Good God, how long was it since I first decided to do this project? (7 months? Shame, shame.) And I haven’t even made all that much headway. I’ve still got a ton of Top 10 films from over the years to watch, but I’ve been trying to watch more movies from my collection lately, so, hopefully, I can catch up. Anyway, I’ll start with this year, since I’ve seen every film on this list (in the theater, no less, which was a first for me). And it’s a decent year, but as I’ll show, it’s one of the rare years where the Academy actually put together a better list.
Best Film: Her
What a lovely film this is. And that’s the word that occurred to me right after seeing it: lovely. It has its moments of crude comedy (the little video-game character voiced by Spike Jonze that Theodore interacts with is hilarious), but its treatment of relationships is spot-on, the acting is excellent (Phoenix really should’ve been up for an Oscar), the writing is witty and heartfelt, and Jonze won a well-deserved Oscar for his script. The music by Arcade Fire is great, with Karen O’s “Moon Song” being a beautiful song on its own, but achingly poignant when sung by Phoenix and Johansson. I won’t say it’s quite perfect–it probably could’ve beefed up its supporting cast a little more, maybe dialed down the cutesiness in a couple of places–but I had such a good time with it, and it managed to live up to my expectations enough that I didn’t really care. (Score: 89/100 – ****)
The Top 10:
- 12 Years a Slave
As good as Her is, this is really the best film of the year, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the rare film that manages to be important and truly artistically successful–far from being a dry, good-for-you history lesson, it’s a tragic, visceral portrayal of a shameful institution which left scars on our society which have yet to truly heal. It takes the violence and terror of slavery and looks it in the eye when it needs to–the attempted hanging scene is so grueling, so unflinchingly brutal that I knew, the moment I saw in the theater, that Steve McQueen deserved the Oscar. Add in John Ridley’s excellent script, an incredible, haunted performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a fearsomely cruel portrayal by Michael Fassbender, and the poignant, pathetic (in the sense of generating great pathos) presence of Lupita Nyong’o–and realize you have only begun to catalog the film’s virtues–and you’ve got a film that truly merits the title of an “American classic”. (Score: 92/100 – ****)
- Fruitvale Station
For the second year in a row, a film that was hugely successful at Sundance went on to further acclaim. And like that previous film (Beasts of the Southern Wild), the film was clearly made with passion, but that passion can’t wholly conceal its shortcomings. The last third of Fruitvale Station, most notably the climactic BART station confrontation were Oscar Grant III was mortally wounded by a transit policeman, is nervewracking and tragic, showing just how easily tempers can flare up and lives can be lost (the film does not directly suggest that racial tensions played a factor in Grant’s shooting) in the blink of an eye. But the first two-thirds of the film are definitely uneven, with too many scenes that don’t ring true, which teeter on the edge of hagiography. But what holds it together is Michael B. Jordan’s wonderful performance, portraying a young man trying to get his life in order, knowing that his past and his socioeconomic circumstances make his an uphill battle, but given strength by the love of his daughter and girlfriend, as well as his mother (Octavia Spencer, who’s also incredible). Jordan succeeds where so much of the film falters, and the fact that he was mostly overlooked by the awards community is a true shame. (Score: 79/100 – ***½)
Ah yes, the Greatest Film Ever Made of the Year. Gravity is one of the films I want to like more than I do (maybe when I get around to seeing it again, I’ll like it more), but at the same time, I recognize how good a lot of it is. The special effects are breathtaking, Sandra Bullock gives a moving, sympathetic performance, basically carrying the entire film on her shoulders, the imagery is often dazzling, Alfonso Cuarón’s direction is crisp and precise, and it’s a tense, exciting 90 minutes. Mostly. But I can’t overlook the one-dimensionality of the script (when the film started, and I heard that country music playing, and realized that Clooney’s character was another astronaut-as-hotrodder-frat-boy-in-space, my heart sank), the rather contrived narrative, the absolutely absurd moment near the end which I won’t spoil, but which I am positively amazed more critics didn’t call out, to the score, which so many loved but which I found repetitive and intrusive…it’s a flawed film, and in ways that really do get in the way of my wholly embracing it. It’s so good in so many ways that I have to give it credit, but the film of the year? Not from where I’m standing. (Score: 83/100 – ***½)
- Inside Llewyn Davis
This is another film I probably need to rewatch. I probably got my expectations too high. But it’s the Coen brothers, it was one of the most acclaimed films of the year, and its failure to get much Academy recognition (just nods for its cinematography and sound mixing) was widely criticized. But something about it left me cold; it’s not so much that Llewyn is a jerk as that I didn’t find myself all that fascinated by his tribulations. Maybe it’s because I’m not that interested in folk music. I did love the whole road-trip sequence and thought John Goodman was a pure delight, but there wasn’t remotely enough of him. The acting was quite good–I like Oscar Isaac a lot, and Carey Mulligan is always great–the writing was generally clever, it was as well-made as you’d expect…but something about it never really connected with me. It happens. (Score: 83/100 – ***½)
- Lone Survivor
Peter Berg’s resume is certainly uneven–his film prior to this was the disastrous Battleship–but he wrote and directed this account of Operation Red Wings to critical and financial success. And I won’t say it isn’t a good film. But it’s far from a great one. And a lot of that comes down to the fact that Mark Wahlberg plays the role of Marcus Luttrell, the titular sole survivor of the operation. Because it turns what should be an ensemble piece into, essentially, a Wahlberg film. The other team members are played by fine actors (Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster), but they aren’t developed as characters to the degree that they should have been, and a film that should have been truly devastating is never quite that. That’s not to say Berg doesn’t craft some powerful battle scenes (the soundscape and makeup are incredible), or that the film isn’t compelling as a whole. But it’s good when it should have been great. (Score: 75/100 – ***)
Even though my life experience differs in a lot of ways from David Grant’s, this film still struck a chord with me. I’m from a small town (though nowhere near as small as Hawthorne), and my father was nearly 50 when I was born (though he’s still younger, and far more sensible, than Woody Grant), and yet it captured so well the attitudes of small-town life, of family life, and told such an engaging little story with such good acting and writing, that I was charmed to the core. Bruce Dern, being given one of the best roles of his career, and easily the best role he’d had in years, plays it perfectly, never hamming it up or trying to be cute, just playing an old man a dream to chase and no time to waste. I’ll admit it’s slow to start (and one performance early on is shockingly bad), but by the end, I was completely with it. (Score: 88/100 – ****)
I love so much that this film made the list. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a film that I immediately recognized as something special. It’s a great slow-burn abduction thriller, with an almost European sense of pacing (Denis Villeneuve’s direction is superb), an intelligent script that deals with issues of guilt, coercion, and equivocation in a profoundly unsettling manner–did Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) do the right thing? Some say the film answers that question, but I think it’s meant to leave you thinking. And for me, it did. It also had a performance by Paul Dano I not only didn’t mind, but truly admired; he took a role which could’ve been a cartoon and nailed it. Oh, and let’s not forget Roger Deakins’ great cinematography–the only part of the film the Academy noticed. To be completely fair, the third act does go a bit off the rails and into standard-thriller mode (and maybe Hugh Jackman gets a bit hammy at times), but the film does far, far more right than wrong. And bless the Board for recognizing that. (Score: 86/100 – ***½)
- Saving Mr. Banks
Like The Butler, this was a film I was prepared to dislike, and was forced to admit worked as old-fashioned schmaltz. That doesn’t make it a good film, though, and it’s not–Mary Poppins will endure as a masterpiece on its own, but this will always be propped up by Mary Poppins. It’s a nice little film about how the reluctant P.L. Travers was won over by the charming, driven Walt Disney, and if it takes liberties with history (it overlooks Travers’ ultimate disapproval of the film), it has some touching moments (“Let’s Go Fly a Kite” might be my favorite Poppins song, and the scene where Travers first hears it and goes from tapping her toes to outright dancing is a great one), and a fine performance from Colin Farrell as Travers’ tragic, loving father (Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are also good; more on her later), but the script is, to quote myself, “rather ridiculous”, and in the end it doesn’t really amount to much. Not that films need to “amount to much”, but a Top 10 film should be a little more memorable than this. (Score: 73/100 – ***)
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
I saw this film on Christmas day with my parents, so I’ll always have sentimental associations with it. On its own, it’s a likable piffle, a little heavy on the inspirational messages and a little light on the daydreams (which is the bread and butter of Mitty), but I liked it. Ben Stiller’s direction is pretty good (though I wish he’d used a little more of the subdued, almost Tati-esque style he displays at the beginning), Adam Scott is wonderfully douchey, and it’s just…likable. I remember when the first trailer bowed and people thought it might be an awards contender, and then it opened at NYFF (a bit of the Argo effect there) and got mixed reviews, seemingly putting all awards considerations to sleep…but the NBR came along to save the day! I don’t mind. It’s objectively the weakest film on the list, but I’m fine with it being here. (Score: 70/100 – ***)
- The Wolf of Wall Street
I really wonder how this film will hold up going forward. I saw it in theaters, felt the three hours breeze buy, and laughed heartily. And I watched certain scenes on YouTube again and again (the kitchen scene is a great piece of physical comedy, yet horrifying in conveying the debauched desperation of these characters). But other parts–like the Benihana joke–don’t make me laugh like they did that first time. So will the film falter without an audience, as comedies are known to do? Will the parallels between itself and GoodFellas become clearer and even more distracting? Will the great performance by DiCaprio seem hollow (I saw one video which analyzed all the contenders and said his work came off as “an extended sales pitch”)? I don’t know. I do know I appreciate the film’s overstuffedness, its lavish, circus-like atmosphere, its scope, and its unflinching skewering of 80s and 90s Wall Street. For now, I still think it’s a great film. But I also think there’s only one appropriate response to it:
Now, this is a pretty good list. But the Academy nominated the four **** films the NBR cited, added another film I gave **** to (Captain Phillips), and in place of Lone Survivor and Saving Mr. Banks, had Philomena and American Hustle, both of which I gave ***½ to. So my average score for the 11 films the NBR cited is 82.4. But my average score for the 9 films the Academy nominated is 85.3. The best move the NBR made was picking Prisoners instead of Dallas Buyers Club.
The Other Awards:
- Best Director: Spike Jonze – Her
I’m glad that Jonze got some recognition for his direction, and he does a great job, but personally, I think Steve McQueen’s was the best direction of the year. And if not him, then honestly, Cuarón probably deserved it more (again, it’s the writing that I really have an issue with).
- Best Actor: Bruce Dern – Nebraska
I said above how much I like this performance. It’s a lovely, low-key piece of work that is all the more relatable because it’s played so straight. He wouldn’t be my choice (not when Ejiofor and DiCaprio are in contention). but over McConaughey (in lead), I’m totally fine with it.
- Best Actress: Emma Thompson – Saving Mr. Banks
She does a good job. But not really a great one. I can’t really think of a whole lot to say about the performance, other than she’s very rigid and huffy, then softens a bit at the end. She’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a reason she didn’t make it into the Oscar race. There’s just not that much there. Brie Larson and Sandra Bullock would both have been far better choices.
- Best Supporting Actor: Will Forte – Nebraska
Certainly Forte transcended his past in rather dopey comedy (The Brothers Solomon, MacGruber), and I think he does do a really good job here. But it’s not really a performance that should’ve won–at least for my money, and in any case, he’s really a lead. Like, he almost certainly has more screentime than Bruce Dern. So really, I think they should’ve gone with Michael Fassbender (or James Franco, but that probably wasn’t happening).
- Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer – Fruitvale Station
It’s a powerful performance. She and Michael B. Jordan craft a completely believable mother-son dynamic. I’d say she doesn’t quite have enough screentime to make her a solid winner, but since no one really seemed to recognize Kaitlyn Dever in Short Term 12 (whom I think should’ve won), and the NBR seemed not to really embrace 12 Years beyond putting it on the list, I can live with it.
- Best Original Screenplay: Inside Llewyn Davis
Eh. I get that they wanted to spread the love and not just give this to Her, but Prisoners is really the better script. I think the Coens have done much better.
- Best Adapted Screenplay: The Wolf of Wall Street
I do love this script. It’s my own personal winner. I think 12 Years maybe holds up better as an actual IRL winner (especially since a lot of Wolf was apparently improvised), but I’m not complaining at all.
- Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises
A **** film, as I explained. So a completely worthy winner. Especially over Frozen.
- Creative Innovation in Filmmaking: Gravity
Yeah, okay, I can live with this. Personally, I think Upstream Color is a better choice, but I’ll let it slide.
- Breakthrough Actor: Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station
Wholly deserved, but I can’t help but think it’s a shame his work was mostly marginalized by the awards groups as a “breakthrough” performance.
- Breakthrough Actress: Adéle Exarchopoulos – Blue is the Warmest Color
I honestly didn’t like the performance much. I thought she was pretty flat and affectless a lot of the time, and hammy at other times (in one she cries for what feels like hours and her nose runs and I kept thinking “BLOW YOUR DAMN NOSE ALREADY”). Granted, a lot of my issues come from the script, where Adéle generally comes off as thoughtless and self-centered, and hard to really like. But Exarchopoulos didn’t transcend these concerns. Maybe I’m being too hard on her, but I really didn’t think her work was that impressive. Brie Larson should’ve won this in a heartbeat.
- Best Directorial Debut: Ryan Coogler – Fruitvale Station
He does do a solid job of directing. And I can’t think of any other contenders for this category offhand. So I’m all right with it.
- Best Foreign Language Film: The Past
Never saw it. I’m sure it’s good, but based on the trailer I doubt it’s better than A Touch of Sin.
- Best Documentary: Stories We Tell
Haven’t seen it, either. Personally, I’d say The Act of Killing is the way to go, but this was apparently really good.
- Best Ensemble: Prisoners
I’d probably say Short Term 12 was actually the better ensemble, but I loved this film and am glad it got some attention.
- NBR Freedom of Expression: Wadjda
The first feature film made entirely in Saudi Arabia, and it deals with the difficulties of a young girl in Saudi society. That sounds like a worthy winner of this award. (I haven’t seen it, however.)
Top Foreign Films:
- Beyond the Hills
- The Grandmaster
- A Hijacking
- The Hunt
I haven’t seen any of these, though I want to see pretty much all of them (especially Hills and The Hunt). I’m surprised Blue is the Warmest Color and The Great Beauty didn’t make the list (though I consider both overrated), and personally, I think Jia Zhangke’s brilliant A Touch of Sin should have been cited.
Top Independent Films:
- Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
- Dallas Buyers Club (Score: 74/100 – ***)
- In a World…
- Mother of George
- Much Ado About Nothing (Score: 59/100 – **½)
- Mud (Score: 84/100 – ***½)
- The Place Beyond the Pines (Score: 64/100 – **½)
- Short Term 12 (Score: 83/100 – ***½)
- The Spectacular Now
A tremendously uneven list. Spring Breakers not being here is ridiculous. Granted, I’ve only seen half of these (though I own Bodies and Spectacular Now and I’m pretty sure World… and Sightseers are in my Netflix queue), but let’s run down what I’ve seen:
- Dallas Buyers Club: Solidly acted (but neither McConaughey or Leto should’ve won), a pretty clichéd script (with a dubiously presented anti-Big Pharma message), and surprisingly well-directed. It’s a good enough film, but the fact that it got into the Oscar race over Prisoners rankles me. It’s easily the weak link in what was a pretty good Best Picture lineup.
- Much Ado About Nothing: Having been in this play, I can tell you, it doesn’t really lend itself to contemporizing. It’s very much rooted in an archaic sense of social conduct, and if played with the appropriate remove, can still be charming. But this is really just a glorified home movie (literally; it was shot in Joss Whedon’s house), the acting is mostly not that great (Clark Gregg aside), too much of it is either too underplayed (Nathan Filion’s Dogberry) or too overplayed (the eavesdropping scenes, which descend into dumb farce).
- Mud: A wonderful Southern Gothic, a rare film where the characters actually behave like human beings rather than characters. The brilliant performances from Tye Sheridan and Matthew McConaughey (this is the role he should’ve been nominated for) and a fine supporting cast only add to that. It is a little meandering at times and the ending is a little too neat n’ tidy, but on the whole I really liked this.
- The Place Beyond the Pines: The idea of a three-part narrative spanning years fascinated me, and when it was given a top cast and got solid reviews, I was sold. Then I saw it. And saw how thoroughly predictable it was, how underwritten the characters were, and I found myself more than a little disappointed. And the acting wasn’t even all that great; Bradley Cooper was okay, Dane DeHaan was excellent, but Ryan Gosling was flat, Eva Mendes didn’t get much to do, and Emory Cohen was pretty awful. The cinematography and score were good (though something about the production and costume design seemed off to me), but on the whole, I thought this was a misfire.
- Short Term 12: I probably should bump this score up a few points. Because while it has flaws (it has a few too many indie-cute moments, and the full-circle ending annoyed me), the acting and most of the writing are so good that, even with my mixed feelings, I nominated it for my Best Picture award. Brie Larson deserved an Oscar, Kaitlyn Dever should’ve been nominated, and Keith Stanfield deserved a double nomination for his performance and his song “So You Know What It’s Like” (which made the Academy shortlist but didn’t get nominated…gah).
- 20 Feet from Stardom
- The Act of Killing
- After Tiller
- Casting By
- The Square
I’ve only seen The Act of Killing, which I scored an 83 at the time. But it’s stuck with me, boasting as it does one of the most fascinating subjects of any film this year: Anwar Congo, who participated in the anti-Communist purges in 60s Indonesia, which resulted in around a million deaths–and in present-day Indonesia, these purges and the men who carried them out are glorified. Congo is given the chance to re-enact his killings for the camera, in any way he sees fit…but how the experience changes him I leave for you to find out. Suffice to say, the final scene is one of the most wrenching I’ve ever witnessed. Joshua Oppenheimer made a great film here, and the follow-up, The Look of Silence (told from the vantage of a brother of one of the victims), is apparently just as good. This should’ve won the Oscar, but they went with 20 Feet, the feel-good option. Ah, well.