Our Favorite Performances of 2013

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1. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street- A career-best performance for DiCaprio in his thrilling latest collaboration with Martin Scorsese.  He gives off machine-gun bursts of energy as Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort and shows an amazing knack for both physical and verbal comedy that his often-serious portrayals don’t let him bring out.  It’s both loud and rambunctious and deeply nuanced.  (Added Dec. 30) 

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2. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha- This fantastic turn is the stunning result of Greta Gerwig’s New Wave collaboration with director Noah Baumbach.  While also serving as co-writer of the movie, Gerwig captures a rocky period of this 27-year-old dancer wannabe’s life with a contagious charm.  The movie is very much built around her unpredictability, and she captures the pain and anxiety of post-college youth without overplaying her hand.  She is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose dreams are her own.

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3. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s latest simply wouldn’t have been as good without this thunderous performance from Cate Blanchett.  She manages the difficult task of creating a loathsome woman that also elicits pity.  After a long string of privileged existence, Jasmine is finally forced to confront the depths of her mental instability when her Madoff-esque husband is caught.  Blanchett gazes unflinchingly into the abyss of depression with raw feeling and crucial sympathy.

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Short Takes: Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Oldboy and More

With 2013 winding down and noteworthy releases pummeling theaters in droves hoping for awards attention, here are a few movies I saw recently that I either didn’t have time to write about or didn’t have enough to say to merit a full review.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire- A big improvement over the first film.  The second half in particular is visceral and engaging.  Jennifer Lawrence actually looks like she wants to be here this time around too, turning Katniss into a full-fledged character instead of her deadly-but-lifeless turn in the original.

Catching Fire also feels more thoroughly alive and consistent.  Director Francis Lawrence revels in the excesses of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian nightmare but doesn’t lose sight of its dread.  He plunges right into the story from the get-go, which meant a somewhat rocky start.  By the time Katniss and Peeta are plunged back into a second round of Hunger Games, though, he paces it exceptionally well.  Grade: C+

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Oldboy- Spike Lee’s adaptation of Oldboy is better than the cult classic Korean film by Park Chan-wook.  Although it is more awkwardly stylized between an homage to that 2003 original and Lee’s own aesthetic sensibilities, it is driven by a mapped-out worldview that that movie sorely lacked.  It doesn’t come off as a revenge fantasy as much as a nihilistic journey into bottomless torment.

Oldboy is set in 2013, but the past seeps into nearly every scene.  As Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) sifts desperately through his life for the key to a torturous mystery, I was reminded more of David Cronenberg’s underrated 2002 film Spider than anything else.  The movie falters most when it tries to reenact scenes from the original instead of standing on its own bold feet. Grade: B-

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All Is Lost- This movie is almost completely dependent on an audience’s on-screen history with Robert Redford.  After a brief letter reading at the beginning, he doesn’t speak hardly at all for the rest of the movie, nor do we really get any sense of who this man is.

J.C. Chandor may have meant for this vagueness to convey an existential journey, but I left it feeling like I did after Gravity: admirable and efficient filmmaking driven by its own concept instead of any idea or purpose.  Redford is a weary, sometimes captivating old man at sea, but the movie is otherwise empty and dull.  Grade: C-

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Ender’s Game- This movie will likely be eclipsed by all the glory being lauded on Katniss and company.  It’s actually a much more consistent and thrilling final product, and one of the best big budget studio releases of the year.

However idiotic and creepy the author’s views on gay people are, this (from what I understand) very loose adaptation is a terrifically conceived, well-acted spectacle. The action scenes are well-orchestrated without hovering over the violence, and the movie never loses sight of the fact that these are children being trained for war.  It also features several young stars who have given great performances in recent years, from Hugo’s Asa Butterfield to True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld and Little Miss Sunshine. Grade: B

Bastards

Bastards- Claire Denis’ latest is an unremittingly bleak neonoir about, among other things, sex trafficking.  She is a master of using expressive close-ups with her talented crew of performers; however, that humanity is in the service of a bleak and often overly-callous story. I walked away from Bastards not really feeling anything for the characters, but there are sequences so grotesque and haunting that the movie is undeniably effective.  I look forward to seeing it again and (hopefully) appreciating it a little more.  Grade: B-

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Enough Said- Nicole Holofcener has directed some of my favorite episodes of Parks and Recreation and Enlightened.  That being said, both of the movies I’ve seen by her (this and Please Give) are pretty unbearable.  Though there are a pair of excellent performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and the late James Gandolfini, Enough Said feels half-conceived and lazily executed.  The conflict, that a woman is dating a friend’s ex and starts seeing his flaws the more she gossips about him, could be resolved in three minutes.  The story is so enthralled by a condescending upper middle class whiteness that it never seems to grasp that.  Grade: D+

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Passion- See Brian De Palma’s latest instead of the remake of Carrie.  It has a very, very uneven first half but by the time the corporate revenge narrative double and triple reversed I was enthralled at the spectacle.  The ballet/murder split-screen is among the finest and most beautifully done sequences this director has ever done, which is saying quite a bit.  Grade: C

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Carrie- De Palma’s Carrie is easily one of my favorite horror movies of all time, so I was extremely skeptical about a remake.  Kimberly Pierce seemed like the right choice to tap into the isolation of Carrie White, but the final product has none of the outcast humanity or grit of her other films.  Sadly, it felt like Stephen King’s story had been adapted to the world of an uninteresting CW show.  The crucial prom scene goes off without a hitch, and Julianne Moore is dementedly over-the-top as Carrie’s religious nut mother, but the movie is stale and uninteresting. Grade: D

BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal (screenplay)
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle and Joel Edgerton

In 2008’s The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal created a searingly suspenseful modern war movie about a bomb diffuser addicted to the rush of potential detonation, which became a history-making Oscar and critical darling in the process. It was a grimy and unsanitized piece of work, more obsessed with masculinity on the edge than serving up an overt political agenda.

Zero Dark Thirty is almost clinical by comparison, if no less nerve-wracking.  In chronicling the obsessive decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, Boal and Bigelow re-examine the American psyche on a much broader scope.  Again they try to keep an agenda out of it and simply dramatize the facts, but the sensitivity and  weight of those findings make it impossible to avoid controversy.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: In the Loop

In the Loop
Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Written by: Jesse Armstrong & Simon Blackwell (screenplay)
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Chris Addison, Mimi Kennedy, and James Gandolfini

Britain has always been a step ahead of the United States when it comes to comedy.  More recently, Ricky Gervais bestowed The Office upon the U.K., and we made a spinoff show to great success.  We borrow their premises and develop them into our own context, sometimes losing the laughs along the way.

With In the Loop, though, we find a distinctly British sense of humor unleashed upon the idiots that run both their government and ours.  It’s probably unintentional black irony that this blazing, brilliant political satire is in the vein of the distinctly American Dr. Strangelove. That’s the highest praise that could be awarded to satire, and this movie earns it.

With one of the most brilliant, hilarious screenplays in recent memory, director Armando Iannucci crafts a documentary-like comedy about how we got into the mess in the Persian Gulf.  No real names are named.  In fact, some smart creative liberties were taken, and the film is all the better for it.

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DVD Must-watch: Spike Jonze’s Oscar snubbed Where the Wild Things Are

Image courtesy of Screen Rant

The biggest crime perpetuated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Peter Travers of Rolling Stone prefers “Farts and Biases” and I tend to agree) this year is ignoring Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Today, you have the opportunity to partially correct that mistake by going out and renting or buying the film yourself and seeing what great work he has done.

Jonze had the audacity to adapt a 12-page, mostly illustrated children’s novel to the silver screen.  Guess what?  He succeeded admirably.

Wild Things is a beautifully told vision of childhood.  The fears, anxieties, tribulations and joys told through the eyes of a young boy named Max (portrayed by terrific child actor Max Records) are all brought to vivid, beautiful light in this film.

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