Tuesday, December 24, 2013

THE YEAR IN REVIEW: My Favorite Films of 2013

This year, once again, I begin by lamenting my inability to somehow construct an all-encompassing, coherent narrative out of my thoughts on all the films I watched. But these are all decidedly heterogeneous works, so I instead chose a few among both my personal favorites and the rest of what I saw and tossed them in groups based on a couple of keywords that I believe held thematic influence over this year's cinema and are thus worth reflecting on.

To start with the most obvious of those keywords, a handful of disparate filmmakers seemed driven by an urge to tell stories about the dark side of the American dream, creating a sort of trend in the first half of the year that picked up again near year-end. Usually manifested in the form of a tarnished ideal, it is an oft-recurring theme with specific yet potentially broad appeal. While differing greatly in subject-matter, style, even historical period, each of these stories is invariably an attempt by the filmmaker to capture the American zeitgeist or cultural essence. Early in the spring, Harmony Korine made a solid comeback with SPRING BREAKERS, a twisted, deceptively nostalgic ode to the MTV generation's youth culture and hedonism. Months later, Sofia Coppola returned after her Golden Lion triumph at Venice with THE BLING RING, a snapshot montage of fame-seeking upper-middle-class teens. Then sometime in between, Baz Luhrmann presented -- much to the chagrin of many regular readers as well as literary purists -- a rambunctious, sacrilegious retelling of THE GREAT GATSBY.

In these, images of vulgarity, excess and ill-gotten wealth flash onscreen: wads of cash, rooms replete with luxuries, fancy cars, silk shirts flung into the air, and so on. If there is one conspicuous point where Korine's kaleidoscopic crime drama diverges from the others, it is the absence of a gaze like Eckleburg's grotesquely painted eyes or the mechanical eyes of security cameras. Instead of offering up straightforward moralizing commentary, Korine fuses the girls' Florida escapades with school-day flashbacks and the present-time shots of their calling their families and whispering reassuring words about the value of short-lived enjoyment. The melting structure blurs the time frames and spatial settings, but simultaneously hammers home the contrast between the kind of stability institutions are meant to furnish and total anarchy in which the girls immerse themselves. Nowhere to be seen is, though, a watchful eye for our spring breakers, or the feeling of being watched, much less judged.

Once the summer blockbuster and autumn film fest seasons passed, the American ethos became relevant again. In boldly entitled AMERICAN HUSTLE, the characters are a self-conscious and delusional bunch, as hungry for legitimacy and authenticity as the director David O. Russell seems to be. With its Goodfellas-esque style and rich period detail, the pic strives to revive the subtly melancholy air of a decadent 1970s New York while grifters and an upstart fed try to one-up each other. But this fuzzy, bloated drama flimsily concludes that those hustlers deserve a crowd-pleasingly happy ending, exhibiting no sense of irony. Uninterested in tight plotting typical of caper flicks, Russell assembles disjointed scenes into an intentionally shapeless narrative. Despite having the cast spout off about what it's about, however, this is ultimately an inefficient tale of the collective mentality of upward movers living on shady business and scheming. In fact, in terms of ambition and inner logic, it made me realize how effectively the repetition of certain lines of dialog and gun-cocking sounds, deliberate aimlessness, and the fusing of plot points contribute to the overall liquid form of SPRING BREAKERS.

Money, however understated its presence, also figures in a couple of the finest coming-of-age stories of the year. In THE SELFISH GIANT, a glorious sophomore work by British auteur Clio Barnard, boys are expelled from school and scavenge for scrap metal to earn some quick cash. Inspired by Oscar Wilde's short story of the same name and set in a post-industrial neighborhood of Bradford, Barnard seamlessly integrates the dramatic arc of those little pikeys' friendship and that of the ill-tempered one's redemption into her realistic yet poetic vision of this particular community. Meanwhile, in MUD, Jeff Nichols, as with Take Shelter back in 2011, once again spins a yarn about a working-class family in the American South with a keen observation of rural landscape and ambiance. His consistent portrayal of the day-to-day lives of our teenage hero Ellis, his best pal, and their respective families feels downright unassuming and mirrors their socioeconomic status in a fashion at once naturalistic and romantic. Its general modesty also helps play up the mystic nature of the titular fugitive Mud. In both pics, the boys experience heartbreak, learn a lesson or two, and move on. Transitioning, whether to adulthood or another phase in between, is the inevitable culmination of the predetermined course of events easily found in such bildungsroman.

Speaking of moving on and adulthood, the 27-year-old eponymous protagonist of Noah Baumbach's FRANCES HA is on the move all the time and says she does not even feel like a real person, let alone a proper grownup. Just like Frances's personality, the movie radiates vivacity throughout and blatantly draws inspiration from the visuals and music of French New Wave cinema -- the scene wherein Frances dances and breezes through New York's Chinatown recalling Leos Carax's Bad Blood is an obvious example. Besides the immense visual and auditory pleasure it supplies, it seems fitting to touch upon a few technical choices made here, especially in relation to the two coming-of-age films I discussed above

Frances is very often framed in long (panning) shots, which emphasizes the thespian's physicality and the character's presence in her surroundings; then when she's with her BFF Sophie, two-shots and alternating (somewhat lengthy) close-ups prevail. Those aesthetic decisions neatly convey Frances's relationships with her immediate milieu and with her friends and acquaintances. Barnard and Nichols, in THE SELFISH GIANT and MUD, respectively, design shots in similar ways that illustrate the relations the main characters develop with people around them and the reality they are in. In the former, aside from some striking landscapes, frequent long shots set the Bradford boys against their not-so-hospitable background, while two- or three-shots with rack focus, gestures, and unspoken exchanges by turns imply the boys' changing dynamic and reaffirm their bond. In Nichols's, by the midpoint a transition from close-ups (e.g., an extreme close-up of Mud's imposing face when he makes his first appearance) to two-shots marks alliance gradually forming between Ellis and Mud.

Another collaborative screenwriting as accomplished as Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's is none other than BEFORE MIDNIGHT by Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater. To describe my thoughts on this movie I can't help but resort to comparatives and superlatives. A rare success as the third part of a trilogy in itself, it is also the best installment among the three. Now in their 40s, the couple resumes their journey, this time in Greece, after a 9-year hiatus. Like its predecessors, the movie spans less than a day, but the mere fleeting joys make way for heavier stuff, running the gamut from family to death. Jesse and Celine are as witty as ever, but their conversations now reveal layer upon layer of their life together and emotion that they have built up over those intervening years. Indeed, the gifted director-writers team offered a more organically constructed, more profoundly written piece.

The theme of traveling extends to the Coen brothers' INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN. Certainly, the Coens' and Glazer's are two entirely different films, but along with Frances, Llewyn Davis and Alien, the characters memorably inhabited by Oscar Isaac and Scarlett Johansson, respectively, represent the year's most intriguing nomadic lives. Hopefully, I will write up my thoughts separately on these two when I get a chance to revisit them. Just one quick observation on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, though: except the big question whether Mike Timlin is the son of the Gorfeins (of course not), what drew me deeper to this vagabond's story was pervasive interaction between, or coexistence of the opposing forces, namely, the seemingly preordained form of life given to Davis, i.e., on an infinite loop, and the thoroughgoing randomness of the cat's existence in the context of the film.

One of the most remarkable facets of the year's cinema for me is women in distress and each trapped in a losing battle of deception. Yes, I'm referring to Jeanette "Jasmine" French in BLUE JASMINE and Emily Taylor in SIDE EFFECTS. If Jasmine commits self-deception as part or product of her general existential crisis, Emily performs deception out of drive for a better life, as warped as that desire might be. Also worthy of note, of course, are stories of survival set in space and at sea. Essentially one-(wo)man shows, GRAVITY and ALL IS LOST both are quite technical and dramatic accomplishments, though I find myself preferring the more pragmatic, trimmed-down approach J.C. Chandor adopts towards his material. 

So this is it. I have discussed films I was fond of and those I considered worth mentioning. Happy new year, everyone, and farewell 2013. 

