Month: June 2013

6 Films to See Before Oscar Season Takes Over Your Life

Matthew Goode eradicates Jacki Weaver in "Stoker"

Matthew Goode eradicates Jacki Weaver in “Stoker”


–A sampling of 2013 greats that won’t get any attention from The Academy, but deserve yours–

Food options consist of fluctuating ratios of beef to chicken ramen? Losing an entire night’s sleep so you can get your last-minute Oscar article posted a mere hour prior to the official nominations? Ass perfectly contoured to the shape of your local theater’s lumpy seat cushion after two straight days of three-film marathons?

Oscar season. Film buffs know it well.

It’s a time which brings out the best in world cinema and the worst in the bloggers and journalists who cover (reviewing, disputing, tracking) its multiple-month course.

From early festival circuit buzz all the way to Thanksgiving Day releases, critic awards, and guild nominations, awards season barely affords its followers time to breathe let alone take in a film that isn’t one of the respective year’s crop of contenders riding the road towards a golden statue.

It’s easy for early-release films (studio and indie crops dumped off from January through August) to gain recognition from the year’s end circle of critics, guilds, and major awards ceremonies like the Oscars and Golden Globes. 2013 is already shaping up to be one of the most crowded years in recent memory; there are power plays from the Coen brothers, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen–to name a few–to get lost in by the time the final quarter of 2013 comes to a close. But, the year has given us master efforts from a vast array of filmmaker perspectives. So, before you lose sight of everything as you scour the internet for information on when Fruitvale Station will expand past limited release in a few weeks, check out these six films which won’t get any recognition from the Academy but deserve yours.

(in no particular order)

Stoker
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray now.

Matthew Goode

Matthew Goode

Stoker unites an unlikely gang of collaborators–Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller (of Prison Break fame), and veteran actress Nicole Kidman–for a beautifully macabre anti-fairytale. Chan-wook’s first full-length English feature tells the story of a young woman, India (Mia Wasikowska), who must stand by as her emotionally-unstable mother (Kidman) ignites a sexual relationship with her late father’s brother (Matthew Goode).

The film wafts through intensely-disturbing material (which crescendos as India matures to match her uncle’s increasingly-hostile behavior) with the whispery presence of a spider on the wall, with Chan-wook’s observational perspective framed beautifully by Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography, reminding us that all’s well that ends with a few splatters of blood.

Instead of succumbing to his obvious affections for Hitchcock’s work, Chan-wook instead stamps a signature tenderness where Hitchcock would have flexed muscles as an artist of suspense. For all the cringe-inducing moments in Stoker, it is a refreshingly warm film about adulthood and paying respect to one’s lineage–even if the subjects are, for the most part, a little cold to the touch.

Frances Ha
Where to see it: In theaters now.

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in "Frances Ha"

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in “Frances Ha”

Frances Ha shares the opposite side of a coin flipped by Bridesmaids just over two years ago. Where the latter film is a raunchy, straightforward, comedy-over-depth attempt to examine distinctly feminine issues, Frances Ha instead chooses a more subtle perspective on similar topics.

Seemingly coated in a fizzy aesthetic throwing us back to an era of Godard and Varda, the film slowly unravels itself as a complex exploration of the roles women (at least in an age where friends grow older, the jobs grow bleaker, and the social mentality has everyone feeling like they’re in high school again) seek to play in each other’s lives.

Frances is a 27-year old aspiring dancer unfortunately blessed with alternate talents for wishy-washy indecisiveness, seeking fun over function, and convincing herself that she can dance (though her pliés could pass for the mere pained squatting of someone half-qualified). Her best friend, Sophie, seems to be moving in the other direction–fast; A career, a fiance, and a shifting attitude on the topics of life, men, and living in a city that isn’t New York (gasp!) all become viable options for Frances’ one-time companion in the art of being a broke twenty-something in an overstimulating urban environment.

Frances’ inability to grow up and deal with her impending bout with loneliness and separation from a stable platonic relationship is both painful to watch and irresistibly enthralling.

The script, co-written by Gerwig and Baumbauch, seems less a track leading to closure as it does a base for which the characters to reinvent their fortunes in the moment, their lofty aspirations and bloated egos running on delusion-fueled ambition like an impatient raindrop seeking a far-off river.

The film’s narrative unravels in an almost aimless fashion, mirroring Frances’ journey to accidentally coming into her own, never condemning her for being too lazy nor giving her unrealistic avenues that satisfy her juvenile desires. There’s no harm in acting like a kid, and Frances Ha celebrates the youthful glimmer of the free-spirit many of our eyes have long since lost, while at the same time reaffirming the need for a good kick in the ass here and there. It’s a rarity in that it’s endearing and entertaining without feeling forced, and for that it’s one of the best films of the year.

Spring Breakers
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray now.

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Harmony Korine, an auteur in his own right, is known for anti-commercial films in line with provoking a visceral response versus pandering to a general audience. His latest film might be his first to appeal to the masses (its domestic box office tally stands at just below $14 million); thankfully his alternative approach to critiquing mainstream culture through cinema remains intact.

Korine unites Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in a film their core fanbase can’t legally watch by themselves for another five years; the R-rated spring break antics of four college friends is the focus of Spring Breakers, which at once comments on the accessibility and (sometimes voluntary) objectification of women’s sexuality yet also highlights the fragile, crumbling outlook on the once-promising vision of the American Dream.

The deliberateness with which Korine crafts his critique–from the casting of squeaky-clean Disney stars to a montage involving guns, destruction, and Britney Spears music–resonates with a symbolic urgency and coherent vision absent in his earlier work. A statement is being made, and it’s clear. Korine wastes no time showing us just how the demise of American culture will leave a heap of nothing but beer cans, broken dreams, and the Millennials’ unquenchable thirst for fun over work.

The Bling Ring
Where to see it: In theaters now.

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The latest from writer/director Sofia Coppola sees a dramatic departure from her early work. Whereas Lost in Translation, MarieAntoinette, and The Virgin Suicides each delve into issues of feminine angst, The Bling Ring isn’t a gendered perspective as much as it is an era-specific exploration of contemporary collective social mentality and the cycle of the lust for fame.

Fictionalizing the events of the notorious “Bling Ring” (a group of California teens who burglarized celebrities from Rachel Bilson and Orlando Bloom to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton) Coppola’s film elevates itself far beyond the average comedy-caper by delving into issues like the responsibility of a culture to its criminals, the ownership of fame, and the accessibility of attention in an age of what seems to be a collective narcissistic push for a dream life attained without work.

The allure of fame is no longer an untouchable dream regarded with respect; in Coppola’s film, the rich are powerful and worshiped, yet far more accessible to anyone with a laptop and Google maps. Today’s celebrities are icons of mere excess, not icons of talent, and thus their star quality is diminished to the point of seeming inhuman. The boundaries between fame, normalcy/reality, and dream are blurred, and Coppola understands that in today’s culture–with quick-fix gratification outlets like Facebook and gossip blogs–a false sense of self-worth is easily attained through the ease with which one can ignore a border, scale a fence, drop to the other side, and literally run a fantasy through their fingers.

The Place Beyond the Pines
Where to see it: On DVD and Blu-Ray August 6, 2013

Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling in "The Place Beyond The Pines"

Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond The Pines”

A morosely captivating film about the lineage of males and the headstrong persistence of a father’s influence (direct or secondhand) over his son, The Place Beyond the Pines sees writer-director Derek Cianfrance (2010’s brilliant Blue Valentine) once again wielding a blade of emotional impact as delicately as a prodigal musician strokes the string of an instrument.

Featuring some of the finest work from each of its cast members (Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, and Ryan Gosling in particular), the film is almost overcome by the emotions fueling it (a few second-act missteps and weighty, cliched attempts to inject doses of mirth fall flat), but its conclusion hurts as much as it inspires, making the film enjoyable for its insistence to corner the market on teardrops.

Mud
Where to see it: Still in theaters, but losing screens each week. On DVD August 6, 2013.

Matthew McConaughey in "Mud"

Matthew McConaughey in “Mud”

It might be cheating a bit to include Mud on this list thanks to Matthew McConaughey’s supporting performance (which already has awards buzz), but the film has enough arty flair to satisfy your indie-tooth while tiding you over for the performances of his competition later in the year.

Mud hits its dramatic chords a bit too carefully (a prominently symbolic film) to resonate as a complete package and its conclusion contains too many groan-inducing moments of saccharine closure, but the performances (Reese Witherspoon surprises in a minor role as well) are enough to warrant a few hours of your time.

Mining for Early Oscar Gold

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Is it smooth, yet? The air?

