MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

For Your Consideration 2009

Every year I try to single out the performances and films that I think aren’t getting enough attention during the awards season.  It seems that certain storylines become more “interesting” or certain actors or films become the “underdog” that everyone roots for and a lot of quality gets lost in the shuffle.

And this year, despite being weak overall for film, has still produced a lot of quality that seems to have gone unnoticed by the powers that be. Similar to the mass media, Oscar pundits have a measure of control over which films are talked about; they don’t shift the votes, but they can often shift the conversation. Most of the films and performances being talked about are deserving of the plaudits, but unfortunately some amazing stuff falls through the cracks.

So, as I do every year, I will attempt to shine a spotlight on two films and four lead performances that I think are lacking the attention that they deserve.

Robin Wright gives the best performance of her career in Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.  That might sound like I’m damning her with faint praise, but I’ve found Wright to be one of the most charismatic actresses of the last twenty years; she just decided, as William Goldman put it, that she didn’t want to be a star.  When she burst on the cinema scene in The Princess Bride, she was not only one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen, but she also showed a poise and strength that made Princess Buttercup the object of every man’s fantasy affections.

Wright was justly applauded for her role as Jenny in Forrest Gump despite having one of the most poorly written characters in a film that is light on characterization to begin with.  But Wright makes that part – and the film – soar higher than it could have by injecting a realness and a rigid toughness to it.  Despite everything in that film being overblown, she remains calm and subtle, easily stealing the film away from everyone.

Wright has also been great in a lot of mediocre films, like Nine Lives in which she plays a pregnant woman who meets her old lover in a supermarket and absolutely destroys the audience in just ten minutes of screen time. She has similar impacts in A Home at the End of the World, Hurlyburly and She’s So Lovely.  She even “uglied” herself up in a phenomenal way for The Pledge, one of the more criminally underrated films of recent years.

But all of these performances are trumped in Pippa Lee.  It’s almost like the part of Pippa is Wright’s magnum opus, the culmination of every skill she has learned along the way.  There are so many different facets to Pippa Lee and Wright is able to convey all of those layers without resorting to histrionics.  Her role in the film – as the adult Pippa Lee – is to be mostly reactive in the early going, not only to other people in the film but also to her own sleepwalking plight.  She is dutiful and graceful.  Over the course of the film, however, we have to believe that she is convincingly falling apart, that while the world around her crumbles, her foundation will be shaken in ways that might not be tremendously apparent.

And that’s the incredible thing about what Robin Wright does in this film; we don’t need her to scream or yell for us to be convinced that she is having a breakdown.  We’re convinced just in the way she subtly alters her speech patterns or the way she has a calm outburst in a restaurant.  She has been willfully imprisoned in her marriage and in suburbia and as her husband gets older, she is confronted with her own mortality.  We have to believe that she is slowly changing in a hundred minutes of screen time and Wright does it easily and masterfully, her flaws only making her more endearing as a character.

I would gladly watch a mini-series about even more private lives of Pippa Lee, but only if Robin Wright was playing her.

Joaquin Phoenix gives an unbelievably nuanced and subtle portrayal of a man who confuses lust with love in James Gray’s Two Lovers.  He has two able female counterparts to balance him in Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw, but it’s up to Phoenix to carry the film.  And he does.  And he makes it look easy.

When we first meet Leonard Kraditor, he attempts to drown himself.  This is a man that is at the end of his rope.  He has just split from his long-time girlfriend, he’s living at home with his parents in Brooklyn, working at his father’s dry cleaning business and suffering from bi-polar disorder.  This is a difficult character to play and Phoenix makes us care for him despite a lot of the mistakes he makes along the way.  And the most difficult part is that Phoenix has to make us believe that, despite all of Leonard’s issues, he would still be desirable to not just one, but two beautiful women.  The awkward assuredness that Phoenix instills in Leonard makes us understand his appeal.

Leonard is presented with two women who are complete opposites – much like his mood swings from his illness, giving us two different Leonards – in Michelle and Sarah.  Sarah is the shy, sensitive and caring daughter of his father’s business associate and she’s a fellow Jew.  She’s the safe pick.  But then there’s Michelle, who represents the “other” and volatility.  She has so many issues that she enables Leonard to be the caretaker for once and we can understand why Leonard might enjoy that.

One of the things that Phoenix does so well is imbue Leonard with humanity.  I’m not even sure how he does it, but he makes Leonard feel like a real person.  When he screws up, we don’t hate him for it; rather, we just hope he’ll make a better decision the next time, like he were a family member.  If this is truly Joaquin Phoenix’s last performance, then he’ll have gone out on the highest possible note, creating a character that looks and feels uniquely real.

I want to make quick mention of two more performances that aren’t on the same level as the previous two, but deserve some kudos. Seth Rogen gives one of the most insane, yet insanely accurate, portraits of a man suffering from mental illness in Jody Hill’s Observe and Report.  Whatever he does in the film, however crazy, he makes it seem plausible by the standards of the character he has created.  The slow burn of Ronnie, especially once he stops taking his medication, is both hilarious and strangely heartbreaking and leading up to one of the most memorable finales in the movies this year.  And Rogen is the one that sells it.

And Sasha Grey’s performance, as a high-class escort in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, is a lot more difficult than people give her credit for.  It’s a very interior performance, something that would be more fleshed out and apparent in a short story or a novel than in a film.  It’s the kind of film performance that is almost impossible to perfect and she does it.  When Chelsea gets her heart broken – or at least, strained – there’s nobody she would tell about it, so Grey cannot rely on dialogue to push that emotion to the forefront.  Instead, she has to rely on her body language and her expressive eyes.  Truly good work from an unexpected source.

Lukas Moodysson’s Mammoth is the kind of movie that award voters usually eat up, but for some reason has been ignored this year.  Films like Babel have tried a similar globe-spanning narrative, but have failed to make the sections cohere in a way that is entirely satisfying.  More often than not, when filmmakers try to tell a tale about “the world” they wind up with conclusions that are convenient, easy, wrapping things up in a way that has the audience feeling good about themselves and their environment when they leave the theater.

Moodysson has always been a filmmaker that has tried to subvert expectations and tell stories larger than they appear.  Here, he’s telling individual stories that are set in three different parts of the globe (New York City, Philippines, Thailand) that are connected to one another in unsurprising but deeply emotional ways.  When I spoke to Moodysson, he told me that his initial inspiration was “laundry” and how it was bought and sold like a commodity.  When he pulled that thread, it ultimately led to him telling a story about globalization and the merits and pitfalls of us being so connected.

One of the most fascinating things to me was the story of the nanny, Gloria, and how she is being paid to be a mother to a child that is not hers so that she could be a better mother to her own children in the Philippines.  She is sacrificing the bond between her and her kids so that she could take care of another child.  Meanwhile, the child that she is taking care of has a mother, played expertly by Michelle Williams, who is busy taking care of other people’s children as an ER doctor.  We see her spending time trying to save the life of a child, but she has to be away from the life of her own child.  That cycle continues and continues and we are left in a world where parents don’t see their children. This is a point that is never explicitly stated in some grandiose fashion because Moodysson is too smart for that, instead he lets that point permeate everything so that it seems so subtle but so obvious at the same time.

Then there is Leo (the always great Gael Garcia Bernal) who is away from his family on a business trip.  He’s a young family man, but he doesn’t want to be in Bangkok while the details of his imminent deal are being worked out; instead, he wants to have an “authentic” Thai experience by renting a shack on a beach in the “real” Thailand.  But when he goes there, he meets other travelers and drinks and meets a local prostitute that he wants to “save.”  It’s interesting how Leo’s hypocrisy slowly bubbles up.  At first we admire that he is so intent on having a genuine experience.  But then we realize that this experience is bought and paid for too.  He’s the stereotypical rich guy who wishes he were poor and is rich enough to buy the experience of being normal.

Mammoth is one of the best films you will see this year and it’s a shame that nobody is talking about it.

The last film I wanted to talk about is Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, a picture that seems to have been largely forgotten by most, but hasn’t been far from my mind’s eye since I first saw it. It’s about the very act of creating, whether that means creating art of some kind (music, writing) or creating a person (the act of birth, or the act of rebirth) or creating love and family.  All of these emotions are swirling about in a picture that has the most gorgeous black and white cinematography I have ever seen.  It’s a film that you just want to take a bath in, enjoying the location shooting in Argentina and the art within the art.  They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.  But then again, I’m not sure they ever made them like this to begin with.

More than anything, Tetro is the story of brothers.  There’s the titular character (played byVincent Gallo, in his finest performance since Buffalo ’66) and his younger brother Bennie (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, the most interesting performer to burst on the scene sinceLeonardo DiCaprio) and they haven’t seen each other in years.  There is resentment on both sides since Tetro left home and moved to Buenos Aires, especially because he said he would come back to rescue Bennie from their overbearing, powerful father.  Their father is the (mostly) unseen force working behind the scenes to tear apart the family, a mad genius who is the conductor for the New York Philharmonic.

Tetro is a writer, a pure talent who wouldn’t sell out for any amount of money in the world.  Bennie discovers Tetro’s work, which is the story of their family. But there’s a lot more to the story than that.  It’s a coming-of-age film, a road picture, a film about film, a story of fathers and sons, brothers, family, love, it’s really got it all. It’s both a throwback to the way films used to be and a hint at where it could possibly be going.

There are a ton of images in the film that speak volumes about both the characters and the filmmaker, but the one that has stuck with me is the image of Tetro clutching his manuscript.  He holds it close to his heart with a vice grip, refusing to part with his creation or to allow anybody to read it. It’s one of the most poignant images because it says so much about what it means to be an artist. You create something beautiful to you and you know that once you let it out of your hands, it won’t ever be as beautiful again. And this is what Coppola is able to accomplish in a single image, but he is able to imbue that much meaning into almost every line, every scene, every movement, making the film so unbelievably dense that it’s impossible to take it all in a single viewing. It’s almost too much. Almost.

Between Tetro and the underrated and underseen Youth Without Youth, Coppola has proved that he’s still got it.  And I’m delighted to have him back.  I just wish the Academy would be delighted too, enough so to give it the Best Picture nomination that it definitely deserves.
Noah Forrest
December 7, 2009

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon