It's Oscar season, when the studios bring out all their prestige movies to vie for Oscars attention. I've been going to the movies (and catching up with some earlier releases) as much as possible. Here are some thoughts on 2013 movies.
I've loved everything Alexander Payne has done, except for his last movie The Descendants, which just didn't quite come together for me. I'm so glad he's back in fine form for Nebraska, a black and white, comedy/drama road movie starring Bruce Dern as a senile man visiting his hometown with his son (Will Forte) on his way to collect prize money he believed he won. Having spent many an hour visiting family in small-town Kansas, I cannot overstate how true this movie feels to this section of the country. The small downtown square, the steakhouse restaurants, the relatives silently watching TV, the old cemetery. I've visited all of these places, and director Payne portrays them with what I think is the correct measure of humor and compassion. Holding it all together is Bruce Dern in an amazing role as Woody, a man who says little but has seen much. The movie keeps him in its sights the whole time, and he ends up being the soul of the movie. I really hope he wins the Oscar. Another gem from Payne.
I'm a big fan of director Nicole Holofcener, especially her past two films Please Give and Lovely and Amazing. She's kind of like a female Woody Allen, keeping his wit but adding a little extra humanism. Enough Said centers around Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), a divorced mother sending her child off to college and beginning a new relationship with Albert (James Gandolfini), a sweet-but-sloppy man who just also happens to be a friend's ex-husband. The central pair are great working from a terrific script by Holofcener, who knows how to write a perfect awkward situation and make you empathize greatly with her characters. I wasn't a huge fan of the subplot of Eva's friends, but everything else was spot-on. After so many trite and predictable romantic comedies, here's on that really feels real, and hits all the right beats. Knowing James Gandolifini is gone only adds to the poignancy of this story.
Paul Greengrass is a great director of tense situations, from the 9/11 drama United 93 to The Bourne Ultimatum. He brings his style to the story of the hijaking of a US ship by Somali pirates to Captain Phillips, a tense procedural charting the entire saga. I was interested and engaged in this movie, but I also think it was a little long. Gravity was also a survival movie, but I think it's running time of 90 minutes helped to keep the claustrophobia at just the right level. By the last third of this movie, I was simply tired from the ordeal. That said, I do think the final 10 minutes or so of the film are awesome, showcasing some of the best work Tom Hanks has ever done. New actor Barkhad Abdi is also excellent as the leader of the pirates, and Greengrass does a pretty good job of showing the unequal economic dynamics that would lead to this situation. Overall, it's a good and tense action film that doesn't quite rise to greatness.
Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club tells the unlikely true story of a 1980s homophobic rodeo rider Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) who becomes an unlikely AIDS activist when he is diagnosed with the disease and runs smack into a corrupt and slow medical establishment. He ends up running a club for AIDS patients where they can get life-prolonging medication away from the corrupt medical establishment. McConaughey continues his great comeback (Magic Mike, Mud, etc..) with another great performance. He brings the right level of charm and sleaziness to the role that fits his character perfectly. Jared Leto (who seems on track to win the Supporting Actor Oscar) provides much of the heart of this movies as Rayon, a transvestite AIDS patient who becomes Ron's partner-in-crime. Leto is great in the role, showing a sly humor and sweet and damged soul in each scene. As good as the actors were, I wish the script had been a bit more creative. It starts where you think it will start and pretty much runs a predictable course. It's a great true story, but a good rather than great film.
This "mumblecore" film is one of my favorite discoveries of the year. It's about a pair of co-workers and friends at a Chicago brewery (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson), their partners (Ron Livinston and Anna Kendrick), and what ensues after they spend a cabin weekend together. Like much mumblecore, most of the movie is improvised dialogue of people talking about relationships. If you like this sort of thing (and I do!!), this is a really good one. Each character feels entirely believable, and the movie goes into some unpredictable scenarios.