Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: Academy Awards Edition

MERYL STREEP and JULIA ROBERTS star in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

The Oscar-nominated ‘August: Osage County’ – #13 of the year’s top 25 films covered in ‘Eyes Wide Open: 2013′

The best approach to take to tonight’s blitzkrieg of hype, blather, nonsense, tears, bad jokes, and long strange stretches of awkward silences—we’re speaking, of course, of the 86th Academy Awards—might be that proffered by Anthony Lane:

Whether Leonardo DiCaprio or Matthew McConaughey, or neither of them, will be crowned Best Actor is a matter of such brazen unimportance that we have gone crazy trying to call it.

Brazen unimportance, indeed. That being said, it was a fantastic year for film. And if it takes a gargantuan mediapocalypse like tonight’s Oscars broadcast to bring attention to some of those films, if sending actors strutting down a red carpet and answering the same questions they’ve been answering for six months now will get another few thousand people to seek out August: Osage County, then so be it.

Eyes_Wide_Open_2013-_Cover_for_KindleI covered many of the Oscar-nominated films in this year’s edition of my annual film guide, Eyes Wide Open — it’s available in paperback or more instantaneously in ebook from. Here’s a quick rundown of the Oscar-nominated films included in the book and where they ranked in my lists:

  • 12 Years a Slave (Best Picture, Actor, Actor-supporting, Actress-supporting, Costume Design, Director, Editing, Production Design, Adapted Screenplay) — #2:Steve McQueen’s blistering adaptation of Solomon Northup’s pre-Civil War memoir about being kidnapped into slavery in Louisiana is memorably horrific and heroic in equal measures.
  • Gravity (Best Picture, Actress, Cinematography, Editing, Director, Original Score, Sound Editing Production Design, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects) — #3: “Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning outer-orbit thriller hinges on the parallel between a character’s personal isolation and the terrifying physical isolation of space.”
  • The Wolf of Wall Street (Best Picture / Actor / Actor-Supporting / Director / Adapted Screenplay) — “An overly slick comedy with painted-on cynicism.”
  • Inside Llewyn Davis (Best Cinematography / Sound Mixing) — #9: “The Coen brothers are caught between their Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou? modes in this wintry dream-odyssey of a deadpan comedy swaddled in gorgeous music.”
  • August: Osage County (Actor, Actress) — #13: “A saga of family and dysfunction—cleanly truncated by Tracey Letts from his 3-hour-plus Pulitzer Prize-winning play—whose dark, acid humor never undercuts the recurring tragedy glowering underneath.”
  • Frozen (Best Animated Feature) — Honorable Mention: “Disney’s impeccably animated return-to-form is both Broadway-ready musical and sweetly inspirational sibling melodrama where for once the choice for the heroine isn’t which man to choose.”
'Much Ado About Nothing' -

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ – No Oscar nominations but #18 of the year’s top 25 films covered in ‘Eyes Wide Open: 2013′

Lastly, here’s a few of the films most deserving of gold statuettes that were most egregiously overlooked but made it into Eyes Wide Open:

  • Stories We Tell — #1: “Sarah Polley’s fractured family history is a beautiful and thoughtful story about how our pasts don’t just happen, they’re created.”
  • Upstream Color — #8: “A metaphysical love story that baffles and excites in almost equal measures.”
  • Much Ado About Nothing — #18: “Joss Whedon’s minty-fresh adaptation turns his team of quick-witted TV actors on Shakespeare’s most durable comedy and comes up a winner.”

Last word on the Oscars, as often makes sense, to Anthony Lane:

We are already looking forward to looking back in anger at the awards that confounded our hunches, at our loss of the office sweepstake, at the stop-start tears, the sagging jokes, and the normally rational women who choose, for one night only, to dress like exploded cupcakes.

