The second phase of Awards Season is upon us, with early Oscar contenders spreading like a winter cold across Seattle Screens. Late November is the final stretch before the Christmas glut, when studios dump all their high profile releases at the same time, a phenomenon which never ceased to amaze me in my former life in the theater business: the early weeks of December are always a wasteland, while a dozen quality films come out at the same time at the end of the month, stretching into January, when certain releases will finally make it out of the New York-LA bubble to grace us in the hinterlands with their Oscar lunges. Most November releases will be forgotten by that time, the awards bloggers twiddling with their own self-created narratives, while the actual business of handing out awards is mostly accomplished. I caught up with a few of the films with strong cases for end-of-the-year recognition last weekend at the local mall, Brooklyn, Spotlight and Creed, all of which are very fine films you can catch all over town, at least for a couple more weeks.
John Crowley’s Brooklyn, adapted by Nick Hornby from a novel by Colm Tóibín, is the epitome of this time of year: a handsome historical drama anchored by strong acting and a skillful, unobtrusive visual style. Saoirse Ronan stars as a young Irish woman who, in 1952, emigrates to America in search of work. The first half of the film chronicles her struggles to adapt to the new world, the sadness and isolation of being in a place where no one knows you (and the oddity of an immigrant community where, though you specifically are unknown, everyone you meet is nonetheless like you: they know your aunt). At first lost and homesick, she gradually finds her way, developing friendships, advancing into a career and falling in love. Within a year, she’s built a life for herself. Her commitment to that life is then tested when an emergency forces her to return home, where the temptations of family, work, community and a new romance lure her back to the old world. Ronan, who was by far the best part of Joe Wright’s Atonement some years ago, dominates every scene, her brilliant, clear eyes revealing depths of both confused disappointment in so much that surrounds her and her determination to create something much better for herself. As a document of the immigrant experience, it’s lovely, a perfect double bill with Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights (which recently ended its too-brief run at the Northwest Film Forum). That film chronicles, in Wiseman’s idiosyncratic way, the functioning of a pluralistic community as it copes with a vast array of social changes, new immigrants and groups of people more openly asserting their rights, all in counter to the destructive imperatives of faceless 21st Century capitalism. Wiseman gives us the system, a collection of individuals doing work, their personalities revealed through that work. Crowley and Hornby give us an individual. Ronan gives us her soul.
One of the prime movers of immigration in Brooklyn is the Irish Catholic Church, its trans-Atlantic connections providing a conduit for Ronan’s immigration as well as a support system for her and the thousands of people like her once they arrive in the US. It’s an extra-governmental organization with deep roots in a community, becoming ultimately entwined with every aspect of life in Irish-American cities. The dark side of that influence is deeply felt in Tom McCarthy’s procedural Spotlight, about a team of Boston Globe reporters who doggedly research and ultimately expose the depths of the Catholic Church’s coverup of sexual abuse by its priests. In keeping with the just-the-facts ethos of reportorial idealism, McCarthy shoots in a precise, deliberately plain style: the offices, fluorescent lights, and cheap clothes of people at work (it’s about as close to Wiseman as you can expect from a Hollywood production) occasionally broken up with ominous images the Catholic architecture that dominates the city of Boston. The film chronicles the abuse, in necessarily horrific detail, but remains focused primarily on the reportorial process itself, and more subtly on the effects that work has on the lives of the people who do it (lifelong friendships become estranged, weekly church trips with Grandma get canceled, an attorney buried in paperwork lashes out at his secretary but puts on a smiling friendly face for the young victims he must defend, marriages either broken up or revealed to have boundless depths of affection and understanding). Michael Keaton is the moral center anchoring an all-star cast (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Billy Crudup, Live Schreiber, Stanley Tucci – note that all of the victims and suspects are unknowns) the next step in what is hopefully a late career renaissance for an actor who had been missing from the biggest screens for far too long before last year’s Birdman (which is by no means a good movie or his best performance, but for which Keaton should have won the Oscar anyway). This is Keaton’s second newspaper film, after Ron Howard’s 1994 The Paper (which remains Howard’s best film). That film was a screwball comedy, where this is deadly serious, but Keaton brings the same mix of external confidence and internal despair he brought to all his greatest comic work. His relaxed, assured performance is a striking contrast to Mark Ruffalo’s mannered twitchiness as the lead reporter. Keaton of course has always been a manic performer, but his twitchiness was always expressed as a put on, a coverup betraying his characters’ self-conscious lack of confidence. Ruffalo though piles upon his tics an even more vibrant sense of moral outrage. As the lead it would be unbearable, but McCarthy wisely melts him into the ensemble, his eruptions serving as an emotional release for an audience that can’t help but feel as disgusted and horrified by what we learn as Ruffalo. But that reaction isn’t the point of the film, it’s instead Keaton’s self-critical understanding that the Church’s crimes wouldn’t have been possible without the complicity of every member of the community, without every single one of us. This is Hollywood social problem filmmaking of the highest order.
The biggest hit of the Thanksgiving season is the latest in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky saga, Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler. Moving the story of the lovable Philadelphia boxer into a new generation, Michael B. Jordan plays the son of Carl Weathers’s character from the first four films. He grew up first in a series of group homes before being adopted into luxury by Phylicia Rashad (playing the deceased Apollo Creed’s wife, Jordan’s Adonis (Donnie) is the product of an affair her husband had). Now in his mid to late 20s, Adonis leaves his office job to try to make a living as a boxer. Unable to find a trainer in Los Angeles, he moves to Philadelphia and recruits his father’s friend and rival Rocky Balboa. Stallone’s characterization of Rocky has shifted dramatically over the years, from barely articulate lug in the first film, through the iconic American superhero of the second, third and fourth films, to the aged, slightly punchy but wise old man of the fifth and sixth and now seventh films. He’s as lugubriously charming as ever, as his once titanic body breaks down while his speech has become slightly smoother and more comprehensible. This is easily the best constructed script of any of the films since the first one, and Coogler directs with a visual flair almost wholly absent from any other film in the series. Every film in the saga takes on the look of its contemporaries: the grittiness of the New Hollywood of the 70s, the glossiness of the high concept 80s, the orange and teal of the 2000s. Coogler brings the freedom of the digital 2010s, with a remarkable single-shot fight sequence that functions not just as a demonstration of virtuosity but as an expression of a world, his camera weaving in and around the ring as the men fight, floating back to the ringside, catching sounds and images on the fly while truly immersing the audience in the choreography of the fight. It’s as good an action sequence as I’ve seen this decade (Hong Kong cinema included). The other fights are captured differently, three in total in three different styles, the final fight integrating an expressive montage, flashback images, quick cuts as percussive as the hits Jordan takes, a POV shot from his bruise-closed eye, a brain ravaged by a beating but no less determined to go the distance.
Stallone will likely pick up some awards and nominations for his performance, which is certainly fine and caps a lifetime of under-recognized work from one of our strangest stars. Jordan as well is excellent (as he always is, he’s undoubtedly among the finest actors of his generation). Tessa Thompson, who was excellent last year in both Dear White People and Selma, plays the young Creed’s love interest. In many ways the opposite of Talia Shire’s Adrian, Thompson’s Bianca is assertive and confident, a musician with a degenerative hearing condition (a parallel ripe for exploration future Creed films, as Bianca’s ability to express herself in work declines along with Donnie aging out of the boxing profession). Thankfully, she never disintegrates into the scolding girlfriend role of so many jock movies. Everyone in the audience, everyone in the film, knows that boxing is a terrible sport, that taking repeated beatings to the head is a horrible way to make a living. The point lies in exploring what drives people to do it anyway. I don’t know, and I don’t think Stallone or Coogler or anyone else does either, but I suspect we all agree it has something to do with the view of the city on a cold morning from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.