Here's my 2013 favorites list in not-entirely-random order:











Thursday, October 3, 2013

Review: THE SELFISH GIANT (2013, UK)

dir. Clio Barnard

To describe Clio Barnard’s new film The Selfish Giant as more conventional than her feature-length debut The Arbor, an experimental outlier in the documentary genre, is a misleading comparison. Both set in the director’s hometown of Bradford, while the theatrical roots and subject-matter of her earlier work necessitated a stylistically hybrid approach, her modern retelling of Oscar Wilde’s parable relies on the coming-of-age formula to tell a simple story using a familiar visual language effectively. As with typical young adult cinema, it draws a digestible and clearly delineated arc of transformation for its protagonist; an angry young man, miserable and unkempt, encounters the cold, hard reality of adulthood along with a traumatic event for which he shares culpability. The movie’s formulaic bent and social realist look at the story world recall at once its most recent Hollywood and art cinema predecessors.
Early this year, Jeff Nichols followed his much-lauded sophomore Take Shelter with another critics’ darling Mud, a fairy tale set in the American South that fairly adheres to the classical Hollywood style. In it, a boy, discontent with his family, desires a flawless home, looks to a mysterious hobo for a father replacement and the possibility of unbreakable love, but ends up gradually disenchanted and leaving his soon-to-be-demolished home. A change of scenery, an obvious metaphor for transitioning, accompanies catharsis similarly in British films about adolescence by Arnold and Ramsay—except that they conclude on a reasonably ambiguous note, instead of providing an unmistakable sense of closure. Ambiguity figures more heavily in The Kid with a Bike, where the Dardenne brothers almost deliberately omit context and backstory, though it’s all the same a sympathetic portrayal of a troubled child in need of proper care. To explore The Selfish Giant in relation to the aforesaid bunch may yield a reductive analysis, but still a constructive one, because doing so would illuminate the film’s ingenious blend of coming-of-age tropes and cinematic practices.

Structural conventionality inherent in Barnard’s work is mostly attributable to its parabolic aspect à la Mud and True Grit, the Coen Brothers’ Western and another recent American Bildungsroman but of greater moral import. They all tap into animal symbolism—whether that’s rattlesnakes or horses—as an indication of change occurring in the mind of our hero or heroine as they suffer the consequences of their choices and actions but are granted salvation at the end of their journey. The price of redemption is a theme embedded in this type of narrative, and The Selfish Giant also assumes the form of cautionary tale. Then there is guilt, a psychological and moral experience that greatly affects Barnard’s protagonist Arbor as well as the main characters in the other British films. We watch James in Ratcatcher becoming consumed by guilt after inadvertently causing his friend to drown; Mia in Fish Tank impulsively abducts the daughter of her mother’s deceitful boyfriend but soon feels ashamed and returns her home.

It’s this interplay between character subjectivity and the filmmaker’s urge to faithfully represent reality, namely between the character’s private feelings and an objective observation of their surroundings, that deepens each movie's emotional resonance. Following the tradition of British social realism or so-called miserablism, the said helmers probe the minds of alienated youth but simultaneously depict them as part of the UK working-class experience. While plagued with personal predicaments, the children slip through the cracks of the system and become marginalized. Like Ramsay and Arnold, Barnard intersperses the main events with landscape cutaways as either establishing shots or pauses between the scenes, letting the ambiance of the Bradford neighborhood sink in. Some of those shots set or switch the mood; some anticipate a major conflict or crisis for our hero. The adolescent’s crisis is indeed highly circumstantial rather than purely existential. Deprived and underprivileged, the children also lack an exemplary adult figure, even if the adults are not reducible to clean-cut evil archetypes. They appear more complex than they get credit for and ambivalent—they seem almost absent one minute but then concerned and caring the next. Soon after being expelled from school, Arbor and his best friend Swifty start working for a scrapyard operator who at first seems exploitative but later willing to take the whole blame for the movie’s central tragedy.

The similarities among the referenced films are interesting to look at, but their stylistic differences are also worth examining. By relegating the camera to the mere role of trailing Cyril, the Dardennes ostensibly seek zero-degree naturalism, save the occasional classical music cues. The Brits however do not shy away from a bit of romanticizing or schematizing, if not as conspicuously as Mud does, while keeping it real. In Ratcatcher, Ramsay juxtaposes shots based on overt visual connections. After the drowning of his friend, James runs home as neighbors haul the body from the water, which is being watched by James’ mother from inside the flat. Upon his arrival, an extreme close-up of James’ face cuts to that of his friend’s lifeless face and subsequently, the mother’s hand to the dead child’s. In Fish Tank, Arnold patterns motifs like Mia’s dancing in a way that charts her growth by phases—her desire to escape, sexual exploration and eventual reconciliation with and outgrowing of her old home.

Barnard seems to value gestures and metaphors as well, if not more. Arbor and Swifty’s relationship as portrayed here may well be summed up in two crucial elements: the close-up of an extended hand, and a focus shift between the boys placed in different planes of a single shot. The recurring image of Swifty’s hand resonates anew each time it fills the screen; it’s the pinnacle of the film’s literary inspiration. And Barnard only implies a strain in their friendship by alternately bringing them into focus—exchanging or stealing glances prompting such shifts allude to some misunderstanding or disconnect and, in turn, to a weakening bond. This technique draws less attention to the emotional undercurrents of a scene than, say, the montage-style editing does, but it’s still more expressive than the Dardenne-esque realist approach. 

In The Selfish Giant, Barnard tinges her poignant tale with the images and sounds of impending doom and gloom. She infuses landscape shots with the amplified sounds of overhead power lines, pylons, clanging scrap metal, and with the bleakness of cloudy skies and dewy grass. The harshness and coldness of those long shots is balanced out by the warmth and empathy of extended hands and tender faces—in fact, the contrast makes the latter even more strongly felt. The film’s potent imagery and sound design is indeed the greatest factor in defining the sort of coming-of-age story it aims to become. And last but certainly not least, the young actors who were hand-picked by the director to play Arbor and Swifty more than fit the part; they elevate the movie to a far more sublime level.

Friday, September 6, 2013


dir. Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels’ Lee Daniels’ The Butler has dealt with a range of battles. For starters, a legal battle was fought over the movie's title between its own distributor and another major studio asserting ownership of the title. Though the high-profile publicity that followed might have upped its commercial potential, it also threatened to foil the director’s domestic yet ambitious effort. The movie subsequently gained an over-worded new name, which became an object of ridicule, though it was not exactly aimed at Weinstein Co., much less at Daniels himself. The director, meanwhile, struggled to tackle formidable subject-matter, that is, race relations in 1960s America. But then, he aims even higher; he conceives of blending into a grand organic whole this particular chapter in the history of institutional injustice and the timeline of a man’s life. A multitude of cases in epic cinema, however, have shown such a narrative conceit is often prone to a sprawling mess.

That skepticism has proven un-groundless, to a degree. Among the mixed reviews it has met with, points of criticism vary: a glaring lack of subtlety to episodic form, to caricature portrayals of the past presidents, to a shamelessly sentimental coda, and even to an oversimplification of history. Now, an unabashed exhibition of emotion, clumsy plotting, and tonal inconsistencies are nothing new when it comes to Daniels’ work, not limited to The Paperboy. So that The Butler is in essence an inflated historical drama, driven in large part by the urge to enumerate all pivotal events of the struggle for racial equality, especially in the final years of Jim Crow segregation, shouldn’t be a surprise. Not to mention that as most stories like this do, it plods towards a cathartic resolution of a contrived sort.

But instead of patronizingly calling it well-intentioned, I’d rather focus on a few scenes where the movie works best and which make audiences wish it offered more goodies like them. To recap, two major threads of conflict interweave here. One concerns the titular character’s Gaines family and the other the momentous passages in American history at large. The former pertains specifically to Cecil Gaines, a seemingly complacent White House butler, and his rebel son Louis. It’s this father-son dynamic that at once produces the most convincing of dramatic moments in the movie and is a metaphorical device for varied reactions to and aspects of the civil rights movement, which Daniels makes a point of tracing one by one.          

Despite the gratingly arbitrary plot turns and the equally grating reliance on contingency, a sequence which appears at the midpoint may well be the most poignant and poetic of the entire film. It crosscuts between Cecil and his fellow butlers preparing a luncheon at the White House and Louis and his activist friends engaging in a sit-in at a restaurant counter. We see a mellow-hued overhead shot wherein the butlers set squeaky-clean plates down on the table and wait on the guests in a choreographed manner, which then segues into harshly lit close-ups of Louis and his fellow activists’ hardened faces when demanding to be served equally and enduring insults and physical abuse. The visual strategy Daniels adopts here is effective, in that the static silence in Cecil’s scene forms a (relatively) subtle contrast with the sense of turmoil in Louis’ scene.

I’d venture further that The Butler also works in terms of Cecil’s character arc—his transformation, or growth if you will, from the don’t-rock-the-boat type to a socially conscious one, who comes to better understand his son and the values he’s fought for. But one thing we clearly learn about Cecil is that the whole time he puts his family first regardless of sociopolitical upheavals. He is seen to oppose Louis’ activism because he doesn’t want his son in danger; he asks Louis for forgiveness and embraces him first and foremost because, well, he is his son, as well as because Cecil has opened his eyes to the changing reality, and to the entrenched absurdities that have to go away. That father-son reconciliation is for sure a moment of saccharinity but an undeniably affecting one. To this, of course, the cast makes the biggest contribution—Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo together are truly the emotional anchor of the film. 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013, Greece/USA)

dir. Richard Linklater

For a movie to be a third part of a series already sounds like a can’t-win challenge. But Before Midnight, the third, hopefully not the last, part of Richard Linklater’s celebrated romance trilogy, rises to this challenge and triumphs with laudable boldness and ease. Consisting of a few very long conversation scenes, it is in itself an exciting piece of moviemaking. It taps into the exchanges between our leading couple Céline and Jesse from its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. In spite of the widely held notion that each work should stand on its own, Midnight confidently reminds viewers that it does not, nor does it intend to, but invites us to make connections among the three films.

18 years ago, Sunrise, the tale of a daylong fling set in Vienna, found its niche in the midst of a roaring indie heyday with sparkly dialog and intimate realism. Flash forward to 2004, and the equally loquacious Sunset sees the pair reunite in Paris, reminisce, and finally reconnect, though it ends on a somewhat inconclusive note. Since leaving audiences wanting more of such exotic escapism and wistfulness, this double feature has ascended to the personal-favorite status, at least for a good majority of those who watched each at the time of its theatrical release and literally grew old with them. It’s only natural the third installment couldn’t possibly cut all ties and look like a fresh new story about total strangers.

That Midnight embraces being part of a better whole allows the now fortysomethings to weave their recollections of the days they spent, either separately or together, into a flawed but ideal—by their standards anyway—universe decades in the making. In this world of theirs founded on brief rendezvous, the romance once glamorized through its very transience succumbs to reality upon the couple’s entering into a domestic partnership. The revelation that they are now a family with twin daughters of their own and a son from Jesse’s prior marriage indeed shakes everything up and anticipates something altogether different from the idyll and thrill that inhabited Sunrise and Sunset.

Still, Céline and Jesse find time to indulge in banter, flirting, bickering, and theoretical questions typical of their relationship. Besides the usual repertoire that runs the gamut from generic catchall to remembrance of old days as far back as childhood and to death, talk now revolves largely around their family. Their talk about real-world issues imparts to the overall dialog elevated levels of maturity and complexity; chats often segue into fights over the sacrifices made, promises not kept and responsibilities not fulfilled, let alone Jesse’s parental guilt over not being a conscientious father and Céline’s career aspirations on which she felt forced to compromise. All the conversations here, particularly in a half-hour-long hotel room scene, are at once emotionally loaded and politically intricate, and they immediately evoke the passage of time since Sunset—those intervening years during which they have been practically in each other’s presence, with no more fantasy, no more initial excitement, no more anything their younger selves exclusively enjoyed.

