Tuesday, September 3, 2013

"Fruitvale Station" was the Best Movie of the Summer

Michael B. Jordan
When I look back at the summer movie season, my initial reaction is disappointment. I may be somewhat of a snob when it comes to what I find entertaining, but I try not to be crass when it comes to the summer line-up. Last year saw great blockbusters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Even in terms of smaller titles, there were ambitious titles like Moonrise Kingdom and Oslo, August 31. Save for Monsters University, The East and The Bling Ring, there wasn’t anything that struck me as above mediocre between June and July. Even the films I wanted to see, including V/H/S 2 and This Is the End were good, but not without caveats.

With very limited exceptions, I loathed July more than any month of movies this year. I could blame the quality of the films themselves, but the biggest detractor of them all was length. There isn't anything like when something outstays its welcome, and I felt like this summer saw some of the biggest offenses. The Lone Ranger was 149 minutes, White House Down was 133 minutes, and even the comedies like The Heat were 117 minutes. While I am not against long stories, I do loathe trying to fit it into my schedule every week. Even during this past awards season when films I admired like Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables would clock in as legitimate epics, it was a pain to set aside that much time, even if I really was enthusiastic. That was one of the strongest cases for why I looked elsewhere to pass time.

Of course, the films themselves were either marketed terribly or just were. It got so bad that I almost wanted to see After Earth only because it was considerably brief at 99 minutes, despite initial bad reviews. It was rough and I had this cynical thought that 2013 peaked early with Stoker, Frances Ha, or even the most visually pleasing film so far: The Great Gatsby. If it wasn’t for consistent reporting on trailers of movies in the Fall at The Oscar Buzz, I would be contemplating just giving up and renting old movies on Netflix.

That is why when August came around; it seemed to come as a haven for rejoicing. The selection got far more interesting. I will admit that it is quite possible that my choice for Best Summer Film could largely be based on that it was the first to hold my interest and feel like cinema was still doing something interesting. Anyone that has been reading my work from August will already know how much passion and interest I have in talking about it. For my money, director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is probably the film that saved my summer.

Back when I first heard about the film, I was speculating that it was going to be this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. It was being advertised like it and I assumed that it would just be another clone. One of the biggest draws lied in the fact that it had won the top prize at Sundance and was considered one of the earliest Oscar contenders. Without a doubt, I came out of the theater believing that unlike last year’s sleeper hit, every word of praise that I heard was true.

It wasn’t a complicated film and it wasn’t even 90 minutes long. While both were missing from the summer season, it wasn’t why I loved the movie. That would be thanks to Michael B. Jordan, who plays Oscar Grant as he lives a day in the life. In what little time frame that we are given to observe him, we get a strong sense of who he is as a person. He may have had a criminal past, but that isn’t his defining feature. He is also a father, a son, and kind to whoever asks for help. Jordan’s charisma made the performance more endearing and made it easier to forgive the weaker sections.

I won’t explore the final act, which was actually a large piece of the marketing. Still, with knowing how it goes, it plays into my belief that spoilers don’t ruin a movie but simply force you to reevaluate your relationship with the experience. It lets you look at Oscar’s life and understand the simple theme that people can change but often are too chained to their past to truly be different. To add a poetic touch to everything, the story’s device of using New Year’s Eve as an excuse to start a better life evolves from being life’s greatest cliché to the greatest “What if?” scenario. The ending is sad not because of the events, but the fact that through the story, we began to sympathize with Oscar without criminalizing the villains of the piece. The film manages to address political issues without being forceful.

Ryan Coogler
Fruitvale Station is just chocked full of great character moments. My admiration for the film largely escalated when in an interview for The Treatment with host Elvis Mitchell, Coogler talked about what inspired him. The most striking  was that he applied influence from sources such as Jean-Luc Goddard and other French New Wave heavy hitters. While the evidence is all there, it made me realize what made the story interesting. He somehow romanticized Oakland by making the characters more vulnerable and real. They may have done questionable things and appear threatening, but once you get to know them, it isn't really a terrible scene. In fact, after listening to the interview, I feel intrigued to see where he goes next.

I have written extensively on this movie and I probably will as the Oscar season begins heating up. I honestly believe that this will be one that people keep talking about. Michael B. Jordan is so far one of very few performances that I would call great. The film itself is so rich with detail and such an impressive look at the moment that it makes me wish more contemporary cinema would be recognized.

Even if Blue Jasmine, Elysium, The Spectacular Now, and The World’s End (I still need to see Short Term 12) made August a far superior month, I have trouble believing that any of those would have taken me by as much surprise as Fruitvale Station. I love the feeling of discovery that I had and the fact that it came during a period of some cynicism and doubt only makes me admire it more. I would love to claim that there was a blockbuster that I could call my favorite summer movie, but I didn’t have time for them and they looked too dull to take a gamble. Still, even if Fruitvale Station just goes down as the film that launched a better season for movies, I will be happy to recommend it.

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