One Last Pat on the Back

First off, congrats to Best Films of Our Lives contributor Elaine Teng, who claimed victory in the Outguess Ethan 2014 contest! This was an exceptionally close year, as what seemed like an unpredictable year actually solidified into an incredibly predictable one (more on that later). So, despite nailing a personal record of 21 out of 24 categories, I couldn’t fend you all off in total points – in addition to Elaine edging me by one measly point, shout-out to Dana Kaufman (last year’s victor) for tying with me as well. Next year, I figure, I will finally predict Original Screenplay correctly – and then promptly lose every single other category.

As regards last night’s ceremony, there’s actually not much left to say regarding the winners. The logic that I used back in my predictions for the most part seemed to carry itself out – while the extraordinary technical elements of “Gravity” swept through the craft categories, the staggering weight and artistic achievement of “12 Years a Slave” was just too much to ignore when it came down to the big prize. And so “Gravity” walked away with the second-most wins ever for a film that did NOT win Best Picture (that somewhat dubious record still belonging to the eight trophies on the shelf of “Cabaret”), while “12 Years a Slave” became the first movie directed by a black man to take the top prize. Honestly, I consider that a relatively fair split between two incredible films with entirely different objectives. And after a few years of lighter, more crowd-pleasing films taking Best Picture, I believe the Academy’s affirmation of “12 Years a Slave” will go down as one of their most tasteful, foresightful picks – for all the cracks about “pandering” or “obvious” subject matter for an Oscar film, McQueen’s film is bold, challenging filmmaking, and I’m not just talking about the blunt depiction of horrific violence and cruelty. “12 Years a Slave” is a silent scream of a movie, a furious, painful open welt conveyed (rather than contained) by impeccable craft. On rare occasions, the combination of message and directorial achievement is sharp enough that not even the Academy can ignore it.

And again, say what you will about the Academy, but this year’s winners did indicate a major industry organization stumbling its way toward diversity. Alfonso Cuarón became the first Hispanic to win Best Director. Lupita Nyong’o, in far and away the best speech of the night, earned an instant standing ovation, and not because of the tokenism that seemed to hover over the wins of some past black actors – the force of her performance simply couldn’t be denied, no matter how you sliced it. 2 actors (straight, yes) won for a film about the early days of the AIDS crisis – perhaps not that revelatory to the world at large, but this is a group that couldn’t quite get with “Brokeback Mountain” less than ten years ago. John Ridley quietly became the second African-American to win one of the screenplay categories. Robert Lopez, for co-writing Original Song winner “Let It Go” with his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, became the 12th person to accomplish Tracy Jordan’s legendary EGOT perfecta. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s first black and female president, came out to declaim the organization’s bold plans for the Academy Museum, due to open in 2017.

I’m not trying to say that the game is over and there isn’t plenty of social injustice left to fight in Hollywood – Cate Blanchett, in another of the night’s frequently terrific speeches, made an impassioned call to arms for women in Hollywood, and we can only hope more producers pay attention. But in crowning, “12 Years a Slave,” Nyong’o, Ridley and Cuarón, as well as films like “Gravity” and “Her,” the Oscars, at least temporarily, seemed to be looking forward as well as backward. The selections played like a nice cross-section of what Hollywood film has been and could be.

Now, strictly in terms of the telecast, the Oscars are often in trouble when they have to rely on the awards themselves to provide the emotion and entertainment. They lucked out this year with winners both eloquent (Nyong’o, Blanchett, McQueen’s Best Picture acceptance, Spike Jonze) and humorously baffling (all right all right all right, Matthew McConaughey), but really the watchability of this year’s ceremony was no thanks whatsoever to producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. The pair seemed to think that high-energy and touching performances of all four Original Song nominees (Pharrell in particular got the night off to a great start with the infectious “Happy,” almost stealing my personal vote for a minute there) gave them permission to completely check out on the rest of the ceremony. The “tribute” to “The Wizard of Oz” turned out to be nothing but a capable and trying-her-best Pink belting “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – a nice display of the pop singer’s not-inconsiderable vocal talents, but it hardly illuminated the film’s legacy or justified the wasted time. Likewise Bette Midler’s rendition of “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” which was bafflingly placed after the In Memoriam montage rather than concurrent with it, stretching that section out to interminable length and stomping on whatever energy was left in the already-dragging show. And I will defend clip packages and montages to the death (I was enthused that performance clips returned to the supporting categories this year), but they require a MUCH better theme than “Heroes,” an incredibly vague and lazy idea that resulted in the editors basically slapping together every movie from the past twenty years that had a protagonist in it.

Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t a lot of help either, unfortunately. I love Ellen to pieces, and I generally think her low-key, relaxed approach to hosting works. It makes the stars in the audience comfortable, and it’s always a good idea to get them as involved as possible – it gives us great unscripted moments like Leonardo DiCaprio’s face when offered a slice of pizza, or Lupita Nyong’o’s brother half-blocking Angelina Jolie out of a star-studded selfie. But it felt like she was short at least three bits for the night – both the pizza and Twitter running gags were mildly clever to begin with, and way overstayed their welcome. I know she’s not really the song-and-dance type, but a peppy lip-synch routine (a la the great trailer for this year’s ceremony) or something similar could’ve gone a long way to keeping the show’s pace up.

In the end, it was basically business as usual for the Oscars – an up and down ceremony, an industry dancing the line between laudatory and smug, and enough great moments to make us think, let’s do that again next year. Until then!

Top 10 Films of 2013

Getting in just under the wire, we here at The Best Films of Our Lives wanted to be sure to get in our last word on the year in film that was 2013, before tomorrow night’s Oscar ceremony is over and we can all start finally getting excited about how awesome “Interstellar” is going to be.

As with last year, we gave ourselves a little extra time compared to most film critics and bloggers, who put their lists out in late December/early January. As (semi-)average film-goers, it takes a while to catch up with some of the titles we want to be sure to consider. As it happened, even with that extra deliberation, Elaine and I ended up being remarkably in agreement this year – 2 out of our top 3 were the same, including our unanimous choice for the best film of the year. Yes, it’s that good. What do you think, dear readers? After a little extra reflection, where did your year-end list end up?

ELAINE’S PICKS

10. “Don Jon”

“Don Jon” would have gotten much less attention had it not been the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but this little movie about a man so addicted to porn that he cannot find real fulfillment is funny, sweet, and refreshingly simple. Scarlett Johansson, more appropriately cast than ever before, is hilarious as Barbara Sugarman, Jon’s shallow, possessive dream girl, while Julianne Moore, who plays an older woman Jon meets later in the movie, brings a funny frankness to the screen. It is Gordon-Levitt, however, that seems out of place in his own movie, too old and too confident for this coming-of-age story. Jon is a deeply vulnerable and lost young man beneath his bravado and his muscles, but Gordon-Levitt is too smooth, too knowing, and simply a decade too old to play him convincingly.

9. “Frances Ha”

“Sorry I’m so slow, I have trouble leaving places,” says Frances (Greta Gerwig), a 20-something New Yorker who trips when running, turns down a stable job for no good reason, misreads social cues, and can’t seem to leave her college years behind. Yet “Frances Ha” is interested precisely in the stumbling, the pauses, and the uncertainties of this period of life, a whirl of confusion, spontaneity, and possibility. Gerwig carries the film magnificently, at once sweet and irrational, funny and exasperating, full of potential yet unsure of how to realize it. Though director Noah Baumbach’s portrayal of “millennial” New Yorkers is so exaggerated it becomes annoying rather than comical, “Frances Ha” is a vivid, vibrant depiction of one awkward young woman’s search for her place in a world that is actually too awkward for her.

8. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

Most people groaned when they heard “The Hobbit” was split into three movies, but it does give Peter Jackson two extra chances to get it right. In “The Desolation of Smaug,” he mostly did. Capturing the charming, childish spirit of the book, the second installment was a wild, adventurous ride that inspired renewed interest in the peoples and kingdoms of Middle-Earth, delivering places and characters filled with freshness and wonder. From Dwarves riding in barrels to Stephen Fry in an orange wig to Smaug the Dragon, the movie maintained an energetic pace throughout nearly three hours, and set the stage for what will hopefully be an even better finale.

7. “Philomena”

“Philomena” is the simplest movie on this list. It has no flashes and no bangs; it is neither ostentatious nor innovative. It simply has a story to tell, one of a woman searching for the child she was separated from half a century before, a story that it unveils modestly but powerfully. The star of the show is undoubtedly Dame Judi Dench, who, with a quiver of her lip, can convey Philomena’s 50 years of silent suffering, while the rapport between Philomena and her sidekick, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) adds a touching subplot to the search for her son. Where the movie succeeds is in its portrayal of faith and religion, depicting both the folly and power of faith, along with its many divergences and permutations. With its poignant story and its excellent cast, “Philomena” may not be the loudest or the most memorable film of the year, but it is an emotional, enjoyable exercise in storytelling.

6. “The Wind Rises”

“All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.” These were allegedly the words that inspired Hayao Miyazaki to make “The Wind Rises,” his animated tribute to the designer of Japanese warplanes during World War II. And that is exactly what Miyazaki does here, showing us that a thing of beauty, regardless of what it is used for, is still a joy forever. Perhaps it is irresponsible or ethically dubious for Jiro to design these killing machines, but to him the airplanes are the stuff of dreams. Maybe it was lost in translation (I saw the dubbed English version), but something—the somewhat stilted dialogue or Jiro’s impenetrable character—kept “The Wind Rises” from being as complete a film as some of Miyazaki’s other efforts. But there are enough moments of delight—from love represented by the flight of a paper airplane to a terrifying earthquake that lifts the earth and its people up by their roots—to make it truly something beautiful.

5. “Her”

This is the loneliest movie I’ve ever seen. From Joaquin Phoenix’s melancholy eyes to his high-waisted pants, from the whiteness of his bed sheets to the sepia-hued memories of his wife, “Her” exudes a loneliness and a desperation that seeps out of the screen and slowly fills the theater. Set in the future, this movie about a man, the oh-so-Dickensian Theodore Twombly, and his romance with his computer’s artificial intelligence system, Samantha, never wallows in its melancholy, hilarious at one moment and romantic at the next. What’s great about it is how completely director Spike Jonze embraces the futuristic world he creates; almost all of the characters accept the plausibility of a human/OS relationship, and while we know it cannot possibly end well for Theodore and Samantha, we are drawn into their relationship. Because after all, which one of us hasn’t sought solace from our computer screen?

4. “Before Midnight”

It’s been almost 20 years since Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) first walked, talked, and fell in love in Vienna’s streets. In our third encounter with their lives, they are no longer the dreamy young people who remake the world with their words, but the film does something even more incredible: it shows us love as it ages. It is perhaps unfair to compare this film to the others on the list, as it works in conjunction with its two predecessors, but even without them, “Before Midnight” is a graceful, intelligent meditation on love, life, and time, as it comes to all of us.

3. “12 Years A Slave”

Though the film’s title, “12 Years A Slave”, leads us to believe that it is about Solomon Northup’s enslavement, the film is as much about what he sees as it is about him. At various moments in Steve McQueen’s film, the camera hones in on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s eyes of infinite sadness as he watches the unspeakable unfold before him, at once helpless and complicit. At some point while watching the movie, we forget that it is a movie and become witnesses ourselves. McQueen is not interested in pointing fingers or exacting revenge, but simply shows us the institution that was the scourge of our nation and continues to be our shame, his work serving as a rebuke of last year’s fantasy bloodbath, “Django Unchained.” With its beautiful cinematography and stellar performances from Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, and Sarah Paulson, “12 Years A Slave” is one of the most excruciating cinematic experiences, but also one of the best.

