Sunday, March 02, 2014

LowRes 2013 Movie Awards: The Top 10 Films

The 2013 LowRes Movie Awards: Best Trailers / Best Techs (Visual) / Best Techs (Audio) / Screenplays + Director / Supporting Actor + Actress / Lead Actor + ActressBreakthrough + Cameo + Ensemble / Top 10 Films


*Again, I'm cheating my posting my list as published on The Wire back in December. Rankings haven't changed. Neither have the opinions.

Runners Up: #15: August: Osage County; #14: Blue Is the Warmest Color; #13: Enough Said; #12: Her; #11: The Place Beyond the Pines

#10: The Heat. The funniest film of the year deserves a spot on anyone's Top 10 list. That's easy. It gets easier when the funniest film of the year features a pair of marvelously talented women in Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, chemistry for days, clearly having a fantastic time. You almost want them to make a movie together every year or two, just to see in how many different configurations they can make each other funnier. It gets easier still when the story arrives at the kind of emotional places that even a very good movie like Bridesmaids couldn't get to, without it feeling tacked on. Did you get misty-eyed at the end of The Heat? Why not? What is your problem?

#9: 20 Feet from StardomHands-down (palms-up, actually; palms up to Jesus), unquestionably the best time to be had at the movies in all of 2013. If you exited the theater after watching this documentary about the lives and ambitions and shortfalls and triumphs of some of the most accomplished backup singers of a golden age of rock/R&B without a hop in your step and a belting power note in your throat, I quite simply do not know how to deal with you. It's that simple. These women are fascinating and compelling, as both subjects and objects. And their stories are worth being told. 

#8: The Act of Killing. For a while, it seems like Joshua Oppenheimer's film is an audacious stunt. An art project intended to shock. He took his cameras to Indonesia and asked death-squad members to re-enact their killings for the film in whatever dramatic and artistic way they wanted. It's an idea packed with danger and horrific frankness (the perpetrators/amateur filmmakers don't appear to have any problem boasting about their actions). But the accumulation of the scenes—reenactments and conversations among the regime members and the occasional moment of true introspection— builds to such surprisingly immediate conclusions. Out of this ugliness and crassness (some of these men have interesting ideas about how to best turn their murders into compelling entertainment) comes a narrative that hits hard. This is a project of true ambition and brave execution.

#7. Stories We TellSarah Polley's documentary look at her own family—its histories and myths and one scandal in particular—is so delightfully unlike anything else in the industry right now. Intensely personal without even a drop of masochism or a sense that Polley is reveling in her (or her family's) angst. Maybe it's the Canadian thing, but there is an openness about her family members, a self-awareness and sense of humor, that turns their telling of these potentially painful family secrets into something inviting. Like a trust exercise. Polley's skills as a director are so straightforwardly adventurous, it's rather exhilarating to watch her explore the possibilities of documentary filmmaking, almost as if she's testing concepts out that she just thought of that minute. She might be something of a genius. A Canadian child-star genius.

#6: Gravity. It's hard to deny the hokiness of a lot of the Gravity script, but I cannot stress enough how little that matters in the face of such elementally thrilling filmmaking. Honestly, if Alfonso Cuaron wants to boil his narrative about human determination to survive calamity down to simple terms like motherhood and home and will, I'm actually okay with that. To me, that hangs together. Meanwhile, the grooves in my palms from gripping my hands so tightly tell a different story. Pure, disciplined visual spectacle might not scratch all the itches I have when I go to the movies, but it's very hard to deny this film credit for scratching that one itch so satisfyingly.

#5: The Bling Ring. Sofia Coppola makes movies for me. They're not for everybody, that's fine, I don't need a consensus around my opinion that watching Stephen Dorff lounge around the Chateau Marmont is a riveting, soul-nourishing way to spend a couple of hours. The protagonists in her latest movie might be her most outwardly motivated—they get a LOT done, actually—while at the same time most inwardly hollow. There's an odd kinetic energy to their complete vacuousness, though, and their decision-making and posturing at every turn is compulsively watchable. Some of the most indelible individual scenes in any movie all year, too, from Taissa Farmiga with the gun to robbing Audrina Patridge's house to that dazzling shopping trip around Paris Hilton's house.

#4: Captain Phillips. At times unbearably tense—Paul Greengrass does that sometimesCaptain Phillips was a sterling example of the kinds of blockbuster films that should be the rule, rather than the exception. Tom Hanks brings every bit of his galvanized Hollywood charisma to bear on this role, and for a while that's all it is, and it's fine and the movie (and Barkhad Abdi as the lead Somali pirate) is humming along and doing a lot of the heavy lifting for him. And then, after about 30 minutes of high tension, there's the absolute gut punch of an ending that left me near breathless. It's a moment of surprising honesty in a genre (and from an actor like Hanks) where we've come to expect some degree of gloss. It's similar to how subtly Greengrass is able to suggest political truths that would otherwise feel inappropriately didactic. Greengrass lets the images and events of the film do the talking for him. The outsized might of the U.S. forces. The desperation in the Somali eyes. The ultimate ineffectiveness of Hanks's fatherly posture. Action, tension, heart, and brains. Food, fun, and fashion, Captain Phillips has it all.

#3: Short Term 12Destin Cretton's film seems build for terms like "delicate" and "heartfelt," but damned if I can find any better words to describe his story of a short-term foster care facility and, in particular, Grace (the wonderful Brie Larson in a performance that is getting her the attention she's deserved for years), who manages to be so perfectly empathetic as a worker and so frustratingly closed-off in her personal life. Larson and John Gallagher Jr. have a sweet chemistry that is somewhat rare in movies. It's the chemistry of equals. Of partners. It's very quietly subversive. 

#2: 12 Years a SlaveI can leave the bigger-picture stuff to people who are far better equipped than I to speak to the significance of this movie in the greater cultural narrative about slavery. Except to say that to boil this film down to "this one finally gets it right" vs. "no film can ever get it right in this regard," while interesting and worthy in its own respect, doesn't entirely belong in a discussion of this film's merits, which are plentiful. Director Steve McQueen has taken a decent amount of flak for the chilliness in his career, and there has been some talk that there's a remove in this film as well. But by occasionally stepping back, McQueen really lets you see the ecosystem at work, how slavery depended on the compliance of corrupted people and the inaction of men who might otherwise have been good. This isn't a faceless monolith at work, and McQueen never lets any of the component parts off the hook. But the film is also never so crass as to misbelieve that it needs to grandstand. The story speaks for itself, and it's a terribly impactful one.

#1: Frances Ha. There are about eight billion ways Frances Ha could have stepped wrong and become the hipster cliche I think many were expecting it to be. Maybe I was among those people at first. I certainly never expected a Noah Baumbach movie to hold back from his usual harsh judgments of humanity. Even in the films of his that I quite like (Greenberg, for instance, or Margot at the Wedding), there's a strong sense of withering disregard and  misanthropy. It would probably be too pat to chalk up the generosity of spirit found in Frances Ha to Baumbach's co-writer and star Greta Gerwig, but certainly something is going on here. The film doesn't indulge Frances for her flighty, indecisive life, but it doesn't condemn her either. It just gets down into it with her and finds a place of warm, knowing, genuinely funny empathy. It's also a startlingly true portrait of aimlessness not as a lack of conviction or substance but as an extended preparation for something that never quite begins. This all makes it sound like an intellectual exercise, when, of course, there's no way this movie would have hit #1 on my list if it weren't such a pure delight, boasting an unforced sense of humor that gets under your skin in the best way.

LowRes 2013 Movie Awards: The Lead Actors

The 2013 LowRes Movie Awards: Best Trailers / Best Techs (Visual) / Best Techs (Audio) / Screenplays + Director / Supporting Actor + Actress / Lead Actor + Actress / Breakthrough + Cameo + Ensemble / Top 10 Films

Amy Adams - American Hustle
Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine
Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha
Brie Larson - Short Term 12
Julia Louis-Dreyfus - Enough Said
Julia Roberts - August: Osage County

Adams for flourishing under David O. Russell yet again and for that brilliant, wonky accent, and for finding the only compelling story in the movie in between her character's poses. Blanchett for slaying everything on screen, and on every adjacent screen, and for "Tip well, kids. Tip well because you get good service, and some people live on tips." Gerwig for her humor amid uncomfortably relatable drifting and for keeping Frances' heart on display at all times. Larson for doing the same, really, and for being such an unexpected source of gravitas onscreen. Louis-Dreyfus for picking the exact right expression at all times and letting whole comedies play out thereon. Roberts for going to that Closer place and facing down Streep in their screen duel. 

Runners Up: Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color); Paulina Garcia (Gloria); Meryl Streep (August: Osage County); Danai Gurira (Mother of George); Melissa McCarthy (The Heat); Sandra Bullock (Gravity); Gemma Arterton (Byzantium); Amy Acker (Much Ado About Nothing).

Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks - Captain Phillips
Oscar Isaac - Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael B. Jordan - Fruitvale Station
Isaiah Washington - Blue Caprice

Ejiofor for showing Solomon's pride and sense of self dying in silence. Hanks for, as everyone has mentioned, that shattering final scene. Isaac for embodying an exasperating and fairly rotten guy with at least some degree of sympathy, and for showing Llewyn coming alive in his performances. Jordan for creating a man when his film sometimes wanted a martyr. And Washington for terrifying dead-eyed certainty.

Runners Up: Robert Redford (All Is Lost); Joaquin Phoenix (Her); Jack Reynor (What Richard Did); Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom); Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now).

LowRes 2013 Movie Awards: The Supporting Actors

The 2013 LowRes Movie Awards: Best Trailers / Best Techs (Visual) / Best Techs (Audio) / Screenplays + Director / Supporting Actor + Actress / Lead Actor + Actress / Breakthrough + Cameo + Ensemble / Top 10 Films

Michael Fassbender - 12 Years a Slave
John Gallagher, Jr. - Short Term 12
James Gandolfini - Enough Said
Bill Nighy - About Time
Michael Zegen - Frances Ha

Fassbender for throwing himself into the role of a slaver and showing us the institutional insanity therein, keeping a smart balance between base weakness and inhuman savagery. Gallagher for making goodness interesting. Gandolfini for doing what he was always able to do, only in a way we rarely saw him, vulnerable and unsure and yet still utterly magnetic. Nighy for playing the absolute best dad, for undercutting his film's wonky premise with perfect humor. And Zegen for taking what on paper must have been an unbearable character and allowing him to deepen without sacrificing what was still pretty ridiculous (and funny) about him.

Runners Up: Ben Foster (Ain't Them Bodies Saints); Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips); Emory Cohen (The Place Beyond the Pines); Ben Mendelsohn (The Place Beyond the Pines); Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks)

Melonie Diaz - Fruitvale Station
Allison Janney - The Way Way Back
Lupita Nyong'o - 12 Years a Slave
Michaela Watkins - In a World
Emma Watson - The Bling Ring

Diaz for transcending notions of passive girlfriend or harping nag, instead letting whole stories play out on her panicked face. Janney for being goddamn hilarious but also a real person with real feelings, drowned as they are in beach drinks. Nyong'o for a blistering debut, for the way she lets us see Patsy working things out in her head, then her ultimate despair at the answers she reaches; for that scene where she's making cornhusk dolls. Watkins for being perfect support for Lake Bell and for holding up her subplot with a minimum or cartoonishness or judgment. Watson for throwing all sorts of cartoonishness and judgment at her character, and thank God for it, because she was electric and hilarious.

Runners Up: Scarlett Johansson (Her); Lea Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color); Naomie Harris (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom); Ellen Page (The East); Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave); Amy Adams (Her).

LowRes 2013 Movie Awards: The Vision

The 2013 LowRes Movie Awards: Best Trailers / Best Techs (Visual) / Best Techs (Audio) / Screenplays + Director / Supporting Actor + Actress / Lead Actor + Actress / Breakthrough + Cameo + Ensemble / Top 10 Films

Nicole Holofcener - Enough Said
Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha
Sebastian Lello, Gonzalo Maza - Gloria
Spike Jonze - Her
Destin Cretton - Short Term 12

Despite the futuristic vision of Her and even the "voice of a generation" Girls-ness of Frances Ha, these are five exquisitely written scripts about small-scale stories. Of unexpected love paired with neurotic doubt. Of personal and professional and existential crossroads. Of late-in-life DGAF-ness in South America. Of the limits of our idealized notions of love amid technology. Of makeshift families and the degree to which we allow people to care for/about us. If these all feel like airy concepts, they may well have been without the work these writers put into them. That Her represents the only crossover with the Oscar nominations is, frankly, insane. 

John Ridley - 12 Years a Slave
Sofia Copolla - The Bling Ring
Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix - Blue Is the Warmest Color
Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope - Philomena
Scott Neustader, Michael H. Weber - The Spectacular Now

I honestly did come very close to nominating The Butler; for as many detours into odd Presidential vignettes as it took, there were some chewy ideas about Cecil acknowledging his place in the racial/political ecosystem and his ambivalence about it. Alas, it finished sixth to the skillful balancing of humor and righteousness in Philomena, the smart plotting of relationships in both The Spectacular Now and Blue Is the Warmest Color, the sly humor in The Bling Ring, and the flexed storytelling muscles in 12 Years a Slave, a script that's packed rather full of ideas a lesser writer might otherwise have found unnecessary. 

Noah Baumbach - Frances Ha
Alfonso Cuaron - Gravity
Paul Greengrass - Captain Phillips
Steve McQueen - 12 Years a Slave
Sarah Polley - Stories We Tell

I'm still so proud of Noah Baumbach for setting aside his usual acidity towards humanity in telling the story of Frances Ha. Gerwig's influence, perhaps, but ultimately it was Baumbach who was able to adapt his style to this newfound lack of bile. Greengrass and Cuaron were both able to deliver smart and thrilling films within the boundaries of classic blockbuster filmmaking, and we'd all be better off if they became the norm. Steve McQueen made a film that doesn't rely on simply emotional or cerebral appeals, knowing that there is no shortage of ways that we can, or should, approach the horror of slavery. And Sarah Polley managed to turn the potentially solopsistic Stories We Tell into something almost humble, if it wasn't also so innovative. 

Saturday, March 01, 2014

LowRes 2013 Movie Awards: The Actors, Part 1

The 2013 LowRes Movie Awards: Best Trailers / Best Techs (Visual)Best Techs (Audio) / Screenplays + Director / Supporting Actor + Actress / Lead Actor + Actress / Breakthrough + Cameo + Ensemble / Top 10 Films

Barkhad Abdi - Captain Phillips
Israel Broussard - The Bling Ring
Tequan Richmond - Blue Caprice
Nick Robinson - The Kings of Summer
Keith Stanfield - Short Term 12

There are years when I feel like the Breakthrough candidates are all but assured, if not gleaming Hollywood careers, then at least a few grasps at the brass ring ahead of them. That's not so this year. I would hope that Hollywood recognizes the talent these five come armed with. That they'll recognize Abdi's ability to wring sympathy from a character so often marginalized. That they'll see the kind of difficult ambivalence that actors like Richmond and Broussard can bring to characters who can be difficult to draw out. Or the beyond-his-years charisma hiding beneath Robinson's boyishness. Or Stanfield's ability to command a scene even while being still and vulnerable. Here's hoping all five of them get their fair share of chances. 

Kaitlyn Dever - Short Term 12
Adele Exarchopoulos - Blue Is the Warmest Color
Tracey Fairaway - Enough Said
Danai Gurira - Mother of George
Lydia Wilson - About Time

These women are somewhat further along the road than the boys. Anyone who watches Walking Dead could have told you that Gurira was a major talent, for example, even if this was a breakthrough year for her on the big screen. Likewise, Wilson is a bit more of a familiar face in Britain and Dever won a lot of fans via her recurring role on Justified. And certainly Exarchopoulos will have plenty of chances to follow up her big breakthrough, after all the attention her Cannes-winning performance brought her. I think I've got my fingers crossed for Fairaway most of all. She's got a Lauren Ambrose thing that I'd like to see get developed in more movies as good as Enough Said.

Brian Cox - Her
Polly Draper - Side Effects
Angela McEwan - Nebraska
Michael Nathanson - Side Effects
Alfre Woodard - 12 Years a Slave

[As always, credit for this category goes to Nathaniel.] Top-notch cameos were a bit harder to come by this year, but these five were some diamonds in the rough. Side Effects in particular was probably most successful in the micro-performance realm than any other. Nathanson's aggressive attorney and Draper's wary boss were the two highlights of the film. McEwan's scene is the best in Nebraska, bringing some much needed depth to the usual townie characterizations. Cox's voice-only cameo in Her delighted me to no end and reminded me that Spike Jonze must treasure Cox's performance in Adaptation as much as I do. Honestly, though, this whole category is just a platform for me to sing the praises of Alfre Woodard's perfect performance in 12 Years a Slave. That is a scene that grows richer and more compelling the more I think back on it, and it's too bad one-scene wonders aren't the thing in Best Supporting Actress anymore.


12 Years a Slave: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Adepero Oduye, Garrett Dillahunt, Bryan Batt, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Michael K. Williams, Dwight Henry, Bill Camp, Christopher Berry, J.D. Evermore, Chris Chalk.

About Time: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan, Lydia Wilson, Will Merrick, Joshua McGuire, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie, Richard Cordery, 

Frances Ha: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen, Adam Driver, Grace Gummer, Charlotte d'Amboise, Patrick Heusinger, Josh Hamilton, Juliet Rylance, Britta Phillips, Maya Kazan, Cindy Katz.

The Heat: Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock, Michael Rappaport, Nathan Corddry, Joey McIntyre, Jamie Denbo, Jessica Chaffin, Demian Bechir, Marlon Wayans, Jane Curtin, Bill Burr, Spoken Reasons, Dan Bakkedahl, Taran Killam, Michael McDonald, Kaitlin Olson, William Ambrose Kennedy, Patty Ross, Adam Ray, Chris Gethard, Michael Tucci, Ben Falcone, Zach Woods.

Short Term 12: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Keith Stanfield, Kaitlin Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Frantz Turner, Kevin Hernandez, Alex Calloway.