This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Which films will win at the Oscars or the Golden Globes? In the past, clear favorites have emerged, but it's truly a toss-up this year. I miss Roger's speculations. By this time he would have pronounced the winner of the Best Picture for the Academy Awards—and he was usually right. It was debated whether he was a good prognosticator, or whether his pronouncements actually influenced the Academy's voters.
Last year he predicted "Argo" would win the Best Picture Oscar after he saw it in Toronto in September. Most others were saying that "Argo" didn't have a chance against "Lincoln." Ben Affleck told me that Roger's enthusiasm for the picture helped enormously. I wonder if Roger's enthusiasm also helped to ignite that big marketing campaign around the film?
In 2005 when "Crash" won Best Picture over "Brokeback Mountain," some credited Roger with changing the trajectory of the race. Roger admired both pictures and was happy when the Academy split the vote, giving "Crash" Best Picture and Ang Lee the Best Director Oscar.
Roger's wild enthusiasm sometimes extended to the actor, like the years Halle Berry won for "Monster's Ball," and Charlize Theron won for "Monster." Patty Jenkins, the director of "Monster," graciously thanked Roger at the Independent Spirit Awards, something that most filmmakers won't do. The line between filmmakers and film critics is sometimes fraught with tension. Yet, studios and filmmakers also know that film critics are sometimes their best bridge to the public. Especially for smaller, independent movies that may not have large budgets.
The Oscar race was headed in a very different direction in 2004 until Roger saw Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," and proclaimed it the best movie of the year. It won Best Picture and Eastwood won Best Director. And when Jason Reitman's "Juno" won an Original Screenplay award and was nominated for directing, Reitman said a little film like that doesn't usually win an Academy Award. Having Roger as an advocate changed that. Roger loved that movie beyond all reason, the same way I love "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Which movie would Roger love beyond all reason this year? There are so many worthy candidates. I wonder which ones would have made Roger's Top Ten List. My heart aches that I will never know. There are several movies where I imagined him by my side as I watched, knowing he would have been over the moon to see them.
He really disliked ranking movies. He managed to cram about 30 movies onto his list by bifurcating his categories and giving Runner Up prizes. He would have preferred that you just keep up with the reviews and make up your own mind. But it was his duty as a film critic to give you a list, and every newspaper editor demanded one. It was a service to the public, and it sold newspapers.
Now that we have fewer newspapers and more online venues, the Top Ten Lists have proliferated. We will, of course, also post our critics' lists at Rogerebert.com. I can't wait to see what they are recommending. Somehow all of the online lists can make it more confusing. We can aggregate the lists or look at the winners' lists from the various film critics associations and analyze how they might influence outcomes at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
But what I really long for are those eccentric picks that Roger zinged into his list, leaving me scrambling to see a movie I hadn't seen, or sending me back into the theater to see what I overlooked the first time around. I realize now that I may have taken his lists for granted. Maybe it was because I had attended most of the movie screenings with him and knew his general thoughts about them. But something crystallized when Roger sat down to think about what he valued about one movie over another in order to rank them. He had to refine the filter through which he viewed the movies, which sometimes caused him to put a less than four-star movie on the Top Ten List and leave out movies to which he had given four stars earlier in the year. Roger's list was sometimes such a surprise. Roger, I miss your surprises.
I really cannot make a Top Ten List because there are some movies I have not had a chance to see such as "Captain Phillips"; "To the Wonder"; "Saving Mr. Banks"; "Short Term 12"; "Stories We Tell"; "The Act of Killing"; "Wadjda"; "Gloria"; "The Trials of Muhammad Ali"; "Go for Sisters"; "The 25,000 Mile Love Story"; and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "Hannah Arendt."
What I can do is put the films I have seen in categories in an approximate order. I heartily recommend that you see them, whether at the theater or on your smaller screens (except "Gravity", which would be a travesty if you didn't see it on the big screen in 3D).
1. "12 Years a Slave"
This grouping of movies has two things in common: strong performances by African American actors who could all qualify for an Oscar nomination. The stories told were inspired by real characters and mostly real events. And "Lee Daniels' The Butler" also has a compelling performance by Oprah Winfrey.
This is the grouping of movies that made me turn in my seat to see if Roger had somehow magically appeared. We both loved movies with futuristic scenes of outer space or technology, and Alfonso Cuarón's 3D capture of outer space in "Gravity" was absolutely breathtaking. Credit goes to Sandra Bullock for infusing the scenes with humanity.
