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Awards Season Catch-up: ‘Nebraska’ (Alexander Payne, 2013)/’Inside Llewyn Davis’ (Coen Bros, 2013)

Another year, another elegiac Alexander Payne road movie, but will I ever tire of them? I’d have thought by now he could slam these things out in his sleep, so it’s to Payne’s credit that each offering has a slightly different flavour, the product perhaps of different writing partnerships and the gradual accumulation of learned experience. He’s maturing with age, as his characters, from Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth to her father in Nebraska, appear to drift back in time toward adolescence. Observing this film in the context of a busy awards season (a pressured release window that doesn’t much help Payne’s gentle projects), I’ve noticed Nebraska falling victim to what we call ‘Rain Man syndrome’, in which the older, showier performance grabs the plaudits whereas the quiet younger part, the real focus of the piece, is bafflingly considered something of a ‘supporting’ role. To ignore Will Forte’s great work is to ignore the real beating heart of this film, the subtle, challenging drama ticking along besides the gruff and amusing Dern. 

The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis shares a melancholic soul with Payne’s latest but without its hope or conventional pulse, playing instead as a sixties mood piece of downbeat folk tracks and bleak outlook. In a career built on impeccable soundtrack selection, this is a disc like Todd Haynes I’m Not There that’s crying out for purchase, perhaps even eclipsing the achievements of its excellent accompanying feature. After being denied the lead in that non-Damon Bourne sequel and scrabbling for bit parts in other mixed successes, Oscar Isaac finally crashes through into leading man status, dominating proceedings as he journeys through every scene. Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky meanwhile pop up to cause maximum confusion for fellow fans of HBO’s Girls, and the rest of the cast (Timbersnake, Mulligan et al) continue to demonstrate their inestimable talents in a sharp, albeit sombre work more interested in study of character and mood than traditional plotting or happy endings.

‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

It’s hard to place a film like The Wolf of Wall Street in the context of any sort of awards campaign. It feels too stylistically fresh, too dynamic and alive to be seriously invited in with the typical combination of sober ‘important’ pictures and prestige try-hards. Besides relaxing back into that most elemental of themes, greed, I’ve got to credit the crew, first and foremost, for delivering simply the funniest cinema experience I’ve had in a while. Forget your studio comedies, three hours with Scorsese, DiCaprio and every narcotic under the sun had an audience of two hundred crying with laughter in a way too rarely seen.

Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh from the Golden Globe win, deserves everything coming his way. A coke fuelled monster with none of the humanity or fundamental decency of his fellow swindler from Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, Jordan Belfort is a cold-hearted charisma machine, seduced away from the normal world by the lure of drugs, money and power. It’s a tour-de-force performance; probably the best of an impressive career, combining the magnetism of a raucous stand-up set with expertly staged sequences of physical comedy.

As with the misplaced smears thrown in the direction of Zero Dark Thirty last spring, a stark contrast remains between depicting events and condoning them. Sickened by how far these degenerates have drifted from any sort of acceptable human behaviour or moral compass, Martin Scorsese (+ screenwriter Terence Winter) might engage with, often even revel in these obscene behaviours, but there’s always a condemnatory eyebrow raised from behind the camera, always a supporting character willing to prick the bubble and question the acceptability of this lifestyle. Like Scorsese’s own Goodfellas, there’s no shortage of crippling consequence to the debauchery and crimes, enough to rightly question any accusations on the films part of overtly celebrating a life at the limits of excess.

’12 Years a Slave’ (Steve McQueen, 2013)

12 Years a Slave is the most impactful depiction of slavery I’ve seen on screen, a snapshot of a period served by a singular story dragged through two hours by a filmmaker with drive and fiery purpose. Through the complicity of the good to the sadism of the bad, Steve McQueen’s film co-opts the visual language of the great American epics to tell a story that feels striking, relevant and pressingly important 150-years after its passing.

This is the third feature from Turner prizewinner McQueen (though we won’t hold that dreaded award against him). I admired his first two, Hunger & Shame, more for the sharp photography and great performances than any sort of deep individual connection. If I’ve accused McQueen of a faintly impersonal air in the past, I apologise now for misreading his character; 12 Years displays the heart of a filmmaker in union, heart and soul, with his work.

Screenwriter John Ridley deserves great credit for delivering a script with such shape to its storytelling, long but never indulgent, rich but never excessive. It’s the sort of drama where a multitude of extremely well known actors are willing to take bit-roles simply to be a small part of an obviously important project. They fill out the corners as McQueen contrasts the beauty of the Southern landscapes with Northup’s descent into hell. Too few prestige pictures can truly be considered worthy of the tag, but 12 Years is no standard awards pap or winter cooler, but a brawny, visceral and vital contribution to modern cinema, essential viewing for British audiences heading to the multiplex this January and a well-deserved front-runner as we journey into Oscar season.

