Friday, February 22, 2013

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Top Ten: Zero Dark Thirty

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.

#5. Zero Dark Thirty
dir: Kathryn Bigelow
wr: Mark Boal
cin: Greig Fraser

Let's get this out of the way. I am not someone who regularly judges a film's merits based on whether or not I can gel with it politically. I don't think Nixon was some sad-sack boogeyman, and I ain't sure about the second shooter question re: JFK, but you better believe I'm an Oliver Stone fan. Simply put, his movies are masterfully edited, audaciously shot, ambitiously written, and fucking entertaining. If a movie turns me off and I cite the stance it takes as a reason, it's probably more to do with a failure to comfortably integrate said point-of-view within the context of the narrative.

Which is all a long way of saying that I have no idea what Zero Dark Thirty's stance is on torture, and really, I find that it doesn't matter all that much. All I know is that I saw a thriller that had me engrossed from beginning to end, even through the slower, middle section.

Let's talk about the middle section, that big chunk where the investigation is leading nowhere, with leads that dead-end as often as agents. It's a plateau as far as forward momentum goes, and I love it. Rare is the time when we get to watch a thriller and see the agents actually, you know, working, but Zero Dark Thirty gives us a look at the amount of time spent following a lead. Because this is the real world, you can't just run into a random house and start shooting; you need some sort of evidence proving you had your reasons.

At the center of it all is Maya, who never falters in her convictions -- and when we learn that this is the only assignment she's ever worked on, we know why. She has to be right, because she's the only one who has devoted their complete, undivided attention to this one subject. And at the end, when he's dead, there is no triumph. Are those tears cathartic, or are they a frustrated, "Now what? NOW WHAT?" Girl just spent ten years dedicated to one thing. Now what?

It says something, too, that even during the raid sequence, a guy who called everyone in his family when bin Laden was killed (me), was left thinking about these poor kids and how they're going to grow up only knowing that these uniformed white men stormed their house one night and shot their dads to death, and how is that helping, really? Yet I don't know what other tactic they could take. It's a grey area. It should be.

Zero Dark Thirty is nominated for Editing (lost to Cloud Atlas), Picture (all in good time), Director and Actress. Both of which are the focus of today.


5. Kathryn Bigelow
Zero Dark Thirty
Confidently charts the grey area with such ease, you don't even know it happened until you're yelling in the parking lot with your friends.

4. Quentin Tarantino
Django Unchained
Gave himself a difficult tone to work with, and wound up with his warmest, most compassionate work since Kill Bill. Swing and a hit.

3. Joe Wright
Anna Karenina
Made that last-minute "all on a stage" conceit work as naturally as if it had always been the plan, as if there was never any other way to do Anna Karenina, all while getting a feverish lustiness from his leads.

2. Leos Carax
Holy Motors
A director's film, ambitiously exorcising his issues without self-indulgence, and somehow creating a surprisingly moving, universal look at our relationship with people and the cinema.

1. Tom Tykwer/Andy Wachowski/Lana Wachowski
Cloud Atlas
Took an unwieldy, tedious-sounding concept and made it emotionally fulfilling and intoxicating. Props to getting their large international ensemble, all of varying degrees of range and technique, on the same page, suited equally to the individual segments and the piece as a whole.


5. Jessica Chastain as Maya
Zero Dark Thirty
Chastain navigates some treacherous waters, finding the specifics in a very sketchy character. She goes toe-to-toe with the boys on their own turf, never playing up her gender, never trying to "humanize" her with looks at men or anything like that. Maya is allowed to be a force of nature, but still riddled with occasional doubt, even if she denies it.

4. Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina
Doesn't make Anna unsympathetic, but illustrates her increasing self-delusion and selfishness. It'd be an easy character to turn into a feminist heroine, I think, but Knightley goes for the more prickly route, even as she enchants us with her beauty and natural charm -- everyone likes Anna to begin with, after all. A great physical actress, too, and her lolling head and nimble fingers tells a story themselves.

3. Judi Dench as Evelyn Greenslade
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
The radiant Dame Judi gives my second favorite of hers (for there is no matching Notes on a Scandal), as a widow who after 70 years is finally taking control of her own life. The uncertainty with which she approaches her new situation, her determination to triumph, and the almost schoolgirlish lightness in her scenes with Bill Nighy, all make for one of the more relatable characters on screens this year.

2. Marion Cotillard as Stephanie
Rust and Bone
Lusty, sometimes unsympathetic, at times self-pitying, completely unglamorous, with a strength that seems to surprise even her. Her scenes where she preempts the tears are just as effective as a full-fledged breakdown, but nothing will top her taking over the boxing ring with a steely reserve.

1. Nicole Kidman as Charlotte Bless
The Paperboy
Unbelievably fearless performance -- and I don't mean she gets naked. Actually, Kidman manages to play the slut without once getting naked, letting her half-open, pink-glossed mouth, sly smirk, and body language do all the talking. The seriousness with which she takes on simulated blowjobs and pissing on Zac Efron's face is admirable, but I can't believe she found the good girl lost behind the mascara. I love her.

Sorry for the lateness of the post, it's been a busy week. But you can catch me Sunday on a live stream of an Oscar party in Hollywood, so it's well worth it!

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

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