The last week or so has found me in front of the television, watching one DVD after another, in preparation for the first round of BAFTA voting which closes tomorrow. Not all are reviewed below, but it's a sample of my recent viewing. As you'll note, there wasn't really a duff one among them.
A Mighty Heart
I’m not sure why this didn’t end up in my top 12 films of the year, and if I was to redo that list today, it would definitely replace one of the original dozen titles. Watching it a second time, I was even more affected by it. Angelina Jolie’s performance as journalist Marianne Pearl whose WSJ reporter husband Daniel was kidnapped and later beheaded in Pakistan is heart-felt, honest and intensely moving and anchors director Michael Winterbottom’s crisp, exhilarating procedural thriller. His loose, on the hoof, documentary style shares much in common with Bourne director Paul Greengrass, but, unlike Greengrass, Winterbottom allows his camera to rest and settle more often, making for a much less frantic but no less exciting experience.
Charlie Wilson's War
The first of many war-themed movies that took a spin in my DVD player this Christmas, director Mike Nichols mixes screwball with satire in this “based on real events” tale of Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), otherwise known as Goodtime Charlie, a Texas Congressman who helped finance the US government’s covert military action against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 70s and 80s. The machine-gun script by Aaron Sorkin scarcely pauses for breath, cramming an inordinate amount of plot and politics, plus the odd hot-tub scene, into its 97-minute running time to precise, comic effect. Not sure about Julia Roberts’ hair, though.
The Kite Runner
Another film dealing with Afghanistan and another dealing with the consequences of loss from director Marc Forster who gets some sublime performances from his youthful cast and delivers a beautifully measured film let down — only marginally, mind — by an ending that feels a little too rushed and convenient. (Not having read the book, I’m not sure how the film compares.)
Grace Is Gone
A very fine turn from John Cusack is at the core of this touching character study. Cusack plays Stanley Phillips, a former soldier dismissed on medical grounds whose wife dies while on active duty in Iraq, and, unable to break the news to his two young daughters, takes them on a road trip to Florida to visit Enchanted Gardens. With the war only the kicker to the human drama, writer-director James Strouse gets wonderfully naturalistic performances from Shelan O’Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk as Stanley’s kids, and there’s a refined, understated score from Clint Eastwood, too.
Winner of the World Audience Award at last year’s Sundance, this fresh and delightfully simple boy-meets-girl tale of an Irish busker and Czech flower seller-cum-pianist never takes the obvious route and is all the more appealing for it, with great songs and winning performances from Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Charming and unabashedly romantic.
Things We Lost In The Fire
An upscale weepie, benefiting from a trio of very fine performances from Benicio Del Toro, Halle Berry and David Duchovny. Alas the story of an architect’s widow (Berry) struggling to cope with his death, turning for support to his junkie best friend (Del Toro) treads too familiar ground.
I’ve come late to the Diablo Cody party, but in spite of the reams of hype pertaining to this film and its writer, I still found it funny and engaging. Ellen Page, so good in Hard Candy and so unlucky not to have been Oscar-nominated for that, shows once again why she’s one of today’s most gifted young talents while director Jason Reitman more than makes good on the promise of his debut feature, Thank You For Smoking.
La Vie En Rose
A sensational, career-enhancing performance from Marion Cotillard as alcoholic, self-destructive Edith Piaf that’s far better than the film built around it, a solid enough biopic whose choppy narrative structure proves more confusing than illuminating.
Away From Her
While Julie Christie has been getting all the plaudits for her portrait of an Alzheimer sufferer in this sensitive and low-key directorial debut from actress Sarah Polley, adapting a story that initially appeared in The New Yorker, she’s more than matched by Gordon Pinsent as her husband of more than 40 years. Sentiment free and beautifully played.
A Band's Visit
A droll, wonderfully observed comedy that follows an Egyptian Police Orchestra arriving in Israel for a concert, only to wind up in the wrong town where they discover the generosity of their hosts extends beyond cultures and political divides.