BEST PICTURE

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We’re entering a bizarre new phase of Internet/Hollywood evolution. Fans are now getting involved when their favorites are “miscast” by the studios.  Where 50 Shades of Grey is concerned I just have to roll my eyes. For one thing, it started out as Twilight fan fiction.  Then it somehow got marketed into a phenomenon, the terrible terrible awful that it is. There is a lot great erotica out there. This was not one of those. But I guess it peeled back the layer of a lot of sexually repressed women who long for a kink.  In this case that kink is BDSM.  Hey, if women are going to be raised on romance novels and Disney princesses sooner or later their sexuality has to also find a way. For many women, I suppose, 50 Shades of Grey is “it.” God help us.

Either way, the director is a woman, surprise surprise, .  That fact alone makes it interesting. As far as erotica goes, however, nothing will beat Blue is the Warmest Colour.  The casting of Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) and Pacific Rim’s Charlie Hunnam. Well apparently they don’t manifest the treacly fantasy of fanfic fanatics everywhere. Alexis Bledel and Matt Bomer are who they had in mind.

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Look, if women need to get their groove on who are we to stand in their way? But how about we start by trusting the filmmakers that maybe, oh just maybe, they know what they’re doing? Just because it was birthed as fan fic doesn’t mean that its ultimate fate is in the hands of those fans. Their petition stands at 15K right now.

Meanwhile, the Ben Affleck petition, currently has 90,000 signatures to have Ben Affleck removed as the next Batman. This is even more in the realm of lol. Get a grip, people. I don’t mean to demean your fantasy world but seriously? It isn’t that I think Affleck is the best Batman or that Hunnam and Johnson are the best choices here – but let’s really look at what we’re talking about and what kind of precedent these petitions set. You have the choice to buy a ticket or not, to have faith in the filmmakers or not. You have a choice. There is this funny thing called reality. It’s out the window. Try it out some time. They’re just movies. It’s not the end of everything.

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Over the past few years, Telluride has become the launching pad for Oscar contenders and winners. You’d probably had to have been watching the race evolve over the past 15 years to understand why. Back before they changed the date for Oscar, roughly 2003, the Oscars were held in March. That meant, awards madness really didn’t start until January or so. Funnily enough, I remember the days when December wasn’t the most heated time. As the years wore on, everything was pushed back so that now, September and October are the key months for herding the contenders into the pen.

When the Oscars were held in March we had a situation we don’t have now: the ability to reflect on the films of the year. I can’t say that the films chosen now are better than the ones that came before it. I can’t even say that the Academy’s recent decision to expand the Best Picture nominees from five to ten, then from ten to a random number based on favorites, makes for a better Best Picture lineup. What I do know about then and now is that the Oscars are no longer decided after the public gets a crack at it. They are now decided by the much more insular industry group, with some prodding from the critics and bloggers. Once the PGA announces their winner, it feels like it’s all over but the shouting. That might change — so far, it doesn’t look likely. We now have a monolith club who decide what ought to be Best Picture of the Year.

That’s why the sooner your contender runs the gauntlet the better. Late comers haven’t really won Best Picture since … I can’t even think of the last time. Million Dollar Baby strikes me as one of those because it came in after the two favorites — The Aviator and Sideways — and cleaned their clocks. Of course, history was made to be broken and that is never more true than in the Oscar race.

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Only three Best Picture nominees have ever been number one for 3 consecutive weeks, and no black writer/director is among them. This film should hit $100 million without blinking.  Here is how dominance at the box office has helped a film get a Best Picture nod, at the very least.

Three weeks at number one:
Unforgiven (winner)
Erin Brockovich
The Help
A Few Good Men
Inception
Fellowship of the Ring
Two Towers

Four weeks at number one:
Terms of Endearment (winner)
Platoon (winner)
Apollo 13
Saving Private Ryan
Return of the King (winner)

Five weeks at number one:
The Silence of the Lambs (winner)
The Sixth Sense
Rain Man (winner)

Six weeks at number one:
The Fugitive
E.T.

Seven weeks at number one:
On Golden Pond
Avatar

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GRAVITY

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“The body, she says, is subject to the force of gravity. But the soul is ruled by levity, pure.” – Saul Bellow

Gravity is a film worthy of being in the same room as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 in that the visual effects are as groundbreaking as the message is deep. In truth, so many films I’ve seen here in Telluride have been an answer to what ails Hollywood. If the Academy had a category for effects-driven films (and they really should by now) Gravity would win hands down. Effects-driven films don’t have to be mindless and shallow. They don’t have to be what’s expected. Instead, they can reach you from a distance and pull you into them. They can expand the minds of audiences, challenge them intellectually as well as visually. Gravity accomplishes this.

Gravity is a film that feels like it’s almost holding you under water for 90 minutes. You don’t really breathe while you’re watching it — you kind of sip air, like wine, until it comes to a close. It is a spectacular feat of filmmaking, that doesn’t let up nor show you any mercy. The truth about this film is that it should be seen without you knowing anything about it. I already knew a major spoiler going in but it didn’t ruin the experience, still, not knowing in this case is better than knowing.

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Prisoners and 12 Years a Slave hit the fest hard the last 24 hours, both being touted as possible Oscar contenders by those who like to splooge it out early and prematurely, as if they themselves have the power. Remember back when you had to wait? I guess that shit has sailed. Either way, splooge away there are great reviews for both films. Prisoners is reviewed by Stephen Farber for the Hollywood Reporter. I’ve heard people say it’s like Fincher’s Se7en (there is only one), or Fincher’s Zodiac (there is only one) but this graph makes it sound more in Mystic River/Changeling territory:

Can a superbly crafted film overcome audience resistance to an extremely painful subject? That is a question that Warner Bros. will be pondering nervously as Prisoners moves from its festival screenings during the next week to a wide national release later in September. The movie deals with the abduction of two young children and the havoc that this trauma wreaks on the families and police officers investigating the crime. While the subject has been in the news recently, giving the film undeniable timeliness, there’s a difference between following a disturbing news story and paying to see a similar drama unfold at the multiplex. In addition, the film doesn’t flinch from graphic moments of violence and terror.

Oscar voters have, of late, shied away from the hard core stuff, for better or worse. I’ll have to catch up with Prisoners to see for myself before I hop on the splooge bus headed for the Kodak. Something the matter with forplay?

Being touted right now are Melissa Leo (supporting), Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman – but Best Actor is jam packed right now. Never say never, however.

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Steve McQueen’s unflinching, almost surreal look at the evils of slavery inevitably pulls us flush up against today. You can change a lot of things about yourself if you’re a black man. You can be a well-dressed educated family man. You can even be a millionaire or a film director or a famous actor. But the color of your skin remains the same. On some streets in America, in some eyes, that’s what very nearly defines you.

In his third collaboration with Michael Fassbender, after the triumphs of Hunger and Shame, Steve McQueen once again takes his film in his own direction, following no preset formula, no well-traveled path. 12 Years a Slave is in no way Hollywood’s typical rendition of slavery. It is not told from the point of view of the white men in power, nor is it told from a white director’s point of view. There is no magical imaginary savior who rides in with a gun to slay the perpetrators, thereby absolving our collective cultural heritage of guilt in these crimes against humanity, or what Spike Lee has called his holocaust.

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Twitter again erupts in praise of another likely masterpiece. Two days ago we got dazzled reaction from Venice festival-goers about Gravity. Tonight, 12 Years a Slave has stunned those in attendance in Telluride.

@AwardsDaily Another powerful collaboration for McQueen and Fassbender. They make magic together. #Telluride

@MrDanZak 12 YEARS A SLAVE = Masterful rendering of intolerable cruelty Standing O for McQ, Ejiofor, Pitt, Fass & stunning Lupita Nyong’o

@csoberanis7 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a startlingly realized period drama, maybe the best movie ever about slavery

@AskDebruge: Not 1 wrong note in #12YearsASlave ensemble; Chiwetel Ejiofor and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o are all but assured Oscar noms

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Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color is a film I wish I’d seen in my early twenties. Rarely has a film delved into human sexuality with such attention to detail. Women are not really invited to explore their sexuality here in America. We are conditioned to divide ourselves into two types – good girls and bad girls.  The European position on Sex is decidedly less repressed. Nudity is very much a part of their natural lives, affection fluidly given.

There is something inescapably alluring about this film and it isn’t the sex. Sure, the sexual scenes are every bit a tribute to how great sex really can be – especially once you find a lover who pulls you out of your self-conscious bondage and shows you the moon and the stars. It isn’t what they do to you it’s what you do together. People like that come along very rarely in one’s life. I personally can count those partners on a few fingers. And when you are touched by that kind of potent desire and sexual chemistry, if you are rejected or you pass it by without realizing – it might haunt you for the rest of your life.

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New York, NY (August 30, 2013) – The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment Magazine announced today that they will host the U.S. premiere of Steve McQueen’s new film, 12 Years A Slave, on Tuesday, October 8th at the New York Film Festival. McQueen will be on hand to present the film along with cast members, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Paul Dano and Alfre Woodard. Tickets will be available starting Sunday, September 8th, when tickets go on sale to the general public for the festival.

Gavin Smith, New York Film Festival Selection Committee member and Editor-in-Chief of Film Comment Magazine said, “Film Comment is delighted to be able to champion 12 Years A Slave at the New York Film Festival. This is a powerful work about a subject that remains vital and I have no doubt that it’s one of the year’s most important films.”

“I am honored that 12 Years a Slave will be presented at the New York Film Festival in association with Film Comment” said director, Steve McQueen. “For me, this feels like a true home-coming for Solomon as he was from New York and I’m delighted that his story can be celebrated here.”

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12-years

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The love story is really what drives Jason Reitman’s beautifully rendered film Labor Day, which stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, from the novel by Joyce Maynard. Structure is key to the whys and hows of the plot. It might baffle a few waiting to see the usual formula unfurl. The timeline in this film is especially important, which you will (hopefully) discover when you see it. Don’t go in expecting Drive.

Reitman has pushed past many of his own limitations here, erasing the snark and the sarcasm. In its place, raw sentimentality that feels inevitable to an artist willing to step outside his comfort zone and take a risk. Both Reitman and Alexander Payne have, this year, really done what is much more difficult than delivering snark. Facing true emotion head-on ain’t easy. Facing the truth about the human experience, harder still.

But Labor Day is not a film, I don’t think, for the usual voices that dominate the film blogging scene. Fans of Reitman’s earlier work will want him to stay in that mode, like the Scorsese fans who only want to see Goodfellas or the Fincher fans who only want to see Fight Club. Reitman has gone beyond his reliance on having a joke for everything, where his characters never have to really feel anything very deeply or for long. That has changed with Labor Day.

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Had planned to post excerpts from several reviews — but it seems nobody is able to keep their mouth shut about plot twists. Go read Justin Chang at Variety at your own risk. He blurts out a dozen things you’ll wish you didn’t know. No wonder so many people in Hollywood have forgotten how to enjoy movies. Most of the pleasures gets ruined by clumsy critics before people have a chance to see for themselves. Todd McCarthy understands how to talk about a film without storytelling the whole plot, so here’s part of his review from THR.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock star as astronauts in Alfonso Cuaron’s jaw-dropping space thriller.

At once the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space, Gravity is a thrillingly realized survival story spiked with interludes of breath-catching tension and startling surprise. Not at all a science fiction film in the conventional sense, Alfonso Cuaron’s first feature in seven years has no aliens, space ship battles or dystopian societies, just the intimate spectacle of a man and a woman trying to cope in the most hostile possible environment across a very tight 90 minutes. World premiered at the Venice Film Festival, with Telluride showings following quickly on its heels, this Warner Bros. release is smart but not arty, dramatically straightforward but so dazzlingly told as to make it a benchmark in its field. Graced by exemplary 3D work and bound to look great in IMAX, the film seems set to soar commercially around the world.

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THE BUTLER

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Now that The Butler has taken the box office for the second week in a row, on fewer screens than its competition, the speculative conversation is upon us. In a private email chat with Kris Tapley and Anne Thompson, they said they were certain that Oprah single-handedly opened the film. And that its box-office strength is being driven by her popularity. No doubt Oprah’s name is helping sell tickets, but I think that only tells part of the story. Expand your range of vision beyond the easy answers and you begin to see what other forces might be at play.

It’s simply too easy to say the box office is being driven by Oprah’s rare performance, even with its attendant media buzz.

1) The film’s swan dive into civil rights. Watch Driving Miss Daisy if you want to see how Hollywood has continually marginalized stories about Civil Rights, particularly in regard to African-American involvement. Take Spike Lee’s filmmaking, for instance. It was deemed “too confrontational” and Lee too “angry” at the time. Driving Miss Daisy, and later, The Blind Side and The Help have been more to Hollywood’s liking, at least that’s what the box-office numbers tell us. But, for once, The Butler tells a story about black and white history from the black perspective. It isn’t a story aimed squarely at black audiences; it is a story with crossover appeal. America elected the presidents under whom this butler (Eugene Allen, upon which the Butler is loosely based) served. He witnessed pivotal moments in our history. Movies about those presidents have been made and their stories are the ones we learn in school. But unlike Driving Miss Daisy and The Help, The Butler is history as seen through the lens of black characters. That makes it unique, important and absolutely worth seeing.

