Intelligent Life: Science Rules In ‘The Martian’

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who draws upon his ingenuity to subsist on a hostile planet.The Martian shouldn’t feel like such a treasure, and maybe twenty years ago, it wouldn’t have. Its closest cousin, Apollo 13, was nominated for Best Picture in 1995, back when feel-good movies could still dominate both the box office and awards season — which is not to say that they always did, but feel-good guys like Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis fared better then than they do now, critically speaking. Hollywood schmaltz is out of fashion — the occasional crowd-pleaser may sneak into the Oscar race now and again, but not that often.

We live in more cynical times now, and Ridley Scott is not a filmmaker you’d generally call “upbeat.” Chest-bursting aliens, brain-eating, a wire cutting through Brad Pitt’s neck, and two female BFFs driving over a cliff to meet their maker — these are just a few of the chipper cinematic scenarios Scott has graced us with.

So it’s surprising indeed that Scott is responsible for one of the most genuinely optimistic dramas to come along in ages. (Genuinely optimistic and genuinely good, that is.) The Martian has been released at the same moment as Zemeckis’ The Walk, which is interesting, since both are about men driven to achieve the impossible, isolating their protagonist from a crack team ensemble in the most crucial bits, with a hero who addresses the audience directly throughout the story, and a high likelihood that he will die (even if the audience is quite certain he won’t). The films share a common spirit and a light tone that may come as a surprise given their subject matter, but The Martian is the one with real gravity and emotional heft. Somehow, even with an upbeat outlook and some nimble comedy, Scott’s film stays firmly grounded in reality, so that we can genuinely feel those life-or-death stakes — and understand why its hero’s survival matters. One man’s life hangs in the balance, but it adds up to so much more.

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Not-Oscars 2012: The Year’s Best Performances

(Originally published at JustinPlusSeven on January 10, 2013.)

best-performances-of-the-year-2012 You, dear reader, have the honor of reading this in the future, after the Oscar nominations have been announced.

But I am writing from this from the near past, before we know which five contenders are fighting it out in each category.

Of course, some are shoo-ins; there are only a very small handful of slots that are anybody’s guess at this point, including one in Best Supporting Actress that could really go to anybody and a bit of confusion in Best Supporting Actor as well. Best Actor and Actress, meanwhile, are mainly both six-person races that must be whittled down. Who will be sacrificed ― Bradley Cooper, John Hawkes, or Joaquin Phoenix? Emmanuelle Riva, Quvenzhane Wallis, or Marion Cotillard?

(You future readers are probably laughing at me, because instead, it was an unexpected sweep by the casts of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, Battleship, and The Odd Life of Timothy Green in all major categories.)

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The Tens: Best Of Film 2012

holy-motors-motion-captureIt’s Oscar time!

As usual, the Academy Awards are poised to make some very wrong decisions this year. So as usual, I am prematurely correcting them by releasing my Top Ten of the year.

That year is 2012, of course — real film critics release such lists at the end of December or beginning of January, but since I have numerous other obligations, you get it in late February, once I’ve had a chance to catch up with nearly all eligible films.

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Whose ‘Woods’ These Are, I Think I Know…

First, let’s just get this out of the way — SPOILER WARNING!!

(As a rule, I don’t care much about spoilers. I think it’s a misnomer. Does knowing what happens really “spoil” or ruin a movie? I don’t think so. I enjoy things just as much if I already know the ending as if I don’t. But there are some things I prefer to go into reasonably blind, The Cabin In The Woods being one of them. So consider yourself warned. It’s impossible to say much about this movie without giving away a few things, though I will still attempt to be vague enough to not totally spell it all out — though I’m not convinced that would make this particular movie any less enjoyable.)

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