Tag Archives: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

88th Academy Awards Puts The Spotlight On Revenant, Mad Max

Well then. I wasn’t expecting that.

I suppose I should be used to saying that by now, especially when it comes to the Academy Awards. Sometimes they surprise me, most of the time they disappoint me. This year, however, they surprised me, and I’m not quite sure if that’s a good thing or bad thing.

Good news first: Chris Rock was great at hosting. He was funny, smirking, in-cheek, and he knew how to stick it not just to the Academy and the industry for its obvious bias and prejudice, but also towards his own race for making a big deal out of #OscarsSoWhite in the first place. His slight diss to actress Jada Pinkett-Smith to me was the most accurate thing out of his entire opening: “Her boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”

But the thing I appreciated most about him hosting is that he pointed out the controversy and the problems in it with respect and professionalism; at least, professional in the way that Chris Rock can be professional. Great change is needed in this industry, and it’s not going to come overnight; it’s going to need initiative from both sides of the conflict. But Chris Rock hosting last night showed us that integration is possible, even in moments of heated emotions and political injustices. Hopefully we’ll reach that point sooner rather than later, and when we do, we can nominated 20 black actors in the place of 20 white ones just so we can call it even.

So Rock was good, and handled the show with honesty and humor to spare. The wins were also mostly good, although there were once again a few snubs so stupid that a kindergartner would be excused to smack an Academy voter from them.

Best Picture: The last award from the night I predicted incorrectly, and I was glad for it too. The insightful and urgent Spotlight won best picture over the dramatic and maddening The Revenant. In my own opinion, The Revenant was superior and technically deserved the award most. But Spotlight carries the most important message out of any of the nominees, and it’s a message of injustice and accountability that we all need to hear and acknowledge. I am 100% okay with Spotlight winning this award. Congratulations are very much earned towards Tom McCarthy, the Boston Globe reporting team, and the cast and crew of this prestigious picture. Out of any other best picture nominee, this is the movie that viewers need to see the most.

Best Director: No surprise here: Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu wins his second directing Oscar for the second year in a row for The Revenant. His achievement is arguably the greatest out of the night. Not only is he the first director to win consecutive directing Oscars in 60 years (the other ones being John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and Joseph Mankiewicz for A Letter To Three Wives, All About Eve), but he is the only Hispanic director to earn this achievement as well. For a ceremony that is lacking in diversity, this is one of the highlights of the night, as Inarritu came in and did what most other filmmakers could not accomplish, including Oscar winners Milos Forman, Frank Capra, Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, and even my idol, Steven Spielberg. The Revenant was one of the most masterful films of the year, if not the decade, and it’s an honor that Inarritu rightfully deserves.

Best Actor: Well, duh. Leo took this award home for his mesmerizing performance as a suffering frontiersman in The Revenant. It’s nice to see Leo finally get recognition for his work as an actor, although it’s sad to think that I won’t be seeing any Leo needs an Oscar memes anymore.

Best Actress: Brie Larson won for Room, and I have a confession to make: I haven’t seen the movie yet. I will in a few weeks though when it comes out on DVD, and I encourage you to seek it out as well. Movies only have the power that we give to it. Like Spotlight, Room is an under-the-radar release that has gotten a lot of buzz and praise for its story and performances. It deserves to be sought out, with Larson’s performance along with it.

Best Supporting Actress: I’m starting with best supporting actress because I have more to say about it’s partner category in a little bit. Alicia Vikander won for The Danish Girl. This is yet another movie I have not seen, but I am happy to see Vikander get recognition for it, even though Rooney Mara has been in the industry longer and has a more diversified body of work in her filmography. What’s done is done though. Vikander got her praise for portraying a confused wife to a confused husband, and now it’s Mara’s turn to go for the gold. Hopefully it will be sooner rather than later.

Best Supporting Actor: I’m not going to even be cordial here. This is just plain bullshit. The crowd favorite, Sylvester Stallone, was snubbed for Creed in exchange for Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies. I have so many problems with this, but I’ll start with Stallone himself.

Stallone has been a powerhouse in the world of film for a very long time, and believe it or not, he has never won an Oscar. Yes, Rocky won best picture in 1976, but that award went to the producers and its director. Stallone himself did not get recognized as its actor or screenwriter, a trend that would repeat itself as the series went on. The character and the series definitely went through its highs and its lows, but you cannot question how perfectly the character was revitalized and reinvigorated as a flesh-and-blood human character, not just a movie icon, in Creed. Was Stallone the best actor out of the year? No, but he was the best out of these nominees, and his nuances and spot-on delivery made Rocky Balboa believable and grounded. That is without question.

The typical complaint is that Stallone has played the character before and gotten used to playing him. You forget, it’s been almost ten years since he’s stepped into the character in Rocky Balboa, and he’s played him as convincingly as he has every single other year, if not more so, considering what the character goes through in Creed. He’s not typecast if he keeps delivering the role with the same convincing energy he always has, and Stallone has been much overdue of his Oscar: more than Leo has, at least, considering that he’s nearly 70. Some people were worried that they would be giving the award to Rocky instead of Sylvester Stallone, which again, is hogwash. He created and performed the character repeatedly since the beginning. To not recognize him for his continued dedication to the role is a crime to cinema.

All of this might be warranted, if the Oscar went to a more worthy performer. It didn’t. Rylance meandered and putzed about for two hours in Bridge of Spies, with slight moments of dry humor and wit thrown into the mix to redeem how boring the character is. If the role went to Tom Hardy from The Revenant or Christian Bale from The Big Short, I would understand that because those are mesmerizing performances that pushed those actors and what they could do. Rylance gave the same expression during the runtime, and that expression is “old grandpa.”

I cannot even begin to describe to you my frustration and my disappointment in this category. If you’re going to snub the obvious winner, snub it towards a performance that is at least just as competitive. Don’t give it to the guy just because he has a few quirky lines of dialogue in the movie. It doesn’t work like that. At least, it shouldn’t.

I don’t want to talk about this category any more. I’ve said my piece, and I will promptly not watch the best supporting actress category next year because I don’t want to see this guy announce the winner. It should be Rocky up on that stage, damn it.

And yes, I know I am being a sourpuss on this. Bite me.

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out, obviously, and deservingly. And we got a cute monologue from my favorite toys, Woody and Buzz, presenting the category. That was a nice treat to see.

Best Documentary Feature: Amy won, and I predicted this correctly. Looking back at the other nominees, I don’t know if it was because of the filming or the subject matter that Amy beat out the other politically-driven films, such as Cartel Land, The Look of Silence, and Winter on Fire. It hardly matters though. Amy won, and the other films will just have to settle on being called nominees.

Best Foreign-Language Feature: Son of Saul won, and I got this category right too. Next, please.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Ah, The Big Short. This was the only Oscar it won for the night, and I guessed this one correctly too. Now director Adam McKay can call himself an Academy-Award winner, which I don’t know what that’ll do to his ego. But never mind. Congratulations to him and co-writer Charles Randolph for their achievement, although I don’t quite know if it should have beat out the innovation and the cleverness Drew Godard instilled into The Martian.

Best Original Screenplay: Here’s the biggest confusion I have from this year’s ceremony. I knew Spotlight was going to win best original screenplay. I knew it, I predicted it, and I was right. I just didn’t know if it was going to win best picture considering it didn’t have the pull in other categories as it did here. So I figured this was going to be the only award it was going to win for the night.

I was half right. It was the only other award it won from the night besides best picture, and that confuses me. Is it truly the best movie of the year just based off of its screenplay alone? There were many other elements in the film to appreciate: the smart, subtle direction by Tom McCarthy, the convincing performances, especially from Mark Ruffalo, and the smoothly crisp editing by Tom McArdle, which doesn’t waste a take or a cut. But no, it only won best screenplay and best picture, and while I assert that it is one of the best films of the year, to me, that means its unwarranted for best picture. At least, in the Academy’s eyes.

You’re not the best picture of the year from one element: you’re the best picture of the year from a cohesion of elements working together. The Academy doesn’t think that, however, and chose to give the highest honor to Spotlight, despite it winning only one other award besides it. That just seems wonky to me, and it makes me question the Academy’s voting process when it comes to these pictures.

Best Cinematography: Emanuel Lubeski won for The Revenant. Roger Deakins better win the next time he’s nominated, or I swear to God, I will release a bear onto the Academy voters.

Film Editing: Yeah, I got this one wrong. I thought Hank Corwin was going to take it for The Big Short. Turns out Margaret Sixel snagged it for Mad Max: Fury Road, which is not a bad choice at all. My only problem is that Mad Max had so much more to play with than Spotlight did. Mad Max had big, destructive cars, sandy deserts, and explosions. Spotlight had their reporters and the intimate fragility of their story. The latter takes much more skillful editing to make the film as a whole interesting, but at the very least, let’s be grateful that Max Max is more deserving than The Big Short.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Mad Max: Fury Road won. I’m glad I went against my instincts on this one, because I would have ended up with one less of a win on this ballot.

Best Costume Design: This came out of nowhere. Mad Max: Fury Road won best costume design, and I incorrectly predicted that Sandy Powell was going to win for Cinderella. I thought to myself how a sports jacket and a robot arm counts as good costume design, but maybe I’m just ignorant to the craft. Congratulations to Jenny Beavan on her win regardless, and my loss in missing this category.

Best Production Design: Mad Max, again.

Best Original Song: Oooooooohhhh, feminists are going to be pissed about this one. I’ll admit, I like the orchestra composition better in “Writings On The Wall” in Spectre than “Til It Happens To You” in The Hunting Ground, but good God, the lyricism is just too perfect to pass up. And yet, “Writing’s On The Wall” snagged the award. Take also into consideration the way that Lady Gaga killed her on-stage performance and filled it with both passion and emotion, while Sam Smith awkwardly missed his key? I expect a lot of women to be upset about this snub.

Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone won for his snide and sinister soundtrack for The Hateful Eight. His Italian speech and the standing ovation he received was the highlight of the night, as this elderly man struggled to get his words out amidst the tears and the happiness he’s experienced. Such are the joys we can hope for those who have endured long and successful careers. Rocky’s still waiting, though.

Best Sound Editing: Mad Max.

Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max, again.

Best Visual Effects: Surprisingly, Mad Max did not win in this category, even though it was the one I predicted. Ex Machina won, and even though it’s comparatively smaller scale than its other nominees, it is no less deserving. Ex Machina was very convincing in it’s portrayal of Ava and her robotic companions, and part of that was because of their skillful use of post-conversion and rotoscoping Alicia Vikander’s features onto a plain background. While I personally feel that Star Wars and Mad Max were more worthy recipients, I’m not going to take away Ex Machina’s much deserved attention towards the award. Congratulations are earned to this smart, compelling, and thought-provoking sci-fi drama.

And as always, I got all the short categories wrong. I’m not going to waste time naming the winners. I’m still bitter about their affecting my ballot.

All in all, this year was a decent ceremony, with the exception of snubbing ethnic actors and Sylvester Stallone for his much deserved win. But the Academy did the best thing they could amidst the controversey: they acknowledged it, and are making a pledge to change things for the better. Hopefully we’ll start seeing that change by next year.

– David Dunn

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Oscar Predictions 2015

“The Oscars: the white BET awards.”

                                           – Chris Rock

I think we can unanimously agree that the single biggest snub the Academy made in this year’s nominations was not with a motion picture, but with entire communities. 20 white actors were nominated for their performances this year. All eight best picture nominees featured white protagonists. All the screenplay nominees are white. The only major category to have slight diversity in its nominations is best director, where it has four white directors and one Mexican. To have 42 out of those 43 nominees belonging to a single diversity is just plain sad, and shows that in its own way, we still live in a segregated society.

A strong statement, I know, but the situation warrants it. How many wonderful stories were told this year by actors, filmmakers, and storytellers of color that the Academy chose to skip over? There was no best picture nomination for Straight Outta Compton. No acting nominations for Idris Elba or Jason Mitchell in Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton. No best screenplay nomination for Ryan Coogler for Creed. No acting, directing, or writing nominations for Sicario. No best picture nomination for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The worst part about these snubs is that it isn’t just entire communities that were disregarded: it’s that the year’s best films and performances weren’t recognized at all, period. And it’s not like the Academy’s hands were tied either: they literally had two open slots to include two more nominees for best picture, and they chose not to use them. Tell me, would it have really hurt to include Creed or Straight Outta Compton in there just to ease people’s nerves? It’s not like those pictures are undeserving, and I think people would be more excited for their nominations rather than they were for Brooklyn or Bridge of Spies.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first stupid mistake the Academy has made, and it won’t be their last either. We can only hope that with time and initiative, the Academy will be more fair and considerate of their nominations in the future. From my experience, though, they probably won’t be for quite some time.

In either case, the Oscars are still a few days away, and I still have to predict which movies are going to take home the gold. These are my predictions:

Best Picture: I’ll be honest here: I’m stumped. I’m absolutely stumped. Normally, this is one of the easiest categories to predict from the ceremony, but this year, I’m faced with three strong candidates in the running for best picture. What can I say? It’s been a close race this awards season. The Revenant won the Golden Globe and the DGA award. The Big Short won the PGA award for best feature film. Spotlight won best overall cast at the SAG awards. These accolades place each of them on equal footing in their reach for the night’s top honor. Who’s going to get it?

Considering the other accolades that it’s expected to get that night, my best guess is going to be The Revenant. Read on to find my reasoning.

Best Director: So nine times out of 10, the winner of the DGA award also wins the best directing Oscar at the Academy Awards. Call it movie science. There was only one time this decade where the DGA winner wasn’t even nominated for best director, and that was Ben Affleck for Argo in 2012. Every other winner this decade matches up with the Academy Award winner. Since this year’s DGA winner was Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu for The Revenant, he’s the most likely to win this year’s Oscar.

If he does win both best picture and best director, that will not only make him a five-time Academy Award-winner, but also the first director in film history to win best picture and directing Oscars in consecutive years. It’s an honor Inarritu deserves. The Revenant was not the most action-packed film of the year, but it is easily the most contemplative, compelling, and impactful. It would have been the best film of 2015, if it wasn’t released in January.

Best Actor: It’s already sickening enough that Johnny Depp wasn’t nominated for his mesmerizingly evil performance in Black Mass. If Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win his long overdue Oscar for The Revenant, then all it truly lost for this prestigious category.

Best Actress: Ever since Room premiered in Telluride, Brie Larson has been racking it in for her portrayal as a traumatized mother seeking peace and understanding in a new world her and her son are only beginning to adjust to. To take the honor from her now would just seem ludicrous, as she seems locked for the award after winning the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice award, and the SAG award. Brie Larson is primed and ready to receive her Oscar. Root for her come Oscar night.

Best Supporting Actor: Did you know Rocky Balboa himself never won an Academy Award? It’s true that his movie did, with the first Rocky picture taking home best picture, best director, and best film editing at the 1976 Academy Awards. But Sly Stallone himself never won an Oscar as an actor or screenwriter, despite his career taking off due to the Italian Stallion. His time has finally come. Not only was Creed one of the best pictures out of the franchise, but Stallone himself gives one of the most pure and honest performances out of any other actor from the year. Give Sly his Oscar, guys. You could argue he’s just as overdue for it as Leo is.

Best Supporting Actress: I’ve flipped-flopped a ridiculous amount of times on this category, as there are once again three deserving candidates who have good chances at taking home the award. Kate Winslet was concerned and caring as an almost sisterly figure in Steve Jobs, while Rooney Mara was equally compelling in Carol as this star-crossed 1950’s teenager who was hopelessly lost and heartbroken by her love. There’s no denying, however, the outstanding year Alicia Vikander had, who besides starring in The Danish Girl had breakout roles in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Ex Machina. To make a decision between these three actresses is nearly impossible, but since the SAG award is on Vikander’s side, I’m going with her.

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out. It’s not only the best animated film of the year, but also arguably one of the best films of the year, period. Don’t bet against it.

Best Documentary Feature: I think it’s safe to say that Amy is going to take home the award for best documentary feature. Not only has its acclaim on the late British singer Amy Winehouse’s life been top-notch, but it was also a massive financial success, grossing over $22 million at the box office, a rarity for documentary films. Now even though box office numbers have never been a good indicator on how the Academy will vote, it does accurately show the public’s reaction to a film. Since it has fared so well with American audiences, it’s doubtful that Academy voters will vote against their preferences. It’s wise to go with Amy.

Best Foreign-language Feature: Son of Saul won this year’s Golden Globe for best foreign-language feature. Since the Golden Globe winners for best foreign-language films have been mostly consistent with the Academy Award for the past five years, it would be best to bet on that one too.

Best Original Screenplay: If we’re being really picky, I think we can all agree that the best screenplay out of all of the nominees here is Pixar’s Inside Out. However, since we’ve already decided that it’s going to win best animated feature, I don’t think that would be fair to the other nominees if it won in this category too, now would it?

My bet, then, goes to Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which is not only the best live-action nominee out of the list, but also the most relevant. Sexual assault is a big problem in today’s country, and one that often gets overlooked. But McCarthy handles the subject with respect and urgency in Spotlight, ushering a call to action to end sexual violence wherever we may find it, whether it be in a neighborhood or a church pew. It is one of the most important films you could see in 2015. To not recognize it for its credibility would be an absolute sham.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Here’s the best thing I can say about The Big Short: it knows exactly what it is. It is an irreverent, funny, obscene, smirking, yet tragic adaptation of one of America’s biggest financial crises. It knows it’s based off of real events and people, and it uses that to its advantage in moments of self-awareness and quirky comedy. While it is debatable whether it is the “best” adapted screenplay of the year, it is without a doubt the most clever. For that reason, I’m going with The Big Short.

Best Film Editing: In order to correctly predict this category, you need to replace “best” with “most.” The movie with the “most” editing is The Big Short, as editor Hank Corwin cuts in between multiple perspectives, cameos, explainers, and B-roll footage that will make your head spin. Does that make his work the best out of the year, though? I would contest that it doesn’t, and I would put Spotlight in its place as the superior. While it had a steady pace and took time to build up big ideas, Spotlight followed through its story with precision and clarity. There was no wasted space in this movie, as we understood everything we needed to know at the exact moment we needed to know it. Such editing is difficult to do skillfully, and Tom McArdle balances pace excellently with this complex, sensitive story.

But I don’t think McArdle is going to get it. Corwin will for his spasm editing on The Big Short, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not much of a good thing either though.

Best Cinematography: Poor Roger Deakins. He’s been nominated for the Academy Award for best cinematography 13 times now, ever since he was nominated for The Shawshank Redemption in 1994 (Which was the year he should have won, by the way). He’s going to have to wait even longer. Sicario looked great, but the best-looking film of the year by far is The Revenant, and that’s due to the pure ambition of Emanuel Lubeski’s scope of filming, with the adding challenge of shooting completely in natural light. If he wins the Oscar this year (which he will), it will be very well-earned. Sorry Roger. You know I’ll be rooting for you next year.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: I don’t see how shaving Charlize Theron’s head and by throwing white powder on a bunch of set extras constitutes a best makeup and hairstyling nomination for Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet, that movie is so far the most popular choice for this award. Why? Because a bunch of desert maniacs spray their faces with silver paint? Yeah, that’s award-worthy.

The Revenant, in comparison, had thrusted extensive effort to make Hugh Glass look like a battered, bruised, bloodied, and stitched-up mess after he barely survived an encounter against a grizzly bear. I would like to say The Revenant is going to take home this award, but considering the legwork Mad Max already has behind it, I doubt that will be the case. Mad Max is going to win best makeup, although I hope I am wrong.

Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell has been nominated too many times for best costume design at the Academy Awards. Yes, I know her work is amazing; that doesn’t change the fact that she has become the Meryl Streep for costume design at the Oscars. This year she has not one, but two nominations: one for Carol, and another for Cinderella. It’s safe to assume that the Shakespeare In Love, The Avaitor, and The Young Victoria designer is going to win her fourth Academy Award from this ceremony. The question is for which movie? I flipped a coin, and I’m going with Cinderella. Don’t make me flip again.

Best Production Design: There’s a difference between the best production design and the most obvious production design. The best from this year was The Revenant, as its set design was not only authentic and gritty, but it was also (and this is the important part) invisible. It blended with its environment. You didn’t notice it as much as the other elements in the film, and that’s the point. It’s supposed to provide the illusion that we are in a different place without making it too obvious that that’s the case. Everything in The Revenant breathed of realism and practicality. That is why it’s the best of the year.

The most obvious is… well, duh. It’s Mad Max: Fury Road. And while I applaud the design of its cars and its scenery, it is not the most skilled art direction from the year. Mad Max made great production work and blew it up. The Revenant made great production work and sat on it, reflected on it, and let it breathe in its own space. One such work should obviously be more celebrated than the other, but since the Academy has a history of naming the most obvious production design over the quote-unquote “best”, I’m going with Mad Max: Fury Road. 

On a side note, Academy members should be frustrated at themselves for not nominating Rick Carter and Darren Gilford’s amazing work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A film hasn’t had such an effect on me since the original Star Wars. To not recognize their work with even a nomination is just plain stupid.

Best Original Song: Well, let’s start with the obvious: the fact that The Weeknd’s “Earned It” got an Oscar nomination over Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” is just plain B.S. Now that I got that out of the way, let’s focus the discussion towards music that’s actually good, shall we? Lady Gaga is undeniably a powerhouse in the music world, but what gives her song “Til It Happens To You” an edge over the competition is how engrained it is in the tragedy of sexual assault on college campuses. It’s combined beauty and sadness creates an urgency of how much of a problem it is we need to fix, and Gaga’s musical influence only doubles its chances of winning. There is a slight chance that Sam Smith can sneak in a win there for Spectre’s “Writing’s On The Wall,” but with only a Golden Globe behind it, that isn’t likely. Go for Gaga.

Best Musical Score: I’m a die-hard John Williams fan. His music is not only the greatest film scores you can listen to, but some of the greatest music, period. He won his first original score Oscar 40 years ago with Jaws, and he’s nominated again for updating his own music in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Nostalgic and beautiful as his music is, however, he won’t win this time, and he shouldn’t either. The most likely and the most deserving winner is Ennio Morricone for his unsettlingly sinister soundtrack for The Hateful Eight. His career has spanned over 60 years, writing scores for The Dollars trilogy, being first nominated for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and finally winning an honorary Oscar in 2006. It’s his year to shine. The Hateful Eight’s hauntingly ominous soundtrack still plays in my mind, just as much as Williams’ own wonderful music does.

Best Sound Editing: How do you predict the winner for the Academy Award for best sound editing? By picking the loudest, most obnoxious action picture out of the nominees, that’s how. What nominee is more loud, obnoxious, and action-packed than Mad Max: Fury Road? The answer is none of them. So that’s the one I’m going with.

Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road, for the same reasons as above. 

Best Visual Effects: Before I make my prediction, can I take a second to applaud all of the nominees? Year after year, the best visual effects goes to the movie with the best CGI. With this year, however, all of the nominees had a greater emphasis on practical effects as opposed to computer generated ones. Rotoscoping was used in the place of green screen for Ex Machina. Ridley Scott grew real plants to illustrate photosynthesis during The Martian. Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu filmed The Revenant in natural lighting. 90% of the stunts and visual effects of Mad Max: Fury Road were practical. J.J. Abrams built a real BB-8 droid for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This was a great year for visual effects in film, and that is because of the pioneers in the industry opting for real special effects as opposed to digitally artificial ones. A big salute to all of the nominees, as all of them have pushed the boundaries for what we could achieve visually for films this year.

Now then, predictions. I’m biased towards Star Wars: The Force Awakens for its innovation and invention, but since a Star Wars film hasn’t won an Oscar in over 30 years, I don’t expect the Academy to break the chain now. No, the award will go to Mad Max: Fury Road for its incredible stunt work and ambitious scope of destruction. I guess it pays to be a little mad after all, huh?

And finally, the dreaded short categories. I never have the opportunity to see the shorts, so I’m always completely in the dark on these nominations. I’m just going to throw out the first three titles that I see: Sanjay’s Super Team for animation, Body Team 12 for documentary, and Shok for live action. Good luck to anyone on getting these right.

And those are my predictions. I’ll see you on Oscar night when Chris Rock rips the Academy a new one. If that does happen, at least there’s one good thing that came out of #OscarsSoWhite.

– David Dunn

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“THE REVENANT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The broken spirit, revived. 

The Revenant is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and I never want to see it again.

The film tells the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an 1820’s frontiersman who got mauled by a bear, watched his son get murdered, was left for dead by his friends, and crawled 200 miles to society, seeking revenge against those who betrayed him. His story is not fictional. Author Michael Punke captured the true accounts of Glass’s life in the novel of the same name, which serves as the primary basis for this film.

At hearing about the film, you would never have guessed that this is a true story. Watching the film does little to suspend your disbelief, but as it continues on, you catch yourself slowly conforming to the film’s convictions, believing it more and more as it builds to its emotionally binding and captivating climax. Director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, who won an Oscar last year for directing Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, has made a film so vivid, eerie, and compelling that it could, and indeed does, pass itself off as reality.

Look at the huge risks Inarritu takes as a filmmaker. In Birdman, he took a great risk by filming in multiple long takes, editing them together to give off the illusion that Birdman was all filmed in one shot. Here, Inarritu takes another risk by shooting everything in natural light, using the sun to naturally fill the space that Inarritu captures on camera. The result allows us to experience The Revenant’s environments as they are, rather than being artificially constructed for the film’s sake.

Beyond its practical filming and staging, Inarritu is equally ambitious in his overarching vision for the film. To pick one word to describe The Revenant is impossible. It’s beautiful. Disturbing. Shocking. Heartbreaking. Violent. Gritty. Emotional. Meaningful. Spiritual. The scope of Inarritu’s filmmaking is simply incredible, peering into this man’s loneliness, desperation, paranoia, and drive as he struggles not only to survive, but to live beyond his son’s death.

Oh, this is a wonderfully shot film. In wide angles, cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski captures the sheer scope and vastness of his environments, capturing both the beauty and danger of nature around Glass. In tight shots, he perfectly encapsulates Glass’s struggle against life, nature, and himself as he fights to keep on living. DiCaprio lends just as much to Glass’ turmoil as Lubeski does. At times he doesn’t speak, but simply reacts to the environment around him, and his grief and angst is so believable that you buy his struggle not as a character or an actor, but as a real person.

All of these elements build to embody a perfect film. Yes. A perfect film. Why then, do I say that I never want to see it again? Because it captures its vision so perfectly that the filmmaking aspect no longer seems like an illusion. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie: it feels like you’re watching life. You feel Glass’ nerves as he freezes in the cold, struggling breaths in between his slit throat and his stitches. You feel the pain stab through Glass as the bear’s claws tear into his flesh, literally ripping apart his fragile body as the blood replaces his decaying skin. And you feel Glass’ wrath and his pain, his internal torture where he knows that he will never be the same man again. The film is so convincing in its art that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. That’s what I mean when I say that I can’t see it again.

The film never tells us that it’s based on a true story in the opening and closing credits, and it doesn’t need to. We are already convinced of this through experiencing pure film.

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Oscar Predictions 2014

There is no such thing as the best picture.

That’s what I keep thinking year after year when I make my Oscar predictions. Why? Because everyone has a different idea of what the best picture means.

There were many great movies that wasn’t nominated from this year that left a profound impact on the people who watched them. The Fault In Our Stars is one of those pictures. Guardians of the Galaxy filled people with as many laughs and energy as it did with tears and quivering lips. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is the most liked movie of 2014 according to the Internet Movie Database. God forbid, there are people out there who even liked Inherent Vice.

My point in saying all of this is that different movies have different effects on people. It doesn’t matter what the Academy thinks is the best picture: it matters what you think is the best picture to you.

Regardless, the Oscars are unfortunately still a thing. With the 87th Academy Awards coming up in a few weeks, people are going to be scrambling to guess who is going to win which awards this year. Here are the movies I think are going to win big this year at the Oscars:

Best Picture: The big category. Good God, how do you predict this one? Boyhood and Birdman have been at each other’s throats since the beginning of awards season. Since Boyhood‘s best picture win at the Golden Globes, it at first seemed like the frontrunner for best picture. Since then, however, Birdman has gone on to win the Screen Actors Guild award for best overall cast, the Directors Guild of America award for best feature and the Producers Guild Awards award for best picture. At this point, Birdman would be most poised to win the award, and it would be wise to opt for it.

Best Director: The nominee most deserving of this award is Richard Linklater for following with his passion project 12 years straight for Boyhood, a wonderfully ambitious project that shows the joys and heartbreaks alike of growing up. Unfortunately, Linklater didn’t win the DGA award for best director. The Oscar, then, is going to go to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for Birdman, which was an innovative, creative, and darkly clever film in it’s own right. Neither filmmaker is a bad nomination, as both of them delivered the most unique and memorable pictures of the year. The award can only go to one of them, but both Linklater and Inarritu are undeniably the best filmmakers of the year.

Best Actor: Another close one. Which is it going to be: Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything or Michael Keaton for Birdman? Redmayne has the Screen Actors Guild award and the Golden Globe for best actor. Keaton also has a Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award for best overall cast. So who’s going to take it? Redmayne or Keaton? My bet is on Redmayne, but don’t be surprised if either actor takes home the award. This is going to be a close one.

On that note, honorable mention to Benedict Cumberbatch for his brilliant, heartbreaking, passionate, intelligent, and wonderfully unique performance as physicist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. You sir gave the best performance of the year, and are most deserving of the Oscar for best actor this year. Unfortunately, the Oscars is not a game of talent. It’s a game of politics.

Best Actress: Everyone (including myself) has been praising Rosamund Pike’s work in Gone Girl and has been saying that she deserves this award most. The charts don’t lie, however, and Julianne Moore has won award after award for her heartbreaking performance as a mother suffering from early onset alzheimer’s in Still Alice. She’s locked for the award. Don’t bet on anyone else except her.

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons for Whiplash. If you have any objections to that, you haven’t seen the movie.

Best Supporting Actress: It takes a lot of dedication not only to play the role of an aging mother losing her children to adulthood, but to return to that role year after year for 12 years straight. The award for best supporting actress rightfully goes to Patricia Arquette for her stunning decade-long performance that she melted so wonderfully into year after year in Boyhood. It will be a huge upset if she doesn’t get the award.

Best Original Screenplay: This year was borderline impossible to make a clear prediction of who was going to win in the best original screenplay category. First, critics predicted it would be Boyhood due to it’s massive popularity in the best picture race. Then, people switched sides and said Wes Anderson would win for The Grand Budapest HotelBirdman won the Golden Globe and a slew of other state critics awards. Since I don’t have the luxury of waiting for the WGA’s next week to claim which is the best screenplay of the year, I’m going with the only nomination that has the physical accolades to back up their nomination: Birdman is going to win best original screenplay. 

Side Note: I will never cease to get angry at the Academy for profusely snubbing Christopher Nolan multiple times. If Interstellar was not deemed one of the best movies of the year, it definitely is considered one of the best stories of the year. Nolan deserved a nomination in this category, but like all other the Oscar ceremonies, he got snubbed because he’s Christopher Nolan. Typical.

Best Adapted Screenplay: This category is messed up from the start, because how in God’s name is Whiplash considered an adapted screenplay? I get it that it was first made into a short film before a feature release, thank you for pointing that out Academy. That doesn’t change the fact that it was an original idea conceived by Damien Chazelle, and that both properties were projects that he worked on. Whiplash was, in every definition, an original work. To put it in the adapted category is pish posh.

On that note, Graham Moore’s The Imitation Game IS an adapted work, and it so wonderfully brings interest and awareness to this secretive story that only a few have known about for quite some time. The Imitation Game is most poised to take home the best adapted screenplay award, unless Whiplash snabs it from them first. 

Another side note: Did the Academy just work to have the worst nominations in this category this year? Is there seriously nothing for The Fault In Our Stars? Nothing for Gone Girl? Shoot, I’d even take a nomination for Guardians of the Galaxy over the confusing Inherent Vice and insipid Theory of Everything. These awards should not be nominated for the Academy’s opinion, but rather, on the impact these films have had on the public. All of the films I’ve mentioned above were movies the public had very strong reactions to, and each of them deserve nominations over the other films recognized. This is the Oscar category I am most frustrated with this year.

Best Animated Feature: Let’s get over the frustration that The Lego Movie wasn’t nominated for just one second, shall we? The biggest competition is between Disney’s Big Hero 6 and Dreamwork’s How To Train Your Dragon 2. Since How To Train Your Dragon 2 has won the Golden Globe, the Annie Award, and the National Board of Review for best animated feature of the year, the best bet is on that film. It is the best animated film of the year, and matches it’s predecessor in almost every way. If it does win, it is a very deserving one.

On that note, shame on you Academy for taking out The Lego Movie. Everything is not awesome for you.

Best Documentary Feature: Were Steve James’ wonderful documentary Life Itself on film critic Roger Ebert’s life nominated, it might have posed a challenge to the frontrunner for this category. Since it isn’t however, the award is most poised for Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, a documentary about Poitras’ investigation in U.S. surveillance programs until her research brings her face-to-face with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Keep this one on your radar, folks. This is one of those films that needs to be sought out.

Best Foreign-Language Film: The Academy loves movies that are not only politically challenging, but are also based around events surrounding World War II. The frontrunner, then, is Ida, a polish film about a young nun who discovers a dark secret about her family from the Nazi occupation before taking her vows. Wild Tales has also been widely talked about, but don’t expect anything big from it. Ida is most positioned to win the award.

Best Film Editing: The film with the best editing of the year isn’t even nominated in this category, and that is Birdman. The shots were so seamlessly blended together in between takes that it gave off the illusion that the film was shot in one take, even though it wasn’t. The work done with Birdman is both innovative and revolutionary, and it’s flat out disrespectful that it’s not even nominated here.

The next best work is from Tom Cross on Whiplash, which editing together the film so perfectly that it gave off an heart-pounding, unnerving sensation better than most thriller’s you’d see in theaters. Neither one will win. The award will go to Boyhood for it’s compilation of 12-years worth of footage into one film, even though the editing dragged out at times and it had to handle the same amount of footage any other film would have to. Even though Boyhood is a great movie, it’s editing is average at best.

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubeski for Birdman. If he wins, he will be one of the few cinematography nominees to have won the award two years in a row. It’s not undeserved. Lubeski is a great cinematographer, and has done great work for years for films such as Children of Men, The Tree of Life, and last year’s Oscar winner Gravity. He deserves the award for cinematography if he does wins it.

Best Original Score: I waited until the last possible second to write down my prediction for this, because the nominee everyone is talking about is also the one least deserving. Alexandre Desplat has been nominated year-after-year at the Academy Awards for scoring movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The King’s Speech, Argo, and Philomena. This year, he deserves the award the most not only for his nomination with The Imitation Game, but also with Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. He’s going to lose both of his nominations to Johann Johannssons’ The Theory of Everything, a theme that is as average, annoying, and repetitive as its movie is. I didn’t like The Theory of Everything, and I liked its music even less. But all critics and accolades point towards that movie, so that’s the one I’m begrudgingly going with.

Best Original Song: “Glory” from Selma will win and deserve this award the most. No song fills you with as much power and proclamation as this song does. It fills you with the same energy and captivation that the movie does, and it’s a shame that the film wasn’t nominated in more categories this year.

Best Costume Design: I doubt that Colleen Atwood is going to take home the award yet again for Into The Woods, despite her great track record with the Academy. My bet is on Milena Canonero for The Great Budapest Hotel, mostly because 1) The film’s costume work is as lovable and quirky as the movie itself is, and 2) She hasn’t won the award since her work with Marie Antoinette in 2006. It’s her year to win the award.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: This is such a difficult category to decide for, because what on Earth is the Academy’s criteria for this ungaudy award? A few years ago, movies like Star Trek beat out films like The Young Victoria in this category. In 2011, the boring, mundane, and insipid Iron Lady beat out Harry Potter. What is going on?! How on Earth are you supposed to predict this category when the Academy keeps flipping the standard???

If I was going off of the best makeup work out of the nominees, it’s no competition: Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet, keep in mind from previous years that films have won for the exaggerated minimalist work seen from The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’m keeping my bets on The Grand Budapest Hotel, but don’t be surprised if either film takes home the award.

(Post-script: The makeup work for The Iron Lady was awful.)

Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel. If any film other than that wins for best production design, the Academy officially hates Wes Anderson.

Best Sound Editing: Normally, I couldn’t care less for the sound editing awards, because who has enough patience to dissect the sound bit-by-bit in each feature film? This year though, there is a frontrunner in this category that doesn’t deserve to be nominated. Great a film as it is, Interstellar has some of the worse sound editing and mixing I’ve heard in years. The music overwhelmed the dialogue at times, character’s couldn’t be heard that well at certain parts of the movie, and the sound got so loud at times that I felt like I was at a Daft Punk concert. For all of the accomplishments Interstellar has made, sound is definitely not one of them.

Unfortunately, I think Interstellar is going to be the one to take this award home. Christopher Nolan’s movies have a good track record for getting sound awards at the Oscars (Ex. The Dark Knight and Inception)and I don’t think the Academy has any intent of stopping his good run anytime soon. The film most deserving in this category is American Sniper. It’s going to Interstellar.

Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash had the most impressive sound mixing out of any of the other nominees. The Oscar, however, is going to go to Interstellar. See above for my reasoning.

Best Visual Effects: I’m partial towards X-men: Days of Future Past because it had great visual effects, costuming, and set design to make not only a convincing portrayal of a post-apocalyptic future, but also to show the slow dissolution of American society in the mid-1970’s. However, Interstellar was also an amazing movie, and accomplished visual spectacles unseen since Avatar and Inception. It will win the award, and it is also the most deserving. 

And now finally, my most-dreaded predictions for the categories I never know how to predict: the shorts. Let’s play a game of Eenie-Minie-Moe, shall we?

Best Animated Short: Feast. It’s the only film out of any of these categories that I’ve seen anyway.

Best Documentary Short: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. Because why not?

Best Live-Action Short: Aya? The Phone Call? Boogaloo and Graham? What kind of titles are these???

Screw it. Boogaloo and whats-it’s-face is going to get it, because reasons.

That’s all I have for now, folks. I’ll see you and Barney Stinson on Feb. 22.

– David Dunn

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The Unexpected Virtue of Being Nominated

I am never more conflicted with myself than when Oscar nominations are released. It’s the same time every single year, and every time I look at them I feel a strange combination of pride and disappointment. Of course many actors and filmmakers are nominated across the board, and most of them are well deserved. But then there are always a good amount of snubs that are equally undeserved. Example: Since when does The Fault In Our Stars, Interstellar and The Lego Movie deserve zero nominations in any of the major categories?

Snubs happen every year. I expect it at this point. But what I find particularly interesting is that this year’s ceremonies are more well-rounded in their nominations. The eight best picture nominees, for instance, are also the pictures with the most nominations in the show. I think that reflects well on the Academy, especially because the best picture award isn’t won by only being nominated for best original song.

Regardless, the nominees have been released and the Oscars race has officially begun. Here are all of the best picture nominees.

Birdman

Otherwise known as The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s black comedy epic stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a struggling stage actor who is desperately trying to escape his image as formerly portraying a superhero. Considering the irony that Keaton has been most known for playing Batman in Tim Burton’s movies, I can’t help but think he relates more to the film than he lets on. Birdman is nominated in nine categories, including best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best sound editing and mixing, and best acting awards for Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

A surprise standout out of the other nominees, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a comedic escapade about Concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), who is framed for the murder of one of his hotel guests and for stealing her most cherished painting. As he tries to outrun law enforcement and the family assassins that are after him, he teams up with his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) to set out and prove his innocence. Written and directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tennenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom), The Grand Budapest Hotel has already won best comedy at the Golden Globes, so it is off to a good start in the Oscars race. The film ties with Birdman with nine nominations, including best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best costume design, best editing, best makeup and hairstyling, best original score, and best production design.

The Imitation Game

This historical epic stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, a brilliant physicist during WWII who worked with a team to crack Enigma, a German processing machine which masks German messages through cryptographic messages. Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum and also starring Keira Knightly, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong, The Imitation Game is nominated for eight academy awards, including best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, best editing, best original score, best production, best actor for Benedict Cumberbatch and best supporting actress for Keira Knightly.

American Sniper

Based on the true story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), American Sniper tells his story working for the U.S. military, and the 120 kills he garnered throughout his military career. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Jason Hall, American Sniper is a late entry to the Oscars race, but it came out strong regardless. American Sniper is nominated for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best sound editing and mixing, and best actor for Bradley Cooper.

Boyhood

The 12 year epic that everyone is talking about, and the movie everyone is dying to see. Boyhood follows the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to adulthood, through puberty, love, heartache, loss, and life. Richard Linklater directs Coltrane among others through this masterfully crafted drama, filmed over the period of 12 years. Ambitious both in production and vision, Boyhood was nominated for best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best film editing, and best supporting actor and actress for Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.

The Theory of Everything

The fluffy, inspirational adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne as King and Felicity Jones as his wife Jane, and follows their relationship from college to their marriage, and covers the issues that they’ve had to face together. I personally didn’t find this film to be as imposing as the other nominees, but Redmayne’s performance and the film’s intentions are definitely something to be admired. The film is nominated for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best original score, and best actor and best actress for Redmayne and Jones.

Whiplash

One of the best under-the-radar films of the year. Whiplash follows Andrew (Miles Teller), a young college student who is enrolled in an orchestra and is working to be the best drummer there is. His teacher is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a narcissist conductor who treats his students like he is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. As their rivalrous relationship builds to a tense climax, both men learn more about themselves as artists and teachers to each other. Written and directed by independent filmmaker Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is one of the year’s most standout films. Featuring strong performances from its leads and masterful direction from Chazelle, Whiplash is nominated for best picture, best editing, best sound mixing, and best supporting actor for J.K. Simmons. The movie is also nominated for best adapted screenplay, even though it’s an original idea crafted by Chazelle.

Selma

Directed by Ava Duvernay and starring David Oyewolo as Martin Luther King Jr., Selma follows the civil rights movement as it builds to a climax in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The interesting thing about this film is that it only has two nominations for the evening: best picture and best original song for John Legend and Common’s “Glory.” If that is the logic behind the nominations, should Selma even be nominated for best picture? It’s more than deserving of the nomination, but it certainly isn’t great just because of the song that’s in it. Where’s the best director nomination? Best actor? Best screenplay? I feel like this movie had potential in many different categories at the Oscars, and it was snubbed for mostly all of them. It’s an utter shame to see so many great films get snubbed at the Academy Awards, and this film perhaps has been snubbed the most out of all of them.

Other films that were nominated in other categories include Foxcatcher, Interstellar, Mr. Turner, Into The Woods, Unbroken, The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy. We can gripe more about which films deserved which nominations later on, but for now, let’s be excited that Barney Stinson is hosting the awards.

– David Dunn

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Top Ten Films Of 2014

Has anyone ever stopped to wonder why all of the best of the year lists have to be in the top ten? Like, what sort of critic was working on his list and thought that ten would be the magic number? Why ten and not twelve? Or fifteen? Five? Twenty? Eight? Why was ten specifically chosen as the big number? Was it chosen at random, or was it actually chosen for some relevant, significant reason?

Regardless of whatever the case may be, I’m choosing to be a little rebellious this year. For the past few years, I’ve seen enough films to make a “Top 15″ list if I wanted to, but if I had done that, my site viewership would go down by about twenty views.

So this year, to battle the preconceived notion that “best of the year” lists have to have ten movies, I’m doing two different things. 1) I’m adding an “honorable mentions” selection that while those films aren’t necessarily in my top ten, they are still significant films that have contributed to the year’s industry regardless. 2) In honor of our first full year without the wise, sometime snarky, words of film critic Roger Ebert, I’m offering a special Grand Jury Prize, which honors a film from the year which has made a notable accomplishment that fits outside of my year’s top ten.

As always, there is a few things you need to know before I get into my year’s best. First of all, I haven’t seen all of the films the year has had to offer. I’ve heard from so many people how Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild was emotionally stirring, with Reese Witherspoon’s performance being the greatest highlight of the film. I’ve also read from critics that Selma, A Most Violent Year, and American Sniper were great movies as well, but guess what? None of those movies get a wide release until after Dec. 31, so I’m not able to even see those films until after the year anyway. So what am I going to do? Release a revision to my current list, or add those films to 2015 if they’re good enough? I’ll make a decision when it comes to that. It’s the studio’s faults for releasing those movies so late into the year anyway. Blasted film mongers.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this is my list for the best films of 2014. Not yours. There has been high praise from many notable films of the year, including Edge of Tomorrow, The Theory of Everything, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. None of those films will be on my top ten list because I didn’t deem them worthy enough to be on there. It’s nothing against the films or the filmmakers: I just didn’t think they were good enough.

If you’re not satisfied with that, then please, make your own top ten list. I’d love to read it, and if your reasonings are sound enough, I’d like to share it with others.

Now then, let’s hop to it, shall we? Here are my top ten films of 2014:

10. Interstellar 

A mesmerizing, breathtaking, and exhilarating journey that may have only slightly exceeded it’s grasp. Based on an idea by physicist Kip Thorne and directed by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar takes place in the future on a dying planet Earth, where the only source of sustainable food is by growing corn. When former aircraft pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles upon a secret station that has been hiding NASA for so many years, Cooper enlists in a daring space mission to find a new planet that will be able to sustain and save the human race. A testament to the quality of film that Nolan is consistent in making, Interstellar is a brilliantly woven, thought-provoking plot, invoking the same themes of humanity and identity that Nolan exercises in all of his films. McConaughey reaches an emotional depth much deeper than past “Nolan” actors, and succeeds in making his character more human than hero. This is Nolan’s most emotional movie yet, but it’s also his most complicated and convoluted. But if Nolan’s only real flaw with this film is being overly ambitious, I don’t consider that a flaw at all. Three and a half stars.

9. The Grand Budapest Hotel

A crafty and artsy film that acts as a homage to the early days of cinema. After being framed for a violent murder of one of his former hotel guests, Concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) teams up with his young apprentice Zero (Tony Revolori) to set out and prove his innocence through a series of weird, wacky, and crazy adventures. Written and directed by Wes Anderson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a peculiar, quirky film, a fun and enjoyable ride in it’s own singular way. Anderson is very specific with the direction of the film, using practical effects and set pieces that gives the film a very distinct visual style and aesthetic. The antics Gustave and Zero go through are the stuff of slapstick gold, with these guys doing silly stunts and chase sequences that reminds me of the silent film days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It’s definitely seasoned for the art house crowd, and it’s definitely more difficult to appeal to the masses. But if you allow yourself to be lost in it and have fun with it, you’ll find that it is easily the most unique film of the year. Three and a half stars.

8. How To Train Your Dragon 2

A wildly exciting and entertaining animated ride that appeals to both kids and adults. When a crusade of dragon-hunters reach the land of Berk and begin their hunt for the flying beasts, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) must team up once again with his dragon Toothless to stop the brigade and save Berk’s dragons and dragon riders. Written and directed by Dean DuBlois, who returned from directing the first film, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a near-perfect follow-up. It hits on every note it needs to, from the comedy, to the animation, to the action, to the emotion. Hiccup is a much stronger, yet more vulnerable, character now, and needs to face more mature situations now as a grown man rather than as he did when he was a boy. In many ways, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is to it’s first counterpart as Hiccup is to his younger self: they both grew. Three and a half stars.

7. Gone Girl

A brilliantly frustrating thriller that exercises themes of infidelity and media harassment. When Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, all eyes turn to Nick for what happened to his wife. When clues slowly surface and more details surrounding the disappearance reveal themselves, everyone is asking the same question: did Nick Dunne kill his wife? Directed by David Fincher and written by author Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl is a masterfully orchestrated thriller, equal parts daring, inventive, intelligent, and unpredictable. Fincher propels Flynn’s brilliant plot forward with expert direction, eye-striking camerawork, and a cast that Fincher pulls the best from. This movie is like a game of cat and mouse, except no one really knows who is the cat or mouse. There is not one note in the film that you can guess is coming. Three and a half stars.

6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

A compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human/primate condition as two sides to one coin. After the chemical attack on planet Earth that took place at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes follows the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the leaders of the apes and the humans, respectively. As the human-primate war rages on violently, Caesar and Malcolm begin to see that the apes and the humans aren’t so different from each other, and they begin to explore any possibilities of peace between two races. Matt Reeves builds an intelligent, in-depth story around Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and handles its premise with skill and precision.  It surprising that the basis of this film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. Serkis is a revelation in the movie, and deserves an Oscar nomination for both his physical and emotional performance. Four stars.

5. Birdman

One of the most mesmerizing, unique, disturbing, shocking, and darkly funny films I’ve ever seen. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu writes and directs this ingenious dramedy starring Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up movie actor trying to escape his image in a former superhero role by adapting his favorite broadway play to the stage. Keaton is a natural in the role, relating his own experience to portraying Batman in order to further authenticity for the character. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski contributes to the visual design of the film, shooting and editing it to look like one, continuous shot rather than multiple longer takes. But Inarritu is the most essential storyteller here, making a visual and emotional masterpiece that is so distinct in its own language that it is impossible to define it, let alone replace it. Four stars.

4. Whiplash

One of the most edgy, thrilling, and provocative films of the year. Miles Teller stars as Andrew, an upcoming college student who is majoring in music and dreams of becoming one of the best drummers in the country. A series of events lands him in the top jazz orchestra of Shaffer Conservatory and under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a brilliant but harsh and antagonistic instructor who is known to go very hard on his students. Andrew and Fletcher both develop an intense rivalry that both hurts Andrew, angers Fletcher, and yet equally compels them both to become the very best they can be. Writer/director Damien Chazelle conducts both actors through his sophomore effort, and does a great job in producing a tense, electric vibe consistently throughout the film. Teller and Simmons’ chemistry with each other is equally perfect, with the both of them bouncing off of each other’s words and emotions as perfectly as a drum beat. This film is about more than just music. It’s about the human desire to be great and what sacrifices we’d make to get there. Four stars.

3. Boyhood

The most revolutionary film of the year, ambitious in both production and vision. A twelve-year project pioneered by writer/director Richard Linklater, Boyhood tells the story of Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood, chronicling his entire life from when he was six years old, up until when he turns 18 and leaves for college. The movie isn’t so much a story as it is a scrapbook of memories, and Linklater is pulling each photograph out of it just to show it to us. When he is younger, Ellar isn’t acting but living, behaving like any other child would in the moment because he is in the moment. As he gets older, his performance gets more stagnant and Coltrane becomes more of a surrogate for us to express our emotions through, rather than experiencing his own. In this day and age, it’s rare to find a film as real and honest as Boyhood is. Four stars.

2. X-men: Days of Future Past

The best entry out of the X-men franchise, and the best superhero movie of the year. Serving as a sequel to both 2011’s X-men: First Class and 2006’s X-men: The Last Stand, X-men: Days of Future Past is set in the apocalyptic future where mutants are being exterminated by humanoid robots called “Sentinels”. Having only one chance to go back in time and stop this future from ever happening, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) through time to their younger selves (Portrayed by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) so they can stop the triggering event and save the future. Directed by Bryan Singer, who formerly helmed the first two entries in the franchise, X-men: Days of Future Past is a game changer. It is not only a visually-dazzling and highly climactic sci-fi blockbuster: it is a vastly intelligent and contemplative story that focuses on its recurring themes of racism and xenophobia, once again bringing the consequences of discrimination to the forefront. X-men: Days of Future Past is one of those movies that restores your faith in the superhero genre. Four stars.

And finally, my number one film of the year is —

1. The Fault In Our Stars

Surprised? I’m not. The Fault In Our Stars is one of the most magical, heartbreaking, and genuine films you will ever see, and is more than worthy of being called the most emotional film of the year. Based off of the novel by John Green, The Fault In Our Stars follows the love story of two Cancer-stricken teenagers: the shy and book-loving Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) and the optimistic amputee Gus (Ansel Elgort). Written and directed by independent filmmaker Josh Boone, The Fault In Our Stars is one of the best stories ever translated from book to film. I initially was skeptical on seeing this film, considering how much it seemed to have been doused in rom-com syndrome. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Boone adapts Green’s story perfectly to the big screen, retaining everything in the novel from the visual details to the words that were written. But its Woodley and Elgort that sells it so well, their chemistry that vibrates so wonderfully with each other and leaves such an impression on you. Trust me when I say this isn’t your typical rom-com: it’s a heartfelt drama disguised as a tween movie, and it is the best of it’s kind. Four stars.

And finally, this year’s first Grand Jury Prize appropriately goes to Steve James’ documented biography Life Itself. Following Roger Ebert’s life and career from him growing up in Chicago, to when he got his first reporting job, to when he won the Nobel Prize for film criticism, to when he lost his best friend, to when he got Thyroid cancer, this film is everything that Roger Ebert is: funny, honest, heartfelt, unabashed, unflinching, and real. It doesn’t give you a peppered-up look at his life: it’s whole and accurate, as genuine as any of the reviews he’s written. I’m probably biased towards this subject, but the subject doesn’t count as long as it is handled well. James’ handles this story with respect and humility, and ends up telling a story about life itself rather than just limiting it to Roger’s story. It’s my favorite documentary of the year, and it brings me great pleasure to award my first Grand Jury Prize to this wonderful film tribute.

Honorable mentions include the creepy and morally ambiguous Nightcrawler, the funny yet stylish Guardians of the Galaxy, the humorously innovative The Lego Movie, and the quietly thrilling The Imitation Game, featuring the year’s best performance from actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Not all films can be honored at the end of the year compilations, but this year I was glad to have seen so many films and give each of them a chance to shine in their own way.

All the same, if you feel differently about some of the films on my list, or you have seen another film that deserves to be recognized, please comment about it. Or make your own list. Movies are deemed as great films not from individuals, but from the masses, and the only way you can tell if a movie has truly accomplished something is if it has the same effect on all its viewers.

On that note, my fellow moviegoers, I end with a classic line from my favorite film critic: “I’ll see you at the movies.”

– David Dunn

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“BIRDMAN” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The artist’s struggle, all in one take. 

Birdman, or otherwise known as The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is one of the most mesmerizing films I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most unique, disturbing, shocking, and confusing films I’ve ever seen too. That’s okay. This film was reaching for a specific vision, and director Alejandro Inarritu has expanded beyond it. I admit I don’t know what to expect as far as the public reacting to this, and I also don’t know how accessible it is to non-film aficionados either. But I have seen the movie frame by frame, and I think it’s one of the best films of its kind. On the surface value, it’s about the struggles of Broadway theatre. In deeper insight, it’s about ego and the obsessive human condition.

The film stars Michael Keaton as washed-up actor Riggan Thompson, who has been forgotten by his adoring public after portraying the lead role in a series of superhero films titled Birdman. This is ironic, because in real life, Keaton portrayed a superhero in Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. Desperate for a comeback, Thompson sets out to write, direct and star in his favorite Broadway play: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver.

Things immediately hit the fan during the week of their first preview. One of Riggan’s actors gets a head injury from a loose light on the set. His replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is a talented but brash and arrogant actor who sees himself as Riggan’s superior. And, as he faces personal problems with his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan begins to feel the closing pressures of Broadway when a malicious theatre critic tells him she’s going to “kill his play.” Now Riggan is trying to keep the play and his sanity afloat, and he will make whatever sacrifices he needs to make sure both happens.

Written, directed and produced by Inarritu, Birdman is the first black comedy made by the filmmaker, his most successful films to date being Oscar nominees Babel and Biutiful. Now he has made Birdman, and I am tempted to say it’s the best film he’s made yet.

What worked so well with the film? The first thing is the editing and the cinematography, which was shot so wonderfully by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki that it places you in the moment, in the reality of the film, not making you watch it from a cushion seat on the eighth row of a dark movie theater. Lubezki, who worked with Inarritu on short films in the past, decided to shoot the film and edit it into a continuous fashion, giving off the illusion that the entire film was filmed in one take. Even though the movie wasn’t filmed in one shot, the feeling it gives off makes it feel alive and moving, not unlike the world of theatre that Riggan is trying to prove himself in.

I wonder how much effort this takes, not just from the cinematographer and director’s point of view, but from everyone else involved in the film as well. How many hours did the actors need to rehearse their lines in order to get their roles right? How much pressure was the tech and lighting crew under while they were filming, knowing that if they screwed up, everyone would have to start back to square one? How many hours did film editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione have to sit in front of a computer, making sure the shots transitioned so well that you couldn’t even see the transitions? The illusion not only worked because of the idea that Lubezki and Inarritu offered, but because of the commitment it received from everyone involved with the film. In many ways, their efforts were all worth it: the camerawork here expresses more of the story than the character’s dialogue does.

The parallels in this movie are also ingenious. How does Keaton feel playing as Riggan Thompson in the movie, knowing that he reached international fame as Batman earlier in his career and having since then never been able to match a more recognized role? How does Inarritu feel, going through all of the production pressures Riggan did in making the play as he himself did in making the movie? Did he intend this movie as self-reflection? Is he telling the audience what he goes through daily as a filmmaker? Or is he using his struggles as a platform to tell a much deeper, more important story to the audience?

For me, I don’t get as much joy out of interpreting as much as I do out of experiencing. And make no mistake: Birdman is an experience, surreal, tantalizing, and thought-provoking all at once. I’m still sitting here, hours later, not quite fully realizing what exactly Inarritu was trying to portray in this film. Is he commenting on the artist’s struggle? Commercial vs. independent film? Fatherhood? Friendship? Family? Lost love?

I think it’s all of the above. Or maybe none of the above. I honestly don’t know. In the movie, Inarritu battles labels that are placed on artists and on the art that they produce. Is Riggan Thompson a superhero, or an actor portraying a superhero? Is he a former shell of who he is, or a flower that has yet to bloom? We see in this film how these labels influence his life and how much stress and anxiety it presses upon him. To put labels on the movie would contradict Inarritu’s intentions. It would be offensive to the film.

My bottom line: Birdman is a masterpiece. It is so distinct in its own language and style that I think it is impossible to define it, let alone replace it. Critics will applaud it for it’s technical and emotional achievements. It will definitely garner some Oscar nominations. It’s a sure contender for visual effects, cinematography and editing. It is also sure to confuse certain people, to which I would recommend stop trying to understand it. Birdman is not meant to be understood. It is meant to be experienced, and if you can help it, interpreted.

Post-script: A thought I had after seeing the movie that I think viewers will also have. Because of how profoundly his role as Birdman affected Riggan, is Inarritu attacking the superhero genre of film? I believe he is, but I choose not to acknowledge that. After all, for every time a superhero film was called too simple, couldn’t you call any art film too complicated? I quote Mark Twain: “Too much of anything is bad.” 

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