One of the best movies I've seen this year is Richard Linklater's “Before Midnight.” Following is the review I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:
One day a few years ago, I was arguing with a friend that an actor’s performance should have won him an Oscar. “Well,” my friend replied, “winning an Oscar doesn’t really mean anything, does it?”
I was stunned. I wanted to say, “Well, sure it does.” But I didn’t. Instead, I thought of all the films – from “Around the World in 80 Days” to “Oliver!” – that had won Best Picture Oscars, and I saw my friend’s point.
This conversation came to mind when the credits rolled for Richard Linklater’s film “Before Midnight,” as I sat there full of that feeling that comes when you’ve seen a movie that is so well conceived and so well executed that you’re virtually vibrating with appreciation. And knowing that most of America was preferring to sit through the escapist fantasy “Man of Steel,” I thought: “Well, a critic’s opinion doesn’t mean anything anyway, does it?”
Or does it? “Before Midnight” is the third in a series of films directed – and mostly written – by the Texas-born Linklater, whose credits include “Dazed and Confused,” “A Scanner Darkly” and a dozen diverse other works. The “Before” trilogy began in 1995 with “Before Sunrise,” which follows a couple of 20-somethings – an American named Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke), a French woman named Celine (played by Julie Delpy) – who meet on a train, get off in Vienna, and – over the course of a night’s conversation – fall in love. Nine years later, Linklater gave us “Before Sunset,” which features now-author Jesse – on a European book tour – reconnecting with Celine and the two then considering a possible future.
Based on an original Linklater idea, “Before Sunrise” was fleshed out and co-written by Linklater and Kim Krizan. Linklater then teamed with Hawke and Delpy to co-author “Before Sunset” and, now, “Before Midnight.” And other than the natural charisma of the two lead actors, what’s fascinating about the movies is that they are largely talk-fests. Yet the talking never seems self-conscious, never veers into the predictable, never feels less than spot-on authentic, reflecting the concerns of two intelligent, thoughtful, yet emotionally vulnerable people who recognize in the other a kindred, complementary spirit.
And just as we know that Jesse and Celine are perfect for each other at first, as we then hope they will listen to their hearts and connect – whatever the consequences – this third film confronts us with a question implicit in any long-term relationship: Can such attraction – or, indeed, any attraction – withstand the test of time? A test that can include everything from dirty diapers to dishes in the sink, the withering of sexual intrigue, the pull of dual careers and the guilt that comes from absentee parenting?
Linklater’s skill at framing “Before Midnight,” many scenes of which are several minutes long and rendered in single takes, is admirable. The result is pure cinematic art. Yet it’s certainly fair to ask: If I have to live such moments in my real life, why would I be interested in experiencing them on the big screen?
All I can say in reply is that art this good, even if it doesn’t provide any ultimate answers, sometimes frames basic questions about life in a way that makes us feel just a little less alone. And to me at least, that’s worth all the Oscars, not to mention escapist fantasies, in Hollywood.