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Black Mass

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Boston has a funny effect on makers of crime films. Whether it be Clint Eastwood with Mystic River, Ben Affleck with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Antoine Fuqua with The Equaliser or Martin Scorsese with The Departed, Boston demands sociological depth as part of its crime milieu. The same is true of Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a detailed examination of notorious gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s (Johnny Depp) relationships with the FBI and a sizeable chunk of South Boston’s criminal and political community. This sociological aspect contextualises the film’s action, as Bulger’s criminal exploits impact upon his FBI handler John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), his politician brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and various others. Crime is not separate from society here but deeply imbricated within it, as are the personal connections and loyalties between childhood friends. At times the emphases on trust and ‘who ya know’ becomes a little repetitive, but this is a minor detraction in what is otherwise an solidly absorbing and effective crime drama.

Top Five of 0.5

We’re half way through 2014 so it’s time to see what’s impressed me the most in the last six months. As always, many films come and go that are doubtless entertaining, but did not quite necessitate shelling out for them. The following are the five films that impressed and entertained me the most. Will they be in my top films of the year in six months’ time? Come back then and find out!

To clarify, “Films of 2014” are defined in this case as films that went on general UK theatrical release from January 2014. While some of the films I discuss are officially recognised as 2013 releases, they only played at festivals are previews and therefore the majority of cinema-goers could only see them in 2014. Release dates are taken from the IMDb.

5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (release date 16 April 2014)

TMSM posterThis was a genuine surprise for me. After 2012’s reboot was decidedly less than amazing, I went in with fairly low expectations. They were significantly exceeded as Marc Webb’s follow-up provided a touching central relationship, explored questions of esteem and choice and even prompted tears. Other superhero outings (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past) failed to successfully merge their disparate elements, but much like the web-slinger himself, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out on top.

4. The Raid 2 (release date 11 April 2014)

The-Raid-2-Mosaic-PosterAnother sequel that surpassed its original, Gareth Evans’ epic crime tale combined a complex plot with the brutal ballet of its fight sequences, while also incorporating themes of honour, loyalty, courage and ambition. I anticipated much of what I got in The Raid, and The Raid 2 not only provided this but so much more. If there’s a more intense visual ride this year, I look forward to seeing it.

3. Godzilla (release date 15 May 2014)

Godzilla_(2014)_posterGodzilla has long been a favourite of mine, and the character’s 60 year history has had its ups and downs. This was a triumphant up, as Gareth Edwards’ reboot pays homage to the original while also declaring its own identity. Operating both on a macro and micro scale, Godzilla 2014 is not only a bombastic disaster movie with a looming sense of dread and gigantic battle sequences, but also a intriguing exploration of humanity’s need to commune with nature. Any film that features monsters beating seven bells out of each other and incorporates philosophy is OK with me!

2. The Wolf of Wall Street (release date 17 January 2014)

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Easily the funniest film I’ve seen this year, and also a slightly terrifying one. Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Jordan Belfort is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of debauchery, debasement, drugs and money, money, money. It boasts a career-best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as well as magnificent supporting players Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, and uses its relatively sedate visual style to draw the audience in and encourage self-reflection.

1. 12 Years A Slave (release date 10 January 2014)

12-years-posterA worthy winner of its Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars, Steve McQueen’s third film is a searing portrait of cruelty, resilience and humanity/inhumanity. Both mesmerising and at times extremely hard to watch, 12 Years A Slave features great performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o as well as the rest of its case, and shows the sheer raw power that cinema is capable of. A story of historical importance, a superbly crafted piece of cinema, and the finest film so far this year.

Expression in Editing

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In the space of two days, I recently saw two films that could not be more different. The first was The Raid 2, Gareth Evans’ sequel to his explosive 2012 martial arts adventure. The second was A Story of Children and Film, a documentary by Mark Cousins that merges the conceits of his last previous works, The Story of Film: An Odyssey and The First Movie. The Raid 2 is a fictional drama, a martial arts/crime thriller that delivers a blistering ballet of brutality. Cousins’ documentary is lyrical, free associative and meandering. Both excel at what they do and each film offers particular delights and pleasures, and serve to highlight one of the most important tools in filmmaking – editing.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that the three most important components of any film were script, script and script. While this is a convenient soundbite for the critic who decries overreliance on special effects or glamorous actors, it is overly simplistic to describe cinema as being based primarily on the written word (and besides, Hitch could have been referring to screenplay, shooting script and another form of script). For sure, the written screenplay is important, but many a filmmaker subscribes to the belief that films are made in the editing room, in the assembly of otherwise disparate images. Small wonder that directors form lasting and productive collaborations with their editors, such as Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Mann and Dov Hoenig, and some, including James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and Gareth Evans, edit their films themselves.

Sergei Eisenstein argued that the power of cinema lay in the juxtaposition of images rather than the sustained shot, hence his development of montage in such classics as The Battleship Potemkin (1925). Similarly, Evans uses fast cutting to express both the swift blows and dizzying impact of martial arts combat. Films like The Raid 2 are a testament to the merging of combat performance and editing, as the skills of performers like Iko Uwais and Julie Estelle are displayed to dazzling effect, while the cuts between different shots express the physical impact of the blows, leading to a visceral experience. Long takes of athletic prowess are impressive, and frequent in The Raid 2 as well, such as sustained pan shots of a prison yard during a riot as well as a warehouse towards the end of the film. Such shots, however, are generally at a distance, wide angle and encompass much of the cinematic space. Fast editing of close quarters combat helps to create a sense of being in the thick of combat, a vicarious experience for the viewer that gives us the experience of being in the ferocious fights of the film (without the inconvenience of pain).

By contrast, Mark Cousins uses editing to link together seemingly disparate scenes. Early in A Story of Children and Film, Cousins explains that he will not progress through films chronologically, but will be guided by how the behaviour of his niece and nephew reminds him of children in other films. The range of films referenced by Cousins is extraordinary, including An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) and The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995). I consider myself reasonably familiar with cinema, but the only films referenced in Cousins’ documentary that I had seen were E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), making the film something of an education. I was a little disappointed at the omission of films about children and film, such as Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) and Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007), but Cousins is interested in how film presents children, identifies and extrapolates their shyness, their defiance, their performativity. Editing enables Cousins to draw together his seemingly disparate examples, taking us from Japanese boys chasing dogs to an Iranian girl having a “strop” about goldfish. Cousins’ finale brings together films from various countries about kids with balloons, linking these unrelated movies in a moving and thought-provoking way.

Cousins’ cinematography favours a static camera, both of his niece and nephew in his living room as well as wide angle exterior shots of the Isle of Skye. Evans’ camera is more mobile, taking the viewer into the cinematic space of his drama and, as mentioned above, thrusting us into the thick of battle. Cousins’ camera also creates intimacy through dwelling on the events before it, both in his own footage and the scenes from other films that he refers to. The techniques of these filmmakers serve to draw the viewer in, and invite us to interpret meaning from the assembly of images, the editing both presenting meaning and allowing us to infer from the spaces between the shots.

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THE WINNERS WILL BE…

Oscars

Just before the big event takes place, these are my final predictions for the 86th Annual Academy Awards. At this time some people like to say what “should” win, implying that they know better than the homogenous, easily swayed entity otherwise known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. This is a gross misconstruing of the Academy, that consists of literally hundreds of people who vote on the various nominated films, not one monumental committee that simply hands out awards to their friends. I find the “what should win” position uncomfortably arrogant, but accept that we are all allowed to disagree. So as well as offering my prediction, I also offer what would be my pick if I were a member of AMPAS, which is not to say I’m right, but what I happen to prefer.

Best Motion Picture of the Year

12 Years A Slave

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

The Wolf Of Wall Street

12 Years A Slave has won multiple Best Film awards, including the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, and there is no reason to expect that will not change. I have seen six of these films (Her, Nebraska, Philomena are the omissions), and 12 Years A Slave is the most impressive, prompting knuckle-chewing and tears from me. This non-member agrees with the Academy majority.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

My vote: 12 Years A Slave

12-years-poster Best Achievement in Directing

Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity

Steve McQueen – 12 Years A Slave

Alexander Payne – Nebraska

David O. Russell – American Hustle

Martin Scorsese – The Wolf Of Wall Street

This looks to be another year when Picture and Directing go to different films, a relatively rare occurrence but increasingly common this century (Gladiator/Traffic, Chicago/The Pianist, Crash/Brokeback Mountain, Argo/Life of Pi). I see it continuing this year, as Alfonso Cuarón has been awarded by multiple award-giving entities and that tends to lead to the Oscar. I have no problem with this because if there is a more directed film than Gravity in the last year, I don’t know what it is. It is an astounding technical achievement, and I would have no problem with it winning Best Picture as well, but it does lack the socio-historical-political dimension of 12 Years A Slave, so it will not win that. But from a technical perspective of film craft, also known as directing, Gravity has few equals.

Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

My vote: Alfonso Cuarón

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Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale – American Hustle

Bruce Dern – Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf Of Wall Street

Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave

Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey has the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild, Broadcast Film Critics Association Award and many more for Best Actor. He did not get the BAFTA, which went to Chiwetel Ejiofor, but then McConaughey was not nominated there either. His performance is everything the Academy members like – actual historical figure, suffering from an illness, requires physical transformation, so he will win. He would not be my pick, however, because I would vote for a full-on, jet-propelled performance that makes a thoroughly loathsome character endlessles compelling.

Prediction: Matthew McConaughey

My vote: Leonardo DiCaprio

Dallas Buyers ClubBest Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Amy Adams – American Hustle

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Sandra Bullock – Gravity

Judi Dench – Philomena

Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

Having picked up the other awards, there is no reason to expect that Cate Blanchett will not pick up the Oscar. I haven’t seen Blue Jasmine so cannot comment, as I found Sandra Bullock compelling and absorbing throughout her extra-terrestrial activities.

Prediction: Cate Blanchett

My vote: Sandra Bullock

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Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips

Bradley Cooper – American Hustle

Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave

Jonah Hill – The Wolf Of Wall Street

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Once again, follow the pattern and Jared Leto will pick up the award. I have seen all of these and found all of them quite compelling, but Leto seemed a little slight. Were I in the Academy, I’d cast my vote for the BAFTA winner that we hadn’t heard of a year ago, who gives a sympathetic but frightening performance of ruthlessness and desperation. I hope we see more of him in the future.

Prediction: Jared Leto

My vote: Barkhad Abdi

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Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine

Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle

Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years A Slave

Julia Roberts – August: Osage County

June Squibb – Nebraska

This is a bit tricky, as it could go either way between Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence. They are the only two I have seen, and Lawrence is rather like DiCaprio in TWOWS in terms of being full-on and ferocious, while also very funny. But the Academy is more likely to reward drama than comedy, and because she moved me to tears, I would to.

Prediction: Lupita Nyong’o

My vote: Lupita Nyong’o

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

American Hustle – Eric Singer, David O. Russell

Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen

Her – Spike Jonze

Nebraska – Bob Nelson

Dallas Buyers Club – Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

For all its nominations, I think this is the one award that American Hustle is most likely to pick up, and I have no problem with that. Dallas Buyers Club did not stand out for me, and the sheer creative excess of American Hustle makes it strong for me as well.

Prediction: American Hustle

My vote: American Hustle

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Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Before Midnight – Richard Linklater

Captain Phillips – Billy Ray

12 Years A Slave – John Ridley

The Wolf of Wall Street – Terence Winter

Philomena – Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope

As an unlikely winner of Directing, I see Writing as a far more likely award for 12 Years A Slave. This is OK by me, as the writing of the film creates an understandable and relatable world despite its period detail and the retention of 19th century dialogue.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

My vote: 12 Years A Slave

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

The Book Thief – John Williams

Gravity – Steven Price

Her – William Butler and Owen Pallet

Philomena – Alexadre Desplat

Saving Mr. Banks – Thomas Newman

The music of Saving Mr. Banks was integral to the soulful aspect of the film, while music in Gravity was less noticeable. It’s hard to say, really, so a wild stab in the dark.

Prediction: Philomena

My vote: Saving Mr. Banks

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Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

“Alone Yet Not Alone” – Alone Yet Not Alone

“Happy” – Despicable Me 2

“Let It Go” – Frozen

“The Moon Song” – Her

“Ordinary Love” – Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Take it, Disney!

Prediction: “Let It Go”

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

All Is Lost

Captain Phillips

Gravity

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Lone Survivor

In space, there is no sound, yet sound plays a major part in Gravity, the sudden collisions and silence in the surroundings adding to the heart-stopping drama.

Prediction: Gravity

My vote: Gravity

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Captain Phillips

Gravity

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Inside Llewyn Davis

Lone Survivor

The layering of sound to create the voice of Smaug really impressed me, so that’s my pick. But I think the sound love for Gravity might spread out a bit.

Prediction: Gravity

My vote: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

SmaugProduction Design

American Hustle

Gravity

The Great Gatsby

Her

12 Years A Slave

A nice bunch of nominees here – three period pieces and two science fiction films. Sci-fi sometimes gets a bone like this, but with Gravity heading for more major awards this might go to something else with less chance of winning other awards. Hard to be sure.

Prediction: The Great Gatsby

My vote: Gravity

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Best Achievement in Cinematography

The Grandmaster – Philippe Le Sourd

Gravity – Emmanuel Lubezki

Inside Llewyn Davis – Bruno Delbonnel

Nebraska – Phedon Papamichael

Prisoners – Roger Deakins

3D cinematography will continue its winning ways in this category. Simple as that. But Prisoners looked so good.

Prediction: Gravity

My vote: Prisoners

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Best Achievement in Makeup And Hair

Dallas Buyers Club

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

The Lone Ranger

Make healthy people look sick and a man look like a woman. No brainer.

Prediction: Dallas Buyers Club

My vote: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Achievement in Costume Design

American Hustle

The Grandmaster

The Great Gatsby

The Invisible Woman

12 Years A Slave

Period dramas, especially the Dickensian, have an edge here, and The Invisible Woman is literally Dickens, so pretty good chance. But the costumes in American Hustle for me were so garish and horrible that I think that deserves respect.

Prediction: The Invisible Woman

My vote: American Hustle

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Best Achievement in Film Editing

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Gravity

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Editing is the silver bullet for Best Picture, so it will go to the Best Picture winner. But I loved the assembly and fast cutting of Captain Phillips, so I’d go for that.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

My vote: Captain Phillips

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Gravity

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Iron Man 3

The Lone Ranger

Star Trek Into Darkness

So much of Gravity is visual effects that it would be terribly churlish not to reward them.

