The 8th Annual Davies Awards in Film

A Look Back at 2013:

It angers me when people complain about the state of film today.  Yes, there’s an orgiastic onslaught of celluloid and digital excrement shoveled into multiplexes every year…but if 2013 proved anything, it’s that art finds a way to survive and quite often thrives in the manure laid across the silver screen.  This past year saw both one of the most accessible art films (12 Years a Slave) and one of the most artistic blockbusters (Gravity) of the decade blossom in the verdant soil of cinema.  I mean hell, Gravity proved that a money gouging gimmick (3D) utilized in so much of that dross that strangles viewers every year can actually be used in the correct artistic context to add…fancy that…new dimensions to film.

And survival and blossoming in the midst of a shit storm – thematically that’s what the year in film was about.  Witness surviving: being kidnapped into slavery (12 Years a Slave), outer space calamities (Gravity), adolescence (Mud), young adulthood (Frances Ha), marriage (Before Midnight), the sins of the father (The Place Beyond the Pines), the lonely high seas (All is Lost), Somali pirates (Captain Phillips), and false persecution (The Hunt).  Hmmm…they do say that all great stories are essentially the same story, don’t they?

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The 7th Annual Davies Awards in Film

Hollywood zeroed in on real drama and history in 2012, and they hit their mark.

Hollywood zeroed in on real drama and history in 2012, and they hit their mark.

A Look Back at 2012:

There’s so much to say about the year in film that was 2012. In many ways it was like two distinct years. The first half was grim and borderline torturous with the only bright spots being two films that came out of the blue to depict with great grit and emotion man vs. his own nature (guised as man vs. nature) in The Grey and The Hunter. In the summer, we were met with art house films critics were too eager to gush over. Yes, Moonrise Kingdom was Wes Anderson’s most charming film in a while, but it was still a Wes Anderson film. And yes, Beasts of the Southern Wild had a cool title and interesting set-up, but it really didn’t make any sense.

Oddly, at the multiplex things were clearer as some of the heavy hitters were well above average. The Hunger Games offered a new series positively literary when compared to the god-awfulness of The Twilight series (finally put to rest this year). Many people didn’t like it, but I still got a kick out of Prometheus while The Dark Knight Rises was a fine conclusion to a fine trilogy. Even The Avengers (overrated by fanboys) was above average…though it was still a comic book movie. This trend continued into the fall with the best James Bond film of the modern era, Skyfall, lighting the box office on fire.

Quietly simmering beneath all of this pop-culture hubbub was a snarky good year for neo-noir with the twisty sci-fi yarn Looper at the multiplexes and art houses runneth over with films like the Russian melodrama Elena, Friedkin’s southern-fried piece of Americana trash Killer Joe and the Twin Peaksian French entry Nobody Else But You.

But it wasn’t until the fall that things got real and filmmakers tapped into history to deliver highly polished professional products of the most prestigious order.
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The 6th Annual Davies Awards in Film

A Look Back at 2011:

At times entering a movie theater was like wandering into a vast wasteland in 2011…but there was light…I swear…

Box office receipts were down in 2011 – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still a very solid year for cineastes.  A sluggish economy; the ascendance of launching specialty films through VOD; and an unseemly glut of similarly minded, awkwardly titled sequels, prequels, threequels, reboots, preboots, 3D flicks, animated tales and family films left most moviegoers either broke, confused or disillusioned.  Despite this seeming rut, there were still plenty of diamonds in the rough both in the art houses and the cineplexes during this long, weird year in film.  Like Smetana’s Die Moldau (used so righteously by Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life) these great films whispered to us quietly at first, almost like a hum from the distant past…and then announced themselves with bombast.  Memory, myth and the magic of cinema were boldly on display for those willing to indulge.

For those lucky and daring enough to see it, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul took us down the cosmic rabbit hole and cycled through time in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (a film technically from 2010, but that didn’t see its limited release stateside until March 2011).  It was a fitting way to start the year, as what emerged from this cosmic cycling for the observant filmgoer was nostalgia run gloriously amuck.  All year-long nostalgia was evidenced in just about anything that gained traction - from multiplex concoctions like Super 8 and Captain America, to art house fare like Midnight in Paris and The Artist, to populist Oscar-grab flicks like Hugo and War Horse.  This longing for the simpler, happier days of the past seemed to be at war with films overwhelmed by an impending doom (see Melancholia, Take Shelter or even Margin Call). Filmmakers were simultaneously hung over from the global economic crisis and fascinated by the 2012 apocalypse predictions.  Meanwhile, the big studios lazily greenlit a ton of stuff we’ve seen before…but in handing these projects over to up-and-coming directors trying to prove something rather than the usual hacks, films like X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol were far more entertaining than they had any right to be.  Continue reading

