I’m not exactly sure why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated nine movies again this year. Sure, all the films and performances are decent, but there weren’t any head and shoulder standouts in 2013 like The King’s Speech in 2011 or Forrest Gump in 1995. If I ran the Oscars, I’d pare things down for sure and definitely include other movies in the mix. (My first order of business would be swapping in August: Osage County for Gravity.) But so far, my Academy invitation must still be lost in the mail. For now, it’s telling and a bit surprising that there were only twelve movies out of more than twelve hundred spread out thin amongst the nine major categories: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Directing, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay.
But since there are a few people out there who seem to care what movies I like and ask me my opinion throughout the year, I’ve compiled another list of my favorites. I’ve surprised myself by including some silly movies and omitting others that received critical acclaim. Maybe this group of movies explains why I’m roundly ignored by the Academy.
Sometimes you’re smitten with a movie because of the actors, writers, directors, or all three. That’s the case with About Time. Richard Curtis — who wrote some of my favorite films: Love Actually, Notting Hill, The Girl in the Cafe’, etc. — wrote and directed this wonderful movie. Before I tell you what it’s about, it also stars Bill Nighy, whom my whole family has a soft spot for. Rachel McAdams, whom I myself have a soft spot for, turns in a rather nice performance as well, (no I don’t like her because of The Notebook, either). Okay, I’ve kind of liked Rachel McAdams ever since The Notebook. The star of the show is the relatively unknown Domhnall Gleeson, (he was the oldest of the Weasley brothers in Harry Potter, but he also played the best sounding character name of all time, Rodney, in Never Let Me Go). So I haven’t mentioned what the movie is about. Well, it’s a bit silly maybe, but it depicts a family that can time travel within their own lifetimes. They can’t go other places or do other things, but they can travel back in their own lives and change or relive whatever happened beforehand. Actually, only the men in the family can do it once they turn 21. It’s tough to describe what makes this so appealing and I’ll fully admit, it might be just because of Richard Curtis (the best sounding last name of all time). Imagine it’s sort of like Groundhog Day meets Safety Not Guaranteed meets Hot Tub Time Machine. Sort of. It’s a sweet, fun movie and not like much of what you see out there today. Every time I think back about what movies I really enjoyed sitting through in 2013 and wishing they wouldn’t end, this one keeps popping into my brain.
Short Term 12:
Adoration is a strong word, but I absolutely adored Short Term 12. Set in a residential youth treatment facility, the movie dramatizes the interactions between the 20-something staff members and their at-risk charges. It was beautiful, real, quiet and I felt like I was actually sitting with the staff and “patients.” You’ve maybe seen Brie Larson in other movies this year like Don Jon and The Spectacular Now. And she’ll be featured prominently in the upcoming Basmati Blues (written and directed by Danny Baron and a few of my other high school buddies — that sounds SO cool to say.) Her ability to morph into any role is stunning; she is definitely someone to watch. The very independent, low budget film barely grossed a million dollars and that’s a real shame. Maybe this speaks to Hollywood needing to find better ways to either bankroll or promote non-blockbuster movies. Crowd funding like Zach Braff did with his 2014 film Wish I Was Here may be one answer. You should rent this movie. It’s only an hour and a half long and you’ll feel better about the world when it’s finished.
I’ve spoken with several people about Enough Said, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini movie. It seems everyone agrees that the dialogue is, above all other things, real. It’s what real people would say if you overheard them talking at a party, in their bedroom or just sitting outside on their porch. Gandolfini died last year after making this film and it’s sad because his performance showed he was much more than “just” The Sopranos actor. His character was as vulnerable as he was schlubby. Watching him and Louis-Dreyfus playing two divorced people navigating the plot twists and life twists of the short 93 minutes felt as though we were a third member of their little love party. I know, I know, that sounds a bit weird, but real, true intimacy is tough to honestly portray on the silver screen. Catherine Keener turns in yet another in a long list of stellar performances, this time as Gandolfini’s ex-wife. Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener (who seems to work exclusively with Catherine Keener movies) made it magical.
I’m beginning to notice a trend here. Even with films that completely bend reality, I’m gravitating toward the ones that have real people dealing with real things. It’s great to see yourself in the actors, or to see people you think you know. Movies with real life conversations or dialogue that last a few minutes always make me happy. In Before Midnight, the conversation lasted the entire film. The setting and plot were almost secondary, really, to the discussion between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Like the other two movies in this franchise — Before Sunrise and Before Sunset — writer/director Richard Linklater likes to use exotic backgrounds kind of as an artist’s palette. Beautiful Greece, France and Vienna are there just to be walked through as Delpy and Hawke carry on new conversations every nine years. I can’t think of a better trilogy out there that just focuses a soft spotlight on the relationship between two people as they go from young travelers to disenfranchised 30-somethings to a married with children couple grappling with what’s important to themselves and their relationship. I envy anyone who hasn’t seen these movies yet. Rent them and watch them in order. They are such a fantastic (fictional) look into real life.
The Wolf of Wall Street:
The crazy scenes of debauchery, alone, are enough for me to recommend this movie. Martin Scorsese took the autobiography of convicted notorious investment kingpin Jordan Belfort and shed some insane light on what happens when money trumps everything else including ethics, family and the law. A lot of people don’t like what the movie depicts and neither do I. But boy, is it funny. You’d think that would only be natural with a cast that includes Rob Reiner and Jonah Hill. But Matthew McConaughey and Leonardo DiCaprio do their part to bring laughs to the mayhem. I’m not sure if it’s true, but supposedly a lot of the film is improvised. I get that. There are scenes around a restaurant table that reminded me of Goodfellas meets Superbad. And I was transfixed by a longer-than-needed shot of DiCaprio attempting to get in his car while high. Basically, even though this film glorifies Greed with a capital G, it’s really telling a narrative of anti-greed. Going so overwhelmingly overboard, it shocks and cajoles us into realizing that enormous yachts, orgies, insane mansions and heaps of money aren’t really the things of joy or happiness. I didn’t think the message was that hidden, but apparently its been lost on a lot of people. My cousin kept turning to me during the three hour movie saying, “this is NOT an academy award film.” I understand his assertion, but respectfully disagree. I love it sometimes when movies are spectacles unto themselves. When they go all out and put themselves on the line to make a point, they need to be commended, even if you completely disagree with their message. Interestingly, McConaughey shows up in two Academy Award nominated films this year (this and Dallas Buyers Club). He was also in the critically acclaimed — though not necessarily by me — Mud.
I haven’t spoken with a woman yet who has liked Her. It must be that whole thing where a female partner is replaced by a computer. Nah, couldn’t be. Obviously it says different things to different people. If you’ve seen the ads you know the story, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. But again, as with The Wolf of Wall Street, even though much of the movie is spent extolling the “beautiful” relationship between the two, that’s not the point at all. As a matter of fact, I think it comes off very much as a cautionary tale. Along the way, though, there are great commentaries about the human condition, albeit a bit removed by this being set in the not-too-distant future. It contains a lot of wisdom and poignancy. That Spike Jonze could be the writer/director for this lovely, quiet movie and also be one of the writers for the horrible Bad Grandpa movie is beyond my comprehension. He did Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation; how he helped create the Jackass series still boggles me. Amy Adams’s looks are dramatically downplayed in Her, yet glamorous and amazing in American Hustle. It’s fun to see her, one of my favorite stars, in two Oscar nominated films.
Lighthearted comedies don’t generally stand a chance in the Academy Awards. Movies have to be big, carry a strong message and feel weighty in order to be considered. Unfortunately, there many a Friday or Saturday night where all you want to do is plop on the couch and unwind. Along those lines, I respectfully submit these next three films. Spend a buck or two at Red Box or add them to your Netflix queue. They’re fun and certainly not boring.
Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson team up in a surprisingly good flick about older guys trying to get jobs in the new technologically challenging workforce. They find themselves interning at Google and competing with a younger, digital-savvy crowd. Their patter is classic Vince Vaughn. And truthfully, I could relate to their message, being an older guy looking at jobs in a different world than the one in which I grew up in.
You have to give any movie with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd a second look. Having two daughters who have gone through the college admissions game, it’s great to see it dramatized and humanized/humorized. Suspend a little disbelief and you’ll enjoy two of the best entertainers in today’s market.
We’re the Millers:
Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis anchor this silly road movie about a fake family fabricated in order to smuggle pot into the country. Don’t look for anything redeeming in this film, or any real hidden message. Just enjoy the “dopey” fun along the way.
The World’s End / This Is the End:
The first movie (The World’s End) is about five Brits — including Simon Pegg and Dr. Watson/Bilbo Baggins himself, Martin Freeman — who try to relive their glory years by taking on a pub crawl they attempted decades earlier. But all is not as it seems and the group may or may not be trying to save the world. Similarly, Seth Rogen and crew in This Is the End get really, really wasted. Then in a mostly ad-libbed script, a cast packed with A-list celebrities lampoon themselves as Armageddon ensues. Neither one of these movies will make you ponder the deeper meanings of life. But then again, when the world’s falling apart, all you can do, really, is just laugh about it.
So now we’re well into 2014 and a thousand new movies are beginning to appear. I’m heading back into the theaters and over to my couch to enjoy/endure the latest crop. Next up, a riveting DVD that came packaged with my slow juicer explaining how to extract the most out of kale. Now THAT’S entertainment!