Monday, January 26, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Girlhood


After the success of 2011’s "Tomboy", rising French director Céline Sciamma is back with another sensitive coming of age film in "Girlhood". While the former was an intimate look at the life of a 10-year old, her latest work sees the director exploring the more volatile teenage years. As its title suggests however, Sciamma remains firmly within her wheelhouse as a steadfast champion of thoughtful female-centric narratives.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, January 25, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Awards


After a mostly predictable SAG awards show, Birdman emerged on top with a Best Ensemble win to ensure that the season's Boyman narrative stays strong. There was one upset tonight though, as Eddie Redmayne picked up another win to turn the Best Actor race into a real dogfight with Michael Keaton. There will be no such excitement in the other acting categories, as Moore, Simmons and Arquette will not be denied. Here are your SAG winners:

Best Ensemble
Birdman

Best Actor
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Top 20 Acting Performances of 2014

This list of acting performances perfectly encapsulates the intriguing year that was 2014. It was a year where my top performances and top films felt even more divorced from each other than usual. It just proves that film is a complex artform, where even some of the most underwhelming films can feature outstanding performances. In the end, there was a bounty of great work to choose from, making this once again the most agonizing year-end list to compile. There was a lot of talk about it being a weak year for actresses but I didn't find that to be the case. While it wasn't as impressive as 2013's banner year of female roles, I still ended up with an even split of male-female performances.

On this list you'll see many of the usual suspects, while some of the others may surprise you. If you've seen some of my previous lists, you'll know that I always aim to be honest about which performances impacted me most, regardless of consensus opinion. With that said, I hope you enjoy reading my take of the Top 20 Acting Performances of 2014.

N.B. - Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant) was already featured on my 2013 list. Likewise, I decided to consider Mia Wasikowska's performance (Tracks) as 2013 as well. #BlameHarveyWeinstein

Saturday, January 24, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions


Tomorrow night is the next stop on the awards tour and I'm expecting more of the same. The only difference I expect to see is Birdman taking the top prize. Here are my full predictions:

Best Ensemble
Birdman

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best of 2014

It's time for me to officially sign off on the year 2014 with my list of the Best Films of the Year. Although there are still some films I would have liked to have seen (Selma, Love is Strange, Citizenfour, Mommy), I'm happy with the list of films I've ended up with.

When making a Top 10 list, the first question that we tend to think about is "was it a good year?" For me, I've begun to realize that the answer depends on the pool of films you've been exposed to. Looking through my list, there are a number of surprise gems that I could have easily missed. Had it not been for my Foreign Circuit column or awards screeners, this list wouldn't have been nearly as diverse.

As usual, there is a mix of foreign language, documentary, animated, indie, arthouse and multiplex fare. Of note, it was a particularly strong year for "queer cinema", with a trio of LGBT-themed titles making my Top 15. In the end though, two special films from modern masters stood out from the rest of the pack.

One of the them is David Fincher's Gone Girl, which gave me my most enjoyable time at the cinema all year. Its brilliantly propulsive narrative structure is a screenwriting marvel and the titular performance from Rosamund Pike absolutely blew me away. I was so impressed that I prematurely decided that Gone Girl couldn't be unseated at the top. Then a few months later, I saw my eventual choice for #1 - Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman. This superbly acted film dazzled me with its explosion of creativity, a true tour de force in every aspect of its filmmaking. In my opinion, there was no better cast ensemble, direction, cinematography or editing in 2014. We all thought we'd figured out Iñárritu's MO (i.e. misery and despair), but with this comedy he's proven that he's willing to test himself with new tricks. It's an attitude that many other auteurs would do well to adopt.

With that preamble out of the way, here are my Top 15 Films of 2014 (in ranking order):



Birdman
Gone Girl
Foxcatcher
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Calvary
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The Circle
Obvious Child
Stranger by the Lake
Dear White People

Thursday, January 22, 2015

REVIEW: R100


The kinky sex comedy gets a Japanese spin in "R100", the latest film from director Hitoshi Matsumoto. This bizarre extravaganza dares you to take a ride on the wild side, delving into some of our most twisted fantasies. Sadomasochism is the name of the game, as this film plunges the viewer headfirst into a world where the dominatrix rules.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, January 19, 2015

MOVIE OF THE WEEK/OSCAR WATCH: The Imitation Game


After a steadily rising profile in the Norwegian film industry, it's hardly surprising that Morten Tyldum would attempt an English-language crossover. With his 2014 release "The Imitation Game", Tyldum has done just that, taking on one of the more traditional narrative formats - the biopic. As soon as this project was announced, it had been labeled "Oscar bait" and sure enough, 8 Oscar nominations followed. We all know "Oscar bait" can be both good and bad, so what kind is Tyldum's "The Imitation Game"?

"The Imitation Game" is based on the biography of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician/scientist who was a key figure in World War II. Unbeknownst to the public, he lead a secret team of codebreakers that developed a special computer to crack the enigma code, which the Germans used to communicate their war strategies. His computer worked and was instrumental in helping the Allies win the war at a faster pace. Unfortunately, his heroic acts had to be kept a secret and later in a life, another secret came back to haunt him. Despite his valiant efforts, he was criminally prosecuted for gross indecency on account of his homosexual inclinations. As such, the film is a tale of triumph and tragedy.

