Brooklyn: A Poetic Past

Films about immigration are imbued with a heaviness, from the epic family saga The Godfather Part II (1974) to the recent and aptly titled, The Immigrant (2013). In these, immigrating and assimilating is depicted as an enormous hurdle, a transition from a dark world to an even darker one. A transition that requires great strength to get to the light of the American Dream. Brooklyn (2015) is quite a different immigration tale. Eilis, a young woman brilliantly played by Saoirse Ronan, feels trapped in her small Irish town and makes the leap to New York City in the 1950s. Her struggles to assimilate are much more lighthearted and heartwarming, oftentimes played for genuine laughs.

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After arriving, Eilis deals with immense homesickness, but things turn around when she starts dating a young Italian man named Tony. Circumstances eventually lead to her return to Ireland, where she finds herself unwillingly trapped and left to question whether she should stay or return to New York. John Crowley finely depicts Elis’ feelings of isolation and longing for home, such as the scenes of sheer joy when she receives a letter from home. Crowley makes Ellis’ struggle relevant and deeply felt for contemporary audiences, even though we are used to messaging someone with the click of a button.

Cinematographer Yves Belanger (Dallas Buyers Club and Wild) , production designer Francois Seguin and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux bring the 1950s world to life through the period clothes and surroundings. New York and Ireland both have vibrant and beautiful colors of their own, such as the bright greens of the rolling Irish hills or the eclectic rainbow of a day at the beach on Coney Island. This vivacity creates two beautifully distinct worlds and halves of Ellis’ heart. Her arc is signaled formally by the gradual brightness of her costumes, such as her green bathing suit and yellow dress, personifying the comfort and pride she begins to feel as a New York City woman. When she returns to Ireland, her lively clothes contrast the drab ones of her friends.

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Aside from the 1950s diegetic setting, the film feels ripped out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a rare and refreshing commodity for a 2015 film. Eilis and Tony’s courtship is dutifully mannered and romantic, yet completely authentic. There is no ulterior motive for his affection and no evil schemes or cynical antagonist threatening to break them apart. It is no coincidence the pair see Singing in the Rain together, for Brooklyn feels just as timeless and endearing. Brooklyn has an aura of timelessness, an innocence and universal charm found in the very era the film recreates. Nick Hornby’s screenplay navigates wholesome comedic vignettes with tender ethos to create a richly textured and poetic period drama that is sweet without being saccharine.

Top 10: 2014 Movies

These are my personal choices for the best movies of 2014. It’s been a wonderful year for film!

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1. Interstellar

Interstellar was my absolute favorite of the year. While I was a bit disappointed with parts of the ending and some lack of character development, that does not overshadow my love for this film. It’s an incredible balance of thrills, visual spectacle, top-notch acting, and thought-provoking ideas. The visuals are a remarkable achievement in filmmaking, it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen, especially one depicting space. Matthew McConaughey is nothing short of outstanding, especially his scene where he watches the videos of his child growing up before his eyes. It shoots through the heart and will leave you aching. As will many other moving moments. The scientific and time-travel elements will blow your mind. (Even if you don’t fully understand them) I consider it to be, and I believe it should be held up as a modern classic. See more of my review here.

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2. Whiplash

 Whiplash is majorly intense, thanks to the squaring off of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons as clashing jazz music teacher and student. The film explores how far you are willing to go for your talent, how far you’re willing to go for your art. The drumming in this is insanely amazing, (and looks very painful…) and apparently Miles Teller actually did it. You cannot look away, it is be brutal and horrific yet compelling. J.K. Simmons, who is known as Juno’s loving dad or J. Jonah Jameson from Spider-Man, is chilling and terrifying. It never fails to shock the lengths that student Andrew will go to vie for a starring spot in his teacher’s eye. The finale packs a powerful punch and will leave you on the edge of your seat.

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3. Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler really makes an impression, and that’s all due to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance. His Lou Bloom echoes Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Lou is success-hungry and sociopathic, he will stop at nothing do advance further in his career. He is completely committed to achieving success as a news cameraman, who films crashes, accidents that take place at night. Lou has no qualms about crossing moral lines. Although it is not just Lou who lacks morality, for Nightcrawler also gives a scathing look at the news and modern media. The newscasters who work in tandem with Lou will also stop at nothing to get that perfect shot and story, so who cares about the people it happened to? The more tragic the event, the better the news. Nightcrawler is an incredible thriller that really leaves a stamp in your mind thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal’s star performance.

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4. Gone Girl

Based on the bestselling book, Gone Girl was a highly-anticipated adaptation. Helmed by the brilliant David Fincher and a screenplay penned by the illustrious author herself, Gillian Flynn. Together, they create a fantastic adaptation that lives up to the book’s twisted tale. Gone Girl will go down in history as one of the smarter thrillers that depict a heated battle of the sexes.(i.e. the 90s hits Basic Instinct, Body Heat) With sleek visuals and a chilling performance by Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl is an intelligent and engrossing thriller that will be talked about for a very long time. To see my full review, go here.

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5. The Immigrant

The Immigrant is an elegant and haunting gem, telling the story of early 1920s America. The visuals are outstanding, shot with a gorgeous sepia tone or muted colors that perfectly capture the period. Marion Cotillard shines, as she so often does, as the Polish immigrant. Her performance is powerful, quietly yet deftly capturing Eva’s emotional turmoil. Joaquin Phoenix is on equal footing as the flawed hustler. Together, they craft engrossing characters that are intertwined for better or worse. The Immigrant is a somber piece but exiusite film. Marion Cotillard enraptures the audience, making you completely engrossed in Ewa’s long and hard journey. I wrote more about The Immigrant here.

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6. Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood obviously achieves a technological feat with it’s innovative use of telling a story over 12 years, you watch the cast grow up before your very eyes. And it is a marvel. But what could have been a gimmick ends up being a resounding realistic portrait of life. What’s so beautiful about Boyhood is it’s simplicity. It’s not just a story that hits all the typical beats of adolescence, like “here’s the PROM scene” or “here’s the FIRST KISS scene.” Instead it is compromised of the little things. How life’s little moments, heartbreaking and joyful, can so quickly accumulate, and before we know it it’s years later. Boyhood comes as close to life as a documentary, it is an experimental film that more than paid off, one that redefined cinema.

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7. The Babadook

The Babadook is a game-changing horror film that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, twisting familiar horror film elements to create something completely original. The Babadook is filled with artful visuals, long shadows and an elegant grayscale wash. It makes the house they live in look exactly like the charcoal Babadook book. There’s strange camera angles and an astounding and eerie silent film montage. The relationship and story of mother and son is genuinely moving, and Essie Davis gives a phenomenal performance. You never know quite where the story is going. Is it another story of a possessed mother? Is it truly a monster? Or is it just psychological, all in their heads? The Babadook is a blur between reality and metaphor, one that never quite gives you all the answers but takes you on a heart-wrenching and terrifying ride.

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8. Wild

Reese Witherspoon gives the best performance of her career in Wild. She is a flawed and complicated heroine, one who must go on a 1,000 mile walk to cleanse her soul from demons past. Several powerfully moving scenes have been stuck in my head long after seeing it. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, who previously helmed Dallas Buyers Club, does stunning work here. The flashbacks brilliantly intertwine with her present-day scenes. Wild is both painful and uplifting. It enraptures the audience in the complicated her conquest every step of the way.

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9. The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins is a rare family drama that deftly navigates both the highest of highs and lowest of lows. It’s a rare film that can effectively mine both laughter and tears. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are the perfect pair, demonstrating their well-known comedic chops but also bringing fantastic dramatic performances as well. The Skeleton Twins is an emotionally engaging dramedy. It also gives us a hilarious “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” lip-synching scene.

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10. Pride

Pride is pure uplifting fun. Set in the 1980s England coal miner’s strike and the LGBT community that helps support them. It’s an earnest story of overcoming prejudice without being too schmaltzy. The combination of being emotionally resonant while remaining fairly light-hearted keeps it from being preachy. Pride is a joyous and heartfelt crow-pleaser with a great 80s soundtrack. Also, the ending scene (pictured above) has some really beautiful London visuals, with a great score too!

The Immigrant: The Ambiguous American Dream

Directed by James Gray, The Immigrant tells the story of Ewa (played by Marion Cotillard) and her sister who are traveling from Poland to Ellis Island. Upon their arrival, the sister gets sick and must be left behind on the island to be quarantined. Alone and scared, Ewa is approached by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) a charming but deceitful man who takes her under his wing. He offers her food and shelter and job to earn money for Bruno to get her sister out early. But it all comes with a price. Ewa’s job at his theatre soon turns into a job of prostitution. Ewa also gets tied up with Bruno’s cousin, an equally charming magician.

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What is so compelling about The Immigrant is that the characters are all ambiguous, you both like and dislike them. In Gray’s story, pure evil does not exist.

At the center of the film, as the title suggests, is Marion Cotillard as Ewa. Although she is quiet and timid, she is full of perseverance (although desperate) to help her sister. We eventually learn of Ewa’s tortured past, which not only includes seeing her parents beheaded in front of her but also being raped on the boat ride to Ellis Island. Even though she is amidst such terrible circumstances for most of her life, she is not portrayed as a naïve victim. Ewa schemes and steals just as much as anyone- she is also equally under suspicion. Ewa has been far from innocent far longer than anyone can imagine, it is not only Bruno who contributed to her perceived moral downfall. Marion Cottilard brings a layered vulnerability that can only be contributed to her talent.

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In any other film, Bruno would be the indisputable villain. After all, he picked up this young girl in a strange new world, ready to claim an American dream for herself, and then turned that dream into a nightmare by making her a prostitute. His disposition is both charming with a hint of wickedness and predatory. But Bruno, in his own flawed way, cares for Ewa. Their relationship is far more than predator vs. prey.

Jeremy Renner’s character, Orlando, is a magician both on the stage and off. He is enchanting and lively, but underneath it all is an undercurrent of a hidden agenda. Ewa is smitten with his talent and way with words. Again, another film would have chosen to set up a more concrete love triangle. But it is not love that is between the three characters. They are all seeking something from each other, whether it be an escape, help, or someone to hear their troubles.

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The setting and visuals of this film is gorgeous, echoing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part 2. Shot in a soft-focus palette of golden hues and browns, the film’s visuals are dark and rich.

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There is only one exception to The Immigrant’s gloomy atmosphere, during which Ewa has a quasi-dream-flashback shot in a vivid white bright. Ewa looks back at the life she left with her sister, the life in the Old World, before all this. The dream ends right before a moment of terror, where we see a solider. Possibly the one who killed her parents.

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The film ends with a brilliant final shot of mirrors and windows. Bruno has managed to get Ewa’s sister out early, Ewa tears from him and returns to her sister and they leave on a small boat. Bruno is left behind alone to walk away. This ending split screen shows in perfect harmony Ewa’s old American life walking away, as the boat sails on to a journey to her new American life with her sister.

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The film not only questions the ambiguity of morality, but also of the American Dream. Orlando says in his magic act, “Don’t give up the faith, don’t give up the hope. The American Dream is waiting for you!” Ewa’s American dream has been doomed from the start, the cruelty of what happened to her on the boat up to arriving in America only to become something that wracks her with guilt.

The Immigrant presents the American dream as something that is not necessarily an illusion, but it is not a reality either. Just as the film’s characters are not wholly good, and not wholly evil. America was a wonderful and new place for immigrants, but it was also a grim place. The journey didn’t end when the immigrants got off the boat. Although it was good to be able to escape their country (whether it be from oppression or poverty) there was nothing in America waiting to be handed to them. Stepping on America’s soil meant more opportunity, but it wasn’t there right away. It was a long process and sometimes a terrifying and arduous journey to get where they wanted to be.

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The Immigrant is a haunting and epic melodrama with psychological complex characters and look at the American dream. It is a shame that this film wasn’t so widely seen. Luckily, it is now available on Netflix!