American Hustle

ImageLast year, a film about a top-secret 1979 CIA mission to rescue American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis took home the best picture Oscar.  This year, David O. Russell looks to keep this trend alive with American Hustle, a stylish story about the top-secret 1978 FBI sting operation, ABSCAM.     

David O. Russell has been an exciting filmmaker for several years now.  His previous three films, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now American Hustle, have thrust Russell’s notoriety into a new echelon, however, by examining his previous quirky, clever, and unique films, Russell’s evolution can be clearly perceived.  1996’s Flirting With Disaster showed Russell’s quirky comedic tone.  In what some consider his best film, 1999’s Three Kings showcased Russell’s clever style.  Additionally, 2004’s I Heart Huckabees solidifies Russell’s unique writing.  Now it seems he’s hit his stride as his previous three films represent all three of these talents repurposed and mixed with tremendous results.

Russell’s renaissance involves making films about memorable characters with his emerging cast of regular actors.  Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams have all been in at least two of his last three films, and all of them have received at least one Oscar nomination as a result – including two winners.  While rumors swirl around Russell’s ease to work with, he is able to coax performances from his actors like none other, and American Hustle is no exception.

American Hustle opens against the gritty backdrop of 1978 New Jersey with a tone-setting title card that reads “Some of this actually happened.”  We are immediately introduced to con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who runs a fledgling at best money lending scheme.  That all changes when he meets the seductive Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party.  As a team, they bring Rosenfeld’s scheme to the next level attracting the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  DiMaso uses his leverage on the two con-artists to coerce them to cooperate with him in a series of operations designed to entrap high ranking politicians and power brokers including New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). 

Now the story might seem complex enough as it is, but under the guise that “some of this actually happened,” Russell does this story one better with the introduction of Irving’s impulsive wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who could be the one who sends this whole operation crashing down.

Bale gives another transformative performance, this time with an added 60 pounds, a comb-over, and a Bronx accent.  Adams continues her quest to become this generation’s Kevin Bacon by being in a movie with every relevant actor in existence.  She also gives a very strong performance as the mysterious Sydney who is “hell-on-wheels” wrapping every man around her finger and perpetually driving Irving crazy in the process.  Lawrence steals every scene she is in as Irving’s wildly capricious wife who won’t grant him a divorce and doesn’t know how to use a “science oven” either.  Renner and Cooper are very effective at representing both sides of the law in this wildly outrageous story where the line between hero and villain is very, very thin.

Mayor Polito wants nothing more than to re-invent Atlantic City and make New Jersey a better place, but with his hands tied politically, he seeks the necessary capital from a seemingly interested Arab investor who is actually part of agent DiMaso’s operation.  Thus, what makes American Hustle most intriguing is Russell’s conscientious effort to construct an irony where con-men and FBI agents are working together to ostensibly take down a criminal who may be the most honorable character in the film.  American Hustle does have one element working against it, running time.  At around 130 minutes, most of which is rapid dialogue, the film feels a bit bloated.  There are many characters and they all have a lot to say.   From an acting standpoint, it is quite impressive, but from an audience standpoint the film slags a bit through its second half. 

There is plenty to like about American Hustle, far more than what’s not to like.  For those looking for an amazingly well made and well acted film that does not include the brutality of slavery or the primal fear of being lost in space, this is your movie.  B+

American Hustle is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes.  Keep any eye out for some great and surprising faces in some of the supporting roles. 

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Oscar Predictions: Part 4 – The Big Ones

OscarsOscar Predictions: Part4 – The Big Ones

The final installment of The People’s Critic’s Oscar prediction series lists my picks for the six major film awards: Directing, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Actor, Actress, and Picture.  These are the categories decided by the largest blocks of voters and, thus reveal the academy’s consensus feelings on the great films of the year.  Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

Best Director:

Nominated directors are Michael Haneke for Amour, Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, and David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.

