The International Online Film Critics’ Poll has announced its nominations for its 2013/14 survey. I was honored to have been asked to participate for this fourth edition of this poll (see previous surveys here). I know at least one other local film critic asked to participate (Reuben Peira at Film Frontier). We were asked to provide five nominees for each category below. The organizer, George McCoy, informed me there are well over a hundred critics who participated. Eligible films had to be released in the U.S. in the years 2013 and 2014. I went out on many a limb with personal favorites (see my nomination ballot below the press release below). But hardly any of those long shots made it to the final ballot.
What I see in the list below is a lot of preciousness for the auteur. That terrible film by Martin Scorsese (‘Wolf of Wall Street’ is one nasty, vulgar film about nasty, vulgar people– for 3 hours!) has several nominations. Even Polanski makes an appearance for a film that really did not make as much as an impact as The Ghost Writer (2010). On the other hand, there’s Wes Anderson who did not disappoint last year (‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ may be cartoonish, but it’s also one of Wes Anderson’s most human films), and Alejandro González Iñárritu made a strong return with Birdman (‘Birdman’ lampoons Hollywood with humorous, hyper-real, hero-hating satire). But beyond those were clear Oscar winners or contenders like Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave and Patricia Arquette for Boyhood (‘Boyhood’ is Linklater’s masterpiece on youth, existence and humanity).
There are some surprises like Mads Mikkelsen for The Hunt (‘The Hunt’ examines influence of the crime on judgement) and The Great Beauty, which was one of he great surprises (‘The Great Beauty’ earns it’s title by looking beyond the superficial). There are some films I need to catch up on. Cavalry is up for screenplay, and Julianne Moore is the running for best actress in Still Alice. I may give Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Venus In Furs a chance, too.
The winners are scheduled to be announced January 25. Here are all the nominees:
PRESS RELEASE – IOFCP NOMINATIONS
The International Online Film Critics’ Poll is proud to announce its nominations for the 4th biannual awards for excellence in film.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman leads with nine nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Then, with eight nominations, Wes Anderson’s comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, and with seven nominations, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Among the films of 2013 with most nominations there are Gravity (five), 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street (both four, including Best Picture).
Founded in 2007, the IOFCP is the only biannual poll of film critics from all around the world. The awards are biannual to allow the comparison of different film seasons.
Past IOFCP Awards winners include Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Inglourious Basterds and Slumdog Millionaire.
12 Years a Slave
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Wolf of Wall Street
Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Paolo Sorrentino – The Great Beauty
Roman Polanski – Venus in Fur
Michael Keaton – Birdman
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Adele Exarchopoulos – Blue is the Warmest Colour
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Marion Cotillard – The Immigrant
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Edward Norton – Birdman
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Emma Stone – Birdman
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
June Squibb – Nebraska
BEST ENSEMBLE CAST
12 Years a Slave
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
BEST ORIGINAL SCEENPLAY
The Grand Budapest Hotel
BEST ADAPTED SCEENPLAY
12 Years a Slave
The Imitation Game
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Great Beauty
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Wolf of Wall Street
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
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Now, below you will find my nominations. Again, many long shots, but it’s more fun that way, and I do not feel as though I have sold out some genuine favorites that I might have naively believed had a chance of appearing on the list. After all, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy did win the last edition.
Click though the link before after January 25 to find who won this biennial poll :
January 9, 2015
It sounded like staid material in 2009 for author Thomas Pynchon when he set a detective story called Inherent Vice in 1970, a time when Flower Power had faded, in Los Angeles, a city in the state that once defined the hippie movement. But Pynchon focuses on creating a marvelous morality tale with great humor and witty layers of experience, perfect for the author known for his postmodernist writing. The time period captures a mythic moment in American history. Ideas of utopia and slogans like “make love not war” that once defined a generation had been overshadowed by the hedonism of Woodstock, the horror of the Kent State shootings, the quagmire of Vietnam, not to mention the Manson murders, which are often referenced in the text. The post-war product of the baby boom were coming of age into an era of idealism and were then suddenly hit with disillusionment. Look up the definition of the phrase “inherent vice,” and it seems a perfect title for a book seeking to examine the transition between the ideal 1960s and the grim reality of the early 1970s.
