Thursday, February 25, 2016

Oscar Predictions 2016

This is the craziest Oscar season I can remember, with key indicators pointing in different directions and us prognosticators/nerds spinning in circles.  Anyone claiming to have the answers is lying, because at this point there’s no way of knowing what will happen Sunday night.  Despite this, I return to give you my breakdown on who I think will take home the major awards and who I wish would walk away with the statue. 


Nominees:  The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max:  Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, Spotlight

Winner:  The Big Short
Doesn’t deserve the nomThe Revenant
I wish would win:  Z for Zachariah
I haven’t seen:  Bridge of Spies

DGA, PGA, and SAG went to three different films, and with Spotlight quickly losing steam, the race has whittled down to a standoff between The Big Short and The Revenant.  It’s been a weird season, and this is a remarkably tough call.  It comes down to a choice between three key stats that indicate The Big Short will win out and the gut feeling that The Revenant has gained too much momentum to lose. 

The three big stats supporting The Big Short are: 
1.  PGA winner has won Best Pic 100% of the time since the Oscars switched to the preferential ballot
2.  In the last 15 years, 100% of the Best Pic winners were nominated for the SAG ensamble
3.  In the last 15 years, 100% of the Best Pic winners were nominated for a screenplay Oscar

The momentum behind The Revenant comes from its DGA victory and a strong 5-win showing at the BAFTAs (including Best Pic).  DGA and BAFTAs are strong indicators for the Oscars, but each have missed once since the switch to the preferential ballot 6 years ago, with both misses coming in the past two seasons.  What gives me the most pause, though, is that The Revenant is the serious, grand-scale, important kind of film that makes it feel like a Best Picture winner.  The Big Short does not have that feel.

Even with that pause, I’m a stats person, and I can’t turn away from those three perfect indicators for The Big Short.

Overall, the noms are full of good-but-not-great films. Brooklyn, The Martian, Room, and Spotlight are all solid, but they either lack the depth of their source material or simply don’t have high ambitions.  The Revenant is a pretty, overlong picture that either doesn’t have a clear thought or has a sophomoric point.  While I couldn’t tell from one viewing which it is, neither option makes for a good movie.   Mad Max and The Big Short are the only two I feel really deserve their slots.  The former is one of the great action films of all time, while the latter is both smart and entertaining, which to me is the pinnacle of filmmaking.

Z for Zachariah is head-and-shoulders above the other films I saw this year.  Read why here.


Nominees:  Adam McKay for The Big Short, George Miller for Mad Max:  Fury Road, Alejandro G. Iñarritu for The Revenant, Lenny Abrahamson for Room, Tom McCarthy for Spotlight

Winner:  Alejandro G. Iñárritu for The Revenant
Doesn’t deserve the nom:  Lenny Abrahamson for Room
I wish would win:  George Miller for Mad Max:  Fury Road

Every major predictor has gone to Iñárritu, and you’d be silly to think anyone else will be accepting this award come Sunday.

It’s hard to argue that Iñárritu did a bad job of directing The Revenant because it’s just so gorgeous, but it’s also hampered by Iñárritu’s indulgence.  I have no doubt that this is precisely the film that he wanted to make; it’s just a shame that no one told him to pay more attention to crafting the story.
McKay, Miller, and McCarthy also made films that I think turned out precisely how they wanted them to, and all three are exemplary examples of their genre.  McKay molded the most difficult material into one of the best films of the year, but Miller fought both the powers that be and the weather to make a bombastic, guitar-shredding good time.  Unfortunately, it’s the wrong kind of film to win any of the major awards.

Abrahamson made a valiant effort of adapting a very tricky novel in Room, but the film is such a paired down version of the book that its lovers were bound to be disappointed.  I was one of those book lovers, and I think Abrahamson’s flair got in the way more than it helped.