The Best Director Oscar is basically the Cinematography Oscar crown jewel.  The director oversees every chosen element on set to ensure his/her vision is secure and successful.  In the Classic Hollywood Cinema days, this award was a bit easier to come by as directors like William Wyler, John Ford, and Frank Capra were nominated often and won more than any other directors in history.  Over the years, the award has become much more aloof; very few directors earn more than one Best Directing Oscar.  The award is closely associated with the Best Picture winner as well, however these awards are becoming more independent of one another now that the Best Picture field of nominees has been increased to up to ten films.  This year will be an upset year no matter which way it goes.  Not since the 1930s has it been more likely that the Best Picture will go to a film who’s director was not nominated.  Additionally, it is quite likely that the Best Director will go to a film that does not win Best Picture.  Therefore, it is critical to look at each of the nominated films for director’s merit alone. Haneke and Zeitlin turned out two emotionally charged human dramas that are deserving of immense appreciation.  In terms of directing, Zeitlin is the better choice between the two, but these small films rarely make a dent in the voting pool.  Spielberg does not deserve to be nominated for this award this year.  Russell has once again made a great film that would have won last year, but he will find himself beaten this year.  The award is between Russell and Lee.  The Peoples Critic Selection: Ang Lee for Life of Pi


Best Supporting Actor:

Nominees are Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln, Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained, Robert DeNiro for Silver Linings Playbook, Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master, and Alan Arkin for Argo.

Best Supporting Actress:

Nominees are Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables, Helen Hunt for The Sessions, Sally Field for Lincoln, Amy Adams for The Master, and Jackie Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook.

Acting categories need the least amount of explanation.  The supporting role awards are traditionally a bit more exciting.  These Oscars have gone to some surprising upsets over the years and is more likely to go to an edgier or younger performer than the awards for Best Actor/Actress.  On the men’s side, this year’s field has two performances that are practically lead roles (Waltz and Hoffman), and this will most likely work in one of their favors.  On the ladies’ side, there is a clear winner, so I’ll simply explain why she wins.  Much has been made of the fact that Anne Hathaway is only in Les Misérables for a short period of time.  However, this award has gone to many recipients whose screen-time is limited.  The Oscar for Supporting Role is designed to recognize superior support, regardless of screen time.  What Anne Hathaway does with her segment of an otherwise dull film is give a Hugh Jackman quality performance and then leave you wanting more.  What worked for her will unfortunately not work for Jackman since his Best Actor field also has a clear winner who accomplishes a similar feat in that category.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz for Django UnchainedThe People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables.  

 

Best Actor:

Nominees are Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables, Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook, Joaquin Phoenix for The Master, and Denzel Washington for Flight.

Best Actress

Nominees are Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, Naomi Watts for The Impossible, and Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Hugh Jackman picked the wrong year to turn out his best performance of his career.  What he does as Jean Val Jean in Les Misérables is raw and spectacular.  However, it will be the one-two punch of excellent writing by Kushner and flawless delivery by Day-Lewis that will allow him to make history as the first to win three Best Actor Academy Awards.  Meanwhile, the Best Actress category has already made history by nominating both the youngest and oldest nominees ever considered for the Best Actress Oscar with Riva and Wallis.  Unlike the men’s race, no clear winner exists here.  Riva has enjoyed a surge as of late given her heart wrenching performance in Amour along with the fact that Oscar night just happens to be her 86th birthday.  However, it seems that the “girl on fire” this year will come away with her first trophy, solidifying what will likely be a long and dynamic career.   The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. 


 Best Picture:

Nominated Films are Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.

Nine films were deemed worthy of Best Picture honors this year.  The jury is still out on this callback to the olden days where ten (even twelve!) films could be nominated for this award.  In 2009, the Academy expanded the limit of nominees from five to ten, but finding that there are not always ten worth-while nominees, the rule currently allows the list to vary between five and ten nominees.  This year’s collection of nominees would all have beaten last year’s winner, The Artist substantiating what an excellent year at the movies 2012 was.  As stated earlier, this award is often tied closely together with the winner for Best Director; however, no year in recent history has provided a lower likelihood of this happening than this year.  Therefore, how does one judge a film on its merits alone without necessarily taking the director’s choices into strong consideration?  How much does one weigh the writing, the cinematography, the set design, the acting, etc.?  These are tough questions.  One major element is to examine the editing.  Best Picture is more about conveying a message, entertainment, structure, and overall effect than anything else.  Editing (along with direction) is the key to all of those characteristics that make a movie great.  Therefore, if direction becomes a lowered value in the equation for determining greatness, the vacuum will be filled with editing.  The result is an upset that has only happened three times in history and not at all since 1989 – a Best Picture winner where the director was not even nominated.  The People’s Critic Selection: Argo

Oscar Predictions: Part 3 – Cinematographer? Damn Near Killed Her!

Oscar Predictions: Part 3 – Cinematographer?  Damn Near Killed Her!

Week three of The People’s Critic’s Oscar predictions begins the major film awards.  This week’s predictions will be for six very different categories: Documentary Feature, Animated Film, Foreign Language Film, Original Screenplay, Adapted Screenplay, and everybody’s favorite – Cinematography.  Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

13.  Best Documentary Feature:

Nominated films are 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, and Searching for Sugar Man

Generally, the winning documentary has more than spunk and spirit.  Many documentaries are made yearly since they are easy to produce and cheap to make.  The key is content, pacing, accuracy, and perspective.  The swift and breezy Searching for Sugar Man was an early favorite.  However, it will most likely collapse under the weight of provocative films like the charged up history of the AIDS crisis, How to Survive a Plague or the bleak and honest The Gatekeepers, which shines never before seen light on the historic conflicts in Israel.  A dark horse candidate for Oscar is the creepy exposé The Invisible War about rape in the US military.    The Peoples Critic Selection: How to Survive a Plague

14.  Best Animated Feature Film:

Nominated Films are Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Wreck-It Ralph

If you’ve read The People’s Critic’s review on Brave, you may find this pick hypocritical.  First given in 2001, Best Animated Feature Film is the newest of all 24 categories in the modern Academy Awards.  During these eleven years, a Pixar Studio film has won this Oscar six times.  In fact, the studio has only lost once when one if its films was nominated (2006’s Cars lost out to Happy Feet)Cars is probably a better film than Brave, however much was made of Brave’s decision to finally feature a female lead and a more feminine story focus, something Cars obviously did not have going for it.  Therefore, while the nostalgic, personal, and enjoyable horror throwback Frankenweenie has the win in my heart, it won’t have the win in the votes. The People’s Critic Selection: Brave

15.  Best Foreign Language Film:

Nominated films are Amour (Austria), Kon-Tiki (Norway), No (Chile), A Royal Affair (Denmark), War Witch (Canada)

What, Norway, Chile, Denmark, and Canada?  You want to win?  Well you will lose to one of the biggest conundrums of the nomination process – those pesky well-made foreign films that worm their way into the Best Picture category.  This has only happened eight times, and only one has ever lost this category, go figure.  The People’s Critic Selection: Amour


16.  Best Original Screenplay:

Nominated films are Amour Written by Michael Haneke, Django Unchained Written by Quentin Tarantino. Flight Written by John Gatins, Moonrise Kingdom Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, and Zero Dark Thirty Written by Mark Boal

As a writer (or to put it more modestly, one who appreciates writing), the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay has a special significance.  Four of the five films nominated here are actually mentioned on The People’s Critic’s List of the Top Ten Films of 2012 (although one is listed for adverse reasons).  Nonetheless, the number one choice on that list earns its place because of its writing.  Quentin Tarantino is an auteur like none before him and Django Unchained will be recognized for its reverent and consummate writing.  The People’s Critic Selection: Django Unchained


17.  Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominated films are Argo Screenplay by Chris Terrio, Beasts of the Southern Wild Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin, Life of Pi Screenplay by David Magee, Lincoln Screenplay by Tony Kushner, and Silver Linings Playbook Screenplay by David O. Russell

This is the award that combats the old adage, “the book was way better than the movie.”  Generally, these films are the rare few who challenge and overcome that too often reality.  A screenplay of note is certainly Kushner’s Lincoln.  Spielberg deserves far less credit than Kushner does for why this film is deserving of its accolades.  Often Shakespearean at times, the screenplay is adapted in such a way that the film is elevated to what earned it 12 nominations.  Kushner’s only real competition here is David O. Russell.  Silver Linings Playbook is enjoying a tremendous spike in momentum heading into Oscar weekend.  With it being the first film in 31 years to be nominated in all four acting categories, Russell’s screenplay cannot be ignored as unrelated to that achievement.  My gut tells me that just might be the tipping point.  The People’s Critic’s Selection: Silver Linings Playbook


18.   Best Cinematography:

Nominated Films are Anna Karenina, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Skyfall

If you’ve ever wanted to be scorned or looked at in utter disgust, then comment on the cinematography of a film in front of a group of people.  Eyebrows will raise, hair will stand on end, under-the-breath comments will abound. It’s the fastest way to claim your role as a “know-it-all,” and yet, it is so worth it.  Cinematographers are the directors of photography who oversee decisions on camera and lighting concerns.  To excel at this requires the talent of an artist and the technical knowledge of a director.  This year’s group makes for a tough category.  Deakins’s latest film, Skyfall marks his 10th nomination without a win.  This should certainly be a consideration in choosing a winner since repetitive nominations in this category are not easy to get, but well earned when they happen.  Tarantino’s go-to guy, Robert Richardson is nominated again, but he did win last year for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  However, resident know-it-all The People’s Critic is going to go in a different direction.  Ang Lee has the perspective to make great films, but the pure visual delight and majesty that was achieved by Life of Pi is equally a result of Claudio Miranda’s cinematography.  The People’s Critic Selection: Life of Pi


Oscar Predictions: Part 2 – Songs, Styles, and Sets!

Oscar Predictions: Part 2 – Songs, Styles, and Sets!

This week’s set of predictions rounds up the lower tier categories and begins the accent to the major ones. As stated last week, The People’s Critic has decided to unveil predictions on all 24 major categories over a four week period leading up the big day on February 24th. This week’s predictions will focus on the six categories that make up the atmosphere of a film: Original Song, Original Score, Costume Design, Production Design, Makeup, and Film Editing. Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

7. Best Original Song:

Nominated songs are “Before My Time” from Chasing Ice, “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from Ted, “Pi’s Lullaby” from Life of Pi, “Skyfall” from Skyfall, and “Suddenly” from Les Misérables

This is an interesting category in that its number of nominees varies from year to year. Current prerequisites for a nomination require that the song is originally written for a film and that the song is completely original and not partially sampled from another source (as was the case with 1995’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” from Dangerous Minds). This year there is a full set of five nominees, but that is only a formality since there is a clear and overwhelmingly obvious frontrunner, and it’s not the one that came from a musical. It is also definitely not the one that was a gift to the host of the Oscars, Seth Macfarlane. Songs from Bond movies have a storied and often kitschy past, but this year Adele’s “Skyfall” will raise that bar. The Peoples Critic Selection: “Skyfall”


8. Best Original Score:

Nominated Films are Anna Karenina, Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Skyfall

John Williams (Lincoln) may have five Oscars, but he has been nominated 48 times suggesting that he is not an Academy favorite. Additionally, the five Oscars he has are for scores much more memorable and powerful than Lincoln’s. The film with the most substantial use of music is Life of Pi.The People’s Critic Selection: Life of Pi


9. Best Costume Design:

Nominated films are Anna Karenina, Les Misérables, Lincoln, Mirror Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman.

The key to this category is not to get too caught up in the film itself but rather focus on the creativity, authenticity, and accuracy of the costuming. Period pieces are favorites in this category and we have three of them along with two fairy tale films. This year the period pieces have the edge. Lincoln may seem like a strong contender, but designer Joanna Johnston is rarely recognized for her work, although she has designed costumes for some of the most iconic films of all time including Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. Thus, the toss up goes to the lavish Anna Karenina. This is Karenina’s Jacqueline Durran’s third nomination and she’s yet to win. The People’s Critic Selection: Anna Karenina

10. Best Production Design:

Nominated films are Anna Karenina, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, and Lincoln

The Oscar for Production Design goes to the art director who best accomplishes the appropriate mood for an audience’s experience through visuals, movement, and other varieties of art direction. This can be a complicated job, and an A.D.’s success relies on whether or not an audience is appropriately affected psychologically by a film. From a psychological standpoint, these films all offer wildly different ways of using style and motion to affect an audience. However, performances aside production design is the only other reason Les Misérables could possibly nominated for best picture. The People’s Critic Selection: Les Misérables

11. Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

Nominated Films are Hitchcock, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and Les Misérables

In a year of impressive films, it’s hard to believe that only three of them included Oscar-worthy makeup and hair. Last year, this went to the team behind the subtle transformation of Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher for the film The Iron Lady; but typically this award goes to wildly imaginative, over-the-top makeups and hair. Two of the three previous Rings films won the Oscar for this award, and Peter King (nominated here for Hobbit) was part of the team that won for Return of the King. The People’s Critic Selection: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

