The Case For


by guest author Nick Clement

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Michael Mann’s Heat represents the finest distillation of the filmmaker’s stylistic and narrative obsessions, the ultimate synthesis of plot, character, and action, all fused together in a nouveau package that still feels fresh and contemporary 20 years after its initial release. Mann, a writer/director who has often reached greatness throughout his career, appears to be most comfortable when telling stories about crime and its effects on the various people that surround his multilayered stories. A reworking of his earlier NBC movie of the week, L.A. Takedown, Heat still holds up now even in the face of stiff genre competition, and looking back on it, it’s incredible how little it has aged, and even more remarkable to notice how many other filmmakers have been lifting Mann’s striking visual aesthetic after all of these years. Critics took Heat a bit for granted when they first encountered it, as response was mostly positive and respectful, though not overly effusive, and while a solid success at the box office, it didn’t do massive numbers. However, over the years, audiences have turned the film into a cultural touchstone, as it represents the type of film that rarely gets made anymore: The introspective Hollywood drama with smarts and action that features big stars and a name director all working at the top of their games. The films that Mann had done preceding Heat (Thief and Manhunter most especially) clearly influenced numerous decisions on his magnum crime opus, and the works he’d go on to make in the future have all been fairly (or unfairly) compared to this epic 1995 crime saga.

Mann has found his obvious home in the crime genre, with his name associated on TV projects (Starsky & Hutch, Police Story, Police Woman, Miami Vice, Crime Story, and the wildly underrated Robbery Homicide Division) and on various feature films (Collateral, Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Blackhat), all of which hum with a distinct personality and unified vision, no matter in what capacity Mann served. Part of what differentiates Mann from other filmmakers is his unique sense of habitation and dedication to realism; no matter how busy the narrative or how jargon fueled the dialogue may be, there’s always a clear sense of how every detail might fall into place, allowing the audience to follow the demands of the plot while still having the capacity to be surprised and draw conclusions on their own. And in Heat, there’s a level of streamlined perfection to the story that might have been unattainable by another, less in-control filmmaker, considering just how many moving pieces are involved in making Heat the success that it became. What I love so much about Heat is that, like James Mangold’s 1997 policier Cop Land, the film operates as a sly, contemporary Western, but Heat, unlike many other genre efforts, transcends the themes that it so dutifully explores, vaulting the picture into rarefied, existential territory that Mann always seems interested in exploring no matter the milieu. He also managed to craft the Ultimate Los Angeles Movie, but more on that later.


Not that a plot explanation should be necessary at this point, but I’ll break down the basics. Robert De Niro is a master thief. Al Pacino is a master cop. They both have dedicated crews (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, and Dennis Haysbert on Team De Niro; Wes Studi, Mykelti Williamson, and Ted Levine on Team Pacino), that will follow them anywhere. The city of Los Angeles is their deadly playground. The film revolves around the notion of duality, and how the De Niro and Pacino characters are essentially the same person, just on opposite sides of the law, completely consumed by their work, with a constant sense of professionalism and integrity guiding them through their perilous daily life. De Niro assembles his team to do a major score, the daring robbery of a bank, and it’s up to Pacino and his band of fellow officers to bring them down. Mixed into the main story are the various relationships that De Niro, Pacino, and their men have with the women in their lives: Wives, girlfriends, and in one instance, a step-daughter. Instead of just a nuts and bolts crime film, Mann opened up his generous narrative to include real conversations between real people that drive all of the action in a grounded, thoughtful manner. How it all ends is the stuff of cinema legend, and if you don’t know by now I’ll allow you to discover for yourself, but I will concede that Heat operates on multiple narrative tracks all at once, with side-jobs bringing along potentially fatal consequences for De Niro and his men, and the emotionally taxing rigors of having to balance your family life and your cop life for Pacino.

De Niro’s Neil McCauley is a criminal driven by and to perfection. He lives by a serious, permanent moral code: Never become attached to something that you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner. No wife, no family, a true lone wolf in a sharp gray suit (a costume obsession of Mann’s for years), McCauley is the kind of man who thinks he has everything under control, and is used to getting his way in almost every situation. Then, things change when he meets a woman who might be a reason to leave his dangerous life behind for. She gives him a new reason to live, or at least he thinks she does from time to time. Because of the way that De Niro brilliantly plays the character, all inward quiet and small glances to suggest intent and feeling, you never truly know what he’ll do at any given moment. We know he’s pulled off various high-stakes jobs with total ease and precision, but he’s not used to letting his emotional guard down, and then when coupled with the fact that he’s got a Super Cop looking for him, he understands the need to take decisive action in an effort to complete his goals. This is one of De Niro’s least flashy and totally reserved performances, bringing a masculine grace to the role of leader and friend to his teammates, and while clearly a man capable of more than just violent action and air-tight planning, he’s still a human being, capable of making emotionally misguided mistakes which could prove to be his undoing.

In Pacino’s Vincent Hanna, Mann has created an amazing dichotomy with McCauley, because while both men certainly share similar traits and attributes, the recklessness of the Hanna character is what allows him to constantly move throughout the night, never resting for a moment, constantly thinking and plotting, always trying to one up his stealth opponent. Pacino brings a live-wire spark to the role of this driven detective, hollering out orders at his underlings, busting down doors, always ready to mix it up with an opponent. While listening to the Blu-ray audio commentary with Mann, it’s revealed that he had written a casual but possibly slightly out of control cocaine habit into the Hanna character, which would help explain the sudden outbursts of physical energy and verbal profanity, as well as all of the jaw chomping and twitching that he exhibits all throughout the film. I’m not fully sure why this angle was cut out of the film (I guess it cuts down on the sympathy factor for the character), but I really do wish that Mann had kept this edgy bit of business in the final cut, as it would have further contextualized Hanna as a man of steady habits and unpredictable behavior. Pacino, no stranger to large emoting, especially during the 90’s in films such as Scent of a Woman and The Devil’s Advocate, chews the scenery when called for, but also allows small moments of stern quiet to seep in around the edges. He’s a man who is always assessing the situation, whether on the job or at home, and it’s the way that Pacino burrows deep into Hanna as a man that we come to understand the method to his madness. I also find it curious how Mann introduces his top-cop character at the start of the film, during a morning lovemaking session with his wife, as opposed to on the streets chasing down some random bad guy. Romance is another aspect that Mann’s films always deal with, and the way that Pacino balances his home life and professional life is of key consequence to his character and the story in general.

The romantic angle and the concentration on the female characters also help separate Heat from lesser genre entries. Not content to tell an all-boys story with guns and explosions, Mann, as he’s been prone to do in the past, allows for the leads to have personal relationships which amp up the narrative tension and reason for being. McCauley meets an enchanting young woman who he feels might be worth running away with (a super young Amy Brenneman), and it isn’t until the film’s final moments where you learn his ultimate decisions regarding their unique relationship. This relationship takes the normally rigorously disciplined McCauley out of his comfort zone, which allows for shards of humanity to creep in around the edges. Hanna, meanwhile, is a two time divorcee who is in the middle of an about to fail marriage (Diane Venora is his sharp witted wife); it’s clear that he can’t keep things on the up and up at home while still traversing the streets of Los Angeles looking for all of the city’s transgressors. The scenes between Pacino and Venora have a palpable tension, because while they clearly loved each other once, they are so obviously drifting away from each other, and their confrontations carry a verbal weight and sting that elevates the material from mere soap opera to fully fleshed-out human dramatics. To further complicate Hanna’s life, his mentally unstable step-daughter (played by a then emerging star Nathalie Portman) also looms over the proceedings, creating a sense of unease that becomes essential to one aspect of the script. In retrospect, Heat does sort of resemble a male soap opera of sorts, as the two lead characters are emotionally stunted and need to sort out their issues through a variety of ways, some involving words, and others involving guns and violent conflict.

