Dec 28, 2011

Oscar Predictions: December

With a majority of the precursor nominations now behind us, we have a clearer image of how the Oscar race will pan out. There are some potential nominees whom I’d assumed had faded but are back in the race. Then there are films and individuals who just cemented their status. And, of course, there are some who just failed to make any impact.

Best Picture
1. The Artist
2. Hugo
3. The Descendants
4. The Help
5. War Horse
6. Midnight in Paris
7. Moneyball
8. Tree of Life
Potential Additions
9. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I’ve predicted eight nominees though Tree of Life missed on both Globe and SAG nominations. I have a hunch that the film’s fervent supporters will help it slide in probably even ahead of Midnight in Paris or Moneyball but I don’t know how many of them there is in the academy. Furthermore, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has received an extremely quiet and incredibly tepid reaction response from the critics. That didn’t stop The Reader from getting a nomination but holocaust and 9/11 are incomparable properties when it comes to the Oscar race. Finally, Drive has done well with the critics, which makes me wonder if more people will put it at their number one spot ahead of the likes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Best Director
1. Martin Scorsese (Hugo)
2. Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
3. Alexander Payne (The Descendants)
4. Terrence Malick (Tree of Life)
5. Steven Spielberg (War Horse)
Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)

The top three are set. The directors’ branch will get behind Malick’s grand vision, leading me to think that the fifth spot will a battle between the other two veteran American masters. Refn has been embraced by the critics but I don’t think academy members will put him on their ballots ahead of his more well-known competitors. Daldry, who has been nominated for a 100% of his films so far, will probably have to suffer a blow to his perfect record this year.

Acting, technical and foreign categories after the jump:

Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn. She won the lion's share of the critics' awards.

Dec 24, 2011

Jessica Chastain: The New Julianne Moore?

This week, I finally got around to watching The Help. All the talk about the film taking "the populist spot on the best picture list" reminded me too much of films I don't like so I didn't give it a shot when it was released. Having seen the film now, I'm ready to say I'd made a mistake. Yes, its politics is, to put it mildly, simplified and reductive; the dialogue is at times really corny and the look of the film is too glossy and always ersatz. If you go in thinking this is gonna be a high-minded piece on racial issues, you'll be disappointed but I assume not many people go in thinking that. It's really heartwarming and funny, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me tear up a couple of times. But the real story of the film is the cast. 

Top to bottom: The Tree of Life, The Help, Take Shelter
That SAG nomination for best ensemble is so well-deserved. All these actresses are brilliant individually and have chemistry in their scenes together. Viola Davis has perfected the art of finding the right balance between strength and vulnerability. Octavia Spencer is fiery but subtle at all the right moments. Bryce Dallas Howard understands the caricature that her character is but brings a human, though unsympathetic, side to her. Then there's Jessica Chastain. Her character is so broadly written that her presence could have become an irritating joke, yet Chastain's sassy, naive and kind-hearted Celia is the ensemble's greatest player. She's so at ease with the accent and those high heels, one wonders if she is really the same actress who played the mother in The Tree of Life

In my review of that film I wrote "Jessica Chastain completely immerses herself in Mrs. O’Brien and ... avoids the pitfalls of the “supportive mother” role while capturing the angelic beauty of her character." The range she's covered between these two performances is unbelievable. Both characters manage to transcend the screen but one does it with an ethereal other-worldly presence and the other with open-hearted emotional expressivity. And then there's her outstanding performance in Take Shelter, where she escapes archetypal conventions of the wife's role yet again and builds a character entirely her own. 

This has been a fantastic year for an actress who was virtually unknown twelve months ago. At 30, she's a little older than Hollywood's typical new 'it' girls, which reminds me of another redhead beauty who started her career a little late, only to become one of cinema's legendary actresses. Julianne Moore was 33 when Short Cuts came out but she followed it immediately with Vanya on the 42nd Street and Safe. Moore is one of my favourite thespians of all time and not that many people, before or after her, have been as good, but for some reason I feel like there's more in common between the two than red hair and a late start. 

Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights
I'm curious to see what Chastain has up her sleeve next but it looks like we're in for a fruitful and exciting career. Her next release will be Coriolanus (February in Toronto) and she's also working on Wettest Country with John Hilcoat (The Road) and another film with Terrence Malick.

Dec 22, 2011

Tinker Tailor Tomboy: Two Short Takes

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

My Grade: B-

Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was one of my most anticipated (and dreaded) films of the year. I’m a big fan of the John le CarrĂ© novel but I’d always wondered whether it would be possible to transfer the density of its narrative to the big screen. Though this film is by no means a failure, for the most part it left me cold. Some might believe that the original text was condensed by the screenwriters but I’d say “diluted” better describes this adaptation.

The film takes George Smiley and company from point A to B to C and so on mechanically without really developing their characters enough for us to make any connection. The bigger problem is that there is no sense of significance to the main storyline, making it really difficult to care much about where these characters end up and what consequences their actions bring.

That said, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a showcase for strong performances all around. Gray Oldman’s nuanced and understated work as Smiley is one of the year’s best performances. He blends in with the chilly atmosphere of the film but leaves a distinguished mark of genuine emotion at the right moments. If you’re wondering why none of the actors have managed to enter the awards conversation, it is because of the embarrassment of riches in the ensemble. Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy all give performances that equal their greatest work. The below the line elements of the film, particularly the costume and production design works, are equally top notch and meticulous in their reimagining of the early 1970s.

Ultimately, Alfredson’s adaptation, however expertly executed it is, feels more pragmatic and less engaging than the book it’s based on but it’s nevertheless a worthy and measured cinematic experience.


My Grade: A-

One of the biggest surprises of the year is this small French film about a ten-year old girl (Laure, played by Zoe Heran) who disguises herself as a boy in her new neighbourhood. It’s a surprise because despite winning an award at the Berlin Film Festival back in February, Tomboy slipped under the radar and was released with very little publicity. For shame! Celine Sciamma’s loosely structured study of a child’s identity confusion is an exquisite, complex and extremely specific film. Sciamma’s show-don’t-tell approach pays off handsomely as the kids, particularly the two sisters at the centre, take us to moments in childhood we’ve all experienced: the friendships, the games, the fights, the unjustified rivalries and premature romances. One of the strongest elements of Sciamma’s work is that she doesn’t treat the titular character as an outsider but gives Heran room to convey her uneasiness through her expressive performance. The other kids are not portrayed as villains out to bully Laure, but as children with problems of different magnitudes in their own worlds. This, combined with the golden-hued summer setting of the French country-side gives the film an intimate feel that is at once touching and funny.

Tomboy is one of those rare films about children that enters their world without looking at them through the eyes of an adult. For the short duration of this film, the audience becomes one with the kids and lives alongside them. That Sciamma manages to tell such a thought-provoking story with this youthful spirit is a miracle.