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 »
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 »
The 1967 Best Actor race was filled with strong contenders–a mix of method actors (Paul Newman), newcomers (Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty), and classic Hollywood studio actors (Rod Steiger and Spencer Tracy). The winner that year was Rod Steiger in his spirited performance as a bigoted southern police chief working with a northern black detective (Sidney Portier). It’s surprising that Portier wasn’t nominated in the lead role over Steiger. He should have won for this performance instead of 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Instead, the studios pushed him into the Supporting category.
Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night
In the Heat of the Night is a great film and Steiger’s performance is excellent, but 1967 had some even more iconic roles for the younger actors, specifically Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
These were Beatty and Hoffman’s first nominations. Beatty went on to win for Best Director in 1982 for Reds and Hoffman won two Oscars for Best Actor in 1980’s Kramer vs. Kramer (a much deserved win) and 1989’s Rain Man. Beatty was just coming out of the shadow of being Shirley MacLaine’s brother, and Hoffman has always been known for being very anti-establishment and very anti-Oscar. Beatty is great as Clyde Barrow opposite Faye Dunaway, and Hoffman displays a boyish dumbfoundedness in The Graduate. These two roles were career-defining for Hoffman and Beatty, but the one role that served as the embodiment of another actor’s career was Paul Newman as Lucas Jackson in Cool Hand Luke.
Newman came onto the Hollywood scene in 1954 with the religious dud, The Silver Chalice, but his breakthrough role came in 1956 as boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Newman exuded a youthful, charismatic charm that audiences found intoxicating. In some ways he was the successor to James Dean (with whom he was originally going to star in East of Eden), but a more stable, mainstream version. From 1958 to 1969, he starred in box office hits such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Long Hot Summer, Exodus, The Hustler, Sweet Bird of Youth, Hud, Harper, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. All of these films embodied the Newman anti-hero, the roguish rebel that charmed audiences into getting his own way. But the role that really defined him was as Lucas Jackson in Cool Hand Luke. Jackson is sent to a chain gang prison for breaking parking meters and stealing change (a funny, if somewhat idiotic offense) and there he finds the will to live against the ruthless guards. The famous “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” line comes from this film.
It’s in the quieter scenes where Newman really shines, such as when he bets his fellow prisoners he can eat 50 hardboiled eggs, and when he slowly sings “Plastic Jesus” to himself. Newman deserved the nomination and in my opinion deserved the win that year. Ironically Newman, who was nominated 10 times (and won an Honorary Oscar and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar) finally won for the sequel to The Hustler—Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money in 1986 (a year after he won his Honorary Oscar).
And where is poor Spencer Tracy in all this? Tracy, a solid character actor who was at his best in the 30s and 40s, would be nominated as the doubting father of a girl who wants to marry a black man in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? This was his 9th nomination and a posthumous one at that. He died 17 days after shooting was finished. Katharine Hepburn (his longtime real life companion) and his onscreen dutiful, liberal-thinking wife Christina Draper, won for Best Actress that year in what many (myself included) see as a consolation prize for Tracy’s death and a tribute to the many films that Hepburn and Tracy starred in together (9 in total from 1941 to 1967).
While Steiger took the Oscar home that night, Paul Newman deserved the win.
Below are the lyrics to “Plastic Jesus” written by Ed Rush and George Cromarty.
Paul Newman sings “Plastic Jesus” in Cool Hand Luke
I don’t care if it rains or freezes
‘Long as I got my Plastic Jesus
Sittin’ on the dashboard of my car.
Comes in colors, pink and pleasant
Glows in the dark ’cause it’s iridescent
Take it with you when you travel far.
Get yourself a sweet Madonna
Dressed in rhinestones sittin’ on a
Pedestal of abalone shell.
Goin’ 90, I ain’t scar-ied
‘Cause I got the Virgin Mary
Assurin’ me that I won’t go to Hell.
By N. DiSabatinoContinue Reading »
Alfred Hitchcock had a thing for blondes–just look at Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and The Birds if you don’t believe me. Some of Hitchcock’s greatest leading ladies share particular qualities: blonde, chic, sensual, sarcastic, and definitely easy on the eyes. Hitch was meticulous in the details, from the right outfits (usually designed by the great Edith Head), the right hairstyles, and the right cool attitudes. Below are my picks for the top ten Hitchcock heroines. Some of these actresses have been in several Hitchcock films, so their placement on the list may represent several different roles.
10) Tallulah Bankhead as Constance Porter in 1944’s Lifeboat
Known primarily as a stage and radio actress, Tallulah Bankhead starred as sophisticated, materialistic reporter Connie Porter. After the boat she’s on is torpedoed by Germans, Bankhead finds herself stranded on a lifeboat with the other surviving passengers. One of the German soldiers is rescued and put on board. The passengers must decide his fate as well as their own in order to survive. Bankhead’s funniest moment may be when the crew are finally rescued and she instantly realizes she’s been without her makeup, “my lips! My face!” she screams.
9) Barbara Harris as Blanche Tyler in 1976’s Family Plot
In one of Hitchcock’s dark comedies, Barbara Harris plays Blanche Tyler, a fake psychic working with her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) to locate a woman’s missing nephew in order to earn $10,000. Some of the best scenes include Harris working her mojo as a psychic.
8 ) Shirley MacLaine as Jennifer Rogers in 1955’s The Trouble with Harry
The trouble with Harry is that he’s dead and no one knows what to do with his body. This was Shirley MacLaine’s first movie and she radiates on screen. MacLaine plays Harry’s widow, and she’s not too concerned with her husband’s demise. This was one of Hitch’s greatest black comedies and probably the only “non-blonde” Hitchcock heroine that fits the role of the Hitchcock woman.
7 ) Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. De Winter in 1940’s Rebecca and as Linda McLaidlaw in 1941’s Suspicion.
Hitchcock’s first “American” film (and the only Hitchcock to ever win Best Picture) features Joan Fontaine’s breakthrough performance in the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. There’s a lovely frailty about her in this performance as she tries to understand her husband Max De Winter’s (Laurence Oliver) past history with his first wife, Rebecca. Fontaine should have won that year, but instead it went to Ginger Rogers (a huge mistake, Academy!). Instead, Fontaine won a makeup award the following year in Suspicion, opposite Cary Grant, as a woman who suspects her husband may be trying to kill her in order to collect her life insurance.
6) Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall in 1959’s North by Northwest
In what may be one of the most seductive performances of all of Hitchcock’s heroines, Eva Marie Saint plays Eve Kendall opposite Cary Grant. Her best scene is upon meeting Grant on a train, and she mentions to him that, “I paid the porter $5 to sit you next to me.” Some of her racy dialogue would have to be edited out before the final release. Her original line, “I never make love on an empty stomach” was changed to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”
5) Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels in 1963’s The Birds and Marnie Edgar 1964’s Marnie
Tippi Hedren may be the best example of one of the actresses that Hitchcock “molded” to fit his vision. Her part as socialite Melanie Daniels, who is terrorized by the unexplainable bird attack, was physically challenging to the actress and she suffered severe trauma when they filmed a scene where live birds were actually thrown at her face for hours at a time. Her follow up, Marnie, about a sexually frigid thief, contains a disturbing rape scene. She and Hitchcock had a huge falling out and he blacklisted her by refusing to let her out of her contract for years.
4) Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in 1960’s Psycho
About 40 minutes into the film, Hitchcock kills off his protagonist in one of the most iconic shower scenes in movie history. Marion Crane has stolen a great deal of money from her employer and finds herself on the run when she checks into the Bates motel. She will not be checking out. Leigh was deservedly nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role as the sensual, yet terrified Marion Crane.
3) Kim Novak as Madeline Elster/Judy Barton in 1958’s Vertigo
Novak stars opposite James Stewart in this psychological thriller in the dual role as Madeline Elster and Judy Barton. In the first half of the film, Novak portrays Hitchcock’s icy blonde to a T, and then reappears as mousy Judy Barton in the second half of the film. It is Novak’s remarkable transformation from Judy to Madeline that always stays in my mind. Set against the eerie green light and Bernard Hermann’s fantastic musical score, Kim Novak’s transformation is stunning.
2) Ingrid Bergman as Dr. Constance Peterson in 1945’s Spellbound, as Alicia Huberman in 1946’s Notorious, and a Lady Henrietta Flusky 1949’s Under Capricorn
One of the films greatest icons, Ingrid Bergman made three films with Alfred Hitchcock throughout the 1940s. Notorious remains one of the strongest performances of any Hitchcock performance as Bergman goes undercover and marries a Nazi spy (Claude Rains) even though she’s in love with agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant). Bergman’s best scene may be when she secures a key to get to the basement wine cellar to uncover Nazi secrets for Cary Grant. Her character’s duplicitous nature is countered by her wonderfully vivid laugh and smile.
But of all these ladies, the greatest Hitchcock film has got to be Grace Kelly
1) Grace Kelly as Margot Wendice in 1954’s Dial M for Murder, as Lisa Fremont in 1954’s Rear Window, and as Frances Stevens in 1955’s To Catch a Thief
Grace Kelly best represented the kind of woman Hitchcock wanted on film: icy, cool, funny, sexy, and sophisticated.
Kelly’s greatest part in my opinion is that of Lisa Fremont in Rear Window. As Jimmy Stewart’s sophisticated girlfriend, Kelly radiates in her style and humor. She becomes engrossed with the idea that Stewart’s neighbor has killed his wife. One of the best scenes is when Kelly actually goes over to the neighbor Thorwald’s apartment to find his wife’s wedding ring. She is cheeky, funny, and refreshing in the part. Kelly was nominated the same year for The Country Girl opposite Bing Crosby and William Holden as a boringly drab housewife and won the Oscar over Judy Garland in A Star is Born. In reality, she should have won for this performance, which was the embodiment of the classy, gutsy Hitchcock heroine.
by N. DiSabatinoContinue 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 »
Note from the editor: Nicholas is a recent addition to the Unknown Critics contributors. For more on Nicholas, please see the About Page.
