oscar blogging

Finding Summer Sunshine in ‘Tammy’ Beyond the Muck and the Fat Jokes

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By: Joey Nolfi

Twitter: @joeynolfi

What makes a movie worth something? In the blistering months of summer, we find ourselves flocking to the theater in droves to see them: the good ones, the bad ones, the everything-in-between ones. We accept the notion that this is a supposed to be a time for relaxation, a time to drift away from the 40-hour workweek and into the soft caress of increasing temperatures and cool breezes in that wide open space that’s in between your front door and your air-conditioned sedan.

But, being the good cinephiles that we are, we shut ourselves away in tiny, cramped, darkened little theaters and let others create the fantasy for us. We still associate film with escapism, just the same as we hold onto the coded image of summer as if it still bears the same fruits that three months of nothingness ahead of you in the waning days of May did when you were 15 years old.

Of course, the reality for adults is much different. Summer is simply supposed to be synonymous with easy, but the film industry often kicks into overdrive during these months, pummeling us with male-driven tentpole after male-driven tentpole in a cycle that’s driving its top-heavy films into the ground, pushing “minority” characters and stories to the side, and testing just how much audiences will put up with (grosses for 2014’s summer flicks thus far trail last year’s grosses by 15%, according to Deadline Hollywood) en route to a monolithically-male American film culture.

In an industry where real female characters in front of the camera are rare and a female eye behind the lens is even harder to come by, it’s unfortunate that a film like Tammy—one undoubtedly meant as a lighthearted tread through fields of breezy summer tastes that appeal to the masses—lands itself amid an inescapable storm of web-based chatter from all possible perspectives. People don’t want to let the film be as it is without all the extra baggage it may or may not be carrying with arms of its own. Still, we talk; “Tammy is a film about equality for big girls” some say. “Can we please stop talking about Melissa McCarthy’s weight?” others, like Entertainment Weekly’s Karen Valby did here) chime in. Tammy is being pulled in a million different directions so much that feels like we’ve run the course with it even though we’re still a good 24 hours away from its official opening.

What is true “worth” when talking about a summer blockbuster, then? If we tip so heavily to the side of male taste, is there room for anything else—even, say, a subpar overall film like Tammy—to be worth something in bits as opposed to as a whole?

Heavy discourse might be valid when talking about a film that’s worth something in the eyes of the masses, which Tammy will be if good word of mouth carries it past the modest $30-$40 million holiday haul it’s poised for, though we seem to be more preoccupied with throwing our own words around prior to seeing the actual film than seeing Tammy for what it is; a ridiculously uneven spectacle that digs its own holes that are similar in size and size and scope to the ones dug by others it so desperately seeks to climb out of. But, in the age of the internet court, where everyone’s voice is falsely validated by their ability to fit it into a 140-character space, criticism becomes something that altogether precedes content, and it’s dangerous to glob a film like Tammy into a grey box in an industry that so blatantly separates gender into black and white despite its shortcomings.

We have to pick and choose what we pull from films like Tammy, which stars Melissa McCarthy as a 30-something slob with an ex-job, soon-to-be-ex-husband, and an excommunication from a reality, as she attempts to capitalize on her newfound freedom with a road trip to Niagara Falls with her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), though they veer far off track and the film careens into all-over-the-place territory as Tammy embarks on a true journey of self-discovery. McCarthy’s script (co-written with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed the picture) feels like a series of aimless vignettes that wear the same comedic gimmicks that McCarthy has relied on for three years now so extremely thin that the barely-there thread connecting everything feels as if its about to snap and coil in on itself if one more self-deprecating fat joke or improvised run-on slithers out of McCarthy’s mouth.

Take it like any subcultural film movement appropriating the normative culture’s use of words that are derogatory (the “f” word, the “n” word), but McCarthy’s use of fat jokes at first doesn’t seem like a harnessing of control, but rather feels like a repetitive reliance on an easy gag. The laughs are there, but the punch isn’t. For that reason, it’s nearly impossible to leave the discussion about weight and gender at the door, namely because the film is more than attributable to McCarthy’s own doing: she wrote the script, after all, and her husband called the shots on set. That doesn’t do much for objectivity on their part, and it makes for a film that feels more self-indulgent on McCarthy’s part than it does self-revelatory for the character she’s created on the page and on the screen…for the first half, that is.

So, the overwhelmingly negative response the film is receiving from initial screenings is warranted for the most part: the film’s first half is a silly romp that does very little to elevate itself above the rest of the summer muck. Again, we must be careful, as so rarely are we given female characters like the ones in Tammy that the film surrounding them takes a backseat to the importance of their existence as characters in the first place. The film’s back half, however, turns the nose of the sinking ship toward the sun.

For starters, it’s become quite common to observe that Melissa McCarthy’s body type doesn’t fit in with the normal blueprint Hollywood has drawn for women to build upon, and when lines like “you didn’t fuck the ice cream man just for the ice cream, did you?” and “I kind of got into the pies” punctuate a film that includes scenes of an overweight woman struggling to climb over a small counter top and falling to her knees after dropping three feet off the top of a table, what is an audience supposed to think? McCarthy begs us to view her body as a comedic tool, and while that makes it impossible to leave discussion about its star’s body out of the equation, it does indicate that there is a consciousness to her methods.

xmelissa-mccarthy-susan-sarandon-tammy.jpg.pagespeed.ic.KmtdTVSL3lTammy is a studio production aimed at pleasing the crowds, and it will do that on some level, but the film also explores things you’d never see in the male-driven industry today, thanks largely in part to McCarthy’s power as a box-office draw and audience darling. There are female characters (even lesbians!) that are defined by more than their sexuality and/or their relationship to a man—in a Hollywood production! Though the lack of objectivity and more creative license given to McCarthy in terms of script and performance speaks to her power as a female star with a box-office draw, her decision to include the fat jokes in her own script indicate a comfort and an acceptance of her body. That’s obvious. It’s just wholeheartedly discouraging to see her reducing herself to fodder for trailers with material that’s just not very creative, and altogether makes her body something that we have to think about as something someone has to “accept” in the first place. Is there something wrong with you if you aren’t Melissa McCarthy but have Melissa McCarthy’s body type and no outlet to show off your self-deprecating humor?

Sure, we can say that it’s unfair to talk about women’s bodies and focus on the weight, but Melissa McCarthy’s films seem to fixate on it more than the rest of us do: the jokes are at the expense of her weight and wouldn’t work on a skinny person. McCarthy doesn’t use these jokes as a crutch beyond the first half of the film or so (they’re peppered throughout the entire thing, but ultimately don’t define it), she’s just playing up her assets, and she treats her body as such; she doesn’t create a character who’s disgusting, but rather someone who’s in control of losing control of her body for comedic effect.

It’s this consciousness of what makes McCarthy “different”—both as someone who doesn’t fit the “normal” mold of Hollywood actresses and as a powerful woman in an industry dominated by men—that makes aspects of Tammy accessible in a way we’re not used to seeing in a big-budget Hollywood production. There’s a deliberate effort to construct a non-mainstream, non-typical woman and give her the agency that beautiful, rail-thin leading ladies in other films don’t even get. Without spoiling anything, we do see Tammy getting a choice along her path to romance, the freedom from hinging her life’s decisions on the pursuit of a man, valuable, complex relationships with women based on things that don’t have to do with men, and the power to be the agent of her own story, not dangle from the hands of someone else. This is a story about women helping women, even if the beginning bits distracted us along the way.

So, what does Tammy want to be, and what does it end up being? It’s a line we can’t clearly draw because the film itself is so structurally misshapen, but we can appreciate what little glimmer there is to be extracted from the earnesty of its all-poweful female star and screenwriter. We can’t blindly accept films like Tammy as a whole simply because there are elements that subvert the norm. A mediocre product from a woman, starring a woman who contrasts what other studios are pushing doesn’t make it a great film, but you can make a dry, crusty, dirt-browned potato shine like a juicy red, freshly-plucked tomato; you just have to tilt it a little and lift it into the sun for closer inspection.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Accessible Oscar: 2013’s Nominated Films You Easily Can Watch Before Sunday

The-Broken-Circle-BreakdownYou know Gravity. You know 12 Years a Slave. You’re (most likely) sick of American Hustle by now (and if you’re not, you don’t belong in a serious Oscar conversation, anyway).

2013’s crop of Oscar-nominated films contains some remarkably high-profile pictures, yet the most unoriginal commentary plebians use to describe the Academy Awards still resonates with grating ignorance as it carries over year after year.

Common man, you’re still not cool for saying “They only nominate movies that, like, no one has ever heard of.”

It’s more fair to say that the films which run the yearly awards gamut are easy prey for the burnout machine. With countless articles, podcasts, tv shows, and magazines covering the standard awards season contenders, we often grow tired of the mere sight of the frontrunners’ names, let alone are we able to force ourselves to sit through them more than once.

With the potential for 10 Best Picture nominees each year, the Academy has—in this instance only—wisely expanded the podium for smaller films to be seen by wider audiences. Without Best Picture support and the pre-nomination buzz the potential for an extra five titles brings, the likes of Philomena, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club, or even Her might not have found the (still relatively small) audiences–or place within awards season–that they eventually did.

It was especially evident in 2013 that studios wanted Oscar voters and audiences alike to see their films. Screeners were sent out in droves to Academy members, and multiple re-releases occurred from December through February (12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and Dallas Buyers Club each received late-run expansions in the midst of Oscar season).

Frankly, there’s no excuse for not having seen the Best Picture nominees by Sunday. All nine are currently playing in theaters. All but one are playing at over 175 locations, which means they’re more than likely playing at a theater near you. Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, and Nebraska each are on DVD as of this posting. While its DVD release date isn’t expected until March 4, you can also catch 12 Years a Slave on iTunes for an inflated ($14.99 to own) price.

Seeing each of the Best Picture nominees also checks a great deal of have-seen boxes in the acting and technical categories as well, as the only films from the other major categories (acting, direction, and screenplay) not represented in the Best Picture race are August: Osage County, Blue Jasmine, and Before Midnight.

We’re experiencing an age where the film industry is more accessible than ever. In particular, accessibility to Oscar-nominated films is practically forced upon you. Studios want you to see their awards season contenders, mainly because the critics and guilds which usually determine the trajectory of awards season are growing increasingly rogue, throwing their weight behind whichever film makes them look like the sexiest group of thinkers.

Audiences have more power than ever before, considering the Academy tends to take a few key factors into consideration when voting, one of which being a group consensus of their peers and the public. Audiences loved Argo, The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Slumdog Millionaire, and each of those films boasts a crowd-pleasing aesthetic in all departments.

It’s easy to see how this logic would make Gravity a near lock for Best Picture by this point in the race. 12 Years a Slave is divisive, and that’s usually the last thing you want when heading into a showdown with a weighted ballot, as the Academy uses to determine Best Picture.

On a scale ranked from 1-9 this year Oscar voters will place their favorite films in order. A film needs to secure a certain number of #1 votes in order to pass the first round. Gravity is universally-appealing, secured high-profile awards from two guilds that share crossover membership with the Academy (DGA and PGA), stars two Hollywood heavyweights, has a socially-relevant narrative on its side (visibility for women! minority director!), and racked up nearly $300 million domestically (over $700 million worldwide), meaning its ascension to the number-one spot on most voters’ lists won’t be filled with many obstacles. 12 Years a Slave will easily take a percentage of #1 votes (passionate support for the film is strong), but its strengths are counterbalanced by its divisive nature, meaning it could rank far lower on many voters’ lists.

Why does placement matter? If a film like Captain Phillips receives the least amount of #1 votes in the first round of voting, its votes are then redistributed amongst the remaining titles and it is eliminated from contention. So, #2 and #3 votes then become important. This means that the film that wins Best Picture then needs to secure a decent amount of #2, #3, etc. votes so that enough are redistributed on to its pile when the other films are eliminated, until only one is left as the Best Picture winner.

Whether 12 Years a Slave wins or not, its importance lies within its mere existence, and you should see it. At a time when minority directors sparingly find work, Steve McQueen’s film has inserted itself as relevant in a society where the minority voice is threatened in all aspects of American life. It would be undoubtedly exciting to see a film about slavery win the Best Picture prize for the first time (though it would be playing into a white man’s tastes, as the Academy is overwhelmingly white and male), but its accessibility on a multitude of platforms (VOD, theaters, and DVD within the coming weeks) is key for the success and profitability of these types of films in the long run. If they’re consumed across all platforms, they’ll get made.

People will (and need to) watch it. After all, isn’t the point of making a movie to get people to do just that?

I’ve already told you where you can see the most popular of 2013’s nominees, but a great deal of smaller films from last year that were nominated for Oscars are readily-available as well. If you don’t live near a big city, you can easily find many films that populate the “lesser” categories of the Oscars on services like Netflix, iTunes, and on DVD or VOD. They are:

THE FEATURE DOCUMENTARIES (NETFLIX, ITUNES)

The Act of KillingThe Square, Dirty Wars, The Act of Killing, and Cute and the Boxer are each available to stream on Netflix for free with a subscription. You can easily make a night of indulging in these Oscar-nominated films, as they’re not very long and require a small amount of patience, as they’re all quality films with engaging subjects. 20 Feet From Stardom, however, is available to rent on iTunes for a mere $0.99.

If you only watch one, watch: The Act of Killing, as it will likely be the winner.

FOREIGN NOMINEES THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN, THE GREAT BEAUTY, AND THE HUNT (ITUNES)

the-hunt2A powerful crop of nominees in the this year’s Foreign Language category, three of the five nominees are available to watch for rent on iTunes. The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of the most devastatingly beautiful films in recent memory, as is The HuntThe Great Beauty won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, while Omar and The Missing Picture are expected to release sometime soon.

If you only watch one, watch: The Hunt or The Great Beauty if you’d like to watch the winner. Watch The Broken Circle Breakdown if you want to watch the best of the nominees. It’s reminiscent of 2010’s Blue Valentine, but bites much harder. If every Oscar voter saw The Broken Circle Breakdown, we’d be looking at a very different Best Picture race altogether. Some of the finest performances of the year are housed within its two-hour running time.

SCREENPLAY NOMINEES BEFORE MIDNIGHT AND BLUE JASMINE (ITUNES, DVD)

Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen's Blue JasmineRepresenting both the Adapted and Original Screenplay categories, respectively, both Before Midnight and Blue Jasmine are available on iTunes and DVD. While not as high-profile or as widely-seen as the other nominees in their categories (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Captain Phillips are their competition, mind you), these films are easy to sit through and pay off quite nicely. Both are from established, legendary auteurs, and they shouldn’t be missed in the grand scheme of movies, let alone in this year’s Oscar race.

If you only watch one, watch: Blue Jasmine, as it’s a standalone piece (whereas Before Midnight is part of a series), and it’s nominated in two other categories, likely to win one for Cate Blanchett in the Lead Actress category (she gives one of the finest performances of all time as the titular character).

DOCUMENTARY, LIVE-ACTION, AND ANIMATED SHORTS (SELECT THEATERS, ITUNES)

Slider-Home-1Probably everyone’s least-favorite categories to predict (I admit, even I stumble when it comes to seeing these things), the shorts are often the most difficult to fit into your need-to-see schedule before the Oscar telecast. This year, they’ve played at over 400 theaters across the country since January 31st thanks to Shorts HD and Magnolia. It might take some digging, but find a local theater that’s playing them and show these little guys some love. They’re also available on iTunes as of today.

So, there you have it. You’ve just been given a wonderful insight into where and how you can watch a majority of the Oscar-nominated films. You might have procrastinated up to this point, but just know that more accessibility to more Oscar-nominated films means you’ll have no excuse for having “not heard” of or “not seen” next year’s batch.

‘Gravity’ Wins Best British Film: ‘Philomena’ on Track for Oscar and BAFTA Glory?

Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in PhilomenaThe greatest joys of Oscar season come most unexpectedly.

Oscar Bloggers and audiences alike love to think their opinion matters; that their collective desire to see any given film or performer triumph over the others will result in a win; that their prognostication skills means something in the grand scheme of the race.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts has, for the past 5 years, merely reaffirmed the course set by the rest of the Oscar precursors. Prior to that, their taste seemed to differ largely from the Academy’s. Films like Brokeback Mountain, The Queen, The Aviator, The Pianist, and Atonement rose above eventual Oscar Best Pictures Crash, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby (which wasn’t even nominated for the BAFTA Best Film award), Chicago, and No Country for Old Men, respectively.

When did a defined split in taste somehow result in a streamlined confluence of opinion between the BAFTA and AMPAS? The BAFTAs have gone from quirky outsider to meaningful forecaster.

Their opinion matters.

It’s not enough to merely say that the British will vote for the British. Many of those films which won over the eventual Academy Best Picture winners were American, directed not by British or American people, about un-British topics, set in locations that weren’t, well, Britain.

It seems logical to attribute this to the increasing number of British members in the AMPAS, given that crossover membership between BAFTA and the AMPAS, the DGA and the AMPAS, the PGA and the AMPAS, the SAG and the AMPAS, is so huge (and has grown so much over the years) that the Oscars generally end up being feeling like a late-to-the-party whimper that merely nods at what the others have already brought to the table.

What does this mean for this year’s race, then? That, in the short voting frame of Oscar voting (which began on Friday and lasts throughout the coming week), pictures with British ties such as Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity will likely all receive a boost in votes from the Academy.

In terms of Best Picture, It’s safe to say that American Hustle is essentially out of the race, and will most likely go 0-10 at the Oscars. They paid David O. Russell and Silver Linings Playbook little attention last year (remember Jennifer Lawrence’s petty reaction to Emmannuelle Riva taking top honors in the Best Actress category?), and the tide of awards season took a strong turn toward two films with British ties—Gravity and 12 Years a Slave—earlier this year. Gravity now has a PGA and DGA award under its belt, while 12 Years a Slave boasts two major awards from the PGA (tied with Gravity) and the Golden Globes.

grav-1Philomena, on the other hand, is also nominated in both the Outstanding British Film category and the Best Film category, a distinction shared only by Gravity (12 Years a Slave missed out on the former as it’s an American production). In essence, Philomena is a much stronger contender in the overall race that no one seems to be throwing a credible bone.

If we look at the things Philomena has going for it, its odds for taking top prizes in both major categories at the BAFTAs tonight are much greater than Gravity’s. Gravity was directed by a Mexican (Alfonso Cuaron), whereas Philomena is helmed by one of the most respected British directors working today (Stephen Frears). Gravity was written by Cuaron and his son, while Philomena’s screenwriters are British, and tell a tale that’s set in the region, chronicles the lives of regional characters, and is acted out by British actors.

Gravity’s appeal is more international, given that its plug-and-play plot can be enjoyed by anyone in any part of the That’s not to say that Philomena’s appeal is only palpable in Britain, it’s just that Philomena is a film which better represents UK talent, subject matter, and all-around visibility in the industry.

In essence, that likely means that Philomena is poised for Best Film over Best British film. Why? Let’s take a look at Stephen Frears’ last major contender in the BAFTA race. The Queen posed an interesting split in both major categories within which it was nominated. Up for both Outstanding British Film and Best Film, it managed to both beat (for Best Film) and lose to (for Best British Film) The Last King of Scotland, also nominated in both categories. If anything, this proves the existence of groupthink mentalities that seek to spread the wealth across a variety of different films in any given awards race. It’s statistical nonsense. If The Queen won Best Film, is it not also, then, the best British film?

The split generally happens more often than not:

2006: The Queen wins Oscar, wins Best Film, loses Best British Film – The Last King of Scotland wins Best British Film, loses Best Film

2007: Atonement loses Best British Film, wins Best Film, loses Oscar – This is England wins Best British Film, isn’t even nominated for Best Film

2008: Slumdog Millionaire wins Best Film, loses Best British film, wins Oscar – Man on Wire wins Best British Film, isn’t even nominated for Best Film

2010: The King’s Speech wins Best British Film, Best Film, and Oscar

Essentially, the cross-winning and cross-losing cancel each other out. If a film loses Best British Film to a picture that’s not even nominated in the Best Film category, is it truly the Best Film?

The key year to remember, then, is 2010, when The King’s Speech won both Best Film and Outstanding British Film. As Gravity has already take the Best British Film award, it’s likely that Philomena will take the Best Film prize, as a split generally always happens between the two categories, as evidenced above, though it’s not entirely unlikely that the split doesn’t happen this year.

Could this be Philomena’s late entry into the frontrunning lines? We’ve seen crazier things happen this Oscar season. It’s never a bad thing to head into Oscar voting with a prominent industry awards ceremony backing you as Academy voters are busy ticking off their ballots. If Academy members are genuinely paying attention to the industry around them, they’d have wisely set their ballot aside on Friday. Tonight’s BAFTA Awards ceremony is the last, most visible precursor they have to steer them along their course.

Philomena as Best Film this evening could, for about the 9,874th time this awards race, shift the tide. Stats are on its side, as Best Film at the BAFTAs has, recently, won Best Picture at the Oscars.

After all, they’ve got the last five years of matching tastes to uphold and continue. No one wants to deviate from the course—especially these “new” BAFTAs.

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.

Without PGA Support, Can ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Survive?

LLEWYN2013 introduced this interesting Oscar dynamic where, even if a film misses out on what used to be a key Oscar precursor, it’s resuscitated by intense love from another guild or group.

The cycle of pre-Oscar awarding has shifted from recognizing good films to celebrating the ability of the respective guild or group to champion the right film of the year, considering the Academy can no longer use the majority of these precursor awards as springboards for their own nominations (with the new schedule, winners generally aren’t announced during or after Oscar balloting has already commenced).

All we’re doing is dancing around in circles with a different crop of films each time we pass the 360 mark.

The recent highs and lows of Inside Llewyn Davis on the awards circuit couldn’t have more fittingly encapsulated the 2013 awards season.

Within a matter of days, the Coen brothers’ latest offering went without recognition from the Producers Guild of America–a key Best Picture Oscar prognosticator–to nearly sweeping the National Society of Film Critics’ annual awards.

The National Society of Film Critics’ top honors for Best Film were bestowed upon Davis, with other wins in the Directing, Actor, and Cinematography categories, each a category that other Oscar contenders have led across the board since the beginning of the season. Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuaron and 12 Years a Slave‘s Steve McQueen have dominated the Director race, while Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey, and Bruce Dern have control the discussion on Best Actor.

The PGA turned a cold shoulder to the film (as have general audiences and other Oscar precursors), which undoubtedly hurts its chances (as crossover membership is a legitimate factor here, where it isn’t with the NSFC), considering Oscar ballots aren’t due for another three days. This will work in one of two ways:

1) Academy voters will read the headlines proclaiming “Coens Left Out of PGA Nominations” as a springboard for voting for something else (“If the PGA didn’t vote for it, why should I?” mentality)

or

2) Academy voters will read the headlines proclaiming “Coens Left Out of PGA Nominations” and use it as an opportunity to vote for the film in lieu of something else (my guess is that the film occupies the same space of appeal as something like Her or The Wolf of Wall Street).

Days before Oscar nominations, one thing remains clear: no one has any idea what they’re doing–or where the race is going.

Since 2000, only two films that the National Society of Film Critics have awarded their Best Film award have gone on to win top honors at the Oscars. The difference? The Academy’s preferential ballot allows films the NSFC generally goes for (polarizing, low-profile arty films) to succeed based on passionate enthusiasm. Since films can extend their reach into the Best Picture category like never before, the NSFC’s love for Inside Llewyn Davis (which doesn’t correlate with how Oscar voters will fill out their ballots) does prove that support for the film can be all-encompassing and firm despite typical precursors which are supposed to influence other precursors. This year, everyone seems to be doing their own thing.

On the Academy’s end, they tend to recognize the Coens when they’re doing something different. That might sound like it speaks for every film in the Coens’ library (evolving their style has become key to their recent work), but taking a look at the Coens’ Academy history, it’s not.

Inside-Llewyn-Davis-trailer-1877774A Serious Man rushed the Best Picture category the first year the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to include 10 nomination slots. Undoubtedly the wild card of the group, the film was boosted by staunch Coen supporters. A year after that, True Grit caught the Academy’s eye for being an uncharacteristically showy, genre-confined turn for the duo, and received a staggering 10 nominations without a single victory. 2008’s Burn After Reading, however, was completely left out of the Oscar race because, out of their most recent work, is more reflective of the classic work the Academy fell in love with in the first place (I like to think of it as Fargo-lite).

And then we have No Country For Old Men, perhaps the best work the brothers have done over the course of their entire career. It’s hard to compare anything to Fargo, let alone to an entirely separate work from an entirely separate period in the career of the most dynamic set of directors working today. No Country For Old Men exists as an entirely separate filmmaking fantasy roaming the stratospheres far and above just about every other film made over the last two decades. The film seemed to sweep awards season with the major critics circles (NYFCC, NBR) and key guilds (including PGA, SAG, and DGA) all the way to the Oscar for Best Picture.

Inside Llewyn Davis is perhaps the most drastic departure from their signature style that the Coens have taken in their entire career, and we know people (especially the Academy) aren’t comfortable with having their expectations challenged. It’s a film which starts as a playfully pessimistic peep into the life of a struggling artist but, as it concludes, is a depressing portrait of struggle making the art, not the artist spinning it for himself. It’s showy in a way that we haven’t really seen from the Coens, incorporating an extra-filmically appealing component–its soundtrack–that resonates in ways and places the film can’t. The majority of Academy voters–the guys in the sound department, for example–are going to tick off the more outwardly appealing films instead of the subtly challenging ones such as this.

When there’s a strong push for a Coens film, its almost always strong enough to break through to the Oscar race. Misfires and delvings into more commercially-appealing territory such as The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty lacked even a critical push into the awards race, proving that voting members are actually paying attention to the Coens as directors with a standard of quality that’s tangible and ever-changing. It isn’t just a voting process that rewards the name. The passion for Davis is strong.

The industry as a whole learned its lesson after Fargo fell short of the prize in the 90s: when you go for the Coens, you must go big–and for the right picture–and I’m not sure they’re convinced Inside Llewyn Davis is that film. It’s still alive without PGA support, but this week’s DGA announcement will seal its fate–hopefully for the better.

HFPA Announces, Pushes ‘Rush’ In, ‘The Butler’ and Oprah Out

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Oprah feels her first major pre-Oscar sting as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announces its list of nominations, continuing their recent string of somewhat-against-the-grain nods. 

The Queen of all media suffers a huge blow to her Oscar chances. Once the clear front-runner in the Supporting Actress category, she’ll head into Oscar voting without a Golden Globe nomination, which essentially takes her out of the race for top honors. Though she received a SAG nomination for the role just yesterday (and the actors branch of the Academy will likely push her to a nomination), she really needed recognition from the HFPA to remain a legitimate contender. Instead, Sally Hawkins gets a major push for her work in Blue Jasmine, a performance which most likely allowed her to take Oprah’s spot here.

Lee Daniels is also feeling the shaft for the film as a whole, which didn’t receive a single Golden Globe nomination this morning. This is entirely surprising, as the HFPA generally loves his work (Precious received three major nominations, and just last year The Paperboy received a surprise nomination in a major category without a significant awards push from any other precursor).

So, how does a film with a vast network of  strong support (thanks largely to its ensemble A-list cast with roots extending deep into the industry) get shut out? It’s hard to tell, but I think The Butler‘s identity crisis has a lot to do with it. The film was a huge hit with audiences, as it made nearly $115 million at the domestic box-office, though critics chimed in with a rather lukewarm response.

The film teeters on the edge of melodrama and historical camp, deals with issues of race and class structure, and paints a relevant portrait of American life that resonates well into today’s society. The Butler is all of these things on the surface, though it isn’t as hard-hitting or, frankly, as “good” at doing these things as it should be. It’s a colorful, glossy, temporary glance at our culture, though it reaches perhaps a little too far and brings back a little too much for itself to handle.

I used to be staunchly opposed to the categorical separation that the Globes so passionately favors (does separating Drama and Comedy imply that one is inherently othered or better than the other?), but in years such as this one, it’s refreshing to see the work of so many outside the general conversation be recognized. Greta Gerwig for Frances Ha (Lead Actress – Comedy), Julie Delpy for Before Midnight (Lead Actress – Comedy), Julia Louis-Dreyfuss for Enough Said (Lead Actress – Comedy), and Kate Winslet (Labor Day) are all enjoying their deserved share of the awards season spotlight with nominations from the HFPA thanks to the division of genre. Does it portent Oscar recognition for any of these women? Not at all, but it’s the most prestigious honorable mention of sorts that any of them could ask for.

Rush also sees a later-than-expected push into the race with huge nominations in key categories (including Best Picture – Drama and Supporting Actor) over the likes of Saving Mr. Banks, a film that was largely expected to dominate the Globes.

So, what’s left? We’ve got Oscar voting in a couple of weeks, SAG final voting, the PGA Awards, the DGA Awards, and, of course, the Golden Globes ceremony on January 12th. That’s plenty of potential steam for many films and filmmakers to pick up.

The full list of Golden Globe nominees: 

Best Picture – Drama

12 Years a Slave
Gravity
Captain Phillips
Rush
Philomena

Best Picture – Musical/Comedy

American Hustle
Her
The Wolf of Wall Street
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska

Best Director

Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Paul Greengrass – Captain Phillips
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Alexander Payne – Nebraska

Best Actress – Drama

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Emma Thompson – Saving Mr. Banks
Kate Winslet – Labor Day 

Best Actress – Musical/Comedy

Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Enough Said
Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

Best Actor – Drama

Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Idris Elba – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford – All Is Lost

Best Actor – Musical/Comedy

Christian Bale – American Hustle
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Joaquin Phoenix – Her

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Daniel Bruhl – Rush
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
June Squibb – Nebraska

Best Screenplay

Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle

Best Foreign Language Film

Blue is the Warmest Color
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
The Past
The Wind Rises

Best Original Song

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Frozen
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Inside Llewyn Davis
One Chance

Best Original Score

All Is Lost
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Gravity
The Book Thief
12 Years a Slave

Best Animated Feature

The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Frozen