Tag Archives: Leonardo DiCaprio

Oscars 2014 – The Good, the Bad, and the Unintentional (Comedy)

The 2014 Academy Awards are now over.  After a pre-awards season of prognostication and prediction, anticipation and apprehension, and universal love for the Frozen phenomenon, the results are in and, short of a few surprises in some of the categories that do not espouse as much water cooler hashtag chatter, winners were mostly what we expected.  Frontrunners like Matthew McConaughey and Lupita Nyong’o held off late surges from competition, foregone conclusions (as we were told) like Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto confirmed the power of inevitability, and Best Picture heavyweights 12 Years a Slave and Gravity split the Best Picture and Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón!) categories as many suggested they would.

As we all know, the awards are just the icing on the cake-like deliciousness that can be the Oscars telecast and last night was no stranger to the creation of lasting cultural memories.  Here is the good, the bad, and the (rampant) unintentional comedy of the 86th Academy Awards experience.

THE GOOD

Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity: The Oscars culminate a year in movies and every year you hope there are a number of pictures and performances that deserve to be at the gates of this celebrated identifier of movie immortality.  Some years awards are handed out to people that either may not be as deserving or pictures that are soon forgotten (I am looking squarely at you, Crash.  You are not getting by me either, The Artist.).  Other years, there are many deserving winners (Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption both lost Best Picture to Forrest Gump), so that any way the results go can be at least a little bit satisfying.  I went into last night understanding that there was top-heavy quality in this year’s group of movies, artists, and performances and some results, despite not aligning with my desires, would still be deserving.  For me, two nominations stood out in this fray of subjectivity: Leonardo DiCaprio’s nomination for Best Actor in The Wolf of Wall Street and Alfonso Cuarón’s nomination for Best Director for Gravity where nothing short of a win would be a gross injustice (a relative term – these are only awards).  This is not to take anything away from Matthew McConaughey (an incredible performance in his own right) or deserving directors like Steve McQueen or Martin Scorsese, but DiCaprio and Cuarón’s work last year represent the absolute apex of artistic possibility and expression from two men who have already established themselves as two of the best at their craft working today.  It was justice for Alfonso Cuarón’s direction to be honored with an Academy Award.  If voters are going to get one thing right, this bestowment is where you must begin.  (More on DiCaprio’s loss in a bit.)

Alfonso Cuarón

How either 12 Years a Slave or Gravity could have won Best Picture: These are two exceptional motion pictures, and although Gravity was my sentimental favorite, you cannot go wrong either way here.  It was a joy to watch Steve McQueen’s boyish exuberance onstage and I found that my initial disappointment dissipated rapidly.  12 Years a Slave is a brilliant work on subject that is essential to tell well and correctly, and Mr. McQueen and Mr. Pitt, aided by an incredible group of actors, did just that.

Steve McQueen and Brad Pitt

Lupita Nyong’o and Jared Leto’s speeches: Both deserving supporting actor winners were all class in their acceptance speeches.  Nyong’o’s extraordinary words of acknowledgement (“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own.”) and inspiration (When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.) typified what seems to becoming a universal industry truth: she is really something special.  Leto’s salute had a similar resonance, focusing so eloquently on his mom (“In 1971, Bossier City, Louisiana, there was a teenage girl who was pregnant with her second child. She was a high school dropout and a single mom, but somehow she managed to make a better life for herself and her children. She encouraged her kids to be creative, to work hard and to do something special. That girl is my mother and she’s here tonight. And I just want to say, I love you, Mom. Thank you for teaching me to dream.”) and on the population of people that were and continue to be so impacted by the struggle his character faces (“And this for the 36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS and to those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you and for you.”) in Dallas Buyers Club. Both moments were definitive highlights of the night.

Lupita Nyong'o

Jared Leto

Spike Jonze won Best Original Screenplay for HerAs I explained in my 2013 Year in Movies column and in 5 ThingsHer is a special picture and will be one of the lasting memories from this year for decades to come.  Her was not going to reasonably compete for Best Pictureso the win in this category is almost as satisfying and well deserved.  Spike Jonze’s executed a most original, relevant, and resonant concept so beautifully.

Spike Jonze

U2’s performance of “Ordinary Love”: First, I must provide some full disclosure on a few key points. Fact: U2 has been my favorite band for eighteen years.  Fact: It is a thrill to both see them perform at the Academy Awards and to have them be nominated.  Fact: I was not too excited about “Ordinary Love” for my first several listens.  Fact: If I had an Oscars ballot, I would have voted for eventual winner for best song, “Let it Go.”  Within this realm of objective (as possible) subjectivity, I thought U2 absolutely killed it.  Bono was as “in voice” as I have heard him over the last twenty years (well done on the falsetto, Mr. Hewson) and I appreciated the decision to go with the more acoustic version of the song that had been previewed on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon a few weeks ago (although without any QuestLove shout outs this time).  When those four men – Bono, Edge, Larry, and Adam – stepped forward to their instruments at the beginning of the performance, I was watching rock royalty personified.

