Inside Llewyn Davis and Her are solid Oscar bait

Two high-profile awards contenders finally get a Bay area release.

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If there’s one big downside to being a movie fan living in the Bay area, it’s the delayed openings of some of the best movies of the year. Blame the Hollywood release machine, which believes in progressively rolling out “small” movies in New York and L.A. to start the word of mouth buzz, then opening the film in theaters around the country over subsequent weekends with an eye toward keeping the conversation going. In a world where Netflix dumps full seasons of new TV shows on an insatiable general public, and Video On Demand is slowly smothering theater attendance, how can the studio suits keep doing this to us?

Case in point: Inside Llewyn Davis and Her. Both are the work of art house darling directors (Joel and Ethan Coen are responsible for Davis, while Her is the singular work of Spike Jonze), feature A-list stars, and have become fixtures in the prognostications of the award season fortunetellers. Both films also came out last year in the big cities, and are only now limping into Tampa Bay.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that both movies are fabulous.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen brothers’ take on the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene that spawned a pre-electric Bob Dylan. It’s not a shock, then, that half the movie looks like the cover of the The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan brought to life. Oscar Isaac stars as the titular Davis, a talented folk singer who can’t catch a break, probably because he is incapable of making a smart decision. As the movie begins he’s struggling with life’s demands both big (his buddy’s wife — played with profanity-spewing joie de vivre by Carey Mulligan — is pregnant with a baby that just might be his) and small (he’s always in search of a new couch to surf).

The film unspools in typical Coen fashion, with bizarre plot detours (the hunt for a missing cat, a roadtrip to Chicago), strange characters (John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund make quite a pair) and an attention to language that is one of the brothers’ calling cards. Llewyn Davis is also beautifully photographed by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, Across The Universe) and features a terrific assortment of songs, assembled by go-to music man T-Bone Burnett, that manage to live up to the Coens’ previous music efforts. Watch out for that loopy ending, which had me wanting to start the film over as soon as the credits started to roll.

Director Spike Jonze has recently gone through a divorce — a telling detail that kept springing to mind as I watched his latest film, Her. Set in the kinda-near future, Her is about a guy named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer’s new operating system, which comes advertised as being a breakthrough in self-aware artificial intelligence. Is it ever! Given life by Scarlett Johansson, the OS (she calls herself Samantha) is inquisitive, sexy, and clearly has a mind of her own even if she does lack a body. Theo and Sam start “dating,” which leads to all manner of relationship hiccups that only a man romantically involved with his computer could confront.

One of the real joys of Her is the way the film buys its own premise and fully commits to the logic of the scenario. Credit Jonze’s clever script, which walks a fine line between wading in pathos and having fun with the futuristic story and setting. Phoenix gives a meaty performance as Theodore, but Her really belongs to Johansson, who creates one of the most indelible computer characters since Hal. If ever someone were going to get an Oscar nod based on vocal performance alone, Johansson should be it. 

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