BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Philomena

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Philomena
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (screenplay), Martin Sixsmith (book)
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark and Mare Winningham

Though Philomena is about a journalist writing a human interest story, it is thankfully absent the easy emotional payoff that such stories are often intended to have.  That reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), hates the idea of writing a fluff piece, but he’s looking to occupy his time after being canned from a job as a government mouthpiece. (Ironically, that involves quite a bit of fluff).

Director Stephen Frears wastes little screen time before thrusting Sixsmith and the movie’s real protagonist, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), together for the article.  Philomena is a cheery old Irish Catholic woman looking to connect with a son that she had out of wedlock.  Her family dropped her off at a convent, where she was held in servitude and only allowed to see her son for one hour a day.  Then, he was sold to an American family for adoption.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Captain Phillips

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Captain Phillips
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed

The final scenes in Captain Phillips are some of the most disturbing and haunting of the year.  They also somewhat erase the good guy/bad guy mentality and replace it with raw humanity. (Spoiler ahead) They involve Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) screaming his head off while covered in the blood of recently-killed Somali pirates who were holding him hostage.  It is a raw portrayal of trauma, and it resonates more than anything else in this taut if mostly unsubstantial movie.

Like Gravity, Paul Greengrass’ latest film operates on the built-in history audiences have with its Hollywood star.  Hanks doesn’t disappear into the title character as much as he uses his image to enhance the terror of the situation.  It’s the actor we are meant to see struggle with a pirate raid on his cargo ship while traveling off the African coast.  Those last scenes in particular are crucial reminders of that.

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Our Favorite Movies of 2013

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1. The Wolf of Wall Street- The funniest film of the year was made by one of the world’s greatest directors, Martin Scorsese, who is now into his 70s and nearing the very end of his career. You wouldn’t know it watching The Wolf of Wall Street, an impossibly energetic riff on the true-life exploits of Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort. The film depicts behavior most would find irrefutably lewd, misogynist, or downright amoral; most of which is played for uproarious laughs. The men in Wolf act out of humanity’s basest impulses; snorting drugs and screwing prostitutes in the office just because they have no one there to tell them “no.” Scorsese, much like the protagonist, never slows down to moralize anything on the screen, keeping the focus on the excessively sexual and drug-fueled life of Belfort and all of his brokers. It is in these outrageous slapstick moments and revolting conversations that the director becomes a sly satirist, allowing us to laugh at and observe this lifestyle from the self-aggrandizing narrator’s point of view. The uniformly great supporting cast, paired with DiCaprio’s career-best performance, carry out exhilarating, even visceral, comedy scenes that keep the film bouncing through its three-hour run-time.  Scorsese’s damning portrait of greed has a well-secured place in the canon of America’s great black comedies.

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2. Spring Breakers- The perverse pleasures of cinema were mined and radicalized in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, an apocalyptic beach party and an unforgettable deconstruction of modern America’s excesses and wastelands. Aesthetically, it mirrors the sex-and-drug infused paradise of an MTV spring break, filmed under bright pink skylines and seedy red nightclubs. Malevolence has always been a way of coping with marginality for Korine’s characters, but for Brit, Candy, Faith and Cotty, it is a way to reach the ultimate high; attaining a transcendent euphoria, not through debauched revelries but through dominance and power. Big Arch and the indelible Alien are the walking, boasting incarnations of this ever-lasting Dream, and the girls’ eventual foray into criminal warfare is all an inevitable part of their quest for insatiable pleasure. As a major release in 2013, Spring Breakers is purposefully indefinable, and so nonplussed reactions from Gen-Y are unsurprising (strangely, our drug-obsessed culture doesn’t seem too interested in art inspired by drugs?). But not working directly as an obvious critique of anything is exactly why the film will endure; by evading a definite “purpose,” it is a piece of art that can be observed from a multitude of angles. If anything, the year’s masterpiece will serve as an important corrective: it’s not style over substance, style is the substance.

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REVIEW: American Hustle

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

American Hustle
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer & David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence

Two cartoonishly ’70s-looking men stand in an art gallery gazing at a Rembrandt painting, or at least what one of them thinks is a Rembrandt painting.  The other guy, a con man played by Christian Bale, explains with his thick Brooklyn accent that it’s a fake.

“The guy who made this was so good, that it’s real to everybody.  Now, who’s the master: the painter or the forger?” he asks.

It’s as if director David O. Russell is speaking through Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) at this moment, pondering the question a little too sincerely.  American Hustle, his sleek and contagiously energetic latest endeavor, is also somewhat of a forgery. It’s being released nationwide the week before The Wolf of Wall Street, and I’m curious to see which one is more widely praised, the original Scorsese or this loving knockoff.

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REVIEW: Nebraska

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Nebraska
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk

The most endearing image of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is of an old man stubbornly trudging along the highways and sidewalks of rural America.  The camera is placed a patient distance in front of him, not sighing at his pace but simply waiting for him to catch up.  That distance is indicative of the relationship that that man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), has with the rest of the world.  He’s quietly stubborn, wearing a look of defeat as his default expression.  His son David (Will Forte) sees that and pities him.

Pity is the main engine that drives Nebraska’s sparse story, which Payne makes incidental to character and landscape.  Woody is walking from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a $1 million slip he got from a sham marketing company.  His wife Kate (June Squibb) can do little but throw her hands up in the air in exasperation at his repeated attempts to walk there (his license was revoked).

“I didn’t know the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire.  He should have thought of that years ago and worked for it,” she says in one of the movie’s best lines.

What makes Woody’s painful-looking shuffle resonate is not that he is aimless but that his goal is unattainable.  David eventually indulges him, embarking on a road trip that lands them, almost too conveniently, in Woody’s hometown. Hawthorne is a small Nebraskan village that seems forgotten by time.   Payne’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white only enhances this, adding a tinge of melancholy to the wide open plains and quaint, vacant streets.

Word spreads quickly about Woody’s million-dollar jackpot.  Despite David’s attempts to quell any celebration of it his father soon becomes the talk of the town, for better and worse.  He is envied and celebrated for a while, until family and old friends start to subtly bring up past debts.  Woody is oblivious to almost all of this, and Dern gives the impression that his character’s journey is so single-minded because it’s all he has the energy to focus on.

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Nebraska’s weakest link is in the way the story forces itself together.  There is no real reason why Kate and her and Woody’s oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) need to join them in Hawthorne.  After Woody hits his head after a fall, Bob Nelson’s script seems determined to pin him and his family in that town for much longer than Woody would ever actually stay there.

Payne balances the somewhat sloppy story with the most emotionally delicate direction he’s done so far.  The Descendants, his previous feature, also had a contrived story, and it felt like it did.  Nebraska doesn’t.  It unfolds more spontaneously, never a slave to its central plot and much better off for it.  It’s an elegiac, bitterly funny examination of the Grants rather than a father/son bonding narrative.

The best scene happens in Hawthorne’s cemetery right after Kate arrives from Montana.  She, David and Woody are surrounded by the stumps of countless modest graves.  Kate talks blatantly about the people buried beneath them, her crass observations offset by her son’s discomfort and her husband’s weary obliviousness.

Kate’s brazen manner thankfully softens as the movie goes on, creating more than a castrating caricature.  Squibb slowly reveals the kindness inside her without failing to skillfully execute many of the script’s best comedic moments.  Her and Dern show us a couple hardened by a less-than-ideal life, but still trying to make a go at it.

Nebraska is just as funny and humane as Payne’s best movies.  He offers a view of rural America that the Coen brothers might have made if they were (just a little) less condescending.  Working with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, he has also created his most visually accomplished work to date.  In films like Sideways and About Schmidt, I remembered the terrific dialogue and the richly conceived characters, and the way Payne found a way to understand them when they seemed unreachable.  There weren’t images as memorable as what he has here, though.  It is a fairly big leap for him as a filmmaker, with all the imperfection that often comes with such risks.

Grade: B-

BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Lincoln

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Lincoln
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and David Strathairn

The controversy surrounding Lincoln’s depiction of African Americans has been slightly dwarfed in the wake of Django Unchained.  There was still rampant, endlessly insightful discussion of it in all corners of the internet, but its subdued, melancholy pacing doesn’t place that issue front and center, and it is decidedly less confrontational than Tarantino’s bloody Southern.

After watching Spielberg’s political epic a second time, I came away with a renewed appreciation for the skill with which it was crafted.  Tony Kushner’s flair for language, the astonishing performances by everyone from Daniel Day-Lewis to Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones, the production design- all of these meld to form a focused political thriller that ranks among Spielberg’s finest films.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell (screenplay), Matthew Quick (novel)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver

Silver Linings Playbook ends on the thrillingly odd culmination of a dance competition and an NFL football game, the result of a high stakes parlay bet between an obsessive compulsive Philadelphia Eagles fan (Robert De Niro) and a rival gambler who favors the Dallas Cowboys (Paul Herman).  It is a fitting conclusion given that the rest of the movie, for all its seeming narrative conformity, is a rampant, lively piece of work that does what it wants, when it wants.

Part of the reason for this is that its two main characters, two damaged, mentally unstable people played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, do that as well and director David O. Russell is just trying to keep up with them. It could also be the other way around, though.  Russell has such a lively way with camera movement and atmosphere that the constant sense of motion and organized chaos seems exhausting. For the most part the performers, especially Lawrence, are more than up to the task.  She makes Tiffany such a force of nature that the miscasting of Bradley Cooper is barely noticeable.

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