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.
This year’s Best Picture race is one of the most open in recent memory, with no film being expected to dominate proceedings and take home a swag of awards. Obviously this means that it is going to be trickier than usual to tip the winner. When it comes to tipping Oscar winners it is important to remember that you are tipping who you think will win the award, not necessarily who you think should win the award. For that reason, sometimes it is more difficult to accurately tip award winners when you have seen a number of the films, because your own tastes and opinions tend to cloud your judgement. So what follows is a simple for and against for each of the nine nominees for this year’s Best Picture award. Then you can weigh up the arguments, see which you think is the most convincing, and then blindly guess the same way you do every year.
Notable Awards: Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, BAFTA Best Film Not in the English Language, Golden Globe Best Foreign Language Film, European Film Awards Best Film, National Board of Review Best Foreign Film, National Society of Film Critics Awards USA Best Film
Why Amour will win: Amour is only the ninth foreign language film in 85 years to even get a nomination for the big award, and the fact that it has five nominations all up, including for Director (with Cannes Film Festival darling Michael Haneke making the cut ahead of the likes of Tarantino, Bigelow and Affleck) and Screenplay, two categories which usually go with a Best Picture win, suggests that the Academy sees this film as a legitimate contender, rather than just rewarding it with an also-ran nomination. And hey, a French film took home Best Picture last year. So it can happen.
Why Amour won’t win: You want to know how many times a foreign language film has won Best Picture at the Oscars? Zero. It has never happened. The closest you can get to foreign language winners are The Godfather Part II, The Last Emperor and Slumdog Millionaire which all won Best Picture and contained sequences of dialogue in Sicilian, Mandarin and Hindi respectively.
Notable Awards: Golden Globe Best Drama, BAFTA Best Film, DGA Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, SAG Best Ensemble Cast in a Motion Picture, AFI Movies of the Year, National Board of Review Top Films
Why Argo will win: Momentum. After initial fears that Affleck missing out on a Best Director nod meant the film wasn’t really in the running, in recent weeks Argo has firmed as the favourite after taking out a number of lead up awards. Winning the Golden Globe isn’t always the best guide to picking the Oscar winner, but winning the Directors Guild of America Award is. Despite there being two best picture awards at the Golden Globes, one for drama and one for musicals or comedy, only four times in the last ten years has the winner of one of those two awards gone on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. On the other hand, nine out of the last ten films to pick up the Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures award at the DGA awards have gone on to win Best Picture at the Oscars that year (the only one to miss out was Brokeback Mountain which was pipped for the Oscar in a bit of a surprise by Crash in 2006). Hence the reason a number of eyebrows were raised when Ben Affleck won that award this year.
Why Argo won’t win: The big red flag next to Argo is the fact that Ben Affleck did not receive a nomination for Best Director. Across the previous 84 Academy Award ceremonies, only three times has a film won the top award despite its director failing to receive a best director nomination, with Driving Miss Daisy in 1990 being the only example since the early 1930s. Of course, in the last couple of years the Best Picture field has expanded from five nominees to up to ten. So whereas once it was the norm for the five Best Picture nominees to provide the five Best Director nominees, under the new system there will always be at least four or five Best Picture nominees that won’t be represented in the directing field. The temptation is to see those films which don’t also get a Director nod as the also-rans in the field.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Notable Awards: Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, AFI Movies of the Year, NBR Top Films
Why Beasts of the Southern Wild will win: The Beasts of the Southern Wild is the little film that could. The surprise hit of the year, it came out of nowhere to feature prominently in a number of Best Films of 2012 lists. It definitely stands out in the field as something totally different. A small budget, artistic premise, a six-year-old leading lady and a debut director (both of whom have been nominated in their respective categories). Could the Academy voters get swept up in the fairytale of it all? It’s also not unheard of for a directorial debut to win Best Picture. Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment are the most recent to have done it.
Why Beasts of the Southern Wild won’t win: Small indie films win festival awards, they don’t win Academy Awards.
Notable Awards: AFI Movies of the Year, NBR Top Films
Why Django Unchained will win: There is the feeling that Tarantino has been working his way towards Academy recognition. He is one of the most influential filmmakers of the last twenty years and the Academy don’t want to find themselves in the same situation that they had with Martin Scorsese where it wasn’t until almost forty years into his career, and after helming a number of films regarded as all-time greats, that he finally won a Best Picture and Best Director award. Inglourious Basterds got close. Could Django Unchained be the film the Academy recognises (even though Tarantino himself failed to get a nomination)? Also, Django Unchained really stands out in the field for its appeal to the youth demographic. The Academy Award ceremony has been trying hard for the last couple of years to appeal to the youth demographic, to maintain relevance and combat a declining viewership. Could the same thinking enter the voting process?
Why Django Unchained won’t win: Tarantino’s eighth feature film seemed to be firming as a real Oscar contender until the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened. It changed the story. After that event rather than slavery or spaghetti westerns Tarantino found himself, once again, forced to talk about excessive violence in his cinema. He then failed to receive a Best Director nomination, and unlike Argo and Zero Dark Thirty which have maintained their relevance in this race despite missing Director nominations, Django Unchained seems to have fallen by the wayside. You could also argue that Django Unchained isn’t as good as Inglourious Basterds was and it is competing in a stronger field. So if the Academy wasn’t willing to favour Tarantino in 2010 it doesn’t look like they will in 2013.
Notable Awards: Golden Globe Best Musical or Comedy, AFI Movies of the Year, NBR Top Films
Why Les Misérables will win: Les Misérables seems like an obvious contender. You have one of the most popular stage musicals in history being finally brought to the screen with an all-star cast (two of whom have been recognised with acting nominations) by an Oscar-winning director. Tom Hooper followed up his surprise success with The King’s Speech by opting for this very ambitious project. It is a significant upping of scale from his previous films and could help with the perception of him progressing and evolving from his previous success. The other X-factor for the film was the unconventional approach to shooting the musical numbers, with the actors singing live on set rather than lip-synching to pre-recorded songs. Could this experimental approach, which allows much more performative freedom to the actors, be deemed as worthy of recognition from the Academy?
Why Les Misérables won’t win: In the 1960s there were four musicals that walked away with the Best Picture award: West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Oliver! In the 44 years since Oliver! won only one musical has the award, Chicago in 2002. That is a roundabout way of saying that musicals don’t tend to fare well in recent times. And Les Misérables isn’t even just a musical, it’s practically an opera. Also, Russell Crowe.
Life of Pi
Notable Awards: AFI Movies of the Year
Why Life of Pi will win: Ang Lee, an Academy favourite, has taken a much-loved book which many thought was unfilmable and brought it to life, at the same time as showing the industry the potential of digital and 3D technologies. Life of Pi is tipped to be a major player in the Visual Effects and Cinematography fields, but the fact that the film also received nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director suggests it is seen as more than just a technically impressive film. For a film which is at best being talked about as an outside chance, it is worth noting that Life of Pi has earned more nominations than any film other than Lincoln.
Why Life of Pi won’t win: With the film being tipped to do so well in the technical categories, there is the danger Academy voters will see Life of Pi’s primary achievement being technical, that it is first and foremost a beautiful looking film. Very rarely do films come out on top in the Best Picture category on the grounds of being amazing technical achievements. Titanic ? Maybe Lord of the Rings?
Notable Awards: AFI Movies of the Year, NBR Top Films
Why Lincoln will win: Do I have to spell it out for you? A period drama about America’s most worshiped president, directed by the world’s biggest director, with an all-star cast led by arguably the finest actor of his, or any, generation. How could it not win?
Why Lincoln won’t win: For all the above reasons, Lincoln feels almost too good to be true. In the eyes of many people it just smells like Oscar bait, and sometimes the Academy reacts against that. Also, this film more than any other in the category had to deal with the weight of serious expectation when it came out. It is a fantastic film, but everyone expected it to be. Has it done enough to exceed people’s expectations and win voters over, or will the high expectations it had to deal with mean it gets overlooked in favour of one of the more “surprising” films.
Silver Linings Playbook
Notable Awards: NBR Top Films
Why Silver Linings Playbook will win: While it’s eight nominations is not the most by any candidate this year, it is the categories they came in which is significant. Usually we talk in terms of the ‘Big Five’ categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and one of the Screenplay categories). In also getting nominations in the Supporting Actor and Actress categories, Silver Linings Playbook is the first film in 32 years (since Warren Beatty’s Reds in 1981) to get nominations in the Big Seven categories. It suggests that the Academy sees this as being an excellent achievement across the board. It also should be noted that the last three films to receive nominations in the big five categories (Million Dollar Baby, American Beauty, The English Patient) all went on to win Best Picture.
