Monday, March 31, 2014

Batter Up! Five Great Baseball Movies

Today marks Opening Day for the 2014 Major League Baseball season. As my favorite team prepares to defend their World Series title (Boston Strong!), it seems like an appropriate time to recommend some of my personal favorite baseball-themed movies. So grab some peanuts and cracker jacks and check out these cinematic odes to America's pastime.

Field of Dreams (dir. Phil Alden Robinson, 1989)


There's something about baseball that brings out the romantic in all of us. It's a sport that's become quintessentially American in the national imagination (despite European origins), and has also become synonymous with summer wholesomeness. So Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner stars as a man who is told by voices to build a baseball field in the middle of his farm, is naturally reverent, cheesy, and sentimental. But when the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" step out of the shadows, just try not to be enthralled. This is a story about redemption, through and through, and it's a moving tribute to the power of sports to inspire.

Bull Durham (dir. Ron Shelton, 1988)


Kevin Costner's kind of the all-star of baseball movies. Just one year before Field of Dreams, he starred in Bull Durham, which finds him playing aging minor-league pitcher Crash, who's brought up to help an up-and-coming pitcher (Tim Robbins) who has a shot at the majors. The only problem: they both love the same woman (Susan Sarandon), who's a self-proclaimed worshipper in the "Church of Baseball." No other film does a better job at portraying the limbo of the minor leagues, and the film firmly believes in the tradition and power that baseball carries. And I will admit, this one is a personal favorite for being a North Carolina production that features two of my "hometown" teams: the AAA-level Durham Bulls (which gives the film its name) and the A-level Asheville Tourists* (where Crash eventually plays).

*Yes, the Asheville team is really called "the Tourists." The scoreboard reads "Visitors" and "Tourists." If you're going to have a ridiculous mascot, you absolutely have to own it.

The Sandlot (dir. David M. Evans, 1993)


A group of kids play baseball together on an empty lot and have various adventures over the course of a single summer. It's a coming-of-age story, sure, but it's the kind that kids everywhere can relate too: building friendships off a shared sport, navigating the perils of adolescence, and being part of a world that seems to be constantly expanding. I played Little League baseball some as a kid, but my fondest memory of this movie was seeing it in rotation on every school field trip between 5th and 8th grade that involved a charter bus with televisions on it (the other movie was, without fail, Like Mike). It perfectly captures those moments growing up.

A League of Their Own (dir. Penny Marshall, 1992)


"There's no crying in baseball!" Tom Hanks made this line famous, but the film itself proves that there can be crying, be it from the agony of defeat or the glory of triumph. Telling the story of the all-women baseball teams that emerged during World War II, the film features terrific performances from Geena Davis, Hanks, Madonna, and Rosie O'Donnell (no kidding!), and belongs to a long tradition of films about sports as an act of rebellion. Most importantly, though, it's entertaining throughout, and just try not to get choked up by the ending.

Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller, 2011)


Moneyball is a baseball movie that's not really about baseball. Brad Pitt, in the single greatest performance of his career thus far, plays Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who experiments with a new way of building his team: instead of going for expensive stars who can hit home runs, go for less-expensive players who may be "misfits," but can get on base. Though his experiment gets them to the playoffs, it doesn't win the A's a World Series, but his system of "sabermetrics" forever changes the way teams view players. At it's heart, though, this is a film about constantly being an underdog, with Beane's daughter providing the film's ultimate message: "just enjoy the show."

What are your favorite baseball movies?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Who is the Action Hero World Champion?

Yesterday, Grantland's Bill Simmons posed the question of who holds the action-hero championship belt, and then provided an extensive history of who's passed it on to whom and how long they held their title. It's a truly fascinating piece, and serves as a rich history to the kinds of red-meat films that we cinephiles often ignore in favor of celebrating whatever Martin Scorsese or the Dardennes Brothers have completed.

Sure, it's a very objective process, and the criteria Simmons uses certainly eliminates a lot of famous action heroes and heroines from contention. It had to be done: he defines "action hero" as the protagonist of a very specific kind of movie, which makes determining a champion much easier. But it also highlights two very different things. The first is that there are number of truly great action-movie performances that never spawned action-oriented careers. For example, one of the first ones to come to my mind was Sigourney Weaver's Lt. Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies, but particularly 1986's Aliens. But Weaver never really pursued a career as an action star, so she didn't count toward this project. There were some who made the list who moved on to other types of projects - Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, and Denzel Washington, for example - but they had streaks where they starred in consecutive action movies. It's the "one-hit wonders," for lack of a better term, who missed out.

Bruce Willis in Die Hard

More after the jump.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

American Horror Story: Coven (Season Three)

*This review contains SPOILERS for season three (Coven).*

Even though True Detective swiped its "one story, one season, rotating cast" approach to television storytelling, there really isn't anything on TV quite like American Horror Story. AHS fully embraces its campy spirit, while delivering some genuine scares (or at least grotesques) through its balls-to-the-wall approach to storytelling. Part of the fun of watching this show is watching it constantly try to one-up itself, piling chaotic element atop chaotic element and then watching the whole thing fly of the rails into a delirious Grand Guignol. Twin Peaks and Lost are probably the only other major shows in television history to be this openly weird.


The show's third season, subtitled Coven, applied that anything-goes storytelling to a school for young witches in New Orleans. Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) can kill people by having sex with them, Madison (Emma Roberts) is a Hollywood star with telekinetic powers, Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) is basically a human voodoo doll, and Nan (Jamie Brewer) can read people's minds. Presiding over the school is Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), who has a toxic relationship with her mother, Fiona (Jessica Lange). Fiona is also the Supreme, the most powerful witch in the world, but she's getting older, and soon she's going to have to choose her replacement. Fiona's enemy, Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), is engaging in warfare with the school. There's a self-taught witch who lives in a swamp, Misty Day (Lily Rabe), who possesses extraordinary resurrection powers and could be the next Supreme. Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), a notorious serial killer in antebellum New Orleans, is discovered to still be alive in her coffin and is unearthed. And Cordelia's mother figure, Myrtle (Frances Conroy), is now the head of the Witches Council and is inspecting the coven.

That's a lot happening all at once, but on this show, it's pretty much the norm. Coven differs from its predecessors, though, in how it handles all of this material.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: L.A. Confidential (1997)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Serious question: is there any other "old Hollywood" genre that has been as imitated, deconstructed and re-worked as the film noir? Of course, the most famous example is Chinatown, Roman Polanski's classic 1974 film that put a unique spin on the noir idea and became the favorite example of film professors everywhere. Similarly, Jean-Luc Godard demonstrated the noir's artifice in his breakthrough film Breathless, in which the genre's surly detectives are figures to be imitated. Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye brought famed literary detective Phillip Marlowe into the free-wheeling California of the 1970s, and Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang tossed in a healthy portion of modernity and millennial irony to the mix. It makes sense that the genre would be such a point of fascination: it's essentially dark, with characters witnessing the seedy depths of human behavior, with the good men winning but at what cost to their souls?


In 1997, L.A. Confidential joined the list of deconstructed neo-noirs. Curtis Hanson's film, based on a novel of the same name by James Ellroy, follows three different policemen in 1950s Los Angeles who become involved in the same case. "Hollywood" Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a superstar, the police consultant on the cop TV show Badge of Honor (a clear homage to Dragnet) who also gives exclusives to Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), the writer for gossip magazine Hush Hush. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a quick-tempered beat cop who's something of an avenging angel for battered women. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is by-the-book and more than a little dweebish, often described as a "politician" by Chief Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). When Bud's partner Stensland (Graham Beckel) is found murdered, along with several other people including a woman who looks like Rita Hayworth, the case consumes all three men, and it reaches much further than any of them could have imagined.

More after the jump.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Girls: Season 3

*This review contains SPOILERS for the entire season.*

The third season of Girls, actress/writer/director Lena Dunham's HBO comedy, was perhaps the "funniest" that the show has done yet. Ever since the show premiered in April 2012, it's been lobbed with numerous criticisms, ranging from issues of diversity (most valid) to whether or not Dunham is an appropriate role model for young girls (this has been a Fox News pet cause, missing the fact that this isn't really a show for young girls but rather young women). But the most common criticism has been that the show isn't really a "comedy," because it lacks "jokes" and relies mostly on cringe-worthy moments of embarrassment for its characters. Though it describes itself as a "comedy," there aren't very many laugh-out-loud moments in any given episode, if there are really any at all.


In a way, the third season seemed to at least be somewhat interested in this. The first couple of episodes, particularly "Females Only," "Truth or Dare," and "Dead Inside," were set up almost like episodes of a sitcom, with a collection of the characters interacting around a central conflict and delivering humorous dialogue and actions. The show also added sitcom veteran Paul Simms (NewsRadio, The Larry Sanders Show) to a writers' room that already included Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), giving the impression that there would be more humor. Though the show did drift back into its normal rhythm, there was an added element of humor peppered throughout the season.

But the truth is, Girls isn't interested in being funny. This is a "comedy" in the classical Greek sense, in which two groups of people are pitted against one another in an amusing fashion. The difference is, the characters of Girls aren't fighting others so much as they are fighting themselves.

More after the jump.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #8

"For viewers' attention: This Film Presents an Experiment in the Cinematic Communication of Visible Events without the Aid of Intertitles, without the Aid of a Scenario, without the Aid of Theatre. This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of Cinema based on its total separation from the language of Theatre and Literature. Author-Supervisor of the Experiment, DZIGA VERTOV."

The above declaration begins Soviet avant-garde filmmaker Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, immediately establishing the purpose of this "film." This column has touched several times on the concept of "pure cinematography," in which a film conveys its central plot/themes almost completely through images rather than exposition. However, in nearly all of those films, there is still a plot, characters, and motivations; they are still tied to the basic tenants of narrative storytelling. Vertov, however, made a film that frees itself from those same tenants, creating a brief work that demonstrates the possibilities of cinema in its infancy.


Vertov was best known as a documentarian in 1920s Soviet Union, and was part of a group of like-minded filmmakers known as the kinoks, or "kino-eyes." These filmmakers attempted to apply Marxist principles to cinema, and Vertov was one of their key figures. Man with a Movie Camera follows 24 hours in an unnamed Soviet city (actually filmed in three different cities over the course of three years), with the only consistent figure being a cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman, Vertov's brother) seen occasionally. As the introduction states, there's no plot, no characterization, and no writing to explain the action. In this regard, he's created a film that is completely untethered from the strictures of narrative, and it creates an experience that is more universal and impressionistic.

More after the jump.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

It hit me a few months ago when I was watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? for an upcoming project: I admire the films of Joel & Ethan Coen more than I like them. Allow me to explain: I do enjoy some of their movies. Raising Arizona is a madcap goof that perfectly channels Nicolas Cage's manic energy, The Big Lebowski has a shambling plot that matches it's slacker attitude and Jeff Bridge's terrific performance, and No Country for Old Men makes perfect use of minimalism to create a powerful examination of violence. You can add Barton Fink, Fargo, and Burn After Reading to the list of Coen Brothers films I actively like as well. But there's a distance in their films that makes it difficult for me to really enjoy most of them. Specifically, it's a distance between themselves and the audience, one that's likely intentional, but even though it allows me to enjoy the formal elements at play, I have a hard time connecting with what I'm seeing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it works well with the material (as in the above examples), but most of the time it just doesn't work for me.


Inside Llewyn Davis, the directors' most recent film, centers on a struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) in 1960s New York. He shuffles from one gig to the next, couch-hopping in between session work that he doesn't get paid for. An affair with Jean (Carey Mulligan) has resulted in pregnancy and her barely-contained animosity toward him, and he's barely got any money left. Like many Coen protagonists, the world keeps dealing him a bad hand, despite the fact that he does have real talent.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sofia Coppola's "The Little Mermaid," and Other Fairy Tale Adaptations I'd Like to See

Yesterday, it was announced that Sofia Coppola would take the reins of a new adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Mermaid." Supposedly, this new take would hew closer to Andersen's darker, more depressing original tale than the lively animated Disney version we all know and love. It's not really a stretch for Coppola, either. Yes, she's mostly made films about being bored and rich, particularly in Los Angeles. But her best films - Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring - have centered on people who feel lost in their worlds, and enter a new one to varying degrees. So thematically, it's right in her wheelhouse, and it would be great to see her stretch herself by tackling bigger, different projects (I wanted her to take the reins of a Twilight film, just to see what that would look like).

Anyway, the announcement got me thinking: since the "fairy-tale reinvention" genre is obviously here to stay for the foreseeable future, what other filmmakers would make inspiring choices to helm one of these films? Check out my suggestions, after the jump.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

The first time I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I was a freshman in high school, and the film itself, having come out in 2004, was a little over a year old and had just won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. That's actually how the film really came to my attention, being the avid Oscar-watcher that I was already. This was an age when I would go to the nearest Blockbuster Video - which was in the next town over - to rent a movie, usually picking one after wandering around the entire store while Rob Thomas' "Lonely No More" played on a seemingly endless loop. They were simpler times, to be sure. But what interested me was the basic premise: a man elects to have his memory of a "terrible" relationship erased, only to realize that maybe what he had wasn't so bad after all.


Watching it for the first time, I immediately connected with Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey).
More after the jump.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Three Pilots: "Cosmos," "Believe," and "Resurrection"

Last week, three new pilots premiered on the big networks, each with a high-concept premise. On ABC, the dead come back to life, unchanged, in Resurrection. FOX revives Carl Sagan's classic science program Cosmos, with a little help from Seth MacFarlane. NBC, meanwhile, has Believe, a show about a girl with special abilities that was co-created by Alfonso Cuaron and produced by J.J. Abrams. So how do they stack up?

For the purposes of these reviews, I only watched the pilots. All three shows have since aired an additional episode, and air on Sunday nights.

"Standing Up in the Milky Way," Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey


In 1980, Carl Sagan, a scientist at Cornell University in New York, created a thirteen-part miniseries called Cosmos: A Personal Journey for PBS. The show covered a number of scientific fields, particularly astronomy, and as it became the most-watched program in PBS' history, Sagan became the public face of scientific advocacy. There have been other "science for the masses" programs since then, such as Bill Nye the Science Guy, but none have quite captured national attention quite the way Cosmos did. FOX's sequel series attempts to bring scientific-educational programming back to primetime, and with connections to the original series: Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy) was a fan of the original series, and he recruited original-series producer Ann Druyan (also Sagan's widow) and Sagan protege Neil deGrasse Tyson to host.

More after the jump.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Day of Rest


After long travels, I'm taking the day off. I'll have something new written up for tomorrow. I'll see you then.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"Louie" Return Date Set


FX has finally announced a return date for Louis C.K.'s incredible show, Louie, and it's coming sooner than I had expected: May 5 at 10 pm. That's nearly 19 months since the finale of season three, which has been way too much time. Thankfully, it was for good reason: C.K. wanted to take a break from the show to work on new ideas and focus on his stand-up tour, which produced the terrific Oh My God special that aired on HBO last year. Last year, I listed it as my favorite show currently on television, and I stand by that assessment. May 5 can't get here soon enough.

*I also apologize for the shortness of these posts lately - I've been on the road much of the past week and as a result, I haven't much time to watch anything or write extensively. I'll be settled back in soon, and I promise more in-depth posts are coming.*

Friday, March 14, 2014

ScarJos in the Mist

I listed Jonathan Glazer's upcoming film Under the Skin as one of my most anticipated of the year, and with less than a month to go before the release date, a slew of new posters for the film have turned up on the Internet. The plot of the film involves Scarlett Johansson playing a people-eating alien prowling Scotland for new prey, though I've been avoiding finding out any other details so that the experience will be fresh and exciting. Below are two of my favorites of the new posters:


I'm glad that Johansson has found happiness and will soon be having a child, but she's finally taking on the kinds of roles that prove her considerable, underrated talents as an actress. Hopefully if she does take a hiatus from acting, she'll continue taking these kinds of challenging roles.


This one is just so spooky: the retina seems to turn into a black hole, continuing infinitely but existing outside of our own reality. Beautifully done.


You almost have to lean in to see Johansson in this one. She's hiding in plain sight, just like her character in the movie (presumably). It's very evocative.

Under the Skin comes out April 4 in the US. Are you excited about it as well?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Telling "Ghost Stories:" Coldplay's New Song(s) and Album


Over the past few weeks, Coldplay has released two new songs and announced the name and release date of their sixth album: Ghost Stories and May 19, respectively. I've written briefly, long ago, about being a dedicated Coldplay fan, defending their unfairly-maligned 2011 album Mylo Xyloto as a bold step forward into the changing sound of rock music. In 2012, when the band had announced a three-year hiatus from touring, I wondered if this meant they were going to be working on new material or if this meant they were taking a break, period. Many assumed the former, and when they contributed the beautiful song "Atlas" to the soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it certainly seemed like a new album was imminent. With their new material, they seem to be taking that new, electronic-influenced sound even further.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Happy Birthday to Liza Minnelli

Today is Liza Minnelli's 68th birthday, and thankfully she was briefly back in the public conscious thanks to her appearance at the Academy Awards earlier this month.

At the Oscars earlier this year

The child of actress Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli (An American in Paris), Liza was, quite literally, born to be a star. Though her film roles have been limited - she last appeared on the big screen in 2006's The Oh in Ohio - she won the Best Actress Oscar in 1972 for playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret, a performance that has been praised as the best of her career and one of the finest to ever win an Oscar. 1972 was really her banner year: in addition to Cabaret, she appeared in the TV special Liza with a Z, a concert film directed by Bob Fosse (who also directed Cabaret) with music arranged by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago). This helped launch her into the stratosphere, announcing her as a total-package entertainer. However, she was selective with her roles, and even though her performance in Martin Scorsese's 1977 film New York, New York has been retroactively salvaged, she never quite received the same accolades for her film work.

Instead, she turned to theatre, where her career began, and television. She began her Broadway career at 19, starring in the 1965 Kander & Ebb musical Flora the Red Menace. Her theatre career has consisted of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and touring productions, including a number of one-woman specials and one-night-only engagements. In addition to her televised specials, perhaps her best-known television work was her role as the vertigo-afflicted Lucille Austero on Arrested Development.

Her personal life is well-documented, included four marriages that ended in divorce. In 2000, after a bout with viral encephalitis, doctors predicted that she would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, and possibly could never talk again. Undeterred, she took daily song and dance lessons - which she continues to this day - and a year later performed with Michael Jackson at a concert in Madison Square Garden.

As Sally Bowles in Cabaret

There is some contention over whether she has achieved an EGOT or not. In addition to her Oscar, she won a Tony Award for Best Actress in 1965 for Flora the Red Menace (she won again in this category in 1978 for The Act, and won a Special Tony Award in 1974 for Liza in the Winter Garden). She also won an Emmy Award in 1973 for Liza with a Z. However, her Grammy Living Legend Award is the source of contention: since it's an honorary award instead of a competitive one, some argue that it doesn't count toward EGOT. Interestingly enough, she only has two Grammy nominations. She also won a Golden Globe for Cabaret.

No matter what, there's no denying that Minnelli is a rare talent. Here's hoping she continues to wow us with her work for years to come.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Signs of Three: Recent Television Shows about Evil

*Art often examines the same idea from various viewpoints, creating a multitude of interpretations of the subject at hand. Signs of Three is a new series in which we compare and contrast three different works, based on a common theme.*

Not to keep harping on True Detective, but it completes a pretty impressive trifecta of television shows, alongside Hannibal and Breaking Bad, that have examined the nature of evil. It's an interesting subject for television to tackle, especially since both television and film tend to carve black-and-white definitions of what is "good" and what is "evil." Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; for as long as narrative storytelling has existed, stories of good battling evil have been prevalent and engaging. But more often than not, heroes and villains are easily identifiable, and even if the heroes have human conflicts and shades of darkness, their essential "goodness" is never in question. Batman, despite the questionable means he uses to find the Joker, will ultimately prevail, because he stands for justice over the Joker's anarchy. Good wins, and evil loses.


That's why it's so interesting to have these three shows that make it their mission to examine what evil is, and how it affects their protagonists. As I wrote in my review of the show's first season, True Detective took cues from weird fiction to add an element of Southern Gothic horror to a fairly boilerplate police procedural. Detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), in their pursuit of a prolific serial killer, are forced to confront the darker side of human nature, and it takes its toll on their lives. Both men spend so much time staring into the abyss that it begins to consume them, and they lose sight of the good that they have in their lives. The idea that the show proposes is that darkness, monsters, and evil lurk all around them, and director Cary Joji Fukugawa does a terrific job at suggesting this with composition of the show's visuals, leaving empty space in the Louisiana landscape that powerfully suggests what could be out. The show makes a case that the light - good - has won this particular battle, but not without serious consequence to the heroes, and the war is far from over. To use Rust's speculations, if the stars in the night sky represent goodness, then evil still looms large as the inky black void.

More after the jump.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Poison Creosote: "True Detective," Season 1

The greatness of True Detective, HBO's crime anthology series that just wrapped its first season last night, begins with its theme song. "Far from Any Road," by alternative Americana band The Handsome Family, is a haunting murder ballad that takes cues from gothic fiction and Southwestern folk music. In the first lines, singer Brett Sparks, in a low baritone, bellows, "her looming shadow grows / hidden in the branches of the poison creosote." Creosote is a flowering bush that grows in the American Southwest, can be used as a medicinal herb (though this is not recommended), and, as it grows older (30-90 years), often sees its "crown" split into a new, genetically-identical bush. The "King Clone," a creosote ring in the Mojave Desert, is estimated to be at least 11,700 years old. The creosote bloom is yellow.

To diehard fans of the show, those few facts about the creosote plant automatically conjure up images of "the Yellow King" and musings about time and space. But more on that later.


When Nic Pizzolatto's show debuted in January, it seemed like a fairly standard crime drama that was only separated from other prestige crime shows by its starry cast. Pizzolatto, who also wrote every episode of the first season, established early on that True Detective would be different from Nordic noir adaptations such as The Killing and The Bridge in that each season would tell a completely different story, using different actors each time (this is similar to the strategy that American Horror Story uses). The first episode, "The Long Bright Dark," establishes the premise: detectives Rustin "Rust" Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) are called in by the Louisiana State Police to give their accounts of a 1995 murder case they worked after a copycat murder appears in the present day (a hurricane destroyed most of the case files from 1995). Through flashbacks we see how the following 17 years unfold for the two men, from Marty's domestic troubles with his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) to Rust's mysterious disappearances and obsession with the case.

More after the jump. *SPOILERS BELOW*

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #42 (tied with Pather Panchali, Some Like It Hot, Gertrud, Play Time, and Close-Up)

Director Jean-Luc Godard is often the first name that comes to mind from film students when the French New Wave is mentioned, ahead of both Francois Truffaut and Robert Bresson. There's good reason for this: Godard didn't just make films, but also wrote about films, having been a critic for Cahiers du Cinema for years before he made his first feature, Breathless (1960). What set Godard apart from his contemporaries was his willingness to directly dialogue with Hollywood tropes, making films that were based in a classic Hollywood narrative - the film noir, for example - and then deconstructing their conventions with a blast of countercultural "cool." His were the films that '60s-era Greenwich Village hipsters praised to the heavens, and his style would soon be copied by American filmmakers like Arthur Penn, whose Bonnie & Clyde is essentially the Godard film that Godard never made.


