Tag Archives: Jessica Chastain

Crimson Peak – I’m not that Innocents

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Goth chic: Mia Wasikowska and her poofy nightdress in Crimson Peak

I have this thesis on Guillermo del Toro. It stems from enjoying most of his films, but rarely loving any of them. There’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a film I flat-out adore, and there’s Pacific Rim, a big dumb movie that shamelessly tickles all the happiest childish parts of me. Otherwise, I can take or leave his work. Parts of the Hellboys delight, and The Devil’s Backbone is a beautifully put together if frustratingly simplistic fable. His TV series The Strain, adapted from his trilogy of airplane novels, is the sort of trash I greedily ingest between episodes of HBO-or-similar shows, but still find myself half-watching my phone the whole time. Because let’s face it, Guillermo del Toro is a great designer, but he’s rarely a great storyteller. Scratch that. He might be the best designer.

If Guillermo del Toro wanted to be a production designer full-time, he could be the Edith Head of production designers. He could be the Paddy Chayefsky of production designers. He could be the Sven Nykvist of production designers. Look at the elven guards of Hellboy 2, or the faun of Pan’s Labyrinth. Hell, one of the few things that kept Peter Jackson’s regrettable Hobbit trilogy watchable was the unexpected moments of bizarre design that clearly stemmed from del Toro’s latent role in their production.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, expectedly, del Toro’s latest, Crimson Peak, is a gloriously designed spectacle, but it is also in so many other ways a farce. Its DNA spliced from the core strands of gothic romance, the film begs to be given the dues of a Rebecca or The Innocents, but is really just a subpar Dragonwyck rolled in a tasty supernatural burrito.

So here’s the story. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the bookish daughter of a successful self-made Albany businessman and widower in the waning days of the Victorian era. Edith has aspirations of becoming a romance writer and a curious and unexplained tap into the netherworld that allows for occasional ghostly visitations. Tom Hiddleston is Sir Thomas Sharpe, a visiting English aristocrat whose vast family riches have been depleted, with a stately manor that has fallen into Money Pit levels of disrepair. With his caustic and pernicious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) by his side, he’s in town desperately seeking capital to help mine the valuable supplies of blood-red clay that sit beneath their hilltop home. A few swoons and a murder later, Edith is off to England to see her new husband’s home.

If that bloody goo oozing up through the ground and the mother-shaped wraith warning her to keep away from some place called “Crimson Peak” weren’t enough to make Edith run for it, the house’s state of decay should have. Cartoonishly gothic, with a hole in the roof that Disney’s Haunted Mansion would blush at, the Sharpe Family home is as unwelcoming as its owner is dashingly handsome. Soon enough, del Toroan leaking ghosts are clambering through the walls, and someone is definitely trying to poison poor Edith.

On paper it’s the perfect project for the Mexican minstrel of the macabre. He has wildly elaborate sets to play with, drenched in saturated colours of dark hues, CGI-makeup-hybrid ghouls, poofy turn-of-the-century costumes, and even complex steampunk mining equipment to indulge his concerning clockwork fetish. As so often with his films, it’s a flimsy screenplay, co-written with Matthew Robbins, that leaves the film struggling at the best of times, and fails to attach any emotional or conceptual resonance to some finely realised imagery.

What the film does have, however, and all too rare in the del Toro canon, is a sense of camp. The film regularly simmers with it, and Jessica Chastain’s frantic performance spits it out in clots thicker than that visceral clay. If anything keeps the film aloft, it is the camp value (see the portrait of the late Mother Sharpe), but even this is abused by del Toro. Upon first arriving at Crimson Peak, Thomas advises Edith to take a bath, but warns (in the film’s most humourous moment) that the tap will briefly run red. It’s a wonderful play on an old horror cliché, but it’s undone moments later when, as Edith turns on the tap, del Toro plays its spluttering of bloody water for a scare, complete with Wasikowska gasp and musical sting. The director wants to have his cake and eat it too, and to watch the jam inside ooze everywhere as well.

On top of this, there’s surprisingly little tension to be had, nor mystery. The clumsily handled murder scene early on leaves no question as to whether the siblings can be trusted, and the underlying eroticism of Thomas and Edith’s romance flounders under his blatant Monsieur Verdouxism. Two achingly predictable last act twists are handled completely upside down – Edith takes the revelation that she is to be murdered with preposterous calm, and flees for her life upon learning a secret that should only add up to a serious breach of trust and an uncomfortable fireside chat. Any chance of going full Turn of the Screw and letting us wonder if our heroine is imagining things is mangled by the opening lines of the film; narrating from a position of post-film survival, Edith assures us “ghosts are real”. Well then, that’s that then. (The line seems all the more grating and unnecessary given how attractively inessential the ghosts actually are to the story).

The dialogue goes little better, often feeling jarringly twentieth century. Speeches about carnivorous moths and ghosts stories (or, stories with ghosts in them, hint hint) are the wrong kind of unsubtle. ADR (post-production over-dubbing) is evident throughout, especially whenever characters talk about Victorian-era technology, planting thoughts that the script as written was even more troubled than what has ended up in the finished film.

Despite itself, Crimson Peak is never quite boring (despite tertiary love interest Charlie Hunnam’s most valiant efforts to bland it into submission). Wasikowska is misguidedly directed, but she throws a good deal of energy at it, and Hiddleston is always modestly electrifying. Chastain, hamming it up to the nines, casts away her full house of Oscar-worthy performances and just goes for it with all the gusto she can manage.

An English-language triumph still evades del Toro, but he has once again produced a hauntingly beautiful, if painfully unsatisfying film. Too shallow to be high art, too confused to play as shocker, it will simply act as a stand-in film in his career while he searches for a truly personal project worthy of his talents. Perhaps, if we’re truly lucky, he might turn to design full-time and help make another director’s work look the very best it could.

2/5

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The coffee’s on, the beer is chilling, popcorn’s popping… it’s nearly time for the 85th Academy Awards

The Oscars Liveblog hosted by David Neary

The Oscars Liveblog hosted by David Neary

Last year life got a little in the way of some good old-fashioned live-blogging, so this year there’s simply no excuse. It’s gonna be a long night… good thing I stocked up on supplies. For those of you joining me from East of USA, start the coffee now (and have a reserve Red Bull tucked away at the back of the fridge). For those of you in the US and Canada, welcome, be grateful for your timezone and be understanding of the several typos that follow – things won’t kick off ’til after 1am and I won’t be watching what the keyboard.

If you missed my predictions, check them out here, but in short Argo for Best Picture, Spielberg for Best Director and a cleanish sweep of the technicals for Life of Pi.

Be sure to check back here as events on the red carpet, and later and more importantly the Awards themselves, kick off. As always I will be simultaneously live-tweeting on @DeusExCinema.

See you back here in a little bit…

[all times are in Pacific Time. Add eight hours to comprehend how tired I am]

3:20pm – OK, here we go.

3:22pm – Jessica Chastain looks sensational. If her dress was a little more gold she’d be an award statuette herself.

3.27pm – Amy Adams does not like Ryan Seacrest much. Also, her dress looks it would be good for dusting.

3.28pm – Samantha Barks’s dress! Give it the Oscars! All the Oscars!

3.30pm – Reese Witherspoon looks better than many of the nominees. Good dress, great hair. Now all she needs is a good movie.

3.32pm – Channing Tatum. So hot right now. Never gonna win an Oscar though.

3.34pm – Quvenzhané Wallis’s little princess outfit is perfect. She looks like Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. Ryan Seacrest is the frog.

3.37pm – Taking Octavia Spencer after her recent cameo in 30 Rock is not very easy.

3.43pm – Kerry Washington has just been talking to Ryan Seacrest longer than she was in Django Unchained.

3.46pm – In my head I imagine Jacki Weaver is married to Cloud Atlas star Hugo Weaver.

3.49pm – Kelly Osbourne’s hair is a colour I describe as dead pink.

3.51pm – Love Amanda Seyfried’s dress. She looks superb, but did she drive to the Oscars with the top down?

3.52pm – THAT’S what every Oscars has been missing up to now – Bryan Cranston!

3.54pm – Jennifer Lawrence; looking perfect, if a little minimalist. Dress isn’t exactly… accentuating anything…

3.59pm – Not liking Sally Field’s dress. Also, why is Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking in that deeper-than-usual voice?

4.03pm – Jennifer Hudson looks better and better every year. Does she still do movies though?

4.05pm – Is it just me, or is the red carpet actually kind of mauve?

4.07pm – Anyone else want Channing Tatum’s baby to be born during the show?

4.12pm – Catherine Zeta-Jones looking like a Valkyrie. Michael Douglas looking healthy. Things we like to see.

4.14pm – Helen Hunt looks like she just showed up for the 1998 Oscars. Still as good as it gets, apparently.

4.17pm – I can’t make fun of Christoph Waltz’s hispter glasses because my new glasses are sadly very similar.

4.18pm – Argo or Lincoln… who cares? Anne Hathaway’s dress is clearly going to be the most divisive issue of the night.

4.20pm – Naomi Watts came to the Oscars wearing Nicole Kidman’s skin.

4.22pm – Charlize Theron is still the best-looking woman in Hollywood. Unless, as her last film suggests, you count Kirsten Stewart.

4.27pm – Bradley Cooper’s hair is more handsome than my face.

4.45pm – Adele looks totally ready for the 1965 Oscars.

4.47pm – Nicole Kidman is dressed like an evil female Oscar. I kind of love it.

4.51pm – I wish Hugh Jackman wasn’t so charming, I’ll feel bad now when he loses to Day-Lewis.

5.01pm – Somehow Jennifer Aniston’s red dress clashes with the red carpet. Someone did their job wrong.

5.03pm – And Jennifer Garner’s (stunning) mauve dress matches the red carpet! What is going on?!?

5.05pm – Halle Berry: “I’ve never been more proud to be part of a franchise as that one (Bond).” Sucks to be the X-Men franchise right now.

5.15pm – Jamie Foxx’s grey tux has more personality than Jamie Foxx.

5.19pm – No, seriously, is it the Oscars yet?

5.24pm – Renée Zellweger is ready for the Space Oscars!

5.30pm – Here we go! Seth MacFarlane, you are very welcome.

5.31pm – Making Tommy Lee Jones laugh on the first beat. Terrific comedy.

5.32pm – And a direct swipe at the Oscars for snubbing Ben Affleck. Wow, amazing start.

5.34pm – “If you bumped into Don Cheadle on the studio set, did you try and free him?” Seth to DDL on his method.

5.36pm – William Shatner cameo! This is pure Family Guy.

5.38pm – A jaunty musical number about boobs. Shame it’s pre-recorded.

5.40pm – Channing Tatum dancing with Charlize Theron. The world cannot handle this much sex appeal.

5.42pm – Flight done with sock-puppets. I now never need to see that film.

5.43pm – And now MacFarlane is singing with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Daniel Radcliffe this is properly entertaining stuff.

5.45pm – Gidget jokes! I get these now!

5.47pm – And a parody of Be Our Guest. This is far more Beauty than Beast.

5.49pm – Octavia Spencer presenting Best Supporting Actor. All of the nominees have an Oscar already. Huh. Hoping for Jones, but we’ll see.

5.50pm – Christoph Waltz wins! For basically an identical role to the won he already won for! Hooray!

5.52pm – Waltz quotes Tarantino at Tarantino. Surely Tarantino quotes Tarantino at himself often enough.

5.57pm – Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy here to be loud and silly. I have no problem with this as long as it’s short.

5.58pm – Yes, that went on too long. Now, Best Animated Short.

5.59pm – Paperman wins. Very deserving. Gorgeous film. Plus I called it. So yeah. I win!

6.00pm – Best Animated Feature goes to Brave. Controversial stuff. Gutted for The Pirates! and Wreck-It Ralph.

6.02pm – Reese Witherspoon is here to look amazing. Also to talk about Life of Les Beasts of the Misérable Pi.

6.04pm – Quevenzhané Wallis looks delighted to be mentioned by the voice of Stewie Griffin.

6.06pm – The cast of The Avengers are here to make sure that people care about cinematography. This is good for everyone.

6.07pm – Claudio Miranda wins for Life of Pi. Superbly deserving.

6.09pm – Claudio Miranda should also win for Best Hair.

6.10pm – Best Visual Effects goes to…

6.11pm – Life of Pi! I called a clean sweep of technicals. Think I may have been right…

6.13pm – Oh wow, that may have been the most embarrassing musical ushering off stage I have ever seen.

6.17pm – Channing Tatum and Jennifer Aniston make an odd couple. Here they are to prepare us for the “less interesting” styley awards.

6.18pm – Anna Karenina gets the costume nod. Hugely deservingly. I think I called that. Did I call that?

6.20pm – And now Best Makeup goes to Les Misérables. Didn’t see that one coming at all.

6.21pm – Halle Berry is here to launch the Bond love-in. Even though she may be the worst Bond girl ever. I think we’ll all die another day.

6.24pm – Well now I just want to watch Bond films…

6.26pm – Shirley Bassey. Goodness!

6.28pm – Auric Goldfinger would be pissed to realise Oscars are only covered in a very thin layer of gold.

6.32pm – *snooze* Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington out on stage to some very dull applause.

6.34pm – Best Short Film goes to Curfew. I did not see it, so have no comment to make. I’ll be over here when you need me.

6.36pm – Oh, Washington and Foxx are still there. Best Documentary Short goes to Inocente.

6.38pm – Liam Neeson is here to be badass.

6.39pm – Oooh, here come some clips from Argo Dark Lincoln.

6.42pm – “150 years and it’s still too soon.” MacFarlane got gasps there with a Lincoln assassination joke.

6.43pm – Ben Affleck is here to talk about documentaries. And to talk a swipe at Seth. Ouch.

6.44pm – Searching For Sugarman takes Best Documentary! I didn’t see it, but I sure as hell called it!

6.46pm – MacFarlane makes a quick stab at Prometheus. I’ll allow it.

6.50pm – Jennifer Garner and Jessica Chastain come on stage to the Cinema Paradiso theme. Now I’m just thinking of kissing in the rain…

6.51pm – If Amour doesn’t take Best Foreign Language Film this’ll be a big upset… and it does!

6.52pm – Michael Haneke seems a surprisingly chirpy fellow.

6.54pm – John Travolta looking suspiciously young is here present a celebration of recent movie musicals. Some of them are going to be awful.

6.56pm – I really dislike Chicago. The movie. The music. This is not pleasant.

6.57pm – That said, I probably hated Dreamgirls even more. Just get to Les Mis already!

6.59pm – But yeah, Jennifer Hudson can seriously damn well sing!

7.01pm – Excellent, sounds like the Les Mis crowd are doing ‘One Day More’. Epic tune.

7.02pm – This is a superb medley. And everyone looks fantastic.

7.05pm – OK, so the set-up is stolen from the 25th Anniversary Les Mis concert. But they’ve kind of killed it. Better than in the movie!

7.07pm – The upcoming films advertised in the ad breaks look almost universally terrible.

7.09pm – Here’s Chris Pine, our second Captain Kirk of the night, to regale us with a “previously on the Oscars” about the tech awards with Zoe Saldana.

7.12pm – Oh, OK, Ted and Mark Wahlberg are here. What are the audience seeing right now?

7.13pm – Best Sound Mixing goes Les Misérables. Deserved I guess.

7.15pm – Slightly dodgy Jewish jokes from Ted there. Sure they went down a treat with the audience.

7.16pm – Best Sound Editing is a tie! This very rarely happens. Zero Dark Thirty takes the first…

7.17pm – Skyfall takes the second! A huge surprise, but a great win!

7.19pm – Christopher Plummer welcomed onstage with a MacFarlane-esque movie reference. Clever stuff.

7.20pm – This is a rather lovely intro from Plummer to the Best Supporting Actress nominees.

7.22pm – If Anne Hathaway doesn’t win the world may vomit. Just a universal vomit.

7.23pm – Thank god. I wanted to keep down all this beer and popcorn.

7.24pm – It’s not an Oscars ’til there’s a hint of tears. Nice job Anne Hathaway!

7.30pm – Brief discussion about the upcoming Academy Museum. I like to work in film museums. Can I work there please?

7.32pm – Sandra Bullock is here to give out the editing award. One of the most important of all – let it never be forgotten. I called Argo.

7.34pm – And how right I was! Argo takes Best Editing. William Goldenberg did a terrific job, especially in the opening scenes.

7.35pm – Jennifer Lawrence and her Metroid dress introduce Adele to sing ‘Skyfall’. Wonder if it’ll win Best Song later…

7.38pm – Great performance of a great song. Worried Shirley Bassey is gonna kick Adele’s ass backstage after for stealing her thunder.

7.44pm – Nicole Kidman is here to tell us a little about Silver Django’s Amour.

7.48pm – Daniel Radcliffe and an amusingly hobbling Kristen Stewart, who keeps grunting in pain, announcing nominees for Production Design.

7.49pm – Lincoln takes it! I think I actually called that one! Hooray for Lincoln! Hooray for me!

7.52pm – Salma Hayek, looking like an exotic princess from a Pink Panther movie, tells us about some people who won some nice awards for niceness.

7.57pm – George Clooney, proving with his grey beard that time rolls forever onward, reminds us of those we’ve lost. Tears time!

8.01pm – A lot of sad losses this year, from Borgnine to Tony Scott. But the big surprise is Barbra Streisand coming out to sing ‘The Way We Were’. Fitting.

8.09pm – Chicago being honoured for no great reason. Oh wait, it’s to announce the Best Score award. That… sort of makes sense.

8.11pm – Another envelope struggle and… Life of Pi wins it! That puts it well in the lead tonight!

8.13pm – Best Song goes to ‘Skyfall’ or I know nothing of the Oscars.

8.15pm – Norah Jones performs ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend’ from Ted, co-written by host Seth MacFarlane. A nice touch.

8.17pm – But still Adele takes it, and she weeps. Thank goodness, we’re overdue some proper tears!

8.19pm – Yet another ad break. And still six awards to go. Getting sleepy…

8.23pm – Dustin Hoffman propping up Charlize Theron. The unoriginal odd couple. Now some writing awards.

8.24pm – Best Adapted Screenplay. This could go almost anywhere…

8.25pm – Chris Terrio wins for Argo! Pretty much seals the deal for Best Picture later…

8.26pm – A great, rapidfire speech about the good of solving troubles non-violently there.

8.27pm – Somewhat disgracefully, Quentin Tarantino takes Best Original Screenplay for Django Unchained.

8.28pm – Tarantino takes a moment to thank people other than himself. Good for him.

8.33pm – Some good gags from MacFarlane there to bring out Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, children of Hollywood legends.

8.34pm – Though my goodness Jane Fonda’s dress is loud! Best Director is on the way…

8.35pm – Shock and terror! Ang Lee takes it for Life of Pi! This could mean a lot of things. Terrible for Spielberg, but a deserved win all the same.

8.35pm – “Thank you movie god.” – Ang Lee

8.40pm – And Jean Dujardin is here to present Best Actress. There may some swooning.

8.43pm – I know I’ve called this for Lawrence already, but now I just don’t know…

8.44pm – But I was right! And then she fell on the steps going up. At least she made a gag about it!

8.45pm – A good quick speech by Jennifer Lawrence there. Now Meryl Streep is here to give Daniel Day-Lewis something.

8.48pm – Three for you Day-Lewis. You go Day-Lewis.

8.50pm – Standing ovation for a charmingly beffudled Day-Lewis. Who makes a great joke to Streep about swapping Lincoln for Thatcher.

8.52pm – A brilliantly worded and emotive speech there. Day-Lewis did the tall man proud.

8.52pm – Jack Nicholson to give out Best Picture. Surely it’s Argo

8.53pm – Nicholson joined via videolink by Michelle Obama from the White House. What a brilliant, if strange, surprise!

8.56pm – Michelle Obama announces it for Argo! No big surprise, other than in the way it was read out.

8.58pm – Did George Clooney really need another Oscar? Stupid perfect Clooney.

8.59pm – Ben Affleck given the nod to discuss the film as its director. The whole team seem a little upset at him not getting that nomination.

9.00pm – Ah, but can Ben Affleck win an Oscar for acting?

9.01pm – Kristen Chenoweth joins Seth MacFarlane on stage to sing a song for the losers. The credits roll, no one really cares any more.

9.05pm – And that’s the end. A decent show. With the exception of the gongs for Django and Brave‘s win, I am very happy with the night.

9.08pm – OK, that’s me wrapped for another year. Now to look forward to tomorrow when the average person once again no longer cares very much about the movies. Oh well, it’s always good while it lasts. Hope you enjoyed following. Good night to all!

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And the Osc’Argo’s to… – Predictions for the 85th Academy Awards

85 Years of Oscars by ollymoss.com (click to enlarge)

85 Years of Oscars by ollymoss.com (click to enlarge)

Sunday night will see the usual meat parade of celebrities march down the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, in their excessive ball gowns and ever-so-slightly personalised tuxedoes, before giving each other gold man-shaped pats on the back for being ever so special – or so the cynics would have you believe.

There are those amongst the cinephiles of this world who do feel the Academy Awards are a meaningless black hole of self-congratulation and commercialism, and they may be right in many respects. But they can’t take the fun away. For the more optimistic film fanatic, the Oscars provide the one night of the year where every person in the world (or so it seems) cares just as much about the movies as we do. Who cares if they cheapen it – at least they care!

The somewhat bold decision by the Academy to have the unpredictable and untested Seth MacFarlane host could well prove a trump card or a bright red self-destruct button. At the very least the quality of lampooning should be stepped up a notch from previous years. Other events of the night differ in the levels of excitement they inspire. A tribute to 50 years of James Bond should provide a quality showreel. A tribute to Hollywood musicals of the last 10 years will surely have less life in it than the roll call of the recently departed.

So how are the awards lining up? Well…

Best Picture

For a long time there this was anyone’s game. Les Misérables seemed a lock, before anyone saw how blandly it was shot. Lincoln was also an early call, which took a dip and then rose back up to the top of the charts. Zero Dark Thirty appears to have waterboarded its own Oscar hopes. Django Unchained has been greeted with bewildering raves from critics and audiences, but it is surely a little eccentric and excessive to warrant a win. Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, both fine films warmly received, seem to have been pushed out by their more realistic and historically themed peers. Amour is the token nod to a master filmmaker, which is all-but-assured the Foreign Language Oscar. Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like a similar nod to a newly shining star in Benh Zeitlin, but don’t count it out completely – it’s been a huge hit with critics and would tickle the liberal hearts of Academy voters.

Have… have we won yet?: John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in Argo

But realistically if anything is going to give Lincoln a run for its money it’s Argo. Ben Affleck’s light espionage drama has crept back into pole position after waltzing home with pretty much every best picture (or equivalent) award at every awards show thus far. Despite Affleck not being nominated for Best Director, it is unwise to count Argo out – with no best picture/director split since 2005, the Academy is well overdue such a discrepancy, although it would be the first film to win Best Picture with a directorial nod since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. Evidently, stranger things have happened.

Should win: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Will win: Argo

Best Director

Making history: Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

Making history: Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

This seems an easier one to bite, what with Lincoln one of the top two Best Picture contenders. Steven Spielberg has already a Best Director statue without a Best Picture twin, for Saving Private Ryan, and his work on Lincoln is more than deserving. But so does Ang Lee, for Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi is assuredly the work of full-blooded auteur. David O. Russell seems an unlikely candidate, if only for the scale of his film, and that goes double for Michael Haneke. A Benh Zeitlin win would be a coup and a half. He should be very proud just to be there.

Should win: Ang Lee

Will win: Steven Spielberg

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Abolition impossible: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

I won’t insult your intelligence by writing anything here. Other nominees include Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Hugh Jackman (Les Mis) and Denzel Washington (Flight).

Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

The Oscar Games: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

Now here’s a proper contest. So much to play for. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) are fighting to be crowned the new Queen of Hollywood. Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is fighting to be the new Princess. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) is fighting for one last great honour. Naomi Watts (The Impossible) is fighting to stay in movies and not be condemned to television. The tide against Zero Dark Thirty seems to be squeezing Chastain’s hopes, and she will no doubt be back for more in the years to come. Lawrence is here a second time, and seems the likely winner. Riva and Wallis would both be record holders, oldest and youngest winners respectively. With a performance as strong as she gave in Silver Linings however, the same year her Hunger Games was such a surprise hit, Lawrence seems the best bet.

Should win: Emmanuelle Riva or Quvenzhané Wallis

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actor

Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Oscar, the grouch: Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Coming out of the Golden Globes, Christoph Waltz has momentum behind him, but his character Dr. King Schultz, the highlight of Django Unchained, is perhaps a little too similar to Hans Landa, the character who previously won him this award for Inglourious Basterds. Alan Arkin already has his tokenistic Best Supporting award for Little Miss Sunshine, so he seems an ill-fit. Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) gave his finest performance in over a decade, but it was hardly the finest supporting performance of the year. The disdain the Academy has shown for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master will work against Philip Seymour Hoffman. This one has to go to Lincoln’s Tommy Lee Jones.

Should win: Philip Seymour Hoffman or Tommy Lee Jones

Will win: Tommy Lee Jones

Best Supporting Actress

Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables

Fantinetastic: Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables

There was a lot of talk early on about Sally Field’s performance in Lincoln making her a likely winner, but the performances of Day-Lewis and Jones (and Spader!) have undermined her hopes considerably. Amy Adams gave a chilling performance in The Master, but it is perhaps too dark (and complex) for the Academy’s tastes. Helen Hunt (The Sessions) is surely just delighted to back in the A-list. Jacki Weaver was definitely in Silver Linings Playbook, but I don’t remember a lot else about her performance. No, this is as assuredly Anne Hathaway’s win as anything could be. If Les Mis didn’t convince you of that, surely this video will.

Should win: Amy Adams

Will win: Anne Hathaway

Best Original Screenplay

Tarantino has already taken a few trophies for his Django Unchained script, a fact which continues to baffle me. Mark Boal will no doubt suffer the Zero Dark Thirty backlash. John Gatins (Flight) and Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom) seem like seat fillers, but count neither out just yet, especially the latter. This is the one category where Amour could really step-out of the woodwork, and not just be another Best Foreign Language Picture winner and nothing more. Here’s hoping.

Should win: Michael Haneke

Will win: Michael Haneke

Best Adapted Screenplay

With so many exceptional adaptations this year, this could turn out to be the most exciting and unpredictable race of the lot. Chris Terrio (Argo), David Magee (Life of Pi) and Tony Kushner (Lincoln) have all done remarkable work in their adaptations, while David O. Russell has written a truly charming yet affecting work from Silver Linings Playbook. But in terms of transmogrifying a source material into a work of cinema, there seems no greater nominee than Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin’s script for Beasts of the Southern Wild, from Alibar’s one-person play Juicy and Delicious. But who the hell knows that the Academy wants!? Usually everyone, so why is this so hard to call?

Should win: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin

Will win: Chris Terrio or David Magee

Best Animated Feature

Tall order: Wreck-It Ralph

Tall order: Wreck-It Ralph

Here’s another unpredictable little venture. DreamWorks’ confusing but beautiful Rise of the Guardians didn’t even make the grade, leaving an odd band of five vying for the Oscar here. Brave is decidedly a weaker entry in the Pixar canon, but it is at times breathtaking to behold. A respectful nod to the studio with a win, or a “must do better” note sent home to the parents? That would leave the major contenders Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. The former has the artistry, the latter the ideas – but both suffer from weak third acts. ParaNorman could scrape in, but its poor box office makes it the most forgettable of the quintet to the untrained eye. That could leave Aardman’s superb The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (I won’t be caught dead using its American title), but it has been largely overlooked in previous awards nominations. Another tough one to call, especially for one that film fans are so surprisingly passionate about.

Should win: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (aka Band of Misfits)

Will win: Wreck-It Ralph

Best Animated Short

Love-struck: Paperman

Love-struck: Paperman

Disney’s utterly delighting Paperman goes up against the surprisingly sweet Simpsons short The Longest Daycare. Both feature playful acts of defenestration, but the former is surely the forerunner in this contest. That said, it would be nice to see PES’s remarkably inventive Fresh Guacamole win. I mean, just look at the damn thing!

Should win: Paperman

Will win: Paperman

Best Foreign Language Film

Waiting for the end: Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Waiting for the end: Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Amour

Moving on.

Best Documentary Feature

Due to unfortunate release schedules in these parts and unfortunate me schedules in my own life, I have not seen any of the nominees. Searching for Sugarman seems a firm bet based on word of mouth, but that’s all I can offer.

Best Documentary Short

See above, only shorter!

Best Original Score

This one could get interesting. Skyfall is a surprise nomination for Thomas Newman, and Dario Marianelli seems a wild card for Anna Karenina. Alexandre Desplat’s Argo score was one of the year’s better, while John Williams’s Lincoln was but a pleasant shadow of what the man used create in his prime. In terms of evoking a mood and sounding truly original, nothing should beat Mychael Danna’s Life of Pi score. Although the absence of both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Cloud Atlas from this category is definitely disconcerting.

Should win: Mychael Danna

Will win: Mychael Danna

Best Original Song

That Adele is so hot right now. Not much chance of that going any other way. Expect the manner in which Seth MacFarlane handles his nomination in this category (for ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend’ from Ted) to be the making or breaking of his performance on the night.

Should win: ‘Skyfall’

Will win: ‘Skyfall’

Best Sound Editing/Mixing

Stop pretending you care.

But for what it’s worth I’m calling both for Life of Pi.

Best Production Design

As was the style at the time: Lincoln’s stellar production design

Another potential shocker that could turn up just about anything. Certainly Anna Karenina was intriguing to behold, and Life of Pi did some remarkable things with its visuals. But bigger is surely better in these sorts of categories, so The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Misérables and Lincoln seem the better calls.

Should win: Anna Karenina or The Hobbit

Will win: Lincoln

Best Cinematography

Shadow play: Roger Deakins's cinematography in Skyfall

Shadow play: Roger Deakins’s cinematography in Skyfall

Roger Deakins has quite horrifyingly never won an Oscar, and while it would be unlikely for him to finally win for a Bond film, it isn’t impossible Skyfall could nab this one. Still, Seamus McGarvey’s luxuriant Anna Karenina and Claudio Miranda’s magisterial work on Life of Pi are almost too much for Deakins to counter. Janusz Kamiński’s bright yet dreary Lincoln looks real and beautiful, but is perhaps too drab for Academy tastes. Robert Richardson’s work on Django is more than anything what creates that film’s style, but away from its frankly gorgeous exteriors, it has not much to offer. Another tough one to call.

Should win: Roger Deakins or Claudio Miranda

Will win: Claudio Miranda

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

"It's the beards": The dwarves of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“It’s the beards”: The dwarves of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Oh right, this is still an award. Um… The Hobbit? Actually, going by traditional winners Hitchcock will probably nab this. But no, I’m saying The Hobbit. If only for making Christopher Lee look in his 60s (he’s 90!).

Should win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Will win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Best Costume Design

All dressed up and somewhere to go: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michelle Dockery and Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

2012 was the year of not one but two dreadful Snow White films, but both deserve a bit of credit for the costume work, and here that credit is. The late Eiko Ishioka could well receive a posthumous Oscar for her work on Mirror Mirror, but the film was so frankly despised it seems improbable. Snow White and the Huntsman seems even less likely a winner. With Les Mis vying for a top spot with Lincoln in terms of historical realism, the eye-melting costume work of Anna Karenina, by Jacqueline Durran, has a very good shot at stealing the title, especially if diamonds can count as costuming.

Should win: Anna Karenina or Mirror Mirror

Will win: Anna Karenina

Best Editing

There were no standout examples of editing nominated this year, and thinking back on 2012 it’s hard to think of anything exceptional that has been cut from the list, either. Zero Dark Thirty was the real disappointment, after the phenomenal editing Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker displayed. Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook were both edited efficiently but without flair. While Tim Squyres tied Life of Pi together beautifully, the energy created by William Goldernberg’s editing of the opening 10 minutes of Argo more than makes him deserving of the award.

Should win: Life of Pi or Argo

Will win: Argo

Best Visual Effects

Film school: Life of Pi's astonishing whale

Film school: Life of Pi’s astonishing whale

Snow White and the Huntsman gets another nod here, and will go home empty-handed and undeserving. The Avengers and Prometheus will cancel one another out, leaving this a battle of scale versus creativity. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could win out through sheer force of everything, but it seems unlikely to beat Life of Pi’s controlled, fluid and never utterly in-your-face world building. All the orcish hordes of Middle Earth can’t compete against the colossal might of a leaping whale.

Should win: Life of Pi

Will win: Life of Pi

And that’s the lot of them. How right I’ve been we’ll see on Sunday night. It’s the predictability of the Oscars that makes the upsets all the more shocking, and entertaining, so with any luck, for my sake at least, I’ve been very, very wrong.

If all goes to plan I’ll be live-blogging the event, so be sure to check back here, or follow my Twitter feed. It’s gonna be a long, fun night.

Well, maybe not fun. But long. Definitely long.

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Zero Dark Thirty – To see the terror of your ways

A one-woman Team America: Jessica Chastain

As the lights go down for Zero Dark Thirty, nothing comes up on the big screen. Over a blacked-out image, we hear police calls and radio chatter from 9/11. It’s an effective, if not exactly original tactic for bringing us back into that world of terror and vengeance for the innocents killed on that day.

At the first of several classified locations over the years that follow, we are introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative assisting in the torture of Al-Qaeda associates in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Her goal is solely to track down Osama Bin Laden, primarily targeting the paper trail from 9/11 which leads back to Abu Ahmed, Bin Laden’s personal courier.

Playing out over nearly a decade, Zero Dark Thirty charts Maya’s investigation, its successes, pitfalls and red herrings – as well as Al-Qaeda’s subsequent attacks – right up to the discovery of Bin Laden’s hideout, and the SEAL Team Six assault on it in May 2011.

Paced like a police procedural drama, but with the soul and redemption of the United States on the line, Zero Dark Thirty maintains attention and interest throughout. It is, however, due to the mass media reporting of the events within it, utterly predictable from start to finish. Because of this, director Kathryn Bigelow, whose previous film The Hurt Locker was one of the most nail-bitingly tense cinematic experiences of the past 50 years, is never able to raise that kind tension from her latest project. Even one scene not widely reported in media, where an Al-Qaeda defector is brought to a CIA stronghold, fails to up the tension due to dialogue cues telegraphing the trajectory of the scene.

But while these elements work against Zero Dark Thirty, it is undeniably a finely crafted film. Tightly shot and edited, with a great score by Alexandre Desplat that always suits the locations and atmosphere, Bigelow’s film rolls steadily along thanks to Mark Boal’s deeply technical and well-researched script that balances tradecraft talk with flippant everyday language. “This is what defeat looks like, bro,” torture expert Dan (Jason Clarke) tells his victim to break him down. “Your jihad is over.”

The film never shies away from the dark realities of the manhunt, including some deeply unpleasant waterboarding sequences. But the realities of this torture seem hard to dispute and while the techniques are effective, Boal’s script never seems in favour of what is happening. Horror is met with further horror, and everyone suffers, even the surprisingly fragile torturers.

Chastain reveals herself once more to be one of the finest performers in American cinema today, capturing a character full of determination and loneliness. Her face displays her distaste for torture when she first witnesses it, but her voice is insistent when she says she won’t wait outside. Maya’s descent into hell for the love of her job is the cornerstone of the film, and Chastain carries this flawlessly as her obsession with her work drives her closer to both despair and her goal.

The supporting players are mostly strong, with Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle all carrying their scenes appropriately. Only a brief cameo by James Gandolfini seems out of place, and somewhat unsuitable to the seriousness of the material. A temporary lull in the film’s midsection is interrupted gloriously by Mark Strong’s sudden bursting into the movie with a scenery-inhaling performance as a top-tier CIA honcho with a zero tolerance for bullshit.

Zero Dark Thirty never releases you from its grip, but the hold certainly loosens in the final act as the Navy SEALs make their play on the Bin Laden compound. An early set-back that seems overtly fictional is followed by the infiltration of the main building by a team of soldiers vastly outmanning and outgunning the terrorists within. It’s a superb reconstruction, but it is hardly a thrilling action sequence – more high-class documentary than Die Hard. Afterwards, the film’s final shot, a suitable catharsis, is one that has become a cliché of the modern spy movie genre, used repeatedly before in TV series such as 24 and Homeland. It’s hard not to feel that the reality was simply never as exciting as the fiction.

Still, Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent record of the secret takedown of a real-life supervillain, and the pacing and direction are overshadowed only by the film’s central performance. It is a worthy and timely piece of historical re-enactment, with plenty to say about the post-9/11 world and America’s role in it.

3/5

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2011 in review – Style, meet Substance. Substance, Style.

Now, perhaps I’m just misjudging the subtext of what I’ve read in the blogo/Twitter-sphere, but I get the impression that there is consensus that 2011 was a particularly fine year for cinema. There were definitely a lot of great films released, and compiling the list below was not easy, but was it a particularly great year?

It was certainly a standout year for American (and English-language) cinema. With some exceptions, blockbusters were smarter and tighter, and even where they failed (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) they still had ambition. Source Code led the charge for a new wave of intelligent sci-fi thrillers. Bridesmaids and 50/50 showed that American comedies could have as much heart as they had bodily fluids. Drive proved enough flair on a filmmaker’s behalf could erase any need for strong dialogue or acting – yet that film brought some great lines and fine performances nonetheless. At Cannes, The Tree of Life conquered, and around the world audiences were left mesmerised and/or walked out of the cinema.

The build-up to 2012’s The Avengers continued with two enjoyable tongue-in-cheek superhero adventures, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger; the success of both suggested the heroic team’s first outing will be one of the biggest films of this year. If rivals DC and Warner Bros wish to meet the Avengers threat head-on with a Justice League film, the critically mauled Green Lantern and a trailer for 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises should ensure that no one wants to see a JL film without Christopher Nolan at the helm any time soon.

After a terrific year in 2010, children’s films hit a hurdle – only one children’s film cracked my top 20, and it was released in the US in 2010. Martin Scorsese’s beautiful but shamefully overlong Hugo deserves applause however, even if it did prove once and for all (to me at least) that 3D cannot be mastered even by the most talented of filmmakers. Nostalgic methadone The Muppets and the enjoyable Kung Fu Panda 2 (which featured superb sequences of traditional hand-drawn animation) also narrowly missed my list.

As for documentaries… well, for work-related reasons I saw more docs last year than any year previous. Unfortunately many of them are so obscure that there is no point in listing them here. But suffice to say it was a strong year for documentary from around the world, even if the interesting but unambitious Inside Job won most of the acclaim this year. Docs like Senna and Page One: Inside the New York Times told their stories with far more flair.

A few notes on the list. Traditionally I have stuck with what was released in Ireland during each individual year, meaning that some of the previous year’s late releases (especially the Oscar push) end up on the subsequent year’s list – there’s never been a way of avoiding that. To add to the confusion now, I spent almost half of 2011 living in the United States, so this list may see some films released in late 2010 in the US but early 2011 in Ireland, while others will have yet to arrive in Irish cinemas yet.

It’s fair to say I didn’t see as many new films in 2011 as I might have liked (so few bad ones indeed, that I do not have enough to fill a “worst of 2011” list), but I did see a huge number of films this year. On the big screen, just some of the classics I saw include: Walkabout, The Driver, Paisan, Pickpocket, Network, The Wages of Fear, Quai des Brumes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (a restoration presented in person by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker), Bridge on the River Kwai, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Orpheus, The Warriors and The Big Lebowski. Most of these were made available to me during a three-month internship I undertook at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a position I could talk endlessly about, but will not concern you with here.

That didn’t leave much room for new films, and amongst those I missed that I suspect may have challenged the films on this list are: Paul, The Beaver, Warrior, Moneyball, Take Shelter, My Week With Marilyn, Tyrannosaur, Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Skin I Live In, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin.

Honourable mentions for films that I saw but barely missed out on the list are: Hugo, The Guard, The Muppets, Attack the Block, Senna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Bridesmaids, The Inbetweeners Movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Super 8.

Now, enough stalling… shall we?

20. The King’s Speech

The eventual reigning champion at last year’s Oscars, this was a beautifully produced and (for the most part) strongly acted account of the troubles faced by the young King George VI. A powerful and memorable ending casts a positive light on an otherwise largely forgettable flm; but damn, what an ending it is.

19. Troll Hunter

One of 2011’s most unexpected delights, this “found-footage” comedy/horror used the bizarre natural landscape of Norway as the perfect paradise for surprisingly realistic CGI trolls on a budget. An outrageously straight performance by Norwegian comic Otto Jespersen as the government-sponsored hunter of the title and surprisingly effective pseudo-science about troll biology made this film a sometimes scary but consistently hilarious outing – Man Bites Dog meets Rare Exports. “TROOOOOOOOOLL!” may have been the funniest delivery of a single word last year.

18. Tangled

Disney finally put a CG challenge to their successful underlings Pixar with this gorgeous retelling of the Rapunzel tale. Colourful, enchanting, witty and light, the film was only let down by standard music numbers and a fairytale parody feel all-too familiar from the Shrek films. A superb villain, a playful chameleon and an indestructible horse were all highlights, but the film’s greatest feat is the animation in Rapunzel’s seemingly endless waves of golden hair.

 17. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

M:I4 came out at the end of a year which had featured some strong blockbusters but had been for the most part low on action (Transformers: Dark of the Moon notwithstanding). But Ghost Protocol made up for that. Beginning with a simple prison breakout, Ethan Hunt and his team go on to infiltrate the Kremlim, abseil the world’s tallest building and embark on a chase through a sandstorm where every grain can be heard whistling violently by the camera. The story was light spy fare, but the commitment by actors and filmmakers on show were as awe-inspiring as the stunts they pulled off for the camera.

16. The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s latest is a powerful family drama. George Clooney is impressive as a lawyer nigh-widowed when his wife is left in a vegetative state after a boating accident. Trying to hold his family together, he must also deal with a sale of his family’s massive estate on which many relatives are relying. Hawaii has never looked so naturally beautiful and also hideously metropolitan as it does here. The music is wonderfully chosen from local sources, and Shailene Woodley gives one of the year’s best performances as the distraught and destructive older daughter. However, the film’s tiresome insistence on ending every dramatic scene with a punchline keeps it from being one of the greatest of recent American dramas.

15. True Grit

The Coens went west again with this adaptation of Charles Portis’s book, while still undeniably owing credit to the John Wayne-starring original. With two terrific performances at its centre by Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld and stunning golden-brown cinematography, this was a notable entry in the Coens’ canon. Expectedly wacky minor characters and some thrilling and tense shoot-outs added to the fun.

14. Pina

An incredible documentary and the finest live-action 3D film yet produced (although still far from faultless in terms of that technology), Pina is a work of love in memory of the late choreographer Pina Bausch. Wim Wenders controls the cameras but he allows Pina’s choreography to direct the film, as her company, each member an instrument of their master, performs sensational modern dance pieces. The energy and beauty of the dances are on full display, as four massive ensemble pieces are intercut with brief personal performances by each of the dancers. For the most part the 3D recreates the depth of viewing dance in theatre while allowing the viewer to feel the power and intensity of each performance more intimately. The film has emerged from a tragedy (Pina’s sudden death just before filming began) to become a testament to one woman’s remarkable legacy.

 13. Poetry

South Korean star Yoon Jeong-hee emerged from retirement to star in this superb, harrowing drama about an ailing grandmother forced to raise money for a legal settlement after her grandson is implicated in the suicide of a teenaged girl. Unexpectedly powerful and heartfelt, Poetry is carried by Jeong-hee’s sensational performance as she tries to find the will, energy and love to do whatever it takes to save her grandson from prison.

12. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This superbly shot, atmospheric spy thriller was one of the year’s most audience-dividing films, but few could doubt its style and the acting strength of its terrific ensemble cast. Despite some pacing troubles caused by adapting an extremely meaty book, Tomas Alfredson latest film maintained tension and intrigue from start to finish, while injecting some superb character drama into proceedings. Old-school storytelling meets modern filmmaking precision.

11. Kill List

The only film on this list that I can openly say I do not know if I wish to see it ever again. This genre-shifting oddity – part thriller, part horror, part kitchen sink drama – came out of nowhere this year; a low-budget Yorkshire production. With frenzied performances and horrific but effective storytelling, editing and imagery, this unforgettable beast manages to terrorise its audience but unlike most modern horrors actually has a genuine story. Family, friendship and the damage rage can do to them are the subjects at this film’s core. Unmissable – if your stomach can handle that sort of thing.

10. We Need to Talk About Kevin

It may have suffered from budgeting problems but this drama, about a mother who cannot love her son, is crafted by truly expert hands. Lynne Ramsay directs the irreproachable Tilda Swinton as the troubled mother – uncertain if her child is evil or, worse, if her fearing that is making him so. A wonderful mesh of flashbacks weave together a devastating story, told with wonderful plays of lighting and editing. Swinton gives perhaps the greatest performance of her career to date, while co-stars John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller offer strong support.

 9. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s latest comeback is his best film in decades. Owen Wilson fills Allen’s acting shoes with aplomb as a writer nostalgic for an era he has never known – Paris in the ’20s. When, escaping his passionless fiancée, he inadvertently finds himself time-travelling to that age, he finds inspiration from his idols and, unexpectedly, a truer love in the form of Pablo Picasso’s mistress (Marion Cotillard). Beautifully shot, cunningly scripted and with a soundtrack to warm the heart, the film is elevated further by a series of charming cameos; most notably Adrien Brody, hamming it up magnificently as Salvador Dalí.

8. Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s film about obsession on the ballet stage combines the wildness of Powell and Pressburger with the psychological and body horror of David Cronenberg. Anchored by an incredible performance from Natalie Portman, this is a stylish, sexualised psychological thriller about a mental breakdown spurred on by determination to be the best. Ominous production design and chaotic editing kept the audience as confused and terrified as its lead character.

 7. Shame

Following his sensational breakthrough Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s second film is a tragic and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of a sex addict. The year’s biggest surprise star, Michael Fassbender, gives a disturbing but spellbinding performance in the lead role as a man obsessed with his own need. Carrie Mulligan gives a fine performance as his sister, the only person who stands a hope of getting through to him in his self-destructive cocoon, but who has her own problems to deal with. Shot with the director’s now signature style of long takes and anchored cameras, Shame gets you inside the head of a man you were happier only knowing the exterior of. A gripping, sorrowful, shameless movie.

 6. A Separation

As human as any drama could hope to be, this Iranian feature tells the story of a couple as they prepare to divorce, and the effect it has on their teenaged daughter. When an accident implicates the husband in a terrible crime, the familial bonds are tested to their limit. A Separation is an incredible, original-feeling story, in which every shot is sensitively composed, and the actors play out the drama with more conviction than most filmmakers could dream of finding. An unexpected gem of Iranian cinema.

5. Drive

Taking its cue from Walter Hill’s existential car chase classic The Driver, untameable Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn made his American debut with more class and style than most of Hollywood’s heavy-hitters could hope to conjure in an entire career. Shot so slickly the screen appears to ooze light and colour (and later, blood), and with a soundtrack that can only be described as “awesome”, Drive took the whole world by storm and topped countless best of lists in 2011. Ryan Gosling plays the largely silent lead role calm and cool, but the film is stolen by the enigmatic Albert Brooks as a business-savvy mafia boss who takes no prisoners.

4. Melancholia

Perhaps Lars von Trier’s finest film to date, this drama of personal agony/apocalyptic sci-fi nightmare was one of the most hotly debated films last year. It tells the story of a young woman’s lapse into a destructive depression as the very literal metaphor of the planet Melancholia begins a collision course with Earth. As our heroine, Kirsten Dunst reveals herself a remarkable actress of hitherto unexplored talents. However, several of the film’s other performances – especially those of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling and Kiefer Sutherland – deserve outstanding praise also. The film’s overture, a stunning sequence of painterly foreshadowings, and its conclusion in an orgy of emotion, light and music, make it a truly remarkable piece of filmmaking from an endlessly challenging filmmaker.

3. 13 Assassins

One of the year’s most over-looked films, 13 Assassins echoes the greatness of Seven Samurai while creating a grittier, more violent and altogether more carefree film. Takashi Miike builds the drama over the course of an hour, setting his band of samurai against an army of warriors and their utterly despicable master. When the tension finally gives way, one of the most remarkably orchestrated battle scenes in recent memory erupts in a flurry of swords, severed limbs and flaming cattle. The film’s realistic look and soundscape allow for a perverse weirdness to seep through, which provides a truly breathtaking entertainment.

2. The Tree of Life

A surprise victor at Cannes in 2011, Terrence Malick’s latest is a glorious thing to behold. The story of a Texas family is told in flashes of light and memory, accompanied by angelic music and bolstered by outstanding acting by Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken. Through imagery of the dawn of time and the rise and demise of the dinosaurs Malick demonstrates the true reality of life; the lord giveth and the lord taketh away. Composed of one eye-shatteringly gorgeous image after the other, The Tree of Life simply has no equal in terms of skill in filmmaking. Only a misused Sean Penn and a clichéd (though beautiful) coda could be said to make this film anything less than a masterpiece.

1. The Artist

The filmmaker/actor partnership behind a pair of slight but playful French spy spoofs unexpectedly burst onto the global stage in a flurry of unbridled joy in 2011. The Artist, a silent tale of silent movies and the silent men and women behind them, is not just a throwback to the classics of old Hollywood, but is a touching, timely drama about obsoleteness and getting back on your feet. More importantly, it is a delightful, playful and utterly charming comedy that takes the visual medium to a place it hasn’t gone with such panache in over 80 years. Michel Hazanavicius directs like a silent-era pro, as if he were one of the European émigrés who built early Hollywood arriving a little too late to the party. In the lead role of former silent star George Valentin, Jean Dujardin is electric; every muscle in his body goes into his dazzling performance, his face does more work than most actors do with their entire beings. As his young muse, Bérénice Bejo provides a perfect mirror of physical support, while Valentin’s remarkable pet dog (also his co-star) steals many scenes without bending a whisker. As much homage as it is a work of sheer class in and of itself, The Artist is a joy-filled crowd-pleaser which also toys with the medium with some remarkable, truly satisfying results.

That's all folks!

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