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Tim Grierson on the Year’s Forgotten Gems

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Most critics agree that 2012 will be remembered as a particularly strong movie year. Whether it’s “Zero Dark Thirty” or “The Master,” “Moonrise Kingdom” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Amour” or “Holy Motors,” bold films were everywhere. The only downside to such a terrific year is that some superb smaller films have been pushed into the margins, overlooked by critics’ groups, end-of-the-year lists, and Oscar bloggers. With that in mind, I thought I’d select five that are absolutely worth your time that I haven’t mentioned in any of my columns this year. If you were having trouble narrowing down your 2012 favorites to a Top 10, these selections will only further complicate your process…

Goodbye First Love – This French drama from filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve tackles an age-old subject, but with a real daring and freshness. An impressionable teenager named Camille (Lola Créton) is utterly smitten with her older boyfriend Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), convinced that they’re meant to be together forever. So what is she supposed to do when Sullivan decides to travel the globe and leave her behind? “Goodbye First Love” takes a clear-eyed perspective on the passionate unreasonableness of young love, quietly observing as Camille mourns for the guy who turned his back on her. Créton bravely allows Camille to be exasperating and moody, such is the seeming permanence of her stubbornly broken heart.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day – When we think of animated movies, our minds go to major productions like “Brave” or “Wreck-It Ralph,” where hundreds upon hundreds of animators and other artists are working together to make big blockbusters. By comparison, Don Hertzfeldt makes personal, do-it-yourself projects. This year, he released “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” which compiled two previous short animated films with a new final installment, all about a luckless gent named Bill coping with the ennui of regular life. The three-piece movie runs just over an hour, but with wry humor and some utterly poignant touches, it addresses the complexity of life, death and family in such a way that it’s very nearly overpowering.

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present – For those who are allergic to performance art, an entire documentary about heralded, divisive art-world figure Marina Abramović might sound like hell. But director Matthew Akers delivers a portrait of an icon made human as she prepares for her latest show, which will involve her sitting quietly and expressionlessly in a chair for several hours each day while museum patrons take turns sitting opposite her. Abramović will only stare back at them, and likewise “The Artist Is Present” gazes back at her as she goes about her craft. But this is no dry academic treatise: Few films this year made me cry as much as this one, in part because of the extraordinary (albeit brief and silent) connection she makes with her fans during this exhibit.

Middle of Nowhere
– This year’s Sundance helped launch “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Sessions.” But don’t forget about this wonderfully observed Los Angeles drama about a young woman named Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who promises to wait for her husband (Omari Hardwick) while he serves a prison sentence. But Ruby’s devotion to her man leaves her in an emotional purgatory that keeps her own life from moving forward, which causes all sorts of complications when a gentlemanly bus driver (a superb David Oyelowo) starts to develop feelings for her. Great performances, realistic stakes, genuine feeling — writer-director Ava DuVernay has crafted a movie with the richness and care of a novel.

Only the Young
– Of the many strengths of the documentary “Only the Young,” chief among them is how loving and nonjudgmental filmmakers Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims are about their subjects: three teens living in Southern California negotiating the anxiety of adolescence. Raised Christian but loving skateboarding and punk music, Garrison, Kevin and Skye are observed as they deal with crushes and broken families, and the movie blessedly never tries to categorize them, letting their contradictions speak for themselves. It also doesn’t hurt that “Only the Young” is quite often simply beautifully made, weaving together the teens’ conversation with images from their desert hometown that capture a universal sense of longing and isolation that any young person can recognize. Like many of 2012’s forgotten gems, “Only the Young” may not have made many waves, but its precise, wonderful artistry makes one ponder how many other wonderful films are out there waiting to be discovered.

Underworld

Under Your Spell

10 Otherworldly Romances That’ll Melt Your Heart

Spend Valentine's Day weekend with IFC's Underworld movie marathon.

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Photo Credit: Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection

Romance takes many forms, and that is especially true when you have a thirst for blood or laser beams coming out of your eyes.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a werewolf, a superhero, a clone, a time-traveler, or a vampire, love is the one thing that infects us all.  Read on to find out why Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these supernatural star-crossed lovers, and be sure to catch IFC’s Underworld movie marathon this Valentine’s Day weekend.

1. Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine, X-Men series

The X-Men franchise is rife with romance, but the steamiest “ménage à mutant” may just be the one between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Their triangle is a complicated one as Jean finds herself torn between the two very different men while also trying to control her darker side, the Phoenix. This leads to Jean killing Cyclops and eventually getting stabbed through her heart by Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand. Yikes!  Maybe they should change the name to Ex-Men instead?


2. Willow/Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon gave audiences some great romances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — including the central triangle of Buffy, Angel, and Spike — but it was the love between witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) that broke new ground for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a LGBT relationship.

Willow is smart and confident and isn’t even sure of her sexuality when she first meets Tara at college in a Wiccan campus group. As the two begin experimenting with spells, they realize they’re also falling for one another and become the show’s most enduring, happy couple. At least until Tara’s death in season six, a moment that still brings on the feels.


3. Selene/Michael, Underworld series

The Twilight gang pales in comparison (both literally and metaphorically) to the Lycans and Vampires of the stylish Underworld franchise. If you’re looking for an epic vampire/werewolf romance set amidst an epic vampire/werewolf war, Underworld handily delivers in the form of leather catsuited Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and shaggy blonde hunk Michael (a post-Felicity Scott Speedman). As they work together to stop the Vampire/Lycan war, they give into their passions while also kicking butt in skintight leather. Love at first bite indeed.


4. Spider-man/Mary Jane Watson, Spider-man

After rushing to the aid of beautiful girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the Amazing Spider-man is rewarded with an upside-down kiss that is still one of the most romantic moments in comic book movie history. For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the shy, lovable dork beneath the mask, his rain-soaked makeout session is the culmination of years of unrequited love and one very powerful spider bite. As the films progress, Peter tries pushing MJ away in an attempt to protect her from his enemies, but their web of love is just too powerful. And you know, with great power, comes great responsibility.


5. Molly/Sam, Ghost

When it comes to supernatural romance, you really can’t beat Molly and Sam from the 1990 hit film Ghost. Demi Moore goes crazy for Swayze like the rest of us, and the pair make pottery sexier than it’s ever been.

When Sam is murdered, he’s forced to communicate through con artist turned real psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in her Academy Award-winning role) to warn Molly she is still in danger from his co-worker, Carl (a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn). Molly doesn’t believe Oda is telling the truth, so Sam proves it by sliding a penny up the wall and then possessing Oda so he and Molly can share one last romantic dance together (but not the dirty kind). We’d pay a penny for a dance with Patrick Swayze ANY day.


6. Cosima/Delphine, Orphan Black

It stands to reason there would be at least one complicated romance on a show about clones, and none more complicated than the one between clone Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) and Dr. Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) on BBC America’s hit drama Orphan Black.

Cosima is a PhD student focusing on evolutionary developmental biology at the University of Minnesota when she meets Delphine, a research associate from the nefarious Dyad Institute, posing as a fellow immunology student. The two fall in love, but their happiness is brief once Dyad and the other members of Clone Club get involved. Here’s hoping Cosima finds love in season four of Orphan Black. Girlfriend could use a break.


7. Aragorn/Arwen, Lord of the Rings

On a picturesque bridge in Rivendell amidst some stellar mood-lighting and dreamy Elvish language with English subtitles for us non-Middle Earthlings, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bind their souls to one another, pledging to love each other no matter what befalls them.

Their courtship is a matter of contention with Arwen’s father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who doesn’t wish to see his daughter suffer over Aragorn’s future death. The two marry after the conclusion of the War of the Ring, with Aragorn assuming his throne as King of Gondor, and Arwen forgoing her immortality to become his Queen. Is it too much to assume they asked Frodo to be their wedding ring-bearer?


8. Lafayette/Jesus, True Blood

True Blood quickly became the go-to show for supernatural sex scenes featuring future Magic Mike strippers (Joe Manganiello) and pale Nordic men with washboard abs (Hi Alexander Skarsgård!), but honestly, there was a little something for everyone, including fan favorite Bon Temps medium, Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis).

