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2014 in review – It wasn’t the best of times, it wasn’t the worst of times

(clockwise from top left) Ida, Nightcrawler, Under the Skin, Calvary

Another year goes by, more films come out than I get to see, and a promise to my young self to one day watch every film there is becomes ever-more a betrayal. The year 2014 was a busy one for me, still entrenched in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation programme at NYU; moving images took a back seat in all but theory.

Towards the end of the year there were many saying that 2014 had been a disappointing 12 months in film. It was hard not to see some small truth in this; I certainly saw very few films that deserved consideration of being called masterpieces, and reports from others suggested I had not missed many either. But I saw no lack of great films in 2014. Whittling down a top 20 remained a challenge, with several films I feel hugely positive about not making the cut. Despite what some may think, there is no lack of greatness out there, even amongst the most mainstream of Hollywood popcorn fare.

Indeed, if anything, 2014 was a year of noble failures and flawed triumphs. Hollywood gave us works like Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Divergent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Edge of Tomorrow, Lucy, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – solid action movies with ambitious themes, some better pulled off than others, but evidence that the business of show and global audiences still want their brain candy to come with a little brain.

And then there were the dramas. 2014 opened with everyone finally catching Spike Jonze’s Her (a film that would’ve done quite splendidly on my last year’s ranking had I caught it in the last weeks of December but which I can’t in all anal conscience include this year), and the year didn’t quite live up to this until the post-summer pre-Oscar season. Gone Girl gripped for two hours, then choked its audience with a bewilderingly unsubtle final 20 minutes. Wetlands provoked more than any film in recent memory with its study of female sexuality, but came to be more a tantrum of provocation than a truly meaningful inspection. And Maps to the Stars took one of the finest shotgun blasts to the myth of celebrity that has ever been unleashed, before inevitably turning that weapon on itself. Elsewhere, Love Is Strange was that rare film that handled its subject matter with such maturity and confidence that it seems laughable to think that any of the issues it addresses were taboo in the last 100 years.

Then there were the comedies. While The Lego Movie provided more laughs than any film in years, movies like Neighbors (Bad Neighbours in countries with good soaps) and The Trip to Italy showed there’s still plenty of material out there to mine for clever laughs. The Grand Budapest Hotel was a ferocious misfire, gorgeous to behold but utterly empty of heart, bound to endlessly repeat the same two gags of “famous people appearing” and “famous people swearing”. 22 Jump Street failed to live up to its predecessor; critiquing the Hollywood formula for sequels by repeating every one of their failings is cute at first but rapidly succumbs to its own poison. At the very least its closing credits will go down in history as some of the most enjoyable and inspired in forever.

Sequels were a mixed bag. Captain America and Planet of the Apes saw marked improvements, while the finest X-Men movie in more than a decade may have saved that stagnant franchise. But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 proved that franchise alone cannot guarantee success, with a bloated and thematically bipolar production almost crucifying Sony’s hopes to move forward with more. Transformers: Age of Extinction was not the worst film in the franchise, but that’s about all that can be said for it, while How to Train Your Dragon 2, despite the expected gloss of its design, managed to extinguish much of the fire of the original surprise triumph. The Raid 2 was a misery of convoluted and derivative over-plotting that redeemed itself with some of the finest action spectacle ever recorded.

Back home, Irish cinema had a tremendous little year. Calvary, while hugely divisive with homegrown audiences, was viewed as a spectacular work elsewhere. Frank, if inconsistent, proved that Lenny Abrahamson could branch out of dark drama, and raised his profile as the saviour of Irish cinema (while also proving Michael Fassbender is so beloved he doesn’t even need to be visible on screen to astonish as an actor). Up North, ’71 took complex and controversial historical events and mutated them into a sophisticated thriller without feeling exploitative.

If 2013 was the year Netflix began to conquer television, 2014 was the year streaming releases became an enormous part of movie-viewing culture. Nymphomaniac saw online distribution just as it hit cinemas, while the terrific thriller Blue Ruin never saw a real cinema release. Netflix produced The Battered Bastards of Baseball, one of the year’s finest docs, while a Christmas tragedy (and World War III?) was avoided with the iTunes drop of The Interview after hacker threats saw it pulled from cinemas.

And then there’s TV. Basically True Detective happened, and then nothing else lived up to it all year.

My own year of film, as I’ve already suggested, has been very wrapped up with my studies, and will continue to be so for the first half of 2015. I was privileged to have the chance to spend the summer working at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland cataloguing and repairing a large collection of nitrate film, which will likely go down as one of the most important tasks I ever achieve in the film world. Discussing and recommending movies feels that little less important after you’ve saved a film from literally eating itself into a puddle of toxic goo.

As for the classics, well I continued to work away at those. Two films this year instantly ranked themselves for me as amongst the finest I’ve ever seen or will see: The Devils and The Holy Mountain. Other essentials included World on a Wire, Queen Christina, Spider Baby, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Z, A Star Is Born (1937), El Topo, Thief, Design for Living, The Sacrifice, The Tin Drum, Phantom of the Paradise, Tampopo, Sitting Target, Fury (1936), Woman in the Dunes, Possession, Taxidermia, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Eyes Without a Face, Toute la Mémoire du Monde, Steamboat Bill Jr., Black Sabbath, A Page of Madness, Umberto D, and Tokyo Godfathers. There were many more, of course, but here is not the place to recommend them. And there were even more films too awful to ever recommend, but they’ll remain unmentioned.

