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REVIEW: Gone Girl

Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)

Gone Girl (2014): Dir. David Fincher.  Written by Gillian Flynn, based upon her novel of the same name.  Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, and Neil Patrick Harris. Rated R for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language. Running time: 149 minutes.

Gone GirlGone Girl especially demands a spoiler-free review, posing quite the challenge for the would-be critic.  I realize that makes the film seem utterly dependent on plot developments, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.  I mean that it’s difficult to describe what makes this film so perceptive and provocative, to talk about how things happen, without first providing context for what is happening.

Alas, I’ll do my best to resist potential spoilers.  Be it known David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn have transformed what feels like pulpy material into a probing commentary on stories of its ilk.  The narrative belies the real questions at the heart of it all.

The premise of the film has the ripped-from-the-headlines feel of a Lifetime Original Movie. Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne discovers that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has disappeared without a trace. Details emerge about their unhappy marriage, and suspicion is cast upon the husband. But Fincher and Flynn move far beyond the surface details of your standard procedural. They’re interested in what cases like this mean to a multitude of different people.

As you might expect, the media descends like a whirlwind.  Who is Nick Dunne?  Why doesn’t he seem distraught over the disappearance of his dearly beloved? And most importantly, how can we spin this?  These questions come first from the news media, then find new sources in Nick’s friends and family.

Ben Affleck’s Nick has a hard enough time wrestling with his guilt and confusion over his wife’s disappearance to deal with an increasingly irksome police investigation, headed by the no-nonsense Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and her passive-aggressive partner Gilpin (Patrick Fugit).  Nick finds an ally in his sister Margo (played brilliantly by Carrie Coons), but even that relationship is strained by Nick’s reluctance to reveal everything he knows.

I’ve always resisted Affleck as an actor—he’s proven exactly two modes of performance over his career: flat and emotionless (see: The Town, Argo) or the fratboy jester (see: Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love).  He’s not necessarily doing a lot new here, but dammit if Fincher doesn’t know how to use that affectlessness to the utmost advantage.  His stoic delivery and static face make him a prime target for a media circus—and foster our own uncertainty toward him.

Speaking of strange casting choices—Neil Patrick Harris? Tyler Perry? The two may have been cast to subvert expectations of their more popular screen personas.  Both do admirable work that resists potential showiness, making their characters that much more fascinating. Perry’s defense attorney has a wry sense of fun, while Harris plays a former boyfriend of Amy’s with uncanny self-control.

The true knockout performance is Rosamund Pike as Amy—a practical unknown to mainstream audiences (except for those who remember 2002’s James Bond film Die Another Day or the Edgar Wright comedy The World’s End from last year, neither of which can prepare you for what she does here). We learn more and more about her from Nick’s investigations, and the more we learn about Amy the more fascinating Pike’s multilayered performance becomes.  Be very surprised if she doesn’t earn an Oscar nod come awards season.

The film is such an onslaught of different forces—news media, law enforcement, the in-laws, and that thorny devil of memory—but thanks to tight direction from David Fincher (surprise, surprise) the film never stretches itself too thin.  At two and a half hours, the film moves at a clean but unhurried pace. Makes sense for a film that’s constantly redefining our expectations, and our reactions, to what transpires.

Working with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (with whom he’s forged an excellent partnership on Fight Club, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Fincher paints his world in brilliant contrasts. Light and shadow weave and overlap on faces, bodies, and quiet cul-de-sacs.  That’s not just a Fincher trademark; it’s a thematic decision that speaks specifically to the characters of Gone Girl.  They’re constantly in flux.

There’s also the impeccable eye for setting—you get a sense of space and danger from a single shot.  Look how Fincher stages a scene in an abandoned mall, as druggies scurry away from police flashlights like rats.  Or how he creates menace from the most conventional of suburban streets.

The dialogue sings with knowing cleverness—appropriate because its characters think they’re smarter than they usually are.  Some may find Flynn’s script too obviously didiactic, because its characters keep offering their unique perspectives on the case. But the movie tests, challenges, and outright flies in the face of their sureties.  The film never confirms any one story.

I’ve tried to remain coy about plot details, but your knowledge of them won’t make or break your appreciation of the film’s broader ambitions.  I’m still attempting to piece this film together.  I saw Gone Girl once for the answers.  I can’t wait to see it again, this time to focus on the questions.

–The CineMaverick, 10/14/2014

OBPC WRAP-UP (Part 4 of 4): The Grouches: Major Film Awards


Well, ladies and gentlemen, here it is at last. The last hurrah, the final bow, the end of an era. I’ve saved some whoppers for this last installment of my Oscar countdown, including awards for Original and Adapted Screenplay, Director, and “Best” Best Picture.


But first, here are the best of each decade:


1928-1939: It Happened One Night, 1934

1940-1949: Rebecca, 1940

1950-1959: All About Eve, 1950

1960-1969: Midnight Cowboy, 1969

1970-1979: The Godfather, 1972

1980-1989: Amadeus, 1984

1990-1999: Unforgiven, 1992

2000-2013: No Country for Old Men, 2007


Now, on to the awards!


The Grouch for Best Original Screenplay



The Sting, 1973

Screenplay by David S. Ward



The Apartment, 1960

Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond



Patton, 1970

Screenplay by Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola



Unforgiven, 1992

Screenplay by David Webb Peoples



Shakespeare in Love, 1998

Screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard



Annie Hall, 1977

Screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman

annie hall animation

Allen and Brickman deserve this award for the boundless humor alone, but they add just the right amount of pointed observation as well. Plot isn’t as important to them as is mood and tone. The script is remarkably even-handed too, with just about the same amount of time devoted to Annie and Alvy. And it stays true to Allen’s brand of comedy, balancing the bloom of new love with the tragedy of its wilting.


The Grouch for Best Adapted Screenplay



All About Eve, 1950

Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Based upon the short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr



Midnight Cowboy, 1969

Screenplay by Waldo Salt

Based upon the novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy



The Godfather, 1972

Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

Based upon the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo



The Godfather Part II, 1974

Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

Based upon the novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo



Amadeus, 1984

Screenplay by Peter Shaffer

Based upon the play of the same name by Peter Shaffer



No Country for Old Men, 2007

Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Based upon the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy

No Country1

No Country boasts a less verbose script than the typical Coen Brothers film, but the dialogue is rich in textural detail and nuance. Drawing upon the McCarthy novel, the Coens convey essential character relationships through the shortest character exchanges. Structurally, the script boasts surprise after surprise, seldom of the pleasant variety. The Coens have constructed a terse yet expansive adaptation, one that knows how to marry words with imagery.


The Grouch for Best Direction



David Lean

The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957 & Lawrence of Arabia, 1962



John Schlesinger

Midnight Cowboy, 1969



Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather, 1972 & The Godfather Part II, 1974



Milos Forman

Amadeus, 1984



Steve McQueen

12 Years a Slave, 2013



Joel and Ethan Coen

No Country for Old Men, 2007


Have any two brothers ever worked so well together? In No Country, the Coen siblings match technical perfection with moments of pure grace. They have a masterful command of tension and tone, and as always, the performances from their cast are pure dynamite.  The Coens can handle pulpy violence and rustic philosophy, and make it all seem of a piece.


Now, before we get to Best and Worst Picture…


After much agonizing, deliberating, second-guessing, and sleepless nights, here are my personal rankings of all 86 Best Pictures!


 All 86 Best Pictures, Ranked Best to Worst:

01) No Country for Old Men (2007)

02) Midnight Cowboy (1969)

03) The Godfather (1972)

04) The Godfather Part II (1974)

05) Amadeus (1984)

06) Annie Hall (1977)

07) 12 Years a Slave (2013)

08) Patton (1970)

09) All About Eve (1950)

10) The Apartment (1960)

11) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

12) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

13) The Departed (2006)

14) The Deer Hunter (1978)

15) Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

16) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

17) It Happened One Night (1934)

18) Unforgiven (1992)

19) The Hurt Locker (2009)

20) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

21) The French Connection (1971)

22) Rebecca (1940)

23) In the Heat of the Night (1967)

24) The Sting (1973)

25) Shakespeare in Love (1998)

26) The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

27) Ordinary People (1980)

28) On the Waterfront (1954)

29) Casablanca (1943)

30) West Side Story (1961)

31) Rocky (1976)

32) Ben-Hur (1959)

33) Gandhi (1982)

34) Forrest Gump (1994)

35) The King’s Speech (2010)

36) All the King’s Men (1949)

37) Grand Hotel (1932)

38) Rain Man (1988)

39) Dances with Wolves (1990)

40) Out of Africa (1985)

41) Schindler’s List (1993)

42) Million Dollar Baby (2004)

43) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

44) A Beautiful Mind (2001)

45) American Beauty (1999)

46) Marty (1955)

47) Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

48) The Sound of Music (1965)

49) Argo (2012)

50) From Here to Eternity (1953)

51) Hamlet (1948)

52) You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

53) Titanic (1997)

54) All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

55) Terms of Endearment (1983)

56) The English Patient (1996)

57) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

58) The Lost Weekend (1945)

59) Gone with the Wind (1939)

60) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

61) The Artist (2011)

62) A Man for All Seasons (1966)

63) Braveheart (1995)

64) Chicago (2002)

65) Gladiator (2000)

66) Chariots of Fire (1981)

67) How Green Was My Valley (1941)

68) Platoon (1986)

69) Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

70) Tom Jones (1963)

71) Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

72) My Fair Lady (1964)

73) The Last Emperor (1987)

74) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

75) Gigi (1958)

76) An American in Paris (1951)

77) Mrs. Miniver (1942)

78) Oliver! (1968)

79) Wings (1928)

80) Cimarron (1931)

81) Crash (2005)

82) Going My Way (1944)

83) Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

84) The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

85) The Broadway Melody (1929)

86) Cavalcade (1933)


“Worst Best Picture”

 Cavalcade, 1933


I’ve seen plenty of dreck like The Greatest Show on Earth or Cimarron at bottom of other Oscar reviewers’ lists, but nothing quite earned my ire like this British prestige drama from a bygone era. It’s too busy wallowing in its own self-importance to approximate anything emotionally satisfying, whisking us through generations of stuffy, whiny mannequins masquerading as characters. The greatest travesty of all? This is supposedly based upon a play by Noel Coward. If I may borrow a phrase from Eugene O’Neill: such melodramatic piffle.


The “Best Best Picture”

 No Country for Old Men, 2007

No Country2

This should come as no surprise given that I’ve already awarded No Country‘s writing, direction, and acting. I knew this film, Midnight Cowboy, and The Godfather would comprise my top three—but I really wrestled with how to rank them. Ultimately I had to trust my gut. No Country boasts an endless watchability about the bleakest of subject matters. It’s so wonderfully self-assured and conceived, it’s enough to intimidate any potential filmmaker. Humor and tragedy aren’t just juxtaposed here; they feel inevitably intertwined. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, for sure.


And thus marks the final post of my Oscars Best Picture Countdown. My deepest gratitude to you, dear reader, for sticking with me.  Hoping you’ll continue to do so as I pursue future projects! CineMaverick out. Peace, y’all.

OBPC WRAP-UP (Part 3 of 4): The Grouches! Acting Awards

oscar 2

Hi folks! It’s time to talk about a category near and dear to my heart: acting. You’ll notice that most of my choices skew toward recent years, but I’ve tried to consider all 86 films in making my selections. In the end, I had to choose the performances that really stayed with me. Believe me, there are more great performances in the Best Pictures than I’ve enumerated here.

Before we start, a quick observation: I had a much easier time picking actresses than actors in the leading categories. Unfortunately, this came as no surprise considering the paucity of major roles for female thespians. And don’t even get me started on the paucity of non-white actors in these films. Maybe it’s time the Academy moved out of its comfort zone? Maybe it’s time Hollywood moved out of its comfort zone?

In any case…here are my picks.


 The “Grouch” for Best Supporting Actor


*Honorable Mention*


Ted Levine as Jame Gumb

The Silence of the Lambs, 1991

Nominated for Oscar: No



DUVALL-as Tom Hagen-2-L

Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen

The Godfather, 1972

Nominated for Oscar: Yes

In a film that includes stars like Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, Duvall stands out in a role that demands restraint and unaffected naturalism. Watch the quiet menace he exudes in scenes with a stubborn Hollywood producer, or the composure with which he defuses potentially lethal situations. There’s nothing showy about Duvall’s portrayal of the Corleones’ family lawyer. It’s the best kind of acting: unglamorous and real.



deniro vito

Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone

The Godfather Part II, 1974

Nominated for Oscar: Yes (Won)

The Godfather Part II might not be the film that put De Niro on the map (that title probably goes to 1973’s Mean Streets), but it did make audiences sit up and say, “Woah, who’s this guy?” De Niro takes on the burden of an iconic character (played by Marlon Brando in the first Godfather) with absolute self-assurance. We see Vito’s political maneuvering and relentlessness begin to take form, as De Niro must balance compassion for his family with the calculated soullessness of a man seeking revenge. His encounter with the kingpin who ordered the death of his mother, father, and brother still gives me chills.



John Savage The Deer Hunter

John Savage as Steven Pushkov

The Deer Hunter, 1978

Nominated for Oscar: No

This was a tough decision between Savage and Christopher Walken, because both actors impress in different ways (though Walken walked away with the Oscar). I find Savage’s portrayal a bit more memorable; his fear and pain are much more external than Walken’s. He haunts us with animalistic cries of despair, and finds poignancy in quiet moments of resignation. Robert De Niro has said one scene between him and Savage is the most emotional scene he’s ever acted in. Seeing Savage in the movie, you believe it.



Ralph Fiennes Schindler's List

Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth

Schindler’s List, 1993

Nominated for Oscar: Yes

When you’re so committed to the role of an SS officer that you make Holocaust survivors uneasy, you might just be a great actor. Fiennes can play pure evil without lapsing into caricature, while illustrating the complacency of corruption. Yet despite his unnerving presence, Fiennes’ Goeth is agonizingly pathetic with his masculine insecurities and delusions of grandeur. What’s scarier than knowing your life depends upon the whim of a temperamental infant?




Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh

No Country for Old Men, 2007

Nominated for Oscar: Yes (Won)

And speaking of pure evil…here’s one villain who has no chance of being forgotten any time soon. With his seeming lack of anything resembling a human emotion, Chigurh runs the risk of feeling like a force of nature rather than a character. Yet Bardem imbues him with calculated nuance: little smiles of amusement, or the moment he takes to watch his reflection in a television screen. He’s so key to a character whose cold professionalism is inevitably betrayed by the humanity he tries desperately to suppress.


The “Grouch” for Best Supporting Actress


*Honorable Mention*


Elizabeth McGovern as Jeannine Pratt

Ordinary People, 1980

Nominated for Oscar: No



MStreep Kramer

Meryl Streep as Joanna Kramer

Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979

Nominated for Oscar: Yes (Won)

Streep was a relative unknown in the 1970s (though she had earned a Supporting Actress nomination for The Deer Hunter), but her role as the fed-up mother who divorces her workaholic husband foreshadowed a stellar career. Attempting to win custody of her child (after abandoning him), Joanna could have been the irrational antagonist, a monster to slay. But Streep humanizes her, and makes us understand a woman who genuinely loves her son but didn’t love her home situation. She maintains a delicate equilibrium of raw and controlled emotion.



Mary Mc

Mary McDonnell as Stands With a Fist

Dances with Wolves, 1990

Nominated for Oscar: Yes

McDonnell’s first scene hits you like a punch in the gut, as she grieves for her just-deceased husband in a manner that can only be described as operatic. The remnant of a pioneer family, Stands With a Fist was taken in by a Sioux tribe after her parents were murdered by a neighboring tribe. McDonnell conveys the tensions between her pioneer and Sioux upbringings, especially as she grows closer to Kevin Costner’s Union officer Dunbar. Her stubbornness and intelligence add screwball comedy to the inevitable romance between them.



Kelly Mac

Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean Moss

No Country for Old Men, 2007

Nominated for Oscar: No

At first, Macdonald’s Carla Jean seems relatively minor in a story that involves drug cartels, hired assassins, and suitcases full of money. But by the film’s end, Macdonald has made Llewellyn’s wife the heart and soul of the story. Her showdown with Chigurh show us a woman whose experiences have given her perfect clarity, even enough to rile the unflappable assassin. Her perfectly realized Texan accent (Macdonald is a native of Scotland) seems poised to expose “white trash” tendencies, but it only heightens her compelling rebuttals to Chigurh’s fatalism.




Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey

12 Years a Slave, 2013

Nominated for Oscar: Yes (Won)

Yes, my favorite supporting actress of last year deserves a spot here as well. For a character who suffers in every way imaginable, Nyong’o always seems in control, finding the interior life in a character who could have been played as a victim. She hints at a psychological world beyond the physical one Patsey occupies. In one scene a wild dance leads to a brief moment of transcendence. Patsey could have simply been a vehicle for pathos, but Nyong’o makes her linger well beyond the running time.



Robin Wright as Jenny Finch

Forrest Gump, 1994

Nominated for Oscar: No

So much praise has been lavished upon Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump, but I wonder if that’s distracted from Wright’s remarkable turn as Jenny Finch. She’s a character who’s constantly running away from her past, leading her down paths of addiction and self-destruction. If Hanks is the tall-tale character, Jenny feels heartbreakingly real. Wright adds real gravitas to a scene where her character contemplates suicide, and conveys a sea of conflicting emotions when Jenny hurls rocks at her childhood home. The role is so complete, and so perfectly realized, it’s a travesty Wright wasn’t even nominated.


The “Grouch”  for Best Leading Actor


*Honorable Mention*


Jeremy Renner as Will James

The Hurt Locker, 2009

Nominated for Oscar: Yes




George C. Scott as George S. Patton

Patton, 1970

Nominated for Oscar: Yes (Won)

Scott isn’t just playing the real life WWII figure in this film; he’s playing the legend of that figure as well. Patton has plenty of time to bluster (my favorite of these scenes involves the general threatening a German war-plane with a pistol), and masters the raunchy, macho grittiness of the opening monologue. But it’s the quieter scenes I remember most, as Patton spends time with injured soldiers, or stares out into the vast loneliness of battlefield skies. For a man who seems the apex of masculine virtue, Scott finds just the right amount of human vulnerability.



deniro mike

Robert De Niro as Michael Vronsky

The Deer Hunter, 1978

Nominated for Oscar: Yes

I think it’s telling that De Niro has only appeared in two Best Pictures, and both of his performances made my list. De Niro’s Mike assumes a paternal role in his group of friends, especially when they head off to Vietnam. He’s torn between a genuine love for his comrades and the emotional strain that comes from being the “strong” one, as his two friends succumb to grief and tragedy. De Niro shows us a responsible, take-charge personality, who only gradually realizes he can’t transcend trauma through sheer force of will.




