CJ’s UPDATED Top Ten Movies of 2013

blue-is-the-warmest-color-lea-seydoux

After I’ve seen a few more, here’s my new list, in alphabetical order rather than ranked, and now categorized into fiction and documentary!

TOP TEN FICTION

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Before Midnight

Blue is the Warmest Color

Computer Chess

Gravity

The Great Gatsby

Her

The Hunger Games

Inside Llewyn Davis

TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARY

The Act of Killing

Call me Kuchu

Cutie and the Boxer

The Square

Stories We Tell

My additions into my top ten list were “Before Midnight,” “Her,” and “Blue is the Warmest Color.” All of them were great; “Her” might ultimately be my favorite movie from the last year.

“Blue is the Warmest Color” is a weird one to think and talk about. So I flat-out loved the movie. But when you read about it, you find out the process of making the film was awful for almost everyone involved. The crew was abused and didn’t get paid enough, and the two actresses were also bullied to the point of tears and terror by the director –especially during the sex scenes. Lea Seydoux said she was humiliated and made to feel like a prostitute. So that’s unsettling: how do you think about it when you watch these incredibly moving and affecting scenes and you know that, while they were being made, the actresses were being tyrannized. It’s difficult to take onboard, and made me wish I liked the movie less. You know, I never really feel any conflict about Woody Allen anymore. He’s an awful person, whose movies also are terrible. Where’s the conflict? But with this, this was a moving, almost brilliant movie. What does one think if the person who made it seems to be at best really nasty, at worst something of a monster? I have no solution to this.

As for the Oscars, I actually was much less horrified that usual about the movies that got awards. “12 Years a Slave” is a fine choice for Best Picture, and the whole slate of nominees was pretty good as a set. Since I’m not the dictator of the Academy Awards, some things will never be how I’d wish — much as I’d like, Sarah Polley is not going to win best director for a Canadian documentary about her family — but all told things basically made sense.

As a postscript, I also saw “Nebraska” and really enjoyed it. Not one of my tops, but notable for being the first thing I’ve seen by Alexander Payne that didn’t make me want to die inside.

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My Oscar Picks

oscar-the-grouch-300I’m going to stick to the system I used last year when writing about the Oscars: I’ll talk about what I think SHOULD win rather than what will. Also, I’ll choose one film from the actual nominees for each category, and also the movie I would pick in a magical universe where everything I like was nominated. And as always, I’m limiting discussion to movies I’ve actually seen.

BEST PICTURE

From the nominees: LINCOLN

(Will it actually win? Probably not.)

From everything: MOONRISE KINGDOM

I saw all the best picture nominees this year except for three — Les Mis, Life of Pi, and Amour. For me, this choice came down to a very close tie between Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, both of which I really enjoyed. And I do think those two are head and shoulders above the other options here. Both Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook are incredibly competent, well-crafted films, and both are much less conventional than I had expected from their context and their marketing. This is basically a tie, but in the end I chose Lincoln, more or less on the strength of Daniel Day-Lewis’ crazy good performance, and on the very smart script by Tony Kushner.

If I had free reign to pick anything, I think I’d end up choosing Moonrise Kingdom as the best of the year. It was funny, charming, and I think I felt the closest emotional connection with the characters. It pulled off a pretty impressive trick of being incredibly engaging at the same time as coming off as almost self-effacing in its presentation. And everything is presented with straight face; the characters are never being winked at or trivialized, even when what’s happening is ridiculous or funny. My new favorite Wes Anderson movie, and I think Anderson can be either very goo, or awfully annoying. This movie shows off everything that’s good about what he does and never falls into the trap of being trivial or twee. It’s a winner.

BEST ACTOR

From the nominees: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS in LINCOLN

(Will he actually win? Obviously, yes.)

From everything: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS in LINCOLN

DDL on both counts; I think he’s just too good in this to give it to anyone else. He’s completely believable as Lincoln, which must be an immensely hard thing to do. He never reads as parody, or even someone acting. You can never take your eyes off him. I know he’s the easy choice for this, but there you go. I did also really like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It was the first time I’ve seen Cooper actually act — and he’s good! — and Phoenix was blindingly weird but very compelling. I didn’t see Denzel Washington in Flight or Hugh Jackman in Les Mis. (I love Hugh Jackman, but I’m kind of suspicious of Les Mis…) I also think Mark Duplass deserves serious credit for his weirdly naturalistic portrayal of a man who may or may not have a time machine in Safety Not Guaranteed. Obviously no Oscar love there, but that was one of the best performances I saw this year.

BEST ACTRESS

From the nominees: JENNIFER LAWRENCE in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

(Will she actually win? I think so, yes.)

From everything: JENNIFER LAWRENCE in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

It’s usually easier for me to think of supporting roles I really liked than leading roles. I think part of that is a lot of good movies don’t even really HAVE leading roles. Moonrise Kingdom is pretty much an ensemble piece; Silver Linings Playbook is close to it. Even in The Master, how exactly do you make the determination that Joaquin Phoenix is the lead, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is supporting? Anyway, this is by the way of saying that there were a lot of actresses whose performances I liked a lot in 2012, but just a few who were clearly the leads in their respective films. I think my favorite two performances were actually both from Jennifer Lawrence, in Silver Linings Playbook and in The Hunger Games. She has a way of making her characters completely believable that is rare, I think, even among really good actors. It’s like with Daniel Day Lewis, you just don’t see her acting.

I love Jessica Chastain, but not her strange role in Zero Dark Thirty. And Quvenzhane Wallis is adorable, but I just don’t think six-year-olds act, exactly. The other two roles nominated here I didn’t see. Also to get back to Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza was great in that too, and her role had some dramatic meat on it in addition to comedy.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

From the nominees: PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN in THE MASTER

(Will he actually win? I don’t think so, no.)

From everything: PHILIP SEYOUR HOFFMAN in THE MASTER

I was never sure exactly what was happening in The Master, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was really good in it. His portrayal never became caricature; one interesting thing about the movie was that his character of Lancaster Dodd is probably a much more compelling and charismatic person than the real L. Ron Hubbard ever was. There’s some aspect of the con artist to him, but he clearly has incredibly powerful motives beyond that, even though the film never completely illuminates what they are. Hoffman can dip in and out from naturalistic to weird in a way that’s really compelling. He makes the truly bizarre scene where he serenades Joaquin Phoenix with “Slow Boat to China” seem real and believable. If you asked me what was happening in that scene, exactly, I could not tell you, but Philip Seymour Hoffman is awesome.

I saw all the performances nominated for this award, and have mixed feelings. Tommy Lee Jones was great, though to a certain extent he was just being Tommy Lee Jones. Robert De Niro was terrific; he would be my second choice. I don’t ultimately think Christoph Waltz deserved a nomination. He was charming in Django Unchained, but that’s where his performance stopped. Samuel L. Jackson as the slimy house slave Stephen was much more impressive. Similarly, Alan Arkin was great, but John Goodman deserved to be nominated for his performance in Argo more than he did.

Outside the nominees, how about Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom? Jake Johnson in Safety Not Guaranteed? I’ve come down a little off my intense love for Cabin In The Woods, but Richard Jenkins was terrific in it. Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving were all fantastic in their multiple roles in Cloud Atlas, too.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

From the nominees: SALLY FIELD in LINCOLN

(Will she actually win? No chance.)

From everything: SALLY FIELD in LINCOLN

Interesting I’m ending up sticking mostly within the fields of the actual nominees for most of these. As previously indicated, I didn’t see Les Miserables (not sure I want to), nor did I see The Sessions (which I definitely DO want to see). I thought Amy Adams was fantastic in The Master, but Sally Field gets this one partly just because her role was so interesting. Mary Todd Lincoln was almost as important in Lincoln as Abe was, and nearly as juicy a part. It’s also a role that would be very easy to play badly — I’m crazy and I ruin everything! — but she never gets anywhere near that broad in the film. Mary Todd has gone through a lot and you feel surprising sympathy for her. One of the rawest, most surprising moments in Lincoln is when you’re reminded that Abe threatened to commit her to an asylum.

"I like you."

A couple other great performances from outside the nominees: Judi Dench as M has been consistently one of the best things about the newer James Bond movies since 1995. And in Skyfall she finally got a movie that was as good as she was.

One more, FAR off the beaten path: V/H/S — a found-footage horror anthology movie —  was mostly stupid and awful, and I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone. But it does feature one of the most memorable performances of the year for me: Hannah Fierman as a girl that a bunch of guys meet at a bar.  She seems a little bit off… and it all goes downhill from there. I can’t be too detailed for fear of spoilers, but this actress is is genuinely brilliant, and pulls off the weirdest, most inhuman horror performance I’ve ever seen. (If for some reason you do watch V/H/S, seriously do not watch more than the first and maybe the last segments in the anthology. I promise you they are not worth it; there are some real stinkers here.)

BEST DIRECTOR

From the nominees: DAVID O. RUSSELL for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

(Will he actually win? Pretty unlikely but it’s possible.)

From everything: DAVID O. RUSSELL for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

I think David O. Russell should win here because it’s Silver Linings Playbook where  the choices that the director makes are most impressive. He pulls astonishing performances out of all these actors, and the pacing and tone of the movie constantly keep you off-balance and off-your-guard. He NEVER makes the easy choice. Almost any movie would be more interesting and daring directed by Russell, and I think that should be rewarded. To dip very briefly into the real world, this is one of the very few categories where I’m genuinely interested who wins. Would love to see it be Russell, though obviously no crime to give it to Spielberg.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

From the nominees: MOONRISE KINGDOM

(Will it actually win? I have no idea.)

From everything: MOONRISE KINGDOM

Please give this to poor Moonrise Kingdom. It got shut out otherwise and it deserves more. Please do not give this to Zero Dark Thirty, or worse, Django Unchained.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

From the nominees:  LINCOLN

(Will it actually win? Still no idea.)

From everything: SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

Lincoln’s screenplay was terrific: smart, lean, funny and unpretentious — from the occasionally very pretentious Tony Kushner. But how about some love for weird, neglected, semi-brilliant Safety Not Guaranteed? (I’m classifying it as adapted since it’s technically based on a real Craigslist listing.) Cloud Atlas and The Hunger Games were also two very good adaptations of tricky source material. I wish the Hunger Games in general got more recognition here, it was a really good movie and was completely shut out, even for technical stuff. (Of course, it did make 600 million dollars, so maybe they’re not too broken up about it…)

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE

From the nominees: FRANKENWEENIE

(Will it actually win? Gosh I have no idea.)

From everything: FRANKENWEENIE

I saw four out of five of the animated films nominated this year (no Wreck-It Ralph) and enjoyed all of them. Great to see this category working out. I think I most enjoyed Frankenweenie, which had a LOT of similarities to ParaNorman, both about weird misunderstood kids dealing with a somewhat softened horror situation. Frankenweenie I think talked down to its audience a bit less, though, and deserved credit for its whacked-out visual style and for daring to be in black-and-white. (Is it the first black-and-white kids movie in the color era?)

Here endeth my opinions. This pretty much wraps it up for the categories I care about, though I’d love to see The Hobbit win for FX, and I thought Skyfall had terrific music, both the score and Adele’s song. Comments?

On the Oscars

I’m finishing up this kick of writing about last year’s movies. This will be the last post on this subject for a while, I promise.

I don’t see much point in predicting what WILL win, so instead I’m going to write about what I think SHOULD win, both from what the nominees actually are, and from a theoretical universe where I can choose from whatever I want.

BEST PICTURE

From the nominees: THE TREE OF LIFE

From everything: THE TREE OF LIFE

A weird set of nominees. I’ve seen six of them, and I think Tree of Life is certainly, the best, though The Artist, Hugo, and Moneyball are all very good. Martha Marcy May Marlene really ought to have been at least nominated. I think it was pretty much shut out, which is a real pity. And though The Arbor is still my absolute top pick, it’s disqualified from this for being a documentary. (And possibly for being released in the UK in 2010?)

BEST ACTOR

From the nominees: BRAD PITT (for Moneyball)

From everything: BRAD PITT (for The Tree of Life)

I’ve seen all the movies with best actor nominees except for Demian Bichir in A Better Life. This is a tough one; I just wasn’t that blown away by any male actor in a clearly leading role this year. Out of the nominees, I think Brad Pitt in Moneyball just edges out Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In the world of infinite freedom, I would choose Brad Pitt for his performance in Tree of Life, though I think it’s slightly unclear whether he’s actually the lead in that film. It’s always seemed tricky to me to determine what’s a lead and what isn’t.

BEST ACTRESS

From the nominees: ???

From everything: ELIZABETH OLSEN (for Martha Marcy May Marlene)

I actually haven’t seen any of the movies nominated for best actress, so I can’t render an opinion on that. Ignoring the nominations, I think it has to be Elizabeth Olsen, for her very believable and very scary performance in poor shut-out Martha Marcy May Marlene. Would have been nice to see a nomination for Charlize Theron for Young Adult or Adepero Oduye for Pariah, who were both also great.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

From the nominees: CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (for Beginners)

From everything: BEN KINGSLEY (for Hugo)

I liked Jonah Hill and Christopher Plummer, but how about John Hawkes for Martha Marcy May Marlene, Ben Kingsley for Hugo, Charles Parnell for Pariah, John Hurt for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or Patton Oswalt for Young Adult? Out of the nominees, I like Christopher Plummer. Out of everything there are almost too many options. I’ll go with Ben Kingsley, partially because I’m just very surprised that he wasn’t even nominated; Hugo was not a small movie…

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

From the nominees: MELISSA MCCARTHY (for Bridesmaids)

From everything: MELISSA MCCARTHY (for Bridesmaids)

I think it’s awesome and a little unexpected that Melissa McCarthy got this nod for Bridesmaids. I hope she wins.

BEST DIRECTOR

From the nominees: TERRENCE MALICK (for The Tree of Life)

From everything: TERRENCE MALICK (for The Tree of Life)

Malick really deserves to win this.  See my earlier post.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

From the nominees: KRISTIN WIIG AND ANNIE MUMOLO (for Bridesmaids)

From everything: SEAN DURKIN (for Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Bridesmaids’ screenplay was great, and it’s nice to see a straight-up comedy nominated for this. I also wish Diablo Cody’s script for Young Adult got at least a nomination.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

From the nominees: BRIDGET O’CONNOR AND PETER STRAUGHN (for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

From everything: DEE REES (for Pariah)

The Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy crew deserve serious credit for making an understandable movie out of a story that can seem crowded in a BBC miniseries.  I think the best screenplay of any movie I saw this year was Pariah, though, which I assume counts as adapted since it was based on an earlier short film.

***

I think this is about where I stop having any idea what I’m talking about in terms of categories. I will say, I hope Planet of the Apes wins for special effects, and I will be incredibly happy if Man or Muppet wins best original song. Will it be performed at the ceremony? If so, that’s amazing. (Also why are there only two songs nominated this year? I’m not complaining, but all these rule changes are very mysterious to the layperson.)

Calamity Jim’s Top Ten Movies of 2011

Hi blog readers (my dad)!

So I’m home sick from work today and thought it would be a good time to try to write another blog entry after this small 9-month gap.  (Welcome Calamity Jim Jr!  Just kidding.)  Also, my brother inspired me by writing something on his own long-neglected blog.

