2013 in Film

Oscar Season Diary #10: Frontrunning to Instant Death

gravity-bullockAt the heart of divisiveness is passion.

You’re either for something or against it, and dividing love and hate into two binary categories with regards to the appeal of a film is often necessary when talking about it within the context of a race where only one can win. It’s natural to love what you love, push it forward, and let your next-best choice fall off the wagon to the side of the road.

I guess it’s unfair to say that, if you’re an Oscar voter, your #2 choice for Best Picture is one you don’t favor in general. It’s simply one that you don’t favor to win, and is automatically othered as a result. On a preferential ballot, #2 is essentially #9485 on the same scale.

Alas, only Oscar voters have to worry about that. Everyone knows the Academy has a huge task ahead of them after such a magnificent year jam-packed with quality cinema from around the world.

One one hand, the Academy could award the first ever black-made, black-themed film with a Best Picture win; on the other, they could break a 17-year pattern of awarding male-driven films their top honor. The latter seems likely since Alfonso Cuaron–director of Gravity–took home the top prize at the Directors Guild of America Awards last week. 90% of the time, those who win the DGA’s top prize go on to have their film recognized by the Academy as Best Picture of the year. In fact, it has happened a staggering 11 times since 2000. Only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain have the unfortunate honor of being awarded the DGA’s top prize without a follow-up Best Picture win (both films were directed by Ang Lee, funny enough).

Gravity is also poised to win key technical awards, including Best Film Editing (essentially the third-tier Best Picture Oscar).

Still, these statistics are displeasing and unconvincing to some. Pundits are overwhelmingly in favor of a 12 Years a Slave win, as a staggering 18 out of 23 of those surveyed on GoldDerby have it predicted in their #1 slot. If 12 Years a Slave wins, it would be a nearly unprecedented feat, as not only would the Academy defy statistical expectations, but 12 Years a Slave would rank amongst the least-decorated Best Picture winners in Oscar history, as the only other category it has a shot at winning is Best Supporting Actress.

What about the brewing tide making Gravity the statistical frontrunner doesn’t resonate? How can so many look so deeply into the face of such certainty and pick the opposite course? There’s little to no basis for predicting 12 Years a Slave to win other than hope, which is never a bad thing. It would be momentous if Steve McQueen’s film could pull off an upset in the face of Gravity‘s late-game dominance.

The fact remains, however, that we have two fantastic films on our hands, and one cannot be appropriately valued over the other.

As we saw the guilds, critics, and audiences file into their respective, individualized tributaries flowing into the Oscar picture (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity have each shared the spotlight as frontrunner), certainty seemed to be something each of us lacked as we hunted for a singular film to throw our weight behind.

Once Gravity won the DGA and PGA, the ball finally started rolling in one direction, and the tides turned. From its premiere at Venice to its near unanimous praise from critics, Gravity became one of the most prominent, highly-regarded films of the year. It was praised as a technical revolution, as well as a monumental achievement for actresses, as it is largely a one-woman show that went on to gross nearly $700 million worldwide.

It’s funny, then, that we’re currently witnessing the same things that happened to 12 Years a Slave after the fall festivals and to American Hustle after the critics circles prematurely ejaculated all over it; people are turning against Gravity because its footing is firmly planted at the front of the pack. With Oscar voting beginning in a matter of days, Gravity‘s late-entry status as the Best Picture frontrunner carries a stigma few films escape. When you’re perceived as the best, you’re no longer the sexy choice, even after you win Best Picture. The film will become predicated by what so many will harp on as an unjust triumph over a more “socially important” film like 12 Years a Slave.

It’s also around this time of year that the awards season narrative has an end in sight after bloggers, journalists, and audience wallets started writing it nearly 5 months ago. Early in the season, pundits championed 12 Years a Slave not only as a powerhouse film in itself, but as a beacon for the minority voice to finally reign supreme at the Oscar ceremony.

Generally, black-themed films are either ignored or shoved to the side as honorees in minor categories (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, very rarely in other categories)but 12 Years a Slave entered the season strong, and will likely finish along those lines as well. It’s a film that recalls an ugly part of American history, but an important one–ever more so during times when the first black President leads our country, modern racial issues pervade our society, and when a societal surge for minority equality across all fronts should be represented and recognized in our art.

So, then, which social cause do you chose? Gender or race? Should it even be based on such factors?

Pundits on both sides of the Gravity/12 Years a Slave debate have essentially turned on each other, digging into their respective opponent because it doesn’t fit the awards narrative they desire. According to them, Gravity would undermine the doors that 12 Years a Slave would open for minority filmmakers, and to others 12 Years a Slave would only win because it’s the black movie that rides to victory on white guilt.

They seem to be forgetting one key fact: a film does not change once it wins Best Picture. It does not become any better or any worse. It merely becomes the permanent frontrunner, and this passionate discourse that’s tearing apart two camps representing two of the best films from a monumental cinematic year proves that once you’re first, you’re automatically dead.

Weighing which social narrative you’d like to triumph is poison. If 12 Years a Slave wins, then it makes it a hell of a lot easier for the Black New Wave to begin in full-force. If Gravity wins, it represents the first plot that’s female-driven to win Best Picture since 1997, and the first film driven solely by a female character to ever win.

The Gravity detractors nearly always fall back on the argument that it’s a film about a woman that’s been directed and written by men, and therefore crippled as a vehicle to advance the position of women in the industry. But, these people forget that we’re talking about a visual medium. When discussing any film, you must begin on the most fundamental level, and that’s what’s in front of us. On the basis of familiarity, general audiences often identify with a movie through its actors and what they’re able to see. That’s largely what makes Gravity so wondrous; its visual effects, and its charismatic lead (Sandra Bullock), who proved herself as a box-office pull in the age of fading individual bankability. She transcends the film’s visuals and becomes the one thing–aside from the visual effects–that people associate with the film. The only people arguing about Alfonso Cuaron vs. Steve McQueen are the film nerds who make a living off of fueling the debate.

Gravity’s plot is also a beautifully sustained metaphor throughout, and a Best Picture win for it would be a fitting cap on a year when a female-driven film topped the US box-office for the first time in 17 years (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Things are changing for women, but pundits would rather pick and choose their social narratives in the hopes that they actually might have a hand in shaping them.

Chiwetel EjioforOne of the most prominent Oscar pundits out there, Sasha Stone, recently downplayed Alfonso Cuaron’s position, implying that he would only be significant as a Mexican director in this year’s Oscar race if he directed something about the Mexican experience, which is absurd and reinforcing of the dominant majority. So, by that logic, the minority is only worth something when he’s talking about the “other” to the white man and playing into the white man’s tastes?

While I tend to agree with the generally fantastic pundits over at Awards Daily, their most recent podcast irked me. Ryan Adams, an Oscar blogger I’ve come to respect, states that white voters and critics were “with” 12 Years a Slave until something more “white” and acceptable came along that they could latch on to, and that a viable “white” option was validated by the New York Film Critics Circle (American Hustle) early enough in the race that white voters were able to default onto it because it is more acceptable to them as a predominantly-white voting base. That makes absolutely no sense. The love for 12 Years a Slave came from a predominantly white voice in the first place. The overwhelmingly white pool of film critics across the country made it the best-reviewed film of the year, and I’m not sure Academy voters think with the same sort of racial bias many pundits have been spouting about all year. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision to switch from a “black” movie to a “white” movie that easily.

It seems that the mere existence of 12 Years a Slave is victory in itself. In a year with black filmmakers taking huge strides into the industry as a whole (in addition to McQueen’s success, Lee Daniels directed a “black” film to over $150 million in world box-office, and Ryan Coogler generated significant critical acclaim and impressive box-office for Fruitvale Station), it would be a fitting Best Picture winner after three prominent black men helmed films that began this important dialogue about race in the industry.

While a Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave would certainly validate the minority voice in a white-dominated industry, the long-term success of the Black New Wave movement has largely already been determined by audiences and their wallets. There’s often a vitriolic backlash against studios for their overarching control of societal norms–that they reenforce unfair standards of beauty for women by casting thin actresses, that they avoid “black” or “minority” subject matter, etc. While studios and executives shape what’s presented to the public, it’s audience preference that dictates where the money goes, and that dictates what the executives put out. If we don’t want to see it, we shouldn’t take ourselves to indulge in the fantasy of what is largely unattainable for so many.

It’s disappointing that most successful films star men, are directed by men, and are marketed to men, but moviegoers are capable of changing that. Perhaps the smartest thing moviegoers did this year was drive box-office sales for female-driven films like Gravity, Frozen, Identity Thief, The Heat, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

It’s undeniable: while the industry isn’t an equal place for women just yet, 2013 was a turning point, and Gravity‘s impending Best Picture win will represent it well.

The divisive bickering, valuing one great film over the other on the basis of a single award, however, is unfair, and puts us right back at the beginning with no end in sight: squabbling about injustices and forgetting to feed our empty stomachs when a full-course meal sits mere inches below on the table.

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Oscar Season Diary #8: ‘American Hustle,’ ‘Her,’ and the War of the Heart

3022037-slide-her-filmWe’re a fatherless culture heading in an unclear direction.

Can we sense, at this point, anyone at the wheel?

We’re overrun with greed, with corruption, with politics and media; we have little time to ponder the individual, or to see the soul behind the person staring back at us in the mirror. Survival is merely moving on to the next superficial stimulus.

Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle reveal a battle our preoccupation with the media has distracted us from acknowledging: the one within us as individuals. Both films remind us of the power of the heart–listening to it, working to preserve it–and resonate within an Oscar year that champions that very attitude.

The news is cluttered with headlines of a new war every day. From Washington to Syria, we hear about wars of ideals, wars of politics, wars of culture, wars of preference and wars of intellect. Some see bloodshed, and others exist as a momentary annoyance when, for a brief moment, we flip the channel to yet another news story about the deepening split between two roaring factions of our nation’s right and left.

If we’re given a spare moment away from the news tickers, push notifications, blinking lights, emails, and texts, it’s only natural to fall back on our own thoughts, emotions, and affections,  though we seek validation, pleasure, and stimulus from technology, and have grown dependent on it to rile us from the state of simply being able to, well, be.

Simplicity is an increasing rarity: this is the struggle that Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) undergoes on a daily basis in Her.

In the not-so-distant future, he’s a ghostwriter for countless clients who hire him to write personal letters to their loved ones. He spends his days recalling emotions he once knew as a married man, but for other people. He’s now divorced and trudging through the remnants of his soul as the world around him vacuums itself deeper and deeper into an outbreak of isolationist technology separating human from human, soul from soul.

Theodore, swayed by a convincing television ad, purchases a highly advanced operating system to cope with the loneliness. Her name is Samantha, and she’s programmed to adapt to new environments as she experiences them. Theodore is forced to confront his feelings of loneliness as he falls in love with Samantha.

The most intelligent thing about Her‘s script is its consistent urgency propelling Samantha forward as a fully-formed character. She grows, adapts, and forms feelings for herself, but most of all is able to understand that she isn’t human, which perhaps is the most beautiful thing about the film. It’s actually quite tragic in that sense, as Samantha yearns for a human body, but never loses her grip on reality. She knows she will never be human, and never tries to be.

Whereas Samantha can’t attain a sense of humanity, it’s Theo’s that she helps restore. At its core, the interactions between Samantha and Theodore are nothing more than Theodore talking to a version of himself filtered through a complex sequence of data. Samantha can only learn through her interactions with people, and she soon begins to interact with Theodore in a way that subtly holds a mirror to his face. His divorce shattered him, and his feelings of isolation and loneliness forced him into a machine-like state. It’s only thorough his acceptance of his feelings for Samantha that he can be truly happy, and he learns to be a human once again.

The film’s form is highly dependent on its content, and vice versa. There’s a gorgeous visual motif running throughout the film involving Theodore gazing out of enormous windows. Whether he’s on a subway, at work, or at his apartment, his view of the outside world is obscured by a glass shield that he can see the other side of, but can’t quite reach just yet. Without giving anything away, it’s only after he spends time getting to know himself (and Samantha), that he’s able to view what’s on the other side free from obstruction. It’s a beautiful film about the best and worst of technology, how it expands our perspective yet limits it, and how–if you don’t lose touch with your humanity–it can open your eyes instead of distract them from seeing what’s around you.

American Hustle explores these issues in a far less subtle manner. It’s classic David O. Russell spectacle. The film is about everything and it’s about nothing in particular, it’s about sexy people in extravagant costumes and the risky business they get themselves into. But, at its heart, its a story about preserving the all-encompassing, overwhelming impression of love.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) tells us of his childhood, one where he helped his family’s window business thrive by throwing rocks through storefront glass. It becomes clear that passion drives his actions, and that he’s not above taking control of his fate, even if it means involving himself in his own hand-spun circle of success.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a beautiful woman struggling to find herself amidst the hustle and bustle of urban life, and the two become inseparable. Their love spans the duration of the film, and its the glue of their affections that holds the entire film together.

american-hustle-amy-adams-1The pair embark on a scam operation together as a means to profit from what they deem to be the “lesser” men of society. They start a loan scam, where they promise to get people with poor credit loans–for a fee of $5,000. They’re eventually caught by FBI agent Richie Di Masso (Bradley Cooper), who lets them off the hook if they agree to help him bag corrupt politicians by (similar to Irving smashing windows so his family’s business could thrive) constructing a series of set-ups where they will accept bribes in exchange for political favors.

Sydney and Irving’s actions might be deplorable, but they’re motivated by the love they have for each other. They want the successful American life everyone is promised from birth, it’s just that they take an alternate route on the way there. Happiness is at the root of their actions. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want, whether we achieve it morally or by climbing down rungs tinged with grime?

Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), is an essential part of the film’s recipe. Of course Irving is cheating on her with Sydney, and she knows it, though she consistently tries to one-up him instead of laying down and taking her final laps through marriage as a victim. The space she occupies (the home she shares with Irving and her son) becomes a surreal place of mockery, where she has lost her grasp on how to safely parent her child, causing fires, smoking, and regressing to a childlike state herself. The home isn’t a place where happiness lives simply because you paint a smiley face on it by marrying and staying together for the sake of normalcy. A home requires work and, most of all, love. It is not a puzzle that fits together just because you want square A to fit into circle B.

If the fantasy of American life doesn’t fit, you must change it.

American Hustle is a story of selfish people with selfish intentions. Russell’s outlook on the world is that it is simply too self-centered for its own good. Everybody is in the game of life for themselves, and survival becomes a tainted, layered byproduct of manipulation, jealousy, and greed

But, the film celebrates a rebel’s instinctual desire to buck the system of control, to never be confined to a single space, and to never relinquish control of his or her own destiny, and that’s far more “American” than staying inside the lines (or within the confines of your white picket fence dreams). American Hustle celebrates its right to be about so simple an idea in such an intriguing way, that the ambition and pacing of the the film as a whole become synonymous with its characters’ drive to attain freedom on their own terms.

Both Her and American Hustle show the lengths that humans will go to in order to feel something, whether it be success, monetary comfort, love, or otherwise–the desire of the human spirit to regain consciousness of itself so that it can exist in peace is at the root of both films.

Many of the year’s films revolve around these ideas of breaking free from confines. A self-imposed prison (Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis), unjust incarceration (12 Years a Slave, Prisoners), or an emotional cage in the wreckage of heartbreak (Her, Blue is the Warmest Color), screenplays about regaining a sense of self have overwhelmingly dominated the awards season discussion.

GRAVITYIt’s interesting that, in 2013, the Oscar race is so filled with these films that revolve around characters attempting to regain what was once lost. Gravity’s Ryan Stone has lost faith in humanity and in herself after losing her daughter, and the film systematically constructs a beautiful cinematic metaphor for her emotional and spiritual rebirth that carries the film to its conclusion. 

12 Years a Slave sees Solomon Northrupp kidnapped from his life as a free black man in 1800s America to become a slave in the Deep South. He confronts the evils of racism and travels to the brink of his emotional stamina.

2013 ultimately was a year of battles won. When the Academy itself makes huge changes in an attempt to diversify its image, leadership, and voting base, it’s clear the tides of culture are changing, and victory can be seen for those long seen as inferior.

The year saw three black filmmakers’ names soar through the season as legitimate awards contenders. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station was an early season favorite in key categories (Best Actor, namely), while Lee Daniels’ The Butler spat in the face of those who deemed “black cinema” (a  general descriptor, I know, but it’s for the sake of the argument, here) an unmarketable venture (it grossed nearly $150 million worldwide). I can’t remember the last time this happened, if it has ever happened in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards.

This year’s Oscars are once again, thanks to the preferential ballot, going to be driven by passionate support for smaller projects that normally wouldn’t catch Academy voters’ eyes in a year where only five Best Picture nominees were allowed.

It seems that the Academy has been attempting to restore the heart into the race, when massive campaigns and PR brainwashing has driven the awards race into an endless domino entity. Usually, we look to the precursors to definitively outline the trajectory of the Oscars. Critics circles positioned their awards earlier in the season, so they could do things like push films like American Hustle into the race with first-out-of-the-gate praise (NYFCC, here’s looking at you).

There’s a passion for the craft and a passion for a vast array of films, as we’ve seen major precursors deviate from what was expected to push what they think is the strongest film of the year. With only one week to go until Oscar nominations, there’s an entire herd heading into a pen that’s usually, this late in the game, largely less crowded. Passion is power, and people seem to be voting with their hearts.

Ultimately, as Theodore is in Her, we’re left alone to look in the mirror in the wake of these films. At the heart of top box-office draws of the year was escapism, which is equivalent to throwing a blanket over our eyes. If we’re consistently entertained by pure spectacle, how do we accept art as something multi-dimensional?

We must champion the great films from this monumental year in cinema, because they do what pure spectacle can’t—they take our hand and give a reflective clarity through the dark.

National Board of Review Announces Winners: ‘Gravity’ Hurts, ‘Her’ Soars Into the Race

spike-jonze-her-joaquin-phoenix

The National Board of review has announced its annual list of year-end bests, moving in a drastically different direction than yesterday’s New York Film Critics Circle Awards, crowning Spike Jonze and his film Her with its top two honors.

The NBR generally tends to favor showy titles, big names, big budgets, and audience-friendly fare, which makes it entirely surprising that Gravity–a film right up the NBR alley–walks away with only a special achievement award here. If Gravity‘s finds little success with the LAFCC later this week, its chances at its previously-expected Oscar glory might plummet, though I have faith that the HFPA will eat the film up in its dramatic categories.

Gravity could also prove to have been a mid-season fluke. Its existence as a massive box-office success helmed almost entirely by an Oscar-winning actress (one of the most powerful in Hollywood, mind you) might have bogged the film down with unrealistic expectations that were entirely ahead of themselves just before awards season.

Gravity is, compared to other films in the race, a crowd-pleasing stroke of surface entertainment. It delves beyond the surface if you’re willing to look, but seeing through to its thematic/metaphorical structure isn’t necessary to enjoy the film. It’s still a lock in key technical categories.

The one thing that’s remained consistent throughout the precursor awards is an outpouring of love for Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station. Though it seems to be sweeping minor categories (directorial debuts, breakthrough performances), it’s becoming clear that there’s a passionate push behind the film that extends into other areas, as Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer have been recognized by the Film Independent Spirit Awards and NBR, respectively.

So far, Coogler’s film has received honors and nominations from Sundance, Cannes, the Gotham Awards, the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the NYFCC, the Satellite Awards, and now from the NBR. It would be a huge mistake to discount Fruitvale Station‘s chances in the Oscar category for Best Picture.

Sarah Polley adds another win to the ongoing tally for her documentary Stories We Tell, which is now poised as the frontrunner in the Best Documentary Feature category.

Last year, the National Board of Review honored Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty with multiple awards (including for her Direction and Jessica Chastain’s lead performance), though it fell just short of Oscar glory thanks to an ugly political agenda aiming for its demise. Whereas the critics circles tend to exist in their own world (somewhat exemplified by the NYFCC’s love for American Hustle), the NBR usually takes a few steps further, throwing in random mass-appealers (Lone Survivor this year) year after year, or pushing an unexpected film to the forefront of the discussion.

Will the NBR’s push for Her extend the film’s reach into big categories at the Oscars? Maybe. We’ve only just witnessed the opening of the gates, and Her is now positioned for a healthy run.

Top 10 Films (in alphabetical order):

12 Years a Slave

Fruitvale Station

Gravity

Inside Llewyn Davis

Lone Survivor

Nebraska

Prisoners

Saving Mr. Banks

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Wolf of Wall Street

Best FilmHer

Best Director: Spike Jonze, Her

Best Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Best Actress: Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Supporting Actor: Will Forte, Nebraska

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station

Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Adapted Screenplay: Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises

Breakthrough Performance: Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station

Breakthrough Performance: Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color

Best Directorial Debut: Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station

Best Foreign Language Film: The Past

Best Documentary: Stories We Tell

Best Ensemble: Prisoners

NYFCC Announces Winners: ‘American Hustle’ Shifts the Race

nyfcc-new-york-film-critics-circle-oscars-entertainment-news1-594x300

The New York Film Critics Circle announced its full list of winners for the 2013 calendar year, pushing the awards season floodgates wide open.  The NYFCC tends to influence major categories at the Oscars, including Best Picture, where its crowning of American Hustle as the year’s best film throws a speed bump onto the road we all thought had been laid out in front of 12 Years a Slave.

Influencing SAG voters seems likely as well for the NYFCC, as SAG ballots aren’t due until December 9th. With Redford’s win only complicating the Best Actor race (Bruce Dern has one major win at Cannes, Redford takes the crown here) even further, it primarily functions as blow to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s chances at the Oscars. Either a larger push from the SAG will happen as a result of Redford’s win, or Redford will steamroll through to the SAG Awards and conquer the field.

Ejiofor needs as much steam as he can get, as 12 Years a Slave‘s predicted domination of the Oscar precursors seems less likely now that the NYFCC has declared a clear affinity for American Hustle, giving the film wins for Best Picture, Jennifer Lawrence, and for Screenplay. That’s not a fluke win here or there; these are formidable wins in huge categories. This push means something more so than the Spirit, Gotham, and Satellite awards do.

american-hustle

Underestimating David O. Russell’s ability to play the Oscar game was a dangerous thing for the pundits to do. Even without the Weinstein push, American Hustle has gone from questionable outsider to a solid third or fourth place in the race for Best Picture, possibly even nudging Gravity out of the way for second place.

Gravity needs to start winning at the precursors if its Best Picture chances are to remain alive. Not winning for Cinematography here (it lost to Inside Llewyn Davis, a formidable and worthy competitor in the category) could be huge, as the film’s best chances outside of the major categories were thought to have been in the techs. It’s a film people largely remember for three things: Bullock’s performance, the visual effects, and Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork. Its Best Picture chances merely resulted from its overwhelming success with critics and audiences. Perhaps the precursor awards are merely pulling us back to earth, as the film’s script is somewhat weaker than the rest of this year’s offerings. It’ll still rank among the year’s best films in the Best Picture race, and I fully expect the HFPA to eat it up.

It’s a shame that the tide from the Hustle wave seems to be turning so quickly away from Lupita Nyong’o and Oprah Winfrey for their terrific performances in 12 Years a Slave and The Butler, but–as with Sandra Bullock and her win for The Blind Side–Jennifer Lawrence’s bankability, likeability, and unstoppable star-power have catapulted her into a career position most actors don’t attain after a few decades let alone after only two years. I’m afraid that peaking this early could spell trouble for Lawrence’s later career, however, as two Oscars in a row might start to precede the quality of her work, leading to astronomical expectations for an actress whose appeal largely thrives on her unpredictable, unhinged nature both in interviews and within her films. It seems that the film’s other performances aren’t getting as much recognition as Lawrence, however, as Silver Linings Playbook‘s appeal was deeply rooted in its cast. Without the Weinsteins on board to push for Oscar nominations in each category, the film’s success could be determined by the SAG and if it recognizes the entire cast (or just Lawrence and Amy Adams). If that happens, it could mean lights out for 12 Years a Slave as a whole.

Cate Blanchett continues on the path to Best Actress glory, and Sarah Polley also collects a nice little push for Stories We Tell in the documentary category (the shortlist was revealed today, and the film is on it), as does Steve McQueen for his win for directing 12 Years a Slave. He becomes the first black filmmaker to win Best Director at the NYFCC Awards, and it seems unlikely that the Oscar story will be any different. The only question remains is whether or not American Hustle is simply finding a one-time home with the New York Film Critics Circle, or if this is a much broader portent of glory to come for David O. Russell.

UPDATE: Via Vulture (http://www.vulture.com/2013/12/american-hustle-tops-ny-film-critics-awards.html):

‘According to our critic David Edelstein, who is one of the NYFCC’s members, the final vote for Best Picture resulted in a rare tie-breaker. NYFCC by-laws prevent the actual numbers from being released, but Edelstein said there was a strong American Hustle camp and a strong 12 Years a Slave camp (reflected in McQueen’s best director win), and that the vote was remarkably close, with some members expressing “visible dismay” when the final number was tallied.’

If this is true now–this early in the race–the push for American Hustle is only going to get stronger. I think this year is heading into Brokeback Mountain/Crash territory between American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. This just proves that there’s immediate passion and urgency behind Russell’s work, and that’s ever-powerful in today’s Oscar races. I just had a discussion with Sasha Stone on Twitter about it, and she seems to think AH exists “within a vacuum,” because there’s no reviews and such, which is an entirely valid point. People’s affections for Russell are clear, though, and he’sl has proven that people feel immediate affection that lasts in short, powerful bursts year after year. It pushed Silver Linings Playbook to Oscar glory, and it could do the same for American Hustle. 

The complete list of winners (UPDATED AS OF 3:26 PM):

Best Film: American Hustle

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Actor: Robert Redford, All is Lost

Best Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Screenplay: American Hustle

Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Foreign Language FilmBlue is the Warmest Color

Best Animated Film: The Wind Rises

Best Nonfiction Film (Documentary)Stories We Tell

Best First Film: Fruitvale Station

Special Award: Frederick Wiseman

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.