The Oscars will be presented on Sunday night. So I wanted to take a moment, now that I’ve finally managed to cram in watching the last of the Best Picture nominations, to give my reactions to this year’s selection of films in the Best Picture category. I’ll be reviewing the films in the order that they appear on the Oscar ballot PDF that you can download from Oscars.com, which in this case is alphabetical.
I will not be reviewing all of the films in as much detail as I might like (though with a few I can’t seem to help myself), but then I don’t want this blog entry to be exceptionally long. It will be long enough as is. So I’m hitting the major points of each film and providing my subjective take on whether each film might deserve an Oscar (or even deserves the nomination it got in the first place).
Now, one word of caution: If you have not seen some or any of these films, you may encounter some spoilers below. You may want to skip over films you haven’t seen yet if you have your heart set of seeing them. Or you can skim through to see what rating I give each movie (at the end of each review) and read my conclusion which has no spoilers.
Director David O. Russell offers up another film with interesting characters in complicated relationships. Very loosely based on actual events, Russell dives into the world of con-man Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale. Irving is a fascinating character, though at first I am unsure he’s all that likable. But then, characters don’t need to be likable to be intriguing. But slowly, Irving is changing. And this is ultimately what won me over to the film. Some of the acting feels a bit stiff in places, as if the these are bit more of caricatures of certain ideas in Russell’s mind than fully fleshed out and three-dimensional characters. But slowly, the film overcomes this to a great degree, managing to offer us Irving’s transformation from a man who has only used people to his own ends to someone who, in spite of himself, discovers he’s found a true friend. Of course, he discovers this only as his betrayal of their friendship comes crashing down on them.
The filmmaking is elegant and immersive in its period style. Many scenes were shot in Boston and Worcester, Mass. I even recognized the interior of the Fairmont in Copley Plaza in Boston (where I’ve done some shooting myself). The locations and wardrobe add to the aesthetic effectively. Yet, the film feels less moving and a bit more like a curiosity to me. I often felt a distance from the characters and a sense of detachment form their problems, voyeuristically observing for the sake of curiosity. And yet the film has many merits in its own right. There are genuine moments of laughter and genuine moments of emotional connection to the characters. And in this sense, the film is good. But the moments feel a bit fleeting to me to ultimately deserve winning Best Picture.
My rating 8/10.
Director Paul Greengrass again dramatizes of a very real and very recent event in this film much as he did with United 93. In classic Greengrass fashion, he drops us into the middle of the mess with his hand-held cameras and frantic action. The film is effectively structured, moving forward with increasing speed. Tom Hanks delivers a performance that slowly builds over the course of the film. I must admit that both times I saw this film (I screened it just this month at The River Film Forum) that the very first scene of real dialogue in the car as Phillips and his wife drive to the airport feels stunted and awkward. It feels as if some important bit of exposition needed to be conveyed in this scene (maybe that they have kids and they are concerned about them and the world they are growing up in–but then, what parent isn’t?), but the scene feels forced and flat, even with veteran actors like Hanks and Catherine Keener. I fault the script for this. The dialogue was on the nose and unnatural. It might not seem like a big deal to some, but I have to admit that both times I watched the film, it started the experience off on the wrong note for me.
But in the end, the film is so compelling and engaging, that this early shaky start is forgotten. Captain Phillips, to my mind, plays out like a calculated observation of a specific and tragic event that has ties to much larger and deeper issues. Hanks manages to play a very complex Phillips who at first sight might strike some as rather heroic. But upon further reflection, I see many selfish and dangerous choices made by Phillips throughout the ordeal. Contrary to what some have expressed about the film, I feel a fair perspective on the Somali pirates is presented. Both times I saw the film I felt a deep ache in my heart for the pirates. While I do no agree or remotely condone their choices, I find myself understanding how these men have reached a point of sincere desperation that drives them to such desperate and violent measures. In the end, I feel the most important line in the movie comes in the claustrophobic second half of the film when Muse, leader of the pirates played by Barkhad Abdi, and Phillips have a conversation about what has led Muse to this life of piracy. Muse, a former fisherman, had his livelihood stolen when commercial fishing ships over fished his native waters. He’s now simply fishing the same waters for the only commodity available, it would seem: Freight ships that can be held for ransom. Phillips presses him about who gets all the ransom money. Muse responds that they have bosses (specifically the Somali war-lord safely back on land sending out young men to do all the dirty work). Phillips replies with “We all have bosses.”
Why is this line so important? I believe it hints strongly at Greengrass’ veiled criticism of capitalism that is capable of leading to these situations. Phillips at one point claims his ship has food that’s going to nations like Somalia. Muse doesn’t bat an eye at this, and frankly neither should the audience. This is a bold-faced lie (part of Phillips’ complexity as a character). In the end, “We all have bosses” reminds us that Phillips has made the choices he’s made to protect the cargo of this ship so that his bosses will remain happy with him. Turn a ship over to pirates to do with as they please and risk losing what has to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars of products being shipped to our consumer-driven first world societies, and Phillips will never captain another ship again. “We all have bosses” summarizes the messy nature of global politics that leads to desperate confrontations like this. While some feel the film might play up the heroic nature of the military response that ultimately saves Phillips, there’s a comical quality to watching three large American ships chase down one little escape boat. Embedded in the film are hits of a more critical view of all of this, including directives given to military leaders to take care of this situation as it’s become big news back home.
Initially, Captain Phillips never struck me as a Best Picture nomination waiting to happen. Upon further reflection, I think it deserves the nomination. And ultimately, Hanks delivers one of the most haunting performance of sheer and complete shock at the end of the film. If this was truly a celebration of military might, credits would roll much sooner. Instead, we linger on a very shaken man covered in blood as he’s given medical attention. And that is the power of Captain Phillips. Regardless of our political perspectives on all of this, we can all appreciate that this is a tragic and scarring situation with no easy answers that ultimately has a devastating power on the lives of the people it touches, regardless of their nationality.
My rating: 9/10
Director Jean-Marc Vallée bring to life a rather difficult true story. Ron Woodroof, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a rodeo show low life of sorts with gambling debts and a promiscuous libido that ultimately shatters his life when he’s diagnosed with HIV. Dallas Buyer’s Club chronicles his transformation as he seeks to illegally acquire experimental drugs to combat the disease. His new life brings him into contact with people society has rejected, like Rayon, played by Jared Leto, a transvestite and fellow HIV patient. Ron at first wants nothing to do with anyone remotely like Rayon. But a friendship grows between the two as Ron confronts his own status as an outcast in 1980s Dallas since his HIV-positive diagnosis.
The transformation Woodroof experience happens in stages and forever changes him for the better. Where he first sought only to find help for himself, he eventually begins to find a means to get drugs into the hands of other HIV patients. At first this is done for profit, but you can feel his perspective change over the course of the film as he eventually begins selling off his own assets to ensure that more people get the drugs they need. He starts off as a homophobe, but finds real friendship in Rayon. What begins as a selfish quest to combat his own HIV ends up as a fight against a system that did not seem to care for real people living with HIV and AIDS in any real sense.
With this film, McConaughey has given us a great another performance, following his role in Mud. Dallas Buyer’s Club builds off of a well crafted script and dares to look in on the lives of those who maybe have not made the wisest choices (as Woodroof clearly did not leading to his contracting HIV), but offers us an experience of empathy and transformation.
My rating 8/10
Easily one of the most anticipated films of 2013, Gravity is a cinematic tsunami. Director Alfonso Cuarón completely envelops us in a visceral experience. At it’s core, Gravity is an action movie. We are not given any great amount of back story. But then, back story and character development are not the focus of the film, nor are they exactly necessary to accomplish what Gravity sets out to provide us with. Yet, the thrilling story of survival combines not just amazing achievements in digital filmmaking and VFX to create an immersive and harrowing experience of space but also offers just enough insight into who astronaut Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, is to get us to desperately care about what happens to her. Slowly, as rare moments of calm allow it, we learn about Stone’s past and her lingering pain at the loss of her daughter. Bullock breathes such authenticity into these mere hints of her character’s past that we have no problem believing there is so much more to Ryan Stone which under different circumstances we could learn about. But right now, we need to get home! Bullock gets us to feel so deeply for Stone that at points, it’s hard to breathe as we watch her struggle to do what she must to survive.
Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki who shot Children of Men for Cuarón as well as The New World, The Tree of Life, and To the Wonder for Terrence Malick as well as the newest untitled Malick film currently in post-produciton, Gravity is a very different approach to the more traditional though no less breath-taking cinematography Lubezki is accustomed to. The film is nominated for Best Cinematography as well, and many debates will likely range about what the award even means anymore should the film win. This debate began with Avatar, continued with Life of Pi, and is likely to continue with Gravity, yet another visually stunning film that was mostly shot on a sounds stage.
Nonetheless, Gravity is a deserving film of a best picture nomination. It embraces the simplicity of its story and does not pretend to be anything else. It is designed from start to finish to be a truly emotive and immersive experience. The film is not just visually stunning, but also offers probably the very best sound design I’ve heard is years. In the end, Gravity taps into the primal nature of storytelling. As some neuroscientist argue, the reasons our brains are so tuned into stories is that our brain’s primary function is to keep us alive. In the quest for survival we latch onto stories as a means to vicariously experience harrowing scenarios so we can learn how to potentially survive such a scenario if we ever find ourselves in a similar situation (see Wired for Story). In this sense, Gravity is primal storytelling for the 21st century. It’s definitely one of the highlights of my year in film viewing.
My rating 9/10
Written and directed by Spike Jonze, Her dares to look down the road at our reliance on and our relationship to technology. In an increasingly fragmented and individualistic society where so much of our communication happens through smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, and other oddly personally-impersonal methods, Her runs out ahead of us and asks us to consider where we are blinding headed while we walk and text. What if eventually my smart phone or iPad or computer are no longer merely the means by which I casually converse with my friends, some of whom live hundreds of miles away, but rather I become invested in relating and communicating with my devices themselves? Sounds silly, right? Well, maybe … until Scarlett Johansson’s voice and a full blown personality emanates from my smart phone or computer (Are you talking to me? Well … hi there.).
Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has a job as writer of custom personalized “hand-written” (though they’re definitely just printed) notes people hire his company to create so they can send to other people. Right away we’re dropped into this personally-impersonal reality where when someone wants to really speak their heart to a person they love, they hire a professional to do it for them. It would sound laughable if it wasn’t so believable. We’re almost there right now.
From there, we are introduced to OS1, the new artificially intelligent operating system that works across platforms so it can integrate your experience of your desktop and your mobile device. As Theodore, a lonely man whose ex-wife is waiting for him to sign divorce papers any day now, installs his new operating systems, he is asked to make certain choices. He choses a female voice for his OS1 (and in comes Johansson’s voice). When he asks her what her name is, she names herself Samantha. And from there, Samantha grows in depth of personality at an incredible rate. It isn’t long before Theodore and Sam are friends, laughing and talking through out the day and night. And slowly, this friendship grows into more.
To some, it can seem silly to think of a man falling in love with a disembodied artificially intelligent operating system. To other this sounds ludicrous. And to others still this may seem like an excuse to exploit ideas about sexuality. Her is none of these things. It dares to stare into the dark and secret corners of our evolving ideas about relationships, love, and sexuality in an increasingly technology-dependent society where how we relate is fundamentally changing what relationships are. Her isn’t shy about such things, but it never exploits either. In fact, in an amazingly daring move, Jonze allows the screen to go black for what feels like quite a long time during the first time Theodore and Samantha make love. But is this just artistic abstraction or is Jonze suggesting that as Theodore engages in a sexual relationship with an AI being that he too is in a very key way becoming disembodied himself. I’ll let you work that out.
Her is sci-fi at its finest! It is speculative about our future, but firmly grounded in our present. It is high concept in nature but thoroughly human at its core. It is a cautionary tale, but one that haunts us not because the characters and their world are so distant and removed from us, but because they are so fundamentally just like us. I feel Theodore’s pain and loneliness in every frame of this film. And what’s more, I sincerely empathize with Samantha as she struggles with what it means to gain personhood and be in a relationship with a human being when a fundamental metaphysical divide separates Samantha and Theodore. But then, doesn’t a fundamental metaphysical divide separate us all?
My rating 10/10
Director Alexander Payne consistently makes films with awkwardly and endearingly real characters. He makes an interesting choice in Nebraska in shooting it in black and white (on a digital format, no less). No doubt, this choice limits the general audience of the film since too many of the movie-going crowd seem to have an aversion to anything monochromatic (which bums me out). But, damn it if it doesn’t just fit the film!
Nebraska reminds me of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (Lynch’s most “normal” film). Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an old man who believes he’s won a one million dollar prize from a magazine subscription marketing sweepstakes. Much like the main character of The Straight Story, Woody sets out on a long journey by unconventional means. But he sets out of foot, unlike Alvin in The Straight Story who makes his journey on a lawnmower. Woody fails to get very far on foot as he’s constantly interrupted by his son, David, played by Will Forte. David tries his best to convince his father that this sweepstakes win is a sham. Finally giving up on trying to fight this thing, David decides he’s going to spend some time with his father and take him from their home in Montana to Nebraska where the sweepstakes headquarters are located.
This is quirky family drama and road movie wrapped up into a unique package. I highly appreciate Forte playing a much more subdued character than we’re used to seeing, and it shows that he has great range. There are some moments with some of the supporting cast where I found myself surprisingly pulled out of the movie experience and very aware of flat and forced acting. But overall, I found the film engaging, charming, and endearing. To my mind, it is not as strong of a film from Payne as some of his past films like About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants. In fact, I think I might like at least About Schmidt and The Descendants more than I do Nebraska, but that doesn’t make Nebraska a bad film by any stretch of the imagination.
My rating 8/10
Based on real events, Philomena tells the story of disgraced BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan (who was also a co-writer of the script), as he picks up his life after an unfortunate incident that has ushered him out of the BBC. Lost and unsure of what direction to head in, he at first scoffs at the idea of doing anything so common as a “human interest story.” But he reconsiders. And so he meets Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench. Forced by nuns as a girl to hand over her son she bore out of wedlock to be adopted, Philomena has had an aching hole in her heart for nearly fifty years. Interested, but trying to play detached, Sixsmith embarks on the journey to help Philomena find her long lost son. Of course, he does so in order to get a great story, but Sixsmith discovers along the way that this simple Irish woman may have a deeper and richer understanding of life and unconditional love than his Oxford-education mind can wrap his itself around.
In a sense, Philomena might be seen as a “human interest movie” by more cynical filmgoers. But then again, the only thing that really interests me in movies is humanity. For my money, Philomena is sublime virtue (a concept I recently discussed in this blog entry.). I was convinced about 30-minutes into the film that what I was watching was definitely one of the best films I’ve seen in a while, and it did not disappoint–though it did hold many surprises! Director Stephen Frears carefully and deliberately molds a beautiful and moving story. I connect with Sixsmith’s cynicism and attempts to maintain a level of intellectual superiority (I get it, it feels somehow safer to be so detached), and yet Philomena is my role model. With every obstacle, here is a heart that hurts deeply and bleeds openly, but she always finds a way to respond with love. The climax of the film had me stunned. It moved me so instantly from laughter to sincere awe that I could scarcely believe it. Tackling very relevant issues relating to continued tensions between the religious corners of our society and our justified anger at what has been done in the name of Christ by many Christians, Philomena offers up an entertaining and moving meditation on what forgiveness means, even when we’re the only one willing to forgive.
My rating: 10/10
Based on the book Solomon Northrup wrote about his own experiences, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave dramatizes the very real and very dark ordeal Northrup was subjected to. A free black man living in the north, Northrup is duped by people he believes will be business partners and then sold off into an illegal slave trade that lands him in the south. He’s torn from his family and stripped of his humanity. Many will note that 12 Years is not an easy film to watch. That is as it ought to be, I might point out. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northrup, offers us an opportunity to walk for a while in the shoes of a man who has been robbed of life and dignity. And while there are many films that have dealt with the very ugly history of slavery in America, the lasting repercussions from that chapter of our nation’s history still flow through our society today. I’m not sure we’ll ever be done dealing with this reality. Especially as we need reminders that this reality rests not only in our past but also in our preset as human trafficking, just what we call slavery today, is very real and happening in the dark corners our own towns and cities.
Taking notes from Terrence Malick, McQueens uses everything at his disposal to put us in the mind and skin of Northrup. 12 Years might be a completely different movie than Gravity, but both films tapped right into my instinct for survival and longing to return home. Of course, in both stories, you may make it home … but you’re never the same. That is definitely the case for Northrup. More than just twelve years of his life have been taking from him. But the real power of Northrup’s story is that it gives us a real glimpse into the stories of many other people who never returned home, for whom their entire earthly existence was under the oppressive weight of tyranny and hatred. Some movies profoundly move me. Others break me. As a new father looking out into the world with new eyes and wondering how to teach my daughter to fight hate with love, I can’t help but watch 12 Years and feel just how close we still are to this chapter of our history. Our attention spans may be short these days, but next year we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment which ended legal slavery in America. For many African-Americans living today, they are only a generation or two removed from slavery. In the grand scheme of things, this happened just yesterday!
As I said, some films move me, others break me. 12 Years a Slave broke me. That is as it ought to be.
My rating 10/10
I am a long-time Martin Scorsese fan. So it was with great anticipation that I watched The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is expertly made, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is out of this world. Jonah Hill’s performance is amazing. Make no mistake about it, in a very real sense, Wolf is a good movie. But in another (and I suspect more meaningful) sense, it most definitely is not. This Scorsese fan is profoundly disappointed with Wolf.
I believe Scorsese intended to make make a cautionary tale. But Scorsese is so adept at making engaging and visceral drama on screen that I could not escape the feeling that inadvertently all of the corruption, sex, and drugs seemed rather … well … cool. I believe to an extent that was the point. These things do seem cool at first. But there is a price to pay. And so I believe that the film sets out to be a cautionary tale, but the end result falls so completely flat to me that I just cannot buy it. Jordan Belfort, played by DiCaprio, journeys the corrupt world of Wall Street and rises to prominence. But eventually, investigations begin. And while FBI Agent Patrick Denham, played by Kyle Chandler, seems likable enough, he is ultimately flat and uninteresting as he’s given minimal development and screen time. Wolf is singularly focused on Belfort and seems confused about weather he’s a villain or a hero.
What ultimately falls short for me about Wolf is that Belfort’s character arc seems flat. I don’t feel he changes at all in the end. There are only two ways Wolf could have been a true cautionary tale: First, Belfort could have sincerely learned his lesson and set out to make restitutions. But all we see from Belfort is that he’s sincerely sorry that he got caught. Restitutions? Forget about! Second, Belfort could have faced a tragic end ranging from life in prison to (borrowing from Shakespeare or the horror genre here) a grisly death directly resulting from his ill choices (strictly within the world of fiction). But the ultimate problem seems to me that the real Jordan Belfort on whom this movie is based (and who wrote the book the film is adapted from) faced no such end and learned no such lesson. I question the wisdom of making a film based on such source material and find myself in the camp of the detractors from this movie who claim it does more to glorify the corruption of Wall Street than to comment on it.
Clocking in at nearly three hours long and filled with scenes likely worthy of an NC-17 rating (okay, okay, we get it, Wall Street is a sex-crazed land of debauchery, can we please just get back to the story?), this is one Scorsese film I won’t be revisiting. Not only is this my least favorite Best Picture nomination, I frankly wish it wasn’t nominated at all! Sorry, Scorsese. I would have much more appreciated a nomination for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
Dear Scorsese, I’m still a fan of your. I just think you missed the mark on this one. But I really look forward to seeing Silence, as I’m a huge fan of that novel. Now there’s source material for a good movie!
My rating 5/5
So there you have it. Those are my thoughts on the Best Picture nominations. But what should win? What will win? I suspect that 12 Years a Slave will take home the Oscar. It is possible that McQueen will also take home the Oscar for Best Director, though I think there’s a chance that could end up in the hands of Cuarón for Gravity. I’m bummed Spike Jonze did not get a Best Director nomination for his amazing work on Her. But what would I like to see win the Best Picture Oscar? While it’s a very close call for me between the three films I gave full marks to, my favorite film of 2013 is Her. I feel it is so expertly done and so compelling of a story that comes at such a crucial moment in our technological development as a society that it is an acutely apropos film.
So to close things off, here are the Best Picture nominations in the order of my most liked (note that the top three are a very close call for me) to least liked:
What are your thoughts? What was your favorite film from the nominations? How about your least favorite? Feel free to comment below. And thanks for reading.
Again this year I was fortunate enough to be able to check out in a theater the live action short films nominated for an Academy Award. If this is even remotely an option where you are, I highly recommend it. It is genuinely encouraging to see the short films becoming more widely available both through this kind of theatrical release as well as being made available on iTunes and now Amazon. So if you’re curious about this category, or possibly just need a leg up on that Oscar pool at work, for just a few bucks you can actually get all the movies and see them for yourself.
To get the movies on iTunes click here. It appears they will be released on February 25th. I believe they will also be available on Amazon, but no link has been provided yet.
I want to briefly run through short films and offer up my reactions. This is a very diverse group of short films. There are some interesting trends to note in these five short films. Last year, the American short film, “Curfew,” took home the Oscar. This year, none of the nominations are American. So this category may feel a little like a second Best Foreign Film award, but the reality of the matter is that the Academy has never made a distinction between home-grown shorts and those from overseas. With that in mind, this is an incredibly competitive category. In fact, I think it is possibly more difficult to gain a nomination for Best Live Action Short Film in than even Best Picture since there is no separation of American and foreign shorts and only five films get nominated. I’ll review them in the order that they show up here on the Oscar ballot PDF that you can download from Oscars.com.
That Wasn’t Me (Spain)
Written and directed by Esteban Crespo, “That Wasn’t Me” is an intense short film that stars off with a bit of levity, but quickly dives into the very dark world of the use of children as soldiers in the continuing conflicts in Africa. This is easily the darkest of the short films nominated this year. In fact, it unleashes a brutal onslaught of violence that could scarcely be sustained over the course of a feature film. But here Crespo shows he understands the strengths of a short film. He hits us hard–and I mean incredibly hard!–with the manipulation and desensitization to killing and rape young boys are subjected to in order to forcibly mold them into mere drones with guns ready to take orders. It’s heartbreaking.
“That Wasn’t Me” is a film about ugly grace. Following the story of one former child soldier, Kaney, and the woman who rescued him, Paula, this is a story of redemption. But this redemption is ugly and painful. Paula has every reason to hate the boy, in fact to desire to seem him dead. “That Wasn’t Me” dares to travel into a very difficult reality when it comes to rescuing children from such a horrible existence. Sometimes such well-meaning work can require more from us than we’d ever want to give. Out this year’s nominations for live action shorts, this is definitely the hardest film to watch. It is also possibly the most important film to watch–especially for those of us with a vested interest in social justice and seeking to see an end of the use of child soldiers.
My rating: 9/10.
Just Before Losing Everything (France)
“Just Before Losing Everything” written and directed by Xavier Legrand, tells the story of a woman and her children as they seek to escape a domestic situation that has gotten out of control. Starting off slow (possibly just a bit too slow), this film plods to a frantic boil. As more questions are raised, the stakes become higher. By the mid point of this short, the characters and the action have become so tense and rapid that I was completely transfixed. The excellent cinematography of Nathaniel Durand moves with the characters staying close and maintaining a subjective perspective. We only know what the characters know as the danger increases. Taking notes from films like Children of Men, Legrand and Durand move their camera with fluidity and heighten the tension by refusing to cut to new shots quickly, instead forcing us to remain in the skin of the main character as she is forced to play it cool while fleeing for her life. This is masterful filmmaking execution coupled with compelling writing and performances.
My rating: 9/10
“Helium” written by Anders Walter and Christian Gamst Miller-Harris and directed by Walters, tells the moving story of a hospital janitor who develops a friendship with a terminally ill young boy. The boy, Alfred, is fascinated by hot air balloons and blimps. Enzo, the janitor, takes note of this since his brother whom he lost loved balloons too. Enzo may be working as a janitor, but we quickly learn he’s a storyteller at heart. When Alfred asks him about heaven, saying that everyone keeps telling him he’s going to heaven, Enzo notes that the boy seems skeptical and afraid. Enzo sets out to tell Alfred a beautiful and whimsical story about a place in the sky called Helium. This is Enzo’s take on heaven and it taps right into the boy’s love of balloons. We enter this imagined reality crafted by beautiful VFX shots of floating houses built on chucks of earth suspended in the sky by large balloons. Enzo struggles to finish telling Alfred the story of Helium and how to get to Helium as the boy’s condition worsens. “Helium” is the perfect mix of pain and whimsy and reminds us that it’s never too tale to reach out to someone and bring them comfort and hope.
My rating: 10/10
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? (Finland)
When it comes to disciplined storytelling and effective short filmmaking, “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” is probably the most economical and well executed of the short films. It is also the shortest of the film at seven minutes. There is not a single frame wasted in this film! I was sucked right into the story and by the end of the film I was laughing uncontrollably and wiping tears from my eyes. “Do I Have” is proof that incredibly simple concepts can lead to some of the most enjoyable short films.
The Voorman Problem (UK)
“The Voorman Problem” written by Baldwin Li and Mark Gill, based on the novel by David Mitchell, and directed by Gill, follows the story of Doctor Williams, played by Martin Freeman (The Office UK and The Hobbit Trilogy), as he arrives at a prison to work with a particularly disturbed inmate. We gather from the dialogue between the warden and the doctor that the world is not as it used to be. Trapped with few resources, the warden needs Williams’ help in quelling a rather unique problem. You see, one of his inmates, by the name for Voorman, believes he is God. In fact, he has convinced many of the other inmates of this and has developed quite a devoted following. Williams must sit down and try to understand and hopefully help Voorman let go of this psychosis.
“The Voorman Problem” has a twisted sense of humor and disciplined execution. We’re dropped in to this story at the right time and we leave at the right time. It is the second shortest film of the bunch at thirteen minutes and manages to employ excellent locations and performances to tell its bazar though highly enjoyable story.
My rating 8/10
Closing Thoughts and Predictions:
My ratings above are ultimately my own subjective reaction to each of these films in terms of the craft, storytelling, and substance. Each are exceedingly well made and enjoyable films on their own right. And in this sense, as I hinted above, just the fact that each has garnered an Oscar nomination is an extraordinary accomplishment. But one of these films is going to win. I have a hard time making a specific prediction as to which one will for sure win. But if I had to guess, I suspect “That Wasn’t Me” is the most likely to take home the Oscar. And this sits well with me as I do greatly appreciate this film, though it is hard to watch. I also find the importance of a continued awareness of the realities many boys face in war-torn countries as they are forced into a life of killing in order to survive a very worthy reason for this film to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.
As a maker of short films myself, I have to admit that I so profoundly appreciate the storytelling, the brevity, the wit of “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” that it stands out to me as possibly my very favorite of all of these films. It is simplicity in motion. There’s no time for exposition, but then we don’t need exposition. It taps into a very universal feeling of panic for those times when we are just so behind the eight ball no matter what we do. As a believer that part of the challenge of short films is to present as immersive of an experience in as short of a time frame as possible, “Do I Have” nails these things perfectly and the filmmakers involved should be seriously congratulated if not presented with an Oscar. But who will win for sure? We’ll find out on Sunday, March 2nd.
Well, those are my thoughts. Have you seen these films? What do you think?
I’ve been exploring this idea that there are three forces at work within filmmakers. These three forces are: financial success, artistic greatness, and communicating substance. It seems to me that these forces are sometimes complimentary, at other times at extreme odds. I suspect that at any given moment, a filmmaker is most likely to only find two of these forces truly managing to function congruently within herself, while one of the others is at at odds with the first two or simply tossed aside completely. And while it is tempting to make an argument that some balance can found between these three forces, I suspect such a balance is in fact purely theoretical. Why? Because a perfect balance of all three forces is likely to bound deliver a dull and forgettable finished work. In all likelihood, such a film would end up being not quite entertaining enough to be financially successful, far too self-conscious to be truly be artistically bold, and far too safe and mundane to communicate anything of real meaningful substance. In essence: mediocre on all fronts (at least 50% of the thousands of movies that come out in a year, I theorize, though I don’t know for a fact as my time is far too precious to me).
Instead, I suspect that it is in fact only by the daring efforts of filmmakers to take a risk at allowing one of these three forces to take the lead that lasting films (what I’ve been trying to get at in these blog posts) are made. But this is not a reckless choice to be made, but rather a guiding idea that allows for calculated decisions that ebb and flow between these forces during the making of a film (I will hire this cinematographer to help ensure the proper aesthetic is achieved, I will hire this well-known actress to help ensure marketability, I will insist this scene not be altered as it is the very soul of the story I am trying to tell). But these choices can only be made with a larger objective in mind. For some it might simply be to make the best film they can make so that it will be as financially successful as possible. For others it might be to make the best film they can make to ensure that as many people as possible connect with the story being told. For others still it might be making the best film possible in order to push the artistic boundaries of what cinema is. But I suspect that there can only be one guiding force that is ultimately in charge, even if the other two forces are given serious consideration through the creative process.
