For Your Consideration: Oct. 24, 2014

People usually hesitate to call the Independent Film Project’s Gotham Awards the official start of the awards season – as the East Coast-little sibling to the Spirit Awards (which are already themselves the awkward cousin of the Oscars, Golden Globes, et al), the Gothams are hardly an influential affair. But hey, they’re the first group to actually start putting out competitive categories, and there’s just something so damn fun about an end-of-year list. This year’s list of nominations seem as suitably discerning as ever, with “Boyhood” leading the way and love for “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Under the Skin,” among others (I’m particularly intrigued by their Best Actor nod for Oscar Isaac in J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” – an interesting way to sneak around the review embargo that’s been placed on the film so far).

In any case, we’re going to kick off the season by celebrating Gotham Awards past – here are three films that took the top prize from the New York indie scene.

– Ethan

“Half Nelson” (2006)

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie

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

“The Notebook” may have catapulted Ryan Gosling to the A-list, but it was “Half Nelson” that made him a critics’ darling too. His turn as a drug-addicted inner-city junior high school teacher is riveting (and remains his only Oscar-nominated role), but revisiting the film the real shocker is how well Shareeka Epps, as Gosling’s student-turned-confidante, holds her own. Combine those two with Anthony Mackie’s electric performance as a neighborhood dealer who draws Epps into his business, and “Half Nelson” is a great example of what the 21st-century indie scene has offered so far: raw, rough talent, standing out in a well-written, on-the-fly production.

– Ethan

“Frozen River” (2008)

Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Jr.

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

This pick also serves as a bittersweet tribute to Misty Upham, who died under tragic and rather mysterious circumstances a few weeks ago. Courtney Hunt’s drama finely balances elements of a crime thriller with scathing indictments on the American economy and immigration policy. As Ray Eddy and Lila Littlewolf, two women who form an uneasy partnership to smuggle immigrants across the St. Lawrence River from Canada to a Mohawk reservation, Leo and Upham are a well-matched odd couple, never quite falling into the sappy screen clichés of unlikely friendship. Amid the snow and ice, the film smolders, fueled by Ray and Lila’s desperation to support themselves and their children in a society where they’ve run out of options.

– Ethan

“Winter’s Bone” (2010)

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt

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

Doesn’t it seem an eternity ago that we had no idea who Jennifer Lawrence was? It’s been a whirlwind few years, but even after a blockbuster franchise and an Oscar, “Winter’s Bone” remains Lawrence’s best work (sorry, David O. Russell fans, it’s true). The film bears a passing resemblance to “Frozen River,” as another chilly, rustic thriller about a woman driven to extreme measures to protect herself and her family – but “Winter’s Bone” drops to an even darker place, where drugs, poverty and violence are inescapable. The menace in Debra Granik’s vision of the Ozarks is palpable, especially whenever John Hawkes is on screen as Lawrence’s hostile, enigmatic uncle. Watching “Winter’s Bone,” it’s not hard to see how Lawrence won the lead in “The Hunger Games” – Ree is nothing if not the real-life version of Katniss Eberdeen, and all the admirable for it.

– Ethan

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.

New York Critics are Hustlin’

Huh. Considering the main buzz out of early screenings of David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” was “entertaining, but not revelatory,” it didn’t seem like the film, in this of all seasons, that the critics would stake their claim on. Then again, that mild befuddlement was pretty much my same reaction to both of Russell’s previous two films (“The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), so I guess I should just expect this now. He’s a talented guy and I do enjoy his films, but once again, rewarding a slick genre piece over more challenging work like “12 Years a Slave”…

It would also be one thing if we were talking about the Golden Globes here, or even the National Board of Review (who chime in tomorrow), but this is the New York Film Critics’ Circle – usually a slightly snobbier bunch. But there you are – “American Hustle” is their pick for best film of the year. Word is that the vote actually came down to a tie-breaker between “Hustle” and “12 Years a Slave,” though, so it’s not like McQueen’s film is hurt any in the long run. In fact, I think the Fox Searchlight campaigners might be glad to have the attention shift elsewhere for a little bit; it’s a long way yet to Oscar, and we know how presumptive frontrunners have a tendency to fall by the wayside if crowned too early.

Elsewhere in the NY picks, Robert Redford got exactly the notice he needed, receiving Best Actor for his solo work in J.C. Chandor’s survival piece “All Is Lost.” Unsurprisingly, Redford doesn’t much go in for the campaign junket, so he’ll need critics’ groups like these to stay in the packed lead actor field. Blanchett may be the one to beat for her fantastic work in “Blue Jasmine,” and watch out for Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club-” he’s getting fantastic reviews and it’s the perfect kind of restrained-in-a-showy-role performance that the Academy loves (only slightly less than showy-in-a-showy-role performances).

I’m fully on board with wins for “The Wind Rises” and “Stories We Tell,” two of my absolute favorites of the year, no question. And I’m excited to see Bruce Delbonnel, a great cinematographer in his own right (“Amélie,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”) stepping in so smoothly to work with the Coens with their regular DP, Roger Deakins, busy elsewhere. I’m absolutely going to see that movie when it releases on Friday, finals be damned.

Really, besides that somewhat unexpected top pick, no curveballs here from the NYFCC in the first shot of the season. How will NBR chime in tomorrow? Will the last big question mark of the year, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” show up? (I’m unclear on whether it screened in time for either the NY critics or NBR to consider it, but good word of mouth is starting to creep out)

New York Film Critics Circle Awards

Best Picture: American Hustle

Best Director: Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”

Best Actor: Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”

Best Screenplay: American Hustle

Best Foreign Language Film: Blue Is the Warmest Color

Best Animated Film: The Wind Rises

Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Best First Film: Fruitvale Station

Best Non-Fiction Film: Stories We Tell