With the season of air-puffed action flicks and empty-calorie comedies behind us, substance deprivation has begun to set in something fierce. Fortunately, as reviews surface from the Telluride and Venice Film Festivals, it’s clear that a feast of heartier fare will be on the menu (and movie marquees) throughout the rest of the year.
As critics continue to sing ever-louder arias about each successive festival debut, we suspect that this year’s bumper crop of heirloom filmmaking and artisan-crafted adaptations may require some strategic pacing to avoid filling up early before the studios roll out their version of haute cuisine (i.e. thoughtful dramatic star vehicles and the annual Meryl Streep showcase).
As the herd of festival-farmed releases continues to grow without the usual quota of poorly reviewed runts, this year’s Oscar race is shaping up to be a competition worth watching for the first time in recent memory. With that in mind, we’ve assembled the following cheat sheet to help you navigate this fall’s abundant offerings.
"Argo": This homage to 1970s political thrillers unleashed an avalanche of critical praise when it premiered in an unannounced screening last week at the Telluride Film Festival. If there are any remaining doubts that Ben Affleck has found his calling as a director, they’ll be laid to rest by this adaptation of Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 Wired article about a CIA operative (Affleck) who concocts a hair-brained scheme to rescue six Americans during the Iranian Hostage Crisis by having them pose as a film crew shooting a schlocky sci-fi film. With its feet firmly planted in satire and suspense, this true tale of high-stakes political buffoonery amid tensions in the Middle East offers a Kubrick-ian take on the intrigue surrounding more recent foreign policy blunders. The trailer is featured first in the playlist of trailers below.
"Anna Karenina": Writer-director Joe Wright had some atoning of his own to do after his cold, fussy adaptation of “Atonement” failed to arouse audiences to curse the fates with the ardor and conviction worthy of Ian McEwan’s sprawling WWII romance. What better way to make up for past sins of emotional reserve than by plunging head-first into Tolstoy’s tragic tale of the titular stifled free spirit (Keira Knightley) whose one unguarded act of impetuous ardor sends ripples of despair to her entire extended family and saddles her with the cruel realization that even the brightest-burning passion eventually dims into domestic drudgery. Early reviews out of the Venice Film Festival have praised playwright Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”) for not shying away from the novel’s aching romanticism and high-revving emotion. Critics have also been swooning over Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End” into a BBC/HBO bodice-ripping series that’s threatening Downton Abbey’s reign over costume drama cultists.
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower": Some thirteen years ago, an idealistic kid from Pittsburgh named Stephen Chbosky dreamed of getting his friends together to shoot a movie that would storm Sundance and catapult him into the ranks of Festival-minted auteurs. The first three parts of that fairy tale came true but the final act has been a long time coming. Chbosky took a circuitous route to reach his original destination – a personal film that incorporates his passion for music, books, pop culture, and romantic awakenings. He was given the opportunity to make this deeply personal film about his sexual and social coming of age by writing the bestselling novel upon which it was based.
"Wuthering Heights": Ever since catching a glimpse of an early of clip of writer-director Andrea Arnold’s modernist take on Emily Bronte’s classic staple of high school English class, we’ve been haunted by her feral vision of Cathy and Heathcliff as an interracial couple beset with unquenchable desire. Arnold is on solid ground here thematically: She beautifully captured the intoxicating havoc of forbidden love in her last film “Fish Tank,” which took home Cannes’ Grand Jury Prize in 2009.
"Cloud Atlas": Talk about boldly going where no filmmaker has gone before. According to a piece in this week’s New Yorker about the film’s cursed production, David Mitchell was convinced his sprawling collection of loosely connected stories spanning vast stretches of time and space was “unfilmable” until he met the impassioned and intrepid trio of directors –
Larry Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer -- determined to turn his enigmatic masterpiece into a free-verse mash-up of disparate genres and actors one never imagined would share credits in the same film. This trippy philosophical journey into the nature of cause and effect stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, and Susan Sarandon playing multiple roles that transcend age and gender.
"Silver Linings Playbook": It’s worth setting aside any reservations based on the Hallmark-quaint title telegraphing a conclusion aimed squarely at uplift. For one thing, adaptation of Matthew Quick's novel about a mentally unstable teacher (Bradley Cooper) trying to reassemble his life after being sprung from a mental institution has the equivalent of an insurance policy against sentimentality in the form of its writer-director. David O. Russell is a filmmaker constitutionally incapable of making movies that don’t muck around in the messy runoff of human fallibility. Both an ironist and a humanist, his arch comedies about incest and the first Gulf War have established him as a first-rate provocateur hell-bent on upending an audience’s expectations.
"Life of Pi": You’d be hard pressed to find a more reliable seal of quality filmmaking than selection as the New York Film Festival’s opening night film. And then there’s the captivating source material: Yann Martel’s magic realist tale of a shipwreck that strands an Indian boy on a lifeboat with a wild tiger. Finally, if the film’s spellbinding trailers are any indication, director Ang Lee may be the first filmmaker to effectively combine right amounts of true danger and wonder to capture the alchemy of childhood adventure in ways that promising recent adaptations of “The Golden Compass” and “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” fell short.
"Mr. Pip": A great book’s power to become a vehicle for transcendence has emerged as an intriguing trend among this year’s crop of holiday movies. Josh Radnor’s “Liberal Arts,” Steve Chbosky’s aforementioned “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and this film cast classic literature as the deus ex machina that equips the protagonist with the tools necessary to combat any obstacles. That notion of literary empowerment is woven throughout adaptation of Lloyd Jones’ fanciful fable about a teenage girl in Papua New Guinea whose charismatic English teacher (Hugh Laurie) teaches her to build an inner defense against the ravages of civil war by immersing herself into Dickens’ Great Expectations.
"Lincoln": Stephen Spielberg’s long-gestating adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s definitive biography of the sixteenth president of the United States has offered an object lesson in Hollywood’s shifting power structure. The director who pioneered the modern blockbuster began developing the project in 2001 but was unable to find a studio willing to make a big bet on a period biopic that kids would likely regard as a two-hour homework assignment. After enlisting Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner to write the script and Daniel Day-Lewis to play the title role, Spielberg prevailed; and the resulting film now looks like an Oscar prizefighter preparing to storm the ring.
"Promised Land": An alternate title might be: Fracking Hell. This comic cautionary tale is about a natural gas company’s prospector (Matt Damon) who moves into a small town and experiences a crisis of conscience after witnessing the local impact of the controversial drilling practice. Damon teamed up with John
Krasinsky Krasinski to adapt Dave Eggers’ short story -- the "Bourne" star’s first produced screenplay since winning the Oscar for "Good Will Hunting." Damon, who had originally planned to make this his directorial debut, enlisted his longtime collaborator, Gus Van Sant, to take over due to conflicting obligations. We’d be willing to wager that it’s only a matter of time, though, until Damon seizes the director’s chair and faces off against Affleck in some future Best Director race.
"The Master": Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly anticipated character study of the charismatic Navy vet (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who returns from WWII and channels his out-there ideas combining science and pop psychology into the founding of a cult-like organization that bears a striking resemblance to the Church of Scientology. The narrative pivots around an unhinged drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) who becomes further destabilized by his involvement in the cult. As with many of Anderson’s films, “The Master,” splays and fillets his characters’ tumor-like malignant capacity for deceit and deception.
It’s worth keeping tabs on the following batch of honorable mentions – each of which qualifies as Year End Top Ten List fodder:
"Killing them Softly," "On the Road," "Seven Psychopaths," "Amour," "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," "Les Miserables," "Jack Reacher," "Much Ado about Nothing," "The Company You Keep," "Foxfire," "The Sessions," "Skyfall," "Rust & Bone," "Capital"