Great Films

6 Films to See Before Oscar Season Takes Over Your Life

Matthew Goode eradicates Jacki Weaver in "Stoker"

Matthew Goode eradicates Jacki Weaver in “Stoker”


–A sampling of 2013 greats that won’t get any attention from The Academy, but deserve yours–

Food options consist of fluctuating ratios of beef to chicken ramen? Losing an entire night’s sleep so you can get your last-minute Oscar article posted a mere hour prior to the official nominations? Ass perfectly contoured to the shape of your local theater’s lumpy seat cushion after two straight days of three-film marathons?

Oscar season. Film buffs know it well.

It’s a time which brings out the best in world cinema and the worst in the bloggers and journalists who cover (reviewing, disputing, tracking) its multiple-month course.

From early festival circuit buzz all the way to Thanksgiving Day releases, critic awards, and guild nominations, awards season barely affords its followers time to breathe let alone take in a film that isn’t one of the respective year’s crop of contenders riding the road towards a golden statue.

It’s easy for early-release films (studio and indie crops dumped off from January through August) to gain recognition from the year’s end circle of critics, guilds, and major awards ceremonies like the Oscars and Golden Globes. 2013 is already shaping up to be one of the most crowded years in recent memory; there are power plays from the Coen brothers, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen–to name a few–to get lost in by the time the final quarter of 2013 comes to a close. But, the year has given us master efforts from a vast array of filmmaker perspectives. So, before you lose sight of everything as you scour the internet for information on when Fruitvale Station will expand past limited release in a few weeks, check out these six films which won’t get any recognition from the Academy but deserve yours.

(in no particular order)

Stoker
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray now.

Matthew Goode

Matthew Goode

Stoker unites an unlikely gang of collaborators–Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller (of Prison Break fame), and veteran actress Nicole Kidman–for a beautifully macabre anti-fairytale. Chan-wook’s first full-length English feature tells the story of a young woman, India (Mia Wasikowska), who must stand by as her emotionally-unstable mother (Kidman) ignites a sexual relationship with her late father’s brother (Matthew Goode).

The film wafts through intensely-disturbing material (which crescendos as India matures to match her uncle’s increasingly-hostile behavior) with the whispery presence of a spider on the wall, with Chan-wook’s observational perspective framed beautifully by Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography, reminding us that all’s well that ends with a few splatters of blood.

Instead of succumbing to his obvious affections for Hitchcock’s work, Chan-wook instead stamps a signature tenderness where Hitchcock would have flexed muscles as an artist of suspense. For all the cringe-inducing moments in Stoker, it is a refreshingly warm film about adulthood and paying respect to one’s lineage–even if the subjects are, for the most part, a little cold to the touch.

Frances Ha
Where to see it: In theaters now.

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in "Frances Ha"

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in “Frances Ha”

Frances Ha shares the opposite side of a coin flipped by Bridesmaids just over two years ago. Where the latter film is a raunchy, straightforward, comedy-over-depth attempt to examine distinctly feminine issues, Frances Ha instead chooses a more subtle perspective on similar topics.

Seemingly coated in a fizzy aesthetic throwing us back to an era of Godard and Varda, the film slowly unravels itself as a complex exploration of the roles women (at least in an age where friends grow older, the jobs grow bleaker, and the social mentality has everyone feeling like they’re in high school again) seek to play in each other’s lives.

Frances is a 27-year old aspiring dancer unfortunately blessed with alternate talents for wishy-washy indecisiveness, seeking fun over function, and convincing herself that she can dance (though her pliés could pass for the mere pained squatting of someone half-qualified). Her best friend, Sophie, seems to be moving in the other direction–fast; A career, a fiance, and a shifting attitude on the topics of life, men, and living in a city that isn’t New York (gasp!) all become viable options for Frances’ one-time companion in the art of being a broke twenty-something in an overstimulating urban environment.

Frances’ inability to grow up and deal with her impending bout with loneliness and separation from a stable platonic relationship is both painful to watch and irresistibly enthralling.

The script, co-written by Gerwig and Baumbauch, seems less a track leading to closure as it does a base for which the characters to reinvent their fortunes in the moment, their lofty aspirations and bloated egos running on delusion-fueled ambition like an impatient raindrop seeking a far-off river.

The film’s narrative unravels in an almost aimless fashion, mirroring Frances’ journey to accidentally coming into her own, never condemning her for being too lazy nor giving her unrealistic avenues that satisfy her juvenile desires. There’s no harm in acting like a kid, and Frances Ha celebrates the youthful glimmer of the free-spirit many of our eyes have long since lost, while at the same time reaffirming the need for a good kick in the ass here and there. It’s a rarity in that it’s endearing and entertaining without feeling forced, and for that it’s one of the best films of the year.

Spring Breakers
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray now.

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Harmony Korine, an auteur in his own right, is known for anti-commercial films in line with provoking a visceral response versus pandering to a general audience. His latest film might be his first to appeal to the masses (its domestic box office tally stands at just below $14 million); thankfully his alternative approach to critiquing mainstream culture through cinema remains intact.

Korine unites Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in a film their core fanbase can’t legally watch by themselves for another five years; the R-rated spring break antics of four college friends is the focus of Spring Breakers, which at once comments on the accessibility and (sometimes voluntary) objectification of women’s sexuality yet also highlights the fragile, crumbling outlook on the once-promising vision of the American Dream.

The deliberateness with which Korine crafts his critique–from the casting of squeaky-clean Disney stars to a montage involving guns, destruction, and Britney Spears music–resonates with a symbolic urgency and coherent vision absent in his earlier work. A statement is being made, and it’s clear. Korine wastes no time showing us just how the demise of American culture will leave a heap of nothing but beer cans, broken dreams, and the Millennials’ unquenchable thirst for fun over work.

The Bling Ring
Where to see it: In theaters now.

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The latest from writer/director Sofia Coppola sees a dramatic departure from her early work. Whereas Lost in Translation, MarieAntoinette, and The Virgin Suicides each delve into issues of feminine angst, The Bling Ring isn’t a gendered perspective as much as it is an era-specific exploration of contemporary collective social mentality and the cycle of the lust for fame.

Fictionalizing the events of the notorious “Bling Ring” (a group of California teens who burglarized celebrities from Rachel Bilson and Orlando Bloom to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton) Coppola’s film elevates itself far beyond the average comedy-caper by delving into issues like the responsibility of a culture to its criminals, the ownership of fame, and the accessibility of attention in an age of what seems to be a collective narcissistic push for a dream life attained without work.

The allure of fame is no longer an untouchable dream regarded with respect; in Coppola’s film, the rich are powerful and worshiped, yet far more accessible to anyone with a laptop and Google maps. Today’s celebrities are icons of mere excess, not icons of talent, and thus their star quality is diminished to the point of seeming inhuman. The boundaries between fame, normalcy/reality, and dream are blurred, and Coppola understands that in today’s culture–with quick-fix gratification outlets like Facebook and gossip blogs–a false sense of self-worth is easily attained through the ease with which one can ignore a border, scale a fence, drop to the other side, and literally run a fantasy through their fingers.

The Place Beyond the Pines
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray August 6, 2013

Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling in "The Place Beyond The Pines"

Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond The Pines”

A morosely captivating film about the lineage of males and the headstrong persistence of a father’s influence (direct or secondhand) over his son, The Place Beyond the Pines sees writer-director Derek Cianfrance (2010’s brilliant Blue Valentine) once again wielding a blade of emotional impact as delicately as a prodigal musician strokes the string of an instrument.

Featuring some of the finest work from each of its cast members (Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, and Ryan Gosling in particular), the film is almost overcome by the emotions fueling it (a few second-act missteps and weighty, cliched attempts to inject doses of mirth fall flat), but its conclusion hurts as much as it inspires, making the film enjoyable for its insistence to corner the market on teardrops.

Mud
Where to see it: Still in theaters, but losing screens each week. On DVD August 6, 2013.

Matthew McConaughey in "Mud"

Matthew McConaughey in “Mud”

It might be cheating a bit to include Mud on this list thanks to Matthew McConaughey’s supporting performance (which already has awards buzz), but the film has enough arty flair to satisfy your indie-tooth while tiding you over for the performances of his competition later in the year.

Mud hits its dramatic chords a bit too carefully (a prominently symbolic film) to resonate as a complete package and its conclusion contains too many groan-inducing moments of saccharine closure, but the performances (Reese Witherspoon surprises in a minor role as well) are enough to warrant a few hours of your time.

‘Taxi Driver’ Never Sours: Analyzing the End

Taxi Driver Pictures, Images and Photos

The words “taxi” and “driver” have never been the same since 1976, a year in which a truly revolutionary collaborative effort between a brilliant director, a brilliant script, and a brilliant cast culminated in one of the best films the industry has ever seen. Taxi Driver was, is, and will continue to be one of the most shocking, intense, and altogether arresting films ever conceived. The following is my interpretation of the film’s ambiguous ending, as taken from a paper from my last film class(please forgive the formal language and blocky presentation that papers so often require).

