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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Best Films of the Filmspotting Era

I recently caught up with podcast Filmspotting (from Chicago Public Radio) and their 500th anniversary show.  I've been listening to Adam and Josh for a couple years now, and can't get enough of their thoughtful, funny, spirited, and original discussions. Check them out if you haven't!

For their 500th episode, they picked their 5 favorite films of the Filmspotting era (2005-present).  Being a list-maker myself, I had to find my own.  This proved a very tough task, but I finally whittled it down.
I notice that for every film in my top 5, there was at least one other film by the same director that was among my favorites of the decade.  We have some great directors working right now.  It's always tough to commit as movies grow and change as we age.  If you asked me this list in a year, I'm sure I would move around some things.  So as of now, here are my top 5 films of the past 9 years.


Junebug: A modest family drama that is just perfectly done.  It has a particularly wonderful breakout role for Amy Adams.

The New World: I almost put this Terrence Malick movie on rather than The Tree of Life.  This story of John Smith and Pocahontas is gorgeous, powerful, and haunting.

No Country for Old Men: The Coen Brothers' revisionist western is just about a perfect movie with a dark view of humanity.

There Will Be Blood: An imperfect movie with a messy ending, but so strange and disturbing and transfixing I couldn't leave it off.  Daniel Day Lewis gives the best performance of the decade.

WALL-E: Pixar had an phenomenal run for several years (I also particularly loved Ratatouille and Toy Story 3), but I think was their most visionary film.

My top 5....

5. Amour (2012)
Director Michael Haneke's story of love colliding with aging is one of the most wrenching portraits of life I've ever seen.  Haneke is known for being a very clinical director, but here a strong sense of warmth comes through in the midst of all the pain.
(Bonus Haneke points for Cache and The White Ribbon)

4. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Almost a year later, I continue to be in awe that British director Steve McQueen was able to make a movie about slavery with no concessions to his stunning artistic vision. The movie is profoundly artistic, harrowing, amazingly acted and unforgettable.  It's sure to endure and move future generations.
(Bonus McQueen points for Shame)

3. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
I LOVE the Coen Brothers, and after seeing Llewyn Davis twice, I think I can safely call it my favorite of their movies. It's the perfect mix of cynicism and sentiment, humor and heartbreak. It has so much to say about the life of an artist and what it takes to follow your vision.
(Bonus Coen Brothers points for No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man)

2. The Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick's epic story of a family in Texas in the 1950s is a beautiful interpretation of childhood's joys and (especially) painted as painted in moments in time.  Yes, it also covers the creation of the universe, dinosaurs, and the afterlife!  It all worked magically for me.  Monumental.
(Bonus Malick points for The New World)

1. Children of Men (2006)
Some movies you immediately love, while others sneak up on you.  When I first saw Children of Men, I liked it and admired its artistry and its message. When I saw it a second time a few years later, it simply blew me away. Director Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian movie about a world without children is thrilling, heart-wrenching, and technically astonishing.  Simply perfect.

And here were the picks from Filmspotting and their guests.  Lots of love for The Tree of Life and There Will Be Blood.

Adam Kempenaar (Filmspotting)
1. The Master
2. The Tree of Life
3. No Country for Old Men
4. There Will Be Blood
5. Inglorious Basterds

Josh Larsen (Filmpsotting)
1. The Tree of Life
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Where the Wild Things Are
4. Volver
5. Meek's Cutoff

Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune)
1. There Will be Blood
2. Climates
3. Her
4. Last Train Home
5. Ratatouille

Dana Stevens (Slate)
1. There Will Be Blood
2. Grizzly Man
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
4. Children of Men
5. The Tree of Life

Rian Johnson (Director)
1. There Will Be Blood
2. The Master
3. No Country for Old Men
4. A Serious Man
5. Inglorious Bastards

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Under the Skin

I'm thrilled to be returning to The Film Experience for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot", especially with such a visual dazzler as director Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin.  Under the Skin is a totally singular movie, an intoxicating and strange hybrid of science-fiction, art film, and gender commentary.

The first reason I chose my shot was to highlight the amazing power of great filmmaking and cinematography. Looking at this shot, it looks more like a painting you would see in a museum than a frame in a movie.  There were dozens of others I could have chosen that would have been equally striking.  When an indie director can make such beauty on a limited budget, what's the excuse for the many visually boring movies coming out of Hollywood each year?

Except on rare occasions, beauty alone does not make a great movie.  This shot comes at an important moment in the film.  Up to this point, our otherworldly, unnamed main character (Scarlett Johansson) has been focused on men.  She prowls the streets of Glasgow, hunts for vulnerable men, and captures takes control of them.  Then there comes a point midway through the movie that's a montage of women; all types of women, doing all kinds of ordinary things.  As Johansson watches these women, it seems she is learning how to take on the female form and female persona.  The movie becomes a swirling montage of women from which Johansson's face emerges, almost as if being reborn. The movie switches after this point as well, with Johansson abandoning her mission and experimenting with how to be a female in this society. This theme will echo through the second half of the movie and end with one of the most striking endings I've seen in a long time.  In the end, I think the shot is a crucial turning point in the movie and perhaps a keys to at least some of its illusive meaning.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Catching Up on 2014: Ebert, apes, and more

My annual Oscar/best of the year hangover lasted even longer this year, but I'm ready to do a little more blogging with thoughts on some 2014 releases, in order of my recommendation.

Life Itself

Roger Ebert was one of my personal heroes, and this movie was a very emotional experience (Here are my thoughts directly after his death last year).  I loved seeing his career, his passion for movies, and his open-hearted regard for filmmakers young and old.  It's also a beautiful portrait of his marriage to Chaz, a strong woman who obviously changed his life in such positive ways. I also loved how this movie doesn't look away from his faults, especially his childish competitiveness with Gene Siskel.  The highlight of the movie is perhaps some old outtakes from Siskel and Ebert (a show I watched religiously-6:30 on Saturday nights-as a young teen). I would have liked a little more about the movies he championed, but it's an amazing documentary by director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), one of the filmmakers her truly championed.

Grade: A-

The Immigrant

Director James Gray's The Immigrant is a meticulously beautiful movie that feels less like a period movie and more like you're stepping back into early 20th-century New York City.  Marion Cotillard is simply brilliant as a young Polish immigrant lost amidst the lower East Side of New York and forced to turn to unsavory work. Joaquin Phoenix is her match in another psychologically tortured performance. There are scenes in the movie that are some of the best acting I've seen in the past several years, and the last shot of the movie is incredible.  My one big quibble with the movie was in the performance of Jeremy Renner, an actor I normally really like. He seemed too big, broad, and modern, and I felt the movie was a bit derailed when he was in it. It's distinctive and beautiful, though, and certainly didn't find enough of an audience.

Grade: B+

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I'm honestly usually allergic to big summer blockbusters, which rarely fail in disappointing me, but this one has gotten great reviews, and I really enjoyed the previous Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  There's a lot I loved about Dawn, mostly having to do with the story of the apes. The combination of motion capture performance, special effects, and thoughtful story development helps the audience feel equally (Ok...much more) invested in the ape storyline than in the human's storyline. Caesar (captured by Andy Serkis) is a great protagonist, and we are deeply invested in the movie. The movie is also thoughtful in its development of themes, from tribalism to gun violence to jealousy and betrayal. Perhaps it's just because of current events, but I couldn't help reading flashes of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the movie. I also liked the way the movie mirrored themes across the apes and the humans.  The lead humans are played by Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) and Keri Russell, and they do a solid job as well. The things I didn't like are my typical quibbles with summer blockbusters.  It's too long and ends with too many drawn out fight scenes.  As blockbusters go, though, this is a really good one!

Grade: B


I rarely go into a movie as fresh as I did this one, and it was a really fun experience. All I knew is that this movie included two performances by Jake Gyllenhall and was by director Dennis Villeneuve, who made Incendies and Prisoners, two movies which showed a truly cinematic director at work. I'd recommend going in fresh as well, so I'll avoid spoilers.  Enemy is strange, hypnotic, and perhaps prepostorous. The last shot will lead to many head scratches and discussions after the movie is done. To me, it was like a good short story in movie form made with a lot of cinematic artistry.  It's probably just David Lynch-lite, but I'm glad I saw it.

Grade: B


Here's a movie that isn't fully successful, but I was engaged and interested just about the whole time. I love indie director Darren Arronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan are some of the most engaging movies of this century), so I was interested to see how he would approach a biblical epic with an enormous budget.  It's a little awkward.  The movie has many elements, such as visionary dream sequences and philosophical ideas, that are fascinating.  I especially liked the way they turned Noah into an environmental parable.  At the same time, the hand of the studios felt a little heavy in some parts-especially in the rock creatures (biblical Transformers?) and the ending chase around the ark. Russell Crowe holds the movie together and Emma Watson (Hermione from Harry Potter) makes an excellent foil as his daughter-in-law.

Grade: B- (but A- for ambition)


About the opposite of Noah is Locke, a one-man movie about a man driving a car and answering calls as he travels and finds his marriage and job falling apart around him.  Tom Hardy (best known as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises) does a great job as the only actor we see on screen, and he is almost enough to make me recommend this movie.  In the end, though, I didn't think the stakes were quite high enough to justify a full movie about this man.

Grade: B-

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Top 10 of 2013

Rounding out my year in review, here (finally) are my picks for the top 10 of last year.

2013 was a really terrific year for movies, which made coming up with a 10-best list extremely difficult. There were a range of movies that entertained and moved me, and another day (or on a second watch) some of them might have cracked my top 10.  Pop in any of my runners-up in spots 8-10, and I'd be just as happy with my list.

Here are my #16-25, in alphabetical order. They are all well worth checking out: The amazing Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine; Tense docudrama Captain Phillips; Mumblecore comedy Drinking Buddies; Heartbreaking true-life drama Fruitvale Station; Fresh and funny urban indie Gimme the Loot; Cambodian experimental documentary The Missing Picture; Contemplative art movie Museum Hours; Stylish thriller Side Effects; Heartfelt high school drama The Spectacular Now; and the Egyptian documentary The Square.

Runners-Up: In most other years, these 5 would have had an easy spot on a top 10 list.

20 Feet From Stardom:
This Oscar winner for Best Documentary is probably the most crowd-pleasing movie I saw this year. It follows the stories of the (mostly) forgotten back-up singers of the past and present, showing us their immense talent and artistry.  You'll never listen to the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter the same way again!

The Act of Killing:
Watching this experimental documentary, its hard to believe that the events are really taking place. Director Joshua Oppenheimer gets Indonesian generals, who carried out a genocide in the 1960s, to recreate their atrocities as a movie. An intense, disturbing, and completely fascinating look at how evil deeds are (or aren't) dealt with. The final scene is unforgettable.

The Great Beauty:
This Italian film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and for good reason. The setting and cinematography are gorgeous (Great Beauty indeed), it's funny and entertaining, and it's also filled through with a sense of melancholy and loss.

While I have quibbles with small parts of Her, it's a movie I've thought about a lot, and feel may creep up my list upon more viewings. Writer/director Spike Jonze creates an amazingly believable world where our love for technology has taken the next step. Funny and thought-provoking, with great performances by Joaquin Phoneix, Amy Adams, and the voice of Scarlett Johannson.

Short Term 12:
Probably my number 11, and it kills me to leave this off the list. This drama about a young couple working at a youth treatment facility has so much heart and goodness in it, without ever feeling soft. Lead Brie Larson gives a passionate and committed performance, and I hope it leads to great things for her.

Now, on to the 10 that made it through!

10. Blue is the Warmest Color.
To get the most notorious part of the movie out of the way: Yes, the sex scenes are overly long and probably exploitative of the two lead actresses.   But.... they take up only a very small part of this 3-hour opus, which focuses on young Adele (Adele Exarchopolous) coming of age and discovering herself as a person.  Marketed as a love story, the movie is also concerned with class differences in modern France, finding meaning in life and work, and the ways in which we move successfully from being a teenager to becoming an adult.  Exarchopolous gives one of the very best performances of the year, and I've thought about her character and her journey many many times since seeing this movie.

9. Before Midnight.
Every 9 years since 1995, director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have come together to create a document of a changing relationship between an American man and a French woman.  If you haven't seen the first two (Before Sunrise and Before Midnight), please see them before checking this out!  While I don't love this chapter to quite the same degree as the other two (I miss some of the intellectual back-and-forth of their earlier conversations, while this one focuses more solely on the relationship), this is a great addition to the triology. The three show us the cracks that have developed in the central relationship as we question if their love can survive.  I can't wait for the next one....

8. Mud.
An old-fashioned movie in the very best sense. With great respect and little romanticizing, director Jeff Nichols sets this movie on the Mississippi Delta in Arkansas, where the lives of its inhabitants are changing forever. Young Tye Sheridan plays a young teen who finds an outlaw (Matthew McConaughey) on the river and does a lot of growing as he learns about the adult ways. With echoes of American literature (especially Huck Finn), this is a great story.

7. Enough Said.
Three years ago, Director Nicole Holofcener made my list with Please Give, and here she is again. She's a true talent, writing and directing prickly, funny, humane movies about people and their relationships. Enough Said is her most heartfelt movie yet, and she chronicles a middle-aged single mom riddled with doubts as she embarks on a relationship with a divorced dad. The casting of TV starts Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini was absolutely perfect.

6. Stories We Tell.
The best documentary of the year (in a year of great ones), is this very personal story by young director Sarah Polley. The movie is an inventive and far-reaching look into a secret from her family's past. In the process, Polley also raises essential questions about truth, storytelling, love, and what truly makes a family.

5. Nebraska. 
Having spent many a summer in rural Kansas with my grandparents, I quickly connected to this movie and its small town setting and characters. The amazing Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an alcoholic old man searching for some final success. With a light touch, director Payne shows how our past shapes us. Loved it.

4. Frances Ha.
This movie is so light, airy, and pleasurable, I almost don't want to damn it with my high praise. It's simply about a charming but sometimes clueless young woman (Greta Gerwig) finding a life for herself in modern New York. The black and white is gorgeous and Gerwig is beyond charming.  It's also the rare modern movie more interested in a young woman's friends and life than in her relationship with men.

3. Gravity.
Just stunning. Other directors would have used the budget and technology to make a sci-fi spectacle of battles and a cast of hundreds, but none of that for the amazing Alfonso Cuaron. What I remember most from Gravity is astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), floating in space and gazing at the beautiful Earth. Some found its story a tad trite, but I was deeply moved by its portrayal of a wounded person making the choice to fight for survival.

2. 12 Years a Slave.
Essential, breathtaking, stunning moviemaking from director Steve McQueen. I love so much about this movie, from the script to the performances to the cinematography to the score. What I remember most is its intense focus on Soloman Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his story, never flinching at the brutality and never giving us cheap uplift. One of the very best movies of the new millennium. I'm sure it will live as a testament for years to come. (Can't I make a tie for number 1?)

1. Inside Llewyn Davis.
When I walked out of this movie, I simply said "That was perfect." The more I think about it, I've become convinced it's my favorite Coen Brothers movie. Like many movies on my list, it walks a delicate line between humor and pathos, and in this movie the character of Llewyn is someone to both admire and criticize. This is a tough-eyed look at the life of an artist and the struggle to stay artistically pure, all filmed in beautiful washed-out cinematography and featuring one of the best soundtracks ever. I've heard there are some that actually hated this movie.  If you're one of them, it's probably best not to tell me...

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Ben's Talking Pictures Awards: Lead Performers

Continuing my rundown of my favorites of 2013, here are the best leading performances.  Both categories are ridiculously packed with great performances.  I can't believe I had to leave off performances as great as Greta Gerwig, Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, and Michael B. Jordan.  Here are the 10 that rose to the top!


Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Cate swept this awards season for a major reason-this is one of the all-time great performances.  Blanchett absolutely owns this movie as Jasmine, a delusional modern-day Blanche Dubois unaccustomed to an ordinary life. Blanchett fully commits to the role, and her slow breakdown is unforgettable.

Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Over the course of this trilogy (Before Sunrise-Before Sunset-Before Midnight), Delpy has given a performance for the ages as a smart, prickly intellectual navigating love with an American man. Delpy lets us see how her Celine has grown and changed over the past 18 years, and this is the feistiest she's been.

Adele Exarchopolous, Blue is the Warmest Color
In French it's called "La Vie d'Adele," and it's the perfect title as the movie immerses us in every aspect of Adele's life.  Over this 3-hour movie, Adele almost never leaves the screen.  We see her grow form a gangly teen discovering herself to a young woman forging her own adult path in life.  Since I've seen the movie, I've often thought about her as if she was a real person I knew-the mark of a great naturalistic performance.

Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Larson plays Grace, a supervisor at a residential home for troubled teens.  Grace has an amazing empathy and touch with these teens, but also her own demons that get in the way of her growth. It's a soulful, bravura performance.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said
Louis-Dreyfuss brings her trademark sitcom brilliance into a performance and movie that achieves the perfect mix of comedy and heartfelt emotion. As a single mom embarking on a new relationship, Louis-Dreyfuss is completely believable and relatable.

My Pick: Cate Blanchett
Second Choice: Adele Exarchopolous

Runners-Up: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena), Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Rooney Mara (Side Effects)

Matches with Oscar: Just 1-Cate! Although I also loved Adams, Bullock, and Dench who all made my runners-up list and would have made it in another year. I also thought Meryl Streep was lots of fun and lots of scary in August: Osage County, but she didn't crack my list. A banner year for actresses.


Bruce Dern, Nebraska
I saw echoes of both of my grandfathers in Dern's Woody Grant, an old man from a silent generation. We think Woody isn't watching or listening, but then we see a piece of his painful past come through, particularly in a heart-wrenching scene returning to his childhood come.  Dern combines the comedy and pathos perfectly throughout the film, and exists as the sole of Nebraska.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street
An audience couldn't stand this 3-hours of excess without a charismatic anti-hero (or villain?) taking us through the whole thing.  I think this may be DiCaprio's most dynamic performance-showing the audience what drew people to Jordan Belfort, and the moral rot living inside of him.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
There wasn't a more expressive face this year, nor one used so well, as Ejiofor. Ejiofor inhabits the very soul of Solomon Northrup, skipping historical platitudes and going straight for emotional power as we see Solomon's harrowing journey as embodied by Ejiofor's voice, body, and eyes. Just watch how much he expresses in this scene with so few words.

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
It's tough playing a character with such contradictions, and Isaac pulls it off effortlessly. He's unafraid to show the dark (and sometimes nasty) side of Llewyn's artistic purity, yet he also shows us the strands of real beauty, particularly when he opens his mouth and sings. Perfect.

Joaquin Phoenix, Her
A perfect match of actor for role as the very odd Joaquin Phoenix plays the awkward Theodore Twombly, a man who can only have a fulfilling relationship with his OS. This performance is even more amazing when you think of how many scenes Phoenix had to play with just himself in the frame.

My Pick: Bruce Dern
Second Choice: Oscar Isaac

Runners-Up: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Tye Sheridan (Mud), Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now)

Matches with Oscar: 3-Dern, DiCaprio, and Ejiofor. McConaughey (the winner), made my runner-up list, although I think he was even better in Mud. Christian Bale (American Hustle) was solid, but probably my least favorite of the four central performances in Hustle.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

BTP 2013 Awards: Supporting Performers

A few months into 2014, and I've finally ready to roll out my 2013 awards.  This week I'll be giving my awards, starting with the extremely talented and important supporting actors.


Amy Adams, Her
Adams does what a great supporting performance should do, suggesting her own full backstory while providing support for our main storyline.  Adams plays Amy, who has her own relationship with an OS (albeit a friendship), and helps us accept the reality that the film creates.  Adams is one of my favorite actresses, and I think this may be her most naturalistic performance. Bonus points for a great performance in American Hustle as well.

Lupita N'yongo, 12 Years a Slave
What can I add? N'yongo is absolutely incredible as Patsey, the slave living through a hellish existence serving a cruel man's desires and a cruel woman's jealousy. It's a fairly small role, but has such an enormous impact as she serves as the haunting conscience of the movie. Of the moments we remember most, most involve Patsey. Let's hope Hollywood can figure out how to make the most of this absolutely incredible actress.

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Is she too young for this role as housewife Rosalyn? Probably. I didn't really care though, as  Lawrence effortlessly steals every moment she's on screen in the way only a true star can. Her charisma is something to behold, and she has several of the year's best lines of dialogue ("science oven," "thank God for me!").

Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave
As the deeply troubled Mistress Epps, Paulson lays out a full spectrum of icy emotions as a slave mistress caught up in her jealousy, cruelty, and indignity. She simply seethes resentment in every scene.

Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now
Woodley is heartbreaking and believable as a smart, bookish high schooler falling in love with a popular boy. It's certainly one of the most realistic representations of a teen I've ever seen on film. Woodley was very good in 2011's The Descendants, and she's even better here.

My Pick: Lupita N'yongo
Second Choice: Shailene Woodley

Runners-Up: Melonie Diaz (Fruitvale Station), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), June Squibb (Nebraska)

Matches with Oscar: I picked Lawrence and N'yongo as well, and Hawkins and Squibb were my runners-up. I thought Julia Roberts was very good in August: Osage County, but not enough to crack my list.


Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
After this role as Richie DeMasio and his Pat Solitano in Silver Linings Playbook, it's safe to say that Bradley Cooper and director David O. Russell have a good thing going. Cooper thrives on the loose energy that courses through Russell's films.  For my money, Cooper is best in show, showing the desperation and ambition of a FBI agent feeling excited and important to be mixing it up with the crooks.

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Fassbender is a fearless and tremendous actor, and in 12 Years a Slave he goes to deep, dark places to show the evils of slavery. But it's not a simplistic portrait- Fassbender shows the insecurity, desperation, and sexual depravity of a truly evil man.

James Gandolfini, Enough Said
180 degrees removed from Tony Soprano, the late Gandolfini gives a funny, fragile, heartbreaking performance as Albert, a sloppy middle-aged man embarking on an sweet but pitfall-laden relationship with a middle-aged woman. A fitting swansong for a great actor we lost too early.

Matthew McConaughey, Mud
McConaughey plays the title character, an outlaw living on a Mississippi River island who encounters two young boys. He's a mix of charisma and danger, and he plays the part perfectly.  I liked him even better here than in his Oscar-winning lead role in Dallas Buyers Club.

Keith Stanfield, Short Term 12
Stanfield plays Marcus, a troubled and complex (although aren't they all?) resident at a youth group home. Of all the kids, Stanfield's Marcus is the one who makes the biggest impact, showing the pain that a ruptured childhood can cause.

My Pick: James Gandolini
Second Choice: Michael Fasbender

Runners Up: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Andrew Dice Clay (Blue Jasmine), John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis), Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines), Jared Leto (Dallas Abuyers Club)

Matches with Oscar: Oscar also chose Cooper and Fassbender, and Leto (who dominated the whole awards season) and Abdi were on my runners-up list. Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) was funny as well, but his performance was a little too one-note to make my list. I'm still heartbroken that Gandolfini didn't make the nomination list.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel & The Complete Wes Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel

From the highly stylized mind of Wes Anderson comes his newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel.  In many ways the usual signs of an Anderson movie are there, while in others it seems he is trying to expand his horizons and reach for something a little more historical and political.

Since plot isn't the most important part of any Wes Anderson movie, I'll only briefly mention it.  The movie is about Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a concierge at a lavish hotel in a fake Eastern European hotel in 1932.  He takes a new young lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), under his wing.  As the film progresses, personal complications, capers, and fascist politics come into the scene.

I've come to know Wes Anderson so well that I just smile at all the usual touches-the symmetrical cinematography, the tracking shots packed with jokes, and the beautiful miniatures.  The hotel itself is simply a wonder to behold-both in the main story in 1932 and as a decrepit communist-era shell in the 1960s.  I also absolutely loved Ralph Fiennes in the title role.  He's mostly known for his weighty dramatic roles (Schindler's List, The English Patient), here Wes Anderson's clever dialogue fits him like a glove. In this movie, there's a deep note of melancholy, of a beautiful and delicate era lost, that pervades the film.  Without giving any spoilers away, there's also a lot more outright sadness that we usually see in Anderson's movies. The way he's putting historical significance onto his trademark style kind of reminds me of what Tarantino has attempted in Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained.

I love what Anderson is attempting to do here, and for the most part it works.   There are times when the movie gets a little too caper-y, and I would actually have liked to spend more time getting to know the hotel and its denizens.  These are small quibbles, though, in a movie I'd gladly watch again, and that gives so many smiles, laughs, and melancholy moments.

Grade: A-/B+ (With Anderson, I always need to let them sink in a bit)

The Complete Wes Anderson

I am proud to be a completist of Wes Anderson, having seen all 8 of his movies.  Here they are, ranked.  The top 3 I just absolutely love.

1. Rushmore (1998).  Anderson will have to make a pretty amazing movie to ever topple this one.  Anderson's breakout movie, it's the hilarious story of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a one-of-a-kind prep school kid in love with a teacher and put on probation.  It's full of visual gags, brilliant cinematography, and real emotion.  Bonus points for what may be the best Bill Murray performance ever, and that's saying something.

2. Moonrise Kingdom (2012). An absolute charmer about first love filled with humor, beauty, and melancholy.  The cast is terrific and the sets even more evocative and beautiful than usual. I also love the use of the Benjamin Britten music throughout.

3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). This is Anderson's most sprawling movie, with a cast of at least 6 main characters. It takes obvious references from the writings of J.D. Salinger as it chronicles a family of dysfunctional prodigies in a stylized (of course) New York. Whatever it loses in depth of individual characters it makes up for in the relationships between the family members.  It's also anchored by two wonderful performances by Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston as the estranged parents of the Tenenbaum clan.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).  See above.

5. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). All done in stop motion animation with a tremendous group of voice-over actors.  Clooney and Streep work perfectly as the central Fox pair.  Charming and clever, yet it feels a little more minor to me than other Wes Anderson films.

6. Bottle Rocket (1996). Anderson's debut, a crime caper of bumbling characters, as his signature style is just beginning to form.  The humor and wacky characters are there, but it's not as symmetrical and stylized as the later films.  A fun caper comedy, which also serves as the debut of the very funny Owen Wilson.

7. The Darjeeling Limited (2007). These last two films are in the period where I fell out of love with Anderson a bit. From what I remember, Darjeeling was a pleasant enough experience to watch, but both the humor and emotion felt a little forced.

8. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). The only Anderson I actively disliked.  Everything his most derisive critics say about him seem true about this movie- it struck me as facile, twee, and tiresome. That said, some people I respect really love this movie, so maybe it's time for a revisit.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I'm thrilled to be returning to The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," and always excited to revisit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my all-time favorite films.  It's a true classic for so many reasons:  The amazing screenplay with a great central conceit by Charlie Kaufmann; the believable and affecting relationship; the career-best performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet; the pitch-perfect supporting performances that sell us on the reality of Lacuna, Inc.; and the sense of melancholy and emotion that is woven so effortlessly throughout the film.

Perhaps what I love most about the screenplay is the way it follows Lacuna, Inc's process of going through old memories.  As Lacuna goes deeper, so does the film. We see deeper and darker memories and emotions as the film goes along, until there are moments that become almost overwhelming.

One of the most affecting sequences of the movie, where I suspect I'm not the only viewer to get choked up, is when Joel and Clementine attempt to escape the erasing by traveling back to Joel's childhood, to hide out in memories that existed before he met Clementine.  We move through some teen embarrassment into a sequence where a very young Joel is forced into a moment of cruelty by neighborhood bullies. Only this time Clementine is there with him, and she carries him away from this painful memory until they are alone together in front of his home. It's a brief moment of happiness and redemption for the two, but it doesn't end there.

The shot I've chosen is right after this, when Clementine disappears from his memory, Joel's childhood home becomes decrepit, and he rides off on his bike.  I love this shot because out of context you're not sure if its young Joel or older Joel.  It's Jim Carrey, but he carries himself so well in his childlike way, on his boyhood bike, setting out to escape the painful memories. I'm deeply moved by the desolation of the shot, with Joe's childhood red cape being the only bright spot of color.  In the end its a great shot in a truly great movie because it both connects to the central relationship of the movie and shows all the baggage and memories we carry with us throughout life and into every relationship.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Oscar Night Live Blog

12 Years a Slave!!!! The Academy did the right thing, as they sometimes do.  I ended with 20/24.  Not too bad, although no big surprises this year either.  So happy right now.

Very well-deserved Best Actress to Blanchett.  Quick mention of Woody, no gushing.  Probably well-played.

As expected, Matthew McConaughey.  A very good performance in a year of really great ones.  A real rambly speech, but kind of fascinating.

I am now incredibly stressed to see Best Picture...

Watching Sidney Poitier.  Second time I'm tearing up.

Director to Alfonso Cuaron.  One of my favorite directors, and first Latino winner of Best Director.

Random thought- unless we have an upset in these last 3 categories, this is really a surprise-less show.

Adapted Screenplay to 12 Years a Slave. I hope and pray this means Best Picture.

Original Screenplay for Her!!! Yes!!! Not doing so well on predictions but I don't care. This also means American Hustle will most likely go 0/10.  Quite a fall for what many thought was the frontrunner.

John Travolta just called Idina Menzel "Adele Nazim."  WHA???

And score for Gravity.

Song to Let it Go.  15/18 I think.  Can't keep track so much anymore.

In Memoriam followed by a really synthesized version of Wind Beneath My Wings.  What year are we in?

These stupid tributes are such a waste of time.  Arbitrary theme this year... heroes.  Let's just get some more Ellen jokes.

Production design.... The Great Gatsby. Now we can say its won two Oscars. I really prefer all the other nominees to this.

Cinematography to Emmanuel Lubezki.  An absolute master and he finally has his Oscar.  I'm 12/14 now.

Editing to Gravity as well.  It's doing really well.  I picked Captain Phillips for this. 12/15.


Stars eating pizza!  Get the gifs ready!

Sound awards of course going to Gravity.

Supporting Actress to LUPITA!!!  And she hugs Liza Minnelli!  SO HAPPY. All time classic speech too.  Perfect. Teared up a little there.

Foreign film goes to The Great Beauty!! Loved this and picked it. 8/10.

Tyler Perry introducing the Best Picture nominees..... a little odd.

Love U2, but that song is a serious snoozer.  At this point, you know everyone wants to hear Let it Go.

Live action film. Helium.  I predicted this! 5/7.

Documentary short. The Lady in Number 6. Touching especially since the subject died just this past week.

Documentary.  20 Feet From Stardom.  A great choice in a great field.  Bill Murray starting the standing ovation was PRICELESS.

Kim Novak.... looks very different from Vertigo.  Had some work, perhaps?
Animated Short to Mr. Hublot.  I didn't predict this, so I'm only 50% this year!

Animated feature to Frozen, of course.

Visual effects to Gravity.  Ya think.  The first of many tonight, I'm sure. 4/6 now I think, so at least my percentage is improving.

I really liked Her... but this song is just a little too indie-cute, even for me.

Makeup... Dallas Buyers Club. They walked REALLY slowly to the stage.  I guess they didn't want ot pull a Jennifer Lawrence.

Costume Design... The Great Gatsby.  My first miss for the night.  I thought American Hustle. Never beat again the most extravagant costumes.... and the 70s have never won.

Highlight so far.... Pharrell dancing with Lupita, Meryl, and Amy Adams! Love that song.

Solid opening from Ellen.  Highlights:

-"One of the greatest Liza Minnelli's impersonators I've ever seen.... good job sir."
-"Simply put, Meryl cannot afford to be nominated again."
-Jennifer Lawrence-"If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar."
-Jonah Hill- "You showed us something in that film that I haven't seen in a long time..." (for those who don't know, Jonah whips it out in the movie.)

Supporting Actor
Jared Leto of course. Not my pick but a great category this year.  GREAT first half of his speech, then had to turn it awkwardly political.

Will Smith- no tie, but ascot.  I approve.

Did Bill Murray just age like 10 years?

Hometown pride for Barkhad Abdi-from Minneapolis!

Lupita-killing it with the fashion this year. Also, after winning 5 indie spirits, they "had an intimate 12 Years a Slave dinner." Any guesses as to the restaurant? Maybe Hard Rock Cafe?

Jared.... looking like Jesus.  Cut the hair, man.

McConaughey has a very... tan mom.

"We have huge respect for Woody Allen" said by some costume designers.  Too soon.  Too soon.

Amy Adams is dressed tonight in tribute to Kim Novak from Vertigo.  She's awesome.

June Squibb is "one hell of a pole dancer." Awesome.

Why are they showing me Viola first? To remind me of a terrible moment- when Meryl Streep's over-the-top performance in The Iron Lady beat her a couple years ago?

Here we go.... the most exciting Oscar telecast I've seen in many years.  Let's hope the telecast lives up to the hype.  I'll be regularly updating, as I also try to sit back and enjoy.  Newest posts will be on top.

Pre-show thoughts: If I had 3 wishes for tonight, they would be:

-12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture. It deserves it and it will mean so much.

-Lupita beating Jennifer for Best Supporting Actress.  It will be great for Lupita, and it will be great for Jennifer Lawerence's career.  I really like her, and I don't want the inevitable backlash.

-For anyone to upset the Dallas Buyers Club duo of McConaughey and Leto.  I liked them both, but there are many more deserving competitors in both categories, and they've just steamrolled the competition.  I'd love Bruce Dern, Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Leonardo DiCaprio in Actor and Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper, or Barkhad Abdi in Supporting Actor.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Final Winner Predictions

It's the best kind of Oscar year, when there are lots of tough choices to make because so many races are tight.  One thing is for certain: Gravity will win the most awards of the night.  Does that mean it will win Best Picture? It very well could, but it's an amazingly close race.  Here you go....

I've also taken the opportunity to list my preferences in order across the categories-with my personal pick at the top.

Predicted Multiple Winners
Gravity- 6 (Director, Cinematography, Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects)
12 Years a Slave- 3 (Picture, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay)
Dallas Buyers Club- 3 (Actor, Supporting Actor, Makeup)
American Hustle- 2 (Original Screenplay, Costume Design)

If I Had a Vote:
12 Years a Slave- 6 (Picture,Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing)
Gravity- 3 (Score, Visual Effects, Sound Editing)
Nebraska- 2 (Actor, Original Screenplay)
Inside Llewyn Davis- 2 (Cinematography, Sound Mixing)

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
Captain Phillips
American Hustle
The Wolf of Wall Street
Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Could Win: Gravity
Should Have Been Here: Inside Llewyn Davis

An absolute nail-biter between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, and I'm switching by the second.  At one point people thought American Hustle had a shot too, but I think its glory has faded.  As much as I really love both frontrunners, I desperately want 12 Years a Salve to win.  It would be a great win for film.  In the end.... I'm flipping a coin and going with 12 Years a Slave, but ask me in another minute and I'll say Gravity.  The tightest race in many, many years.

Best Actor
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Christian Bale, American Hustle

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Could Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Should Have Been Here: Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

McConaughey probably has this in the bag, which is too bad when a category is this rich.  I'd love to see Dern, Ejiofor, or even DiCaprio surprise with a win here.  Of the three, DiCaprio has the best (although I think slight) chance to upset.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Will Win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Could Win: Amy Adams, American Hustle
Should Have Been Here: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight

Even the recent Woody Allen saga won't be enough to deny Blanchett her well-deserved Oscar.  The drama is how she will talk about Woody in her acceptance speech.

Best Supporting Actor
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Barkad Abdi, Captain Phillips 
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Will Win: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Could Win: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Should Have Been Here: James Gandolfini, Enough Said

Throughout the season, I've been most disappointed at how thoroughly Leto has dominated in what is a decent, but sort of obvious role.  Expect him to win here, just as he has at about every other awards show.

Best Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
June Squibb, Nebraska
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Could Win: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Should Have Been Here: Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now

Probably a very close race between Lawrence and Nyong'o.  They are both terrific, but Nyong'o's performance is one of the most astonishing supporting performances I've ever seen, and will probably win. If she doesn't, I think it's bad news for 12 Years a Slave's Best Picture chances.

Best Director
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
David O. Russell, American Hustle

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Could Win: Steve McQueen
Should Have Been Here; Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis

While I prefer McQueen, I will still cheer when Cuaron, one of my all-time favorite directors, wins this.

Best Adapted Screenplay
12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
The Wolf of Wall Street
Captain Phillips

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Could Win: Philomena
Should Have Been Here: The Spectacular Now

Probably a fairly easy win for 12 Years a Salve, although I think there's a slight chance the well-liked Philomena could sneak in.

Best Original Screenplay
Blue Jasmine
American Hustle
Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: American Hustle
Could Win: Her
Should Have Been Here: Frances Ha

Another coin flip category- I had a hard time picking between American Hustle and Her.  I also have a sneaking suspicion Nebraska is probably not all that far behind.  American Hustle did get 10 nominations, though, so I think they will most likely give it a statue or two.

Animated Feature
Haven't Seen:
The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
The Wind Rises

Will Win: Frozen
Could Win: The Wind Rises (but not really)

Best Cinematography
Inside Llewyn Davis

Haven't Seen
The Grandmaster

Will Win: Gravity 
Could Win: Nebraska
Should have been here: 12 Years a Slave

This is my favorite below-the-line category, and it's a really great crop of work this year.  I'm excited for Emmanuel Lubezki (a truly great and Oscarless cinematographer- he should already have 3 Oscars for Children of Men, The New World, and The Tree of Life), but I am also a little disturbed at how this category has turned into best-3D the past few years (Avatar, Hugo, Life of Pi), so I would personally vote for my favorite (and Oscar-snubbed) film of the year, Inside Llewyn Davis.

Best Costume Design
American Hustle
12 Years a Slave
The Great Gatsby

Haven't Seen:
The Grandmaster
The Invisible Woman

Will Win: American Hustle
Could Win: The Great Gatsby
Should have been here: Her

Best usually means "most" in this category, and logic would give the edge to Gatsby. However, this would be a cool place to honor one of the most memorable parts of American Hustle.  In the end, I'm making a bet that the Oscar voters will go with the deep V-necks.

Best Documentary
20 Feet From Stardom
The Act of Killing
The Square
Cutie and the Boxer

Haven't Seen
Dirty Wars

Will Win: 20 Feet From Stardom
Could Win: The Square

Three phenomenal films are in contention for the win:  the astonishing and disturbing The Act of Killing, the soulful crowdpleaser 20 Feet From Stardom, and the inspiring and enlightening Egyptian documentary The Square.  Any could win, although I'm guessing 20 Feet From Stardom will be too hard to resist.

Best Documentary Short (Haven't Seen Any)
Haven't Seen
Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Will Win: The Lady in Number 6
Could Win: Cavedigger

Film Editing
12 Years a Slave
Captain Phillips
American Hustle
Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: Captain Phillips
Could Win: Gravity
Should have been here: Inside Llewyn Davis

A very tight race between Captain Phillips and Gravity, I think.  Captain Phillps artful building and sustaining of tension may be just enough to overtake the Gravity juggernaut.

Best Foreign Language Film
The Great Beauty
The Missing Picture
The Hunt
The Broken Circle Breakdown

Haven't Seen:

Will Win: The Great Beauty
Could Win: The Hunt

I loved the ravishing, Felliniesque Italian film The Great Beauty, really liked The Missing Picture, liked the thriller The Hunt, and was mixed on the musical tearjerker The Broken Circle Breakdown.  I think it's a 3-way race between The Great Beauty, The Hunt, and The Broken Circle Breakdown, but I am guessing the mix of style, beauty, and longing in The Great Beauty will win.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Dallas Buyers Club

Haven't Seen:
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Will Win: Dallas Buyers Club
Could Win: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

Best Original Score

Haven't Seen:
The Book Thief
Saving Mr. Banks

Will Win: Gravity
Could Win: Philomena
Should have been here: 12 Years a Slave

A lackluster category this year, which makes this a pretty easy win for Gravity's powerful score.

Best Original Song
Let it Go, Frozen
Happy, Despicable Me 2
Ordinary Love, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
The Moon Song, Her

Will Win: Let it Go
Could Win: Happy

Two good songs, and two mediocre ones.  Frozen's epic showtune will definitely win.

Best Production Design
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
The Great Gatsby

Will Win: The Great Gatsby
Could Win: Gravity
Should have been here: Inside Llewyn Davis

I'm afraid my least-favorite production design (The garish The Great Gatsby) will win over 4 worthier contenders.

Best Animated Short (Haven't Seen Them)
Get a Horse!
Mr. Hublot
Room on the Broom

Will Win: Get a Horse!
Could Win: Mr. Hublot

Best Live Action Short (Haven't Seen Them)
Equal No Era Yo
Avant Que De Tout Perdre
Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa?
The Voorman Problem

Will Win: Helium
Could Win: The Voorman Problem

Best Sound Editing
Captain Phillips
All is Lost

Haven't Seen:
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Will Win: Gravity
Could Win: Captain Phillips

Best Sound Mixing
Inside Llewyn Davis
Captain Phillips

Haven't Seen:
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Will Win: Gravity
Could Win: Nothing else!

Best Visual Effects

Haven't Seen:
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek: Into Darkness

Will Win: Gravity
Could Win: Nothing else!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ben's Talking Pictures Annual Oscar Ranking Round-Up!

It's Oscar week which means it is time for my favorite blog post of the year!  I'm happy to have several special guests back on the blog to share their opinions on this year's crop of Best Picture nominees: My wife Emily, mother-in-law Barb, brother Jason, sister Sarah, and my brother-in-law-to-be Tyler!

And for the first time in Ben's Talking Pictures history, we all agree on a number one film.  12 Years a Slave is clearly the best of the bunch, and deserves to go home with the trophy on Sunday.  Nebraska also came in as the clear second place to this group of native Midwesterners. I was the only one to place it third, and it was a tough choice!   Her and Gravity also had solid love/respect from our crowd.

Average Rank
12 Years a Slave
Wolf of Wall Street

Captain Phillips
American Hustle
Dallas Buyers Club

When it comes to the performances, it looks like no one can deny the power of Cate Blanchett and Lupita Nyong'o this year, and I don't think Oscar will either.  None of us picked Best Actor frontrunner Matthew McConaughey this year, though.  We split between Leonardo DiCaprio and Bruce Dern.  Our supporting actors varied, but Michael Fassbender came out ahead.

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave: Ben, Emily, Sarah, Tyler
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity: Barb, Jason

Bruce Dern, Nebraska, Ben, Emily, Barb
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street: Sarah, Tyler, Jason

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine: Unanimous

Supporting Actor
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave: Ben, Sarah, Tyler
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club: Barb, Jason
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips: Emily

Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave: Unanimous

Adapted Screenplay
12 Years a Slave: Ben, Emily, Sarah, Barb
Before Midnight: Tyler
The Wolf of Wall Street: Jason

Original Screenplay
Nebraska: Ben, Emily, Sarah
Her: Barb, Tyler, Jason


2013 was a terrific year for movies, one of the best I can remember. While many of my favorites are not up for Best Picture (only 3 of the 9 actually make my top 10 list), it’s still a solid group of movies, focused around stories of survival, to represent the year. I also can’t remember a year where two movies I loved as much were battling it out for Best Picture.

1. 12 Years a Slave
The obvious choice for a slavery drama would be to go for sprawling melodrama, but masterful director Steve McQueen instead focuses intently on Soloman Northrup’’s story of slavery as pure psychological horror.  The movie pulls no punches and looks its viewers right in the face with the truth of this story. I recently went for a second viewing, and the remarkable performances stood out even more.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita N’yongo (who completely blew me away) as the slaves and Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as the terrifyingly disturbed masters create indelible portraits.  Easily the best movie ever about slavery, and an instant classic.

2. Gravity
Awesome in every sense.  A lesser director would have turned this remarkable technology into a simple sci-fi action movie filled with dozens of spaceships. Director Alfonso Cuaron, one of my favorite directors (Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men are two that make my “perfect movie” list), crafts a movie filled with wonder, loneliness, awe, survival, and of course amazing thrills. The story isn’t especially complex, but its relentless focus on survival is so basic to humanity it really pulled me in.  One of the most gripping movie theater experience I’ve ever had.

3. Nebraska
Having spent many a day in rural Kansas visiting  relatives, I can say that Nebraska gets rural Midwestern America exactly right. I love how Payne delicately balances his satire with a sympathetic eye.. The movie is built around Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, and its a performance for the ages.  He’s the jaded, soulful center of the movie, and the supporting cast is probably the best of the year.  Among this year’s movies I laughed hardest at Nebraksa, but it also had some of the most supremely sad scenes of the year (in particular the visit to Woody’s childhood home).  I laughed, I cried, I thought about life.

4. Her
I love director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich is on my personal top 20 of all time) and Joaquin Phoenix, so I couldn’t wait to see this film.  Jonze brings his usual idiosyncratic worldview into this completely plausible vision of a future where our lovers and our technology have become one and the same.  The way the filmmakers created a completely believable world was incredible.  I give especially big props to the production design and the costumes (I'll take some high waisted pants myself please!).  I love how the vision of the future can be viewed as sweet, profoundly lonely, or something in between.  For me it worked better as an intellectually clever what-if movie than as love story, which ultimately kept it from being a notch higher on my list.

5. Captain Phillips
An expertly made incredible true story.  Throughout the film, I was constantly astonished that the impoverished Somali pirates were able to go up against a Western ship and come very close to their goal.  The movie is very good at presenting both sides of this conflict without beating you over the head with its themes.  It also has a phenomenal ending, with what might be Tom Hanks best acting ever, that makes up for its awkward first few minutes.  I do think the movie would have been tighter and more riveting with about 20 minutes cut out, as some of the scenes in the second half grew repetitive.

6. American Hustle
Not as energetic or tight as the movie about the more despicable American hustlers I put at number 7, so why does this one (ever so slightly) win out on my rankings? It’s not just for the awesome hair and costumes, although those didn't hurt. I like the way director David O. Russell takes normal stories and makes them kooky and loose, and he does the same with this film.  I also love how he gives the women in his story (Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence) fleshed out characters who are just as important as the men. Why not higher, then? As much as I liked all the performances , the whole thing feels a little unfocused and tossed-off.  When you make a scam movie with the scam this confusing, there’s definitely a piece missing.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street
Three hours of decadence, energy, and excess.  Throughout the  three hours, I felt both highly entertained and exhausted, and I think that’s how Scorsese wanted me to feel.  I think DiCaprio is so great in this role, it mostly makes up for a hollowness in the script. After the first 30 minutes, very little character development happens as we careen from one set-piece to the next. It’s bravura, entertaining filmmaking that feels a little hollow at its core.

8. Philomena
While I don’t think Philomena is a worthy Best Picture nominee, I’m not going to beat up on it.  I actually liked it quite a bit.  I really enjoyed how they took what could have been a sob story and filmed it as a comedy-drama with plenty of laughs to go with the outrage.  Judi Dench and Steve Coogan make a great pair in this movie, and it wears its themes with a light but moving touch.  It’s definitely a performance driven movie though, and doesn’t give us a whole lot else cinematically.

9. Dallas Buyers Club
From the first scene of this movie, I pretty much knew where this true-life AIDS drama was going to go, and sure enough it went there.  The three lead performances ranged from very good (the everywhere-this-year Matthew McConaughey) to good (the to my mind over-awarded and overpraised Jared Leto) to the not-so-good (a bland Jennfier Garner).  I thought the script was a little uneven and meandering, and the direction lacked a clear artistic vision.  A decent movie about a pretty interesting topic, but not worthy of its nomination.

Should Win:
Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Supporting Actress: Lupita N’yongo, 12 Years a Slave
Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave
Original Screenplay: Nebraska


Happy Oscars everyone! Thanks to Ben for letting me contribute to the blog, even though I only made it through 8 of the 9 Best Picture nominees. Also, I want to give a shout out to a few other movies I absolutely loved this year: Inside Llewyn Davis, Stories We Tell, The Great Beauty, and Frances Ha. And now for the nominees:

1. 12 Years a Slave
Are we ready for a Best Picture that historically-accurately, unflinchingly confronts and humanizes our country’s ugly past? And what does it say if 12 Years a Slave doesn’t win because enough people said, “Oh, I just couldn’t watch it.”?

2. Nebraska
Poignant and funny, smartly directed, and masterfully acted by Bruce Dern as Woody, whose Midwestern stoicism is complemented perfectly by the stark black-and-white cinematography of the Nebraskan landscape.

3. Gravity
Gripping. Ben’s arm. So anxiously. The whole 91 minutes. A different kind of journey story with awesome effects – which I’m told were more awesome in 3D. Kudos to Sandra Bullock for her great performance and months of diligent astronaut training.

4. Her
A fictional story strangely close to nonfiction. Her was thought-provoking, imaginative, convincing, and aesthetically cool, even though the weird sex parts made me very uncomfortable and I could have done without the obligatory-cutesy-indie-movie ukulele song part.

5. Philomena
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan brought levity and somehow, humor, to the decidedly unfunny topic of a woman’s child being taken from her. Some were surprised to see it here in the top 9, but I found it pretty engaging – albeit maybe in more of a made-for-TV-movie kind of way.

6. Captain Phillips
Contained one of the craziest (because it’s true) scenes of the year, when a tiny, low-tech pirate boat hijacks a huge high-tech cargo ship. Impressively filmed on the water rather than recreated via visual effects. What a great breakout performance by my fellow Minnesotan, Barkhad Abdi. I liked that the story was told with sympathy for his character, too.

7. Dallas Buyers Club
Jordan Catalano, is that you? Quite a transformation for both Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey. After the 2012 documentary, How to Survive a Plague, it was interesting to see another aspect of the U.S. grassroots movement to address HIV/AIDS. Despite the good performances and interesting story, though, I somehow didn’t feel totally drawn in.

8. American Hustle
Let me be honest: I fell asleep at the beginning and was confused the rest of the way through (to which my mom said, “Oh, it wouldn’t have mattered!”… If that’s the case, let’s see a tighter script). I do remember that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were entertaining, though.

[didn’t see] The Wolf of Wall Street
I wasn’t able to find 3 spare hours for this one and was not particularly interested. Ben will give you one free pass if you ask nicely.

Should win:
Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave

Original Screenplay: Nebraska

WOW, what a year for the movies! I am honored to be reviewing the Oscar nominated pictures for my 5th consecutive year. Thank you Ben Frazell and Ben's Talking Pictures for enhancing my movie viewing experience.

1. 12 Years a Slave
My pick for best picture of the year. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, director Steve McQueen brings us an intense, no holds barred, often hard to watch look at slavery in America. What a painful chapter in our nation's history. Brilliant performances across the board! Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a heart-wrenching performance as Solomon, who fights not only for his survival, but for his dignity. Equally strong are performances by Lupita Nyong'o, as the brutalized slave, Patsey, and Michael Fassbender as a ruthless plantation owner. The final scene where Solomon is reunited with his family is one of the most understated, heartbreaking and powerful moments I have ever seen in a film.

2. Nebraska
I loved everything about this movie! After receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail, the aging, cantankerous and somewhat demented Woody Grant (superbly played by Bruce Dern) heads out, on foot, from his home in Montana to claim his prize in Lincoln Nebraska. He is intercepted on the highway by police and returned to his out-spoken, fed-up wife (June Squibb). What follows is a father/son road trip when his estranged son, David (Will Forte), begrudgingly agrees to drive him to Nebraska. Although David recognizes this as a scam, it is his one last-ditch effort to understand and try to connect with his emotionally absent, alcoholic father*. Along the way, they stop in the small Midwestern town of Hawthorne Nebraska where Woody grew up. Here we are treated to a glimpse of small town America and its inhabitants. We meet Woody's old friends and extended family... and don't they come out of the woodwork now that Woody is a millionaire! These are wonderfully complicated characters, and, in spite of their flaws, I never felt that Director Alexander Payne was being judgmental. What you see is what you get. This journey helps David understand what has shaped his father in a way never before possible. There were outstanding performances across the board in this film, but, in addition to Dern, I was especially moved by Will Forte's performance. There was such a believable quality to his frustration, confusion, but also his compassion toward his father. I also appreciated Payne's decision to use local actors, which added to the film's authenticity. This is a humorous, moving, bittersweet portrait of small town America, family and relationships. Also, this would not have been the same film had it not been done in black and white. Good call!
*social workers love these kind of stories.

3. Gravity
First let me say this must be seen in 3D. Above all, Gravity is a technical masterpiece. From cinematography to visual effects to sound mixing to sound editing (it should win in all these categories) it works. I found this film thrilling, breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying! I thought Sandra Bullock, as Dr. Ryan Stone, was outstanding. I found George Clooney, as astronaut Matt Kowalsky, a little less believable. He is, after all, George Clooney, and I couldn't quite seem to get beyond that. After disaster strikes and their shuttle is destroyed, Dr. Ryan and astronaut Kowalsky find themselves marooned in space, tethered to nothing but each other. Once Matt cuts the tether, Dr. Stone finds herself alone, floating weightlessly in space. She goes from full survival mode to resignation, from trying to remain calm and focused to full blown panic.  What a tough role... which she carries beautifully! Some of the most memorable moments of this film are those quiet moments when she is floating weightlessly in space. A heart-pounding, suspenseful, beautiful and highly entertaining movie. Well done Alfonso Cuaron. You get my vote!

4. Her
Sensitive, withdrawn Theodore Twombly, reeling from the break up of his marriage, finds love and happiness when he begins a relationship with his 'advance operating system'. Science fiction, but probably closer than we think. Joaquin Phoenix was at his best as the lonely, quirky Twombly. The intimacy and connection he has with his OS, Samantha (beautifully voiced by Scarlett Johanssen), is completely believable. This, coupled with the fact that his friend's openly accept this relationship, is a bit frightening. Things become more complicated when Samantha decides she, too, has wants and needs. It becomes apparent, to everyone except maybe Theodore, that Samantha must move on, leaving Theodore much as we first found him. The one thing I took away from this film is that although technology can connect us, it can also isolate us.

5. Captain Phillips
Under the intense direction of Paul Greengrass, we follow the real life story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. Outstanding performances by Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips and newcomer Barkhad Abdi as the Somali lead pirate, Muse. After Phillips is taken hostage, the movie really focuses on the relationship between him and Muse. Phillips, in full survival mode, tries to keep himself together under the most unimaginable circumstances. Then there is Muse, who just wanted to take the money and run, who finds himself in a situation totally out of his control. Enter the SEALS, and the situation becomes even more frantic and unpredictable. What follows is a heart pounding, nail-biting, action-packed finale. I actually felt physically exhausted by the time Phillips was rescued and returned to his ship. Although I am certainly pleased that Minneapolis' own Barkhad Abdi got a well deserved nod for supporting actor, I think Hanks was robbed.

6. Philomena
The heartbreaking story of Philomena Lee's desperate search for the son she was forced to give up as an unwed, teenage mother in 1950's Ireland. After many unsuccessful attempts to get information about her son from the nuns at Roscrea Convent, Philomena turns to political journalist Michael Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) for help. Judi Dench was outstanding as Philomena. Her unwavering faith in God and the Church, her acceptance and even forgiveness of the atrocities she experienced at Roscrea are in sharp contrast to the cynical, atheist and outraged Sixsmith.This contrast works well throughout the movie. Almost as interesting as Philomena's story, is the true life story of her son, Michael Hess. Brought up Catholic by his adoptive parents, he goes on to become a lawyer for the Republican National Committee during the Reagan and Bush administrations. A closeted gay man for most of his life, he died of AIDS at age 43 in 1995. We learn of his own desperate search for his birth mother that included several trips to the Convent at Roscrea. His final wish was to be buried at Roscrea in hopes that she might find him. I thought this was a fascinating story and liked the movie a great deal. Don't expect to come away from it feeling very kindly toward the Catholic Church.

7. American Hustle
Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal, Director David O. Russell leads us on a wild ride, with some great performances by an all-star cast. And oh, so many wonderful characters! There were so many little things I loved about this movie: Christian Bale's comb-over, Bradley Cooper's perm, the hot-mess that is Jennifer Lawrence, partner-in-crime, Amy Adams, Shiek Abdullah etc. etc. etc. Sure, the storyline may have been a little loose at times, but I found this just to be a very entertaining afternoon at the movies.

8. Dallas Buyers Club
Well, Matthew McConaughey has certainly reinvented himself, and no where is this more apparent than in his role as homophobic rodeo rider Ron Woodroof in the Dallas Buyers Club. Loosely based on the true story of Woodroof,  who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and given 30 days to live. Unwilling to accept his death sentence, he travels to Mexico where he learns about alternative treatments, and begins smuggling vitamins and ant-viral drugs into the U.S. His will to live, coupled with his entrepreneurial spirit, kick in when other people with AIDS come looking for his medications. Woodroof and his unlikely ally, the fragile HIV positive transsexual, Rayon (Jared Leto), establish the Dallas Buyers Club. The Dallas Buyers Club could now provide its dues-paying members with these alternative treatments. A fascinating look at AIDS and AIDS/HIV treatment in the 1980's. Superb performances by McConaughey and Leto!

9. The Wolf of Wall Street
I found the Wolf of Wall Street fascinating... in a very disgusting way. Outstanding performance by Leo DiCaprio as the charismatic, self-serving, corrupt Jordan Belfort. Also strong performances by Jonah Hill and secondary characters Kyle Chandler and Matthew McConaughey.* I have to say, the language, sex, drugs and prostitutes wore me down. I think they could have cut this back about 45 minutes and still made their point. I love how the Jordan Belforts of the world always land on their feet. No insight, no remorse, no responsibility for their behavior or the damage they have caused. After a (short) prison stay, he is now a writer, producer, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. By the way, he has not paid restitution.. A fun fact I learned from the movie: he met Tommy Chong in prison, who encouraged him to write his book.
* That darn Matthew McConaughey, he's everywhere, isn't he?

Should Win:
Director, Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue jasmine
Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave
Original Screenplay: Her


Once again, excited to be back for family blogging this year- seeing all the films is a great way to help get through the winter blahs.  Not a movie in the bunch I didn’t at least enjoy this year, and a few I loved.  I’m sad that Llewyn Davis didn’t make it, and would’ve been a perfect fit for the overall theme of survival that seems to run through the nominees this year, whether thats surviving slavery, AIDS, or FBI investigations.

1. 12 Years a Slave
No one should be surprised that a film about slavery is unsettling and powerful, and 12 Years a Slave was absolutely both of those (side note- those who have seen Django Unchained- weren’t there times when you wanted some Tarantino style scene just to give your heart/brain a break?) The thing that brought 12 Years a Slave to  even another level for me was the existential questions it brought up about suffering and the different choices people make to survive horrific trauma.  Incredible, subdued but powerful performances and amazing, unflinching director made what I think will go down in history as a real masterpiece.

2. Nebraska
Was Alexander Payne along for some of my childhood trips to visit my older relatives in rural Kansas?  The details and the characters in this movie were spot on- LOVED the scene of all the men watching TV, and the kareoke/steakhouse.  Very poignant and funny.

3.The Wolf of Wall Street
Over the top and gratuitous- yes.  And did it work- absolutely!  A bit long (which would be my complaint about almost all but the 2 movies listed above) but Leonardo Dicaprio- wow!  In my line of work I’ve worked with a sociopath or 2 and he absolutely nails it- making horrible, harmful decisions, and yet, you still root for him and want him to succeed because he is so damn charismatic- (also loved Jonah HIll, because he also completely nailed the portrayal of the equivalent of the high school popular kid’s side kick- in some ways arguably less terrible and powerful but you just really want someone to punch him in the face).

4. Her
Before I went to see “Her” I had heard glowing reviews.  After the movie ended, I felt slightly let down, and I think thats because I didn’t quite have the emotional investment in Samantha and Theodore’s relationship that I hoped- but- maybe thats part of the whole point!  Weeding through the intellectual and emotional questions that come up made this a very smart and challenging movies. The cinematography was a bit- instagrammy?- but it worked.  I think the movie did a great job at not making a judgment call on the relationship.  I’m so glad they included the scene with Rooney Mara’s character critiquing Theodore’s inability to engage with “real” women because without it, I think the film would’ve been pretty problematic on a feminist level.

5. Gravity
An overall good movie, but I was a little bit let down.  Obviously, the cinematography and filmmaking was a huge accomplishment.  Sometimes I think 3D is a waste of money but absolutely not in this case- it really brought you on a powerful journey.  Overall, the narrative was compelling, but the dialogue was too cheesy and distracting to me, and I didn’t feel like the story about Sandra Bullock’s daughter quite worked.

6. Dallas Buyers Club
A well- told story, and an interesting narrative of the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  The performances were great- Matthew McConaughey amplified what he does well in most of his movies- Southern characters with some sass and ruggedness- but the real highlight for me was Jared Leto.  There’s been some interesting criticism on the blogosphere on the choice not to have a trans actor portray the part, but I think that Jared did play the role with warmth and respect.  The story was good and told what it needed to, but didn’t take any real risks that would’ve brought it to GREAT level.

7.  American Hustle
I loved SIlver Linings Playbook, so I was hoping to like American Hustle more than I did.  THe best comparison I can make is it was kind of like watching a really good high school play- it was fun to see actors you knew from other things wearing crazy costumes and wigs (and potbellies) in a crazy plot.  However, that also means it was pretty messy- the plot didn’t make sense at times and could have used some real editing.  Of course, per usual, Jennifer Lawerence was a real highlight.

8. Philomena
This was a good solid movie, a good story and Judi Dench was wonderful.  I can’t think of anything that i didn’t LIKE about it, but I’m not sure that it belonged on the best picture of the year list, especially when other greats were left off (looking at you, Llewyn Davis).

9. Captain Phillips
Well made, true-story suspense.  I thought Tom Hanks performance was very good, and the end of the movie was very powerful as you watch his reaction to the trauma he has just suffered.  My favorite were the characters of the Somali pirates (especially in being from Minnesota, it wqas neat to hear the back story of Barkhad Abdi, former cab driver. )  Overall, not sure that this is a movie that will stick with me for a long time, and could’ve used some editing as well (and what was with that awkward first scene driving to the airport?)

Should Win
Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street
Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Supporting Actor (just a note here, I think one of the strongest categories this year and hardest to decide!): Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Adapted Screenplay: 12 years a slave
Original Screenplay: Nebraska


1. 12 Years a Slave
There is a moment early on in this film, when Solomon is in the hold of the slave ship being transported south, and there is an argument between the men over whether to risk their lives with an Amistad-style takeover or to keep their heads down and try to live as long as possible as slaves. I was actually worried in that moment that THE theme for this movie was set, because as interesting as this topic could be, I thought that this focus would limit the potential of this film. I’m glad I was wrong. It became clear that while this theme was vital to Solomon’s story, this film created (or I guess I should say reflected) a fully realized world featuring characters, relationships, and motivations that extended far beyond the standard slave/owner dichotomy. We see how Solomon is treated as a freeman by White northerners (and a bewildered out-of-town slave). We see slave owners who justify themselves as businessmen without a choice and those that justify their sadism with the Bible. We see southern Whites that are not part of the 1% (both cotton-pickers and whip-wielding field masters) and their complex feelings about an institution that they simultaneously benefit from and are held down by. Between Mistress Epps (Fassbender’s wife), Patsey, and the slave mistress who hosts the tea party, we see a massive range of the roles for, and types of damage to, women involved in the institution of slavery. The care that was put into crafting an entire world around this story turns it from “a movie about one free man who was enslaved for 12 years” into something closer to an epic novel in scope (without ever feeling like watching a novel), which is not just incredibly interesting, but also makes the brutality of the institution of slavery that much more devastating. Lincoln was great because it showed slavery, something we as a culture work so hard to pretend is so far away, in a political context that couldn’t help but feel incredibly familiar. 12 Years a Slave takes this to the next level, because the world it creates feels so alive and complex that we can’t pretend that slavery existed in some other-worldly realm.

The direction of this film also ups the ante from Lincoln dramatically; McQueen's use of sparse-but-haunting music and wide-shot long scenes with minimal cutting feels fresh and original, which is especially important for this film. There is a brutal scene where Patsey is being whipped, the (rather conventional) frame showing her face and Fassbender as he is whipping her. I realized I was intentionally distancing myself from this tough scene by thinking about how they add the whip sound effect, how that whip comes nowhere close to the actor, etc.. Then it cuts to a new shot of her back and you see huge lacerations appear with every whip crack and suddenly your ability to cope by distancing yourself with your knowledge of cinematic convention is destroyed. This is what this movie does over and over again through its acting, editing, effects, and screenplay; it is a film that forces you to face that reality.

2. Nebraska
There were a lot of great character-driven indie movies that were ignored this year (Llweyn Davis, Before Midnight, Frances Ha, etc.), so I’m glad this one wasn’t also left off the list. Fresh, funny and poignant, not much else needs to be said.

3. Her
There are generally two kinds of sci-fi movies: those that use a fantasy world to tell a fantasy story, and those that use a fantasy world to tell a very old or very modern story. I’m still not sure which one her is, which is definitely a compliment.

4. The Wolf of Wall Street
Starting as an empire-building film and slowing turning into a wild adventure story about some incredibly immature men, this is a fun film where you kind of like the characters, but still feel upset when they get a happy-ish ending. Scorsese was smart to make this movie essentially a National Lampoons Presents: Wall Street College and not really include an examination of the damage the Wall Street mentality does, because for that we just need to watch the news.

5. Gravity
While I found the backstory thrown in here to be kind of lazy/cliche/boring, I thought it was a great thriller, and the first time I felt that the extra 2 dollars for 3D was worth it.

6. Dallas Buyers Club
I’m kind of surprised this Philidelphia/Blow combo was not made earlier, both because this true story seems like an obvious choice for a film, but also because it feels outdated. Overall it was well done, but for some reason it also just felt stale to me.

7. Philomena
I liked this odd-couple buddy comedy wrapped inside a drama, and I found the portrayal of faith as the way to deal with injustice caused by the tenets of that faith to be interesting. While this movie had nothing wrong with it, and it had the subject matter of an Oscar contender, it felt like at no point did it even try to be outstanding in any capacity, as all the other movies here did.

8. American Hustle
Great performances, but the film lacked either a “hey this is fun just enjoy” or a deeper cultural resonance. The opening scene with the comb-over was great, but I kind of felt that that’s what this whole movie was.

9. Captain Phillips
Starting off with the worst scene I’ve seen in anything in a long time (the car conversation), it improved into a well-done thriller, but as far as action/survival thrillers go, I found it was nowhere near Gravity.

Should Win:
Director: Steve McQueen
Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Adapted Screenplay: Before Midnight
Original Screenplay: Her


What a year for movies!  I’ve been honored to have been able to join the blog for the last few years and without a doubt, this year was the strongest field of contenders as well as the hardest for me to rank.  I very much enjoyed and think highly of every single film on the list of nominees.  Movies that aren’t cracking my top five would have been in my top three in years past.

 And now, on to my rankings.

1.  12 Years a Slave
A beautifully directed film about the darkest period in American history that tells a very important story, impeccably acted by the whole cast.  This movie sounded like Oscar gold from the first time I heard about it and I’m very glad that the film did not disappoint.  McQueen did an amazing job of depicting life on the plantation for both the slaves and their owners without pulling any punches.  He didn’t shy away from showing the brutality at all, which gave the film much more weight and took it to my number 1 spot.  The acting was incredible, everyone in the cast was cast perfectly and it’s great to see such an important role going to a newcomer (who just so happens to be one of the favorites for an Oscar).

2.  Nebraska
Alexander Payne is the reigning master on directing films which show completely believable character in completely believable situations, all while doing it with humor, emotion and empathy.  I’m probably biased towards this film because it very much reminded me of growing up and visiting small town middle America.  The conversations, the scenes, the houses, the main street, it all rang completely true for me.  Bruce Dern was amazing in a transformative role and in past years I believe he would have won the Oscar for best actor.  I really enjoyed the rest of the cast and thought Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb and the crazy cast of family characters did a great job.  Filming this movie in black and white was a great choice, it was very visually striking and added to the nostalgic feel.

3.  Gravity
I don’t think there is much to say about Gravity other that in terms of pure movie magic, it ranks up there with the very best.  The 11 minute opening tracking shot is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in film.  The movie doesn’t waste a moment of screen time and very quickly has the viewer caring deeply about Dr. Stone and Captain Kowalski.  Cuaron did a p job portraying the vastness of space in a way I’ve never seen before.  Sandra Bullock was fantastic in her role and I thought Clooney’s character hit all the right notes as the selfless captain making sure his crew has every opportunity to survive.

4.  Her
Humans having intimate relationships with technology…is that really all that far off?  Spike Jonze did an incredible job directing and writing a film that could have been just strange but ended up being heartfelt, funny, sad and very believable.  Joaquin Phoenix was the perfect actor to play the role as the lonely bachelor who is yearning for companionship.  Amy Adams is great as always as the sympathetic friend and confidant.  Scarlett Johansen’s voice as “Her” is just simple amazing, I thought it was possible that she would get nominated for her voice work, as that role made the film.  

5.  Captain Phillips
Paul Greengrass is one of my favorite directors and no one plays the every man better than Tom Hanks, so I knew that Captain Phillips was going to be excellent.  The back and forth between Captain Phillips and Muse is what brought this film into the Oscar realm.  At any moment it feels like the wrong words or actions by the Captain can result in catastrophe.  Although the film clocked in just a bit long, I thought Greengrass did a great job with the pacing and I was glued to my seat the entire time.  It’s not a simple feat to portray a story where everyone knows exactly how it turns out but still keep that sense of suspense.  I personally thought Hanks got robbed for an Oscar nomination.

6.  American Hustle
Out of all the films on this list, I would have to say that American Hustle along with Wolf were the most pure fun I had at the movies all year.  Combine David O Russell’s knack for getting amazing performances out of his actors along with pitch perfect casting for each role and you’ve got a winner.  I truly loved Amy Adams performance and in other years, I believe she would be the shoe in for the Oscar.  Bale, Lawrence, Cooper were all just great in their roles, especially the complete transformation of Bale along with his amazing hair.  I did think a couple of the actors felt strange in their roles, especially Louis CK.

7.  The Wolf of Wall Street
I had high expectations for this film based on the critics reviews and it most certainly did not disappoint.  Yes, many of the scenes were completely over the top, but that’s the point that Scorsese was making.  I’ve spoken with people who worked on Wall Street in the late 80s/early 90s and they told me that the movie did a great job of showing the excess that was so prevalent.  Both DiCaprio and Jonah Hill absolutely killed it with their acting, two Oscar nominations that were well deserved.  I did feel that the movie went on for a bit longer than needed, but Scorsese has a tendency to run long.  Although it wasn’t my favorite movie of the year, I really did enjoy it and think it’s probably the most fun I had at the theater.

8.  Dallas Buyers Club
Out of all the movies on the Oscar list, is there any that were more driven completely by the acting?  The story of Dallas Buyers Club is great, but without McConaughey and Leto, it becomes a fairly standard film.  McConaughey and Leto’s dramatic weight loss (Matthew got down to 136 lbs and Jared down to 114) was just incredible.  I enjoyed learning about this story, as I had no idea that something like the Buyers Clubs existed back in the 80s and that the FDA had cracked down on this. 

9.  Philomena
I thought Philomena was a great little film and I thought the story was fascinating.  Judi Dench is always great and I liked Steve Coogan as well.  I had never heard about the church selling children to wealthy Americans and was glad this film was made to shed light on it.  This is the only movie on the list that I can’t see being a best picture.  I can see where someone could make an argument for any of the other eight films based on their taste, acting, story and directing.  

Should Win:
Director:  Alfonso Cuaron
Actor:  Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Best Supporting Actor:  Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Supporting Actress:  Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Original Screenplay: Her
Adapted Screenplay:  Wolf of Wall Street