Thursday, March 6, 2014

2013 Favorites

1. 12 Years a Slave
2. All Is Lost
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
4. American Hustle
5. The Wolf of Wall Street

1. American Hustle
2. 12 Years a Slave
3. August: Osage County
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
5. Prisoners

1. Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
2. David O. Russell (American Hustle)
3. Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
4. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)
5. J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost)

1. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
2. Robert Redford (All Is Lost)
3. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
4. Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)
5. Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

1. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
2. Amy Adams (American Hustle)
3. Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
4. Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)
5. Sandra Bullock (Gravity)

1. Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
2. Daniel Bruhl (Rush)
3. Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
4. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
5. Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)

1. Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)
2. Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
3. Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
4. June Squibb (Nebraska)
5. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

1. J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost)
2. David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle)
3. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)
4. Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine)
5. Spike Jonze (Her)

1. John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
2. Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
3. Terence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street)
4 Tracy Letts (August: Osage County)
5. Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Dan Scanlon (Monsters University)

1. Hans Zimmer (12 Years a Slave)
2. Alexander Ebert (All Is Lost)
3. William Butler and Owen Pallett (Her)
4. Hans Zimmer (Rush)
5. Michael Giacchino (Star Trek: Into Darkness)

1. Inside Llewyn Davis
2. American Hustle
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
4. Spring Breakers
5. The World's End

1. 12 Years a Slave
2. American Hustle
3. The Grandmaster
4. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
5. Star Trek: Into Darkness

1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Gravity
3. All Is Lost
4. The Grandmaster
5. Prisoners

1. American Hustle
2. 12 Years a Slave
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
4. Captain Phillips
5. Gravity

1. Captain Phillips
2. Gravity
3. The World's End
4. Star Trek: Into Darkness
5. Pacific Rim

1. Gravity
2. Star Trek: Into Darkness
3. Elysium
4. Pacific Rim
5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

1. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way, Way Back)
2. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon)
3. Dan Scanlon (Monsters University)
4. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (This Is the End)
5. Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead)

1. Dallas Buyers Club
2. Saving Mr. Banks
3. Evil Dead
4. This Is the End
5. White House Down

Quick reviews for the rest of the year...

No pictures, but I'm falling behind and want to do a revamp of sorts before staring for 2014 (feeling too lazy to check for spelling errors so let me just get this out of my system)...

Jackass: Bad Grandpa- Jackass meets Borat. If you like their style of humor then you are going to love this. Possibly the best comedy of the year right alongside The World's End, This Is the End, or Monsters University.

Out of the Furnace- What a shame because with a cast like this, Scott Cooper's (Crazy Heart) second feature misuses its time and forces us to accept much of the characters at face value with perhaps only the lead played by Bale being worthy of any interest.

The Place Beyond the Pines- Second film from Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) that tells such a beautifully sprawling story about fathers, sons, second chances, and legacy. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Coooper are at their best.

American Hustle- Another great film from the re-invented David O. Russell. Well acted, well crafted, moving, and a lot of fun.

Anchorman 2- I actually liked it. Similarly to films like Taken or The Hangover, I don't hold the original in the highest of esteem. The first film was funny and so is this. I enjoyed the parody of the 24 hour news cycle and Will Ferrell is an improv king when it comes to making up the most ridiculous of Ron Burgandy one-liners.

The Wolf of Wall Street- An unintentional party movie from one of America's greatest directors. Scorsese and DiCaprio re-team on a film that shows us the excess of life for men that are the white collar criminals to the blue collar ones from Goodfellas. The ending comes as a shocking indictment and with DiCaprio's work, Jordan Belafort is easily one the most memorable characters in a Scorsese film.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug- Similar to my criticism of An Unexpected Journey, the only bad things that you could say about Peter Jackson's return to Middle-Earth is that it doesn't necessarily feel new, but like I've pointed out- that isn't much of a criticism because of how much fun these movies are. This dark chapter also features terrific work from actor Richard Armitage.

Inside Llewyn Davis- Another perfect Coen brothers film. Great cast, gorgeous cinematography, incredible music, and another Coen-esque story where the point might be that there is no point and life has some good and some bad, but there's always a journey to it.

Saving Mr. Banks- Surprisingly dark, this incredibly well-acted film (possibly my favorite Emma Thompson perfornace) that examines the making of Walt Disney's Mary Poppins will surprise one with how complex and emotional it can get.

August: Osage County- I'd be lying if like with All Is Lost, I didn't stress how much I loved this movie more then some of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture. The play is already perfect so if you get a perfect cast, you have one of the best family dramas in recent memory. The singular performances aren't as good as that as the ensemble functioning together in those dinner scenes.

Her- Spike Jonze's romance is touching with a great performance from the great Joaquin Phoenix. It has a simple message despite all of the complex surroundings and scenarios that the story presents and that is an incredibly endearing sentiment on the filmmaker's part.

Nebraska- Alexander Payne's latest is funny and heartfelt just like all of his other movies. Dern, Squibb, Forte, and Odenkirk are one of the most memorably funny and realistic screen-families I've seen in recent memory.

Oblivion- Sci-fi actioneer starring Tom Cruise that is well acted and has incredible production values, but the story is a cobbling together of previously explored ground from other films and is at times slightly convoluted for its own good.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

All Is Lost

You can count on a hand the lines of or number of sequences that feature dialogue. The film opens with a voice-over stating "I'm sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. All is lost." Later the main character, who is credited at the end as Our Man (Robert Redford), says into his radio receiever "This is the Virginia Jean with an S.O.S. call, over" a few times as he struggles to repair his boat that crashed into a shipping container carrying shoes that must've fell off a larger boat. Then he lets out a powerful scream of "FUCK" when he is on a liferaft after having left his treasured boat behind. Then he screams "help!" as a container ship that is practically on auto-pilot just wanders quite literally right past him on the raft. He screams "help" some more at the end, but that's about it.

All Is Lost isn't exactly just a minimalist film for the sake of minimalism. It certainly features the spectacle one sees in Gravity and has a plot that could easily be similar to that of such thrillers as Saw, Buried, Frozen, Paranormal Activity, ATM, and numerous other low-budget horror films. It's almost more along the lines of a play where the action can take place in a single setting (The Sunset Limited, Glengarry Glen Ross), but in this case that setting is the abyss of an ocean. All Is Lost has minimalist elements, but it certainly feels more existential than anything else. It is ultimately about a man being sucked into a void that he has fallen into by himself. What do we know of him? He has a family which means he has a connection to something and therefore a reason to survive. He writes a note to them during an incredibly haunting scene that if the viewer takes a moment to think, they'll realize that the note chronoligcally matches up with the voice over based on a title-card's stated time that is presented as a subtitle toward the beginning of the film. The movie it turns out for his natch visual effects and craftsmanship to really be about survival when one's strongest enemy is his own loneliness. It's a character piece no matter which way one tries to decipher it.

This is the second film from J.C. Chandor (Margin Call). With this as his second feature he has already shown that he is a visionary talent of great depth and understanding of story and character and has exemplified such under qutie versatile circumstances. The film is beautifully shot by Frank G. DeMarco, has a great sound design and mix, and is well edited. The score by Alexander Ebert tells a story of its own just with the music in and of itself. Coupled with the images and during a film where the music moves between booming and atmospheric without any notice, it becomes a great tool to help further express what Robert Redford is already nailing with just a look.

Redford's expressiveness is interesting. It isn't like say Javier Bardem's in Biutiful where you can feel the pain just off his face alone. Redford is ragged, more intensive, and carries himself in just a specific manner that even his stoicism shines through in such a surprising and revelatory nature. It feels like the Sundance Kid has reinvented his no-nonsense persona into something much more modern and equal parts hopefull and downtrodden. We understand our man's methodology as he moves from patching a hole to navigating for his survival. This obviously all must've come from a well-thought out script by Chandor and this film's story alone sets it apart from many films I've seen. The best thing about All Is Lost is that it functions on so many levels and one of those asks for such a strong personal connection that it only feels natural for the material to make with its audience.

Catching Fire

Catching Fire is a sequel that is as good as its predecessor. Although this time directed by Francis Lawrence instead of Gary Ross, the only telling difference of a change in style is the camerawork. Gone is the hectic hand-held running-through-the-jungle-and-not-getting-a-glimpse-of-what-is-around-them cinematography and in its place is a more streamlined look that most blockbusters seem to share. Not that there was anything wrong with the first film's visual style (I didn't find it as disorienting as others), but with the scope of the story getting bigger it seems we are now being treated to wide frames full of layers of action instead of jarring close-ups.

Story-wise, Catching Fire is a typical middle chapter. The story moves forward and as someone who is only vaguely familiar with the books, I'm quite impressed at the number of moving pieces that the narrative features. Ultimately, the plot remains with its lead character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Not to say the other actors (in particular Josh Hutcherson's great understated performance as Peeta) feel underused, but the film follows Katniss and every so often we are treated to the interior workings of the other characters she comes across. Lawrence carries her part with a sense of haunted responsibility that Katniss feels towards her people and she's proven with her past couple of roles that she can carry a movie as naturally as any other popular lead performer that graces widely released films.

Actors whose performances from the first film I enjoyed have returned such as Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson while new characters played by actors such as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, and Sam Claflin emerge and as a newer fan of this material, I'm incredibly impressed with what quirks the actors show off in their roles.

Still, it feels (like some lesser middle chapters of sagas) that the film is holding back because the eventual finale is coming. Katniss and Peeta's burgeoning relationship is put on hold for the sake of this year's new Hunger Games competition and even in the other supporting parts, there feels as if no new dimensions are added to the lives of these characters. Although I'm impressed by the narrative's scope, nothing all that shocking happens with the end result of the plot feeling sustained. I'm fascinated by how this series is exploring our pop-culture anxieties (reality television, feminism, etc.), but this film feels a little too much like a placeholder. At least it's a highly entertaining one.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

When I walked out of Thor: The Dark World, I asked a friend what he thought. His answer, "well... that was a movie." I laughed, but come to think of it, that about sums up how I felt.

Looking back on my thoughts for the first Thor film, I think I was just more surprised with what Kenneth Branagh and co. were able to get right as opposed to looking for things that bothered me. I always felt Thor would be the most difficult character to capture on screen. Do you just make it a PG-13 version of 300 and feature Thor and his viking comrades? Do you show Donald Blake walk into a cave with a stick and then suddenly turn into a superhero? Since Marvel Studios was planning for Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America to be part of an Avengers film, the idea of focusing on both Asgard and Earth actually led to the first Thor being an enjoyable fantasy-action movie. 

This sequel, feels quite similar to the first. There's some action with the sensibility of your average video game, but the characters and performances (especially in concerns to Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and the chemistry between the two of them) keep everything moving. Only in retrospect did I realize how the film plodded along and how forgettable it all actually is because at the time of the movie I was too busy saying "oh, that's kind of cool" (I think it helps that I am such a die-hard comic book fan).

Back to the reaction of 'oh, just another movie'... this unfortunately just feels like another placeholder for Avengers 2 similar to how Iron Man 3 wavered between being its own singular adventure and still being a part of a larger universe. I'm curious as to when Marvel will decide to return to the world of Thor because there are some interesting plot threads left open, but sadly it seems we'll have to wait until 2016 at the latest.