‘American Hustle’ (David O.Russell, 2013)

The last three or four years has seen a late-career explosion for the perennial underachiever David O.Russell. Grounding himself firmly in the American North East, scribbling out decent, mid-budget scripts and surrounding himself with a small troupe of actors, he’s finally found his niche in a competitive market.

American Hustle, a frivolous, highly entertaining caper, is too insubstantial to deserve serious awards contention. Made for the dressing and the actors. A 138-minute runtime may give the impression that there are deep wells of dramatic depth, but this is effectively the antithesis of O.Russell’s Silver Lining’s Playbook (drama masquerading as frothy rom-com), with little more to it than a time-travel Ocean’s 11 (a role Clooney’s own imminent Monument’s Men also appears to fill). 

There’s no shame in being an antidote to dreary weather and post-Christmas blues. This is an extremely satisfying picture, a problem only arises if audiences begin to mistake its lurid hair, panto costumes and predictable pop soundscape for something of greater significance. It’s fluff. Expert fluff, but fluff nonetheless.

My favourite 10 films of 2013

As always, several notable releases slip between the years, never fully receiving the formal acknowledgment they deserve. To their credit, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Cloud Atlas (yes, really) would appear in the top half of any list, the first two in particular worthy of praise as effusive a year later as given on original viewing.

2013 has been a terrific year with no shortage of viable options to choose from with a veritable goldmine of great work vying for contention. Titles I’ve missed or have yet to be released in the UK include Beyond the Candelabra, About Time, Blue Jasmine, Escape from Tomorrow, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. I’ll try to catch up with missed nominees prior to the Oscars on March 2nd.

So far as this list is concerned, many skimmed the edges of inclusion but just missed the final cut. These included the wonderful Mud, Spring Breakers, The Place Beyond the Pines, Captain Phillips, Prisoners, Pacific Rim, A Field in England, Rush, Fast and Furious 6, You’re Next, Upstream Color, The Act of Killing and Stoker. Catch me in a different mood on a different day and any of them could have made the big 10.

10) Byzantium (dir. Neil Jordan)

Even in a market saturated with inadequate efforts, there’s always room for a unique and worthy contribution to the vampire picture. Made for a slight budget by a director well-versed in the genre, Byzantium picks and plays with pertinent vampiric archetypes and carves out its own little seaside mythology as mother and daughter survive through the centuries against a patriarchal vampire hierarchy. The Sean Bobbit photography (Place Beyond the Pines, Shame) scrapes at the fuzzy edges of the grimy Hastings setting, with his soft digital frame convincingly capturing these women in danger as they struggle against the pressing threat of discovery. Very enjoyable.

9) The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)

The World’s End, Edgar Wright’s farewell to the Pegg/Frost ‘cornetto’ trilogy, never goes for the cheap laughs, using its superficial sci-fi exterior as effectively as its predecessors in aid of the exploration of friendship, growth and youthful nostalgia. Like Wright’s previous directorial work, and (his additional production credit Attack the Block), this is the best sort of genre picture, using the expected tropes and thrills to tread into weighty, thematically resonant areas with maturity and thoughtfulness. It’s been quite something watching the evolution of this group since Spaced, with Wright at its heart pushing forward his stylistic ambitions whilst keeping the work grounded, touching and indelibly English. At the very least, no other comedy this year is likely to feature the combination of alien robots, teenage decapitation and reckless alcoholism.

8 ) The Way Way Back (dir. Jim Rash/Nat Faxon)

It’s been a battle between this and Jeff Nichols’ excellent Mud for which ‘coming of age’ story I favoured this autumn. Ultimately I’m siding with The Way Way Back, for coasting the edge of quirk and avoiding all the pitfalls that sink so many similarly inclined pictures. Funny, warm and populated with a string of excellent support, Sam Rockwell’s perfect performance is probably the best work he’s ever delivered.

7) The Conjuring (dir. James Wan)

With impeccable production design and flawless performances, James Wan’s latest period horror is both his best work so far and a complete triumph of its type. As well as being the most satisfying horror film of the summer, it’s a stunning reminder of the elegance and beauty of the genre when in loving hands.

6) Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Like the most violent episode of Twin Peaks ever made, Nicolas Winding Refn’s otherworldly vision is so distinctive, so without comparison or mainstream ambition that it stands as the most esoteric of masterpieces, goading in audiences with the promise of gangster violence and Ryan Gosling then launching them off a cliff of Thai karaoke numbers and minimalist dialogue. It’s brilliant.

5) Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears)

Alongside the best original score of the year (another bow for the unstoppable Alexandre Desplat), Philomena features two perfectly observed, tightly complimentary performances from the never better Judi Dench and (co-writer) Steve Coogan, both funny, charming, and knocking lightly through the journey without smoothing down those rougher edges around their characters.

4) Sunshine on Leith (dir. Dexter Fletcher)

Knowing next to nothing about The Proclaimers, I’m ill equipped to assess whether jukebox musical Sunshine on Leith satisfies the hardcore that’ve pined over every syllable of their back catalogue for thirty years. My emotional baggage, for better or worse, limited to a spike of delight whenever the camera glosses over the Edinburgh scenery, I found this something of a voyage of discovery, engaging with the songs simply in the context of Dexter Fletcher’s film without worrying about omitted favourites or oversight. On this level, I found it inordinately satisfying, charming and a reminder of the quite unique pleasures the movie musical can offer.

3) Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)

Exploring the constructed truth of our individual memories and how we craft meaning from our own interpretations of events, Polley’s beautifully structured film is the work of a filmmaker completely engaged emotionally and intellectually with the topic, digging into the sensitive area of her parentage with the rigour of journalist and the delicacy of a painter.

2) Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

So often are blockbusters raved as the ‘game changer’ we’ve been waiting for, so rarely do they achieve that revolutionary leap forward in the way of technological possibility in a way that’s pressingly evident in every thrilling frame. The visual achievement of Gravity makes for an almost overwhelming experience, baffling in its immersion, stripped back and exhilarating in its rawness, engaging and utterly brilliant in its simple humanity.

1) Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

Move over Toy Story, Linklater’s Before series might be the perfect film trilogy, each new instalment straddling the concerns and worries of these immaculately realised characters at a later stage in life. The triumph of Linklater’s film is that it’s never content to just pop Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke on screen and let their interplay do the work. The stakes are higher, the relationship a strained, distorted shadow of that easy chemistry of Sunrise and Sunset as Jessie and Celine slip into middle age. It’s an immense achievement to take all that energy and exuberance of the first two films and knot it around the stresses and concerns of a couple later in their relationship, finding both the pathos and strange hope that there’s still a future for these two, and that come 2022 we’ll be spending another couple of hours in each others company.

My least-favourite films of 2013

I’m still finalising my big ten and catching up with a few stragglers before the end of the year. Before then, the sad task of mulling over a handful of key disappointments and failures.

To the Wonder (dir. Terrence Malick)

I’m completely enamoured, sick with love for Malick’s work but off the back of one of his finest, Tree of Life, this just felt trite, empty and strangely soulless. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography stuns, but I felt this a rare ball-drop from Malick, oblique and insular in all the ways his earlier films weren’t with the frightening air of a film bordering on self-parody. Perhaps a better edit lay amongst the days of footage?

Les Misérables (dir. Tom Hooper)

Wow, what a mess. Tom Hooper’s direction sinks a terrific musical and squanders some good performances. The decision to shoot live audio was brave, and should be rightly praised for empowering the cast, but Hooper’s camerawork is baffling, maddening and lacks any form of finesse or nuance. Gaping holes of empty frame, an over-reliance on silly extreme close-ups and CG chopper shots cry out for a visual stylist capable of properly shooting the musical numbers. Les Mis on stage is too strong to deserve such a drunk, untrained captain at the helm.

Star Trek into Darkness (dir. JJ Abrams)

I wasn’t remotely surprised when fans at the annual Las Vegas Star Trek convention voted Into Darkness their least favourite entry in the twelve-film canon. It stinks of disappointment, squandering the goodwill of the tremendous 2009 reboot with nonsensical plotting, dodgy dialogue, and the terrible decision to cannibalise and replicate elements of the untouchable 1982 Wrath of Khan. Into Darkness’ failure is primarily conceptual, Abrams’ skill at handling cast chemistry and big action setpieces fighting, scene-for-scene, against the unfilmably shitty script he’s been handed.

A Good Day to Die Hard (dir. John Moore)

What the bloody hell are Fox Studios playing at? Pumping out a workable Die Hard sequel shouldn’t feel so laboured; the anguish and suffering of Willis, his fellow cast and filmmakers emanating from every scene as they stumble through one of the absolute low points of American action cinema. Boring, forgettable and inexplicably part of the same series as the original, this was a lethal missile straight to the heart of the franchise.

‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ (Peter Jackson, 2013)

I think the greatest problem faced by these Hobbit films is simply that audiences, self-included, have come to expect too much from Jackson and his crew. Lord of the Rings formed such an epochal, mammoth part of our filmic landscape that any attempt to compare with that is bound to be greeted by some degree of suspicion. Bloating this thing out to a trilogy of Rings sized epics was a catastrophically misguided decision that fails as a coherent piece of storytelling. Forget about appendices and ‘prequel nonsense’, the material, and the work of Jackson’s team, would’ve been best served by a tight two-parter that better honoured the lean, children’s adventure published in 1937. If this wasn’t apparent after the first film, now it’s practically academic.

That aside, unburdened by expectation, I genuinely enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug. Once the murky territory of unnecessary fanbaiting has been navigated, there’s a lot of pleasure to be taken from indulging in an Orlando Bloom ‘greatest hits’ tour and counting the sad prevalence of dodgy CG shots over the old-school model and makeup work that played such a significant role in Rings. Besides chronic pacing issues, An Unexpected Journey failed in offering up much in the way of memorable setpieces, a fault The Desolation of Smaug is all too happy to rectify with the rollicking ball of fun that is the river barrel chase and the strikingly rendered dragon battle that pushes the heart rate to 200. Through the momentum of well-executed action, Jackson’s film finds its purpose and tees up the third instalment with the sort of energy its sluggish predecessor never quite mustered. See you next December!

Quick Bits

I’m cobbling together my Top 10 of the year, playing crazy catch-up to fit in as many missed on cinema release as possible. Only God Forgives, Mud and The Act of Killing are likely to be referenced at the end of December, so I’ll refrain from writing further until I’ve finished gathering my thoughts. It’s been a startlingly impressive eleven (.5) months, with no shortage of great work vying for celebration at years end.

 Brief recent shit:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. All together rounder and richer than the first film, impressive in scope and ambition with a terrific Jennifer Lawrence and propulsive, purposeful setpieces. Lionsgate has a franchise on their hands here that seems determined to prove itself more relevant and interesting than anything pooped out over the summer season.

Saving Mr Banks. Great, sparky cast let down by over-reliance on convention, poor structure and bland direction. In conclusion – unremarkable, solid entertainment with some nice sequences and strong Hanks moustache. Disney will push it big for awards contention but beyond the performances, there’s nothing with the bite to warrant standing alongside the years best.

‘Philomena’ (Stephen Frears, 2013)

Stephen Frears has fashioned a thirty-year career out of these sorts of middlebrow dramas, though rarely are they anchored by a story as immediately compelling as Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Unlike fellow travellers, the Stephen Daldry’s of this world and so on, Frears never milks the tragedy to play to the back of a room. He’s very much a film and television guy, no theatrical background pushing for those overwrought moments to hit the balcony seats. Frears is a better filmmaker than most of his British contemporaries because he services the material he’s given, whether it’s Nick Hornby, Peter Morgan or, in this case, Sixsmith’s book, he’ll shape the thing to fit its desired format and intended audience, and he’ll always underplay the big moment if it’s the right thing to do.

Aside from the best original score of the year (another bow for the unstoppable Alexandre Desplat), Philomena features two perfectly observed, tightly complimentary performances from the never better Judi Dench and (co-writer) Steve Coogan, both funny, charming, and knocking lightly through the journey without smoothing down those rougher edges around their characters.

‘Gravity’ (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

I remember thinking about three years ago that the actors turning down Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ project might live to regret it. Before settling on Bullock and Clooney, a multitude of potential pairings seemed to float by, all inexplicably rejecting what was always going to be a very special opportunity. From the beginning it seemed clear that if the conceptual ambition of the film could be realised on screen, its stunning reality would leave those numerous disinterested groups regretting their haste in turning away.

I found Gravity an almost overwhelming audiovisual experience, immersive in a way few films dare, wrapped in the sights and dangers of a wholly foreign world over 200 miles above the Earth, whilst succeeding, ultimately, not just because of its bold, mesmerising visuals but because Cuarón never loses sight of the human story. For all the technical achievements, and each frame is rich with them, it’s the raw, survival thriller at the heart that really takes hold, reminding me more of Joe Carnahan’s The Grey than an Apollo 13.

As a critic of the increasing pervasiveness of 3D across major releases, I remain cautious when each fresh release rumoured to be the one to ‘convert’ the unconvinced passes without stirring any sort of reassessment. Gravity, for all its triumph as a feat of cinematography, galvanises my view that the 3D effect should be isolated to IMAX theatres, and the sorts of releases capable of capitalising on the technique. By good virtue of being largely animated (always a benefit) and unusually featuring no fixed-camera points, it’s the rare, almost unique, example of a film that might, dare I say it, benefit from the stretched depth of stereoscopy. My mind isn’t changed about the number of releases abusing the format solely for commercial reasons, none of which achieve anything for the furthering of the photographic arts, but as for Gravity – it’s my most positive 3D experience since Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express.

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