Cole Smithey’s Ten Best Films of 2013
Whew! What a great year for cinema. Hollywood may have dropped the ball with a blockbuster summer of busts — only Gore Verbinski’s vastly underrated “Lone Ranger” left a mark — but foreign, documentary, and independent films more than picked up the slack.
Cherry-picking the top ten films of 2013 means leaving to honorable mention such fantastic films as “Nebraska,” “Side Effects,” “The Great Beauty,” “Short Term 12,” “56 Up,” “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors Ricky Jay,” “Bettie Page Reveals All!,” “A Band Called Death,” “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough,” “In the House,” “Room 237,” and “Lore.”
Nonetheless, a steady editorial blade is called for in distinguishing the crème de la crème of 2013’s cinematic offerings. Without further ado, here are the year’s best films.
10. The Heat
Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock brought big laughs in Hollywood’s funniest movie of the year. Screenwriter Katie Dippold invents a new genre, the female-buddy-movie. I haven’t laughed so much since “Django Unchained.” McCarthy and Bullock share a down-and-dirty comic energy that borders on an insane marriage of polar opposites. They’d make a great married couple.
McCarthy’s comic timing and delivery never lets up. Bullock’s description of her past relationship leads McCarthy to ask, “Was he a hearing man?” with such a deadpan manner that you just might choke on your popcorn. A senseless ball-point-pen tracheotomy takes the movie into shameless Grand Guignol territory. Don’t let the fact that too many critics didn’t get the comic genius on display; “The Heat” is one hilarious buddy movie that stands up to repeated viewings. Need a good laugh? Give my name, you’ll get a good seat.
9. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
The greatest band you’ve never heard of, Big Star was every rock critic’s darling during the early ‘70s. The Memphis rock outfit recorded three records that all made it into Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the top 500 albums of all time. Led by the now-legendary Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, Big Star could have been bigger than the Beatles or the Stones, had fortune favored them in correlation with their musical gifts.
Co-directors Drew DeNicola and Oliva Mori use a standard documentary form to deliver a haunting soup-to-nuts history of Big Star that will have you humming songs like “September Gurls” in your sleep. A tasteful labor of love, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” is an enthusiastic documentary about enigmatic musicians whose music still sounds as fresh and essential today as when it was first recorded. Whether or not you are familiar with the band or their music, this movie goes straight to your heart.
8. Before Midnight
The first collaboration “Before Sunrise” (1995) introduced romantically inclined couple Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) travelling on a train from Budapest to Vienna. Sparks of curiosity and lust ignited to the strains of Vivaldi, Straus, and Kate Bloom. “Before Sunset” (2004) found the lovers reuniting for a one-night-stand of sorts in Paris where Jesse — a successful author inspired by the events in the first film — reads from his latest book. Things got complicated.
Now, nearly two decades since they first met, the couple lives together in France with their twin daughters. The film begins at the end of a summer vacation in Greece where they have spent the past six weeks sharing the exotic home of a fellow author and his family. A real-time conversation plays out between Jesse and Celine as they drive back to their host’s house while the girls sleep in the back seat. The seemingly impromptu conversation hits a staggering number of relationship reference points that draw the audience inside their casually intimate style of communicating. No topic is off limits. Politics, sex, religion, literature, and economic realities all come percolating to the surface. The dialogue shimmers.
A farewell dinner with their hosts gives way to a gifted night at a resort hotel that promises the couple some welcome alone time. However, Celine’s possible bipolar disorder crashes the party late in the game, causing Jesse to reach deep into his pocket of tricks to bring Celine around to a romantic reality built as much on fantasy as on a unifying method for achieving harmony in the relationship.
More evidence — behind “The Artist” (2011) — that black-and-white silent films are still a viable storytelling approach; writer/director Pablo Berger’s rethinking of the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow White” is a virtuosic masterpiece. Although a relative newcomer — “Blancanieves” is only his second feature — Berger displays an absolute mastery of cinema language with a litany of homages to filmmaking techniques from the past 100 years.
Seville, Spain circa 1920 witnesses one of its beloved matadors Antonio Vallarta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) being gored. Camera technology involving flashbulbs is to blame. The accident leaves the handsome Vallarta paralyzed from the neck down. Tragedy piles up when the former bullfighter’s wife dies giving birth to the couple’s daughter Carmencita on the same day. Vallarta’s evil hospital nurse Encarna (exquisitely played by Maribel Verdú) seizes the opportunity to seduce and marry him, relegating Carmencita to live in the mansion’s coal cellar. It isn’t long before Encarna is carrying on an adulterous BDSM affair with the chauffeur while the wheelchair-bound Antonio is left alone to discover a bond with his adoring daughter. A charming “dance” between Antonio and Carmencita provides an inspired centerpiece. Such momentary familial satisfaction is fleeting though.
Despite its old-fashioned trappings, there is nothing staid about the layers of narrative and visual complexity at play. Although entered by Spain in the Academy Award category for 2012 foreign film, “Blancanieves” arrives as a frontrunner in 2013 for audiences to marvel at.
6. Drug War
Magnificent. Johnnie To’s gritty police procedural, involving a Tianjin police department sting operation, shares William Friedkin’s muscular sense of filming techniques — see “The French Connection.” Car chases move with a palpitating sense of real-life suspense and unpredictability. Shoot-outs have a randomness about them that make the action all the more intense. The storyline comes ripped right from modern headlines.
Police squad leader Zhang Lei (Honglei Sun) captures drug kingpin Tian Ming (Louis Koo) after a meth lab explosion killed several of Tian's relatives and left him with permanent facial scars. Zhang uses his freshly collared perp to assist in introducing him to his underworld connections in order to arrange a massive drug deal. Zhang’s police team are planning a bust that will shut down the entire region’s drug trafficking. Detective Zhang adopts the identity of another local drug lord called "HaHa" — for is annoying habit of using inappropriate laughter to control situations and people.
The acting on display is strictly top-drawer. Each member of the film’s estimable cast delivers thoroughly believable performances in an evenly escalating story whose climax and coda hits you like a ton of bricks. Brutal and full of plot surprises “Drug War” is a type of movie that Hollywood has forgotten how to make. It’s good thing Johnnie To is around to remind them. Let’s just hope Hollywood doesn’t attempt a remake. After all, there’s only one Johnnie To.
5. All is Lost
Robert Redford gives the finest performance of his career in writer-director J.C. Chandor’s literal and metaphorical tale of one man’s attempts to survive on the high seas. Redford carries Chandor’s one-man showcase with a depth of character and emotion that speaks volumes in spite of the film’s nearly complete lack of dialogue.
Water pours into Redford’s unnamed character’s 39-foot yacht — a “1978 Cal 39 sailboat” — waking him from his sleep. His punctured vessel — the “Virginia Jean” — is lodged on the puncturing corner of a giant red cargo bin that floats in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Children’s tennis shoes float out from the broken container — an ugly reminder of how far capitalism’s nature-dissolving effect has reached.
Decisions and repairs must be made. For the next 100 minutes our unnamed embodiment of brawny adaptability will meet every escalating challenge that nature throws at him with a stoic resolve that is fascinating and inspiring to witness. “Our Man’s” constant struggle for existence takes on a macro-micro vision of cool-headed logic used to battle increasing odds against him. The captain is forced to improvise and learn on the fly. Navigating his way into a shipping lane seems to offer hope for rescue. Redford’s stoic character perseveres with grace and determination in spite of the fierce conditions he faces.
At 77 Robert Redford represents a Hollywood icon whose career of unforgettable performances stretches back farther than the eye can see. Not only does Redford do nearly all of his own stunts in the movie, he weaves narrative wool with his every gesture and facial expression. It is a pure cinematic delight to watch Robert Redford acting, alone, beside such an organic and dynamic backdrop as J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) creates. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Just as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) broke open the possibilities for depicting outer space in science fiction filmmaking, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” makes visible a deep space reality that has never before been witnessed by filmgoers. At its heart “Gravity” is a two-man play that shifts into a solo act of survival that is as much defined by personal obstacles as by harsh external forces at play in the thermosphere — 375 miles above the Earth’s surface. There’s an understated feminist element inherent in the film’s theme of last-ditch survival.
Part of the film’s beauty lies in its intuitive casting. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are movie-star names that sound as though they belong in a romantic comedy more so than in the context of a science-fiction misadventure. Anyone who has ever underestimated Sandra Bullock’s dramatic acting skills will be taken aback. Her nuanced performance compliments Cuarón’s technical virtuosity note for note. The story is deceptively simple. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is on her first outer space mission, to make repairs to the Hubble telescope. By her side is veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney), who counts the mission as his last.
Dr. Stone fumbles with repairing a circuit board on the Hubble. News of fast-approaching debris from a self-destructed Russian satellite sends the astronauts scrambling. Cuarón’s seemingly free-floating camera (operated by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) glides and follows. More shrapnel approaches at blinding speed, flying into the audience’s eyes thanks to an effective use of 3D that makes the action on-screen all the more terrifying.
“Gravity” shares another component with “2001: A Space Odyssey” in that it sticks deep inside the viewer’s subconscious, where it lurks waiting to expand at the most unexpected moment. It is the closest many will come to ever experiencing space on a terrifyingly lonely level. Which is probably a good thing.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
“Inside Llewyn Davis” hits the ground running. Oscar Issac plays the title character, a folksinger patterned loosely on Dave Van Ronk, without pretense. Issac accompanies himself on guitar, singing the old-style song that Van Ronk once recorded — “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” — in a West Village café during the few barren weeks or months before the folk music movement exploded with the likes of Bob Dylan.
The movie offers a composite musical vantage point of the era’s social realism against a backdrop of Cold War America. Llewyn gets word that a man would like to speak to him in the alley. The large male figure that waits gives Llewyn a nasty beating for reasons that will become clear moments before the circular narrative closes. As well as Llewyn sings most people he comes into contact with treat him with a depth of contempt usually reserved for mangy dogs with three legs — regardless of how apt the comparison might be.
Llewyn spends his hours schlepping around figuring out whose couch he will sleep on next. It doesn’t help that he carries with him a cat belonging to a kindly Columbia professor, because the animal slipped out as the door closed on Llewyn — another couch story. A visit to his sleazy agent places Llewyn in the crosshairs of more hostility, albeit of a more greed-based variety.
The film’s centerpiece occurs after Llewyn shares a contentions ride with Roland Turner (John Goodman), a drug-addicted blues singer and his less-than-friendly driver (Garrett Hedlund). Llewyn makes his way through snowy Chicago streets to audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a famous club owner and talent manager who takes literally the title of the album Llewyn pitches (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), and requests just such a view. Without ceremony, Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane” with enough controlled passion to peel wallpaper.
Social changes on the horizon killed off a vibrant genre of music as quickly as it had grown. The Coens’ gift for making their audience feel like welcomed members of an elite club has never felt more sincere.
2. The Act of Killing
At once the most micro and meta combination of cinéma vérité, documentary, and docudrama filmmaking techniques ever assembled, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is an earth-shattering cinematic experience. The 1965 – 1966 genocide of more than half a million accused “communists” (ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, and union organizers) in Indonesia by right-wing paramilitary and freelance death squads — many consisting of self-proclaimed “gangsters” (a.k.a. “free men,” really unemployed racists) — serves as the stepping-off point for Oppenheimer to inspire, enable, and encourage a handful of aging remorseless killers to dramatize their heinous deeds with whatever artistic trappings they choose. A shadowy film-noir set, or a cheesy take on a ‘60s era American war movie, gives the former executioners artistic cinematic opportunities to act out stylized versions their ideal selves when they tortured and killed thousands of men by hand for the fun of it.
The leader of one such squad is Andrew Congo, a grandfather with a skinny frame and thinning grey hair living in the town of Medan in North Sumatra. Congo fancies himself a cross between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. He breaks into a cha cha routine on the patio where he personally killed hundreds of men either by shooting or by strangling with a long sturdy piece of wire fixed to a pole at one end, and with a wood handle at the other.
The film’s provocative title echoes throughout the movie in expanding meaning. “Killing” as an “act” takes on a host of different subjective and objective definitions from the personal to the political. Congo and his equally culpable associates retain their gangster bond nearly 40 years after their punishment-free crimes. No amount of description can prepare an audience for the sickening levels of surreal irony of witnessing Congo and his men act out staged scenes of the violence they perpetrated against their neighbors, friends, and associates. Every audience will be affected differently, but every single one will be changed by it.
1. Blue is the Warmest Color
“Blue is the Warmest Color” is one of the most stunning films I’ve ever seen. It would diminish this beautiful film to pigeonhole it to a modern standard-bearer for the LGBT movement (which it is); its tremendous depths of emotional intimacy demand more than that. Watching the three-hour love story unfold is a simultaneously transgressive and transcendent encounter in which the audience is compelled in no uncertain terms to fall head-over-heels in love with the film’s romantic heroine.
An epic coming-of-age romantic drama between two captivating forces of feminine nature, “Blue” is as intimate a representation of erotic and romantic love as has ever been committed to cinema. Graphic in its depiction of lesbian sex, it circumvents any accusations of pornographic intent by being hopelessly and sincerely sensual. If that sounds confusing, it should. What director Abdellatif Kechiche achieves is unprecedented.
The camera worships everything about lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos. It contemplates her persuasively wanton lips, which wait in a constant state of a half-open invitation to be kissed. Using the actress’s real first name blurs the line between the comely Exarchopoulos and the exotically nubile character she plays.
At the start, Adèle is a French 16-year-old high school junior exploring the boundaries of romance as informed by the male classmate who pursues her. Yet Emma, an older woman with blue-dyed hair Adèle passes in the street, fans her inner desires. A chance meeting during her first visit to a lesbian bar introduces Adèle to Emma in a meet-cut sequence full of overflowing curiosity and erotic ambition.
Loosely adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel “le bleu est une coleur chaude,” Kechiche and his co-writer Ghalia Lacroix create extended, seemingly real-time, sequences that allow the characters and story to develop in an organic fashion.
“Blue is the Warmest Color” is a monumental cinematic achievement that must be experienced by anyone passionate about film. That the movie also encompasses national, familial, political, personal, sexual, intellectual, and artistic themes brings the narrative to an epic level of romantic drama. Still, it never overstresses its implicit nature as an all-inclusive portrait of love.
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THE 51st NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL IN VIDEO ESSAY
Most film historians say that “film noir” is a cinematic movement that began in 1940 with Boris Ingster’s little-seen film “Stranger on the Third Floor” (staring Peter Lorre) and ended in 1958 with Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil.” The roughly 300 films released during this period that make up the genre share a sensibility of narrative, political, stylistic, thematic, and visual elements. French film theorists originally coined the term in 1946 to describe a group of films that included “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), “Double Indemnity” (1944), and “Laura” (1944). Though an American phenomenon, many of Noir’s filmmakers hailed from throughout Eastern and Western Europe – many on the run from fascism. Little did they know that right-wing extremism would follow them across the ocean to America’s social and political stage.
A moody cynicism about the scales of justice and America’s flawed postwar capitalist system are running themes. These reflect an America recovering from the Great Depression, only to emerge in World War II, which gave way to the Cold War. The archetypical American Dream of the ‘50s is not part of the Noir equation. Noir’s alienated characters are naturally distrustful, seen-it-all, people out to salvage what they can from a ruthless society. They fight dirty. They're survivors — but they jealously guard their individuality. Death is always just around the corner for characters ready to go out with their sex drive, dignity, intellect, wit, and stylish charm intact. Guns, cigarettes, booze, and sleazy hotel rooms — many of the scripts were adapted from pulp fiction magazines — come with the territory.
