Cinema Chatter #29 - Dreamin' Part I

Oscar fever has reached a fevered pitch as the fevered rivalry between Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity spreads like wild-fever… Okay, so it’s not quite that exciting of a race, though the 86th Academy Awards does have a sense of uncertainty in its Best Picture race. It’s the historical filmmaking of McQueen up against the nuts and bolts visuals of Cuarón’s work, with David O. Russell’s American Hustle looking to play spoiler.

But like in 2011 (here) and 2012 (here), I’m not particularly impressed with the slate of nominations in contention. Like those years, I’ve taken refuge in creating my own ballot and winners. I can dream, can’t I?

As a stickler, heed this note: only films that screened in the Chicagoland area during the 2013 calendar are eligible - recent films like The Wind Rises and The Missing Picture will likely have to wait a whole year before claiming one of these prestigious citations.

And an additional note: the less said about the animated category, the better.

Best Foreign Language Film

In the House {Photo: COHEN MEDIA GROUP}

In the House {Photo: COHEN MEDIA GROUP}

Mexico, “Heli”
France, “In the House”
Japan, “Like Father, Like Son”
Brazil, “Neighboring Sounds”
China, “A Touch of Sin”

2013’s foreign offers reaffirmed that great cinema wasn’t strictly coming from the states - these films, in any other year, would’ve been included in my top ten of the year. But only François Ozon’s wicked adaptation of Juan Mayorga’s stage play made that list and for good reason: it’s one of the most tightly wound and suspenseful films of its year, perfectly calibrated in every respect from performances to direction.

Best Documentary Feature

At Berkeley {Photo: ZIPPORAH FILMS}

At Berkeley {Photo: ZIPPORAH FILMS}

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? {Photo: IFC FILMS}

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? {Photo: IFC FILMS}

“The Act of Killing”
“At Berkeley”
“Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?”

“Stories We Tell”
“These Birds Walk”

I’m not one for ties, but two documentaries from 2013 resonated most with me. The first was Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, a film that takes form as an actuality and revels in observation. It’s the sort of transcendent piece that puts you right at the university’s steps. With Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy, Michel Gondry’s experimentation with form keeps popping back into my memory, with attempts to enliven a traditional talking head documentary through his boyish precociousness. Neither film has made much of a commercial splash (their combined gross coming to less than $200,000) - do yourself a favor and look out for both of these films.

Best Visual Effects

Pacific Rim {Photo: WARNER BROS. PICTURES}

Pacific Rim {Photo: WARNER BROS. PICTURES}

“The Grandmaster”
“Heli”
“The Immigrant”
“Pacific Rim”
“The World’s End”

I was inclined to go with a Rust and Bone-like pick this year, finding the nuanced work in both The Grandmaster and Heli to work remarkably well within their narrative contexts. But I can’t help but be impressed with the gargantuan designs and visceral thrills that Guillermo del Toro and his visual effects crew were able to pull off with Pacific Rim. The sheer size and scope of the features visual design was unlike anything else in 2013, even Gravity, of which I’m not quite a fan of.

Best Sound Mixing

Her {Photo: WARNER BROS. PICTURES}

Her {Photo: WARNER BROS. PICTURES}

“Her”
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
“Pacific Rim”
“Spring Breakers”
“Stoker”

Consider what’s being done in Her. A man is largely having a conversation with a woman speaking directly into his head. For a significant portion of the picture, her voice is compounded by the chatter of the external world that Spike Jonze creates or with an overlying soundtrack. Yet we never lose touch with Scarlett Johanson’s voice throughout the picture. The soundscape that is balanced Her is one of the several technical arenas that the picture stands with no equals.

Best Sound Editing

Stoker {Photo: FOX SEARCHLIGHT}

Stoker {Photo: FOX SEARCHLIGHT}

“12 Years a Slave”
“Drug War”
“Her”
“Only God Forgives”
“Stoker”

The brutal swish of whips in 12 Years a Slave and the bullets sprayed throughout Drug War befit the contextual elements of their films, but the sound in Stoker is an example of addressing thematic and tonal concerns. It’s a film of such great sounds, concerned less with narrative consistency and simply looking to freak you out. And as inconsistent as I may have found the film, it achieves that eerie creep-out factor with ease.

Best Original Score

Bastards {Photo: SUNDANCE SELECTS}

Bastards {Photo: SUNDANCE SELECTS}

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”
Bastards
“Only God Forgives”
“Nebraska”
“Spring Breakers”

Looking back at Claire Denis’ most recent film I still can’t fully embrace it. It was at a time when I experienced most of her work for the first time - Chocolat, Nenette et Boni, and Beau Travail ­- and I couldn’t help but feel a little let down with how overwhelming depressing Bastards turned out to be. A rewatch is necessary but if there’s anything that’s pulling me back into that picture it’s Tindersticks’ wonderfully dense soundtrack, navigating the picture from the perplexingly bizarre into something genuinely shocking.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Contracted {Photo: IFC FILMS}

Contracted {Photo: IFC FILMS}

“12 Years a Slave”
Contracted
“Only God Forgives”

Whoever said you needed a major budget to showcase your talent? The shoestring indie Contracted is a small picture with modest ambitions. Najarra Townsend wastes away in the sort of physical terror that is reminiscent of Jeff Goldblum’s transformation in The Fly. While the picture may lack the particular Cronebergian psychology that defines his work, there’s no doubting how convincing the make-up in Contracted happens to be.

Best Film Editing

Spring Breakers {Photo: A24 FILMS}

Spring Breakers {Photo: A24 FILMS}

“At Berkeley”
“Drug War”
“The Grandmaster”
"Spring Breakers"
“To the Wonder”

The year had its wide selection of well-edited pictures. The crisp editing of the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis and Gary Roach and Joel Cox’s Prisoners were among the many standouts deserving of some recognition. And those that I’ve selected cover a wide spectrum of filmmaking types. There’s the elegance of movement in films like To the Wonder and The Grandmaster. There’s the complex action that composes Drug War. And there’s the impressive scope of At Berkeley to consider. But in the end, it’s the film that blends all those elements together in Donald Crise and Adam Robinson’s Spring Breakers that constructs an avant-garde narrative out of pure hedonism.

Best Costume Design

The Immigrant {Photo: THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY}

The Immigrant {Photo: THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY}

“The Grandmaster”
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
“The Immigrant”
“The Place Beyond the Pines”
“Spring Breakers”

… With the high-waisted pants of Her just outside of contention. I usually tend to favor more grounded and less period-paced costume pieces, therein explaining the worn out shirts of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. But I was particularly impressed with the sheer diversity in attire found in James Gray’s masterful The Immigrant, a picture that opened the Chicago International Film Festival. The depression era garb varies from that of lower class immigrants to American-born hustlers, resulting in an immaculate array of designs.

Best Cinematography

Inside Llewyn Davis {Photo: CBS FILMS}

Inside Llewyn Davis {Photo: CBS FILMS}

“Her”
“The Immigrant”
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
“Laurence Anyways”
“To the Wonder”

Without a doubt, it’s Bruno Delbonnel’s work in Inside Llewyn Davis that towers over his competition. And it was no slack year in cinematography either. From Roger Deakins in Prisoners to some great black-and-white cinematography by Sam Levy (Frances Ha) and Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska), the year’s visual compositions have stronger than most years, with digital filmmaking closing the gap between their film counterparts.

Best Production Design

Her {Photo: WARNER BROS. PICTURES}

Her {Photo: WARNER BROS. PICTURES}

“The Great Gatsby”
Her
“The Immigrant"
"Only God Forgives"
“Prisoners”

It’s all about Her. Utilizing Shanghai as a Los Angeles proxy, K.K. Barrett constructs a visual sight of a foreseeable future where technology dominates culture. At times looking like a breathing IKEA catalog, Her impresses as a production at virtually every location - from the tidy domicile of its lead character to the sherbet hues of the world that comprises his work, there’s the immediate sense that the future is present.

Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke {Photo: THE DAILY HERALD}

Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke {Photo: THE DAILY HERALD}

John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave”
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, “Before Midnight”
Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix, Julie Maroh, “Blue is the Warmest Color”
Juan Mayorga, François Ozon, “In the House”
Brian De Palma, “Passion”

I’ll subscribe to the Academy’s regulations that dictate that Before Midnight ought to be considered an adapted screenplay as a result of it being based on previously conceived characters. It doesn’t change, one way or the other, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke compose the best script of the year. It’s remarkable how successful the film turned out to be, given the risk involved. They took the characters down my much less rosy road than they’ve been in prior installments. But it all comes to a close in a film that never shies away from the reality of relationships -particularly for those that you love.

Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen {Photo: SALON}

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen {Photo: SALON}

Ryker Chan, et al., “Drug War”
Spike Jonze, “Her”
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Jia Zhang-ke, “A Touch of Sin”
Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, “The World’s End”

The sharp humor of The World’s End, the delicate prose of Her, the dense procedural of Drug War, and the intricate and refined A Touch of Sin were all incredible pieces of original writing in 2013. But the all too familiar touchstones of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis that impresses me most. From its structure, bookending its narrative and moving from New York to Chicago and back again throughout, it’s one of the most rewarding and emotionally taxing of the Coen’s screenplays.