic interests. Rashida Jones (Celeste) and Andy Samberg (Jesse) have such a fluid and natural on-screen chemistry between them that drew me in immediately. What I was most enchanted by was not only the precise well-written dialogue; but the indie feel to how this narrative was told through its stunning salute to another main character, the sweeping city of Los Angeles, via its cinematography choices. I experienced almost every major emotion in 90 minutes of being in Celeste and Jesse’s world and I didn’t want to go. I laughed, felt my eyes water, and smiled at the very complicated, yet entertaining and relatable situation. This is also the first film I’d seen in quite some time where the music was used so impeccably it enhanced the overall experience of the film and introduced me to some of my favorite music of the year. If I had to pick my top film of 2012, this would be it (or closely tied with Zero Dark Thirty).


{Trailer.}



Vegucated

An interesting subject matter, a clever title, and a lazy Sunday morning perusing Netflix lead me to Marisa Miller Wolfson’s documentary, Vegucated. The film explores the ins and outs of transitioning from a meat-eating diet to a vegan lifestyle. Three New Yorkers take on a 6 week challenge to get “vegucated” – learning what it means to be vegan from physiological, ecological, and ethical standpoints.

It’s obvious moments into the film that high-end production equipment nor a large budget were factors in telling the journey’s of Tesla, Brian, and Ellen; the subjects selected to engage in a new vegan way of life. The ease and access of digital film making are appropriately used given the parameters of the challenge, though were distracting at times. In essence, while not absolutely necessary when the goal is to educate, the look to the film was somewhat uninspiring. I’m sure this was intentional and in line with Wolfson’s vision to state the facts and tell the story through a guerrilla-style technique. I suppose this is merely my creative perspective – but when following subjects around the fast-paced New York City streets, more of a polished and stylized film might have worked better for my taste.

When approaching the content, the film does what any “food themed” documentary film would do when trying to persuade its viewers toward a new perception: shed light on why this perception is better; share how relatively easy it is to incorporate change; and then beat us over the head with visuals, a few statistics, and graphics to support this new way of thinking and why common practice is wrong. In this case, Vegucated did a nice job of keeping my interest. It did lack some concrete nutritional information, such as how the body responds when that type of protein is suddenly removed from your diet; and it seemingly glazed over how difficult transitioning would be for the typical American other than Tesla’s struggle, where they simply instruct her to try going “vegetarian” as an option. Not bad advice, but I’m surprised there wasn’t a real breakdown of any of our subjects shown on-camera. You’re essentially asking someone to give up a lifestyle that took 20, 30 or even 40 years to develop.

Where the film does excel, and is a common gimmick used when trying to be persuasive about meat-eating diet changes, is spending quite a bit of time highlighting the horrific practices of slaughter houses and exposing the harsh daily treatment of animals in general. (As such, I strongly suggest not eating during the film.) Of course, visuals of baby chicks being thrown alive into grinders, cows being shot through the head with a bolt gun, and watching a pig being killed and then skinned would be the strongest means to get your message across.

What I found confusing and therefore weakened the premise of the film – which I understood was to get people to see how you’re supporting the betterment of the planet, animal-kind, and yourself by adopting a vegan lifestyle – Wolfson oftentimes brings up vegetarianism. By all means, this is still an excellent option that one can explore if veganism is too extreme, but I fail to understand how you can shed light on both diet forms if your core belief is to save animals from harsh treatment? One should not eat meat because of the slaughter practices, but it’s acceptable to drink milk even after it was just shown how exploited female cows are to produce it? While certainly linked in many aspects, being a vegetarian and a vegan are two completely different practices.

At the end of the film, she highlights many famous vegans, “mostly” vegans, and vegetarians from Susan B. Anthony, to Gandhi, to Rosa Parks, to everyday people. What eventually strengthened her approach by intertwining vegetarianism and veganism, was a short line that stated “you don’t have to be an activist or famous to make a difference.” From this I gathered that the point is to make some sort of contribution, at whatever level you’re comfortable with.

In the end, what Wolfson did for me as a viewer is what I believe her intention was in creating Vegucated: to get you to think about your place in the world relative to your dietary choices. In this, she succeeded. I have a largely chicken-based diet. I like a good burger or slice of bacon here and there, but do consciously work to maintain a healthy plant based diet. This isn’t a huge struggle because I actually LOVE vegetables. I don’t see myself becoming a hardcore vegan anytime soon, but the film has inspired me to incorporate more of its practices into my daily life. As of writing this post, I’m still thinking about what that means for me.

