BEST ACTRESS

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The feature documentary, “SHOUT GLADI GLADI,” co-directed by Adam Friedman and Iain Kennedy, focuses on women’s health in Africa with a particular emphasis on fistula, a common, debilitating condition that turns once healthy women into outcasts. Academy-Award winning actress Meryl Streep will lend her voice to narrate the film. The documentary is being made in collaboration with The Freedom From Fistula Foundation, an organization run by Scottish businesswoman, philanthropist, and activist, Ann Gloag. Friedman and Kennedy document Gloag’s experiences working with incredible women in Kenya, Malawi, and Sierra Leone to help them find hope and transcend their horrendous circumstances. The film also features rare appearances by Melinda Gates and Nobel Peace laureate Wole Soyinka. Friedman will produce the documentary through his company, Vertical Ascent, and Gloag will executive produce.

“SHOUT GLADI GLADI” documents the efforts of Gloag and her foundation as they work with some of the world’s most vulnerable women in poverty stricken villages in Africa. The foundation works to eradicate fistula by improving access to good maternity care, as well as training doctors and midwives, and providing free medical care at their facilities. In addition to providing health services the foundation is focused on empowering women economically and socially. The foundation has partnered with Opportunity Bank in Malawi to provide newly cured women a BBOXX, a small generator powered by a solar panel which allows the women to earn a fee for charging cell-phones (up to five at a time). This creates a business opportunity for the women who are often rejected by the men in their village after suffering from fistula, allowing them to become masters of their own destiny. “SHOUT GLADI GLADI” is a story about hope for a unique group of women and the extraordinary people who are helping them have a brighter future.

“Filming Shout was an extraordinary experience, my wife and I were stopped at Gunpoint in Malawi and were one of the last film crews shooting in Sierra Leone as the Ebola plague descended. But throughout the wonderful people of Africa and the amazing work that Ann’s groups were doing inspired us to keep on keeping on,” noted Adam Friedman. Streep added, “’This powerful film attests to the igniting power of one woman, Ann Gloag, to set in motion hundreds of helping hands, doctors , nurses, caregivers, family and friends, to resuscitate the health and status of victims of fistula, and to give them back their lives.”

FISTULA FACTS

· 1 woman every 2 seconds is seriously injured or disabled giving birth

· An estimated 2 million women in Africa live with obstetric fistula

· It is estimated that another 100,000 develop the condition every year

· More than 500,000 women die each year during pregnancy or childbirth, mostly in developing nations

· 80% of these deaths are completely avoidable

· Sierra Leone has just 71 doctors and 112 midwives for a population of six million

· In 2005, 8 million women around the world experienced life-threatening complications during pregnancy and childbirth

· The 5th Millennium Development Goal is to cut maternal deaths by three- quarters by 2015

ABOUT ADAM FRIEDMAN

Vertical Ascent Founder and President Adam Friedman brings over 22 years of entertainment industry experience to the company. An award-winning filmmaker and television producer, Friedman began his career directing a documentary entitled Wolves in Winter, which went on to receive two Emmy nominations. Friedman’s next project, Color Me Blue, about the NYPD and its many heroes, won him his first Emmy. Friedman moved on to shooting music videos, and his video for the Rolling Stones Emotional Rescue was part of the Whitney Museum Biennial celebration, and his video for the rap group Whodini, Big Mouth, is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Adam has also directed feature films, and his debut, “Medium Straight”, was shown in Critics Week at the Cannes Film Festival, with Variety magazine citing

Friedman has also produced and directed a multitude of biographies for A&E that has included figures as diverse as Kevin Costner, Dolly Parton and LL Cool J. Adam’s bio on John Travolta tripled A&E’s viewership and went on to receive Emmy nominations for best non-fiction series and best director. Under his own shingle, he produced hundreds of hours of non-fiction programming for Discovery, The History Channel, HBO and Spike TV.

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Lead Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Lead Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

These four actors have championed prizes in their respective categories from the three award shows—SAG, BAFTA, and Golden Globes—that are instrumental for a success at the Academy Awards. There should be no hysterical dramatics and edge-of-your-seat anxiety during the Oscars for a nominee when they have swept the category clean at all of the preceding award shows. The absence of those hysterical dramatics in the race can lead to people who spend a superfluous amount of time thinking about the outcome of these awards to speculate who would win if the frontrunner were not nominated in the category.

So, who would in each category win if the frontrunner didn’t exist? With little evidence and much confusion over the past few months of this year’s Oscar race, it’s not something easily calculated.

LEAD ACTRESS

Despite early distress about the strength of contenders in this field, the Academy ended up producing an array of impressive performances in its lead actress field. If Julianne Moore would have won for Far from Heaven, The Hours or Boogie Nights, this would be the biggest prediction gamble of Oscar night.

Once you take the projected winner, Moore, out of the lineup, the list of nominees divides into two subgroups: 1) Felicity Jones and Marion Cotillard, 2) Rosamund Pike and Reese Witherspoon.

Particularly when picking predictions for the BAFTA awards, many pundits and award season followers pitted Jones in the runner-up position for The Theory of Everything. Yes, she is a co-lead in a popular film with the older Academy members, but the performance itself has never been the distinctive focal point of the film’s praise. Her role is not as dramatically heavy as her fellow nominees, and the industry’s good will for the Stephen Hawking biopic is being dosed over Eddie Redmayne’s work.

The numerous awards Cotillard won from critic associations is probably what kept her alive enough to hop into the last Best Actress spot, despite being excluded from the Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA nominations. The performance itself, though considered brilliant by many, is quite subdued, lacking the overt fireworks of Witherspoon and Pike’s towering performances. And the last foreign language performance to win was Cotillard herself in 2007, and whether we like it or not, to win an Oscar for a non-English-speaking role is not common. In addition, Cotillard has a history of being unpopular with the Academy since her win for La Vie en Rose. Many regard her missing the Academy’s lineup for Rust and Bone and Nine to be egregious snubs.

If Moore weren’t in the race, it would most likely come down to Pike and Witherspoon.

After Wild’s premiere at Telluride this past summer, Witherspoon’s buzz was moving at an accelerated level. But whenever the film was released widely, the critical acclaim was there…the support just never felt as passionate as we were led to believe. But still, Witherspoon received the best reviews of her career for her portrayal as Cheryl Strayed, she has been working the campaign trail harder than anyone and had a “comeback” year after a decade of flops and tabloid treachery. Taking the role itself was a drastic change of pace for Witherspoon, and the fact that she pulled it off terrifically could have won her a second Oscar, had Moore not been in the race.

The major problem that would have prevented Pike from going all the way is the distance the Academy put between itself and Gone Girl in every category but Best Actress. (Many are still waiting to wake up from the terrible dream and learn Gillian Flynn’s snub in Adapted Screenplay was a bad dream.) But everything else is in Pike’s favor. Playing a character as memorable and iconic as Amazing Amy holds more weight than most are giving it credit for. Pike disappears into a role that is bound to ignite some form of strong reaction from just about everyone who watches the Gone Girl. And besides starring in an R-rated film that grossed over $165 million domestically, she was named as the best actress preference by over a dozen critic associations.

Projected Outcome without Julianne Moore
1. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
2. Reese Witherspoon, Wild
3. Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
4. Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

LEAD ACTOR

This category is not as securely fastened as the others, because Birdman has won the major guild awards in spades, and before Redmayne won the SAG, most were predicting Michael Keaton to soar to Oscars. Keaton was the critics’ darling of this category and the Golden Globe winner in the musical/comedy category. To bet against Redmayne and his winning streak would be imprudent, but Keaton is still viable option for a Best Actor win if his film scores the Best Picture trophy. If Redmayne wouldn’t win, it would (and could) be Keaton.

The wild card of the group this year is Bradley Cooper for American Sniper, because he has not competed in any other award show until the AMPAS. His movie has surged at the box office, making inconceivable amounts of money, and the Academy proved their admiration for Eastwood’s war on terror effort by nominating it six times this year. This is Cooper’s third consecutive acting nomination from the Academy, and it stands to reason that the politics of playing a United States veteran could finally put him in a more “winner-friendly” stature. If American Sniper performs better at the ceremony than many pundits surmise, it would not be too surprising to see Cooper upstage the two other frontrunners.

Steve Carell launched the season with glowing reviews out of the Cannes Film Festival for Foxcatcher, but his buzz began to wilt as the year progressed and other performances joined the sprint to the finish line. Benedict Cumberbatch, currently an “it” man in pop culture, acquired raves for playing Alan Turing, but so far this season The Imitation Game has a barren record despite piles of nominations.

Projected Outcome without Eddie Redmayne
1. Michael Keaton, Birdman
2. Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
3. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
4. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Patricia Arquette has been invincible the past few months for her moving work in Boyhood. Because of her popularity with the critic association awards and the televised award shows, we do not have the smallest indication to even suggest an alternate frontrunner. The only contender that began to build a case against Arquette was Jessica Chastain for A Most Violent Year, but she ended the season with a snub from the Academy. Any one of the other nominees could rise to the occasion if Arquette would not have been nominated.

Meryl Streep’s nomination always felt secure for her creative turn in Into the Woods, but it seems as if people are not taking her film seriously enough to reward it in a substantial way. Laura Dern’s nomination was an inspired one considering her role in Wild is limited to flashbacks–which means a smaller amount of screentime–and the fact that she was largely ignored before her nomination from the Academy.

Keira Knightley rode The Imitation Game’s buzz to all of the crucial award shows this year. In playing Joan Clarke, Knightley does her usual melodramatic, aggressive British act and she has Harvey Weinstein’s heavy promotion in her favor, but I hesitate about relying on her rank in the race too heavily. Knightley’s role, in a similar way to Jones in Lead Actress, does not feel vigorous enough to take down her co-nominees.

Birdman reminds me of American Hustle in the Oscar race last year. The ensemble was among the most heralded aspects of the film and several of the actors were nominated, yet none of them were unable surmount the frontrunner and most likely took second place. Like American Hustle, Birdman lacks an acting frontrunner despite having various performances nominated.

To compare Emma Stone’s standing to Jennifer Lawrence’s position last year would be unfair because the Lawrence had more going for her, but Stone relates to her in another way: She holds a position in pop culture that could have been an entry into frontrunner status had it not been for Arquette. Also, Stone benefits from starring in a Best Picture frontrunner, having an uproar of an “Oscar clip” and losing a significant amount of weight to portray her character more accurately. She makes the most sense of the non-Arquette contenders.

Projected Outcome without Patricia Arquette
1. Emma Stone, Birdman
2. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
3. Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
4. Laura Dern, Wild

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Like Best Actress, a race without J.K. Simmons for Whiplash in Best Supporting Actor would divide the other nominees into two groups: 1) Mark Ruffalo and Robert Duvall, 2) Ethan Hawke and Edward Norton.

Duvall was one of the better attributes of The Judge, but his nomination feels like a gesture of reverence from his peers, showing their appreciation for all his years of hard work in the business. Mark Ruffalo has settled into a place in the film industry as a character actor, like his work in Foxcatcher exemplifies. His respect may be growing in the industry, but it’s not enough to climb over the other, more emphatic performances in his company.

In a world where Simmons was not orchestrating another Supporting Actor sweep (like we saw in previous years with Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, Christoph Waltz, Heath Ledger, Javier Bardem, ect.), the hypothetical winner would most likely be either Ethan Hawke in Boyhood or Edward Norton in Birdman.

After winning a fair amount of critics association awards, Norton’s loud, grabbing, memorable turn would probably be named the best of the year, especially when the industry’s support of his film is taken into consideration. I do have my reservations because of Hawke and the general question surrounding which film the Academy will support more: Birdman or Boyhood? Hawke gives a more flavorful performance in Boyhood than his co-star Patricia Arquette, and yet she is the undivided frontrunner for Supporting Actress. In addition, he has paid his dues and collected several nominations over the years from the Academy between acting and writing.

Projected Outcome without J.K. Simmons
1. Edward Norton, Birdman
2. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
3. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
4. Robert Duvall, The Judge

actresses

Best Actress has been an unexciting race this year because Julianne Moore has been the projected winner since her shining reviews for Still Alice emerged from the Toronto Film Festival in September. Moore has never won an Academy Award, despite four nominations and twenty years of respected and lauded work. Her path to victory this year has been smooth and unchallenged, as she has won all of the major precursor awards: Critics Choice, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild. But Moore may have her most difficult competition with winning the final Oscar-prerequisite, the British Academy Award.

This year’s acting races for the Academy Awards are mostly sewn up. J.K. Simmons for Whiplash, Patricia Arquette for Boyhood, Moore for Still Alice, and since winning the SAG, Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything (pending his expected BAFTA win).

The BAFTAs are a good tool for foreshadowing winners at the Oscars, yet many do not realize that only 3 times in the past 25 years have the same four acting champions from BAFTA duplicated their success at the Oscars. (Those years were 2011, 2007, and 2006.) So if Redmayne, Moore, Simmons, and Arquette are the likely Oscar winners, then will any of them miss the BAFTA? Arquette and Simmons are unstoppable, and Redmayne is extremely safe to the win the BAFTA. If Moore’s film was not such a small production and had more momentum going for it than just her performance, it would be easier to see why the BAFTA may feel compelled to reward her.

Most of Moore’s narrative this season has hinged on the idea that she is painfully overdue to win, and playing a woman with early-on-set Alzheimer’s disease would satisfy voters’ need to recognize her. The performance itself is devastating, so it would be a deserved win but that does not matter as much as the “overdue” factor in her case. The woman has paid her dues and it is finally “her time.” My question is: will the BAFTAs feel the same urge to keep the flow of the season unanimously in Moore’s favor?

When Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren were considered overdue in their respective winning years, both were victorious at the BAFTAs before the Oscars. But yet, they are both British actresses and were nominated for roles that would easily appeal to British voters.

I am not saying the BAFTAs only look to reward British actors, but recent history has shown UK actresses and foreign language performances have upset the American actress/role in this category’s frontrunner position:

1. Marion Cotillard, relatively unknown then, won the BAFTA for a breakout performance in La Vie en Rose over veteran actress Julie Christie in Away from Her after Christie collected the same awards Moore has already nabbed for Still Alice.
2. Emmanuelle Riva in Amour took the BAFTA from the 2012 favorites, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.
3. Carey Mulligan’s work in the British film An Education won her the BAFTA, even though Meryl Streep for Julie and Julia and Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side were the two battling performers in 2009. (Bullock was not nominated for the BAFTA, but Streep was.)

The BAFTAs nominated two British actresses in their Lead Actress category this year, Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl and Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything. Both women have narratives to upset Moore’s streak of winning this season.

Jones is a fetching English rose who has been everywhere promoting her richly rewarded film this season. The Theory of Everything was adored by the British Academy, so much so that James Marsh made it into Best Director. Her film received a whooping ten nominations, so she could benefit from the ample amount of good will towards the film. Though the story is about Stephen Hawking, Jones is more active and dominant during the second half of the film after her co-star, Eddie Redmayne, becomes immobile and unable to speak. But there’s major problem with Jones spoiling Moore’s sweep: Next to the other nominees, her role looks lighter, easier, and less challenging. How many voters will remember the impact of her performance more than the roaring sucker punches of acting from Moore, Pike, and Witherspoon?

The other British nominee is Pike who flourishes in the role of a lifetime in Gone Girl. The BAFTAs could decide to pick her for several reasons. 1) Gone Girl was an enormous financial success. It was the 12th highest grossing movie of last year in the United Kingdom. 2) Her startling character is likely to be the most remembered role of the nominees. 3) She physical transforms her body on the screen. If the voters fail to see the deep complexities behind her entire performance, they will surely notice Pike’s multiple weight-losses and weight-gains within the 150-minute movie. 4) Despite being more popular in the UK, Pike was relatively unknown to American audiences before this movie, and yet was sought out by David Fincher and trusted to lead a huge Hollywood production.

She may not have a British role, but it’s almost like a Cinderella story of sorts: an obscure English actor is cast in a Fincher film and becomes an overnight sensation with audiences around the world. It has also been demonstrated that Pike’s performance is the most popular performance—with the exception of Moore—in the race. She won twelve critics association awards for Gone Girl, more than anyone in the race this year. Her support in the UK has also established by her win from the London Critics Circle.

Reese Witherspoon and Amy Adams round out the list of nominees, but neither have what it takes to really pull through here. Witherspoon’s nomination was her reward and validates her BAFTA win for Walk the Line in 2005. Maybe it would be a closer race if she would have been able to create more traction in the past few months, but Wild never took off enough for her to be a threat. Amy Adams was not even Oscar-nominated for Big Eyes, and most of the non-Oscar-nominees who win BAFTAs are in the supporting categories, like Thandie Netwon for Crash and Sigourney Weaver for The Ice Storm.

Moore is the safest nominee to predict considering she had three previous BAFTA nominations without a win and her steamrolling success through every other major award show, but Jones and Pike do stand a chance to steal the trophy from under her frontrunner nose.

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How are AwardsDaily readers doing so far for their predictions for our contest? It’s pretty much going as expected all the way down the line:

Birdman
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
JK Simmons, Whiplash

Here are the charts…

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The Santa Barbara film festival is coming at the end of the month. It’s just been announced that Aniston will be the recipient of the Montecito Award on January 30, 2015. Aniston is making one of the most astonishing 11th hour bids for Best Actress I’ve seen in a while. She’s well liked, and overdue for a nomination. Though Julianne Moore has this in the bag, her main competition for the prize will be Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl and Jennifer Aniston for Cake.

Press release as follows.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 2, 2015

JENNIFER ANISTON TO RECEIVE THE MONTECITO AWARD

AT THE 30th SANTA BARBARA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Santa Barbara, CA- The Santa Barbara International Film Festival is proud to announce that it will present the prestigious Montecito Award to Jennifer Aniston in honor of her celebrated career, including this year’s inspirational performance in Cinelou Films’ Cake, directed by Daniel Barnz. The Tribute will take place on Friday, January 30, 2015 at the historic Arlington Theatre during the festival’s 30th edition.

The Montecito Award was created in recognition of a performer who has given a series of classic and standout performances throughout his or her career and whose style has made a major contribution to film. Previous recipients of the Montecito Award include such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey, Daniel Day-Lewis, Geoffrey Rush, Julianne Moore, Kate Winslet, Javier Bardem, Naomi Watts, and Annette Bening, who was the award’s first recipient in 2005.

Aniston’s most recent work includes her moving performance as Claire Bennett in Cake, where she plays a mother in pain over the loss of her child who struggles as she drives away her friends, husband, and even her chronic pain support group. This heart-wrenching story has rightfully garnered awards season buzz, with Aniston having already received SAG and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress.

“Once in a while a performer who we thought we knew gets outside of his or her comfort zone and shows us the unexpected,” said SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling. “When that happens it is cause for celebration – and this is why the 2015 Montecito Award is bestowed upon Ms. Aniston.”

Jennifer Aniston is a Golden Globe- and Emmy Award-winning actress, thanks to 10 seasons playing Rachel Green on the classic television comedy Friends. The role earned her five Emmy nominations, two SAG Award nominations and two Golden Globe nominations. During hiatus from Friends, Aniston pursued a film career, landing roles in Then There Was You, Picture Perfect, Dreams for an Insomniac, She’s the One, Rock Star, The Object of My Affection (her first of many films with Paul Rudd) and Bruce Almighty. One of Aniston’s most critically acclaimed roles was 2002’s The Good Girl, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. With the end of Friends in 2004, the San Fernando Valley native devoted herself full-time to her movie career, receiving critical praise for playing a depressed housekeeper in director Nicole Holofcener’s Friends With Money. Adept at both indie films and studio features, Aniston has starred in such box office hits as The Break-Up, Marley and Me, He’s Just Not That Into You, Horrible Bosses and We’re the Millers. She was most recently seen in Life of Crime. Upcoming films include Horrible Bosses 2, in November, and She’s Funny That Way, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, next year. Aniston made her directorial debut with the short, Room 10. She recently directed one of the Project Five short films, exploring the impact of breast cancer on people’s lives. She is also a producer on Call Me Crazy, a Project Five film premiering on Lifetime in April.

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival runs January 27 – February 7, 2015. The Montecito Award will be presented at the historic Arlington Theatre on Friday, January 30, 2015. Tickets are available now and can be purchased through www.sbfilmfestival.org or by calling 805-963-0023. Festival Passes and Packages are still available and sold exclusively at www.sbfilmfestival.org and 805-963-0023.

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival, presented by UGG® Australia, is dedicated to discovering and showcasing the best in independent and international cinema. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, SBIFF offers 200+ films, tributes and symposiums that range from American indie films to world cinema and everything in-between. With its commitment to cultural diversity and powerful storytelling, SBIFF transforms beautiful downtown Santa Barbara, CA into a rich destination for film lovers, attracting more than 85,000 attendees. SBIFF brings to the forefront the importance and power of filmmaking and continues its commitment to providing free children’s education and community outreach programs through its 10-10-10 Student Filmmaking and Screenwriting Competitions, Mike’s Field Trip to the Movies, AppleBox Family Films, 3rd Weekend and educational seminars. The Festival is set to run January 27 – February 7, 2015. For more information, please visit www.sbiff.org.

# # #

Publicity Contact:
Carol Marshall Lisa Taback
Carol Marshall Public Relations LTLA Communications
818-760-6450 310-274-3880
carol@cmarshallpr.com Lisa@lt-la.com

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This year was a wakeup call, or should have been, for anyone paying attention to the Oscar race. On the one hand, you had a good many films about men where the women were fashioned as shoehorns, helping to guide the foot into its rightful place. These rendered some of the best supporting performances of the year. There were also way too many women who did nothing more than stare at their men and wait for them to do something, to say something – as though nothing in their own heads mattered. Nothing in their own lives mattered. They didn’t matter except as a soft place to put it.

But from out of the fire, more than a few phoenixes emerged. They exist despite the many arms of the industry that wish they didn’t. They exist partly because women themselves produced the films that women starred in. They dipped a toe in the indie world because the mainstream studio system has forsaken them. Too much money on the line. Too many jittery executives.

MAJOR SPOILER WARNING – MAJOR

1. The Performance of the Year

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Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne is a golem from the dark underside of the female psyche, one that most cinematic heroines can’t get anywhere near in 2014, but the one Hollywood deserves. She is the revenge for this year’s slate of embarrassingly thin female characters shamefully put on screen in 2014, as though women really weren’t people but just parsley put on the plate to look pretty and help the meat go down more smoothly.  With Amy Dunne, delivered ferociously by Rosamund Pike, we have something touching the R. Crumb world of unearthing the true vulgarity beneath the facade.  And oh, how sweet it is.

Many men were frustrated by Gone Girl because they thought it depicted male stereotyping and that no man would allow himself to be tricked by a woman that way. A WOMAN after all.  Many women were angry at the film for a character daring to use rape or sexual assault as a manipulation tactic, an accusation lobbed at women constantly, and one they have to beat back in real discussions about rape. Women thought it misogynist (some did) because the villain – this monster, this golem, was meant as a stand-in for all women.  Then there’s this tricky little thing called the truth – it exists whether we want it to or not. Idealized versions of men and women have their place, but so do the versions of people that fill out the rest of the human experience.

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In Gone Girl, Amy wasn’t punished, not the way Glenn Close was — also eroticized, famously, in an elevator, in a sink. Close got “properly” punished for wrecking the stability of marital bliss but boy wasn’t it hot to watch her fuck Michael Douglas for the first hour? We can’t have monsters roaming the quiet countryside so the audience testing determined that Close had to be shot dead by Anne Archer.  Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct found her empowerment by uncrossing her legs to reveal blonde pussy hairs. That Stone played an unrealistic serial killer came second to what Basic Instinct was really about: watching her fuck Michael Douglas for the first hour.  She isn’t punished and that was meant to be progress but when a woman’s only source of power is her sexuality you are still very much inside the box.

The biggest difference between what Pike does with Amy, and what Fincher does with Pike, is that he never eroticizes her. Pike’s nakedness, her sexuality, is locked up tightly to be used only when necessary – that is your first clue that she’s not your ordinary movie female. Had Fincher reduced her to an erotic plaything — like Kathleen Turner in Body Heat who ultimately uses that eroticism to her benefit, probably men wouldn’t complain about the film as much as they do. They get what they came for.  That Amy never gives that over confirms Gone Girl’s primary POV.  Fincher only briefly indulges the male desire with Andie’s nakedness, something that continues to haunt Amy throughout the film.  That body. That girl. How easy it is to lure men.

In one of the film’s best moments, Amy recounts seeing Nick kiss Andie for the first time. The sequence is tied together through mouths. Nick reaches in to touch her lip, we cut back to smoke coming out of the mouth of her “new friend,” then back to Nick kissing Andie, then back to Amy – seamlessly, as though the director’s lens was biologically connected to Amy’s thought processes.

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Amy’s only mistake throughout the film is trusting the “new friend” — underestimating her. Usually, women in film are betrayed not by other women but by men.  Gone Girl is full of women betraying other women in dramatic ways (a suffocating mother who needs the perfect daughter) and in typical ways (a young woman fucking another woman’s husband). This is our world, we women know it well. Sooner or later our world is bound to unearth a psychopath.

The Amy Dunne we see in the first half of Gone Girl is filtered through an unreliable narrator. We are not seeing Nick Dunne. We’re seeing the story told to us through Amy’s slanted and deliberately misleading POV. We see Amy as Amy sees Amy — and as she wants to be seen by others. The film and the performance comes alive at about the hour mark when the real Amy is finally unleashed.

This comes together most thrillingly at the one hour mark. The tempo of the music by Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross’ flips itself over with a track called “Technically Missing”. Amy’s voice-over sneaks in just as Nick is finding the shed of  purchases and the detective is finding the diary. Game, set, match.

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“I am so much happier now that I’m dead. Technically missing. Soon to be presumed dead. Gone. And my lazy, lying, cheating, oblivious husband will go to prison for my murder. Nick Dunne took my pride and my dignity and my hope and my money. He took and took from me until I no longer existed.”

The real Amy Dunne emerges. Fincher could have chosen to continue the myth of the eroticized female blonde but instead he allows her to unpeel from the perfect Amy to the real Amy. What’s the first thing she does? She eats. A lot. Burgers, fries, cupcakes, chips, Kit Kat bars – all the things we women must deny ourselves on a daily basis to stay thin and pretty for the male gaze. Fincher allows her the freedom and honesty to collapse into the imperfect state where most of us women actually do dwell. Why do we relate to the cool girl monologue so well? Because we all know what it takes – we know the false persona of what women should be because it’s broadcast on nearly every TV show, every rock song and in every movie. We can’t be that. Not really.

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The very next shot sequence is the best in the film. It leads into the Cool Girl monologue. The music, the camera, Amy’s face a release. Pike holds back a mischievous smile behind her thick sunglasses as we hear the famous “cool girl” monologue.

“And after all of the outrage and when I’m ready I will go out on the water with a handful of pills and a pocketful of stones and when they find my body they’ll know: Nick Dunne dumped his beloved like a piece of garbage.  And she floated down past all the other abused unwanted inconvenient women. Then Nick will die too.  Nick and Amy will be gone but they never really existed. Nick loved the girl I was pretending to be. Cool girl.

