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Sometimes a particular film highlights what you love in cinema. In the case of the latest film in our journey through ten films that Vincent Views as significant, I saw it knowing its rather twisty reputation, but completely underestimated just how involving and compelling it would be. I rented the film on VHS (remember those?) and started watching it leaning back in my chair. Within ten minutes I was leaning forwards with my elbows on my knees, completely riveted by what I was watching. I did not change my position until the credits rolled. This film cemented thrillers as my favourite genre, and is something of the gold standard when it comes to viewing thrillers.
Listing significant films inevitably means that they be memorable. Perhaps ironically, Memento is a deeply memorable film, mainly for its complex structure but also for its weighty themes, interwoven beautifully with the elements of neo-noir and modern tragedy. Repeat viewings as well as teaching placed this film within my top ten of all time, as each time I encounter the film I find something new and every discussion about it opens intriguing avenues. It was, perhaps as it was for many, my first exposure to Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker whose work continues to enthral and fascinate me. But while the extraordinary vision of Interstellar, the genre defining and then redefining Dark Knight trilogy and the intricate spectacle of Inception all have their time and place, Memento is perhaps Nolan’s finest work. It is a brilliant latticework of a film that merges form and content with crystalline precision, tells a deeply affecting story of a hopelessly flawed protagonist, and asks philosophical questions about morality, memory, identity and choice.
DISCLAIMER: I have not seen any of the nominees in the categories of Foreign Language Film, Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, Animated Short, Live Action Short Film, so I have no view on them.
When it comes to the Oscars, one can pick what is likely to win, and what one would like to win (or, according to the more arrogant out there, what should win). On the first point, the easy answer is what has won so far. If a film has won awards at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, not to mention various critical awards and those of the various filmmaking guilds of America, it is likely to pick up Best Picture at the Oscars. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is a tendency.
As previously mentioned, I predict that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will pick up Best Picture. What I would vote for, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is a different matter. Of the nine nominees, I was most impressed by Dunkirk, but World War II films are such clichéd Best Picture winners that I would not vote for it. In a year when focus is on gender relations in the film industry, I want to support a film that has something positive to say about women, and is also something outside the generic norm. Lady Bird and The Shape of Water fulfil those criteria, and the latter is also a fantasy film, extremely rare in these circles. Therefore, in my fantasy AMPAS vote, I would pick The Shape of Water.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (predicted winner)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a surprising lead contender for Best Picture because Martin McDonagh is not nominated for Achievement in Directing. If he were, I would predict a victory, but as he is not, I have the same dilemma. Much as I love Christopher Nolan, he has opted for a safe award genre with his World War II thriller. As impressively directed as Dunkirk is, I want to see him garner awards for science fiction films like Inception and Interstellar. Therefore, I champion another of my favourite directors, Guillermo Del Toro. Handily, I suspect he will actually walk away with the award anyway, which will make me happy.
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water (predicted and preferred winner)
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
I have not seen any of these, but I would be flabbergasted if Coco did not bring Pixar another award.
The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
Coco, Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson (predicted winner)
Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha
Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman
Continuing my response to the response to Oscar nominations, it is worth noting that there are certain types of film that are consistently honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This type is determined more by content than anything else. I have seen the accusation that the Academy is more interested in rewarding financial than artistic success. In the case of the current crop of nominees, this is patently nonsense, as the eight films nominated for Best Picture are the lowest earning group of nominees in recent years. The combined box office gross of the eight Best Picture nominees came to $203.1 million before the announcement of the nominees, and there is little time before the ceremony for this to increase significantly (although American Sniper is doing very well). Furthermore, look at the earnings of other films, including nominees in other categories. In an act of remarkable brashness, Paramount submitted one of the year’s highest earners, Transformers: Age of Extinction, for consideration as Best Picture. Shockingly, it was not nominated in that category or indeed any other, but the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects (the category Transformers: Age of Extinction had a chance in) have a combined box office gross of $3.6 billion worldwide. So to say that AMPAS only rewards box office winners is simply untrue.
It is typical that the Academy Award for Visual Effects goes to commercially successful films, often along with other post-production categories such as Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. What irritates me about this is the perpetuation of the art/entertainment divide – movies make money and might win an award for their effects; films are “art” and win awards for being “artistic”. It is an utterly nonsensical division that I love to see occasionally challenged, such as when genre films like Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) are nominated for Best Picture (unsurprisingly, neither won that award although both won Best Visual Effects, as well as Cinematography). There are exceptions that straddle the divide, earn vast box office receipts and pick up multiple awards as well, but these are few and far between. The best example is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), a fantasy blockbuster that won all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated. Although they did not win, other unusual nominees include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), as well as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the occasional animated film such as Toy Story (2010), Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and especially Gravity (2013).