As its name implies, the visual aspects of film noir emphasize the high contrast between the black and white extremes of the film stock used predominantly during the period. German Expressionist cinema (reference “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” - 1923) was influential on cinematographers attempting to capture a dislocated sense of social isolation that defined characters whose motivations are often centered around their need to escape.
Significant too is the “pulp” literary tradition, which gave noir its grittiness with an underworld environment in a country whose repressive influences are always lurking in the shadows. Such shadows allowed noir filmmakers to play with a built-in image system of white light penetrating into claustrophobic interior and exterior spaces. Writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Kames M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich provided a “hard-boiled” template for plot and dialogue that Noir filmmakers mined for every bit of narrative gold they could.
The advent of the Kodak Eastman Color process in 1952 contributed to the ultimate demise of film noir, though not all Classic Film Noirs were filmed in black and white. Kodak provided a quicker and more economic alternative to the Technicolor system that had been used as far back to the 1920s for such high-budget films such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” (1939).
Politically, the demise of Film Noir can be traced back to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House on Un-American Activities Committee, whose witch-trials resulted in the blacklisting many of the screenwriters, actors, and directors responsible for keeping Film Noir going. Noir filmmakers such as Edward Dmytryk (“Crossfire” – 1947) and John Berry (“He Ran All the Way” 1951) were exiled from making films in America along with other members of the “Hollywood Ten,” whose creative potentials were cut short by the same repressive cultural and economic system they had so fiercely commented on.Save to del.icio.us | Digg This
Cole Smithey’s Fall 2013 Movie Preview
Moviegoers start your engines; the season of Oscar contenders is upon us. You have the best chance of seeing a better-than-average, if not truly exceptional, movie in the fall. Film studios are busier than ever rolling out movies they hope will secure spots in every critic’s top-ten lists. After an abysmal summer, Hollywood certainly has its work cut out. For the record, we’ll pretend that predictable flicks like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Thor: The Dark World” don’t exist. With autumn movies from Martin Scorsese, George Clooney, Bill Condon, Ridley Scott, and Alfonso Cuarón on the horizon, the cooling months of 2013 will have plenty of heat to offer at your local cinemas. Mark your calendars. Here are my ten most anticipated movies.
Gravity — Opens October 4
As unlikely as it sounds, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney could hear Oscar nomination’s siren sound for their performances in this outer space thriller directed by Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”).
Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer embarking on her premier space shuttle mission. Clooney’s veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky is along to supervise — this is his last mission before retirement. Things don’t go so well. Catastrophe strikes during a spacewalk where Stone and Kowalski are tenuously tethered together. The only thing potentially worse than being stranded in the middle of the ocean is free-floating in outer space with no ship to seek refuge inside. “Gravity” promises its audience a new kind of claustrophobia from inside the confines of a relatively thin spacesuit. Warner Brothers has been showing its impressive trailers for “Gravity” in cinemas for the past few weeks. They hold more suspense than you find in some entire movies. Be prepared to feel scared, cold, and frantic.
Captain Phillips - Opens October 11
Tom Hanks is overdue for a comeback. “Larry Crowne,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” and last year’s “Cloud Atlas” were the most recent cinematic embarrassments for an actor who once wore the crown of America’s best-loved thespian. Oscar® nominee Paul Greengrass (“Bloody Sunday”) directs the fact-based story of Richard Phillips, the Captain of the MV Maersk — the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years — as based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea” (by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty). An Oscar nom could be in the offing for Hanks in a gritty role as a ship’s captain who keeps his wits about him under the fiercest of hostage conditions. Greengrass’s days spent working as a documentary filmmaker for the BBC should serve him well in an action-packed survival tale that will have you squirming in your chair. Catherine Keener stars as the brave captain’s wife Andrea.
The Fifth Estate - Opens October 18
The U.S. government’s endemic corruption that allows things like secret courts to sponsor illegal surveillance of its citizens and the internet at large, gets the first of what promises to be many more cinematic exposes. Bill Condon’s (“Kinsey”) dramatization of WikiLeaks’s origins should stir up yet more lively public conversation. Benedict Cubmerbatch plays the enigmatic Julian Assange. The freethinker and his equally ardent colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) become self-appointed “underground watchdogs of the privileged and powerful.” The duo fight with each other and with the defining question of our time: “what are the costs of keeping secrets in a free society — and what are the costs of exposing them?”
Here is a Hollywood crash-course in the movement, organization, and back-channels responsible for exposing a stack of government lies so thick it will take many generations for society to digest the scope of America’s mechanized and systematic deceptions. The cinematic search for truth in the modern age begins with “The Fifth Estate.” Carice van Houten (“Black Book”), Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”), and Laura Linney (“Kinsey”) star.
The Counselor - Opens October 25
“The Counselor” touts the best cast of any movie to come out of 2013. For argument’s sake we’ll pretend that Cameron Diaz isn’t in it. But just look at who is — Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rubén Blades, Bruno Ganz, and Penélope Cruz. Then, realize that the movie is director Ridley Scott’s adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel (“No Country for Old Men”), for which McCarthy makes his screenwriting debut. Hot.
Unpredictable baddie Rainer (Bardem) introduces the Counselor (Fassbender) to “moral decisions” — involving drug trafficking — that are sure to “take him by surprise.” Needless to say our anti-hero counselor will embark on a descent into hell like nothing you’ve ever witnessed. A veritable hornets’ nest of Oscar bait, “The Counselor” promises to bask in Cormac McCarthy’s signature embellishments of a brutally dry wit, scathing social satire, and a kind of hard-earned violence that means something when the day is done. Hardcore moviegoers will salivate over this one. Come and get it.
The Wolf of Wall Street — Opens November 15
Martin Scorsese hasn’t missed the mark since “Gangs of New York” (2002). Even then, “Gangs” was thoroughly entertaining in spite of its flaws — why, oh why, did Scorsese ever cast Cameron Diaz?
Scorsese returns to his devoted muse Leonardo DiCaprio to play Jordan Belfort, a ruthless Wall Street hotshot. The year that Jordan turned 26 he made 49 million dollars — and he was “pissed” because it was three short of a million bucks a week. Jordan and his crew of investment sharks make more money than they know what to do with. I think you can sense where this is going. The movie is based on the real-life Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same title. Sex, drugs, alcohol, and conspicuous consumption might not be the traps of all Wall Street robber barons, but they were for Belfort. Watch the greedy pig and his gnarly associates get their comeuppance. The movie also stars Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, and Jon Favreau.
Grace of Monaco — Opens November 27
Nicole Kidman plays Hollywood-starlet-turned-Princess Grace Kelly in this Weinstein-produced period-piece biopic that is receiving a limited release in anticipation of Oscar attention. The film — directed by Olivier Dahan (“La Vie en Rose”) — follows Grace Kelly’s identity crisis in the midst of a political dispute between Monaco’s Prince Rainier III (Tim Roth) and Charles de Gaulle (André Penvern). The threat of a French invasion of Monaco hangs in the balance. Nicole Kidman has long been out of the limelight of critical praise. However, the famously icy blond may be perfectly suited to embody one of the ‘60s most iconic women. Keep an eye out for an appearance from Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), who famously directed Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” in 1954. Frank Langella and Parker Posey are featured in supporting roles.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom —Opens November 29
“I have walked a long walk to freedom. It has been a lonely road and it is not over yet. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin. People learn to hate. They can be taught to love — for love comes more naturally to the human heart.” Nelson Mandela’s profound words still stir deep emotions in whosoever hears them. Idris Elba (“Pacific Rim”) plays South Africa’s national hero in director Justin Chadwick’s ("The Other Boleyn Girl") filmic chronicle of Mandela’s winding life’s journey that encompassed people of all races and political views. Expect Idris Elba to deliver a tour de force as the man who became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. It wouldn’t be Oscar season without a historically significant biopic. “Mandela” Long Walk to Freedom” is already a hot-ticket.
Out of the Furnace — Opens December 6
Scott Cooper — the writer-director of everyone’s favorite 2009 movie “Crazy Heart” — brings it with an explosive crime drama about two blue-collar brothers living in America’s economically downtrodden Rust Belt. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is fresh out of prison when his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq war vet, goes missing. It turns out Rodney is mixed up with a Northeastern crime syndicate led by Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a notoriously dangerous character. Not even local police will investigate Rodney’s disappearance for fear of Curtis and his coldblooded gang. It’s up to Russell and his friend Red (Sam Shepard) to venture into Curtis’s territory in an attempt to locate and rescue Rodney. The ubiquitous Forest Whitaker stars in this dramatic potboiler of emotionally epic portions.
Inside Llewyn Davis — Opens December 6
The Coen Brothers’ reimagining of New York City’s early-‘60s era folk music scene was every critic’s darling at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Greenwich Village’s snow-covered streets provide the cultural platform for Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) — a Dave Van Ronk-inspired creation — to search for folk-music fame. A stray cat keeps Llewyn company. An angry romantic fling (Carey Mulligan) haunts Llewyn’s movements, as does the suicide of his former musical collaborator (Marcus Mumford). T Bone Burnett’s prodigious musical influence is every bit as present here as it was on the Coen’s winning “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Llewyn’s odyssey takes him to Chicago’s equally inhospitable landscape in the company of Roland Turner (John Goodman), a partially paralyzed blues singer with all the charisma of a hot glass of beer. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the Coen Brothers’ first movie since “True Grit” (2010). Get the popcorn ready.
The Monuments Men — Opens December 18
George Clooney double-dips in the fall run-up to Oscar glory with a fact-based World War II story co-written with his frequent collaborator Grant Heslov. Clooney plays George Stout, an aging American military commander who puts together a troop of eight architects and art historians — all of whom are on the far side of 40 — to protect and rescue precious works of art inside Nazi Germany. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s orders, the platoon fights against the clock. The fall of the Third Reich inspires the German army to order all precious art and historic sites destroyed. With a cast that includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”), and Bob Balaban, you can guess that a fair amount of humor will accompany the action. There may yet come a time that George Clooney will make a career misstep, but it doesn’t seem likely to occur anytime soon.
Why Hollywood Wants You To Love Surveillance
By Cole Smithey — This article is a reprint; it was originally published on September 30, 1999
The New York Times recently published an article describing how the U.S. Postal Service hired advertising executive Warren Weidman to improve the negative image of postal workers. Warren cut a deal with the Post Office for rights to its stories and went on to write five movies based on the adventures of U.S. Postal employees. The first of the five movies, The Inspector, starring Louis Gossett Jr., played on Showtime last September and received the best ratings for any original film in Showtime’s history.
The Truman Show was one of the best received movies of 1998, with its watered down vision of Jim Carrey as the vaguely tortured subject of a hugely popular national television show. The filmmakers’ negligent depiction of The Truman Show’s sub-plot viewing audience saw them as approving patrons of a sterile television show. It translates as a chorus of approval for a commercial brand of the constant observation that we, as American citizens, are subject to at this very moment whether or not we buy Crest.
The title for Enemy of the State speaks volumes in transmitting an idea that the public and private surveillance systems employed in the movie can and do work in concert to defend "the state," i.e. our cities, suburbs, and highways, against outside threat. Even independent film champion Wim Wenders’ excursion into the social ramifications of a widespread surveillance infrastructure took an ironic title and unexpectedly thin plot with The End of Violence, in which the distance between two-bit thugs and government agents is a hair’s breadth. EDtv has most recently weighed-in on the current anthology of voyeuristic surveillance movies — An ‘amusing’ taste of advertising, surveillance, and television entertainment blended together in a happy medium of generic and an even sentimental status quo.
Already these movies have subliminally gone to work on the public’s consciousness to create a zeitgeist of consent for hidden cameras that record much of what we do in our public and even private lives. In reality, every phone conversation that we make is recorded and most public activity is documented on video tape recorded by cameras operated by public, private, foreign, and U.S. government agencies. High-resolution satellites are reaching a level of technology capable of thoroughly documenting millions of people’s day-to-day lives. Movies like The Truman Show, Enemy of the State, and EDtv act as cement reinforcing the concept of constant surveillance as a friendly system that we will come to enjoy and benefit from. The three movies converge from distinctly different angles to form a fuzzy invitation to conform to a higher level of comfort, security, and downright enjoyment that we, as Americans, should desire in our lives. While tech-happy computer users contribute to their own exhibition by installing cameras onto their computers, unspoken is an agenda for having our lives easily accessible on microscopic slides for dissection by private, corporate, bureaucratic, and civil powers for legal, political, and capitalistic goals.
The power of cinema as a propaganda machine as long been recognized and practiced by American, French, British, and German military over the course of the 20th Century. Cinema language has come a long way since Hitler gave Leni Riefenstahl her assignment to capture the spirit of Nazism with Triumph of the Will as a lasting document of fascist temperament. American audiences are remarkably savvy to mainstream Hollywood’s formulaic narrative structures and implied meanings by virtue of having seen hundreds, even thousands, of movies over a brief time span. Still, most audiences are beguiled by wide-ranging cinema parley when it acts between movies with a program furtively combining advertising with different film genres working in subtle unity to affect a desired mass mentality.
America has been living in the age of George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 since about that same year, with Orwell’s uncanny prediction for social clampdown by Big Brother, and now Big Sister, tightening around us as technology advances. When you consider that the United States’ crime rate has been consistently dropping over the past ten years, while prisons are not being built quickly enough to harbor a predominately black male populace detained on drug charges, you can glimpse a trend that presents itself as a formula for the U.S. Government to view our very country as a prison to be watched over and ministered to in ways driven by capitalist greed and voyeuristic lust.
As our country moves toward a totalitarian and fascist government regime operated by citizens who unknowingly participate in their own confinement, it’s clear that the people most able to comfortably endure absolute control by surveillance will be consumers who take their routinely prescribed medicine and dutifully return for more. Hollywood will surely hold our hands through it all. And according to box-office ticket sales, complete control by surveillance is very amusing and entertaining indeed.
Cole Smithey Predicts the 2013 Oscars
Ah, the glorious flaws of democracy! As a film critic, I learned long ago to abandon any sense of personal investment in the conclusions drawn by Academy Award voters about the most deserving participants in the seventh arts. As in every previous year, the 85th annual list of Oscar nominations comprises its share of clunkers — “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” glaring omissions — “The Turin Horse,” “Killing Them Softly,” and “Rust and Bone” are nowhere to be found — and blatant filler — “Argo” and “Sliver Linings Playbook” aren’t exactly the stuff of classic cinema.
Still, everyone loves to take a shot at second-guessing the results hidden in those carefully sealed envelopes come Oscar night — February 24th at 7pm Eastern Standard Time.
Of the nominations for Best Motion Picture, you can rest assured that Quentin Tarantino’s genre masterpiece “Django Unchained” will remain unfettered by the weight of any stinking award.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is too politically larded to charm the average notoriously elderly Academy voter. “Argo” tips the same scales, albeit with significantly less dramatic weight.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is far too kooky for a win in any of its three categories (Best Film, Best Directing, or Best Actress). How it scored an Academy nomination with its indefensible resort to child abuse is a mystery.
As for “Les Misérables,” suffice it to say it’s no “Cabaret.”
“Sliver Linings Playbook” contains some respectable performances, but has all of the narrative impact of a half-dose of Alka Selter.
With its ten nominations in various categories “Life of Pi” will receive its share of little gold statues; Best Picture won’t be one of them.
That leaves us flipping a coin between “Amour” and “Lincoln.” I’m putting my dime on Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” I forgot about “Lincoln” by the next day except for the fact that the movie painted its racist subject as some kind of humanitarian. Cough. Yet I’m still savoring the wellspring of emotions that “Amour” stirred up.
The Achievement in Directing award should go to either Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” or to Michael Haneke for “Amour.” But logic based on the past dictates that it go to Michael Haneke alongside his statue for Best Picture.
Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”) will go home empty-handed. That said, Steven Spielberg is likely to be the one making a speech for his Academy no-brainer “Lincoln.” A cold glass of irony will sit between Tarantino and Spielberg for their vastly different depictions of slavery in the South. Tarantino’s version is a damn sight more cathartic and, oddly, more accurate.
Daniel Day-Lewis is a shoe-in for the Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role prize even if Hugh Jackman is more deserving for his superb work on “Les Misérables.” The Academy could surprise everyone and give it to Jackman. After all, the Oscars are all about the surprises, and this year will have its share.
Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Denzel Washington (“Flight”), and Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”) will look great in their seats — well, Cooper and Washington will look elegant in their seats. Joaquin Phoenix will just look uncomfortable and out of place.
I’d be bemused if not entirely surprised if Emmanuelle Riva didn’t win an Oscar for Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her overwhelming work in “Amour.” Her performance stands heads and shoulders above all of the competition — Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Naomi Watts (“The Impossible”), and Quvenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”).
The Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role honor will likely go to Robert De Niro (“Silver Linings Playbook”) because it’s the first bit of respectable acting De Niro has done in recent memory.
Personally, I’m blinded by Christoph Waltz’s expansive gifts in “Django Unchained.” I’d put my money on Waltz because, well, it is my money after all, and I know consummate acting when I see it. If you put Waltz and De Niro at the same party, I know which man I’d want to spend a few hours talking to.
Tommy Lee Jones suffered from a poorly written part in “Lincoln” that left audiences scratching their heads. Alan Arkin’s lighthearted efforts in “Argo” come across as throwaway because that’s how his part was designed — I’d still watch Alan Arkin read from a phone book and love every second of it. Phillip Seymour Hoffman sadly seemed like he was reading from a phone book in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hollow excuse for a movie “The Master.” More filler.
Things get interesting in the Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role category. Helen Hunt went over the moon in “The Sessions,” and really does deserve to receive the honor for her transparent portrayal of a sex therapist. Sally Field lit up “Lincoln” with some much needed female energy. Anne Hathaway gave an indisputably powerful performance in "Les Misérables." Less deserving are Amy Adams (“The Master”) and Jacki Weaver (“Silver Linings Playbook”). Remember what I said about filler. The Academy will give the prize to Sally Field.
The Best Animated Feature Film category is crammed with worthy rivals. Tim Burton’s exquisite “Frankenweenie” sits agreeably alongside “ParaNorman,” ”The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” and ”Wreck-It Ralph” — “Brave,” not so much. I’d like to see the Academy give the award to ”The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” but I wouldn’t grouse if it went to any of the other nominees — except for “Brave.”
Original Screenplay is the one place where Wes Anderson [and his co-writer Roman Coppola] could win the limelight for “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Nonetheless, I believe the Academy will hand over the victory to Michael Haneke for “Amour.”
Obviously, Quentin Tarantino is the correct choice for the prize, but I don’t get the sense that the Academy is ready to welcome him into their club just yet. Not that it matters much since Tarantino already hit the international high watermark when he won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 1994 for “Pulp Fiction.” The Academy is always a few decades behind.
John Gatins (“Flight”) and Mark Boal (”Zero Dark Thirty”) will be left to drown their sorrow in after-party vodka rather than champagne.
The squishy category of Adapted Screenplay will likely find favor for David Magee, whose ”Life of Pi” hits every grace note of religious predisposition Academy members lean toward.
It still wouldn’t be a surprise for Chris Terrio to get his chance to shout out thanks from the Oscar stage for his sugary script version for “Argo.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar), the historically dubious ”Lincoln” (Tony Kushner) and ”Silver Linings Playbook” (David O. Russell) will be left to parlay their Oscar nominations into future projects.
The Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar should be a cakewalk for Austria’s “Amour.” Other contenders include “A Royal Affair” (Denmark), “No” (Chile), War Witch (Canada), and Kontiki (Norway).
Hands down, the Original Score Oscar should go to the redoubtable Thomas Newman for “Skyfall.” The other nominees are “Anna Karenina” (Dario Marianelli), ”Argo” (Alexandre Desplat), ”Life of Pi” (Mychael Danna), and ”Lincoln” (John Williams).
Look for “Skyfall” to also take the Original Song trophy. Of the nominees, “Skyfall” is the only one that audiences will want to sit through, if nothing else to be wowed by the always mesmerizing Adele.
Rival contenders include: "Before My Time" (by J. Ralph for “Chasing Ice”), "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" (by Walter Murphy and Seth McFarlane for “Ted”), "Pi's Lullaby" (by Mychael Danna and Bombay Jayashri for “Life of Pi”), "Suddenly" (by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boulil for “Les Misérables”).
“Life of Pi” will take the prize for Achievement in Production Direction. “Anna Karenina,” ”The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” ”Les Misérables,” and “Lincoln” just don’t have as much visual oomph.
The Achievement in Cinematography Oscar should go to Roger Deakins for “Skyfall.” But “Life of Pi” (Claudio Miranda) could run away with the prize.
The other nominees are: "Anna Karenina” (Seamus McGarvey), “Django Unchained” (Robert Richardson,” and ”Lincoln” (Janusz Kaminski).
The Achievement in Costume Design statue will be handed to Jacqueline Durran for her great work on “Anna Karenina.”
Paco Delgado (“Les Misérables”), Joanna Johnston (“Lincoln”), Eiko Ishioka (“Mirror Mirror”), and Colleen Atwood (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) have nothing on Jacqueline Durran.
The best-kept secret of the Oscars is the documentary category. The exclusion of Ken Burns’s “The Central Park Five” and Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” are great oversights on the part of the Academy. “The Invisible War” deserves to take the Oscar considering the competition, but the Academy will likely present the award to the feel-good documentary “Searching for Sugar Man." The other contenders are: “5 Broken Cameras,” “The Gatekeepers,” and “How to Survive a Plague.”
Best Documentary Short Subject is the category that trips everyone up because hardly any of the public has seen any of the offerings. Sean and Andrea Nix Fine’s “Inocente” — about a young homeless artist — is a shoe-in. The other nominees include “Kings Point,” ”Mondays at Racine," “Open Heart," and "Redemption.”
“Life of Pi” is a lock for the Achievement in Film Editing Oscar, though “Zero Dark Thirty” could squeak out its only prize of the night in this category. “Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Silver Linings Playbook” don’t stand a chance.
The Achievement in Makeup & Hairstyling trophy should and probably will go to “Hitchcock.” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “Les Misérables” are the other noms.
The glory of the Best Animated Short Film Oscar presents one of the most beguiling guessing games the Academy plays. Look for Walt Disney’s “Paperman” to walk away with this one. The other nominees are “Adam and Dog,” ”Fresh Guacamole,” ”Head Over Heels,” and Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare."
The category for Best Live-Action Short Film seemingly exists only to tack another five minutes to an already overlong Oscar ceremony. Look for “Death of a Shadow” to walk away with the Oscar. “Asad,” ”Buzkashi Boys,” ”Curfew Death,” and ”Henry” comprise the rest of the candidates.
It’s bizarre to imagine that Academy voters have the slightest clue about what fulfills the demands of the Achievement in Sound Editing category. On first blush a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty” would seem to have the requisite amount of woof and whistle to secure an Oscar from Academy voters who don’t know that “Life of Pi” is the title that most deserves the win. “Django Unchained,” “Skyfall,” and “Argo” make up the rest of the films considered in this category.
Common sense dictates that the “Achievement in Sound Mixing” Oscar go to the same film as won the Sound Editing award. Really, it’s just an excuse to give out another trophy to a movie that didn’t get a win in the previous category. Look for “Les Misérables” to get its just reward here. The other films considered for “Sound Mixing” are “Argo,” ”Life of Pi,” ”Lincoln,” and ”Skyfall.”
If you’ve made it this far into my predictions for the 85th annual Academy Awards, you probably feel like you’ve sat through three hours of backslapping and brownnosing. The Achievement in Visual Effects Oscar should and will go to Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” Don’t get me started on the other nominees — “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “Marvel's The Avengers,” ”Prometheus,” ”Snow White and the Huntsman.” I could talk all night.Tweet
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Cole Smithey’s Top Ten Films of 2012
2012 was an extremely eventful year in cinema. Expanded distribution channels meant more film titles being released than ever before. The growth of Video-on-Demand allowed movie audiences to avoid audience members who can’t refrain from talking, texting, or chatting on their cell phones while watching a film at the local cinema. An explosion of terrific foreign, independent, and documentary films gave Hollywood a run for its formulaic models of over-produced “movie-product.”
I’m obligated to throw stones at my ten most loathed movies of the year. Try as I might to avoid clunkers, I did manage to squander precious hours of my life on the following travesties of the seventh art.
The worst films of 2012:
10. The Master
8. The Paperboy
6. The Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
5. Citizen Gangster
4. Tonight You’re Mine
3. Red Dawn
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
1. Beyond the Black Rainbow
The best films of 2012:
10. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylon uses every shaded detail of time, atmosphere, human condition, and verbal and non-verbal communication to tell a quietly complex story about a murder investigation and the imperfect methods of the men assigned to solve the crime. At night Doctor Cemal accompanies a group of police officers and a soldier as they drive around the dark outskirts of the Anatolian steppe. The group has with them two incarcerated suspects they hope will lead them to the grave of a missing man. The story is about how detectives communicate. It’s also about how entrusted public servants wrangle with overpowering emotions and personal secrets. Nuri Bilge Ceylon is a lover of humanity. His great concern for every one of his characters goes beyond their innocence or guilt. He recognizes the balance of both qualities in their actions. The cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylon is a transformative one. It is unique and honest. Most significantly, it offers a rare experience to be treasured.
9. Killer Joe
William Friedkin's dark, funny, and sexy black comedy is a triumph. “Killer Joe” makes “Fargo” seem like a rom-com. The "Exorcist" director once again works with source material by playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts — the author responsible for Friedkin’s cool 2006 psychological thriller “Bug.” Mathew McConaughey explores his assassin character with calculated vengeance. Killer Joe is a natty Dallas detective who moonlights as a hitman. Joe gets called into action by the Smith family, a batch of trailer-trash nimrods that includes dumb-as-a-stump dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his current wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), his gambler/drug-dealer son Chris (Emile Hirsch), and his sultry teen daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). For all of its nail-biting sensuality and quicksilver violence, Friedkin is smart about what he leaves to the viewer’s imagination. He concocts a black comedy stew of blood clots, torn panties, and hard-hitting slapstick humor.
“Skyfall” divides three distinct acts as individual homages to specific aspects of the franchise. The first act is a nod to the leaner and grittier modern James Bond — as exquisitely played by Daniel Craig. He’s a first-rate action movie actor. This time around, Bond has to return to work after being thought dead for several years. He’s been off playing civilian — i.e., drinking a lot of booze. A computer-hacking genius villain named Silva launches an attack on Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s — with M (played by the irrepressible Judi Dench) in the crosshairs. Javier Bardem introduces the film’s second act as Silva, an effeminate villain busy revealing the identities of NATO undercover agents embedded in terrorist organizations. The third act provides a retro vantage point. Bond pulls his trusty 1964 Aston Martin (circa Sean Connery's "Goldfinger") out of the garage, and treats the audience to a gloomy bit of nostalgia-defying action set in the Scottish mansion where James Bond lived as a boy when his parents died. Bond says he “never did like the place.” One thing's for sure, it won't be the same when his enemies are through with it.
7. The Central Park Five
Witness the sordid handling of the notorious “Central Park Jogger” case. An April 19, 1989 brutal beating and rape of a twentysomething white woman led to the railroading of five teenagers, all members of minority groups, whose convictions were eventually vacated — but only after serving more than 41 combined years in prison. Ken Burns’s reputation as one of our era's finest documentarians informs the film’s airtight veracity. Burns made “The Central Park Five” with his daughter Sarah and her filmmaker husband David McMahon, a frequent contributor to Burns’s films. No effort is spared to expose the misconduct and complicity of New York City police detectives, prosecuting attorneys — you’ll never buy another Linda Fairstein novel — media outlets, political figures, and such racist fringe celebs as Donald Trump. Careers were made; justice be damned. The city of New York still has not settled the case to make the wrongfully convicted men whole. Each man is suing the city for $50 million in damages. In Ken Burns’s words, “After 13 years of justice denied – which everyone agrees on — there’s suddenly now justice delayed, which we know is just justice denied.” Justice, as many wrongly accused Americans can attest, is not what we do here in the trademarked “land of the free.”
6. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai
Takashi Miike’s update of Masaki Kobayashi’s black-and-white 1962 film “Harakiri” never so much as brushes a wrong note. The setting is Japan’s 17th century feudal Edo period — a peaceful era without much need for samurai warriors. Hanshiro, an impoverished ronin, approaches the local samurai lord — Kageyu — to request use of the House of Li’s courtyard to commit seppuku to lend a warrior’s finish to his dishonorable state. Hanshiro’s request is met with cold contempt. Kageyu tells in flashback the story of another samurai — Motome — who came with a similar request the previous week. In the sequence, Kageyu’s assistant Omodaka warns his master that he suspects the man of attempting a “suicide bluff” in order to procure money. Once situated in the courtyard, Motome is assigned a second, a witness, and an attendant. Realizing his dire condition, Motome begs for one more day, or even a few hours, to leave and return before carrying out his bloody mission. His desperate appeal is refused. When he is finished telling the story, Kageyu offers Hanshiro to give up his request and leave without incident; Hanshiro refuses, and insists on following through with his ritual suicide. What follows is all of the backstory behind Motome’s decision to attempt a suicide-bluff, and his relationship to the unwavering Hanshiro. “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a stunner from start to finish.
5. Rust and Bone
A tour de force by any standard, Jacques Audiard’s convention-breaking romantic drama is one more example of how French filmic storytelling rises above the fray of Hollywood’s forced efforts. Audiard meticulously examines a complex love story between Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a single father who boxes in an underground circuit in Cannes, and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer at a waterpark park who loses her legs in a freak accident involving one of the giant creatures. Matthias Schoenaerts makes for an empathetic anti-hero in spite of, and due to, his character’s honest but guarded nature. The film’s thought-provoking title evokes the strange compatibility linking Alain and Stephanie, two unlikely lovers who develop a unique romantic bond. Based on a novel by Craig Davidson, “Rust and Bone” is an in-depth character study that never telegraphs its motivations. The provocative sexual component of the couple’s relationship helps the drama earn its stripes. Look for “Rust and Bone” to be a contender for a foreign entry at the Oscars.
4. Django Unchained
Campy, funny, shocking, and seeping with sardonic social commentary, “Django Unchained” is Quentin Tarantino’s finest film to date. The madness of slavery, the ultimate expression of racism, hangs thick in the air of the American South circa 1858. In customary revenge-plot fashion, Tarantino establishes the nimble bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz) as the kind of guy who can get himself out of any situation. The retired dentist “purchases” freedom from slavery for Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to assist Schultz in identifying a trio of brothers named Brittle whose heads carry a hefty reward. Django proves more than qualified to hunt down and kill slave-owners. Working together as a team, Dr. Schultz and Django craft a complex plan to free Django’s enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Leonardo DiCaprio’s evil plantation owner Calvin Candie. “Candyland” is the name of Mr. Candie’s plantation, where he cultivates “Mandingo” slave warriors who fight to the death. Tarantino’s plot acrobatics have never seemed silkier — or bloodier. Blood doesn’t just splatter — intestines explode from bodies. As with all of Tarantino’s films, “Django Unchained” is filled with spellbinding dialogue and crazy plot twists. Movie lovers rejoice; Q.T. is back in the house.
3. The Turin Horse
At the relatively young age of 56, Bela Tarr announced he would retire after the completion of his eighth feature film, “The Turin Horse.” The anti-narrative picks up after an apocryphal event on January 3, 1889 in Turin, Italy, when the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche came to the defense of a stubborn carriage horse being brutally whipped by its driver in a piazza. As folklore goes, the sobbing Nietzsche wrapped his arms around the elderly horse’s neck in order to protect it from the enraged driver before the philosopher fell to the ground. Within a few weeks Nietzsche became mentally ill and was mute for the last ten years of his life, which he spent in the care of his mother and sisters. “The Turin Horse” is an existential provocation to its audience, demanding that we consider the effect of man’s judgments against nature and ultimately against ourselves. The film’s repeated visual, musical, and thematic motifs make it simultaneously transparent and opaque.
2. Killing Them Softly
Andrew Dominik’s cold-blooded satire of American corporate-political-capitalism cuts through its subject like a freshly sharpened guillotine blade. Economic metaphors big and small fill the narrative about gangster vengeance set in 2008. Dominik based the script on a George V. Higgins novel — see Peter Yates’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” “Killing Them Softly” is a stylish crime drama made up of piercing monologues and canny dialogue that reverberates with social implications. Nothing is wasted. People and places are appropriately ugly. Every performance is spot-on. That the film so effectively lashes out at economic hypocrisy in America is truly rewarding. Here is a one-movie revolution against all of the corporate-controlled two-party bullshit that has turned America into a third-world dictatorship. Brilliant is too soft a word to describe it.
Michael Haneke’s elegiac exploration of an elderly couple’s final days together transcends all definition of the romantic ideal. Retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) rarely leave the comfort of their spacious Parisian apartment. Anne suffers a stroke that leaves Georges as her primary caregiver. A second attack leaves Anne barely able to communicate with her long-adoring husband. The tenderness and fire in Trintignant’s and Riva’s portrayals occurs with a quietly operatic significance. The brutality of nature is a mutual enemy that the characters struggle to command. A pigeon that flies into the apartment through a courtyard window is a tragic metaphor that informs Georges’s sense of personal justice. “Amour” is an incredibly intimate movie that provides a priceless definition of romantic commitment and loyalty.
Honorable mention for their teriffic efforts goes to:
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul)
The Invisible War (Kirby Dick)
Let the Bullets Fly (Wen Jiang)
Klown (Mikkel Nørgaard)
Cole Smithey's Fall 2012 Movie Preview
Autumn is the best season for moviegoers. Oscar-bait movies from all corners of foreign, independent, documentaries, and of course Hollywood, are pitted against one another in an ever more crowded series of weekly release windows than usual. Choosing ten must-see movies for audiences to mark on their calendars is like shooting fish in a barrel – albeit some incredibly large fish in a very big barrel. Some lower-profile films, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (September 14), David Ayer’s “End of Watch” (September 21), or Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” (October 19) didn’t quite make the list but are definitely worth checking out.
Sharpen those pencils and get out your calendar. Here we go.
Although he said he’d given up acting for good after “Gran Torino” (2008) Clint Eastwood returns to the big screen for what could actually be his last performance. Eastwood plays Gus, an ailing legendary baseball scout whose eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Gus brings along his adult daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) on a road trip to Atlanta to help him get a look a prospective player. Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Matthew Lillard, and Clint’s son Scott Eastwood star in this auspicious family drama. If you’re a Clint Eastwood fan, you don’t want to miss the master in action.
Tim Burton brings his trademark creepy and ghoulish style of animation to bear in his latest effort. In a movie about a boy and his recently deceased dog, young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) has a plan to bring little “Sparky” back to life. The trouble is that Victor’s reanimated version of Sparky isn’t exactly the same canine he was before he died — he’s more of a monster dog. Burton’s classically composed stop-motion black-and-white animation pays homage to James Whale’s original “Frankenstein.” Burton also references other classic horror films such as David Lynches “Eraserhead.” Keep your ears peeled for vocal performances by Martin Landau, Christopher Lee, Martin Short, and Winona Ryder. [In a whispering aside] “FrankenWeenie” could just be the best animated movie of the year.
You’ve got your Brad Pitt. You’ve got your James Gandolfini. The endlessly watchable actors star in “Killing Them Softly” as hired assassins. Writer-director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) oversees the action. The setting is post-Katrina New Orleans. Pitt plays Jackie Cogan, a prudent hitman working in economically depressed America. The media might not admit we’re in a Depression, but it’s taken as fact in the movie. Jackie has to call in for reinforcement in the guise of Gandolfini’s killer Mickey to assist with a double killing that needs doing. All nuance, social commentary, and neo-noir style, Domink’s movie is based on Geroge V. Higgins’s 1974 novel. Higgins is big in the cult movie fan club for writing “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” “Killing Them Softly” made waves when it premiered in Cannes this year. You say you like serious adult crime drama that oozes with social and political subtext — you’ve got it. Sam Shepard and Ray Liotta also star in this gritty potboiler.
The first movie from the Wachowski Brothers since Larry Wachowski’s sex-change transformation to “Lana” finds the duo teaming up with co-director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”). “Cloud Atlas” is a macro-micro “exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” Heady stuff. The all-star international cast includes: Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim D’Arcy, and Zhu Zhu. Last year’s “Tree of Life” has nothing on “Cloud Atlas.” This is not a movie to watch at home. Get thee to the big screen and don’t be late.
Sean Penn plays his age as Cheyenne, a 50-year-old former Goth rock star who has lived in seclusion for the past 30 years. He once sang with Mick Jagger, or perhaps it was the other way around. Cheyenne lives a luxurious existence in Dublin from his still incoming royalties. He and his wife (Francis McDormand) play handball in their emptied-out swimming pool. Penn’s deeply introspective [read moody] character maintains his teased-out hairdo. He still wears eyeliner. News of his Jewish father’s death brings Cheyenne around to the idea of hunting down the America-dwelling Nazi who victimized his dad in Auschwitz. The first English-language film from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“Il Divo”), “The Must Be the Place” is a trippy road movie that should give audiences plenty to chew on. Given the Weinstein’s track record at the Oscars, their oddball movie might just “be the place” come February.
“Quentin Tarantino presents” is the name above the title. That fact alone tells you all you need to know, since everything that the master-of-all-things-tasty touches turns to gold. In this case, a character actually does turn into a gold-shielded warrior. Tarantino’s frequent collaborators RZA and Eli Roth team up as co-writers — RZA directs. Feudal China is the setting for a blacksmith who makes crazy weapons for his small village. A battle-royal explodes when seven clans come together in a blood-splattering fight for power, gold, and ultimate bragging rights. Kung-Fu super-action will hit epic heights in this fast-twitch bloodbath that stars Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Pam Grier, and Rick Yune. Get the popcorn ready, and plan on seeing “The Man with the Iron Fists” more than once — if you’ve got the stomach, that is!
The name is Bond — James Bond. For all of the meaningless flack Daniel Craig has caught for his lean-and-mean interpretation of everyone’s favorite 007 agent, Craig is the real deal. “Skyfall” is the 23rd Bond franchise movie — for anyone who’s keeping count. In “Skyfall,” Bond’s MI6 agency is under attack. Only he can track down and destroy the threat. Impossibly sexy women, edge-of-your-seat chase sequences, and sleek style spilling out like there’s no tomorrow, come together in an action spy movie that should put “The Dark Knight Rises” to shame. “Skyfall” is for the big kids. Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem play opposite Helen McCrory and Berenice Marlohe in this seriously badass movie. Sam Mendes (“Road to Perdition”) directs.
Director Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") will make your eyes pop with this groundbreaking 3D movie about an Indian boy named Pi who survives a terrible disaster at sea and is hurtled into an “epic journey of adventure and discovery.” The movie is based on Yann Martel’s bestselling novel. You may have seen the film’s poster that alludes to the Bengal tiger — named Richard Parker — that accompanies our hero as the only other survivor on a lifeboat they must share in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Ang Lee is a master filmmaker whose work in a diverse range of film genres always proves fascinating — his version of “The Hulk” notwithstanding. “Life of Pi” has been chosen as the opening film for the 50th New York Film Festival. Grab a cocktail with your date before the movie and know that you’re in good company when you go see it.
Hyde Park on Hudson (December 7)
It wouldn’t be December without a little highbrow historic drama to brighten the intellectual mood of the season. Bill Murray angles for Oscar attention as the wheelchair-bound President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in director Roger Martin’s (“Notting Hill”) period piece about a love affair between FDR and his distant cousin Margaret Suckley aka “Daisy” (Laura Linney). A spring 1939-weekend meeting in upstate New York with Britain’s King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) gives FDR an opportunity to spend some quality time with Daisy. The event marks the first time a British King has ever visited America. Britain is verge of war with Germany, and its Royals are seeking FDR’s crucial support. Juggling the demands of his wife, (Olivia Williams), mother and mistress, FDR has a weekend social calendar that is very full. How Murray’s FDR divides his time amid so many demands and so much desire is the stuff of one very witty romantic drama.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14)
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” has been so long in the works that many audiences have all but forgotten about Peter Jackson’s promise to finish what he started with his impressive cinematic rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001 – 2003). The time has finally arrived for Tolkien’s tale of Bilbo Baggins to enchant new and returning fans of Peter Jackson’s unique vision. The hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) embarks on an epic quest to reclaim the lost Lonely Mountain and its treasure, which was “long ago conquered by the dragon Smaug.” The dragon still lurks. Bilbo teams up with 13 dwarves to journey into the Wild where Goblins, Orcs, Wargs, Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters, and Sorcerers await. Naturally, Gollum (Andy Serkis) plays a key role with a certain gold ring that holds the fate of Middle-earth. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and even Frodo (Elijah Wood) are in attendance for this extraordinary trip into the enormously popular fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Django Unchained (December 25)
Christmas day 2012 promises to be a great time at the movies. Whenever Quentin Tarantino has a new film out, it is automatically an “event.” His seventh film — if you count “Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2” as one — is a period piece set two years before the Civil War. Think exploitation-spaghetti-western-Southern-style. Yum. Jamie Foxx plays Django, an abused slave who gets a shot at reaping vengeance on his former owners thanks to Dr. King Schultz, a German-born bounty hunter played by the always scene-chewing Christoph Waltz. Dr. Schultz acquires Django to lead him to his prey. Django and Dr. Schultz develop a working rapport that keeps them on the hunt for racist exploiters such as Leonardo Dicaprio’s Calvin Candle, the owner of a plantation where slaves are trained to battle one another. Django searches his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom he lost to the slave trade many years ago. Indisputably the most exciting American auteur working today, Quentin Tarantino keeps upping his game to cinema’s loftiest heights. If you only see one movie this year you’ll only have a week to catch “Django Unchained” before the ball drops in Times Square.
What’s Wong With This Picture?
Time Magazine Sucks
By Cole Smithey
The May 21, 2012 issue of Time Magazine is a significant bellwether. It speaks volumes about the state of America’s steadily imploding media, of which Time Magazine has crossed a line into tabloid exploitation. It could well be the magazine’s Waterloo. The New York Post has nothing on Time Magazine anymore.
A presentational image of a “mother” casually standing in front of a photographer’s white screen with her left tit exposed to allow her nearly four-year-old “son” (with the unisexual Assyrian name of Aram) to suck on it. He wears army fatigue pants and a gun-metal-gray t-shirt, and stands on a child’s chair that makes him only 18" inches shorter than his mother. The image is offensive across a wide scale of social decency. Pedophilic overtones saturate the militarized image. The chair is important because it creates an optical illusion of the child being older — much older than he is. His limp hands dangle helplessly at his mother's crotch. Dressed in a black leotard with her right hand on her hip, and her left knee cocked so that her ballet-slipper-styled shoe heel rises from the floor, suggests a come hither expression attenuated by a rebellious fuck-you attitude that dares the viewer to guess at what else she’s capable of. Her dead facial expression makes her look like a machine-woman — an android.
The representational (versus presentational) distinction is important. Here is a woman, acting as a “model.” She uses her own child to make a political statement. Skinny, blonde, and objectively sexy with tan lines that demarcate her arms from her pale white breast, the woman (Jamie Lynne Grumet) clearly intends to be the poster mom for a cult that, at best, adds more sand on the scales to the belief that most people have no business procreating. The 26-year-old Grumet isn’t yet old enough to qualify for the MILF designation that some male readers will be tempted to bestow upon her. She looks closer to 18 than to 30. One thing is certain; she cares more about her political agenda/image than she does about the vulnerable child at her breast.
The headline “ARE YOU MOM ENOUGH?” establishes a bullying editorial tone with a military association — think, “Be All You Can Be.” The rhetorical question is only barely softened by the sub-head, “Why attachment parenting drives some mothers to extremes—and how Dr. Bill Sears became their guru.” Note the incorrect use of the word “guru,” which is a Sanskrit term for a teacher of “Indian religions.” Talk about mixed metaphors — they are here in spades.
Whether or not the photo personally offends you, you should recognize that the posed image is more than just provocative. No kind of parallel image involving a 26-year-old male and his three or four-year-old daughter would ever pass for anything other than an actionable example of incestuous sexual exploitation. It doesn’t help matters that the boy in question sports a belly. The child is already overweight. Whether or not the boy yet perceives a sexual relationship with his mother; the effects of his long-term breastfeeding are already visible on his body.
Aram’s camouflage pants underscore a significant aspect of the photo’s subtext. The boy is being fattened up for war. His artificially created mental, emotional, and sexual state will be repurposed by a military complex poised to capitalize on his unique psychology.
The fractures are showing at Time Magazine, and every other TMZ-influenced media outlet that makes up what passes for news in this country. America doesn't do news anymore. War on civility is declared. Are we DEMOCRACY ENOUGH to do something about it? Only time will tell. You can start by canceling your subscription to Time Magazine, and or never buying it again.
SPOILER ALERT! CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?
CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?
By Cole Smithey
It kills me when otherwise knowledgeable and savvy critics such as Matt Singer and Devin Farachi fall into naïve traps about things such as spoilers. Read any Roger Ebert film review, and you’ll get a good idea of what a film is about. A few specific plot elements will be discussed because that’s the only way for a reader to get a grasp of a film’s narrative terrain. It’s the nature of the beast. If you are a moviegoer who doesn’t want to have a critic’s ideas or revelations influencing your experience, don’t read any reviews before seeing a movie. Duh. Wait until after.
That’s not to say, however, that a critic should necessarily give away a key surprise a filmmaker builds into his or her story. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” — the original "slasher" film — is a good example. If the film came out today, you couldn’t — as a critic — reveal the narrative twist that comes late in the story. Hitchcock cleverly planted the twist to send audiences out of the theater shocked by what they had learned.
However, a film like “The Cabin in the Woods” announces its plot twist in the opening scene. As such, there is no “shocking surprise” for an audience, or critic, to contend with. There is merely a set-up — one that is not very well illuminated during the course of the movie. Nonetheless, it does present the entire groundwork for the story. To pretend otherwise is pure denial. The film wants to serve as a piece of social satire, but it fails so miserably in that regard, that no one seems to notice.
There is a dumbing down of film criticism occurring via the hive mind of aggregate culture that favors arcane commercial concepts such as RottenTomatoes’ “Fresh Certification.” Are you, as a critic or an audience member, really going to fall for that nonsense?
Any critic who complains in a review about how “hard,” “impossible,” or “unfair” it is to write about a movie is clearly not cut out for the job. It is so sad to read essentially the same review over and over again from so many “critics.” There’s a stupefying similarity between reviews of “Cabin in the Woods” coming from critics ranging from Ann Hornaday (The Washington Post), to Ian Buckwalter (NPR), to Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), and the list goes on. At least those critics don’t resort the strictly amateur maneuver of quoting from the film’s press materials as Michael Phillips (the Chicago Tribune) chooses to do.
But go ahead and believe the hype about “The Cabin in the Woods.” You are only setting yourself up for disappointment. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.