For Your Consideration: March 21, 2014

Spring is here! We here at The Best Films of Our Lives are celebrating… by watching movies! Yes, you’re not surprised, but you might find a few surprises in our picks for the week.

To be honest, when Ethan suggested our theme for this week, I was confused. What is a spring movie? The adjectives, “light, cheery” and Ethan’s increasingly desperate invocations of “rain, sunshine, and flowers” did not do anything to alleviate my confusion. In typical, contrarian fashion, my brain honed in all the wrong seasons; all I could think of were “Winter’s Bone,” “500 Days of Summer” and “Autumn Sonata”, and I almost got kicked off the blog when I feebly brought up that the Titanic sank in April. Whether this is due to my Californian upbringing, where spring doesn’t really exist, or to my diet of movies about unrequited love and brooding suitors, is a question I’d rather not have answered.


“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)

Cast: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagan, Millard Mitchell, Cyd Charisse, Douglas Fowley, Rita Moreno

Available on disc from Netflix, streaming on Amazon Instant and purchase from iTunes.

One of the most unabashedly joyous of all movies, period. There may be no greater summary of that springtime feeling than the image of Gene Kelly, umbrella in hand, swinging from a lamp-post, giddily declaring his love to heaven and earth and anyone else in earshot. It’s a film that feels somehow more free than many of its contemporary big-ticket musicals, perhaps because it was not based on an already successful stage production. Set loose from the expectation of how a movie could “translate” Broadway, Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen chose to celebrate Hollywood, tongue in cheek and light on their feet. “Singin’ in the Rain” deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, but it’s the kind of movie that bursts forth from even a laptop.


“Sense and Sensibility” (1995)

Cast: Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Tom Wilkinson, Imelda Staunton, Hugh Laurie

Available on Netflix DVD, iTunes, and Amazon

Jane Austen has the unique misfortune of being so loved that her work suffers constant adaptation. The sheer number of “Pride and Prejudice” variants boggles the mind, but its cousin, “Sense and Sensibility,” has had a somewhat kinder fate, brought to life in this sweet, sweeping movie directed by Ang Lee. After their father’s death, the Dashwood sisters, the reserved Elinor (Emma Thompson) and the passionate Marianne (Kate Winslet), must rely on marriage to save themselves from destitution. What ensues is a story of romance, misunderstanding, money, and awakening, rendered complete by a witty script (written by Emma Thompson), beautiful cinematography, and a most deliciously British cast. Both Thompson and Winslet were nominated for an Oscar for their performances, but Winslet’s balance of strength and fragility, her devotion to love, provide some of the most touching moments in the movie. As rare as it might be, this is one movie that does Jane Austen justice.


“The Stroll” (2003)

Cast: Irina Pegova, Pavel Barshak, Evgeny Tsyganov

Available (with English subtitles) in its entirety on YouTube.

A high-spirited, if somewhat sloppy, mish-mash of “Before Sunrise” and “Jules and Jim,” Aleksei Uchitel’s film is a refreshing little gem of post-Soviet filmmaking. In contrast to the staid, overly formal dramas (the works of Nikita Mikhalkov, Aleksei Balabanov) and  breezy wannabe Hollywood romcoms (“Piter FM,” “Plus One”) that dominate most contemporary Russian cinema, “The Stroll” is loose and comfortably inconsequential. Uchitel follows three young 20-somethings with a handheld camera as they wander the streets of St. Petersburg more or less in real time, reveling in the city’s energy and each other’s company. It’s not all fun and games of course, as predictably there’s a love triangle brewing – but even the last-minute swerve toward melancholy drama, as the film itself suggests, isn’t enough to bring down the buoyancy of young romance.


Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.


What, is it funny or something?

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Nothing wrong whatsoever with the National Board of Review sticking its neck out today for Spike Jonze’s intriguing new romance – in fact, it’s a huge boost for what was seen as a fringe Oscar contender until now (the last NBR winner to not earn a Best Picture nomination from the Academy was “Quills,” 13 years ago). Fascinating for the more populist-leaning NBR to be the ones to go there; I was thinking that the LA critics might be the ones to go for “Her,” and they still might. In any case, it’s a great sign of a varied season that we aren’t seeing either “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity” dominate so far – and for fans of those films, really, don’t worry, they will both very much be in it.

Elsewhere, all of the acting winners were different from the NYFCC choices, again a sign of the bevy of options. “Nebraska” seems a stronger contender every day, and Will Forte’s Supporting Actor campaign gets a big boost here. Also good notice for Octavia Spencer, who has to battle with voters’ short-term memories as “Fruitvale Station” came out all the way back in summer.

More and more notice for “The Wind Rises” and “Stories We Tell” (which also made the Academy’s 15-film shortlist in the Best Documentary Feature category yesterday) – not going to complain there. Miyazaki’s last film looks pretty safe for a nomination at the Oscars, but I would say genre bias would still have the family-friendly “Frozen” in the lead for the win there.

Meanwhile, not a ton of surprises in the NBR’s top lists (note, as always, that a category winner doesn’t actually make the top list in the corresponding category, so “Her” doesn’t end up in the Top 10 Films list – a slightly strange system, but if it allows for more recognition, why not). No “Blue Is the Warmest Color” in the Foreign Language Film list, the first sign of dissension there; also I have no idea what Peter Berg’s forgettable-looking Navy SEAL drama “Lone Survivor” is doing here. Most likely just an attempt to get Mark Wahlberg and Taylor Kitsch on to the red carpet.

National Board of Review superlatives

Best Film: Her

Best Director: Spike Jonze, “Her”

Best Actor: Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”

Best Actress: Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”

Best Supporting Actor: Will Forte, “Nebraska”

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, “Fruitvale Station”

Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Best Adapted Screenplay: Terence Winter, “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises

Breakthrough Performance, Male: Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale Station”

Breakthrough Performance, Female: Adele Exarchopoulos, “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

Best Directorial Debut: Ryan Coogler, “Fruitvale Station”

Best Foreign Language Film: The Past

Best Documentary: Stories We Tell

William K. Everson Film History Award: George Stevens, Jr.

Best Ensemble: Prisoners

Spotlight Award: The career collaboration of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio

NBR Freedom of Expression Award: Wadjda

Creative Innovation in Filmmaking Award: Gravity

Top Films (alphabetical):

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Fruitvale Station
  • Gravity
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Lone Survivor
  • Nebraska
  • Prisoners
  • Saving Mr. Banks
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

Top 5 Foreign Language Films (alphabetical):

  • Beyond the Hills
  • Gloria
  • The Grandmaster
  • A Hijacking
  • The Hunt

Top 5 Documentaries:

  • 20 Feet from Stardom
  • The Act of Killing
  • After Tiller
  • Casting By
  • The Square

Top 10 Independent Films (alphabetical):

  • Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • In a World…
  • Mother of George
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Mud
  • The Place Beyond the Pines
  • Short Term 12
  • Sightseers
  • The Spectacular Now