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Gold Derby has assembled a ragtag group for the first predictions sweep (Movie City News’ Gurus of Gold will also post soon) of Best Picture. These are mostly spit in the wind choices, though I follow Anne Thompson’s lead by never predicting a film to win that I haven’t seen (it’s tempting, hope springs eternal).  Therefore, I currently think, all things considered, that Alexander Payne’s sentimental, moving story of an elderly man rediscovering his own life through the lens of Dementia has the best shot of taking home the prize. But then, I haven’t seen any of the “major” contenders yet. No one has.  What I know is this: Alexander Payne is one of the greatest unrecognized American directors who came close to winning with Sideways (screenplay) and then again with The Descendants (screenplay). I don’t know a more consistently good storyteller who is as reliable as Payne when it comes to delivering flawed, memorable characters.  There is something haunting and unforgettable about Nebraska, which seems to fold in so much of what revolves in the collective now.  If it isn’t the best film in Payne’s career, it is close. Therefore, given that the Coens have won with No Country, Scorsese with The Departed, there are a couple of big time directors in the mix who are also overdue, David O. Russell among them.

Still, no one has seen American Hustle so predicting that movie to win, despite everything, is like accepting a proposal to marry someone whose profile you liked on Match.com.  You only know what it looks like on the surface. Surely that’s no way to find “best.”

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Via IGN:

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All of the good word of mouth (sans some critics) has helped The Butler take the number one spot at the box office, very likely dragging people out who don’t go to the movies. There’s Oprah in the best performance she’s ever given (doesn’t get enough credit for being such a good actress), ditto Forest Whitaker, not to mention David Oyelowo. So, is it a film that is going to get anywhere near the critics awards? Probably not. But it is a story worth telling and a movie worth seeing. Full stop.

Indiewire’s Anne Thompson also points out that The Butler is on track to earn The Help kind of money, aka $169 million. So that’s good news, especially since no one can complain about how the maids were portrayed in an insulting manner, nevermind that those maids were Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. The Butler does not utilize the magical negro scenario in the least bit. So if it makes money from white ticket buyers? Well, that will be quite something.

Rolling Stone’s Gary Susman breaks it all down:

WINNER OF THE WEEK: Lee Daniels’ The Butler: Actually, there are a lot of winners associated with this one, starting with Harvey Weinstein, who milked a duplicate-title dispute with Warner Bros. for maximum publicity, resulting in his anointing director Lee Daniels as a household-name filmmaker. Then there’s Daniels; not only is he now a name-before-the-title brand name like Tyler Perry, but he also gets props for making a sweeping Civil Rights epic with an all-star cast for just $30 million, then having it open at No. 1 with an estimated $25.0 million on a summer weekend against three other new wide releases.

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One of the biggest surprises of 2013 so far is Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12. It’s the kind of movie that seems “too little” to break through to Oscar, and maybe will only land at the Spirit Awards. But the truth of it is that Brie Larson’s performance as Grace will probably capture enough hearts to break through in a very crowded category.

(minor spoiler warning)
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When you look at the Best Actor race now it’s hard not to zero in on Matthew McConaughey, one of the hardest working actors in town (works hard, plays hard) and his upcoming physical transformation in Dallas Buyers Club.  Just from the pictures of the actor, who also turned in a notable performance in Mud (which has made upwards of $20 mil so far), it’s hard to imagine him not getting awards attention.  McConaughey is well liked in Hollywood and has been slowly building an impressive body of work after his early rise as the “next Paul Newman” to his jump to mainstream, then back to challenging himself with difficult roles in smaller films. He turned in three brilliant supporting performances last year and was completely overlooked.  He has never earned a single Oscar nomination. This might finally be his year.

His main competition in a very crowded Oscar race already, appears to be–

Known/seen contenders (forces to be reckoned with):
Robert Redford, All is Lost
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Forest Whitaker, The Butler
Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station

Not seen but expected to be formidable:
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Benedict Cumberbatch, the Fifth Estate
Joaquin Phoenix, Her
Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street
Josh Brolin, Oldboy

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