2. “The Square”

There is a moment in “The Square,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about the Egyptian revolution, when the camera pans over a surface, weirdly beautiful, purple and patterned like an exquisite tile. And then the camera zooms out, and we realize that it’s a human back, the back of a young man who has just been tortured by the Egyptian army. Jehane Noujaim’s documentary is not only the most important film of the year, a year when protests rocked the world and overthrew governments, but a beautiful one, capturing the difficulty and the complexity of such movements, the energy and the frustration of people who want democracy but are somehow always thwarted in their quest. Born of the square from which it takes its name, this powerful documentary hopes for the best for Egypt, and for the sake of all of those lives we meet for 108 minutes, and the lives of those protesting in squares around the world, I hope it’s right.

1. “Stories We Tell”

It was impossible to compare this movie with “The Square.” One is an intensely personal, meticulously crafted piece, while the other a documentation of a mass populist movement still taking place. That being said, Sarah Polley’s exploration of her mother’s life and secrets is an incredible composition about memory, the act of remembering, storytelling, and, at base, the act of living. Reconstructing an ordinary life from the testimonies of her friends and family, Polley’s film is so personal, so human that it’s almost impossible to talk about it without drawing from your own experiences. She introduces us to her family so casually that we feel like a part of it, and she exposes the threads and the choices that make up a person’s life so clearly that it’s hard to look away, and even harder not to draw parallels with our own.

The film opens with a quote by Margaret Atwood: “When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all but rather a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness… It isn’t afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or someone else.” There’s a reason Polley calls the film “Stories We Tell,” because we all tell stories of our lives, rendering our choices into a narrative that makes sense for ourselves. It’s just that the rest of us don’t often think about them as stories to be told, or have a filmmaker so talented to tell them.

 

ETHAN’S PICKS

10. “Nebraska”

Anchored by a perfectly cast ensemble, what could’ve been a caricature of Midwest culture and father-son road trips blossomed into an unexpectedly touching tragicomedy. Alexander Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson sympathize with the nostalgia and regret of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, pitiful and endearing) without indulging in it themselves: they have too much affection for the confused, worn-out man he has become, irascibility notwithstanding. Payne’s characters are familiar and humorous, exaggerated only to necessity.

9. “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

This divisive Palme D’Or winner is an ambitious tale of discovery that defies easy coming-of-age narratives. In “La vie d’Adele,” conversations, scenes and sequences all linger beyond their “natural” endpoints – more true to the messy, unedited reality of life. As she matures – somewhat – from questioning teenager to conflicted young adult, Adele (always-beautiful-when-crying newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos) finds through her lover Emma (an enigmatic Léa Seydoux) that romance can be complex, consuming, and destructive.

8. “Her”

What will the future be like? It’s the question of most science-fiction, but Spike Jonze’s film is not most sci-fi. Less concerned with the bells and whistles of his near-future society (although there are those – I can’t wait to see Los Angeles’ new public transit rail system come to fruition), Jonze is interested in relationships, in the way we connect to each other. The writer/director never loses sight of the inherent tension in its central romance, between emotionally rudderless writer Theodore (an engrossing Joaquin Phoenix) and his energetic operating system (voiced adroitly by Scarlett Johannson); this is not a film where you’re rooting for those crazy kids to end up together. Subtle, personal and fantastical without becoming too twee.

7. “Gravity”

A monument to the experiential power of cinema. Cuarón’s space-survival tale made the last decade of souped-up CGI and 3D-enhanced blockbusters look all the more superfluous by comparison; cutting-edge technology doesn’t just make our explosions look more realistic, it can change the way we tell a story. To that end, “Gravity” didn’t break much narrative ground, but it brought a kinetic, visceral immediacy to astronaut Ryan Stone’s plight that was fresh and thrilling.

6. “Inside Llewyn Davis”

The Coen Brothers’ melancholy ode to the self-destruction of near-genius. Like Salieri in Milos Forman’s “Amadeus,” Llewyn Davis is good enough to recognize greatness and to know that he doesn’t quite have it; but while Salieri had his Mozart, a concrete figure on whom to pin all his frustrations, Llewyn seems up against the entire world, and lashes out accordingly, indiscriminately. A gorgeous soundtrack and artfully smudged cinematography by Bruce Delbonnel complemented Oscar Isaac’s terrific lead performance for yet another exceptional Coen film.

5. “Before Midnight”

The fictional equivalent of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries, Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (as it stands so far) has turned into a delightful cinematic mainstay, an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, in real time. “Before Midnight” saw our hapless couple Céline and Jesse, almost twenty years removed from that romantic first encounter in Vienna, attempting to deal with the maturation of love and the complications of married life. This was probably the most uncomfortable film of the trilogy – the two have moved on from naive intellectual arguments about love and philosophy to very concrete, personal conflicts, years in the making – but at the same time that served to build the authenticity and uniqueness of these characters. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are so extraordinarily linked in with Jesse and Céline at this point that it’s difficult to even remember that they are actors.

4. “The Wind Rises”

A most heartfelt farewell from one of cinema’s greatest dreamers. Perhaps only an artist who has flown so far could give us so touching a reflection on imagination and innovation, encapsulating the bittersweet passion of creation. Joyful and subtly troubled, Miyazaki’s embellished version of the life of aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi is almost certainly the legendary animator’s most personal film ever: an appreciation of all those who have supported him and an expression of his creative regrets. No need to apologize, Miyazaki – we’re just thankful you shared your journey with us.

3. “12 Years a Slave”

In his twelve years in bondage, Solomon Northup witnessed horror; and in seeing it, in looking into the pit at the very heart of humanity, he felt it, too. Steve McQueen’s extraordinary drama – which, looking back even after a few months, I can see that I instinctually resisted at first, passing off my own efforts to hold the film at arm’s length as McQueen’s problem – is clinical, composed, thoroughly unsentimental, but not disconnected. There is outrage here, and despair, but expressed in the most controlled, painterly of methods: in the silent shattering of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance, or the cold co-existence of brutality and mundanity in the same frame. McQueen knows well the voyeuristic impulse of film, the sense of culpability involved in being a witness to something unspeakable, and uses it to his audacious advantage.

2. “Upstream Color”

Shane Carruth’s debut film, “Primer,” was a maddening, intentionally incomplete puzzle of a film, playing with the limits of science and genius to explain the world. Almost ten years later, his long-awaited follow-up revealed that “Primer” was no fluke. The juxtaposition between Carruth’s tight, expert craft and the out-of-control situation in which his characters find themselves creates a philosophical clash of near-Tarkovskian proportions. Like Kris and Jeff, we float, woozy, through Carruth’s mysterious images, searching for the meaning behind it all. Amy Seimetz’s grounded performance takes care of the emotional heavy lifting as Carruth’s style leaps to the beautiful obscurity of Malick.

1. “Stories We Tell”

Strikingly composed and painfully personal, Sarah Polley’s beautiful, unforgettable narrative about her own mother and the secrets she left behind pushes beyond every expected boundary of both form and substance. Her story is engrossing enough, heartbreaking in its tragedy and hopeful in its affirmation of love and family, but Polley pushes further, questioning the compulsion and fickle subjectivity of storytelling. Why do we insert narrative on to our own lives? It is easy enough to look back and remember meaning and motive, but life in the moment, like this film, is unpredictable, chaotic, a jumble of masked fears and desires. Diane Polley was an actress; her daughter’s film suggests that we are all nothing less.

Take a Wild Guess

Well we’re still approximately a month away from the Oscars – the ceremony will be held on the evening of March 2nd, pushed back by a week or two from its normal slot to avoid viewership conflict with the Winter Olympics. If it were perhaps any other season, that extra time would honestly be agony, waiting and waiting for the inevitable victory of a steamroller “King’s Speech” or “Artist”-style campaign. Thankfully, the year we have some unexpected time on our hands also happens to be the most competitive and unpredictable year I’ve ever covered. The comparison going around out there is to 2000, when “Gladiator,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Traffic” took a three-way dogfight all the way to a heavily divided ceremony (in which “Gladiator” ultimately triumphed without winning a corresponding Director, Screenplay, OR Film Editing award).

And after the major guild awards, it certainly seems like we’re headed towards that kind of oddball result. The three major bodies ended up going with either a three-way, or even four-way split, depending on how you look at it: SAG unsurprisingly went with actors’ showcase “American Hustle,” the Directors opted for Alfonso Cuarón’s visionary work on “Gravity,” and the Producers couldn’t even make up their minds, splitting their top award between “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” in the organization’s first tie.

That latter result is particularly fascinating, since the PGA is the only guild that uses the same preferential voting system that the Oscars have used since expanding their Best Picture field – a system that, in theory, makes such a tie all but mathematically impossible. But there it is. Many bloggers are claiming that these past few weeks have put “Gravity” in the solid lead because it essentially got two mentions to one each for its competitors, but I’m not so sure. I’m just looking at that PGA tie and thinking it shows how divided and close this race is; there’s basically three camps in the industry (as well as those brave souls who are going to throw some votes the way of “Her”), and they seem to be about equal in size and passion.

So what does that mean? It means in the top categories this year, including Picture, Director and the Screenplay races in particular, your guess is as good as mine. The permutations are endless: do we have two years of Picture/Director split in a row? Or can McQueen and Cuarón end up sweeping their way to victory? Will the massive love in the acting categories (and a likely Original Screenplay win) leapfrog “American Hustle” over the auteurists? Or will Russell’s bullshit-and-glamor-fest walk away empty-handed, even in the acting races? It seems baffling for a film to get four nominations and no wins, but you wouldn’t call anyone from “Hustle” the front-runner in their respective category at the moment. This means there’s a lot of attention on the Brits – whoever walks away with the BAFTA on Feb. 16 (a few days before Oscar voting closes) will probably end up being my pick for Oscar as well. Right now I’d say both “12 Years” and “Gravity” have an equal shot at it, since both directors have the hometown advantage. Stay tuned!

Of course, one can’t check in on Oscar and not mention the past week’s kerfuffle in Original Song. Yes, “Alone Yet Not Alone,” that most unlikely of Oscar nominees, is now nominated yet not nominated. After one of the opposing campaigns that lost out on a nod reportedly hired a private investigator to peek into the tactics of Bruce Broughton’s obscure Christian tune, Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Academy Board of Governors took the unexpected route of disqualifying “Alone Yet Not Alone” from the Original Song race. There have been a few examples of the Academy rescinding nominations in the past, but they were all based on eligibility requirements (most famously, Nino Rota’s score for “The Godfather” was DQ’ed after it was found Rota recycled the film’s love theme from an earlier, obscure Italian film that he had also scored), making this the first case of campaign malfeasance to merit such drastic consequences.

The story is, Broughton indeed wrote personal e-mails to a large portion of Music Branch members on behalf of his entry, pointing out its number on the mix CD of clips from all eligible songs sent out to everyone in the branch (yes, Academy voting includes mix CDs as part of the official process). You might ask how this is different from “The Hurt Locker” producer Nicholas Chartier, who sent out similar e-mails on behalf of his film in early 2010, and was reprimanded simply by having his tickets to the Oscar ceremony revoked. Well, the problem is the Music Branch’s former representative on the Academy Board of Governors and a current member of its executive committee. Isaacs and the Board determined that this constituted an unfair advantage; presumably, if some third party had sent the e-mail on behalf of Broughton, everything would be hunky dory. C’est la vie.

You can talk about how “unfair” this really was compared to the inequity of studios with millions and millions of monies campaigning against a minuscule indie film that was released for about two weeks in three “Christian” markets; but really this just looks embarrassing for the Academy, considering cronyism is apparently so rampant in the Music Branch that they’ll just vote for their fearless leader’s entry because he asked. Just bad news all around, and it really seems like it’s time to either a) rehaul the Best Original Song category significantly, b) clarify campaigning rules, or c) ditch the category altogether. I would aim for a combination of a) and b) personally; perplexing as it’s been at times, looking back over the past decade, they’ve generally got it right when it mattered most. “Falling Slowly,” “The Weary Kind,” “Skyfall,” “Man or Muppet;” like it or not, those were pretty much the best options available in their respective years, and the weakness of the category overall is equal parts Academy staleness and shifts in the industry.

Plus, I mean, what are the ceremony directors going to do without song performances? Just have random tributes to whatever musical is having an anniversary this year? Oh, wait.