Prediction: Gravity

My vote: Gravity

In these categories, I have seen none of the nominees, so I simply expect the pattern to continue.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

The Croods

Despicable Me 2

Ernest & Celestine

Frozen

The Wind Rises

Prediction: Frozen

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Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)

The Great Beauty (Italy)

The Hunt (Denmark)

The Missing Picture (Cambodia)

Omar (Palestine)

Prediction: The Hunt

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Best Documentary, Feature

The Act Of Killing

Cutie And The Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

Prediction: The Act of Killing

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Best Documentary – Short Subject

Cavedigger

Facing Fear

Karama Has No Walls

The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Prison Terminal: The Last Days Of Private Jack Hall

Best Live Action Short Film

Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)

Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)

Helium

Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything?)

The Voorman Problem

Best Animated Short Film

Feral

Get A Horse!

Mr. Hublot

Possessions

Room On The Broom

I know nothing about any of these, so have no opinion.

The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street is quite a surprise. It is a far more sedate film than I expected from Martin Scorsese, a director typically associated with an extremely mobile camera and a plethora of stylistic techniques. Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed are prime examples of Scorsese’s tendency to use whip pans, crash-zooms, pin holes and all manner of other cinematic devices. By contrast, The Wolf of Wall Street uses a steady, measured approach, largely recording the events of the plot rather than inflecting them, although there are some distinctive long takes. Furthermore, the dialogue scenes are remarkably long, the actors given time and space to develop their performances. This is especially true of Leonardo DiCaprio, who delivers a career-best, rocket-fuelled performance that powers the film through all manner of debauchery. If Scorsese is more sedate than usual, DiCaprio has never been more ferocious, his character Jordan Belfort powerhousing his way through money, drugs, whores, clients, friends, wives and authorities with scant or no regard for consequences. While Belfort is utterly loathsome, he is never less than compelling, a hugely charismatic and enthralling presence so utterly committed to excessive consumption that he is practically a personification of unmitigated capitalism. At three hours, the film might be too long for some, but I found the measured pace and very detailed story effective at conveying a hedonistic and voracious segment of society. Welcome to the life of the 1%. Now run away screaming.

And the nominees are…

Oscars

On 16 January 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 86th Annual Academy Awards. I’m sure there will be criticisms and complaints in the coming weeks that nominee X should not have been honoured in favour of snub Y, but as always, the nominees provide an insight into what the Academy like to reward, what are dubbed worthy and who has been able to garner the attention. There were some surprises, both among the inclusions and the omissions, but overall the usual suspects are well represented.AMERICAN-HUSTLE-poster-1024x768There are several remarkable aspects among the nominees, most startlingly the multiple nominations for a David O. Russell film, as for the second consecutive year, his film is nominated in every major category. Just like Silver Linings Playbook last year, American Hustle is nominated for Picture, Achievement in Directing, Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, and Screenplay (Original rather than Adapted, as Playbook was). Silver Linings Playbook’s success can be credited at least partially to Harvey Weinstein, but American Hustle was not distributed by The Weinstein Company, whereas one of Weinstein’s major awards hopeful, Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, only managed a nod for Best Original Song. Perhaps more effort was put into August: Osage County.

Anyway, here are my impressions of the nominees, and my initial predictions. These may change, depending on how other awards go.

Best Motion Picture of the Year
12 Years A Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
The Wolf Of Wall Street

I wish the Academy members would pick ten nominees as they’ve been able to do since 2009. Surely there was something else that warranted attention (for my money, Saving Mr. Banks is the major omission). Dallas Buyers Club would have been a surprise before the Golden Globes, but now its star has risen. American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave and The Wolf Of Wall Street were all expected, and Nebraska isn’t that surprising, coming from Oscar darling Alexander Payne, but I’m impressed that Her and Philomena got in. Her is science fiction, which hardly ever gets a look in, and Philomena has stirred up controversy with its depiction of the Catholic Church. None are likely to win, however, as the obvious nominees are also the likely winners. With few nominations, Captain Phillips seems unlikely, and the provocative subject matter of The Wolf Of Wall Street is likely to put voters off. It looks like a three horse race at the moment, between American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave. I’d love Gravity to pick up Best Picture because it is such an exquisitely cinematic film, but the historical subject matter of the other two contenders is likely to carry more weight (geddit?) than the space thriller. American Hustle, however, is rather flimsy, which works against it, so by process of elimination, and by virtue of it having won the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Award, 12 Years A Slave emerges as the most likely winner.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

Best Achievement in Directing
Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity
Steve McQueen – 12 Years A Slave
Alexander Payne – Nebraska
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf Of Wall Street

No surprises here, although I’m disappointed that Paul Greengrass was overlooked. I would like Alfonso Cuarón to pick up an award, as Gravity is a cinematic experience like none other, probably the closest the average cinema-goer is ever likely to get to being in space. With his second consecutive nomination (and third overall, as he was also nominated for The Fighter), David O. Russell might be in with a chance, but I don’t think he is any more likely than Steve McQueen (first nomination) or Martin Scorsese, who previously won for The Departed. Alexander Payne is the outside runner, and I think it will come down to between McQueen and Cuaron. I dare to predict the Academy will agree with me, as Directing can reward superb technical accomplishments even when the film as a whole is not honoured with Best Picture (see Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain, The Pianist, Saving Private Ryan, Traffic), plus Cuarón has already received the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Award.

Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale – American Hustle
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf Of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

There is a host of grand performers here, all of whom have elements working in their favour. Bruce Dern might be a favourite due to his age – at 77 there may not be many nominations ahead for him and he has only once been nominated previously, for Coming Home in 1978. Christian Bale is the only previous winner here, having picked up Supporting Actor win for The Fighter in 2010 (also directed by David O. Russell). While this might work in his favour, his performance is rather unflashy, and the Academy tends to honour more showy performances, especially if the character has to overcome something. Chiwetel Ejiofor is playing a historical figure in an “important” historical film, and white guilt could work in his favour. That said, it is his first nomination which can sometimes work against you. The same is true of Matthew McConaughey, but having won a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Award and a SAG award he is a front runner, plus he is playing someone suffering from an illness – AIDS no less, which twenty years ago won Tom Hanks his first Oscar for Philadelphia (it’s surprising that Hanks isn’t up for either Captain Phillips or Saving Mr. Banks, but there we go). Leonardo DiCaprio also won a Golden Globe this year, but he is in a comedy, a genre that is rarely honoured with major awards (this is also a mark against Bale). But of all the nominees, he has had the most nominations, this being his third for Best Actor (previously for The Aviator and Blood Diamond) and fourth overall (Supporting Actor for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Oscars can sometimes be cumulative, and maybe it is DiCaprio’s time. But his role and film are not the type beloved by the Academy, so expect the McConaissance to culminate (but not end) with a golden baldie.

Prediction: Matthew McConaughey

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

This is another very strong group, and a good set of roles for older women. All too often, Hollywood (and beyond) only pays attention to women under forty, but Amy Adams is the only performer of that age (and at 38, she’s getting close). This is Adams’ fifth nomination, but her first for Actress in a Leading Role, having previously been nominated for Supporting Actress in Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter and The Master. She is the only performer here to have not previously won an Oscar, so maybe it is her time. She did get the Golden Globe, but like DiCaprio and Bale, may be hampered by her film being a comedy. A very strong contender is Cate Blanchett, who also got the Golden Globe and was getting Oscar-tipped as soon as Blue Jasmine was released, plus she won the Critics Choice and SAG awards. Blanchett previously won Supporting Actress for The Aviator, a category in which she was also nominated for Notes on a Scandal and I’m Not There, while this is her third nomination for Leading Actress after Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. This could well be her year. The other three have all won, Bullock and Streep very recently, for The Blind Side and The Iron Lady, respectively. Streep has more nominations, seemingly, than anyone, but conversely a very poor success rate. Her role as a crotchety matriarch in August: Osage County may be a little low key for the voters, while Gravity’s technical accomplishments are likely to overshadow Bullock’s performance. Dench has been nominated a few times, including Leading Actress for Mrs Brown, Notes on a Scandal, Iris and Mrs. Henderson Presents, as well as Supporting Actress for Chocolat and a win for her EIGHT MINUTES in Shakespeare In Love. It would be lovely to see her win, but the strong contender at this stage is Blanchett, whose has had the momentum for months.

Prediction: Cate Blanchett

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave
Jonah Hill – The Wolf Of Wall Street
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Once again, having won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG awards, Jared Leto is a front runner, despite this being his first nomination. Leto as well as Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill are slightly surprising actors to see in Oscar territory as they are not always known for awards films. That said, Hill was previously nominated for Moneyball, while Cooper was up for Best Actor in a Leading Role last year for Silver Linings Playbook. These second nominations make these two actors more nominated than other, more obvious performers, such as Gary Oldman and, indeed, Michael Fassbender. This is actually Fassbender’s first nomination, despite his dominating performances in such films as Shame, Prometheus and Inglourious Basterds. He’s playing the sort of vile villain that sometimes attracts Oscar attention, while newcomer Barkhad Abdi is a very welcome presence. A year ago, no one had heard of this guy, and now he’s going to the Oscars, what a thrill! Captain Phillips has relatively few nominations, so this is probably its best chance for a win, but on the night, I think the Academy is more likely to go the same way as the Globes and the Critics.

