David Ayer’s World War II epic looks to be a stirring, emotional war movie released right into the heart of Oscar season.
Scott Foundas calls Gone Girl the movie of the year:
In full accord w/ @justincchang: GONE GIRL is an exhilarating, pitch-black marital comedy; Fincher's EYES WIDE SHUT; the movie of the year.
— Scott Foundas (@foundasonfilm) September 22, 2014
Even with the well-established praise for director David Fincher as a master filmmaker — his movies lushly drenched in shadow, his capacity for tough stuff matched only by his care in presentation — it’s easy to forget or overlook his sense of humor, the spoonful of sugar that helps the malevolence go down in his films.
At his best, Fincher has a sense of humor that not only cuts through the darkness but actually contrasts it to significant effect. After the dour, sour, sadistic Scandanavian misfire of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” it’s a pleasure to note that Fincher’s latest adaptation, of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel of the same name, is both wicked and wickedly fun.
Not only brutal but also brutally funny, “Gone Girl” mixes top-notch suspenseful storytelling with the kind of razor-edged wit that slashes so quick and clean you’re still watching the blade go past before you notice you’re bleeding.
He goes on:
Flynn’s script is loaded with nicely-tuned observations, not just about the rules and rituals of the modern American marriage but also about a media that shrieks speculation more than it speaks the truth and worries about slogans more than facts. The author’s clever, cruel and cool work also gives Pike the role of a lifetime in the shining, secretive Amy, while still making her human and comprehensible. Affleck, who’s personally had to endure a level of media scrutiny that makes a colonoscopy look dignified, brings much of that history to Nick’s affability and desire to please. When he needs to play the part, Nick does, but he’s not as smart as he thinks he is. Both performers are brilliant.
With its shifting perspectives and timelines, its constant conflict between what’s said and what’s truly seen, “Gone Girl” is clean, clear, and perfectly constructed. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and editor Jeff Baxter, both regular Fincher collaborators, deliver the kind of work that looks easy but, assuredly and on reflection, is decidedly not. The score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is a more mixed proposition, effective in the places it works and distracting on several occasions where it doesn’t.
New York Magazine’s David Edelstein:
Oh, what a stunning opening shot—a prelude to damnation—director David Fincher serves up in his elegantly wicked suburban noir Gone Girl, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her best-selling novel. It’s the back of the head of a woman (Rosamund Pike) on a pillow, her golden tresses aglow. An unseen man (Ben Affleck) narrates; he suggests that the only way to know what’s in a person’s mind would be to shatter her skull. Then the woman turns her face to the camera. It’s creamy-skinned, sleepily beautiful; her eyes open wide and she stares into ours. The look is teasingly ambiguous. Juxtaposed with the narrator’s violent words, the image poses the question: Who could want to violate a façade so exquisite? You want to pore over it, study it for clues to what’s underneath.
You get that chance for many of Gone Girl’s 148 minutes. The movie is phenomenally gripping—although it does leave you queasy, uncertain what to take away on the subject of men, women, marriage, and the possibility of intimacy from the example of such prodigiously messed-up people. Though a woman wrote the script, the male gaze dominates, and this particular male—the director of Se7en and The Social Network—doesn’t have much faith in appearances, particularly women’s. Fincher’s is a world of masks, misrepresentations, subtle and vast distortions. Truth is rarely glimpsed. Media lie. Surfaces lie.
A small gathering of folks were invited to see five minutes of Selma, the Martin Luther King film directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo. The chatter after the preview was that it seemed very good. But the the real take away was how strong Oyelowo was as King. The standout actor was a scene stealer in Lincoln, and was one of the best things about the underrated The Butler. DuVernay is focusing not on King’s entire life but on a specific snapshot in time. Below is an accounting of that time but you will better recognize it for Bloody Sunday and the March to Selma. What it will make you think of now is Ferguson. It will also serve as a reminder of how many states still entrust power to a white minority when its citizens are a black majority. Voter suppression goes on to this day and remains an going struggle every election year.
Blackfilm’s Wilson Morales covered the event and posted some clips (thanks to Hollywood-Elsewhere.com for the link):
On 25 March 1965, Martin Luther King led thousands of nonviolent demonstrators to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, after a 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, where local African Americans, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had been campaigning for voting rights. King told the assembled crowd: ‘‘There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes’’ (King, ‘‘Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March,’’ 121).
On 2 January 1965 King and SCLC joined the SNCC, the Dallas County Voters League, and other local African American activists in a voting rights campaign in Selma where, in spite of repeated registration attempts by local blacks, only two percent were on the voting rolls. SCLC had chosen to focus its efforts in Selma because they anticipated that the notorious brutality of local law enforcement under Sheriff Jim Clark would attract national attention and pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to enact new national voting rights legislation.
The campaign in Selma and nearby Marion, Alabama, progressed with mass arrests but little violence for the ï¬rst month. That changed in February, however, when police attacks against nonviolent demonstrators increased. On the night of 18 February, Alabama state troopers joined local police breaking up an evening march in Marion. In the ensuing melee, a state trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon from Marion, as he attempted to protect his mother from the trooper’s nightstick. Jackson died eight days later in a Selma hospital.
In response to Jackson’s death, activists in Selma and Marion set out on 7 March, to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. While King was in Atlanta, his SCLC colleague Hosea Williams, and SNCC leader John Lewis led the march. The marchers made their way through Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they faced a blockade of state troopers and local lawmen commanded by Clark and Major John Cloud who ordered the marchers to disperse. When they did not, Cloud ordered his men to advance. Cheered on by white onlookers, the troopers attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Mounted police chased retreating marchers and continued to beat them.
Television coverage of ‘‘Bloody Sunday,’’ as the event became known, triggered national outrage. Lewis, who was severely beaten on the head, said: ‘‘I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma,’’ (Reed, ‘‘Alabama Police Use Gas’’).
That evening King began a blitz of telegrams and public statements, ‘‘calling on religious leaders from all over the nation to join us on Tuesday in our peaceful, nonviolent march for freedom’’ (King, 7 March 1965). While King and Selma activists made plans to retry the march again two days later, Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. notified the movement attorney Fred Gray that he intended to issue a restraining order prohibiting the march until at least 11 March, and President Johnson pressured King to call off the march until the federal court order could provide protection to the marchers.
Forced to consider whether to disobey the pending court order, after consulting late into the night and early morning with other civil rights leaders and John Doar, the deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, King proceeded to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the afternoon of 9 March. He led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had answered King’s call on short notice, to the site of Sunday’s attack, then stopped and asked them to kneel and pray. After prayers they rose and turned the march back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and skirting the issue of whether to obey Judge Johnson’s court order. Many marchers were critical of King’s unexpected decision not to push on to Montgomery, but the restraint gained support from President Johnson, who issued a public statement: ‘‘Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote’’ (Johnson, ‘‘Statement by the President,’’ 272). Johnson promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress within a few days.
That evening, several local whites attacked James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had come from Massachusetts to join the protest. His death two days later contributed to the rising national concern over the situation in Alabama. Johnson personally telephoned his condolences to Reeb’s widow and met with Alabama Governor George Wallace, pressuring him to protect marchers and support universal suffrage.
On 15 March Johnson addressed the Congress, identifying himself with the demonstrators in Selma in a televised address: ‘‘Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome’’ (Johnson, ‘‘Special Message’’). The following day Selma demonstrators submitted a detailed march plan to federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., who approved the demonstration and enjoined Governor Wallace and local law enforcement from harassing or threatening marchers. On 17 March President Johnson submitted voting rights legislation to Congress.
The federally sanctioned march left Selma on 21 March. Protected by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, the demonstrators covered between 7 to 17 miles per day. Camping at night in supporters’ yards, they were entertained by celebrities such as Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. Limited by Judge Johnson’s order to 300 marchers over a stretch of two-lane highway, the number of demonstrators swelled on the last day to 25,000, accompanied by Assistant Attorneys General John Doar and Ramsey Clark, and former Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, among others.
During the ï¬nal rally, held on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, King proclaimed: ‘‘The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man’’ (King, ‘‘Address,’’ 130). Afterward a delegation of march leaders attempted to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace, but were rebuffed. That night, while ferrying Selma demonstrators back home from Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan who had come to Alabama to volunteer, was shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. Doar later prosecuted three Klansmen conspiring to violate her civil rights.
On 6 August, in the presence of King and other civil rights leaders, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Recalling ‘‘the outrage of Selma,’’ Johnson
called the right to vote ‘‘the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men’’ (Johnson, ‘‘Remarks’’). In his annual address to SCLC a few days later, King noted that ‘‘Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960; Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Selma produced the voting rights legislation of 1965’’ (King, 11 August 1965).
A new teaser for JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year has just been sent out. Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain star. The movie, judging from the trailer, looks top notch, in keeping with the dramatically diverse palate of the young Mr. Chandor, who had already made Margin Call and All is Lost. The film will be given a limited release date of December 31 (hopefully screening before that) and then opening in 2015, a press release just announced.
Set during the winter of 1981 — statistically one of the most crime-ridden of New York City’s history — A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a drama following the lives of an immigrant and his family as they attempt to capitalize on the American Dream, while the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built. Running time: 110 minutes. MPAA Rating: TBD.
Here is the trailer.
Update: added to the documentary category.
This is where I see the Oscar race right now, before the New York Film fest and before the Big Oscar Movies begin to roll out. I thought it might be nice to put it down for the record. Following Anne Thompson’s lead I am not predicting movies I have not yet seen or that have not yet been seen by many. Though I do that over at Gold Derby and Movie City News that’s spitballing. This is actual guess work. There are still some films that I’m not sure will be released this year or not, like JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. But this is what I know, or what I think I know.
Although this race is far from settled, if the Oscars were held today the film that would likely win would be Richard Linklater’s monumental film about life as we know it, Boyhood. Made for just $4 million, and a box office take so far of $20 million, it can’t be called anything but a success. More than that, it has captured the zeitgeist. People are talking about it, feeling it woven into their DNA. There is something about watching time fly by, Linklater style, with no pomp and circumstance, no dramatic shockers – and yet, by the end of it what is the most shocking is how fast time goes, how quickly our lives go, how so many things can go really wrong on the road to adulthood but that most of us — the lucky ones – scramble ahead anyway, make something of ourselves anyway, find love and happiness and maybe a family anyway. Does it turn out the way we all thought it would? Probably surpasses expectations for 1% of us. The rest of us are like George Baileys, our dreams of a life that might have been long since tucked between the pages of a memory book while our real lives, extraordinary in their ordinariness, bloom before our eyes. Boyhood is a magnificent meditation on life and is the most remarkable film of 2014 so far. Yes, The Imitation Game, Birdman, the Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher — and more films have made their mark on the festival crowd. But they will have to catch up to how Boyhood has seeped into the collective unconscious so far. People keep saying to me “I just don’t see that movie winning Best Picture.” And, indeed. It’s early yet. Very probably Boyhood will not win. But if you’re asking me to take a snapshot of the Oscar race on the eve of the New York Film Festival, this is your top pick.
2. The Imitation Game
4. The Theory of Everything
6. Mr. Turner
In the running:
8. The Homesman
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Still to be Seen:
Into the Woods
This is a three-way race right now between Michael Keaton in Birdman, Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Lord help anyone trying to make that choice. To me, Keaton’s is one of a handful of the performances of the year. The layers, the sadness, the complexities he delivers as an actor are breathtaking. On the other hand, Cumberbatch as the Asperger’s afflicted, repressed homosexual mad genius? Who can top that? And finally, Redmayne disappears into Stephen Hawking…I have heard anyway. So that’s going to be a tough race and a tough category.
1. Michael Keaton, Birdman
2. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
3. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
4. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
5. Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
6. Bill Murray St. Vincent
7. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
8. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
9. Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
10. Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood
Still to come:
Ben Affleck, Gone Girl
Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar
Brad Pitt, Fury
Jack O’Connell, Unbroken
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
David Oyelowo, Selma
Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
Gregory Ellwood called it in Toronto and this is probably Julianne Moore’s Oscar to win. She will have to ask for it, campaign for it, let voters know she wants it. And we know from Kate Winslet, all the lady need do is ask. The Oscar is hers. She has some stiff competition in Reese Witherspoon’s unbelievably brave and raw turn in Wild and Hilary Swank in The Homesman, to say nothing of the mad wunderkind Jessica Chastain giving among the performances of the year in Eleanor Rigby. They will go up against Rosamund Pike, said to be off the charts good in Gone Girl, and Amy Adams and Meryl Streep. But no one has the industry clout, the career behind them, the overdue status that Ms. Moore has. As I said, all the lady need do is ask.
1. Julianne Moore, Still Alice
2. Reese Witherspoon, Wild
3. Hilary Swank, The Homesman
4. Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
5. Jessica Chastain, Eleanor Rigby
6. Shailene Woodley, The Fault in our Stars
Still to come:
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Amy Adams, Big Eyes
This is a confounding category right now. It feels so vacant to me, with no frontrunner and no way to really rank these performances. In a coin toss I might choose Ethan Hawke for Boyhood but I don’t know if he or anyone can beat Edward Norton in Birdman. This is a backburner category I’ll have to return to later.
Edward Norton, Birdman
JK Simmons, Whiplash
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
William Hurt, Eleanor Rigby
Still to Come:
Neil Patrick Harris, Gone Girl
Lots and lots of other names I can’t think of right now.
If there is one performance people are talking about so far more than any other it’s the magnificent Patricia Arquette in Boyhood. Her transformation is the most dramatic and she didn’t even go through puberty. She does it all internally. We watch her “grow up.” We see the most surprising reactions to situations, even if they don’t fit the mold of the saintly, put upon mother. She is a whole human being – and Linklater would not have it any other way. This is not a man who wants to put women in a box. This is a man who has always, throughout his career, celebrated strong, complex female characters. Arquette feels like the lead to me but since she is a supporting character they have made the decision to run her in that category. Arquette gets some competition from the sweet, vibrant mother in Wild, and the equally vibrant, unexpectedly captivating Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game. Kristen Stewart is said to have given two of her best performances this year, in The Clouds of Sils Maria and in Still Alice. Viola Davis gets a chance to actually be a real person in Eleanor Rigby. The movie doesn’t seem able to catch a break but David ought to be noticed, along with Chastain. Again, this category also feels like it’s kind of up in the air, all save the person in the number spot, the very deserving Arquette.
1. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
2. Laure Dern, Wild
3. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
4. Emma Stone, Birdman
5. Kristen Stewart, Still Alice
6. Viola Davis, Eleanor Rigby
7. Melissa McCarthy, St. Vincent
8. Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow
Still to come:
Jessica Chastain, Interstellar
Anne Hathaway, Interstellar
Reese Witherspoon, Inherent Vice
Anna Kendrick, Into the Woods
This will be another extremely tough category. If there is one more competitive category than Best Actor this year it will be Best Director. First off, how do you do what Richard Linklater did in 12 years? Who has that kind of dedication, other than Michael Apted, who really did just sort of record life. Linklater did more than record life – he sustained an entire story over a 12 year period with characters and through-lines and motivations. It’s just astonishing. On the other hand, look at what Inarritu does with Birdman! How is it even possible that someone could do that with a camera. I have my own personal favorite director (right up there with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg) releasing Gone Girl — Fincher’s work will likely tower over the competition but with a dark subject voters might not be ready to shimmy up that pole. Two women in the Oscar conversation – Angelina Jolie and Ava DuVernay. Pause to reflect on how cool that is. Mr. Clint is coming — stand back. It’s a category I’m going to delight in writing about for the next few months.
1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
2. Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
3. Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
4. Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
5. Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
Still to come:
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken
David Ayer, Fury
Clint Eastwood, American Sniper
Ava DuVernay, Selma
Rob Marshall, Into the Woods
1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
2. Alejandro Inarritu et al, Birdman
3. E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
4. Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
5. Jon Stewart, Rosewater
6. Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
7. Ned Benson, Eleanor Rigby
8. Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
Still to Come:
Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, Interstellar
David Ayer, Fury
Paul Webb, Selma
Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski , Big Eyes
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Nick Hornby, Wild
Anthony McCarten, The Thoery of Everything
Wes Anderson, Grand Budapest Hotel
Kieran Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson, Men, Women & Children
Still to Come:
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Jason Dean Hall, American Sniper
Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice
The Imitation Game
Still to Come:
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Grand Budapest Hotel
Still to Come:
Into the Woods
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Grand Budapest Hotel
Still to Come
Into the Woods
Get on Up
Guardians of the Galaxy
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Edge of Tomorrow
Still to Come:
Into the Woods
Guardians of the Galaxy
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Edge of Tomorrow
The Imitation Game
Get on Up
Guardians of the Galaxy
Grand Budapest Hotel
Still to Come:
The Imitation Game
Grand Budapest Hotel
Still to come:
Foreign Language Feature
Wild Tales (Argentina)
Look of Silence
The Salt of the Earth
Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles
Keep on Keepin’ On
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Lego Movie
Still to Come
Big Hero 6
The Box Trolls
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
Edge of Tomorrow
Still to Come:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
Mercy Is, Patti Smith, Noah
Your thoughts, Oscar watchers? Best Original Song contenders I’m forgetting?
The first photos of By The Sea starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have been released at Entertainment Weekly. By The Sea will see the pair reunite on-screen for the first time since they appeared in 2005’s Mr and Mrs Smith.
The synopsis reads:
“Set in France during the mid-1970s. Jolie plays Vanessa, a former dancer, and Pitt is her husband Roland, an American writer. As they travel the country together, they seem to be growing apart, but when they linger in one quiet, seaside town they begin to draw close to some of its more vibrant inhabitants, such as a local bar/cafe-keeper and hotel owner.”
The couple who recently married, are shooting on location in Malta. Both Pitt and Jolie are producing the movie.
Pitt will next be seen in the David Ayers war drama Fury, and Jolie directed the upcoming Unbroken.
Your Grolsch People’s Choice Award
for 2014 goes to THE IMITATION GAME #TIFF14
Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award goes to BEATS OF THE ANTONOV
The Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award goes to WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
The NETPAC Award goes to MARGARITA, WITH A STRAW
TIME OUT OF MIND second FIPRESCI Prize
FIPRESCI Discovery Prize: MAY ALLAH BLESS FRANCE
The Best Canadian Film Feature goes to FELIX AND MEIRA
Canadian Feature: Bang Bang Baby
The Best Picture lineup of 2014 has one more pit stop before it reveals itself. That moment has, for the past ten years, felt obvious. Like George Bailey with hopes of traveling the world and perhaps marrying someone mysterious and exotic, at some point he realizes that the girl of his dreams has been living right there in Bedford Falls the whole time. And so it goes with Best Picture these days.
If you’ve been following along with AwardsDaily you’ll know we talk about the date change a lot and how it’s shaped the Best Picture race. Around 2003 the Academy pushed the date back one month from late March to late February — apparently it was a decision to cash in on ratings for their TV show. Little did they know how it would ultimately shape the Oscar race and probably shape how studios roll out movies overall. That caused a domino effect that ultimately would mean the Oscar race is decided by critics and industry voters long before the public has a chance to see many of the films — their opinion of those films has little to do with the outcome of the race.
The most dramatic change, though, has been that the Best Picture winner has not come from any film seen after October since Million Dollar Baby in 2004. Clint Eastwood was one of the few filmmakers who really could just show up and win the whole game without a lot of kowtowing to tastemakers and critics. But since then, the films that have won have been Mary Baileys — right in front of your eyes the whole time, seen either before Telluride/Toronto or during.
Titanic – no festival, open to public
Shakespeare in Love – no festival, open to public
American Beauty – no festival, open to public
Gladiator – no festival, open to public
A Beautiful Mind – no festival, open to public
Chicago – no festival, open to public
Return of the King – no festival, open to public
Million Dollar Baby – no festival, open to public
Crash – (Toronto)
The Departed – no festival, open to public
No Country for Old Men (Cannes)
Slumdog Millionaire (Telluride)
The Hurt Locker (Toronto)
The King’s Speech (Telluride)
The Artist (Cannes)
12 Years a Slave (Telluride)
The old way: films were rolled out during what we used to think of as Oscar season — from September to December. By year’s end, the box office take was recorded, as were the reviews, and THEN the voters made their decisions. What films were popular with the public (Gladiator, Titanic) mattered more than what the critics and tastemakers thought.
I’ve been here to watch the transformation, and have been part of it, and I remember how it used to be. There didn’t used to be an entire industry devoted to awards watching. Back then, everybody wasn’t an expert. You actually had to have some qualifications to be a film critic (journalist, educated, experienced) and not just anyone could ‘publish.’ But the internet leveled the playing field and, suddenly, anyone could cook. And they did. That has impacted the race, taking it mostly out of the hands of the studios — who were really trying to give the public what it wanted, make money and maintain the status quo, and into the hands of people who think the Oscars should matter more than that — that they should reward the best films.
Voters have resisted the change, especially lately. They do not want things to evolve so fast and, thus, they continue to lean towards those traditional crowdpleasing nuts and bolts films driven by the Big Three: Acting, Directing, Writing. In that order. They are less inclined towards effects-driven films, which explains why they have a single category to honor that genre: Best Visual Effects. Occasionally they crowd into the other tech categories like Sound, Art Direction, Cinematography. But to voters that is mostly where they belong. Alfonso Cuaron winning for Gravity and Ang Lee winning for Life of Pi, signal a tiny shift in that direction. In ten years you might see effects-driven films dominating the Oscar race.
That brings us to this year. Now that Toronto is mostly over, it seems to have delivered one Best Picture contender and maybe firmed up another. Films so far this year seem to be divided into a few key categories. The first, Great British Men Doing Great Things: The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game and Mr. Turner. The second will be the dark reveal of the ugly side of American culture: Foxcatcher, Birdman, and soon to be Gone Girl.
Then there will be true stories of American heroes: Selma (Martin Luther King, Jr.), Unbroken (Louie Zamperini), American Sniper (Chris Kyle), and Fury, a fictional account of the last push to defeat Nazi Germany.
And finally, fantasy — with Interstellar and Into the Woods.
Toronto has delivered The Theory of Everything, which appears headed straight for the major categories, and Whiplash, which Indiewire’s Anne Thompson had on her radar since Sundance. If that film wins Tiff’s Audience Award that gives it even more heft heading into the race.
There is one more game-changer this year, or there could be, and that’s the New York Film Festival unfurling at the end of this month. The two films that will be introduced into the race there will be David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Neither of these directors make movies for Oscar voters. They just don’t think: how can I make a movie that’s going to win Best Picture? The first reason, they don’t need to. Neither of their legacies are going to be defined by the 6 thousand or so Oscar voters whose lives are so comfortable they resent being made Uncomfortable.
Being that Oscar voters tend to be softies, especially lately, you can pretty much count on turning on your heart-light once again as we look towards what will dominate the Best Picture race and why.
Right now, as September comes to a close, one film continues to define 2014 and that’s Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. If you’re looking for a film right now that has the best chance to WIN Best Picture, this is it. Just making that statement, of course, puts it in a vulnerable spot. But the thing about this film, and most recent Best Picture winners, it can take the heat because it isn’t divisive. Right now it’s quietly hovering in the background with the nicest people in Hollywood representing it. If you are underestimating Boyhood right now you are not paying attention.
Its position could shift dramatically as films we have seen roll out — Interstellar, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Fury, and Clint Eastwood showing up once again at the last minute with American Sniper — they are all gambling on end of the year releases to cinch Best Picture, which hasn’t been achieved since 2004. BUT that doesn’t mean this won’t be the year all of that changes.
Again, the public has nothing to do with the race right now except for those who keep coming out to see Boyhood, sometimes twice. In the real world the movie people are talking about is Boyhood. Its challengers so far are films that have become the most talked about at the various festivals so far.
For the record: One thing In Contention’s Kris Tapley said on Twitter was a funny comment that could only have been made by an old school Oscarwatcher. He said that Clint Eastwood could just show up and clear the room with American Sniper. He did it with Unforgiven and did it again with Million Dollar Baby and very nearly did it again with Letters from Iwo Jima.
1. Birdman. Talking about this film is how the whole process gets dumbed down. No one should come out of Telluride saying the film won’t win because it will be too divisive. That might true but they say that like it’s a bad thing. That it’s divisive means it’s doing SOMETHING RIGHT. It’s pushing buttons, challenging its audience. In short: delivering brilliant, groundbreaking, unforgettable CINEMA. Remember cinema? Remember when movies were judged on how great they were rather than their so-called “Oscar potential?” Think about what James Rocchi always says about how little he cares about the Oscar race because of WHO THEY ARE. Remember who the Oscar voters are. Remember how little what they think actually matters. If they huddle up to a film like Birdman (or if they had for Inside Llewyn Davis last year) that makes THEM look GOOD, not the other way around. They need to catch up to the artists, have their own realities shaken a bit, be given something other than a warm blanket and a cuddle and a goodnight kiss from mommy saying it will all be all right. Guess what? It isn’t all right. Nothing about our culture right now is all right. We can continue to look backwards in time and vote for films that reflect those moments we understand OR we can celebrate those sensitive writers and directors who are getting at truths that aren’t so comfortable. Life is a bucket of shit with the handle on the insides. The Oscars aren’t about rewarding that which denies this basic truth about life in 2014. It’s a mixed bag of beauty and shit. Let’s keep our aperture as wide open as possible, shall we?
2. The Imitation Game. Though it isn’t setting the critics on fire yet, critics can’t be measured the same way they used to be. Who they are has shifted too dramatically. Thus, one can’t count on them to give you an accurate reading of films that might appeal to voters since many critics these days get a whiff of “Oscar” and recoil in horror. They judge the film as “Oscar bait” rather than a film meant for actual audiences. And yes, perception is everything in the Oscar race. When the HFPA can make a difference you know perception is everything. The Imitation Game would fare far better if it had the critics on its side the way they’re on Boyhood’s side but it was still the most or the second most talked about film at Telluride. It is a moving, entertaining, heartbreaking crowd pleaser. It’s socially relevant and most importantly, it is backed by Harvey Weinstein and the Weinstein Co.
3. Foxcatcher. See number 1. Add to that: Bennett Miller has made a quiet, disturbing meditation on the secluded, padded, protected life of the 1% — a group of people who think the rules do not apply to them. This movie is about one person but it could be about the Koch brothers or Donald Trump. Sure, the real life guy was psychotic, truly mentally ill. And yes, much of the true story is not included in Miller’s film. It isn’t required to be. This is a film that operates on a gloriously metaphorical level. It is our American story as much as Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is. It is brilliant, expert filmmaking that simply tops almost anything anyone else brought to Cannes. So if you want to dumb things down and worry about what “they” will think, go ahead. In the end all that will mean is that you a mind reader of a group of very predictable people for whom life has become altogether too easy. That isn’t the real world and there is no room for such limited thinking in the vibrant world of American film.
4. The Theory of Everything. Though I’ve not seen the film, it is clear that this was one of the films that moved people attending the Toronto Film Festival. It is about one of the great thinkers of our time who was stricken with ALS. From the looks of it the film is headed for the major categories.
On the Edge
5. Mr Turner
Hovering on the Fringe
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel
9. The Homesman
10. The Judge
Films that should be considered for Best Picture but won’t:
2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The heavy hitters still to come
Into the Woods
Either way, we are still in the morning fog of Oscar season. We don’t know the outcome yet because we don’t know what’s coming. And so we wait, and we wait.
The performances keep getting the attention at the fest. Last year “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” were Oscar bound the minute they got screened (and were declared as such by Telluride), but this year there is no such movie.
Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller is the dark side of the American dream with an eerie understated score accompanying its tremendous performances, none better than Steve Carell, creepy as hell, playing a billionaire wannabe wrestling coach trying to get his recruit athlete, played by Channing Tatum, a gold medal at the Olympics. It’s a performance constantly talked about since Cannes, but it really is that good.
If “The Imitation Game” was a major hit at Telluride, it has some competition here with James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything”, most notably because of Eddie Redmayne’s performance playing Stephen Hawking. You can’t take your eyes off of Redmayne. He doesn’t play Hawking, he IS Stephen Hawking. Whenever I get into a conversation with somebody about this movie, it always comes back to Redmayne, a 32 year old British actor known to Americans for his role as Marius Pontmercy in Les Miserables. Felicity Jones is also fabulous as Hawking’s wife Jane Hawking, a woman who stuck by her man until the task became too overwhelming.
You want electric? Look no further than J.K Simmons in “Whiplash”, one of the best movies to have played at the fest so far and one that warranted a rousing standing ovation. I’ve bumped into many TIFF-goers who are telling me this could win the Audience award and I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. It’s a blisteringly made crowd pleaser that makes excitingly high art out of jazz drumming. J.K Simmons is the teacher from hell, pushing his students to limits they might not even have –- think Sgt. Hartman from “Full Metal Jacket” but turned into a Jazz band professor at the best music school in the U.S. Don’t be surprised if Simmons gets tons of Awards attention by years end, he’s incredibly good. The movie asks us moral and ethical questions near its end but its rousing conclusion is the most exhilarating and sensational end to a movie I’ve seen so far this year.
The haunted genius of Bobby Fischer comes to us in “Pawn Sacrifice”, a by-the-books account of Fischer’s endless genius and torment. As played by Tobey Maguire, Fischer was one hell of a chess player but he also had paranoiac delusions that ultimately led to his downfall. That downfall is sadly not touched upon during the film, which mostly has to do with Fischer’s rivalry with soviet chess champion Boris Spassky, as played by always reliable Liev Schreiber. I don’t think Maguire’s ever given us such a performance, one that keeps you on the edge throughout and brings real humanity to a very conflicted human being. Edward Zwick, whose helmed “Glory” and “Blood Diamond” in the last, knows what kind of performance he’s getting from Maguire and he does what he should do, lets him rip.
When it was announced that Maps to the Stars was not going to get the preliminary distribution to make it into this year’s Oscar race, but that it was going to go for the Globes and other lesser awards, it seemed as though Julianne Moore’s shot at the prize was done. But Still Alice was waiting in the wings and now it looks like this is going to be Moore’s next Oscar nomination, at the very least.
Also getting notice is Kristen Stewart who has a better shot at a supporting nod for Still Alice than Clouds of Sils Maria, which might not get a release date in time for the Oscars.
Hitfix’s Gregory Ellwood writes:
Moore’s performance here is reminiscent of her breakthrough role in Todd Haynes’ “Safe” and her Oscar-nominated turn in Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours.” In each scene she peels a little bit more of Alice away as the emotional pain of the disease takes its toll. It is incredibly subtle work that has to have been painstakingly thought out. You only realize this, however, walking out of the theater. Moore won’t let you see her working behind the curtain.
Over at Screendaily:
As for Moore, this is one of her most complete, layered performances. Almost 20 years ago, she starred in filmmaker Todd Haynes’ Safe, a revelatory social parable-cum-psychological horror movie about a housewife seemingly allergic to the entire world. The more realistic Still Alice finds her again felled by an invisible malady — one just as frightening — and it’s interesting to note her ability in both films to elicit our sympathy so easily. Expertly modulating her facial expressions as Alice becomes more childlike as her disease advances, Moore externalises the character’s anger and fear, the sense that she can feel her mind going but can’t reverse the damage. But at the same time, it’s not an overly showy performance: There aren’t a lot of for-you-consideration grand dramatic scenes, a modesty that makes Alice’s slow descent all the more painful and human.
Most the reviews have not yet broken.
So far the Toronto International Film Festival has been more about the performances than the movies themselves. Some of us are still awaiting “The Theory of Everything”, “The Imitation Game”, “Rosewater”, “The Good Lie”, “Time out of Mind” and “Wild” among others to finally screen. As many have pointed out, there hasn’t been that wow factor we keep looking for here at the fest, in other words a game-changer. Jason Reitman’s newest film “Men, Women and Children” screened to a polite reaction. The film garnered decidedly mixed reaction after its early-morning screening on Saturday. It’s an immensely ambitious project about sex in the internet age that had Owen Gleiberman raving to no end and others calling it a disappointment. Tom McCarthy’s “The Cobbler” was definitely the biggest disappointment thus far, given the director’s track record you had the right to expect much more — as one producer told me after the morning screening “what the hell was that?”
There are still 5 days left before the end but there have been quite a few solid contenders in the acting field. David Cronenberg’s “Map to the Stars” got pushed back to 2015, in spite of the probability that Julianne Moore’s performance could have easily nabbed a best actress nod. She plays a down-and-out actress, desperate for her next big shot. In fact, every time she’s on screen the film ignites with excitement. Moore hasn’t been this great since 2002 when she played that lonely Sirkian housewife in Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven”. I really hope people will remember her performance a year from now, as she fully deserved her Best Actress prize at Cannes earlier in May.
In “The Judge,” Robert Duvall steals the show from an otherwise stellar cast. Playing opposite an impressive cast which includes Robert Downey Jr., Vera Farmiga and Vincent D’Onoforio, Duvall plays a judge accused of murdering an ex-con he convicted more than a decade ago. His performance is raw and riveting and the highlight of the film. He shows the aches and pains that come with aging and the inner demons that need to get fought in the process. He hasn’t been this good in god knows how long.
Talking about an aging actor giving a great performance, in Barry Levinson’s “The Humbling” Al Pacino is dynamite and might garner some major Oscar buzz once the films gets released this fall. Playing a has-been actor known for his Shakespearean roles, Pacino’s performance isn’t just unusually subdued it’s also hilariously spiced with humor. He falls in love with his good friends’ daughter — played by Greta Gerwig — a girl that has had a crush on the actor ever since she was eight. They start an unusual, sex-free relationship that you know will implode in any second. This is primo Pacino and deserved of all the buzz its been getting so far at the festival.
Add Marion Cotillard’s name to the shortlist of Best Actress contenders. She is mesmerizing in her role as Sandra, a young Belgian mother that discovers her co-workers were pressured to choose between getting a significant pay bonus only if she got fired from her job . The way Cotillard approaches each and every co-worker, pleading — sometimes even begging — for them to change their votes is heartbreaking. The movie ain’t that bad either, making you cringe and heartbroken with every scene.
In “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal lost close to thirty pounds to give his creepiest performance ever. With shades of Travis Bickle, this astoundingly intense movie has Gyllenhaal chasing down murder scenes and videotaping them for L.A news outlets in exchange for cash. It’s a shady business and Gyllenhaal’s character is a dirtbag trying to make it to the bigtime, even if it means having to blackmail, lie or murder his way through fame and fortune. This is the best acting performance I’ve seen thus far at TIFF and everybody is talking about it. It’s the kind of performance that just can’t get away unnoticed — and maybe the best of his career.
The Toronto Film Fest is a few days in and so far there isn’t a lot to scream about, Oscar-wise. What does pop this year (and every year) are the handful of leading male performances.
At the top of the list to include in the Best Actor lineup — joining Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner, Ralph Fiennes in the Grand Budapest Hotel, and Michael Keaton in Birdman — would have to be, going by the response in Telluride, Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything.
Jeff Wells calls The Theory of Everything one of the biggest contenders for Best Picture, without even getting to Best Actor. But if it’s THAT good, Best Actor is a done deal.
Second would be Bill Murray in St. Vincent. Though the film itself appears to be drawing mixed reactions, most agree that it’s Murray’s show. That puts him in the running and his beloved status overall helps that. But in a year as competitive as this I don’t know if that’s enough. Best Actor these days is very much tied to Best Picture. So if St. Vincent isn’t a Best Picture thing it’s a little less certain that he’s a slam dunk. But nonetheless, on the list he goes.
We should also add Jake Gyllenhaal for the creepy breakout hit, Nightcrawler, though for some reason, film critics see in Nightcrawler many other films. I’ve read references to Taxi Driver, Bringing out the Dead, Network, Broadcast News, etc.
Todd McCarthy continues the trend in talking about Gyllenhaal:
Still, Gyllenhaal does a fantastic job channeling Louis’ outrageous and overwrought personality, whether he’s offering up lame sermons on entrepreneurship or tying his greasy long hair into a knot. It’s a performance that seems to take cues from both Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, although the real reference could be Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man – another character risking his life to capture something deadly on video, well aware of both the danger it entails and the self-aggrandizement that it generates.
Better for Gyllenhaal if his performance didn’t recall other performances and better if the film is a contender for Best Picture but a good performance is a good performance and it’s worth noting.
In addition to the co-starring male performances like James McAvoy in Eleanor Rigby and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, there are bravura leads coming up with Brad Pitt in Fury, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper and Jack O’Connell in Unbroken. These performances will likely not be ignored. There’s also Jeremy Renner in Kill the Messenger, David Oyelowo in Selma, Christoph Waltz in Big Eyes, etc.
How these names will fare at year’s end will depend on what’s coming next and what performance is going to crack the top five that isn’t on our radar at all. Some believe that what matters most is what powerful performance voters see LAST. Popularity in the industry, like ability of star, how much publicity they do – the talk show circuit, whether the SAG voters respect them or not, whether they “like” the character or not. All of these factors are always in play.
Every year it’s the same story – a spectrum of richly drawn male characters for actors to sink their teeth into, whole films built around them, character studies of them – good men, bad men, rich men, poor men, young men, old men, happy men, sad men, funny men, serious men, in love men, heartbroken men, desperate men, evil men, heroic men – yes, that’s the ticket. Heroic men. That is usually where the Oscar wheel stops spinning. It goes without saying that the same opportunities simply do not present themselves to women. No, women have to be women that men can deal with.
I really don’t think Oscar or industry voters are sexist when it comes to their choices – I think the the whole industry that covers films leans towards male-driven subject matter which is how those films get such great reviews and how they land in Oscar’s pocket and moreover, why so many more like them are being made. What I do know is that the picture used to look very very different when women had more power in Hollywood and films were built around that power, that strength, that box office appeal. Now it feels like it’s not about that so much, unless you count the big ones like Meryl Streep, but more about fuckability. If your only function is to rise the peen your shelf life will be short. Perhaps things are changing. One can always hold out hope.
If I had to pick five right now I’d go with:
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch, Imitation Game
Eddie Redmayne, Theory of Everything
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Alt. Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
That fifth slot, it’s always about that fifth slot.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg just put it this way,
“The eventual best picture Oscar winner has played at the Toronto International Film Festival in each of the last seven years. The fest’s 2014 edition gets underway tonight. Will the streak continue?”
In other words, the last film not to play at TIFF was the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, which had opened already so no festival screening necessary, ditto the year’s prior winner, The Departed. Crash came the year before and that also didn’t need the festivals. Million Dollar Baby was the year before that and it, too, didn’t play the fest circuit.
The only film to play Toronto but not Telluride in the last seven years was The Hurt Locker, which went to Toronto the year before it won Best Picture. Every other film played Telluride first.
What’s the main difference? It looks like films that are headed for the Oscar race do not open to general audiences until after they have a festival launch pad. Even the films that screen in Cannes have a long road before they’re open in theaters — like 2011’s winner, The Artist. Do distributors need the festivals to build the necessary hype for awards to boost opening box office?
Running the gauntlet during the festivals is a great way to get the negative hype out of the way. If a film can withstand all of the high praise, backlash to the high praise, sudden controversies that come from a need to find filler and draw traffic, patching up those controversies — then it can pretty much find solid footing in the Oscar race. That is why all of the films that have won over the past seven years have had plenty of lead time heading into the race.
If you skip all of that, you can swoop in at the last minute, make a lot of money, earn many nominations but might find the backlash and the controversies hitting right about the time people start voting for winners, at which time they seem to go for the more reliable success rather than the one they’re not that sure about. Argo vs. Zero Dark Thirty, for instance.
All of these theories are just theories, of course. Any rule we build up is destined to get shot down the following year. The funny thing about the Oscar race is that is always feel wide open until suddenly, it doesn’t. With Telluride behind us and Toronto starting now, the Best Picture winner should theoretically have been seen already. But which movie could that be?
If Telluride/Toronto doesn’t produce a Best Picture winner could New York? Or might the winner fall outside the fest circuit entirely? Let’s break them down, shall we?
Best Picture contenders so far
|Before festivals||Cannes||Telluride||Toronto||New York||After festivals|
|Mr. Turner (12/19)||Mr. Turner||Mr. Turner||Mr. Turner|
|The Homesman||The Homesman|
|Clouds of Sils Maria||Clouds of Sils Maria||Clouds of Sils Maria|
|The Imitation Game (11/21)||The Imitation Game|
|99 Homes||99 Homes|
|The Judge (10/10)|
|Men, Women and Children (10/1)|
|St. Vincent (10/24)|
|Theory of Everything (11/7)|
|The Good Lie (10/3)|
|The Keeping Room|
|The Riot Club|
|Time Out of Mind||Time out of Mind|
|Gone Girl (10/3)|
|Inherent Vice (12/12)|
|American Sniper (12/25)|
|Big Eyes (12/25)|
|Into the Woods (12/25)|
Last year 12 Years a Slave and Gravity came out of the festivals. American Hustle did not. Looking at all nine of the Best Pic nominees from last year it went like this:
12 Years a Slave (Telluride)
Wolf of Wall Street (out of festival competition)
American Hustle (out of festival competition)
Captain Phillips (NYFF)
Dallas Buyers Club (Toronto)
Her (New York)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Sundance)
Django Unchained (out of festival competition)
Les Mis (out of festival competition)
Life of Pi (New York)
Lincoln (out of festival competition)
Silver Linings Playbook (Toronto)
Zero Dark Thirty (out of festival competition)
The Artist (Cannes)
Tree of Life (Cannes)
The Descendants (Telluride)
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (out of festival competition)
The Help (out of festival competition)
Hugo (New York)
Midnight in Paris (out of festival competition)
War Horse (out of festival competition)
The King’s Speech (Telluride)
The Social Network (New York)
127 Hours (Telluride)
Black Swan (Venice)
The Fighter (out of festival competition)
Inception (out of festival competition)
The Kids Are All Right (Sundance)
Toy Story 3 (out of festival competition)
True Grit (out of festival competition)
Winter’s Bone (Sundance)
The Hurt Locker (Toronto, the year prior)
Avatar (out of festival competition)
A Serious Man (Toronto)
An Education (Sundance)
District 9 (out of festival competition)
Inglourious Basterds (Cannes)
The Blind Side (out of festival competition)
Up (out of festival competition)
Up in the Air (Telluride)
The conclusion: a film has an equal chance of a nomination if it shows out of competition, at Sundance or any other film festival. The winners, though, going back to at least 2008, have all come from films seen at festivals.
The only possible explanation I can think of for this is that when a film is underestimated it has a lot better shot at winning than when it’s overestimated. Moreover, the tried and true contender has run the gauntlet and come out unscathed. A late comer would need more time, unless it was an unequivocal winner, to have enough time to deflect the backlash, live down the hype, and prove itself to be “the one.”
As far as this year goes, we have a few bankable titles already for Best Picture nomination at least:
The Imitation Game
Those are the BIG THREE I would take to the bank for a nod, even though several pundits like David Poland and Jeff Wells have their doubts about Foxcatcher because it is so ice cold. Think: Great film. That’s what you have with Foxcatcher and any voters with a pair of real balls hanging between his legs is above the whole “sentimental weepy” nonsense.
Similarly, there is much silly chatter about whether Birdman will be “too divisive” for a nod. Again, idle talk from people who are doing too much psychoanalyzing. Birdman is, more than anything, an ACTORS movie. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It’s way in and one of the three RIGHT NOW that can win, the other two being Boyhood and The Imitation Game.
That’s four out of a probable nine.
If I had to spitball the other five right now, sight unseen, I’d go with:
The Theory of Everything
Into the Woods
Less sure about how “they” will vote, given that they have ONLY FIVE slots to nominate a Best Picture
Big Hero 6
The Clouds of Sils Maria
If voters still had ten options to nominate for Best Picture this would be an easy call but you have to predict Best Picture like you’re actually picking five, not nine. Think five and then work with spillover. Would you choose Interstellar with five? Nolan got in with Inception when voters had 10. Ditto Big Hero 6 or any animated film. When voters had ten slots they nominated Up and Toy Story 3. When they had five slots they stopped nominating animated films for Best Picture.
Thinking five, shit starts to get real.
The same theory could be made for Gone Girl, Birdman and Foxcatcher — will voters pick the film with five if it isn’t “feel good” enough? It’s possible they will do as expected of them and vote with their hearts, not with that thing that got them into filmmaking in the first place: the reach for great cinema no matter what form it comes in.
Already I am feeling the familiar dynamic begin to form, like a full blown hurricane off the coast of Mexico: heroic people doing heroic things vs. dark characters doing terrible things. This always reminds me of that exchange from A Few Good Men, “I want the truth!” “You can’t handle the truth.” And so it goes, with Oscar as with so many other things, voters reach for that idealized human condition where we do good things and make the world a better place. The flip side of that, of course, is that the human condition is formed out of light AND darkness. At its best, art does not sacrifice one for the sake of our eternal comfort but instead dives headlong into that struggle to confront who we really are.
The Toronto Film Festival always brings the big names. Maybe that’s the problem and the reason why many in the industry are starting to skip it in favor of Telluride. I know quite a few people doing both this year, and at Telluride last week, almost all of them were cringing at the thought of going to Toronto. That’s just the way it’s been the last few years with Telluride being the more intimate and friendly festival with less of the glitz and glamour of TIFF.
2013 was a landmark year for movies, which translated into one hell of a festival season. I remember Sasha raving about the dynamic duo of “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” at Telluride and yours truly following suit not too long after at TIFF. It doesn’t look like there will be such intense, invigorating movie-going experiences this year until the New York Film Festival when “Gone Girl” and “Inherent Vice” screen in October.
Want to know how strong 2013 was? Some of last year’s fest films can already count as some of the best released of this year: “Under the Skin”, “Only Lovers Left Alive”, “Stray Dogs”, “Ida”, “Enemy”, “Snowpiercer”, “Stranger By the Lake”, “The Double”, “Abuse of Weakness” and “The Immigrant” all had their debuts at various films fests last year, the majority of them at TIFF. So with that in mind, can the 2014 festival season actually live up to 2013? Of course not – it’s not possible to maintain that kind of high quality year after year. Think of 1999, a year that many – including myself – believe to be one of the greatest cinematic years in movie history. It was followed by one of the worst the following year – a year that pitted “Gladiator” vs. “Erin Brokovich” vs. “Traffic” in the Oscar Race, the first two aforementioned movies coincidentally released in
March and May. Those ain’t Oscar months, but 2000 was so weak that that year they were.
And so we come to 2014, where we already have three strong – although bewildering – contenders emerging from Telluride: “Foxatcher”, “Birdman” and “The Imitation Game”. Two of those three will be at Toronto and it will be interesting to see the reception they both get. “The Imitation Game” looks to be a crowd pleaser that might sneak out with a bigger high once the fest ends at the end of the next week, or it might not and another contender will emerge instead. With that in mind, here are the burning questions I have about the festival, which will start tomorrow morning with its first batch of screenings.
1) “The Imitation Game”
Telluride loved it but the critics have so far been safe and cautious about their enthusiasm for this movie. If you take a look at Metacritic, its 9 reviews and score of 70 will tell you this won’t be a critic’s darling like “Foxcatcher” or “Birdman”, but it will have something more powerful on its side: word of mouth. “The Imitation Game” looks like it will be THE crowd pleaser to beat once its first screenings start this week. Will it sustain what it built up at Telluride? I’m on the fence about it but I sure hope Sash, Kris and Co. are right about this one – which also features an unproven filmmaker at its helm. From what I’ve been hearing, Benedict Cumberbatch is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in
the Best Actor category, but that the film itself is routinely pleasing.
The momentum will most likely not stop for this Benneth Miller film. Miller has become a real fixture of the Oscar race with “Capote” and “Moneyball”, but more importantly has become one of the genuinely brilliant American filmmakers out there. His classical style of filmmaking is done so well and with such genuine passion that I can just picture “Foxcatcher” coming out of TIFF with its profile skyrocketing. Especially when it comes to Steve Carrell, who’s been carrying a wave of praise ever since Cannes.
3) Witherspoon in “Wild” and “The Good Lie”
Reese Witherspoon is loved, we all know that. Her performance in “Wild” seems to be the real deal as well. She went all out to nail this role and I have no doubt that her buzz will continue onwards at TIFF. However, don’t discount this movie as just a strong central performance kind-of-movie. I reside in Montreal and have seen the staggering rise of Quebecois filmmakers in Hollywood the last few years. Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”, “Enemy”) is just one of many French-Canadian filmmakers trying to make art out of commerce in Tinseltown, and Xavier Dolan – who’s “Mommy” is also screening at the fest – is on his way to big things.
Jean-Marc Vallée is clearly another good example. I met Vallée 4 years ago at the premiere of his then new film “Café de Flore”. He seemed happy with what he was doing – making homegrown, personal movies – but I have a feeling he likes the freedom Hollywood is giving him at the moment. With “Dallas Buyers Club” he proved his worth and with “Wild” he will likely continue his rise among the best mainstream filmmakers working today.
Another Quebecois filmmaker at the fest? Philippe Falardeau, Oscar nominated for “Monsieur Lazhar” a few years ago and making his American film debut directing – again – Witherspoon in “The Good Lie”, a film that is getting its fair share of buzz as well and might make it a banner year for the incredibly talented actress.
4) “The Theory of Everything”
Oh, boy. Here’s a film that no one really knows what to make of. This is the story of Stephen Hawking’s life as told by James Marsh, who made the brilliant documentary “Man on Wire”. He might just break through with this film, or it might be one of many films that have come out of Toronto down, out and defeated. The potential is there. They will be screening the film in Los Angeles at the same time as TIFF. It’s about time someone made a movie about the brilliant Hawking, a man whose life was filled with so many ups and downs that I’m surprised Hollywood didn’t come knocking at his door sooner. We’re going to have to just wait and see with this film, but since the comparisons I’ve been hearing and seeing to “The Imitation Game” are dumb and unfounded, I’m not sure what people are thinking comparing these two genuinely different movies. They are looking at them from an Oscar campaigning perspective (because everyone is an expert) and assuming that both men are geniuses, both men are struggling with disabilities. But there is a huge difference between contracting a body debilitating illness and being gay at a time when it was illegal, not to mention these being two different time periods and two different countries. But hey, they look like Oscar movies!
5) Two Adam Sandler movies? “Men, Women and Children” & “The Cobbler”
Yea, you heard me right: Sandler has two films premiering here, and not just by any directors. I remember a time when Sandler had a small teeny weeny phase where he decided to make more mature, serious fare with well renowned filmmakers such as Judd Apatow, James L. Brooks and Paul Thomas Anderson. Remember “Punch-Drunk Love”? Still Sandler’s best movie and performance.
The Sandler film most people are talking about is “Men, Women and Children”, which is directed by Jason Reitman, who really needs another well received film after last year’s decent but average “Labor Day” walked out of Toronto with practically nobody talking about it. His new movie looks more socially relevant and seems to harken back to the style of his older more mature efforts like “Thank You for Smoking” and “Up in the Air”. This new film tackles the internet age and our communication breakdown in the age of the internet.
Although I am looking forward to seeing “Men, Women and Children”, the Sandler film I am most looking forward to see also closely resembles “Punch-Drunk Love” in terms of its magical realist style, or at least that’s what I gathered when reading the synopsis for Tom McCarthy’s new film “The Cobbler”. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t McCarthy one of the singular, most underrated American directors around today?
“The Station Agent”, “The Vistor” and “Win Win” are all movies that get better with age, and his minimalist approach to filmmaking is really a breath of fresh air. Having Sandler star in one of his movies is as big a what-the-fuck as Paul Thomas Anderson casting him in 2002. It worked then and I hope it works now. Can’t wait.
6) Richard Gere and Jennifer Aniston for an Oscar? “Time Out of Mind” and “Cake”
So here’s the deal, Gere and Aniston have never been nominated for an Oscar. In fact, the year we thought Gere had a shot at winning a supporting actor trophy he ended up not even getting a nomination for “Chicago”. He’s continued giving us stellar work over the years, most notably a few years ago in “Arbitrage” which was a strong performance, but sadly that year was one of the strongest Best Actor lineups in years. Sucks, bad luck. Not even a nomination over the years for far ranging work like “American Gigolo” or “Primal Fear”. In “Time Out of Mind” he is directed by Oren Overman, an Israeli born filmmaker who now resides in New York. Overman has turned some heads over the last few years, directing “The Messenger” and “Rampart” back to back. No matter what happens in this year’s Oscar race, Gere is and always will be an underrated talent.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jennifer Aniston. Her new film is “Cake” and it looks to be the darkest role she’s ever tackled. She’s proven her worth as a serious actress in the past, most notably in Miguel Arteta’s “The Good Girl”, but never has she fully been taken seriously on the big screen. Some actors just can’t get past their iconic small screen roles, and Aniston’s Rachel is and always will be her legacy, and so her most successful big screen endeavors have all been in comedies. However, “Cake” is her chance. It really is. She is surrounded by a top notch cast of talents which include Anna Kendrick, William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman, and the role seems to dig into some of the darkest territory the actress has ever pursued. I think she can pull through and hit this out of the park.
7) “Cannes” they do it? “Leviathan”, “Timbuktu”, “Mommy”, “Winter Sleep”, “Goodbye to Language”, “Two Days, One Night”, “Wild Tales”
This year’s Best Foreign Film race kick-started at Cannes and continues over at TIFF. These are not films that are “Oscar material” and that’s sometimes a good thing. They don’t follow anything about formula and they go by their own furious beat. Here are films by filmmakers trying to reinvent the language of cinema and tell their stories in ways that have never been attempted before. “Wild Tales” had such an impressive showing at Telluride last week that people were demanding another screening at a bigger location and they got it. Word of mouth is building and this could be our next Foreign Language winner.
8) What to make of “The Judge”
I have my reservations about this courtroom drama starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. For starters, the director is David Dobkin, who’s more known for his work in comedy (Wedding Crashers) than drama. However, I wouldn’t bet against the cast. Downey Jr. especially. He’s proven to us time and time again what a great actor he can be – just take a look at “Chaplin”, “Tropic Thunder” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” for proof. The guy has talent. He’s never won an Oscar and this is major Oscar bait. If he hits it out of the park he can become a major player in the race. As for Robert Duvall, well…it’s Robert Duvall.
9) Will American indies have a surprise up their sleeves?
Remember when the Oscars was just five nominees for Best Picture? And usually one of those spots was reserved for a small indie gem”? “Juno”, “Little Miss Sunshine”, “In the Bedroom” and in later years “Precious”, “Winter’s Bone”, “An Education”, “The Kids Are All Right” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. It happens. Most of the time these movies start off at Sundance and only grow in momentum as the year goes. This year the only film that can possibly do that is also a film that won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance: “Whiplash”. I have already seen Damien Chazelle’s film and it really is an amazing watch. Miles Teller and J.K Simmons are both phenomenal and would most likely garner an instant Oscar nomination if we didn’t live in such a cruel world. Reality is that there will be a struggle for “Whiplash” to even nab one Oscar nom, but I’m betting that if it garners the reception that I think it deserves in Toronto, then watch out, because this is a movie that deserves everything that might be coming its way.
10) The fate of “Mr. Turner”
Ever since its triumph at Cannes, Mike Leigh’s newest film hasn’t kept up with the momentum that it built at La Croisette. TIFF is most likely the make or break moment for the film and will tell us a little more of what to expect come awards season. I just want it to be a great movie, awards or not. That’s why I’m here watching 3-4 movies a day – I want to watch stuff that’ll knock me out, put me on a high and have me talking about it for days on end. That is why most of us are here in the first place.
11) Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young”
This finally leads me to Noah Baumbach’s newest film. Here’s a director I greatly admire who has never gotten the awards recognition he deserved. Well, that’s too bad. That means people have missed out on such Baumbach gems as “The Squid and The Whale” and “Frances Ha”. Not surprisingly, this Brooklyn born filmmaker started out as a writer for another Oscarless but brilliant filmmaker: Wes Anderson. “While We’re Young” is one of my most hotly anticipated films of the fest, yet I doubt it will get recognized in any categories. Consider that a good thing. It means he doesn’t play by the rules and has a unique vision all his own, and I wouldn’t want it another way. Word of mouth is building and this could be our next Foreign Language winner.
What do you when your presumed frontrunner is no longer in the Oscar race? It’s been announced that Focus World will not give Maps to the Stars an Oscar run (what a shame) and thus, Julianne Moore will not be a contender. I personally think the role and her overdue status give her the stuff to drive it home to a win (think: Charlize Theron in Monster). I also think it’s premature to assume the Oscar voters are too soft to handle a movie like this. Most of them came of age during Ken Russell and Robert Atlman, for chrissakes.
Julianne Moore can kiss goodbye to any hopes she was nursing for an Oscar campaign for David Cronenberg’s Cannes Best Actress winner “Maps to the Stars,” which is set to play Toronto and New York festivals. Canadian distributor eOne was going to distribute the film stateside, but it has now sold U.S. rights not to Universal specialty distributor Focus Features–the arm that would handle an Oscar effort–but Focus World, their digital distribution arm, which plans an early 2015 release.
It’s moments like this that I feel embarrassed spending so much time investing in a race that must cater to soft-palmed, comfort-seeking upper class wimps who can’t handle the truth. How in the world can anyone be in the business of rewarding best when best must always come with a disclaimer: “When we say best we don’t really mean that. We certainly don’t mean highest achievement in film. We mean something on the order of it makes us look good. It makes us FEEL SOMETHING and it sends us out into the world feeling happy about our lives.”
While I can understand the urge to always lean towards idealizing the human condition, I can tell you that nothing scratched off the top layer of Hollywood like Maps to the Stars. Bruce Wagner’s script is easily one of the year’s best and two performers – Julianne Moore and Evan Bird are spectacular. Years from now no one will believe why Maps to the Stars was not Oscar nominated. They probably figured that Moore plays a character so unlikable her chances of winning were slim. I disagree with that assessment as it is often the darkest turns by the nicest actors that win Oscars.
Or to put it another way: Maps to the Stars is the movie Hollywood deserves.
With Julianne Moore out of the race that opens up the Best Actress race considerably. We’re still looking at the following potential nominees:
Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl – with Julianne Moore out of the race this will put Pike squarely in the spot of the darkest female anti-hero in the mix.
Amy Adams for Big Eyes – an overdue actress the pundits have much faith in winning.
Jessica Chastain for Eleanor Rigby or Miss Julie – again, very much overdue for a win and having another spectacular year of performances
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Hilary Swank now a slam dunk for The Homesman
Reese Witherspoon in her most raw and challenging performance to date.
There are several borderline actresses would could make a run in lead – Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game and Patricia Arquette for Boyhood. These are roles that could go either way.
Other names include:
Shailene Woodley for The Fault in Our Stars
Anne Hathaway for Interstellar
One of the best things about going to Telluride is meeting up with people I only get to see once a year, or thereabouts. Some of them will drift in and out of the upcoming events in Los Angeles but not most. They come from all over the country to attend the festival and I have to admit seeing them is always the thing I look forward to. It’s right up there with hot coffee at the morning screening up at the Chuck Jones.
I briefly chatted with film critic James Rocchi who had come to Telluride for the first time, along with his wife. He said he loved it so far but that he felt a little guilty about being “in the bubble” of it all and not being sure whether or not he liked that. He knows that the hype machine begins high up in the Colorado mountains and he is one of the few who chafes against the Oscar race because he wonders why so many people care about the opinions of a few thousand privileged old white dudes. He has a point. He’s always had a point. Most of us come to the Oscar race hoping it will mean more, that sooner or later the Oscar race is going to matter, really matter beyond the sparkle and shimmy of a celebrity parade. Do they matter? I don’t know. I dive in every year thinking that they matter in terms of politics and power in Hollywood and that winning one can make a person feel as though their time was not wasted.
This was a cool weekend in Telluride with a bright clear blue sky, the occasional gusts of chilly wind and always that piercing high altitude sunlight. You could do nothing else but walk around the town and have the best time. That they hide away screenings in Masonic temples and school auditoriums is all the more delightful. Even after coming to the fest for four years now I never know what to pack. I just never end up with the right clothes so that I never wear anything I brought, and curse myself for not bringing the right clothes. Comfortable shoes are a must. No one really dresses up because they all look like REI catalogue models. Hiking boots, jeans and fleece, the occasional puffy jacket, a scarf. Forget the groovy city ankle boots, the short dresses, and above all, the high heels.
Chris Willman has become one of my Telluride pals. We never see each other in Los Angeles, hardly ever, but for some reason we always end up hanging out here or there, waiting in line, etc. He introduced me to the Feed, something I knew nothing about. That is a meal that takes place on Friday after the first screening (this one was Wild). The Telluride fest rolls out a lavish meal for all badge holders. I had no idea. Chris dragged me into it for salmon and a beer. Imagine that. A free meal.
First Showing’s Alex Billington and Film Journal’s Tomris Laffly are part of my pack in the mountains. We tend to gravitate towards one another in line or at parties and always sit together when we can. Theirs are two of the opinions I always seek out because we all three have similar sensibilities. We don’t always agree, of course, but they are both as passionate about movies as I feel movies deserve. Telluride blogger Michael and (artist) Kristy Patterson are two I didn’t get enough time to hang out with before I headed out of town. Michael Patterson’s countdown to the Telluride Film Fest and subsequent opinion gathering are vital aspects to the season. And my old pal Jeff Wells was my roommate. He works himself late into the evening, wakes up at 6am and starts all over again. He’s tireless in his time investment. You could say we were exactly the opposite in that way. At one point I had to just check out and cook a slow meal at the condo for the teenagers and Jeff. It was just like playing house!
I will never catch up with Anne Thompson, Kris Tapley, Greg Ellwood, and other journalists who just do the work really well. As if interviewing Jon Stewart wasn’t enough, Thompson also worked in a book signing for her successful $11 Billion Year at Between the Covers. I value each of their opinions, too, especially where Oscar is concerned. But the Oscar guru is now and will always be Mr. Pete Hammond, who hangs out with Academy members. I spent a gondola ride down with Hammond and his brilliant storytelling wife Madelyn, along with Peggy Siegel and Sig Ganis. They didn’t talk movies but that’s the kind of world Pete dwells in. He knows them. He knows what they like. Actually, they did report that they loved Wild.
“If this thing goes down,” Pete said, “The whole Oscar race goes with it.” Pete and I grabbed a couple of drinks and talked hardcore Oscar at the Fox Searchlight party. We were both on the hunt for “the one.” So far, we don’t know what’s coming. After three greyhounds and two glasses of wine I stumbled out of the Sheridan as the last call lights were coming up. I walked with Pete down the road a bit to finish our conversation then I pulled my puffy jacket on and found my way back to our condo. It was a mistake to drink that much. I could not wake up and face the next day, my last, in Telluride with a raging hangover. A couple cups of coffee, some water, Advil – nothing was helping. It was time to pack it in. There was much left to do but I was facing a two-day drive back to Los Angeles with two teenagers and an abandoned puppy I was becoming more and more attached to as the weekend wore on. I am not sure I will be able to part with him, tbh.
We drove through the Four Corners and Monument Valley on our way to Kingman, Arizona, where our hotel waited for us. We let the puppy out for bathroom break – a dusty, forgotten Res dog sniffing the cracked mud dimpled with carefully assembled homes for dung beetles. One dog found and rescued but hundreds more wander the reservations in packs, gathered around the Burger King. Navajo Preservation Center presented by Burger King.
With Telluride a world away, I was thinking about real life versus the bubble I dwell in. What does any of it have to do with anything? Turns out, not much. It is reserved for remaining few who still believe films can change the world. Or maybe they just change us. There was a Birdman and a Foxcatcher, a woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and women who were evacuated out of the West they hoped to help settle. These artists still care to make movies that might make a difference to someone, somewhere. I’m left with the last frame of Jon Stewart’s Rosewater — the image of youthful defiance in the face of oppression.. I just realized I went around the world and back, nestled in the higher altitudes, movies and the people who love them.
Every year after Telluride there is the sense that bigger, better movies could still come along that might overtake the race. I remember this most profoundly in 2012 when Argo came, was very popular at Telluride but didn’t really pick up its major Best Picture heat until the one-two punch of Affleck and Argo winning the Golden Globes and Critics Choice just as Ben Affleck received his Best Director snub. That the movie wonlo those two significant awards could have meant the movie was destined to win no matter what. But the Globes aren’t the best or most reliable barometer to predict Best Picture, even if the Critics Choice often are. It was the Affleck snub that set up the much-needed narrative giving the film’s general likability a much-needed sense of urgency. That was also the first time the Oscar ballots for Best Director were turned in before the DGA announced. Last year and this year will also see that same scheduling shift but the Affleck snub was perhaps one of the most surprising things I’ve ever seen happen at the Oscars. It ended up having a profound effect on how the Oscar voting is conducted, because now it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to split Picture and Director. Now we can look at a movie like Birdman and comfortably say “it could win Best Director even if it doesn’t win Best Picture.” The unity of picture and director has been severed both by Affleck’s snub, and by the number of Best Picture entries compared to the smaller number of entries for Best Director.
Remember, from 1931-1943, back when the Academy had more than five Best Picture nominees, the only film that ever won Best Picture without the director at least being nominated, was Grand Hotel — a situation so strange in retrospect it looks like a slip-up. So it was highly unusual that Affleck carried his film to such a successful win without getting a director nomination, or perhaps because of the lack of the best director nomination. Either way, in 2012, after Telluride, Argo was mostly regarded as a well-liked film but not the one everyone was thinking would win Best Picture.
Now we find ourselves at the end of Telluride with a similar dynamic in play. Everyone is looking forward to the upcoming films that haven’t yet been seen — Fury, Gone Girl, Unbroken, Men, Women & Children, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Inherent Vice. Telluride, right now, feels like it always does when it ends. Somehow though, in recent years, the eventual Best Picture winner does turn out to be a film that was seen in Telluride — just not overhyped or overpraised, thus making it a target.
Even still, I can’t say there was any film I saw this week that seems like the winner. We don’t know how it will all play out. We don’t know what combination of films will barrel toward the finish line, so we can’t see which one isn’t like the others. Not yet.
The actors have to like it. Oldish people have to like it. It has to have “gravitas” to win. Directors have to respect it. You have to be able to sit anyone down in front of it and they will get it, if not love it. It has to be a movie that isn’t divisive. In an era of bravura filmmaking and risk taking that usually leaves the winning film to the most conventional, at least these days, perhaps unless they go back to five.
Still, in order for a film like The Imitation Game to win — right now the only movie that played here that seems like it has the stuff — the other movies upcoming will have to stumble. That sometimes happens when expectations are raised too high — thus backlash takes hold. It’s hard for a movie like The Imitation Game to attract backlash because no one is really expecting it to win. That gives the film a huge advantage over the films that have to carry the frontrunner albatross. It is also the one movie no one is going to hate. And that is often what defines a modern Best Picture winner in the era where everyone has a voice, a twitter, a tumblr, etc. Big Oscar Movies are often attacked simply because they seem like a movie that could win.
The Imitation Game backlash would only then come from those who perceive it as Oscar bait, an attitude I’ve seen already crop up on Twitter.
Your three best bets for Best Picture out of Telluride:
The Imitation Game
Beyond Best Picture, though, what else took hold? In the Best Actress race, Reese Witherspoon and Hilary Swank emerged strong for Best Actress contention. They are putting themselves out there early and both came to Telluride to help promote their films.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve Carell and Michael Keaton are the three strongest Best Actor contenders right now.
Mommy, Leviathan, Wild Tales all came out of Cannes and all seem to be very promising in the Best Foreign Language category.
Other performances that remain standouts would include Laure Dern, a supporting contender for Wild, Channing Tatum for Foxcatcher, though Best Actor is already so crowded it’s likely only Carrel will get in. Mark Ruffalo will have a place in line for supporting for Foxcatcher. Keira Knightley is a strong bet for supporting for The Imitation Game, along with Emma Stone for Birdman.
The Imitation Game is the only film that really popped exclusively here in Telluride, being seen for the first time as Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech all had been. Birdman was a Venice get already and landed at Telluride with extremely high praise to live up to.
With The Imitation Game here in Telluride we have our introductory sentence to the longer piece that will be written about this year. As it always is with the Labor Day end to the festival it feels like the best is yet to come. What is coming is the unknown. We don’t know how things will shake down. We wait. We wait.
“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”
― Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman will go down as one of the best films of 2014. It will be written in ink, because the people who define these things already think so. What their reviews will tell you is that it is an astonishing feat of cinematic achievement and they will be right. Their reviews will say no one has attempted anything like this since Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and they will be (almost) right. They will say it unpeels the many rotten layers of the crazy cultural shift we’ve witnessed since celebrity obsession and the internet merged. And they will be right.
Another conversation that is about to happen is the same conversation that will swirl around Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice and Maps to the Stars (if Maps is even being released this year). The conversation will be about whether these films will be “too much” or “too dark” for the Academy and industry voters. I will circle back to this in a bit.
All of this has to do with the precise sort of analysis Birdman so cleverly skewers.
We are asked to look at our culture mirrored onscreen. For underneath all of the camera tricks, the many inside jokes, the brilliant performances, the extreme emotional outbursts, the snark, the despair, the ugly moments, the thrilling moments lies an influential short story by Raymond Carver called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It is Carver’s most famous short story but it is also the current that runs through this magnificent film. An alternate title might be What Do We Not Do If We’re Too Busy Talking About Love? We do all sorts of things that add up to not looking after those who need and deserve our love. The very definition of the word is different from how we talk about it.
There is a great sign in Michael Keaton’s dressing room that says something to this effect: “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” Raymond Carver provides the impetus for “washed up” superhero Birdman to adapt, direct and star in the Carver short story. Carver is a well-regarded writer but Birdman has been erased. He does not exist anymore because what he was — a Birdman — has been replaced and replaced and replaced. An endless cycle of superheroes for the consumption and discarding of forever young branded audiences. It turns out it’s easy to sell a brand to human beings. Follow the model of Coke and McDonald’s? You can become a billionaire by giving people fewer choices but always exactly what they expect. You can be a billionaire by convincing people that you have what they really want rather than what they think they want.
Keaton’s character somehow misses what’s right in front of him in a mostly futile attempt to bring the essence of his art — acting — back from the dead. Watching a man driven and then destroyed by his ego, we are confronted with this notion of what it is exactly that we want from celebrities. In an era where getting an erection on stage or running through Times Square in your underwear goes viral and gives you untold power on a different level? What’s really left? What happens if you don’t want to play that game. Or live in that world. What happens if you can’t erase who you are in public to live a “normal” life in private? You’re always that guy. You’re always the guy who used to be a superhero.
Keaton’s character parallels the abusive boyfriend in Carver’s short story, another guy who has run out of options and rounds out his life to mean mostly nothing. We get the sense that he’s a man rounding down in the same way, limiting his own options, losing any kind of hope. You might find yourself wondering how anyone could be that depressed when they’re luckier than most — until you remember men like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams face demons beyond our comprehension.
The destruction in Birdman comes from within Keaton’s character but he was also set up to fail from the outset. In another story, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” an angel gets trapped in the yard of a farmer. He’s a wounded angel. The townspeople come to see him and they fear him. That story, like this story, isn’t really about the angel at all but rather about the people looking at him. And so it goes with Birdman.
The beauty of Iñárritu’s film is not, as it turns out, just the camera trickery, though that alone would surely be enough to make it great. It is the way tendrils from Carver’s story are woven like vines through Birdman’s life that makes this film truly worthwhile.
What does it mean to be a hero? What is it to be a superhero? What does it mean to be a father? A husband? A boyfriend? An actor? An Artist? Let’s get back to the quote: “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” Birdman is loved by people who matter and that is so much bigger than being loved by people who don’t.
What do we talk about when we talk about Birdman? Many will be talking about Oscars, starting with Michael Keaton’s fully realized, emotionally bare performance which will put him squarely in the eye of the storm to win Best Actor. Edward Norton and Emma Stone will likely round out the supporting nominations. Stone, because she has never been this icy. Norton because he has rarely been this funny (“You gonna get another actor for this part? Ryan Gosling?”).
Iñárritu has knocked it out of the park, and not just with his virtuoso feat of the extended long shot. Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing – you get the drift.
What do we talk about when we talk about Oscars? We talk about what “they” will think. But Birdman is, more than anything, an actors movie. It’s a shoo-in for a SAG ensemble nod, a WGA nod, a PGA nod — A Best Picture nomination is the natural culmination. It doesn’t need all of the Academy members to like it, only a portion of them.
Birdman is a risky, messy, raw, beautiful triumph. Those are just words and they pale in comparison to the thing itself.
It occurred to me while watching Steve Carell and Jon Stewart at the Patron’s Brunch here in Telluride how far they’ve come since the early days of the Daily Show. Since then, Carell has made feature films and became known for The Office. Jon Stewart has added his vital voice to American politics, media and culture. This year, both of them have stepped way outside their comfort zones, risking failure at best, ridicule and loss of reputation at worst. It sounds like a joke they’d make because the last thing either of them wants to do is take credit for being serious artists.
I don’t have an interview with them to present, I simply have a few photos taken at a brunch where the two stood side by side with that look on their faces like “can you believe we are here?” And they probably can’t. It was quite a sight, to be sure.
Stewart comes here as the director of Rosewater, a story he clearly felt strongly about bringing to a wide audience. With humor and sharp truths revealing themselves throughout his reign at the Daily Show it was always clear (at least to me) that there was a lot more to Jon Stewart than meets the eye, and it wasn’t just the brilliant book about America and it wasn’t just the debate with Bill O’Rielly and it wasn’t the countless interviews with guests ranging from trivial to important. Underneath all of that is a desire to help change the world. Perhaps it sounds pretentious to say but what’s wrong with wanting to change the world?
Ideally, Rosewater would be received by audiences as it was intended: a conversation starter about oppressive regimes, torture, and the importance of bearing witness — the power that civilian journalists have to record events they see unfolding before their eyes that they know are wrong. In a perfect world, Rosewater would not have to run the gauntlet as it makes its way to audiences, asking moviegoers to pay to see a movie about a subject many people may not want to confront, truth be told.
It will be Stewart’s charisma — and perhaps a few great reviews — that might make that happen and I can’t help but cheer him on from the sidelines thinking, please help to educate this distracted, brain dead culture. If anyone can do it, Stewart can. He’s done it with his show, and his show’s offshoot, the (Stephen) Colbert Show. He’s done it with a book and now, perhaps he’ll start doing more of it with feature films.
We’re talking about art, of course, and we’re talking about entertainment. Rosewater hits both those targets with moments that are profoundly moving and emotionally affecting. I also wish everyone could have seen the Q&A with Stewart discussed the film with the real life Maziar Bahari in attendance.
Steve Carell comes here with Foxcatcher, which I already saw in Cannes. Here, Carell doesn’t just take a serious turn — he takes a dangerously dark turn playing a creepy real-life murderer. The two films could not be more different, and yet they are somehow linked. When I think about Foxcatcher I think about the 1%, I think about how the fix is in for many of us Americans trying to chase after our American dreams. There are so many dreams in this country, all crowding for space. In Foxcatcher, we get a glimpse into the life of an old-money American who had had his friends bought for him. This is contrasted with the life of a struggling wrestling team of brothers who really had to earn their own success.
Of course plenty of comedians have gone to the dark side to play more serious roles, but Carell is so utterly likable and charming. Seeing him dive so fearlessly into this character is proof that he is indeed a formidable actor, a force to reckon with. Any actor or filmmaker who puts a movie out there for audiences has to face possible rejection at every turn. From the critics, the box office, the studios. But they keep doing it because something in them tells them they must.
Sending a hats off to Mr. Stewart and Mr. Carell for making it this far and taking the crooked roads, letting their freak flags fly and doing it for the sake of doing it, for the sake of trying something new.