For Your Consideration: July 4, 2014

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Never such innocence, / Never before or since

– from “MCMXIV,” by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Today, Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the founding of our nation, a splash of resounding, indelible rhetoric in the midst of a bloody armed conflict. But earlier this week marked a more dubious milestone, the 100th anniversary of an event with earth-shattering implications: for it was on June 28, 1914 that Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, kicking off the diplomatic crisis that would quickly turn into the churning, destructive four-year grindstone that was World War I. It was a major anniversary that seemed to pass with relatively little notice: A.O. Scott wrote an exceptional piece for the New York Times on the war’s cultural legacy; and in a few short hours, France and Germany will metaphorically revisit their century-old conflict, this time on the fields of Maracanã rather than Verdun. But otherwise, it seems an occasion no one is too sure how to mark.

Not to put too flippant a spin on what should be a somber topic, but at The Best Films of Our Lives we always find a movie an appropriate method of recognition and deliberation. WWI films often get lost in the deluge of material related to WWII, but from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Gallipoli” there are any number of striking, powerful films that consider the frightful impact of the Great War. Today we provide an in-depth look at three such works.

– Ethan

“Grand Illusion” (1937)

Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, Dita Parlo

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Jean Renoir’s masterpiece of class tension and the futility of armed warfare stretches far beyond its supposed inspiration, a book (published in 1909) by British economist Norman Angell that argued war worked against the common economic interest of all European nations, and was therefore pointless. Renoir takes a far less mathematical approach: his “grand illusion” is not simply that war erects artificial economic barriers, but that it pits men with no quarrel whatsoever against each other in life or death struggle. Or…is the “illusion” the constructed, meticulous class hierarchy of European society, laid waste by the mass destruction and disillusionment of the war? Or is it the foolhardy notion that mankind even can, or will, ever stop fighting itself? Renoir’s humanist classic considers all these angles and more, wrapped in a gripping drama of French POWs and the stuffy, yet sympathetic German aristocrat (von Stroheim, in a performance for the ages) tasked with guarding them. The Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg in Alsace, where many of the exteriors of the POW camp were filmed, is one of the cinema’s greatest and most eerie settings: cast aside from the war and forced to consider their place in the world, these men hang almost literally hang on the razor’s edge.

– Ethan

“Random Harvest” (1942)

Cast: Greer Garson, Ronald Colman, Susan Peters, Philip Dorn

Available to rent or purchase on iTunes, on disc from Netflix

“Random Harvest” is not strictly a war movie, but it is grounded in the First World War and the trauma it inflicted upon the men it devoured. The film opens in the autumn of 1918 at Melbridge County Asylum in the English Midlands, “grimly proud of its new military wing, which was to house the shattered minds of the war that was to end war.” John Smith (Ronald Colman) is one of these men, though his affliction is but a loss of memory and a stutter. He wanders away from the asylum on the day the war ends—the guard leaves the gate open in the euphoria of the moment—and meets Paula (Greer Garson), a warm, compassionate actress who falls in love with him and takes him in. What unfolds is a story of love, patience, amnesia, and reconciliation. The characters and their odyssey are at the center, but the war and its damage never fade from view.

– Elaine

“Joyeux Nöel” (2005)

Cast: Guillaume Canet, Daniel Brühl, Benno Fürmann, Diane Kruger, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon

Available to purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Every child knows that on the first Christmas of the Great War, the warring sides laid down their arms, joined in celebration, and played a game of football. History tells us that there was not one Christmas truce, but many spontaneous ones scattered along the Western Front where soldiers indeed sang carols, shared food, and played their favorite game across the mud of No Man’s Land. “Joyeux Nöel” seeks to dramatize the communion of one particular group of German, Scottish, and French soldiers on the holiest of nights in 1914. With soft, snowy scenes that seem sketched by pastels, the trilingual French film is a romantic look at a romantic story, but succeeds in conveying the universal suffering and shared humanity of the soldiers who fought and died. 

One of its best moments is a funny debate between a French and a German soldier about a cat who belongs to the farm the trenches run through. The Frenchman call it Nestor, the German Felix, and the cat roams freely between the two sides, who can often hear each other breathing at night. It’s a reminder of just how close the enemies were in the trenches, physically and emotionally, and how the First World War was a fratricide, a bloodbath of millions of men on a continent that turned on itself. 

– Elaine

Golden Globes Invite You to Remember the Hilarity of “Nebraska”

The HFPA’s division between Drama and Comedy categories is always good for some awkwardly dubious nominations. Usually that means some films of questionable quality getting undue recognition to fill out the whole Comedy slate – recall that year when “Burlesque” and “The Tourist” both got nominated, yeeeesh – this year, thanks to the pure glut of good options, it’s more a matter of dubious categorization.

I mean, I’m sure that Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” has plenty of comedic moments, but really, any more than his previous film, “The Descendants,” which won Best Drama from this very same group? Same goes for “Her” or “Inside Llewyn Davis,” although I suppose the latter could arguably fit under the “Musical” side of things. The confusion just continues in the acting categories – Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” is a dramatic performance, but Julie Delpy in “Before Midnight” is comedic?

It’s tough to complain too much about these hilariously useless genre definitions when it lets in so many deserving nominations that haven’t had a chance elsewhere on the circuit. The aforementioned Delpy is a great example, as is Greta Gerwig’s lovely turn in “Frances Ha,” which went so bafflingly unrecognized at the Indie Spirits. Also unexpected was the love for Ron Howard’s “Rush,” which had its critical advocates back when it was released but seemed to fizzle out when the box office didn’t follow. But on the heels of his SAG nomination the previous day, Daniel Brühl’s Supporting Actor campaign has got a major resurrection; will his studio’s publicists make a new push for him after they had basically left the film for dead?

Overall, though, the Globes really shouldn’t be taken as any kind of Oscar “precursor;” they’re a quirky alternative from an eccentric group that just likes to have a big ol’ Hollywood party every January. I’ve come to appreciate that a lot – I mean, who else is going to nominate “Please Mr. Kennedy” for Best Original Song (and over Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” from “The Great Gatsby” to boot)?

2014 HFPA Golden Globe Awards nominations

Best Motion Picture – Drama

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Captain Phillips
  • Gravity
  • Philomena
  • Rush

Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical

  • American Hustle
  • Her
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Nebraska
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actor – Drama

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Idris Elba, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
  • Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
  • Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  • Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”

Best Actor – Comedy/Musical

  • Christian Bale, “American Hustle”
  • Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
  • Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
  • Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”

Best Actress – Drama

  • Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
  • Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
  • Judi Dench, “Philomena”
  • Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”
  • Kate Winslet, “Labor Day”

Best Actress – Comedy/Musical

  • Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
  • Julie Delpy, “Before Midnight”
  • Greta Gerwig, “Frances Ha”
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Enough Said”
  • Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”

Best Supporting Actor

  • Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
  • Daniel Brühl, “Rush”
  • Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
  • Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

Best Supporting Actress

  • Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”
  • Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
  • Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
  • June Squibb, “Nebraska”

Best Director

  • Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”
  • Paul Greengrass, “Captain Phillips”
  • Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”
  • David O. Russell, “American Hustle”

Best Screenplay

  • Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, “Philomena”
  • Spike Jonze, “Her”
  • Bob Nelson, “Nebraska”
  • John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave”
  • David O. Russell, Eric Singer, “American Hustle”

Best Animated Feature Film

  • The Croods
  • Despicable Me 2
  • Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Blue Is the Warmest Color
  • The Great Beauty
  • The Hunt
  • The Past
  • The Wind Rises

Best Original Score

  • Alexander Ebert, “All Is Lost”
  • Alex Heffes, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
  • Steven Price, “Gravity”
  • John Williams, “The Book Thief”
  • Hans Zimmer, “12 Years a Slave”

Best Original Song

  • “Atlas” from “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
  • “Let It Go” from “Frozen”
  • “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
  • “Please Mr. Kennedy” from “Inside Llewyn Davis”
  • “Sweeter than Fiction” from “One Chance”

Some Campaigns Start to SAG

It’s not strictly necessary to get a Screen Actors Guild nomination to be in the race for to win an acting Oscar. Just last year, Christoph Waltz ultimately snuck in for the win despite not being nominated for “Django Unchained.” But these nominations are the first read we have of how people inside the industry (and for that matter, inside the Academy) are responding to the season. And to that end, Tuesday’s nominations brought a few surprising inclusions and snubs.

Probably the most shocking, and debated, omission was Robert Redford for “All Is Lost.” He’s the kind of incredibly respected, hard-working industry vet that SAG usually adores, but he somehow missed out here. It’s hard to say if there’s something going wrong with Redford’s campaign (not enough people seeing the film, perhaps?) or whether they just really, really liked Forest Whitaker and “The Butler” (also a distinct possibility). Nearly as surprising, to me anyway, is no inclusion of Tom Hanks for his supporting turn as the legendary Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” – in fact, the film also missed a Best Ensemble nod, which I had thought a sure thing considering its Hollywood-deifying subject matter.

Instead of Hanks, we got a very intriguing Supporting Actor lineup, with non-professional Barkhad Abdi proving that he’s made a huge impression from his fierce turn in “Captain Phillips,” Daniel Brühl making an unexpected comeback for his role in “Rush” (critically acclaimed at the time, but it had seemed like everyone had already forgotten about Ron Howard’s racing film), and SAG seizing perhaps the last opportunity to honor the tragically late James Gandolfini. I still haven’t seen “Enough Said,” but I am not one to argue with paying tribute to a terrific actor gone far sooner than he should’ve been (and if it means throwing some love to a comedy for once, so much the better).

The other major story here is probably “Dallas Buyers Club,” sneaking into the top Ensemble field despite being painted as a two-man show in most press. I’ve had a suspicion for a long time that the film would register strongly with actors and Hollywood at large; this would seem to confirm that it’s a major contender for a Best Picture nod come Oscar time. I’d also bet that “The Wolf of Wall Street” simply arrived too late to get traction with this particular group (it didn’t start screening until halfway through the voting period), so like “Django” last year, its exclusion doesn’t mean much.

By the way, expect that Best Actress field to stay pretty much the same all season. Not much that can crack that list, unless Amy Adams can get a big push behind her for “American Hustle.”

2014 Screen Actors Guild Award nominations

Best Ensemble:

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • American Hustle
  • August: Osage County
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Best Actor:

  • Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
  • Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  • Forest Whitaker, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

Best Actress:

  • Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
  • Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
  • Judi Dench, “Philomena”
  • Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
  • Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
  • Daniel Brühl, “Rush”
  • Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
  • James Gandolfini, “Enough Said”
  • Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
  • Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
  • Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
  • June Squibb, “Nebraska”
  • Oprah Winfrey, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”