Sunday, January 31, 2016

Best of 2015: Top 10 Films of the Year


And here we come to the big list, my Top 10 Films of 2015. As I think back on the year that was, I'm reminded of an article by the great Courtney Small of Cinema Axis, who opined that too many cinephiles were being unfair to the year's films, claimint that they were "good" but not good enough. From where I stand, I would tend to agree with the masses that there weren't as many stone cold masterpieces as in year's past. But Courtney does raise valid points however, as the year was far from disappointing for me. By my estimation, no less than 30 films merited a 4-star rating, which certainly suggests a satisfying year at the movies indeed.

As for the outstanding films below, they reflected a year full of unexpected gems, just like the year's best performances. In a year when personal faves Ridley Scott, Joe Wright and Steven Spielberg brought new work to the table, my Top 10 instead comprised of 2 debut features, 2 documentaries and a wealth of variety in genres, countries and themes. And defiantly perched above them all was a trangender comedy that was shot on an iPhone. If that doesn't excited about the future of cinema, I don't know what will.

As we look towards another year, I therefore put forth the mantra to "Keep Calm and Enjoy The Movies". Too often critics over-analyze the art of films and forget that films are also entertainment.

So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Films of 2015, complete with gifs (we don't have the budget for a David Ehrlich video, sorry) and quotes from my reviews.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Awards


I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but...THIS AWARDS SEASON IS CRAZY! As expected, even the SAG Awards were unpredictable, highlighted by Idris Elba's win for Best Supporting Actor, making him the first ever SAG winner without an Oscar nomination. Elsewhere, had crucial win for Best Ensemble, proving that the race is far from over. Here are tonight's winners:

Best Ensemble
Spotlight

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actress
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best Supporting Actor
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Friday, January 29, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions


You know it's a crazy awards season when you can't even predict SAG. Indeed, a number of categories this year have huge question marks surrounding them. Is The Big Short about surge ahead, or are we due for another gamechanger? Here's how I think it'll all go down:

Best Ensemble
The Big Short

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actress
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best Supporting Actor
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Best of 2015: Top 20 Acting Performances


When I think back on the year's best acting performances in film, the first word that comes to mind is "surprise". Of the 20 performances I most anticipated at the start of the year, only 2 of them ended up on this final list. Instead, a slew of dynamic duos, breakout stars, comedians-gone-serious and A-listers at the top of their game came along and impressed me with their unforgettable turns. But most of all, 2015 was the year of the actress. Indeed, women dominated the top ranks of this Top 20, with a long line of other incredibly worthy performers just missing the cut. Compiling the following names was therefore as difficult as ever, but I'm happy with my choices. Here are the 20 performances that resonated with me the most in 2015:

Honorable Mention: Jason Mitchell in Straight Outta Compton

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Best of 2015: Top 10 Documentaries of the Year


In case you didn't know this already, documentaries are consistently some of the best films of the year. Like many cinephiles I've shamefully neglected non-fiction filmmaking in the past, but I've been making a concerted effort to seek them out as of late. For 2015, I watched more documentaries than ever - including 14 of the shortlisted Oscar contenders -  and therefore felt it appropriate to shine an extra spotlight with this Top 10 list.

This year was a uniquely interesting one for the form. Although the subjects weren't as inherently fascinating as year's past (like art forger Mark Landis or the eccentric filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky last year), documentarians continued to impress with their filmmaking technique. Indeed, my Top 10 includes films that could easily be classified as courtroom dramas, thrillers, biopics and romantic comedies, and in some cases they even exceeded their fiction counterparts in both style and impact. It's clear that even if mainstream cinema seems to be losing quality, the artform of non-fiction filmmaking is still going strong. Here are the 10 best examples of this from 2015:

Monday, January 25, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Dil Dhadakne Do


There's a memorable scene in John Wells' underrated 2010 film "The Company Men" that still strikes a chord with me to this day. In it, a recently fired successful businessman (played by Ben Affleck) explains to his wife why he continues to wear a suit and tie, play golf and maintain his Porsche despite his unemployment. "I need to look successful" he says, reminding us of the value we place on public perceptions. Sure, he thereafter begins to lose the pretense and becomes a regular guy who learns what is more important in life. But even as he becomes more relatable towards the end, I was fascinated by how much I already sympathized with him in that earlier scene.

I bring up this film as I think about this week's top pick "Dil Dhadakne Do" and in general, how we empathize and better yet, find sympathy for certain narratives. Specifically, there seems to be a prejudice against films about "rich people's problems", exemplified so well last year in much of the criticism towards Angelina Jolie's "By The Sea". Before he even saw the film, I remember one tweeter deciding that this so-called "vanity project" couldn't possibly provide any appeal due to its premise of beautiful people in an idyllic local being miserable. We can tolerate anti-heroes and even outright villains, but what could be so interesting about unhappy rich people?

Well, Bollywood directors Farhan and Zoya Akhtar would surely have something to say about that. The brother-sister duo have made careers out of the "plight" of the upper class, with Farhan's debut "Dil Chahta Hai" widely regarded as a game-changing film for its novel depiction of a modern urban lifestyle and likewise, Zoya's similarly elitist "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" was an awards/commercial/critical success that sent her straight to the upper echelon of contemporary Indian directors. Having grown up in the same social circles they often portray on film, they know this world well, and with their latest feature "Dil Dhadakne Do" (with Zoya directing, Farhan starring and both sharing writing responsibilities) they've once again shown an ability to make these "rich people problems" absolutely compelling.

"Dil Dhadakne Do" is centered around the wealthy Mehra family, who are about to embark on an eventful cruise to celebrate the 30th wedding anniversary of the parents. Everything seems hunky dory, with all four seeming to enjoy success in their personal and professional lives. But like the aforementioned Ben Affleck character, it is soon revealed that they are all just keeping up appearances.

The patriarch Kamal (Anil Kapoor) is going through a rough patch at work, with his company nearing bankruptcy. But this threat of financial ruin is of the least concern for his wife Neelam (Shefali Shetty), who must put on a brave face despite their marriage having long run its course. Her daughter Ayesha (a successful travel agency owner played by Priyanka Chopra) knows a thing or two about failed marriages as well, having to hide her unhappiness towards her husband due to a society that frowns on divorce. The baby of the family however (Kabir, played by Ranveer Singh), has issues of a different sort. Happily single and being begrudgingly groomed to inherit his father's empire, all he wants to do is fly planes and avoid the pressures to get married. But as they all set sail - with family and friends in tow - on this new adventure, all their secrets will come to light as everyone finally starts to get real about themselves and their relationships with each other.

And what drama unfolds! To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive about this film when I first noticed the 170 minute running time, but Akhtar delivers so much intrigue, character development and sheer entertainment value that the length is completely justified. Indeed, there's romance, melodrama, humour and infectious song-and-dance routines all packed into one glamorous, well-acted package.

I remember feeling that much of the world tour conceit of "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" was just empty travel porn, and there are still traces of that here. But Akhtar has impressively refined her style to use her typically bright, sunny vistas to simply set the scene, while amping up the costume and set design to add character. And the result is a captivating visual aesthetic that fulfills all the aspirational, escapist qualities mainstream Bollywood is famous for.

But it all comes back to the strong writing, which keeps you engaged and leaves you completely rooting for these primary characters by the end. Even as the somewhat light touch may fool you, the film is undeniably making a statement about Indian society (women's rights, non-traditional careers, marriage). And while doing so, it helps you to better understand each individual's perspective. On the surface, Kabir may seem like a spoilt brat as he complains about his dad selling his plane, but we come to appreciate his humility. Ayesha may seem ungrateful towards her faithful hardworking husband, but we relate to her insecurities and regret. Neelam may seem like a fortunate woman with everything money can buy, but her underlying loneliness is heartbreaking. And finally, Kamal appears at first to be your sterotypical tyrannical patriarch, but his tough exterior gradually withers away to reveal a kind soul. Commendably, Akhtar never once shies away from their undeniable privilege, but she brilliantly makes their struggles feel valid and recognizable. They say our basic human needs are food, clothing and shelter. But even if you drink champagne like water, wear impeccably-tailored designer suits and live in a grand mansion, you still need freedom, love and respect to survive.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

COMING SOON: Race

As you may recall, last year I had a chat with Stephan James at a TIFF party in his honor. While there we talked about his upcoming film "Race", which finally releases in theaters next month. In a potentially star-making performance, James will play legendary athlete Jesse Owens, depicting his record-setting feats at the 1936 Olympic Games. Now, I know the February release is cause for concern, but director Stephen Hopkins ("The Life and Death of Peter Sellers") has enough pedigree to keep me optimistic. I'm definitely rooting for this to be a winner. Check out the trailer below:



"Race" releases in theaters February 19th.

Monday, January 18, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Songs My Brothers Taught Me


When it comes to representation of ethnic minority groups in cinema, Native Americans have always drawn the short end of the stick. Often portrayed as aggressive, animalistic savages, their near-extermination has been been glorified on the big screen for many years. But more discerning minds know better, and that's why films like "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" are so important. In this understated debut feature, Chloé Zhao turns our gaze towards an Indian Reservation for an honest, humane portrait of a quintessential American community.

"Songs My Brothers Taught Me" follows a very different, but nevertheless very close brother-sister pair living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Johnny (John Reddy), the older brother, is a typical teenager with big city dreams, desperate to escape his small town with his beautiful college-bound girlfriend. His younger sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) however, is a happy camper, content to live the Lakota lifestyle with all its simplicity. Both find common ground in each other's company though, even as the world around them is starting to fall apart. One day, news arrives of their estranged father's death, which seems to mark the beginning of a change in the siblings' lives. Johnny's behavior becomes increasingly reckless ahead of an impending move to Los Angeles, while Jashaun begins to stray away from her family circle to strike up new friendships and interests. As they both head down potentially dangerous roads, their irreplaceable bond - and by extension, their heritage - may prove to be their ultimate saving grace.

Starring a pair of unknowns from the same community being portrayed, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" excels on its noticeable authenticity. With regards to that oft-used term "milieu", this film has that in spades, opening our eyes to a culture that has been sorely misrepresented. And with its lived-in performances and a rich, complex narrative, the film gives us a thoroughly fascinating "slice of life".

But what makes "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" standout is ironically its universality. Completely eliminating the sense of "otherness" that comes with portrayals of Native Americans on films, Zhao deftly uses cultural specifics to illuminate common concerns of family and identity shared by people of all backgrounds. Brilliantly refusing to over-explain the socio-cultural backstory or interrelationships, Zhao still paints a comprehensive picture of who these people are, where they are coming from and where they are going. From the Prohibition-esque restrictions on alcohol and the associated prevalence of alcoholism, to the almost polygamist lifestyle of some of the men, their culture is unmistakably distinct and yet their struggles are like those of countless other working class communities across America.

Indeed, one of the central themes involves Johnny's search for the mythologized American dream as he looks westward, just like those frontiersmen who changed the face of the country forever. But as he seeks prosperity, he begins to realize a truth we all know - there's no place like home. And that idea of "home" is beautifully captured here through these incredibly empathetic characters. Much like Johnny, we're left yearning for Jashaun and everything she represents. Indeed, Zhao's script doesn't give us enough of her, but we're grateful just to have met her.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Awards


And here we are again, back to another confused state of affairs as the Critics Choice Awards decided to go with a Best Picture-Best Director split. Of course, I did predict this to happen, but the evening had such a "Mad Max" flavor to it that for a split second, I thought it might actually take the big one. Alas, It was Spotlight that prevailed, taking Best Picture to go along with its awards for Best Ensemble and Best Original Screenplay. Elsewhere, it was one of the most predictable Critics Choice Awards ceremonies with little by way or surprises of excitement. Here's how it all went down:

Best Picture
Spotlight

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actress
Brie Larson, Room

Best Supporting Actor
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Director
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Saturday, January 16, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Predictions


As we all try to recover from the aftershock of the Oscar nominations, the awards season keeps chugging along with our next major televised show - the Critics Choice Awards. Will The Revenant keep building its momentum, or will Spotlight strike back? Here's what I think:

Best Picture
Spotlight

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actress
Brie Larson, Room

Best Supporting Actor
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Director
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Thursday, January 14, 2016

CONTEST: The Results

After a topsy turvy precursor season, this year's Oscar nominations have finally been announced. And after the dust settled, we had one predictor emerging as the winner of the 2016 Film Actually Oscar Contest. It was another competitive year, as we all seem to be becoming more savvy with our prognosticating (it was definitely my best year for predictions). But of course, there could only be one winner.


AND THE WINNER IS...

Joseph Trusson of For Your Consideration

Joseph therefore wins the $50 Amazon gift card.

As I already mentioned, everyone seems to be getting better at predicting each year, so there was only one bonus prize to be awarded:

Andrew for predicting The Revenant in Best Costume Design.

As always, there were still a few nominations that stumped us all. This year it was Lenny Abrahamson (Room) for Best Director and "Manta Ray" (Racing Extinction) for Best Original Song. But otherwise, we had it all covered, including Star Wars: Force Awakens for Best Film Editing.

You can head over to the full spreadsheet to see how everyone fared.

So this concludes another year of the Film Actually Oscar Contest. I hope you had fun and look forward to hosting you all again next year!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

CONTEST: The Predictions!


The predictions are in! Thank you to all who participated and good luck!

Click the link below to see all the predictions:



N.B. - A "1" indicates your prediction. If you predict correctly, you keep the point. If not, then you get 0. In Best Picture, you get -1 for every wrong prediction.

Once the nominations have been announced, I'll start working on the spreadsheet and the official results should be posted by 3 PM US Eastern time.

OSCAR WATCH: The Animated Films

As I normally do every year, I tried to seek out all the eligible films for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Unfortunately, time constraints meant that I was only able to catch up with 9 of the submitted 16. But the good news is that I was able to see the ones most likely to be Oscar nominated (unless GKIDS crashes the party yet again). Here are my brief thoughts and predictions for all the contenders.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: The Big Short


I'm sure we all remember it like it was yesterday, the year when the world economy came crashing down. But 8 years after the 2008 financial crisis, can you even explain exactly what happened? In his new film "The Big Short", Adam McKay attempts to break it down for us laymen, using a star-studded cast to illuminate us with this serio-comic look at that tumultuous year.

Based on the book by the same name, "The Big Short" chronicles the housing market collapse from the perspective of three separate groups of men who predicted the crisis years in advance. This first is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager who noticed something fishy in the housing market, which was propped up on subprime loans providing low returns. Realizing an impending collapse, he creates a credit default swap market, where he bets big against the housing market in order to reap huge profits when it inevitably fails. His plan reaches the ears of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a shrewd trader who quickly gets in on the action. He ropes in another hedge fund manager named Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who also puts his money on the line after some initial skepticism. And the final group are a pair of up-and-comers (played by John Magaro and Jamie Shipley) who, along with the advice of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), decide to make some deals with the banks. And of course, the rest is history. Burry's prophecy came true and all these men profited, but at great cost to their own sense of justice, as well as that of the American people.

As he recounts the events as they played out, McKay takes us behind the scenes for a film that epitomizes "America" in its style and content. Throughout the film we're constantly reminded that the housing market is stable and it has never, and will never crash. But as this surprisingly accessible screenplay weaves through the web of fraud and lies, this proves to be just another instance of debilitating American arrogance. Indeed, if this were fiction, these events would be portrayed as political thriller. But as McKay and Randolph rightfully show, these matters were treated with little urgency.

Instead, McKay takes an unorthodox approach that itself reflects the sort of risk-taking individuality that represents the American ideal. Tonally, the film yo-yo's between near-parody and haunting gravity, defying what we expect from a dramedy based on real life. It's a mix that doesn't always work, but the peculiarity of it all is constantly fascinating. For example, the pop culture snippets that editor Hank Corwin splices in, which sometimes remind you of when you accidentally record over pre-existing viedo on a VHS. And yet somehow, through the sheer commitment of McKay's vision, it all makes sense.

Perhaps the only conventional aspect of the film is its performances, handled by a terrific ensemble. Steve Carell gives a brilliantly nuanced "mad as hell" turn as the incredulous Mark Baum, Ryan Gosling is at his confident best, while Christian Bale once again proves that despite his movie star looks, he's truly a character actor. But the real human face of the film comes from the unnamed side characters, those who are doomed to suffer as a result of the greed. Sure, McKay includes a lot of frivolous cameos and playful sarcasm, but when it comes to the real heart of the matter, he's poignantly serious.

I've now seen "The Big Short" twice and I'm still trying to fully wrap my head around it. But perhaps this is fitting for a film about one of the most perplexing phenomenons of our time. One thing that comes across loud and clear though, is that "we're all f***ed".

Monday, January 11, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Diary of a Teenage Girl


Just over two years ago, a film called "Blue is the Warmest Color" took the arthouse world by storm, depicting an erotic romance saga unlike any we'd ever seen before. Two years later, an indie film titled "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" opened to similar enthusiasm in Park City, showcasing a sexual awakening of a different sort. As its title and Sundance roots suggest, this film is smaller and more intimate, but no less engaging and unique.

In Marielle Heller's outstanding debut feature, Bel Powley stars as Minnie Goetze, a 15-year old aspiring cartoonist living with her mom and younger sister in San Francisco. It's the 1970s, when sex, drugs and freedom prevailed, a fact that isn't lost on our young protagonist. Indeed, this year, Minnie vows to take a big step into womanhood by losing her virginity. And her passions lead her to an unexpected target, namely her mother's latest boyfriend Monroe, a handsome older man in his 30s. Soon enough, a one-on-one encounter between the two develops into a full-blown affair. Of course, the situation quickly gets complicated, as Minnie gets a crash course in love, sex and adulthood, in a film that really puts the "coming" in coming of age.

Yes, I'm aware that last sentence may sound crass and reductive, but the overt sexuality is in fact a central theme in the film and one of its best attributes. "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" feels like a response to the countless teen sex comedies centered around young men, providing a refreshing feminine spin on the topic. Indeed, the first line out of Powley's mouth is "I had sex today".

The film truly goes "there" as we flash back to the events leading up to that bold declaration, never shying away from the taboo nature of this inappropriate relationship. But the film smartly avoids vilifying our protagonist, even when some of her actions would reasonably attract some slut-shaming. Heller's screenplay brilliantly lays the groundwork by allowing the audience to be privy to Minnie's most personal thoughts, aspirations and motivations, thereby defining her by more than just her scandalous actions. The way the films explores the various relationships in Minnie's life - best friends, mother-daughter, lovers, father-daughter, siblings - is particularly fascinating.

And the wonderful screenwriting is given even greater nuance by Powley's phenomenal performance. In just her second film role, she handles this tricky character with ease, finding a deft balance between the character's youthful naivety and burgeoning maturity. And she's only one part of a terrific core trio that includes a charming Alexander Skarsgård as Monroe and reigning indie queen Kristen Wiig in one of her best performances as Minnie's oblivious but streetwise mother. Of course, it's easy to shine when you're cast in such a flattering light. Brandon Trost's warm cinematography was a deserving winner of the Best Cinematography award at Sundance, convincingly giving the impression of a film shot during the heyday of 1970s American cinema.

Ultimately, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" may prove too discomfiting for some. Even I would freely admit that it does stretch our character's nymphomania a bit far at times. And yet, this is exactly why this fine piece of filmmaking is so important in current cinema. I love "Superbad" just as much as the next guy, but it's good to be reminded that girls wanna have fun too.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Awards


Wow, what a night. I honestly would have done better if I made random predictions. Against all expections of a Spotlight-The Big Short season ahead, both films went home empty-handed in favour of....The Revenant and The Martian! Huh? Now, I like both films, but I certainly didn't see that coming. This year is breaking all the rules, yall. Here are this year's shocking Golden Globe winners:

Best Picture (Drama)
The Revenant

Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
The Martian

Best Actor (Drama)
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actor (Musical/Comedy)
Matt Damon, The Martian

Best Actress (Drama)
Brie Larson, Room

Best Actress (Musical/Comedy)
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Best Supporting Actor
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Supporting Actress
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant

Saturday, January 9, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Predictions


Funny hosts, drunk stars, memorable speeches. What's not to love about Golden Globes? I certainly can't wait to see how it all goes down. Here are my crazy predictions for tomorrow, as befitting this crazy season.

Best Picture (Drama)
Spotlight

Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
The Big Short

Best Actor (Drama)
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actor (Musical/Comedy)
Matt Damon, The Martian

Best Actress (Drama)
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Actress (Musical/Comedy)
Amy Schumer, Trainwreck

Best Supporting Actor
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Best Director
Ridley Scott, The Martian

CONTEST: See Who's Playing!


And we're off! 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. Returning yet again are our 3 previous winners, including Supporting Actress expert Lindsay, who predicted both Jacki Weaver and Laura Dern for their unexpected nods. Suffice to say, our players are the real deal! So get your thinking caps on and be sure to visit all these blogs and show them some love. Good luck!

Me! - Film Actually
Jessica - French Toast Sunday
Arnaud - Movie Parliament
Murtada - ME_Says (2015 runner-up!)*
Terence - Le Noir Auteur
Joseph - Movie Awards Buzz
Heather - That Film Girl
Sam - The Awards Circuit
Todd - Todd Thacher Blog
Liam - La La Film
Matt O. - Silver Screen Riot
Paul - Paul's Trip to the Movies
Josh - The Cinematic Spectacle
Ryan - Lord of the Films (2015 winner!)*
Tony - Coogs Reviews
Joe - The MN Movie Man
Shawna - Movie Endz
Gautam - The Cinemaholic (2014 winner!)
John - JohnLikesMovies.com
Vern - The Vern's Video Vortex
Lindsay - French Toast Sunday (2013 winner!)
Jason - The Entertainment Junkie
Matt F. - MovieAwardsPlus.com
Jay - Life vs Film
Andrew - A Fistful of Films
James - The Gold Knight
Nick - French Toast Sunday
Max - ImpassionedCinema
Donovan - Awards and Such
Kate - Kate-Halliwell
Denizcan - MrFilmKritik

*Winner decided on tiebreaker.

Remember:
- Your predictions are due by 6PM EST on Jan 13th. 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 8, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: BAFTA Nominations


Just when you thought this awards season was starting to make sense, the BAFTAs come along and throw everything into disarray again. Bright and early this morning (yes, I woke up for the announcement like a madman), the nominations for the BAFTA nominations were announced, with many frontrunners left on the outside looking in. Most notably, presumed locks Thomas McCarthy and George Miller were absent from the Best Director lineup, making way for Adam McKay to claim his first major nod of the season. Overall, it was "Carol" and "Bridge of Spies" leading the field with 9 nods apiece, but the biggest takeaway is that the Best Picture race has turned into a "Spotlight" vs "The Big Short" showdown. On Sunday we'll find out if the Golden Globes confirm this. Until then, here's the full list of BAFTA nominees:

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Carol
The Revenant
Spotlight

Best British Film
45 Years
Amy
Brooklyn
The Danish Girl
Ex Machina
The Lobster

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Benicio Del Toro, Sicario
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best Supporting Actress
Rooney Mara, Carol
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Julie Walters, Brooklyn
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Director
Adam McKay, The Big Short
Todd Haynes, Carol
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies

Thursday, January 7, 2016

REVIEW: The Brand New Testament


“What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home?”

The above lyrics are of course taken from Joan Osborne’s hit song “One of Us”, released in 1995. The tune easily comes to mind while watching "The Brand New Testament", an irreverent biblical satire from Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael. In this high concept comedy, Obsorne’s lyrics seem to have inspired this story about a God who isn’t as glorious as we think.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, January 4, 2016

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Chi-Raq


The essence of Spike Lee's new pseudo-musical film "Chi-Raq" can be boiled down to the very first scene. We hear a brilliantly pointed opening theme song called "Pray 4 My City", with the lyrics flashing across the screen. It's plain-spoken, confrontational and powerful.

The person singing those lyrics is Chi-Raq (played by Nick Cannon), an aspiring rapper and member of the Spartan gang. Heavily involved in a bloody turf war with the rival Trojans, he lives life on the edge. One of the few positive things in his life is his beautiful girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), one of the most popular residents of the community of Chi-Raq. When the violence results in the tragic slaughter of an 11-year old girl however, Lysistrata decides to take action. Upon a suggestion from the wise Miss Helen (Angela Bassett0, she organizes with all the local women to partake in a sex strike to stop the men from killing. Soon, much of the attention becomes re-directed towards a new "men vs women" showdown, which may finally rid Chi-Raq of all the senseless bloodshed.

Much has been made about the film's use of the unsavory moniker "Chi-Raq" as a stand in for Chicago, as well as the slightly comedic approach to the sensitive issue at hand. But a closer look reveals that "Chi-Raq" is vintage Spike Lee, entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. Through his razor sharp screenplay, Lee successfully adapts the classic Lysistrata text to modern times, tackling the gun violence topic head-on with rhyme and reason.

The result is a film that works on many levels, critiquing the patriarchy, gentrification and America's obsession with guns, while still finding moments for levity. And the film is immeasurably benefited by a slew of pitch-perfect performances from the cast. As our narrator, Samuel L. Jackson sets the scene with his trademark candor, and Angela Bassett reminds us of how brilliant she can be when given material worthy of her talent. But while the quality of the acting from those two veterans is hardly surprising, it's the performances of the two young leads that really make you sit up and take notice. Nick Cannon gives easily one of the most eye-opening, unexpected performances of the year, utterly convincing as Chi-Raq. But even though his character bears the film's title, it's Teyonah Parrish who emerges as the film's shining star, living up to every bit of Jackson's description of the character as a "gorgeous Nubian sister". Parris approaches the role like a true warrior princess, as fierce and commanding as she is irresistibly sexy. By the time she and Cannon engage in a climactic "sex showdown", it's almost too hot to handle.

This plot thread does bring up some of underlying faults of the screenplay however, as the film does lose sight of the violence at times in favor of a more reductive "battle of the sexes". Furthermore, the film overreaches in its efforts to portray the sex strike as a worldwide movement rather than honing in on the unique American-ness at hand. But thankfully, many of the risks do pay off, as the film's best moments are absolutely sublime.

With "Chi-Raq", Spike Lee walks a precariously fine line between serious docudrama and musical comedy. But most accurately, it works best as a fable. And it has a message that we need to hear. It may not be subtle, but as the film so urgently declares, this is an emergency.