Under the Skin (2014): Poetic Puzzlement

Overall Rating: A

Based on a 2000 novel, Under the Skin can only be described as an aesthetically triumphant sci-fi that begs more questions than it delivers answers. Directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring a revelation of Scarlett Johansson as a non-human figure who harvests humans, but is soon sympathetic for there targets, curiously seeking to understand humane pleasure.

There is no denying that this is a movie that is highly sexually charged from the opening moments in which Johansson’s character strips an early victim of her clothing all the way to the end as the body count piles up. In between, the execution and devolution of what appears to be a master plot is presented before is some of the most highly stylized mise-en-scene in a while. Some critics have compared Glazer’s craft to that of Stanley Kubrick, and about a third of the way into Under the Skin I made the same connection. Visual parallels are to be drawn from both Eyes Wide Shut and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Under the Skin. The abstract and mysterious nature of both prior films is reflected just as much the style and use of motifs to enhance the story. Some of the most striking visual moments include a lava-like red fluid sliding down a conveyor belt of sorts surrounded by a potent and dominating blackness, or dissolves into black from moments where all we see is Johansson and clothes distributed on the floor that hauntingly disappear just like the men who discarded them.

A theme constant in Under the Skin is voyeurism, not so subtly indicated by the use of eyeballs in the visual design. The ellipses that allude to eyes in the opening style sequences remind the viewer of iconic images from 2001 This poetic film expores not strictly voyeurism but the idea more abstractly of looking, and being looked at. As an audience member, we spend the 107 minute run-time looking at the art and action on screen. Anxiously anticipating our opportunities to glace at the beautiful Ms. Johansson in exactly the same way her targets do. While we pity them and may even scoff at their foolish and gullible natures, it is hard to blame the string of young, single men that fall for the flirtations. They are drawn in by what they see and are permitted to look before the deed is done; they can never touch.

One such man is trapped in her flirtatious web, but she does not give the same look of spiteful satisfaction upon this capture. His face is malformed and he says he has never touched a woman. Whether the protagonist is turned off by how helpless he is or if her work simply became too much for her to justify is unclear, but something changes that forces her to try to hide from this business, pursued by mysterious motorcyclists as well as the humans that she just cannot help but attract. Desperate to connect with the human world, she tries everything, becoming an intimate friend of one man and even exploring terrestrial wilderness in solitude. This is when Johansson’s performance is its finest. Her erotic and alluring sexuality that allows her to hunt her prey and trap them in her web is perfectly executed, just as it needed to be for the otherwise puzzling film to work. As the character progresses and becomes, in spite of itself, more human, Johansson’s acting has to become less human. See, when she was a seductress, the protagonist set out to mimic human women, specifically prostitutes, and she did so extremely well. When she becomes disturbed by this trade and rejects it, she shed that entire personality. The woman who once led men into her spooky home with exactly enough words can no longer seem to puzzle together a sentence. It is not that she is ill-equipt to do so, it is just that she was educated to act in a very specific way for a very specific reason. When she begins to feel ways that were not expected in her mission, she does not know how to react.

As a character study, Under the Skin successfully explores exactly what it means to be human. What keeps Johansson’s character alive and with a purpose is her sexuality, her ability to harvest with her charm. Her erotic nature cannot be shed as easily as her skin can, and it is her undoing. The settings, from uncorrupted wilderness to inexplicable, impossible interiors, create the frame that Glazer and his starlet fill with unbelievable story; puzzles but no solutions.

Noah (2014): The Filmmaker and the Shipbuilder

Overall Rating: B-

The Old Testament tale of Noah and his ark is iconic. It is one of the most popular Bible stories, especially within the Pentateuch, and with good reason. It is rife with intrigue. It is about the inevitability of disaster and the beauty of the rebirth that grows from it. It is about an everyman, a family man and a man of faith who is spoken to directly by God himself and rewarded for his goodness.

Darren Aronofsky, the incredible storyteller behind the lkes of The WrestlerPi and Black Swan, sought to take on this ageless tale and tell his own provocative version of it. For this, he earns commendation. Noah’s story is not one that offers much in the visual realm, featuring only a handful of human characters and taking place largely inside a boat. Any writer or director who seeks out such a fragile, sacred story to adapt clearly is ambitious.

Ambition, regrettably, does not bring audiences to their feet, which Noah fails triumphantly to do.  For this project, Aronofsky had to more or less rewrite Gensis. He and his team had to generate their own visualizations of Old Testament language and hope that it worked universally. One aspect of this is of course the ark itself.  Digging through scholarship on ancient language and picking apart the text of the Bible, the filmmakers decided to build the most accurate and true-to-text physical ark they could, and the product (don’t look it up, I never saw a production still before the movie which lead to amazement at the reveal) is astonishing. Inside it, he placed animals two-by-two, and a cast that had to embody characters that represent so much in regards to history and religion. Noah, the patriarch of all men Judaic-christian ideology, is not a stranger to anyone. It seems everyone has heard, in one form or another, and oral telling of Noah’s biography. Most of these people did so as children, and let their imaginations do most of the work. To cast this character is to hope to create a living being from all of these different personal “Noahs,” if you will. Russell Crowe is the film’s Noah, a strong, masculine father figure for all of mankind. Crowe is fantastic as the Biblical idol, balancing the humanizing traits given to Noah by the Bible to relate him to readers/viewers, and the fantastical ones awarded him by the screenwriters. The rest of the talented cast seems out of place, as it is hard to picture an Emma Watson or Logan Lerman surviving the Great Flood, but while her stigma seems not to fit Naameh Jennifer Connelly (Oscar-winner for the last time she was married to Crowe) is characteristically incredible.

Noah’s is an epic story and Aronofsky is perfectly aware of that, but at times to a fault. There is the flavor of a run-of-the-mill fantasy to Noah, reminiscent of Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, or a weaker remake of a Lord of the Rings spin-off. The computer generated imagery is simply too much, and it becomes a liability and a distraction not long into the movie’s near-150 minute run time. The flood itself shot from outside the ark seems extremely lazily developed, more closely resembling a video game than a storm. The fight scenes are basic, as if directly pulled from another Marvel or Transformers movie. On the subject of Transformers, one of the most glaring failures in the creative team’s visualization of Old Testament stories is their creation of the fallen angels, who are shown as basically 30 foot tall rock people, who move about as fluidly as Optimus Prime and who release a yellow Tinkerbell when they die. The fact that the poster looks like a spoof of a 1977 Star Wars poster is understood when you see just how dated the digital elements look and how uninventive much of the structure is and motifs are. What Christopher Nolan did for Batman, making the well-known story into a series of films that escape traditional genres norms and is imbued with harsh realism, is the opposite of what Aronofsky does with Noah, following strictly the “how to make an epic fantasy” formula in annoying ways.

There is one moment in Noah that if screened by itself could be one of the most important shorts in our time. Telling the creation story to his family, Noah must let them understand that in spite of their apparently heinous actions of letting  the world and all men be destroyed. The screen fades from a powerful looking Crowe to a wide shot of Earth from space, and the most intelligent, beautiful and bold film sequence of the decade ensues. The audio remains Crowe’s reading of Genesis, but the visuals show the big bang as the creation of the universe, evolution from fish to reptiles to four-legged mammals to men. Only the very strictly religious still contend that God’s seven days with seven distinct steps of creation are to be interpreted literally, and those are the only people who will be offended by the sequence. Others, the average christian and the firm evolutionist alike, are going to be pleased that their view is firmly defended. It is masterful.

The only shame is that it is preceded by a fight between poorly dressed villagers and rock-robots, and followed by a morality lesson that is not only not in the Bible but seems totally out of character based on the figures presented in the Bible. This hits at the root of the problems with Noah. It appears that the creators did not know what they were making. At times it falters for too closely telling the biblical story, but at others it robs viewers by glossing over Genesis’s most iconic moments. Sometimes it even flat-out makes things up. Its action is too much, clearly just a studio’s plea to a filmmaker to ensure it could be sold, but its moralistic points shoot for a wildly different demographic. Neither the aged church-goer nor battle-hungry dudes will enjoy Noah and all of its necessary preaching about the environment and equality. Some critics say that a film must be judged for how good it is at being what it is. The problem with this strategy for Noah is that no one is really that sure of what it is.

Year’s End: Top Movies Countdown

After another film season has passed, it is time to look back on the past year in the industry. The following are the films that most spoke to and appealed to me, from 25 down to 1.

25. The Great Gatsby

Borrowing its foundation from one of the truly great American novels, Lurhmann’s film is an indulgent, borderline epic romp that is wildly entertaining. With help from a celebrated soundtrack built by today’s biggest stars explicitly for the film, it bridges nearly a century’s worth of cultural shifts, putting its audience into narrator Nick Carraway’s story, one that is almost as elegantly as its source material.

24. The Spectacular Now

This one may not be based on a novel that every high schooler is forced to read, but it comes from a common identity that every high schooler is forced to live. Perfectly directed by James Ponsoldt and perfectly acted by leads Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller, the plot of The Spectacular Now surrounds two seniors falling in love and the dramas of life that they have to deal with. I always (really, always) say that the plot of a movie is not necessarily what a movie is about. What The Spectacular Now is about is so much more. You have to see it to feel it, and feel it you will. Perhaps that twinge is different for everyone. My me it was affection because I know so many people who are like those depicted. Perhaps for others it will be remembrance or regret or optimism, but for sure, you will feel it.

23. To The Wonder

Terrence Malick’s follow-up to The Tree of Life may not be the transcendent cinema of its predecessor, but that is not to say it is not triumphant in its own right. Eye-opening performances from stars Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck especially, followed as well by Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem are the filler, just like a magnificent painting thatalso happens to be encased by the best frame around. That frame is Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography, a staple of Malick’s films, that is at its Days of Heaven best, making To The Wonder one of the most awe-inspiring and beautiful understated films of the year.

22. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller poured his heart in soul into the adaption of a classic James Thurber short story, basing this one around the final days of the print issue of Life Magazine, featuring volcano eruptions, tangerine cake and eHarmony. This might have been the inspirational movie of the year, impressive for a year marked by films about survival and courage. Stiller’s Mitty is just as awkward as you want him to be at the beginning and just as fresh as you expect him to be by the end, not going an unrealistic amount in either direction. The fact that fewer year-end circuits recognized the films gorgeous locations and meticulous production is striking to me. Maybe Stiller is greasing the wheels for a Ben Affleck-esque career turn.

21. Spring Breakers

In a candy colored exploration of contemporary hedonism, Harmony Korine is at his finest, crafting a film that begins as an overindulgent masculine fantasy and progresses into one of the few great crime thrillers of recent memory. It is just as ridiculous as it sounds, and it was clear how inventive and intelligent its creators were from the get go, which only became clearer as we progressed. Four girls in bikinis being confronted by a judge alongside headstands in the hallway, a Gatsby-esque parade of material goods alongside a repeating clip of the girls riding their little scooters, and those are just in the first fourty minutes. James Franco completes the ensemble by submerging himself into a role as a wanna-be ganster/ wanna-be rapper.

20. The Kings of Summer

There might not be such an original and of-the-moment film in the teen coming-of-age genre as The Kings of Summer. Joe and Patrick run away from home along with the hilarious Biaggio and construct their own home in the middle of the woods.  Here they grow up. They confront their own newfound freedom and discover their individual limitations, fight love and loss and even snakes. This is a movie that no one would not enjoy.

19. Fruitvale Station

The true story of the final day of Oscar Grant’s life, which resulted in one of the most important social revolts in the history of the City of Oakland, is depicted in the 2013 Sundance winner, Fruitvale Station. Michael B. Jordan shows that he is for real in his first truly great screen performance, juggling the conflicting historical accounts of Grant. The film works both assuming that everyone knows how it will end, and accounting for the fact that many people might not. Ryan Coogler could emerge as a great filmmaking talent in coming years, as his debut with Fruitvale Station was a great success.

18. Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks stars as the real life shipping captain who was held by Somali pirates after they boarded his ship in the Indian Ocean. Barkhad Abdi plays the leader of the attackers. These two performances carry a film that contributes to its genre by pushing boundaries and exploring often ignored elements including the homes of the Somalis and the aftereffects of being held hostage. Greengrass is clearly a talented director, and the action sequences show it. Also, this movie will forever have a place in culture, if only for the phrase, “I’m the captain now.”

17. Rush

Ron Howard’s newest film reminds us all of the intimate paradox of rivalries: one rival needs the other, they feed off of one another. Like the Joker famously states in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, “Kill you? Why would I kill you? What would I do without you? You complete me.” Nicky Lauda and James Hunt had a similar dynamic in the racing community, and their story is brought to life with commendable truth in Rush. It tells the story of these dueling heroes without picking a favorite, glorifying their trade with dialogue and of course razor sharp editing that inserts the audience into the race, the driver’s seat, the engine.

16. In A World…

A satire like In A World has not been seen for a long time. It is Lake Bell’s directorial debut, but you would never know it. This movie manages to stay funny enough even to bury its feminine undertones and boast universality. It is about being categorically dismissed in a world that you know you belong, and when you know you have earned it. The frolicking ending is as entertaining as can be and it tempts and teases viewers in a unique way. This is just about as good as indie comedy gets.

15. 12 Years a Slave

With incredibly emotional visuals and striking dialogue, 12 Years a Slave occupies the role of obligatory historical race drama starring literally everyone for 2013. From Steve McQueen, director of Shame and Hunger, this is a movie of great emotional weight. It presents its subject matter with no reservations and a commendable commitment to the true story of Solomon Northrup. It is a powerful movie, if in ways that may not be terribly unique or creative, but McQueen employs the old tricks apologetically and it works wonders. This is a movie that won the top Oscar in a year of very good movies, so I’ll let that title speak for itself.

14. The Book Thief

Personally, the impact of The Book Theif, based on the young-adult novel of the same name, was this: I sat in the theater through the credits and I walked the four miles home rather than utilize public transportation. This is not a movie that makes you feel good. It is the opposite. It is among the most potent and thoroughly melancholy films I have seen. It may not make you feel safe or warm, but it most certainly makes you feel something. The depression that this movie made me feel wasn’t what I’d hope for most people, but I welcomed it, because good or bad The Book Thief made me feel a lot more than real life, or any other movie, had made me feel in ages.

13. Dallas Buyers Club

The great war for a generation of Americans was the AIDS epidemic that climaxed in the 1980s. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodruf, a man who refuses to accept that hospitalization with HIV is a death sentence. This is the movie that got Mr. McConaughey his Oscar, capping off an incredible run of great acting over two years. This is a movie that shoots its subjects perfectly, and with McConaughey’s great performance and other solid turns from Jennifer Gardner, Jared Leto and Steve Zahn to boot, it becomes a memorable movie about memorable characters in spite of its historical frame work. This truly is a movie that is in this moment.

12. Much Ado About Nothing

This is, without a doubt, the best cinematic adaptation of a Shakespearean comedy to date. It is simply hilarious and the original words from the great theatrical master convert effortlessly into the dialogue for a modern retelling. That actors are perfectly cast and the photography pulls no punches. It benefits from all of Shakespeare’s work: the classic genre story, the witty exchanges and the gratifying climax. It also benefits from the film medium by way of interesting shots and new renditions of jokes that are a staple of modern romantic comedy. Honestly, this movie is fantastic.

11. Mud

From Jeff Nichols comes an indie drama that plays like a modern epic. With a flavor not entirely different from what might be expected of a Mark Twain adaptation, Mud uses its setting as a lead character. The river, the delta, the state of Arkansas are the driving forces of the imagination in Mud. That refers equally as much to the imagination of young protagonist Ellis and to Nichols, who has a knack for excellent characters framing intimate stories. Here, McConaughey gives what might have been the best performance of his career, truly rivaling the aforementioned Dallas Buyers Club, and the camera creates a beautifully poetic look at life down by the river.

10. All is Lost

“This is the Virginia Jean with an SOS call- over.” All is Lost opens with a tragically honest narration based on a letter from our protagonist stating his regrets and fear that he may never make it home given his situation. Then we go eight days earlier, as the nameless mariner’s ship is struck by a drifting container somewhere in the south Indian Ocean. The next few hours are an unspeakable thrill, carried by the score of the year from Alex Ebert and a career cementing performance in the epic return of Robert Redford.

9. The Place Beyond the Pines

In spite of flawless direction, photography that is married to the plot, and possibly career best turns from Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling, this movie is far more powerful for its story and its writing than anything else. It is moral tale about fathers and sons, about a man and his bike, about an officer and his duty. Cianfrance creates a film that mustn’t only be watched, but truly understood. Family is central to the story, and in that sense it is a movie that is more relevant today than any other point in history. It is about what one man is willing to give and what one man must give in order to protect and support his family. It is about you and it is about me. The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie that matters.

8. Short Term 12

Dustin Cretton’s passion project is an indie about a woman who must battle her own past and inner demons while also treating and minding children at a foster care facility. That is incredibly weighty material but the cast and writing handle it with perfection. The performances, particularly from Lakeith Stanfield and the brilliant Brie Larson carry this movie to a greatness that couldn’t be achieved by lesser actors. It is just light enough to avoid being terribly dark and includes a fair amount of uplifting spin, from cupcakes to American flag capes.

7. Inside Llewyn Davis

When I saw this film, I was sure that no other movie this year could best it, which goes to show how great the rest of this list is. Certainly my favorite film from the Coens, who are transitioning from reputable filmmaking stars to fully fledged icons of the industry, Inside Llewyn Davis packs a breakout performance from the extremely talented Oscar Isaac. As Llewyn, Isaac plays only one of the films many fascinating characters, which include jazz musicians, Columbia professors and even a cat. It is equally witty and heavy, detailing the inner workings of an every man looking to breakthrough in a field he loves. Llewyn could be anyone, doing anything, but the historical role he plays in the birth of the folk renaissance makes the film significantly more interesting than any movie about a starving artist taking a road trip has any right to be.

6.  Gravity

This is a movie of remarkable vision and creativity, by far the most of those attributes of any movie in this short decade. Alfonso Cuaron deserves every accolade and more than he has received for Gravity, because it is remarkable in nearly every way. This is, without a question, the most important movie of 2013. Its religious undertones are scholarly and sublime, and its visuals are literally like nothing we have seen before. From a creative standpoint, Gravity is about as much as can be asked from cinema. It is a gift to the art form that we all seriously need to take the time to count our lucky stars we have been awarded.

5. Frances Ha

The most complete character of the 2013 film year is Frances Hallaway, written by Noah Bombach and Greta Gerwig and played by Gerwig. It is atruly modern story that packs enough romance, drama, commentary and especially comedy for anyone and everyone to enjoy it. As 20-something Frances fights her way through just an average life in the big city, so do we. As an audience, we pain for Frances, laugh with Frances, and simultaneously envy and pity Frances. This comedy team truly struck gold with this one.

4. Her

“Falling in love is a crazy thing to do; it’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.” This statement from this film is meant to apply to all kinds of love, but in this universe of the slight future imagined by Spike Jonze, it more specifically justifies falling in love with a computer. This movie is the closest I have seen to an utterly believable view of the future, achieved through are-provoking city-scapes and carefully created set pieces.  It considers a very specific romance between very specific characters, but truly speaks to humanity and relationships in general. Jonze contemplates the socializing aspect of romance by contrasting it with the negative stigma that spending too much time with technology makes you anti-social. He explores the relationship between the varying purposes of this technology, a computer for example, meant for work and play it can serve as a tool and as a gaming device. Samantha, also a tool, is his escape and his true love. Her is a triumph.

3. The Wind Rises

From the legendary creator of Spirited Away and Ponyo among others, Miyazak’s The Wind Rises might be the least recognized movie on this list to American audiences.  Until further notice, it is the Japanese animator’s final film, and what a triumphant farewell it was. This movie is loosely based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an engineer who designed airplanes for his native Japan during the Second World War. The title comes from a motif in the film, the reading of a Paul Valery poem, translated as: “The wind is rising, we must attempt to live.” Life is the bold subject of the movie, and viewing it allowed me to live, with a smile from ear to ear through every frame. It is a charming reminder of what traditional animation is capable of, and no one has been better than Miyazaki at creating unique characters with unique idiosyncrasies in this medium. The Wind Rises is a virtually flawless creation, maybe his finest, and it saddens me to know there is no more coming from the master.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

Any movie that makes me reconsider the top of the list of the great Martin Scorsese films must be a masterpiece, which The Wolf of Wall Street is. Everything about the Scorsese-DiCaprio tandem is on full throttle for this epic romp about indulgence and the cost of money. Leo lets loose and the camera follows. Add another brilliant soundtrack to the Scorsese collection. Really, almost everything about this movie is as good as it gets. Some critics say it is important to categorize films, and to judge them based on “how good is it for what it is.” Well, The Wolf of Wall Street embodies so much about the craft of movie making and touches all genres, and it is great in every sense.