"Her" is another of Spike Jonze's brilliant creations like "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." This tale of a man falling in love with the artificial intelligence woman in his computer doesn't seem too far off from the relationships some modern-day men already have with their computers. Roger would have loved it. Joaquin Phoenix found just the right note of vulnerability for his character.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and "Ender's Game" wouldn't make the Top Ten list. They are here because they are futuristic and entertaining, and I liked the fact that the young heroine and hero in these movies talked about the moral implications of killing people. Killing had consequences. It made them depressed and they mourned the loss of lives and realized it was wrong. The characters also needed personal human contact with family and friends. Some movies make the young heroes automatons that need nothing and no one. Not a good lesson for a society.
3. "20 Feet from Stardom"
These two movies have nothing in common except I think they are two of the best movies of the year. "20 Feet from Stardom" packs an emotional wallop. You see the lives of these background singers and you realize how much what you respond to in a song or musical performance is influenced by them, and how little credit they are given. Plus, the movie is just flat-out entertaining. It can be shown to any audience at any time and would be applauded.
"The Hunt," Thomas Vinterberg's film about a teacher in a small Danish town falsely accused of sexual abuse is perfect in its set-up and execution. Mads Mikkelsen's performance is heartbreaking as he deteriorates under the pressure of the false accusations.
4. "American Hustle"
These three movies were wildly entertaining because of the great ensembles, including both the top tier actors and the supporting roles: from Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, to Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Chris Cooper. These movies were also inspired by true stories. David O. Russel's "American Hustle" recalled the Abscam scandal of the '70s, in which several congressmen went to jail. Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" was inspired by con man Jordan Belfort, and "August: Osage County" was inspired by people in the life of playwright and screenwriter Tracy Letts.
These movies are small and intimate but tell two of the most American of stories. Bruce Dern's performance carries his character's actions right to his logical conclusion. June Squibb as his wife adds the voice of nagging reason as a small town woman who takes no guff, but has a heart under that rawhide exterior. Alexander Payne had the courage to film in black and white, which somehow adds depth and an authenticity to the story.
The Coen Brothers do it again, giving us an eccentric slice of life as seen through the eyes of the most unlucky folksinger in America. They get the period details right, and bring us some of the most poignant folk music with the help of T-Bone Burnett. But it is Oscar Isaac, with his perpetual sad sack look, who brings this movie to life.
"The Great Beauty" ("La Grand Belleza")
These are the foreign films that are among the best of the year. You say, "'Before Midnight' is not foreign because its directed by Richard Linklater." Yes, but it has the unhurried appeal of a foreign film with its emphasis on character development, not the plot. It is as surprisingly good as his first film in the trilogy. "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is a French story of two women in love. "Philomena" stars Judi Dench in a wrenching but understated story about a British woman who gave up her son for adoption and looks for him 50 years later. And "La Grand Belleza" is the sumptuously photographed story of an Italian's life of debauchery. What has he learned as his years come to a close?
7. "All Is Lost"
Robert Redford is on the screen in every scene and manages to keep it interesting from beginning to end. He has more tricks up his sleeve than MacGyver in his attempt to survive being lost at sea. What a performance!
What makes "Rush" interesting is that the action and the plot are modeled after real-life European race car drivers.
8. "Blue Jasmine"
These movies all have strong performances by female actors. Cate Blanchett, in particular, gives us the old Blanche Dubois-style unraveling character whose rigid self-deception causes her descent into madness. Sally Hawkins is the perfect counterpoint as her sister. We even get a surprising natural turn by Andrew Dice Clay.
Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said" is a mature revelation in storytelling about older lovers not often seen on the big screen. It stars a sweet, open James Gandolfini in the last role of his life. Greta Gerwig is the main reason to see "France Ha." Noah Baumbach gets it right. In "Labor Day," Kate Winslet's aching vulnerability always seems a hair's breath away from danger from the Josh Brolin character. But boy do they make pies!
9. "Dallas Buyers Club"
10. "The Gatekeepers"
I still don't understand how these Israeli former security keepers were able to spill the beans on so many behind-the-scenes security matters.
Other Movies that Were Fun or Worth Seeing:
"56 Up," "In a World…," "The Best Man Holiday," "The Spectacular Now," "Don Jon," "The Great Gatsby," "The Armstrong Lie," "The Grandmaster," "The Sapphires," "Not Yet Begun to Fight," "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," "Spring Breakers," "Phil Spector," "Man of Tai Chi," "Black Nativity," "Side Effects," "At Any Price," "The Wolverine," "This Is the End," "Last Vegas"
So as Roger used to say, "See you at the movies."
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