Now director Paul Thomas Anderson has adapted Inherent Vice, becoming the first director to take on Pynchon, an author whose works have often been called “dense” or “complex.” Working for the first time from a novel instead of an original script, Anderson takes Pynchon’s story and enriches it. After his amazing 2013 movie The Master (The Master harnesses cinema’s power to maximal effect), the auteur once again takes on another mythic era of America to offer another superficial take on the cultural landscape that actually shrouds a compelling tribute to people looking for purpose in the face of nihilism.
Also for a second time in a row, Anderson is working with arguably the greatest American actor of the 21st century, Joaquin Phoenix. He plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private detective with a serious marijuana habit. Sporting momentous mutton chops to rival Hugh Jackman’s in the X-Men flicks, Phoenix gives Doc an endearing bumbling character that sometimes feels like a tribute to Jeff Bridges’ Dude in The Big Lebowski. Tasked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) to intervene in the looming kidnapping and institutionalization of her current lover, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), by his wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), Doc finds himself soon over his head. The story twists and turns as more people enter the picture and Doc takes notes in his little pad with big letters like “paranoia alert” and “something Spanish.”
Throughout the film Doc suffers beatings and uncalled for detentions at the hands of his hippie-hating nemesis LAPD Lt. Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a marvelously intense Josh Brolin). As the film’s most dynamic character, Bigfoot is not just a straight-edge policeman with a disdain for hippies. He also fancies himself a renaissance man who moonlights as a bit actor on TV shows and even the real estate commercials for Wolfmann that slyly lampoon hippie speak while celebrating it. Wearing a bad Afro wig and sunglasses, he tells Doc, “Right on” from a TV screen before — in a moment of magical realism referring to Doc’s high — his face fills the screen, and he says, “What’s up, Doc?” At every turn, Bigfoot tries to undermine Doc or even arrest him. However, he is also an ally, like a big brother beating on a younger sibling. Though married with children, in a sly, comic dramatic twist, the film later reveals Bigfoot hardly has any love at home, and he and Doc have a bond that eclipses their differences. It’s one of the greatest relationships you will see in the movies this year, and it gives this byzantine comedy its warm heart.
The film features voiceover narration by Sortilège, (a pleasantly benign Joanna Newsom), a friend of Doc’s who provides the first cue in how this film presents its themes through its characters. The film opens with a stationary shot down the nondescript alley to Doc’s beach shack he calls home. The title card reads, “Gordita Beach, California. 1970.” It appears to be sunrise and the only thing on the soundtrack is the sound of the surf. Then there’s a cutaway to a woman’s face backlit by brilliant sunlight. As if born of the California sun, a golden glow shrouding her blond head of hair, Sortilège sets up the film’s story. She says Shasta “came along the alley and up the back stairs the way she always used to.” It’s a surprise visit after over a year-long absence from his life. Though Shasta’s entrance harkens to the past, somewhere around 1968/69, this is not the same woman. She arrives a changed woman “all in flat land gear … looking just like she swore she would never look.” While Sortilège appears in a halo of light, Shasta sneaks in and emerges from the nocturnal shadows with a whisper.
Things do change in this world, as Sortilège notes after Doc and a friend join her to share some pizza and beer. She gets vibes that Doc’s mind is racing about the unexpected visit of Shasta, a former intimate who had transformed in a way he never anticipated, so she recommends he do a little change. “Change your hair, change your life.” When he asks her what he might do with his hear, she suggests, “follow your intuition.” Then there’s a smash cut to a close up of Doc’s face with his hair in twists to enhance the curls of his already curly hair.
Change and surface presentation are a big part of Inherent Vice. Everybody is someone else below the surface or in a state of flux — well, maybe everyone except our protagonist Doc. It’s a role that won’t stand out much for Phoenix, which is a shame because he is terrific as a man caught in stagnation yet hoping for some connection. Some will find the developments in Doc’s case confusing as characters enter and leave the narrative. Though other characters come in and out of the picture, there is always something unforgettable about them. Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s wife) plays Doc’s alert secretary, a very aware being never short observation. Owen Wilson plays a musician lost in his own myth, and there’s even Martin Short who plays a dentist with a coke habit, a taste for young, runaway girls and nefarious connections to a drug cartel called “The Golden Fang.” I’ve left out about seven to 10 other import recurring characters. But it doesn’t matter. As the film falls further down a rabbit hole of narrative that will confuse many hoping to keep the story straight, the viewer should keep in mind that this is a detective story with a pothead hippie as the protagonist.
Beyond dialogue and characterization, as ever with Anderson, he never misses a chance to define his characters visually. Though The Master had an intensely measured pace and a precise mise-en-scène, consistently shot with an exquisite and meticulous quality by Mihai Malaimare Jr., Anderson has called back Robert Elswit to photograph his vision, and the result is not only wonderfully evocative of ‘70s era TV and movies but also speaks to the film’s themes of the unknown change ahead. Much of the camera movement is handheld, and many scenes are shot against the light. On the other hand, there are scenes deeply saturated by shadow and darkness, especially as the film barrels through some more nerve-racking moments for Doc, as he gets deeper and deeper into trouble with more dangerous characters, from Aryan brotherhood bruisers to drug dealers connected with The Golden Fang.
As ever with Anderson, the music is brilliantly curated. The choice early in the film to not use some tired, overly familiar pop song from the era but an underground hit by the Krautrock band Can is inspired. I don’t say this because I’m a big Krautrock fan. The song, in this case “Vitamin C,” though not entirely accurate to the era (it was released in 1972) has deeper resonance because it represents a new form of music born of a need to revolt against the establishment, even if it came about in Germany. It also helps that it’s a good tune, abstract yet catchy, involving enough standard rock instruments and a chirpy organ to be cool but quirky.
Anderson has also once again hired Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to provide a score for the film. Greenwood provides a fantastic, sometimes romantic soundtrack that’s very aware of the era it’s representing, a sort of mix of Neu!, Soft Machine and Ennio Morricone. His music either features strings and oboe or quietly grooving rock instruments. It’s spacey sometimes, and other times it’s pastoral. As with the more subtle, earthy camera work of Inherent Vice, the music, from songs to score, is not as intrusive as it was in The Master. As great as the score for that film was, Inherent Vice is a movie concerned with a different tone, after all, something much lighter and less intense. Again, it all fits the theme of flux and an obscured core defying clear comprehension, reflective of the era and the people struggling in it.
Much as I love the deliberate, controlled artistry of The Master, even more so than this loose-limbed film, Anderson proves he is in terrific control of his approach, and it serves the story and it’s deeper concerns very well. Inherent Vice actually features some of the most hilarious moments in an Anderson film since 1997’s Boogie Nights, another film where Anderson explored the dark side of the 1970s. Both films tangle with humor, from slapstick to witty dialogue and an ironic sense of discontent not really apparent to the film’s characters. It’s ironic, but it all culminates with great affection for the film’s hero and even his nemesis, Bigfoot. They are this film’s terrific beating heart. Change is inevitable, just go with that flow and enjoy the ride… man.
Inherent Vice runs 148 minutes and is Rated R (expect drug use throughout, graphic sexuality, cursing and several violent encounters). It opens pretty much everywhere today, Jan. 9. Warner Bros. provided a DVD screener for awards consideration last year.
It is not easy to film a historic moment that some viewers will remember, such as a critical juncture wherein the Civil Rights Movement focused on a single issue: electoral rights. Nonetheless, director Ava DuVernay delivers with Selma, an extraordinary film filled with solid performances and an intense atmosphere that is truly a cinematic experience.
The story of Selma is layered in history, politics, social awareness and a humanized biography. DuVernay tracks several people from different walks of life with real high stakes. As much as the film focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King, his leadership style and his family, the genius of DuVernay is that she humanizes the film by focusing also on everyday people in the south. The film goes beyond a biopic work and becomes an engrossing and relatable story about what it was like to live in Selma, Alabama in the early 1960s. It should be noted that DuVernay made history herself, by being the first African-American female director to earn a Golden Globe nomination — a well-earned nod.
