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 on DVD: ‘The Grandmaster’

Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung compare styles in 'The Grandmaster'

Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung compare styles in ‘The Grandmaster’

dvd-grandmaster-cvr-200The great Hong Kong romantic Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love) hadn’t completed a feature film since 2007’s misfire My Blueberry Nights. So it was pretty good news to hear that his latest film was going to be a classic martial-arts extravaganza, reuniting Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi with The Matrix choreographer Yuen Wo Ping.

The Grandmaster, which received well-deserved Oscar nominations for cinematography and costume design, will be released on DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesday. My review is at PopMatters:

“Don’t tell me about your teacher,” says Ip Man (Tony Leung) at the start of Wong Kar Wai’s dreamlike heartbreak of a kung fu film, The Grandmaster, “or brag about your style.” Using that same steady humility flecked with a hint of the sardonic that’s made Leung such a crucial counterweight to the Hong Kong school of overkill filmmaking, he preemptively bleeds the hot air out of what’s to follow. This is a good thing, because that scene is intercut with the already-legendary scene in which Ip Man faces down a dozen or so adversaries in pouring rain. He dispatches them all with practiced ease but not a whiff of arrogance, just as the real Ip Man’s student Bruce Lee would do on film decades later…

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Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Omar’

Training to kill in 'Omar'

‘Omar': Terrorists or freedom fighters?

Omar-posterIn the Oscar-nominated thriller Omar, a young Palestinian man in the West Bank is faced with two challenges: First, how to convince his friend that he’d be a good bet to marry the friend’s little sister? Second, and more importantly, how does he escape the law after helping to murder an Israeli soldier?

Omar opens this week. My review is at Film Racket:

For such a razor-sharp thriller, the West Bank-set Omar smuggles a dense packet of ambiguity into its compact running time. This shouldn’t be a rarity, given how many stories there are about the conflict between occupiers and occupied, the dueling taxonomy of “freedom fighters” and “terrorists.” But too often these clashes are related in absolutes, where one narrative is bought into more than another. Hany Abu-Assad’s skillful story wrestles with those grey moralities without spoon-feeding one or the other to the audience. It’s a story about people, not ideologies, but it knows how inextricably the former intertwine with the latter…

Between a rock and a hard place.

Between a rock and a hard place.

Here is the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘Gloria’

The sublime daffiness of Paulina García in 'Gloria'

The sublime daffiness of Paulina García in ‘Gloria’

gloria-poster1Chile’s submission for this year’s Foreign Film Academy Award, Gloria, doesn’t have the most instantly engaging of storylines: single woman tries to find love. But with deftly rambunctious storytelling and one of the greatest, most soulful performances you’re likely to see all year, it achieves tragicomic greatness.

Gloria is playing around the country right now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

…[The film] is shaded with both a dark melancholy and a bright, getting-on-with-it playfulness. Gloria endures more than her share of spirit-crushing moments, but these appear in between glimmers of joy that buffet her relentless persistence, her will not to sink into a sinkhole of near-retirement surrender. There’s no certainty that she will find any kind of new love again, or forge some new kind of bond with children. If she’s going to carve out a happy life, it will be in her hands, not dependent on approvals from her family, friends or lover…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘The Great Beauty’

The great Tom Servillo lives it up in 'The Great Beauty'

The great Tom Servillo lives it up in ‘The Great Beauty’

greatbeautyposterEvery now and again, a filmmaker is able to conquer the cinematic world with a work that might not have a lot to say (coherently, at least), but it throws enough at the viewer to send them away impressed and a little dazed. Last year’s version of that film was Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, a bright and comic variation on Dante’s Inferno that doesn’t hold together in the light of day but seduced enough lovers of Rome and the high life to garner an Oscar nomination.

It’s still playing in arthouses across the land and likely will through the Academy Awards. My review is at PopMatters:

Spectacle is everything in Paolo Sorrentino’s fabulistic Roman candle The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), and why not? He’s a grand visualist and ringleader of chaos whose talents might remind you of Fellini and Scorsese. Like those directors, however, his films can also suffer for lack of story. It’s almost as though the images come piling up one after another with such rapidity that a framework must be created for them, rather than the other way around. Whatever might have inspired The Great Beauty, it doesn’t come close to sustaining the resulting film. But what a show…

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Here’s the trailer:

New on DVD: ‘Les Miserables’

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lesmiserables-dvdEvery few years, Hollywood decides to go back and see whether it’s worth reviving the musical. Generally it’s well received, but then instead of getting back into the genre, they wait a few more years for the next one. So it was with 2012’s Les Miserables, an adaptation of a musical that trends ponderous on stage but comes alive under Tom Hooper’s deft direction. 

It’s available now on DVD and Blu-ray. My full review is at Film Racket; here’s part of it:

Some stories are so bulletproof that even a tuneless Russell Crowe can’t deliver a mortal wound. There are also some so prone to overwrought pathos that even a fearsomely committed Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, working every creative muscle in their bodies, can’t quite elevate to greatness. In Tom Hooper’s labor-of-love adaptation of the workhorse musical Les Miserables, nearly all the story’s strongest and most crowd-pleasing elements are passionately brought to the fore…

You can watch the trailer here:

New on DVD: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

zerodarkthirtydvdBetween the various Navy SEAL books and films flooding the market, Mark Bowden’s riveting The Finish, and the all the video games crafted around Special Ops strike teams, you’d think commando fatigue would be setting in. That wasn’t the case with Zero Dark Thirty, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

Zero Dark Thirty (military jargon for a half-hour after midnight) is an epic take on the Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for the 9/11 mastermind. Working on a dusty Afghanistan forward operating base, Maya (Jessica Chastain) then shifts to analyzing the intelligence from the American embassy in Islamabad… As the casualties mount and the years tick by, the shell-shocked Maya’s worldview narrows down to a millimeter-wide slit that recognizes only her quarry. The film recounts the agonizingly particular step-by-step analysis of baffling and contradictory information. It just as convincingly relays the sickening sense of urgency in the hunt, a fear that after all the bombings and rhetoric and fear and war, their quarry may simply get away. “We are failing… Bring me people to kill,” seethes Maya’s CIA superior…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘War Witch’

War Witch

war-witch-posterThere has been plenty written about the tragedy of child soldiers in the African wars, but little that has been put on film that wasn’t a documentary. Kim Nguyen’s blistering, Oscar-nominated War Witch uses the subject as the basis for a haunting, unforgettable film about a lost girl trying to put some kind of a life together.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

In some sub-Saharan African country where wars ebb and flow in a constant, blood-dimmed tide, a teenage girl with the eyes of a traumatized warrior tells the story of how she became a soldier. She wants her child to know what happened, even though she believes her evil deeds are not forgivable. The girl, Komona (Rachel Mwanza), relates everything in a numbed voiceover as though narrating a nightmare. With all its talk of witches and gris-gris and the many ghosts walking around like flesh-and-blood people, War Witch is more like a fairytale from long ago than an of-the-moment topical drama…

War Witch opens in limited release on Friday. Seek it out.

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.

Now Playing: ‘Rust and Bone’

rust-and-bone-posterAttracting strangely little attention from the best-of-year listmakers and odds-on awards types, the tough-souled French tearjerker Rust and Bone features a couple of the best performances you’ll see this year outside of The Master:

Marion Cotillard might seem the one to watch in Jacques Audiard’s melodrama, Rust and Bone. She is the movie star, after all, playing a character who suffers a shocking injury and an emotionally convoluted road to recovery. But as her cohort in pain, Matthias Schoenaerts makes the deeper impression. Together, they create a deeply etched study in punishments and limits, in what the body and the soul can endure…

My full review is at PopMatters.

You can see the full trailer here: