BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: 12 Years a Slave

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

12 Years a Slave
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (memoir)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofer, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson

Connecting 12 Years a Slave immediately to its Oscar buzz because of when a studio chose to release it would be a disservice to it.  To put it simply, this is the most powerful film about American slavery that I’ve ever seen, and diminishing that accomplishment by asking if the white male establishment of the Academy can handle it enough to award it with anything is at the bottom of my list.

Steve McQueen’s previous two features, Hunger and Shame, were visually brilliant, but at times lacking a crucial human element.  This was especially true of Shame, whose miserabalism was supposed to be its own profound reward but ultimately registered as empty.  There is obviously a great deal of suffering in 12 Years a Slave, but also an intense humanity.

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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

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

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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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Amour

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Amour 
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Written by: Michael Haneke (screenplay)
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert and William Shimmell

Michael Haneke’s latest film is a good poster child for why mainstream movie audiences fear and avoid many foreign films; it is quiet, slow and relentlessly depressing.  After winning the Palme d’Or in 2009 for The White Ribbon, Haneke officially established himself as a “Cannes auteur,” a director whose latest work would forever and always have a place in the festival’s cannon.

Amour is wondrously, deliberately hopeless.  Its depiction of an elderly woman’s slow, painful crawl toward death after suffering a series of strokes is not peppered with melodrama or any sort of dramatic flourish.  Haneke seems to think this would make the situation too comfortable, too much like a movie.  The goal of this film is to show the situation in as realistic light as possible, but from a removed distance.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Written by: Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly and Lowell Landes

Since Beasts of the Southern Wild was my pick for the best movie of 2012, I thought I would revisit it here since my original review was an ecstatic, somewhat over-the-top reaction from the Cannes Film Festival.  Having seen the film twice now, I still maintain that it is a masterpiece, and one of the best translations of childhood consciousness that I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Many of the criticisms of Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature revolve around its treatment of race as it relates to poverty.  The harshest (and most recent) of these comes from Richard Brody of The New Yorker, who wrote:

The movie itself is this year’s The Help, a romanticized and mythologized vision of poor Southern blacks (in this case, a father and daughter in a Louisiana bayou community called the Bathtub) that also sentimentalizes the very notion of self-help (“The Self-Help”) in a story that spotlights a tough, poetic, independent-spirited child facing dangers in aquatic adventures.

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CLASSICS: Mulholland Dr.

Mulholland Dr.
Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch (screenplay)
Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux and Ann Miller

David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. seeks to do nothing less than redefine cinematic narrative.  By playing off expectations- those that precede dread and anticipate desire- he creates a hallucinatory dreamscape that, like many dreams, is populated with familiar people, repeated locations and maddening symbolism.

Figuring out what a dream means is a common point of relation among people, though producing that experience on a film and draining it of the personal angle of a friend or family member makes Mulholland Dr. quite a challenging experience to interpret, especially on only one viewing.  We’re being tasked with interpreting the dream of someone we do not know.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Social Network


The Social Network
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, and Armie Hammer

There are girls playing PlayStation in the next room, and you’re uploading internet code.  Such are the ways of kings in the 21st century, and one of the keenest insights made in David Fincher’s The Social Network.

As you probably know by now, this is “The Facebook Movie.”  It’s also a potent drama, fueled by stories and themes as ancient as both stories and themes.  Betrayal, identity, and the nature of friendship are all at the core of Aaron Sorkin’s stunning screenplay.  The Sorkin/Fincher pairing, however unlikely, pays off in spades.

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