La l’Arrival, and Other Nominees

Opening Monologue

Here we are again, at the one almost consistent feature of my blog: the annual run-down of the Best Picture nominees at this year’s Oscars. Apart from two or three years of the past ten, I’ve given my opinion on each of the films up for the main award in the past decade, and I’m not going to stop now just because Trump is in the White House. As usual, I’m ranking the movies in my countdown, moving from lowest to highest rated, just to induce the highest rate of discomfort in those reading.

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

9. Hacksaw Ridge

Plot: A biopic of Desmond Doss, a young pacifist who joins the US effort against the Japanese during World War II, and his struggle for acceptance as a soldier that does not fight.

Why it’s nominated: I don’t know.

Analysis: The suspension of disbelief is an important part of watching a movie. A movie has to initially introduce you to a story, and then keep your attention for the duration, without reminding you that you are watching a movie. How it does this is not important: it can be through an interesting story, it can be through believable characters, it can be through charismatic actors. I think the only way to suspend disbelief in Hacksaw Ridge is if you have never heard of Andrew Garfield. If you had never heard of Andrew Garfield, then you would not cringe at his every line in the opening act, for you would not know that he is just doing his normal thing, but with a terrible American accent. Perhaps even if you had seen a few Andrew Garfield movies, by chance you had grown accustomed to him and could hold your suspension of disbelief until the second act. Unfortunately, a second challenge awaits. Perhaps, if you had never seen a Vince Vaughan movie, and those moments in a Vince Vaughan movie where his carefree character must pretend to be serious to convince someone of something, then you will still be engaged with the story as it enters its third hour. For those who get there with their attention unfazed, there is some joy, as for a period of about 20 minutes they will find some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed. Unfortunately, these are interrupted periodically not only by Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughan, but ultimately the sobering reality that this is a Mel Gibson film, and someone needs to be Jesus personified. Maybe you love Jesus, Mel, or maybe you found it’s an angle to get big-budget movies made, but there are other literary devices out there to centre your movie around.

Oscar Chances: Maybe in special effects or makeup.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

8. Hidden Figures

Plot: The true story of the black female mathematicians who helped the NASA in the early days of the United States Space Program.

Why it’s nominated: It makes you feel all warm inside.

Analysis: A cynical person would say that Hidden Figures is nominated for two reasons: 1) Best Picture allows more nominees than every other category and therefore some are included just to make up the numbers; and 2) #OscarSoWhite. I’m a somewhat cynical person, and I’m opening myself up to a lot of criticism with that opinion, but there are some caveats. Hidden Figures is a classic feel-good movie: if families are still sitting down together watching TV at Christmas in 20 years, this is one movie that will be on the schedule. It’s a sloppy, cliché-filled, predictable mess of a movie, but that doesn’t stop you cheering on the protagonists and feeling good when they succeed. It gets added points from me by it’s title being a truly awful mathematical pun.

Oscar Chances: Best Supporting Actress, possibly.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

7. Lion

Plot: The true story of a very young boy who, In 1980’s India, gets separated from his brother several hundred miles from home. Without knowing even the name of his hometown (or his mother), he is placed in an orphanage and eventually adopted by an Australian couple. Years later in Tasmania, he attempts to use Google Earth to locate his hometown and find his family.

Why it’s nominated: Powerful, heart-breaking story, and an upbeat ending.

Analysis: While I was thinking of what I would write about each of the Best Picture nominees this year, the one that I would always forget about was Lion. I had to google “Best Picture 2017” every time I sat down to write my notes just to remind myself of the ninth nominee. And that’s not to say it’s a bad movie. I’ll admit: I did not want to watch this one, and I didn’t like watching it. The issue was not the story or the acting, it was that I knew what would happen at the end: they were marching us very slowly towards the main character reconnecting with his family. This story would not have been told if it didn’t end well. Despite all the criticism, Titanic succeeded in telling an epic story even though everyone knew what was going to happen; the ending mattered because it brought other stories to their conclusion. In Lion, there is an excellent and effective first half, but then an hour or so of hoping Dev Patel gets to the point, and we can all go home. When he finally does, it is extremely effective, and I’ll admit that I did shed a tear or two.

Oscar Chances: No.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

6. Hell or High Water

Plot: Two brothers in Texas embark on a series of bank robberies in order to raise funds to save their family home, and possibly more.

Why it’s nominated: It reminded older academy members of the movies in the 1970’s.

Analysis: Unlike the rest of the movies on this list, I watched Hell or High Water without the knowledge that it would be nominated for Best Picture. Back in October, after reading some reviews from trusted sources, I gave it a go and found it mostly forgettable. Mostly forgettable, though, means that in a running time of 102 minutes, I forget all but the last 10. The last 10 minutes of this film stayed with me for days, in what could rank as one of the greatest scenes in cinema history. This isn’t an action scene: no one gets killed. This isn’t a plot twist: no information gets revealed that wasn’t apparent from the first minute. It’s just the two main characters talking, and explicitly discussing the main theme of the film, from their own point of view. All I can say is that all Americans should watch this movie, and analyse intensely the last scene. It is the story of your country.

Oscar Chances: Best Supporting Actor is a possibility.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

5. La La Land

Plot: An actress and a jazz pianist, both with dreams of stardom, meet in Los Angeles and begin a singing, dancing relationship.

Why it’s nominated: Hollywood loves singing, dancing, and stories about Hollywood.

Analysis: Since the start of the year, La La Land has been the favourite to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, and since this was noted, La La Land has been getting a lot of criticism. The movie tells a very simple story, there’s too much singing and dancing, and so on. I can see why a lot of people don’t like it: it’s a throwback to the kind of musical that was popular 60 years ago, and we as a modern audience don’t really like it when the main actors burst into song. Possibly because I was watching the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend at the time, I didn’t have a problem with this being a musical. Watch it again, and look for the colour purple. This is a fine movie, with some excellent direction and cinematography, and the songs weren’t bad either. Except the first one, with the people dancing on cars. They should have cut that.

Oscar Chances: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Song.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

4. Manchester by the Sea

Plot: A man returns to his home town to deal with the death of his brother.

Why it’s nominated: A very strong central performance from Casey Affleck, and a truly devastating plot.

Analysis: Don’t see Manchester by the Sea if you are depressed. It is not heart-warming, it is not uplifting, and it is not feel-good. This is a movie about loss; a loss so devastating that there is absolutely no going back to any degree of normalcy in life, or even civility. The main character can hardly even pretend to be concerned with the type of cares normal people would stress over: his is a life that consists of just going through the motions. Manchester by the Sea is a film that succeeds by first creating a mood, and then explaining the reasons for this mood. If you don’t like Casey Affleck after this move (and despite all the rape claims), I don’t know what will do it.

Oscar Chances: Casey Affleck should win Best Actor, but will possibly miss out due to a lot of people hating him for those rape allegations. A Best Screenplay award is likely.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

3. Fences

Plot: In 1950’s Pittsburgh, a working class black family is dominated by its damaged patriarch.

Why it’s nominated: Very powerful central performances from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, as well as effective and lingering themes.

Analysis: Of all the movies on this list, Fences is the movie I wanted to watch the least. The plot is not very appealing, added to the fact that it is 140 minutes long and it has an inexperienced director (Denzel Washington) adapting a stage play. All of this made me very wary, and it took a rainy Sunday with nothing to do to force me to sit down and watch it. Firstly, Denzel is not a good director. Fences never escapes the feeling that it is a stage play, and his visual imagery could be bettered by an amateur teenage film student. Secondly, and more importantly, Denzel is one of the greatest actors of all time, and this movie is mostly Denzel giving long monologues. This, along with the obvious strength of the material (the play is 30 years old and still running), elevate Fences to heights it should never reach. It definitely needed a better director, but still Denzel ensured a story was told that many people (myself included) would never have heard otherwise.

Oscar Chances:  A real possibility of both Best Actor and Best Actress.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

2. Moonlight

Plot: Told in three acts over three key periods of his life, we see a young black man struggle with his sexuality.

Why it’s nominated: It’s practically perfect in every way.

Analysis: One way of describing Moonlight would be Boy(z n the )hood. On the one hand, it is a naturalistic story of a boy growing up to be a man (Boyhood), but also it is a naturalistic story of a black boy in urban America growing up to be a man (Boyz n the Hood). Moonlight is in the same genre of both of these great films, but it has its own thing going on. Part of that thing is that not only is the protagonist overwhelmed with the pressures of adolescence, poverty and social exclusion, he has also realised at a very young age that he is gay, and thus it is a brutal and lonely path towards adulthood. That’s just part of it, though. Moonlight is a lot more than a story about a gay black kid growing up. It’s well acted, has a great musical score and the visuals are amazing. It’s very nearly a perfect film.

Oscar Chances: Moonlight is the only threat to La La Land for Best Picture, and it would be a real upset for this to occur. Best Supporting Actor is a lock.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

1. Arrival

Plot: Alien spacecraft suddenly appear all over the world, hovering slightly above ground. As the different governments decide on how to react, the US military enlists a group of scientists, including mathematicians and language experts, in an attempt to work out a way to communicate with the extra-terrestrial arrivals.

Why it’s nominated: Strong directing, cinematography, plot, themes, acting.

Analysis: Intelligent science fiction is not a genre that one should find in a list of movies that could win an Oscar for Best Picture. Interstellar two few years ago is one exception, and that move indeed bears a lot of comparison to Arrival. Both tell convoluted stories of people coming to terms with the burden of parenthood with the help of inter-dimensional travel. While Interstellar failed with audiences by losing the theme in the enthralling storyline of travelling through space, Arrival succeeds by having humanity play existentialism as a home game, as we never leave earth. There’s no physics to explain, there are no mind blowing effects to leave us enthralled; we are alone with the themes, which are fascinating. What is the nature of language? Can it affect our behaviour? What is time? Only this movie asks these questions, and looks absolutely stunning while doing it.

Oscar Chances: All it can hope for is possibly a visual effects award.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Closing Monologue

That’s it, nothing really to say here. If you would like to cast your own vote, please do so here:

Advertisements

Leo, The Bear, and Other Nonsense

 

Opening Monologue

It’s that time of year again, and 8 movies have been chosen to fight it out for the grand accolade of Best Picture this Sunday in Hollywood. The 8 movies in question aim to join ‘whoever won last year’, and ‘whoever won the year before that’ in the grand pantheon of movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. As usual, I have watched as many of them as I could tolerate, and present them here, ranked in reverse order of how much I enjoyed the movie in question. It’s as close to a listicle as it gets around here, so let’s enjoy this departure from the usual long read, and get straight into the countdown. With regards to spoilers, I do go into plot details that I think are relevant to any discussion of the movies, but do not reveal endings or plot twists.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

(Unranked) Room

Plot: A woman attempts to create a nice and pleasant environment to raise her son, despite them both being imprisoned for years in a tiny room by her abusive partner.

Discussion: Look, I feel bad enough about myself and the world as it is. I don’t need to watch stuff like this to feel terrible, despite what potentially hopeful message it has at the end. I tried to consider watching this, but failed each time.

Oscar Chances: Absolutely locked in in for Brie Larson as Best Actress.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

7. The Revenant

Plot: Leonardo Dicaprio plays a fur trapper in 19th Century US wilderness who gets mauled by a bear and left for dead in the middle of nowhere by his colleagues. He summons the will to survive and attempts to wreak vengeance on those who done him wrong.

Discussion: Yes, the undisputed Oscar frontrunner is ranked at the bottom of my countdown. Westerns are my favourite movie genre, and I was expecting big things from this tale of vengeance and survival from director Iñárritu , but came away feeling quite bored and very, very cold. The Revenant is a perfectly serviceable movie and is extremely well made, with some great performances from Dicaprio, the bear, and particularly Tom Hardy. Despite all this, all of the talk in the media about the movie is centred on how difficult it was to make: how it was filmed in the middle of nowhere, with only a few hours of light available to film each day, and how poor Leo had to be cold a lot in order to show the desperation of his character to the audience, such as having frost in his beard. I understand that the movie was quite difficult to make, but that does not mean we all should necessarily care too much: no one asked them to make the movie, and we all would be doing just fine if they hadn’t made it at all. The fact is that if you take away the ‘nightmare shoot’ narrative of The Revenant, there isn’t much left to discuss. It’s a very simple story of survival, vengeance and protecting your family: there is nothing here we haven’t seen before. I would watch a documentary about the film shoot, however.

Oscar chances: The internet will explode if Leo doesn’t win Best Actor for this, and it will more than likely pick up Best Director and Best Picture too.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

6. Bridge of Spies

Plot: Tom Hanks plays a lawyer in 1950’s US who comes up with the idea of saving a convicted Soviet spy from execution, and instead using him in a prisoner exchange to get a US spy back from the dirty communists.

Discussion: I don’t know about you, but I was expecting more bridges, and more spies. By the midpoint of the movie I had realised all we were going to get was just one bridge with just the spies we had seen already, and I was disappointed. It is Spielberg and Tom Hanks, so it is obviously well made, and mostly entertaining. Mark Rylance as the Soviet spy held by the US as a bargaining chip steals the show. Once again, it’s a perfectly serviceable Oscar-bait movie that is not out of place in a list of Best Picture nominees, but there were a few issues in it that left a sour taste in my mouth. While it may have been sold to us as spy thriller, what Bridge of Spies is really about is the glorification of US due process and the role of the American legal system in its victory over the USSR in the Cold War. We see the trial of each spy: one in the US, and the other in the USSR, and the verdicts are exactly the same, yet they are portrayed onscreen differently. They are both show trials, being undertaken for reasons of propaganda, yet only the USSR trial is portrayed on screen as such. Both verdicts dictate life imprisonment, yet the US version is seen as mercy while the Soviet equivalent is seen as a horrific death sentence. Similarly, we are briefly told in a throwaway line of dialogue that the Soviet spy has been interrogated by the Americans, yet we see explicitly how the US soldier is treated by the Soviets. I know it is probably impossible for a US movie, but it is about time we had a realistic, non-ideological movie about the Cold War. We can take it.

Oscar Chances: It could possibly win Best Supporting Actor, but other than that, it’s just here to make up the numbers.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

5. The Martian

Plot: On a mission to Mars in the near future, botanist Matt Damon is left behind by his NASA crew and must use his wits to survive the long wait for a rescue team.

Discussion: The Martian is a very decent blockbuster, carried by a Matt Damon performance that probably deserves more credit. Leo was cold a lot, yet Matt is talking to himself for 99% of his scenes. The movie is also surprisingly funny, and the political nature of the NASA organisation was very interesting to see, particularly when it comes to releasing information on a possible life-or-death situation to the public. The problem with The Martian however was that it was unbearably light, it was a throwaway rescue mission movie disguised as science fiction and as a result, it fell under the shadow of Interstellar. Love or hate Interstellar, but you have to at least admit that it contained ideas within it that resonated long after the movie ended. The Martian had no such issues, and after leaving the cinema, I had a very empty feeling once the stimulation of 3D and special effects had worn away. I realised that I had been fooled into thinking I was watching an intelligent, pretentious science fiction movie, and it was really just an enjoyable, expensive, instantly forgettable popcorn movie instead. It’s rare that you will hear this, but the movie could have benefited from being a little more pretentious.

Oscar Chances: None.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

4. Spotlight

Plot: The journalists of the Boston Globe newspaper undergo an in-depth investigation into the cover-up of child abuse within Boston’s powerful Catholic Church establishment.

Discussion: True story, important issue, great cast, great director: this is the most Oscar-y of all the movies on this list, and it is difficult to picture the movie getting funded at all without the explicit intention of competing for this year’s Academy Awards. Spotlight is a gripping movie, and benefits from staying with the journalist team throughout, rather than showing the perspective of the Evil Priests. Liev Schreiber gives one of the best performances I have seen as the aloof, quiet new editor who doesn’t see the big issue with going after Boston’s Catholic Church. This movie is set in 2001, and therefore some very interesting issues are brought forward, as the article is ready to publish in time for September 11th, yet all involved are then occupied by covering the aftermath of 9/11. There are hints that there is pressure from above not to publish such a depressing story after 9/11, so the journalists elect to allow Boston to have their Christmas without more bad news, and publish after New Year’s. This aspect of modern journalism was what I found more interesting, which is probably because I’m Irish, and priests abusing children just does not shock me.

Oscar Chances: Don’t be surprised if it wins Best Picture.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

3. The Big Short

Plot: From the mid-2000’s we follow the separate stories of a disparate group of traders who each independently see that something is not quite right with the structure of US mortgages. Each party invests heavily in ‘shorting’ (betting against) the US Property Market at the height of its prosperity, and we follow all involved until the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

Discussion: The Big Short is a comedy starring Steve Carrell, by the director of Anchorman (who is also nominated for Best Director). The reason it’s in this list of nominees is that it’s a comedy in the Ancient Greek sense of the word, rather than jokes about cologne and the etymology of San Diego. The main joke of the piece is that we all know our protagonists are absolutely right, and that it’s the rest of the world who are wrong and blind to the imminent disaster. We, the audience, and the select excellent cast are in on the joke that is about to rip the world a new asshole, and both them and us are put through a lot in order to get to the punchline. You know it’s a comedy because, by the last act of the movie, you are actually wishing the financial crisis happens just to prove the unbelievers wrong.

Oscar Chances: It has about a 20% chance of winning Best Picture.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Plot: In a post-Apocalyptic World, a man assists some women in escaping the clutches of a powerful warlord.

Discussion: If I knew one year ago that Mad Max: Fury Road would be nominated for Best Picture at the 2016 Oscars, I would have gone to every betting agency in my neighbourhood with fistfuls of tenners, and beg them to take my money. Even 100-1 odds would have seemed stingy by the betting houses, and probably 1000-1 would be the odds I would look for. The movie is the fourth installment of a somewhat successful franchise, the equivalent of a future instalment/remake of The Neverending Story being rated as not just good, but among the best of the year. Yet this nomination has been coming since the world first glimpsed the Fury Road back in May last year, as anyone who saw this movie in a cinema will tell you that it is something they had ever seen before. Long distance races in the desert were possibly the reason why 3D was invented, and are definitely the only time I have watched a movie in 3D and thought the technology enhanced the experience. The level of inventiveness in every action scene, the practical special effects, and the insane otherness of what we all watched in those dark rooms across the world back in May 2015 are what make the inclusion of this movie in the list of nominees here so expected, however. The movie starts with a brief contextual sentence about the end of the world, and from then on, you’re on your own: if you don’t understand why someone is doing something, the movie has already progressed without explaining it and you just have to accept that this is a different society with different rules. This movie explains absolutely nothing about its world, and is all the better for it. It’s bleak, it’s brutal, it’s hopeful and it’s beautiful. The best action movie since The Matrix, and I would like to say that it’s a game changer, but it isn’t, it’s an anomaly. There is only one person in the world who could make a movie like this, and it took George Miller 30 years to do it.

Oscar Chances: Miller deserves Best Director.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

1. Brooklyn

Plot: In 1950’s Ireland, a young girl realises that her only option for a decent future is to emigrate to New York. We follow her in her new home in Brooklyn as she questions her decision.

Discussion: Yes, it finally happened: I liked a movie with a female main character. It had to happen eventually. I may even have cried at the end, and in the middle. Brooklyn hits a few nerves with me as not only is it about Ireland, it is about migration. I am Irish, and am a serial migrator, so a lot of themes brought up here resonate and really hit home, and I would possibly go so far as to say it’s the best movie about emigration I have seen. This is not a story about someone fleeing war, destitution or persecution, it is a story of a normal person deciding to leave her country of birth because there simply was no room in her own country for any sort of successful life. She suffers no great hardships in New York: no crime, no corruption or no dilution of her values. Her biggest obstacle is her homesickness, and this passes eventually. After eventually fashioning herself some kind of life in New York, she visits her family back home in Ireland and is given the choice of whether to stay or return to Brooklyn. The choice she faces here is something all economic migrants face at some point, and I really don’t think I have seen it made so well as in Brooklyn. I’m crying again, so I’ll stop.

Oscar chances: Not really, but possibly could snatch a Best Screenplay award for Nick Hornby.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Closing Monologue

There you have it. I’ve been doing this for a few years now so if you want you can check out what I thought of the Best Picture nominees of 2013, 2014 and 2015 by clicking on the appropriate link embedded within the year! But enough about me, what did you think of this year’s Oscar bait? Vote for your favourite in the poll below. I’ll be back next year telling you what I thought of whatever crap Hollywood thinks we should appreciate then!

Best In Show

It wouldn’t be the end of February without my annual ranking of the years’ Best Picture nominees. The entries this year are mostly forgettable, but with real quality at the top end of the scale. The novelty this year is that I was sick for a week at the start of the month and in my delirium managed to force myself to watch all 8 movies, a major departure from 2013 and 2014. To be clear, watching all these movies is not something I would recommend: most won’t make you smarter, and they won’t cure your flu virus. They will however give you a good insight into what type of movie members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences liked this year, which is always interesting. Anyway, from worst, to best, here is how I rank the 2015 crop of contenders.

8. The Theory of Everything

Life story, disability, marital difficulties, eventual triumph, and all done in posh British accents. This was never going to be the most original film ever made: quite the opposite. I don’t care how good the performances are: everyone has seen everything in this film a million times, so decent acting is the minimum required to make it interesting. 20 years ago this would be assured the big awards, but we’ve all moved on, and all The Theory of Everything can possibly aspire to be is that inoffensive movie you watch with your grandparents (who don’t know who Stephen Hawking is) some day, without having to explain what’s happening in the plot every few minutes. The man was walking, then he was in a wheelchair. He struggled, but then he was alright when he changed the world despite his illness. Eddie Redmayne will win Best Actor for this.



7. American Sniper

Clint Eastwoods biopic of some hero American soldier who killed a lot of people while hiding on a rooftop shitting in his pants a few hundred meters from danger has garnered a lot of criticism for apparently justifying America’s sojourn in Iraq a few years ago. Quite the opposite: it’s obvious from very early on that Bradley Coopers’ character is a complete idiot and any of his rants justifying the war have to be seen from this perspective. It’s really just a film about a guy who’s very good at his job, and has convinced himself that this job is saving the world. Thus a great advert for getting idiots to join the army. It’s an entertaining enough film that doesn’t deserve a lot of criticism, or praise.


6. The Imitation Game

In my opinion, the efforts of Alan Turing and his team to crack the enigma code during World War II was one of the greatest stories of the 20th Century. Many have tried to tell it before, including Kate Winslets fictionalised thriller Enigma, and a loose adaptation in the recent anachrofeminism-themed Bletchely Circle TV show. The problem with this particular biopic (and Alan Turing, according to contemporary British society) is that Turing was gay. The issue is that The Imitation Game can’t, and doesn’t, decide whether it is about that fact, or if it is a retro mathematical thriller about solving an impossible problem. Even Sherlock can’t solve this Imitation Game problem, and it therefore fails on most levels, save for the ever-mesmerising true life story of breaking Enigma.


 

5. Selma

The best biopics focus not on the life story of the subject, but on particular instances of what made him/her great. Thirteen Days, about the Kennedy administrations attempts to avert nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, is the best movie about JFK we will ever get. Martin Scorcese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviatar foregoes conventional narrative structure and focuses on Hughes obsession with airplanes, while Spielbergs recent Lincoln simply focuses on Abraham Lincoln the politician, securing votes any way he can to get one law through congress. Selma is one such movie, as it focuses on a few weeks in the life of Martin Luther King. They weren’t the greatest or most flattering weeks in his life either, as what we get here is not grandstanding MLK talking about having dreams, but the great man sacrificing himself, his reputation and his people just to make sure his protests end up on the evening news for white America, and the fragile Lyndon B. Johnson administration, to see. Selma is head and shoulders above the simplistic life stories of the other nominated biopics elaborated on above, and probably is not more popular simply because of lack of star power. Put Denzel in as MLK instead of the excellent David Oyelowo, and no one would be talking about Stephen Hawking this year.


4. The Grand Budapest Hotel

It’s a weak year that has a low-key movie from the previous spring as a Best Picture contender, but it’s hard to argue against the inclusion of a Wes Anderson movie a list of the supposed movies of the year. Anderson indulges himself more than ever in TGBH, and it seems every aspect of the filmmaking process was curated by the man himself, from set design and effects to cinematography and sound. The one curiosity in this nomination that I can’t get my head around is the lack of a Best Actor nomination for Ralph Fiennes, who gives the performance of a lifetime as the movies protagonist. Without him, the movie doesn’t work, and therefore the presence of TGBH here in this list seems like just a superficial token of appreciation for Wes Anderson and his back catalogue more than anything else.



3. Birdman

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman has an awful lot to recommend itself. Michael Keatons performance as a faded movie star trying to make it as an actor (that’s the way he sees it anyway) has received a lot of attention, and I for one will be annoyed if Eddie Redmayne beats him to the Best Actor award (Redmayne sits down for most of the movie, while Keaton walks, runs and flies). Equally impressive is Edward Norton in support, playing an egotistical established actor, but giving a performance with surprisingly little ego himself. The commentary on stage actors v movie stars is quite nuanced and the movie benefits from a level of fantastical, magical realism that only a Latin American director can provide: like the best Latin American literature, the point is not what happened, but what is remembered. The frantic pace of the movie is maintained by an almost suicidal commitment by the director and his team in hiding any scene cuts, giving the impression that the film is one continuous shot. At the beginning, this hammers home how stressful theatre production can be, but towards the end also ties in nicely with Keatons wide-eyed madness. A lot to recommend in it therefore, but the problem is that it’s just not very entertaining. It’s technically excellent, and very memorable, but I find it’s just one of those movies that ‘s better in hindsight than when you’re actually watching it.


2. Whiplash

Since I saw this movie, I’ve been recommending it to anyone who will listen, but the one line plot description format just doesn’t do this one justice. No one’s excited by a movie about a drumming student trying to impress his tyrannical teacher. No one will ever read the plot and think it’s an interesting premise, it’s just one of those movies you watch for a few seconds and realise you can’t take your eyes off it, and are actually annoyed when it’s over.

Whiplash is about two things: style, and JK Simmons. For personal (read: jealous) reasons I am not willing to rant and rave about the talent of first-time director Damien Chazelle, who directed the movie when he was 28 years old, so I’m going to focus on JK Simmons. Many were probably surprised at that level of aggression in this performance from a character actor who pops up from movie to movie, either as a caricature news editor in a few Spider-Man films, or as a loveable family man in a few Jason Reitman movies. I wasn’t, because I had the misfortune of seeing JK Simmons as the neo-Nazi psychopath Vernon Schillinger in multiple series of Oz, a HBO prison drama from the turn of the millennium. Watch the first episode of Oz, which is one of the most terrifying hours of television you will ever see (all down to Simmons), and you will wonder why JK Simmons has not been making millions as psychotic bad guys for the past 15 years. Anyway, if he doesn’t win Best Supporting Actor, let’s just say that it would be justified if Kanye rushed the stage.


1. Boyhood

To be perfectly honest, It’s absolutely irrelevant whether Boyhood wins Best Picture on Sunday evening or not. Boyhood is the best film of the decade so far, and possibly of the century, so its presence as an Oscar frontrunner actually cheapens it somewhat. It’s far too good for a Best Picture nominations list: all’s fine if it wins; but if it loses, the movie on this list that beats it will only be remembered as the answer to a pub quiz question in 20 years about which movie beat Boyhood to Best Picture in 2015. How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane, Kramer v Kramer beat Apocalypse Now, and Gandhi beat E.T. Everyone involved in those winners was embarrassed to win, and it will be the same here if The Theory of Everything beats Boyhood. I don’t really have to say anything about Boyhood, it’s just one of those movies you have to see.

Something that I have been thinking about for the past few weeks are the comparisons to be made between this and another of the most talked-about movies of the year, Interstellar. Both broach the subject of the effect of the passing of time on family relationships, yet both do it in such different ways, and for different reasons. Interstellar uses the family relationship as a Spielbergesque narrative device to ground the audience to something real while a fantastic, complicated, unbelievable science fiction story plays out in the foreground. In that movie, a side effect of the theory of general relativity has 21 years pass on earth in the same time it takes an hour to pass for Matthew McCpnnaughey, meaning he misses significant portions of his children’s (well, adults now) lives. A memorable scene then occurs, of McConnaughey watching his children grow up through the backlog of messages they have left him over the years (minutes). This was effective in Interstellar, as it really drove home how costly this event was to the character, and this loss resonated throughout the next 5 hours of the movie. Boyhood’s approach was different: there was no story, no conventional narrative, merely two children growing up over the course of two and a half hours. This was much more effective and poignant than Interstellar, relegates it to something close to manipulation, and possibly explains why it is not here in the list of Best Picture nominees.


Anyone who wants to know why I care about all this can check out the last paragraph of last years Best Picture review here. I shall close out this entry with some honourable mentions who probably deserve to be here instead of a few bland biopics:

A Most Violent Year

A Most Wanted Man

Nightcrawler

Academic Awards

ac·a·dem·ic (adj.):  Scholarly to the point of being unaware of the outside world.

Opening Monologue

This Sunday sees the eye of the worlds instantly perishable media turn to the annual Hunger Games, taking place in Hollywood California for the 86th (and hopefully final) time. For a variety of reasons (chief amongst them the desire to drive traffic from Twitter to this blog) here I present my own views on this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. While it is hard to argue against the view that the winning of an Oscar has little to do with the quality of a movie or performance, I actually do believe that this year is very strong year for movies, and this is reflected in the Best Picture nominees discussed below. I will justify this blog post at the end, if you stick around that far. And so, here is the list, in reverse order of my preference.

  ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

6. American Hustle

Plot: Christian Bale and Amy Adams have some kind of scam going, they get caught, and then have to work for the FBI.

Rant: There were a lot of things wrong with this movie, but what was most unforgivable was that the plot just really wasn’t as exciting as it thought it was. American Hustle is your typical ‘rise-and-fall’ movie, where the main characters meet, become successful, then too successful, and then run into trouble. See Goodfellas, Casino, Blow, and countless others. The problem with American Hustle is that the trickster duo of Christian Bale and Amy Adams never became that successful, and certainly not successful enough for us to care about them losing it all. The innovation in the formula is that since the central pair are professional con-men, they will have a trick at the end to take them back to the top (well, back to the middle, actually). That, and giving Amy Adams the sexy role while leaving Jennifer Lawrence to rumble around a kitchen complaining about microwaves for a total of about five minutes mean that there is something very frustrating about the whole experience. American Hustle looks great, and it is obvious they went to a lot of trouble to recreate the travesty of late-70s style and decor, but this added to its plot troubles and miscasting mean the whole thing adds up to a lot less than the sum of its parts.

Oscar Chances: The ladies could well take both the female acting awards. Has a chance at Best Picture

5. Captain Phillips  

Plot: Tom Hanks is captain of a freight ship that gets hijacked by Somali pirates.

Rant: Somewhere in a Hollywood movie studio, data analysts are hard at work crunching the numbers of past Oscar success in order to come up with a perfect formula for surefire Best Picture success. If Captain Phillips is a product of that initiative, I would be of the opinion that not the research is not far off the mark. It  has: a) Tom Hanks as b) an everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances,  it is c) based on a true story, it is d) set mostly at sea, and e) it goes on for ages. These factors should combine to make Captain Phillips a Best Picture favourite, but unfortunately for the data analysts, competition this year is too great and in this case what has worked just fine in the past is not good enough. That is not to say the movie is bad, as the director Paul Greengrass creates real atmosphere and tension from what could have been a typical American-saves-everyone story.

Oscar Chances: Best Supporting Actor

4. 12 Years A Slave

 

Plot: The true story of a free black man in pre-Emancipation America that gets kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Rant: I have visions of director Steve McQueen and the cast of 12 Years a Slave this time last year, watching Quentin Tarantino on the Oscar circuit for Django Unchained. Tarantino waxed lyrical about how his movie was the first to show slavery as it was, rather than how it was abolished, and about how this made American audiences very uncomfortable. McQueen and his cast would have looked at each other and probably hoped that Tarantino at least prepared America for what they were about to present later in the year. While Django was shocking and ultraviolent, 12 Years A Slave is calmly yet brutally horrific. Much was said last year of Leonardo Dicaprio’s maniacal slave owner in Django, yet he fades to a shadow compared to Michael Fassbender’s sadistic, tortured portrayal of essentially the same character in 12 Years. It’s a terribly hard movie to watch, and would be higher in this list if it didn’t make me feel bad by just thinking about it.

Oscar Chances: Outside bets for Best Actor, Director and Supporting Actor

3. The Wolf of Wall Street

Plot: Leonardo DiCaprio is a finance whizzkid who flies too close to the sun.

Rant: I was not impressed when I heard a few years ago that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were making a movie about a former Wall Street millionaire who lost everything and lived to tell the tale. I felt that we all had seen this movie before, and that the two of them could be doing something better. I was wrong, as they managed to put a new spin on the traditional rise-and-fall movie. I referred to the rise-and-fall format earlier with regards to American Hustle, and my problem there was that they didn’t really rise high enough to justify us caring about the fall. This is not the case here, as DiCaprio’s character does pretty damn well for himself in a few short years. The best thing about Wolf is that it is so entertaining. I will go out on a limb and say that this is the most consistently entertaining three-hour movie ever made. This movie is laugh out loud hilarious at times, which is not something you can often say about a movie in the running for Best Picture. A lot of this is to do with DiCaprio, and I look forward to reading his autobiography in a few years when he tells us how he prepared for a movie where he is on cocaine in every scene…

Oscar Chances: Best Actor.

2. Her

Plot: Joaquin Phoenix develops a mature relationship with his new Operating System: A highly sophisticated ‘learning’ platform voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Rant: I just mentioned that it is unusual for Best Picture nominees to be funny, yet I will discredit my opinion here by saying that Her is one of the funniest films I have seen in years. I have talked to my girlfriend about this, and she disagrees, but I firmly believe that Her is a comedy. And a great one. The looks on Joaquin Phoenix’s face when he receives news from his love/operating system are just priceless. The casual societal acceptance of developing relationships with OS’s are also hilarious, as suddenly the whole world decides that all anyone really needs is an omnipresent voice that stores our information, runs our lives and learns through experience. I will not give away the ending, but Her also presents one of the greatest ripostes to the idea of The Singularity that I have ever seen.

Oscar Chances: If this doesn’t win Best Original Screenplay then there is something seriously wrong.

1. Gravity

Plot: Sandra Bullock gets lost in the Earth’s atmosphere. She tries to return home.

Rant: Gravity is probably the only movie I have ever seen that had me hooked from the first second until the closing credits. The tension created by director Alfonso Cuaron is at times unbearable, and for that I will forgive any criticisms of moot melodramatic plot points that crop up during the middle. My only regret is that I did not see this in the cinema, in 3D. One thing I learned from discussing this movie: lots of women hate Sandra Bullock.

Oscar Chances: Strong contender for Best Picture, Best Director.

 ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

The Unseen: Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska.

Philomena and Nebraska, I am sure you both are very fine movies, you are just not for me. I have been meaning to watch Dallas Buyers Club, but will probably never get round to it either. None of them will win Best Picture, which is probably a good way to close this paragraph.

 ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Closing Monologue

I won’t be watching the Oscars, I don’t see how anyone could enjoy the pompous back slapping of a room of extremely rich and self-obsessed people, to be honest. I do pay attention to the Best Picture, Director and Screenwriting winners and nominees  every year however, as they can be a good indication of what type of filmmakers will have power in the coming years. Hollywood movie studios respect two things in filmmakers: money and awards. An Oscar nomination gains a Christopher Nolan or a Spike Jonze the leverage to make the movies they want to make, for appropriate budgets, and with full creative control. For this, and only this, I still follow the Oscar nominations each year. This year in particular, there are some highly creative voices included in the nominations, such as Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron, and this can only be good for a Hollywood system that is suffocating on its own vomit of Transformers and Avengers. In essence, the Academy Awards are about acceptance, and while the awards ceremony itself is excruciating, it is no bad thing that a lot of very talented filmmakers have been invited in this year.

 ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Anyway, that’s enough from me: what do you think, which one would you vote for?

 

Best Picture?

On the eve of the Academy Awards, here’s my annual analysis of the years Best Picture nominees.

Amour

It got a lot of promotion here in Austria, since the director Michael Haneke is from here. I remember seeing the posters around during the summer, and immediately I knew that I would never see this film. I don’t even know what it’s about, just that two old people stare at each other and touch each other’s faces a lot. It doesn’t have much of a chance of winning Best Picture, but could be a dark horse for a Best Director win for Haneke.

Argo ***

It’s got a great story and some good action, but Argo is actually Ben Affleck’s worst movie as a director. That is a strange sentence, I know, but his previous two movies have been very good. This one turns a historical incident into a spy thriller straight from the 90’s. The Oscars however are usually less about quality and more about buzz. Argo has a lot of buzz, and it is a story about America being smarter than Islamic Fundamentalists, so it is the slight favourite to win Best Picture.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I haven’t seen it, but will probably check it out when it arrives on DVD. It won’t win Best Picture.

Django Unchained  *****

While reading about Django Unchained, I realised that it is very rare in Hollywood to have a movie featuring slavery that is not specifically about the struggle to end slavery. Django wins his freedom, but the movie is about his own personal journey. No mention at all is given to ending slavery, for it is just a fact of life. I think this is why the film has been criticised so much in the USA, as people are not used to seeing onscreen slaves accepting their position in the world as unchangeable.

Django is a great movie, but doesn’t really stand a chance of winning Best Picture. Tarantino should win Best Screenplay, while Christoph Waltz may pick up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Les Misérables


I will never ever see this movie. I like the plot and the actors, and if there was no singing in it I would be all over it. But there is singing in it. If it wins Best Picture I will never write one of these Oscar previews again.

Life of Pi ****

A good, solid film that few could find a fault with. Ang Lee’s use of 3D here is probably the best use of the technology, and gives hope that 3D might not just be a way for cinemas to charge more for movie tickets. Although technically excellent and a worthy adaptation that seemed to please everyone, there is no buzz whatsoever surrounding Life of Pi and therefore I can’t see it winning anything big.

Lincoln

Americans love stories about how great America is, and the Abraham Lincoln/Civil War story has to be at the top of this love-in. I often wonder if the USA is the only country in the world that actually glamorises its civil war. Whereas most countries are ashamed of their past internal skirmishes, the US sees its own as a pivotal founding struggle in history, where right triumphs over wrong, and freedom reigns throughout the land. A Lincoln biopic was always going to court the Academy Awards, and it is the only movie that can beat Argo to Best Picture. I started watching it but fell asleep after twenty minutes, so I can’t actually comment on how good or bad it is. Unless falling asleep after twenty minutes counts as a review.

Silver Linings Playbook,  ***

A romantic comedy about mental health problems. It’s a very strange movie and is difficult to get into due to the intensity of Bradley Coopers protagonist, whose insane scheme to get his ex-wife back is quickly established as the main plot. The stakes are raised later on, and it basically turns into every film you have ever seen. The best thing about it is Jennifer Lawrence, who should win Best Actress. This film is here because the Academy needed nine films to be nominated for Best Picture.

Zero Dark Thirty ****

Everything bad that you have heard about Zero Dark Thirty happens in the first few scenes, so those going in expecting to see waterboarding and torture will not be disappointed. It calms down after that, and the middle portion contains a lot of backroom meetings and psychological breakdowns, before the final act plays out the mission to assassinate Osama Bin-Laden in real time. While many criticised the movie for condoning the use of torture, I felt the movie was very unbiased and left the viewer to decide whether the actions shown are justified or not. Due to this moral ambiguity and the controversy surrounding it, there isn’t much chance of it winning Best Picture. It’s a straight fight between Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress.