Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). In this wryly funny and wise rumination on aging and celebrity, the grand Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a movie star who is coaxed into a production of the play that made her a star, albeit now playing the older role while her former ingenue part is giving to a credibility-seeking starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz). As Maria goes through oscillating moods on the way to the production, she confides in her ever-present assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Assayas indulges in some arthouse pretension here and there, but Clouds of Sils Maria is mostly a set of straightforward character studies, each a gift to the performer. Predictably, Binoche is strongest, working little marvels in every scene.
13 Rue Madeleine (Henry Hathaway, 1947). An espionage drama produced while the memories of World War II were still mighty fresh, 13 Rue Madeleine is about a group of agents developed under a new U.S. military initiative. As it happens, one of the trainees is an undercover German spy, and an European mission gone awry forces instructor Ray Sharkey (James Cagney) to dispatch himself to solve it. Henry Hathaway brings an admirable sturdiness to his direction, striking the right balance between stern seriousness and pulpy glee. Cagney brings his trademark intertwining of deft and brutish qualities to the lead role, giving the proceedings a grand boost. And the ending, in its rare and peculiar celebratory grimness, feels like it’s straight out of the Cagney guidebook, too.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939). Frank Capra’s film about a regular gentleman appointed to the U.S. Senate with the mistaken expectation that he won’t disrupt the order of slippery ethics in the U.S. capitol building is often tagged as an exercise in aw-shucks patriotism. The actual mechanics of the narrative are far trickier than that, especially in a tone that slaloms into earnestness, bustling comedy, and half-hearted romanticism. James Stewart is in his comfort zone as the titular character, especially when it comes time for the famed filibuster scene, which Capra plays out with impressive patience. The best performance, though, belongs to Jean Arthur, playing Smith’s office manager who’s grown jaded with Washington until she gets a dose of her new boss’s brand of sterling integrity. She strikes the exact right balance, showing how sardonic appraisals of the world can still leave room for glimmers of hope that can transform an outlook. The film’s trajectory can easily stir skepticism, but she makes it believable. And she has a great drunk scene, too, itself a minor master class in crafty comedic acting.