Steve’s First Rankings of 2013: Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Mud, and Place Beyond the Pines

trekIt took me until the end of April to see my first 2013 movie, but now I’ve seen four in two weeks. That’s enough to start my 2013 Rankings page. Check out what I have to say about Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Mud, and The Place Beyond the Pines.

Sins of the Fathers: Steve Recommends The Place Beyond the Pines

The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. That Biblical theme is at the heart of director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Befitting that theme, it is a dark, difficult, and thought-provoking film. It is also a gorgeous movie, beautifully shot and filled with strong pinesimages. It boasts solid acting throughout, especially from Ryan Gosling. It has all that and yet it falls short of being a truly great movie. However, it comes so close that it is well worth seeing. Even if it doesn’t quite work as a whole, many of the individual pieces are exquisite and Cianfrance should be applauded for his bold filmmaking.

The movie tells three inter-related stories, each taking about a third of the 140 minute runtime. The first segment, which is the strongest, features Gosling as Handsome Luke, a motorcycle daredevil working the carnival circuit. While making the annual stop in Schenectady, New York, he discovers that there is something new in town, his own infant son. He decides to quit the carnival and stay in town to care for his son, Jason, and the child’s mother, Romina (Eva Mendes). There are two problems: he has no job and Romina has a new man  in her life. The first problem is resolved when he meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) who is impressed with Luke’s motorcycle skills and offers to train him as a mechanic. There is another problem: Robin lives outside of town and has little business at his repair shop. But he already has another kind of training in mind. He is a former bank robber and he is convinced that with Luke’s special skill set they can take up that trade together. He says that the key to being a successful bank robber is knowing to quit before things get too hot. He knows when this is, but Luke does not, and that leads to a load of trouble for Luke and lots of other folks. Luke is a complex character. He wants to do right by his son, after being abandoned by his own father, but he doesn’t know how. His paternal need to provide ultimately traps him in a life of crime, an activity that both excites and frightens him. That moral struggle is what makes this portion the richest viewing experience of the three stories.

The second story focuses on Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop who becomes a hero by being in the right place at the right time after Luke’s final heist goes awry. That encounter is a stark reminder of the dangers of his chosen profession. His wife and father would like to see him change careers, which he considers only because of the fear that his own young son could lose his father. However, he doesn’t want to give up on the nobility that he sees in police work. That sense of nobility is shaken when he discovers corruption in the police department. He has the opportunity to be a party to that corruption, but he refuses to take the path. Instead, taking the advice of his father, a former judge, he exposes the corruption and uses the occasion to advance his own political aspirations, first as assistant district attorney, and eventually in a run for attorney general of New York. In his case, choosing the right path and doing good becomes self-centered and possibly even sinful. The cost of his choices is revealed when the story jumps ahead fifteen years for the final segment. He is now divorced and barely has a relationship with his son. So, the son did lose his father, not to the dangers of police work, but to abandonment through ambition. The problem with this second act is that at times it feels like just another police corruption movie and so the tightly woven film begins to unravel just a bit. Case in point: casting Ray Liotta as one of the primary corrupt cops. Sure, Liotta can play such a role in his sleep, but that is the problem. I thoroughly enjoy him as an actor, and he is good here, but it feels too much like been there, done that.

In the conclusion, the two sons, Jason and A.J. cross paths in high school. We see the effects of the sins of the fathers visited on the sons. It is no surprise that they have both become drug users. Yet, while it fits, it also feels forced and clichéd. That feeling pervades this segment, making it the weakest of the three, which is not a good way to end a movie! Some of the writing here borders on the ridiculous. It causes you to wonder: are these people thinking at all? That could apply to either the characters or the writers. Another case in point: what father, especially one running for attorney general and whose son had just been arrested for drug possession, would leave that son unsupervised for the weekend so that he could host a party with underage drinking, rampant drug use, and unfettered sexual activity? I’ll tell you this, I wouldn’t want that guy as my attorney general. Such scenes cheapened the overall impact of the movie. However, I still found myself nearly on the edge of my seat wondering how the movie would end. It is well worth seeing.

A few final thoughts on the actors. Gosling gives a strong performance. It is fair to compare it to his work in Drive, but this is not a simple rehashing of that character. He gives Luke a dark and intriguing persona all his own. Cooper has the difficult task of following the smoldering performance of Gosling. I didn’t find him as mesmerizing as Ryan, and his role here isn’t as interesting as in Silver Linings Playbook, but it is still quite good. (A word of warning to those who are excited about seeing Gosling and Cooper together in a movie: they share about ten seconds of screen time!) If following Gosling is hard, the two sons have to follow both Gosling and Cooper! They do a commendable job. I especially liked Dane DeHaan who played Jason. This is a nice follow-up to last year’s Chronicle. He is a young actor to keep an eye on. Mendelsohn deserves special attention. As good as Gosling and the other actors are, I was most impressed with Mendelsohn. He gave a strong performance as the brother in charge of the criminal family in Animal Kingdom and he is even better here. Unfortunately, his appearances are relatively brief. The bulk of his screen time is with Luke in the first third of the movie, along with a reprise in the third act when Jason comes searching for the truth about his father. Mendelsohn makes the most of his time (and ours) by giving Robin more depth and nuance than any other character in the movie.

And a final thought on the director. Again I applaud his desire to make a great movie. Too few directors even try. There are so many wonderful elements in this film. I trust that he will one day make his masterpiece. I liked this better than his Blue Valentine. He is gifted at revealing the brokenness of his characters, but they seem to have precious few redeeming qualities. I like to be left with at least a sense of hope. Here the ongoing power of sin is evident, but, what do you think, is there hope in the ending of The Place Beyond the Pines?

Facing Tragedy: Two Films from 2012

impossibleI recently added The Impossible and Rust and Bone to my 2012 rankings. Both are good movies, but difficult viewing experiences as they deal with folks struggling with the aftermath of tragedies, in the first case the Thailand tsunami in 2004 and in the second case a more personal tragedy. Both also feature strong performances, led by actresses who received a number of award nominations for their work, Naomi Watts in The Impossible and Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone. Check out my brief reviews on my 2012 rankings page.

Steve Highly Recommends Four More From 2012

I have yet to see a movie released in 2013, although there are finally some coming out that I’m looking forward to seeing. In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on a few more from 2012, which was quite a fine year for movies. I’ve seen four recently that I highly recommend, although the best of them, Holy Motors, is an art film for adventurous viewers only. Here are short reviews of the four of them. You can also check out where they landed on my 2012 rankings page.

Holy Motors

holyThe strangest movie I’ve seen all year and also one of the best, although certainly not a movie for everyone. Avoid this movie if you want a straight-forward narrative. Also, avoid it if you don’t like reading subtitles. This one is in French, but it is not heavy on dialogue, so the reading isn’t a great burden. If you do enjoy movies with a unique style and approach, see this. If you like movies that are challenging and thought-provoking, don’t miss this. What is it about? It’s a movie about the movies. No wait, it’s a movie about how the movies reflect life. No, it actually is about life (and death and sex and struggle and the difficulty of relationships and the effect of technology on humanity and…). What happens? A little bit of everything. It follows Mr. Oscar from morning until late night as he travels around Paris in a long, white limo on his way to a number of “appointments.” He is apparently an actor and at each stop he has a different role to play. I won’t tell you what those roles are because part of the fun is the sense of surprise around every corner. You will not guess where this movie is going, but it is a great ride! See it! (It is currently available on Netflix streaming.)

The Sessions

sessionsA movie about a man in his thirties, nearly totally incapacitated by polio, who has his first sexual experience, now that’s something you don’t see everyday. But, in this case it is something that you should see, unless you are quite squeamish when it comes to sex. There is plenty of sex, but just as Helen Hunt matter-of-factly disrobes in her role as the sex surrogate, so is this movie comfortable with the sex it presents. In a sense the sex is explicit, but it is not used to titillate. It is used to help us understand what this experience meant to Mark O’Brien (the writer/poet the movie is based on, wonderfully played by John Hawkes) and in so doing also help us to ponder what our own sexuality means to us. The movie makes it clear that the quality of the relationship is more important than the sexual act itself. What a novel idea! It laments the fact that our culture convinces too many people that their self worth is directly connected to the quality of their sexual experiences. It wonders if the sexual act itself might not actually be a bit overrated! This movie is not really about sex. It is about self discovery which leads to deeper relationships with others. It is also about faith and wondering where God is in the struggles of life. Hawkes and Hunt deliver fine performances, as does William H. Macy as Mark’s priest. This is in the Nearly Great category because I wasn’t as moved by the characters as I would have liked to have been, but nonetheless it is well worth seeing.

Sound of My Voice

sound voiceKeep your eye on Brit Marling. In the past couple of years she has co-written and starred in two intriguing movies, Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. She fills both of those roles again with The East, scheduled for release in May 2013. Both of those earlier films have twists at the end that make you rethink all that you have seen, but they do not rely solely on those endings for their strength. They tell interesting stories with a strong focus on the emotions of the characters. In Sound of My Voice Marling plays Maggie, the mysterious leader of a cult. A young couple decides to infiltrate the group to make a documentary on Maggie and the power that cult leaders have on their followers. When they hear the claim that Maggie is a visitor from the future, they know it has to be a hoax, but they are drawn in by Maggie’s charismatic power nonetheless. Marling gives a brilliant performance, presenting Maggie as fragile, yet alarmingly persuasive.

Liberal Arts

liberalJosh Radnor (of How I Met Your Mother fame) goes one better than Marling, handling writing, acting and directing duties for Liberal Arts and the earlier happythankyoumoreplease. Both are movies about the tricky business of relationships and finding one’s place in life. Both are well worth seeing. In Liberal Arts, Radnor plays a 30-something college admissions director who returns to his alma mater and falls for a college sophomore, played by Elizabeth Olsen. He struggles with their age difference, even as he feels drawn to her. Radnor has a gift for writing about the messiness of life, resisting the temptation to tidy up everything. Radnor and Olsen deliver fine performances, as does the supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and even Zac Efron in a decidedly strange role.

Steve’s Oscar Predictions, Part 6: Best Picture

The Oscars are less than two days away, so let’s get to the big one: Best Picture. If you have read my predictions in the other categories, you should have a fairly clear sense of where I stand and the relative merits of the nominated movies, so let’s get to it.

Best Picture Nominations (odds of winning):
Argo (2 to 1)
Lincoln (3 to 1)
Silver Linings Playbook (7 to 2)
Zero Dark Thirty (9 to 1)
Life of Pi (10 to 1)
Les Miserables (15 to 1)
Amour (20 to 1)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (29 to 1)
Django Unchained (30 to 1)

The nominees in the order I would rank them, from first to last. (I left out Amour because I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing it.)

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Will Win: Argo
Should Win of Those Nominated: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Should Have Been There: Moonrise Kingdom

This is shaping up to be one of the most interesting best picture races in years. When the nominations were announced it seemed that Lincoln was the clear favorite, but that’s no longer the case. Argo has the momentum now after winning best drama at the Golden Globes and overall cast performance from the Screen Actors Guild. However, following that up with an Oscar requires going against historical precedence since Ben Affleck is not nominated for best director. Only three movies have won best picture when the director wasn’t nominated, but this seems to be a year when something unlikely is likely to happen and Argo is the movie that is most likely to do the unlikely. Early on, it seemed that Zero Dark Thirty may have had a shot, but not anymore. Of the movies nominated, Django Unchained has the most panache, but it is too violent and controversial to garner the Academy’s top honor. Les Miserables is the weakest of the movies here, but the fact that it was nominated and also won a Golden Globe means that it has its supporters, although surely not enough to win this (I hope.)

Since the connection between Best Director and Best Picture is historically so strong, let’s look at the various possible scenarios based on who wins the Oscar for directing, beginning with the least likely. If either Haneke or Zeitlin pulls off a miracle win, then you could say that all bets are off for Best Picture. The odds of their movies (Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild) winning would suddenly jump up into a tie with Argo. I say a tie because in these scenarios I still think Argo would have strong shot at winning. If Lee wins, then Life of Pi would pull slightly ahead of Argo as the favorite, but Lee could tell you it would be no sure thing (think Brokeback Mountain at the 2006 Oscars…yes, Ang’s been there before.) If Russell wins, then I would say that Silver Linings Playbook is almost a lock for Best Picture. If Spielberg wins, again I would say it would be about 50/50 between Lincoln and Argo. It’s going to be fun!

As I indicated in the directing category, my vote would go to Beasts of the Southern Wild. Every other movie on the list is a variation on things we have seen before, but Beasts is a unique artistic vision brought to fruition in a most astounding way. Admittedly, when I first saw it, I was impressed, but not deeply moved. However, viewing it a second time I literally sobbed at the end. It is beautiful, despite showing much that is ugly. It is mythic, yet grounded in reality. It is thought-provoking and tear-inducing. In the future, people will know that there was a Hushpuppy!