If Midnight exhibits any further marked departure from the other Before movies, it would be how the narrative progresses. In both Sunrise and Sunset, the cuts seem much less motivated and the cameras more fluid; each film, which is more like an entry in a travel journal, watches the twosome chatting and wandering around the city. In the third, on the other hand, we don’t just watch them but evaluate the weight of words they exchange, retrospect their entire history together, and even compare them with others to draw some sort of generalizations about rather abstract ideas. At a dinner conversation involving acquaintances of Jesse’s, aside from our leads, two other couples, young and middle-aged respectively, share their own romantic stories, and they all, along with two seniors, reflect on the changing nature of relationships, generational gap, and human existence.

The scenes gel more organically as well—the central conflict of the movie is foreshadowed in the opening airport scene, where Jesse sends off his son, and hints of escalation are dropped throughout until culminating in the said hotel fight. Then back in the dinner scene, when one of the seniors finishes tearfully recalling her late husband and pondering on the ephemerality of human life, the camera cuts to Céline and Jesse who start sauntering through the ruins. At the series level, a lot of the talk in Midnight is interwoven with tidbits and chunks of the dialog the pair had during their earlier excursions in Vienna and Paris.

Working with his co-writers and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Linklater does a singular job of crafting a holistic piece of conversation art by consolidating the links among the three chapters and bringing out the best in the cast. There’s little prospect of the Delpy-Hawke-Linklater trio’s version of Amour yet, but here's hoping.

Friday, May 31, 2013


dir. Harmony Korine

Garish hedonism reigns in Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s fifth feature-length effort. Opening with a half-naked beach boozing feast and featuring four bikini-clad college girls as its leads, it seems concerned with nothing but tantalizing exploitation. Its close-up, shallow-focus images of sensuality, along with throbbing electronic beats, emerge like neon splatters, leaving viewers bedazzled to the point of desensitization. Stability has almost no place in this epicurean universe; figures in the frame move constantly, lights flicker, colors smudge, and whispery voiceovers waft through the scenes. Scene after scene staggers on, with an increasingly tenuous grasp on reality, and the line blurs further between real life and fantasy when three of the quartet rob a diner with squirt guns as though they were in a video game. Eyes then will open even wider as James Franco’s “Alien,” a narcissistic hustler, self-styled realizer of the American Dream, comes onstage rapping the praises of spring breaks and flashing glitzy grills on his teeth. The cast half studded with former teen megastars alone is indeed an appetizing enough factor that enhances the movie’s allure.  

Korine’s highly lascivious fete doesn’t exactly offer an easy ride to heavenly escapism, however. Not just because it borders on the purely exploitative (and thus morally tingling to some), but it also seems so deliberately lacking in form that it may well come off as outright absurd and self-absorbed. Nonetheless, in the midst of an apparent jumble of plot points, which span and zigzag between varying time frames, patterns surface especially at the characterization level when the girls meet Alien. The alternating repetition of classroom and beach party scenes, in either flashbacks or cutaways, for instance, patently represents a clash of values. Such an inner conflict further manifests itself in the archetypal differences that the girls embody. Korine heavily implies from the outset that which one of the girls is most likely to opt out first—the one Christian and absent from the holdup scene, of course—and which ones stay behind and descend willingly into depravity, simultaneously goading the audience into the discomfort zone. After traumatic events, which are interspersed with their phone calls to their families, two of the foursome, Faith and Cotty, feel they have hit their limits and find themselves on the bus back home. Brit and Candy, by contrast, stick around and become heroines in this hyperreality devoid of any regulatory mechanism whatsoever. And by this juncture, they no longer need Alien’s help. 

Back to the girls’ encounter with Alien: it’s the hustler who ushers them into the adult world of real guns and of wealth that’s as illicitly earned as the girls’ vacation money, although in Alien’s case, cash comes in through far more vicious means, on a far larger scale. At the midpoint, Alien even preaches in monologue his own distorted version of America’s national ideal, which for a moment seems a prelude to some sort of inevitable, shopworn social commentary on American materialism and the corruption of the ideal. But Korine doesn’t so much expressly moralize as maintain his predominantly detached tone of cynicism. Surely, the second half of the movie centers on the escalation of mischief committed by the girls and the consequences that they either learn to take or willfully ignore, except that as a whole, it refuses to become yet another cautionary tale about teenagers gone astray. The climactic shootout and the final scene, in particular, defiantly crush the viewers’ anticipation that it would end with the bad girls learning their lessons and showing themselves changed women. Instead, the entire thing plays out like a reverie, a dreamy glance at decadence of the time, and remains so until the end credits roll.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: LEVIATHAN (2013, UK/USA/France)

dir. Luicen Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel

In the beginning there was nothing: that is, except flickers of light, the jarring clank of chains, and a splash of seawater. These altogether suggest little but anxiety and uncertainty with everything else engulfed in darkness. The shots that follow, then, reveal more identifiable images and sounds, which belong to a fishing trawler, and to fishermen hard at work aboard it. The immediacy of those images and sounds is palpable; the whole labor process, from trawling to heading to gutting fish, and its product, manifest themselves in (extreme) close-ups, accompanied by the reverberating screech of machinery. Without providing context for the events that unfold later on, Leviathan, a vérité observation of life at sea by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, plunges right away into those fishermen’s ordinary day.

What the movie seemingly strives to be is not so much an informative, cautionary tale as a value-free recording of the said events. Its shots of the hustle and bustle on board do not quite coalesce into some meaningful narrative. On the contrary, it seems to actively resist any attempt to read anything else into it, much less to contextualize it. It’s as if you’re simply meant to see the fishermen working away at their catch over the course of a day, and little else. There's nothing structurally predetermined about this movie, with no apparent ulterior motives. Shots are fragmentary and spliced together in the order in which objects randomly show up in the viewfinder. Perhaps, or at least on the surface, the filmmakers intended to capture everything out there as it is, without having their subjectivity interfere with the creative process. Since they didn’t want to miss a thing happening on the vessel or in its surroundings, they mounted a number of small cameras in every conceivable place. The resultant images are shots from as varied angles as possible, thereby begetting disorientation and making it almost impossible to determine each scene’s geography.

Such fluidity and unpredictability in camera movements, contingency in the arrangement of shots, and casualness in the film’s depiction of commercial fishing should not be deemed to represent, or justify if you will, the total absence of authorial intent, however. Even apart from the stationary long take in the movie's second half, in which the face of a fisherman watching TV exhibits anything but excitement and gratification after a long day of work, the images in Leviathan at the outset—the rattling chains, the trawl bulging with fish, the men toiling away, and the unforgiving waters of the ocean—call to mind the antithetical, but ultimately ambivalent, relationship between these men and the environment on which they depend for their livelihood and simultaneously in which they constantly put their lives on the line.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

85th Academy Awards Predictions

Only three days away, the Oscars this year have proved the toughest in recent memory for all pundits and prognosticators alike.
Will Argo, the winner of all precursors, including DGA, SAG, PGA, WGA, BAFTA, and Golden Globe, continue its winning streak come Oscar night?

Best Picture
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Will win: Argo
Could win: Silver Linings Playbook
Should win: Lincoln

(In order of preference: Lincoln - Django Unchained - Zero Dark Thirty - Life of Pi - Argo - Silver Linings Playbook - Amour - Beasts of the Southern Wild - Les Miserables)

My short take on Lincoln is here.

Best Director

Michael Haneke, Amour
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Steven Spielberg
Could win: David O. Russell
Should win: Steven Spielberg

(In order of preference: Steven Spielberg - Ang Lee - Michael Haneke - David O. Russell - Benh Zeitlin)

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence
Could win: Emmanuelle Riva
Should win: Jessica Chastain

(In order of preference: Jessica Chastain - Emmanuelle Riva - Jennifer Lawrence - Quvenzhane Wallis)
*note: I haven't seen The Impossible yet.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Could win: Nah.
Should win: Joaquin Phoenix

(In order of preference: Joaquin Phoenix - Daniel Day-Lewis - Bradley Cooper - Denzel Washington - Hugh Jackman)
My review of The Master is here.