Ben Kingsley as Mohandas K. Gandhi

Gandhi, 1982

Nominated for Oscar: Yes (Won)

This one almost feels like a given, but if you’ve seen the film, you know how well-deserved it is. I love Kingsley’s amused expression as he faces down British intimidation, and his pained eyes as his followers stray from the teachings of passive resistance. But Kingsley doesn’t play the legendary figure like a divine idol; he arms Gandhi with self-deprecating humor and even the rare temper tantrum. His capacity for emotion is inexhaustible; he’s a pillar of humility and knowing sadness.




F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri

Amadeus, 1984

Nominated for Oscar: Yes (Won)

The film might be called Amadeus, but this is Salieri’s story. Abraham plays both the elderly broken man and the insufferably jealous young court composer, managing to distinguish each one. He beautifully colors Peter Shaffer’s already impressive descriptions of music, and knows just how to physically externalize his surrender to it. You have all the reason in the world to hate Salieri, but you can’t take your eyes off him. He knows the pain of one cursed with mediocre talent but an exceptional ear.




Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

Nominated for Oscar: Yes

The genius of O’Toole’s portrayal is the fraught tension between a man we know intimately and a man we know nothing about. You see O’Toole and you understand exactly why people want to follow him. He arrests his audience with a mere glance, his oratory resonates with intelligence and delicious wit—yet he seems to know his limitations and failures. How O’Toole can make Lawrence seem achingly human yet hauntingly enigmatic might be one of the great mysteries of cinema.


The “Grouch”  for Best Leading Actress


*Honorable Mention*


Kristin Scott Thomas as Katherine Clifton

The English Patient, 1996

Nominated for Oscar: Yes




Bette Davis as Margo Channing

All About Eve, 1950

Nominated for Oscar: Yes

Davis’s Channing is mostly remembered for the similarities to the actress who played her. But I adore how Davis slowly, patiently reveals Channing’s recognition, and ultimate acceptance, of her fading star. We always understand where Channing’s pouty desperation comes from, and utterly believe her unexpected moments of humility. Most people know the line, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” That line alone can’t prepare you for the emotional turns Davis takes in this film.




Diane Keaton as Annie Hall

Annie Hall, 1977

Nominated for Oscar: Yes (Won)

Keaton’s Annie feels like the perfect answer to the “manic pixie dream-girl” trope in rom-coms. Her quirks are incidental, even embarrassing to herself. She can be irrationally stubborn; she can be the voice of reason. She hides from the world in one moment, embraces it with full heart in another. Keaton delves into the human being underneath the shy catch-phrasing and eccentric clothing, discovering that a promising career and a life with her boyfriend Alvy might not be possible. Keaton constructs a complete character in a romantic comedy, an unfortunate rarity for the genre.




Debra Winger as Emma Greenway

Terms of Endearment, 1983

Nominated for Oscar: Yes

I had somewhat mixed feelings toward James L. Brooks’s 1983 winner, but high praise for Debra Winger’s performance (I love it even more than Shirley MacLaine’s, and she won the Oscar!). Emma is a real tragic figure, and Winger doesn’t shy away from portraying her limitless love and shattered dreams. You can’t help but feel Emma is a remarkable person trapped in the wrong life, whose widsom of experience belies her limited education. Winger never tries to make you love her character; it happens as a matter of course.




Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling

The Silence of the Lambs, 1991

Nominated for Oscar: Yes (Won)

Even though she won the Oscar, Foster’s performance often takes a back seat to Anthony Hopkins’s own in discussions of Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film. Foster is just as memorable, if not more so; she’s plucky and polite, with a genuine desire to do good, while hinting at a tragic past. Watch her face when she realizes who the serial killer is; she has to convey the dawning revelation but fight it at the same time, lest she betray her new-found knowledge. The men in her department may underestimate Clarice, but we as the viewer never do.




Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen

Out of Africa, 1985

Nominated for Oscar: Yes

Hey look, another appearance for Meryl Streep! Streep’s performance in Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film gets overlooked thanks to her terrific work in 1982’s Sophie’s Choice, but I think her portrayal of Karen Blixen reaches the same level of acting craft. A true test of any thespian is their ability to dissolve into a role, to the point where the portrayer is invisible. I see only Karen in this performance, a brilliant but naive Danish woman who uses marriage as a ticket to adventure and fulfillment. She’s a complicated and contradictory presence, clinging stubbornly to European values while embracing the freedom of her new surroundings. Streep imbues her with warmth, optimism, propriety, and just a hint of mischief. It’s a perfectly conceived performance from start to finish, though given the actress, that should come as no surprise.


And there you have it! I had a devil of a time narrowing these down, but I’m quite content with the final result. My last post will concentrate on the films themselves, including a ranking of all 86 Best Picture winners.

Next Up: OBPC WRAP-UP (Part 4 of 4): The Grouches: Best Picture Rankings / Film Awards

OBPC WRAP-UP (Part 2 of 4): The Grouches : Miscellaneous Awards

Here it is, folks: my personal awards for all 86 Best Pictures, and I’m calling them The Grouches (get it? I’m a comedian!). Before we dive into the major categories (actors, directors, screenplays, and so forth) I thought I’d spotlight the films and moments that made this marathon a memorable one. We’ll start with the moments, then work our way to the films. And..think I’ll stick a big fat SPOILER ALERT right here.


Most Thrilling Scene

The chariot race, Ben-Hur

I had a wealth of iconic scenes to choose from here, but in the end I had to go with one that was all practical. Those are actual people driving actual chariots. Director William Wyler emphasizes the speed and strength of the horses, not to mention the mercilessness of the competitors. Even 55 years later, the chariot sequence can stand with any modern action set-piece. And the best part? No horses were injured in its making! 

 Runner-Up: The buffalo hunt, Dances with Wolves


 Best Acting Clinic

 First Russian roulette scene, The Deer Hunter

Among the most intense scenes of the marathon, the centerpiece of Michael Cimino’s Vietnam film has Robert De Niro’s Mike, Christopher Walken’s Nick, and John Savage’s Steven forced into a game of Russian roulette while imprisoned in a POW camp. The desperation, fear, and anger these actors portray, knowing their next turn could be their last, is something no person should ever have to face–yet the film reminds us that soldiers face it all the time. What De Niro, Walken, and Savage achieve with their physiognomies deserves comparisons to the best faces of silent cinema.

 Runner-Up: Salieri transcribes the Requiem Mass, Amadeus


The Scene That Made Me Cry Like a Baby

 The whipping scene, 12 Years a Slave

This is agonizing to watch, and it’s made even more tragic by Lupita Nyong’o’s masterful vocal command—her cries of agony range from unearthly to painfully human. And when Michael Fassbender’s plantation owner orders Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon to wield the whip? Now you may understand why I’m reluctant to revisit this film any time soon.

 Runner-Up: The final Russian roulette scene, The Deer Hunter


Most Random Scene

 The bat hallucination, The Lost Weekend

bat lost wekend

Ray Milland’s Don Birnam isn’t doing very well when he gets thrown into a rehab center. What follows is an utterly ridiculous sequence in which Don sees a bat swoop through an open window, dive toward a mousehole, and chow down as blood spurts from the hole. It would be disturbing if it didn’t seem like some joker had spliced in a scene from Reefer Madness. Ray Milland’s cry of disgust and the omipresent theremin music make this a scene you could watch endlessly on YouTube.

 Runner-Up: David Niven beats up a guy with his umbrella, Around the World in 80 Days


Creepiest Scene

 “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”, Gigi

“Each time I see a little girl, of five or six or seven, I can’t resist a joyous urge to smile and say, ‘Thank heaven!’” Yuck. Did I mention this song is sung by a clearly older man? To be fair, I don’t actually believe Maurice Chevalier was advocating pederasty, but the song really doesn’t do him any favors. It sets a decidedly uncomfortable tone for a studio musical.

Runner-Up: Any dream sequence, Midnight Cowboy


The “Don’t Just Suspend Disbelief, Expel It from School” Scene

 Officer Ryan saves Christine in Crash

This one requires some context (and spoilers)—an early scene in the film depicts Matt Dillon’s police officer John Ryan molesting Thandie Newton’s Christine while under the pretense of administering a pat-down. It’s a disturbing moment, but then the film gives us this scene later on: a car flips over! It’s about to burst into flames! Ryan is the only cop on the scene! He’s going to save the driver! But who’s the driver? I kid you not–it’s Christine.  Because apparently we need an utterly unbelievable coincidence to show us that a racist police officer is a human being. Really, Paul Haggis?

 Runner-Up: Henri decides “What the hey?” and lets his fiancee marry his best friend, An American in Paris


Most Blatant Racism

The watermelon joke, Cimarron

Casual racism? Not a foreign commodity for the Oscars. But seeing an Academy Award-winning film make a joke about watermelon in relation to the film’s sole black character? Wow. Here’s one scene you can be sure the Academy will never show in a montage. It’s truly tasteless stuff.

Runner-Up: Nearly the entire running-time, Around the World in 80 Days


Most Unexpected Double-Entendre

 The following exchange, The Greatest Show on Earth

Woman 1: “Why is it whenever he’s around I’m all wet?”

Woman 2: “In more ways than one.”

Stay classy, 1952!


Corniest Line

 “It was…the most erotic moment of my life.” –Titanic

When Rose recounts her stint as a nude model for her lover’s artistic talents, boy, do we get a groaner from James Cameron’s script. Yet Cameron has some fun with it—we cut to Rose’s audience, rapt with attention. Can you say awkward?


 Best Performance in a Bad Movie

 Terrence Howard, Crash


The character of Cameron Thayer assumes an utterly absurd masculine stance at one point in the film, but Terrence Howard manages to sell it, somehow. He’s one of the few bright spots in a film full of ridiculous plot twists bordering on parody, but Howard’s icy stare and calm, cogent delivery can almost make you forget about them. It makes you wish he were utilizng those skills in anything else. (I really need to watch Hustle and Flow at some point.)

 Runner-Up: William Powell, The Great Ziegfeld


Worst Performance in a Good Movie

 Brad Pitt, 12 Years a Slave

I already took Pitt to task for his performance in 12 Years in my “Performances of 2013” post, so I’ll try to spare some venom. You’ll notice there’s no (dis)honorable mention for this category. That’s because Pitt is the only performer who comes close to derailing a great film. Luckily, his screen time is limited, and he’s usually performing alongside great actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. Next time, stick to just producing, Mr. Pitt.


Best Romance

 Annie Hall

If my choice for this category is any indication, I like my love stories with a heavy dose of reality, and Woody Allen delivers. This is not an ideal date movie; its two romantic leads clash as life intervenes with its inevitable obstacles. But there’s there’s just as much sweet as bitter here: an awkward meet-cute that’s painfully true, as well as sharply observed moments of genuine connection. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more insightful, uncompromising study of human relationships.

 Runner-Up: The Apartment


Best Epic


This might be an unpopular opinion, considering Lawrence of Arabia‘s reputation. But as I noted in my mini-review, Patton seems more focused in its intentions than Lawrence. So much praise has been heaped upon George C. Scott over the years (for good reason), it’s easy to forget that the film around him utilizes and comments upon the trappings of the historical epic. The vistas presented here are littered with corpses and unforgiving skies. Franklin J. Schaffner’s film simultaneously explores the divine myth and the mortal man.

 Runner-Up: Lawrence of Arabia


Funniest Movie


Amadeus isn’t as overtly comedic as Annie Hall, yet its whole foundation is built upon comedy, albeit the pitch-black variety. Nearly every scene with Mozart and the Austrian court contains multiple comedic payoffs as the court ministers alternately seethe and gawk at Mozart’s antics (you’ll never see more bulging eyeballs). Director Milos Forman plays up the comic tension between stuffy decorum and free-spirited irreverence, reflecting Salieri’s own view of his life as a cosmic joke.

Runner-Up: Annie Hall


Best Musical

 West Side Story

My choice for this category is a simple one: West Side Story contains the most substance of the Best Picture musicals. The film plays with the themes that inspired its Shakespearean source material: miscommunication, betrayal, and grudges that won’t die. Jarring, exuberant dance choreography replaces gang violence but retains a sense of menace. And the songs here don’t interrupt the narrative; they advance character and social commentary. I really wish more of the musicals here had followed suit.