Men always use that, don’t they, as their defining compliment. She’s a cool girl. Cool girl is hot. Cool girl is game. Cool girl is fun. Cool girl never gets angry at her man. She just smiles in a chagrined, loving manner and presents her mouth for fucking. She likes what he likes. So evidently, he’s a vinyl hipster who likes fetish manga. If he likes Girls Gone Wild she’s a mall babe, who loves football and buffalo wings at Hooters.  When I met Nick Dunne I knew he wanted cool girl.  And for him, I’ll admit, I was willing to try.  I wax stripped my pussy raw. I drank canned beer while watching Adam Sandler movies. I ate cold pizza and remained a size 2. I blew him, semi-regularly. I lived in the moment. I was fucking game.

I cannot say I didn’t enjoy some of it. Nick teased out in me things I didn’t know existed.  A lightness. A humor. An ease.  But I made him sharper, stronger. I inspired him to rise to my level. I forged the man of the my dreams.  We were happy pretending to be other people. We were the happiest couple we knew.  And what’s the point of being together if you’re not the happiest? But Nick got lazy.  He became someone I did not agree to marry.  He actually expected me to love him unconditionally. Then he dragged me, penniless, to the naval of his country and found himself a newer, younger, bouncier cool girl.  You think I’d let him destroy me and end up happier than ever? No fucking way.  He doesn’t get to win. My cute, charming, salt of the earth Missouri guy. He needed to learn. Grownups work for things. Grownups pay. Grownups suffer consequences.”

Is this how all women are? Of course not. Do all women secretly pretend to be perfect for their men? No. But Amazing Amy, reared to be PERFECT had to. She had no other choice but to live up to the standards imposed upon her by her parents (and society). To satisfy those requirements, she had to shapeshift. Fincher illustrates this beautifully by allowing Pike to be what she never is in movies: anything but the fuckstick.

Pike relishes it. She dives right into this version of Amy, her performance in a glance across the room, a swish of her perfect hair, the way she toys with Nick after they get back together by patting the bed beside her, and of course, the coup de grâce, “I’m the cunt you married. The only time you liked yourself was when you were trying to be someone this cunt might like.”

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It’s a bravura performance of the kind we just don’t get the pleasure of seeing anymore. Brilliant, funny, terrifying — a fully realized monster infiltrating the town of Stepford.  Pike’s is the performance of the year because she redefined her own capabilities. Her Amy did not come from the collective imaginations of millions of readers of the book – but from a place hidden away inside herself that doesn’t dare show itself unless summoned. She leaves us feeling unresolved about our comfortable definitions of what women are supposed to be on screen. Most were waiting for Nick’s redemptive moment and Amy’s punishment.  There is no there female character on screen this year that can touch Pike if we’re just talking about pure performance, which we never are when it comes to the Oscar race.

2. Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars and Still Alice

Moore’s dual performances this year will give her what she needs to finally win the overdue Oscar she’s deserved for years now. In Maps, she plays a desperate, aging actress who is given the chance (by the great David Cronenberg) to unpeel her own kind of monster. In Still Alice, she is afflicted with Alzheimer’s – it is heartbreaking and one of the best performances of her career.

3. Hilary Swank, The Homesman

The Oscar race may not have room for Swank this year it seems, or the Homesman at all, which is a shame for a film that really did shape itself around its female themes and characters. That it ended with a man is what seemed to bother people. But Swank’s performance has stayed with me all of these months after Cannes. While she might not be on the top of everyone’s list, if we’re really talking about best, hers demands consideration.

4. Reese Witherspoon, Wild, Inherent Vice

Witherspoon is reinventing or at least fortifying how actresses can find their place in Hollywood by producing two films and challenging herself — in Wild she plays a hiker grieving for her mother, the love of her life.  She also produced Gone Girl and Wild, while starring in The Good Lie and Inherent Vice.

5. Jessica Chastain, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Chastain will be nominated in supporting for A Most Violent Year, though she never was able to find her place in this year’s lead actress race.  Is it that she has too many options to choose from that voters can’t really align behind any one performance? Maybe. But once again, if we’re talking about best, Chastain is right up there with this grieving mother and estranged wife trying to find her own identity.

6. Jennifer Aniston, Cake

Aniston blows it out in Cake, so much so that, for the first time, I really saw her as a real actress. Moreover, she reveals the kind of versatility that will be well utilized in character turns later in her career. As yet another grieving mother, Aniston’s Claire has decided life is no longer worth living. The character arc takes her from that place to a place of wanting to live. Subtle, moving – easily one of the year’s best.

7. Marion Cotillard, 2 Days, 1 Night

Cotillard has become the critics’ darling this year, verging on martyrdom, which I find strange since it came out of nowhere. Where was this unanimous support with Rust and Bone? Nonetheless, she’s great in the Dardennes film where she must convince her co-workers not to take a bonus so she can keep her job. Only the French […and perhaps the Belgians] would make a film about this and cast a woman in the lead.

8. Anne Dorval, Mommy

Another vibrant, comical, perverse depiction of a broken mother who tries to do her best, under the circumstances. Dolan’s characters push towards extremes, and never play it safe. Watching Mommy is such a thrilling experience because you have no idea where it’s going to take you. There is an element of danger and sadness in each frame of the film.  That it wasn’t good enough for the stuffed shirts in the Academy is their loss.

9. Gugu Mbatha-Raw Beyond the Lights and Belle

If 2014 has done one thing it’s deliver Mbatha-Raw as a promising newcomer. Her remarkable versatility in two high profile films. She clearly has a bright future ahead of her as long as filmmakers give her those chances as these two directors have done this year.

10. Amy Adams, Big Eyes

The understated performance of Amy Adams in Big Eyes is better than the critics would have you believe. Thought the film itself loses its way towards the end, Adams’ work is solid and interesting throughout. Her performance and the film might have been better served if they hadn’t played it so straight, but allowed for more humor to crinkle at the edges.  Still, she’s one of the greats.

11. Essie Davis, The Babadook – Davis gave arguably the best performance of the year, or damn near close. She’s not up for the Oscar, unfortunately, but that doesn’t take away from what a fully realized breath of fresh this character in this film is.

 

 

 

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by Péter Szemmelveisz

First of all, I have a confession to make : I resist this “Best Actress race is SO thin” line. I resist it because if we keep repeating it, it will take away from the glorious career moment of the winner (the best bet at the moment is the brilliant, LONG-overdue Julianne Moore). I resist it because it makes it easier for people to forget/ignore the fact that we had HUGE hits this year, carried by exceptional actresses creating instantly classic characters (Amazing Amy, Maleficent, Hazel). And most of all, I resist it because it fails to put the emphasis on the real problem here : there aren’t enough good roles for women…and that is NOT the fault of actresses. Not that anyone implied that it is, but by stating year after year that Best Actor is such a competitive race and Best Actress is so clearly not, doesn’t really help the industry overcome their undoubted sexism problem now, does it ?

And while we were busy worrying about how ‘weak’ the Best Actress race is (again), a wonderful young actress quietly broke through and many of us barely even noticed. At the very least, Gugu Mbatha-Raw deserves a mention for not only a star-making breakthrough year but also for making history : I’m fairly certain this is the first year a woman of color headlined TWO films (Belle, Beyond the lights) that were also written AND directed by women of color (Amma Asante, Misan Sagay, Gina Prince-Bythewood). The fact that both films were well-received by critics who raved about her wildly different performances, is just the icing on the cake.

Considering how much she has going for her this awards season, it is baffling to me she still doesn’t seem to get the traction she so clearly deserves so now I can only hope that she has a team who will remind British voters (=BAFTA) that she is one of their own – born and raised in Oxford, got her degree at their most prestigious acting school (RADA) and played several iconic Shakespeare roles on stage like Juliet (opposite Andrew Garfield) and Ophelia (opposite Jude Law) – and remind her peers (a.k.a. the most dominant Academy branch, the Actors) of the stunning range she delivered this year (from corset to blue wig). Then an Oscar nomination suddenly wouldn’t feel as unfairly out of reach as it does now.

She is a beautiful, classically-trained actress in her early thirties who, after working on stage and doing some TV work, is now having a spectacular breakthrough year in film…she is basically Jessica Chastain circa 2011… or the British Jessica Chastain if you will.

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But how to gain the considerable traction she needs to make a dent in the race, is another question. I’m no publicist, so I can only guess here : a few high-profile open letters and cocktail parties hosted by ‘names’ probably wouldn’t hurt. It’s not like there aren’t people who couldn’t be quietly approached : she spent months playing in plays opposite franchise star Andrew Garfield and two-time Oscar nominee Jude Law, not to mention she worked with beloved superstars, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts (Larry Crowne). Also, J.J. Abrams DID give her the lead in one of his shows (Undercovers) and Oprah did LOVE Belle… just saying.

BELLE Reviews

“Amma Assante’s film is very much a chamber piece, intimate and romantic, full of actors in beautiful period costumes requesting the pleasure of “taking a turn” about the grounds with one other. But it is breathtakingly ambitious for such a piece, taking us back to that age and letting us see slavery, in all its inhuman ugliness, through Mbatha-Raw’s huge, expressive eyes. She is a revelation, suggesting Dido’s curiosity and confusion at her odd station in life, and spirit that just wasn’t allowed in someone of her sex or race back then. Assante wisely keeps the camera close on Mbatha-Raw as Dido discovers what typically becomes of people of her skin color, and revels in Dido’s haughty dismissal of the passionate young abolitionist and would-be lawyer (Sam Reid) who sets off sparks every time they clash over class divisions, slavery and the Lord’s “duty.”
Roger Moore (McClatchy-Tribune News Service)

“Gugu Mbatha-Raw is outstanding (…) Mbatha-Raw who is the real surprise and a delight. Her Dido understands the complicated place she and her late mother occupy in the world with a growing rage. There is a spark to the character, thanks to Mbatha-Raw, that makes the film at times thrilling, and by its end, moving.” Bill Goodykoontz (Arizona Republic)

“Though Mbatha-Raw has had roles in short-lived series “Touch” and “Undercovers” as well as a number of other credits, she feels like a fresh discovery here. Dido requires her to be alternately fearful and full of grace, confident in who she is while feeling at odds with her own blood. She holds her own with some of Britain’s best talent, and it feels natural for her to be on screen with Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton.” Kimber Myers (The Playlist)

“Beautifully played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Dido is the illegitimate daughter of a slave woman and a Royal Navy admiral who leaves her in the care of her aristocratic great-uncle (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) (…) But the real takeaway is Mbatha-Raw. She makes a case for why she ought to be a star.” Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly)

“Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was born in Oxford and has acted since she was a child, speaks her lines with tremulous emotion and, finally, radiant authority. Austen, I think, would have been thrilled. “ David Denby (The New Yorker)

“Gugu Mbatha-Raw is outstanding as an 18th-century Anglo-African woman fighting slavery” Graham Fuller (New York Daily News)

“Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a superb performance as Dido, a very confused young woman who exists in a state of limbo: She is too high-born to mingle with commoners and too dark-skinned to eat dinner with her own family.” Stephanie Merry (Washington Post)

“Mbatha-Raw is understated and captivating in the part” Claudia Puig (USA Today)

“A chief reason to rejoice is the star performance of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a beautiful and sensitive biracial actress who radiates warmth and intelligence in every scene.” Rex Reed (New York Observer)

“For Mbatha-Raw, who has worked primarily in English television, “Belle” does amount to a Hollywood coming-out party of sorts, and the actress makes a captivating heroine; exuding the dignity and restraint of a young woman well accustomed to unequal treatment, she’s nonetheless unafraid to let fly a few verbal darts as occasion arises, delivered with a fiery eloquence in the best Austen tradition.” Justin Chang (Variety)

“Gugu Mbatha-Raw, most impressive” Bruce Ingram (Chicago Sun Times)

“It does showcase Mbatha-Raw’s considerable talent and should secure the rising British actress a spot on Hollywood’s radar as “12 Years” did for Lupita Nyong’o.” Betsy Sharkey (Los Angeles Times)

“But Mbatha-Raw isn’t listening to the tinny music around her in Lights. She’s too busy composing a symphony with her performance. As Noni, a pop star who wants her voice to be heard, Mbatha-Raw shows incredible range. She sells the portrait of a modern-day sensation beautifully in press appearances and in the video for her song “Masterpiece.” She also sells Noni’s inner struggle, her difficult relationship with her mother (played by an also great Minnie Driver), and her conflicted feelings about her savior and lover, Kaz (Parker). Most of all, she pulls all these different notes together into one woman. Her performance isn’t just dextrous; it’s cohesive.Ordinarily, such an achievement would be inspiring awards talk. And sure, Mbatha-Raw has a chance—she did just get nominated for a Gotham Award. But unfortunately, Lights just doesn’t have the right pedigree—it’s hard to imagine a film that opens at the Billboard Music Awards would be to the Academy’s taste. Which is a shame, because Mbatha-Raw’s electric work really does deserve kudos. (…) Now, Mbatha-Raw will get that same chance to break out. But hers is a more difficult battle, if for no other reason than Hollywood historically has problems finding meaty roles for women of color. It’s the very reason Viola Davis was so enthused about joining How to Get Away with Murder on TV this season. (…) But even outside of Lights, Mbatha-Raw has all the traits of a massive star. Earlier in 2014, she won plaudits for her performance in Belle, a period piece. She went from a girl donning corsets to a girl dominating charts in one year, showing versatility reminiscent of most of the actresses described above. (Stone, for instance, went from the period Magic in the Moonlight to the oh-so-contemporary Birdman this year.) The signs are there: Mbatha-Raw is playing all the right notes. Lights could be her chance to get the career she deserves—if Hollywood lets her.” Kevin O’Keeffe (The Atlantic)

BEYOND THE LIGHTS Reviews

“At the center of “Beyond the Lights” is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who does her own singing and embodies Noni so fiercely that she sears the screen. This is a star-making performance; Noni is a complete 180-degree turn from the titular character she played in “Belle.. “Beyond the Lights” gives her complicated song and dance numbers, scenes of immense strength and overpowering weakness, and a romance that plays like a less tragic “A Star is Born” or”Mahagony”, had “Mahogany” been any good. This is an incredibly rich role and Mbatha-Raw commands every second she’s onscreen.” Odie Henderson (Rogerebert..com)

“A decade and a half later, Noni — now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, so impressive earlier this year in “Belle”— is a Rihanna-ish diva on the verge of superstardom (…) this is very much Noni’s story, and Ms. Mbatha-Raw’s film, and both Mr. Parker and his character seem to recognize that with gallantry and good humor. “Beyond the Lights” may be a fantasy — movies about love, like songs about love, tend to fall into that category — but it is an uncommonly smart and honest fantasy. What it wants us to believe, most of all, is that despite all the ugliness and exploitation in the world of entertainment, the bond between artist and audience is a real and sustaining form of love in its own right. And the movie is marvelous proof of its own argument.” A.O. Scott (The New York Times)

“Mbatha-Raw received a lot of justified acclaim earlier this year for the period piece Belle, but believe it or not, this might be the more complicated, impressive part.” Bilge Ebiri (Vulture)

“Mbatha-Raw is shockingly good in creating both the “Noni” public persona and the real Noni, a woman beat down and depressed as she ponders how her mother and manager (an only-getting-better Minnie Driver) allowed her to get to this point. Mbatha-Raw proves she can put on a show as she’s more convincing as a modern day pop star than some of the “real” music stars who have tried to play fictional music divas on the big screen (yes, we’re looking at you Mariah and Christina). Mbatha-Raw was working in American television for years before “Belle,” but her role in “Lights” is the sort of turn that could lead to new-found attention from studio casting directors.” Gregory Ellwood (Hitfix)

“None of this would work without an equally tuned-in lead. She’s certainly got one in Mbatha-Raw, who delivers the most nuanced and naturally charismatic performance I’ve seen from an actress this year.” Elizabeth Weitzman (New York Daily News)

“Mbatha-Raw, so good this year in Belle, is dynamite. The dark fires she reveals under Noni’s cool exterior singe the screen.” Pete Travers (Rolling Stone)

“Mbatha-Raw continues to be a true revelation in a role that could be not be any more different from her star turn in “Belle” this year.” Kevin C. Johnson (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

“The fact that the film’s star, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, delivers a genuinely galvanizing performance as a singer searching for her own voice makes “Beyond the Lights” not just enormous fun to watch but surprisingly gratifying on an artistic level. Like the early Oscar hopeful Eddie Redmayne in the far more high-minded “The Theory of Everything” also opening locally this week, Mbatha-Raw undergoes an astonishing physical transformation in service to the role of a young British prodigy. The fact that “Beyond the Lights” proudly occupies a middlebrow genre means that Mbatha-Raw will most likely be overlooked for the season’s biggest awards, the casualty of snooty high-low distinctions that, with luck, will mean nothing to audiences who like their pulp escapism served with smarts and good taste….a star turn as compelling as any this year” Ann Hornaday (Washington Post)

“Mbatha-Raw looks, sounds and moves like an A-lister. If “Belle” put the actress on Hollywood’s radar, “Beyond the Lights” heralds her superstardom. A flurry of accolades and a record deal should follow.” Martin Tsai (Los Angeles Times)

“As the stunned deer in the headlights of fame, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is incandescent, playing a vulnerable young woman suffocating in the processed packaging of a sizzling pop goddess. (…) But the big surprise here is Mbatha-Raw, who turned heads this year in the period drama Belle. The emerging Brit actress proves she’s equally captivating in the very contemporary drag of a booty-shaking Beyonce-Rihanna clone, selling sex with a pumped-up R&B beat.” David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter)

“Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a fierce lead turn (…) Mbatha-Raw, who attracted her first waves of admirers with this spring’s “Belle,” is equally superb here, believably crafting a thoroughly modern, synthetic pop star without losing track of the organic human beneath.” Andrew Barker (Variety)

“The unutterably gorgeous Mbatha-Raw has the best “You had me at hello” eyes in the business and the charisma that has us rooting for her, for love, no matter the role. The real shock here is her musical presence, a voice that could take her into intimate clubs for the rest of her life, or with the right skimpy costumes and sexual choreography, into Nicki Minaj World. Like Noni. She gives life to this old-fashioned/sexually frank romance, totally believable as a woman who might be impressed by the strong man comes to her rescue, totally acceptable as a flashy-trashy candidate for Super Bowl halftime show. “ Roger Moore (McClatchy-Tribune News Service)

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I’ll start by saying no, I don’t think anyone can beat Julianne Moore for her performance in Still Alice. Twice nominated at the Golden Globes (like Kate Winslet was the year she won), and a career of brilliant performances behind her, Moore seems to have this sewn up. But. Here’s the thing. Oscar has a history of rewarding first time nominees over veterans in the Best Actress category. Who can forget Annette Bening vs. Hilary Swank, for instance, or Julie Christie vs. Marion Cotillard or Sandra Bullock vs. Meryl Streep. Indeed, Christie, Streep and other vets who have lost to first timers already won Oscars (not Bening) and I would hope that, by now, Moore has paid her dues and then some. But I’m seeing some shakeup in the Best Actress race lately, like Jennifer Aniston taking a prominent role on the publicity tour (which matters).

Rosamund Pike has just won a slew of critics awards, taking Detroit, St. Louis and Kansas City. The big city New York critics denied Julianne Moore by trying to boost Marion Cotillard’s chances. Indeed, Cotillard could still get into Oscar’s Big Five but right now we’re presuming it goes like this:

Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Alternates: Marion Cotillard, Two Days or The Immigrant, Amy Adams, Big Eyes
Dark Horse: Hilary Swank, The Homesman

Pike has a few advantages here, or certainly did until Aniston hit the scene. She’s playing against type, playing a dark character, and led a movie to a $164 million box office win. She’s the only one of the five who can boast any sort of box office success at all.

Aniston also plays a hard-edged character (though I’ve not yet seen Cake) who isn’t as likable as Aniston herself. She has the Cinderella thing going on, being that no one really expected she’d parlay the tiny indie movie into an Oscar nod but that’s exactly what is happening, thanks in large part to a brilliant publicity campaign.

Witherspoon has won an Oscar already, and likely won’t be in a Best Picture contender. Only Pike and Jones can claim that honor, at least so far, this year. But Witherspoon produced Gone Girl and Wild, and starred in three films this year. She’s also working the publicity circuit as hard as Aniston.

The question isn’t really which actress can beat Julianne Moore, but rather, can Julianne Moore not win? With a long line of overlooked performances in films like Safe, Far From Heaven, The Big Lebowski, and The Hours, Moore has been the one major actress of her generation who hasn’t yet won an Oscar. From my perspective, I always look out for those kinds of wins. On the other hand, why do I get the sense that others don’t feel that way?

There are more multiple nominees without Oscar wins for women than there have been for men. It gets harder as an actress ages to win.

One of the most interesting years for that was 1950 when Judy Holiday beat both Bette Davis for All About Eve and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Blvd. Holiday’s performance was the most likable and charming, no doubt, as the plucky, funny, dumb blonde. No one can say she didn’t deserve it. Can we pause, however, to look at that year? All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard led by powerful older actresses – can you imagine any Oscar year now looking anything like that?

But neither Jennifer Aniston nor Rosamund Pike play likable charming nitwits. But you know if there was one in the race it would be a deadly threat. Here is how I see it lining up at the moment:

1. Julianne Moore – the frontrunner.
2. Jennifer Aniston – waiting in the wings.
3. Rosamund Pike – the threatening dark horse.
4. Reese Witherspoon – Previous win works against her but might not prevent her.
5. Felicity Jones – The young charmer who could come from behind

Here is a list of actresses who have been the bridesmaid but never the bride:

Debra Kerr – 6 nominations for Best Actress, 0 wins
Glenn Close – 3 for Best Actress, 3 for supporting, 0 wins
Amy Adams – 1 Best Actress, 4 supporting, – 0 wins
Irene Dunne – 5 nominations for Best Actress, 0 wins
Julianne Moore – 4 nominations, 2 Best Actress, 2 supporting, 0 wins
Annette Bening – 4 nominations, 3 Best Actress, 1 Supporting, 0 wins
Jane Alexander – 4 nominations, 2 Best Actress, 2 supporting, 0 wins
Marsha Mason – 4 nominations, 0 wins
Rosalind Russell – 4 nominations for Best Actress, 0 wins
Barbara Stanwyck – 4 nominations for Best Actress, 0 wins
Greta Garbo – 3 nominations for Best Actress, 0 wins
Debra Winger – 3 nominations for Best Actress, 0 wins
Laura Linney – 2 Best actress, 1 supporting, 0 wins
Sigourney Weaver – 2 Best Actress, 1 supporting, 0 wins
Michelle Williams – 2 Best Actress, 1 supporting, 0 wins

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The two strong lead acting contenders will be feted in Santa Barbara in late January.  Press release as follows:

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival, presented by UGG® Australia, will jointly honor Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones with the Cinema Vanguard Award on Thursday, January 29, 2015. The actors will be celebrated for their remarkable careers, including this year’s Focus Features release The Theory of Everything, with a tribute at the Arlington Theatre during the 30th edition of the Festival, it was announced today by SBIFF Executive Director, Roger Durling.

The Cinema Vanguard Award was created in recognition of actors who have forged their own path – taking artistic risks and making a significant and unique contribution to film. Previous honorees include Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, Amy Adams, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz, Vera Farmiga, Stanley Tucci, Peter Sarsgaard, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ryan Gosling.

Commented Roger Durling, “These two actors continue to impress, and we are honored to have them at SBIFF to celebrate their fantastic body of work. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’s performances together in The Theory of Everything are nothing short of an astonishing collaboration, recalling the alchemy of Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker in My Left Foot.

 

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Two more films by women filmmakers have broken through this year. Their best hope for Oscar nods would be the screenplay categories. It is near impossible to crack any major category with good intentions. The buzz machine starts early and snowballs – or perhaps more appropriately, it’s like the Titanic, gaining speed and momentum as it barrels towards the iceberg and by the time you want to turn it around it is already too late.

Still, with a little push there could be SOME movement in these categories. Let it be known that both Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights and Jenny Slate in Obvious Child delivered strong leading performances this year. With a little help from the crisis, ANY CRITIC, they could have been launched into the race – though even then, Best Actress is already too full, with most slots reserved early by high-profile roles and veteran performers.

Not saying it’s impossible – it’s just unlikely, as these contenders are being pushed hardcore early in year by powerful publicity companies that know how to get nominations. That’s WHY they get the big bucks. I’m not going to address whether they are deserving or not – Mark Harris already plugged them in his column a while back. My own feeling that is actresses get the short shrift in Hollywood after the age of 30. When Julia Roberts came along in the 1980s, that became the model for a successful actress in Hollywood: versatile, breathlessly beautiful, charismatic. We wouldn’t really see another Julia Roberts until Jennifer Lawrence. But aiming at someone that young and fresh-faced resulted in older actresses being sidelined, continually and tragically, resulting in one of the worst years for actresses since I’ve been blogging. Do I think these vets should be sidelined for the youngers? No, I don’t. Does that mean we’re talking about better performances? I’m talking about how hard it is to find good roles if you’re over the age of 35. They just aren’t offered up in mainstream film. Getting awards for them backs the notion that women don’t expire after the age of 35. All of them will get there – all of the young ones will be used up and spit out by the time they get there – wouldn’t they rather empower career success later rather than earlier?

It’s up for debate, I know. I’m not saying definitely one way or the other – I’m just examining the tragic state of how women are treated in Hollywood, black women especially.

The original screenplay category is once again packed with men. If Gillian Flynn represents the sole female in either of the writing categories, original looks to be 5/5 men. Flynn might be joined in Adapted by Gillian Robespierre, Elisabeth Holm, Karen Maine for Obvious Child. It isn’t as packed as Original and there could be some wiggle room there.

Gina Prince Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights is original and that category is already too crowded. Sure, Beyond the Lights and Obvious Child are filled with woman-y stuff, icky love story stuff, not taken seriously stuff – usually that isn’t sexy enough, or enough at all, to get Oscar attention. As we know from the treatment of Gone Girl by both genders in the media, it’s a tall order to satisfy the requirements of male audiences and critics, female audiences and critics. The list is too long, the requirements too hard to fill. Or to put it another way, not even Mean Girls, arguably one of the best screenplays of the last two decades, couldn’t even manage an Oscar nod and it wasn’t even about romance, as Beyond the Lights and Obvious Child kind of are, with other important elements threaded throughout.

The synopsis for Beyond the Lights is, as follows:

The pressures of fame have superstar singer Noni on the edge, until she meets Kaz, a young cop who works to help her find the courage to develop her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be.

I have not yet seen the film but I am going to seek it out in the coming days on the recommendation of Dargis and Kris Tapley and others. I’m sure it’s a lot better than that synopsis suggests. But I’m also sure that “relationship movies” can’t build the same kind of steam or gravitas than “important” stories, usually about Great Men. If the gender balance in the guilds ever equalizes, there might be some wiggle room in that area. But mostly “relationship movies” suffer, unless they’re made by men, about men, like Silver Linings Playbook (another Dargis favorite, where the female lead is really just there to enforce the male protagonist). The more critics talk about Beyond the Lights, the better.

