Tuesday, December 24, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Can A24 Make a Best Picture Comeback?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 15, 2019


Jordan Peele’s “Us” was named the year’s Best Film today by the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), the world’s largest group of black film critics comprised of leading film critics from across the country and world. “Us” (which earned over $255 million globally) received three total wins including Peele for Best Director and Lupita Nyong’o for Best Actress. The complete list of AAFCA Awards recipients is as follows:

Best Film: “Us” (Universal Pictures)
Best Director: Jordan Peele (“Us,” Universal Pictures)
Best Actor: Eddie Murphy (“Dolemite Is My Name,” Netflix)
Best Actress: Lupita Nyong’o (“Us,” Universal Pictures)
Best Supporting Actor: Jamie Foxx (“Just Mercy,” Warner Bros. Pictures)
Best Supporting Actress: Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“Dolemite Is My Name,” Netflix)
Best Breakout Performance: Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (“Waves,” A24)
Best Animated Film: “Abominable” (Universal Pictures)
Best Documentary: “The Black Godfather” (Netflix)
Best Foreign Film: “Parasite” (Neon)
Best Independent Film: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (A24)
Best Screenplay Presented with The Black List: Bong Joon-ho, “Parasite” (Neon)
Impact Award: “Queen & Slim” (Universal Pictures)
We See You Award: Taylor Russell (“Waves,” A24)

The AAFCA 2019 Top Ten Films
1.“Us” (Universal Pictures)
2. “Dolemite Is My Name” (Netflix)
3.“Just Mercy” (Warner Bros. Pictures)
4.“Clemency” (Neon)
5.“The Irishman” (Netflix)
6.“Queen & Slim” (Universal Pictures)
7.“Waves” (A24)
8.TIE “Parasite” (Neon) and “Atlantics” (Netflix)
9.The Farewell (A24)
10. “Harriet” (Focus Features)

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Nominations

Best Cast in a Motion Picture
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Male Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale (“Ford v Ferrari”)
Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”)
Taron Egerton (“Rocketman”)
Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”)

Best Female Actor in a Leading Role
Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”)
Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story”)
Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”)
Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”)
Renée Zellweger (“Judy”)

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role

Jamie Foxx (“Just Mercy”)
Tom Hanks (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”)
Al Pacino (“The Irishman”)
Joe Pesci (“The Irishman”)
Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”)
Scarlett Johansson (“Jojo Rabbit”)
Nicole Kidman (“Bombshell”)
Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”)
Margot Robbie (“Bombshell”)

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Nominations

Best Picture, Drama
The Irishman
Marriage Story
The Two Popes

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy
Dolemite is My Name
Jojo Rabbit
Knives Out
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director
Bong Joon Ho, Parasite
Sam Mendes, 1917
Todd Philips, Joker
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Actress, Drama
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy
Awkwafina, The Farewell
Cate Blanchett, Where'd You Go Bernadette?
Ana de Armas, Knives Out
Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart
Emma Thompson, Late Night

Best Actor, Drama
Christian Bale, Ford V Ferrari
Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Daniel Craig, Knives Out
Roman Griffith Davis, Jojo Rabbit
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once UPon a Time
Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite is My Name

Best Supporting Actor
Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time

Best Supporting Actress
Annette Bening, The Report
Margot Robbie, Bombshell
Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Laura Dern, Marriage Story

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Nominations

Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Uncut Gems

Noah Baumbach – Marriage Story
Greta Gerwig – Little Women
Bong Joon Ho – Parasite
Sam Mendes – 1917
Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie – Uncut Gems
Martin Scorsese – The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Antonio Banderas – Pain and Glory
Robert De Niro – The Irishman
Leonardo DiCaprio – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Adam Driver – Marriage Story
Eddie Murphy – Dolemite Is My Name
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker
Adam Sandler – Uncut Gems

Awkwafina – The Farewell
Cynthia Erivo – Harriet
Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story
Lupita Nyong’o – Us
Saoirse Ronan – Little Women
Charlize Theron – Bombshell
Renée Zellweger – Judy

