August: Osage County and This Year’s Top 10

August-Osage-County-movie-poster-2013-best-picture-oscarI’m somewhat baffled by the  response that August: Osage County has received by the critics. For me, it was the best film of the year, hands down. Better than Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and several great films that were released. August: Osage County is electric with extraordinary dialogue rendered by actors who understood every fiber of their characters. Not a single person in this film felt false. While I wish I’d seen the stage play – as I heard it was extraordinary – of course some things would be lost from paring down a 3 hour play to a 2 hour film. But Tracy Letts, the writer for both, won a Pulitzer for this work, and rightly so. His mix of deep pain, wry moments and comic asides is masterful throughout, and I found myself deeply moved.

The dinner scene in this film is far more scary and tense than any horror film, because we are watching people tear at each other without mercy with words rather than any sort of bludgeoning tool.

Indeed, the dialogue and sentences in this film sparkle with intelligence and wit. The claustrophobic nature of the farmhouse is expertly crafted given that it’s surrounded by acres of nothingness. It’s one of the only films this year that I’d like to see twice.

So, here goes my 2013 Top Ten Films:

1. August: Osage County

2. The Place Beyond The Pines, The Dallas Buyers Club – The follies of men, and their need for redemption are expertly captured in these two films.

3. The Way Way Back

4. 12 Years A Slave – A very difficult film to watch that was undone slightly by the late cameo appearance of Brad Pitt.

5. The Kings of Summer – The three boys in the film are wonderful to watch as they navigate their summer away from responsibility only to find how responsible they must be to each other.

6. Gravity – The first 17 minutes and the ambiguous ending elevated this film over the rest of the film, which was merely exciting from the first frame to the last.

7. Her, Before Midnight – two important films about relationships, love, letting go, and the future.

8. Captain Phillips – the last 45 minutes of this film is harrowing stuff and brilliantly acted by Tom Hanks, whom I’d given up on.

9. Fruitvale Station

10. Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis

So I really have a top 14 since there were ties and I didn’t want to leave them off the list. Caveat: I haven’t seen Nebraska or Short Term 12 yet, which are definitely on my to see list.

Worst film of the Year: The Wolf of Wall Street – an execrable waste of talent, money and time.

Blue Jasmine

Blue-JasmineIt’s very rare that I see a performance in a film that absolutely takes my breath away. While elements of the film, and there are minor quibbles here, I wish were improved, Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Jasmine is nothing short of brilliant. It’s such a naked performance, that, in its final moments, surpasses anything she has ever done since her first role in Oscar and Lucinda.

Not often does an actor go so far out on a limb to reach the core of a human being unraveling and yet grasping at the shreds of life before succumbing. It’s fascinating to watch. I’m reminded of Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice or One True Thing where she must carry the film and everyone with her so that the film is elevated to high art.

Ms. Blanchett and the supporting cast of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, which includes, most memorably, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale takes a story that combines both Bernie Madoff and elements of A Streetcar Named Desire, and makes you care about people on the edge of life, despair and delusion.

Go see her performance and be amazed.

The Place Beyond the Pines

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The Place Beyond the Pines, to me, is the first great film of 2013. Set in Schenectady, NY amid various classes and men, the film weaves together three generations, but aims at the relationships of fathers and sons.

Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) has made a minor epic propelled by stellar performances and a palpable dread that infuses almost every scene, which keeps you riveted for its entire running length of 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Eva Mendes, who has the difficult task of being almost the sole female in the cast, isbrilliant for being at a loss as to what to do about the circumstances she finds herself in and the deceit swirling around her.

I loved how the camera moved through the scenes: from the very first time we see Ryan Gosling almost glide with confidence from his trailer,through the carnival and into a tent, we watch how the director probes each scene for nuance whether it’s a tattoo or a dangling cigarette.

It’s novelistic in its approach, revealing characters and lives set in motion by tragedy. I hope it has a long life beyond the theater and will become a minor classic.

Thoughts on the Oscars

oscars-620x349Jokes about Presidential assassinations are never funny, ever. Blithely asking after a crass, inept joke, “Too soon?” makes a tasteless joke even worse.

Seth McFarlane was mediocre at best. The Oscars are for people who love film, not to garner ratings. Let’s be honest about that for a change. If you want ratings, watch “Two and a Half Men.” There are far more boob jokes there if that’s what people need. The show should be a celebration of film and all who toil in it – everyone. And it should be a class act.

The Oscars set was beautiful. Whoever designed it did a masterful job of making it nearly 3-D in some moments on our 2-D set we were watching. Unbelievable.

Ang Lee’s win seemed like a default because Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated. In some respects, maybe they should have just left this category unrewarded if they’re not going to nominate the director of the Best Picture winner.

I liked Life of Pi, I really, really liked it, but it was a film more about the amazing use of CGI and the brilliance of those artists and storytellers than that of narrative film, which Ang Lee dropped the boat on (pun intended) when he decided to bookend Life of Pi with where the main character is today.

Best Cinematography should have gone to Roger Deakins for Skyfall. Life of Pi was all about CGI, Skyfall was all about marrying beautiful and thoughtful imagery from what was placed before the camera when shooting to match the storyline.

While we’re on this subject, drowning out the Visual Effects winners with the Jaws theme was really dumb. Maybe the orchestra shouldn’t have been down the street in the Capitol building with just their headphones on.

Emmanuelle Riva should have walked off with Best Actress. She was brilliant in Amour.

Best Supporting Actor should have gone to Phillip Seymour Hoffman who gave a master class in acting in The Master (again, pun intended).

Adapted Screenplay should have gone to Lincoln. There was no more literate and poetic script written this year and Tony Kushner was robbed. Argo was good, but it was no Lincoln. However, it was a great year for writers and that just makes my heart sing.

A salute to the losers at the end of the telecast was wrong-headed and tasteless. Why not beat them with a stick on their way out as well? Extremely unfunny.

It was nice to see the entire cast and chorus from Les Miserables sing so we didn’t have to listen to many of the actors from the film try to sing again for very long.

Finally, The Oscars are NOT The Tonys. I have a special place in my heart for both shows – I just don’t like to see them blended together into a bad stew.

This year, I’m going to let my hair grow out and then color it blonde. I may have a chance at winning next year!

Best Films of the Year: 2012

hr_The_Perks_of_Being_a_Wallflower_8-560x827Here’s my movie round up for 2012, which was a far better year for film than last year.

1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Total surprise here, but this was a movie that was filled with memorable performances from a young cast including Emily Watson, Ezra Miller, and in particular, Logan Lerman. This movie was unsettling, incredibly moving, and will sadly be left in the dust during Oscar time.

2. Lincoln – I saw Lincoln twice in a weekend just to listen to the words from Tony Kushner’s literate screenplay and the extraordinary actors who gave them their due. Not too often do we get to revel in language on screen, and Spielberg managed to get himself out of the way and keep the camera still.

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild – An amazing blend of raw acting, locale, story and myth told with such sensitivity that, at the end, was a wonder to watch. I loved the father, the girl, and especially the scene when she reaches the bar and navigates through a maze of people the world has left behind and forgotten. An extraordinary achievement.

4. Zero Dark Thirty – A hard-core piece of film-making for sure and even though you know what happens at the end, you are still on the edge of your seat all the way through. The torture scenes are very difficult to sit through, but I found myself moved by how unjust torture, for any reason, is. Jessica Chastain should win the Oscar for this performance, and the many others she had last year.

5. Magic Mike – What could have been just another sex-ploitation romp through the world of strippers became fun and riveting due to the story, and Matthew McConaughey’s performance in which he just lets it all hang out. You have to hand it to Channing Tatum as well for anchoring the film with an understated performance.

6. Argo – Ben Affleck’s riveting film of the Iran Hostage crises, which manages to be funny, sad and surprising given the storyline. Performances are terrific throughout, but it’s the recreation of the seventies milieu that was a resounding success. This should win for Art Direction in my book.

7. The Master – While the film as a whole was ultimately unsatisfying, the performances, cinematography and compelling story made it highly watchable and engrossing. Unfortunately, I have to find someone to care for in a movie, and in this one, most everyone was a mess on some level and certainly unlikable. You have to hand it to PT Anderson, however, for his sheer nerve and willingness to go there.

8. Silver Linings Playbook – Jennifer Lawrence steals the picture just barely from Robert De Niro who gives his best performance in years. Speaking of messes, everyone is a mess in this movie, but they’re entertaining in their messiness, and the final scenes at the dance contest are terrific. Kudos to David O. Russell for crafting a fine film and turning romantic comedy on its head.

9. Cloud Atlas – A huge disappointment at the box office, but I predict that this film will become a cult classic as people engage with it on a personal level. Very theatrical in its devices, and very much a roller coaster ride through time. I loved the ride.

10. Life of Pi – For one, I want to congratulate the CGI Tiger creators who did amazing work on bringing to life this story for film – and kudos, once again, to Ang Lee for making the unbelievable believable again. I wish he’d left out the bookends because they were superfluous to the film, but everything in the middle was absolutely beautiful to watch.

Biggest disappointments for 2012 for me were Les Miserables, The Hobbit and Brave.

LINCOLN: History in the Making

I haven’t liked a Steven Spielberg movie in decades. There are several reasons: first his need to telegraph emotion with the same John Williams score over and over again, his use of camera moves that seem forced upon the narrative, lack of character nuance and detail (Saving Private Ryan comes to mind), and visual cues that makes you feel like you’re stupid (the girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List, which was the only colored shot in an otherwise all black and white movie). In fact, his last film, War Horse, was such an affront to the material I nearly walked out.

But LINCOLN is something else altogether. Whether it was Tony Kushner’s literate screenplay, Daniel Day Lewis’ extraordinarily quiet and introspective performance, or the subject matter’s need for a quiet camera, Mr. Spielberg, for once, keeps the camera still and lets the viewer choose where to pay attention (which is usually on the actor within the frame because all of them are uniformly excellent). Even John Williams seems subdued by the proceedings: a piano flourish here, a few strings there.

I suspect, however, that it was Tony Kushner’s script that made Mr. Spielberg relax and let the words flow. The language is hyper-attenuated with tongue twisters – witness Tommy Lee Jone’s moments on the floor of the house, and in his study dressing down another Congressman, or how Daniel Day Lewis’ voice whispers a parable within directives to people working for him. Mr. Spielberg had no room to let his camera move. Literally. Practically all the action takes place in smoke-filled rooms: bedrooms, offices, carriages – even the Congress chambers feels over-crowded and stuffed with people and proceedings. And what a pleasure it is to be able to take a deep dive into the film and just listen.

History is an astounding thing to watch, and in the hands of masterful actors, there’s an eloquence that is profoundly moving. I found myself hanging on Daniel Day Lewis’ every utterance, and enjoying the bluster of Lee Pace’s dressing down of Tommy Lee Jones only to be rocked by this actor’s intelligence, demeanor and humanity. Sally Field is amazing to watch as Mrs. Lincoln – she vacillates between defeat and strength in a nanosecond – and you get to watch everything register on her face, and in her eyes because Mr. Spielberg is forced to be there to witness.

But, then maybe that’s Mr. Spielberg’s genius: to bring the viewer in as a witness to history being made, making you feel and understand what is at stake, and placing you where you need to be when you take sides in the real triumph and tragedy that is our democracy.

This film brings into sharp focus where our democracy is now over 150 years later: It is no less messy than it was in 1865. It is no less scary. When a young woman posts on Facebook, and tells people that she would not care whether our current President is assassinated, or kids at ‘Ole Miss rise up and burn signs and scream racial epithets, or a man drives by a polling place with a noose around our President’s neck. History is made with deep fights, discussions, and passions that run deep. LINCOLN serves to remind us that, first and foremost, we are a single nation, with a responsibility to freedom and our country’s ideals, whether one agrees with the person’s opinion across the aisle or not.

Daniel Day Lewis’ performance and that of most every other actor in the film, who carries Mr. Kushner’s words in their heart, perfectly embodies this turmoil – and it is a beautiful thing to watch.

Cloud Atlas: The Play’s the Thing

Cloud Atlas is fantastically entertaining. Bold, ambitious, well-acted and fun. The movie rolls along for nearly 3 hours at a breathtaking clip involving the viewer in stories that span several ages of man. In what must have been extraordinarily challenging, the filmmakers wove the film together bouncing among six different stories connected by one theme: Your past lives inform your next.

Critics are giving this film mixed reviews, which I don’t quite understand. So I ask them: how would you take a novel like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which was deemed impossible to translate into film, and create as compelling an experience as the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker did? Many of them are complaining that the actors are used over many roles. I personally loved the fact that during the film you kept wondering if that was really Hugo Weaving, or Hugh Grant, or Halle Berry gender and race bending to fill the needs of the story. They forget that this is a device used in the theater quite often, particularly in plays telling panoramic stories. And what fun for the actors? I haven’t enjoyed Tom Hanks in a film in years, but here he is masterful moving through his disparate characters. Halle Berry is particularly good in a seventies story-line involving malfeasance in a burgeoning nuclear world. And Jim Broadbent – what a thrill to watch him have so much fun with his characters of a misbegotten publisher and a megalomaniac of a washed up composer.

The visuals are stunning as well. See it in IMAX if you can, or on the largest screen possible. The soundtrack ramps up the emotion without overdoing it and the editing is simply stunning. I can’t even imagine what those editing sessions must have been like pulling the film together in a way that keeps an audience enthralled for three hours.

This was a hugely ambitious film to undertake, and for that the filmmakers should be applauded. It is no wonder they had such a hard time finding financing, but the high stakes were well worth it, because films like this, that don’t lean on superheroes or orgies of violence, don’t come around very often.

Cloud Atlas is the best film of the year so far for its audacity and for it being such a pleasure to experience.