U2 at the Oscars

The presence of Daniel Day-Lewis: Speaking of royalty, it is always an honor and a privilege to see the best actor on the planet live and in person (at least through my television lens).  The announcement of his next movie role cannot come soon enough.

Daniel Day-Lewis

Almost all of Ellen: Hosting the Oscars is often a thankless job. Commonly, you are either at the center of the day after’s criticism maelstrom (as Seth MacFarlane and James Franco, more justifiably, found out) for a lackluster performance or you stay out out of the way enough to become irrelevant to the proceedings (Franco did a little of both).  Ellen, through her gracious, humorous, and infectious humanity,  managed to find a balance of involvement that fit well. Her monologue (with one exception noted later), devoid of “been there, done that” musical pageantry, had a “let’s do this” pop to it.  It was not as biting as Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, but equally smart.  It was not as dynamic as the Tina and Amy collaboration, but her obvious connection to the stars in front of her created a similar effect.  Most of her appearances the rest of the show involved improvised crowd surfing, the breaking of twitter, and pizza delivery and payment collection that effectively broke the tension and showcased how A-Listers enjoy pizza too (Marty Scorsese working with that pizza slice was everything). Even Harrison Ford seemed interested in pizza!

Ellen and pizza

Idina Menzel’s performance: Sure, “Idina” may not be the easiest first name to pronounce on a first try, but I am not sure (more on this later) a full name could have been mangled more.  Idina, ever the pro, just went ahead and did this.

Idina Menzel

Social media during the Academy Awards: The power of twitter selfies and Billy “On the Street” Eichner: Social media has transformed many things (much is not for the better), but live events, particularly live events as big and universally watched as the Oscars, are much more fun with communal participation.  If you spend any time on Culture Challenged, you will be familiar with my adoration for the comedic genius of Billy on the Street and his twitter feed.  There is no better night of the year to spend with this magician of laughter than the Oscars.  Here is a sampling:

That Muppets commercial for Lipton: I am not a particularly passionate fan of Lipton Tea, but maybe I have to #bemoretea.  In one of the few television experiences that I still watch live, I was not able to skip over the commercials and last night, this was such a good thing.  I can’t wait for Muppets Most Wanted to open later this month, but for now, this Muppets commercial (In 2014! Everybody is talkin!) during the Oscars will have to do.

THE BAD

Leonardo DiCaprio lost Best Actor: 2014 is the year of McConaughey and I genuinely enjoy him and his performances, eagerly anticipate Interstellar, after a rough start, am totally drinking the True Detective kool-aid, and thought he was outstanding in Dallas Buyers Club.  In another year, I would have put my full range of support behind this native Texan.  Unfortunately, this year Leonardo DiCaprio gave the best performance of the year and of his career.  This was his year.  He should have won.

Leo and Matthew

Ellen’s “sir” joke about Liza Minelli: Ellen referred to the person in the audience as a “Liza Minelli impersonator” and then said, “good job, sir.”  Liza and the audience had a reason to be uncomfortable.

Liza’s reaction

Liza's reaction

The return of Pharrell’s hat: This is what I tweeted at the time…

He cleaned up nicely after the performance, so Pharrell, why the hat?

Pink’s breathing technique: Voice teachers and students of voice teachers were distraught over Alicia Moore’s tendency to breath between words in the middle of verses.  I think Pink is incredible, but this vocal trope was a bit standoffish during the iconic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Pink

The Jimmy Kimmel sketch in the Oscars pre-show…about mean tweeters was just bad.

The energy level of Harrison Ford while presenting: It was just a little low. Thankfully, Ellen’s pizza delivery livened him up.

Harrison Ford and pizza

 

THE UNINTENTIONAL (COMEDY)

The John Travolta “Adele Dazeem” Incident: So this actually happened.

The Darlene Love singing outburst: Don’t forget about Darlene…

Bette Midler’s performance of “The Wind Beneath My Wings”: There is just a whole lot of emotion here after the in Memoriam segment.

The appearance of Kim Novak: Why was Kim Novak included this year and why was she linked to Matthew McConaughey?  I am so confused, and apparently, so is she.  You can’t write this stuff.

and finally Liza Minelli hugs Lupita Nyong’o: Liza is the just the person you look for when you win your first Oscar.

Lupita and Liza hug

The 2013 Year in Movies – 50 Awards and Superlatives, My Oscar Ballot

With the Oscars fast approaching on Sunday night, the time has come to look back on the 2013 year in cinema.  Yes, I am aware that it is the end of February, but if it is good enough for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to have the year end award celebration two months after the year’s end, it is good enough for me too!  2013’s movie year had its share of groundbreaking achievements (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave), box office and critical disasters (The Lone Ranger, Man of Steel), movies about attacks on the White House (two more than we asked for), memorable and career-defining performances (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club), and a throwback Disney animated movie that, along with its signature song, is still sweeping the nation.  Speaking of letting go, we had to concede that Oz was more bad and terrible than Great and Powerful, that in modern times Superman destroys city property and opponent necks without reservation, and that Jodie Foster’s performance in Elysium may have been as awful we originally thought.  We saw Tom Hanks return to his vintage prolific acting form in Captain PhillipsWe witnessed the much anticipated return of Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant directing in Gravity after a seven year break between releases.  We even lived through the return of Bruce Willis’ Die Hard franchise to unnoticeable cultural significance.

At best meaningful or magical, at worst disappointing or depressing, and at times utterly confusing (everything to do with Ridley Scott’s The Counselor), 2013’s twelve cinematic months were always memorable.  First, I present fifty awards and superlatives to help put all of this into a clearer perspective.  Then, I delve into my rankings and selections (if I filled out a ballot) for the six major Academy Award categories.  Brace yourselves.

50 Awards and Superlatives for the 2013 year in movies

2013 motion pictures: Gravity, 12 Years a Slave

2013 movies that could be motion pictures in the future (depending on Academy Award wins): The Wolf of Wall Street

The best acting performance of 2013: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

5 most memorable sequences and scenes of 2013: the endless, opening one shot of Gravity;

the almost lynching from 12 Years a Slave;

the lunch between Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street;

that sex scene from Blue is the Warmest Color; the Tom Hanks emotional release at the end of Captain Phillips

5 movies, performances, etc. we will most remember from 2013: “Let it Go” from Frozen, DiCaprio’s transcendent performance from The Wolf of Wall Street; the wholly unique viewing experience of Gravity in an IMAX theater; the emotional roller coaster ride of 12 Years A Slave; the prophetic future of Her

Most unexpected narrative turn of events: Superman’s mode of punishment at the end of Man of Steel

The Benedict Cumberbatch casting we all saw coming: Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness

The Benedict Cumberbatch casting we least saw coming: Little Charles Aiken in August: Osage County

Age has been kind to you: Jurassic Park 3D, Sandra Bullock, Dame Judi Dench

Age has not been kind to you: most of this act of Robert DeNiro’s career, Jodie Foster character choices, any interest I might have in Woody Allen movies

Most overrated movies: American Hustle; Dallas Buyers Club

Most underrated movies: World War Z; Her

Most overrated performances: Amy Adams in American Hustle; Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

Most underrated performances: Will Forte in Nebraska; Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street

Best use of bones: Dr. “Bones” McCoy in Star Trek Into Darkness

Worst use of bones: the at times hard to watch weight loss of Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

The “a great excuse to take a nap” award: Oblivion

The I was awake, but totally exhausted when it was over” award: 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

Most unrealistic portrayal of a city’s population: Man of Steel

A sequel that was not as good as the first one: Star Trek Into Darkness

A sequel that was better than the first one: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The “I want my money back” award: Blue Jasmine; Oz the Great and Powerful

The “at least it was really colorful” award: The Great Gatsby; Nebraska

Best sidekick experience: Josh Gad as Olaf from Frozen; Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff in The Wolf of Wall Street

Worst sidekick experience: James Franco as The Wizard from Oz the Great and Powerful for all the other characters that followed him around

Can we please find better work for Morgan Freeman: Oblivion; Olympus Has Fallen; Last Vegas; Now You See Me

Least justifiable destruction: Man of Steel

Most justifiable destruction: World War Z

The plot was just so hard to follow” award: Oblivion, American Hustle

“The play was better” award: August: Osage County

“The book was better” award: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Great Gatsby

Best performance by a voice: Scarlett Johannson as Samantha in Her; Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel singing in Frozen

The most peculiar accent award: Jodie Foster in Elysium

The most peculiar performance award: Jodie Foster in Elysium

The “did that really come out in 2013? It felt more like 2010” award: Iron Man 3

The screenplay that wins the figurative 2013 heavyweight fight for writing: Terence Winter’s treatment for The Wolf of Wall Street

The 2013 “The Academy forgot us” award: Saving Mr. Banks, Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Fruitvale Station

Most plausible future: Her

Least plausible future: Elysium

Favorite Amy Adams performance: Amy from Her

Most wasted use of Amy Adams: as Lois Lane in Man of Steel

The Amy Adams performance in which I wasn’t sure anyone knew what was going on: as Sydney Prosser in American Hustle

The “failed by the director” award: Man of Steel (Zack Snyder); August: Osage County (John Wells); The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)

I just don’t know why people liked it so much: American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club

Worst use of an amazing actress: Rachel Weisz in Oz the Great and Powerful

The “I mailed in the Oscars. Why not mail in a beloved cultural institution too?” award: James Franco in Oz the Great and Powerful

The “this is f-in real” award: Gravity; 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Blue is the Warmest Color

My favorite movie of 2013: Gravity

The best movie of 2013: Gravity

My Oscar Ballot

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Oftentimes the Best Supporting Actor is the strongest and most stacked group of actors of any of the four major acting categories.  Each nominated actor last year in this category had already won at least one Academy Award prior (Last year’s losers include all-time greats like De Niro and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman whose legacy of outstanding, brilliant work and the magnitude of his tragic loss will be a haunting reality engulfing this year’s ceremony).  This year’s group of actors lack some of the same longevity, staying power, and reliability.  There are three first time nominees: Native Somali Barkhad Abdi is entirely new to the scene and landed his first agent after filming Captain Phillips.  Jared Leto (Jordan Catalano lives!) is just back from a five year acting hiatus and is oftentimes a little bit enigmatic (his band Thirty Seconds to Mars seems aptly titled) and a little bit inaccessible.  Michael Fassbender, although delivering strong performances for sometime, may still be on the precipice of full arrival.  Both Bradley Cooper (last year’s Silver Linings Playbook in the Best Actor category) and Jonah Hill (Moneyball) have been nominated before, but we are only beginning to consider them more closely as serious actors.

Although prognosticators see this category as Jared Leto’s to lose (and he may be one of the surest bets of any of the major awards), I struggled to place these performances in some kind of relative order of deserving merit.  Abdi’s ruthless Somali pirate wins the “just happy to be acting, let alone nominated for an Academy Award” nomination and was effective in his dogged determination, but falls short of some of the other performances.  Bradley Cooper had a great time in American Hustle and he and his hair stole a few scenes, but I am not sure his performance (nor the movie for that matter) amounted to much.  Jared Leto’s portrayal of Rayon, a transgender, HIV-infected drug addict from Dallas Buyers Club is a wonderful piece of acting, but the summation of the character (and the movie as a whole) holds me back from appreciating it more.  This leaves me with a choice between Michael Fassbender’s sadistic plantation owner from 12 Years a Slave and Jonah Hill’s sadistic stockbroker partner of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.  Fassbender gets the nod for me because his Edwin Epps portrayal seems to have taken a more courageous and uncomfortable departure from his true self in a setting and through a subject matter that just matters more.

My rankings:

1) Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

2) Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

3) Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

4) Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

5) Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Michael Fassbender

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

I didn’t like Blue Jasmine, I don’t like Woody Allen’s writing, I don’t like Woody Allen’s direction, I don’t get what all the fuss is about Woody Allen’s women, and I didn’t connect with Sally Hawkins performance in the least bit.  June Squibb was wonderful in Nebraska, but I had trouble discerning how much of her work was actual performance versus how much of her work was just playing a slightly dramatized version of herself.  What she pulls off is certainly incredible at age eighty-four; a nomination stands by itself as an unbelievable accomplishment.  Poor Jennifer Lawrence, fast becoming David O. Russell’s cinematic muse, was woefully miscast in American Hustle (her youthful age was painfully apparent).  Notwithstanding, her performance is electric, especially when she engages jab for jab with a methodized Christian Bale, and deserves so much credit for making something so dynamic out of a casting decision so ill-conceived.  Julia Roberts knocks Barbara in August: Osage County out of the screen, certainly gives one of her most fearless performances, and may even deliver one of my favorite performances of her career.  Unfortunately, this less than cinematic execution of this brilliant stage play by Tracy Letts leaves so much to be desired despite creating a series of strong performances (Julianne Nicholson was most successful as Barbara’s younger sister, Ivy).  The performances, especially Miss Julia’s, are sucked up into individual vacuums that should have been left as the dusty familial messiness that the stage version so successfully exploited.  Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey, a strong-willed slave and the object and victim of Michael Fassbender’s character’s lustful and abusive ownership, is a courageous and revelatory screen debut.  Her poise, confidence, physicality, and subtle and personalized self awareness deliver an inspired and moving embodiment of one of the many awful human subplots of the American slavery story.

My rankings:

1) Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

2) Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

3) Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

4) June Squibb, Nebraska

5) Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Lupita Nyong'o

BEST ACTOR

Chiwotel Ejiofor, Christian Bale, and Bruce Dern all give outstanding performances in their respective movies.  I am not even sure if Bruce Dern was acting in Nebraska, again, toeing the June Squibb line of authenticity mentioned above.  He deserves a nomination and nothing further.  Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld in a another high achieving performance in a career of so many, but, as was also the case with Bradley Cooper, the disjointed messiness of American Hustle does not do Christian Bale’s award deservedness any favors.  Chiwotel Ejiofor carries the weight (and at times burden) of Solomon Northrup’s journey in 12 Years a Slave on his shoulders and largely delivers at a most exceptional level, but, likely out of a combination of factors (Steve McQueen’s focus and direction, the adaptation of a real person), it never reaches a transcendent level.  This leaves me with a decision between what I consider to be the two best acting performances of 2013.  Both are in movies that I did not particularly like, although, albeit exhausted afterward, I did totally enjoy The Wolf of Wall Street experience (the same cannot be said for the “let me check my watch/iPhone/iPad constantly” experience that was my iTunes rental of Dallas Buyers Club).  It is a good time to be a viewer of Matthew McConaughey’s work as True Detective fans can attest and Interstellar excitement grows by the minute.  His living with HIV/AIDS Ron Woodruff and the forty seven (painful to watch at times) pounds he lost for the role are all components of this tour de force work of acting.  I just think Leo was better.  Fatigued, I left the the Coolidge Corner theater on that cold, December night after The Wolf of Wall Street with the strong, guttural belief that I had just witnessed the best acting performance of the year.  I have not wavered since.

My rankings:

1) Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “Leonardo DiCaprio is absolutely phenomenal in The Wolf of Wall Street.  His performance as the morally incompetent, but toxically charismatic wolf, Jordan Belfort, is physically and emotionally fearless, breathtaking scene after scene after scene, and as naked (literally and metaphorically) as I have ever seen Leo.   Here, he is the movie star he was always destined to be – free from any inhibition and constraint to cruise control (and frequently out of) his way through an unyielding barrage of the baddest behavior.  His scene work and chemistry with fellow actors is the best of his career and rivals his work with Kate Winslet, his professional star-crossed lover.  Although content-wise, I would not recommend The Wolf of Wall Street to many in or out of my circle, for anyone who enjoys the movies, you must see this pinnacle performance of Leo’s career.”

2) Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

3) Chiwotel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

4) Christian Bale, American Hustle

5) Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio

BEST ACTRESS

I am surprised at how dispassionate and ambivalent I am about most of this category.  The performance of Amy Adams is the embodiment of the unlikeable, sloppy messiness of American Hustle (and I usually love her!).  Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep.  She is expectedly extraordinary in August: Osage County, just too young, to encumbered by some unwise casting and directorial decisions, and too restricted by the cinematic medium in a story best told on stage in front of an audience.  Dame Judi Dench is amazing (as expected and as usual) in Philomena and the story intrigues, but it is not a performance (or a movie for that matter) that moves the needle to be something really special.  As for frontrunner and likely award winner Cate Blanchett, as repeated from above, I didn’t like Blue Jasmine, I don’t like Woody Allen’s writing, I don’t like Woody Allen’s direction, and I don’t get what all the fuss is about Woody Allen’s women.  Cate Blanchett plays one of these aforementioned Woody Allen women and admittedly owns her performance of Jasmine Francis (with a very high difficulty level I might add), but when a movie amounts to so little (Blue Jasmine is the antithesis of Her.  Her is one step into the future, but at the same time entirely current.  Blue Jasmine is several steps into the past and unintentionally dated), it’s hard for the performance to reach Best Actress heights.  When I saw Gravity, I did not expect Sandra to be the last woman standing in this category and inevitably the woman to win my heart for this award, but here we are, and she deserves it.

My rankings:

1) Sandra Bullock, Gravity

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “In a movie that requires the audience to face unwavering vulnerability, it is Sandra’s most human guide that so successfully grounds our own most realistic and immersive movie encounter.  The level of difficulty (she spent the majority of her time in a 9×9 box, carefully and precisely marking each movement and emotion so that CGI post-production could do their thing) could not have been higher, and she nailed it.”

2) Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

3) Judi Dench, Philomena

4) Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

5) Amy Adams, American Hustle

Sandra Bullock

BEST DIRECTOR

Four of these directors made outstanding films.  Scorsese, McQueen, and Cuarón are all deserving of the highest praise.  Alexander Payne is an acquired taste, but for those who dig his dark humor and dull toned emotional palettes, Nebraska is your jam (Even David O. Russell’s messy narrative cannot get in the way of his ability to bring out the best in his actors).  The decision in this category lands with the answers and the scaling of the following two questions: “Is this monumental and transcendent work?” and “Was the director integral to this transcendence?”  In the case of Alfonso Cuarón, the answers are “without question” and “Not only integral, but central and essential.”  Gravity is Gravity because of the visual, conceptual, and directorial brilliance of Alfonso Cuarón.  His work is unrestrained, ambitious, and resets the ceiling of cinematic possibility.

My rankings:

1) Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

2) Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

3) Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

4) Alexander Payne, Nebraska

5) David O. Russell, American Hustle

Alfonso Cuarón

BEST PICTURE

My rankings:

1) Gravity

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “Gravity is a motion picture that takes the cinematic medium leaps and bounds forward, giving its audience an unforgettable ride that both touches our deepest vulnerabilities and allows our most expansive imaginations to have no limits.  It is shot (the first being almost twenty minutes long) after shot of beauty, wonder, and the most pristine filmmaking execution (so worth the delayed release!).  Mr. Alfonso Cuarón has created a movie masterpiece that should be considered a classic of the medium from this point forward.”

2) 12 Years a Slave

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “12 Years a Slave is a motion picture that will sit next to Roots as one of the two definitive cinematic depictions of American slavery. Its prolific form is only matched by its unyielding, unrelenting, and unafraid delivery of this horrific stain on this nation’s history.”

3) Her

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “Her is a film set in the future that has both currency today and will have continued resonance as it ages.  Although very much a byproduct of a soon to be now, its timeless relationship truths are as universal as its title.”

4) The Wolf of Wall Street

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie, unlikeable, oftentimes unwatchable, and certainly interpretable as not an indictment, but rather a glorified celebration of the filthy excess and monetary tomfoolery of the protagonist’s world, that provides an exhilarating, exhausting, awesome cinematic ride.  It is not out of contention as potential motion picture in the foreseeable future as either a tentpole of DiCaprio and Scorsese’s outstanding careers or sooner, if critical momentum leads to some Academy Award success.”

5) Captain Phillips

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “Although Captain Phillips may at first glance be well-fit in the classic “great rental, but don’t need to see it in theatres” category, such a movie of pristine competence, execution, and entertainment value, deserves a cinematic viewing.  Most importantly, Captain Phillips delivers the best performance by the best modern movie actor of the last twenty-five years without the first name “Daniel” and the last name “Day-Lewis” in over a decade.  With Saving Mr. Banks on the holiday season horizon, it is a pleasure to have Tom Hanks back in the conversation and Captain Phillips is a most meaningful way to start it.”

6) Dallas Buyers Club

7) Philomena

8) Nebraska

9) American Hustle

From my 5 Things You Need to Know: “American Hustle is a movie that, despite its on paper goods, fails to connect, to entertain, and to inspire any passion.  Without a full understanding of what it aims to do and be, the audience are the ones who are left feeling hustled.”

Gravity

Enjoy the Oscars Sunday night and the realization that not only are U2 performing “Ordinary Love” (nominated for Best Song), but there is a strong possibility that Bono could be giving an acceptance speech.  I digress. Stay tuned for a whole new year of 5 Things You Need to Know in 2014 and more movie commentary, musings, and news on Culture Challenged.

5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Holiday Season Edition

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About… 

It’s been a while.  ’Tis the season to be busier than usual and this holiday season proved to be a formidable foe to free time.  Consequently, this post will feature not one, but three movies that I have seen in recent days and weeks.  Let us hope that the beginning of 2014 affords more time…

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

  1. I trudged out of the movie theater into the bristly cold, New England night after the three hour runtime of The Wolf of Wall Street believing the following things to be true: I was exhausted, I needed a shower to clean myself from the unrelenting visual debauchery of the cocaine hooker-ville that was this latest Martin Scorsese picture, and I DID NOT like the movie I had just watched.

  2. I also believed the following things to be true: I had just witnessed the best acting performance of 2013, the best acting performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career, Martin Scorsese’s best film since Goodfellas (I am looking at you, The Departed), and a masterpiece (despite the length and the redundancy of misbehavior) of a movie.

