Friday, January 24, 2020

Best of 2019: Top 20 Acting Performances


During the days of classic Hollywood and the peak of the studio system, great acting was often showcased through star vehicles - films crafted around the persona of a single movie star to enhance or build on their popularity. As movie stars have become less of a draw for audiences, ensemble casts have become even more popular, bringing together multiple fan faves. While compiling this list of the Top 20 Performances of 2019, I also found myself drawn to the ensembles, particularly the pairings within them. Indeed, that almost magical alchemy between actors who "click" delivered some of my favorite movie moments of the year. And in the final rundown, this left only 13 films represented in the list below. Here they are:

Best of 2019: Top 10 Foreign Language Films


When Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” dominated the awards circuit in 2018, it represented a rare instance of non-English cinema taking the spotlight. But in a welcome turn of events, 2019 was arguably an even bigger year for foreign language films. Indeed, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” has produced unprecedented crossover success for Korean cinema, looking to go even further than “Roma” at the Oscars. In addition, a particularly strong year for French cinema had cinephiles falling in love with such stellar work as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “Atlantics” and “Les Misérables.” These films and more are celebrated in this year’s list of the Top 10 Foreign Language Films of 2019.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Best of 2019: Top 10 Documentaries


A daring mission to the spoon, a nerve-wracking war story, a devious political conspiracy. For mainstream audiences, these premises bring to mind some of the year’s most popular blockbuster films. But they also represent the true stories behind some of the year’s best documentaries. Far from the traditional “talking heads” style of yesteryear, non-fiction filmmaking continues to thrive, delivering cinematic thrills and artistry on par with that of narrative features. Indeed, the following list of the Top 10 Documentaries of 2019 includes several films that would hardly feel out of place on awards ballots for cinematography, directing, editing, screenwriting, and sound.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, January 18, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions


With the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards agreeing on their acting winners, I expect more of the same tomorrow at the SAG Awards. Here are my predictions:

Best Cast in a Motion Picture
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Male Actor in a Leading Role
Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”)

Best Female Actor in a Leading Role
Renée Zellweger (“Judy”)

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Predictions


Tomorrow, the last major awards before the Oscar nominations will be handed out by the Critics Choice Association. And as they love to remind us, they are one of the more reliable precursors to the Academy Awards. Will they serve up a preview of this year's Oscar nods? Here's how I see it playing out at the Taye Diggs-hosted 25th annual Critics Choice Awards:

BEST PICTURE
1917

BEST DIRECTOR
Sam Mendes – 1917

BEST ACTOR
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

BEST ACTRESS
Renée Zellweger – Judy

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Laura Dern – Marriage Story

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Awards


With the Oscar nominations fast approaching, the Golden Globes last weekend gave a strong hint of who the frontrunners will be come Monday morning. And in a rather surprising outcome it was Sam Mendes' "1917" which took the big wins of Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director. Could this ambitious war effort lead the Oscar noms, or will it be Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood", winner of the Best Picture prize in the Comedy/Musical category? The stage is set for an interesting final phase of this Oscar season indeed. Here are this year's Golden Globe winners:

Best Picture, Drama
1917

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director
Sam Mendes, 1917

Best Actress, Drama
Renee Zellweger, Judy

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy
Awkwafina, The Farewell

Best Actor, Drama
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Taron Egerton, Rocketman

Best Supporting Actor
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Little Women


Given the debate surrounding the value (or lack thereof) of yet another "Little Women" adaptation hitting theaters, let me preface this review by saying that I have never read Louisa May Alcott's classic novel. Furthermore, my memories of the 1994 film adaptation have long faded. With that being said, I approached Greta Gerwig's latest work with great anticipation. And what I discovered was a cinematic tour de force that is fully worthy of praise and a place in the Best Picture conversation.

In this classic tale of sisterhood set around the time of the American Civil War, we are first introduced to our main protagonist Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer hoping to sell her latest work. As the story progresses, we soon learn that she is just one of several sisters with artistic inclinations, including an avid pianist (Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen), an ambitious painter (Amy, played by Florence Pugh) and a talented actress (Meg, played by Emma Watson). These interests will evolve and change over the years, however, as they come of age in a time of hardship which will test their family and other relationships.

Indeed, romance, humor and tragedy are the order of the day, as Greta Gerwig delivers a bold interpretation of classic costume drama tropes. Making a strong case for a second Best Director nod, she perfectly balances the contrasting tones through smart visual and storytelling choices. At once delicate and exuberant, the cinematography is equally adept at capturing the restless optimism of youth and the stillness of disillusioned adulthood. Similarly, the color palette reflects the contrast between the glow of nostalgia and the more solemn pragmatism of the present and future, further emphasized by non-linear storytelling which enriches rather than obfuscates the narrative.

As that narrative follows the diverging lives of the titular sisters, Gerwig's screenplay - worthy of consideration for Best Adapted Screenplay - compellingly explores feminist themes which continue to resonate today. And in conveying the perspectives of the richly defined characters, the audience is treated to a plethora of sensational performances. Among the sisters, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are standouts, deservingly garnering attention for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress kudos respectively. As the headstrong and fiercely independent Jo, Ronan anchors the film with vulnerability and charisma. Meanwhile Pugh is truly inspired in her take on the petulant Amy, brilliantly charting her character's arc with almost vaudevillian expressiveness in her youth and stoic poise as she finds her way in the world.

Simply put, "Little Women" is one of the most entertaining, emotionally affecting and downright gorgeous films of the year. Several of its painterly shot compositions (nominations for Best Production Design, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design deserve to be foregone conclusions) are seared into my memory, and Alexandre Desplat is on track for another Best Original Score nomination for his typically wonderful music. It may tell a familiar story, but Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" is unforgettable.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Predictions


The 2020 phase of the awards season kicks off in fine style tomorrow with the Golden Globe Awards and anticipation is high as several films are looking strong to dominate the night. Will it be nominations leader "Marriage Story", foreign language breakout "Parasite" or the throwback masterworks from two of Hollywood's most respected auteurs (Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese). Tune in to NBC at 8pm EST to find out if my predictions below are correct.

Best Picture, Drama
The Irishman

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director
Bong Joon Ho, Parasite

Best Actress, Drama
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy
Awkwafina, The Farewell

Best Actor, Drama
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actor
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Can A24 Make a Best Picture Comeback?

Is it time to say goodbye to 'The Farewell' in the Best Picture race?
With just two weeks to go before nomination voting closes on January 7 for the next Academy Awards, the clock is ticking for this year's contenders. In the aftermath of Harvey Weinstein's downfall, upstart distributors have been jostling to fill that void and establish themselves as the new "Oscar whisperers." And so far, Netflix seems to have laid claim to that title with at least 4 viable contenders for Best Picture. But what about the smaller distributors like A24? After a steady climb in the world of Oscar campaigning which included a momentous victory for "Moonlight", the New York-based company had an uncharacteristic down year in 2018, garnering only a single nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Depending on who you ask, there is much cause for concern regarding A24's 2019 lineup. Though their slate includes several acclaimed films, they seem to have been beaten at their own game - edgy but accessible fare - by upstarts Neon, who are flying high on the success of "Parasite" among others. In contrast, A24's prized pony is less clear. Is it "Waves," which has crashed and burned since its buzzy Telluride launch? Is it the challenging but rewarding "Uncut Gems" from the inimitable Safdie Brothers? Or is it Sundance darling "The Farewell," with its strong awards potential in the acting and screenplay categories?

In my estimation, there are 7 films looking like safe bets in Best Picture, which leaves room for A24 to stage a comeback. Here's how I see current state of the Best Picture race:

  1. The Irishman
  2. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
  3. Jojo Rabbit
  4. Parasite
  5. Marriage Story
  6. 1917  
  7. Joker
  8. The Farewell
  9. Dolemite is My Name
  10. Uncut Gems

OSCAR WATCH: Uncut Gems


Ever since the Safdie brothers exploded unto the independent film scene with their breakthrough feature "Heaven Knows What", they have established themselves as one of American cinema's foremost purveyors of propulsive filmmaking. Utilizing the full potential of the medium, they deliver visually and aurally stimulating storytelling like no other. That trend continues with "Uncut Gems", a typically New York-set thriller hoping to send an electric jolt to this year's Best Picture race.

"Uncut Gems" takes place in New York City's Diamond District, where jeweller Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler), runs a store catering to a wide range of moneyed clientele. Always looking to score his next big deal with an eye to pay off his debts, Ratner gets his hands on an uncut Opal from Ethiopia, purported to be worth $1 million. As he plans to auction this precious stone, basketball star Kevin Garnett takes an interest. Seeing a golden opportunity, Ratner loans him the gem for good luck in exchange for a valuable commemorative ring. When Ratner subsequently pawns the ring to place a bet, however, he quickly becomes entangled in a high stakes web which involves a dangerous gang of tough guys who are determined to collect what he owns them.

As with any Safdie brothers film, it takes some time for audiences to get on their wavelength. Indeed, their blaring synth score and frantic pacing can feel belligerent at first. Furthermore, his characters aren't instantly likable.

But like Arielle Holmes and Robert Pattinson before him, Adam Sandler's performance is so attuned to Safdie's purposeful storytelling that you end becoming fully invested in his plight. In one of his finest performances to date Sandler's role is essentially the male counterpart to the "women on the verge of a nervous breakdown" trope. But whereas actresses often lean in to the vulnerability, Sandler's Ratner is a man so high on his drug of choice - i.e. greed - that he rarely has time to be overcome by his underlying anxiety.

The result is a thrilling ride as we witness his navigation through the dangerous world through the dog-eat-dog world of Manhattan society. It's as if the Safdies reinvisioned Scorcese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" as the story of a street-level hustler set in the New York City of "Taxi Driver". But those references fail to do justice to the originality the Safdie brothers bring to their work. As their narratives typically surround desperate characters, so too does their filmmaking pulsate with the vibrancy and determination of people doing everything they can to make their mark. And once again, they've succeeded.