Oscar Predictions

February 27, 2016 at 7:01 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I know I am not cutting it quite as close as last year but I am still coming in right under the wire. To be honest, this was not a great year for film, in my opinion, with no films really moving me on the level of recent years. So it’s hard to feel much investment in tomorrow’s outcome but, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:

Best Picture

Should be:  The Big Short.  But only by a hair because of it’s innovative structure.  I would also be happy with “Room” but it has no chance of winning.

Will be:  Revenant.  I think this film is going sweep the night.  If it doesn’t win here, then “Spotlight” will likely take it.

Best Director

Should be:  Adam McKay for The Big Short.  Again, if nothing else, just for the fact that this unexpected director (known for the likes of “Anchorman” and “Stepbrothers”) could produce such an unexpectedly entertaining and insightful film.  I would still be thrilled if Lenny Abrahamson got it for “Room;” the performances he got out of his actors was amazing.

Will be:  AlejandrIñárritu for Revenant.   Almost certainly.  And it isn’t not deserved.  The scope of that film was daunting.  I cannot imagine what a logistical nightmare it must have been to shoot.

Lead Actress

Should be:  Brie Larson in Room or Cate Blanchett in Carol.  Cate is always amazing and she does a remarkable job here, but she has done this level of work before.  Larson is a newcomer and, while I don’t know that her performance was as nuanced as Cate’s, it was filled with raw emotion. So, I’d give the Oscar to her.

Will be: Brie Larson in Room or Cate Blanchett in Carol.. No question.  Charlotte Rampling also had a strong nuanced performance but I think few people saw her film and I think her response to #OscarSoWhite probably hurt her chances.

Lead Actor

Should be:  Leonardo DiCaprio for Revenant. This is finally his year and, frankly, he has earned it with his best performance in 20 years. Bryan Cranston was great fun chewing up the scenery in “Trumbo” but he doesn’t even come close and nobody else does either.

Will be:  Leo.   Without a doubt.  He easiest prediction of the night.

Supporting Actress

Should be:  Rooney Mara in Carol.  To me, this one is clear.  She gave an amazing, nuanced performance that rivaled Blanchette’s, which is saying something.

Will be: I honestly have no idea but, if I were to guess, I’d say  Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs.  This was not a great film and this may be the token win of the night for them.  Although, the same could be said of Alicia Vikander in “The Danish Girl.”  But, Hollywood loves showy performances and Winslet’s was showier.

Supporting Actor

Should be:  Christian Bale in The Big Short.  I don’t feel strongly about this.  He was fine but not superb.  Mark Rylance also gave a nice, understated performance in “Bridge of Spies.” I mean, nobody in this category can even hold a candle to JK Simmons’s performance from last year.

Will be:  Sylvester Stallone in Creed. Almost definitely.  This is the sentimental Oscar.  He isn’t a great actor but he is a beloved one and he does some of his best work here.

Adapted Screenplay

Should be: The Big Short.  For the reasons I have mentioned.

Will be:  The Martian.  It was a good movie but it was a great book.  The adaptation was fine but it will win mostly because of it’s popularity.  And everyone loves Matt Damon.

Original Screenplay

Should be:  Ex Machina.  This film should really really win.  It’s the only Oscar it has a chance at and it was a truly fantastic film.  Frankly, I think Vikander should have been nominated in this role rather than in “The Danish Girl.”

Will be:  Spotlight. Almost for sure.  “Straight Outta Compton” could steal it but I doubt it.  It depends on how guilty the Academy voters feel about the whole #OscarSoWhite thing.

Best Animated Feature

Should be:  Inside Out.  This is a tough call for me because I loved “Anomalisa” but I think what Pixar is currently doing with children’s films is a minor miracle and this one is the best to date.

Will be:  Inside out.  Easy Peasy.

Best Foreign Language Film

Should be:  I have not seen any of them, so I cannot say.

Will be:  Son of Saul.  It appears to have the momentum.  Though, “Mustang” has some buzz as well.

Cinematography

Should be:  Mad Max: Fury Road. The best reboot of a film series that I can remember (including “Star Wars”). An absolute visual feast.

Will be:  Revenant.  “Mad Max” could steal it but I think this will get caught up in the “Revenant” sweep.

Best Documentary

Should be:  The Look of Silence. This sequel to “The Act of Killing” (2013) is almost as astonishing and revelatory as that one.

Will be:  Amy.  I found this documentary to be exploitative but, ironically, I think it is sympathy for Winehouse that will drive this film to the win.

 

2015 – The Year In Review

January 31, 2016 at 7:01 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment

As has become my annual tradition, here is a quick synopsis of my year in review and the ranking of my favorite films for the year. I saw exactly 60 2015 films over the past year.  Last year it was 57, so I am fairly close to what seems to be my new norm (down considerably from previous years).  However, I may be guilty of grade inflation. I have more than twice as many 5 lozenge films this year as opposed to last year and, as I look back at them and compare them to previous years, I think some of them were over-inflated. But, I have a personal policy about going back and changing a rating once I have given it. So, they will stay as they are. None of this year’s films were as good as last year’s top two (“Boyhood” and “Whiplash”). But then, there were fewer bad films as well.  I had 9 films in 2014 that I ranked below 2 lozenges but only 2 films this past year. I believe that is simply evidence that I am getting better at picking what I will like or not. So, here are my favorite films of 2015, roughly ranked from my favorite film down.

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The Big Short

Anomalisa

Inside Out

Chi-Raq

The Revenant

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Room

The Wolfpack

Beasts of No Nation

The Look of Silence

Sicario

45 Years

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Ex Machina

It Follows

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem

Goodnight Mommy

The Walk

’71

Carol

Spotlight

The Martian

The Apu Trilogy

Wild Tales

About Elly

The End of the Tour

Phoenix

As with last year, you can check out any of my above reviews by clicking on the film title.  Please read the reviews and see if you agree with me.  And, if you don’t, it’s really okay; I don’t mind associating with people who are wrong 😉

45 Years

January 31, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Haunting and heartbreaking and so thoroughly, thoroughly British, this is the type of film that makes you earn your appreciation for it. Based on the title story from a collection of short stories called “In Another Country,” by British author David Constantine, the film covers a week in the life of a couple preparing for their 45th anniversary party. They have been happy together and are getting ready to celebrate that happiness with all of their friends. But, then, the husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), receives a letter informing him of the discovery of his previous girlfriend’s body, which had been lost after an accident 50 years earlier. This begins a slow dark struggle for Geoff as he faces his own mortality and thinks about how different his life might had been down another path. Meanwhile, Kate (Academy Award nominee, Charlotte Rampling) is left reeling as she tries to figure out what this means about their relationship. How does one compete with a 27 year old girl, literally frozen in time? Andrew Haigh, who directed the stellar “Weekend” in 2011, is a master at getting subtle performances from actors and knows how to construct incredibly natural dialogue. As with “Weekend,” nothing here feels showy or false. Now, as I mentioned, this film is British and it is a quintessentially British story. There is no sobbing or yelling or narrative dialogue to make sure the audience understands what is happening. In fact, you must be paying attention if you want to catch some key elements to the story because they are only shown and never once discussed. These people hold most of what they feel inside and we have to glean it from the way they talk about the chores or their friends. As a result, there is an emptiness to this film that can feel  like a dearth of emotions, even while it is wrought with them. Most scenes are of very ordinary things happening in a seemingly ordinary way. Most of the dialogue is small talk and the message often lies in between the lines. It will feel dreadfully slow and boring to many people, as I suppose it would be to eavesdrop on most random couple’s lives, but there is great emotion roiling underneath that calm veneer, which makes that final look on Kate’s face all the more devastating.

 

Trumbo

January 25, 2016 at 11:07 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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While watching “Trumbo,” I could not help but continue to be reminded of “Guilty by Suspicion,” the early 90s Robert De Niro film about the Hollywood blacklist. That one created fictional characters to explore the moral implications of that dark period in a rather ham-fisted way. This film, instead, focuses on a real screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, and his real experiences. Following him and his family over 20 years (though primarily in the 1950s), the story explores how he deals with being shut out of Hollywood, how he tries to cope and how it changes him. But this is not a deep psychological drama and Trumbo’s emotional struggles are presented superficially, often being resolved with a few pithy statements. In fact, the most entertaining part of “Trumbo” is how delightfully witty Trumbo could be. His dialogue was at turns clever, biting, insightful and provocative, with everyone else acting as his straight man. As such, most of the other characters felts a bit thin, particularly those closest to him. We are treated to a host of reasonably good impressions of John Wayne, Hedda Hopper, Edward G Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Louis B Mayer and Otto Preminger, among others. But, with the exception of Robinson, none of them have any particular depth. In fact, this film exists for one reason: as a loving tribute to a talent and eccentric man. Trumbo is the film’s entire focus and it rises or falls entirely on his shoulders. Fortunately, those shoulders belong to Bryan Cranston. Between “Malcom in the Middle” and “Breaking Bad,” Cranston has shown his ability to inhabit vastly different characters so completely that it becomes difficult to remember his previous performances. He so thoroughly becomes Trumbo, that it is impossible to see Walter White anymore. The physicality he brings to each role is amazing. His Trumbo sits differently, stands differently, looks differently than any other character he has played. It’s a joy to watch him so thoroughly bring this person to life. I have no idea how like the real Trumbo he was but he felt like a fully realized person. The story itself was at times interesting, funny, clever and, even, moving. However, the only real reason to see this movie is to watch a brilliant actor doing brilliant work. Which, as it turns out, is not a bad reason at all.

The Hateful Eight

January 19, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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When I went to see “Pulp Fiction,” all those years ago, I have to confess that I did really wanted to see it. However, it was one of the defining moments in cinema for me. I can remember actual moments in that theater, staring at the screen, that will be forever cemented in my head. With that film, Tarantino changed movies. He took gratuitous violence, already present in many films, and he elevated it to the level of art. By doing so, he created an aesthetic of violence, wherein the banality of his violence became a detached hipness. But now, more than 20 years later, everyone does Tarantino; his bloody fingerprints are all over Hollywood. As a result, there is nothing revolutionary about it any more. The banality of violence is no longer hip, it’s just banal. The real shame for Tarantino is that he is also a remarkably gifted director. In many ways, this film is a masterwork of building suspense. A small group of shady characters are stuck in a one room cabin in a snow storm in 19th Century Wyoming. Tarantino builds the tension beautifully through tight camera angles, tense dialogue and a beautiful use of space and sound. The wind howls and whips outside the fragile cabin. Steam rises from their breaths and from the cups they hold, sometimes creating a great visual; when you can see the sharp exhalations of breath from words spoken harshly, it creates another level to the tension. Tarantino has always shown an astute understand of the use of music in film. Ennio Morricon’s score fits perfectly and manages to raise anxiety without being heavy-handed or cliché. In one great scene, reminiscence of “Reservoir Dogs,” Demián Bichir, attempts to plunk out a Christmas carol on an old piano while the tension between two characters builds slowly towards an explosion. This is all such brilliant stuff that I was frustrated with how distracting I found the copious amounts of cartoon violence. Tarantino is a strong enough director that he could have made this film with far more subtle violence, had he chosen to. I was also put off by the continuous need for profanity and for “the n-word,” in particular. One might argue that the word was in popular use at the time but, it seems to me, that it is disingenuous to pretend historical accuracy while Samuel L. Jackson plays a character who seems lifted right out of the 21st century. It appears that Tarantino just likes the naughtiness of being a White guy who gets away with using that word. In fact, that seems to sum up the whole problem with his work. In so many ways, he keeps trying to be the young rebel. It really is a shame. If he would just give up the adolescent rebellion that once made him a  revolutionary filmmaker, he might discover that he is actually a great one.

Anomalisa

January 18, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Posted in 2015 | 1 Comment
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I should say that the audience all around me seemed to hate this film. The woman behind me joked that her friend should pay for her ticket for recommending the movie. The couple in front of me agreed that they had wasted the evening. What can I say about that? Other than that they are wrong. Oh, and Donald Trump is leading in the polls. Just saying… As for me, I have always been compelled by the films of Charlie Kaufman. Even when they don’t exactly work (think “Synecdoche, New York”), they are still more interesting than most movies and, when they do (think “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), they are art. All of his films explore issues of romance and male identity. They all feel deeply personal and often involve men working as screenwriters or playwrights. These men struggle to make emotional connections in a world where identity feels superficial, transitory, illusory. Kaufman seems to keep asking, “who am I? And who are you? And if we don’t know, how can we ever truly connect?” In each of his films, his protagonists get progressively older, from their 30s to their 40s and now, Michael Stone appears to be a man in his late 50s. He has flown from LA to Cincinnati to give a speech about customer service and is facing down an existential terror as he does so. This is Kaufman at his strongest, as he explores a complex and heart-wrenching issue through a world rich in metaphor, visually stunning and often bizarre. Puppets and stop-motion animation are used to created an arrestingly beautiful and fantasmic world., full of incredible nuance: the way rain runs down a taxi windshield, the way a shower door slowly fogs up, the absolutely perfect look of his hotel room and the incredible expressiveness of the faces. Beyond just a gimmick, this technique allows Kaufman the opportunity to explore identity in new ways; there is a reason that there are only 3 voice actors for the whole film. It always feels like there is pessimism at the core of Kaufman’s work but there is also a deep truth.  Michael Stone’s story is such a deeply human one. He is a flawed and, in ways, unlikeable man but he is also one of us, struggling to survive and find meaning. How can you not root for that story?

Joy

January 14, 2016 at 6:41 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I am not sure how best to describe this funny little film, which may be why it has not done well with critics and audiences. It purports to be the true story of Joy Mangano, queen of the QVC and HSN, and her rise from obscurity to wealth, thought it primarily focuses on her efforts to get her first product, the self-wringing mop, off the ground. Needless to say, she cleans up (sorry). But, the problem is that her story isn’t all that exciting. Director David O. Russell clearly knows how to use Jennifer Lawrence, as films like “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” show. But he seems a bit lost here. Even with cast regulars like Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, and just can’t create the chemistry that worked so well in his previous films, perhaps because most of the central characters are so deeply unlikeable. The real Mangano was an executive producer, grinding her ax to the nub in the process of making her entire family into stock villains, while portraying herself as a saintly victim. Russell tries hard to create some measure of light and life by dotting the film with interesting story-telling and visual devices, but they seem haphazard and are not consistently carried throughout. Sometimes the humor works and sometimes it seems strangely empty. The story finally seems to pick up energy when Cooper’s character arrives and QVC enters the picture. But then stumbles again, rallies briefly and ends with an emotionally empty where-are-they-now. It’s a shame because, even through this mess, you can still seeing Lawrence shinning as one of the most remarkable actors alive today. She plays steely-eyed vulnerable like nobody within 20 years of her; it’s impossible to imagine what she’ll be like if she continues evolving as an artist. In the end, she is the only joy that “Joy” has to offer.

The Revenant

January 14, 2016 at 5:59 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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As I have confessed on this blog before, I have been (perhaps unfairly) critical of Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor over the years. After some brilliant early performances, I felt like he coasted for a long, long time. Even under Scorsese’s tutelage, I could still feel the presence of the entitled pretty boy in almost every scene of every film. However, he may now have won me over. DiCaprio gives his most honest and emotionally vulnerable performance since “The Basketball Diaries” twenty years ago, playing Hugh Glass, the 19th Century tracker who had to claw his way back to civilization after being left for dead in the South Dakota wilderness. The core elements of Glass’s story are represented honestly here, even if the story arc itself has been largely fictionalized for the sake of narrative tension. And there is no shortage of tension. Against a stunningly beautiful and unforgiving Canadian countryside, we watch Glass scrape and fight for survival against the most daunting odds. DiCaprio plays him as a haunted broken man, surviving for one reason only. This is basically an art-house revenge film; a high-brow version of “Taken,” if you will. As such, it very much plays to that genre, with all of the attendant violence and horror, made even more disturbing by how real it seems. Be warned that there are some graphic scenes of violence that were almost poetic in their intensity. But what consistently pierces through those bloody moments and, indeed, through every scene of the film, are DiCaprio’s eyes, so sad and broken and full despair. He appears to live Glass’s experiences and it’s that nakedness that makes this film such a moving and powerful experience.

The Danish Girl

January 9, 2016 at 10:57 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This visually lavish period piece tells the mostly true story of Einar Wegener, a fairly successful Dutch landscape painter, who transitioned to living as Lili Elbe and became the first person to have sex-reassignment surgery in 1930. Even though the events the story covers happened over close to 20 years, they appear in the movie to happen during a fairly brief period of time in the 1920s. This is one of a couple of liberties the film takes for narrative reasons. Elbe kept a detailed journal of her transition and many of the scenes in the movie come directly from her accounts, including how she first discovered her joy in women’s clothing. Where the film takes its greatest liberties, perhaps, is in the way it portrays the relationship between Wegener/Elbe and her wife, Gerda Wegener, who became famous painting Deco-style portraits of Lili and other women. This relationship is the core of the film, which is ultimately a story about unconditional love more than anything else. In real life, things were a bit more complicated and they were divorced and Gerda was remarried before Elbe’s surgery. That fact does not take away from the film (after all a narrative works or doesn’t regardless of whether it is fact or fiction) but it points out that the core of this “true” story is an embellishment. Elbe was a complex person, with often competing feelings about her gender and herself, very few of which entered into this story. The film also largely ignores society’s reaction to her transition and completely erases her relationship with her siblings. There was a lot of rich material there. Instead, we get a story of Gerda’s deeply unconditional love for her husband. It’s quite touching and, at times, beautifully rendered but it also feels very conventional. With a sweeping orchestral score and lingering shots of anxious faces and clutched hands, we were practically spoon-fed our emotions. In so many ways, this film felt technically very old fashioned, like an 80s Merchant-Ivory film given a modern twist. It was lavish and languidly paced and full of pining love and heartbreak. It lacked any of the edge or bite of recent films covering this topic; it was more “Remains of the Day” than “Tangerine.” As a side note, I know there has been some concern within the trans community about why a cis-gendered actor (Eddie Redmayne) should have been cast in the role. I am of two-minds on that. On the one hand, people are rightly upset when Ridley Scott casts white actors as the leads in “Exodus: Gods & Kings.” We have come along way from the days of Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi. But, by the same token, do we only want gay actors to play gay roles? That seems limiting to both gay and straight actors. At some point, acting is about being something you are not. This issue is a complex one and I don’t have an easy answer. Instead, from a critic’s point of view, I might suggest that Redmayne should step out from behind the physical transformations of his two most famous works. Otherwise, he risks being stereotyped as an actor who can only play a gimmick and I suspect he is capable of so much more. Likewise, I think this was not a bad film. It was beautiful and touching and well acted. But, I also thought it was capable of so much more.

Spotlight

January 7, 2016 at 7:16 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Making a mainstream movie about the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal may seem a formidable task and I certainly had my doubts. However, by focusing on the unfolding news story, rather than the abuses themselves, director Tom McCarthy has managed to give us a modern “All the President’s Men.” McCarthy is best known as an actor himself, playing minor roles in dozens of shows and movies going back 20+ years. He’s the guy who’s face you will recognize, even if you don’t remember from where. He has only directed four other independent films, starting a dozen years ago with “The Station Agent,” which was frankly one of the best films that year. He is also responsible for the lovely “The Visitor” and the less successful “Win Win.” But these are all such different films from his current one. They all focus on the relationships between outcasts in very intimate, every day settings. Yet, the drastic change of pace has not hurt him at all. “Spotlight” is a well oiled machine that takes off running with the first scene and maintains a steady pace right to the end. This is not a film that will have you anxiously gasping for breath, fretting for the lives of our protagonists. Like most of real life, it isn’t that dramatic. But this true story of lies within lies is gripping enough. I was genuinely fascinated to watch how the story unfolded and how this small group of reporters broke a story that had massive international implications. This is really the story of how 5 people changed the world. Equally fascinating was Boston, itself. The city is it’s own distinct character here and, more than any other film about Boston, I felt like this one taught me something about what a unique place it is and what it means to be from there. If I have a complaint at all, it is that the film had an amazing roster of great actors but did not give them much to do. Actors like Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber are capable to playing deeply complex characters. Here, however, they are left playing people who are portrayed so nobly it’s hard for them to find much space to act. This was especially noticeable with Michael Keaton who thrives on finding the darkness in a character, and there could have been opportunity here for him to do so. Admittedly, there isn’t much moral ambivalence in a story like this one, yet there is a legitimate question about why some people were complicit for so long, including the very paper that eventually broke the story. I would have liked to see more exploration of that underlying complexity, which existed in many of the characters. The actors were certainly up to the task and, I know from his previous work, that McCarthy knows how to direct that type of performance out of an actor. In fact, we do see it here, just not in any of the lead roles. The best acting of the film (and it was truly brilliant, moving acting) came from the three unknowns who played abuse survivors. Neal Huff, Michael Cyril Creighton and Brian Chamberlain were devastating, each in totally different ways. Had there been more performances like theirs, this might have been one of the best films of the year.

 

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