Thursday, January 30, 2014

2013: IF I HAD AN OSCAR BALLOT


Picture
All is Lost
The Counselor
Lone Survivor
Captain Phillips
Nebraska
The Wolf of Wall Street
Gravity
Her
Prisoners
Man of Steel

Director

JC Chandor, All is Lost
Ridley Scott, The Counselor
Peter Berg, Lone Survivor
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Alexander Payne, Nebraska

 
Actor
Robert Redford, All is Lost
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Hugh Jackman, Prisoners
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

 
 Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Judy Dench, Philomena

 
Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners

 
Supporting Actress
Cameron Diaz, The Counselor
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Lupita N’yongo, 12 Years a Slave
June Squibb, Nebraska
Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street

 
Original Screenplay

Her
All is Lost
The Counselor
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska

Adapted Screenplay
Before Midnight
The Wolf of Wall Street
Lone Survivor
Captain Phillips
Philomena


Cinematography

Gravity
All is Lost
The Counselor
Lone Survivor
Man of Steel


Editing

Captain Phillips
All is Lost
The Counselor
Lone Survivor
Her


Score

Man of Steel
Rush
12 Years a Slave
All is Lost
Gravity

 
Production Design
Her
12 Years a Slave
Elysium
The Great Gatsby
Man of Steel



Costumes

The Great Gatsby
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
The Wolf of Wall Street
Man of Steel



Visual Effects
Gravity
The Wolf of Wall Street
Man of Steel
Elysium
Star Trek: Into Darkness


2013 #1: ALL IS LOST


Coming off the fancy-pants dialogue-show that was Margin Call, it’s something of a bizarre notion that J.C. Chandor’s second feature film would be the almost entirely wordless survival-at-sea drama All is Lost. Communicating exclusively through powerful, visual storytelling on a large scale within a limited budget seemed something of a Herculean-task, a task that Chandor was more than up to tackling. Featuring a historic, eloquent performance from Robert Redford as the aptly named Our Man, the film takes on a Hemmingway-esque vibe of existentialism and self-reflection during times of great personal stress, drawing the viewer intimately into the drama and the archetypal character of Our Man, so that by the end of the film, the viewer has become one with Redford in spirit. So few movies would have the narrative courage to not cut-away to grieving or hysterical loved ones, unimportant secondary characters or a frantic search party, but that’s exactly what Chandor does here; he’s only interested in the plight of Our Man and how he reacts to every situation, so as a result, the connection we feel to him is inordinate and special. Purposefully slow moving but enormously engrossing as a result of the patience of the storytelling and the fullness of Redford’s wordless, magnetic performance, this is more than just a “one-man show.” Some predictable plot elements are rewarded with unexpected results and variations on themes that we’ve see before but never in this fashion. The sensations of dread and solitude have rarely been conveyed this well on screen; this is a sort of personal/emotional horror movie, complete with ominous sound work, a subtle, eerie musical score, and point-of-view cinematography that limits perspective and vantage point. The muscular camerawork by Frank DeMarco recalls vintage-era William Friedkin and Michael Mann, balancing the harsh realities of nature with the dangerous creations of the industrialized world. And then there’s the breathtaking finale, which, quite literally, left me an emotional disaster inside the theater, requiring some time spent in the lobby to collect myself. Maybe it was just that particular day and that particular screening, but I was devastated by the final moments of this unconditional masterpiece and the decisions that Chandor made as a filmmaker. A second viewing a week later re-confirmed my feelings: this is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and far and away the best film from 2013.

2013 #2: THE COUNSELOR


Few films are as razor-sharp perfect from a narrative standpoint as Ridley Scott’s icy masterpiece The Counselor. Made with uncompromising formal exactitude, this elliptically structured neo-noir finds Scott working outside of his epic-sized wheelhouse and the results are brutal, nihilistic brilliance. Recalling crime genre staples like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The American, and No Country for Old Men yet forging a sinister personality all its own, Cormac McCarthy’s elegantly vicious screenplay provides sharp, stylized dialogue and a unique avoidance of anything conventional or comforting, eschewing easily identifiable plot points and banal “set-up” conversations. Scott has never had a screenplay like the one McCarthy has given him, and it’s interesting to note that when Scott goes “small,” like he did in the criminally underrated Matchstick Men, he’s just as adept at the character stuff as he is at the action stuff. The film is a treasure trove of great and unique performances from the starriest of casts, including a career best Cameron Diaz in ultra-bitch mode to an amazingly stylized Javier Bardem, who adds another extremely memorable yet completely different addition to his gallery of villains. Brad Pitt scores some nasty laughs as a too-cool middle-man and Michael Fassbender does an intriguing, increasingly frenzied take on the classic noir dupe. The Counselor is the sort of film where the less you know about it the better it will play, and despite the lack of clear-cut and sympathetic characters, the way Scott and his ace creative team lull you into their sexy, dangerous world of murder and double-cross will have your head scrambling as to where this lethal story will end up. A hint: nowhere pretty or nice.

2013 #3: LONE SURVIVOR


Writer/director Peter Berg officially joins the big leagues with Lone Survivor, a harrowing, gut-wrenching modern combat movie that deserves to sit alongside other anti-war classics such as Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Born on the Fourth of July, and Black Hawk Down. Crafted with stunning technical proficiency, Lone Survivor aims to put you in the middle of a bloody, unrelenting gun battle, never letting up for a breath of air. And what a battle sequence it is. The fluid yet ragged cinematography from Tobias Schliessler is stunning to behold and the crispness of the editing by Colby Parker Jr. smartly establishes concise geography and clear spatial coherence during the protracted battle sequence. Berg, the filmmaker, is as single-minded, determined, and focused in his approach to the story as the soldiers-on-a-mission were that he depicts in their attempt at doing their job and coming out of a terrible situation alive. No matter what or how many creative liberties the filmmakers have taken with the true-story aspects of the incident (a botched mission where four Navy SEALS go up against numerous Taliban soldiers in the unforgiving mountains of Afghanistan), the emotional core of the film is honest and at times overwhelmingly powerful, just like great cinema should always be. It’s no spoiler to reveal that only one SEAL makes it out of the fight alive, and it’s mind-blowing to think that these guys were able to endure what they probably endured during those hellish hours. Berg smartly opens the film with real-world SEAL training footage; by watching just two minutes of these clips it’s easy to see how these guys could become total warriors, able to drop their enemies with precise head-shots, never succumbing to fatigue or lack of food, always ready to fight and kill. Berg wisely celebrates the warrior spirit in all of the men, while never glamourizing the horrific toll that war brings to multiple societies. And most importantly, he never turns the film into a political message or soap-box statement – this is truly “War is Hell Cinema” with a focus on the blood and guts of the situation. Persuasively acted by the grizzled quartet of Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch, this is an unforgettable reminder of what’s been going on for the last 10 years during the war on terror.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

2013 #4: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

To say that I’m a fan of the visceral filmmaking aesthetic of director Paul Greengrass would be an understatement. From the stunningly realized recreations of real-world tragedies like Bloody Sunday and United 93 to his fantastic studio-based work on the Bourne franchise and the supremely underrated Iraq war thriller Green Zone, he employs a certain degree of cinematic ...verisimilitude that I find thrilling and immediate to experience. His latest, possibly greatest achievement, Captain Phillips, finds him working with a career-best Tom Hanks on the true story of a freight ship captain who is taken hostage by Somali pirates on the open seas. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi is terrific as Hanks’s main nemesis, projecting both desperation and anger in an extremely vivid, unpredictable performance. Ace cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, United 93) keeps the camera swerving and ducking and in tandem with the staccato editing patterns of Chris Rouse, the film maintains a break-neck momentum for two tight, unrelentingly tense hours. And then comes the final five minutes, with Hanks pulling out all the stops, shattering the screen in an emotional tour de force of acting – it’s not only his character’s catharsis but that of the audience, too. One of the best “ripped-from-the-headlines” thrillers of all-time, this is as crisp and clean as action filmmaking gets.

2013 #5: NEBRASKA


Simple. Sly. Subtle. Sensational. I’ve run out of words that begin with the letter “S” that describe Alexander Payne’s latest dramedy Nebraska. I’ve loved every movie that Payne has put his name on – everything always feels just right, as if there were no other options for him (it’s a very similar feeling I get while watching work from the Coen brothers). Bruce Dern breaks... your heart slowly and deceptively in the lead role of a lifetime, June Squibb steals every single scene that she appears in, and Will Forte hits notes of surprising emotional depth that I didn’t know were in him as a performer. This is the sort of movie that might hit home too hard for some people; as always, Payne wraps his dark story with an abundance of dry humor, this time courtesy of debut screenwriter Bob Nelson, whose sardonic touch fits perfectly with the shivery, black and white cinematography of frequent Payne collaborator Phedon Papamichael. Bleak yet filled with lots of heart, achingly sad yet strangely upbeat, honest when it needs to be, and frequently laugh-out-loud-funny, this is yet another small gem from one of America’s best and most consistent filmmakers.

Monday, January 27, 2014

2013 #6: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET


The epic, excessive life of notorious Wall Street huckster Jordan Belfort gets epic, excessive cinematic treatment by one of the most epic, excessive of directors, Martin Scorsese.  See a pattern there?  Leonardo DiCaprio is completely and utterly on fire from frame-one, giving it his all in every sense of the phrase.  It’s also, most crucially and surprisingly, the funniest and loosest he’s ever been on screen, revealing new, comedic sides to his personality.  On the complete opposite side of things, the enormously gifted comedic actor Jonah Hill again severely impresses in a dramatic role (his first being his pitch-perfect work in Moneyball), while also landing some of the heartiest laughs in this blackest of comedies.  Littered with tons familiar faces, spot-on character work, and the alarming presence of alluring Australian newcomer Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street races through its three-hour running time like an out of control freight train being driven by a lunatic mad-man. No movie since Terry Gilliam’s hedonistic masterpiece of drug-fuelled shenanigans Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has embraced on-screen drug-use for both dark humor and for appalling dramatic effect the way The Wolf of Wall Street does; it’s bracing and exciting and wildly unexpected coming from the director whose last movie was the warm-hearted children’s fable Hugo.  But that’s why Scorsese continues to be the most important, vital voice in modern cinema – he’s always up to a challenge, always pushing the limits, always going for the filmic jugular. Along with the gifted screenwriter Terrence Winter, they’ve painted a sprawling, troubling portrait of a morally decaying society – the American dream run amok, perverted and corrupted by ultra-success and zero consequences.  And the last shot of the film – possibly the best single shot of the year – casually and brilliantly indicts everyone, not just the despicable characters in the film and the zombie-eyed audience members that Belfort is preaching too at his seminar, but anyone in the audience who has missed the point of this outrageous and masterful piece of storytelling.