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THE MOVIES NOMINATED for Academy Awards in 2014 distinguished themselves not only through remarkable acting performances, smart screenplays, and groundbreaking visual effects — but also by their attention to place.
Many of this year’s nominees made their key settings into characters as vivid, beautiful, and emotional as the humans living and acting within them. Though they are unlikely to win any major accolades as the hectic Hollywood awards season draws to a close, the most expertly rendered cities in the best movies of 2013 were impossible to ignore.
1. Los Angeles in Her (dir. by Spike Jonze)
In only his fourth film in 15 years, hipster king and former music video wunderkind Spike Jonze finally made a film from his own original script. Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely, sensitive man who falls in love with his futuristic operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johannson).
For all the wisdom and emotion that Jonze wrings from his spectacular actors, his best accomplishment here is the near-dystopic Los Angeles where Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly lives. Colorful, urban, diverse, and brimming with light, the City of Angels has hardly ever seemed so full of opportunity, love, and eye-popping imagery. Jonze turns the beaches of Malibu into a heavenly rest-stop for Theodore and his beloved OS, Samantha, only to transform the dimly lit, foggy LA skyscrapers into prison-like domiciles. As a native Los Angelino myself, the richness and complexity of Jonze’s LA resonated with me.
2. San Francisco in Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)
What’s the best place to have a complete mental collapse? The answer is incontrovertible for anyone who’s seen Woody Allen’s newest “I make these every year” masterpiece, Blue Jasmine. Though the movie has been more heralded for its career-best performances from Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay, and Jasmine-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous breakdown (Cate Blanchett), it’s Allen’s use of the city of San Francisco that remains stuck in the memory.
In recent years, the same love that Allen lavished on his native Manhattan (Manhattan, 1979) has been transferred to some of the world’s other great cities: Paris in Midnight in Paris (2011), London in Match Point (2005), and now, the magnificent Bay Area.
While Blue Jasmine can’t quite be called an ode to San Fran — in fact, the city is more like Jasmine’s Inferno than her Paradise — Woody and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (who also shot Vicky Cristina Barcelona for Mr. Allen in 2008) use plenty of establishing shots, wide-open vistas, and city photography to place us in the world of the title character’s psychological illness. Sad though it may seem, the effect is a paradox: While falling into deep dread for Jasmine, we can’t help but start to love SF all over again.
3. New York City in The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Sin, corruption, and greed find their home bases in the Wall Street of popular imagination. I can’t think of anyone better to bring this caricature of denigrated psyches and perverse behavior to an exotic, entrancing fever pitch than perennial Manhattan denizen Martin Scorsese.
In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese locates the paradigmatic failure of the American Dream in the image of former convict and insider-trading stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio); and according to Scorsese, immorality has never looked so splendid. Wall Street beckons like the mouth of Mephistopheles to Belfort, his business partner Donny (TWO-TIME Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill — who’d have thunk it?), and their crew of raging, sweaty money-addicts.
A period piece of the highest caliber, Wolf of Wall Street makes New York City in the 1980s and ‘90s look like party central, cooler and more Quaaluded-out than any old history book would suggest.
4. Rome in The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza; dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
Just because a city has two and a half thousand years of history doesn’t mean you know it well. That’s the guiding principle of Paolo Sorrentino’s epic Fellini-esque satire, The Great Beauty, one of the Foreign Language Oscar nominees this year. Sorrentino and Italian photography legend Luca Bigazzi use the blasé attitude of Italian culture writer Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) as an excuse to meander through Rome with a camera, a small crew, and one of the best cinematography teams on the planet.
Gambardella’s Rome is almost as filled with vice and greed as Scorsese’s Wall Street, but Sorrentino barely acknowledges the city’s flaws. Instead, he and Bigazzi shoot astounding, long-take scenes at the Coliseum, the edges of Vatican City, multiple churches, and several ruined courtyards. The Great Beauty is indeed its namesake, taking meta to a whole new level with state-of-the-art stereographic photography in one of the most beautiful movies in memory.
5. Messenia, Greece in Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
Another Mediterranean destination comes to the fore in Richard Linklater’s Sundance hit Before Midnight, the third in a trilogy that includes 2004’s Before Sunset and 1995’s Before Sunrise. As Celine and Jesse — the lovable, intellectual couple played so realistically by co-writers Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke — wander the Peloponnese countryside, their marriage cracks and strains under the weight of nearly two decades of love for one another.
But the same can’t be said for Messenia, which blossoms and grows in lushness with each long-take, each tracking shot, each moment outdoors. Linklater insists on so much natural light and beauty that, though the film might have the log-line of a drama, it feels bright, buoyant, and flushed with energy.