Day 2 at AMC Best Picture Showcase 2013

Just in time for the 85th Academy Awards tonight, this past Saturday was the final day of the Best Picture Showcase marathon. Having seen four of the nine nominees last weekend, only five was left to see: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty. These are my brief thoughts and favorite picks. Hope you enjoy!

Beasts of the Southern Wild  

In his directorial debut, Benh Zeitlin presents Beasts of the Southern Wild to tell the evolution of a young girl, Hushpuppy, through universality, the environment, and spirituality. Living in the Louisiana bayou community called "the Bathtub" (cut off from the rest of the world by the levee), Hushpuppy was abandoned by her mother as a baby leaving her to live with her hot-tempered yet affectionate father, Wink, who is dying. 

As Hurricane Katrina wipes out the bayou, the ice caps are melting in the Artic. Everything works together, some things fit, others do not.  Hushpuppy is a small piece of a big world. We see her at the beginning as defiant and angry towards her father, who is doing the most he can with how he knows how to take care of her.

Ice age animals, the Aurochs, come back to life from the ice caps that once held them captive. They are a representation of life, its challenges, and upsets. Left alone with remaining survivors of the community, Hushpuppy must accept not only her mother's absence but her father's passing. She has choices to make: have life bow down to her, or run away from the challenges ahead. Beasts of the Southern Wild was a film I was looking forward to seeing for almost a year, and it did not disappoint. Living with her mother somehow, Quvenzhan√© Wallis is utterly dynamic, as is Dwight Henry as Wink. Quite possibly the film is one of my favorites of the year and even all-time.  See this movie. See this movie. See this movie.

Life of Pi

Based off the fantasy adventure novel, Life of Pi recounts the story of Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, an Indian boy who survives a 227-day shipwreck, stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal named Richard Parker.

In the moment of watching Life of Pi, I'm not quite sure I understood all of it. "Pi", as we see as a young boy in the beginning, is challenged to choose his belief system: follow his father's footsteps with science, or his mother's religion and belief in higher powers. His journey is spiritually challenging, fantastic, humorous and adventurous. Beautifully acted by Suraj Sharma, who acts against a green screen for two-thirds of the film, and visually stunning, the film's point as the viewer is for you to decide and believe about Pi's quest.

Though disjointed and not as cohesive as it could have been (particularly the beginning), I wouldn't say the film leaves you without a resonating message. It wasn't a favorite of mine for the weekend. But it's something I don't think you can take in one viewing. Like "Pi" is challenged to believe in God or the animal of a man, its theme makes returning to Pi and Richard Parker something I'll probably do in the future.

Lincoln

Quite possibly the biggest letdown was director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. The historical epic centered around Abraham Lincoln and his institution for the 13th amendment to abolish slavery is your average history textbook; long, boring, gratuitous with sappiness.

Biopics, in order to create a true stir about a person or event most people are familiar about, should innovate its subject in a new way to make audiences excited. What Lincoln does is pound his fight into your head in the most jumbled ways possible.

The storylines and characters are handled with kid gloves. So many historical figures whose names we do not know or can't pick up fast enough through dialogue are introduced and then gone; they make a cameo about being pro or against the cause. Somehow this is meant to emotionally stir us because so many of them are introduced with Spielberg's signature sweep and zoom in. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens is in fact one of these characters -a radical Republican and Congressional leader, he's not familiar to us. A major portion of his scenes are a device to get the amendment eventually passed, but you never know exactly why he's apart of the film.

Gradually surrounding Daniel Day Lewis' wary and tired in his bones Lincoln becomes a cast of pretty much anyone who could work on this film doing so: James Spader! Joseph Gordon Levitt! John Hawkes! Lee Pace! If you love these actors this is a great distraction for how long and tedious the film is.

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln is by far the most valuable part. Mary's reputation as a historical figure is that she is a bitchy curmudgeon. Field brings her to life with headstrong Southern sass mixed with a fragile vulnerability that rocks her nerves. The scenes shared between her and Daniel Day Lewis are the strongest, but they are too few and far between. More interesting a film that could've been made is a biopic of their relationship, or even just her.

History paints Abraham Lincoln as a bigger than life figure. Spielberg's version makes him a lot more worrisome, frail, and wary. It's not a side of Lincoln we expect but it's a version of him that's acceptable. Daniel Day Lewis creates a portrait of Lincoln that is warm above all else. But it's Spielberg trying so hard to be historically poetic, all the moving sequences become as tiring as Lewis' face pictured above.

Silver Linings Playbook

Based off the novel by Matthew Quick, Pat Solitano is released into his parents' custody after serving eight months in a mental health facility. Determined to reconcile with his estranged wife, Pat is fully invested in his physical and emotional health unlike ever before. After an introduction to a friend's sister-in-law, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the two strike up an uncommon friendship based on spousal loss and mental illness.

As a big fan of the book, I wasn't very keen on  Silver Linings Playbook the first time I saw it. Giving the film a B+, I was strongly against David O'Russels' direction having felt robbed of a truer adaptation.

Seeing the film again, my feelings remain that Bradley Cooper solely carries the film. As Pat, Cooper epitomizes this passionate portrayal of a newly unleashed look of silver linings and an inner suffering that had gone unsung for years. And, his supporting cast creates a beautiful family; challenging relationships with imperfections and affection.

As Cooper's transformation into Pat is a seriously understated rob for 2012, my feelings for Jennifer Lawrence's performance goes unchanged. In comparison to other characters who all have their own troubles, she is like a tornado rampaging through scenes without ever settling into a good groove. Though I recant that the film becomes "The Jennifer Lawrence Show" during the second act, Russell's direction is strong enough that her performance can be overlooked and I enjoyed the film much more this time around.

Zero Dark Thirty

Starting after 9/11, the War in Iraq began as did the operation for Osama Bin Laden. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young CIA officer who joins forces with military operatives and makes it her personal mission to take down one of history's greatest known terrorists.

Zero Dark Thirty plays a game of hunting terrorists, assuming from the start that everyone watching the film is on board with the story. Perhaps after a day of watching four other movies straight, it was hard for me to focus. Their plans were meant to be understood, characters to attach to, and controversial scenes to spark dialogue about detainee torture. But unlike director Kathryn Bigelow's and writer Mark Boal's previous war hit The Hurt Locker (2009), this film doesn't execute its story.

Actually drawing parallels to The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty struggles to stand on its own. A major similarity is the protagonist: Zero Dark Thirty's Maya to The Hurt Locker's William James. Both are a standalone figure in a world that's against their undeniable gut feelings and instincts. While James' head is on the battlefield disabling bombs, Maya leads her neverending cause to find Osama Bin Laden. Passionate, she is determined to hit her targets, something those around her rally behind, or are against, and can't manage to discover to do the same for themselves.

On Maya's shoulders is where the film rests. Unlike The Hurt Locker, which created a seamless stream of tension packed moments and matching climatic releases, a lot of Zero Dark Thirty's story is a leadup to a decent forty five minutes of detaining of Bin Laden. Otherwise, the film can be uninteresting. Even though Jessica Chastain carries the film, the overall product is not particularly exemplary.

My Favorites for the day:
Silver Linings Playbook and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Though I wouldn't say Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and Life of Pi were horrible (actually, scratch that, Lincoln was), they were just weaker nominations of the nine this year.

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