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2015 in review – You had us worried there for a bit

2015 best of

There was a moment when it looked like 2015 would be a pretty miserable year for cinema. A good few moments, to be honest. Battling through my final semester of college, my film viewing was restricted, and it wasn’t until May that I saw the first of the films to make my Top 20 of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road, if you’re asking).

Highly rated horrors It Follows and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night proved to be effective diversions that thoroughly failed to live up to the hyperbolic heights of the Film Twitter opinion machine. Furious 7 was a delightful (and dumb, but delightful) way to spend my birthday and a night away from my thesis, but that franchise continues to move away from the success of Fast Five. After Mad Max summer descended into a farce of blockbusters: the paint-by-nostalgia monstrosity that was Jurassic World, the lopsidedly bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Roland Emmerich-lite San Andreas.

It was well into autumn before things picked up for me. Some early triumphs from the year made their ways to Netflix, and by then I was working on a project at the Museum of Modern Art, where keeping up to date with the better film releases became little more than a matter of staying late after work. In so many ways 2015 ended a lot better than it began.

It was Star Wars that sealed the deal. Not my favourite film of the year (in fact you’ll see it absent from the list below – but it was a close cut), The Force Awakens proved to have that little bit of magic that has been missing for all too long, a film the world can absorb the hype of that then manages to live up to expectations and be a genuinely terrific film. I saw a late screening opening night, and regardless of reservations, I left the cinema more charged than I can remember being in years.

There were, as always, dabbles in film history to charge me also. Painfully overdue, I finally viewed Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, which lived up to the expectations of that teenager who caught three minutes of White on the TV so many years ago. At the cinema, I caught some real masterpieces for the first time: The Naked Spur, A Star Is Born (1954), The Masque of the Red Death, Fires on the Plain, the five-hour cut of Until the End of the World, Touki Bouki, Lonesome, and a 3D screening of the delirious Kiss Me Kate. Nothing compared to Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which stole my heart and exhausted my mind at MoMA in November, and instantly catapulted itself into the list of very greatest films I have ever seen.

Knowing 2015 would be a busy year, my annual movie challenge was intentionally a light one. Spying an obvious blind spot in my film knowledge – Bollywood – I took to forcing myself to watch one (long) feature a month. I only scraped the surface of course, but I’ve developed an understanding of and passion for this major branch of Indian cinema, its flamboyance, its love of twists and hatred of subtext. I watched essential classics including Zanjeer, Mother India, and Mughal-e-Azam, as well as recent hits like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and 3 Idiots, and even contemporary madness like Dhoom, Dhoom 2, and Enthiran. I’ll be watching more in future, and I can’t recommend enough that film fans who have yet to dip their toes in Bollywood streams take care of that, and see what a sixth of people on earth considers mainstream cinema.

So on to the films of the year. As always I missed a few things. Beasts of No Nation, despite being right there on Netflix, never got seen. Clouds of Sils Maria, Bridge of Spides, Magic Mike XXL, and Creed similarly got missed. Some lauded films were appreciated, but fell short for me, like Straight Outta Compton, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Hateful Eight, and The Revenant. Films that narrowly didn’t make my Top 20 include Mistress America, Tangerine, Taxi, James White, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Song of the Sea, and The Big Short. The terrific farce 7 Days of Hell was considered, but rejected for the same reason A Very Murray Christmas, the worst thing I saw all year, doesn’t feature in my worst-of list – they’re both productions designed for home viewing and barely of a length to qualify as features.

 

Now, who enjoys a good list?

 

20. Queen of Earth

Alex Ross Perry’s psychological drama about the breakdown of friendship between two millenial yuppies is peppered with nightmarish oddities that keep the viewer on their toes. It’s violently negative in its lack of faith in people supporting one another in need, but not unjustifiably so. Shot in bright airy spaces, but the focus is on intense close-ups that further alienate the characters from each other. Elisabeth Moss gave one of the year’s most committed performances.

 

19. Youth

Still struggling to recreate his earlier successes in The Consequences of Love and (the near-perfect) Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino has made his best film in seven years. It focuses on two elderly artist friends hiding from the world in a Swiss spa. Michael Caine is the retired classical composer who peaked too soon, Harvey Keitel is the Scorsese-like filmmaker who keeps pumping out films that cannot compare to the works of his youth. Finely acted and sublimely scored, and featuring a deluge of Sorrentino’s delicious, unexplained eccentricities, it is hampered only by its dialogue, which feels all too scabrously translated from Italian.

 

18. Ex Machina

As sci-fi continues to recapture the public imagination (2015 was quite a good year for it overall), this unexpected gem, a sexy Asimovian tale of A.I. versus real en-souled intelligence, became a surprise favourite for many. Written and directed by Alex Garland, known best for writing Danny Boyle’s sci-fi ventures, this was a slickly produced psychological thriller that brought together demi-perspex android Alicia Vikander and 2015 MVP Domhnall Gleeson’s computer expert for the ultimate Voight-Kampff test. Oscar Isaac’s untrustworthy tech billionaire, all creatine and superego, stole the show, along with the lush visuals. A mishandled finale was the only sour note.

 

17. Phoenix

Christian Petzold, the emerging master of German historical melodrama, weaves a strangely original yarn in Phoenix, in which a Holocaust survivor attempts to uncover if her husband served her up to the Nazis. Unrecognisable after reconsructive surgery, she is hired by her husband to impersonate his supposedly dead wife to claim an inheritance. The greater mystery is therefore known to us, creating a scintilating game of cat and mouse. Impressive period detail, Nina Hoss’s restrained performance and a jawdropping conclusion make it one to remember.

 

16. Sicario

What should feel overly familiar, another tale of cynical cops and murderous cartels, is given new life and energy in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. The descent of Emily Blunt’s FBI agent from go-getting SWAT member, to toughened special forces volunteer, to exhausted, disillusioned survivor, stands as a superb metaphor for the bewildering War on Drugs. Smart dialogue and incredible cinematography by Roger Deakins (the night vision sequence was one of the year’s finest) saw it through clunkier moments; it leaves a lasting impression.

 

15. Goodnight Mommy

The old dark house of classic horror is here replaced with a soulless, polished modernist monolith, a bright white country house full of dark terrors. A pair of twins – spritely, Aryan-looking – begin to suspect that their mother is no longer who she claims to be. A nasty game of powerplay ensues, with the story cleverly shifting the viewer’s allegience. Keenly cut and often blackly comic, it’s a skin-crawling horror that reinvents torture porn as Oedipal nightmare.

 

14. The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s stunning wuxia fable was one of 2015’s most beautiful and most frustrating films. With an intentionally obtuse storyline and an editing style that cuts away from the main action on a whim, it is not a film that satisfies a hunger for solid storytelling. What it does have however are exquisitely lush production values and, in its star Shu Qi, a remarkable feminine intensity. Many of the year’s most arresting images were imbedded in this work, in particular a dramatic cliffside confrontation slowly enwrapped in mist.

 

13. Inside Out

Pixar rarely let us down, but lately their hits have numbered their misses. But their hits remain some of the smartest, most charming and most universally appealing films to come out of Hollywood today. Pete Docter, responsible for Monsters, Inc. and Up, here takes us inside the mind of a young preteen, demonstrating her emotional turmoil through anthropomorphised emotions that dwell in a sci-fi wonderland; part playground, part bureaucratic stampede. The characters both inside and out carry the film’s hefty emotional punch, and the designs are handsome and witty. Only its repetitive, stop-and-start adventure narrative prevents it from being listed with the very top of the Pixar pantheon.

 

12. Brooklyn

Old-fashioned in the best possible way, director John Crowley’s take on Colm Tóibín’s novel, adapted by Nick Hornby, puts its money where its heart is. Saoirse Ronan beams as Eilis, a shy parochial Irish girl who moves to New York to better herself, and soon emerges from her shell, only to be torn between her new home and the one she left behind. Plus there’s an ideal romantic match on both sides of the Atlantic. Excellent period detail and finely paced, simple human drama create something traditional yet timely. Earnest, genuine, and unironic storytelling.

 

11. Spotlight 

Telling the story of how The Boston Globe broke the news of massive cover-ups of paedophilia within the Catholic Church, Spotlight repeatedly evokes the champion of the investigative news genre, All the President’s Men. While never quite reaching its forebear’s heights, it recaptures much of its energy, making the gathering of information or the biting of a new lead as thrilling as a gun battle or foot chase. It is functionally, unshowily shot, with some choice montage work, but it’s the slowly building story and the great performances, most notably Mark Ruffalo, that made this one of the year’s most surprisingly powerful dramas.

 

10. Anomalisa

Resurrecting a 10-year-old stage play, the unique surrealist Charlie Kaufman chose to visualise this tale of depression and isolation in stop-motion animation form. The antihero of the film, Michael, is so cut-off, introspective and self-obsessive, that he perceives every stranger as sharing the same, expressionless face, each bearing actor Tom Noonan’s barely shifting tones. A chance encounter with Lisa, wearing her own 3D-printed face and wielding Jennifer Jason Leigh’s sweet voice, evolves into a simple love affair with complex repercussions. At times hilarious, tragic, or nightmarish, it sculpts two incredible character studies as rich as the miniature universe built to house them. The shower scene alone guarantees this one immortality.

9. The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland has emerged as a late British Lynch, an artist who understands the film camera as a literal dream machine, producing deep truth from the illogical. In this, his third dramatic feature, he explores female sexuality through a series of twisting sexual games of cat-and-mouse, as a lesbian couple indulge in sado-masochistic role-play in opulent fashion. The lavish English country estate décor, sensuous lingerie and extensive all-female cast create a gratifying otherworldliness, while the rich cinematography, sharp cutting and unexpected insect imagery add to Strickland’s ethereal scenario an extra sexy pinch.