In season three, Lafayette met his mother’s nurse, Jesus, and the two began a relationship. As they spend more time together and start doing V (short for Vampire Blood), they learn Jesus is descended from a long line of witches and that Lafayette himself has magical abilities. However, supernatural love is anything but simple, and after the pair join a coven, Lafayette becomes possessed by the dead spirit of its former leader. This relationship certainly puts a whole new spin on possessive love.


9. Nymphadora Tonks/Remus Lupin, Harry Potter series

There are lots of sad characters in the Harry Potter series, but Remus Lupin ranks among the saddest. He was bitten by a werewolf as a child, his best friend was murdered and his other best friend was wrongly imprisoned in Azkaban for it, then THAT best friend was killed by a Death Eater at the Ministry of Magic as Remus looked on. So when Lupin unexpectedly found himself in love with badass Auror and Metamorphmagus Nymphadora Tonks (she prefers to be called by her surname ONLY, thank you very much), pretty much everyone, including Lupin himself, was both elated and cautiously hopeful about their romance and eventual marriage.

Sadly, the pair met a tragic ending when both were killed by Death Eaters during the Battle of Hogwarts, leaving their son, Teddy, orphaned much like his godfather Harry Potter. Accio hankies!


10. The Doctor/Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

Speaking of wolves, Rose “Bad Wolf” Tyler (Billie Piper) captured the Doctor’s hearts from the moment he told her to “Run!” in the very first episode of the re-booted Doctor Who series. Their affection for one another grew steadily deeper during their travels in the TARDIS, whether they were stuck in 1950s London, facing down pure evil in the Satan Pit, or battling Cybermen.

But their relationship took a tragic turn during the season two finale episode, “Doomsday,” when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose found themselves separated in parallel universes with no way of being reunited (lest two universes collapse as a result of a paradox). A sobbing Rose told a holographic transmission of the Doctor she loved him, but before he could reply, the transmission cut out, leaving our beloved Time Lord (and most of the audience) with a tear-stained face and two broken hearts all alone in the TARDIS.

Tim Grierson on Brad Pitt, the Unpredictable Movie Star

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Brad Pitt is unquestionably a movie star, but what kind is he? The lead in this past weekend’s “Killing Them Softly,” he doesn’t have a single movie in the Top 140 of the all-time domestic box office chart, and his biggest worldwide hit, “Troy,” is just outside the Top 100 of the international chart. And yet he’s indisputably one of our most recognizable faces, one half of the world’s biggest celebrity couple. But despite the many memorable films he’s been a part of over the last 20 years, he doesn’t have a “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Men in Black” franchise that’s catapulted him into the ranks of mega-blockbuster stars. (Even the “Ocean’s Eleven” films don’t quite count because of their ensemble nature and the fact that none of them have ever cracked $200 million. They’ve always been cool, hip doubles or triples rather than outright home runs.) I don’t bring any of this up to knock him. In fact, I realize it’s part of the reason why I like him so much. With his looks and charisma, he was probably going to be a star regardless. But how he’s decided to approach his stardom has been consistently gratifying as a viewer.

Pitt will turn 49 on December 18, making him about six months younger than Johnny Depp and 18 months younger than Tom Cruise. He’d been working in television in the late ‘80s — landing parts on everything from “Dallas” to “Head of the Class” to “21 Jump Street” — before really coming to moviegoers’ attention with 1991’s “Thelma & Louise.” It was a minor but crucial role as a cocky hunk who seduces Thelma and, oh yeah, steals her money. Despite not having a lot of screen time, Pitt established a persona that has presaged just about every role he’s taken since, playing a handsome, carefree guy who’s sharper and more calculating than he first appears. Additionally, it was a quality movie, an early sign that he (or, at least, his handlers) had the good sense to pick strong, interesting work.

The rest of the ‘90s saw Pitt transitioning into studio projects, but hardly ones that were always overtly commercial. He would do an “Interview With the Vampire,” where he played second fiddle to Cruise, but he’d also try his hand at more thoughtful fare like “Seven Years in Tibet” and “A River Runs Through It,” a drama directed by Robert Redford that inspired many comparisons between the boyishly gorgeous young actor and his equally photogenic, golden-haired director. But like Redford, Pitt didn’t want to be judged just by his looks, choosing edgier thrillers like “Kalifornia,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “Seven” that would showcase his darker side. (And with “Twelve Monkeys,” he received his first of four Oscar nominations, for Best Supporting Actor.)

The decade culminated in perhaps the perfect amalgam of Pitt’s commercial and artistic ambitions, starring in “Seven” director David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” still one of the nerviest, most subversive movies to ever come from a studio. Not surprisingly, the movie bombed, only to become a cult hit in subsequent years. As Tyler Durden, the loopy, dangerous mentor to Ed Norton’s miserable office drone, Pitt delivered his finest performance to that point, fully comfortable as a seductive movie star but willing to play with that image to produce a character who was funny and unsettling.

This isn’t to say he didn’t have his missteps. His earnest turn in “Meet Joe Black” couldn’t save that film, and his one-note gimmick of a performance in “Snatch” could make you worry that he was getting bored with being a star and lapsing into self-indulgence. But then he’d surprise you with something that seemed completely dashed-off and yet endlessly amusing. At least that’s my take on “Ocean’s Eleven,” that rare instance when a lot of big-name talent — director Steven Soderbergh, stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Pitt — all decide to make a big, silly, stylish lark and it actually turns out to be as much fun to watch as it sounds like it was to make. Pitt’s Rusty isn’t so much a character as he is an attitude, but that hardly mattered since the actor’s essence filled in the gaps; “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels are Pitt at his most effortless, having a ball but letting the audience feel like they’re part of the gang as well.

His career was soon going to change thanks to “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the 2005 hit that’s still his highest-grossing in the U.S. The movie is completely fine, but its real cultural impact is that it set in motion his relationship with co-star Angelina Jolie (and breakup with wife Jennifer Aniston), which became instant tabloid fodder. Since then, Pitt and Jolie have always been overshadowed a little by the whole “Brangelina” phenomenon. That’s too bad since Pitt has worked his hardest to make us focus on the work instead, starring in “Babel,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (his third pairing with Fincher). “Jesse James” in particular was a real revelation: a chance for Pitt to play the quietly frightening mythic villain James, who already seems to have one foot in the grave as the movie begins. It’s perhaps his greatest performance and the sort of role that’s ideal for a star who knows how to exude charisma while at the same time communicating the weariness of man so famous that it’s almost like his real self is vanishing. Clearly, it can be quite tempting to look at “Jesse James” as Pitt’s commentary on his own celebrity.

Entering his third decade in film, he’s hardly resting on his laurels. His work in “The Tree of Life” was another Pitt entirely: a larger-than-life ‘50s father who seemed to embody all the rugged, emotionally stunted masculinity of that generation of men. And then “Moneyball,” where endless charm and even-more-endless competitiveness duked it out. In a sense, that role was an encapsulation of the Pitt we now know: immensely likable, nonchalantly commanding, soulful around the edges. And his next two movies are, as always, a demonstration of his different creative impulses. The prickly, distinctive “Killing Them Softly” finds him reuniting with his “Jesse James” writer-director, Andrew Dominik, while next year’s “World War Z” is a hopeful studio blockbuster. “Killing Them Softly” will tank — it received a disastrous “F” rating from the audience polling company CinemaScore — but it hardly matters. (Pitt, playing a principled gangster, is terrific in it.) This is one of the advantages of being a star who’s not really beholden to any one big franchise: He can do what he pleases, and more often than not, what he does is worth your time. I see no reason to think that will change in the near future.

Tim Grierson on “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the Best Thanksgiving Movie

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With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I was thinking about movies set around the holiday. Movies as different as the comedy “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and the dark suburban drama “The Ice Storm” come to mind, but for me “Hannah and Her Sisters” is the best of the bunch — even though Thanksgiving doesn’t seem to have much to do with the film.

This Oscar-winning 1986 film from writer-director Woody Allen takes place over the span of two years and three Thanksgivings. The movie opens on the first of those Thanksgivings, as Elliot (Michael Caine), who is married to the talented and beloved Hannah (Mia Farrow), is nursing a desperate, unrequited crush for her younger sister Lee (Barbara Hershey). There’s also a third sister, the baby of the family, Holly (Dianne Wiest), who can’t seem to ever pull her life together. Though maybe more cultured and successful than most, they feel like a pretty typical brood with all the love and madness and quiet regrets that are part of every family.

If for some reason you haven’t seen this wonderful comedy-drama, I’d rather not spoil anything else in the plot, but suffice it to say that Elliot decides to act on his feelings for Lee, while Hannah’s ex-husband, TV producer Mickey (Allen), is going through an existential crisis as he ponders mortality and the meaning of life — in a very funny way, of course. These seemingly disconnected plot strands come together over the next two years’ Thanksgiving meals.

As you can see, Thanksgiving serves mostly as a framing device in “Hannah and Her Sisters;” it’s not integral to the plot like it is in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” But as I’ve re-watched “Hannah” over the years, I’ve begun to appreciate the film as more than just a touching, hilarious look at a group of well-drawn characters but also as a reflection of the emotions that are stirred up by the holiday — specifically, the complexities of family and the very notion of what it means to be thankful.

Allen’s films have often examined the inner workings of families — “Interiors,” “Radio Days,” “Cassandra’s Dream” — but “Hannah and Her Sisters” does so with a compassion that allows us to see these people for all their faults but love them regardless. Though her name appears in the title, Hannah is less the central character in this story than she is the guiding light for everyone else in her family. Her parents adore her, her younger sisters envy her success as an actress and a mother, and her husband — although he’s contemplating having an affair — is in such awe of her that he feels that she doesn’t need him. But being the golden child of her family doesn’t make life easier for Hannah, who has to be the resilient glue that holds everything else around her together. Thanksgiving is one time every year that families meet up, which is tough for people who have difficult relationships with their siblings or parents. So it’s understandable why Allen might have chosen this particular holiday as a motif: It’s during the film’s three Thanksgivings when major revelations occur and new understandings about the characters develop.

Then there’s the film’s grappling with the idea of what Thanksgiving means. Beyond the turkey, stuffing and football games, the holiday is supposed to mark a time for all of us to be appreciative of the good things we have in our lives. (If you don’t like hanging out with your family, perhaps the one thing you’re appreciative of at that moment is that you’ll be away from them soon enough.) While “Hannah and Her Sisters” is about a lot of things — art, love, faith, death, the Marx brothers — gratitude wouldn’t seem to be a major theme. But from the right perspective, it absolutely is.

In different ways, all the characters are looking for happiness. Lee feels stymied in her relationship with her domineering older boyfriend (Max von Sydow), Elliot longs to be with Lee, Mickey wants answers to the mysteries of existence, Holly wants to stop floundering from one failed pursuit to another, and Hannah can’t figure out why her husband suddenly seems so distant. Allen’s movies tend toward melancholy endings that aren’t always happy — he’d rather be true to his complicated characters than force tidy resolutions on them — but “Hannah and Her Sisters” (despite its often clear-eyed view of human foibles) was a rare instance when he gave his characters a reprieve, allowing them contentment as the credits roll.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Allen has lamented that decision ever since. “I copped out a little on the film,” he once said, “I backed out a little at the end.” He added, “I tied it together at the end a little bit too neatly. [My character] should have been a little less happy at the end than I was.” Maybe, but the film’s happy endings aren’t exactly gumdrops and unicorns — they come from the characters, at one lucky moment in time, finally beginning to understand what they have in their lives that’s worthwhile. Often, Allen’s movies are about characters striving for things out of their reach that they think will give them fulfillment. In “Hannah and Her Sisters,” at that final Thanksgiving, they recognize that life is never perfect but that sometimes we can cobble together enough happiness to keep going. Whenever I watch the ending, I’m always overcome with a sense of gratitude — not just for the experience of watching a great movie but also for the realization that there are reasons to be thankful all around us, if only we’ll stop and appreciate them. And, really, isn’t that really what this holiday’s supposed to be about?

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