Heat has action peppered all throughout the runtime, but the film’s opening set-piece, involving the robbery of an armored truck, and the unfortunate execution of the truck’s drivers, immediately grabs the viewer by the throat, never letting you up for air. De Niro and his team orchestrate the perfect smash and grab, stealing only what they need, and leaving hardly a trace of evidence. It’s a brilliant way to establish the effectiveness of De Niro and his outfit, and it allows Mann the chance to show his methodical directorial style, almost journalistic in its small details, while you watch De Niro plan and then execute what should be the perfect heist. But you can only prepare so much, and because you never truly know who you’re working with, there’s a wild card in the equation that De Niro could never have prepared for. He goes by the name Waingro (the scary Kevin Gage), and he hovers over the narrative like the Devil himself, always appearing at the proper moment to set something in motion. But the scene that everyone loves to discuss and re-watch is arguably the greatest single sequence of action fireworks ever put on film, the robbery of a downtown Los Angeles bank in broad daylight, with all manner of civilians running for their lives, and an armada of cops battling De Niro and his crew. This bravura sequence is nothing short of staggering, with very few (if any) other films from over the years capturing the same sense of immediacy and violent impact that this monumental sequence contains, no matter how hard they try, Mann included (the gun battles in Public Enemies, Miami Vice, and Blackhat are terrific and at times extraordinary, but none match the rawness of what was captured in Heat). While never overly bloody, the street rampage is filled with all sorts of deadly implications, from numerous police officers and innocent bystanders being killed in the crossfire, and various members of De Niro’s crew either getting hurt or killed. Thousands of rounds of ammunition were expended during this blistering sequence of sustained fury, with the sensational sound team capturing every single bullet strike and muzzle blast. Mann saves the bloodiest bits of violence for the moments that really count (Waingro, Van Zant, the climatic moments between McCauley and Hanna), so that when we see someone go down hard and viciously, the consequence can be felt on a stark and visceral level, rather than everything becoming a senseless blur of unending and gratuitous graphic violence. As a filmmaker, Mann knows more about what to show and when to show it than few other currently working directors.

The cinematography, editing, music, and production design are all in total harmonious synch in Heat. Dante Spinotti’s naturalistic if at times slightly heightened images, in full 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, fill the edges of the frame with visual information and precise detail, with Mann’s “always-looking-into-the-future-of-the-night” style mixing with Spinotti’s elegant use of color and depth of field. Shots are framed a tad off center, with the character’s heads filling the foreground or background or side of frame, almost so that the camera is entering the minds of the story’s inhabitants, creating a lyrical and thought provoking tone that suggests a cerebral nature as much as it does anything else. The physical locations chosen for Heat showcase Los Angeles in all of its ethnically diverse and cement-sexy splendor, with the vapors and reflections of street lamps bouncing off the flat concrete surfaces, as industrial landscapes dot the horizon, with parking garages, empty lots and fields, side-streets, and the vast expanses of the city’s various skyscrapers and office buildings suggesting endless possibilities. And then there’s the amazing musical score, which ranges from ambient to grand, sweeping to soft, always in perfect tandem with the bright daytime and dark nocturnal images on screen, with some Miami Vice-inspired guitar riffs thrown in for those paying close attention. Heat is a nearly three hour picture, but because of the crispness and the judiciously timed editing, the film never sags or allows itself to slow down; once the story kicks into gear it never lets up, with a final hour that packs various dramatic conflict and incident into the narrative yet never feels rushed or forced. The swift pace created by the seamless editing patterns goes a long way in keeping this lengthy but forceful film moving along, with Mann pulling all the elements together in a way that few could ever have when it comes to material such as this.

By its powerful and well-earned conclusion, Heat is a film that is consumed with the ideas of studied professionalism, and the costs of committing 100% to any area of life. It’s just that in this story, that area of life is the criminal vs. the cop. And during the film’s electric final moments of action at a busy LAX and in the galvanizing final scene accompanied by Moby’s epic and poetic song God Moving Over The Face of The Waters, you get the sense that Mann has crafted two characters that, while resting on opposite sides of the law, have come to mutually respect each other as men and as adversaries. It all goes back to their fantastic meeting at the coffee shop at the film’s midsection, and how the two of them look clear into each other eyes and tell one another that the life they’re living is the only life they know how to live. More than any other great piece of work from Mann, Heat is his definitive masterpiece of filmmaking, the sublime end result of all of his ticks and tendencies as a storyteller, filtered through that indelible and totally dynamic visual aesthetic that has subtly morphed over the years while still retaining its core elements. It’s a film that I remain blown away by every single time I take in a viewing, and I love how I can vividly recall the first time I experienced it on the big screen with my father back in my high school days. Years late, I had a second opportunity to see the film in theaters, this time with Mann doing live Q&A (he took a break from editing duties on Ali to run over to LACMA for the screening). Heat will always be one of my favorite films of all time, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that, simply stated, it is great, enduring cinema that stirs the soul.


by Péter Szemmelveisz

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

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

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

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

belle 2

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

BELLE Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



It’s difficult for many of us to be unbiased when it comes to Martin Scorsese. Very likely he could direct a remake of When Harry Met Sally and I’d think it was the greatest thing since Taxi Driver. But even given all of that bias, and all the ways I love The Wolf of Wall Street (my favorite film of the year) it’s still hard to put into words why he’s just the best director working today and why he shines so brightly with The Wolf of Wall Street, his fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio.
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In the third installment of our series looking at the Best Director category to make the best case for each one, we’re looking at David O. Russell, who makes Oscar history as the first director with back to back Best Picture and Director nominations to earn four acting nominations.  That is a significant achievement, especially considering in the early days of Oscar there were many back to back directing nominees.   Not only that, but before Silver Linings Playbook scored in all four acting categories, it had been around 30 years since the last time a film did that, Warren Beatty’s Reds.  Russell has done it twice, two years in a row.

There are often three schools of thought when it comes to Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars.  Best Director usually is focused in three key directions – 1) the visionary/visual auteur, 2) the director who is good with acting/writing, 3) the director who gets in, does the job, but no one particularly notices one way or the other — this is especially good for actors turned directors. We factor in their acting career while evaluating their work.

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[This is not an advertorial – all five Best Director contenders will be featured]

Alfonso Cuarón was born in Mexico City. His father, Alfredo Cuarón, was a nuclear physicist who, according to Wikipedia, “worked for the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency.” Cuaron did not go into science but instead studied Philosophy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and filmmaking at CUEC (Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos) where he began his rich collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Cuaron’s career as a filmmaker would begin there, starting with short films and eventually moving on to television where he caught the attention of Sydney Pollack, who hired him to direct an episode of Fallen Angels for Showtime in 1993.
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“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” — Abraham Lincoln

I was ten years old when Jaws was released in theaters. It’s hard to believe that was 37 years ago. Director David Fincher calls that moment in time the “Summer of the Shark” and indeed it was. In California there was life before Jaws and life after Jaws. Even though great whites weren’t really so much of a threat, and even though Jaws took place on Amity Island (“it’s only an island if you look at it from the water”), the ocean that we’d plunged in for much of our young lives was no longer a safe place to be — it still isn’t.

Tight cotton pants, halter tops, shag haircuts, Bonne Bell lip gloss — the 1970s in Southern California never saw anything like Steven Spielberg. I don’t remember the first time I saw Jaws but I remember loving it so much that I went back to see it fourteen times, waiting in line sometimes for two hours, paying for a ticket. We liked it so much that my mom would drop us off there and we’d watch it all day long in the summertime. It wasn’t just a thrilling film about a shark attacking people in the summer — it was a character study of three distinct types of people banding together to find him for three but to catch him and kill him for ten.

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Written by Craig Kennedy

What do you do when you have, what I and many think, is the best American movie of the year and it also turns out to be the most controversial movie of the year? That’s Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty for those of you keeping score at home. In a vacuum, it probably doesn’t matter, but in the Oscar bubble, it could be the deciding factor between a win and a loss. The irony is that the source of its greatness and the source of the controversy are the same thing. It’s the film’s unwillingness to take a moral stance on the horrors it shows you that has everyone up in arms, but it’s also what transforms the film from simply being a good movie into something much more.

To be fair, it’s not simply Zero Dark Thirty‘s amorality that is troubling. That just compounds the problem of factual inaccuracy. Its detractors will argue specifically that the film makes the case that torture was an effective tool in finding the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and that this is demonstrably incorrect and therefore dangerous. I’m still not convinced the film makes all that clear of a case, nor am I convinced that torture doesn’t or didn’t provide useful intelligence, despite what Congressional hearings on the matter have concluded. It’s almost impossible to prove a negative, but the argument that “torture doesn’t work” is a much cleaner and more compelling argument for anti-torture activists to make than “torture is wrong.” Here’s the thing though: even if you accept that Zero Dark Thirty is factually incorrect, it is still a powerful, brilliant film and perhaps the most important to come out of the “War on Terror” so far.

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Les Miserables was considered an early frontrunner Oscar’s Best Picture before the race really began. That put it at a disadvantage immediately because most frontrunners are bigger targets when the collective believes they are going to win. It’s better, always, to fly under the radar.  The film enters the race now with two major obstacles in its path: 1) its director, Tom Hooper, won as recently as 2010. Unless you talking about one of those Oscar oddities it’s not a likely scenario that one of his films can win again, or that he can win again so soon. 2) no Best Director nod for Hooper at the Golden Globes, where they honor musicals more than any other voting body. The big musicals that did make the jump to Oscar’s Best Picture had, at the very least, that Globe nod.  Baz Luhrmann for Moulin Rouge, Rob Marshall for Chicago are two recent examples.

