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Hacksaw Ridge

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Hacksaw Ridge is a film of two battles, the latter of which is significantly more interesting than the former. The first concerns the difficulties of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), when he enlists in the US army as a medic but is bullied and harassed due to his refusal to touch a weapon on religious grounds. The second battle takes place at the eponymous location on the island of Okinawa, and during this part of the film, director Mel Gibson creates some of the most visceral and horrific sequences of combat since Saving Private Ryan. The brutality of mechanised combat is presented in gripping and gruesome detail as bodies are blown apart and internal organs become outer. This part of the film works because of its focus on the intimacy of violence and Desmond’s extraordinary experiences in the combat zone. Much of the first section of the film, which involves Desmond’s home life, army training and court martial, suffers from portentousness. Desmond’s relationships with his parents Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), his eventual wife Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) and the rest of his platoon are somewhat laboured, although the commanding officers, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), prove to be more engaging as they turn out to be more than they seem. Desmond’s marriage proposal to Dorothy echoes a similar scene in Braveheart, but Hacksaw Ridge compares poorly to Gibson’s Oscar winner due to its overly weighty direction. With its epic scale, Braveheart got away with grandeur in every sequence, but Hacksaw Ridge is a more intimate tale and at its strongest when it focuses on Desmond’s personal experiences. Nowhere is this more apparent during Desmond’s exploits at Hacksaw Ridge, which led to him entering the history books. At times, Gibson overplays the religious symbolism (church in the background, Desmond framed by his fellow soldiers as if they were disciples, Desmond later framed against heaven – really, Mel?), but for the most part, the combat sequences are not only immersive and sustained, but effectively communicate the significance of Desmond’s faith without requiring the viewer to share in it. The first half may weigh it down, but overall Hacksaw Ridge is an impressive achievement: a thrilling and compelling film about pacifism that presents the horrors of warfare while expressing the importance of saving lives.

Some Kind of Film: Perspective on Oscar Nominations Part Two

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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.

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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).

Gravity

Gravity

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.

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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”.

Birdman

Birdman

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.

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“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” Oscar night.

Fury

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David Ayer’s Fury follows the convention of many war films to portray war as hell. Within this cliché, the film also demonstrates the attitude that enables one to survive in this hell, including a certain type of pleasure.

Fury centres upon its eponymous tank with a five-man crew during the final Allied advance through Germany in 1945. The crew is commanded by Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) and includes Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Pena) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), and new recruit Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Norman’s character is an inexperienced cliché of the war film genre, as are the monstrous Nazis, Collier the (physically and mentally) scarred veteran, Swan the bible basher, and the film climaxes with an Alamo-style final battle.

Crew

Ayers combines these clichés, however, with unexpected developments and unflinching portrayal of the physical and psychical impact of combat: heads and bodies are blown apart; corpses are crushed by tank treads; men are burnt alive; civilians are killed indiscriminately. Several heart-stopping set pieces involve the crew of Fury fighting more advanced German tanks. These battles are agonisingly long, and fast editing between close-ups of the different members of the tank crew heighten the tension. During these sequences, I found myself wishing that Collier would give the order “Cease fire, target destroyed” because those words meant the fight was over, as the tension was almost unbearable. Battles in Fury are painful battles of attrition where the victor is simply the last tank standing.

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The unexpected developments of the film concern the humanity and inhumanity of the soldiers. As the film progresses, Norman becomes less resistant and eventually takes satisfaction in killing “fuckin’ Nazis”. Disturbingly, this change in his perspective is completely understandable. The violence these men encounter and inflict makes them brutish and cruel, but not totally inhuman. Collier demonstrates resigned cynicism while Norman’s growing bloodlust exists alongside his humanist sympathy. The brutishness of the crew is explicitly a coping mechanism for the horrors they encounter, but the men’s wounded souls are apparent. The overall impression of Fury is that war is hell, and those within it are neither demons nor angels, just people who are deeply, irrevocably affected by it.

