Thursday, February 27, 2014

Final Oscar Predictions 2014

No worthless blabber from me this year, there’s way too much ground to cover and not enough time to cover it, so I’m going to just jump head-first right into my official Academy Award predictions. I will not guarantee that you’ll win your office pool with these, but I can guarantee that I’ve spent more time researching these predictions than just about anyone who doesn’t do this professionally and who's not actually a certified lunatic.

(Cracks knuckles)

BEST PICTURE: 12 Years a Slave

% Sure: 51.5
Could Win: Gravity
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Have Been There: Before Midnight
Comments: Welp, for the first time since I’ve been doing this there appears to be an actual race for the Best Picture award. The Producer’s Guild, usually the best indicator of what will end up winning Best Picture, somehow managed a tie between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave this year. However, the Director’s Guild gave their biggest prize to Alfonso Cuaron for his directorial achievement with Gravity. The last time the Director’s Guild gave their top prize to a movie that DIDN’T go on to win Best Picture was in 2005, with the Crash over Brokeback Mountain debacle. And it’s only happened three other times since 1989. And yet...

12 Years a Slave FEELS way more like a Best Picture winner, doesn’t it? I want to quickly compare a few movies:

12 Years a Slave
Driving Miss Daisy
Chariots of Fire
In the Heat of the Night

What do all these films have in common? Well, firstly, none of them won the Director’s Guild Award for their year, but then went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Secondly, they all involve race/culture relations (with all except Chariots of Fire being about black/white relations in America).

So I find it interesting that in many cases, the Academy voters have felt some sense of duty to be on the “right” side of history when it comes to casting a vote for their top award. Yeah, Gravity is a groundbreaking and enjoyable film, and they can still award it with a Best Director Oscar. But when it comes to the top prize, the award everyone will remember, the award that defines them as an awards body?

It HAS to be the movie depicting the horrors of slavery in America, right? The one perceived as more important?

So even though I’ve debated this in my head a million times, and even switched my vote while writing this column 800 times, it eventually came down to “which film would I feel more stupid for being wrong about?” And there’s where I found my answer. 12 Years a Slave is my official prediction.

BEST DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
% Sure: 85
Could Win: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Should Have Been There: Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines
Comments: Won’t bore you all again with a long-winded, metric-based discussion of why this award has to go to Cuaron, but I don’t see any way that he loses this.

BEST ACTOR: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
% Sure: 75
Could Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Should Have Been There: Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Comments: I have a sneaking suspicion about Leo’s chances here, but only two actors have ever won an Oscar without getting a Screen Actor’s Guild nomination, of which Leo didn’t. Christoph Waltz managed to pull it off last year for only the second time ever, but the odds are clearly against it. Having said that, this category has the biggest possibility for a surprise upset, as I could legitimately see any of the four other nominees stealing it from McConaughey.

BEST ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
% Sure: 98.5
Could Win: Amy Adams, American Hustle
Should Win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Should Have Been There: Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Comments: Recent Woody Allen controversies withstanding, Dame Blanchett has this award in the bag.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
% Sure: 99.5
Could Win: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Should Have Been There: Bradley Cooper, The Place Beyond the Pines
Comments: The most sure-fire bet of all the acting awards.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Lupita Nyongo, 12 Years a Slave
% Sure: 60
Could Win: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Should Win: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle (though Lupita would be a very worthy winner)
Should Have Been There: Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street
Comments: Bit of a two-way race here between Nyongo and last year’s Best Actress winner, miss J-Law. Which is exactly the reason I don’t believe she will win this year.

% Sure: 55
Could Win: Her
Should Win: Blue Jasmine
Should Have Been There: Frances Ha
Comments: The debate with this prediction is that it I think Her could very well win, but then that means American Hustle racked up 10 nominations and went home empty-handed (unless, as I note above, J-Law pulls off her second straight Oscar win). And wonky things always seem to happen in the screenplay categories.

% Sure: 75
Could Win: Philomena
Should Win: Before Midnight
Should Have Been There: Before Midnight got the nomination, and that’s the most important thing.
Comments: A Best Picture winner rarely loses this award (it happened in 2012 with The Artist, but, that was a silent film).

% Sure: 80
Could Win: The Wind Rises
Should Win: Whoops...didn’t see any of these.
Should Have Been There: I literally didn’t see a single animated film this year. Totally unacceptable.
Comments: The Academy usually likes to reward more artistic films like The Wind Rises with a nomination, but that seems to be as far as they’ll go. It finally appears to be Disney’s year.

% Sure: 55
Could Win: The Act of Killing
Comments: The Act of Killing is great and you should watch it on Netflix streaming as soon as you get a chance. Does not seem to be an “Academy” movie to me. Which is why a lot of people are predicting The Square, a cultural documentary about Egyptian revolutionaries. It’s really too bad that Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell couldn’t manage a nomination, because I think it would have gone on to win. Okay, it’s clear that I’m just stalling and I have no handle on this category whatsoever. Next.

% Sure: 50
Could Win: The Broken Circle Breakdown
Comments: Usually there’s a clear winner in this category, but it appears to be a race this year.

% Sure: 95
Could Win: Prisoners  
Should Win: Gravity
Should Have Been There: To the Wonder, obviously. But I also wish 12 Years a Slave could have made it in (let’s be honest and admit that Nebraska would not have been here if it weren’t in black and white).
Comments: Emmanuel Lubezki, director of photography on such films as The Tree of Life, Children of Men, and this year’s To The Wonder, looks to win his first award for Gravity after having been previously nominated five times without a win. Rarely do Best Picture nominees lose to non-Best Picture nominees in this category, and the only other Best Picture nom here is Nebraska. Gravity has this one in the bag.

% Sure: 68
Could Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Her, obviously
Should Have Been There: The Wolf of Wall Street
Comments: Gatsby appears to satisfy the tech award category mantra of “Best = Most” and the always-gaudy Baz Lurhmann seems to have done just that this year with a quantity over quality approach to his adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel. Four Best Picture hopefuls are waiting in the wings with Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Her all exhibiting worthy work, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear frontrunner among them to topple Gatsby.

% Sure: 70
Could Win: American Hustle
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Have Been There: The Wolf of Wall Street and Her
Comments: See above. Costume and Production Design seem to go hand-in-hand fairly often, though I’m wondering if some voters will cast their vote for the glitzy costume-work in Hustle as a consolation prize for missing out on other top awards.

% Sure: 95
Could Win: Actually Bad Grandpa might have a chance.
Should Win: Dallas Buyers Club
Should Have Been There: 12 Years a Slave (I’m sorry, I’m trying to keep my personal biases out of this, but, sorry.
Comments: Best Picture nom against non-Best Picture noms. Easy money. Moving along...

% Sure: 68.5
Could Win: Captain Phillips
Should Win: I’ll let Gravity have this one even though I loved the editing in 12 Years a Slave.
Should Have Been There: Both the crisply-moving Frances Ha and the wonderfully drawn-out The Wolf of Wall Street exhibit how important editing is to telling the type of story you want to tell. They each worked wonderfully for opposite reasons, and both deserved to be in this field over the severely undercooked American Hustle, which might be the single worst nomination in any category this year.
Comments: Look out for Captain Phillips, as the last Paul Greengrass film to be nominated here won the award (The Bourne Ultimatum).

% Sure: 10,320
Could Win: A short film that I just made on my iPhone about me doing the dishes, because it literally has as much of a chance as winning as anything else not named Gravity.
Should Win: Gravity

% Sure: 97.5
Could Win: Captain Phillips
Should Win: Gravity
Should Have Been There: The Conjuring
Comments: Best Picture hopeful that’s also a big blockbuster = lots of Oscar wins in technical categories. This is a tried and true Oscar rule.

% Sure:
Could Win: Lone Survivor
Should Win: Gravity
Should Have Been There: who cares.
Comments: Last year, Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall tied to squeeze this one out over the otherwise heavily-awarded Life of Pi, but it seems like Gravity is such a tech-monolith this year that I don’t anticipate that will happen with, say, Lone Survivor (also, Zero Dark Thirty had a lot of other nominations and was a Best Picture contender, so that means something there, I think).

% Sure: 60
Could Win: Her
Should Win: Gravity
Should Have Been There: Not a great year for original scores, but I liked both Her and Gravity pretty well.
Comments: Don’t have a great feel for this category. It’s mainly a case of “no other good nominees” that will probably propel Gravity toward one of it’s many wins of the night.  

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: “Let it Go” from Frozen
% Sure: 95
Comments: Whatever. Always my least favorite category of the night.  The tween and gay faction of viewers will enjoy this win.

% Sure: 85
Comments: Disney will kick off their two-win night with an award for this fun little short film (barring an Original Score win for Saving Mr. Banks).

% Sure: Whatever.
Comments: The only English language short film. Next.

BEST DOCUMENTARY, SHORT SUBJECTS: The one about the 109 year old Holocaust survivor seems about right. No other commentary necessary.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

In Defense of Film: The Top 10 Films of 2013

In late 2013, A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote an article entitled “The Big Picture Strikes Back,” a piece I considered to be one of the year’s best film-related articles. It was a thread I had picked up on earlier in the year, and had been heavily considering as I entered and exited various theaters throughout 2013. As usual, Scott knocked it out of the park with his take, but I think the idea behind Cinema vs. Television deserves enough space for a small-fry blogger such as myself to offer his own thoughts on the subject. 

So, for this year, instead of posting my Top 10 list along with the usual little blurb on each of the films, I thought I would take a broader approach and discuss some of them in the context of this larger conversation that’s been happening around film and television for the past few years. I’ve posted my Top 10 list below, but overall I won’t discuss every film on the list, and I might also include discussion on some films that didn’t make my list, but that add to the conversation. 

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As most of my readers are aware, Breaking Bad had it’s final eight-episode half-season run from August through September of last year, and pretty handily dominated the pop-culture landscape for those eight weeks, and deservingly so. The critical and commercial success of Breaking Bad seemed to put somewhat of a period on a decade and a half of marvelous television storytelling, which has given us everything from The Sopranos, to Lost, to Mad Men and of course, The Wire.

Concurrently with Breaking Bad’s final run, the cinema had been pumping out its normal end-of-summer crapfest, with big-budgeted gaudiness such as Neill Blomkamp’s misguided Elysium failing both critically and commercially. I had begun to think that the best stories were being told on television, and moreover, that the perceived limitations of the medium were actually in its favor, because the episodic structure at least somewhat forces good writing, acting, and plot development.  

My attitude changed somewhat, when five days after the finale of Breaking Bad, I went to see a little film called Gravity (#7). Set in space just outside of earth, filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron uses 3D technology and weightless camera movement to achieve an overwhelming sense of imbalance and vertigo.  The emotional and spiritual journey of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she attempts to forge her way back to earth after debris destroys her spaceship works seamlessly as a thematic complement to the visual wizardry on display.

A gorgeous crane shot from All is Lost
A film that didn’t quite make my Top 10, director J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost, is probably another one of the year’s best examples of a film that would not be successful in any other medium. Set in the Indian Ocean, Robert Redford stars as an aging sailor who is stranded at sea when his boat is damaged by a loose shipping container. The one-man-act contains exactly one paragraph of spoken word, a monologue at the beginning of the film. Like Gravity, it is in many ways a stripped down film that forces introspection about coming to terms with one’s own demise.  How lucky we are to have filmmakers brave enough to tackle these subjects in such interesting and fully cinematic ways.

Relationships were explored in new ways this year as well. A trio of films on my Top 10, Before Midnight (#2), The Place Beyond the Pines (#3), and To the Wonder (#9), contemplate marriage, father-son relationships, and romance, respectively. Before Midnight is the third film in the Before series by Richard Linklater, each set nine years apart from one another. It is a rare treasure in cinema to see characters change and grow over an 18-year period. Each of the three chapters take place over mere hours and yet somehow successfully tell the story of entire lives.  

The Place Beyond the Pines, a film that I regretfully never wrote a review of this year, has an interweaving three-act structure involving fathers and sons that unfolds like a modern Dickens novel. Derek Cianfrance, director of 2010’s Blue Valentine, improves on his solid rookie effort drastically, which successfully expresses how legacy can beget both privilege and suppression. The two and a half hour runtime only heightens the impact as Cianfrance peels back layer after layer, until a core of thematic truth hits you like a pile of bricks in the film’s final moments.

I find it ironic that two inarguable cinematic masters tackled success and failure in New York City this year – Martin Scorsese with the relentless The Wolf of Wall Street (#4) and the Coen brothers with the slow-simmering Inside Llewyn Davis (#5). These two stories could almost work as a double-feature film, as both are centered around flat-out assholes for protagonists – one, an imposturous but riotously successful Wall Street Banker, and the other a floundering 60’s folk singer whose devotion to his artistry is both his guiding star and his Achilles heel.  The storytelling prowess of these two directors could propel them to success in just about any medium, but the particular structures they operated in this year allowed them to fully explore the circumstances of characters who manage to learn absolutely nothing over the course of their story.

*          *          *

Finally, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning 12 Years a Slave (#1) in the context of this discussion though I’ve already dug into it thoroughly here. When I consider television shows I love, the first aspect that comes to mind is characters. I think of Jerry Seinfeld, Don Draper, Homer Simpson and Walter White. When I think of movies, however, imagery is the first thing that comes to mind. I think of Janet Leigh’s screaming face in Psycho, and Anton Chigurh staring down a west-Texas gas station owner in No Country for Old Men, and Kubrick’s shuddering “star-child” at the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For me, at least two images from 12 Years a Slave belong in a conversation alongside some of the very best single shots in film history. The first is an extended shot that I discussed in my review of the film, which shows the main character, Solomon Northup, hanging from a tree across a period of hours. This shot, and the movie in general, isn’t particularly representative of the cinematic innovation I’ve been discussing here, and yet, there is a modernity to it that I’m not sure America realized it was ready for until director Steve McQueen showed us the way.

The single most memorable image for me from 2013

The second shot, and the subtler of the two, comes about three quarters of the way through the film.  Standing in a field alone and slowly looking around at nothing in particular, Northup stands left of center in the frame. For a brief, breathtaking moment, Northup fixes his piercing gaze directly into the camera, as though to say, “this is not the story of me – it is the story of all of us.” 

These two shots, and a third – an extended close-up take in Gravity (pictured above) in which Sandra Bullock desperately attempts to stabilize her oxygen use – will be the chief take-aways for my cinema experience this year. I hope as television continues to tell great stories, film will continue to find new ways to distinguish itself by innovating and surprising us.

The Top 10 Films of 2013
1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Before Midnight
3. The Place Beyond the Pines
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
6. Frances Ha
7. Gravity
8. Blue Jasmine
9. To the Wonder
10. Enough Said

Honorable Mentions (No particular order):
Don Jon
Fruitvale Station
All is Lost
Short Term 12
Spring Breakers