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:
"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.
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.
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"
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."