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Edge of Tomorrow

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The challenge for science fiction film is that viewers have probably seen it before. When I reviewed Looper in 2012, I listed the various films that it references, intentionally or otherwise. A similar familiarity is found in Edge of Tomorrow, which feels like a combination of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Source Code and The Matrix, with a bit of Saving Private Ryan, yet still manages to declare its own identity. This is partly due to director Doug Liman blending the comedic and dramatic elements of Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s script, making the film’s first act very funny. Secondly, Liman gives the film a fast, urgent, visceral energy, placing the viewer in the midst of the action sequences that are both explosive and suspenseful. Tom Cruise’s star image receives a playful treatment, as his character William Cage is initially a hopeless coward who must learn both courage and comradeship. Emily Blunt makes for a convincing badass, her presence as well as the motley squad Cage is drafted into (especially Bill Paxton) resonating with Aliens. But rather than feeling derivative, Edge of Tomorrow evokes these other films with a sense of fun (without being overly referential), inviting the viewer to share its knowledge and understanding. Just as Cage sees each repetition of the same day afresh, so do we see these familiar elements with fresh enjoyment.

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 Three – Captain Phillips

SPOILERS

I recently posed about Rush, which has a director I like and a genre I don’t, which was a delight, and Prisoners, which belongs to a genre I like, has a director I’d never heard of, and was disappointing. In the case of Captain Phillips, I love the genre as, like Prisoners, it is a thriller, and Paul Greengrass is one of my top ten directors. Captain Phillips exceeded my expectations and is one of my top films of 2013, as it is an incredibly gripping, highly intelligent, well balanced and merciless thriller.

Phillips Poster

Captain Phillips works because all its components support each other perfectly. Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain and Barkhad Abdi as his antagonist Abduwali Muse, leader of the Somali hijackers of the Maersk Alabama, deliver powerhouse performances that I hope will be remembered come awards season. Billy Ray’s script combines compelling personal drama with wider themes of globalisation and the poverty gap, while Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is tight and intimate to the point of claustrophobia. Greengrass orchestrates these myriad elements into a visceral and enthralling experience, drawing the viewer into the action and allowing us to feel the resolve and hunger of the pirates as well as the desperate fear of the Alabama crew. My hands gripped the arms of my seats all the way through and, while I did not feel queasy, I can understand that some might as the sense of being aboard ship was palatable. One critic said that after seeing the film he wanted a stiff drink – I wanted to lie down.

Strong reactions to films are something I like very much, especially uncomfortable reactions. A major reason we go to the cinema is to have safe thrills – while the sense of danger and exhilaration can be created by the right cinematic experience, we are very seldom in actual danger (accounts of heart attacks and vomiting at The Exorcist, Jaws and Alien notwithstanding). The main reason Prisoners disappointed me was that it did not leave me devastated, while Rush was thoroughly exhilarating. Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity are two films that have left me shaken and stirred this year, and Captain Phillips did the same. But what made Captain Phillips unique, not just for this year but in my entire cinema-going experience (which is extensive), is that I cried. No film had ever before prompted me to shed tears, and this got me thinking about what gets our tear ducts working. 

Weep

 

Lists of tear-jerkers tend to include Casablanca, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Bambi, Dumbo, Old Yeller and It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic did bring me very close to tears when I finally saw it (at Christmas, obviously), and there are others that cause me to well up such as The Lion King, Twelve Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby and, despite repeat viewings, Titanic (mock me all you want, I don’t care). All of these made me well up, so I could feel the tears in my eyes, but they would not flow, would not burst out of my eyes and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. In fairness, I hardly ever cry anyway, not because I’m a super tough macho man (though I am, please don’t hurt me!), but for some unknown reason, tears very rarely flow from me. I often wish they would, but when I feel tears in my eyes, I start willing them to flow, which takes me out of the tear-inducing situation and the damn things dry up.

The way my reaction works highlights the mechanics of tear-jerking cinema. Most reactions to cinema are a result of manipulation, because that is what film does. Anyone who does not like to be manipulated should avoid film, because film manipulates all the time, sometimes in such a way as to make you cry – recently I saw tears at Saving Mr Banks. Steven Spielberg’s films are frequent tear-jerkers, including E.T., Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and Spielberg has openly admitted that his films are manipulative. Schindler’s List, War Horse and, perhaps less obviously, Munich all caused me to well up, because they poured on the agony. Watching a man break under the emotion of what he has failed to do, a horse lie down and die, or a man who has committed terrible acts listen to the innocence embodied in his baby – these are scenes that Spielberg, with help from John Williams, draws out to inflict maximum anguish on the viewer. But once I feel effect of the manipulation, I try to encourage it, which takes me out of the moment and I don’t cry. 

Tom Hanks

This was not the case with Captain Phillips, crucially because the tears I shed were not solely out of anguish, as most weepy scenes are, but also sheer exhaustion. From the point where the hijackers take over the Alabama, there is no let up as they scour the ship, the crew fight back, Phillips is taken hostage, the US navy enters negotiations and eventually stages a rescue. Prior to the rescue, Phillips is brought to the limits of human endurance as the hijackers tie him up and blindfold him, all the while yelling at him and each other. The cacophony, the intensity and the empathy I felt for Phillips were what caused the tears to flow, and they continued in the aftermath when Phillips was brought aboard the USS Bainbridge and treated for shock – I cried out of relief and exhaustion as much as anything else. I have often considered Tom Hanks a rather bland actor, but no longer, as the anguish, rage, frustration, fear and desperation that he displayed in the film’s final act took me into Phillips’ dire position. When he was being treated for shock after being rescued, repeatedly thanking the naval officers, the sense of relief was palatable and deeply moving. I’m not always one to engage with characters, but on this occasion I felt very engaged indeed, possibly needed treatment for shock myself. Like Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity, Captain Phillips left me shaken and stirred, and also moved. I would not have expected a Paul Greengrass film to make me cry, so it was a very rewarding cinema experience. I tend to credit directors for making a film work, and Greengrass is great for delivering visceral, intense work, but hats off to all involved, especially Hanks for performing the most heartbreaking anguish I have seen in a long time.

Captain Phillips trailer launch - video

Top Ten Directors – Part One

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly (ha ha), you may have noticed a pattern emerging: I am an auteurist. I believe in the theory that you can interpret films, and credit their strengths and weaknesses, to the individual(s) credited as ‘director’. It is a highly problematic critical approach, as it sidelines other creative personal such as producers, writers, actors, editors, cinematographers, set designers, and the army of personnel responsible for putting a film together. Industrially, it doesn’t really work. Critically, it provides a useful reading strategy for linking different films together, and even a cursory examination of the films directed by [insert name here] are likely to reveal similarities.

To this end, I’ll be writing a series of posts that discuss my ten favourite directors, and particular films of theirs. I won’t necessarily describe their ‘best’ films, because neither I, nor anyone, is qualified to say what is or is not better than others (although that doesn’t tend to stop people). I will describe my personal favourites of their oeuvre, and also what I think are the best introductions to their work. By introduction, I mean that if you wanted to show someone, perhaps with very limited exposure to cinema, a film that best expressed the work of this particular filmmaker, what would it be?

Spielberg

 

As a starter, I discuss possibly the most accomplished filmmaker there has ever been – Steven Spielberg. I know, I know, the epitome of mainstream Hollywood, very middle-of-the-road, safe, conservative, blockbuster, lowest-common denominator, etc., etc. I disagree, to an extent. Spielberg has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to deliver emotionally and intellectually engaging cinema across a range of genres, working with different writers and actors, always delivering distinctive films within the parameters of commercial Hollywood production. Spielberg is a master manipulator, which is a loaded and problematic term, but need not be seen as negative. Cinema is intrinsically manipulative, and the most effective filmmakers are those who are most skilled at manipulating their viewers. Spielberg is not only a master at this, but open and unashamed about it. If you don’t want to be manipulated, don’t go to the cinema.

Examples of Spielberg’s powers of manipulation pepper his films. The concealment of the shark in Jaws, represented by underwater POV shots, the scream of victims and the eternally ominous score, create a sense of malevolence. The approach of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, such as the concentric ripples in cups of water and the steady stalking of the velociraptors, create nerve-shredding suspense. The precise balance over how much to show in Schindler’s List, some scenes capturing the sheer brutality of the Nazis with unflinching starkness, while others cut away but leave the viewer in no doubt about what took place. The steady passage through the eponymous Terminal, as our protagonist learns of the political shifts in his country on various TVs, literally chasing the changing channels for more information, draws the viewer into his anguish. And, of course, the carefully developed relationship between a little boy and a walking turd from outer space, which has been drawing tears out of viewers for thirty years and is likely to continue. While young Henry Thomas can certainly claim some credit, Spielberg’s careful timing and focus on the details of this relationship give E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial its glowing heart. The film charms and moves in equal measure, such as when Eliot is taken away from the dying E.T. who reaches out and calls to him with heart-wrenching anguish.

ET

E.T. is the best introduction to Spielberg’s oeuvre. It captures the sentiment and emotion, the pain and heartbreak, the humour and humanity of his cinema. It demonstrates Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to capture exquisite moments on camera and assemble them into compelling and dramatic wholes. But I’m a more bloodthirsty individual so it isn’t my favourite. No, I’m not referring to the bloody hell of warfare in Saving Private Ryan or the incredible cruelty of Schindler’s List, nor even the body-chomping of Jaws or the human puree of War of the Worlds. My favourite Spielberg film is Munich.

Munich

Munich contains a great deal and suggests so much more. As a thriller, it is incredibly gripping and psychologically disturbing, partly because Spielberg can deliver suspenseful sequences as good as anyone, and also because it shows the banality and horror of intimate murder. The Israeli athletes are attacked with discordant, bloody clumsiness. An unarmed, naked woman is shot in cold blood and dies slowly and painfully. An attack on a Palestinian safe house by Mossad forces veers between vaguely comical identification and merciless execution. It is an unflinching look at death and killing that pulls no punches, making it more compelling and shocking, in my view, than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

Politically, Munich has been described as Zionist and as an overly sympathetic view of Palestinian terrorism, but neither of these accusations are fair. Munich presents an extremely balanced view of the conflict, for some viewers, so balanced that the drama is undermined. Perhaps taking a more definite stance might have delivered something more forceful. But I think the balance is key to the drama, because seeing the perspective of the Mossad agents and, in one bravura exchange between Avner (Eric Bana) and Ali (Omar Metwally), that of Palestinians, adds to the film’s impact. We see how the perspectives affect the people on the frontlines of this never-ending escalation of violence, a point underlined in the film’s final, chilling image of the World Trade Center, emphasising the escalation and wide-ranging impact of this conflict.

The film also works as an investigation into the philosophy of revenge. Is revenge justifiable, in any sense? How far do notions of humanity extend when they conflict with political expediency? The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), expresses an extremely problematic position when she says ‘Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values’. These ‘compromises’ also operate on an individual basis, as the Mossad agents question the validity of what they do and the impact of their mission takes its toll. It takes a toll on the viewer as well, as the film’s unflinching focus on the ugliness of the mission, combined with a sense of hopelessness and a lack of triumph (for all the protestations of ‘celebrating’ from Steve [Daniel Craig]), can leave one drained and exhausted by the time the credits roll.

I would describe my experience of seeing Munich for the first time as traumatising, and on repeat viewings, it remains a very powerful and unsettling watch. One of Spielberg’s least appreciated films, but my favourite and one of his best.

Avner