If you want a leg up on your Oscar ballot, the key is to see the films in the three short film categories. Back in the day, there was no good way to do this. In the last few years, however, Magnolia Films and shorts.tv have put them together for theatrical release.
If you’re lucky enough to be near one of the 110 theaters in the US that are showing the program, get on down and see them! Seriously, there are some great, innovative films. And if you don’t like one, a new one will be on any minute.
UPDATE 17 February 2015: The Oscar Shorts are now available streaming on Vimeo On Demand.
What follows is a bit about each film and my evaluation of its Oscar potential. Enjoy!
The Imitation Game seems unlikely to win Best Picture, but the crackerjack screenplay, by Graham Moore, has a good shot to win Best Adapted Screenplay. It takes the life of mathematician Alan Turing and turns it into an Enigma code that comes together letter by letter, intercutting three time periods. The dialogue, which you can tell stars like Benedict Cumberbatch (Turning) and Kiera Knightley (who plays his colleague and beard) are enjoying immensely, is sharply witty and dramatically charged. Other than a certain sawhorse refrain that clumsily returns as a mantra to bludgeon dimwitted audience members who require their themes spoonfed, I loved it.
It works as a spy thriller, it works as an emotional mystery, it works as the tale of a tragic decline. Pay no attention to the naysayers who are tarring it with the “not historically accurate” brush (like poor Selma). Rubbish. To understand history, you have to engage with the people and the events and Imitation Game is a perfect blueprint for how to do that and make an entertaining film at the same time.
Now, if you know going in how Turing met his end then you may, like me, feel that there was a case to make it a part of this story beyond just a title card. The filmmakers opted not to dramatize that, and I respect that. But I do feel the film ‘chickened out’ a bit at this and some other harsher aspects of the true story. Commercially, of course, indisputably they made the right call.
This scientist biopic also surprised me. Yes, it has the awkward love story and the uplifting struggle against a debilitating neurological disease, but it also goes into some places with the characters I wasn’t expecting. Perhaps because it is based on Hawking’s first wife’s memoir rather than his own accounts, it offers a unique perspective on his professional achievements and the challenges of raising a family and sustaining a marriage.
Eddie Redmayne positively disappears into the role. I know it’s conventional wisdom that playing disabled is Oscar bait, but this is no dilettante performance. At every turn there is a trap of exaggerating the look and movements of the real Hawking into clownishness. But Redmayne never does. That would be enough (dayenu!) but Redmayne also adds a layer of — for lack of a better term — ‘eye-acting’ that provides a window into the character’s deepest thoughts and feelings. It’s worth the ticket price alone.
The script, by Anthony McCarten, meanders a bit. It never quite brings its central metaphor home (Hawkings’ thoughts on the universe expanding forever or contracting to doom mirror his own attitudes toward facing his disease). But I’m also a fan of not forcing messy real lives into some artificial structure. Jane, the wife character (Felicity Jones), is quite interesting in her own right. Her struggling with fidelity and what her husband’s discoveries mean for her faith was all quite dramatic. I wish there had been even more of her journey: A scene of her struggling with the kids, struggling with Stephen’s bodily functions. (I believe the one time he’s shown on the toilet, he’s unrealistically wearing pants. #rant Filmmakers: either you show us the nitty gritty of what this disease is really like or don’t. Never go pant-on-toilet! #endrant)
In the end, I had some idea of what it was like to be Stephen Hawking and live his extraordinary life. I had a bit less of a sense of what it was like to be Jane, and almost no sense of what it was like to be his kid. Hawking is in his 70’s and still going strong. I wager this is not the last biopic we’ve seen of him, or of Mr. Turing.
Selma is about a later chapter in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyewolo). The film opens with Dr. King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm for his work in ending segregation. But the work of civil rights is not finished.
As he later puts it to LBJ (Tom Wilkinson), nothing will change in the racist communities without self-determination. He and his sometimes fractious coalition will make their stand in Ferguson, Alabama — not because it is particularly worse for black voters there than other places in the South. They will do it there because they can count on the violent local sheriff and the racist governor to make it into a scene.
With the events of Ferguson, Missouri and the failure to indite the police officers who strangled Eric Garner in the news it’s hard to imagine a historical film that feels more relevant to today. But of course, most relevant is the 1964 Voting Rights Act that the Selma marches galvanized. It was just repealed by the Supreme Court.
Director Ava DuVernay, apparently working from her own script instead of credited British writer Paul Webb’s, delivers the goods. Historical moments come to life with emotion and power, and the Kings — Martin and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) — both come to life as complicated, conflicted figures, not to mention the other names from history that live and breathe on screen: Joe Lewis, Malcolm X, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Lee Jackson, and so many more.
