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Joshua Brunsting

March 20th, 2012

While most may see the start of 2012 as nothing more than fodder saved for the video rental stores, the first three months of every new year also happens to be the perfect time for one to revisit, or get the chance to see for the first time, some of the best films of the year prior, that may have skipped your local theater.

One film that has just hit DVD and Blu-ray that may have been overlooked by those in smaller markets happens to be the new film from director Alexander Payne.  THE DESCENDANTS is Payne’s return to the big screen, and finds its star, George Clooney, not only giving one of his best performances of his entire career, but may in fact be one of the best films of a year, 2011, that saw a cavalcade of film world giants giving some of their best work in some time.

DESCENDANTS stars Clooney as a land owner, Matt King, who must deal with dramatic changes all around in his life.  His wife is stuck in a family crunching coma, his daughters are acting out in their lives and his land is being ripped apart by those trying to either keep it in the family or sell it for a proverbial boat load of cash. However, things get even more obstructive, as it is discovered that his wife had been cheating on him, tossing his entire life into a downward spiral of introspection.  Featuring a collection of career-best performances ranging from icons like Clooney to underrated thespians like Shailene Woodley, DESCENDANTS was one of 2011’s most beautiful and poetic films, and is one of the most refreshing looks at love, loss and family in quite a few years.

The film, at its core, is an actor’s showcase.  And what a showcase it truly is.  Clooney is the film’s biggest star obviously, playing King, a loveable oaf of a man, with a sense of paunch and realism that seems oddly out of place with regards to who most people find him to truly be. He imbues this film with such truth and raw emotion, while also being his normal charming self, that it is nearly impossible to really take one’s eyes off the screen when he adorns it.  Woodley is revelatory here, giving what may be the performance of her career here, adding equal parts truth and fire to a role that could become caricature more than character.  Amara Miller is great here, with Nick Krause adding a sense of humor to an otherwise dour bit of familial drama, and the trio of Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer are all brilliant and awards worthy in supporting turns.

Directorially, Payne is working on his A-game here. Coming back from a few years off the job, save for the occasional TV gig, Payne has an issue with working the film’s opening beats, particularly in the use of voice over, but he allows the camera to be freewheeling while also lingering on pure and emotional moments, letting each sequence breath for the most resonant emotional impact.  The frame is alive with Hawaii, a locale that is both impossible to shoot poorly, and believably realistic here, making this a film that is both impressively cinematic, but not without keeping quite a good deal of intimacy that makes Hawaii what it truly is.

As far as the film’s Blu-ray goes, it’s shockingly stacked.  Featuring fine audio and visual transfers, the release thrives in its supplements. The crowning gem here is a conversation with Clooney and Payne, that is equally insightful, and far too short.  A silent film is featured here, best described as a newsreel looking at the locale and landscapes of Hawaii, and a series of featurettes look at things like the film’s design, setting, cast and source material.  Toss in a trailer, and you have a superb release for what is truly one of the year’s past most superb feature films.

Overall, THE DESCENDANTS may feel a tad slight and a tad over long, featuring a voice over opening coda that simply doesn’t fit, but what follows is one of the most devastatingly affecting feature comedy/dramas to come across the screen in some time.  Featuring career best performances from its cast and a great directing job from auteur Payne, DESCENDANTS is a film that will be hard to forget, particularly for those who find that finding past loved ones hard to forget has been a problem as well.

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