2014 in Review: Unsung Movie Performances

All too often, film criticism falls victim to what I call the “Oscar Eyes” phenomenon, prioritizing showy performances and actors who make noticeable physical commitments to their characters over work that’s subtle but no less critical to a movie’s effectiveness. Below, here’s my attempt to look beyond the performances likely to be up for awards. These performances are on the margins of Oscar consideration for several reasons: either they’re in movies that rarely attract awards attention, or they’ve been overshadowed by performances with more obvious “award-bait” moments. They’re worthy of recognition nonetheless.

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Of Monsters and Men: “Birdman,” “Whiplash,” “Nightcrawler”

Birdman

Movies don’t come out in a vacuum. Three of this fall’s most talked-about movies follow men as they struggle to balance professional success and occupational fulfillment with personal relationships and emotional connections. In all three stories, the main characters fall victim to the grim realities of the businesses in which they embed themselves. Nightcrawler, Birdman and Whiplash will likely be among this year’s crop of Oscar nominees. Below, my thoughts on these movies and the effect of thinking about them in tandem.

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“Labor Day” and “That Awkward Moment”: A Reminder That Terrible Movies Are Still Out There

Oscar season spoils us. The major Hollywood studio pack the fall release schedule with thoughtful movies directed by skillful filmmakers and brimming with exceptional performances from Hollywood’s acting elite. 12 Years a Slave! Gravity! Nebraska! Her! American Hustle! Movies are so awesome.

Then awards season really kicks into gear, right around the time when everyone and their mother is reaching back into their memory banks to fill out their Top 10 lists summarizing the year in film. We’re reminded of all the great experiences we had at the movies even before fall began. Remember when we cried at the sight of Oscar Grant cowering in front of a policeman at the end of Fruitvale Station? Remember when Cate Blanchett tore into her role as an entitled woman stripped of her privilege in Blue Jasmine? Remember when Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley reminded us that teen romance isn’t all sweaty vampires and broody mopes in The Spectacular Now? Movies are so great.

And they are. But the reality of Hollywood’s long-standing business strategy makes it very difficult for us to maintain that belief in the first few months of every new year. With their Oscar hopes secured, the studios take out the trash, dumping their most impressively unambitious projects of the year into the trash receptacle known as January.

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