Monday, February 9, 2015

The Best Films of 2014






















And ten more...
21. BLUE RUIN, united states, jeremy saulnier
22. THE LEGO MOVIE, united states, chris miller & phil lord
23. INTO THE WOODS, united states, rob marshall
24. CITIZENFOUR, united states, laura poitras
25. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, united kingdom, james marsh
26. CUTIE & THE BOXER, united states, zachary heinzerling
27. SNOWPIERCER, south korea, bong joon-ho
28. A MOST WANTED MAN, united states, anton corbijn
29. FOXCATCHER, united states, bennett miller
30. VENUS IN FUR, france, roman polanski Read more!

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Wally Awards: Thoughts on the year in film 2014


BEST PICTURE
Birdman (Fox Searchlight)
Ida (Music Box Films)
Like Someone in Love (IFC Films)
Selma (Paramount Pictures)
A Touch of Sin (Lorber Films)

Selma is living history. Most depictions of the civil rights movement devolve into highlight reels that edify more than they enlighten. Director Ava Duvernay eschews familiar biopic trappings by serving up real suspense. As in real life, nothing here feels inevitable. Factions divide the story’s protagonists, villains operate within a nation’s legal framework and the charismatic leader at its core is as imperfect as any man. Finally, Selma makes one clear statement that bears repeating: the civil rights battles of the 1960s do not exist as words on a musty page, but as a legacy we grapple with every day. The victories of that era were momentous, yes, but the war never ended.

In 80 minutes, Ida tells more truth about the repercussions of the Holocaust than films twice its length as it follows a novice who discovers she’s Jewish. Birdman, the most original film I saw in 2014, is a fun and frenzied thrill ride through the psyche of an aging movie star grasping for relevancy. The violent vignettes of A Touch of Sin have a cumulative power, each one contributing to a vivid tableau of life in modern China. Like Someone in Love is a beautiful and hypnotic Swiss watch of a film that shocks and enchants in equal measure.

A full run-down of my favorite films of 2014 will run shortly.


BEST DIRECTOR
Ava Duvernay (Selma)
Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin)
Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman)
Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida)
Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin)

I was already a fan of Ava Duvernay’s I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere. The former publicist has a much larger canvass to work with on Selma, but she holds onto the intimacy of those micro-budgeted indies. The speeches, penned by Duvernay herself because she didn’t have the rights to MLK’s originals, are impressive. But it’s her attention to detail — watch an early scene of Martin and Coretta at home closely — that fleshes out the man. At the same time, there are moments of pure transcendence in Selma: an apocalyptic scene plays out in a church stairwell, a personal and then public tragedy unfolds in slow motion and a crane shot over a rusting crossbeam of the Edmund Pettus Bridge silently comments on the moral wreckage of the day.

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin doesn’t quite hit the mark on an emotional or philosophical level, but his images linger in the consciousness well after the screen goes dark. For that reason, it’s impossible to dismiss his small, disquieting film about an alien motoring around Scotland. Jia Zhangke ripped stories from the headlines for A Touch of Sin and, in the process, created a fascinating and subversive portrait of a nation. Pawel Pawlikowski and Alejandro González Iñárritu demonstrate a degree of technical mastery that was unrivaled in 2014. Each has a keen eye for iconography that serves both their stories well.

Honorable mention goes to Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Abbas Kiarostami for Like Someone in Love and Richard Linklater for Boyhood.


BEST ACTOR
Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
Tom Hardy (Locke)
Michael Keaton (Birdman)
David Oyelowo (Selma)

Comparing his performance against archival footage, David Oyelowo bears only a passing resemblance to Martin Luther King. In the context of Selma, however, all of that fades away. Oyelowo’s natural gravitas when he’s delivering speeches or leading marches conveys far more than mere mimicry. What’s more, he brings shades of ambivalence and doubt that feel true to what King must have felt in quiet moments away from the public eye.

How does an actor keep an audience riveted through 85 minutes of telephone calls? I don’t have the answer, but Tom Hardy does in Locke. Ralph Fiennes adeptly blends Wes Anderson’s precious and often witty dialogue with a sense of melancholy for days long past in The Grand Budapest Hotel. I was rooting for Michael Keaton even before I saw Birdman, but he delivers the goods as a conflicted movie star navigating a genuine desire to produce good work with his own ego. It would’ve been easy for Jake Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic video journalist to devolve into caricature, but he delivers a complex and, occasionally, sympathetic character in Nightcrawler.

In a year with so many great leading performances, honorable mention goes to Macon Blair for Blue Ruin, Brendan Gleeson for Calvary, Phillip Seymour Hoffman for A Most Wanted Man, Ali Mosaffa for The Past and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything.


BEST ACTRESS
Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant)
Paulina Garcia (Gloria)
Luminita Gheorghiu (Child’s Pose)
Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)

Gloria is the kind of middle-aged heroine we’ve desperately needed at the cinema. In the hands of a bespectacled Paulina Garcia, the divorcee is flirtatious and shy, vulnerable and no-nonsense. This is a woman who’s taken the blows that life delivers, strives for a little bit of grace and, in the end, is comfortable in her own skin. Bonus points: That magical final scene.

Marion Cotillard has a lot of hurdles to overcome in The Immigrant — a French actress playing a Pole speaking English; wrap your head around that — the largest being how to portray a headstrong character in a position with few options. She does so flawlessly. As the nameless “female,” Scarlett Johansson had another set of unique challenges: on set, she had to entice non-actors by playing a blank slate in the process of learning about her environs. Luminita Gheorghiu and Rosamund Pike, meanwhile, bring monstrous characters to life with such verve that you can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting their roles.

Honorable mention goes to Bérénice Bejo for The Past, Emily Blunt for Into the Woods, Emayatzy Corinealdi for Middle of Nowhere, Elizabeth Moss for The One I Love and Agata Trzebuchowska for Ida.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Patrick d'Assumçao (Stranger by the Lake)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Edward Norton (Birdman)
Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

In an ensemble full of broken automatons, Mark Ruffalo perhaps had an easier time standing apart from his Foxcatcher co-stars. David Schultz doesn’t always make the right decisions, but Ruffalo conveys a sense of good-natured righteousness and measured physicality. He becomes a surrogate for the audience in this story of banal horror and we shiver in shock when he ends up in the crosshairs of a madman.

Edward Norton is a hoot as Mike Shiner, a pretentious method actor on the surface hiding an impetuous man-child underneath in Birdman. There are layers upon layers to Stranger by the Lake’s Patrick d'Assumçao, a seemingly heterosexual farmer who frequents a known cruising spot. It’s not entirely unreasonable to say Ethan Hawke plays Ethan Hawke, or at least his persona, in Boyhood, but that also dismisses the specific character work that went into this flawed father. Tony Revolori is an excellent straight-man to Ralph Fiennes’ octogenarian-loving dandy in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

This is another category chock full of interesting and equally worthy possibilities. Honorable mention goes to Riz Ahmed for Nightcrawler, James Corden for Into the Woods, Isaach De Bankole for Mother of George, Tahar Rahim for The Past and Channing Tatum for Foxcatcher.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Agata Kulesza (Ida)
Rene Russo (Nightcrawler)
Emma Stone (Birdman)
Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer)

Agata Kulesza bursts onto the screen in Ida as a fun wrinkle in an austere film, playing the licentious and deeply cynical Jewish aunt to a pious Catholic novice. It gradually becomes apparent, however, that Wanda’s exterior hides a deeply wounded and guilt-ridden woman. Kulesza is great at subtly teasing out character detail so that it becomes as a crushing realization instead of a trite plot twist.

