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Sunday, April 26, 2015

DuVernay's candor and humor take DC crowd by storm

"I'm interested in compiling a body of work that says one thing: that black life matters." With that, Selma director Ava DuVernay held a most fascinating court yesterday with Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American history. The event took place at the Museum of the American Indian as part of a symposium titled History Rebellion Reconciliation.

She was fascinating in her straightforwardness - "the writer that eventually got the credit for my [Selma] script" - humor - listening to her describe directing the scene in which Martin and Coretta confront his extra-marital affair - and kindness - she wanted to get all the questions in even though time was running over.

The debate over the history of Selma came up often. She talked about listening to Johnson tapes, and Dr. Bunch said that despite the high-profile attacks, most historians agree with how Selma painted Johnson's role. "The lens for which we survey these things should be up for grabs," DuVernay said. She did flinch when the first questioner - an African American man - asked her where the white civil rights heroes were in her film. She told Dr. Bunch to take that one.

She is about as unpretentious as they come. When a woman asked her what she is doing to foster more black women in the field, she said that besides having some support groups she can't do anything. It takes hard work, rewriting in the middle of the night and a general commitment. She also said that she will not defend herself as an artist again.

She spoke about going from a $20,000 budget for Middle of Nowhere to a $20 million budget for Selma. DuVernay laughed when telling about filming indies and the things that you can get around - like permits - to save money. But with Selma it all had to be by the book and thus $20 million can - and did - go very fast.

DuVernay said that after Selma she received every civil rights script in the world on her desk. "Here's the first black fireman in Pennsylvania..." It's not what she wants to do, although she has pitched a pilot show to CBS starring Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni Rose. It's about a Department of Justice group that takes on civil rights fights. "Probably doesn't sound like something CBS will pick up," she said.

They showed long clips of her earlier films, I Will Follow, and a Venus Williams doc she did for ESPN. Middle of Nowhere is another great film people should see. In truth, they could have kept going with the clips and people would have been okay. They were riveting. (Selma's were not as riveting because they could only show chopped up footage instead of scenes.)

She finished - after a handsome questioner told her how "fine" she is - by saying that she wil go home to LA to finish writing a new series. It sounded like a serious story, but "I gotta throw in a love story and some hot men," she joked. :You know how that goes."

I think everyone in the auditorium would have followed - on Facebook and in reality - DuVernay anywhere after this wonderful session.

Monday, February 16, 2015

My Top Films of 2014

It's Oscars time! Here are my best films in descending order:

11. MEET THE PATELS/ LIVING IS EASY WITH EYES CLOSED. I'm going to put these 2 together because neither has received a release yet. Josh Levin at West End Cinema tells me he's trying to get Meet the Patels - it's a laugh-out-loud documentary about an Indian-American comedian turning to his parents after a breakup to find him the right girl. Living Is Easy... stars Almodovar's Javier Camara as a schoolteacher in 1966 Spain wanting desperately to meet John Lennon, who is filming How I Won the West 8 hours away. Really hope this gets a run locally.

10. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Yeah, I'm artsy but nothing wrong with having fun. This was an old-fashioned, well-written, well-acted sci-fi romp starting with that first scene with Chris Pratt and his classic soundtrack. I'm sure the sequel is close by.

9. TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT. Where have all the foreign films gone? I don't know if there is one in theaters now. It seems they are all relegated to festivals and museums now. Anyway, we did catch this one at AFI's EU Showcase and it was mesmerizing. The Dardenne Brothers come up with a great set-up, and Marion Cotillard returns to her unglamorous roots to reel you in.

8. A GOOD LIE. It's interesting that Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey starred in the excellent film Mud together last year. Both have made unbelievable film choices in the last few years. Here Witherspoon doesn't show up until midway through - the first half shows the war in South Sudan - but she makes up for lost time with a gritty performance, complementing the great work by the unknown leads.

7. INTERSTELLAR. McConnaughey's turn. This film takes a while to get going, but when it does it draws you in with good, old-fashioned storytelling. Anne Hathaway also takes a star turn, and others like Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, William Devane and John Lithgow show up at various intervals. Good, original script.

6. FORCE MAJEURE - Hey, a foreign film that actually got a regular release. I left this film thinking about everything, gender, relationships, children, the French Alps. The director does a wonderful job setting up the situation, and when it happens it's almost like a flash. One of the best cinematic scenes of the year is the dinner scene here with the 2 couples. AFI is showing it Jan. 15 with the director present.

5. WILD. Here's Reese again. She doesn't really try to be likeable here, and yet...she is. We root for her and hold our breath as various men come her way, with varying motives. The scenery is spectacular, and the director Jean-Marc Vallee - who directed The Dallas Buyers Club starring guess who - shows a really skilled touch with a story that's basically a woman walking a trail. It's a neat experience to watch.

4. CITIZENFOUR. Should win the documentary Oscar. It takes a little bit to get going, but director Laura Poitras is just setting the stage. Who knew that Edward Snowden was such a fascinating character, whether talking about his secrets or fixing his hair? The access that Poitras gets  cannot be overstated - she's part of it but smartly stays behind the camera. By the end, I wanted more.

3. BEYOND THE LIGHTS. I loved it. Only award this riveting tale will probably get is worst marketing campaign. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker make an exciting, human couple and Danny Glover and Minnie Driver are two pros as respective parents. Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood uses modern conveniences - like social media - to her advantage and then lets Mbatha-Raw take over. It's a fun movie.

2. SELMA. Wow! I walked out of the theater in awe of the restraint and skills that director Anna DuVernay shows with this mature and illuminating piece of work. Nothing is overdone and yet the emotional force of the movie is near-overwhelming. The actors are pitch-perfect and please stay for Common's song over the credits. In fact, I don't think anyone left before the credits had finished at the showing I went to. Awesome.

1. BOYHOOD. I was already in the tank for director Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke and this only submerged me further. Just amazing that they found the right boy - at what, age 7? - to play the leading role. With every stage he went through I recalled my own passages. And my friend Cinthia said she recalled HER own, so it's not just a guy thing. The time goes quickly here, and I was sorry to see it end. Rosanna Arquette also deserves a nomination.

MY NEXT 10 or SO:  Ida, Pride, Jimi By My Side, A Summer's Tale (ah Rohmer!), Last Days in Vietnam, The Overnighters, The Skeleton Twins, The Trip to Italy (I love the 'Trip' films), Diplomacy, Dear White People, and Top Five, A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice.