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10 Best Focus Features Films Under James Schamus

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire October 3, 2013 at 11:30AM

We reported yesterday that Focus Features is getting a new focus as FilmDistrict founder and CEO Peter Schlessel takes over as CEO and current CEO, James Schamus, who co-founded Focus Features over 12 years ago, will leave the company. Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley has said that Shlessel will help "expand" the Focus brand, so we're guessing we won't be seeing the sort of indie risk-taking that has proven so successful during Schamus' tenure.
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James Schamus and Ang Lee

We reported yesterday that Focus Features is getting a new focus as FilmDistrict founder and CEO Peter Schlessel takes over as CEO and current CEO, James Schamus, who co-founded Focus Features over 12 years ago, will leave the company. Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley has said that Shlessel will help "expand" the Focus brand, so we're guessing we won't be seeing the sort of indie risk-taking that has proven so successful during Schamus' tenure.

Under Schamus' watch at the company, Focus worked with directors such as Ang Lee, the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, Roman Polanski, Sofia Coppola and Todd Haynes, among many others. It's hard to choose favorites from such a long and impressive list, but we're going to do it anyway.

Below you will find our list of 10 of the great Focus features under Schamus. We wish him luck with his future projects (he'll be working with longtime collaborator Ang Lee on the director's next film), but we'll miss the distinctive, daring taste he brought to the studio. Without further ado, here are our picks:

"The American"

"The American"
"Boring" might be the go-to buzz word among casual moviegoers for artier fare that calls for patience and analytical skills on the part of the audience. "The American" certainly does requires those things, hovering on the slightest tics of George Clooney's sunken expression (best described as "Syriana" 2.0) to provide hints as to the nature of his character, a guilt-ridden hitman slowly losing his edge. Scant dialogue serves to advance the plot; instead, Clooney engages in whispery chatter with the local priest of the small Italian villa where he shows up for a job, and empty pillow talk with some prostitutes. Anton Corbjin's follow-up to the Joy Division biopic "Control" is a textbook thriller in the sense that everything revolves around methodical build-up, with a pay-off that's more afterthought than climax. At the same time, "The American" takes such a leisurely approach to its story that it barely even has one at all. The excitement of the movie comes from its technical polish. Focus on the delicacy of Corbijn's camera placement for the duration of the running time and "The American" has plenty of exciting, eerily unsettling scenes. In its opening weekend, the movie was box office hit due to Clooney's commercial appeal, which was a savvy maneuver on the part of Focus Features to smuggle mainstream-oriented audiences into one of the more fascinating experiments with narrative cinema of 2010.

"Brokeback Mountain"
Ang Lee’s "Brokeback Mountain" is arguably the first gay romance to ever break through to the mainstream culture. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain” stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as cowboys who fall in love while herding sheep in the summer of 1963. Transcending its label as “the gay cowboy movie,” the film had both straight and gay audiences alike lining up outside of theaters. Ledger gives an iconic performance as Ennis, infusing his character with a stoic pathos and longing. The film rightly received eight Academy Award nominations, and many cried foul at Hollywood’s perceived homophobia after it lost Best Picture to the racism drama “Crash.” But the importance of “Brokeback Mountain” surpasses awards recognition; it proved to mainstream America that a gay romance could be just as vital, rewarding and heart breaking as any other.

"Coraline"

"Coraline"
Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" came to life with an innovative film from "Nightmare Before Christmas" director Henry Selick. The film was produced by Laika, the stop-motion animation studio that is owned by Nike Chairman Phil Knight and is run by Knight's son Travis. "Coraline" follows the eponymous young girl as she explores the new house she and her parents just moved into. In her adventures in the nooks and crannies of her new home, Coraline finds another parallel world, where she isn't ignored like she is in the real world but where everything is not all well and good still. Gaiman fans were rightfully impressed by the way the film translated the novella's creepy otherworldliness.

"Far from Heaven"

Julianne Moore and Todd Haynes prove the second time's a charm with their sophomore collaboration (he first directed her in "Safe") "Far From Heaven." Done in the style of a Douglas Sirk ("All That Heaven Allows," "Imitation of Life") lush melodrama, "Far From Heaven" stars a never-better Moore as a 1950's housewife whose idyllic life begins to crumble after discovering her husband (an affecting Dennis Quaid) locked in a heated embrace with another man in his office, after hours. Being the 1950's, he expresses regret when confronted by his wife and agrees to see a psychiatrist to 'cure' his ways. Haynes does Sirk proud while elevating Sirk's style beyond its artifice to ground "Far From Heaven" in real, profound emotions. And Moore delivers the performance of her career.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"
The film's tagline was "I already forget how I used to feel about you," but we haven't forgotten how we feel about this Michael Gondry film from 2004. Written by Gondry, Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth, the film features a top notch ensemble cast at the top of their game: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Dunst and Tom Wilkinson. It's no surprise that the film won an Academy Award for Best Original screenplay since Hollywood films don't get much more original than this dark romance about experiments in erasing unpleasant memories. While, at its heart, its a love story, "Eternal Sunshine" veers into science fiction territory until even the audience is wondering if what they just saw really happened or if they mis-remembered it. Want to blow your mind? Watch "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

"The Kids Are All Right."

"The Kids Are All Right"

Lisa Cholodenko’s dramatic comedy captures a family in distress after the two teenage children of a lesbian couple seek out the sperm donor responsible for half of their chromosomes. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play Nic and Jules, two moms who act like any other concerned parents with flaws (Nic drinks a little too much, Jules is a little too laidback) and Mark Ruffalo is Paul, their hunky, single sperm donor. Nic and Jules attempt to welcome the new masculine presence into their household, but Paul’s arrival wakes up a number of pent up issues beneath the surface of their marriage. The film is refreshingly frank in its depiction of same-sex parenting, acknowledging that same-sex couples face their own unique set of issues while raising a family.

"Lost in Translation"
The film follows the unlikely, increasingly intimate friendship between two Americans stuck in Tokyo: Bob (Bill Murray) is an aging movie star making some quick cash by appearing in whiskey ads, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a recent college grad confused about her life plan and mostly ignored by her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), who is in town on business. Jetlagged, confused, and lonely, Bob and Charlotte meet in the bar of the hotel where they're staying, Tokyo's stylish Park Hyatt. Soon, they are bonding over cultural differences, running off to karaoke bars with Charlotte's hipster Japanese pals, and falling for each other. Though their relationship can definitely be described as "intimate," there's no sex involved. In addition to being an atypical romance and a cultural snapshot of Tokyo, Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" is also a laugh-out-loud comedy, thanks to Bill Murray's impeccable performance.

"Moonrise Kingdom"

"Moonrise Kingdom"
Wes Anderson made a triumphant return to live action filmmaking following 2009's animated "Fantastic Mr. Fox" with last year's delectable "Moonrise Kingdom" -- the most recent film on this list. A youth-oriented tale that charmed both fans of his earlier work and newcomers alike, "Moonrise Kingdom" follows a pair of 12-year-olds (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) who decide to run away together into the wildnerness. Their move prompts a considerable search party in their honor, that includes the likes of a scoutmaster (Edward Norton), the girl's two bickering parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) and the local town cop (Bruce Willis). The cast it rounded out by Tilda Swinton, who shows up late in the picture as the villainess, aptly named Social Services; Harvey Keitel, making his Anderson debut as a scoutmaster legend; and Anderson regular, Jason Schwartzman. "Those open to Anderson quirks will find a rewarding experience littered with warmth and playful humor," wrote Eric Kohn in his review.

"Milk"
There is no denying Gus Van Sant's "Milk" as a powerful and moving portrayal of the gay rights movement. Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk as an impossible to dislike political activist who uses the system to fight for LGBT equality in 1970s San Francisco. The film also serves as an effective primer for a political movement, stressing the importance of forming coalitions and emphasizing how LGBT interests fit in with the middle class.  One of the many films on this list with LGBT focus, it also aids in making clear what a huge imprint Schamus's Focus had on presenting LGBT stories and/or promoting LGBT filmmakers in the past decade or so.

"Pariah"

"Pariah"
Though we may decry LGBT films for relying on cliches like the coming out genre, "Pariah" proved that there are still coming out stories to be told. The young woman Alike (the future superstar Adepero Oduye) in Dee Rees' first feature is impeccably realized. Focus ushered in a true talent with Rees, and not only took on "Pariah," but got Rees straight into development on feature number two, still to be released. Alike is a woman at conflict with the various worlds she must encounter everyday: her local lesbian world, the street world, the home world, the school world. The film also features a startling dramatic role from Kim Wayans ("In Loving Color") as Alike's disapproving close-minded mother.

This article is related to: Focus Features, James Schamus, Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Moonrise Kingdom, Pariah, Lost in Translation