A Film, TV and Media Arts Professor Talks Oscars
When it comes to selecting the best films of the year, the Oscars have some serious explaining to do. Just ask the producers of Some Like It Hot and 2001: A Space Odyssey, two of the greatest films of all time that the Academy failed to nominate for the year’s best picture. While eight films are among this year’s Best Picture nominees, many great movies didn't make the cut. News @ Fairfield asked Dr. David Lerner, Assistant Professor of Film, Television, and Media Arts in the Visual and Performing Arts Department, to recommend a list of pictures that are worthy of being among this year’s contenders. A graduate of the University of Southern California, Dr. Lerner teaches courses on American cinema and television, world cinema and special topics in film and TV studies. Although he’s rooting hard for Boyhood to win Best Picture (the Oscars is telecast this Sunday), here is his list of other don’t miss films:
The Babadook (Dir. Jennifer Kent, starring Essie Davis)
-This Australian psychological horror film features Essie Davis as a widowed mother of a child with behavioral problems. After they read a seemingly haunted children’s book, their relationship with the outside world becomes increasingly fraught, and the border between reality and fantasy unravels. Without the use of gore or elaborate visual effects, the film is a terrifying depiction of the family home as a site of trauma, and the mother as a potential monster.
Inherent Vice (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Joaquin Phoenix)
-Inherent Vice is the first film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel and the spiritual relative of psychedelic detective films like The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski. Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a hippie detective in 1970 Los Angeles who tries to keep his head straight while embroiled in a labyrinthine plot involving real estate moguls, New Age clinics, surf-rock bands, maritime attorneys, and drug-smuggling dentists. The film is filled with jokes, but all lurking above an undercurrent of malaise as the idealism of the 1960s morphs into the 1970s.
Life Itself (Dir. Steve James)
-This documentary presents film critic Roger Ebert as a man in full. Using excerpts from his autobiography and a wealth of visual and moving-image media, we see Ebert’s history as a journalist, his struggles with alcoholism, the tense chemistry he shared with Gene Siskel, and his loving marriage. This personal history is intercut with hospital footage of Ebert in his last weeks fighting cancer, much of it graphic and difficult to watch. It is a tender film in which Ebert comes across as a passionate human being, whose film criticism was an extension of his empathy and love of life.
Love Is Strange (Dir. Ira Sachs, starring Alfred Molina, John Lithgow)
-Alfred Molina and John Lithgow portray a New York City gay couple forced to live apart when Molina’s character loses his job, and they need to find a new apartment. While the film explores the discrimination that same-sex couples face, it is less a film about gay rights concerns than a film about the struggle to balance between familial support and individual growth, how challenging it is both to live together as well as to live apart.
Lucy (Dir. Luc Besson, starring Scarlett Johansson) / Under the Skin (Dir. Jonathan Glazer, starring Scarlett Johansson)
-These two 2014 films continue Scarlett Johansson’s exploration of the limits of humanity begun in the 2013 film, Her, in which she played a disembodied operating system. In Lucy, Johannson’s character takes a drug that unlocks her brain’s full potential and renders her into an unstoppable, yet alienated, action force; in Under the Skin, she is an actual alien, seducing men and colonizing their bodies for reasons that remain mysterious. The latter features some of the most striking visual and sound design of 2014, transforming the Scottish landscape into its own science fictive environment.
Mr. Turner (Dir. Mike Leigh, starring Timothy Spall)
-Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of painter J.M.W. Turner in this biopic from British director Mike Leigh. The film depicts Turner as passionate but inscrutable, a man who can only be understood through an accumulation of often contradictory relationships and moments. The digital cinematography by Dick Pope is some of the best of the year, with careful attention to colors and landscapes that echo Turner’s work.
Nightcrawler (Dir. Dan Gilroy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal)
-Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the best performances of the year in this dark narrative about making it in the contemporary media environment. Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a former petty criminal who finds success as a “stringer,” shooting grisly footage of car accidents and the aftermaths of violent incidents and selling it to local news broadcasters. The film functions as a portrait of psychotic ambition in an unregulated labor force, as well as satire of a bloodthirsty media industry.
Obvious Child (Dir. Gillian Robespierre, starring Jenny Slate)
-Jenny Slate plays a female stand-up comedian in New York City who gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to get an abortion. Obvious Child can be read as a response to films like Knocked Up and Juno, similarly combining comedy and pathos, but offering a more sensitive perspective on the ways female friendships inform reproductive decisions.
Two Days, One Night (Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, starring Marion Cotillard)
-A woman (Sandra, played by Cotillard) is recently recovered from a nervous breakdown and set to resume her job when she receives news that her co-workers have elected to make her job redundant in exchange for monetary bonuses. From Belgian filmmakers, the Dardenne brothers, this realist film is shot largely on handheld cameras and in long takes as Sandra spends the weekend visiting each of her co-workers individually to convince them to vote for her to keep her job (and forego their bonuses). Marion Cotillard is deservedly nominated for Best Actress for her performance.