Saturday, February 23, 2013

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Top Ten: Django Unchained

This year for the Hollmann Awards, we're counting down my Top Ten of the Year -- one entry per day, coupled with two categories -- leading up the naming of Best Picture of the Year.

#4. Django Unchained 
dir: Quentin Tarantino
wr: Quentin Tarantino
cin: Robert Richardson

Django Unchained caught a lot of controversy since before its release. It's Quentin Tarantino giving the spaghetti western treatment to slavery in pre-Civil War America, sooooo yeah. Things were going to get testy. There's the constant use of THAT WORD, the near-silence of Django's apparently exceptional wife, the appearance of the white guys getting more to say and do than the supposed hero*. And there have been some good arguments made against the movie, but...well, obviously, I disagree.

When I saw Django, I was blown away. Not since the Five-Point-Palm Exploding Heart Technique has the violence been so joyless in a Tarantino film, with such a moral grey area. The moment when Django, training to be a bounty hunter, hesitates before taking out a wanted man in front of his son is unexpected, and even Schultz's fatherly chiding about "having to get dirty" doesn't completely satisfy. Especially since the tables get turned over at Candieland, where Schultz has to witness the kind of dirt that is also technically legal but morally barbaric. This time, he's looking queasy, and Django keeps it together -- while it disgusts and degrades him and his people, it's something he's grown up around. In Schultz's world, there's no granting mercy to the guilty; in Django's, the innocent knew better than to ask.

Yeah, ok, there's that final, cathartic scene that's pretty funny, and the whole pre-Klan Klan raid is set up for laughs -- though I would argue it's in the same defensive way Mel Brooks used to spoof the Nazis. For the most part, though, there is an ugly seriousness to the violence on display. Django whipping the Brittle Brothers isn't a moment to applaud: the raw fury in his eyes as he mercilessly beats them, focused but unseeing, laying waste to the men who humiliated him and his wife, is frightening, does away with any notion of a "fun" revenge flick. It's a real emotion with real ramifications. The big shoot-out at Candieland is another great example, as he's abandoned his wife momentarily to eke out his brand of justice. He's so focused on revenge, he's forgotten who he's there for. Just like Schultz said.

I even find the finale kind of bittersweet. Even as we're watching a triumphant Django doing tricks on his steed, Stephen's last lines echo in our ears, reminding Django that he can't destroy an entire way of life single-handed, and he definitely can't obliterate the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi without being hunted down. Django's reaction is cool, certainly, but it's also reckless, and the fact that Tarantino reminds us at every turn of the consequences tells me there's a lot more going on in his head than violence and grindhouse shock aesthetic. Maybe they'll get away, or maybe they prefer being fugitives together than slaves, but this isn't the end of their story. Not by a long shot.

Django Unchained is a lot more difficult than people want to believe, but that's ok. Maybe it's a lot less difficult than I want to believe, but it's how I watch and love the movie, and here it sits at Number Four. While it won't win my Best Picture gong and lost Best Director, it's already won my Best Original Screenplay award. It's next award is Best Supporting Actor, but first....


5. Magic Mike
Dennis Towns, mixer
Larry Blake, re-recording mixer/editor
Altman-esque execution of ensemble scenes, appropriately-mixed volume during dance numbers, layers of girls and women screaming in lusty fervor.

4. Not Fade Away
Matthew Price, mixer
Lee Dichter/Eric Hirsch, re-recording mixers
Robert Hein, re-recording mixer/editor
Basement sound faithfully captured in full, lips-on-mic authenticity. Love the party sequences.

3. The Raid: Redemption
Bonar Abraham/Jack Arthur Simanjuntak/Sandika Widjaja, mixers
Aria Prayogi/Fahar Yuskemal, designers/mixers
Shots, explosions, cracking doors rendered in shocking, ear-splitting detail. Post-bomb ear-ringing, usually a show-off moment, goes on interminably, realistically, suspensefully.

2. Life of Pi
Drew Kunin, mixer
Ron Bartlett/D.M. Hemphill, re-recording mixers
Eugene Gearty/Philip Stockton, supervising editors
Hear the tiger roar, the waves crash, the score soothe in varying volumes of anxiety and grace. 

1. Jack Reacher 
Jay Meagher, mixer
Anna Behlmer/Terry Porter, re-recording mixers
Alan Rankin/Mark P. Stoeckinger, supervising editors
Bruce Tanis, effects editor
The brassy score is perfectly mixed within the film, punctuating every broken arm, tire screech, rainy fist-fight, etc. Overpowering sensation that proudly announces the return of the old-school thriller.


5. James Gandolfini as Pat
Not Fade Away
Doesn't even try to soften the father until three-quarters through the film, opting instead for the tired, sickly breadwinner confused by his son. Maybe you've seen that performance before, but Gandolfini does it with a defensiveness that is moving. His Big Scene, dinner with his son, is delivered almost as a throwaway, a momentary, accidental lapse that won't be repeated.  "Bali H'ai" moment kills.

4. Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp
Moonrise Kingdom
His kind, quietly sad police chief is an unexpected moment, underplaying the part without trying to do deadpan Anderson schtick. It's the perfect combination of both his and his director's strengths. And, yeah, bonus point for his nuanced work in Looper.

3. Alan Tudyk as King Candy
Wreck-It Ralph
A unique "heavy", one capable of great kindness and benevolence until the true nature of his reign is exposed. Not that Tudyk has a distinct voice anyway, but his "Ed Wynn with menace" approach works well for a cute game with a sinister secret. Line readings of evasive humor effective: I was fooled for a while!

2. Jude Law as Alexei Karenin
Anna Karenina
Not the easiest of roles to play, especially since Law would have been Count Vronsky ten or so years ago. Law, of course, rises to the challenge, and presents someone who, despite being dull and expressing no sympathy for infidelities, tries to save his wife's image by constantly falling on the sword. Perplexed by human emotions, he still knows how to put up a front and survive in society, but it hasn't made him any happier. One of the great "eyes-only" performances.  

1. Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen
Django Unchained
An over-the-top, grotesque, minstrel show of an Uncle Tom performance, settling into a conniving, evil, secret master of the plantation in private. Jackson gives the full eye-rolling, double-taking Mantan Moreland performance, but his watchful eyes are the clue to a more devious mind at work. Having convinced his massah that the Negro is of no real threat, he quietly signs the checks and holds the reigns -- it's no wonder he's so antagonistic towards Django.

And that's two wins for Django Unchained. Check back later for my Number Three, and tomorrow for a two-in-one as I conclude my Top and the 2012 Hollmann Awards in 2013.

Previously: #5. Zero Dark Thirty
#6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
#7. 21 Jump Street
#8. Moonrise Kingdom
#9. Skyfall
#10. Beasts of the Southern Wild

*On that note, doesn't it only seem natural that Django be given less to do throughout most of the movie? It's a spaghetti western, a genre known for its silent, unknowable heroes. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, we know more about Tuco than we do Bright Eyes.

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