Every year I set myself a film goal, and for 2014 it was exceptional. Having finally watched the second Godzilla film, Godzilla Raids Again, in December of 2013, I set out to finish the entire Toho kaiju catalogue (a further 26 Gojira films and more than a dozen connected features) by the end of this past year. It took a lot out of me, but I achieved it. There’ll be a full report soon, so stay tuned. It’s going to be silly.

And now we prep ourselves for my top 20 of 2014. As always let’s clarify what I missed. Films which evaded me that I suspect may have had places in this list include Two Days, One Night, Selma, Locke, Mommy, Citizenfour, Winter Sleep, and Force Majeure. I will catch them in their own time. Close contenders for the top 20 include Through a Lens Darkly, Captain America 2, La Sapienza, Tom at the Farm, Blue Ruin, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, The Congress, and, a late removal, Edge of Tomorrow. As I said above, it was a year full of great movies, even if all too few of them were spectacular.

20. The Babadook

The feature debut of Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent is one of those horror films that gives you the sensation of having seen it all before, while simultaneously feeding you with the unnerving sensation that that isn’t as reassuring as it could be. A superbly nightmarish take on the boogeyman idea that goes all-in on the “what if it’s just in my head” trope, The Babadook builds to several terrific frights. The all-grey aesthetic becomes wearisome before the end, but the film’s two terrific leads, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, hold attention to the very last scene.

19. Jodorowsky’s Dune

The greatest film never made is an easy tag to throw around, with so many notorious cases of the ‘development hell’ concept out there. But Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abandoned take on Frank Herbert’s Dune is a stronger contender than most. This documentary assembles the essence of the cancelled ’70s psychedelic sci-fi epic through use of talking head interviews and an avalanche of spectacular concept art illustrations that once upon a time nearly saw this film into production. It is a nostalgic and remorseful study of a different time in Hollywood, while also a declaration of the need for experimentation and risk-taking in epic cinema and adaptation.

18. Inherent Vice

Critiquing Paul Thomas Anderson’s stoner detective movie without referencing the other films it invokes memory of is difficult, and that seems to highlight the film’s undeniable imperfections. But Anderson has made a gorgeous film, meticulously detailed and with a suitable faded ’70s look to the image. Bloated with too many oddball characters and a meandering mystery that never quite catches the imagination, it still finds a terrific lead performance in Joaquin Phoenix, and in Josh Brolin’s Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen one of the most audacious eccentrics in American cinema.

17. Interstellar

Contemporary science fiction has gone from ignoring big issues to addressing issues of colossal importance in frankly stupid ways. Just look at Prometheus’ “intriguing” explanations for the origins of life on Earth and our relationship with god. No, scratch that, please don’t. For all its aspirations Interstellar is not a smart movie, but it is a tasteful one, and a production unrivalled in envisioning outer space since 2001. Despite all its faults (abandoned subplots, awkward romance, poorly paced action, a self-contradicting emphasis on the power of love over science, and a second act twist that reeks of rewrites), there is no denying Christopher Nolan is a showman par excellence. The film’s imagery, accompanied by a divine score by Hans Zimmer, assaults the senses throughout, and Matthew McConaughey commits wholeheartedly to a role that supports the whole production.

16. The Lunchbox

Just when you think you’ve seen every high concept romance, this little gem emerges. Utilising Mumbai’s famed dabbawalas, an intricate and vast system of lunch delivery men, Ritesh Batra’s film finds a lonely widower accidentally receiving the lunchbox of a man whose unfulfilled wife is trying to reignite his passion through cooking. The wrong passion is ignited, and a complex love affair begins without the pair in question meeting. Effortlessly charming and rhythmically enrapturing, leads Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur achieve the impossible, to have extraordinary onscreen chemistry without sharing a scene together.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy

Much can be argued about the damage Marvel is doing by dominating mainstream action cinema (and encouraging rivals to try likewise), but when their output can be this furiously exciting there’s little room for complaint. Featuring a gaggle of lesser-known celestial superheroes, James Gunn took a postmodernist comedic slant to the story while also making room for genuine pathos. Challenging the progressively darkening aesthetic of comicbook movies with an effervescent purple, blue and yellow glow and an upbeat ’60s and ’70s pop soundtrack, Guardians showed that a blockbuster could refute seriousness without being dumb. Who knew?

14. Birdman

Speaking of superheroes, where did this one come from? A startling experiment by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman reimagines the fate of actor Michael Keaton after his glory days as Batman and conjures a fascinating tragic character, Riggan Thomson, typecast and devoid of credibility, attempting to reinvent himself on the Broadway stage, while simultaneously going insane from the pressures of failed ambition. The finest ensemble cast of the year and a thrilling jazz score help propel it through some overlong reflections, while cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s single take illusion is as mesmerising as it is unjustified by the content. The ending is an unsatisfying collision of the shocking and obvious, but the film is an intriguing treat throughout.

13. Foxcatcher

A hypnotic study of madness and obsession that slowly lures you in with its unsettling unpleasantness, Foxcatcher leaves you unable to look away from the disintegration of family and trust at its core. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo impress as real life Olympic wrestling champions and brothers, dazzled by a chance at wealth and immortality offered by psychologically damaged billionaire Steve Carell, in a career-redefining role. Shot with restraint and edited with beautiful subtlety, it is charged with a homoerotic intensity that builds to an impossible, exactly-as-it-happened conclusion. One scene of grotesque binge-eating stands out as the greatest horror moment of 2014.

12. The Wonders

One of the finest reflections on the isolation of farming communities from contemporary society, Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders took beekeeping as its subject. The family at the film’s centre, overburdened financially and by the sheer size of their clan, and patronised by an embarrassing reality TV show, represent a dying race of people, whose contributions are no longer respected by growing cities. Seen through the eyes of the eldest daughter, played longingly by Maria Alexandra Lungu, a cycle is revealed that cannot be reversed. Beautifully shot in the Italian countryside and full of witty asides, it is bolstered by fleeting sprinkles of magical realism.

11. Whiplash

More jazz drumming here, but this time it is central to the plot. Damien Chazelle’s tremendously rhythmic film features one of the year’s most intense relationships, a symbiotic S&M partnership between teacher and pupil. The idea that without punishment and cruelty genius can never be achieved is hardly new, but it has never been sold with such wit and ferocity as it is here. Miles Teller makes a convincing lead and impressive percussionist, while J.K. Simmons is simply thrilling as his demented and brilliant mentor. The green colour grading intrudes once too often, but otherwise is an extremely tidy film, hard to fault.

10. Mr. Turner

Attention to detail is all there is to this film. But isn’t that everything? Like the artist himself, whose paintings evoked such feeling by capturing the vastness of sea and landscapes in glorious detail, Mike Leigh’s film recreates the London of the first half of the 19th century down to the most inconsequential minutiae. But while the film reflects on art, class and late-blooming romance, it is Timothy Spall’s outstanding performance that holds the whole work aloft. Every tremor in his face and grunt from his mouth carries a trove of meaning and sadness, and Spall simply becomes another man, a great and tragically faulted man. If the film struggles with pacing and focus, Spall never stumbles for a moment, delivering the performance of his career and the performance of the year.

9. Nymphomaniac

This two-part study of female sexuality revels in the violent and grotesque; it’s almost a shame it’s so brilliant. Lars Von Trier’s latest is a series of vignettes taken from the life of Joe (Stacy Martin and later Charlotte Gainsbourg), which examines her spiral of self-discovery and sexual liberation with wit and pain. Certain sections work better than others, but the continuous raising of stakes, awe-inspiring visuals, and brazen abuse of pop music make for a delirious and provocative work.

8. Goodbye to Language

Cinema’s aging revolutionary, Jean-Luc Godard, delivered one of his most obscure and inspired works. Reflections on language and philosophy, the duality of relationships and existence, are framed in a series of stylistically contradictory shots; steady shots, concave angles, and handheld cinematography enlivened by simulated video errors. Godard’s decision to shoot in 3D is what makes this experiment the boldest work of 2014, and allows it to feature the year’s most astonishing shot – a stroke-inducing uncoupling of the stereoscopic cameras that bends the eyes and brain in ways cinemas has never done before.

7. The Lego Movie

If everything truly were awesome, how could we fully appreciate The Lego Movie? Phil Lord and Chris Miller began their deconstruction of the Hollywood machine in 2014 with this anarchic work of mainstream commercialism, managing to sell toys and major brands while also breaking down the very ideas that make them successful. The chaotic animation and riotous barrage of regularly sophisticated gags made it an audience favourite, but beyond that it was a complex discussion of artifactual purpose, creative intent, artistic inspiration, and obsessive anality. It is perhaps the smartest film aimed at young audiences since Toy Story, or even Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

 6. Boyhood

Much of the criticism that can be laid at the feet of Richard Linklater’s opus seems largely superfluous upon reflection of the effort that went into its making. Shot in spurts over 12 years, with music, technology and the rapidly aging protagonist underscoring the passage of time, Boyhood is hardly unprecedented in cinema, but not even Truffaut could craft the experience of growth and the triumphs and betrayals of life’s promises with this much confidence and style. Ellar Coltrane is strong as 6-to-18-year-old Mason, more awash in a sea of experience than an active dramatic character, while astonishing support is offered by Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Lorelei Linklater. While it sometimes slips off course to focus on matters more of interest to Linklater Sr. than Mason, it remains an often overwhelmingly powerful study of what it is to be a young American, and what it is to become a man.

5. Under the Skin

So then what is it to be human? Jonathan Glazer cast hominid perfection Scarlett Johansson as an empty vessel, an alien purporting to be human to prey and consume. Using an astonishing and eerie array of editing techniques, cinematographic styles and complex sound design, Glazer at first stalks mankind with his alien subject, then has her seduced by its flawed complexity and finds herself the prey. Johanssen excels throughout, while the film pulls no punches in studying the darkness that dwells in the emotionally disconnected. Glasgow, stark and grey, stands in for the traditional invasion spots of New York or small town America. A chilling horror film and a riveting philosophical drama.

4. Calvary

In the finest performance of his career, Brendan Gleeson plays a priest chosen to be the target of an abuse victim’s revenge, a tortured mysterious figure who feels only the death of a good man will awaken the world to horrors gone unpunished. But since the lead knows who the would-be killer is from the first scene, we are left alone to investigate while he decides how to spend his allotted remaining days. A terrific cast of local oddballs make up the parishioners and suspects, allowed to run rampant with writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s deliciously biting dialogue. Ireland has rarely looked better, and the film acts as a remarkable dissection of a country in a state of schizophrenic uncertainty as to where it is going, or even where it has been.

3. Nightcrawler

A scathing assault on tabloid journalism, Nightcrawler is as bleak as it is beautiful, shot in the fluorescent glow of pre-dawn Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal grips as the sociopathic, ruthlessly efficient and zealously self-serving Lou Bloom, whose morality-free clamber into the ranks of accident and emergency reporting represents the worst nightmare of the American dream in the information age. Unpredictable without being extreme, it builds tirelessly to a thrilling conclusion. In Bloom, writer-director Dan Gilroy has created perhaps the most original character of the 21st century so far.

2. Ida

This gorgeously composed black and white film emerged with little fanfare this year but was embraced rapturously by critics and its small audience. Set in 1960s Poland, still in turmoil after the War and the Holocaust, and with the lingering Damoclean sword of Soviet overlordship, Ida is a gentle reflection on identity that both uplifts and stings with the brutality of its humanity. Agata Trzebbuchowska and Agata Kulesza give astonishing, tragic performances as a young orphaned nun and the aunt she has been newly reunited with. The film packs an emotional wallop, but every frame along the way dazzles with pristine simplicity.

1. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

One of the last films produced by Studio Ghibli before it ceased production of new animations to much distress this past year, and the assumed swansong of Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is that director’s third masterpiece, and perhaps his most triumphant work. Based on one of Japan’s most famous fairytales, it tells of a childless bamboo cutter and his wife who find an enchanted infant, who they raise as their own. Financially supported by a divine source, the loving parents give the young Kaguya everything she could ever want, but her uncertainty and feelings of alienness prevent her from securing true happiness in a society that so pressures women to be what it demands of them. Once more abandoning Ghibli’s traditional style, Takahata this time paints in liquid bursts of watercolours, creating a spellbinding visual feast that reaches a cinematic zenith in a dashing charcoal nightmare. Wit and heart and fantasy combine; the story is pure magic. The production is too.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Booyah! Kaguya!

————————————————————–

I’m just assuming you skipped down to here. Because these are the films I hated this year. Dross such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Need for Speed, and even the egregiously misjudged Transcendence, which would easily have taken the bottom honour on a better year, weren’t as bad as these disastrous attempts at films, only one of which I can possibly recommend for ironic viewing (hint: it’s at No.3).

 

5. Gun Woman

Mindless and grotesque even by Japanese gore porn standards, this was certainly the most unpleasant film experience to be had in 2014. Featuring an antihero so bland it’s hard to call him a character, and a villain so cartoonishly despicable the man who thought him up should be kept under police surveillance, this is a joyless stool of a film, hideous to behold, and ritually disemboweled by its attempts at Tarantinoesque postmodernism.

4. Let’s Be Cops

Please, just make up your mind, do you respect cops or not? Do you think they are morons who should be made fun of, or that they are disrespected heroes one and all? Because really your film did not make it clear. But congratulations, you made a scene where a character chokes on a fat man’s testes look more pleasant than hanging out for just half an hour with your two buddy leads.

3. Winter’s Tale

Something about miracles and magic and horses called Horse. This overproduced farce is actually in the realm of so bad its funny. Colin Farrell and his awful hair have a brief and unbelievable love affair, while on the run from Russell Crowe, who is either Irish or suffering from some kind of brain aneurism. The dialogue redefines cheesy, the performances redefine confused, and the first act takes up 75% of the running time. The greatest miracle of all is that the film got made in the first place.

2. A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane and his troublingly featureless face headline this Western pastiche that is… well nothing. Flatly shot, with a tsunami of jokes that don’t make landfall, and a plot so hackneyed you could write something more inspired by farting in sand, this follow-up to the genuinely enjoyable Ted proves McFarlane doesn’t understand high concept without being high. The supporting cast all seem embarrassed to be present. You’d almost feel sorry for them, ’cause they should be.

1. The Legend of Hercules

Where to start? The first of two big budget takes on the copyright-free demigod in 2014, this Renny Harlin venture took the most liberties with the material, pouring countless other myths and histories into the pot, and even a lightning whip-sword. The whole film is so joyless and po-faced, the actors so completely out of their element (unless their element is “stand there and look pretty”), the special effects so… uncompleted, it’s simply hard to believe this film exists at all. Thankfully, it proves as forgettable as it is awful, and due to The Rock’s moderately well-received Hercules, history will forget this Grecian stillbirth ever appeared in 2014.

 

See you again next year…

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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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2012 in review – The year of archery and French wheelchairs

As the credits begin to roll on another year of film (don’t bother sticking around to the end, the bonus scene after the credits is just a hangover), it’s time to look back on what the world of film offered up in 2012. There were highs and lows, unexpected joys and underwhelming potential wonders. Hollywood provided its most entertaining popcorn blockbuster in a generation. French cinema shattered our hearts over and over and over.

Early on The Artist won out at the Oscars, but rather than reignite interest in silent cinema, it became a Netflix-condemned anomaly unto itself. Thanks to 3D, The Avengers won out over The Dark Knight Rises and its IMAX presentation, but the launch of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series caused the real fuss with its introduction of HFR (higher frame rate, 48 frames per second), which has caused more division amongst audiences than Prometheus. Films such as Berberian Sound Studio and Cloud Atlas aspired to greatness, but fell at the all-important last hurdle, having an ending. Michael Haneke returned to Cannes, made everyone and their mothers cry, then went home victorious to launch a parody Twitter account.

Archery!

It was once again a mediocre year for animation. Pixar clawed their way out of the wreckage of Cars 2 with the unfairly disliked Brave, though it remained a step down from their sensational output in the last decade. Frankenweenie and Rise of the Guardians charmed but did not wow. ParaNorman sadly escaped my gaze.

It would be unfair to say it was a poor year for documentary, but I was left disappointed by many of the most praised docs this year; Samsara, The Imposter and Bill Cunningham – New York were all strong works that did not fully succeed in their ambitions. Disappointingly, Waiting for Sugarman, 5 Broken Cameras and Tabu were all missed by me – I suspect my top 20 might have looked very different had I caught them.

On a personal note 2012 was not the year career-wise I had hoped it to be, but my writing, both here and for Film Ireland Magazine continued and I like to think improved – this blog expanded two-fold over the last 12 months, something to be proud of. I continued to trawl through the greatest of film cinema, most notably binging on the Rocky movies, The Bourne Trilogy, The Apu Trilogy and The Godfather Trilogy – each of those in single, incredible sittings. On the big screen I revisited classics such as The Apartment, A Night to Remember, RoboCop, Baraka, Bambi, The Shining, Fantastic Planet, Haxan and the 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia. My major goal for the year was to finally delve into horror cinema, a genre I had avoided for much of my life, with first-time viewings of Carrie, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and George Romero’s original Living Dead Trilogy. More specifically, I delved into Italian horror, seeing some of the best films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, as well as Lamberto Bava’s Demons films, and also gave myself a light education in the rockumentary, finally watching The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, Buena Vista Social Club and the director’s cut of Woodstock. Elsewhere, I finally completed the IMDB Top 250 list, an achievement that would be so much greater if not for the fact that, due to its constant shifting, I now find myself back at 249 (and not caring).

There were a handful of films I was eager to see this year but missed; Sightseers, Monsieur Lazhar, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Seven Psychopaths and Silver Linings Playbook. Due to my continued transatlantic travelling, my list is assembled of films released in Ireland or the US anywhere from 2011-2013, and films such as Django Unchained, Les Misérables and Wreck-It Ralph remain viewing for next year’s list.

French wheelchairs!

Films that nearly made the grade this year include Le Havre, Coriolanus, The Dark Knight Rises, Ted, Moonrise Kingdom, Killer Joe, The Kid With a Bike and Laurence Anyways. These and many others remain worthy viewing. But the following should all be seen and appreciated; they are my top 20 of 2012.

20. The Grey

Featuring an immensely committed, world-weary performance by Liam Neeson, what should have been a standard action/horror about plane crash survivors fending off a wolf pack turned out to be a treatise on the nature of faith and the human will to survive. With characterisation of a quality far beyond what this story called and some truly tense adventuring, The Grey hit harder than Liam Neeson punching a wolf in the face.

19. What Richard Did

It’s easy to forget some times that I am actually Irish; I know I often do. And despite my role in promoting film culture in Ireland, few Irish critics are harsher to Irish filmmakers when they drop the ball than I am. But when they get it right, they can get it so very right. Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did, based on a true story about an accidental killing by privileged schoolboys of one of their own, delved deep into the issues of when uncontrollable testosterone and youthful arrogance collide. Beautifully capturing the light grey tones of Dublin city, What Richard Did is at its best tracking the distress of Richard (notable newcomer Jack Reynor) through intense, unrelenting camera movements.

18. Anna Karenina

As much an exercise in cinematic stagecraft as an adaptation of Tolstoy’s romantic novel, Joe Wright brought out all the visual big guns to set his film apart from its forebears. Theatres become palaces and diamonds become more emotive than the faces of the actors wearing them in this ultra-stylised drama. Keira Knightley gives it her best in the lead role, but it is the supporting players, most notably Jude Law and Domhnall Gleeson, who really steal the show, along with Tom Stoppard’s oft-inventive screenplay. Nothing else this year looked quite like it.

Full review

17. Argo

After years of lamentable acting and increasingly promising directing, Ben Affleck has finally won the love of all Hollywood with this tense, witty espionage drama. A spy thriller in which not a gun is fired or a woman seduced, Affleck recreates, with some liberties, the exodus of American civilians trapped in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, while also poking fun at the Hollywood studio system, which was manipulated to help win the day. Superb attention to historical detail is what really sets this film apart. The tension is carried through to the very end, at the unfortunate expense of believability, but it remains a thrilling ride, with several exceptional supporting performances.

Full review

16. Looper

The first truly entertaining time-travel adventure since Marty McFly settled down for good in Hill Valley, Rian Johnson’s Looper looked at the consequences of actions through two versions of the same character, played by Bruce Willis and a Bruce Willised-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Exciting and playful with its impossible premise, Looper stood out for its wit and audacity. It faltered hugely in its third act, but it was too late to do the film any real damage – and the final 20 minutes proved an unexpected rollercoaster. As clever as popcorn cinema can get.

Full review

15. The Hunt

More than a decade after his magnificent Festen, Thomas Vinterberg returns to form with the dramatic thriller. A magnificently pained and frustrated Mads Mikkelsen stars as a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of child abuse. Rather than create a mystery around the events, Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm allow the audience to be the only ones aware of how this dreadful confusion arose. This omniscience on the viewer’s behalf becomes tormenting as the town turns against the teacher. Superbly acted, it is given extra power by the brown and grey autumnal look of the Danish landscape, full of a slowly fading beauty.

14. Lincoln

Showing uncharacteristic restraint, Steven Spielberg directed a Civil War “epic” with almost no war. Playing like an extended season finale of The West Wing, Spielberg’s beautifully detailed period drama is entirely focused on scrambling for votes in the U.S. Congress. Milking the political clash over the abolition of slavery for all the drama and excitement it’s worth, Tony Kushner’s screenplay made the esteemed president a Machiavellian political mastermind, while Janusz Kamiński’s camera shot him like a former superhero returning for one last heroic act. Daniel Day-Lewis captured the president’s spirit, but it was Tommy Lee Jones who stole the film as the devoutly anti-slavery congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

13. The Raid

A bolt out of the blue that hit so hard the audience’s collective heads shattered several wall tiles, Gareth Evans’s Indonesian cop thriller/martial arts extravaganza was one of the year’s most unexpected critical darlings. Lethal human whirligig Iko Uwais played the cop trapped in a tower full of machete-wielding drug dealers, forced to fight his way out using every weapon and muscle at his disposal. The results were electrifying and often hilarious. Editing troubles aside, The Raid was one of the tightest action movies released all year.

Full review

12. The Intouchables (Untouchable)

The first of three French films on this list to feature the tragedy of a person confined to a wheelchair, and the film in which the wheelchair is most at the fore, this undeniably charming dramedy, based loosely on a true story, tells of a wealthy quadriplegic and his unlikely friendship with a street-smart layabout turned caregiver. Predictable and light, it is also superbly acted and told with boundless heart and (often dark) humour. Shamelessly uplifting without being slight, it is adeptly shot and edited.

11. Skyfall

Choking on the poison that was Quantum of Nonsense, James Bond brought himself back to life with a defibrillator shock once more, and this time that shock was Skyfall. Exceptionally written and paced, Skyfall had the audacity to focus more on the character of Bond than any other film in the series to date, while giving ample room to develop his relationship with the ever-excellent Judi Dench as M. Javier Bardem’s villain was left with a poor evil scheme, but was himself memorable as a vengeful ex-agent with mincing homoerotic undertones. Light on action, when it hit it came with a wallop. Sam Mendes’s direction was solid but came second always to Roger Deakins exceptional camerawork.

Full review

10. Life of Pi

Adapting a spiritual novel into a personal epic with countless remarkable special effects shots, Ang Lee continues his quest to be the most diverse filmmaker in the business. Weaving the wonderful tall tale of Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel into a visually astounding oceanic adventure took remarkable skill, which bursts forth from the screen in every shot – literally in the case of the impressive 3D presentation. Suraj Sharma plays the devout theist castaway on a lifeboat with a vicious tiger. The metaphor at the film’s centre lands powerfully, but it is the clever dialogue and mesmerising visuals that make this film stand out.

9. Holy Motors

Leos Carax’s veritable clusterfuck of madness is at some level a statement about the falsehood of (digital) cinema. At another level it is just plain bonkers. Chameleonic Denis Lavant plays everyone you could think of, as a performer doomed (it would seem) to forever play the strangest of roles; from romantic lead to frustrated father, beggar woman to subterranean troll, his own killer to husband to a chimpanzee. It lapses in many of its instalments (installations?), but as a whole it is an astoundingly odd and wonderful piece of filmmaking.

8. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble)

Against all the odds and an army of alien beasties, this superhero mash-up succeeded on almost every level. Four years of films leading up to this one, introducing some of the leading players and the universe’s themes, paid off as the egos of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Bruce ‘The Hulk’ Banner collided. The result was unexpectedly tremendous, with Joss Whedon’s wildly entertaining script bouncing the characters’ personalities off one another beautifully, and with plenty of laughs. Everyone played to their strengths, the minor characters were given moments to shine and the action redefined explosive. Here’s to Phase 2, eh?

Full review

7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

This pastoral police procedural drama, set over a night and the day that followed, gave a haunting insight into modern Turkey. Exceptionally well acted and with more than its fair share of beautiful, memorable shots (the mini adventure of a tumbling apple cannot be forgotten), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s wonderful film was let down by a tragically sluggish third act that clashed with the astounding first two thirds of the film. Still, as a whole Once Upon a Time in Anatolia remains far more impressive than any American crime drama of the same year.

6. The Master

Barely passing under the bar set by There Will Be Blood, P.T. Anderson’s The Master cannot be underestimated. The incomparable story of two men who need each other for contradicting reasons, The Master would still be a great film without the powerhouse performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. With them, and with remarkable assistance from Amy Adams, this is a drama that must be experienced before you can believe it. Occasional lapses in pacing and a visual aesthetic that rarely lives up to the power of the drama do it a disservice, but the mastery of filmmaking on display here cannot be denied.

Full review

5. The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists!

The finest animated feature released this year, this daft comic gem from Aardman Animations brought more laughs than any other two films released this year could muster between them. Rattling out sight gags and wordplay like the spiritual successor to Airplane!, The Pirates! also featured some superb voicework (especially from animation virgin Hugh Grant as the pirate captain, named the Pirate Captain) and took Aardman’s animation style to new limits. The incredibly detailed stop-motion sets (photographed in 3D) boggle the eyes as you try to take in everything you can see – there are more sight gags per image than the human brain can process. It may not have the same heart as some of Aardman’s earlier offerings, but there is a sweetness to be found here. It doesn’t matter though, the outstanding quality of the Gatling-gun comedy and the craft on display are what make this the work of brilliance it is.

Full review

As a bonus, here’s a picture of me with the model Pirate Ship from The Pirates! taken during a studio tour of Aardman Animations back in 2011.

The Pirate Ship

4. Amour

Michael Haneke’s heartbreaking tale of an elderly husband caring for his stroke-addled wife could not be more perfectly handled or acted. The camera is confined to the apartment like Anne herself, but gently roams its rooms and corridors capturing flashes of the dying days of this unspectacular couple. Punctuated with comedy (a rogue pigeon invades the house) and horror (a nightmare of floodwater and disembodied, strangling hands), Amour’s power is inescapable. ’60s romantic movie stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva excel, the former capturing a pained patience, the latter the agony of natural imprisonment; within a wheelchair, within a bed, within her own body.

Full review

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

This majestic imagining of a Louisiana community struggling against the elements, told through the eyes of a wondrous, haunted young girl, is the breakthrough movie of 2012. First-time director Benh Zeitlin crafts a world drifting on the border of reality. Shot on 16mm, Beasts succeeds in finding a unique beauty in the overgrown damp of the bayou. The narration by six-year-old Hushpuppy (the revelation that is Quvenzhané Wallis) is perhaps overwrought, but it is delivered with astounding honesty and passion. As the world around her is literally and metaphorically washed away, her imagination of the end times allows for a powerful reclamation of human spirit and dignity. The score alone, all plucky Southern instruments, is enough to make this film a triumph. Thanks to its other successes, it is a minor masterpiece.

Full review

2. Rust and Bone

The follow-up to his phenomenal A Prophet, Jacques Audiard turns to a more humanistic tale in adapting Craig Davidson’s short story collection from an assemblage of broken lives into a remarkable drama of shattered dreams and people repairing one another. Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard each give career-defining performances as, respectively, a bare-knuckle boxer-cum-struggling father and a sexually defined whale trainer left powerless and paralysed in a gruesome accident. The tenderness and frustration of this odd couple’s relationship rings amazingly true, while Stéphane Fontaine’s near-divine handheld camerawork circles them effortlessly, stopping from time to time to capture remarkable stand-alone images. Over-powering stuff, altogether.

Full review

1. The Turin Horse

Far from the most entertaining film of 2012, no film released this year deserves immortality quite like Béla Tarr’s intended swan song. Imagining the daily life of a beleaguered workhorse, whose plight is fabled to have caused the mental breakdown of Friedrich Nietzsche, The Turin Horse is shot in hypnotic, terrifying black and white. Capturing the monstrous monotony of rural life at the turn of the last century, Tarr takes us through several interchangeable days as a brutish farmer and his weary daughter go about their chores. The repeated imagery as man and woman eat their daily potato, each time shot from a different, intense angle, each time robbed of civility by the farmer’s slurpy gorging, makes for painful, powerful viewing/listening. The outstanding black and white cinematography, the phenomenal use of music and the set design and wind-battered landscapes create a cinematic experience unlike any other. It is difficult viewing, but the craft involved in it cannot be rivalled.

A Turin-out for the books

————————————————————————————————–

And now, my top 5 worst films of the year. I managed to miss a few apparent clunkers; Project XThe WatchBattleship or Piranha 3DD. But I still managed to catch some pretty awful stuff. Some lamented films, such as John Carter and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, were actually pretty harmless. Films that nearly made the list include The Bourne LegacyGhost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and This Means War. Despite hating more than almost any film I can think, there was no denying that Ruby Sparks is too adequately made to reduce it to this waste bin of cinema. Instead I’ll condemn it to the waste bin of human decency.

5. Snow White & the Huntsman

This uninspired, or rather thievishly over-inspired, adolescent fantasy threw everything it had at the screen and none of it stuck. An evil queen far more radiant than the Snow White. Kristen Stewart wearing armour. And leading an army after giving a dramatic speech. A love triangle in which none of the corners seemed particularly interested in one another. Actually, this film did feature one pretty awesome feat of archery (theme!), but it was of course pilfered from the infinitely superior Princess Mononoke. Thank goodness for the amazing sequence with giant deer god in the forest that was oh no wait stolen from Princess Mononoke. I love Princess Mononoke. I hated this.

4. Haywire

Despite the lamentable acting of MMA fighter Gina Carano, your film is in trouble when she’s the best thing in it. Several fine actors (most notably Michael Douglas) phone in their performances so hard they even reversed the charges. Michael Fassbender forgets his accent in the last scene again. The decent fight choreography and the surprisingly good sense of Dublin geography could not prevent this formulaic purported pastiche from being one of the most excruciating viewing experiences of the year. Steven Soderbergh has directed a movie so badly edited The Asylum would look down on it. Oh, and the jazz score? No.

3. Taken 2

Liam Neeson beats up anyone with darker skin than him, this time without any of the urgency or fun of the original. Grenades get thrown recklessly at civilians. Mosques are shown with deafening boom sounds on the soundtrack, just to remind you that foreign things are evil. They’re not really, but pumping this much cash into a movie and ending up with this surely is.

Full review

2. Charlie Casanova

What was that I was saying about Irish movies? This hardly seen Irish indie does its best to deconstruct the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger generation, but creates a character so ludicrously cartoonish in his villainy that he fails to represent anything at all. Shot on grim low-grade digital in not one but two of the ugliest hotels in the world, this was an almighty mess of editing and dialogue. Lead actor Emmett Scanlan gives it so much socks that he and his improbable moustache swallow the movie whole.

1. The Campaign

But at least the makers of Charlie Casanova tried! In a year when political satire was a much needed relief, this Congressional comedy ran for the safety of the silly hills. No attempt was made to properly address the preposterous (and potentially hilarious) contradictions of the American two-party system. Instead The Campaign opted to have Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis do their best to out-swear and out-stupid one another. The results were hardly funny. It was the film audiences deserved, but not the one they got. An utter waste of several talents.

