Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2013 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(I'm further behind than usual on my annual post-Oscar film roundup, a pre-blog tradition I'll be tweaking after this edition. But here's part one in the meantime.)

2013 was a good year for film. Fare for adults was plentiful and varied. The comic book movies and other would-be blockbusters were mostly decent yet unexceptional, but Gravity was a cut far above in terms of spectacle popcorn movies.

As usual, discriminating movie lovers watch the Oscars to cheer and boo, to see good work rewarded, and to marvel at those talented but sometimes clueless people who can deliver worthy films but also astounding bad taste.

As host, Ellen DeGeneres was… okay. After Seth McFarlane's rude and raunchy stint last year, the producers went with "nice" (although DeGeneres did have a weird dig early on that Liza Minnelli looked like a female impersonator that didn't play that well for the audience or Minnelli). I'm not a fan of extended "working the crowd" stuff, which with a Hollywood set veered toward self-satisfaction. As for the Oscar group pic – neat to crash Twitter. Meta and all that. I felt the goofiness outweighed any narcissism. Meanwhile, I wish the cheap seats had also gotten some pizza, but it's cool that the delivery man got a big tip. (For what it's worth, I liked Jon Stewart as host, and think Steve Martin might be my favorite – debonair and with a playful and savage wit. But chacun à son gout and all that.)

The presenters: The best moment was Robert DeNiro's intro for the writing awards – "The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day." The weirdest was undoubtedly John Travolta, who mangled Idina Menzel's name as "Adele Nazeem" and spawned a new meme. (It quickly had its own name generator. By the way, the Oscar telecast scripts – which are fed into the teleprompters – give phonetic spellings of every name to avoid exactly this kind or blunder. I don't know if Travolta is dyslexic or was drunk or just had a brain meltdown; accounts vary.)

Other moments: Pink has a much prettier singing voice than I realized, and did a lovely job overall on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (I agree with her critics that it's bad form to take a big breath in the middle of a word, though.) This year and last, a singer came on after the Montage of Death (as we call it), and I much prefer the approach from a few years back, when Queen Latifah sang gracefully during the "In Memoriam" segment. (Meanwhile, I correctly guessed that Kristen Bell was the "virgin sacrifice" this year presenting the technical awards; traditionally it's some gorgeous starlet surrounded by middle-aged white men.)

The speeches: I was glad to see the Oscars take a page from the Emmys' book and have a designated speaker or clear divvying of parts, so that no one was left stranded at the end (that always pained me). Jared Leto kicked off the night with a well-prepared, segmented speech that humbly thanked his mom and noted others' struggles. The rhyming acceptance speech for Best Original Song was charming. Cate Blanchett gave her fellow nominees some sweet shout-outs (and a weird dig at Julia Roberts, who loved it; obviously some inside joke). She also made a welcome point to Hollywood about how audiences will indeed watch a film with a middle-aged woman in the lead. Matthew McConaughey's speech was loopy, including a funny, affectionate bit about his deceased father but also an odd section about how his hero is himself in the future. I appreciated the sense that he doesn't like to rest on his laurels and wants to keep improving, but it came off as more egocentric than I imagine he intended. (He's grown from a decent but unexceptional pretty boy actor with some raw charisma into quite a fine performer.) The best speech for me was easily the effusive one from Lupita Nyong'o, who thanked the historical Patsey (her character), the entire cast and crew of 12 Years a Slave, and made a lovely distinction by not saying that 'your dreams can come true' but that "your dreams are valid."

For the most part, I thought the awards went to the right recipients or at least they were defensible. For instance, I was rooting for the extraordinary feature documentary The Act of Killing, but I've heard good things about the winner, 20 Feet from Stardom, and having one of its subjects break into song during the acceptance speech was one of the best moments of the night. Personally, I enjoyed Despicable Me 2 more than Frozen, but the latter film was immensely popular and well-crafted on its own terms. I was sorry that Iranian film The Past wasn't nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (it was knocked out during an earlier round of the process), but the eventual winner, The Great Beauty, is a gorgeous piece. I felt a bit bad for American Hustle, one of the best films of the year, which earned 10 nominations yet won zero awards. It was the victim of bad timing (similar to Peter O'Toole and his nominations), because all of the winners were deserving. Just consider – American Hustle had nominees in all four acting categories, and in the past four years, films directed by David O. Russell have garnered an impressive (and well-deserved) 11 acting nominations.

