Tag Archives: Alfonso Cuaron

“GRAVITY” Review (✫✫✫✫)

“In space, no one can hear you scream”

We fade in on a list of statistics about space as the edgy synthesizer music builds in the background.  The earth rotates at a speed of about 1000 miles per hour.  The temperature is about -273 degrees celsius.  There’s no gravity.  No oxygen.  No air pressure to carry sound. No one to hear you scream or cry for help. Nothing to save you if your suit fails to sustain you. Nothing to stop your momentum if you’re flying in the wrong direction. If you get into trouble out in space, you are all alone. Life in space is impossible.

This sort of tension and desperation is felt on an emotional level so intense in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity that I feel like I’m in space experiencing the same things that these characters are experiencing, not watching the chaos unfold from mission control.  The plot follows three astronauts who are working on repairing a satellite in orbit. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist who is working hard at repairing the satellite on her very first space mission. Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is an experienced space veteran who is retiring after this final expedition.  Shariff Dasari (Paul Sharma) is a flight engineer who carries a photo of him, his wife, and child inside his suit.  Early into their mission, the team gets a warning from mission control, saying that there is debris from a missile strike on a Russian satellite orbiting the earth, but that it shouldn’t collide with their trajectory.

Now if that isn’t a case of foreshadowing, I don’t know what is.  Eventually, the debris sets off a chain reaction of destruction, and it eradicates the shuttle that they came on.  Shariff is killed, Kowalski loses communication with mission control, and Stone is left desperately hanging on to her life as she floats aimlessly away from their space module. When Stone and Kowalski eventually meet up again, they have to race against time and fate as their oxygen levels continue to deplete, and need to find a way home before they are truly lost in space forever.

Man oh man, where to start.  Gravity is a film for a generation, a picture that is so convincing and so believable in its approach that its nearly impossible to think that it wasn’t even filmed in space.  It is visually stunning, emotionally gratifying, immensely captivating, and surprisingly involving, a picture that latches you on in its first shot and doesn’t let you go until hours after you’ve left the theater.

Who is responsible for this feeling of attachment and interest?  Why that is director Alfonso Cuaron, of course, who co-wrote the script with his son Jonas. Cuaron, who is most known for his mainstream films including Children Of Men and the third Harry Potter movie outdoes himself here. Not only has he made a compelling and visually breathtaking science-fiction film that visually challenges that of Avatar and Inception: he’s also made a emotionally captivating story with the human interest equivalent of Argo or Captain Phillips.

Oh, I’m not saying he isn’t already a great director: lord knows he’s delivered as much visual and emotional appeal as he did with Children Of Men and Prisoner of Azkaban.  But Gravity is head and shoulders above anything else he’s done in his entire career. Why? Everything in the movie is immaculate and intentional, from the physics and dangers of space to characters emotions and complexions. Look at the delicacy and the concentration on Cuaron’s shots. Look at how well he orchestrates a scene, whether a large, imposing space station is crumbling all around Earth’s orbit, or a astronaut is just awkwardly fitting herself in tight corridors around a space station. In each shot, there is interest, there is intricacy, and there is involvement. Whether its a big, intimidating destruction scene or a small conversation between characters doesn’t matter. The interest remains, and its boy does it keep your attention.

Visually, the film is unparalleled, hooking you on with all of its space-station grandeur and elegant scenery of earth from outer space. Part of this no doubt goes to the visual effects team led by supervisor Tim Webber, but a large accreditation needs to be made to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski, who collaborated on Cuaron’s other films including Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien. Lubeski, who was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago for Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life returns with the same artistry and craftsmanship that made him an artist in his own right. The camerawork in the film evokes a feeling of both reprehension and serenity, the same eerie feeling you get when you watch the slow, steady moments building up in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It works in conjunction with the film’s plot and with Cuaron’s handling of it, a marriage of collaboration so essential that its doubtful anyone could be as fluid or as controlling as Lubeski is, not even Wally Phister’s steady, reliable camerawork from Christopher Nolan’s Inception or Dark Knight trilogy.

High praise, I know, but it’s well deserved. The visual effects alone have not made this movie. It’s Lubeski’s intricate framing and filming that not only captured these great shots, but intensified them, evoking the anxiety and unease of space just as much as the visual effects and sequencing does.

Bullock and Clooney are affectionate and grounded in their performances, pun intended.  Going in to the movie, I was really worried that the both of them were going to phone in their roles and just let the visuals take over, much like the Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich action movies you see nowadays. Boy, was I wrong. Their characters are real, charismatic and likable people in their own right, people who you’d probably like to sit with and share a conversation with over at Starbucks. Their chemistry is infectious with each other, as memorable and dynamic as the relationship Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon shared with their crew mates during Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. You don’t only care for these characters because of their situation: you care for them because they are human beings, because they have hopes, dreams, and letdowns of their own and you want to see them make it through all of it.

This is what I love most about the movie: not just that it handles itself well as a science-fiction movie, but it handles itself well as human drama, period.

This is seriously one of the best films of the year. I’m not saying that because it is science-fiction. I’m saying that because it is seriously one of the best films of the year.  Under a different director, a different writer, cinematographer, composer, or even under a different cast, this film could have failed.  It’s hard to take a movie that takes place in an enclosed, blocked off environment separated from society with only one or two characters and make it interesting, and the filmmakers here have accomplished that in spades.

But Gravity is much more than a survival film.  It’s more than a science-fiction film.  It’s an epic and emotional story about an astronaut trying to survive, a woman trying to cope with living, reality, and tragedy, and the unhindered spirit that pushes her to keep living, even when all of the forces of nature tells her that she can’t. It blurs the line between science fiction and science reality and is quite possibly the best space movie I’ve ever seen.

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OSCAR REACTIONS 2013

Well, that was anti-climactic.

For those of you who live under a rock and don’t know who I’m talking about when I mention the word “oscar”, the 86th Academy Awards took place yesterday on ABC, hosted by comedian Ellen Degeneres. Needless to say, Degeneres was brilliant, taking selfies, buying pizza, crashing twitter, bringing the stage down for Jennifer Lawrence, and calling Liza Minelli a man all in one night. And yet, despite all of her efforts, the oscars seemed so… boring.

How did this happen? The nominees, dear reader. Out of the 24 categories in the ceremony I got twenty right, beating most of my Shorthorn peers and family members for the potluck we held that night. The most I’ve gotten previously was sixteen. I’m inclined to believe that the academy made the winners of these awards too obvious by building up too much hype of them during the buzz of the past few months.  Case in point: was there any argument that Frozen was going to take home best animated feature?

It doesn’t matter now, anyway. It happened, and I got 20 right out of 24 categories. Yes!!! Just because I predicted them correctly, however, doesn’t mean I need to be happy for their win. Let’s go through each of the categories and see whether or not they really deserved it or not…

BEST PICTURE (CORRECT!) The best picture of the year rightfully won best picture at the Academy Awards: Steve McQueen’s phenomenal, gripping, heart-wrenching, spellbinding and immensely powerful 12 Years A Slave won best picture. While I’m ecstatic for its win and could not agree more with the Academy’s consensus, I find it very strange that it won the Academy’s highest honor despite it only winning two other awards. But we’ll talk more about that later.

BEST DIRECTOR (CORRECT!) Also correctly predicted is Alfonso Cuaron for his nerve-wracking and tensely-directed sci-fi thriller Gravity. I already mentioned this in my predictions, but the best director award needs to be reserved for the best picture of the year. I loved Gravity with every fiber of my being, but it simply does not match the cinematic caliber to that of McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. It would be like comparing The Dark Knight to that of Slumdog MillionaireThe Fugitive to that of Schindler’s List, or Jaws to that of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. They are all ingenious, brilliant and incredibly memorable pictures, but the best picture of the year is awarded that because of the direction and treatment that it was given.

That’s not intended as an insult towards Cuaron, and I definitely believe he deserves it based on the physics and tension of the movie alone. If I’m thinking about which movie had the bigger impact, however, it’s no contest on which one it deserves to go to: McQueen for 12 Years A Slave. Nevertheless, I congratulate Cuaron on his many accomplishments regarding Gravity. Lord knows my heart stopped at least a few times while watching that picture.

BEST ACTOR (CORRECT!) Matthew McConaughey took home the award for best actor as a rowdy texas cowboy dying of AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club. While the award could have gone to either him or Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years A Slave, there’s no denying the power, the energy, and the raw gravitas that he brought to a man’s desperate journey to survive. Plus, I love his acceptance speech and how he dedicated the award to God and to “himself in ten years”. That’s a wise goal that any man should strive for.

BEST ACTRESS (CORRECT!) Cate Blanchett won best actress for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. While I have regretfully not seen the movie yet, I will say that the few scenes I have seen her in impressed me very much, and that she did a solid job portraying a deeply bothered woman who is in deep depression and alcohol addiction. Congratulations to her. I look forward to watching the film, as well as Blanchett’s performance in it.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR (CORRECT!) Did Michael Fassbender win best supporting actor like I wanted him to? No, he did not. Instead, Jared Leto took home the award portraying the transgender AIDS victim Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

The more I think about it, the more ridiculous I think it is that the best picture winner of the year did not get recognized in so many categories. Why the snubbing from Fassbender? Half of the movie’s turmoil and conflict came from this despicable character, a man so inhumane and abominable that Calvin Candy from Django Unchained would have broke down in tears after seeing what this man forced people through. Fassbender was pivotal, aggressive, violent, and hateful as Edwin Epps, and incurred more emotions from audiences than that of a transgender AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club. I know 30 Seconds To Mars fans will hate me for saying this, but the more vital role needs to go to the more vital performance. I said it once, I’ll say it again: Leto is not as deserving in the award as Fassbender is.

Again, no disrespect, and I acknowledge that Leto gave a great performance in the picture. But like Cuaron with best direction, the more compelling presence needs to go to the more compelling artist. Sorry, Rayon.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS (CORRECT!) Lupita Nyongo won (and deserved) the academy award for best supporting actress for her heartbreaking role as a desperate and depraved cotton picking slave in 12 Years A Slave. No qualms here.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY (CORRECT!) I also correctly predicted that Spike Jonze would win the best original screenplay award for his sci-fi romance story Her. Comparing Her to the genius of David O’Russell’s American Hustle, I mentioned in my original predictions list that “just because its a smarter story doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a better one.” I do not retract my statement.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY (CORRECT!) John Ridley won best adapted screenplay for his incredibly well-documented 12 Years A Slave. He equally deserved it, as Solomon Northrup’s story, or legacy, could not have translated any better to the screen if the filmmakers tried. Great job, Ridley. You gave us an unforgettable and incredible story, the likes of which no one has seen since Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. 

And this is the only other award 12 Years won for the night. No cinematography. No editing. No costume or production design. No supporting actor. No other award that would further substantiate and support its win for best picture.

Am I the only one that finds this completely ludicrous? To date, there are only three best picture winners to win only three academy awards. Those movies are The Godfather, Crash and Argo, and two of them didn’t even win in major categories. Seriously, what is going on? Why are we being so insubstantial towards movies that have been deemed the best of the year? Do academy voters not realize that by naming this the BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR that they’re saying that its better than everything else? And according to this ceremony, not only are they saying that it is the equivalent of Dallas Buyers Club (they both won three academy awards), but that Gravity is superior to it with seven wins and no awarding of best picture.

Seriously. Make up your mind. I’m fine with you saying one picture is better than another, but substantiate that by what awards you give it. I seriously doubt that 12 Years is best picture because of its screenplay and its supporting actress alone. Likewise, I doubt that Gravity isn’t the best picture of the year because it has the best direction, camerawork, editing, sound mixing, and visual effects out of any other picture.

That’s all I ask, folks. Not preference. Fairness.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM (CORRECT!) The Great Beauty won for best foreign-language film. That’s the one that everyone saw, right? It obviously deserved to win.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM (INCORRECT!) I incorrectly predicted that Act Of Killing would win the award, but no, 20 Feet From Stardom took the award home, with featured artists on the film including music legends Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder. I haven’t seen the film, so I have no place on commenting on it, but it seems odd that the Academy would reward a movie about background singers over that of a tragic confrontation of death and social issues. I’ve yet to see either of them though, so like I said, my opinion is invalid in this category.

BEST ANIMATED FILM (CORRECT!) Disney won best animated feature for Frozen. While I didn’t care much for it, I know it made a wide impact on its audience and that it will go on to be fondly remembered by many animated movie lovers for years to come. So congratulations for its win, even though I’m no fan of the cold weather this time around.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG (CORRECT!) Frozen won best original song for its memorable song “Let It Go”. It certainly didn’t win for Idina Menzel’s performance, that’s for sure. What the heck happened with her? Her pitch was all over the place, her control was wonky, and her whiny voice was the contrast of the powerful, beautifully controlled voice she exhibited in the movie itself. Seriously. What happened?

One song I’ve really been getting into recently (and I think you’ll agree with me) is Pharell Williams’ “Happy”. The performance proved why. Not only was it energetic, upbeat, and undeniably catchy, but Williams gave a great performance, he exhibited great control and showed very few differences from the studio version of his song. Menzel’s performance, in comparison, was completely and utterly horrendous.

But hey, I guess that’s why the award is called “best original song” and not “best performance”. Otherwise, I think we both what the turnout would be.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE (CORRECT!) Steve Price took home the award for best original score with Gravity. He completely deserved it. Not only did it match the tension, edginess and unease of the movie, but it also gave a dignified sense of hope and accomplishment after a long journey of heart-pounding danger and peril. Listening to the soundtrack alone gave you the feeling of identity and survival, and Price was definitely the most deserving out of any nominee. Congrats to him for his win.

In the meantime, I’m still wondering where is Hans Zimmer’s nomination for Rush. Remind me again why this movie wasn’t nominated for anything?

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY (CORRECT!) In 2011, Emanuel Lubewski was mercilessly snubbed for his masterful, Stanley Kubrick-esque camerawork in The Tree Of Life. If he didn’t win it this year, I was literally planning on flipping out.

Luckily, he did.

BEST FILM EDITING (CORRECT!) Another category that I felt 12 Years was superior to Gravity, yet it still lost to it. Must I keep beating a dead horse? Gravity was a more visually stellar and energetic picture. 12 Years was the more engaging and involved one. Part of that was because of how the film was put together in a traditionalist style that was reminiscent of Dylan Tichenor’s work from movies including There Will Be Blood and Brokeback Mountain, where he focused most of the runtime on the film’s subjects rather than worrying about flashy cuts or transitions. Film editing is one of the most important part of storytelling, and what have I been saying is the best story of the year? 12 Years A Slave.

I’m not going to drag this out though. Gravity was a great picture, and editors Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger definitely reached outside the box to accomplish things visually no other film did this year. It did a good job. Moving on.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN (CORRECT!) The Great Gatsby won for best production design. Considering the sets were the most colorful and visually appealing out of the year, that isn’t very surprising.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN (INCORRECT!) Unfortunately, I predicted this category wrong, thinking that 12 Years was going to get this one. The only reason I went with that instead of winner The Great Gatsby was because I knew Catherine Martin was already going to win for best production design, and any more than that would have been greedy. I forgot that “spreading the wealth” isn’t a phrase the academy is most well known for.

BEST MAKEUP (CORRECT!) Thankfully, Dallas Buyers Club won for best makeup and hairstyling. As long as Jackass: Bad Grandpa didn’t walk home with the award, I’m satisfied.

BEST SOUND EDITING (CORRECT!) Gravity won.

BEST SOUND MIXING (CORRECT!) Gravity won. Again.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS (CORRECT!) If you even thought this award was going to anything other than Gravity, you’re either insane, or blind.

And at last, the long-dreaded short film categories.

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM (CORRECT!) Surprisingly, I got this category correct with predicting Helium. I haven’t seen the film though, so it was only by sheer luck that I got this right.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM (INCORRECT!) Mr. Hublot took home this award. That’s surprising, considering how clever and fun Get A Horse! was, but nevermind. I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t comment on it.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT (INCORRECT!) The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life. Again, just like any other films in these categories, I haven’t seen it, so how would you expect me to get it right? You might as well blindfold me and ask me to just write on the flipping ballot.

Overall, this has been a fun ceremony, and I’m grateful to Ellen Degeneres for making it a happy-go-lucky and loveably quirky time. Just please, make the ceremony less predictable next time, okay? I’d rather not have a film come in and just know that its going to dominate in all of the categories. You would have been better calling it “The First Annual Gravity Awards”.

-David Dunn

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OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2013

Ah yes, its that time of the year again, ladies and gentlemen. It’s Oscar time, where forgettable movies to get gold statues, while great movies get ignored.

Calm down, calm down, I’m just kidding. Except not really. People know that I’m openly critical about the Oscars for a number of reasons, mostly because the movies that were nominated were given those nominations by bloviating pundits and not genuine movie lovers. Don’t agree with me? Look at the following movies that weren’t even nominated for best picture: Rush. Harry Potter. The Dark Knight. Pan’s Labyrinth. Black Hawk Down. Fight Club. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rear Window. Psycho. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. 

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the majority of the motion pictures that are nominated at the Oscars, and I usually agree with their picks of who wins best picture. I absolutely love The Lord of The Rings trilogy, I love Rocky, The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire, Titanic, and I uphold that Schindler’s List is the best academy-award winner for best picture of all time. Just because those movies deserved it, however, doesn’t mean those other movies don’t deserve mention, and I find it absolutely despicable that the academy snubs pictures that have made a large impact on society. I mean, everyone’s heard of Oliver! before, right? RIGHT?!

Okay, rant over.  This year is a very interesting awards race, with Gravity, American Hustle, and 12 Years A Slave the frontrunners for the best picture race, not to mention all of the other awards in the ceremony. I’ve already written my top ten list of the year, so I won’t bother you with the details of which I think is better. Let’s begin the predictions.

BEST PICTURE: Since Sundance of last year, 12 Years A Slave has been recieving the most steadfast buzz that lasted all throughout the year into this ceremony. While I agree that Gravity is a great frontrunner, I don’t think that consensus is going to change. Plus, look at the academy’s track record. Based off of previous data, the academy loves to give the best picture Oscar to movies based on real events and that statistically grossed less than 100 million. Not only is 12 Years based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, but it also grossed 96 million dollars. I’m sticking to my gut here. 12 Years A Slave is winning best picture. 

BEST DIRECTOR: Everyone seems convinced that Alfonso Cuaron will win the academy award for best direction with Gravity, and that especially seems the case since he won the DGA award as well. I’m not convinced, however, that he’s the most fit for this award. Gravity, of course, was science-fiction perfection, accurately capturing the physics and dangers of space so perfectly that it could have been filmed in space for all we know. Equally as difficult, however, is capturing the cruelty of the slave era in a relentless, gritty, unhinging fashion, and director Steve McQueen did that masterfully all while maintaing his decorum. I won’t be mad if Cuaron wins and McQueen loses, and to be honest, both are very deserving in this award. All I’m saying is that if Cuaron wins, it will be the equivalent of Steven Spielberg losing for Schindler’s List to Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive.

BEST ACTOR: The battle has been in between actors Matthew McConaughey and Chiwetel Ejiofor, both nominated for their roles in Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years A Slave.I’m going with McConaughey for three reasons. 1) Since his win at the Golden Globes, he’s had a steady winning streak in many award ceremonies, including the SAG Awards. 2) His performance was stunning, sinking into this role of an aggressive party-hard cowboy turned health advocate, and 3) He’s Matthew freakin’ McConaughey. Do I really need to give a further argument?

BEST ACTRESS: Again, this battle is between Sandra Bullock for Gravity and Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine. There are two reasons why Bullock won’t win this year: 1) She won the academy award for best actress a few years ago for her performance in The Blind Side, and 2) I’ve never seen a best actress win for a science-fiction film in any year. So Cate Blanchett is the assumed winner. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: I want every single molecule and fiber of my being to give the award to Michael Fassbender as a hateful slave driver in 12 Years A Slave. His performance was cruel, relentless and teeth-grinding all at once, and was so despicable as a villain that he surpassed Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Django Unchained. He won’t win it. The dominant opinion has been swayed towards Jared Leto in his transformative performance as a transgender AIDS victim in Dallas Buyers Club. While I commend his bravery and his ability to slip so effectively into this role, it doesn’t change the fact that his performance didn’t shake me as much as Fassbender’s did. Fassbender played the more striking character: he’s the one that’s more deserving in the award.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: This is the only acting category where a consensus is generally already made. Besides Ejiofor, Lupita Nyongo stood out both as a character, as an actress, and as a spiritually broken slave who lost all hope at life and at happiness in 12 Years A Slave. Her performance truly broke my heart, and she deserves no less than the academy award for best supporting actress. 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: This battle is between writer-director David O’Russell and Spike Jonze, both responsible for their respective films American Hustle and HerBecause it takes a lot more ambition to write about a middle-aged man falling in love with a computer than it does to write a historically based crime-comedy-drama, my best is on Spike Jonze’s Her. Just because its a smarter story, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a better one.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: If 12 Years A Slave is going to have any chance in the best picture race, it needs more of a push than best supporting actress. It’s going to get that extra push in this category. Not only is it among the year’s best, but it is one of the most spellbinding stories of the year, only barely straying from the original text that Solomon Northup wrote all those years ago. Not only will John Ridley win for 12 Years A Slave: he deserves it. 

BEST ANIMATED FILM: I’m one of the relative few that did not enjoy Disney’s newest feature Frozen, a story based on the “Snow Queen” fairy tale about two sisters trying to save each other in a crumbling kingdom. While the characters were fun and energetic, they were equally annoying and ditzy, especially whenever the stupid trolls were on the screen. While I’m less enthusiastic about it, however, it obviously hasn’t disappointed its mainstream audience, garnering a 90% on rotten tomatoes and a rare A+ on cinema score. There’s no question on who’s winning this: Frozen will win the best animated feature award.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: I’ll give Frozen this: it had wonderful music. It deserves no less, then, to win the academy award for best song for their brilliant track titled “Let it go.”

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: A few years ago, The Social Network won best original score for its energetic beats and its fluid synthesized sounds. For these reasons will Steven Price not only win the Oscar for Gravity, but deserve it because his music added tension, edginess and paranoia to Gravity’s already heart-pounding premise. 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Emmanuel Lubewski lost years ago with The Tree Of Life against Robert Richardson for Hugo. The Academy will make that up to him this year for giving him the academy award for best cinematography for Gravity, although I’m still sad that Roger Deakins is getting left behind for Prisoners. 

BEST FILM EDITING: Let me say something here: great visual effects doesn’t make for great editing. Likewise, a masterful editor knows not only when to cut away from a shot, but also on how long to stay on one as well. Although Joe Walker is more that deserving to win for capturing the tragic essence of 12 Years A Slave, I believe it will go to Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger for Gravity due to its technical achievements. 

BEST SOUND EDITING: “In space, no one can hear you scream?” Yeah right. I heard a mother in mourning screaming in space for 120 minutes and I was absolutely petrified.There’s no question on which movie this award deserves to go to: Gravity. 

BEST SOUND MIXING: Gravity for the same reasons as above. 

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Gravity. End of discussion.

BEST MAKEUP: Dallas Buyers Club is going to win. If the academy dares to give the award to either Jackass: Bad Grandpa or The Lone Ranger, I’m going to invite them inside my personal port-a-potty and wait for them to realize that its the poo cocktail from Jackass 3.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN: I’ve flipped sides on this one a few times now. First I thought The Great Gatsby’s flashy and colorful costumes were going to take home the award. Then I considered American Hustle for its stylish, contemporary costumes. Now, after giving it a second look, my mind is made up: 12 Years A Slave is going to win for best costume design.
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: I was hesitant to name this at first, because honestly anyone can take this one home. The set pieces and designs for all of the film were spectacular in the least, ranging from the financially corrupt society that American Hustle portrayed, to the bleak, barren landscapes of 12 Years A Slave, all the way to the surreal, futuristic Stanley Kubrick-style buildings in Her. I’m ultimately going to guess that The Great Gatsby wins best production design only because it is excellent at displaying the roaring twenties as well as being the most diverse out of any other nominee. 

BEST DOCUMENTARY: This category started off controversial, leaving off one of the most critically-acclaimed documentaries Blackfish off of its list of nominees. Disregarding that, however, look at the other nominees. Out of any of the other selections, which one was talked about the most? Which one is the most controversial? Which one gave a clear, unbiased perspective of a serious issue and let the film show reality as it is?

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer was praised all around for his film The Act Of Killing, a story about a former soldier revisiting his dark past and facing the truth about the lives he took long ago. It ended up taking many number one spots on many top ten lists, including Sight and Sound’s poll for best of the year. It’s no contest for me. The Act Of Killing is taking this Oscar home. 

BEST FOREIGN LANGAUGE FILM: The more I look into this category, the more I notice that The Hunt has been getting more and more buzz with moviegoers about the Oscars, and is the only nominee to be on IMDB’s top 250 films of all time (although, oddly enough, its listed for 2012 instead of 2013). Despite how praising the word of mouth has is, however, I’m convinced that it won’t win. The Great Beauty has been getting the most buzz out of any other nominee, and that buzz usually isn’t wrong. Plus, my ex-film professor loves it. That’s when you know two things: that it’s a bad movie, and that it’s going to be an Oscar-winner.

And here it is, at last, my three (least) favorite awards categories: the short films. Why do I say that? With the exception of one, I haven’t seen any of them. Nobody has seen them. Point me to one normal moviegoer who has seen any of these shorts, and I will pay him $100 to smuggle in DVD-ripped copies of them to my home theater.

Blehhhhhhh. Let’s finish this.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM: The only one I’ve seen out of any of the films in any of these categories is Disney’s Get A Horse, a buoyant and clever combination of classic 1930’s Disney animation with that of today’s three-dimensional standard. I got this category right last year, but that doesn’t mean I will do it again this year.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT FILM: Cavedigger, because it has the coolest title. 

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM: Helium, because I can’t breathe. 

What are your predictions? Do you think Gravity is going to take the big picture home, or am I shortchanging 12 Years too much? Comment below, let me know.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go write the president of AMPAS an angry letter about why Rush wasn’t nominated for anything.

-David Dunn

Correction 2/25: On the “best production design” category, ‘American Hustle’ was inaccurately identified as being “the roaring twenties that American Hustle portrayed”. The description was intended to go towards ‘The Great Gatsby’ and has since been corrected. 

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Where Did These Nominations Come From, Kemosabe?

Today is the day. I was looking forward to this all of yesterday, and its finally here. I can hardly contain my excitement: the nominations for the 86th Academy Awards have been announced.

What, you didn’t think I was talking about Librean President Ellen Sirleaf’s anniversary, did you? Of course not, I only focus on things that are important. And what could be more vital, necessary, and inaccessive than handing out a slew of golden statues to over 24 nominees?

All sardonicism aside, I am excited about the nominations this year. I always am. While I am constantly critical about the Academy Awards and the films they snub and spoil consistently, I always look forward to predicting the winners with my family and always beating them out 18 to one. I get even more excited when a movie that wins best picture actually deserves the win. For example: Schindler’s List or Argo.

The nominees are in, and just like last year, there are nine films up for the award for best motion picture, among other awards. The first film that’s up for grabs is David O’Russell’s comedy-crime-drama American Hustle, a smart, surprisingly witty exercise that looks at the financial situations of characters and how it affects their morality. Besides best picture, American Hustle has also been nominated for awards including best film editing, best costume design, best production design, best original screenplay and direction for David O’Russell and all of the nominations for his cast. Seriously, check the list. Just like last year, all of his leads got nominations in every single acting category, with Christian Bale for best actor, Amy Adams for actress, Bradley Cooper for supporting actor, and Jennifer Lawrence for supporting actress. Geesh. Conceited much, O’Russell?

Just kidding. The film is good, and O’Russell is deserving in most of the nominations, although I think ten in total is a bit of a stretch. Tied with Hustle’s nominations is a film that deserves every single one of them is Gravity, a moving, enthralling picture that plays out as a heart-pounding race of survival in outer space. Gravity’s total nominations besides best picture includes best direction for Alfonso Cuaron, best sound editing and mixing, best production design, best cinematography, best film editing, best visual effects, and best actress for Sandra Bullock. Gravity and American Hustle have ten nominations each, making them the films with the most nominations out of any other picture.

Coming up with nine nominations is my favorite picture of the year, 12 Years A Slave, a motion picture that is devastating, cruel, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking all at once. This drama-driven biopic is directed by filmmaker Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), and its easily his best one yet. 12 Years is nominated for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, best production design, best costume design, best film editing, and best acting nominations for Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbenber, and newcomer Lupita Nyongo, who is the most deserving out of any other nominee in the supporting actress category. Out of any of the other best picture nominees, 12 Years has been getting the most buzz and talk about the Oscars the entire year. I would pay attention to this one if I were you.

Tied with six nominations each is Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a story about a dismal father who wants to go to Nebraska to collect a sweepstakes prize that he supposedly won. Nebraska was also nominated for best cinematography, best acting nominations for Bruce Dern and Kate Grant, and best directing and writing nominations for Alexander Payne. He won his second academy award a few years ago for The Descendants with his first being Sideways, so for his sake I hope he doesn’t win again so his head doesn’t get too big.

Dallas Buyers Club is also nominated for best makeup and hairstyling, best film editing, best original screenplay, and best acting awards for Matthew Mconaughey and Jared Leto, who are currently the frontrunners in both categories. Captain Phillips is nominated for best picture, best film editing, best sound editing and mixing, best adapted screenplay, and best supporting actor for newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Surprisingly, Tom Hanks wasn’t nominated for a best actor nomination, and I can’t help but feel really frustrated by this. If you saw the film, you would understand why.

Her and Wolf Of Wall Street both have five nominations, including best picture. For those of you who haven’t heard about it, Her is a light science-fiction romantic dramedy about a lonely older man who falls in love with a computer program. Yes, I know it sounds weird. I still encourage you to seek it out. While it isn’t as straightforward as other movies, Her is an experimental film in every right trying to say something about love and the reliance on technology. Her is nominated for best original score, best original song, best production design, and best writing and picture awards for director Spike Jonze. Even though it has lesser nominations, I’m definitely going to pay close attention to this film.

Wolf Of Wall Street is easily the most controversial out of any other best picture nominee. The opening shot is Jordan Belfort snorting cocaine out of a hooker’s arse, for crying out loud. Regardless, that obviously didn’t slow the picture down. Wolf is nominated for best adapted screenplay, best acting awards for Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, and best picture and direction for filmmaking legend Martin Scorcese.

And lastly, the final best picture nominee is a humble little picture called Philomena, a true story about a struggling writer chronicling the story of an older mother trying to reconnect with her long-lost son. Out of all of the best picture nominees for the Oscars, this one was the least expected and one of the few that I have not seen. Besides best picture, Philomena is nominated for best original score by Alejandre Desplat, best actress for Judi Dench, and best adapted screenplay by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, who also starred in the movie.

Also nominated for the evening is films including Blue Jasmine, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, Frozen, Inside Llelyn Davis, The Great Gatsby, and… The Lone Ranger? 

Yes, dear reader, Lone Ranger is nominated for not one, but two academy awards, although I have no idea why. I haven’t seen the film, but reception has been polarizing from both critics and moviegoers, so I can’t imagine anyone being happy about this. It’s nominated for best makeup and hairstyling and best visual effects, which the second one irreverently ticks me off because neither Pacific Rim or Man Of Steel is nominated. Did I also mention that The Lone Ranger was also nominated for five raspberry awards, including Worst Picture?

