Friday, October 19, 2018

NYFF: If Beale Street Could Talk


When Miami-born filmmaker released his debut feature "Medicine for Melancholy" back in 2008, even the film's most ardent fans couldn't predicted the meteoric rise to come in his follow up. From those humble micro-budget beginnings, Jenkins would enter the history books with his sophomore outing "Moonlight", which won the Academy Award for Best Picture 8 years later. Translating an unproduced play into an artful cinematic masterpiece, Jenkins redefined our ideas of what urban male masculinity could look like on screen.

Thankfully, it would only take 2 years for Jenkins return with his third film "If Beale Street Could Talk", a ravishingly gorgeous drama which further cements his status as one of our most important storytellers of the black experience. Based on James Baldwin's novel of the same name, this period piece takes us to early 1970s Harlem, a quintessential African-American neighbourhood. It is in this setting that our young protagonist Tish Rivers (played by the dazzling Kiki Layne) faces the harsh realities of justice in America, as she fearfully hopes for the release of her wrongfully accused fiance (Alonzo "Fonny" Hont, played by Stephan James) from prison. Charged with the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, Fonny's outlook is bleak. But the now pregnant Tish and her supportive family are determined to do whatever it takes to clear his name in time to see the birth of his child.

The unjust incarceration facing Fonny is an all too common within the black community, an unfortunate fact which the film addresses with frank honesty. As the film's opening quote explains, the Beale Street in the film's title represents not just the location in Harlem, but all the black communities in America and their shared experiences of struggle and perseverance. Indeed, one of the film's most memorable scenes involves an ominous conversation between Fonny and a friend, as he recalls the oppressive fear he felt during his own experience in prison.

But while such familiarly sobering moments are inextricably embedded in the narrative, it is Barry Jenkins' inspired vision which sets the film apart from others set during this time period. While other filmmakers would aim for a "gritty" tone, Jenkins' direction is as elegant as ever, reuniting with many of his "Moonlight" collaborators to create some of the most breathtaking moments you'll see on screen in this year. From Nicholas Britell's jazz-inflected score to James Laxton's picture-perfect cinematography, the film finds the beauty in these black lives, exalting them through his lens as works of art. As such, repeat Oscar nominations should definitely be in store for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Cinematography. And Regina King should also be in contention for Best Supporting Actress as Tish's mother. Her performance - alongside an outstanding ensemble - beautifully adds further nuance to the story, exploring how family, religion and society influences the lives of this black community.

Indeed, there's no denying Jenkins' love for his characters, which shines through in the way the camera lingers on their faces and leans in to attentively listen to their perspective on the world around them. This is especially true when the film focuses on the central love story between Tish and Fonny. While the film admittedly drags slightly when it reverts to the more dispiriting legal procedural, it absolutely soars in the depiction of their romance. The sincerity and purity of their love is truly euphoric to witness.

And ultimately, the bittersweet withdrawal from that euphoria makes the film's message resonate deeply. "If Beale Street Could Talk" shows how love transcends the hardships imposed by the American nightmare. And it is only through the proliferation of love's beauty and humanity in future generations like Tish's unborn child, that we can truly call it the American dream.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: A Star Is Born


There are few stories in cinema as dramatically compelling as the simultaneous rise and fall narrative of "A Star is Born". Initially produced in 1937, the film was remade in 1954 (featuring one of the greatest acting performances of all time) and then again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand as its titular star. All three versions have cumulatively built an undeniable legacy based on their artistry and/or cultural impact, touching the hearts of audiences - myself included - for generations.

With such a storied history, you should therefore forgive me for my initial apprehension towards the latest remake. This 2018 iteration of "A Star is Born" sees Bradley Cooper directing himself as the tragic Jackson Maine, a country music star suffering from alcoholism who falls in love with an unassuming singer-songwriter (Ally, played by Lady Gaga) and takes her under his wing. As their relationship develops, Ally becomes a pop star in her own right, while Maine's vices send him on a downward spiral. Through it all, they try to support each other the best they can. But as Judy Garland conveyed in 1954, love isn't enough.

Helmed by a first-time director (Bradley Cooper) and a singer (Lady Gaga) in her first lead role in a film. It all seemed so ill-advised to me. But then, the film premiered to rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival and the buzz kept building from there. Immediately, it generated Oscar buzz as the presumed Best Picture frontrunner. Some even suggested to it would be this generations' "Titanic".

It was with these astronomic expectations that I watched "A Star Is Born". And by no fault of the film itself, it therefore felt a little disappointing. The film is more modest than the showstopper the reviews would suggest, especially when the screenplay is so familar (albeit still very satisfying).

But that understated quality is one of its best attributes, particularly when it came to the performances and direction. Indeed, the highlights of the film turned out to be the elements I was most concerned about (the aforementioned Cooper as director and Lady Gaga in the lead). Cooper's execution of this melodrama is truly impressive, earning his deserved Best Director buzz by deftly balancing the intimacy of the relationship with the spectacle of the musical performances. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga will surely be a popular Best Actress contender with her moving performance, which has an unpolished authenticity to it. Best Supporting Actor contender Sam Elliott also deserves kudos for a stealthily brilliant performance as Jackson Maine's concerned brother.

Indeed, both her and Bradley Cooper (a lock for a Best Actor nomination) have a dynamism to their performances which elevate the film. Particularly as they make and perform the film's amazing music. In many ways, the film's romanticism transcends its central love story to become a love letter to pop music. Through both Cooper and Lady Gaga's characters, the film acts as a tribute to pop stars old and new, as their struggles and artistry are reminiscent of Whitney Houston, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga herself. And the film's deeply affecting narrative and soundtrack - "Shallow" will be a Best Original Song nominee, along with nods for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing - reminds us of pop music's healing power, however fleeting it may be. It's a category of music that brings people together like no other and touches our heart and soul, resulting in phenomena like the Beyhive, the Little Monsters and This Party Is Killing You. I can hardly think of another film that so effectively captures the contemporary allure of pop music and the inevitable pressures afflicting musicians caught up in its whirlwind. As they say, Bradley Cooper and co. did it for the culture.

Monday, October 8, 2018

REVIEW: Border


When you think of the word "troll", the first images that come to mind are probably an irritating internet commenter or a hideous creature likely to kill you. Ali Abbasi's latest film "Border", however, presents a more nuanced perspective. This fascinating tale finds the humanity in trolls, exploring their nature with disarming empathy.

