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Adam and I love movies.  We also love board games.  And though the idea of movies based on board games may sound absurd, we’re setting out to prove that doesn’t have to be the case.  So in the first of a (maybe!  probably not!) continuing series, here’s our pitch for Battleship, the movie.  And no, our version doesn’t involve aliens.

Our Battleship tells the story of a (fictional) Cold War naval battle, the secrets of which have just now come to light. The U.S. – Russian skirmish was led and fought by an admiral on each side who have a shared past thanks to a World War II exchange program.

Midshipmen together in the US, they were best friends and class standouts at the Naval Academy. Subverting cliche a little, the American is strictly by the book in his tactics, where the Russian is more seat of his pants. Perhaps obviously, this will be relevant for the final showdown.

Their friendship is strong, but the ideological pressure of the Cold War proves an insurmountable strain as they fall further and further out of touch as they rise the ranks of the Navy, both becoming admirals by 1970.

The 1973 oil crisis had global ramifications, including a scramble by both superpowers to find alternative sources of oil. A subsection of a decade-old report by Scandinavian scientists theorizing the potential for an oil field in unclaimed territory off the northern coast of Greenland suddenly takes on the utmost strategic importance.

Both sides send out fleets to secure the area. Already high tensions are exacerbated when an American aircraft carrier gets damaged by unexpected ice that is initially suspected to be a Russian mine. An overzealous higher-up in the Navy orders a reciprocal sinking of a Russian aircraft carrier.

Faced with the potential of a cold war suddenly becoming very hot, our two hero admirals reach an unspoken, implicit agreement to take their fleets toward the North Pole, in an effort to defuse the situation. But when a captain of one of the Russian vessels goes rogue and fires on an American ship, severely crippling it, the two sides are forced into an epic battle, trapped by the ice into a confined area.

The two friends turned mortal enemies are forced to exploit their friendship to anticipate the other’s every move, adroitly using their subs and destroyers as the primary units of warfare, protecting the battleships. The epic battle rages on, with both sides suffering heavy losses. As the battle nears the end, all ships are sinking or immobilized, save for the heavily damaged American battleship, which seems like it might be able to be the sole ship able to escape. Understanding the potential Cold War ramifications, though, the American admiral leaves his ship open to one final attack, one he knows his Russian friend will anticipate for similar reasons, and as that final ship goes down, he utters the famous final words, mournfully, but with a hint of a smile: “You sunk my battleship.”

The Sundance awards were announced last night, so let’s see how Ian and I did.

Jared – Fishing Without Nets – WINNER – Directing

Ian – Hellion

Ian – Cold in July

Jared – Infinitely Polar Bear

Jared – Low Down – WINNER – Cinematography

Ian – Dear White People – WINNER – Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent

Ian – Whiplash – WINNER – Grand Jury Prize AND Audience Award

Jared – God’s Pocket

Jared – Camp X-Ray

Ian – Song One

Ian – Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter – WINNER – Special Jury Award for Musical Score

Jared – The Skeleton Twins – WINNER – Screenwriting

Jared – Happy Christmas

Ian – Jamie Marks is Dead

Ian – Life After Beth

Jared – The Sleepwalker

Ian wins 9-3, though I’m going to suggest next year we make directing and screenwriting each worth more than score.  We clearly let Whiplash fall way too far, though we again did a good job of picking out the films least likely to win something.

And Ian would like me to note: Most Ridiculous Award – World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for the Delightful Ensemble Performance, and How the Director Brought His Own Unique Universe into Cinema: God Help the Girl.

My closing remarks from last year still fit fine, so I’ll repeat them: A big thanks to Ian for suggesting this, taking the time to do it, and for breathlessly reporting the results.  I look forward to getting revenge next year.

And now, part three of Ian and Jared’s fantasy Sundance draft.  If you missed it, check out part one for scoring and the first four picks and parts two and three.

With the thirteenth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

Happy Christmas

Jared: And the thing is, I’m not really a fan of mumblecore at all.  But I think you ignore a cast of Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, and Lena Dunham at your own peril.  And while it would be a surprise to see a mumblecore movie get a big win, I will note that the genre has been crossing over some.  Well, crossing over to the mainstream indie world, at any rate.  Your Sister’s Sister received some acclaim.  And writer/director Joe Swanberg’s 2013 release (also co-starring Anna Kendrick), Drinking Buddies, received some attention, including featuring on Quentin Tarantino’s list of the top ten films of the year.  I just watched the film, actually, and while Mr. Tarantino happens to be wrong in this case, I do see the potential for Swanberg to have some bigger “success” at some point in the future.

Ian: I don’t want to ignore the cast of Happy Christmas at all. I’m probably more predisposed to mumblecore than you, and I’ve liked everybody involved in this movie in at least one project or another. But I do think the verite style is not well-suited for winning flashier awards, and the subject of this movie also feels on the smaller side. That’s no knock against the movie, in fact I expect to like the movie, I just find it hard to imagine this comedy of manners with already established actors giving established performances finding much in the way of momentum. Of course, you have to pick something towards the end of the draft, and while I’d probably still choose a different movie that took a bigger swing, I understand the impulse to go with a surer established winner.

With the fourteenth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Jamie Marks is Dead

Ian: I actually have some hope for this film, which seems to mash a coming-of-age story of sexual awakening together with a horror film. Carter Smith, the director, locked down a Jury Prize with Bugcrush, a short film that combined many of the same elements. Here, the movie will rely upon its young leads, and that’s where I think it may similarly score well. Morgan Saylor is a terrific young actress who carved a bigger role for herself in Homeland with her work, even as the show descended into inanity, and I don’t mean a slight when I say that Cameron Monaghan gives one of my four favorite performances on Shameless. Between the cinematography, script, direction, and jury prize, this movie seems like it has an outside shot in several categories.

Jared: I tend to shy away from supernatural and horror films with my awards picks.  And while Carter Smith does have a Sundance pedigree, I’ll also point out that he last directed The Ruins, which isn’t exactly the most encouraging sign.  Alex Orlovsky has a producing credit on the film, he comes from Half Nelson and Blue Valentine, so there’s some promise there, even if Ryan Gosling is nowhere in sight here.  I agree about the young acting talent here, which definitely has significant promise.

With the fifteenth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Life After Beth

Ian: Now this movie, on the other hand, looks like total garbage. I would have handed it back to you to close out our draft, except that I liked the idea of ending with an indie zombie two-fer. If I were to advocate for my pick, I’d say that this movie will require excellent execution to work, and if it does work, it may have more screenwriting and visual flair than some moribund traditional Sundance film. I could see a movie like this being funny and surprisingly heartfelt, even if I find it hard to imagine that those tones can come from the co-writer of I Heart Huckabees. The actors may also help to elevate the material. Dane de Haan seems like a Sundance star in the making, and Aubrey Plaza…well, she can’t very well turn down her boyfriend for a role, can she?

Jared: I mean, I’m hoping I get to see this one while I’m at the festival.  But the official Sundance description includes a terribly punny joke, so I think the film was taken at slot.  Maybe it is “wickedly funny” and/or “shockingly poignant” and the film picks up an audience award or something, but it is difficult to see a clear path to awards.

With the final pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

The Sleepwalker

Jared: I think I fell asleep reading the official Sundance description of this film.  I guess I’m having a difficult time figuring out this film’s hook.  Maybe it it just difficult to market or summarize or something.  Plus it is a Norwegian co-production, and I get the sense Sundance is a better play for more “American”-type films.  When I was doing my initial rankings, I had the film near the bottom of the list and never really saw a reason to move it.

Ian: This may be a case of too much knowledge being a bad thing, but unlike the other 15 movies, I saw the trailer to The Sleepwalker beforehand. And yes, it’s now ranked dead last. So, word to the wise on the people who made the trailer…maybe a re-cut? I don’t think this is as moribund as Austenland or The Lifeguard were last year, but boy, does this movie ever seem rote. The setting and the ambiance are unusual, but the performances seemed pallid, and there’s not a lot of proof to the contrary in any of their respective bodies of work to date. I keep trying to avoid the word sleepy, because it’s so obvious, but yeah. The title has become reality. That said, just in case you are randomly googling this and you worked on the movie or are just a major fan, a good thing to keep in mind is that we don’t know what we’re talking about here. Good luck in the fantasy Sundance season!

And that’s a wrap.  Thanks to everyone (or no one, as is more likely) for reading, and I’ll hopefully have good things to report back from Sundance.

And now, part three of Ian and Jared’s fantasy Sundance draft.  If you missed it, check out part one for scoring and the first four picks and part two for picks 5 through 8.

With the ninth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

Camp X-Ray

Jared: When Sundance announced the movies playing the festival this year, many (if not most) of the headlines touted Kristen Stewart, who stars in this film.  I get the feeling Twilight has made her a divisive figure, but if you’ve only seen her or heard of her in those films, I think you’ll be surprised at her acting ability.  The film tells the story of a burgeoning friendship of a guard (Stewart) and a detainee (Payman Maadi) at Guantanomo Bay, and the combination of an intense character study coupled with the morals and politics involved with Gitmo could mean this film has the potential to play well to this audience.  Writer-director Peter Sattler went to college with David Gordon Green and did some work on his films, and Green returns the favor here as a producer.  Also producing is Sophia Lin, who has producing credits on lauded films Take Shelter and Compliance.  And I wouldn’t want to leave out that she was production manager on The Baxter, a film I know Ian and I both love.

Ian: You’ve mentioned a lot of things that I love more than the world at large in that writeup, but I’ll focus on KStew first. I’m with you, if you only know her as tabloid fodder and a Twilight star, you’re missing out on great performances in The Runaways or Adventureland in particular. And if Peter Sattler has any of the eye for detail of his NCSA compatriots like David Gordon Green or Jody Hill, there’s probably going to be a sensitivity to the subject matter. And yet, reading this, I wonder if KStew can take on such a major focus, and whether the subject matter can be told without being either didactic or mawkish. Like most of our midpack films (and, let’s face it, the entire lineup as far as we know), this one has some boom/bust potential.

With the tenth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Song One

Ian: Camp X-Ray was the last film remaining for me that had over a one-in-three chance of scoring. I think there’s a little bit of a gap here. The big draw for Song One is probably getting Anne Hathaway to come to Park City, but Hathy doesn’t seem like the kind of actress who the jury would feel compelled to give a Special Jury prize. The rest of the movie…well, it sure feels like Once in Brooklyn, doesn’t it? Once was obviously a shoo-in for the Audience Award back when it was in competition. While Jenny and Johnny don’t write songs with the same kind of naked emotional hooks as Glen Hansard does, I could see an affecting musical performance in a romantic weeper having much the same effect upon audiences. My biggest concern is the director, Kate Barker-Froyland’s pedigree. Sure, she seems prepared, but can she overcome her roots going to some state school in the midwest?

Jared: All Anne Hathaway does is win awards.  She’s got around 26 credits on imdb, and I believe she’s garnered at least a nomination for over half of them.  Or didn’t you realize she has an Emmy for voiceover work on The Simpsons, a British Independent Film Awards nomination for Becoming Jane, and a Young Artist nomination for Get Real?  So yeah, I’d say she’s in the running for playing the lead in an Sundance film.  She’s also a producer on this one, as are veteran producers Marc Platt and Jonathan Demme, so the film has some definite oomph behind it.  And to flesh out Ian’s joke, along with writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland, we are proud graduates of the University of Chicago.  Or graduates, at least.  So as fellow Maroons, we wish nothing but the best for Barker-Froyland.  Though I do question how anyone can escape that institution and be mentally stable enough to direct a feature-length movie.

With the eleventh pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Ian:  If Bunzo the rabbit does not win some sort of award, I am boycotting the festival next year. If I can give a little bit of a fantasy Sundance tip from an expert: I think once you get past the top picks (or if there are no top picks), you want to look for the best hooks for an award. Here, I could potentially see a potential award path for Rinko Kikuchi, in an All is Lost way, and the visual depiction of loneliness may also lead to some challenging direction or scenework. The Zellner brothers also have a pedigree of getting recognized, at least, so they may be building to a coming out party. I think I’m less enthused with the pick than I was when I made it, though, and this may be an overdraft, even here towards the end of the competition.

Jared: Yeah, I had this one near the bottom of my rankings.  The brothers Zellner are well-regarded Sundance alums, and Rinko Kinkuchi does have an Oscar nomination, sot here are a few things working in its favor.  But while I’m definitely curious about the film, the descriptions I’ve seen don’t scream out “Awards bait” to me.  And while I like Kinkuchi, sure seems like Hollywood hasn’t really figured out what to do with her since Babel.

With the twelfth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

The Skeleton Twins

Jared: Most importantly, one of the executive producers of this film is named “Jared Ian Goldman”, so I think we have to be rooting for this one.  I’ll grant that co-writer/director’s mumblecore heritage (this film was produced by the Duplass brothers) and stars Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader are not necessarily the stuff on which awards are built.  But to counter the latter, I’ll note that Nebraska, which co-stars Will Forte, seems to be doing pretty decently for itself.  And I’ve heard some incredibly premature buzz that Wiig and Hader are quite good in the roles, not really surprising giving their talent and how much people seem to generally like them.  Co-screenwriter Mark Heyman has a credit on Black Swan, for whatever that is worth.

Ian: I was deciding between The Skeleton Twins and Kumiko, and in the cold light of Sundance day, I think I made the wrong choice. (There are few sins less forgivable than making a poor fantasy Sundance draft decision.) I agree with both sides of your argument: the pedigree of the movie is enough to drop it towards the end of the draft, and Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are probably enough to make the movie a value pick here. Wiig and Hader play well together (second shoutout to Adventureland in one writeup!), and they’re both capable of quiet nuanced performance when away from the Groundlings character-first influence. I do wonder somewhat which of the awards this movie could possibly contend for, but that’s what made it available here in the first place.

And now, part two of Ian and Jared’s fantasy Sundance draft.  If you missed it, check out part one for scoring and the first four picks.

With the fifth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

Low Down

Jared: Director Jeff Preiss is a cinematographer and experimental filmmaker, and this film is about a jazz pianist and his daughter, so I’m taking the movie under the principle that anything unappealing to me is probably a good bet for awards love. Preiss has been knocking around for awhile to some acclaim, and this is his first crossover to anything that could be considered mainstreamish. What mostly drew me to the film were the lead actors: Elle Fanning and John Hawkes. I’m not saying we are high on Fanning, but I thought Elle Fanning deserved an Oscar nomination for Super 8, and Ian is the one who likes her more. She’s a fantastic actress who already has British Independent and Satellite nominations on her resume. John Hawkes has an Oscar nomination, of course, and is just generally awesome. He also shares an Sundance Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting. The rest of the cast includes Peter Dinklage, Glenn Close, Taryn Manning, Lena Headey, and Flea, with Anthony Kiedis listed as a produce. Which is fascinating, if nothing else.

Ian: Just to be clear, Internet weirdos, we think Elle Fanning is a terrific actress, nothing more. But yes, she was the best thing in the charming Super 8, and her performance in Somewhere was approaching transcendent. And I don’t need to sell anyone reading this on John Hawkes, or the rest of the cast. My hesitation is that it may seem a little slight and unfinished even for a Sundance movie, but that’s a mild reservation. If it’s good, I think it would perform well, and I’ll probably be strongly into seeing it. I’d have taken it next.

With the sixth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Dear White People

Ian: Instead, I took a movie that’s probably going to end up less on the lyrical side. Dear White People seems like enough of a polemic that I suspect I’m giving up shots at the Grand Jury and Audience awards, since satire may be a genre even less favored than horror. I do think this movie is very likely to land Justin Simien something, however, since he seems like a smart, already recognized writer who, let’s face it, knows how to market himself well. I’m not saying that to be dismissive, or to say that the film is unlikely to stand on its own, but I think having a nose for p.r. and recognition is a skill (as the Weinsteins prove every award season). Aiming for a writer’s/director’s award here, and hopefully, a smart and subversive movie.

Jared: I strongly considered this one. Look, in order to be an ace awards pundit, you have to throw political correctness out the window. It seems safe to argue that the type of people going to an indieish awards festival in Utah created by Robert Redford will fall over themselves to applaud an intellectual look at race in the country. The only question, really, is how subversive, how funny, how frank the film is. One gets the feeling Sundance folk would like to tsk-tsk others for their racism, it is unclear what the awards impact would be if the film asks viewers to think more critically about themselves.

With the seventh pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Whiplash

Ian: This one is kind of a mirror image of Hellion, as a young man is brutally shaped by a parental figure in a feature film that was expanded from a short previously recognized at Sundance. The difference here is pedigree. Start with the cast, and Miles Teller in particular. I said this last year with The Spectacular Now, but Miles Teller is definitely one On The Verge, and he and Shailene Woodley took home a special jury award for his efforts in that film (aside: well-deserved, in my opinion). Now, he’s back in the competition as an intense student, being mentored by the always reliable J.K. Simmons. Add in that the film has already won a Jury Award as a short, and then Director Damien Chazelle got the feature-length script on the Black List, and this one has a lot of promise. Just as with J.J. Abrams and Infinitely Polar Bear, the presence of big macher Jason Reitman on the producer list also helps tip the scales. Starting to think I may have underrated it, if anything.

Jared: Hm. Yeah, this one may have fallen. Can’t think of many negatives here. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has a screenplay credit on The Last Exorcism Part II, which isn’t the most encouraging thing in the world, I suppose. And he wrote the upcoming Grand Piano, a thriller starring Elijah Wood as a concert pianist who John Cusack (presumably) threatens to kill if he plays a wrong note during a recital. But yeah, the film seems a good bet to bring home something.

With the eighth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

God’s Pocket

Jared: As a huge fan of the TV show Ed, I’m tickled pink to see John Slattery directing a Sundance film. Even though Dennis Martino was obviously a bastard and totally wrong for Carol Vesey and maybe I digress. Slattery is best known, of course, for his role on Mad Men and has directed five episodes of the series, to some acclaim. This film marks his feature film debut as director. The cast is jaw-droppingly good: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eddie Marsan, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, and Christina Hendricks, it isn’t unreasonable to hope for a nod for one of them. The film is based on a novel by Peter Dexter, on whose novel The Paperboy was based, and who has screenwriting credits for Mulholland Falls, Michael, and an Emmy nomination for Paris Trout. So that’s a mixed bag. But the Sundance description includes “authentic”, which is always a good sign, plus it specifically mentions the cinematography, so it could be in the running for a point there.

Ian: It’s hard for me to get a read on God’s Pocket. On the one hand, this is bigger than the type of movie usually in the Sundance competition. This is probably the best prestige cast we’ve seen in our storied history of fantasy Sundance drafting. And yes, Lance Acord, the cinematographer, generally works in movies that premiere at Sundance, and not films in competition. On the other hand, how much of this acclaim is a favor to the well-liked John Slattery? This isn’t said to be dismissive at all, he may well be a great screenwriter, and he’s taken on some visually inventive episodes of Mad Men (Signal 30 in particular is likely an underrated episode in the Mad canon). We (well, I) just don’t know yet, and the film description sounds a little on the pedestrian side to be in the Jury Prize running. It’s probably a pick that’s going to score, and maybe one that has broad audience appeal and familiar characters, so I endorse it here.

Coming up next, part three of our draft.

As you no doubt remember, Ian and I drafted the movies in the U.S. Dramatic Competition from last year’s Sundance festival.  Hopefully you forgot that Ian wiped the floor with me.  As you might have guessed, we’re bringing the draft back again this year.

But first, I’m excited to announce that Adam and I will be attending this  year’s Sundance festival.  No clue whether we’ll actually be able to see any in competition films, but I’ll be sure to report back.

We are using the same scoring system as last year:

Grand Jury Prize: 3 points
Audience Award: 2 points
Special Jury Prizes: 2 points each
US Directing Award: 1 point
Screenwriting Award: 1 point
Cinematography Award: 1 point
Alfred P. Sloan Award: Tiebreak

And the draft will snake, like all drafts should.  I get first pick this year since I got trounced last year.  For summaries of all films, check out the official Sundance page.  Here’s part one of four of our draft.

