This week, the critics’ organizations have begun to make their picks heralding the real beginning of awards season. Already, a consensus seems to be building behind Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been plenty of other deserving movies this year. I made a case for a few of them last week, and was particularly pleased to see that Rachel Weisz won the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Actress for her superb work in The Deep Blue Sea. Hopefully, some of these movies will stick around, too.
1. Oslo, August 31st
The second feature from Joachim Trier, a young Danish director whose first film, Reprise, was well-received in 2006. Once again starring Anders Danielsen Lie, an astonishingly gifted actor who moonlights as a doctor in his real life (really!), Oslo, August 31st chronicles one day in the life of Phillip, a drug addict, who returns to Oslo from his rehab facility. From the film’s opening moments, when Phillip tries to drown himself in a river and fails to follow through, we know that things will not end well for him, and indeed they do not. Trier’s beautiful film movingly evokes the lost sense of being disconnected from the bustling outside world that comes not only with drug addiction but with depression. Brilliantly written and directed, Oslo really hinges on Lie’s performance, which is a stunning feat of empty agony. If there were any justice in the world, he’d be right at the top of Oscar ballots, alongside the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix.
2. Take This Waltz
Another sophomore effort, Take This Waltz is actress Sarah Polley’s follow-up to another 2006 film, the much-lauded Away from Her. That movie garnered Oscar nominations for star Julie Christie and for Polley’s adapted screenplay. Take This Waltz is unlikely to perform so well, unfortunately. Though its screenplay is uneven —– occasionally brilliant, occasionally woefully misguided —– Take This Waltz is a movie almost overflowing with life, replete with a sense of urgency and sensuality that Polley’s direction aptly captures. Michelle Williams, in one of the best performances of her already sterling career, stars as Margot, a dissatisfied woman who is tempted away from her staid marriage (to Seth Rogen, shockingly effective playing a real person and not a caricature of himself) by the alluring stranger next door (Luke Kirby). Both Williams and Rogen deserve to be in the awards conversation for making childish characters that could easily have seemed prohibitively petulant into sympathetic, fully-formed human beings whose faults seem as necessary to them as their best qualities.
3. Seven Psychopaths
Seven Psychopaths is probably the most disappointing second feature on this list.: Iit’s a tough fate for any movie to follow up writer-director Martin McDonagh’s debut, the minor masterpiece In Bruges, but Seven Psychopaths really does fall short. Its screenplay is structurally a mess, and the whole endeavor —– annoyingly, indulgently meta —– feels a decade or two too late. Even so, it’s consistently funny, largely due to the presence of Sam Rockwell as Billy, who is so ludicrously good, he seems to have walked on from another movie entirely. Billy is, as the title suggests, a raging psychopath, and his performance really is a no-holds-barred feat of manic intensity. Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is Rockwell’s ability to make Billy sympathetic without compromising his commitment to the craziness of the character. A long monologue around two-thirds of the way through film gives him the chance to showcase his dramatic and comedic chops, and it’s a doozy. I’d take a performance like this over something like surefire-nominee Alan Arkin in Argo any day of the week.
4. Your Sister’s Sister
Director Lynn Shelton is well-known in indie circles for her unusual method, which relies heavily on improvisation.: Tthough she does write a script, most of what winds up in the movie is improvised dialogue. She’s worked with improv veterans like the Duplass brothers in other films, and Mark Duplass shows up here as the film’s male lead, a man who’s mourning the death of his brother and hasn’t quite figured out that he’s in love with his best friend (Emily Blunt). It’s due to his confusion on that latter point that he winds up sleeping with her (avowedly lesbian) sister, played by Rosemarie DeWitt. Shenanigans, needless to say, ensue. Though the last third of the movie loses the momentum and urgency of its first two acts, Your Sister’s Sister is still a gem, both genuinely moving and consistently laugh-out-loud funny. The humor is a credit to Shelton’s trio of performers. The fact that Duplass is an old hand at Shelton’s method doesn’t diminish his performance, but it’s hard not to be particularly impressed by Blunt and DeWitt, two of our best actresses who sometimes struggle to find good roles, and who have no background in improvised comedy. They are routinely hilarious, and their sisterly rapport is touchingly authentic. It’s a pure pleasure to spend a couple of hours in their company.
5. Magic Mike
I don’t think there was a more pleasant surprise in film this year that Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. Relentlessly marketed to women as a titillating guilty pleasure, it’s undeniably the most gleeful example of male objectification I think I’ve ever seen, certainly from a mainstream movie, even an independent one. But the real surprise of Magic Mike is that it goes far beyond its surface-level kicks. Without making cheap equivocations about the objectification of women and men, the movie subtly and effectively demonstrates the ways that it is just as damaging for Mike and his colleagues to be seen as nothing more than attractive bodies as it would be for women in their position. The damage takes a slightly different form, of course, but it’s powerful nevertheless. The fact that Soderbergh manages to capture this while simultaneously acknowledging the simple pleasures to be gained from both watching and possessing those beautiful bodies (if you're not at work, see also: "Pony") is a real achievement. He’s helped out by an outstanding cast: Channing Tatum, whose track record has been decidedly mixed, is superb, and Alex Pettyfer is surprisingly good. But Matthew McConaughey steals the show. As aging strip club proprietor Dallas, he’s sharp, conniving, a little unhinged, and utterly self-absorbed. It’s an electric performance that never shies away from the bizarre, and it’s to McConaughey’s credit that he’s the film’s one real shot at awards traction: coming off a great year, he’s already won Best Supporting Actor from the NYFCC (for this and his work in Bernie). May it lead to an Oscar.