Oscar Predictions – 2016

February 19, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment

With the Oscars looming next weekend, it’s time I get my predictions out there. As I mentioned in my last post (“The Year in Review”), I think 2016 was a pretty good year for film. It was especially a good year for African American films, many of which got some much deserved visibility this year. As is often the case, I think some of the categories below are basically pre-decided. But I think there is an interesting tension at the Oscars this year. On the one hand, there is a narrative that the Academy wants to prove it has learned from #oscarssowhite, which could give an edge to various American American films and their actors. On the other hand, a Hollywood deeply traumatized by the last election may want to lean toward lighter, escapist fare, giving “LA LA Land” the chance to sweep the Oscars. We will not know, of course, until next Sunday night. But here are my best predictions for what I think will happen:

Best Picture

Should be:  Moonlight.  This was not just the best film this year, it is one of the best I have seen in a long time. I’m sure it will end up on my “Best of the Decade” list.

Will be:  LA LA Land.  I just have a gut feeling about this. “Manchester by the Sea” is another possibility but I think odds are “LA LA Land” first, then “Moonlight,” then “Manchester.” Unfortunately, I don’t anything else has a chance.

Best Director

Should be:  Barry Jenkins for Moonlight.  This one I am a little more on the fence about because I do think that Kenneth Lonergan did a fantastic job with “Manchester by the Sea.” I would be happy if either of them won.

Will be:  Damien Chazelle for LA LA Land.   Almost certainly.  I am actually more confident of this than I am of the Best Picture win.

Lead Actress

Should be:  Ruth Negga in Loving.  Her quiet performance was the bedrock of that moving and such a pleasant surprise from an actress I knew very little about.

Will be: Natalie Portman in Jackie. I think this is one of the safer predictions. She has all the buzz. So much so that studios chose to submit women who were clearly in lead actress roles (Viola Davis, Michelle Williams) in the Supporting Actress category so that they would not have to compete against Portman. That said, Isabelle Huppert won the Golden Globe, in a bit of an upset. However, the Academy is much more conservative and very rarely gives as Oscar in one of the top categories to a foreign film (the last one being Marion Cotillard for “La Vie en Rose” in 2007).

Lead Actor

Should be:  Denzel Washington for Fences or Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea. I would be very happy with either of these. Both did stellar work but I might lean to Affleck just because this would be his first.

Will be:  Casey Affleck.   Washington might steal it if the need to redeem #oscarssowhite is running high, but I think this one is Affleck’s.

Supporting Actress

Should be:  Viola Davis in Fences.  Without question. Michelle Williams was great (and always is) but Davis was a powerhouse in this film. This category isn’t even close for me.

Will be: Viola Davis in Fences.  Without question. The easiest prediction of the night.

Supporting Actor

Should be:  I honestly don’t have a strong feeling here. These were all fine performances (though I didn’t see Dev Patel in “Lion”). Maybe I would give it to Jeff Bridges for “Hell or High Water,” only because he had the most significant role and the most screen time of the nominees.

Will be:  Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. This is just a guess that he may get caught up in the African American momentum. Which would be fine, frankly. Though he spent little time on screen, he had an impactful role and did a beautiful job. It’s possible Lucas Hedges might get it for “Manchester by the Sea” but I would be a bit disappointed with that. He was fine but didn’t give us a brilliant performances. In fact, I thought the teen boy in “20th Century Women” (Lucas Jade Zumann) did a far better job.

Adapted Screenplay

Should be: Moonlight.  Without questions.

Will be:  Moonlight or Fences.  But I give the edge to Moonlight, especially if people end up voting for “LA LA Land” for Best Film.

Original Screenplay

Should be:  Manchester by the Sea or 20th Century Women. I would be happy if either of these won.

Will be:  LA LA Land. Pretty much without a doubt.

Best Animated Feature

Should be:  Kubo and the Two Strings.  This was a lovely and completely under-appreciated movie. For me, it isn’t even close.

Will be:  Zootopia.  Probably. “Moana” could steal it but I doubt it.

Best Foreign Language Film

Should be:  Sadly, I have only seen “Toni Erdmann,” so I really cannot say.

Will be:  Toni Erdmann.  It appears to have the momentum. It is the only movie I have tried to see in years that was sold out when I went to the theater. And that happened to me twice! This may be the only film that has ever been sold out twice for me. I am not sure what that tells you, but take it as you will.

Cinematography

Should be:  LA LA Land. The Cinematography in “Moonlight” was also fantastic but I actually think LA LA Land deserves this win.

Will be:  LA LA Land.  No question.

Best Documentary

Should be:  I Am Not Your Negro. Amazing, explosive and profound.

Will be:  OJ: Made in America.  It’s a shame but I suspect this one will win and nobody will ever see “I Am Not Your Negro.”

Original Song

Should be:  Cant Stop the Feeling from TrollsI just think that this Justin Timberlake song is really fun and catchy. Everything I see the video, I cannot help but feel good. If you don’t believe me, check it out here. I love this song!

Will be:  City of Stars from LA LA Land. It will definitely win. Guaranteed. And, yeah, it was good and that’s fine. But, I’m just saying I like Justin’s song better. So sue me.

 

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2016 – The Year In Review

February 19, 2017 at 4:43 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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In keep with my annual tradition, here is my synopsis of the year in film and what I thought were the best and worst films of 2016. I have seen 73 of the films released in theaters in 2016. That is well up from the 60 I saw last year. In fact, I have to go all the way back to 2011 to find a year when I saw as many films. But, then, this felt like a good year to me (unlike last year). Although, I have to admit that I also saw some stinkers this year and that is something I have managed to avoid over the past couple of years. Last year, I saw only 2 films that I rated as 2 lozenges or below. This year, I saw 10. So, perhaps I need to become more selective again.

Here is my list of my favorites, ranked (roughly) in order from most favorite down. As in the past, I have included all films I ranked as 4 lozenges or higher. This year, I chose to also included my zeros at the bottom, more as a cautionary tale than anything else. Enjoy.

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Moonlight

Swiss Army Man

Fences

I Am Not Your Negro

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Manchester by the Sea

Loving

20th Century Women

American Honey

The Birth of a Nation

Golden Kingdom

Kubo and the Two Strings

Don’t Think Twice

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Fireworks Wednesday

10 Cloverfield Lane

Hell or High Water

The Nice Guys

The Edge of Seventeen

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Microbe and Gasoline

La La Land

Embrace of the Serpent

Silence

And now for something completely different… the films that sucked (with the very worst one on the bottom):

Ø

X-Men: Apocalypse

Sausage Party

Elle

As with last year, you can check out any of my above reviews by clicking on the film title.

 

 

Toni Erdmann

February 19, 2017 at 10:04 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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I have to admit that the idea of an almost 3-hour long, German comedy does not sound like much of sell to me. And I would not have bothered to see this one, except that it has shown up on several critics’ “Best of the Year” list and it has been repeatedly sold out at my local theater. I honestly cannot remember the last time I wanted to see a film and it was sold out, yet this happened to me twice with this film– once on a Saturday night and again, a week later, at a Sunday matinee. In fact, it was sold out again last night but we had gotten our tickets in advance this time. So, as you can imagine, expectations were high. Too high, as it turned out. It’s hard not to wonder how much of the humor of this film was lost in translation but I just found it more dull/weird/awkward than funny. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a corporate consultant trying desperately to make her mark by securing the business of an important client in Bucharest, where she is currently living. Her father (Peter Simonischek) pays her a surprise visit from Germany and is concerned about how serious and uptight she has become. So, he adopts the alter-ego of Toni Erdmann to try and bring some levity back into her life and (of course) ends up creating chaos. Well, that all sounds like exactly the stuff of a zany comedy and you can all imagine exactly how it would play out… but that isn’t what happens. Instead, we get endless scenes of the father acting inexplicably bizarrely, making his daughter and others around her (and me) quite uncomfortable. Ines reacts to all of this in equally inexplicable ways that may be symbolizing that she is becoming more relaxed? Or, perhaps, just coming undone? Who knows. And then, after an almost interminable amount of time, the film ends on an ambiguous and melancholy note. Director, Maren Ade, is clearly trying to say some complex things about how we currently live our lives but that message felt very garbled to me. All the humor that I caught was of the slapstick variety (and there was plenty of that), but I can’t help but wonder if there was wordplay, cultural references or other more subtle humor that I was missing. The final moments of that final scene felt like they were trying to be sadly ironic to me: the father tells his daughter how important it is to live in each moment. Then, when she gets suddenly playful, he runs off to get his camera and misses the rest of that moment. That sort of melancholy seems to lace this whole film. It makes for a strange tone in what otherwise feels like a slapstick comedy. I can appreciate that this film was doing something deeper, I just didn’t get it.

The Red Turtle

February 12, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Posted in 2016 | 1 Comment
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This small animated film was a sweet and unexpected delight. Written and animated by Dutch director, Michael Dudok de Wit, it tells the story of a man castaway on an island and the life he makes for himself there. There is not a single word of dialogue in the entire 80 minute film, but it is far from silent. Instead, it’s filled with the sounds of the ocean, the weather and the animals all around this man. We watch him age over the course of the story, which has the feel of an allegory. In fact, one could wonder if the events of the story actually occur or do so in the man’s imagination. Animated in a classic hand-drawn style, every scene is gorgeous. Admittedly, the rhythm of the film is slow and may bore some but I was too taken by the visuals to ever feel bored and I found the story, simple as it was, to be sweet and touching. It has won many awards, including “Un Certain Regard” at Canne and has been nominated for “Best Animated Film” at the Oscars. I doubt this movie will change your life, but it’s a much better way to spend an hour and a half than most of what we watch.

20th Century Women

February 12, 2017 at 9:52 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Much has been made (as well it should) of the fact that there were several really good African American-centered films this year (“Moonlight,” “Fences,” “Loving,” “Birth of a Nation”). I’m glad that the protests against #oscarssowhite have helped to drive visibility for Black projects and Black directors. However, we now need something similar for women-centered films. We have a dearth of films about complex women characters, as has been evidenced by the famous Bechdel Test. The test was first proposed by Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.” The test is simple: does a movie have at least two named female characters who talk to each other at any point about something other than a man. If yes, the film passes the test. Though it has gotten better, it is shocking how few films pass this test. Well, here’s one that does. “20th Century Women” focuses on Dorothea (Annette Bening), a mother in her mid-50s, trying to raise a teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 1979 Santa Barbara. Dorothea feels left behind by a culture that is rapidly changing and she fears that she can no longer connect with her boy. So, she recruits the help of two younger women, played by Greta Gerwig (“Francis Ha,” “Jackie”) and Elle Fanning (“Maleficent,” “Trumbo”). Those three women make up the backbone of this film. They are complex, beautiful characters, fully realized on screen by three fantastic actors. The heart of the film is really Dorothea and her attempts to connect with her son, while also keeping him at bay emotionally. She is guarded, despite not wanting to admit to herself that she is. Bening brings such grace and strength and humor to Dorothea that it’s impossible not to love her, in much the same ambivalent way her son does. Young Lucas Hedges is nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Manchester by the Sea.” However, it’s actually 15 year old Zumann who should have that nomination, in my opinion. He manages to hold his own against a powerhouse cast, often having to show a range of complex emotions. Director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker,” “Beginners”) based these characters on his own experience with his mother and you can tell. There is a truthfulness to these stories that you seldom find in pure fiction. This was a lovely, inspiring, funny, moving and deeply touching film. Now we just need a #oscarssomale campaign so that we can get a lot more works made just like this one.

I Am Not Your Negro

February 5, 2017 at 6:55 pm | Posted in 2016 | 1 Comment
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In what can only be called a searing and timely documentary, director Raoul Peck digs claw and tooth into the festering wound that is the American racial psyche. Ostensibly, this is a film about the great African American author James Baldwin (“Go Tell it on the Mountain,” “Giovanni’s Room,” “Notes of a Native Son”). Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and drawing largely from Baldwin’s unpublished memoir, “Remember This House,” the film takes us through Baldwin’s memories of the deaths of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm x, and Martin Luther King Jr. The deaths give a sort of grim cadence to the film, as the audience waits for each one to be marked on screen. Along the way, we are treated to (if “treated” is the right word; perhaps, “entreated” would be better) Baldwin’s insight, foresight, rhetorical analysis and incandescent rage. With an emotional honesty so raw it was shocking, he almost pleads with White America to understand what we have done over our long history and how disingenuous it is of us now to just expect an inconvenient problem to go away. Peck elegantly splices in images of modern America to remind us of how many of these core problems are still with us. Peck allows Baldwin’s eloquence to speak across the decades– his voice so pure, so earnest, so emotional that it has the power to shake a darkened theater in an America not much brighter than the one he went out of. I dare anyone to remain unmoved by his searing rebuke of Bobby Kennedy’s predictions of a Black president or his impassioned obliteration of a Yale professor on the Dick Cavett show. No documentary speaks more to the pain of our time than this one, which unleashes a voice from three decades earlier. What does that tell us about where we are today?

Split

February 5, 2017 at 6:21 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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M. Night Shyamalan has always seemed like a kind of sad cautionary tale to me. He burst onto the scene in 1999 with one of the best debuts of a new director ever. “The Sixth Sense” was a remarkable film in every respect. It was hard to tamp down Hollywood’s expectations and, perhaps, that got the better of him, because every succeeding film was not as good as the previous one and, by the time “The Village” came around, they were just plain awful, and have stayed awful ever since. Until now. With “Split,” he seems to have finally found his groove again. While not nearly as good as “The Sixth Sense,” this is certainly one of his best. It’s a taut thriller with steady action and a good dose of creepy. James McAvoy gives his best performance in years, and demonstrates what a talented actor he is. As, Kevin, the traumatized man with 23 personalities living inside of him, McAvoy manages to give each personality we see his/her own distinctness. The audience can tell by the sound of his voice, the way he carries his shoulders, the arc of an eyebrow or the purse of his lips, whether he is Dennis or Patricia or Barry or Hedwig. It was a brilliant performance to watch and made the movie. Beyond that, this remains just a good film in the genre. It builds tension nicely and keeps the audience guessing. Shyamalan has avoided the heavy theatrics of the game-changing twist that made “The Sixth Sense” but ruined so many of his other films. This time, he relies on the strength of his performers and a well-written story. There is an intriguing twist in the final moments but it’s more of an add on than an attempt to rewrite the story. Overall, this film was a lot of fun. I hope Shyamalan can keep this new momentum up.

Paterson

January 23, 2017 at 11:41 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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This is the story of a man named Paterson who just happens to live in Paterson, New Jersey. Really, it is just that simple. In what could be considered either a masterpiece or a dull disaster, Jim Jarmusch explores one ordinary week in one very ordinary life. Jarmusch is an astonishingly gifted director, who has given us the likes of “Ghost Dog,” “Coffee & Cigarettes,” “Broken Flowers,” and “Only Lovers Left Alive.” He knows how to create mood, particularly of the melancholic variety, using tone, lighting, music and dialogue. He also loves to delve into the psyche of his characters, revealing the vulnerability beneath the surface. However, none of that is on display here. Instead, Jarmusch shows us the simple beauty of the magnificently ordinary. His eponymous protagonist (Adam Driver) is a bus driver, happily married and living a very simple, routined life. He has the same cereal every morning, the drives the same route every day, he has a beer at his local bar every night. And he’s perfectly happy about it. There is no fundamental tension in this film, no story arc, climax or resolution. But, there is something very deep going on. The film references William Carlos Williams multiple times. Williams lived in Paterson and, in fact, wrote a 5-volume epic poem about the town, also named “Paterson.” Williams is known for capturing the beauty of everyday existence; think of his famous poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Jarmusch appears to be adding another volume to the poem, telling yet one more Paterson story that illustrates the beauty in the everyday. Like a poem, this film is filled with recurring imagery. In particular, the concepts of sameness and opposites seem to reoccur. There are continual images of twins throughout the film and there is the sameness of each of Paterson’s days. But, there was also the stark contrast of black and white (in everything his wife did, in the chess sets that kept appearing, in the black and white movie they saw) and the contrasting relationships (how different Paterson and his wife are, Paterson’s happy relationship vs the miserable one his friends were in). Patterns, sameness, routine, laced with contrast. There can be something so beautiful in the very simplest of things. In fact, perhaps the most beautiful things are the everyday. And Jarmusch, like Williams, wants us to see it.

Captain Fantastic

January 19, 2017 at 9:51 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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There’s only so far that whimsy and sentiment can take an audience and “Captain Fantastic” is an exercise in trying to find that boundary. Full of easy humor and lovable characters submerged in a soup of quirk, this film ambles along its road in as predictable a fashion as one can imagine. An old hippie (Viggo Mortensen) has been living in the woods and raising his children utterly cut off from the larger society. They hunt and skin their own food, have brutal workout regimes and spend their spare time critiquing Nabokov, memorizing the Bill of Rights and quoting Chomsky. When they have to leave the woods and take a road trip to meet their grandparents, humor ensues as worlds clash. However, what doesn’t follow is any level of insight or character development. In its place, we get lots of well-crafted sentiment. Somehow, this film manages to be both earnest and slightly disingenuous at the same time. Writer/director Matt Ross (known more for his TV acting roles in “American Horror Story,” “Silicon Valley,” and “Big Love”) certainly knows how to create genuinely touching scenes and was able to draw some moving moments from Mortensen and some of the kids. However, he does so at the expense of creating any real complexity to these characters. Their extreme upbringing is presented in unconditionally positive light. These children are miracles of functionality, intelligence, physical health, critical thinking and insight. They are superior in every way to the folks they meet in the “normal” world. The story gives the briefest of nods to the idea that Mortensen’s character may have made some poor parental choices with unintended consequences but, even this is disingenuous, as the main purpose of this aside is to then reinforce how right he truly is. In a film that seems to be trying to explore genuine emotions, it feels frustrating to try and do so with such a phony family. The final moments of the film are beautifully developed and quite sweet but I was nagged by the fact that they simply could not have ever happened and that the true story would end with police involvement and child protective services. This really was a lovely, funny, sweet and moving story. But it was also an utterly unrealistic one. I guess you have to decide how much that matters to you.

Silence

January 15, 2017 at 6:50 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Scorsese’s newest film is a profoundly ponderous work that digs deep into the heart to what faith is. Scorsese, who is Catholic himself, is certainly no stranger to religious themes in his work. In fact, though I went in expecting something similar to 1986’s “The Mission,” I found this film to be much more like Scorsese’s own “The Last Temptation of Christ,” in it’s desire to deeply explore the interplay between faith and doubt and the way that suffering can bring these two supposedly opposing states of being into alignment. “Silence” would almost seem to argue that faith is, at least in part, the full acceptance of one’s doubt. Based on a 1966 novel by Shûsaku Endô, a Japanese Catholic himself, the story is based heavily in Japanese history and, apparently, the fundamentals of the story are accurate. Taking place in the late 17th Century, it tells of the persecution Catholics experienced in Japan under Emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) sneak into Japan to try and find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who it is rumored has gone apostate. Their journeys take them through some harrowing experiences. This is not an easy film to watch; though not gory or particularly violent, it is a constant parade of emotional suffering. Against a truly stunning backdrop, the film uses anguish to explore what faith is, how one expresses it and what type of expression is truly acceptable to God. If I have one, rather large, criticism of the film it is that I think the final answers it reaches feel a bit pat. These are incredibly complex issues and the film seems to stay agnostic about the answers right up until its final moments. In the film’s last image, Scorsese seems to be telling us where he lands on the issue. I think I would have found it a much more compelling message without that commentary.

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