Film Review: Two Films by Kelly Reichardt

Film Review: Two Films by Kelly Reichardt
Old Joy, 76 min Feature Film, 2006
Wendy and Lucy, 80 min Feature Film, 2008
Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Few contemporary filmmakers are as well-versed in the art of cinematic minimalism as Kelly Reichardt. From the natural sounds of birds chirping and water flowing, to the crescendo of trains setting off into the distance, Reichardt is a filmmaker who enjoys the beauty and mystery in seemingly everyday life. Her first two feature films, 2006’s Old Joy and last year’s Wendy and Lucy, share the same affection for lingering shots of nature, restrained dialogue, and characters whose silences and mannerisms speak volumes of who they are. The films are also intimate studies of aging, finding one’s place in the world, and the changing face of this country.

In Old Joy Will Oldham and Daniel London star as buddies who have gone their separate ways but reconnect for a two-day excursion into the Oregon woods in search of a secluded hot spring. The film opens with Mark (London) meditating in the backyard of his rundown, Portland bungalow. The message machine picks up a call from Kurt (Oldham) who is in town and has ‘big, big news.’ A look of worry washes over his wife’s face.

Accompanied by Mark’s dog Lucy, the two hit the winding roads of rural Oregon in search of Kurt’s “off-the-map” hot spring. The two reminisce of old friends, now extinct old haunts, and catch up on where their lives have taken them.

Old Joy is in many ways a buddy, road trip film, with a dash of social realism; specifically in the way people drift apart over the years. Reichardt excels at not giving us official backgrounds to her characters but through their mannerisms (Oldham and London’s facial expressions alone speak volumes of their inner thoughts) and tidbits from their past it’s clear that Mark took the somewhat traditional route in life, whereas Kurt, having “never gotten involved in something he couldn’t get out of,” is still on an unsure path. 

Oldham, who also carries the alter ego as musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, shines as Kurt who comes off as the harmless, free-spirited soul most of us have come across at some point in our lives. Despite his casual, live-the-dash mentality it is clear he carries a weight of sorrow with him. 

His rundown van, faded clothes, light wallet and lack of a solid life foundation come across as almost childish to Mark, who at one instance belittles Kurt over the phone to his wife but then gently plays along with Kurt’s plan to somehow rekindle their friendship. 

As Kurt regales his buddy with long-winded stories about beach parties at Big Sur and hot spring excursions in Arizona, Mark’s complexion falls somewhere between jealousy and indifference. Mark appears content with his life–a baby on the way, a new direction in his carpentry work–but it’s obvious he too is hiding something. 

As their trip progresses frustrating scenarios arise, awkward confessions are professed (mainly by Kurt who misses the golden days of their friendship), and a terribly true-to-life barrier between these once seemingly close friends continues to rise. 

Between their ramblings on work, dreams, the physics of the universe, and Mark’s baby on the way, Reichardt fills the screen with shots of the stunning environment, set to the equally lulling music of Yo La Tengo. There are long moments of silence between the two, especially during the film’s pinnacle hot spring soak, which, again, furthers the notion that these two can’t seem to reconnect. 

When they return back to the reality of their separate lives we are left with Kurt as he wanders the Portland streets at night amongst other drifters, homeless, and others who are seemingly lost in the conventional world around them. 

Like Old Joy, Reichardt’s follow-up/companion piece Wendy and Lucy doesn’t follow a traditional beginning, middle, and end story line but rather meanders through its characters’ journey, in this case a young woman and her dog.

Michelle Williams, in undoubtedly her finest and most unexpected performance to date, stars as Wendy, a quiet, tomboyish drifter on her way to Alaska. After her weathered Honda hatchback breaks down in a sleepy Oregon town (the doting attention given to the Pacific Northwest in her films is another of Reichardt’s cinematic traits), Wendy experiences a series of unfortunate events that include getting arrested for shoplifting, paying a substantial amount of money from her dwindling Alaska fund, and in turn losing her beloved companion Lucy (the same Lucy, Reichardt’s mutt, from Old Joy).

