To Get “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” Sony Must Dump David Fincher

Girl Who Played with Fire lead 2

by Gabriel Valdez

One of my favorite films in the last few years is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s one of director David Fincher’s most impressive works, a tone poem of oppression, obsession, and rejection.

Daniel Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist is an idealist who suffers at the hands of social manipulators – white collar criminals and sadistic serial killers alike – while Rooney Mara’s  Lisbeth Salander plays his cynical knight in punk-goth armor, a hacker whose only care is to aggressively deconstruct – the identities of others, the clues to a mystery, the life of her abuser, the power foundation of an international bank. She’s one of my favorite heroes on film…well, ever.

Mara recently told E! that she was very doubtful the planned sequel – The Girl Who Played With Fire - would ever come to fruition. “I’m sad never to do it again,” she told Marc Malkin, “but it just doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards.”

Where the problem lies between Fincher and Sony is difficult to say. Much has been written about Fincher’s budget demands, but these may be red herrings or negotiation tactics. The impasse may rely as much on whether the last two films of the trilogy would be shot back to back, and on seemingly endless (and costly) rewrites of the screenplay. Obviously, Fincher’s the best choice to realize the sequel, but this doesn’t mean he’s the only choice.

Sony, who admittedly have created many of the problems they now face with Fincher, has got to deliver an ultimatum. If it isn’t met, they must move on. I want this movie. More importantly, I want it with this cast. I’d like to see Fincher at the helm – if you ask me, no director has changed the face of film more since the 1980s. Yet there are other choices. Here are five suggestions:

I’ve long said that if the pair can’t figure it out, Sony should give David Cronenberg a call. The franchise would exist both inside and outside of Cronenberg’s wheelhouse. He creates darkly horrific tales of mental, physical, and emotional frailty. That’s what this franchise is. Fire might creatively constrain him, though. Could he realize the thrill of discovery and risk that Fincher did? I don’t know.

Mary Harron deserves more work. She once knocked American Psycho out of the park and while she’s experienced at horror, she’s more experienced at exactingly taking the genre apart at its seams, which is the real strength Fincher brings to the table.

Could Steven Soderbergh be coaxed out of his not-really retirement? He’s a career chameleon with a rare ability to direct from the inside-out in any genre, although he can gloss a film over where Fincher is exactingly dispassionate. He’s directed Mara to stunning effect before in Side Effects.

What about Danny Boyle? It wouldn’t be the first time he took over for Fincher, as he’s doing now for the Aaron Sorkin-written Steve Jobs biopic. Boyle is a master of changing voice, pace, and style – 28 Days Later…, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours. He’s not a precise match for the tone Fincher set, but who is?

If you want an out-of-left-field suggestion: Tomas Alfredson, director of Let the Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Few are as good at setting mood. His films are paced glacially, but they always pay off. He’s also as good a director of actors as you can find, and he lends his movies that dispassionate, exacting quality I spoke of earlier while marrying them to a worldview more hauntingly sad.

These are the five who come off the top of my head right away. Obviously, Fincher is the best choice, but with the cast assembled – with core players like Mara and Craig who realized their roles so completely in the first movie…do you really want to lose those and be forced to start over? Do you think a reboot or, oh god no, a TV series (as Mara points out, Sony’s spent too much money on the rights to do nothing with them) would be better? Sony has to figure things out with Fincher. Or do the impossible, and be brave enough to dump and replace him. I don’t want to write this up one day in our Best Movies Never Made section.

Just make sure you keep Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the score, and bring Karen O in for another guest vocal. Because:

(Thanks to moviecritic92 for the heads up on Mara’s comments.)

Go Watch This: Mighty Dubstep Power Rangers

Power Rangers Katee Sackhoff James Van Der Beek

by Rachel Ann Taylor

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was beautifully stupid, but it used a diverse cast and kid-friendly themes to tell far-reaching stories about betrayal, disappointment, and how cheesy friendship could overcome it all. It’s not a classic in the sense that it was good, but its DNA is in the blood of every TV superhero franchise since its inexplicable popularity. I watched it religiously.

Joseph Kahn’s post-apocalypse bootleg short Power/Rangers reimagines their blood-soaked, exploitative future, complete with James Van Der Beek as a traitor and Katee Sackhoff as a grown-up Pink Ranger. Then enjoy the cries of fans waving their wallets in the air in the hope of kicking off a crowdfunding campaign.

Trailers of the Week — Guillermo, Rinko, and Wiig Goes Full Crispin Glover

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter Rinko Kikuchi

by Amanda Smith & Gabriel Valdez

This feature’s been away for a while, so we’ll cover more than just this past week. A number of interesting projects have trailered recently. We’ll start with the biggest and most obvious of the bunch:

CRIMSON PEAK

Few directors have the ability to create such singular story universes as Guillermo Del Toro. He’s never really done a straight horror before, not in the American or British style. All his ghost stories have maintained elements of magical realism and strange logics which often make his ghosts and monsters more misunderstood than evil.