Actor in a Supporting Role
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Will win: Tommy Lee Jones
Could win: Christoph Waltz
Should win: Philip Seymour Hoffman

(In order of preference: Philip Seymour Hoffman - Tommy Lee Jones - Christoph Waltz - Robert De Niro -Alan Arkin)
-- I honestly have no problem with anyone winning this. Oh wait. Except Alan Arkin. Sorry.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Anne Hathaway
Could win: Why would you bet against Hathaway?
Should win: Amy Adams

(In order of preference: Amy Adams - Helen Hunt - Sally Field - Anne Hathaway - Jacki Weaver)

Adapted Screenplay
Chris Terrio, Argo
Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
David Magee, Life of Pi
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Chris Terrio, Argo
Could win: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Should win: Tony Kushner, Lincoln

(In order of preference: Lincoln - Life of Pi - Argo - Silver Linings Playbook - Beasts of the Southern Wild)

-- C'mon, AMPAS.

Original Screenplay

Michael Haneke, Amour
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
John Gatins, Flight
Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty

Will win: Michael Haneke, Amour
Could win: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Should win: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

(In order of preference: Django Unchained - Moonrise Kingdom - Zero Dark Thirty - Flight - Amour)

Film Editing

William Goldenberg, Argo
Tim Squyres, Life of Pi
Michael Kahn, Lincoln
Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, Silver Linings Playbook
Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, Zero Dark Thirty

Will win: William Goldenberg, Argo
Should win: n/a

Seamus McGarvey, Anna Karenina
Robert Richardson, Django Unchained
Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi
Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln
Roger Deakins, Skyfall

Will win: Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi
Should win: Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln

--I'll keep bitching about the snub of Mihai Malaimare Jr. until we're done with the 85th Oscars.

Costume Design
Jacqueline Durran, Anna Karenina
Paco Delgado, Les Miserables
Joanna Johnston, Lincoln
Eiko Ishioka, Mirror Mirror
Colleen Atwood, Snow White and the Huntsman

Will win: Anna Karenina
Should win: n/a

--As someone who thinks Jacqueline Durran should have won last year for the sartorial marvel in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy... Oh wait. She wasn't even nominated then.

Makeup and Hairstyling
Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, and Martin Samuel, Hitchcock
Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater, and Tami Lane, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell, Les Miserables

Will win: Les Miserables
Should win: n/a

Production Design
Anna Karenina
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

Will win: Les Miserables
Should win: Lincoln

Original Score
Dario Marianelli, Anna Karenina
Alexandre Desplat, Argo
Mychael Danna, Life of Pi
John Williams, Lincoln
Thomas Newman, Skyfall

Will win: Life of Pi
Should win: n/a

Visual Effects
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Marvel's The Avengers
Snow White and the Huntsman

Will win: Life of Pi
Should win: Life of Pi or Prometheus

Sound Editing
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty

Will win: Argo
Should win: n/a

Sound Mixing
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

Will win: Les Miserables
Should win: n/a

Original Song

"Before My Time" from Chasing Ice
"Everybody Needs a Best Friend" from Ted
"Pi's Lullaby" from Life of Pi
"Skyfall" from Skyfall
"Suddenly" from Les Miserables

Will win: Skyfall
Should win: Pi's Lullaby

Foreign Language Film
Amour (Austria)
Kon-Tiki (Norway)
No (Chile)
A Royal Affair (Denmark)
War Witch (Canada)

Will win: Amour
Should win: n/a

Animated Feature Film

The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph

Will win: Wreck-It Ralph
Should win: n/a

Documentary Feature
5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man

Will win: Searching for Sugar Man
Should win: 5 Broken Cameras

Documentary Short

Kings Point
Mondays at Racine
Open Heart

Will win: Mondays at Racine
Should win: n/a

Animated Short
Adam and Dog
Fresh Guacamole
Head over Heels
Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare"

Will win: Head over Heels
Should win: n/a

Live Action Short
Buzkashi Boys
Death of a Shadow

Will win: Curfew
Should win: Death of a Shadow. Because I'm in love with Matthias Schoenaerts.

* # of wins

Argo -- 4 Oscars
Les Miserables -- 4 Oscars
Lincoln -- 3 Oscars
Life of Pi - 3 Oscars
Amour - 2 Oscars
Silver Linings Playbook -- 1 Oscar
Anna Karenina -- 1 Oscar
Skyfall - 1 Oscar