Jeff & Sara's Top Ten 2013: Number 4

Posted 3:14 PM January 3rd, 2014 by Binh Ngo
20 Feet From Stardom

We're at number 4 in the countdown, where we find the music documentary 20 Feet from Stardom and the foreign drama The Past on Jeff and Sara's top ten lists.

Directed by Morgan Neville, 20 Feet from Stardom is a documentary that shines a light on the unsung heroes of the musical stage – the backup singers. While there are interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting and other big names, the movie belongs to those who are further away from the spotlight.

The Past is Asghar Farhadi's followup to A Separation, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2012. In the movie, Ali Mosaffa's Ahmad flies back from Iran to finalize his divorce with his estranged wife Marie, played by Berenice Bejo, who is involved in relationship with another married man. As the movie progress, these characters' lives unfold before us.

20 Feet from Stardom might be the best box office performer of all of Jeff's documentaries choices so far, at $5M. And with 99% on the Tomatometer, this documentary is also one of the year’s best-reviewed movies. You can watch 20 Feet from Stardom on VOD services right now.

With a Tomatometer of 95%, The Past is another critically acclaimed movie by Farhadi. Some would argue the movie is even better than his Oscar-winning A Separation. The Past is playing in very select locations so there's nothing to say about its box office performance so far.

Here are the trailers:
20 Feet from Stardom

The Past

Binh: Jeff, 20 Feet from Stardom is pretty high on your list. What does this one give you that the other ones on your list didn't.

Jeff: I obviously loved a lot of music documentaries this year, but 20 Feet from Stardom really resonated with me -- not only does it give the viewer a deliciously compelling window into the creation of some real rock classics (e.g. the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter") from a hitherto largely unseen vantage point, but it also serves as a beautiful look at the utterly subjective nature of success, as well as a subtle (yet heartfelt) argument in favor of art for art's sake. If all you want is a glimpse of what it's like to be a background singer, 20 Feet delivers, but I think the film's real message runs a lot deeper.

Binh: The Past sounds kind of like Alexander Payne's The Decendants, a movie you didn't like very much. Why does The Past work for you?

Sara: I have this bias: see before America was all into "quirky comedies" we used to go to foreign films for that stuff. I like Alexander Payne more than is reasonable but I had no luck liking The Descendants--which was less about infidelity than it was about the impossibility of unhealthy parents raising healthy kids. Stuff like that scratches me the wrong way instantly and I find no light in it. The Past is actually more painful and in that regard your points of comparison make sense to me: Ali Mosaffa comes to France (from Iran) to finalize his divorce but no sooner does he do that than he lets himself get swept up in his ex-wife's drama. The way the film maps his codependency is so quiet and believable--you have to wait and reassess his supposedly heroic behaviors before you see he's just a trainwreck detective. Additionally, the direction is so stinking accomplished.

Binh: I bet there are a couple of toe-tapping scenes in 20 Feet from Stardom. What is one of the best ones – or is the best one not involve any singing?

Jeff: The movie's loaded with memorable scenes, but one that really stuck with me is the look at Claudia Lennear, the singer whose striking good looks inspired the Stones' "Brown Sugar" and Bowie's "Lady Grinning Soul." She was everywhere in the early '70s, and she seemed poised for solo success with the release of her 1973 album Phew!, but it went nowhere. 20 Feet's title is a reference to the extremely thin line between anonymity and superstardom, and Lennear's story underscores that point with particular poignancy.

Binh: For a movie like The Past, the best scene may be different for everyone, but which one is it for you, Sara?

Sara: My favorite moment happened right before one of many fights between Mosaffa and Bejo in--the most domestic of spaces--the kitchen. Bejo's new babydaddy Tahar Ramin earlier told her she and Mosaffa fought too much for ex-es--a great observation since marriages can die but (relationship threatening) chemistry can remain. You can see Ramin reflected in the mirror outside the kitchen while Mosaffa quietly prod and Bejo ramps up to anger. The moment has all three in one shot, Mosaffa in the center of the kitchen beseeching her for peace while Bejo is on the threshold of it and Ramin is outside--marginalized but totally aware and totally threatened. It's so striking it's literally unforgettable.

Binh: Jonathan Demme, the guy who've directed The Silence of the Lambs, has directed a couple of concert films, so what stamp would he put on films like 20 Feet from Stardom and The Past?

Jeff: Overall, I loved the job that director Morgan Neville did with 20 Feet from Stardom, but given Demme's track record with rock docs, I think the simplest answer to that question would be "He'd do it better" -- in particular, I think he'd probably cut out the multi-generational recording session that closes out the movie. It's sweet, but the movie's already made its point, and those last few moments feel obvious in much the same way as Alicia Keys' appearance toward the end of Muscle Shoals.

Sara: Let's forget Jonathan Demme would make The Past in English, and likely cast Jodie Foster, the pop score by Neil Young would choke it before act 2.

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