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Directed by Damien Chazelle

      Miles Teller delivers the best performance of his career as Andrew Neyman, a student at Shaffer Conservatory of Music who aspires to become a professional jazz drummer. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an instructor at the school, conducts the jazz band at the school and picks him as a new member of the band. He leads Neyman through physically and emotionally strenuous experiences as he pushes him to his limits in his many attempts to acheive perfection. Meanwhile, Andrew has to deal with his not-quite-supportive father (Paul Reiser) and the challenge of balancing his fervent passion for jazz drumming with his blossoming romance with Nicole (Melissa Benoist).

      Writer/director Damien Chazelle might change the way you look at drumming or at relationships between students and teachers for that matter. Andrew and Terence have plenty of talent, but, just like any complex human being, they're infallible. Terence instructs Andrew and other members of the band much like a drill sergeant would push a soldier. He's domineering, emotionally abusive and draconian. It's equally moving, fascinating and thrilling to observe how the dynamics between he and Andrew evolve over time. Moreover, the camera work during the drumming scenes, particularly the final scene, captures the intensity and helps it to emerge on a palpable level. Don't be surprised if you'll find yourself overwhelmed with feelings of awe and suspense throughout those scenes.

      Fortunately, Chazelle knows that the meat of the story lies in Andrew's stress-inducing journey as a jazz drummer, so the subplots involving Andrew's dad and Andrew's girlfriend aren't in the forefront or distracting, and it's clear how they affect and shape Andrew on an emotional level. It's also refreshing that Terence doesn't become a caricature or a villain/monster per se because there's more to him than meets the eye as you eventually learn about events from his past that haunt him. Much of the film rings true and feels organic except for one minor, unexpected scene toward the end that lacks plausibility given the consequences which seem too "Hollywood". Still, despite that minor flaw, Whiplash remains an emotionally-charged, captivating triumph brimming with powerhouse performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, both of whom deserve an Oscar nomination. Bravo to casting director Terri Taylor for selecting them. You've never seen them in roles like this before, and they truly hit it out of the ballpark while helping to elevate the film into greatness.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at City Cinemas 123, Regal Union Square 14 and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Love is Strange

Directed by Ira Sachs

      Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been living together for the past 39 years, and finally get married to one another. Soon after, George loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school when the archdiocese learns of his gay marriage. He and Ben can no longer afford to live in their apartment, so they have no choice but to find other living arrangements while they look for an apartment they can afford with their new financial constraints. George moves in with his friends, Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson); Ben moves in with his nephew, Elliott (Darren Burrows), and his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), along with their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan).

      Character-driven, gentle and deeply human, Love is Strange ranks among the most genuinely heartfelt films of the year. Just when you think the film will go in a preachy direction by pitting Ben and George against the Catholic church, it goes in a refreshingly different direction by exploring how each of them adapt to their new living situations, and how their relationship evolves while living apart from one another. Not a moment rings false, and, unlike many films, it gets more interesting and complex as it goes along. Each character comes across as lived-in and there's more to them than meets the eye, even the supporting characters such as Joey. The fact that Sachs keeps the running time down to 94 minutes is a testament to writer/director Ira Sachs' talent and discipline as a filmmaker; if this were 2 hours or longer, it would've overstayed its welcome.

      Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias trust you as an intelligent member of the audience by not force-feeding you or hitting you over the head with any messages. The moments of comic relief work well while the darker moments feel understated without veering into melodrama or pretension. None of this would have worked without the fine cast each of whom is well-cast. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina give career-best performances that deserve awards recognition. You can sense Ben and George's love of one another on a palpable level from start to finish which makes Love is Strange all the more engrossing and quietly powerful.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.


Directed by Richard Linklater

      6-year-old Mason lives with his divorced mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and 9-year-old sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), in Texas. His father (Ethan Hawke), an aspiring musician, shows up on occasion. As Mason grows into a teenager, many changes and events happen including a new home, an alcoholic stepfather (Marco Perella), and his first girlfriend, April (Jessie Tilton).