"Border" is the story of Tina, a customs border agent for the Swedish authorities. We are introduced to her on the job, where she excels by literally being able to sniff out criminal activity. Despite her expertise, however, she doesn't fully feel like she belongs. Thanks to facial features which resemble something not quite human, she harbors feelings of self-doubt. But one day, she encounters a mysterious man named Vore, whose face is strikingly reminiscent of her own. His confidence immediately draws her in and they slowly become acquainted. And as their relationship develops, Tina begins to question her life and by extension, her sense of self.

With Tina's subsequent self-discovery comes life-changing news. Vore informs her that she is not human, but a troll. And as that revelation opens her eyes to the truth behind her past and present life, "Border" becomes a compelling character study.

Indeed, despite the grotesque character design and fanciful mythology, Abbasi takes a serious approach to the material. In establishing Tina's identity, the narrative presents familiar scenes of domestic life alongside a hard-boiled crime investigation worthy of its own distinct narrative. Furthermore, the film is grounded by Melander and co-star Eero Milonoff, who imbue their roles with naturalism. Despite extensive makeup, their impressively lived-in performances allow us to see their troll characters as beings with relatable needs and wants. There's a loneliness to Tina's quiet demeanour which blossoms into titillated curiosity around Vore's confident swagger. And as they open up to each other, they express their newfound happiness with childlike enthusiasm.

Even as the film delves into some of the more bizarre concepts - with shocking imagery to match - behind troll physiology and behavior, there's an enchanting feeling of rebirth in Tina. On the surface, the film may set up an allegory of racial intolerance and prejudice, but it is more successful as a fable about the power of self-love. Though the crime subplot distractingly shifts the focus away from Tina's personal growth, the film's ultimate lesson is deeply felt. Whether you use your self-love and acceptance for good or evil is what truly separates the monsters and men.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

REVIEW: The Heiresses


When we first meet Chela, the protagonist in Marcelo Martinessi’s debut feature “The Heiresses“, she seems to have her life under control. She is lounging in her handsomely appointed home with her partner Chiquita, as they get ready to attend their friend Carmela’s 50th birthday party. Following this relaxed evening of music and socializing, however, their private conversations, reveal that everything isn’t quite as it seems.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: No Date, No Signature


“No Date, No Signature” begins on a regular night for its central character Dr. Nariman (played by Amir Aghaee). Driving down quiet Iranian streets after a day’s work as a forensic pathologist, he expects a peaceful rest ahead. But fate has other plans for him as a seemingly minor collision has serious repercussions in this powerful drama from director Vahid Jalilvand.

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REVIEW: Five Fingers for Marseilles


With its expansive, sun-kissed plains and awe-inspiring mountain ranges, South Africa provides the perfect backdrop for Western films. But while international productions like “The Salvation” have taken advantage of the setting, the genre has been effectively unexplored by homegrown South African filmmakers. That vacuum is now being temporarily filled, however, by Michael Matthews’ debut feature “Five Fingers for Marseilles“. Paying homage to the time-honored traditions of the genre, this is a quintessential Western albeit with an appealing South African makeover.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection


Restrained, respectful, sedate. Those are hardly words you’d use to describe the notoriously rambunctious tennis legend John McEnroe. But such is the surprising approach taken toward this outsized personality in the Julien Faraut documentary “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection“.

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10 Best Asian Films Since 2008


As the eagerly anticipated “Crazy Rich Asians” arrives in theaters this week, one of the most underrepresented minority groups will get a rare chance to shine in a major Hollywood production. While we wait for Hollywood to catch up to the world, with this long overdue cultural moment, it’s worth reflecting on the success of native Asian filmmakers. Indeed, the well-established film industries across the Asian continent have produced filmmakers and movie stars to rival any Hollywood A-lister. And with the vast array of socioeconomic and cultural contexts of the various countries, Asian cinema is a buffet of cinematic delights. From the dazzling spectacles of India’s Bollywood cinema to the consistently edgy works from South Korean directors, there’s something for everyone.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

OSCAR WATCH: Eighth Grade


If you're anything like me, your middle/high school years were a trying time that you've long forgotten. The experience of watching Bo Burnham's debut feature "Eighth Grade" could therefore give you a feeling of déjà vu. This chronicle of an eight grader's life may not reflect your exact experience, but Burnham knowingly captures the essence of those anxiety-ridden years.

"Eighth Grade" is the story of a girl named Kayla. Like many kids her age, she has an active life on social media, even producing and starring in her own YouTube vlog. But her everyday life is a different situation altogether, with her school even naming her Most Quiet at a year-ending awards ceremony. Determined to shirk this label before she enters high school, sets forth to break out of her shell and make new friends. A tumultuous week awaits her, however, which will forever shape the person she aspires to be.

Elsie's journey of self discovery will surely be familiar to anyone who has dealt with the pressures of fitting in. Capturing all the awkwardness and insecurities of adolescence in painstaking detail, some scenes will surely have you cringing and peeking through a covered face. Burnham is so attuned to Kayla's perspective that every embarrassing moment or burst of joy is viscerally felt.

Speaking of Kayla's perspective, Elsie Fisher is the main reason why the character is so affecting. Delivering the year's most precious performance, her fumbling speech and eager energy feels absolutely genuine. Despite her young age, Fisher would not feel out of place in the Best Actress conversation at the Oscars.

While the film is primarily a showcase for Fisher, first timer Bo Burnham also shows tremendous talent with some brilliant directorial flourishes. Indeed, each major event is often introduced in slow motion with intense musical fanfare, signalling the emotional highs and lows which accompany them. With this ingenious touch, Burnham effectively conveys the extreme "best day ever" or "end of the world" feelings associated with pivotal social interactions.

Of course, going to a pool party or hanging out with friends may seem trivial in hindsight, but "Eighth Grade" also shows how formative these interactions can be. While the protagonist's endearing awkwardness mostly elicits hysterical laughter or relatable pathos, there are also some horrifying moments which remind us how our toxic gender dynamics and sexual politics are established at such a young age. Underneath Kayla's eager attitude is an unfortunate desperation to impress the opposite sex that is frustrating yet all too familiar.

As such, the film will resonate with audiences young and old (including Academy members, as it makes a strong case for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay). Through her, we remember the people we used to be and the importance of those early relationships, whether it be with an encouraging father - a crucial but underwritten character - or the sincere support of a good friend. On the latter note, the film saves the best for last with a scene so sweet that it brought tears to my eyes. It's a heartwarming reminder that with the right people in your corner, everything's gonna be alright.

