What will prove to be stronger?  The power of hatred or the will to live?

What will prove to be stronger? The power of hatred or the will to live?

The 86th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2013.  The nominations were announced on 16 January 2014 and the awards were held on 2 March 2014.

Best Picture:  12 Years a Slave

  • Gravity
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • American Hustle
  • Nebraska
  • Philomena
  • Her
  • Captain Phillips
  • Dallas Buyers Club

Most Surprising Omission:  Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Inside Llewyn Davis

Rank (out of 86) Among Best Picture Years:  #8

note:  If they had nominated Inside Llewyn Davis instead of Dallas Buyers Club, this year would have been #3.

The Race:

There was a festival in Cannes but it didn’t have much impact.  There were summer blockbusters but the Academy didn’t seem to notice.  Because, for the first time since the Best Picture nominees expanded in 2009, all of the nominees were going to end up as post-Labor Day releases.  It would really begin, as was becoming customary, with Toronto and only one film that opened before that (Blue Jasmine) would even be a serious contender for Best Picture.  Four of the eventual Best Picture nominees and another contender would play at Toronto, including the eventual winner (for the fourth straight year).  But while Blue Jasmine had opened in the summer and Rush would open in September, both of them contenders, not a single nominee would be released until October.

The Oscar race would really begin on 4 October with the release of Gravity.  The massive box office haul and tremendous critical reception would immediately move it to the top of the Oscar list to compete with 12 Years a Slave, which had wowed audiences in Toronto.  But, while Captain Phillips, also released in October, got good reviews and solid box office, it was clear that the biggest contenders against Gravity and Slave were the films that no yet had seen, because they hadn’t been finished yet.  Those films were American Hustle, which was planned for a Christmas release, but with an eye towards awards and The Wolf of Wall Street, the 5th collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio (three of which had been nominated for Picture and one of which had won), which was coming down to the wire as to whether it would even be finished in time for its Christmas Day release, let alone early enough to be screened for critics and become a factor in the awards.

The New York Film Critics would kick things off, giving Best Director to Steve McQueen for Slave, but surprising everyone by giving the first Best Picture award of the year to American Hustle.  This was followed soon after by the National Board of Review giving their Picture and Director awards to Her, the new, odd love story from Spike Jonze and the LA Film Critics giving Best Director to Gravity and splitting Picture between Gravity and Her.

The Golden Globe nominations then came and showed that this was a year of powerhouse comedies.  The five nominated films were American Hustle, Her, Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska (the newest film from two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne which had been getting great buzz since Cannes) and Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film that also happened to be the best-reviewed film of the year.  The dramas included Gravity, Slave and Captain Phillips (all also nominated for Director), but the other two nominees weren’t considered to be as serious of contenders – Philomena, the true life story of a woman searching for her son and Rush, the true life story of a racing rivalry in the seventies.

The other major critics groups didn’t narrow the field much.  Slave won Picture and Director from Boston and Chicago (with Wolf taking 2nd place at Boston, a clear case of having been seen too late, screening for most of the Boston critics just the day before with many not seeing it).  The final critics group, coming after all the major guilds, would be the National Society of Film Critics, giving their Picture and Director awards to Inside Llewyn Davis.

Davis needed it at this point, because it had been passed over by all three major guilds.  The Directors Guild had gone with Steve McQueen (Slave), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) and their old favorite, Marty.  The same five were also up for the Producers Guild, along with Her, Nebraska and three other films that were contenders for Best Picture: Dallas Buyers Club (another true story, this one of a man battling with AIDS), Saving Mr Banks (yet another true story, this one the making of Mary Poppins) and Blue Jasmine.  It was once again difficult to get any ideas from the Writers Guild, as Slave and Philomena were ineligible and Gravity’s script was considered to be the weak point in the film.  All of the PGA nominees were also nominated for the all-important Broadcast Film Critics except Blue Jasmine, which was passed over for Inside Llewyn Davis.

The Globe awards themselves failed to clarify what was likely to happen, as Best Picture – Drama went to Slave, Best Picture – Comedy to American Hustle, Best Director to Gravity and Best Screenplay to Her.

The Results:  American Hustle and Gravity had the most nominations with 10, with Slave right behind with 9.  Wolf of Wall Street and Nebraska had both scored Picture and Director nominations.  The other Picture nominations went to Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, Captain Phillips and Her.  But the race was far from decided.

It quickly became popular to declare that Slave would win Best Picture and Gravity would win Best Director.  This was supported by the awards that continued to flow their way.  At both the BAFTAs and the BFCA Gravity would take home Director but the night would end with the biggest award going to Slave.  Gravity would win the DGA while the two films would split the PGA.  But American Hustle was staying alive, winning Original Screenplay at the BAFTAs and the Best Ensemble award at the Screen Actors Guild.

On the big night itself, heading into the Best Picture award, Gravity already had 7 Oscars – more than all the other Best Picture nominees combined.  It already had more Oscars than any non-Best Picture winner in Oscar history except Cabaret.  Yet, the well-predicted results came true: 12 Years a Slave would win Best Picture, while Gravity would make do with its 7 Oscars, including Best Director and American Hustle would become the third film in 12 years to go 0 for 10.

twelve_years_a_slave

Not my #1 film of the year, but powerful powerful stuff.

12 Years a Slave

  • Director:  Steve McQueen
  • Writer:  John Ridley  (from the book by Solomon Northup)
  • Producer:  Brad Pitt  /  Dede Gardner  /  Jeremy Kleiner  /  Steve McQueen  /  Anthony Katagas
  • Stars:  Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson
  • Studio:  Fox Searchlight
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor  (Ejiofor), Supporting Actor  (Fassbender), Supporting Actress  (Nyong’o), Editing, Production Design, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  410
  • Length:  133 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   18 October 2013
  • Box Office Gross:  $55.48 mil  (#64  –  2013)
  • Metacritic Rating:  97
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #200  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  180

I have been asked a number of times over the years why I am not a fan of The Kite Runner, a book that has won widespread readership and acclaim.  My primary objection to the book is this: the main villain of the book is a member of the Taliban.  However, this particular person barely qualifies as a person – he seems to embody the very elements of evil.  This distracts from him as a representative of the Taliban.  We don’t just have a villain, but a man who encompasses all of these traits of pure evil.  Surely the Taliban itself is awful enough that the evil does not need to be exaggerated.

Which brings me back to 12 Years a Slave, which is trickier, because the character that Michael Fassbender plays is based on a real person who really did live, who really did believe that these men were his property, that beating them was the way to get more production out of them and that he could do with their lives as he wished.  But that does not make the situation any less complicated, though the film tends to portray it much more in terms of black and white.

None of that is to say that I don’t think 12 Years a Slave is a tremendous film or that Fassbender’s performance is any the lesser for not having any shades of grey.  But perhaps that, along with the equally odious characters played by Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano (so clearly designed to be contrasted against the benevolence of Brad Pitt with the helpless harmlessness of Benedict Cumberbatch treading a middle ground) is part of why I didn’t find it to be among the very top of the year.  There was certainly nothing lacking in any of the acting – in the magnificent performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor or the strong supporting performances across the board by Fassbender, Ly’ongo, Sarah Paulsen or Benedict Cumberbatch (Pitt’s the weak link in the cast, but he isn’t in the film for long).  And while it has magnificent acting and strong costumes and sets, it has none of the artistry in the film itself that Gravity or Llewyn or Wolf have.

If nothing else, this is an important film and one to be remembered.  There have been two few times in film history when the true barbarism of slavery was put onscreen for all to behold.  And it took a British director, British writer and British actor to bring it all to life.  As a work of art, it is a great one, if somewhat imperfect (I, for one, couldn’t stand the score and constantly found it taking me out the film and thought Pitt’s performance not only pretty bad, but also pointless – there was no need to have him in there making the argument against slavery to Fassbender, a tremendously stupid thing under the circumstances).  But, as a film that can stand the test of time and be shown in classrooms to say, yes, this is what the horrors were like and this is why we fought the war, well then, it’s a great film.

A reason we watch films on the big screen.

A reason we watch films on the big screen.

Gravity

  • Director:  Alfonso Cuarón
  • Writer:  Alfonso Cuarón  /  Jonás Cuarón
  • Producer:  Alfonso Cuarón  /  David Heyman
  • Stars:  Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
  • Studio:  Warner Bros
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actress, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Production Design, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  465
  • Length:  91 min
  • Genre:  Sci-Fi
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:   4 October 2013
  • Box Office Gross:  $256.35 mil  (#6  –  2013)
  • Metacritic Rating:  96
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #56  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actress, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  515

I called Veronica coming out of Gravity and told her two things.  The first was that this was the single most suspenseful film I had ever seen and I have seen all of Hitchcock’s work at least twice.  The second was that I would be a bit later because I was running by Newbury Comics to pick up the soundtrack.

Now, the point of attack against Gravity has been it script, and it’s true that it doesn’t make my list of nominees.  But that’s because of the strength of a year that includes Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, American Hustle, Her and Blue Jasmine, not because of any perceived weaknesses in the script.  I would take this script any day over Crash or Little Miss Sunshine, both of which won the Oscar.  The script gets marginalized for two reasons: because the craft of the film is so overwhelmingly impressive that you think less about the script, and because there is so little dialogue in the film that people mistake that for a lack of storytelling.  But it’s a smart, well-realized piece of storytelling, giving us marvelously in-depth characters, a riveting story and something to actually care about.

With that out of the way, what more do I need to say?  Do I need to say that this film is a technical marvel and is groundbreaking in the same kind of way that 2001, Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings films were?  Hopefully, if you saw the film then you already know that.  It won seven Oscars and it absolutely deserved every single one of them.  What it does with its sound and cinematography is simply incredible.  The way the film is put together through the editing makes people not realize how well-written it is.  It has visual effects that deserved a special Oscar beyond the regular one.  And the music may be the single best score written for a film in the last decade, building up to three pieces that are so good that they sent me directly off to buy it, bring it home, and listen to it.

Then there is the story itself.  I wasn’t certain how I felt about the film watching the constant commercials, seeing Dr. Stone hurling off into space and failing to reach out and be pulled to safety.  I was wondering if it was giving away too much of the story.  But then I watched the film, the middle of a long day of sitting in theaters, and I realized precisely how things unfolded.  And I realized that it wasn’t just the story that was drawing me in – it was precisely the way the technology is utilized in telling the story.  We see the silence and darkness of space and we can see what has drawn these characters up into its cold embrace.  We watching the dramatic events unfold, and soon it becomes painfully obvious what is going to happen.

All of this, of course, hinges on the performance of Sandra Bullock.  Yes, George Clooney is a key character, and is quite good.  But this is Bullock’s show all the way, from start to finish, and if she had given anything like the performance she won her undeserved Oscar for, then this film would never have succeeded.  But she reaches in and finds a performance far beyond compare to anything she had even hinted at before and we root for, not because she’s the character on-screen, but because she is this character on-screen.

After that, it’s just a question of hurtling along towards the conclusion.  And through it all, we watch a character who has grown in front of us.  She could not grasp that hand when it was reaching for her the first time, and yet she managed to hold on in the end just the same.  We watch as the film moves towards the only conclusion it can possibly have (if you wanted any other conclusion then the depths of your cynicism repels even me and if you thought there might be any other conclusion then your grasp of the drama of storytelling is considerably lacking) and we look in in desperation, the same desperation in Dr. Stone’s face as she keeps reaching, that last desperate reach for life and air.  And that brilliant music brings us to that fateful step and we know we are where we need to be.

The best collaborators working today do it again.

The best collaborators working today do it again.

The Wolf of Wall Street

  • Director:  Martin Scorsese
  • Writer:  Terence Winter  (from the book The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort)
  • Producer:  Leonardo DiCaprio  /  Emma Tillinger Koskoff  /  Joey McFarland  /  Martin Scorsese
  • Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner, Margot Robbie
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  180 min
  • Genre:  Crime  (True Crime)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   25 December 2013
  • Box Office Gross:  $116.46 mil  (#29  –  2013)
  • Metacritic Rating:  75
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #59  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Editing, Cinematography, Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  315

I saw The Wolf of Wall Street, Gravity and 12 Years of Slave on the day of the Oscar nominations.  I wish I had seen them in reverse order.  It was so brutal to end the day with Slave.  I would have much rather ended it with the three hours of brutal satire on the modern world that Marty gives us.  I watched the film, thinking of all the criticism that had been thrown at the film, how it celebrated the excess of its main characters, and I thought, either those people have no sense of humor whatsoever or they don’t understand satire.  Or maybe my sense of humor just aligns with the man whose last comedy was After Hours.