Just curious, because I’ve had a hell of a time adjusting to the dust cloud that’s been accumulating on Blu-Ray copies of Argo.

Last year’s recipient of the Best Picture Oscar faded from prominence even faster than the previous year’s The Artist, a gimmicky Academy-pleaser in itself, thanks to a sympathy-based vote to accredit director Ben Affleck with some semblance of relevance as his career transitions from notable star to almost-there-but-not-quite-yet filmmaker. Whereas Argo‘s meritless win leaves a sour taste in my mouth, I’m more than happy to shake the Oscar etch-a-sketch and begin afresh with 2013’s crop of awards season contenders.

This year we welcome new talents to compete with industry mainstays. We harken back to the eras of social icons of years past and adapt their lives for a contemporary audience. We relish in a year that Meryl Streep’s potential to win a fourth Oscar increases dramatically. We revisit previously-published material with a fresh cinematic perspective; but, most importantly, we face another year of submission to The Weinstein Company which, if all tentative release dates remain unchanged, will see six of their distributed films as likely contenders at the next Oscar ceremony.

Here’s a look at a few other industry figures bound for greatness during the 2013 awards season.

It’s going to be a good year for:

Anyone involved with Fruitvale Station

The freshman feature effort from USC graduate Ryan Coogler is one of the buzziest films coming out of 2013’s festival circuit.

Having claimed both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for a dramatic feature at Sundance as well as sashaying away from Cannes with Best First Film after screening in the Un Certain Regard section, Fruitvale Station is shaping up to be a major contender in at least three major categories.

Coogler’s film, about the real-life events surrounding the murder of Oscar Grant by an Oakland police officer, joins the ranks of other grim Sundance prizewinners like Winter’s Bone, Precious and Frozen River–which each went on to be recognized by the Academy with major nominations (and a few wins) in key categories.

The film hosts the breakout role for star Michael B. Jordan who, after having had minor roles in television (“Friday Night Lights”) and a few pictures (last year’s Chronicle), finally gets the chance to show his dramatic chops off for a wider audience.

Fruitvale Station seems poised to score nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor coupled with building momentum which could potentially push co-star (and Oscar-winner) Octavia Spencer into the Supporting Actress race, which could easily happen as the Weinsteins have acquired the film for distribution.

Besties Naomi Watts & Nicole Kidman…and dead cultural icons

It’s unfair to pit two actresses against each other for the sake of a gendered contest.

In the case of Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman, however, the challenge will be how to endure the barrage of questions from reporters to the tune of “how does it feel to be nominated against one of your closest friends?” this awards season.

Both actresses are all but sealed into the Lead Actress category for their respective roles in Diana and Grace of Monaco (Watts in the former, Kidman in the latter).

Naomi Watts’ talents have catapulted her far past the point of simply “deserving” an Oscar; she’s one of the most talented and, on the other side of the coin, underrepresented actresses in the industry. Her work in films like Mulholland Drive, Ellie Parker, and The Assasination of Richard Nixon represent just a handful of performances overlooked by the Academy in relatively quiet seasons. She’s gaining status as an underdog, however, as she squeaked into the Lead Actress race last year for her brilliant turn as Maria Bennett in The Impossible, a race within which she was actually being predicted as a potential spoiler after Entertainment Weekly’s annual Oscar issue saw her name mentioned by a majority of anonymous Oscar voters who’d been interviewed a short time before the Oscars.

The Academy favors Lead female performances attached to roles based on real women in positions of political and/or social power; think winners like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, and nominees like Cate Blanchett and her turn as the namesake royal in Elizabeth (and its poorly-received sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age).

Judging from Diana‘s trailer, the film will focus on the softer side of her notorious public identity which, I’m assuming, gives Watts a chance to show off her emotional depth instead of the usual controlled, stoic coldness that generally comes with these types of roles (as a side note, she’s also got a juicy role coming up in this year’s Adore, also starring Robin Wright).

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Kidman, on the other side of the coin, is far from a being a stranger to the Academy Awards. She’s an Oscar winner and a multiple-time nominee. While she had a buzzy-ish film floating around the perimeter of last year’s awards season (she made it into the Globes categories with The Paperboy), the Weinsteins will make sure that she has a spot amongst this year’s nominees for her turn as Grace Kelly.

The Weinsteins have a great track record for getting their actors nominated in major categories (Jacki Weaver’s spot in the Supporting Actress category was surely bought for her through “campaigning,” as she had no other right to be there), so Kidman’s pre-established Oscar identity is coupled nicely here with a Weinstein push.

It’s also interesting that these two roles are seeing the light of day in 2013 what with the incessant talk about social media, quick-fix fame, celebrity (and personal) accessibility, etc.

Both Princess Diana and Grace Kelly are posterchildren for the obsession with fame and its various aspects of decay. Diana of course died a highly-publicized death after the car she was riding in (manned by a drunk driver) crashed after a cat-and-mouse with paparazzi; Grace would die of a stroke/car crash combo after leaving a life of Hollywood luxury behind to marry a royal from Monaco (thereby becoming a princess). After only six years in the film industry (with one Academy Award under her belt), Kelly became one of the most popular stars of classical Hollywood cinema. In an age of post-internet accessibility, the public is growing increasingly bored with the flash-and-gimmick celebrities of the contemporary industry; Diana and Grace represent the mainstay of stardom and the impact of talent, presence, and prominence which takes on new meaning in an age of meaningless objectification, Facebook, selfies, and events that would later go on to inspire films like The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers.

Look for Watts and Kidman to both be nominated in the Lead Actress category.

Documentaries

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Not many people can go from playing dumbed-down roles in horror films like Splice to directing emotionally-charged documentaries quite like Sarah Polley.

She killed zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004) and wrote/directed indie dramas like Take This Waltz, and now she’s taking a stab at a scripted-documentary hybrid with Stories We Tell, which chronicles her life as the product of an extramarital affair.

Polley weaves in staged footage recreating her early life with interviews with her family, piecing together her history funneled through a narrative perspective while maintaining the cinematic resonance of an objective documentary. The documentary is garnering the best reviews of Polley’s career, earning a spot on the Toronto International Film Festival’s Top 10 Canadian films list as well as making a few minor splashes at festivals around the world.

Other notable documentaries releasing in 2013 include the polarizing-yet-provocative We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks and 20 Feet From Stardom.

The Coen Brothers

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On the heels of their True Grit remake, the Joel & Ethan Coen return with Inside Llewyn Davis, which took the Grand Prix Award at Cannes and continues to work the festival circuit until its release smack dab in the middle of Oscar season this December.

Earning rave reviews from critics, the Coens take a step back from some of their darker subject matter and instead draw on inspiration from the folk music scene in the 1960s. The film stars a slew of talented actors from John Goodman and Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.

The Academy generally loves the Coens, as many of their past films have been nominated for screenwriting. It takes a film like No Country For Old Men, however, for nominations and sentiment to lead to ultimate gold; it is, to date, their only picture to have won the top prize at the Oscars. Inside Llewyn Davis will be nominated in major categories ranging from Best Picture to Best Original Screenplay, not garnering enough momentum to match No Country‘s prestige yet scraping up a few more nominations than 2009’s A Serious Man or 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Art Films

Nebraska film still

Before Midnight is currently slaying critics and audiences alike. Nebraska and Only God Forgives are respectively setting festivals and trade papers abuzz with claims of epic quality of script and performance. No, this isn’t the early 90s, it’s 2013, and the art film scene is heating up the pre-awards season circuit already.

While Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are busy predicting the “implosion” of the film industry thanks to big-budget studio productions not just cornering a niche market, but backing the entire market into a corner it can’t escape from (funny Spielberg would say this as a criticism and then proceed to executive produce Transformers 4 set for a 2014 release), a select few art films seem poised for Oscar greatness this year.

Before Midnight seems likely to receive a nomination in the Adapted Screenplay category (Before Sunset received one nine years ago amidst the growing cult status for the series, now three entries in), and Nebraska could sneak into the Lead Actor category (Bruce Dern was named Best Actor at Cannes for this role) while Only God Forgives might afford Kristin Scott Thomas a nomination in the Supporting Actress category if her buzz runs consistent through the end of awards season.

Also circling the Oscars in the art film department is Frances Ha, written by actress Greta Gerwig and filmmaker Noah Baumbach and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck.

2013 will also be good to:

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Anyone associated with The Past (Berenice Bejo, Asgard Farhadi)
Horror films (The Conjuring is getting early rave reviews as it screens at festivals, The Purge is one of the sleeper hits of the summer)
Matthew McConaughey (snubbed for Magic Mike, he’ll be rewarded with recognition for either Mud or The Wolf of Wall Street)

…and, of course, the Weinstein’s wallets.