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.
On August 16, 2002 a scrappy independent studio released its first feature to cinemas. Possession was barely seen by audiences, nor were the other four films released that year, but their status as an Oscar powerhouse solidified with that first year of releases thanks to two films: Far from Heaven and The Pianist. The former was nominated for four Academy Awards and the latter picked up seven, taking home three Oscars for star Adrien Brody, screenwriter Ronald Harwood, and, controversially, director Roman Polanski.
From that point forward, their annual slate of releases were hotly anticipated. Both Far from Heaven and 8 Women were among my favorite films for 2002.
This weekend sees the release of another feature from this not-quite-two-decades-old mini studio. Let Him Go stars Kevin Costner and Diane Lane (who combined have only five films I would even cite in one of these lists because I haven’t seen enough of either actor’s work) as they try to rescue their grandson from a dangerous family in the Dakotas.
To celebrate Focus’ great history of cinematic releases, this week I’m taking a look at my five favorite films they’ve produced in the last 18 years. I will also highlight some films that didn’t make the cut, but deserve recognition.
One of the most fruitful relationships Focus had had is with Laika, an animation studio focused solely on stop-motion animation. When prepping this list, there were three Laika films that were considered for inclusion. One made it through, but I decided to put the other two here simply because it would be a bit unfair to both to be excluded entirely. The two films that weren’t included among my five favorites were Coraline, Laika’s first and still second-best animated film; and Para-Norman. You’ll get to see my choice for inclusion below.
Focus also liked to take risks, giving distribution deals to a number of forward-thinking films, some of which were widely recognized in their time and others that may become better appreciated as time goes by. These include Francois Ozon’s French murder mystery musical 8 Women; Michel Gondry’s film about the impermanence of memory, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Martin McDonagh’s assassin industry dark comedy In Bruges; several unique efforts from director Joe Wright (see below); Tom Ford’s twisted anti-romantic thriller Nocturnal Animals; and Josie Burke’s meditation on powerful women in patriarchal structures, Mary Queen of Scots.
As I mentioned in the last paragraph, Joe Wright has had a very impressive collaboration with Focus Features. Three of his films were nearly included on the list. The first of them was Atonement starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in a mostly traditional dramatic story set against the backdrop of World War II. Saoirse Ronan figures prominently in the film. Next up is Hanna, which puts Saoirse Ronan in the lead in a film about a young girl trained to become an assassin in order to avenge her father’s future murder. The last film is Anna Karenina, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s acclaimed novel, but with a unique twist in the structure and design of the film. It also starred Keira Knightley.
The final pair of films I want to highlight were probably the closest ones to making the list. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, director Tomas Alfredson made his English-language debut and did so with great flourish. Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, and a slew of other recognizable names, the film was a new adaptation of a John le Carré novel that had already been done well and now was done so much better. The other is Spike Lee’s stellar BlacKkKlansman, which brings the audience into a historical case where the first African American cop in Colorado Springs, Colorado’s history (John David Washington) successfully infiltrates the local Ku Klux Klan chapter with his white surrogate (Adam Driver) playing his in-person part. It was an incredibly engaging film.
With the sub-five taken care of, let’s dig into my five favorite, and arguably the best, films released to date by Focus Features.
Far from Heaven (2002)
I’ve recognized this Todd Haynes film several times and there’s a reason for that. It’s quite simply one of the best films made in the last quarter century. This Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama gave Julianne Moore her greatest role as a disaffected housewife caught up in a torrid affair with her Black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) while her husband (Dennis Quaid) carries out secret homosexual affairs on the side.
Sirk was not afraid to tackle thorny social issues in his films, but Haynes takes that concept and explores it more deeply and more dramatically impactful than Sirk ever could have, looking at the societal upheaval interracial relationships caused in the 1950s as well as a heart-breaking look at the struggle of closeted gay men in an era of equally dangerous backlash.
Edward Lachman’s gorgeous cinematography helps Mark Friedberg’s production design and Sandy Powell’s costumes pop, bringing it all to vivid life and using the beautiful look of the film as a counterpoint to the ugly bigotry that affects the film’s characters. Haynes has only once come close to eclipsing this film and Carol might well have done that, but that film was released by Disney-owned The Weinstein Company, meaning it won’t be covered here.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola may have made her auspicious directorial debut with 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, but it was this film about a faded movie star (Bill Murray) and a neglected young woman (Scarlett Johansson) who form a bond meeting by chance while in Tokyo that put her on the Oscar map, becoming not only the third woman in Oscar history to score a Best Directing nomination, but also the first daughter of a prior Oscar nominee to be nominated (father Francis Ford Coppola earned four directing nominations, winning once in that category for The Godfather, Part II).
This was Murray’s career-best work so far and Johansson delivered one of her greatest earlier performances in this contemplative romantic dramedy about two star-crossed figures meeting by happenstance and finding satisfaction in their brief encounter in Japan’s capital.
Coppola has strived for years to match this stellar effort and while she’s directed some well regarded films, she’s yet to replicate this film’s success. Though the impending release of On the Rocks, also starring Murray, could certainly come close. That one is distributed by A24, however.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
When Ang Lee’s film premiered at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto in September of 2005, it was well regarded, but I don’t think the full nature of its status as a cultural touchstone was yet apparent. The film opened December 9, 2005 on just 5 screens and pulled in an impressive $109,485 per screen average, which at the time was the 7th highest per screen average in history and was the highest per screen average for a live-action film. That translated into a surprisingly strong box office run that ended in April of 2006 with a final tally of $83,043,761. If we adjusted that for inflation, that total climbs to just over $115 million. That’s pretty impressive for a film about two cowboys who fall in love over the course of a single season watching sheep in the Brokeback Mountains.
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal starred as the star-crossed lovers who had to keep their relationship under wraps in the extremely conservative social environment in which both lived. Ledger should have won the Oscar for Best Actor that year and Gyllenhaal was a solid contender for a win as well. Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, and Randy Quaid co-star. This gorgeous and tender film from straight director Lee was an important film in its day, but it could not overcome the Academy’s strong homophobic streak to win a deserved Oscar for Best Picture. Lee did win Best Directing and Larry McMurtry won the Adapted Screenplay prize for bringing Annie Proulx’s novella to life.
Lust, Caution (2007)
I don’t often include multiple directors in a five favorites list, simply because there are just too many films to highlight, but this underseen gem of a film represents Lee’s second feature on the list. This film is set in 1938 and 1942 in Imperial Japanese Army-occupied China as two spies navigate love and espionage in the build up to World War II.
Tang Wei and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai are superb in this gorgeous period thriller with a marvelous score by Alexandre Desplat and sumptuous photography by Rodrigo Prieto. Easily one of Lee’s best films, Lust, Caution was significantly under-appreciated in its day. That’s one of the reasons I choose to highlight it at every opportunity. It’s a great film that needs to be better recognized.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Set in feudal Japan, Laika’s stop-motion animation reached its pinnacle with this beautiful tale about a one-eyed young boy accompanied by anthropomorphic animals, a snow monkey and a beetle, on a marvelous and thrilling adventure. Using his magical shamisen to animate orgami figures, Kubo tends to his ailing mother. His power-hungry grandfather seeks to take his remaining eye and uses Kubo’s corrupted aunts to try and claim it. With only his magical gifts and the advice of his animal companions to guide him, Kubo strikes out on an exciting adventure to stop the Moon King.
Laika has always excelled in creating stupendous backdrops and settings for their characters to interact in. From the crooked old house in Coraline to the underground box empire of Boxtrolls, their environs are well polished and richly detailed. All of that is amplified to the maximum in this film, which uses stunning visual effects to enhance the end result. The critically acclaimed film won numerous prizes from year-end critics groups and secured nominations at the Academy Awards for Animated Feature, which it absolutely should have won, and Best Visual Effects, a rare feat for an animated film, and which was another award it should have won.