In telling Turin's story, Tyldum has crafted a stirring film. The detailed production design captures the time period and setting. The costume design is handsome and the cast is excellent. The latter is especially key in the film's crucial moments, where the human emotions speak directly to the film's primary themes (saving human lives and shedding light on injustice). As Joan Clarke - a brilliant codebreaker and Turin's main confidante Joan - Keira Knightley is especially terrific, commanding the screen with her presence. Cumberbatch is also strong as our lead character, though his cocky genius is unlikely to feel fresh to fans of his Sherlock. Other roles are well-cast too, including characters played by the likes of Mark Strong, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance.

With a talented ensemble and an inherently fascinating story, it's hard for the film to truly fail and it certainly doesn't. Yet there are deficiencies in the filmmaking that prevent it from being truly inspired. For example, it's disappointing to see how Tyldum handles the thriller aspects of the codebreaking scenes. If you weren't familiar with his previous film "Headhunters", you wouldn't guess that this is the same director who made that clever, uniquely constructed thriller. On this occasion, he seems to have suppressed his special talent in service of something more generic.

There's also the issue of the prosecution subplot, which turns out to be the film's main raison d'être. The screenplay plays it too safe, often a little too coy in dealing with actual sexuality. The eventual trajectory of the story is still heartbreaking (thanks to the moving performances from Knightley and Cumberbatch), but it all seems a bit underdeveloped for something that's presented as the main emotional hook of the story.

"The Imitation Game" is a highly intriguing story that's just a little too conventionally told for its own good. It definitely falls into some of the usual traps (from the moment our protagonist begins to tell his story to an astonished stranger, you know you're in familiar territory). Still, when all things are considered, it remains a very compelling film on its own terms. It may be "Oscar bait", but I enjoyed what it served.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: American Sniper


Like the skilled sharpshooters who feature in his latest film, Clint Eastwood has managed to bypass the precursor season and aimed straight for the big targets with the war drama "American Sniper". With 6 Oscar noms under its belt and a record-breaking opening weekend on the way, it's safe to say that the film can already be deemed a success. All that's left to ponder is whether the film has the goods to really stand the test of time.

"American Sniper" is the true story of famed Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who is reported to have executed 255 kills in the line of duty. Based on his autobiography, the film shows us his experiences during four dangerous tours of Iraq. His military exploits are juxtaposed with his family life, where a loving wife and children are anxiously awaiting his return, afraid that each departure might be a final goodbye.

Before Kyle's military career even begins, his "kill or be killed" attitude is ingrained in his psyche from a young age. In one key early scene, his father - head of a conservative, religious household - reinforces the mantra that the men in his family will "sheepdogs", rather than weak sheep or predatory wolves.

This concept of "the protector" is the founding principle of the film's protagonist. On the macro level he's protecting America, while on a more immediate scale, he's protecting his fellow SEALs on the battlefield. How does he accomplish this? By killing as many antagonistic Iraqis as he can.

In showing us the violent details of these acts, many of the film's fundamental concerns come to light. The biggest of these is the actual filmmaking itself. In that regard, Eastwood acquits himself well. The film is riveting, intense and dare I say it, exciting. However, it's within those same thrills where it all gets a bit sticky.

Eastwood's film follows Kyle's narrow perspective of the war and with that, adopts a limited moral complexity. All of his kills are presented as justified acts and the character never seems remorseful. In doing so, the film robs the character of emotional nuance. Though this directing choice may be closer to Kyle's "truth", it prevents the drama from being as impactful as it could be. Kyle never has to worry about whether he killed an innocent civilian, so any anti-war sentiment is barely up for debate. It makes the ubiquitous presence of guns all the more disturbing. We see guns for hunting, guns for combat, guns for funeral salutes and even guns for seduction. Valor and honor is great, but what about the psychological trauma caused by the dark, murderous side of war?

Thankfully, there's Sienna Miller to bring the film back down to earth. As Kyle's suffering wife, she plays into the expected tropes but does so in a way that adds weight and balance to the film. Where Eastwood brings the audiovisual thrills, she brings the heart and the soul.

Ultimately, "American Sniper" remains a stubbornly patriotic film. Though it succeeds as a showcase of filmmaking aesthetics, this a gripping biopic that leaves you wishing there was more. We've seen the killing machine, now we want to see more of the human being underneath.

Friday, January 16, 2015

ASC announces Spotlight Award Nominations


As one of the most stunningly photographed films I saw last year, I'm pleased to report that Pirjo Honkasalo's " has been nominated for the American Society of Cinematographers Spotlight Award, alongside "The Immigrant" and "Under the Skin". Be sure to check out my interview with Honkasalo, where we went into detail about the shooting of the film.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Awards


Well, that happened. This year's Critics Choice Awards show was mostly lackluster apart from a few great speeches and it seems like several categories are now locked down. As such, it was a predictable night, where I managed to correctly predict 23 of the 28 winners. Interestingly, many of tonight's winners were snubbed at the Oscars, while Boyhood once again won the top prize. Here are all the winners:

Best Picture
Boyhood

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood