Sunday, January 22, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: The Documentary Features

Year after year, the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature provides us with a bounty of riches. Indeed, some of the most exciting filmmaking is happening through this medium, particularly as it taps into the zeitgeist. Race relations continued to be tense in America and around the world, prompting several documentarians to put a focus on this theme. But it wasn't only area of concern, as an array of subjects found their way onto the screen. I was fortunate to catch 14 of the 15 finalists and they all captivated me in different ways. Below are my thoughts on them all, followed by a personal ranking and my predictions:

With all due respect to Nate Parker and his commendable debut, 2016's most powerful rebuke to "Birth of a Nation" came from Ava Duvernay and her urgent documentary "13th". In this film about mass incarceration in the black community, Duvernary draws an insightful throughline through slavery, the 13th amendment, the influential D.W. Griffith film and beyond. Through her thesis of how slavery continues today, her extensive research gives an in-depth look at how racism pervades throughout society under the guise of campaigns like the "war on drugs". Indeed, Duvernay practically channels Nat Turner in the way the film acts as a call to rise up and be "woke" about the truth. And she does so with a style reminiscent of Spike Lee, creatively emphasizing key points in her argument. There's so much information to be gathered here that the early part of the film feels rushed. But if we can't get a full mini-series about this important issue, this is surely the next best thing. It certainly grabbed my attention. Rating: ★★★★

It's no secret that Chinese society and government is full of corruption, as its system works to control its citizens. But even though the injustices that exist come as no surprise, it doesn't make situations like that exposed in "Hooligan Sparrow" any less depressing. Some years ago, six elementary school girls in southern China were sexually abused by their principal, a horrifying incident that was covered up by the police and government officials. As the criminal roamed free, a network of activists - spearheaded by Ye Haiyan (aka Hooligan Sparrow) - stood up however, working tirelessly to bring attention to the injustice and human rights violations that occured. Under constant harrassment and surveillance, director Nanfu Wang embarked on a daring venture to document their mission. The result is a gripping, probing piece of investigative journalism with the use of covert recordings, hidden cameras and testimonies. As the film progresses, it strays a bit too much from the child victims to Hooligan Sparrow. But ultimately, this is remarkable work, captured with awe-inspiring determination and courage. Rating: ★★★★

If case you didn't get the message from 2014 Oscar champ "Citizenfour"...the government is watching you. And just to reinforce this truth, acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney brings you the sobering "Zero Days". In it, he exposes the growing issue of cyber crime and the geopolitics involved in this growing phenomenon. The main focus is Stuxnet, a piece of malware that was used by the US in an attempt to destroy a key component of an Iranian nuclear facility, but ended up backfiring and spreading further. As we learn more about how powerful this technology is, it feels like something out of a spy thriller. Gibney's drab presentation however, caters more to geeky viewers and admittedly, a lot of it flew over my head. But even though it's not as engaging as I'd hoped, it's certainly effective and absolutely terrifying. Rating: ★★★★

Earlier this week, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, the culmination of a campaign based on the slogan "Make America Great Again!". But as Raoul Peck questions in his solemn by fiery documentary "I Am Not Your Negro", was America ever truly great? Based on an unfinished novel by James Baldwin, Peck uses the author's dazzlingly intelligent words to examine the treatment of black people in America. The result is a full deconstruction of the lie that is "The American Dream". Using powerful images (including scenes from films), it pulls no punches as it meditates on American society, expressing blunt honesty about the individual culpability of white people in the racist DNA of the country. Watching this film is truly like seeing America through a new lens, leaving you with a lasting thought - "The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story." Rating: ★★★★1/2

"The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story."
Bluntly honest about race in America and hatred, and even more harmful - apathy and ignorance. The dazzlingly intelligent words of James Baldwin. Powerful images, including scenes from films.
Thoughtful meditation on American society.
A full deconstruction of the lie that is the American dream.
Like a cinematic mic drop.
A damning comeuppance for those who say black people must get over it and deny their individual culpability in the racist DNA of American society.

If you thought you knew everything you needed to know about O.J. Simpson and his infamous murder trial, think again. In the monumental "O.J.: Made in America", director Ezra Edelman provides an in-depth exploration of a man who represented one of the greatest oxymorons in recent American society. This story of an elitist black athlete who became a symbol of racial injustice captivated the nation so many years ago, and still has that power today. And with the benefit of the comprehensive episodic TV format, Edelman weaves an intricate story about race in America and perhaps even more so, the abusive power of celebrity. It's a sprawling work that almost feels like overkill, but the way ultimately puts everything about the O.J. case into sharp perspective is nothing short of masterful. Rating: ★★★★

As human greed threatens the balance of our natural ecosystems, documentaries like "The Ivory Game" have become increasingly important. This film puts the spotlight on the illegal trade of ivory, harvested from the tusks of elephants across Africa, showing how this horrifying practice has become a global issue. Seen through the eyes of activists from the each side of the trade (Africa and China), the film gives inside access to an intricate network with far-reaching consequences. Of course, the most important concern is the survival of endangered elephants, which the directing duo Kief Davidson, Richard Ladkani effectively conveys with urgency by highlighting the beauty and intelligence of these animals through scenic cinematography. But perhaps most riveting is the pursuit of a supervillain named Shetani who is responsible for the killing of thousands of elephants. It's hard not to get wrapped up in this globetrotting investigation, which smartly approaches its subject with passion and empathy. Rating: ★★★★

I have no shame in admitting that I love documentaries that "get me in my feelings" and boy, did "Gleason" hit the spot. This tremendously touching film follows former NFL player Steve Gleason who is diagnosed with ALS and decides to film his life in the aftermath to pass on the memories to his unborn son. As we follow his subsequent decline, a sense of irony pervades as we learn that his professional career was defined by his knack for being an overachiever. And yet, he is struck down by one of the most debilitating diseases known to man. It's truly heartbreaking stuff on its own, but the responses of him and others in the aftermath are what truly makes this film strike a chord. "Gleason" is a testament to the ways we clutch at life, whether through the birth of a child, religion, or preserving your legacy through charitable acts. And there's some impressive technique on display too. The home video style makes it all the more personal and there are some brilliant shots that juxtapose Gleason's fully capable newborn with his incapacitated self. Go see it and don't forget the tissues. Rating: ★★★★1/2

You don't often think about docs in terms of masterful "filmmaking", but that's exactly what Kirsten Johnson displays in her unique documentary "Cameraperson". Assembled from spare footage from her work as a documentary cinematographer over the years, Johnson takes a seat in the directing chair to craft one of the coolest documentaries of the year. Showing snippets of humanity from across the world, the subjects range from a boxing match in Brooklyn, to the daily routine of a Nigerian midwife. There's therefore no overarching narrative, but it's all linked by a Johnson's perceptive eye. Most notably, it gives the viewer a deeper appreciation for the filmmaking process that goes into documentaries, giving rare insight into the conversations between director and cinematographer. Rating: ★★★★

A woman sits with her grandson by a window, peacefully sewing as thunder roars outside. She explains to him that it reminds her of a stormy fishing trip his grandpa once made during wartime. As naval ships fired rockets, she says it looked like there was fire at sea. For most filmmakers, this anecdotal story would seem to be unimportant, probably to be discarded on the cutting room floor. But for Gianfranco Rosi, it gave him the title for his latest award-winning documentary “Fire at Sea,” an uncommonly observant film. Rating: ★★★★ Full Review

"Tower" Rating: ★★★★

"Weiner" Rating: ★★★★

"Life, Animated" Rating: ★★★★

"The Witness" Rating: ★★★★

There's a bit of irony to go along with the title for "Command and Control", directed by Robert Kenner. In this documentary, things get out of control during the 1980s, as nuclear weapons prove to be unpredictable. Of primary focus is an accident that occurred in 1980 in Damascus, Arizona. Through reenactments and accounts from those involved, the incidents surrounding the deadly explosion of a nuclear missile are recounted in meticulous detail. As we learn of the circumstances prior to accident and the cover-up in the aftermath, "Command and Control" acts as a cautionary tale that will transport you right back to the Cold War era and its state of nuclear panic. Although its near 2 hour runtime gets tiring, this is a well produced documentary overall. Rating: ★★★1/2

My personal ballot (in ranking order):
I Am Not Your Negro
O.J.: Made in America
Hooligan Sparrow
The Witness
Fire at Sea
Life, Animated
The Ivory Game
Zero Days
Command and Control

My prediction: 

Best Documentary Feature
O.J.: Made in America
I Am Not Your Negro

CONTEST: See Who's Playing!

It's here! In less than two days, this year's Oscar nominees will be announced. And as we wait in anticipation of the big day, 31 bloggers have signed up to test their skills at predicting this year's Oscar nominations. Among our returning players are former winners Gautam and Ryan, who will surely be in the running for the prize again. So get those thinking caps on and be sure to visit all these blogs and show them some love. Good luck!

Me! - Film Actually
Heather - That Film Girl
Christopher - Awards Madness
Tony - Coogs Reviews
Stewart - Talkie Gazette
Gautam - The Cinemaholic (2014 winner!)
Todd - All My Life I Wanted To Be a Blogster
Michael - Movie Parliament
Murtada - ME_Says (2015 runner-up!)*
Daniel - Chicago Cinema Circuit
Jessica - French Toast Sunday
Josh - The Cinematic Spectacle
Sam - The Awards Circuit
Matt F. - Movie Awards Plus
Ryan - Lord of the Films (2015 winner!)*
Andrew - A Fistful of Films
Joe - The MN Movie Man
Ross - Wholly Cinema
John - John Likes Movies
Andrew - The Awards Connection
Jason - The Entertainment Junkie
Donovan - Awards and Such
Paul - Paul's Trip to the Movies
Jay - Life vs Film
James - The Gold Knight

*Winner decided on tiebreaker.

- Your predictions are due by 6PM EST on Jan 23rd. They will then be posted here on a spreadsheet for everyone to see.
- Remember: once you have sent me the link, those will be entered as your FINAL predictions. No further changes will be accepted.

Click here for a reminder of all the rules/instructions.

Friday, January 20, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: The Animated Films

Aside from the year 2012, this year's crop of Oscar contenders for Best Animated Feature is one of the strongest in recent times. Indeed, from the sampling of finalists I saw, I was quite impressed with the overall quality of the field. With a range of styles from hand-drawn to CGI, diversity in themes and a true international flavor, the films are a great representation of the animation world today. As always, I've written down some thoughts on all the ones I've seen (11 out of 27), in addition to my personal ranking and final predictions:

Thursday, January 19, 2017


By most accounts, this will be a banner year for Best Original Song at the Oscars. Spearheaded by musical films like "Sing Street" and "La La Land", the category is unusually stacked with memorable tunes. There are just so many great options that this is going to be one of the hardest set of nominations to predict. But I'm gonna give it the old college try. Here's an overview of some of this year's leading contenders, followed by my personal Top 5 and my predictions:

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

REVIEW: A Man Called Ove

The grumpy old man is surely one of the most recognizable stock characters in cinema and even in real life. And if Hannes Holm‘s “A Man Called Ove” is any indication, he is also one of the most misunderstood. In the typically quirky style of Swedish comedies, this portrait of one such man explores a troubled life to reveal an affectingly heartwarming story.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


The Brits have chimed in and once again, "La La Land" leads the pack. But the surprise twist was their love for "Nocturnal Animals", with Tom Ford and Aaron Taylor-Johnson once again getting Director and Supporting Actor nods, as the film sweeped up a 9-nomination haul. And there were further shocks in store with snubs for Denzel Washington and Barry Jenkins. It seems like Oscar lineups aren't as settled as we thought! Here are the BAFTA nominees for 2016:

Best Picture
I, Daniel Blake
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Best British Film
American Honey
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I, Daniel Blake
Notes on Blindness
Under the Shadow

Best Actor
Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Jake Gyllenhaal (Nocturnal Animals)
Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)

Best Actress
Amy Adams (Arrival)
Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train)
Emma Stone (La La Land)
Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)
Natalie Portman (Jackie)

Best Supporting Actor
Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals)
Dev Patel (Lion)
Hugh Grant (Florence Foster Jenkins)
Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water )
Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

Best Supporting Actress
Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake)
Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)
Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
Nicole Kidman (Lion)
Viola Davis (Fences)

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake)
Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
Tom Ford (Nocturnal Animals)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Awards

So, remember when I said that "La La Land" had been brought down to earth by its SAG Ensemble snub? Oops! If tonight was any indication, there's not stopping this freight train. In a historic sweep, this Damien Chazelle-directed musical won 7 Golden Globes, i.e. every award it was nominated for. Overall, it made for a fairly predictable night (I scored 10 out of 14), except for that shocking Supporting Actor win for Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Does he have a shot at Oscar? That category is going to be really fun to watch, likewise Best Actress, where Isabelle Huppert got a crucial win tonight. It's gonna be one heck of an awards season.

Here are tonight's Golden Globe winners:

Best Motion Picture Drama

Best Motion Picture Comedy/Musical
La La Land

Best Actor Drama
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Best Actress Drama

Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Best Actor Comedy/Musical
Ryan Gosling, La La Land

Best Actress Comedy/Musical
Emma Stone, La La Land

Best Director
Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences

Best Supporting Actor
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nocturnal Animals

Saturday, January 7, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Predictions

The next major stop on the awards circuit is here with the Golden Globe Awards, a show that can always be depended on for an entertaining night. Who's gonna come out on top? I'm expecting a lot of love for "La La Land", with a few surprises in store. Here are my predictions.

Best Motion Picture Drama

Best Motion Picture Comedy/Musical
La La Land

Best Actor Drama
Denzel Washington, Fences

Best Actress Drama

Natalie Portman, Jackie

Best Actor Comedy/Musical
Ryan Gosling, La La Land

Best Actress Comedy/Musical
Emma Stone, La La Land

Best Director
Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences

Best Supporting Actor
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

CONTEST: Predict the Oscar Nominations!

We're off to a later start than usual, but have no fear...the Film Actually Oscar Contest is back! As always we have some fun prizes and friendly competition in store. If you've played before, then you know the drill. But for the newbies, here's a rundown of the rules below. The aim of the game is simple - predict as many Oscar nominations as you can.

Once again, the top prize will be a $50 gift card (USD, or the equivalent in another currency) for the Amazon store of your choice (US, UK, Canada etc). In addition, there are other bonus prizes up for grabs (read below).

1. This contest is open to any interested bloggers.
2. To register: fill out the entry form below by 6PM US Eastern Time on January 21st, 2016.
3. To submit your predictions: send me (via twitter or email) a link to your blog post with your FINAL predictions. I will then save your predictions and enter them into my spreadsheet. Your predictions are due by 6PM US Eastern Time on January 23rd, 2016. Absolutely no changes to your predictions will be accepted after they have been submitted.
4. Here are the categories I need you to include:

BEST ORIGINAL SONG(name the song, not just the film)

Each correct prediction will earn you 1 point. However, in the Best Picture category, every wrong prediction will lose you 1 point. With the current rules for this category (anywhere between 5-10 nominees), this will force you to choose wisely!