So here goes with my list of my top ten movies of 2011.  As always, this list only includes movies that I have seen. (Some movies I HAVEN’t seen but I suspect might be in contention if I had: Take Shelter, Drive, Melancholia) And I’ve lumped documentaries and dramas in together, mainly because of my choice for #1, which is an odd combination of both.  Let’s begin…

#10 — RANGO

I don’t think this movie got as much love as it deserves, although it will probably win the Oscar for best animated film now, which it certainly should.  It’s one of the most deeply weird animated movies I’ve ever seen.  It has deliberately ugly character design, a completely insane protagonist gecko-chameleon-thing voiced by Johnny Depp, and includes lines like “I found a human spinal column in my fecal matter once.”  Also cameos by Hunter Thompson and Clint Eastwood, sort of.  It’s nothing like the Shrek-style kid-friendly story with occasional pop culture allusions that we’ve been conditioned to expect from non-Pixar CGI films.  And it’s nothing like the Pixar formula either. It’s its own, completely bizarre thing, and it has Harry Dean Stanton voicing this horrible thing.

# 9 — PARIAH

This is a movie that I think about 20 people saw, although Meryl Streep gave it a nice shout-out in her Golden Globe acceptance speech.  It’s a semi-autobiographical story by writer and director Dee Rees about coming out as a lesbian as a teenager.  The lead actress, Adepero Oduye, is just amazing, along with just about everyone else in the movie. (Charles Parnell, the guy who plays her father, who is also incredible, does the voice of Jefferson Twilight on The Venture Bros.)  In a year where a movie like The Descendants — where not a single word that’s said in two hours sounds genuine — is as widely acclaimed as it is, it’s really refreshing to see a movie like Pariah where everything that’s said sounds real.  It never seems acted or written.

#8 — HUGO

I just really enjoyed this movie.  I think it has the best use of 3D that I’ve seen since Avatar, plus a really compelling and almost scary performance by Ben Kingsley. It’s true — as has been widely pointed out — that for the last third or so of the film, the plot kid of fizzles away, and everything becomes a Scorsese PSA for film preservation, but I don’t mind it.  Everything on screen it so beautiful that the plot is almost beside the point.  Plus  this movie redeems Sacha Baron Cohen for me after the hugely disappointing Bruno.

#7 — RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

This was the year’s happiest surprise for me. I expected this movie to be at best decent; instead it was by far the best summer-blockbuster-type movie that I saw this year.  It was thrilling and genuinely moving pretty much throughout. James Franco is great, and Andy Serkis plus however many WETA animators are just astounding as the rebellious chimp Caesar, who is the most convincing and moving CGI character I’ve ever seen.  Bonus points for [spoiler alert] telling the story of the end of humanity in a minute-long sequence during the closing credits.

#6 — THE TRIP

The first I knew of this movie was seeing a clip on YouTube of one of the Michael Caine imitation bits, which itself is worth the price of admission.  That plus the whole “we rise at daybreak” bit, which Calamity Jane and I still quote compulsively.  Basically Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprise their roles of “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon” — heightened (I assume) versions of their real selves — that they played in Tristram Shandy. They go around the Lake Country on a tasting tour of fancy restaurants and we learn just how sad and terrible a person Steve Coogan is.  The two-hour movie is adapted from a 6-hour miniseries that aired on the BBC, which I’m very eager to see if I could figure out how.

#5 — BRIDESMAIDS

I never got the whole “Bridesmaids is the Hangover with women” idea, because Bridesmaids is a LOT better than the Hangover (which I liked).  It’s very funny, but also does a good job of making you care about the characters, especially Kristen Wiig’s lead.  It was the best comedy I saw all year. It got a lot of press for “proving that women can be funny,” which I suppose it does, for anyone who hasn’t managed to become aware of that in the past century or so of talented female comic actors. What did impress me was that the movie was actually made, because it certainly is true that there aren’t many comedies out there that focus on women who aren’t constantly talking about men. My guess is that’s not because there aren’t a lot of talented women out there writing those scripts! It’s because we like our women in comedies to be ritually humiliated sex objects — see Katherine Heigl. And yes, Melissa McCarthy poops in a sink.

#4 — POETRY

This is a very disturbing South Korean movie focusing on an elderly woman just beginning to struggle with Alzheimer’s, who is taking care of a grandson who may or may not have committed a truly horrible crime with awful results.  This is not a feel-good movie, despite the subplot of the protagonist taking up poetry. I didn’t know anything about the lead actress, Yoon Jeong-Hee, but Wikipedia tells me she was a major star in the 60s and 70s.  You can see why, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. There’s so much going on under the surface of every scene and conversation it’s almost painful to watch.

#3 — MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

Aaaaaand speaking of movies that are very good but also horribly disturbing. Wow. John Hawkes takes another step to being eternally typecast as a vicious backwoods patriarch. Elizabeth Olson plays a teen who is recovering from her time at an abusive cult (led by said John Hawkes) in upstate New York.  She’s staying with her sister — (Ms. Isringhausen from Deadwood, a lot of Deadwood love in this movie) — and her wealthy husband at their country house. And, hoo boy, did her time at that cult screw her up. In tone, this is closest to a straight-up horror movie. You get deep inside Martha’s mind, and it’s not a pleasant place to be. Smart editing makes it hard for you tell what’s past and what’s present in a way that mirrors the lead character’s trauma and makes you just as paranoid as she is. This is a creepy creepy film, made worse by a spooky ambiguous ending.

#2 — THE TREE OF LIFE

This is the movie that ought to win best picture at the Oscars, though I have a strong hunch that it won’t — the terrible The Descendants will. It’s almost stupidly ambitious, telling the story of the entire life of the Universe through the story of one Texas family in the 50s. Yes, that means there are dinosaurs, plus the big bang, the death of the planet, and some cool obviously Cassini-inspired shots of Saturn.  Most of it is people though. I’ve never seen a movie that’s shot like this one. Ultra close-ups, loving, lingering shots on body-parts and curtains and shadows. And through all of this, it puts out its own thesis on the meaning of life, death, the Universe, and everything. I’m not sure I agree with that thesis, but I challenge you to show me another movie that does that. This movie gets a hundred brownie points for sheer balls, but somehow manages to be entertaining and visually arresting as well. See it.

#1 — THE ARBOR

I know, what? If about 20 people saw Pariah, I think four people saw The Arbor. I only did because it was on Netflix Streaming. So, The Arbor is a sort-of documentary  about the life of Andrea Dunbar, an alcoholic British playwright from the Yorkshire slums. The Arbor tells Dunbar’s story mostly through the words of her kids and acquaintances — the actual recorded voices of these people, which are then lip-synced by actors on the screen. It sounds strange, but it’s incredibly compelling. It also includes bits of Dunbar’s actual plays that illustrate her own story, staged outside in the midst of the housing projects she’s writing about. And Dunbar’s story, and that of her kids, is terrible and brutal and fascinating. And by the end of the film, you feel pity and admiration and loathing for Andrea Dunbar and her kids. And it’s all real people going through real life.

The movie also makes the wise decision to provide subtitles for the absolutely impenetrable Yorkshire accents. Here is a sample. Just kidding. (Cardboard box? You were lucky!) But seriously, between this and the Red Riding movies and books, remind me never ever ever to go to Yorkshire. I think it’s on a Hellmouth.

But anyway, this is the best movie I saw in 2011. It was real and terrible and beautiful all at the same time. Also, Netflix streaming! How can you go wrong.

*****

So those are my top picks.  Look forward shortly to another post about what I thought the biggest disappointments were. A hint: you may have gathered that I’m not a huge fan of The Descendants. Another hint: watching Midnight in Paris is as fun as vacationing in Yorkshire. More soon, faithful reader(s). Leave comments!