Prediction: Jared Leto

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years A Slave
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
June Squibb – Nebraska

This is an interesting bunch, with previous winners of the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar, Jennifer Lawrence and Julia Roberts, up against newcomers Lupita Nyong’o and June Squibb. Sally Hawkins is an established presence, but this is also her first nomination. Sometimes, first timers can do well, such as Octavia Spencer in The Help, but big stars in supporting roles often do well, so this is likely to come down to Roberts and Lawrence. Lawrence got the Globe, but Nyong’o got the Critics Choice Award as well as the SAG award, and the members of SAG will also be members of AMPAS, so the newcomer may surpass the established.

Prediction: Lupita Nyong’o

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

American Hustle – Eric Singer, David O. Russell

Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen

Her – Spike Jonze

Nebraska – Bob Nelson

Dallas Buyers Club – Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

Writing awards as often go to films that don’t win anything else to those that do, so it’s fairly open. I think David O. Russell is more likely to pick up this award than Directing, and never count Woody Allen out. Alexander Payne has picked up screenplay awards for Sideways and The Descendants, respectively, so could be in with a good chance here. Hard to say.

Prediction: American Hustle

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Before Midnight – Richard Linklater

Captain Phillips – Billy Ray

12 Years a Slave – John Ridley

The Wolf of Wall Street – Terence Winter

Philomena – Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope

Adapted Screenplay and Picture often go together (see Argo, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country For Old Men, The Departed), so Before Midnight is unlikely here. The other four are all true stories, making them strong contenders in this category as well as Best Picture. While Steve McQueen is not a sure thing for Directing, the historical significance of a true story of survival and courage gives him a very good chance of winning here, whereas the controversy around Philomena may make voters anxious. The hedonism and debauchery of The Wolf of Wall Street might offend conservative sensibilities, but Captain Phillips is a tale of true life heroism, which makes it a strong contender. Come the night, expect this to go to one of the tales of courage.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen
The Wind Rises

Frozen has been almost universally praised and already picked up the Golden Globe as well as the Critics Choice Award. I see no reason for it not to continue its winning ways.

Prediction: Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
Omar (Palestine)

The only one of these I have heard of is The Hunt, so go Denmark!

Prediction: The Hunt

Best Documentary, Feature
The Act Of Killing
Cutie And The Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet From Stardom

People sometimes deride the Academy for being very conservative and not rewarding films that are willing to take risks. While there is justification for this criticism, to see The Act of Killing included in this list of nominees is very positive. By all accounts, the film is harrowing beyond belief, and while that might negate its chances of winning, the genre of documentary arguably exists to challenge and, when necessary, provoke. I hope it does well.

Prediction: The Act of Killing

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
The Book Thief – John Williams
Gravity – Steven Price
Her – William Butler and Owen Pallet
Philomena – Alexadre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks – Thomas Newman

Scores are a difficult business because at their best, they neither overpower the drama nor are unnoticeable, synchronising perfectly with the mood of the images. John Williams has more awards than you can shake a conductor’s baton at, and Alexandre Desplat has done nicely as well. There’s a nice spread among these nominees which makes it hard to pick one, but since this is the only nomination for Saving Mr. Banks, I’d like to see some love that way.

Prediction: Saving Mr. Banks

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
“Alone Yet Not Alone” – Alone Yet Not Alone
“Happy” – Despicable Me 2 (Pharrell Williams)
“Let It Go” – Frozen (Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez)
“The Moon Song” – Her (Karen O. and Spike Jonze)
“Ordinary Love” – Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (U2)

Tough call, as the criteria for song are less obvious than other categories. I fondly remember U2 performing “Hands That Built America” back in 2003, and it’d be great for them to pick up an award (they did not previously). Then again, there was a time when Disney was unbeatable in the music stakes, and Frozen by many accounts is a return to form. Why not let it continue?

Prediction: “Let It Go”

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Lone Survivor

It’s disappointing not to see Rush in here, as that had some of the most exhilarating sound I’ve heard in ages. But the sound of the sea, storms, boats and man was a great feature of All Is Lost, so that is good to see here. Similarly, a great cacophony is heard in Captain Phillips, while Gravity makes great use of sound and also silence. I think Gravity is going to be the big winner in technical categories rather than “artistic”, so expect this award to gravitate towards the space tale.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Apparently, the voice of Smaug was created through multiple layers of Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice. If that’s not impressive sound mixing, I don’t know what is. Any film involving music is a good bet in the sound categories (see Les Miserables from last year), so that speaks well of Inside Llewyn Davis. As in Sound Editing, Captain Phillips and Gravity are strong contenders, so it really is hard to pick one. But since it isn’t likely to win much else, and it’s a fascinating fusion of human talent and technological wizardy, let’s go for the hobbity-tosh.

Prediction: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Production Design
American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Her
12 Years A Slave

Historical dramas are often a good bet in this category, so that bodes well for American Hustle, 12 Years A Slave and The Great Gatsby, the last of which has the added bonus of being hugely concerned with design, sets and production. But it was a while ago – when I saw it nominated my first thought was “Wasn’t that up last year?” Her is an interesting choice, but not a likely winner. The production design of Gravity treads that fine line between sets and special effects, as it is often not clear whether the surroundings are physical are not. However, the very fact that it is in the category means that the production design has impressed the Academy members, so that impression may well lead to winning votes.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Achievement in Cinematography
The Grandmaster – Philippe Le Sourd

Gravity – Emmanuel Lubezki

Inside Llewyn Davis – Bruno Delbonnel

Nebraska – Phedon Papamichael

Prisoners – Roger Deakins

Please, let this be the year that Roger Deakins wins an Oscar! The man is an absolute genius with a camera and cinematography is the one thing that cannot be faulted in the otherwise deeply flawed Prisoners. This is Deakins’ 11th nomination and he has never won, and he really should just for staying power. But I highly doubt it, because cinematography has become the province of 3D. From Avatar to Hugo to Life of Pi, 3D is what impresses the cinematographers of AMPAS, and I see no reason for this trend to not continue.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Achievement in Makeup And Hair
Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

It is quite baffling that American Hustle has been left out of this category, since the hair is one of the most overt features in the film. In its absence, and with the rather weird appearances of Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger, this seems a winner by default. Healthy men are turned into AIDS victims in Dallas Buyers Club; that has to be worth something.

Prediction: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Achievement in Costume Design
American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years A Slave

Better to see American Hustle here, as the costumes are almost as important as the hair. Costume dramas, unsurprisingly, tend to dominate this category, but once again I think the time since The Great Gatsby was released will work against it. 12 Years A Slave is a decent contender here, but bear in mind that most of its costumes look (which does not mean they are) simple: shifts and dresses, shirts and breeches. The Invisible Woman is the epitome of costume drama, not only Dickensian but actually features Dickens himself, so I think it has a very good chance of winning.

Prediction: The Invisible Woman

Best Achievement in Film Editing
12 Years a Slave – Joe Walker

American Hustle – Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers

Gravity – Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger

Captain Phillips – Christopher Rouse

Dallas Buyers Club – Martin Pensa, John Mac McMurphy

Editing is the silver bullet that often leads to Best Picture, but not always. This is because the dominant filmmaking practice in Hollywood is that films are made in the editing room, so no matter how much work is done on location or on soundstages, the editing room is where the film is truly assembled, and then reassembled and trimmed and reconsidered and tweaked and adjusted before finally being released. Therefore, it is no surprise that all the nominees for Editing are also Best Picture nominees. One of the complaints about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is too long, and to see Thelma Schoonmaker omitted from this category perhaps indicates a similar feeling among the Academy members. Therefore, I think the tussle for Editing will come down to those jockeying for Picture and Directing, leaving Captain Phillips and Dallas Buyers Club out. While American Hustle and Gravity both demonstrate accomplished editing, on the night the combined force of Editing and Adapted Screenplay will be key to 12 Years A Slave’s victory.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Ah yes, the blockbuster award. Every film in this category is a blockbuster, with only one also being a prestige film. That’s Gravity, in case you’ve dozed off by now. Iron Man 3 does a lot of good work in combining purely digital creations with integrating the human and the digital, while The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug creates fantastic creatures including but not limited to the titular dragon. Star Trek Into Darkness often looks completely digital, but does a decent amount of practical effects as well, which still have bearing and merit, it must be said. But I see this one going to the technical triumph of this year, which is going to win plenty, though not everything. OK, you can go back to sleep now.

Prediction: Gravity

Best Documentary – Short Subject

Cavedigger
Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days Of Private Jack Hall

Best Live Action Short Film
Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
Helium
Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything?)
The Voorman Problem

Best Animated Short Film
Feral
Get A Horse!
Mr. Hublot
Possessions
Room On The Broom

I know nothing about any of these, so have no opinion.

Unexpected Item in Reaction Area I – Rushing to Director

As may be apparent to regular readers of this blog (nice to see you both), I am something of an auteurist. I am drawn to films by directors whose work I have previously enjoyed, and tend to credit the positives and negatives to the film director. One director whose work I have consistently enjoyed is Ron Howard, including Apollo 13 (1995), Ransom (1996), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Cinderella Man (2005), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels and Demons (2009) (yes, I like Dan Brown’s work, deal with it). When Howard’s latest film, Rush, came out this year, I was interested on the basis of his involvement. Positive reviews from Total Film, Empire and the BBC strengthened my interest, and when I saw Rush I absolutely loved it. It was gripping, funny, compelling, at times horrifying and immensely visceral, which is one of the chief pleasures of cinema for me.

Rush posterIn terms of the subject matter, I should have had no interest at all, because Rush is about motor racers and I have zero interest in sport. But the interesting thing about sports films is they generally are not really about the sport at all. Is Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980) about boxing, or the descent of a man plagued by self-loathing? Is Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004) about boxing, or the relationships between damaged people? Is Ali (Michael Mann, 2001) about boxing, or resistance against prejudice? Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003) is more about rising above the misery of the Great Depression than horse racing, The Mighty Ducks (1992, Stephen Herek) and Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993) are about camaraderie rather than ice hockey or bobsledding, and Run, Fatboy, Run (David Schwimmer, 2007) is far more interested in personal redemption than it is in running. In keeping with this tradition, Rush is about the obsession that drives its central characters, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nicki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), and the relationship between them.

I’ve seen all these sports films, and enjoyed them despite the prominence of sport in their narratives. The main reason I don’t enjoy sport is that the spectator, whether in attendance at an event or watching a telecast, is at a distance from the action, and I like to be close. I do enjoy professional wrestling, but that is scripted and individual matches are part of ongoing storylines, therefore more a drama series than a sport. I have enjoyed the odd boxing match, such as Lennox Lewis VS Frank Bruno in 1993 and Bruno VS Tyson in 1996, but even these are at a distance, unlike the boxing matches of Ali, Raging Bull and Ron Howard’s own boxing biopic, Cinderella Man, which bring the viewer into the ring, on both the delivery and receiving end of the blows.

A similar technique is used in Rush, as director Howard, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill create an intimate sense of involvement in the races. This is achieved through extreme close-ups of the pit stops, in which we see the replacement tyres and machinery used on the cars, as well as very rapid editing during the actual racing. Cameras mounted on the cars hurtling along at breakneck speed place the viewer in the position of the driver, aided by the extraordinary sound design. This is Rush’s greatest strength, allowing us to experience the thrill of high octane racing and emphasising the danger, much as a battle scene or a chase also throws the viewer into the action.

Rush raceLike Cinderella Man, Ali and Raging Bull, but unlike the other films mentioned above, Rush is a true story (as far as any film can be). As a result, the events portrayed in the film are public knowledge, especially the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda, well known to fans of F1. I saw Rush with a friend who is a big fan of F1, so he knew the results of the various races and the twists and turns in the rivalry, while I did not. Despite our different levels of knowledge, we both enjoyed the film immensely, as an engaging, thrilling character drama. This was itself surprising to me. I’ve written before that character isn’t a major source of pleasure for me in cinema – I am interested in the plot and the events – what will happen next is usually the paramount question for me when watching a film. Interestingly, the one point in Rush when I lost interest was during the final race in Japan, when Lauda abandons the race because the weather conditions make it ‘too dangerous’. Hunt has been behind up until this point and Lauda’s withdrawal enables Hunt to win. I lost interest because I didn’t care who won – the drama of the film was always the rivalry between the two, and Lauda neutralised that rivalry. None of the other racers were identifiable as characters, so it was really Hunt just competing against the odds. Without the rivalry, there was less tension and therefore less drama.

Prior to the final race, however, Rush offers plenty of tension both between Lauda and Hunt and within the men themselves. The different approaches used by each man to build their racing profiles are gripping in their contrast – Hunt the playboy, indulging in alcohol, drugs and sex as much as racing, with his support team essentially stroking and maintaining his ego; Lauda the calculating professional with no regard for others and a machine-like commitment to racing. When Hunt loses his sponsorship and is unable to race, his psychological disintegration is apparent, crumpled into a heap with toy cars and a whisky bottle, and his unforgivable treatment of his wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), telling her to ‘Fuck off to New York, darling. I’m sure there’s an eyeliner or a face moisturiser that needs your vapid mush to flog it’. Yet Lauda is more interesting because of the humanisation that his association with others enables. Lauda tells Hunt at one point that Hunt is both responsible for injuries Lauda suffers, and for inspiring him to recover and get back into the race. Furthermore, the relationship Lauda forms with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), whom he eventually marries, creates further tension between his calculating ambition and his emotions. Who does Lauda has the closest relationship with – Marlene, Hunt, or racing?

Hunts Laudas

All of these relationships are fractious, both in terms of Lauda and Hunt’s intense yet respectful rivalry, and the dangers of racing. This was the most impressive aspect of Rush for me, the vicarious experience of living through these intense lives, given extraordinary edge by the incredibly dangerous races. It would not be unreasonable to conclude from Rush that F1 racers are mad, as the film does not flinch from showing the mangled bodies and lost limbs that result from crash. Most compelling though, is the horrific crash in which Lauda’s car catches fire, leaving him hideously scarred and with scorched lungs. The scene in which Lauda’s lungs are vacuumed by the insertion of a metal tube down his throat (while he is conscious) is extremely uncomfortable to watch and helps convey the extraordinary commitment of these men.

The fact that these men are racers is somewhat beside the point, as both are motivated by something not necessarily tangible. Hunt does mention the appeal of living on the edge, the emotional high of risking everything for the sake of an electrifying win. Lauda is less explicit – the most we get is a sense of differentiating himself from his family. Both Lauda and Hunt mention the other careers they rejected in favour of racing, and the film explores the consequences of their mutual choice. Howard’s film therefore conveys both the adrenalin rush of F1 racing, and its devastating price.

Rush crash