1. The person with the highest score will receive a $50 online gift card (USD or the equivalent in another currency) for their relevant Amazon store (US, UK, Canada etc.).
2. In the event of a tie, the winner will be the person who scores highest in the Best Picture category. If there's still a tie, we'll go to Best Director and further down the list (in the order above) until the tie is broken. The loser of the tie will receive a DVD/Blu-ray of one of last year's Best Picture nominees (your choice).
3. Anyone who is the only person to predict a particular nomination correctly will receive a DVD/Blu-ray of one of last year's Best Picture nominees (your choice).

Saturday, December 31, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Moonlight

In a banner year for black narratives in cinema, there's no doubt that the crown jewel is Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight", an undeniable frontrunner for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. This gem of a film is a beautifully wrought saga that achieves the rare feat of being both high art and captivating storytelling. Indeed, it's a standout in the black cinema canon, destined to be a considered a classic by future generations.

"Moonlight" is the coming-of-age story of a boy named Chiron. Shy and insecure, he struggles to fit in within the confines of his rough urban Miami community. His mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict, his father is absent and he is constantly bullied at school. And in the midst of all this, he is also coming to terms with his sexuality as a gay man. Thanks to a supportive group of friends however, he manages to endure through the hardships. In particular, his fondness for childhood friend Kevin blossoms into lifelong affection. But the pressures to conform takes its toll over the years, threatening to prevent him from realizing and accepting his true self.

Chiron's self-actualization takes on novelistic proportions as we follow him through three pivotal stages of his life. Seamlessly portrayed by three gifted young actors with the aid of some astounding editing (if this film doesn't get a Best Editing, nod it would be a crime), the film has the scope of a grand epic. Yet Jenkins stays true to his modest indie roots, briefly checking in with the character for some of the defining moments of his life.

Though "Moonlight" is a film about the black experience, urban masculinity and the LGBT struggle, it conveys these themes without being emphatic about it. Indeed, perhaps the most impressive thing about Jenkins' elegant directing/writing style is how trusting he is of the audience. He doesn't need to show us the gun violence to instill a sense of danger, neither does he rely on explicit nudity or sex to make us understand the sexual underpinnings of Paula's desperation or Chiron and Kevin's intimacy. And you don't need to see characters behind bars to understand the cycle of mass incarceration that plagues this community.

This subtle approach is undoubtedly a risky gamble that feels all too rare for black cinema (especially when you consider the history of blaxploitation) and may not satisfy some viewers. But where the film lacks in plot specifics, it more than makes up for in stylistic flourishes. The film features expressive cinematography from James Laxton (worthy of a Best Cinematography nod), capturing mood, tone and story through revealing closeups and symbolic use of color. Likewise, Nicholas Britell's masterful score (a dark horse Best Original Score contender) reverberates with evocative instrumentals and choice song selections. You can practically sum up the film's themes through the introductory "Every N****r Is a Star" and the transformative use of Jidenna's "Classic Man".

All these elements create the film's artistic greatness, but what really captivates the audience are the authentic, powerful performances of its richly defined characters. In the film's most dynamic peformance, Naomie Harris (a certain Best Supporting Actress contender) is perfectly high strung as a troubled woman struggling to express her complex love for her son. As her surrogate is Janelle Monae, who fully embodies motherly kindness, living up to her character's name (Teresa). And by her side, Mahershala Ali has deservedly earned Best Supporting Actor plaudits for his performance as the wise but flawed father figure.

But ultimately, it's all about Chiron and Kevin, played marvelously by different actors in their childhood, teenage and adult years. Their palpable chemistry is the pining heart of the film, particularly between Trevante Rhodes and André Holland in the final act. Rhodes perfectly captures the various facets of Chiron's character, with a hardened exterior that melts away in Kevin's presence. Meanwhile Holland is effortlessly seductive and enigmatic as Kevin. Together they are the final grace note in the bittersweet ballad of Chiron and Kevin. And it's one that I'll surely be playing again in the future.