I can’t help but perceive a certain distance implied in the title A Most Violent Year. It’s as if the speaker is regarding the year in question with an intimate knowledge of the violence referenced without having actually been a part of it, per se. It’s reminiscent of when one hears of the untimely death of someone one doesn’t know personally and remarks something along the lines of “how tragic;” acknowledging the loss without feeling it. That sort of detachment lays at the heart of the journey of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) in J.C. Chandor’s film. Continue reading
The manner in which the Civil Rights Movement is typically depicted in American media is problematic to say the least. One is quite frequently presented with a picture of a clearly defined struggle between right and wrong with a foreordained and definite outcome complete with a happy ending. Narratives such as these tend to create overly simplistic narratives with little nuance between and within the constituencies represented. Selma, to its great credit, manages to avoid this trap. Continue reading
Channing Tatum doesn’t say much during the first twenty minutes or so of Foxcatcher. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t say much throughout most of the film. We first meet him as Mark Schultz, a wrestler training and hulking around the ring, fit, disciplined, and physically domineering. We then see him in a car that looks too small for him, in front of a room of elementary school children, awkwardly speaking about his Olympic triumph, dwarfing the small children. The first time we see him have a meaningful interaction with another human being is when his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) enters the picture. Even then, their meaningful interaction is not a verbal conversation but a session in the ring stretching, warming up, and sparring with a palpable intimacy and athletic intensity. Even when Mark meets John du Pont (Steve Carell) the meeting that jump starts the main spine of the narrative, John does most of the talking. Tatum’s Mark appears uncomfortable in the world outside of the ring and a poor fit for it at that. His actual presence seems out of place outside of the strictures of his sport.
3. Michael Fassbender: 12 Years A Slave
A textbook performance. Best Supporting Actor was the only Oscar outcome I really had an issue with. Leto did fine work in Dallas Buyers Club, but I thought Fassbender was miles ahead of him. From the first moment he’s onscreen in that profile close shot the tension onscreen increases exponentially. From a narrative standpoint, supporting characters are meant to introduce a variable to the main storyline that wasn’t present prior to their entrance. Nobody did that more effectively or more importantly than Fassbender did. In the hands of a lessor actor, this role could have been something of a “mustache twirler,” but Fassbender absolutely nails the complexity of this character, a professional dehumanizer who clearly hates himself and attempts to hide behind religion and booze. His every move is threatening, unpredictable, but Fassbender’s brilliance here is in how he doesn’t ever fully boil over, even in the enthralling “whipping sequence.” I really feel that with all the praise heaped at this film, Fassbender’s performance was somehow overlooked and subsequently under-praised. McQueen himself appears to feel the same way, highlighting his performance specifically in so many of his award acceptance speeches. Actors and filmmakers will be studying this performance for a long time to come.
4. Michael B. Jordan: Fruitvale Station
The biggest Oscar snub by far in my opinion. He’s been at it since he was young and was great on The Wire as a teenager but this is an incredibly mature and accomplished performance for someone his age. There was no more full picture of a single character than Jordan painted for us in Fruitvale Station. This film reminded me a bit of classic neo-realism like Bicycle Thieves, showing us a single day in the life of a completely ordinary citizen simply living his life that day and all that entails. Fruitvale is not about a shooting, it’s about a young man who’s life was taken abruptly and unexpectedly. What the film does best is show us Oscar Grant’s humanity, which is channeled through and personified to the smallest detail by Michael B. Jordan in a nuanced, understated and moving performance. The academy seemed to only have enough room in their collective hearts for one “black film” this year, which is a real shame, because I actually thought this one was better than the one they chose.
5. Jennifer Lawrence: American Hustle
Lawrence manages to deliver a performance that’s equal parts hilarious, sexy, and maddeningly ridiculous. She’s even better here than she was in Silver Linings. The only thing funnier than “the microwave scene” in 2013 was the “quallude sequence” in The Wolf of Wall Street. “Don’t put metal in the science oven” is now my favorite David Russell line. This is one of those supporting performances that you want to be a bigger part, but its part of why she’s so compelling is that when she’s on screen she dominates and when she’s not you miss her presence. Her manner and her energy remind me a bit of Gena Rowlands, and I do not make that comparison lightly. She’s just a natural with a presence and maturity way beyond her years. When you watch her she comes across as a twenty-year veteran, not someone in their early twenties, and her trophies already accumulated are a testament to that. I would pay money to watch her fold laundry for two hours. She’d get an Oscar nomination for that too.
6. Chewitel Ejiofor: 12 Years A Slave
I find it incredible how this performance got lost in the shuffle of awards season. Were I a member of the AMPAS, he would have been my second choice for Best Actor after my #2 pick from this list, and I thought 2013 was the best Lead Actor pool in recent memory. I’m not quite sure the average viewer is aware of the physical toll this part must have taken on him, to say nothing of the mental aspects. I’ve been a fan of his for years, and this is his masterpiece. My favorite moments of his in this film are all dialogue-free: his reactions in big moments, his gracious smile, the singing of the spiritual at the funeral, and any moment in which he’s listening. He’s just got “that face” and he can communicate and do so much with it. He can do anything.
I recently viewed Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven for the fourth or fifth time and it was no less impactful than it was the first time I saw it. The blisteringly beautiful cinematography of Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler is the hallmark of this film which remains the quintessence of style of a master filmmaker. The “little things” make all the difference in this film, like the shot of the wind blowing on the water and blades of grass. Details like Sam Sheppard reaching out for Brooke Adams’ hand in the woods. So many unforgettable moments such as the swarm of locusts descending on the farm, the imposing farmhouse designed and built by the great Jack Fisk in the distance as the migrants approach the property, and the way the camera seems to float in the stream and circle playfully around Gere and Adams. Continue reading
10. Lupita Nyong’o: 12 Years A Slave
In the months since I posted my 12 Years piece on tumblr, the world has rightfully fallen in love with Ms. Nyong’o and it is safe to say she is an unknown no longer. The utter despair and pain captured in her performance continues to resonate. This is the sort of performance you can feel in your bones and makes you squirm in your seat. The whole film is like that, really, but her performance stands out in this respect because her situation is so uniquely desperate and hopeless. She’s literally hard to watch at times, not because of the brutality she endures, but because the despair and sense of being trapped is so complete and dire in her face, in her actions, her voice. Great work in what ought to be a star-making performance. Now, if only the American film industry created roles for black women…
1. Adele Exarchopoulos: Blue Is the Warmest Color
Some actors have “that face,” other actors have “those eyes.” Exarchopolous has both. Her’s was not the most polished performance this year, or the most mature, but it is the one that effected me the most emotionally. It’s the one that stuck in my head and refused to leave. I don’t think it sentimental for one to give marks for that: cinema, by it’s very nature is an art of manipulation of the emotions of the viewer, and actors are the vessels through which the viewers emphasize with the characters. Continue reading