  3. Leonardo DiCaprio is absolutely phenomenal in The Wolf of Wall Street.  His performance as the morally incompetent, but toxically charismatic wolf, Jordan Belfort, is physically and emotionally fearless, breathtaking scene after scene after scene, and as naked (literally and metaphorically) as I have ever seen Leo.   Here, he is the movie star he was always destined to be – free from any inhibition and constraint to cruise control (and frequently out of) his way through an unyielding barrage of the baddest behavior.  His scene work and chemistry with fellow actors is the best of his career and rivals his work with Kate Winslet, his professional star-crossed lover.  Although content-wise, I would not recommend The Wolf of Wall Street to many in or out of my circle, for anyone who enjoys the movies, you must see this pinnacle performance of Leo’s career.

  4. Although appreciating and respecting his body of work and fully believing he is the on the Mount Rushmore of American filmmakers, I have never been on Team Scorsese (I play for Team Spielberg and more recently, for Team Nolan).  What makes Martin Scorsese prolific has never aligned with what I most love about cinema.  Notwithstanding, The Wolf of Wall Street is a great Martin Scorsese movie and it is hard to believe he could possibly ever have had as much fun making a movie before.  Scorsese creates a vast playground for his actors to take unheard of risks, push every possible button of squeamish discomfort and unchecked mayhem, and to challenge each other to go there.  Every actor in the movie is on some level of awesome and career best (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal was my biggest surprise performance and could not have strayed further from the dopey anguish of Shane).  Jonah Hill (brilliantly cast) gives Leonardo DiCaprio his best and most consistent scene partner (their several near death flirtations in the movie are the clear frontrunners for best scenes), but I may have been even more impressed with Scorsese’s work with the relatively green, Margot Robbie.  She matches the brilliant DiCaprio during each of their marital trysts slap for punch (as excruciating to watch as it was) in a way that speaks to the free creative expression on-set environment that Scorsese must have crafted.

  5. The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie, unlikeable, oftentimes unwatchable, and certainly interpretable as not an indictment, but rather a glorified celebration of the filthy excess and monetary tomfoolery of the protagonist’s world, that provides an exhilarating, exhausting, awesome cinematic ride.  It is not out of contention as potential motion picture in the foreseeable future as either a tentpole of DiCaprio and Scorsese’s outstanding careers or sooner, if critical momentum leads to some Academy Award success.

American Hustle

AMERICAN HUSTLE

  1. American Hustle, portrayed as a cacophony of the 1970s (in music, fashion, culture, and sleaziness) in its trailers, does not disappoint in its period pizazz, but rather in its totally messy storytelling and filmmaking.  Much of its direction and focus feels arbitrary.  It is a movie about too many things so that the ultimate result is that is about nothing at all.

  2. As one could expect from a David O. “character is my focus” Russell film, many of the performances in American Hustle are strong.  Bradley Cooper has a tremendous amount of fun and seems to have been given free reign over his dialogue.  Christian Bale is in method mode, forty pounds heavier, and doing some skillful physical acting.  Although Jennifer Lawrence, America’s muse for over a year now, is woefully miscast and far too young for the part, she manages to sparkle and shine through many of her scenes.  Amy Adams manages to salvage much of the confusion surrounding her character with some expected professional work.

  3. These strong, scene-chewing performers and characters could have all carried their own movies, but put together in American Hustle, they amount to very little.  The parts are far greater than the some in this case.

  4. If meant to be a crime caper, American Hustle lacks the requisite scintillating plot twists.  As a picture about governmental corruption, it puts its foot in the water for too brief a second to matter.  As a movie about a combustible love triangle among relatable characters, it is just too confusing.

  5. American Hustle is a movie that, despite its on paper goods, fails to connect, to entertain, and to inspire any passion.  Without a full understanding of what it aims to do and be, the audience are the ones who are left feeling hustled.

Saving Mr. Banks

SAVING MR. BANKS

  1. Saving Mr. Banks does not focus on the making of Mary Poppins, but rather on the courtship of Disney, in the form of Walt (played with American Dream warmth by Tom Hanks) and his writing team, to P.L. Travers and all of the curmudgeonry that comes with her in a belabored attempt to acquire the rights to her book.  As Mrs. (do not call her Pam!) Travers roadblocks each intersection of the direction that Team Disney wants to take, we are more exposed to how her childhood in the Australian Outback may inform her decisions in the present than to why it matters to her now.  The flashback connections do not always yield logical results (seriously though, why not the color red?), and we are left with the impression that Mrs. Travers is just being difficult.

  2. If you are going to see Saving Mr. Banks, it will be worth it to set up a Mary Poppins refresher viewing first.  Much of the whimsy, effective writing, and referential fun of Saving Mr. Banks is in comparison and with a heightened understanding of the motion picture, Mary Poppins.

  3. Although there is a some reasonable chatter contesting just how historically accurate this telling of the Mary Poppins rights acquisition is, the vision of early 1960s Disney studios, Disney hotel welcome packages, Disney rehearsal room door decals, and Disneyland Main Street USA autograph seekers are all a series of the most delightful period movie ornamentation that I have seen in some time (and an appreciated pace change from the bombastic sites and sounds from the seedier scenes of the movies discussed earlier).  For a studio where “movie magic” seems to be one of the ultimate goals, mission accomplished.

  4. Just to clarify: Saving Mr. Banks, a story about the writer of the book that became the movie Mary Poppins (one of the most successful motion pictures ever made by Walt Disney Pictures) and her dealings with Walt Disney, was made by Walt Disney Pictures.  As mentioned, access to certain forms of visual authenticity may be appreciatively enhanced, whereas the objectivity in regards to the less favorable side of all things Disney (including the portrayal of Walt himself) is harder to value.

  5. Saving Mr. Banks is a delicate, delectable, and most pleasant movie that aspires to create a tale of great emotional power (the flashback trope is a constant visitor) out of something far simpler.  When centered on P.L. Travers battles with Walt Disney and the Sherman musical tandem over details and content, there is certain “inside the actor’s studio” intrigue (especially since I had seen Mary Poppins just hours before).  There is additional interest in Travers’ childhood flashback world, but when an attempt is made to fully understand her present obstinance out of her past memories, we are left without knowing really what to say.  Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, indeed.

 

5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Django Unchained

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About… 

DJANGO UNCHAINED

1. Django (pronounced Jango, the “D” is silent) Unchained is a well-paced 165 minutes that rarely drags its feet and is often galloping through scene after scene of memorable character interactions, interesting interpretations of southern hospitality, and  beacoup de (admittedly Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie may not appreciate this use of French) blood bursting graphic killing.  The plotted premise, dynamite script, cinematic homaging, and execution thereof of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino are of the highest form.  If you are a Tarantino fan (of which generally I am not), you will love Django.  If you are not a Tarantino fan, Django will shake, rattle, and roll your senses into becoming one over the course of this movie.

2. As is his cinematic want, Tarantino infuses Django with constant graphic (albeit at times artistic) violence (I spent at least a cumulative five minutes turning my head away) and relentless (and thereby, forced desensitized) use of the n-word.  It is part of the tenor of the filmmaker and of the historical (1858-1859) Deep South slavery period that the movie depicts so acutely, but I would be disingenuous to say it didn’t color my cinematic experience just a little bit.  This is tough subject matter and as explicit a telling as I have seen.  Once you buy in, you are sold relatively quickly, but for some, the price may be too much to pay.   

3. Christoph Waltz, as Dr. King Schultz, is a master of his craft and a joy to watch on screen.  His scenes are memorably electric, uncomfortably yet satisfyingly violent (in both the traditional and Anne Bogart meaning), and articulated with a consistency and clarity that bring such joy to the viewer.  It was a pleasure to spend much of the near three hours of Django with Mr. Waltz.  In other successful casting news, both Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio so expertly play against what is expected and subsequently flourish.  Mr. Foxx’s stoic yet powerful lead character is precise, deliberate, and nuanced without ever reaching for some of the over the top flamboyance (clothing appropriately excluded) that we often find in his performances.  Django‘s Django is brilliant.  As for Leo (in his first role in sixteen years that did not get top billing), he is almost unrecognizable in his portrayal of Southern plantation owner Calvin Candie.  He delivers a character so reprehensible and villainous yet so playfully enjoyable in way that very few of his peers could.  There may be no bigger movie star working in the industry today (box office receipts do not wholly support this) and it is privilege to see him explore his uninhabited and unchained range here.  Samuel L. Jackson (box office receipts may support his biggest movie star crown), no stranger to the work of Quentin Tarantino, is once again a representative of what greatness is all about.

4. There is a scene in Django involving hoods (and a random appearance from Jonah Hill!) that may be the most clever, hilarious, satirically pleasing, and successfully comedic segment in my cinematic memory.

5. Django Unchained is a movie of grand imagination and excellent execution that is all fun and games until it is not anymore (some of the violence was a bit too violent and slavery is American history’s most horrendous legacy), but nevertheless manages to captivate, cajole, and charm its way through the muddy waters of the Deep South into a most memorable and enjoyable cinematic experience.

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  He writes weekly TV columns on Afterbuzztv.com (next up, Fox’s “The Following”) and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.