1. “Star Wars:” Yoda, is that you? As Noah’s Grandpa Methuselah, Anthony Hopkins has a Yoda wizened wise man look with wispy hairs blowing over his age-spotted pate. Between his puckish glances and deep-thought pronouncements, Hopkins clearly watched Yoda’s appearance on James Lipton’s “Inside the Actors Studio.” Wasn’t Yoda as old as Methuselah, too?
2. “Harry Potter:” Oh, Hermione, how far you’ve come! “Harry Potter” heartthrob Emily Watson plays Ila, the squeeze of Noah’s eldest, Shem. Ila makes the scene as the damaged little orphan who grows up to mother a new generation of humanity. But with Watson’s toodle-pip English accent still in play, and the stylish way she wears those fiber arty rags, she’s still casting spells and telling grown men (like Noah) what to do and distinguishing right from wrong. She’s so Hermione!
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3. “Percy Jackson:” Logan Lerman, can you play another character shafted by the Gods? As the title character in the money-minting children’s mythology series “Percy Jackson,” the swoony actor was constantly forced to be heroic in the face of fickle gods. Here Lerman plays Ham, Noah’s second and shafted son, who becomes tempted by the dark side thanks to his OCD’s father’s obsession with pairing off animals – but not his sons.
4. “LOTR”: Wait – that green mountain, doesn’t it look like Bilbo Baggins could be coming around the bend at any moment, walking in the big footprints of uber wizard Gandalf? Yes, both movies were shot on location in scenic (and empty) New Zealand. Over at “The New Zealand Herald,” a clever boots wrote: “Even damning it with faint praise would have been fun – something about ‘Noah’ appealing to New Zealand audiences because it’s the best movie about boatbuilding and livestock export you are likely to see this year.”
5. “The Tree of Life:” Director Aronofsky has answered one of the mysteries of contemporary filmmaking: how does an art film make millions at the box office when even Brad Pitt doesn’t draw audiences? One answer is embedding your Terrence Malick moments – long, arty sequences of time-lapse photography depicting creation from the moment of the Big Bang – in a popcorn biblical epic that is so conventional in its storytelling it would make a Neanderthal nod off.
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6. “The Chronicles of Narnia:” Remember that big First Battle of Beruna scene when the animals (including mythical beasts like centaurs, minotaurs and unicorns) just keep coming, and coming and, well, coming? It’s just as jaw-dropping here on the way to the Ark to get out of Dodge before the big flood as first the birds come calling two-by-two, and then the reptiles, and then a large assortment of mammals and meat on the hoof. And it’s just as obviously CGI. No animals were harmed in the making of this film because they were all corralled in a virtual plane.
7. Ray Harryhausen: Like Noah gave birth to Shem, Ray Harryhausen gave birth to The Watchers. While they are biblically fallen angels, with a nod to the Old Testament, Aronofsky’s rock monsters are dead ringers for the stop-motion, model Dynamation style of FX godfather Ray Harryhausen. These galumphing giants recall the skeletal swordsman, battling Tyrannosaurus Rex, and Cyclops of the Harryhausen classics.
8. Charlton Heston Bible Movies: And then there’s Crowe, brutish and brooding, channeling Heston as Moses and Ben Hur, the angry child of an angry God. Through hairstyles thick and thin, Crowe’s Noah scowls his way from prolog to coda, with one big bender in between, as he shoulders the burden of listening to his Creator on a radio frequency no one else seems to get. Oh, let my people go, already!
“Well, it’s pretty much done as written. Wes is very specific about it. But, once again, it’s that third-dimension thing, where when you put it on its feet. There’s something required that’s not there. You go, “Uh oh, I got to get from there to here.’…
So, did Bill add something to the mix on the fly? Murray, secure in his place in the Anderson firmament, took the modest road. “Maybe. I kind of, the, the speeches are tongue twisters. Try to speak some of those lines sometime. Especially in the cold, because we were shooting outdoors, like in the cabs and all those sort of escape scenes where you’re in the car talking. Those were shot outdoors. [CHUCKLES] At night.”
Cold much in Gorlitz, Germany in the dead of winter? Yes. “It was freezing cold. Now you think, ‘Okay, how cold can it be?’ Well, it’s zero. Let’s just say it’s zero. Okay? So it’s zero, but it’s not zero really, it was about minus ten or fifteen. So let’s say it’s minus fifteen. What they call minus fifteen over here, which is about ten degrees here. And you’re doing this scene for hours because the camera’s not right, the light’s not right, you know?
“So it’s okay in the first hour or so, you’re speaking kind of normally and then [SLURS WORDS INTENTIONALLY]. It’s starting to get a little heavy like that. And then, third hour, you’re just trying to get the words out. And all the time you’re trying not to breathe too much because you don’t want to blow smoke everywhere ’cause your air, your breath is making all this smoke. So you’re trying to really kind of control your [MUMBLES INTENTIONALLY] so you’re sounding a little bit like this. [MUMBLES] And that’s what that was like.”
Resounding applause. A humble speech name-checking the requisite agent, filmmaker, studio executive, and the Academy. “For all of them, all I can say is a very special thank you.” And in that rather unremarkable way, history was made as Sidney Poitier broke through and won Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field” at the 1964 Academy Awards.
Fifty years after that watershed moment, Sunday’s historic Best Picture win for “12 Years a Slave” was remarkable in that same unremarkable, quietly dignified way. A film about the singular journey of a black man — directed by a black man and starring a mostly black cast (both Best Picture firsts) — simply fulfilled its promise as a Very Important Film, The Oscar Favorite. “12 Years” was pegged as the top Academy Award contender from its debut at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and it was a position the film never shook in a year hailed by the Washington Post as “a flat-out, stone-cold, hands-down spectacular year in movies,” a year that saw the makeup of the Motion Picture Academy become younger and more colorful.
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With each win along the road to the Academy Awards, “12 Years a Slave” delivered.
And while “12 Years” did not score the most trophies Sunday, it took home the big prize as Steve McQueen, who also directed, and fellow producer Brad Pitt (winning his first career Oscar), were among those collecting the statuettes for Best Picture. Its other wins included Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley and Best Supporting Actress for astonishing newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.
The in-your-face, disturbing drama recounts the true story of Solomon Northup, an American freeman kidnapped and sold into the most brutal bondage in the antebellum South. Difficult subject matter that no doubt turned off some filmgoers just as it turned off some Academy voters (a few of whom went public in the days before the ceremony admitting they couldn’t bring themselves to watch).
The film grossed about $130 million worldwide, considerably less than “Gravity’s” $700 million-plus haul. But McQueen’s film embodies the kind of highbrow material that allowed the Academy to pat itself on the back. This is a film already deemed “impactful” enough to become part of the standard high school curriculum.
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As much as the industry appreciates the bottom line, its members like to use the Oscars to serve the public, in this case bringing a relatively little-known chapter in American racial history to a much broader audience.
Fox Searchlight picked up on this sentiment, reflected in the distributor’s recent marketing campaign and its simple two-word tagline: “It’s Time.” Time for what? For a tough look at the Peculiar Institution, and a movie that puts the African-American experience front and center. And it didn’t hurt that the film had Pitt as producer, co-star and cheerleader-in-chief. As he told a Toronto audience: “If I never get to be in a film again, this is it for me.”
Back at the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto at the Canadian premiere, McQueen closed out the night, saying: “There are actors and there are artists. These are artists: surprising, thrilling, dangerous and brave.” Clearly the Academy agreed… and followed the script to the end.
“Two things could happen tonight,” host Ellen DeGeneres quipped at the top of the show. “’12 Years a Slave’ could win Best Picture. Or you are all racists.”
Poitier arrived onstage Sunday to a thunderous ovation, accompanying Angelina Jolie to present the award for Best Director. It underscored a legacy that extends not just to “12 Years a Slave’s” Best Picture win, Nyong’o's triumph in her first feature, and the nomination for Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role. Somali native Barkhad Abdi got a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in “Captain Phillips.” Add to that the principal players in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “42,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” and “Blue Caprice,” and it has been a strong year for people of color at the movies. The Academy acknowledged it needed to diversify its membership and inducted a new class accordingly.
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That said, outspoken actor Isaiah Washington is among those not ready to declare a complete racial victory just yet. “Killers and slaves, butlers and maids: it sounds like it’s going to be a great Oscar night for people,” Washington, who played a serial killer based on Beltway Sniper John Allen Muhammad in “Blue Caprice,” and did not see any Oscar attention despite a fine performance, told Yahoo earlier this season.
While “12 Years” took home the big prize, another filmed shared the limelight. “Gravity” scored the most awards, led by Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón, and represented a major moment for the much-maligned science-fiction genre.
“2001.” “Star Wars.” “Close Encounters.” “Alien.” “ET.” “Avatar.” Dinged by sci-fi’s reputation as low-brow — a relic of its roots as B-movie 1950s popcorn fare — not one of those films, despite near-unanimous critical acclaim and mainstream success, was deemed significant enough to earn the kind of Oscars that validate a genre.
After Sunday, however, sci-fi matters.
Like “12 Years,” Gravity exploded on the scene in Toronto, as Cuarón’s thriller about an ill-fated space mission starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, took hold of the public imagination, soared and never fell back to Earth.
With a 97 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and fueled by mind-blowing 3-D visual effects, “Gravity” has been a success by any measure, with a leading seven wins on Sunday, including Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. Cuarón, who also shared the film-editing award, became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director.
While “12 Years” and “Gravity” cashed in their early momentum with a clutch of gold on Sunday, “American Hustle,” the third member of what had been a three-horse race, fizzled in the home stretch.
Only a year after his “Silver Linings Playbook” was nominated then largely ignored, David O. Russell’s flashy period caper earned a whopping 10 nominations, with A-list stars Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper gaining nominations in each of the acting categories. But at the end of the night, “Hustle” came up empty.
Notably, “American Hustle” premiered later in the season, well after Toronto. It entered the fray after frontrunners had already established themselves. And not only did it fail to make up for lost time, it was also bested by another early entry: “Dallas Buyers Club.” The moving drama about an unlikely AIDS activist rode outstanding performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto dominated the male acting awards, along with a third statuette for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
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In addition to “American Hustle,” high-quality films “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest flashy collaboration between Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, were also shut out.
In the end, 2013 was a vibrant and competitive year, where movies in space and earthbound, comic and tragic, arty and action-packed competed. The Best Actress category reflected a rise in strong roles for mature women, while the battle for the Best Actor was so competitive that many deserving performances (Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Oscar Isaac, James Gandolfini) didn’t even sniff a nomination.
Even President Obama joined the discussion at the national water cooler, hosting a series of screenings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
To quote Poitier from 50 years ago, 2013′s year in cinema deserves “a very special thank you”: movies still matter — and are essential to the American dialog about who we are now, and how we define ourselves in the future. We have the capacity to both reach for the sky in the future, and face down our darkest demons in the past.