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

Cue the spotlight

Holy jaysus it’s Oscar time again!

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

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

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

 

Best Picture

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

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

Should win: 12 Years a Slave

Will win: 12 Years a Slave

Best Director

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

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

Should win: Steve McQueen

Will win: Alfonso Cuarón

Best Actor

The man with the plan: Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof

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

Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio

Will win: Matthew McConaughey

Best Actress

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

Cate Blachett.

Should win: Cate Blanchett

Will win: Cate Blanchett

Best Supporting Actor

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

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

Should win: Michael Fassbender or Jonah Hill

Will win: Jared Leto

Best Supporting Actress

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

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

Should win: Lupita Nyong’o

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Original Screenplay

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

Should win: Spike Jonze

Will win: Spike Jonze

Best Adapted Screenplay

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

Should win: Terence Winter

Will win: John Ridley

Best Animated Feature

Snow chance of losing: Disney’s Frozen

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

Should win: The Wind Rises or Frozen

Will win: Frozen

Best Animated Short

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

Should win: Not Get a Horse!?

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

Best Foreign Language Film

La Dolce Via: Tony Servillo in The Great Beauty

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

Should win: The Hunt

Will win: The Great Beauty

Best Documentary Feature

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

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

Should win: The Act of Killing

Will win: The Act of Killing

Had better win: The Act of Killing

Best Documentary Short

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

Should win: ?

Will win: CaveDigger (has the best title)

Best Original Score

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

Should win: Steven Price

Will win: Steven Price

Best Original Song 

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

Should win: ‘Let It Go’

Will win: ‘Let It Go’

Best Sound Editing

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

Should win: Gravity

Will win: Gravity

Best Sound Mixing

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

Should win: Depends on what exactly is being judged…

Will win: Gravity

Best Production Design

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

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

Should win: The Great Gatsby or Her

Will win: The Great Gatsby

Best Cinematography

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

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

Should win: Roger Deakins (Prisoners) or Bruno Delbonnel

Will win: Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

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

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

Should win: Dallas Buyers Club

Will win: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design

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

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

Should win: The Great Gatsby

Will win: American Hustle

Best Film Editing

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

Should win: Dallas Buyers Club or Captain Phillips

Will win: American Hustle

Best Visual Effects

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble

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

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

Should win: Gravity (or Smaug)

Will win: Gravity

 

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

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The Wolf of Wall Street – It pays to prey

Cult of personality: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

Cult of personality: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

“Greed is good,” someone somewhere once said. I can’t remember who. By the time you’re done watching The Wolf of Wall Street, you won’t remember either. Because greed is awful. Just awful.

But oh is it tempting. Temptation really is the theme of this movie, the latest from Martin Scorsese, one of the last American masters still in the business. Working with one of the finest casts he’s ever assembled, from a merciless true-story screenplay by Boardwalk Empire boss Terence Winter, Scorsese draws you into a world of bacchanalian excess and grotesquery, and invites you to excuse all the illegal activity that funds it because… well… damn it looks fun!

New York up-and-coming stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) has barely dipped his toes on the floor of the market when the biggest crash in a lifetime, 1987’s Black Monday, hits, and “shits him back out” onto the streets. Desperate for work he takes a gig on Long Island, selling ‘penny stocks’, tiny shares in go-nowhere companies, but where his cut is 50%. There’s good money to be made for a man who can sell anyone anything.

It’s not long before Belfort’s set up his own firm, and finds a way of shifting penny stocks to real high-fliers – three quick edits and he’s back on Wall Street. If only he didn’t illegally own so much stock in the companies he’s handling…

Wolf of Wall Street is surprisingly unconcerned with how the markets really work, only with how that much money and risk destroys a man; much like Goodfellas was more concerned with the vices of the characters than the structure of the mob, whereas Casino was maybe a little too concerned with explaining how Vegas works. (As an aside, these three films combine to make quite an epic trilogy of criminality in the USA – the similarities are startling, but they compliment each other in ways that critics and academics will enjoy discovering for years to come). The focus of this film becomes Belfort’s addictions; coke, sex and, most terrifyingly, Quaaludes.

Grin it to win it: Jonah Hill

Grin it to win it: Jonah Hill

We see up close the effect these addictions have on Belfort and his cabal, from raucous office sex parties to $2 million bachelor parties. Sometimes his narration will mention the awful repercussions of these events, but Belfort skips quickly past these things; he doesn’t wanna spoil his fun. He doesn’t wanna break the illusion for us.

Like many of his films before, Scorsese takes us deep into his antihero’s personal life, revealing the grief caused to and by Belfort’s wives (Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie). But the real drama comes from his relationships with his closest confidants and fellow swindlers: Jonah Hill, Jon Bernthal and P.J. Byrne. Watching their drug-fuelled ramblings as the actors bounce improvised shtick off one another is when Wolf is at its best – the film is with little doubt the most laugh-out-loud hilarious film Scorsese has made.

But it’s not the best film Scorsese has made. Perhaps it’s his advancing years, or perhaps the grey walls and lined blinds of the stockbrokers office failed to inspire like the bright lights of Casino, but Wolf does not have the visual punch we come to associate with Scorsese’s greatest work. Brokeback Mountain cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto does great work keeping the film looking slick, but it’s still lacking something. When Prieto’s camera sails across the office floor as if on a jet-propelled string, it captures just the right sensation and takes in the faces of the key players spread throughout the room, but it feels like a basic tool in a way the steadicam shot through the nightclub in Goodfellas felt like an instrument of the gods.

High society: Margot Robbie and Leo DiCaprio

High society: Margot Robbie and Leo DiCaprio

Wolf is the first time Scorsese’s direction has ever been overshadowed by cast and script. That’s not to say it’s poorly directed; any filmmaker should be proud to have a film of this calibre under their belts. But it’s still a noticeable shift. But then, what a cast! What a screenplay!

DiCaprio has never truly been better than he is here, finding a balance of humour, pathos, ultra-confidence and shysterism that he struggled to locate in the likes of Howard Hughes or Jay Gatsby. He seizes the film with all the relish he can muster and never lets go. When he’s selling, you’re buying. When he’s raging, you feel his anger. When he overdoses on Quaaludes and loses all motor-control of his body, you witness one of the finest slapstick performances since the movies learned to talk. But the success of the film is in how DiCaprio refuses to chew the film up, leaving more than enough for his co-stars (and indeed Winter has written the supporting roles so well that they have a fighting chance of holding screentime with a character as dominating as Belfort).

Jonah Hill startles as Belfort’s No.2, Donnie, a sexually confused, financially overwhelmed, drug-addled teddy bear. Rob Reiner plays Belfort’s dad, ‘Mad’ Max, brought into the company as a voice of reason and to police the rampant excesses of staff (during office hours). Jean Dujardin plays a Swiss banker so corrupt and smarmy he is briefly able to take over Belfort’s narration, leading to a telepathic battle of wordplay between the pair. Matthew McConaughey radiates glorious immorality in an early cameo. Kyle Chandler, the come-back-prince of 2012, has a one-on-one with DiCaprio that proves to be perhaps the film’s most riveting scene – the characters are so superbly drawn and performances so balanced that a TV actor like Chandler can spar with a superstar like DiCaprio and have everyone look at their best.

Trade secrets: Matthew McConaughey passes on some much-needed advice

Trade secrets: Matthew McConaughey passes on some much-needed advice

Winter, adapting from Belfort’s memoirs (with apparently very little indulgence), is the real star here. It’s his words that suck you in, his callbacks through dialogue and set-ups that keep the film rewarding across its three-hour run-time. Nasty turns of phrase such as cold-callers dubbing themselves “telephone terrorists” make this world seem as sordid and hateful as it is hilarious and tantalising.

Alleged rushing in the editing room does reveal itself with traces of odd cuts here or there, while the film struggles at times to make it clear exactly how much time has passed between scenes. The music, some of it poorly chosen, does little to help this. There’s indulgence on display when a television screen showing an ’80s TV series reveals an early role for actor Steve Buscemi – the camera insists on lingering until you’ve got the joke. He’s worked with these guys, doncha know?