Runner-Up: The Sound of Music


Most Pleasant Surprise (Low Expectations, High Opinion)


I thought for sure that the legendary swords-and-sandals epic would be a historic snooze-fest, full of macho posturing and corny acting. Yet thanks to skillful direction, a great cast, and a surprisingly clever screenplay (Gore Vidal had a hand in it), Ben-Hur stands above the other Rome-set Best Picture, Gladiator. Not many vengeance-driven epics take the turn that William Wyler’s 1959 film does. Even with a hokey ending, the film satisfies on multiple levels.

Runner-Up: It Happened One Night


Biggest Disappointment (High Expectations, Low Opinion)



My familiarity with director Oliver Stone’s work is lacking, but I expected much greater things from this seminal Vietnam War film. While I was impressed by Stone’s coordination and execution of the jungle ambushes, I was less than impressed with his needless voiceover narration and punishing, obvious symbolism. For a filmmaker who’s actually experienced Vietnam, Stone doesn’t write very convincing soldier characters. If this film is considered one of his best, I’m reluctant to check out the rest of his filmography.

Runner-Up: The Lost Weekend


Most Unlikely Film to Win Best Picture (That Won)

 Midnight Cowboy


If you’ve read my mini-review, you know how much I adore director John Schlesinger’s poignant 1969 film. Yet how the Academy awarded this film, which became the first X-rated film to win, is beyond my powers of comprehension. It contains explicit references to prostitution, sexual encounters of questionable consensuality, and flights of visual fancy that challenged many an audience. It’s possible the voters awarded it for the touching friendship at the heart of the film, which may go beyond friendship; Schlesinger keeps it just ambiguous enough. Whatever the reason, I’m just grateful I had an opportunity to catch up with this one.

Runner-Up: The Silence of the Lambs


Most Likely Film to Win Best Picture (That Won, Surprise Surprise)

 The King’s Speech


Let’s see here…period piece? Check. Based on a true story? Check. Protagonist overcoming disability? Check. Traditional three-act structure? Check. Historical import? Check. Little to no risk of alienating its audience? Big fat check. I quite enjoyed The King’s Speech, but that doesn’t mean I don’t harbor suspicions it was engineered to win an Oscar first and foremost. I’m looking at you, Harvey Weinstein.

Runner-Up: Driving Miss Daisy


Guiltiest Pleasure



You might say this is the film that has my critical and emotional personalities at war. Everything about Titanic, from its generic dialogue to its flagrant melodrama to its laughable love scenes, flies in the face of things I tend to prefer in the movies: things like restraint, subtlety, character complexity. Yet somehow a three hour, fourteen minute film containing very little of those qualities managed to hold my attention and gain my investment. I credit James Cameron’s direction and the performances from Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio with keeping me involved, no matter how silly the proceedings.

Runner-Up: American Beauty


Film I Might Not Watch for a While

12 Years a Slave


I’ve actually seen this film twice, in a relatively short amount of time. Yes, it was my favorite of last year, but with its graphic depictions of torture (physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, you name it), I may be staying away from McQueen’s landmark film for a while. It’s not only a film about suffering, but when you make a film about slavery, safe to say suffering deserves a pivotal role. And McQueen gives it to us, immediate and raw.

Runner-Up: Schindler’s List


Film I’d Most Like to Revisit 

Lawrence of Arabia


While I greatly enjoyed Lawrence, there’s a part of me that wanted to like it even more. I absolutely adored Peter O’Toole’s performance, and recognized pure moments of unadulterated greatness. Yet I found the script somewhat too obvious in its psychological explications of our main character, and wanted greater insight into the tribes that Lawrence aids in their fight against the Ottomans. I may wait to rewatch it once I have access to a big screen.

Runner-Up: Gone with the Wind


And that will wrap up the special awards! Next, I’ll be talking about my favorite performers in the Best Pictures. I’ll have nominees as well as winners. See you then!

OBPC WRAP-UP (Part 1 of 4): First, Some General Thoughts…



So, why did I spend more than two years watching movies awarded by an unreliable, self-righteous cinematic cult? Well…

I think the marathon was a chance for me to evaluate what’s still seen as an authority on best-of-year movies (at least with respect to British/American cinema). Is the Academy truly irrelevant to cinema’s ultimate legacy?

But I also wanted the chance to review a treasure trove of film classics I had never seen before:  films like All Quiet on the Western FrontGone with the WindThe Best Years of Our LivesOn the WaterfrontLawrence of ArabiaAnnie Hall, and Unforgiven.  These are films that, regardless of my or anyone else’s opinion about them, will continue to be discussed and debated as long as we talk seriously about movies. I knew I’d also have a chance to revisit films I hadn’t seen in a while, like CasablancaThe Deer Hunter, and Titanic.  I wanted to watch each movie fresh, give it a chance to defy or confirm my original opinion. Because it’s amazing how time changes the movies, and ourselves.

As you’ve seen, my format for the “mini-reviews” (as I termed them back in the day) changed as the films went on. My reviews for the late 1920s/early 1930s films quickly ballooned in terms of verbosity, my word count increasing just as my investment in these films did. In retrospect, I find my (often futile) attempts at cutting the wordage rather amusing: do any two films warrant the same exact word count?

But I digress. When I started this countdown back in July 2012, I asked myself a series of questions: which films hold up? Which films don’t? Which films deserve only to be handled with a shovel?

Well, to the first question: a majority! By that I mean, in my humble opinion, the majority of Best Pictures are well worth your time and investment. I was especially surprised by how many older films (let’s say pre-1970) I found enjoyable or insightful even by today’s standards. I saw how much seafaring adventures owe to Mutiny on the Bounty, an impressive seafaring adventure in its own right. I discovered how romantic comedies could succeed on the strength of their characters and situational humor in films like It Happened One Night and The Apartment. I even enjoyed a few musical films (far from my favorite genre) like West Side Story and The Sound of Music. It helps that these films have characters we care about, in addition to their grandly choreographed musical numbers.

As for how many of them warrant the title of “Best Picture” (or eliminating the superlative: “Great Picture”)? That’s a significantly lower number. But I’ll name a few.  Movies like All About Eve, Midnight Cowboy, The GodfatherAmadeus, and No Country for Old Men retain their excellence because every element of their construction is working at the highest level: from dialogue and cinematography, to acting and direction, to production and sound design. They don’t just represent some of the best cinema; they represent the full potential of the cinematic medium.

Of course, we’re going to get the bad with the good. Quite a few of these movies may have wormed themselves into the Academy’s heart thanks to topical isues explored therein. It’s no wonder a film like Casablanca, with its memorable dialogue and characters, stands the test of time while a bland, call-to-action propaganda piece like Mrs. Miniver falls by the wayside. Both films addressed the WWII zeitgiest of the early 1940s, but chose to approach those concerns in contrasting ways.

I’ve also seen a few films that felt like the safe choice, especially in a sea of far worthier nominees. John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley was a decent (if unfocused) account of a Welsh coal mining village, but it’s rather amazing to think it beat out Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane from the same year. This probably has less to do with the perception of the films at the time than it does with the controversy Citizen Kane caused at the time. It was accused of slandering media magnate William Randolph Hearst, and thus was unfairly demeaned.

What I will say about the films I didn’t care for is this: I thank heavens none of them were terrible. Bad, yes, but never unwatchable. Even the silliest of Best Pictures were handsomely mounted and staged, with most of my issues stemming from the content of the film rather than the production value. There’s a secret part of me that wanted at least one “so bad it’s good” film (Cavalcade had its moments, but lacked consistency). Ah well. I did a marathon of “Best” Pictures, so what did I expect?

The Academy is a fickle bunch, and seldom a guidepost for cinematic benchmarks. But they’re just one opinion. I’ve made my own, and I hope you’ll do the same, dear reader. I won’t encourage you to do what I did (unless you’d really like to), but dare to look beyond the Academy stamp of approval. You’ll probably see something they missed.

Next up: OBPC WRAP-UP (Part 2 of 4): Special and Miscellaneous Awards!



OBPC #86: 12 Years a Slave

Rating: 4 stars (out of 4) 

12 Years a Slave (2013): Dir. Steve McQueen.  Written by John Ridley.  Based upon the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup.  Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Giamatti. Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. Running time:  134 minutes.

12 yearsWell folks, we made it. When I started there were 84 films to review, but two years of slow progress have bumped that number up to 86. I’m grateful to end with what I still consider the best film of 2013, even if its disturbing nature had me questioning whether I could rewatch it so soon after the first viewing.

Having done a full review for my blog back in November, I’ll do my best not to repeat myself. Solomon Northup lives as a free man in New York state until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. This is less a narrative than a harrowing tone-poem.

I’m amazed at the the movie’s skillful direction, in terms of staging, camerawork, and aesthetic. McQueen cites the work of artist Francisco Goya as a huge influence on the film, and you can see it in his use of lush, vibrant colors. McQueen’s visual eye is attuned to the horrors of slavery (chained-together bodies in one scene recall Pasolini’s Salo), but also to the psychology of slavery: a ferry-wheel becomes a harbinger of doom for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon, while straw dolls offer a creative outlet for Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey.

This could have been a film that simply subjugated its main character, confirming our vague yet firm belief that yes, slavery was horrible. But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley are more interested in how systems like slavery are devised and maintained, despite structurally and morally corrupt foundations. Cruelty derives both from the impotence of those who exercise it (Michael Fassbender’s Epps), and the grudging approval of those who don’t (Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford). And what happens when a man who has known freedom opposes such cruelty? His soul stands trial, threatens to break, finds small traces of hope, yet never fully heals.

I want to stress that 12 Years doesn’t simply appall with its imagery, but promotes considered inquiry into power politics. The Academy may have awarded the film for its subject matter, but it deserves more accolades (and thoughtful discussions) based upon its execution.

Link to my full review HERE:



REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): Dir. James Gunn.  Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman.  Based upon the comic of the same name by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.  Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, and Lee Pace. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. Running time: 121 minutes.

guardians_of_the_galaxy_posterWow, did Marvel Studios market this one hard or what? Even with the release of several sequels before it, Guardians has commanded the studio’s most high-profile release since The Avengers.  None of the characters involved have any established familiarity with audiences outside of the comics community, and hell, even within that community they’re small potatoes compared to Iron Man or Hulk.

So what’s the attraction? Maybe it’s the promise of something different–wacky characters, offbeat humor, a retro soundtrack dangling in the vastness of space. The film certainly delivers that difference, but I wish if it had gone even further and ditched the tiresome Marvel movie trappings.

We’re off to a rather unconventional start, as a young boy is hit with a one-two punch: losing his mother to cancer, than being abducted by aliens. Fast-forward 26 years, and the man who will eventually lead the Guardians is Peter Quill (call him Star-Lord, if you please).  He a junker, a thief and swashbuckler of sorts.  Chris Pratt plays him like a combination of Errol Flynn and Bart Simpson.

We meet up with Quill as he retrieves an artifact called the “orb,” dancing his way past booby-traps and kicking monsters out of the way, defying the forbidding landscape so deftly established.  Between this and his role in The Lego Movie, Pratt is having a monster year.

But can the film maintain such a hilariously cavalier attitude throughout?  Well…yes and no.  Right after that scene, we’re treated to rushed expositional history about the bad guy’s motivations.  This is one hell of a funny (and sometimes subversive) movie, but the seemingly ironclad Rule of Marvel Blockbusters has ensured it never strays far from the familiar: plenty of conventional action scenes, sequel-baiting, money shots, and unabashed sentimentality.  It’s as if Marvel stood by during filming and said, “Not too different, James.”

Odd, but not overly so, is the name of the game.  So too describes the eventual team that Quill enlists—a motley crew who reveal hearts of gold.  There’s Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, a traitor to the antagonist, Ronan the Accuser. There’s Dave Bautista’s beefy Drax the Destroyer, a heavily tattooed behemoth of a man who vows revenge on Ronan for murdering his wife and daughter.  And of course we have the dynamic duo of anthropomorphic raccoon Rocket and his Chewbacca-esque anthropomorphic tree friend, Groot.

Gunn seems extremely aware of the absurdity of his characters, but manages to make them a crew worth following.  Cooper does arguably his best work as Rocket, a role that could have been utterly insufferable with the wrong actor.  The grungy voice stays grounded in the character’s awareness of himself as genetic abomination.  Meanwhile, Vin Diesel gives an Iron Giant-level performance, making use of multiple inflections for the only three words he can say: “I am Groot.”