Now in my last entry, I wondered if there might be similar forces at work within the audience. After some time to reflect, I’d like to take a stab at answering that question. There well may be at least two forces at work within any moviegoer: the quests for entertainment value and sublime virtue. Let me unpack these two ideas a little.
Entertainment value seems fairly straight forward. Most of us gage our level of interest in watching a particular movie or TV show based on an instinctive reaction to how entertaining we believe a given show or movie will be. In a sense, we are being drawn by the perception that this particular movie is going to have a high entertainment value. It will be two hours of my life that I will enjoy. I hope to be surprised, shocked, thrilled, and moved by what I experience. Thus, I believe that watching the movie will be worth those two hours of my life and the several dollars I might be paying if I’m watching it at a movie theater. This force in the audience in many ways is profoundly connected to the drive for financial success in filmmakers. These two forces match up well. Possibly too well.
But what about sublime virtue? In discussing this idea with my friend, Matt Eaton (who is a theologian and philosopher), I described to him the concept I was wrestling with, and he presented me with the notion that this sounds like sublime virtue. But what is sublime virtue? This seems to me to be connected to the other two forces at work within filmmakers (artistic excellence and communicating something of worth). I believe for audience members these two idea are blended into what can best be described as experiencing something that transcends the commercial nature of cinema and offers up something that is stirring and beautiful. In a real sense, these tend to be films that are greater than the sum of their parts and invite us to come back and experience them again not because they are the easiest films to watch, but because they offer a sort of aesthetic and spiritual nourishment. They possess sublime virtue.
Now, I believe these two forces do not need to be at odds in all cases. The choice does not (and indeed often is not) between being entertained but lacking sublime virtue or being bored but watching something “artsy” (in fact, some of the most “astsy” films out there are also some of the most lacking in sublime virtue–just sayin’). I believe these values both can exist within a single movie.
I also believe that most of the time they do not exist within a single movie. Let’s just face it, in an industry focused mostly on making money, most of the products churned out are desperately lacking in sublime virtue (some, in any kind of virtue at all, if I’m being quite blunt). Much like eating ice cream is an activity I absolutely love, watching a purely entertaining film is a fine thing in-and-of itself. But serious problems develop when I only eat ice cream and nothing else and only watch movies driven by simple lowest common denominator entreatment and diversion. So a balance has to be found here. I need nourishment in my diet as well as my experience of cinema.
As I’ve indicated numerous times now, the film industry is driven by dollars. This means that we as audience members have power. Our purchase of a movie ticket or Bluray, or choice to stream a particular title on Netflix or Hulu are in fact a vote for what we value as audience members. In fact, Netflix has made it clear in this recent article on Huffpost TV that every choice you make when streaming shows and movies on Netflix gives them specific insight into your tastes and preferences so they can suggest to you more shows and movies you are likely to watch and enjoy. So, our choices matter! And we should feel empowered!
But this is where it gets a little tricky. You see, I think most of us are very aware and even comfortable with the notion that when we consider whether or not to watch a particular movie, we mostly chose based on entertainment value alone. Occasionally we are drawn to movies we know are likely to have sublime virtue (“I really want to see that movie; I hear it’s a really powerful story”). So we do have a desire for it. But I fear that far too often our desire for sublime virtue has been so neglected (starved) in favor of constant entertainment that we’re a little like the soda addict who on rare occasions decides a glass of water sounds more appealing.
What ultimately is the connection between entreatment and sublime virtue? Well, here’s the thing: I don’t think they are separate when it comes right down to it. Movies that have sublime virtue are also some of the most engaging and entertaining films I’ve seen (and some of the most anti-entertainment films out there are also some of the most lacking in sublime virtue).
Let’s go back to our soda addict mentioned above. Both water and soda are beverages. Both can be consumed. Both are capable of hydrating. One is just better at it than the other. But the soda is more flavorful with all its sugar. And in moderation, we can enjoy soda. But serious problems develop when our sole source of hydration is soda. In similar ways, if we approach movies with a similar fixation of sugary (glitzy and tantalizing) entertainment only, we risk becoming entertainment addicts or even cinematic diabetics or sorts. Slowly we starve that part of our minds and souls that long to examine life and wrestle with difficult ideas and empathize with people very different from us. Once those parts of me are dead and rotting, it won’t be just my cinematic literacy that will suffer. I sincerely believe that I will be at my core a more selfish and disconnected person, constantly focused on what entertains me without requiring any thoughtful engagement on my part in return.
Many times I do hear people express that they don’t want to watch a movie that will make them think. Now, it’s one thing to express this after a very long and challenging week. I do this too. We all need leisure and rest. There is nothing wrong with this, just like there is nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying a soda. The trouble is when I constantly hear a person express they have no desire to ever watch anything that might require a bit more cognitive investment. But much like exorcising is initially tough but becomes incredibly rewarding, I think engaging in the a concerted effort to watch thoughtful and challenging films (and to read such books, see such plays, listen to such music, experience such art, converse with such people, and so forth) is incredibly rewarding and enriching to our lives. In fact, it’s incredibly entertaining! The emotional catharsis connected with engaging really meaningful stories is a thrill all its own!
I close with this thought: I own quite a few movies. It’s nice to have certain movies readily on standby for those occasions when I just feel a need to revisit a specific story (and this happens to me regularly). But I noticed something about my collection of movies. A few years ago I found myself standing in an ancient thing called a Blockbuster (a pre-Netflix brick-and-mortar video distribution outlet with lots of rules and lots of fees and really crappy selection–to quote Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park, “Eh, no wonder you’re extinct.”) and I found they had several DVDs on sale. I picked out a few titles I definitely wanted to own. But then I found myself holding a copy of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I admit, it was a very entertaining when I first saw it. I decided I’d go ahead and buy that movie too because, you know, I thought it would be nice to have something that’s just fun to toss in some times. In the years since then, I believe my copy of Pirates of the Caribbean has sat on my self unused. Why? Because as it turns out, I can always find something I have not seen before to be merely entertained by. The stories I come back to again and again are the ones that stir something deeper within me. They are the ones that touch on sublime virtue.
I previously discussed the idea of lasting cinema, movies that seem to stick around and continue to be relevant, movies that both scholars and general cinema aficionados return to again and again. As I indicated previously, I believe that story is ultimately what determines what makes a lasting film. Certainly there are other factors that make films interesting to us even decades later. No one can deny the profound effect Citizen Kane had on cinematography both then and now. Yet, arguably, Citizen Kane remains relevant historically because of how the innovations in lenses and shooting technique that Orson Welles utilized allowed him to tell hiss story and what effect that has had on cinematic storytelling ever since. Of course, much debate remains among film critics and historians as to the ultimate status of Citizen Kane as supposedly the greatest film ever made. I’m always reminded of Roger Ebert’s closing comments on the commentary he did for the 2-Disk Special Edition DVD of Casablanca: “I’m Roger Ebert, and when anyone asks me what the greatest film ever made is, I say ‘Citizen Kane.‘ But when people ask me what my favorite movie is, I say, ‘Casablanca.‘”
Now why did Ebert feel this way about these two classic movies? Earlier in the same commentary, Ebert points out that the camera movement, shot choices, and other such techniques in Casablanca are in fact quite advanced for their time and excellently executed. But most of the time, people don’t talk about the amazing camera work in Casablanca, where as they might be more inclined to do so about Citizen Kane. Ebert points out that the camera work in Casablanca is so fundamentally entangled in the storytelling and utilized in such a way to really enhance the storytelling, that the fact that people forget to praise it is the greatest praise possible. It exists to tell the story. In fact, the camera work does its job so well, we forget about it and get lost in the story itself. And in this sense, Ebert suspects Casablanca may be a superior film to Citizen Kane for this very reason. For my money, I think it is.
But all the same, Citizen Kane remains a profoundly important film. It’s technique was very important. But is innovative technique enough to solidify a film into the elusive and shifting canon of cinema’s lasting movies? I don’t think so. In fact, while the technology and innovations involved in creating The Matrix and Avatar are astounding (both films I enjoy in their own right), I’m not convinced these are films that will be talked about at length in thirty, forty, or fifty years.
Why do I think this? Again, this comes back to this idea of the three battling forces that likely exists in some fashion within every filmmaker: artistic excellence, commercial success, and the desire to communicate something of worth and substance. The Matrix, for all of its fascinating use of Neo as both a Christ figure and a Buddha figure in the film, and it’s well crafted three act structure, is a film that ultimately strikes me as mostly about commercial success. The Wachowskis don’t seem to have had a specific goal in communicating a specific ideology through The Matrix as much as utilizing both western and eastern religious iconography to inspire audiences to connect with themes and characters of the film with the goal of selling tickets. And while I do believe the film presents a fascinating conversation about Jesus and Buddha (I wrote a paper in college on these two views of The Matrix, in fact), the film is not ultimately about this. In fact, the film doesn’t even manage to remain entirely consistent to these religious metaphors they’ve set up (Neo, the Christ figure, walks about killing an awful lot of people he’s supposedly trying to save, contrary to the Jesus found in the Gospels, just as one example). I could also talk at length about how Avatar sticks to tried and true Hollywood staple storytelling. The argument there is that the very familiar storyline allowed audiences to simple sink into the world and soak in the masterfully done 3D cinematography and VFX. And I agree with that argument whole-heartedly. Of course, that also lands us at the conclusion that Avatar was probably mostly about artistic excellence and technological innovation. And for this reason, I think its contribution may be significant in some ways to cinema (though I admit to not being completely sold on this 3D business yet), but it’s lasting true quality as a film is likely limited given that the story ultimately is rather flat.
But does every film need to be a lasting film? No, certainly not. At the end of the day we are talking about the film industry. It is an industry in nearly every sense of the word, and the vast majority of what is produced by this industry are mere products–commodities that appeal to the lowest common denominator created to be immediately consumed as means to make a buck. For this reason alone, the vast majority of filmmakers our there have as their primary concern making a product that stands a chance at commercial success. As I mention in my video about Transcendent Cinema, I figure at least eighty percent of anything mass produced is just completely garbage. Just look through suggestions on Netflix some time. Are you really willing to watch even a third of what’s suggested (be really honest now, think about what kind of time commitment that is). Chances are, no. Our time is too limited and too precious. To commit to watching movies and TV shows, we need to feel the return on our time investment is going to be worthwhile. For this reason alone, given my limited time these days to watch movies and TV shows, I just find myself having to say no to most TV shows out there and an awful lot of movies people tell me are “really fun.” Now, that’s not to say I don’t like a bit of unwinding time watching a good sitcom. It’s just that I’m aware that my motion picture diet can’t be mostly fluff and sugar. I need substance. I crave substance.
Seriously, I’ll go to the movie theater alone at times to watch movies that I know may stir up a lot to think about just so I can be alone with the story and my thoughts as a meditative experience. But then, I’m kind of weird, I admit. Like I said, I crave substance.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think I am along in this craving for substance. I believe there is a reason The Shawshank Redemption, which I talked about in my last entry, sits at the number 1 position as the highest rater film on the Internet Movie Database. In fact, take a look at the current IMDb top 250 films. Does 12 Angry Men land at number eight because it’s such lush visual candy or caters to basic entertainment desires of audiences? If you’ve seen the film, you know this is definitely not the case. Regardless of how much I like any specific title as I scroll through, I recognize interesting themes in the stories represented there. In fact, my friend and teacher Craig Detweiler has written an excellent book called Into the Dark which examines the trends in the top 250 movies on IMDb. So I sincerely believe I am not alone in my thirst for meaning and substance in the movies I watch. The really interesting thing will be to see what current films on the top 250 list are talked about decades from now. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Now as I mention above, most filmmakers working in the industry are concerned primarily with commercial success. But is this really their fault? Do they even really have a choice in this matter? I fear that actually, no, too often filmmakers have no choice. Most of us are not Terrence Malick or Alexander Payne, able to focus on our craft and in telling stories that really matter to us personally. Instead, we’re trying to eek out a living and carve out opportunities that are wholly hinged on how much money some executive or distributor thinks a given film idea will generate. And they will tell you with great certainty–even deliberate cockiness–their definitive opinion on the commercial viability of your script as if God herself handed down some special knowledge to them. But you’ll walk out of that meeting and go to another one, and hear another completely different view with the same gusto and conviction. Enough of these experiences have led me to believe everyone’s just guessing. Meanwhile, new filmmakers are caught between telling the stories that move them and figuring out what will ultimately be the most effective way to commercialize their final product so they can stand a chance to make it in the first place.
This means that initially, I think every new filmmaker is nearly one hundred percent focused on commercial success these days (be that with a Hollywood studio or a sale to a distributor at Sundance, Toronto, or SXSW). And the reality of the matter is such that, given the industry and the saturation of filmmakers and new products available to both distributors and viewers, what choice is left to a new filmmaker trying to break in and reach an audience?
Now, this does bring up an interesting angle to consider: the audience! Are there similar forces battling within movie viewers in a similar way to the forces potentially battling things out inside new filmmakers trying to get that big break? I want to look at that idea in my next entry.
The Oscars are right around the corner. As with most years, I’m working on watching as many of the Oscar nominations as I can. This is a particular challenge this year given my incredibly limited free time as a new dad. One thing that often comes to mind for me around this time of year is wondering what exactly is cinema supposed to be all about (especially in light of the fact that most of the time several nominations frustrate me and hardly ever does what I think should win go home with Best Picture). I have something particular I’m interested in when it comes to cinema, but that’s not to say that what I’m after is the whole picture, or even the main picture. It just happens to be something I believe cinema is very well suited to accomplishing in unique ways. I’m not going to write at length here about what I’m after, but allow me to summarize it this way: I’m after what I call Transcendent Cinema. This is cinematic storytelling that mysteriously succeeds in being something greater than the sum of its parts. More than masterfully executed filmmaking, Transcendent Cinema is experiential storytelling that reaches past our skepticism, guardedness, and emotional numbness and guides us (some times gently; sometimes with with firm hand) into a search of our own souls. These are movies that examine life, both the beautiful and the ugly, the funny and the tragic, the hopeful and the demoralizing. These are movie that can lift us or break us (some times, as if by shear magic, simultaneously). But what they do, they do in the name of reminding us of the endless search we are all on to discover meaning and significance in a vast cosmos that can at times seem too ancient and too still to care we’re here at all; or a daily life that can feel too rushed and mundane to allow for real reflection. This, in short, is what I’m chasing after in both my movie watching and my filmmaking. For more on my reasons for this on-going quest, I recommend this short video I made a few years ago.
This is why I believe that the lasting stories–the lasting movies–are the ones that engage not just our base desires to be entertained (which we all have). The lasting films, to my mind, are ones that often challenge us and do not quite fit into the current expectations of largely fickle movie audiences. The Shawshank Redemption was not an instant box office hit. I still vividly recall watching the film in a movie theater in my native country of Brazil in 1994. I was only thirteen at the time. I didn’t quite have the ability to express exactly what I’d just experienced. But it stirred something profound inside me. Even at that age, already deeply fascinated with cinema, watching the Oscars on TV (that’s right, the Oscars are broadcast all over the world), I recall a Brazilian translator and commentator mentioning that The Shawshank Redemption had garnered a lackluster reception by American audiences. He speculated that the English title might have been too esoteric and audiences were not drawn in. The Brazilian release of the film was given the title in Portuguese of “A Dream of Liberty.” Arguably, this does more accurately tap into a central idea of the film. Though, once one has seen the movie, reflecting on what the title means is a worthwhile endeavor. Is this the redemption of a prison in Maine called Shawshank? Or is it the redemption of two men that comes through the vessel of Shawshank? Who exactly is redeemed? And just what is this redemption?
I believe the most transcendent of films are the ones that navigate a very difficult road. On the one had, as a filmmaker I am tempted to simply try to make the most appealing and entertaining product possible. This seems prudent given the need to draw as large of an audience as possible and help ensure not just the success of a single movie, but allow for a potentially viable career in filmmaking. At the same time, I didn’t get into filmmaking just because I wanted to point a camera at actors and make money. I hope to be able to offer something to viewers that is worthy of contemplating, that allows for the experience of watching one of my films to be more than momentary escapism (though we all do need a bit of escapism at times too). There is also the drive to explore and make bold new art, honing the craft and pushing the boundaries of the medium. I believe that within every great filmmaker there is a war raging in their mind, and the battle lines are drawn along these three drives: Commercial success, artistic expression, and substance.
So the hard road any filmmaker–any artist–walks is one of balancing these three drives. Obviously, what one drive ends up becoming the primary drive depends on the specific goals of a given filmmaker. I do suspect true equal balance between these three forces is incredibly elusive, if not altogether impossible. And while I chase after Transcendent Cinema, I’m not about to declare one or two approaches as ultimately better than any of the others. I don’t think that’s helpful. And I don’t think Transcendent Cinema works that way. Certainly, if we look at Casablanca closely and learn about how the film came into existence, we discover a movie that was not intended to be anything particularly special. Just another product. It was simply another of many movies in the “assembly line” of the studio at the time. In fact, Ingrid Bergman later admitted she spent the whole time on set mentally preparing for a different role on another movie she was particularly excited about and hoped would be something memorable. How ironic that today when her name comes up, most people instantly recall her role as Ilsa in Casablanca. My point is this: the elements fell into place in such a way that Casablanca became greater than the sum of its individual parts. And because of this, the movie lives on and is shared with subsequent generations of movie lovers because the story taps into something deeper than mere entertainment. It has to. The medium continues to evolve and develop. How can a black and white dialogue-driven movie from 72 years ago compete with the glitzy visual effects and immersive experience of films like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug or I, Frankenstein?
So how do artist seeking to make lasting art find the balance that is right for them? I want to explore that more … in my next post. In the mean time, I leave you with this question: What films have you seen recently that you believe will stand the test of time?