Month: November 2013

’12 Years a Slave’ Leads Spirit Award Nominations

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The gates are open, and the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Award nominations are here. With only a few short weeks to go until we’re in the thick of Oscar season, who reaps the real benefits of a nomination here?

It comes as no surprise that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave finds its official footings on the Best Picture race here. It leads the pack of Spirit nominations with seven nominations in major categories, including Best Feature, Best Actor, and both Supporting categories. While I find it troubling that films which exceed the Spirit Awards’ “limit” of the $20 million range can still be considered contenders in this race (Silver Linings Playbook did this last year), McQueen’s film is an artistic challenge to traditional historical dramas. The firmness of this film’s grasp over what could be a monumental year for the AMPAS (first female black president, potentially the first black filmmaker to win Best Director) is tightening by the day, and we’re on the brink of having a potentially unstoppable film sweep the rest of the season.

The Coen brothers also find themselves sitting pretty with a multitude of nominations for Inside Llewyn Davis. They are visionaries in the field of independent filmmaking, and can continue to be such thanks to their tried and true ability to turn a profit on their films. There seems to be a slight lack of confidence backing Inside Llewyn Davis on the part of the Oscar pundits, however, though when I feel myself doubting the film’s ability to score with the Academy, I remind myself that both True Grit and A Serious Man (a film that had considerably less buzz behind it going into the Oscar race than Inside Llewyn Davis does) were able to rack up major nominations, and my confidence is restored.

A justifiable, respectable campaign can now be mounted by the team behind Short Term 12, a film that was on the tip of awards season’s tongue but wasn’t a part of a fully-formed sentence until now. The film’s most promising potential for Oscar glory lies within its star, Brie Larson, as her name appears on Oscar pundit shortlists as far back as August and September.

With SAG ballots in the mail and the Spirit Award nominations being the only major precursor to have announced nods so far, Larson’s crawl to the Best Actress category is pacing nicely. Michael B. Jordan’s forgotten path to the Oscars seems somewhat rekindled here, though the recognition for Fruitvale Station was altogether expected at the Spirits. It’s never a bad idea to have your name appear in every trade paper during an awards campaign.

There’s a part of me that believes the Spirit push for Frances Ha will help find a home for the film on Academy ballots, though I’m completely baffled by the lack of love for the film outside of the Best Feature category. Greta Gerwig—the film’s driving force—performs fantastically in front of the camera as well as on the page (she co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach). Her drive and charisma coursing through the film’s veins embodies the passionate workmanship we’ve come to associate with Independent cinema, and it’s a shame that her efforts weren’t recognized by an organization priding itself on the “spirit” of DIY moviemaking.

Both All Is Lost and Nebraska gain steam thanks to multiple Spirit nominations, though I believe both already have homes within several key Oscar categories. If anything, the push for Bruce Dern’s nomination in the Best Actor category remains on-track versus getting any significant push, and the same can be said for Redford. The only major Best Actor player yet to be seen by American audiences is Leonardo DiCaprio and his work in The Wolf of Wall Street.

The full list of nominees:

Best Feature:

Frances Ha
Nebraska
All Is Lost
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director:

Shane Carruth – Upstream Color
J.C. Chandor – All Is Lost
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Jeff Nichols – Mud
Alexander Payne – Nebraska

Best First Feature:

Concussion
Blue Caprice
Fruitvale Station
Una Noche
Wadja

Best Lead Male:

Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford – All Is Lost

Best Lead Female:

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
Gaby Hoffman – Crystal Fairy
Brie Larson – Short Term 12
Shailene Woodley – The Spectacular Now

Best Supporting Female:

Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Melonie Diaz – Fruitvale Station
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Yolanda Ross – Go For Sisters
June Squibb – Nebraska

Best Supporting Male:

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Keith Stanfield – Short Term 12
Will Forte – Nebraska
James Gandolfini – Enough Said

Best Screenplay:

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater – Before Midnight
Nicole Holofcener – Enough Said
Scott Neustadter Michael H. Weber  – The Spectacular Now
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave

Best International Film:

Blue is the Warmest Color
A Touch of Sin
Gloria
The Great Beauty
The Hunt

Best First Screenplay:

Lake Bell – In a World
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Don Jon
Bob Nelson – Nebraska
Jill Soloway – Afternoon Delight
Michael Starrbury – The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

Oscar Diary #6: “American Hustle” Premieres: The Game Begins for David O. Russell

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Jennifer Lawrence slinks into the Oscar race in “American Hustle”

American Hustle endured its first preview screening in L.A. this past Sunday. Oprah is busy extending every root of her titanic media tree into the depths of the industry for The Butler‘s campaign. Jennifer Lawrence fidgets in her seat, adorably (ok, “accidentally”) spilling mints all over herself at a panel for Catching Fire.

The minute–albeit entirely calculated–nuances of awards season power plays are sprouting here and there, and it’s time to start paying close attention.

Initial reaction to David O. Russell’s third installment in a reinvention series of sorts (the first two films being The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) seems to be tipping slightly north of average. Although a reviews embargo is in effect until December 4th, Oscar bloggers and film critics alike have taken to Twitter to post first-round comments, and it seems that American Hustle is poised to shake up the pre-Oscars race in at least two major categories.

The film is likely to receive a nomination for Best Original Screenplay by default (O. Russell finished the film in a crazy-fast amount of time. Writers love to reward quick work, as I assume it motivates them), though most who’ve seen the film praised Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, indicating that she’s a true show-stealer in an otherwise simple picture.

With SAG ballots in the mail last week, Jennifer Lawrence seems poised for another headline year. Recognition for American Hustle in the supporting categories at a few major awards shows seems likely for her. Though American Hustle lacks backing from the Weinsteins (they’ve got a fantastic track record for actors, given that they were able to get Silver Linings Playbook nominated in each acting category last year), Lawrence is riding high on the trails of her colossal star ascending at breakneck speed. She’s someone who appeals to the broad membership of the SAG voting base (about 100,000 strong) and the narrower nominating sect (around 2,200 members), and an ace interviewee. Her likeability is universal, and she connects with all demographics thanks to a relatable personality and legitimate acting prowess, who knows when to be funny, but doesn’t let her red-carpet persona precede her talent (think of her as a much more respectable Robert Benigni).

Hustle represents an interesting spice thrown into the pre-Oscar sauce. While, of the past four Oscar years, it marks the third within which David O. Russell has released a legitimate contender, it’s no secret that the tone of Russell’s work has shifted. That’s not to say it has gotten worse. Silver Linings Playbook is an enjoyable (if unchallenging) film entirely worthy of the praise it received last year. I’ve yet to see The Fighter, so I can’t speak on it, but I do know that even on the basis of subject matter it represents a vast departure from Russell’s early work. I’m not alone fearing the loss of the days of the intrepid, ruthless spirit who brought us the oddity of a vision that was I Heart Huckabees in favor of Oscar-friendly fare.

Jeremy Smith of Aint It Cool News tweeted an interesting thought yesterday:

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It’s an interesting point in a time where so many forget what Oscar season truly is. It’s all just a game–no different than football, hockey, or the Miss America pageant–and Russell is a star player on the road to securing a legacy, one which can be as fruitful as he wants it to be (without limits) if his name is cemented with Oscar gold.

If he is playing the game, Russell never seems to have the upper hand. His films have managed a minor dent in the Best Picture race  at best (Silver Linings Playbook had the best shot at the title, thanks to its all-encompassing gravitational pull of actor appeal and love from the general audience audience), though his contemporary regard within the industry only approaches that of an auteur without fully realizing it. Silver Linings Playbook and I Heart Huckabees are entirely different films within which I can find almost no semblance of a directorial hand’s similar strokes. Huckabees is cold, philosophical, and existentially perplexing, whereas Silver Linings Playbook forces us into the minds of its characters, exploring their pathos, and functioning to make their feelings ours. One is a philosophical monologue, and the other is a town hall of emotions.

It’ll be interesting to see how American Hustle fits into Russell’s legacy. His reputation was tainted after a few on-set outbursts during the filming of I Heart Huckabees, and his style underwent a drastic change over the course of the 6 years between that film and The Fighter. 14 Oscar nominations after I Heart Huckabees, though, his recent work shows that he’s willing to play the game we all know so well. Does this make him an inferior artist? Absolutely not. The game is tense and the game calls for strategic plays.

An artist who knows how to conform his art while still pouring himself into his work (he writes his screenplays, directs with passion, and produces a quality product) deserves respectable praise, but what exactly is it that Russell isn’t doing to push himself over the edge? He aligns himself with master marketers and campaign veterans (the Weinsteins) and buzzy stars with real talent (Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams) to create a spectacle of near-genius instead of a weight display of heavy greatness.

His films are consumable without entirely sacrificing complexity. They’re provocative enough for his built-in audience to enjoy, but accessible enough to be sold to the masses. He’s helming masterworks of perfectly-blended commercial cinema, but that’s also his problem. His films don’t push hard enough in either direction, and it may be a while before he gets the recognition he deserves.

At this point, it seems entirely unlikely that American Hustle can steal the thunder away from 1Years a Slave or even Gravity, for that matter. Both have hyper-strong, agenda-pushing awards narratives pushing them to the forefront of the discussion (black filmmakers and diversifying the Oscars, women once again become a box-office force), and Russell’s work again seems destined to only reap the benefits of what love is leftover from the headliners.

His art isn’t compromised if he stands behind it, and as long as people love it, he has found a way to cement a firm grasp on the ever-elusive Oscar machine. He’ll have to learn to prove himself to the DGA if he wants to go all the way to Oscar (though the new voting dates don’t allow Oscar voters to use the DGA nominations as a basis for their own voting). His time might not be with American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook, but somewhere down the line his credibility-building run as an Oscar darling will pay off with a legacy win bound to make I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings shine a hell of a lot brighter in retrospect than they would have if their creator had remained a creative alien to the mainstream.

Oscar Season Diary #5: “12 Years a Slave” Changes the Game for Historical Dramas

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It’s all getting so old.

History, biographies, period pieces, that is; though things that have aged continue to fascinate those of us standing behind a contemporary camera.

Only last year, Lincoln was a phenomenal hit at the box-office, raking in nearly $200 million domestically on top of a multitude of Oscar nominations. The Academy tends to favor a fine work of historical pomp. Often, period pieces offer a chance for nearly all branches of the industry to shine. Elaborate costumes, lavish production design, and spot-on direction (and a flair for the old-fashioned) are often required to bring the past into the present, and each corresponding branch of the AMPAS succumbs to the appeal.

I’ve got no problems with these types of films. They’ve existed since the dawn of the industry, and will continue for as long as the medium exists–when the world around us becomes fodder for future filmmakers.

What bugs me is the austere intangibility that permeates a majority of the genre, The English Patient or Lincoln being fantastic examples. There’s no reason that stuffiness, rigidity, and sentimentality be treated as wherewithal to produce a compelling historical drama. American cinema tends to treat history in film as if it were an ancient vase on display at the finest art museum in the world.

We’re encouraged to gaze, but never to engage.

So enters 12 Years a Slave. A film from a black British director about an ugly period in American history, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t seem like it would bode well on the American consciousness. How can a foreign perspective genuinely articulate the struggle of an entire generation of American people?

Steve McQueen’s directorial vision is one which doesn’t rely on the sentiment of slavery to succeed, and his “outsider” perspective allows him no sense of duty to this country or to its history. He is a pure observer, and his film crosses boundaries we’re rarely permitted to. His film is one that knows its identity without having to rely on the pretense of actuality for built-in affect. McQueen ensures its harrowing atmosphere and hard-hits come from his hand as master of the ring, not by letting the overarching historical narrative cloud his forging of a cinematic path right through the middle.

12 Years a Slave becomes, at its core, a purely cinematic portrait of struggle instead of a pandering melodrama engulfed by a historical duty to respect the past while attempting to retell it.

That’s exactly what McQueen shies away from; he is not retelling, but refocusing. His account of Solomon Northrup’s ordeal as a free man forced back into slavery has no duty to a genre or style, as it exists as a masterwork in its own league. McQueen never lets the weight of his historical environment precede his focal character.

McQueen pads his film with shots of breathtaking beauty. Countless frames envelop us in the atmosphere of the south. Kinetic shots of wispy willows, serene lake shores, and expansive fields of green function at once to remind us of the beauty surrounding Solomon, tempting him with their natural right to simply exist in the face of his state of forced labor. The static, rigid cinematography framing the human subjects, on the other hand, confines its subjects. I recall dozens of static shots of slaves merely looking off into the distance–behind the audience, above the camera–as their meticulous positioning recalls early photographs and even chiaroscuro paintings of years past. Epic struggles of light and dark rage atop the characters faces, thanks to brilliant lighting and technical mastery. While beautiful on the surface, these images harbor grim contents which remind us that, while nature and life insist upon finding a way to fill our lives with beauty, it is man who destroys it and forces himself upon life, degrading it to the point of things like destruction, anger, and slavery.

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There’s a particularly interesting shot where, during Northrup’s struggle to survive, adapt, and preserve a spirit for his family, his glance meanders around the frame until it stops on the camera. His face reads so many things undetectable in the limited time we see it. There are traces of fear, of hope, of disturbance, of uncertainty; but, framed beautifully amidst a backdrop of natural greens, he sifts through these emotions and gazes upon us–only briefly so–in a powerful nudge to the audience to engage with what we’re seeing. Photographic composition and cinematic language can only transport us so far. We can only experience our past through photographs taken by those no longer alive and in text written by hands that have long since deteriorated back into the earth, but 12 Years a Slave urges us to see beyond glass case surrounding our past.

There is conclusion and closure to McQueen’s film, but it does not let us off the hook with a smile and a pat on the back for merely watching. We are cut lose from one story that McQueen chooses to tell, and the film resonates as a compartmentalized portrait of individual perseverance.

McQueen’s talents as a director guide us through events of slavery like we’ve never experienced before, and the film’s reception has invigorated my faith in the Academy. The Best Picture race is currently 12 Years a Slave’s to lose, as its burned a blazing trail since its premiere at Telluride earlier this year. Should it win, it will be a welcome departure from the cookie-cutter, feel-good, faux-heroism fantasies that have won top honors for the better part of the past decade. Argo, The Artist, and The King’s Speech are glorified procedurals that reaffirm basic emotions and sentiments which need no reaffirmation; happily-ever-after exists only in fantasy, whereas 12 Years a Slave is a dynamic challenge to the very core upon which we’re built.

In an Oscar year where three black filmmakers (McQueen, Lee Daniels, and Ryan Coogler) are all a major part of the awards conversation, 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture will not only cement the Academy’s image as a more diverse cultural entity, but also will change how we see history in cinema. When it comes time to award a moment in history, the Academy is all for it. Schindler’s List, Argo, The King’s Speech, Saving Private Ryan, and War Horse each represent a very normative view of history, as in they’re all primarily from a white perspective about historically white issues. When a film that’s as daring and urgent as The Color Purple or Do The Right Thing comes along, it’s shut out from winning a single award. Is America afraid of the black voice? Has the dominance of cookie-cutter historical representation finally paid off for a black voice in a sea of sameness?

It’s increasingly tiring to watch the same formula for a historical drama. It’s about time someone showed us something new instead of telling us what we’ve heard in school.

12 Years a Slave might age as a film, but its urgency, insistence, and masterful intricacies will barely crack a wrinkle.

Three Rivers Film Festival First-Week Roundup

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The films were certainly there; all they needed were people to watch them.

They showed up in droves.

The opening weekend of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Film Festival (the oldest and largest of its kind in the region) saw screenings of Oscar contenders, gala events, and presentations from festival circuit darlings and directors alike.

Philomena, starring Judi Dench in a role that is sure to garner another Best Actress nomination for the veteran actress at the upcoming Academy Awards, sold out its first screening over the weekend. Opening night films The Rocket and A Perfect Man drew similar praise and attendance as the festival continued its tradition of showcasing smaller films that the Pittsburgh market might not see during the their respective domestic release dates.  

Unfortunately I was unable to secure a ticket to any of the opening night films, though I’ve heard only good things—especially for Philomena. Seeing as most of the films at the 3RFF are screening only a few months after their respective international festival premieres (many of the 3RFF films opened or played at Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and Cannes), the festival gives Pittsburghers an opportunity that’s rarely afforded; for two weeks we get to see films as they’re traveling the festival circuits and making the awards season rounds.

One of those films, Ingrid Veninger’s The Animal Project, first screened at Toronto in September. Veninger herself was on-hand for a screening at the Harris Theater downtown last night, seeming genuinely excited to bring herself to Pittsburgh on a festival tour.

“We’re on the festival circuit now, and it’s great to be in Pittsburgh,” she told the audience after the film concluded, and I was ecstatic to hear a filmmaker acknowledge that the city was truly a part of the film’s tour and not an obligatory offshoot.

Veninger’s film is an urban ennuist’s (can we make that a word?) dream come true. Her quiet examination of city life begins as observational and restrained, and she allows her characters to come to life with seamless effort by the film’s conclusion. It’s a sublime film that stands as one of the best of the festival (and, frankly, of 2013) so far.

It’s fantastic that a mid-sized market like Pittsburgh can play host to these films (many of which are international submissions in the upcoming Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category), and even more impressive that local audiences will show up to these things. So many people disregard Pittsburgh’s place in the art and film worlds, and 3RFF and its staff work tirelessly to bring quality entertainment to a public who are very much in-tune with the rest of the industry.

Over the weekend, I was also able to take in Claire Denis’ Bastards and Carolina Loyola Garcia’s documentary Sobre las Olas.

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Bastards is a challenging work that’s enjoyable in its earnestness and restless urgency, even if it is a bit opaque. I’ve seen none of Denis’ other films, so I’m not entirely familiar with her style (though I know she’s quite popular). I was a little put off by the unnecessary complication of the plot by mere intentional withholding of information and odd, subversive structuring. A simple story can benefit from such a structure if that structure compliments some other aspect of the film (I think immediately of Memento’s narrative mirroring the protagonist’s short-term memory), but here it seems merely jumbled for jumbledness’ sake.

The first half of the film meanders around a confusing cast of characters with even more confusing (and forced) interconnectivity. The film hits its stride once the pieces start falling into place, and its conclusion is fantastic, wrapping the package up nicely and giving meaning and justification to the film’s earlier disjointed composition.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that seeing the focal character, Raphaelle, more or less “killing” the part of herself that succumbed to the lustful desires she’s ashamed of is the film’s girthiest moment. She has found a comfortable life for herself and sacrificed her gut feelings to settle into a compromised life for the sake of continuing familiarity. She’s a despicable character, but fabulously painted by Denis.

There are tons of interesting parallels within the film as well, particularly between Raphaelle and her lover’s niece, Justine, who sees no clear path for her life and actively seeks out and indulges in any compulsive desire that crosses her mind. She is bare, free, and harnesses control in her insistence to let go of it.

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Sobre las Olas, on the other hand, is a beautiful love letter to the under-represented art of Flamenco dancing in the United States. While the film paints an aesthetically rich portrait of its subject, Garcia’s direction as a documentary filmmaker could benefit from subtle refinement. She clearly loves her subject and harbors intense admiration for the talking heads that appear in her film, but that love isn’t restrained; she allows her subjects to prattle on and on about the same topic—some cuts with individuals last from 5-10 minutes—boiling down to a bulk of the film showing a dozen different ways to say “I love Flamenco.”

What’s really special about this year’s festival is its representation of female filmmakers. The films I saw this past week were helmed by women from various corners of the world. Veninger, Garcia, and Denis hail from separate corners, bringing their art in a convergence of voices and backgrounds at the 3RFF. Where mainstream studios rarely produce works from female directors, the independent world teems with women filmmakers creating quality product.

The 3RFF continues through November 23rd.

Tickets and screening locations can be found at http://3rff.com/

Oscar Season Diary #4: When Will the Fantasy End? “Captain Phillips” and the New American Dream

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For the better half of the last decade, The Academy has gone soft.

Argo ends as we gaze upon the quintessential American family embracing amidst the backdrop of a glistening sun and oversized American flag. The Artist concludes with a pair of beaming smiles, aimed like saccharine arrows poised to pierce our helpless hearts with undying hope.

Both films are fantasies, and both reaffirm what only cinema can; that painful reality is pitifully easy to forget, even when it surrounds us each and every day.

Zero Dark Thirty’s final shot shows a dead-tired woman unraveling before our very eyes, crushed by the lack of relief she feels after pouring years of her life into finding and killing the most-wanted man in the world. In its final moments, Captain Phillips dares to toy with the idea that American heroism is a mirage bolstered only by ignorance and virus-like corporate domination of the international economy. While the former’s chance at Oscar’s top prize were dashed thanks to the irresponsibly harsh political campaign against it, the latter seems similarly destined to find itself among Oscar’s forgotten contenders when envelopes are opened early next year. Both films challenge us in places where Best Picture winners like The Artist and Argo dared not to tread.

With hard-hitting dramas like 12 Years a Slave garnering the overwhelming majority of Oscar buzz, it’s clear that The Academy might finally (for the first time since 2009) be obligated to choose a film that represents a relevant sense of reality versus the abnormally glossy one they’ve favored for years, and the conclusion can’t be drawn merely at the Best Picture line.

Where Argo celebrates American triumph, Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips embody a much darker, tangible pessimism in their refusal to herald classical American heroism. Zero Dark Thirty failed to receive its deserved share of Oscar attention. Will the story be different for Captain Phillips? Perhaps, though it is a far more challenging film that reflects a mentality the Oscars will have to deal with at one point or another.

These films—Captain Phillips, in particular—usher in the New American Dream, one that’s wrangled itself free from the grasp of US hands and into those whose existence lingers far outside the casual American’s radar. Somali pirates (like the ones in Captain Phillips) are a prime example of this.

We’re introduced to Muse, Bilal, and Najee, a trio of fishermen living in poverty on the beaches of Somalia. The waters before them teem with international trade routes, largely controlled by the United States’ almost tyrannical presence. These fishermen don’t let this domination keep them down, however, as they set out to overtake US ships and reap the bounties of their cargo.

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These men see America as not only an intrusive presence, but as something to be conquered. Filtered through this foreign perspective, the New American Dream evolves beyond merely being a goal-oriented journey to better opportunity. For Bilal, Muse, and Najee, it is a challenge; a plague; a virus; something that can be contained and conquered, as Muse reminds us that he “can handle America,” speaking of it as a single entity, brushing off a gargantuan presence as if it were a pesky housefly.

Once aboard Phillips’ ship, these men demand two things: money and honesty. “No games,” Muse, a stern-faced and determined leader with little inclination to cause bodily harm, consistently reminds Phillips. These men are here to do business, to bring back a portion of wealth that traverses their home waters on a daily basis, and to assert themselves as a minority of the world population that refuse to disappear under the boot of America.

While the three pirates come to represent various aspects of the anti-American worldview (rage, yearning for national prosperity, and those lost in the struggle between the two positions) the film as a whole represents the underlying fear Americans have but rarely have to confront in their everyday lives: that those we deem “weak,” that we fancy ourselves “untouchable” to, harness a primal power which threatens the footing upon which we stand. In contrast, we see that Americans are willing to do less work for more, as Phillips’ men refuse to defend the ship because they’re “in the union” and “didn’t sign up for this,” as poor Somali men scale their vessel–without shoes.

It’s interesting that in such a short amount of time, now nearly a year after Kathryn Bigelow’s sophomore effort opened to #1 at the box-office (well on its way to nearly $100 million domestically), that the American public seems to be embracing challenging alternatives to the male-dominated, male-marketed norm. Despite typical hits like Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2, American audiences have proven that a yearning for alternative films is ever-present. We saw success stories for women (The Heat, Gravity, The Conjuring—nearly every “original” title to open to over $34 million in weekend receipts was female-oriented or driven by a female star [or stars]) and watched adult-oriented dramas climb their way to box-office success (Prisoners peaked at $60 million, Now You See Me quietly made over $100 million).

Captain Phillips seems poised to break $100 million within the next few weeks, and 12 Years a Slave has enough awards push behind it to cross into healthy $50 or $60 million territory by the time the Oscars roll around.

My only problem continues to be audience reception of these films. I can remember audiences clapping at the end of Zero Dark Thirty and, again, at my screening of Captain Phillips. I continue to be disturbed by this behavior, as both films position America as an almost evil entity that’s to be feared for its ruthless manipulation of so many outlets and people.

The Americans in Captain Phillips ignore the pirates’ willingness to cooperate by playing games and manipulating, which directly opposes Muse’s only condition for complying in the first place. After heading the operation to successfully kill Osama bin Laden, Maya sits on an airplane, alone, and weeps to herself after the pilot asks her where she’d like to go. Her tears stand for the anxieties about America’s position in the world. Where do we go from here? How do we face life when the evils of America’s reach become personal? We see the effects of America’s domination in Captain Phillips. “There’s got to be some other way to solve this,” Phillips says to Muse. “Maybe in America,” he responds, for once acknowledging the fantasyland that the nation has become.

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The Academy rarely plays with challenge. Their voting base seems, to me, like the kind of people who would clap at the end of Captain Phillips because an American “hero” survives. I’m the kind of person who sees the last shots of the film for what they are. I can’t watch as a close-up on the tiny lifeboat where the pirates lost their lives becomes an extreme long shot that positions three large American vessels on all sides, cementing US domination as an unrelenting, soulless presence on the world stage.

It’s scary and unnerving. I hope The Academy will learn to see through the veil of American entitlement if it chooses to award Captain Phillips with anything.

Awards for heroism it does not deserve; recognition for lifting the wool Argo seeks to pull down, however, would be most appropriate.

Filmic Confluence: Oscar Potential for 3RFF Offerings

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Tickets and Showtimes:

http://www.showclix.com/events/14020/

Screening Rooms:

The Harris Theater

809 Liberty Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 471-9702

Melwood Screening Room
477 Melwood Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 681-5449

Regent Square Theater
1035 S Braddock Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15221
(412) 682-4111

Waterworks Cinemas
930 Freeport Rd
Pittsburgh, PA 15238
(412) 784-1416

With Night of the Living Dead celebrating its 45th birthday just this past month, the spotlight once again turned to the innovative ideas and inspired cinematic products emanating Pittsburgh’s movie scene.

George A. Romero’s stamp on film history as the definitive catalyst for a single genre’s decades of socio-cultural critique began right here in the Steel City. A place with a rich film history with an even brighter future, Pittsburgh’s cinema-friendly roots bolster the city’s annual Three Rivers Film Festival which this year features a vibrant collection of buzzy awards season contenders, beloved classics, local productions, and various documentaries.

While the city’s future in the domestic film industry continues to blossom (studio spaces have opened across the city, industry executives have purchased homes here, and the Pittsburgh Film Office continues to bring new and exciting productions to our area), Pittsburgh’s independent scene is prospering as well. The winner of the Steeltown Film Factory (My Date with Adam) screenwriting competition will be shown at the festival, and projects from local filmmakers (Blood Brother, amongst others) will have screentime as well.

Throughout its history, high-profile films as Precious, Rust and Bone, and Silver Linings Playbook  have opened the festival’s two-week schedule of screenings preceding their own domestic release dates. A print of Leos Carax’s highly-praised film Holy Motors also played at the festival last year and was, at the time of the screening, the only print of the film in the country.

2013 is no different. This year features a variety of films submitted for the 86th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category, which is spectacular—especially in a mid-sized market like Pittsburgh—given the lack of outlets that show these films prior to their nominations.  

So, let’s take a look at a select few of this year’s crop of offerings and dissect their potential at next year’s Academy Awards:

Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in Philomena

Philomena

Initially screened in competition at the 70th Venice Film Festival (winning the award for Best Screenplay), Philomena went on to garner critical and audience praise at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Runner-Up prize.  Judi Dench stars alongside Steve Coogan (also the film’s co-writer) as a woman in search of her long-lost son, giving a performance that could very well lead to an Oscar nomination.

Oscar Potential: Philomena’s awards season potential lies largely within its appeal to the heart. As we saw last year, the change to Oscar’s voting process (as well as a shift in voting deadlines that don’t give Academy members the pleasure of using the guilds as a compass) made for a uniquely diverse set of nominees. Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour are films largely backed by passionate admiration, and Philomena could find its footing in a few categories.

It certainly helps Judi Dench’s case for a seventh nomination (though she has never won in the Lead category) that director Stephen Frears has a positive track record for poising his female stars for Oscar glory (Dench was nominated for his Mrs. Henderson Presents, Glenn Close was nominated for his Dangerous Liaisons, and Helen Mirren won for his The Queen). Right now, it’s on the outskirts of any major nominations, but its domestic release and critical reception will tip its Oscar prospects one way or another.

Screenings: Saturday, November 9th (Regent Square) 5:00 PM and Tuesday, November 12th (Waterworks Cinemas) 7:00 PM

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

2013 has played host to a dazzling array of diverse voices. Still, The Academy has yet to recognize a black filmmaker with an award in their Best Director category. Three black filmmakers are challenging history this year with strong contenders in the awards race. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station seems poised to make a minor splash at the ceremony, while Lee Daniels’ The Butler will get a significant push once its Oscar campaign ignites in a few weeks. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, however, continues to lead the Best Picture race since its screenings at Telluride and Toronto thrust it to the forefront of the Oscar discussion.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom has played fourth fiddle to these films, though its subject material fits in perfectly with this awards season’s narrative of “minority” voices. Based on Mandela’s autobiography chronicling his anti-apartheid practices in South Africa, the film screened to glowing reviews for star Idris Elba’s leading performance.

Oscar Potential: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is unfortunately teetering on the edge of a select few categories, mainly because 2013 has been such a crowded year for leading men. Elba’s shot at garnering his first Oscar nomination is slim, but still present nonetheless. If anything, the film will remain a vital part of this year’s legacy as a showcase for diverse filmmaking styles and minority representation. U2 also have an original song within the film, which could prove strong enough to receive another nomination.

Screenings: Sunday, November 10th (Waterworks) 7:00 PM and Monday, November 11th (Waterworks) 6:15 PM

 

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Best Foreign Film Academy Submissions: Ilo Ilo and The Rocket

The Singaporean and Australian entries for Best Foreign Film at the 86th Academy Awards, both films seem poised for international breakthrough. Having won the Camera d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Ilo Ilo became the first film from Singapore to win an award there. The film also received 6 nominations at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. The Rocket opened earlier this summer in Australia to ecstatic reviews.

Oscar Potential: While receiving heavy recognition from foreign institutions and festivals, Ilo Ilo faces unprecedented competition from other foreign entries in the Best Foreign Film category. Asghar Farhadi’s The Past has gotten an overwhelming push behind it and will likely find itself with the top prize come next March. Reviews for Ilo Ilo have been ecstatic nonetheless, which could push it far enough to reach the Academy shortlist in January. There’s no clear indication that it will receive a nomination in the category just yet, and its potential will simmer as voting commences in the next few months. The Rocket’s chances are extremely slim, though the quality of the film shouldn’t be diminished by its lack of awards season prospects.

Screenings: Ilo Ilo Sunday, November 10th (Waterworks) 2:00 PM and Wednesday, November 13th (Waterworks) 4:45 PM The Rocket Friday, November 8th (Waterworks) 7:15 PM

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Bastards

Women have certainly taken control of the conversation with regards to 2013’s film offerings. Whereas male-driven and male-aimed pictures like White House Down, The Lone Ranger, and R.I.P.D. tanked on colossal budgets, female-driven pictures like Gravity, The Heat, The Conjuring, and Identity Thief solidified the notion that a handful of the few remaining box-office stars are women.

It’s not only actresses getting in on the conversation, either. 2013 saw the release of plenty of quality releases from female filmmakers, including Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring amongst others. Claire Denis’ Bastards, screened in the Un Certain Regard category at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, divided audience and critics alike, and will have a screening at this year’s 3RFF as well.

Oscar Potential: Zero. Nada. Zilch. But, that doesn’t mean that your purchase of a ticket is wasted. Support female filmmakers at a time when the industry so desperately seems to want to cast them out. A ticket for Denis’ film is a ticket to build a better channel for female filmmakers to share their voice.

Screenings: Saturday, November 9th (Harris) 8:30 PM and Friday, November 15th (Harris) 7:00 PM

Other opening night screenings/galas:

A Perfect Man – November 8th (Harris Theater) 7:15 PM

The Girl From the Wardrobe – November 8th (Regent Square Theater) 7:15 PM