Tag Archives: 12 Years a Slave

Top 10 films of 2013!

This is probably the best year for cinema in the three years I’ve been doing best and worst lists. Of the 131 films I watched, most were in the middle of the pack, but there were also an incredible 18 that I rated above 4 stars (not including 4-star films) and 12 that I rated 4.5 stars, making it very difficult for compile this list. Fortunately, there was only one 5-star film, so the top spot was never in doubt.

Here we go. 2013. 131 movies. The 10 best. In my humble opinion.

Missing the cut: Films that came very close and might have made my best-of list in most other years — World War Z (best zombie movie in years), The Conjuring (best horror of the year), Iron Man 3 (best action blockbuster of the year), Philomena (one of the most heartfelt true story of the year), Captain Phillips (one of the most thrilling true story of the year), Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen’s best in years), Blackfish (superb documentary), Nebraska (most surprisingly awesome movie of the year)

As per usual, click on the film titles for my full reviews.

 10. American Hustle

We did pretty well, didn't we?
Woo hoo! We made the top 10!

A superb “true story” script, razor sharp dialogue, skillful direction from a director in his prime (David O’Russell), sensational performances from a cast full of my favourite actors (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner) and just a whole lot of fun. For many critics, this was the best all-round film of the year. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but American Hustle was an absolute delight, with an energy and vibrancy few other films of any year can match. The other films ranked ahead of it on this list affected me a little more emotionally or otherwise, but I can’t deny that this was a high a top-notch production deserving of all its accolades.

9. The Place Beyond the Pines

Hey girl
Hey girl

This was a really unconventional film that put me off guard with its unusual structure, but I ended up loving every minute of it. I predicted in my original review that it would make my top 10 list and it has made the cut despite there being many other more highly touted films. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are both electric in this ambitious epic drama that drew me in and refused to let go. I was blown away by its raw emotional power and its shocking ending. Definitely one of the most memorable films of the year.

8. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Time to go full retard
Time to go full retard

This Ben Stiller project was released to mixed reviews, though in my opinion it’s one of the most magical film experiences of the year. If you’re a dreamer with ambitions of grandeur then this is a film that will appeal to your sensibilities. It might be overambitious and overlong, but there’s something about Walter Mitty’s story that shot straight to my heart. And besides, it’s genuinely funny, with some moments of comedic brilliance sprinkled throughout. I was caught up in his magical world and didn’t want to leave.

7. Blue is the Warmest Color

Blue-Is-The-Warmest-Color-2
Hey girl, part 2

French film (ie subtitles), comic adaptation, lesbian theme, controversial sex scenes. I was sceptical when I watched Blue is the Warmest Color, believing I would come away underwhelmed despite the positive reviews. I ended up feeling like I had my heart torn out of me. Fueled by two of the most amazing performances of the year from Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, this is possibly the best romance I’ve seen on depicted on the big screen. It’s raw, it’s realistic, it’s heartbreaking. This is a coming-of-age story anyone — irrespective of your sexuality — can relate to and fall in love with.

6. Before Midnight

Still lookin' good, 18 years later
Still lookin’ good, 18 years later

I loved Before Sunrise. I loved Before Sunset even more. And so I probably had unrealistic expectations for Before Midnight, the finale in Richard Linklater’s magnificent trilogy. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, wrinkles and all, deliver the least romantic but most grounded experience in the series, with moments of hilarity interspersed with gut-wrenching drama. It’s an absolute delight that will make you question the essence of true love and the perfect ending to one of the greatest film trilogies of all time. You don’t need to have watched the other two to enjoy it, but if you have then you can’t afford to miss out on this gem.

5. 12 Years a Slave

Haven't you seen Shame? It's bigger than that!
Haven’t you seen Shame? It’s bigger than that!

The year’s most difficult film to watch, but also undeniably one of its best. Powered by what should have been an Oscar-winning performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (damn you, Matthew McConaughey) and the sublime, understated direction of Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is confronting, violent and emotionally draining — but it’s also a movie experience that leaves its impression on you like no other. Combining beautiful images and the ugliest side of humanity, this is a rare motion picture experience that beats you down and lifts you up all at once.

4. Her

I'm not crazy
I’m not crazy

Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romance about the relationship between a man and a computer might be the smartest movie of the year. Not many films can be described as clever, eerie, romantic, heartbreaking and poignant, but that’s exactly how I would label Her, a modern day masterpiece where all the pieces come together in a neat little package. From Joaquin Phoenix’s pained protagonist and Scarlett Johansson’s perfect voice performance as the operating system of his dreams, to the realistic future vision of our electronics obsessed society, Her just works on so many levels. The best type of sci-fi is that which tells a compelling story of its own while also providing reflections on the life we live today. Her does that in such a moving way that it’ll be blasphemous for me to leave it off this list.

3. Rush

I'll race you for it
I’ll race you for it

This will probably be the biggest surprise of the entire list. While most would agree that Rush is a superior drama, I’m not sure many would call it the third best film of the year. But hey, I’m probably as stunned as you are. For someone who knows nothing of and cares little for car racing, Formula One and all that crap, I never expected Rush to provide one of the most engaging, thrilling film experiences of the year. Featuring two outrageously effective performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, the usual brilliance of director Ron Howard, and one heck of a riveting true story that even the best fiction writers would have trouble coming up with, Rush completely annihilated all expectations I had, and for that it nabs a spot in my top 3.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

I'm the king of the world!
I’m the king of the world!

This “true” story polarized viewers with the excess it portrayed on the big screen, but for me, The Wolf of Wall Street is simply the funniest movie of the year. I love black comedies like Fargo, Pulp Fiction and American Psycho, all of which are some of my favourite movies of all time, and now this Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration will join them on my non-existent mantelpiece dedicated to dark humour. Say what you want about the inappropriate and immoral gags, sex, drugs and the record number of “F-bombs”, but if you ask me there’s no harder task than finding a film from last year that had sharper dialogue, funnier characters and more classic scenes of comedy gold. It’s a carefully planned and executed mess, one that’s too long at 3 hours but feels like it’s not long enough. While it might be far from perfect, there’s only one film I liked more than The Wolf of Wall Street last year.

1. Gravity

Why are we in such an awesome movie?
Why are we in such an awesome movie?

I’ve realized that I don’t give out five stars very often anymore, having doled out the perfect score exactly twice in the last two years out of around 240 movies. And so it follows that it takes a special film to achieve that honour. It takes a film that doesn’t just tick the right technical boxes on paper and/or appeal to my mind and my heart, but also has that extra something to elevate it to a different level. In my view, there’s only one film in 2013 that does that, and that film is Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi masterpiece, Gravity. This is a unique motion picture that creates new ground in terms of special effects and ventures into unchartered territory with its risky storytelling. Kudos to Cuaron for sticking to his guns in the face of pressure from studios to change his approach because everything paid off in the end, resulting in a very different, explosive, memorable and thought-provoking experience that’s unparalleled in 2013.

2014 Oscar Predictions: Who Should Win and Who Will

the-oscars-logo

With just a handful of days before the 86th Academy Awards, and having just completed my sweep of the Best Picture nominees, it’s time for my annual Oscar predictions!

This has been a fantastic year in cinema — much better than the lackluster year before — with some very deserving nominees that could have crushed last year’s field. Again, true stories have paved the way, with six of the nine Best Picture nominees all supposedly based on or inspired by real events. And to make things more exciting, it’s quite an open field this year, with several intriguing possibilities in all the major categories.

So, without further ado, these are my picks.

Best Picture: (click on the film for my review)

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wold of Wall Street

Comments: An impressive field this year where I awarded at least 4.5 stars to six of the nine films and at least four stars to all but one. There is no clear cut favourite, with early frontrunner  American Hustle seemingly falling behind Golden Globe winner 12 Years a Slave. The critically acclaimed Gravity also lurks, though at the moment it appears the Best Picture award is down to a two-horse race. I love a bit of suspense.

Prediction: 12 Years a Slave — ticks the right boxes for a Best Picture winner and it appears there’s too much momentum to slow it down now.
Dark horse: American Hustle — the early favourite could have grabbed enough votes before voting closed.
Should win: Gravity — a transcendent movie experience that will become the most memorable film of the lot years down the track.

BestPictureOscars2014

Best Actor

Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Comments: A real open race this year, with the buzz surrounding Chiwetel Ejiofor’s amazing performance in 12 Years a Slave pushing him slightly ahead at this stage. But losing weight for a role is always a winner’s signpost, and Matthew McConaughey sure lost a lot of weight for Dallas Buyers Club, so he could certainly also take home the award. Bruce Dern, as the oldie, is the sentimental favourite as the insufferable father in Nebraska, while Leo and Batman (no, not Ben Affleck) are also still in it with a chance. Anyone could win this one.

