2013 Favorites

We now return you to 2014, already in progress

blackberrysnackSame rules as usual: winners are selected from the past year’s films that I’ve seen and written about on the blog.  This time around, I’ve limited each “Best” (including Pictures, Actresses, and Actors) to three winners instead of five (with an exception only if one film had two same-gender leads), and kept the single winner for the “body of work” category.  I’ve added “sleepers” this year as well.  First-time readers: note that each of the three listed items in each category are joint “winners” (not that they receive anything but my approval), not three nominees with one winner.  Use the left-side navigation to find my original write-ups of each film.

In some particular order:

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Best Pictures

Blue is the Warmest Color

Inside Llewyn Davis

Short Term 12

Sleeper: 12 Years a Slave

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Best Actress (single performance)

Brie Larson as Grace – Short Term 12

Judi Dench as Philomena Lee – Philomena

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Léa Seydoux as Emma – Blue is the Warmest Color

Sleeper: Amy Acker as Beatrice – Much Ado About Nothing

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Best Actress (body of work)

Mia Wasikowska

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Best Actor (single performance)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup – 12 Years a Slave

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis – Inside Llewyn Davis

Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski – The Iceman

Sleeper: Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines – The Butler

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Best Actor (body of work)

Michael Fassbender

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Best Supporting Actress

Ellen Page as Izzy – The East

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey – 12 Years a Slave

Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines – The Butler

Sleeper: Jena Malone as Johanna Mason – Catching Fire

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Best Supporting Actor

Keith Stanfield as Marcus – Short Term 12

Matthew Goode as Charlie Stoker – Stoker

Jared Leto as Rayon – Dallas Buyers Club

Sleeper: Jake Johnson as Luke – Drinking Buddies

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Best Screenplay

Frances Ha – Greta Gerwig

In a World… – Lake Bell

The East – Brit Marling

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Best Director

Lake Bell – In a World…

Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave

Joel and Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis

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Favorite Characters

India Stoker (played by Mia Wasikowska) – Stoker

Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) – Inside Llewyn Davis

Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) – Blue is the Warmest Color

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Best Cameo

Cameron Diaz as herself – In a World…

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Worst of the Year

The Wolf of Wall Street

Note: The Desolation of Smaug was very, very close.  Maybe next year, PJ.

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Most Unfortunately MIA

Jessica Chastain

Note: I’m aware of her practice of filming 5 or 6 movies back-to-back, not appearing in anything for a year, then having all 5 or 6 of those released at once.  But someone’s habit of taking long absences does not make one miss them any less.

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Oddest Thing to Happen Involving Richard Lives

Wentworth Miller’s sister quotes me on her “Everything Wentworth” blog, but requires me to sign up for an account and wait a month to be “approved” before seeing what the quote is.

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Predictions for Next Year

Adam Driver will be on the list of winners, but not for the Star Wars sequel.

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Retrospective (July 2014)

I have since seen All is Lost with Robert Redford, and would have had that film and Redford on this list somewhere if I’d seen it before.  What a powerhouse of emotion.

See you this year.  -RH

Dallas Buyers Club

‘Cause you’ve only got one

dallasFew of us are enlightened by the fact that the FDA is an organization interested only in profit and control.  That said, one unfortunate aspect of Dallas Buyers Club, a character study of Matthew McConaughey’s version of the real-life Ron Woodroof – a Texas cowboy unexpectedly diagnosed with HIV – is that the most moving scenes are spoiled by the marketing, a fact made more unfortunate in that a film so greatly lauded turns out to be surprisingly formulaic and sentimental.  If not for the cursing and occasional groping, it could air on ABC’s family night.

None of this is to discount the very real struggles depicted therein, nor the performances.  Woodroof, after his diagnosis, meets Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who tells him about the only FDA-approved drug suitable for treating AIDS: AZT.  He bribes another hospital employee to get him the meds, only to realize that AZT (in conjunction with his cocaine use) is detrimental to his health.  When the deal with the employee falls through, Ron drives to Mexico to get more AZT from Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who tells him that AZT is essentially poison.  He prescribes Ron peptide T and ddC, drugs unapproved by the FDA, and Ron finds that his health quickly improves.  He lives far past the 30-day death sentence given to him by the hospital, and quickly realizes that he can make money and help people by importing these drugs and selling them to other HIV-positive patients.

Enter Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman, also HIV-positive, who befriends Ron in the hospital and eventually becomes his partner in the “Dallas Buyers Club.”  The remainder of the film involves the successes and struggles of the Buyers Club, culminating in the all-powerful (and seemingly omnipotent) FDA shutting them down, as well as the characters’ respective battles against the knowledge that they do not have long to live.  Rayon and Ron form a reluctant partnership that transmogrifies, perhaps too quickly even given the constraints of a two-hour narrative, into a rather sweet friendship.  Rayon gets a pretty nice share of the narrative later on, as we get a glimpse at his relationship with his father, who has all but disowned him and can say nothing complimentary aside from “I guess I should thank you for wearing men’s clothes.”

The disjointedness of the narrative speaks volumes to the conflicts of the characters: here are people who can never be sure, at any single moment, what turn their health will take, and are essentially waiting for terrible things to happen to them.  The plot movement closely mirrors this “day-to-day-ness,” linked only by a mechanical squealing in Ron’s head that bookends the entire story and threads important moments together (sometimes functioning as an easy transition effect).

Leto’s performance as Rayon has received endless accolades, and for good reason, and the performance itself and the decision to place a transgender character in a big-budget movie (the first time I can remember this happening) completely warrant them.  But a close viewing reveals something a bit sad: Rayon’s existence in the story serves no purpose other than to help Ron get over his homophobia.  Rayon’s time and amount of focus in the film do not even gain him the status of deuteragonist; he functions as the “manic pixie dream girl” who helps the man come to terms with his issues before disappearing (in this case because he’s the film’s sacrificial lamb, which also serves to motivate one of Ron’s big decisions).  This character, not to mention this story, deserves better than that.  Rayon’s potential is limitless and his appeal undeniable to anyone with half a heart and a fraction of a sense of adventure (has anyone looked more beautiful dancing badly onscreen than Leto in this?)  If scenes like the one between Rayon and his father were more numerous and came earlier (or were at least more evenly balanced with Ron’s), we’d have a more fleshed-out family of characters here.  Instead, we have a traditional “guy gets over his issues after meeting good people” story, going from referring to Rayon as “whatever the fuck you are” to embracing him in a long, genuine hug.  The film is rife with deliberate imagery (could the bull rides from the opening and final shots be any more obvious in their joint purpose?), which only hammers in the shopworn theme of “one man overcomes adversity,” a dish the Academy is devouring this year.

The film is worth seeing once for the quality of McCoughnahey’s, Leto’s, and Jennifer Garner’s performances, and its treatment of HIV-positive characters.  I’m not sure it warranted McCoughnahey’s protracted speech about Neptune, though.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013); written by Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Matthew McCoughnahey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner.

Philomena

Evil’s good

philomenaMy mother texted me last night about Steve Coogan’s appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, and expressed some excitement about the fact that Philomena Lee’s story is true.  I responded with equal excitement, mentioning that the film (seen by me, unseen by her) was the best thing I’ve seen Coogan do in a long time (or perhaps “ever” was the word I used).  She responded “Good” and left me hanging, but it reminded me that I actually wanted to write about this film.

Philomena is actually directed by Stephen Frears, but one must love the fact that the writer is getting so much of the attention.  Would he receive this attention if he weren’t already a beloved comic actor and celebrity?  Just let me have this moment before you answer.

The film follows the surprisingly accurate narrative of Philomena (Judi Dench), who meets disgraced Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the latter of whom is advised to write a “human interest” story to buffer his career.  He abhors the idea until he runs into Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) at a cocktail party.  Jane relays the recent discovery that her mother had another child when she was a teenager.  Philomena’s father, however, sent her to Sean Ross Abbey for this “sin,” and the church snatched the child away as part of a series of real-life “forced adoptions” – that is to say, the church kidnapped and sold children to wealthy Americans.  Philomena has always thought of looking for her son, Anthony, with whom she only spent about a year before he was taken.  Martin begrudgingly agrees to write the story (despite his greater interest in writing a book on Russian history), and he meets Philomena, whose Irish Catholic sensibilities do not exactly mesh with his own atheism.  Above all, he cannot understand how she could still be religious after the nightmare she went through at the hands of the church, particularly Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford).

What follows is equal parts buddy comedy, road movie, and straight-played drama.  Philomena has concerns about what kind of person her son, renamed Michael by his adoptive parents, might have become after moving to America (the most dire of which is “What if he’s obese?”).  The good news is that he did relatively well for himself, becoming a senior official in the Reagan administration, but the bad news is that he died of AIDS in the ’90s.  With this discovery, Martin and Philomena become a bit closer, the unfairness of it all being that they must now hasten back to Ireland.  Luckily for his story, Martin took both “happy” and “sad” photos of Philomena in preparation for either outcome.  Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley), Martin’s editor, doesn’t see a problem with anything that’s happened.

Philomena, however, decides that she wants to stay in America and meet people who knew her son.  The duo begin with Michael’s colleagues, who show Philomena photos of Michael and his “friend” Pete (Peter Hermann), but Philomena insists that she has always known that Michael was a “gay homosexual.”  She and Martin visit Pete, who inexplicably threatens to have them arrested if they do not leave his property.  Philomena talks her way into his home, however, and finds out that Michael and Pete went to Ireland years ago for the very same purpose: to meet Philomena and discover Michael’s roots.  The convent, however, claimed that his mother had abandoned him and that they had lost contact with her (quite untrue, since Philomena had been visiting the convent so often that every employee knew who she was).  For Philomena, this is enough, for she’d assumed Michael had never wondered about where he came from.  They also learn that he is buried in the convent’s graveyard, where the story began, and everything comes full circle.

The tension reaches its peak during a final confrontation with the seemingly ancient Sister Hildegarde, who rolls around the convent’s private quarters, stoically waiting to die.  Martin confronts her, eager to get answers to why she would not only sell off Philomena’s child, but lie to a family for decades, adding that “If Jesus were here, he’d tip you out of that fucking wheelchair.”  But the decision of what to do is ultimately up to Philomena.  Forgiveness has never bothered me so much.

Judi Dench does not need my approval, but she inhabits the heart of this film with a full range of every possible emotion.  Coogan complements her nicely, acting as both chauffeur and lens, but Philomena herself is aware of this lens, and will not allow Martin to color the story of her family any way he wants it just for the sake of giving the public something to get riled about.  Anna Maxwell Martin plays Jane with such a confident delicateness that I was sad to see her fade into irrelevance once the adventure began, but she’s a treat when she’s on.  Hildegarde is played as a pure villain, which we must assume someone with that name and station in life could easily become, but it may have been effective to actually provide Philomena with the apology she deserves, or at the very least, to give another layer to someone who could be (and is) such an unrepentant monster.

Still waiting on an adaptation of Sixsmith’s Russian history texts.  Nope; couldn’t type that with a straight face.

Philomena (2013); written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope; based upon The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith; directed by Stephen Frears, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.