It’s nearly over, folks. All the preening, self congratulatory praise and admiration for the multi-millionaire film stars ends this Sunday with the Somethingy-somethingth Annual Academy Awards, live from that one apparently iconic theatre and hosted by what’s-her-face.
Just in time then, for me to slip a little something in under the wire myself. Only a few words a piece on my own personal top ten. Despite the fact that all the votes have already been cast, and some of my nominations are not reflected in the Oscars shortlist, this little-read blog post is already being tipped to be a heavy indicator of how the winners will line up this weekend. You heard it here first. And last.
Though it’s a British blog, I will effectively be covering the UK release calendar from March 2013 – February 2014. And if there are any films missing from my list that outrage the reader, and if it is what helps you feel better, then I haven’t seen them and of course you’re 100% correct.
10. American Hustle
This is a very big hitter, in terms of overall nominations, and another huge scoop of acting recognition for a David O Russell film (10 nominations out of potential 12, over 3 films). However it ranks very low in this list, due to a real lack of substance behind it’s glamorous veneer. Costume and make-up is thrust in the viewers face, especially the hairstyles of its two main men. Big hitters Bale, Adams, and Lawrence are as consistently good as they’ve ever been, and frissons of humour are weaved throughout the script. But this is still a film with very little heart, certainly invoking much less sympathy for its protagonists than it really needs in order to have one leaving the cinema feeling truly satisfied.
9. The Wolf Of Wall Street
Another film that is garnishing high praise from everyone else except for yours truly. All I can really say is that this is a highly entertaining hour and forty-five minutes of cinema brilliance from Scorsese. With an extra hour and fifteen minutes of easily cuttable, plot-useless footage that had me shifting restlessly in my seat. I have never been able to abide a 3 hour film, no matter its level of brilliance. Be it Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather, the end of a film should always be a disappointment, not a relief. Nevertheless, it is a work of some triumph for Scorsese and especially DiCaprio, whose eagerness to go the extra mile results in that Qualuudes scene which will go down as a memorable film history moment.
8. Dallas Buyers Club
I think I might have finally bought into this ‘McConaissance’ idea. Having starred in one too many dreadful romantic comedies, a switch has flicked somewhere, to the point where he is an Oscar nominee a few short years later, working alongside Friedkin, Scorsese and Nolan. He and fellow opinion divider Jared Leto certainly pull all the weight that this film requires them to, undergoing plenty of necessary transformation in order to convincingly play AIDS sufferers. In the hands of many others, including what I now dub ‘former-conaughey’, this would merely be a simple formula for Oscar bait, but with clever handling becomes a very mature drama in its own right. Indeed, to go back and watch Tom Hanks in Philadelphia now, you realise how far both the topic and quality drama have come since the early nineties.
7. The Great Beauty
In a hotly contested ‘Best Foreign Feature’ Oscar category, in which my house-mate will heavily back Denmark’s ‘The Hunt’, this film stood out for me as an example of how a film with very little driving plot can still be engaging and entertaining. It focuses on an ageing yet moderately respected journalist Jep Gambardella, comfortable with his socialite life in Rome having had little success with an attempted opus earlier in life. He spends the film on a voyage of self discovery, but whereas in American film this requires a lengthy cross-country road trip, in Italian film this is represented with many sophisticated evening conversations on his apartment’s veranda. If this is a scary prospect for any out there -you’re already reading Italian subtitles, lets not forget- then there is actually more to this film, but only at a leisurely pace. Best enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon after a heavy meal.
The only film on my shortlist that has been completely snubbed by Oscar voters, which is not particularly surprising. However, it is a considerable relief to get another exceptional Irvine Welsh adaptation, especially in the run-up to a potential Danny Boyle adaptation of Porno. Filth is the story of a police detective slowly going mad in the battle for promotion. Present here is the dark humour synonymous with Welsh’s catalogue, and best of all is the casting of James McAvoy, for whom 2013 must have surely ranked as a career high. Previously a very family friendly face in film, Jimmy Mac banished any residual thoughts of Mr Tumnus with a straight/bonkers performance in ‘Trance’, followed by this portrayal of DI Robertson here which I can only describe as ‘unlimited’. Half-controlled, half-psychotic, half-funny, half-sad, half-obnoxious, half-sympathetic; McAvoy is the ultimate improper fraction.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
Say what you like about the Coen Brothers, fan or not, you’re never sure what they will come out with next. For their 2013 project, announcing a film about a struggling folk singer in the 60’s Greenwich Village was expectedly unexpected. It definitely appears without much fanfare, a very genteel picture with faded cinematography and a culturally soft soundtrack. Perhaps that is why it has been passed over for many nominations in place of overblown productions (see entries #9 and #10). Instead, it should be heralded alongside Her as a study of subtlety over the superliminal. Titular Llewyn Davis is a folk singer struggling to maintain the roots of the genre amongst a rapidly popularising environment. As an audience, we are caught between sympathy for his struggles and sneers at his self valued worthiness. Oscar Isaac deserves special praise for his double shift, both in both bringing life to the character, and a tender warmth to the soundtrack. Any who are familiar with the folk genre will notice symmetry with this film, whose acts are laid out in repeating stanzas. Any who are not may end up consistently frustrated.
This entry is a genuine struggle, as I can’t decide whether it might even need to place higher or lower. I do not value its plot, its characters, or the acting of the central Bullock/Clooney partnership. As a traditional film, it may even miss out on the top 10 entirely (which may cause a re-titling of this article). However, as a moving picture experience, it has to be among the most engrossing experiences I have had. Barely a breath was taken during the 90-minute running time (take heed, Marty), in which it also serves as the single biggest proponent for 3D to be used properly in the blockbuster environment. The partnership of Cuaron and Lubezki put 5 years into ensuring their exactingly precise vision of space could be realised, if only other studios and filmmakers had so much patience, to make one breathtaking film as opposed to three mediocre releases.
3. The Act Of Killing
A documentary about Indonesian killing squads indiscriminately wiping out the communist population over the course of several decades is obviously an incredibly harrowing topic. It would be very simple to focus on the horrors of systematic genocide, perhaps track down the survivors and do a talking heads piece. Alternatively to show the perspective of the killers, almost unabashed in some cases, even going so far as to give them significant control over the filming of the documentary and the recreation of their actions, would seem a disgrace to the subject. The fact that The Act Of Killing takes a different tack leads to surprising conclusions, a fuller spectrum of humanity and overall a shockingly beautiful film. A refreshing example of how stale genres can be reinvigorated with new styles and ideas.
Another refreshing example of how stale genres can be reinvigorated with new styles and ideas. This is the realm that Spike Jonze thrives in. From Being John Malkovich to Adaptation, along with having a heavy hand in all things Jackass, Jonze is no stranger to the unusual and absurd. With Her, however, while the ingredients for quirk and farce are easily at hand- man falls for his sentient computer system- Jonze orchestrates a masterpiece which is one part heartfelt drama, another part social commentary/satire. This is a science fiction film only in the sense that the technologies may be a decade away, maximum. Joaquin Phoenix puts in a career best as Theodore Twombly, the introvert who falls in love with his phone, which is beginning to seem like a realistic progression in today’s society. Scarlett Johansson, despite being nothing more than voice, manages to turn in her sultriest performance in a decade, and the connection between principle characters is almost disturbing in the way it wins our empathy so quickly.
1. 12 Years A Slave
After Hunger and Shame, this is director Steve McQueen’s third feature length film production. And I’m not entirely sure how he is ever going to top this in the future. 12 Years A Slave is already being talked about as the ultimate piece on the horrors of the slave trade, and an all time classic in its own right. The set pieces are visceral, the acting is real, the cinematography that gives the landscape its rich colours only serves to highlight the harrowing tale of Solomon Northup and his contemporaries. This is no doubt difficult viewing, as evidenced by the collective gasps and sobbing in my cinema throughout the running time, but absolutely necessary nonetheless. To be faced with such conflicting brutality and kindness on the same screen helps make 12 Years one of the most emotive and soul-refining experiences put to the screen.