He’s described Crimson Peak as his first straight-up horror film. Tom Hiddleston’s the name here because of his portrayal of Loki in the Thor movies, but it’s all about Mia Wasikowska, who’s quickly used her career boost from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to create as accomplished a resume in horror as one can have by 25; and Jessica Chastain, who’s participated in 18 films in the past four years and hasn’t missed as an actor once.

…and, of course, Doug Jones, as accomplished an actor in makeup and monster effects as Andy Serkis is in motion capture.

KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER

A Japanese woman, rejected by society, discovers a copy of Fargo on tape. She convinces herself it’s a treasure map to the location of the case of money lost in the film, and so she travels to North Dakota in hopes of finding it. The chance to see Kikuchi let loose as an introvert with a loose grasp of reality is the draw here. There aren’t many actors who can reel you in on their name and a sentence-long plot description, but a great performance is still the best reason to see any movie, especially one that looks this darkly comedic and tense.

BILAL

This is an animated movie developed in the United Arab Emirates. It concerns the tale of Bilal ibn Rabah, a warlord who was companion to Muhammad. It does look absolutely beautiful, and it offers the kinds of characters who we don’t often get to see in a movie unless they’re having their heads blown off by a sniper. I won’t pretend that a few more positive portrayals of Muslims on film would quell the voices on both sides calling for bloodshed, but they might convince a few less to respond to those voices.

That alone makes the film unique, although we expect Fox News to whine about brainwashing and evil demons being infused into the seats in the theater or something once it comes out.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

Period romances are one of my least favorite genres. The genre isn’t worse than any other, it’s just not my cup of tea. All that said, Far From the Madding Crowd looks incredible. The Thomas Hardy novel on which it’s based was critical of the cultural expectations of women in 1870s England and Danish director Thomas Vinterberg is experienced at creating challenging social commentary within the frameworks of a variety of genres. His last film, The Hunt, concerned a community creating accusations of predation from thin air in order to persecute a divorced teacher.

WELCOME TO ME

Kristen Wiig is becoming more interesting the closer to Crispen Glover she becomes, because unlike Glover – who purposefully puts off his audience – her biggest concern is still translating her commentary to her audience. She’s challenging, but not confrontational about it. Wiig has Glover’s deconstructionist abilities and mindset, but she’s also concerned with rebuilding something out of what she tears down.

CUT BANK

Welcome to Liam, the Hemsworth who can act. Centering an unwinding, Coen-like “country noir” around Hemsworth, John Malkovich, and Billy Bob Thornton. The director’s an interesting one – half of Matt Shakman’s experience lies in directing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episodes. That makes me think the comedy and multi-tiered plot should be spot on. All that’s left is the tension. It’s in the trailer. Can it make it into the movie?

JAUJA

By now, anything with Viggo Mortensen and a horse in it demands your attention. A Spanish-language feature about a Captain abroad in Argentina, whose daughter runs away, the whole thing looks filmed according to the film rules of 1950s Westerns. That alone makes this enticing – how do you communicate to a modern audience with 1950s film grammar? How does that limit you? What artistic opportunities can you find in that grammar that we’ve since lost?

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

This looks exciting almost purely by benefit of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. If he can bring the same combinations of energy and quirk, the same respect for source material and irreverence for expectations, this adaptation of the 1960s TV show should be a fun ride. The biggest question lies in Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. Can they can match the levels of charm and self-deprecation that Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law bring to Ritchie’s Sherlock films?

BIG GAME

President Samuel L. Jackson + Finnish boy with a bow and arrow = Explosions. This trailer speaks for itself.

INFINITELY POLAR BEAR

This doesn’t actually look all that good, and the title is – who knows where to start on that – but anything combining Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana is worth a look. They both have their big-budget Marvel cred now, but that overshadows how long each of them has been demolishing roles in smaller films for years. Ruffalo’s recognized for it. Saldana ought to be.

POLTERGEIST

Promising. Director Sam Raimi hasn’t had a great film since 2004’s Spider-Man 2 and he hasn’t had a great horror film since 2000’s underrated The Gift. What Raimi does bring is an unbridled sense of fun, and that’s long been missing in American horror. Will he stick to his guns or will he try to accommodate the changing taste in scares that modern audiences have? This is very up in the air.

ALOHA

They should have left the title of this as “Untitled Cameron Crowe Defense Industry Romance.” So much better than “Aloha.” But Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, and Alec Baldwin are an irresistible cast in the hands of someone like Crowe, who’s fallen of the radar quite a bit but has yet to make anything I’d call a bad movie.

WORST TRAILER OF THE WEEK
HITMAN: AGENT 47

Look, everybody, The Matrix had a reason for magic slo-mo back in 1999, but by now it’s all a bit played out, isn’t it? Oh, he’s genetically altered to be able to move faster than a bullet – well, it’s all OK then. Films like this can still be fun – they’re essentially stylistic CGI cutscene orgies – but they can also wear out the viewer very quickly if done wrong. When your two minute trailer opens with all the trademarks of a parody, it’s done wrong. If anything survived from The Matrix, it should have been the goth style instead of bullet time.

The Most Important Actor of 2014

Under the Skin cap

by Gabriel Valdez

The Oscars award the best performance of the year. They don’t take into account the sum total of an actor’s work across that year. What if you took every project an actor worked on, and used that to judge the best actors of 2014?

This year, we have to recognize the 2014 that Scarlett Johansson had. She led the action movies Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Lucy. She displayed incredible range going from a restaurant hostess in the foodie comedy Chef to an alien sociopath in the experimental horror Under the Skin.

Years ago, I had dismissed Johansson as nothing more than a “show horse,” an actor who’s trotted out to look good and not say much. It’s the same way I look at, say, Chris Hemsworth (Thor) now – an actor with limited talent who is nonetheless charming when he’s not asked to do much.

Either Johansson evolved or I was wrong – probably a little bit of both. She was the best thing about Captain America and expanded her Iron Man and Avengers role into a more complex, layered character. Even the Captain doesn’t develop in his film – he’s the same at the end as he is in the beginning. It’s his ethical constancy we admire (and, the film suggests, that all sides in government have lost). It’s Johansson’s Black Widow who’s asked to develop and change over the course of the film. She has to do this without ever taking center stage from Captain America (Chris Evans). That’s a demanding task and, at the same time, she even goes toe-to-toe against the film’s titular villain. It should’ve been called Captain America & Black Widow, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.

This Season's Underslung Grenade Launcher

Lucy isn’t what I’d call a good film – it’s very average – but Johansson is very good in the role, bringing a confused humanity to bear in a character who becomes a demigod. She also proved that her $40 million action movie could beat a more established star’s big budget extravaganza. The two opened the same weekend, but Lucy earned twice as much as The Rock’s Hercules on less than half the budget, adding one more nail in the coffin to the idea that women can’t launch films or lead action movies.

Chef is a joyous comedy that features Johansson at her charming best. She infuses her character with far more nuance than the role demands, and she adds some of the film’s best comedic timing to her scenes with co-star Jon Favreau.

Under the Skin is the most challenging film here, a mature psychosexual thriller in which Johansson plays an alien in the skin of a human. She picks up hitchhikers and others who won’t be missed from the Scottish countryside. In order to film this, hidden cameras followed an unrecognizable Johansson as she prowled the streets of Edinburgh in a nondescript van, talking strangers into the van while completely in character. Most of the later film is scripted, but it’s in these early, improvised moments that Johansson communicates a master manipulator to whom conscience is an incomprehensible notion.

Under the Skin dark center

It’s a deeply disturbing role – she is a sociopath and sexual predator every bit as disturbing as what Anthony Hopkins does to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, except she’s more single-minded. When she arrives at a moment of horror that isn’t of her own making – some swimmers drowning as their lonely child cries on the shore – she communicates a terrifying and inhuman depth of dispassion.

Johansson deserved an Oscar nomination for it, although Under the Skin is the type of film the Oscars wouldn’t recognize in a million years. If her action roles are her calling card as a box office heavyweight and Chef keeps up her indie viability, Under the Skin is the role that reminds us she’s one of the best actors working today, someone who is far more than the show horse I once pegged her as, a high caliber talent just as capable of unsettling and disturbing an audience as she is of charming them.

Does Johansson give the best performance in a single role from last year? The Academy awarded a superb Julianne Moore performance. When we took a poll of seven writers on my website, Johansson barely lost out to the similarly un-nominated Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle. Look at her entire body of work for 2014, however, and it’s hard to deny that Johansson is the Most Important Actor of the Year.

When I asked the six other critics who joined me in our End of Year Awards for best acting and best films, we came up with the following ranking for actors across multiple projects. Here’s the top 10, and the others who earned multiple votes. Obviously, this is very Western-centric. Most of us haven’t had a chance to enjoy very many non-English films from 2014, so please take these rankings with a grain of salt. The world is full of a lot of performances we haven’t seen yet:

1. Scarlett Johansson. We were all in agreement here.

2. Martin Freeman, for his roles in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, BBC’s Sherlock, and FX’s Fargo. Benedict Cumberbatch gets all the fame and glory on Sherlock – what people overlook is that Freeman’s the real gem of the show.

3. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, for her roles in Belle and Beyond the Lights. This group voted her performance in Belle as the best performance by an actress this year.

Interstellar Jessica Chastain

4. Jessica Chastain, for her roles in A Most Violent Year, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Interstellar, and Miss Julie. Only four films in a year is an off-year for Chastain, who would’ve walked away with this in her six-film 2011.

5. Viola Davis, for her roles in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Get on Up, and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. She’s taking part in a sea change on television where minority actors are getting the leads Hollywood refuses them.

6. Matthew McConaughey, for his roles in Interstellar and HBO’s True Detective. Sure, it’s only two projects, but you can’t get much better than these two.

7. Reese Witherspoon, for her roles in Devil’s Knot, The Good Lie, Inherent Vice, and Wild. For launching four films, it’s been an absurdly quiet year for Witherspoon, with little recognition for the amount of work she’s done.

Selma Martin Luther King David Oyelowo

8. David Oyelowo, for roles in A Most Violent Year and Selma, as well as a brief part in Interstellar. Selma is obviously the standout role. The other two are supporting, but he’s just that good in Selma.

9. Willem Dafoe, for roles in A Most Wanted Man, Bad Country, The Fault in Our Stars, The Grand Budapest Hotel, John Wick, Nymphomaniac, and Pasolini. Too bad we don’t give out a workaholic award.

10. Kevin Hart, for his roles in About Last Night, Ride Along, Think Like a Man Too, and Top Five.

Mockingjay Jennifer Lawrence 2

Others who got multiple votes included:

Benedict Cumberbatch, for his roles in The Imitation Game, BBC’s Sherlock, and his motion capture performances in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Common, for his roles in Every Secret Thing, X/Y, Selma, and AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

Michael Ealy, for his roles in About Last Night, Think Like a Man Too, and Fox’s Almost Human.

Mireille Enos, for roles in The Captive, If I Stay, Sabotage, and AMC’s/Netflix’s The Killing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for being the only watchable actor in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and – more importantly – for creating and hosting Pivot TV’s game changing HitRECord on TV.

Chloe Grace-Moretz, for roles in The Equalizer, If I Stay, and Laggies.

Eva Green, for her roles in 300: Rise of an Empire, The Salvation, White Bird in a Blizzard, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and despite her role in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Shia LaBeouf, for his roles in Fury and Nymphomaniac, as well as his Crispin Glover-level performance art that both inhabits and trolls method acting and our obsession with celebrities and their lifestyle.

Jennifer Lawrence, for her roles in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Serena, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. In my eyes, she won this in 2013, but while she was good in 2014, her roles didn’t seem as crucial.

Logan Lerman, for roles in Fury and Noah that both find a young man who wants to co-exist with the world being taught to dominate it instead.

Andy Serkis, for his motion capture roles as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, his uncredited work as Godzilla in Godzilla, as well as behind the scenes motion capture consulting and second unit director work on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Emma Stone, for her roles in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Birdman, and Magic in the Moonlight.

Shailene Woodley, for her roles in Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and White Bird in a Blizzard.

Fight Scene Friday — “The Grandmaster”

by Gabriel Valdez

Ziyi Zhang. Much shade is thrown her way. “She’s a dancer by training,” goes one criticism, which conveniently ignores the by-now years of martial arts training she’s undergone with masters most of us could only dream of tutoring under.

Another criticism reminds us she’s no Michelle Yeoh, as if there can only be one female movie martial artist at a time. And, for that matter, if we’re talking purely practical martial arts skill, Jackie Chan’s no Michelle Yeoh either.

I often hear: she couldn’t actually win that fight. Well, this is probably true for half of movie martial artists. I’m not going to judge which ones could and which ones couldn’t, and that includes Zhang, but if that’s your schtick I’m pretty sure at least half the people who fly in kung fu movies can’t really do that either.

The simple reality is that Zhang is one of the best movie martial artists working today, and she fuses dance with martial arts to realize a balletic choreographic style that is relatively new in much the same way Jackie Chan’s fusion of stuntwork and martial arts once was. Being such a unique talent allows directors to frame their stories around her.

One such film was The Grandmaster, which I ranked as the second best film of 2013. The Grandmaster tells the tale of Ip Man, the Chines historical figure and cultural hero who would later go on to train martial arts cinema’s formative light: Bruce Lee.

Most recountings of Ip Man are mythologized to an egregious extent, but that’s what every culture (including ours) tends to do with historical figures. There are a few things that are intriguing about The Grandmaster‘s retelling, however:

First off, this is director Wong Kar-wai’s only real entry into martial arts cinema. He tends to make movies about love, alternating frame stories, and crime melodrama. His movies are utterly beautiful, almost like moving paintings, as you can see from the scene above.

Secondly, while The Grandmaster as a title seems to refer to Ip Man, the narrative leads you to believe that the grandmaster being spoken about is Ziyi Zhang’s character, Gong Er. She has even defeated Ip Man in a contest of kung fu. She is a woman, however, and so cannot inherit the traditions or certifications of a Chinese martial arts school. Because of China’s attitude toward women, the style her family practiced dies with her, while Ip Man’s style is free to live on through him. In this way, The Grandmaster is an absolutely searing refutation of gender politics in China, and a portrayal of all that’s been lost through China’s focus on patriarchy, privileging men while devaluing women, and focusing on the birth of sons over daughters.

In the scene above, midway through the film, Gong Er confronts Ma San, who has murdered her father and stolen the school’s certifications – and therefore the right to continue teaching the style – for himself.

What’s unique about the choreography is the use of slow motion to focus on the precision of hand movements. Most schools of kung fu focus on rhythm through a precision of hand movements, arm placements, and accompanying steps. The position of a hand can dictate the entire attitude of a movement. By slowing the choreography down, we’re able to see the intentions of key strikes, where they hit and miss. It translates the intention behind each move and how each character shifts attitude in order to counter the other’s. It’s derided by some American critics for being too focused on aesthetic, but the truth is the fight is communicated in terms of each character’s internal strategy better than most full-speed fights.

It stands not just on its scenery and art design, not just on the unique aspects Zhang brings to choreography, but as a fight that plainly communicates how moves are strung together according to this particular martial arts philosophy.

And it’s just one of several such scenes that make The Grandmaster one of the most unique and important martial arts movies ever made.

The Best Screenplays, Directors, and Films of 2014

Gone Girl

How do you split up screenplays and genres of film? Best original and adapted screenplay? The lines bleed into each other. Inception was nominated for Best Original Screenplay a few years ago despite being based on an unpublished short story. How do you judge something like Foxcatcher, which was based on real events. Certainly, it’s more adapted from existing material than, say, Birdman.

And what about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the film that spurred this entire conversation among us. Sure, it’s derived from Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, but does a franchise in its second reboot and third adaptation really have much to do with the original novel anymore? Or is it adapted from the first film franchise? Or Tim Burton’s second (let’s hope not). The point is, while Pierre Boulle certainly deserves credit, is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that particularly adapted from source material, or is it more part of a franchise that chucks as much of the previous Apes baggage overboard in an effort to tell a new story?

So let’s throw adapted and original screenplay out the window.

As for splitting up films, how do we judge these? The Golden Globes split films into drama and musical/comedy categories. This results in some incredible cognitive dissonance, such as In Bruges competing with Mamma Mia! or the entire 2013 slate (American Hustle, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street) having as much claim to dramatic status as they do comedy. Too often, the category is used for films that don’t make the cut of 5 to be considered drama, as if musical/comedy is an extended second class of dramatic film.

I’m not one to complain, either. My comedy of the year for 2014 would be Nightcrawler, the most disturbing and unsettling film I saw. It follows the structure of a rags-to-riches comedy almost to the letter, and it creates audacious moments of black humor – these are key to helping you understand the attraction of its main character’s sociopathy. Nevermind that much of the substance inside the film is dramatic – if we use the old Greek definitions, Nightcrawler is a comedy through and through.

The Oscars don’t bother with categories, but this usually results in less serious films being completely tossed to the side.

So let’s throw drama and comedy categories out the window, too.

What we decided on is budget. Screenplays are written and rewritten for specific budgets, and it’s the primary factor directors must use in shaping their film. How else are we supposed to compare Interstellar and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to, say, Nightcrawler and Birdman?

The demarcation between Best Low Budget Film and Best Big Budget Film is a tricky one. For now, we’re going with $25 million, and our numbers are cobbled together from Box Office Mojo, The-Numbers, and Google Reports. Could someone be lying about their budget? Sure, that happens often, but no one claims a $50 million movie only cost $25 million. It’s not that egregious.

In the future, we may expand this. Right now, a $30 million film like The Grand Budapest Hotel is above the cutoff, and so is in the same category as Interstellar. That’s a little unfair. Maybe we’ll have low, mid, and big budget categories. For now, we’re just sticking to low and big, and it’s a way of recognizing and pushing smaller films while also not discounting films that have more resources and support behind them. To us, it’s a fairer way of doing things than splitting movies up along increasingly fuzzy genre lines or declarations of what is or isn’t adapted. Here we go:

BEST SCREENPLAY, LOW BUDGET

SL: Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo)
Eden: Selma (Paul Webb)
Cleopatra: I Origins (Mike Cahill)
Amanda: Selma (Paul Webb)
Rachel: The Double (Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine)
Vanessa: Selma (Paul Webb)
Gabe: Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)

WINNER
Paul Webb, Selma

Birdman is a marvel of timing, and that begins with the script. I Origins is the hidden gem of 2014, a microbudget thriller that boasts two of the most beautifully break-you-down moments in film I’ve ever witnessed. The Double is based on the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel. I’ve discussed Nightcrawler above – its plot and language are a gift to its actors, filled with high tension scenes and commentary on how we produce and watch news today.

Selma wins, though. Technically, the screenplay’s by Webb alone, but both he and director Ava DuVernay have been open about the fact that she rewrote much of it on the fly. The result is undeniable – a film that considers the place of social activism in a modern world by peeling back the strategy that made it work 50 years ago. Its toughest obstacle was not having the rights to any of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches – Steven Spielberg has those locked up for a film that has yet to come to fruition. This meant that they had to recreate King’s speeches without being able to quote them. In the end, they turn this into a strength of the film, allowing Webb and DuVernay to create commentary that acknowledges many of the struggles African-Americans face today, while still dealing with the plot taking place in 1965.