In some ways, this film isn’t made for me at all.  I have no use for Wall Street.  I have never cared about money, never cared about stocks, find the whole Wall Street culture to be reckless and ridiculous and find many of the people involved in the business to be morally reprehensible.  Aside from the facts of the case, there is also some of the talent involved.  I have never liked Jonah Hill, am not a fan of Matthew McConaughy and I don’t find Margot Robbie to be as attractive as clearly I’m meant to find her.  That said, Hill is very good in the film (thought not as good as he was in his much more restrained performance in Moneyball), McConaughy gives a performance that may actually be better than his Oscar-winning performance in the same year and hearkens back to the talent that burned so bright in his small role in Lone Star and then was shoved back beneath the surface for most of the following 15 years and Robbie is perfectly cast as the exact type of woman that Jordan Belfort would find so overwhelmingly desirable.

Then there are the ways in which the film was made for me.  It is directed by Martin Scorsese, not only one of the greatest directors of all-time, but one of my favorite.  It stars Leonardo DiCaprio.  Back in 2008, before Shutter Island or Wolf, I put their collaborations as among the best of all-time and slated to move up.  Today they would probably be in the top 5.  It gives three hours of a brilliant film that absolutely skewers everything about the Wall Street lifestyle that I hate, showing what worthless people all of those involved were and how much they brought on their own suffering.  From the out-of-control lifestyles (the two different views on Belfort’s return to his mansion when completely strung out are brilliant) to their out-of-control egos (the fight over the pithy argument in the stripmall parking lot that helps to bring the whole thing down is perfectly telegraphed and also brilliant).  But how much DiCaprio perfectly inhabits the character of such an odious man like Belfort, so capable of bringing in money and so utterly a moral vacuum who can’t get his ego out of his way (perhaps the best speech in the film is the goodbye speech which turns into the I’m not going speech which is so hilarious and stupid at the same time).

Are there really people who can watch this film and think that it’s celebrating the excesses of these morons?  (As I have been writing this, I keep hearing Cake in my brain, singing “Excess ain’t rebellion”.)  Do they really not understand how much this film skewers all of those involved?  The only possible people who wouldn’t be able to get this are either those who worship at the altar of the all-mighty dollar, or, who think the man whose films have always been more about artistic brilliance than commercial success might possibly worship at the altar of the all-mighty dollar.  Either way, it’s their loss for not realizing how good DiCaprio is, how smart and funny the script is, how, once again, brilliant the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker is.

All four acting categories for the second straight year.  A hell of a thing from David O. Russell.

All four acting categories for the second straight year. A hell of a thing from David O. Russell.

American Hustle

  • Director:  David O. Russell
  • Writer:  Eric Warren Singer  /  David O. Russell
  • Producer:  Charles Roven  /  Richard Suckle  /  Megan Ellison  /  Jonathan Gordon
  • Stars:  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  325
  • Length:  138 min
  • Genre:  Crime  (True Crime)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   13 December 2013
  • Box Office Gross:  $149.52 mil  (#17  –  2013)
  • Metacritic Rating:  90
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #83  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  335

American Hustle is a simultaneous example of both how sometimes the Academy gets it just right and how they get it totally wrong.  Best Picture?  Bingo.  Director and Screenplay?  Yep.  All four acting categories?  Well done.  Choosing to overlook it in favor of Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger for Makeup?  Are these people complete and utter morons?

David O. Russell has gone through some interesting times as a filmmaker.  His first few films were big hits on the indie circuit but didn’t do much in terms of box office or in terms of awards, outside of the Indie Spirits.  With Three Kings, he made one of the best films of 1999, a film that should have established both him and George Clooney at the Oscars and yet get neither of them anywhere.  It got so ridiculous that one film Nailed, never even got finished.  But, then, in 2010, he had a reversal.  In four years he would make three films, all three of them earning Picture and Director nominations at the Oscars and combining for an astounding 11 acting nominations.  But, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, while very good, weren’t really among the very best films of the year and Russell didn’t really belong among the Best Director nominees.  With American Hustle, however, everything has finally alligned.  Russell belongs on the list and he’s on it.