Lead Actor

Nominees:  Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, Matt Damon for The Martian, Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant, Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs, Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl

Winner:  Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant
I wish would win:  Matt Damon for The Martian
I haven’t seen:  Bryan Cranston for Trumbo

It’s been decided that this is Leo’s year, so he’ll get his award for a solid performance in an underwritten role.  Still, he should have gotten this a long time ago.

In a rarity, the lead actor field for 2015 is weak.  While very few of these performances felt truly great, I couldn’t come up with anyone who deserved it more.  For my personal taste, I would prefer to have Ryan Reynolds for The Voices and Michael B. Jordan for Creed in there instead of Fassbender and Redmayne, but they’re all on pretty equal levels.

Matt Damon is the lone standout.  Few people could pull off the charming marathon he takes you on in The Martian, and I can’t think of anyone else who could make it more fun.  It’s a truly great performance in the wrong kind of movie.

Lead Actress

Nominees:  Cate Blanchett for Carol; Brie Larson for Room; Jennifer Lawrence for Joy; Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years; Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn

Winner:  Brie Larson for Room
Doesn’t deserve the nom:  Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn (it pains me to say it, I love her so)
I wish would win:  Brie Larson for Room
I haven’t seen:  Jennifer Lawrence for Joy

Room isn’t my favorite movie, but Larson’s performance is astounding.  The look in her eyes throughout the first part of the film is deeply unsettling, and to imagine her getting into whatever headspace caused that dimness while drawing a great performance from her child co-star Jacob Tremblay and emoting palpable love for her fictional child is the best bit of acting I saw all year.  For once, the Oscars will get it right.

Unfortunately, this bravura performance leaves Charlotte Rampling’s excellent turn in 45 Years in the dust.  In most years, I would’ve been ecstatic to see her walk away with the trophy.  This year, I’ll still feel a tinge of sadness to see her remain in her seat.

2015 had a slew of great roles for women, and other people popped out more to me than Blanchett and Ronan.  Carol left me cold, and I just don’t see the depth in Brooklyn that others rave about.  I sincerely hope that Ronan lands a win in the future, because she’s one of the more interesting (and one of the best) young actresses working today.  But this year, I’d replace her with Margot Robbie in Z for Zachariah and Blanchett with Irena Ristic in Three Days in September.

Supporting Actor

Nominees:  Christian Bale for The Big Short, Tom Hardy for The Revenant, Mark Ruffalo for Spotlight, Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies, Sylvester Stallone for Creed

Winner:  Sylvester Stallone for Creed
Doesn’t deserve the nom:  Sylvester Stallone for Creed
I wish would win:  Paul Dano for Love & Mercy
I haven’t seen:  Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies

For the second straight year, I don’t understand what’s so great about the performance that’s destined to win this category.  I found J.K. Simmons in Whiplash one-note last year, while Stallone’s beloved performance in Creed was wholly off-putting to me.  Clunky and monotone, he pushed his way through the film like a bull in a china shop, stating emotions instead of actually feeling them and constantly being upstaged by his two co-stars.  Still, he’s gotten big standing ovations whenever he’s won, so I expect the award will go to him in a landslide.

This is a shame, because Paul Dano went big and made Love & Mercy land perfectly.  Alas, he didn’t even land a nomination, while the rest of the nominees were pretty meh in their roles.  I wouldn't mind seeing Jason Mitchell take someone's spot for Straight Outta Compton.

Supporting Actress

Nominees:  Jennifer Jason Leigh for The Hateful Eight, Rooney Mara for Carol, Rachel McAdams for Spotlight, Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl, Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs

Winner:  Alicia Vikander for her five roles in 2015, I mean, The Danish Girl
Doesn’t deserve the nom:  Rooney Mara for Carol
I wish would win:  Kristen Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria
I haven’t seen:  Jennifer Jason Leigh for The Hateful Eight

This is the only acting category that isn’t a lock, with Kate Winslet having an outside chance at stealing it from Alicia Vikander.  Vikander was fine in The Danish Girl (I hate how everyone is piling on her and Redmayne just because the film is flawed), but she’ll win because of her body control in Ex Machina.  On top of that excellent performance, she was funny in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., devastating in Testament of Youth, and a brief but bright spot in Burnt.  What more do you want from her?

And yet the best single performance by a woman in a supporting role was Kristen Stewart, who is a great actress that made a knowing statement on her own image.  The way she and Juliette Binoche played off of each other was electric, and Stewart actually made her character feel more lived-in than Binoche did.  That’s a remarkably tough thing to do, because the characters in Clouds of Sils Maria were very overwritten.

I’ve always had trouble connecting with Rooney Mara, and her mousey role in Carol seemed utterly bland to me.  Winslet is her usual flashy but great self in Jobs, and Rachel McAdams is someone who deserves better roles than she gets.  Outside of replacing Mara with Stewart, I’m fine with keeping this lineup as is.

Adapted Screenplay

Nominees:  The Big Short, Brooklyn, Carol, The Martian, Room

Winner:  The Big Short
Doesn’t deserve the nomBrooklyn, Carol, Room
I wish would win:  Z for Zachariah

The Big Short and Room are filled with tough material to adapt, and The Big Short pulled it off with style.  It won WGA, Critic’s Choice, and BAFTA.  It’ll win the Oscar for sure.

Both the book and the movie version of The Martian is a love letter to the grinding nature of science, and as a lover of science myself, I can attest that it got that sentiment exactly right.  Brooklyn, Carol, and Room simply didn’t hit me on an emotional level, and they were supposed to.

Z for Zachariah is a brilliant screenplay because its story works on so many levels.  It’s a microcosm of all sorts of human interaction, and its open-ended presentation allows you to sink your teeth into whatever aspect you find most appealing.  It’s a wonderful achievement, and it leaves me riveted every time I watch it.

Other films that I wish had landed noms include Testament of Youth and The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay – Part 2 (yes, I’m serious).

Original Screenplay

Nominees:  Bridge of Spies, Ex Machina, Inside Out, Spotlight, Straight Outta Compton

Winner:  Spotlight
I wish would win:  Three Days in September
I haven’t seen:  Bridge of Spies

Like The Big Short, Spotlight has been sweeping this category, so it’s a shoe-in on Sunday.

I didn’t do a ‘didn’t deserve the nom’ list because I’d like to propose throwing out all of the nominees.  Some are perfectly fine (Spotlight and Ex Machina) while others are deeply flawed (Straight Outta Compton and Inside Out).  If it were up to me, these would be my nominees:  Three Days in September, Star Wars:  The Force Awakens, Love & Mercy, The Keeping Room, The Voices.

Bonus Round:  Everything Else


Nominees:  The Big Short, Mad Max:  Fury Road, The Revenant, Spotlight, Star Wars:  The Force Awakens

Winner:  The Big Short
I wish would win:  The Big Short


Nominees:  Carol, The Hateful Eight, Mad Max:  Fury Road, The Revenant, Sicario

Winner:  The Revenant
I wish would win:  This is a stacked lineup, and I'd be fine with any of them winning. Although, I'm sad that Meru isn't included.

Sound Editing

Nominees:  Mad Max:  Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Sicario, Star Wars:  The Force Awakens

Winner:  Mad Max
I wish would win:  The Keeping Room

Sound Mixing

Nominees:  Bridge of Spies, Mad Max:  Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Star Wars:  The Force Awakens

Winner:  Mad Max
I wish would win:  Mad Max


Nominees:  Bridge of Spies, Carol, The Hateful Eight, Sicario, Star Wars:  The Force Awakens

Winner:  The Hateful Eight
I wish would win:  Star Wars (pure sentimental choice)

Production Design

Nominees:  Bridge of Spies, The Danish Girl, Mad Max:  Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant

Winner:  Mad Max
I wish would win:  Ex Machina

Visual Effects

Nominees:  Ex Machina, Mad Max:  Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Star Wars:  The Force Awakens

Winner:  Star Wars
I wish would win:  Ex Machina


Nominees:  Carol, Cinderella, The Danish Girl, Mad Max:  Fury Road, The Revenant

Winner:  Cinderella
I wish would win:  Star Wars

Makeup & Hairstyling

Nominees:  Mad Max:  Fury Road, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Windown and Disappeared, The Revenant

Winner:  Mad Max
I wish would win:  I'm gonna be honest, I have zero opinions


Nominees:  Earned it, Fifty Shades of Grey; Manta Ray, Racing Extinction; Simple Song #3, Youth; Til It Happens To You; The Hunting Ground; Writing's On The Wall, Spectre

Winner:  Til It Happens To You
I wish would win:  Til It Happens To You


Nominees:  Anomalisa, Boy and the World, Inside Out, Shaun the Sheep Movie, When Marnie Was There

Winner:  Inside Out
I wish would win:  Inside Out

Foreign Language

Nominees:  Embrace of the Serpent, Mustang, Son of Saul, Theeb, A War

Winner:  Son of Saul
I wish would win:  Three Days in September


Nominees:  Amy; Cartel Land; The Look of Silence; What Happened, Miss Simone?; Winter on Fire

Winner:  Amy
I wish would win:  Meru

Animated Short

Nominees:  Bear Story, Prologue, Sanjay's Super Team, We Can't Live without Cosmos, World of Tomorrow

Winner:  Sanjay's Super Team

Live Action Short

Nominees:  Ave Maria, Day One, Everything Will Be Okay, Shok, Stutterer

Winner:  Ave Maria

Documentary Short

Nominees:  Body Team 12; Chau, beyond the Lines; Claude Lanzmann:  Spectres of the Shoah; A Girl in the River; Last Day of Freedom

Winner:  Claude Lanzmann:  Spectres of the Shoah

So how crazy do you think I am?  Leave a comment and let me know your predictions and opinions!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

My Top Ten Films of 2015

Let me throw out the usual caveats before we get down to business.  These are my personal favorite films.  There are other films that easily could have been included.  You won’t agree with all of them (but feel free to tell me that).  Enjoy!

Films I haven’t seen:  Anomalisa, The Hateful Eight, Bridge of Spies, The Assassin, Chi-Raq, Dope, The Lobster, Son of Saul, The Wolfpack

Honorable mentions:  Star Wars:  The Force Awakens, Kingsman:  The Secret Service, The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay – Part 2, It Follows, Mission:  Impossible - Rogue Nation, Very Semi-Serious, American Ultra

10.  The Gift

Joel Edgerton made one hell of a directing debut with this genre exercise, crafting a character-based thriller that keeps you guessing as to who exactly the bad guy is.  The script hits all the beats you want without feeling rote, the shot composition feeds the paranoia, and the acting trio of Edgerton, Jason Bateman, and Rebecca Hall are near-perfect.  No other movie this year left me scrambling to figure out the ending like this one did, and it still plays well on repeated viewings.

9.  The Keeping Room

Criminally underseen and divisively reviewed, The Keeping Room is a knowingly art-house genre blender that won’t appeal to everyone.  One part western, one part home invasion thriller, and one part allegory, it’s the tale of three southern women confronting the brutal end of the American Civil War.  The allegory revolves around life never turning out how we think it will be, and how whatever shatters that illusion will forever remain a monster in our past.  Moving on from these moments are difficult, and while The Keeping Room handles this and its other themes a bit roughly, a film this brimming with ideas is a rarity that I always treasure.  Plus, the cinematography and sound design are second to none.

8.  The Big Short

This is the closest you’re going to get to a comedy on my list, because while it’s about the housing crash and global economic crisis of the mid-2000s, it goes about its unappealing premise with style.  Its cocky smoothness hides a complex message, one that we all need to learn, and the broad-based appeal of its A-list cast and hilarious asides makes for some brilliant packaging.  Let’s face it, people don’t want to be lectured at for two hours.  Films that embrace the power of an entertaining idea like The Big Short are the ones that really harness what the medium can do.

7.  Testament of Youth

Testament of Youth is the Alicia Vikander-led sweeping epic that no one is talking about.  This is mystifying to me because it’s the most affecting film I saw all year.  Yes, it’s unapologetically tragic, but the story it’s based on was a real-life tragedy.  The softening of the blows that come in steady succession makes the film painful but not devastating, leaving it’s beautiful depictions of memory as the lasting reminder of what was lost.  According to both her memoir and the people who knew her, Vera Brittain was forever haunted by what happened to her during World War I, and the film captures that beautifully.

6.  Love & Mercy

Two music biopics intertwined the artist’s music in masterful ways this year, but Love and Mercy took far more risks than Straight Outta Compton, and it’s all the better for it.  In telling the story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson in two parts, audiences get to see the brilliant but deteriorating Wilson while he wrote the acclaimed album Pet Sounds and his later ascent from the pits of mental illness.  The former are lush scenes of sound and light while the latter is a more familiar tale of love, but both are expertly sold by Paul Dano, John Cusack, and Elizabeth Banks.  How the team were able to blend these two sections together so seamlessly is one of the great achievements of the year, but Love and Mercy is a satisfying film whether you take into account the risks or not.

5.  Three Days in September

This is a small film from Macedonia that played in only a few festivals around the world.  I was lucky enough to catch it at the Chicago International Film Festival, and the entire theater I was in seemed pretty blown away.  It’s the story of two women in a remote town slowly becoming friends while also trying to keep some dark secrets hidden.  The two leads, Irena Ristic and Kamka Tocinovski, navigate their character’s changing relationships and personal fears wonderfully, and writer/director Darijan Pejovski keeps the tension slowly ratcheting up.  Pejovski listed film noir and ‘70s American cinema as influences, which is an apt representation of the film’s gritty entertainment.  This is Pejovski’s first feature-length film, and with a debut this great, I’m anxious to see what he does next.

4.  Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria is aimed pretty directly at someone like me, who likes to ponder narratives, characters, marketing strategies, and thematic ideas.  The whole business of storytelling and how it reflects real life is what fascinates me about film, so watching the story of a woman prepping for a play while confronting the time that has passed since she previously performed it ticks nearly all of my boxes.  That it also addresses the real-life people involved with the production checks the remaining boxes, so despite being very on-the-nose, I find myself thinking about and re-watching Clouds of Sils Maria quite regularly.

3.  Mad Max:  Fury Road

It’s hard to remember a film so universally loved as Mad Max:  Fury Road.  I’ve had many conversations with fellow cinephiles about it, and my co-worker has had a picture of Imperator Furiosa posted at her desk since the film’s release.  At this point, everyone’s heard the song and dance about how great this film is, and it deserves every ounce of its adoration.

2.  Goodnight Mommy

The little horror film that could, Goodnight Mommy broke out of the festival circuit on a wave of critical praise, but it’s a tough film to sell.  It takes its time setting everything up and peppering in scary images until all hell finally breaks loose.  It’s a big, horrifically glorious ending, but like the best of the genre, all that craziness is rooted in a very real and universal fear.  I’m fine with horror going big, bloody, and violent, and Goodnight Mommy doesn’t shortchange its setup.

1.  Z for Zachariah

If you couldn’t tell, I got into a lot of thrillers this year, and Z for Zachariah is the kind of slow, smart thriller that I’ve always loved.  It takes place in a secluded bit of fertile land, possibly the only one left after an unnamed disaster, and only contains three characters.  The way these three come together and interact is where all of the tension derives from, and the film manages to mine all the fears that come with being in a society and the potential of being without one at the same time.  This is very much the kind of film that feeds off of what you bring to it, because it’s not going to give you any answers.  Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine are at the top of their games, and director Craig Zobel delivers another unsettling, technically impressive film.  As a special note, this is one of the most complex and respectful takes on religious belief that I’ve seen out of American cinema in a long time.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl (film) poster.jpg

Released:  November 27th, 2015
Rated:  R
Distributor:  Focus Features
Starring:  Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard
Directed by:  Tom Hooper
Written by:  Lucinda Coxon
Personal Bias Alert:  loves Vikander, haven’t read the book

6.8 of 10

            Welcome to your stuffy British Oscar bait!  You’d be hard-pressed to make a film more tailored for awards season than The Danish Girl, which has the distributor, topical storyline, and pedigree to make its run blindfolded.  In a way, that appears to be what it’s doing, as after a rousing premiere at the Venice Film Festival it stumbled in Toronto and has been limping along ever since.  But it’s still got foolproof nominations for Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, who’s strategically running in the supporting category, and remains in consideration for several other categories.  That’s the power of perception for you, because taken on its own accord, The Danish Girl deserves little more than a polite nod as you leave the theater.

            That topical storyline has to do with the growing prominence of transgendered people in Western media.  The Danish Girl draws upon the story of one of the first people to ever get sex reassignment surgery, the artist Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe (Redmayne).  I say draws upon because this story plays very loose with the facts, an easy freedom that isn’t inherently negative, but unfortunately wasn’t used here to form a well-structured movie.

            The Danish Girl is adapted from the novel of the same name, which I’m assuming is where the focus on the relationship between Einar and has wife, Gerda Wegener (Vikander), comes from.  It’s an excellent plan to root the story in the universally relatable situation of loving someone who’s changing before your eyes, and the pairing of such emotive actors as Redmayne and Vikander really allows that story to take off.  They play off of each other so well, vivaciously bubbly when they’re in love and misty-eyed when in rough patches, that the complexities of their ever-changing relationship is remarkably easy to track.

            The problem is that screenwriter Lucinda Coxon doesn’t match this relationship’s emotional arc to the plot’s structure, allowing the turning point in the relationship to come far too early and for the same dynamics to drag along for long stretches of time.  The plot itself becomes very bogged down in the physical aspects of Einar/Lili’s transition, from the adoption of feminine movements to the surgeries themselves.  This is understandable considering that her physical transformation is what she’s remembered for, but this doesn’t bear much emotional heft on its own.  By not pairing the plot’s climax to the couple’s relationship, the back half of this film becomes remarkably dispassionate, and its ending feels like nothing more than a rote bid for tears.

            Director Tom Hooper has a certain self-aggrandizing tone that he uses as his de facto mode of storytelling, which has led to two straight Best Picture nominations and certainly produces austerely beautiful films.  The Danish Girl proves to be no exception, as everything from the score, sets, costumes, and cinematography is impeccably done.  His framing of shots have often resembled posed paintings, which fits nicely with the galleries and workshops much of this film takes place in.  Stills from this movie would look lovely framed and hanging on a wall, but this style matches poorly with the film’s uneven emotional resonance, so much so that when the couple’s relationship ebbs from time to time, the film becomes very flat.  Hooper does nothing to address the story’s shortcomings, apparently feeling that a nice presentation was all the screenplay needed, which indicates a massive failure to understand the story he was tasked with telling.

              Thank god for Redmayne and Vikander, who prove to be the only ones capable of injecting some life into these stiff proceedings.  It’s encouraging that, for all of The Danish Girl’s Oscar maneuverings, the two people who truly delivered at their jobs are the only ones assured of its golden recognition.

Other Notes:
Ø  Ben Whishaw and Matthias Schoenaerts give solid, if stiff, supporting turns.
Ø  Whishaw may be one of the few people to have appeared in more films than Vikander in 2015.
Ø  I adore the way this film shows people painting through the back side of the canvas.