Review: Award-nominated movies of 2013

By Kathryn Halloran

Kathryn is watching all the movies nominated for awards in 2014. Some are good and some just gave her a sore ass. 

12 YEARS A SLAVE – this is a movie that deserves to be seen, needs to be seen and if you’ve seen it once, you need to see it again. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender give two of the most arresting performances of the year but newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (Patsy), fresh from the Yale School of Drama, is absolutely haunting. Weeks after I saw this movie, remembering Patsy would bring tears to my eyes. Director Steven McQueen tells the story of Solomon Northrup, a freeman kidnapped and sold into slavery, with a spare and unsentimental eye. Northrup’s experiences as a slave in 1840s Louisiana are presented clinically and are all the more horrifying for audience’s growing appreciation as the film unspools of the daily and commonplace violence and degradation that were the foundation of the U.S. slave state.  There are no heroes in 12 Years a Slave and precious little redemption.

A bracing and important corrective to American “Lost Cause”-ism and self-exculpatory mythology of “good” vs. “bad” slave owners, 12 Years a Slave is strongly recommended.

American Hustle

AMERICAN HUSTLE – David O. Russell marries Scorsese swagger with a screwball energy straight out Howard Hawks in this black comedy about swindlers, their marks and the cons we run on ourselves. A fictionalized take on Abscam, the late 70s FBI sting that eventually netted seven Congressmen and one U.S. senator, American Hustle takes key players from Russell’s two previous Oscar-nominated films, THE FIGHTER and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, along with Jeremy Renner, Jack Huston, Elizabeth Rohm and Louis C.K., to create the best, most exciting ensemble of any movie this year.

American Hustle is a succession of breathtaking performances, seamlessly flowing from one to the other. The cast is anchored by Christian Bale and Amy Adams as a pair of professional swindlers who get turned out by Bradley Cooper’s G-man after they get pinched for wire fraud.

In Irving Rosenfeld, Bale’s sometimes overpoweringly method performance finds its perfect expression in Rosenfeld’s obsession with presentation (while working the best comb-over ever to grace a cinema to boot). Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are effectively cast against type – Cooper, manic and in be-curlered, shows once again that he’s capable of far more than playing the pretty one in gross-out comedies. Abetted by Russell, he makes Richie DiMaso into a figure of Shakespearean hubris, Malvolio with a badge. Jennifer Lawrence, excellent as stoic and self-sacrificing hero of the dystopian adventure, CATCHING FIRE, finds an entirely new gear in a brassy, ballsy performance as Rosalyn, Irving’s wife back in Long Island, her every line shading between narcissism and sociopathy. Lawrence owns the handful of scenes she appears in, including a bathroom showdown with Adams that is one of the most intense and unexpected moments in the film. For his part, Jeremy Renner delivers his best work since THE HURT LOCKER. But it is Amy Adams who may nevertheless be the excellent cast’s most valuable player. As Syd Prosser, a woman defined by her ability to reinvent herself, it is her work that underpins the whole movie – tender lover, charming schemer, elusive seductress and fierce survivor by turns.

American Hustle is itself a bit of a con. Its swagger hides a deep empathy for the characters in all their ambition and self-delusion but Russell never loses track of the line between right and wrong, fake and real, and who are the crooks and who are their victims. Even if you don’t think you want to see this movie, you will be glad you did. Strongly recommended.

Captain Phillips

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS – Paul Greengrass recreates the 2009 kidnapping of container ship captain Richard Phillips by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. Captain Phillips is a well-made thriller that does well to question the circumstances that make piracy desirable employment for the crew that board the Maersk Alabama but those hints of a greater geopolitical context largely fall by the wayside when the men with the big guns show up. Barkhad Abdi is another impressive newcomer, holding the screen with Tom Hanks as Phillips’ chief kidnapper, but Captain Phillips is all about the final five minutes and for those five minutes Tom Hanks is absolutely riveting. Recommended.


HER – a man falls in love with the operating system on his smart phone (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and shortly thereafter my ass fell asleep in the theatre chair. Spike Jonze, allegedly exorcising the ghosts of his failed marriage to Sofia Coppola (a union better eulogized by the superior-in-every-way (including Johansson’s performance) LOST IN TRANSLATION), directs this film set in near-future LA where Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix in a herculean performance), a ghost-writer for “Beautiful Handwritten”, finds the perfect woman in the disembodied personality of his new OS.

The ersatz affect of Theodore and his “relationship” with “Samantha,” the OS, may be baked into the concept but it doesn’t mean that it’s particularly good or dramatically satisfying to watch. While I don’t think you need a wang to appreciate Her, it would probably help. The movie’s conclusion, which implies that – amazingly – real connection with all its messiness is superior to a sterile fantasy woman upon whom you can project all your emotional needs, is not worth the two hours and six minutes in that damn seat. (Also, someone explain to me how you can program a disembodied AI to experience orgasm….) Not recommended. Not even a little.


INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS – Llewyn Davis, in the words of one-time lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan), is an asshole. Nothing in the Cohen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis argues very strongly that Jean is not 100 per cent correct about Llewyn, a folksinger couch-surfing through the Greenwich Village folk revival scene on the cusp of Dylan’s arrival.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a loving portrait of a man and a era both coming to the end of their time but the movie lacks a strong narrative and is instead content to amble along after Llewyn. Folk music, at least in an American context, was never the same after Dylan (whose “Farewell” plays out the film) and, perhaps reflecting this, there is a sterility to the performances in Inside Llewyn Davis – accomplished but static and without personality. Llewyn, detached, depressive and bitter, can’t quite grasp what his peers have that he doesn’t and from my perspective, he has a point. The film ends during Dylan’s first performance at The Gaslight and I’m left wondering whether Llewyn would have been liberated or further embittered by Dylan’s blowin’ wind? A nice though not exceptional bijoux of film but still recommended, particularly for the cat.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET – the story of a vulgar thief, vulgarly told with little imagination and no sense of restraint or variation in tone by Martin Scorsese who, at 71 years old, should goddamn well know better. If you want the experience of having Leonardo DiCaprio scream “Greed is good” at you while a nameless, naked women with a shaved crotch pulls a candle from his ass, The Wolf of Wall Street is definitely worth your $12.99.

For the rest of the world, you’re better off rewatching GOODFELLAS, from which Scorsese self-plagiarizes or, better yet, AMERICAN HUSTLE, which is in every way a superior film and far more fun to watch. Watching the two movies in close succession was illuminating to see both the extent to which Scorsese’s work has become part of the language of American cinema and how little Scorsese’s recent works have added to his oeuvre. Some critics will argue that The Wolf of Wall Street objectively presents convicted swindler Jordan Belfort’s life story and therefore cannot be criticized for its excessive and grotesque depictions of sex, drugs and depraved behaviour.

Even if that were true (it’s actually prima facie bullshit), The Wolf of Wall Street can still be criticized for showing more naked women (too many to count) than Belfort’s victims (none shown. One mark is overheard on a speakerphone); for giving the women zero agency; for not mentioning that Belfort has yet to make good on restitution to his victims as required by his 2003 sentencing agreement (Belfort is reported to have paid back $10.4 million of the $110 million he agreed to in exchange for reduced jail time); and for how Scorsese chose to frame and depict women as nameless (and often faceless) bodies who exist solely to be fucked. The Wolf of Wall Street is a disgraceful piece of misogynistic, misanthropic dog shit that glorifies theft and deserves to be seen by no one.

Still to come: THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, ALL IS LOST (if I can find it) and PHILOMENA, NEBRASKA and SAVING MR. BANKS (if I can find the intestinal fortitude.)

Kathryn Halloran is a Toronto-based writer. 

© Kathryn Halloran 2014

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