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

Reviews: A Thrifty Three Pack

Did you think I hadn’t been seeing any movies just because I haven’t been posting reviews very often? You silly reader you. There is always time, even in grad school, to see new movies – absurdly over-priced NYC limited-release movies. It’s still a few weeks before I’m out of the end-of-semester woods, and by then I’m sure my backlog will be even worse, so here’s some quick reviews to sate your appetites.

(BTW, get pumped – the 7th Annual EMO Awards are only about a month away!)

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s clinical, composed direction takes on Kubrickian proportions in this thoroughly unsentimental slavery drama. As with his previous films (“Hunger,” “Shame”), “12 Years a Slave” never quite works as a story – it is too controlled, too stiff in its imagery and characterization to stay engaging on a narrative level. The filmmaking itself constantly forces its presence, pushing us away from Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) the man in favor of Solomon Northup, symbol of wrongful oppression.

That might be for the best anyway, as there will always be something problematic about exploring the mundane, institutional evils of slavery through the story of an exception. Northup, a free black man from upstate New York kidnapped and sold into servitude in the 1840’s, was an extraordinary case in that, as the title of the film suggests, he eventually found an escape. As Mark Harris wrote on the subject, it is somewhat difficult to suggest the truly destructive, systematic injustice of slavery through the individual suffering of one man who ultimately got out. The most heart-rending, excruciating moments in the film often happen around Solomon, not to him – indeed, it is better not to see this as the story of Solomon Northup, but the story of what Solomon Northup saw.

And to that end, McQueen’s camera observes in stunning, audacious fashion. There are shots (in particular a searing, supremely unsettling scene of a hanging) so bold, so dense they bowl you over. Far from the baiting, self-consciously significant dramas that the subject matter calls to mind, this is incisive filmmaking of a kind middlebrow Hollywood is usually terrified to touch. It earns its acclaim with complexity and an actual, debatable point of view.

Ejiofor endures with solemn spirit, but the movie’s fire belongs to Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as a tempestuous plantation owner, his cold wife, and the slave girl that captures his obsessive gaze. While our protagonist is often swallowed by McQueen’s direction, treated as just another piece of the mise-en-scene, this trio seem to burst out of the frame, their unrestrained energy spilling forth into the audience’s nightmares.

As for the distracting parade of star cameos in smaller roles (Benedict Cumberbatch! Brad Pitt! Paul Giamatti! Taran Killam!), generally the less said, the better.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Wind Rises

To be perfectly honest, I get slightly choked up just thinking about this movie. It’s rare for an artist to “sign off” in such an open manner (no, Steven Soderbergh’s multiple resignations from filmmaking don’t count) – and doubly so for that notice to be as gentle, melancholic and introspective as this. But then, could we expect anything more from Hayao Miyazaki? The animation grandmaster’s last feature film (he will reportedly continue to make shorts exclusively for the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo) encapsulates – and not accidentally – much of what his entire career has meant, both to his audience and clearly, to him personally.

Sidestepping his usual, more fantastic subject matter, “The Wind Rises” has Miyazaki taking an unexpected last-minute left turn into historical biography. Based (albeit very, very loosely) on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the aircraft engineer who designed the infamous “Zero” fighter planes used by Japan in WWII, “The Wind Rises” pits its director, for the first time ever, against the constraints of reality. That Miyazaki uses this challenge as an opportunity to liberate our notion of what a biopic can be speaks to his limitless imagination. As we follow Jiro from his schoolboy days up to the start of the war, Miyazaki periodically interrupts with flights of fancy both figurative and literal – delightful dream sequences (involving Jiro’s spiritual mentor, a projection of Italian aviator Giovanni Caproni) play alongside soaring shots of aircraft on the wing, transforming our world into something as beautiful as the lands of make-believe we’ve seen in the director’s previous works.

More than ever though, the pure exuberance and joy of these passages is tempered by the specter of human violence and destruction. In a deft choice, Miyazaki leaves World War II itself off the screen; the pall of that future trauma is left hanging over Jiro’s dreams, as the engineer struggles with the knowledge that his designs, which he pursues out of aesthetic and scientific wonder, will be used to devastating ends. The film has drawn criticism from both ends of the political spectrum in the director’s home country, and that’s not surprising – it walks a fine, complex line between optimism and elegy, finding a sympathetic message of pacifism in the life of a man who created killing machines.

Part of that sympathy could be chalked up to the fairy tale Miyazaki has concocted out of his protagonist’s personal life. But really, Jiro’s storybook romance with a young girl named Naoko is the only weak link of the film, as it does drag somewhat in the film’s final third. It’s not the tubercular love interest that makes Jiro such a relatable figure – it’s his creative passion and gentle, human decency.

And that is, in the end, what drew us to Miyazaki’s films. Throughout “The Wind Rises,” Jiro is clearly intended as a surrogate for the director, constantly sketching and drawing at desks that look suspiciously like animation tables. So if we must say goodbye, there really is no better way to part than this: with a man who, deep down, was always just a boy who dreamt of flying.

“The Wind Rises” played in limited release in NY and LA for a week; it will return to theaters across North America in February.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

Blue Is the Warmest Color

Nothing you may have read or heard about “Blue Is the Warmest Color” can accurately prepare you for the actual experience. Yes, there are some extended lesbian sex scenes; but anyone who’s just looking for titillation would have much more satisfying options elsewhere. Yes, the IFC Center in New York is letting in high-school-aged viewers in flagrant disregard of the MPAA’s NC-17 rating; but while I have absolutely no problems with this and commend that theater’s notion that adolescents should have the opportunity to see their real lives, in all their messy, awkward glory, up on the big screen, implying that this is a coming-of-age story doesn’t really give the whole picture either.

The brilliance of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s approach is in his patience – “Blue Is the Warmest Color” clocks in at almost exactly three hours, because the filmmaker seems less interested in telling a story than observing one. On every structural level, Kechiche simply waits, taking us past the point where every other film tells us we should stop. Conversations meander, showing off not just critical information but superfluous detail; scenes and montages linger, revealing both action and reaction; time passes, because real life doesn’t have pat endings. A ten-minute sex scene seems entirely appropriate when the leads need a full minute or two just to decide whether to kiss.

What seems to start off as a French take on “An Education” winds up going much, much further, a tale not just of discovery but of disillusionment, mundanity and loss. The central relationship, between young, aimless student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and the older, confident artist Emma (Léa Seydoux) is not treated as something representative or universal, but the confluence of these particular two individuals: it’s not even that it’s about sexual orientation so much as personality, ambition, desire. This is not your life; this is Adèle’s.

The fact remains that Kechiche is a straight man filming younger, straight women simulating lesbian sex, and that does make elements of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” problematic (Kechiche’s obsession with Exarchopoulos’ rear end in particular struck even me as unnecessary). But good lord, if we are to have that debate (and we certainly should), let it be about a film this formally intriguing and well-performed.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars