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The Halfway Mark Pt 1: Pictures & Screenplays

We're halfway through the calendar, if not the film year exactly given the backloaded release schedule. So, let's take stock as to where we've been. Herewith my choices for Best thus far... which means I'm hoping that AMPAS and all awards groups will give them a try before the mad traffic jam of year-end Oscar vehicles.

Disclaimer: But first of all... did I miss anything? Sure. You can't see everything though I see my share (full list). My biggest 'oops' for 2013 is definitely Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley's docudrama about her family history which most people I trust at least like and some love. But I also wish I'd seen the Israeli Oscar submission Fill the Void which didn't compete for the foreign film Oscar but did win a release and great reviews.


Original Screenplay

To say that Director/Muse collaborations so tight they're sharing screenplay credits are having a good year is an understatement: All the Light in the Sky (which I fear will not get a release given its exceedingly miniature scale), Frances Ha, and Before Midnight are all memorable gems. Small enough to be intimate true-feeling experiences but resonant enough to be shared ones. I keep wanting to go back to all three. As for auteurs -- and the truest definition of that overused tag would have to be writer/directors rather than directors, This is Martin Bonner is a shocking rarity in the cinematic landscape. This story of a divorced older man and the ex-con he befriends (sort of) is a tiny dual character sketch but not a simplistic one. Oh, and also: I like Mud.

Adapted Screenplay

Alexis Neiers from "The Suspect Wore Louboutins" and her screen counterpart Emma Watson in "The Bling Ring"

For the purposes of this "so far" list I'm counting Behind the Candelabra (based on the autobiography by Scott) primarily because it was supposed to and should have been a theatrical feature rather than an HBO movie, but if I wasn't counting it I'd sub in the bull-fighting themed silent-movie riff on Snow White called Blancanieves (Spain's Oscar submission last season) which I recommend and still find myself thinking about months later. Otherwise, have a tub of popcorn for Iron Man Three (based on the Marvel Comics), a clever subversion of what you'd expect from a "really?this again?" superhero franchise and, no small feat, funnier than most movies billing themselves as comedies out there. It isn't out yet but The Spectacular Now (based on the novel) is a quality oasis in a sea of depressingly popular but empty/inept YA movies; Only Sofia Coppola could have made an entire feature out of the Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins" but she did just that with The Bling Ring, and other than Spring Breakers its the year's most articulate display of empty-headed inarticulateness. The homogenized vocal cadences of these shallow Hills-loving teenagers were so funny to me and a great reflection of the subject matter -- think Paris Hilton's "that's hot" and multiply it over a whole movie. And finally, I know I've begged everyone to see the Chilean Oscar nominee NO multiple times already. It's based on the play by Antonio Skarmeta and it's just fantastically smart and entertaining. 

Best Ensemble Performance
We'll look at the Best Individual Performances in Pt 2 of this Halfway Mark Review but for now let's talk about group acting. Behind the Candelabra, Frances Ha and even Mud, sound like star vehicles in synopsis and are in some key ways but all three benefit immeasurably from a smartly assembled supporting cast who understand that their job is too play off of, rub against (sometimes not pleasurably), and reflect back at the "Star Turn" while delivering little pleasures all their own; I'm So Excited sees a cast of Pedro regulars and newbies having campy fun with their outrageous roles;

Finally, though, I'm not here to name "Winners" so much as note FYCs for later, if I could have chosen only one film for this paragraph it would have been The East. There might not be a "great" performance within it per se but everyone from its major cult trio (Skarsgard, Marling, Page) to the one or two scene tertiary characters does really engaging work as befits a movie that buzzes around a hive mind. 

And finally, though it might feel anticlimactic given how often the films have already been named...

Direction & Pictures

The three films I'd almost guarantee you'll see on my top ten list come year's end are Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, and Pablo Larrain's NO. With the second tier there's a handful of pictures I like to about the same degree which is to say that FYC: BEST PICTURE feels like desperate "fill slots!" measure. But those three? Just wow. I recognize that in the case of NO, the FYC is in vain even though its well deserved; it's not eligible for Oscars this year having won a Foreign Film Nomination last year. I also want to honor two original distinct voices that made two films only they could have made. I'm not sure Sofia Coppola took The Bling Ring deep enough and I'm still not sure what to make of Harmony Korine's  Spring Breakers but what dazzling exteriors those films both hypnotize with.

Have you seen most of these pictures? And if so which FYCs would you like to co-sign?


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Reader Comments (20)

I agree with your take on "The Bling Ring." Coppola knows how to keep my attention, and she definitely had mine for the entire film. I was just on the verge of my seat by the end expecting for her to give me something more substantial (i.e. a deeper dissection of the characters, for one). For instance (SPOILER ALERTS), I think she brushed over the idea that Nicki was the one that was caught and her "sister" Sam wasn't. Why didn't we see Nicki struggling more with how unfair that was, given that both of them were equally fascinated by the larger-than-life households they were robbing and the celebrity culture they tried to emulate? Instead, we just get Emma Watson mentioning to Sam how lucky she was not to get caught? I also thought Coppola seemed out-of-nowhere to be more interested in Nicki by the end, when she clearly had put Rebecca and Marc front and center before that? (SPOILERS END) Anyway those were just some of my reservations about a movie I still liked.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

I watched NO based solely on your recommendation and I'm glad I did; definitely one of the best pictures of the year. I agree with you on Mud and would like to praise the merits of Side Effects. I don't think enough people saw it unfortunately, but its Hitchcockian thrills and strong direction kept me entertained throughout and I highly recommend it to anyone who had yet to see it. I hope Soderbergh's 'sabbatical' is short-lived and he goes back to doing what he does best.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

Excellent choices, but I would also include Side Effects. I have a difficult time imagining anything coming out this year that will top Frances Ha.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterfilmdr

Please do a write-up on The Bling Ring! I haven't seen it yet, but I love Coppola and the shimmeringly beautiful cast are just so nice to look at!

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelva

Ditto. I've by dying to her your thoughts on the bling ring and Emma Watson in general.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonn

Triple that - super excited to hear your thoughts.

Okay year so far, I hope to see Elizabeth DeBicki (sp?) in your acting picks, she made Gatsby for me.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermorganisaqt

Bummed you haven't seen Stories We Tell, which is my No. 1 so far, with Frances Ha and Before Midnight close behind.

I don't ever recall a year where three films that were at A-level (Mud is right up there) were released before the halfway point. There's usually one and maybe two, but three? I know all of them will be in my top 10, if not my top 5. A great year for movies thus far, even if the public isn't responding to thought-provoking, intelligent movies.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

Yeah, I think people saying there hasn't been anything of merit in the first half of the year are flat out liars. If my top ten includes first year entries like LAURENCE ANYWAYS, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, SPRING BREAKERS, BLING RING, NO, MUD, and THIS IS MARTIN BONNER then I'll be mostly disappointed the second half failed to live up to expectations rather than being disappointed that I'm filling spaces with those titles. And then there's PRINCE AVALANCHE (seen at Tribeca), BLACK ROCK, AN OVER-SIMPLIFICATION OF HER BEAUTY, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, FILL THE VOID, and THE DIRTIES which I have a lot of time for as well as plenty of others that I wouldn't rank as incredible or unique enough for a slot on a top ten, but I greatly enjoyed stuff like FRANCES HA, MAN OF STEEL, TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM, BLACK FISH, CRYSTAL FAIRY, IL FUTURO, THE EAST, KISS OF THE DAMNED, STORIES WE TELL, TO THE WONDER, THE ROCKET, SIMON KILLER, STOKER, IN THE FOG, and THE GREAT GATSBY. I haven't seen BEFORE MIDNIGHT or MUCH ADO yet.

Nathaniel, if it's any consolation, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is getting a theatrical release in most other countries.

As for the ensemble category: THIS IS THE END. Seriously. Obviously if you don't groove to their style then it'll be like nails on a chalkboard, but they're friends for a reason and the movie is surprisingly less indulgent to their riffing than you'd think.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Saw Frances Ha, Before Midnight, and The Bling Ring in a span of 5 days, best movie week ever! Totally agree with you on The Bling Ring, and while it seems I maybe liked it more I think it's the one Coppola movie that totally must be in the Best Comedy or Musical category at the GG as opposed to Lost In Translation which was more Drama.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpaco.

Great list, but if we follow academy rules, Before Midnight is in an adapted screenplay category :P

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNik

Before Midnight, Frances Ha and No (which I count as a 2012 film) are all wonderful choices. I would also add Lynn Shelton's upcoming Touchy Feely (another addition to her excellent filmography), the surprisingly good Interior. Leather Bar. from James Franco, the Robin Wright/Naomi Watts oddity Adore and the underrated Great Gatsby to my list. (I missed Stories We Tell too - need to see if I can track it down - and tragically, haven't watched Behind the Candelabra yet.)

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

If only! Thanks for including me in this group.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChad Hartigan

Nat, I agree with you on NO and Before Midnight (although not on Frances Ha, which left me indifferent at best).

Others up at the top of my list would be Barbara (Germany's Oscar rep last year), Hannah Arendt, Side Effects, Dans la maison (which I could see being France's next Oscar rep), plus a little indie film from Québec called Les manèges humaines, which went places where few films go in its treatment of excision.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

Great choices. To perhaps respond to BVR's comment, I think you didn't get any in-depth scenes to that regard in The Bling Ring precisely because Coppola's point is to show how these characters aren't affected by anything. Their lives are more or less meaningless (probably because they're already wealthy to begin with) so they just do things to do them and the consequences don't matter. That's what I got from the film, anyway.

However, Nat, I think it is time to start acknowledging all of the great quality on television. The convergence of mediums notwithstanding, TV today is just as good as film (i.e. films released theatrically). Shows like Breaking Bad, Homeland, Treme, Mad Men, Girls, Louie, Veep, etc., all match the great quality that we can see in film, and although there are still differences between the two mediums, I don't think quality is one of them.

Which is why it is kind of irritating to hear you say that Behind the Candelabra should have been released in theaters, as if you think TV movies are automatically inferior to theatrically released movies. While this may have been true in the past, in the recent decade I would say that the quality is equally matched. It depends on the specific project, of course, but to suggest that anything TV by default is inferior to film seems backward and frankly snobbish.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

Joseph -- i do not think that TV = less quality, only that MOVIES (i.e. 2 hourish stories that are complete as told) should be in movie theaters. I frankly have never understood the purpose of television movies (obviously miniseries and series are a differen beast, a television beast).

And rising quality in television movies -- combined with the forced nature of putting movies that were intended for theaters into the other medium (like Candelabra) -- only continues to fuck with our already frankly horrific distribution culture.

I know people are really excited about TV now and i know there's a lot of good stuff on TV (i watch some of it) but they are two different mediums and i wish people would stop acting like they're the same thing. Moreover i find -- at least in my real life if not always online -- that the people who watch a lot of tv and go on and on about movies suck, tend to be people who are watching Quality Acclaimed TV at home and big blockbusters at the movies and frankly that's not a fair comparison. A better comparison would be to watch TWO AND A HALF MEN and other huge ratings blockbusters on tv and compare them to Man of Steel, you know? ;)

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

I would love it if the critics and award shows recognized Bling Ring and Spring Breakers, but it's probably a long shot. Although, Franco and Watson were standouts in both.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Chad -- thanks for dropping by! Good luck on your next feature whatever that may be.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Enthusiastically co-sign Frances Ha, Mud and Before Midnight. i'm kicking myself for not having seen The Bling Ring yet.

i'd add in shout outs for Upstream Color, Like Someone in Love, To the Wonder, Beyond the Hills, and Gatsby!

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

"that the people who watch a lot of tv and go on and on about movies suck, tend to be people who are watching Quality Acclaimed TV at home and big blockbusters at the movies and frankly that's not a fair comparison. A better comparison would be to watch TWO AND A HALF MEN and other huge ratings blockbusters on tv and compare them to Man of Steel, you know? ;)"


July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I reviewed the (terrible) screenplay of "Mud" on my blog:


November 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPel Giroux

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