Make no mistake, Gravity and Captain Phillips are very good, possibly great movies. The former broke box office records for October on its opening weekend, riding a wave of extremely positive critical reactions. (Check out all these articles by our writers who've been inspired by the movie.) The latter opened the New York Film Festival less than two weeks ago and has already built up a large reservoir of well-deserved praise.
But there's a third movie that explores a similar theme -- the survival of the human spirit under extreme, adverse conditions -- and belongs right next to Gravity and Captain Philllips on the top shelf of 2013 releases: All Is Lost.
You may have heard about the film when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, or when it screened at the Telluride Film Festival last month. According to The New York Times, Robert Redford's "name is already at the top of any list of presumptive best actor nominees." Redford plays a man sailing alone in the Indian Ocean when an unexpected encounter with debris threatens the sea worthiness of his boat and, soon enough, places his life in peril.
Right there, we have the first of three reasons why the film, which opens in theaters on Friday, October 18, is bold and deserves your attention.
Robert Redford Is Not Sandra Bullock, George Clooney or Tom Hanks
Robert Redford looks terrific for a man his age: trim, fit, moves well, weathered but still handsome. Let's be blunt, though: he's a senior citizen, 77 years of age this year -- the movie was shot last summer -- and decades past his days of box office megastardom. He's quite a bit older than Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock or George Clooney and, at the time of filming, had not acted in a movie (for a director other than himself) since 2005's An Unfinished Life.
Given the right roles, Hanks, Bullock and Clooney are absolutely capable of giving first-rate performances. Even if they don't, though, their movies will draw a large, built-in audience of fans worldwide who want to see their latest projects. Redford no longer has that luxury, and he doesn't even have any other actors to interact with! It's all Redford, all the time, and the movie is almost entirely without dialogue -- no talking to himself -- and he delivers a subtle, nuanced, completely absorbing performance worthy of awards consideration.
J.C. Chandor Is Not Alfonso Cuarón or Paul Greengrass
Both Alfonso Cuarón and Paul Greengrass have built up admirable track records as directors, Cuarón with the great science fiction epic Children of Men, and Greengrass with gritty thrillers United 93 and The Bourne Ultimatum. So, as good as Gravity and Captain Phillips are, they're not completely unexpected.
On the other hand, J.C. Chandor had made only one feature film, the financial thriller Margin Call. It was a high-quality movie that earned Chandor an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but it featured an all-star ensemble and was set on Wall Street. Making his next movie about an old man and the sea was definitely not something that anyone except Chandor could have anticipated.
That in itself was a bold move on Chandor's part (and an expression of confidence on the part of those who financed the movie outside the studio system), as was his decision to seek Redford to star, which evidently came about after the two met at the Sundance Film Festival, where Margin Call debuted in 2011. Clearly, Chandor's bold script, filmmaking vision, and casting instincts won over any doubters.
One Man Against the Sea. Believe It.
We know that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney did not really go into outer space in Gravity, and we know that Tom Hanks was not really kidnapped at sea by pirates off the coast of Somalia in Captain Phillips. But we believe the stories because they are convincingly told, and because we are captivated by the characters.
The same thing happens in All Is Lost, even though we know even less about the lone sailor portrayed by Redford than we do about the astronauts in Gravity or the ship captain played by Hanks. Those who are familiar with Redford's body of work as an actor, which includes other films in which his character challenged the elements (Downhill Racer, Jeremiah Johnson) and still others in which he battled against implacable political or governmental authories (The Candidate, All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor) may fill in the blanks with memories of his performances in those roles.
Others may be encountering Robert Redford as a movie star -- or at least as a leading actor -- for the very first time. It's a quiet turn by Redford, but he makes it a very humane and humbling experience to watch the sailor think his way out of desperate situations, only to be faced with circumstances that are even more challenging, frustrating and dire. We wonder, what would we do? Would we give up, or would we go on?
The movie's answer to those questions is perhaps its boldest choice of all.
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