The 5th Annual Davies Awards in Film

A Look Back at 2010:

In 2009, Hollywood went to war and for the most part blew us away if not with the actual quality of their output, with their audacity at least.  In 2010 they took a deep breath and dove back into the shadows and dark alleys of the mind.  It was the year of the Neo-Noir Renaissance.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (2nd movement) is probably one of the most recognizable and widely used pieces of classical music.  Filmmakers have returned to it over and over again – Tom Hooper just did for the excellent closing montage to The King’s Speech.  But I feel this piece of music represents clearly what the 2010 year in film was all about:  dark, brooding, steady, prone to dramatic swells, often formulaic, but very well crafted.  Tell me you don’t see a bit of the same madness in Carlos Kleiber conducting that we saw in Scorsese, Nolan and Aronofsky directing in 2010.

Unlike most years, it started off like gangbusters with two masters delivering wildly entertaining larks that owed as much debt to their own past efforts at they did to Hitchcock:  Martin Scorsese’s “in your face” Shutter Island and Roman Polanski’s more subtle and refined The Ghost Writer.  The trend towards neo-noir continued and reached its zenith in the summer with two polarizingly opposite films:  Debra Granik’s independent and devilishly simple Winter’s Bone and Christopher Nolan’s wickedly complex mega-blockbuster Inception.  Even some of the heavy-hitters at the end of the year, like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan or The Coen Brothers’ True Grit owed some debt to noir.

Overall, it was a solid, consistent year for films and a nice way to kick-off a new decade of cinema.  There was nothing earth-shattering or revolutionary, but there were plenty of reasons to be entertained in 2010… Continue reading

The 4th Annual Davies Awards in Film

A Look Back at 2009:

Once upon a time…

…in 2008, while the world economy went into a tailspin, Hollywood delved into super-depressing, self-important mode and the Davies Awards asked sourly, “Why So Serious?”

But then the Brothers Coen and Quentin Tarantino looked around with their impish grins and wondered, “Why can’t we be a little serious but have fun, too?”  Meanwhile, The King of the World, James Cameron awoke from a decade long hibernation to deliver us into a fantastic world we had never seen and finally made a film where 3D technology rose above gimmick status.  All the while, his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow masterminded the ultimate coup-d’etat.  Will a woman director finally take home Oscar…for a war film?

But these golden days seemed so far far away back in January…

2009 began ominously. The multiplexes seemed a dark abyss. Continue reading

The 3rd Annual Davies Awards in Film

A Look Back at 2008:

Looking back on the year in film that was 2008, I’m left with but one question for Hollywood: “Why So Serious?”

I wish I could say it was the best of times, but mostly it was the worst of times.  Still even in the worst of times, there are plenty of alcoves to hide treasures.  As the world financial markets crumbled, a great depression engulfed the multiplexes from the darkest of comedies (all those alcoves In Bruges) to the darkest of popcorn flicks (The Dark Knight) to the saddest, coldest of Decembers.  2008 produced not only some of the worst films I have ever seen (Be Kind Rewind, The Day the Earth Stood Still), but also some of the most depressing (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Revolutionary Road).

Chopin’s Nocturne seemed ever so fitting a theme for this past year.

Overall 2008 was a stifling and mediocre year for films. Continue reading

The 2nd Annual Davies Awards in Film

The year’s best film , There Will Be Blood, closed in a orchestral flourish with this amazing piece from Brahms.  It was a fantastic way to end a wonderfully strange year at the cinema.

2007 ended up being a great year for films, possibly the best since 1999.  While 2006 was consistent in its passably entertaining mediocrity, filmmakers seemed to take more chances in 2007 leading to more highs (see below), more curiosities (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Beowulf, Sweeney Todd), and more lows (I Am Legend–not quite legendary).  The year’s two greatest films explored Greed and the American Dream.  There Will Be Blood took an epic approach to explore how greed driven and focused can build nations while slowly devouring the soul of the individual, while Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead took an intimate approach and explored how greed ill-planned and misdirected can destroy a family in the blink of an eye.  While Hollywood seemed to cash in on more name brand sequels and three-quels than ever before (and the public ate them up ad-naseum only to quickly forget them a few weeks later) three trends stood out in my mind that I feel defined 2007: Continue reading