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The Spirit Awards nominations were announced this morning.  The press had Anthony Mackie and Kate Beckinsale reading the list, while us mere mortals waited breathlessly for the official twitter feed to update.  Seems like a tossup to me.  In any case, the Spirit Award nominations are officially the start of Oscar season!  Yay!  It was so kind of them for wait until I bought a new laptop.

As a reminder/disclosure, the Grouches vote for the Spirit Awards.  So if anyone representing some of the harder to see films (especially for us out in DC) wants to send us a screener, we won’t complain!

You can find the nominees here.  As the tweets started rolling out, I sent a confused message to John: The Artist was eligible?  A point you’ll also find made in this quite excellent take on the biggest surprises of the nominations.  Frankly, it is pretty silly that no one quite knows which films are and aren’t eligible for the Spirit Awards.  If the Oscars can make such a list available, you can too, Spirit Awards.

The Grouches were surprised at how mainstream, relatively speaking, the nominations seemed to be.  Naturally, there were the out of left picks picks that have become the signature of the Spirit Awards – I doubt pretty much anyone had heard of Think of Me, I’m a fervent Lauren Ambrose supporter and I hadn’t heard of it.  But a significant majority of the noms are at least in the Oscar conversation.

There’s also a lot of overlap between categories, there aren’t very many films with a single nomination.  Even three out of the five nominees in the John Cassevetes category (films made for under $500,000) received a nomination elsewhere.  I’m not sure what to make of that.  Maybe the committee got it right.  But it seems unimaginative at best and lazy at worst.

The article I linked above hit the major snubs: Clooney, Close, Like Crazy, Midnight in Paris for most categories.  There are always going to be snubs, this batch seems relatively tame.

But enough negatives!  Oscar season has kicked off with an intriguing bunch of movies.  They may not all turn out to be winners, (cough, Cedar Rapids) but it is going to be a lot of fun exploring them.

And in case you are wondering, I’m actively ignoring the New York critics awards that were also announced this morning.  New York bias aside, their refusal to wait until all 2011 likely eligible films had, you know, BEEN COMPLETED was absurd.  I realize this whole process is ridiculous, but to me, if you are naming best in class without having at least the chance to see the whole class, you’ve completely abandoned any pretense that you are interested in the movies.

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We here at Golden Grouches are a voter for the Independent Spirit Awards. That is, the four of us combine to form one member of Film Independent and we merge our brainpower to submit one ballot. We had a fun time doing it last year, seeking out smaller films and arguing about our votes.

On Tuesday the nominees will be announced and we’ll have our list of films to try to track down in the next three months. The Spirits give us a nice long time to see the films and hopefully give the nominees a box office boost.

It’s tough to know beforehand what has qualified for the Spirits. A film’s budget must come in under $20 million and be primarily American. They don’t publish a list of qualified films so we’re all left doubly guessing for tomorrow. Maybe the films we hope to see on the nomination list were too costly or too Canadian. But we’ve got a few nominees we’re hoping to see show up.

John

My major hope is a Best Actress nomination for Liana Liberato in Trust. I really liked the (David Schwimmer-directed!) film about a girl targeted by an online predator and maybe Catherine Keener and Clive Owen as her parents will garner the awards nominations as the bigger stars, but Liberato is so so good as the victimized teen. The film works because it’s not simply a weepy melodrama. Liberato’s character won’t admit she was a victim and her relationship with her dad becomes fraught. So she’s got the angsty teen thing down! Plus of course the horrible abuse.

I’m not entirely positive 50/50 qualifies, but if it does I’d like to see it get some recognition. It wasn’t as great as I was expecting – I think I sunk it with high expectations – but it’s still a very good and fairly brave film. Any of the actors would be good nominees: Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, and especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Jared

If it is eligible, I’d love to see Gregg Araki’s Kaboom get some love.  A divisive movie, to be sure, but it totally worked for me.  It will end up as one of my favorite films of the year, so I’d be tickled pick if it somehow got some top nominations, including a best actor for lead Thomas Dekker.

Super is a dark, twisted, brilliant ordinary guy-turned-superhero flick.  It is best watched with a friend and some good beer (Thanks, Adam!).  I’d love to see its script get a nod and I wouldn’t mind Rainn Wilson for lead and Ellen Page for supporting.  And OK, it is the fanboy in me, but if Judi Dench can get an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, then Nathan Fillion is totally deserving of a nomination for his role here.

One of the few actual contenders I’ve seen is Martha Marcy May Marlene, and I’m pretty sure it is deserving of all the noms it will receive.

I’m guessing Hesher was eligible last year, but if not, Joseph Gordon-Levitt deserves a nom both because he is awesome and because he so completely inhabits this role that’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen from him.

Best Actor is always crowded, but David Hyde Pierce in The Perfect Host is way more under than radar than he should be, in my opinion.  He’s excellent as a…well…I don’t want to spoil anything, but he is super creepy.

And I’m actually pretty down on three likely contenders: Jane Eyre, Win Win, and Take Shelter.  They are all populated with actors I really like, so I’m not necessarily opposed to acting nominations (I think the order in which I’d root fort them is: Michael Shannon, Michael Fassbender, Amy Ryan, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Paul Giamatti).  But I’ll be a little disappointed with any best picture or writing nominations.

Goodness, the 24th AFI European Union Film Showcase in Washington, DC flew right by and I fell way behind on my comments. But maybe that’s appropriate as I found little that either struck me strongly positively or negatively. Mostly good stuff, but nothing really great.

Some of the films in the festival are in the hunt for the Foreign Language Oscar. Others may receive commercial releases or have been hitting the festival circuit. Some we’ve been hearing about since Cannes. And maybe someone will stumble upon my thoughts and I can steer them towards a good film or away from a bad one.

The Jewel (Il Gioiellino), Italy/France, dir: Andrea Molaioli

The first film I saw at the fest was also one of my favorites. The Jewel is a telling of the fall of Parmalat, the Italian food multinational that collapsed amidst widespread fraud a few years back. The company’s name and specific details were changed for the film but there can be no doubt of the inspiration.

The film is rather disjointed. The first half or so focuses on CFO Ernesto Botta, a loyal but cranky servant to the family-run firm even as his status as a non-relative limits his rise and forces him to share an office with a young ruling family niece just out of business school. His increasingly bizarre dealings with the company’s bosses reveal something is going wrong with the firm while he becomes personally entangled with the niece. It all leads up to Botta needing to decide if he is going to go off the cliff with the firm or blow the whistle.

But once Botta chooses his path he becomes a secondary character as the film morphs into a slick montage of the company’s further descent into fraud and the bosses continuously double down on their involvement. Both parts are quite good but the shift in the middle is a bit jarring. I could see the film choosing one style and sticking to it or concurrently focusing on both Botta and the firm as a whole, but the abrupt shift in the middle doesn’t work.

Still, it’s quite entertaining. Toni Servillo is excellent as Botta and Teho Teardo’s score of strings mixed with electronic elements is a knockout. I stayed through the credits to hear it all. Teho also composed for 2009 Best Makeup nominee, the incomprehensible Il Divo, and I loved the music there too. I guess this guy is talented. B+.

Long Live the Family (Rodina je základ státu), Czech Republic, dir: Robert Sedláček

Now we move into the part of the program about Eastern European families on the run from the law. In Long Live the Family, the police are closing in on Libor for embezzling from his Prague financial firm. He packs up his family and makes a break for it all the while telling them they’re going on vacation.

He’s guilty and he knows the police will catch up. But he flees out of shame, out of a desire for one last burst of freedom, and, strangely, out of desperation borne out of a mid-life crisis. The film has nice enough family moments and introspective looks into Libor’s character. His wife’s growing understanding that something has gone awry develops nicely. But most of the film indulges Libor’s middle aged whining. A visit to family friends devolves into him and his friend drunkenly discussing their affairs and fairly pathetic regrets about how their lives didn’t pan out like they had hoped when they were younger. Libor has a great family and a successful career (supplemented by his embezzlement proceeds). The fact that he committed a crime and is now fleeing from the law takes a backseat. Things may have turned out better for you if you didn’t steal a bunch of money, pal. D+.

Outbound (Periferic), Romania, dir: Bogdan George Apetri

I think I’m just in the bag for new Romanian cinema. There’s no great reason I should have liked Outbound except that I enjoyed its aesthetic.

Matilda gets a day pass from jail to attend her mother’s funeral. Instead, she embarks on a series of errands meant to culminate with her fleeing the country with her son. The result is an episodically structured film with each segment focusing on her meeting with someone: family, exes, bosses, and her son. Truth be told I can’t claim any of these episodes are entirely compelling from a plot perspective, but they do elicit a conflicted portrait of Matilda. She’s our protagonist but she’s quite unlikeable, spitefully sparring with good and bad acquaintances alike.

While the camera does linger on its subjects, the shots do not last an especially long time like in other Romanian new wave films (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days). The strong visuals help bring us into Matilda’s world, enough that I didn’t entirely mind the meandering plot. C+.

The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au Vélo), Belgium/France/Italy, dir: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The Dardenne brothers are Cannes darlings but I think they’re just not for me. I’ve only seen two: The Kid with a Bike, which has been hitting the festival circuit since this year’s Cannes, and L’Enfant, which won the Palme d’Or in 2005. Both are inconsequential tales of lower-class life in Belgium that left me disinterested.

11-year-old Cyril lives in a group home. His father has abandoned him, though he has yet to accept it. He meets Samantha, who agrees to take him in on weekends. But he’s not an angelic kid. His heart is mostly in the right place but he yearns for affection (understandable given his background) and is prone to lashing out. He rides his bike a lot and makes some mistakes. To me, it kind of pointlessly meanders. Cécile De France, who I enjoyed in Hereafter, is also good here as Samantha. C-.

One small joy about running a website is seeing what search engine terms bring people to your site. Since our site doesn’t have readers, it may be the only joy. And because the list of referrals is naturally pretty small, I’m happy to respond to individual searchers.

So to the person who go to us by searching “midnight in paris historical accuracy”: no, the film about the time-traveling writer who hobnobs with a bunch of dead people is not historically accurate. Glad I could help!

"Let's do it again, but this time do it more accurately"

Have you ever seen a movie and thought that the trailer was better than the movie? Not necessarily as a form of criticism of the film or that the trailer simply had all the good jokes or something, but that the trailer was literally a better piece of cinematic art?

I’ve been thinking about this after seeing Like Crazy last week. I think the film’s trailer is a knockout and emotionally evocative in ways the film simply isn’t.

Usually trailers are necessarily thin, reducing a plot to its basics and giving a feel for the tone. (Or they outright lie when a marketing plan calls for it.) But for films that rely on creating atmosphere that task may well be easier in two and a half minutes as a montage backed by an appropriately emotional song and slick editing. The Like Crazy trailer is better than the film because it’s unencumbered by the film’s narrative or characters (bazinga!).

The trailer still gives me chills, though I think part of it is that I see what could have been and it’s a reminder of the missed opportunities of the film.

This happened last year as well with True Grit, which was more of a case of the trailer being great than the film being poor. The first half of the trailer is sweet though fairly standard, but when it launches into the Johnny Cash song it turns totally badass.

And it’s not like great trailers are a curse. The Social Network and The Dark Knight both lived up to kick-ass trailers.

Who knows what next film will be unable to match a great trailer? I’m pretty confident that it will be great, but is it possible The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo won’t equal the intensity of it’s trailer?

It’s time for the third and final part of my round-up of the films I saw at the 2011 AFI Latin American Film Festival in the Washington, DC area. Also see parts one and two.

No Return (Sin Retorno), Argentina/Spain, dir: Miguel Cohan

Clubbing wasn’t the gritty morality tale I was expecting, but No Return sure fit the bill! After a hit and run death in Buenos Aires, police zero in on a suspect: Federico, a young family man (and ventriloquist!). But, while Federico is not totally blameless, he is not the killer. Matías, a teenager from an upper class family, is the true culprit. His panicked reaction to the accident has him claiming he was carjacked.

The film spends some time with Federico and his legal troubles as he slides from incredulous assertions of innocence to bitterness. The victim’s father plays a role in publicly shaming Federico and forcing the prosecutor’s hand. The film really shines when focusing on Matías and his family as they continuously double down on their cover-up and justify it to themselves. The strain, conflicted emotions, and intense guilt of the situation are portrayed beautifully.

The plot does sort of go off the rails a bit at the end, but even so the film is quite effective and had me totally riveted. The performances are top-notch across the board. It’s not the most pleasant film to sit through, but if you’re in the mood for something a bit difficult this is a very good choice. A-.

Miss Bala, Mexico, Gerardo Naranjao

If there’s one thing that the drug wars in Mexico have given us it’s the ability to use the prefix “narco-” in front of any word. Well, great ready for much narco-tinged discussion this Oscar season as this narco-thriller gets a major push to bring the Foreign Language award back to the narco-torn country of Mexico. Not that I particularly liked it. I just know that everyone else seems to.

Stephanie Sigman plays Laura, a Tijuana youngster who aims to compete in the Miss Baja California competition. But she attends the wrong party and crosses paths with a drug cartel. Soon she is an unwilling participant in the cartel’s activities, running errands and even doing its bidding in the beauty pageant.

Over the course of a few days, Laura is thrust into a slew of violent situations. The action sequences are sort of the standard movie shootouts with the nice twist of always keeping the focus on Laura. Rather than showing an entire battle, we see Laura stumble, flee, and hide.

This strict point of view also may be part of what disappointed me. I found a bunch of the cartel content quite hard to follow. I suspect that’s on purpose as we only know what Laura knows and she’s swept up in a much larger force of which she only sees a small part. But the result is that I didn’t end up caring. This made the thrills less thrilling and the tension less tense. So I could watch and enjoy the scenes but never felt invested.

I doubt confusion over plot points was the sole reason I was left cold but I can’t really explain any other factors. I’ll actually be interested to see it again in case I was just having a bad night or something. Everyone else seems to love the film and it’s sure to make a splash as Mexico’s submission for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar. I hear Fox is giving it a large commercial push later in the year as well. B-.

Blackthorn, Spain/France/Bolivia/USA, dir: Mateo Gil

Making a sequel to a classic film is an invitation for derision. Thankfully, of the commentary I’ve seen on Blackthorn, a sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, not much of it has devolved to the lazy criticism of questioning the point of its existence. I think that if you believe you have an interesting take on classic characters, go ahead. But just know that comparisons are inevitable and it’s a hard bar to clear.

So let’s just judge Blackthorn on its own merits: which is that it’s sort of meh.

Blackthorn imagines a world where Butch Cassidy survived the raid at the end of the original movie and has been hiding out in Bolivia for a few decades. He decides it’s finally time to head home and sets off, just to have his journey interrupted by a Spaniard on the run after stealing from a local mining bigwig. The pursuit takes the pair through the Bolivian landscape, through valleys and across desolate deserts.

The Bolivian setting gives it a slight air of exoticism, but it’s really quite similar to what you’d expect an American Western to look like. The story is decent though not especially compelling. The film really shines in a couple of scenes, such as a protracted chase across an expanse of salt flats. But I’m not really sure this movie needed to feature Butch Cassidy. I admit I haven’t seen the first film so maybe I don’t have the best perspective, but it seems like the narrative would be fine with new characters. Flashbacks to the younger outlaws during the time of the first movie and soon after don’t help the film at all and the reintroduction of a character from the first film in Blackthorn’s third act only serves to convolute things. Consequently, forging it as a sequel seems a little gimmicky.

The AFI calls it a Bolivian film for the purpose of its festival, but much of it is in English and the star and (I think) much of the financing are American. It is playing in limited release in America this fall. Outreach to Oscar bloggers suggests the studio is trying some sort of Oscar push for lead Sam Shepard, but there’s no way that’s happening and it’s for the best. B.

This ends our coverage of the AFI Latin American Film Festival. It was a pretty good year and maybe slightly better than last year. And now my attention shifts to another AFI fest, this one the AFI European Union showcase which includes some Oscar contenders and Foreign Language category submissions. Stay tuned!

It wasn’t very good.

I’ll have more to say later, but with people looking for any reaction they can find to War Horse I figured I may as well get mine out there.

It does have some really neat war scenes. But it’s PG-13 so there’s no blood, sapping it of realism. How is it supposed to really make an honest connection when the fighting scenes look like they come out of The Mummy? Imagine the inhospitable no man’s land, the terror in a soldier’s eyes as he wills himself to cross it… and bodies cartoonishly flailing and yelling “ahh!” as they crumple bloodlessly to the ground.

Not that this is my biggest complaint, but it’s one that’s easy to explain and requires no more consideration.

The prestige movie season is beginning in earnest as we move into November. What impressed us in the months before the depths of awards season?

Brian

1. Captain America: The First Avenger
2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
3. Page One: Inside the New York Times
4. The Adjustment Bureau
5. X-Men: First Class

John

1. Midnight in Paris
2. Source Code
3. Armadillo
4. Contagion
5. The Tree of Life

Jared

1. Paul
2. The Guard
3. X-Men: First Class
4. The Names of Love
5. Kaboom

Adam

1. The Guard
2. X-Men: First Class
3. Paul
4. Fast Five
5. Captain America: The First Avenger

November 2011
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