But you can forgive it these trespasses; you can almost forgive Jordan Belfort by the end of it all. But can you forgive yourself for getting so sucked up and entertained by his world? That’s the question being posed here, and Scorsese, fuelled by the energy of a tremendous script and enviable cast on top form, once more leaves us pondering if we could do all these terrible just so we wouldn’t have to go through this world as a regular schmuck.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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2013 in review – What’s up? Docs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, on with the show.

20. Caesar Must Die

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

19. I Wish

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

Full review

18. Drug War

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

17. Iron Man 3

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

Full review

16. Blue Jasmine

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

15. Gravity

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

Full review

14. Le Passé (The Past)

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

13. To the Wonder

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

Full review

12. Cutie and the Boxer

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

11. Before Midnight

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

Full review

10. Inside Llewyn Davis

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

Full review

9. The Wind Rises

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

8. Frozen

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

7. The Wolf of Wall Street

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

6. A Field in England

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

Full review

5. The Gatekeepers

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

Full review

4. 12 Years a Slave

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

3. Like Father, Like Son

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

Full review

2. The Act of Killing

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

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

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

Full review

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

—————————

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

5. The World’s End

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

Full review

4. 21 & Over

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

Full review

3. A Good Day to Die Hard

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

2. After Earth

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

Full review

1. Hyde Park on Hudson

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

Full review

Until next year…

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Django Unchained – Slave laboured storytelling

Hootenanny on the Bounty: Chistoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx

After a lifetime of slavery, Django (Jamie Foxx) has just been freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned Wild West bounty hunter. Planning to use Django to help identify three slavers with warrants on their heads, Schultz ponders that maybe he can “make this slavery malarkey work to my benefit”. Somewhere in the darkest recesses of Quentin Tarantino’s brain, the Hollywood outlaw appears to have been thinking much the same thing.

Ostensibly an anti-slavery rebuttal to Inglourious Basterds’ raucous Jewish revenge fable, Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a fusion of blaxploitation and spaghetti western, never manages to be either with much success. Sure, there’s plenty of sampling of Ennio Morricone and hints of African American badassery, but the film is so tepidly formulaic, watch-glancingly drawn-out and, criminally for a Tarantino film, eye-raisingly predictable, that it feels more like the film of a Tarantino impersonator than of the mastermind of Pulp Fiction himself.

Starting strong with richly shot desert landscapes punctuated by a marching chain gang of slaves and a witty introduction to Schultz as he frees Django and grants the other slaves a bloody vengeance on their owners, Django Unchained never lets its steam build. Waltz, the multilinguist character actor prone to delightful moments of wide-eyed madness, brings life to the underwritten Schultz. Often all he has to do is deliver some flowery English with an accent to shoot for cheap laughs – which he does with verbal marksmanship – but the dialogue is beneath him, which is all the more startling given the same writer/director gave him Hans Landa to run amuck with only a few years back. Waltz should be complimented furthermore for holding so much of the film up on his shoulders as he stars opposite Foxx, a man-shaped charisma-vaccuum whose constantly confused face and hopelessly delivered questions evoke less the heroes of the spaghetti westerns or Shaft, and more Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace.

Once Django has helped dispatch his former captors, he is trained by Schultz to be a bounty hunter as well, and the not-utterly-unlikely duo go on the hunt for more badguys. This is one of the film’s least disagreeable sequences, with truly impressive location shoots on wide brown hills and in snowy valleys, featuring some mildly thrilling shoot-outs.

Then everything goes pear-shaped. Schultz agrees out of the goodness of his barely defined heart to help Django rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), educated by a German family and now sold to vile plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Disguising themselves as “Mandingo trainers” (referencing another blaxploitation gem, Mandingo), who buy muscle-bound slaves to pit against each other in fights to the death, Schultz and Django blag their way into Candieland, Candie’s ironically titled homestead. The plan seems to be getting along without a hitch, until Candie’s purse-lipped house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a militantly pro-white Uncle Tom, begins to suspect a ruse, spelling zip-a-dee-danger for our heroes.

The Candie man can’t: Leonardo DiCaprio

Dragging its heels at a merciless 165 minutes, Django Unchained relentlessly fails to cut to the chase, despite having only a light sprinkling of story. It does however look great, with bright colours cleverly contrasting the inherent nastiness of the era, and superb production design that never holds back on the excesses and inhumanity of slave-mistreatment. Flashbacks are amusingly shot in grainy, colour-bled Grindhouse style. The soundtrack makes some fine selections and new compositions team Morricone with contemporary rap. For these things Tarantino and his team can be applauded.

But really Django Unchained never feels as tight as a Tarantino film should. One scene in which a moronic masked lynch mob, a Special KKK if you will, surrounds the dynamite duo, spells it all out. A sketch begins in which the vigilantes complain that the eyeholes in their bag-hoods are in the wrong places; it extends to an eye-rolling five minutes. Once upon a time the scene would at best have been a lesser quality Gary Larson cartoon, but at least then it would have been just one frame, not 5x60x24. Jonah Hill cameos for no reason. Worse still, the scene is preceded by Schultz laying out explosives to greet the mob – disembowelling the scene of tension as its wit runs thin. This from the director of the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds!

When the film threatens to be clever, it shoots itself in the foot. Schultz draws parallels between Django’s quest for Broomhilda and the German hero Siegfried’s seemingly similar quest in the epic poem Nibelungenlied, but it is only paying lip-service and the comparison never properly pays off. Tarantino has always been so competent with his literary and movie references, but here he seems to be getting off on reading a Wikipedia entry.

The Siegfried comparison drags up one of Django’s biggest problems. While some have gone after the film for its overuse of the N-word, something which feels mostly in keeping with the time, the story is inherently racist in that this tale of a black man taking revenge is only possible because a much smarter and more talented white man is willing to help him.  Tarantino, who previously saw Jews pull off not one but two successful assassinations against their great enemy, here has a simple black man have his hand held while a brilliant white man does all the hard work. It’s as if Tarantino is saying a black hero isn’t really believable – and it’s certain that once Django goes out on his own the film takes on a far more cartoonish air. The less said about the fact that the film features a black slave liberated by a white “Dr. King”, the better.

Love shackled, baby love shackled: Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington is hardly used at all as Broomhilda, bringing to an end Tarantino’s near-20-year run as the best director of strong female characters in American cinema – Joss Whedon will be along to pick up the sash and crown shortly. DiCaprio should be lauded for going against type as the villainous Candie, but his boyish gurning does not make for a very strong performance of a weak character, who feels less like a Tarantino villain than like Peter Ustinov’s Prince John in the Disney Robin Hood. A pox on the phony king of the world. Samuel L. Jackson is the only actor keeping any kind of pace with Waltz, giving Stephen plenty of vitriol and uppity outrage, while milking the black-hating black man discrepancy for all it’s worth. However, the character feels like a milder version of the grotesque, black-despising Uncle Ruckus from the animated comedy series The Boondocks, a show Jackson is no doubt familiar with, given that he voices one of its characters. That character, for the record, is a white guy who likes to talk street, a far greater racial commentary than anything Django Unchained has managed.

As if the tension-free, extended dinner scene, with its repetitive dialogue and phrenology demonstration (we get it, slavery and Candie are evil and stupid), aren’t enough, Tarantino concludes with his greatest filmmaking sin ever. Just as the final action sequence – an entertaining, splatter-gored shoot-out that oddly borrows Austin Power’s repeatedly injured henchman gag – reaches its crescendo, Tarantino halts the action for 20 minutes of scrotum and director cameo, before returning to exactly the point where we left off. This outrageous act of self-indulgence is the director at his very worst. It does seem fitting that his appearance as an Australian slaver follows so quickly the inverted genitalia, given this dramatic cavity is Tarantino’s final descent into artistic auto-fellatio.

Whatever fun there is to be had in Django Unchained is undermined utterly by the excessive whims of its power-mad auteur. Condescending to black audiences, humourless and regularly just plain boring, Django Unchained is a white stain on the blouse of film history. Too stupid to be homage, too self-important to be parody, it is hopefully the worst film Tarantino will ever direct.

2/5

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Titanic: 100 years later, it still sinks, and now stinks in 3D

They said it was unsinkable...

According to my calculations, with a worldwide gross of $1.8 billion and home video/DVD sales of several million units, if you’re reading this then you’ve probably already seen this film. But despite claims that director James Cameron and Fox are just after the money with this re-release, it is hard to complain about it being back on the big screen, as the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (ooooooh… did I just give the end away?). Indeed, you would hope that All Quiet on the Western Front will be back in cinemas between 2014 and 2018. How could we not return to Saving Private Ryan in June 2044?

The question therefore is should it have been re-released in 3D. Indeed, it’s been a struggle for most critics to not use this film’s resurgence to argue for or against 3D – sure what does it matter what we think about the film at this stage?!

Well you’re going to find now anyway. Let’s start at the beginning… In a 20 minute prologue that is arguably more interesting than the rest of the film, oceanographer Bill Paxton searches the wreckage of the ill-fated liner for a magnificent diamond that by all historical records and archaeological morality deserves to be in a museum in France. A clue leads him to centenarian Rose (Gloria Stuart), who was aboard the Titanic and owned the diamond. She proceeds to tell a very lengthy story about the ship’s sinking which features a surprising number of scenes that she was not present for and could therefore have no means of recounting them accurately.

"The reflection's changed..."

Over the next three hours, posh Rose (Kate Winslet) meets poor Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), they fall in love, plan to run away together, and then the ship sinks. Various minor characters insist on stealing scenes from the leads.

Revisiting Titanic after more than 10 years, a number of things strike you. How baby-faced Leo looks. How glowing Winslet was back then (it’s a very different glow to the one she has now). How truly godawful the dialogue is (it’s not that the “something Picasso” line is bad, it’s that it takes three more uncomfortable lines to explain the joke). How delightfully hammy Billy Zane is as the jilted fiancé. How much more Victor Garber resembles Enda Kenny when he does an Irish lilt.

Victor Garber and Enda Kenny

Most shocking however is how well spread out the film is. It is extremely long, but like the best epics it never feels particularly boring. Indeed, the Titanic strikes the iceberg a little over 90 minutes into the film, barely halfway through proceedings! This leaves a huge amount of time for the admittedly spectacular, perfectly drawn-out sinking of the colossal ship. Say what you will about James Cameron (suggestions include: “His dialogue is laughable”, “His messages are delivered ham-fistedly”), but he can do grand spectacle like few others.

Behind the scenes footage of how the screenplay for Titanic was written

So, now that you’ve been reminded why you loved or hated the film originally, let’s deal with this 3D issue. A lot is riding on the reception of Titanic in 3D. Cameron created the current appetite for 3D amongst the masses – an appetite perceived by Hollywood as being perhaps bigger than it actually is – with Avatar, another film you probably saw. Desperate to jump on the bandwagon after Avatar, Hollywood pumped out a number of 3D films that were digitally made 3D in post-production, a method referred to as retro-fitting. 2010’s Clash of the Titans was the first of these films to emerge, and was slated for its cardboard pop-out look. While its sequel Wrath of the Titans is now being praised for being shot in 3D, it seems little has improved in the world of retro-fitting, even with the master of 3D James Cameron in charge.

Titanic 3D is flat and ugly. The characters stand out from the background like marionette puppets, but without any of the definition and depth that creates a real three-dimensional face. Worse still, the film makes regular use of focus pulls and depth-of-field trickery, causing 3D blurs to clutter up the imagery. This is most noticeable near the film’s beginning, as the Titanic leaves port at Southampton and throngs of out-of-focus people pass by the camera as Rose and Jack make their ways aboard. The 3D creates the illusion that these dashing blurs are closer to you, naturally causing your eye to attempt to focus (in vain) on them and drawing your gaze away from the action and principal characters.

"I'm flying!"

Fans of 3D action will be similarly disappointed. The collapsing of the ship happens mostly side-on, so there is very little cause to duck or dodge objects “coming right at you”. Worse still, in the wide shots of the ship, the 3D causes the digital persons walking on the decks to stand out, revealing them more clearly as dated computer creations. Titanic’s seams are showing.

"I'm sinking!"

In the end, it is what it is, a brilliantly produced movie based on a clumsy, patronising screenplay. You already know if you like it or not, but the 3D will take away from that either way.

Titanic: 3/5

Titanic 3D: 2/5

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

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