This has been an unusual year for forecasting the Oscars. The Academy is often a predictable group, and their decisions often follow an echo chamber of precursor awards from less prestigious groups. More often than not, the Best Picture winner at the Oscars recently collected top prizes from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Screen Actors Guild, and the British Academy. The Golden Globe award for Best Drama is often an anomaly, as the award has predicted Best Picture at the Oscars only twice in the last ten years.
Despite the flimsy prognostication abilities of the Globes, the Oscar formula is often reliable, and so are the stats. For example, only one film has ever won Best Picture without a SAG ensemble nomination (Braveheart, in 1995). Only nine films have won Best Picture without a Best Editing nomination. Just three films have won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination (Driving Miss Daisy, Grand Hotel, and Wings).
But if there was ever a year to throw stats out the window, especially the last one mentioned, it’s in 2013. Ever since Ben Affleck (and Kathryn Bigelow, but who remembers this?) missed out on a Best Director nomination for his sharp political thriller Argo, a compelling awards season narrative was born. Since his snub, Affleck has become one of the most decorated directors of any given awards season, though he will miss out in one category (Best Director) on Sunday, and will win another (Best Picture) – as producer. The only thing stronger than stats is a strong “he/she deserves it” narrative.
Read on for my thoughts on the major categories, with input from Jeremy.Continue Reading »
Though I may not have reviewed as many of them as I would’ve liked, I had the pleasure of taking in twenty-two films in theaters over the course of 2012. There were some disappointments (The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables), but I look back on this year in film and consider 2012 to be a triumph for cinema. There were many very good films, one that took my breath away (read on for #1 on my list), and refined techniques that really pushed the envelope (like the beautiful, complementary use of 3D in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi).
Overall, I’m impressed by and grateful to artists across the globe that continue to contribute dynamic visual storytelling to our cinemas.
10. “Lincoln” (Steven Spielberg)
9. “The Silver Linings Playbook” (David O. Russell)
8. “Life of Pi” (Ang Lee)
7. “The Sessions” (Ben Lewin)
6. “Django Unchained” (Quentin Tarantino)
5. “The Master” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
4. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Benh Zeitlin)
3. “Argo” (Ben Affleck)
2. “Ruby Sparks” (Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris)
1. “Zero Dark Thirty” (Kathryn Bigelow)
Cheers to 2013!
Continue Reading »
In 2008 Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriting partner (in work and in “real life”) Mark Boal made a successful run for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and an array of other honors at the Oscars with their remarkable action thriller The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner. But more than an action thriller, The Hurt Locker is an intellectual study of a soldier’s psychological health in such a dangerous job, and ultimately, the abrupt changes following the completion of his duties. It’s a gripping theme and a question that those of us who do not face daily threats to our lives never have to confront: “where do I go from here?”
The same question reverberates through the last scene of Zero Dark Thirty, as young CIA agent Maya (Chastain) boards her plane following the successful operation that resulted in the death of al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden—an operation that began with intelligence she bravely acquired over the course of a decade. “Where would you like to go?,” the pilot asks, as Maya sits back in her seat, deeply exhaling as tears slowly roll down her cheeks. It had been a long ten years since she first joined the operation in Pakistan following the September 11th, 2001, attacks, but now her mission is finished. Where does she go?
Arguably the best female director working today (although, there should be more to choose from, but that is a tangent for another day…), Bigelow is captivating audiences with her studies of people in dangerous jobs. In 2008 she adeptly studied soldiers carrying out the most horrifying tasks in Afghanistan, and this year, with Zero Dark Thirty, her lens followed CIA agents in their arduous hunt to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. With a procedural tone and aggressive pacing, Bigelow’s direction draws the audience into Maya’s head space as she confronts her mission with calculating moves, suppressing her emotions to keep her focus. Only at the end, after the mission is complete, do we see her release.
The strengths of Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s in-depth, engaging script (his roots as an investigative journalist suit the material very well) are further enhanced by Chastain’s crisp portrayal of Maya. Beyond her intuitively cold and distant persona, her passion matures from a fresh young “killer,” as her boss describes her, in 2001, to a tired young killer in 2011. While her youth and passion never fades, she appears visibly spent by the end of the mission. A decade of frustration and hard work in the hunt pervades Chastain’s movements and expression in the film’s last act.
Beyond this complex study of Maya’s character, Bigelow draws great intensity from her action sequences, culminating in the successful raid by Navy seals. The nearly half-hour long sequence is breathtaking, with quiet pattering of footsteps in the dusty landscape, sharply whispered commands, and the riveting shootout and conclusion of the hunt. Of course the audience aware of what will happen, but the mood was severely unsettling nevertheless.
An explosive thriller and a captivating character study, Zero Dark Thirty echoes the themes of The Hurt Locker, while Bigelow and Boal successfully bring their interest in individuals with dangerous jobs to the screen once again.Continue Reading »
Earlier this year, I went to see Joe Wright’s recent take on Anna Karenina. At the onset, I was surprised to learn that his interpretation included painted sets, theater props, and exaggerated choreography, as though the film meant to record a live stage production of Tolstoy’s classic political drama. Wright faced a mixed reaction to his heavily stylized approach, but, at this very moment, I find myself appreciative of his risk taking in the name of artistic vision.
This evening I saw Les Miserables, another classic political drama, one that has already been adapted for the stage quite successfully. My general reaction to the film is overwhelmingly positive. I wept throughout the third act, and found the performances to be some of the most affecting of any I’ve seen this year. Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine is haunting—her delivery of “I Dreamed a Dream” hangs in the air as I type.
Adapted from the 1980 musical based on the classic novel of the same name, Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper (who most recently gave us The King’s Speech), tells the story of a number of intertwined characters living in 19th Century France, culminating in the bloody 1832 June Rebellion. The central character, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), is an ex-convict searching for redemption through acts of benevolence amid the changing political landscape.
As thoroughly affecting and palpable these performances are, and with the strong story there as a blueprint, I have to wonder what a more innovative director could have done with the material. Hooper relies on the same old playbook for sweeping historical epics—and it works—but where are the risks?
Hooper’s controversial decision to film his actors singing live has paid off, to be sure, bringing a sense of urgency to grand solo numbers. But the uninspired camera work that happens in between these moments is the real problem. What if similar, heavily stylized risks that Wright tried out on Karenina were taken to Les Miserables? It may not have worked, but it also might have brought a stronger sense of connection to the film.
Hooper’s realism has an intense emotional impact, but I wish there were more energy to his direction.Continue Reading »
About a third of the way through Quentin Tarantino’s latest feature-length bloodbath (no surprises there), Django Unchained, a group of pistol waving white supremacists gather one night on horseback in the middle of a Mississippi field, charged with protecting their self-proclaimed right to slavery. It’s a scene that, given a different tone, might shake you to your core. Instead, the theater erupted in laughter as the men comically struggled to see out of poorly designed (perhaps KKK-inspired) white sacks, cursing in lilting southern accents while clunking into one another. By the time the racist mob members decided they had had it with their ill-fitting garb, nearby freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter, Django (Foxx), and his mentor, Dr. Schultz (Waltz), had settled their score. Ensuing images of blood splattered across a white horse’s back, and across pristine white cotton ready to be picked off the plant by a field slave—which in another movie might evoke somber feelings—serve as a backdrop for this campy epic western.
Notorious for his unflinching use of violence in his films, Tarantino has found the right notes to play with strong storytelling in historical settings. Violence, shrouded in Tarantino’s mockery, is much more palatable when directed towards some of history’s greatest villains. In Inglourious Basterds, he took on the Nazi empire. Here in Django, he takes aim at slave owners clutching to their oppressive societal customs.
Upon his release with the help of the forward-thinking bounty hunter, Django teams up with Schultz to raise some cash and track down his wife—and purchase her freedom. The two take on the south, dancing circles around thick-skulled bigots and charming southern gentlemen. Their greatest conquest lies ahead in the slave-trading town of Greenboro, Miss., where Django’s wife serves a young, ruthless plantation magnate named Calvin Candie (DiCaprio).
Similar to Basterds, Django has emotional pull – for the good guys to win, for human rights, and for Django to be reunited with his wife at last. That Foxx is able to play a vengeful, passionate man with quiet reserve in such an ostentatious film may be the greatest success of his acting career. But Tarantino’s absurdity is the ingredient that holds his unique style of film-making together, and I found myself content to suspend belief for nearly three hours in his latest historical payback drama.Continue Reading »
We first meet Ruby Sparks, played by burgeoning screenwriter Zoe Kazan, in a dream sequence. She’s wearing a pair of purple tights and a dress that doesn’t match, backlit by sepia tones. Next, we find Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) tapping away on a typewriter that looked as if it were borrowed from the set of 500 Days of Summer. I began to worry that I might be in for another two hours of watching a failed romance between two “adorable” hipsters, but instead stumbled upon a fantasy film that brought some poignant issues to the surface.
Despite his comfortable life born from his success as a young novelist, Calvin is a lonely recluse, barely able to connect with his dog Scotty, whom he adopted specifically to “make friends.” He has few connections, save his athletic brother, an agent trying to keep his career afloat, and an ex-girlfriend who callously left him shortly after his father died. Just when I thought I was in for a real downer, Ruby Sparks enters Calvin’s life under unusual circumstances. She appears to him in the aforementioned dream, he is inspired to write her, and the next thing we know, she is in his kitchen making omelets with hot sauce.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris bring Kazan’s tight, economic script to the screen with finesse, tip-toeing around the question of whether Ruby is in fact real or a figment of Calvin’s wild imagination. Calvin questions this himself for what feels like a lifetime as we’re waiting in anticipation. He calls his therapist. He locks himself in another room. He picks her up, throws her over his shoulder, bolts outside, and queries strangers on the street, asking whether or not they can see her. Indeed—she’s real. Calvin created her, and thus begins a relationship in which power will never be equal. It’s doomed from the start, but Calvin is enamored with her.
And I was, as an audience member, as well. Kazan has written and acted the infectious Ruby masterfully, so much so that you wish by the end that she were not trapped in Calvin’s words and that the pair could stay together. But the love affair erodes, and the harrowing second half of “Sparks” reveals an ugly imbalance of power. Surely, no writer could give this story a happy ending, but Kazan does deliver something worth your attention.Continue Reading »
Levon Helms’ passing this week prompted a viewing of Martin Scorsese’s 1978 rock concert documentary, The Last Waltz in my apartment this weekend.
For those of us with a limited familiarity of rock music of the 1960s, The Last Waltz is a stunning introduction to some of the greats. Scorsese sits across from members of The Band in relaxed, candid interviews in their California studio, while also capturing Bob Dylan, Van Morrisson, and Joni Mitchell, among others, on stage alongside The Band in a phenomenal farewell concert.
Though he is widely known as a feature director of mob violence dramas and grandiose biopics, Scorsese also has an impressive stock of music documentaries under his belt, and, even more impressive, The Last Waltz was his first dive into the genre. He has since told Bob Dylan’s, the Rolling Stones, and recently George Harrison’s stories on screen, in No Direction Home, Shine a Light, and Living in the Material World, respectively. He has also demonstrated a keen interest in rock and roll music through his soundtrack inclusions for his dramatic feature films.
The Last Waltz oscillates between the euphoric energy of the farewell concert and the sobering interviews as The Band members recall the good times and the bad in their life on the road. Though their love for the music they made together is entirely genuine, their fatigue is transparent, and it seems like the time is right to break up The Band. Scenes from the enrapturing final concert leave no room for doubt that The Band chose to quit while they were ahead. As they prepared to put down their instruments, Scorsese masterfully preserved their final concert on screen for us to enjoy many decades later, highlighting some of the greatest musicians of that generation and The Band that shared the stage with them.Continue Reading »
Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, a tragic story told in history classrooms and on-screen by James Cameron in a film released in 1997. The film was re-released in theaters and in 3D last weekend.
I chose the above screenshot because too many of us remember Titanic as The Jack and Rose story. While the romantic plot was needed to focus this massive disaster story down to two characters we (hopefully) care about, the most affecting part of the film is undoubtedly the last hour and a half when the ship is sinking. The luxurious ship that served as an exquisite backdrop for the love story began to fall apart at every seam – water bursts through its crisp white walls, a cabinet full of china plates rattle to the floor as rushing water floods the lavish dining room, and ultimately we watch thousands of frozen bodies float lifelessly in the biting Atlantic.
Much has been written about Titanic, good things and bad things. Notoriously, the dialogue is a little silly at many points. But watching the film again for the first time on the big screen in fifteen years, I walked away marveling at what a talented visual storyteller James Cameron is. Titanic was one of the first epic, visual effects driven films of its kind, and today it remains an influential part of that history.Continue Reading »
Last week I crossed two films off my List of Films I Often Lie About Not Having Seen.
