As December’s flood of critics’ choices and awards nominations draws to a close the Oscar ones that really count are a few weeks away. Eligible films will at least get an L.A. release before the calendar turns over, though it may be a while before some reach your local theatre (if ever). I’ve yet to see a few before finalizing my 10 best list but here are brief takes on noteworthy titles in a crowded field.
Serena (U.S./France/Czech Republic)
Danish director Susanne Bier’s Depression-era fatal romance set in the Appalachian Smoky Mountains is definitely no awards contender. Shot in 2012, it won’t be released stateside till next year. But it stars the hot duo (from Silver Linings Playbook) of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as a smitten lumber tycoon and the siren he marries who literally plays with fire. Their strong performances deserve one thumb up.
Force Majeure (Sweden/France/Norway)
Ruben Östlund’s brilliant unsettling Cannes prize winner should make Oscar’s foreign-language list. Set in a fancy French Alps ski resort (though the mountain scenes were actually shot in B.C.), an incident during a scary but harmless controlled avalanche tears a family apart. Social expectations of gender and class are exposed as the father’s masculine role of protector/provider is thrown into question.
Bennett Miller was named best director at Cannes for this tense fact-based drama about the ultimately tragic relationship between the wealthy John Du Pont and the two wrestling Schultz brothers, Mark and David, around whom he devotes his estate to training an Olympic team. As the mentally unstable Du Pont, a facially altered Steve Carell gives a career-redefining performance, as does Channing Tatum as gold medallist Mark. Equally superb is Mark Ruffalo as David.
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (New Zealand/U.S.)
The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s long love affair with Tolkien’s Middle Earth sagas has spectacular special effects and combatants galore in epic showdowns with the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and other forces of darkness. As favourite characters fight for their lives, will our hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) overcome?
Top Five (U.S.)
The best part of writer/director/actor Chris Rock’s sometimes outrageous celebrity satire and self-parody is the opening riff between uber-famous comedian Andre Allen (Rock), trying to get serious with a movie about the Haitian revolution, and a devious but charming reporter (Rosario Dawson) trying to get the lowdown on him (both are recovering alcoholics in screwed-up relationships). Fair warning about n-and f-words as hilarity comes wrapped in profanity.
Inherent Vice (U.S.)
The latest from Paul Thomas Anderson, adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel set in drug-addled 1970-era L.A., is an uproarious, rambunctious affair revolving around shaggy private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) drawn into a vortex of disappearances and foul play. Hang on for one heck of a weird wild ride.
The Imitation Game (U.K./U.S.)
This Toronto festival favourite stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing whose British team of ace cryptographers cracked Nazi Germany’s Enigma code helping the Allies to win the war. Cumberbatch shines as the precociously clever yet closeted tormented Turing, in many ways his own enigma.
Angeline Jolie follows husband Brad Pitt (Fury) in directing another ambitious Second World War epic based on the extraordinary true story of Louis Zamperini (the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling biography), a competitor in the 1936 Berlin Olympics who survived a crash at sea during the Pacific air war only to be captured and horribly abused by the Japanese. The movie offends Japanese nationalists and some Christian critics who complain that Zamperini’s later religious conversion and reconciliation journey is given short shrift. Still the role is splendidly played by Jack O’Connell (also terrific in the British prison drama Starred Up).
American Sniper (U.S.)
There’s no quit in 84-year-old Clint Eastwood, awarded best director by the National Board of Review (NBR) for this ferocious and emotionally wrenching true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, America’s most lethal sniper, who faces battles on foreign fields and the home front. Bradley Cooper has an Oscar long shot for his portrayal of Kyle.
A Most Violent Year (U.S.)
Writer-director J.C. Chandor’s third film scores big (NBR best film) with this gripping story of an immigrant family’s struggles to make a living in the turbulent bare-knuckled world of 1981 New York City. In the roles of Abel and Anna Morales, Oscar Isaac (NPR best actor) and Jessica Chastain (NBR best supporting actress) lead an impressive cast.
Into the Woods (U.S.)
Rob Marshall’s screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical has earned Meryl Streep another Golden Globe nomination to add to her basketful. She’s the Witch and Johnny Depp is the Wolf in this enjoyable Disney family-friendly story of a childless couple’s encounters with favourite fairy-tale characters.
British actor David Oyelowo (Interstellar, A Most Violent Year) is drawing deserved plaudits for his portrayal of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in director Ava DuVernay’s complex account (both personal and political) of the seminal 1965 civil rights marches in Jim Crow Alabama. It may resonate more strongly in the wake of events which have shown the struggle for racial equality is far from over.
Big Eyes (U.S.)
Amy Adams is affecting as Margaret Keane in Tim Burton’s uneven biopic about the wronged painter of big-eyed portraits of women and children who submissively allowed manipulative husband Walter (Christoph Waltz chewing the scenery) to claim credit when they became popular in the 1960s. After leaving him she spilled the beans leading to a messy court battle over ownership.
Director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev’s masterwork (best screenplay at Cannes) unfolds in a small seaside town on Russia’s Kola peninsula where a mightily tested family man named Kola (shades of the biblical Job) is up against a corrupt city hall and Putin-styled system as monstrous as the title suggests.
Apart from Into the Woods there’s precious little family fare and The Hobbit’s constant warfare makes it unsuitable for young children. The promising animated feature Song of the Sea, an Irish-European coproduction, is so far only playing in Toronto. At least several good ones like The Book of Life and Big Hero 6 are still around.
On a closing stranger-than-fiction note, beset by cyber-attacks, likely from North Korean hackers, and threats to blow up theatres, Sony Pictures has pulled The Interview from Christmas release. So who knows when, if ever, it will be deemed safe to watch the antic pair of co-director Seth Rogen and James Franco as goofball TV personalities who wind up in a ludicrous plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. It may be the first time an outlandish comedy of low blows has been treated as an act of war.
In this season of hope, pray for a saner less violent world this time next year.