I was going to hold off on this post until tomorrow or Friday, but since my plans for seeing the Black Swan screening fell through (AAAAAGGGGGGHHH), I figured it wouldn't hurt to kick off December by looking back. With a HUGE upswing in viewings last month, I'm actually able to get back to my original rules and set up: 1) Only one award per film (well...almost), and 2) Runners-up. So what did November offer at the theater and in the mail/online? Here's a look back to the best of the bunch.
Best Film (Theaters): 127 Hours
I may not have been completely blown away by Danny Boyle's telling of the story of Aron Ralston, but I can't deny its many strengths. From the strong work from leading man James Franco, to the engaging editing, to the unconventional score by AR Rahman, it's a remarkably constructed film. But best of all, yes, even over Franco's acting, is the sound design. The amputation scene is so intense and so harrowing because of the choice to use sound effects like gunshots and fuzzy guitar chords in place of "real" sound, and the effect is dizzying. I actually flinched my way through that portion of the movie because of Boyle's stylistic daring, and for that alone, 127 Hours lands on top.
Runner Up: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1
Best Film (DVD/Rental): Au Revoir Les Enfants
Louis Malle's semi-biographical WWII coming of age story starts out with plenty of typical elements. But as it goes along, Malle's incredible screenplay avoids the tropes of so many similar stories wherein kids from different backgrounds come together as friends. The simple moments, ones that should feel mundane, are so perfectly timed and executed that the film never makes you want to check your watch. It just makes the heartbreaking brilliance of the conclusion that much more effective. Some films are merely 'good' or 'solid' and only earn the label of greatness in the last act. Au Revoir Les Enfants earns it from the opening scene, and stays with you long after it ends. An under-appreciated/under-discussed masterpiece.
Runner Up: Apocalypse Now
Best Director: Francis Ford Coppola - Apocalypse Now
Never one of my favorites, Apocalypse Now gave me newfound respect for Coppola, and I now look forward to going through more of his non-Godfather filmography. Coppola has the great ability to seamlessly shift among tones, which is key to the story's success. In the hands of a different director, the film's transition to near-mythic delirium and madness in the final 35 minutes could have been jarring, but Coppola builds the atmosphere of the horror of Vietnam so effectively, that by the time you enter the almost surreal last act, it feels like a release; the final descent into how war transforms people.
Runner Up: Louis Malle - Au Revoirs Les Enfants
Best Male Performance: James Franco - 127 Hours
I'm not the biggest fan of performances that rely too much on physicality. And so when the first few minutes of the main portion of 127 Hours kicked off with Franco grunting and yelling, I was a little worried. Thankfully, the film quickly moves away from these moments, and by giving Ralston a venue to communicate his thoughts out-loud (which he apparently did in real life as well), Franco really gets to shine. Some have complained that the "imaginary talk show" scene is too much, but for me it's Franco's finest moment of acting. Ironically, the scene which could have felt the most contrived or artificial ends up feeling richer and truer than the more simplistic moments of physical struggle. Does Franco's work deserve to be labeled as best-of-all-time-worthy? To be blunt: no. But among the best of the year, if not the best of the year (so far)? Hell yes.
Runner Up: Guillaume Canet - Love Me if You Dare
Best Female Performance: Marion Cotillard - Love Me if You Dare
Whatever issues I may have had with the screenplay and the characters, it's hard for me to deny the strength of the film's leading lady. In one of her best performances, Cotillard lends the role of Sophie a mature edge that keeps her from feeling like a total psychopath, even in the film's increasingly strange scenes towards the end. Unlike her more recent English-language roles, Sophie isn't the wilting, repressed side-show girlfriend. Co-star Guillaume Canet may just barely edge her out for screen time, but as acting partners they're equals. Sophie is independent from the beginning, and Cotillard sells all of the angles. Now if only someone would give her this sort of role for her to act out in English...
Runner Up: Audrey Tatou - A Very Long Engagement/Anne Hathaway - Love and Other Drugs
Best Ensemble Cast: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1
It's been one of the most successfully cast film franchises in history, so it's hard not to give it the win here. Granted, it's impossible to give every single one of the Potterverse's memorable characters enough proper screen time, but it's just so joyous to see such a wide array of roles brought to life under one film, if only briefly.
Runner Up: Manhattan
Best Screenplay: Manhattan by Woody Allen
Maybe, after all of these years, Woody Allen has given us all that he has to offer. Yet it's hard to deny that when Allen in on his A-game, he really is a master. And Manhattan is a prime example of Woody at his finest. From its opening images, to its gently, quiet subversiveness and self-satire, Manhattan's look at a pair of relationships remains one of Allen's best realized and most wonderfully written screenplays. Unlike some of his more recent work, the conversations never descend into tedium or get bogged down by clunky dialogue. Everything works; the film is engaging, lively, and in spots hysterically funny. When Allen is bad, he can be atrocious, but Manhattan serves as a reminder of what the 75-year-old, one of the cinema's most prolific auteurs, is capable of when he's firing on all cylinders.
Runner Up: Au Revoirs Les Enfants by Louis Malle
Best Cinematography: Last Year At Marienbad, Sacha Vierny
One of the key reasons that Alain Resnais' head trip of a film comes down to Viery's astonishing command of the camera. The gorgeous, mesmerizing gliding shots from the opening, all the way through the still shots of rooms, statues, gardens, etc... all have a strange sense of magic about them. Were it not for the sheer beauty of the camerawork, Resnais' film could have descended from brilliant mind-warp to tedious, overly complicated nonsense. Best of all is Viery's choice of a crane shot from behind a statue.
As the man (Giogio Albertazzi) continues his conversation with the woman (Delphine Seyrig), the camera rises up behind a pair of statues, following the arc of their backs and coming to a rest at the level of the top of the man's head, overlooking the gardens in the distance. It's just one brilliant shot in a film bursting at the seams with them, where not one feels superfluous.
Runner Up: 127 Hours
That does it for November. Now let's bring on December, which holds plenty of interesting films (many of them Oscar hopefuls) in store.