Pierrot le Fou, however, was a different kind of film for Godard. Based on Lionel White's novel Obsession, the film follows Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a bored intellectual who feels trapped in a dull marriage and parties full of vapid discussion. He decides to run away with the babysitter, Marianne (Anna Karina), and the two engage in a crime spree that eventually takes them to the Mediterranean coast. The two lovers - specifically, Ferdinand - sours to the situation quickly, fighting off boredom by writing in a notebook. After getting involved in an arms-smuggling ring, things take a turn for the tragic.

More after the break.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Grandmaster (2013)

There are few modern films with histories as storied as The Grandmaster, the latest film from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love). The project spent years in development, thanks to cast injuries during martial arts training and a relatively large budget. When it was finally finished, multiple cuts of the film were release: one for the festival circuit, one for Chinese audiences, and a significantly shorter, Harvey Weinstein-approved American cut. The lattermost is the one that I watched for the purposes of this review, and it left me wondering what the other versions of the film looked like. In its current form, the film noticeably feels disjointed, as if there were pieces of it missing.


The Grandmaster is a biopic of Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), the martial arts master of wing chun who helped popularize the former, particularly through his mentorship of Bruce Lee. The film spans a period of about 20 years, from when the Northern grandmaster Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) comes to his home in Foshan to announce his retirement and witness Ip become the South's grandmaster to Ip's exile in Hong Kong during the 1950s. During this time, Ip maintains contact with Gong's daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who challenges him to a fight of their own. He also witnesses the half-century of turmoil China faced between the Japanese invasion, civil war, and Communist revolution, as well as the threatened end of martial arts.

More after the jump.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Short Takes: Holy Motors, Cosmopolis, and more

Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax, 2012)


Holy Motors belongs to a long tradition of movies about movies, but coming from French auteur Leos Carax, it's a sprawling, surreal entry. The film follows 24 hours in the life of Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant, a frequent Carax collaborator), who carries out "appointments" that require him to play different characters in different situations. These include a sewer-dwelling goblin who kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes), a man in a motion-capture suit interacting with another actor, a dying man being visited by his niece (Elise L'Homeau), and himself meeting another "actor" named Eva (Kylie Minogue). The film plays wildly with concepts of fantasy and reality, and Lavant's performance is one of the most impressive in years, bouncing back and forth between all of this characters with ease and skill. None of the various sequences outstay their welcome, and Carax proves his considerable talent and playfully subverts expectations at every turn. There's even an accordion-based musical interlude that's nothing short of an absolute blast. Ultimately, Holy Motors is cinema at its purest: joyful, emotional, exciting, magical, and ultimately rewarding. A+

More from Cronenberg, Lanthimos, and others after the page break.



Cosmopolis (dir. David Cronenberg, 2012)


When David Cronenberg is at his best, his films are psychosexual thrillers that poke and prod at the concepts we use to define ourselves, finding that underneath the facades lurk much more complicated and twisted tendencies. Films like Dead Ringers and A History of Violence are great examples of this. Cosmopolis, however, is something that Cronenberg's films rarely are: boring. Based on a novel by Don DeLillo, the film follows young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) as he rides in his limo across town to get a haircut, all while society seems to be crumbling around him. The film is essentially a collection of vague philosophical conversations with various people who enter the limo, with Eric slinking down a path of self-destruction. All of this probably plays better on the page than on film, and despite the efforts of the very game Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and Paul Giamatti, none of this ever coalesces into anything interesting. The score, by Howard Shore and rock band Metric, is about the only thing that really works in this film. It's a shame to see a film so half-hearted and half-baked come from a filmmaker who's spent his career titillating our darker urges. C-

The Last Emperor (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)


Imagine being the emperor of a mighty and enduring empire, only to watch it crumble before your very eyes. For Pu-yi, the subject of famed Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci's film, Qing Dynasty China collapsed four years into his reign, when he was only six years old. The life of Pu-yi, played by John Lone as an adult, is a fascinating one, as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that the power he was taught was his birthright means nothing in the changing political and social landscape. Lone gives a terrific performance in the film, too, ably finding the flawed, tragic humanity in a man who was promised the world only to have it taken from him. But ultimately, as Bertolucci frames it, this film isn't so much the story of Pu-yi as it is the story of 20th Century China, as it transitions from millennia of imperial rule to republic, only to have Mao Zedong's Communist revolution throw everything into disarray. This film is an epic of a nation struggling to establish a working identity for itself, with Pu-yi symbolically standing in China's past. It's also interesting that this was the first Western film to be shot in China after the 1949 Revolution, and the first ever to film within the Forbidden City in Beijing. Bertolucci is famed for his films about individuals at moments of existential crisis; in The Last Emperor, he tackled an entire nation. It's a fascinating, moving, and gorgeous glimpse at China's recent history, told through the eyes of a man who fell victim to it. A-

Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher, 2013)


When I was taking film classes in college, I had to watch The Shining for a film analysis class. At the time, I was still a fledging cinephile, so the fact that of all of Stanley Kubrick's films we were given that on seemed interesting to me. Of course, after watching it - really watching it - for that class, it suddenly made sense: this is a film loaded with visual clues, and given Kubrick's reputation as a perfectionist, each of them seemed extremely deliberate. Room 237 is a documentary that explores the numerous theories that have erupted since the films release, with scholars and ordinary fans alike sharing their interpretations of what Kubrick's horror film is really about. These theories range from an allegory of the genocide of Native Americans to Kubrick's confession that he "shot" the "fake" footage of the moon landing, and each interviewee provides significant evidence from the film to support their claims. At times, the documentary leans a little too far into showing unbiased support for its subject, and it could have afforded to trim some of the more outlandish theories and included an argument or two to the contrary that Kubrick's film meant anything, especially since some of the former fall apart as the evidence is presented. But at it's best, the film is a celebration of a previously-maligned work by a master filmmaker, and a tribute to many ways that we interpret art and why it's important that we do. B+

Alps (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2012)


Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos established himself as an exciting, cerebral, and experimental filmmaker with his international breakthrough, Dogtooth (2010), an enigmatic allegory about authoritarian control (I think?). His follow-up film, Alps, is not as violently provocative, but it's no less opaque in its intentions. The film centers around a quartet of people who offer a strange service: for a fee, they will pretend to be a deceased loved one, providing closure for the grieving or allowing them to go on as if the loss never happened. One woman (Aggeliki Papoulia) becomes too involved with clients, in turn loosing her sense of self and reality, spelling trouble for the other group members. However, Lanthimos isn't overly concerned with linear plotting, instead creating an impressionistic film that's open to a number of interpretations. Is it a critique of how people communicate in the modern world? A parable about grief and letting go? A Brechtian deconstruction of cinematic representation of life and humanity? None of the above? That's the beauty of the film: there's no telling which reading you'll find when you watch it, and it could change on repeat viewings. It's a puzzle worth taking in. A-

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Wadjda (2013)

Much of the discussion around Wadjda when it premiered in the United States last year was about how historic it was. The Saudi film was the first to be shot completely in Saudi Arabia, specifically in the capital, Riyadh. Moreover, it was the first Saudi film to be directed by a woman, Haifaa al-Mansour, who often had to work from the back of the van because she wasn't allowed to publicly mix with the male crew members. This is even more remarkable considering how few Saudi films have ever been produced; there are very few (if any) theaters open to the public, with most access to films coming through DVDs and satellite television. The beginning of the Saudi "film industry," as it were, is contestable, but the first Saudi films were only produced in the past 10 years. That the film was able to secure fairly widespread international distribution is an wholly singular feat.


Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), the 10-year-old girl at the center of the film, is singular herself. She's introduced in first scene wearing Converse sneakers with purple laces, while the rest of the girls in her class are wearing plain black shoes. She's a troublemaker at her school, often shunning her headscarf and continuing to play hopscotch in the presence of male construction workers. Her goal is a simple one: she wants to ride a bike and, more specifically, beat her neighbor and friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani) in a race. However, she'll need money to buy her bike, so she enters a Koran recitation competition at her school. Even if she wins, a woman riding a bike - even a young girl - is frowned upon.

From the outset, al-Mansour establishes her film as quietly subversive of Saudi culture, particularly in terms of gender. Wadjda, despite being old enough to start understanding the society that she lives in, consistently rejects the restraints she faces, mostly because they are inconvenient to what she wants. She's not a full-on rebel, nor was she born into a contrarian family; her mother (Reem Abdullah) forbids her to listen to rock music and warns her against buying a bike. Her headmistress, Ms. Hussa (Ahd), is determined to discipline her into falling in line with the other girls. This is a secret strength of al-Mansour's work: she presents a wide variety of women who have very different attitudes about their place in Saudi society, each nuanced and respectful to the character. Though Wadjda and Ms. Hussa are on polar extremes of one another, Wadjda's mother falls somewhere in between, dutifully doing what's expected of her but struggling with her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) taking a second wife because she couldn't give birth to a son. Significantly, al-Mansour keeps the focus fully on the women of the story. The only male characters with significant screentime are Abdullah and Father, and neither of them are nearly as developed as the female characters are.


This matters, because al-Mansour clearly draws from the traditions of Italian neorealism in her film, specifically on-location shooting and the use of amateur actors for major roles, specifically children. She films on-location in Riyadh, and the use of real locations helps give the film authenticity while servicing the film's subversive themes. Similarly, Mohammed is a first-time child actor, and she gives a startlingly brilliant and confident performance as Wadjda. She plays her as a girl wise beyond her years who's not interested in being told what she can and can't do, and one suspects that Mohammed is not completely unlike her character. It's a star-making turn from a true beginner. Abdullah and Ahd are also terrific, playing barely-hidden wounded vulnerability and stern upholding of strict beliefs, respectively. The effect is a film that opens its world up to the viewer, and makes its intentions clear: this is story about Wadjda and the other women in her life. Each woman represents a path her life could take in Saudi society, but she's not ready to give up on her "none of the above" option just yet.

Overall, Wadjda is a beautiful, emotional, intelligent, and magnificent film. It dares to speak out and subvert audience expectations and Saudi society, but it does so with grace, wit, and understated thoughtfulness. It announces al-Mansour as a filmmaker to watch, a brilliant new voice who needs the opportunity to make more films. This film is a stunning, moving debut. A

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rule Changes for the Emmys: What Do They Mean?

In the midst of all the excitement surrounding the Oscars, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced that they were making a handful of rule changes for the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, which will be held on Monday, August 25, 2014. Yes, Monday, thanks to football on NBC, who are broadcasting this year's ceremony. Now, a lot of this is simply awards-show-geek material, with little real bearing on anything other than those who are involved in the effected categories. However, a few of the rule changes to spotlight changing trends in the ways we watch television and how certain genres are produced, which are always topics worthy of discussion.


Below I've included all six changes, with my interpretations/explanations of what they mean going forward for the Emmys.

Rule Change #1: The Outstanding Miniseries/TV Movie category is being split into two separate categories.

What does this mean? It was only a few years ago that these were separate entities; only the past three ceremonies have featured the combined category. In 2009 and 2010, the Outstanding Miniseries category fielded a pitiful two nominees each year, thanks to a dearth of eligible works. In fact, you have to go back to 2004 to find the last time the category fielded a full five nominees, and even then it was an anomaly to have that many (2003 had three nominees, while 2002 and 2005 had four). Meanwhile, there was a plethora of made-for-TV movies during the '00s, and the category had no trouble stacking itself with nominees. HBO was mostly responsible for this: between 2000 and the category's disbandment in 2010, the network aired 33 of the 56 nominees, and 9 of the 11 winners. It was clear that the miniseries had fallen out of style, especially with the Big Four networks of CBS, NBC, FOX, and ABC, while the made-for-TV movie was the hot-ticket item.

Yet at the same time that the Academy combined the two categories, as if on cue, the miniseries began making a comeback. By 2013 it had fully exploded, with seemingly every network trying their handed at a "limited series" or "limited event" or however they chose to market it (interestingly, some networks even submitted single-season shows they had cancelled for consideration). In each of the three years of the combined category, at least three of the six nominees were miniseries, with four in 2011 and 2013. Granted, movies won in two of the three years, but, simply put, it's much too competitive to combine the two anymore. Even if what constitutes a miniseries is questionably vague - see anthology series like American Horror Story and, inevitably, True Detective submitting each new "season" here - there's no denying that the form is back. The made-for-TV movie doesn't need to worry about suffering a similar fate this decade to what the miniseries faced in the previous one, either, because they will always be relatively cheap, easy alternatives for the networks to produce. Ultimately, it makes sense to break these two back up into separate categories, even if it does mean more awards have to be handed out.

More after the jump.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Despicable Me (2010) / Despicable Me 2 (2013)

They may be odd-looking, and you can't understand anything they say, but the yellow, pill-shaped minions in Despicable Me and its sequel are money-making gold.


Despite the films' marketing and merchandising, the films aren't all about the goofy little sidekicks (they're getting their own spinoff, due in 2015). Rather, both films focus on the adventures of Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a brilliant super-villain who finds three young girls in his care. The films, produced by animation studio Illumination Entertainment and directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, then follow the requisite narratives that family-friendly animated films all-too-often follow.

More after the jump.



Despicable Me is the better of the two films. The plot involves Gru's grand scheme to steal the moon in an attempt to out-do a younger, flashier, and more successful rival, Vector (voiced by Jason Segel). After Vector steals his shrink ray, Gru adopts three girls - Margo (voice of Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (voice of Dana Gaier), and Agnes (voice of Elsie Fischer) - as a ploy to get it back. Naturally, he develops a bond with the girls the more time he spends with them, and has to decide whether he should continue villainy or settle down and be a father.


There's nothing terribly new or exciting in that narrative, and the ending is exactly what you would expect it to be. Yet the film is nonetheless charming, thanks to its embrace of it's (mild) deviousness. This is a film set in a world where there are plenty of supervillains, but apparently no superheroes. The bad guys commit crimes that don't physically harm anyone; in fact, most of Gru's schemes involve stealing landmarks that aren't even that major, such as the Statue of Liberty…of Las Vegas. Set to a chirpy, 1970s-inspired soundtrack by Pharrell Williams, there's a great bit of fun in Gru's flaunting of his "evil," and the filmmakers wisely embrace the fact that we know that he'll ultimately embrace being good. It's not exactly great, but it's better than average, and it amuses and charms like a child who knows he's misbehaving but does so without really hurting anyone. It's good, safe animated fun.

The same can't really be said about the sequel, Despicable Me 2. Here, Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to track down the thief who stole a highly dangerous serum. He's paired with one of the AVL's newest agents, Lucy (voice of Kristen Wiig), and planted in a shopping mall, where he suspects that the owner of a Mexican restaurant, Eduardo (voice of Benjamin Bratt), may not only be the thief but also El Macho, a notorious supervillain who was rumored to have died years earlier. On top of all this, the girls are encouraging Gru to date, while Margo is beginning to find an interest in dating as well.


Once again, there's not a single story beat here that isn't completely expected, and every twist and turn in the narrative can be seen coming a mile away. However, where the first film had playful impishness on its side, this one has a very dull gentleness. Gru is no longer a bad guy, and as a result he's much less interesting as a character, with nothing new really creating conflict within him. Though he's ostensibly tempted with returning to his villainous ways, the moment is over before it even began; there's absolutely no indication that he would ever even consider the possibility. Unlike the first film, he's not torn between his family and his work. There's zero conflict for him, which only makes the more predictable and cliche portions of the story that much more problematic.

A big factor in this is that the minions are much more foregrounded this time around, but even the filmmakers aren't sure of why beyond their inexplicable popularity. In fact, it seems like they knew they needed to feature them more, but aren't sure what they should be doing. Case in point: a second-half development involving the minions and the stolen serum provides a great opportunity for some Gremlins-style mischief, but the film whiffs it with a chaotic action sequence that never takes advantage of its setup. Instead, throughout the film the minions just kind of bumble around, comic relief that feels forced rather than amusing.

Ultimately, success has been this franchise's worst enemy. The first film sustained its clever premise with unique charm and winking bad behavior, but by the second film it's been stretched too thin and yielded diminishing returns creatively. Of course, this isn't the end: on top of the minions getting a spinoff, a third chapter is expected in 2017. There's no stopping the little guys from global domination. It's too bad it couldn't be more interesting.

Despicable Me: B-
Despicable Me 2: C

*Somehow, Despicable Me 2 managed to score an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Granted, this year wasn't particularly bountiful in terms of animated films, and the film's massive box office probably contributed to the desire to recognize it, but over the not-great-but-better-than-this Monsters University? I'm not sure I understand it.

That's a Wrap: The 86th Academy Awards

Thanks to the Winter Olympics, Oscar season lasted much longer than usual this year. Even so, it feels like years had passed between the nominations announcement in mid-January and last night's ceremony. There weren't too many surprises this year, as many of the frontrunners won their respective categories. For me, it was a personal best in predicting the winners: I got 22 of the 24 categories correct, only missing Best Animated Short Film (in which I had predicted Get a Horse!) and the big one, Best Picture (though I really thought Gravity would get it). I didn't do it by myself, though; listening to my girlfriend rant about what a terrible movie American Hustle was factored into my thinking that it would go home winless. Overall, I was very pleased with the ceremony.

So let's take a look at what happened last night, both in the ceremony itself and with the winners, shall we?

THE CEREMONY

  • The selfie that broke Twitter is above. Look, the Oscars are never going to be great television. First and foremost, this is a ceremony in which the movie industry gives itself a big, congratulatory pat on the back for having a great year. For its effort, the show does try to entertain the masses, such as the performances of the Best Original Song nominees (more on that in a bit) and the various tributes, but for the most part if you're looking for an awards show to entertain you, the Oscars are going to be pretty low on the list. But Ellen Degeneres made a terrific host by keeping things light, mostly standing off to the side and letting things run their course while interjecting amusing bits in-between. Perhaps my favorite bit of the night was her ordering pizza and passing it out in the audience - it's a great piece of humor that's classic Degeneres. So yes, the show was typically bloated and long, but as a whole it was a fine ceremony to watch.
  • That being said, what was the deal with the sound quality during the musical performances? Maybe it was my local station, but every performance seemed really muted, as if the microphone wasn't working. I had to crank up the volume just to hear U2 perform "Ordinary Love," and Idina Menzel's voice was completely drowned in the music during "Let It Go." Worst of all was P!nk's performance of "Over the Rainbow," which sounded fantastic during the few bits when I could actually hear it. Did anyone else have this problem?
  • On a related note, the breakout star of the show was "Adele Dazeem," the bizarre pronunciation of Menzel's name by John Travolta. Maybe that's her name in the Church of Scientology?
  • This year's theme was "celebrating heroes," which is a fine choice in theory. However, the execution was really disappointing. The montages of films were scattershot and unrelated, and most of them ended abruptly. I wish they had gone with a different theme. More specifically, it would have been so much better if they had taken a cue from their tribute to The Wizard of Oz and celebrated the 75th anniversaries of other films from 1939. This was a year in which Oz, Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Dark Victory, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men AND Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were all competing for Best Picture. A tribute to these films would have been thematically appropriate as well as a fitting celebration of the Oscars' rich, glorious history.
  • There was a real artistic streak in the nomination/in-memoriam montages this year. I loved the painterly portraits in the in memoriam segment, and Bette Midler performing "Wind Beneath My Wings" nearly had me in tears (to be fair, that song always gets to me). I really liked the title cards for the Best Picture nominees, especially the ones for Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.
Reactions to, and a complete list of, the winners after the jump.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The 86th Annual Academy Awards are Finally Here

It's finally time for the 86th Academy Awards, after what has felt like years between the start of the awards season in September through the nominations announcement in January to today (thanks Olympics!). While the long slog to this point could have produced yet another year of runaway frontrunners, we instead have what appears to be a three-way race in Best Picture, and close contests in several other categories. It's so rare to see this happen anymore, so revel in it while you can! It also means I can make some very bold, very foolish predictions that could really make me look stupid, but hey, fortune favors the bold right?


Bold prediction #1: 12 Years a Slave will only end up winning two Oscars on its nine nominations, but both will be in major categories.

Bold prediction #2: Despite the Best Picture race being a three-way photo finish at the moment, Gravity will ultimately end up dominating the night, winning far more than any other film with a likely eight wins.

Bold prediction #3: Though the Academy has been good about spreading the love in recent years, this year will be a different story. Four of the nine Best Picture nominees will win an Oscar…

Bold prediction #4: …but American Hustle - with 10 nominations - will not be one of them.

I'll gladly bite the bullet on that last one. I just don't think there's enough passion for the film anymore, and while it will probably finish in second place on a lot of ballots, second place doesn't win you an Oscar.

Anyway, for your reading pleasure, I've assembled a list of links to all of The Entertainment Junkie's Oscar coverage for this year, as well as a few other articles that will, at the very least, help you impress people at your Oscar party. Also below are my full predictions for who will win each category. Feel free to chime in on who you think should/will win too. Happy Oscars!

THE NOMINEES

Check them out at The Entertainment Junkie's Academy Awards page.

REVIEWS FOR BEST PICTURE NOMINEES


FYC POSTS

The sound editing of All is Lost elevated the film's function as a modern parable.

The visual effects of Iron Man 3 (mostly) assisted the story, rather than the other way around.

The costumes of 12 Years a Slave codify antebellum Southern society.

The production design of Her believably blends the past with the future.

The cinematography of Prisoners was the work of another master waiting for his first Oscar win.

ABOVE-THE-LINE CATEGORY COVERAGE

Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor
Best Actress
Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress
Best Adapted Screenplay & Best Original Screenplay

BELOW-THE-LINE CATEGORY COVERAGE

Best Original Song (and the disqualification of "Alone Yet Not Alone")
Best Documentary Feature
Best Animated Short Film
Best Live-Action Short Film
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score

OTHER ARTICLES

Entertainment Weekly has profiles for the Best Documentary Short nominees:


I also wrote a little more in-depth about Best Director nominee Alexander Payne (Nebraska) for The Large Association of Movie Blogs.

Click the page jump for predictions in every category.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Picture

Finally, we come to the big one. In recent years, this category has gone through a lot of changes. Starting in 2009, the category was expanded from five nominees to ten, marking the first time since 1943 that there were more than five nominees. Then, after keeping that format for two years, the rules were yet again changed, placing greater emphasis on the percentage of first-place votes so that there could be anywhere from five to ten nominees in a given year. So far, this has resulted in three consecutive years of nine nominees. Surely we'll get a variation one of these days, right?

This year's crop of nominees aren't all that unusual: these are nine films that have dominated the conversation for much of the year, especially after other would-be contenders didn't quite have the strength to compete (August: Osage County, for example). If there's any truly surprising exclusion, it's Inside Llewyn Davis: the Coen Brothers' latest had a lot of critical support, but Academy members didn't feel the same way, with the film only nabbing nominations for cinematography and sound mixing.

Here are the nominees:

BEST PICTURE


American Hustle

American Hustle is an example of the most fun type of heist movie: the ones about con men that aren't just conning the other characters, but also the audience. Loosely based on ABSCAM, a FBI operation in the 1970s that took down several high-ranking politicians, director David O. Russell introduces a group of characters with varying degrees of sanity and turns them loose on each other. When the film hits its highs, it's a dizzying whirlwind of deceptions that spiraling out-of-control, and all of the actors bring their A-game to playing these parts, particularly Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Christian Bale. This is, however, sugar-high cinema: as is common with Russell's films, it's unbalanced, and in-between those highs there isn't much that works as well, often feeling like a group of actors playing dress-up than characters in a movie. But part of the fun of this film is watching these actors in curls, va-va-voom dresses, and schlubby suits constantly trying to get the upper-hand on one another, with a few spot-on cameos as a bonus. It's not a terribly deep film, and it doesn't completely hold up once the lights come on. But it's fun, and that definitely counts for something.

More after the jump.