I’ve seen at least a couple of lists of 30 or 40 movies people are likely to anticipate the most this year. I have to admit, I’m willing to get excited about a lot of them, too.
It’s not a big secret that 2013 wasn’t a big deal to me, a fact at least two people have now told me was an incorrect opinion on my part (I’ve never really understood the logic of an assessment like that, but fine). 2014 has so far involved the Golden Globes (I didn’t watch), people ripping apart the Photoshop job on Black Widow’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier poster, renewed attention for the Woody Allen child molestation accusations that first appeared in the early 90’s, and vague mutterings about the Oscars.
We’re already looking at a full plate. The Oscars are better off with Ellen DeGeneres hosting, although I still feel that Seth MacFarlane did a good enough job. The snubs were somehow more obvious than in years past (how did Emma Thompson get overlooked for Best Actress, or Pacific Rimfor its game-changing visuals?). All in all, the surprises for the March telecast are likely to be non-existent. The Golden Globes provided their usual Academy likelihoods. Unless there has been some monumental change in the vast majority of Academy voters, you’re probably not going to strain any mental faculties making your Oscar picks.
And you probably will make some picks. Some people claim they don’t care about the show, and actually back that up by not watching it, not discussing it, and not bothering to pretend they did otherwise. A larger group of people are going to claim they don’t care about the show, and watch it anyway. They will then use their perception of the poor choices that were made with the winners to justify why they never actually cared in the first place.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a great way to spend three hours of your life. Nothing emphasizes your commitment to not caring about something more than inviting it into your home for a three-hour telecast.
At any rate, I’m no better. I’ve said it before, and I’m willing to mention again that I watch the Oscars mostly for the sake of ritual. It was great to see some of the nominees that were announced a couple of weeks ago, but the long list of people who were ignored combines with the lack of significant surprises to leave me looking at a field of contenders who deserve better competition. It’s awesome to see people like Lupita Nyong’o pick up a first-time nomination, Bruce Dern get his first one in decades, Meryl Streep prove yet again that she deserves her rabid fan base, or Leonardo DiCaprio dare his own fan base to hope for a positive outcome yet again (he might just win this time, too). Is it unreasonable to want an Oscar field to boast a few unexpected choices? I don’t think so. The 2014 nominees are fine, but I’m not going to pretend I don’t personally think the overall range of possibilities couldn’t have been a little better.
The Oscars are whatever the Oscars going to be. The loss of Phillip Seymour Hoffman to his art form cannot be measured. That Black Widow poster could have been better. I didn’t think it’s that bad, but I can see the arguments against it. Dylan Farrow’s triggering letter about Woody Allen, regardless of how you feel about the matter, is going to lead to a lot of tragic victim-blaming and disgusting, instant disregard from fans. We’re just going to have to wait and see with the additions of Jesse Eisenberg and Jeremy Irons to the cast of the Batman/Superman movie. The 2014 releases offer more potential for good than for disappointment.
The year is already proving to be a busy one. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to watch or read the rest of the news of the world, there are a number of things within film that you can pay attention to instead.
Blue Jasmine (2013):
With Blue Jasmine, which takes a few narrative cues from A Streetcar Named Desire, I’m hard-pressed to think of another Woody Allen movie that messed with my head as intensely as this one did. Most of that is because of Cate Blanchett. Although Blue Jasmine is superbly-made, telling its excellent variation on the Tennessee Williams play with the usual assortment of fantastic supporting actors (I never thought I would say something like “Andrew Dice Clay gave a really good performance”), the show belongs to Blanchett. Intensity has never been a problem for her. As an arrogant, willfully ignorant socialite taking the long way down to complete ruin, she creates one of the most uncomfortable, consuming portrayals of a complete psychotic breakdown ever put to film. The story moves between past and present, giving us hints in her glamorous existence as the wife of a businessman (Alec Baldwin) of a mind with cracks all along its surface. When her husband winds up arrested for an assortment of shady dealings, and she is forced to live with her sister and her boyfriend (both Bobby Cannavale and Sally Hawkins are perfect), we start to see that these are cracks begin to reveal, substantial, irreversible damage. The trailers for Blue Jasmine hint that all of this is going to be pretty funny, for the most part. While there are a number of humorous moments throughout Blue Jasmine, it is in fact one of the grimmest films Allen has ever made. A healthy mind would almost certainly collapse under the weight of all the consequence’s Blanchett’s character is made to face. A mind’s been sinking into the abyss for a long time to begin with is going to be left as a pile of dust. We are made to watch every moment of this process. When we leave her character, in a position that can only be described as “hopeless”, trying to get a get a grip on what we’ve just seen Blanchett do as an actress is the kind of task that has you feeling just a little uncomfortable in your own skin. No one amongst the Best Actress nominees deserves to win more than she does.
The Panic in Needle Park (1971): A-
It’s been over forty years since Al Pacino starred in his first film. The Panic in Needle Park is a New York film, taking place in the kind of New York that doesn’t exist anymore (some people romanticize this), and that can be interesting in of itself. Films that were actually shot in New York City during the 60’s and 70’s represent a fascinating perspective on a city that is presently a much different entity than it was in that time and place. The Panic in Needle Park was designed to be a gritty, despairing look at two junkies in love in that time and place. It succeeded in that venture, getting Pacino closer to the star power he would enjoy after The Godfather came out a couple of years later. If Pacino had never become an A-list name, The Panic in Needle Park would be a profound example of potential that was never fully realized. Even as this is one of his best performances from his work in the 1970’s (and that’s saying a lot), the film itself is still one of the best addiction stories ever told in a cinematic setting. As we watch the relationship begin between the characters played by Pacino and Kitty Winn (who won a Best Actress at Cannes for this) begin, develop, and eventually crumble, nothing ever becomes idealized or glossy. The Panic in Needle Park never feels artificial. It begins in appalling circumstances, and it ends there. Love, drugs, and the flashes of immortality caused by both does nothing to change that. The sad, corrupt, desperate people who make up The Panic in Needle Park do the best they can. That fact alone makes for a film that retains its ability to command attention from the viewer.
The Lady in the Window (1944): A+
One of the films that inspired the use of the term “film noir” to describe a certain type of film, The Lady in the Window is also still an entertaining piece of that history. Director Fritz Lang had numerous examples of films that featured mysterious people with less-than-credible stories, and what happens when those people find themselves connecting in some diner or dive bar, in some weary part of a shadowy town. The atmosphere and story will likely come across as flawless to noir fans. The performances measure up to the movie’s reputation, as well. Those who know the career of Edward G. Robinson know he was capable of playing a lot more than gangsters. He’s instantly believable as a married man quickly swept up in murder and other things by a chance encounter with a beautiful woman (Joan Bennett). All the technical and storytelling successes of this film aside, the most fun to be had with The Lady in the Window is in watching this man try to get out of the mess he’s helped to create. As much as you may think you know these types of films, this film still has the ability to make you doubt your suspicions as to how everything is going to come together. That alone makes it worth watching on a rainy afternoon.
Pacific Rim (2013): A-
I did in fact see this film a little while ago, but the recent Oscar snub for its special effects (really, Academy? Really?) compels me to finally put it in a column. There’s an argument to be made for the film being good enough to deserve writing and acting honors, as well. Pacific Rim is the kind of movie that those who grew up watching mecha Anime have always dreamed of seeing in a live-action setting. It makes sense that Guillermo del Toro would be responsible (alongside Travis Beacham) for bringing something as ambitious as this to life. He can create popcorn spectacle of the highest quality. He also understands that a true film epic has room for engaging, rich performances and complex themes, alongside giant robots and planet-devouring monsters. By virtue of the very definition of the film epic concept, it’s possible to do this. Pacific Rim has a lot of fun with heroic figures strapping in to mechas to do battle with god-like creates from another dimension. It also gives Idris Elba the chance to be the badass fans of Luther (or if you saw Prometheus) already knew he was. You certainly can’t talk about Pacific Rim without talking about the comedy relief contributions of Charlie Day and del Toro regular Ron Perlman. And then there’s the relationship between Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket and Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori. What most films would relegate to the basic status of the expected love story is given a much broader treatment through del Toro and Beacham’s screenplay. There is most certainly a romance, but the acting and writing are such that it’s much more than that. Each of these characters is unique enough that when they do come together, their relationship suggests layers that go far beyond romantic subplot 101. It is as important a component to why Pacific Rim is such a profound achievement on so many levels as those stunning visuals and mind-boggling action sequences. Don’t mourn Pacific Rim’s inability to beat Grown Ups 2 at the box office. Instead, be encouraged that films like these can be made, and will continue to be made, regardless of the industry obstacles they might face.
Man of Steel (2013): D+
I sometimes wonder if my indifference-at-best attitude towards the arrival of a new Superman movie (there are a few I wind up liking a great deal) is because of my indifference-at-best attitude towards the Superman character in general. And then I remember that I’ve had a pretty good time with the Thor movies, in spite of not having particularly strong feelings about that character either. Man of Steel is perhaps even more dismal a failure than Superman Returns. This is largely because Man of Steel has to not only function as a cinematic reboot of the character, but as D.C. Comics trying to establish a foundation for its future Justice League film plans. Henry Cavill looks good in the cape, but an overambitious script, one that’s far too eager to try to jam everything into a two-hours-and-twenty-minutes running time, dooms him from the beginning. As hard as he tries, he winds up being another reminder of why Batman is perhaps more relevant than Superman in this day and age. There are a lot of potential reasons for why that’s the case, and the one that always makes sense to me is that there’s only so much you can do with this character. I think a good movie with Superman is possible. I think Man of Steel tries to be that, but self-destructs under the pressure of wanting to be everything to everybody. The action in Man of Steel is almost pathetic in how badly it wants you to believe in certain things. The action scenes aspire to be intense, and the ensemble cast all work to attempt to create their own meaningful interpretations of these characters (I’m not surprised that Michael Shannon is the only person in Man of Steel who managed to keep my attention). We’re supposed to be left with a sense of excitement about where the next movie is likely going to go. Although I am actually pretty keen to see what happens with that Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman movie in 2016, none of that interest has been generated by Man of Steel. It starts off reasonably well (when did Kevin Costner become a consistently reliable character actor?), becomes a chore to sit through quite quickly, and ends with very little to show for everything it had to work with. With very little substance to be found, Man of Steel is another Zach Snyder effort that tries to get by on pure aesthetics and energy, neither of which comes across as well as everyone involved in the making of this wants them to. Given that Snyder has worked well with comic book properties before (Watchmen), the overall letdown of Man of Steel is a shame.