40 Great Performances Not Nominated for Oscars

As it happens every year, the 2014 Oscar nominations had their fair share of happy and sad surprises, and every movie site in the world has already weighed on what they are. So, while tipping my hat to all the performers who got good news yesterday morning, here’s a friday blues shout-out to all those who didn’t, and deserve to be remembered and celebrated for their stellar work in 2013.

BEST ACTRESS NOT NOMINATED IN 2014:

Adele Exarchopolous – `Blue is the Warmest Color’
Brie Larson – `Short Term 12′
Amy Seimetz – `Upstream Color’
Greta Gerwig – `Frances Ha’
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss – `Enough Said’
Julie Delpy – `Before Midnight’
Berenice Bejo – `The Past’
Zhang Ziyi – `The Grandmaster’
Amy Acker – `Much Ado About Nothing’
Waad Mohammed – `Wadjda’

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BEST ACTOR NOT NOMINATED IN 2014:

Oscar Isaac – `Inside Llewyn Davis’
Madds Mikkelsen – `The Hunt’
Connor Chapman – `The Selfish Giant’
Simon Pegg – `The World’s End’
Tony Servillo – `The Great Beauty’
Tye Sheridan – `Mud’
Tom Hanks – `Captain Phillips’
Robert Redford – `All is Lost’
Michael B. Jordan – `Fruitvale Station’
Ethan Hawke – `Before Midnight’

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS NOT NOMINATED IN 2014:

Margot Robbie – `The Wolf of Wall St.’
Lea Seydoux – `Blue is the Warmest Color’
Sabrina Ferrili – `The Great Beauty’
Tao Zhao – `A Touch of Sin’
Rooney Mara – `Side Effects’
Julianne Nicholson – `August Osage County’
Shailene Woodley – `The Spectacular Now’
Sarah Paulson – `12 Years a Slave’
Amy Adams  – ‘Her’
Andrea Riseborough – `Oblivion’

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR NOT NOMINATED IN 2014:

James Franco – `Spring Breakers’
James Gandolfini – `Enough Said’
Daniel Bruhl – `Rush’
Matthew McConaughey – `The Wolf of Wall St.’
Jeremy Renner – `American Hustle’
Nick Frost – `The World’s End’
Dwayne Johnson – `Pain and Gain’
Andrew Dice Clay – `Blue Jasmine’
Tahar Rahim – `The Past’
Josh Brolin – `Labor Day’

The End of Year Awards You Won’t Find At the Oscars

Best Opening Scene:

5. A Touch of Sin
A man on a moped is ambushed on a mountain road by three youths with axes. He shoots them all dead, then rides by the wreckage of an overturned apple truck. Another man takes a bite of an apple. The truck explodes.

4. Prisoners
A deer walks through a wintry forest, and stops. The camera pulls back to reveal the muzzle of a hunter’s rifle, and we hear a father’s voice intoning the Lord’s prayer as he teaches his son to kill.

3. 12 Years a Slave
In a room full of sleeping slaves, a woman rolls over and has sex with the slave beside her. She rolls back over, and weeps, as the man stares up at the ceiling.

2. Gravity
The silence of space as Earth spins below. Very, very slowly, a small space station approaches, we hear a conversation between an astronaut and ground control.

And the winner is…

1.The Place Beyond the Pines 
A tattooed man paces a trailer, flicking a knife. He puts on a jacket, walks through fairground crowds to a large tent, where he mounts a stunt motorbike, and rides into a round cage with two other riders. (sigh. if only the rest of the movie had been this good.)

Best singing scene:

5. `Roll, Jordan Roll’, 12 Years a Slave
At a funeral, Solomon Northup joins in with the other mourners, finally no different than his fellow slaves.

4. `So You Know What It’s Like’, Short Term 12
In the bedroom of a foster-care  facility, damaged teen Marcus raps out all of his bottled up pain, anger and confusion to a single drumbeat.

3. `Every Time’, Spring Breakers
On an outdoor piano overlooking the ocean, white rasta pimp `Alien’ croons a Britney Spears pop anthem as his two lovers dance around in day-glo ski masks and bikinis, holding machine guns.

2. `Let it Go’, Frozen.
Alone at the top of a mountain, Princess Elsa gives in to her powers of snow manipulation, and embraces her inner diva to the elation of children and drag queens everywhere.

And the winner is…

1. `The Death of Queen Jane’, Inside Llewyn Davis
In an empty Chicago music hall, Llewyn Davis sings for an ashen-faced impresario, baring his soul to a soul-crushing outcome.

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Best Dancing Scene:

5. Frances Ha
Frances runs through New York streets, occasionally busting into eccentric dance moves to the euphoric  strains of David Bowie’s `Modern Love’.

4. The Spectacular Now
At the high school prom, alcoholic class clown Sutter (Miles Teller) slow dances with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), the shy girl who accepts him as he is.

3. American Hustle
FBI agent Richie takes Edith, the con artist he has a crush on, to a 70s nightclub, where they feverishly boogie their mutual lust to strobe-lit disco awesomeness.

2. Blue is the Warmest Color
Hurt by her lover’s passive aggressive disdain, Adele meets a co-worker at a salsa evening, and dances the night away in a trance of attraction, abandon and hunger for life. 

And the winner is…

1. The Great Beauty
Jep Gambardella’s 65th Roman birthday rooftop rave. Simultaneously grotesque and wondrous, it’s a scene of pure elation inside a total Fellini-esque hell-realm. Amazing.

Best Falling-In-Love Scene:

5. The Wind Rises. 
Young aerial engineer Jiro Horikoshi, flies ingeniously designed paper planes up to his sick wife-to-be’s balcony.

4. American Hustle
Christian Bale sees Amy Adams at a pool party. `Is that Duke Ellington on your bracelet?’

3. Blue is the Warmest Color
The world spins and stops as Adele crosses the street and makes eye contact with Emma, her blue-haired object of desire.

2. The Grandmaster
Kung Fu legend Ip Man fights Gong Err, the daughter of a vanquished master, and their eyes hold as they spin gracefully through the air, changing both their lives forever.

And the winner is…

1. Upstream Color.
Two damaged souls finish each other’s stories, unsure whose memory is whose, as birds flock above them at twilight.

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Best Argument:

5. Louis vs. Cecil, The Butler

`Sidney Poitier is the white man’s fantasy of what he wants us to be.’

`What are you talking about? He just won the Academy Award!’

4. Violet vs. Barbara, August: Osage County

`See these little blue babies? These are my best fucking friends and they never let me down.’

`Gimme those goddam pills!’

3. Jean vs. Llewyn, Inside Llewyn Davis

`Do you ever think about the future at all?’

`The future? You mean like, flying cars? Hotels on the moon?’

2. Benedick vs. Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing

`What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?’

`Courtesy itself must turn to disdain, if you come in her presence.’

And the winner is…

1. Celine vs. Jesse, Before Midnight

`I am not going to do it. This is bigger than me. This means more than me.’

` Wow! Bravo! The Nobel committee is taking note!’

Best Adrenaline-Pumping Action Scene:

 5. Israeli wall attack, World War Z
The film is a stitched together, half successful PG-13 zombie movie, but goddam, the sequence where they crawl over Israel’s wall like ants works like gangbusters.

4. Train chase, The Lone Ranger
The film is a tonal disaster with crappy characters and an atrocious script. But goddam, that final train sequence is an epic western Loony Tunes cartoon come to glorious, lunatic life.

3. First debris strike, Gravity
Three astronauts try to avoid the high-speed debris from a shattered satellite, in a jaw-dropping sequence without a single edit, nor the sound of any impact.

2. Barrel ride, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug
Orcs, Elves, and Dwarves chase each other down a river, in the most giddily exciting, inventive roller-coaster ride since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s mineshaft escape.

And the winner is…

1.  Pacific Rim
A giant `Jaeger’ Robot fights a Godzilla-style `Kaiju’ in the rubble of Hong Kong. The Kaiju unfurls its wings, the Jaeger’s arm turns into a samurai sword, and my inner 12 year old whoops for joy.

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Best Laugh-Out-Loud Moment:

5. Her
Theodore Twombly has chatroom phone sex with a stranger, who suddenly asks him to choke her with a dead cat.

4. This is the End
McBride and Franco argue over the world’s last remaining porn magazine, and what reading protocols apply.

3. The World’s End
After discovering the town of their youth is overrun with androids, Gary King and his friends continue to get shit-faced in order to not arouse suspicion.

2. Spring Breakers
Alien shows off his material possessions – including baseball caps of every color, a framed Scarface poster, and his stash of machine guns: `Look at my Shit!’

And the winner is…

1. The Wolf of Wall St. 
Leo and Jonah take copious amounts of the world’s most powerful quaaludes, and lose all their motor skills while having to deal with FBI surveillance.

Best Sex Symbol:

5. Alexander Skarsgard as `Benji’, The East.
For making his eco-terrorist ring-leader so attractive that Brit Marling completely fudges her undercover mission.

4.  Margot Robbie as `Naomi Lapaglia’, The Wolf of Wall St.
For being so ridiculously hot that Jonah Hill openly masturbates when he sees her.

3. Matthew McConaughey as `Mud’, Mud
For making his unbuttoned pale yellow shirt, and its absence, a major plot point.

2. Adele Exarchopolous as `Adele’, Blue is the Warmest Color
For eating, dancing, and fucking with enough sensual hunger and passion to fuel Europe for a decade.

And the winner is…

1. Chris Hemsworth as `James Hunt’, Rush
For infusing his race-car driving star with the most effortless, laid-back, blonde rock god sex appeal since Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall.

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Best Good-Egg Protagonist:

5. Will Forte as `David Grant’, Nebraska.
For agreeing  to take his dad on a delusional fool’s gold road trip, and doing something really sweet when it doesn’t pan out.

4. Jake Gyllenhaal as `Detective Loki’, Prisoners.
For doggedly pursuing a missing-child case, despite Hugh Jackman’s hysterically twisted angry dad behavior.

3. Waad Mohammed as `Wadjda’, Wadjda
For shaking up patriarchal Saudi society, while never being less than utterly adorable.

2. Mads Mikkelsen as `Lucas’, The Hunt
For refusing to lie down when his entire community unjustly turns against him, and still being kind to the kid who started it all.

And the winner is…

1. Brie Larson as `Grace’, Short Term 12
For taking her own experience as an abused child, and using it to help others, no matter how painful the cost.

Best Rotten-Egg Protagonist:

5. Simon Pegg as `Gary King’, The World’s End
For dragging everyone else into his insufferably narcissistic, alcohol-infused delusions of past grandeur.

4. Isaiah Washington as `John’, Blue Caprice
For corrupting his adopted son’s soul with his own hatred for the world.

3. Oscar Isaac as `Llewyn Davis’, Inside Llewyn Davis
For being a bitter, misanthropic douchebag, and leaving the cat in the car.

2. Leonardo di Caprio as `Jordan Bellfort’, Wolf of Wall St
For embodying the hollow, carnivorous heart of no-holds barred capitalism run amuck, to devastatingly entertaining results.

And the winner is…

1. Cate Blanchett as`Jasmine’, Blue Jasmine
For taking self-centered entitlement to def-con 5 levels of samsaric cluelessness.

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Best Survivor:

5. Robert Redford as `our man’, All is Lost
For thinking his way through being lost at sea.

4. Sandra Bullock as `Ryan Stone’, Gravity
For feeling her way through being lost in space.

3. Tom Hanks as `Richard Phillips’ , Captain Phillips
For his shockingly vulnerable post-traumatic meltdown.

2. Amy Seimetz as `Kris’, Upstream Color
For finding her true self after identity-theft hypnosis-by-maggot-capsule. (Don’t ask).

And the winner is…

1. Chiwitel Ejiofor as `Solomon Northup’, 12 Years a Slave
For maintaining his soul, and his dignity, in the face of unspeakable horror.

The Top Five Cinematic Disappointments of 2013

2013 was one of the best years for movies I can remember. From indies such as 12 Years a Slave, Upstream Color, and Inside Llewyn Davis; foreign gems such as The Great Beauty, Blue is the Warmest Color, and The Grandmaster; blockbuster entertainments such as Gravity, Pacific Rim and Captain Phillips—it was a veritable feast for movie-lovers. And yet, as always, there were countless films best assigned to the cinematic dustbin, most of which populated the nation’s multiplexes for most of the year before the fall/winter prestige films rolled around.

The following list is not a Worst-of list, since most obviously bad movies (Grown Ups 2, After Earth, etc.) I didn’t bother to see. But each of the following movies briefly held the promise of something possibly special, and that’s what made them all the more painful to watch. So, in the interests of tempering my unabashed enthusiasm for 2013’s riches, here are the five most disappointing films of the year, in descending order of soul-crushing awfulness:

5. MAN OF STEEL

I’ll admit it, I was totally suckered by the trailer for this, which promised a lyrical, soulful and emotionally rousing Superman epic for the 21st century. I thought Christopher Nolan’s guiding hand as producer could tame Zach Snyder’s video-game approach to narrative, and deliver a worthy companion to the Dark Knight series.

The power of the Superman myth resides in the notion of a super-being living among us, trying to hide his God-like strength as he saves us from our own disasters. Imagine seeing Superman deal with accidents, oil spills, earthquakes, hurricanes, wars – inspiring us to embrace the braver, selfless better angels of our nature. There are a few moments here, in the film’s first half, that capture the hint of a better, more grounded movie, most of them flashbacks to Superman’s youth as he tries to find his place and purpose in the world. And then it becomes an over-wrought, under-written, bombastic mess of CGI destruction and the worst excesses of what the modern action blockbuster has become.

Why? Because apparently every super-hero movie now needs a super-villain who can shout  ‘I WILL DESTROY YOU!!!’ in the third act. And because after the relative financial disappointment of Superman Returns, which had fans crying `Not enough action!,’ Snyder made sure no one in their right mind would level the same accusation this time. So we got an exhausting hour of Sept. 11 disaster-porn, with alien super-beings punching each other through buildings and barely a mention of the millions of lives lost in the process. And then Superman breaks his own moral code by snapping the bad guy’s neck.

Fuck you Supes. You let us down, big-time.

4. OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

A prequel to the beloved 1939 classic  The Wizard of Oz, there were three reasons this could have been worthwhile: 1) The series of novels Frank L. Baum wrote, supplying an authentic story to adapt. 2) Sam Raimi, a director whose stylistically inventive flourishes helped elevate popcorn blockbusters such as Spider-Man 2 into great mainstream entertainment. 3) The cast, with the often talented James Franco alongside Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Mila Kunis  as the three witches of Oz.

Ouch. Where do I start? This is a mind-bogglingly dull affair, which sits comfortably alongside Tim Burton’s execrable Alice in Wonderland as a mis-conceived, worthless desecration of a beloved children’s text. Franco, who excels when given interesting misfits to play, is about as charismatic as a wet sock. The story is about as exciting as being stuck in traffic for two hours. And despite valiant efforts from Williams and Weisz as two of the three witches, Mila Kunis is so confoundingly, screechingly god-awful as a younger version of the original film’s villain, that she makes the whole thing resemble a badly produced school play – except that if it were a school play, she would be rightly booed off-stage.

In fact, I’ve pretty much forgotten anything else about this monumental waste of time and money, so here’s hoping everyone involved cashed their cheques in and can now recover some semblance of their previously displayed talent elsewhere.

3. TO THE WONDER

Until this year, I was the most vocal Terrence Malick fan I know. Days of Heaven and Thin Red Line are two of my all-time favorite films, and I can’t tell you how many conversations I had defending Tree of Life in 2011. Many people I know accused it of being pretentious, boring, and over-reliant on idealized female characters spinning in fields while a whispered voice-over asks God the basic questions of existence, such as `Who am I? What is Love? What is Death?’ etc. Ultimately, I would just agree to disagree, because the simple fact was that Tree of Life – like all Terrence Malick movies – spoke to my soul in a very deep, very personal way.

Well, not anymore. To the Wonder plays like a Saturday Night Live skit of a Terrence Malick film, with, you guessed it, endless shots of Olga Kurylenko spinning in wheat fields, bedrooms and streets, as wall-to-wall whispered voice-over asks those same existential questions, ad-fucking-nauseam. It is absolutely, undeniably everything Malick-haters accused Tree of Life of being. It is unbearably pretentious, sleep-inducingly boring, and actually makes me afraid to revisit all the other films of his I loved, in case they remind me of this one. Yes, it’s that heart-breakingly bad.

I can only hope Malick decided to clean the worst tendencies out of his system once and for all in a defiant act of indulgent cinematic masturbation, and that his next movie will have an actual story and characters speaking audible dialogue to each other. But if I hear one more whispered voice-over or a woman starts to spin, I’m officially setting fire to my Terrence Malick DVDs.

2. IRON MAN 3

The reason I had hopes for this was because of the involvement of Shane Black, the notorious Hollywood screenwriter who always manages to subvert action movie cliches while delivering all the excitement you want from the genre. His 2006 directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also starring Robert Downey Jr.) was an under-seen gem of storytelling bravado, hilariously dry wit, and smart, beautifully realized characters inhabiting a noir-infused, affectionately acerbic vision of modern L.A.

I was therefore hoping that Black could do much what Joss Wheddon with The Avengers, and infuse the superhero Marvel world with knowing, character-based humor and the best thrills a $200 million budget can buy. And when Iron Man 3 opened to a $170 million weekend, and an impressive 78% positive reviews, I assumed my hopes had been fulfilled for a rousingly entertaining summer popcorn blockbuster.

Hell, I even got stoned before this one, but even that didn’t help. What a cynical, lazy, pointless, insufferably smug pile of steaming corporate shit. I felt like I was watching a bad Saturday morning cartoon, only that would be an insult to every single Saturday morning cartoon ever made. There is not a single thing that makes any sense in this movie. No weight or consequence, no subtext, no internal logic, nothing resembling recognizable human behavior in any way whatsoever. It’s the absolute nadir of hollow, context-free spectacle with maximum global profit as it’s only reason for being.

A McDonald’s cheeseburger has more thematic depth and integrity. Seriously.

1. ELYSIUM

Neil Blongkampf’s follow-up to his instant-classic sci-fi debut District 9, this was my most eagerly awaited movie of the year. What could go wrong? It was the chance for a clearly talented, possibly visionary director to play with a big budget and create original sci-fi on a massive scale. It starred Matt Damon, a smart, talented actor who only gets involved with projects he believes in. It held a great concept, dealing with themes of class disparity, ecological break-down, and the injustices of modern health care through epic visual action metaphors.

When I sat down to watch this at a Manhattan theatre, I left after half an hour, and went to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler instead. That’s how badly my most eagerly awaited movie of 2013 turned out. For the purposes of this article, I watched the rest of it on DVD, and it’s just as bad as the first 30 minutes promised it would be. Actually, it’s worse. In fact, it’s EASILY the worst movie of the year, even without the burden of high expectations.

I’m not even sure where to begin. Jodie Foster’s Razzie-courting performance as a hiss-boo villain with a baffling accent? Check. Insultingly simplistic social satire that made me ashamed to be a liberal? Check. The complete lack of an ethical viewpoint while dealing with obviously ethical issues? Check. Formulaic, rote action sequences with nauseatingly over-the-top violence? Check. Characters so vapid and uninteresting that to call them cardboard cut-outs would be an unjust denigration of cardboard? Check. The worst flashbacks in the history of motion pictures? Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.

Ultimately, I blame the director for writing his own script, when from this evidence, he has absolutely zero talent as a screenwriter. It’s a miracle that anyone involved in this didn’t pull him aside and say `Neil – this is atrocious. Let’s hire someone who can actually tell a story.’ Sadly, I now have to assume `District 9′ was some kind of fluke, or perhaps just not as good as I thought it was at the time. Or maybe this is one of those confounding instances where someone apparently burns up all their talent and promise with one film, and then loses every ounce of their artistic ability the next time around.

As harsh as that sounds, there’s just no way to say it nicely. Whatever the reasons, Elysium is by far the most disappointing, bafflingly terrible sophomore feature since Richard Kelly followed up `Donnie Darko’ with Southland Tales. If it were the last DVD left on earth, I would bury it deep in the ground, and build a house on top of it. And then I would move out.

An Annotated Look at This Year’s Golden Globe Nominees

If you wanted commentary on this morning’s Golden Globes nominations, here it is:

BEST MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
12 Years A Slave– Yes!!!! Best movie of the year (well… tied with The Wolf of Wall Street)
Captain Phillips – Excellent meat & potatoes fare.
Gravity – Just because everyone loves it doesn’t mean it sucks.
Philomena – Meh. A decent TV movie for old ladies with cats.
Rush – Nice. An underrated blast, in need of some retro-active love.
My unwanted opinion: Upstream Color in the Philomena spot. (Dream on… )

BEST MOTION PICTRE – COMEDY/MUSICAL
American Hustle– Fun, enjoyable performances, but lower your expectations. It’s gourmet candy floss.
Her– Haven’t seen it, but dying to. Spike Jonze is awesome.
Inside Llewyn Davis – Great, unique, haunting-funny-sad movie. Coen brothers are genius.
Nebraska– Minor, somewhat bleak Payne, but the ending is so brilliant it makes the whole film better.
The Wolf Of Wall Street– Woohoo!!! A demented masterpiece. Un-debatably one of scorsese’s all-time best.
My unwanted opinion: A good line-up. Can’t argue with anything here. Wait…is Before Midnight a Comedy or a Drama? And either way, where is it?

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity– amazing work.
Paul Greengrass – Captain Phillips– great work.
Steve McQueen – 12 Years A Slave– Wow. Three movies in and he’s a master.
Alexander Payne – Nebraska – pretty good.
David O Russell – American Hustle– pretty good.
My unwanted opinion: Come on y’all. Scorsese and the Coen brothers are the best US directors still alive, and doing some of their best work this year, so what gives? Still, nothing too egregious here, these are good film-makers all.

BEST ACTRESS – DRAMA
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine– Absolutely deserved. Incredible.
Sandra Bullock, Gravity – Pretty good, especially considering it’s a green-screen performance.
Judi Dench, Philomena – Fine. Nothing surprising though.
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr Banks – Haven’t seen it, but she’s always good value.
Kate Winslet, Labor Day – Well…I like her and I sort-of-like the movie, but this is clearly a star-fucking move on the HFPA’s part.
My unwanted opinion: Adele Exarchopolous in Blue is Warmest Color, and Brie Larson in Short Term 12 were ignored. As well as Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) and Berenice Bejo (The Past). So no, this is not a good selection.

BEST ACTOR – DRAMA
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave – amazing.
Idris Elba, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom – Haven’t seen it. Can’t help but wonder if timing has something to do with this. Then again, loooove Stringer Bell.
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips – It’s all about the last 5 minutes. Best breakdown of the year.
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club – Ok. Sure, weight loss is impressive, and he’s pretty good I guess. But movie never comes to life.
Robert Redford, All Is Lost – A damn fine star performance. It’s compelling just to watch him think his way through problems. You think that’s easy?
My unwanted opinion: Pretty good list. I’d throw in Ethan Hawke – but wait… Is Before Midnight a Comedy or a Drama?

BEST ACTRESS – COMEDY
Amy Adams, American Hustle – Fun performance. She really goes for it, and it’s kooky stuff.
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight– Yay! Celine! I guess Before Midnight is a comedy after all.
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha – Yay! Greta! This is the best surprise of the whole nominations.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said– Haven’t seen it. But I’m a big Veep fan.
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County– More ham, Madam? Meryl chews the scenery, the stage, the curtains and every seat in every theatre across the nation.
My unwanted opinion: Great list, bar Meryl. Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing is the great unheralded comedy performance of the year.

BEST ACTOR – COMEDY/MUSICAL
Christian Bale, American Hustle – Absolutely. He hasn’t been this funny since American Psycho. (This is not a joke.)
Bruce Dern, Nebraska – Great, embodied, subtle. But not in any way a comedic performance.
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf Of Wall Street – Wow. I’m a Leo fan from here on out.
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis – Brilliant. And he can sing, too!
Joaquin Phoenix, Her – Haven’t seen it, but big fan of Joaquin 2.0
My unwanted opinion: Great list. But I would have bumped Dern to Drama and included Simon Pegg for The World’s End, which is definitely a comedy.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine – Nice! She’s great in this.
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle – Hmmm. I love J-Law, but I think she’s badly miscast here (too young, too cute), and thus find her OTT performance grating.
Lupita N’yongo, 12 Years A Slave – Incredible.
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County – Better than Meryl.
June Squibb, Nebraska – Hmmm. She’s fine, but a bit one note, and doesn’t know what to do with her hands.
My unwanted opinion: Where’s Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall St.)? Lea Seydoux (Blue is Warmest Color)? Zhang Ziyi (The Grandmaster)? Oh, and Oprah got snubbed too. But I can live with that one.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips – Fantastic. Great to see him honored here.
Daniel Bruhl, Rush – Nice! He’s great in the movie, though really a co-lead.
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle – Really goes for it. I think he’s good, but something about him annoys me.
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave– Holy shit. Best working actor?
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club – He’s pretty great in this, even though I didn’t like the movie much.
My unwanted opinion: Another good selection. But where the hell is Jonah Hill?! Did they not see Wolf of Wall St.?

BEST SCREENPLAY
Spike Jonze – Her – I assume/hope Charlie Kaufman rubbed off on him.
Bob Nelson – Nebraska – Hmmm. It’s okay, but then again… that ending!
Jeff Pope & Steve Coogan – Philomena – Fine. Superior mediocrity I guess.
John Ridley – 12 Years A Slave – Incredible work. Stunning use of language.
Eric Warren Singer & David O Russell – American Hustle – Well, the dialogue is fun, but how much of that was improvised? And story is a bit of a mess.
My unwanted opinion: Pretty shocking. Wolf of Wall St., Inside Llewyn Davis, Before Midnight and Blue Jasmine should have joined 12 Years on this list.

BEST FOREIGN FILM
Blue Is The Warmest Color– Awesome!
The Great Beauty – Desperately need to see it.
The Hunt– Excellent.
The Past – Really good.
The Wind Rises– Loved it.
My unwanted opinion: Fantastic line-up. No complaints at all. My personal list would have included A Touch of Sin, The Grandmaster, and Wadjda, but it’s just a great year for foreign films.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Croods – Whaaaaaat? Even my 10 year old god-daughter said this sucked!
Despicable Me 2– Seriously?
Frozen– Overrated, but the big song on the mountain is undeniably awesome.
My unwanted opinion: What a load of pap. I guess animation sucked this year.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – MOTION PICTURE
Alex Ebert – All Is Lost – I can’t remember this score at all.
Alex Heffes – Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom – Haven’t seen/heard it. I assume there’s plenty of biopic friendly violins though.
Steven Price – Gravity – Great stuff, if slightly over-bearing at times.
John Williams – The Book Thief – Haven’t seen it. But Williams has been ripping himself off for years, and always goes for the obvious.
Hans Zimmer – 12 Years A Slave – Loved it, though it does admittedly sound EXACTLY like his Thin Red Line score.
My unwanted opinion: Meh. It’s all pretty safe, middle of the road stuff here. The scores for Upstream Color, Nebraska, Rush, and Pacific Rim were far more distinctive and interesting. Oh well.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG – MOTION PICTURE
“Atlas” – Coldplay – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire– I think I heard this at the end of the movie. It must have been super-memorable.
“Let It Go – Idina Menzel – Frozen– I love this song. It’s super cheesy but goddam does it give me chills.
“Ordinary Love” – U2 – Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom – Huh. I used to like U2. Back in the late 80s before they became unbearably pretentious.
“Please Mr. Kennedy” – Justin Timberlake & co – Inside Llewyn Davis – This is a really funny song in a really funny scene.
“Sweeter Than Fiction” – Taylor Swift – One Chance– What? Oh wait, is this that movie about the car salesman who won American Idol by singing opera? I heard it sucks balls.
My unwanted opinion: This would seem to be a pretty god-awful selection, though I have no idea what I’d replace it with. Maybe all the other songs from Inside Llewyn Davis. Yeah, that would work.

TV NOMINATIONS
Nope. I’m boycotting the Globe TV nominations this year, since they have seen fit to ignore Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and Mad Men. I have no idea what planet they’re living on or what strange substance lies between their ears.

OVERALL THOUGHTS
Well, the film noms aren’t too embarrassing I suppose. And the Globes are so much more fun than the Oscars, because everyone gets drunk, no one gets rushed off the stage mid-speech, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are brilliant hosts, and there’s no god-awful musical numbers. So count me in (on my couch) when they give these out sometime in January.

Animation Double Bill: `Frozen’ and `The Wind Rises’.

Released in time for Thanksgiving, Frozen is this year’s big Disney animated feature, a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, re-tooled to fit the studio’s very specific formula for success. Continuing their return to the more classical style of what has been dubbed their 2nd Golden age (from 1989’s The Little Mermaid, through Beauty and the BeastAladdin and The Lion King) the film is a big, lavish musical spectacle, that tells the story of two sister princesses, one of whom must hide her magical power to conjure anything she wishes out of ice and snow.

Of course, this all goes terribly wrong, and on the day of her coronation, Elsa (the titular snow queen) accidentally plunges her kingdom into eternal winter before running off to hide in the mountains. It is then up to her younger sister, Anna, to find her, aided on her quest by a somewhat grumpy ice-collector, his moose, and a talking snowman. I was a big fan of Tangled, Disney’s similarly loose adaptation of Rapunzel, which I found surprisingly smart, funny and delightful—as well as last year’s Wreck-it-Ralph, which contained some genuinely inspired lunacy, so I was looking forward to Frozen as another modern classic from the same creative team.

And while it’s certainly a well-crafted entertainment, with some great moments, I found myself frustrated by the confines of the formula being adhered to. We get a plucky heroine, a meet-cute scenario with an initially irritated love interest, a smattering of rollercoaster action scenes, big emotional moments transformed into musical power ballads, and the obligatory comic relief, here provided by Olaf the snowman as well as a tribe of romance-loving trolls. And apart from a wonderful sequence in which the Snow Queen belts out the movie’s showstopper—(Let it Go)—as she conjures a palace out of ice, it all plays out more or less as you would expect, and I was left with an unshakeable inner meh. My 10-year-old god-daughter absolutely loved it, start to finish, so perhaps it seems churlish to complain, or want more, when the film so satisfies its core audience.

And to its credit, it plays with classic fairy tale tropes, setting up the need for a handsome prince’s kiss to save the day, only to subvert it for something far more empowering to young women. But whereas I make no apology for watching Pixar movies without child accompaniment —I consider Wall-EUp, and The Incredibles to be among the best movies of their respective years, I would be hard pressed to recommend Frozen to anyone who doesn’t have a kid to see it with. Basically, it’s a good kid’s movie, but not quite a good movie movie.

The reason I was underwhelmed by Disney’s latest offering, and frustrated by what animation has become in this country, is perhaps due in no small part to the fact that I caught Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises earlier in the week. Billed as the 73-year-old Miyazaki’s final work, after a career spanning such masterpieces as Spirited Away,Princess Mononoke, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Wind Rises is—unlike those other films—aimed more towards adults than children, and tells the slow, complex story of the engineer responsible for building Japan’s bomber planes during World War II. Introducing Jiro Horikoshi as a young teen with big dreams of flying machines, through to his adulthood designing planes for the military, Miyazaki tells the story of an artist driven to create something beautiful, despite the realities of the war it will be co-opted for.

And while the growing war plays a big part in the narrative, it also lives at its edges, as the backdrop to a deeper examination of what it means to be a good human being, irrespective of historical circumstance. As with all his films, there are no villains in Miyazaki’s universe, just characters on a sliding scale of being in, or out of tune with the deeper harmony of nature. Throughout the story, Horikoshi performs small and large acts of kindness without a second thought, and without any need for validation or recognition, and while he wishes he could build planes without having to add guns or bombs to them, he is not naive either, quietly accepting the role he has been chosen to play for his country. It takes a while to adjust to the film’s serious tone and patiently measured pace—and the film drags considerably in its middle section—but around the half-way mark, it becomes a surprisingly engaging love story, as Horikoshi meets his wife-to-be during a summer retreat in a country idyll.

Without giving anything away, this romance, like everything else in the film, is treated by Miyazaki with a tender wisdom and quiet dignity—and the accumulative power of that world-view is powerfully, devastatingly moving, without ever resorting to easy sentiment. Encapsulating the themes that have been present in all his work—a deep love of nature, the values of compassion and kindness, and the mystical landscape of dreams and creativity—it’s a fitting swan song for one of the great film-makers of our age, and a wonderful example of what animation can do when it breaks out of the rigidly imposed limitations of child-centric commercial entertainment, and into the realm of deeply personal art.

 

Closer Review: ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’

Blue Is The Warmest Color (or La Vie d’Adele, Chapitres 1 & 2) comes with its fair share of baggage. It won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes, where—for the first time—the top prize was awarded to its two lead actresses, as well as its director. The film has been the subject of much controversy due to its lengthy, explicit lesbian sex scenes, and the very public war of words between the actresses and the director—regarding Abdellatif Kechiche’s borderline abusive methods on set (both actresses stated they would never work with him again, despite being very proud of the film). It’s also attracted the ire of conservative watchdog groups, in response to certain US cinemas allowing teenagers to see it despite its NC-17 rating, and re-igniting the age old is-it-art-or-is-it-pornography debate concerning depictions of sex on screen.

So—is it art? Absolutely. This is an epic, startlingly intimate study of a girl’s awakening to her own sexual identity, and to the glorious, messy, painful world of lust, love, and relationship. Is it exploitative? Well…a little. Over its three hour length, there are a number of moments where the director’s male gaze becomes impossible to ignore. Lingering shots that climb up Adele’s body as she sleeps, a completely unnecessary shower scene, and the elephant in the room: the now infamous 10-minute scene where the two leads first consummate their relationship.

It’s an important moment, because it shows the powerful erotic core of a relationship that will last five years. It also shows the protagonist Adele having her sexuality completely, reciprocally met for the first time. Part of me applauds Abdellatif Kechiche for showing sex between loving partners as hungry, sensual and passionate—and by the time it occurs, we are fully invested in Adele and Emma as flesh-and-blood characters.  Yet I found it difficult to justify the scene’s length—which, for me, crossed the line into voyeuristic indulgence and created a brief disconnect from the identification the film so gracefully achieves, before and after.

To be fair, Kechiche applies the same sensual, almost mystical fascination to every facet of Adele’s existence,  whether she’s eating, dancing, sleeping or simply observing—and the incredible intimacy this creates is part of the film’s accumulative strength, reflecting Adele’s desperate need to fill the void within with whatever her voracious appetite grasps onto. But none of this would work if it wasn’t for Adele Exarchopolous’s extraordinary, one-of-a-kind performance. She possesses such a natural, un-self conscious presence—her eyes registering every confused, conflicted and subtle emotion without ever hitting a forced or false note, that we truly feel we are living her life with her, moment-to-moment as the film plays out.

The journey she makes, from naive 15-year-old student to fully fledged adult, almost takes you by surprise. It reminded me of the way we don’t notice people change when we see them every day. There’s no Hollywood moment when a sudden shift happens, just a gradual accumulation of experience that eventually makes her who she is. I’ve seen few performances, if any, quite like it, and she is ably matched by Lea Seydoux as the slightly older, more self-assured object of her affection. In light of their deeply raw, courageous and vulnerable work (apparently pushed to their emotional limits by Kechiche), and the fact that almost all the dialogue is improvised, it’s little wonder that the Cannes jury chose to reward them as equal co-creators.

Regardless of the debate around its sex scenes, or the questionable methods of its director, Blue is the Warmest Color captures a very specific, yet universal yearning for connection with genuine, truth-seeking empathy. Scene after scene is electrifying in its attention to emotional detail, creating a sense of authentic, spontaneous discovery that gets under your skin in a way that few films do.  And perhaps that’s the key: that Kechiche and his actresses treat every single moment with an achingly alive sensibility, telling what is ultimately the oldest story there is—of the waxing, waning relationship between two people—as though it’s never been told before. To my mind, it joins the ranks of In the Mood for LoveBrokeback Mountain, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as one of the most affecting love stories I’ve seen.

‘Captain Phillips,’ ‘Wadjda,’ ‘A Touch of Sin:’ Windows to a Globalized World

Captain Phillips
Paul Greengrass has carved out a niche for himself as a director of smart, political, white-knuckle action movies—combining the immediacy of documentary film-making with the scale and expert manipulation of the best studio thrillers. Most famous for the second and third Bourne movies, whose shaky-cam style has now become the (poorly-imitated) template for a decade of Hollywood action films, it’s the projects he made in between, specifically Bloody Sunday and United 93, that are the real thematic precursors to his latest offering: meticulously researched re-creations of explosive international incidents, that function as both edge-of-your-seat thrill rides and complex commentaries on the seemingly unsolvable ideological conflicts of our modern age.

What’s remarkable about Captain Phillips is how powerfully it reverberates beyond the confines of its tight, streamlined plot: the real-life hijacking of a US cargo ship by Somali pirates, and the subsequent kidnapping of its Captain. By showing the circumstances of the pirates’ lives—where working for the local warlord seems the only alternative to fishing the empty seas—and treating them as flesh and blood characters instead of traditional African villains (see Black Hawk Down, which treated the Somalis as faceless black zombies to be gunned down without consequence)—Captain Phillips somehow manages to make its incredibly tense story feel like the small ripple of a much larger economic problem. By the time the US Navy shows up with all its might, we get a shocking sense of what the unlimited power of the American Empire must look like to the poorer nations of the world, and the incredible, unforgiving disparity between them. By no means justifying the pirates’ actions, we get a clear sense of the desperation that drives them, and in Barkad Abdi’s electrifying performance as their leader Musa, a worthy counterpart to Tom Hank’s most un-showy, embodied role in years.

Ultimately, by choosing to end with the trauma of the aftermath rather than the uplift of victory, Hanks and Greengrass undo the myth of the indomitable American hero, leaving us with something far more human, moving, and troubling—our utter inability to stop the violent tide of an unequal, globalized world, no matter how large our military might be.

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A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke’s seventh feature is the first to blend action-genre dynamics into his slow moving, critically adored meditations on life in modern China, with powerfully thrilling results. Taking four stories from the headlines, each detailing a character’s eventual spiral into violence, A Touch of Sin creates a multi-layered look at the cracking seams of China’s rush to capitalism, as greed, corruption and exploitation become the new normal. A disgruntled mine worker in a northern village, a wandering sociopath with a gun, a female receptionist in a sauna-cum-brothel, and a dead-end-job roaming youth—the four protagonists are only barely linked, their stories allowed to play out in their entirety, but what becomes fascinating is how the structure of each informs the other, so that by the second and third we know with absolute certainty that things will end in someone’s blood.
As with Paul Greengrass, Zhangke real interest lies in real-world, authentic, socio-political consequence, cleverly using genre tropes to hook the audience while he slips his larger message in. Beautifully filmed, compelling (though the first and third stories are definitely the most successful), and inevitably bleak, it’s amazing that this is the first film of this director’s to be actually financed by the Chinese government, given it’s devastatingly pessimistic look at the spiritual and moral corrosion of a rapidly expanding super-power, and all those left behind in its wake.

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Wadjda
Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut feature is impossible to separate from the fascinating circumstances of its making: a film about the repression of women’s voices in Saudi culture, made by a woman from within that very culture. And yet, thankfully, the film itself is a small gem of clever screenwriting and compassionate, well observed detail.

No doubt influenced by the neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief, which similarly used a deceptively simple story of a child, a parent, and a bicycle to document the social mores and tensions of its setting —Wadjda essentially tells the story of a spunky 13-year-old girl’s quest to procure a bicycle, in a country where bike-riding —like almost every other activity—is seen as exclusively for men. While to a western viewer, witnessing the repressive force of the entrenched patriarchal system is both shocking and infuriating, Al-Mansour never preaches or rails against her country, but simply shows, through a child’s eyes, the small realities of her world, and the ways that all those within it—especially the women, interestingly—perpetuate its values.

Humane, funny, and never obvious, the film has a light, poetic touch, and a major trump card in its lead actress, who gives a thoroughly charming, complex performance as a young girl trying to reconcile the incoming media messages from Western culture with the constraints of her own society. And while it ends on a sweet, hopeful note, the film earns its optimism through the triumph of its very own existence: a Saudi woman asserting her creative voice despite the odds, and forging the way for others to do the same.

 

TIFF in Review Part Two: Small Wonders

Last week I dove into the six fall movies I saw at the Toronto film festival, including Oscar hopefuls 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and August: Osage County. This week will be devoted to the smaller films—foreign and indie—that came to TIFF seeking distribution( with the notable exception of Asgar Farhadi’s The Past, which had already secured a release for December). Fortunately, as they’re isn’t a dud among them, each one has  been picked up by a US distributor, and will be released sometime on the 2014 film calendar.

     

Can a Song Save Your Life 

John Carney’s follow-up to his micro-budget smash hit Once, was at the center of the largest bidding war at this year’s TIFF, with various distributors negotiating deep into the night immediately following it’s world premiere. The Weinstein company won that battle, and they undoubtedly have a feel-good musical hit on their hands, with a tentative release date set for next summer. It’s a smart move on their part, ideal counter-programming against the onslaught of sequels and blockbusters – and yet I wish I could say I liked the movie more. While undoubtedly charming and uplifting, it’s basically a US remake of Once, with an almost identical blueprint: a down-on-his-luck musician  restores his will to live by recording an album with a younger, talented female emigre – and their connection remains platonic despite the profound influence they have on each other’s lives. Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley are engaging enough, but they are ill-served by a predictable script that repeatedly substitutes musical montages for character development – which would not be so problematic if the songs themselves were anything as raw and authentic as the film portrays them to be. Whereas the songs in Once were genuinely beautiful, this time around they’re slick, borderline-cheesy top 40-ready hits that immediately evaporate from memory, and seem strangely misjudged within the indie-spirit vs. corporate music business theme of the movie’s storyline. It all goes down easily enough, and many will no doubt adore it, but for my taste, it’s a distant, vanilla cry from the gem I hoped it would be. (Acquired by The Weinstein Company, for 2014 release.)  

 

The Selfish Giant 

Clio Barnard’s fiction follow-up to her fascinating documentary The Arbor, is a stunningly crafted realist fable that manages to re-configure Oscar Wilde’s classic children’s fairy tale into a deeply moving story of two teenage boys trying to make money from scrap metal hunting in the bleak landscape of Northern England. Reminiscent of both Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which similarly found poetry in miserable, working class English settings, the film adopts a deceptively meandering, episodic pace as the boys’ friendship is tested by a harsh adult world—exemplified by the Selfish Giant of the title:  the tough, exploitative boss of a large scrap metal yard, who becomes a cruel father-figure for both of them, in very different ways. The two boys, both played by non-actors, are mesmerizing, and together paint one of the most believable screen friendships I’ve ever witnessed. The thick Midlands accents are hard to understand, but it doesn’t matter, as the film tells its story in startling, strangely wondrous images, weaving a slow spell that builds to a devastating conclusion, full of surprising, hard-earned grace. With The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard joins the small but ever-growing ranks of incredibly talented female directors with a highly distinctive artistic voice, and I seriously can’t wait to see what she does next. (Acquired at Cannes by Sundance Selects for VOD and cinema release in 2014.)

   

Bad Words 

Jason Bateman’s directorial debut is an often very funny black comedy about a foul-mouthed 40-year-old man who finds a loophole that allows him to compete with school kids in a national spelling bee contest. And yet, despite venturing into potentially dark territory, the film’s soft heart is never in doubt, and an irritatingly on-the-nose, punch-pulling voice-over prevents it from being more than an effective R-rated laugher, a far sight better than its studio cousins, but lacking the subtext or soul needed to even enter the same league as a Rushmore or Big Lebowski. Perhaps the comparison is unfair (we’re talking major classics after all), but with a few tweaks and some heavier testicles, this could have been something really special, instead of an entertaining but ultimately disposable few hours. It’s a good one to discover on cable, on a plane, or as a weed-assisted rental, where low expectations can turn it into a pleasant surprise rather than anything of lasting value. And having said all that, it’s a worthwhile debut for Bateman, and a vast improvement over his likeable turns in mostly terrible studio fare. (Acquired by Focus Features for a 2014 release.)  

 

The Past 

Asgar Farhadi’s follow-up to the incredible, award-winning A Separation is not quite the masterpiece that film was, but a very, very good film nevertheless, cementing his reputation as one of the most skilled, compassionate storytellers on the foreign film circuit. Set in the suburbs of Paris, what begins as the story of an Iranian man come to sign his French wife’s divorce papers gradually splinters into an examination of secrets and consequence as the truth of a past, hidden event reveals itself piece by piece, touching the lives of everyone that comes into its orbit. The cast is uniformly strong, most notably Berenice Bejo who follows her silent-turn in The Artist with a layered, subtle performance that shows she’s the real deal, and the next great French actress poised for international acclaim. As with his other films, Farhadi is most interested in the complex, multi-faceted nature of truth, and how every participant has their own reasons for doing what they do. He never picks a side, and manages to widen the audience’s sympathies so expertly that it becomes impossible to predict which way the film go, or with whom. Part family drama, part mystery, The Past attains ethical resonance through undiluted, unsentimental compassion for everyone involved, and an endless fascination with the messy entanglements of our human desire to both connect and be validated. And when the ending comes, it ripples outward with a sad, unexpected beauty from the least expected corner of its world. (Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for a limited December 2013 release.)  

 

Under the Skin

Sexy Beast and Birth (savaged on first release but critically re-appraised since) —my expectations for Under the Skin were arguably too high, as I was expecting nothing short of a masterpiece. Way off the deep end of art house cinema, this is not a movie for anyone seeking traditional narrative rules of engagement, as it bravely, obtusely leaps and stumbles to create a new cinematic language in tune with its themes of literal and metaphorical alienation. What story there is centers on Scarlett Johansson’s alien predator as she cruises the streets of Glasgow to pick up horny Scotsmen, who she then takes to a between-the-worlds lair where they sink into an ink-like ocean for some unexplained, presumably alien-benefitting purpose. Withholding any exposition, and defiantly resistant to creating any momentum or pace, Glazer’s thoroughly bizarre and undoubtedly unique film is by turns excruciating and stunning, with endless, poorly filmed sequences through Scottish streets interspersed with mind-blowing scenes that could belong in one of Stanley Kubrick’s dreams. There are a handful of images here that are still burned into my mind, and at the risk of being too literal, it really does get under your skin, but I find myself wishing I could edit my own 40-minute version and cut out the parts that I found myself struggling to stay awake for. Admittedly, it’s a film that suffers at the tail-end of a festival-movie-marathon, and I will certainly revisit it in the future, but I find myself unable to recommend it to all but the most die-hard fans of cult art house cinema, even as I continue to wrestle with my own conflicted feelings toward it. (Acquired by A24 Films for 2014 release.)  

 

  So that’s that for this year’s Toronto reviews. As most who were there will attest to, it was an especially strong year, which  bodes well for the upcoming fall season. And while it’s always impossible to see every great film at TIFF, especially as most are crammed into its first weekend, I’m sorry to have missed Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Richard Ayoade’s The Double, and Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway— each of which I’ve heard great things about. More than anything though, I strongly recommend the Toronto Film Festival for anyone who needs their faith in movies restored, as there’s no medicine for the Multiplex Blues quite like seeing a ton of great, diverse movies with a whole town filled with people who love them. I know It’s enough to fill my geek-tank until spring, at the very least.

TIFF in Review Part One: Fall Movies

Attending any film festival, a common dilemma is whether to go for the upcoming fall movies a few months, or weeks, ahead of release, or whether to pick the more obscure indie/foreign films still awaiting distribution. The advantages of  the former are that there’s nothing quite like seeing a world premiere with a rapt audience and the filmmakers in attendance, while also having the space to formulate one’s own opinion before a consensus is formed (or too many spoilers revealed). The advantage of picking the latter, is the chance of finding diamonds in the rough, and championing them—sometimes frustratingly, to a world that may never get the chance to see what you’re on about. My personal way around this dilemma is to mix it up and pick a smattering of both. And since I’ve just seen 12 movies in five days, I’ve decided to split my reviews accordingly, in two parts.  

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12 Years a Slave

It’s hard to talk about Steve McQueen’s searing, masterful film without reaching deep for every available superlative, and a few more besides. It may not be the first film about slavery, but it feels like the first to treat it with no filter, no safety net, no redemptive catharsis , but as an American holocaust, told entirely from the black perspective. To watch it with an audience is to participate in an act of communal, immersive exorcism, and the element that makes it not just bearable, but transcendent, is the pure, jaw-dropping artistry at every level of its production. The true life tale of Solomon Northup’s Kafkaesque nightmare—kidnapped from his free life and sold into brutal slavery—feels like a major step in healing the wounds of slavery’s past, by allowing us to take collective responsibility as we watch horror turned to exquisite art, without lessening any of its impact.  In a perfect world, it would win every Oscar hands down, but given the Academy’s predilection for unchallenging feel-good entertainment, it doesn’t stand a chance.  Fuck ’em. It’s not just the best film of the year, but one of the best films ever made. And here’s a few of those superlatives to underline my point: Unmissable. Essential. Fearless. Profound. Unforgettable. (Opens in limited release October 18th.)  

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Prisoners

I loved Denis Villeneuve’s last film, Incendies, so I already had high hopes for his first U.S movie, but I was still completely blown away by this epic, harrowing, uncompromisingly dark thriller. Hugh Jackman gives the first performance of his career that I’ve unequivocally loved, full of rage and helplessness as the survivalist father who takes the law into his own hands after his daughter is kidnapped. If that synopsis sounds predictable, rest assured the movie is anything but, following its brilliantly realized characters to a true heart of darkness as it explores big themes (faith, forgiveness, revenge, grief) while twisting the screws of its nail-biting premise to almost unbearable levels of tension and dread. Jake Gyllenhaal is equally revelatory in the role of the jaded but determined cop leading the investigation, as is the entire supporting cast. A brilliant script, brilliantly directed, that joins Seven, Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac in the ranks of the all-time great criminal investigation thrillers that resonate far beyond their storylines. (Opens in wide release Sept. 20th)  

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Labor Day

Jason Reitman’s fifth movie in seven years breaks away from the knowing, arch humor of his previous work (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) and embraces the genre of the “woman’s weepie” with unabashed, uncynical enthusiasm that will alienate many but reward those willing to be swept along by its charms. Set in 1987and awash in a golden-hued nostalgic glow that brings to mind a Wonder Years episode by way of Douglas Sirk, the story is told from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy living alone with his fragile, heartbroken mother (Kate Winslet) as an escaped convict enters their lives, and proves to be the perfect father/partner for each of them. Josh Brolin sells a potentially ridiculous role with rugged real-man charisma and soul, and Reitman ratchets up the emotional tension and release with old-fashioned skill—though my main criticism would be an over-reliance on score, especially during a pie-baking scene that provided unintentional laughter in the screening I attended. Nevertheless, it’s a good film to take your mother to, or to watch alone if you fancy a good cathartic cry, though I would warn away anyone who has zero tolerance for melodrama or sentiment. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)

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Philomena

Another great pick to take your mom to, Stephen Frears’ latest boasts a smart, witty, emotionally satisfying script by Steve Coogan—who in the role of a cynical journalist helping an elderly woman find her long-lost son, may have found the movie that finally sells him to an American audience. His chemistry with Judi Dench, playing the title character, is wonderful, and the story takes some interesting turns into darker territory while always remaining warm, humane and funny. Frears’ direction is solid if uninspired—I always think his films belong on TV rather than on a big screen—but his old-school professionalism is undeniably effective, always finding the right emotional beat in every scene, as well as the laughs. It won’t blow your mind, but it’s good, solid stuff, and easy to recommend, to just about anyone. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)

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Gravity

Wow. Beginning to end, I watched this movie with my jaw hanging on the floor and the back of my brain exploded onto the back of the theatre. It’s so rare to see a big-budget special effects driven movie that is so uniquely an auteur’s vision, and while Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic isn’t the philosophical meditation some hoped it would be, it’s a thrilling, genuinely awe-inducing ride like nothing you’ve ever seen. Evolving his use of long takes—so well-executed in the brilliant, underrated Children of Men—to a mind-boggling extreme (the film’s first take is something like 45 mins long), the astonishing visuals on display are used in the service of a genuinely emotional journey, that sees George Clooney use his charming, comforting presence to ably support Sandra Bullock’s moving, fierce and vulnerable star turn, unlike anything we’ve seen from her to date. Of all the films playing at Toronto, Gravity is most likely the one I will return to most often, just to bask in the wonder of its technical achievements, and surrender to its immersive window into zero-g existence, with our beautiful, distant planet circling below. Wonderful. (Opens in wide release Oct. 4th)  

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August: Osage County

This much-hyped adaptation of Tracy Letts’ excellent play, is a mixed, though mostly successful bag. It’s an actors’ showcase through and through, with a cast to die for, and material that’s hard to screw up—boasting great characters, rich, blackly comic dialogue, and enough dramatic turns to fill an entire season of an American soap opera. Meryl Streep acts with a capital A, and she’s unsurprisingly impressive as the monstrous matriarch of a large extended family, but it’s the quieter turns that really stick in the memory—especially Julianne Nicholson as the quiet middle sister, and Chris Cooper as the benign but strong willed uncle. There are numerous meaty scenes for all the players to chew on (everyone gets their big emotional moment under the sun), and it’s a thrill to see Julia Roberts and Streep go head to head, most effectively in the film’s brilliant center-piece, a post-funeral dinner that spirals way out of control. Unfortunately, the film’s impact is dulled by a pace that lags thereafter, and what seems to have been a deliberate decision to soften the play for a wider audience (namely through the amber cinematography, classic Oscar-movie film-making, and obtrusive, somewhat treacly score), as John Well’s fine but uninspired direction never lets the material soar as high or dark as it wants it to go. Still, a very entertaining, very watchable few hours, that while not as great as it could have been, is most definitely worth your time. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)  

And that’s it for the big studio releases. Up next: Iranian immigrants in Paris, scrap-metal hunting kids in Northern England, broke musicians in Manhattan, teenage punk chicks in Stockholm, and foul-mouthed adults entering spelling bee competitions, as we round out the films that came to Toronto seeking distribution, and a place on next year’s movie calendar.