1. Blue is the Warmest Color

Known overseas as La vie d’Adele (The Life of Adele), this is a historic and bold romantic drama that captures the female coming of age better than any film on the subject of young love ever has before.  It is honest and unrelenting and it makes these distinct individuals feel completely realized through great performances and filmmaking creativity in spite of language and many other barriers. The protagonist, Adele, is a perfect character, breathed into life by director Adellatif Kechiche and actress Adele Exarchopoulos. She is as real as movie characters come, and when the credits rolled I immediately missed spending time with her.

Alright, now I have made my picks, so I invite you to tell me why I am wrong. Tweet at me @BrALatham with a movie you think should be here and the link to this listicle and I will retweet it. Here’s looking forward to 2014, and I’ll see you at the movies.

Year’s End: If I Could Give Out Awards

Believe it or not, my phone has not been ringing off the hook with television producers looking to air the Cinema Chatter Awards, and while I have exactly zero votes for any awards season circuit, I like to think I’m important. Hey, they can’t stop me from having an opinion, right? This is the Internet after-all. So, without further delay, here are the names you would hear tonight if I were in charge.

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Robert Redford, All is Lost

Jordan gave an understated performance in the complicated lead role of the 2013 Sundance champion Fruitvale Station, the real like Oscar Grant, both a sympathetic symbol and convicted criminal, but his omission other year end lists I can swallow. As for Redford and Isaac, who gave tour-de-force performances exactly of the anture that the Academy usually adores (Redford solely holds the screen in every second of the movie, and Isaac performs his own music as a crippled historical idea), making their having been passed over unfathomable. As for the top two candidates, McConaughey deserves all of the accolades and credit in the world. He buries himself into a role that clearly took a lot, physically and mentally, and is on a tear through Hollywood that may be one of the best two year stretches of all time. All of that said, I am confident that Leo DiCaprio is on pace to be remembered as one of the all time great screen stars, reminding me of why he was coronated as the next chosen one so many years ago. He lets loose as Wolfie, being at one brilliantly funny and brilliantly alarming. As a friend of mine keeps saying when campaigning for Leo, “What more does the guy have to do?” A notable omission here that may raise some eyebrows is Bruce Dern for Nebraska, especially given that my admiration for Alexander Payne is no secret. Simply, Dern is not the lead in that movie. It is Will Forte’s movie and it is a travesty he wasn’t awarded more credit. Don’t get your hopes up though, Dern isn’t in the supporting category either.

Best Actress in a Leading Role:

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color

Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha

Brie Larson, Short Term 12

Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

As the fabled creator of Mary Poppins P.L. Travers, Emma Thompson is the only memorable thing about an underwhelming movie, and her snub was perhaps the most shocking in this category for tonight’s Oscars. Co-writer and star of the top-shelf indie project Greta Gerwig also deserves this adoration, as that is a movie that does not work of the titular protagonist is not absolutely perfect, and in the role, Gerwig is as close to perfect as you can come. Blanchett, the betting man’s choice for the Oscar carried with grace and subtlety a movie that I really did not like, but I think there were two performances from 2013 that outdid her turn as Jasmine. As a twenty-something who must deal with her own internal slew of crises while simultaneously caring for underprivileged on a daily basis, Brie Larson struck gold. Short Term 12, which also featured a career-launching turn from Lakeith Stanfield, requires a ton from Larson. The material is heavy but the indie-production seeks to honest rather than preachy. Larson’s handling of her character and keeping the film in line would be the best performance of the year in most year’s but after a long internal debate, I have docked her to an honorable second place. As Adele in Blue is the Warmest Color, Adele Exarchopoulos is electric. As a student roughly the age of the characters, I was shocked at how real they all seemed. Adele especially comes off the screen with a life all her own, due in large part to the young star’s intricate performance.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

Barkhad Abdi, Captain  Phillips

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

James Franco, Spring Breakers

Ryan Gosling, The Place Beyond the Pines

Matthew McConaughey, Mud

Did I or did I not tell you that Mr. McConaughey was on a great run. The former rom-com extraordinaire seems to have finally woken up and is taking part in movies that will do more than tally up masses of young, female fans. Between the two films mentioned here (as well as an appearance in a third, The Wolf of Wall Street) and a few other reputable movies as well as HBO’s True Detective, MacConaughey is flying high. Unfortunately, this is by far the deepest field this year, and there are quite a few stars that I simply ran out of room for. Jared Leto is not among these. He took a daring role and for that he deserves a pat on the back, but the performance was among the weaker ones in the movie and a pat on the back is where I would draw the line.  Gosling’s performance as a pseudo-lead for a third of that film was otherworldly, effectively making the movie as a motorcycle riding bank robber who leads the police on a merry chase. The role has generated fair comparisons to his Driver in Drive.  Franco, as a rapper/gangster who rules St. Pete, and newcomer Adbi, as a Somali pirate, steal their films as well, burying themselves into very different roles in very similar ways, both achieving the task of allowing the audience to forget that there is an actor at all. All of these were upstaged by powerful, to say the very least, and moving work by Michael Fassbender, who takes a well-known historical figure, a southern slave-owner, and makes him something much more grand, more devious, more evil. His relationship with director Steve McQueen is clear, as he is allowed to let loose his fury and I for one am grateful he did.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street

June Squib, Nebraska

Kristen Scott Thomas, Only God Forgives

When a race is terribly close, a good tie breaker is to note who’s better moment was better. For Nyong’O, it was her final release of pent-up frustration that resulted in a series of lashes, and her anguish is what makes the film as truly devastating as it is. She will probably win tonight, but I think Lawrence’s best moment was better. It is brief but electric, and certainly the most memorable moment in the movie. Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” plays on the soundtrack as her character is seen in her kitchen, her domain, her kingdom, and she knows that she has power to ruin her husband. She has the ability to live and let die. She approaches the camera singing along to what we previously thought was non-diagetic sound, reminding the world that her seemingly helpless character means business. As a troubled and angry crime leader and mother, Thomas is the only redeeming bit of a bad movie, and Robbie deserves a nod for her accent alone, with the rest as a bonus. June Squib is the most interesting and realistic performance as a typical old lady in this time in Nebraska, and I am very glad the Academy agrees.

Best Original Score:

All is Lost

The Book Thief

Philomena

The Place Beyond the Pines

Saving Mr. Banks

To me, score is a very important attribute of film, but one that only so much can be said about. This is more or less a two horse race between the beautiful sound of The Book Thief and the gripping sound of All is Lost.  Legend John Williams composed the former, a traditional score that truly makes the devestating fairy-tale of the movie come alive. Roger Ebert said that movies are about feeling something, and that he pitied the type of people who had to watch something as troubling as The Exorcist to feel. Like that horror icon, The Book Thief did not make me feel good, but maybe more than any other movie from 2013 it did make me feel, and Williams’s score had a lot to do with that. Alex Ebert composed the score to Chandor’s All is Lost, which features one actor in one set in a battle to survive. Redford’s skill as an actor demands our attention, but it is Ebert’s brilliant score that keeps it for the duration, keeping the movie alive and fluent in spite of its static nature.

Best Soundtracking to a Film:

Frances Ha

Fruitvale Station

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Great Gatsby

The Wolf of Wall Street

If this award actually existed in popular film circuits, it may be needed to be renamed the Martin Scorsese Award. The Wolf of Wall Street demands comparison to Marty’s classics like Goodfellas and The Departed not only for storytelling style and visual undertones. In fact, those two are among the most well-soundtracked movies of all time, creating lasting impressions in the mind of the audience linking certain songs to certain scenes (‘Layla’ as the bodies are discovered, ‘Comfortably Numb’ as the seduction is on for my boy Leo). The Wolf of Wall Street is a worthy addition to this cannon. Staging a shipwreck to the Italian rendition of ‘Gloria’ by Tozzi, or a police raid to the Lemonheads’ cover of ‘Mrs. Robinson’ are strokes of genius. For the man who popularized the term visual literacy, Marty sure has a great ear. Also rans this year include The Great Gatsby, Lurhmann’s over the top romp is complete with contemporary music for huge stars. It works perfectly. A toned-back rendition of ‘Crazy in Love’ from Beyonce in sentimental moments is contrasted with the booming ‘A Little Party Never Killed Nobody’ by Fergie over the celebratory moments complete the film. Llewyn’s performances of traditional film tunes are applied as a great storytelling utensil in that film, and Fruitvale smartly applies a combination of diagetic rap to build the characters and non-diagetic hymn to generate feeling. Frances Ha is another with a truly complete soundtrack, but it is highlighted by one incredible moment in which the titular character is running/dancing/skipping down the streets of New York in sync with David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love.’

Best Art Design of Production and Sets:

All is Lost

Gravity

Her

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

12 Years a Slave

Four of the movies that I made finalists in this category are listed because of their accuracy.  12 Years a Slave ushers in a new standard for the period piece by recreating the specific moment in history in which it takes place. Gravity has been attacked by some for inaccurately displaying life in space, but celebrated for meticulously recreating the tools of space. Astronauts even have reported that they were shocked at how well the props crew was able to recreate extraterrestrial technology for the film. All is Lost, as previously mentioned, is tasked with being interesting in spite of the least interesting of summaries. The elements of the scene, particularly the sets both on the boat and life raft of our nameless mariner, are striking and perfect. They do not over-correct and create distracting elements that detract from Redford’s performance, but they do compliment it perfectly. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes its hero around the world and back at an ambiguous point in recent history, and the sets comply flawlessly. Her is the fifth movie and will be celebrated forever for subtle creativity. Spike Jonze’s movie takes place in what he called the “slight future” but it demands a strange sense of nostalgia with its coordinated coloring, some set pieces and costumes, and glorious city-scapes. It also hints at a possible future with the looks of the interiors of building and new technology that is recognizable enough to believe that it is the next step in the progression.

Best Film Editing:

Blue is the Warmest Color

Frances Ha

Gravity

Rush

The Wolf of Wall Street

Among the most important aspects of making a great film, actually it is the most important step, is editing. What happened in the back room as footage was cut for Blue is the Warmest Color by Adelatif Kachiche is tremendous. Frances Ha‘s editors mastered the art of comedic time and pace, Rush‘s created dualing heroes and tossed in a number of thrills, The Wolf of Wall Street‘s let loose almost as much as their protagonist to make an epic about the little things, and Gravity‘s accomplished the impossible and made space travel a reality for moviegoers everywhere. All of those are great achievements, but the work done on Blue is the Warmest Color is in a class of its own. The careful handling of material that resulted in the film’s NC-17 rating was imperative.  Also, the very long romance could not have been paced any better, and the pallet (employed only by set and editing means) is flawless for the subject matter. This is another movie that makes you feel, but unlike the dominant atmosphere and epic story of The Book ThiefBlue relies on the telling of the story by the screen and the characters.

Best Cinematography:

Gravity

Inside Llewyn Davis

Prisoners

To The Wonder

The Wolf of Wall Street

Freedom of the movement of the camera is what sets film apart from any other storytelling medium, and what sets contemporary film apart from its early days. The top two movies in this category for 2013 use this better than most any movie this decade. The Wolf of Wall Street is a wild ride about wild people, and the camera takes on that ride. Our perspective dances above crowds and under helicopters. It allows just enough room for crafty editing to create even more storytelling tricks. The feel of the movie The Wolf of Wall Street is a lot like other of Marty’s works, and the look is perfectly aligned to that feeling. Gravity is a brilliant work by Emmanuel Lubezki, legendary director of photography, also listed for To The Wonder. As I’ve written before, it is a beautiful film to look at, and begs to be watched on the largest screen you can find, both demonstrating the claustrophobia and agoraphobia of space, as it were.

Best Direction:

Blue is the Warmest Color

Gravity

The Place Beyond the Pines

Short Term 12

The Wolf of Wall Street

The two most clearly observable measures of great direction are: a director’s ability to pull great performances for their actors, and the abilty of a director to create a scene that best allows the screenwriter’s story to be told. There may be no one better at these things working in the world than Martin Scorsese, and there was absolutely no one better at them in 2013′s films. The ingenuity and vision of Cuaron’s Gravity  is truly without a peer, but on set Scorsese accomplished more than he, or Cianfrance, Cretton or Kechiche did. The Wolf of Wall Street is a masterpiece and its master is a large reason why.

Best Original Screenplay:

Frances Ha

Her

In A World…

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Wind Rises

With an utterly believable prediction of the future, touching characters, relatable true-to-life scenarios, and just enough of Joaquin Pheonix being awkward, there is no doubt in my mind that Her by Spike Jonze is the year’s best screenplay. Fortunately, most award circuits agree with me inspite of critics’ pleas to name American Hustle to that honor. The little things that make Jonze’s screenplay great and simply missing in its competitors. My nominees all have tons of wit (In a World…), devastating truisms (Inside Llewyn Davis), beautiful sentiment (The Wind Rises, my top animated film of the year), and flawless characters (Frances Ha), but only Her packs that little something else. Perhaps it cannot be explained. The perfection of the carnival scene that ends, “Now ask for a slice of cheese,” or the instant vulgarity of the video game hologram, or Theodore’s description of his ex-wife, or the uncomfortable but so natural nature of the blind date cannot be quantified. That is why Her  is one of the most timely movies of the decade and one of the best movies of the year. Thank you, Mr. Jonze.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Blue is the Warmest Color

The Great Gatsby

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

Kechiche’s story of two young adults falling in and out of love in France is as honest and natural as could be asked for from a film. I am roughly the same age as Adele, the protagonist. I know exactly what truly happens in the stages depicted in the movie. I know how other classmates might react to being alienated by a friend and know that Adele’s insecure responses are consistent with those of other teenage girls. This is one of the most elegantly told love stories in the history of cinema, making you forget for a moment that it was released right in the heart of gay-marriage debates. One critic wrote “Blue is the Warmest Color might be the first love story of the 21st century that feels completely of the moment.” I agree, but I do not think it is as concerned with the moment as it may seem. I think, because of the careful, borderline motherly, handling of the dialogue and sequencing of key moments, the writers were simply telling a love story. And it is a great love story, one that rivals the epic romances of decades past. Slave is listed for its heartbreaking dedication to the truth, Wall Street for its brilliant mix of humor and commentary, Walter Mitty for its utterly believable slew of interesting characters, and Gatsby for boldly asking Fitzgerald’s novel to take a back seat and truly telling a story that has never been told.