1962 was a strong year in the Best Actress category, with two seasoned veterans (Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis), two first time nominees (Lee Remick and Anne Bancroft), and one already established pro (Geraldine Page). It reminded me very much of this past year’s nominations with Streep and Close taking the veterans role, Davis and Mara as the first time nominees (for Best Actress that is; I know Davis was nominated already in Supporting for Doubt), and Williams as the pro.
The winner was predictably Anne Bancroft for her role as Annie Sullivan, the half-blind teacher who helps a young Helen Keller, in The Miracle Worker. And while it’s a fine, subtle performance, it’s a shame she didn’t win instead for her role as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate in 1967. That year it would go to Katharine Hepburn as a consolation prize for the death of her partner Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, but in reality, Hepburn’s performance as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night should have won the Best Actress performance of 1962.
Hepburn’s character was a huge departure from her other nominated performances (most of her previously nominated performances were in some ways Hepburn playing Hepburn, but doing it beautifully). But Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addicted, depressed mother of Eugene O’Neil is a triumph in her trembling rage. One minute she’s the sweet girl of her youth and the next she’s smashing plates at the dinner table. The most chilling scene is the end, where Hepburn comes down from the attic dragging her wedding dress, believing that she’s a little girl about to enter the convent for the first time.
Another nominee that year who in her own right deserved to win was Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Nowadays seen as gothic, gay camp, Baby Jane is a maudlin, macabre tale of an aging child actress losing her mind and imprisoning her sister (Joan Crawford) out of jealousy. One of the great things about Davis (and perhaps what makes her at times stronger than Hepburn as an actress) is that she was always willing to be “ugly” to the audience. And she lets it all go in this role, wearing white caked-on face paint, an awful blonde doll-like wig, and smeared red lipstick. Davis is intolerably cruel to her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), but the audience still feels sympathy for the pathetic mess she has become. One of the best scenes in the film is when Davis puts a bow in her hair and dances around a mirror singing one of her old vaudeville songs and then finally seeing herself as an old, withered old woman, she screams in agony. Incidentally if Davis would have won, she would have been the first actress to win three Oscars. The honor would go to Hepburn instead.
The other two formidable performances that year were Lynn Remick (with her sole career nomination) as Jack Lemon’s alcoholic wife in The Days of Wine and Roses and Geraldine Page (with her third nomination out of five) as the boisterous film star Alexandra de Lago who courts playboy Paul Newman in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Birth of Youth. Page is saucy as the over-the-hill actress who reminds one of Blanche Dubois, except with an impeccable wit and a better sense of style.
Remick on the other hand, starts off her role as a sober, mellow young woman and then takes on the alcoholic, brash tendencies of her husband (Jack Lemon). Tragically, while he gets sober in the end, she doesn’t. It’s a good performance and worthy of a nomination, yet not the one I would have bet money on that year.
Overall, 1962 offered some great roles for women, but in my opinion Hepburn deserved this Oscar more than Bancroft. I wish they could switch Oscars for these two roles and for the ones in 1967 when they would face each other again.
N. DiSabatinoContinue Reading »
Bear with me as I try to discern my way through a review of one film out of four that I saw within a 72 hour-span .
Review: Like Crazy
In truth it’s not so difficult to separate and recall my feelings towards Like Crazy from my Thanksgiving 2011 theater marathon, because the film is so deeply personal, I’ve been wearing it around like a too snug, itchy sweater for the past week. A romance like this is extraordinarily rare, though I went into the experience perfectly content to sit through a schmaltzy, infantile mess. Some may find it so, but I can only fault a handful of moments with that label. I absolve the film for those flawed moments because the rest are strikingly beautiful, but with the right amount of restraint.
There’s a scene somewhere down the jumbled, on-off relationship’s course where Anna (played by Felicity Jones, who recently took away Best Actress at Sundance for this role) sits across from Jacob (played by a slightly less charismatic Anton Yelchin) in a spacious subway car. He’s surrounded by luggage, she’s forcing a smile at him as the two make their way to a London airport to say yet another long goodbye. Moments later, we see Anna get into another subway car, densely populated, to go home, having just left Jacob at the airport to depart for Los Angeles. She struggles to find a space of her own in the crowded car. There are no tears, no musical cues, no embellishments that might indicate that she won’t see the man she loves for several months. Her everyday, everywoman struggle to navigate a busy public transportation system during rush hour is much more potent and heartbreaking than any crying scene could have been, and it’s part of why this film cuts so close to the bone with its audience.
Anyone who’s ever been in love will find a moment in this film, latch on, and enjoy the connection that Like Crazy has to the real world.Continue Reading »
I’m guilty of whining about studio release schedules entirely too often, but it bears repeating that the beginning months of the calendar year offer VERY FEW attractions at the theater. January and February are the dump months, and there’s not much to write home about in March or April either. What’s a movie geek to do in the meantime?
Talk about what’s coming up in the year, which is what I’m just now ready to dig into.
The below chart may or may not be a work in progress. I started this a week or so ago, and I’m not really happy with the aesthetics, but after too many hours spent with the thing zoomed to 99999%, I’m honestly kind of tired of looking at it.
You will likely have to zoom to 99999% also if you want to see what’s on there, so I’ve added a full, readable list after the cut.Continue Reading »