With the first pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

Fishing Without Nets

Jared:  I’m not sure what a clear #1 pick would be in a fantasy Sundance league, but I didn’t see one this year.  The overly simplified summary of this film you’ll probably see floating around is that it is Captain Phillips from the perspective of the pirates.  And I’m banking on this film getting a boost by riding the coattails of the likely Oscar nominee, which at this point in the Oscar race seems to have a healthy base of support.  The film is writer/director Cutter Hodierne’s first feature effort (which isn’t necessarily a point against him; the last two Grand Jury prizes were won by first-time filmmakers: Ryan Coogler for Fruitvale Station and Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild), but he’s directed a documentary of U2, and this film is actually based on a short of the same name, which won a Jury prize at the 2012 Sundance festival.  The film apparently used nonactors, so it is unlikely to compete for acting prizes, but I think the apparent combination of action and moral dilemmas, plus the aforementioned pedigree gives the film a good chance to click.

Ian:  In our long and storied history of the Fantasy Sundance League, there’s never been a year with as little stratification as this one. I also see fewer “locks” than last year, and the bigger name directors were of the mumblecore “it’s an honor to be nominated” variety. This one was a little down my list, if only because Captain Phillips may have sucked up some of the air in the piracy genre. Oh, and also because the movie has been gestating for so long that Somali piracy has been eradicated in the meantime. The fact that this movie was already honored is a point in its favor, but I thought there were better choices on the board with similar Sundance pedigrees.

With the second pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Hellion

Ian: This film was also selected to premiere at Sundance as a short film. While it didn’t win any prizes then (and may not have been in competition), I like its odds better now. If I had to explain why in two words, they would read, “Aaron Paul.” Paul has been in indies before, of course, but this is going to be the first movie he takes onto the festival circuit after the triumphant end of Breaking Bad. And if we’re talking about a “commanding performance” from him, I think this is one that juries or audiences have been well primed to honor. The subject matter also seems harrowing, and frankly more interesting than most of the other movies in competition. I’m looking for a combination of quality and timing to lead to some of the big awards.

Jared: I strongly considered this one for my first overall pick.  Recent Sundance winners such as Winter’s Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild, suggest a certain proclivity for rewarding films set in the U.S. in between the two coasts.  Kat Candler seems a prime candidate to break out, and having Jeff Nichols as an executive producer is surely a good sign.  Aaron Paul is obviously hot off a slew of Breaking Bad recognition.  He’s yet to garner any awards recognition for film roles, for whatever that is worth.  I’m usually wary of adolescent-led films, but on the flip side, if Josh Wiggins impresses, he could be rewarded.

With the third pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Cold in July

Ian:  Last year, a brilliant and unconventional director of genre film got its start in competition at Sundance. And while Upstream Color wasn’t a big winner there, it was a successful launch, and one that would probably receive greater awards from the same jury if they revoted today. It’s not a perfect analogue, but Jim Mickle strikes me as this year’s answer to Shane Carruth: a director with more experience and acclaim than the rest of the field who is working in a genre that usually doesn’t rack up awards. The difference to me is that Mickle seems to have come up within the system to a greater degree, which means that Michael C. Hall is attached to the project, along with Sam Shepard and Don Johnson (!). I’m hoping that this movie is inventive enough that the panel feels they have to award it with something, or that it’s populist enough that an audience goes wild.

Jared:  Personally, I had this one a little lower.  Phrases from the official Sundance summary of the film include: “pulpy, southern-fried mystery”, “older breed of action film”, “gore-soaked”, and “Don Johnson”.  Which means I’m super excited for the movie.  But also gives me some pause in terms of how broad an appeal the film will have.  Mickle’s last film, We Are What We Are, scored a 5.7 on imdb, and a 69 on metacritic, (though, to be fair, it garnered an 87% on Rotten Tomatotes).  Michael C. Hall is another actor who has received much love on TV, but yet to break through in a film, and I suppose one has to wonder if the universally-hated Dexter final season will have any impact.

With the fourth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

Infinitely Polar Bear

Jared:  It just sounds like a Sundance movie, doesn’t it?  Mark Ruffalo’s career has been absolutely fascinating: he’s an indie darling turned Oscar nominee with crossover appeal thanks to somehow becoming Hulk in The Avengers.  And let’s not forget the three Teen Choice nominations way back in 2004.  He got some Sundance love a few years ago for directing Sympathy for Delicious.  So he always strikes me as a viable contender.  A viable concern is the film being too funny for the major awards (and don’t get me started on that), given that writer/director Maya Forbes has screenwriting credits on The Larry Sanders Show, The Rocker, and Monsters vs. Aliens.  But descriptors such as “bittersweet” and “transcendent” provide some hope, and the concept of the trials and tribulations of a father struggling to raise his two daughters seems prime Sundance material.  That J.J. Abrams is a producer suggests the film might have some mass appeal.

Ian:  I had Infinitely Polar Bear, and then erased it before sending it to you. I certainly agree that the Ruff is awards bait, the premise seems like Sundance madlibs, and the J.J. Abrams imprimatur seems like this could be on the fast track. I just struggled to get past Maya Forbes’ resume on this one. Larry Sanders is probably the show most directly responsible for the current state of comedy in movies, but it seems like ever since then, she’s been doing some work for hire. I understand The Rocker has its charms, and I won’t dismiss any of those movies out of hand, but it’s not a resume that screams “Sundance favorite,” which makes me think that there’s a chance the movie could be slight. Also, not for nothing, but that’s a horrible film title.

I don’t want to bury the lede, so let me get this out of the way: All Is Lost is a terrible movie.

Each year as I do this awards thing, there are movies I can’t stand that are nearly universally loved by critics (All Is Lost is 87 on metacritic and 94% on Rotten Tomatoes as I write this) and which also receive awards love (All Is Lost was nominated for Best Feature at the Spirit Awards).  Obviously I’m right and everyone else is wrong, but as I browsed through some positive reviews of the film, I think I’m beginning to better understand why.

All Is Lost is an incredibly simple tale.  Robert Redford struggles to survive as the small boat he is manning in the ocean becomes increasingly unusable and he is forced to the life raft.  That’s pretty much it.  There’s virtually no dialogue or subplots.  Simply Redford trying to stay alive as his situation gets progressively worse. Praise for the movie seems to mainly focus around two ideas.  First, Redford’s performance in this one man show.  To me, the love here is a function of Redford essentially being the sole actor in the movie and surprise that even at his relatively advanced age, Redford still has it.  Redford is a terrific actor (bold statement, I know), but I don’t think this performance is among his best. He’s incredibly restrained for almost the entire movie, reduced to futzing around with equipment or his vessel.  I’m not suggesting that a great performance has to have a ton of emoting, or that Redford doesn’t still have an engaging presence.  I just think we should adjust the degree of difficulty multiplier appropriately.

The other reason people generally like this movie (again paraphrasing from a collection of reviews) is its illustration of man’s drive to survive.  Some critics find not knowing whether Redford will survive the ordeal to be quite gripping.  Often some larger meaning of humanity’s struggle in general is placed on the character here.  To summarize, my argument is that the main reason critics appear to like the movie is the depiction of  a man desperately trying to stay alive.

This justification makes me unreasonably angry. Because you know what else is a story of a man desperately trying to stay alive?  Pretty much every slasher movie ever made, the majority of horror movies and about half of action movies.  Sure, this is obviously a much sparser, stripped-down take.  But I fail to see how a lack of plot or dialogue or virtually anything else interesting would work in this movie’s favor.

Multiple reviewers praise the action of the film (for example, A.O. Scott writes the film is: “an action movie in the most profound and exalted sense of the term”).  These critics are, for lack of a better word, lying.  Or, at least, completely unable to appreciate action films.  Because this one nearly put me to sleep multiple times and the few action sequences were totally uninspired.  And not that I care, but if you want to go there, this movie featured as many plot holes and implausibilities as the average action film derided for such.

I like it when people like movies.  But I get very frustrated when it feels like someone likes a movie not for the movie itself, but for what they project onto the movie.  And, you know, I get it, we can argue intent all day long, but I’d have to agree that writer/director J.C. Chandor was more likely to be making a statement on man and survival than whatever straight-to-DVD teen slasher movie you’d throw at me.  But, for me, that’s not the point.  This film is about a guy doing whatever he can to stay alive.  The teen slasher movie is about a guy or a guy or a group of people doing whatever they can to stay alive.  The latter may be more hokey, feature poorer acting, and have worse special effects, sure.  But if you are saying you like All Is Lost for the narrative, I don’t think it is reasonable to not like the teen slasher movie.

Obviously I’m being a little facetious here.  All Is Lost‘s deliberate, measured pace allows much more space for in-movie reflection on the human spirit, where a slasher film is an engrossing escape for the duration of the movie (at least, if it is good).  But I maintain it is a little unreasonable to spend time after the former thinking about the depiction without doing the same for the latter.  And regardless, if you are going to like this movie because it gets you thinking about humanity, aren’t you better off saving the twelve bucks and two hours of your life you’d spend watching the film and think about the will to survive on your own time?

I’m going to compare 12 Years a Slave to another Oscar movie, but I don’t want you to read too much into it.  I’m making the comparison for a specific reason and I’m the first to say the similarities are limited.  But for me, the disagreements I’m having with people who really liked the film feel very reminiscent of the conversations I had about Crash.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Crash has many many more faults than 12 Years a Slave.  But Crash became a prestige movie due to its “exploration” of racism (along with the highly-regarded ensemble cast, etc.).  The film offered a brutal lack of subtlety as it hammered home again and again the oh so controversial point that racism is bad.  12 Years a Slave isn’t anywhere near as silly, of course.  The film, however, similarly hangs its hat on a single, extremely safe point: slavery is unimaginably awful.