With its alien races, Macguffins, and quirky humor, Guardians plays like a B-movie with Grade A-movie designs. Toting a $170 million budget, the film boasts impressive weather-beaten vistas and psychedelic nebulas. And despite the Marvel label, it’s more space opera than superhero movie.  There’s a real sense of size and scope to the movie even though it has modest ambitions in terms of the story it wants to tell.  Gunn is at his best when he’s distracting you from the banality of another “powerful artifact” search.

Alas, the film disappoints when it comes to its females.  Zoe Saldana is game, but the script doesn’t have anything for her to really sink her teeth into.  She’s the token female good guy, destined to face off against the token female bad guy (Karen Gillan’s Nebula).  Sure, she kicks butt, shares insider knowledge, but she ultimately has little impact on the story (and why does she need to be rescued?).  I’m not sure what it says when a talking raccoon is more interesting than an intergalactic assassin.

Ultimately, the likability of the characters, a well-chosen soundtrack, and mostly consistent laughs keeps the momentum going.  I just wish the film hadn’t settled for corny resolutions—we’re still seeing the same clichés about a group of misfits banding together.  It’s certainly the funniest Marvel movie I’ve seen, but that doesn’t change the fact that at its core, we’ve been here before.  It entertains.  But is it too much to ask for a little more?

–The CineMaverick, 8/8/2014





REVIEW: Boyhood

Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)

Boyhood (2014): Written and directed by Richard Linklater.  Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Lorelei Linklater. Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use. Running time: 165 minutes.

boyhoodSome films are built upon gimmicks. Such films are usually content to rest upon them, while great films transcend gimmickry to a point where the gimmick evaporates. Needless to say, Boyhood falls into the latter camp. It’s the result of a 12 year experiment by Linklater, a director known for his improvisatory, dialogue-heavy films.  Segments were filmed using the same major actors, culminating in a 12-year odyssey that follows Mason (and the actor, Ellar Coltrane) from child to adult.

Linklater doesn’t stagger the journey; the transition between ages is so subtle and seamless, you’re amazed that Mason could possibly be off to college when we just saw his mother reading to him in bed. At 165 minutes, the time flies like the years in a life.

There’s no conventional plot to speak of, or even a consistent dramatic arc. We know at the beginning that Mason’s parents are divorced, with the mother assuming primary care and the father assuming the role of “weekend dad.” Yet Linklater achieves the best possible balance with this story—he never forces the drama, while subtly conveying the emergence of a soul. The film play like a series of memories:  never abstract, but never fully concrete.

What else can’t be pinned down? The tone. You might as well try to define the experience of growing up. Heartbreak and loss give way to joy and wonder.  Much is lost, as families are moved, created, torn apart. Linklater doesn’t skimp on tragedy here—when things get bad, they hit you right in the gut. One moment Mason and his siblings are riding their bikes like the children of summer, the next they come across their mother crawling away from a drunk husband.

Yet this is a life complete, not a traditional narrative. Revelation and joy do come, but they’re often obscured.  Mason’s father can offer sage advice, borne out of genuine love—but it’s tempered by his lack of involvement in his son’s life.  Mason must constantly sift through multiple (often didactic) voices.

A lesser film may have been content with its premise when it came to characters, or at least settled for sterotypes. Yet the players remain grounded, even the ones that flit in and out of Mason’s life. This extends from Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette, inarguably her career best performance) to his sister (Lorelei Linklater) to his semi-present father (Ethan Hawke).  They’re performed and written so well, Linklater could easily have centered the film upon any one of them.

The eponymous “boy” could have been a cipher, or a silent watching persona, but Linklater and Coltrane make him specific, intelligent, uncertain, flawed. He finds a passion for photography, wears earrings (and occasionally nail polish), and waxes philosophical about humanity’s relationship with technology. It’s a specific kind of acting, one grounded in naturalism and humility. The film wouldn’t have worked without this character being utterly compelling. Coltrane nails it.

But those are hallmarks of Linklater’s style, surely; what about the criticism levied against his allegedly bland visual style?  Here, Linklater shows a great eye for frame composition.  He turns a hiking excursion between Mason and his father into an intimate arboretum.  Or creates a palpable sense of danger in a half-finished house, where boredom gives ways to contests of machismo. These visual tricks don’t loudly announce themselves; they add color and dimension to a world that doesn’t ask you to do anything except experience it.

Like his Before films, Linklater has created an oxymoron: the intimate epic.  There are no easy answers, few resolutions, and far too many loose ends.  Like Mason, we need to find the moments that matter—and realize we’ll only partially succeed.

—The CineMaverick, 8/5/2014




OBPC #85: Argo, 2012

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)

Argo (2012): Dir. Ben Affleck.  Written by Chris Terrio.  Based upon the book The Master of Disguise by Tony Mendez and the magazine article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman.  Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Scoot McNairy. Rated R for language and some violent images. Running time: 120 minutes.

argoI was baffled when this straight-forward thriller toppled the Oscar juggernaut that was Lincoln, but it makes perfect sense when you consider whom Argo portrays as its hero. Based on the true story of a rescue mission during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the film draws heavily upon Hollywood politics and storytelling.

The plot revolves around a joint United States/Canadian mission to rescue six Americans who ditched their own embassy and found sanctuary with the Canadian ambassador. Despairing for a plan, CIA operative Tony Mendez proposes a radical option: concoct a fake movie and bring home the six workers by disguising them as Canadian film crew.

Argo contains all the thrills (and intellectual substance) of a theme park ride, endlessly ratcheting up its momentum. Ben Affleck has cited Alan J. Pakula’s work as a key influence on his approach, and you see it in the suspenseful camerawork—quick pans and tracking shots abound. Despite the complicated political motivations, Affleck and company ensure we always know what’s going on and where we’re headed. It seldom lets up in terms of excitement–the threat of danger looms in very frame.

Yet for all its insistence on factual accuracy, Argo always feels like a Hollywood production, with its obvious exaggerations and flat-out fabrications. Chris Terrio’s screenplay, while clever, is rife with dialogue that artlessly fills in exposition, as if to say “Did you get that?” We also lack an interesting lead performance from Affleck. There’ a fine line between understated and boring, and Affleck leans more to the latter side. Still, at least we have entertaining moments from Alan Arkin and John Goodman (though far too few).

If you can suspend your disbelief enough, you’ll be rewarded with a white-knuckle adventure that clips along even when seemingly idle. Say what you will about Affleck, but he knows how to craft a compelling film. (I just don’t know if I take any of them seriously.)

Next film: 12 Years a Slave, 2013