by Paul Deines
I’m not the fastest-posting writer on the internet, but the Academy Awards are fast-approaching. So, here’s a capsule roundup of Oscar-nominated films. Not comprehensive, since I haven’t seen everything, but I hope this offers some fodder for those of you that want to pretend you saw them. Enjoy!
12 Years a Slave – Probably the strongest contender for Best Picture, Steve McQueen’s harrowing film captures the day-to-day, systemic misery of slavery like no film I’ve ever seen. What’s more, its compulsively watchable, with McQueen’s oft-faulted aestheticized vision of suffering put to excellent use. And three monumental, rightly nominated performances. The most essential film of 2013. (Read the full review)
The Act of Killing – My favorite film of 2013. The first feature of documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer follows several death-squad leaders of the 1960s Indonesian auto-genocide. The men are gregarious, flashy gangsters who still enjoy government largess, who have completely compartmentalized their memories of the killings. Oppenheimer’s conceit involves filming fictionalized performances of the atrocities, developed by and starring the perpetrators. Not only war reenactments but also bizarre musical numbers. The results are beyond explanation. Most stirring, I think, is when a toady in the killers politely relates how his adoptive father was murdered during the genocide, cordially explaining that he thinks they should acknowledge it. Watching the central figure, Anwar Congo, slowly realize the extent of his crimes may be the greatest spectacle of the year.
American Hustle – This film is a mystery to me. There’s so much of that David O. Russell shaggy madness and yet none of the immediacy. There’s a giddily convoluted narrative that flows at the pace of a drunk teenager. There are amazing performances, but Jennifer Lawrence and Christian Bale (in the first performance of his I’ve liked since American Psycho) look like college sophomores cast in roles two decades outside their range. Many love this picture, but I cannot get on board.
August: Osage County – Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe transferred from stage to screen magnificently, so why wouldn’t this Pulitzer-winning play adaptation also soar? The reason it falls flat is – I’m sort of astonished – a batshit awful performance from Meryl Streep that sucks all the air out of the room. There are fine supporting turns by Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Margot Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, and Benedict Cumberbatch. But that’s nowhere near enough reason to trudge through this.
Blue Jasmine – More than just one great performance, this is the best narrative film of 2013. Woody Allen turns one woman’s descent into madness in the midst of our financial crisis into high tragedy. The ensemble – including nominees Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins – is uniformly strong, and the chronologically-fragmented script is Allen’s best in years. Funny and heartbreaking, Blue Jasmine should not be buried in a crowded awards field or the controversy surrounding its creator. (Read the full review)
Dallas Buyers Club – Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto elevate the proceedings whenever they’re onscreen, which thankfully accounts for nearly all the film. Light on nuance and cavalier with its true story, Dallas Buyers Club is nonetheless entertaining. It relates a story from the early days of the AIDS crisis with a light touch. I’d recommend anyone who enjoys it take in the much more unsparing and expansive How to Survive a Plague for a more complete picture.
Gravity – Leave it to Alfonso Cuarón to package his film as a bleak vision of the godless void, only to reveal partway through that it’s a humanist tale of resilience. Visually arresting and thrilling like no Hollywood actioner since Jurassic Park, Gravity is wonderfully transporting. It’s bedecked with a bravura camera- and effects work, scored chillingly by Steven Price and anchored by a great Sandra Bullock performance. Yet, it’s hobbled – and nearly undone – by a clunky script that disposes of silly trappings like subtext. That said, Gravity is a stirring experience. (Read the full review)
Her – Equal parts dystopia narrative and hipster nonsense, Spike Jonze’s fourth feature delicately captures human loneliness and the mystery of consciousness. Your enjoyment will probably depend on your tolerance for Joaquin Phoenix’s moping, though. It’s an emotionally naked performance (a good companion to his raw-nerve Master turn), but his Theodore’s struggle to move past a failed marriage can be only so compelling. More interesting is the near-future LA in which Her takes place, a city where the Etsy folk won. It’s tasteful, bourgeois, and emotionally vacant; at once lovely and terrifying, like the (Scarlett Johansson-voiced) lover in the smart phone that steals Theodore’s heart. I’m surprised so many have fallen in love with Her, but I was charmed ... if not smitten.
Inside Llewyn Davis – The best-loved film to be almost entirely snubbed by the Academy, and there’s something appropriate about that. The Coen Brothers have created another period-piece parable in the mold of Barton Fink or A Serious Man. That is to say it’s impeccably designed, off-kilter funny and capital-B bleak. Oscar Issac is spellbinding as the titular character, a caustic misanthrope with a reasonable talent for folk music (the T. Bone Burnett soundtrack is catchy as hell). As with Her, you’ll enjoy the film only as much as you can stand this guy. Also, like Her, the Coens’ film excels because of its setting, a wintry 1960s Greenwich Village where Davis trudges through haunted memories and constant rejection. As a portrait of Sisyphean struggle, this is as stylish as it gets.
The Wolf of Wall Street – It’s Animal House with a Michael Haneke sensibility. There’s nothing subtle about Martin Scorsese’s latest, a belly flop into the most wretched excess of 1990’s junk-stock trading. Leonardo Dicaprio dials it to 11 for the full three-hours, but he’s nearly eclipsed by an unsettling strange performance by Jonah Hill. The Wolf of Wall Street is not a pleasant sit, crammed as it is with misogyny and boorishness. But it’s often hilarious and infused with a young director’s intensity, and it has something to say about our country, which will forgive someone anything if he can make a dollar. (Read the full review)