As for the controversy over not getting a Best Director nomination… totally justified. This was one of the best-directed films I saw all year. While there are a few moments where the camera angles don’t edit together smoothly, the direction was otherwise first class. DuVernay got 10,000 times better performances and more emotional impact than Bennett Miller did with Foxcatcher. (Sorry, Bennett. I still love Moneyball.) The movie is truly epic. Scenes with hundreds of extras play just as well as two-person chamber scenes. You feel the righteous power of the Selma marches. You feel the swift brutality of the violence. You feel the weight of history. And yet the characters don’t feel stuffy and arch. It’s incredibly well directed.
DuVernay’s boosters (of which I am now one) can console themselves with the thought that she is only three films into what looks to be a long and promising career. I look forward to the work, whether the stuffy old Academy Awards voters recognize it or not.
We don’t know which film will be next year’s Whiplash or Beasts of the Southern Wild, but there’s a good bet one of them will be a breakout hit.
Few people pay attention to the short films in Sundance, but I believe both Beasts‘ Benh Zeitlin and Whiplash‘s Damian Chazelle began their successful Sundance features as Sundance shorts. The Slashfilmcast podcast has a must-listen interview with British short filmmaker Ben Aston, whose short “Russian Roulette” was shot for under $200 and made the 2015 fest. You can watch it online right now.
As for Sundance’s rebel cousin film fest, Slamdance, I’m sure there will be a number of cool shorts emerging. Filmmakers Jeremy Osbern & Misti Boland, profiled on this site before, have a short in the fest called “Courtesan”. Here’s a (very brief) teaser:
And here’s Jeremy’s blog post about shooting using the Digital Bolex D16.
What are you looking forward to seeing in Park City?
The Thief and the Cobbler is a sort of holy grail of animated film. I hadn’t heard of it until recently, probably because its obsessive creator, Richard Williams, never quite finished the film. Wikipedia, as usual, has more detail:
After his success as animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Williams signed a deal in 1988 to have Warner Bros. finance and distribute the film. However, negotiations broke down when production went over budget and behind schedule and Williams was unable to complete the film on time. As Warner Bros. later pulled out, a completion bond company assumed control of The Thief and the Cobbler and had it finished by producer Fred Calvert without Williams’s involvement, and in a very different, almost unrecognizable form. In the process, Calvert completely re-edited the film, removing many of Williams’s scenes and adding songs and voice-overs that he felt would make it more marketable. The new animation produced under Calvert was not up to Williams’s standards. Calvert’s version was released only in Australia and South Africa in 1993 as The Princess and the Cobbler. This was further reedited with additional voice-overs by Miramax in the United States in 1995 as Arabian Knight.
Over the years, people and companies including The Walt Disney Company‘s Roy E. Disney, have discussed restoring the film as closely as possible to its original intended version, but none of these projects have come to pass. Video copies of an unfinishedworkprint made during Williams’s involvement in the film often circulate within animation subcircles, and this workprint gives a good idea of Williams’s original intent for the film. In 2006, an unofficial restoration known as The Recobbled Cut was released on the internet, intending to create a high-quality edit of the film which would mirror Williams’s original intent as closely as possible. Edited by independent filmmaker Garret Gilchrist, The Recobbled Cut was revised three times gaining the attention of animation fans and artists from the film. In 2013, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archived Richard Williams’ own 35mm workprint of the film and screened a digital transfer, billed as “A Moment In Time.” Williams himself appeared to break his 20-year silence about the film by participating in Q&As after the screening. What survives of Williams’s original vision for his unfinished film has given the film a legendary status among animation professionals and fans, who consider it a cult filmand every bit the masterpiece it was intended to be. Williams himself acknowledged the film’s rehabilitated reputation, thanks to fan projects like The Recobbled Cut and a 2012 documentary of the film’s production, Persistence of Vision.
All I’ve seen of it is this except that is available on YouTube, and it’s a doozy.
For this new year, I’m hoping for less absurdity of war and more absurdity of animation. Here’s to the obsessive filmmakers, recklessly pursuing their vision, even whilst avoiding being ground up in the gears of commerce. Have a happy, creative, bountiful 2015!
It’s a battle between Inherent Vice and Birdman for my favorite film of the year. Something about this linguistically-dense, narratively-denser, hilariously-performed private eye tale really tickles my buttons.
Adapter/director Paul Thomas Anderson has always worn his Altman influences on his sleeve. Here he evokes not just Altman’s The Long Goodbye but also the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Joaquin Phoenix, as the perpetually high gumshoe Doc Sportello, has a decidedly Lebowskian way of investigating the tangled mystery at the heart of Inherent Vice. That is if Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), as Doc’s buzz-cut conservative cop bette noire, doesn’t just haul him in for the disappearance of Jewish neo-Nazi Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts) first.
When it isn’t going into the 1970’s counter-culture’s wackiest L.A. locations, Inherent Vice also manages to be a rather sweet and sexy love story. It turns out Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the ex-girlfriend who brings Doc the inciting case, may still be keeping her flame for Doc alight. His real burning desire for solving the case is finding her and finding out if they still have some chemistry.
Like Birdman your mileage on this film will vary. A Paul Thomas Pynchon joint ain’t gonna smoke easy for everyone. The plot is actually trackable, if you feel like remembering some names that get tossed around. Or don’t. As I said, the real mystery at the heart of this is adult relationships. What makes our narrator Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) send Doc off into the rain with her romantic rival Shasta Fay? That’s the impenetrable secret that even drugs can’t pry loose.
The Interview is a funny movie. How do I know? I went to a movie theater and saw it opening day with a bunch of other (brave?) souls and laughed my ass off. Is it extra funny because of the “Sony hack” news which threatened to scuttle its release entirely? Yes, I think so.
Which is not to diminish it. I hate people who think making a smart, funny comedy is somehow easier than making a repetitive tale of suffering. What might’ve been dismissed as another bro-love James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy suddenly had proven satirical bite, not just theoretical. The movie successfully Trojan horses in all kinds of real info about dictator Kim Jong Un — that he keeps a fake grocery store to show to visitors, that he claims not to urinate or defecate — while also making you laugh at a scene where a character is trying to have sex without touching his partner with a hand that has a deadly ricin strip on it.
As in Tropic Thunder or M*A*S*H, for that matter, the humor goes to some darker, gorier places. It gleefully strides past the boundaries of what many must consider good taste. It does what comedy should do, which is test those boundaries. One of them, depicting the death of a current head of state, turned out to have raised considerable controversy beyond what any honest observer might’ve predicted. Whether the hack was actually ordered by Kim Jong Un, or just used as a cover by a disgruntled employee (or pick your theory), it raised some serious issues with how the film industry will deal with movies that have a hint of edginess. Of course, it is the independent exhibitors who have stepped up and shown their willingness (for the umpteenth time) to support the free speech of artists.
I would support writer/directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and their fellow writer Dan Sterling, even if the film wasn’t funny or politically trenchant. Luckily it is and it is — if in a slier, sillier way than many critics are giving it credit for. It’s not every day you get to support free speech just by buying a movie ticket and laughing for 112 minutes. Thanks, hackers!
Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.
Today I did what earlier this week would’ve been unfathomable: I saw The Interview at an actual theater. A packed one, in fact. Kudos to independent Vintage Cinemas chain for supporting free speech. I was worried the film wouldn’t be worth risking a vague-reference-to-9/11 threat, but it was actually pretty damn funny. A full review is forthcoming.
The links to the Sony hacks from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream been overtaken by actual events, but here’s a recent one that contradicts George Clooney’s story about circulating a petition, which seems to be an ongoing story.
As far as I’ve read, there’s no definitive news on why precisely Sony made the call to stop the release of The Interview and why they abruptly about-faced on that call. It may have something to do with the PR wizard that the show Scandal is based on. Speculations about insurance, or the Sony company’s political connections in Japan, or President Obama’s comments, or commerce at malls on Christmas are just that: speculations. We don’t even know which hacks (if any) were at the behest of North Korea.
It’s a rare day where you get to be brave while also going to the movies to laugh. If there aren’t any kick-ass movie distributors in your area, you can still watch the film on YouTube right now for $5.99.
In other movie news, the memorable percussion-driven score for Birdman has been denied eligibility for an Academy Award. And filmmaker Thad Nurski, recently interviewed here, successfully funded his short film.
YOUR WEEKLY WISDOM:
“Together with a group of art house theaters across the nation, in solidarity against censorship, the film will be played in spite of threats from the hackers who attacked Sony Pictures. The film will play on the big screen all week with six shows a day. Join us as we defy tyrants, oppose censorship and ring in Christmas with a big dose of freedom!” – American Cinematheque e-mail newsletter
OLD POSTS UPDATED:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – HFR 3D and Standard 2D Comparison
What everyone wants to know, is this one of those good marquee projects, or one of the Oscar bait ones? Directed by Angelina Jolie from a script by the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Ref) and William Nicholson (Gladiator, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), based on the book by Lauren Hillenbrand, Unbroken tells the survival story of Louis Zamperini.
Zamperini was a first-generation Italian immigrant in an era when that meant instant bullying. Then he was an Olympic athlete, finishing a strong 8th in the final lap of the 1936 Berlin 5000 meter race. (This earned him a personal audience with Adolf Hitler, an event not shown in the film.)