      Writer/director Richard Linklater follows Mason over a 12-year span from the age of 6 until he goes off the college at the age of 18. For the first time in American film history, Linklater filmed the actors year after year for 12 years instead of using other actors or prosthetics/make-up/CGI as the characters age. That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what makes Boyhood so extraordinary. Linklater infuses so much naturalism within his film that every single scene rings true, and every small detail becomes an essential part of the tapestry of Mason and his family as a whole. Are you expecting big Hollywood moments like car accidents, fist or gunfights that send someone to the hospital or, perhaps, flashbacks to key scenes to connect the dots thematically for you? If that's the case, our culture/society has probably conditioned you to respond in that way much like Pavlov's dog was conditioned in the classic experiment which Boyhood refers to in yet another small, but profound scene. Linklater gives you the task of connecting the dots and deciding how much weight each moment should be given and how it affects Mason; a Hollywood director would've spoon-fed you everything. After all, growing up can be a roller coaster ride of, among other things, angst, happiness, sadness, confusion as well as a sense of hope, and Linklater captures all of that more palpably and authentically than any American film director has captured before. To summarize the plot doesn't really do it any justice because, just like life, it's simply complex.

      Yes, Boyhood clocks at 165 minutes, but you know you're watching a truly great film because you don't feel the weight of its running time and you never want it to end. Every scene feels genuinely poignant and, at least to a certain degree, relatable. The acting all across the board is very natural, and, unlike most American films that fall apart by the end credits, Boyhood boasts a strong beginning, middle and end. Moreover, within all of the moments of gravitas, Linklater infuses the film with just the right amount of comic relief without any sense of unevenness that would've taken away from the film's momentum. For 165 minutes, you'll join Mason along for his emotional journey through adolescence, and laugh when he laughs, feel happy when he's happy, sad when he's sad, and proud of his achievements. He's the kind of character that you'll still be thinking about for years to come. If you were to watch Boyhood again 10 years down the road, you might perceive new layers of insight within its complexity. Ultimately, it's one of the most profound and human American films in years and, if it does well enough in theaters, it could crack the ice to begin a new Golden Age of American Cinema. Why can't Hollywood make films like this anymore? Now critics need only worry about their other 9 Best Films of the Year.

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

Begin Again

Directed by John Carney

      Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) have a few things in common: they both have a passion for music, they're both lonely, and both have faith in one another. She broke up with her musician boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine), while Dan is separated from his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener). After quitting from the record company that he helped to create with his business partner (Mos Def), Dan goes to a local New York City pub where he sees Gretta singing and persuades her to let him produce her album for a very low cost. Their new business venture not only builds Dan's financial hopes up, but also helps to improve his relationship with his 14-year-old daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), as she spends time with him and Gretta---and even plays an instrument as part of the album.

      With Once, writer/director John Carney proved that he had knack for unpretentious romantic dramas about true-to-life people who are passionate about music. With Begin Again he proves that he still has that knack intact. Every drama, whether it be romance or plain drama, should be grounded in some form of realism; it doesn't need total realism a la Eric Rohmer's film's, though. Good chemistry or rapport between characters are very important as well. Fortunately, Begin Again has that to offer because of a very well-chosen casts of actors. The chemistry between Gretta and Dan feels quite palpable throughout. Will they be just business partners, friends or more? That's a question that might be in the back of your mind while Gretta and Dan create their album together, and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the answer which won't be spoiled here. A few other surprises include how Carney inventively incorporates flashbacks so smoothly without distracting from the narrative flow. Admittedly, the scenes involving Dan's former record company aren't quite as organic or believable as the rest of the film because of too many "conveniences" mostly likely happen only in Hollywood movies, but those are minor issues that can easily be forgiven with a little suspension of disbelief. What separates Begin Again from most romantic dramas from Hollywood---of which there are sadly too few around these days---is that its characters seem lived-in, complex and likable despite their flaws. Even Gretta's ex, a cheater, has redeeming qualities that humanize him. Morever, Carney adds just the right amount of comic relief without going overboard or catering to the lowest common denominator like Obvious Child does.

      Rule number one: Any film with Catherine Keener is at least very good. Rule number two: All rules were made to be broken except for rule number one. Begin Again, like any film with Catherine Keener, has the kind of special effects that are rare in Hollywood: wit, intelligence, warmth, charisma and, above all, humanity. Kudos to Keener and her agent for always selecting films with beautifully-written screenplays (i.e. last year's Enough Said) that feel have a well-balanced blend of commercial and art-house qualities. Begin Again is the first great American film this year that can't be turned into a video game. It deserves to become a sleeper hit.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by The Weinstein Company.
Now playing in select theaters.
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