In Conclusion, A Dream Scenario: Imagine if you will that the Academy did not screw up so royally at the 2011 Oscars. Imagine that Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech did not win those Oscars. In my dream David Fincher won the directing Oscar he so deserved and The Social Network won Best Picture. After his rightful win, Fincher becomes the director of Les Miserables, rather than Hooper, and he gives us the great movie that it should have been. On Sunday night you would hear the people sing (me included) in celebration of Les Mis’ victory at the Oscars. Yes, I had a dream that Les Mis would be so different from the hell that Tom gave us, but now life has killed the dream I dreamed. Hey, Anne, could you sing that for me? But, please wear your Catwoman costume as you do.

Steve’s Oscar Predictions, Part 5: Best Director

Best Director Nominations (odds of winning):

Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) (3 to 1)

David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) (4 to 1)

Ang Lee (Life of Pi) (5 to 1)

Michael Haneke (Amour) (10 to 1)

Behn Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) (20 to 1)

ben-affleck-argo nominate

Will Win: Steven Spielberg

Should Win of Those Nominated: Behn Zeitlin

Should Have Been There: Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino

In this category there has been as much conversation about who isn’t nominated as there has been about which nominee will win. The word “snub” has been mentioned numerous times, sometimes justly, sometimes not. Appropriately, much of that attention has been focused on Ben Affleck. How can Affleck not be nominated when Argo has won every imaginable award and has strong shot at winning the Oscar for Best Picture? If there were snubs in this year’s race, this is certainly one of them. With Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now Argo, Affleck has proven himself to be a surprisingly good director, but, at least this year, surprisingly good wasn’t good enough. It’s hard to say what all the factors were that led to his exclusion, but certainly one of them is that it was a great year at the movies and that means that there were many deserving directors. For those directors who missed the cut, that is bad news, but for those of us who love movies, it is good news, indeed.

Before moving on to those who were nominated, here are a few thoughts regarding a few others who were not. The director I would most like to see on this list is Wes Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom is one of my two favorite movies of the year. (The other is Beasts of the Southern Wild.) I found it to be delightful and deeply moving, as many others did. However, there are others who found it to be pretentious and off-putting. Anderson is that kind of director. You love him or you hate him. The critics generally loved it, but the folks giving out awards sure haven’t. I would say that Ben and Wes are the two true snubs this year. There are other directors who were deserving of the honor, but I wouldn’t call their exclusion a snub. Of those, I would have liked to see Tarantino included. Django Unchained was one of the most entertaining movies of the year, but, again, Tarantino is a love/hate kind of director.

There was a minor uproar when Kathryn Bigelow was excluded, but I agree with that decision. As I mentioned when writing about Chastain in the Best Actress category, something in Zero Dark Thirty rang false for me, as did Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. I’m not talking about factual details here. I recognize that movies will often play with the details to make the storytelling more powerful (certainly Argo and Lincoln did that.) But there is something at the emotional center of Bigelow’s movies that hasn’t worked for me. In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, it drew me out of the suspense that was so important to the film.

Among the delusional, there are even some who believe that Tom Hooper was snubbed. In my book, he is the one responsible for making Les Miserables a truly miserable experience. I love director’s with a strong personal style (i.e. Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, among many others), but Hooper’s heavy-handed, claustrophobic direction ruined Les Mis for me. (See more on that in the Best Picture category.) This wasn’t a snub, it was justice!

Now on to those who actually were nominated. Do they deserve to be here, given all those who were left out? I have yet to see Amour, so I can’t give a personal opinion on Haneke, but I would say that the other four are deserving of the recognition. Of those, I think that Spielberg has the best chance at winning, but I think that will be as much due to reputation as it is for his work on Lincoln. It won’t quite be a career achievement award, but it will be close to that. His work here is strong, but not particularly special or surprising. In fact, it feels quite Spielbergian, right down to the use of backlighting whenever possible. The more I consider the film as a whole, the more I think that if he does win, Spielberg should thank Daniel Day-Lewis first and foremost.

Spielberg does face stiff competition, especially in Russell and Lee. I like the gritty style of directing that Russell has developed and I thought it was effective here, helping to add depth to what could have been a fairly typical rom-com, but, other than the occasional use of the camera pivoting around a character, it’s hard to say what was truly remarkable about the direction of Silver Linings Playbook. However, Russell has Harvey Weinstein on his side and Harvey has shown the ability to lead a director and movie to Oscar victory (even if it was undeserved, i.e. Tom Hooper for King’s Speech.) Whatever the reason may be, if Russell does win, he is deserving of it. In contrast to Russell’s earthiness, Lee brought us a spectacle at sea. Although I didn’t find Life of Pi to be quite as magical as it should have been, there is no denying that Lee took on a huge challenge in bringing that book to the screen. He, too, would deserve it if he comes away with the Oscar.

If I had a vote, it would go to the director who is least likely to win, Behn Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild. As a first time director of a full length feature film (he’d done a few short films before), working with inexperienced, local actors, Zeitlin did an incredible job. There is a strong sense of personal style. As much as I’d love to see it happen, he won’t win this year, but he is definitely a director to watch out for in the future.

Steve’s Oscar Predictions, Part 4: Best Actress

Best Actress Nominations (odds of winning):

Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) (3 to 1)

Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) (4 to 1)

Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) (6 to 1)

Naomi Watts (The Impossible) (20 to 1)

Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) (40 to 1)

beasts-of-the-southern-wild01 copy

Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence

Should Win: Jennifer Lawrence

Like Best Supporting Actor, this is a tough one to call. That was true even before the BAFTAs, when it seemed to be a tight race between Lawrence and Chastain. With Riva winning the BAFTA, it may now be a three way race, but I still think it will come down to Jennifer or Jessica. I think (and I hope) that Jennifer will pull it out. She gave the part of Tiffany just the right mix of darkness and light and is a major reason why Silver Linings Playbook rises above being just another rom-com. Like so many others, I fell in love with her acting in Winter’s Bone and I couldn’t wait to see where her career would go from there. Although I thought she did a fine job as Katniss, neither that nor the other roles she’s had since Winter’s Bone have really given her a chance to shine until this one and shine she did. Now that she knows just how good she can be, I’m excited to see how that will affect her work in the final Hunger Game films. She should win here, but if she doesn’t she shouldn’t fret. More nominations are sure to be coming her way in the future.

If I was directing a movie, I would make sure that there was a role for Jessica Chastain. Is there a better actress working today? Since she burst into my consciousness a couple of years ago, I have been enthralled with her work. She was amazing in The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and The Help. She didn’t have a lot to do in Lawless, but she still brought an effervescence to her limited role. That being said, I was not overly impressed with her work in Zero Dark Thirty. Something rang false. At times her reactions seemed out of sync with what was happening in the film. I’m not sure the fault is all hers, though. It may have something to do with Kathryn Bigelow’s directing. My complaint about The Hurt Locker is that it also rang false. So, I would not give Chastain the Oscar for this performance, but if she does win it will not be a travesty of justice.

Does Riva’s BAFTA win mean that she has a legitimate shot at the Oscar? She’s had a long career, but most of it in French films, so a BAFTA win doesn’t necessarily translate to recognition by the Academy. They have shown an inclination in the past to award older actors, but I’d be surprised if they do so in this case. I haven’t seen Amour yet so I can’t speak about my impressions of her performance. That also goes for Watts in The Impossible. The word is that she delivers a great performance in a demanding role, but for many of us all we have to go on is that word. Presumably the members of the Academy have seen it, but with so little buzz surrounding it, I doubt Watts has much of a chance.

The least likely victor in this category is Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Best Actress nominee ever. As much as I’d like to see Lawrence win, I’d love to see Wallis pull off the upset. Beasts of the Southern Wild is quite possibly my favorite movie of the year and I’d like to see it recognized by the Academy in some way. The first time I saw it I thought that Wallis’ work was quite remarkable for such a young actress with no prior experience. In subsequent viewings, I have been even more deeply moved by her performance. There are those that argue that she shouldn’t have been nominated, that there were brilliant performances by seasoned actresses that were overlooked. Undoubtedly, it is true that there are others deserving nominations this year. It was a good year at the movies and, thankfully, that included good roles for women. The argument against Wallis goes on to say that many of her lines were done as voiceovers and that essentially all she did was pose and stare, simply doing what the director told her to do. There is some truth in those statements; however, there is more to it than that. Good acting always includes following the director’s instructions and Behn Zeitlin certainly deserves credit for drawing this performance out of Quvenzhané. Truly powerful acting requires going beyond merely following instructions in order to deliver an emotional edge that brings a character to life. Wallis delivered a powerful performance. Did she understand what she was doing? Did she do it on purpose? Probably not, but it was wonderful all the same. Will she win? Of course not, but I’d love to see it happen.