Sunday, January 26, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Supporting Actor

Last year, I commented that the pool of legitimate candidates for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was so deep, it bordered on absurd. This year, however, that's more true of the Best Actor race, which is so stacked that it makes this category seem strangely light. That's more praising 2013's leading men than criticizing their supporting counterparts, but it nevertheless makes me wonder if the winner of this year's award will ultimately prove to be forgettable.

NOMINEES
Barkhad Abdi—Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper—American Hustle
Michael Fassbender—12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill—The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto—Dallas Buyers Club

WILL WIN
I'm searching for a reason to pick against Jared Leto here, and I'm not having much success. He's already racked up a whopping 17 wins on the precursor circuit, including all-important victories at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors' Guild (more on those in a moment). By comparison, Fassbender has four pre-Oscar wins, while none of the remaining three challengers has earned a single one. The only red flag on Leto is that he lacks a BAFTA nomination, as the last Oscar winner in this category who whiffed with the Brits was Morgan Freeman in 2004. But the BAFTAs shut out Million Dollar Baby entirely that year (mainly because most voters hadn't seen it), and they did the same to Dallas Buyers Club this year; given that Leto's film tallied an additional five Oscar nominations, it's safe to say that Academy voters viewed it more favorably than did those across the pond.

Besides, consider this: In the 20 years since SAG started bestowing awards, only twice in either of the supporting categories has a performer won at both SAG and the Globes but failed to complete the trifecta with the Oscar. (Those two cases, for the record: Lauren Bacall in 1996 for The Mirror Has Two Faces, and Eddie Murphy 10 years later for Dreamgirls.) The only way Leto gets dethroned here is if either American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave pulls a sweep, and while that's a slight possibility for the latter, I can't see it happening in such a hotly contested, three-way Best Picture race. Jared Leto takes his first ever Oscar, thereby finally compensating for the victory he should have earned 13 years ago for his searing performance in Requiem for a Dream. (Not that I'm still bitter or anything.)





SHOULD WIN
Remember what I said about this field feeling slight compared to the Best Actor race? That's not exactly a coincidence: Four of the five films featured here also nabbed nominations for their leading men, so the supporting players feel a bit overshadowed (rightly so, for the most part). The only performer who isn't the victim of nomination overlap is Barkhad Abdi (though Tom Hanks' miss for lead actor was a major surprise), who does a remarkable job holding his own against one of America's screen legends. There's a shiftiness to Abdi's work in Captain Phillips, as well as the sense of a brain operating frantically despite his ostensible control of the circumstances. As those circumstances spiral and that control becomes increasingly tenuous, Abdi silently illustrates his character's inner panic and desperation without relinquishing his outward command of the situation. He isn't a savage, but neither is he above a bit of savagery, and the unpredictability of his actions makes him both dangerous and fascinating. (His sudden exclamation, "I love America!" injects a blast of gallows humor into proceedings that are otherwise relentlessly grim.) He also generates a surprising amount of sympathy, as it becomes increasingly clear that his marauder is little more than a cog in a not-that-well-oiled machine. Hanks' emotionally naked performance will serve as Captain Phillips' legacy, but Abdi's savvy mixture of intelligence and ferocity provides for an intriguing counterpoint.

Three of the remaining four contenders are less successful in evading the long shadows cast by their costars, though given the extraordinary work of those costars, this should hardly denigrate the persuasive nature of the supporting performances. As he did in Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper proves himself a sound fit for David O. Russell's manic sensibilities once again in American Hustle. He initially fashions his enterprising FBI agent as a hard-boiled go-getter, but that sense of steadfastness quickly begins to fray, and shards of doubt and anxiety start to pierce his façade of fortitude. Gradually, Cooper reveals his character as a lovesick fool, and as his behavior slips from dogged to obsessive—most memorably in a pair of electric scenes with Amy Adams, but also in a surprisingly tender moment with his mother—American Hustle becomes partly the story of his moral disintegration. (I say "partly" because American Hustle tells many stories, which is both its brilliance and its flaw.) It's an impressively committed performance, and if it nevertheless pales compared to the work of Christian Bale—who's on the short list for the title of best contemporary actor—that's hardly Cooper's fault.

Jonah Hill is a bit less magnetic in The Wolf of Wall Street, but that's more a function of the role than the performance. There isn't much shading to Hill's part as Leonardo DiCaprio's lieutenant; it says something that his most memorable scene involves him terrorizing a subordinate by swallowing his pet goldfish. Still, that scene is uproarious, and in general, Hill hammers the role of an id-driven sycophant, effectively demonstrating how wealth-obsessed cretins will happily leech onto visionaries in the hopes of drafting off their success. (He also receives a wonderfully low-key moment late in the film, reminding audiences that the sex-crazed teenager from Superbad really can act.) With that said, if Cooper is eclipsed by Bale's paralyzing helplessness, Hill is absolutely dwarfed by DiCaprio's incomparable brio.

The same is true, for the most part, of the likely winner in this category. Jared Leto is largely effective as an AIDS-stricken drag queen, never more so than when he swallows his dignity and dresses as a man in a desperate plea for help from his disapproving father. But Dallas Buyers Club is Matthew McConaughey's movie, and Leto's performance feels supporting in the most literal sense; he exists to prop McConaughey up and to serve as the fulcrum for his arc of redemption. Indeed, aside from that aforementioned scene with his father, it's difficult to recall Leto's character doing anything on his own. Again, there's nothing wrong with Leto's work, which functions as a compelling portrait of amused curiosity—he approaches his partnership with McConaughey's bigoted entrepreneur with the wide-eyed wonder of a boy befriending an escaped zoo animal—but it's disheartening that he'll receive an Oscar for playing a part that feels so subservient.

The notion of subservience is antithetical to Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender's role as a vicious plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave. He is, as he makes abundantly clear time and again, the master of his flock, and he exercises his dominion with remorseless brutality. Yet the genius of Fassbender's performance, and what makes it so sickeningly memorable, lies in how he shapes Epps as a man both terrifying and rather pathetic. He is revoltingly violent to Chiwetel Ejiofor's title character not because he hates the fact that a black man is more intelligent and insightful than he is but because he simply cannot comprehend that such a black man exists. And he lashes out at Lupita Nyong'o's cotton-picker because he is baffled and repulsed that he finds himself attracted to her in the first place. That quality of confused self-loathing adds an emotional dimension to Epps, and this measure of humanity renders his actions staggeringly inhumane, far more so than if he were just a callous monster. Fassbender is an actor of impeccable rigor—there's a reason he's appeared in all three of Steve McQueen's features—and his snarling speech and lordly demeanor are deceptively precise. But that technical precision is secondary to his overwhelming disgust, both with his slaves and with himself. He orders a whipping with horrifying relish, but it's his fumbling justification for the whipping that truly stings.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
George Clooney—Gravity
Michael Fassbender—12 Years a Slave
Will Forte—Nebraska
James Franco—Spring Breakers
Sam Rockwell—The Way, Way Back

Clooney delivers another impeccably controlled performance, effortlessly conveying aeronautical expertise simply through his perfectly modulated vocals. Bruce Dern may have received a nomination for Nebraska, but it's Forte's understated performance that anchors the film, as he never pleads for sympathy yet quietly suggests a lifetime of sufferance. Franco goes for broke in Spring Breakers, personifying a world of glittering excess while also hinting at its underlying emptiness. Rockwell is a live wire in a movie in dire need of a spark, and with any justice, his acerbic mentor will become an iconic character for years to come. (Rockwell also scores bonus points for the way in which he brilliantly deadpans the lyrics to Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" to a crowd of mystified teenagers. On a related note, I'm crushed that this scene isn't viewable on YouTube. Poor form, random people who upload things to YouTube. Poor form indeed.)

My ideal winner: Sam Rockwell—The Way, Way Back.





MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Barkhad Abdi—Captain Phillips
Jason Bateman—Disconnect
Sharlto Copley—Elysium
Benedict Cumberbatch—Stark Trek Into Darkness
Colin Farrell—Saving Mr. Banks

Bateman has made a career out of understatement—most obviously in his hilarious, perpetually bemused star-making turn on Arrested Development—but in Disconnect he burrows deeper, suggesting reserves of emotion through sidelong glances and calculated stillness. Copley follows up his spectacular performance in District 9 with an entirely different but no less spectacular performance, devouring the scenery and enlivening Elysium with welcome touches of camp. Cumberbatch, that British chameleon, is chillingly inscrutable, with a newly built physique to match his imperious vocals. Farrell pours his soul into Saving Mr. Banks, reminding us for the hundredth time that he really needs to hire a new agent.





Also deserving: Casey Affleck—Out of the Furnace (for proving that he can play savage as well as pensive); Michael Cera—This Is the End (for gleefully mocking himself); Nathan Fillion—Much Ado About Nothing (for locating the nobility in stupidity); John Gallagher, Jr.—Short Term 12 (for shunning helplessness and pressing on despite every reason to give up); Karl Urban—Star Trek Into Darkness (for this line).


Previous Oscar Analysis
Best Original Song

Monday, January 20, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Original Song, featuring "Let It Go" (but not Lana del Rey)

Typically, I hate this category. Not only are the eligibility rules arcane, but most of the nominated songs add minimal value to their actual films, as they frequently just play over the closing credits, when most moviegoers are shuffling out to the parking garage before their validation expires. It's why I usually dump my analysis into a larger post that addresses all of the music and sound categories at once. This year, however, one of the candidates is so extraordinary that it practically demands its own essay, while two others (one nominated, the other not) further illustrate how smartly written songs can actively complement movies, rather than simply serve as tacked-on denouements.


NOMINEES
Alone Yet Not Alone—"Alone Yet Not Alone" (Bruce Broughton, Dennis Spiegel)
Despicable Me 2—"Happy" (Pharrell Williams)
Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)
Her—"The Moon Song" (Karen O, Spike Jonze)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom—"Ordinary Love" (Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen)

WILL WIN
This category is less predictable than you might think. Songs from musicals are obviously the most visible, but that exposure hasn't always translated to Oscar success (Dreamgirls and Enchanted provided a trio of nominees in 2006 and 2007, respectively, only to lose out to lesser-known competition). And despite accusations of stodginess, the Academy has routinely embraced more populist forms in this category, including awarding trophies to hip-hop artists Eminem and Three 6 Mafia. So as tempting as it may be to give a cursory look at this quintet of nominees and swiftly declare Frozen's "Let It Go" to be an absolute lock, the possibility of an upset remains, well, possible.

But good luck settling on a challenger. Alone Yet Not Alone is so obscure—it grossed a mere $134 thousand at the domestic box office—that its out-of-nowhere nomination incited controversy regarding the music branch's process, so I can't imagine it garnering more than a handful of votes. But at least it's received publicity, albeit negative; Despicable Me 2 made a boatload of cash, but how many people have even heard of "Happy"? Her's "The Moon Song" is a more intriguing dark horse, but while its quasi-duet provides for an utterly hypnotic moment in a movie full of them, voters might not respond to its improvisational, deceptively simple feel.

The most plausible competitor is U2's "Ordinary Love", which surprisingly snagged a Golden Globe win. But the Globes' music selections rarely match up with the Oscars—the two ceremonies have honored the same song just thrice in the past 12 years—and indeed, U2 has played this particular game of musical chairs before (in 2002, when Gangs of New York's "The Hands That Built America" lost to the aforementioned Eminem for 8 Mile's "Lose Yourself"). Furthermore, unlike with Dreamgirls and Enchanted and their trio of nominated songs, "Let It Go" is immune to inadvertent cannibalism, as Disney wisely declined to submit other songs from Frozen for consideration in order to avoid vote-splitting. Throw in the gulf between the two songs' actual cinematic usage—"Ordinary Love" plays meekly over Mandela's credits, whereas "Let It Go" serves as Frozen's unquestioned artistic apex—and U2 basically needs a huge sympathy vote to make up the ground. Somehow I doubt that voters will feel all that sorry for one of the most popular bands of the past three decades. Disney bags another Oscar with "Let It Go".

Idina Menzel singing "Let It Go" in "Frozen"



SHOULD WIN
As with virtually everyone else in the country, I haven't seen Alone Not Yet Alone, though I did listen to the titular song, courtesy of a wondrous invention called YouTube. Musically, it's a relatively pleasant piano-based hymn, though lyrically it features some unfortunate rhymes. Given the religious bent, it's obviously designed to be inspirational, but it comes off as little more than innocuous and thereby forgettable.

I haven't seen Despicable Me 2 either (the Netflix disc is roughly three feet away from me as a write this, so I'll watch it in the near future), so I can't comment on how Pharrell Williams' "Happy" integrates into the film. As a song, it features an appealing syncopated beat, but it's a grating tune, with Williams' strained vocals clashing against the hand-clapping gospel chorus. It's liable to get stuck in your head, a quality that in this case proves irritating rather than endearing.

I did see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, though that hardly matters when evaluating "Ordinary Love", given that it plays after the movie concludes. It's basically boilerplate U2, which is to say it generates a steady build before arriving at a pretty electric hook. The lyrics are typical nonsense ("Birds fly high in the summer sky and rest on the breeze/The same wind will take care of you and I/We'll build our house in the trees"), but once the percussion heats up and the bass starts blaring, it's easy to be seduced by the casual splendor, even if it feels like Bono composed the arrangement in his sleep.

Unlike with "Ordinary Love", it's impossible to separate the musical rendition of "The Moon Song" from the film in which it appears. Taken on its own terms, the song is flimsy and straightforward, featuring nothing more than an acoustic guitar accompanying a pair of seemingly childish verses. In the context of Her, however, "The Moon Song" feels downright majestic, a literal soundtrack to two entities' flourishing romance. And the simple, playful nature of the lyrics makes sense, given that Scarlett Johansson's character is purportedly making up the words on the spot. (Johansson sings during the actual film version; Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O provides a tender reprise over the credits.) That sense of musical spontaneity—that we're witnessing the creation of art rather than its canned reproduction—yields a marvelous moment at the song's end, when Joaquin Phoenix's character cottons on to the lyrics and joins in for a final, whispered chorus. "The Moon Song" may just be the idle scribbles of a futuristic computer caught in a romantic mood, but it's also a startling demonstration of the power of music in cinema, of how instrumentation and song can elevate movies to transcendence.




Which brings me to Frozen and "Let It Go". Please forgive me, but in order to adequately describe this song, I need to briefly discuss my own relationship with Disney. My childhood coincided perfectly with the so-called Disney Renaissance, meaning that I grew up with the music from such animated luminaries as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Yet while I watched those movies in the theatre, I can't honestly remember the first time I heard enduring pop-culture staples like "Under the Sea", "Be Our Guest," "Friend Like Me," or "Hakuna Matata". To this day, I know the words and the tunes by heart (and if you're a movie fan my age, odds are you do too), but it's not as though I actively learned them—they just existed. And by the time I became a teenager, memorable Disney songs had vanished from the multiplex, meaning that during my formative moviegoing years, I never received theatrical exposure to songs that ultimately became embedded into the nation's musical lexicon. I spent my youth surrounded by classic Disney music without ever really experiencing that music in the first place.

Until now. Because when, half an hour into Frozen, Idina Menzel launched into the chorus of "Let It Go"—"Let it go, let it go, can't hold it back anymore/Let it go, let it go, turn away and slam the door"—I felt transported back to my childhood, to that first time when I must have heard "A Whole New World" or "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" And that's amazing. For someone who evaluates movies critically and dispassionately, those few moments of uninhibited joy are sacred. I realize that sounds exaggerated, but there's something deeply moving about sitting in a theatre as a curmudgeonly adult and suddenly feeling like a giddy kid.

But even ignoring my highly personal response to "Let It Go", there's a more rational explanation for my seemingly excessive praise: The song is—to put it in terms both adult and juvenile—fucking killer. Not that it's particularly complicated; it features a fairly typical verse-chorus structure, with a quiet piano that gradually crescendos before being joined by a full orchestra. But there's a beauty to the music's simplicity, and it serves to highlight Frozen's single greatest asset: Menzel's voice. It's both precise and awe-inspiring, and Menzel possesses the discipline not to swing for the fences throughout the song; she shapes the low-register passages with weight and body before unleashing her full, stunning power for the high notes. As "Let It Go" reaches its stirring conclusion, Menzel belts out, "Here I stand in the light of day/Let the storm rage on, the cold never bothered me anyway." In narrative terms, it's a princess jubilantly embracing her identity as an outcast. In musical terms, it's the sound of triumph.

(Note: "Let It Go" is destined to be remembered by children for eons, but I sincerely hope that it's Menzel's rendition (which appears in the actual film) that receives countless downloads and satellite-radio plays, rather than the slick Demi Lovato version (which plays over the credits), which feels overproduced and inorganic. Lovato is a fine pop singer with a decent voice, but there's a reason Menzel is a Broadway superstar: She has a ferocious set of pipes, and the in-film version wisely just stands back and bears witness as she lets it rip.)





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)
The Great Gatsby—"Young and Beautiful" (Lana del Rey)
Her—"The Moon Song" (Karen O, Spike Jonze)
Short Term 12—"So You Know What It's Like" (Destin Daniel Cretton, Keith Stanfield)
Trance—"Here It Comes" (Emeli Sandé, Rick Smith)

"So You Know What It's Like" is a single-take, a cappella showstopper, with young Keith Stanfield delivering an angst-ridden rap that seethes with rage and confusion but never panders or asks for sympathy. "Here It Comes" nicely marries Rick Smith's trance beats with Emeli Sandé's full-bodied vocals, resulting in something rather rare: operatic house music.

Those are both good songs, but the Academy's omission of Lana del Rey's "Young and Beautiful" is downright criminal. Del Rey is often maligned as a shallow songwriter, sometimes fairly, but she has a singular, husky voice, and the song's apparent superficiality brilliantly complements The Great Gatsby's obsession with wealth and opulence. It's also used to great effect in the actual film, essentially signifying the apotheosis of the movie's doomed courtship, and del Rey is the perfect cipher for that level of materialistic grandeur. Whether voters were bamboozled by an alleged sabotage attempt or simply turned off by the songstress' manufactured stardom, they refused to acknowledge del Rey's undeniable talent and, in so doing, failed their industry.





My ideal winner: Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez).

Friday, January 17, 2014

Oscars 2013: Nomination prediction results

Winging it, as it turns out, just might suit me. This was the Manifesto's third year predicting the Oscar nominations in 13 different categories, and after hitting on just 50 of 69 picks each of the past two years (a thoroughly mediocre 72%), this year's total jumped to 59 of 69 (a far more palatable 86%). I could attribute my success to the Academy's predictability (though voters did still provide two stunners). Or, I could congratulate myself on my extraordinary intuition, even at the risk of squandering half my readership in the process.

You know what? Screw it:




Sorry, I couldn't resist. But to be fair, the nominations themselves are just the appetizer. I still need to predict the actual winners prior to the March 2 telecast, and my recent track record in that regard—I correctly pegged just 14 of 21 categories each of the past two years—is hardly worth gloating about. To paraphrase the immortal Cadillac Williams, I may have won the war, but the battle isn't over. (Or, if you prefer the acerbic poetry of Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, "Let's not start sucking each other's dicks quite yet.")

So, as always, the Manifesto still has work to do. With that in mind, let's take a look at how things shook out with Thursday morning's announcement (incorrect picks are in red):


BEST PICTURE
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Analysis: Am I going colorblind, or is there a distinct lack of red in the above list? More seriously, this is the third consecutive year since the Academy switched to the flexible 5-to-10 approach for Best Picture, and it's nominated exactly nine films each time. Just something to keep in mind for next year.

Current favorite: 12 Hustles a Gravity. Wait, that's not right. But if there's one critical takeaway from this year's slate of nominees, it's that Captain Phillips—which scored six nominations but failed to show up for Best Director and (more shockingly) Best Actor—is no longer a major player in the Best Picture race. That leaves three thoroughbreds that combined for 29 total nominations: American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave. The latter has been perceived as the de-facto frontrunner for some time, but it also missed on some key categories, suggesting that it's vulnerable if not quite crippled. Gravity, meanwhile, is a lock for multiple technical awards, but know this: In the past 50 years, only two movies (The Sound of Music and Titanic) have won Best Picture without receiving a corresponding screenplay nomination. American Hustle, in contrast, has the look of a juggernaut, as it earned nominations in all seven major categories (picture, director, screenplay, and the four acting fields), plus three more below-the-line mentions (though it surprisingly failed to crack the Best Makeup and Hairstyling field).

Of course, Silver Linings Playbook racked up eight nominations last year but walked away with one measly Oscar (for Jennifer Lawrence), so maybe the Academy just gets off on disappointing David O. Russell. In any event, this looks to be a very intriguing three-horse race, though I suspect that the Producers' Guild will provide some clarity when it crowns its winner on Monday.

Snubbed: The Spectacular Now. No one talks about it, but it remains one of the most quietly powerful stories to grace screens this year.

"American Hustle"


BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity
Steve McQueen—12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell—American Hustle
Martin Scorsese—The Wolf of Wall Street
Paul Greengrass—Captain Phillips Alexander Payne—Nebraska

Analysis: I suggested Payne as a plausible sleeper here, but I assumed he'd show up at the expense of Scorsese rather than Greengrass. Perhaps some voters felt turned off by Captain Phillips' bone-rattling intensity. In any event, Greengrass' exhilarating film is now likely to walk away from the gala empty-handed, but in a year overflowing with high-quality prestige pictures, someone has to wear the glass slipper.

Current favorite: Cuarón. We all know that this category and Best Picture typically synchronize their winners, but Gravity, more so than any Oscar contender in recent memory, is the unmistakable byproduct of directorial vision.

Snubbed: Spike Jonze—Her. His brilliant screenplay is the headliner, but in conveying his operatic love story, Jonze also exhibits an astonishing lightness of touch.

"Gravity"


BEST ACTOR
Christian Bale—American Hustle
Bruce Dern—Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor—12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club
Tom Hanks—Captain Phillips Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street

Analysis: As with Best Director, I suspected my one miss had a chance of sneaking in; as with Best Director, I was completely wrong about whom he might bump (I had been concerned that Bale might get knocked off). In my mind, Hanks' omission is the most stunning of the entire slate of nominations, as he delivered his most complete and committed performance since Cast Away. That said, I'm thrilled to see DiCaprio show up here.

Current favorite: Probably McConaughey, although DiCaprio is demonstrating some momentum. And if either American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave starts developing momentum for a sweep, their lead performers can't be ruled out. So yeah, that really narrows things down.

Snubbed: Oscar Isaac—Inside Llewyn Davis. As I've stated, this category is ridiculously loaded, but it's still a shame that the Academy couldn't find room for Isaac's caustic, haunted performance as a folk singer on the fast track to nowhere.

Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club"


BEST ACTRESS
Amy Adams—American Hustle
Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock—Gravity
Judi Dench—Philomena
Emma Thompson—Saving Mr. Banks Meryl Streep—August: Osage County

Analysis: Serves me right for betting against Lady Meryl, though I can't yet say whether she deserved it (I'm seeing the movie this weekend). Thompson was quite good, but I'm hardly distressed to see her get the shaft. Indeed, it's heartening to see the Academy largely steer clear of Saving Mr. Banks, an unrelenting tearjerker awash in cloying hokum.

Current favorite: Blanchett. Yes, she's competing against three women whose films received a Best Picture nod. It doesn't matter.

Snubbed: Adèle Exarchopoulos—Blue Is the Warmest Color. In a towering performance of heedless longing, this French teenager opened our eyes and broke our hearts.

Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine"


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi—Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper—American Hustle
Michael Fassbender—12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto—Dallas Buyers Club
Daniel Brühl—Rush Jonah Hill—The Wolf of Wall Street

Analysis: Hooray, the Academy wised up to category fraud! Either that, or they just failed to appreciate the brilliance of Brühl's shifty, angular performance. Hill is a legitimate surprise here, as he'd been quiet on the circuit, with his lone precursor nominations coming from critics associations in Central Ohio and Dallas-Fort Worth.

Current favorite: Leto. Fassbender is his only real challenger here, and his chilling work in 12 Years a Slave is likely to be too exactingly vulgar for some voters.

Snubbed: Sam Rockwell—The Way, Way Back. I wasn't a huge fan of the movie, but Rockwell is deliriously watchable, with his deadpan humor complementing his human decency.

Jared Leto in "Dallas Buyers Club"


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o—12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts—August: Osage County
June Squibb—Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey—Lee Daniels' The Butler Sally Hawkins—Blue Jasmine

Analysis: The pattern continues. That Hawkins showed up here doesn't really surprise me, but that she replaced Winfrey rather than Roberts certainly does. In fact, Lee Daniels' The Butler was shut out completely. Perhaps the would-be contender will serve as a cautionary tale to studios in the future, though that tale is less, "Make sure you release your Oscar candidate toward the end of the year," and more, "Make sure your Oscar candidate is actually a good movie."

(Note: In my prior post, I suggested that American Hustle might receive nominations in all four acting categories, making it David O. Russell's second movie to do so in as many years. It did. I also noted, however, that the previous film to do so was Chicago; this was a flat-out lie, as it only earned three (Richard Gere scored a Golden Globe nod but missed the cut at the Oscars). In actuality, prior to Silver Linings Playbook, the last movie to achieve this feat was Warren Beatty's Reds in 1981. I regret the error. If it's any consolation, I intend to fire my editor immediately.)

Current favorite: It's probably a toss-up between Lawrence and Nyong'o. It's possible voters are already suffering from Lawrence fatigue after honoring her a year ago (and nominating her in 2010 for Winter's Bone), but she's so damn good that I can't imagine they've tired of her quite yet. And if you have doubts, look at the picture below. Regardless, this category could serve as a crystal ball for the overall fortunes of American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave; if either movie loses here, it'll face an uphill climb to take home the Best Picture trophy.

Snubbed: Emma Watson—The Bling Ring. Between this and last year's exclusion for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I'm starting to wonder if she's secretly ineligible for the Oscars. Maybe the whole "Born in France, raised in Britain, working in America" thing caused a visa snafu.

Jennifer Lawrence in "American Hustle"


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
American Hustle—David O. Russell, Eric Warren Singer
Blue Jasmine—Woody Allen
Dallas Buyers Club—Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Her—Spike Jonze
Nebraska—Bob Nelson

Analysis: There, that's better. As I mentioned, Gravity missing here bodes poorly for its Best Picture chances. Inside Llewyn Davis missing here bodes poorly for its overall Oscar chances, as the Coens' universally praised, elegiac fable earned just two nominations.

Current favorite: None. Right now, I'd probably give American Hustle the slight edge over Her, but Woody Allen is always a threat (remember that Midnight in Paris defeated The Artist here), and even Nebraska could be a player (remember also that The Descendants won for its screenplay, and never fail to remember this).

Snubbed: The World's End—Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright. This outlandish comedy is undeniably eccentric, but it's also thoughtful, unsettling, and deeply heartfelt.

Joaquin Phoenix in "Her"


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Before Midnight—Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Captain Phillips—Billy Ray
Philomena—Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
12 Years a Slave—John Ridley
The Wolf of Wall Street—Terence Winter

Analysis: I eat screenplay predictions for breakfast. Or I might, if I ate breakfast.

Current favorite: Probably 12 Years a Slave, but I can't help but sense that industry-wide enthusiasm for Steve McQueen's ruthless portrait of suffering is waning. Before Midnight and (more plausibly) The Wolf of Wall Street are able challengers.

Snubbed: What Maisie Knew—Carroll Cartwright, Nancy Doyne. This sober depiction of divorce is unblinkingly honest but never passes judgment.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave"


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki
Inside Llewyn Davis—Bruno Delbonnel
Prisoners—Roger Deakins
Captain Phillips—Barry Ackroyd The Grandmaster—Philippe Le Sourd
12 Years a Slave—Sean Bobbitt Nebraska—Phedon Papamichael

Analysis: This is the only category where I missed multiple nominees, but given that I practically predicted a three-for-five showing, I can hardly cry foul. Captain Phillips takes another hit, but it's the 12 Years a Slave omission that really shocks me—other than Tom Hanks, it's the biggest head-scratcher of the year.

Current favorite: Gravity. Move along.

Snubbed: Spring Breakers—Benoît Debie. The movie is bonkers, but the photography, with its swaths of neon, is a true achievement.


Another breathtaking image from "Gravity"


BEST FILM EDITING
American Hustle—Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
Captain Phillips—Christopher Rouse
Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger
12 Years a Slave—Joe Walker
Nebraska—Kevin Tent Dallas Buyers Club—John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa

Analysis: This one's puzzling, as Dallas Buyers Club failed to earn a guild nod (even though the guild nominates 10 films). Meanwhile, I confess that I'm confused how Nebraska shows up for Best Cinematography but misses here.

Current favorite: None. This award has been highly unpredictable over the past six years—recent winners include The Bourne Ultimatum and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—and given that the Best Picture race is currently too close to call, this one is in similar limbo.

Snubbed: Disconnect—Lee Percy, Kevin Tent. The movie boldly juggles a number of interrelated stories, but the editors do an impressive job of cross-cutting, elevating the tension in each segment.


Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips"

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
The Book Thief—John Williams
Gravity—Steven Price
Philomena—Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks—Thomas Newman
12 Years a Slave—Hans Zimmer Her—William Butler, Owen Pallett (aka Arcade Fire)

Analysis: Arcade Fire! Even if Her doesn't win, don't worry: I know there's a way we can make 'em pay/Think it over and say/"I'm never going back again."

Current favorite: Probably Gravity, although Price's spare score may be too austere for some voters. Keep your eye on Philomena as well.

Snubbed: Oblivion—M83. It's the year's most majestic, awe-inspiring score, and not by a little.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena"


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Her
12 Years a Slave

Analysis: Other than nailing the Best Picture lineup, this was my most impressive performance, as there was no telling which way this category would go. Next year, I fully expect to go two-for-five.

Current favorite: The Great Gatsby. Of course, Anna Karenina's loss last year—and yes, I'm still bitter—suggests that anything is possible in this category.

Snubbed: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I had my issues with the (pretty good) movie, but I can still feel that forest closing in around me.

"The Great Gatsby"


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
Star Trek Into Darkness
Pacific Rim The Lone Ranger

Analysis: My concern with Iron Man 3 was that voters might find its effects too similar to the superior V/X work in Pacific Rim. Yet Iron Man 3 made the cut, at the expense of Specific Rim. Good to see I know what I'm talking about.

Current favorite: Please.

Snubbed: Pacific Rim. The movie has it problems—lots of them—but the effects are damn extraordinary.

More astonishment in "Gravity"


Stay tuned for category-by-category coverage.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Oscars 2013: Nomination Predictions

"Winging it" has never been my strength. I believe in data, in probability, in hard science. I believe that decision-making is a process of ruthless optimization, whereby one weighs the relevant costs and benefits before selecting the appropriate option. I believe in regression to the mean, the unimpeachable truth of mathematics, and the Gambler's Fallacy. And I generally believe that, if you think rationally about a question long enough, you can arrive at the correct answer. It's why I spend hours crafting email-screeds to my friends railing about atrocious decisions in sports, like Mike McCarthy choosing to kick the extra point in a two-point game with 11 minutes left, or John Farrell bringing Brayan Villarreal into a tie game with the bases loaded in the ninth inning while Koji Uehara plays Scrabble in the bullpen. It's also why my friends in Colorado lovingly (loathingly?) refer to me as a robot. Much like the sneering spice merchant in Game of Thrones, I trust in logic, not passion.




Of course, that spice merchant got his fucking throat cut, suggesting that logic can only get you so far. And really, predicting the Oscars has always been more art than science. As tempting as it can be to pore over the list of winners from, say, the St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association and attempt to form a conclusion about The Great Gatsby's odds of landing a Best Production Design nomination, in the end, I'm never going to be able peer into the collective psyche of the 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and learn what the hell they're thinking. Plus, I just started recapping each of the 92 movies I watched in 2013, so I haven't been able to delve into the nitty-gritty of the Oscar race with my usual demented zeal.

But hey, as Risky Business once taught us, "Sometimes, you gotta say 'what the fuck.'" Tom Cruise took that advice and went out and banged Rebecca De Mornay. The Manifesto is putting its own carefree spin on things and is predicting the 2013 Oscar nominations with minimal research, statistical analysis, or stargazing, instead relying on "gut feel". In other words, I'm pulling a Mike McCarthy. Let's get to it.

(Note: As always, I'm only predicting nominations for my preferred 13 categories, so if you're craving analysis about whether Jackass: Bad Grandpa will receive a nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling (and seriously, it might), you'll have to look elsewhere. I will, however, predict the winners in all 21 feature categories prior to the big show on March 2.

(Nested note: Throughout this post, I'll be referring to various voting bodies simply as "the guild" when I'm really talking about the specific guild for that particular category. So, if we're talking about Best Director, then "the guild" refers to the Directors' Guild of America; with the acting categories, it implies the Screen Actors' Guild. And people say my writing lacks concision.))


BEST PICTURE
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Comments: In each of the two years since the Academy altered its procedure—the Best Picture category can now feature anywhere between 5 and 10 nominees—exactly nine movies have made the final cut, so I see no reason to change things up this time around. There are four flat-out locks here (American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave), and I'm reasonably confident in both Dallas Buyers Club (fresh off a Golden Globe win for Matthew McConaughey) and Nebraska. I'm less sold on The Wolf of Wall Street because it's so polarizing, but Scorsese always has traction here, and it's enough of a passion play to meet the critical threshold (remember, in order to receive a Best Picture nomination, a movie must be slotted at #1 on at least 5% of voters' ballots). Philomena is my shakiest pick, as it wasn't recognized by the guild, but it's very pleasant, and it just scored a nomination from BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, for those not fluent in Oscar-speak), so I think it could sneak into that ninth slot. As for Her, well, I honestly can't imagine a universe where 95% of Academy voters thought to themselves, "You know what? Her just wasn't the best movie I watched this year." But then, I can't imagine a world without puppies or peanut-butter M&M's or DVR. Suffice it to say that if Her doesn't receive a Best Picture nomination, I will light my imaginary AMPAS membership card on fire and scatter the ashes to the breeze while Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" blares in the background.

Potential upsets: I'm banking on Philomena, which didn't receive a guild nomination, at the expense of two films that did: Blue Jasmine and Saving Mr. Banks. Obviously, both are potential players here. But Blue Jasmine is a bitter pill, and I think it's remembered less as a good film and more as "that one Woody Allen flick where Cate Blanchett was incredible". And frankly, if Saving Mr. Banks is included on any list of the best movies of the year, it's time to wonder if John Lee Hancock (who also directed the Oscar-nominated The Blind Side) has incriminating photos of the Academy's entire board of governors. And then there's Inside Llewyn Davis, a critically adored film that seems to have weirdly sputtered ever since dominating with the National Society of Film Critics.

Longshots: All Is Lost (if ever there were a bracing passion play, this is it); August: Osage County (wait, has anyone actually seen this movie?); Before Midnight (pretty please?); Fruitvale Station (maybe if it had been released in December); Lee Daniels' The Butler (I think it's finally dead, but I'd appreciate it if someone chopped its head off, just to make sure); Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (its protagonist might have died at just the right time, and yes, I'll see you in Hell); Prisoners (too dark); Rush (don't laugh, you can't just ignore that Golden Globe nod); Blue Is the Warmest Color (just kidding, sigh).


BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity
Paul Greengrass—Captain Phillips
Steve McQueen—12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell—American Hustle
Martin Scorsese—The Wolf of Wall Street

Comments: Cuarón, Greengrass, McQueen, and Russell are all sitting pretty, so this is really about that fifth slot, where Scorsese is battling Spike Jonze (Her) and Alexander Payne (Nebraska). Marty has the guild nod, but as we saw last year, the DGA's influence on the Academy isn't what it used to be. Of the two challengers, I'd be more worried about Payne, partly because the Academy respects him (remember that he held off Hugo and Moneyball to earn a richly deserved screenplay win for The Descendants), and partly because I'm terrified that the Academy's own artificial intelligence system has perceived Her as a threat and has thus locked it out of its beautifully textured cabin and abandoned it to the wilderness to die. In any event, I'm sticking with Scorsese, as The Wolf of Wall Street was nothing if not the work of a brazenly confident filmmaker.

Potential upsets: In addition to Jonze and Payne, I suppose you can never rule out Woody Allen (for Blue Jasmine), though I think voters will be content nominating his screenplay.

Longshots: The Coen Brothers for Inside Llewyn Davis (if they sneak in here, then it's definitely cracking the Best Picture lineup); J.C. Chandor for All Is Lost (ibid); Stephen Frears for Philomena (too restrained); Jean-Marc Vallée for Dallas Buyers Club (people like the movie, but its maker isn't garnering much press).


BEST ACTOR
Christian Bale—American Hustle
Bruce Dern—Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor—12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks—Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club

Comments: Like with Best Director, four contenders should feel relatively comfortable here, as Dern, Ejiofor, Hanks, and McConaughey all scored nods with both the guild and BAFTA. Unlike with Best Director, competition for the fifth slot is intense and deep. BAFTA went for Bale, whereas the guild tapped Forest Whitaker for Lee Daniels' The Butler. Both received Golden Globe nominations, but given that the Globes recognize 10 lead actors (five for drama, five in the so-called "comedy or musical" field, which doesn't really feature comedies, but whatever), that isn't particularly helpful. You also can't ignore Robert Redford for his one-man show in All Is Lost, though Dern seems to have stolen Redford's old-guy thunder. But the real wildcard here is Leonardo DiCaprio for his ferocious performance in The Wolf Is Wall Street. Will voters embrace him for his bravura technique and utter commitment, or will they shun him because of the movie's lewd, provocative subject matter? I'm backing Bale because my hunch is that the Academy simply loves American Hustle and will hurl a dozen nominations at it. Regardless, this field is so loaded that it's enough to make you wish they expanded it to 10 along with Best Picture.

Potential upsets: In addition to DiCaprio, Redford, and Whitaker, there's a chance Oscar Isaac could sneak in here for his soulful, melancholic work in Inside Llewyn Davis. And there always lurks the specter of Joaquin Phoenix, who landed an Oscar nomination last year for The Master despite the lack of guild recognition and could be back again for his quietly shattering performance in Her. What's frightening is that Isaac and Phoenix, along with DiCaprio, turned in perhaps my three favorite performances of the year, yet if I were voting, I'm not sure whom I'd bump off my current list of predictions. Embarrassment of riches indeed.

Longshots: Idris Elba for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (perhaps in a weaker year); Michael B. Jordan for Fruitvale Station (see my earlier comment regarding the movie's release date); Hugh Jackman for Prisoners (not a chance, but at least he has that totally underserved Les Misérables nomination from last year).


BEST ACTRESS
Amy Adams—American Hustle
Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock—Gravity
Judi Dench—Philomena
Emma Thompson—Saving Mr. Banks

Comments: If the Best Actor field is preposterously deep, this category feels strangely, disappointingly shallow. (Which is a shame, because there were some terrific female performances this year that have completely escaped awards-season plaudits.) Yet aside from Blanchett and Bullock, no contender feels truly safe here, despite the seeming lack of competition. The obvious omission from my list is Meryl Streep for August: Osage County; perhaps it's foolhardy to bet against the most-decorated actress in Oscar history, but the movie seems to have landed with a thud. Streep does have the guild nod (as do Dench and Thompson, both of whom predictably also landed BAFTA nominations), but as I mentioned, I'm predicting a mammoth showing from American Hustle, so I'll tab Adams in a slight upset.

Potential upsets: Besides Streep, I suppose there's Julie Delpy for Before Midnight—the movie will earn a screenplay nomination, and Delpy has received considerably more acclaim than her co-star (an excellent Ethan Hawke). I also won't rule out Brie Larson for Short Term 12, though I think she needs a slightly bigger platform before crossing over. And the field is so thin that there's a chance Greta Gerwig could pop up for her fearless, spectacularly guileless work in Frances Ha. All in all, don't be shocked if there's something shocking.

Longshots: Julia Louis-Dreyfus for Enough Said (if she gets in over Gerwig, I'll eat my yarmulke); Kate Winslet for Labor Day (still waiting for confirmation that this movie exists); Adèle Exarchopoulos for Blue Is the Warmest Color (again, sigh); Shailene Woodley for The Spectacular Now (I don't want to talk about it).


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi—Captain Phillips
Daniel Brühl—Rush
Bradley Cooper—American Hustle
Michael Fassbender—12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto—Dallas Buyers Club

Comments: Fassbender and Leto are locks, and Abdi seems to have nailed things down following his BAFTA nod. As for Brühl, it's possible that voters will magically realize that he isn't actually supporting anybody, but as my friend Luke pointed out, Chris Hemsworth has better abs. And in case you haven't noticed, I'm throwing my lot in with American Hustle, so Cooper climbs onto the fifth rung.

Potential upsets: If Alexander Payne nabs a Best Director nomination, I wouldn't be surprised to see Will Forte show up here for his understated work in Nebraska. Loath as I am to consider the Oscar potential of Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks can never be ruled out of an Oscar race (not to mention two in one year). James Gandolfini was very good in Enough Said, but you're denying reality if you think his possible nomination has nothing to do with his death. And if voters are feeling particularly maniacal, they could reach for James Franco, who was an absolute dynamo in the batshit-crazy Spring Breakers.

Longshots: George Clooney for Gravity (how is he one of the most successful actors in the world and still perpetually underrated?); Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street (seems to make sense, but where's the buzz?); Sam Rockwell for The Way, Way Back (a guy can dream).


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o—12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts—August: Osage County
June Squibb—Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey—Lee Daniels' The Butler

Fun fact: Last year, Silver Linings Playbook became the first movie since Chicago to receive nominations in all four acting categories. And now, I'm betting David O. Russell will pull of the feat in back-to-back years. If he fails, it won't be because of Lawrence, who's a shoo-in here along with Nyong'o. Squibb is also in solid shape, and while it's possible that The Butler whiffed completely with the Academy, I think Oprah makes the grade. That leaves the fifth slot, and in tabbing Roberts, I'm banking on the high-wattage star of a movie I've yet to see, which always makes me grumpy. But she earned nominations from both BAFTA and the guild, so it seems foolish to pick against her at the moment.

Potential upsets: Roberts' likeliest competition is Sally Hawkins for Blue Jasmine, but voters who watched that movie seven months ago may struggle to remember anyone other than Cate Blanchett. Still, Hawkins scored at BAFTA (unsurprising) and at the Globes (considerably more surprising), so Roberts shouldn't feel safe just yet.

Longshots: Scarlett Johansson for Her. Come on, AMPAS. Show some balls.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
American Hustle—David O. Russell, Eric Warren Singer
Blue Jasmine—Woody Allen
Dallas Buyers Club—Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Her—Spike Jonze
Nebraska—Bob Nelson

Comments: American Hustle and Blue Jasmine are golden. As for Her, I know I make a lot of empty threats, but if Jonze's wildly imaginative screenplay doesn't show up here, I promise that I will stop following the Oscars for at least an hour. But the final two spots are very interesting. I think Dallas Buyers Club tells an inspiring enough story that it pops up here, and while Payne obviously didn't write Nebraska, it nevertheless features his Academy-approved writerly feel (both also have guild nods). But can Gravity be a smash hit with voters yet still miss here? And what about the Coens' sensitive, mournful screenplay for Inside Llewyn Davis? Both scored BAFTA nominations, so it's entirely plausible that at least one cracks this list.

Potential upsets: Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, and, er, that's it.

Longshots: None. I could throw Savings Mr. Banks or Enough Said on here, but let's be real: This category features seven players competing for five spots.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Before Midnight—Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Captain Phillips—Billy Ray
Philomena—Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
12 Years a Slave—John Ridley
The Wolf of Wall Street—Terence Winter

Comments: I'm pretty comfortable with this group. True, August: Osage County and Lone Survivor (say what?) both scored guild nominations, but that's misleading, as Philomena and 12 Years a Slave were ineligible with the guild.

Potential upsets: None. But did you know that Tracy Letts, the playwright behind August: Osage County, also plays the unscrupulous senator on Homeland? Maybe his next play can be about a maverick TV producer who kills off popular shows before they overstay their welcome.

Longshots: The Spectacular Now. If I believed in jinxes, I wouldn't have even mentioned it. Curse my robotic state of mind. Wait, I'm supposed to be winging it? Forget I said anything.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Captain Phillips—Barry Ackroyd
Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki
Inside Llewyn Davis—Bruno Delbonnel
Prisoners—Roger Deakins
12 Years a Slave—Sean Bobbitt

Comments: Uh oh. Serves me right for feeling confident about Best Adapted Screenplay. The problem here is that the guild nominated seven films: the five aforementioned, plus The Grandmaster (yuck) and Nebraska. Either of those could replace Captain Phillips or Prisoners (I'm relatively confident in the other three). But The Grandmaster just wasn't very good, and while Nebraska was shot in black-and-white, its forthright photography of Midwestern landscapes wasn't particularly memorable. Plus, Captain Phillips is a stronger Oscar contender overall, and Deakins is a legend. But don't run to Vegas with these picks, as a three-for-five showing is entirely possible.

Potential upsets: In addition to The Grandmaster and Nebraska, it's impossible to rule American Hustle out of any category. And don't forget Her. Never forget Her.

Longshots: Spring Breakers (if James Franco shocks the world with a nomination, this should follow).


BEST FILM EDITING
American Hustle—Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
Captain Phillips—Christopher Rouse
Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger
Nebraska—Kevin Tent
12 Years a Slave—Joe Walker

Comments: In my view, the four heavy hitters this year are American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave, so I think they all show up here. (All also have guild nods, but the guild echoes the Golden Globes and splits out a separate quintet for comedy or musical, so it's pretty much useless.) The Wolf of Wall Street is the sexy pick for the fifth slot, especially with its BAFTA nomination, which Nebraska pointedly lacks. Still, while The Wolf of Wall Street runs a breezy three hours, it's still three hours, whereas Nebraska is lean and spare, with minimal fuss.

Potential upsets: Rush nabbed a surprise BAFTA nod along with The Wolf of Wall Street (it also scored a "Best British Film" nomination), but I don't see that translating to the Oscars. A more intriguing candidate is Her, though if voters honor it below the line, I suspect them to do so for its production design. And Inside Llewyn Davis, as with any Coen Brothers picture, is a technical marvel, so it's worth tracking.

Longshots: August: Osage County and Saving Mr. Banks both have guild nods, so they can't be ruled out. But I'm ruling them out.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
The Book Thief—John Williams
Gravity—Steven Price
Philomena—Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks—Thomas Newman
12 Years a Slave—Hans Zimmer

Comments: For whatever reason, I have a particularly poor read on this race, as it seems shockingly thin this year. So it goes. In any event, Price and Zimmer are both virtual locks, and betting on Williams and Desplat is never a poor strategy. Saving Mr. Banks is a shakier pick on paper, but Newman is also a popular name, and the movie spoon-feeds his syrupy score directly into voters' mouths.

Potential upsets: Alex Ebert just won the Golden Globe for All Is Lost, so he could leverage that into success here. Henry Jackman's score for Captain Phillips is a reasonable possibility as well, simply by virtue of the movie's success (not to mention its BAFTA nomination), while younger voters might be tempted to highlight Arcade Fire for their stirring work on Her.

Longshots: Take your pick. As I mentioned, this category feels highly tenuous, so don't be stunned if out-of-nowhere candidate pops up. But I'm fairly confident—and depressed—that it won't be M83 for Oblivion.


BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Her
12 Years a Slave

Comments: If Best Original Score feels weak, this category is rife with possibilities. Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, as usual, are solid, and I'm confident in American Hustle as well, particularly given its period setting. The Great Gatsby may have been a critical misfire, but it still looked great, and the recreations of East and West Egg were tough to miss. Her may be something of a fantasy pick, but in my (irrelevant) view, its elegant vision of the future can't be denied.

Potential upsets: The guild nominates a whopping 15 pictures (five each in the fields of contemporary, period, and fantasy), so it's hardly worth considering. Perhaps the biggest spoiler could be The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, though it's worth wondering if the Academy is just sick of Middle-Earth at this point.

Longshots: O.K., this time I'm willing to posit that Oblivion at least has a puncher's chance. But don't count on it.


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Star Trek Into Darkness

Comments: There's a terrific scene in Legally Blonde, set during the first Harvard Law class, when the professor asks her students to name the author of a famous quote. After one bookish volunteer correctly attributes it to Aristotle, she asks him if he'd stake his life on the accuracy of his answer. He says yes. She then asks him if he'd be willing to wager the life of the person sitting next to him. He's unsure. Now here's my point: If a Harvard Law professor walks up to you today and asks you to name one movie that will be nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, at the risk of killing a random person if you're wrong (think Quiz Show meets Richard Kelly's The Box), you can name Gravity without even blinking. There has never been a surer bet in the history of the Oscars. Or life, really.

Potential upsets: Remember, the Academy has already whittled this field down to a shortlist of 10; the remaining candidates are Elysium, The Lone Ranger, Oblivion, Thor: The Dark World, and World War Z. Besides Gravity, I'm relatively confident in both The Hobbit and Pacific Rim. Iron Man 3 seems to be a safe bet as well, though it pales compared to the effects of Pacific Rim, and it's possible that voters are suffering from robot fatigue. And Star Trek Into Darkness is a total guess on my part. The only candidate I'm willing to eliminate as a potential replacement is Elysium, but I said that last year about Snow White and the Huntsman before it scored a stunning nomination, so as usual, take my word for what it's worth.


That's a wrap on the Manifesto's official predictions. We'll be back soon with a recap of our performance.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Unmemorables, Part II: Ghosts, Robots, and the Wolverine

The Manifesto is counting down every theatrical release its proprietor watched in 2013. Today, we continue with our look at the least memorable movies of 2013. If you missed Part I, you can find it here.

Moving on to the remaining movies I've already forgotten:

The Iceman. Richard Kuklinski purportedly killed over 100 people while working as a mob hit man. Factually speaking, that's pretty terrifying, but in director Ariel Vromen's eyes, it's also worthy of a movie. Why? The reason escapes me, as The Iceman is little more than a grim, grimy exercise in repressed rage. Vromen did have the good sense (or luck) to cast Michael Shannon, a physically imposing actor in the midst of a meteoric rise—in addition to his fine work on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, Shannon turned heads with his revelatory performance in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, then landed a plum part in Man of Steel—but while Shannon is a fearsome screen presence, he can provide little depth to a film that seems mesmerized by Kuklinski's very existence. It's as if Vromen believes that simply informing the audience that a remorseless assassin also had a family spares him from the imperative of delivering a thoughtful or compelling narrative. Throw in its linear structure and point-and-shoot style, and The Iceman is unmemorable in the most literal sense; the only scene I can remember in any detail occurs when Kuklinski permits one of his targets to pray before executing him. Otherwise, all I can recall is a smudgy streak of violent executions and shrill domestic fights, with no underlying tension or hook. (According to IMDb, James Franco, Winona Ryder, and Ray Liotta all appeared in this movie. I remain unconvinced.) Kuklinski eventually received a life sentence, which somehow seems appropriate—to toil in obscurity is just what this ugly, irrelevant movie deserves.

Michael Shannon in "The Iceman"


Jack the Giant Slayer. When viewed from a lenient perspective, Bryan Singer's playful take on "Jack and the Beanstalk" is perfectly acceptable. It's light and airy, with a spacious, inventive production design and a spirited score from John Ottman. Moreover, the computer-generated giants are convincing, and the medieval battle scenes, while hardly revolutionary, at least provide a respite from the gunfire and detonations that litter most summer studio productions. There are worse, less diverting times to spend at the movies. But that standard of adequacy is hardly one that Singer—the director of the first two (pretty good) X-Men movies, plus the cult hit The Usual Suspects and the underrated Valkyrie—should strive to meet. Jack the Giant Slayer may strike a refreshingly breezy chord in a marketplace dominated by glowering and destructive pictures, but it remains profoundly lazy in such rudimentary areas as plot and character. All of the human interactions in the film—the earnest romance, the strained comedy, the fiendish villainy—feel perfunctory and underwritten, as though Singer is far less interested in his characters than in the mechanics of their fight against a tribe of towering behemoths. But perhaps that's by design: The giants are impressively rendered as foul and grotesque, but they're less evil than irritable, and they tend to regard Jack and his ilk with a mixture of contempt and indifference. They and Singer seem to be of like mind.


Jack the Giant Slayer

Kon-Tiki. Joachim Rønning's and Espen Sandberg's quasi-epic—which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film—tells the tale of a hardscrabble band of seafarers who crossed the Pacific Ocean on a raft in 1947. They constructed the raft from balsawood, without any modern materials, in an effort to prove that the ancient settlers of Polynesia made the very same crossing thousands of year earlier. (In 1947, this proposal apparently sounded scientifically heroic rather than just plain stupid. Also, that the voyagers used modern machinery to actually build the raft didn't seem to violate their self-imposed rules. No matter.) That yields the promise of an exciting romp of high-seas adventure, but Rønning and Sandberg derive surprisingly little cinematic suspense from their pioneers' maritime journey. After a boilerplate setup in which the group's leader is shown to be fighting against an entrenched scientific establishment—a clumsy, obvious ploy for our sympathy—the movie basically involves a few men sitting on a raft, hoping that the wind propels them in the proper direction. It's dull, dreary stuff, and after a time you begin to wish that an enemy vessel would appear, just to give our heroes something tangible to fight against. Worse, Kon-Tiki exhibits little effort to differentiate its characters; with the exception of a panicky engineer, all of the explorers are hardy, brave folk, making them a rather bland batch who hardly inspire a rooting interest. Kon-Tiki tries to make a heartfelt case for the academic value of scientific discovery, but it would prove more effective if we gave a damn about the scientists in the first place.


Kon-Tiki


Mama. Reduced to its essentials, and Andy Muschietti's vaguely supernatural thriller—about a pair of young girls who receive the protection of a spectral being, who in turn grows savagely possessive when adults interfere with her de-facto parentage—is pretty dumb. But it has its virtues, most notably the phenomenal performance of Megan Charpentier, an 11-year-old actress of extraordinary poise who, along with an admirably committed Jessica Chastain, brings a human dimension to Mama's cookie-cutter horror. The movie also marks Muschietti as a genuine talent with a keen eye, particularly in a gasp-worthy early sequence (in which he shrewdly bifurcates the frame) that's downright masterful. It's a shame, then, that Muschietti ultimately squanders his assets, ignoring the interpersonal dynamics in favor of cheap scares and ungainly backstory. Mama's final third is little more than a things-go-bump-in-the-night spookfest; it's facile, haunted-house schlock transplanted to some very creepy woods. But the ending has an elegiac twist that's almost touching, and it's indicative of Muschietti's potential. (He's already been fêted by Guillermo del Toro, and Universal has reportedly tapped him to helm its reboot of The Mummy.) Mama proves to be a decidedly curious calling card for Muschietti: It both shows what he can do and suggests that he can do so much better.

