NOIR CITY 2017: a bang up final weekend

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD
Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

I’ve been recommending  the Noir City film fest, underway in San Francisco and running through Sunday. Noir City is the annual festival of the Film Noir Foundation, spearheaded by its founder and president Eddie Muller. The Foundation preserves movies from the traditional noir period that would otherwise be lost. Noir City often plays newly restored films and movies not available on DVD. And we get to watch them in vintage movie palace (San Francisco’s Castro Theatre) with a thousand other film fans.

To see the this year’s Noir City program and buy tickets, go here.  Here are the highlights of Noir City’s bang up final weekend:

  • Charley Varrick: the shamefully underrated American neo-noir from the 1970s with Walter Mathau.  To survive, he’s got to outsmart the mob all by himself.
  • The Aura: A completely overlooked 2005 neo-noir from Argentina about an epileptic taxidermist.  He’s smart enough to plan the Perfect Crime, but does he have the sociopathic ruthlessness?
  • Before the Devil Know You’re Dead: A masterpiece from the then 84-year-old director Sidney Lumet, it features one of the best performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Then there’s Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Michael Shannon – but Albert Finney steals the movie at the end.
  • Victoria: A 2015 European thrill ride filmed in a single 138-minute shot.
Ricardo Darin in THE AURA at Noir City
Ricardo Darin in THE AURA at Noir City

Movies to See Right Now

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey (both Oscar-nominated) in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.
Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey (both Oscar-nominated) in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.

Oscar nominees Nebraska, American Hustle and Her all made my Best Movies of 2013.  I also strongly recommend Best Picture nominees The Wolf of Wall Street and PhilomenaDallas Buyers Club, with its splendid performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, is formulaic but still a pretty good watch.

Not nominated, but pretty damn good, is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, another fine thriller from that franchise, with another amazing performance by Jennifer Lawrence. I also admire the compelling French drama The Past. And I also like the Mumblecore romance Drinking Buddies, now available on VOD.

I haven’t yet seen the Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts, but I’m gonna because they’re always good.

I’m not a fan of Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks (sentimental and predictable) or the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (about an unlovable loser – and I didn’t love the movie, either).

My DVD/Stream of the Week features Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Hulu.

Turner Classic Movies has launched its wonderful annual 31 Days of Oscar – filling the entire month with Oscar-nominated movies. This week I recommend two wickedly funny Preston Sturges films – The Great McGinty (inside workings of a corrupt political machine) on February 10 and The Lady Eve (con artist Barbara Stanwyck tries to land the clueless but wealthy Henry Fonda) on February 11. TCM is also cablecasting the Howard Hawkes screwball comedy Ball of Fire, with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, on February 11.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in DVD/Stream of the Week: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

My favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance is in the 2007 dark thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which I’ve called the decade’s most overlooked American film. It’s the gripping story of two very different brothers in a study of greed and desperation.  Hoffman’s brilliant but amoral character needs money and suggests to his sad sack brother (Ethan Hawke) that they rob their parent’s jewelry store. Unlike many of his schlubby roles, Hoffman’s character here is talented, successful and supremely confident that he deserves even more than he has earned. Hoffman gives one his best performances as he tries to stay in control of his increasingly hopeless circumstances – melting down internally but harnessing all of his energy in a futile attempt to regain control.

Hoffman’s fellow actors are superb. A.O. Scott wrote of Hawke’s character: “If you gave him a quarter to feed the meter, you’d end up with a parking ticket and a stream of pathetic apologies.” Marisa Tomei has a showcase scene when her character lays one more devastating development on her hubbie (Hoffman). And Albert Finney takes over the movie in the very last scene.  The film was directed by the 84-year-old Sidney Lumet (who was first nominated for an Oscar for 12 Angry Men in 1957).

Another thing – Hoffman’s movie characters rarely got the girl (and some – such as in Happiness – were outright perverted), but here he gets to bang away on Marisa Tomei with vigor and relish.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Hulu.

Best Recent Crime Dramas

Gomorrah

We’re living in a good time for crime drama.  When I think of this genre, I generally think of The Godfather, Goodfellas, and the film noir of the 40s and 50s.  But there are some excellent contemporary ones.  This year, we have had A Prophet, The Secret in Their EyesAjami, Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Animal Kingdom.  (Interestingly, two of those films are French, and the others are Australian, Argentine and Israeli.)

Here are some more outstanding crime dramas from the past seven years:  The Lookout, A History of Violence, Layer Cake, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,  Tell No One,  Gomorrah,  Sin Nombre,  In Bruges, Zodiac,  Maria Full of Grace and Eastern Promises.  All of them have inventive, fresh takes on the crime genre.  All of them are on my list of best films for its year.

For descriptions and trailers, see Best Recent Crime Dramas.

Layer Cake