10 of My All-Time Favourite ‘Best Picture’ Oscar Winners

hero460_oscars There’s a little awards ceremony happening this weekend that recognises emerging talent in the film industry, colloquially referred to as the Oscars. If you know about film, you might have heard of it? In celebration of this grand occasion, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite winners in the Best Picture category.

 

12 Years a Slave (2013) 1915593

Unflinching, visceral filmmaking at its most powerful. 12 Years a Slave not only proved cinema as an art form of great integrity, but one of absolute necessity. Unlike 2005 Best Picture winner Crash, which despite being a good film, I felt was awarded the honour for all the wrong reasons, 12 Years a Slave thoroughly earned it’s place in a long and prestigious history. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so exhausted and shaken by a film, and if that’s not testament to it’s power, I’m not sure what is. The films it was up against that year were artistically adventurous (Her, Gravity, Nebraska), topically risky (The Wolf of Wall Street) and ideologically important (Dallas Buyers Club). But 12 Years a Slave was all of that combined. And then some. See full review here.

Titanic (1997)

titanic-movie-picture-11I’ve unashamedly harboured a profound, undying, unsinkable love for Titanic ever since I saw it at the age of 12, and became promptly besotted with Jack and Rose’s love story. Though with hindsight, it’s a little dated and yes, long, to me it represents everything momentous that cinema can achieve. In all it’s vastness and awe-inspiring production design however, the detail is never lost. We are with Jack and Rose every step of the way – engulfed, submerged and utterly lost in their tragic adventure. Every time I watch it (going on 14 times), I somehow think (SPOILER ALERT) Jack might just cling on this time slash Rose might just have the sense to budge over. At the time of it’s release it was the most expensive movie ever made, and continued to drown in superlatives as it bagged 11 Oscars and became the highest-grossing film, only to be ousted by another James Cameron blockbuster: Avatar.  I’m a romantic at heart, and Titanic taps into that notion. Oh sure, it’s corny and melodramatic and I’ll never not find it ridiculous just how many times Jack and Rose are forced back down into the lower decks. But I’ll also never regret investing 3 hours in a film that is so epically, painstakingly and beautifully constructed.

Forrest Gump (1994)

originalWho can fail to fall in love with Forrest Gump? In the unravelling of his story director Robert Zemeckis has created one of the most enduring, universal and magical films of its time. Indeed, of all time. The only other two real contenders that year were Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, but both took their time in receiving the same level of acclaim as Forrest Gump. It was the out and out winner if just for its sheer ability to touch even those irredeemably, unfathomably cynical.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) The-Silence-of-the-Lambs

This has crept in above the likes of Casablanca, The Godfather Part II and The English Patient because though it’s not a cinematic artefact, the creme de la creme of its genre, or a sweeping love story, it is an expertly-crafted and thoroughly terrifying psychological thriller that manages to incite fear some 20 years after its initial release. (Seriously, look at the picture to the right and tell me your spine isn’t shivering). Taking a leaf out of Hitchcock’s book, Jonathan Demme cranks up the tension to an unbearable degree as Clarice Sterling is forced to make an unlikely ally in Hannibal Lecter in order to capture spine-chilling, serial-killing Buffalo Bill. In blending the macabre with the masterful, Demme creates a film that simultaneously has you hiding behind a blanket/your hands/an unwitting companion and not wanting to tear yourself away.

Dances with Wolves (1990)

dances-with-wolves-8A somewhat nostalgic selection that recalls Sunday afternoons spent with my father watching movie classics (Field of Dreams, The Last of the Mohicans, The Great Escape, e.t.c). Traversing the American landscape with an astute and beloved eye, Kevin Costner is at his peak as both actor and director. As Lieutenant Dunbar immerses himself in the Sioux tribe – learning of their customs, language and traditions – we too are invited along to both marvel at, and sympathise with, the Native American people. It’s an ambitious and visionary piece of filmmaking that recalls and subverts the forefathers of its genre; at once romanticising the great open plains, but never falling back on racial polarisations or dichotomous stereotypes. Set during the American Civil war at a time of savage conflict and bitter rivalries, Dances With Wolves proved itself to be an antidote to the era’s brutalities – an elegiac saga, but one charged with passion and appreciation for its subject. A sublime, spectacular story and a Sunday afternoon well-spent.

Rain Man (1988) tom-cruise-rain-man-1988

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise as the polar opposite Babbitt brothers provide two compelling performances, in a sincere road movie of sorts. Thought-provoking without being didactic, Rain Man fostered a changing of societal perceptions towards autism, encouraging people to embrace savants rather than alienate them. Arguably simplistic and sentimental, this film is nevertheless illuminating, heartfelt and frequently hilarious. In a year that pitted it against Working Girl, Mississippi Burning, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Accidental Tourist, where the others are entertaining, Rain Man is enduring. I’ve been trying to correctly guess the number of cocktail sticks in a box ever since.

Ordinary People (1980) optimized-redford-hutton-ordinary

Ordinary though it may seem, therein lies the charm of Robert Redford’s suburban family drama. Searingly intimate, there are times this portrait of the unravelling Jarrett family feels more like a documentary. There are no sublime special effects or mind-boggling technical feats, Redford simply harnesses the power of the two greatest tricks of cinema – acting and storytelling. As the various foibles and conflicts of the characters are explored, Redford displays astonishing restraint, nuance and assurance, coaxing Oscar-worthy performances from his cast. The death of a son may have been dealt with repeatedly in cinematic terms, but perhaps never so extraordinarily. (Though it has to be mentioned, this was the same year Martin Scorcese’s boxing masterpiece Raging Bull was nominated and in both the categories of ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’ I am surprised it didn’t win – had it, it would’ve most definitely earned a place on this list).

Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)

kramer3 Another humdrum family drama elevated by the standard of acting delivered within. This time Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play a sparring couple in a bitter custody battle. Technically, there isn’t too much that warrants our curiosity, but when a relatively un-outstanding story manages to engage its audience and tug on your heartstrings, well then attention is deserved. Even the kid playing the kid is fantastic. What’s more, is that it’s quite unique in that it’s the mother who leaves the family in search of freedom and fulfilment and the father who’s left behind to pick up the pieces and juggle his family and a career. I also found myself not taking sides as dramatically as I had expected. Kramer Vs. Kramer fleshes out all of its main characters beautifully, in a way that’s believable and touching and doesn’t encourage you to pass judgment, but rather to empathise with a complex and painful decision. Despite the havoc that divorce wreaks, the film is a hopeful one, and all the better for it. Though I would still advise you to keep a box of tissues nearby.

The Sting (1973) 1973_the_sting_008

This is one of my all-time favourite films; let alone whether it was nominated, or succeeded to make good on that nomination. The Sting is irresistibly cool and seductive cinema at its finest, what’s more, it pairs up Robert Redford and Paul Newman, who in my eyes can do no wrong. It’s Chicago in the 1930s and the pair are con-men making their mark for the ultimate swindle. It’s sizzling, energetic storytelling – a crime caper in which the two leads are the kind of bad you root for regardless. There’s poker, period costume and laughs aplenty; its old-school razzle-dazzle Hollywood at it’s most bewitching.

The Godfather (1972)

godfather-brandoNo ‘all-time favourite’ list would be complete without The Godfather. This sumptuous family saga is what the words ‘timeless’ and ‘classic’ were made for, and Francis Ford Coppola achieved a feat that little do – he made a film dripping with both style and substance. Immersing himself in the sinister, yet loyal trappings of the Corleone family, he created the mother – or godfather – of all organised crime films. He defined a genre. As youngest son Michael Corleone resists his calling, with brutal consequences, the underbelly to the gangster world is unveiled in all its horse-beheading glory. With a magnificent cast that includes Marlon Brandon, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino, Coppola manages to both engage his audience – and dare I say it, elicit their sympathy – whilst simultaneously explicating the rampant violence as vengeance mounts upon vengeance. Transcendent, explosive filmmaking; an offer you’d be imbecilic to refuse.

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And there you have my list. Disagree at your behest. I could certainly have made an argument to include On The Waterfront, American Beauty, No Country For Old Men and The Artist, but these are the films I visit time and time again; for inspiration, for nostalgia, for pure enjoyment. This year’s nominees are:

American Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Find out this coming Sunday which one will take home the historic accolade. I’ll be live-blogging every win, every false smile, every J-Law stumble right here.

5 Female Directors You Should Know…

The paucity of female filmmakers has almost reached the point of media saturation. It doesn’t take long to find statistics or editorials decrying the severe scantiness of a female perspective in the film industry. As well as being an all-white affair, this year’s Academy Awards are once again male-dominated, with zero women being nominated in the Directing or Cinematography categories. However, I would contend that it’s not because there is an actual lack of talented, insightful and masterful women helming films but rather fewer opportunities presented to them.

I was reading a piece in The Guardianthe other day about a film critic who is vowing to watch films only penned, or purposed by women. Her justification for including male-directed, but female-written film is as follows:

“A lot of times a woman will write a script and in order to get it made, she’ll need a male director. If she goes to a financier, as a female screenwriter with a female director, she will be turned down. But if you have a female screenwriter and a male director who has one or two films behind him – or even if it’s his debut – financiers are more likely to back a film by a man”.

And in that brief statement, Gates articulates the core issue. Gender discrimination in Hollywood is pervasive, and destructive. It’s like a community sitting atop a vast field of untapped oil, and being told it doesn’t exist – that those resources are somehow inferior, or less visible than the ones they have access to. That would be a massive squandering of potential, and quite frankly, ridiculous. Yet the difficulty women have making movies, or making money making movies, is often viewed as ‘just the way it is’.

Here to prove that point – that it’s not a lack of female directors, but a lack of opportunity – are 5 up-and coming or established directors who are doing their thing, and doing it quite brilliantly. Of course there are plenty more that deserve your curiosity, but these are the ladies currently capturing my attention…

5. KKat+Coiro+Case+Premieres+Tribeca+Film+Festival+a1ZquC2imW_lat Coiro

With three feature-length projects under her belt in as many years, Coiro is perhaps the most prolific director of my selection. Her films And While We Were Here, (which I review in my last blog post), Life Happens, and A Case of You, often focus on the difficult choices that women are faced to make, such as between career and family. The critical response to her films has been mixed, however her female leads are all intriguing, flawed but ultimately likeable people that don’t necessarily have their shit all figured out. Particularly interesting in A Case of You is how the male lead (playing by the affable Justin Long) is the one trying to change, and mould himself to lure his love interest, which is so often the other way around in romantic comedies directed by men. Her films are in turn delicate, nuanced, witty and beautifully realised. And While We Here particularly showcases an artistic vision and her potential as a director of great potency.

In_a_World_poster4. Lake Bell

If you haven’t see In A World… steal a friend’s Netflix password immediately. It’s hilarious and relevant, and reveals actress Lake Bell to not only be a great comedic performer, but also a very astute director. It’s a satirical piece that charts a young woman’s attempt to compete in the male-dominated world of voiceovers and Bell never misses a beat nor an opportunity to underscore the double-standarded nature of the entertainment business. In A World… is a pacy and well-crafted feature length debut for Bell, and one that has me incredibly, insatiably excited for her collaboration with Noah Baumbach for her next project The Emperor’s Children. 

Amma Asante3. Amma Asante

Belle might be better known for launching EE Rising Star nominee Gugu Mbatha-Raw into the spotlight, but behind her confident, multi-faceted performance is Ghanian-British director Asante. Tackling the slave trade – especially after awards-sweeper 12 Years a Slave – in an original and sensitive way, is no mean feat, but it is one that Asante achieves with the deft of a director considerably more experienced. This is her first big-budget film, after her smaller 2004 debut A Way of Life, which won a handful of awards and lots of praise. Powerful, poignant and intelligent, Belle is a mischievous, and much-needed divergence from traditional period costume-dramas and one that has me hoping it doesn’t take Asante another 10 years to release a film.

fid131102. Haifaa Al-Mansour

Al-Mansour is from Saudi Arabia, a country where extreme restrictions and limitations are placed on the female population; where they aren’t allowed to wear certain clothes, drive cars or compete in sports, let alone direct a groundbreaking and thought-provoking film. But against these curtailments of her freedom, that’s exactly what Al-Mansour did with Wadjda in 2013, a courageous, endearing and important film that picked up several awards nominations on the film festival circuit. Al-Mansour is to make the cross over to Hollywood with a Mary Shelley biopic, in which Elle Fanning is slated to star in the titular role. Let’s hope she continues to push boundaries upon arrival.

BN-FZ257_ava2_DV_201412111612591. Ava DuVernay

If there’s one name you should remember from this year’s awards season, its Ava DuVernay. Though she just missed out on a Best Directing nomination for her Martin Luther King biopic Selma, she has done something arguably much more admirable – broken through the glass ceiling. Historical films such as this are predominantly the reserve of a male director and it’s rare for a woman to be charged with detailing the events surrounding one of the most important victories for the Civil Rights movement, as spear-headed by the most important figure of the Civil Rights movement. And yet she does it in blistering, gutsy and and complex style. She’s got filmmaking verve by the bucketload, and shows great amounts of restraint and intelligence in her formal approach. DuVernay might not pick up any awards, but she should win herself a legion of fans and cement her position as a talent to take serious note of.

Review: The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman
The Invisible Woman, 2013. DIR. Ralph Fiennes. Starring: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan

Despite being Ralph Fiennes’ second directorial effort, with himself starring as acclaimed novelist, philanthropist and public figure Charles Dickens, this is the story of how Nelly Ternan became his lover, and this is Felicity Jones’ film.

It is she that the film opens and closes with, as we find Nelly operating under a different name, working as a teacher and telling her husband Dickens was a childhood acquaintance. It is her anguish, isolation and desire that the Abi Morgan penned (based on Claire Tomalin’s novel) biopic explores and through her position as Dickens’ lover, muse and confidante that we discover the women that lived in the shadow of a national treasure.

From the moment we observe Nelly’s all-black ensemble, slightly aged face and brisk walking pace across a vast and empty beach, there is a sense of her being haunted by the past. Thus, when the film takes us back to Dickens’ and Nelly’s first meeting, there interaction thereafter is tainted with the torment and tragedy that is to follow.

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Felicity Jones turns in a mesmerising, heart-wrenching performance as the beguiling ingénue, who captivates the self-absorbed Dickens with her clarity and sensitivity. Her subtlety and sadness match the tone of the film perfectly, both saying more in glances stolen, and secrets untold.

The scenes between Nelly and Charles are refreshingly non-sexual, and focus on their intellectual compatibility rather than their bedroom antics. Indeed, one particular scene that sees Nelly torn between her love for Charles and her social reputation shows incredible restraint in not allowing the protagonists to kiss. The longing gazes and yearning caresses are tantalisingly painful to watch; the characters almost afraid to cross a line from which there is no turning back.

After flamboyant, vivid turns in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Coriolanus, Fiennes demonstrates his versatility as both a director, and actor, who has accomplished restraint and delicacy in his treatment of this romantic partnership. His Charles’ is vexing, cruel, and narcissistic; a man who boards up half of his house to physically separate himself from his long-suffering wife Catherine, who admits he loves his audience more than his family. And yet, his passion, joie de vivre, and seemingly genuine interest in the welfare of the underclass, allows us to understand Nelly’s attraction to him. the-invisible-woman-2013-img01

Their relationship is at once paternalistic (a facet perhaps aided by the fact Fiennes and Jones played father and daughter in 2010’s Cemetery Junction) and tender. Conversations had by candlelight and secluded country walks cement a romanticism, rather than perversity to their pairing – she was 18, and he 45 when they met. And both actors bring these real people back to life with assurance, charm and poignancy.

Fantastic support is found in the performances of Kristin Scott-Thomas, as Nelly’s reluctantly complicit mother; Tom Hollander, as Dickens’ friend and colleague – himself living with a mistress and finally, and the astounding Joanna Scanlan as Dicken’s rejected wife. Her finest moment comes when she is forced to confront Nelly upon Charles’ order to deliver a present to her. Ouch, indeed.

The pacing of the film is almost irritatingly languid, with Fiennes choosing to focus a great deal more on their introduction and gradual getting to know one another, rather than their actual relationship – which is in fact boiled down to the denouement.

Nevertheless, the film manages to wonderfully capture the Victorian era, replete with 4am revelry, the poverty of the working class and the restrictions and shame that women were subjected to. And as with many period dramas that detail the difficult of a forbidden affair, potency is found in the moments and words left unsaid. Fiennes’ acknowledges this to devastating effect.

Verdict: Assured and sensitive, there are echoes of ‘Bright Star’ and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ as Fiennes’ painstakingly unravels the makings of a forgotten muse. With a keen grasp of the novelist’s talent and influence, as well as the era, The Invisible Woman makes for an aesthetically pleasing and engaging, if not entirely pleasurable cinematic experience.