The Films of 2020: All The Bright Places (dir by Brett Haley)


All The Bright Places tells the story of two teenagers in Indiana.

Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) is pretty, popular, and secretly very depressed.  She’s still recovering from the death of her sister and her friends aren’t being particularly helpful.  (At one point, her boyfriend asks how much longer she’s going to be depressed because she’s “been this way for a really long time.”)  Violet lives in a nice, comfortable home and probably has a bright future ahead of her but she can’t communicate how she’s feeling to her parents (Luke Wilson and Kelli O’Hara), who are dealing with their grief in their own ways.

Finch (Justice Smith) is a student who is viewed, by his classmates, as being something of a freak.  Unlike Violet, who holds back her emotions, Finch doesn’t hold back his feelings and, as a result, it’s gotten him in trouble.  If not for a somewhat sympathetic principal (Keegan-Michael Key), Finch probably would have been expelled a while ago.  As it is, he’s on probation and he’s running the risk of not graduating.  Finch lives with his sister (Alexandra Shipp).  Their parents are pretty much not in the picture.

One night, Finch happens to see Violet standing on a bridge and thinking about jumping.  From that moment, an unexpected relationship begins.  Though Violet is, at first, hesitant to open up to Finch (or anyone else, for that matter), Finch continues to try to talk to her.  Eventually, for a class, they’re assigned to do a report on the wonders of Indiana.  Soon, they’re going from location to location and Violet is slowly starting to enjoy life again while Finch encourage her to open up about her feelings and to once again start writing….

And, at this point, you’re probably thinking that this just a typical YA film, one that’s only distinguished by the fact that, instead of having a manic pixie dream girl, it has a manic pixie dream guy.  That was certainly how I felt during the first third of this film.  However, All The Bright Places is too smart of a film to settle for telling such a simple story and Finch is too complex of a character to be dismissed as a trope.  Even as Violet gets better, Finch’s own behavior grows more erratic.  (In fact, it could be argued that this film’s greatest contribution to the cultural discussion is its attempt to seriously explore what would cause someone to become a manic pixie dream person in the first place.)  When events conspire to cause Violet and Finch to be separated, it leads to tragedy.

It’s a sweet-natured and poignant film, one that sensitively explores depression and mental illness.  It’s also a film that understands how, when you’re a certain age and even if you’re not also having to deal with burdens of depression and anxiety, almost anything can seem like the end of the world.  It takes its character’s seriously and it doesn’t pander to its audience with any shallow promises about how things are magically going to get better once they graduate high school and head off to college.  At the same time, it’s also a very life-affirming film, one that encourages us to celebrate life and experience it while we can.

Elle Faning and especially Justice Smith give two achingly sincere and touching performances.  I was especially impressed with the work of Smith.  Smith plays up Finch’s intelligence and his curiosity about the world while, at the same time, also showing why Finch’s attention might occasionally be a bit overwhelming.  I look forward to seeing what he does in the future.

Here Are The 2018 Women Film Critics Circle Nominations!


BEST MOVIE ABOUT WOMEN
Mary Shelley
Roma
The Favourite
Widows

BEST MOVIE BY A WOMAN
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Leave No Trace
The Kindergarten Teacher
You Were Never Really Here

BEST WOMAN STORYTELLER [Screenwriting Award]

Sara Colangelo: The Kindergarten Teacher
Debra Granik: Leave No Trace
Tamara Jenkins: Private Life
Audrey Wells: The Hate U Give

BEST ACTRESS
Toni Collette, Hereditary
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Viola Davis, Widows
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher

BEST ACTOR
Ben Foster, Leave No Trace
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
Hugo Weaving, Black 47

BEST COMEDIC ACTRESS
Helena Bonham Carter, 55 Steps
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Kathryn Hahn, Private Life
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

BEST YOUNG ACTRESS
Elle Fanning, Mary Shelley
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace
Amandla Stenberg, The Hate U Give

BEST FOREIGN FILM BY OR ABOUT WOMEN
Capernaum
Happy As Lazzaro
Roma
Zama

BEST DOCUMENTARY BY OR ABOUT WOMEN
RBG
Say Her Name: The Life And Death Of Sandra Bland
Seeing Allred
Shirkers

WOMEN’S WORK/BEST ENSEMBLE
55 Steps
Ocean’s Eight
The Favourite
Widows

SPECIAL MENTION AWARDS

COURAGE IN FILMMAKING
Haifaa Al-Mansour, Mary Shelley
Sara Colangelo, The Kindergarten Teacher
Sandra Luckow, That Way Madness Lies
Jennifer Fox, The Tale

COURAGE IN ACTING [Taking on unconventional roles that radically redefine the images of women on screen]Helena Bonham Carter: 55 Steps
Viola Davis: Widows
Nicole Kidman: Destroyer
Melissa McCarthy: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

ADRIENNE SHELLY AWARD: For a film that most passionately opposes violence against women
Call Her Ganda
I Am Not A Witch
On Her Shoulders
Say Her Name: The Life And Death Of Sandra Bland

JOSEPHINE BAKER AWARD: For best expressing the woman of color experience in America
If Beale Street Could Talk
Life And Nothing More
The Hate U Give
Widows

KAREN MORLEY AWARD: For best exemplifying a woman’s place in history or society, and a courageous search for identity
93 Queen
On The Basis Of Sex
Roma
Woman Walks Ahead

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN AWARD: [Performance by a woman whose exceptional impact on the film dramatically, socially or historically, has been ignored]

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Andrea Riseborough, Nancy
The Women Of Widows

BEST SCREEN COUPLE
A Star Is Born
Crazy Rich Asians
Disobedience
If Beale Street Could Talk

BEST FEMALE ACTION HEROES
Adrift
55 Steps
Black Panther
RBG

MOMMIE DEAREST WORST SCREEN MOM OF THE YEAR AWARD
Krista Allen, Party Mom
Toni Collette, Hereditary
Nicole Kidman, Destroyer
Jacki Weaver, Widows

BEST EQUALITY OF THE SEXES
Black Panther
Like Me
On The Basis Of Sex
Widows

BEST ANIMATED FEMALES
Incredibles 2
Liyana
Mary And The Witch’s Flower
Mirai No Mirai

BEST FAMILY FILM
Eighth Grade
Incredibles 2
Science Fair
The Hate U Give

WFCC HALL OF SHAME
Bryan Singer

Weekly Trailer Round-Up: Hold the Dark, Ben is Back, King Lear, I Think We’re Alone Now


We’ve already shared two of this week’s biggest trailers, Suspiria and The Outlaw King.

Here’s the best of the rest:

Director Jeremy Saulnier’s latest film, Hold The Dark, will come to Netflix on September 28th and it looks like it will be another tough and uncompromising film from the director of Blue Ruin and Green Room.

In Ben Is Back, Lucas Hedges plays Ben, who returns home on Christmas Eve and brings trouble with him.  Julia Roberts plays his mother.  This film is set for a December 7th release.

Every great Shakespearean actor eventually gets to play King Lear.  Anthony Hopkins did so in this BBC production.  This version transports Shakespeare’s tragedy to an alternative version of modern-day London and it will premiere on Amazon Prime on September 28th.

In I Think We’re Alone Now, Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning might be the last two people on Earth.  Find out on September 14th.

 

Film Review: Live By Night (dir by Ben Affleck)


Remember Live By Night?

Released in December of 2016, Live By Night was one of those highly anticipated films that ended up bombing at the box office and leaving critics cold.  The anticipation was due to the fact that Live By Night was the first film that Ben Affleck had directed since Argo won best picture.  It was seen as Affleck’s next prestige picture, the one that would remind everyone that he was more than just the latest actor to be cast as Batman.  Live By Night was expected to be a huge Oscar contender.  As for why it bombed at the box office, that may have had something to do with the fact that Live By Night is not a very good film.

It’s a gangster film, one that takes place during prohibition.  Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is the most boring gangster in Boston.  Or, at least, he is until he falls for the wrong woman and he ends up having to flee down to Tampa.  Once down there, Joe sets himself up as the most boring gangster in Florida.  There’s all sorts of themes running through Live By Night — racial themes, economic themes, even some heavy-handed religious themes — but ultimately, the main impression that one gets from the film’s story is that Joe Coughlin was a very boring gangster.

Anyway, Joe gets involved in all sorts of corruption and violence.  He brings down his friend, Dion (Chris Messina), to help him out.  Whereas Joe is rational and dull, Dion is violent and dull.  You spend the entire movie waiting for the moment when Dion will turn on Joe but it never happens.  I guess that’s a good thing since Joe and Dion are busy battling the Klan.  Joe may be a 1920s gangster but he’s got the political and cultural outlook of a 21st century movie star.

Joe knows that prohibition is going to end someday, so he hopes to make money through opening up a casino.  Standing in the way of the casino is a prostitute-turned-evangelist named Loretta (Elle Fanning).  Loretta is the daughter of the local police chief (Chris Cooper), with whom Joe has an uneasy friendship.  You keep expecting this plot to go somewhere but it really doesn’t.  Loretta’s just kinda there.  That said, we do get a hilarious shot of a tearful Chris Cooper repeating the word repent over and over again so there is that.

Zoe Saldana is also just kind of there, playing Joe’s Cuban wife.  Again, you expect a lot to happen with Saldana’s character but, for the most part, she’s mostly just a plot device who exists solely so that Joe can have some sort of motivation beyond simply wanting to get rich.

It’s a big, sprawling film that never quite feels like an epic.  A huge part of the problem is that Ben Affleck the director is let down by Ben Affleck the actor.  Regardless of what’s happening in the scene, Affleck always has the same grim look on his face.  At times, it seems as if he’s literally been chiseled out of a marble and you find yourself wondering if he’s actually capable of any facial expression beyond glum annoyance.  A gangster film like this need a bigger-than-life protagonist but, as played by Affleck, Joe always seems to be in danger of vanishing into the scenery.

I think part of the problem is that Affleck’s previous films all dealt with places and subjects that Affleck felt comfortable with, perhaps because he could relate their stories to his own personal experiences.  Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town both took place exclusively in Boston.  Argo dealt with the film industry.  Live By Night is a period piece set in the South and Affleck is obviously lost from the minute Joe arrives in Florida.

Live By Night, I think, could have been a good movie if it had been directed by someone like Paul Thomas Anderson and maybe if an actor like Colin Farrell played the role of Joe.  But, as it is, it’s just a rather stolid and uninspiring gangster film.

Playing Catch-Up: The Neon Demon (dir by Nicholas Winding Refn)


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What to say about The Neon Demon?

See, this is a film that you have to be careful about discussing.  From the moment that it premiered at Cannes last year, The Neon Demon was the love-it-or-hate-it film of 2016.

Those of us that loved The Neon Demon really, really loved it.

And those that hated it — well, let’s just say that they really, really hated it.  They complained that The Neon Demon was exploitive.  They found the subject matter to be sordid.  They accused the movie of being both pretentious and ultimately pointless.  The plot made no sense, they complained.  The film was overlong and featured about a handful of false endings.  It almost seemed as if Nicholas Winding Refn was taunting anyone who expected him to make a typical melodrama about life in Hollywood.

All of that is true but, honestly, what were these people expecting?  As a result of the success of Drive, many people have made the mistake of thinking that Nicholas Winding Refn is a mainstream director.  He’s not.  Refn is a provocateur.  He is a director who often dares his audience to walk away.  In The Neon Demon, each false ending challenges the audience’s assumption about how a story — any story — should end.  Some people, I’m sure, would complain that Refn is all style and no substance.  However, The Neon Demon is about a world where one’s worth is determined by their style.  Style is substance.  The world of The Neon Demon may be empty but the film is not.

For all the debate about the film’s deeper themes (or lack of them), The Neon Demon‘s story is a fairly simple and deliberately familiar one.  A teenage runaway comes to Hollywood, finds some success as a model, and discovers that the world of show business is not as romantic as she may have initially believed.  When we first see Jesse (Elle Fanning), she’s posing for her boyfriend and she’s pretending to be dead.  Death, beauty, and sex go hand-in-hand in The Neon Demon.

Jesse’s an interesting character, one who constantly challenges our assumptions.  At first, Jesse seems like a typical innocent.  She’s a virgin who is so introverted that she can barely carry on a conversation.  She lives in a cheap apartment, under the menacing gaze of her sleazy landlord (Keanu Reeves, having fun playing his skeezy character).  She has a boyfriend and on their dates, she tells him about how she’s always dreamed of being a star.  It’s only as the film progresses that you start to realize how little you actually know about Jesse.  That she’s a runway is implied early on.  We never learn what led to her running away.  In fact, we learn next to nothing about who she was before she appeared in Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, Jesse is everything that the fashion industry values.  She’s beautiful and, even more importantly, she’s young.  We watch as Jesse goes to a casting call and we’re struck by the blank-look on her face.  We wonder if there’s anything going on underneath the surface.  Jesse has hallucinations, seeing a shining triangle and kissing her own reflection.  Someone asks her what it’s like to be desired.  She replies, “It’s everything.”

Jesse befriends Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who lives in a gigantic mansion, overlooking an empty swimming pool.  When Ruby isn’t working in the fashion industry, she works at a morgue, applying makeup to corpses and occasionally engaging in necrophilia.  She makes the dead beautiful so that they can be buried looking their best.  Again, beauty and death are intertwined throughout The Neon Demon.

Ruby has two other friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).  They’re both models, struggling to maintain their careers even as younger models, like Jesse, continue to flood into Los Angeles.  Gigi has had so much cosmetic surgery that none of her original features remain.  Gigi is neurotic and fearful.  Sarah, on the other hand, is confident and sarcastic.  When asked what she did the last time another model screwed her out of a job, Sarah calmly replies, “I ate her.”

Sarah isn’t necessarily joking either.  Without giving too much away, The Neon Demon features, among other things, a character eating an eyeball that another character has just thrown up.  Not surprisingly for a Refn film, there’s a lot of blood in The Neon Demon.  It’s a film that opens with fake blood and ends with very real blood.

Combining the visual sense of Dario Argento with the thematic concerns of Jean Rollin, The Neon Demon is a triumph of pure style.  The visuals are so strong that it’s impossible to look away, even when the film’s themes are deliberately obscure.  The Neon Demon is a surreal journey into the dark side of Hollywood, a mixture of ennui, alienation, decadence, and sacrifice.  It may not always make sense but it’s always fascinating to watch.

Personally, I think The Neon Demon would make a great double feature with La La Land.  Two triumphs of style, two very different views of Los Angeles.

The Alliance of Women Film Journalists Announced Their Picks For The Best of 2016!


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The Alliance of Women Film Journalists (of which I am not a member and what’s up with that!?) announced their picks for the best of 2016 earlier this week.

And here they are:

AWFJ BEST OF AWARDS
These awards are presented to women and/or men without gender consideration.
Best Film
Arrival
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Best Director
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
David Mackenzie – Hell or High Water
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival

Best Screenplay, Original
20th Century Women – Mike Mills
Hail Caesar – Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Hell or High Water – Taylor Sheridan
La La Land – Damien Chazelle
Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan

Best Screenplay, Adapted
Arrival – Eric Heisserer
Lion – Luke Davies
Love & Friendship – Whit Stillman
Moonlight – Barry Jenkins
Nocturnal Animals –Tom Ford

Best Documentary
13th – Ava DuVernay
Gleason – Clay Tweel
I Am Not Your Negro – Raoul Peck
OJ Made in America – Ezra Edelman
Weiner – Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegma

Best Animated Film
Finding Dory – Andrew Stanton andAngus MacLane
Kubo and the Two Strings- Travis Knight
Moana – Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, Chris Williams
Zootopia – Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush

Best Actress
Amy Adams – Arrival
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Ruth Negga – Loving
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Emma Stone – La La Land

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Viola Davis – Fences
Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Best Actor
Casey Affleck – Manchester By The Sea
Joel Edgerton – Loving
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Tom Hanks – Sully
Denzel Washington – Fences

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges – Manchester By the Sea
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

Best Ensemble Cast – Casting Director
20th Century Women – Mark Bennett and Laura Rosenthal
Hail Caesar – Ellen Chenoweth
Hell or High Water – Jo Edna Boldin and Richard Hicks
Manchester by the Sea – Douglas Aibel
Moonlight – Yesi Ramirez

Best Cinematography
Arrival – Bradford Young
Hell or High Water – Giles Nuttgens
La La Land – Linus Sandgren
Manchester by The Sea – Jody Lee Lipes
Moonlight – James Laxton