Here’s hoping for 2012!

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The Master – How to make an American cult

The Master is good, the Master is great, we surrender our will as of this date…

In many ways The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s biggest film yet. It may not have the vast landscapes of There Will Be Blood, or a fraction of the characters of Magnolia, but it is shot in many more assorted locations and its themes about faith and belonging are as enormous as any in his previous films. Despite this, however, the previous film of Anderson’s that The Master most brings to mind is Punch-Drunk Love, his small, quirky 2002 romantic-comedy-drama.

The connection is due solely to the two films’ lead characters; both frustrated outcasts with fractured ties to their families, prone to violent rages and uncontrollable crying fits (which they both deny). But unlike Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan, there is little solace or redemption for The Master’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). His attempts to calm his anger and find himself lead him down a very strange rabbit hole.

Discharged from the US Navy following World War II, Freddie flits restlessly from job to job, seeking women to satiate his sex addiction and gulping his own brand of moonshine to appease his alcoholism. Lost in a new America, he stumbles onto the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an enigmatic, suspiciously over-qualified writer with an original take on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Freddie soon finds himself sailing to New York with Dodd’s family and cadre of followers, and is rapidly indoctrinated to Dodd’s teachings, called “The Cause”.

In little time we can be certain that The Cause is nothing more than a cult built up around Dodd’s increasingly bizarre creations – claims of past lives, a trillion-year-old universe and the threat of a sinister “invader force” from beyond. But Freddie, disillusioned and uneducated, does not see it as such, or chooses not to, or chooses to overlook it; so eager is he to find somewhere to belong. But as The Cause grows in strength and numbers, how poor a fit Freddie is for The Cause, and The Cause is for him, becomes ever-more apparent.

Clearly taking its start-off point from Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, The Master has no interest in attacking that religion, and is far more concerned with the personalities behind it; of those who build it, those who are seduced by it and those who cannot be. As much as Freddie thinks he needs The Cause, Dodd needs him. He needs him to prove he can brainwash anyone to his beliefs, but he also needs him because at a base level Freddie cannot be won over. As the success of The Cause skyrockets, Dodd’s Frankenstein’s monster spirals out of control, and Freddie remains his only anchor to humanity, and his only potential escape. It is Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who sees this element to Freddie, and keen for there to be no limit to her husband’s greatness, observes Freddie and Dodd’s relationship suspiciously.

Absolute madmen: Rami Malek, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix

As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix gives the strongest performance of his career to date. Hunched in posture and speaking always out of just one side of his mouth, he effortlessly portrays Freddie as the damaged goods he is. His shell-shock, disillusionment, and regret all combine to form this bubbling kettle of frustration that Phoenix holds together throughout the film. He shows Freddie as a man incapable of believing the things he is told, but like a good solider willing to fight to the death to defend those same (dis)beliefs. The film’s two most intense sequences both detail Freddie’s indoctrination to The Cause, first as a mere member and later as an acolyte. In the first instance, Dodd breaks him down psychologically by asking him personal questions in quick succession, with the only rules being Freddie may not stop to think or blink. If he blinks, they start over. Shot in a series of unflinching close-ups of the two men, the scene is exhausting and difficult to watch, but brilliantly defines their relationship. For the next tier of his indoctrination, Freddie is forced to walk back and forth endlessly across a room, describing his sensations at each end. Part of a seemingly unending montage, Phoenix brilliantly captures Freddie’s escalating frustration at not being able to achieve or feel what is needed. Unable to look away, we can understand what he is feeling.

Hoffman plays off Phoenix beautifully, as his mentor and father-figure. Channelling Orson Welles’s greatest monsters, Hoffman makes Dodd larger than life in public while showing his all-too-human doubts in private. Dodd could be the love-child of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday from There Will Be Blood, fusing those characters’ ruthlessness, devotion and passion for corrupting others. But behind every great man there is a meek but terrifying woman, and Amy Adams steals much of the film as Mrs. Dodd. Her natural shyness and sweetness come across as wholly menacing here, and there are few moments when it is not clear how much power she is actually wielding.

Anderson’s script and direction rarely falter, and he manages to keep the drama building and the audience’s attention throughout the film’s 140-minute runtime. Somewhat disappointingly, The Master is not as breathtakingly pretty a film as one might expect, especially in the wake of There Will Be Blood. Robbed of his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson has here teamed up with Romanian D.P. Mihai Malaimare Jr. The photography is crisp and the camera is wielded finely throughout, but there are none of the visual flourishes of the Anderson/Elswit union. With the exception of one beautiful, oft-repeated shot off the back of a boat, representing Freddie’s constant drifting from life and responsibility, The Master never overwhelms with its imagery. This of course lets the characters be the real focus, but fans may find themselves less than pleased with this film’s look.

In the navy: Joaquin Phoenix, disillusioned and out cold

Johnny Greenwood’s assorted score is similarly incohesive, with each piece of music sounding like it comes from a different soundtrack. This has a brilliantly disjoining effect, and allows for a great variety of instruments to come to the fore: frazzled strings, pulsating bass, the joyous tinkling of a piano.

The Master is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to love. The portraits painted of Feddie and Dodd are hugely impressive, but it is a struggle to find anything in either character to relate to. Still, full of sharp dialogue and energetic scenes, and with three astounding central performances, it is not an easy one to forget. It is one viewers will find themselves wanting to revisit, whether they even liked the film or not. Like The Cause itself, The Master is a strange seducer.

4/5

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

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