12. Best Film Editing

Nominated films are Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty

This is an impressive award to win and the Academy does not treat that lightly. The winner for Best Film Editing has often been the film that wins Best Picture, and it is no surprise that all five films nominated here are also nominated for Best Picture. The editing of a film is nearly as important as the direction since it affects the story, the pace, and the tone. Often, great editing goes unnoticed by the viewer because of how seamless the story has been woven together. The major consideration here is that William Goldenberg is nominated for his work in both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Argo is the better of those two films especially given its genius and flawless balance of tones throughout the film. We also have an editing legend nominated in Michael Khan for Lincoln who has won three Oscars from seven nominations. Also not to be counted out, Jay Cassidy’s avant-garde style has mostly been seen in documentary films, and it is refreshing and interesting to see that style in a feature film like Silver Linings Playbook. This is a tough one and could add to the controversy of Affleck’s snub as Director for The People’s Critic’s Selection: Argo.

The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Films of the Year

Top Ten2012 has been a juggernaut of a year for the cinema. With a record-breaking box office year thanks to big blockbusters like The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Breaking Dawn Part 2, and The Hunger Games, ticket sales have been the highest they’ve ever been. However, the quality of films released this calendar year has been excellent, rivaling 2007, my favorite release year in recent memory with There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men. While Oscar nominations will be announced this Thursday, January 10th, a more important announcement is being made right now. Without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films of 2012.

10. Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson presents one of the year’s most original films with his coming of age pageant of a film, Moonrise Kingdom. Chocked full of Anderson’s trademark set designs, deadpan dialogue, and Norman Rockwell-on-acid plot, Moonrise is a nearly perfect cinematic experience. Edward Norton’s portrayal of Scoutmaster Ward is hands-down the best part of this movie, but the film is enjoyable from start to finish and welcomes multiple viewings.

9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyWhile it lacks the epic quality and complex narrative of The Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a beautiful and energetic film. The groundwork is truly set for an excellent companion trilogy that is fun, technically impressive, and brilliantly respectful to fans and film lovers.

8. The ImpossibleThe Impossible is the true story of a family’s disastrous experience during the Thailand tsunami disaster of 2004. Ewen McGregor and Naiomi Watts are the key reasons for this film making the top ten. There are a couple of scenes in this movie where the audience is forced to experience the emotions attached to the most unforeseen natural disaster one can imagine, and it is absolutely raw, heartbreaking, and powerful. Rarely does a film manage to showcase such relatable energy.

7. Flight Like number 8, Flight is also a ‘disaster’ movie, but a very different type of ‘disaster’ movie. It is an excellent narrative that explores the dangers of addiction in an impressively unique way. This is a strong film that expertly demonstrates the talent of its cast and its director, Robert Zemeckis.

6. The Dark Knight RisesThe Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to one of the strongest trilogies in cinema history. I think, taken as a whole, what director, Christopher Nolan can be most proud of is that he has captured the attention of a massive audience and taught them that escapist entertainment can be thoughtful and precise. This is miles beyond what any other so-called “comic book” movie has achieved or has even been capable of so far, and thus it deserves special accolades.

5. Lincoln Lincoln offers plenty for history buffs to sink their teeth into, and yet the story is accessible to all audiences. Director, Steven Spielberg takes some narrative chances to use unknown history to make well-known history compelling and interesting, especially in the film’s final act. Writer, Tony Kushner deserves special attention for some brilliant writing while Daniel Day-Lewis turns out the performance to beat. This is Spielberg’s finest effort in some time.

4. Argo Argo was the first great movie of the fall season and delivered as both a historical snapshot and an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Ben Affleck certainly has solidified his reputation as a director. Regardless of predictability, Argo is a deeply involving film, and it is a perfect team effort. At its heart, there is a tremendously powerful and amazing story told in an uncomplicated way, which is just what every good movie needs at its core.

3. Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell’s movies are traditionally about passion, and none have better successfully illustrated that theme than Silver Linings Playbook. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper play Pat and Tiffany, two people full of passion who have lost their way. Both turn out Oscar worthy performances, and it should not surprise anyone if they both win. Furthermore, Russell’s screenplay is excellent as he also manages to give Robert DeNiro something he’s finally worthy of acting in.

2. Life of Pi Life of Pi is a low-key masterpiece. It sneaks up on you and while not complicated, welcomes multiple viewings. Ang Lee presents a very enjoyable and thought-provoking version of Martel’s widely admired source material. It was said that Life of Pi was one of those unfilmable stories- that it can exist in the mind of the reader and nowhere else. Lee has proven those skeptics incorrect. Furthermore, no film, including Avatar, has achieved this level of visual grandeur with 3D technology. Lee’s careful precision as a director, takes full advantage of every opportunity to amaze the audience with wonder.

1. Django Unchained Django Unchained is the year’s best film as well as a front-runner for one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films. The cast is impeccable, the script is original, and the style is enjoyable. Few films ever combine such intriguing dialogue with such ambitious storytelling, and the film deserves sincere consideration from the academy in all major categories. It is a difficult film to watch at times, but not a scene is wasted or unnecessary.

Honorable Mentions (and an angry side-note) – Films deserving honorable mentions are Looper, To Rome with Love, Friends With Kids, The Avengers, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Wreck It Ralph. Also, this was a year that saw a Christopher Walken trifecta as the distinctive and unparalleled actor appeared in three films this year: Seven Psychopaths, A Late Quartet, and Stand Up Guys.

On an ANGRY side-note – Year after year, films vying to qualify for Oscar eligibility will open their films in the minimal markets (LA and New York) and then choose some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend in January to open wide to audiences. This year the film most guilty of this is the controversially acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty (An additional film guilty to a lesser degree would be The Sessions with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt). The buzz is that Zero Dark Thirty will be the one to beat, but major film critics and academy members are the only ones who will have seen it before the nominations are revealed later this week. Films should have to be widely released in the year that they wish to be nominated. Audiences should have access to all academy qualified films and an opportunity to share their points of view before the “so-called” powers that be cast their votes. The films listed above all played fair and deserve to be seen and commended. Shame on you Zero Dark Thirty, shame on you!

Argo

Towards the beginning of Ben Affleck’s latest film, Argo, make-up artist John Chambers, played by John Goodman, says to CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), “Even a Rhesus Monkey can direct a movie.” This type of tongue-in-cheek word play signifies a new, and deserved, confidence from the actor turned auteur. Argo is formulaic at best in terms of Chris Terrio’s screenplay, but its Affleck’s direction and the performances from his cast that raise Argo above the bar he set with his previous film, The Town.

Argo is set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, when a group of Iranian militant revolutionaries storm the US embassy in 1979. However, this film actually recounts a previously unknown and confidential story of six Americans who escaped the embassy and were given sanctuary by the Canadian ambassador. These six are in a unique and treacherous situation of being unknown escapees who, if caught, could be made examples of by irate militants without complicating the heavily observed hostage crisis at the US embassy. Their story becomes the focal point of Argo as the White House, State Department, and CIA all spitball ideas on how to rescue these six trapped Americans before they are discovered by the Iranians. Eventually they settle on a long-shot idea from Mendez, which involves posing the escapees as a film crew scouting locations in Iran for a fake movie by the name of Argo. Terrio’s screenplay does a great job of building tension in all the right places, but it does so in a sort of Screenwriting-101 kind of way. In other words, it’s predictable.

Regardless of predictability, Argo is a deeply involving film. Just because we laugh when we’re supposed to laugh, and we cry when we’re supposed to cry, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Instead, Argo is a perfect team effort. At its heart, there is a tremendously powerful and amazing story told in an uncomplicated way, which is just what every good movie needs at its core. Additionally, it is expertly cast with terrific performances from John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and Alan Arkin who steals scenes as the cantankerous Lester Siegel. Arkin and Goodman head up the fake film studio needed to validate Mendez’s plan to disguise the escaped hostages as a film crew. Here, the film adds an enjoyable layer of film-geek enthusiasm. Finally, Affleck outdoes himself as director. Argo has a deliberate and even pace, some historically iconic staging, and camera work that enhances the tone of the film. In fact, Affleck even shows some side-by-side comparisons between historical photos and some shots from his film in the closing credits. His attention to detail brings dimension and realism to the film in a time where real decisions had to be made without the luxury of our modern digital age.

Argo is the first great movie of the fall season and delivers as both a historical snapshot and an edge-of-your-seat thriller. This is a very strong effort that succeeds beyond any Rhesus Monkey’s wildest expectations. A-