Monday, February 10, 2020

And the Oscar goes to... Parasite!


History has been made! At the end of an incredible Oscar ceremony, it was Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" which took home Best Picture, thereby becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy's top honors. The win capped a remarkable night for Bong Joon-ho, who also won for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, while the film expectedly took home the trophy for Best International Feature. Elsewhere, the awards were largely predictable, as Joaquin Phoenix, Renee Zellweger, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern scooped up the 4 acting prizes. While their categories reflected a worrying dismissal of actors of color in 2019, the Academy almost redeemed themselves with their celebration of "Parasite" and by extension, Asian and world cinema. It remains to be seen whether this will actually turn out to be a watershed moment for non-English language films, but it's a very promising start. Here are your Oscar winners for the year 2019:

BEST PICTURE
Parasite

BEST DIRECTOR
Bong Joon-ho - Parasite

BEST ACTOR
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

BEST ACTRESS
Renée Zellweger – Judy

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Laura Dern – Marriage Story

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Best of 2019: Top 10 Films of the Year


With the Academy Awards ceremony just moments away, it feels like an appropriate time to finally sound off on my personal faves of the year 2019. And as I reflect on my Top 10 list, I am reminded of all the amazing works of art I was able to witness. More than most other years past, the year's best films truly represented my range of cinematic tastes. Big budget spectacles with even bigger emotions. Passionately acted dramas with scintillating dialogue. Jaw-droppingly beautiful period pieces. Hilarious comedies with poignant messages.

Looking towards the 2020 cinematic landscape, I can only hope for another richly satisfying year. Here are my Top 10 Films of 2019:

Thursday, January 30, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: 1917


With dozens of films dedicated to the subject, every announcement of a WWI comes with a feeling of "been there, done that." But in the ambitious hands of director Sam Mendes, the "war to end all wars" gets a new perspective. Filmed to convey one single take, "1917" is a mind boggling cinematic achievement. But at what cost?

The premise of "1917" is relatively simple. Two British soldiers are tasked with delivering a message to a distant battalion, in the hopes of calling off an attack after intelligence indicates that a deadly trap has orchestrated by the rival Germans. The rescue mission will thus take them through dangerous enemy territory, with very artillery support. But though it seems impossible, the men are driven by an additional motivation, as a brother is among the endangered battalion they hope to save before it's too late.

As our protagonists proceed on their harrowing journey, "1917" is an impressive showcase of filmmaking techniques. Most obviously, the cinematography amplifies the stakes, giving the illusion of real time action. But while the camerawork is the star, it would be ineffective without exceptional work from the actors, composer, production designer and editor. Indeed, George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman are unwavering in their physicality demanding lead roles. The stirring music is deployed judiciously and impactfully. The world-building of the sets are downright incredible, particularly in giving a visceral sense of the omnipresence of death through human and animal carcasses, rodents and flies. And of course, the editor deserves highest praise for making it all feel so seamless and forcing the audience to constantly wonder, "How did they do that?"

It's therefore hard to argue against the film's 10 Oscar nominations, namely Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup & Hairstyling. And yet, despite my admiration for the filmmaking, I rarely felt truly emotionally connected to the story and the soldiers' plight. Even in the intentionality sentimental moments, the "obstacle course" style of the storytelling hardly gave room for the film to contemplate the characters' humanity. In the end, I was reminded of Martin Scorcese's criticisms of Marvel movies as theme parks. Despite the technical mastery on display, "1917" lacks the gravitas to be a truly great war film. Those who fought in WWI are often referred to as "The Lost Generation." It's a shame that this tribute to their efforts falls short of making them unforgettable.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Best of 2019: Top 20 Acting Performances


During the days of classic Hollywood and the peak of the studio system, great acting was often showcased through star vehicles - films crafted around the persona of a single movie star to enhance or build on their popularity. As movie stars have become less of a draw for audiences, ensemble casts have become even more popular, bringing together multiple fan faves. While compiling this list of the Top 20 Performances of 2019, I also found myself drawn to the ensembles, particularly the pairings within them. Indeed, that almost magical alchemy between actors who "click" delivered some of my favorite movie moments of the year. And in the final rundown, this left only 13 films represented in the list below. Here they are:

Best of 2019: Top 10 Foreign Language Films


When Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” dominated the awards circuit in 2018, it represented a rare instance of non-English cinema taking the spotlight. But in a welcome turn of events, 2019 was arguably an even bigger year for foreign language films. Indeed, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” has produced unprecedented crossover success for Korean cinema, looking to go even further than “Roma” at the Oscars. In addition, a particularly strong year for French cinema had cinephiles falling in love with such stellar work as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “Atlantics” and “Les Misérables.” These films and more are celebrated in this year’s list of the Top 10 Foreign Language Films of 2019.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Best of 2019: Top 10 Documentaries


