With the Oscars around the corner, a month of marathon movie viewing behind me, and no Student articles to share my opinions through, I had a difficult time deciding which film to review with the start of the semester. So, allowing myself to make matters easier, I thought I’d review all of the films vying for Oscar glory I haven’t had the chance to share my opinion on already. Yeah, it’s a bit of a cheat, but who can complain about five reviews for the price of one?
Rapidly gaining attention and increasingly the seeming frontrunner for Best Picture, “American Hustle” is solid entertainment but nothing special. It has several strong performances, including another committed turn from Christian Bale. Bale gained back all the weight and then some that he lost for his previous feature with director and Amherst alum David O. Russell ’81E, “The Fighter.” A slyly humorous script and strong late 70s period detail, “American Hustle” is a strong companion piece to last year’s Best Picture winner “Argo.” And if it’s more populist and upbeat than one would like, it signals the emergence of particular directorial quirks from Russell, who previously seemed like a real talent, but one without any singular vision of his own. In the midst of increasingly bleak and desperate filmmaking from top-flight directors, Russell is staking his claim as a premier humanist director of his generation. The film also explores political corruption without the judgmental, one-sided approach often taken by films. But he has yet to make the masterpiece I know he has in him (although the reckless abandon of “Three Kings” comes close). He gives his movies just enough depth to make them compulsively watchable, but as he interweaves four main characters in search of an exit throughout “American Hustle,” one begins to wonder if the characters are vying for screen time rather than enhancing each other’s performances; perhaps Russell has bit off more than he can chew. “American Hustle” would deserve an Oscar for Best Hair Design, but Best Picture? I suppose it would continue the long-line of extremely well-crafted pop-pieces which have won increasingly often in recent years.
While “12 Years a Slave” still stands as the high water-mark of 2013 cinema for me, “Her” is the closest a film has come this year to matching it for nuance, texture, insight to the human condition and sheer emotional impact. After “Where the Wild Things Are,” (my personal pick for the underrated gem of the past decade), I’d been waiting to see what writer/director Spike Jonze would do next. Comment insightfully on the human condition? Create a fascinatingly mundane view of society and the individuals that populate it? Produce a gorgeous feast for the eyes? Wring great performances of out some very talented actors, even one who doesn’t appear physically on camera? Create one of the finest, most honest romances of the century, albeit between a human and an artificial intelligence, without resorting to either cloying melodrama or judgmental pandering? Include not one but two very finely manicured mustaches? He did it all, and then some. I believe it was Roger Ebert who once wrote that the difference between a 3 ½ and a 4 star film is the “tingle down the spine” while watching. I think it’s a combination of that and how long a film stays with me, gnawing it’s way into my core and refusing to leave. Other than “12 Years a Slave,” “Her” is the only film I saw this year to get top marks in both categories.
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
After an unusually long gap for the insanely prolific Coen Brothers (three whole years!), they’ve made sure they remind us why we wait for their films with such anxiety and anticipation, and why a new Coen Brothers film is such an event for film lovers. Each film they release has a singular vision, but also fits nicely into their corpus of three decades and adds texture to their previous features. With fantastic attention to detail, a well-realized sense of place that is all too familiar yet curiously distant, and a surprisingly laid-back yet aching, distraught screenplay backing them, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is their best release since “No Country for Old Men” and maybe even before that. It works as a meandering tribute to the underbelly of the New York folk scene, an homage to the works of James Joyce and an exploration of the day-to-day doldrums of human existence. Llewyn Davis is one of their most fascinatingly selfish central characters, and yet the tale remains modern and timeless. It feels like a long-lost classic, and as such is one for the history books.
Another understated film, and a strong companion piece to both Alexander Payne’s own road-trip masterpiece, “Sideways,” “Nebraska” shows Alexander Payne’s talents for intermixing dry, quiet, poignant drama and even dryer, bitter humor to an effect that exceeds the sum of its parts. Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and characters drawn in shades of gray complement strong performances, especially from the criminally underrated Bruce Dern, making this story of family and old age one more square on the tapestry of one of modern cinema’s most consistently strong auteurs.
“The Wolf of Wall Street”
It’s nice to see Martin Scorsese’s age hasn’t tempered his love of ambitious, daring, over-the-top cinema, especially in light of all the more subdued offerings highlighting the end of 2013, but honestly I’m still not entirely sure what I think of his latest tale of debauchery. While it’s ambitious, and frequently hilarious, it’s messy to a fault and lacks the character nuance and hard-hitting grime that characterize Scorsese’s best works, even his criminally underrated comedies such as “King of Comedy” and “After Hours.” In comparison, “Wolf of Wall Street” feels more exaggerated on the surface but curiously detached, difficult to grasp and even simplistic. It’s different, to be sure, but the weirdness of the film rarely dips below the surface. At least Leonardo DiCaprio throws himself (often literally) into the role in a commanding performance, maybe his best ever, and many individual scenes are among Scorsese’s best, most notably Dicaprio’s drugged-up, impossibly slow crawl to his car in place of what should be a mad dash to return home for fear of being arrested.