Joe College and I sip martinis at Musso's before he returns to school. Pokemon crap was a lot less expensive than mixed drinks and red meat. We cross the street to see 8 ½ at the Egyptian. Years ago my dad took me there to see My Fair Lady. By the 1960s Hollywood had already gone to seed but the elegant fountain lined walkway of the Egyptian Theater is my most vivid impression of what had gone before. My Fair Lady was one of the last of the great American musical. The saturated color of the Covent Garden Flower Market is as potent a memory as the foyer of the grand old theater. Fellini, like my pop, was born in January of 1920 but my old man's only appreciation of “art films” was for the rental revenue they generated for his library. I saw most of Fellini's films while in college. At the time I was taken with Eisenstein for his remarkable, borderline grotesque, tight close ups of human faces. This technique is mostly what I remember from Fellini's oeuvre as well. The name “Fellini” always first conjures a chin with protrusive bewhiskered mole. It is interesting to revisit this seminal film with my 21 year old son as he studies the same thing (film) and at the same place (Johnston College) that his mom did nearly forty years ago.
At 21 I think I liked what I was supposed to like, essentially anything that purported to be counter-cultural. I think Joe College's observations are still a bit self conscious but it takes years to truly hone your own critical sensibility. I have no memory of what I made of 8 1/2 when I first saw it. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made and perhaps suffers from this onus. The film has been so imitated and parodied that half a century after its creation it is almost a cliché of itself. I imagine how wildly unconventional it must have seemed in 1963 but the list of American productions from that year, upon my review, actually has gravitas too. Films nominated for Oscars include To Kill a Mockingbird, Sweet Bird of Youth, Manchurian Candidate and The Days of Wine and Roses. The avant garde had yet to, if it ever really did, inculcate American popular films but there were definitely a spate of social issues being tackled and Hollywood was starting to rebound from McCarthy and the Red Scare.
The past year in film is one of the best in decades. We watch the Oscars religiously and the time between the announcement of nominations and the actual ceremony is referred to as the “high holidays.” Often however, my choice for film of the year is “none of the above.” I have had this year fortunate access to Academy screeners. (Note—I have only viewed these in the company of the Academy voter to whom they were mailed and watched merely to help him/her make appropriate voting decisions and NOT for my own personal enjoyment.. Per instructions, I witnessed the physical destruction and disposal of said DVDs immediately after viewing.) Before the ceremony I only need to see Dallas Buyer's Club, Gravity (which I have no interest in but will see for the sake of completion) and Twelve Years a Slave (which Joe College has promised to watch with me to fast forward through all the disturbing portions which means I'll see at least ten minutes of the film).
The year is so excellent that a few films that would have been contenders in lesser years are totally passed over. I loved the Bling Ring and was disappointed it didn't at least merit a screenwriting nod. While it wasn't my favorite Terrence Malick film, To the Wonder was too good to be completely overlooked. Other films that suffered the consequences of an excellent year, not spectacular but certainly worth seeing are Ain't Them Bodies Saints, What Maisie Knew, the particularly good Aldomovar I'm So Excited., The Place Beyond the Pines and Mud. Perhaps the saddest omission is the smart and charming Enough Said which should have rated nominations for screenplay and/or directing for Nicole Holfcener, posthumous actor for James Gandolfini, actress for Julia-Louis Dreyfus and supporting actress for Catherine Keener.
My favorite documentary of the year, The Stories We Tell, was ineligible, having been broadcast on cable t.v. and the excellent Saudi Arabian film Wadjda was denied a foreign language nomination. Both are don't miss in my book. In terms of the big guns, I haven't admired a Woody Allen film as much as I do Blue Jasmine in decades. Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins are both spectacular. The opening scene with Blanchett chatting to her seatmate on an airplane is among my all time favorites.
American Hustle is wonderful entertainment and I can only fault it for being a bit over the top in the wig department. All of the performers really stretch and the film is well paced and consistently funny. The other scammer movie of the year, Wolf of Wall Street also has a fantastic look and lots of laughs. At over three hours it might have been 20 minutes shorter but 20 extra minutes of Scorsese isn't a real tragedy. I adored Before Midnight, the third installment of the Richard Linkletter, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke collaboration that drops in on the same smart sexy couple once every decade.
I am less enamored with favorites Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska. I have a tortured relationship with Coen Brothers. Each of their films has brilliant moments, to wit, the cat on the subway in Llewyn Davis. But often, there's a self indulgence and lots of extraneous material. John Goodman hams it up as a snarky heroin addict but as fun as he is to watch, the character adds nothing to the film's arc. Consistently, the brothers seem to resist tying things up in any sort of meaningful fashion. I don't know if this is arrogance or ineptitude but for all the gorgeous little moments, the sum of all parts merits a mere shrug.
My other disappointment is Nebraska. I am a huge Alexander Payne fan, Citizen Ruth and Election being among my favorite films. I was excited about this film because it was purported to be an homage to Payne's much beloved home state and interestingly is shot in black and white. However, early on the script becomes its own worst enemy and locks the film into an inevitable and predictable ending. Some of the buzz suggests that the role would have been better played by a more nuanced actor than Bruce Dern, and perhaps this is true. Will Forte, who plays Dern's son, however is a revelation. He does this weird thing with his chin that I could watch forever.
Again, I haven't seen Twelve Years a Slave, and when I do see it, it will be greatly redacted. Of the films I did see, Her was my great favorite. I am not a Joaquin Phoenix fan. I found his performance in The Master over-the-top to the point of ludicrous. The best I can say about his role in Her is that the performance is innocuous. Despite my Phoenix phobia, the film is a masterpiece and perhaps as provocative for our times as 8 ½ was back in 1963. I presume everyone is familiar with the conceit of a lonely man falling in love a computer operating system which is programed to actually develop human qualities. Our awe at the astonishing pace of technological advance combined with Spike Jonze' deft approach makes Her feel imminently real. The film is set in the near future and will inspire discussion, about whether technology will improve or decimate us, into the far future I suppose. We yearn for this future and are horrified by it at the same time.