Tomorrow, I will rank and summarize my 25 most liked films of 2013, and there you can find my Best Picture and runners-up. Enjoy the show tonight.

Year’s End: 86th Oscar Predictions

We are only two short days away from the proverbial Oscar night, an evening of glorified trade awards that may surely be forgotten by this time next year.  By now, it is clear that the best thing about the Academy Awards is that coronating the year’s finest and most important films. In fact, we know that often this is not the case. The test of time tell us that very often the Academy simply gets it wrong. Was How Green was My Valley really better than Citizen Kane or The King’s Speech better than The Social Network? No, of course not. What the Academy accomplishes on a yearly basis is marking a time stamp. Almost three-quarters of a century later, we know the power of William Randolph Hearst because he was able to dismantle Welles’s film with a slanderous marketing campaign. In another 75 years, people will look back on the time in which the United States had collective Anglophilia, when Royal weddings and babies dominated headlines on this side of the pond, as evidenced by the success of The King’s SpeechLastly, we care about the Oscars because we care about movies, and the magic they can all bring. “We are all here tonight or watching at home because something came off a movie screen; a little bit of magic touched our hearts,” Tom Cruise famously stated prior to the show in 2002. Last year, the Academy decided to theme their show, dedicating it to great music in film, complete with an ensemble performance by the cast of Les Miserables. This year, they are going to pay homage to one of the greatest, most-beloved films ever not to earn the top prize, The Wizard of Oz. That is only one reason that I will tune in for a show that really means nothing and is often utterly predictable. Others include the gradeur of the event. The movies, I often say, are our greatest and most complete art form, and they deserve a night to be celebrated. Everyone is Irish on St. Patty’s day, and everyone is a cinephile on Oscar Night.

Over the next few days, I will blog about the year in movies, from least to most important: beginning today with my Academy Award Predictions in significant categories, following tomorrow with my own “awards” of sorts, and concluding with my list of the 25 best films we were graced with in 2013. Enjoy.

BEST SCORE:

Often forgotten in a world obsessed with effects, both visual and audio, is that film is a medium that offers much and relies even more on sound, especially music, and that someone has to write that music. This year’s nominees feature a mix of artists, both from inside and new to the industry. Most notable is probably Steven Price, who scored the relatively dialogue-free Gravity, which is a film that seems poised to walk away from the Dolby Theater with its hands full on Sunday. Long time favorites like Thomas Newman is nominated again for his Disney movie about Disney, Saving Mr. Banks, which is only nominated in this category (and rightfully so). A wrench could get thrown into the mix by outsiders William Butler and Owen Pallet for Her, who could ride the wave began by The Social Network of pop stars taking this award.

Will Win: Steven Price, Gravity

Might Upset:William Butler and Owen Pallet, Her

Should Win: John Williams, The Book Thief

Should have been there: Alex Ebert, All is Lost

PRODUCTION DESIGN:

In one of the closest races, this category has given a shot to a variety of films nominated for very different reasons, making it hard to predict which direction the Academy will go with their selection. 12 Years a Slave is the obligatory historical drama in the genre, which sought to replicate its long past, but not forgotten time period as closely as possible on screen. It succeeds to this end admirably, accomplishing the most difficult thing about production and art design – you don’t notice it while you’re watching, you just think it is real. The Great Gatsby is the favorite of many pundits for its over-the-top glamour that creates a flawless atmosphere for a very interestingly plotted film, and American Hustle seems to be a combination of those two ideas.  Most likely to win this award is probably, again, Gravity. Upon the film’s release, it was frequently noted how impressed reallife astronauts were with the props and sets used in the film, as they bear an overwhelming resemblance to real life. Her is filled with brilliantly subtle art on a different side of the spectrum entirely. Its near future setting is tricky for a set designer, but Spike Jonze’s film adequately builds of a feeling of reverse nostalgia, tying interesting city-scapes in with traditional furniture designs, a futuristic computer held up by a safety pin, and so on.

Will Win: Gravity

Might Upset: The Great Gatsby

Should Win: Her

Should have been there: Mud

FILM EDITING:

The category of Best Film Editing is without peer in terms of predicting the Best Picture winner, so it is always the one to watch for come Oscar Night. This year the odds on favorites are, of course, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. The fast-past, never halting action of Gravity accomplishes the very trying task of keeping an audience in their seats while staring up at a single character talking to no one. Along with Emmanuel Lubezksi’s brilliant camera work, the editing of this film truly demonstrates the irony of space as both endless and claustrophobic. 12 Years a Slave, on the other hand, forces you to look at the screen rather than simply keep you from looking away. Shots drag longer than you might have expected as looks linger and feelings emerge. It is a movie that cuts no corners and will make you feel even if it has to reach into your heart physically to make that happen.

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

Might Upset: Gravity

Should Win: Gravity

Should have been there: Frances Ha or Blue is the Warmest Color

BEST DIRECTING:

Judging a director, generally the foremost voice in the making of a film and who’s mark is most left on the  final project, a lot must be considered. Into Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron poured his heart and soul. He and his brother, who co-wrote the screenplay, made this the epitome of a passion project, seeking to tell a familiar story in a bold and highly innovative way. With Clooney and Bullock, Cuaron is gentile but effective, and this movie strikes awe into the audience with every frame. For 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen earns his most acclaim to date (no matter how much I loved Shame). Here, he deserves recognition for his careful handling of extremely touchy subject matter, balancing a desire for authenticity with the poser of his extremely talented cast. Also in the race is Alexander Payne, who is on his way to an excellent career six films in, but will almost certainly have to watch someone else take this award. David O. Russell of American Hustle is on top of the world with his third major hit in a row and clearly is the best in the business at pulling great performances from stars. This is the second year in a row he has had an actor nominated in all four categories, which previously hadn’t happened for decades. The fifth and most interesting nominee is the legendary Martin Scorsese, whose The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the year’s few true masterworks. He builds on his iconic resume and lifts collaborator Leo DiCaprio to a career topping performance… again. Unfortunately, unless the Academy opts to award him yet another life-achievement honor, he too will leave empty-handed.

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Might Upset: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Should have been there: Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue is the Warmest Color

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:

Whether it is dialogue or thematic vision, crafting a screenplay based on previous works and crafting one from your own intuition pose unique challenges. Spike Jonze penned, in my mind, one of the great original screenplays of the short decade in Her, rife with extremely believable dialogue, prophecy about the not to distance future and moral conundrums that protagonist Theodore and the audience must wrestle. The early favorite in this category was David O. Russel, seeking his first Academy Award for his cavernous rip-off of the FBI ABSCAM episode in American Hustle, which leaves just the right amount of space for constructive improvisation by the gifted cast. It is a shame that this appears to be a two horse race, with Her and Hustle splitting precursor awards such as Writer’s Guild and NYFCC respectively. The chase pack includes Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska, for whom the nomination will likely be the award, and Blue Jasmine, who was probably eliminated by recent controversies involving Woody Allen.

Will Win: Her

Might Upset: American Hustle

Should Win: Her

Should have been there: The Wind Rises

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:

Due to Academy rules dictating that any sequel’s screenplay be considered adapted, because the world of the story and the characters are preconceived, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight is looking for a win that would likely be the Academy honoring the trilogy as a whole. With fantastic writing by the director and stars Julie Deply and Ethan Hawke, the finale to the Before Trilogy would be a welcome upset for movie lovers. The favorite, though, is without a doubt 12 Years a Slave. Ineligible for the WGA Award, Slave has quietly built momentum and can be the only early win for the historical expose. Also in contention is Philomena, a crowd favorite that might earn this as a consolation prize from the Academy, Captain Phillips, a Navy thriller that might also see success just to make up for other snubs, and my personal favorite in Terrence Winter’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a hilariously serious film that begs for comparison to iconic films like Goodfellas.

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

Might Upset: Before Midnight

Should Win: The Wolf of Wall Street

Should have been there: Blue is the Warmest Color

SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Acting is the largest and most visible wing of the Academy membership, but is also its most predictable one. For a turn that all critics seems to agree was decidedly mediocre, but voters will love for the character’s sympathy and the risks involved, Jared Leto will almost definitely earn an Oscar for playing the transsexual Ray in Dallas Buyers Club. Leto is an endlessly likable fellowand the bold and showy character had Oscar written all over it before the casting process was even an afterthought. Congratualtions on a giftwrapped award, Mr. Leto, we admire your vision and boldness in taking the character, but just don’t believe that that is what great performances are limited to. Also nominated is the brilliant Michael Fassbender, who may have put off some voters by refusing to market during the awards season, but who was at his best as a vindictive plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave. A debut from Barkhad Abdi as a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips has won some critics over and taken a handful of precursor awards, but on Sunday it is more likely than not that Leto will be able to turn to him and say, “I’m dee capten now.”

Will Win: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Might Upset: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Should Win: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Should have been there: James Franco, Spring Breakers

SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Veteran June Squib of Nebraska, icon Julia Roberts of August:Osage County, and fresh face Sally Hawkins of Blue Jasmine will, at best, be remembered as the “also rans” when this epic race is looked back upon. Right now, it is a draw, a shootout,  and will end in a photo finish. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’O of 12 Years a Slave is a scene stealer, dominating her subplot as a slave that Fassbender’s villain is suspiciously comfortable with.  She was all the rage out of the Toronto Film Festival in the Fall, and it quite the revelation to be watched as time goes on. Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, was exactly that a few years ago when she earned a lead nomination at the age of 21 for Winter’s Bone. Now, she goes for two straight years of victory for her role as a discontented mob wife that is the most interesting and entertaining thing about American Hustle. At the end of the day, preference of the voters will decide this, and everyone’s favorite person and the most charming human alive will likely take the stage.

Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Might Upset: Lupita Nyong’O, 12 Years a Slave

Should Win: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Should have been there: Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street

CINEMATOGRAPHY:

The year has finally come. The iconic photographer Emmanuel Lubezki, known for his work on Terrence Malick films such as Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life, will almost certainly win his Oscar, now for Gravity. A mainstay throughout the decades, it is a mystery that Lubezki has an empty mantle still, as his influence and aesthetic appeal are unparalleled in this age in cinema. The runners-up this year include more veterans, most notably Roger Deakins, who like Lubezki has been very important to the medium but is yet unrewarded. This year he made Prisoners, a story with a dark plot and even darker pallet. Bruno DeBonnel of Inside Llewyn Davis would likely have taken home the statuette in any other year but competing with Gravity in the visual and technical categories is not a good place to be.

Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

Might Upset: Bruno Debonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis

Should Win: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

Should have been there: Emmanuel Lubezki (yes, you read that right, same guy), To The Wonder

 

BEST ACTOR:

This year’s Best Actor Oscar will be a final coronation for a superstar that has long been chasing one. The likely victor is an actor who is having an unparalleled run, starring in everything from last year’s The Paperboy and Bernie to a tour-de-force turn in Mud and a highly memorable appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street and blowing critics away weekly on “True Detective” named Matthew McConaughey. You’ve heard of him? Good. He takes over Dallas Buyers Club with a performance that was perhaps too showy for some tastes but in a role that the Academy is known to favor. Also, and this is as great of a compliment as I can give a superstar like McConaughey, he makes it possible to watch the highly entertaining Dallas Buyers Club and forget that you are watching him. He immersed himself in the character. Before discussing his closest competitor, quick shout outs to the other nominees. There’s Christian Bale because the Academy cannot seem to say ‘no’ to David O. Russell. There’s the veteran Bruce Dern who may be due for a life achievement gift Oscar; after all, he was the big early favorite. Lastly is Chitewel Ejiofer of 12 Years a Slave, who was inspiring as Solomon Northrup and has the “lead in the best picture movie” advantage. BUT, I think we can agree that Leonardo DiCaprio is as deserving as anyone for his inspired turn as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.  He truly comes into his own as the stocks mogul and unleashes a performance that truly has marked him coming into his own as a complete actor. As noted by some, DiCaprio takes roles in movies that matter, and his collaborations with Martin Scorsese have rewarded us with another gem.

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Might Upset: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Should have been there: Oscar Isaac of Inside Llewyn Davis or Robert Redford of All is Lost

 

BEST ACTRESS:

Of the awards mentioned here, this is the most sure-thing. The Oscar goes to… Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine. It was not always clear that this would be Blanchett’s to lose, but when the nominations were announced, complete with snubs to indie and festival favorites like Greta Gerwig and Brie Larson or even the French actress Adele Exarchopoulos in the flawless Blue is the Warmest Color, Blanchett took a commanding lead in the race that shows no signs of slowing.  We must remember that this is, in fact, “The Meryl Streep Award,” and the heiress is in the race.  Amy Adams is the Russell candidate and Bullock has an off-chance for the “lead in the best picture movie” advantage, but I think that Dame Judi Dench is the only one on Blanchett’s heels.

Will Win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Might Upset: Judi Dench, Philomena

Should Win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Should have been there: Brie Larson, Short Term 12

 

BEST PICTURE:

If you’ve read previous posts on this site and if you at the very least skimmed the above comments, you know what I think of these movies. This is going to be yet another year won by a historic drama over a spectacle of a feature. The Producer’s Guild has had a very good record in recent years of predicting Best Picture, and this year they ruled it an unprecedented tie between the favored 12 Years a Slave  and chaser Gravity. Here are all nine films by likelihood of taking home the top honor.

The Movies:
12 Years a Slave
- Gravity
- American Hustle
The Wolf of Wall Street
- Dallas Buyers Club
- Philomena
- Her
- Nebraska
- Captain Phillips

Should Win: The Wolf of Wall Street

Should have been there: Inside Llewyn Davis

 

That’s that. Let me know where you think I’m wrong or, more importantly, where you hope I’m wrong, and check back on Sunday to see just how right I am.

