[26 February 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They’re giving out the Oscars in four days, and for most immersed in the world of movie fandom, it’s going to be interesting to see who wins the proverbial three way tie between 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Gravity. It’s a rare toss-up year, where almost every category (except for Best Actress) can go either way. Leo, Chiwetel, or Matthew for Actor, J-Law or Lupita Nyong’o for Supporting. Even Johnny Knoxville and the Jackass franchise has a chance to take home a little gold statue. Even with housewife favorite Ellen DeGeneres hosting, the show will still be considered lame and final tallies will reflect a kind of group think that began way back when we critics were handing out daily accolades. We’d like to think the entire night will be a eye opener. Typically, it’s surefire snore inducer.
That’s why, a few years ago, we invented the SE&L Awards. It was our way of looking at the end of the awards season and not want to scream at the various injustices. Indeed, it seems like each and every time a group gets together and doles out the accolades, something or someone that made the year tolerable gets kicked to the curb. With the SE&LS, we can settle those differences and divvy up the prizes in a far more fair fashion. The rules here are simple: we do not acknowledge those already picked out by their peers for AMPAS recognition. They got their piece of paper and others deserve their mention. Secondly, we don’t pigeonhole a performance or production. If a foreign film was the Best of 2013, we will celebrate it- even if we later go back and pick another international entry in its own category.
Finally, like all critical determinations, this is personal. While we’d like the think the Oscars are as clued in as we are, the truth remains a far more individualized ideal. So, without further ado, here are our selections for 2014’s SE&L Awards.
Shane Caruth’s long in gestation follow-up to his time travel treat Primer is twice as dense and a dozen times more dream-like than anything David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky has made in their careers, and it carries more emotional weight than the work of these auteurs as well. From the beautiful opening moments which make little or no sense narratively to the “Walden Ritual” which tries to explain what we’ve just seen, the entire film feels like an inside experience, one of crawling inside its creators mindset to see how he believes the cycle of victimization so prevalent in our society can be stopped for good. An absolute masterpiece.
For us, there is no other choice. If Caruth was even considered for this award it would be a slam dunk for his kind of efforts. Without special effects, without tentpole pageantry or millions of dollars in set/costume/art design, each shot he offers builds on the others, each sequence like a stanza in a poem whose power is only revealed after reading the entire epic. From his own brilliant performance to the breakout work of actress Amy Seimetz, he is equally comfortable with people as he is complicated psychological and philosophical questions. The result is a profound experience, one that’s never too obtuse or arcane.
Odd man out again (thanks, Academy), though he did receive a nod for what is one of the greatest performances of his entire career, as the alcoholic serviceman seeking answers in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Here, he is everything you imagine he personally eschews: calm, centered, lonely, and vulnerable. By falling in love with his operating system, Theodore Twombly argues for the disconnect between man and technology, his need for companionship failing to trump the brave new world around him. Instead, he turns inward, and the results remind us that, sometimes, showboating is not acting. Sometimes, it’s reacting.
She’s too twee for the mainstream, often lumped in with the rest of Mumblecore Nation as the reason indie film is dying. But in this stunning performance, Ms. Gerwig showcases why her brand of female hipster may have a future in Hollywood. Frances is a flawed young woman, dreaming of a life she’ll never have (as a professional dancer) while dealing with the realities of living hand to mouth in the big city. While she will eventually find her way, it’s the journey toward that conclusion that’s the most compelling, and Gerwig makes every goofy, grandiose step count.
Here’s a case of an unfairly marginalized matinee idol type proving he can act circles around the hopeless hipsters he is constantly compared to and Hollywood offering up a collective shoulder shrug. Perhaps it was the film itself, misunderstood as a teen romp with raunch when it was more a commentary on the collective consciousness of contemporary youth. As Alien, the white rapper wannabe with a Scarface attitude and a redneck reality, Franco finds the proper balance between criminal and clown, all the while seducing his prey with a Southern drawl swagger that underscores his devious designs.
The release plan by supporting studio Paramount really hurt this amazing movie. Sure, Marty and Leo and Jonah and the movie itself got recognized, but perhaps the best performance in the entire film was unfairly marginalized as a blonde model type taking on acting as a glorified career goof. Instead, Ms. Robbie runs rings around her seasoned betters, turning her trophy wife character into a stunning example of grounded practicality in a world where nothing is normal. For those scenes where she literally uses sex as a weapon against her already wounded husband, she deserves at least a plate at the Oscar party.
Consider the expectations present. This was the third film in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, a series started with the spectacular Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. It also represented a real challenge, mixing a midlife crisis, characters attempting to revisit their past, and extraterrestrials using robots to try and figure out the human condition into a funny froth that also has something to say about mankind circa 2013—and it was both insightful and insane. The last act confrontation with the spacemen, mostly just a monologue delivered by Pegg, hits so many targets squarely on the head it should be studied as how to script such scenes.
Since The Act of Killing is already nominated, we had to pick something else to add to our awards. It was close, this stunning overview of John Waters’ favorite star barely beating out the amazing Morton Downey Jr. retrospective for final acknowledgement. The real treat here is the memories, the fans and fellow Dreamlanders who sit down to discuss how Harris Glenn Milstead went from troubled high school kid to Queen Drag Diva of the Universe. While the narrative borders on the puff piece, it’s the detail and new information that turns this film from a love letter to a legitimate remembrance.
Again, our favorite animated movie of the year is already up for Oscar consideration (so we’ll just…“Let It Go”), meaning we had to find another entry for our list. While it can’t compare to the original (go check out The LEGO Movie to see how important Phil Lord and Chris Miller are/were to this fledgling franchise), this follow-up was loads of fun, and featured a collection of creatures (Taco-dile Supremes, Apple Pie-thons, Shrimpanzees) that may be more imaginative than anything else in the film itself. As a second tier pen and ink treat, it beats such swill as Free Birds, or The Nut Job.
Again, we are looking at a category where our choice—the brilliant Danish drama The Hunt—is already in the Oscar contention. We also were big fans of The Great Beauty. Of course, we are also on record as HATING Blue is the Warmest Color, so by process of elimination, we picked this prosaic film which focused on gender inequalities in Saudi Arabia. While a bit too pat and perhaps not harsh enough on the ruling patriarchy (How could it be, really? It was made in the country under tight government control), it’s still a window into a world we know little about. And it’s good. Very good.
Since Dario Argento has decided to piss on all of his previous creative goodwill by churning out chum like Dracula 3D (GOD was that awful), we’re lucky that a student like Rob Zombie is around to pick up his Euro-horror mantle. Like the Quentin Tarantino of terror, the rocker turned filmmaker has found a way to incorporate the various macabre influences floating around in his head and turning them into a haunting homage like this. Part Hammer, part Fulci, and all kinds of Suspiria and Inferno, this slow burn chiller was so good we put it in our Top Ten List. For others, it’s just guilty fun.