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Rams

Directed by Grímur Hákonarson




      Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) and his estranged brother Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) work as sheep farmers who live next to one other on a remote farm in Iceland. They enter their sheep into an annual contest for Best Sheep, but this year, Kiddi's sheep suffer from scrapie, a terminal disease that's also infectious. In turn, the local veterinarian officials mandate that all the sheep in the valley should slaughtered to prevent the disease from spreading further. Kiddi and Gummi do everything in their abilities to prevent the slaughter of their sheep, though, while the other farmers cave into the authorities.

      To merely describe the plot of Rams wouldn't be doing it enough justice because the film hooks you in with its atmosphere along with its humanism, subtleties and gentle warmth. Writer/director Grímur Hákonarson should be commended for knowing when to trust the audience's intelligence as well as patience. The slow pace might take some audience members a little time to get used to, but it's worth the wait---in other words, those whom are patient will be rewarded the most.

      Aesthetically, Rams looks quite mesmerizing with its picturesque, breathtaking cinematography. Many shots have the eligance and beauty of paintings which makes you want to freeze the frame just to stare at the landscape. Most important, though, Hákonarson grasps the importance and power of quiet moments; this isn't a very talky film. He also peppers the drama with some light touches of dry, quirky humor without going overboard into the comedy department. That delicate balance of drama and comedy, attention toward humanism, along with the compelling, complex and poignant relationship between Kiddi and his brother Gummi turns Rams into one of the best films of the year thus far.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Cohen Media Group.
Now playing at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.



45 Years

Directed by Andrew Haigh




      Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are in the process of planning for their upcoming 45th wedding anniversary. Before he had met Kate, he and his ex-fiance, Katya, had been in love and walked together on the mountain, but she fell down a crevasse. Now, years later, Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of Katya had been found on the mountain after the ice thawed. His marriage with Kate gets put to the test because of that letter while his buried emotions as well as those of Kate's are in the process of thawing as well.

      The life of a married couple has not but put under the microscope so compellingly and profoundly since Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage. A lot happens throughout 45 Years despite that there's no explosions or chases or villains or anything that would require CGI (a.k.a. "standard effects). Instead, there's plenty of humanism in all of its complex forms which should be called truly special effects. Every scene brims with humanism in way that makes you feel as though you were watching a documentary. Much of the film takes place within Kate and Geoff's humble abode, but talented writer/director Andrew Haigh avoids making the scenes feel stuffy, melodramatic, or overly theatrical. Haigh also avoids the use of flashbacks and a narrator which would have been lazy and distracting. He keeps the film very lean, but concurrently gives you a lot to ponder about given what happened in the past and the complex feelings as well as epiphanies that are rising to the surface in Kate and Geoff's 45-year marriage. Aesthetically, everything from the set design to the weather and even the lighting and use of music help to enrich the film even further without pounding you over the head.

      None of the subtlety or warmth would be able to radiate if weren't for the impeccable acting talents of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. Both of them should be commended for finding the emotional truths of their roles and giving performances filled with nuance and charisma. They're also capable of conveying many emotions even during the quiet moments. Essentially, for 93 minutes, you'll forget that you're watching Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay because they essentially become their characters.

      The fact that 45 Years manages to be so quietly powerful and engrossing in only 93 minutes is yet another of its many strength. Haigh seems to grasp the concept that "less is more." Yes, perhaps a different writer/director would have provided you with more scenes of Kate and Geoff's married life before Geoff opens the letter, but Haigh is the kind of rare filmmaker who actually trusts your intelligence and imagination as an audience member. 45 Years is essentially everything that the much bigger-budgeted, overlong and dull By the Sea, another recent dissection of a marriage on the rocks, wishes that it could have been: profound, haunting, tender, warm, captivating, intelligent and brimming with humanism from start to finish. This is the kind of film that you'll want to re-watch many years later to understand and to appreciate it from an entirely different phase of your simply complex life.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sundance Selects and IFC Films.
Now playing at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.



The Danish Girl

Directed by Tom Hooper




      n 1926, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), a Danish painter on the verge of becoming famous, lives with his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who's also a painter. When their best friend, Ulla (Amber Heard), a dancer, can't find the time to pose for one of Gerda's portraits, Einar agrees to wear women's garments and replace Ulla. Einar discovers that he enjoys wearing women's attire, so he attends an artist's ball in Copenhagen dressed as a woman named Lili whom he claims is his cousin. Gerda allows him to cross-dress, but she becomes upset when she observes him kissing Henrik (Ben Whishaw) at the ball. The more that Einar spends time as Lili, the more he (or she, rather) feels more like his true self and yearns to undergo a highly risky gender-reassignment surgery. Meanwhile, as her married with Einar begins to crumble, Gerda tracks down his childhood friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) in hopes of helping Einar with his gender identity crisis.

      The screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, adapted from the novel by David Ebershoff, focuses on Einar's transformation as well as how it affects the relationship between him and Gerda. Although the audience doesn't learn much about Einar/Lili's past other than his friend, Hans, to be fair, The Danish Girl doesn't strive to be an in-depth biopic. Perhaps a documentary about the real-life would explore her childhood and analyze her thoughts/feelings. Instead, what director Tom Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon provide you with is a very emotionally engrossing glimpse of what Einar went through and what he was feeling as he became Lili. It's worth noting that not a single scene veers into melodrama.The third act in particular might even make you tear up a bit.

      Fortunately, the convincingly moving performances from everyone onscreen compensate for the screenplay's lack of character depth. Eddie Redmayne gives a bravura performance as Einar/Lili that will ensure that he at least gets nominated once again for Best Actor after winning the award last year for The Theory of Everything . It's absolutely mesmerizing to watch him as Einar transforms, both physically and mentally, into Lili. Alicia Vikander also gives an awards-worthy performance as she captures Gerda's fragility and her passionate love toward Einar (and Lili) with utter conviction. Kudos to the always-reliable casting director Nina Gold for selecting them as well as for the bold choice of including Amber Heard in her best performance to date. The well-chosen musical score by Alexandre Desplat along with the costume design by Paco Delgado help to further enrich The Danish Girl and elevate it into one of the best films of 2015.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Focus Features.
Now playing at Regal Union Square and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.

Room

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson




      Ma (Brie Larson) has been held in captivity inside a 10 foot by 10 foot shed with her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Her captor, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) enters the shed every now and then to have sex with Ma. The more that Ma tells Jack about the outside world, the more she's tempted to finally escape the shed, so she and Jack hatch a plan together.

      Room begins in the second act when Ma has already leaves a number of years in the shed since Old Nick had kidnapped her at the age of 17. There's very little sense of the outside world at first except for a small skylight window above them. By throwing you right into the 2nd act, director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue provide you with a captivating hook so that you know precisely what the film is about and who the main characters are without having your time wasted. You gradually learn why they're there as the film progresses. The scenes inside the shed capture the claustrophobia and horrors of what it's like for Ma and Jack to be trapped in there---it's as much of a mental trap as it is a physical one.

      The second half of the film feels quite poignant and tender as it shows the aftermath of Ma and Jack's escape and reunion with her mother (Joan Allen) and father (William H. Macy) as she struggles to adjust to her new freedom. Many scenes will tug at your heartstrings and cause you to shed some tears, but, fortunately, Room is the kind of tearjerker that genuinely earns its tears. In one particularly well-shot scene, Ma cries upon seeing Jack, but Abrahamson and Donoghue choose to mute out the mother's cries and screams thereby trusting your imagination as an audience member. Had the sounds been shown, it would have been overwhelming; instead it's quietly powerful.

      The heart and soul of Room lies in its heartfelt performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, both of whom are Oscar-worthy. They actually seem like mother and son throughout the film, and the emotions that they convey through their performances are quite palpable. Not since Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam has there been a child actor with as much potential and talent as Jacob Tremblay. Hopefully, he'll get more opportunities to showcase his talents in the future after this breakthrough role.

      Room is also the kind of film that can be seen as an allegory similar to the one about the people chained to a cave wall who venture outside once they become unchained and head toward the sun (enlightenment) in The Republic by Plato. The enlightenment that Ma and, especially, Jack experience upon their liberation can represent any kind of enlightenment that one might experience throughout life. Given that we live in the Age of Stupid or the Age of Technology, perhaps we're all still trapped inside that shed or chained to the cave wall so-to-speak, and we have yet to experience true enlightenment. Ultimately, with its solid writing, directing, editing and acting, Room is one of the best films of the year. Don't be surprised if you'll find it on many Top 10 lists.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by A24 Films.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.
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