If you find yourself home on a lazy Sunday morning, check out Vegucated (available on Netflix) and let me know what you think…

{Trailer}.

2013 Academy Awards: Fashion Hits and Misses

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What a picture perfect day in L.A. this past Oscar Sunday! Clear skies and not too chilly temperatures set the tone for Hollywood’s biggest night. I spent the evening with a few gal pals over appetizers, Italian sodas, and lots of laughs; ready to see if my award predictions rang true and to stare enviously at all things fashion. I have to say that overall, I was pretty underwhelmed by the red carpet this past Oscar night. Sure, there were some stunning dresses, but the hair and makeup would ruin the look; or the accessories were great, but the dress just didn’t grab me.

My biggest complaint was a lot of blush colored gowns set against pale skin tones that oftentimes washed a starlet out on-camera. I’m sure many of these dresses looked gorgeous in person, but our ladies (and their expensive Stylists) need to consider how a look will come off on-camera. A billion people are watching from their living rooms, only a few lucky people see it in person.

As glamorous as it seems (and likely is), it can’t be easy getting ready to face the world on Oscar Sunday. The fashion has become as pivotal to the night as the actual awards presentation and ALL eyes are on YOU. I can’t imagine the amount of pressure it takes to get it right and even if you didn’t in my opinion, I respect the courage it must take to face the world knowing that everyone is watching your every move and you showed up in something that you are proud of, regardless of what others think.

Alas, here are my top 5 Oscar Night fashion hits and misses. See you on the red carpet next year!


The Hits


AMY ADAMS| Oscar de la Renta

The color is a daring choice, it’s almost (just almost) a touch too light for her skin tone, but she pulls it off. The hair, the jewels, the makeup are all flawless.

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JENNIFER ANISTON| Valentino

Love the color, love the cut, love that she didn’t rock a necklace with this show-stopping ensemble. I do wish Jen would get a bit more creative with her hair. It’s typically the same thing over and over, but it works. She nailed it.

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JESSICA CHASTAIN| Armani Prive

A gorgeous gown that fits her so perfectly. The classic Veronica Lake hairstyle. A bold lip and a great smile. She looks like a walking Oscar statue. This look is timeless. She’s stunning!

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CHARLIZE THERON| Dior Couture

Long hair, short hair – this beauty can do no wrong and was a breath of fresh air in this white dress by Dior. I loved that she kept her accessories minimal and let that gorgeous face, body, and gown speak for themselves. Sexy sophistication at its best.

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NAOMI WATTS| Armani Prive

Naomi Watts was an instant standout on the red carpet in this silver shimmery number by Armani Prive. I love the cut-out on the upper portion of the gown, her hair and not too fussy, but just right makeup, made her look beyond elegant and a bit more fashion forward than anyone else. Best dressed of the night!

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This Misses


ANNE HATHAWAY| Prada

Rumor had it that Anne was expected to accept her first Oscar in Valentino…until she showed up on the red carpet in this blush Prada number at the last-minute. Unfortunately, the cut of the halter shaped bust and Anne’s “excitement” of the night got one distracting “wardrobe malfunction” that ruined an otherwise elegant, but safe, look. By far, she had on my favorite set of jewels in that striking necklace.

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NICOLE KIDMAN| L’Wren Scott

Perhaps this was one of those gowns that looked better in person, but Nicole Kidman missed the mark with this ensemble. The sequined gown sported an ombre feel on the top, into that random Batman-looking patch at the waist, to an even more random set of gold curls on the bottom. The dress is too busy. I adore Nicole Kidman, she’s hands down one of the finest actresses out there, but this didn’t do it for me at all and I heard through the grapevine her husband picked this dress!?! Hmm…

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KRISTEN STEWART| Reem Acra

The dress isn’t exactly horrible and I know that K-Stew was on crutches most of the night (poor thing!), but I couldn’t help but wonder if she knew she was coming to the Academy Awards, right? Her hair and makeup are way too casual; so casual, in fact, it looked like she didn’t even take the time to wash her hair…or run a comb through it for that matter. I realize red carpets and her don’t mix, and she’s completely uncomfortable in front of photographers, but this screams no effort outside of an expensive dress that deserved to be taken more seriously and styled to the nines.