Best Editing
Arrival – Joe Walker
I Am Not Your Negro — Alexandra Strauss
La La Land – Tom Cross
Manchester By The Sea – Jennifer Lame
Moonlight – Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders

Best Non-English-Language Film
Elle – Paul Verhoeven, France
Fire At Sea – Gianfranco Rossi, Italy
The Handmaiden – Chan-Wook Park, South Korea
Julieta – Pedro Almodovar. Spain
Toni Erdmann – Maren Ede, Germany

EDA FEMALE FOCUS AWARDS
These awards honor WOMEN only

Best Woman Director
Andrea Arnold – American Honey
Ava DuVernay -13TH
Rebecca Miller – Maggie’s Plan
Mira Nair – Queen of Katwe
Kelly Reichardt – Certain Women

Best Woman Screenwriter
Andrea Arnold – American Honey
Rebecca Miller – Maggie’s Plan
Kelly Reichardt – Certain Women
Lorene Scafaria – The Meddler
Laura Terruso – Hello, My Name is Doris

Best Animated Female
Dory in Finding Dory –Ellen DeGeneres
Judy in Zootopia – Ginnifer Goodwin
Moana in Moana – Auli’i Cravalho

Best Breakthrough Performance
Sasha Lane – American Honey
Janelle Monáe – Moonlight and Hidden Figures
Madina Nalwanga – Queen of Katwe
Ruth Negga – Loving

Outstanding Achievement by A Woman in The Film Industry
Ava DuVernay – For 13TH and raising awareness about the need for diversity and gender equality in Hollywood
Anne Hubbell and Amy Hobby for establishing Tangerine Entertainment’s Juice Fund to support female filmmakers
Mynette Louie, President of Gamechanger Films, which finances narrative films directed by women
April Reign for creating and mobilizing the #OscarsSoWhite campaign

EDA SPECIAL MENTION AWARDS

Actress Defying Age and Ageism
Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
Viola Davis – Fences
Sally Field – Hello, My Name is Doris
Isabelle Huppert – Elle and Things to Come
Helen Mirren – Eye in the Sky

Most Egregious Age Difference Between The Lead and The Love Interest Award
Dirty Grandpa – Robert De Niro (b. 1943) and Aubrey Plaza (b. 1984)
Independence Day: Resurgence – Charlotte Gainsbourg (b 1971) and Jeff Goldblum (b 1952)
Mechanic Resurrection – Jason Statham (b. 1967) and Jessica Aba (b. 1981)
Rules Don’t Apply – Warren Beatty (b. 1937) and Lily Collins (b. 1989)

Actress Most in Need Of A New Agent
Jennifer Aniston – Mother’s Day and Office Christmas Party
Melissa McCarthy – The Boss and Ghostbusters
Margot Robbie – Suicide Squad and Tarzan
Julia Roberts – Mother’s Day
Shailene Woodley – Divergent Series

Bravest Performance
Jessica Chastain – Miss Sloane
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Sasha Lane – American Honey
Ruth Negga – Loving

Remake or Sequel That Shouldn’t have been Made
Ben-Hur
Ghostbusters
Independence Day: Resurgence
The Magnificent Seven
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

AWFJ Hall of Shame Award
Sharon Maguire and Renee Zellweger for Bridget Jones’s Baby
Nicholas Winding Refn and Elle Fanning for The Neon Demon
David Ayer and Margot Robbie for Suicide Squad
David E. Talbert and Mo’Nique for Almost Christmas

Here Are The Nominees of the Detroit Film Critics Society!


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The winners will be announced on the 19th!

BEST PICTURE

BEST DIRECTOR

BEST ACTOR

  • CASEY AFFLECK – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
  • JOEL EDGERTON – LOVING
  • ANDREW GARFIELD – HACKSAW RIDGE
  • RYAN GOSLING – LA LA LAND
  • DENZEL WASHINGTON – FENCES

BEST ACTRESS

  • AMY ADAMS – ARRIVAL
  • ANNETTE BENING – 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
  • REBECCA HALL – CHRISTINE
  • RUTH NEGGA – LOVING
  • NATALIE PORTMAN – JACKIE
  • EMMA STONE – LA LA LAND

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • VIOLA DAVIS – FENCES
  • ELLE FANNING – 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
  • GRETA GERWIG – 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
  • FELICITY JONES – A MONSTER CALLS
  • MICHELLE WILLIAMS – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

BEST ENSEMBLE

BEST BREAKTHROUGH

  • MAHERSHALA ALI – MOONLIGHT, HIDDEN FIGURES – ACTOR
  • KELLY FREMON CRAIG – EDGE OF SEVENTEEN – DIRECTOR/WRITER
  • LUCAS HEDGES – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – ACTOR
  • BARRY JENKINS – MOONLIGHT – DIRECTOR/WRITER
  • TREVANTE RHODES – MOONLIGHT – ACTOR
  • TREY EDWARD SHULTS – KRISHA – DIRECTOR/WRITER

BEST SCREENPLAY

  BEST DOCUMENTARY

  • 13TH
  • GLEASON
  • LIFE, ANIMATED
  • O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
  • TICKLED
  • WEINER

Weiner_(film)

The New Trailer For The Neon Demon Really Puts The Red Into Red Band!


This new trailer for The Neon Demon really puts the red into red band!

Okay, I’m not sure what that means but it sounds nice and clickbaity so I’ll go with it.  Anyway, The Neon Demon is the latest film from Nicolas Winding Refn.  Refn, of course, is still beloved around these parts for directing Drive

….which, come to think of it, is a film that I oddly have no desire to sit through again.

Isn’t it funny how that happens sometimes?  You see a film and you know it’s great but, whenever you have a second chance to watch it, you’re just like, “Hmmm…no, once was enough.”

Will I want to rewatch The Neon Demon?  I have no idea but Jena Malone is one of my favorite actresses and Elle Fanning was heartbreakingly good in Somewhere.  There are a few moments in the trailer that made me think of both Maps to the Stars and Lost River (and that’s not a good thing) but then there were other moments that made me think of Under The Skin (and that is a good thing!)

Anyway, this trailer is NSFW so watch it from the safety of your own car…

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #112: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir by David Fincher)


Curious_case_of_benjamin_button_ver32010 will always be considered, by many of us, to be the year that Oscar journalism first jumped the shark.  That was the year that a group of self-styled award divas (which Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone being the most obnoxious culprit) went batshit crazy over a film called The Social Network.  

From the minute that David Fincher-directed film premiered, the Sasha Stones in the world not only declared it to be the greatest film ever made but also insinuated that anyone who disagreed had to be stupid, crazy, and evil.  It actually got rather silly after a while.  That is until The Social Network lost best picture to The King’s Speech.  Suddenly, what was once merely enthusiastic advocacy transformed into fascistic fanaticism.  Suddenly, these people started to view the 2010 Oscar race (and each subsequent Oscar race) as a rather tedious battle between good and evil.  For these people, David Fincher represented the forces of good.  And Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech, represented all that was evil.  They took this to such an absurd extreme that they not only subsequently heaped undeserved praise on Fincher’s bastardization of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but also unnecessary scorn on Hooper’s Les Miserables.

Of course, what was forgotten in all of that drama was that — before Hooper and The King’s Speech came along, the 2010 Oscar race was predicted be some to be a rematch between Fincher and Danny Boyle (whose 2010 film, 127 Hours, was indeed nominated for best picture, alongside The Social Network, King’s Speech, and Black Swan).  When Fincher and Boyle previously competed during the 2008 Oscar race, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire defeated Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

And indeed, the case of Benjamin Button was curious one!

Loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button told the story of a man who aged in reverse.  When Benjamin is a baby, he has the wrinkled face of an elderly man.  When he’s a teenager, he’s walking with a cane.  When he’s middle-aged, he looks like Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall.  (In that regard, it helps that Benjamin is played by Brad Pitt.)  And when he’s an old man, he’s a baby.  Though the film, wisely, refrains from offering up a definite reason why Benjamin ages in reverse, it hints that it could have something to do with a clock that was built to run backwards as an anti-war statement.

Benjamin is born in New Orleans in 1918 and raised in a nursing home by Queenie (Oscar nominee and future Empire star Taraji P. Henson).  The love of Benjamin’s life is Daisy Fuller (Elle Fanning when young, Cate Blanchett as an adult), a dancer who also loves Benjamin but who, unlike him, is not aging in reverse.  For this reason, Benjamin and Daisy cannot be together.  That’s the way tragic love works.

