NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: Talk about closing with a bang. Spike Jonze‘s long-awaited original film about a writer that falls in love with his operating system is not only the best film to play at this year’s New York Film Festival; it very well could be the best film of the year. “Her” is the finest writing and directorial endeavor of Spike Jonze’s career. And then there’s the towering and crowning work of Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix who proves once again, he’s the finest actor working today, hands down. You can’t find a more dynamic and compelling story about the human connection and where we’re headed as a society.
When “Her” opens up, it snaps you immediately into the story. Phoenix plays Theodore, a writer for a website that makes letters for just about anyone. As he tries to find life during the midst of his divorce from his wife Catherine (played by a beautiful Rooney Mara), Theodore finds solace in a friendship with a new OS (operating system) named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The two develop a relationship in a world where OS’s are becoming the norm with society.
Jonze’s has never been the conventional director as we’ve seen in his other brilliant efforts “Being John Malkovich” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” Jonze sets out to tell a story and deliver all the intricate details for us to understand each character. His focus on Theodore, giving him a real sense of loneliness without falling into cliché character ticks and beats that we’ve seen countless times in other romantic films, Jonze constructs a real man living in a world where technology has taken precedent over human connection.
Christopher Nolan should take notes from Jonze on the assembling of female counterparts in a story. Catherine and Theodore’s friend Amy, played by the always dependable Amy Adams, both feel genuinely authentic. Mara, who’s already delivered one other powerful performance in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” earlier this year, is finely utilized. She shows once again that she’s a true professional, with limited screen time (many in flashbacks); she can staple herself in your memory.
Amy Adams is always the sprinkle on top in all of her films. As “Amy,” the awkward friend and neighbor who sympathizes more with Theodore more than she’d like to, Adams expertly executes. With four prior Oscar nominations to her credit, her stunning portrayal is just another fantastic pin to add to her credits. She could find traction during the awards season if the film hits in the right way. That’s also part to the petty Oscar rules about rewarding voice performances because if that wasn’t the case, Scarlett Johansson would be on stage holding an Oscar of her own next March. As “Samantha,” Johansson has never tapped into the essence of her abilities as an actress the way she does in “Her.” As an OS, full of wonder and curiosity, “Samantha” is essentially a child. Learning at a rapid rate and studying the behaviors of the human mind, she looks at the world through the eyes of Theodore. Johansson holds our hand in through the tale, even when her voice isn’t on screen. This is the type of work that could convince the Board of Governors to rethink the eligibility of an acting performance. This is a masterful work that I’ll remember for years to come.
And then there’s Joaquin Phoenix…oh, Mr. Phoenix. Fresh off his historic performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” just a year ago, I didn’t think he could impress me so soon and yet here we are. His sensitive and perceptive take on the role is what films are all about. It’s one of the best things that 2013 has offered and a performance that could land him his first Oscar. I think Phoenix himself was impressed with the work he and his colleagues have accomplished. At the press conference, he actually gave an answer to one of the questions from the audience. If anyone was in attendance at the conference for James Gray’s “The Immigrant” – a prickly, disengaged Phoenix put on his sunglasses and put the microphone on the floor. This is a performance that you can identify with. He’s not simply awkward for the sake of being, he has baggage and connection issues. There’s sincerity in his words and mannerisms. A getaway in a cabin, alone but with “Samantha” encapsulates everything about Theodore. Phoenix achieves the impossible and is an instant Oscar contender.
We also get a great supporting turn from Chris Pratt who needs just more and more films to sink his teeth into. Comically brilliant and a terrific offset to a serious story. Olivia Wilde and Portia Doubleday are also well used in their brief but memorable roles.
There are many things that could turn AMPAS voters off to “Her.” Jonze isn’t afraid to explore the sexuality of the human condition. While immensely honest, and realistic in a tale about a romantic relationship between two “beings,” older voters may have hard time getting over the hurdle. I beg the voters to look at the truth and confidence in Jonze’s poetry. You don’t find things like this everyday.
But “Her” isn’t just about the writing and performances; it’s an all-around technical marvel. Most notably the Production Design of K.K. Barrett, who has worked on “Where the Wild Things Are.” Our story takes place in a futuristic (though never said how far ahead) Los Angeles and with shooting overseas, Barrett captures the clout of the city and its inside counterparts. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema‘s use of colors and smooth palettes are things of a dream. Affectionately snuggling up to Phoenix as he whispers the sweetness of words to “Samantha” or the sweetness of a new letter at work, Hoytema has quickly become one of my favorite DP’s, especially following “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Let the Right One In.” Arcade Fire and Karen O. are simply magic in their music that accompanies our story about love. A modern yet classical composition that in key scenes could move you to tears.
“Her” is one of the best love stories I’ve witnessed in some time. Charlie Kaufman will always have the honor of penning my favorite love story of all-time “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” but Spike Jonze and “Her” are giving it a true run for the money at the moment. Warner Bros. must know what they have with a limited release in late November; this could be the surprise embrace of the season. Unfortunately, as much as I can see around the world love and support for the film, it can easily be ignored in the same fashion. It’s a medium that many may not understand quite yet but filmmakers and historians will revisit for years to come. My hope will rely on a sure fire mention for Original Screenplay.
“Her” is the best thing I’ve seen this year and something I’ll hold with me for quite some time. Transcendent and beautiful, Spike Jonze has created his masterpiece and got the very best out of Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and the rest of the cast and crew. And yes, I said masterpiece.
“Her” opens November 20 in limited release.