Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
This coming weekend, the latest film by Woody Allen makes its way onto the big screen. This is after being shelved some time as the #MeToo movement heated up and the original allegations by Allen’s ex-wife Mia Farrow that he sexually molested their adoptive daughter Dylan resurfaced. The merits of that case have been litigated regularly and everyone, whether they like to admit it or not, has taken sides. Regardless, it would be inappropriate at this time to highlight Allen’s best films. That said, I have no compunctions about discussing the career of A Rainy Day in New York‘s leading lady Elle Fanning.
Fanning is the younger sister of Dakota Fanning who came to prominence with her 2001 film I Am Sam opposite Sean Penn. Meanwhile, Elle, four years younger than her sister, debuted in the same film and while her sister made more popular films for much of her early career, Elle took on more esoteric and challenging roles, delivering some of the best juvenile performances ever caught on film. Looking over her list of performances, Elle eventually took on more broadly familiar roles, but it’s those smaller efforts that were ultimately more compelling. This week, I look at the younger Fanning’s career and her five best films and performances.
The Nines (2007)
John August directed this twisty sci-fi thriller starring Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, and Melissa McCarthy. Fanning also appears in the film, but only in one of the three segments that make up the triptych of The Nines.
Reynolds had only had a couple of mid-sized hits at the box office prior to the release of The Nines. Yet, it was one of the first films that gave him the chance to flex his acting muscles. He plays three characters in the film: a troubled actor, a television writer, and a computer game designer. McCarthy, who was then known only as a main cast player on the television series The Gilmore Girls and had yet to redefine what a leading lady on the big screen could look like, plays Reynolds PR agent, one of his television series’ actors, and his wife respectively. Davis fills out the main cast as, respectively, his neighbor, a TV executive, and a mysterious woman who tries to help Reynolds.
These three actors subtly inhabit their three roles, blending their approaches together to ensure that the audience easily keeps track of their identities while the plot weaves in and out of its narrative. August’s fascinating drama gives audiences a unique experience in the cinema and helps all three actors deliver terrific performances. Fanning doesn’t have a lot to do as she’s only in one of the three stories, but this is certainly one of the best films she’s ever appeared in even if only barely. As an added bonus, Octavia Spencer appears twice in the film in two nameless walk-on parts.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
If there’s one thing David Fincher is best known for, it’s tackling bizarre and cerebral stories, often based on real life people or incidents. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an oddity on his filmography, being one of the few that’s not set in a modern or near-modern world.
Benjamin Button tells the story of a man who is born old and grows younger while everyone else around him ages. Living life in reverse enables him to experience life in ways few could ever dream of. It gives audiences a glimpse into the kind of world we should live in for ourselves where the enjoyment of life is for the young and which should not be solely reserved until time becomes short.
Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin Button with Cate Blanchett playing his paramour for most of the film with Fanning playing the younger version of her character, Daisy Fuller. Taraji P. Henson and Julia Ormand have major supporting roles in the film. All of the performances are superb with Pitt and Henson earning two of the film’s massive thirteen Oscar nominations. It only received the awards for Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects, though it deserved far more than that, including Best Picture and Best Directing prizes.
Phoebe in Wonderland (2009)
While the prior two films gave Fanning limited roles to play, there’s nothing in Phoebe in Wonderland that doesn’t hinge on her brilliant performance. Fanning plays a 9-year-old girl who suffers from Tourrette syndrome. Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman play her parents while Bailee Madison stars as her younger sister and Patricia Clarkson appears as Fanning’s school’s drama teacher who must take an expanded role in helping Fanning achieve her dream of being an actress. Campbell Scott also appears as the school principal.
Phoebe in Wonderland is a beautiful coming of age story that rests satisfyingly on Fanning’s young shoulders. Delivering a superb performance for someone at such a young age, Fanning acts circles around her co-stars and none of them are slouches. This is a touching film that gives the audience a hopeful glimpse into the life and potential success of kids with different kinds of disabilities. It’s a stark and beautiful picture that never got much traction with audiences, but which deserves to be seen if not for its subject matter, then for Fanning’s mesmerizing performance.
Sofia Coppola’s underrated fourth film stars Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in compelling roles of an rising star actor and his observant daughter as they bond over a retreat at the Hollywood landmark Hotel Marmont with Dorff going through an existential crisis while recuperating from a minor injury.
Both Dorff and Fanning had been working for years, yet Fanning’s more recent experience working with Fincher helped give her the foundation for a performance that was wise beyond its years. Dorff had long struggled to prove himself as more than a passable actor in a series of cut-rate films. Yet, Coppola helps coax out of him a performance entirely unexpected and amazingly grounded.
While the film never managed to bring Coppola, Dorff, or Fanning the attention they deserved for it, Somewhere is a wonderfully observed picture with two terrific core performances that should be considered one of Coppola’s underseen best.
20th Century Women (2016)
In 2016, director Mike Mills brought us this gentle slice-of-life drama set in 1979 at the height of the punk subculture’s global spread as a disconnected mother (Anette Bening) asks two younger women in her teenage son’s (Lucas Jade Zumann) orbit to help raise him. One of them is his best friend (Elle Fanning) and the other is one of her boarding house tenants (Greta Gerwig).
The film follows the teenage son’s life most closely, but the people around him, including the aforementioned 20th century women, and the boarding house handyman (Billy Crudup), are each given their own story arcs. As the various subplots intertwine, we come out on the other side with a well acted and well observed film asking us to understand that life can be cruel and frustrating, but taking it all in and depending on others can help make passing through it much easier.