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Los Angeles Film Festival 2014: The Liberator, 10 Minutes, and Han Gong-ju

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Los Angeles Film Festival 2014: <em>The Liberator</em>, <em>10 Minutes</em>, and <em>Han Gong-ju</em>
Los Angeles Film Festival 2014: <em>The Liberator</em>, <em>10 Minutes</em>, and <em>Han Gong-ju</em>

There’s a moment that pretty much tells the story of how The Liberator tells its story: After delivering an epigrammatic one-liner about the future of South America, Simón Bolívar (Édgar Ramírez) cuts a check just as the film smash cuts into the middle of the war financed by that check. The intervening years, and the web of people and causes and actions leading to war, are also trimmed away by the cut as we’re dropped into the chaos of a battle in which the only course of action seems to be continuously pushing forward. If we stipulate Bolívar’s heroism and political significance, we should also stipulate that history is multifaceted and complex, perhaps too much so for a two-hour film. The Liberator struggles under that burden, and in trying to encompass the whole of Bolívar’s life, it unfortunately also suggests that the fate of an entire continent flowed from the psychological scars of the son of a dead mother and husband of a dead wife, which is fine if you’re dealing with a fictional action hero as opposed to playing with the live grenade of historical discourse.

Directed by Alberto Arvelo and penned by Children of Men screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton, the film follows Bolívar’s rise from “little rich boy” among the Venezuelan colonial elite to revolutionary military and political hero in the fight for independence from Spain. The film is upfront about lensing the world psychologically through Bolívar’s eyes, as in the first sequence that intercuts between Bolívar the man escaping from a coup attempt and Bolívar the boy running away from his mother’s wake. It’s also seen in the way the environment is so drastically pinned to Bolívar’s temperament and position in his predestined historical arc: When he first brings back his wife, María Teresa (María Valverde), to Venezuela from Spain, the landscapes are bright and lively, complete with colorful storybook butterflies. When María falls ill, it takes but an instant for the skies to go grey and stormy as a background for Bolívar to brood.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Cinematography
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

As R. Kurt Osenlund pointed out yesterday, there are plenty of categories more flashily controversial this year, but none have become as big a flash point among cinephiles as the cinematography prize. No demographic is more certain that one of Oscar’s longest-running contemporary injustices is its failure to coronate Emmanuel Lubezki, whose lucidly expressive images have now earned him six nominations and a near-fanatic cult devotion. Having to cope with the losses he’s suffered his last three times at bat—with The New World, Children of Men, and The Tree of Life respectively falling to Memoirs of a Geisha, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Hugo—are, for acolytes, like living in an alternate universe where John Alcott’s work on Barry Lyndon lost to Robert L. Surtees’s The Hindenburg, or Sven Nykvist’s lensing of Cries & Whispers lost to Surtees’s The Sting, or Néstor Almendros’s Days of Heaven lost to Robert Surtees’s Same Time, Next Year. Adding insult to injury last time around was the fact that Lubezki’s richly textured analog work in The Tree of Life was chewed up and spit out by the Academy’s now-insatiable sweet tooth for CGI-heavy 3D toy boxes, a trend that’s held for the last four years running.

Oscar Prospects Gravity, Your Cinematography and Visual Effects Winner

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Oscar Prospects: Gravity, Your Cinematography and Visual Effects Winner
Oscar Prospects: Gravity, Your Cinematography and Visual Effects Winner

On September 12, when Mark Harris officially returned to Grantland to cover the Oscar race (he stepped aside last season due to the conflict of husband Tony Kushner’s Lincoln being in contention), he penned this dead-on and intentionally prickly piece, which took to task the festival-going, hastily-Tweeting types who hurried to declare 12 Years a Slave this year’s Best Picture winner. In true Harris style, the article used insider wisdom and everyman accessibility to comprehensively articulate the trouble with this particular behavior, and the folly of using “I’m first” tactics to simplify something that still has miles of nuanced ground to cover. It’s one thing to announce, with great certainty, one’s thoughts on a probable nominee, like the baity Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but it’s quite another to plant one’s feet so early, and firmly name a winner. 12 Years a Slave has a lot of promise, but it’s impossible to tell how it will fare amid the cavalcade of critics’ awards, additional precursors, shifting tastes, and campaign strengths, not to mention the mystery of whether or not Academy members will stomach the film’s violence enough to hand it their loftiest vote. That said, as another adored colleague, Nathaniel Rogers, recently acknowledged, Gravity simply isn’t walking away this year without statuettes for Cinematography and Visual Effects. Sorry, Mark, but this time, my feet are planted.

Box Office Rap Gravity and the Art-House Blockbuster

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Box Office Rap: Gravity and the Art-House Blockbuster
Box Office Rap: Gravity and the Art-House Blockbuster

When Contagion opened in IMAX theaters on September 9, 2011, only a handful of films had previously been offered in that large-scale presentation that weren’t either part of a franchise, an original film with hopes of becoming a franchise, a work based on another text, or a prominent remake a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. From 2002 to September 2011, a total of 77 wide release films made their way to IMAX screens. Of these, and excluding animated and concert films, only three films (Eagle Eye, Inception, and Sanctum) opened over that nine-year span that didn’t fit the above qualifications. Certainly, these anomalous entries can be explained by their potential box-office appeal, but only Inception had directorial (let’s say auteur) pedigree, which is where my interest lies. We shall call such films art-house blockbusters (AHB), in accordance with our established definition.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Ballot Tim Peters’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Tim Peters’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Tim Peters’s Top 10 Films of All Time

In the interest of iconoclasm, and of pointing one’s critical finger at great movies that were created, you know, sometime after the 1970s, what follows is an alphabetically-arranged list of what this reviewer thinks are world-historically worthwhile films produced after 1986, the year of his birth. The standards of judgment that these movies were able to so spectacularly and consistently surpass are the standards of a person who is, well, in his mid-20s, and who is agitated and restless and frequently lonesome. Those standards involve, more cinematically-speaking, the intensity of the movie; the intelligence of the movie; its willingness to admit that life is often disappointing, drab, and deceptive; and a preference for protagonists who are struggling to resist the rather deadening expectations of the society in which they’ve found themselves living. Given the quantity of critical cinematic verbiage that’s emanated forth on the Internet prior to, and in the wake of, the release of the 2012 Sight & Sound Top 10 list, this reviewer will say no more, but merely and humbly direct your attention to the list he’s provided.

Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

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Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Cinematography
Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

Cinephiles everywhere (well, at least the ones who waste time and wishes on the Academy Awards) have been conjuring up the spirits of Sven Nyqvist, John Alcott, Gregg Toland, and James Wong Howe in an attempt to see to an alarmingly overdue Emmanuel Lubezki finally win this category. One would think they wouldn’t need to resort to such desperate measures, since not only do The Tree of Life’s detractors have to admit the film at its worst still acts as the world’s greatest sizzle reel for Lubezki’s talents, but there’s scarcely a precursor award that hasn’t gone his way this year. But so what? Lubezki, now on his fifth Oscar nomination, had every reason in the world to collect in 2006 for Children of Men, but the disappointing, if not unpredictable, win for Guillermo Navarro’s work on Pan’s Labyrinth made a clear statement: Overall momentum is all that matters in the tech categories.

New York Film Festival 2010: My Joy

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>My Joy</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>My Joy</em>

And the prize for most ironic title at the New York Film Festival goes to…My Joy, a wrist-slittingly morose Ukraine/German/Dutch coproduction set in Russia. An art-house variation on the post-apocalyptic road movies that are so popular these days (The Road, The Book of Eli, Children of Men), this relentlessly pessimistic parable gave me a new appreciation for its mainstream cousins’ visual flair and narrative clarity. The city life Georgy (Viktor Nemets) leaves in order to deliver a truckload of flour to the boonies looks pretty bleak, but it’s a paradise compared to the predatory world he blunders into, where the scars inflicted by WWII are still raw and there’s barely a hint of kindness or love to be found. Georgy literally loses his way, then loses his innocence and all sense of hope as he is abused, misused, and left for dead by his glassy-eyed countrymen. Deliberately paced and full of weighty silences, the film lurches from scene to scene with the abrupt illogic of a nightmare. Dogs howl, goats bleat, sadistic traffic cops bludgeon citizens pulled over at random, and then it all repeats until we watch him plod from a pool of light into the murk of a deserted nighttime street, his figure eventually disappearing into darkness. In one of those coincidences that hit you when you watch a string of movies at a film festival, it’s the same device that closes Of Gods and Men, whose doomed monks’ fade into the white of a snowy hillside—and it feels equally heavyhanded in both films. By the time Georgy fades to black, I felt as hollowed out and stonyhearted as he looks.

The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.

You Gotta Be Kidding: Peet’s 25 Films of the Decade

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You Gotta Be Kidding: Peet’s 25 Films of the Decade
You Gotta Be Kidding: Peet’s 25 Films of the Decade

[Editor’s Note: This article is cross-published at Directorama.]

People who know me realize I’m not much of a list-maker. My peculiar taste is suspiciously mood-specific and based on private obsessions that are ever-evolving (just like everyone else’s, for that matter), so numbering favorites is about as pointless to me as, say, a Stephen Sommers remake of Howard the Duck to mankind. Then again… what is life but a string of silly exercises?

I started making this list just to see if I could. I do not claim to have seen every worthwhile film this decade. I do not claim to have the authority to tell you what you should like. I do not believe in objective valuation and it doesn’t think highly of me either. But I might be the guy to convince you to see something you may have dismissed or overlooked. In any case, beware of superlatives.

Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Editing

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Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Editing
Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Editing

Three days ago, Oscar sluts across the Internet let out a collective groan when the American Cinema Editors gave one of their Best Edited Feature prizes to Thelma Schoonmaker (The Departed) and Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise (Babel). Because Oscar history tells us that the winner of this award aligns often with the winner of the top prize, we were hoping for ACE to shed some light on what may be the tightest Best Picture race ever. Now we’re left to pick a name out of a hat just like everyone else. We were ready to predict this one for United 93, simply because it’s easy to see why people would confuse the heart-skipping unease Paul Greengrass’s dubious creation rouses through its exploitation of our collective consciousness for something that was made in the editing room, but ACE’s recent decision has made us want to turn elsewhere. We still think United 93 could win, but Oscar also has a history of honoring pictures that weave more intricate Altmanesque tapestries of human misery. This should be to the advantage of The Departed, the best edited film in this category, except Schoonmaker is not in the business of cutting between a child masturbating and a gun being fired into the air—the sort of gassy hackwork that more explicitly begs for (and often gets) this award. Given the monstrosity that won last year and the lengths Babel goes to in order to make something out of nothing, we’ll give the Mirrione-Crise team the edge.

Will Win: Babel

Should Win: The Departed

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

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Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Cinematography
Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

It would seem that this year’s cinematography nominees were picked by aliens—certainly not by the same people who voted for Memoirs of a Geisha last year (no offense to Dion Beebe, who surely deserved a nomination this year): not a single Best Picture nominee in the lot, and all mostly uncompromised examples of purposeful cinematographic beauty. Without nominations from the American Society of Cinematographers, Pan’s Labyrinth appears to be out of the running. Ditto The Prestige, which has been hounded for most of the Oscar season by the year’s other magician movie, The Illusionist, whose score (by Philip Glass) and cinematography (by Dick Pope) has caught the attention of several critics groups in the past few months. As for the film’s chances, Oscar history tells us that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, way back in 1950, was the last film to win this award without being nominated in any other category. Sucks for Pope and the great Vilmos Zsigmond, whose nomination for The Black Dahlia was Oscar’s most pleasant surprise this year. That leaves Emmanuel Lubezki, who appears to have garnered more favor for his phantasmagoric contributions to Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men than he did last year for Terrence Malick’s The New World. No one in this category deserves this award more, something Salma Hayek is sure to make known should she be asked to read the name of the winner.

Will Win: Children of Men

Should Win: Children of Men

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.