 

8. The Look of Silence

The companion piece to 2012’s untouchable The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence sees Joshua Oppenheimer turn away from the perpetrators of Indonesia’s anti-communist genocide to look at its victims, and the survivors. In a metaphor too perfect for fiction, clear sight is given to us through an optician (or supposed optician), a man whose brother was savagely slain by government-backed gangsters. He visits these older gangsters, now local big wigs, and while performing eye exams, has them probe their despicable pasts for reasonings and methods. Mixing gut-wrenching old video testament with brightly shot contemporary footage, Oppenheimer hints that an emotional cleansing is possible, but all too late for our protagonist and his withering parents.

 

7. Mad Max: Fury Road 

Just when reboots and remakes and all-too-late sequels were becoming old-hat, George Miller undid more than a decade’s worth of talking animal abuse to bring back Max Rockatansky from his shallow, sandy, post-apocalyptic grave. An adrenaline-pumping extended chase sequence of a movie, Fury Road has all the thump and energy of the finest post-’90s action cinema with the dedicated, unpatronising world-building of ’80s fantasy. Tom Hardy grunts as Max, while Charlize Theron stands a one-armed feminist archangel as Imperator Furiosa, a second-tier thug in a cultish tribe who decides enough is enough in the face of crippling misogyny and rape. With exquisite stunts and mind-boggling costume and vehicle design, Fury Road is that rare art film in blockbuster’s clothing. Indulgences in the thrill of the chase undermine the broader themes at times, but this is still exceptional filmmaking from start to finish.

 

6. The Tribe

Part gangster movie, part coming-of-age tale, part pitch-black parody of high school dramas, The Tribe is a monstrous and brilliant work. Set at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, the dialogue is entirely in sign language, without accompanying translation of any kind. The audience is thus forced to engage doubly with the material, to absorb what story it can while the thunderous, angered performances confront them head on. Extended shots without cuts for interruption draw you further in, only to be assaulted by a McDonagh-ian propensity for sudden, horrifying violence. Other sequences our ears pick up the important sounds that could mean life-or-death for the characters on screen. It is a hopeless look at an isolated, noiseless world, that milks the potential of cinema to both reveal and conceal for everything it’s got.

 

5. The Martian

Another story of survival in space – so what makes this one different? Well for starters, Matt Damon gives his finest performance in a decade in one of his greatest roles, as astronaut Mark Watney, a cocksure scientist whose wit and ego are enough to just about sustain him after he is abandoned on Mars in a dust storm. His quest to stay alive with limited resources is created with real (or at least believable) science and exceptional wit, through Drew Goddard’s bouncy screenplay and Damon’s sardonic delivery. The momentum jumps along at a solid pace, while sequences on Mars, Earth, and in space sustain the drama without an ounce of fat. Ridley Scott, working as a director for hire, commits to a great project, tying together excellent location shooting (in Jordan) and expertly deployed special effects. A testament to human perseverance, a uniquely smart blockbuster, and just a really good time at the movies.

 

4. Son of Saul

Shot on 35mm with needle-point-shallow focus, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s debut feature redefines ‘harrowing’, by bringing you into the whirling hell of a Nazi death camp and refusing to let you out. The sensational Géza Röhrig is Saul, a Jewish prisoner fit enough to be part of the team who assist in the mass murder of their own people, and thus an enforced collaborator. His impossible last chance for redemption is to save the corpse of a young man (his son, perhaps?) from the furnace, but escalating events in the camp block his way at every hurdle. An exhausting, frustrating and beautiful work, that dares to reveal the darkest, unwhispered barbarities of the Holocaust.

 

3. 45 Years

The year’s simplest, meatiest tragedy, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years feels like the untold not-so-happy ending to many of the greatest love stories. An older couple is about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when he receives a letter regarding a lost love from his past. The nostalgia and sadness bred in him stirs regret and paranoia in his wife, threatening not just the occasion, but the legacy of their relationship. Capturing beautiful moments of human interaction and shot from a permanently respectful distance, 45 Years is a remarkable story that triumphs through its two stars, the resurrected ’60s heartthrob Tom Courtenay, and the irrepressible Charlotte Rampling, at her very finest.

 

2. Carol

Todd Haynes’s sumptuous, delicious film of forbidden love in 1950s New York hits with an emotional wallop, as wide-eyed salesgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) meets older divorcee-to-be Carol (Cate Blanchett), and embarks upon a seemingly doomed lesbian romance. Made up of perfectly framed glances and erotically charged conversations, Carol highlights the cruelty of the attitudes of the time without preaching or descending into melodrama. The period detail and lighting astonish, while the score by Carter Burwell captures and holds the energy of the drama. But it’s the performances by the film’s two female leads that make this one for the ages. Heartfelt and empathetic, they carry their flawed characters with immense pride right through to the heart-stopping finale.

 

1. Hard to Be a God

One of the defining qualities of a great movie is that it either shows you something that has never been seen before, or tells a story that is unlike any you have ever seen. It has been too long since a film did both. Aleksei German’s final film (it was completed in post after his death), shot over six years, originates in a novel by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who wrote the work on which Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based. It is about a group of human scientists observing a world almost identical to Earth, but still in, and seemingly stuck in, the Middle Ages. In an explosive performance, Leonid Yarmolnik plays Don Rumata, a human observer succumbed to extraordinary hubris, encouraging the peasants of this backwards planet to treat him as a god. The themes of madness and decline are handled with the gravitas they deserve, but the film retains a casual cheekiness throughout, defiantly grotesque and dirty. The lengthy takes with roving handheld cameras get you right up in the thick of it; you can almost smell the sweat and mud. German has done the near impossible, rigidly blocking his scenes despite the wild camera movements, so that his frame is perpetually full, busy, and yet with no action obscured. It is monumental filmmaking, beautiful and hideous and deep.

hardtobeagod

Good god, man!

 

—————————————————————–

So as for the worst films of 2015, well, for a year that never seemed like it was going to be a good year for cinema until the last minute, it never looked much like a bad year either. I never saw Mortdecai or Rock the Kasbah or Pan or Terminator: Typo. End-of-the-world examples of cynical capitalist cinema in the guise of Jurassic World or Minions were so blandly efficient as to escape this list. Here’s what utterly disappointed or downright infuriated this past year.

 

5. The Good Dinosaur

One step forward and one step back is Pixar’s game right now. This mindlessly banal tripe is only a patch above Cars 2 in that studio’s canon. It’s utterly unbelievable, uncrafted world, with barely a dozen dinosaur inhabitants implying rampant inbreeding, its rehashed boy-and-his-dog plot that goes nowhere new, its lazy voicework and godawful twangy score, all add up to bad family entertainment. The backgrounds are, admittedly, extraordinarily illustrated, but that’s no use when the characters in front of them look like Aardman characters crafted from nasal drippings. The magic mushrooms scene was the most socially and ethically misjudged moment in an American movie all year, and I’m including Entourage in that.

 

4. Taken 3

Climbing its way up from the very bottom a few years back, the Taken franchise now no longer feels like an advertising campaign for ISIS, at least. But this remains truly exhausted action garbage, with growling and exhausted Liam Neeson killing all the Russians in America after his ex-wife is murdered in a desperate attempt to raise the stakes. The action sequences barely thrill (as they barely thrilled when seen in the trailers), and Forest Whitaker only serves to depress with his role-slumming. The dramatic ending is gloriously, unintentionally laughable.

 

3. The Editor 

Genre spoofs are not easy, and this attempt to lampoon giallo and B-movie horror manages to bungle everything from the get-go. The look, the rhythms, the acting styles are all wrong, as if no one involved actually bothered to watch a giallo beforehand, or thought a movie all about analogue film editing might wanna look like it’s being shown on old film. The murder mystery isn’t intriguing, the horror isn’t frightening and the gags just aren’t funny – desperate as it is to find comedy in old-timey Italian misogyny, it comes off as disinterested in appearing at all respectful to women. At least it tried, but it failed utterly.

 

2. Fantastic Four

The superhero reboot no one asked for became the film no one wanted, including, it would seem, the actors or filmmakers involved. Every step is so blatantly miscalculated, from the casting (Jamie Bell as tough guy Ben, Michael B. Jordan as lovable fop Johnny, Toby Kebbell as someone with an accent) to the overly realistic look, to the epic score played over characters crossing the street or typing things into computers. Supposedly plagued by production issues, its bipolar switch in the second act reveals that no one could quite agree what kind of movie they were making. For once with a messy major Marvel-based project, the box office reflected this.

1. The Loft

Erik Van Looy’s remake of his own modestly successful Belgian thriller Loft, this is an uncompromising study in bad filmmaking. An unengaging murder mystery, that doubles as a deeply unsexy erotic thriller, The Loft starts off on the most wrong foot by having its five male stars buy an apartment together in which to cheat on their wives. By the time a dead body turns up, we already want all these men locked away for it regardless of their role in the murder. Painful miscasting and excruciating dialogue build up to a pathetic series of convoluted twists. Men’s rights activist cinema, with all the talent you imagine goes with that.

 

 

And with that, onward into 2016…

 

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Oscarhood – Predictions for the 87th Academy Awards

I like to imagine an alternate universe where giant gold men award each other Neil Patrick Harrises for their contributions to the cinematic arts

With your host, Dougie Stinson.

If I’m to understand this correctly, California is the only American state right now not crippled by unnaturally cold February weather. And it’s a good thing too, or this weekend’s Oscars would feature 90 very unpleasant minutes on the white carpet, and those of us on the East Coast wouldn’t have good excuses to hide inside from the snow on a Sunday night.

So yes, it’s Academy Awards time again, that one magical time of the year where everyone cares as much about movies as I do. The theme for this year’s show is “Neil Patrick Harris finally gets to host the Oscars”, so there’s a lot of pressure on the Starship Troopers star to make sure MC stands for ‘most charming’.

Twelve months on from 12 Years a Slave’s deserved win, and 12 years are again a major contender – this time the 12 years of Mason Evans’s life in Boyhood. Richard Linklater’s film is surprisingly lo-fi for a Best Picture contender, but the scope of its production makes it that one-of-a-kind film the Academy occasionally like to acknowledge. But it’s not quite a given yet, with the likes of Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel and the struggling British scientist twins Hawking and Turing all viable contenders. There’s been a notable best picture/director split the last two years, also, and although Interstellar has been denied the role of this year’s Gravity, there’s still a good chance of the top film of the night won’t walk away with all the gold.

The big event no one is talking about is The Sound of Music 50th anniversary something-or-other we’re all going to be subjected to because AMPAS have officially run out of ideas for how to throw a party. The only way it’s going to be truly entertaining is if they just play this clip on a loop for five minutes.

 

Anyways, where was I?

 

Best Picture

Free Mason: Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Free Mason: Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Only eight nominees this time around? What does that say about the movies in 2014? And what was the point of the whole Dark Knight-inspired revival of up to 10 nominees if Interstellar was gonna get shut out? And where the hell is Nightcrawler on this list? Boyhood has all the prestige in its pocket, but it also comes with plenty of fatigue given its summer release and the endless parade of praise since its Sundance debut more than a year ago. It’s a deserving winner though, and it’s hard to pick out a true opponent. Birdman is just that bit too out there to take the prize, and Grand Budapest Hotel suffers from both fatigue and over-whimsy. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything would almost be shoe-ins in their own years (although the latter is a far more affecting film than the rather flaccid Turing tale), but I suspect they cancel one another out. Whiplash is terrific, but its real-world appeal is utterly overshadowed by Boyhood’s. American Sniper has courted so much ire and controversy it’s hard to see it taking the top prize, but then I remain astonished it was nominated in the first place – it has to be the weakest BP nominee since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Selma follows a Black History winner last year, and despite some superbly staged scenes just cannot live up to 12 Years; it’s a worthy nominee, but not a deserving a winner.

Should win: Boyhood or Whiplash

Will win: Boyhood

 

Best Director

Period Piece: Ellar Coltrane and director Richard Linklater check out some very dated hardware

Period Piece: Ellar Coltrane and director Richard Linklater check out some very dated hardware

Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher) and Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) are the placeholders here, while a win for Wes Anderson would be more a career achievement prize than a win for GBH. Really it’s between Alejandro González Iñárritu and Linklater. Iñárritu has energy behind him after Alfonso Cuarón’s win last year, ut really it’s hard to imagine Linklater not taking this home for committing twelve years to such an ambitious and personal project.

Should win: Richard Linklater or Bennett Miller

Will win: Richard Linklater

 

Best Actor

A Short History of Hawking: Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

A Short History of Hawking: Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

This one will go down to the very last vote. Michael Keaton has made an astonishing career comeback with Birdman, and it’s hard to know if he has another performance of this quality in him. But the astonishing physicality of Eddie Redmayne’s take on Stephen Hawking, which pushed through impression into a remarkably affecting conjuring of the scientist, is the sort of prestige performance the Academy adores. Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch and Bradley Cooper can all sit this one out.

Should win: Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne

Will win: Eddie Redmayne

 

Best Actress

Forget-Me-Not: The internet assures me this is a picture of Julianne Moore in Still Alice

Forget-Me-Not: The internet assures me this is a picture of Julianne Moore in Still Alice

Julianne Moore seems anointed for Still Alice, although the film escaped me this awards season. Of the three performances I did catch, of Marion Cotillard, Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones, all were stellar, although Jones did not completely carry her movie as the other two did.

Should win: Marion Cotillard or Rosamund Pike (but probably Julianne Moore?)

Will win: Julianne Moore

 

Best Supporting Actor

Srsly, no jk: Simmons offers a little encouragement to Miles Teller

Srsly, no jk: Simmons offers a little encouragement to Miles Teller

Robert Duvall gets his pat on the back for still being with us and wonderful. Ethan Hawke wins the award for most eternally youthful, so doesn’t need an Oscar. Ed Norton gave one of the finest (and most entertaining) performances of his career in Birdman, while Mark Ruffalo was solid throughout Foxcatcher. But yeah, why am I still writing here? J.K. Simmons dominated Whiplash. This is all his.

Should win: J.K. Simmons

Will win: J.K. Simmons

 

Best Supporting Actress

The single parent trap: Patricia Arquette with Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltraine

The single parent trap: Patricia Arquette with Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltraine

Emma Stone would be a deserving winner for Birdman, but something tells me (and I think everyone else) that she has a lot more performances of this quality in her. Patricia Arquette, on the other hand, deserves this on the power of her final scene in Boyhood alone, in which she summons millennia of forgotten, neglected womanhood and channels it into a wail lightly tinged with ironic wit.

Should win: Patricia Arquette

Will win: Patricia Arquette

 

Best Original Screenplay

This is a tight one too. It would seem unfair for Linklater to take this, given the script was worked so much on the fly. Anderson has lost momentum too, and assumedly his script says “[funny cameo]” one too many times for it to be taken too seriously. Dan Gilroy’s screenplay for Nightcrawler is one of the most brilliantly dark works to come out of Hollywood in years, but it’s so scathing of the entertainment business it’s hard to imagine it getting a bite. The Birdman gang, whose praise for real artists is found on every page, will take this.

Should win: Dan Gilroy

Will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Whiplash would be a very deserving winner here, as would Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Inherent Vice, however incoherent at times, is loaded with punchy scenes and dialogue. This could be where American Sniper takes it, but somehow I suspect Graham Moore’s (lacklustre) screenplay for The Imitation Game will win for simplifying so much complicated science in the manner of a tour guide at Bletchley Park.

Should win: Damien Chazelle

Will win: Graham Moore

 

Best Animated Feature

Bewilderbeasting: A satirical cartoon representing DreamWorks pressuring the Academy to vote for their shitty sequel

Bewilderbeasting: A satirical cartoon depicting DreamWorks pressuring the Academy to vote for their shitty sequel

Why even bother? The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, assumedly Isao Takahata’s swansong, was probably the finest film of 2014. It’s hard to believe any of the Academy’s members even watched it. Song of the Sea was equally as enchanting if not quite as deep or visually mesmerising. But that’s all irrelevant. DreamWorks have shovelled out enough money to claim it for the bog-standard How to Train Your Dragon 2 (a film whose predecessor was superior to Oscar-winner Toy Story 3, back in the day). Likely to be the biggest farce of the night.

Should win: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Will win: How to Train Your Dragon 2

 

Best Animated Short

I waaaaaaaan' it! Winston, the hero of Disney's Feast

I waaaaaaaan’ it! Winston, the hero of Disney’s Feast

I’ve only seen Feast so I’m guessing Feast because I want a puppy and now I’m hungry.

Should win: Feast

Will win: Feast

 

Best Foreign Language Film

Ida-ntity crisis:  Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza take a break on their journey

Ida-ntity crisis: Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza take a break on their journey

Embarrassingly I have only seen Ida of this batch, but it is magnificent. I have yet to read a review of Leviathan that wasn’t overflowing with praise, but really this can only go to Ida, if only for proving that the Holocaust can still be mined for the most exceptional drama.

Should win: Ida

Will win: Ida

 

Best Documentary Feature

Metadata is betta'data: Edward Snowden breaks down some complex coding for Glenn Greenwald

Metadata is betta’data: Edward Snowden breaks down some complex coding for Glenn Greenwald 

Two warzone films (Last Days in Vietnam and Virunga). Two photographer films (Finding Vivian Maier and The Salt of the Earth). And then there’s the astonishing and frighteningly potent Citizenfour. Maier is the only real competition, but as incredible as its subject is the film itself is very blandly thrown together. Citizenfour on the other hand grips like a thriller and chills like a horror. We have to trust the Academy on this one.

Should win: Citizenfour

Will win: Citizenfour

 

Best Documentary Short

I promise one of these years I’ll see one of these, OK?

 

Best Live Action Short

Ugh now you’re just trying to make me feel bad.

 

Best Original Score

What is the sound of science? The big competitors here are Interstellar (Hans Zimmer), The Imitation Game (Alexandre Desplat), and The Theory of Everything (Jóhann Jóhannsson). Criminally locked-out of the major categories, Mr. Turner appears here for Gary Yershon’s score, but like Desplat’s Grand Budapest Hotel score both were less memorable in the face of such exquisite visuals.

Should win: Hans Zimmer or Jóhann Jóhannsson

Will win: Jóhann Jóhannsson

 

Best Original Song

Hey did you notice how I managed not to piss and moan about The Lego Movie getting cut out of Best Animated Feature? Well now I’m gonna! Because that was bullshit. But just because it was cut out does not mean it should be patronised with a bonus Oscar elsewhere. ‘Everything Is Awesome’ is amazing fun, but musically and thematically John Legend and Common’s ‘Glory’, from the also largely overlooked Selma, is probably the more deserving winner.

Should win: ‘Glory’

Will win: ‘Everything Is Awesome’

 

Best Sound Editing

Hey look the third Hobbit movie got a nomination for something! But no seriously fuck that movie. Birdman gets this.

Should win: Birdman

Will win: Birmdan

 

Best Sound Mixing

Oh right! The other sound one! This will be tight between Birdman and Whiplash, but I suspect the former has it as it goes for a minor technical sweep.

Should win: Birdman or Whiplash

Will win: Birdman

 

Best Production Design

Box art: Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Box art: Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan in The Grand Budapest Hotel

I’m sure I’ve made it very clear I am no fan of Wes Anderson’s latest, but even I think it would be criminal to let The Grand Budapest Hotel be beaten here, unless it was by the sensational Mr. Turner. But no, give it to Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock, seriously.

