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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.

Those Were the Days: The 15th Annual Ebertfest

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Those Were the Days: The 15th Annual Ebertfest
Those Were the Days: The 15th Annual Ebertfest

You couldn’t help but wonder if this year’s Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois, near the campus of the University of Illinois, was going to be the last. My first Ebertfest was in 2005, the final year in which Roger Ebert got on stage, introduced the films, and discussed them afterward, the sound of his voice so booming and distinctive it reached all the way to the balcony of the old-timey Virginia Theatre toward audiences who couldn’t quite see the man. Since 2006 and Ebert’s throat surgery, his presence at the festival became increasingly less pronounced, but you still knew, even if only in the abstract, that you were watching movies the famed critic had chosen and reviewed.

So how can you continue to put on a critic’s handpicked film festival when that critic’s hand has ceased to pick out the wheat from the chaff? For the time being at least, Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, said on Wednesday night, while introducing Days of Heaven, that before he passed away, Roger wrote up a list for her with movies for next year’s festival, if not for a few more into the future. Moreover, with her announcement of the new Ebertfest app, the redesign of rogerebert.com, the new media company she and Roger developed (Ebert Digital), and the new Roger Ebert film studies program (depending on how much money can be raised) for University of Illinois, it felt like Ebertfest will have the momentum to be powered through the next couple of years, if not all the way to its 20th anniversary and beyond.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: To the Wonder and Something in the Air

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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>To the Wonder</em> and <em>Something in the Air</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>To the Wonder</em> and <em>Something in the Air</em>

At first blush, a 16-month gap between new Terrence Malick films is an incredibly small amount of time. After all, here’s a man who’s up to now managed to produced, on average, about one film per decade, if that. However, upon actually seeing his latest work, To the Wonder, that gap feels, if anything, just right. Malick’s lavishly acclaimed 2011 effort, The Tree of Life, represented the apotheosis of a style that he had spent the better part of three decades refining, ultimately arriving with a work of unparalleled ambition and scope. In many ways, it’s the supreme representation of the Malick aesthetic, presented fully formed and without shame. It was his first clearly autobiographical film, and in both look, tone, and thematics, To the Wonder is noticeably similar, an almost seamlessly updated account of marital discord from The Tree of Life’s 1950s suburban milieu to an undefined late-century countryside landscape. Appropriate, as To the Wonder, in nearly every respect, plays like an intimate companion piece to its successor’s cosmic wonderment.

Venice Film Festival 2012: To the Wonder

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Venice Film Festival 2012: <em>To the Wonder</em>
Venice Film Festival 2012: <em>To the Wonder</em>

Can Terrence Malick’s dream-like film grammar resonate when set in the modern world? The contemporary scenes from the otherwise mesmerizing Tree of Life, featuring a pensive Sean Penn stumbling listlessly through a soulless corporate expanse, suggested not. It’s as if the enigmatic Texan’s cinema needs a light dusting of nostalgia to make it palatable, like toast needs butter. And sections of his new film, the present day-set To the Wonder, add credence to this theory.

An alternative name for the film could have been Scenes from a Marriage, if Malick’s increasingly radical narrative style traded in scenes. We follow shards of a rocky relationship with visuals taking the form of a lucid collage of askance glances and expressionistic camera twirls. Dialogue is used sparingly, replaced by ethereal voices whispered over a haunting orchestral soundtrack. Raven-haired free-spirit Marina (Olga Kurylenko) frolics on a train and around scenic French landmarks with her new American beau, Neil, who’s lantern jawed, taciturn, and, distractingly, played by Ben Affleck. Initially it’s bracing to see Malick’s images in a new context. Early vignettes on a Normandy beach that turns gelatinous when trod on and a honey lit stroll by the banks of the Seine, where the couple are joined by Marina’s 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), feel box fresh. Things get a little familiar, however, when Neil asks Marina and Tatiana to follow him across the Atlantic to his Midwest homestead.

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.

The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I
The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

“Think of a tree, how it grows round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching toward the light.”

Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s next film, due soon in theaters, is called The Tree of Life, and coincidentally or not it is set up by the final shot of Malick’s previous film, The New World. In both the theatrical and extended cuts of that 2005 film, Malick closes with a shot at the base of a tree: gazing up the side of its mighty trunk as it stretches heavenward. It’s a quintessentially Malickian shot, both in terms of the camera’s intimacy to its subject and in the way that it presents nature with a spiritual awe, as if the tree’s branches are the flying buttresses of a grand cathedral. But the reason I mention that shot is so I can begin this discussion by acknowledging its roots. We’ve been regular contributors to The House Next Door for almost two-and-a-half years now, and, as loyal House readers know, Terrence Malick’s The New World is the seed from which this blog sprouted. What began in Janurary 2006 as Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to find enough cyber real estate in which to freely explore his passion for The New World—a rather Malickian quest, if you think about it—became something much bigger, until now here we are: writing about the filmmaker without whom this blog and thus this series might not exist.

I make that acknowledgement en route to this one: By the very nature of its origins, The House Next Door has always been something of an unofficial Terrence Malick fan club—nay, house of worship. Many of us first gathered at this site because of this subject matter. (Any immediate kinship many of us felt with Matt was inspired by a shared religious experience with The New World, not to mention the holy awakening of seeing serious criticism posted to the Web by amateur means.) I make this observation in the interest of full disclosure—less an acknowledgement of the House’s origins, which so many of its readers know already, than an indication of my awareness of it—in the hopes that by doing so I can convince the Malick nonbelievers that they are welcome here. Because, see, Malick is one of those filmmakers who seems to inspire two reactions: genuflecting reverence and head-scratching ennui. Is there room between the two? Or are total immersion and deference to Malick’s filmmaking elemental to its effect? In Part I of this discussion, we will look at Malick’s first four films, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (the theatrical cut), and what I hope we begin to uncover is why Malick’s filmmaking inspires such divergent reactions.

I am, admittedly, a singer in Malick’s choir. His films don’t move me equally, but when they do move me I’m profoundly affected. You come into this conversation having just watched most of Malick’s films for the first time. So let me ask a question that will cause the Malick agnostics to roll their eyes and the Malick believers to raise their hands to the sky like Pocahontas in The New World: Did Malick’s filmmaking inspire you with a unique sense of awe, or do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, or something else?

The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow
The Conversations: Overlooked, Part One—Undertow

Jason Bellamy: For our third installment of “The Conversations,” we decided to each select a film from the past 10 years that we thought was unfortunately overlooked and/or unfairly maligned. Serendipitously, we selected films that the other person had yet to see. You elected to champion 2004’s Undertow. I selected 2002’s Solaris. These films have few similarities, and so there will be no attempt to connect them beyond our feeling that they are deserving of increased discussion and praise.

Thus, we begin with Undertow. Prior to seeing this film, I knew exactly four things about it: 1) Its director is David Gordon Green; 2) Its star is Jamie Bell (or as I usually call him, “The kid from Billy Elliot”); 3) It’s set in the South; 4) Roger Ebert loved, loved, loved it. That’s it, and that’s all. I vaguely remember the film coming out and being interested in it. Yet somehow I never got to it until now.

If Undertow was maligned (I’ve avoided checking Metacritic to this point), I don’t remember that. Overlooked seems right. Mention of Green usually inspires reference to Undertow predecessors George Washington and All the Real Girls. I’m sure you and Ebert aren’t Undertow’s only fans, but I can’t say I remember anyone else so much as mentioning it.

The Poet As Hired Gun: Ennio Morricone

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The Poet As Hired Gun: Ennio Morricone
The Poet As Hired Gun: Ennio Morricone

I wonder whether Ennio Morricone would be accepting an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards Feb. 25 had he not been primary-school classmates with one Sergio Leone.

Morricone likes to remind interviewers that Leone’s spaghetti westerns represent just a sliver of his output (examples of which will be screened February 2-22 at New York’s Film Forum). He’s produced hundreds of scores, including five that have been nominated for Oscars: Days of Heaven, The Mission, The Untouchables, Bugsy and Malena. But his groundbreaking contribution to that trilogy that began 43 years ago is what caught the film world’s imagination and led to a high-profile career. And the truth is that Morricone’s work since then, the quality work of an established artist, has rarely equaled the inventiveness of the early stuff.