Selma starts quietly with what seems to be a very positive moment for Dr. King, played marvelously by David Oyelowo. He is in Norway to accept a Nobel Peace Prize. He is charismatic, charming and even a bit hesitant about the life he has chosen. He jokes with his wife, Coretta Scott King (an equally amazing Carmen Ejogo), about being a preacher in a small college town. Through this and other even more intimate moments, DuVernay humanizes Dr. King. He is a leader with doubts, concerns, fear and in constant search of how to do what is both right for the struggle and right for the people he has mobilized.
That the film did not have access to the original speeches because of budget constraints does not in any way hinder the film’s outcome. Oyelowo plays King with a strength that shines through the screen guaranteed to stir an emotional response from the audience. The sequences with King delivering speeches show a passionate leader, who is speaking as much to himself as he is directing his words to a crowd. Oyelowo makes it obvious that there is self-doubt in this great leader. The fact that we are hearing these words for the first time actually helps the film, engaging the audience in the film itself instead of standing out as a reenactment of a moment in time that might be very familiar to some.
Among a remarkable ensemble cast, one of the highlights of this film is a standout performance by Ejoga as Coretta Scott King. As a supporting actress, Ejoga made the most of this film, and her representation of Coretta feels both authentic and fresh. I would not be surprised if she is recognized later on with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress from the Academy. Another solid performance came from none other than Oprah Winfrey, who plays Annie Lee Cooper, a woman willing the courage it would take for an African-American citizen to register to vote in Selma prior to the Civil Rights Act. Her tone and gestures are filled with an apprehensive strength, and in the quiet sighs and defiant gazes, she shows that the Civil Rights Movement went well beyond the marches, sit-ins and brilliant speeches. The everyday struggle was part of the mounting anger that later won the hearts and minds of supporters from across the country. Terms like second-rate citizen are often bandied about when talking about racial disparities in America, but in the performances of Winfrey, not to mention Henry J. Sanders as Cager Lee, the audience gets to witness what the term second-class citizenship actually means.
The film comes at an incredibly timely year, as 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The big issues of racial disparity, abuse of authority and the struggle of racial minorities to exercise the right to govern their own lives are still very much top of mind with the unresolved issues of Ferguson and the series of protests still being held under the umbrella hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Indeed, Selma is a well-timed film and a must-watch, even for the apolitical public, as the drama is compellingly constructed by DuVernay.
Selma is rated PG-13 (expect violence and some cursing), runs 127 minutes. It opens wide in the United States on Friday, Jan. 9. Get showtimes and tickets here. Paramount invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
January 5, 2015
Let’s be honest about Winter Sleep, the latest film from Turkey’s premier director/writer Nuri Bilge Ceylan, there is a lot of talking. However, this modern master of highly developed filmmaking also leaves a lot of interesting room for interpretation. Though Ceylan’s films show a specific anxiety for his country, they also reveal a general concern for human relations, be they domestic or social. His films have therefore crossed boundaries and earned praise outside his country (Winter Sleep won last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes). Though the audience of a Ceylan film should be prepared to invest in what some might consider dense work (this movie is based on the writings of Anton Chekhov), the director makes his work visually inviting, as he has an expressive eye for location, framing of image and a sensitivity for acting. Complicating matters, however, is that his more recent work has meandered at a slower pace, featuring lengthy scenes of dialogue that culminate in extra-long run times. Though this might sound off-putting for the more impatient movie-goer, given a chance, Ceylan’s films can rattle the viewer to the core, as he takes his time to truly explore the complexity of action versus talk, leaving an impact that transcends language.
Much of Winter Sleep follows Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former stage actor now running a hotel named Othello — he has an affection for Shakespeare — in a remote neighborhood of Anatolia, Turkey, that looks as if it had been carved out of the mountains. He lives in the hotel with his divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag) and his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen). While his manager Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) collects rent from his downbeat tenants in a nearby village, Ayid prefers to show face to affluent visitors from Japan and other countries. In his dark study, he writes an opinion column for a small community paper. He pontificates on Islam as a religion of high culture. When he gets a letter from a reader stroking is ego and asking for help in building a school for the children in a village, he gives serious thought to taking action.
Aydin translates to “intellectual” in Turkish. Intellectuals are not known for taking action. Thought and writing about thoughts proves to be a perfectly comfortable narcissistic endeavor for this man, and this goes deep. Early in the film, Aydin is called out when a visitor asks about horses on the property, which this visitor had expected based on an image on the hotel’s website. Aydin admits he added the pictures of horses merely for decorative reasons. Feeling a bit guilty, however, Aydin seeks out a horse wrangler, who enlightens Aydin on the costs, time and complexity of capturing a wild horse, especially in winter. Despite the warning, Aydin acts as if money is no object. An allegorical subplot then unfolds that ends with Aydin setting the animal free again.
At the forefront of Aydin’s narrative is the difficult relationships with his wife and sister, just to name two important interactions in the film. They have intense, even epic conversations that build to grand confrontations. Sometimes the arguments go on so long that they seem circular, but they are also building to well-earned, climactic revelations. Nihal is also an intellectual, but she is applying her education and knowledge to political activism with a fellow idealist, which leads to some petty jealousy from Aydin. She wants to take action and actually do good for those in need, and she earns every right to complain about her husband’s “unbearable inconsistency” to criticize people for either being religious or not, only if it benefits his argument.
Meanwhile, Aydin’s unwritten book on a history of Turkish theater looms over their ever-corroding marital malaise. His solution is to give her money and entrust her to make a donation of it. Indeed, it will be she who will try to make good of this gesture, but Nihal is no flawless do-gooder either. Ceylan is much too subtle to allow her gesture to ring hollow. She does something with the money blinded by idealism, and she’s in for a harsh lesson right out of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. It’s all well and good to give away money to those in need but not so easy to fix things with a gesture as simple as that.
This is barely the surface of what happens in Winter Sleep. There is an attempt at spiritual enlightenment fueled by damaged ego and alcohol, and many of the confrontations reveal a concern for patriarchal righteousness. Ceylan deals with complex interactions of ideals, human nature and behavior and their consequences. Various characters tangle with pride, from both a very young and naïve perspective or an embittered, older perspective. A character some might overlook is Hamdi hodja (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), the brother of one of Aydin’s tenants, Ismail (Nejat Isler) an alcoholic father with a dark, complicated past that is not revealed until near the film’s end. As an imam, Hamdi is more devout than Aydin. He also has a more genuine desire to make things right, but he also curses those he considers oppressors under his breath. The performances are amazing and appropriately dynamic throughout the film. The dialogue, though in a foreign language to this writer, feels natural, full of concern for understanding, as if these characters are indeed listening to one another and reacting, often to heartrending effect.
The complex, interesting characters populate a rather sublime backdrop captured in engrossing, panoramic anamorphic shots. The locations are often an expressive brown, gray and white, sometimes a very brilliant white with hints of blue. It’s a physical manifestation of the “gray area” at the heart of the film. Though it is dialogue that makes most of the film’s soundtrack, Winter Sleep also features an appropriately moody recurring musical theme in Schubert’s “Sonata No. 20 in A Major,” a melody that some might recognize from Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.
Over the course of nearly 20 years, Ceylan’s film style has evolved in such interesting ways. Though I admired the effort of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia to offer a byzantine array of perspectives (sometimes within the same person) in the face of a murder mystery, it felt rather grueling. The lack of connection between the characters had a chilling effect early in the film. Winter Sleep is a much stronger work, however. While exploring varied perspectives between the characters, Ceylan weaves profound connections between them that make for an intensely moving film. It may feel long and drag a bit in the middle, especially when Aydin and Nihal take a painful mental journey into where they stand in their long marriage, but there’s a precious reward to be had when it all comes together at the end. It arrives not so much with a neat bow of clear conclusion but a deepening of insight into human connections and perspectives.
Too often, especially in escapist-driven Hollywood, films effectively numb us to consequences. Violence and abuse is heightened with humor, music and editing. We are rewarded with Schadenfreude and exit the theater with a dismissive feeling of contentedness that the mirror of the movie screen did not reflect us. Ceylan’s work is important in that it makes viewers aware of the consequence of actions driven by righteousness that affect those around us with a delicate, engrossing style stripped of gimmick and full of genuine concern and thought. It shows us the importance of empathy with patience and a generosity in storytelling and visuals that never feel condescending or preachy, just very raw and real.
Winter Sleep runs 196 minutes, is in Turkish and English with English subtitles and is not rated (it has some domestic violence [mostly emotional] and maybe some language, but it should not be offensive to most, except maybe the impatient). It opens Friday, Jan. 9, in South Florida. It plays in the Miami-Dade area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. In Broward it will show at the Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale and the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood. If you live outside of South Florida, it may already be playing in your neighborhood or coming soon. Visit the film’s website and click “view theaters and showtimes” for U.S. screening info.
December 30, 2014
It’s the end of the year, and once again here is a list of the best films I caught this year. As opposed to other years, I’m including short films and even a couple of multimedia experiences, including some works that some might exclusively consider “art.”
If there is one characteristic I search for in moving image experiences it is the feeling of transcendence. To this writer and lover of the art of the moving image — sometimes above narrative and definitely beyond the confines of the classical Hollywood cinema form — that often means subverting the medium. It would be unfair to place the burden of that on narrative films that often come up this time of year, begging to be noticed for an Oscar award. But it was a grueling awards season this year only because not many of these films stood out as genuinely spectacular (I’m thinking Unbroken, The Gambler, Into the Woods and Interstellar)
In this two-part post, I hope to give you a taste of films that you would not expect for an end-of-the-year summary, including links to some that you might be able to see now, on-line. All of these were true surprising experiences and many, yes, had that moment of transcendence. But of course there were indie, world and even some studio films that impressed with acting and narrative technique.
Though I must take personal acquaintance out of the mix, as that has an effect on opinion, allow me to note that I saw wonderful films by some local Miami filmmakers this year. The Miami International Film Festival gave us the incredible short documentary “Cherry Pop: The Story of the World’s Fanciest Cat” by Kareem Tabsch, co-founder of Miami’s chain of O Cinemas. He cracked up when I asked if it was a mockumentary. It’s not.
MIFF also gave us “Ectotherms,” an atmospheric film of suburban malaise distinct to Miami by Monica Peña, operations manager at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (read my interview with her here). She also finished a short documentary that captures a side of Miami Beach few who haven’t been there have ever seen. It premiered at Miami’s Borscht Film Festival. Watch “Pink Sidewalks” below:
Speaking of Borscht, I saw only a few of this year’s offerings, but they inspired lots of writing on my part in the “Miami New Times.” “Cool As Ice 2″ is an amazing meta sequel to Cool As Ice by the talented duo of Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer. Then there is “Papa Machete,” by Jonathan David Kane, a poetic short documentary about an elderly Haitian Machete Fencing master that is now headed to Sundance. I also lobbied hard to get Borscht the “Golden Orange” from the Florida Film Critics Circle. They won it (read all my Borscht coverage and check out videos by following this link).
Finally, though Art Basel – Miami Beach this year meant a preview for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, it more importantly allowed me to spend a lot of time with Auto Body, an group exhibition in response to gender inequality in art that featured art by women artists. It was a performance and video-based exhibit with nothing for sale. A lot of it was based on destruction over creation or vice-versa. It opened with Cheryl Pope destroying hundreds of water balloons sustained from the ceiling using only her head and closed with Naama Tsabar leading an all-girl band through an immaculate cover of Pulp’s “Babies,” which descended into abstract noise at song’s end, while Tsabar spent a half-hour bashing the stage to pieces with her guitar. In between my friend dancer Ana Mendez choreographed a fall down and “up” a metal staircase she titled “Liminal Being,” which she repeated several times each day of the exhibit. It was raw, real and visceral, showing both strength and human vulnerability, something that could be said for much of the art in this exhibit.
