Summer cinema sampler 2013 – Part II

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

The awards season rolls on and, by the end of this week, all but one of the nine best film nominations for the Oscars will have been released.

The exception is Michael Haneke's French language study of old age and dementia, Amour, which was originally seen at last year's International Film Festival.

This week's new releases include a triple-dip of Oscar nominees: Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty. In addition, there's Anna Karenina, which is up for a number of other awards.

In the past week, the Screen Actors Guild named its awards, with Argo winning best cast, Daniel Day-Lewis best actor (Lincoln) and Jennifer Lawrence best actress (Silver Linings Playbook).

The nominees for the Independent Spirit Awards, for films with a budget of less than $US20 million, have been added to the lists below.

Now screening (*denotes Oscar best film nomination):

Excellent acting and directing (David O Russell) lift this otherwise unpretentious blue-collar comedy-drama into Oscar class. The Philadelphia suburban setting and sports fanatical characters will be familiar to those who saw Russell’s The Fighter, while a strong romantic theme is introduced through a dance contest subplot. The leads, Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) and Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), have too much star power for their roles, overshadowing their vulnerable characters who are recovering from spells in mental institutions. He is bipolar, trying to woo back his wife and given to violent tempers; she is newly widowed and overcoming a sluttish reputation. This makes for rivetting viewing as both recognise something of themselves in each other while pushing their developing relationship to the brink. This is no conventional love story either, as Cooper spends a lot of time trying to reach an accommodation with his bookmaker father (Robert De Niro). 

At a time when Hollywood has taken on a distinctly patriotic tone (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty), this reverential study of America’s most admired president was surely of great comfort to the White House’s incumbent before last year’s election. It focuses on the short period just after Abraham Lincoln had been re-elected and his second inauguration. The outgoing (or “lame duck”) House was deciding on whether to abolish slavery as the Civil War was entering its final stage and Lincoln has to employ every ruse of his considerable political skills to carry the day.

Read John Daly-People’s full review: Spielberg creates a memorable Lincoln 

Political controversy about the the extent of water-boarding and other interrogation techniques to extract information from detained Jihadists associated with al Qaeda hasn't hurt the chances of director Kathryn Bigelow's latest war drama – which was not the case with The Hurt Locker, which was a deserved Oscar winner in 2009 but seen by virtually no one. The screenwriter on that film, Mark Boal, also returns for this story of how Osama Bin Laden was tracked to his hideout in the military city of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed by a US Navy Seal expedition that flew in from Afghanistan in a daring raid. Central to the story is the role of a CIA agent identified simply as Maya (Jessica Chastain). She doggedly pursues her prey, bringing an understated glamour and different view of intelligence/surveillance operations as much more than the usual movie depiction of prevaricating bureaucrats (though there are a few here as in Argo). Again, we know the outcome outcome but that doesn't make it any less suspenseful.

A fresh take on Leo Tolstoy’s much-filmed classic romance follows the example of Les Misérables by being staged theatrically for much of the two hours-plus running time. This gives plenty of opportunity for the cast (notably Keira Knightley in the lead role) to strut their stuff in elaborate Tsarist Russian costumes. British director Joe Wright did well with his adaptations of Price and Prejudice and Atonement. Here, he has the added benefit of a Tom Stoppard script.

Quentin Tarantino follows up Inglourious Basterds with another epic filled with equally huge dollops of violence and humour. Christoph Waltz returns, this time as a German dentist, Dr Schultz, who has a lucrative bounty-hunting business with freed slave Jamie Foxx in the title role as his chief accomplice. Plantation owner Leonardo DiCaprio is the main villain in a drama that involves grand set pieces that are a Tarantino trademark. Some may think these are the shootouts, grounded in the spaghetti westerns of the past. In fact, the best scenes are mainly verbal, with standoffs by the highly stylised characters adding to the suspense until the guns provide the cartharsis. The denouément would have been greatly improved if Tarantino stopped short at the natural climax and sparred us the drawn-out conclusion.

Director Juan Antonio Boyona recreates the real-life experience of a Spanish family on holiday in Thailand during the Boxing Day tsunami. The family’s nationality has been changed to British for the purposes of  casting Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Though the tsunami has been seen to spectacular effect in films before, including Clint Eastwood’s little-seen Hereafter, time has not reduced its impact. This is heart-rending stuff that doesn't diminish the scale of human suffering and the disaster effort that followed for victims and survivors.

Veteran French actor Niels Arestrup lacks faith in his own son to run his vineyard but when he chooses a more suitable outsider it all ends in tears. Director Gilles Legrand is following a strong tradition of family dramas, and this is no exception. The setting in the wine industry is an added bonus.

The title loosely refers to Scientology founder and cult founder L Ron Hubbard and this is a drama about how he uses his quack ideas on a traumatised World War II sailor who has returned to civilian life as a misfit. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) is a heavyweight by anyone’s standards and this is not most people's idea of entertainment. However, a viewing is rewarded with plenty of thoughtful material that is a world away from David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. As the Hubbard-like character, Philip Seymour Hoffman channels Orson Welles, while Joaquin Phoenix as the sailor is the creepiest psycho in a long time. Though slow and ponderous, this a film that will remain in the mind much longer than it takes to experience.

The stage musical comes to life under the direction of Tom Hooper (The Iron Lady) and with a top-notch cast headed by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, who are better known for their acting than their singing. The gamble pays off, with Hooper also using single long shots for the big set pieces.

Philip French (The Observer)
Amour, Argo, Berberian Sound Studio, Killing Them Softly, Holy Motors, Life of Pi, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, This is Not a Film (alphabetical order)

Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal)
Silver Linings Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Gatekeeper, Lincoln, Les Misérables, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty (order of merit)

Sight & Sound (UK) consensus of 90 invited critics
The Master, Tabu, Amour, Holy Motors, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Berberian Sound Studio, Moonrise Kingdom, Beyond the Hills, Cosmopolis, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, This is Not a Film (order of merit)

Bafta (British Academy of Film & Television Arts) - Feb 11 (NZ time)
Best film – Argo. Other nominations: Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty
Best UK film – Skyfall. Other nominations: Anna Karenina, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Les Misérables, Seven Psychopaths

Independent Spirit Awards - Feb 24 (NZ time)
Beats of the Southern Wild, Bernie, Keep the Lights  On, Moonrise Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook (nominations)

*Hollywood Academy Awards (Oscars) - Feb 25 (NZ time)
Best film – Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty (nominations)

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