12 Years a Slave

The shot I found most astonishing in 12 Years a Slave is a long take that takes place somewhere near the last third of the film. The slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) has disobeyed the master of the plantation Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). She is tied to a post and is to be beaten. Epps decides to make the story's protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to be the one to lash her bare back with the whip. Solomon whips her a few times and Patsey is screaming and crying. At a point the camera will rest on their faces before pulling back to show the surroundings of the scene. Solomon is distraught and eventually he can't do it any more so Epps steps in and finishes the job. With each rapid lash of the whip we see skin come flying off Patsey and red lines of blood and flared scars take shape. Many of the supporting characters of the film are watching as Epps is screaming in a bloody rage. The camera never cuts and Hans Zimmer's subtle, but effectively haunting score plays through the entire moment. The reaction I felt was along the lines of, 'How can this be a movie? That felt so real. The skin flew off her back and there was literally no pause in the moment....'.

The film is full of other long takes similar to director Steve McQueen's previous films- Hunger and Shame. He then cleverly chooses when to cut and that is well after the pain of the moment we are witnessing has not only just settled in, but has become unbearable to watch (the scene where Solomon hangs being a perfect example). McQueen, a former artist, directs like a poet. His films wash over you and certainly feel timeless no matter the era of events. He loves to focus on discomfort and men who are trapped in solitude, which seems to be a big theme of films this year other then disrupting the American dream; that theme being of people in isolation (see Gravity, All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, etc.). The story of 12 Years a Slave follows Solomon from person to person as we the audience discover alongside the formerly free man what this "new" world entails.  The emotional performance of Ejiofor holds everything together despite the constant changing of scenery. Solomon is a character that is forced to rarely speak and mostly feel, so Ejiofor uses his eyes and mannerisms to make us understand Solomon's despair and misery from excruciating moment to moment. Other mentions to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, screenwriter John Ridley, composer Hans Zimmer, and performers Fassbender and Nyong'o are deserved who just like Ejiofor, it'd be hard to imagine the film without their participation and talents.

It has been well documented that the films that end on an unsure and even sad note are sometimes the more effective. For a story to remind us that not everything is right in the world seems more poignant than everything being tied up neatly in a bow. Solomon does make it home to his family and that final scene is incredibly powerful and certainly one of the greatest scenes in a film that I've ever witnessed, period. He is happy, but he still went through such apalling hell that even though the character may seem content, we the audience still have to live, like Solomon, with the atrocity of nature we just witnessed. Storytelling at its best.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Captain Phillips

The one aspect I was most impressed with after watching Captain Phillips was how director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray chose to make us feel something for both sides in the conflict. It's surprising that I should feel anything at all really as the film is somewhat procedural in its nature, but that is what makes the film have an impact in the first place. We observe Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks in another incredible turn) interact with his crew and later as he lies to pirates to keep them safe. We observe Muse (Barkhad Abdi, a revelation of a performance) come from an impoverished land where crime is his only out and later as he attempts to get the upper hand on Phillips by taking him hostage aboard a lifeboat. We empathize with them both. We understand who they are, what they are doing, where the come from, and why they are doing what they need to do. By the film's end when both characters have had their sensibilities shattered, emotion just naturally comes seeping into the film's fabric of a storyline and character arc. Michael Mann recently complimented Greengrass on his latest film and rightfully so as this film's structure somewhat reminds of Mann's The Insider. That was another film that might've felt driven by plot as you watched it, but the nature of events then leads to a deeper understanding of each singular character.

Of course much has already been written about Greengrass's cinematic style. His use of handicam is matched by no one else. Along with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93, Green Zone, The Hurt Locker, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) every move feels almost choreographed. So many other filmmakers just use the shaky camera to create a sense of chaos and their intent seemingly ends there. Greengrass takes it a step further as he brings us right into the middle of the situation to understand not just the story, but to place us alongside these characters. Every shake, every zoom, and every rattle feels intentional. Whether it was the car chase in The Bourne Supremacy, the storming of the cockpit in United 93, or the final foot chase in Green Zone- Greengrass seems to operate the monopoly on skillfull handicam work without any doubt.