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Those are hurdles before the film ever gets to the Kodak and before you ever get to the film itself.   What Les Miserables has going for it is a powerful fan base. Fans are out in force attacking and dismantling negative reviews, on message boards debating criticisms of the film, making a daily case for Hugh Jackman to win in Best Actor and for the film to become, eventually, too big to ignore.  In addition, two of Oscar’s most reliable pundits, Fandango’s Dave Karger and In Contention’s Kris Tapley still have Les Miserables, the longest shot in the race right now, at number one. Both are predicting the impossible to become possible.  Both also attended the now famous New York screenings where there were standing ovations and tears.

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by Chris Dale

Making a case for Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not an easy task. It’s a deserving film, no doubt, but there is no sparkle, no pizzazz, no excitement. It’s the rare film that does nothing more than try to tell a story in a clean, unsophisticated way. It has a firm sense of time, place and character, you know, the fundamentals. It’s not quirky, nor experimental, nor innovative. You will not leave the theater thinking that what you’ve seen is revolutionary, groundbreaking or inventive.

Nor does the film have a pedigree that grabs your attention. The film is written and directed by Chbosky who adapted it from a young adult novel he wrote 13 years prior. Its cast is largely unknown or unheralded. The only cast member with major film experience is Emma Watson from the Harry Potter series, which many will more likely see as a detriment than a positive. And to make it an even harder sell to voters it hasn’t done particularly well at the box office. At only 16 million dollars, to many this film is a mostly forgettable coming-of-age teen movie that got a handful of good critical notices. “Next!” you can hear the crotchety old Hollywood legend yell as he sifts through his stack of screeners.

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by Russell Hainline

When I first experienced Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s sprawling surrealist journey, part of me immediately lamented the fact that the year-end awards race was likely to ignore it. It’s unapologetically strange and purposefully fantastical, difficult to fully digest, much less describe to friends and family. This is the type of film that should receive the national recognition that the Academy Awards provide: it’s brave, honest, and enormously entertaining. Yet the more the idea marinated, the more Holy Motors seemed like the type of film the Oscars should absolutely embrace. It’s a movie about movies, attempting to reveal something about both the art of storytelling and the struggle between the old school film aficionados and the digital age. It contains scenes of uproarious comedy and immense sadness, running the gamut of emotions during its two-hour run time. Most notable of all, it features the bravest leading male performance in years– Denis Lavant plays eleven credited roles and is asked to portray acts of weirdness that would send most actors running for the hills, all while maintaining a sense of deeply affecting melancholy. You haven’t seen a film like Holy Motors before. So why not reward it for its shocking display of perfectly executed originality?

At film’s beginning, we see a man, played by Carax himself, wake from his sleep to the sounds of seagulls and a foghorn. He searches along his walls, then using a key that has suddenly manifested itself on his finger, he opens the walls to walk down a corridor leading him to the balcony of a movie house. Or is he still dreaming? Is the cinema his personal Maltese Falcon, the stuff that dreams are made of? We never come back to this room, cutting immediately to a wealthy man in Paris leaving home to go to work for the day. This is Monsieur Oscar, the root of Denis Lavant’s characters. He hops into a limousine and heads off to work, where his driver informs him he has nine appointments today. We gather from security guards surrounding the limo and a phone conversation Oscar has about needing to carry guns that this line of employment carries with it some inherent danger. Due to his wealth, I immediately thought he was perhaps some sort of banker or CEO, and we were preparing for some type of statement on these troubled economic times… how foolish I was to attempt to predict where Carax was taking me.

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by Marshall Flores

Part of an ongoing series at Awards Daily. More “The Case For” – you can pitch yours by writing us.

When it is all said and done, 2012 will go down as one of those film years where there is simply too much greatness, too many achievements and accomplishments, for AMPAS to adequately recognize. The Best Picture race is already shaping to be quite a battle royale, crowded with both surefire contenders and potential game changers. As a result, it will very easy (perhaps inevitable) for voters to forget about “smaller” indie gems like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom: great movies that would be part of the Best Picture conversation in a weaker year. As it stands, given their early release date, Beasts and Moonrise are instead on the bubble, their ultimate Oscar prospects uncertain. Still, the case should, nay, must be made for these films.

Since making his debut with Bottle Rocket in 1996, very few directors working today have displayed a persistent penchant for quirky as Wes Anderson. With a storybook aesthetic that includes meticulous mise-en-scene, vintage costuming, and a muted color palette reminiscent of a faded photo, Anderson has crafted intimate films – whimsical worlds populated with oddball characters confronted by heavy subjects: alienation, family dysfunction, mortality. It’s a filmmaking identity that defies comparison with just about anything else coming out of mainstream cinema.