Someone has finally written roles worthy of Patricia Arquette and Rene Russo, two actresses who’ve always shown glimmers of talent in projects that underutilized them. In Boyhood, the former brings necessary depth to a single mom struggling to prepare her children for the world. The latter excels as a mid-level TV news producer trying desperately to hold onto her tenuous reins of power in Nightcrawler. Tilda Swinton plays to the cheap seats as an autocrat’s henchwoman in Snowpiercer — and that’s exactly what the film calls for. Emma Stone offers a finely modulated performance as the alcoholic daughter of a distracted movie star in Birdman.

Honorable mention goes to Bukky Ajayi for Mother of George, Kim Dickens for Gone Girl, Carmen Ejogo for Selma, Léa Seydoux for Blue is the Warmest Color and Meryl Streep for Into the Woods.


BEST ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE
Birdman
Gone Girl
Like Someone in Love
The Past
Selma

There’s not a false note to the three performances at the core of Like Someone in Loves ensemble. Combined with several memorable supporting players, the cast deftly handles material that’s both intimate and surreal. Bonus points for the nosy neighbor who brings touching nuance to the film’s final stretch.

Gone Girl fires on all cylinders thanks to the interplay of vivid characters played by an array of underappreciated (and, in one case, unproven) actors. As he did with 2012’s A Separation, Asghar Farhadi has assembled a group of actors who are completely natural together in The Past. Like the best Broadway plays, every actor gets at least one, and often many, moments to shine in Birdman. You get a real sense of the contribution of individuals to the larger movement thanks to Selma’s ensemble.

Honorable mention goes to the casts of Calvary, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Into the Woods.


BEST BODY OF WORK
Emily Blunt for Edge of Tomorrow and Into the Woods
Guy Pearce for Breathe In, The Rover and “Jack Irish”
Tilda Swinton for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive and Snowpiercer
Lorraine Toussaint for Middle of Nowhere, “Orange is the New Black” and Selma
Bradford Young for Middle of Nowhere, Mother of George and Selma

Lorraine Toussaint was a flat-out revelation in the most recent season of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” You could build a whole series around Vee, a kind of black-hearted maternal figure who has learned to survive and thrive on the streets and in the cellblock. Her supporting turns in two Ava Duvernay films that saw wide release in 2014, as a no-nonsense mom in Middle of Nowhere and a nurturing civil rights leader in Selma, are just as complex and vibrant.

Bradford Young seems to be a perennial threat forcinematography awards, even if he’s largely been relegated to honorable mentions. His beautiful work in three low-budget films nearly put him over the top here. At this point, it would be a surprise if Tilda Swinton didn’t have several memorable performances in a given year, but credit where credit is due. Emily Blunt has been toiling in mostly small or thankless roles for years, but she broke out this year as both an action and musical star. More, please! They were all relatively low-key performances, but Guy Pearce cranked out three very distinctive portraits of intensely focused, quiet men.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Asghar Farhadi (The Past)
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo (Birdman)
Steven Knight (Locke)
Justin Lader (The One I Love)
Paul Webb and Ava Duvernay (Selma)

Steven Knight’s ear for dialogue is essential to the success of Locke, a film all about the dynamics of conversation. Asghar Farhadi also demonstrates a keen sense of the shadings of expression between family members in The Past. Paul Webb laid the blueprint and Ava Duvernay shaped thedialogue—including those stirring speeches—that propel Selma. The four writers behind Birdman manage to balance melodrama with biting satire and surreal mysticism. Justin Lader explores the dynamics of amarriage via a fascinating Twilight Zone-ready plot in The One I Love.

Honorable mention to Alain Guiraudie for Stranger by the Lake, Abbas Kiarostami for Like Someone in Love and Sebastian Lelio and Gonzalo Maza for Gloria.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Andrew Bovell (A Most Wanted Man)
Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl)

It would seemingly be very difficult for a novelist to translate their work to the screen. As a novel, Gone Girl was told largely from the heads of its protagonists. Gillian Flynn managed to keep her unique voice and shifting tone in place through action set-pieces, dialogue and voice-overs. She really delivers a master class in screenwriting here. Wes Anderson’s anachronisms work magnificently here, in a story set largely in pre-war Europe with layovers in the Cold War and modern era. Andrew Bovell does a great job translating the moral ambiguity and bureaucratic entanglements of John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Robert Elswit (Nightcrawler)
Daniel Landin (Under the Skin)
Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal (Ida)
Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman)
Yu Likwai (A Touch of Sin)

Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s rich monochrome cinematography, which takes full advantage of the head-space of the near-Academy ratio, is essential to creating the elegiac tone of Ida. Emmanuel Lubezki, who’s won this award from me thrice before, performs another technical miracle with his roaming camera in Birdman. The world of A Touch of Sin, sometimes dingy and sometimes sun-kissed, is exquisitely lit and framed by Yu Likwai. Robert Elswit discovers another side to Los Angeles under the sodium vapor streetlights of Nightcrawler. Daniel Landin operates in two very different modes in Under the Skin—one guerilla and intimate, the other polished and cold—with equal success.

In a category that proved very difficult to narrow down, honorable mention goes to Katsumi Yanagijima for Like Someone in Love, Darius Khondji for The Immigrant, Seamus McGarvey for Godzilla, Robert D. Yeoman for The Grand Budapest Hotel and Bradford Young for Selma.

BEST EDITING
Sandra Adair (Boyhood)
Spencer Averick (Selma)
Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione (Birdman)
Lin Xudong and Matthieu Laclau (A Touch of Sin)
Justine Wright (Locke)

As impressive as the camera work was in Birdman, it’s the editing by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione that helps keep up the breathtaking illusion that the entire film was shot in a single take. Justine Wright is virtuosic with her montage of in-car with second-unit footage of the passing scenery in Locke. There’s not a single wasted shot or unnecessary cut in the four vignettes that comprise A Touch of Sin thanks to Lin Xudong and Matthieu Laclau. Sandra Adair had the difficult task of assembling a cohesive film out of 12 years of footage for Boyhood, and she did so admirably. Spencer Averick’s careful editing contributes greatly to the emotional resonance of Selma, which was itself assembled on a very tight deadline for this year’s Oscar season.

Honorable mention goes to Kirk Baxter for Gone Girl, Elísabet Ronalds for John Wick and Juliette Welfling for The Past.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Grant Freckelton and Kristen Anderson (The Lego Movie)
Happy Massee, Pete Zumba and David Schlesinger (The Immigrant)
Ondrej Nekvasil, Stefan Kovacik and Beata Brendtnerova (Snowpiercer)
Kevin Thompson and George DeTitta Jr. (Birdman)
Adam Stockhausen, Gerald Sullivan and Anna Pinnock (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

What can you say? You can see all of The Grand Budapest Hotel’s budget on-screen thanks to its impressive production design as we race from set piece to set piece and watch the hotel evolve through the years. The visual metaphor of stratified train cars in Snowpiercer works far better than much of the film’s dialogue about class warfare. From the back halls of a New York theater to a brilliantly decorated liquor store, there’s no shortage ofcaptivating detail in Birdman.  Not only do the animated portions of The Lego Movie feature many interesting corners to explore, the real-life section includes painstakingly detailed design work, as well. The Immigrant immerses its audience in turn-of-the-century New York City without pulling attention from the drama unfolding there.

Honorable mention goes to the production and set designers of John Wick, Neighbors and Selma.

BEST MUSIC SCORE
Alexandre Desplat and Randall Poster [music supervisor] (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything)
Mica Levi (Under the Skin)
Antonio Sanchez (Birdman)
Chris Spelman (The Immigrant)

With a score that harkens back to the cinema’s origins in theatrical and vaudeville, Chris Spelman created a unique and beautiful soundscape for The Immigrant. (Unfortunately, few examples from the score are available online.) Alexandre Desplat’s score, supplemented by existing pieces, evokes an Eastern Europe of yesteryear for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Antonio Sanchez’s percussive score helps propel Birdman’s freight train of a plot. Mica Levi provides a big assist to Under the Skin with her haunting, melancholy score. Perhaps the most conventional work here, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s scoring is by turns heartbreaking and uplifting in The Theory of Everything.

Honorable mention goes to Marco Beltrami for Snowpiercer; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for Gone Girl and Hans Zimmer for Interstellar.


BEST SONG
Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley, Nick Southwood, Keira Knightley (perf.) and Adam Levine (perf.) for "Lost Stars" (Begin Again)
Ethan Hawke for "Daddy’s Lullaby" (Boyhood)
Shawn Patterson and Tegan and Sara (perf.) for "Everything Is Awesome" (The Lego Movie)

In a film full of memorable tunes, “Lost Stars” proves the most infectious ear worm from Begin Again, with several distinctive versions performed by Keira Knightley and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. Another imminently singable tune, “Everything is Awesome,” emerged from The Lego Movie. “Daddy’s Lullaby” proves the basis for one of the most telling and (intentionally) cringe-worthy character moments in Boyhood.


BEST SOUND DESIGN
Godzilla
Gone Girl
Under the Skin

The visual effects of Godzilla were adequately expansive, but it’s really the sound design that provides most of the awe and suspense of this globetrotting creature feature. Both Gone Girl and Under the Skin expertly weave together eerie scores with meticulously detailed foley sound to set tone and tell their stories.

Honorable mention goes to the sound designers of Birdman, Edge of Tomorrow and Into the Woods.


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Interstellar
Lucy
Under the Skin

Impressive visual effects, both CG and practical, convey the immensity of space and time in Interstellar, with a special nod to the water planet and bookcase sequences. From the cosmic journey of the film’s opening scenes to the inky pools of doom, Under the Skin shows its audience things we haven’t been seen before. Lucy doesn’t invent any new tricks, but it uses a lot of old ones in visually arresting new ways.


Honorable mention goes to the visual effects artists of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla and John Wick.
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Monday, January 27, 2014

Widescreen Awards: Thoughts on film in 2013

I've already outlined 30 of my favorite films of the last year. Here's my final accounting of the best performances and outstanding technical achievements with links to more information about the artists in relevant categories.

BEST PICTURE
12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight)
Gravity (Warner Bros.)
Her (Warner Bros.)
Stories We Tell (Roadside Attractions)
Upstream Color (erbp)


BEST DIRECTOR
Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)
Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Spike Jonze (Her)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell)

It's no real surprise that it took an outsider, in this case a Brit, to deliver a clear vision America's legacy of slavery to the screen. We've been living with the fallout of the Civil War for 150 years and still haven't really come to terms with it all. The distance seems to have emboldened Steve McQueen with 12 Years a Slave. By stripping the sentiment from our culture's view of the Antebellum South, he created the most authentic vision yet of a morally corrupt system.

Cuarón gave us one the most visceral thrill rides ever committed to celluloid. But Gravity is a transcendent experience that does more than simply jostle its audience around for two hours; it forces us to assess the value of human life and wonder what we would do in the astronaut's place. With each viewing, Carruth's Upstream Color reveals new complexities and mysteries. I have the sense that his film will only grow in esteem with time, which is one the true tests of greatness. Polley stretches the bounds of the documentary form with Stories We Tell, her examination of the fallibility of memory and the resilience of family. Like the best sci-fi, Jonze's Her cleverly reflects on the anxieties and preoccupations of our time by projecting them out into an entirely plausible future.



BEST ACTOR

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Joaquin Phoenix (Her)


In their fifth collaboration, Scorsese gave Leonardo DiCaprio his greatest challenge yet: a protagonist who's both gleefully self-aware of his debauchery and utterly clueless of his hypocrisy. For The Wolf of Wall Street to succeed, the audience must envy and pity Jordan Belfort. It's a high-wire act that the often cheerless performer pulls off with aplomb. Bonus points for the incredible physical comedy of that quaalude meltdown.

Ejiofor goes to places seemingly unimaginable in 12 Years a Slave and the horror of what he sees is scrawled across his expressive face. Not once during Inside Llewyn Davis does Isaac seem out of place. Even his voice – the actor did all his own singing – is steeped in the culture of '60s Greenwich Village. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing the bull rider turned AIDS advocate in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey's easygoing charm and good ol' boy grin smooth over even the worst of the script's cliches. Phoenix makes it easy to empathize with Her's Theodore Twombly, a character who forgoes the complications of human intimacy for the co-dependency of a machine.

There were so many other great lead performances this year. Here are just a few: Christian Bale (American Hustle and Out of the Furnace), Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Soren Malling (A Hijacking), Robert Redford (All Is Lost) and Tye Sheridan (Mud).



BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
Jo Min-soo (Pieta)
Brie Larson (Short Term 12)

Cate Blanchett's profoundly troubled Jasmine is one for the ages. Her attempts to hold fast to any scrap of her old life are by turns funny, pathetic and, finally, poignant. The long-lost mother in Pieta is confounding for much of the film, but Jo conveys those contradictions beautifully. It's a performance that rewards multiple viewings. Frances Ha is the kind of character virtually everyone knows in real life – the rudderless millennial  and Gerwig is utterly believable in that role while adding nuance to the stereotype. Larson is captivating in Short Term 12 as a good-hearted woman who's used her work to exorcise the demons of a troubled childhood. Gravity needed an unlikely hero and Bullock filled that role perfectly. Recalling shades of the Speed performance that launched her to stardom, Dr. Stone's insecurity believably calcifies into determination, her grief into a will to live.

Honorable mentions are plentiful here, as well: Onata Aprile (What Maisie Knew), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight), Judi Dench (Philomena), Saskia Rosendahl (Lore) and Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color).



BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
James Franco (Spring Breakers)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12)


A minor role can sometimes overtake the film around it. That's what happens with Jared Leto's Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Leto infuses a stock character with attitude and vibrancy and the film around her with life. Fassbender was always going to turn in a reliably good performance here – by my count, he's delivered four award-worthy films – but his plantation master is a truly fearsome creation in 12 Years a Slave. Similarly, Franco goes way, way out on a limb with his blinged- and drugged-out drug dealer in Spring BreakersAbdi gives Captain Phillips' lead Somali pirate a vivid internal life as he tries to make the best of an impossible situation. As a young man about to age out of the foster-care system, Stanfield simmers with rage and uncertainty in Short Term 12.

Honorable mention goes to Casey Affleck (Out of the Furnace), Matthew Goode (Stoker), John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthew McConaughey (Mud) and Andrew Sensenig (Upstream Color).



BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Cameron Diaz (The Counselor)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)
Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave)
Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave)

Lupita Nyong'o is the discovery of 2013. Patsey endures a lot of emotional and physical torment at the hands of Epps, the sadistic slaveholder in 12 Years a Slave. Nyong'o not only masterfully conveys the character's desperation, but also fleeting moments of defiance and joy. The final scene, in which Patsey (and we, the audience) realize she's being left behind with no hope for escape, is the most heartbreaking committed to film in 2013.

As Epps' wife Mary, Paulson exerts sharply honed rage in her brief scenes in 12 Years a Slave. She, too, is a captive, but Mary has the power to lash out without fear of the whip or the noose. Diaz is a live wire in The Counselor. From the moment she appears on-screen in leopard print, you know Malkina is a force to be reckoned with. There are many ways the Mistress Shaw character in 12 Years a Slave could've gone completely wrong, but Woodard perfectly captures the contradictions. In one scene, we have a full sense of who this woman is and how she's survived this world. Simply put, Lawrence is a hoot as the conman's wife in American Hustle. Sure, she seems entirely too young for the role, but she owns the movie with her line readings.

Honorable mention goes to Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) and Maribel Verdú (Blancanieves).



BEST ENSEMBLE

American Hustle
Much Ado about Nothing
Mud
Out of the Furnace
The Place Beyond the Pines


This award is not for the standouts and the stars. It's for those rare occasions when every character and performance feels integral to the whole. No film better exemplified that last year than Mud. The entire cast, from the marquee names (McConaughey, Witherspoon) to the young protagonists (Sheridan, Lofland) to the bad guys (Baker, Sparks) and the family on the periphery (McKinnon, Paulson, Shannon, Shepherd) feels like they belong to this place and time. Out of the Furnace and The Place Beyond the Pines both present well-rendered families dealing with addiction and loss. They aren't classically trained and they don't boast British accents, but the cast of Much Ado about Nothing do a fine job with one of the Bard's funniest farces. American Hustle is chock full of charismatic performances by actors nearing the height of their power.

Honorable mention goes to the casts of Before Midnight, Frances Ha and Short Term 12.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Spike Jonze (Her)
Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking)
Cormac McCarthy (The Counselor)
Jeff Nichols (Mud)


Spike Jonze's Her is a film rich with ideas about our future and what it means for the ordinary people who adapt to that change. Once again, the Coen Brothers have succeeded in telling a universal story in a very specific setting. Lindholm's A Hijacking is eye-opening in the way it approaches an issue that's gained increased attention in  recent years. Nichols and McCarthy elevate simple stories through their distinct voices.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Destin Cretton (Short Term 12)
Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright (What Maisie Knew)
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)
John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Cate Shortland and Robin Mukherjee (Lore)


John Ridley uses a forgotten slave narrative as a jumping-off point for an authentic and enlightening view of how the trade corroded both individuals and society at large. Doyne and Cartwright take another 19th-century narrative, What Maisie Knew, and update it to organically fit our times. Cretton's Short Term 12 expands upon some of the most poignant moments of his previous short film and wisely jettisons some of the components that didn't work. Shortland and Mukherjee wisely focused on one segment of a larger award-winning novel while capturing the tone of the original work. Linklater & Co. tell another compelling story of Jesse and Celine as they approach middle age. 




BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave)
Benoit Debie (Spring Breakers)
Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity)
Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her)


It almost feels like a foregone conclusion, but Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki's work in Gravity is just that good. Beyond the technological hurdles of shooting long takes and simulating weightlessness, the compositions (like the one pictured above) are so inspired. There were so many wonderfully shot films this year, but Gravity was far and away the greatest achievement.

Bobbit eschews the usual visual hallmarks of the Antebellum South for grittier, more symbolic imagery in 12 Years a Slave. Van Hoytema's Instagram-like lensing beautifully captures the colors and textures of a brave new world. Spring Breakers benefits from Debie's agile camera and super-saturated colors. Delbonnel's washed-out blues and greys in Inside Llewyn Davis look like winter and feel like the cold realization that one's time has passed.

In a year chock full of breathtaking films, honorable mention goes to: Shane Carruth (Upstream Color), Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape (Holy Motors), Chung Chung-hoon (Stoker), Roger Deakins (Prisoners) and Larry Smith (Only God Forgives).

BEST EDITING
Jeff Buchanan and Eric Zumbrunnen (Her)
Shane Carruth and David Lowery (Upstream Color)
Douglas Crise (Spring Breakers)
Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger (Gravity)
Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave)


Carruth and Lowery employ a style that forces the audience to intuit what's happening in Upstream Color; and I believe it makes for a more enriching experience. Cuarón and Sanger's seamless editing of Gravity ratchets and releases the tension with great precision. Crise's frenetic cutting of Spring Breakers reflects the reckless abandon of its four protagonists. Buchanan and Zumbrunnen and Walker demonstrate a keen sense of tempo, holding shots and cutting faster for emotional resonance, in Her and 12 Years a Slave.

Honorable mention goes to Pete Beaudreau (All Is Lost), Nelly Quettier (Holy Motors) and Pietro Scalia (The Counselor).



BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Alain Bainée (Blancanieves)
K.K. Barrett, Austin Gorg and Gene Serdena (Her)
Darren Gilford, Kevin Ishioka and Ronald Reiss (Oblivion)
Andrew Neskoromny, Carol Spier, Elinor Rose Galbraith, Richard Johnson and Peter Nicolakakos (Pacific Rim)
Florian Sanson and Emmanuelle Cuillery (Holy Motors)

The design of Holy Motors is crazy and wonderful. It's a film that takes the audience to places it's never seen before, places that inspire awe. Blancanieves captures the look and feel of Hollywood's Golden era, as well as decadence of pre-Civil War Spain, better than any modern film has in a long time. Her presents an entirely plausible future that's also tactile and lived-in. In other words, the apartments don't have the antiseptic appearance of Architectural Digest or The Jetsons. Oblivion, meanwhile, presents a thoroughly antiseptic future world but that's also kind of the point. Pacific Rim, yet another take of the not-so-distant future, runs the gamut from the grungy front lines of a losing war to a candy colored metropolis.

Honorable mention goes to the designers of 12 Years a Slave, The Conjuring, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis and Trance.

BEST MUSICAL SCORE
Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)
Dickon Hinchliffe (Out of the Furnace)
Steven Price (Gravity)
Max Richter (Lore)
Hans Zimmer (12 Years a Slave)

Max Richter's swirling strings are the perfect underscore for a teen's realization that the world she knew is shifting underfoot in Lore. Hinchliffe's tapestry of acoustic and electric sounds burnish Out of the Furnace's sense of rural decay. Zimmer revisits some familiar themes, but deploys them in fresh and interesting ways in 12 Years a Slave. Carruth and Price's music for Upstream Color and Gravity are both deceptively simple and emotionally charged.

Honorable mention goes to Alfonso de Vilallonga (Blancanieves), Alex Ebert (All Is Lost) and David Wingo (Mud).



BEST SONG SCORE
Arcade Fire and Ren Klyce (Her)
T-Bone Burnett (Inside Llewyn Davis)
George Drakoulias (Frances Ha)
Baz Luhrmann, Anton Monsted and Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter (The Great Gatsby)
Robbie Robertson (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Popular music played an immense role in shaping the emotional makeup of each of these five films. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the inimitable T-Bone Burnett augments and rearranges old folk songs and a few new songs in the style of the old.  Jay-Z & Co. produced one hell of a soundtrack for one sorry excuse for a film. I'd like to see the contemporary updating of The Great Gatsby that its songs suggest. Arcade Fire & Co. bring a warmth and suppleness to the aural landscape of Her. Frances Ha and The Wolf of Wall Street, meanwhile, feature many memorable scenes that organically integrate music from their respective eras.



BEST SONG
"Who Were We?" (Holy Motors)
"Over the Love" (The Great Gatsby)
"The Moon Song" (Her)
"Please Mr. Kennedy" (Inside Llewyn Davis)
"Here It Comes" (Trance)

Songs are often an afterthought of film production. Indeed, some years I don't even have this category, but I love each of these five songs and the roles they played in their respective films.

BEST SOUND DESIGN
All Is Lost
Gravity
Spring Breakers
Stoker
Upstream Color

Each of these films employ intricate soundscapes to help tell their story. Upstream Color combines foley and Carruth's score in such a way that they enhance the terror and mystery. The same can be said of Gravity. A heightened sensitivity to sound is part of the life of Stoker's main character and the film's sound design gives the audience a taste of that experience. Similarly, All Is Lost and Spring Breakers immerse the audience into the sounds of their respective worlds.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Gravity
Oblivion
Pacific Rim

Much ink has been spilled about Gravity's innovative visual effects, so I won't dwell on them here. Suffice to say, it's awe inspiring work. Like a lot of modern day action flicks, Oblivion features a lot of CG, but it also made use a lot of impressive and even old-school practical effects, such as rear-projection. That gave it a very natural look. For a film with wall-to-wall CG, the work in Pacific Rim is incredibly detailed, such that for the most part there's no danger of the set pieces blurring together. Read more!