April 6, 2014

Game On

Filed under: TV — DB @ 2:31 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

This post is intended for those who are up-to-date on Game of Thrones. If you have yet to start watching the series or are not caught up, sprint away like a direwolf and don’t look back.

Sweet relief! Game of Thrones is about to return.

People seemed to appreciate my attempt last year to provide a reminder of where things stood at the end of the previous year, so let me try that again. Or you can watch this 25 minute HBO special recapping the season, which would be much cooler and only slightly less time-consuming.

Obviously the effects of the infamous Red Wedding will be felt as the season begins. Robb Stark, his wife Talisa and his mother Catelyn are all dead, killed in an ambush orchestrated by Walder Frey with the backing of Tywin Lannister and the assistance of Roose Bolton, a Stark bannerman who turned against the house to which he owed his allegiance. In addition to his hand in this slaughter of the Stark army, Tywin Lannister made other moves to assure his family’s continued stranglehold on the Seven Kingdoms. He orchestrated the marriage of Tyrion to Sansa Stark, and blackmailed Lady Olenna Tyrell into betrothing Loras to Cersei. Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding approaches, and the queen-to-be is proving a much more cunning political player than the naive Sansa. Tyrion is being as decent as he can to his reluctant bride, while trying to hold onto his secret relationship with Shae, who continues to pose as Sansa’s handmaiden.

Jaime finally made it back to King’s Landing after an arduous journey on the road that saw him first antagonize and then later bare his soul to Brienne of Tarth, sharing with her the true story behind his murder of the Mad King that long ago earned him the derisive label “Kingslayer.” His vulnerable confession came after his sword hand was chopped off by Locke, a solider of House Bolton who captured Jaime and Brienne after they had been sent to King’s Landing by Catelyn Stark. And speaking of House Bolton, the sociopath who took such pleasure in fucking with Theon Greyjoy, torturing him physically, emotionally and psychologically, and ultimately cutting off his manhood, turned out to be Bolton’s bastard Ramsay Snow. So…nice gene pool.

Jon Snow, a much more likable bastard of the north, who went undercover with Mance Rayder’s wildlings, scaled The Wall but was forced to reveal his true loyalties when his fellow travelers wanted to murder an innocent farmer. Jon killed the antagonistic Orell before nearly being killed himself by Ygritte, who shot him with three arrows before he managed to ride out of range. He barely made it back to Castle Black alive. He was found there by Pyp (unseen since Season One) and Sam, who made it back to The Wall not long before, having endured his own harrowing series of events. He escaped a revolt plotted by some unsavory brothers of the Night’s Watch, who killed their host Craster as well as Lord Commander Mormont. Sam fled with Craster’s daughter Gilly and her newborn son, leading her to Castle Black and discovering along the way that an arrow carved from obsidian could destroy the White Walkers.

Upon reaching The Wall, Sam and Gilly crossed paths with Bran Stark and his companions Hodor (“Hodor”) and siblings Meera and Jojen Reed. The Reeds, from a family loyal to the Starks, sought Bran out so that Jojen could help Bran understand and develop his newfound gift of “sight” — an ability to see future, past and present that the two young men share. Their talent also allows them to enter the minds of animals and control them, but Bran discovered he could take that gift even further when he entered the head of Hodor (“Hodor!”) and briefly controlled him too, an ability which Jojen has never heard of before. Bran and company are headed beyond the wall on a vision quest to find the three-eyed raven (get out of my dreams, get into my wheelbarrow). Bran sent his younger brother Rickon to seek safety with Stark bannermen the Umbers, under the protection of Osha, the wildling girl turned caretaker of the Stark boys. And then there’s the remaining Stark sibling Arya, who had been so close to reuniting with Robb and Catelyn before their murder, and who now remains in the company of The Hound. When last we saw her, she was handling the Braavossi coin given to her by Jaqen H’ghar, who had offered to help her follow in his footsteps and become a deadly assassin who can travel unseen and literally change his face. God, I hope she does it.

gendryOver on Dragonstone, Stannis Baratheon continues to plot his next move against Joffrey. Melisandre attempted to help by delivering Stannis’ nephew — Robert’s bastard son Gendry — who she intended as a sacrifice for the power of his king’s blood. But Stannis’ advisor Davos Seaworth helped Gendry escape, and then convinced Stannis and Melisandre not to execute him for treason by sharing news from The Night’s Watch: that an army of White Walkers is amassing north of the wall and moving south. Even Melisandre admitted that this threat was real, and more important than the ongoing struggle for the Iron Throne.

Finally, Daenerys’ quest to reach the Seven Kingdoms and reclaim the Iron Throne for the Targaryen family continues to be delayed, more recently because she insists on freeing the slaves of every city she comes across. She now has three growing dragons, the enormous, highly skilled army of Unsullied under her command, and the loyalty of Missandei (the C-3PO of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond…because she can speak, like, every language), Jorah Mormont, Barristan Selmy and now Daario Naharis, a warrior for an army called the Second Sons, who has pledged his loyalty — and his heart — to the former Khaleesi. What will she do with all these slaves she keeps freeing, and how many more cities will she liberate before crossing the Narrow Sea?

Did I say finally? Don’t forget about Littlefinger, who sailed away from King’s Landing en route to the Eyrie, where he is expected to marry Catelyn’s sister Lysa Arryn, last seen fuming when Tyrion managed to win his freedom from her with the help of Bronn’s skillful swordplay. Before leaving the capital, Littlefinger disposed of Ros, the prostitute who had become his business associate but was reporting to Varys behind his back. Varys, meanwhile, unsuccessfully tried to convince Shae to leave Westeros so that she would not continue to be a complication for Tyrion, who he believes is one of the few people in the kingdoms who could bring peace and stability. She seemed to think that Tyrion had asked Varys to make this proposal on his behalf, though I don’t think that’s true. Will we ever learn about Shae’s past? If you recall the drinking game she played with Tyrion and Bronn in Season One, she clearly doesn’t fit the profile of the typical Westerosian whore. What’s her story?

The show’s ability to juggle all of these characters and storylines is among its most impressive feats. And while more will surely die this year, others will arrive. The most notable new addition set to join the cast is a character named Oberyn Martell, from the kingdom of Dorne (where Tyrion sent Cersei’s daughter Myrcella for protection). Known by the badass nickname The Red Viper, Oberyn is expected to stir up some serious shit with the Lannisters.

As we enter the new season, many of my curiosities center around supporting characters and their fates. With such a vast and complex story, I worry for some reason that figures on the periphery might disappear. Catelyn’s uncle Brynden (The Blackfish) managed to escape the Red Wedding and will presumably be headed for the Eyrie, so perhaps he’ll be back in play when Littlefinger arrives. Catelyn’s brother Edmure, meanwhile — the guy whose marriage put the “wedding” in Red Wedding – is in the dungeons at the Twins, where he is newly tied to the worst in-laws e-v-e-r. Will he be forgotten, or does his story continue? Will we see Gendry again, or is his fate irrelevant now that Melisandre seems to see the battle north of the Wall as more pressing than the quest for the Iron Throne? What about Rickon and Osha? How important is the youngest and heretofore most narratively undeveloped Stark child? Will we see more from the Brotherhood Without Banners, that underground rabble led by seven-times killed, seven-times revived Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr, the Red Priest with a fondness for alcohol, who has served as the Red God’s vessel for those seven resuscitations? And what happened to the rest of the Knight’s Watch? In the chaos of the mêlée at Craster’s Keep, it wasn’t clear what happened to the ones who were not part of the rebellion. Did Grenn and Doleful Edd make it out alive? What’s in store for Rast, the surly brother who killed Commander Mormont and has it out for Sam? It looks like he appears briefly in the first trailer for the new season, laying a baby down in the snow.

I’m sure that all of these characters will be revisited eventually, even if not this season. I’m encouraged on that point by a glimpse of Alliser Thorne in the trailer above. Not seen since Season One, Thorne is the veteran Knight’s Watchman who butted heads with Jon and was eventually sent to King’s Landing by Mormont in order to warn King Joffrey and his advisors of the White Walkers and wights — reanimated dead, impervious only to fire. (In a rare bit of failed continuity, Cersei and the Small Council learned of this news by other means; it was not delivered by Thorne.) He’s back now, just as Barristan Selmy returned last season as protector to Daenarys after being dismissed from Joffrey’s Kingsguard in Season One. So I’m optimistic that these other supporting characters’ storylines will continue.

What’s interesting about the series’ enormous roster of characters is that it came about almost by accident. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have said in interviews, including this one last year from Deadline, that when they were putting together the first season, their inexperience with television led to most of the episodes being too short, sometimes by 10 to 12 minutes. So they had a brief period of time in which to write and shoot several new scenes that would be primarily dialogue driven, since there was no budget left for battles or other expensive setpieces. This led to great scenes that didn’t exist in the books, like the lengthy, almost warm conversation between King Robert and Cersei after Robert has dismissed Ned as Hand of the King for opposing his plan to have Daenarys murdered.

That six-minute scene of two people talking is still among the series’ best ever, and it was born as an afterthought of sorts. It provided depth to characters who weren’t much more than ciphers in George R.R. Martin’s books. That’s not meant to be a slight against the source material. Martin’s approach is to focus on a select group of characters, of which neither Cersei nor Robert were included. They and many others are developed only in the context of their relationship to and interactions with Martin’s chosen few. But Benioff and Weiss were forced to create such scenes, and therefore able to develop more characters more richly. I’ve assumed that many of the great scenes between Varys and Littlefinger came about for the same reason, since neither one is a “point of view” character in the books.

So what’s in store when the saga resumes? Plenty of questions are on my mind. How is Littlefinger going to feel about the death of his beloved Catelyn? Will he feel the need to exact his own revenge, or will he continue to play his role and serve Joffrey and the Lannisters in order to climb to power? (“The climb is all there is.”)

What consequences await Jon now that he’s back with the Night’s Watch at Castle Black? He killed his brother Qhorin Halfhand in order to gain the trust of the wildlings — though it was Qhorin’s idea, and he all but forced Jon to kill him — and then he broke his vow of celibacy by getting steamy in a hot springs cave with Ygritte. And he gave away a few Night’s Watch secrets along the way. Even if Maester Aemon absolves him, Ygritte and charismatic wildling Tormund Giantsbane are still out for his blood. Assuming Ygritte really does want him dead. Does she love him enough to spare him? She did shoot him full of arrows, but at least she seemed conflicted about it. In Westeros, that could pass for an expression of love most true.

What will happen to Theon now that he’s been castrated and psychologically broken? Ramsay Snow sent Theon’s father Balon his boy’s appendage, and Balon immediately wrote his son off. But Theon’s sister Yara took a crew of her best men and left to rescue her brother. To which I  say, that’s nice…but fuck you Yara. Instead of being an asshole to your brother from the moment he returned home to Pyke, humiliating him and treating him like shit, you could have stood in solidarity with him against your father’s cruelty. I’m glad you’re going to get him now, but your sudden loyalty is too little too late. I look forward to eventually watching you and father die.

Will Cersei’s marriage to Loras come to pass? She told Tyrion with confidence in the season finale that she would not be marrying him. Tywin certainly intends otherwise, so how might she avoid it? Does she have something dastardly in store for the Knight of Flowers? How will Jaime’s return affect the plans? And how will Tywin look at his eldest son now that he’s lost his hand and with it his greatest asset? I’m excited to see Jaime and Tyrion together again, as Jaime is the only Lannister who actually loves his brother.

What will Stannis be up to? Have the concerns about what’s happening north of The Wall completely eclipsed his desire to unseat Joffrey and take the Iron Throne, or is the threat of the White Walkers still too remote to deter him from another attack on King’s Landing? Are we to accept that Melisandre’s Red God really is the great power that she claims? We’ve now seen her birth the creature that killed Renly. We’ve seen Thoros revive Beric after The Hound sliced his body in half. We’ve seen Robb die after Stannis cast three leeches that had drawn blood from Gendry into the fire, naming Robb, Joffrey and Balon Greyjoy as each bloodsucking worm shriveled in the flames. Is Robb’s death really the work of the Red God? If so, Balon and Joffrey should follow. But how soon, and by what means?

What’s in store for Bran beyond The Wall? What will his abilities allow him to accomplish? And why is he seeking the three-eyed raven there? When they met in Bran’s dream early in season three, Jojen said of the bird, “You can’t kill it you know…the raven is you.” So if the raven is Bran, why is he going beyond the Wall to find the raven? There’s got to be a more hospitable location for some soul-searching. In the longer term, will Bran’s gift allow him to learn the truth of Jon Snow’s lineage? The identity of Jon’s mother might not seem important, but when Benioff and Weiss first approached Martin about adapting his books for television, the question he posed to them to test their grasp on the material was about Jon’s mother. They offered their thoughts, and Martin was obviously satisfied. I’m guessing that their theory is widely held among fans of the story, and if it’s true, I don’t see how anyone alive in Westeros or beyond could possibly know the truth. Which means if it is to eventually come out, it would take someone with Bran’s abilities to discover it. But I’m sure we’re talking Season Six or Seven material now, so I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

Over the past two days, HBO has been running marathons of the series starting from the beginning, so I’ve been catching snippets here and there. Revisiting past episodes isn’t just a treat because the show has been so good from day one, but because the evolution of this stunningly rich story has been so carefully crafted. I re-watched the scene when Robb says goodbye to Bran before departing Winterfell with his army. Just after he leaves Bran’s room, Rickon enters, upset about everyone leaving. Bran assures him that Robb will return with their father, and that Catelyn will soon be back too. “No they won’t,” Rickon answers with eerie certainty. Early onset cynicism, or does Rickon have insights of his own into the future? When Bran dreamed of his father’s death, he discovered that Rickon had experienced the same dream. Moments later, Bran learned the news of Ned’s beheading. So what’s the deal with the youngest Stark?

Another of my favorite scenes from the series that I caught again is the one in which Renly tries to convince Ned to move swiftly against the Lannisters. It kills me. Everything he says is right, but Ned will have none of it because it conflicts with his code of honor…even though you can see in his eyes that he recognizes the truth in Renly’s argument. So much tragedy could be avoided if Ned does the smart thing instead of the honorable thing, but that’s not Ned…and so the die is cast.

Yes yes, I know things couldn’t have gone any other way. As I wrote at the conclusion of Season Three about the heartbreak of the Red Wedding and how it might have been avoided, “what if” scenarios are futile. Whatever we may want characters to do in order to avoid such painful ends, the story wouldn’t be as thrilling if it didn’t play out exactly as it does. Valar Morghulis, or All Men Must Die, as the new season’s slogan prominently declares. Rewatching Season Three in its entirety over the past several weeks, I was also reminded how beautifully the show has planted its seeds, which also came to mind over the last two days as I looked back even further into Seasons One and Two. In the same post-Season Three piece mentioned above, I pointed to how the song “The Rains of Castamere” was used earlier in the season to foreshadow the Red Wedding, and it turns out there were even more examples that I missed. Thoros was singing the song when he and his Brotherhood compatriots first encountered Arya and Gendry. And later in the season, an instrumental version played over the end credits of the episode “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” There was also that wonderful scene before Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding when Cersei told Margaery the story of House Castamere’s fall. This kind of intricate storytelling makes looking back just as enjoyable as looking forward.

And so in these final hours —or at this rate, minutes — of looking forward, I once again use these posts as an opportunity to collect some of my favorite Game of Thrones material that the internets have offered since last June.

This chart came from a piece in Vulture that created infographics for several Pixar movies.

Anyone who has attempted to explain the series to the uninitiated in the hopes that they might jump on the bandwagon knows what a daunting task it is. From his Basic Instructions series, artist Scott Meyer offers some help.

I always say that the highest pop culture honor possible is not an Oscar or a Pulitzer, but an homage on The Simpsons. Game of Thrones achieved this a couple of years ago when its opening credits served as inspiration for a Simpsons couch gag, which I referenced at the time. This more recent recognition is unofficial, but still pretty cool.

Simpsonsized(Click here for larger version)

South Park got in on the action last November, skewering Game of Thrones, the madness of Black Friday, the Playstation vs. Xbox console wars and more in an epic three-episode arc that was a typically inspired affair from Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And Vulture had some fun cross-pollinating Thrones with a few other TV shows to create pictures like this reimagining of Arrested Development.


The guys behind Parks and Recreation are huge Game of Thrones fans, and have bequeathed their love of the show to Adam Scott’s character Ben. This clip from a recent episode is their latest tribute.

There’s also an extended clip if you, like Ben, can’t get enough.

As cool as the Iron Throne is, George R.R. Martin said on his blog last year that he envisioned something even more grand and twisted, which just wouldn’t be possible on the show. But check out artist Marc Simonetti’s painting of the throne as imagined by Martin.

That is fucking badass.

Thrones continues to be a rich source of inspiration for artists. The pictures I use along the top and bottom of these posts are usually taken from the Cast a Large Shadow tumblr, which spotlights an ever-growing collection of art based on the show. Some of the work that has appeared there recently comes from a spinoff tumblr called Beautiful Death, for which artists have created incredibly cool, stylized posters representing every significant death the show has delivered since it began. Here are a few of my favorites, but these are all amazing and there’s more on the site, broken down by episode.


This rendering of The Wall on a London sidewalk is amazing for its illusion of depth, and check out the larger versions of these four posters, which have some nice details relating to four of the show’s strong women.

My favorite recontextualization of Game of Thrones to date has got be this series by Toyko-based artist Mike Wrobel, who placed the characters into 1980′s/1990′s wardrobe. See them all here. They’re mixed in with some other work, but this was the best venue I could find for seeing all 22 in one place. I love these.


For anyone interested in some audio appreciation of Thrones, here’s an entire album’s worth of rap songs inspired by the show. Common and Big Boi are among the contributors, and though I haven’t heard of the rest of these guys, there’s some good stuff here.

And finally, to provide a bit of light before the darkness arrives, here are some photos from the red carpet of the Season Four premiere, with the actors looking decidedly happier, chummier and cleaner than they do on the show. It’s really weird seeing Kristofer Hivju — aka Tormund Giantsbane — in a suit. And here are some videos taken during the photo shoot for the show’s current Vanity Fair cover story.


Two others are available as well — one in which the actors consider what advice they’d give their characters, and another about who they think should sit on the Iron Throne.

Okay, since I was unable to get this post done yesterday as I’d intended, you’re now left with about 10 minutes before the new season begins if you’re on the east coast. So that’s enough from me. See you in Westeros…hopefully not at a wedding.



March 30, 2014

Oscars 2013: What Went Down

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 8:00 pm
Tags: , , ,

I know, I know. The Oscars were a month ago. It always takes me at least a couple of weeks to get this follow-up post out, and that’s without life interfering. The amount of time it takes me to generate this post is ridiculous, yes, but I can’t abandon it. History must record what I thought of the winners, presenters, host, scandals and set design. You’ve probably moved on from the Oscars by now, like a normal person, and will not invest your time reading this post. I understand. But for the sake of posterity, I forge ahead. I can not be stopped.

As far as predictions go, this was probably my best year ever. I went 23 for 24, missing only Best Animated Short Film. I doubt I’ll do that well again anytime soon, so I tried to savor the buzz. The Best Picture/Best Director split I was expecting indeed came to pass, with 12 Years a Slave winning the former while Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuarón took the latter. Given the enthusiasm on display during their Best Picture acceptance, the 12 Years crew seemed just fine with that. And Team Gravity, with seven wins, had nothing to complain about. For the record, Gravity is now second to Cabaret as the movie to win the most awards for the year without taking Best Picture. Cabaret took home eight awards — including Best Director for Bob Fosse — in 1972, but lost the big one to The Godfather.

Like last year, I had no complaints about most of the winners, even if I might have gone a different way in a few categories. (Actually, I still feel pretty strongly that Lincoln should have won Best Adapted Screenplay over Argo last year.) Unlike last year, however, the Academy was not as generous in spreading the wealth. Lots of movies took home gold last year, and only one of the nine Best Picture nominees left empty-handed (that was Beasts of the Southern Wild). This year, Best Picture nominees Philomena, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips and American Hustle were all shut out. That’s especially surprising for Hustle, given that along with Gravity, it had a field-leading 10 nominations. But honestly, there wasn’t one category where it was the most deserving winner, so apologies to David O. Russell. I have no doubt you’ll get your Oscar sooner than later.

All four winning actors aced their speeches, beginning with Jared Leto, who paid sweet tribute to his mother and scored points for calling attention to the Ukraine and Venezuela. Maybe I’d strike a couple of those points for failing to thank Jennifer Garner, who was sitting right behind him. I mean, the guy thanked everybody in the English-speaking world at the Independent Spirit Awards the previous day. He couldn’t remember his other main co-star?

Lupita Nyong’o’s win was definitely one of the night’s highlights, mainly because everyone was just so genuinely happy for her. As I said in my predictions post, she has been such a classy, grateful, eloquent presence on the many award stages she’s graced this season, and the audience was quick to leap to their feet for her when presenter Christoph Waltz called out her name. And as with all those earlier speeches, this one didn’t disappoint.

The clip cuts off too soon, but as Nyong’o exited the stage, the orchestra played “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and it felt especially appropriate somehow. The cue probably would have popped up at that moment no matter who had won; the orchestra played an array of great movie themes as winners exited the stage and as the show went to and from commercials. But something about that song playing at the culmination of Nyong’o’s fairy tale introduction to the film industry felt right.

Cate Blanchett effectively ended the resurgence of the Woody Allen controversy by making clear her appreciation for his artistry and collaboration. She also paid warm tribute to her fellow nominees, and made a point that too many actress winners have to make: that there is an audience for movies about women, with women in the central roles, and that Hollywood needs to make more of them. Amen.

And Matthew McConaughey…you gotta love this guy. Every speech he’s given for Dallas Buyers Club has been energetic, funny, maybe a little rambling (he really droned on the previous afternoon when he won at the Independent Spirit Awards), but all uniquely McConaughey and all delivered with such charm that bits which could come across as a little arrogant from someone else instead register as funny and spoken from a place of gratitude and love. I hoped he might offer extended comments about his fellow nominees like Blanchett did, acknowledging that he’s worked with three of them (Bale, DiCaprio and Ejiofor) before, but maybe he was reluctant to invoke Reign of Fire on the Oscar stage.

I do have to say one other thing about that speech. As you saw, McConaughey offered a robust thank you to God. The Man Upstairs is often thanked by award winners and athletes who’ve just won a major victory. Most people wouldn’t read much into it. But leave it to a bunch of conservatives, especially grand idiots like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to make something out of nothing. Both radio hosts praised McConaughey for his words, and talked about the audience not knowing what to make of such a statement…as if no one in Hollywood believes in God. According to that article, some MTV host tweeted that when McConaughey thanked God, “the audience nearly took his award away.” But as usual, these morons only see what they want to see…usually because they’re making it up. In fact (“fact” — a word these people have never encountered), McConaughey’s remarks got quite a few cheers from the crowd. It’s not like the whole audience applauded, but again, thanking God is pretty common at events like this. No reason the whole audience has to show their support for such a remark, and silence does not mean disapproval. But ass-heads like Limbaugh, Beck and their flock of ignorant fans assume that to express an appreciation of God — and therefore religion in general — would be offensive to a room full of Hollywood liberals. What they don’t understand is that religion isn’t a divisive issue in American society right now; the divisive issue is bigotry, and those who try to hide behind their religious beliefs in order to justify it. And yes, that’s something you’re unlikely to encounter on a large-scale in Hollywood.

Huh…I guess Oscar bloggers are just as susceptible to getting political in their posts as Oscar winners are with their speeches. I learned it from you, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. I learned it by watching you. Moving on…

Beyond the four acting winners, speeches throughout the evening were nice, with only husband and wife Best Original Song winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez doing anything funny or memorable. And congratulations to Robert, whose Oscar grants him admission to the rather exclusive club of EGOT recipients. I really would have preferred any of the other three nominees to win, but you gotta give respect to the EGOT.

Speaking of songs, Darlene Love, one of the singers spotlighted in the winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom (and Mrs. Roger Murtaugh, for you Lethal Weapon fans), joined the director and producer onstage and took the opportunity to belt out a brief, joyous hymn that brought the crowd — led by Bill Murray — to their feet.

The only other notable pattern among the speeches concerned the 12 Years a Slave gang and the exposure of an apparent rift between director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley. When Ridley won for Best Adapted Screenplay, he made his way down the aisle but did not stop to shake hands or even acknowledge the director. Nor did McQueen make an effort to congratulate him. Ridley’s speech made no mention of McQueen either. McQueen, in turn, did not mention Ridley when accepting the Best Picture award. I noted all this while watching, but didn’t think too much of it. Turns out, according to The Wrap, there is something to it after all. It seems that after working with Ridley to shape the script, McQueen asked for co-writing credit, which Ridley refused. This led to a falling out that all involved tried to keep quiet during the awards season so as not to harm the movie’s chances. (There was speculation a few years back that tension between Up in the Air writers Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner during the early part of the 2009 awards season cost them a widely expected Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay.) For his part, Ridley dismisses the idea of a feud with McQueen, saying that his failure to mention the director was simply an oversight in the midst of a surreal moment, and pointing out that he thanked McQueen at length the day before during his speech at the Independent Spirit Awards. I’m not sure I buy that, considering the story in The Wrap, although even that story includes details that seem far-fetched. The truth is probably somewhere in between. McQueen may not come across as the warmest guy, but I have trouble believing that he verbally accosted Ridley’s wife at the BAFTA awards. For what it’s worth, Lupita Nyong’o didn’t thank Ridley in her speech either, but that could also have been an oversight. It happens all the time, and Nyong’o warmly congratulated Ridley when he won his Spirit award the day before.

On her second occasion hosting the show, Ellen Degeneres did a pretty good job, certainly generating less controversy than Seth MacFarlane did last year. Some people thought her joke about Liza Minnelli crossed a line and seemed uncharacteristically mean for Ellen, but I think people completely misinterpreted the joke, in which she pretended to mistake Minnelli for a drag queen dressed like the actress. Because Minnelli is an icon in the gay community and drag queens often do dress up like her, I took the joke to be about that status that she holds, rather than a dig at Minnelli’s own appearance, which seems to be how others — including perhaps Minnelli herself — interpreted it. Whatever the intention, the two made up later when Ellen took a selfie with Liza prior to the night’s bigger selfie a few moments later.

As to that epic selfie, it definitely goes down as a classic moment in the annals of Oscardom. Meryl Streep knew Ellen was going to come out and enlist her in some sort of bit, but she didn’t know what it was going to be. It turned into a great moment of spontaneity, as Ellen called in a few other nearby stars like Channing Tatum and Jennifer Lawrence, while others like Lupita Nyong’o, her brother Peter, Kevin Spacey, Brad and Angelina and Jared Leto — who must have had to bound over from his seat on the other side of the theater — all poured in symmetrically from each side like a troupe of Bubsy Berkley chorus girls. Ellen’s goal was to make the picture the most re-tweeted ever, and the photo achieved that goal in about a half hour, while also briefly crashing Ellen’s Twitter page. Tweets aside, I just enjoyed the gag for the humor of the moment. I also liked Ellen’s intro of the next two presenters, a little joke that got buried under the applause of the selfie moment, in which she introduced Michael B. Jordan and Kristen B. Ell. (Side note: Jordan and Bell had hosted the year’s Sci-Tech Award ceremony, which I must briefly call attention to because this year’s recipients included a guy who was in my department when I worked at ILM: a mad genius named Josh Pines, whose description of the event made it into the headline of The Wrap‘s coverage. Unless you happen to be shooting a digital film in the year 2011, I don’t expect anyone to care about that video I hyperlinked to Josh’s name, but it reminds me of Josh’s energy and eccentricities.)

Now then…the other great audience moment was the pizza delivery. When Ellen was first in the aisle asking people if they would eat pizza, it felt a little stiff. But when she actually brought out an unwitting delivery guy with three boxes and started distributing, that was great. I’ve heard some people gripe that it went on too long, but I thought it was fantastic. The unpredictability of live TV kept it interesting as stars got involved, with Spacey and Pitt helping to hand out plates, while the delivery guy then went to the other side of the theater, forcing Ellen to follow. And as funny as it was to see who jumped at the chance for a slice (I loved Harrison Ford tugging Ellen’s sleeve to get a napkin), it was just as fun to watch the reaction of someone like Leonardo DiCaprio, who declined to eat but seemed so bemused that Ellen had actually gone through with the joke. Then when Ellen off-handedly said that she had no money, she set up a nice extension of the gag by calling across the room to Harvey Weinstein.

I was just as amused later when she passed around Pharrell’s hat to collect donations. “That’s a start,” she said when Weinstein dropped in $200, and she went on to comically guilt Brad Pitt for not putting in more, prompting him to up his contribution. All in all, I’d say the whole episode turned into another classic Oscar moment.

Not that those people can’t afford to chip in, but I wondered if she really kept that money or gave it back to them later. Shaking Harvey Weinstein down for a $200 pizza tip is funny, and I’m sure he forgot about it five minutes later, but I guess it’s hard for me to imagine having to just kiss that kind of money goodbye in the blink of an eye. It’s also hard for me to imagine being as rich as Harvey Weinstein is, so there’s that. I hope he at least got a slice. Wherever the money actually came from, Ellen really did present the pizza guy with the tip on her show the next day.

These antics made up for the less successful moments of Ellen’s performance. Her introduction of presenters could have used a little more punch, and there was a strange moment where the show came back from commercial break just after Karen O’s performance of “The Moon Song” and Ellen was sitting on the edge of the stage with a guitar, seemingly about to do a gag, only to dryly introduce the next presenter. No joke, no bit, nothing. Oh well. Pizza and Twitter ensured Ellen’s gig will be fondly remembered.

The production kind of dropped the ball in this area. Usually a few of the presenters can be counted on to keep the comedy going during the show, but there was precious little of that this year. The closest they came was Jamie Foxx doing an amusing Chariots of Fire bit while his co-presenter Jessica Biel discussed Best Original Score. But these Oscars badly needed some Will Ferrell or Jack Black, some Steve Carell or Tina Fey (whose current commitment to the Golden Globes may preclude her from appearing at the Oscars), some Robert Downey Jr. or Ben Stiller, some Kristen Wiig or Emma Stone. Why didn’t they get American Hustle co-star Louis C.K. to present? Or nominee Sandra Bullock and her co-star from The Heat, Melissa McCarthy? Are Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari too associated with TV to be considered as Oscar presenters? What about Chris Pratt? He’s starred in Oscar-winning and nominated movies like Her, Zero Dark Thirty and Moneyball. Let’s get him on stage next year. Point is, comedy is a crucial element in keeping the inevitably long Oscar show moving, and the presenters usually help to carry that weight. Not so much this year. Some blame has to go to the writers, who also didn’t provide funny material for the presenters. Jason Sudeikis presented, but wasn’t given anything funny to do. Robert De Niro had some amusing material about the dark recesses of a screenwriter’s mind, but most of the presenter moments that did get some laughs were off the cuff, like Foxx’s Chariots gag or Bill Murray’s unique Bill Murrayness. Kevin Spacey’s brief invocation of his House of Cards character and equally brief Jack Lemmon impression were appreciated, but beyond that there were few attempts at humor from the presenters. The show could definitely have used some of the comedic energy that Sacha Baron Cohen brought to the Britannia Awards last fall.

Cohen was accepting an award there, not presenting one, but the point remains. And I think I just wanted an excuse to include that clip.

There was also the problem of some odd presenter choices to begin with. Jim Carrey? John Travolta? Will Smith? Kate Hudson? Jessica Biel? When was the last time any of these people had a hit? I don’t mean to write them off as irrelevant, but they feel a little warmed over at the present time. Could the producers really not find some people who feel like more vital contributors to movies at the moment? I mean sure, you also had people like Goldie Hawn and Glenn Close, but there’s something about them that is classically associated with the Oscars. They transcend any concerns of “currentness.” Not that I’m saying to go the other way and just throw a bunch of stars who are hot at the moment on Oscar’s stage. That’s how Taylor Lautner ended up there a few years ago, and that doesn’t need to happen either. I suppose it can be a fine line between presenters who have timeless appeal and those who make you feel like you’re watching a show from five or ten years ago. Knowing the difference is a skill that you need if you’re going to produce a show like this one. (I have that skill, in case the Academy is interested.)

Then there was poor Kim Novak. This is another thing Oscar producers often try to do, which is trot out an old-time Hollywood star who has been out of the spotlight for years. It’s a nice idea in theory, but too often it falls flat and ends up an embarrassment for the performer. They can’t read the teleprompter. Or they try to improvise. Or they get caught up in the emotion of being back in the spotlight, but it leads to awkwardness instead of poignancy. Novak fell somewhat victim to that trap, but even beyond that, there was something off about her presentation. If she was reading from the script, then it seemed like she was trying to do this thing where she made the text sound spontaneous, but I don’t know…it wasn’t working, and Matthew McConaughey looked like he had to hold her up, physically and performance-wise. And why Kim Novak anyway? Was she meant to tie into the show’s theme of Heroes? If so, then that should have been explained when she was introduced. So why her? If elderly stars of yesteryear are going to appear on the telecast, there should be some significant reason, or they should be presenting Best Picture. I don’t know…am I just being a dick? Or was Novak’s moment onstage as painful to watch for others as it was for me? It made me sad.

Sidney Poitier fared better. It was hard to see him looking so frail and moving so slowly, but he was still as cool and classy as ever. He has often come off as a measured, thoughtful speaker, so the long pauses he took felt natural. And as his co-presenter Angelina Jolie noted, the occasion marked the 40th anniversary of his historic Best Actor win, so his presence felt justified. And he was there to give out the Best Director prize, one of the night’s biggest. That’s how it should be done.

Jumping back to Travolta for a moment…what can I say that the internet hasn’t already said? His bizarre butchering of Idina Menzel’s name turned the non-existent Adele Dazeem into a web sensation, and turned him into a punching bag for the next few days. Slate offered the Adele Dazeem Name Generator to show how Travolta would mispronounce your name. Buzzfeed speculated on how he would have screwed up the names of other Oscar attendees. Someone started an Adele Dazeem Twitter feed. I actually started to feel bad for the guy, so incessant were the efforts to mock his mistake. He released a brief statement a couple of days later in which he addressed the error but, amusingly, didn’t really apologize or explain himself. Menzel’s performance of “Let it Go” was just a little bit off that night, and some wondered if she was thrown by Travolta’s intro. When she finally commented on the incident a few weeks later (see, this is why I wait so long to post the follow-up!), her response was good-natured. So it sounds like things are all well, and while it’s probably time to let Travolta move on from this, I think Adele Dazeem, whoever she is, must live on.


-The presentations of all four nominated songs were among the best moments of the show. First was Pharrell’s lively performance of “Happy,” which included a trip off the stage and down along the front row where Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams got their groove on. He really had the room going, and I have to admit, the song has grown on me a lot since the nominations were announced.

Next was the gorgeous staging of “The Moon Song.” Befitting the tune’s delicate lyrics and fragile nature, Karen O —  accompanied by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig — was seated on a small staircase with her shoes at her side, lit initially by just a single spotlight from above, and then by an enormous full moon projected on the screen behind her, rising throughout the song until it reached full height, her red dress shining beautifully against the dark stage. Visually and vocally, it was a perfect presentation for that song.

U2 kept the flow going with a terrific performance of “Ordinary Love.” The song isn’t an all-out rocker, but they stripped it down even leaner than the studio recording, going with an intimate, acoustic delivery that felt right for the movie, the song and the room. As I watched them standing side by side on stage without a full array of instruments between them, it really struck me just how long these guys have been playing together, how iconic they are, and how long they’ve been involved in social causes like the ones that brought them into Nelson Mandela’s life. They were excellent.

And although I mentioned before that Idina Menzel’s rendition of “Let it Go” was just a touch off — she seemed to be straining at the end — the simple set design evoking the icy look of Frozen was just enough to provide an interesting backdrop against which the singer could shine. Still, the number might have come off even better the next night when Jimmy Fallon played a video of Menzel performing the song accompanied by The Roots on classroom instruments.

-The show’s other two musical performances were fine, but less inspired. Pink did a nice job on “Over the Rainbow” in tribute to the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, but I felt like she was a little bit flat. I’m not sure how they settled on her to perform the song, but I think they could have found someone better, who could have been a real showstopper. The song certainly lends itself to an emotional performance, but Pink didn’t take it there. Yet according to Entertainment Weekly‘s report about things you didn’t see on the TV broadcast, she was a huge hit in the room, and the standing ovation continued after the show went to commercial.

Then there was Bette Midler performing “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the In Memoriam segment. It was a nice idea, but seeing as it followed the actual montage of departed filmmakers and wasn’t accompanied by additional clips of their work or photos of them, it just felt like an unnecessary time suck. Midler still sounds great, but her performance was a dead spot in the show. In the past, performers like Queen Latifah and James Taylor have sung during the montage itself, which has worked well, and might have been instituted to prevent the audience from applauding names that have broad recognition while others come and go in silence because their work is not as well-known any more. The downside is that when the segment ends, the singer’s presence onstage can take the focus away from the deceased, which is where it should stay. In fact, there was an awkward moment when Midler’s number came to an end and the audience offered a standing ovation. It wasn’t really clear if they were standing for her, or out of respect for those depicted in the montage…particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman, the last person featured. Midler seemed moved by the standing ovation, but I’m not convinced it was about her as much as it was a gesture for Hoffman, whose death was obviously a particularly strong blow to this community. Midler could be heard starting to speak just before the show went to commercial, in one of several instances throughout the evening where speakers were mistakenly caught for a few seconds on live microphones. What did she say to the applauding throngs?

-As for the In Memoriam sequence itself, it was good to see Harold Ramis made it in. Having passed away during the week of the show, he might have been too late an addition to be edited into the piece. There’s often some controversy around the montage over who is omitted, but fortunately it wasn’t much of an issue after this year’s aired. I read a few stories noting that Cory Monteith had been left off, but with all due respect to the late Glee actor, he had almost no presence in movies and should not have been featured. The only person I was surprised and disappointed to find left out was Dennis Farina, whose work in films like Midnight Run, Get Shorty and Out of Sight should have earned him a spot.

Although Sarah Jones — the 27 year-old crew member who was killed in a tragic accident on the set of a Gregg Allman biopic — didn’t make it into the montage, the online movement to include her did perhaps reach the Academy. As the segment ended, there was a banner with her picture on it directing viewers to the Oscar website for an online In Memoriam gallery that was more inclusive than the one on the telecast.

I also saw a comment online grousing that it was inappropriate and in poor taste to put an emphasis on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s screen in the montage, as if his death was more significant than others. But the montage always concludes with someone who was a giant within the industry, and there is almost always a little extra time devoted to them. Interestingly, the In Memoriam section is one of the few aspects of the Oscar show that the producers do not control. The decisions about who will and won’t be included are made by a committee within the Academy. It’s always a difficult task, and former Executive Director of the Academy Bruce Davis thinks it might be best to eliminate it altogether.

-Despite the plea I made in my predictions opus, the producers failed to show enough imagination to get a clip for Best Supporting Actor nominee Barkhad Adbi other than the one we’ve seen over and over again in which he looks at Tom Hanks and says, “I’m the captain now.” Oh well. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how good he was in all his other scenes.

-Am I the only one who was sort of puzzled by the mass of bright red roses that appeared down an entire center section of the backdrop when the show returned from its first commercial break? The color was nice, but all I could think was that American Beauty had projectile vomited all over the set.

-It had been announced in the weeks leading up to the show that this year’s theme — because apparently there has to be a theme — was Heroes. This amounted to little more than three montages spaced throughout the show that paid tribute to different types of movie heroes. The first focused on animated characters. The second concentrated on the ordinary heroes populating movies such as Serpico, Braveheart, Norma Rae, Ali, To Kill a Mockingbird, Milk, Silkwood, Apollo 13, The Blind Side, In the Heat of the Night and Erin Brockovich. The last one was the least clearly defined, straddling the line between the previous grouping by including Rocky and The Karate Kid but mostly focusing on action, fantasy and science-fiction fare like Star Wars, Aliens, The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Die Hard, The Matrix, The Avengers, The Princess Bride, Jaws, Back to the Future, the Harry Potter movies, Kill Bill and Ghostbusters.

Now as someone who loves movies, I love a good movie montage that artfully puts together an array of clips from classics and favorites. In fact, one of my favorite Oscar memories is a montage that was shown at the beginning of the 1990 ceremony (or ’91 technically, but honoring the movies of ’90) that was created to mark the 100th anniversary of the invention of motion pictures. I always conclude my annual post about my favorite movies of the year by including some montages that movie fans have created to celebrate the work of the previous 12 months. There can be a certain kind of skill on display in a great montage of movie clips, but these three lacked any of that finesse. They felt hastily assembled, with no creative thought into how they were put together.

More significantly, they were the only attempt to even lend the show a sense of having a theme, and they weren’t enough. What’s so odd about how poorly the theme resonated was that to look at this article from a couple of weeks before the show, in which producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan vaguely previewed the ceremony, there seemed to be a lot more that was supposed to happen. They mention celebrating actors and filmmakers who take on difficult subject matter, so that the hero theme would encompass not just movie characters, but also behind the scenes figures. That didn’t happen. They talk about dividing the show into sections built around the different montages, as if there would have been more effort to incorporate the types of heroes that each montage focused on into the show at large. That didn’t happen. There was supposed to be an “emotional moment”  intended to “illustrate the theme of how movies have inspired” that was set to involve The Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield “induct[ing] a new superhero into the fraternity of superheroes.” That didn’t happen…although in that case, there are some details.

You probably recall that in November 2013, the City of San Francisco worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to realize the dream of 5 year-old cancer survivor Miles Scott to be a superhero for a day. Dubbed “Batkid,” Miles took part in a series of staged heroics around the city, cheered on by huge crowds. On Oscar night, Andrew Garfield was supposed to introduce a montage of what Meron called “popular heroes” which would have been followed by Miles coming out on stage and being made an honorary superhero by Garfield. The initial reports were that Garfield and Scott rehearsed the segment on Saturday, but the producers then decided to cut it for reasons that were never clearly stated. To make it up to Miles, the Academy sent his family to Disneyland on Monday.

Then the New York Post‘s gossip column Page Six claimed that during the rehearsal, Garfield raised concerns with the script and angrily bailed on the show when his suggested changes weren’t accepted. Knowing Garfield’s public image, that sort of behavior seems highly unlikely. Subsequent reports paint a more believable scenario, which is that Garfield did have some concerns with the material, feeling it was “exploitative.” He offered a re-write, but the producers preferred the original draft. Garfield eventually agreed, but the producers ultimately decided that the entire segment was not a good fit with the tone of the show, and cut it altogether. (My favorite part of the article in the previous link? Sony was upset about Garfield being cut because of the lost opportunity to promote May’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2…as if that movie needs helping getting attention.) Captain America star Chris Evans was called in as a last-minute replacement to introduce just the montage portion, and that was that. The Academy later issued a statement explaining that the evolving nature of a live show led to the segment being excised. Garfield’s rep also issued a statement, saying that the Academy made the decision, and that any reports of bad behavior on Garfield’s part were untrue. In fact, Andrew visited Miles at his hotel afterwards, and joined the family on their Monday trip to Disneyland. (Both the Academy’s and Garfield’s statements are included here.)

So much drama! Why couldn’t Garfield still have introduced the montage, even if the Batkid portion was eliminated? I don’t know, but I’d guess he was labeled “difficult” after raising concerns about the original script. And an even better question: why was Garfield tapped to “induct” Batkid in the first place when Christian Bale, the actor who actually played Batman, would be in the audience as a nominee? Did the producers approach Bale to do the segment? Did he decline? I know Bale has a reputation for being prickly, but would he refuse to provide a heartwarming moment for a little kid who survived cancer and loves Batman? I would love to know if Bale was ever asked to do it, and I’d love to know what Garfield’s concerns with the material were and why Meron and Zadan really cut the bit entirely. But their dodgy, politically correct statement is all we have to go on. And for what it’s worth, the Batkid bit wasn’t the only thing cut from the show. Apparently there was supposed to be another musical number with a lot of stars involved, but that too was scrapped.

Bringing all of this back around to the point that the show’s Hero theme was badly underdeveloped, the omission of Batkid seems to be just one of several plans the producers hinted at prior to the show that never came to pass. During her monologue, Ellen pointed out that real-life heroes Philomena Lee and Richard Phillips, who were depicted in two of the Best Picture nominees, were in attendance. Yet they may not have been the only ones. According to The Hollywood Reporter, 2013 movies inspired by real life such as 42, Fruitvale Station, Lone Survivor and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom were represented in the audience by Jackie Robinson’s widow, Oscar Grant’s mother, former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and Nelson Mandela’s daughters, respectively. Incorporating them into some kind of salute to movie heroes would have made the show’s intended theme resonate. It might also have been manipulative, but no more so than including Batkid. Whatever the reason that all these plans to bolster the Heroes theme failed to materialize, the remnants of the concept — those three underwhelming montages — came across as unnecessary drags on a show that would clock in at about 3.5 hours. So maybe next year, whoever produces the show (and after two consecutive years, the Academy should move on from Meron and Zadan) might be better off foregoing the idea of a theme and just stick to celebrating the movies from the year gone by. And if they insist on having a theme, they should follow through.

-I’ve complained about the lousy job that Don Mischer has done directing the show over the past few years, so I was relieved when it was announced that this year’s telecast would be directed by Hamish Hamilton. Yes, I’m the kind of person who can find disappointment and relief in the choice of the Oscar show director. I have no particular loyalty to Hamish Hamilton, about whom I know nothing. I just know he’s not Don Mischer, and that was good enough for me. He did do a better job than his predecessor, if only because when he cut to reaction shots from the audience, he found famous people to focus on instead of total unknowns in the middle of the room that mean nothing to the TV viewers tuning in to see their favorite movie stars. Still, Hamilton’s directing job wasn’t too impressive. As I mentioned earlier, there were several moments where live mics caught backstage chatter or other snippets not intended to be heard. Or how about when the clip of Best Supporting Actress nominee Sally Hawkins ended and the camera should have shown Hawkins in her seat, but instead landed on June Squibb? It’s not like Hawkins was a moving target. Was it really so hard to have a cameraman in place to capture Hawkins’ reaction, and to cut to said shot from the booth? And what was with that weird camera move we kept seeing where the camera would start to one side of the presenter and then circle to the other side, with the presenter following the camera move instead of just addressing the audience straight ahead? Awkward and arbitrary. C’mon, Academy. Can’t you find someone who knows how to direct live TV?

-As the Oscar-watching faithful know by now, the special achievement awards are no longer presented on Oscar night, but are instead handed out at a ceremony in November called the Governors Awards. Ever since that tradition began five years ago, the recipients have attended the Oscars to take a bow, and highlights from the Governors Awards are usually shown. Alas, not even the bow happened this year, since only one of the honorees was even there. Angelina Jolie received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and of course she was at the Oscars with nominated husband Brad Pitt. But none of the three honorary award recipients — Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury or costume designer Piero Tosi — were at the Oscar ceremony. Lansbury was on the London stage appearing in previews of Blithe Spirit; Tosi, who lives in Italy, fears flying and has never traveled to the United States; and Martin, an Oscar regular who you’d think could have made it, was unfortunately out of town.

So while it was disappointing none of them could be there, there was nothing to be done about it. Kevin Spacey introduced the highlight reel, after which the camera cut to Jolie in her seat. At least she got to take the stage later when she and Sidney Poitier presented Best Director. More from the Governors Awards further down.

-For the second year in a row, the Academy held a contest asking film students across the U.S. to explain in a minute-long video how they planned to contribute to the future of film. Six winners were selected by The Academy, Meron, Zadan and Channing Tatum, and Team Oscar got to hand off the statuettes and direct presenters and winners offstage on Oscar night, as well as tour studios and meet filmmakers during the week of the Oscars. I love this idea and was glad to see the Academy continue it. The winning videos can be seen here.

-One final observation, and this isn’t about the production, but I’ll put it here anyway. Some of you movie stars need to learn how to get into the spirit of this thing. It’s Oscar night! I know for those of you who are nominated it can be stressful, but let’s face it: win or lose, you’ll still be successful movie stars in the morning, so loosen up and look alive out there. When The Great Gatsby‘s costume designer Catherine Martin won, there was a shot of Leonardo DiCaprio clapping, but he wasn’t really smiling and looked like he was sort of on auto-pilot. Martin won again later in the night for Best Art Direction, and again there was a shot of Leo, and again he was clapping slowly, distractedly, as if in a daze. Leo! It’s your movie! Would it kill you to muster some genuine happiness for your winning collaborator? Charlize Theron was shown on camera a few times while seated, and she looked like she couldn’t be less pleased to be there. As the directors and producer of Frozen were walking off stage having just won Best Animated Feature, there was a shot of The Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger in the audience just sitting there stone-faced while the audience continued to applaud. I’m always baffled by this lack of enthusiasm that Oscar attendees often express. Those of you who are too deep in your own heads need to take a cue from Julia Roberts. Anytime the camera showed her, even when “minor category” winners were having their moment, she was smiling, happy, and looked engaged. She seemed genuinely pleased for every winner, whatever their category. If only all the Hollywood elite could be so down to earth.

-All in all I’d say the show was uneven, but tipped more toward successful. There were more times when it was good than not, and it ended up the highest rated Academy Awards in over a decade, so that’s likely all the Academy and ABC care about. I wonder what the big draws were to attract such a large audience. It wasn’t just Ellen; her last time as host didn’t do this well. There were some big hits among the nominees, but nothing on the scale of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King or Avatar. But maybe Ellen, combined with nominees like Gravity and American Hustle, combined with a strong line-up of musical performers added up to make this year’s show particularly attractive.

I already touched on the Governors Awards earlier, but it deserves additional coverage. The Hollywood Reporter offered a thorough report on the event, and In Contention posted one which basically contains all the same information, but adds comments about how much Judd Apatow and Bill Hader were digging the Steve Martin portion of the night, which makes me smile. Mark Harris also wrote on Grantland about why having a separate ceremony for the honorary awards is such a bad idea and weakens the main Oscar telecast. I’ve always had mixed feelings about this. I do miss the inclusion of these tributes in the main show. They add a lot, especially by illuminating for the more casual viewer the work of artists who they might be less familiar with than contemporary filmmakers. Unofficially, part of the Academy’s reasoning of spinning these special awards off into their own ceremony was to allow for a more relaxed, intimate affair. Harris takes them to task for this, pointing out that with speeches by presenters and recipients posted to YouTube, and journalists in the room covering the event, there is nothing intimate about it. But he doesn’t touch on the Academy’s stated reason for the separate event, which is to allow the Academy to pay tribute to its chosen artists in a more expansive celebration that needn’t be crammed briefly into an already full Oscar ceremony.

While he makes some excellent points about the value and importance of the special awards, he fails to acknowledge that if they were included on the regular telecast, everything about them would be truncated. The presentations, the clip packages (presumably; we don’t get to see those on YouTube), and the speeches would all have to be shorter, and it wouldn’t be possible to honor as many people each year simply due to time constraints. When these awards were included on Oscar night, people complained that they added to the bloat of the show. Now that they’re not included, people complain that they deserve to be part of the big night. Maybe advocates of returning the honorary awards to Oscar night would point to other things that should be removed or trimmed back in order to accommodate them, but the bottom line would be the same: complaints. At the end of the day, I think a separate ceremony makes for a more full and touching appreciation of the honorees, and the availability of full speeches on YouTube goes a long way toward assuaging my early concerns about taking them off the main telecast. But I do think it’s time the Academy start offering a full broadcast of the Governors Awards, one that includes all the clip reels and is not broken up into the fragments we get on YouTube. I’m glad we at least get those, but movie fans deserve to see the full event.

Taking what we can when we can, however, here is Angelina Jolie’s moving acceptance speech…

as well as Steve Martin’s.

Also, Martin Short’s comments about his fellow amigo. This is great stuff, though I was really disappointed to learn that some of these jokes were recycled from Short’s tribute to Carol Burnett when she received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor a month earlier. Really Marty?

Oh, and I liked Geoffrey Rush’s remarks to Angela Lansbury.

All of the presentations and speeches can be seen here, for any of you not too fatigued by all this reading to click the link.

As I mentioned after the nominations were announced, the Academy inaugurated a new event this year: a public concert at UCLA featuring performances of all the nominated songs (not done by the originating artists) and selections from each nominated score, conducted by their respective composers. In addition, film journalist Elvis Mitchell was on hand to interview the composers. It sounds like the event was well-received, so we’ll see if a new Oscar season tradition has been born. Here’s a report about the event, and a photo gallery.


It wouldn’t be Oscar night without lavish dresses and actresses rocking them. To my eyes, untrained in knowledge of fashion, there were a lot of great looks this year.

I would have included Lupita Nyong’o and Cate Blanchett, but they can be seen in photos and videos above. Nyong’o totally conquered the world of celebrity style this award season. She attended numerous ceremonies and events, and looked amazing pretty much every time.

I’ve mentioned them a few times here already, but I always like to acknowledge the Independent Spirit Awards, which take place every year in a tent at the beach in Santa Monica on the Saturday afternoon before Oscar Sunday. As it would the next night, 12 Years a Slave took prizes for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. Without Gravity to contend with, it took Best Director and Best Cinematography as well. Also winning at both the Spirit Awards and the Oscars were Lupita Nyong’o’s fellow actors Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto…marking the first time, if I’m not mistaken, that all four winning actors at the Spirit Awards took home the Oscar as well.

The afternoon’s best speech probably belonged to Jared Leto. At first it seemed like he was just going to read a list of names…which he did…but around the 3:00 mark it started to get interesting.

One cool honor given at this event each year is the Robert Altman Award, which is presented to a film’s director, ensemble cast and casting director. It’s a non-competitive award announced in advance, and this year it went to one of my favorite films of the year, Mud. A great choice.

While the ceremony looked like it was a lot of fun as always, the televised version was a disaster. The Spirit Awards used to be broadcast live in their entirety on Saturday afternoon on the Independent Film Channel. I don’t know when that changed, but now the full show is edited down to an abridged version and shown on Saturday night. As a result, some of the best or most interesting moments get edited out, like last year’s drunken acceptance speech by Safety Not Guaranteed screenwriter Derek Connolly. This year, the edited version was an absolute mess. Reese Witherspoon presented an award at one point, and as the winner walked to the stage, there were shots of audience members seated at their tables applauding…including one of Reese Witherspoon. Later, host Patton Oswalt came out with a piece of paper and started reading off names that Jared Leto forgot to thank. It was a strange and random list which made no sense because the whole middle portion of Leto’s speech which Oswald was having fun with had been edited out of the broadcast, so the joke had zero context. What sense does it make to include a joke that references an incident that was not included? And why would the producers of the show cut parts of Leto’s speech when it was one of the highlights of the event? The TV presentation was full of such problems, which is no surprise considering how rapidly it had to be edited together. In addition, some of the awards — like the one above for Mud — weren’t even included in the broadcast. Idiots. I don’t understand why they don’t just air the entire ceremony like they always did. This was just embarrassing.

You know what else is embarrassing? The amount of space I just took up writing about the minutiae of movie award ceremonies, and the amount of time it took me to do it. I think we’re done here.



March 14, 2014

30 Movies I’m Looking Forward to in 2014

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:00 pm
Tags: , ,

I know that I keep raising the number of movies on this list each year, but I suppose that given the point I made in my best of 2013 post about how many movies are released every year and how many I see, 30 isn’t such a big number. The list below doesn’t even include the two holdovers from last year’s list that ended up getting pushed: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (out August 22), and Foxcatcher (release TBA), a true life drama from Capote and Moneyball director Bennett Miller in which Steve Carell goes against type as the paranoid schizophrenic millionaire who sponsored the training of U.S. Olympic wrestlers Dave and Mark Schultz, with tragic results. The list also excludes Knight of Cups, the next movie from Terrence Malick that seems likely to show up this year, though you never really know with Malick. Its large cast is supposed to include Natalie Portman, Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett, but by the time he finishes editing it, it might feature just a bunch of trees and rocks and fields of tall grass. Hopefully it will show up at Cannes or one of the fall film festivals and get picked up for distribution in 2015.

Anyway, enough about what isn’t on the list. Let’s get to what is. I wanted to have this posted a few weeks ago, since by now one of the movies included has already opened. But I couldn’t get to it in time, and since I haven’t yet seen the movie in question, it still qualifies as one I’m looking forward to.

Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Writers: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, Barry Corbin, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Grace Gummer, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda Otto, Jesse Plemons, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld
Release Date: TBA

Jones, a Texas native with a natural affinity for and understanding of the American West, pulls triple duty as director, co-writer and star of this story about Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), a strong-willed woman in the 1850′s who teams up with a claim jumper (Jones) to escort a group of supposedly insane women across the plains from Nebraska to a sanitarium in Iowa. It seems like an intriguing premise, offering some rewarding roles for a range of talented actresses.

Director: Anton Corbijn
Writer: Andrew Bovell
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Brühl, Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Martin Wuttke
Release Date: TBA

One of the final leading roles we’ll get to see the gifted Philip Seymour Hoffman play will be in this adaptation of the John le Carré novel about a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant who arrives illegally in Germany and arouses the interest of both the American and German governments when he lays claim to a fortune held in a private bank. I’m sure it will be more interesting than it sounds. Corbijn, best known as a photographer whose work includes the album art for U2′s The Joshua Tree and R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, is quietly building a strong reputation as a director; I enjoyed his gripping 2010 thriller The American, which starred George Clooney as an assassin on assignment in Italy. Like most of le Carré’s work, this one deals with international espionage, and will hopefully offer a meaty story to be chewed on by this fine cast…and by the audience; I’m still trying to puzzle out what the hell happened in the recent Gary Oldman-starring adaptation of le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. If nothing else, this will be a chance to savor new work from Hoffman…a prize that is sadly more valuable than ever.


Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writer: Nick Hornby
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, W. Earl Brown, Laura Dern, Brian Van Holt, Gaby Hoffman, Kevin Rankin, Thomas Sadoski
Release Date: TBA

Reese Witherspoon seems to be taking a cue from her Mud co-star and attempting a McConaissance of her own. Since the critical and box office failure of her last romantic comedy, This Means War, she’s been choosing more interesting projects that, when taken together, may be a reminder of what a fine actress she is. In addition to Mud, she’s completed filming Devil’s Knot, a fictionalized account of the Robin Hood Hills murders that have been so exhaustively explored in the Paradise Lost documentaries; and The Good Lie, in which she plays a woman who takes in four young Sudanese refugees. She’s also in the #2 movie on this list, which could offer a chance to keep her comedic skills sharp while still working with high quality material (as opposed to, let’s say, Four Christmases). Wild, however, could be the one that brings the Oscar-winning actress back to the awards circuit. Adapted from the memoir by Cheryl Strayed and directed by (fittingly, perhaps) Dallas Buyers Club helmer Jean-Marc Vallée, Witherspoon will play a woman who impulsively decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail on her own, without any wilderness or hiking experience. With The Young Victoria and Dallas Buyers Club under his belt, Vallée is fast becoming a director to watch, and I’m excited to see Witherspoon front and center in a role that stands to demonstrate her range.

Director/Writer: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, Bobby Cannavale, Robert Downey Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Garry Shandling, Sofia Vergara
Release Date: May 9

Jon Favreau has become so well-known for directing big movies like Iron Man and Cowboys & Aliens that it would be easy to forget his roots are in small independent films, as the writer and star of Swingers. He returns to lower budget, more character driven filmmaking with his newest project, in which he plays a chef who gains fame at a Los Angeles restaurant, only to have his success evaporate after a string of personal and professional disappointments. He ends up restoring an old food truck and getting back to his roots, while also reconnecting with his family. I’ve always enjoyed Favreau as both a director (yes, I even liked Cowboys & Aliens) and an actor, though his on-camera appearances have mostly been brief as his directing career has flourished. Seeing him take on a leading role once again, in a smaller scale movie with a tasty cast, should be fun.

Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, Steven Zaillian
Cast: Christian Bale, Hiam Abbass, Joel Edgerton, Emun Elliott, Ben Kingsley, Ben Mendelsohn, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, Indira Varma, Sigourney Weaver
Release Date: December 12

Spoiler Alert: So there are these people in Egypt called the Israelites, and the Pharoah Ramses enslaves them and makes them build his pyramids and shit. But there’s this guy Moses, see, and he’s an Israelite too, but he’s been secretly raised as an Egyptian. One day, he sees an Egyptian beating a Jew. He kills the guy, flees the country, and eventually sees a bush on fire, but the bush is actually God, who tells Moses to go back to Egypt and free the Israelites, which he does, but not before God unleashes ten plagues on Egypt. Moses leads his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and along the way the Red Sea is parted and God delivers Ten Commandments to the Israelites. Because of all this, every year there’s a week in April when your Jewish friends can’t go get pizza with you because they’re not allowed to eat anything except matzoh and macaroons. This movie, from the director of Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise and Kingdom of Heaven, will cover at least some of this. Starring Batman, Gandhi, Ripley and Jesse Pinkman. It’s biblical, bitch!

Director: David Dobkin
Writers: Bill Dubuque, Nick Schenck, David Seidler
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Balthazar Getty, Ken Howard, David Krumholtz, Melissa Leo, Leighton Meester, Dax Shepard, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, Grace Zabriske
Release Date: October 10

I recall reading somewhere that after the box office disappointment of the 2009 drama The Soloist, Robert Downey Jr.’s wife and business partner, producer Susan Downey, insisted that he stick to high concept material and franchises. I don’t know if this was true or just Hollywood gossip, but as much as I love Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, I’ve wished he would balance such roles with more grounded material. Since then, the only movie he’s made outside of the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes series was the bad, lazy comedy Due Date. So because it promises a more down to earth Downey, I’m looking forward to The Judge, in which he plays a lawyer who returns to his small hometown for his mother’s funeral and finds out that his father (Duvall), the local judge, is suspected of killing her.

The director, David Dobkin, is known for comedies like Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus and The Change-Up, and when a director primarily known for broad comedies or action tries to stretch into more dramatic material, it doesn’t usually go well. The Judge has been described as a dramedy, so there should be some comedic elements, but still…with Dobkin at the helm, my expectations are tempered. I really like the cast though, and I’m hoping that this is a showcase role for Downey that reminds us how much he’s capable of outside the franchise machine. I’m especially excited about the promise of him and Farmiga working together; that seems like a great pairing.

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Cast: Russell Crowe, Douglas Booth, Jennifer Connelly, Marton Csokas, Kevin Durand, Anthony Hopkins, Frank Langella, Logan Lerman, Mark Margolis, Nick Nolte, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone
Release Date: March 28

When this project first came to my attention, I was skeptical: a Noah movie without Bill Cosby? That didn’t sit right. But I felt Darren Aronofsky deserved the benefit of the doubt, so I went with it. I imagined the director’s take on the biblical story would involve Noah slowly going mad from cabin fever as the flood waters rage, causing him to question what’s real and what isn’t as he and the animals onboard the ark form alliances and animosities. Meanwhile, his wife starves herself in an effort to fit into an old tunic, and is eventually reduced to providing entertainment for the animals by sitting back-to-back with a female chimp as they both endure anal penetration from opposing ends of a sex toy, the raging lightning outside the ark creating a strobe effect through the slats of wood to give the whole scene an even more sickening effect. I could see the arrival of the trailer, which would open with a booming voice declaring, “The imagination of Darren Aronofsky meets the word of GOD” and close with “From the director of Black Swan and the Divine Creator of the Universe.” Then just a few months ago, I saw the actual first trailer as well as the teaser poster, which presented the movie as if Noah was the newest member of The Avengers. I would probably have been laughing derisively at both, but once again I choose to remain open-minded. As Noah put his faith in the Lord, so shall I put mine in Darren Aronofsky.

As the movie approaches, so does the controversy, with Paramount twisting itself in knots trying to make sure the movie — which is said to feature countless creative flourishes and embellishments — doesn’t offend religious audiences who expect to see the story of Noah told faithfully and respectfully. I wonder if they’ve seen Requiem for a Dream.

Sidenote: the film marks a whole bunch of reunions. Aronofsky and Connelly are together again after Requiem, and Connelly and Crowe are back as husband and wife after A Beautiful Mind. Crowe, Lerman and Durand appeared together in 3:10 to Yuma, and Durand worked with Crowe again in Robin Hood. Lerman and Watson were together in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and while Nick Nolte is only providing a voice here, he and Connelly previously crossed paths in Hulk. Hopkins and Winstone got their motion capture on with Beowulf, and Winstone appeared with Lerman in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lighting Thief, as well as with Douglas Booth in a recent Masterpiece Theatre production of Great Expectations. I guess when God is about to destroy the world, it’s good to be among friends.

So let’s see…we’ve got Russell Crowe in Noah and Christian Bale in Exodus…maybe these two movies should have been combined into one dusty epic called 3:10 to Jerusalem.


Director: Shawn Levy
Writer: Jonathan Tropper
Cast: Jason Bateman, Connie Britton, Rose Byrne, Adam Driver, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Kathryn Hahn, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schwartz, Dax Shepard, Abigail Spencer, Corey Stoll
Release Date: September 12

Jonathan Tropper adapts his own best-selling novel about the Foxman family, a (surprise!) dysfunctional clan (is there any other kind?) who must spend a week together sitting shivah after the death of the family patriarch. For you gentiles out there, sitting shivah is the Jewish custom in which the immediate family of the deceased gather at home for the week following the burial to receive visitors. Bateman’s character is the novel’s central figure and narrator, with Fey, Stoll and Driver as his siblings and Fonda as their mother. (Stoll is the only Jew among those actors, interestingly.) Dysfunctional family stories are always great fodder for drama, and I expect this terrific cast will expertly deliver on the humor of the family’s dynamic.

My reservation about the movie is similar to the one I mentioned above about The Judge. Shawn Levy is a capable but unexciting director whose movies include the Night at the Museum series, Date Night, The Internship, Real Steel and The Pink Panther remake. Some of those are entertaining enough and some are certainly box office hits, but they’re all safe, mass-appeal studio fare that could have been made by a dozen other directors with the exact same results. Although I haven’t read Tropper’s book, I gather that it has some bite to it, and I worry that Levy will push it to the middle of the road. But I can’t help being excited to see it; I love a good messed-up family story, and the cast is first-rate.


Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writer: Brian Duffield
Cast: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro
Release Date: August 29

This is one of those movies which stands to be overshadowed by the drama that unfolded behind the scenes. Portman plays a woman forced to enlist the help of an ex-lover to protect her gravely injured outlaw husband from a gang trying to kill him. Her former paramour was originally to be played by Michael Fassbender, but he had to drop out a week before production due to scheduling conflicts with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Joel Edgerton, who was set to play the villainous gang leader, was recast as the ex-lover, and Jude Law came onboard to play the bad guy. Then on the Monday that was to be the first day of shooting, director Lynne Ramsay didn’t show up. The acclaimed indie director whose last film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, garnered strong reviews and several award nominations for Tilda Swinton, had abandoned the project over the weekend, apparently due to last-minute negotiation disagreements. Determined to keep the cast and crew together and forge ahead, the producers (who include Portman) managed within two days to hire Gavin O’Connor, director of Miracle and the underrated Warrior, to replace Ramsay. Then Jude Law left the project, supposedly because working with Ramsay was what drew him to it in the first place. Bradley Cooper was hired to replace Law, but he too left within days, also citing a scheduling conflict. Ewan McGregor came onboard to fill the gap, and shooting finally began. Some of the producers — Portman not among them — sued Ramsay in November, at which time she made her only public comments about the fiasco: that the allegations against her, which included showing up to work under the influence of alcohol and being abusive to crew members, were untrue, and that she would respond in court rather than in the press. Just this week, the lawsuit was settled.

So that all happened. It’s a dramatic saga that itself might form the basis for a movie. But in the end, all that will matter is whether Jane Got a Gun is any good or not. I have high hopes for it. Despite the revolving door of actors, the cast remains strong, suggesting that the script (which was on the 2011 Black List) was compelling enough to attract A-list performers. (The involvement of Portman, McGregor and Edgerton also makes it a Star Wars prequel reunion…for whatever that’s worth.) Independently financed films are never easy to package, and can be especially difficult to hold together in the face of adversity, so the fact that these producers managed to keep the project going is impressive. It’s too bad that Portman, a champion of women in the film industry, has now had two films in a row on which female directors have ended up replaced by men for reasons that remain a mystery. (Patty Jenkins was supposed to direct Thor: The Dark World.) Jane Got a Gun will surely be a different movie under the direction of O’Connor than it would have been under Ramsay, but hopefully it will all come together and work out for everyone, including the audience.


Director/Writer: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, Christopher Abbott, Jerry Adler, Albert Brooks, Glenn Fleshler, Peter Gerety, David Margulies, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo
Release Date: November 12

Margin Call and All is Lost have established J.C. Chandor as an exciting writer/director, so I await his third feature with great interest. Set in New York City in 1981, which was one of the most violent years in the city’s history (hence the title, not to be confused with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s A Most Wanted Man), the movie follows an immigrant couple whose start an oil company, then must protect their business and their family from competitors who try to ruin them through a variety of corrupt and violent means. Javier Bardem was originally set to play the husband, but left the project due to that generic Hollywood factor called “creative differences.” He was replaced by Isaac, whose profile has risen thanks his superb lead performance in Inside Llewyn Davis. Isaac and Chastain are old friends and classmates from Julliard, so they should generate good chemistry. And no movie was ever hurt by having Albert Brooks onboard.


Director: Wally Pfister
Writer: Jack Peglam
Cast: Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Clifton Collins Jr., Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Cole Hauser, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy
Release Date: April 18

These days, any movie with Johnny Depp that doesn’t involve him hiding behind wigs, contact lenses and a thick layer if makeup or jewelry is worth noting, because there’s a chance we might rediscover the Actor who was so compelling in movies like Donnie Brasco, Finding Neverland and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. (Not that he can’t be enjoyable when disguised, but it’s starting to get old.) So I cast my eye toward this sci-fi drama, which looks like it might share some ideas with recent Academy Award winner Her, but with less romantic yearning and more paranoia. Depp plays a scientist working in artificial intelligence whose consciousness is uploaded into a computer, where it grows in power and begins to pose a threat.

In addition to an unfettered Depp, the movie is high on my radar for marking the directorial debut of Pfister, the cinematographer who has shot all of Christopher Nolan’s movies since Memento (earning an Oscar for Inception along the way). This could be an especially important movie for Depp. The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger were critical and commercial failures, so the guy could use a hit…preferably (to me) one where he isn’t slathered in makeup. Here he’ll be playing a more normal character in an intriguing sci-fi project that should have no problem appealing to an intelligent fan base. I hope it delivers, and restores his box office credibility.

Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karazewski
Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
Release Date: TBA

Speaking of Johnny Depp (sort of), I’m not sure what to make of a movie that lists Tim Burton as its director yet doesn’t include his favorite actor among the cast, or appear to involve lead characters sporting heavy makeup. While I try to make sense of it, here’s what we know. Waltz plays Walter Keane, an artist who became known in the 1950′s and 60′s for paintings of children with large eyes, which he mass-produced and sold inexpensively. Adams plays his wife Margaret, who was actually creating the paintings herself only to watch her husband take the credit and become famous. The result of his deception was a divorce and a high-profile court case.

It’s encouraging to see Burton return to oddball material like this, and to re-team with the screenwriting duo behind one of his best films, Ed Wood. Alexander and Karazewski specialize in biopics of unusual figures (they also wrote The People vs. Larry Flynt and the Andy Kaufman film Man on the Moon), and the story of Margaret and Walter Keane sounds like perfect material for them, and pretty good for Burton too.


Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Rick Elice, John Logan
Cast: Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Steve Schirripa, Christopher Walken, John Lloyd Young
Release Date: June 20

At 83 years old, Clint Eastwood continues to tackle new challenges as a director. He’s made films about music and musicians before, like Honkytonk Man and Bird, but now he’s flexing his muscles with his first actual musical, based on the 2006 Tony Award winner. Jersey Boys cleverly uses the rich song catalog of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to tell the story of how the band came together and rose to the top of the charts despite challenges posed by one of the member’s mounting debts to a loan shark, not to mention the usual strain that success and fame puts on personal relationships. The production makes use of all the band’s beloved songs, including “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Sherry” and “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” so prepare for annoying texters in the movie theater to be replaced by annoying people singing along with all the hits. Eastwood enlisted John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of Valli on Broadway (and won a Tony), to reprise the part here, and since the cast is primarily unknown, he drafted Walken to add some star power as a mob boss with ties to the band. The material seems like an odd fit for Eastwood, so I’m eager to see what he does with it.


Directors/Writers: Andy and Lana Wachowski
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Doona Bae, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, James D’Arcy, Eddie Redmayne
Release Date: July 18

Mila Kunis as a janitor? Channing Tatum as a warrior who has been genetically engineered as half-wolf and half-albino? Welcome to the most improbable movie of 2014. But it’s all good; improbable is where the Wachowski’s live, eat and breathe. It’s nice to see the sibling creators of The Matrix back in action so soon after the underappreciated 2012 opus Cloud Atlas. Hopefully whatever creative juices served them so well on that project will be at work here too. I suspect that the less I know about the movie’s specifics, the more rewarding my viewing will be. All I know is that the sci-fi adventure casts Kunis as the target of an assassination plot by a galactic queen, and Tatum as her protector. Tale as old as time.

Director/Writer: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Driver, Brady Corbet, Adam Horovitz, Charles Grodin
Release Date: TBA

Despite the glowing reviews it earned, I was not a fan of Baumbach’s last film, Frances Ha (though I love its star, Greta Gerwig). Nor was I crazy about his previous effort Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller and Gerwig. But I love The Squid and the Whale and think Nicole Kidman gives one of her best performances in Margot at the Wedding, so I’m hoping that his latest hews closer to those earlier films. I like the cast and the premise, which finds Stiller and Watts as an uptight couple who strike up an unlikely friendship with a younger, free-spirited couple (Seyfried and Driver). That’s all we have to go on right now, but there’s potential all over this. And how great will it be to see Charles Grodin again? Aside from one-shot guest starring roles on Law & Order: SVU and The Michael J. Fox Show, Grodin hasn’t been onscreen since 2006. I can’t believe he’s almost 80!

Director: James Gunn
Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Cast: Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Glenn Close, Bradley Cooper (voice), Benicio del Toro, Vin Diesel (voice), Karen Gillen, Gregg Henry, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, John C. Reilly, Michael Rooker, Zoe Saldana
Release Date: August 1

This new venture from Marvel Studios expands their universe beyond The Avengers by introducing a new gallery of characters based on a 2008 series of comics about a team of space-traveling misfits. That team includes a smart-ass human pilot named Peter Quill, who tries to pass himself off under the name Star Lord; a genetically engineered, talking raccoon with a mean streak; and a tree-person. Like…a person…who’s also kind of a tree. Or something. Sorry, did I label Jupiter Ascending “the most improbable movie of 2014?” I may have to reassign that label.

I’ve really enjoyed what Marvel has been doing on film, beginning with Iron Man. To varying degrees, the movies have been fun and engaging (if not always entirely logical) action-adventures with a lot of humor. Guardians of the Galaxy seems to be playing up the humor even more, with its tongue firmly in cheek concerning its bizarre array of characters. The presence of Chris Pratt in the lead role only reinforces that tone. (I’ve recently come to decide, by the way, that Chris Pratt should be in everything.) Part of the pleasure I’ve found in the Marvel films is the little ways they all connect to each other (and when it comes to The Avengers, the big ways). How much Guardians of the Galaxy will connect with the stories of Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and the rest remains to be seen, but it seems entirely possible the two crews will meet up eventually, or at least that the stories will intersect. Several of the characters in the Guardians comics have ties to the villain Thanos, who made a teasing appearance during the end credits of The Avengers. And the end credits of Thor: The Dark World were similarly interrupted by a teaser that introduced Benicio del Toro’s character The Collector, described as “an outer-space Liberace.” (So perhaps Michael Douglas signed on for the wrong Marvel movie.) Whatever Marvel has in store down the line, for now I’m just really curious to see if Guardians of the Galaxy is as much fun as it looks like.


Director: Jason Reitman
Writers: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson
Cast: Adam Sandler, RoseMarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Timothee Chalamet, David Denman, Kaitlyn Dever, Ansel Elgort, Dennis Haysbert, Dean Norris, J.K. Simmons, Emma Thompson
Release Date: TBA

Adam Sandler is an unusual case study of the modern movie star. His self-developed vehicles tend to be sophomoric, clichéd and simplistic. And often hilarious…though not so much lately. Yet he also continues to inspire more high-minded commercial filmmakers, and has been given more opportunities than most primarily comic actors to explore more serious roles. Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Binder, James L. Brooks and Judd Apatow have all cast him in parts with more depth than the ones he creates for himself. The results are mixed, but it’s still cool to see filmmakers of that caliber continually seek out his talents. Given his recent output, he could use a few more of these opportunities. This year, he gets two.

The first is Jason Reitman’s latest, and offers hope of a return to form after the recent detour of Labor Day, which was better than it might have been…but still not so good. Men, Women & Children, adapted from the novel by Chad Kultgen, follows a group of teenagers and their parents, exploring how internet culture affects their relationships, communication abilities and sexual frustrations. That description suggests a tone in line with Reitman’s previous work like Thank You for Smoking and Juno. Let’s hope so.

Director: Tom McCarthy
Writers: Tom McCathy, Paul Sado
Cast: Adam Sandler, Ellen Barkin, Steve Buscemi, Melonie Diaz, Glenn Fleshler, Dustin Hoffman, Method Man, Dan Stevens
Release Date: TBA

Here is Sandler again, this time under the direction of Tom McCarthy. This is the fourth movie he’s made, and I love the previous three: The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win. His movies are always simple, straightforward, relatable and rewarding, with excellent performances. I often compare him to Alexander Payne, and lament that he isn’t as appreciated. In his latest, Sandler plays a cobbler who owns a shop in New York City and comes to feel stuck in place while the shoes he repairs carry his customers off to more exciting horizons. Then he discovers a family heirloom that allows him to magically walk in other people’s shoes and get a taste of lives beyond his own. In the wrong hands, this set-up could disintegrate into maudlin dreck. Maybe even in the right hands it could disintegrate into maudlin dreck. But I’ll gladly give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt, and see if he can strike a good balance between realism and whimsy. It’s not completely foreign territory for him; although the previous films he’s directed lack any sort of fantasy element, he did co-write the story for Pixar’s Up. The cast includes Dan Stevens, so hopefully the movie will be a small piece of justification for him abandoning Downton Abbey. Damn your reckless driving, Matthew Crawley!

Cameron Crowe
Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, Alec Baldwin, Jay Baruchel, Michael Chernus, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Ivana Milicevic, Bill Murray
Release Date:
December 25

Cameron Crowe is due for a comeback. His last few films — We Bought a Zoo, Elizabethtown and Vanilla Sky — all have good moments and enjoyable elements, but are either too sentimental, too precious or too senseless. So with his latest film, I’m hoping he can strike the tone that makes Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire and Say Anything work so well.

Cooper plays a military contractor assigned to a base in Hawaii where he has worked before, and where he now must oversee the launch of a weapons satellite. He falls for an air force pilot (Stone), reconnects with a now married former love (McAdams) and encounters “mystical island forces and a talking computer.” The script is apparently a revised version of an earlier Crowe project called Deep Tiki, which he tried to put together post-Elizabethtown with Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon. Whether that title will remain, or how much of that original script is still intact, remains to be seen. The little I’ve read about it suggests to me an L.A. Story vibe, and the article linked above references Joe Versus the Volcano. Those touchpoints are promising, if Crowe can handle the magical realism without over-reaching and indulging in sappiness. At its best, Crowe’s work reveals an open-heartedness and a smart sense of romance. But he can also take those qualities too far. Here’s hoping he can nail the right balance with this one. The cast sure looks promising, and he’s overdue for a win. I’m rooting for him.

Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Billy Connolly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Evangeline Lilly, Sylvester McCoy, James Nesbitt, Lee Pace, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood
Release Date: December 17

The second chapter of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy ended on a huge cliffhanger, so his third (or sixth, really) and final installment should waste no time picking up the action, as the dragon Smaug threatens Laketown and other regions surrounding The Lonely Mountain. That situation will give way to the Battle of Five Armies, in which dwarves, men and elves (and one Hobbit) band together against goblins and orcs, all under the larger looming threat of Sauron’s return. Although The Hobbit films have not matched the brilliance of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I have enjoyed both episodes quite a bit, and look forward to seeing how Jackson winds down his long and fruitful stay in Middle Earth.


Director: James Bobin
Writers: James Bobin, Nicholas Stoller
Cast: Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais
Release Date: March 21

I will forever worship at the altar of The Muppets, so I’m thrilled to see them back again after their return to the movies in 2011. This time around, joined by the previous film’s newly introduced Walter, the gang is enjoying a European tour that goes astray when they encounter a criminal mastermind named Constantine, who happens to look nearly identical to Kermit. This is not the first time the Muppets have tangled with jewel thieves in Europe; that would be The Great Muppet Caper, my favorite of their big screen escapades. If this outing is anywhere near as good as that was, I’ll be in my own personal Happiness Hotel. Although Jason Segel co-wrote the 2011 film that re-introduced Kermit and Company, he decided not to return. But his co-writer Nicholas Stoller came back, writing the script with returning director James Bobin. And Bret McKenzie, the Flight of the Conchords star who won a Best Original Song Academy Award for the last film’s “Man or Muppet,” also returns. As usual, expect plenty of celebrity cameos in addition to the starring roles filled by Fey, Gervais and Burrell, the latter of whom replaced Christoph Waltz when his schedule conflicts couldn’t be worked out. From Christoph Waltz to Ty Burrell…that’s gotta be one of the unlikeliest instances of recasting I’ve ever heard of.

Rob Marshall
James Lapine
Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Frances de la Tour, Johnny Depp, Daniel Huttlestone, Anna Kendrick, Billy Magnussen, Chris Pine, Lucy Punch, Meryl Streep, Tracey Ullman
Release Date:
December 25

Rob Marshall deserves credit for bringing musicals back into vogue with his stylish, inventive direction of 2002′s Chicago. Since then, he’s moved between musicals (Nine) and “regular” movies (Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), and his latest musical is a modern classic, with lots of room for compelling production values amidst the great song score and A-list stars. Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 winner of several Tony Awards takes its inspiration from Grimm fairy tales, weaving characters from Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood into the original story of a childless baker, his wife and the witch who placed a curse on them. Marshall has assembled an impressive cast that includes Oscar and Tony nominees and winners. (Jake Gyllenhaal was cast at one point, but the sheer weight of star power crushed him, and he was replaced by up-and-comer Magnussen.) Together they should bring this terrific musical to vibrant life.


Director/Writer: Richard Linklater
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater
Release Date: TBA

Several years back, I read an article in Variety announcing that director Richard Linklater was embarking on a new film project that would trace the life of a young boy over a decade or so of growth. With Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette onboard to play the child’s parents, Linklater would film for just a few days every year from the time the boy was in kindergarten to the time he graduated high school. He identified a child named Ellar Coltrane, whose parents appreciated the idea of the project and agreed to their son’s participation, and off they all went. It sounded like a fascinating undertaking, and I looked forward to seeing the results. Yet as the years went by, I heard nothing more about it. Was it still happening? Certainly the Hollywood trades announce projects all the time that never go anywhere. Then maybe two years ago, in an interview with Linklater, the project was mentioned and I learned that it had indeed been continuing. It came up again last year when Linklater and Hawke were promoting Before Midnight, and then just like that, the movie was a last-minute addition to January’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was welcomed with strong reviews.

Described by Hawke as the “smallest epic ever made,” Linklater’s experiment is not completely unique. The 1964 documentary Seven Up! followed the lives of several British children, and every seven years since, director Michael Apted has reconnected with them and produced a new film chronicling their lives, the most recent being 2012′s 56 Up. And of course the Harry Potter series, with a new installment being filmed every year to year-and-a-half, showed a group of children growing up before our eyes. But Boyhood seems to offer the most distilled form of this idea yet. Coltrane (who may be credited as Ellar Salmon; Coltrane is his middle name, which he recently began using instead) was 7 years old when the film started shooting; he was 18 when it finished, and 19 by the time he went to Sundance. He’s been involved with this project for over half of his life, and I expect watching him age physically and psychologically over the course of the movie will offer an untraditionally exciting filmgoing experience.

David Fincher
Gillian Flynn
Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, David Clennon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Neil Patrick Harris, Scoot McNairy, Tyler Perry, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski, Sela Ward, Casey Wilson
Release Date:
October 3

Gillian Flynn earned rave reviews for her novel about Nick Dunne, a husband whose wife Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary. Their marriage, which seemed so perfect from the outside, is revealed to be anything but once the media frenzy and police investigation intensifies. As the spotlight bears down on Nick, he begins to exhibit strange behavior, and soon people are wondering if this seemingly ideal husband has killed his wife.

I’ve heard that Flynn’s novel combines the page-turning intensity and twisty plotting of a great beach read with the depth of more sophisticated fiction. Either way, it seems like great material for Fincher to play with. From Seven to Zodiac to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he has a masterful touch for creating gripping cinematic mysteries. Affleck has said that Fincher and Flynn collaborated closely on adapting the book, so hopefully the results will satisfy the needs of a movie as much as the fans of the source material. On the other hand, maybe not: Flynn apparently reconceived the entire third act of the story for the film, including a different ending. That’s bound to worry the book’s many fans, but I find it fascinating when a novelist adapts their own work for the screen and takes it in a radically different direction (see Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan).

Oh, and if you scanned the cast list and didn’t recognize the name Emily Ratajakowski, you may know her as the stunning brunette model from the video for Robin Thicke’s hit “Blurred Lines.” Yeah…that one. I quote Jackie Gleason from The Toy: “Ooof.”


Director/Writer: Ted Melfi
Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Scott Adsit, Nate Corddry, Terrence Howard, Chris O’Dowd, Naomi Watts
Release Date: April 11

Bill Murray, in what could potentially be a killer leading role, plays a degenerate retiree who is tapped by the divorced mom newly moved in next door to babysit for her 12 year old son while she tries to make ends meet working long hours. Melfi’s script landed on the 2011 Black List (along with Jane Got a Gun, and a number of other films due out this year), and Murray — a notoriously difficult get for filmmakers hoping to cast him — loved it so much that he approached Melfi himself to discuss playing the part. There was apparently a lot of competition to play the boy’s mother, with McCarthy eventually winning out. The role is said to be somewhat more grounded than the extreme comedic characters she played in Bridesmaids, Identity Thief and The Heat, so it only stands to increase her already soaring stock. I’m a little skeptical about the April release date; that’s a month away, and there hasn’t been a trailer, a poster or any promotion for the film yet at all. But the project has attracted a lot of buzz within the industry, so whenever it arrives, expectations will be high.


Director/Writer: Jon Stewart
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jason Jones, Dimitri Leonidas
Release Date: TBA

Yes, that Jon Stewart. You may recall that last summer, Stewart took a break from hosting The Daily Show — leaving it in the capable hands of John Oliver — and traveled to Jordan to direct a movie. And given that this is Jon Stewart, you might expect that movie to be a comedy. Uh-uh. Stewart’s directorial debut is a reality-based drama about Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist who was vocally critical of his native country’s regime even long after he’d been living in the west. While visiting Iran for a story in 2009, he was arrested and imprisoned for 118 days, during which time he was held in solitary confinement and tortured under charges of espionage. The evidence against him included an interview he gave to The Daily Show, in which correspondent Jason Jones pretended to be an American spy. Bahari, whose father and sister had also spent time in prison under previous regimes, wrote about his experience and his family’s in the book Then They Came for Me, which Stewart has adapted for this film.

My love and admiration for Jon Stewart knows no bounds, so naturally I can’t wait to see how this turns out. Not only is he taking on the entirely new challenge of writing and directing a film, but he’s doing it with a serious story to which he feels personally connected and beholden to get right. I can’t imagine he would enter this lightly. He could have produced the movie, even just written it and found a more established director to film it. The fact that he’s taking it on himself tells me he really believes he can bring something to it. Does his talent extend to filmmaking, or will this turn out to be a major miscalculation? The involvement of esteemed producer Scott Rudin encourages me, as does Stewart’s own humble persona. The script even has J.J. Abrams’ endorsement, so if this goes well, maybe Stewart will write and direct Star Wars Episode VIII.


Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Lindsay Duncan, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Release Date: TBA

It’s been a sad several years for fans of the great Michael Keaton. After his sharp supporting turn in Jackie Brown (and a great cameo as the same character in the next year’s Out of Sight), Keaton stumbled into some pretty bad movies, like Jack Frost, First Daughter and White Noise. Those were followed by some little-seen indie films, and even though there were occasional bright spots — TV projects like The Company and Live from Baghdad, and voice work in Pixar’s Cars and Toy Story 3 — it still felt like Keaton was MIA for a decade. Then in 2010, he started to become more visible. During the past few years, he played Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg’s boss in The Other Guys, guest starred on 30 Rock and turned up in Larry David’s HBO movie Clear History. Already this year he’s been featured in Robocop and Need for Speed…though his talents deserve better material than either of those movies. Fingers crossed, that material may finally be here. In Birdman, Keaton will take on his highest profile and most promising lead role in ages, perfectly cast as an actor famous for having once played a well-known superhero, who is now trying to launch a comeback by mounting a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. His efforts are challenged by a difficult leading man (Norton) and unresolved issues with his ex-wife and daughter.

Not only does the movie mark a comeback for Keaton, but also a surprising change of pace for its co-writer and director, Alejandro González Iñárritu. After making 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful — three of the most profoundly depressing films you’re ever likely to see — the Mexican filmmaker is trying his hand at comedy. There’s nothing about this project that doesn’t sound great. I love the casting, the plot description, and the likelihood of juicy roles for Keaton and Norton, two enormous talents who deserve great material.

Director/Writer: Wes Anderson
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Almaric, Bob Balaban, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson
Release Date: March 7

Of course this is the one I mentioned at the beginning that’s already been released, so no need to dwell on it. You’ve probably seen a trailer or commercial by now and gotten a taste of Wes Anderson’s latest confection. From a standpoint of art direction and costume design, this may be the director’s most elaborate and beautiful film to date, which would be no small feat. The cast is a killer mix of Anderson veterans and newcomers, with Ralph Fiennes looking to be a brilliant fit for Anderson’s unique comedic rhythms.


Director/Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jeannie Berlin, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Martin Donovan, Jena Malone, Peter McRobbie, Joanna Newsom, Kevin J. O’Connor, Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Timothy Simons, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Reese Witherspoon
Release Date: December 12

A new film by Paul Thomas Anderson is always cause to get excited. This guy couldn’t make a boring movie if his life depended on it, but what makes this one particularly intriguing is that it looks like it might actually be fun! Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master…they’re all pretty bleak. Even Punch Drunk Love, which is technically a comedy, is unnervingly weird and disturbing. You have to go back to 1997 and Boogie Nights for a PTA movie that isn’t just fascinating, but also a good time. That movie gets dark eventually too, but it has a hell of a lot of fun along the way. Now it looks like Anderson is ready to lighten up, as he adapts Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel about “Doc” Sportello, a pothead P.I. in Los Angeles circa 1969 who gets involved in a kidnapping investigation at the behest of his ex-girlfriend. Robert Downey Jr. was initially attached to play Sportello, but Anderson decided to re-team with his Master star Phoenix, then assembled an impressively colorful cast around him. The wait until December will be tough…but since we usually have to wait around four years between Anderson projects, at least we can be grateful that he got back to work so soon after The Master.


Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Timothee Chalamet, Matt Damon, William Devane, Mackenzie Foy, David Gyasi, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway, Bill Irwin, John Lithgow, David Oyelowo
Release Date: November 7

With his last few films, Christopher Nolan has owned the midsummer. The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and The Dark Knight were all released the third Friday of July in their respective years, giving the director the same kind of day/date ownership that Will Smith long held over July 4th weekend. With his latest, Nolan enters the highly competitive year-end fray, so perhaps Paramount and Warner Brothers see as much potential for awards glory as they do for box office returns. But that’s just speculation. What about the movie itself?

Well…there’s not much more than speculation on that front either, as the film is still cloaked in the kind of secrecy that always accompanies a new Nolan project. What we do know is that the script was originally written by Nolan’s brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan as a possible directing vehicle for Steven Spielberg. When Spielberg moved on, Chris got involved. Together the brothers reworked the script, creating something that combined Jonathan’s original story with new elements that were occupying Chris’ mind. A vague teaser trailer was released a few months ago, and I suspect that’s all we’ll get until a full trailer arrives, most likely this summer. The only other information we have at this point is that the movie is said to concern exploration of the furthest reaches of space, with a ship possibly discovering and entering a wormhole…evidence that would appear to be corroborated by the involvement of scientist Kip Thorne. Could Nolan be tackling time travel with this movie? I don’t know…but I wish I could time travel to November right now.

March 1, 2014

Oscars 2013: My Annual Absurdly Long Predictions Opus

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 12:30 pm
Tags: , , ,

Alright, now that we are finally done with all that Olympic nonsense (seriously couldn’t care less) we can get to the competition that matters. The Oscars are 29 hours away, so it’s time to lay my cards on the table. Normally I start with Best Picture and work my way down through the categories, but Best Picture has taken shape unconventionally this year, such that it might be better to start from the so-called “bottom” and work our way up. It will all make sense in the end, I promise. Let us begin, and remember: pace yourself and drink lots of water.

As usual, I haven’t gotten around to seeing most of the shorts. Or documentaries. Or foreign language films. But even if I had seen the shorts, there are no past awards to study or readily detectable buzz that would shed any light on what might be the winner. Even informed viewers are flying blind in these categories, trying to guess what might appeal to Academy members. So for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve gleaned from some of the pundits I follow. For Best Animated Short, most seem to be predicting Get a Horse!, the old-school-meets-new-school Mickey Mouse cartoon that starts out looking like a vintage piece before breaking the fourth wall, going 3D and mixing black and white with color. The fact that it played in front of a huge hit like Frozen only increases its chances. There’s also Mr. Hublot, which is getting mentioned as an alternate.

Best Live Action Short has the least consensus of the three. I think I’ve seen four of the five nominees picked as winners, but Helium and The Voorman Problem had slightly more mentions. And for Best Documentary Short, everyone seems to agree on The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, which hits the sweet spot of focusing on a Holocaust survivor and the healing power of art. The subject of the movie, Alice Herz Sommers, passed away just last Sunday at age 110.

If you’d prefer to investigate these categories a little more thoroughly yourself, here’s some brief descriptions and analysis from In Contention for Animated Short, Live Action Short and Documentary Short.

I haven’t seen anyone predict a victory for Palestine’s Omar or Cambodia’s The Missing Picture. Most seem to think it will go to the Italian film The Great Beauty, while others are leaning toward The Hunt from Denmark or The Broken Circle Breakdown from Belgium. How’s that for helpful? Maybe this will be more useful.


The only one I’ve seen is 20 Feet from Stardom, which focuses on the role backup singers have played throughout the history of rock and roll. As it happens, this one appears to be the favorite, a feel-good introduction to the (mostly) ladies who took great songs and made them greater. I mean, what would The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” be without that soaring backing track from Merry Clayton? The movie stands in contrast to more sobering fare, and although the serious stuff usually wins here, 20 Feet may be too toe-tappin’ to resist. If not, The Act of Killing has been a strong presence on the doc circuit. But I’d be watching out for The Square; it deals with the Arab Spring in Egypt, but I gather that there’s an unexpected feel-good component as it traces relationships between unlikely allies. Not sure if I’m correct about that or not, but if I am, it could bridge the gap for voters as sufficiently dramatic but not depressing. Once again, thoughts from In Contention if you’d like to know a little more.


This year, the two sound categories have four common nominees: Gravity, Lone Survivor, Captain Phillips and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The lone wolf in the Mixing category is Inside Llewyn Davis, and of the two categories, Mixing is the one that more often nominates music-heavy movies. Indeed, last year’s winner was Les Misérables, with shares a key trait with Llewyn Davis: live singing. That may well have given it the edge in another year, but this year it faces the force of Gravity. On the Editing side, All is Lost stands as the unique nominee, and as a movie that features almost no dialogue, it relies ever more so on sound to transport the audience. It’s a strong slate of nominees across both categories, but as always, few people outside of the Sound branch have any real knowledge of the work that goes into sound design. So they will vote for the movie that they consider an all-around impressive technical achievement, or the one that is most prominent in the Best Picture race. This year those movies are one and the same. Chalk these two up for Gravity.

Personal: Not that I know any better than most of the voters, but I’d go with Gravity for both, with Inside Llewyn Davis and All is Lost as second choices.


“Academy Announces 9 Films That ‘Gravity’ Will Beat for the VFX Oscar.” That was the headline The Wrap ran in early December when the 10 movies that would contend for the five Best Visual Effects nominations were announced. In many categories, a lot has changed since early December. Not in this one. This is the night’s surest bet. And if you want to know why, just check out the video below. Everything in this movie is CGI…and all of it immaculately created. The earth, the sun, the stars, the spaceships, the stations, the debris, the light, the reflections….even the damn spacesuits were created by the visual effects artists. The only real things onscreen are Sandra Bullock’s star power and George Clooney’s million dollar smile.

Personal: Gravity. I mean, come on! Even the spacesuits!!!


I’ve said that this branch rightly judges the quality of the work and not the quality of the movie when it comes to choosing nominees, but once the decision moves to the full Academy, minds are less open. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa should be a real contender here, since the makeup that turned Johnny Knoxville into an old man had to fool real people in up close and personal interactions. But it’s hard to imagine enough members handing an Oscar to the Jackass franchise. Then there’s The Lone Ranger, which also seems like a choice most voters just won’t want to make, given the whipping the movie took. So the winner, perhaps by a degree of default, will probably be Dallas Buyers Club. And to be fair, the extent of the film’s makeup work is broader than I understood, and all accomplished on a shoestring budget of $250 for the entire film. That’s crazier than the idea of Jordan Catalano winning an Oscar. The work in Bad Grandpa is excellent, so perhaps voters will surprise us and put that ahead of all other considerations. But Dallas is the safer bet.

Personal: I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. I’d get a kick out of seeing Bad Grandpa rewarded, while the work on Dallas Buyers Club is much more involved than I thought. I’d be happy for either team.


The Book Thief and Saving Mr. Banks are the outliers here, with this being the only nomination that either film earned. Her has wonderful music, but lacks the distinct theme that might put it over the edge. Alexandre Desplat has his sixth nomination with Philomena, and he has yet to win. The movie is apparently a big hit with Academy members, and Desplat’s lovely score will probably collect a lot of votes. But I’m calling this one for Gravity. Although it, like Her, doesn’t have a hummable theme that could stick with voters, it’s such a key component of the Gravity experience. Steven Price’s music is big and stirring without being overbearing or manipulative. It’s powerful enough to convey the mysteries, danger and beauty of space, yet intimate enough to underscore the emotional journey of the characters. And when it swells during the movie’s final scenes, you feel it throughout your body. Philomena could surprise, but I think Gravity‘s got it.

Personal: Gravity, for all the reasons stated above.


Oh boy. Strap in for this one, because before we even get to who the winner will be, there’s a hot mess to be explained. As discussed in my earlier piece after the nominations were announced, this category included an out-of-left-field nomination for the title song from a little-known Christian film called Alone Yet Not Alone. There was instant grumbling from other musicians behind eligible songs that didn’t get nominated, with some making bitter and disrespectful comments and calling into question the legitimacy of its eligibility. Some of the concerns focused on the fact that the song’s co-writer Bruce Broughton was a former Governor of the music branch who did minor campaigning on the song’s behalf by personally contacting some members of the branch and asking them to make sure they listened to the song and gave it a fair shot amidst some higher profile competition. I wrote in that piece that the Academy upheld the nomination, and that the song was here to stay.

Two days later, the Academy rescinded the nomination.

It was a bold and rare move. According to Entertainment Weekly, there have only been five cases prior to this one when a nomination has been stripped. The Hollywood Reporter cites some additional examples, though the Academy might not consider all of them to be accurate. (The EW list has been confirmed by the Academy.) Whichever list is correct, the situation is still uncommon, and may be unique in only one way: this appears to be the first case on record where a nomination has been withdrawn due to improper conduct on the part of the nominee.

The organization’s Board of Governors felt that Broughton’s personal communication to fellow members constituted a violation of the voting process. Broughton was vocal in his disappointment. In addition to the comment in the previous link, he posted a message on his Facebook page that night (as did his wife), and gave an interview the next day to a music site called Sibelius Blog, in which he discussed his involvement with the movie and his work on the song before talking about the revoked nomination. After a few days during which this bizarre turn of events dominated the entertainment news headlines, the Academy issued an additional statement explaining more specifically why it considered Broughton’s actions unethical, pointing out that the voting materials sent to members of the music branch deliberately refrain from mentioning the songwriters, so that voters are basing their decision purely on the song itself, without any personal relationship to the artists coming into play. Their position was that by pointing voters toward his own track, Broughton removed that veil of anonymity, providing an unfair advantage. Other songs may have been campaigned more expensively or aggressively, but such campaigns were also more general and didn’t include the inside knowledge to which Broughton had access as a member of the music branch. Broughton responded with a letter to the Academy that called into question the phrasing of the voting instructions given to members of the branch, as well as asking why his actions were deemed inappropriate even though Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, while serving as an Academy governor, had been allowed to work on award campaigns for movies like The Artist and The King’s Speech (both of which won Best Picture). Many people inside the Academy and outside of it (mostly religious audience members to whom Alone Yet Not Alone was targeted) expressed anger at the decision and lobbied for the song’s nomination to be reinstated, but to no avail.

As if all of this wasn’t ugly enough, Oscar-winning producer Gerald Molen chimed in with an accusation that the Academy’s gesture was one of anti-Christian bigotry. Oh please. There’s some bullshit at play in this debacle, no doubt, but anti-religious sentiment is not part of it. Last year, Molen accused the Academy of a liberal bias because a documentary he produced — the largely derided propaganda piece 2016: Obama’s America, which was a big hit with the Fox News crowd — failed to land a nomination for Best Documentary Feature. I guess he couldn’t imagine that maybe the voters just didn’t think his movie was one of the five best the field had to offer. He was the sore loser in that case, and now he’s on the other side of the fence, defending a nomination that was criticized by those who failed to make the cut.

This whole episode was unfortunate, and it’s the Academy that came out looking bad. The Music branch has taken a lot of heat over the past few years for poor policies and bad decisions, but this is one situation that shouldn’t be attributed to them, since the Board of Governors made the call. It’s not like this was the first time an Oscar nomination was awarded to a little-known film that had observers saying, “Huh?” In 2009, an obscure animated film out of Ireland called The Secret of Kells cracked the Best Animated Feature category, where it competed against better known films like Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog and Coraline.  One of the three Makeup nominees the same year was an Italian biopic called Il Divo that was on exactly nobody’s radar. And still in ’09, right here in the Song category, a tune from a French film called Paris 36 — not one of the year’s big crossover foreign language films — was among the nominees. Last year’s song nominee “Before My Time” from the documentary Chasing Ice wasn’t exactly hot on the Billboard charts, and not many people were familiar with the 2004 French film The Chorus when it spawned a nominated song in that year’s race. So the recognition for “Alone Yet Not Alone” is not unprecedented.

Broughton probably should not have reached out directly to members of his own branch to advocate a song he had worked on, nor provided the track’s number on the list of songs so that members could identify it when the Academy’s procedure is clearly designed to withhold that kind of information. But given the widespread, aggressive and varied maneuvers so often used to net an Oscar nomination (or win), Broughton’s actions seem minor. It’s not like we’re talking intimidation tactics here! The only reasonable point made by Gerald Molen in his criticism of the revoked nomination is that personal campaigning happens all the time, and has for years. As one Academy member said to In Contention‘s Kris Tapley, “They should start coming after all of us. They should look at everyone and not just wait for someone to forward them an email from a guy who said ‘listen to my song.’ It seems really punitive and over the top.” Agreed. Penalizing Broughton and his little song from his little movie without applying the same standards across the board is a disingenuous move. By ironic coincidence, earlier in the day that the song’s nomination was stripped, Vulture ran a story detailing Harvey Weinstein’s history of zealously campaigning his movies for Oscar glory. In a system where his approach is permissible, does Broughton really deserve to be the poster boy for this issue?

What comes across much more clearly than wrongdoing on Broughton’s part is that a bunch of anonymous people whose songs didn’t get nominated decided to raise a stink, and the Academy caved. All of the suspicion around the nomination was about how a song from such an outside-the-mainstream movie could crack the final five, as if the fact that it wasn’t sung by a Grammy winning pop star for a big-budget studio movie should be held against it. There may well be a need to reform the eligibility rules for the Best Song category, but in the meantime all songs that are deemed eligible deserve equal consideration, and that’s what the category’s voting process attempts to offer. The Academy may say that the nomination was revoked because Broughton abused his position, but what I see is the Academy giving credence to those who whine and complain when they don’t get nominated instead of accepting it and moving on like adults.
The day the Academy released their second statement about the repealed nomination, Isaacs also spoke to The Hollywood Reporter, dismissing Molen’s claims and detailing why Broughton’s actions were different from other forms of campaigning that have been allowed in the past. There’s been no response from her or the Academy about Broughton’s point that Isaacs worked on Oscar campaigns while serving as an Academy governor, which strikes me as a fair question. In fact, all has been quiet since the beginning of February. Fair or not, the Academy’s decision stands and the Best Original Song category is down to four nominees, as a replacement selection was not named. I don’t even think the song should have been nominated in the first place…but because I thought there were  a number of worthier options, not because I suspected malfeasance. All in all, this is an embarrassing episode, and a regrettable one to befall Isaacs, the Academy’s first female president, in her freshman term. Perhaps the debacle will be a learning moment for the Academy to make some policy and structural changes, as suggested by Variety. But I doubt it.
So…what were we talking about? Oh right…who is going to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. While “The Moon Song” from Her and “Happy” from Despicable Me 2 will both have their fans, and even though the latter just hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, this one comes down to U2′s “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and “Let it Go” from Frozen. The former may seem like standard U2 fare, and maybe it is, but it’s also well-known to be particularly meaningful and personal to Bono and the boys, who had a close relationship with Nelson Mandela and were speaking out against Apartheid even in the band’s early days. A vote for them would in a small way honor the incredible work they’ve done over the years for human rights, and also in a small way pay tribute to Mandela himself, who died in December shortly after the movie opened. U2′s last nomination was in 2002 for “The Hands That Built America” from Gangs of New York. They were widely expected to win, but the voters shocked us all by making the bolder decision to honor Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” That was the right thing to do, but I would still like to see U2 win an Oscar.
Still, despite the many factors that would make this the right song for which to honor U2, they are likely to be defeated by the juggernaut that is “Let it Go.” The song is a certifiable, unstoppable monster of a smash hit, the joy and delight of singing children everywhere. Like…everywhere, as demonstrated in this video depicting it in 25 different languages. Every voter probably has a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, sibling or somebody in their life that is keeping this song ringing in their ears. It is inescapable, and even if it’s not your thing, you can’t deny the power of Idina Menzel’s vocal.
So while there’s a chance that admiration and a sense of honoring Nelson Mandela’s legacy could lift “Ordinary Love” to victory, the cultural permeation of Frozen and “Let it Go” makes it the likely winner.

Personal: “The Moon Song.” This delicate gem has been stuck in my head for a while now, and it beautifully captures the mood of the film. Both the performances by Scarlett Johansson and Karen O are fragile, their voices cracking in a way that nails the emotional simplicity of this lovely love song. I’d be happy to see U2 win, but this is my favorite song of the group.

Also, I have to say — at the risk of alienating the sizable 3-to-9 year old segment of my readership — I thought the songs in Frozen were unremarkable. And it’s not just because I’m not a little kid. I’m as down for a good Disney musical as anyone, and it’s not unheard of that I might be walking around my apartment singing Menken-Ashman showstoppers like “Under the Sea,” “Be Our Guest” or “Friend Like Me.” That’s right: I’m a 37 year-old childless, heterosexual male who likes Disney musicals. Deal with the paradox. But I found the songs in Frozen bland and forgettable. I had hoped for more from them, given that they were co-written by a lyricist behind Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, but I guess that the subversive mind behind such tunes as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “Super Mormon Hell Dream” would have to switch gears a bit for Disney. All that said, there’s a reason “Let it Go” is the nominee. It’s easily the movie’s best song, and the only one that deserves a place in the canon of classic Disney music. But I’d rather see the tune from Her win.


The intricate period garb of The Invisible Woman is probably most consistent with the Academy’s past choices in this category, but I suspect that the movie is too far down the radar for most voters. On the other hand, confinement to the art houses didn’t prevent 2008′s The Duchess or 2009′s The Young Victoria from winning this prize. Still, I think both of those movies had slightly higher profiles than this one, which was never able to break through the cluttered year-end field despite strong reviews and the presence of Ralph Fiennes as star and director.

If we also rule out 12 Years a Slave and The Grandmaster, we’re left with The Great Gatsby and American Hustle. It’s a really tough call. Again, the voters tend to go for the more elaborate and pretty costumes, which is great for Gatsby. But that movie is far less popular than American Hustle, whose designers have been praised for capturing the film’s disco days with precise detail. With excellent reasons to justify either victory, I’m basing my guess on past behavior and giving the edge to The Great Gatsby. But Hustle‘s odds are just as good…and The Invisible Woman could still surprise.

Personal: The Great Gatsby. There are some nice items in American Hustle, mainly the outfits worn by Amy Adams. I won’t soon forget that white macramé bathing suit. But the lavish, exquisite styles of Gatsby are on a whole other level.


I understand the costumes for American Hustle getting nominated; I’m a little puzzled by the production design being singled out. Yes, the period is rendered exactingly, but the same could be said for a lot of movies. There were more interesting choices to be made here, and I’d be surprised if the Academy’s appreciation of the movie helps it here. 12 Years a Slave is probably too drab to win; the voters like more splendor and beauty in this category. Then again, Lincoln took the award last year, so there are always exceptions to the rule.

The remaining choices are The Great Gatsby, Her and Gravity. The latter also lacks the color and opulence that tends to stand out in this race, but if voters are just mechanically choosing the movie in all the so-called “technical” categories, then it has a chance. Gatsby and Her stand in a bit of opposition to one another. Gatsby‘s work is big, extravagant, showy. Her‘s is subdued, intimate, subtle. Voters traditionally prefer extravagant and showy, so I’m guessing Gatsby. But if people find it to be over the top, Her and even Gravity are waiting in the wings.

Personal: I have to go with Her. Gatsby looks great, but Her presents such a beautiful and unique near-future with a warm color scheme that so nicely compliments every other aspect of the movie from the visual to the emotional. Extra points for creation of the cityscape, incorporating footage shot in Shanghai to create an enhanced Los Angeles.


Pundits always claim that this category usually goes hand in hand with Best Picture, but I’m not sure when or how that idea took root, since the two categories have aligned only 34 times in the 79 years that the Editing award has existed. In a year with a tight Best Picture race, many will be looking at this category to give an indication of which way the scales are tipped. I’m not so sure.

Dallas Buyers Club is the only nominee I can say with certainty is out of the running. I don’t think 12 Years a Slave will take it either. That leaves Captain Phillips, American Hustle and Gravity. The former two took the gold from the American Cinema Editors guild, where there were categories for drama and musical/comedy. In recent years, one of the guild’s winners has usually gone on to take the Oscar. But I think Gravity will be the Academy’s pick. It’s heavy use of long takes makes for less editing than any of the competition, which in a way might make the decisions around where to cut seem all the more crucial. The fact is that like most of us, the majority of Academy members don’t really understand what goes into this work. They’ll pick the movie that feels the most effectively edited. That could definitely be Captain Phillips, but I think it will be Gravity.

Personal: Gravity. I don’t know better than any layman, but it’s said that the best editing is invisible. Gravity embodies that more than any of this year’s nominees.


Like Best Visual Effects, this award seems to be one of the night’s easiest calls. With all respect to The Grandmaster, Prisoners, Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska — all gorgeously photographed — it’s gotta be Gravity. Though much of the movie’s photography had to be accomplished via VFX, Emmanuel Lubezki still designed the shots as he would for any film and worked closely with the VFX artists to implement his vision. The movie features some stunning long takes, including its already legendary opening shot which runs for…17 minutes? 13 minutes? I’ve read both, and since I was too enthralled even upon my second viewing of the movie to clock it myself, I’ll go with Kris Tapley’s 13; he’s a guy who really pays attention and respect to cinematography. (Check out his excellent annual feature spotlighting the Top 10 Shots of the Year. I stole a couple of pictures here from that post.) 13 or 17…either way, it’s a goddamn glorious shot. Just one of many.

Lubezki has been in this position before, going in as the favorite to win the Oscar in 2006 for Cuarón’s previous film Children of Men, and again in 2011 for The Tree of Life. He won the American Society of Cinematographers prize for both of those, and both times walked away from the Oscars empty-handed. He took the ASC prize this year as well, which is notable because the guild has been resistant to 3D. Gravity is the first 3D movie they’ve feted, which only adds to the likelihood that the stars — and the satellites — have finally aligned for Lubezki’s overdue Oscar win. The right movie, the right year. As for Roger Deakins, still awaiting his first win as Prisoners marks his 11th nomination, well, he’ll definitely be back sooner than later.

Interesting sidebar: assuming Gravity wins Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects, it will be the fifth movie in a row to do so, after Life of Pi, Hugo, Inception and Avatar. Never mind that Pi, Hugo and Avatar should not have won for Cinematography (though I did support Avatar at the time), nor should Hugo have won for VFX. What’s done is done, and it signals a growing connection between the two crafts, as well as a dangerous endorsement of 3D, which was showcased by all but Inception. (I say dangerous because outside of IMAX nature documentaries and the like, 3D has proven to be an exploitative gimmick that as far as I’m concerned has been justified only twice since Avatar: Gravity and the opening credits sequence of Oz the Great and Powerful. Seeing it win Oscars is not helping put an end to its unwelcome invasion.)

As the lines blur more frequently between cinematography, visual effects and even production design, many people within the industry have suggested that the Academy divide the cinematography category into two, just as they once did to award films shot in black and white vs. those shot in color. Here, the idea would be one category for films with a heavy CGI component, and one for films shot more traditionally, in natural environments. It’s an issue the Academy is aware of, with former president Hawk Koch suggesting that such a potential category could be called Visual Imaging. This may be a change worth making somewhere down the line, but I don’t think we’re there yet, for the same reason there shouldn’t be a category for performance capture acting, as people have been suggesting in recent years. The fact is that these things still aren’t happening regularly enough and to such an extreme degree — like Gravity — that five worthy contenders could be identified each year. There might be one or two dominant films, but the rest of the nominees would be filler. Even the illustrious Mr. Deakins thinks a divided category would just result in a whole other set of complications. This year, the Visual Effects Society presented an award for Best Virtual Cinematography in a Live Action Feature, which was of course awarded to Gravity. Lubezki was a winner along with three members of the visual effects team, but none of the other four nominated films — Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — cited the cinematographer, because ultimately the line between camerawork and effects for the films as a whole was more traditionally divided. That may cease to be the case someday, and projects like Gravity may happen more often. In the meantime, maybe the Academy and the studios could figure out ways each year to make sure voters understand what constitutes cinematography and what constitutes visual effects in these “hybrid” films.