Other surprises includes Blackfish and… Bad Grandpa? Yes, Jackass: Bad Grandpa is nominated for best makeup, but why the heck is it nominated for an academy award? That makeup looks about as realistic as a halloween mask. I certainly didn’t expect it, and I don’t think many others did either. The seaworld documentary Blackfish, which has been talked about all year, also did not get nominated for best documentary, even though it grossed more than any of the other nominees, save for 20 Feet From Stardom. Why the snub? I have no idea, but it certainly deserves a nomination over Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger.

Overall, I’m satisfied with the nominees. There’s a few weird inserts here and there, but generally, most of the nominees are very deserving. My only complaint is that the Ron Howard-directed Rush, a true story about two racers and the rivalries that they shared with each other, was nominated for nothing, not even best makeup, which certainly deserved it more than Bad Grandpa did. The heck man?

On the bright side though, Ellen Degeneres is hosting. Tune in on March 2nd, and you might see Dory make a cameo appearance.

-David Dunn

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Top Films of 2013

“Storytelling has gone through a great evolution in today’s culture,” said my pastor on Christmas day sermon, speaking on the technology breakthroughs we’ve made this year through film and television. “The stories that were given to us as a result are for more than just entertainment,” he said. “They were given to us as insight for the ears and for the heart.”

Oh man, is he right. 2013 was one heckuva year for movies, and while I can’t necessarily say that it was better than last year (With The Avengers and Argo and all), it certainly didn’t let me down. Just like any other year in my career, the movies have never dissapointed me.

Unfortunately, if I want to remain “hip” or “relevant” in today’s culture, I have to do the long-dreaded top ten list. Did I mention before how much I hate doing these? While I like highlighting the best films among the year, I hate placing one film over another, like one of them inherently did something wrong to not fight for one spot higher. Can’t we just appreciate the films for what they are and be done with it?

Faithful readers will remember that I had trouble making this same list last year. I was so intent and so focused on rushing my 2012 list out there in a timely fashion that I left out a few notable pictures that I haven’t been given the chance to see yet, including Les Miserables, The Hunger Games and Beasts of The Southern Wild. I eventually re-wrote my top ten list and published it in late February, leaving out movies such as The Amazing Spider-man and Prometheus off of my list.

So what makes this year different from last year? I’m more sure of myself. I’ve given considerable thought to the movies I’ve seen, what movies others have seen and what has made the greater impact on me this year. I’ve also covered more ground than I did last year, and I saw more of the contenders that people will be paying close attention to come awards season. In short, dear reader, I have improved. As a critic, as a writer, and as a media analyst overall.

Keep two things in mind when reading this list. I look at these movies based on their own merit, specific to their genre, why they may or may not appeal to you, and why you should go and see them. I’m not going to judge Star Wars in the same way I judge Schindler’s List, and neither should you. I also have not seen every film released this year, so I sadly can’t give credit to those movies I haven’t seen. That includes movies such as Wolf Of Wall StreetHer, and perhaps most disappointingly, Fruitvale Station.

Despite that, I’m confident that these are my favorite pictures of the year, and that many of them will be your favorites as well. All ten of the movies you are about to see made a significant impact on me this year. They’ve delighted me. Entertained me. Gave me insight on issues I knew little about. But most importantly, they’ve reached emotional levels so personal that it’s hard to find someone who wasn’t affected by them this year.

If you are still reading my inexhaustible bantering, it means you are still interested in my top picks of the year (which indeed is very shocking to me). Let’s begin:

10) STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

A sequel of excellent caliber, a science-fiction film that not only lives up to its fans’ expectations, but in many ways, surpasses them. After Captain John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) betrays Star Fleet, attacks their headquarters and flees to a Klingon planet, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are assigned to track down Harrison and bring him in, but soon discover a dark secret in his past that will change their lives forever. This movie is everything that a great sequel is supposed to be: exciting, engaging, suspenseful, emotive, and reminiscent of the original. It lacks the originality as it’s predecessor, but that hardly matters: the script is brilliant, director J.J. Abrams is great, and the fight sequences are exhilarating. Cumberbatch is irreplaceable. Three and a half stars

9) MAN OF STEEL

An ambitious and action-packed thrill ride giving new energy and enthusiasm to a cherished American franchise. When Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) discovers that he is a descendent of an extinct alien race from the planet Krypton, Clark needs to embrace his superhuman abilities and become the symbol of hope destined to inspire humanity. Directed by Zack Snyder (300), produced by Christopher Nolan (Inception) and written by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy), Man Of Steel is a superhero epic that fires on all cylinders. The cast is great, the visual effects are striking, the story is compelling, and it looks at Superman from a more humanistic perspective, as an outsider trying to fit in to a world where he doesn’t belong. The definition of a Hollywood Blockbuster. Four stars.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.8) 42

A gripping, well-written sports story with a great cast to compel us through it. Chronicling the true story of the first professional African-american ballplayer in American history, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is asked by baseball executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to play for the dodgers and unite a country through a time of separation. Written and directed by Brian Hedgeland, 42 does a good job switching between emotions, from that of anger and disappointment to that of happiness and endearment. Ford is good as the headstrong and stubborn Rickey, but the surprise performance comes from the little-known Chadwick Boseman, who portrays Jackie so well that its nearly impossible to think of anyone else portraying him. You’re not watching a movie when you watch 42. You’re watching a legacy. Four stars.

7) CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

An exciting account on true events that somehow remains suspenseful, despite knowing how its going to end. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) leads the cargo ship Maersk Alabama over the pacific ocean when a band of pirates attack the ship, kidnap Phillips, and take him hostage. Now with the Navy and the U.S. Government looking for the pirates at every turn, the quest to find the pirates quickly turns to a race against time to find and save the selfless captain. Paul Greengrass, who helmed the Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum films, pioneers Hanks through this suspense thriller, and his expert timing combined with Hanks’ heartfelt performance made this film feel very real and fluid. The editing is tight, clean and efficient, cutting in and out at precise moments to give us the most tension and unease.  A convincing portrayal of events that is excellent at orchestrating emotions. Four stars.

6) SAVING MR. BANKS

A nostalgic, heartfelt, genuinely touching film about an author worried about her work similar to how a mother worries over her child. Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) is the author of her acclaimed series of her “Mary Poppins” books, and her war of the creative rights with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is nearing its end. However, after confronting her own past and getting to know Walt a little better, Pamela begins to feel more at ease sharing her story not only with Walt, but with the rest of the world. Written and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful film that bounces in between emotions like a kid does inside a bounce house. Hanks is good as Walt Disney, but surprisingly, he isn’t the highlight performance. Emma Thompson is the driving force behind this biopic, delivering a performance so versatile and demanding that she comes to identify the film entirely through her own character. The most magical moment comes when Ms. Travers watches Walt’s film adaptation of Mary Poppins for the first time. Four stars.

5) RUSH

An unstoppable and uncontrollable rush of energy, excitement, and gravitas, a movie that starts on a high note and simply refuses to let up all the way through. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a hot-headed racer who knows nothing except instinct and winning. Nicki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is a german racer who knows nothing except business and blunt honesty. Together these two rivals inspire and fuel each other’s ambition to outdo the other and win first place in the 1976 Formula One Season. This is a movie that is compelled by truth and driven by accuracy, pun intended. Hemsworth and Bruhl are perfect as Hunt and Lauda, their edginess and animosity apparent in every scene, never once breaking character. Ron Howard is documenting the film more than making it, and with the help of his screenwriter Pete Morgan and his editors Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill, he makes a biographical picture that is both relevant and exciting for its audience. An incredibly driven film that is entirely, unforgettably awesome. Four stars.

4) THE BUTLER

An earnest, humble film, parts approachable and observant yet equally ambitious and honest. Forest Whitaker plays as Cecil Gaines, a black butler who grew up during the slave era, growed up learning how to be a white man’s servant, got a job at the White House, and continued to serve there for almost 35 years. As he watches history pass him by from President Eisenhower all the way up until President Regan, Cecil recounts how he’s changed as a husband and as a father and what it means to be a free black man in America. Lee Daniels directs an all-star cast through this gripping, emotionally overwhelming story, with actors like Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, John Cusack, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard and Mariah Carrey in it just to name a few. The best performances come from Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, whose performances at many times carry the film on their own merit. A film that looks into the reality of circumstances and shows them exactly how they were, no matter how tragic or heartbreaking they were. Four stars.

3) THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

A tense, gripping, and pulsating film crackling with energy and drama. Taking place after their victory at the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) try to re-adjust to their normal life until President Snow (Donal Sutherland) declares that the 75th Hunger Games will feature all of the previous winners, including Katniss and Peeta. Now shoved back into the horrid games that scarred her in the first place, Katniss must find a way to not only survive the games with Peeta, but to retain her humanity after everything is over. Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), Catching Fire is the film that is everything the first thing was except more. The story is captivating, compelling, and deeply emotional. The themes are deep, powerful, and maddening. And the cast is more than exceptional, with Lawrence’s heartbreaking expressions at the center of it all. Not only one of the best sequels of the year, but one of the best movies of the year, period. Four stars.

2) GRAVITY

A film for a generation, a picture so convincing in its approach that its nearly impossible to think that it wasn’t even filmed in space. Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer out on her very first space mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). When debris suddenly strikes their station and leaves them astray, Stone and Kowalski need to fight to survive and find their way home back to planet Earth. There is literally not a single technical fault in the film. The visual effects are stunning, eye-popping, and visually-breathtaking. The cinematography by Emanuel Libewski is poignant, curious, and masterfully constructed. But the most credit needs to go to writer-director Alfonso Cuaron, who is so precise with the film’s visuals, story and Bullock’s performance that he makes the film just as emotional as it is anticipative and on the edge of your seat. It blurs the line in between science fiction and science reality, and is probably the best space movie I’ve ever seen. Four stars.

1) 12 YEARS A SLAVE

One of the best films of the year, and among the best on the subject of racism and slavery. Based on the true story of a free man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), 12 Years A Slave chronicles his story of being drugged, captured, and sold into slavery for over a decade of his life. Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) 12 Years A Slave is this year’s frontrunner of the Oscar for best picture, and it’s very deserving of that title. Not only is it tragic, maddening, and heartbreaking all at once: it is a very diverse and well-made film. The cinematography by Sean Bobbit is lush, broad, and captivating. The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is slow and dreary, the third of his movies this year to be featured on this list. Ejiofor, however, is the star of this show, with his passionate, tearjerking performance driving us to care for this character and feel what he is feeling. Compels you to experience compassion and sympathy in ways almost no other film can do. Not even with Schindler’s List. Four stars.

Whether you’re a dedicated movie lover or simply a casual viewer, I encourage all of you to see the movies on this list. They did more than impact me: they touched and inspired the people all around me.

-David Dunn

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