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Academy Awards – Thoughts

Who will win (probably!):

Best Picture – Birdman

Best Director – Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Actress – Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Actor – Eddie Redmayne (A Theory of Everything)

Best Supporting Actor – JK Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Original Screenplay – Birdman

Best Adapted Screenplay – The Imitation Game

Production Design/Makeup/Costumes to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Cinematography to Birdman and a few of the technical awards to American Sniper.

Who should win (of those I’ve seen!):

Best Picture – Boyhood

Best Director – Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Actress – Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)

Best Actor – Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Best Supporting Actor – Edward Norton (Birdman)

Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Original Screenplay – Nightcrawler

Best Adapted Screenplay – Inherent Vice

For reference, I’ve seen 7/8 of the Best Picture nominees. I missed Whiplash.

It’s the least invested I’ve been in a ceremony in over a decade. The omissions cut too deeply. Selma blocked out of director/actor/screenplay, Gone Girl blocked out of picture/director/adapted screenplay/editing, Jake Gyllenhaal snubbed for Best Actor for Nightcrawler (my favourite performance of last year) and – most bafflingly of all – The Lego Movie excluded from the Best Animated Feature category. What the fuck.

The prevalence of some rather vanilla biopics grates. In what mad world do Academy members prefer Cumberbatch/Redmayne and their respective films to David Oyelowo, Gyllenhaal and Joaquin Phoenix?

I’m disappointed Birdman is looking like a big winner. It’s an enjoyable, funny picture, great performances (I’m pro-Keaton all the way), but it’s a performance piece and not the Best Picture. Boyhood deserves the prize. American Sniper is politically toxic and shouldn’t be nominated in any major categories. Playing well in deluded US red states is in no way indicative of quality.

February

‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ (Matthew Vaughn, 2015) 

Long may the Matthew Vaughn/Jane Goldman dreamteam continue, here to be as anarchic, provocative and shamelessly juvenile as they can get away with! It’s thirty minutes too long, the villain(s) never quite work and half the audience will be gone by the end, but it’s a funny, uninhibited picture with some audaciously batty sequences (Colin Firth church massacre!) and no seeming interest in courting the sort of broad audience required for further sequels. Vaughn seems incapable of taking filmmaking particularly seriously. He’s just pissing about. I like that. 

‘The Guest’ (Adam Wingard, 2014) 

I completely flipped out for Wingard’s last film You’re Next, so it’s great to see him build on that promise with another tight, genre-literate and unfailingly entertaining thriller. He’s one of those guys just waiting to hit the mainstream circuit and crush a bigger project. Dan Stevens was linked to Fox’s Escape from New York remake recently. Someone get Wingard on that job! He’s here with ultra-violence and black humour to save us from a generation of vanilla hackery! 

‘Jupiter Ascending’ (The Wachowski’s, 2015) 

Inconsistencies, faults and all, I’ve a lot of respect for what the Wachowski’s try to do with their work. There’s so much heart and such unabashed pursuit of their interests (exploration of identity/self-discovery/magpie-mythology /mad action), it’s hard to dislike them as filmmakers even as they wave goodbye to the latest chunk of studio money with an overbudgeted underpeformer whose failure was visible from years away. I really wish I liked Jupiter Ascending more than I do. Channing Tatum as a surfing wolf-merc, Sean Bean as a human/bee hybrid, nutty world building and bonkers design; it’s the stuff cult is made of (re: Chronicles of Riddick), inert storytelling and lack of momentum sadly holding an otherwise enthusiastically mad project back from triumph. They’ll come crawling back to the Matrix franchise in the end of course, in the way of a defeated army seeking refuge on familiar territory, but for now I suppose I can’t help but admire their steadfast refusal to play by the rules. 

‘Selma’ (Ava DuVernay, 2015) 

I watched Selma in the aftermath of the almighty stink kicked up by its general exclusion from awards season. There seems to be a wide critical incomprehension over how the likes of The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything slipped into so many categories at the expense of DuVernay’s movie, views I wholeheartedly agree with when it’s clearly a sharper, more relevant picture than those two dry, awards-friendly biopics. Through its exclusion, Selma provides a useful role in awards-season commentary, highlighting the ongoing diversity-issues at the Academy and their never-ending commitment to acknowledging ‘worthy’ prestige pictures and obviously awards-friendly performances over films with real grit and purpose. DuVernay’s picture is marvellous, its omission shining a bright spotlight on its qualities. David Oyelowo is unshowy, chameleonic and flat-out extraordinary as MLK, complimented every step by DuVernay’s assured, confident direction. There’re no sweeping cameras and big score, this is historic document pitched down at dirty, cheap street-level, crawling through the shit with the activists. Perhaps too raw for the Academy.