Anyway, that’s all just food for thought. Right now, whatever it signals for the future, Gravity has this in the bag.

Personal: Gravity all the way.


A pretty weak category this year. The Croods and Despicable Me 2 have their admirers, but not enough of them, despite efforts on the part of DreamWorks Animation to give The Croods a push with some swanky events in late January. Ernest & Celestine, the sole nominee of the group I haven’t seen, is said to be wonderful and charming, but poses no threat. The Wind Rises won a decent number of critics awards, but even a thoughtful alternative such as that won’t be able to ice out the phenomenon that is Frozen. Disney kept their beloved hit on voters’ minds with some gatherings of their own, most notably an intimate concert with performances from the film’s cast. A nice event I’m sure, but they needn’t have bothered. Frozen is way ahead of the pack in this race.

Personal: The Wind Rises. It’s the most original and ambitious film of the bunch, and it is so refreshing to see an animation master like Hayao Miyazaki show that the medium can be used to tell mature stories. As great an age for animated films as this is, most of them still cater to kids and families. Miyazaki and The Wind Rises offer a reminder that animation can be targeted at adults. Oh well…Miyazaki may not win, but he was honored in January by The Simpsons, and really…isn’t that even better than an Oscar?


It’s too bad that Before Midnight doesn’t have more muscle in this race, but it’s basically sitting on the bench. The Wolf of Wall Street will prove too divisive, so it’s out as well. Captain Phillips took the prize from the Writers Guild, but didn’t have to contend with 12 Years a Slave or Philomena, both of which were ineligible. While it may not be able to overcome the momentum of the frontrunners in its other three categories, Philomena could have more luck here. Like last year’s winner Argo, it successfully weaves a lot of humor into a movie that depicts serious and even tragic events. Apparently it is loved by many Academy members, and this could be the place they show their admiration. It won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) prize, which can sometimes be a barometer for the Oscars, but it’s hard to know. It might have had a hometown advantage of sorts. Harvey Weinstein has done plenty to keep the movie in the spotlight, sending co-writer/star Steve Coogan and the real Philomena Lee on a slew of publicity stops. The pair even met with Pope Francis to advocate for the release of 60,000 adoption files still being kept from families in situations like the one Philomena endured. This race could go either way, but I think the sheer power of 12 Years a Slave will be hard to ignore. Whether voters are going by the effectiveness of the storytelling, the weight of the real-life events depicted or some combination of both, 12 Years stands tallest.

Personal: Before Midnight or 12 Years a Slave. The former, like its predecessors, offers such an honest, intimate and unconventional portrait of a relationship, and it would be nice to see Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke recognized for this special series of films. And John Ridley’s adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir about his time in bondage is direct and raw, never going for manipulation.


The nomination for Dallas Buyers Club demonstrates how much the movie resonated with Academy members, but it won’t win here. Neither will Nebraska or Blue Jasmine, both of which are liked, but neither of which have the special sauce it takes to win. So it boils down to Her and American Hustle. Her would appear to be the frontrunner, having dominated the critics awards, and taken home the Golden Globe and the Writers Guild Award. There’s no doubt that it’s the most original of the nominees, but of course as I often say, the category isn’t necessarily recognizing work that is original in that way. There are the two obstacles in its path. First, there are a lot of Academy members — especially older ones — who just don’t get the movie. There were enough passionate supporters to secure it a Best Picture nomination, and it obviously had a decent amount of support within individual branches, but now with the whole Academy voting, those who think the movie is too weird could hold it back. Second, this may be the best chance that American Hustle‘s supporters have to give it a major win. There are two other categories we’ll get to where it stands a chance, but I don’t think it will triumph in either. Its odds are better here. Between Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, voters are enamored with David O. Russell, so they may feel the time has come to recognize him. Hustle took the BAFTA, but Her wasn’t nominated.

Either outcome seems 100% viable to me. My gut tells me that Hustle will pull it off, but my heart says that Her‘s originality can’t be denied. I may flip-flop when the moment of truth comes and I have to check my ballot, but I’m going with Her.

Personal: I too would love to see David O. Russell win an Oscar, but not for the American Hustle screenplay, which I found to be the source of the movie’s flaws. There is only one truly original work here that is original not just in the way the category is meant to be interpreted — that is, work that is not based on previously existing material — but also in its entire premise and execution. That would be Her.


We can start by eliminating Julia Roberts and Blue Jasmine‘s Sally Hawkins. They did good work, but their journey ends with the nomination. June Squibb has minor spoiler potential for her laugh-out-loud work in Nebraska, but although she’s a comic force of nature in that film, she’s up against even stronger forces. Not that she doesn’t make a compelling case for herself…

Barring Squibb’s guilt trip, the winner is expected to be either Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o, whose name — in case this is an issue for anyone — sounds like neon-go. Academy members have been vocal in their adoration of Lawrence’s performance, and it could be said that hers is the more “entertaining” of the two. She’s also the only member of Hustle‘s nominated quartet that seems to have a chance. Lawrence won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, while Nyong’o took the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award and the Broadcast Film Critics Award (BFCA). The timing of the BAFTA — those awards were handed out February 16, two days after Oscar voting began — is often seen as an indication of where winds might be shifting, so some pundits are no doubt reading Lawrence’s victory as a sign that she’s pulling ahead. That may be, but consider that she was not awarded the BAFTA for Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook. She lost to Amour‘s Emmanuel Riva before going on to pick up the Oscar. So BAFTA was a bit late to the Jennifer Lawrence bandwagon, and may have wanted to jump onboard. Her Oscar win last year is another big obstacle. As loved as she is — and she really, really is — are voters prepared to hand her a second consecutive Academy Award? Back-to-back wins certainly happen, but not often. She would be only the third actress to do it, and the youngest actress to ever win two Oscars.

In Nyong’o’s favor is not just that she gives a wrenching performance in a powerful film, but that her character is so horribly victimized. I assure you that many of the votes Nyong’o will receive will be given to her as much if not more so because of what the character goes through as for the skill of her portrayal. Among the outside factors that will help her case are the grace and eloquence she’s expressed throughout the many Q&A’s she has participated in and on stage when accepting prior awards. This is, after all, her first film. She’s fresh out of drama school, and being thrust into the blinding spotlight can be overwhelming and surreal. Yet she’s handled it with the poise of a pro and the overwhelming gratitude of one who’s been warmly welcomed to the club. Her personal narrative is an asset. On top of that, this category loves to recognize ingenues. It’s amusing that at 23, Lawrence is the old pro here, but she is.

So…while the virulent strain of Jennifer Lawrence Fever that has cloaked this country for the past two years remains strong enough to lift her to her second Oscar in a row, I think Lupita Nyong’o is, if not the antidote, than at least a temporary break in the state of delirium.

Personal: June Squibb. I’ll be thrilled for Nyong’o if she wins, but I thought she needed a little more screentime to justify an Oscar win. She is excellent, but I didn’t feel she had enough to do, and I’m not convinced she would be dominating the field as she has if not for the brutality suffered by Patsey. Squibb’s performance may not be the most challenging of the bunch, but hers was the definition of great supporting work, and I relished every moment she was onscreen.


This outcome has seemed pretty set in stone for a couple of months now. Jared Leto cleaned up with the national and regional critics associations, and took the Golden Globe, the BFCA and SAG awards. He missed out on the BAFTA, but wasn’t nominated, so winning would have been a feat. (It went to Barkhad Abdi.) Surprises could always happen, but I don’t imagine Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill or Michael Fassbender would emerge victorious at this late stage. Abdi is the most likely threat, but at the end of the day, voters are too deeply moved by Leto’s inhabiting of Rayon.

Not that he needs any help at this point, but Leto might earn extra points for his tactful handling of a heckler at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, who interrupted a celebration of Leto’s work by shouting out that heterosexual actors shouldn’t play gay and transgender characters. Leto engaged with the audience member briefly, then invited her to come backstage after the event to continue the conversation. Between the performance and his admirable offscreen behavior, Leto should be sitting pretty.

Personal: Bradley Cooper’s was probably my favorite performance, and a win for Barkhad Abdi would be pretty sweet too. Leto was excellent, and I’ll have no problem with him getting it. But I feel the same way as I do about Nyong’o: the movie needed more of him to warrant an Oscar win.

On a side note, I’d like to throw a request into the ether and see if it makes its way to the show producers, regarding the clips that will be shown for each of the performers. Barkhad Abdi gives a wonderful performance throughout Captain Phillips; so good, he got an Oscar nomination! So when it comes time to show a small sample of his work, please distinguish yourself from every award show up to this point by choosing a clip other than the one where he says, “Look at me! I’m the captain now.” That’s not his only line. Thank you.


When Blue Jasmine hit theaters last July, Cate Blanchett was declared the one to beat for Best Actress. Little has changed. Meryl Streep, Judi Dench and Sandra Bullock are just along for the ride on this one. Amy Adams, celebrating her fifth nomination and her first in the lead actress category, is the only threat Blanchett faces, and the threat is minimal. Her performance has been lauded enthusiastically by voters, and she has definitely gained ground, but Blanchett, armed with the SAG, BFCA and BAFTA awards, a Golden Globe (she won in the Drama category, while Adams took the Musical/Comedy prize), and over 20 critics awards, will be nearly impossible to beat.

The one chink in her armor is the reignited scandal about Woody Allen, sparked when his estranged daughter Dylan published an op-ed in The New York Times detailing her claims of abuse, and mentioning actors from Allen’s films — including Blanchett — in her effort to question the ongoing devotion showered upon him by the film industry. It didn’t take long for people to wonder aloud what the situation would do to Blanchett’s chances. It may have been a crass question to ask, but it does mean something; all manner of outside factors like this one absolutely impact the race whether they should or not. As I followed the media storm over the next several days, I considered writing about it here, but decided that it’s a can of worms I’m better off not opening. When she was questioned about it, Blanchett gave a brief answer clarifying that it was a difficult matter for their family. (Figures it was entertainment/Oscar writer Jeffrey Wells who asked the question. That guy is such a douche.)

The one award she publicly accepted after the scandal reared its head again was the BAFTA, and Blanchett shrewdly avoided the controversy by not thanking anybody specifically, instead offering a general thanks to everyone who made the Blue Jasmine experience so special and memorable for her. She devoted the bulk of her speech to saluting Philip Seymour Hoffman. Heartfelt sentiments no doubt, but you can bet it was also a calculated effort to avoid invoking Allen while there’s so much heat on him, and unfairly on her. I’m sure she did lose some votes from people who can’t stomach honoring Allen’s work in any way, but most Academy members who have spoken about it say that none of it has anything to do with Blanchett. When she wins the Oscar, it will be hard to avoid his name, but we’ll see. Blanchett is a class act; I’m sure she’ll handle it gracefully.

Personal: Cate Blanchett. One of the best, at her exceptional best.


Of the four acting nominations, this one is probably the least settled. Momentum is with Matthew McConaughey, but I wouldn’t call him a slam dunk. Leonardo DiCaprio has a lot of supporters declaring this the time to finally recognize him, and it is interesting that the “it’s his/her time” sentiment that so often factors into these awards (think recent examples like Jeff Bridges and Kate Winslet) is with McConaughey rather than DiCaprio, who has consistently been one of the finest actors out there, nailing his roles every time out of the gate. This nomination is only his fourth, but there are definitely a few other times he deserved to be in the running. McConaughey, meanwhile, is in the midst of a remarkable career turnaround that has seen him forsake the generic romantic comedies and bland studio dramas and adventures which were keeping him busy in favor of smaller, more exciting character driven pieces with notable directors. The McConaissance, as it has been brilliantly dubbed, is in full swing, and the only reason I can’t say that it peaks with Dallas Buyers Club is that he may still be on the climb. So it’s intriguing that the “it’s his time” narrative that might have benefitted DiCaprio sits instead with McConaughey on the sheer concentration of great work in such a short period.

It’s also not out of the question that Chiwetel Ejiofor could pull this out. The 12 Years a Slave star was the clear frontrunner during the first half of awards season, when the critics awards were the source of all the buzz. Then McConaughey won the Golden Globe for Drama, then the BFCA award, then the SAG trophy. (DiCaprio took the Golden Globe for Musical/Comedy.) Ejiofor rebounded with the BAFTA win, but McConaughey wasn’t nominated by the Brits. Ejiofor is a respected actor who has been doing sturdy work for years now (he made his big screen debut opposite McConaughey in Amistad), and has earned rapturous praise for his performance of Solomon Northrup. A win for him does not seem so impossible.

The buzz seems to be around these three, leaving Bruce Dern and Christian Bale on the sidelines. Dern has worked the campaign circuit like an animal and regaled Q&A audiences and various gatherings of voters with great stories of his many years in Hollywood. He has friends and admirers throughout the Academy, but the nomination and the part itself will have to be his reward.

So Ejiofor is still in the game, and DiCaprio is closing the gap, but McConaughey is still out in front. Dallas Buyers Club has bowled over voters, and his enthusiastic speeches at other award ceremonies have charmed. His SAG speech, in particular, was a gas. It might have seemed strange and rambling, but was actually a giddy and joyous expression of excitement about the adventures that actors get to go on, and those in the room seemed to know exactly what he was talking about. (The video quality in that link isn’t great, but for some reason SAG’s official video cuts off after about a minute.) And there’s one other important thing working in McConaughey’s favor: True Detective. The terrific series debuted a few days before the nominations were announced, providing Academy members who have HBO — which I’m sure is an awful lot of them — with a weekly reminder of his talent. The actor is simply killing it on that show, and will need additional shelf space for the awards he may start winning come this September’s Emmys. If voters are torn over who to vote for, a look at True Detective might tip the scales for McConaughey.

Personal: I have to go with McConaughey. These are all outstanding performances and I’d be happy to see any of them take the stage. There are all kinds of ways to judge these things, but in this case, McConaughey was the one who most successfully made me forget about the actor and see only the character…which especially impressed me since he still had his Texas twang and southern charm (as much as a homophobic profiteer can be charming, at least). I suppose Bale did that for me too, but I don’t know…there’s an electricity to McConaughey’s work that sets it apart. Ejiofor is a close second. It’s a restrained, internalized performance but he conveys so much intelligence and emotion. And when he finally breaks down, it’s just devastating.


This one is pretty much decided. Gravity is a groundbreaking achievement that was dependent on non-existent technology to produce. So like George Lucas and James Cameron before him, Alfonso Cuarón invented the technology. Not single-handedly of course, but he brought together the right people, conveyed his vision, saw it through over four-and-a-half years and delivered an experience that demanded people get off the couch and go out to the theater. Even those who find the movie too thin and lacking substance are awed by the directorial accomplishment. He already has the Golden Globe and awards from the BFCA, BAFTA, and most telling, the Directors Guild of America. If anyone can beat him, it’s Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave, but that would be a shock at this juncture. David O. Russell, Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese are earthbound this year. The night belongs to Alfonso Cuarón.

Personal: Alfonso Cuarón. His achievement is on a whole other level, even if — as he told the crowd at the DGA ceremony — “I barely understand how we made the film.”


So why did I want to leave this category for last instead of kicking off with it as usual? Because I believe something fairly unique is about to happen. I’ve predicted Gravity to triumph in seven races so far, and even if it doesn’t get all of them, it will get most. I don’t think there’s any question it will emerge with the most wins of the night. And usually, the film that wins the most awards claims Best Picture among its tally. I don’t think that will happen this year.

We can eliminate most of the competition, as the category is seen as coming down to three movies: Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle. Some might also think Philomena stands a chance, but they’re kidding themselves. Hustle is clearly loved by the Academy, co-leading the field alongside Gravity with 10 nominations including one in each acting category. When it took the SAG top prize for Best Performance by an Ensemble, pundits exclaimed that its Best Picture chances were suddenly elevated. Don’t be fooled. Time and again people try to equate SAG’s top award with the Academy’s, and the two simply don’t correlate. Yes, sometimes they go to the same movie, but for different reasons, judged on different criteria. While 12 Years a Slave features a line-up of terrific performances, Hustle‘s are a lot more fun, and pop off he screen with the kind of electricity that befits that movie. Hustle is seen as more of an acting showcase than 12 Years, and that’s why it won the Ensemble award from SAG.

Which brings us back to Gravity and 12 Years. The Producers Guild of America awards were expected to clarify the field, but the two movies tied…the odds of which are incredibly unlikely. The PGA awards use the same preferential system of voting that the Academy uses for Best Picture (though not for any of the other categories), hence the expectation that the Oscar win might be signaled by the PGA winner. No such luck this time around. In past years, I’ve linked to detailed write-ups by The Wrap‘s Steve Pond about how the preferential ballot works, but this year he recorded a succinct, helpful video.

Another tie is unlikely, so with Gravity‘s likelihood of winning 5 to 7 awards, including Best Director, it appears to have the edge. But I’m expecting Best Picture will go to 12 Years a Slave.

It’s not exactly crazy talk. We’ve watched throughout the awards season — at the Golden Globes and the BFCA and BAFTA awards — as 12 Years has lost in most or even all of its categories throughout the night, but still come out with the top prize. What 12 Years has going for it, as Best Picture winners so often do, is a sense of importance. At the very end of this piece from Vulture, published the day of the nominations, the writer points out that Academy members “don’t pick the film they think is best, they pick the film they think will best represent them.” I recall Siskel & Ebert talking about the Oscars years ago, and they said that the Academy tends to make the mistake that to vote for a movie is to endorse its message. Siskel pointed to Gandhi as an example. While he acknowledged that it was a very good film to which he gave a positive review, he said the movie with the enduring cultural impact, and in his mind the better movie, was Tootsie. I would add E.T. Still others would point to The Verdict. It’s not that Gandhi isn’t a good film, but by naming it Best Picture, voters got to celebrate what the movie, and the man himself, stood for.

I’m not calling this year’s race a repeat of 1982′s, because I do think 12 Years a Slave is a remarkable movie that would be a deserving Best Picture winner purely on its artistic merits. But it’s not easy to consider it purely for artistic merits, because right or wrong, its win would also make a statement. As one anonymous voter told Entertainment Weekly, they are voting for 12 Years not because it’s their favorite movie of the year, but because “these stories shouldn’t be marginalized, and it’s a triumph it got made. The film needs to be in the world, and for all the years that it hasn’t been, this is the best picture of the year.” That’s just one voter’s opinion, and as EW’s piece shows, other members are voting differently. But I do think that many people will go with 12 Years, even if they like Gravity or another film better, because naming it Best Picture sends a message. Even if they don’t rank it #1 on their ballot, they may go with #2 or #3, and as the video above demonstrates (as does this older article by Steve Pond), a movie needs a lot of second, third and fourth place rankings to come out the winner.

And you know that if it loses, cultural and media critics will be all over the Academy in the following days. They might not necessarily level charges of overt racism, but they will definitely suggest that the organization’s refusal to honor the movie that boldly confronts such a traumatizing chapter in American history, which turns a necessary eye onto a shame that continues to affect society today, is an insult and a travesty. You thought the backlash was vocal when Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture? If 12 Years loses, just wait….

On the other hand, Gravity is probably more widely respected than Crash, the movie that felled Brokeback. For months now, pundits who are out there talking to Academy members hear Gravity named most often as their favorite movie of the bunch. With Cuarón’s Best Director win nearly assured, tradition is on Gravity‘s side to get Best Picture as well, as is the fact that Gravity will win more awards than any other movie. The Picture/Director split is still a rarity (it’s happened 22 times at this point), but the way everything has fallen this year, it seems like a strong possibility. As always, we can go all around the bend pointing out things that have never happened before, or stats that are rare, all to justify either outcome (like the point I made in the previous Oscar post about movies without a Screenplay nomination almost never winning Best Picture. That would indicate that Gravity is out). But in the end, each year is unique, and this year I think that Gravity will win the night’s biggest haul, but lose the top prize to 12 Years a Slave.

Personal: I suppose Gravity and Her were my favorite of the nominees, but I’m just as emotionally tuned into the messages these awards can send as anyone, and if I weigh all the factors, I land on 12 Years a Slave.


With Ellen DeGeneres onboard as host, I think the easiest prediction to make is that this year’s ceremony will prove far less controversial than last year’s Seth MacFarlane show. As long as she doesn’t try to make any 12 Years a Slave jokes. (I don’t recall exactly how Whoopi Goldberg handled Schindler’s List; only that she referenced how Billy Crystal usually came out and sang a medley that poked good-natured fun at the Best Picture nominees and then remarked, “He got The Crying Game; I got Schindler’s List.” That may have been the extent of jokes about the night’s eventual winner.) I’m sure Ellen will do well. She’s all about making people comfortable, and especially after all the disapproval that MacFarlane’s gig incited, it was no surprise that returning show producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan went with someone as good-natured and well-liked as Ellen. One thing is for sure: just like last year, the bar was set high at the Golden Globes by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler…who, come to think of it, managed to find the right tone for a 12 Years a Slave joke.


What else can we expect? The show’s theme is a celebration of movie heroes, from the Avengers to Atticus Finch, and there will also be a tribute to The Wizard of Oz, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. U2, Pharrell Williams, Karen O and Idina Menzel will be on hand to perform the nominated songs, and there will also be performances by Pink and Bette Midler. As usual, the producers promise surprises, so we’ll see what they have in store.

Reading this has probably taken you right up to the start of the show, but if you still have a few spare minutes, here are a couple of Oscar quizzes you can try your luck at. I aced the first one, and got 60% on the more difficult second one. And with that, I think I’ve done enough damage here. Enjoy the show!

February 22, 2014

The Year in Movies: 2013

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 5:00 pm
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2013 might go down as a great year for movies, but that wouldn’t be an entirely fair or accurate statement. Yes, there were a lot of excellent films, but most of them were released in the last third of the year. Before that, the bright spots were few. So can we really call it a great year for movies if most of the year offered little in the way of greatness? I suppose I’m arguing semantics. That, or scholars will debate this for eons to come.

I saw 100 movies that were released in 2013. In November, there was an eight day stretch during which, I kid you not, I saw 10 movies (two of those being earlier-in-the-year releases I was catching up with on DVD). Sure, that would never have been possible if I weren’t unemployed, and I would gladly relinquish that claim for a steady paycheck. But lemonade from lemons and all that, right? My friend Ryan said to me during that week, “You’re crazy. You’re a crazy person.” Yeah, well…four of those screenings were possible because Ryan is in the Writers Guild and brought me as his guest, so he’s totally an enabler in this situation; the guy who gives you a drink while driving you to rehab.

I mention the number because I know from past experience that some of you wonder how I see as many movies per year as I do. But while those among you will think seeing 100 movies during the year is unbelievable (and a sign of multiple social problems), it barely scratches the surface of what’s out there. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott pointed out when covering his favorites of the year, his newspaper reviewed 900 movies in 2013. Granted, he and his colleagues watch and write about movies for a living. But those of you who can’t imagine how I got around to 100 should realize what a small percentage that really is. There were some that I wanted to see but missed. There were many, many more that I had zero interest in seeing. And there were countless more that I probably had no awareness of whatsoever. Many movies only open in a few cities or less, and/or only play briefly. They aren’t accompanied by weeks of commercials, trailers and print publicity. They quietly arrive on DVD with the same lack of fanfare that accompanied their theatrical release. Or they go straight to DVD altogether (which is not necessarily the stigma it once was).

I’m not sure what any of this matters, but it was on my mind. Since I lack the assistance of an editor, this is what happens. I ramble. The point of this post is to cover my favorite movies from the year gone by. As always, I rank the top few, then run down the rest alphabetically. Strangely, despite there being a number of movies on my list this year, there wasn’t one that clearly rose to the top for me as a single favorite. A few came close, but none gave me that obvious “this is the one” feeling I got in past years for movies like The Departed, Precious and Inception. So instead, what follows are an alphabetical Top Five, followed by the rest as I’d usually do. And as always, there are many more that I would happily and enthusiastically recommend to people. Movies that I enjoyed, admired, that contained some of my favorite moments or scenes of the year, but that for one reason or another didn’t completely come together or linger in my mind as a whole. Inevitably, there will be movies I later regret not putting on my list. Or I’ll see something again down the line, and find it makes more of an impact on me than it did initially. And there may even be some that, with a little distance, I wouldn’t have included. These things happen every year. But at this moment in time, reflecting on the year that was, these are the movies that stuck.

Top Five

From Gone With the Wind to Titanic, Lawrence of Arabia to The Lord of the Rings, there will always be movies that are best when seen on the big screen, but we accept that in order to enjoy them beyond their initial release, we’ll have to settle for a TV and hope that we have a set big enough to still do the movie some sort of justice. Unfortunately, I’m not sure any screen small enough to fit in a house can do justice to the astonishing experience of Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning film, over four years in the making, follows Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a scientist whose first mission in space is compromised when her shuttle is destroyed and she is stranded above Earth with veteran astronaut Mike Kowalski (George Clooney).

There may not be a lot of plot at work here, but that doesn’t mean this should be mistaken for a hollow spectacle that indulges in breathtaking visuals but skimps on any sort of substance. Gravity doesn’t need to go deep to carry weight. The story is simple but primal, and the motivation is clear: survival. Such elemental stakes are enough to propel the drama, and Cuarón goes further than anyone before him in placing the audience in the vastness of space. Over a riveting 90 minutes, we’re right there in the void with Stone and Kowalski, held spellbound as our hearts pound and pray that the duo can somehow survive their seemingly impossible circumstances. Emmanuel Lubezki’s immaculately choreographed cinematography blends seamlessly with the groundbreaking visual effects, while Bullock’s understated, quietly powerful performance renders palpable Stone’s accelerated evolution from terror to resignation to determination. She provides the emotional anchor that makes the movie more than just a thrill ride. Firing on all cylinders, Gravity is dazzling cinema, and all the more special because its like just doesn’t come around very often.


Spike Jonze’s fourth film is easily the year’s most original, and perhaps its most beautiful as well. Set in a near-future Los Angeles, it casts Joaquin Phoenix as the acutely sensitive, gentle-hearted Theodore Twombly, a writer so emotionally reeling from his divorce that he can’t bring himself to sign the papers finalizing it a year after the separation. On a whim, he purchases an operating system to help organize his life. The omniscient artificial intelligence calls herself Samantha, and quickly bonds with Theodore, helping him overcome his hurt, becoming a friend…and then becoming something more.

When I first heard this premise, I wasn’t sure how it could sustain a feature length film, let alone maintain any dramatic credibility. Quite sufficiently on both counts, as it turns out. The relationship between Theodore and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson in a radiant performance) is as lovely and complex as any the movies have given us. This is the first film Jonze has written, but like all of his previous work as a director — Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are — it explores the rocky terrains of love and loneliness with aching, penetrating honesty. If that sounds like a bit of a downer, make no mistake, the movie is also full of joy and laugh-out-loud moments. Jonze’s fertile imagination presents a vision of the future that seems a completely logical extension for many of our current technologies, from Apple’s Siri to Nintendo’s Wii, as well as our technology’s influence on our growing disconnect from real human interaction. The entire visual fabric of the film, from sets to costumes to camerawork, form a cohesive vision that is colorful, sun-dappled and sharp as crystal. It’s a nice deviation from the more common depictions of a future — distant or not — that is cold and antiseptic. Jonze augments the world we’re familiar with to create one in which the existence of a character like Samantha and a relationship like the one she and Theodore share don’t seem so strange. With the groundwork laid, it takes actors of considerable skill and emotional openness for us to buy into the premise, so credit Phoenix and Johansson for transcending quirkiness or gimmickry and instead making the movie take flight as a rich and worthy love story. Their bond is so real and intimate that some moments are almost uncomfortable to watch; they feel too personal and private. Both actors are out on a limb in Her; Phoenix risking whether audiences will buy him running through the streets and laughing with a lover who exists in a handheld device, and Johansson trusting that people will connect with and be moved by a lead character who exists solely as a voice. But they’re in safe hands with Spike Jonze. And yet again, so are we.

The term “coming-of-age” gets used a lot; there are some other movies on this list that fit the bill. But there are few films that, for me, have embodied that description as quintessentially as Mud, the third feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols (whose sophomore movie Take Shelter I cited in 2011). Matthew McConaughey is terrific as the title character, but the movie belongs to its teenage star Tye Sheridan. He plays Ellis, an outwardly tough, inwardly sensitive Arkansas kid living on a river and making daily trips out to an abandoned island with his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, also impressive), where they’ve located a washed-up boat to restore. That plan is complicated when they meet Mud, a fugitive hiding out on the island until he can reconnect with his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Ellis takes an immediate liking to Mud — particularly his devotion to his girl — and soon the boys are helping him execute his escape, which includes getting messages to Juniper, who’s staying at a hotel in town. There is a thriller component to the film, as some unsavory figures descend on the area in search of Mud, but first and foremost the movie is a beautifully etched story of Ellis, a good kid with naïve notions of romance, whose experience not only with Mud but with his parents’ faltering marriage, exposes him to the world’s hard truths.

Yet the movie is far from bleak or hopeless. Through Ellis, it explores decency, kindness and notions of love where similar films might bury such sentiments beneath a “cruel world” pessimism. It also values characters that other movies might condescend to or paint as caricatures. The inhabitants of this lower-income, Southern milieu are not rednecks. They’re rich and complicated, and are matched by performers who embody them with respect and nuance. It’s great to see Witherspoon doing this kind of character work again instead of paint-by-numbers studio comedies, and McConaughey continues to captivate as his career turnaround unfolds. Mud is a charming but enigmatic character, who is seen differently by Ellis than he is by Juniper, and differently still by an older man from his past (Sam Shepard) whose help Ellis seeks. That makes for a variety of conflicting viewpoints, but McConaughey’s portrayal captures them all. There’s nice supporting work from Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson as Ellis’ parents, Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s uncle, and Paul Sparks as a dangerous man on Mud’s trail. (Boardwalk Empire fans will recognize Sparks as goofball bootlegger Mickey Doyle, and will likely be impressed by this very un-Doyle-like performance.) But it all boils down to the outstanding Sheridan. So natural, so honest, so relatable, he pulls off the complexity of Ellis’ story with heartpiercing authenticity. It’s rare to see a teenage character this full, and even rarer to see an actor who can capture the necessary depth and subtlety to do it justice. But Sheridan has the goods. He gives one of the year’s best performances and establishes himself as an actor to follow.


Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal lead a strong ensemble in this dark, intense story about the disappearance of two girls in suburban Pennsylvania. Jackman is the father of one of the missing kids, who becomes fixated on the guilt of a suspect (Paul Dano) who the police ultimately rule out. Gyllenhaal is the committed detective leading the case, backed by a perfect record but flustered as the days pass and the girls’ whereabouts continue to elude him. At two and a half hours, the movie is long, and as it goes on, you’re aware that it’s long. But it never feels overlong, never becomes boring or feels unnecessarily stretched. The circumstances continue to grip as the investigation grows more puzzling and the excellent script by Aaron Guzikowski takes some daring turns. I don’t want to even hint at what revelations do or do not ultimately come, but I’ll try to tiptoe around it by saying that even at moments when the plot drifts into what we recognize as conventional territory for a mystery like this one, the thematic continuity justifies and elevates what might seem like Perry Mason moments in a movie with less on its mind. Prisoners is the kind of story that poses moral questions about how we would handle ourselves in the same situation, and asks us whether or not we can condone behavior that troubles us at the same time that we might find it justifiable. There are no easy outs, and even if you’re feeling optimistic when the bold ending arrives, you can’t deny that whatever happens to these characters after the credits roll, their challenges are not resolved.


Most people have probably never heard of this movie, which is a shame, because it deserves a Transformers-size audience. It takes place at a foster care facility for at-risk youth, and focuses on Grace (Brie Larson), the facility’s supervisor who must tend to the varied emotional needs of a range of kids, delicately balancing her role of disciplinarian with being a friend who is sympathetic to their troubles. She’s aided by an equally committed staff that includes her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), and as the couple deal with the daily ups and downs that go with such a challenging job, they contend with personal developments that unfold over the course of roughly one week. Among their charges are Marcus (Keith Stanfield) a fragile, budding musician about to turn 18 and age out of the program, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an aloof new arrival to whom Grace feels a connection.

The premise might not seem inviting to people who want their movies to be pure escapism, but the result is so accessible that it’s hard to imagine anyone not falling in love with it. Much of the credit for that goes to Larson and Gallagher, who create such a genuine bond together that they feel not like characters you’re just meeting, but like your friends. In fact, perhaps not since The Station Agent have I seen a movie that I so badly didn’t want to end because I just wanted to spend as much more time as possible with the characters.

That’s not to say that they, or the movie, are all happy-go-lucky. With subject matter like this, there are some hard moments. Even just the implication of what some of these people have gone through will make your heart hurt. There’s a scene in which Marcus sits with Mason and performs a rap he’s written that addresses his mother, and although it is brief and fairly quiet, it’s as much of a showstopper as a more traditional centerpiece number that a character in a musical might sing (I mentioned it last month in both my Oscar nomination predictions and reactions as a song that should have been nominated by the Academy). But the movie doesn’t wallow in the ugly circumstances of the characters’ pasts. It’s more interested in the hope for their futures. And over the course of the film, we learn how for Grace and Mason, this is not just a job, but a highly personal mission. Grace, in fact, may not be much more functional than many of the kids she’s supervising, but her commitment to them is passionate.

Short Term 12 was written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, expanded from his short film of the same name, and inspired by his experiences working at a similar facility. As such, it is steeped in the authenticity that confirms you’re in the hands of a storyteller who knows and understands the world he’s depicting. I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. There is hardship, but there is also such warmth, humor, love and kindness on display that I don’t know how anybody could watch and not be touched by the purity of it. Everyone in the cast is superb, but Larson has the most complex role, and she is outstanding at shifting between the multitude of emotional microclimates that Grace experiences from moment to moment. I’m offering a rare money-back guarantee on Short Term 12. If you don’t like it, I really don’t know what to do with you.

The Rest:

Steve McQueen, the uncompromising director of Hunger and Shame, depicts the horrors of slavery culture in a film that is all the more powerful and engaging for being based on a true, first-hand account. 12 Years a Slave is adapted from the memoir of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man in New York, married with two young children. An accomplished violinist, Solomon’s nightmare begins when he accepts an offer from two artists to perform in Washington D.C. After a night of friendly drinking, he wakes up in chains, having been drugged and sold by his companions. He is transported to Louisiana and purchased by a man who is as kind a master as can be hoped for under the circumstances. But eventually he is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a brutal owner as devoted to alcohol as he is to the word of God. Most of Solomon’s time in bondage is spent on the Epps cotton plantation, where his fellow slaves include a young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), on whom Epps has a warped fixation that results in her brutal victimization not only by him, but his viciously resentful wife (Sarah Paulson).

I haven’t seen every movie about slavery, so I can’t make any claims as to this being the most accurate or searing depiction of its evils, but surely 12 Years a Slave is among the most immersive and accurate ever presented in mainstream film. McQueen often holds his camera in unflinching long takes that you may feel the need to turn away from, but you won’t be able to avert your eyes for long. The events compel you to watch, and the filmmaking commands your attention. This could not have been comfortable material for any of the actors, but they acquit themselves fully. In Solomon, Ejiofor finally has the high-profile leading role that he has long deserved, and he makes the most of the opportunity. He has always been an actor whose intelligence burns through the screen, and that quality serves him here as Solomon quickly learns how to navigate captivity…and learns that his intellect isn’t always an asset. Ejiofor’s natural grace allows him to believably wear Solomon’s stoicism as protective armor, and when that armor cracks, the actor will have you weeping right along with the character. Epps, meanwhile, is a truly wretched figure whom Fassbender makes just as frightening when he’s in a fiery rage as when he’s quietly threatening. Paulson’s screentime is limited, but she makes every second count with a finely-calibrated performance that is chilling in its matter-of-fact force. And Nyong’o plays Patsey with a child’s penchant for escapism, but of course there is no escaping the brutality to which she is subjected by both Master and Mistress Epps, which makes her moments of despair all the more poignant and crushing. Patsey endures horror after horror, and yet Nyong’o glows in the darkness.

This is one of those movies that many people feel they need to work up the nerve to see, or won’t see until they’re in the right mood. Or won’t see at all. Don’t be one of those people. You’ll never be “in the mood” to watch a movie that stares slavery in the eye. Instead, believe the hype and just know that after you’ve seen it, you’ll be glad that you did. Not because its subject matter is important, but because like any great movie, it will stay with you. And if you find it upsetting at times, well….good. It’s strong stuff, in every way.


Robert Redford is a man alone at sea, with no volleyball or Bengal tiger to keep him company when his sailboat is damaged in a crash and he has to fight for survival. Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s unexpected follow-up to the talky, ensemble film Margin Call features no one but Redford, and the actor barely speaks. Instead, he must hold our attention through his silent actions and increasingly desperate efforts to overcome the adversity of the vast, solitary ocean. The movie makes for an interesting companion piece with Gravity. Its setting is less wondrous, but the isolation of the sea offers its own beauty and its own challenges, and Redford’s unnamed protagonist endures a series of intense, gripping events over several days as he battles not only the elements, but the ticking of time. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker like Chandor undertake such a narratively risky project, and to see a veteran actor like Redford rise to the varied and uncommon demands the film asks of its leading man. This kind of daring filmmaking deserves to be seen and rewarded.


If not quite the barnstorming work of brilliance that so many critics would have you believe, the latest from David O. Russell is still a damn fun movie with hugely entertaining performances. At the center of the story is Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld, a married con man who takes a mistress and a business partner in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), bilking desperate investors out of their money. The buck stops when they’re caught in an FBI sting by wildly ambitious agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who offers them the chance to get off the hook by assisting him in a larger sting operation to take down corrupt politicians, beginning with Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the beloved mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Polito is an ironic target since he is actually a decent, straightshooting guy with genuine motives of helping his constituents, a fact which weighs heavily on Irving as DiMaso’s operation continues to grow more complex. Irving’s role in the con, as well as his relationship with Sydney, is complicated by his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a loose cannon and complete mess who plows ahead in everything she does with little thought or concern for consequences.

Without taking away from anybody in the excellent cast, which also includes Louis C.K., Alessandro Nivola and Elisabeth Röhm, the standouts for me were Bale and Cooper. Always an enormously committed actor, it’s a treat to see Bale apply that level of dedication to a more comedic performance. Not that he plays Irving for comedy, but the situation is often so absurd, and Irving himself is such a vivid character, that Bale is just a thrill to watch. In a lesser actor’s hands, Irving could have been overplayed. Not so with Bale. And Cooper, who really came into his own under Russell’s direction with last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, brings a manic energy to Richie that differs from his work in that previous film, replacing that character’s craziness with a burning lust for glory and, as he sees it, justice. Renner does good work too, but if he makes less of an impression than his co-stars, it’s not a mark against him, but the result of his character being one of the few who is largely straightforward and devoid of eccentricities.

Comparisons have been made to GoodFellas, and that may true in tone (to a degree), but not in quality. So despite what so many critics seem to be hyping, don’t expect a masterpiece of that caliber. American Hustle certainly does owe a debt to GoodFellas and Casino, but the movie would be more accurately described as Scorsese-lite. That’s not intended as a knock, but just as a resetting of expectations. Among the shortcomings are occasionally wobbly script issues (particularly around the sequence involving an FBI agent posing as a sheik), and final payoffs that don’t quite meet the expectations promised by the increasingly twisty plot. But the movie’s many pleasures win the day, and David O. Russell once again demonstrates a thrilling directorial energy and a gift for helping actors shine.


Stories of dysfunctional families are a gift that keep on giving, and August: Osage County arrives with the most impressive pedigree the sub-genre has seen recently. Based on a play that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, five Tony awards (including Best Play) and several other honors in 2008, and boasting one of the year’s strongest gathering of actors, the film version lives up to its potential. I suppose the material can be classified as dark comedy, but it’s not all laughs…and sometimes what’s humorous and what’s heavy are barely distinguishable. The troubled family at the center of this hurricane is the Weston clan of Oklahoma, presided over by Beverly (Sam Shepard), an alcoholic, once-famous poet, and Violet (Meryl Streep), who pops all manner of pills and continues to smoke despite suffering from cancer. Violet’s blunt “truth-telling” and vicious jabs at her loved ones set the tone for the reunion that occurs when Beverly goes missing, prompting the family to gather from near and far. Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson play the couple’s children, while Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin are Roberts’ husband and daughter, and Dermot Mulroney is Lewis’ fiancée. Margo Martindale plays Streep’s sister, with Chris Cooper as her laid back husband and Benedict Cumberbatch as their son. It’s hard not to shower praise on every member of this glimmering cast (which also includes Frozen River‘s Misty Upham), though my personal Best in Show would have to go to Cooper, who gets a handful of standout moments, both funny and touching.

The play was adapted for the screen by its writer Tracy Letts, and his material is packed with excellent, virulent dialogue as well as plot turns that will elicit gasps. If I have a disappointment with the film, it’s that the two hour running time is at least an hour shorter than the play, meaning we’re losing out on material that would enrich the drama that much more. While every character gets their moments to shine, you’re still left with the sense that some of them are not explored as fully as in the play, and I wish that Letts and director John Wells felt they could indulge the story instead of truncating it. I came away suspecting that the play offered more material for the characters played by Breslin and Lewis, and maybe Cumberbatch and Upham. I certainly wanted more of those characters. I wanted more of them all, really. These are not all pleasant people, but there is pleasure in watching them.


Most sequels are unnecessary rehashes of their predecessor, attempting to cash in on its success and replicate its formula. But every now and again, a logical sequel born out of character exploration comes along. Such was the case with 2004′s Before Sunset, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprised their roles as Jesse and Celine from 1995′s Before Sunrise, answering the question of what happened after the two strangers on a train fell in love over the course of a day in Vienna and then parted ways. Like the first film, Before Sunset ended on an ambiguous note. Did Jesse leave Paris and catch his plane back to America, or did he stay with Celine? Another nine years have passed, and Hawke, Delpy and their director/co-screenwriter Richard Linklater have reunited again to give us a glimpse into the lives of these once young, now middle-aged lovers.

Jesse and Celine are now living in Paris with twin daughters. But the reality of being together leaves no room for romanticizing what might be, so Midnight strikes a more bittersweet tone than its romantic, wistful predecessors by depicting the honest complications of staying together and raising a family. Jesse struggles with his absence from the life of his now-teenage son back in the United States who he rarely gets to see. Celine contends with career frustration and how motherhood has changed her. Taking place at the end of a summer vacation in Greece, this new chapter is a natural evolution for the characters, who prove they can still hold our attention in long, dialogue-driven scenes that find them voicing concerns that are even more universal than in the prior movies. Unlike before, their flaws are magnified, to each other and to us, and because their interactions are now prone to turning contentious, we find ourselves choosing sides at many points, and those sides are likely to flip back and forth. As with the two earlier installments, this one ends with a hint of what’s next, but no concrete answers. Will we pick up with Jesse and Celine in another nine years? Before Midnight leaves me hoping so.


Hmm…Tom Hanks in a true story about a guy in an enclosed vehicle far away from the rest of the world, unexpectedly confronted with a life or death situation that unfolds with extreme tension despite the fact that we know the  outcome. Sound familiar? The vessel in this case — a cargo ship called the Maersk Alabama, traveling in the Indian Ocean — isn’t quite as isolated as the shuttle of the Apollo program, but the ordeal is just as harrowing, and the execution of the film just as skillful. Hanks plays the ship’s captain Richard Phillips, who attempts to protect the crew when four Somali pirates seeking a big payday manage to board the vessel. Phillips is eventually taken hostage in one of the Alabama’s lifeboats, and over the next few days, as the U.S. Navy closes in, the situation on the claustrophobic boat unravels.

With The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 under his belt, director Paul Greengrass is an expert at depicting high-stakes drama from multiple points of view with a realistic approach. He puts us with the people in the thick of the danger, as well as with the people working to resolve it, often in military or government control rooms where radars are monitored, detailed information is gathered and risky decisions are made. Once again, Greengrass orchestrates it all with deft command, delivering an experience that is both clinical and, especially toward the end, highly emotional. Hanks does sturdy work as the prickly, regular-guy Phillips, and the four Somali actors playing his captors, none of whom had ever acted before, are excellent. That’s especially true of Barkhad Abdi as the group’s leader Muse, the smartest and most level-headed among them, increasingly aware that he and his companions are doomed, but too desperate and too proud to relent. The movie has the empathy not to treat the Somalis as alien villains, but as young men from an economically depressed region who are pressured by their elders to seize these cargo ships from the west and demand cash ransoms that will improve life for their communities. Even before they board the Maersk, there is friction among the quartet, and their prolonged episode with Phillips only causes more. This attention to the Somalis’ circumstances is an important component of the script by Billy Ray, which might have been neglected in a more action-minded approach to the story. Instead, we get a three-dimensional experience and a captivating central relationship between Muse and Phillips.


Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a good ol’ boy electrician who likes to drink, screw, snort cocaine and gamble. When an accident on the job sends him to the hospital, doctors discover that he’s HIV positive. The year is 1985, and AIDS is still largely thought to be a gay disease, leaving the homophobic Woodroof to dismiss the diagnosis and the doctors’ warning that he has 30 days to live. But he is quickly forced to accept the news, and begins taking AZT, which seems to hasten the decline of his health. Upon visiting an American doctor working in Mexico, he learns that AZT does more harm than good, but a regimen of drugs not available in the U.S. improves his health significantly, extending his life well beyond the 30 day prognosis. Thus begins a new business venture to bring these non-FDA approved medications into the States and make a buck selling them to fellow HIV patients. Enter Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender drug addict who Ron reluctantly takes on as a partner in order to establish the largely gay client base he needs. Waging battle with the government and local doctors — initially including Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) — Ron devotes himself to importing and providing drugs that allow himself and others to live with AIDS.

Prior to the film’s arrival, it was known as the movie for which McConaughey dropped nearly 40 pounds. That might have been the most it was ever known for if it didn’t deliver. But there’s more to Dallas Buyers Club than the headline-friendly story of McConauhgey’s (and Leto’s) weight loss. The performances delivered by the actors go way beyond just their physical commitment, as they breathe vivid life into characters who never fail to captivate. They are backed by understated work from a strong supporting cast that, in addition to Garner, includes Denis O’Hare, Michael O’Neill, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, Dallas Roberts and Kevin Rankin. The movie’s smart, unsentimental direction by Jean-Marc Vallée lets the underdog story and the devoted performers shine, avoiding easy sentiment. One of the things I appreciated about the movie is its avoidance of any heavy-handed softening of Ron’s homophobia. Instead of having a telegraphed epiphany constructed to provide the audience with a manipulative, emotional beat, Ron’s move toward tolerance happens quietly and naturally through his business partnership with Rayon and exposure to his clients. In addition, he doesn’t necessarily become a better person due to being humbled by disease. He wasn’t such a great guy before his diagnosis, and although he can be charming — mostly illustrated in his developing friendship with Eve — he can also be acerbic and biting, and those qualities don’t suddenly melt away because he’s facing death. He does grow, but the growth is believable. Dallas Buyers Club is one of those movies — and there are many of them — that manages to be crowd-pleasing and uplifting even when dealing with downbeat subjects. There’s a great story here, and it could have been mishandled. Fortunately, it was done just right.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a writer and director was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, an original take on the most formulaic of genres: the romantic comedy. Gordon-Levitt’s movie is sort of an anti-romantic comedy, in which he appealingly plays the title character, a church-going, family-loving, weight-lifting lothario who can get women into his bed with near-magical ease. His problem is that none of the sex fulfills him as much as watching porn, which allows him to escape in a way that nothing in the real world can. Then he meets Barbara Sugerman (an excellent Scarlett Johansson), who has no intention of being bedded without making Jon put in the time and apply the full court press. She wants their friends to meet, she wants their families to meet, and she definitely does not want him getting off in front of the laptop. Yet she has her escape too. Just as Jon’s proclivity for porn has established unrealistic expectations for his relationships, she has an unhealthy fixation on romantic comedies, and her outlook is governed by the rom-com rulebook. Meanwhile, Barbara isn’t the only person that causes Jon to rethink his lifestyle. While attending a night class, he meets the awkwardly direct Esther (a lovely turn by Julianne Moore). Initially put off by her frank approach, he eventually warms to her and finds her friendship to be eye-opening.

Gordon-Levitt has been acting since childhood, and his years of experience on the set (as well as the opportunities, surely, to work with filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson and Spike Lee) has taught him well. He exhibits command as a director, and has written a smart, original script that slyly examines the conventions by which the media conditions each gender’s expectations of the other. His own likability and earnestness as an actor help keep the somewhat douchey Jon from becoming too much of a pinhead, and he draws terrific performances from his cast, which includes Glenne Headley and Tony Danza as his parents.

The second installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy unfolds with an urgency that wasn’t found in the first chapter, which saw hobbit Bilbo Baggins, wizard Gandalf and a company of 13 dwarfs beginning their quest to retake a dwarf kingdom inside the distant Lonely Mountain, which has long been occupied by the fearsome dragon Smaug. As this film begins, the mountain is no longer so distant, and time is of the essence, supplying the narrative momentum that the first film lacked (though I was less bothered by its more meandering nature than so many others). This leg of the group’s journey brings them into contact with a new group of elves, ruled by the haughty King Thranduil (Lee Pace), who turned his back on the dwarfs of the Lonely Mountain two generations earlier. They also encounter a weary river trader called Bard (Luke Evans), who lives in the ruined town not far from the mountain, and fears that their quest will incur the wrath of Smaug. If Bilbo takes more of a backseat during the adventure than seems to befit a movie called The Hobbit, he is not without his moments in the spotlight. That is particularly true of the movie’s final third, which finds him entering Smaug’s lair alone in the hopes of going undetected by the beast as he tries to recover a precious jewel that will help the dwarfs reclaim their kingdom.

While still not matching the gravitas of the first trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug more often feels evocative of its predecessors than last year’s An Unexpected Journey, perhaps because the stakes feel higher now that the dwarfs’ goal is within reach. The subplot involving Gandalf’s solo trip to a decrepit, supposedly abandoned castle furthers this connection, and continues the last movie’s similar effort to weave in the encroaching return to power of Sauron. Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage are once again terrific as, respectively, Gandalf, Bilbo and dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield. Standout performances also come from Lee Pace as Thranduil, who has a darker streak than any elf we’ve previously met; Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, a decent and fierce elven warrior who serves Thranduil alongside his son, our old friend Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and Luke Evans as the conflicted Bard. The movie’s most anticipated new character is of course Smaug himself, wondrously realized by the visual effects artists of Weta Digital and the motion capture performance of Benedict Cumberbatch.

Jackson once again stages some rollicking fun action scenes, including one with the dwarfs escaping captivity by riding wine barrels down a raging river while orcs attack from all sides. Set pieces like this one stretch the limits of believability to their extreme (much more so than anything in the LOTR trilogy), but they’re so much fun, the choreography so delirious and inventive, and the evisceration of orcs so savagely satisfying that it’s easy to roll with. More so than any of Jackson’s previous Tolkien adaptations, this one ends with a true cliffhanger, leaving us with the familiar-by-now frustration of a year’s wait to happily continue the adventure.


The Brothers Coen have always marched to the beat of their own drum. With Inside Llewyn Davis, that drum beat has been replaced by a guitar strum, but their singular voice remains vital as ever. Their latest is a thinly plotted, character driven story of a folk singer in 1960′s New York who just can’t catch a break. Llewyn is a gifted, soulful performer, and so must be the actor who plays him. Cue the outstanding Oscar Isaac, whose musical bona fides combine with the acting prowess that has made him a standout supporting player in movies like Drive and The Bourne Legacy. It was only a matter of time before he graduated to leading man, and this film provides a rich showcase for his talents. The picaresque story unfolds over the course of a week, as Llewyn scrapes by for money, a place to sleep, and a chance to make his mark on a music scene that can’t find a place for him. While his luck never seems to catch, he doesn’t do himself any favors either. He’s impatient, stubborn, rash, unfiltered…he could be an easy character to dislike. But prickly as he is, we root for him because he has genuine talent and believes in his art, and because Isaac taps into a sort of decency underneath the rough edges.

As he drifts to and fro like a rolling stone, we meet his musician friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), who do what they can to help him despite Jean’s unbridled anger at his irresponsible behavior, which may have left her pregnant after a one-night fling. Mulligan is hilarious, glaring contemptuous daggers and cutting Llewyn down to size with every bitter word. We also accompany him on a lengthy interlude to Chicago, traveling in a car with a monosyllabic driver (Garrett Hedlund) and a pompous jazz musician (John Goodman, sensational) who, when he isn’t asleep with his mouth comically agape, won’t shut the hell up.

The Coens’ frequent collaborator T Bone Burnett has assembled an impressive soundtrack of folk tunes, and the Coens allow songs to be performed in full, which not only highlights the talents of the cast, but serves the story by immersing us in Llewyn’s world. The movie looks as good as it sounds, with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel standing in for the brothers’ longtime cameraman Roger Deakins, who was tied up shooting Skyfall. Delbonnel brings a distinct palette to all of his films, which include Amelie and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. There’s a quality to his work — it’s not quite desaturated, but it’s a little blown out, just enough to lend a ghostly pallor befitting the story of an artist haunted by the encroaching reality of failure. His lighting enhances the movie’s wintery milieu, as well as working nicely in tandem with Mary Zophres’ costumes and Jess Gonchor’s production design.


The latest from director Alexander Payne finds him back in About Schmidt territory, telling a simple story with simple filmmaking about simple people. Not that Payne has ever made a fussy or complicated film, but Nebraska is his most stripped down effort yet, shot in stark black and white and trusting that plot can take a backseat to behavior and relationships. Veteran character actor Bruce Dern gets a rare and welcome moment as star playing Woody Grant, an elderly man who believes he’s won a million dollars through the Publisher’s Clearinghouse-like sweepstakes notification he receives in the mail. Determined to collect his winnings despite efforts by his wife and adult sons to convince him that he hasn’t really won anything, he repeatedly tries to walk from his home in Montana to the company’s office in Nebraska. His son David (Will Forte) finally decides to drive him so he can discover the truth, and on the way they stop in his hometown and reconnect with family members and an old business partner, all of whom think they have a piece of the money coming to them. It doesn’t sound like enough to sustain a nearly two hour movie, but expect to be surprised and delighted by the results.

Dern doesn’t necessarily say much during the movie — his lines tend to be brief and to the point — but his eyes say plenty, and there are occasions when those eyes suggest that he’s not entirely the doddering, absent-minded old man he appears. On the contrary, he shows us that Woody remembers quite a bit about the past; probably more than he’d care to. For him, this journey is fueled by regrets and by a life of goals unfulfilled. Forte, meanwhile, makes an impressive transition from the exaggerated comedic characters he’s best known for on Saturday Night Live to the more dramatic demands of a film like this. The movie doesn’t challenge him with an especially difficult role, but he does nice work as a man hoping for one last shot at connecting with a father who, like many men of Woody’s generation and Midwestern upbringing, was never particularly open. The movie’s highlight may be the hilarious, scene-stealing performance of June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate, who in contrast to her husband, barely seems to have a thought that she doesn’t say aloud, no matter how insulting to the living or dead. Payne has worked with Squibb before; she had a small role as Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt. Here, she’s a much bigger presence, and Payne lets her fly. She’s a bawdy riot.


Last year, The Perks of Being A Wallflower attempted to recapture the spirit of the John Hughes teen classics, and here’s a movie that would make for a nice double-bill, though this one would more accurately be described (and has been by many) as a cousin to Say Anything. Miles Teller (who sounds uncannily like Jonah Hill, for what it’s worth), plays the chronically extroverted, chronically drinking high school senior Sutter Keely, who lives for the moment, with zero regard for his future. A chance encounter with Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a pretty, unassuming classmate not previously on his radar, leads to a relationship which opens doors Sutter is unprepared to walk through. His motives with Aimee are questionable, and complicated by lingering feelings for his ex (Brie Larson), from whom he recently split. But there’s no confusion for Aimee. She’s nervously excited by Sutter’s attention and falls hard for him, plunging into the relationship so quickly that she can’t see how he might not be good for her.

Avoiding contrivances, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — the duo behind (500) Days of Summer — and director James Ponsoldt offer a compelling drama about two teens on the verge of a new phase in their lives, each coming to terms with how they feel about each other while also dealing with loving but damaged families. Woodley, who played George Clooney’s headstrong daughter in The Descendants, plays a different kind of girl here, but embodies her with just as much emotional honesty and appeal. Teller has the charisma of Vince Vaughn, but without the  hard edge, and he never overshoots the truth of Sutter’s surfacing insecurity and pain. The two actors, who won a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Acting at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, are excellent together, and they’re aided by a lovely supporting cast that, in addition to Larson, includes the always welcome Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler and Andre Royo (a.k.a. The Wire‘s Bubbles, whose appearance caused me to let loose an audible exclamation of joy).


The latest from director Harmony Korine — his most mainstream project to date, yet still bearing his avant garde stamp — follows four coeds feeling bored and trapped in their normal lives, seeking something more, convinced that spring break in Florida holds the key to their happiness. Unable to afford the trip, Candy, Brit and Cotty (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine) rob a restaurant to come up with the cash. They collect their friend Faith (Selena Gomez) — whose strong sense of religion stands in contrast to their wilder tendencies — and the quartet head for St. Petersburg, where the party scene initially seems to offer all they were craving. Until they get arrested in a drug raid. At their arraignment, they catch the interest of a local rapper and self-described “hustler” calling himself Alien (James Franco), who bails them out. Faith is suspicious of Alien’s intentions, but the other three are easily seduced by his charm and money, both of which he has in spades.

Spring Breakers showcases plenty of the bacchanalian behavior you’d expect from a movie about hot college kids cutting loose. Kegs and bongs abound, as do tits and ass. But there’s more going on here. The movie is a rumination on consumerism, self-delusion and the shallow side of youth culture. Candy, Brit and Cotty talk themselves into committing a dangerous robbery by pretending its a video game. Brit has a black squirt gun that she’s constantly shooting into her mouth, as if enacting a small gesture of badass gangstadom. The girls are lost in the wildnerness, but they’re not in an out-of-control spiral. They’re aware that they’re lost, and especially for Candy and Brit, Alien’s hedonistic world of big guns and big money is where they want desperately to find themselves.

What really captures my attention about the movie is the style Korine brings to it. I have to steal a reference from a friend, because he perfectly encapsulated the movie’s sensibility: Spring Breakers feels like a Terrence Malick movie. It’s a tone poem in which plot and traditional narrative are emphasized much less than mood and atmosphere, and to which Korine then adds a fever dream beauty all his own. There’s a hallucinogenic quality that is achieved through the brilliant cinematography and editing by Benoît Debie and Douglas Crise, respectively. Debie and costume designer Heidi Bivens douse the movie in bright colors that pop off the screen like bubblegum and illuminate the night scenes like neon. Crise then enhances these dreamy visuals with elliptical editing, artfully slicing scenes into fragments and using the pieces to move us forward and backward through short spans of time, with voiceover often serving as the compass that keeps us going in the right direction. Indeed, it’s a distinctly Malickesque approach, applied here to the unlikeliest of subject matter.

The movie can’t be discussed without briefly mentioning Franco as Alien, an outstanding creation that ranks among the year’s best performances. The actor gets under Alien’s skin and somehow presents him as both a legitimate gangster and a parody of one, making completely believable a character that could so easily have been a caricature. Alien is no joke, but he’ll definitely have you laughing, especially in the memorable scene that finds him showing off his bedroom to Brit and Candy, constantly repeating the phrase, “Look at my shit!” as he points out individual items to be admired, from his nun-chucks to his dark tanning oil. Priceless.

Spring Breakers will not be to everyone’s taste, existing at a strange intersection of teen exploitation flick and art house abstraction. But those who give it a shot can expect an intoxicating movie that boasts one of the year’s most vibrant directorial visions.


Put Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, James Franco and Danny McBride in a room together, and hilarity is a guarantee. So no surprise that one of the funniest movies of the year finds these six actors playing themselves, barricaded in Franco’s house while something that looks an awful lot like the biblical end of days (with the possible exception of dogs and cats living together) consumes the world outside. “Playing themselves” isn’t totally accurate, since really each actor is playing an exaggerated — and not always flattering — version of himself, with certain interpersonal dynamics that are not at all true to life. Franco, McBride, and Hill in particular all seem to relish playing with their public image, as does Michael Cera, who appears early on. The tension of waiting out the apocalypse in a contained space would be challenging enough, but throw in all the drama that exists within the group, and the stage is set for an endless series of comedic arguments and anxieties.

The movie marks the directorial debut for Rogan and his creative partner Evan Goldberg (they also wrote it, incorporating some great shout-outs to their earlier collaborations Superbad and Pineapple Express), and the duo ensure that each member of the company gets their chance to shine. And if not everybody makes it out alive by the end, well, they meet their maker in satisfyingly comic ways. In This is the End, celebrity is skewered (and some are actually skewered), but mass death and destruction has never been so funny.


Perhaps because I can relate to a kid who’s not cut from the mold, there was a lot for me to enjoy in this very funny movie about an awkward, gloomy 14 year-old named Duncan, played by Liam James. (Game of Thrones fans: is it me, or does this guy look like a young Theon Greyjoy?) Duncan’s divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) is dating Trent (Steve Carell), but Duncan thinks Trent is a jerk, and could not be less enthused about spending the summer at his beach house. His misery abates when he finds an unexpected oasis in the local water park, and an adult he can actually respect in Owen (Sam Rockwell), an amiable slacker who supposedly runs the place, but spends most of his time fooling around, avoiding work and firing off rapid sarcasm so dry that Duncan can’t even recognize it for humor. Under Owen’s influence, he begins to come out of his shell and find his confidence, which he’ll need as things at home grow increasingly unpleasant. There are a lot of solid laughs throughout this well-cast movie, but it also achieves an underlying melancholy that comes not just from Duncan’s despair, but through Collette’s portrayal of a woman whose desire for companionship clouds her good sense. Allison Janney gets big laughs as Trent’s extroverted neighbor, and AnnaSophia Robb hits some nice notes as her daughter who befriends Duncan. But the heart of the movie is Duncan’s relationship with Owen, who Rockwell embodies with all the scene-stealing charm he always delivers so effortlessly. This one will leave you smiling.

Adapted from an 1897 novel by Henry James and updated to a contemporary setting, What Maisie Knew centers on a 6 year-old girl whose self-involved parents — rock musician Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) — bitterly divorce and then fail to balance shared custody with their professional obligations. Her care often falls to her kind nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who marries Beale after his split from Susanna, or to Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a bartender friend of Susanna’s who she marries so that he can help with Maisie. As if the custody struggle between Susanna and Beale doesn’t create enough negativity for Maisie to experience, the addition of Margo and Lincoln into the equation often makes things even more complicated despite their good intentions. Lincoln initially seems ill equipped to handle a child, but quickly proves to be a loving and devoted caretaker, and it’s when Maisie is with him or Margo that she experiences childhood as she should. Her parents may love her, but have no idea how to engage with her. Even to the more affectionate Susanna, Maisie is more a prop, a vessel, than a child. It’s Margo and Lincoln who understand how to relate to her and seem most concerned for her welfare.

If you question how Margo could see the problems between Susanna and Beale and then marry him, you won’t get an answer. Nor will you get much insight into Susanna and Lincoln’s relationship prior to their marriage. The story puts the audience in Maisie’s shoes, and we are privy to events only to the extent that she is. The movie exists in fragments, little pieces of Maisie’s life that add up to show us how she is affected by the turmoil of the adult world around her. Maisie is played by Onata Aprile, an utterly enchanting little girl so adorable, natural and sweet that I’m pretty sure I felt my biological clock ticking. Just as Mud rests squarely on the shoulders of Tye Sheridan, so too does What Maisie Knew rely on the strength of its young star. The movie has stayed with me because Aprile is unforgettable, and because watching Maisie with Margot and Lincoln (Vanderham and Skarsgard are both wonderful) as they become better parents to her than her biological ones offers satisfaction that maybe there’s hope this girl won’t be screwed up by her circumstances. Maisie is surprisingly self-reliant and confident for her age, traits she surely developed out of necessity from living with her petty, inattentive parents. Aprile radiates authenticity, such that your heart will break for every time she becomes the casualty of adult failures. But it will also swell during pretty much every moment she’s onscreen.

If you haven’t seen the trailers or paid much attention to the commercials, you might expect a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration about the rise and fall of a Wall Street hotshot to be a drama in the vein of previous collaborations like The Departed and The Aviator. But The Wolf of Wall Street is, by and large, a comedy. Not all comedies are the same of course, and this is not Judd Apatow territory (despite the excellent presence of Jonah Hill). Instead, DiCaprio, Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (an Emmy-winning writer on The Sopranos and the creator of Boardwalk Empire) give the GoodFellas/Casino treatment to the financial industry, turning a sharply satirical eye to the story of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker in 1980’s New York who figured out a way to get obscenely rich by selling stock in worthless, rinky-dink companies to high-rolling investors who took a dive while he collected huge commissions. Jordan and his cohorts, chief among them Hill’s putzy Donnie Azoff, are engaged in all manner of illegality, but as far as they’re concerned, the money they reap outweighs the risks they take. Jordan learns early, from a Wall Street mentor played by Matthew McConaughey, that cocaine is the key to survival in the high-pressure world of stockbrokers, and that white powder is just the gateway to so much drug abuse it’s a wonder Jordan lived to see 30. (There’s an extended sequence late in the movie that will forever keep company with the adrenaline needle scene from Pulp Fiction and the Rahad Jackson scene from Boogie Nights as an absolute classic of drug-related intensity, insanity and hilarity.)

DiCaprio gives a performance so fun and ferociously committed that he almost distracts you from what an enormous asshole Jordan is. He talks at one point about deserving his wealth more than “regular” people because he’s better at spending it, and you realize that his sense of entitlement, and this disdain for blue collar workers, let alone the poor, is truly how many of the super-rich “one-percenters” see the world. And yet here we are, laughing at his antics and enjoying the ride (well, not all of us; given the controversy the film has generated, there are obviously many people who aren’t amused). But those of us who enjoy the movie might feel a little guilty, which Winter has said is exactly the intention. Our entertainment comes at a price: complicity. Hopefully not too much, though; hopefully, we’re smart enough and decent enough to see the movie not as an endorsement of Jordan’s lifestyle, but as a cautionary tale. My smiles and laughter were expressions of disbelief at the brazen hedonism exhibited by the characters, and of appreciation for Winter’s words and Scorsese’s filmmaking. So I disagree with those who have criticized the movie for glorifying the behavior of Jordan and his colleagues, but I also think it could have spent a little less time on celebration and a little more on condemnation.

The movie is three hours long, and often so manic that it seems to be hopped up on the same drugs that its characters ingest by the ton. Along with orchestrating the craziness, Scorsese draws good performances from a large cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Margot Robbie, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin, Kenneth Choi and P.J. Byrne. It’s great to see that at age 71, Scorsese is still making movies that pulse with this much energy and humor, and that he can still connect with audiences viscerally enough for his work to become a cultural lightning rod.

As usual, I like to celebrate the best of the year in film by proposing nominations for some Oscar categories that don’t exist…give or take the number of nominees an actual Oscar category would have.


(Larger versions: Blackfish; Escape From Tomorrow; Gravity; Hell Baby; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Lee Daniels’ The Butler; Nebraska; The Wolverine; You’re Next)

Blue Jasmine – Juliet Taylor
Inside Llewyn Davis – Ellen Chenoweth
Mud – Francine Maisler
Nebraska – John Jackson
Spring Breakers – Laray Mayfield

12 Years a Slave; American Hustle; August: Osage County; Out of the Furnace; Prisoners; This is the End; The Way Way Back

Benedict Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, The Fifth Estate, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Star Trek into Darkness)
Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Kill Your Darlings, Lone Survivor)
Rooney Mara (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Her, Side Effects)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street)
Sam Shepard (August: Osage County, Mud, Out of the Furnace)

Chadwick Boseman – 42
Elizabeth Debicki – The Great Gatsby
Jacob Lofland – Mud
Tye Sheridan – Mud
Nat Wolff – Admission; Stuck in Love

Gravity; Inside Llewyn Davis; Machete Kills; The Wolf of Wall Street

American Hustle; Inside Llewyn Davis; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; The Wolf of Wall Street; The World’s End

Crystal Fairy; The Fifth Estate; Monsters University; Oz the Great and Powerful; World War Z

A.C.O.D.; August: Osage County; Epic; Gangster Squad; Saving Mr. Banks; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

At the end of every year, you can find a slew of videos on YouTube that pay tribute to the movies of the previous 12 months through an extended, comprehensive clip montage. I always enjoy them, and like to include some in this annual post. I usually use at least two, because inevitably one might not feature certain movies at all, or only for a split second. I like all the bases to be covered, and between these three, 2013 is pretty well represented.

(Click here for list of movies)


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