Category: 2010’s


Best of Year 4

Now that I’ve gotten my unplanned mini-essay out of the way on what the last four years of this blog have meant, I want to do the thing that I always do on the anniversary of my blog (though I’m almost a week late this year) which is lay out my superlatives for the whole year. This whole spiel was more meaningful when I watched more films each year, but it’s okay. I watched a lot of really great movies in the last 365 days, and I’m looking forward to sharing my favorites with you all. As usual for my most recent superlative lists, I’ll link to a review/podcast if that exists. Otherwise, I’ll include a short spiel about why that piece made my list. Anyways, let’s head to the races.

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Four Years

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The above photograph is from June of 2011, and it’s a picture of me and my sister at our dad’s place back home in Philippi. I was 22 — I know; it’s hard to believe I’m not a 12 year old in that picture — and my sister was a couple months shy of her first semester of college. This blog was only 3 months old. A lot has happened since then, and I’ll get into all of the opportunities this blog has afforded me in due course, but the biggest change to my life since that photograph was taken is that I can call myself — devoid of any hint of irony or self-effacing humor — a professional writer. This blog saved my life, and I owe the world to any readers who have supported my work over these years. You all have kept me going, and that’s not an exaggeration.

I started this blog on February 7th of 2011. That was the spring semester of what should have been my senior and final year of college at West Virginia University. But I’d spent the two semesters prior to that wandering through a depressed haze. And I don’t mean I was simply sad. I was suffering from depression. I had devolved from being one of the top students in the political science department at WVU — I’d won a major departmental scholarship my freshman year that students at every year level could compete for — to a lost young man quickly entering his mid-20s with no anchor tying his world together.

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Best of Movies: 501-550

And it’s that time of the year again where I give out my awards for various superlatives in the films that I’ve watched over the course of the last six months. We’ll also be doing one of these soon again for the best films of Year 4 of Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safar which is honestly just sort of mind-blowing to think about but that’s a post for the beginning of next month. As with any of those posts since my reviewing slowed down, if the film has a review (or was discussed on the podcast), I’ll link to it the first time the film pops up on one of these lists. Otherwise, I’ll write a short 2-3 sentence post about why it deserves to be here. I hope you enjoy and find some films worth checking out!

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And with my review of Blue, I’ve completed another 50 film circuit for this blog. This time, it took me way longer than it ever has before but that’s cause I got my first steady, paid professional writing gig, and there have been multiple weeks where I’ve essentially worked two full-time jobs at once. It can be exhausting but I’m also so happy to be getting paid a decent wage for my work. It feels really great. I’ve missed my goal (again) of reviewing all of the “A” and “A+” films that I watched for this 50 film block but before I put up my 50 film superlatives tonight, I wanted to give everybody a low down on the scores that I gave to each film that I watched. And, then, of course, stay tuned for my best of lists. (As always, links will be provided for the films I actually reviewed or a link to the podcast where we discussed said film if there’s a podcast conversation but no review)

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One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.

It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.

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(A quick aside before I begin my review. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My Funny Games review from August to be exact. It’s been a busy Fall for me. I finally have a final draft version of my long gestating film noir screenplay that’s consumed me for much of this semester. I also got hired to be the interim managing editor for a month for the music journalism site that I write for on occasion, and I also more recently got hired to do freelance reviews by GameSpot, one of the internet’s biggest video game journalism websites. That said, it’s my goal to do these reviews for my “A” and “A+” films with more consistency cause I like to keep this particular writing muscle fresh.)

Civil libertarians (that are not the same thing as the Rand-ian variety) will tell you that if there’s a societal demand and there isn’t a net negative utility to the supply of this demand, then there should be no governmental impediment to its delivery. Generally, I’m inclined to agree with that world view. But, as with all axiomatic principles, that involves accepting some rather ugly consequences of that philosophy. We want to get high, but addiction flourishes. We want freedom of artistic expression, but crude and vapid reality television rules the airways. We want unfiltered access to “news” and the stunning Nightcrawler examines how low we’ll sink to get it.

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Best of Movies: 451-500

This is going to be different than many of my Best Of lists simply because I won’t have an actual review to link to. So, instead, I’ll write very short 2-3 sentence blurbs about any film/performance/director that I don’t have any actual review of so you can understand my logic for picking them. If you want to see the scores for the various films that I watched during this 50 block (and want an explanation for why so many movies I don’t have reviews), check out this link which is about my hiatus and all the films I’ve watched in the meantime. Anyways, let’s talk about movies!

Best Picture – Drama:

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1. 12 Years a Slave

2. La Dolce Vita (A masterful and melancholic look into the hedonistic and empty lifestyles of the Roman jet-setters in the 1960s. Another all-time classic from one of cinema’s greatest, Federico Fellini.)

3. Memento

4. Boys Don’t Cry (A heartwrenching treatise on that most basic human yearning for more than the small, trapped world you know and the cruelty of those who refuse to accept that which they don’t understand)

5. Serpico

 

Best Picture – Comedy:

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1. After Hours (One of the all time great dark comedies and a perfect encapsulation of the ennui and angst of the 80s and Reagan’s America told through a series of Kafka-esque misadventures.

2. Chasing Amy (One of my three favorite films of all time. One of the most honest and clever depictions of modern sexuality and the 90s answer to Annie Hall, if not quite as great as the greatest American comedy of all time)

3. The Wolf of Wall Street

4. Fantastic Mr. Fox

5. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the best feature from Britain’s premiere pranksters. A master class in absurdism and high-brow humor. There’s more classic sketches in that film than can honestly be believed)

 

Best Director:

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1. Steve McQueen: 12 Years a Slave

2. Federico Fellini: La Dolce Vita

3. Sidney Lumet: Serpico

4. Paolo Sorrentino: The Great Beauty (One of the most visually stunning films since The Tree of Life and easily a modern response to La Dolce Vita. Sorrentino’s instant classic is an entrancing portrait of modern existential angst and a love letter to Rome)

5. Martin Scorsese: The Wolf of Wall Street

 

Best Actor in a Dramatic Role:

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1. Harvey Keitel: Bad Lieutenant (Simply put, this was one of the most fearless, balls-to-the-wall gonzo performances in movie history. If you want to see a man on the edge of oblivion, Harvey Keitel is phenomenal in this cult classic.)

2. Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler (Sean Penn was also spectacular in Milk in 2008, but the Oscar should have been Mickey Rourke for his bone-weary and tragic performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. His performance is so real, it hurts to watch.)

3. Al Pacino: Serpico

4. Chiwetel Ejiofor: 12 Years a Slave

5. Marcello Mastroianni: La Dolce Vita (If you want to know what it’s like to be an intellectual and realize that life itself is meaningless or at the very least, you’ve been living a meaningless life, watch Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. Existential breakdowns have never looked so good.)

 

Best Actress in a Dramatic Role:

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1. Hillary Swank: Boys Don’t Cry (This isn’t just the greatest performance by a female actress in the history of cinema. It is easily one of the greatest and most transformative performances of all time. This is one of cinema’s most legendary roles and performances.)

2. Cate Blanchett: Blue Jasmine (She’s basically playing a 21st century Blanche DuBois, but Cate Blanchett’s Best Actress Oscar this year was well-deserved in a Woody Allen film that is tough to watch because the emotions are so uncomfortable and intense.)

3. Adele Exarchopolous: Blue Is the Warmest Color (An electric and career-making performance from an extraordinarily talented young actress. Never has first love been so devastating to watch thanks to her soulful and wise turn.)

4. Judi Dench: Philomena

5. Patricia Clarkson: The Station Agent (She’s one of indie cinema’s darlings for a reason, and as the lonely divorcee that befriends Peter Dinklage, she brings gravitas to a role that could have too easily become cliche.)

 

Best Actor in a Comedic Role:

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1. Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall Street

2. Bill Murray: Broken Flowers (Alongside Lost in Translation, this one of the best roles of Bill Murray’s illustrious career, and few actors can channel the world wear misery of a washed-up Casanova while still bringing the laughs when called for.)

3. Christian Bale: American Hustle (Great things happen when  Christian Bale works with David O. Russell and while American Hustle might have been slight compared to last year’s masterful Silver Linings Playbook, Christian Bale was dazzling as the fast-talking con man.)

4. Ben Affleck: Chasing Amy (Gone Girl gives me hope that Ben’s career as a legitimate actor might be revived, but Ben Affleck hasn’t had a role as rewarding or challenging as Holden in over a decade, and it’s nice to remind yourself that the man can really act. His credentials as a director on the other hand aren’t in question. He’s very talented.)

5. Paul Rudd: This Is 40 (This Is 40 was too long and had way too many moments that didn’t work the way they should have, but Paul Rudd brought unexpected emotional depth that made a film that shouldn’t have worked actually work because his performance rang so true.)

 

Best Actress in a Comedic Role:

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1. Joey Lauren Adams: Chasing Amy (A role that could have been too close to being one-note, or even worse, unrealistic because of the subtlety of Alyssa’s sexual identity/orientation. But Joey Lauren Adams brought a maturity and insight to the role that was often better than the role deserved.)

2. Leslie Mann: This Is 40 (Like Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann’s performance helped to salvage a film that might not have worked if the performances weren’t totally on spot. And even more than Rudd, Leslie Mann brought a desperation and sense of being trapped to a woman beginning to exit middle age.)

3. Shannyn Sossamon: The Rules of Attraction (Few films, although the book is infinitely better, capture the confusion of sexuality and lust and bad decision making in college as well as The Rules of Attraction, and Shannyn Sossamon totally inhabits her character’s lack of direction.)

4. Amy Adams: American Hustle (Let no one say that Amy Adams can’t act because once again, David O. Russell brings out the best in her although I wished that the role she played offered her even more to do.)

5. Idina Menzel: Frozen (Idina Menzel has the voice of an angel. What else do I need to say here?)

 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

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1. Robert Downey Jr.: Less Than Zero (The movie is a train wreck but Robert Downey Jr. gives one of the best performances of his career and one of the best performances of the 80s as a completely coked out college drop out with no idea how to live his life. It’s real-life subtext makes it almost too much to watch as Downey spirals further and further out of control.)

2. Michael Fassbender: 12 Years a Slave

3. Leonardo DiCaprio: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (At the age of 19, Leonardo DiCaprio gave a nuanced and authentic performance of a young man with a mental disability, and a star was immediately born.)

4. Peter Sarsgaard: Boys Don’t Cry (Peter Sarsgaard plays a man who commits monstrous acts in Boys Don’t Cry, but he never turns him into a monster. And Sarsgaard reminds us that you never know who is capable of terrible brutality.)

5. Bradley Cooper: American Hustle (This was the real star performance from American Hustle, and Bradley Cooper’s transformation from Hollywood pretty boy to A List acting talent is a wonderful breath of fresh air. He steals the whole film.)

 

Best Supporting Actress:

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1. Meryl Streep: August: Osage County (Another walking disaster of a film, but Meryl Streep gives her best performance in recent memory [far better than The Iron Lady] and should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars instead of Lead Actress because Julia Roberts had the film’s lead role. A stunning turn in an otherwise awful film.)

2. Lupita N’yongo: 12 Years a Slave

3. Jennifer Lawrence: American Hustle (J-Law continues her run as the most talented young actress in America. Lupita might have edged her out at the Oscars this year, but Jennifer Lawrence will have many more Academy Award noms and wins to come.

4. Marcia Gay Harden: The Mist (This movie doesn’t work if you don’t think Mrs. Carmody can convert the weak to her cause, and Marcia Gay Harden is such a terrifying vision of Christian rage and self-righteousness that you understand immediately why our tragic band of survivors want out of that grocery store and outside with the Lovecraftian monsters instead.)

5. Sally Hawkins: Blue Jasmine (It may not have been as substantive and challenging a role as she had in Happy-Go-Lucky, but as Cate Blanchett’s put-upon sister, she’s easily the most sympathetic and human figure in the film).

 

Alrighty! Come back in 50 films (which should take another three to four months), and we’ll have another one of these lists. Hopefully, I’ll find the time to review “A+” and “A” films again. Maybe we’ll even throw “A-” films in there for good measure.

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If you had asked me when the Best Picture nominees were announced which film I thought I would enjoy the least, Philomena would have easily topped the list. Every year has a movie like that. I knew before I even watched The Help or War Horse that it would be unlikely if I enjoyed those films, and sadly, they were even more disappointing than I thought they would be. Their subject matter seems trite or cliche, and you wonder how they were ever nominated for the highest honor in all of cinema. And from its plot description to its advertisements, Philomena seemed like it was ripped straight out of the cloyingly sweet, artificial school of filmmaking. I am happy to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve said it on this blog before, but it bears repeating. There are few feelings as refreshing as  a film lover than when  you go into a film expecting to hate it but find yourself loving it instead. I call that the anti-Les Miserables (a film I expected to love but instead loathed). And Philomena is one of the most pleasant examples of that phenomena for me in a long time. With sharply drawn characters, wonderful acting, a beautiful aesthetic from The Queen‘s Stephen Frears, and a genuine respect for characters who don’t share a compatible world view, Philomena is a grown-up film that serves as shining example of the lost art of understated drama.

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Philomena is the true story of the quest of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced journalist for the BBC, to help Philomena Lee (Skyfall‘s Judi Dench) find her son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years prior. When Philomena was a teenager, she was impregnated by a boy she met at the fair. Her father disowned her and dropped her off at a convent/orphanage run by nuns who housed and fed the pregnant women until they had their children and then the nuns sold the kids and used the women as slave labour for four years. And beause of her Catholic guilt about premarital sex, Philomena kept her first child a secret for 50 years.

Martin, who has recently been fired from the BBC because of some vaguely explained connection to Labour, is in a rut of his own. He has no job, and he’s depressed and his only other idea is to write a book on Russian history. And when Philomena’s daughter suggests that he do a human interest story on her mother (because the daughter has only just now discovered that Philomena had a son 50 years prior), he initially balks at the idea of doing such a soft story. But when he realizes that there’s a story here about exploitation by the church, Martin agrees to look into Philomena’s case, and they are both taken on a ride that leads them to America and places they never imagined.

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I don’t want to spoil too many details of Martin and Philomena’s investigation to find her son because the film delivers some twists and turns although, honestly, the quest to find her child is not nearly as important as the journey itself and what it reveals about this odd couple on this journey. Philomena is a devoutly religious Irish Catholic who is kind and not in the least bit worldly. She’s direct and painfully honest, and the whole world is beautiful and wondrous to her. Martin, on the other hand, is a bitter and cynical depressive, an atheist, and tends to look down on those who aren’t as cultured as he is although he’d usually never come out and say it.

The film’s view of the world is somewhere between Martin and Philomena, but the film has the utmost respect for both of them. Just like The Queen, Stephen Frear never forgets that these two are people, and it never belittles either of their worldviews. I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched a film that managed to be so sympathetic to both religion and agnosticism without also being some type of hippie-dippie nonsense. Philomena has her view of the world; Martin has his. And, Philomena is content to let that be. Because, there are moments where, yes, Philomena is hopelessly naive, but Martin is equally bitter and broken, and the film understands that so well about both of them.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film is beautifully acted and shows restraint from beginning to end to never become overly melodramatic or cloying. Dame Judi Dench is one of the true treasures of the screen, and her performance as Philomena is one of the finest of her career. Much like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Stephen Frears gets a perfectly understated performance out of Dench. You feel Philomena’s hurt and despair but also her endless love of life and optimism, and watching Dench perform, it’s clear you’re watching someone who has mastered the acting craft, and when we lose Miss Dench, it will be a huge blow to acting and the screen.

Steve Coogan, who is primarily a comedic actor, also shines as the more world-weary Martin. Martin is a prick. There’s no easy way getting around that. But, Coogan always humanizes him even at his snootiest. But, he’s got a perfect understated British comedic delivery to give the film its much needed comic levity. That was one of the most surprising facts about Philomena. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, and both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan deliver plenty of laughs. Ony the British could make a film that deals with such serious material as mothers having their children stolen from them but also find time to include the necessary laughs without cheapening the serious material.

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Ultimately, Philomena is about what we believe, why we believe it, and how much pressure our believes can take before they seem outdated and wrong. And, at a little over an hour and a half, it’s the perfect length for this tale. There’s not a wasted second in the script or the film, and I suspect were Philomena any longer, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. But, as it is, Philomena stands as one of the surprise delights from this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. If, like myself, you didn’t see how you could possibly enjoy this film, let me assure you that is far better than any of us had given it credit for. It’s a much watch film for all movie lovers. Just bring some tissues. You’ll need them.

Final Score: A

 

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The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+

 

 

 

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It takes an almost sociopathic disregard for good taste to begin a “prestige” film with a dwarf being thrown at a dartboard as hedonistic stock brokers gamble on the results. But coming from the man who had the deranged Travis Bickle take his classy love interest (Cybil Shephard) to a porno movie on their first date, it makes a certain deranged sense coming from the iconic Martin Scorsese who has built an entire career on crafting morality plays that may not seem as such on the surface. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most controversial films of the last two years, but anyone watching it with a clear eye for the director’s intention recognize it as perhaps the most scathing indictment of greed and excess since Glengarry Glen Ross.

We live in a world where reckless Wall Street gambling and a total disregard for the idea of risk vs. collateral wrecked not only the United States’ economy but the economy of the entire world. And a film where a self-described crook and liar gets a slap on the wrist for his crimes against the public does not, on the surface, seem like the right path to take when dissecting the mindset of the men who nearly dragged the U.S. into another Great Depression. But by turning Wall Street excess into a raucous satire, Scorsese is able to make points with more laser precision and immediate impact than a straight-faced serious drama could have hoped.

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Based on the autobiography of the titular Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s film is the true story of Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort (The Departed‘s Leonardo DiCaprio). After watching the devastation of the stock market during 1987’s Black Monday and losing his job as a broker for a prestigious Wall Street brokerage, Jordan starts his own brokerage, Stratton Oakmont, making money off of pink-sheet stocks: cheap penny stocks that give brokers a 50% commission on sales as opposed to the 1% commission on high-end blue chip stocks. The catch with the pink-sheet stocks is that they’re penny stocks for a reason and only fools would invest in them.

And it’s not long before Jordan and his friends, a hodgepodge of drug dealers and scam artists, turn Stratton Oakmont into a business where Jordan is bringing home $49 million a year. And while selling people stocks that aren’t actually worth a damn isn’t a crime, stock price manipulation is and alongside his founding partner Donny (Moneyball‘s Jonah Hill), Jordan gets involved in every illegal Wall Street crime imaginable, from insider trading to embezzlement to price fixing. And not even the relentless investigation of FBI Agent Denham (Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kyle Chandler) is enough to make Jordan stop his ways.

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It doesn’t hurt that Jordan, Donny, and company are hedonists that would put the most depraved nobles of the Roman empire to shame. Over the course of The Wolf of Wall Street‘s three hour running time, Jordan and his men consume enough drugs to fund a small South American government, and they sleep with enough hookers to solve the debt crisis (if said hookers were taxable). Jordan has more money than any person could possibly spend in one lifetime, and The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t afraid to explore the completely outrageous waste of wealth that happens when it becomes increasingly concentrated in just a few individuals (and particularly when those individuals are too coked out to spend it with any responsibility).

And what makes The Wolf of Wall Street so controversial and so repugnant to the traditional vanguards of the moral police (both on the left and the right) is that it is an undeniably fun film and that The Wolf of Wall Street crosses the line so many times in this film that it’s easy to lose track, including a particularly memorable moment where Jordan and the founding partners of Stratton Oakmont discuss the proper protocol for hiring dwarves to be thrown at dartboards. But, there would be no other way to tell this story. The film has fun with the drug scenes because, guess what, drugs are fun. That’s why people do them. There’s a certain comedic allure of sociopathic behavior and The Wolf of Wall Street knows it: like Jonah Hill pulling his dick out at a party and masturbating cause he took too many Quaaludes.

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And while the consequences for Jordan’s actions in the court of law amass to a 3 year stint at a Club Fed prison, The Wolf of Wall Street shows the consequences of the out of control lives these men live. Jordan loses his family. Donny nearly chokes to death while eating a sandwich after a particularly traumatic Quaalude experience. The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal’s Brad dies of a heart attack in his 30s cause that what happens when you abuse cocaine like Tony Montana. Jordan is reduced to betraying all of his friends in order to serve less jail time. The Wolf of Wall Street may not drape its ethical message in ham-fisted preaching, but it’s there if you take half a second to look for it.

And, like all of Scorsese’s films, The Wolf of Wall Street is a technical marvel. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the opulent depravity that fills virtually every second of the film but is able to capture more intimate and darker moments in the starker images necessary to convey the emotions. Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker edits one of the most raucous moments of Scorsese’s entire career for the film’s famous Quaalude crawl which is conveyed in fragmented, delirious terms. When either Scorsese or Schoonmaker passes away, it will be a tragic moment in film.

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In no uncertain terms, Jordan Belfort is the finest performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career and the apex of DiCaprio’s decade long collaboration with Martin Scorsese. For anyone who’s ever doubted DiCaprio’s place as the heir to Robert De Niro as Scorsese’s muse, The Wolf of Wall Street will change your mind or nothing will. It’s a fearless, balls-to-the-wall performance and DiCaprio leaves it all out there. I have not seen Dallas Buyers Club, but I can not begin to imagine how McConaughey is better in it than DiCaprio was in this. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort has already become one of the defining performances of the aughts for me.

Had you told me back in 2005 that the kid trying to buy fish boots would have two Oscar nominations, I’d have laughed in your face, but somewhere along the line, Jonah Hill transformed himself into a respectable performer even if I’m not sure what was particularly Oscar worthy about his performances in this or Moneyball. He’s great. Don’t get me wrong. Donny is part of the long line of psychopathic supporting men in Scorsese films begun by Joe Pesci, but his performance pales so completely in comparison to the masterclass of frenetic and crazy performing that DiCaprio puts on.

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My only complaint about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is long. I didn’t particularly feel the length when I watched the film for the first time in theatres because the film is so vibrant and alive (a quality lacking from some of Scorsese’s latest works), but upon a second viewing at home when I rented the film from Netflix, I felt those three hours. But, if you can make it through the film’s considerable length and you can handle with the film’s over-the-top content in the way that it’s meant to be handled, then you’re in for what is Scorsese’s best film since Gangs of New York and possibly even Goodfellas. It’s destined to be a modern classic.

Final Score: A