Why Silver Linings Playbook won’t win: While it feels unfair to pigeonhole Silver Linings Playbook as a romantic comedy, when it boils down to it that is what it is, a brilliantly written romantic comedy. And unfortunately for David O. Russell, comedies don’t traditionally fare well in this category. In the last thirty years the only two films which could be described as comedies to have won Best Picture are Shakespeare in Love in 1998 and The Artist in 2012. Also, despite scoring nominations across the big seven categories, it is really only Jennifer Lawrence who is considered among the favourites. So it is entirely possible that Silver Linings Playbook could be staring down a shutout.
Zero Dark Thirty
Notable Awards: NBR Best Film, AFI Movies of the Year
Why Zero Dark Thirty will win: Before it had even been released, Zero Dark Thirty had already won the New York Film Critics film of the year award, and early on it was seen as Lincoln’s primary competition for the Best Picture Oscar. In recent times its momentum has plateaued a bit, particularly with Bigelow failing to receive a Best Director nomination, but still remains among the serious contenders. The film is a harsh and unimpassioned look at the hunt for bin Laden and, as such, has an immediate political significance. As yet we haven’t seen an Oscar go to a film dealing directly with the events of 9/11 and its aftermath, but none of them have been as good as this one and perhaps the closure to the story that comes from the death of bin Laden means voters are ready.
Why Zero Dark Thirty won’t win: While Zero Dark Thirty is seen as one of the real contenders it has had to deal with some controversy surrounding the perceived messages it sends about the use of torture as an interrogation method. Is the film pro-torture? The Oscars are not a ceremony that tends to court controversy. There is nothing particularly edgy about the Academy. The hint of something being divisive could frighten off the voters.
So with all that in mind, I think the nominees can be broken up into four categories…
The Contenders: Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty
The Potential Dark Horses: Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook
The Outsiders: Amour, Django Unchained
Thanks for Coming: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables
by Duncan McLean
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini
“We got him.” Those were apparently the words President Obama uttered as confirmation came through that Osama bin Laden had been killed at 12:30am (‘zero dark thirty’ in military speak) on the 2nd May 2011 as part of a successful raid on a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Less than two years later, Academy Awards winning director Kathryn Bigelow has brought the story of that mission to the big screen. She was able to turn the movie around so quickly because it was already in development at the time bin Laden was killed, though significant rewrites were required as it was originally intended to be about the unsuccessful decade-long manhunt.
Maya is a young CIA analyst assigned to the operation to find bin Laden. When interrogation of a prisoner (more on that later) reveals the name Abu Ahmed a-Kuwaiti, supposedly a personal courier for bin Laden who everyone has heard of but no one can identify, Maya becomes fixated on the idea that finding him will lead them to bin Laden. But not only is Maya a woman in a man’s world, she is a young woman in an older man’s world, and as the search continues over a number of years, she consistently finds herself butting heads with male superiors whose Cold War era understanding of intelligence makes them difficult to convince.
Zero Dark Thirty is effectively a historical drama in the style of a thriller, set in the very, very recent past. This makes it a bit strange on two fronts. As a thriller, the fact that you already know the resolution creates an unusual dynamic, and as a historical drama, it feels odd watching a recreation of events which still feel like part of the present. The strangeness struck me in a moment when President Obama appeared on a television screen in the background of a shot. I’m used to seeing much older Presidents on television screens in movies; JFK, Nixon or Reagan, not the guy that I see on the news every night. Historical dramas usually require a bit of distance from the events they are trying to depict in order to gain some sort of objective perspective. For example, despite his impressive track record of historical dramas, Oliver Stone’s biopic W. was terrible, and one of the primary reasons for its shoddiness appeared to be that it was too biased and politicised a film. Released in late 2008, in the final months of Bush’s second term as president, the film had an obvious agenda leading into the election, which coloured its portrayal of characters and events. It is for this reason, among many others, that Bigelow’s film is a great achievement. Zero Dark Thirty manages to depict very recent events which are still hot-button topics with a sort of neutrality, without being preachy or didactic in any way.
It is this currentness of events that has landed the picture in a bit of controversy. One of the hottest political issues to come out of the hunt for bin Laden at the time was the role of torture and humiliation tactics in CIA intelligence gathering. The first third of Zero Dark Thirty contains some quite graphic and very confronting scenes of CIA interrogators using the torturing of prisoners as a means of getting them to divulge information. These depictions have prompted some commentators to accuse the film of endorsing the controversial practice. Others have come to the defence of the film, including Michael Moore who wrote this article for the Huffington Post.
Watching the film myself, I never felt that I was watching a pro-torture film. The film doesn’t shirk away from showing the central role torture played in early intelligence gathering, but when you think about it there was no other option. Could you imagine the equivalent shit-storm that would be surrounding the film if Bigelow had somehow tried to undersell the role of torture or even write it out of the history completely? It was such an ugly and public controversy that it had to feature prominently in the retelling of the story. However, as Bigelow herself has argued, depiction is not the same as endorsement. I would add to her point that a film containing characters, even protagonists, who endorse the practice of torture is not the same thing as the film itself endorsing the practice.
The scenes of torture, particularly the waterboarding, are very difficult to watch. And therein lies the key. They are difficult to watch because of where our empathy lies. As Moore alluded to in his argument, at no point do we find ourselves empathising with the interrogator, hoping that he can break the prisoner and make them talk. In these scenes we always find ourselves emotionally aligning ourselves with the tortured prisoner, even when we are told of their supposed role in the 9/11 attacks. That we find ourselves compelled to side with the ‘enemy’ in the scene suggests that the film is anti-torture.
After her critical success with The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s direction of Zero Dark Thirty cements her as the world’s premier director of films about modern warfare, a very different beast to the style of combat which has for so long been the staple of the war movie genre. The final raid on bin Laden’s compound is masterfully staged with a gritty realism. The methodical way the soldiers go about performing their task is very interesting and makes for a really engaging scene, even if it is not the big, high-octane payoff that a thriller usually ends with. The tension is impressive given the potential for the film’s third act to be a massive anti-climax with everyone knowing exactly what happens. Bigelow’s failure to be recognised with an Oscar nomination in the Best Director category was one of the bigger surprises of this year’s nominations.
With Bigelow’s profile as a director meaning she is forced, whether she wants to or not, to wave the flag for women in film, it is also pleasing to see her direct a film with a female protagonist. Jessica Chastain delivers a very strong performance as Maya and is one of the favourites in the Best Picture category at this year’s Oscars. Over the last couple of years Chastain has emerged as a talented and versatile performer. She was delightful in The Help as the hopeless housewife and social outcast, Celia Foote, and also caught people’s attention as Brad Pitt’s wife in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. As Zero Dark Thirty’s determined heroine, Maya, Chastain shows us something different again. Her roles in The Help and Tree of Life were both very emotionally open characters, here she plays her cards much closer to her chest. She is very closed off and methodical, living for the job.
Zero Dark Thirty is different to any thriller or war movie you have seen –our protagonist isn’t an action hero, she’s a desk jockey – but it is no less thrilling. It is a masterfully orchestrated film that takes you inside the intellectual process of finding the most wanted man in the world.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
As the end of the year draws closer the top ten lists from different critics, magazines and institutions are coming thick and fast. Today the American Film Institute named its top ten for the year and there were a couple of surprises. The list was unranked, and looks like this:
Argo (Ben Affleck)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
The Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
The Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
There are two major surprises for mine, one an inclusion and one an exclusion. The Dark Knight Rises making the list was a bit of a shock. It was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated and most ambitious films of the year, but it didn’t quite reach the heights a lot of people were hoping for and has been absent from most of the other top tens that I’ve seen.
The big absence is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. An intensely interesting film, whose links to Scientology guaranteed a level of controversy and exposure a film of this kind would not otherwise have received, The Master has been a bit of a critical darling. It won gongs at the Venice Film Festival (Best Director for Anderson and shared Best Actor between Juaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman) and is talked about as a big time Oscar contender, and has appeared in a lot of top ten lists already, including topping that of the prestigious British film journal Sight and Sound. So it’s failure to rate a mention from the AFI is notable.
The other thing about this list that is exciting for myself and other movie lovers on this side of the world is that so many of these films haven’t come out yet. With Django Unchained, Les Misérables, The Life of Pi, Lincoln, The Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty all due to hit screens in the next couple of months, we have a quality summer of movies to look forward to.