Archive for the ‘Best Picture’ Category

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Spotlight (2015)

If you still haven’t seen last year’s Best Picture winner, then you have no excuse now. Spotlight has arrived on Netflix, so it’s the perfect time for a first, second, or hundredth viewing of the film, which focuses on the dogged work of a team of reporters at The Boston Globe that exposed the widespread cover-up of child abuse  by Catholic priests. It’s heavy stuff, but not without its moments of levity, all of which are performed exquisitely by the talented cast (led by Michael Keaton). And as a fellow journalist, the newsroom scenes are on point.

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The Big Short (2015)

Another of last year’s Best Picture nominees, The Big Short is one of the two best movies ever made about the subprime mortgage crisis (the other being Margin Call, which unfortunately is not streaming on Netflix right now). The economy took a nosedive in 2008, taking  a lot of regular people down with it. A few Wall Street watchers saw the crash coming and bet against the markets, but the hard thing about foresight is being proved right. Watch this movie, and prepare to get angry.

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We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Do you have kids? Do you ever worry that they might grow up to be mass-murdering sociopaths? Don’t worry, they won’t.

Unless they do…

Tilda Swinton stars as a mother who struggles to bond with her son and, over time, is increasingly suspicious of his actions. The film squeezes a suffocating amount of tension out of the inevitability of Kevin’s evolution, and Ezra Miller (the future Flash) stars in a  breakout role that toes too many emotional lines to even describe.

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An Honest Liar (2014)

This biographical documentary looks at the life of  James “The Amazing” Randi, a magician and escape artist who retired from performing and devoted his life to debunking psychics and mystics as charlatans and frauds. He excelled in both careers, going from guest appearances in Happy Days as “The Amazing Randi” to exposing televangelist Peter Popoff, who relied on a hidden earpiece to receive diving inspiration about his flock.

The dual-track of Randi’s legacy is affectionately captured in An Honest Liar, as is the charm and charisma of Randi himself. He is, as they say, a character, and this documentary does him justice.

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Experimenter (2015)

Did you ever hear about that study where people were told to shock a man for giving wrong word-association answers? And they did, for the most part, despite the man’s pleas to stop?

Or perhaps you’ve heard about six degrees of separation, the idea that everyone can be connected through a chain of six people?

They both are the work of Stanley Milgram, a controversial social psychologist with a penchant for devising thought-provoking experimentation on human behavior. His work gets the biopic treatment in Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder and a brief appearance by the late Anton Yelchin, who died last month.

 

 

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Another year, another Top 10. The last 12 months have been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cinema. Yes, big-budget tentpole films are getting bigger-budgeter tentpoler and yes, sequels, reboots and remakes have taken center stage while original stories struggle to find an audience. BUT, this also was a year full of unexpected surprises and visionary spectacles.

We saw the vast expanse of space and the horrors of slavery like we’ve never seen them before. We watched heroes triumph, villains fall, and a folk singer with a tabby cat.

Enough nonsense, let’s do this.

10. Blue Jasmine

We can all imagine how it might be challenging for a 1%-wealthy person to live like the rest of us after losing it all. But in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, we witness the remarkable collapse of Jasmine, a wealthy socialite whose fortune evaporates after her husbsand’s Maddoff-esque antics are exposed.

Cate Blanchett’s performance is captivating and her Jasmine teeters on the edge of a mental breakdown. She is poised confidence on the outside with a boiling madness flowing in her veins as she refuses to accept her new reality (a struggle represented by frequent flashbacks to her posh former life at the arm of Alec Baldwin’s wealthy criminal).

The film is an homage to A Streetcar Named Desire and alternates between the heady psychosis of Jasmine and the proletarian challenges of her sister, whose life is abruptly invaded by Jasmine’s presence and who is made to feel lesser for her stature despite Jasmine’s superiority being little more than an empty shell. It is witty, sharp, provocative, fascinating and one of Allen’s best works.

9. Fruitvale Station

The tragic irony infused in this retelling of the life of Oscar Grant, a real-life 22-year-old man who was accidentally shot and killed on New Year’s Day 2009, is thick enough to cut with a knife. Here we have a man who suffered a needless death at the hands of a transit police officer (he later claimed to have been attempting to reach for his tazer and not his gun) and from the first moments of Fruitvale Station we know how the story ends.

That dark cloud hangs over the proceedings like the hand of fate as Grant tries to be a better man for his young daughter and girlfriend. The film portrays only the last day of Grant’s life, presenting him as neither sinner or saint, and asks the question of what might have been if this man had been allowed to live.

But part of the film’s strength comes form the world it arrived in, with the nation’s attention turned to the death of Trayvon Martin in a tragic incident all-too-easily comparable to that of Oscar Grant. The makers of Fruitvale Station could not have predicted the racial debate their film would arrive in, but they didn’t need to. What Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin show is that the question of race relations in America is far from settled, and despite our progress these tragedies continue to occur.

8. Blackfish

A documentary does not have to be shocking to be good. One of my favorite docs, for example, is The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which tells the story of a Donkey Kong arcade champion. But the power of documentaries is that they portray real-life events, and when that medium is used the expose the obfuscated actions of powerful organizations, the result is nothing short of magical.

So it is with Blackfish, a documentary about the killer whales of Sea World and particularly Tillicum, a male Orca that has been involved in — if not the intentional cause of — several deaths and injuries of park trainers. Sea World has spent the last several months actively denying the allegations raised in Blackfish, but the diligence of the filmmakers is hard to question.

Through a series of interviews and truly breathtaking footage, we watch Tillicum move from one park, where he was kept in the oceanic equivalent of a jail cell and a trainer died, to Sea World, where he was attacked by the female Orcas and yet another trainer died. With the help of some amazing – and at times disturbing – archive footage, we watch an employee drug repeatedly to the bottom of a water tank, his foot pinched between an Orcas’ teeth. We see park employees scrambling to obscure the view of a whale who rises up out of the water to solute the crowd, exposing several bleeding wounds on his side where the other whales have “raked” him with their teeth. And we watch a female Orca pressing her face against the glass making piercing cries after her child was taken from her.

We hear the interviews of former park trainers, who decry the barbarity of what they saw and the heavy-handed attempts to silence dissent. And in perhaps the most memorable interview, we hear a salty sea dog reminisce about his days as a whale trapper. You can’t help but believe him when he says he’s seen some things in his day, but it’s the whaling that haunts him most.

The film is profound and at times horrific, and makes you feel complicit in a crime for ever having attending an Orca show.

7. All Is Lost

After Life of Pi and even Captain Phillips, there is a temptation to dismiss JC Chandor’s All Is Lost as just another tale of a man at odds with the sea. But even with Pi’s tiger, and Phillip’s gun-toting Somali pirates, it’s All Is Lost that dazzles with the relentless abuse inflicted upon its protagonist, in this case a grizzled Robert Redford in an almost wordless role.

Chandor — who made his debut in 2011 with the spectacular Margin Call — goes all in on his star, and the bet pays off. Redford is outstanding, relying on nothing but expression and demeanor to convey the terror in his eyes as his ship is first punctured by a stray shipping container and then besought by stormy seas. It’s a surprisingly action-filled performance for the 77-year-old actor, who is tossed about relentlessly by the crashing waves before making his way onto a life raft in a seemingly hopeless attempt to survive.

6. The Kings of Summer

In Kings of Summer (full review here), three friends tired of the overbearing pestering of their parents head into the wild to build a shelter, forage for food and live as men. It’s a simple premise, but one that is presented with an almost intoxicating level of free-spirited liberation as our heroes run, jump, laugh, scream, and do as they please.

The performances are spectacular, particularly Moises Arias in a scene-stealing breakout role, but also Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso who each deliver fully-realized characters as the other kings and Nick Offerman and Megan Mulaly as the doting parents. The dialogue is hilariously witty, trading between the ebullient simplicity of youth with the dour, stoic practicality of adulthood all while moving through perhaps the most charming story of the year.

5. American Hustle

In the late 70s, a con man and his accomplice are forced to assist the FBI in taking down other ne’er-do-wells in exchange for their freedom. What ensues is a loopy tale of deception, greed, pride and corruption that balloons out of control and is only half as crazy as the real Abscam case it’s based on.

At it’s heart, American Hustle is the story of Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a beer belly and a garish combover. But orbiting his world are Amy Adams as his mistress/partner, Bradley Cooper as an increasingly unstable FBI agent who thinks he’s in charge, Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s absolutely unstable wife who most definitely is in charge and Jeremy Renner as a well-intentioned politician who is unfortunately dragged into the mess.

It’s an All American tale of dirty people doing dirty deeds in the pursuit of fortunes and the unsuspecting victims who get left with the bill. In American Hustle (full review here), everyone’s a crook, except the crooks and especially the crooks, but they’re not always the same people that get punished.

4. Before Midnight

It’s a common complaint levied against romantic comedies that they end precisely where they story should begin. Sure, our hero just ran through the rain to profess his love at our heroine’s doorstep, but it’s what happens after they kiss that’s truly interesting. The morning after, as it were, is when the drama begins.

It’s that sense of realism, not relying on casual tropes but interested in a true examination of what “love” is, that has always endeared the Before franchise to fans. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train and spend the next day walking through the streets of Vienna talking about, well, everything. Nine years later in Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine meet again in France only now he’s married with a son and she’s in a relationship, but the attraction remains.

And now, 18 years after their initial serendipitous encounter on that train, Jesse and Celine are married and vacationing in Greece with friends. They are full-fledged adults, having spent a significant portion of their lives together and having settled fully into the routine machinations of married life. When their friends gift them with a hotel room in a nearby town the pair get some privacy, only to see the romantic getaway devolve into a bickering argument spurred by miscommunication and misunderstanding and the latent frustrations of what they’ve each given up to be together.

In Before Midnight, we see that the previous two films have been leading to this and appropriately, the third film is the best one yet. It takes an almost unbearably honest  approach to the idea of marriage as our pair go from loving each other to hating each other and back again in the space of a single conversation. If that’s not modern romance, I don’t know what is.

Allow me to add my voice to the many that have come before me. Please, give us Before Noon in 2022.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

Is there anything more universal than the feeling that life has conspired against us, stopping us from catching a break? That’s the emotion that sums up Inside Llewyn Davis, a period piece about a struggling folk singer in an unending cycle of near-misses, disappointments and failures. He’s a drifter, relying on a rotation of friends’ couches to provide shelter from the cold while playing dive bars for a pittance and peddling a box of records like every other no-name head of hair with a guitar.

But the beauty of the Coen Brother’s film is how it pulls back the camera and shows the events as if from the perspective of some omniscient being. Llewyn’s situation is less a matter of bad luck as it is a series of self-destructive decisions. He passes up opportunities because of his high-minded artistry, neglects the few sympathetic people in his life and refuses to accept the hands that are offered to him. It’s a cosmic joke the audience is aware of from our perch in 2013 – at one point a producer suggests there’s no money in Llewyn as a solo act, but maybe if he played backup vocals in a trio being put together, which sounds an awful lot like Peter, Paul and Mary? Llewyn thanks him for his time and walks out.

It’s a highly symbolic tale, filled with themes and imagery that suggest the importance of being at peace with one’s self. But on the surface is a deeply comedic drama about a misanthropic folk singer who is perhaps defined by his failure and layered with the best soundtrack of the year.

2. Gravity

The most lasting image from Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (full review here) is that of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone spinning uncontrollably in a vast expanse of black space. She is utterly helpless, adrift in an inhospitable environment with the taunting image of a blue Earth before her eyes and no way to reach it.

That image comes early in Gravity’s 91-minute running time, suggesting that some change is coming to her situation, but its impact is no less terrifying. In Gravity, Cuaron presents us with the most comprehensive and transformative representation of the horror and grandeur of outer space. It is a symphony of sensory and emotional cues, as we witness with white knuckles the catastrophic destruction of shuttles and space stations obliterated by debris from the frantic perspective of our protagonist trapped in a race against time.

What Cuaron has accomplished with Gravity is a pure spectacle, raising the bar for what is possible with film technology while still delivering a deeply emotional tale of survival. Every moment of screen time is exhilarating, filled with breathtaking and pulse-pounding images that go beyond what was previously the frontier of “edge-of-your-seat” thrills.

1. 12 Years a Slave

In Steve McQueen’s brutal, haunting film, we see the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in pre-Civil War New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he suffers unspeakable horrors for more than a decade before regaining his freedom.

The power of the film comes from two sources. First, the caliber of performances delivered by the cast, and in particular Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. Second, the directorial choices of McQueen, who’s camera lingers on the atrocities until they become unbearable only to linger a few moments more. To wit, in one particular scene we see Ejiofor’s Solomon hung by the neck, the tips of his toes barely reaching the ground, for what feels like an interminable eternity before he is finally cut down and collapses in a wheezing heap. It is as raw as it is uncomfortable to watch but also carries with it a profound dramatic weight.

The desire of that scene and others like it (and the decision to depict them so graphically) is not just a thirst for audience effect. No movie could ever truly capture the horrors of slavery and McQueen knows this, and so when we reach these dark portions of the story he does not pull away, he leans in, filling the screen and presenting us with the inescapable wrongs of our shared past. He forces us to confront one of the ugliest scars of American history in a visceral way that only film can.

Paired with the heartbreaking humanity of Ejiofor’s performance, McQueen’s work is a triumph, exposing a dark past in the hope of a brighter future.

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2012 has been an amazing year for movies.

Slowly but surely I’m whittling my Top 10 list down to the final titles and in a movie year this stacked I’ve been forced to painfully leave a lot of great cinema on the cutting room floor. My first pass at a Top 10 yielded 30 titles, which I’ve since narrowed down to 12, so without further ado, here’s a few of the movies that didn’t quite make the cut, but deserve recognition of their own.

Best film about college: Liberal Arts

When he’s not playing the central character in CBS’s highly-successful sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Joss Radnor likes to fill his time writing, directing and starring in quiet independent films. His first was Happy Thank You More Please, which he then followed up with Liberal Arts about a mid-30s university admissions employee taking a trip back to his alma mater and falling hopelessly in puppy love with a young co-ed (played by the disarmingly beautiful indie “it” girl Elizabeth Olsen).

I caught LA at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was tickled pink when it got it’s theatrical run. The movie manages to deliver a quiet, emotionally honest film that could have easily ran off the rails into contrived shenanigans but instead stays the course, tapping into the shared nostalgia of the millennial generation and daring you to not fall in love with Olsen right alongside Radnor’s character.

For my full Wood’s Stock review, click here.

Best Documentary: Bully

When Harvey Weinstein (of The Weinstein Company) started kicking up dust about Bully’s R rating, it was obvious that he was making a grab at free publicity for Bully, the little documentary that could. But upon viewing, it turns out it was worth the fuss.

Bully tells the story of a handful of school-age misfits and their struggles to get by in the public school system. It paints a dark picture, mostly by the way it holds a mirror up to adult society and the way we tend to shrug off incident of abuse and violence with a simple “Boys Will Be Boys” and, at most, a slap on the wrist. It ain’t pretty, but it’s something that must be shown if anything is ever going to change.

For my full review, click here.

Best Superhero(es): The Avengers

After years of mind-numbing Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, you couldn’t help but wonder if we had collectively reached the tipping point of diminishing returns on big popcorn summer spectacle. Then a funny thing happened, one after another Marvel started releasing a string of sugar-sweet superhero flicks, all while dangling the carrot of an Avengers team-up project in front of us.

“Madness!” we said. “It can’t be done.”

Well, it can and was and in their most brilliant move yet Marvel hired super-geek and uber-nerd Joss Whedon to craft arguably the most ambitious action film ever created. The varying franchises came together with seamless harmony, Hulk finally got the treatment he deserved and under the careful tutelage of Whedon we laughed, cried and perched at the edges of our seats. Bravo!

For full review, click here.

Best January surprise (tie): Chronicle and Haywire

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In the world of Hollywood, the January-Febrary period is typically reserved as a wasteland to burn off whatever phoned-in piece of nonsense the studios have collecting dust on the shelf. But, every so often, a shrewd filmmaker will strategically place a lesser known but creatively ambitious property into the wasteland, with the hope that the less competitive slate will help the movie find a greater audience.

We’re lucky to get one of these, but this year we got two in the form of Chronicle, a found-footage spin on the otherwise tired genre of superhero origin stories with a cast of unknowns, and Haywire, a heavily-pedigreed ensemble action piece centered around a female Bourne-esque hired gun played by professional fighter Gina Carano.

In both cases, you get something familiar and yet not quite like anything you’ve ever seen. Chronicle uses CGI sparingly and in the process pulls off some very impressive visual treats while still preserving the vibe of three high school punks who stumble into superhuman abilities. In Haywire, A-List director Steven Soderbergh pulls back the camera, showing every kick and punch of his hyper-realistic actions scenes. It’s like watching a Bruce Lee kung fu movie, except one with a female hero, a plot and respected actors (Michael Fassbender, Ewen McGregor, Kurt Douglass and Antonio Banderas, to name a few).

Best Indie: Safety Not Guaranteed

In Safety Not Guaranteed, a (possibly) crazy Mark Duplass places an advertisement in the newspaper for a co-pilot to join him in an adventure back in time. The ad catches the eye of a magazine writer, who sets off with two interns to get the scope and meet up with an ex-girlfriend on the way.

That’s essentially it, but the minds behind SNG manage to turn a 50-word classified ad into one of the quirkiest, most charming pics of the year as Aubrey Plaza and Duplass train for their voyage through time and New Girl’s Jake Johnson deals with the questions of what could be and what could’ve been. The underlying question of whether or not Duplass’ character is completely out of his mind is craftily toyed with for the film’s entirety, until everything comes together in a simple yet perfectly satisfying conclusion.

The Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: The Cabin In The Woods

A jock, a hot blond, a nerd, a stoner, and a “good” girl go away for a weekend in the woods. Oh, you’ve heard this story before?

No. You haven’t.

Joss Whedon (him again?) and Drew Goddard know every horror trope in the book, and gleefully play with each and every one of them in Cabin In The Woods, where five friends head out on seemingly the most cliched movie premise in history only to encounter…well I can’t tell you, because it would spoil it.

The first trailer for CITW set the film up for some sort of genre-bending, trippy time, but you can practically hear the filmmakers giggling as they twist and turn the plot before going all-out redonk-a-donk crazy in act III. In lesser hands, CITW would’ve been simply Halloween part 8 (or whatever number we’re on). Even in mediocre hands CITW would’ve been a failed attempt at meta horror-comedy. But in Whedon and Goddard’s hands, CITW is the kind of crazy party I want to go to again and again.

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First off, I wanted to make a note of something interesting about this year’s Oscar race. Since I live in a Red State, I am constantly hearing the moans and gripes from social conservatives about the steady moral decline shown in modern cinema. “Hollywood is nothing but Filth!” they scream, clutching their children to them and running from darkened theaters as the 20th Century Fox fanfare begins to play.

In their minds, every year movies are getting worse and worse, unlike the good wholesome entertainment that they were used to when they were younger. The explanation for this is obvious, when they were younger they didn’t watch every movie that was made. Have you seen Bonnie and Clyde lately? or Scarface? You’re right, compared to Bambi, The Hangover Part II seems a little crude but even the old Rock Hudson/Doris Day rom-coms are pretty much 118 minutes of sexual innuendo. I mean, Pillow Talk? Come on.

Why am I talking about this? Because amazingly, 8 out of the 9 Best Picture nominees are rated PG-13 and the lone R-rated offering, The Descendants, is far from a prurient romp. It’s actually a touching story about a family dealing with the loss of their mother and gets the big “R” because, understandably, the characters use a few F-bombs as they try to vocalize their emotions.

It’s unprecedented. Besides the fact that 8 “13s” is a statistical first — due to only 3 years of 5+ nominees — you would probably have to go back to the days of the Hays Production Code to find a crop of candidates that would please the Parents Television Council this much. I can actually talk about the nominees, all of the them, with my mom. This has never happened before in my lifetime.

So, to all the easily offended, take advantage of the one year when you can actually go and watch all of the Oscar nominees during AMC’s marathon (this weekend). And just remember that next year, when you talk about how bad movies are getting, I will shove 2011 in your face. The proof is in the pudding.

OH, you want to know who’s going to win? That’s easy.

Best Picture: The Artist
Best Director: Michael Hazavanicious (I probably spelled that wrong)
Best Actor: George Clooney
Best Actress: Viola Davis (Meryl has enough, don’t you think?)
Best Supporting Actor: Jonah Hill (conventional wisdom would suggest Christopher Plummer but something in me thinks Hill will be the surprise of the night)
Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain (most people are betting Spencer, but 2011 was the year of Chastain and I think it will be a message award for her entire body of work, then again, this is the Oscars not The Globes so I’m only 60% confident on this one)
Best Animated Feature: Rango (you can hear Gore Verbinski saying “Thank you Cars 2 for sucking so bad”)
Best Foreign: A Separation (this was on soooo many top 10 lists this year, EW’s Owen Gleiberman would have put it in the top category)
Best Original Screenplay: Midnight in Paris, FTW!
Best Adapted Screenplay: My man Jim Rash (I interviewed him, he’s a complete stud)
Best Song: “Man or Muppet” (I mean seriously, Rio? Please)

And…no one cares about the rest.

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