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Reviewing the Movies of 2013, Part II: The Great Beauty and The Grandmaster

Updated on March 1, 2014

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

Every year I whine and moan about how broken and in desperate need of fixing the Academy's process for choosing the Best Foreign Language Feature nominees is, and my first introduction to The Great Beauty helps illustrate why--I had never even heard of the film prior to its win at the Golden Globes. It's my understanding that the film did get an official Oscar-sanctioned Los Angeles County qualifying run in 2013, but that it is not due for an official wide release until two weeks after the Oscars. In other words, even foreign language films that have a proper U.S. release are more obscure than most art-house films that sneak in at the last minute to bait Oscar (Philomena, for instance). For every Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Pan's Labyrinth there are probably close to two dozen foreign films nominated for Oscar that most people will never hear of, and at least a few that will never get a proper theatrical run stateside; for every Amélie there are likely a dozen that people HAVE heard of that cannot even be considered in the category due to the thorny, exclusionary and TRULY political nominations process.

Anyway, I can rant on and on about this category, but I'm sure you're more interested in hearing about these two movies. The Great Beauty has been compared favorably to the works of Fellini, and this is not an inappropriate comparison, as I was strongly reminded while watching it of La Dolce Vita, and somewhat of films like 8 1/2 and Amarcord. Essentially, the film is a long reminiscence on life, love, frailty, and one's own worth, and features an impressive lead performance from Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella, a onetime novelist and occasional journalist who's been living the high life in Rome so long he's lost sight of whether he even has anything left to care about. He is ably supported by a fine cast, including a stellar turn from Carlo Verdone as Romano, Jep's longtime friend and an aspiring playwright, and a smaller but no less noteworthy turn by Galatea Ranzi as Stefania, another old friend who is roundly dressed-down by Jep in one of the film's darker sequences. In addition to the acting, everything about this film is top-notch--most notably the impressive cinematography and production design, and the phenomenal use of music. This film is one of the better illustrations this year of my insistence that there should be an Oscar honoring Best Use of Music in Film (maybe a better title than Original Soundtrack Compilation, but you get the idea). Anyway, while watching the film, I was reminded strongly of another film besides those by Fellini--a film that four years ago pulled the rare feat of a nod for Best Makeup but not one for Foreign Language film, Il Divo. When I looked it up, I understood why; director Paolo Sorrentino and star Tony Servillo were the director and star of that other film as well. Clearly, Sorrentino is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary Italian cinema. I liked Il Divo--a lot--and felt it got a bit cheated getting only one nod. Honestly, The Great Beauty is arguably not a better film--it is SO artsy, so caught up in pretension, that I felt a sense of disconnect throughout. That said, it's still an interesting and entertaining film, well worth a visit to the cineplex if you are fortunate enough to have that option.

Yi Dai Zong Shi (The Grandmaster)

Speaking of foreign films that have secured the rare feat of Oscar nods independent of (and not including) Best Foreign Language Feature, Kar Wai Wong's The Grandmaster actually managed to do it in two categories, providing some of the bigger surprises when this year's nominees were announced. Though the film WAS the official submission from Hong Kong this year, it failed to make the cut, garnering its nods instead for Cinematography and Costume Design. Now, a word on this--if you've ever seen ANY of Wong's films, you cannot deny that he knows how to shoot a GORGEOUS picture. Though his cinematographer this time around (Philippe Le Sourd) is new to Wong's filmography, the signature touch is there. Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, 2046... These films are beautiful, beautiful films, and not just because Wong has worked with some the most beautiful women alive (Li Gong on the first three, Ziyi Zhang on the later two, etc.). In The Grandmaster, Wong also had an opportunity to show off his visual sense in a relatively new arena--martial arts. At least, it is the first martial arts film I've seen by the man. Basically, this is a period piece set primarily in the late 1930s, but which covers a roughly 30-year time frame, about the martial arts master known as Ip Man (the man who would eventually teach Wing Chun to Bruce Lee, a development not touched upon in the film). As Ip Man, the great Tony Leung (star of every Wong film I've yet seen, and I believe a few I have not) gives a solid, powerful-but-not-quite-earthshattering performance; matching him as Gong Er, daughter and erstwhile heir of martial arts master Gong Yutian, is the beautiful and badass Ziyi Zhang, who manages to quietly simmer in a role that could easily have fallen into two dimensions. The other roles are all well-cast, and the acting has hardly a sour note; almost every aspect of the production is arguably on the same level (and yes, that includes the costuming). There is, however, one glaring flaw in the production, and it prevents the film from rising to truly stellar heights. Namely, there are gaps and jumps in the narrative that give it a somewhat disjointed, incomplete feel. Ip Man's wife vanishes, and no mention is made of what happened to her until her death (I think so anyway). I think he had a son, but what became of him? Who was "The Razor," exactly, and why was he important? Maybe I just need to see the film again, but this isn't like 2046, where narrative obfuscation made sense; this is a biopic, where clear narrative is part of the deal, we hope. Anyway, this was a generally well-made film, one that clearly begs the question, "Why the HELL has the Academy waited so long even notice a film from Kar Wai Wong?" Dude is beloved the world over, Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love are held up as true modern classics, and yet I do believe this is THE FIRST TIME any of his films has even made a blip at the Oscars, and he himself has yet to receive a nod. Utterly baffling. Anyway, I do recommend this film to lovers of Asian cinema; it is slow-moving and introspective, but even action junkies should consider the film passable, and those who like a deep story with a whiff of artistic pretension will like the film, flawed though it may be.

Final Analysis

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

8/10: Oscar-worthy for Best Director (Paolo Sorrentino), Actor (Toni Servillo), Supporting Actor (Carlo Verdone), Original Screenplay, Foreign Language Feature, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Effects Editing and Original Score; nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature.

Yi Dai Zong Shi (The Grandmaster)

8/10: Oscar-worthy for Best Director (Kar Wai Wong), Actor (Tony Leung), Foreign Language Feature, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Effects Editing and Original Score; nominated for Best Cinematography and Costume Design.

So what do you think? Did these films get their due in this year's award's race, or do you think they got cheated? As always, I welcome your comments below.

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