No Concessions: The Contenders
Remember when the summer movie season began on Memorial Day weekend? When the holiday movie season kicked off on Thanksgiving? No? In our tweet-speed society, I understand. Nowadays summer starts in early May, or even late April, and the holiday crop started blooming two weeks ago. To this pack of early risers we can add the awards season set, those movies likely to loom large among critics societies across the country and around the world in the run up to the Oscars next March 2. Remember all those prestigious December openings? A thing of the past–best to capture the zeitgeist in fall, and hang on to it as your movie vacuums up citations that can be featured on the posters until, with luck, late winter. (“Best Film of the Year–100 Critics Groups!”)
(And those groups are voting earlier. To keep up with the Joneses in the offline universe, my own peeps, the Online Film Critics Society, bumped up its announcement of the year’s best to Dec. 16, which meant that the awards screeners started arriving by mid-October. The first to turn up? The Croods, which, I should add, makes for a splendid Blu-ray, if not necessarily a Best Film of the Year–100 Critics Groups!)
Of course not all distributors are going with the flow; looking at the last few weeks of the year, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Saving Mr. Banks, The Wolf of Wall Street, August: Osage County, and American Hustle will all be in the hunt. (After opening in NY and LA on Friday, Philomena expands its run on Wednesday.) There may be some unheralded surprises in the mix, like Lone Survivor. (I’ve seen the Coen brothers’ meticulously produced but clammy Inside Llewyn Davis, and would be surprised to see much love for it besides its score.) But paced by the commercially and artistically successful Gravity and Captain Phillips, an unusual number of contenders are already in release, and five, All is Lost, Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, and the buzzed-about French drama Blue is the Warmest Color continue to add screens across the country. Thor they ain’t.
The anti-Gravity, in that it has half its cast and is entirely Earthbound, All is Lost has a sinewy performance by an aged-in-leather Robert Redford, a Thor for the geriatric set, weathering the oceanic perils of storms, sharks, and floating garbage (the villain in Alfonso Cuaron’s stratospheric hit, too). A less is more actor despite his more talkative turns in the star-cementing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, Redford finds his perfect role here, saying almost nothing past a terse voiceover. (Not for him the geezer antics of a Last Vegas. Will his stirring “Fuck!” be telecast on the Oscars?) Writer-director J.C. Chandor, of the chatty, stagy Margin Call, shows an impressive command of widescreen imagery on open water, as Redford’s marooned sailor (a descendant of his Western wanderer Jeremiah Johnson, perhaps?) floats toward the sea lanes. I found it gripping, if, at the end, a bit wishy-washy (at a New York Film Festival screening, Chandor spent minutes talking around, rather than about, its close), and capped by a heavy-handed song that compromises an otherwise fine, fitting score by Alexander Ebert. (Gravity‘s deep space recesses inspired great work from Steven Price, which hasn’t been far from my CD player since.) I can see why an uncommunicative Redford bailing water and coping with the hand fate has dealt him hasn’t drawn many viewers off the festival circuit to date; still, it worked for me, in its pensive, stripped-of-spectacle way.
The rehabbing of Matthew McConaughey continues with Dallas Buyers Club, which checks the boxes of an “awards movie”: A gloomy, if ultimately hopeful, true story with a star who endured physical transformation, in this case, a loss of 50 lbs. to play an AIDS patient just days away from death. Spurning the side-effects laden AZT promoted by the Federal Drug Administration in the early years of the crisis, Ron Woodroof, a womanizing, drug-addled Texan, went his own way in procuring a cocktail of more helpful drugs, which involved skirting the law, making covert allies from abroad, and forming a buyers club composed largely of the homosexuals he hated. McConaughey is unsparing as the troublesome Woodroof, who was his own worst enemy until he received a taste of his own medicine at the hands of a sympathetic medical establishment that was obliged to shrug him off and fairweather friends who deserted him upon diagnosis. Equally effective in “composite” roles are Jared Leto as a soft, gentle transsexual and Jennifer Garner as a doctor who ally themselves with Woodroof’s cause and, more warily, the slowly humbled cowboy. But while the movie, shot in a sallow, handheld-heavy “docudrama” style, isn’t self-congratulatory about depicting 30-year-old events, director Jean-Marc Vallee keeps the material at too low a boil–worthy, in that end of year way, and strong on performance, but lackluster.
Since all three won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the director and co-adapter of Blue is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche, and its two stars, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, have been slugging it out in the press, abused and disenchanted. Julie Maroh, the author of its source, a graphic novel, says she dislikes the movie. Should you bother? A resounding “yes.” Artists can be too close to their art, especially when others interpret it, and given the extraordinary intimacy of the three-hour film it’s possible that Kechiche and his actresses are reviving, grumpily, from of a cinematic case of Stockholm Syndrome. As a viewer, I’d say their stress and strain was worth it; while this isn’t the kind of movie that flies by, you leave the theater caught up in two lives, those of fifteen-year-old Adele (Exarchopoulos, who makes a stunning first impression on American viewers) and Emma (Seydoux, a more familiar face from Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol and Midnight in Paris), a college-age artist, who begin a passionate relationship that changes with their values over a few years. Adele, introduced in her high school, aspires to be a teacher, and there are wonderful scenes with children, not to mention numerous finely wrought sequences set at mealtimes with parents, friends, colleagues, and other lovers–this isn’t a high-gloss, urbane portrait of lesbians, but something more eye-level and lived-in. As such I found it riveting–except for its Nc-17 centerpiece, a minutes-long sex scene that emphasizes artful composition over gynecology and doesn’t quite convince. Then again what we’re really watching is the birth of Adele’s consciousness, a new way of seeing the world, and this the film captures spectacularly well.
Also shambling from the Croisette to your bijou is Bruce Dern, the Cannes-winning star of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which, like all of his films, stirs in a few laughs while accentuating an undercurrent of darkness. Alcoholic, hunched in the shoulders, and a few brain cells away from dementia, Woody (Dern) is a uncommunicative Montana resident who makes Redford ‘s sailor look like Regis Philbin. Obsessed with having “won” a come-on magazine sweepstakes offer for a million dollars, Dern pesters his peevish wife (scene-stealing June Squibb, who gets the ripest lines and situations), so his underemployed, sad-sackish son, David (Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte) takes him on a road trip to Lincoln, NE. to pick up his nonexistent prize. The kind of person who “visits” Mt. Rushmore by getting out of his car before the entryway and giving the monument a disapproving look, Woody reluctantly agrees to a family stopover in his Nebraska hometown, where David hopes to make some connection with him. But Woody’s hard shell, and the revelation of his good fortune to his eccentric family and grasping acquaintances, ensure a comedy of disappointment. If you found, say, Fargo, condescending, you may be agitated by the Nebraska-born and bred-Payne’s take on small-town life, with the weatherbeaten features of the elder actors (including Stacy Keach as a thorn in Woody’s side and Rancr Howard and Mary Louise Wilson as relatives) rendered very American Gothic indeed by Phedon Papamichael’s black and white photography. It is, however, a comedy, however acrid, and Payne as always lets in moments of beauty and a few grace notes, notably the sensible, sensitive roles of David’s and Woody’s ex-girlfriends. Dern, an underexploited movie resource here with far more nose hairs than dialogue, and the gently wary Forte, skeptical but supportive, are a good fit as well. Most of Payne’s films I’ve embraced from the start; Nebraska will grow on me.
With accolades aplenty and about $30 million in the till to date, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the Catching Fire of this bunch regarding visibility. Forming a sort of “dehumanization trilogy” with the artist-turned-filmmaker’s Hunger and Shame, it’s the most accessible of the three, not that it’s any easier a sit, being a no-holds-barred chronicle of slavery, which has typically been used as an exotic backdrop for movies ranging from Gone with the Wind to Django Unchained. The overall excellence of the film and its leading performances has not been overstated, and my advice is to man up if the subject and its treatment (long, unflinching takes focused on cruelty) disturb you. There are considerable rewards: the 19th century language of John Ridley’s adaptation of free man Solomon Northup’s narrative of abduction and enslavement in Louisiana plantations is as beautiful to listen to as the beatings and punishments are hard to watch, and the entire production–notably Adam Stockhausen’s design, Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, and Hans Zimmer’s music–is transporting in a way that few historical movies are. When the film ended, my audience stayed in their seats, rapt, stunned, as if in some way continuing to commune with it across the time barrier. That’s a quality beyond awards.