Sunday, January 20, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: The Animated Films

With less than 2 days to go before the Oscar nominations, I've been trying to cover my bases and watch as many contenders across the various categories as possible. Undoubtedly, one of the most interesting races to follow has been Best Animated Feature, where new frontrunners continuously emerged throughout the course of the year. As usual, I focused on those main contenders in my personal viewing of the slate. And ultimately, I agreed with the consensus on one particular December release which stands above the rest. Here are my thoughts, personal rankings and predictions for this year's Oscar contenders for Best Animated Feature:

From Aardman Studios, the masterminds who brought us such gems as "Chicken Run" and "Shaun the Sheep Movie" comes a new animated tale called "Early Man". As its title suggests, the film takes place in prehistoric times, when cavemen and other early creatures roamed the earth. In this setting emerges a story of Dug, a young caveman determined to protect his primitive tribe from Bronze Age colonizers. After being introduced to their affinity for an early form of football, Dug makes a deal to keep their home by beating them at their own game. The film thus becomes a typical underdog story which only delivers a few chuckles. It certainly has some of the quirks of Aardman's house style, but "Early Man" is definitely one of their lesser efforts. Rating: ★★★1/2

Nearly 10 years after his "Fantastic Mr. Fox" snagged a pair of Oscar nominations, Wes Anderson makes a welcome return to stop motion animation with "Isle of Dogs". Set in a dystopian Japan, "Isle of Dogs" follows a young boy Atari as he goes on a mission to find his dog, which was banished to Trash Island after an outbreak of canine flu. Upon arrival on Trash Island, he hooks up with a pack of dogs - delightfully voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum - who help him on his search. Their journey subsequently takes them on a madcap adventure which is relentlessly entertaining. Admittedly, the film doesn't fully sustain its initial madcap energy. But Anderson's distinctive offbeat style shines through in film's hilarious comic timing and wondrous mise en scene, which earned him a well-deserved Best Director prize at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival. Rating: ★★★★

With Pixar now firmly into their sequel phase, it was inevitable that they would make a follow-up to one of their beloved hits. This summer, audiences were reunited with the titular family of "The Incredibles 2", as they aim to save the day and restore the good reputation of superheroes. If you've seen the first film, there's not much that will be new to you here. But in trademark Pixar form, the screenplay works in some surprisingly mature commentary on the challenges of domestic life, vis-à-vis parenting and marriage. And when coupled with some truly exciting action setpieces, "The Incredibles 2" becomes fun for the whole family. Rating: ★★★★

After the success of its prequel, Wreck-it Ralph returns with a whole new adventure called "Ralph Breaks the Internet". Once again, the film focuses on the duo of Ralph and Vanellope, as they embark on a mission to save Vanellope's Sugar Rush arcade game by braving the strange new world of the internet. As their journey takes them to Oh My Disney, where this media empire dominates our attention, it's hard to miss the blatant self-promotion on display. And yet, the zippy storyline is genuinely fun and funny, with clever pop culture references and winking nods at Disney cliches. Most impactful is the film's second half, however, which offers a surprisingly mature commentary on toxic friendships. While "Wreck-it Ralph" came up short at the Oscars, this sequel puts forth a strong argument to win it all this time around. Rating: ★★★★

Joining a slew of other superhero narratives in the race, "Teen Titans Go! To The Movies" is one of the most peculiar of this year's animated films. Directed by Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath, this parody of comic book movies is based on the TV series "Teen Titans Go!" and those roots are quite obvious. Indeed, this juvenile film is hardly much deeper than a Saturday morning cartoon, with the fart jokes and frenetic energy to match. But once you're able to shut off your brain, you'll find a entertaining story about a bunch of carefree young kids who simply want to live out their Hollywood dreams. Rating: ★★★1/2

Fans have long awaited a cinematic iteration of Miles Morales as Spiderman and now, their patience has been duly rewarded. "Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse" is a Miles Morales (a half-black half-Latino version of Spiderman) origin story, a regular high schooler who is gains special powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. With the city of Brooklyn and the wider world under threat by a villain named Kingpin, he must summon the courage to use his newfound abilities for good. But he'll have the help of a few friends, as a mysterious occurrence brings together different versions of Spider-man from alternate universes. They include the familiar characters of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, in addition to a pig named Spider-ham, a Japanese girl called Peni Parker and a brooding version of Peter Parker from the 1930s. To be sure, it's an outrageous premise. But the result is a complete reinvigoration of the Spider-man mythology that practically explodes off the screen with its creative energy and features some of the most eye-popping animation you'll ever see. "Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse" is not only the best of this year's animated features, it's one of the best films of 2018. Rating: ★★★★

If I had high expectations for "Smallfoot", I'd say it is the most disappointing animated film of the year. But this Warner Animation production is exactly the run-of-the-mill cash grab I expected it to be. It tells a story about a Yeti named Migo, who is ostracized from his community after claiming to see the a smallfoot (i.e. a human), which goes against the insular beliefs of his community. As you ventures out into the unknown to prove his findings and salvage his reputation, the script puts forth a valuable message about the importance of intellectual curiosity. But otherwise, this predictable film offers nothing noteworthy to really distinguish itself from your typical animated adventure. Rating: ★★★

Here's how I'd rank these films (in order of preference):
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Isle of Dogs
The Incredibles 2
Tito and the Birds
Teen Titans Go! To The Movies
Early Man
Smallfoot

My prediction:

Best Animated Feature
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse
The Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Mirai

Saturday, January 19, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Bohemian Rhapsody


A funny thing happened during this topsy-turvy awards season that hardly anyone saw coming. Back in November, the troubled production of "Bohemian Rhapsody" opened to middling reviews and was quickly dismissed as a non-starter in the Oscar race. But then, the film became a bonafide box office phenomenon (currently approaching $200 million at the US box office at the time of writing) and then went on become a Best Picture frontrunner following a shocking Golden Globe win for Best Drama.

I was one of those critics who dismissed the film upon release, figuring it would just be accepted as the conventional Freddie Mercury biopic it so clearly is. But as the industry continues to declare its support of this controversial film, it felt prudent to give it a second look. I therefore revisited it with an open mind to try to understand what works and what doesn't.

What's immediately clear is that this is a star vehicle for Rami Malek, who is well on his way to a Best Actor nomination. His performance is affected and showy, but it's nothing if not consistent. Whether it's a perfect imitation or not, it's definitely one that conveys the spirit of a man who was born to be on stage. On that note, the film's climactic recreation of Queen's iconic Live Aid performance is easily one of the best scenes of the year. Even as the rest of the film failed to grab me this time around, that ending holds up brilliantly. I found myself involuntarily singing along, completely entranced in the music and the showmanship.

Indeed, the film does deserve some kudos for its entertaining portrayal of the band's creative process and performances. Yet, there's no denying that these scenes benefit from artistry that has little to do with the actual filmmaking itself. Indeed, the timeless songs are what sustains the film, while the actors essentially lip synch and pantomime. Yes, the recreation of Freddie Mercury's flashy and fabulous fashion sense are worthy of awards attention for Best Costume Design. But it would be dishonest to give Malek the credit for the impact of the music.

Still, the story behind that music is worthy of the big screen treatment in itself. But despite the band and its lead singer's boundary-pushing reputation, the storytelling in "Bohemian Rhapsody" is disappointingly conservative. There are hardly any narrative beats we haven't seen before in countless musical biopics. Personally, I can forgive its much derided manipulation of the facts and its downplaying of Mercury's sexuality. What I can't forgive, however, is an uninspired narrative. Did it get the job done and ultimately entertain me? Yes. But outside of Malek's performance and the music, there's nothing spectacular or outstanding about "Bohemian Rhapsody".

Monday, January 14, 2019

Best of 2018: Top 10 Films of the Year


If you follow the awards season, you'll probably hear a lot about Alfonso Cuaron's visually stunning "Roma", Bradley Cooper's heart-stirring "A Star is Born" or the cultural phenomenon that is "Black Panther". Yet while all of these are certainly worthy of praise, it's a testament to the strength of this year's films that none of them made my final Top 10. Cinema in 2018 indeed offered an embarrassment of riches, with an extensive variety to suit every taste. As you'll see below, the year's highlights represented virtually every genre of filmmaking possible, forcing some of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make for a year's best list. Both of my honorable mentions for example, are as strong as any film in the list and were seriously considered.

But ultimately, the year belonged to one special film for me. While it has been unfathomably underappreciated in the general Best Picture conversation thus far, it delivered everything I could have wanted and more. Find out which film took that #1 position, as I present to you my Top 10 Films of 2018, with excerpts from my reviews:

Honorable Mention: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Hale County This Morning, This Evening

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Awards


In what would be a rather favourable outcome at the Oscars, the Broadcast Film Critics Association anointed Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma" as the best film of 2018 at the Critics Choice Awards last night. Cuaron and his film also won Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography. In other highlights, there was a tie between Glenn Close and Lady Gaga (neither of whom I predicted to win), further confirming that this Best Actress race will be a close one. Overall, I accurately predicted 17 out of 25 winners. Here is the full list of awardees:

BEST PICTURE
Roma

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón – Roma

BEST ACTOR
Christian Bale - Vice

BEST ACTRESS
Glenn Close - The Wife and Lady Gaga - A Star is Born

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Green Book

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk

Sunday, January 13, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Predictions


After the shocking outcome of the Golden Globes last week, it's time for some course correction from the Critics Choice Awards. Will they fall in line or will they go their own way? Here's how I think this year's Critics Choice will play out:

BEST PICTURE
A Star Is Born

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón – Roma

BEST ACTOR
Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody

BEST ACTRESS
Olivia Colman – The Favourite

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Green Book

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk

Best of 2018: Top 20 Acting Performances


A few years ago, acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin argued in a leaked email to the New York Times that female roles in film lack the degree of difficulty of their male counterparts. But as I look back on the year's most compelling performances of 2018, the strength and complexity showcased by actresses resoundingly refuted that specious claim. From major blockbusters to small indies, there were dozens of challenging and daring performances which explored what it means to be a woman. Some of the most memorable characters included flailing mothers and mighty warriors, while a trio of teenage girls kept me rapt in their fraught coming of age journeys.

At the end of the year, it came as no surprise to me that my Top 20 Performances of the Year was dominated by women, as 14 actresses claimed spots on the list. While my #1 pick went to a male actor, there was no denying that 2018 was yet another amazing year for female performers. So without further ado, I proudly present my Top 20 Acting Performances of 2018:

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Best of 2018: Top 10 Foreign Language Films


One of the biggest stories of 2018 was Netflix’s continued disruption of the traditional models of film distribution. Their slate of auteur-driven films was the envy of their competitors, signalling their intentions of world domination in the industry. Fittingly, that extraordinary international appeal is reflected in their most prized possession, a black-and-white, foreign language film in the form of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”. As one of the most talked about films of the year, it helped to significantly rejuvenate attention towards non-English cinema. Indeed, many of the most celebrated films of the year came from filmmakers from all corners of the world. And the best of them explored themes surrounding love, war, class conflict and the meaning of family, showcasing the universal language of film. Here are the Top 10 Foreign Language Films of 2018:

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, January 11, 2019

Best of 2018: Top 10 Documentaries


If there was any doubt that we are living in a Golden Age for documentaries, look no further than 2018’s slate of feature-length films. Over the past twelve months, documentaries generated audience interest and critical acclaim at nearly unprecedented levels. From animation hybrids to intimate character studies, non-fiction filmmaking in 2018 further proved that cinema is unmatched in its ability to generate empathy. The year’s best documentaries inspired us, enlightened us and sometimes, they even broke our heart. Here are my picks for the Top 10 Documentaries of 2018:

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, January 10, 2019

INTERVIEW: Vincent Lambe


It’s never easy to depict a highly sensitive topic on screen, especially when it’s a horrific murder of a child by two other children. Such is the true story of Vincent Lambe’s “Detainment“, which poignantly recreates the early 90s investigation into the shocking murder of two-year-old James Bulger by a pair of 10-year old boys. Decades later, the highly publicized incident still touches a raw nerve with British and Irish citizens, who struggle to comprehend this heinous act of violence. In honor of its recent selection to the Academy’s shortlist for Best Live Action Short film, I caught up with Lambe to discuss the challenge of exploring the film’s touchy subject and the sense of understanding he aspired to convey. Below is an edited version of that discussion.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Barnaby Blackburn


Featuring a suspenseful storyline filled with surprising twists, Barnaby Blackburn’s “Wale” is easily one of the most thrilling films in the Oscar shortlist for Best Live Action Short. But the film, which follows a fateful day in the life of a young black man in London, also makes a clear statement about the harsh realities of social injustice. In our edited conversation below, I spoke with Blackburn to discuss the inspirations behind the film and his filmmaking style.

Read more at The Awards Circuit