Willem Dafoe – The Lighthouse
Tom Hanks – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins – The Two Popes
Al Pacino – The Irishman
Joe Pesci – The Irishman
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Laura Dern – Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson – Jojo Rabbit
Jennifer Lopez – Hustlers
Florence Pugh – Little Women
Margot Robbie – Bombshell
Zhao Shuzhen – The Farewell

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Nominations

Best Feature
A Hidden Life
The Farewell
Marriage Story
Uncut Gems

Best Director
Alma Har'el, Honey Boy
Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers
Julius Onah, Luce
Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse
Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie, Uncut Gems

Best Female Lead
Karen Allen, Colewell
Hong Chau, Driveways
Elisabeth Moss, Her Smell
Mary Kay Place, Diane
Alfre Woodard, Clemency
Renée Zellweger, Judy

Best Male Lead
Chris Galust, Give Me Liberty
Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce
Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse
Matthias Schoenaerts, The Mustang
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

Best Supporting Female

Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
Taylor Russell, Waves
Lauren "LoLo" Spencer, Give Me Liberty
Octavia Spencer, Luce
Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell

Best Supporting Male
Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
Noah Jupe, Honey Boy
Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy
Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Wendell Pierce, Burning Cane

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


Of all the memorable movie moments of 2019, there's one in particular that I haven't been able to shake. It comes in a climactic scene in Bong Joon-ho's ingenious social satire "Parasite", as class revolt within the narrative comes to ahead in response to a insulting gesture. Though the film pits the %1 against the disadvantaged poor, this scene's power comes from the way it forces middle class audiences to confront our own insensitivities.

Elaborating further on the scene would unfortunately ruin one of the film's key attributes. Indeed, "Parasite" succeeds largely on its suspenseful and utterly unpredictable screenplay. While its premise may seem like a variation of Robin Hood's "stealing from the rich to give to the poor" premise, it reveals much deeper levels as the plot unfolds.

The story surrounds two families, the wealthy Parks and the unemployed Kims. Desperate to find work, they get a lifeline when the son Ki-woo secures a tutoring job for the Parks, through the recommendation of a friend. Ever the opportunist, his arrival at their upscale home quickly sets off a light bulb in his head. Before long, he schemes to get the rest of his family to infiltrate the home by offering various household services. But the Park home harbors secrets which could completely derail their plans.

Bringing new meaning to social hierarchy with its darkly comic take on the "upstairs, downstairs trope", Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" offers an incisive critique of class in South Korea. Much like his previous genre-inflected social satire "Snowpiercer", Bong Joon-ho uses entertaining scenarios to convey his message. As the Kims speedily take advantage of the opportunities presented to them, "Parasite" is crafted with the blistering pacing and brilliant dialogue to match. And through the efforts of a superb ensemble, the personas they embody further emphasize the wide chasm between the classes. As the mother of the Kim clan remarks of her aloof Park counterpart, she is "nice because she's rich."

As the plot twists and turns to thrilling effect, Bong Joon Ho never loses sight of the film's central anti-capitalist themes. Conveyed visually and verbally with the utmost panache, the result is a film which is universally relevant and impactful. It's therefore no surprise that it's receiving serious Oscar consideration for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Production Design and Best International Feature. With its strong social commentary and thrilling storytelling,  "Parasite" is truly one of the year's must-see films.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Once Upon a Time...The Irishman Led the Best Picture Race

'The Irishman' takes early frontrunner status, but the race is far from over

When the ever expanding Critics Choice Association announces their 2019 award nominations later today, the state of the awards race will begin to come into sharp focus. While early critics awards (i.e. NBR and NYFCC) have annointed "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" and "The Irishman", the televised impact and large voting pool of the Critics Choice Association tends to give a better reflection of where the Academy place their votes. And later this week, two more televised awards-giving bodies will add their say, namely the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes. Based on current buzz, we can expect them all to agree on, the following top 5: "The Irishman", "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood", "1917", "Parasite" and "Marriage Story".

If this were 20 years ago, those would be your Best Picture field. But in this era of the category's expansion, there will be fierce competition for the remaining slots. Will the divisive but distinctive "Jojo Rabbit" and "Joker" garner enough passion votes? Or will more universally acceptable films like "Ford v Ferrari", "Dolemite is My Name" and "Knives Out" take their place? As the academy continues to diversify its ranks, I suspect we will see a combination of challenging and accessible filmmaking in the final Best Picture lineup. As it stands, here is my current assessment of the top frontrunners for Best Picture:

  1. The Irishman
  2. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
  3. 1917
  4. Parasite
  5. Marriage Story
  6. Jojo Rabbit
  7. Ford v Ferrari
  8. Richard Jewell
  9. Knives Out
  10. Dolemite is My Name
Stay tuned throughout the season as I continue to track the awards season all the way through to Oscar night on February 9th.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Richard Jewell

Throughout the history of cinema, there has been no shortage of narratives surrounding heroes. Often played by handsome movie stars, we've come to expect a certain type of heroic figure. That trend is intriguingly bucked in Clint Eastwood's typically late-breaking Best Picture contender "Richard Jewell", however, telling the true story of a decidedly average man.

The events of "Richard Jewell" take place in 1996 Atlanta, when all eyes are on the city as it hosts the Olympic Games. As the related activities get underway, Richard Jewell - an security guard and aspiring police officer - is assigned to watch over one such event. Always enthusiastic, he painstakingly patrols the area, looking out for anything suspicious. During his investigations, he stumbles on an abandoned bag and alerts the authorities. When this bag turns out to be a bomb, Richard Jewell steps in to protect the attendees from harm. After the bomb goes off without causing catastrophic fatalities, Jewell is declared a hero. But the FBI investigation soon turns towards Jewell himself, as his past behavior brings his motives into question.

The question of Jewell's guilt, however, is never in question for the audience. From the first moment we meet the character, Clint Eastwood makes it clear that he is a genuinely good guy. Indeed, his introductory scene sees him leaving candy for his superior (played by Sam Rockwell) at his early job, addressing him with utmost politeness. And as we get to learn more about the character, he becomes almost saintlike in his selfless kindness.

Unfortunately, Jewell's goodness makes for rather unremarkable storytelling, as the investigation lacks any bombshells or plot twists to plant seeds of doubt or tensions. Furthermore, the media frenzy personified by Olivia Wilde's unscrupulous journalist character is portrayed in crass, broad strokes. And like many recent Clint Eastwood films, the film's visual language is hampered by the dull color palette of the cinematography.

Yet despite it falls, "Richard Jewell" remains engaging thanks to the unique appeal of its central performance. Playing a character that could have been annoyingly nice and compliant in the face of injustice, Paul Walter Hauser manages to completely sell the character's sincerity and naivety. In addition, Kathy Bates is naturally sympathetic as a loving mother trying protect her son. Oscar nods for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress are definitely possibilities for them both.

Ultimately, what "Richard Jewell" lacks in nuance and complexity, it makes up for in admirable symbolism of its titular character. It brings to mind Michelle Obama's memorable phrase "When they go low, we go high." Sometimes the most inspiring heroes are the ones who simply choose to be kind, even towards their enemies.

Friday, December 6, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Marriage Story

The most toxic relationships are the ones you don't even realize as such, until hindsight makes you see things clearly. That's the lesson Nicole and Charlie learn in "Marriage Story", the exceptional new drama from Noah Baumbach. Stunningly portrayed by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, this Best Picture Oscar hopeful conveys honest truths about love, marriage and divorce.

We first meet the embattled couple - Nicole, a up-and-coming actress and Charlie, a hotshot theatre director - during a mediation session, as both have decided to split amicably, in the best interest of themselves and their child. When the therapist asks them to list the positive things about their partner, however, Nicole suddenly realizes that she's harboring deeper feelings of pain than she initially suspected. Subsequently, she uproots her New York life - and their son Henry - to return to Los Angeles and be with her mom. But the pressures of long-distance parenting puts a strain on their civil friendship. Though they had agreed to forego legal proceedings, a heated divorce case and custody battle ensues.

The messiness of divorce is put in a sharp focus as Baumbauch's perceptive screenplay unleashes the myriad of emotions associated with it. As Nicole tries to rationalize the reasons for the split, the film gets to the truth of how willfully one-sided relationships can be, as the hopes and dreams of one partner become subsumed into the other's. It is often said that married people gradually begin to look like one another and "Marriage Story" poignantly conveys that "oneness" and loss of self.

Smartly, the script balances both perspectives, also showing how Charlie's ambition and pride caused him to neglect his wife's needs and to a certain extent, his own. Indeed, the nuances of both characters' personalities are brilliantly elaborated through many relatable moments littered throughout. I'm sure many audiences can relate to the hate-filled outbursts you instantly regret, as well as the subconscious competitiveness and selfishness that can erode a relationship over time.

While Johannson and Driver (slam dunk Best Actor and Best Actress nominees) show incredible vulnerability as the leads, the rest of the scintillating cast is equally as riveting. Laura Dern is particularly compelling as Nicole's self-assured lawyer who fights for her client like a bulldog with a smile. After two nominations throughout her career, she may have finally earned her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work here.

Dern's delicious performance embodies one of the film's most winning touches, namely it's frequent moments of levity. Indeed, Baumbach deserves every Best Director and Best Original Screenplay accolade he'll receive during this awards season for his masterful juggling act of humor and pathos. Punctuating the narrative with music, situational comedy and delightful bit roles (Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty are terrific as Nicole's sister and mother), it serves as a reminder that things are rarely black or white in life and relationships. As conveyed in the heartrending monologues which bookend the film, when all is said and done, sometimes the hardest truth about broken relationships is that there's still some love that remains.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: The Irishman

A decade ago, the BAMcinématek curated a series called "The Late Film", a collection of late career films from established auteurs. As described in the New York Times, the term refers to work that is "both familiar and strange, characteristic of the artist and yet markedly at odds with everything that preceded it." As I watched the latest from American master Martin Scorsese, the descriptor could not feel more apt. Among Scorsese's esteemed canon of gangster films, "The Irishman" expresses familiar themes in profound and revelatory ways.

In my review from over 5 years ago, I marvelled at Scorsese's direction of "The Wolf of Wall Street", impressed by its audacity and edgy, kinetic style. It felt like the work of a younger, maverick filmmaker, proving that he was still a vital voice in the contemporary film scene. Four films later, I am stunned once again by "The Irishman", which sees Scorsese reuniting with many of his most famous collaborators. This epic surrounds Robert DeNiro's titular character Frank Sheeran, as he reflects on a life of mob-related crime. From his younger years as a truck driver, to his subsequent rise up the ranks of the Buffalino crime family, his story is one of violence, greed and power. But in his dying days, the events of his life weigh heavily on him.

With this premise and the recognizable director and cast – including Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in supporting roles – you'd be forgiven for thinking this is just another Scorsese gangster flick. But "The Irishman" deepens the genre through a directorial approach that is more subdued and graceful. It feels in direct conversation with the aforementioned "Wolf of Wall Street", as well as the other iconic gangster narratives that came before for it. Indeed, while "Wolf of Wall Street" was accused of glorifying the debauchery of its immoral men, "The Irishman" is never gratuitous, filled instead with an undercurrent of regret. Though violence are central its themes, the film is more concerned with the impact rather than the act.

One particular scene stands out, where Al Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa, desperate to reclaim leadership of the mob-controlled union remarks to Sheeran that "They do something to me, I do something to them. That's all I know. Nothing else." Epitomizing the endless cycles of violence and revenge (also emphasized through frequent pop-up subtitles about various characters' future demises) it achieves a rare emotion for audiences in a gangster film – pity. And as the decades-long narrative of "The Irishman" plays out, this sentiment only deepens as the bodies pile up and families and friendships are irreparably broken.

The result is an uncommonly calm and contemplative gangster film from Scorsese, with the screenplay's themes amplified by impeccable acting - particularly the soulfully captivating DeNiro and the chillingly unflappable Pesci - and Scorsese's usual attention to detail. Oscar nominations are definitely on the table in the categories of Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Production Design and Best Picture. Admittedly, it's still not my favorite of the year, but I wouldn't begrudge any of these wins. It's truly exciting to see Scorsese continue to be so inspired and invigorated (this year he also directed the impressive documentary "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story"). Unlike Frank Sheeran's life story, this film may be a late work, but it's far from a swansong.