New York Review contributors on films nominated for the 2014 Academy Awards.
David O. Russell’s American Hustle declares what it is about with disarming bluntness. The two con artists around whom it revolves confide to us in voice-over right at the start: Sydney (Amy Adams), aka Lady Edith Greensley, wanted “to become anyone else other than who I was.” Irving (Christian Bale) acknowledges that “we even con ourselves.”
Spike Jonze’s film Her is a story about machines and humans and human-like machines. Skin is important. The unnatural appearance of Catherine, the soon-to-be ex-wife of the hero, makes her seem something other than a flesh-bound fellow human with Theodore.
Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza is a visual feast, one of the few films that takes full advantage of the hallucinatory beauty Rome. The overripe city stands in stark contrast to the dull, futile, and empty life of the film’s main characters—the frenetic partying, the not-so-hidden desperation and the endless “blah, blah, blah” of their conversation.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a comedy without boffo punch lines, jokey monologues, chases, pratfalls, flights of whimsical invention, or preposterous coincidences.
If you excise the period details, Llewyn Davis, the folksinger protagonist of the Coen brothers’ new film, makes sense. He is a confused, irascible striver, apparently seeking a career when folk music was about the last place you’d look for one. Somehow he has made a connection to the haunting music, but circumstances force him to treat it as a card to play rather than as a path to explore.
That winter we all became activists. We opened Twitter accounts, many of us, and learned how to dress for winter nights in Tahrir Square. I thought, we all thought, that the euphoria, the sense of possibility, would carry the country for years. As Jehane Noujaim’s documentary, The Square, vividly depicts, not only did we forget, but the euphoria quickly dissipated.
The best sequences in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave are not history lessons. They are, instead, visually ambiguous and open-ended. As Solomon Northup’s hopes for freedom are repeatedly dashed, McQueen risks a sustained, silent stare at Solomon’s face, allowing us to guess what his emotions are. Time passing is expressed in slow, soundless pans of Louisiana swamps, gaunt trees wreathed in moss at dawn and sunset. At such moments, one feels that McQueen would almost have been happy making 12 Years a Slave as a silent film, with a meditative slowness almost non-existent in current Hollywood productions.
A survival drama set almost entirely in the unfathomable emptiness of outer space, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is something now quite rare—a truly popular big-budget Hollywood movie with a rich aesthetic pay-off. Genuinely experimental, blatantly predicated on the formal possibilities of film, Gravity is a movie in a tradition that includes D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as well as its most obvious precursor, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Call it blockbuster modernism.
How to depict the grisly reality of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, during which the only permitted images were those of a controlled propaganda machine? In The Missing Picture, his documentary about the KR years, Rithy Panh uses small clay figurines, hundreds of them, painted, clothed, with individual expressions on their faces, and placed in meticulously detailed dioramas that he seems to have reconstructed from the memories of his youth. These clay statuettes cannot, of course, fully depict the horror of the Khmer Rouge story. But as Panh’s narration proceeds, the statuettes take on a reality of their own, a voodoo-like power, their individual features an aid to avoiding what might otherwise be a kind of depersonalizing abstraction.
Cate Blanchett’s performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is so riveting, and the film is so entertaining, that it took me until the day after I saw it to figure out why I’d found the film distasteful. I’ve always had a certain fondness for films about women breaking down, perhaps because madness has always seemed to me the road not taken. But none of the films I’ve admired have made me feel, as Blue Jasmine did, that the heroine is at least partly responsible and is getting what she deserves.
When Joshua Oppenheimer proposed making a film about them, the former death-squad commandos who had killed thousands of Indonesians during the country’s anti-Communist purge had seen too many action thrillers to agree to appear onscreen as talking heads. They wanted to produce a feature about their crimes that would combine stylistic elements of the cowboy shoot-‘em-up, the musical, the gangster noir, the mafia film, the 1950s Hollywood Nazi picture—and the Bollywood extravaganza! What they had in mind, in other words, was a pastiche of their favorite genres, except that it would be about them—how they interrogated and tortured, how they used the garrote, how they carried out mass executions, and raped women and girls—and they would have creative control.