Prediction: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Dark horse: Matthew McConaughey
Should win: Chiwetel Ejiofor — in a year of sensational performances, I simply have to go with the one I believe is the best of the lot, by a hair or two. I do think Leo’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street would have been deserving in almost any other year, and I was genuinely moved and impressed by Bruce Dern in Nebraska. I’d be happy if any of those three won it.

chiewtel

Best Actress:

Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Comments: What a crazy field this year, with all former winners except for Amy Adams, who is no slouch with five career nominations. The only one I haven’t seen out of the five is Meryl in August: Osage County (I intend to see it soon), but we pretty much know by now what we’re going to get with her every time. Another open race, with the award reportedly being “Cate Blanchett’s to lose” until the resurfacing of the Woody Allen scandal took the shine off her recent wins at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs. Right now I’d say it’s a two-horse race between Blanchett and Adams; a three-horse race if you consider the fact that you can never count out Meryl.

Prediction: Amy Adams — I’m going for the upset! Seriously, it’s a toss up between Adams and Blanchett, but I think the Woody Allen thing plus Amy being the only winless nominee could finally get her over the line this time. If we’re talking about the best performance it’ll probably be Meryl every time, but these awards are so political that it’s hard to predict what will happen.
Dark horse: Cate Blanchett — really the favourite as opposed to the dark horse.
Should win: Cate Blanchett

amy-adams-american-hustle-43

Best Supporting Actor:

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Comments: The hardest to pick of the lot, in my opinion, and I’ve seen all of the films! Newcomer Barkhad Abdi has the surprise element going for him but it’s hard to imagine voters picking him over his more famous counterparts. The only guy I can’t see winning is Jonah Hill, because let’s face it, the world as we know it would end if Jonah Hill becomes an Oscar winner. On the other hand, Cooper and Fassbender’s statuses as sex symbols could also cost them with voters, so I’m inclined to go with…

Prediction: Jared Leto — historically speaking, people who undergo dramatic physical transformations have a good chance of winning. Nicole Kidman (nose) in The Hours, Halle Berry (plain) in Monster’s Ball, Charlize Theron (fat and uglified) in Monster are just some examples, but they were all Best Actress winners. I’m pretty much picking Leto, who plays a transsexual AIDS sufferer, by default, however, as I can find potential reasons for not choosing the other guys.
Dark horse: Barkhad Abdi — he’s pretty much the Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) this year, a feel good story about a guy with no acting experience. If voters can’t decide among the other nominees he could come out ahead.
Should win: Michael Fassbender — tough choice but I thought he was incredible in such a difficult role in 12 Years a Slave.

jared leto

Best Supporting Actress:

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

Comments: Another relatively open field with the tortured Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave regarded as the slight favourite ahead of Jennifer Lawrence. But I think Sally Hawkins was fantastic in Blue Jasmine and I fell in love with June Squibb after seeing Nebraska, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a foregone conclusion that it’s a two-horse race.

Prediction: Lupita Nyong’o — I’d say Jennifer Lawrence would have won it had she not already picked up Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook.
Dark horse: Jennifer Lawrence — but everyone loves her so much that she might just win it anyway.
Should win: June Squibb — she stole every scene she was in in Nebraska and delivered the biggest laughs in one of the funniest films of the year.

lupita-12-years-a-slave

Best Director:

David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
Steve McQueen (Steve McQueen)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Comments: A toss up between Steve McQueen, who could become the first ever black director to win the award, and Alfonso Cuarón, whose incredible vision gave us the masterpiece Gravity.

Prediction: Steve McQueen — remember the year when Denzel didn’t deserve it but won for Training Day anyway because it was all about the first black winner for Best Actor? I have a feeling history is about to repeat itself, except McQueen actually deserves it.
Dark horse: Alfonso Cuarón — it’s hard to imagine a film as great as Gravity not getting anything other than the technical awards.
Should win: Alfonso Cuarón — I know I said McQueen deserves to win, but in my opinion Cuarón deserves it more for sticking to his guns despite pressure from producers and delivering one of the most amazing movie experiences of the last decade. Those trademark long, seemingly uncut sequences throughout the film were magical.

Best Original Screenplay:

American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack)
Her (Spike Jonze)
Nebraska (Bob Nelson)

Comments: A no-brainer that the winner should be the incredible Her, which would have probably been a piece of crap but for the script by Spike Jonze. Don’t get me wrong, all the original screenplays are great, but Her is just on another level.

Prediction: Spike Jonze (Her) — it’s his to lose.
Dark horse: Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine) — maybe some people out there still like Woody.
Should win: Spike Jonze (Her)

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)
Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)
Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope)
12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter)

Comments: Another difficult choice to make, but it’s hard to see voters passing on the wonderful adaptation of the book of the same name by John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave. Usually the screenplay and Best Picture go hand in hand, so it’s hard to see this one going to anyone else.

Prediction: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Dark horse: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) — everyone loves these guys.
Should win: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) — after three brilliant films, I think some recognition should go to Linklater, Delpy and Hawke. After all, the trilogy is mainly all talking, and yet after nearly 300 minutes of it we still can’t get enough of these brutally honest and lovable characters.

OK, so that takes care of the major categories. As for the rest of the nominees, I will just list them and highlight the predicted winner in bold, then add my thoughts on the category.

Visual EffectsGravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness
Comments: As impressive as the effects were in all the nominees, this one is a no brainer and a near lock.

Animated FeatureThe Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest and Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises
Comments: I’ve only seen Frozen and Despicable Me 2 out of this list, but it seems to me like a pretty weak field this year.

Animated ShortFeral, Get a Horse, Mr Hublot, Possessions, Room on the Broom
Comments: No idea, so I went with the best title.

Documentary FeatureThe Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, The Square, 20 Feet From Stardom
Comments: I intend to see some of these eventually, but for now I’m going with the one that’s getting a lot of hype.

Documentary ShortCaveDigger, Facing Fear, Karama Has No Walls, The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
Comments: No idea, but the ones with the really long names annoy me.

Foreign Language FilmThe Broken Circle Breakdown, The Great Beauty, The Hunt, The Missing Picture, Omar
Comments: Haven’t seen any of these yet, but The Huntwith the awesome Mads Mikkelsen, is apparently extremely good.

Live Action ShortAquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me), Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything), Helium, Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?), The Voorman Problem
Comments: Why do short films have to have such bloody long names?

CinematographyThe Grandmaster, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Prisoners
Comments: I expect Gravity to sweep most of the minor awards it’s nominated for, though the cinematography in both The Grandmaster and Nebraska were excellent.

Costume DesignAmerican Hustle, The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman, 12 Years a Slave
Comments: The Great Gatsby was considered a relative disappointment overall, but its glitzy costumes should get some consolation.

Makeup and HairstylingDallas Buyers Club, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Lone Ranger
Comments: Considering the other nominees, I’d say this one’s a lock.

Original ScoreThe Book Thief, Gravity, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr Banks
Comments: I’d like to say Gravity or Her, but considering how important the music was in Saving Mr Banks (which I watched last night), I think it’ll take home the gong.

Original SongHappy (Despicable Me 2), Let It Go (Frozen), The Moon Song (Her), Ordinary Love (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
Comments: I think Let It Go is the best song of the lot, but the U2 factor and the Mandela factor will make Ordinary Love hard to beat.

Production DesignAmerican Hustle, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Her, 12 Years a Slave
Comments: A bit of a stab in the dark here, but as American Hustle isn’t getting a whole lotta love I think it has to take home something, though having said that, the production design was pretty good.

EditingAmerican Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave
Comments: Hard one to pick, but let’s face it, the editing in Gravity was amazing. Captain Phillips could be a dark horse.

Sound Editing: All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Lone Survivor
Comments: Again I’m going with the brilliant Gravity with Captain Phillips being the dark horse.

Sound MixingCaptain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lone Survivor
Comments: Ditto as per above.

I’ll be checking back to see how many I get right on Oscar night!

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12YAS-Poster-Art

Of all the 2013 films I have watched and will watch, I doubt there is one that will leave a greater lasting impression than 12 Years a Slave, the remarkable, and apparently very accurate true story of a free black man kidnapped into slavery (no prizes for guessing how long). It’s one of the most brutal and uncomfortable movies I’ve ever had to sit through, but thanks to the brilliant direction of Steve McQueen (Shame), I don’t feel as though I’ve been manipulated at all. 12 Years a Slave is simply an unflinchingly honest, harrowing, raw and emotional motion picture about one of the darkest eras of American history — and it’s interesting that it took a British director to make a defining film about it.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man during the 1840s making a living as a musician with his wife and two children. Following a horrible stroke of misfortune he ends up being renamed to Platt and is shipped off to New Orleans where he sold by a slave trader to a plantation owner. There is a lot more to the story, but I will just keep it at that to prevent divulging any potential spoilers.

This is a confronting film, a grotesquely violent film; a film that tears at your heart. The excellent adapted screenplay by John Ridley (Three Kings) does not hold back in showing us what slavery was like back in those days, and neither does the direction of McQueen. The cruelty, the frightening beatings, the habitual physical and mental abuse, and the helplessness and depression — it’s all inescapably there. And according to scholars and experts who have seen the film, it is the most accurate on-screen depiction of slavery they’ve ever seen.

The thing that impressed me most about 12 Years a Slave, however, is how McQueen just tells Northup’s story the way it is. This is not some Hollywood story of triumph or some warm fluff touting the beauty of the human spirit. It’s just a man who loses everything trying to survive under extremely trying circumstances. It could have been so easy for this film to spiral into an exploitative, manipulative, melodramatic mess, but the approach is subtle yet direct, presenting audiences the story as is, and giving us the room to interpret the hints and emotions for ourselves. I felt the injustice and outrage as designed by McQueen, but I didn’t feel like any of it was being shoved in my face, even when I was watching the torture taking place right in front of me. That’s what I call masterful filmmaking.

Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves an Oscar for the defining performance of his career as the stoic Northup. It’s such a difficult role, not just because of the physical aspects of it, but because of the layers required to play an educated man pretending to be an uneducated slave. He is no saint. He didn’t care about the plight of the slaves before he became one, and once he did, he did what he could to survive, putting himself first as most people would. Ejiofor’s ability to capture every side of his character is what allows us to feel his fear, his desperation, his pain. And it’s not like he’s running around gunning people down like Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained or giving out motivational speeches like Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln — everything we get from the character comes from Ejiofor’s understated expressions, the restraint in his voice, the sorrow in his eyes.

The supporting cast features a list of well known names, from Paul Giamatti as a slave trader to Paul Dano’s racist carpenter and Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender (third collaboration with McQueen after Hunger and Shame) as Northup’s two very different masters. Fassbender, in particular, steals the show somewhat as a religious nut and the primary antagonist in the film, though Cumberbatch’s more reserved performance as a fairly decent but complicated man provides a nice contrast while also reminding us that not all slave owners were sadistic.

I thought the appearance of Brad Pitt towards the end of the film was a little jarring, but apart from that I though they all made their characters three-dimensional and memorable in their own way. However, the lesser-known supporting cast also deserve a lot of praise, in particular Lupita Nyong’o, which has been nominated for best supporting actress as a tormented slave lusted after by Fassbender, and American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s icy psycho wife.

There are other aspects of the film which I usually don’t talk about but feel like I should point out here. I really liked the visual style McQueen employed for the movie, with a gritty documentary-esque look and a colour scheme that accentuated the realism and brought out the heat down in New Orleans. The music score by Hans Zimmer was also fitting for the period and helped add another dimension to the on screen drama.

12 Years a Slave is not easy viewing, nor is it intended to be. But it is a rare motion picture, the kind that doesn’t come around very often, where the story is compelling and the direction, script and acting are all top notch. And when all is said and done, it could end up being the movie that resonates more than any other released in 2013. Having said all that, it’s hard to give 5 stars to a film that’s almost impossible to enjoy.

4.5 stars out of 5.

PS: 12 Years a Slave is not without critics. There are some who say the film was made just to make white people feel bad about what happened. There are others who criticised the decision to focus on an educated man, someone who wasn’t a real slave, rather than one of the millions born into slavery and never knew any better, just so audiences can connect with the protagonist. None of these are valid criticisms. First of all, everyone, regardless of who you are, should feel bad watching human beings abusing other human beings. Secondly, no one makes a movie just to make people feel bad about themselves. Thirdly, why not pick a protagonist who can connect with audiences? This is a great story, a true story that deserves to be told — why shouldn’t it be?