New in Theaters: ‘Child’s Pose’

Luminita Gheorghiu schemes in 'Child's Pose'

Luminita Gheorghiu schemes in ‘Child’s Pose’

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Winner of the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, Child’s Pose is playing now in limited release, and is worth seeking out. My review is at Film Racket:

“A mother’s love” has rarely felt more dagger-like or malevolent than in the chilling morality thriller Child’s Pose. Part anatomy of a villain and part crime procedural, Calin Peter Netzer’s film follows what happens after a domineering upper-class Bucharest mother finds out her coddled son has been accused of running down and killing a young boy from the outskirts of town. It’s another in a series of European films (Italy’s The Great Beauty, in particular) that have served as X-rays of societies riddled with corruption like mold veined through a hunk of old cheese. What makes Child’s Pose even more affecting is that many of its characters come off as spiritually corrupt as the society at large. And the rot comes from the top…

Here is the trailer:

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: ‘Eyes Wide Open 2013′

'Upstream Color': One of the year's best movies that didn't make it onto the Oscar shortlist

‘Upstream Color’: One of the year’s great movies that didn’t make it onto the Oscar shortlist

Just in time for the upcoming Academy Awards but way too late for the SAG Awards, Golden Globes, and just about every movie awards ceremony that means anything, here comes the newest iteration of my now-annual Best-Of and Worst-Of compilation: Eyes Wide Open 2013: The Year’s 25 Greatest Movies (and 5 Worst).

Eyes_Wide_Open_2013-_Cover_for_KindleThe title should be basically self-explanatory, but here’s the gist of it: I pulled together what I thought were the 25 best films from 2013—trying best as I could to cover the gamut from the awards magnets that actually deserved the accolades like 12 Years a Slave to lesser-seen fare like Stories We TellUpstream Color, and A Touch of Sin. I also threw in some other odds and ends like notable DVD reviews, shorter appreciations of great movies that didn’t get into the top 25, great quotes, and of course, the year’s 5 worst films.

2013 was a good year all in all, so the 25 best was much harder to compile than the 5 worst. A nice surprise, for once.

You can buy the book now either in handy-dandy ebook formats here and here. There’s also a paperback edition available here.

Best Movies of 2013: First Take

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Since it’s a brand new year already featuring its own share of miserable, do-I-have-to-go-out-there? weather, what better time to sit back and figure out what exactly was the year that was? Film-wise, that is.

I contributed to a few of those lists at different websites this month. Over at PopMatters, you can see their gargantuan Top 35 films list here; they’ve also produced similar lists broken out into DVDs and foreign/indie films. I also contributed to their sections on the year’s worst films, and best female and male performances.

Sarah Polley's 'Stories We Tell'

Sarah Polley’s ‘Stories We Tell’

Also, the writers for Film Racket published their own individual Top 10 lists here. My list is something of a first draft that I’ll be going back over and redoing for the publication (hopefully later this month) of the new edition of Eyes Wide Open 2013: The Year’s 25 Greatest Movies (and 5 Worst). Here’s the short version:

  1. Stories We Tell
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. Gravity
  4. Before Midnight
  5. Fruitvale Station
  6. A Touch of Sin
  7. August: Osage County
  8. Gimme the Loot
  9. Room 237
  10. Captain Phillips

New in Theaters: ‘Out of the Furnace’

Christian Bale and Zoe Saldana in 'Out of the Furnace'

Christian Bale and Zoe Saldana in ‘Out of the Furnace’

Out-of-the-Furnace-PosterNow that December’s here, the Oscar race can begin in earnest. One of the first out of the barrel is Out of the Furnace, which was a Ridley Scott / Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle sometime back but was later (probably fortunately) retooled by Scott Cooper (2009′s Jeff Bridges crusty heartwarmer Crazy Heart) into a self-consciously gritty blue-collar revenge tale with a whole roster of boldface names.

Out of the Furnace is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

Although Christian Bale plays a down-to-earth factory guy in Scott Cooper’s bashed-knuckle drama, there’s still a dark superhero glimmer to his too-good-to-be-true character. In a story littered with moral compromises and horrendous decisions, Bale’s Russell Baze doesn’t show a moment of weakness. He stalks right into the very maw of an Appalachian hell without seeming to give it a second thought. After all, he has his family to defend. That would be all well and good were Russell being played by Charles Bronson and this was a world of strict blacks and whites. But Cooper seems to be aiming for something different, trying to tell a familiar vengeance story with uncommon grit and attention to character. Batman just doesn’t fit that well into that kind of universe…

Here’s the trailer:

 

New in Theaters: ‘A Touch of Sin’

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Zhao Tao in ‘A Touch of Sin’

It’s hard to know what to make of Jia Zhangke’s newest film A Touch of Sin. On the one hand, it’s a docudrama that links together four based-on-reality stories about Chinese people taking desperate measures in horrendous circumstances. But as much as it reminds one of great novels about people caught in the capitalist machinery of the 19th century (Balzac and Dreiser, in particular), it’s also a stylized revenge film with some surrealism thrown in for good measure. Whatever it is, this is not a film to miss.

Winner of the best screenplay award of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, A Touch of Sin is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:

The closest you’ll come to a happy person in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is the grim-faced loner Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang). Unfortunately, he’s probably a psychopath. The film’s three other major characters are all eventually thrust into a type of insanity, but Zhou is the only one who seems to have both already crossed over and be content with it…

You can watch the trailer here:

Now Playing: ‘In a World…’

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inaworld-poster1

Everybody remembers Don LaFontaine, or at least that voice of his which for years rattled through seemingly every movie trailer in existence with his hyperdramatic trademark opening: “In a world…” His legacy hangs over Lake Bell’s debut as writer/director/star of the same title, an unlikely comedy that succeeds where it by all means should not.

My review is at Film Racket:

Voice actors might not be the unsung heroes of the movie world but they are partly responsible for why many people go to see one movie or another. In the end, Lake Bell’s chaotic but assured comedy doesn’t really have much to do with the artistry or even the business of the voiceover, but it makes for a good enough hook to hang her various sketches from…

In a World… is playing now in limited release; check it out.

Here’s the trailer:

 

New on DVD: ‘The Master’

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themaster1One of the greatest, weirdest films of 2012 was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Synopses don’t quite do it justice; just find it and watch it (the DVD and Blu-ray are available as of today).

My full review is at Film Journal International:

The Master makes what should have been long obvious now utterly clear: Paul Thomas Anderson can lay claim to being one of the era’s few American writer/directors afflicted with greatness. It is hard to think of another home-grown filmmaker who so consistently brings such psychologically astute scripting, and ability to coax nakedly revelatory performances from actors—that classically trained eye for widescreen framing—to each film he makes. The Master may not match the level of artistry or thematic intensity seen in There Will Be Blood, but it is Anderson’s most approachable film in years, not to mention his most vividly realized characters to date…

You can see the trailer here:

Now on Sale: ‘Eyes Wide Open 2012′

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It’s only about a week to go before the Oscar Awards broadcast. In and of themselves, they don’t matter, even for serious movie fans. Not a bit. Given the wild richness that can be found in just one year’s worth of American studio and indie (for whatever that distinction is still worth making), identifying one particular film or performer as the “best” is an exercise in futility.

Eyes Wide Open-coverSo why do we care? If nothing else, the Oscars (like the Golden Globes) serve as an excuse to look over a year’s worth of cinema and determine what was most noteworthy about it. Or, more commonly, to argue about what those out-of-touch types in the Academy foolishly considered the best.

To help continue that argument, we offer for your consideration: Eyes Wide Open 2012: The Year’s 25 Greatest Movies (and 5 Worst). It’s a compilation of some 100-odd pages’ worth of material that I wrote over the past year (as well as some new pieces written for this book) about the films of 2012—the good, the bad, the preposterous, and the utterly forgettable.

In addition to the best and worst lists (The Hobbit made one list, and Cloud Atlas made the other; try guessing which), there’s also some essays, DVD reviews, and even some awards lists of my own (because, why should the Oscars have all the fun?). It covers everything from the strange genius of the late Tony Scott to the yawn-inducing mediocrity of The Avengers and the stark political attack contained in Brad Pitt’s Killing Them Softly.

You can get the ebook here and here; there’s also a print-on-demand paperback here.

If this works out, it might become an annual thing. Let me know what you think.

New in Theaters: ‘Side Effects’

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sideeffects-poster1In theory, this week’s pharma-thriller Side Effects is supposed to be Steven Soderbergh’s last feature film as director. He’s something of a workaholic, film-wise, so we’ll see if he sticks to that. But in any case, the film itself is an interesting swan song, not exactly career-defining but a neat piece of work regardless:

My full review is at Film Journal International:

The film’s ad campaign hinted at something vaguely related to Contagion, playing up the fact that both movies share a director (Soderbergh) and screenwriter (Scott Z. Burns), and that they are structured around a specific modern-day fear. While that pandemic film was more a fully realized, flesh-and-blood fictional story than it was a docudrama, Side Effects is really a sleekly constructed noir where the pharmaceutical topicality is mostly backdrop…

You can see the trailer here: