Bright and early on 16th of January the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, was joined by actor Chris Hemsworth to announce the nominations for the 86th Academy Award to be held on 2nd March. A full list of the nominees can be found here. While there was plenty that we saw coming, as usual the Academy did throw us a few curve balls. This year has been heralded as quite a good year for Hollywood in a critical sense. While some years you would struggle to find five worthy nominees in each category, this year there seemed to be an abundance. As a result most of the surprises have come in the form of omissions rather than inclusions. Here are my picks for the five biggest…
1) The near complete shutout of Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers have become Academy favourites in recent years and their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, has been a critical darling and was expected to be a serious contender. As such, it was a surprise to see it miss out on a Best Picture nomination. This is made all the more significant by the fact the Academy chose only to nominate nine films when there are ten spots available. So it didn’t miss out in favour of something else. It was simply not chosen. Not only did it miss out on a spot in the main category, it was almost completely frozen out, missing out on nominations in the directing, screenwriting and lead acting categories where it would have been considered a chance. In only receiving two nominations (for cinematography and sound editing) Inside Llewyn Davis probably trumped Saving Mr. Banks as the big loser out of the nomination announcements.
2) No Best Actor nod for Tom Hanks
Probably the biggest individual surprise omission was Tom Hanks missing out on a nomination for his performance in the title role of Captain Phillips. A two-time Best Actor winner, Hanks’ was considered by many to be the frontrunner in this category. A win would have put him alongside Daniel Day Lewis as the only men to win three Best Actor Oscars. But as it is that will have to wait for another year.
3) No Best Actor nod for Robert Redford
Robert Redford is a bone fide Hollywood legend but has never won the coveted gold statue. His performance in JC Chandor’s All is Lost, where he played the sole character in the picture, was simply remarkable and left many thinking it put him in the mix for Best Actor – in situations like this the Academy has been known to give someone an award almost as a pseudo-lifetime achievement award. But Redford failed to receive a nomination, with the suggestion being that the film’s distribution company, Roadside Attractions, didn’t campaign as hard as they could have.
4) Blackfish misses out on a Best Documentary nod
Surprises don’t tend to get noticed as much in the documentary categories simply because not as many people have seen them. But in this case, plenty of people have seen Blackfish. The doco exposing the unacceptable living conditions and treatment of the performing Orcas living in Seaworld parks was well received critically and commercially and would have been expecting a nomination.
5) David O. Russell does it again
I don’t know if you can really call this a surprise, but it is definitely historically notable. For the second consecutive year a David O. Russell film has managed to score nominations for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay and all four acting categories. It has only happened 13 times in 86 Oscars ceremonies, so to do it twice, let alone in consecutive years, is impressive to say the least. It seems if you want to get nominated for an Oscar your best bet is to get yourself in a David O. Russell film.
By Duncan McLean
1. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
For mine, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of the year to find 2013’s best film. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is a flawless picture. This beautifully written and compassionate film is a life affirming piece of cinema and, importantly, seeks to take the otherness out of mental illness. Cooper and Lawrence have tremendous chemistry and make for a memorable onscreen couple, and the supporting cast is equally impressive.
2. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
Gravity is the most overwhelming cinematic experience in recent memory. Earning comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – high praise indeed – Cuarón’s film succeeds in making outer space at the same time breathtakingly beautiful and utterly terrifying. By far the most immersive use of the 3D format I have experienced, this simple narrative is a tight, 90 minute exercise in suspense and tension.
3. All is Lost (J.C. Chandor)
I love the bravery of this film. With this minimalist film – one character, one setting, little to no dialogue – J.C. Chandor puts a lot of trust in his audience. He trusts them to care about this man even if he doesn’t burden us with backstory and character detail. Redford is compelling as the stoic and unemotive protagonist, refusing to overact. From beginning to end All is Lost is simply riveting.
4. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
McQueen has established himself as a filmmaker who does not shy away from difficult and provocative subject matter and doesn’t pull his punches and 12 Years a Slave is no exception. It is a brutal and unrelenting look at 19th Century slavery in the American south. It is also visually quite beautiful and has a haunting score by Hans Zimmer. There is a surprising lack of cinematic explorations of American slavery and this film, written by a black screenwriter and made by a black director, could be the most important on the subject thus far.
5. Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
For a decade Yann Martel’s beloved novel was believed to be unfilmable, but Ang Lee demonstrated that in the hands of the right filmmaker there is no such thing. Lee’s film is visually breathtaking using digital effects to create a heightened reality. It is also a deeply spiritual film, which separates it from other lost at sea films like All is Lost or Cast Away. Also contains the best performance by a CGI tiger I’ve ever seen.
6. Her (Spike Jonze)
A perculiar and surreal film, Her is very much a story for our time. The story of a romance between a man and the artificial intelligence operating system of his computer, the subject matter which could have been silly had Jonze’s film not been so very sincere. Her features two brilliant but unconventional performances: one from Johansson as a disembodied voice, the other from Phoenix who for much of the film only has that voice to play opposite.
7. Stoker (Park Chan-wook)
Stoker was film I knew nothing about until I saw it and was the year’s pleasant surprise for me. Park Chan-wook’s first English language, this psychological thriller retains the director’s talent for visual storytelling and creation of tone. It is a creepy and chilling film that elicits a visceral reaction. Had its second half maintained the subtly of its slow-burning first half this could have been the film of the year. Strong performances from a trio of Australian actresses in Wasikowska, Kidman and Weaver.
8. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film for the dreamers, for those ordinary people who long to do something extraordinary. Stiller’s fifth feature film as a director, it contains a much stronger visual aesthetic than you would expect from a director best known as a comedic actor. It is a charming, whimsical and incredibly earnest film, and though it ventures into the overly sentimental, it is hard to begrudge it that.
Writer/director/performers Faxon and Rash had this screenplay stored up before they were brought on board to work with Alexander Payne on The Descendents for which they won an Oscar. The Way Way Back is a witty, affecting and at times hilarious coming-of-age story about a teenage boy from a troubled family who finds himself in a holiday job at a waterslide park. Sam Rockwell is at his charismatic and funny best, Allison Janney is brilliant as always and Steve Carell, one of the most likeable men in Hollywood, shows he can play a real jerk.
10. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
Based on a true story, Captain Phillips is an interesting and gripping procedural thriller that is elevated by Greengrass’ strong direction and a fantastic performance from Tom Hanks. For Hanks, this could be the performance that puts him alongside Daniel Day Lewis in the three Oscars club. As the only name in the cast he carries the picture, with the post-trauma scene towards the end of the film being among his best ever work.
Not far off: American Hustle (David O. Russell), Blancanieves (Pablo Berger), Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow), Rush (Ron Howard), Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino), Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve), Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
The Worst Movie of the Year: Scary Movie 5. It isn’t even close. With seven years passing since the fourth instalment in this lowest common denominator franchise you have to wonder if this was really the best they could come up with? A comedy without laughs and a horror movie without scares, thank God it was mercifully short.
Cinematic Highlight of the Year: This year provided me with a number of opportunities to see great old films on the big screen for the first time. It was wonderful to see The Searchers, Alien and Buster Keaton’s The General as they were intended to be seen, but the one which stands out as the biggest highlight of the year was seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in 3D. While it was shot for that format in 1954, 3D exhibition quickly went out of fashion so it was primarily screened in standard 2D. Seeing it in 3D takes this great film to another level, breathing life into the shot compositions and creating a real sense of space and geography. It was a real treat.
Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
It was once said that all a film needs for drama is two people having a conversation. Writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) seeks to prove that one of those people is redundant in his second feature, All is Lost, the tale of an ageing man alone at sea.
Our man is on a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean when his yacht collides with a shipping container that has fallen off a cargo ship. With his communications and navigational equipment ruined and his vessel taking on water, the resourceful man finds himself fighting to survive and at the mercy of the ocean.
All is Lost is a minimalist film. There is no fat on it. The film starts at the moment that the Virginia Jean starts to take on water and it finishes at the moment that we discover his final fate. It is a film unburdened by context and backstory. We know very little about this character outside of his immediate circumstances. We don’t know why he is out there. We don’t know if he has a family or not. We don’t know if he is a good person or a bad person. We don’t even know his name. All we know is that he is a human being and he is fighting for his life. And you know what? That is enough. That is all we actually require to care about this man and become invested in his situation. In a time where every reality television contestant comes complete with a tragic backstory of a hurdle they’ve overcome, a relative with terminal illness or a child they’re hoping to inspire, all designed to manipulate the emotions of an audience and cynically tug at their heart strings, it is refreshing to see the way that Chandor trusts his audience. He trusts his audience to care without needing to over-emotionalise the situation.
As the film’s lone character – credited simply as ‘Our Man’ – Robert Redford is compelling to watch. With no other characters to talk to, he hardly speaks a word in the film. Chandor’s faith in the audience to work things out for themselves means he doesn’t resort to having the character talk to himself. Nor does he include a narration to explain what he is thinking and feeling. Instead it is up to Redford’s face and his actions to do the talking. Where a more insecure actor may have given into the temptation to overact, Redford maintains an incredible subtlety. Our man is stoic and unemotive, which makes those moments when his resolve does break all the more powerful. But despite this stoicism we can always see that his mind is working, that he has a plan. It is a masterful performance from a Hollywood legend which should see him in the mix come award season.
All is Lost screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year, with Redford receiving a standing ovation for his performance. It is the type of film that is more likely to make its presence felt at film festivals than at the box office. The nature of Chandor’s film means that it is a less commercially attractive prospect than last year’s lost at sea film – the equally brilliant Life of Pi – but it is a powerful piece of filmmaking which really sticks in your mind.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean