Some film production companies are so distinctly defined by their repertoire’s style and prestige that you do not even need to see the opening logos to identify their involvement. It can also go the opposite way - whereas by knowing who distributed it, you can quickly gain a pretty clear idea of what sort of movie you are in for. I do not believe that Focus Features is this kind of studio, because its filmography is so richly unique and versatile that you are never quite sure what you are in for and, with that mystery, often comes grand reward.
Two decades have passed since the film production and distribution company - a subsidiary of NBCUniversal - was founded by David Linde and the legacy it has achieved in that time is aspirational to say the least. The films it has released have earned well over 100 Academy Award nominations (a good chunk of them resulting in wins) and the box office returns, for a studio commonly associated with more independent fair, have been exceptional. It should come as no surprise that it was extremely difficult to narrow down what we considered to be the finest features on Focus Features’ filmography so far to just five titles, but the following is what we have come up with, starting with one of the most stylistically memorable and refreshingly human dramedies of all time.
Lost In Translation (2003)
Fading, aging movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is in Tokyo filming a promotional spot for a popular brand of Japanese whiskey, and staying in the same hotel is young, fellow American and recent Yale graduate, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), while her esteemed photographer husband is out on assignments. Both are lonely, disillusioned, and completely out of place until a chance meeting at the hotel bar leads to an unlikely bond, flush with warm memories and irrevocable change for both.
Sophia Coppola won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her sophomore, feature-length directorial effort, Lost In Translation, which would turn out to be one of the most celebrated films of its time and the celebration (involving pink wigs and karaoke) is far from over. From its striking first frame (a stagnant shot of star Johansson’s backside) to its oft-debated cliffhanger ending, the thought-provoking, uniquely romantic, and touchingly funny character study is anchored by its two leads (one a beloved comedy veteran and the other whose stellar career was beginning to really take off) giving two of their most raw and impassioned performances.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Already heartbroken over his recent split with his longtime girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet in an Oscar-nominated role), things get worse for Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) when he learns that she has undergone a revolutionary procedure to erase all memory of him and their relationship from her mind. He then arranges to have the procedure done on himself, putting him on a bizarre “trip” through their love story in reverse that, amid the devastation that led him to this decision, comes a reminder of the joyful moments that lead him to regret it.
Earning director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman Oscars for Best Original Screenplay (shared with Pierre Bismuth), this is a rare kind of film that offers you an experience unlike anything you have ever seen or could even begin to imagine, right through the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ending, while tapping directly into the most raw and relatable human emotions. It is a spectacularly creative, nearly unparalleled visual feast that also sees Carrey giving the performance of his career in what is, arguably, his finest film so far.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
In 1963, young cowboys Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger in his first Academy Award nominated role) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, also nominated) become acquainted while herding sheep at a Wyoming Farm. Over time, their friendship blossoms into something deep, passionate, and - at the time - forbidden, which they try to keep secret from their respective families while struggling with their mutual longing for one another.
There are many films that even audiences and critics both agree deserved to take home the Best Picture Oscar, but were unjustly robbed. Despite winning for Gustavo Santaolalla’s score, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s screenplay adapted from Annie Proulx’s short story, and Ang Lee’s direction, Brokeback Mountain is certainly no exception. Remembered as one of cinema’s first earnestly depicted mainstream homosexual romances, it is also admired for treating that plot with such emotional intensity and tragic honesty.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
When orphaned, precocious 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) meets Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who comes from a well-to-do family and is equally wise beyond her years, it is love at first sight and they immediately become pen pals. After deciding to run away together, their sudden absence begins to cause an uproar among the eccentric adult citizens of their coastal town in 1960s New England.
Each making their acting debut, the pairing of Gilman and Hayward is a miracle in this beautiful and unexpectedly poignant representation of young love that, as a story mostly from an adolescent point of view, fittingly treats it like an adventure. For that reason, in addition to its refreshingly bright aesthetic, Moonrise Kingdom might be the most joyous and exhilarating of Wes Anderson’s movies, which is really saying something about a filmmaker with a distinctly and imaginatively picturesque vision.
In the early 1970s, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first Black man hired onto the Colorado Springs Police Department and is soon promoted from patrolman to the undercover intelligence. When there, he teams up with a Jewish fellow officer (Adam Driver in his first Oscar nominated role) who helps him successfully infiltrate the local branch of Ku Klux Klan.
Based on a shockingly true story which the real Ron Stallworth revealed in his memoir of the same (but differently spelled) title, BlacKkKlansman is both a thrilling detective noir and a powerful protest of prejudice in America that does not cease to be relevant (if not even more relevant) to this day. The film, which is easily one of director Spike Lee’s best movies, also earned the legendary filmmaker his first-ever Academy Award win for Best Adapted Screenplay, which he shared with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott.
Like I said earlier, narrowing down Focus Features’ greatest hits to just five titles was no easy task. We have barely scratched the surface when covering all of the masterpieces that this studio has been involved with - including Far From Heaven, Promising Young Woman, or more recently, Licorice Pizza. Celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary by watching them all!
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.