The year-end lists in movies and music are always great ways to glance back at works that might not have much of anything to do with one another but for their year of release. But they’re also a tacit look ahead to awards season — in our case, to the Oscars.
I don’t claim to have seen anything like all the major or leading releases to have hit theaters in 2013, but I did get a look, in many cases, at films I think will be leading contenders in some major categories. Here, then, are some excerpts from 2013 reviews that, if the Academy holds to form, might serve as a partial preview to some of the more prestigious hardware.
“12 Years a Slave”
The adaptation by English director Steve McQueen draws its immense strength from many sources. Foremost are the profound performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, Michael Fassbender as an imperious plantation owner, and Lupita Nyong’o as a young slave. The cinematography by repeat McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt paints the South as a land of raw beauty and never misses a chance to stun the audience with his framing.
“All Is Lost”
Robert Redford’s great in this part, because we believe instantly he could be so cocksure as to find himself in this situation. He’s convincingly rich, retired, riding the seas in search of the next challenge. Well, he found it. Yacht or not, the world’s poorest man is the one who doesn’t know where his next drink of water is coming from.
Bruce Dern inhabits Woody as a true haunt, giving the impression of a documentary subject the film happened to find loose in the wilds of America. That he says so little only adds heft to every squawk and squeak at the back of his voice. The monochrome sets every corn silk strand of his mad-scientist hair against his black eyes. Woody is immune to reason, yet possessed of a logic that we come to know only slowly. His mission is bound to fail. But it is his, and for that, we must respect it.
Director/producer Alfonso Cuarón opted not for the “Apollo 13″ technique of yo-yoing his crew up and down in a freefalling Boeing. Instead he invented and appropriated, over the past five years, a system of harnesses and lights and computers and cameras and sets that could scarcely be more convincing. Even as Google Earth has dulled the awe of overhead planetary shots, the panoramas of islands and isthmuses and storms and cities and aurora borealis from space are nothing shy of mind-bending. The combination of physics and optics makes “Gravity” an instant technical touchstone, a waking dream.
If Tom Hanks plays you in a movie, chances are you’ve had a bad few days. Paul Greengrass directs, in the screw-tight style that made his “Bourne” movies so compelling and, more to the point, that made “United 93″ an eerily realistic re-enactment of a 9/11 hijacking. The sets and locations are fantastic — the contrasting feelings of confinement and expanse, so essential to a maritime thriller, ring true. On the shipping freighter and later in the enclosed lifeboat where the pirates make their stand, the sense of claustrophobia and panic couldn’t be more tangible.
The music and sound effects and lighting effects and robot effects and monster effects all are top-flight, befitting the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The fighting scenes echo the earliest Godzilla movies — buildings getting mashed, crowds fleeing in horror — but are rendered so seductively you forget you’re watching, in essence, a couple of drawings locked in combat. Digital effects still can’t hurdle the uncanny valley of human features. In the more abstract realm of robots and monsters, though, we’ve arrived at graphics so convincing that they suspend disbelief for you.
I like “12 Years a Slave” to win Best Picture, but then, I haven’t seen “Dallas Buyers Club” or “American Hustle” yet. “Gravity” looks to be the odds-on leader for visual and technical categories, but I’m hoping “Pacific Rim” can get some recognition while still being such a candy banquet for fanboys and -girls. Oscar ought to know better than to ding a film for being unabashedly fun.