Expecting an Oscar-worthy, country-music-tinged dose of European realism, I found myself watching a 7-year-old girl die of cancer, her father lose his mind and her mother commit suicide. Where was the redeeming art? Despite their longing looks, there was a strange lack of chemistry between the lovers, and the director constantly bounced back-and-forth between the past and present to artificially manufacture some depth that wasn’t there. By movie’s end, instead of the story’s coming together, it had shot off in three or four different directions and thudded off the rails. [Smoking – 2]
I sat through 65 minutes without finding a scene that was either believable or likable. I once thought George Clooney could do no wrong, but here he’s done nothing right, from casting to acting to plot to tone. The famous actors, with the possible exception of Cate Blanchett, just play themselves and you wonder what they are doing in this bloody mess (by which I could mean the war or the movie).
At one point, I thought I would use this year’s list to highlight the unconventional approaches to moviemaking that gave me so much enjoyment. The Great Beauty and Blue Is the Warmest Color both benefited from my seeing them while I was rereading Proust. Neither had a traditional story arc; one was a portrait of a love affair, the other an essay on art and memory – both Proustian subjects, neither for someone in a hurry. Post Tenebras Lux was the most innovative of all, a movie version of the magic realism we’ve seen in Latin American writing by Garcia Marquez and others. It was shown, fittingly, at the Walker Art Center and left behind a trail of stunning images. Caesar Must Die transported Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to an Italian prison, bringing to new life a centuries-old play, much like Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus did last year.The Place Beyond the Pines jerked me to attention when one movie seemed to end and another began; instead of seamlessly blending together, the two halves left the viewer to make the connections. Of course, for sheer bravura filmmaking, there was Gravity, but its refusal to care much about a plot and its absurd ending left it off my list.
But that plan for a top ten innovative films didn’t count on Captain Phillips, featuring the most traditional of movie stars, Tom Hanks. It wasn’t Hanks, though, that got me – quite the contrary. It was the movie’s daring presentation of Somali pirates as sympathetic characters and the U.S. as bullies who don’t keep their word. The movie was constantly thought-provoking and beautifully filmed. Enough Said and Mud were two more traditional American films, one a romantic comedy, the other a dramatic adventure. Both had some of my favorite acting of the year: James Gandolfini, ably abetted by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was the most real lover, with the most real heartbreak, I saw this year; while the kid in Mud, abetted by his sidekick, was my favorite character for all of 2013. 12 Years A Slave stands as a cinematic landmark: it was hard watching, but it will define slavery for everyone who saw it. It illuminated history, unlike Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which shamelessly exploited it.
That only leaves Barbara, to which I have somewhat tentatively assigned the top spot on my list. It is not powerful, or surprising or innovative. But when I left the theater I felt I had seen an almost perfect movie. The bleak East German setting brought us face-to-face with the everyday moral decisions faced by real people, reminiscent of the similarly located The Lives of Others (2009). It was as thought-provoking as Captain Phillips, as historically acute as 12 Years A Slave, as personally emotional as Enough Said, and, finally, as dramatic as Mud or The Place Beyond the Pines. It was just a fine movie.
There were other fine movies in 2013, and the following make up my roster of Honorable Mention: Nebraska, Out of the Furnace, Don Jon, A Touch of Sin, World War Z, Fruitvale Station, and maybe American Hustle.
Making my selection of a top ten easier is the decision to have a separate category for Documentaries. Here there was a tie between The Gatekeepers, a politically amazing series of interviews of Shin Bet leaders, interspersed with archival footage; and Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, a remarkable translation of an artist’s work to the screen.
And finally, I acknowledge The Impossible, the story of the Thailand tsunami with Naomi Watts that I didn’t see in time to include on my 2012 Top Ten, where it surely belongs.
Bruce Dern plays a Midwestern Lear in the role of a lifetime (I know, because I saw his other career highlights in a Film Festival tribute the next day) and June Squibb is an Oscar-worthy match for Jennifer Lawrence in an uncannily similar role; but what most intrigued me was the son, played uncomfortably by Will Forte. He let life push him around – is this why he sympathized with his father? – and in almost every scene I wondered, why is he doing this. At the end, he becomes uber-decisive, and the only thing I wondered about more than why this change was where did he get the money? This was a writer’s movie – one comedy sketch after another – painted on an empty black-and-white canvas, with the Nebraska sky providing most of the empty. The best thing was the depiction of how people, especially family, reacted to Woody’s sudden wealth. That nothing else made much sense was a minor drawback.
Notes from the Tribute Evenings at the 2014 Santa Barbara International Film Festival
January 30, David O. Russell: I didn’t “get” I Heart Huckabees when it came out, and apparently I wasn’t alone. David O. Russell seemed almost willing to disown it, saying his life was at a bad point when he directed it and he quickly picked up on Roger Durling’s lukewarm praise for it. The clip of Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin was the bad outlier of the evening, and the best that could be said was that it was, in some unspecified way, a necessary prelude to the much better work that followed.
As for that better work, Durling grouped The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle as a related trilogy about second chances in American life. Be that as it may, the grouping reinforced the lukewarm reaction I had to Hustle: I tingled with electricity at the clips from the first two, but felt nothing from the third; it simply did not make the same emotional connection. Jennifer Lawrence was hysterical in Hustle, but in Silver Linings she was magnetic.
February 6, DiCaprio: As big as the SBIFF has become, one is reminded by nights like this of the still-amateurish level of the undertaking. The first setback for the Tributes was Emma Thompson’s canceling out of her “Modern Master Award” on the final night. I suspect that when she failed to get an Oscar nomination for Saving Mr. Banks she decided to skip the awards season in California altogether and lined up an acting job at home. Santa Barbara profits from its proximity to Hollywood, but it isn’t special enough to bring in a star by itself. Tuesday was an even bigger disappointment. After we were seated for the Virtuosos Award night, we were told from the stage that three of the seven honorees were “working” and couldn’t make it. Without Daniel Bruhl, Eve Exarchapolous and Oscar Isaac the evening lost much of its luster. Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Jared Leto and June Squibb were appealing and convivial, but their respective bodies of work were meager and the evening left us looking for more. Tonight, the problem was the opposite: Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese showed up, but so did many more pass holders than anticipated, with the result that at least 100 people who had purchased tickets for the event were turned away. Including us. By allowing pass holders to show up and take a seat, without reservations, the Festival doesn’t know how many tickets it can sell. The safer, more professional route would be to sell fewer advance tickets and then fill the theater with rush tickets once it can be determined how many seats are left. The current system, which the festival cel admitted was “a crapshoot,” detracts some luster from the operation.
February 7, Robert Redford: We arrived earlier for tonight’s sold-out event, with borrowed passes, to avoid a repeat of last night’s shutout. Even so, the main hall was full and we were relegated to the balcony, which is okay if you’re on an aisle, as we were. When it started, Redford made the wait worthwhile. He was forthcoming, charming, humble, insightful, and above all seemed glad to be here. At 77, he neither looked nor sounded a day over 60. The clips from his iconic films of the ’70s brought back memories, but mainly they were opportunities to bask in his transcendent smile. Young, middle-aged, slightly older, he looked fabulous. The final highlight was an emotional Roger Durling saying that Redford had asked that he, Roger, be his trophy presenter. It was perfect: not only would any other presenter have paled in comparison to Redford, but by implicitly acknowledging Durling as a fellow festival director, it elevated the entire SBIFF.
February 8, Bruce Dern: We got free tickets from the DiCaprio fiasco, we had the night free from the Thompson cancellation, and we were downtown anyway from the SBMA cocktail party, so why not go see the final tribute, to Bruce Dern. Of course, there is the issue of the half-hour wait for the event to begin, another problem the festival should address. It is one thing if the crowd outside demands the star’s attention and she is late coming into the theater, but tonight the theater was half-full, there was no crowd outside and things could have started at 8:15 without any problem. Unlike, say, New York, the Santa Barbara crowd is docile and uncomplaining and, as Siri pointed out, everyone has a cell phone to play with in the meantime. Dern himself was good company. He didn’t have the starring roles of Redford, DiCaprio or Blanchett – the year’s other honorees – but he made something of being “the third cowboy on the right.” He had a story for every movie clip, some more interesting than others, but he more than held up his end of the bargain.
February 8, Writers Panel: By far my favorite event each year, the writers panel features five articulate, usually humorous screenwriters who seem to enjoy each other’s company. Best of all, they all seem to realize this is probably their only time on this stage, and they feel lucky, not entitled. Rather amazingly, this year’s panel featured every one of the Oscar nominees, and their experiences ranged from Bob Nelson (Nebraska), who wrote his first screenplay at 45, to Eric Singer (American Hustle), who admitted, this is the only thing he knows how to do. Most charming was Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers’ Club), who smiled readily at all his colleague’s jokes and had had to wait 20 years for his film to be made. What impressed me the most was just how hard it was to get a film made – and these were all really good films. As Eric Singer said, when everything comes together, it’s like catching lightning in a bottle.
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