The success of a film like Still Alice lies solely on the shoulders of its lead performers. In that sense, it’s a triumph. Alice, played by the continually brilliant Julianne Moore (The Hours, Crazy Stupid Love), is a Columbia professor of linguistics who’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at age 50. Her contentment with life prior to the diagnosis makes the story even more tragic.
The cast is remarkable, but Moore stands out. Her Best Actress Oscar nomination is well-deserved. (A win would also be well-deserved). Moore’s performance is on par with previous masterworks like Todd Haynes’ Safe and P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Alec Baldwin (30 Rock) also gives the best, perhaps most understated performance of his career as Alice’s sweet and intelligent husband.
Unlike Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, which covers similar thematic territory, writer/ directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (2006 Sundance hit Quinceañera) keep us locked in Alice’s perspective as the condition worsens. The film expertly avoids every potential After-School Special moment and tear-jerking orchestral swell.
Surprisingly, Still Alice has a vein of emotional suspense that runs through its narrative. Despite the seemingly straightforward nature of the plot, there are twists and turns along the way that nail an array of devastating emotional notes.
Denis Lenoir’s (88 Minutes) cinematography mimics the symptoms of Alice’s disease, blurring faces and scenery to an alarming effect, attempting to visually convey her experience. These moments of cinematic stylization are kept to a tasteful minimum. One can only imagine a grotesquely stylized adaptation of this material, something akin to Alzheimer’s - The IMAX Experience. Thankfully, this is not that.
At one point, Alice mourns that people would feel more comfortable around her if she were dying of cancer. Alzheimer’s disease is still an uncomfortable subject in our culture. The film masterfully explores the true horrors of the disease, but does so in a beautifully tender and hopeful fashion.
Still Alice is not just one of the best films of the year, it’s also one of the most important.