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: Les Miserables

reg_1024.10lesmis.ls.12212Les Misérables 
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: William Nicholson (screenplay), Herbert Kretzmer (lyrics), Victor Hugo (novel)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried

When I originally saw Les Misérables, I was so disheartened and uninspired  that I didn’t even want to write down any thoughts about it.  Anne Hathaway was great, yes.  At times the raw combination of extended takes done in close-up and live singing from the performers was thrilling.  But the movie was bloated, sloppy and completely overdone.

Having not seen the stage musical or read Victor Hugo’s gargantuan novel, I came to the material with completely fresh eyes.  It begins with a sweeping, artificial-looking descent into a 19th century French work camp, where Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is completing a 20 year work sentence for stealing a loaf of bread for his family.  He is overseen by Javert (Russell Crowe), a ruthless, incredibly narrow character whose sole pursuit throughout the movie is to show up conveniently at any given scenario where Valjean is present and make him squirm.

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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: Django Unchained

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Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino (screenplay)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kerry Washington

Django, like the ‘D’ at the beginning of his name, is silent.  This is no small feat, given that he is the main character in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and should be stopping to yak at any given opportunity, preferably before a burst of ultra-violence.

Of course there is plenty of bloodshed in Django Unchained, so much in fact that it paints a white plantation red, mostly with the blood of its owner and his employees.  It is Tarantino’s second historical revenge fantasy in a row, following the revisionist WWII epic Inglourious Basterds.  Here, though, he crucially refuses to revise the horrors of American slavery, and depicts them in ways that are startling and horrific.  The blood from the shootouts may be gratuitous and expressionistic, but it’s the beating, dog mauling and whipping that feel brutally real even if the movie they are in is often highly stylized.

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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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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Artist

The Artist
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Written by: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Uggie and John Goodman

In an era of cinema where films like Avatar and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol are breaking sensory limitations, The Artist provides audiences a different set of sensory challenges, in particularly, the absence or minimization of them.

For those who are unfamiliar with the title that is sweeping award’s season off its feet — it won Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes earlier this week and is a Best Picture frontrunner with countless BAFTA and other guild nominations — The Artist is a nostalgic, black-and-white Hollywood throwback to the likes of Singing in the Rain, A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard and other classic Hollywood bourgeoisie films. Oh, and if you haven’t heard, it’s a silent film.

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