Like a number of smaller films this year such as The Kids are All Right, Please Give, Winter's Bone and the first two films of the Millennium Trilogy, City Island is one of this years sleeper indie hits and it is easy to see why. Out on DVD today, it is one of the best movies of the year.
In many ways, City Island is a traditional dysfunctional family melodrama, and it revels in that mold. What elevates this dark comedy to something compelling and infinitely memorable are the universally strong performances, confident direction and most importantly -- one of the best scripts in years. Oddly, I found the same response to a very different film; Frost/Nixon. Boasting the same underlying strengths by way of actors and writing, both are perplexingly entertaining for movies with such a humble story arc and could easily be dismissed as pompous Oscar bait. This is far from the truth.
By way of an introductory voice-over narration we meet the Rizzo family who reside on City Island, a tiny island community in the Bronx. The residents of this picturesque hidden jewel consist of two groups, "mussel suckers" who are immigrants to the island and "clam diggers," who like the Rizzos, have resided there for generations. Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a prison guard but secretly aspires to become an actor, a masquerade so embarrassing to him it leads his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) to believe he is having an affair. Their son Vince Jr. has a secret fetish for more portly woman and their daughter Vivian is secretly working as a stripper to pay for school. To top things off, Vince has come across a paroled prisoner who just so happens to be his son Tony who he had abandoned during a relationship decades prior.
Basing your opinion on that description alone, it would be very easy to dismiss City Island as an outlandish comedy of errors, but the execution is so genuine and deliberate it borders on genius. As tensions escalate after Vince brings Tony home with him (under false pretences) everyone's secrets collide in a climax that ranks among my favorite finales of all time, drama, comedy, horror film or otherwise. As the writing behind the big finish shines through, so does the believable mix of fluctuating emotions exhibited by the cast. Words do not do this scene justice, so I urge you to simply experience it yourself.
Each principle member of the cast gives what I would call career-high performances, especially Andy Garcia who anchors the story as everything dissolves around him. He is hilariously deadpan at one moment and tender at the next, which sets off Margulies' fiery Joyce to even more palatable effect. Steven Straight as Vice's long-lost son is perfectly nuanced as an ex-con who is as puzzled by his new lodgings and the kindness of a supposed stranger as he is disenchanted with society. Emily Mortimer gets a great side role as a colleague of Vince's in his secret acting class; a relationship that stays refreshingly plutonic.
Every member of the Rizzo family is given enough screen time to become fully realized individuals but without taking so much attention away from another to degrade them to a caricature. Vince Jr. is sarcastic and annoying most of the time and in a lesser film he would have been overused and could have easily sunk the film. But writer/director Raymond De Felitta plays to each characters strengths and balances their interplay faultlessly.
Above all else, City Island is a film about secrets and how when kept bottled up can shred even the strongest of relationships but when shared can be a uniting factor. This theme seems fitting as this little treasure is the best kept secret of the year.