Friday, September 28, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Leave No Trace


We've often been taught that our basic needs are food, water, clothing and shelter. But modern society often takes a step further, dictating the acceptable forms of food and the notion of a proper home. Those who live outside these norms of "civilized" society are often shunned, much like the father-daughter protagonists of "Leave No Trace", which sees Debra Granik returning to the survivalist themes of "Winter's Bone" to deliver another moving Oscar contender for Best Picture.

Indeed, Tom and her father Will hardly fit the common ideal of an American household. While they occasionally visit the city to gather supplies, they spend most of their time as squatters in a public park in Oregon. Having long settled into their way of life in the woods, they have found happiness, with no desire to move. But one day, their secret existence is revealed to the authorities, forcing them to leave their home forever. Soon, they are put into the care of social services and given a traditional home. Knowing that their lives will never be the same, they try to settle into their new environment. But as time goes by, father and daughter have divergent views as to whether this change is for the better.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I tend to preemptively balk at these kinds of narratives about people who choose to rough it in the wilderness. With my academic background in environmental studies, I understand the environmental benefits and I've met numerous fine people who aspire to some version of this way of life. Yet I still involuntarily roll my eyes at people who reject the basic conveniences designed to keep us safe and improve our lives.

Thankfully, "Leave No Trace" quickly relieved me of my skepticism, thanks to the honesty that Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini bring to the direction and screenplay. Whereas films like "Captain Fantastic" expressed a condescending viewpoint of primitive lifestyles as being more respectable, "Leave No Trace" gives a much more nuanced portrayal. Instead of sanctimonious monologues about the virtues of simple living, Granik explores this outlook through the beautiful relationship between a troubled widower and his daughter.

Having previously depended on each other to survive, a fascinating conflict arises through Tom's coming of age following the upheaval of their lives. Expressed with a tender-hearted spirit by Thomasin McKenzie, Tom's curiosity brings forth poignant revelations about this seemingly unbreakable father-daughter bond. Meanwhile, Ben Foster brings depth to a character who plays it close to the chest. Though the film doesn't fully get to the bottom of his pain, it's all there in Foster's wounded, careful performance. And through his character, the film is touchingly honest in acknowledging that some traumas can't be overcome. He may not verbally express it like Casey Affleck's devastating "I can't beat it" in "Manchester by the Sea", but no words are needed when there's a shot as plaintive and eloquent as the one which ends this gracefully crafted film.

Friday, September 21, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Black Panther


When Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" released on February 16 this year, few could have predicted the cultural juggernaut it would become. 7 months later, it still sits comfortably atop the year's box office and critics' charts, a position it will likely hold for the rest of 2018. With this level of success, it's unsurprising that the blockbuster became embroiled in a debate over the validity of the Academy's hastily announced new category for Best Popular Film. Thankfully, that ill-advised idea was subsequently scrapped, allowing Disney to refocus its awards campaign strategy to once again take aim at the Best Picture race. Of course, the ongoing fall festival circuit is providing many other alternatives. Therefore, I felt it would be an appropriate to reassess the film's merits.

"Black Panther" takes place in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a prosperous nation untainted by the colonial exploitation. Thanks to an omnipotent mineral called vibranium, its people have experienced considerable wealth and technical advancements which have allowed them to stay hidden from the rest of the world. Sustaining that level of independence and affluence is the primary concern of its heir apparent T'Challa, destined to ascend the throne following the untimely death of his father. But Wakanda's secret is under serious threat, as outsiders plot to harness the vibranium for nefarious means. With his nation under attack, T'Challa must call upon his allies and his own powers - obtained by a heart-shaped herb - to defeat these infiltrators and protect his people.

T'Challa's story has been a long time coming, as one of the newest members of the wildly popular superhero team called the Avengers to make the big screen. And to our relief, the resulting film was worth the wait. Delivering action-packed entertainment with a potent undercurrent of black power and struggle, "Black Panther" elevated the Marvel Cinematic Universe to new heights of sociocultural relevance.

Indeed, the film's "blackness" plays a large role in the film's success. Directed by Ryan Coogler in only his third outing as a director, the film is the rare Marvel film that feels driven by a distinct voice. Blending the poignant social commentary of his debut "Fruitvale Station" with the big-budget showmanship of "Creed", this film is the natural progression for his ascendant filmography. Like both of those films, "Black Panther" puts black faces front and center, showcasing both their inherited trauma and resilient glory.

What makes "Black Panther" so special is the way it addresses a topic rarely explored in cinema before. Namely, the diasporic tensions between Africans and African-Americans. In that regard, the film introduces a compelling villain in the form of Erik Killomger (played with dangerous swagger by Coogler's muse Michael B. Jordan). His resentment of Wakanda's self-serving apathy towards the struggle of their African diaspora makes him an empathetic figure, despite his bloodthirsty mentality.

While Killmonger's morally complex philosophy and intense conviction may garner Oscar attention for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, it is actually this aspect that forms the source of my only critique against the film. Understandably, the film ultimately plays it safe in putting Killmonger's revolutionary plan in motion. As such, it left me wishing Marvel had taken a bolder narrative risk, which they actually did in Avengers Infinity War two months later.

Nevertheless, Coogler more than makes up for it with the exhilarating spectacle of the filmmaking, so richly infused with the aforementioned elements of "blackness". From the thumping hip-hop beats of the soundtrack, to the real-word parralels of its Pan-African plot, to the dazzling production design and costumes, the meticulous world-building is truly a sight to behold. And for pure thrills, its Busan-set action setpiece is easily one of the most impressive of the year. Oscar nods for Best Director, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing would be well deserved.

As the long awards season progresses, it's quite possible that Academy voters may ultimately dismiss "Black Panther" as just another Marvel movie. But if you place close attention, you'll realize that the film stands out on its own, offering a complete story that challenges as much as it entertains. Maybe the superhero glut at the cinemas isn't so bad after all.

Friday, September 14, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: BlacKkKlansman


Three decades ago, we watched as Mookie threw a trash can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria in "Do the Right Thing". It was Spike Lee's 3rd feature film and it became one of the most talked about and defining moments in the film and in some regards, Lee's career as a whole. Many years later, audiences are still split as to whether, to use the film's own title, Mookie did the right thing. But whichever side you landed on, this scene of heightened racial tensions established Lee as a filmmaker unafraid to confront the unsavory legacy of America's checkered past.