I enjoyed Gravity as a movie-going experience, and its craftsmanship will surely be studied in years to come, but I wouldn't rank it as Best Picture before 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle, so I was relatively pleased with how the night shaped up. Similarly, I was glad to see 12 Years a Slave and Her win the screenwriting awards, although I also would have been happy to see American Hustle win.

With the increasing importance of visual effects in genuinely good filmmaking, awards voters should ponder what constitutes directing and what constitutes cinematography versus visual effects. If the director is the person who mixes and coordinates everything, from performances to technical elements (which is usually the case), it makes sense that the talented Alfonso Cuarón won this year, just as Ang Lee won last year for Life of Pi for similar mastery. Ideally, technical expertise and the craft of filmmaking won't completely trump the art of eliciting a set of good performances, but that hasn't been the case in recent years (Tom Hooper won for the traditionally shot and superbly acted The King's Speech in 2010). Obviously, the elements don't need to be mutually exclusive, and in good filmmaking they frequently aren't.

The line is less clear between cinematography and visual effects, though, and it seems one must almost see the behind-the-scenes features to fairly judge the work. Many of the gorgeous shots that probably won Life of Pi the cinematography award last year were in fact visual effects shots (the film won for visual effects, too, justifiably). How much of the kinetic, acrobatic visual style of Gravity was due to Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki? How much was the visual effects team? How much was director Alfonso Cuarón? Given Lubezki's extraordinary past work (especially in Children of Men, the third film reviewed here), I was happy to see him win. Still, cinematography, editing, and the two sound categories (and to a lesser degree production design and costume design) can be poorly understood by Academy voters and the audience. (I'll make a plug again for the Academy explaining them better, as well as for promoting the short films.) I thought Gravity was a worthy recipient for its many awards in the more technical categories. However, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the most lovely, exquisite soft-lighting jobs I can recall and its sound mix (featuring plenty of good folk music) is also superb; it's just that they're less flashy. I'm also reminded of David Watkin, who won the cinematography Oscar for Out of Africa and noted how much it was due to the work of the second unit (that traditionally does most of the landscape shots). All that said, good for Lubezki.

I was rooting for Amy Adams to win at last for her versatile, multilayered, keep-us-guessing performance in American Hustle. She's been consistently outstanding, it was her fifth nomination and all of the other nominees had already won (although in the supporting category for Blanchett and Dench). Still, Blanchett was superb in Blue Jasmine, and classily praised Adams and the other nominees from the stage. Personally, I might have given Best Actor to Chiwetel Ejiofor's powerful performance in 12 Years a Slave (and wonder how many more shots he'll have at the Oscar), but previous supporting actor nominee Matthew McConaughey was excellent in Dallas Buyers Club.

Finally, although I respect the intent behind the Independent Spirit Awards, I suspect they may need to be rethought next year. Currently, contending films must have a budget of 20 million or less, which is pretty cheap by Hollywood standards. The problem is that most of the nominated films, except in special categories, tend to be "mini-majors," semi-indies partially financed and backed by the bigger studios. This year, almost all the major categories were won by the same people and films that won the corresponding Oscars. That speaks well of the Academy recognizing good 2013 films, but it also leaves the Independent Spirit Awards looking less special, apart from providing a few more picks to the potential viewing list.

Update: Anyway, on to the reviews. I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. I'm playing with some new spoiler coding this time, which seems to be working on the browsers and devices I've tested – just toggle the show/hide button. (As usual, my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). Meanwhile, I've added the usual interview links (mostly audio). The other sections are:

"The Top Six"
"Noteworthy Films"
"The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)"

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