Jessica Chastain in "Mama"


Now You See Me. I have an exceedingly high tolerance level for twist-laden movies—I highly enjoyed both Wild Things and Swordfish, for example—but Now You See Me's narrative acrobatics exceed even my liberal threshold. Louis Leterrier's magic-based actioner attempts to function as what Hitchcock dubbed a "Refrigerator Movie", the kind that so engrosses you with its moment-to-moment hijinks that you can't be bothered to notice its gaping plot holes until after it's over (when you've gone to make yourself a snack). And it might have succeeded, had Leterrier's approach not been so blankly generic. The overarching concept—a troupe of self-serving magicians wield their talents to swindle a corrupt insurer, essentially acting as white-collar vigilantes—is appealing, and in its early passages, Now You See Me is a satisfying blur of sleight-of-hand, with Leterrier's nifty camerawork accentuating his heroes' mystical derring-do. So why does the film resort to such numb action-movie clichés as a frantic car chase on New York City highways, or an equally rote foot chase through the streets of New Orleans? The problem isn't just that the movie is fundamentally empty; it's that Leterrier's execution, while suitably workmanlike, has none of the flair or showmanship he purports to impart to his characters. Unlike a true magician, he can't distract you from keeping your eye on the ball, meaning that as the plot twists rise, so will your eyebrows. Eventually, the sheer number of contrivances becomes too much to bear, and when Now You See Me concludes with one of those everything-is-explained flashbacks, it induces more groans than gasps. Conning insurance companies may be easy, but conning your audience is a difficult trick indeed.

Isla Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco in "Now You See Me"


Pacific Rim. When he was young, Guillermo del Toro liked monster movies. When he grew up, he turned into a pretty talented movie-maker himself, putting a playful, anarchic spin on the Blade and Hellboy franchises while peaking with the sublime Pan's Labyrinth. Having built himself some blockbuster cachet, it was only natural for del Toro to brandish his Hollywood currency and convince Warner Bros. to give him $190 million to make a movie about, well, giant robots fighting giant monsters. That's pretty much all Pacific Rim entails—watching it is not dissimilar to watching an extremely spoiled child mash his technologically advanced toys against each other over and over. To the extent the film features human characters, they exist merely as vessels, stoically piloting the immense robots in battle against their Godzilla-inspired foes. Of course, del Toro wants all of this to be fun, and to his credit, Pacific Rim is impassioned without feeling labored; it's sly homage, not outright worship. But no matter how much childlike zeal he pours into his project, del Toro can't obfuscate the unavoidable truth: Watching two lumbering, inanimate objects endlessly slug it out feels boring, pointless, and a bit puerile. Perhaps it could have been invigorating, but del Toro's staging of the relentless combat is dour and mechanical, with darkness often obscuring the entities' features and making it difficult to discern which beast is clobbering which. Del Toro envisioned Pacific Rim as the apotheosis of his youthful sense of wonder, but as it turns out, some children's fantasies are better left to the imagination.

Pacific Rim


The To Do List. Aubrey Plaza is a rare breed. In a market saturated by perky and appealing twentysomething actresses, Plaza's calling card is hostility; her characters range from expressing jaded superiority to outright disgust. But there's an underlying sweetness to her as well, and it suggests that her reflexive scorn is less an actual attitude than a protective mechanism. She's more than deserving of a star vehicle, but sadly, The To Do List proves to be beneath her. The movie casts Plaza as a little-liked valedictorian with no sexual experience who resolves to educate herself before heading to college. What follows is a predictable pattern of sexual invitations, humiliations, and reconciliations that's basically just a distaff spin on American Pie, only without the genuine affection for its characters—it's mildly funny, slightly sweet, and completely forgettable. The only truly original moment occurs near the end, when Plaza's character displays no regrets about her selfish behavior, instead choosing to savor her assertion of independence. Otherwise, though, The To Do List simply demonstrates that dumb and raunchy comedies are secretly solicitous and tame, and the fact that it features a woman makes it no less afraid of upending the status quo. For a movie about a supposedly adventurous girl who checks off boxes like "Dry-humping" and "Motor-boating", The To Do List is disappointingly listless.

Aubrey Plaza in "The To Do List"


The Way, Way Back. Of all the mediocre movies highlighted in these two posts, The Way, Way Back is probably the best. It's a reliably uplifting coming-of-age story, it's largely well-acted, and it effortlessly evokes the bygone sensation of a teenager being unjustly cloistered with one's family in a dead-end beach town. But aside from a fantastic, wonderfully casual performance from Sam Rockwell, the characters of The Way, Way Back feel strangely incomplete, as though writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who co-wrote The Descendants with Alexander Payne) sketched them out but forgot to color them in. Nowhere is that sense of vague uncertainty more present than in Duncan, the movie's protagonist played with suffocating blandness by The Killing's Liam James. Don't get me wrong: Normal people (and teenagers) are perfectly acceptable subjects for compelling and daring stories. But Duncan isn't an Everyman so much as a Nothing Man—he has no real personality to speak of, and although we're meant to sympathize with his alienation, I found myself puzzled why so many strangers would befriend this sullen, uncharismatic loner. (Naturally, he draws the interest of an attractive, conveniently single female neighbor, which suggests that the pickings in this town must be awfully slim.) What's frustrating is that the movie features enough intriguing supporting characters—in addition to Rockwell and Allison Janney (a hoot, as ever), Steve Carell is admirably unlikable, while Toni Collette and Amanda Peet both suggest well-meaning, chronically unlucky women—that it makes you wish Faxon and Rash had discarded Duncan altogether and simply focused on the adults and their foibles. As The Way, Way Back recognizes, coming of age isn't easy, but rooting for its hero shouldn't be this hard.

Sam Rockwell and Liam James in "The Way, Way Back"


The Wolverine. Immortality is often viewed as a curse to world-weary superheroes, but it's even worse for filmmakers. If a hero literally can't die, how is his director supposed to place him in any real peril? James Mangold recognizes this dilemma, and in The Wolverine, he and his screenwriters (Mark Bomback and Scott Frank) smartly devise a plot to strip the adamantium-laced nomad of his powers. The only snag is that the plot is woefully undercooked, and the characters are equally underdeveloped. Perhaps there was something involving a shape-shifting lizard-woman, and maybe an old man who morphs into a gigantic suit of armor? You'll forgive me if I'm struggling to remember—I'll simply refer you to the title of this post. Mangold does concoct two sterling set pieces, the first a bracing, nimbly choreographed fight atop a speeding bullet-train, the second a legitimately suspenseful sequence in which Hugh Jackman (aging as imperceptibly as his character) must perform open-heart surgery on himself. That those scenes stand out, however, merely reinforces the overwhelming sense of banality that suffuses the remainder of the film. The Wolverine features the usual litany of problems that plague modern superhero movies—thin characters; clunky dialogue; overlong, maladroit action scenes—but the flaws here seem secondary to the movie's paralyzing indistinction. I can't criticize it in any further detail, not because it doesn't have its problems but because I literally can't remember them. And in a cinematic landscape awash with rote action pictures, that is perhaps the most damning assessment a critic can give.

Hugh Jackman in "The Wolverine"


Coming up next: The Failures.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Unmemorables: 2013's Least Memorable Movies, from Assange to Smaug (Part I)

About a year ago, film critic Scott Tobias wrote a piece called "The 'Gentleman's F' and the Scourge of Deliberate Mediocrity". His thesis was that "bad movies are better than useless ones", and while I don't necessarily agree with his specific examples, I can see his overarching point. Bad movies may be horribly executed, but at least they're distinctive and, in their own way, defiantly memorable. Useless movies, on the other hand, are bland, slothful, and scrupulously inoffensive. They're rarely bad enough to induce anger, but neither are they good enough to inspire debate. They are simply consumed and then discarded, and to the extent that I remember them, it's with the wistful knowledge that in watching them, I basically wasted two hours of my life.

And so, the following collective represents 2013's Unmemorables: the Manifesto's view of the least memorable movies of the year. None of these films is truly terrible—a few are even mildly enjoyable, at least in part—but they produced nothing in the way of an emotional response, be it love or loathing. I simply watched them, and then I forgot about them. And such ambivalence is, in its own quiet way, a more damning reaction than outright rage.

So here's to the cinematic sinners who sinned by not trying. In alphabetical order:

About Time. There's no rule that time-travel must exist exclusively within the action genre, and indeed, incorporating science-fiction conceits into the more prosaic world of romantic comedy is rife with possibility. (See also: Paris, Midnight in.) Sadly, Richard Curtis seems convinced that the mere introduction of time-travel into his otherwise lifeless romance can compensate for the film's considerable flaws, most notably a blandness of character. There is simply nothing interesting about Tim, the temporally gifted protagonist, played by Domhnall Gleeson as a nice-enough guy with no discernible personality. Even less interesting is Mary, Tim's supposed soul mate (played by a reliably appealing, somewhat vacant Rachel McAdams), who is sweet, pretty, and frightfully dull. The same can be said of the movie, which takes a single running joke—Tim repeatedly puts his foot in his mouth and then must use his powers to correct these minor transgressions—and quickly drains it of its comedic potential. Like most Curtis pictures, About Time has its pleasant moments (especially a meet-cute that takes place in total darkness), and Bill Nighy's presence is always delightful. But on the whole, there's just nothing here worth remembering, much less traveling through time for.

Rachel McAdams in "About Time"

Admission. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are both highly likable actors, and there's nothing objectionable about just putting them in the same frame and letting them play off each other. But beyond that, Admission, Chris Weitz's half-comedy, half-whatever, has no apparent purpose or identity. Or perhaps it has too many. Is it a comedy about two mismatched, flawed adults who learn to appreciate each other? A drama about the costs and the joys of motherhood? A scathing indictment of collegiate institutions and their seemingly arbitrary criteria? Admission feints at becoming all of these things but ends up being none of them, and its evident confusion is less a failure of outsized ambition than one of tentative uncertainty. In one scene, a handful of admission officers debate applicants' credentials, and it's clear they're looking for something unique; getting in, it appears, is all about standing out. The movie should have taken its own advice.

Tina Fey in "Admission"

The Croods. Over at The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson summed up the contemporary state of cinematic animation as follows: "As long as it's all aimed first and foremost at kids, it can only go so far in terms of ambition, narrative complexity, serious subjects, and serious diversity." The Croods illustrates this point all too neatly. Visually, the movie shrewdly exploits the promise of the medium, as it features several exciting, sharply choreographed action sequences that would simply be impossible to stage in the real world. But as busy as the film appears to be on its surface, it is ultimately empty in terms of its narrative. The quest story is shopworn, the jokes are easy and stale, and the themes of embracing family and self-discovery are tired and familiar. Part of my discontent may stem from my own stubbornness—"Relax, it's just a kids' movie," the refrain goes—but I refuse to concede that animation exists exclusively to serve small children by delivering bright colors and lazy stories. There's too much potential in animation to waste it on movies like The Croods that elevate gee-whiz style over actual substance.

"The Croods"

Elysium. I didn't particularly care for any of the movies ignominiously highlighted in this post, but Neill Blomkamp's Elysium is the only one that truly disappointed me. That's because Blomkamp's District 9 was a tantalizing feature debut; it wasn't a perfect movie, but it was nevertheless an audacious, self-assured allegory that boldly fused multiple genres, including docudrama, body horror, and guerrilla action. So it's almost crushing that Elysium plays things so safe, abandoning District 9's distinctly personal flavor and replacing it with by-the-book blockbuster fare. The story jabs at social metaphor, but it's too bluntly didactic to possess any real weight, and besides, Blomkamp seems far less interested in rounding out his characters than in wielding his $115 million budget. That extra capital allowed him to hire some top-flight actors, including Matt Damon (steady as ever) and Jodie Foster (supplying the worst performance of her career), though Sharlto Copley—completely unrecognizable from the harried bureaucrat he brilliantly essayed in District 9—steals the show with a deliriously over-the-top performance as a crazed assassin. But the bloated budget really shows up in Elysium's action scenes, which are loud, long, and distressingly generic, as though Blomkamp consciously prioritized sheer magnitude over clarity and ingenuity. Given that he made District 9 on the (relative) cheap, it's perhaps understandable that Blomkamp is so enraptured with all of his new toys, but next time he'd be better served using the cash to buy himself some new ideas.

Matt Damon in "Elysium"

Ender's Game. There isn't much wrong with Ender's Game, Gavin Hood's streamlined, workmanlike adaptation of Orson Scott Card's wildly popular novel (which, I should disclose, I've never read). It has a sleek look that befits its futuristic setting, and it astutely captures the attendant burdens of isolation and ostracism that plague especially gifted children. The problem is one of scale. Ender's Game works suitably well as a coming-of-age story, but it's pitched as a war for humanity's very survival. That requires it to possess a certain gravitas, but it's difficult for the film to achieve serious resonance when it basically centers on a young boy trying to make friends while playing games in Space Camp. The stakes just don't feel all that high, and the allegory—which vaguely attacks the notion of might-is-right militarism—comes across as both misplaced and distorted. (Politically, the movie is a muddle, doubtless the consequence of condensing Card's book to feature-length.) And while the initial training sequences are pleasant and effective, the latter battle scenes—in which Ender barks incomprehensible commands to his posse of child soldiers while perched on a dais—play like a sound-and-light show at your local planetarium. As Ender's Game recognizes, growing up is hard enough; must every movie teenager these days need to save the world?

Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, and Asa Butterfield in "Ender's Game"

Epic. See: Croods, The. But seriously, Epic is both better and worse than the other animated title in this post. Better, because the animation on display here is stunningly gorgeous, from the shimmering movements of a hummingbird's wings to the micro-texture of each blade of grass. The movie also ostensibly creates its own universe, resulting in a rare, fresh breath of originality. Or it would, if that universe weren't so patently purloined from other superior pictures. Epic's story—in which a disenchanted girl is miniaturized and must become the savior of a class of nature-warriors whose existence she has always doubted—treads such a well-worn path that you can practically see the signposts forecasting each bend in the narrative. It's Ferngully meets Avatar, with a dash of Pocahontas thrown in. That might have been acceptable if the movie featured lively action or sharp writing, but the action (unlike that of The Croods) is merely passable, while the dialogue drifts between unmemorable and risible. There's plenty to look at in Epic, but it would be nice if there were actually something to see.

"Epic"

The Fifth Estate. Bill Condon's humdrum examination of the WikiLeaks scandal hardly deserved to become the biggest commercial flop of the year, though according to Forbes, that's exactly what it was. It features solid-to-excellent acting from its impressive cast (most notably the chameleonic Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange), and it asks some thoughtful questions about the role of the journalist in an era where speed and technological knowhow tend to trump research and patience. But Condon attempts to frame the proceedings as a new-age thriller, which is problematic because The Fifth Estate is utterly lacking in urgency or excitement. It isn't Condon's fault that the process of bespectacled men typing furiously on laptops doesn't naturally lend itself to cinema, but he nevertheless fails spectacularly in his efforts to tart up the digital world, which he stupefyingly renders as a "newsroom in the sky". (A climactic sequence, in which Condon portrays two men hacking a network by showing them literally swinging axes into bulky servers, is particularly laughable.) It's a baffling, obtuse approach that undercuts the movie's stabs at significance, and it betrays Condon's ignorance of an axiom familiar to the most amateur of programmers: When solving a problem, finesse and elegance are often more effective than brute force.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Carice Van Houten, and Daniel Bruhl in "The Fifth Estate"

42. Brian Helgeland's sturdy, straightforward biopic of Jackie Robinson tells the story of a tremendously talented athlete who overcame the vile forces of bigotry and entrenchment in order to fulfill his dream of playing in the major leagues. In other words, it tells us nothing we didn't already know. Robinson is an American hero with a hard-won legacy, but there's no real insight here, and certainly no greater sense of the actual man behind the legend. The movie only really comes to life when Robinson attacks opposing defenses on the base paths; the scenes of him measuring a pitcher's windup and taking his lead have a refreshing, immediate specificity, as though we're witnessing an artisan honing his craft. Otherwise, however, Helgeland treats Robinson as a mere cipher in his polemical study of hatred and courage, and his conclusions—that racism is bad, and that it can be thwarted through endurance and camaraderie—are worthy of a social studies textbook. As a result, 42 is pious and forthright rather than nuanced and exploratory; it's admirably educational, but hardly inspirational.

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson "42"

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I was a half-hearted defender of An Expected Journey, the opening chapter of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. Yes, it's too long, and some of the subplots feel hopelessly arbitrary (Radagast the What?), but it's breathtakingly well-made, and there's a real sense of passion to the project. But my enthusiasm has begun to wane with the second installment, which deemphasizes story in favor of elaborate, repetitive fight sequences. To be fair, Jackson remains one of the preeminent action directors around, and several of the movie's early set pieces—including a terrifying encounter with monstrous spiders (a return to Jackson's horror roots) and a magnificent river chase in which the protagonists travel helplessly by barrel—are marvels of clear-eyed, energetic filmmaking. But as The Desolation of Smaug wears on, its palette grows darker and its action scenes duller, while the introduction of an entire new crop of townspeople generates exasperation rather than immersion. (It doesn't help that Ian McKellen, the film's most human presence alongside the ever-dependable Martin Freeman, spends most of his meager screen time chained to a rock.) And although the initial encounter between Freeman's Bilbo and the impressively engineered Smaug (voiced with delicious, palpable malevolence by Benedict Cumberbatch) is invigorating, the extravagant, interminable battle that follows is downright enervating, as Jackson's camera cuts frantically back and forth across a half-dozen different dwarves whose names I can't even remember. In the end, Jackson is so devoutly invested in killing bad guys—how many orcs are slaughtered in this movie? Does Orlando Bloom's kill count reach quadruple digits?—that it's hard to bother caring about the good guys.

Smaug and Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

More to come.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Worst Movies of 2013