Fast forward to 2018 and I couldn't help but think of "Do the Right Thing" as another character breaks a window in his latest film "BlacKkKlansman". In this scene, the men involved are a black detective named Ron Stallworth and his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman, who is being interrogated by a vehemently racist member of the Ku Klux Klan. The detectives are working undercover on a daring mission to infiltrate the KKK, with Stallworth impersonating a white-sounding man over the phone, who is presented as Zimmerman in the field. With their true identities under threat of being revealed, the scene sees Stallworth breaking a window to dissipate the tension. But this won't be the only nerve-wracking moment in the film, as the men put their lives in danger in a race against the clock to stop the KKK's next terrorist attack.

The inherent miracle of the story and the protagonists' bravery are indeed what makes "BlacKkKlansman" compelling. The script - a surefire Oscar contender for Best Adapted Screenplay - effectively balances some anxiety-inducing close calls with frequent humorous scenes inspired by the sheer audacity of the mission and the narrow-minded psychology of the antagonists. As such, it functions as both an amusing satire and a stirring period piece (with all the cool threads and afros to match).

Dealing with such sensitive subject matter as the notoriously evil KKK is a risky gamble and admittedly, Lee does falter with a few excessively comic moments. Thankfully, John David Washington's confident performance always keeps the film afloat. Displaying much of his father Denzel's charisma, he could potentially follow in his footsteps as an Oscar nominee for Best Actor. Furthermore, Adam Driver should be in the discussion for Best Supporting Actor, as his character adds thought-provoking dimensions to the film. His reckoning with this Jewish identity is one of the film's highlights.

Overall, "BlacKkKlansman" represents one of Lee's most restrained directorial efforts. But that's not to say that he's getting soft with age. Indeed, his confrontational voice is unmistakable in the film's prologue and conclusion. The former shows Alec Baldwin spewing propagandist hate speech as a character clearly intended as a parody of Donald Trump. Meanwhile, the closing moments are true masterstroke that will likely seal long overdue Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture.Using sobering real-life footage of the present-day KKK to hit home the film's themes, it proves that Spike Lee remains one of the most essential voices in cinema, sticking it to the man like only he can.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

REVIEW: Hereditary


If there's one movie this year that will have you turning to God in prayer, it won't be a faith-based movie like " but rather Ari
Aster's extraordinarily creepy "Hereditary". With one of the most striking debuts in recent memory, Aster proves to be a new mastermind of the horror genre. Scaring audiences through both supernatural and worldly terrors, it's a film that won't leave your mind any time soon.

"Hereditary" tells the story of a deeply troubled family, made up of a teen son, his younger sister and their parents. At the beginning of the film, the family has just buried the grandmother, a woman who passed on her internalized trauma to her daughter Annie. As the new matriarch of the family, Annie (played by Toni Collette) tries to keep the family strong through this latest tragedy. But forces from within and without threaten to break their already tenuous family bond forever.

When "Hereditary" was released earlier this summer, audiences didn't quite know what to make of it. Despite strong reviews from critics, the film scored a paltry D+ CinemaScore, indicating general audience dissatisfaction. I was therefore genuinely surprised when I finally watched the film and found it to be one of the most effectively terrifying horror films I've ever seen.

Though the marketing promised a standard issue haunting/possession narrative, Aster arrives at that place from a more indirect angle. He brilliantly incorporates the idea of metaphorical inner demons with literal ones and then unleashes them all on this vulnerable family, wreaking havoc on their lives.

Indeed, one early therapy scene is quite telling, as Annie explains the mixed emotions she feels after the death of her estranged mother. Harboring inexplicable guilt and blame for all her misfortunes, it's hardly surprising when we realize the brittle tensions within the intra-family relationships. That underlying malice within the family is viscerally felt, thanks to some go-for-broke, raw performances from the cast.

At the center of it all is Toni Collette, who all but turns herself inside out for her role. As her character endures unimaginable tragedy and inescapable anguish, she is a whirlwind that stirs up her co-stars and brings out the best in them. Most notably, the scenes she shares with Alex Wolff are absolutely searing as they unravel this fraught mother-son relationship.

Even if it didn't have the traditional horror elements of disturbing images and creepy sounds - and contrary to popular belief, this film has more than enough of them - the film's central conceit of the effects of damaged families would be haunting on its own. Indeed, if you can't feel safe around your own family, then where do you run to? I can hardly think of anything more traumatizing.

Friday, August 31, 2018

COMING SOON: The Oscar Contenders


In case you weren't aware, the first phase of awards season is upon us, as the Venice and Telluride Film Festival are in full swing. Indeed, this is the most exciting time of year for any discerning cinephile, as some of the most anticipated films of the year will be premiering at various high-profile festivals. And already, various hot titles like "A Star Is Born" and "The Favourite" are positioning themselves as major Oscar contenders, with many more on the way. Of course, a lot can still happen between now and Oscar night. But for now, hope springs eternal as we await the rest of the year in "prestige" cinema. With that being said, here's a first look at some of the films garnering early Oscar buzz:

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: First Reformed


Although he has directed as many films as he has written, Paul Schrader is more widely known as the screenwriter behind some of Martin Scorcese's greatest films. Most notably, he penned the script for "Taxi Driver", starring an unforgettable Robert De Niro as a disillusioned war veteran. The misanthropy which fueled that character echoes 40 years later in Schrader's latest effort "First Reformed", which sees him doing double duty as writer-director to craft a film that is chillingly relevant to modern society.

While De Niro's Travis Bickle was a taxi driver in the gritty streets of 1970s New York City, the protagonist of "First Reformed" is a priest named Reverend Toller, who is in charge of a historic church further upstate. Played by Ethan Hawke, he is a man tormented by the crises affecting both him and others in the past, present and future. One day, his faith is put the ultimate test upon meeting a couple experiencing difficulties due to the husband's severe depression. As this man slips into crippling despair over mankind's destruction of the earth, Reverend Toller realizes that piety may not provide the answers, causing Toller to question his and the church's purpose in the world.

Bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, Ethan Hawke is well cast in the lead role. While his furrowed brow conveys his internal anguish, his youthful persona serves him well as the character becomes increasingly agitated. Pitched somewhere between grumpy old man and furious activist, it will surely be remembered as one of Hawke's finest hours.