Observing the technical elements that compose the final scene of the film is key to understanding that Travis Bickle has indeed died and the concluding moments of the film are false projections. For instance, as Travis makes his way through the building towards Iris, the action onscreen literally slows down to a crawling pace through the use of various slow-motion shots. Editing the shots in such a manner compliments the rhythm of the film at this point in Bickle’s mental descent; this is the final act in his life and it is a harried, violent, chaotic one in which he chooses to transition to the next stage of his life, which is death. The slowed-down, plodding presentation of the action leading up to Bickle’s death on the upstairs couch mimics the almost dreamlike state in which Bickle’s final moment’s exist, combined with the aforementioned echoed sound indicating that a surreal state (namely death) is imminent for Travis. The camera movements during and after this scene also indicate the death of Travis Bickle, what with the camera hovering above him during what are the last moments of his life, floating slowly away from the carnage and into the streets, becoming a point-of-view shot from the implied perspective of his soul departing his body. In the camera mimicking the motion of Bickle’s departing soul, Scorsese seems to take note from the writings of philosopher John Locke, in accordance with Locke’s statement that “the body, as well as the soul, goes to the making of a man…wherein the soul, with all its princely thoughts about it, would not make another man” . To view this situation under Locke’s theories about the body and soul, Travis’ actions in saving Iris define him in that moment, but in implying that his soul is departing his body through the camera’s perspective and motions suggests the soul is a separate entity leaving the physical body which committed such profound violence.

Taxi Driver Pictures, Images and Photos

Observing the technical elements after the camera departs the scene of Travis’ violent outburst at the end of the film also suggests that he is dead, or at least in a suspended state of the dying process. As Betsy enters the cab with Travis, the cinematography and visual presentation of the film once again becomes extremely atmospheric; odd-angled shots are used to observe Betsy in the backseat, namely a shot in which her face appears in the rear-view mirror at an angle, surrounded by dreamlike, surreal Bokeh lights that punctuate the empty darkness that envelops the rear-view the mirror. In Travis’ mind, this view of the woman who is assumed to be the object of the strongest opposite-sex attraction he had ever experienced comes like a vision of solace in his last moments of life. She is physically behind him, suggesting an opportunity he felt strongly about that passed him by, but he views her while looking forward into a mirror, suggesting a subconscious placement of companionship at the forefront of Travis’ desires in his living state manifesting itself in the dreamlike state of his dying process. Travis’ conversation with Betsy at this point is also reflective of what his desires were during his living state, seeing as their conversation is empty, superficial, and sustained with an almost submissive tone in the usually-dominant Betsy’s voice. Suggesting that Betsy, who we have been exposed to as an intelligent, powerful, and deeply analytical and complex person, would be so easily drawn back towards a man she despised simply because he is now considered a hero for his violent actions is absurd. This would be in contrast to the type of person we had seen her as before. She clearly made up her mind that she did not want anything to do with Travis, and to imply that something so superficial could completely change the mind of a static character such as Betsy only further cements the idea that this vision of her is fabricated.

To even suggest that Travis has lived to become a normal, functioning member of society after such a violent descent into madness is in direct contradiction to the character we had seen him become as well; he has distanced himself so far from his reality that there is no way he could possibly have assimilated normally back into it after the shooting—life was already meaningless for Travis pre-shooting, and his action to save Iris was his last attempt to try and give meaning to his pointless, forgotten existence. In reference to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s description of personality and identity, Travis can be seen existing somatically (in the sense that he lived within one physical body throughout the film), but can be psychologically viewed as an entirely different person from where he was at the film’s beginning. Having him transform so drastically into a kind, seemingly stable person during this final scene is simply not plausible within the archetype of a character Travis exists within.

The final technical implications that the closing scenes of the film have not occurred within Travis’ physical reality can be seen in the depiction of the moments proceeding Betsy’s exit from Travis’ taxi. Travis looks into his rearview mirror and observes Betsy exiting his line of vision, exiting his life, and ultimately exiting any version of reality (this suspended one or any reality that could have existed had he lived) within Travis’ existence. He drives away from her, driving away from a life he never attained, and a strange noise sounds as he looks into his rearview mirror once again, mimicking the snapping realization in this surreal state of his dying mind that he will never have this life of happiness. He simply drives away into the empty abyss of the city that ruined him, becoming his “job” (as Wizard implies) within a city that will continue on forever and ultimately retain everything Travis despises as suggested by the ambient light, atmosphere, and overall never-ending ambiguous darkness punctuated by beams of light that remain throughout the credits. Travis’ death is necessary and equated here with what would have remained if he had lived; a continuous assimilation into the darkness of the city he abhorred.

In order to understand the significance of the ending of the film beyond examining technical aspects (further than simply being a fabrication of the protagonist’s mind) it is also important to understand Travis Bickle as a character. To understand Travis as a character is to comprehend the significance of his death as a result of his violent rampage. We are first introduced to Travis as a seemingly normal person. He is a common, identifiable man simply working as a cab driver. But as the film progresses, it is clear that Travis is not what some would consider a “normal” person at all. He quickly descends into a violent and offensive mentality inspired by the effects of society upon him. Taxi Driver is ultimately a film about becoming a disturbed isolationist not only from a functioning society but also from innate human practices such as sexuality and companionship.

Taxi Driver Pictures, Images and Photos

Socially, Travis connects with people that are intangible to him. He is a constant observer, treating women as alien creatures along with his cabbie buddies that speak of women’s “rouge” as a foreign object. He describes Betsy as “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen” and treats her as such; an untouchable deity whom he decides to analyze and bring down to his level (as evident in the “dirty movie” scene) instead of attend to what would normally be considered a woman’s needs on a stereotypical courtship. For this reason, Betsy becomes an unreachable, alien creature to him and he seems to fall more in love with the idea of being with Betsy rather than the person herself. Iris is similarly an untouchable person in Travis’ life. She is a child prostitute. She is a young girl who is by all means still growing physically and psychologically. The naivety of Travis’ actions to “save” her shines through here, seeing as a girl of this age who has already experienced such disturbing exposure to sexuality will most likely never be fully saved from the psychological trauma she will undoubtedly experience as a result of her exposure to meaningless (and not to mention criminal) sexuality at such a young age. In both cases of personal connections we see Travis form throughout the film, the end result is not assured; however, the only conclusive aspect of his life is the fact that he will die, and dying in an attempt to give meaning to his empty existence is the only thing that makes sense within the context of Travis’ life.

In becoming this isolated observer, Travis takes on a role that subconsciously leads to his ultimate conclusion; death. Since his life is already metaphorically a dead-end, death emerges as the only plausible outcome. His violent actions are the only way he will truly be heard and recognized, with his death being a byproduct of his broken life. Travis continuously proclaims the city he resides in is filled with scum. In his writings, John Locke ponders the question of personal identity by stating “your identity in this sense consists of roughly what makes you unique as an individual and different from others. Or is it the way you see or define yourself, or the network of values and convictions that structure your life?”. Taking this musing a bit further within the context of Taxi Driver, the character of Wizard says “…you do a thing and that’s what you are…you get a job and you become the job…you got no choice anyway, we’re all fucked, more or less”. Applying this statement to Travis, after rejection from Betsy as well as drawing inspiration from his desire to save Iris and an ultimate defiance to remain living the static life that he does, Travis takes on a role of the offense; he deliberately seeks to solve his problems with violence, in this case, he plans to save Iris through the practice of a violent crime. This responsibility, in accordance with what Wizard says to him, involves death. In essence, his life’s “job” that he has now taken on involves death; therefore, dying at the end of the film serves as the only reasonable solution since dying would validate Winter’s ideology about ultimately becoming one’s job.

In pursuit of this newfound job, Travis essentially deconstructs his existence in the midst of his descent. He kicks over his television (his primary connection to the outside world in his apartment), he drastically alters his appearance, and even fabricates an alter lifestyle where he works for the government. In changing so much about himself, he loses touch with the minute glimpse of the shell of a person that remained of his former self when we are first introduced to him. There is no concrete existence that the words “Travis Bickle” describe. We have seen him go through so much change and devolution physically and psychologically that the person he really is is actually never clear throughout the film’s entirety. He is definted by his actions, not by who he really is as a person. The final scene brings this idea of Travis having no true identity to a head in the sense that Travis, although on what he considers to be a heroic mission, technically commits murder. The law sees no black and white; Travis killed three men, regardless of if he was saving a young girl or not. The setting in which he killed the men is important to this idea as well. He committed this crime within the ghettos of the city, where the “scum” he continuously speaks about existed. The reality of the aftermath of the situation would not be a newly-attained heroic status for Travis, but rather death or, if he had lived, imprisonment. Ultimately, Travis dies after committing a crime, within the scum-infested streets he despises. In that sense, Travis’ identity is forever lost, seeing as he died literally and metaphorically within the realm of the “scum”, becoming just another criminal and losing any trace of identity he retained as well as his physical being in his death.

After thorough examination of technical elements as well as analyzing Travis Bickle as a character within the film Taxi Driver, it is clear that the only way to come close to forming closure about the film’s ending is to assume that Travis has died and the events that comprise the final moments of the film are indeed false occurrences within his dying mind. From visual touches such as the dreamlike cinematography and mysterious lights (amongst other things) that compliment the final scenes of the film to the realization that Travis structured his life so that the only conclusive outlet would be death, understanding Taxi Driver becomes more conclusive—although no less effective—through treating the final scenes as indicators that Travis has died.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi