I Am DB

March 14, 2014

30 Movies I’m Looking Forward to in 2014

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:00 pm
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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.

30.
THE HOMESMAN
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.

29.
A MOST WANTED MAN
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.

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28.

WILD
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.

27.
CHEF
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.

26.
EXODUS
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!

25.
THE JUDGE
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.

24.
NOAH
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 Divine Creator of the Universe….and the director of Black Swan.” 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.

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23.

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU
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.

22.
JANE GOT A GUN

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.

21.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

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 who 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.

20.
TRANSCENDENCE

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.

19.
BIG EYES
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.

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18.

JERSEY BOYS
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.

17.
JUPITER ASCENDING

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.

16.
WHILE WE’RE YOUNG
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!

15.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
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.

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14.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN
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.

13.
THE COBBLER
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!

12.
UNTITLED CAMERON CROWE PROJECT
Director/Writer: Cameron Crowe
Cast: 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.

11.
THE HOBBIT: THERE AND BACK AGAIN
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.

10.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED

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.

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9.
INTO THE WOODS
Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: James Lapine
Cast: 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.

8.
BOYHOOD

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.

7.
GONE GIRL
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Gillian Flynn
Cast: 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.”

6.
ST. VINCENT DE VAN NUYS

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.

5.
ROSEWATER

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.

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4.
BIRDMAN

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.

3.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
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.

2.
INHERENT VICE

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.

1.
INTERSTELLAR

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.

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February 22, 2014

The Year in Movies: 2013

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 5:00 pm
Tags: , ,

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

GRAVITY
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.

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HER

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.

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MUD
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.

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PRISONERS

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.

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SHORT TERM 12

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.

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The Rest:

12 YEARS A SLAVE
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.

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ALL IS LOST

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.

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AMERICAN HUSTLE

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.

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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

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.

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BEFORE MIDNIGHT

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.

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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

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.

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DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

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.

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DON JON

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.

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THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
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.

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INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

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.

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NEBRASKA

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.

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THE SPECTACULAR NOW

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).

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SPRING BREAKERS

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.

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THIS IS THE END

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.

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THE WAY WAY BACK

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.

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WHAT MAISIE KNEW
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.

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THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
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.

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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.

BEST POSTER



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

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

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

BEST BODY OF WORK
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)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A NEWCOMER…THAT DIDN’T GET AN OSCAR NOMINATION
Chadwick Boseman – 42
Elizabeth Debicki – The Great Gatsby
Jacob Lofland – Mud
Tye Sheridan – Mud
Nat Wolff – Admission; Stuck in Love

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

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

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

BEST CLOSING CREDITS
A.C.O.D.; August: Osage County; Epic; Gangster Squad; Saving Mr. Banks; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
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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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July 19, 2013

Emmy Nominations 2012-13: Reaction Mishmash

Filed under: Emmys,TV — DB @ 5:00 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Emmys do not occupy the same level of alarming obsession I have for the Oscars. For example, I didn’t wake up at the ass-crack of dawn yesterday to watch the live nominations announcement, as I do every year for the Oscar nominations. But that hardly makes me immune to Emmy fever. I’m as hopped up on TV as I am on movies, so the Emmys are firmly on my radar. You won’t find me engaging in the same series of prediction and reaction posts that I dive into during Oscar season (many of you are grateful for that, no doubt) but of course I have plenty of thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly of today’s nominations.

Now, once again, I have to make the point that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences—and nearly every other body that hands out awards for television—faces an impossible challenge. There is a staggering amount of TV programming out there, and now that outlets like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are producing content, the arena is even more packed. How can every show and all their components—acting, writing, directing, production design, etc.—be fairly evaluated? I’ve elaborated before, both in last year’s version of this post and in an earlier, more detailed overview, on the flawed process for Emmy voting at the nomination stage. And once again, you should read the latter, because I was right when I wrote it and I’m even more right now. (This is also a succinct summary of what’s wrong with the Emmys.)

So with that said, I offer a small selection of artists whose work this past year deserved to be recognized. I won’t get into which nominations did happen and shouldn’t have, nor will I argue that any of my choices that didn’t make it are more deserving than certain ones that did. For I am not immune to the problem I describe in my 2009 post; I don’t watch every TV show, so I can’t fairly judge what does and doesn’t deserve an Emmy nomination. I’m simply saying that the offerings below—whether at another’s expense or not—were worthy of the recognition.

But before we get to that, here are the nominations in what I consider the major categories, with some brief thoughts along the way. I’m not a fan of reality TV around these parts, so I’ve omitted those categories. BUT, a huge congratulations to my friend Carl Hansen, who earned his first Emmy nomination yesterday. He was an Executive Producer on Outstanding Reality Program nominee Shark Tank. Way to go, Carl!

OUTSTANDING COMEDY SERIES
The Big Bang Theory
Girls
Louie
Modern Family
30 Rock
Veep

Thoughts: A fine list, but the omission of Parks and Recreation is criminal. That show, along with its ensemble cast—which has to be the best on any current comedy series—continues to kill it every week, without fail. I also would have liked to see Arrested Development here. I know many people were disappointed in the new season, but I thought that while it had some problems, its density and ambition were staggeringly impressive. And even flawed, there was still more than enough hilarity.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Laura Dern – Enlightened
Lena Dunham – Girls
Edie Falco – Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey – 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss – Veep
Amy Poehler – Parks and Recreation

Thoughts: How great to see Laura Dern here. Enlightened was not renewed for a third season due to low viewership, but it was a beautiful show. This nomination for the always underrated Dern is a small but appreciated way to bid it a premature farewell.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Alec Baldwin – 30 Rock
Jason Bateman – Arrested Development
Louis C.K. – Louie
Don Cheadle – House of Lies
Matt LeBlanc – Episodes
Jim Parsons – The Big Bang Theory

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Mayim Bialik – The Big Bang Theory
Julie Bowen – Modern Family
Anna Chlumsky – Veep
Jane Krakowski – 30 Rock
Jane Lynch – Glee
Sofia Vergara – Modern Family
Merritt Wever – Nurse Jackie

Thoughts: Seven nominees and they couldn’t find room for Arrested Development‘s Jessica Walter? Jane Lynch’s role on Glee is pretty much played out at this point. She’s great, but I would swap her for Walter in a heartbeat. Or how about some love for Parks and Rec‘s Rashida Jones and Aubrey Plaza?

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Ty Burrell – Modern Family
Adam Driver – Girls
Bill Hader – Saturday Night Live
Tony Hale – Veep
Ed O’Neill – Modern Family
Jesse Tyler Ferguson – Modern Family

Thoughts: Bit of a surprise to see Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet left off, though it does keep the category from becoming a Modern lovefest once again. Still, I’d always nominate Stonestreet before Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who I’ve always found to be a little too one-note. Great to see Bill Hader and Tony Hale here, but the real delight is Adam Driver’s nomination for Girls. I didn’t expect voters to come through for Driver, so I had included him among my write-ups below. Well, now I can delete that. Every moment of Driver’s performance feels authentic, electric and unscripted. Kudos to the Emmy voters for not overlooking his sensational work. As for disappointing oversights, how about every single male actor on Parks and Recreation? Seriously, line up Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott and Rob Lowe. Now put on a blindfold and throw a dart. Throw a few. Whoever you hit, they deserve to be here. If this category is going to be dominated by one show, Modern Family ain’t the one. And I say that as a big fan. But these Parks and Recreation guys…they crush it. And how stupendous were Will Arnett and David Cross on Arrested Development?

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES
Dot-Marie Jones – Glee
Melissa Leo – Louie
Melissa McCarthy – Saturday Night Live
Molly Shannon – Enlightened
Elaine Stritch – 30 Rock
Kristen Wiig – Saturday Night Live

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Louis C.K. – Saturday Night Live
Bobby Cannavale – Nurse Jackie
Will Forte – 30 Rock
Nathan Lane – Modern Family
Bob Newhart – The Big Bang Theory
Justin Timberlake – Saturday Night Live

Thoughts: As long as we’re giving it up for SNL guest hosts, where’s the love for Martin Short? His Christmas episode was among the season’s strongest. At least they included Louis C.K., whose Abraham Lincoln sketch was the best of the year.

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A COMEDY SERIES
David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik – Episodes (Episode 209)
Louis C.K., Pamela Adlon – Louie (Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 1)
Greg Daniels – The Office (Finale)
Jack Burditt, Robert Carlock – 30 Rock (Hogcock!)
Tina Fey, Tracey Wigfield – 30 Rock (Last Lunch)

Thoughts: The Office and 30 Rock each went out on a good note, but not good enough to exclude a single nomination for Arrested Development, whose writing was brilliantly ambitious on levels that I don’t think any other show ever has even aimed for.

OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A COMEDY SERIES
Lena Dunham – Girls (On All Fours)
Paris Barclay – Glee (Diva)
Louis C.K. – Louie (New Year’s Eve)
Gail Mancuso – Modern Family (Arrested)
Beth McCarthy-Miller – 30 Rock (Hogcock!/Last Lunch)

OUTSTANDING DRAMA SERIES
Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
Homeland
House of Cards
Mad Men

Thoughts: Yeah, that looks about right. Downton could have been left off. I love it, but the past two seasons have been uneven. I don’t watch them, but based on their reputations, it would have been cool if Justified or Sons of Anarchy had snuck in. There seemed to be a lot of love for The Americans, too. And why can’t The Walking Dead catch a break?

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Connie Britton – Nashville
Claire Danes – Homeland
Michelle Dockery – Downton Abbey
Vera Farmiga – Bates Motel
Elisabeth Moss – Mad Men
Kerry Washington – Scandal
Robin Wright – House of Cards

Thoughts: Not that I watch the show, but I’m surprised not to see Julianna Margulies here for The Good Wife. I thought she was a perennial in this category. I also didn’t watch Orphan Black, but heard Tatiana Maslany was off-the-charts amazing. I thought she might find a place among the more recognizable names. On the other hand, I love that Robin Wright made it. I consider Wright, like Laura Dern, to be one of the most undervalued actresses around. Any and every bit of attention she receives is deserved. Great to see Vera Farmiga make the cut too. She did some impressive tightrope walking as the complex mother to Norman Bates. And even though I don’t watch Scandal, I kinda love Kerry Washington, so good for her making it as well.

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Hugh Bonneville – Downton Abbey
Bryan Cranston – Breaking Bad
Jeff Daniels – The Newsroom
Jon Hamm – Mad Men
Damien Lewis – Homeland
Kevin Spacey – House of Cards

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Morena Baccarin – Homeland
Christine Baranski – The Good Wife
Emilia Clarke – Game of Thrones
Anna Gunn – Breaking Bad
Christina Hendricks – Mad Men
Maggie Smith – Downton Abbey

Thoughts: Emilia Clarke breaks in for Game of Thrones! Nice. Her character had a kick-ass season. She only stands to kick more ass as the show progresses, so I might have gone with her castmate Michelle Fairley instead. But hey, any love for Thrones is fine with me. Good to see Homeland‘s Morena Baccarin recognized too.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Jonathan Banks – Breaking Bad
Bobby Cannavale – Boardwalk Empire
Jim Carter – Downton Abbey
Peter Dinklage – Game of Thrones
Mandy Patinkin – Homeland
Aaron Paul – Breaking Bad

Thoughts: The Station Agent‘s Dinklage and Cannavale, together again! Though frankly, I would sacrifice Cannavale in favor of House of Cards‘ Corey Stoll, who had a terrific, heartbreaking arc as a troubled congressman. I also think Sam Waterston was a worthy contender for The Newsroom. And while I didn’t see The Americans, I heard Noah Emmerich was outstanding. I’m thrilled to see Mandy Patinkin here after he was overlooked last year. Perhaps one of these days, another member of the amazing Game of Thrones cast will join the always deserving Dinklage. A little love for Charles Dance, please?

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
Linda Cardellini – Mad Men
Joan Cusack – Shameless
Jane Fonda – The Newsroom
Margo Martindale – The Americans
Carrie Preston – The Good Wife
Diana Rigg – Game of Thrones

Thoughts: Diana Rigg = Awesome. And Jane Fonda was a blast on The Newsroom.

OUTSTANDING GUEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Dan Bucatinsky – Scandal
Michael J. Fox – The Good Wife
Rupert Friend – Homeland
Harry Hamlin – Mad Men
Nathan Lane – The Good Wife
Robert Morse – Mad Men

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A DRAMA SERIES
George Mastras – Breaking Bad (Dead Freight)
Thomas Schnauz – Breaking Bad (Say My Name)
Julian Fellowes – Downton Abbey (Episode 4)
David Benioff, D.B. Weiss – Game of Thrones (The Rains of Castamere)
Henry Bromell – Homeland (Q&A)

Thoughts: I figured that Homeland would receive at least one writing nomination, but I wasn’t sure which episode it would go to. I’m glad to see it went where it belonged; that’s another write-up I did that I can now discard. “Q&A” was the stellar episode in which Carrie interrogates Brody after finally confronting him with evidence of his treachery and taking him into custody. Writer Henry Bromell used to write for NBC’s great police series Homicide: Life on the Streets, and penned many of that show’s most intense sequences: Det. Pembleton questioning suspects in an interrogation room known as The Box. He proved with “Q&A” that he still knows his way around that intimate setting. The session between Carrie and Brody is the episode’s lengthy centerpiece, and the writing—from the broad scope of Carrie’s approach to the carefully chosen words and brutal honesty with which she reaches him—is masterful (as are the performances by Claire Danes and Damien Lewis). On top of recognizing this excellent achievement, the nomination doubles as a tribute to Bromell, who died of a heart attack in March. Like James Gandolfini, he was a great contributor to dramatic television who left us too soon.

OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A DRAMA SERIES
Tim Van Patten – Boardwalk Empire (Margate Sands)
Michelle MacLaren – Breaking Bad (Gliding Over All)
Jeremy Webb – Downton Abbey (Episode 4)
Lesli Linka Glatter – Homeland (Q&A)
David Fincher – House of Cards (Chapter 1)

Thoughts: Fincher!

OUTSTANDING MINISERIES OR MOVIE
American Horror Story: Asylum
Behind the Candelabra
The Bible
Phil Spector
Political Animals
Top of the Lake

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Jessica Lange – American Horror Story: Asylum
Laura Linney – The Big C: Hereafter
Helen Mirren – Phil Spector
Elisabeth Moss – Top of the Lake
Sigourney Weaver – Political Animals

OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Benedict Cumberbatch – Parade’s End
Matt Damon – Behind the Candelabra
Michael Douglas – Behind the Candelabra
Toby Jones – The Girl
Al Pacino – Phil Spector

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Ellen Burstyn – Political Animals
Sarah Paulson – American Horror Story: Asylum
Charlotte Rampling – Restless
Imelda Staunton – The Girl
Alfre Woodard – Steel Magnolias

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR MOVIE
Scott Bakula – Behind the Candelabra
James Cromwell – American Horror Story: Asylum
John Benjamin Hickey – The Big C: Hereafter
Peter Mullan – Top of the Lake
Zachary Quinto – American Horror Story: Asylum

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL
Richard LaGravenese – Behind the Candelabra
Abi Morgan – The Hour
Tom Stoppard – Parade’s End
David Mamet – Phil Spector
Jane Campion, Gerard Lee – Top of the Lake

OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A MINISERIES, MOVIE OR DRAMATIC SPECIAL
Steven Soderbergh – Behind the Candelabra
Julian Jarrold – The Girl
David Mamet – Phil Spector
Allison Anders – Ring of Fire
Jane Campion, Garth Davis – Top of the Lake

Thoughts: Soderbergh!

OUTSTANDING VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live

OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A VARIETY SERIES
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Portlandia
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live

Thoughts: Wow, Saturday Night Live still hanging on here. I would have thought Conan or Late Night with Jimmy Fallon would earn a place.

OUTSTANDING ANIMATED PROGRAM
Bob’s Burgers (O.T.: The Outside Toilet)
Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (Enter the Dragon)
Regular Show (The Christmas Special)
The Simpsons (Treehouse of Horror XXIII)
South Park (Raising the Bar)

For what it’s worth, some stats: HBO was—to nobody’s surprise, I’m sure—once again the most nominated network, but I couldn’t believe how far ahead they were. With 108 nominations, they had just over twice as many as the second most honored network, CBS. (Really? CBS?) The most nominated program was American Horror Story: Asylum, with 17 nominations, followed by Game of Thrones with 16. And while I haven’t seen this factoid called out, I think Louis C.K. may have been the most nominated individual. Between his Saturday Night Live hosting gig and the multiple hats he wore on both his series and his HBO standup special, he received nine nominations. I would think that’s gotta be tops for the year.

Some people actually get paid to watch and write about TV, and are therefore likely to have seen all the eligible shows, so here’s a sampling of their reactions: Vulture‘s Matt Zoller Seitz, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Tim Goodman, and Entertainment Weekly‘s Jeff Jensen and James Hibberd. Goodman had a lot to say (he usually does), and actually wrote three different pieces reacting to (mostly railing against) the nominations. The initial two can be accessed through the one linked here. He talks about what I wrote of back in 2009: the impossible task of fairly evaluating all the choices out there. Then he goes on to damn the voters for too frequently eschewing bolder options in favor of the same old thing. He does have a point. I mean, I love 30 Rock, but it was past its prime. Did the final season really deserve an Outstanding Series nomination over Arrested Development or Parks and Recreation? He also suggests that it’s time for the Emmys to expand the major categories to ten nominees each, in order to better represent the overwhelming number of shows and performances vying for recognition. I think that’s a great idea; some of the categories already have seven nominees. But let’s face it: expanding the categories doesn’t mean that more critically favored but Emmy-retardant shows like Justified, Sons of Anarchy, The Americans or Hannibal would suddenly find a seat at the table. More likely, given Emmy voters’ tendencies, we’d just see more middle of the road choices. This year, the Outstanding Comedy category might have made room for Parks and Recreation, but it would probably have also included shows like Two and a Half Men, The Middle and Mike & Molly over Community, The Mindy Project or Arrested Development. Still, I agree with Goodman; it’s time for an expansion.

As usual many of the nominees released statements of gratitude. Best Reaction Statement: Don Cheadle, House of Lies (Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy) – “Given all the hilarious film work I’ve done, from Traffic to Crash to Flight, it’s nice to finally be recognized as the comic genius I am. Thank you, Academy members.” Second Best Reaction Statement goes to Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama) -“Yer chomoe anhaan. Jin ha Khalaan, shekh ma shieraki anni. For those not fluent in Dothraki, it translates to: You do honor to me. This is for the Khal — my sun and stars.”

Now then, for your belated consideration…

These write-ups make no attempt to avoid spoilers, so if you come across one for a show you haven’t seen yet but intend to watch someday, I advise you to skip it.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Denis O’Hare – True Blood
Although it’s past its prime and I watch it more now out of habit, there was a time when True Blood was really killing it (the current season has actually been pretty strong). But the Emmys have never had much use for it. A shame; its terrific second season earned it a nomination for Best Drama Series, and it has garnered some below-the-line nominations over the years – sound editing, makeup, casting, that sort of thing. But probably because it’s an out-there, gothic fantasy soap opera, it has often been unfairly overlooked, especially in the acting department. In five seasons, only a single acting nomination has been bestowed: Alfre Woodard for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, from the third season. I like Woodard, but hers was hardly the most deserving or memorable performance True Blood has given us. Nelsan Ellis should have been cited in the first year or two for his great performance as Lafayette, and Michelle Forbes was robbed of recognition for her luscious turn as the second season’s antagonist, Maryann Forrester. And where was the Guest Star nomination after Season Three for James Frain as the sicko vampire Franklin Mott?

Also robbed after season three, was Denis O’Hare for his hilarious, whacked-out performance as extremist vampire king Russell Edgington. After being absent from season four, Edgington returned last year, colorful and crazy as ever, giving voters a chance to rectify their mistake. They failed to do so. O’Hare was nominated last year in the TV Movie or Miniseries group for his role on season one of American Horror Story. If he could get nominated for that, he surely deserves a nod for his far more memorable work as Edgington. (Come to think of it, why has American Horror Story been embraced so enthusiastically by Emmy voters while True Blood has been repeatedly stiffed? If anything, AHS is even more lurid and over-the-top.)

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Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series: David Lynch – Louie
In a three episode arc last season, Louie was under consideration to replace a retiring David Letterman as host of CBS’ Late Show. In order to see if he has the right stuff, the chairman of CBS sends Louie to an old school TV producer named Jack Dall to help whip him into shape. As I watched the episode, I was stunned and delighted to discover filmmaker David Lynch playing Dall. Like his films, Lynch is a little…odd. He’s pleasant and mild-mannered, but always seems just slightly out of sync with the world around him. As C.K. explains in this story about how he got Lynch to do the show, he wasn’t looking for the director to show up and be someone else; he wanted Lynch to be Lynch. Layering his own unique, deadpan persona on top of the cryptic, impatient Dall, Lynch was bone-dry hilarious, fitting right at home with the often surreal tone of C.K.’s show. Lynch the director would be proud of Lynch the actor, and Emmy should have taken note.

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Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: Chris Colfer – Glee
An Emmy darling after its first season, Glee has largely disappeared from the awards landscape after subsequent seasons have proven uneven. It picked up some nominations here and there yesterday, but it has mostly dropped off the radar when it comes to awards. I can’t really argue with that. But one aspect of the show that was great from the start and hasn’t faltered is Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt Hummel, a character destined to be remembered as one of the most important in television history. The series may have jumped a number of sharks by now, but it tends to be at its best when Kurt is around, because Colfer is too genuine to let it get away with its more absurd tendencies. He’s a performer who exudes authenticity, and so it seems that the writers—by the very nature of having to serve him—are forced to come up with stronger material. And he never lets us down. His vocal range continues to astound, and across the entire television landscape he’s probably second only to Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey in his ability to deliver a line (especially a cutting one) with brilliant timing and precision. Colfer’s work on Glee has already earned him two Emmy nominations, plus a Golden Globe win, but his fortunes have faded along with the show’s. Too bad; he still deserves the accolades.

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Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series: David Nutter – Game of Thrones (The Rains of Castamere)
For the second year in a row, I’m bewildered by the absence of a single directing nomination for the impeccably produced and impossibly scaled epic series that deserves mention in this category for both its narrative accomplishments and its production quality. Seriously, how in the seven kingdoms does this series not get cited for Directing? While almost any episode of the season would actually be a worthy contender here, the obvious choice would be the now infamous ninth episode “The Rains of Castamere,” which climaxes with the shock and awe of the Red Wedding. (At least the episode scored a writing nomination.) The tension builds during the initial scenes at The Twins, and then when we get to those last ten minutes, in which the trauma is parsed out with thrilling dexterity. The closing of the hall door. The change in the music. The looks exchanged between Catelyn and Bolton. The stabbing of Talisa. The rain of arrows. Then we’re outside with Arya, her excitement disintegrating when she sees the Stark men being killed, followed by Grey Wind. Back in the hall, Catelyn’s desperate plea to Walder Frey. Bolton’s final betrayal and Robb’s death. And then Catelyn after she cuts her hostage’s throat, after she lets out a final wail for her murdered first-born, the camera slowly pushing in as she stands there utterly spent, her husband killed, her daughters captive and all her sons dead (as far as she knows). She stands there and we wonder, “Is it done?” And then just when maybe we think the worst is over, in steps one of Frey’s men to end her too. She falls out of frame. The camera holds for another moment before the credits roll in silence. C’mon, Emmy voters. This was a no-brainer.

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Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series: Mike White – Enlightened (The Ghost is Seen)
In just a single half hour of this little seen HBO gem, writer/actor Mike White delivers one of the most honest, heartwrenching, haunting portraits of loneliness I’ve ever encountered. He doesn’t just expose it from an objective, bird’s-eye view; he takes you inside it, right into its beating, yearning heart and shows what it feels like to live with it everyday, enveloped in it, trapped by it, resigned to it. The episode focuses on White’s own introverted character Tyler and the connection he makes with Eileen (nominated guest star Molly Shannon), the executive assistant to the head of the company, and therefore the unwitting foil in Amy’s mission to expose the illegal activities of the corporation and its CEO. The scenes between Tyler and Eileen are as awkward as they are sweet, and if this doesn’t sound like it belongs in a comedy category alongside shows like Modern Family or Parks and Recreation, well, Enlightened is indeed a different ilk, walking that fine line between comedy and drama, and probably leaning slightly toward the other side if we’re being honest. But whether it’s labeled a comedy or drama for awards purposes shouldn’t ultimately matter. The quality of the writing speaks for itself, and this exquisite episode should not have been passed over.

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Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Jack Huston – Boardwalk Empire
From the moment he was introduced about halfway through the first season, Huston’s Richard Harrow was one of television’s most interesting characters, and one of my favorites. A WWI veteran who wears a specially designed mask over half of his face to conceal a disfiguring battle wound, Harrow is soft-spoken and alone when he meets Jimmy Darmody in an army hospital. After joining up with Jimmy in the bootlegging business, the former sharpshooter discovered a sense of renewed purpose. Upon his promotion to series regular in the second season, Harrow’s role expanded and deepened. This past season, in the aftermath of Jimmy’s death, he became a caretaker to Jimmy’s little boy Tommy (a duty he shares with Jimmy’s mother, who provides him a room in her brothel). He also falls in love with a kind, pretty woman who loves him back, only to reach the conclusion that his hope for a normal life may not be in the cards.

Harrow is a man divided not just physically, but psychologically. He is gentle and sensitive with those he loves, but brutal with those who threaten him or the people he cares about. Both sides battled it out this season, and Huston’s consistent ability to underplay the character winds up making him one of the show’s strongest performers. It may be Harrow’s face that is damaged, but really his wound informs the way his whole body moves. Huston plays him with deliberate physicality – usually hesitant, but quick and determined when he becomes deadly. He still speaks softly—and nervously—but he also carries a big stick (in the shape of a shotgun). Huston—a member of the showbiz dynasty that includes aunt Anjelica and grandfather John—makes the dichotomy between Harrow’s halves into fascinating, essential, Emmy-worthy viewing.

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Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series: Scott A. Gimple – The Walking Dead (Clear)
This quiet, thoughtful episode, which provided a respite from the escalating tension between Team Prison and Team Woodbury, finds Rick, Carl and Michonne taking a drive to Rick’s old town in the hopes of securing weapons from the police station. What they find is the main street rigged with elaborate zombie traps, and the man responsible for it: Morgan, Rick’s former neighbor who saved his life after he woke up in the hospital and wandered home unaware of what had happened to the world. Morgan chose to remain behind when Rick went in search of his family, and this episode finally brought him back, as a broken, half-crazed shell so far gone that he initially doesn’t even recognize Rick, and tries to kill him. As Rick attempts to bring Morgan around, he sees him as a warning sign. He has been dangerously close to the same line that Morgan has crossed, and their encounter becomes an important step in his efforts to reclaim himself. Carl, meanwhile, reveals his own agenda for coming along: the recovery of a family photo that will offer the only picture of his mother that his baby sister will ever have. His determination to get it partners him with Micchone, still seen as an outsider by the group.

The episode offers a stark look at how the new world our characters populate can get the best of those who are incapable of retaining hope, and that survival—not just existence, but real survival—takes more than guns and ammo. Gimple provided an unexpected and creative way to bring Morgan back to the show that didn’t merely satisfy fans, but also furthered the overall story. He also did a nice job balancing Rick and Morgan’s reunion with the side journey that provided some badly needed development for an underserved Michonne.

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Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series: Patton Oswalt – Parks and Recreation
Having made memorable appearances on seven shows during the past year, Patton Oswalt was recently named TV’s Most Valuable Guest Star by Vulture. The most memorable of those appearances may have been on Parks and Recreation, as Pawnee history enthusiast Garth Blundin, whose opposition to Leslie’s planned repeal of numerous outdated town laws leads him to deliver the greatest filibuster in the history of filibustering. Star Wars and Marvel Comics fans should take note. (If Republicans filibustered like this in our actual Congress, we all might be less critical of them flagrantly overusing it.) Leslie and Garth eventually make a wager that finds them living in a Pawnee Historical Cabin with only 19th century tools and methods at their disposal. Oswalt is, of course, the perfect guy to play a part like this, lovably inhabiting a smug, know-it-all nerd and making sure we like him enough not to turn against him when he outdoes our beloved Leslie. Oswalt tapped into his own irrepressible enthusiasm for pop culture when he delivered the entirely improvised filibuster, which lasted for about eight minutes. Of course, only a short piece could be used on the show, but the full speech was released on YouTube and became a viral sensation. If nothing else, Oswalt deserved an Emmy nomination for going so imaginatively above and beyond the call of duty.

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Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Hugh Dancy – Hannibal
Not that I’ve been following reactions too closely, but the sense I’ve gotten is that the lion’s share of attention for Hannibal‘s acting has gone to Mads Mikkelsen for his quiet, controlled work as Hannibal Lecter. But it’s co-lead Hugh Dancy who delivers the show’s more gripping performance and who deserved recognition from Emmy voters. His Will Graham has such an acute, overdeveloped sense of empathy that he is able to imagine himself as the killers he hunts, executing their crimes himself and therefore gaining unique understanding into their methods and motivations. But this takes an increasingly dire toll on his state of mind, as he begins to identify so deeply with one serial killer in particular that he worries about crossing the line and becoming a killer himself. Hannibal takes us visually into Graham’s point of view to show us what he sees, but Dancy takes us much further and reveals things only an actor can. He wears the oppressive weight of Will’s visions in every fiber of his physical being. He cloaks himself in Will’s fatigue, isolation, and anxiety, drawing us so close that we can practically smell the fevered sweat that accompanies his sleepless nights and haunted dreams. There’s an obvious sadness and loneliness to Will, but while it is directly acknowledged, Dancy never plays it for sympathy. He earns the audience’s identification through the wholeness of his performance, not through cheap emotional manipulation. It’s a truly fascinating portrayal, understated and underrated. Dancy will likely be at the Emmys anyway, accompanying his nominated wife Claire Danes. But he should be there as a nominee himself.

This is off-topic, but I feel compelled to say that I have mixed feelings about Hannibal in general. On one hand, it may be the most gorgeously art directed and photographed TV show I’ve ever seen. The entire visual design is extraordinary. On the other hand, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything so relentlessly, overbearingly bleak. This show is daaaark. Not just its highly disturbing imagery (made all the more unsettling because the crime scenes, like everything on the show, are staged so artfully), but the entire sensibility. There is precious little humor or levity to break the tension. It’s not so much a suspenseful tone as it is a severe one. It’s all so Serious and Heavy. In a way, the show has a hypnotic feel that distinguishes it from anything else I watch. But rarely did an episode go by that didn’t have me thinking at least once, “Jesus, this is too much!” (At least they seem to be having fun on the set.) It doesn’t help that some of the violence really bothers me…and I’m not someone who usually has an aversion to on-screen violence. All told, I’m debating whether or not to stick with it when the next season begins. I admire and appreciate so many things about it, but I can’t exactly say that I enjoy it.

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Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series: Jeremy Webb – Downton Abbey (Episode 5)
Jeremy Webb did earn a nomination in the Directing category, but I would argue that it was for the wrong episode. The nomination should have come for the subsequent installment, which delivered the shocking death of Lady Sybil. News of actor Dan Stevens’ departure from the show was all over the internet a few months before Downton‘s third season had its U.S. premiere, so we had a pretty good idea of what was coming down the road for his Matthew Crawley. But the departure of actress Jessica Brown Findlay was preceded by no such commotion, allowing the excellent work done by Webb, writer Julian Fellowes and the cast to take us by complete surprise. Sybil’s demise, which comes in the middle of the night, hours after delivering a healthy baby girl, seemed more shocking than so many other TV deaths because it felt so random. Downton Abbey may be classy, but it’s still a soap opera, with all the melodramatic ups and downs that go with such territory. But Webb directed the scene with such plain, stark realism that it transcended the melodrama. The veil between the audience and the screen dropped, and we were brought into the room along with the family, experiencing the terror, confusion and helplessness as palpably as they did while Sybil writhed in her bed, struggled to breathe, turned ghostly pale and finally expired. We shared in the stunned silence when Dr. Clarkson pronounced her dead, and then shared the pang of heartbreak when her newborn daughter began crying offscreen.

I realize that, as with the Game of Thrones example above, I’m focusing on one scene from an hour-long show. But sometimes that’s all it takes to make an episode. And to be clear, many moments that follow were handled just as effectively by Webb: the servants learning the news in the middle of the night, the Dowager Countess’ arrival the following morning, and the final shot of Sybil’s widowed husband Tom, holding his baby as he stands alone at a window of the house in which he has never felt entirely welcome.

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So there’s that. Finally, a few other odds and ends from further down the list of nominations:

-The nominees for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special included Don Mischer for The Oscars. Sorry, but no. At the risk of beating a dead horse (and one that nobody other than me cares about), Mischer’s direction of the Oscars was, as I said at the time, incompetent, and has been for the past few years.

-There are a couple of categories that I hadn’t heard of before, one called Outstanding Special Class – Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Programs, the other called Outstanding Special Class – Short-Format Nonfiction Programs. I noticed them this time because they included some nominees from the internet that made me smile: Zach Galifianakis’ hilarious faux-interview show Between Two Ferns was cited in the former, along with the brilliant web series Burning Love, while Jerry Seinfeld’s excellent Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee was nominated in the latter. Great to see these three programs recognized.

-There’s an award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series, and this year’s nominees are Arrested Development, The Borgias, Downton Abbey, House of Cards, Last Resort and Mr. Selfridge. I find it hard to believe that all of those shows offered better dramatic scoring than Game of Thrones, on which composer Ramin Djawadi does better work on a weekly basis than most theatrical movies have done in the past few years. Since each show is cited for a specific episode, I’ll submit this past season’s fourth installment of Thrones. The music accompanying the climactic sequence (Daenarys taking ownership of the Unsullied) and end credits was worth a nomination on its own. Also missing here: composer Mark Mothersbaugh, the former Devo member whose scoring for Enlightened was the most original and effective I can recall for any show in a long while.

-The Emmys give awards for Art Direction, Cinematography, Lighting Design, and other such technical achievements. This year, an obvious nominee in all three of those categories would have been Hannibal, which as I mentioned above, is one of the most visually arresting shows I’ve ever seen. Amazingly, it was passed over in all of these categories. In fact, the show didn’t score a single nomination. If you’ve seen it, you’d agree: that’s unfathomable. (Anyone as geeky as me who might be interested in seeing the full list of nominations that includes these below-the-line categories like Art Direction, Makeup, Special Effects, Music, etc. can have at it here.)

Okay, that about does it. If you’re inclined to share any thoughts of your own, I’d love to hear them.

This year’s Emmy Awards will air Sunday, September 22 on CBS. Until then, I’ll close out with another favorite moment from Emmy past, as I did last year. This one doubles as a tribute to Glee‘s Cory Monteith, who died this week at age 31. The words “too soon” are too small. Here’s the clever, rousing opening to the 2010 ceremony, featuring host Jimmy Fallon, Monteith and some of his Glee comrades, and more.

March 14, 2013

Twenty-Five Films I’m Looking Forward to in 2013

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

Now that the Oscars have officially closed the book on 2012 in movies, it’s time to look ahead to what we can expect this year. There are plenty of promising films on the horizon, enough that I bumped my usual 20 up to 25, and am still leaving out projects from directors like Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro, Spike Lee, Ron Howard, Ben Stiller, Baz Luhrman, Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls), Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, United 93), Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), Nicole Holofcener (Friends With Money), David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, Pineapple Express) and Anton Corbijn (The American).

Although I’m publishing this list now, I pretty much locked it in at the beginning of the year and decided not to revise it based on all the great things I heard about during January’s Sundance Film Festival. So the list doesn’t reflect movies that were acquired in Park City for release sometime this year (presumably), though I can say I’m greatly looking forward to such titles as The Spectacular Now, Fruitvale, A.C.O.D. and most of all, the reunion of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. As usual, the list is also short on big franchise movies, though I’m plenty excited to see things like Iron Man 3, Monster’s University, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Kick-Ass 2, The Wolverine, Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness. There are certainly some sequels and expected blockbusters on the list, but in most cases it’s more about directors and casts that have me excited.

One change I did make was removing a film called The Place Beyond the Pines, writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his superb 2010 drama Blue Valentine. His new film, which stars Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, comes out in just a couple of weeks, but I had a chance to see it already, so it no longer needs looking forward to. (For the record, I liked it, but had some issues with the third act.)

As always, I don’t know how any of these will turn out, but I have high hopes for all of them. One thing I am sure of: with roles in three films on this list, plus Star Trek Into Darkness and The Fifth Estate (in which he’ll play WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange), it’s going to be a big year for Benedict Cumberbatch. Which is fine with me, cause I love writing and saying “Benedict Cumberbatch.” It’s a name so supremely, singularly, sensationally British that if it didn’t already exist, J.K. Rowling surely would have created it for some minor bureaucrat deep within the Ministry of Magic.

Now then…

25.
TO THE WONDER

Director/Writer:
Terrence Malick
Cast:
Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams
Release Date:
April 12

A brief two years after The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick returns with a film that is said to be even more interior and abstract than that one, which I’m not convinced is cinematically possible. I count myself a Malick admirer, so I’m eager to see where he goes this time with the story of man and his relationship with two women – one a European beauty, the other a girl-next-door type from his hometown. That’s the surface story anyway, but Malick is probably exploring deeper themes and ideas. Will I understand any of them? Maybe. Will it matter to me if I don’t? If the movie is half as beautiful as The Tree of Life, then probably not. According to this short behind the scenes featurette, there was barely a script for the movie, and as always, Malick took his time in the editing room to shape the end result. In the process, he eliminated entire performances by Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, Amanda Peet and Michael Sheen.

24.
ALL IS LOST

Director/Writer: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford
Release Date: TBA

Writer/director J.C. Chandor made an impressive debut (and earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination) for directing a shining ensemble of actors to uniformly excellent performances in the 2011 financial sector drama Margin Call. Now he’s dialing things back with a story featuring only one character. From what I’ve gathered, Robert Redford plays a man on a boat who encounters a storm and finds himself lost at sea. The movie depicts his struggles for survival against the elements, and apparently Redford, when asked about the movie during an unrelated press conference at Sundance this year, said the film has no dialogue. Margin Call was marked by its terrific, wordy script and its excellent cast. Chandor couldn’t have gone much further in the opposite direction for his follow-up, which makes it all the more exciting to see how he fares.

23.
THE BLING RING

Director/Writer: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Emma Watson, Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien, Leslie Mann, Gavin Rossdale
Release Date: June 14

I love Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, but neither of the two films she’s made since have grabbed me. The most recent, Somewhere, was particularly disappointing…in that it went absolutely nowhere. Still, I keep hoping that each new project will mark a return to form, and so I await The Bling Ring, based on a Vanity Fair article about a group of privileged Los Angeles teenagers who engaged in a year-long robbery spree, targeting the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. It seems like fitting material for Coppola, who is personally immersed in the world of fashion and society where this story unfolds. Given the presence of Emma Watson, I’m anticipating a third act twist in which the motivation for stealing jewelry turns out to be the pursuit of horcruxes and the ultimate defeat of Voldemort.

On a more serious note, The Bling Ring is the last film to be completed by acclaimed cinematographer Harris Savides, who died too young last October at the age of 55. His credits included David Fincher’s Zodiac, Gus Van Sant’s Milk (and five other collaborations), and Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, as well as such music videos as “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails and “Criminal” by Fiona Apple.

22.
BLUE JASMINE

Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Emerson, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg
Release Date: July 26

Woody Allen is hit or miss these days, so if you’re a fan of his work, each new film – one a year, like clockwork – brings with it the curiosity of where in his canon it will fall. While Woody’s movies are like comfort food, rarely would I describe them as highly anticipated. But two things about his latest pique my curiosity enough to earn a place on the list. First, the film is partially set in my adopted home of San Francisco, marking the first time Woody has filmed in America’s most beautiful city. Second is the cast the director has wrangled. Woody’s movies always feature excellent line-ups, but this one really grabs me. I love Peter Sarsgaard, and I’m thrilled by the presence of Michael Emerson (aka Lost‘s Benjamin Linus)….but a movie that stars Cate Blanchett, Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K.?!? I think that pretty much says it all.

21.
OUT OF THE FURNACE
Director:
Scott Cooper
Writers:
Scott Cooper, Brad Ingelsby
Cast:
Casey Affleck, Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker
Release Date:
TBA

Scott Cooper pulled together an intense and impressive cast for the follow-up to his feature directorial debut, Crazy Heart, which earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar. The crime thriller casts Bale and Affleck as brothers from a depressed mill town, one of whom gets involved in a crime spree after the other winds up in jail. I don’t know which actor plays which brother; in fact, I don’t know much of anything about the movie at this point. But I know this: that roster of actors is all I need to know.

20.
TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Steve McQueen, John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofer, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garrett Dillahunt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Dwight Henry, Taran Killam, Scoot McNairy, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Quvenzhané Wallis, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard
Release Date: TBA

Director Steve McQueen’s first film, the acclaimed drama Hunger, earned him respect from critics and brought Michael Fassbender to the attention of casting directors and filmmakers. I couldn’t get through the film, not just because I was too disturbed by the graphic depiction of the main character’s hunger strike and the toll it takes on his body, but also because I found it tediously boring. But his next film, Shame, was one of my favorites of 2011. Now comes his third, and with it new challenges: a period setting, a large cast of name actors, and because that cast includes someone like Brad Pitt, increased commercial expectations. But the film’s lead role belongs to the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofer, who audiences will recognize from such movies as Amistad, Love Actually, Kinky Boots, Children of Men and American Gangster. This will be his highest profile lead role to date, and he has more than earned a chance to show off his stuff. Hopefully this movie, envisioned by an uncompromising artist like McQueen, will give it to him.

19.
TRANCE
Director: Danny Boyle
Writers: John Hodge, Joe Ahearne
Cast: Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, James McAvoy
Release Date: April 5

With the opening ceremony for the London Olympics now behind him, Danny Boyle turns his attention back to film with this story of an art auctioneer who participates in a heist, then must work with a hypnotherapist to recall the location of the stolen painting after a knock to the head causes him to forget where it’s stashed. From what I’ve heard, this is a noirish tale with lots of twists and turns. Sounds like Boyle is revisiting the territory he explored so effectively in his 1995 debut film, Shallow Grave. That can’t be a bad thing.

18.
LABOR DAY

Director/Writer: Jason Reitman
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire, Brooke Smith, James Van Der Beek, Jacki Weaver
Release Date: TBA

Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is the story of a 13 year-old boy and his agoraphobic mother, who come across a stranger in need of help and agree to take him in. The man turns out to be an escaped convict, and over the course of a few late summer days…well, I’m sure lessons will be learned and lives will be changed. Honestly, it sounds like a maudlin set-up. But a movie that brings together the talents of Jason Reitman, Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin has my attention, whatever the plot description. Reitman, the director behind Up in the Air, Juno, Young Adult and Thank You For Smoking, has demonstrated excellent taste in material and a talent for drawing out strong work from his actors. So I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and tell myself that the story must be worthwhile to attract not only him, but Winslet and Brolin – a pairing which I have a feeling will yield superb chemistry.

17.
THE COUNSELOR
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Natalie Dormer, John Leguizamo, Dean Norris, Rosie Perez, Brad Pitt, Goran Visnjic
Release Date: November 15

Although this thriller is written by Cormac McCarthy, it’s not adapted from one of his books. Rather, it marks the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s first foray into screenwriting. It’s the story of a lawyer who gets involved in drug trafficking, an endeavor which doesn’t go so well. Sounds like there are echoes of the Coen Brothers’ McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, which will only be emphasized by the presence of Javier Bardem. I have no problem with that. The movie reunites director Scott with Fassbender after last year’s Prometheus, and more interestingly, reunites him with Pitt 22 years after giving the actor what would be his breakthrough role in Thelma & Louise.

16.
FOXCATCHER

Director: Bennett Miller
Writers: Dan Futterman, E. Max Frye
Cast: Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Channing Tatum, Anthony Michael Hall, Vanessa Redgrave
Release Date: TBA

With two narrative features under his belt – Capote and Moneyball – director Bennett Miller has shown an extraordinary capacity for telling dramatic stories with clarity and an effective understatement that brings out the humor and allows actors to shine. I am hopeful he’ll do it again with this true-life story of John du Pont, a wealthy corporate heir who supported the careers of numerous professional swimmers, pentathletes and wrestlers, only to succumb to paranoid schizophrenia and murder his close friend, Olympic gold medal wrestler Dave Schultz. Although du Pont was nearly 60 at the time of the murder, he’ll be played – in an exciting piece of against-the-grain casting – by Steve Carell. Even before he left The Office, Carell was showing his range in films like Dan in Real Life (a sweet, underrated movie) and Little Miss Sunshine. But Foxcatcher promises his furthest swing as an actor yet, and with a director like Miller to guide his performance, he could be on the verge of hitting a new high.

15.
NEBRASKA
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Bob Nelson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk
Release Date: TBA

As his follow-up to The Descendants, Alexander Payne is going even smaller scale, with a black-and-white road trip movie about an adult son escorting his father from Missouri to Nebraska because the old man thinks he’s won a million dollar sweepstakes. Payne initially courted Gene Hackman for the role of the father, but the retired actor declined to get back in the game. Instead, Bruce Dern takes on the role, and while I’m sad Hackman passed (come back to us, Gene!), I have little doubt that a colorful veteran like Dern will be superb in the part. Continuing his penchant for unexpected casting choices, Payne recruited Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte to play the son. Like most of the world, I’ve only seen Forte in his goofy comedic roles like MacGruber, 30 Rock‘s cross-dressing Jenna look-alike Paul, and his gallery of SNL characters. It will be a treat to see what he does for a filmmaker of Payne’s caliber.

14.
THE BUTLER
Director:
Lee Daniels
Writers:
Lee Daniels, Danny Strong
Cast:
Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Nelsan Ellis, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, Melissa Leo, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schrieber, Clarence Williams III, Robin Williams
Release Date:
TBA

Lee Daniels’ most recent film, last year’s wild, sweaty thriller The Paperboy, divided critics, as well as the audiences who actually showed up to see it. Although it received a 16 minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, those who were there report that when attendees took to their feet, some were doing so to boo, not to cheer. (For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the film quite a bit, and thought it featured some terrific performances.) On paper, Daniels’ latest seems more likely to earn him the kind of universal praise that greeted his 2009 directing debut (and my favorite movie of that year), Precious. The Butler is based on the life of Eugene Allen, who served in the White House under eight presidents before retiring in 1986. Whitaker will play the title role (named Cecil Gaines in the film), with Winfrey as his wife. Many other members of the starry cast will likely turn up in small roles or even just extended cameos as the shuffling residents of the White House (including Rickman and Fonda as the Reagans, Marsden and Kelly as the Kennedys, and Williams and Leo as the Eisenhowers). It’s always nice to see Whitaker front and center, and Winfrey – who many forget is an Oscar nominated actress – hasn’t starred in a feature since 1998’s Beloved. The promise of strong roles for these two, plus the impressive ensemble and a great story hook, make this one of the most eagerly awaited dramas of the year. However it turns out, it will stand as a final testament to the successful career of Laura Ziskin, the Hollywood producer of such movies as Pretty Woman, To Die For and the Spider-Man trilogy, who fought to get this movie made right up until she passed away from breast cancer in 2011.

13.
THE MONUMENTS MEN

Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Cast: Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonneville, George Clooney, Daniel Craig, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bill Murray
Release Date: December 18

George Clooney is back behind the camera, and has once again convinced an amazing roster of actors to join him in front of it. His latest project tells the true story of a group of British and American art historians and museum curators who were tasked with searching throughout Europe for great works of art that had been stolen by the Nazis to be either destroyed by Hitler, or added to his private collection. Sounds kinda like an Indiana Jones movie…though probably with less face melting.

12.
THIS IS THE END

Directors/Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Cast: Aziz Ansari, Jay Baruchel, Michael Cera, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen
Release Date: June 14

In 2007, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and a couple of their friends made a short film called Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse, in which the two friends were trapped in an apartment together after the world outside had been somehow destroyed. (The film was never available publicly, but there is a very NSFW trailer.) Now Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg have expanded the idea to a feature length film, and recruited a few more of their friends from the Apatow universe to join them. This runs the risk of being the kind of sloppy vanity project that results when a bunch of friends get together, armed with a sizable budget, and do whatever they want, unchecked, concerned with nothing more than making each other laugh (see Ocean’s Twelve). Of course, given the comic prowess these guys have displayed, what makes them laugh is pretty well proven to work, meaning that even if the movie is a mess, it will probably be a hilarious mess.

11.
THE WORLD’S END

Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike
Release Date: October 25

Following the same general theme as Rogen and company’s movie, some of the funniest guys from the other side of the pond are also preparing for the apocalypse. Wright, Pegg and Frost – the director and co-stars of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz – team up again for this story of five childhood friends who reunite 20 years after an epic pub crawl and attempt to recreate it, only to find that this night of drinking may be their last. If this team’s past collaborations are any indication, we can expect another rock solid comedy with a non-sugary emotional undercurrent that goes down smooth.

10.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Directors/Writers:
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast:
Oscar Isaac, F. Murray Abraham, Adam Driver, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Alex Karpovsky, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake
Release Date:
TBA

Oscar Issac came to my attention just a couple of years ago, but has built up an impressive array of supporting performances that I’ve really enjoyed in films like Robin Hood, Drive and The Bourne Legacy. Now he gets his biggest exposure yet, courtesy of the Coen Brothers, playing a 1960’s folk singer struggling to achieve success in both his personal and professional life. The movie marks a reunion between the Coens and music supervisor extraordinaire T-Bone Burnett, who oversaw the massively successful soundtrack for their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. He’ll serve as Executive Music Producer here as well, with Mumford & Sons frontman (and Mr. Carey Mulligan) Marcus Mumford as Associate Music Producer. I don’t know what those titles mean exactly, other than the fact that the Coens are probably about to drop another kick-ass soundtrack. The movie looks pretty damn good too.

9.
ELYSIUM

Director/Writer: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga, Sharlto Copley, William Fichtner, Diego Luna
Release Date: August 9

It’s been a long five years since Neill Blomkamp broke through with District 9. High hopes abound for his sophomore feature, another sci-fi tale with contemporary political relevance. In the year 2159, a space station called Elysium is home to the wealthiest members of society, while everyone else remains on a dying Earth that suffers from overpopulation. Foster plays a government bureaucrat tasked with maintaining the integrity of Elysium and keeping undesirables out, while Damon is a desperate man from the surface attempting to shatter the status quo. District 9 was a smart and topical debut, and I can’t wait to see what Blomkamp has come up with for his second time at bat.

8.
ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND CONTINUES

Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Adam McKay, Will Ferrell
Cast: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Harrison Ford, Kristen Wiig, Dylan Baker, Meagan Good, James Marsden
Release Date: December 20

San Diego’s preeminent newscaster and jazz flutist is finally back. Ron Burgundy and the Channel 4 News Team, not to mention Ron’s delicious paramour and co-anchor Veronica Corningstone, will make their long awaited return this year. Few details have been made available to suggest what the gang will be up to, but the addition of Harrison Ford as a venerable, Brokaw-esque news anchor, and Kristin Wiig possibly playing a love interest for Carell’s IQ-challenged weatherman Brick Tamland, both bode well. I’m also hoping we’ll see Vince Vaughn’s Wes Mantooth once again, but there’s been no word on that yet. In the meantime, here’s a clip of Burgundy on Conan last year, announcing the project.

7.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

Director: John Wells
Writer: Tracy Letts
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham
Release Date: November 8

Actor and playwright Tracy Letts won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his darkly comedic play, which debuted at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre before moving to Broadway and London. Now it moves to the movies, adapted by Letts and directed by John Wells, the veteran TV producer of such shows as ER and The West Wing, who earned praise for his 2010 film directing debut, The Company Men. This story concerns the gathering of an Oklahoma family after the patriarch, Beverly Weston – an alcoholic and a once famous poet – goes missing and is presumed dead. The Broadway production earned five Tony  awards, including Best Play and Best Actress in a Play, for Deanna Dunagan. Her role – Beverly’s wife Violet Weston – goes to Streep in the movie, and those familiar with the play expect the legendary actress to be an Oscar frontrunner yet again. With this mighty cast, she might not be the only one.

6.
SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR

Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller
Writers: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, William Monahan
Cast: Jessica Alba, Powers Boothe, Josh Brolin, Rosario Dawson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green, Dennis Haysbert, Stacy Keach, Jaime King, Ray Liotta, Michael Madsen, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Mickey Rourke, Juno Temple, Bruce Willis
Release Date: October 4

I’m a huge fan of Sin City, the 2006 collaboration between filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and graphic novelist Frank Miller, based on Miller’s book series set in the rotting, crime-ridden metropolis of Basin City. I loved the cast, the pulpy, rock-hard-boiled stories and the visual design drawn directly from the comics – monochrome, with limited splashes of color. In the ensuing years, there has been constant talk of a follow-up based on other books in the series, and after many vaguely explained delays (ongoing rumors persisted that Rodriguez was trying to hold out for Angelina Jolie to become available), it’s finally happening. Like its predecessor, the new film – at least part of which actually takes place before the events of the first – will be comprised of multiple stories: the previously published A Dame to Kill For and Just Another Saturday Night, as well as two original tales from Miller, including one called The Long Bad Night. Returning cast members include Rourke, Willis, Dawson and Alba. Dennis Haysbert inherits the role previously played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan, while Josh Brolin steps into the shoes of pre-plastic surgery Dwight, played by Clive Owen in the original. As for the dame to kill for herself, the role for which Rodriguez was supposedly targeting Jolie? She’ll be played by Eva Green, who I’m sure will make an entirely alluring femme fatale.

5.
HER

Director/Writer: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Samantha Morton, Olivia Wilde
Release Date: TBA

Not a lot is known about this movie, so there’s not a lot I can say. The story is set in the near future and concerns a lonely man who falls in love with the female-voiced operating system he purchases to help run his life – essentially a version of the iPhone’s Siri. With such a delightfully gonzo premise, you might expect that this marks another collaboration between Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, but in fact this will be the first time he has pulled solo screenwriting duty. I consider Jonze one of the best directors around, and one who works far too infrequently; this will be only his fourth film since 1999, following Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are. That too-small filmography is a lot to live up to, but I have little doubt Jonze will deliver something worthy of joining it.

4.
GRAVITY

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonas Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Release Date: October 4

Alfonso Cuarón’s highly anticipated follow-up to Children of Men casts Bullock and Clooney as a scientist and astronaut, respectively, tethered to each other and adrift in the cosmos after an accident leaves their space station damaged. The film was on my list last year, originally intended for a November release, but the visual effects required substantially more time to complete. Word is that we can expect a powerful movie combining a gripping and emotional story with astounding visuals. Should be worth the wait.

3.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Terence Winter
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jon Bernthal, Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin, Christine Ebersole, Jon Favreau, Jonah Hill, Jake Hoffman, Spike Jonze, Joanna Lumley, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Ethan Suplee, Shea Whigam
Release Date: November 15

In his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese (one more and he’ll tie De Niro; two more and he wins Harvey Keitel), DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who – surprise, surprise – engaged in criminal activity during the Wall Street heyday of the 1980’s. He lived large, partied hard and was worshipped by legions of young brokers. When his illegal activity was swept into a larger securities fraud investigation by the Federal government, it all came crashing down. Terence Winter, a Sopranos writer and creator of the Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire, adapts the true-life tale from Belfort’s memoir. DiCaprio has been trying to get this made for a long time (I’m almost certain that Michael Mann was attached to direct it at one point, though a brief search of the internets could not confirm that), and while doing promotion recently for Django Unchained, indicated that he has high hopes for the movie. He’s not alone.

2.
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Billy Connolly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Evangeline Lilly, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott
Release Date: December 13

Is three movies one movie too many to adequately adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s slender novel The Hobbit? Many would say yes. And they may be right. Personally, I’ll wait until the trilogy is complete to decide if a trilogy was overkill or not. I’m still intrigued by the decision to encompass additional Middle Earth lore from Tolkien’s other writings in order to deepen and enrich the story, so I remain firmly on board with Peter Jackson’s grand adventure. In the next chapter, Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield’s dozen-strong company of dwarves continue their march to reclaim their home city and stolen treasure from the dragon Smaug. Cumberbatch will play the mighty beast using the same motion capture technology that transformed Andy Serkis into Gollum. It should prove another showcase for the visual effects team at Jackson’s WETA Digital, and for Tolkien fans, it should prove a monumental onscreen match-up between a courageous halfling and arguably the most famous fire-breather in all of literature.

1.
UNTITLED DAVID O. RUSSELL ABSCAM MOVIE

Director: David O. Russell
Writer: Eric Warren Singer
Cast: Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Alesandro Nivola
Release Date: December 13

Coming off Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell couldn’t be any hotter right now, and his next project – currently without a title, but at one time called American Bullshit – is based on the real-life Abscam operation, an FBI sting in the late 70’s and early 80’s that targeted corruption in Congress. Russell was once notorious for his on-set outbursts and screaming fits directed at cast and crew (he and George Clooney came to blows while making Three Kings), and even then he still lined-up impressive ensembles. Now that he seems to have mellowed out considerably, and with his last two movies yielding an astonishing seven Oscar-nominated performances combined (three of which took the gold), actors would probably slit throats to work with him. Unfortunately for all those blade-wielding thespians, he’s so fond of repeat collaborations that it’s hard to break in. The movie re-teams him with his Fighter stars Bale and Adams, as well as Silver Linings duo Lawrence and Cooper. Renner managed to score the remaining lead role. More cast members might yet be announced, as the movie is just now going into production. I wasn’t sure it would be released this year, but a December date was announced this week, meaning we won’t have as long to wait for Russell to demonstrate yet again why he’s one of the best in the business right now.

February 19, 2013

The Year in Movies: 2012

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 2:10 pm
Tags: , ,

I’ve always responded to movies on an emotional level as opposed to an intellectual one. That’s one of the reasons I was never interested in being a critic and writing movie reviews. (That, and I don’t want to waste my time watching stuff I know is going to be bad and that I have no interest in.) Though I wish it were otherwise, I’m not much of a critical thinker, and rarely do I have a lot of analysis to offer about the movies I see. My reactions, even the most positive ones, tend to be on a gut level, and I’m usually not great at articulating why I respond to this movie or that. So the obsessive fan in me always approaches this annual post with mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m compelled to say something about the movies I enjoyed most during the year. On the other hand, I hate actually writing about them, and I’m almost never happy with what I have to say….which is a really convincing argument for you to go ahead and read it.

Anyway…my usual approach is to single out and rank the few movies that rose to best of the best for me, and then list my remaining favorites alphabetically, even if some really rank higher than others. This isn’t a top ten list, but rather a rundown of the movies – however many –  that left the biggest impression on me…with the full disclosure that over time, others that aren’t included here may grow on me to the point that I’ll regret leaving them off. C’est la vie…

1.
LINCOLN

There are countless stories to be told about the life of our 16th President, and a movie titled Lincoln might suggest it will try to tell a lot of them. Instead, director Steven Spielberg and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Tony Kushner hone in on one: the effort to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery. That decision to focus on a crucial and dramatic moment in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency – it was a month-long period, roughly, just before his second inauguration – allows for a focused, compelling story that still offers a fascinating insight into a legendary but mysterious figure in our country’s lore. The subject matter, while certainly interesting and dramatic, is not inherently exciting fodder for a movie, yet the result is completely riveting. Credit goes to Kushner’s phenomenal, language-rich script adapted from a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s nonfiction tome Team of Rivals, and to the ever astonishing Daniel Day-Lewis.

As soon as it was announced that Day-Lewis would be playing this part, I knew we were in store for something special, and the actor does not disappoint. His Lincoln is every bit the immersive, hypnotic portrayal you would expect, as he presents the many complicated facets of a man leading the nation in the most troubling of times. We expect Lincoln to come across as intelligent, powerful and guided by an admirable moral compass. But the film also gives us a man who is warm, witty, sly, compassionate and haunted, and Day-Lewis embodies every nuance with such command, honesty and integrity that it seems like what we see on-screen isn’t a performance, but a resurrection. I could happily have continued watching him play the part long beyond the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour running time. And yet as much as Day-Lewis is key to the movie’s success, he is also absent during the lengthy scenes in which the amendment is debated in the House of Representatives. These sequences are as electrifying as any others in the movie, offering up great performances from Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie as the two most vocal opponents to the Amendment, and Tommy Lee Jones as its staunchest supporter. Jones, Pace and McRobbie are just a few among the deep reserve of talented character actors contributing to the movie’s success. Sally Field, David Strathairn, James Spader, Michael Stuhlbarg, Gloria Reuben, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley…the list goes on, and they all deserve credit for their contributions, no matter the size of their part.

Kushner’s script may be as near a work of art as a screenplay can get. The time period calls for a formality of language, but Kushner makes the dialogue crackle and sing. It’s a joy to listen to these great actors speak such exceptional dialogue. There’s a scene in which Lincoln’s Cabinet discusses whether or not the amendment is necessary given the existence of the Emancipation Proclamation, and finally the president weighs in on why that order may or may not be legal, and why it is unsustainable as a solution to slavery. It’s easy to imagine the scene playing like a talking head moment in a documentary. But Kushner’s dialogue is so eloquent, and Day-Lewis so charming and incandescent, that we’re held spellbound, hanging on every word, oblivious to eating our vegetables because they’ve been so carefully crafted to taste like cake.

The movie’s flaws are few. The first scene (well, the second actually, in which Lincoln talks to some Union soldiers in the field), could have been omitted, as it indulges Spielberg’s tendency for over-earnestness. The movie also should have ended a few minutes earlier than it did (there’s a blatantly obvious moment at which to fade out), rather than including a coda that feels tacked on and out-of-place with the rest of the story. But everything in between works wonderfully, and Spielberg seems to be holding back and allowing the script and the actors to do their work. In collaboration with Kushner, Day-Lewis, and countless others in front of and behind the camera, he has brought an essential chapter of American history to vivid life.


2.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
David O. Russell has directed six movies, and there isn’t a weak one among them. His latest is stylistically similar to his previous, 2010’s outstanding The Fighter, in the way he brings the audience into such close proximity to the characters that all artifice seems to melt away and we’re left with something raw and real. The achievement is especially impressive here because the story has more than a few indie-cute trappings. The movie begins with Bradley Cooper’s Pat Solitano Jr. leaving a mental hospital after an eight month stay prompted by a violent reaction to discovering his wife’s infidelity. He moves in with his concerned parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro), determined to get his mind healthy and win back his now estranged wife. Those efforts are complicated when he meets his friend’s recently widowed sister-in-law Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has issues of her own. Oh, and in case you can’t tell from that brief synopsis, it’s a comedy.

A less talented filmmaker would not have been able to get past the more constructed elements of the plot; things that might have come off as overly quirky. But Russell has a way of teasing out the naturalism, allowing the film to transcend what could have been gimmicky. It starts with guiding his entire cast to sensational performances. The manic energy and brilliant timing and delivery brought by Bradley Cooper appear so effortless that it might be easy to overlook how great he is. This is his best performance to date. Jennifer Lawrence matches him move for move, locating the softness and vulnerability lurking just below Tiffany’s hard, no-bullshit exterior. Jacki Weaver’s loving mother trying to bring peace to the household is a great counterpoint to the equally loving but cunning matriarch that earned her an Oscar nomination in 2010 for Animal Kingdom. And De Niro…where has this guy been? His rich performance as Pat Sr. is a welcome reminder of what one of our greatest actors is capable of when he has material worth investing in. It’s an overdue return to form that allows him to play the kind of comedy, drama and at times even scariness that recalls glory day performances in films like Midnight Run, GoodFellas and Stanley & Iris. Just as essential to the mix are John Ortiz as Pat’s put-upon neighborhood friend Ronnie, Julia Stiles as Tiffany’s sister/Ronnie’s materialistic, controlling wife, Chris Tucker as Pat’s buddy from the mental hospital and Anupam Kher as his therapist.

Russell also deftly employs cinematography and editing to bring us up close and personal into Pat’s physical and mental space, creating an immediacy that infuses the entire movie. That stroke of inspiration by Russell, along with the performances he coaxes from his cast, make Silver Linings Playbook a comedy with a rare, exhilarating intensity.


The Rest:

ARBITRAGE
Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki pulls off a surprising trick in his crafty dramatic thriller: he gets the audience to root for, and at moments even empathize with, a crooked billionaire who represents the 1% that most of us have vilified in these troubled economic times. Jarecki’s equal partner in this feat is the perfectly cast Richard Gere, whose smooth performance as hedge fund manager Robert Miller is among his best ever. Miller’s charmed life faces a rapid unraveling when he falls under police suspicion for walking away from a fatal car accident, just as the impending sale of his company hits a roadblock, threatening to expose the fraudulent adjustments he’s made to its finances to cover a failed investment. What Jarecki and Gere capture so well is the bubble of wealth and privilege in which people like Miller are so deeply ensconced. He’s obviously extremely intelligent, but at the same time utterly clueless about the realities of life that average people face day to day…a fact that comes out in honest and sometimes amusing ways, particularly in his dealings with Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), a young man from Harlem who becomes unwittingly involved in Miller’s troubles. The strengths of Jarecki’s script lie in believable details of Miller’s privileged world, in the contrast between that world and the one Jimmy occupies, and in making the viewer resent Miller for his greed and lies even as we understand that cooking the company’s books and trying to elude prison are as much acts of protection toward those who have given him their trust as they are acts of selfishness to save his own neck. Susan Sarandon is terrific as Miller’s wife, who knows more than she initially lets on, and Brit Marling is also superbly cast as Miller’s daughter who helps run his company.


ARGO

Ben Affleck’s third film as a director is his most ambitiously scaled to date. Working from a strong script by Chris Terrio, Affleck demonstrates absolute command with this thrilling, inspired-by-real-events story. He stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who specializes in getting Americans out of tricky foreign entanglements. His most challenging mission comes up during the hostage crisis that begins when Iranians take over their country’s U.S. embassy out of anger over the Americans providing asylum to a toppled, now-ill and aging Shah. Six embassy employees manage to escape the building as it’s overrun, and they find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, hiding in his house for over two months before Mendez arrives with a plan to get them out. That plan involves posing as a Canadian film crew who are in country to scout locations for a science fiction film. In order to sell the lie, Mendez enlists movie makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a movie that must appear to be real but will never be made.

Similar to Apollo 13, in which Ron Howard managed to put us on the edge of our seats for a story whose outcome we already knew, so do Argo and Affleck put us through the ringer and make us forget what we know of the hostage crisis results. The movie is a briskly paced grabber from its opening sequence with the embassy takeover, yet it also manages to take a seamless detour into comedy as it depicts the Hollywood side of the operation, with fun performances by Goodman and Arkin. Never do the laughs seem ill-fitting or clumsily juxtaposed against the intensity of the situation, and the result is a movie that has broad commercial appeal by making audiences easily shift between laughter and anxiety.


THE AVENGERS

It worked. All that clever and strategic groundwork that Marvel Studios laid out beginning with the 2008 release of Iron Man paid off, as The Avengers brought together an eclectic crew of heroes and marvelously (no pun intended) succeeded in making a gigantic action movie that cares as much about its characters as its special effects. The big question I had going in, as I’m sure many others did too, was whether or not the movie could serve multiple protagonists, furthering their own storylines while also depicting the drama inherent in their coming together, allotting enough time to them in what needed to be an action-packed spectacle. The answer, courtesy of writer/director/geek God Joss Whedon, was a resounding yes.

That’s because the pleasure of The Avengers isn’t the spectacle, but the people in the midst of it: Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Chris Evans’ Captain Steve Rogers, Mark Ruffalo’s Dr. Bruce Banner (and of course, their alter egos), Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Scarlett Johannson’s Natasha Romanoff and Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton (aka Black Widow and Hawkeye, respectively). Each character has been introduced in a previous Marvel film (with Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton), so The Avengers is partially a sequel. To its great credit, the movie advances each figure’s personal arc, so when we return to their own individual adventures, they’ll have arrived somewhere beyond where they were at the end of those movies and the beginning of this one. It’s impressive that with so many characters to serve, each one gets their due. Not only do they enjoy standout moments of action, but they also get chances to shine in quieter moments throughout the film. The climactic sequence, a massive battle against an invading alien force in the streets and skies of Manhattan, is big and packed with CGI…but because we’re so invested in these characters and the way they play off each other, the action and visual effects are not merely an end unto themselves. Storywise, the climax actually bears a strong similarity to the finale of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. But whereas that movie fails to impress beyond the quality of the effects and the orchestration of the action, The Avengers works because there are characters we care about, and watching them work together is a blast. These are all charismatic actors, and their interaction is what powers the movie.


THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

I’m generally not a fan of horror movies, and most of the ones I do like – classics like The Exorcist and The Shining – aren’t about a bunch of horny teenagers who run afoul of a blade-wielding boogeyman. So if taken on its surface, The Cabin in the Woods would not appear to be my cup of tea. But it turns out that what’s below the surface matters much more in this joyously clever twist on the formula. In fact, The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t really have a lot of typical scares. It’s more comedy than horror movie. At least, I found myself laughing often, more than I found myself jumping or squirming. Not much can be said without spoiling the fun, but in a nutshell, five college students take a weekend trip to a remote lakeside cabin, and, well…shit happens. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford factor in as a pair of corporate drones, but that’s all I’ll say. Initially, most of the violence is handled off-screen or in relative darkness, so those of us with weak stomachs for the usual Saw/Hostel-like horror gore have little to worry about. By the time blood starts coming by the bucketload, things have become so giddily crazy and excessive that the violence is more comical than disturbing. I don’t know how it will play at home, on TV with just a few people in the room, but on the big screen with a packed crowd, this was definitely among the most fun theater-going experiences I had all year.


CLOUD ATLAS
Having avoided trailers in the hopes of being surprised, and having never read the novel by David Mitchell which was said to be unfilmable, I arrived at Cloud Atlas uncertain of what to expect. I exited enthralled, frustrated and eager to see it again, even with its nearly three-hour running time. The movie tells six separate but thematically connected stories spanning about 500 years, with the earliest set in 1849 and the latest in 2321. That set-up was the jumping off point for what became an uncommon exercise in commercial moviemaking: Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer collaborated with the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, creators of The Matrix, adapting Mitchell’s novel together and then working with two independent crews to shoot the movie before coming back together to edit it into a cohesive whole. The Wachowski’s filmed the sequences set in 1849, 2144 and 2321, while Tykwer shot the 1936, 1973 and 2012 stories. To highlight the interconnectedness, the filmmakers enlisted the principal cast members – including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent (terrific), Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving and Ben Whishaw – to fill roles in multiple storylines, playing central figures in some and supporting roles in others, while perhaps appearing only briefly in yet another.

If the movie isn’t entirely successful, it is nevertheless admirably ambitious and immensely watchable. It never quite hooked me emotionally, at least not to the extent that I felt it could have. And despite the cross-cutting between storylines, it didn’t achieve the kind of gut-level propulsion that Christopher Nolan created in The Dark Knight and Inception, an effect which should have been inherent in this storytelling approach. Yet the film is still skillfully edited and paced, moving smoothly and strategically between stories, and each individual tale is highly engaging as they run a gamut of genres, styles and eras. Cloud Atlas is love story, sci-fi action film, period drama, screwball comedy and mystery. It’s also a gorgeously mounted production, with superb set and costume design, cinematography, visual effects, makeup (a few distracting transformations notwithstanding) and one of the best music scores of the year. (Seriously, it was robbed of an Oscar nomination for its score, and for several of those other disciplines as well.) And on top of all that, there’s a sense of fun to the whole thing as we look to see which actors will pop up where, how they’ll look, and what meaning or connection there is – if any – to their roles across stories. Cloud Atlas makes me wish that more mainstream filmmakers would take more chances with unconventional material.


DJANGO UNCHAINED

Akin to his previous film Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy boasting the director’s trademarks of tasty dialogue (the best of it going to Basterd‘s Oscar winner Christoph Waltz), colorful characters, excessive violence and inspired music selections. Jamie Foxx has fun in the title role, but it’s Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio who stand out. Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter who acquires the slave Django and offers him freedom in exchange for his help tracking down an elusive quarry. When he learns of Django’s intention to locate his still-enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, reunited with Foxx eight years after Ray), Schultz offers his help. The search leads to Broomhilda’s owner, the brash, vile Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) who presides over an infamous Mississippi plantation dubbed CandieLand. It’s great to see DiCaprio work as a member of an ensemble rather than the head of it, and to see him play more of a character actor’s role than he usually takes on.

On the whole, I can’t say this is Tarantino at his absolute best. I never felt the kind of tension in my stomach that I got from certain parts of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown or Basterds, and there were definitely scenes that should have had that quality. There was also a missed opportunity with Samuel L. Jackson’s character of Candie’s head house slave Stephen, whose sinister and despicable qualities are too often undermined in favor of playing up the humor of his being a foul-mouthed sycophant. Tarantino could have gone further and darker with Stephen, and it would have been great to see Jackson given the opportunity to go there. Still, the movie is a blast, even without shying away from the brutalities of slavery. There’s nothing glib about the savage treatment we see inflicted on the slaves, and the harsher the slavers are, the more satisfying it is to see Django dish out their comeuppance.


THE GREY

Director Joe Carnahan made an impressive mark in 2002 with the Jason Patric-Ray Liotta cop drama Narc, but his next two films – Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team – went big, loud and dumb. So the restraint he shows with The Grey is impressive and unexpected. Those two adjectives describe the whole movie, in fact: impressive and unexpected. Universal Pictures marketed the film as Liam Neeson vs. a bunch of wolves, but in truth what we get is more interesting than that. Neeson plays a hunter employed at an oil rig in Alaska to keep predatory wolves at bay. A company flight back to Anchorage crashes, leaving only a handful of survivors. They make their way across the harsh wilderness in hopes of survival, but must stave off the extreme cold, high altitude and yes, territorial wolves. But the drama is less focused on creating suspense around who will survive and who won’t than it is in putting us alongside these men who know that, in reality, they’re all likely to die. The ensemble and the narrative are tight, with the movie feeling much brisker than its two-hour running time. Directed by Carnahan in a way that feels more indie than Hollywood, this is a powerful drama of man vs. nature that was probably dismissed by a lot of people due to misleading marketing. It’s much better than you expected it to be.


THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

If not quite as strong as the three films comprising the peerless Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first installment of The Hobbit series is still a wondrous and welcome return to Middle Earth as interpreted by Peter Jackson. Inheriting the role of a younger Bilbo Baggins from Ian Holm (who, with Elijah Wood as Frodo, appears at the beginning of the tale), Martin Freeman brings charm to spare, but also keeps Bilbo’s naiveté, fear and uncertainty in sight. Ian McKellan slips easily back into the grey cloak and unkempt beard of Gandalf, and we are treated to return appearances by Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee in a sequence that helps draw out the connections between this story and events of The Lord of the Rings. If the full ensemble of actors playing the dwarves don’t all make the impression that the members of the Fellowship did, I’ll chalk it up to the fact that there are 13 of them, with many similar sounding names, and the story – so far, at least – can’t serve them all equally. But those who get a bit of time in the spotlight all registered impressively, with Ken Stott’s elder Balin, James Nesbitt’s cheerful Bofur, Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner’s young whippersnappers Fili and Kili, and Richard Armitage’s stoic leader Thorin all standing out.

At nearly three hours, the movie does feel a bit long, though without knowing where the next two films will go as they draw not just from The Hobbit itself but from J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast background material, I’m happy enough revisiting Middle Earth to refrain from saying what should have been cut. The dwarves’ encounter with a trio of hungry trolls feels extraneous, but is one of the book’s signature scenes and is an early indicator for the dwarves of Bilbo’s cleverness. Scenes focusing on wizard Radagast the Brown also seem less than essential, yet they set up important things to come. The dwarves’ capture by the Goblin King, along with their escape, drags on a bit and feels overly busy, yet their detainment is necessary for Bilbo to lose his way and come upon Gollum, an encounter which unsurprisingly makes for one of the movie’s highlights. (Andy Serkis is again fantastic as the slinking, sneaky, pitiable creature.) So if I had some issues here and there, none were enough to make me weary of the movie or less excited for the next film. Jackson and his crew, many of them back from The Lord of the Rings, have no trouble readjusting to Tolkien’s rich world and making a film that fits snugly with those predecessors. It might not have drawn me in on quite the same emotional level or sent as many shivers along my spine, but I was still more than satisfied.


LES MISÉRABLES

I read Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables in high school, but this long-time-coming film was my first exposure to the beloved musical take on the story. It tells of former convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who breaks his parole and assumes a new identity on his quest to become a better man, but is unable to escape the dogged pursuit of police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). My first surprise was that this was a true musical. With the exception of only a handful of lines, everything is sung. My second surprise was how relentlessly stirring the music and story are, as Tom Hooper’s direction brings out the epic and the intimate in Hugo’s intricate narrative set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Much has been made of the decision to have the actors all sing live during each take, rather than lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks (though contrary to what some of the publicity would have you believe, this is not the first time it’s been done). Given that the movie is entirely told through music, the decision no doubt lends to the power of the performances. There is a raw, deeply felt quality to the singing, especially from Jackman, Anne Hathaway and newcomer Samantha Barks (reprising her role from a 2010 stage production in London), the latter two conveying utter heartache in their respective performances of the musical’s best-known songs, “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own.” Even Crowe, who cuts a formidable Javert, impresses as a singer after a slightly rocky start. He seems to be straining a bit to hit the notes in his first two numbers, but the remaining songs fit comfortably in his range, and though he’s not the strongest singer of the bunch, he certainly holds his own. Meanwhile, key roles in the story are also filled out by lesser known actors and new discoveries, notably Aaron Tveit as revolutionary leader Enjoras, and child actors Daniel Huttlestone as the precocious street kid Gavroche and Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette, who is taken in by Jean Valjean after her mother’s death.

