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.
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.
Les 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.
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.
The Help Directed by: Tate Taylor Written by: Tate Taylor (screenplay), Kathryn Stockett (novel) Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Bryce Dallas Howard
More than anything- its Civil Rights message, its 60s send-back, its self-awareness of both- Tate Taylor’s film adaptation of The Help is more proof that female-driven movies outside the rom-com purgatory are infiltrating the mainstream. That is the edgiest thing about it by far. As many critics have already remarked, it is a fairly safe movie. It tackles racism in Jackson, Mississippi in the time period surrounding the assassination of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy.
Like AMC’s Mad Men, it dresses its stars (or the white ones at least) in irresistibly colorful dresses and tortures their hair into ridiculously smoothed-out contortions. Unlike that show, it is aware of when it takes place. This script, written by the director Tate Taylor, anticipates everything it’s going to throw at you.
I’m Not There Directed by: Todd Haynes Written by: Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman (screenplay) Starring: Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, and Richard Gere
Where to begin? Here is a movie with almost no beginning and no end, an interwoven tale about both the same person and six very different ones. It’s fitting that a movie about such a radical is filled with radical notions of its own, at least about filmmaking.
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There is a visionary look into the life and ever-shifting personas of Bob Dylan. You don’t hear his name once during the two-and-a-half hour journey into his head, but at the end you get something you don’t usually get from biopics: a true understanding and examination of the subject. We don’t follow a single artist as they are discovered to have musical talent, inevitably become famous and then acquire famous people problems. All of these things happen in I’m Not There, but to different characters in different ways.
True Grit Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (screenplay), Charles Portis (novel) Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin
True Grit is not about the large names behind the camera and on the marquee, nor is it haunted by the ghost of John Wayne. Above all, it is a fatalistic Western with more dry wit than dead bodies behind its lessons. It is a tall tale about a small girl and her quest for blood.
Don’t be fooled by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, or Josh Brolin. The Coen Brothers know that many who aren’t drawn in by their own names will be drawn in by the names of those stars or fans of the original film that won John Wayne his Oscar. All the hype surrounding the mystical one-eyed Marshall and his eye-patch has made many lose sight over the fact that this is indeed a film about that 14-year-old and the loss of her innocence by her own accord.