An interesting comparison can be made between Gravity, which won seven Oscars including Best Director, and Titanic (1997), which tied the record of eleven awards set by Ben-Hur (1959) (a feat later achieved by The Return of the King). Both Gravity and Titanic were commercially successful, and both are disaster movies with very high production values. Yet Titanic was more honoured than Gravity, picking up Best Picture whereas Gravity lost out to 12 Years A Slave. The common factor between 12 Years A Slave and Titanic is the factor that the Academy consistently rewards – history.
Look over these Best Picture winners of the last three decades:
2013 – 12 Years A Slave
2012 – Argo
2011 – The Artist
2010 – The King’s Speech
2009 – The Hurt Locker
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire
2007 – No Country for Old Men
2006 – The Departed
2005 – Crash
2004 – Million Dollar Baby
2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2002 – Chicago
2001 – A Beautiful Mind
2000 – Gladiator
1999 – American Beauty
1998 – Shakespeare in Love
1997 – Titanic
1996 – The English Patient
1995 – Braveheart
1994 – Forrest Gump
1993 – Schindler’s List
1992 – Unforgiven
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs
1990 – Dances With Wolves
1989 – Driving Miss Daisy
1988 – Rain Man
1987 – The Last Emperor
1986 – Platoon
1985 – Out of Africa
1984 – Amadeus
Only eight (26.6%) of these thirty Best Picture winners have a setting contemporary to the time of their release, whereas twenty-one (70%) have a historical setting, ranging from 18th century Vienna to ancient Rome, 13th century Scotland to various points in the 20th century. Many of the films feature significant historical events, including World War II (four), Vietnam (three), the Middle East (two) and the US Civil Rights Movement (the anomaly is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Ten of these films (33.3%) are based on specific historical events or people, making them “true” stories.
The Academy consistently rewards the depiction of history, both in terms of period setting and significant events. Unsuccessful nominees have the same features – Saving Private Ryan, L. A. Confidential, Quiz Show, The Cider House Rules, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning – demonstrating that a significant proportion of nominees depict historical subjects. One can interpret this historical dimension as adding (in the minds of some) an element of gravitas, a quality that makes the film seem “important”. If we accept that AMPAS is an institution devoted to the development, promotion and cultural significance of motion pictures, then it follows that this institution would reward films that make the effort to engage with significant socio-cultural concerns and events. “History” can be considered a short-hand for this, the Academy honouring films that depict “history” because this subject matter is worthy of reward. Equally, it is rare for a contemporary-set thriller to win Best Picture (only The Silence of the Lambs and The Departed in the last 30 years – Argo and No Country for Old Men have thriller narratives, but both are historical and the former is based on a true story) and unheard of for a science fiction film to win. Gravity came closest and I had hopes for Interstellar this year, but no such luck for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic. Surprise, surprise though, Interstellar is nominated for Visual Effects.
This goes back to the art/entertainment divide, a form of cultural elitism that goes far beyond the Academy Awards. The Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature rarely (if ever) go to science fiction, fantasy or thriller novels, and there remains the nonsensical view that literature and theatre are “art” and therefore somehow superior to cinema which is “only entertainment”. Interestingly, one of this year’s nominees, Birdman, engages with this elitism through its portrayal of a former movie star struggling for credibility in the face of immense cultural prejudice, including a scene where a theatre critic lambasts the entire practice of Hollywood cinema for being too commercial and giving awards for “cartoons and pornography”. The great irony of AMPAS is that it perpetuates this bizarre double standard within its own medium, for the most part ignoring genre films and those with a contemporary or (God forbid) future setting and consistently rewarding historical dramas of “importance”.
While I am frustrated by this practice of AMPAS, it would be unfair to entirely blame AMPAS, because the cultural attitudes at work here go far beyond a single institution. But I will blame the Academy members for their general conservatism and reluctance to honour films that differ from the typical pattern. Nominees like Gravity and Avatar, and the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, are especially gratifying because films like these develop the cinematic medium, creating fantasy worlds and taking audiences to new and exciting places. The challenges and innovations of these films are often expensive and the only way they can pay for themselves is through commercial success, therefore by honouring such films the Academy honours and encourages the development and continuance of cinema itself. That is what I would like to see more of in the future, though I am not optimistic as year on year the Academy instead rewards subject matter rather than innovation, perpetuating an unnecessary cultural elitism.
Stephen Hawking is one of the most eminent minds of the last century, yet he may be as famous for coping with disability as he is for expounding on the universe. A similar tension runs through James Marsh’s adaptation of Jane Hawking’s autobiography. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the source material, Stephen’s scientific breakthroughs receive relatively little screentime, the film’s focus being on Stephen and Jane’s relationship. The sequences between Jane and Stephen are often touching without being mawkish, and at no point does Stephen appear simply as an invalid. Equally, however, his condition is not glossed over – Jane’s care for Stephen is an integral part of their lives. Some sequences emphasise Stephen’s physical difficulties as well as Jane’s courage and resolve to help him, and the portrayal of managing disability makes the story of the Hawking’s bond believable and compelling. Much of this is down to the committed performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Redmayne has already received a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama and is a strong contender to win both the BAFTA and the Oscar. His is the type of performance award givers love: a real person who overcomes great adversity in the form of a disability that requires a difficult physical performance. Redmayne achieves a remarkable transformation, his motions and speech steadily becoming restricted as Stephen’s motor neuron disease progresses. Over the film’s narrative of forty years, Redmayne also ages into the role, becoming indistinguishable from popular images of Hawking, his face and body eventually fixed in a recognisable but not caricatured contortion. Redmayne continues to perform Stephen’s soul as well, his eyes speaking volumes of intelligence, sorrow and humour in the later scenes when Stephen becomes mute. But while Redmayne attracts the awards buzz, the equally-nominated Felicity Jones is just as impressive in the less showy role of Jane, and Jones shines in the role of a woman dealing with extraordinary pressure, enormous demands and difficult choices. Her performance is more subtle and restrained, never erupts into histrionics and generates significant empathy.
Perhaps ironically for a film about a scientist, the less effective aspects of The Theory of Everything relate to artistic choices about the science, both narratively and technically. Most grating is the cinematography: early sequences have a distracting blue filter, and many sequences are overexposed, the excessive light in the frame becoming off-putting, while a scene that should be a moving reunion is spoiled by an obvious and clumsy increase of sunlight. Many scenes are shot in soft focus, people’s faces as well as objects given an indistinct edge that makes the substance of the film too nostalgic, the inclusion of home movie footage adding to this unnecessary irritation. It is also disappointing that little is made of Stephen’s discoveries – mathematical equations may not be the most dramatic material, but scientific breakthroughs and Eureka moments can be, clichéd though they are (see Interstellar for an instance of using this cliché effectively). The film’s climax uses reversed action, echoing Jane’s earlier summary of Stephen’s research as “turn back the clock”, and this is also clunky and unconvincing. Overall, The Theory of Everything is an unbalanced equation: the human side of the story is well written and very well acted, but the science is less convincing, constituting both an underdeveloped narrative thread and distracting stylistic flashes.
It is that time of the year when critics decide which films they enjoyed the most and pompously declare that these were therefore the best. In keeping with tradition, I have compiled a list of my top twelve films of 2014, as well as a ranking of every new release this year (with links to my earlier reviews). As always, I missed films that I know I should see, and I will manage some as they come out for home release. But at the end of 2014, here are my top twelve, presented in suitably musical order:
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
The movies gave to me
12 Wanted Men
11 Interstellar trips
10 tanking Furies
9 Turing tests
8 alien Skins
7 Gone Girls
I am Groot
4 Apey Dawns
3 Wall Street Wolves
2×6 Slave Years
And the Pride of miners and gays.
Here is a more detailed view.
Top 12 of 2014
A joyous, moving, tear-jerking tale of life-affirming courage and socialist unity.
A searing story of socio-historical importance that cannot be ignored.
A relentless and laugh-out-loud rush of hedonism and debauchery.
An unflinching portrayal of the demise of peace.
A compelling reinvention of a classic figure.
A hilarious, rip-roaring rollercoaster of weirdoes in weird places.
A dark tale of contemporary relationships and trial by media.
A haunting and mesmerising portrayal of embodiment and otherness.
A subtle drama of wars both intimate and global.
A visceral trip through the hell and camaraderie of war.
A staggering journey into wonder.
A grim tale of world-weary espionage.
An inspiring story of courage and redemption with a strong political message.
Laugh, grimace, gasp. Repeat.
Thrills, spills and surprising tears.
A spectacularly deranged rendering of a timeless tale.
Superhero thrills encased in a conspiracy narrative.
A grim, gritty tale of determination and obsession.
A powerful dystopia that applies a teenage angst metaphor to all ages.
A brilliant collage of resonant images, narratives and lives.
A relentless dystopic escalation.
A surprisingly intimate tale of faith and politics.
A beautiful warts-and-all portrait of artistic obsession.
A mournful weepie that deftly avoids the pitfalls of mawkishness and excessive sentimentality.
A brash, bold, blistering action thriller.
A mournful tale of love and grieving.
A beautiful tale of dreams, flight and love.
A creative vigilante thriller with surprisingly progressive politics.
A fun if flimsy action adventure.
Salome & Wilde Salome
A fascinating exploration of obsession and mystery.
Darkly humorous if slightly repetitive revenge thriller.
The weakest chapter of the Middle Earth saga.
An imbalance of tone makes for dissatisfying and inconsistent time-travel paradoxes.
More of the same and lacking in innovation.
Hollow tale of ultimately tedious double-crossing.
Sweeping visuals that fail to make up for retrograde gender politics.
Turkey of the Year
Please. Make. It. Stop. esaelP. ekaM. tI. potS. .potS .tI .ekaM .esaelP aMek. aePles. ptSo. tI.
These transforming words are more fun than the film.
So that was 2014! Who knows what cinematic delights will be along in 2015? The Shadow knows… wait, that was what evil lurks in the hearts of men. Silly me! Anyway, bring it on, 2015, do us proud!
No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.