Should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel or Mr. Turner

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

Best Cinematography

Flight the power: Michael Keaton takes to the skies in Birdman

Flight the power: Michael Keaton takes to the skies in Birdman

Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on Birdman was that film’s greatest draw, but with a win for Gravity last year and up against the likes of Grand Budapest, Ida, and Mr. Turner it’s hard to just hand it to straight to him. But the Academy will.

Should win: Emmanuel Lubezki, Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski (Ida), or Dick Pope (Mr. Turner)

Will win: Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman)

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Skin-jobs: Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana show off some impressive full-body makeup

Skin-jobs: Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana show off some impressive full-body makeup

Steve Carell’s nose takes on Dave Bautista’s full-body tattoos. You just never know which way the Academy will go. I suspect the tremendous goodwill towards Guardians of the Galaxy will see it through.

Should win: Guardians of the Galaxy

Will win: Guardians of the Galaxy

 

Best Costume Design

Purple pros: Ralph Fiennes comforts Tilda Swinton in the lift of the Grand Budapest Hotel

Purple pros: Ralph Fiennes comforts Tilda Swinton in the lift of the Grand Budapest Hotel

This is the sort of place outsiders like Mr. Turner or Into the Woods could sneak one through. Even Maleficent got a nod here. If we take it the fairytales cancel one another out, that throws the period dramas up against one another. Inherent Vice could take it for cool, but I’d put my money on another win for the look of Grand Budapest Hotel

Should win: Inherent Vice

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

Best Film Editing

There’s only two choices here: Whiplash for rhythm, or Boyhood for scope. If Boyhood doesn’t take this early, the rest of the night could go very differently to what’s expected, and you may then dismiss the entirety of this article.

Should win: Whiplash

Will win: Boyhood

 

Best Visual Effects

Spirit in the sky: Star-Lord's ship the Milano flies over the planet Xandar

Spirit in the sky: Star-Lord’s ship the Milano flies over the planet Xandar

This is like making me choose between my children. I cannot remember the last time I would be delighted for any of the nominees to win. Captain America: The Winter Solider – fantastic. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – fantastic. Guardians of the Galaxy – fantastic. Interstellar – fantastic. X-Men: Days of Future Past – fantastic. Not only are they great effects films, but they’re also probably the five best blockbusters of last year, with films like Transformers 4 and The Hobbit 3 getting deservedly cut. I dunno, I just want to congratulate the winner and move on.

Should win: Guardians of the Galaxy or Interstellar

Will win: Guardians of the Galaxy

 

And that’s all there is. I wish I could predict which winners will be booed or orchestra’d off the stage, but that’s a very different kind of Oscar prediction. We’ll know around this time tomorrow night anyways… See you back here then!

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On empathy, Ebert, and the movies

The late Roger Ebert. Someone I never knew.

The late Roger Ebert. Someone I never knew.

I have a scar on my left hand, a little below the knuckle of my index finger. It’s a small spot only noticeable for being paler than all the pale surrounding it. I have thoroughly no idea how I came to have it. What I do know is that, either by some damage to my nervous system or an associated sense memory with the now-forgotten cause of the scar, it has a tendency to flair up, as if being lightly stabbed, during moments of emotional anguish. What makes it really strange is that it never happens during moments of my emotional trauma (no matter how bad), but only when I hear about those of others. Tell me a story of real woe from your life, make me feel it, and it’ll sting like a knife being slowly drilled into my hand. Better yet, show me a tragic movie that hits me like the loss of a loved one and I’ll be crying with pain before I’m crying from upset.

I have for some time and with little poetry referred to it as my “empathy scar”. Actually it’s come in quite useful at times; there have been occasions when watching films that I’ve been so engrossed in them that I am only made aware of how deeply the film is affecting me when I feel a tingling in my joint. A recent (and shamefully first) viewing of E.T. gave me an unexpected jab. Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956) felt like a cigarette was being stubbed out on my hand. I should have a list of films that have triggered this reaction noted somewhere, but sadly, foolishly, I don’t.

I was left thinking about my empathy scar this evening after watching Life Itself, the Steve James documentary about the life and career of Roger Ebert. At the film’s start, Ebert is quoted: “…for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” It’s not something I’d ever contemplated before – the concept of the “empathy machine” – but I see it now as informing so much of my own passion for the cinema. Many of the films that have touched me the most deeply have communicated feelings I could understand but could never have voiced; whether they be subtle gestures or moments of screen-shaking pain.

Roger Ebert meant nothing to me. I did not grow up with his criticism; I watched British critics on the television and read Michael Dwyer and Donald Clarke in The Irish Times. My only familiarity with Ebert was a skit lampooning him in an episode of the cartoon series Animaniacs, which while not unfunny went for the veritable jugular in terms of jokes about his weight. When he became sick I was mostly unaware of it, and only later lightly followed his Twitter feed. The few times I attempted to engage him there were lost to the aether, although the only one I recall was my arguing against Say Anything…, a film he championed and I openly detest, so it is probably for the best we were never only acquainted over a disagreement. When he died I had little reaction of shock or upset beyond general disappointment that a film fan had died from the complications of a terrible illness. But I knew many people who cared a great deal for him and his writing, and it brought me no small deal of sadness seeing them so hurt.

I’ll steer clear of writing a full review of Life Itself. It’s problematic; bloated in segments and scattered in theme. But it’s deeply earnest, if not completely honest, and when it discusses the merits of film criticism and the competitive but symbiotic working relationship he had with Gene Siskel it taps into some very powerful ideas. Near the film’s close Ebert’s widow Chaz reflects on his death, and perhaps it is the length of time she (and we; the film is long) have had to prepare for and adjust to his passing, but she is in a stage of acceptance in the grieving process that, for want of any other term, is undramatic. It is not the emotional payload the film needs. That comes in the form of extracts from Ebert’s final blog entry, ‘A Leave of Presence’, one of the few works of his I remember reading when it came out. As the echoes of his final send off “I’ll see you at the movies” play over a montage of his life and the outpouring of grief that followed it, while my eyes were watching and studying a movie, a sparkling of discomfort in my had told me I was feeling a loss too, or at least deeply appreciating that of so many others. If it takes an affecting movie and a malfunctioning hand to remind me that I can feel, what of it? It’s surely better than feeling nothing at all.

If nothing else, Ebert made me want to write again after a long absence. There are few feelings better than that.

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Live from Culpeper, Virginia, it’s the 86th Academy Awards (liveblog)

Life is good. Oscars may be.

Life is good. Oscars may be.

There’s a snow storm coming, but inside there is beer and the Oscars. We can only hope for an entertaining night, full of probably not that many surprises, but surprising non-surprises.

[All times are in Pacific Time, all Thai food is in my belly.]

4:44pm – Chiwetel Ejiofor is the coolest African-American guy who is not African-American in the world.

4:46pm – Who are all these Oscar interns and why am I none of them?

4:47pm – Thank god U2 are here. I thought for a moment I couldn’t play the bitter annoyed Irish card all night.

4:51pm – Alfonso Cuarón, his O looks small because you can’t put an accent on a normal O.

4:54pm – Russell Brand Jesus is wearing a white tux. Good for him/her.

4:56pm – Tyson Beckford looks like he has been PhotoShopped to life.

4:59pm – Bradley Cooper: too handsome to like, too charming to hate. He’s the Switzerland of people.

5:01pm – Good lord look how much Mrs. Hill looks like wee Jonah!

5:02pm – Lupita Nyong’o in white. Seems she takes her memes to heart.

5:05pm – Wow, a homeless man in a tux! And oh no it’s Bill Murray.

5:06pm – The Oscar coverage is making fun of people tweeting the Oscars… this sketch is going nowhere good fast.

5:09pm – That Jimmy Kimmel sketch was drenched in classism, and lightly sprinkled in not good comedy.

5:13pm – It’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith! No, not Brad and Angelina (nor Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard), it’s Will and Jada Pinkett!

5:15pm – Nobody doesn’t quite wear a goatee quite like Jeremy Renner.

5:16pm –

“The person I went into as filming this movie is not the person I came out of this movie as.” – Sandra Bullock says, referring to her paycheck.

5:23pm – Take a deep breath everyone, we are now in the theatre!

5:30pm – It’s the Oscars. Champagne please! Also Ellen.

5:31pm – Weak start for Ellen. Pick it up pick it up pick it up!

5:33pm – I hope the real Captain Phillips and the real Philomena make out at the after party.

5:35pm – Some savage material from Ellen DeGeneres here. It could be more biting than actually funny.

5:37pm – Jennifer Lawrence getting a ribbing for falling on her face. Ellen managing to get off her own with this bit.

5:39pm – Ellen has gone for the penis joke!

5:40pm – Crap, if 12 Years a Slave doesn’t win, we are ALL racists!

5:42pm – If Best Supporting Actor goes where I think it’s going, it’s gonna be a very predictable night.

5:43pm – Jared Leto wins! He played Rayon, now he’s wearing spray-on.

5:44pm – Leto tells the story of his mother instead of thanking people he worked with. Ungrateful prick!

5:46pm – Ellen DeGeneres makes a live-tweeting joke. So contemporary.

5:48pm – Jim Carrey is recovering this sketch… just about.

5:50pm – About 70% of those animated films were made after the year 2000. An absolute embarrassment from the Academy there.

5:51pm – Will Ferrell is performing a happy song in blackface. How is this appropriate?

5:53pm – In fairness, the choreography here is pretty delightful.

5:57pm – What’s with the wall of roses?

5:58pm – Naomi Watts and Sam Jackson throwing out some tech awards. First up: costume design.

5:59pm – Gatsby wins! This spells ill American Hustle. Ironically the costume designer’s dress is awful.

6:00pm – Now… Dallas Buyers Makeup.

6:02pm – Shouldn’t Matthew McConaughey be home watching True Detective?

6:03pm – Harrison Ford is out. Of. It.

6:05pm – Channing Tatum is here to show us those damned students again. But I wanna be one of them!

6:11pm – Hahaha remember Ed TV.

6:12pm – Best Animated Short goes to Mr. Hublot. I did not see it. My friend said it was awful. Now I don’t know what to think!

6:13pm – Aw, nervous French guy is nervous.

6:15pm – Frozen or The Wind Rises or I go home.

6:16pm – Hooray for Frozen! Plus it burst a billion today! All the money and success. Disney’s first animated feature Oscar.

6:17pm – Sally Fields!

6:19pm – Look at all these famous films! They’re so famous! Yay! Fame!

6:20pm – Did Peter O’Toole just light up the Will Smith?

6:21pm – And the gravity award for best gravity in a gravity-themed film goes to… Gravity!

6:24pm – Zac Efron presents Karen O. She will now sing a lovely song that will slow down the entire night to a crawl.

6:30pm – Kate Hudson, absent from Kate Hudson’s life for some years, looks rather well presenting the short film awards.

6:31pm – Helium, assumedly the antithesis to Gravity, wins Best Short Film.

6:34pm – Best Documentary Short goes to The Lady in Number 6. The subject of which like just died the other day. What terrible terrible timing.

6:36pm – Not enjoying Ellen’s aisle shtick. Not at all.

6:37pm – Best Documentary Feature goes to 20 Feet From Stardom. I did not see it, but The Act of Killing was surely robbed.

6:39pm – There is a singsong going on on stage right now. It’s the Oscars, why isn’t this happening always?

6:40pm – Kevin Spacey cannot shake his Frank Underwood accent.

6:41pm – Lifetime awards to Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin and Angelina Jolie. Which coincidently enough is the dream cast to play me in the movie of my life.

6:49pm – Ewan McJared Leto and Viola Davis presenting Best Foreign Language Film.

6:50pm – Paolo Sorrentino wins the Oscar for Il Divo! But also I guess for The Great Beauty.

6:51pm – Oh, so that’s what Tyler Perry looks like.

6:54pm – Brad Pitt is here. He is going to do something important I wager.

6:55pm – Oh nope he’s just presenting U2. Never mind.

6:56pm – I can’t deal with ordinary U2.

6:58pm – In fairness, Bono can still kinda bring it. I guess.

7:03pm – Not retweeting Ellen’s tweet out of principle.

7:04pm – WHERE’S WALLACE?!? Oh, he’s at the Oscars…

7:06pm – It’s Thor and Charlize Thoron!

7:07pm – Sound Mixing goes to Gravity. Which is ironic because there’s no sound in space.

7:10pm – Sound Editing. Gravity. Called it. So there you go.

7:12pm – Christoph Waltz is here to present the decider for the rest of the night; Best Supporting Actress.

7:14pm – Cheers for Lupita Nyong’o! That makes tonight a rollover, in exactly the right direction.

7:16pm – A beautiful, passionate and tear-flecked speech from Nyong’o. Bravo bravo and bravo.

7:21pm – Ellen ordered in pizzas. They have Coca-Cola logos on them. This is not OK.

7:22pm – Remember when the Oscars did music numbers and was an actual show?

7:24pm – Wooo! Archives!

7:26pm – Amy Adams and Bill Murray. I would read that slash fiction.

7:27pm – Harold Ramis! We miss him.

7:28pm – Gravity wins Best Cinematography. But it already won this award for Best Special Effects…

7:29pm – Anna Kendrick and Gabourey Sidibe, announce the nominations for Editing.

7:31pm – Gravity wins again. Another tech award for the pile. Not convinced it deserved that one either…

7:33pm – Whoopi Goldberg presents a Wizard of Oz retrospective, in Wicked Witch footwear.

7:35pm – It’s Pink! In red! Those things clash!

7:36pm – I associate Pink Floyd with The Wizard of Oz, not Pink…

7:38pm – Remember when they made films like The Wizard of Oz… not like Oz: The Great and the Powerful?

7:42pm – Ellen is dressed as Gilda. I guess this is OK.

7:44pm – Jennifer Garner and Sherlock Khan present Best Production Design. Gatsby?

7:45pm – Gatsby gets it again! Can American Hustle win anything?

7:46pm – Everyone who didn’t design the Oscar stage tonight deserves Best Production Design.

7:47pm – A tribute to superhero movies. Otherwise known as the box office.

7:54pm – Glenn Close presents the sad bit.

7:58pm – Not Jim Kelly! Paul Walker! Peter O’Toole! Richard Griffiths! Joan Fontaine! Harold Ramis! Philip Seymour Hoffman! (and no Alain Resnais)

7:59pm – Bette Midler sings ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’. Everyone everywhere is crying and sad and crying sad.

8:05pm – The Oscars crashed Twitter. Hopefully that’s not the best thing that happens at the Oscars tonight.

8:06pm – Goldie Hawn is talking 12 Years a Slave. I have never thought of one without the other.

8:08pm – John Travolta present Idina Menzel singing ‘Let it Go’.

8:09pm – Well now they know.

8:11pm – Menzel kills it. The audience has to stand because they did for U2.

8:13pm – Jamie Foxx and Jessica Biel are getting their groove on on stage. Or at least he is.

8:15pm – Steven Price wins for Gravity’s score. Certainly one of Gravity’s most deserved awards.

8:17pm – ‘Let It Go’! let it go! I can’t because it deserved to win!

8:18pm – OH MY GOD THOSE TWO ARE SO ADORABLE!!!

8:22pm – Are the Oscars over yet?

8:23pm – Ellen is passing a hat around the audience to raise some money. Hopefully to go towards some better bits.

8:23pm – De Niro. Cruz. Writing awards. Coming this summer.

8:25pm – Best Adapted Screenplay goes to 12 Years a Slave. Good job.

8:26pm – “All the praise goes to Solomon Northup; those are his words.”

8:27pm – Best Original Screenplay goes to Spike Jonze for Her! Great stuff. Very emotionally honest and mature writing.

8:32pm – Angelina Jolie helps Sidney Poitier to the stage. A superb ovation for him. Nomination for Best Director pending…

8:34pm – Alfonso Cuarón wins Best Director, for best handling of a film that should have been awful.

8:37pm – A fine speech by Cuarón, and an important moment for Hispanic filmmakers overall.

8:41pm – Daniel Day-Lincoln is here to present Best Actress. Also Best Handsome. For him.

8:43pm – Terrible clip to show off why Sandra Bullock is even nominated in the first place.

8:44pm – Cate Blanchett wins which was expected why I am even mentioning this?

8:45pm – “Random and subjective” – Cate Blanchett on the Best Actress Oscar. Good for her.

8:47pm – No thanks for Woody Allen…?

8:48pm – Jennifer Lawrence is here to present lust. Lust to all. Lust.

8:51pm – Matthew McConaughey wins the Oscar for Best Career Comeback Fuck All Y’All Alright Alright Alright.

8:53pm – Matthew McConaughey thanks his mama, and… Charlie Laughton? Sure, why not?!

8:55pm – Best Picture Make Go Now. Shut up Ellen. Shut up Will Smith.

8:56pm – Best Picture goes to the animation to present best picture.

8:57pm – Actually 12 Years a Slave. So deserved. So gloriously deserved.

8:58pm – BRAD PITT ENDED SLAVERY!

8:59pm – Steve McQueen gets his say. Nervous, emotional, but he says what he must, focusing on the powerful women in his life. Wonderful.

9:00pm – A final call to end slavery around the world, and a leap. A leap for joy from Steve McQueen. True Oscar magic.

And that was the Oscars 2014. An enjoyable night, although low on spectacle, but the awards went mostly to the right people. And now to not think about next year’s show for a very, very long time…

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12 Months a Film – Predictions for the 86th Academy Awards

Cue the spotlight

Holy jaysus it’s Oscar time again!

Another year fades into memory. Remember how Argo didn’t surprise anyone but Life of Pi winning best director did? Remember how Seth MacFarlane had seen people’s boobs? No, me neither. Let’s move on with 2014 so

Rudely pushed from February by the Sochi Winter Olympics (which I totally watched a minute of, honest), March kicks off with the death knell of awards season, and supposedly the tightest race in recent Oscar memory. Awards have been split between three major players thus far; the relative outsider being Gravity (superb production, but a philosophic tabula rasa), while American Hustle (lively gloss with undercooked ideas) and 12 Years a Slave (harrowing majesty) will test the Academy’s love for art versus entertainment. It really could go either way.

Ellen DeGeneres hosts again, having put in a passable performance at the 2007 awards, but the big moment will likely come when the PowerPoint of the recently deceased plays, following a series of sad and shocking deaths in the American film industry in the past months. Much of the rest of the events are unpredictable, but that’s not gonna stop me from trying to guess the winners. Here goes.

 

Best Picture

His master’s voice: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) listens to the cruel whispers of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in 12 Years a Slave 

Once more the line-up is nine, suggesting the Academy really can’t decide what to do with the expanded 10-position nomination hole it’s opened up for itself. Philomena, Nebraska and Captain Phillips are strong seat-holders. Her, Dallas Buyers Club and the cruelly maligned Wolf of Wall Street remain outside bets, that could’ve had great chances with bigger buzz and better campaigns behind them. Gravity is this year’s Avatar, although with the added benefit of being a great movie; it will likely choke in the airless vacuum of being too commercial. That leaves Hustle and Slave. The chance to make a little bit of history won’t be lost on the Academy.

Should win: 12 Years a Slave

Will win: 12 Years a Slave

Best Director

Starman: Alfonso Cuarón directs Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity 

Alexander Payne did a solid, gentle job with Nebraska, but that film has been slid under the awards mat for months now. Scorsese has earned an Oscar for the first time in decades, but sure when has he ever been given an Oscar he deserved?! David O. Russell (American Hustle) has been lucky with the surge of positivity his film gotten, but it won’t get him anywhere in this race. It comes down to Cuarón (Gravity) or McQueen (12 Years) – either win would be historical. In such a tight year, a split seems likely.

Should win: Steve McQueen

Will win: Alfonso Cuarón

Best Actor

The man with the plan: Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof

Leonardo DiCaprio found a new peak in his career with The Wolf of Wall Street, but whether or not the Academy will reward him thus is uncertain given the often negative reaction that film has received. Chiwetel Ejiofor gave an overpowering performance in 12 Years a Slave, but his name remains unduly obscure in Hollywood, whereas Matthew McConaughey’s comeback, of which Dallas Buyers Club is but a brick, is now legendary.

Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio

Will win: Matthew McConaughey

Best Actress

Blue is the loneliest colour: Cate Blanchett as Jeanette Francis in Blue Jasmine

Cate Blachett.

Should win: Cate Blanchett

Will win: Cate Blanchett

Best Supporting Actor

Trans-formation: Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club 

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) once more stands in the wing, as will Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street). No, unless there’s an unexpected surge for Michael Fassbender (12 Years) or Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), this one is in the bag for Jared Leto’s impressive but unexceptional performance in Dallas Buyers Club.

Should win: Michael Fassbender or Jonah Hill

Will win: Jared Leto

Best Supporting Actress

Darling of the Academy: Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld in American Hustle

Last year’s Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) was an early call for this one, but there is new energy behind Lupita Nyong’o for her astonishing role as an indoctrinated slave in 12 Years a Slave. As that film begins a late surge towards best picture, this award could clarify things right from the beginning of the night. Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and June Squibb (Nebraska) are all worthy but out of the race.

Should win: Lupita Nyong’o

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Original Screenplay

Recent allegations against Woody Allen have surely crippled Blue Jasmine here, while Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club are likely to have to sit this one out. Spike Jonze’s Her has deserving energy behind it after a win at the Globes, but don’t rule out American Hustle just yet, especially if it targets a clean-up on the night.

Should win: Spike Jonze

Will win: Spike Jonze

Best Adapted Screenplay

Despite everything, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke don’t stand a chance for their superb Before Midnight. Billy Ray’s Captain Phillips screenplay sticks out here like a sore thumb, while Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s Philomena is just too slight to win this one. The split comes down to Slave (John Ridley) and Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter). It can really only go one way I think…

Should win: Terence Winter

Will win: John Ridley

Best Animated Feature

Snow chance of losing: Disney’s Frozen

Despicable Me 2 was too slight (and racist?), while The Croods was too inconsistent; neither has the buzz behind them to pull this one off. Speaking of buzz, there’s been so little word on Benjamin Renner and Didier Brunner’s Ernest & Celestine that I’d be shocked if a single member of the Academy even watched their screener of it (assuming they received it). Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises is truly deserving and it would be a glorious capstone to his career, but the public adoration behind Frozen will surely propel it to victory. And in fairness, Miyazaki’s already won this Oscar; Disney has not!

Should win: The Wind Rises or Frozen

Will win: Frozen

Best Animated Short

Of this lot I must confess I have only seen Disney’s Get a Horse!, and while amusing I daren’t think of it as an Oscar competitor. The other nominees are Feral, Mr. Hublot, Possessions and Room on the Broom. I shall make a monumental guess.

Should win: Not Get a Horse!?

Will win: Room on the Broom (only because I once read my niece the book and it was lovely)

Best Foreign Language Film

La Dolce Via: Tony Servillo in The Great Beauty

Some strange nominees here, with films from Palestine (Omar) and Cambodia (The Missing Picture) in the running. The Broken Circle Breakdown is Belgium’s entry, but there’s no energy behind it. Thomas Vinterberg’s superb The Hunt has become little more than a Netflix blip, meaning Paolo Sorrentino, outrageously overlooked years back for his sensational Il Divo, will now win for his stunning but over-indulgent/rated The Great Beauty.

Should win: The Hunt

Will win: The Great Beauty

Best Documentary Feature

Hearts of darkness, minds of light: Anwar Congo and Herman Koto re-enact their dreams in The Act of Killing

Honest to god if The Act of Killing doesn’t win I will break something. Cutie and the Boxer winning might appease my wrath. The Square winning will make me break a person. Dirty Wars and 20 Feet From Stardom are also nominated.

Should win: The Act of Killing

Will win: The Act of Killing

Had better win: The Act of Killing

Best Documentary Short

Two years in a row I have succeeded in not seeing any of these! Why do I draw such attention to my own failings?

Should win: ?

Will win: CaveDigger (has the best title)

Best Original Score

This is an odd selection, with Her (William Butler and Owen Pallett) and Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman) surely in the running in any other year. But in Gravity Steven Price created an aural blast that has not been experienced since Strauss was sampled in 2001. A sure-fire winner.

Should win: Steven Price

Will win: Steven Price

Best Original Song 

When U2’s ‘Ordinary Love’ from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom won at the Globes, there was outrage. Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’ is not just a superb piece of music with clever lyrics, it is also a fantastic piece of storytelling in and of itself. Surely the Academy will recognise this.

Should win: ‘Let It Go’

Will win: ‘Let It Go’

Best Sound Editing

Last year I joked that nobody cared about the sound categories. But then Best Sound Editing was split between Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty and the world nearly imploded in confusion. So, let’s be serious here. Um… no, let’s just give it to Gravity.

Should win: Gravity

Will win: Gravity

Best Sound Mixing

I still can never quite work out what this award is for. But the sound in The Hobbit was pretty great, so let’s say it’ll win, if Gravity doesn’t.

Should win: Depends on what exactly is being judged…

Will win: Gravity

Best Production Design

Letting the ’20s roar: The incredible design of Baz Luhrmann’s largely misguided take on The Great Gatsby

Her and 12 Years a Slave would be very worthy winners here, but the options are so grand. Gravity is so heavily digital it should rule itself out, leaving the fight between the ultra-’70s sheen of American Hustle or the outlandish brilliance of The Great Gatsby. It’s very tight.

Should win: The Great Gatsby or Her

Will win: The Great Gatsby

Best Cinematography

Cinema software: The digital cinematography of Gravity astounds, but is it really cinematography?

Much like Avatar a few years back, I have no respect for Gravity’s inclusion here. Bruno Delbonnel should be in the running for Inside Llewyn Davis, but that film has gone down with the Academy about as well as discussions of Zionist hoodlums. This could go just about anywhere.

Should win: Roger Deakins (Prisoners) or Bruno Delbonnel

Will win: Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Styling AIDS: Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

Good lord am I still here writing this. Um… Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa winning would be funny for all kinds of reasons. No one wants The Lone Ranger to win any awards, so it’s out. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto did, admittedly, look like they had AIDS. That beats William Fichtner with a dodgy hairlip any day.

Should win: Dallas Buyers Club

Will win: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design

That ’70s glow: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence all looking très chic in American Hustle

Once again it’s Gatsby versus Hustle. The former was outlandish, but the latter had more sideboob.

Should win: The Great Gatsby

Will win: American Hustle

Best Film Editing

The two big deserving films are Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips, but it’s never been clear to me that the Academy understands what editing is. Will they just give it to Gravity because it didn’t need editing due to long takes? Who knows…?

Should win: Dallas Buyers Club or Captain Phillips

Will win: American Hustle

Best Visual Effects

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble: Satellites and space stations are shredded apart in Gravity

Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness… hell, even The Lone Ranger! These are all deserving films. But Gravity is the one that made special effects shine this year, so it’d be an absolute shock if it didn’t take the gold.

Should win: Gravity (or Smaug)

Will win: Gravity

 

So those are my calls. We’ll see how right I was in about 36 hours. I’ll be live-blogging the event as always, this year from a hotel somewhere in the middle of Virginia. Don’t ask. I’ll see you then.

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2013 in review – What’s up? Docs!

Where did 2013 go? It seems just yesterday we were gearing up for Spielberg to walk away with all the Oscars; and like that, it was gone.

2013 was a mixed bag of tricks. The young masters of world cinema and the heroes of the American indie scene did not disappoint their fans, but Hollywood choked on a phlegm of sequelitis and rebootulosis and dumped the worst serving of misguided blockbusters and bland comedies we’ve seen for years. You can’t have your cake and film it.

But you ignore the lows, because you forget about them; your Star Trek Into Darknesses and your final acts of Man of Steel. You remember that this is the year the Coens brought out Inside Llewyn Davis, that Woody Allen made Blue Jasmine, that Martin Scorsese released his best film since Goodfellas.

Gravity showed us that there is still spectacle in cinema, and things we have never seen or experienced are out there to enthrall us. Elsewhere, Oblivion proved that sometimes it’s nice to see all the things you’ve already seen but rearranged in different orders.

More than any in recent memory, 2013 was the year of the documentary. Largely due to Netlfix Instant and HBO Go, docs have become common viewing for a much wider range of audiences, and in many ways the form is developing away from the cheap manipulative techniques that reality TV has coveted and coopted. From The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell, to simpler but affecting films such as Blackfish, the documentary has proven itself the genre (is it a genre? Is it a medium unto itself?) of 2013.

Television changed also. Netflix reinvented the boxset by releasing whole seasons of brand new shows at a time, starting with House of Cards, before bringing out Hemlock Grove, Orange Is the New Black and the lazarused Arrested Development. Thankfully the big players kept up, with the year’s biggest show, Breaking Bad, drawing itself to an all-too-tidy but utterly satisfying conclusion. As rumours flit that Steven Spielberg is to turn the unrealised screenplay of Napoleon begun by Stanley Kubrick into a TV miniseries, the question of how quality television and cinema separate themselves may become the key one of the next few years. Although compare Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD to Iron Man 3 and you can see we’re still not quite there yet…

Twice this year I found myself aboard an airplane bound for dramatic new adventures in cinephilia. The first came in May, when I attended the Cannes Film Festival on behalf of Film Ireland (full reenactments of that event can be found here). There I forged some new friendships (and solidified formerly Twitter-based ones) and bathed myself in film and espresso. If that was a life-defining trip, my next was a life-changing one. Packing my bags once again for America, I returned to New York City where I enrolled (and according to my grades remain) in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation programme at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I have committed myself now to my passion for film and its history, and the maintenance of its cultural and historical relevance. And here I stay. On the side I kept up my work for Film Ireland while expanding my writing by scribbling for NextProjection.com. I also increased my podcasting presence with several more recordings for The Film Show. OK, so maybe the Cannes thing was the highlight…

In terms of my non-contemporary film viewing, 2013 was not my most successful year. Certainly I finally watched some greats, including Kwaidan, Los Olvidados, Sansho the Bailiff and Short Cuts, while finally finishing off the Dekalog and binging on the entirety of the Fast & Furious franchise, which had utterly escaped me until this year. On the big screen I caught The Age of Innocence, Les Amants, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and The Great White Silence, as well as a joyous screening of Miami Connection. I discovered a heretofore-unknown passion for seeing films in cinema theatres with names related to the film – catching Julie Taymor’s Titus in MoMA’s Titus 1, and Creature from the Black Lagoon in Film Society’s Gilman Theater. On Ozu’s 110th birthday (and the 50th anniversary of his death), I ripped some time out of a bloated schedule to see Equinox Flower on the big screen. It’s the little things, really.

Making my top 20 was difficult this year. As in previous years, my splitting my time between two sides of the Atlantic complicated matters in terms of release schedules. Cannes also complicated matters given the number of often excellent films I saw there, although I have chosen not to include any of these films that did not see release in either Ireland or New York before December 31st. Big films I missed include Fruitvale Station, Her, The Grandmaster, and Museum Hours.

As an aside, whereas the last three years I have awarded 5 out of 5 to a strict average of four films, this year six made that list, making my top six very easy to iron out. The rest was complicated. Near misses include Reality, Wreck-It Ralph, Prisoners, McCullin, Nebraska, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Beyond the Hills. Special note should be given to a number of formally impressive or experimental films that impressed hugely but let themselves down too greatly in terms of acting, dialogue or coherence, particularly Spring Breakers, Stoker, Escape from Tomorrow and Upstream Color.

Now, on with the show.

20. Caesar Must Die

The grand old brothers of Italian cinema, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, have produced one of the most troubling docudramas in recent years with Caesar Must Die. Blending fly-on-the-wall documentary techniques with reenactments of rehearsals and performance of Shaespeare’s Julius Caesar, but within a maximum security prison and by the inmates, Caesar Must Die looked at life imitating art and the healing powers of performance and creativity. Lines blurred between reality and fiction, and natural angers and sadnesses leaked from these terrible men in a manner you could hardly expect to witness elsewhere.

19. I Wish

Not the last film on this list by Hirokazu Koreeda, perhaps the most talented filmmaker working today, I Wish looked at the world through the eyes of two young boys, played by real-life junior comedian brothers Koki and Oshiro Maeda, who each choose a different parent to live with when their mother and father separate. Simple, but utterly to the point, it revelled in the joys of childish dreaming.

Full review

18. Drug War

A truly unexpected gem of a movie, in the style of classic Michael Mann, Johnnie To’s Drug War teamed a do-anything-to-survive meth manufacturer with an impossibly resourceful top cop to take down a drug empire. The resulting stings and double-crosses, combined with shoot-outs that were so oddly choreographed they felt chaotically believable, made for a tight, twisty and utterly entertaining thriller.

17. Iron Man 3

The only summer blockbuster on this list, Iron Man 3 finally got the right balance for the character of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr.). This time we found him in the aftermath of the superb The Avengers, suffering PTSD from his near-death experience in its finale while also falling victim to an enormous ego-crushing at realising all his science smarts were nothing in a universe of gods and aliens. The villain was relatively typical, although in Ben Kingsley’s the Mandarin writer/director Shane Black found a hugely inventive number 2, the girl got to wear the super suit for a change, and Stark had to deal with being just an ordinary (brilliant) man in the second act with some superbly judged comedy and drama. The final action sequence was messy, but the ideas were all in the right place.

Full review

16. Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen, working of late in critical peaks and troughs, hit the highs again with this crafty reworking of A Streetcar Named Desire for the post-psychiatry age. Cate Blanchett dominates the screen as the tragic Jasmine, whose bipolar personality echoes the two poles of her life, as she falls from Manhattan socialite Bay Area unemployable when her unfaithful husband (Alec Baldwin) is revealed to be just as big a financial cheat. Allen’s script was loaded with delicious ironies delivered by Blanchett, while also creating a host of juicy supporting roles for solid character actors such as Sally Hawkins, Louis CK, Bobby Cannavale and Michael Stuhlbarg.

15. Gravity

A pulse-pounding disaster movie like none other, Gravity took inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey and recent first-person video games to create an out-of-world experience that was truly thrilling and suitably dizzying. With a remarkable sound design and (mostly) unobtrusive score, Alfonso Cuarón’s film used the most astonishing special effects (and 3D effects) ever seen on screen before to invoke the terror of a storm of metal ripping through orbiting space stations. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney gave fine performances as the unfortunate space travellers, but it was the script – its clumsy dialogue and infantile religious metaphors – that denied this incredible production the title of modern classic. A near masterpiece, but a remarkable film nevertheless.

Full review

14. Le Passé (The Past)

Following on from his sublime A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s Le Passé looks at the drama that arises in the years following a similar divorce and emigration case. Here an Iranian man returns to France to finalise proceedings with his soon-to-be ex-wife, where he becomes embroiled in her relationship with a new man while reconnecting with her children, his one-time step kids. It’s an untraditional tale of familial secrets and lies, told with remarkable restraint and with a knock-out ending. In the lead roles, Ali Mosaffa, Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim all elevate the material to greater heights.

13. To the Wonder

Lesser Malick is still better than most. The Texan philosopher brought his lens from the overcast steps of Mont St. Michel to the sunlit fields of Oklahoma, taking in suitably stunning imagery in airy, sweeping movements. Drawing an excellent performance from Olga Kurylenko as a woman torn apart by love, the film failed to reach the heights of Malick’s earlier works. While it neither bore the dramatic punch, nor laid out the same emotional depth of say The Tree of Life, it remains a startling and beautiful work to behold. It made spinning look as wondrous as Gravity made it look terrifying.

Full review

12. Cutie and the Boxer

Some times documentary filmmakers get lucky with their subjects as events shift the focus of the story, but this can hardly count against the filmmaker. Zachary Heinzerling got very lucky with this film about New York-based Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara and his underappreciated wife and unknowing muse Noriko. Being able to tell the story of their tragicomic relationship through Noriko’s art, which is newly reemerging just as Ushio enters his autumn years. A retrospective of his work allows for introspection of their selves and their relationship, as Noriko is given a coinciding exhibit of her own. Astonishingly personal and poignant filmmaking, featuring perhaps the greatest scene played over by the closing credits ever.

11. Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s romantic odyssey continued the tale of Jesse and Céline another nine years after we last saw them probably turning their lives upside down to be with one another. Now together, with two children, and with his success overshadowing hers (recommended double-bill with Cutie and the Boxer), the couple has a make-it or break-it day during a holiday in Greece. The writing is as natural as it was in Before Sunset, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy once more giving superb, believable performances. It doesn’t hit with quite the same punch as Sunset, largely due to an inconsistent visual aesthetic, but it’s a wonderful and powerful follow-up that shows that romance doesn’t die as couples get older, but it becomes much, much harder to fight for.

Full review

10. Inside Llewyn Davis

One of my worst experiences of 2013 was waiting in a press queue at Cannes to see the Coens’ latest, only for us to be denied access to the over-subscribed show. The heat and sweat and crushing were unbearable, but worse was the thought of not getting to see the film. OK, in fairness I saw it two days later and the U.S. didn’t get it for another five months, but anyhow. A melancholy mixture of many Coen themes shot in haunting, dispiriting winter greys, Inside Llewyn Davis is somewhat of another masterstroke by the brothers. Oscar Isaac gives a remarkable lead performance, backed by a fine assemblage of Coen oddballs, and the character’s introspection is carried beautifully, accompanied by music perfect for capturing that spirit of early ’60s Greenwich Village. Only the semi-successful literary flourishes stand against it, and even then only barely. A bleak but powerful drama.

Full review

9. The Wind Rises

“The wind is rising, we must try to live.” Hayao Miyazaki’s supposedly (and undeniably suitable) final film is an ode to the reasons the artist creates, in the mold of Andrei Rublev. The film animates the real life story of Jiro Horikoshi, a flight-obsessed young man whose weak eyes would never let him fly, so he turned to plane design, ultimately creating the Zero fighter, the pride of the Japanese airforce during World War II. A film as much about love and loss as it is about art and war, The Wind Rises is a gentle, gorgeously drawn film that never patronises its audience or its characters. It overstays its welcome in the closing 20 minutes, but it remains a tremendous feat by the greatest living master of animation. In addition to the visuals, the sound design is astonishing – when an earthquake tears through Tokyo the soundtrack is of a guttural chant, as if the earth itself was groaning an assault on the people of the city. A remarkable work.

8. Frozen

Teaming Tangled’s director Chris Buck with Wreck-It Ralph’s writer Jennifer Lee proved a glorious victory for Disney, who have suddenly snatched back the animation crown from their underlings at Pixar. Retelling Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen with remarkable flair, superbly composed (and lyricised) songs, rich humour and a female-dominant storyline, Frozen was one of 2013’s biggest (and most successful) surprises. The animation was not always flawless, but when it looked its best (during the unsurpassable showstopper ‘Let it Go’, for example) it was beautiful to behold, and the film’s energy was electrifying. It also managed to make an animate snowman not only work dramatically and comically, but actually warm the heart too. Some movies are worth melting for.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street

Hitting harder than Ushio Shinohara at a canvas, Terence Winter’s screenplay, based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, is an hysterical and terrifying ride through the corridors of financial scheming and market manipulation. At times fuelled as if by the drugs its antiheroes consume, this Martin Scorsese picture may lack the visual flourish we expect of the director, but he has rarely handled a cast this efficiently, and never been so assured in his use of Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives the performance of his career thus far. At times unbearably nasty and perhaps a little enamoured of its subject’s gusto (if not his actions), it has a hell of a lot to say about American greed and the cruelty of the capitalist system at its very worst.

6. A Field in England

One of the most exciting and consistently surprising filmmakers around today, Ben Wheatley brought out his most challenging work to date in 2013, an English Civil War drama that went right through the looking glass. A demonic Irishman forces a motley crew of Englanders to dig for unspecified and uncertain treasure, only for reality and minds to split to asunder. Startling monochrome cinematography, viciously black comedy, and utterly game performances made for a psychedelic whirlwind of a picture. Screenwriter Amy Jump created a ferocious villain in O’Neill, and in the character of Friend, one of the greatest idiot savants in modern fiction.

Full review

5. The Gatekeepers

“In the War on Terror, forget about morality.” This is the defeatist mantra by which the former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s counter-terrorism unit, barely excuse themselves. This incredible documentary probed the founding of the Shin Bet and its execution of some incredible assaults on terrorist cells (including some monumental failures). Interviews with six former heads of the agency, each clearly affected by their time with the finger on the button, gave unprecedented insight into the difficulties faced by these men, and assertively questions the decisions they have made. Accompanying footage of atrocities, riots and counter-terrorism methods in action are more troubling than anything Hollywood has yet produced on the subject.

Full review

4. 12 Years a Slave

The story of Solomon Northup, an educated black man in the 1840s kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South, was brought to life with the extraordinary visual assuredness of Steve McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. The period detail falls secondary to the extraordinary camerawork, gently filming the lakes and cotton fields that surround the plantation, or making a steamboat’s paddlewheel appear more threatening than any imaginable horror. An unending hanging is shot from a restrained distance, and life is seen to carry on as normal behind it; an astonishing comment on the system that existed in the South. Eschewing explosive Hollywood drama in favour of natural terror and human cruelty, 12 Years feels as painfully real as it looks beautiful. In the lead role, Chiwetel Ejiofor proves himself a remarkable talent, but it is McQueen’s judgement of each scene that truly propels this film towards greatness.

3. Like Father, Like Son

Hirokazu Koreeda’s most recent inspection of a family in crisis is perhaps his most melodramatic, with a plotline that could be taken from a made-for-TV movie. Two families, one upper-middle class, the other working class, discover their six-year-old sons were switched at birth; spurned on by traditional Japanese values they agree to swap boys on a trial basis. The film views the whole gentle tragedy from the point of the middle-class dad (Masaharu Fukuyama), torn between biological assumptions and shame at the breakup of his family. Koreeda judges every scene to perfection, revelling in the spontaneous performances of his child actors (Keita Ninomiya and Shôgen Hwang), gently tracking his camera alongside the painful human drama. As touching as any film could hope to be.

Full review

2. The Act of Killing

Perhaps the most formally inventive documentary ever shot, director Joshua Oppenheimer dared to challenge the perpetrators of war crimes during conflicts in Indonesia in ’65-’66 to make short films based on their experiences. These hero gangsters, icons to many contemporary Indonesians, are exposed to be deeply haunted by their acts 50 years ago, no matter how steely their dispositions. Blending camp fantasy with gory reenactments, the film is never better than when it films Anwar Congo, sitting with his grandson in the comfort of his own home, watching a film of himself playing one of his own torture victims, and revealing the collapse of an ideal in the lines of his face and the tremors of his voice. What it says about the conflict, the victims and killers, is unfathomable. But what it says about cinema and its ability to heal and bruise and cleanse is somehow even deeper still.

1. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2)

Nothing hit harder this year than the life of young Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whose doe-eyed and trepidatious questioning of her sexuality in her teens leads her into a long-term relationship with confident lesbian artist Emma (Léa Seydoux). Through Abdellatif Kechiche’s astonishingly sensitive direction, we see the blossoming and embittering of this young woman, her pains and simple dreams lightly drawn on her barely-an-adult face. Exarchopoulos excels beyond any lead performance one could hope for, while the camerawork and pacing create an epic of simple humanity, first love and sexual awakening. Kechiche understands that the moments when life seems to slow down are when the camera should hang in the air, only watching, incapable of intervening. No coming-of-age tale in a generation has been this exceptionally well-measured, this powerful or this gorgeous to behold.

Full review

Vive l'Adèlevolution!
Vive l’Adèle-volution!

—————————

OK, and now what you’ve really been waiting for, my five worst films of 2013. I missed many supposedly awful films this year, such as Movie 43, Getaway or A Haunted House. But I certainly saw my share of poor movies. There were many I disliked or even hated, such as Django Unchained, Star Trek Into Darkness and Only God Forgives, that despite the ire they raised in me were far too competently made to be numbered amongst these bottom of the barrel films. Which are…

5. The World’s End

No film in 2013 was as appallingly misjudged as this struggling comedy from Edgar Wright. Closing a trilogy comprised also of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, The World’s End failed to do anything new with the sophisticated humour and cutting of those films, rehashing visuals and delivering predictable gags that felt like they were coming off a conveyer belt. Irredeemably nihilistic (it revels in the exploits of humanity’s most disgraceful member) and haplessly genre-meshing, it failed to be any of the many things it wanted to be. It can only be applauded for its ambition.

Full review

4. 21 & Over

The writers of The Hangover team up to direct a campus comedy full of racism, disregard for mental health issues and accidental circumcision. Enjoy!

Full review

3. A Good Day to Die Hard

The fifth installment in the once-unmatchable saga of John McClane became a muddied mess of James Bond cliches and anti-Russian propaganda. A dire villain, nonsense dialogue and absent chemistry between unstoppable dad and superspy son made this humourless entry in the series an agony to watch.

2. After Earth

Will Smith pimps his charisma-struggling son in a shockingly bland action movie that features killer monkeys, instantaneous plummets in temperature and giant eagles that comprehend human sacrifice. It may often look good, but the dialogue and drama are so haphazard and clumsy that not even a spear that can be reassembled into different shapes with the push of a button can save it. Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan’s worst film.

Full review

1. Hyde Park on Hudson

After being masturbated by his cousin, President Roosevelt proceeds to solve a political storm in a teacup with the use of a hotdog. Features perhaps cinema’s most insipid narration. This film is exploitative dirt.

Full review

Until next year…

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The Gatekeepers – An eye for an eye…

Masters of life and death: The six gatekeepers, former heads of the Shin Bet

Masters of life and death: The six gatekeepers, former heads of the Shin Bet

A nominee for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, which along with its unofficial companion piece 5 Broken Cameras lost out to crowd-pleaser Searching for Sugar Man, The Gatekeepers is a mesmerising work that probes one of the most powerful counter-terrorism outfits in the world, Israel’s Shin Bet.

With unprecedented, eye-raisingly open interviews with not one, not two, but six of the agency’s former heads, The Gatekeepers looks at the “unnatural” power wielded by these men, who have control of the fates of both the enemies of Israel and the innocents who might get caught in the crossfire.

Told mostly through use of the six extremely personal talking heads interviews, director Dror Moreh supplements these confessional narrations with expertly sourced news footage, photographs, military archive material and choice computerised graphics. As former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom discusses the bus hijacking that ended his career when he covered up the fates of the terrorists involved, Moreh presents us with an animation assembled with remarkable skill from the photographs taken by a journalist who had snuck onto the site. It creates the illusion of experiencing the intrigue of the period without embellishing or inventing for the sake of entertainment or keeping the audience’s attention.

As the story progresses in a relatively linear manner from the Six-Day War, we can see how both the Shin Bet develop their tactics as the terrorists they combat become more sophisticated, especially as the threat of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation waned and was followed by the rise of Hamas and radical Islam. Moreh keeps his focus on the Shin Bet perpetually, studying their questionable successes and their very blatant failures, most notably the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, by a radical Israeli, in 1995. Bombs are dropped with deadly accuracy, but sometimes the terrorist target is on the wrong floor, and sometimes they hit the wrong building.

Like Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, The Gatekeepers presses its subjects hard, and Moreh is able to find more regret and doubt in the six gatekeepers than Morris ever could in Robert McNamara. Late in the film, as Shalom is asked about the morality of the choices he made during his stewardship of the Shin Bet, he begins his sigh-laced defence while awkwardly picking at his fingernails. Were he on trial no jury could ever acquit him.

“In the war on terror, forget about morality” we are told, and it is plain to see here. The six men we meet are haunted, but less by what they’ve done than by what they can never be sure of. Across their wearied faces we can read this doubt, as it becomes clearer that the attempts to quash terror only breed more of it. The cyclical nature of terror is seen as strikes against masterminds in Gaza level whole apartment blocks, radicalising civilians. An eye for an eye, for an eye, for an eye, for an eye…

Propelled forward by a murmuring score that sounds suitably out of an episode of counter-terrorism TV series 24, The Gatekeepers never stops asking the hard questions right to the very end. Former Shin Bet bosses attempt to defend violently shaking the heads of prisoners, even when it results in accidental death. A sequence showing real footage of Israeli soldiers raiding households of suspected terrorists – using head-mounted night-vision cameras with elliptical lenses that distort the image – has all the frantic ferocity lacking from the closing scenes of Zero Dark Thirty. This is the real deal; a study into the nature of terror and the demons it creates on both sides. The questions can never be answered, but they could not be better addressed.

5/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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