American Hustle (2013): Another Actor’s Showcase

Overall Rating: B

The dominant critics darling of 2013 was David O. Russell’s third popular favorite in a row, American Hustle. Focusing on voice-over, counter-factual arrangements, a rocking period soundtrack and sets straight from that coked out memory you might have of the 1970s, this is Russell’s best attempt to replicate Martin Scorsese, and this film screams its aspirations to be the new Goodfellas. To this end, American Hustle falls flat on its face with an emphatic bang.  It’s ambition is respectful and no one is better at pulling great performances from stars than the hot Russell, but they need more story to work with in order to make it an enjoyable film.

Highly improvised and with a wandering, unfocused plot, American Hustle survives almost only because of its performances. Generally, I consider acting as an afterthought, but this movie gives so little else to talk about that it would be difficult to put off discussion of Jennifer Lawrence any longer. Last years lead Oscar winner, Lawrence puts herself in position to earn a second Academy Award for a Russell movie, this time in the supporting category as the eccentric, cast-aside wife of a mobster. As Rosalyn she is unpredictable and wildly entertaining. Russell gives her an interesting moment that turns into one of my favorite music in movie scenes in a year full of them: Soundtrack of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Dies” fades into her singing along, breaking the fourth wall as she angrily marches through her kitchen, her turf, as she realizes that her husband’s safety can be jeaprodized by her simply opening her mouth. Lawrence is one of the most talented people alive, and that has shown through fantastically under Russell’s direction. That aforementioned husband is Irving Rosenfeld, based loosely on Melvin Weinberg, the real life New York con-artist that got involved in the FBI’s ABSCAM episode in the 1970s. He is playd by the ever-transformative Christian Bale, again one of the most gifted actors around, but here he is not in his  element. Casting Bale as a Bronx Jew in this period piece makes about as much sense as his outlandish hairdo that is so obsurd that is goes past funny and into sad. In spite of these hangups, he is finely capturing the conflicted mobster who has to choose between his friends and his safety. Amy Adams is  bland but plays the role as it was written, playing Bale’s partner and mistress, and Jeremy Renner acts in a way that I assume is him just being a 70s version of himself as a crooked politician based on Angelo Errichetti.  The other glimmers of greatness come from the on-fire Bradley Cooper, who was involved in one legitimately great film very early in the year (The Place Beyond the Pines) and is hit or miss in Hustle. When he misses, he is simply thrown into the mix of the rest of the ensemble, but the hits are not to miss. One scene in particular features him in ecstatic celebration when he believes his case has had a breakthrough and it  appears that Cooper is simply let loose, bounding joyously around the room.

The screenplay attempts to have a canvernous sort of plot, but it seems more like the writer’s were making it their goal to have as many trite cameos (the legendary mobster is played by Robert DeNiro, duh). To anyone who has seen enough movies, American Hustle is just another take on the mob film. It gets hung up trying to be too dark for its own good and too funny to be taken seriously. It is fine as a period piece but offers little in terms of story or history, grossly destroying the real life events it claims to be based on.

To its credit, the single greatest moment in the movie does cover its factual shortcomings. As the opening credits wrap-up, text appears on the screen: “Some of this stuff actually happened.” That clever insertion was the first and only time that American Hustle forced a smile onto my face, and is a nice way to justify the creative license. Russell was clearly inspired by ABSCAM, but could have easily made his own incarnation of similar events without having to thinly veil that this movie only exists as a period piece so set designers could have a little bit of fun and to get Bale and Adams more Oscar nods.

Turbo (2013): Just Keep on Dreaming

Overall Rating: C+

At one point in Turbo, DreamWorks’ summer family flick, one snail asks another, “Is this really necessary?,” to which the response is, “Who cares? It’s fun.” That is precisely the taste that this movie leaves behind. It is unoriginal, too long for its simple plot, flawed in its grand attempts as layering, and it is anything but essential viewing. “Who cares? It’s fun.”

It tells the too predictable story of a lowly garden snail who dreams of doing big things, specifically racing. He spends his nights watching formula 1 coverage on the television and is ecstatic when he covers a yard in just under 17 minutes. “It’s inside me,” he insists, but it is clearly not. He is a snail named Theo who prefers to be called Turbo. It is not in him; if anything it is on his, as his shell is decorated with a checkered flag and an emblematic number five. He wants to emerge from his day job as a tomato cultivator (don’t ask) to compete on the big stage. This eventually spirals into a borderline satire about a snail racing against cars in the Indianapolis 500, with an attempt to be a grand statement about brotherhood and accidentally becomes a criticism of capitalism. Man, is that ever not a money review.

Frankly, I feel bad for the person who had to walk into a meeting at DreamWorks and pitch this idea: “Yes, this is the best thing we came up with.” After pulling some serious star power into the voice talent for the project, it garnered some intrigue, and ultimately is not a lost feature.  Paul Giamotti, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Samuel L Jackson and Michael Pena co-star behind Ryan Reynolds as the ambitious super-snail.  Animator David Soren, an artist on all-time greats like Shrek and creator of overrated garbage like Madagascar, is totally in control for the first time in his career. This should come as no surprise, as Turbo has all of the markers of a directorial debut. 

Mostly, this means that it lacks any vision or freshness. We can attribute that to Soren being a newcomer, safely copying prior greats and not yet having found his own voice, but that would be much too generous to someone who has been in the industry as long as he has. Turbo is an excellent way to spend 90-minutes. That is, if you can get past the hangups you will get from it being the most expensive Pixar homage ever produced.  Better yet, maybe just recommend Turbo to people who have never seen a Pixar film. I’m not kidding, there would be about as much new material in a “Best of Disney Pixar” highlight reel. There are shades of Toy Story, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. Maybe that person who first approached DreamWorks with the idea introduced it as Ratatouille meets Cars set in the world of A Bug’s Life because that is honestly the best way I can describe it. References to the GREAT Ratatouille are found throughout the film. It starts with a small animal looking with awe at the television late at night and dreaming he could one day be like his very inspirational (and French) hero. He often daydreams of this hero, repeating his motivational aphorisms until he is finally awarded a chance in the form of a young restaurateur who believes in him in spite of what everyone else, mostly his immediate family, thinks. Yea, it’s that similar. The connections with Cars beg to be made, what with the racing culture of it all. Mostly, the mind goes to Cars, as well as A Bug’s Life because of the animation. The racing scenes are almost identical to the 2005 feature and the tomato garden scenes, as well as some jokes about the mishaps of the outcast in a tribe of bugs, are indiscernible from the 1998 feature. Admittedly, Disney Pixar made a string of some of the greatest films of all time that includes all six of these, so if you are an unimaginative animation filmmaker, there are worse places to steal from.

Turbo was shot for 3-D, but I screened it in standard definition and cannot imagine where 3-D would have made an impact. Of course, that is when that medium is at its finest: when it is subtle, when the material does not need it to survive. It is not terribly well animated, but for someone who grew up at the perfect time to be born into the first wave of computer animation, this was not an issue as much as great imagery is a bonus. Turbo, never completely unique but often funny and uplifting, is all you need from a short family film about a snail, of all things. No harm, no foul, Turbo hits its bar with precision and that is an admirable quality no matter how low that bar had been set.