American Hustle does, quite well, what novels have been able to do for years (Isabelle Allende’s The House of the Spirits immediately springs to mind) but which often is an artistic failure when done in a film: first-person narration from more than one character.  Does it work in Hustle because each character is so well-crafted that they though they initially seem like caricatures, they in fact are real people whose personality traits border on caricature?  Or does it work because the lead performances are all so finely honed that this trick, which normally leads to fiasco, actually works perfectly to help expand the viewpoint of the film.

I don’t really know where to begin with this film.  Do I begin with the look and feel of it, so perfectly true to the 70’s, with the music and the clothes and the hair (oh, Christian Bale’s hair, which was deserving of an Oscar on its own).  Do I begin with the script, which gives us the insights of one character, then another and allows us to sympathize with nearly all of them, except the one who is supposedly doing something for his country?  Do I begin with the performances, all the magnificent performances that actually deserved their Oscar nominations, even in a year as stacked for Actor and Actress as this one?  Or should I just mention the neat little touch that Russell provides back to his previous two films.  The first one, in which Bale won an Oscar and Adams was nominated, had the two of them despising each other while here they are lovers.  The second one had Cooper and Lawrence as a couple, while here they barely interact and DeNiro was playing Cooper’s father while in this film he is a palpable menace that would kill Cooper if he knew who he was.

All of this works together to the benefit of this film.  It feels startlingly original, almost feels like it came from that period that has been so mythologized in the film world, the seventies.  And yet, with its tales of corruption, of deception, of greed, of sex, it could also be a story straight from today.  It just proves that Russell really has been a director worth noticing and it’s good that things are going well for him.

The long journey back home is often more painful than you can imagine.

The long journey back home is often more painful than you can imagine.

Nebraska

  • Director:  Alexander Payne
  • Writer:  Bob Nelson
  • Producer:  Albert Berger  /  Ron Yerxa
  • Stars:  Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
  • Studio:  Paramount Vantage
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  225
  • Length:  110 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   15 November 2013
  • Box Office Gross:  $17.64 mil  (#117  –  2013)
  • Metacritic Rating:  86
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #110  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography
  • Nighthawk Points:  285

I planned to begin this with an anecdote, but in many ways it is too personal to actually tell.  But this story reminded me of it and it reminded of something else which covers the same area.  There are reasons why some people leave and they never look back.  There are reasons why some people are incapable of leaving.  There is often a gulf between those two and that space in between is often the measure of who we are.

This film reminds of those type of people, many of them close to me, who never look back and just keep going.  And then there is me, and in a little ways, the me in this story is David Grant, the son looking around the town where his father was born and raised, the town where he was born and yet wasn’t raised.  He’s anxious to look back and understand not just where he came from, but where his father came from, where his history is.  That’s why there are pictures of my son on the slide at Albany High, a block from where I lived as a kid.  That’s why I have a picture with Thomas at Mission San Diego, where my family came into California over 200 years ago.

This is a film that is filled with heartfelt real characters at every turn.  It looks at them with considerable humor and with more than considerable sympathy.  The characters act in ways that are utterly consistent and yet can also find ways to surprise us.  It is a piece of absolutely brilliant real writing.

At the heart of it, of course, is a performance from Bruce Dern that he always seemed to be capable of but, until now, had never really given on-screen.  It is tragic, it is funny, it is absolutely true-to-life at all times and it evokes some empathy, some sympathy and considerable awe.  For months, the Dern performance was all you heard about this film – that it would probably contend for Screenplay and was a strong possibility for Cinematography with good chances for Picture and Director, but that it was a shoe-in for a nomination for Actor, with a good chance to win.  And Dern’s performance was everything that everyone said it was (no, he didn’t win the Nighthawk, but this is one of those times where I really feel like calling a tie because it almost comes down a coin-flip between DiCaprio and Dern).

But all the talk of the Dern performance did a bit of a disservice to the film.  Not just because it’s so well-written.  Not just because it’s such a great overall film.  But because in many ways the beating heart of the film comes not from Dern, but from the other two characters forced to deal with his ridiculous decision to head to Lincoln in the hopes of getting the money he’ll never get.  One of those performances was from June Squibb, who was memorable, but was in so little of Payne’s About Schmidt and here is brilliant in every moment she’s in, usually having the best lines.  She first appears with “You dumb cluck,” coming straight from her mouth and her scene in the cemetery is probably the film’s funniest (both in terms of her line at the grave but also her comment on the religious segregation) and her scene in the backyard, berating all of her husband’s family might be the most heartfelt.  But the awards groups started to notice Squibb and in the end she received her much deserved Oscar nomination.  There was no such luck for Will Forte, who was pushed in the Best Supporting Actor category when he really was the other lead in the film.  Without him the film goes nowhere and he is probably on-screen and has more lines than any other character.  It’s his father who wants to make the trip, but it’s Forte’s journey to take and he’s perfect every step of the way.  In fact, other than Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and Rushmore this might be the best performance ever given on-screen by a former SNL cast member.

And even all of this does a sort of disservice to all the other cast members, all of whom are so perfectly cast, from Stacy Keach as Dern’s former business partner and Bob Odenkirk as Forte’s brother.  The acting, like everything else in the film, is always perfectly done.  The film is a comedy, but it has plenty of touching and colder moments (like Dern and Forte’s conversation in the bar).  But at its heart, it is always beating with subtle humor and warmth.  In other words, it’s an Alexander Payne film.

Perhaps the most moving film of the year.

Perhaps the most moving film of the year.

Philomena

  • Director:  Stephen Frears
  • Writer:  Steve Coogan  /  Jeff Pope  (from the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith)
  • Producer:  Gabrielle Tana  /  Steve Coogan  /  Tracey Seaward
  • Stars:  Steve Coogan, Judi Dench
  • Studio:  The Weinstein Company
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  150
  • Length:  95 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:   22 November 2013
  • Box Office Gross:  $36.83 mil  (#81  –  2013)
  • Metacritic Rating:  76
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #185  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actress
  • Nighthawk Points:  75

I suppose there isn’t a world of difference between Martin Sixsmith and myself.  He’s been a journalist and worked in politics, both things that I considered strongly.  He has a passion for both politics and history, and hell, my job is working on political history.  He’s smart and he likes to talk.  And he’s not really interested in human interest.  He ended up taking a surprising journey and writing a book about it.  It’s the kind of book I’m very unlikely to pick up and if I heard it on WBUR in the morning I would change the station.  But, watching this film, I was moved immensely.  So, is it the story?  Is it the way that Sixsmith told it?  Or is that combination of the story, the story-teller and the people behind this film, namely Steve Coogan, Stephen Frears and Judi Dench?  I’m thinking it’s the latter.

Now that the story has been told and the film has been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and Philomena Lee herself has been flown around the world with the film (even appearing at the Oscars) how much do I really need to describe the story?  Philomena had a child when young, was pushed into a convent by her parents and the nuns gave away her child, considering it her penance for her sins.  Then, 50 years later, she was determined to seek him out and was joined on this journey by a man who could actually help her and that brought them to America.  In the end, the film is not about their discovery, of course, but about their experience and it provides the setting for the most moving scene in any film of the year.

Martin is sitting on his computer, sorting through his information and looking online when he discovers Philomena’s son, there on the screen while she is getting something to eat.  He looks at the description and then he gets to those horrible words at the bottom of the screen.  When Philomena returns, she can see it in his eyes.  First, there is the thrill of discovery.  And then she realizes what she is really seeing in Martin’s eyes, without even having to be told.  In the end, there will be more told about what happened and there will be more pain before Philomena can find any peace in this process.  But it is that scene, as first one, then the other, realize what has come of their search, that is the true defining moment of the film, handled with grace and class, and it works so well because of the performances of those two actors, Steve Coogan and Judi Dench.  Dench would receive all the awards attention and deservedly so, as she is magnificent (though, in the same year with Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine, destined to win nothing for it).  But Coogan, without a nomination from anyone, gives a performance that is better than the one that would actually go on to win Best Actor.  Dench is the beating heart of the film.  But in some ways this is Martin’s journey just as much as it is Philomena’s and it is Coogan who lets us see that.

Then we come to the end, easily the most difficult scenes in the film to watch.  “I wouldn’t forgive you,” Martin Sixsmith tells the nun who knew the secret – the one who wouldn’t find a way to bring together a dying son and his mother, a mother who was forced to give him up while still a teenager because the Catholic Church decided that it was the proper penance for her sins.  I wouldn’t forgive her either and I might have been less kind than Martin in that scene.  And yet, Philomena Lee, handed over to the convent by her father as a teen, forced to hand away her child, separated for 50 years, and only now learning the truth about what has become of him, does forgive her.  And there is the gulf between them – the different ways in which we look at life, and the basis for this remarkable film.  I am Martin and I do not have to forgive those things I deem unforgivable.  But Philomena, ingrained with the teachings of her church, has perhaps learned the lessons of the New Testament better than those who taught her, and she knows what it means to forgive.  And there, perhaps, is the true measure of how remarkable a woman she is.

I guess this what I would except from a Spike Jonze love story.

I guess this what I would except from a Spike Jonze love story.

Her

  • Director:  Spike Jonze
  • Writer:  Spike Jonze
  • Producer:  Megan Ellison  /  Spike Jonze  /  Vincent Landay
  • Stars:  Joaquin Pheonix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Scarlett Johanssen
  • Studio:  Warner Bros
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Production Design, Original Song
  • Oscar Points:  185
  • Length:  120 min
  • Genre:  Comedy (Romantic)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   18 December 2013
  • Box Office Gross:  $25.29 mil  (#100  –  2013)
  • Metacritic Rating:  90
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #9  (year)  /  #210  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  65

Her is a fascinating film.  But I sat there watching it and wondered exactly where it was going to go.  Like so many films that begin with an amazing concept it was still going to have decide what it was going to do with that concept.  In the end, it went about where I expected it to go – it could only go so far with the concept after all, and then it retreated back towards, well, if not real life, at least some semblance of it.

That the film is, in several ways, a standard romantic comedy with a truly bizarre concept at the heart of it, isn’t so remarkable.  That it does so many of the things is really the more remarkable.  Lots of films have been made based around a concept and they often aren’t very good because the concept is the key to the film and once you’re past that, there’s nothing left.  This film works because of what it surrounds the concept with.

It surrounds us with certain things that we might expect.  It has Rooney Mara as a bit of a hardass, doing what she’s done in films like Social Network, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Side Effects.  It shows that if Scarlett Johanssen wasn’t an actress she might be the best phone sex operator ever, and she gives what might be her best performance in years without ever appearing on-screen.  It reminds us that technology is becoming more and more part of our lives and we must find a way to live with that.  And it establishes that once again Amy Adams can slide from role to role and is always good in all of them, no matter how much they differ.

But then there are the things we might not expect.  Like the odd job of writing letters for someone else.  Or the somewhat futuristic production design that earned an Oscar nomination not for being far-flung, like with most fantastic science-fiction films, but for finding just little ways to push this a bit into the future.  But, perhaps most significantly, it finds a way to make Joaquin Pheonix, one of the most talented and strangest actors of his generation, be completely likable and sympathetic.  That’s one hell of a feat.

Tom Hanks returns to form and the Academy decides to skip him.

Tom Hanks returns to form and the Academy decides to skip him.

Captain Phillips

  • Director:  Paul Greengrass
  • Writer:  Billy Ray  (from the book A Captain’s Duty by Richard Phillips)
  • Producer:  Scott Rudin  /  Dana Brunetti  /  Michael De Luca
  • Stars:  Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Editing, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  185
  • Length:  134 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:   11 October 2013
  • Box Office Gross:  $107.10 mil  (#32  –  2013)
  • Metacritic Rating:  83
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #19  (year)  /  #270  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor, Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  50

Captain Phillips was nominated for Best Picture, which wasn’t much of a surprise.  It was passed over for Best Director, which was somewhat surprising, but more disappointing, as Paul Greengrass is a very talented director and he does a very good job here (though, not one of the five best in my opinion, clearly).  Tom Hanks was passed over for Best Actor (both by me and the Academy), not because of any deficit in his performance but because this is quite frankly a very stacked year.  But, sitting there, watching the film, I was most surprised at the nomination for Best Editing.  And that previous sentence was written right after watching the film, and before it won the ACE.  So, clearly there are people who feel that the editing is the strength of the film.  The script, as well, given the WGA.  And yet, to me, those were two of the bigger problems of the film.

This is a suspenseful film.  We wonder not what is going to happen to Captain Phillips himself (after all, he became famous for surviving this ordeal), but what will happen to Muse, the leader of the Somali pirates that have taken Phillips hostage, and how this will all resolve itself.  Muse is a pirate, a man who takes people’s lives for hostage and is willing to kill if necessary.  But by beginning with Muse’s life on land, we get at least a glimpse of understanding of why he has taken this route, why he feels this is the best option for a future.  Hell, even a quick bullet might be better than the options back on land in Somalia.  We wonder if he will make it out of this alive and whether he deserves to.  He has some brains, he has leadership, but in the end, he is a man who takes hostages for money.

It doesn’t take all that long into the film for Phillips to end up in the lifeboat with the pirates.  But what happens afterwards feels like an eternity.  We have the Navy arrive, we have the SEALs arrive, we have the attempted escape and we have the long, protracted scene in which Muse is on the American vessel, thinking he is making a deal, when really the rescue is underway.  And it rather skillfully cuts at that point between all the action.  But, oh god, it takes so damn long.  Even watching the film on DVD, I couldn’t stop looking at the timer, wondering, how much longer is all of this going to take?  Greengrass skillfully directs all the action, but it seems like the film was just over-edited and what they really needed to do was cut out a good 20 minutes.  They clearly just wanted to cram too much into the film and that began with the script and ended with the editing.  It’s a very good film, with a very good performance from Hanks.  But it possibly could have been a great film.

Looks like AIDS can be a subject for a Warner-esque biopic.

Looks like AIDS can be a subject for a Warner-esque biopic.

Dallas Buyers Club

  • Director:  Jean-Marc Vallée
  • Writer:  Craig Borten  /  Melisa Wallack
  • Producer:  Robbie Brenner  /  Rachel Winter
  • Stars:  Matthew McConaughy, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
  • Studio:  Focus Features
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor, Editing, Hair and Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  265
  • Length:  117 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:   1 November 2013
  • Box Office Gross:  $26.88 mil  (#96  –  2013)
  • Metacritic Rating:  84
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #33  (year)  /  #330  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  40

On the other hand, I don’t know if Dallas Buyers Club could have been a great film.  It’s not a bad film – far from it.  It’s a good film, in the higher range of the ***.  But, I think of films like The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola.  Those Warners biopics from the 30’s told the true story of a life, or as true as the movies ever get anyway, combining some fictional elements at times, combining characters, but essentially telling a real story.  Absolute fidelity wasn’t the point.  Telling the story of a character who was worth having his story told was the point.  The films often were well-made and the acting was often quite good.  But the writing was often over-rated; there was rarely anything exceptional about the straight forward story telling.  And there, in an essence, is Dallas Buyers Club.

Now, you can see that McConaughy does not make my list of Nighthawk nominees, in spite of his Oscar.  But, as I already said in my Year in Film, while I consider his award the worst pick of the Oscars, that’s not because it’s a bad choice, but the weakest choice in a year of mostly pretty right choices.  To me, there were four choices for Best Actor that were a step above the rest – DiCaprio, Dern, Ejiofor and Oscar Isaac.  Then, in the next group, there’s a whole bunch without a whole lot of difference between them, all of them from Best Picture nominees – Bale, Hanks, Phoenix, Coogan and McConaughy.  If it’s not as good a choice as many in the last decade, it’s still way better than Denzel Washington for Training Day or Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful.  And while Jared Leto is not my choice, he is among my nominees and he gives a performance far beyond any that he had done on film before.  And even Jennifer Garner, who has mostly just coasted for a while now gives her best performance in years.

But this is really a by-the-numbers “true story” film.  It gives us a bit of a prologue before the film really begins that sets up the action.  Then it really starts with a bang – in this case, the revelation that Ron Woodruff has AIDS and is unlikely to live for long.  And then it follows his story through the years, gives a nice villain of a doctor to oppose him to provide some conflict, provides another character who he will react against and then eventually come to trust in the form of Leto and in the end, while he will of course, die (they change a lot of things in Hollywood, but this isn’t one of them generally), it will also show he much he lived and how much he grew in the process.  It’s Hollywood, after all.  It’s a perfectly fine film with very good performances at its heart.  But really?  Nominated instead of Inside Llewyn Davis or Blue Jasmine?  Really?

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