But much of what made Auto Body were short films, and indeed some of the most incredible visuals I saw this year unfolded on those 25 screens. I wrote a preview here, with several interviews. Next I wrote a reactionary summary of part of day 1 of the event here. The latter includes some of the video highlights at the exhibition, which lasted four days and even caught the attention of the “New York Times.” Here’s a snippet of one of the highlights (those offended by naked female bodies should not play this):
There are some terrific film experiences above that made 2014 memorable, there’s also a distinctive style coming out of Miami, be it abstract or narrative-based, that is worth further exploration in another post. Some are already using the term “Miami Wave.” I just feel too close to them to rank them among the films I feel less personally attached to in the list below and in part 2 of this post, which will appear on this blog tomorrow. Though, recalling this year in local art and film, I do feel like I have already written about my favorite film of 2014.
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I’m going to start this list by presenting an example of one of the great short films I saw in 2014, which I will consider number 20 of my top 20 film experiences of 2014, then I’ll present the rest of the first half of this list. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the specific link, you will be financially supporting this blog. If we reviewed it here, there will be a link to the review under the poster art. Finally if we haven’t reviewed it, I’ll try to share a few words about the film’s significance.
20. Collection petites planètes • volume 7 • Maricel Yasa
Do not dismiss this as a music video. It’s a slice-of-life exploration of Buenos Aires with the beautiful accompaniment of the music of Maricel Yasa. Her soft, airy vocals and active acoustic guitar plucking is sometimes accompanied by a droning, high-pitched violin but it mostly melds with the sounds of the city, be they rumbling buses or kids setting off sporadic fireworks in a park. Filmmaker Vincent Moon (we wrote a lot about him here), shows no shame in his probing camera work, which is as spontaneous as the scenes he captures, he drifts close to his subjects and shows as much respect for their surroundings. His work has beauty and an earthy quality that is both beautiful and sometimes sublimely poetic.
19. Blue Ruin
With Blue Ruin, director Jeremy Saulnier gives us a suspense film not driven by plot twists but a human incompetence that reveals the blinding power of a grudge allowed to fester for way too long. The performances by these unknown actors are handled with great care. There’s an every-man quality to them that far from glamorizes the revenge flick. There’s little panache but great sensitivity in showing how hard it is to kill, adding to the nerve-racking pace of the film without contrived enhancements of editing and music.
Refreshingly intense, Whiplash not only features two of this year’s great male performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, but it has an unrelenting pace fueled by twisted passion. They may not be musicians, but Teller and Simmons give a lot to convey their weirdo drive for technical musical perfection. The crazy thing is that it’s jazz, a music to be loved for its human imperfection. However, to get to that — ahem — transcendent level of greatness in the music, you have to master perfect form, and it comes through pain, and, man, is pain conveyed to the hilt in this film.
16. Force Majeure
15. Listen Up Philip
14. Lake Los Angeles
Tomorrow: the top 10 films (or videos) of 2014. Update, it’s live:
With Big Eyes, director Tim Burton refreshingly returns to more intimate filmmaking and away from the fantasy-enhanced world of his recent movies. Films like Alice In Wonderland (2011) and Dark Shadows (2012) were so concerned with heightening their fantastical premises, performances were lost in special effects and makeup and took a backseat to art direction and production design. The animated Frankenweenie (2012) was wonderful, but it was an extension of a story he first shot as a short in 1984. Burton’s early concern for championing the outsider while sprinkling the film’s narrative with a morbid humor is what made such early films like Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and even his reinterpretation of Batman (1989, 1992) so special. But as story grew more outlandish, characters seemed to grow more hollow and less engaging. Burton’s film just grew dull in their kaleidoscopic exuberance.
With Big Eyes, the Tim Burton who really loves people and their faults is allowed to shine in a film not weighed down by concept and fantasy. The film follows the true-life story of a painter whose images of children with gigantic eyes became so much bigger than their creator in 1950s popular culture that her husband was able to take credit for her work. As much as they are credited for producing an iconic image of the era, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) were also a product of the 1950s, and the film’s drama is very much informed by the culture that celebrated man as the bread-winner and the woman the house-bound, kept person. As the film’s narrator, reporter Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), says, “The ‘50s were a wonderful time if you were a man.”
Key to a sense of renewal for Burton is the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have not worked with Burton since this writer’s favorite Burton movie Ed Wood (1994). Once again they have brought to life passionate souls primed for the cinema of Burton. Newly divorced Margaret harnesses the power of art as her only avenue of unencumbered expression. Meanwhile, free-spirited Walter grows so obsessed with co-opting her power, he will sacrifice his eventual marriage to Margaret to maintain the façade that he is the author of her work.
They meet at an art fair in San Francisco (his booth of Paris street scenes is next to hers). “You’re better than spare change” he tells her when she compromises her price from one dollar to 50 cents for a man negotiating the price of a portrait of his son. Walter flirts and flatters her, immediately appearing like a smooth-talking con man, scheming his way into her life. Even though her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) is ever suspicious of Walter, the tired and worn out Margaret is easy prey for his charms. They marry quick, even though from the start he sees art very differently than she does. When the meet, he immediately questions her paintings as having “out of proportion” eyes. He describes her subjects as having “big, crazy eyes … like pancakes.”
The script does not ever elevate the art to anything beyond kitsch. Dick calls the subjects “weird hobo kids.” It both isolates Margaret and adds a layer of critique of the era. However, Margaret, a woman desperate to express herself with her art, no matter what others think, still comes across as incredibly sympathetic. Even though an art dealer (Jason Schwartzman) refuses to sell her paintings and is flummoxed when Walter opens a gallery across the street that has lines of people waiting to go inside, Margaret remains steadfast in her pure, honest need to paint these images. “All I ever wanted was to express myself as an artist,” she says, hanging on to the words for dear life. “These children are a part of my being.” Walter, in the meantime, finds a way to mass produce the images and sell them in supermarkets, perplexed by her words. “I’m a businessman,” he counters in his defense for presenting the work as his own creation. “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art,” he explains.
Then there are the performances. Adams does amazing work in a role that asks her to contain herself. She barely speaks, but when she does, her speech is steeped in an expression of repressed emotions with a need to be heard. Reflective of Margaret’s paintings, Adams plays much of her role with her eyes. Waltz plays Walter with a balance of passion for his lies that conflicts with a woman who he thought he married as a kindred spirit. But it’s not on her, it’s on him. As the film comes to reveal he has lied his own sense of being into existence. He’s more than some flimflammer, he’s a man who has corrupted his own sense of self and has dug himself so deep in his own delusions that he can’t find a way out. Waltz plays Walter with an urgent energy of repressed self-doubt that still comes across as sympathetic and not just smarmy. It builds toward a sad denouement, where Walter practically imprisons Margaret in the mansion they built on commercializing her art and a bizarre courtroom battle based on actual transcripts from a slander suit where Walter acts as his own attorney.
Burton’s style is certainly not lost in all this. The humor comes from pathos and is never ironic. The director’s heightened, graphic style of representing the era is vivid and captivating with the help of production designer Rick Heinrichs and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Early in the film, the road out of the suburbs that Margaret has escaped recalls the simplified, high contrast landscapes of her paintings. When the Keanes honeymoon in Hawaii, the beaches and hotels look like something out of a postcard from the era.
Big Eyes gives us a refreshingly subdued Burton that does not betray his characteristic style of movie making. It also features a subject he finds no trouble investing in, and his own passion for cinema shines through. If it ever over-reaches its sense of realism, it’s only to inform the passions driving these people in the way only Burton can do it, so it feels easy to both forgive and relish. The film comes from a heartfelt place in direction, writing and performance, and it goes to show Burton is still deeper than superficial style.
Big Eyes runs 105 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in South Florida at O Cinema – Wynwood on Dec. 25. It’s also being released at pretty much every multiplex across the U.S., but don’t forget to support indie cinema. We caught this film at a free advance screening during Art Basel – Miami Beach.