Along the way she encounters a group of fellow youthful nomads at a pseudo hobo campfire (including a memorable cameo by Oldham as a free-spirited wanderer named Icky), befriends an elderly K-Mart security guard, barters with a surly mechanic and has a scare with a ranting homeless man. All while searching for her lost dog, leading up to an emotional breakdown in a gas station bathroom. 

William’s spoken dialogue throughout the film is limited but she makes up for her character’s reserved nature with an unprecedented knack for emotionally saturated facial expressions, mannerisms, and a complex world behind her mesmerizing eyes. It is said that Williams, who did the film for practically nothing, was so involved with the character that she resisted from bathing or washing her ratty clothes and was never once recognized during the shoot.

Reichardt only hints at Wendy’s back-story, mainly seen through a telephone call made to a relative in Indiana. We don’t know why she’s headed to Alaska or what she’s running away from? That she’s on the move is all that really matters. In the manner Williams carries her character it’s evident that she’s a bit lost in life but determined nevertheless to reach her Yukon goal. 

While the camera closely follows the increasingly forlorn Wendy, another character to develop is the town she stumbles upon.  Set during the Bush administration in small town America, Wendy and Lucy’s slow pace mimics the malaise of a dying part of this country. While set in Oregon, this could be anywhere U.S.A. In one scene the security guard mentions the town once had a functioning mill but since it shut down the town is light on work. He comments, “I just don’t know what the people do all day.” 

Unlike Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy lacks a transitioning soundtrack but rather drifts along to the diegetic hum of trains, the preferred mode of transportation for a great deal of drifters in the U.S. The film reaches one somewhat major climax but begins and ends much like an authentic chapter in one’s life. Shot in the moment, without any allusion to past or future, the film gives a new meaning to the term realism. 

With only two feature films (both of which were based on short stories and are concise, clocking in at a perfect 80 minutes each) under her belt, Reichardt is just beginning what will hopefully be a fruitful film career. Her background is in film studies, and her knowledge of the medium shows for a fairly novice filmmaker. Wendy and Lucy, which topped many critic’s top-ten lists last year, will be the film most interested viewers will gravitate towards, however, Old Joy is not to be missed. Both films, while different on the surface, share similarities warranting an easy back-to-back pairing. Reichardt intentionally leaves her stories open-ended with the characters embarking into the unknown, however, this lack of closure gives the films a resonance that carries with you long after the credits roll. o:p>

If I chose the winners


 Oscar Night, 2009
Key: Will Win – X
 Should Win – O

  • [___] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • [___] Frost/Nixon
  • [___] Milk
  • [_O_] The Reader
  • [_X_] Slumdog Millionaire
  • “Slumdog Millionaire” was the early underdog nomination
  • that remarkably gained momentum as more people have sought it out. Truly the one word of mouth nomination. But was it the best film of 2008? For that matter, were any of these decent but not masterful films the best of the year? “Benjamin Button” is burdened by a predictably whimsical story and an unnecessary present day deathbed storytelling editing choice. “Frost/Nixon” was a fascinating look back in history with two brilliant acting turns, but is this a film to revisit again and again. “Milk,” the uplifting contender here and a tie with “Reader” for best film of the lot, is probably “Slumdog’s” toughest competitor but “liberal” Hollywood has not been friendly to past films with a prominent homosexual focus (see “Brokeback Mountain”). “The Reader” is the one truly thought provoking film in the lineup, not to mention the most surprising and controversial. Naysayers are coining this film yet another emotional Holocaust drama. They clearly have not seen the film. What “The Reader” excels in is its ability to spark debate. Regret, shame, legal morality, love, are all themes woven together in this fascinating film. Winslet’s performance is worthy of her first Oscar prize, however, the most underrated turn was from relative newcomer David Cross. 
  • [___] David FincherThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • [___] Ron HowardFrost/Nixon
  • [___] Gus Van SantMilk
  • [___] Stephen DaldryThe Reader
  • [_XO_] Danny BoyleSlumdog Millionaire
  • Fincher should have been recognized for “Fight Club” and
  • last years terribly overlooked “Zodiac.” Howard’s got his share of Oscars, Van Sant turned arguably the most personal film of the lot, Daldry’s nomination is most likely his prize, which leaves Boyle. It’s been wonderful watching Boyle mature as a filmmaker. His ability to jump from genre to genre should be recognized more and his vision of bringing the chaotic slums of India to the mainstream was ambitious but he delivered.
  • [___] Frozen River
  • [___] Happy-Go-Lucky
  • [___] In Bruges
  • [_XO_] Milk
  • [___] Wall-E
  • Dustin Lance Black is a name to get used to. His work on “Milk” and on the now fascinating HBO series “Big Love” shows a level of personal touch rarely spelled out on the page. A dark horse win for “In Bruges,” one of the better films of the year and a slyly dark comedy would be nice but is highly unlikely.
  • [___] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • [__] Doubt
  • [___] Frost/Nixon
  • [_O_] The Reader
  • [_X_] Slumdog Millionaire
  • Adapted Screenplay will probably be another of “Slumdog’s” sweep later tonight but I would argue that again, “The Reader” is the most thought provoking story of the lot. One puzzling absent nomination is “Revolutionary Road,” a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a fiction masterpiece. 
  • [_O_] Anne HathawayRachel Getting Married
  • [___] Angelina JolieThe Changeling
  • [___] Melissa LeoFrozen River
  • [___] Meryl StreepDoubt
  • [_X_] Kate WinsletThe Reader
  • Winslet will probably take her first Oscar this evening after a stunning six prior nominations. Her win, while warranted, will be the “it’s about time” prize of the evening. Streep may be here toughest competitor (after all she’s Meryl Streep), however, for my money the strongest and most surprising performance of the group was from Hathaway who is quickly shedding her Disney princess actin roots and is evolving into one our most exciting rising actors. “Rachel Getting Married” did not receive enough credit this year and an upset by Hathaway would be just what this little movie needs to garner a wider audience. 
  • [___] Amy AdamsDoubt
  • [_O_] Penelope CruzVicky Cristina Barcelona
  • [_X__] Viola DavisDoubt
  • [___] Marisa Tomei,The Wrestler
  • [___] Taraji HensonThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • This may be the toughest category of the night. All the actors shined and it’ll probably come down to Davis or Cruise. Tomei continues to turn in remarkably intimate performances in tough roles. Henson was probably the best part of “Button.” “Doubt” was an acting showcase but Cruz was dazzling as a high-maintenance, artist ex-girlfriend in Woody Allen’s most recent masterpiece. Cruz has parlayed through Hollywood for some time often with less than stellar results, however, when she’s on her native ground in Iberia her true talents come out.
  • [___] The Baader Meinhof Complex, Germany
  • [_XO_] The Class, France
  • [___] Departures, Japan
  • [___] Revanche, Austria
  • [_O_] Waltz with Bashir, Israel
  • Another tough one. “Bashir” and “The Class” were both remarkable pieces of cinema. “The Class” gives a new meaning to realism while “Bashir” took animation in an exciting and deep realm of possibilities (a reading of Joe Sacco’s graphic novel “Palestine” would be a perfect companion piece to this film). Either would be worthy but knowing the Academy, “The Class” will probably be the safest bet. 
  • [___] Bolt
  • [_XO_] Wall-E
  • [___] Kung Fu Panda
  • A category that was clearly created for Pixar. “Wall-E” could be in the Best Picture category but this sure-shot win will be enough.
  • [___] The Betrayal
  • [_O_] Encounters at the End of the World
  • [___] The Garden
  • [_XO_] Man on Wire
  • [___] Trouble the Water
  • A terrific lineup of docs this year. “Encounters” and “Wire” or so radically different but each films that will resonate long after tonight’s festivities. “Encounters” that speaks to a certain demographic of individuals, more specifically the adventurous souls. “Wire” is a one of a kind documentary/caper film about a one of a kind personal feat in human history. 
  • [_O_] La Maison En Petits Cubes
  • [___] Lavatory Lovestory
  • [___] Oktapodi
  • [_X_] Presto
  • [___] This Way Up
  • The first year I’ve been able to catch the Oscar Shorts before the festivities. Pixar’s “Presto” will probably prevail but look out for the beautifully imagined “La Maison” from Japan, a film that proves old fashioned animation techniques are still alive and well. 

If I chose the nominees

Thursday morning the nominations for the 2009 Academy Awards Ceremony will be announced. Normally the press release sends shock waves down the spines of anyone even remotely interested in the industry, however, after a fairly mediocre year of film (one in which the best films were rarely seen or put in the spotlight) it’s hard to say how big the Oscars will be this year. Unlike last year in which there were a number of sure fire wins (Daniel Day Lewis) and some extremely tight races for top prizes (Best Picture, Best Actress) this year’s lineup of possible contenders seems kind of uninspiring.

Sure this will undoubtedly be the year of Heath Ledger’s posthumous prize for The Dark Knight (hopefully the film’s sole prize of the night) and Mickey Rourke is ripe for a roaring comeback but other than that what is there to look forward to. Kate Winslet is one of the finest actors working today and has been nominated and passed over many times in the past. Will this be her year? Will she carry the burden of being nominated in two different categories (Julianne Moore was hindered by this curse in 2003 for a leading role in Far From Heaven, and a supporting turn in The Hours. She lost both)?

Wall-E was one of the most fascinating and prevalent films of the year (besides being a visual triumph of filmmaking, but does it have enough to clench a Best Picture nod? Will there be any love for some of the year’s top indies (many of which were the best films of the year, period) such as Rachel Getting Married, I’ve Loved You So Long, Happy Go Lucky, In Bruges, to name a few?

Overall this was a year of standout performances with very few solid films as a whole. Will strong, thought invoking character performances (Melissa Leo, Frozen River) best Oscar bait, star studded mediocrities (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) only time will tell.

The following is my list of the top contenders at this year’s Oscars if I were picking the nominees.  NOTE: Having not seen a handful of films, including Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy this list is subject to change.

Best Actor

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Sean Penn, Milk

Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

DARK HORSE NOD: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche New York


Still Haven’t Seen: Benicio Del Toro, Ché

Best Actress

Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky

DARK HORSE NOD: Kate Beckinsale, Snow Angels

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Emily Mortimer, Transsiberian

Still Haven’t Seen: Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy 

Best Supporting Actor

Eddie Marsan, Happy Go Lucky

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

Robert Downey Jr, Tropic Thunder

DARK HORSE NOD: Bill Irwin, Rachel Getting Married

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges, John Malkovich, Changeling, Nick Nolte, Tropic Thunder, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man

Best Supporting Actress

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married

Francis McDormand, Burn After Reading

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

DARK HORSE NOD: Samantha Morton, Synecdoche New York

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married 

Best Film

Rachel Getting Married



Slumdog Millionaire


DARK HORSE NOD: TIE Synecdoche, New York OR The Wrestler

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (snubbed from last year), Let the Right One In

Best Director

Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

DARK HORSE NOD: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Tarsem, The Fall, Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World

Best Screenplay-Original

Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

Dustin Lance Black, Milk

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen

Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married

Philippe Claudel, I’ve Loved You So Long

DARK HORSE NOD: Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon, Wall-E OR Martin McDonagh, In Bruges

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading

Best Screenplay-Adapted

Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon

Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road

Eric Roth, Curious Case of Benjamin Button

John Patrick Shanley, Doubt

DARK HORSE NOD: David Hare, The Reader

DESERVING OR MORE RECOGNITION: John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In 


Three surefire nominees for Best Documentary will most certainly be Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, and Standard Operating Procedure. All three are radically different and brilliant in their own regards and this creates undoubtedly the toughest category race at this year’s Academy Awards. Man on Wire has been one of the highest rated films of the year and is the epiotome of what a quality documentary should be–gripping story, unusual subject, and flawless execution. Encounters is Werner Herzog at his finest, a fascinating look at man’s desire to explore their physical world, even to its extremes. Standard Operating Procedure is Errol Morris at his most intense and though provoking. Morris asks the question, is it possible to put a human face on acts of pure evil? Mark my words, the Best Documentary category will be the most gripping race to follow. 

Herzog’s curious ‘encounters’

Film Review: Encounters at the End of the World

Directed by Werner Herzog

Documentary, 2008 

Encounters at the End of the World is the type of film that will garner two different types of viewer. The first might see the film as nothing more than yet another nature documentary set in the frigid Antarctica continent. The film provides these folks a fix of scientific explanations pertaining to ice samples and global warming, stunning shots of the continent’s vast emptiness and it a glimpse into the unknown below the ice. There are even a handful of penguin shots thrown in for the obligatory post March of the Penguins ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’ 

The more observant filmgoer will see Encounters for what it really is, a documentary not so much about Antarctica but one that questions why mankind yearns to explore this planet taking some literally to the end of the earth. Herzog is interested in learning more about what drives living souls to travel into the unknown. 

For anyone familiar with the films of Werner Herzog, Encounters is any ways the film the auteur was destined to make. Herzog has always been fascinated by man’s perilous pursuit of enlightenment and as a filmmaker he has tested his own curiosities surrounding this world of ours. In Aguirre Wrath of God the protagonist (one of many daunting performances by Herzog muse Klaus Kinski) is on a suicide mission through the Amazonian jungles towards the mythical golden city of El Dorado. Fitzcarraldo documents the fictional account of a man’s dream of bringing the opera to the jungles of Peru and focuses on the mountain (literally pulling a riverboat up a steep hill) he climbs to bring his vision to life.

It is Herzog’s interest in mankind’s obsessive curiosity of the planet that draws him to Antarctica. In the introduction to Encounters Herzog narrates, “The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins. My questions about nature, I let them know, are different.” 

Encounters is about the people who live, visit and work in Antarctica. It is a common misconception that the only souls crazy enough to make the trek to the desolate continent are research scientists. What’s most striking about Encounters is that while many of the inhabitants of the few camps set up in Antarctica are there for the pursuit of scientific answers there are just as many average Joe’s simply there to catch a glimpse of the end of the earth. 

Along the way Herzog encounters a linguist working in a greenhouse, working on the continent simply to get away from a world where every minute a spoken language becomes extinct. There’s the former banker and ex-Peace Corps volunteer who now drives a mammoth snow bus that would seem right at home in a Mad Max film. The eccentric world traveler who can tuck herself into a small carry-on suitcase seems to be at the camp merely to quench a never-ending thirst to explore every end of the globe. What’s striking about Encounters is that for every stunning underwater scene or shot of the picturesque Antarctic skyline there is an equally fascinating interview with the people who call this place home. The “full time travelers and part time workers” as one inhabitant describes his peers. 

The trick of Encounters is that for the casual viewer the film is nothing more than a look at the natural wonders of Antarctica, with a timely message about global warming thrown in for political leverage. A closer look uncovers a film that is as much an ode to the world traveler as it is a nature documentary. 

For many of the people Herzog encounters along the way Antarctica is the last stop on what might be a seemingly endless tour of the planet. A possibly mentally scarred Balkan mechanic has a packed backpack, inflatable raft, and tent ready if a desire to explore arises.

Then there’s the film’s one penguin scene in which Herzog ties man’s internal desire to explore with the natural world. Rather than focus his time on the masse march of the penguins Herzog’s camera lingers on a lone penguin headed towards the far off horizon, a path sure to end in death. Why does this penguin walk alone into the unknown? A scientist posits that the penguin might have a chemical imbalance and does not realize its actions. It’s clear that Herzog believes that the penguin’s motives are more complex and relatable.

Encounters at the End of the World is one of the most unexpected and dazzling documentaries to see this year. Herzog has long had a unique, often poetic way of looking at the world that, when fleshed on in film, is unforgettable. His views of the continent’s natural wonders–the mesmerizing underwater scenes, the unforgettable sunset shots–and his discovery of the arctic region’s scientific offerings–new marine species, patterns in ice melt and an intriguing active volcano–feed the traditional documentarian mindset.  For some Encounters will be nothing more than another nature film in the wake of Planet Earth. And that’s okay. For others it will be the spiritual catalyst needed to awake the inner explorer in all of us.