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by Jordan Ruimy

One thing you first notice in Rian Johnson’s Looper is how it builds up its sense of dread with each successive, tension-filled scene. Nobody is safe here. The plot only builds up as layer after layer is revealed until the film’s final shot. It’s a hell of a ride and easily one of the best films of the year. Then why no mention of a possible Oscar Nomination for Johnson’s visionary picture? You see, Science Fiction isn’t something the academy has warmed up to in its 83 year history. Sure it rewarded Peter Jackson’s “The Return Of The King” but what else did it reward before or after that? “Looper” is the kind of movie that can sometimes trip on its own ambitions but its originality is contagious, creating a new world we’ve never seen before. Credit must go to writer/director Johnson who after showing capable signs of flair in his first two films (“Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom”) finally hits one out of the park.

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“Sometimes a man rises from the darkness. Sometimes the pit spits something back.”

When we drill down to sum up The Dark Knight trilogy in simplest terms, what many will see emerge is a guy in a bat suit. There is no getting around it, and probably why The Dark Knight was shut out in 2008. At the same time, Nolan’s epic also represents the crest of a changing tide in Hollywood away from adult-centered dramas and towards films aimed at younger audiences. They are the most reliable ticket-buyers, after all, even as the voting adults in the Academy sit back with their arms folded across their chests thinking, not on my watch. In general, I side with the Academy on this simply because I am bored by most of the effects-driven films Hollywood puts out, sequel after sequel, utterly predictable, the wow factor fading not ten minutes after you leave the theater.

But to me, Christopher Nolan’s handling of The Dark Knight surpasses expectations, and ultimately elevates a well worn, exhausted genre. For that reason, his last film in the series deserves to be recognized. The Dark Knight Rises is the only true epic in the trilogy. Yes, I said epic again. Yes, I know it’s about a guy in a bat suit. It is still an epic narrative with epic scope. While delivering all the usual thrills of a typical superhero movie: the villain/hero unearthed by Nolan reveals deeper ideas about humanity as a whole.

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I’m not going to talk about whether Argo will or won’t. I’m only going to talk about how good it is and what a successful film it’s been this year.

We’re used to Oscar years where most of the movies aren’t all that. Occasionally there will be an overwhelming array of greatness, as there was, to my mind, in 2010 with The Social Network, Black Swan and Inception, to name just three. But no one probably counted so many great films crowding into the race as they have this year. Beast of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom were two early favorites that might have had a better edge if this year hadn’t delivered so many good eggs. It’s easy, then, to have forgotten about Ben Affleck’s Argo. Many now believe that Kathryn Bigelow’s just delivered the Argo killer in Zero Dark Thirty, which is a much more serious look at a more recent, still white hot time in our history. Both films are so crushingly good it’s beyond comprehension that they would join a year that also delivered Lincoln, Amour, The Dark Knight Rises, and Life of Pi – even the so-so movies are better than they usually are, like Cloud Atlas. Many also believe that Les Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook are exceptional works by vital directors. Still, there is still a case to be made for Argo.

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In the coming days, I will make a case for each contender on the Best Picture plate to win Best Picture. Silver Linings Playbook goes first.

The qualifying round of the Oscar race is coming to a close. There are three major films left to be seen — Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained — that will either shift the race or they won’t. Many are betting that at least one of them will. History tells us that late entries have a harder time winning than films already tested for success. Winners with critics, winners at the box office with a winning team behind them. Two slam dunks in a row with another feelgood movie in their pocket, The Weinstein Co is very much in the game right now, or at least in a very good spot to win for their third consecutive year.

At the helm is Lisa Taback, maybe the most savvy of all Oscar strategists, who knows the Academy better than they know themselves. A film only needs to be perceived as the underdog to make audiences and voters want to root for it because they root so hard for the scrappy characters. This worked last year and it worked the year before and it worked for Slumdog Millionaire on top of that, and it could very well work again this year; the best thing that can happen to this movie is to repeat last year and the year before — Oscar pundits, save Fandango’s Dave Karger and Jeff Wells, are underestimating it. If it were number one across the board it would have a harder time being perceived as the scrappy underdog. Slumdog is the model for this type of Oscar win: the little movie that could, can and does makes people feel good.

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