In taking another swipe at Gone Girl, the NY Times’ Manohla Dargis made a big thing about Beyond the Lights in her Best of list:

The movie’s writer and director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, is defiantly sincere about its romantic tropes, a rarity in American mainstream cinema. That sincerity may be too alien for audiences or perhaps years of Katherine Heigl flicks have made them skittish about heterosexual romance. That’s too bad, because watching people fall in love is surely as interesting as watching them kill one another. As of early December, though, the only title in the Top 20 grossing movies featuring a straight couple is “Gone Girl,” a nihilistic cartoon in which a woman gets away with murder by crying rape. As edgy metaphors for modern relationships go, I prefer “Edge of Tomorrow,” in which Emily Blunt’s character keeps killing Tom Cruise’s, à la “Groundhog Day,” as he struggles to become the hero he’s meant to be.

I’m not sure why “Beyond the Lights” hasn’t found its audience. I like to think it isn’t racism. In typical fashion, the trailers reduce the movie to its most obvious terms, including a frolic on a beach and images of a male torso so sculptured it would make Michelangelo sigh. Yet that body and beach are crucial to the movie’s method and meaning, and its exploration of a woman’s right to pleasure and self-determination. It doesn’t broadcast those ideas, but folds them into a story that’s also a maternal melodrama about a poor white mother (Minnie Driver) and a black daughter (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who’s as talented as she is haunted by her place in the world. It squeezes tears as cannily as that old Hollywood weepie “Stella Dallas,” except that here Mommy Dearest exploits her daughter.

So, Dargis likes Edge of Tomorrow where Tom Cruise is the lead and Blunt, while great, is yet again sidelined. She also likes Beyond the Lights because it offers traditional romance. But can’t bring herself to support, and feels the need to again criticize, the one movie that lets women out of those traditional cages of “backseat babe” and someone to whom love matters more than anything. I think there is room for all of these kinds of stories, not just the ones that paint women in a positive light. It’s important to allow for us to continue to be dark and dirty, to explore the myths about women, to upend stereotypes.Sadly, because Dargis can’t see past her own inherent bias about what women should be, she’s unable to celebrate Gillian Flynn’s success. The more freedom women have as writers and storytellers the more stories there will be about women, not just ONE KIND of woman. This is not criticize Beyond the Lights in any way – it ought to be championed as hard. I just don’t get why, to do that, Dargis felt the need to harpoon – yet again – Gone Girl.

I’m not thinking Beyond the Lights has a shot at screenplay, not with a 73 over at Metacritic. Then again, Theory of Everything also has that a score just as low and it is “in the conversation.” But that’s because it’s “important” as it’s about Stephen Hawking. Still, why shouldn’t Beyond the Lights be considered a contender? At least for writing. Gina Prince-Bythewood has been an established filmmaker for years now. What she needs, what all women in the field need, are strong advocates.

The brilliant writing by Gillian Robespierre, Elisabeth Holm, Karen Maine for Obvious Child, if nominated in the less-crowded adapted category, would put two Gillians in the adapted screenplay race, for a total of FOUR women writers. That, along with the addition of history-making Ava DuVernay, potentially in the Best Picture/Best Director race? Now you’re talking about “movement.”

Obvious Child is really funny throughout – with vulgarity woven through likable and admirable young women who face wrenching dilemmas like having an abortion. It is handled very well, and indeed, the lead character Jenny Slate does not find her strength through a male character but rather with women like her mother and her best friend. The women I know out there in the world who aren’t plugged into the 90% male-driven Oscar narrative would find enriching value in both Beyond the Lights and Obvious Child. They would see themselves in their stories. Still, how many men can relate?

When you’re talking Oscar that’s what you’re talking about. The sad evolution of film critics has resulted in a similar dynamic. Movies that get into the race have to have the male stamp of approval. Where women are concerned, if the story is more about men then women they can roll with it. But if it’s about women, written by women, driven by what women care about? Forget it. We see in film a reflection of ourselves. And in this case “ourselves” is majority male, majority straight white male.

I’m going to put both of these on the contender tracker with my fingers crossed. After 16 years of this, though, I know that rave reviews drive these awards. Neither of these films got the kind of raves a contender really needs, despite Dargis’ push. As an Oscar blogger, I know what can and can’t be done. I know that sometimes no amount of advocacy can push a contender in. At best, you can put them in front of the thing to watch it. That doesn’t mean it will get their vote when they’re deciding what is best.

They’re on the radar. They’re definitely on the radar.

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The Help, Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and now A Most Violent Year, Jessica Chastain is a hard working actress. Jazz Tangcay sat down with the actress to talk about her role as Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year, , J.C. Chandor’s ’80s-set thriller in which she plays an embattled immigrant’s wife trying to make it in a rough-and-tumble New York.

Awards Daily : What inspired you to get into acting?

Jessica Chastain: I’d always been a very imaginative child. I didn’t do so well in school, I didn’t think I was very smart. I had difficulty in connecting with teachers and didn’t have a way of expressing myself, until my grandmother took me to see a play, I saw a little girl on stage, it was a professional theater company, I was told this was their job. I thought, “This is my job.” I was probably 7 at the time.

AD: How did you come across this role?

JC: I met JC when The Help came out, it was the same time as Margin Call. We were at the New York Film Critics Awards dinner when we first met. I really liked Margin Call a lot. Then I went to Cannes and I saw All Is Lost, I was very impressed with that. This director, who’s first film was all about a lot of dialogue and relationships, then his second film with no dialogue, and no relationship. He’s brave also, he’s taking a risk, he’s saying, instead of staying in that world, I’m going to try something different. I just really believed in him.

AD: You penned a three page email to JC about Oscar, What inspired you to do this and what was it like working with him?

JC: JC likes to say it was a three page email, that’s a slight exaggeration. I did send an email to JC about Oscar and I very rarely do that with directors. I don’t want to invade on their process. I have so much respect for film makers, I knew he considering Oscar, and I just wanted to express my experience of working with him and knowing him for 12 years.
I love going to the movies, I love being an audience member, and I love championing other people’s work, and it came very naturally to do to champion Oscars work because he’ sos tlaented. He’s an actor that’s under appreciated for the work he does.

AD: Can you tell us about Anna?

JC: What I love so much about Anna, is that you underestimate her. JC (Chandor) wanted to do that deliberately. When you first meet her, she’s putting make up on in the mirror, a stereotype of the wife of a crime boss. You expect her to follow the tropes of the genre, when in fact as the film goes on, when she shoots the deer, she starts to become intoxicated with the power that she’s feeling, the action she starts to take in her life. In her mind, if her husband isn’t going to be the most powerful man in the room, then she will. By the end of the film you realize she’s actually the boss of the company and that’s very excting to me, to do something that surprises the audience and who underestimates a female character and defies the stereotype.

AD: What was your biggest challenge in making the film?

JC: Probably the biggest challenge was the cold, it was very very cold in New York. It’s all real snow and we were freezing our butts off. We were shooting very quickly.
That and doing two films at once, because I was flying back and forth from New York to Toronto, I was working on Crimson Peak and they were very different characters, so those were the challenges for me.

AD: You’ve made four films this year, how easy was the transition from one mindset of a film to the next?

JC: Actually, I made two films, but I have four films. Disappearance was made years ago. A Most Violent Year was this year, some films take a while before they find their release date.
As an actor, I’m interested in playing characters that are different than me, characters that I get to learn more about myself, learn more about who we are as human beings. The way you do that is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see a point of view that you never thought of yourself.

AD: Would you like to direct one day?

JC: I have no interest right now in directing, but I do have an interest in teaching , maybe I’ll go to Julliard at some point and teach or some other school. I like the idea of helping someone free themselves artistically creatively or emotionally. That is so inspiring to me.

AD: You’ve said in a recent interview, that there are two types of women roles, the slut or the girlfriend. With your career, Zero Dark Thirty and A Most Violent Year, you’re doing your part, what do you think Hollywood and other actresses could do to help the situation?

JC: I wouldn’t blame it on actresses at all. I do not think it’s the problem of the actresses. I’m very vocal about speaking about diversity and cinema. When I speak in terms of female roles and that there are so few roles for women, I’m not speaking for myself and I’m not speaking from a selfish place, because I’m a very lucky person and I understand that I get sent things most people don’t. I’m speaking as an audience member who wants to see Asian-American actresses up there. I want to see more African-Americans in leads, I want to see women in their sixties or seventies up there as leads in films. I’m speaking from that place, trying to help the industry, because as an industry we all want the same thing.
Chris Rock wrote this amazing essay for The Hollywood Reporter recently, and it’s a fantastic essay, and it’s honest. So much of us are saying the same thing. The more we talk about it, we don’t need to feel shame, or point fingers and judge. We’re a community.Everyone wants the same thing. I believe that because it’s such an important topic of conversation right now, that it will change.

AD: Who else would you like to work with?

JC: I’d love to work with a female DP. There are so many people I’d like to work with. I can’t talk about it right now because there’s a probability that I will be working with this person….so..watch this space (Giggles).

 

A Most Violent Year opens December 31.

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Last May, Marion Cotillard and the Dardennes brothers brought the exquisite Two Days, One Night to the Cannes Film Festival. The film received rave reviews from those who published them. Heading into the prize ceremony, everyone thought Cotillard had to win. What a role it was. Cotillard carried the film completely. She wasn’t defined by her sexuality nor was she was a little lost lamb sadly wandering through the film. She was a desperate HUMAN BEING trying to save her family from financial ruin. Wow, she was doing something that didn’t depend in any way on her relationship with a male protagonist. The beloved French actress had never won a Cannes prize. Here is what Hitfix’s Guy Lodge wrote about her odds and the film itself:



The odds: No filmmaker has ever won three Palmes d’Or, and the Dardennes seem as likely as anyone to get their first — their restrained humanism is the kind of filmmaking which could unite jurors otherwise divided on the merits of flashier works. Still, however good the film is, it’d be deemed a safe choice for top honors; Jane Campion’s eclectic jury may prefer to look a little further afield. Jigsaw Lounge places it squarely midfield with odds of 16-1; my instinct is that if the film is rewarded at all, it’ll be for Cotillard, who could be considered unlucky after missing out on Best Actress for fine work in “Rust and Bone” and “The Immigrant.” She’s the on-paper favorite at this point.

And sure enough, Lodge was right about the film. It didn’t stand a chance against Leviathan and the Palme winner, Winter Sleep. But Cotillard? Julianne Moore won instead for Maps to the Stars. Naturally, the Oscar pundits simply followed Moore and dropped Cotillard. Perhaps this was because her performance in Rust and Bone was mostly ignored, despite how great it was and despite how hard she publicized it. Perhaps this was looking like another Rust and Bone.

I did not sense, despite the great reviews, much buzz around Cotillard and the Dardennes film. I remember hearing “lesser Dardennes” from a few but I can’t recall the exact tweets. My perception of it heading away from Cannes was that it would be mostly ignored in the awards race.

The loss by Cotillard for Best Actress when it was expected she would win, when she’d never won before, simply deflated the buzz balloon. The film then went to Telluride but also was having trouble standing out there. No one was really talking about the film or Cotillard at all. She had no advocates from that point on. People like me shifted our attention elsewhere, to Julianne Moore, to Hilary Swank, to Reese Witherspoon and Rosamund Pike — and finally, to Felicity Jones.

The awards race does tend to lean in the direction of American or British actors. It is difficult for any French actress, or Spanish actress, to get in and win. It happens but the Academy are ruled by actors and actors here tend to like to fortify the homebase rather than invest outwardly. It happens but it’s rare. So pundits like myself and others know that history, see that potential, and say, okay, Cotillard’s out. Had she won in Cannes she would have been at least being considered for an award. She was a contender but considered a dark horse.

But something funny happened on the way to the critics awards. First, it’s very likely Cotillard’s performance never left many of their collective hearts. Several of the voters in both New York and LA have raves on record for the film and her performance. Second, they got to drag out the awards race villain, Harvey Weinstein. The idea was MEAN OLD HARVEY WEINSTEIN had “buried” The Immigrant and along with it, yet another mesmerizing performance by the great Cotillard.

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Suddenly, Cotillard went right to the top of the lists as an easy call for a Best Actress win. No one can say she isn’t deserving. She gives a fantastic performance and once again sets herself up as a competitor with a beloved veteran, in this case, Julianne Moore. Being a frontrunner is no easy feat. Boredom, resentment and sometimes even hatred starts to bubble up because those watching the race are looking for drama.

But it was also clear that there was an urgency to vote for Cotillard because of how badly The Immigrant was treated, supposedly, by Harvey Weinstein. This notion was subsequently debunked by Mark Harris in a Twitter exchange after the Boston Film Critics or the New York Film Critics.

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That urgency to pick Cotillard comes from the best place. It also was a great example of how the critics, in 2014, have mostly rejected the narrative put in place by the Oscar bloggers — many of whom simply do not wait for the critics to ring before deciding whether a film is worthy or not. I always say critics matter – but to tell you the truth, they used to matter a lot more than they do now.

They seem to be taking a stand against the consensus, going their own way without the need or the desire to agree with the growing consensus. I have to believe this is ultimately a good thing for film overall and a good thing for the Oscar race. After all, the Oscars were never meant to gaze up the anal cavity of the film critics’ groups. They honor films that supposedly are made for audiences, not critics. It’s nearly impossible to get a Best Picture win now without a really good Metacritic score. You can’t have anyone hating your movie, that’s for sure. But as you can see from this year, it’s quite easy to simply skip the critics entirely, as Unbroken, Into the Woods, American Sniper are all doing. Wait as long as possible for those reviews – because reviews can color how people watch your movie.

I’ll never forget the story that Robert Redford told in Telluride last year about the first play he did. He said afterwards the audience was applauding, they had a party and everyone was so happy with how it went, thought it was going to be a major hit. Then the New York Times review came out. It was a pan. Everyone got quiet, completely forgetting how much they loved the play. It was dead. It closed and that was the end of that. Redford said he learned then everything you need to know about how perception works.

Like it or not, even the critics roll on perception. As Glenn Kenny told me on Twitter, no one really can say for sure if a film is a failure until many years later. They think they know, but they don’t really know. So you float on perception. By nature, human beings like to be on the winning side. Testosterone actually drops when a man stands next to a loser and rises when he stands next to a winner. It is easier to love a winner and harder to hate a loser.

And that is how Marion Cotillard mostly got forgotten in the awards race of 2014. It is also why critics can get films wrong, why the Oscars can get films wrong — if it’s all about perception and not about the film itself, time exposes the truth eventually.

Think about how it works. When people start loving up a movie it suddenly becomes a shared experience. You are then defined by what you like and the people who like it with you. Some films that have built up those kinds of admiration camps this year include Under the Skin, Ida, Locke, and in its own way and to a larger degree Birdman. Under the Skin is really the one that has grown in stature as the months have worn on. It’s really a great movie, despite the lackluster reception in Cannes this year. It’s original, strange, and ultimately quite moving.

What happened, essentially, was that we pundits got it in our heads that the Best Actress race for the Oscar was headed in a certain direction and that direction was the long overdue Julianne Moore, who, like Cotillard gave two masterful performances this year. The first in Maps to the Stars and the second in Still Alice. The second was deemed the kind of movie “they,” the Oscar voters, go for, while Maps to the Stars was deemed “too much” for the Oscar voters. But one thing everyone agreed upon was that Julianne Moore was so ridiculously overdue for an Oscar win that all she really had to do was ask for it and with the right role and the right timing she could eventually and finally win. She’s always come so close and yet, like Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep, has always been too humble to really ever try for the Oscar. But she is trying this year and it would appear that everyone in the awards community so far wants to her to win.

But not the critics.

They not only preferred Cotillard’s fine work, but they also don’t care about extraneous things like how hard it is for older American actresses to get any substantial roles in films, like how few films about women overall there are in American film. The critics look at the movie and the performance. They don’t care about anything else. Believe me if they cared about leveling the playing field between men and women or white filmmakers and black filmmakers – things would look a lot different in their history. They like what they like and that’s that.

Usually, the Oscars don’t work exactly that way. They do take into account their 87 year history. They do take into account previous wins. They do take into account stature within the industry. That’s really why the pundits leaned the way they did.

Groupthink is always a dangerous thing. It limits choices. On the other hand, that is really how a massive consensus is built. Critics, with such small memberships, have the option to choose outside the box contenders. But those contenders then need aggressive publicity to become popular enough to crack the consensus.

But I would say, overall, pundits either dropped the ball on Cotillard or greatly underestimating her chances in this race. Part of that was the unpredictability of the last minute movement to BEAT DOWN MEAN OL’ HARVEY WEINSTEIN and part of it was critics remembering back how great Cotillard was. And still, another part of it is sometimes the need to resist the urge to go with the consensus — because how boring is that?

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In a series of Best Of posts, we’ll be taking a look at a few categories worth singling out as we move towards our ten best films of the year.  More and more, ensemble driven films are popular because big-name actors prefer to take smaller, more interesting parts rather than put on a superhero costume or not work at all. A strong ensemble cast is always noticeable from the outset, especially if there is a good relationship between the actors and a better relationship between actors and their director.  Where 2014 had some brilliant showcase pieces with one or two strong actors standing out, like The Imitation Game with the brilliant Benedict Cumberbach and Keira Knightley, American Sniper, which is mostly about Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, Whiplash, which is JK Simmons and Miles Teller mostly, or The Theory of Everything which is Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, it was also a year with great ensemble work worth noting.

So herewith, our top eleven Best Ensembles of 2014

1) Birdman
Birdman is really nothing without its ensemble cast. These actors had to prepare long in advance to have this kind of humming symmetry and perfect rhythm with each theory and Inarritu’s roaming camera. Though the lead, Michael Keaton, is the standout performance, the character who shows the most vulnerability and depth, he is matched well by the supporting players, chief among them Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan and Zach Galifianakis. If you want to watch a master class in acting, watch Birdman. How fun it must have been for these actors to tear into this work and their exuberance shows in every frame of this film. That makes it one hell of a contender for the SAG ensemble award and probably its winner. Birdman is about many things. It’s about art and it’s about love. It’s about the collapse of our culture and about hope for its future. It is funny, crazy, moving and a celebration of the hopelessness of existence. But it’s nothing without its actors and it might be the only film on this list you can say that about. That, my friends, is ensemble acting at its best.

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2) Selma
Ava DuVernay is one of the few directors working today who invests in really good African American actors at every level of renown, not just the big names. But to bring the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the march to Selma to life she needed a powerhouse and she got one in David Oyelowo, who manages to do what many actors have never been able to – capture both King’s majestic gift for giving speeches and his more human side, the man who was also a husband. Some of Oyelowo’s best scenes take place with Lyndon Johnson (an understated Tom Wilkinson) where he’s quietly trying to convince the President of the United States how important voting rights are to communities in the South, communities like Ferguson, Missouri. But Selma isn’t just Oyelowo’s performance. Supporting players include Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Oprah Winfrey, the wonderful Lorraine Toussaint. Another standout is Carmen Ejogo as Correta Scott King, who does more than just stare lovingly at her powerful husband but rather keeps her own internal world close to the surface of her skin. Selma had to be an ensemble work because that is the whole point of this most excellent film – to show power in numbers, what communities can do when they come together for a common cause. Selma is not a film that simply teaches you about civil rights – it is vibrant piece of work from one of America’s most promising directors. It is also one of the best films of 2014.

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3) Gone Girl
Director David Fincher has never done this kind of satire before with such a large cast. While all of his films have humor in them, and he’s generally comfortable with large casts, like in Benjamin Button, the Social Network, Zodiac and Fight Club, here he has cast a hive of women surrounding one man, Ben Affleck character who must make his way out of the sticky web unscathed. Striking a note somewhere between hilarious and creepy, half the cast slithers in and out of Fincher’s world like hidden monsters, while the other half bumble through it like normal people. The biggest box-office hit so far in the race, of Fincher’s career and nearly everyone involved in the film except for Affleck, Gone Girl turns out to be the biggest surprise of 2014. The standouts are the marvelous Carrie Coon as Affleck’s sister, Kim Dickens as the wisecracking gumshoe, funny Emily Ratajkowski as the mistress, Sela Ward, Missy Pile, and the one, the only Tyler Perry are all adept at handling Gillian Flynn’s wry humor. Neil Patrick Harris steps in as Desi, a strange kind of mix of Cary Grant and Liberace, while Ben Affleck has never been better as the puppy dog husband getting in way over his head. But Gone Girl belongs, ultimately, to its titular star – Rosamund Pike who finally got the chance to show people what she’s capable of as an actress. Sweet, vulnerable, vicious, bitter, scary, mean – Pike knocks it way out of the park in one of 2014’s best performances by a man or a woman. Gone Girl works because every element of it is in the same groove, humming along at a similar frequency. The actors work with the director who works with the composers, the cinematographer and the editor. Fincher proved with Gone Girl that stories absent brilliantly written parts for women are less interesting, less entertaining, and ultimately less successful than projects like these that invest full in what women are capable of – in darkness and in light.

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4) Boyhood – Linklater, like the other directors on this list, is also someone comfortable with an ensemble but maybe never as interesting as it is here,  in Boyhood, where the actors he’s working with are aging 12 years in the process. Talk about your true ensemble. They are living their real lives while making the film.  While Patricia Arquette is the heart and soul of the film, the other actors hold their own, especially Ethan Hawke as the good-time Charly dad who grows up, too, to become a real father by the end. Lorelei Linklater, Papa Linklater’s daughter who also grows up and comes of age, really, while making the film.  If you follow her on Facebook you’ll see what a fascinating individual she is, in addition to her talent as an artist.  And of course, Ellar Coltrane, the star of the film who acts as a little boy, then a young teen and finally a grown man.   All the while, these actors are communicating with each other as their characters. Though we know Hawke and Arquette really well from their acting history, there is not an inauthentic moment in the film where they stop being the characters they play.  Boyhood is one of the best films of the year that features some of the best acting in any film of any year.

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5) Into the Woods
This singing cast under the careful hand of Rob Marshall brings the musical back to movie theaters in a great way. It’s the thing that’s been missing from his other films (except Chicago) — a tight, complete ensemble as this. A lot of that is Marshall but some of it was Meryl Streep, by most accounts, who kept the actors in this (and in Osage County) working together like family. The standouts are Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine and Streep, of course, but wait, there’s more – there’s Tracy Ullman, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, James Corden, Tammy Blanchard, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone. They can sing and act and do both so well that it almost feels like you’re watching it live, on stage. Thing is, this is a less funny version of the play. Marshall did not back off of how sad the story turns by the end, and maybe that is the thing that ultimately makes this film great.

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6) Foxcatcher
You’d be hard pressed to find a better triangle of performances than you do here, with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. You can throw in Vanessa Redgrave who has some small but key roles as the mother who could turn daisy to a stone with one look. The volleying between Tatum and Ruffalo and Carell is exciting to watch, subtle though it is sometimes. One of the best scenes in the movie involves the moment (spoiler alert) when Ruffalo realizes just who and what Steve Carell is. It’s such a subtle but powerful shift and it all happens with one look. That is how Foxcatcher moves, slowly, deliberately towards its tragic end.

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7) The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson is also a director who likes to work with large ensembles. Though Ralph Fiennes is the lead here, he is joined by a wonderful cast of character actors at their absolute most colorful, including Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Lea Seydoux, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan – really, can you get a bigger and better ensemble cast than that? A Wes Anderson movie is really like stepping into a Wes Anderson world where the acting is all very stylized. I’m sure that there is nothing more fun for an actor than to stretch themselves that way.

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8) Mr. Turner
I was remiss in my earlier director piece ignoring the brilliant Mike Leigh for his masterwork, Mr. Turner. Leigh goes deep once again with a fine team of actors, probably many of them not known in the US but all of whom are masters of the craft of acting. Starting with the magnificent Cannes and New York Film Critics winner Timothy Spall, along with Dorothy Atkinson as his skin afflicted maid, Ruth Sheen of course, Lesley Manville — both from Another Year, Marion Bailey and more. This is such an ensemble piece that you don’t get much dialogue from Mr. Turner himself, but rather a lot of grunting. But you could go to school on these actors, indeed.

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9) Inherent Vice
You can’t lose when you put Josh Brolin in an ensemble. He almost always makes it better – he’s like a younger, leaner John Goodman in that way. Brolin is the standout in a film full of funny, vibrant, surreal, memorable performances in this Paul Thomas Anderson existential comedy. Other standouts include Martin Short, Jenna Malone, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson and of course, the star Joaquin Phoenix. Newcomer Katherine Waterston is a true find, slinking in and out of the scenes as this film’s romantic muse. Anderson is adept with ensembles, often using a large cast to springboard his ideas off of – he believes in the actor to tell the stories and delights in turning their faces into canvases, pulling out extreme and bizarre performances from them sometimes. Most appreciative from Anderson this year is the sensuality he brings to the big screen, something sorely missing from many of the other films this year.

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10) A Most Violent Year
The JC Chandor crime film about the oil scandal of the 1970s is really worth seeing because of its actors. Like Margin Call and All is Lost, Chandor often invests much in his actors while keeping the thrust of his stories a bit opaque. He writes plots that have actors reacting to their circumstances, which almost always leads to the best kind of acting. To do that, you need great performances and he gets them from Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Catalina Morena Sandino and others. While Chastain (as usual) steals the show, Oscar Isaac shows his unending range here again as a husband and father trying to hold together a family life under shady circumstances. The film feels to me like a tribute to Chandor’s own father, which makes it kind of autobiographical but it really is a study of a time and place, that is strong on acting more than anything else.

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11) Still Alice

Julianne Moore plays a woman afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s. It becomes a story of a mother doing everything she can to hold on for the sake of her daughters and their lives to come. Alec Baldwin is excellent as Moore’s supportive husband, along with Kate Bosworth as the elder daughter. But it is really Kristen Stewart alongside Julianne Moore who makes Still Alice so exceptional of a cinematic experience. Stewart’s raw vulnerability and eagerness to both care for, relate to and help her mother is one of the most moving supporting performances I’ve seen this year. The way Stewart looks at her mother who is fast fading before her eyes is real and powerful. Moore responds to this and the two of them take this film where it needs to go. Moore has been giving standout performances for years, and gave another one this year in Maps to the Stars, which would be on this list if it were coming out this year. But here, she adopts little affectation in bringing Alice from an alive spark to a vanishing imprint of who she used to be. This is some of the best acting you’ll see this year not because it is showy or funny but because it is so organic and real – they are communicating clearly to each other, through their characters, through themselves.

Honorable mentions:

The Homesman
The critics didn’t seem to respond to this very actor-driven film but here is the power of ensemble work at its best, probably because it is directed by an actor.  It’s another cast of women, all of them brilliant in their roles as mentally ill wives discarded by their husbands. Naturally, the brilliant Ms. Swank is the standout here, alongside the always present Tommy Lee Jones.  Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter play the women, with character actors like William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, John Lithgow, Hailee Steinfeld and James Spader. Meryl Streep pops in towards the end but her real work this year is in Into the Woods.  Still, The Homesman is an actors movie all the way, with Jones giving Swank much room to showcase her performance as Mary Bee Cutty, a woman born out of her time.

Unbroken
Angelina Jolie is another actor’s director, being an actor herself.  Though the film feels a bit like she’s in over her head – even the best of them would have a hard time telling this epic tale — she is very good with her key ensemble, including Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini, Miyavi and Garrett Heldund. She never gives them the short shrift and spends a lot of time on their faces as their emotions change.

Interstellar
Christopher Nolan’s giant space epic is also strong on ensemble work, with Nolan investing a great deal of his time and energy on the actors, which include Jessica Chastain, Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and more. The visual effects maybe overshadow them a bit but the emotional impact of the film is due primarily to the actors, particularly McConaughey and Chastain.

Mommy
Xavier Dolan’s film is about three characters. It is also about three brilliant actors willing to turn themselves inside out. Anne Dorval is especially good as Mommy, a strangely complex bad mother trying to be a good mother under the circumstances. I love what Dolan does here, with this impossible relationship between mother and son, not to mention the neighbor who becomes like a surrogate mommy for the main character. Antoine-Olivier Pilon is fantastic as the manic depressive son, as is Suzanne Clement as the neighbor. 

As far as SAG ensemble goes, I would not be surprised if their list was:

Into the Woods
Birdman
Boyhood
The Imitation Game
Selma

I also think The Grand Budapest Hotel and Gone Girl are possible choices there.  But we shall see next week.

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There are always complaints about the Oscar race – the choices are too narrow, the pundits don’t do a good enough job of keeping the options as open as possible, the movies are too boring, the movies are too independent, the movies are bad. But this year, in the wake of the New York Film Critics, it seems like it’s open season on the five frontrunners for Best Actress. This is disheartening to me because of all of the categories in the Oscar race why pick on actress — the one category that has so few contenders? I suppose that was supposed to be the point of broadening the outlook, as Mark Harris does in his excellent piece examining why the New York Film Critics’ choice of Marion Cotillard was, to him, so exciting. What it inevitably turns into, however, is the idea that the chosen five aren’t good enough and should be replaced.

Here’s a great paragraph by Harris:

Best Actress is another story. The bench isn’t deep; it never seems to be. But it should shock even the cynical that the state of high-quality, challenging leading roles for women in Hollywood movies is now so dire that this year, the Best Actress conversation — what there’s been of it — has taken place in a way that has almost no correlation to movies that 99.9 percent of moviegoers have even had the opportunity to see. We’ve been talking about the Best Actress race as if actresses— adult women who are given central, movie-carrying roles of depth and range — are actually permitted to participate in Hollywood’s current economy outside of YA and genre movies. They aren’t. This has become an award for Best Exception To The Rule.

He goes on to describe the way the Best Actress race gets filled this way:

You can say that this consensus reflects weary realism, but I think it’s actually peer-driven; nobody wants to deviate too much from the predictor mainstream, and the aggregated result creates the illusion that the concrete of the race is hardening — an illusion that becomes a reality when distributor campaign teams (which have positioned many of these candidates as favorites with predictors and media folk in the first place) start to believe it and apportion their resources accordingly. It’s a vicious circle of self-reinforcing complacency that only becomes more maddening when it eventually, inevitably trickles down to voters.

Then his piece starts to get problematic for me:

So let’s break those six “favorites” down. Adams sat on several of those lists for months before anyone saw the Tim Burton movie in which she stars, purely on the principle that she’s a five-time nominee and the Weinstein Company is opening the movie in December and, well, Jesus, they have to nominate something, right? Her movie hasn’t opened yet. Neither has Julianne Moore’s or Reese Witherspoon’s, but both have been considered likely nominations since September, when their movies showed at the Toronto Film Festival, because they give very fine performances and also because, well, see rationale for Amy Adams, above. Jones is fine in one of the most depressing niches a Best Actress candidate can ever fill, namely The Genius’s Long-Suffering Wife. (If you don’t believe that’s a problem, take a look at the history of Best Actor nominees and see how many decades backward you have to scroll before getting to a character you’d describe primarily as somebody’s husband rather than as the central agent of the narrative.) And Swank is terrific in a very good, thoughtful, thematically complex Western that almost nobody has seen. That leaves Pike, the only contender this year who holds the center of a big, mainstream, Hollywood studio hit.

You see where he’s going with this? The consensus is WRONG. The actresses chosen are only being chosen because they think they have no other options. I don’t know about Amy Adams in Big Eyes – I am not predicting her to get a nomination but these names are not here because they are necessity picks. They are here because these are strong and interesting characters coming into the world of acting and movies in a time when audiences (and critics, mind you) only want young, hot and fuckable actresses in movies.  Mark Harris will go on to name a bunch of those in a minute.

But first, the five as they stand right now–

Julianne Moore in Still Alice – that she’s in the number one spot has put a big target on her bag. Rejoicing on Twitter when she was supplanted by Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night.
Reese Witherspoon – who carries Wild, produced it, starred in two other movies, produced a whole other movie.
Rosamund Pike – a brilliant transformative performance that dares to be delightfully unlikable.
Hilary Swank – true, she’s won twice but her plain spoken hard woman on the prairie is not just a great performance but a great character overall.
Felicity Jones – she plays the wife to Stephen Hawking who is probably the reason he’s still alive.

And Mark’s choices to replace them?

Scarlett Johannson in Under the Skin
Jenny Slate in Obvious Child
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights (which I have not seen)
Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida

He closes his piece hoping that others take the lead from New York Film Critics with this paragraph:

It’s too easy to dismiss work like this as “not Academy-friendly”; the truth is that there’s a long history of Academy-unfriendly work being nominated when enough noise is made so that voters feel they have to pay attention. Thanks to the New York Film Critics Circle for choosing to make that noise. May the rest of us spend the five weeks before Academy voting closes following their lead.

While Cotillard is brilliant in both films, only the Dardennes’ film is a performance worthy of being nominated to replace any of the names predicted in the consensus. As good as she is in James Gray’s The Immigrant — and she is great, to be sure — it is another frustratingly familiar role women often play in period films – lost, helpless, turning to prostitution.   How much more startlingly original is she in Two Days, One Night where she plays a distraught employee (and wife and mother) who must convince her co-workers to turn down a bonus so she can keep her job. That is the kind of complex role in keeping with the five frontrunners as we recognize them now.

What a shame for these veteran actresses who have built careers around the opportunity to showcase these kinds of complex parts that are diminishing by the day here in Hollywood.  It is not easy to get any work after the age of 35 now, harder still to get an Oscar worthy performance without having to produce it yourself. The Oscar race is about many things, popularity chief among them. But women in the business are fighting for a foothold, for any power to give them the same kinds of choices men have.  There is power in winning awards, power in taking a film to $160 million as Rosamund Pike has done. Power in having a chance to play a woman who pioneered a wagon train across the country to help rescue mentally ill women. These are interesting characters, not just charming likable women. They’re not even role models in the traditional sense but they represent for actresses doors being opened.

One thing that is great about the actresses in the race is that they are complicated. Three of them are downright unlikable, challenging and definitely suffer no fools – that Hilary Swank in The Homesman, Reese Witherspoon in Wild and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl.    When looking for these roles starting at the beginning of the year it isn’t as Mark suggests, totally publicist driven. It is much more about finding the best roles that women must fight for. It’s about finding roles that aren’t supporting characters staring adoringly at their menfolk – or period films that depict yet another helpless lost stray cat of a woman. These are meaty, substantial roles any actress would want to play. Why target them? Surely there are three times as many men who could stand to be taken down.

At any rate, here are the best actress winners from NYFCC’s past, with an asterisk* if they also received an Oscar nod and a + if they won:

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine +
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Julie Christie, Away from Her*
Helen Mirren, The Queen+
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line+
Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake*
Hope Davis, American Splendor, The Secret Lives of Dentists
Diane Lane, Unfaithful*
Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom*
Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me*
Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry+
Cameron Diaz, There’s Something About Mary
Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves*
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Georgia
Linda Fiorentino The Last Seduction
Holly Hunter, The Piano+
Emma Thompson, Howards End+
Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs+
Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge

That’s a strong track record, though none of these are French actresses.  What do you think, does Cotillard stand a chance of breaking through and if so, for which role?

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Julianne Moore. There, I said it. That’s a name you’re likely going to be hearing a lot in the coming weeks, hell, probably months. She is the surest thing to come out of this year’s awards race. Ever since I saw her incredibly moving performance in “Still Alice”, back in September, it seemed like a no-brainer. Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 best-selling novel, the film is a striking look at the nastiness and brutality that falls upon an American family when one of their loved ones is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Moore is ever so brilliant in the movie, encompassing the way a person can lose track of herself and her own identity even when she tries ever so hard to retain it.

Just through Moore’s eyes you can witness the slow detachment Alice is going through from society, friends, family, and herself. It’s a devastating film because, just like Alice, her ever deteriorating brain keeps getting erased of its precious memories without you even noticing the effects – it isn’t until the last few scenes that the devastation this disease has caused hits you. “Still Alice” has some of the hardest scenes to watch of any movie this year, but it’s all so worth it for the humbling journey that is involved with it.

Indie filmmakers Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer don’t try to pull at the heartstrings, they just tell their story in the simplest way possible, and why wouldn’t they? They have Julianne Moore at their disposal, one of the great actresses of our time (“Short Cuts”, “The Kids Are All Right”, “Boogie Nights”, “Far From Heaven”, “Safe”, “Magnolia”, “Children of Men”, “The Hours” and even next year’s “Maps to the Stars” directed by David Cronenberg, in which she plays a down-and-out actress, desperate for her next big shot). Every time she’s on screen, Cronenberg’s film ignites with excitement and his pitch black Hollywood satire gets even darker.

If Moore is the surest thing to come out of this year’s race, it doesn’t mean that the other nominees should pack it up and call it a night. For example, if Reese Witherspoon hadn’t won back in 2006 for “Walk the Line” we’d be talking about a close race to the finish. Witherspoon’s work in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild” is astounding, equaling her Best Actress work as June Carter Cash. Coming out next week, the same week “Still Alice” is released, Vallée’s film is a stirring portrait of love, despair and hope. You can call it “Eat, Pray, Hike”, but that’s where comparisons should end with that Julia Roberts vehicle.

Vallée, who directed last year’s “Dallas Buyers Club”, is an artist through and through. Ever since his beginnings in Quebec cinema I’ve kept a watchful eye on him. Just check out “Café de Flore” or “C.R.A.Z.Y” to see how great of a filmmaker he can truly be. “Wild” has a more conventional storyline than those aforementioned films but he and Witherspoon make up for it with sheer artistry. It also helps that gifted writer/novelist Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed – on whose book this is based – wrote the screenplay. After a brutal divorce and losing her mom to cancer, Strayed went on an 1100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself to try to bring meaning to a life that was crumbling. It sounds like the kind of stuff the Hallmark channel would dig, but don’t kid yourself, Vallée knows better than to stoop down to that level.

Apart from Witherspoon’s emotionally resonant performance, the other major thing you notice in the film is how incredibly well edited it is. Going back and forth between present day, flashbacks, flash forwards and dream-like imagery can be a tricky business, but Vallée and his longtime editing partner Martin Pensa (“Dallas Buyers Club”) nail every detail. And Witherspoon, what more can be said about an actress who had me at hello ever since the day I first saw her in Alexander Payne’s “Election” (still the best performance she’s ever given). It wasn’t just that movie – her enormous talent has shone through over the years in films such as “Pleasantville”, “American Psycho”, “Cruel Intentions”, “I Walk the Line” and last year’s underrated “Mud”.

How refreshing it is to have not one but two top notch female performances coming out in the same week. These two actresses are on par with the incredible work Felicity Jones has done in the recently released “Theory of Everything”, Rosamund Pike’s harrowingly hypnotic femme fatale in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”, Anne Dorval in “Mommy”, Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin” and my dark horse favorite Marion Cotillard and the mesmerizing performance she gives in “Two Days, One Night”. The latter three might not get the nominations they deserve, but I advise you to seek these performances out because they will absolutely blow you away.

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The Imitation Game had a huge opening with $482K in just four theaters, making it the year’s second best debut. This isn’t that surprising considering the very motivated fanbase for Benedict Cumberbatch, especially since he’s got such strong buzz in the Best Actor race. But it’s worth noting that the reviews did not prevent anyone from seeing the film.

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What a run for Gone Girl, though I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who seems to be noticing this or caring about it in the world of Oscar punditry. I guess because I’ve been here long enough to see how Hollywood has changed. For a rated R movie that isn’t a remake or a sequel to finish a 9 week run at $160 domestic is rare indeed.  It has zoomed past all of the past Best Picture winners of the last ten years, second only to Return of the King. It is extremely rare for a rated R film to make that kind of coin here in uptight, child-oriented America.   Gone Girl done proved you don’t have to be 22 Jump Street to make lots of money. You can stir debate, challenge audiences, deliver uncomfortable endings and still make lots of money.  Huh. This is also what happens when you put women in movies and give them something to do other than smile and talk pretty. Bridesmaids earned $169 million in its release but was too much of a genre comedy to get a Best Pic nod, despite the noble efforts of the studio.  Gone Girl, which wasn’t too much for American audiences, could prove too much for the Academy.

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Suzanne used to say that you’re not really anybody in America…unless you’re on Tv. ‘Cause what’s the point of doing anything worth while…if there’s nobody watching? So when people are watching, it makes you a better person. So if everybody was on TV all the time…everybody would be better people. But if everybody was on TV all the time…there wouldn’t be anybody left to watch. That’s where I get confused.

– Joyce Maynard/Buck Henry, To Die For

For several years, I had been bored. Not a whining, restless child’s boredom (although I was not above that) but a dense, blanketing malaise. It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn’t immediately reference to a movie or TV show. A fucking commercial. You know the awful singsong of the blasé: Seeeen it. I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. I don’t know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.

– Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.

– Pablo Picasso

We are living in the age of narcissism where our celebration of self is a minute-by-minute obsession. By nature, human beings are drawn to their own image, like Narcissus himself, doomed to stare until we perish.

Rosamund Pike floats through the first half of Gone Girl like the coming of a storm churns the surfaces of still waters, then gusts of winds that hint at the chaos and destruction to follow.

Film noir femmes fatales might not survive today’s gauntlet of social justice bloggers, who are right to fight the good fight when it comes to sexist tropes in video games and in Hollywood films. But what would cinema be without them? Is art required to give all women positive role models, to tell an even bigger lie that all of us are pure of heart and altruistic?

There are so many truths to femmes fatales in the lives of women and so much truth in Amy that it’s caused so much debate among women – is she a feminist hero (no), is she a misogynist fantasy (no)? She is that rare creature born out of art who can’t be explained by any sort of type. She isn’t supposed to be a role model nor is she meant to be an invention of the male gaze. She is created by a woman — a woman who knows women.

There is no male equivalent to the kind of power women on screen can unleash when in the hands of a capable director, a willing audience, and critics who can buckle up and hold on for the ride. Once the nitpicking starts, however, all is mostly lost. Some things you just can’t overthink.

Back in 1995, we didn’t yet have a working internet. It was a tool used to communicate. I know because I was on it. We talked about movies on my group but we didn’t really use the “world wide web.” We had to wait as Mosaic became Firefox, for Netscape to actually work well but a few years later it would deb like the wild wild west – a wide open new frontier with start-ups bursting like planets from the big bang.

Back in 1995, when Gus Van Sant’s To Die For came out, everybody was indeed becoming famous in all of the wrong ways. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes stretched out over lifetimes. An American Idol runner-up would win an Oscar. Another is now the most famous country western singer in America. Fame was tossed back in the bowl then refashioned for those of you watching at home. The line between being watched and being the watcher was blurred.

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To Die For was seen as indictment of the media more so than a true crime version of the Pamela Smart case (watch Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart). But it was more than that, even more than the insta-fame ordinary citizens now had at their fingertips, provided they would be willing to sacrifice everything.  It was the birth ofIt was a femme fatale for the celebrity age.

Kidman’s Suzanne Stone roped three teenagers into killing her husband but that was really only because he stood in the way of her pursuing her career goals. Every good femme fatale needs a chump and she had three willing participants. But To Die For is very much about Suzanne and the camera — Suzanne and TV — us watching the people who matter.

As the years went on, and the internet exploded, people from all over the world began their exodus to their online avatar lives. It took a while but now it feels like we’ve reached full saturation point where it is acceptable behavior to portray yourself in a dimension that doesn’t exist.

Amazing Amy, as carefully cultivated by post-90s/therapy/mood enhancing drugs, is meant to be the sum total of everything done “right.” Back in the ’90s women started their march towards perfectionism born out of the 1980s when the yuppie women went back to “work” then reflexively started staying home to be better mothers. That perfectionism of self was transferred to perfectionism of offspring because maybe if you did everything right the child would be raised with high self-esteem, the trait deemed most important by middle-class families in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s.

Pike’s version of Amy seems to have sprung off the pages of Facebook where we have flipped our real lives onto a magic mirror, or a moving diorama that tells everyone who knows us how happy we are, how much we love the holidays, how great our marriage is.

The movie version of the book has some women mad that Amy isn’t likable anymore. That’s because a visually inclined director alters the opportunity for interpretation our imagination gives us. You see, many readers of the book found that they liked Amy. They liked her even when she tricked them into thinking she was a victim of an abusive, cheating husband. She showed them how easy it is to play up the tropes women trapped in novels often find themselves tangled in. The beauty of Flynn’s narrative is that she had no problem upending that in her adaptation, and no problem delving into the darker side of this insane sociopath also known as Amazing Amy.

How a person relates to the first half of Gone Girl says much about how they view women, marriage and adult life. Do they think women like that exist and more importantly, do they desire those women and that life? Do they feel betrayed when they figure out that they were fooled so completely?

Fincher’s reimagining of Flynn’s Amy explores this notion that appearances are everything. The only directive Fincher gave Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose score for the film acts as Amy’s own inner voice, was to find that annoying music they use in spas and salons to make you feel relaxed when most of the time it does anything but. We women know that vibe all too well – the serene yoga face that tells the world we are okay. Everything is fine in here. Nothing to worry about – see, here’s a happy selfie. See how happy and content I am? I have to be happy and content because otherwise I’m a bitch. I’m a complainer. I’m nothing that you want, believe me.

Pike’s Amy is a combination of Kim Novak in Vertigo and Natasha Henstridge in Species. That beautiful face, that blonde hair, those patrician features. So familiar to the big screen both in her talent for transformation and in the clarity of her mission. Many female characters in films wander around not knowing what they want or need. Their empty holes are to be filled and then they will be complete. But Amy has no such self doubts. She is clear, precise, ruthless.

The femme fatale of the 1940s drew the male protagonist into a tragic situation that rendered him lost, helpless, broke or dead. The girl in peril whose objectives are well hidden is often measured by how sexy she was in the part, how bad she was and how much we loved her for it. Gloria Graham, Lana Turner, Barbra Stanwyck and even up to Kathleen Turner – all heels and blood red lipstick.

But Amy is a femme fatale for the narcissistic age, a vessel built on purpose for our collective projections to serve an end goal, one she never even really even wanted for herself but one that her parents already decided she was supposed to want. In the second half of the film Amy uncoils. She stuffs her face with junk food, tosses her pink fuzzy pen out of the window and carefully carries out her best laid plan. Pike’s expression relaxes from perked-up happy perfect Amy to pissed off Amy who doesn’t care anymore what anyone thinks she looks like. That uncoiling is what most women feel when they peel off their Spanx after a party or walk around their apartment without their bra on, no makeup, unbrushed hair. It’s ourselves with our on switch turned off.

The brilliance of Pike’s Amy is that she is unlike anyone’s picture of who Amy would be, probably a little like Reese Witherspoon or Rachel MacAdams. They saw her as the girl next door turned mean girl. But Pike is a cool automaton – able to switch from sweet and trusting to blank-eyed and vicious. Her best scene is when she’s all bloodied up and seated in the wheelchair. She is being questioned by the detective (Kim Dickens) who is about to nail her on an inconsistency. Pike barely flinches but just enough for us to see the flicker in one of her flawless eyes. She switches gears instantly and says exactly what she needs to say to shift focus and lay blame.

Pike’s femme fatale is less a good girl turned bad as she is one who didn’t fit in this world from birth. The complete absence of stereotypical female emotions toys with viewers expecting to see a woman they need to like. A similar dynamic is played out in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson playing an alien playing a woman. She is acting the way she thinks people think women are supposed to act. She is the sum total of her body parts – lips, tits, ass — but like Pike’s Amy, she doesn’t act on intellect but rather, on instinct.

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While Under the Skin is a deliberately opaque sci-fi film, and Gone Girl is an entertaining, if a bit unsettling, thriller, both depict a female character whose internal self does not match the external. Beauty is then the definition of a mask. The iconic status beautiful women enjoy is, here, a construct.

It takes a while for the full impact of what Glazer is trying to do with Under the Skin and to do it he needed the infamous body of one of the most famous bodies in the world – Johansson’s. Because what the film ultimately says is that there is so much more under the skin, so much we don’t see and couldn’t imagine. Under the Skin is not an easy story to figure out – it is open to interpretation, no doubt, but I saw it as a woman who wants to be a woman people want. Like Amy, this too is a false portrait of the male gaze upended.

Another wonderful rumination on the notion of the other self, the idealized woman is Robin Wright’s character in The Congress, where she plays an aging actress playing herself who signs over her life to her younger avatar. In the imagined animated world people can assign themselves completely alternative selves, or avatars, while real life is revealed to be a place of pain and suffering. But she loses everything that matters in doing this, her image being the only thing that survives in the end. Like Under the Skin, The Congress is open to interpretation and not an easily digested film in the least bit. But Van Sant, Glazer, Folman and Fincher are getting at something few filmmakers do – circling around the changing times, the images of ourselves as we’d like to be, and revealing what we still want from those beautiful faces on the big screen.

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In a very weak year for lead actress performances, Jennifer Aniston seeks notice for her work in the character piece Cake. Though mostly met with mixed to negative reviews, Aniston has something her competitors on the fringe mostly don’t have: major star power. I guess it doesn’t need saying that bringing Aniston in a race where Angelina Jolie is front and center could prove too delicious for gossip sites to ignore. It could turn into a big thing, like a Kathryn Bigelow vs. Jim Cameron thing and no one is really bringing it up. The reason they don’t bring it up is a good one: who cares? It isn’t that anyone cares, nor should they – a silly tabloid contrivance built to sell magazines that women inclined towards fantasy and taking sides fell way too easily into – Gone Girl anyone? Yet, it’s still out there, this presence of a presumed conflict that could rear its ugly head.

Bringing herself out front and center during Oscar season is the way to publicize a movie, especially if critics aren’t going to do it for you.  It also helps Aniston earn, potentially, a Golden Globe nod for role, maybe a Spirit Award. To get an Oscar nod she doesn’t need to appeal to critics. She needs to appeal to actors and they might be appreciative of a Big TV actress dressing herself down and stretching her acting abilities on a smaller scale.

Aniston has been quietly delivering challenging performances for a while now but hasn’t ever really put her star power front and center like she is doing now and that could make all of the difference. It WILL certainly make the difference for the Golden Globes where we will have our dress rehearsal for the potential media frenzy around the Brad/Jen/Angelina love triangle. It’s just like Debbie Reynolds/Eddie Fisher/Elizabeth Taylor!  Like that this story, this one has been hard to let go of because women don’t want to let it go. They cast Aniston as the good girl and Angelina as the bad girl, which was absurd. Every once in a while they drag it out and there they are – a fake story on the cover of Us Weekly, which has done more harm to the evolution of women than just about anything else in mainstream media.

While the gossip sites might make a big deal over it, I’m sure it’s water under the bridge for Aniston and certainly for Jolie and Pitt, who have gone on to grow their family and finally get married. Meanwhile, the ongoing fake drama spoon fed to desperate women who “identify” with Aniston has obsessed on whether Aniston will get pregnant, whether she’s married – her love life an ongoing distraction. Oh, the humanity.

But all of that aside, can Aniston break into the top five? The bored pundits keep creating scenarios that swap out one or two but I’m not sure the five is shakable. Let’s go through them.

1. Julianne Moore for Still Alice – Moore is so overdue that all she really needed was a double year like this one where she plays an aging actress resorting to desperate measures in Maps to the Stars, and a professor facing Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, the latter will likely win her award. Moore is showing up, meaning she’s already appeared in pivotal spots so far and is likely prepared to do what even Meryl Streep had to do during the Iron Lady – shake hands, talk to people, in it to win it.  She’s in the number one spot and because of her overdue status doesn’t really have any competitors except…

2. Reese Witherspoon is also very much in it to win it and has been appearing everywhere. The MVP for women filmmaking has produced two films this year, Gone Girl and Wild, for which she will likely receive an acting nomination. Witherspoon carries the entire film, turns herself inside out emotionally and if she hadn’t won already for Walk the Line she’d be the one who beat Moore. But therein lies the rub. She HAS won before. To beat a beloved overdue actress with a second win is near impossible in the Oscar race. Nonetheless, Witherspoon’s appearances are as  both producer and actress. If Wild managed a Best Picture nomination, Witherspoon could enter the race with three Oscar nominations, two for producing and one for acting – has that even happened ever?

3. Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl – Among the best performances of the year, Gone Girl is about to make $160 million. Pike’s never had the chance to show her range, always cast as the “pretty girl” or the “cool blonde.” In Fincher’s film she upends that stereotype, naturally, as that’s some of what the film is about. Pike is being honored at the Palm Spring’s Film Festival with the Best Actress award. She will also be making appearances but she is either about to give birth or has given birth so it’s going to be a tricky season for her, publicity wise. In Pike’s case, she will likely be in a strong Best Picture contender, which helps her but she’s up against Moore, which is really insurmountable.

4. Hilary Swank in The Homesman – here is where pundits will likely see vulnerability because Swank (spoiler alert) gives such a strong performance that when she leaves the film she leaves a giant hole, or so some have said. Swank is always good and is a two-time winner already. That either helps her or hurts her, I can’t tell, but either way if you’re talking about who deserves to be nominated you simply can’t overlook Swank.

5. Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything – here is the second actress from a potential Best Picture contender, which always helps. Jones is kind of young to be a frontrunner in the category but she’s just magnificent in The Theory of Everything. I suspect that if you love this movie you can’t  help but love her performance. The film is almost more about her life than about Stephen Hawking’s but both actors reach such a magnetic symbiosis it’s probably going to be one of those situations where they both keep getting nominated.

Therefore, I’m not seeing any wiggle room here for Aniston, although I remember saying the same thing last year only to be horrified when Amy Adams bumped Emma Thompson from the race.  It can happen. Robert Redford also got bumped for Bradley Cooper.  Late breaking films can sometimes do that. Indeed, David Oyelowo in Selma will break through, maybe even Jack O’Connell from Unbroken.

Adams, I suspect, broke through because she appeared in a popular Best Picture contender that worked overall for the industry and the critics. If they love the movie they’re going to reward the actors, especially if those actors worked with David O. Russell, a favorite of the actors.

For Aniston to break through there will have to be an extraordinary reason for that and from what I’ve been reading about Cake I’m not seeing it in the way people are responding to the film. But if Angelina Jolie can push her film through, at least so far, on star power alone, it’s certainly possible star power alone can also propel Aniston into the race, giving tabloids a big piece of meat to stew on all season.


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