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ZOE SALDANA| Alex Mabille Couture

Zoe Saldana is such a beautiful woman, but this dress doesn’t do her any justice. Between the detailed bodice, the crooked bow on the hip, the belt, and the multi-colored flowing hem, it’s just too much. I suspect I would have loved this dress without any of the adornments on the upper half, simply leading down to the gown’s big color reveal at the bottom. I also wished her make-up was a bit brighter overall. It’s too dark and doesn’t accentuate her features. A bold lip would’ve done wonders.

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RENEE ZELLWEGER| Carolina Herrera

I don’t quite understand what happened here. Carolina Herrera is a high-end designer, but this dress looks so uninspired to me. Renee’s lack of attention to impeccable hair and makeup,  gave off such an un-glamorous, blah feeling when she turned up in front of the cameras. The Oscars are THE night to show off and Renee didn’t. Not in the least.

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**Disclaimer: Since it’s obvious I wasn’t at this year’s ceremonies snapping high res photos, all pictures are courtesy of Yahoo.com! Photo sources are noted below:
Amy Adams
Jennifer Aniston
Jessica Chastain
Charlize Theron
Naomi Watts
Anne Hathaway
Nicole Kidman
Zoe Saldana
Kristen Stewart
Renee Zellweger


Highlights

It’s been a rough week where I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting – something I think we all need to do every once and awhile. Aside from the realization that it’s time to make some major changes, I had moments to smile about as well. After all, there’s always something to be grateful for. Here are a few of them.

Have a nice weekend. 🙂


TEA| jin patisserie1-2013-02-11_08-42-48_927

Purchasing my favorite loose leaf green tea from Jin Patisserie to take home to make a soothing cup anytime I want.


WATCH| downton abbey season one

1-2013-02-11_08-40-24_516Finally joined the Downton Abbey fan club. I sat on my couch for 2 days straight absorbing the complicated lives of a 20th Century British aristocratic family and their mischievous house staff.


VIEW| clear skies

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A few rainy days yielded fresh air and a clear, blue, beautiful L.A. sky which I happily appreciated on the way to yoga class.


DVD| celeste & jesse forever

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A very thoughtful gift that made me super happy – my favorite film of 2012, Celeste & Jesse Forever is now apart of my DVD collection!


EAT| breakfast for dinner

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Sometimes you just need a movie, a magazine, and breakfast for dinner to make an ordinary Monday night, something special.


VALENTINE’S DAY| gift

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A little something I gave to my valentine.


2012 Best in Cinema: Features

I know you’ve been on the edge of your seat all week in anticipation of today’s big reveal! (Okay, a bit dramatic, I know). Reflections of my movie-filled year concluded today with a well deserved shout-out to my picks for the top 10 feature films of 2012.

Here we go! In alphabetical order:

Amour – A heartbreaking look at how a partnership is tested while struggling with the inevitability that will touch us all, the end of life: how it will happen and when. What struck me most about this portrait of an aging couple is how quiet it is in its approach. We spend most of the film in the same place, over a span of time, simply watching Anne and Georges go about their daily routine, making adjustments as needed and experiencing their frustration and difficulties with them. Instead of doing what most Hollywood driven films would do (i.e. overly dramatic music piercing through every single scene) to bring about emotion, Amour does the opposite. We sit in silence and allow the circumstances and the poignant chemistry of our protagonists penetrate beyond this gimmick. This was such a moving film that sticks with you. As a viewer, it very much made me think about what life might be like with a spouse in my golden years.

Argo – What works so well about Argo is that it plays off a combination of aspects fused together so well it’s gratifying. You have a based on a true story concept, set against a tumultuous political climate, shot with a late 70’s cinematic vibe, a little action, plenty of suspense, married with the comedic twist of John Goodman and Alan Arkin. The highlight of this experience will always be the last 20 minutes, executed so effectively I think my heart stopped and I didn’t take a breath until the end credits. Ben Affleck has come a long way and proved to be a force to be taken seriously.

Celeste & Jesse Forever – This was one of those films that I left the theater with such a high thinking THIS is why I LOVE movies. Celeste and Jesse are the best of friends, but terrible as husband and wife. The story picks up with their struggle at sustaining a friendship while in the midst of a divorce and pursuing other romantic interests. Rashida Jones (Celeste) and Andy Samberg (Jesse) have such a fluid and natural on-screen chemistry between them that drew me in immediately. What I was most enchanted by was not only the precise well-written dialogue; but the indie feel to how this narrative was told through its stunning salute to another main character, the sweeping city of Los Angeles, via its cinematography choices. I experienced almost every major emotion in 90 minutes of being in Celeste and Jesse’s world and I didn’t want to go. I laughed, felt my eyes water, and smiled at the very complicated, yet entertaining and relatable situation. This is also the first film I’d seen in quite some time where the music was used so impeccably it enhanced the overall experience of the film and introduced me to some of my favorite music of the year. If I had to pick my top film of 2012, this would be it (or closely tied with Zero Dark Thirty).

The Hunt – I’m not quite sure if it was the immaculate photography of the small Danish community the plot is set in because it’s so vividly quaint and unlike my personal world, or if it was solely the performance of Mads Mikkelsen that made me instantly cling to this film. In retrospect, it was both. The interaction between the main character within the beautiful  but modest Danish town mirrored each other purely to form such skillfulness in film-making. Lucas (Mikkelsen) is a beloved school teacher who is falsely accused of child molestation and is subsequently ostracized by this peers. One of the finest acting performances of the entire year came from a single shot, that said it all in the expression of his eyes, not a word uttered. I adored this film. I adored its simplicity, its use of the atmosphere around its actors; and while the circumstances of the story are very upsetting, it treated the subject matter so genuinely it scared me as the viewer about the true nature of the human condition when pushed too far.

Lincoln – At the risk of being cliché and selecting an obvious choice (alongside our Academy voting members with 12 current Oscar nominations), I cannot help but give Steven Spielberg his props. My experience with Lincoln was very reminiscent of my appreciation for the sweeping epics of the 60’s (please see my thoughts here). It was in the tiniest of details that kept us steadfast in 1865 America, the depth of a very intricate script, the uncanny and moving performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, the costume design, the art direction, and yes, I was a total sucker for John Williams’ brilliant original score. These components unified together with a very memorable sequence as we watch our 16th President proudly make his way down the long hallway after a hard fought battle was satisfying. This was a film that I went into with a rather nonchalant air, but left completely fulfilled at what had happened on the movie screen.

Middle of Nowhere – Admittedly, I went into the screening of Middle of Nowhere with the resolve that I was going to like it no matter what. Completely inspired by Ava DuVernay’s first feature film I Will Follow in 2011, I knew this was going to be something equally special. My instincts to believe in this film were dead on though I think DuVernay out did herself this time. We follow Ruby, a young medical student, who sacrifices all that she is and wants to be for the sake of supporting her incarcerated husband. We learn that despite her efforts, it’s not enough and her world is turned upside down. We thus begin Ruby’s journey to slowly find her way back to some sense of normalcy, whatever that is. The strength of this film unequivocally comes from the solid force of Emayatzy Corinealdi (Ruby) and her ability to mold into a scene with any of the other actors so naturally. Aesthetically, I was also very absorbed by the purity of the look to this film. Its use of subtle muted lighting brings the narrative to a sacred place enhancing the mood that despite the city setting, you are authentically experiencing Ruby’s middle of nowhere.

Moonrise Kingdom – Eclectic and quirky but in the best way fathomable. The town of New Penzance is on the hunt for 2 missing children that co-conspired to run away from their existing lives together. The power from this film unquestionably comes from 2 big things: excellent casting paralleled with excellent dialogue. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like conceiving and developing this project and not be somewhat worried that it might not quite come together. If you think about it, it seems like such a risky film to make, one that could easily come across so quirky it’s just outright awful. Then again, Wes Anderson, with more experience than I, knew what he was doing. He did a phenomenal job. Moonrise Kingdom was unlike any other adventure in 2012. Add the intelligent production design, unique camera positions and framing used, as well as the fantastical elements that take place in New Penzance and you’ve got yourself one crazy “out there” hit.

Polisse – This was easily one of the most engaging, emotional, and exhausting dramatic films of the year. This French gem takes the viewer on a harsh, complex, gritty and work-obsessed journey into the lives of a group of cops in the Police Department’s Juvenile Protection Unit. What made this piece so powerful, was not only the horrendous stories of endangered children that our main characters came into contact with on a daily basis, but how they interacted among each other and in their personal lives given these difficult circumstances. I was impressed given the amount of storytelling and the number of characters followed at how solid the character development was in this film. The emotional 2 hour roller coaster of Polisse led to one of the most climatic and unforgettable endings to a film that I think I’ve ever seen.

Your Sister’s Sister – A grieving man accepts his dead brother’s ex-girlfriend’s invitation to get away from it all by taking a little break from life with a solo vacation at her family’s picturesque cabin. Unknowingly, the cabin is currently occupied by his dead brother’s ex-girlfriend’s lesbian (or bi-sexual?) sister who is also taking a much-needed mental break from life. They get drunk and…you can fill in the blank here. The following day, the brother’s ex-girlfriend (who also happens to be his best friend) arrives to keep the grieving man company and so begins our complicated love triangle, though it’s not your typical one. Of all the films I saw in 2012, this was the most surprising. Not only because of the rare story line but because of how smart it was with the material. Parts of the film were so organic that it felt like portions were  simply improvised between the three actors, done so fluidly, you felt like you were watching real sisters, best friends, and love interests maneuver this complex narrative. Again, well-written dialogue, spot on casting, and a graceful setting for such ungraceful circumstances culminate into a film that is funny and touching.

Zero Dark Thirty – The most intense on the edge of your seat aggressive experience I had at the theater. A film so flawlessly paced, acted, written, and accomplished, it doesn’t at all feel like a nearly 3 hour film and I could have easily spent another 3 seeing where our heroine was off to next in her obsession for justice. Zero Dark Thirty takes us through the decade long capture and defeat of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain is Maya, a woman on a mission who is not meant to be liked, doesn’t care to be liked, but demands to be taken seriously. (You go girl !) While much controversy surrounds this film in its accuracy and depth of knowledge of the events depicted, at the end of the day you cannot deny that what happened on the screen was anything short of a masterpiece. I was very disappointed by Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar snub as this was a better crafted film than the The Hurt Locker. Easily my favorite film of the year (or closely tied with Celeste & Jesse Forever).

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With that, my 2012 movie year in review is now behind me. You can read about my takes on the top classic films I spent time with last year as well and the documentary stories that moved me most here and here. Looking over this list I’m proud at how all over the place and diverse it is. As I agonized over this list for the last month before sharing it with you, I’ve come to realize and like how I can appreciate a commercial film as much as an independent film, love a quirky story as much as a political one, or cherish a foreign narrative in the same breathe as a domestic narrative. That’s the beauty of cinema, it’s an art form that has always tried to compete with itself, and like me, who wants to be placed in a box?

I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings to the silver screen.

2012 Best in Cinema: The Documentary

A personal favorite of mine in the art of film-making, are the true to life narratives examined in feature length documentaries. It’s a mosaic of genuine consciousness and authentic storytelling while exploring real people and learning about a world outside our own everyday experiences that make this such a powerful genre. I had the pleasure of spending some time with many of these types of films in 2012.

Here the top 10 documentaries I watched this past year that enlightened, entertained, and even at times enraged me about the world around me (in alphabetical order):

Bad 25 – BY FAR, this was the was most entertaining feature length documentary I saw last year. A great subject matter and a behind the scenes look at the development of one of the most celebrated albums of all time make this film an undeniable accomplishment. Hardcore Michael Jackson fans or mere on-lookers cannot help but tap their feet and bounce in their seat to the beat of this fascinating look marking the 25th anniversary of the Bad album. Accompanied by personal reflections from those who worked closely with Jackson to those who openly pay homage to the man who inspired their now famous careers, Bad 25 is nothing short of a party. You can read more about this music-filled night here.

The Central Park Five – In terms of storytelling and bringing to light one of the most unjust cases of the past 20 years, The Central Park Five brilliantly delves into how 5 unknowing and unrelated minorities became public enemy number one in 1989 over the brutal rape and near murder of a Caucasian woman taking her nightly New York jog. This was a maddening film to sit through last year as a viewer. The treatment of these young boys by the N.Y.P.D. and the prosecution’s blatant disregard of key evidence and points in this case is astounding. The film not only exposes the corrupt nature of our judicial system, but how some 2 decades later, these 5 men have forever been shaped by this experience in ways that are inexplicable. They’ve each lost years of their youth, without so much as an apology from any of the players who wrongly accused them. This is unforgivable and the type of narrative that documentaries were made for.

First Position – This film takes us into the intriguing, competitive, and disciplined sphere of ballet dancing. It captures a moment in time of young dreams in a field that rewards very few. What a treat to see these dreamers maneuver through their everyday world dedicated to their passion, while following their successes and failures, and its effects on their young lives. What most impressed me about this film was how interesting and diverse all the subjects are. You couldn’t have picked a better group of dancers to follow to get a sense of the commitment and attitude it takes to make it. You rooted for each and every one of them.

Hell and Back Again – This film was released in the U.S. in October 2011, but I saw it in February of 2012 (so it counts!) as the film vied for best documentary feature at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony.  The story follows Nathan Harris when he returns home from war scarred physically and emotionally. I was completely engrossed in how intimately we were allowed into his life. The film takes us both on his expeditions while in actual battle and shifts to his struggles to survive back at home with his very supportive wife, Ashley. This movie challenges the viewer to see what it’s really like to be a war hero beyond the accolades, but to see that if you do survive war, you never really leave the battlefield.

The House I Live In – Of all the documentary films I’d seen in 2012, The House I Live In educated me in the most in your face way possible, from the use of personal anecdotes to the rawest video footage. I learned about the complicated and oftentimes screwy nature of our judicial system when it comes to narcotics cases in this country. This film does an excellent job at explaining how the American criminal justice system is dedicated more to making money off our inmates than rehabilitating them, and how the War on Drugs was never about solving public health issues nor helping those who have fallen into the depths of addiction and trafficking, but to punish them to the fullest extent of the law while never addressing or taking a serious look at the underlying causes for these problems. The takeaway? We must get to the cause before we can ever address the problem.

How to Survive a Plague – Structurally, this film did something special. We spend most of the film engaged in the battle against HIV and AIDS through the use of archived footage of old TAG and ACT UP activism meetings and protests against the American government and healthcare system’s’ lack of action towards this growing epidemic. We get close to our protagonists, leaders within the revolution struggling with the disease, fighting the big fight. Since we all knew the devastating numbers from the epidemic that eventually killed millions, we knew not all of our protagonists would make it through. In an inspiring manner, revealed with minutes to spare toward the end of the film, we learn of those who survived the HIV/AIDS plague and lived to tell their story. Please see my full review here.

The Imposter – The tagline: “There are two sides to every lie.” The Imposter was the most stylized, unique, and alluring piece of non-fiction I’d seen this past year. The situation alone is extremely unfathomable. A grown Frenchman assumes the identity of a missing teenager and subsequently moves in and lives with his family for some time before his true identity is revealed. The beauty of this film is that it’s so objective in its approach that you don’t know and will NEVER know who to believe. Recreations of events are often cheesy and weaken the effectiveness in trying to relive aspects of a story for weighted emphasis, but this was done so impeccably it added to the bizarreness of the circumstances.  I’m not a fan of re-watching or owning many documentaries, but this was so well executed that I might reconsider. An excellent use of the genre and taking the viewer into the depths of a very complicated world.

The Invisible War – Easily one of the most infuriating documentaries of 2012, yet one of the most persuasive in bringing about change. We have a war going on in this country and it’s within our own military system. Women are being attacked, raped, beaten and outright mistreated by the same male soldiers who have taken the oath to protect ALL American citizens against terrorist threats. What’s worse is that it’s being done with little to no consequences for the accused. The hypocrisy of this film is upsetting, yet the silver lining is that because of this film and its recent screenings to officials high up in the military system and the U.S. government, action is seemingly being taken to better protect our female soldiers.

The Queen of Versailles – a fascinating look at how the other side lives. When the very wealthy Siegel family have to cut back on their extravagant lifestyle due to the economic climate – it’s pretty absorbing how even the richest of people have a hard time with the adjustment and how they choose to deal with it. Furthermore, this film brings to the forefront the issue of American capitalism and consumption. Basically, when is enough, ENOUGH? What more can you possibly need when you’re already a billionaire? An entertaining, insightful, and engaging study of the lifestyles of the rich and not so famous. You can read my full take on the Siegel family here.

Side by Side – Keanu Reeves and the Hollywood film-making elite take us on a journey and a debate about the state of how to tell stories. Should we progress with the ease and forward moving nature of shooting cinematic narratives digitally, or stick with the tried and true method of honoring how this art form was born on a physical reel of film?  An interesting exploration of how today’s masters feel about this ever-growing battle to get their stories told. Please see my full review here.