At 85, with almost fifty documentary features to his credit, Frederick Wiseman stands as one of the great unsung humanists in American cinema. His name is not well enough known (even among cinephiles) because his films are not easily available outside of university libraries, in spite of the fact that they are produced with money from public television and occasionally air on PBS. Audiences used to more traditional forms of documentary filmmaking are also likely to find Wiseman’s techniques disorganized or boring. That’s because Wiseman prefers expansiveness to concision and refuses to coddle the viewer with any underscoring, musical or otherwise. In his ethnographic films—Aspen; Belfast, Maine; At Berkeley; and now In Jackson Heights—his approach is rather to drop the viewer into a particular place and force them to use their observational and critical thinking skills to form their own conclusions. If you walk away from a Wiseman film thinking that you haven’t seen anything interesting, it’s because you weren’t paying attention—something that Wiseman uncompromisingly demands of his audience.
The title of John Crowley’s Brooklyn is somewhat misleading, as only the first half of the film takes place there. It opens in the summer of 1951, as young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) leaves her economically depressed Irish village in hopes of making a better life in New York City. Over the course of the next year she battles homesickness, settles into a job as a shopgirl at a fashionable department store, and is courted by a good-natured Italian boy she meets at an Irish dance. (“Don’t they have Italian dances?” she asks him. “They do, but I like Irish girls,” he says.)
These days, movies about journalists have come to feel almost as quaint as newspapers themselves. So even though Spotlight takes place only fourteen years ago, when a team of crackerjack reporters at The Boston Globe first exposed the Catholic Church’s decades-long legacy of child abuse, it plays upon our nostalgia for the good old days before journalistic integrity came to be threatened by the blogosphere and the cable-TV circuit. As some awards pundits have already argued, Spotlight stands poised to win the Oscar this year because it extols the lost virtues of print culture and ethics-driven reporting, of chasing down leads and spending months to research a story. The Globe’s investigative team, led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), are intrepid, hard-working, savvy, driven; they’re easy to like as well as to admire. We’re invited to cheer them on as they build their story brick by brick. In spite of the specter of sex abuse that looms over the film, Spotlight is essentially a feel-good movie. It insists that good journalism can correct injustice and bring evil to light—a corrective to so many movies and TV shows in which “the media” is itself evil.
Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian is a cheeky, wise-ass sci-fi adventure; as potential Oscar contenders go, it’s refreshingly light and breezy, and its 140 minutes pass quickly. Even as it barrels toward a conventional feel-good ending, it sidesteps the earnestness and the torpor that sink so many other Hollywood movies. The Martian is a feel-good movie for people who think they’re too cool for feel-good movies, in which screenwriter Drew Goddard undercuts big emotional moments with benign sarcasm. Goddard is a snarky writer—that much was clear in his foray into meta-horror The Cabin in the Woods—and the snarkiness of The Martian almost feels grating in spots. But it keeps the movie jumping along. Matt Damon, too, is well utilized here. Damon has always signified as something of a wise-ass himself; as Mark Watney, an astronaut who is left for dead during a mission to Mars and must devise a plan to sustain himself until NASA can come to his rescue, he’s smug even in the face of catastrophe. In a weird twist, the movie uses Damon’s (and Watney’s) pomposity to endear him to us. Watney is both an irritating know-it-all and a self-deprecating goof who comes to view his situation as an opportunity for adventure (forced to appropriate and repurpose NASA equipment in order to survive, he declares himself a “space pirate”). Damon’s Watney is just one of the film’s many lovably nerdy heroes. With its science-geek humor and campy disco soundtrack, The Martian is big-studio entertainment at its most pleasantly unpretentious.
In Lenny Abrahamson’s Room—a film which might have just as easily been titled Womb—five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives with his mother (Brie Larson) in a state of symbiotic co-dependency. He has never seen the outside world, having spent his entire life within the confines of the toolshed-cum-prison where both he and “Ma” have been locked away by a sadistic redneck. For Ma, each day offers the same hellish routine, monotonous and soul-crushing, from which there appears to be no escape. For Jack, who has never known any other way of life, there is no place outside the four walls of “Room” to which to escape in the first place. Aside from their captor, whom Jack glimpses through the slats of a closet door, Ma is the only person he has ever seen: they share meals, baths, and a bed, and he still nurses at her breast.
Curious, moving, and brilliantly imagined, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is at once the least flagrantly surreal and the most formally ambitious film he has yet made. It’s an animated film, for one thing: the detailed, realistic human figures appear to have been molded out of wire, cardboard, and felt, and they move with lifelike precision. (The film’s co-director, Duke Johnson, is a veteran of several stop-motion shorts, most of them created for the Adult Swim series Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole.) The scope of Anomalisa’s plot, meanwhile, feels almost modest. Michael Stone, a disgruntled corporate guru who has literally written the book on customer service (How Can I Help You Help Them?), arrives in Cincinnati for a business conference, checks into his hotel, and finds himself overwhelmed with loneliness. After an unsuccessful attempt to re-connect with an ex-girlfriend, he is gripped by the sound of a female voice from down the hotel corridor. The voice belongs to Lisa, a mousy customer-service associate in town to attend the same conference at which Michael is scheduled to speak.