BEST SCREENPLAY, BIG BUDGET

SL: Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Eden: Interstellar (Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan)
Cleopatra: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver)
Amanda: Noah (Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel)
Rachel: Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Vanessa: Fury (David Ayer)
Gabe: Fury (David Ayer)

WINNERS
David Ayer, Fury
& Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

I don’t think we can pretend there’s any agreement here, but that’s OK. This exercise isn’t about agreement, but rather seeing where our choices converge and where they don’t. I have problems with Interstellar‘s script at points, but there’s no questioning what it achieves in the end – an audaciously philosophical journey with some of the tensest adventure scenes in recent memory. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes boasts one of the most underrated screenplays of the year. Noah is a mad creation that has moments of pure transcendence – when it works, it works like a fever dream.

Gone Girl and Fury are the only two that come away with more than one vote. Gone Girl is such a precise creation, it’s difficult not to marvel at just how well constructed it all is – as a thriller, as a put on, as a takedown of marriage. It’s a beautiful film, and it boggles the mind that it only received one Oscar nomination. Fury, on the other hand, is a singular conceit that uses war to define how men are broken down and retrained in a patriarchal image. It recalls films like Full Metal Jacket not in style, but in how completely it breaks down how men are taught to hate and possess.

BEST DIRECTOR, LOW BUDGET

SL: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Eden: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Cleopatra: Mike Cahill, I Origins
Amanda: Ava DuVernay, Selma
Rachel: Ava DuVernay, Selma
Vanessa: Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin
Gabe: Ava DuVernay, Selma

WINNER
Ava DuVernay, Selma

I’m glad to see Cleopatra sticking up for I Origins. It really is something special, and if we had a microbudget category, I’m pretty sure it would walk away with everything we could give it. Jonathan Glazer was winning this for me most of the year – he lets his artists and performers loose inside the structure of Under the Skin, allowing them each to create elements of it from their own perspective, and then he manages to marry it all together so that those unique perspectives remain intact inside the larger, fused film.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu almost takes this for Birdman, which is an incredible vision, but I think Ava DuVernay simply cannot be denied this year – unless it’s by, you know, the Academy. Her framing, the Edmund Pettus bridge sequence, and how she uses one early moment to completely define the lens through which she wants the viewer to inhabit the rest of the film…there’s as sure a hand to Selma as in any film this year.

BEST DIRECTOR, BIG BUDGET

SL: David Fincher, Gone Girl
Eden: Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Cleopatra: Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Amanda: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Rachel: David Fincher, Gone Girl
Vanessa: David Fincher, Gone Girl
Gabe: Christopher Nolan, Interstellar

WINNERS
David Fincher, Gone Girl
& Christopher Nolan, Interstellar

Well I guess that’s it. David Fincher and Christopher Nolan in a death match. Sorry Wes Anderson. In contrast to our low budget directors, Fincher and Nolan are two very tightly controlling personalities. Fincher, especially, has a reputation for obsessing over every small detail in each scene. This carries over into his films – they each boast a suffocating atmosphere that seems half-intentional, half-artistic byproduct.

Our low budget directors – DuVernay and Glazer, especially – seem to create out of a sort of organized chaos. There’s less opportunity for control when you have less money, and there’s more room to let a day go because things aren’t absolutely perfect when the budget can afford it.

For the next two awards – Best Film for low and big budget – I asked everyone to name their top 3 of the year.

BEST THREE FILMS, LOW BUDGET

SL: Birdman, I Origins, Whiplash
Eden: Under the Skin, The Raid 2, Birdman
Cleopatra: I Origins, Under the Skin, Selma
Amanda: Selma, Only Lovers Left Alive, Belle
Rachel: Selma, Nightcrawler, A Most Violent Year
Vanessa: Under the Skin, Selma, The Raid 2
Gabe: Under the Skin, Selma, I Origins

WINNERS
Selma (5)
Under the Skin (4)
I Origins (3)

Surreal comedy Birdman and Indonesian martial arts epic The Raid 2 both get 2 mentions. Old-fashioned crime epic A Most Violent Year, period drama Belle, Nightcrawler, vampire rock meditation Only Lovers Left Alive, and Black Swan-for-drummers Whiplash also get a mention apiece. I’m surprised there’s nothing her for Foxcatcher.

I’m happy to see that I Origins is being remembered by others, too. It knocked The Raid 2 and The Rover out of that third and fourth place for me, and I Origins makes me lose it (i.e. cry) as much as any film since Requiem for a Dream – albeit for very different reasons.

Under the Skin is a unique experience. It’s been compared to the work of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, but it’s very different from each, and it’s not “art house” either, no matter how many people like to abuse the term. It has more to do with Scotland’s visual arts movement than any of those other comparisons. It gets three first places where Selma gets two, but Selma gets more mentions, so take that however you like. They’re both must-see films if you’re anything of a cinephile. Selma feels like it speaks directly to this moment in U.S. history by offering us a defining look at another.

BEST THREE FILMS, BIG BUDGET

SL: Gone Girl, Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Eden: Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Cleopatra: Interstellar, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Amanda: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Interstellar
Rachel: Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Unbroken
Vanessa: Gone Girl, Interstellar, Fury
Gabe: Interstellar, Fury, Gone Girl

WINNERS
Interstellar (6)
Gone Girl (4)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (3)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes both get two mentions, which goes to show you just how far our comic book and action movies have come in reflecting harder messages (Captain America‘s real assault is against the relationship the military, private contractors, and government hold with each other, while Dawn creates a commentary on the wars of race and hate we can’t seem to escape right now). Fury also gets two mentions, and I really do think it’s the military movie for our time. Hmm, there seems to be an awful lot of commentary on how our military is misused these days.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a beautiful animated movie, and Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s big budget directorial debut about a World War II POW also get a mention. Not many have seen Kaguya, and Unbroken‘s interesting in that critics were repulsed by it and audiences loved it. Go figure.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, the kind of time-hopping, deeply personal confection of a frame story only Wes Anderson could create, gets three votes, and deservedly so.

Gone Girl and Interstellar both get three first places, although Interstellar is on 6 of our lists while Gone Girl only on 4. Again, interpret how you will and, again, both are musts if you’re a cinephile.

Gone Girl is the tightest thriller of the year and suffers mostly because of its intentionally cold exterior. It’s a film that tricks and misleads you the way the best thrillers do, but that values its meta commentary more than the plot and couldn’t care less. Few masterpieces are built around so willfully and unabashedly manipulating their audience.

Interstellar, on the other hand, wears its heart on its sleeve and, if you still don’t see it, will have Matthew McConaughey weep until you do. It’s a brilliantly felt movie, complex and elusive at times, but simple and accessible when you need it to be. Few masterpieces are this honestly emotional without being cloying. Like Under the Skin and Selma, Gone Girl and Interstellar are about as opposite as movie experiences can be.

We hope this is useful to you. It’s not meant to necessarily declare “the best” in something as it is to introduce films you may not have heard, and to remind you of some of the films we liked that were overlooked by awards ceremonies this year.

The Best Performances of 2014

 

Selma courthouse protest

A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars. We found all those minority actors that went missing!

We usually center these awards on the blog around the Oscars. It gives our contributing writers across the year time to catch up. We’ll bleed a little bit past the Oscars this year, but the Academy Awards seem like so much less in a year where they don’t recognize a single actor of a minority ethnicity in 20 nominations. Combined with oversights for films like Belle, Get On Up, and most notably Selma, which was nominated for Best Film despite not being nominated in any other category but Best Song, and our decisions came out a lot different than the Academy’s.

The goal of this exercise wasn’t to do that, it was just to poll our contributing writers for their own choices in the acting awards. It’s hard to avoid noticing, however, that the majority of choices in a year when the Academy ignores them belong to actors of minority ethnicities.

We did briefly discuss getting rid of gender in these categories, but due to the nature of which movies get made – about 45% still don’t even include two women talking to each other – we quickly found the supporting categories dominated by women and the leading categories dominated by men. This isn’t a judgment on the quality of either gender in these categories; it’s a reflection of how Hollywood makes more films led by men. Because of that, we left the gender splits intact, at least this year.

All of our selections were made blind from each other. We were asked not to discuss them beforehand. Selecting for us today are:

S.L. Fevre, contributing writer;
Eden O’Nuallain, editor;
Cleopatra Parnell, contributing writer, music videos;
Amanda Smith, contributing writer, music;
Rachel Ann Taylor, contributing writer, film;
Vanessa Tottle, creative director;
and myself, Gabriel Valdez, the lead writer.

Let’s get started with our choices for best supporting actress:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
SL: Emma Stone, Birdman
Eden: Mireille Enos, Sabotage
Cleopatra: Oprah Winfrey, Selma
Amanda: Carmen Ejogo, Selma
Rachel: Rene Russo, Nightcrawler
Vanessa: Carmen Ejogo, Selma
Gabe: Carmen Ejogo, Selma

WINNER
Carmen Ejogo, Selma

Emma Stone is a breakout in Birdman. I’m pretty pleased to see Mireille Enos here, too. Sabotage was, er, sabotaged by its studio, but as a drug-addicted bounty hunter, Mireille Enos played as far afield from her lead in The Killing as you could ask. Oprah Winfrey is exceptional in Selma. We sometimes forget, due to her long career as a talk show host, that the woman can act. Rene Russo is, to me, one of the biggest Oscar oversights this year. Her morning news producer out for the bloodiest story in Nightcrawler is the role of her career. At least the British Academy Awards recognized her for it.

Ultimately, however, Carmen Ejogo is the actor whose duty it is to anchor those around her, both in mastering the beautiful language in Selma and as the foil to David Oyelowo’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King feels all the emotions that Martin can’t allow himself to display and, in many ways, she’s the beating heart of the film – taking care of him, taking care of his business when he can’t, abiding his transgressions, and often being the stronger hero of the film. She felt more real to me than anyone else.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
SL: Henry G. Sanders, Selma
Eden: Edward Norton, Birdman
Cleopatra: Toby Kebbel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Amanda: Nelsan Ellis, Get On Up
Rachel: Shia LaBeouf, Fury
Vanessa: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Gabe: Robert Pattinson, The Rover

WINNER
7-way Tie
(the following clip features Henry G. Sanders)

Well, I’m glad we sorted that out.

Henry G. Sanders, as the survivor to a grandson shot dead in Selma, gives us one of the most heartwrenching scenes of the year. Edward Norton gives us one of the most fun roles, and he’s one of the few actors who could portray a character so method that he has no idea what personality he’ll take in the next scene. Toby Kebbel did the motion-capture for Koba, one of the chimpanzees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and you can see even through the visual effects just how incredible a performance he gives. Nelsan Ellis plays best friend to James Brown in Get On Up, Shia LaBeouf makes you cry in Fury, J.K. Simmons will probably win the Oscar for his demanding music instructor in Whiplash, and I’ve written extensively about Robert Pattinson’s hero worshipper of questionable intelligence in Australian postapocalypse film The Rover.

BEST ACTOR
SL: David Oyelowo, Selma
Eden: Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Cleopatra: Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up
Amanda: Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up
Rachel: Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year
Vanessa: David Oyelowo, Selma
Gabe: Guy Pearce, The Rover

WINNERS
Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up
& David Oyelowo, Selma

Jake Gyllenhaal is terrifying in Nightcrawler, a film unique in how it follows all the beats of a rags-to-riches comedy but confronts you with its terrifying realities. The acting moment of the year that’s seared into my mind belong to Guy Pearce in The Rover. One of the most interesting things, however, is that 5 of our 7 spots went to minority actors. You may want me to shut up about the Oscars not recognizing a single one, but it’s kind of a big deal, especially when you consider that the Academy is 93% white.

Regardless, Oscar Isaac gives an old fashioned crime thriller performance halfway between Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino in A Most Violent Year. It’s restrained but holds incredible power. Chadwick Boseman is marvelous as soul singer James Brown in Get On Up. Between this and his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in 42, Boseman has shown incredible range and capability to emulate real-life figures. David Oyelowo, of course, gives us a stunning portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead of offering up an icon, he delivers someone real, someone you can imagine sitting opposite, who you can watch think and struggle with decisions. It dismantles the notion of King as an unattainable legend and re-establishes his success as the product of intelligence and perseverance, strengths that – unlike myth – we can all share and strive toward.

BEST ACTRESS
SL: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
Eden: Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Cleopatra: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
Amanda: Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive
Rachel: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
Vanessa: Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Gabe: Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin

WINNERS
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
& Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle

I did not see this coming. I was convinced we were going to tilt Johansson – lord knows enough of us love Under the Skin and her portrayal of a sociopath who learns her own identity crisis. Belle has been making the rounds recently, though. I have a half-dozen messages in my inbox about it, and it looks like I probably should have taken heed. Apparently, Mbatha-Raw is utterly captivating in the period romance that deals with race politics and the power of art to break barriers. I know Amanda’s big on Only Lovers Left Alive, so I’m happy to see Tilda Swinton mentioned for an acting style that closes the gap with performance art.

BEST ENSEMBLE
SL: Selma
Eden: Birdman
Cleopatra: Selma
Amanda: Get On Up
Rachel: Gone Girl
Vanessa: Selma
Gabe: Selma

WINNER
Selma

One for Birdman, which boasts as terrific and hilarious a cast as you can get. One for Get On Up, which is a severely underrated experiment in musical biography. One for Gone Girl and its clever use of casting and audience expectations in dictating how its audience approaches its story.

And four for Selma, which demonstrates that successful social activism does not result from the willpower of a single man, but rather is the sum of intelligent and studied men and women who discuss and trust each other, who temper each other’s harshest reactions and cooperate toward a goal. Selma becomes a synergy not just of cast, but of characters, and defines history as a group of allies who converge on a moment rather than as the myth of one man in isolation. It makes activism feel accessible, and the use of this ensemble refuses to cordon history off as myth, instead arguing that understanding it at a ground level is our responsibility. It asks us to recognize civil disobedience as a tool rather than an artifact, and its ensemble is perfectly assembled and directed to realize this.

Thank you to our writers for joining us on this exercise. We’ll be choosing the best screenplays, directors, and films of 2014 soon!

Movies and how they change you.

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