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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2014 Oscars: Matt’s Predictions

There are a lot of worthy contenders at this year’s Oscars, and even more oversights (Also, water is wet).  Few of the best nominees are front-runners or sure-fire bets, so during Hollywood’s annual night of back-patting I’ll mostly be tuning in for potential upsets and also pretty excited that Seth MacFarlane isn’t hosting.

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

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

  • Will Win: American Hustle.  Like last year’s winner, Argo, this is an un-upsetting ’70s period drama that plays at prestige and doesn’t feel the need to really deliver it.  To its credit, it is much less self-serious. Of the nominees, though, this one and Dallas Buyers Club are probably the least deserving. I’m holding out for an upset from 12 Years a Slave.
  • Should Win: The Wolf of Wall Street.  The year’s best movie was nominated for Best Picture, but has little to no chance of winning.  My second favorite in the category, 12 Years a Slave, actually does and I’d be more than happy with that.  
  • Left out: Where do I even start? Spring Breakers never had a chance but I think I would have respected the Academy forever if they’d had the nerve to give it some recognition either here or for Best Cinematography or Editing.  I’d also throw in Frances Ha, The Bling Ring, Inside Llewyn Davis, Computer Chess and Rush.  That’s just sticking with the Academy’s English-language fixation.  Foreign language picks: A Touch of Sin, Blue is the Warmest Color and Like Someone In Love.

Alfonso Cuaron

Best Director: David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón pulled off a lot of impressive tricks with a skilled crew in Gravity, and the Academy will give him the directing trophy even as it hands away Best Picture to Hustle.
  • Should Win: It’s only natural that if I picked Wolf for Best Picture, Scorsese should take home Best Director.  However, I think Steve McQueen would be just as deserving a winner.
  • Left out: Harmony Korine for Spring Breakers, Jia Zhangke for A Touch of Sin, Sofia Coppola for The Bling Ring, Shane Carruth for Upstream Color, Noah Baumbach for Frances Ha, James Wan for The Conjuring.  I could go on and on.

TORONTO

Best Actor: Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

  • Will Win: The McConaissance will culminate with an Oscar win in this category.  He was good in Dallas Buyers Club, but everyone else, even Bale, is more deserving of the trophy.
  • Should Win: DiCaprio gave the performance of the year and of his career (so far) in The Wolf of Wall Street.  I’m starting to feel like a broken record giving it top honors in every category.  Ejiofor’s performance was so crucial to anchoring 12 Years a Slave in humanity, and if he somehow pulls off an upset in this category you won’t hear any complaints from me.  Same goes for Bruce Dern.
  • Left out: Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight, Joaquin Phoenix in Her and Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station.

Blue-Jasmine

Best Actress: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

  • Will Win: Cate Blanchett is pretty much a lock in this category.
  • Should Win: Blue Jasmine is the last Woody Allen film I plan on watching. That being said, when it came out, I praised Blanchett’s performance and even listed it in the top 5 performances of the year, and I still stand by that praise.
  • Left out: The biggest omissions in the acting categories this year are here. Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha and Adele Exachopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color both deserved slots over pretty much all of these people.  I’d also throw in Julie Delpy for Before Midnight.

Jared Leto

Best Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

  • Will Win: Jared Leto. Sigh.
  • Should Win: Jonah Hill. Sigh.
  • Left out: James Franco in Spring Breakers. Simon Pegg in The World’s End. James Gandolfini in Enough Said. Sigh.

12 Years a Slave Lupita Nyong'o

Best Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), June Squibb (Nebraska)

  • Will Win: I’m going to call this one for Lupita Nyong’o. I still have hope that the Academy won’t throw another trophy at Lawrence just because she yelled “SCIENCE OVEN!” with conviction.
  • Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o gave the most heart-wrenching performance of 2013. Overall this is a fairly weak category, though I’m also not going to deny how much June Squibb’s turn in Nebraska grew on me the second time through.
  • Left out: Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street, Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Color andJulianne Moore in Don Jon.

Her-Screenplay

Best Original Screenplay: American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell), Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen), Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack), Her (Spike Jonze), Nebraska (Bob Nelson)

  • Will Win: Spike Jonze, unless Hustle ends up pulling a sweep.
  • Should Win: Of these nominees, Bob Nelson for Nebraska.
  • Left out: Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay for The Counselor is far and away the most original and misunderstood work from last year. I’d also nominate Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig for their collaborative effort on Frances Ha.

12 Years a Slave script

Best Adapted Screenplay: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke), Captain Phillips (Billy Ray), Philomena (Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope), 12 Years a Slave (John Ridley), The Wolf of Wall Street (Terrence Winter)

  • Will Win: John Ridley.
  • Should Win: Ridley is a fine choice, but so is Terrence Winter and the collaborative team from Before Midnight (although how the hell is that adapted? Adapted from two previous movies by the same people? The Oscars are dumb).
  • Left out: Sofia Coppola for The Bling Ring.

Gravity_SBullock

My predictions in the remaining categories (Will Win, Should Win):

Cinematography: Gravity, The Grandmaster

Animated Feature:  (I didn’t see any of these)

Costume Design: American Hustle,The Grandmaster

Production Design: Her, Her

Editing: Gravity, 12 Years a Slave

Foreign Language Film: (I only saw The Hunt and I didn’t like it. They need to change the rules for this dumb category).

Documentary: The Act of Killing, The Act of Killing

Makeup: Bad Grandpa, Bad Grandpa

Original Score: Gravity, Her

Original Song: “Ordinary Love”- Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, “The Moon Song”- Her

Visual Effects: Gravity, Gravity

Sound Editing: Gravity, Gravity

Sound Mixing: Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis

BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Philomena

Philomena2

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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The Fine Line: How the Oscars subdue controversy by embracing it

Picture 11

Looking through the latest score of Oscar nominees, it’s difficult not to be a little bit happy. Eight of the nine nominees for Best Picture actually sort of deserve to be there, as do most of the acting nominees.  It’s actually difficult to pinpoint the greatest surprise success, though you’d have a hard time arguing that it’s not either Michael Haneke’s Amour and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Both of these films “stole” Best Director nominees from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck, though we named them as the two best movies of the year.

However, the Oscars have slowly been dwindling further into mediocrity long before the Academy switched their Best Picture policy to, “We’ll nominate however many goddamn movies we feel like” and kept the directing category limited at five nominees.  Looking at the past five years of winners, three of them (Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and last year’s The Artist) were the un-upsetting crowd-pleasers of their respective year.  The other two (No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker) were technical masterworks deserving of the kind of pedigree the Oscars are supposed to represent.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Descendants

The Descendants
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause

Snap reactions and the surprised double-take have always been two important tools in George Clooney’s acting kit.  Alexander Payne is noted as a director for having actors explore realms outside of that familiar skill set.  Perhaps most infamously, Payne stripped Jack Nicholson of his raised eyebrows and charisma in About Schmidt and had the actor play a shy, desperate man.  It’s one of his best performances.

In The Descendants, Payne has Clooney blend in.  His washed-out mess of hair and beach bum attire look misplaced and familiar at the same time.  Emerging from that sly, smirky facade is an actor capable of true grit.

Payne’s films are never as tragic as they could be, though, so that gravitas actually comes with laughs too.  In fact, Payne must join the ranks of directors like Todd Solondz for his ability to balance the humor/heartbreak tightrope so effortlessly.  We also learn about the family dynamic in his latest movie naturally, as Matt King (Clooney) travels around with his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) to tell their close friends and family that his wife and their mother will soon be unplugged from life support

With scenes that range from the comic (Robert Forrester punching a boyfriend in the face) to the tragic (the countless tears when people hear the news) and of course that in between, The Descendants sadly comes and goes without leaving the impact that it could.  Matt learns his wife was cheating on him, and he decides to pack up his daughters and the blackeyed, dimwitted boyfriend (Nik Krause) and find the guy.

The entirety of the film takes place in Hawaii, so while technically most of it could count as a road movie, they are simply island hopping.  Mystery is left out of the narrative equation, mostly because inevitability is the point.  We’re told early on who this man is they’re looking for; we know that the mother will die.

Certainty is something that these characters, Matt in particular, has to grapple with.  He is already vastly wealthy, but frugle with his money.  There’s a big deal coming up where he must decide for his whole extended family whether or not to sell a prime 25 acre parcel of land that they have inherited and that he is the trustee of.  Like everything else, it’s just dropped in his lap for no reason other than that in Payne’s universe, things bad or good just simply happen.  The deal is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  Since he is already rich, though, the decision doesn’t really weigh on him until he realizes it’s his only source of power.

Matt is someone with little to no power in his family life.  He cannot stop his daughters from cussing or misbehaving at school, nor does he banish the annoying boyfriend Sid from the gathering when he has obviously overstayed his welcome.  That kind of passivity is familiar to those who’ve seen About Schmidt or Sideways.  Payne’s protagonists simmer until they boil over.  Here, though, he has fused seamlessly with the Hawaiian lifestyle.   Matt’s simmer never really reaches the level of the characters from those other two films.

The Descendants never achieves the level of mastery that Payne did in Sideways, either.  It is a decidedly mature and thoughtful work, to be sure, but it feels mandatorily emotional instead of genuinely so.  Matt King is the only character who should feel that way, and Payne should’ve taken more of an outsider’s perspective to achieve the kind of gravity the script demands.  Todd Solondz maintains a beautiful empathy while remaining merely a visitor in Life During Wartime, a film that overshadows this one in almost every way.

Payne is attempting to make us a traveler with the King family as their father tries to locate the man his wife was sleeping with not so he can beat him up, but so he can tell him to go visit the woman he was having sex with one last time.  The film’s best scene finds him and his oldest daughter Alexandra (Woodley) descending upon the beach house that that lover (Matthew Lillard) and his family are staying at.  When the two of them have him alone they reveal the somber news, and Lillard’s face molds effortlessly between his tacked-on real estate smirk and a crumpled mess of sadness when his wife isn’t looking.

That is the kind of scene that Payne does so well, and there are not enough of them.  He seems to have bonded almost too well with the Hawaiian scenery.  Though its natural beauty is the only light in the often bleak encounters, the “Trouble in Paradise” motif feels beaten to death before the movie reaches the halfway point.

The Descendants picks up midway through, though.  When the script starts empathizing with his daughters instead of vilifying them, Clooney and the two young actresses (Woodley in particular) create a terrific family dynamic.  As he balances what to tell them and what not to tell them, we get a sense of a man who is also grappling with what he wants to admit to himself.  It’s that kind of tragic undercurrent that gives The Descendants its gravity even after it falls short.

Grade: C+

BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, and Sean Penn

You always look at nature a little differently after you see a Terrence Malick film.  This is a man that you suspect has spent a great deal of time wandering through its various forms, envisioning ways to capture its essence.  Of course, all of us outside his friends, family and colleagues can ever do is suspect.  Malick creates his films, and then stays out of the spotlight.

The Tree of Life, his latest meditation on nature by way of the Big Bang, won the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival this year, and the one who was there promoting it was Brad Pitt.  In a way this is fitting since he and Sean Penn are all the marketing team behind this movie will have to promote it with.  It’s likely that countless Americans will attend this film to see Pitt and then be outraged.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Moneyball

Moneyball
Directed by: Bennett Miller
Written by: Steven Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin (screenplay)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Chris Pratt

Moneyball is a movie preordained to be an Oscar contender simply by the marketing.  Brad Pitt is in a sports movie, and he’s at his Brad Pittiest.  The odds are in this movie’s favor to be a contender, though, not to win (yet).

Billy Beane (Pitt) would not like that.  He is a man who needs to have the last word, to win the last game.  As the manager of The Oakland A’s, one of the poorest teams in professional baseball, he’s willing to grapple with a new strategy: play by the numbers, not the players.  Along with Yale economics alum Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), they shift the focus of recruiting new players to computer-generated results to acquire overlooked players on the cheap.

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