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Indie Focus: New year begins with tributes to Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Hello! I'm Mark Olsen, and welcome to your weekly field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

This newsletter should be hitting email inboxes on the first day of a new year. And it comes at the end of one of the more dramatic weeks in recent memory, with the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, just one day apart. Together their legacy stretches from Hollywood's Golden Age and films such as "Singin' in the Rain" to the original "Star Wars" and its upcoming "Episode VIII." They were a remarkable pair, each with individual gifts and a bond between them that proved to be closer than anyone could have imagined.

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This past week also saw the release of two reflective, gentle films that may provide some relative emotional shelter from the storms of recent events. "20th Century Women" and "Paterson" are among my personal favorites of this past year and, I would say, not to be missed.

Our recent conversation with some of the year's lead actor Oscar contenders is now online. It was an intriguing mix of generations, with Casey Affleck for "Manchester by the Sea," Robert De Niro for "The Comedian," Adam Driver for "Paterson," Joel Edgerton for "Loving," Andrew Garfield for "Hacksaw Ridge," and Matthew McConaughey for "Gold."

There was a part of the conversation where De Niro, McConaughey, Garfield and Driver all shared their experiences working with director Martin Scorsese that was just electric. As Garfield said, "I want to hear what Mr. De Niro has to say." And the notoriously untalkative De Niro was downright chatty when it came to talking about his longtime collaborator.

We will have more screening and Q&A events soon here: events.latimes.com.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

When it was first reported that Carrie Fisher had a heart attack on a flight from London to Los Angeles, who could have imagined the outcome. Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, are the kind of personalities whom one grows accustomed to and sadly, come to take for granted. And the moment they are gone we immediately realize how much they meant to us and how much they will be missed.

Meredith Woerner wrote an appreciation of Fisher, saying "Before there was Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, there was Fisher. Before there was Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, there was Fisher. Before there was Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and even the beloved Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, there was Fisher providing a female face to a universally admired action hero. A fact she struggled for years to accept before finally surrendering to her own iconic status."

Debbie Reynolds with daughter Carrie Fisher at the Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 2015.
Debbie Reynolds with daughter Carrie Fisher at the Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 2015. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

I wrote about the many projects Fisher was involved in as an actor and writer, from "Star Wars" to a possible sequel to "Wishful Drinking." "If Carrie Fisher's greatest role truly was as Carrie Fisher, actress, author, raconteur and chronicler of Hollywood's generational transitions, she was in the midst of a creatively flourishing time."

Kenneth Turan wrote an appreciation of Reynolds, noting, "With the exuberance and joy of performance as one of its themes, 'Singin' in the Rain,' and Reynolds' part in it, has proved to be the Hollywood musical's most durable example, the real tinsel underneath all the fake stuff."

I also wrote about Reynolds, including a memory of moderating a Q&A with her a few years ago. "That crowd loved Debbie Reynolds, the plucky, perseverant woman next door. But more importantly, she loved all of them. She loved all of us and gave us everything she had."

Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune wrote about them both and the air of tragedy that hovers over their deaths coming in such short succession, writing, "I don't know if it's cruel irony or pure poetry to lose them both so close together, but it feels terrible either way."

Hunter Harris at Vulture and Teo Bugbee at MTV News both wrote about "Postcards From the Edge" and how its fictionalized portrait of an unusual mother-daughter relationship may be Fisher's most lasting piece of screenwriting.

And the new documentary about the two of them, "Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds," has seen its HBO premiere date pushed forward to Jan. 7.

'20th Century Women'

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Writer-director Mike Mills follows up his portrait of his father in "Beginners" with a look at this mother in "20th Century Women." In the film, set in late '70s Santa Barbara, Annette Bening plays Dorothea Fields, a 50-something single mother raising her teenage son. She surrounds him with a surrogate family of misfits (Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning and Billy Crudup) who teach him about women, culture, masculinity and politics. (What more is there to learn?)

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, "A bundle of achingly human contradictions that Mills wisely chooses to embrace rather than resolve, Dorothea is easily the movie's finest achievement — and certainly one of Bening's finest."

Actresses Annette Bening, left, and Greta Gerwig with writer/director Mike Mills for "20th Century Women."
Actresses Annette Bening, left, and Greta Gerwig with writer/director Mike Mills for "20th Century Women." (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, "For a memoirist, Mr. Mills is uncommonly generous. … Dorothea is at once laid back and uptight, which Ms. Bening conveys with moments of shambling, gestural looseness and sudden emotional spikiness. She floods the screen with warmth, threatens to burn the joint down and, with Mr. Mills, turns contradictions into character."

The Times' Steve Zeitchik spoke to Billy Crudup about his recent roles in "20th Century Women" and "Jackie." It was "Jackie" director Pablo Larraín who said of Crudup, "He's someone who's extremely charming and at the same time he can be extremely dangerous. He's someone who's very hard to grab and say exactly who he is."

I spoke to Mills, Bening, Gerwig and Fanning on the multi-faceted, multi-generational portraits they created in the film.

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As Mills said, "To me the film is three portraits of the women, seen by the boy but also seen by the women themselves. I think what I'm really interested in is how our ideas of ourselves, even our ideas of love or who we are, our innermost ideas of ourselves, are still shaped by society and history and the things around us and our relationship to American consumer society. I'm endlessly fascinated by that."

'Paterson'

Jim Jarmusch has long made films with their own peculiar rhythms, unhurried and patient. So it makes sense that he should make a movie about a poet that itself takes on the airy, enigmatic feeling of poetry. In "Paterson," Adam Driver plays a Paterson, N.J., bus driver who is also a poet, though he shows his work to no one but his wife (Golshifteh Farahani).

Justin Chang, in his review for The Times, wrote that "For a while, you may wonder if there is more to this enigmatic, epigrammatic movie than a string of clever allusions and linguistic puzzles. Then again, you may wonder why more movies can't be a string of clever allusions and linguistic puzzles, especially when they end up giving way to such exquisite rivulets of feeling, as they do here. 'Paterson,' like most films assured enough to make their own rules, is not just a refreshing change of pace but a revivifying one."

Actor Adam Driver plays a bus driver in "Paterson."
Actor Adam Driver plays a bus driver in "Paterson." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

At Vox, Alissa Wilkinson wrote, "Through Paterson's eyes, we see the world, colored with quiet emotion. The resulting movie is a gentle fable, a small myth, and the rare philosophical film that captures the balance of work and art that so many artists — especially poets — have to navigate. But 'Paterson' doesn't feel the need to romanticize it as a struggle or downplay work as just a 'day job.' In 'Paterson,' work and art is all of a piece. Whether laced with small joys or defeats, it's all a good life."

Both Kevin Lincoln at Vulture and Charles Bramesco at the Verge wrote about Driver as an unlikely leading man.

And I spoke to Jarmusch and Driver about their collaboration for an article I'll be publishing soon.

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus.

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