Director Steve McQueen has a knack for eliciting a raw, sparse, visceral feeling.  Where Crash was overly slick, 12 Years a Slave feels more honest.  Which is a designation I hate to use.  But one I think is appropriate here, as McQueen never seems to use the camera for hyperbole or exaggeration.  The events of Solomon Northrup’s enslavement are terrifying, and McQueen adroitly realizes his job is to cleanly show them.  I think McQueen’s recognition for the film is well-deserved, and I wouldn’t argue against any nominations or awards he might receive.

I’m going to rag on screenwriter John Ridley for a little bit.  But before doing so, I want to make sure to note that he wrote a couple episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, so no matter what, John Ridley is kinda awesome.  The reason that Crash came to mind is that, for me, this movie does a good job reminding us that slavery was a horror and that being falsely enslaved is somehow even worse.  Those notions alone, however, do not a compelling movie make.  To Ridley’s credit, I should point out, that where Crash made me want to bang my head against a wall every minutes or so, the dialogue here is much cleaner and the story a million times less infuriating.

The main character, Solomon Northrup is oddly bland.  Chiwetel Ejiofor does a fine job with him, but the character isn’t particularly interesting.  The supporting characters along the way are instead considerably more memorable.  And largely one-note, to be honest, though having actors like Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Brad Pitt goes a long way toward making them compelling.

I can maybe see an artistic argument for not counting off the twelve years, perhaps to show how the years ran together for Northrup or they felt like an eternity, or whatever.  But, to me, Northrup’s time in slavery didn’t seem anywhere close to a dozen years, instead feeling more along the lines of three or four.  Which, to me, suggests a weakness in the script’s ability to portray Northrup’s ordeal. And to me, that’s the problem.  The script is content with saying, “boy, slavery sure sucked, huh?”  And as it turns out, that’s enough to move some people.  I was stuck on the relatively flat story.  I wasn’t drawn in by the plot and did not feel particularly engaged with the characters.  I think I would have had the same emotional response if someone spent two or three minutes giving me a middle school version of why slavery was bad.

The emotional power of the topic of slavery is a double-edged sword.  It immediately elicits an extremely strong response, and allows the creation of heroes and villains needing no special backstory.  That emotion, however, can overwhelm the story, as it does here.  I suppose if the goal of the film was to show how brutal the institution of slavery was, then sure, well done.  But, to me, that’s insufficient.  Illustrating slavery may be a noble goal, but the movie needs to tell a coherent, interesting story in the process, and it doesn’t.

Time for my annual post where I predict the Spirit Awards nominees.  Be sure to look for the annual follow up post by John where he makes fun of my predictions.  The important thing to keep in mind is that there’s no point in trying to make these predictions.  There’s no way to be entirely certain which movies are even eligible to be nominated.  And though the Spirit Awards have been trending a little toward Oscar-type movies and big stars, they always seem to fit in at least a few films and performances seemingly from out of nowhere.  At any rate, here’s what I got.  The actual nominees will be announced Tuesday morning by Paula Patton and Octavia Spencer.

Best Picture

12 Years a Slave
August: Osage County
Enough Said
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska

Best Lead Female

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Robin Weigert, Concussion

Best Lead Male

Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All is Lost

Best Supporting Female

Margo Martindale, August: Osgage County
Lupita N’Yongo, 12 Years a Slave
Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station
Something crazy
Something crazy

Best Supporting Male

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Something crazy
Something crazy

Best Director

Coen Bros, Inside Llewyn Davis
Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Jeff Nichols, Mud
Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Best First Feature

Afternoon Delight, Jill Soloway
Blue Caprice, Alexander Moors
Concussion, Stacie Passon
Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler
In a World…, Lake Bell

I’m counting down all the movies released in 2012.  The ones I’ve seen, at any rate.  In what is unquestionably a timely manner.  Hey, I finished before the end of 2013.  That’s a moral victory, right?

10.  Pitch Perfect

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So, full disclosure, I was three or four beers in when I saw this movie with at least one fellow Grouch in a spur of the moment decision.  The plot services the movie fine, though it isn’t a particular highlight and, for example, the subplot of Anna Kendrick and Skylar Astin’s romance is undercooked.  But holy cow is this movie funny.  The casting is spot on, leading to the breakouts of Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, but Anna Camp and Brittany Snow are solid in support, plus who doesn’t love Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins on commentary?  I was a little skeptical the world needed another a cappella thing about people trying to make regionals, but much credit to screenwriter Kay Cannon.  The film spawned multiple hit soundtracks and a hit single for Anna Kendrick, because of course.

9.  Lockout

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The film was written and directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, but it has co-writer and producer Luc Besson’s fingerprints all over it.  Latter-day Besson movies are extremely consistent: a tough, funny leading man, a clear and economical story, action movie one-liners, a few interesting twists, and a happy ending filled with explosives.  This one is no different.  Guy Pearce is a good match for Besson, I think, and Maggie Grace has clearly shown her chops.  The only thing I’ll say about Besson is that he seemed to be successfully hitting a lot of doubles and triples lately, I wouldn’t mind him aiming for another homer.

8.  The Raid: Redemption

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The movie that made me like RoboCop less and lose Adam’s respect forever.  Though I also saw this one in theaters with him and I’m pretty sure he liked it a bunch as well.  The story structure of having all the action take place in one building and having our hero have to essentially clear floors is very compelling for a martial arts movie.  The action is confined in the sense the fighting is limited to rooms or hallways, which is a refreshing change of pace, but there are plenty of floors, so there’s lots of different action.  Writer/director Gareth Evans does a great job illustrating the fighting, I think, and allowing just enough of a story to seep through.  There was one kill, where Iko Uwais jumped backwards and impaled a guy on a doorframe that was just spectacular.

7.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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I had very high expectations for this one going in, to the point where it probably disappointed a little not to fall in my top five.  Which isn’t fair, I know.  And for the first, I don’t know, two-thirds of the film, I couldn’t figure out what people were talking about.  But the last third of the film was absolutely killer.  Ezra Miller is the bold highlight of a strong cast.  It is shameful the highest-profile awards and nominations he pulled down were Chlotrudis, MTV Movie, and Teen Choice (looking squarely at you, Independent Spirits).  Emma Watson was also quite good, adding surprising depth to a character that didn’t have to be so nuanced.  That said, if you’ll excuse a brief foray into objectification, Emma Watson in the Rocky Horror getup as part of the live cast during a screening fulfilled fantasies I didn’t realize I had.  Anyway, there’s a lot to like from Stephen Chbosky’s effort here, it gets surprisingly dark and poignant and touching.  Here’s hoping his next go-round doesn’t take quite so long to get there.

6.  Zero Dark Thirty

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Talked about this movie a bunch in the Oscar posts, obviously.  A very good film and if you wanted to argue it should have won the big one, I wouldn’t put up a fight.  The last chunk of the movie, the raid, was absolutely riveting, with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal putting on a masterclass in dramatic tension.  The middle part was maybe slightly uneven, a minor quibble that makes the movie very good instead of great.  Also, needed more Kyle Chandler and Chris Pratt.

5.  Flight

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I was pretty thrilled screenwriter John Gatins received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.  And not just because he also co-wrote Summer Catch (with Kevin Falls!) and wrote Hard Ball.  This film was taut throughout and a fantastic character study.  And of course, much credit to director Robert Zemeckis, especially for the crash scene, and Denzel Washington, who was awesome.  But it is easy to forget that the crash scene was written and Washington’s drunk hero originates from the dialogue and scenes in the script.

4.  Argo

argo_ver7_xlg

Wait, does this mean I agree with the Academy?  Madness!  How this movie managed to win the top prize is a well-covered topic.  And you know, I’ll grant the movie isn’t necessarily particularly ambitious or trendsetting, which I imagine is a factor for some when deciding on Oscar.  But Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio did a fantastic job crafting a movie that’s incredibly tense throughout.  They expertly wove in comic relief as a valve to temper the pressure of the tension, which led to some of the funniest moments on screen this year.  The cast was tremendous, but the name actors in nearly every role was maybe a bit off-putting.  And again, needed more Kyle Chandler.  And pretty much everyone else.

3.  Wanderlust

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I realize I’m alone here, but that’s fine, I’ll enjoy my wildly underrated Wain/Marino joints as long as they keep pumping them out.  Saw this one in theaters and felt like I was doubled over with laughter for most of the time.  The writing was hilarious, of course, but David Wain has a way of building fantastic casts comprised of a great combination of regulars (Ken Marino, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux), really funny people (Key and Peele, Kathryn Hahn), and high profile newcomers (Jennifer Aniston, Alan Alda) who all blend together to make me laugh a lot.

2.  21 Jump Street

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Saw this one in theaters and can’t remember ever laughing more.  At first glance, this movie sounds like a terrible idea, right?  A remake of a TV show people vaguely remembered, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, written by a guy with a credit on Project X, directed by the guys whose only prior big screen credit was an animated film?  But then, you realize that should read “Oscar-nominated Jonah Hill” and that Channing Tatum is crazy talented and that Michael Bacall also co-wrote the excellent Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, and that Phil Lord and Chris Miller directed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which was an adaptation way better than it needed to be.  At any rate, this film was fantastic, with a stellar supporting cast that runs so deep, a relatively clever story, and a deep understanding of the genre.

1.  The Dark Knight Rises

The_Dark_Knight_Rises_poster

Yup.  And I’m one of the few people who like this movie more than the last one.  Let’s go through why.  I personally find the philosophical musings of the Nolans’s to be a superficial distraction in their films.  It felt like they got away from the pseudo-intellectual diversions, at least a little.  I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the Bechdel test or complaints about poorly-written women/minority/etc. characters.  I’m sympathetic to the cause, but I think it misses the point a little, to me the characters should be written in service of the story, and yes that often means women should be able to talk to each other about things other than boys.  But not always.  In any case, the women in the first two Batman films were badly-written and generally annoying.  The women in this one were almost decently-written and vaguely interesting, which was a significant step up.  The cast was probably the best of the trilogy, I mean, it is insane that along with all the regulars, this one added Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Matthew Modine, and Juno Temple.  Finally, and maybe most importantly, the fight scenes in the film were darn near a revelation.  The action was so visceral, nearly primal in nature.  They were simply fantastic, and made the film the best of the year.

August 2017
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