January

 ‘Wild’ (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2015) 

Immediate flashbacks to Mia Wasikowska in Tracks about a year ago. Nick Hornby adapted this one, and its very much another performance vehicle with minimal thrills beyond Reese Witherspoon’s great central role and Laura Dern (flashbacky fun) – both deserving their Academy acknowledgment. Witherspoon’s having a killer year between this, Inherent Vice and the £££ of Gone Girl. Hooking up with a director as adept with actors as Vallée was a smart move, one hopefully to be repeated in the career of a slightly underrated performer guilty in the past of too regularly picking crap projects. 

‘The Double’ (Richard Ayoade, 2014)

I really fell for Richard Ayoade’s debut Submarine, so it’s frustrating that his follow-up is so flimsy on substance with humorous beats that just don’t hit their mark. There’s a relatively effective T.Gilliam feel to the office bureaucracy, production design is appropriately retro and the cast are game, but Ayoade’s tonal aim is off and the black comic edge + darker dramatic elements never quite align.

‘American Sniper’ (Clint Eastwood, 2015) 

Extraordinarily accomplished on a technical level, wonderfully acted and edited, somewhat troubling politically. Whilst never shying from the impact warfare has on its lead, Eastwood’s idolatry of Chris Kyle, dehumanisation of his Iraqi opponents, elimination of any content to challenge the consensus of those filling cinemas in the US and creepy, propagandist, flag-fetishising nonsense makes for an experience that frustrates as much as it entertains. There’s been a huge audience for this picture amongst the demographic flattered by its approach, a support I can’t really see crossing over into international markets less enamoured by red-state tunnel vision. The scene where Kyle and his wife watch the 9/11 attacks on television, the rage for REVENGE burning in his eyes = hilarity that should immediately discount Eastwood’s movie from any sort of awards contention.

Films I have watched

‘A Theory of Everything’ (James Marsh, 2014)

I actually quite enjoy predictable biopic-by-rote; it’s just the sheen of prestige and efforts to clog up winter awards lists that grate me down. This sort of stuff plays well with the older audiences that make up voting blocks, it’s unchallenging and conventional and it’s consequently destined to land a raft of Academy Awards nominations however little or much it deserves them. As with The Imitation Game, strong performances buoy paint-by-numbers storytelling, the perception of ‘worthy’ material pushing otherwise unremarkable filmmaking into a brutal competition it’s not equipped to fight. Eddie Redmayne drools and gurns his way through a Stephen Hawking impression. Many will be impressed, and Redmayne gives it a good crack, but in Tom Cruise Rain Man style, it’s Felicity Jones who has the tougher part and gives the more striking performance. 

‘Birdman’ (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Iñárritu was always my least favourite of the Mexican Hollywood triumvirate; too self-consciously important, neither as gloatingly indulgent as Guillermo del Toro or as innovative and visually dextrous as Alfonso Cuarón. Well, consider this his coming-out party in the long-take pissing contest Cuarón’s been playing this last few years, a two-hour slam down of invisible cuts and uninterrupted pleasure, Iñárritu finally loosening the hell up and making a film with a lighter touch. For someone quite literally given a ‘Quentin Tarantino comeback’ in the late nineties, Michael Keaton jumps through the career-salvation window like a ravenous wolf, tearing into his best part in twenty-years with all that pent-up energy and manic charm that made him a star in the first place. Keaton’s moviestar baggage and middle-aged self-loathing makes this the ideal match of actor and material, as perfectly cast as Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and deserving of the big award denied that actor. 

‘The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies’ (Peter Jackson, 2014)

I actually like a lot of the crap Peter Jackson included – the elf/dwarf romance adds a human touch amongst CG landscapes, but let’s be honest, Jackson’s heart was never really in these films. Battle of the Five Armies is a fine, quite entertaining fantasy-action picture, but it’s burdened by the same conceptual faults as it’s two predecessors and never ascends to even the lower-tier of what the original Lord of the Rings trilogy achieved a decade earlier. The result is a misshapen bloater of an adaptation, doing much to thrill but never with any semblance of direction, succeeding under its narrow remit for Friday-night excitement but never, for a second, justifying the scope or runtime of this three-film trilogy.

My Favorite 10 Films of 2014

Favourites of 2014

As always, the discrepancy between UK/US release dates has pushed a few releases into the blurry divide. Her, Escape from Tomorrow, The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years a Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis would all be in there if they were earlier/later up the release schedule. I also didn’t catch Disney’s Frozen until January, but it was well worth the near-insane levels of pre-teen hype.

Narrowly missing out on this years top bunch are The Raid II, Locke, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 22 Jump Street, Frank, Noah, Only Lovers Left Alive, Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the mismarketed summer favourite Edge of Tomorrow.

My least favourite couple of the year, for old time’s sake, were the inert and humourless Robocop remake and Sony’s second crappy Amazing Spider-Man movie.

10) Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon Ho)

9) The Lego Movie (dir. Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

8 ) Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn)

7) Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)

6) The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent)

5) Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

4) Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh)

3) Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)

2) Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

1) Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

‘Inherent Vice’ (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

PT Anderson’s new movie isn’t out until the New Year so the usual flood of interviews, articles and TV ads have yet to move it onto my radar. I’ve read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, which I didn’t really click with, but the premature arrival of this adaptation courtesy of a surprise last-minute screening shifts it amongst 2014 concerns.

Anderson’s stage intro was predictably met by ecstatic applause, however for all the rapturous response, his Inherent Vice will likely have divided a room still acclimatising themselves to the esoteric gear shift taken with 2012’s The Master. Those expecting a Scorsese-light 70s burner a la Boogie Nights might have been disappointed, those amenable to the ongoing evolution of his free flowing style were frequently in hysterics, rolling with what is an often hilarious, strangely sweet natured and basically structureless picture that stumbles, drug-addled through its California beach setting toward the finish line. Pynchon’s novel took a similar approach, but without the opportunity to fall back on the rhythms of actor chemistry and visual comedy it struggled to maintain my interest as it ambled place to place. What felt on the page like a not entirely comfortable blend of detective potboiler and stoner romp has less of an identity crisis when filtered through the Anderson sensibility. Still less accessible than a There will be Blood, but very much assured of its identity and offering pleasures to those who acquiesce to the humour of PTA.

My big fear (nothing to do with awards, this is sooooooo not an Oscar film) is that the irreverence and throwaway built-for-cult-love design of the thing prevent proper appreciation of how insanely great Joaquin Phoenix is. He’s in every scene, all 2.5 hours of them, and it’s another full-bodied, beautifully inclusive performance. Beyond bonkers costume and hair design, Phoenix is hitting strikes each minute, balancing the broader slapstick moments with the almost imperceptible slurring, mumbling and stumbling that always feels organic to the character and never the affected tic of an actor at work. In a world without Philip Seymour Hoffman (surely Kinski to PTA Herzog?), Phoenix is a more than capable substitute-muse for mid-era Anderson.

November thoughts

‘The Babadook’ (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

Occasionally a horror film emerges from outside of the studio system and revives your faith in the genre. This time it’s a tiny Australian picture; literate in its influences but veering away from self-awareness and irony. The Babadook features entirely fresh and threatening creature design but seems concerned more by its central relationships than cheap scares or unnecessary violence. Essie Davis is simply extraordinary (we’re talking Ellen Burstyn Exorcist levels here), commanding every scene of Kent’s own script and navigating a way through the path that merges breadline realism, mental health issues and the supernatural without ever swerving too far in any one direction. 

‘Nightcrawler’ (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

 The best ‘LA’ movie I’ve seen since Drive. Sharp satire, killer soundtrack and a striking, career-best performance from the increasingly impressive Gyllenhaal. Destined for future cult status, but probably too breezily stylish to make any impact for a few years. Lou Bloom is my new favourite sociopath.

 ‘Interstellar’ (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

IMAX is the only way to go. Nolan’s space epic has a lot of problems, not least a creaky first act that could’ve paradoxically done with both losing and gaining material, some inexcusable tonal shifts and a loss of focus leading to some iffy back-fourth editing uncharacteristic of the team that delivered a picture as tightly wound as Inception. As an exercise in sheer ambition, it’s worthy of all the plaudits thrown its way. The scale of the thing, the strength of some of the sequences once we’re off the Earth, the balance between human story and spectacle, the conceptual balls of the final act and Nolan’s skill at conveying extremely complicated concepts in an audience-friendly way. For audacity alone, flaws acknowledged, its one of the years most memorable and stands alongside AI, Sunshine, The Fountain, Cloud Atlas, Moon etc as one of the brave and bold of modern sci-fi.

‘The Imitation Game’ (Morten Tyldum, 2014) 

Never quite transcending its televisual feel, this paint-by-numbers Alan Turing biopic is nonetheless a handsome production that hopefully doesn’t find itself tainted (a la King’s Speech) by a major(ly undeserved) presence during awards season. Cumberbatch and Knightley are impressive, and Tyldum tells an important story with just the right mix of dewy-eyed admiration and hardheaded historical meat.

Some thoughts…

‘Gone Girl’ (David Fincher, 2014) 

David Fincher is as good as the material he’s given. Luckily Gillian Flynn’s novel is super-junk, great trash storytelling. Like Steven Spielberg over the past twenty years, mid-era Fincher has gathered a tight little band of collaborators. There’s been a new Fincher on display since The Social Network, stylistically restrained and content to allow the scripts do the talking, directorial tics taking a backseat to elegant composition, good actors and that same backing band to provide those tight cuts, clean shots and textured soundscape. What should be a minor-entry in the canon, a bill-paying studio job between the real work (a la Dragon Tattoo), is elevated to high-sleaze pop art of the most satisfying breed. The cast are sprinters at the start of a hundred-metre race, wound up and ready to go, each fighting to outdo the next as Fincher chases them with bullets from his starting gun. Stupendously, gloriously pleasurable stuff.

I’ve also watched some other random shit, some of which I’ll babble about more at the end of the year:

A Walk Among the Tombstones was another notch on the bedpost of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken career shift of which I’m such an enthusiastic supporter. Completely forgettable autumnal nonsense, but Scott Frank’s a decent enough filmmaker and just about keeps it from drifting into dodgy DTV territory.

Bad Neighbours was a sorta funny, watchable, throwaway frat comedy. I’m sure it played well to the friday-night crowds over the summer with a short runtime, adequate set-up and likeable leads. It’s hard to get overly excited about this kind of thing. Laughed a few times.

Frank was a terrific treatise on the intersection between mental illness and the creative process with an unbearably sad Jon Ronson script. Fassbender and the full fake band are great and hilarious. Domhnall Gleeson finally rises up to the lofty standards of his father.

Of Gleeson Snr, Calvary is likely a top-five finisher when I compile my favourites of the year. John Michael McDonagh’s film about the last week in the life of a priest in an Irish coastal village is small, but almost perfectly formed and hasn’t left my thoughts since.

I also re-watched most of The Descendants the other night which remains an impressive, emotional entry for Alexander Payne with the best performance George Clooney’s likely to give. Love that Hawaiian scenery.

Oh, and the announcement of Twin Peaks returning for that long-awaited third series in 2016 is pretty much the highlight of my autumn.

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (James Gunn, 2014)

Marvel Studios are taking the piss. They’re drunk on their own confidence after a riotously successful 6-year stretch, ramming out A-grade entertainment in a fully integrated world whilst their competitors fail to keep pace. Who would’ve thought a decade ago that either Guardians or April’s fantastic Captain America sequel would bulldoze the increasingly shabby Spider-Man franchise? Who could’ve predicted a Superman reboot could conceivably open to weaker reviews and lower box office than a Marvel sequel starring a lower-tier character? Whilst DC struggle to mount a Wonder Woman project, Marvel pump out workmanlike Thor pictures every other year. The world’s gone mad.

Guardians might feel less mythic and grand than the Star Wars sequel we’ll see next Christmas, but make no mistake, James Gunn has shot the best space adventure Disney’ll put out this side of the inevitable Guardians II. The thing moves breezily, no fat or time to pause as the ensemble are thrown together within fifteen minutes, zipping straight into an irresistible mix of snappy action, sharp banter and machine-gun raccoon. There’s an alternate universe where Lucasfilm released a Han Solo spin-off project in the late seventies that played a bit like this with Chewbacca, bounty hunters and a crew of fellow space pirates bombing around the galaxy to a pop music soundscape. Parks & Recreation’s Chris Pratt has the most watchable swagger this side of Tony Stark, rolling around this vibrant, colourful feature like a fresh moviestar braced to make an impact. The Jurassic World team are ridiculously lucky to have pinned him down just as his profile explodes. 

 

Vin Diesel plays a talking tree for fucks sake. How did they expect me not to go for that?

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (Matt Reeves, 2014)

A very comfortable progression from the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, itself a thoroughly enjoyable and adult sci-fi picture. It’s to the credit of Fox Studios that they’re trusting enough to allow Matt Reeves to turn out a picture of this breed, one which builds on the strongest features of Rupert Wyatt’s film by playing the anti-blockbuster card, acknowledging that the best elements of part 1 were the human-free sections of mo-cap monkey and gearing the film heavily toward more time spent with the beautifully-realised ape characters. It’s quite a turn-around for the studio, once notorious for unwelcome interference, now seemingly content for the creatives to play. Both Apes and X-Men titles are back from the brink this last couple of years and finally fulfilling their promise.

The performance capture technology, for all its great use in earlier works (including the first film),  feels as though it’s realising its potential on this project. Reeves shoots a lot of the ape material on exterior locations out in the San Francisco forests, giving an earthy, lived-in feel that the digital characters slip seamlessly into. Unlike say, Avatar, where there felt a visible clash in styles between the fully animated jungle environments and the live-action sets, Dawn does a near-flawless job of integrating its CG characters into the real-world setting, believably interacting with both forest and human co-leads alike.

There’s a neatly uncomplicated ‘clash of the civilisations’ thing running through the picture, rammed with the sort of on-the-nose social comment that worked so well for the original franchise. It’s always a surprise when mega-budget features grapple, successfully, with tough ideas – especially ones without tidy or typically happy conclusions. The performances feel so complete and the storytelling so sharp that it’s an absolute pleasure to be guided into that level of engagement and the endless possibilities ahead for future stories in this world.

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