Now, I don’t think I have ever actually had to lie about this fact; rather, whenever someone mentioned The Godfather trilogy, I’d nod my head in agreement and venerate Francis Ford Coppola’s films as best as I could. I never acknowledged or corrected someone who wrongly assumed that I had seen them. In rare cases, I’d admit to the oversight, and then endure a 30-second lambasting…Never. Again.
Fair warning: If you, too, have never seen the Godfather trilogy (Well, Parts I and II. I have yet to see Part III, and that task is for a day when I feel I can stand Sofia Coppola’s acting, which may not come for years), I caution you in reading this post as there will be minor spoilers. And I mean it. I somehow managed to stay in the dark and experienced the film’s thrilling twists and turns with their intended impact. I’d hate to deny you that same experience.
As with all great narratives—and The Godfather‘s is one of the greatest—the story is layered and can be interpreted from many different angles. What I found most compelling in my first viewing was Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) trajectory. The Godfather is, from the beginning, a story of Michael Corleone’s demise—his loss of innocence and the erosion of his moral character.
Watching Part I and II side by side offers a striking comparison of both Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son Michael (Pacino) in the family role of “Don Corleone,” the highest member of a powerful Italian mob enterprise. Part I shows us Vito in that role, and later in Part II, we see Michael pick up where his father left off. Both possess the cold, ruthless disposition that presumably any mob boss would need, but Michael is not his father, and his actions in the second film fray the tailored edges of the Godfather image Vito created.
Mario Puzo, the author, and Francis Ford Coppola (who wrote the screenplay together) carefully lay the groundwork for this transition long before it is executed on screen by Pacino. Perhaps Michael’s aggression comes from his military background, or because his outlook is narrowed by a privileged upbringing (unlike Vito’s gradual ascension to wealth and power after having immigrated to the United States an orphan from Italy). Though his impression at the beginning of the film is that of an attractive, angelic-like young man, Michael’s propensity for violence bubbles to the service when he volunteers to kill two enemies of the family involved in a heroin trafficking operation. He successfully carries out the operation, and at that moment, it really feels as though there was no turning back for him.
Many references are made to Vito’s wish that Michael would never travel down this path to become the Godfather. The eldest brother Sonny (James Caan) was the presumed heir, but his death in Part I changes everything, and Vito feels the loss of Michael’s innocence as he is called to the role (passing over his older brother Fredo, who is treated as simple-minded and incapable) as much as he feels the loss of his first born.
At times it is not clear if Michael truly loves his family, or if he loves them because the loyalty that ties them all together is all he has ever known. He is paranoid, and quick to act on a suspicion that someone might be against him, an affliction that ultimately leads him to order the death of his loving, yet dim, brother Fredo (John Cazale). Perhaps what is most chilling is that he brings his targets close, giving them the false hope that he has forgiven them, before he calls for their execution, as is the case for Fredo, and earlier in the film for his brother-in-law Carlo (Gianni Russo). Under Michael’s regime, the Corleone operation feels much more destructive and unstable.
I’m eager to watch these films (and perhaps Part III, too) a second time to take in this complicated narrative from another angle; but in the meantime, I’m taking in Al Pacino’s performance as Michael Corleone and filing it under one of the best on film. Michael’s transition to the role of the Godfather and the demise of his moral character transcends every expectation I had for the films.Continue Reading »
Of the directors in favor of using 3D technology in their films–James Cameron, Michael Bay, Guillermo del Toro–I’m surprised to see Martin Scorsese added to this list. But there’s a first time for everything, and Martin Scorsese has just released his first 3D picture, Hugo, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s best-selling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
I did not see the film in 3D and therefore cannot comment on its effectiveness. I can, however, comment on the remarkable 2D film Scorsese has made, perhaps his best since Goodfellas.
Those expecting an emotionally shallow family film will be sorely disappointed, as Hugo is an exquisite adventure drama, and a poignant homage to great cinema from one of the best directors of our time. Scorsese delivers the story of teenage orphaned boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) living in a train station, with only a broken automaton to remember his father by. As he roams the station by day looking for missing parts to engineer the automaton back to life again, he evades arrest by the militant Inspector Gustav (Sascha Baron Coen) and aggravates toy shop owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley). When the second act turns to reveal that Papa Georges is in fact innovative retired film director Georges Méliès, the film deepens through Scorsese’s discerning lens, igniting the screen with a grandiose tribute to an important moment in the history of special effects in cinema.Continue Reading »