Indeed, Hawke is the anchor of this heavy film which sees Schrader ultimately taking aim at one of the most unspoken, yet critical issues of our time. Namely, what is Christianity's role in environmental protection or lack thereof? Evidently, Schrader takes a cynical view to this answer, starkly showing how capitalism and Christianity are often unholy bedfellows. The influence of both is omnipresent through various perspectives in the narrative, whether it be the aforementioned wife's ingrained religious belief (excellently portrayed by Amanda Seyfried) or the self-serving authority of Cedric the Entertainer as the leader of a megachurch. As the film gradually reinforces the pervading sense of apathy towards the earth, one can't help but empathize with our protagonist's plight.

With an exacting stillness and pallid visual scheme, Schrader's tone is unwaveringly morose. But ultimately, the film leaves a powerful impact that may even strike up Oscar talk for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Whether you're religious or not, it will have you pondering its central concern - Can God Forgive Us?

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Top 10 Spike Lee Joints


On August 10, “BlacKkKlansman” will be released in theaters nationwide, marking the 38th feature film in the storied filmography of Spike Lee. As one of the pioneering figures of the 1980s independent film movement, Lee’s career has made him one of the most influential black filmmakers of all time. And with the release of his latest, early reviews prove that he hasn’t lost his flair for the politically-charged, provocative work that captivates audiences everywhere.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

10 Best Debut Films by Directors of Color Since 2008


Ask any director and they’ll tell you that getting your first feature funded and completed is no easy task. And when you’re a director of color, it’s even more daunting. Indeed, it’s no secret that white directors are often afforded greater opportunities to further their careers following their debut features. But for filmmakers of color, there’s the likelihood that their first film could be their last.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Cakemaker


From poisoned apples in fairytales to raunchy kinks in adult-oriented fare, food has long served as a plot device throughout film history. That tradition continues with “The Cakemaker,” a cross-cultural drama directed by Ophir Raul Graizer. In this delicate drama, the power of food creates an unlikely love triangle that transcends borders.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Believer


If you thought Hollywood had the cornered the market on seemingly unnecessary remakes, think again. Back in 2012, Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s “Drug War” opened to critical acclaim, strong box office, and eventual awards recognition. Hoping to repeat that success, Lee Hae-young brings his take on that story with “Believer“. As with any remake, there’s an inevitable element of familiarity. But this gripping tale of crime also forges its unique identity, adapting a proven formula to deliver heart-pounding entertainment.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

10 Foreign Directors to Watch in 2018


Taking place at the start of the blockbuster-driven summer season, the Cannes Film Festival always holds a special place in the film calendar. While the next few months will see most of the media attention focused on Hollywood fare, this prestigious festival shines a spotlight on the best of world cinema. Indeed, at the recently concluded 2018 edition, only 2 American directors competed for the coveted Palme d’Or this year, while filmmakers from Egypt to Kazakhstan were feted.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Carla Simón


Filmmaking rarely gets more personal than the award-winning debut feature from Carla Simón. Inspired by the personal tragedy surrounding her mother’s death from AIDS-related complications, “Summer 1993” is a tender drama told from a child’s point of view. As the film heads to US theaters around the 25th anniversary of the events depicted, I recently caught up with Simón to discuss the challenges and fulfillment of making a film from painful memories. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Desert Bride


When we think of the term “starlet,” the image that immediately comes to mind is a conventionally attractive actress in her teens or 20s. Indeed, the label would hardly ever be used to describe a woman nearing her 60s. But ever since making her film debut in 2002 at the age of 42, Paulina García has proven to be every bit a rising star as her younger counterparts, turning in stunning work in recent films like “Gloria,” “Little Men.” Now, she adds another exquisite performance to her résumé as the lead in Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato’s “The Desert Bride.”

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Top 10 TV Programs of 2017-2018


Maybe I've become spoilt for choice over the years, but I must confess that the overall TV programming in 2017-2018 didn't feel as groundbreaking as seasons past. Apart from a few exceptions - including a returning powerhouse duo from the ever reliable FX - the top programs I watched this year were mostly stalwart favourites offering familiar pleasures. Still, the ever growing TV landscape did provide some freshman entries which underlined the boundless potential of peak TV. As eclectic as ever, the best of TV provided a diverse range of entertainment to suit virtually all tastes. Here are those Top 10 Programs of the 2017-2018 TV Season:

  1. Queen Sugar (OWN)
  2. The Americans (FX)
  3. Patton Oswalt: Annihilation (Netflix)
  4. Outlander (Starz)
  5. Godless (Netflix)
  6. Insecure (HBO)
  7. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
  8. Game of Thrones (HBO)
  9. Atlanta (FX)
  10. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)

Honorable Mention: Queer Eye

Top 10 Acting Performances of 2017-2018 TV

Best Casting: Godless, GLOW, Queen Sugar

While the 2016-2017 season brought a heavenly smorgasbord of outstanding female performances, I found myself unexpectedly drawn more to the scintillating men of the small screen this year. Indeed, my Top 10 Acting Performances features 6 such male actors who challenged themselves with daring work that proved integral to the success of their respective shows. Crude, bizarre and even downright psychotic, these MVPs never played within the comfort zone.

Equally impressive were their 4 female counterparts on this list, who all portrayed leaders in their own right and brilliantly navigated the associated complexities relating to racial oppression and capitalism. Altogether, their characters may live in vastly different eras and locales. But they are all uncompromising portrayals that get to the heart of what it means to live in America. Here are my Top 10 Acting Performances of the 2017-2018 TV Season.
  1. Darren Criss, The Assassination of Gianni Versace
  2. Donald Glover, Atlanta
  3. Marc Maron, GLOW
  4. Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Queen Sugar
  5. Rutina Wesley, Queen Sugar
  6. Keri Russell, The Americans
  7. Matthew Rhys, The Americans
  8. Jon Jon Briones, The Assassination of Gianni Versace
  9. Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta
  10. Danielle Brooks, Orange Is the New Black

Monday, April 30, 2018

20 Most Anticipated Performances of 2018

While movie lovers around the world are gearing up for another jam-packed summer slate of effects-driven films, more discerning cinephiles will also be eagerly anticipating movie magic of a different sort. Indeed, in the coming months and throughout the fall, audiences will be treated to the crème de la crème of arguably cinema's most spectacular element - the actors. Some of them will go on to garner Oscar buzz, while others will live on as fan favorites. Either way, the standout performers will never be forgotten. As we look ahead to what the remainder of 2018 has to offer, here are my 20 Most Anticipated Performances of 2018:

REVIEW: In the Last Days of the City


How do you capture the essence of a city? Is it the people, the buildings, the sounds? In Tamer El Said’s elegiac debut film “In the Last Days of the City“, one man wrestles with this central question as he attempts to capture a cinematic portrait of a place that no longer feels like home.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Godard Mon Amour


There’s a cruel irony that runs through “Godard Mon Amour“, the latest nostalgia-tinged effort from Michel Hazanavicius. Its titular subject – famed pioneer of the French New Wave Jean Luc Godard – was known for his anti-establishment, inventive style of filmmaking. The name Godard is, therefore, one of the last names you would associate with a genre as old-fashioned as the biopic. But in perhaps one of the boldest moves of his career, Hazanavicius makes a valiant, if misguided attempt at capturing a key moment in the auteur’s life.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Zama


Early in Lucrecia Martel’s historical drama “Zama“, there’s a portentous scene that sets the one for the rest of the film. In it, a man recalls the story of a species of fish that spends its entire life swimming to and fro against the tide of the water, forever remaining in one place. The significance of this anecdote isn’t immediately apparent. But as this story unfolds, it becomes a metaphor for the film itself, which follows a man who is actively going nowhere.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Boyz n the Hood


During the recently concluded awards season, the Hollywood Reporter published an interesting article in honor of the success of “Get Out”. In it, all of the African-American directing nominees in the history of the Oscars gathered for a candid discussion about their experiences in the industry. Before even reading the article, the accompanying photo was already telling in two significant ways. Firstly, the paltry 4 nominees couldn’t even fill a single year’s quota of nominees. And secondly, the oldest nominated film represented was “Boyz n the Hood“, released just 27 years ago in the summer of 1991. Though the blaxploitation movement had already emerged out of the civil rights movement and Spike Lee had given us the seminal “Do the Right Thing” two years earlier, it wasn’t until “Boyz n the Hood” that a black director finally received that public stamp of industry approval.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The China Hustle


By no fault of its own, Jed Rothstein’s “The China Hustle” is an eye-opening yet somewhat underwhelming documentary. Thanks to prominent media coverage and a slew of fiction and non-fiction films about the 2008 economic crisis, its revelations of fraud will hardly alarm even the most casually informed viewer. Many Americans have already become disillusioned with the nation’s financial institutions. But this fascinating documentary further adds an unexpected piece to a global puzzle of capitalism gone mad.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Keep the Change


As the spirit of activism attempts to upend longstanding Hollywood paradigms, efforts at more inclusive filmmaking practices is a trending topic. Indeed, Frances McDormand recently sent the world into a googling frenzy when she ended her Oscar acceptance speech with the word “inclusion rider”. But what do we mean when we say “inclusion”? Too often our discussions around diversity are quite literally “black and white”. But the fabric of our modern society is a technicolor quilt of varied experiences, all of which deserved to be treated with the level of sincere empathy that writer-director Rachel Israel brings to “Keep the Change“. In this award-winning debut feature, Israel delivers a precious take on the classic romantic comedy, casting a pair of autistic characters as its lovestruck leads.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Claire's Camera


In the opening moments of Hong Sang-soo’s “Claire’s Camera“, a film sales assistant named Manhee (Kim Min-hee) is fired during a work trip at the Cannes Film Festival. The reasoning for her dismissal is a lack of trust, as her boss claims that she lacks honesty. As we follow her subsequent aimless drifting through this seaside city, the notion of truth becomes a primary concern for the film, which commits steadfastly to understated realism.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

10 Black Films to Anticipate in 2018


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that “Black Panther” has taken the world by storm. With its record-smashing box office and cultural impact, the film has captured our imaginations and gave us a Black History Month to remember. Its monumental success has truly shattered any illusions as to the limited commercial potential of black films, though Hollywood will surely attempt to dismiss it as an anomaly. It is therefore up to us movie lovers to prove them wrong. And if the exciting slate of 2018 releases is any indication, we can expect many more opportunities to celebrate black excellence at the movies this year.

Ranging from big franchise movies to eccentric indies, here are 10 upcoming films to look forward to, all directed by and starring black talent:

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: A Quiet Place


Over a century ago, cinema as we know it began with silent films, which laid the foundation for many of the common techniques used by filmmakers today. Despite the lack of audible dialogue, those early pioneers were able to capture the imagination of audiences and tell unforgettable stories. Fast forward to the 21st century and populist cinema has adopted a more noisy, talky approach. It's for this reason that John Krasinski's exceptional "A Quiet Place" stands out so noticeably in today's marketplace. Indeed, few words are audibly spoken throughout this nerve-wracking sophomore feature. But Krasinski proves to be highly fluent in another language - the powerful audiovisual language of horror cinema.

"A Quiet Place" is set in the near future in 2020, a time when most the world's human population has been decimated by mysterious deadly creatures. Those who remain are constantly living on a knife's edge, as they must remain quiet at all times to avoid detection by these creatures who use their hypersensitive hearing to track down their victims. Among the survivors is the Abbott Family - husband Lee (John Krasinski), wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), sons Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), and deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) - who struggle to survive while they seek to learn how to stop these monsters before it's too late.

From this intriguingly original premise, Krasinski crafts one of the most effective horror films ever made. Thanks to the unbearably tense silence, every jump scare is twice as startling and every creepy sound sends a chill down your spine. And like any good monster flick, the creature design is absolutely terrifying to behold. The film is so scary that it will make you want to run screaming for the doors.

But although you'll want to call on Jesus to save you from this nightmarish experience, you'll still be willfully glued to your seat. What elevates this horror story is its potent human element, thanks to a deeply affecting emotional throughline and a compelling rooting factor for the characters. Doing double duty, Krasinski is just a proficient in front of the camera as the family's heroic father, further displaying his newfound leading man appeal. By his side, Emily Blunt is as expressive as ever in a role that calls on her considerable skills as an actress. As wife, mother and vulnerable, she is at once warm, formidable and tender. But perhaps the most significant performance in the film comes from Millicent Simmonds. Following her debut performance in "Wonderstruck", she continues to be a shining example of the endless capabilities of deaf actors, giving the film an empathetic perspective of adolescent angst.

As with many horror movies, the plot relies on a few bad decisions from these characters to move the plot along and set up the dangerous scenarios. But when a film is this well made, these minor contrivances are easily forgiven. Thanks to Krasinski's masterful use of image and sound, Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director are certainly within the realm of possibility. And in my opinion, they'd be well deserved. "A Quiet Place" is one of the most enthralling theatrical experiences I've had in recent memory and easily my favourite film of 2018 so far.

Monday, March 5, 2018

And the Oscar goes to... The Shape of Water


And there you have it folks, the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture goes to "The Shape of Water". After a topsy-turvy season during which several films laid claim to the throne, it was Guillermo del Toro's fantasy romance film that took the top honor, along with 3 other well-deserved statues for Director, Production Design and Original Score. Overall, the show was predictably political, while the awards winners themselves were rather surprising (for me at least). Shockers included "Icarus" winning Best Documentary and "Remember Me" beating the tailor-made Oscar song "This is Me". But and the end of the day, I couldn't complain much as this year's nominees were a quality bunch. As the cliché goes, they were all winners. But of course, these following honorees felt that champion's feeling more than the others:

BEST PICTURE
The Shape of Water

BEST DIRECTOR
Guillermo Del Toro,The Shape of Water

BEST ACTOR
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

BEST ACTRESS
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Allison Janney, I Tonya

Sunday, March 4, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Awards


Last night the Independent Spirit Awards were handed out and as expected, "Get Out" was the big winner, taking home the prizes for Best Feature and Best Best Director. Meanwhile, "Lady Bird", "Call Me by Your Name", "I, Tonya" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" also had good showings with 2 prizes each. Here is the full list of winners:

Best Feature
Get Out

Best Director
Jordan Peele – Get Out

Best Female Lead
Francis McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Male Lead
Timothee Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name

Best Supporting Female
Alison Janney – I, Tonya

Best Supporting Male
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Saturday, March 3, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: The Animated Films

The general consensus is that this year's Oscar lineup for Best Animated Feature is one of the weakest we've seen in the history of the category. And having finally seen of the nominees recently, I'd have to agree that there are no masterpieces among then. Here are my quick thoughts on them all:

No Animated Feature Oscar race is complete without a Disney or Pixar film in the running and this time, it's Pixar with the slam dunk contender. "Coco" is the story of a young boy's journey to learn the importance of family, as he aspires to be a musician against his grandmother's wishes. Set in Mexico, his adventure incorporates the folklore surrounding the annual Día de Muertos, as he enters the Land of the Dead to learn the truth behind his family's longstanding ban against music. In typical Pixar fashion, the thoroughly engaging storyline involves dazzling animation and stunning world-building. It may not be Pixar's most ground-breaking premise (Fox Animation's "The Book of Life" beat them to the punch a similar concept), but it's big on heart. This deserving frontrunner is the year's loveliest animated feature. Rating: ★★★★

The field of animation has long been at the forefront of innovative techniques in cinema and "Loving Vincent" is a shining example. Indeed, this gorgeous production brings new meaning to the term "art film". Fully hand-painted by an extensive team of artists, it follows a young man on a quest to learn about the life and death of Vincent van Gogh as he asked to deliver the iconic artist's final letter. Unsurprisingly, the film is a marvel to look at, but it's more than just pretty paintings. Its soul-searching plot explores depression, ambition, love, disappointment and heartbreak with enough depth and human drama to work as a live action feature. And these emotions are conveyed beautifully by the excellent voice cast. "Loving Vincent" is truly an artistic tour de force. Rating: ★★★★

There's an interesting concept behind "The Boss Baby", a Dreamworks production directed by Tom McGrath. In it, an extraordinarily precocious baby becomes a nightmare for a young boy named Tim, stealing all the parental attention away from this former only child. As he is trying to win this sibling rivalry, it turns out that this special "Boss Baby" is on a mission of his own, waging a war against adorable puppies. On paper, one could easily see Pixar turning this is into a masterpiece a la "Toy Story", layering it with insight, humor and pathos. Unfortunately, this film doesn't quite reach those heights, but it's an enjoyable adventure nonetheless with lots of laughs and an affecting coda. It's Pixar-lite, but it's a commendable attempt. Rating: ★★★1/2

We usually expect animated films to provide harmless escapism, but with Nora Twomey's "The Breadwinner" we get a story that feels as achingly real. Though it is set in war-torn Afghanistan, this tale of a young girl's struggle to overcome patriarchal oppression is perfectly suited to the #MeToo movement that emerged in our Western society. In a society where women have no independence or freedom, the film's protagonist displays incredible courage as she disguises herself as a boy to provide for her family following her father's imprisonment. Impressively delving into the various traumas she and her family face subsequently face, "The Breadwinner" delivers a startling dash of social realism with a palpable sense of danger. Yet the film never wavers from her child's perspective, balancing the tone nicely with imaginative fables that mirror our heroine's quest to overcome her obstacles. This heatrending and inspiring film truly deserves to be mentioned alongside the over feminist cinematic triumphs of the year. Rating: ★★★★

Based on a children's book by Munro Lead, "Ferdinand" is an animated film with a important message. It tells the story of a pacifist Spanish bull who would rather smell flowers than fight in the ring, even as the world around him is determined to make him into a violent beast. As he grows up, he tries his best to stay true to his personality, which is conveyed with touching sympathy in the film's opening scenes. Unfortunately, the film proceeds undermine that with over-the-top supporting characters and broad humor. And to be honest, I basically tuned out during the formulaic adventure shenanigans. Indeed, you know the writing is lazy when even a kid would exclaim, "what is this movie's obsession with butts?". Eventually, it gets its non-conformist message across, but I couldn't help feeling cheated out of this story's potential to be a much better movie. Rating: ★★★

Friday, March 2, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Predictions


It's the last lap of this exciting awards season as the Independent Spirit Awards sound off on the best in independent film for 2017. This was my 4th year as a voting member and overall, it was definitely one of the strongest set of nominees we've had. With that said, these are the lucky films I'm expecting to come out on top tomorrow:

Best Feature
Get Out

Best Director
Jordan Peele – Get Out

Best Female Lead
Francis McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Male Lead
Timothee Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name

Best Supporting Female
Alison Janney – I, Tonya

Best Supporting Male
Armie Hammer -Call Me By Your Name

Thursday, March 1, 2018

INTERVIEW: Laura Checkoway


Elder abuse, interracial romance, family drama. These are some of the fascinating topics covered by Laura Checkoway’s Oscar-nominated documentary short “Edith+Eddie“. This bittersweet true story about America’s oldest interracial newlyweds is certainly one of a kind. Recently, I spoke with Checkoway about her experiences and the insights garnered from making the film. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Reed Van Dyk


We’ve seen numerous accounts of acts of terror adapted for the big screen before, but Reed Van Dyk’s “DeKalb Elementary” brings something different to the table. Nominated for the Best Live Action Short Oscar, this harrowing drama depicts the events surrounding an aborted school shooting. It is an incredible true story that was captured on a 911 call placed by the brave receptionist who calmly negotiates with the shooter. The scenario therefore required an uncommonly empathetic approach to a hot-button issue. In a recent interview with Van Dyk, we discussed how casting and tone were crucial in the making of the film. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Cage Fighter


The subject of Jeff Unay’s documentary “The Cage Fighter” is a man named Joe Carman. He is a blue-collar worker who earns a living as a plumber and boilermaker, residing in the Seattle area where he and his wife raise their four daughters in the suburbs. In many ways, he is literally an “average Joe”. But through Unay’s filmmaking lens, he becomes a troubled star in the dramatic true story of his life.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Mary and The Witch's Flower


Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” may be far from a perfect film, but there’s no denying that it opens with a bang. Its opening sequence sees a young girl executing a breathless, high-flying escape aboard a broomstick. It’s a sign of things to come, as this anime film concocts a magical tale.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, February 19, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: BAFTA Awards


In the final major awards show of the season, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" signalled that it is still a major frontrunner for top prizes at the Oscars. The controversial Martin McDonagh film won an impressive 5 awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Following behind is the other presumed frontrunner "The Shape of Water" with 3 wins, with Guillermo del Toro virtually securing a Best Director win next month. In many other categories however, the Oscar is still up in the air.

Here are this year's BAFTA winners:

Best Film
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Best Director
Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water

Best Actor
Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour

Best Actress
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Best Supporting Actor
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Best Supporting Actress

Allison Janney – I, Tonya

Sunday, February 18, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: BAFTA Predictions


With the BAFTA Awards set to take place a few hours from now, here are my last minute predictions:

Best Film
The Shape of Water

Best Director
Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk

Best Actor
Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour

Best Actress
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Best Supporting Actor
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Best Supporting Actress

Allison Janney – I, Tonya

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Phantom Thread


There's always a palpable buzz surrounding the announcement of a new Paul Thomas Anderson film. Indeed, I vividly recall my own excitement in anticipation of the world premiere of "Inherent Vice" a few years ago. Naturally, his mysterious new film "Phantom Thread" became another must-see appointment, particularly when it was initially described as an "arthouse Fifty Shades of Grey". Coincidentally, I finally watched this Best Picture contender as the final "Fifty Shades" installment is now playing in theaters. And ultimately, it provided a fascinating lens through which to view this exquisite film.

"Phantom Thread" revolves around a man named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), the creative genius behind his eponymously titled fashion label "The House of Woodcock". It is 1950s London and his custom designs are in vogue for the women of the upper class. With the aid of his trusted sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), he maintains a strict daily regimen to fuel his creativity. One day however, he meets an unassuming waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). He is immediately beguiled by her and she soon becomes his muse and lover. But the younger woman's humble background and spontaneous personality are at odds with Reynold's carefully tailored lifestyle, threatening to disrupt his work and his entire sense of self.

As mentioned earlier, the central relationship that develops in "Phantom Thread" is thoroughly intriguing in the way it explores power dynamics between men and women. While the "Fifty Shades of Grey" comparison isn't as obvious until the more depraved final act, the script is constantly delving into the psychology of these two distinct individuals played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps. As always, Day-Lewis puts in another terrific performance (garnering another Best Actor nod), burrowing into the complicated headspace of his character. There's a boyish vulnerability to his outwardly confident Reynolds, which he conveys with a skilful combination of posh delicacy and unwavering intensity. Meanwhile, Kreips proves to be a great scene partner, beautifully channeling her character's inner strength and "fish out of water" naivety.

Aside from the relationship drama, the film works on several different levels. Most evidently, it is also a gorgeous celebration of fashion, not just on an aesthetic level, but also for its power to transform a person's mood and personality. Indeed, one could argue that Lesley Manville's standout performance (rightfully nominated for Best Supporting Actress) was aided significantly by Mark Bridges's deservedly Oscar-nominated Costume Design, the sleek elegance of which gave her a poise rarely seen in her appearances in Mike Leigh's working class dramas. Together with Krieps, she subverts the usual character study of egotistical but brilliant men. The film truly shines through its excellent female characters, who challenge the central protagonist in exciting ways.

Ultimately, the various tensions between gender and class make for a riveting viewing experience. As "Phantom Thread" navigates this posh, fanciful world under the brilliant direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, you get the feeling that you are in good hands. Even when it goes to dark places in the end, there's a joy that comes from seeing all these excellent components come together. From the imperfect romance, the luscious score or even just the fancy dresses, it's a real treat. It provides cinematic ecstasy and titillation that the "Fifty Shades" franchise could only aspire to.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Best of 2017: Top 10 Films of the Year


Throughout the course of 2017, it seemed like cinema had a point to prove. As the industry struggles to stay relevant to society, many of the year's most prominent films aimed to capture the zeitgeist and assert their importance. From empowering blockbusters like "Wonder Woman" to the racial tensions underlying films like "Get Out", the word "timely" frequently came up in discussions of the year's releases.

As film critics we often like to pretend we're immune to prioritizing the perceived "importance" over the artistry. But the truth remains that art and politics will always be intertwined. My own Top 10 list reflects this, as the films seemed to be in conversation with each other, despite the varied genres and styles they represent. On reflection, it became clear that the intolerance associated with the Trump era was a issue that resonated with me, whether it be through allegorical ("War for the Planet of the Apes") or more literal ("In the Fade") means. Meanwhile, some of my other favorites ("Call Me by Your Name") were more "timeless" than "timely", reflecting filmmaking in all its glorious beauty.

Indeed, at the end of the year, I felt nothing but appreciation for an outstanding year of cinema. Here are the 10 films I loved the most, including excerpts from my reviews:

Honorable Mention: Mudbound, The Post

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Best of 2017: Top 20 Acting Performances


When I think about the year's best performances, the first word that comes to mind is "diversity". It may sound cliché, but I found it to be a banner year for inclusive stories on the big screen. In particular, American independent cinema shined a rare spotlight on underrepresented perspectives that too often have been relegated to minor supporting roles. And the movies were all the better for it. Though there's still a way to go before we can truly say that equal opportunities exist for actors of all ages, races, genders, sexualities and sizes, the Top 20 Acting Performances of 2017 show that we are heading in the right direction:

Honorable Mention: Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project