A daring mission to the spoon, a nerve-wracking war story, a devious political conspiracy. For mainstream audiences, these premises bring to mind some of the year’s most popular blockbuster films. But they also represent the true stories behind some of the year’s best documentaries. Far from the traditional “talking heads” style of yesteryear, non-fiction filmmaking continues to thrive, delivering cinematic thrills and artistry on par with that of narrative features. Indeed, the following list of the Top 10 Documentaries of 2019 includes several films that would hardly feel out of place on awards ballots for cinematography, directing, editing, screenwriting, and sound.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, January 18, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions


With the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards agreeing on their acting winners, I expect more of the same tomorrow at the SAG Awards. Here are my predictions:

Best Cast in a Motion Picture
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Male Actor in a Leading Role
Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”)

Best Female Actor in a Leading Role
Renée Zellweger (“Judy”)

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Predictions


Tomorrow, the last major awards before the Oscar nominations will be handed out by the Critics Choice Association. And as they love to remind us, they are one of the more reliable precursors to the Academy Awards. Will they serve up a preview of this year's Oscar nods? Here's how I see it playing out at the Taye Diggs-hosted 25th annual Critics Choice Awards:

BEST PICTURE
1917

BEST DIRECTOR
Sam Mendes – 1917

BEST ACTOR
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

BEST ACTRESS
Renée Zellweger – Judy

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Laura Dern – Marriage Story

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Awards


With the Oscar nominations fast approaching, the Golden Globes last weekend gave a strong hint of who the frontrunners will be come Monday morning. And in a rather surprising outcome it was Sam Mendes' "1917" which took the big wins of Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director. Could this ambitious war effort lead the Oscar noms, or will it be Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood", winner of the Best Picture prize in the Comedy/Musical category? The stage is set for an interesting final phase of this Oscar season indeed. Here are this year's Golden Globe winners:

Best Picture, Drama
1917

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director
Sam Mendes, 1917

Best Actress, Drama
Renee Zellweger, Judy

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy
Awkwafina, The Farewell

Best Actor, Drama
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Taron Egerton, Rocketman

Best Supporting Actor
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Little Women


Given the debate surrounding the value (or lack thereof) of yet another "Little Women" adaptation hitting theaters, let me preface this review by saying that I have never read Louisa May Alcott's classic novel. Furthermore, my memories of the 1994 film adaptation have long faded. With that being said, I approached Greta Gerwig's latest work with great anticipation. And what I discovered was a cinematic tour de force that is fully worthy of praise and a place in the Best Picture conversation.

In this classic tale of sisterhood set around the time of the American Civil War, we are first introduced to our main protagonist Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer hoping to sell her latest work. As the story progresses, we soon learn that she is just one of several sisters with artistic inclinations, including an avid pianist (Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen), an ambitious painter (Amy, played by Florence Pugh) and a talented actress (Meg, played by Emma Watson). These interests will evolve and change over the years, however, as they come of age in a time of hardship which will test their family and other relationships.

Indeed, romance, humor and tragedy are the order of the day, as Greta Gerwig delivers a bold interpretation of classic costume drama tropes. Making a strong case for a second Best Director nod, she perfectly balances the contrasting tones through smart visual and storytelling choices. At once delicate and exuberant, the cinematography is equally adept at capturing the restless optimism of youth and the stillness of disillusioned adulthood. Similarly, the color palette reflects the contrast between the glow of nostalgia and the more solemn pragmatism of the present and future, further emphasized by non-linear storytelling which enriches rather than obfuscates the narrative.

As that narrative follows the diverging lives of the titular sisters, Gerwig's screenplay - worthy of consideration for Best Adapted Screenplay - compellingly explores feminist themes which continue to resonate today. And in conveying the perspectives of the richly defined characters, the audience is treated to a plethora of sensational performances. Among the sisters, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are standouts, deservingly garnering attention for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress kudos respectively. As the headstrong and fiercely independent Jo, Ronan anchors the film with vulnerability and charisma. Meanwhile Pugh is truly inspired in her take on the petulant Amy, brilliantly charting her character's arc with almost vaudevillian expressiveness in her youth and stoic poise as she finds her way in the world.

Simply put, "Little Women" is one of the most entertaining, emotionally affecting and downright gorgeous films of the year. Several of its painterly shot compositions (nominations for Best Production Design, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design deserve to be foregone conclusions) are seared into my memory, and Alexandre Desplat is on track for another Best Original Score nomination for his typically wonderful music. It may tell a familiar story, but Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" is unforgettable.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Predictions


The 2020 phase of the awards season kicks off in fine style tomorrow with the Golden Globe Awards and anticipation is high as several films are looking strong to dominate the night. Will it be nominations leader "Marriage Story", foreign language breakout "Parasite" or the throwback masterworks from two of Hollywood's most respected auteurs (Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese). Tune in to NBC at 8pm EST to find out if my predictions below are correct.

Best Picture, Drama
The Irishman

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director
Bong Joon Ho, Parasite

Best Actress, Drama
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy
Awkwafina, The Farewell

Best Actor, Drama
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actor
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern, Marriage Story