The film itself features a framing device.  Daisy, now an elderly woman, is dying and gives her estranged daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), the diary of Benjamin Button.  As Caroline reads, Hurricane Katrina rages outside.  I’ve never really been comfortable with the way that the film uses Katrina as a plot point, for much the same reason that it bothered me when Hereafter used the real-life Thailand typhoon and London terrorist bombings to tell its story.  The real-life tragedy of Katrina feels out-of-place in a story about Brad Pitt aging backwards.

As for the rest of the film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is … well, it’s a curious film.  Visually, it’s definitely a David Fincher film but, at the same time, there’s something curiously impersonal about it.  You almost get the feeling that this was Fincher’s attempt to show that he was capable of making a standard big budget Hollywood film without getting too Fincheresque about it.  Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have chemistry and they look good together but Fincher has never been a sentimental director and his heart never truly seems to be in their love story.  (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl feel more like a natural couple than Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett do in this film.)  There’s only a few scenes, mostly dealing with the more morbid aspects of Benjamin’s odd condition, towards which Fincher really seems to feel any commitment.

As a result, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button becomes a curious misfire.  It’s a film that struggles with the big picture but is occasionally redeemed by some of its smaller moments.  (The scenes with the elderly Benjamin as a dementia-stricken baby are haunting and unforgettable.)  Ultimately, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is probably the weakest of the five 2008 films nominated for best picture but it’s still an interesting film to watch.

For Your Consideration #3: Angelina Jolie in Maleficent


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Way back in March, when people like me first started to ask ourselves what and who would be nominated for Oscars in January, a lot of us assumed that 2014 would be the year of Angelina Jolie.  We predicted that her film Unbroken would be an Oscar front-runner and quite a few people felt that Angelina herself would become the second woman to win the Academy Award for directing.

And, it could still happen!

However, with Angelina being pretty much ignored by most of the traditional Oscar precursors and Unbroken getting positive but hardly rapturous reviews, it’s starting to look more and more like Unbroken will be lucky to receive a picture nomination, much less a mention for Jolie.

Now, I haven’t seen Unbroken yet so I can’t really judge whether it deserves any awards consideration or not.  However, I can say that Unbroken is not the only film for which Angelina Jolie deserves consideration.

Maleficent came out this summer and did quite well at the box office but it seems to have been forgotten and that’s a shame because it features one of Angelina Jolie’s best performances.  The film itself is a revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty, re-telling the story from the point-of-view of the fairy queen Maleficent (played, of course, by Angelina.)

In this version of the story, we see that the true villain was Sleeping Beauty’s father, Stefan (Sharlto Copley).  When they were younger, Stefan and Maleficent were lovers but the Stefan eventually abandoned her, knowing that having a relationship with a winged fairy would only serve to thwart his own ambitions.  Years later, when the humans attempt to conquer Maleficent’s kingdom, it is announced that whoever slays Maleficent will become the new king.  Knowing that Maleficent is still in love with him, Stefan drugs her and then cuts her wings off.  Using her wings as evidence to back up his claim that he has killed her, Stefan becomes the new king.  The now wingless Maleficent is left alone and embittered.  When Stefan’s daughter, Princess Aurora, is born, Maleficent announces that, on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will sink into a deep sleep and will only be awaken by the kiss of someone who truly loves her.

Maleficent was one of those films that truly divided critics.  Male viewers tended to rightfully criticize the film for being tonally inconsistent and for relying too much on CGI.  Female critics, however, understood that none of that mattered.  As flawed as the film may have been, we knew that the most important thing was Angelina Jolie’s performance.  She may have been playing a fairy and she may have been appearing in a movie that was dominated by CGI but Angelina Jolie brought such strength and complexity to the role that she transcended all of the film’s flaws and instead created a thoroughly real character.  We understood and we related to Maleficent’s fury.  When she first woke up to discover that her wings had been stolen from her, it was devastating because the moment was real.  We all knew what had truly happened to Maleficent.  When she sought revenge, we sought it with her.  When she regretted her actions, we shared her regrets.  Her pain was our pain and her triumph was our triumph.

Angelina Jolie gave one of the best performances of the year in Maleficent and she certainly deserves your consideration.

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