The production is handsome and appropriately grand for the scale of the story, but it’s the music and the performances that pack the punch, combining a variety of vocal styles into a dazzling aural tapestry, from solitary tunes (like Eddie Redmayne’s trembling “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”) to duets (Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried as the grown Cosette singing, “A Heart Full of Love”) to a rousing number like “One Day More” that cross-cuts between nearly all the characters on the eve of the climactic showdown in the streets of Paris.

I know the movie has become a love-it-or-hate-it sensation, and I know many people have taken issue with Hooper’s directing style; I’ve taken issue with it myself in regards to his past work. But this time, I wasn’t even aware of his normally aggravating visual choices, so caught up was I in the story and the music. Or maybe I just don’t agree that he made such choices this time around. All I know is that the movie flew by for me, and I loved it from beginning to end.


THE MASTER

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most original voices in American film today, and each picture he makes is more unusual and puzzling than the last. They are always fascinating, however, and The Master is no exception. It’s a dense and demanding movie that can not be easily digested after only one viewing, if at all. I haven’t had the chance to revisit it yet, and so I remain uncertain of what to make of it. I don’t know what opinions I’ll come to after delving back in, but I can’t wait to see it again. And even if Anderson’s point continues to elude me, I’m okay with that. I’ve spoken before of directors like David Lynch and Terrence Malick taking me on journeys that I can’t always interpret, but which never fail to captivate.

That captivation begins with the amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a troubled WWII veteran who returns home but can’t readjust or find his place. His wanderings eventually bring him into contact with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an author, doctor and founder of a religious movement that has attracted dedicated followers and wary skeptics. Dodd takes a liking to Freddie and welcomes him into an inner circle that includes his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), his son, his daughter and her fiancée. Freddie initially devotes himself to Dodd and his movement, but finds it just as difficult to settle in there as he does everywhere else.

Phoenix throws himself into the part with such ferocious abandon that it’s almost scary at times. Totally unpredictable, he seems to blur the line between where the actor ends and the character begins. At the same time that Freddie is an angry, adrift man, he’s a wounded, frightened child seeking love and acceptance. Dodd recognizes these struggling factions within Freddie, and plays on both of them, perhaps more to his own ends than to Freddie’s. Where Freddie is all raging and impulse, Dodd is calm and control (or so he tries to be). As such, Hoffman’s performance is appropriately reigned in and tight, but he’s just as effective as Phoenix and no less committed. Amy Adams impressively completes the triangle, depicting Peggy’s public loyalty to her husband, while making her, in private, a steely presence who is perhaps pulling more of the strings than we realize. Whether The Master ultimately has something profound to say (or succeeds in saying it), the story and characters it provides for this trio of actors, and especially the no-holds-barred performance given by Phoenix, are enough to make it an unforgettable piece of work.


MOONRISE KINGDOM

Another writer/director named Anderson, and another of American film’s most original voices, Wes Anderson’s latest triumph is also the year’s best love story. On the New England island of New Penzance, in the summer of 1965, Eagle scout Sam Shakusky and local girl Suzy Bishop run off together, mobilizing a motley crew to find them before a hurricane hits the island. In what may be Anderson’s most winsome movie to date, newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward give charming, intimate performances as the sweet, lonely kids who fall in love and simply want to be together. The supporting characters have unfulfilled desires of their own, which are brought to the surface as they get involved in Sam and Suzy’s drama. Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton make welcome additions to the Anderson stable, while the director’s go-to guys Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are great in small roles. But this movie belongs to Gilman and Hayward, terrific finds who are up to the task of handling Anderson’s unique humor and style. As always, the director meticulously arranges and choreographs every frame, marrying art direction, costume design, cinematography and editing in ways that illuminate the narrative rather than distracting from it.


THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

In a way, this would make a nice companion piece to Moonrise Kingdom, as another perceptive story of troubled teens and their complicated lives. There have been so many movies that attempt to capture the feelings of being young. It’s almost a genre unto itself, and within that genre, “young” can span a range of ages such that movies as varied as My Girl and The Graduate both fit the mold. The high school movie is its own sub-genre, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which has been favorably compared to the movies of John Hughes, earns a prominent position in that grouping. Logan Lerman gives a beautiful performance as Charlie, a quiet, thoughtful kid entering high school after some personal difficulties, mostly trying to walk the halls unnoticed. He takes a chance in approaching a senior named Patrick (the dynamite Ezra Miller), in whom he sees a potential friend. Meeting Patrick leads to meeting Sam (Emma Watson), Patrick’s step-sister, and soon Charlie is drawn into their circle of friends and finds himself slowly emerging from his shell, while continuing to deal with his demons and learning that his new friends are contending with struggles of their own.

The movie sometimes presents the characters’ youthful joy and abandon as if it’s the first movie to ever suggest that youth begets feelings of joy and abandon, or that these are the first teenagers to ever experience those feelings. But that can’t take away from the emotional honesty the film achieves as we learn more about the characters, what they’ve been through and what they’re going through. The movie is written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his own acclaimed novel, and like John Hughes, Chbosky displays a keen insight into the secret life of the sensitive teenager. He has also cast the movie magnificently. Lerman is wonderful, never overplaying Charlie’s emotional baggage, always honest and at times heartbreaking. (There’s a moment when he’s at a party, high for the first time, and makes a startling revelation to Sam so casually that it took my breath away; it’s one of the best delivered lines in any movie all year.) Watson, in her first major role outside of the Harry Potter franchise, easily sheds Hermione, adopting an American accent and more importantly, making believable Sam’s vulnerabilities and past problems. As Patrick, Ezra Miller pops off the screen, just as he did in 2011’s little-seen indies We Need to Talk About Kevin and Another Happy Day, though here he gets to give a more joyful performance than the darker work he did in those films…not that he doesn’t get to play it serious as Patrick too. Perks comes with some of the trappings of the high school genre, but it taps into some authentic, universal truths that ultimately make it a great addition to the pantheon. If you ever went to a school dance and spent most of the night off to the side, or attended a party and sat quietly rather than mingling, or watched someone you were crushing on get together with the wrong person, or if you can simply recall what it was like to be young and hanging out with your friends on a Saturday night, you’ll connect with The Perks of Being a Wallflower.


THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY

Another winner from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, this animated delight is based on the classic children’s story The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. Arietty belongs to a race of tiny people called Borrowers. She lives with her parents beneath a house in the country, and by night her father sneaks in to take the things their family needs – a cube of sugar, a tissue…little things that won’t be missed. The Borrowers are not supposed to be seen, but Arietty is spotted in the garden by a sickly boy named Sho, who has come to his aunt’s house to rest prior to having heart surgery. The Borrowers fear humans, but Sho attempts to befriend Arietty and alleviate her worries, with mixed results. The screenplay was co-written by Hayao Miyazaki, the Ghibli founder and Oscar-winning director of the exquisite Spirited Away. Like that film, my affection for Arietty has a lot to do with its depiction of a world hidden within or near to our own, and how its characters interact with the outside. Mysterious, touching and bittersweet, The Secret World of Arietty is a great addition to Studio Ghibli’s legacy of lovely, traditionally animated films. The U.S. dubbed version features voice work by Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, but I recommend the subtitled version in its original Japanese language.


SKYFALL

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes would deliver what is, by all accounts, one of the best installments of the 50 year-old James Bond franchise. Skyfall honors the Bond tradition while also carving its own unique place within the canon by daring to lift the veil on the world’s most famous spy. I don’t think anybody wants to put Bond on the psychiatrist’s couch to discover every event in his childhood that made him the resourceful and frosty spy he is today, so screenwriters John Logan, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade deserve credit for exploring Bond’s background without demystifying him. In fact, he might even be a little more enigmatic than ever by the end.

Javier Bardem’s vengeful, teasing Silva will surely take his place high on the list of Bond villains. He enters the movie late, but it’s a fantastic entrance all around, from the way Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins present it to the quiet humor with which Bardem plays it. In addition, the movie does right by its heavy focus on Judi Dench’s M. Her relationship with Bond continues to walk a tightrope as their professional obligations can’t mask their mutual affection – a line which Dench and Daniel Craig continue to play beautifully. After two films that stripped away the gimmicky side of the Bond franchise, Mendes and the screenwriters reintroduce some of those classic and playful elements while still maintaining the grittier tone that was ushered in when Craig assumed the mantle in Casino Royale. By the time Skyfall ends, it has ingeniously come around to a sense of the familiar and positioned the franchise to move forward in a way that honors its past while looking to the future.


SOUND OF MY VOICE

From the moment it begins, this gripping indie film thrusts us into a state of uncertainty and never lets up. Each time we think we’re coming to the end of the rabbit hole, it takes another turn. All I’ll reveal about the premise is that Los Angeles couple Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham – also featured in Argo – and Nicole Vicius) attempt to infiltrate a cult in order to expose its leader, a young woman named Maggie (Brit Marling). Maggie claims to be…well, I won’t tell you….but she claims something that seems quite impossible, and Peter and Lorna are out to learn the truth. Quiet, disturbing, and full of surprises, watching the movie is as much a step into the unknown for the audience as investigating Maggie is for Peter and Lorna. And just as they are confounded by what they discover, so are you likely to be.  Admittedly, I found the movie somewhat bewildering in the end, due to a conclusion that is at once satisfyingly unexpected but frustratingly unresolved. Yet despite being unclear about what happens, I couldn’t shake the simplicity and quietly unnerving story. The movie runs a short 90 minutes, which means you won’t be sucking up too much time when it ends and you’re compelled to re-watch it in the hopes of figuring out what the hell just happened.

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And there it is. As always, there are many other movies I really enjoyed this year, even if they didn’t quite earn a place on the list. Part of me wants to mention a few of them, but I know that would quickly turn into a list of 30 more movies, all with an effort at commentary. I gotta let it go. So last order of business: it’s always fun to think about some categories that don’t exist at the Oscars but would be kinda cool. For my own amusement, here are a few of them, with what I might have nominated.

BEST POSTER

(Larger Versions: The Cabin in the Woods; Don’t Go in the Woods; Life of Pi; The Master; Moonrise Kingdom)

BEST CASTING
Les Misérables; Moonrise Kingdom; The Paperboy; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Skyfall

BEST ENSEMBLE
Argo; The Avengers; Lincoln; Silver Linings Playbook; Zero Dark Thirty

BEST BODY OF WORK
Mark Duplass (People Like Us; Safety Not Guaranteed; Your Sister’s Sister; Zero Dark Thirty)
James Gandolfini (Killing Them Softly; Not Fade Away; Zero Dark Thirty)
John Goodman (Argo; Flight; ParaNorman; Trouble with the Curve)
Matthew McConaughey (Bernie; Killer Joe; Magic Mike; The Paperboy)
Scoot McNairy (Argo; Killing Them Softly; Promised Land)

BEST TRAILER
Cloud Atlas (Extended); Django Unchained; Frankenweenie (“Homage”); The Master (Teaser #1); Zero Dark Thirty

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Okay, I’ve had my say. To wrap it up, here’s a look back at the year in film that was.

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