Friday, February 26, 2016

Oscar Predicitons: 2016 Edition

Oscar Predictions: 2016 Edition

In a couple of days, a large group of white people are going to gather and celebrate a bunch of films starring and about white people. Here is what is likely to win.

Best Picture: The Revenant. Of the nominated films, Iñárritu's revenge epic has all the trappings of a bona fide Oscar hit. it has grossed over $160 million; it is beautifully shot; it required Leo to suffer as an actor. Basically, it is David Lean-lite, and the Academy eats this stuff up.

Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu. As the sole non-white winner in a big category, Iñárritu will be carrying the night's racial weight on his shoulders. It is unclear whether he will address the situation, since he deferred at the BAFTAs two weeks ago, but it is clear that this win would be a spectacular achievement for the Mexican director. The last time a director won back-to-back Oscars was when Joe Mankiewicz did it in 1950-51.

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant. There was a period where it seemed as if DiCaprio was going to turn into our generation's Burton or O'Toole, constantly nominated, but never invited to the podium to accept the golden doo-dah. Finally, the universe has conspired to bring together a perfect storm for the Academy to shower praise on Leo. The film is respected and successful, and there is a sense that he does deserve it for the brutal, physical performance he was able to muster.

Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room. Larson has won virtually all of the big prizes, from the Golden Globe to the SAG Award and the BAFTA. This undeniably good streak gives her sure-fire odds to repeat her win on Sunday. I hope that the Oscar win will prompt more people to see this viscerally charged performance that has as much raw physical power as DiCaprio's.

Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl. The film received mixed reviews, but even critics who were unimpressed with Redmayne and the rather muddied and muddled script of the film praised Vikander for her nuanced, finely wrought performance. Additionally, she gave a fine performance in Ex Machina this year, as well. She could win simply by exploding into the cinematic consciousness this year, much in the same way that Jim Broadbent was able to win for Iris in 2001, after he made star-making performances in Moulin Rouge and Bridget Jones' Diary in the same year.
However, nostalgia and sentimentality could get the better of the Academy and the award could go to Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs. Although the film was not a critical or commercial success, and Winslet's performance was marred by a wandering accent and a terribly written third act, who doesn't want to see Winslet and DiCaprio win Oscars on the same night?

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed. I am less sure about this prediction than I was a week ago. Mark Rylance, a fine theatrical actor, is nominated for Bridge of Spies, seems to be gaining some momentum. Although his performance is subtle and keen, he does not have a lot of screen time, nor does he have a scene that established a major emotional impact. Stallone would be a sentimental win for playing a faded, wiser version of Balboa. In this case, it could go either way. Or these two could divide the vote and allow Tom Hardy to win.

Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight. In December, Spotlight seemed to be the frontrunner for Best Picture. It was amassing critical awards, and slowly building an impressive total at the box office. Then, the Revenant crashed onto the scene. Spotlight will win this award as its consolation prize.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short. Adam McKay who made a career directing sophomoric Will Ferrell vehicles has reinvented himself in order to direct a serious film about the 2008 financial crisis. The screenplay is noted for its handling of explaining the technical details of credit-default swaps and the different tranches of high-risk debt without losing its eye for comedy. Since the film has also grossed almost $70 million, it is also a testament that a smart, funny film need not be a film that is solely seen on DVD or streaming platforms.

Best Documentary Feature: Amy. About a decade ago, I bemoaned the fact that documentaries about pop culture never seemed to break through in this category. Fine pieces about Dylan, Wilco never seemed to receive nominations, while every single one that did win involved war or the Holocaust. Now, it seems the pendulum has swung the other way, and serious films about genocide in Indonesia, sexual assault in the military lose to slight, ephemeral pieces about back-up singers or long-forgotten pop singers. Amy follows the tragedy that was Amy Winehouse and is notable for demonstrating how those closest to her enabled her addictions, and in some cases even hid, encouraged, and supported them. It is touching, and of those nominated this year, is the best.

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out. As the most successful animated film of the year, both critically and commercially, Pixar has its lock on this category yet again. It will win because of Bing Bong, and it should.

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul. It's a Hungarian movie about the Holocaust. Enough said. This will be Hungary's first win at the Oscars ever.

Best Cinematography: The Revenant. Emmanuel Lubezki will pick up his third consecutive Oscar, after winning for Gravity and Birdman. Revenant, regardless of what you think of its revisionist history, or celebration of white-male hegemonic masculinity, is a beautiful film.

Best Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road. Mad Max became a surprise summer hit and a rallying cry for third-wave feminists. If Revenant was not the main contender this year, this movie could conceivably win Best Picture.

Best Costume Design: Carol. Many are predicting Mad Max will win this, and it did win the BAFTA, but Carol's careful attention to the delineation of its characters had so much to do with the exquisite clothes that I am rooting for it to win here.

Best Production Design: Mad Max. I would probably rather see Danish Girl best the competition here, but Max's desert apocalypse is worthy.

Best Make-up: Mad Max. Although I am very pleased that the little seen Finnish movie, The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and wandered about outside, received a surprise nomination here, Mad Max clearly has to win here.

Best Score: Hateful Eight. I am torn here: I would love to see Morricone finally win a competitive Oscar (he was given an honorary Oscar in 2007), but his score for Hateful Eight is not entirely memorable or extensive. For me, the best score of this year was Mad Max's harrowing drum and guitar-riff-heavy pounding score that riveted you in your seat for two hours. However, it failed to secure a nomination.

Best Song: "Til It Happens to You." Lady Gaga has a lot of good will towards her right now (she will also be the first person EVER to perform at the Oscars, Grammys and Super Bowl in the same year). Also, Diane Warren has never won an Oscar. I do prefer the lushness of Sam Smith's Bond theme, and it did win the Golden Globe, but this song is attached to a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, and has the sort of social consciousness and critique that the Academy prefers (and needs, since we have no actors of color nominated).

Sound Effects Editing and Sound Mixing: I am sending these Mad Max's way. Watch for Mad Max to be the big winner with up to 5 prizes to its name for the evening.

Visual Effects: The Revenant. Simply for the Bear. Simply for the BEAR.

Best Documentary Short: Body Team 12. It's a brief (mercifully) look at medical workers who had to clear bodies from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Best Animated Short: Bear Story.

Live Action Short: Shok. It's about two boys surviving during the war in Kosovo.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Top Films of 2015

Top Films of 2015

1.       Brooklyn—I have here chosen a problematic film for this year as my top choice. Yes, this is the whitest movie of a very white year of Academy nominations. Here we have an old-fashioned, safe, innocuous story of love found and questioned by an Irish immigrant in post-war America. This charming narrative, however, is riven by our very present concerns of inclusion and diversity. Here we have a story of a New York borough where the only diversity comes from Italians and Irish girls trying to deal with their own xenophobia. How have we created a vision of Brooklyn in the 1950’s that erases the presence of blacks, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Jews? This film in its  technicolor glory and its superb, tight script by Nick Hornby (based on a novel by Colm Toibin) exposes the blindness of all aspects of the Hollywood studio system; it serves as an indictment of a system that refuses to change. As Viola Davis stated in her Emmy acceptance speech in September, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” With a slate of films that investigate, probe, or sometimes simply celebrate whiteness, we have not overlooked black actors (except in the case of Idris Elba), we have simply ignored them in casting them in anything other than a funny sidekick, a nefarious criminal, or faces to bring in local color. Although Brooklyn is the most charming film of the year, it is a film that demonstrates how far we have yet to go to create an American culture of inclusivity that respects and honors the voices of those that live outside the confines of whiteness, however broadly defined.

2.       The Revenant—In a masterful revisionist western, Alejandro G. Iñárritu has constructed a view of the harsh, violent reality of the nineteenth-century frontier. Following the trials and tribulations of Hugh Glass, who experiences some of the most brutal details of survivor narratives, the film exposes the racism, aggression, and fear that undergirded the experience of these explorers and furriers. The “whoosh” of arrows, the dark unknown beyond the trees, and the constant terror of dangers both manmade and natural around every corner create the tense atmosphere of a slasher film; however, what Iñárritu achieves is a radical re-assessment of the Western. These are not the Indians of Hopalong Cassidy; this is not the honor system of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; this is a brutal world of male exhibitionism that simply masks a culture of death and dread.

3.       Mad Max: Fury Road—In another revisionist Western, George Miller has outfitted the legendary Australian outback post-apocalyptic with a refreshing feminist lens. Eve Ensler famously served as a consultant on the film to provide the female characters with such shocking things as motivation, delineation, and desire. Charlize Theron has become one of the most complex frontier women since Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge dueled in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). She rages; she cowers; she storms. The plot may have a few problems: they travel a very long way, only to decide to turn around and go back the way they came. The interplay between a set of well-defined characters brings this franchise into the 21st century.

4.       Carol—Todd Haynes’ quiet adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel traces the lines of desire between two women divided by class and upbringing in 1950’s Manhattan. Cate the Great Blanchett constructs a woman of fragility and passion masked by a façade of icy superiority. Rooney Mara shines as an upstart store clerk, unsure of her own feelings. In this film, the men are brutes unaware of their selfish demands that see women as merely the accessories of their successful lives. The drama emerges from this conflict of women wishing a fulfilled existence that negates the presence of men. These men fight these tendencies but with absolutely no understanding of the pleas of these women with whom they wish to outfit their homes of domestic bliss. Cate’s final monologue is a master class in poise and control.

5.       Spotlight—A superb ensemble cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James relates the story of the Boston Globe’s attempts to expose how the pedophilia scandal of the Catholic Church reached into the highest echelons of the structure of the institution in the fall of 2001. The desires of this journalistic team to expose a story and  to give voice of the victims of sexual abuse comes into a direct conflict with their editor (Live Schrieber) who is certain that the story is deeper and bigger. The uncovering of how the Church moved priests time and time again to different parishes leads to an explosive set of stories that no good Catholic in Boston could ignore. The scandal was at every level of the Church and it was not a mere example of a bad apple or two.

6.       Room—A harrowing film based on Emma Donoghue’s novel about a woman kept imprisoned for years in an environment of rape with her son bred of this assault is a fine example of cinematic relation of trauma and resilience. How do we imagine a child who has known only two individuals for his six years of life would be reintegrated into a society he has never known? Brie Larson’s finely crafted and raw performance takes an interesting character in a novel into a fully-fledged example of pain, persecution and survival. She does deserve the Oscar. The film has not performed terribly well at the box office (currently grossing only $7 million in the North American market), but it is a film whose power is undeniable, even if it proves for difficult viewing material.

7.       Beasts of No Nation—Cary Fukunaga is a master of crafting narratives that take characters whose motivations may seem morally repugnant and investigating exactly how such individuals can rationally come to make such decisions. Here we find Idris Elba (in a role for which he should have been nominated) playing a commandant of a small army of child soldiers in Ghana during a brutal civil war. Although the film does not do enough to trouble the narrative of the exceptionalism of African violence, we do witness the story of a brutal commander who sees his role as a protector and savior for the nation and his children, even if that paternal role results in the sacrificing of children to the horrors of war or to his own sexual desires. It is a complex and complicated piece.

8.       Ex Machina—The film industry managed to create a set of films that questioned the received structures of genres, such as the western, the boxing film, and here a scifi piece. We see a cyborg created with emotional human tendencies, including deception and self-aggrandizement. Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander perform off one another’s strengths in a tug-of-war of power. Isaac, who has become one of our most prominent actors (without being labeled and pigeon-holed as a Hispanic actor), delights in a performance that hovers around a morally ambiguous center but never fully disposes of humor. His vacillations keep both the other characters and the audience uncertain of what may happen next.

9.       Inside Out—Pixar created a bold vision of how the emotions in our head battle each other for prominence, only to learn that they all must work together in order to create the individual whom they drive. If you fail to feel anything at Bing Bong’s last scene, you are dead inside.

10.   Straight Outta Compton and Dope—Two fine hip-hop films demonstrated the pressures of the film industry to craft films that relate the black experience without pandering to the audience. Straight Outta Compton’s brash, big Hollywood-style portrayal of the rise and fall of NWA harkens back to musical biopics from the 1950s about Lorenz and Hart, Lillian Roth, Jane Froman or Cole Porter. These stars witness a meteoric rise, only to encounter obstacles created by the industry, their relationships with one another, and the demands of fame. Some fail to rise again, while others adapt. Dope, on the other hand, took a quiet approach to following a group of youths who revel in nostalgia for early 90’s hip-hop, unsure of where they fit in their neighborhood and culture. This small indie, which was a huge hit at Sundance, made only a fraction of Compton’s box-office intake, but, in fact, broke through more stereotypes in its crafting of characters forging their own identities that appear to be in conflict with those around them.

11.   The Martian—I have become a huge fan of having a big space movie every fall. First, it was Gravity’s technical prowess that stunned us, then Interstellar demonstrated a perhaps pretentious but fascinating narrative of spiritual angst in the universe. Ridley Scott’s film doesn’t quite achieve either of those two films’ high aspirations, but it does tell a rollicking good story guided by a tongue-in-cheek performance from Matt Damon. It is fun, and it is relevant with our latest discoveries from Mars that demonstrate that perhaps in Interstellar McConaughey should have just taken his group to Mars rather than going through wormholes.

12.   Creed—Rocky Balboa punched his way into the American consciousness in 1976. Nearly forty years later, Stallone comes back to train the son of his former rival, Apollo Creed. This is a fine example of a genre film that makes us question the usual structures of that genre. Ryan Coogler, who became an indie darling with Fruitvale Station, has now demonstrated soundly to Hollywood that he can direct a big-budget film as well.

13.   Clouds of Sils Maria—Kristen Stewart received heaps of praise for this film, including becoming the first (?!) American actress ever to receive a competitive César Award (the French equivalent of the Oscar). However, it is not Stewart that dominates this complicated tale of an actress revisiting one of her earlier successes in a new film. Juliette Binoche commands her presence, and her generosity as an actor allows Stewart to appear more human than she ever has on screen. Binoche occupies a storied place among French actresses, along with Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, only Marion Cotillard rivals her for force and variability.


Honorable Mentions:

Noah Baumbach has softened his navel-gazing ways in a recent stream of movies. Although his characters are still troubling narcissists, his films have become more highly attuned to competing desires and narratives with a keener eye for visual ingenuity and more satisfying structures. This year, he told the stories of a set of rather bumbling misfits in Mistress America and While We’re Young that form an interesting trilogy with Frances Ha.


The Big Short narrates a complicated set of events that underpinned the collapse of financial markets in 2008. Adam McKay, who previously directed Will Ferrell gross-out comedies, has not traded in comedy for serious Oscar fare, but rather has directed his eye towards more sophisticated stories while still maintaining that comedic flare.


Far from the Madding Crowd is typical Thomas Hardy fare. Love triangles, missed connections, returns of ghosts, and a woman who is faced with obstacles that verge on the sadistic. Carey Mulligan’s intensity is on display yet again, and its timid portrayal marks her as someone who should be more highly sought after than she is.

Monday, April 27, 2015

My hatred for Apple knows no bounds

Several months ago, a video went viral of a woman having a meltdown in an Apple Store. Condemnation of the woman's entitlement was swift and vehement. This was my initial reaction, as well. A privileged white woman who, god forbid, has to wait her turn to be helped with her broken iPhone. Let's watch the video again:

Since I have been dealing with a MacBook that seemingly cannot be fixed, I have more sympathy with this woman. I have had two Apple laptops, and all they do is cause me problems. They make me livid. I pride myself on my calm demeanor, but when this stuff doesn't work, I lose my mind.

Here's the story: I was raised on Apple computers. Every single desktop and laptop computer I have personally owned has been some sort of Mac, going all the way back to those lego-like Centris computers in the 90's. However, I may just be emerging out of some sort of consumerist Stockholm Syndrome, and I am willing and able to throw off the shackles of my psychological imprisonment.

Apple products are, undeniably, beautifully designed specimens of technological expertise. But are they great computing devices. The next time you run into a computing engineer, coder, or hacker, ask her (it will most likely be a him, but there are many women engineers and hackers out there) what kind of computer she has. She will most likely respond with some sort of very specific PC, with specifications I cannot even begin to imagine. Why do we consumers, most of whom understand nothing about code, logic boards, or even computing, spend countless sums of money on Apple products? I term this problem the "Louis Vuitton fallacy." We tend to think that because something is pretty and expensive, it must be inherently more valuable. certainly Louis Vuitton luggage is pretty, and it sure is expensive, but it is probably less functional than Samsonite luggage, and an LV purse does no better functional job than a leather bag from an Italian handmade store, which would be a fraction of the price of that LV purse. This same fallacy applies to Apple products: because Apple has this impressive and persuasive marketing campaign, and they look so pretty and cost so much, they must be the best out there.

I was a victim of this fallacy for years. I thought no PC could ever come near an Apple product in its abilities to get work done. But like a cog in the great capitalist machine, I was hoodwinked by marketing and design.

The damn things don't work.

Maybe, it's just me. I have begun to refer to myself as the "Bermuda Triangle of Apple Products." I must have some sort of electrical charge running through my fingers that just causes these things to die. My last laptop went through a couple hard drives while it was still under warranty. This new one, only a year old, had its hard drive replaced just months ago in January, and, while installing a software update last night, it crashed terribly yet again. I have been unable to reboot it.

What do I do on my computers that causes them so much distress? Do I make movies, music, do I hack into the Pentagon? Of course not. I surf the web and write blog posts like this. I tend to keep myself from even doing actual work on this thing, because who knows if it will crash in the middle of me working on a spreadsheet or compiling a powerpoint.
I thus use my laptop for two applications: Word and Safari. And it still don’t work.
So this begs a question: Why does a $1500 computer (make that $1700 when you add in the NECESSARY Apple Care and other sundry devices) not function when asked to operate two of our most basic computing needs of humanity in the form of word processing and internet surfing.
Because these things are useless, that's why. On top of that, have you tried to get a product, still under warranty, fixed by these Apple people? I love that they require input of a serial number to even schedule an appointment to speak to someone. I find humor in this because my laptop will no longer boot up, so I have no way to ascertain what my serial number may be. When I did mention this to one of the purported geniuses of Apple they told me the serial number was on the box it came in. Oh, I see, I am supposed to be a hoarder and keep the box. Well, thanks, “genius.”
In January, my computer froze and refused to boot up. I went through an entire day (a Saturday, I might add) trying to get this thing to work and trying to contact someone to get it scheduled for a repair. I have been through this enough to know when a hard drive is fried.  Now, of course, my most recent laptop is somehow not registered with my Apple ID. Why? I don’t know. The old laptop, which died a similar tragic death is the only registered to this Apple ID. Thus, after I go through this rigamarole of logging into the Apple ID system, which always goes wrong and requires me resetting my password again, it tells me my computer is no longer under warranty. In order to speak to a human being, I would have to fork over $29.99.
Let me get this straight: I am already apoplectic with rage because I cannot turn on my computer, so I am using my iPhone to troubleshoot, and you have the nerve to tell me that my eight-month-old machine is not under warranty? Yes, that does not help in the anger management department. This is why I now have sympathy for that woman screaming in the Apple Store. It is a frustrating, humiliating, dehumanizing experience to simply get your damn device fixed, even when you have the goddamn extended warranty.
There are days when I want to take a hammer to it and every Apple product, and I would receive that one touch of satisfaction of just destroying the shit out of it. If I were to do this, I would quote the Bhagavad-Gita while pounding away: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." I would feel empowered for once over these beastly technological devices.
I was on the phone with Apple techs who could do nothing, so I asked them to schedule a genius bar appointment for me. A seemingly simple question, but no. At first, the tech balked at that, but have you tried to book a genius bar appointment on your phone? It's a pain in the ass. Of course, I could find no appointment for the next couple of days at any Apple store near me, so traveled far and away to drop it off. At every step in the road, you have to explain what you were doing when the thing died. I always get this sense that they are fishing for illicit details of hacking or figuring what copious amounts of kinky porn I may have been watching when it crashed. Well, in fact, I was watching Downton Abbey on Netflix when this thing imploded. When I think kinky porn, Downton Abbey is at the top of my list.
An amusing anecdote: on the last computer crash back in January, one of these so-called geniuses came over to look at my computer. He, like so many of his colleagues, had that endearing condescension to his manner and speech. There is a quality to these hipsters that seems to say, “oh, mortal, what have you done now?” Well, when he ran a diagnostic test on the dumb, piece of crap it flashed a bright red banner that said “FAILED.” The only response he could muster was: “I haven’t seen that before.” These people, dear mortals, are referred to by a multi-national corporation as geniuses.
Now, just a handful of months later, I was installing a new software update. When it was completed, my computer could not reboot. Once again, I find myself with a computer that doesn’t turn on. I am struggling to get someone to talk to me on the phone, but because my correct serial number is not registered, who knows if that will happen?
This brings me to my liberating conclusion: Apple products are junk. I have been hoodwinked, tricked and fooled to fork over massive amounts of money for these devices that don’t actually do anything. So, I am now willing and able to cast off this yoke, throw this POS into the garbage, head to Best Buy and buy a Dell. The Dell may not work great either, but, hey it was a fraction of the cost, so who cares?
Then again, Tim cook may show up with some new touch-screen, retina display module that cooks soup while it bathes you, and I will go and buy version 2.0 pf that thing and in a year be all pissed off all over again.
Capitalism has sucked me into its never-ending cycle of planned obsolescence.
Thanks, Tim Cook.
Or should I blame Obama?
Thanks, Obama.  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscar Predictions -- 2015 Edition

As the Hollywood elite are in the midst of primping and cleansing for tomorrow's big event, I shall run down the categories and over assorted prognostications. Unlike the past several years, where the top categories seemed fairly predictable (save for Best Director in 2012, when Ang Lee surprisingly won), there are several categories this year that seem like toss-ups between two favored films. Then, there are a handful of categories where there is no question who will win. Thus, we could have a night with several surprises, or afterwards we will all shake our heads and say, "well, I saw that one coming."

Best Picture: Birdman 

Boyhood was clearly the front runner in this category just a month ago. It had won a slew of critics' awards and also the Golden Globe. At the Globes, Birdman's solitary prize was for screenplay. Then, surprisingly, the guilds awards all went for Birman. The PGA, DGA, and SAG all honored the hectically paced backstage drama about a washed-up action star. Although Boyhood could still eke out a win here, it seems as if Birdman has momentum behind it. But there is another wrinkle to this: with the preferential ballot system for Best Picture, I wonder if these two could divide the vote in such a way that The Grand Budapest Hotel or Imitation Game wins the big prize. I assume that American Sniper has no chance here, but I thought the same for Crash in 2005, so I could be wrong yet again.

Best Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Although González Iñárritu is nipping at Linklater's heels for this prize, I do believe that Linklater's scope and tenacity in bringing this production to fruition will ultimately win.

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Julianne Moore will easily triumph in this category. This is her fifth nomination and she is well respected in Hollywood. My only twinge of sadness about this stems from the fact that Moore will not win the award for some of her truly seminal work in films such as The Hours, The End of the Affair, Far from Heaven, Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Moore is fantastic as a Columbia linguistics professor facing the diagnosis and encroaching symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer's, but the film is marred by a terribly pouty performance from Kristen Stewart as her whining daughter who longs to be taken seriously as an actress. I wish this win was for Far from Heaven 2: Loving the Gardener, again. 

Best Actor: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Eddie Redmayne is clearly the leading contender for this prize, having already won the Globe, SAG, and BAFTA for Best Actor. I am personally biased against Redmayne (I just don't like him), but I am resistant to giving the award to such an Oscar-baiting performance. it just all seems so obvious: he is playing a real-life crippled, tortured and unlucky-in-love brilliant scientist. Can't we give it to something that isn't so obvious. The layers of Keaton's performance and the numerous gestures towards his own life, creates this complex performance of signs (signifiers and the signified) and even the notion that Keaton himself is the far-off referent in all of this.

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Whiplash wowed the crowds at Sundance last January and, in a very limited release, created some serious word of mouth. Ultimately, it shocked everyone for some big nominations at the BAFTAs and Oscars, including Best Picture. The film narrates a struggle between teacher and student that is anchored by two great performances from Miles Teller and Simmons. Simmons, being the longtime character actor, familiar from Law & Order, Juno, and those Farmers Insurance commercials, will get some respect from his peers tomorrow night, for a performance everyone believes deserves it.

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

I have been flummoxed by some of the critical reaction to Arquette's performance. Most critics have noted how "brave" she was to allow herself to expand (in terms of her weight, not her craft), age and wrinkle before our eyes in this film. That misses the point that Arquette has created a performance that fights against the very androcentric gaze of this film--it's called boyhood, for god's sake. Arquette's mother fights for recognition, love, and respect, as she makes mistakes, fails, and, in the end, triumphs. Although I have a bit of a desire to see Keira Knightley win here, I am fully on board with the Arquette bandwagon.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

This may be Imitation Game's only chance for a big prize--or any prize, in fact--but the bizarre story around Chazelle's screenplay may have garnered it enough attention to win the Oscar. Channel films a piece of his screenplay in order to raise financing for the production, but because of this brief filmed piece that was used to shop the screenplay around the writers' branch deemed the screenplay adapted, even though the screenplay was written first! A similar situation occurred to Billy bob Thornton with his Sling Blade script.

Best Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Two months ago, I was convinced that Birdman would only win one big prize and it would be in this category. Now, that seems not to be the case, and I think Anderson's well-liked and successful trifle that depicts love, baking, hoteliers, among the rise of totalitarianism to win his first Oscar.

Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Since Lego Movie is not nominated and the Dragon sequel won the Globe and BAFTA, I assume it will win here, too. The first film was inventive and charming; I found myself lost in the sequel (though I enjoyed the addition of Cate Blanchett), but since Big Hero 6 has no momentum, this has to win.

Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour

Laura Poitras' look at Edward Snowden will premiere on HBO on Monday night, so I have yet to see it. The film has rave reviews and seems to offer the fullest portrait of our NSA leaker, since Glenn Greenwald's work.

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida 

Leviathan, a Russian film about small-town corruption, may win here, but I want this beautiful Polish film about a young novitiate search for answers to what happened to her family during the Holocaust (spoiler alert: they died) is one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous films of the year.

Best Song: "Glory" from Selma

Wouldn't it be nice for a truly good hip-hop song win in this category that doesn't have pimp in the title, or isn't written by a white dude? I think it would be. It would also give Selma a chance to shine, after being willfully ignored by the Academy in every other category, save Picture.

Best Score: Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Icelandic composer, Johann Johannsonn, created a lush string-filled score for Theory of Everything, and that may win here, but Desplat's careful work that has garnered him eight nominations (with zero wins, and two nominations this year), I think should finally compel the Academy to award him this year.

Best Costume Design, Make-up/Hair and Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The costumes and sets for Anderson's delightful romp will do a repeat of Great Gatsby and win these prizes handily. What was done to Tilda Swinton will win the award for Makeup.

Best Cinematography: Birdman

This may be the most difficult category for me to call. It is filled with nominees who are all serving. Roger Deakins, who has made a career of working with the Coen Brothers, has yet to win. Mr. Turner  and Ida are two gorgeous films; Grand Budapest continues Anderson's aesthetic project of juxtaposition of numerous shooting styles to create a vibrant tableau. I assume because of the technical mastery required to film the precisely choreographed scenes of Birdman will bring Emmanuel Lubezki his second consecutive Oscar, after winning for Gravity last year.

Best Editing: Whiplash 

This prediction may seem to be out of left field, especially since Birdman and Boyhood seem to be the two obvious choices here. Boyhood had 12 years of footage to sift through. Birdman had to be edited so carefully that it appeared there was no editing. However, Whiplash's musical sequences are so wonderfully filmed and carefully edited that I, like the BAFTAs, want this film to be awarded here.

Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash

To ensure that the drumming was heard loud and clear, and didn't simply fade into the background required quite a bit of technical mastery. If I am correct, Whiplash may be one of the biggest surprise winners of the evening with four awards.

Best Sound Editing: American Sniper

I am willing to give the Eastwood jingoistic flick this award, and that is all.

Best Visual Effects: Interstellar

Nolan's latest sci-fi epic faltered a bit at the box office, and there was some serious criticism leveled at the film about its gender and racial politics, but the powerful worlds created by Nolan's team were imaginative and impressive (even if the sound mixing in the movie was terrible).

Best Animated Short: Feast 

Feast was the Disney short ahead of Big Hero 6. It is about a dog's love of food, so why not?

Best Documentary Short: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

HBO's documentary about working on a suicide helpline for Veterans is harrowing and powerful, and calls for much-needed resources to be sent towards the mental health of returning combatants from our decades-long wars.

Best Live Action Short: The Phone Call

Another film about suicide hotlines, but this time with Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent. It is rare to see major star power in a short like this, and it could garner some attention from Academy voters due to that. The other contender in this category appears to be Butter Lamp which is a loosely confederated set of images of Tibetan nomads.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Best Films of 2014


1. "Selma" -- On Thursday morning, we awoke to the shocking news that "Selma" was nominated in only two categories and its director, Ava Duvernay, and its stars, David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, were locke out of nominations. The only other nomination it received was for its song, penned by Common and John Legend. The last time a film was nominated for Best Picture and was not nominated in a large top-five category, such as for acting, directing, or writing, that I have determined is 1944 when "The Ox-Bow Incident" was nominated solely for Best Picture. There seemed to be issues with distributing screeners, and there may be "racial fatigue" among Academy voters since they awarded "12 Years a Slave" last year; however, this does seem to represent a serious travesty, since no film this year has aligned so well with the political discourse of our moment. As protests have swept the country over events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, it seems appropriate for a major film to be made that addresses the hard-won fight to enfranchise African Americans in this country and demonstrates that work is still not complete. Some have criticized the film for historical inaccuracies, but, in fact, the film has done a rather refreshing job of portraying the competing factions of the civil rights movement. On the question of LBJ, I am rather convinced that in January of 1965, Johnson did not want to engage in another civil rights bill, when he had passed a large bill that previous summer. Regardless of these criticisms, "Selma" succeeds on a powerful script and impressive performances. This is a film that benefits from a communal viewing in a theater.

2. "A Most Violent Year"--In just a handful of years, J.C. Chandor has created three well-reviewed films, "Margin Call," "All is Lost," and now, "A Most Violent Year." None of these has succeeded quite at the hoped for level at the box office, but Chandor is now poised to become a major force in Hollywood. Chandor's strength lies in his commitment to create films that have crisp and clear stories with complicated characters who are somehow still sympathetic. In "A Most Violent Year," Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain run an oil-distribution business, and have run into a rather delicate financial situation. Refreshingly, this married couple has its passive-aggressive moments, but they are portrayed as a partnership and, lo and behold, they do not appear to be unfaithful. Unlike our current fetishization of dark characters making poor choices, Chandor's flick revolves around a sympathetic character who is trying to make the right decisions.

3. "Grand Budapest Hotel"--If people are convinced that Wes Anderson cannot make a commercially successful film, you can point those individuals to this film that took in almost $60 million at the domestic box office. Many pundits, including me, were convinced that by releasing this film in March, it would lose all hope of securing a single nomination. Fortunately, it remained on critics' top-ten lists and in the minds of audiences and garnered nine nominations, including Wes Anderson's first as Best Director. This light romp actually confronts serious issues of warfare, totalitarianism, and terror, while focusing on a set of eccentric characters. Yet again, Ralph Fiennes, who has made himself into one of the most dependable character actors of the last two decades, was overlooked yet again for an Oscar nomination. That may be as big a snub as failing to nominate Oyelowo.

4. "Whiplash"-- Damien Chazelle's directorial debut was a tight, rollicking film about a drummer in a music conservatory facing an enemy in the guise of a teacher. With a standout performance from Juno's dad (J.K. Simmons), "Whiplash" succeeds as a morality tale of how much of ourselves we lose by attempting to achieve perfection. The film is worth watching for the superb editing and camerawork in its series of filmed musical performances.

5. "Ida"--It is hard to recommend a bleak Polish Holocaust movie. The film follows a young nun, as she attempts to uncover what happened to her parents in the war (spoiler alert: it was the Holocaust; they died horrifically). Powerful performances coupled with the superb Oscar-nominated cinematography takes this bleak tale and transforms it into a transcendent film about how the past continues to haunt succeeding generations.

6. "Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance"-- Iñàrittu's film about a man who sounds a lot like Michael Keaton attempting to make a comeback, starring Michael Keaton, has become one of the most successful films from Hollywood about actors. The long takes, coupled with precise and complicated dialogue and choreographed camerawork, set a fast pace for a piece that grapples with notions of failure, artistry and the search for validation.

7. "Imitation Game" -- Benedict Cumberbatch has secured his place as the go-to actor for intense, mildly autistic white man. In fact, much of this year has seen films where mildly autistic white men are celebrated for their very lack of social graces. White privilege certainly is powerful. But back to "Imitation Game": although its final monologue from Keira Knightley is beautifully filmed and performed, it is an anachronistic moment that marks exactly how we want to view the past and the history of sexuality. Keira can tell Benedict, with tears in her eyes, that damn the normal people, it is those who aren't normal that change the world for the rest of us. It is a beautiful sentiment, but no one in 1957 would have uttered such a speech. The film is marked by some wonderful performances and beautiful production values, but "Imitation Game" would have most likely have made more impact a decade ago when our consciousness had not been raised by films like "Brokeback Mountain," "Milk," or "A Single Man."

8. "Mr. Turner" -- Mike Leigh's films can sometimes feel inaccessible and a random string of inside jokes and improvised performances. Other times, he creates a work of art that is astonishing and beautiful. "Vera Drake" told the heartbreaking story of a woman who faces prison after she attends to a botched abortion in mid-twentieth-century Britain, and "Mr. Turner" tells a simpler tale of the British Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner. Following the last 25 years of Turner's life, Leigh has constructed a film about art where Turner's vision and eye is at the forefront. With a standout performance from Timothy Spall, "Mr. Turner" allows its audience to experience the creation of an artist and his work.

9. "Boyhood"-- Linklater's work may be more interesting for the way it was filmed, rather than for its story. Although its directorial choices are clearly innovative, its story resembles the most staid family melodramas. By having his actors age over a dozen years, Linklater has provided the chance for Patricia Arquette to shine brighter than she has ever been allowed up to this time.

10. "Lego Movie"-- When I first heard that a movie was going to be made around legos, I was convinced this was the end of American civilization. How crass and cynical does it sound that a movie would be made about toys that are simply built? What would Marx say about this? He would be sickened. When I actually saw it, the film does a deft job of navigating around things Marx himself discussed, the fetishization of the commodity, and the concomitant loss of identity in an industrial society. In many ways, this is one of the more interesting Marxist films to gain such widespread viewings. And bosh to you if you claim there is no Marxism in this piece; I will ignore you and listen to "Everything is Awesome" one more time.

11. "Only Lovers Left Alive"--Jarmusch made a movie about vampires with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton? Why yes, he did. It is delightful and John Hurt plays a pitch-perfect Kit Marlowe.

12. "Gloria"-- Sebastian Lelio's bittersweet story about a middle-aged woman navigating the terrain of being single in Santiago, Chile, is simultaneously harrowing and beautiful with an intrepid performance from Paulina Garcia.

13. "Pride"-- A charming, if sentimental, story of a group of homosexuals driving up to Wales to help striking coal miners in 1984, "Pride" tells a little-known story about the power of alliances and coalitions. It may ignore a set of racial politics and tensions between these groups, the film succeeds as a heartwarming tale that did result in the adoption of a gay-rights platform within the Labour Party.

14. "Belle"-- Gugu Mbatha-Raw made a splash this year in both "Belle" and "Beyond the Lights." Her subtle performance in what I have termed the sweet version of "12 Years" shaded a complex historical figure of whom very little is known. By recreating the trial of the infamous Zong ship, Belle  portrayed a moment of prime historical import while framing it with a romantic and sentimental love story.

15, 16, 17. "Cake,""Wild," "Still Alice"-- I place these together as the handful of films that decided it would be a good idea to focus on a female character. Have you noticed that all but Selma of the best actor nominations focus on a straight white man who has some personality quirks? All of them. And Selma still has a man at the forefront of his film. Two actresses often dismissed as light and frivolous, J. Anniston and Reese, surprised critics with a pair of finely crafted dramatic performances. Julianne Moore seems to have locked down her first Oscar, after four other nominations, in a film about a linguistics professor losing control over her mind as she slips into Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, the film is hurt by the terrible casting of Kristen Stewart as a pouty teenaged daughter who wants to be a serious actress. Watching Kristen Stewart try to deliver the final monologue from Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" was truly disturbing. Couldn't we have hired Emma Watson instead?

18. "Theory of Everything" -- Eddie Redmayne is in the Oscar bait performance of the year: crippled, brilliant real-life character. I usually loathe Redmayne, ever since "My Week with Marilyn" irked me with its self-indulgent quackery, but what makes this movie shine is Felicity Jones' beautiful performance as Hawking's wife who finds that she cannot find happiness in a marriage where she is solely the caregiver. John Nash's wife actually divorced him, too, but Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman could not bear the thought of having Jennifer Connelly walk out on Russell Crowe. Fortunately, this film takes on a deeper shade of meaning by showing Jones' character struggling against the role she is supposed to accept graciously.

19. "Nightcrawler"-- I have said this time and again: losing or gaining a lot of weight does not constitute a great performance. I suppose Jake Gyllenhaal assumed he would not be taken seriously if he were too pretty. The movie does succeed as a tightly wound tale of intrigue within the world of journalism running to catch up with the morally ambiguous success of TMZ. I also enjoyed that two of the neighborhoods of LA that I know best were portrayed as crime-ridden hellholes, including a shootout at the Chinatown Express at 3rd and Western.

20. "Into the Woods" -- Someone should inform Rob Marshall that making a musical cinematic does not mean that every single song has to be shot in extreme close-up. The film loses a bit of steam in the second act, but Emily Blunt is surprisingly good as the Baker's Wife.

21. "Gone Girl" -- Fincher's revenge tale, penned by novelist Gillian Flynn, engages in some truly bizarre gender politics, but Rosamund Pike was finally able to secure herself a part that has made her into the star that she deserves to be.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscar Predictions for 2014!

Because the Oscars did not want to be put against the Closing Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics, we have had a particularly long awards season. The Globes were over a month and a half ago; the Baftas a couple weeks ago. Are we in statuette fatigue yet? I am now compelled to say that the length of this season may lead to one of the most spectacularly predictable Oscars in recent memory. With L.A. still under a flood watch, this may prove to be Oscar's soggiest year.

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

McQueen's directorial adaptation of Solomon Northrup's memoir of 1853 (notice the date: before Dred Scott, John Brown or, even, Bloody Kansas) has been criticized, analyzed, praised. Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks had a rousing discussion about this movie, where Harris-Perry thought the film did and admirable job of exposing the daily brutalities of slave life, while hooks was convinced the film offered nothing for African Americans. I see the film as playing a particularly important role in the current political discourse, where the Right is firmly convinced that the civil War was not waged over slavery, where Obamacare is "a new form of slavery," a prominent libertarian can write jokingly that slavery and the Civil Rights Act are not that far away, and state legislators can tell African Americans that it is time "to get over slavery." Although Reconstruction ended in 1877, the American nation is still grappling with this past. Of course, the most heartbreaking moment of the piece is the brief written postscript that informs us that we are not sure as to the events of the last decade of his life, or even his exact date of death. McQueen's great intervention in making this film was to use the visual language of the glamorized South portrayed in Hollywood films, such as Jezebel or Gone with the Wind. This film is sumptuous and makes its statement in the same way that Cukor or Fleming would, creating his own equivalencies of this universe. With the breathtaking cast of Ejiofor, Sarah Paulson (in a particularly gruesome portrayal that exposes the limits of sisterhood), newcomer Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender, this film offers a biting critique of the mythology of the lost cause told in stunning technicolor.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

Many have complained that Gravity is light on story and heavy on technical effects, but, oh what technical effects. The breathtaking vision we get of loneliness with a pacing that keeps one's knuckles white throughout is a technical feat of achievement that few directors can achieve. I would have, in fact, preferred even less back story for Bullock's character, and more moments of the sublime loneliness of space (something JC Chandor accomplished in his version of Gravity awash at sea, All is Lost). Films set in space changed drastically after Kubrick's 2001, and now after Gravity, no space film will be the same. 

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Writing the above words made my skin crawl. I should admit that I enjoyed Jean-Marc Vallée's piece about the debates surrounding AZT in the mid-1980's and the efforts of one man in Texas to try to combat the slow-going processes of the FDA. McConaughey showed a depth to his characterization that we have not seen and this may just be his annis mirabilis (Mud and True Detective have also garnered the drawler a mountain of praise). I just don't like him. He is going to ascend the stage and chant, "All right, all right, all right," and then I shall wretch. I would love to see Leo win instead, but the controversy around Wolf of Wall Street has hindered his chance at receiving his long-coveted award.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

For a brief moment, I wondered whether the renewed outrage over Woody Allen was going to affect Cate the Great's chances of winning, but it appears as if any such fears were misplaced. Her performance is so deftly layered, complex and campy that no one can compete with it. Blanchett has taken a character with so little empathy and somehow made her a touch sympathetic. Her delusions are so strongly held that by the last pathetic shot, the audience is convinced this woman will descend into complete madness. I have never left a movie theater wanting a stiff drink and shower so desperately. I must admit that I would love to see Judi win for an equally complicated performance (but far less showy) in Philomena, but Cate who lost the Oscar for both Elizabeth I and Bob Dylan will win her second this year.

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

All I gotta say is that he is playing a drug-addicted transsexual dying of AIDS. If that role doesn't win you an Oscar, you're doing something wrong.

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

Please, dear Academy, I beg of you: do not give it to J. Law. Please. Please. I beg of you. Please. This may sound desperate because it is. Jenny from the block won last year, she is fine. Can we please award this to the ingenue who graduated from Yale Drama School and made her feature film debut in a searing critique of slavery wherein she serves as the moral compass of the movie. Please, as the ad campaign for 12 years says, "It's time."

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her

Spike Jonze has not yet won an Academy Award. Enough said. However, Her paints a portrait of a future LA that I would love to inhabit. No cars, nice burnt orange slacks, talking computers. There is a tinge of a complete dystopia on the horizon of this movie, but the lives we could carve out in this universe would be fulfilling for that brief moment in time.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Philomena

12 Years a Slave will likely win here, but I want to see the witty, charming adaptation of Martin Sixsmith's journalistic expose by Steve Coogan to garner the prize. A film that could have been overwhelmingly sentimental and bleak, instead, turned into a message piece with a light touch and deeply abiding sense of humor.

Best Foreign Film: The Great Beauty

Haven't seen it, but I adored Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo about former Italian PM, Andreotti. This was is in the top of my queue.

Best Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing

Some pundits argue that 20 Feet from Stardom (about back-up singers) will be the victor in a repeat of last year's victory for Searching for Sugar Man (about a forgotten singer who unknown to him was a cult favorite in South Africa). I believe the surreal masterpiece that is The Act of Killing will still triumph. This film, which in fact as an uncut version on youtube with a running time of over 3 hours, examines the massacre of thousands of purported Communists in the year following the collapse of Sukarno's government in Indonesia in 1965. These men who have been hailed as heroes by their nation are ecstatic about sharing gruesome details of each act, even going so far as to re-enacting their murders in the style of Robert DeNiro gangster films.

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Surprisingly, Disney has never won since this category was inaugurated in 2003. The first Disney animated film co-directed by a woman exploded at the box office this past year (it appears that it has a chance of grossing over $1 billion worldwide). The film that demonstrates that Aretha and Annie Lennox were correct and that sisters are doing it for themselves looks to have locked this category down.

Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Score: Gravity

With the technical expertise of Gravity, we shall hear a lot of thank yous directed to Cuarón durign that middle section of the awards. Even those handful of people who loathed this movie must admit that it is deserving in these technical categories.

Best Song: "Let It Go," Frozen

Pharrell's "Happy," which just ascended to the top slot on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, could be the big upset here, but "Let it Go" finalyl gave Idina Menzel her first top 20 hit, after two albums where she attempted the same by distancing ehrself from Broadway. Her retread of "Defying Gravity" (ironic with this year's nominees) will be a major crowd pleaser at the show on Sunday. Let's just hope that she can hit that high note.

Best Costume Design and Production Design: The Great Gatsby

You cannot deny that the film was pretty, even if the adaptation had a host of flaws. Everyone looked great and I need to get that tailor down the street to make me a couple of those suits.

Best Makeup: Bad Grandpa

Yup, I want the John Knoxville movie to win an Oscar.  Now hear me out on this: Bad Grandpa makeup designers actually came up with a new type of paper-thin silicone that would be translucent and reflect the movement of skin more accurately. Channels had to be carved out in the latex so Knoxville's sweat could be funneled off his face because silicone does not breathe. Over sixty sets of this facial makeup had to be produced because each day of filming required a new application of the make up. It is a truly technical feat. If voters are too creeped out by voting for this, they will go with Dallas Buyers Club.

Best Animated Short: Get a Horse!

Mickey Mouse makes his triumphant return to the big screen.

Best Documentary Short: The Lady in Number 6

This set of interviews with the oldest known Holocaust survivor (she passed away just a few weeks ago) is poignant and touching and perfect Oscar fodder.

Best Live Short: Avant que de tout perdre (Just before losing everything)

I encourage everyone to try to find a copy of this on the interwebs. It is a terrifying, minimalist horror film. I don't know if it will win (this category is difficult to predict because those who can vote actually have to attend a screening of them, making the voting pool an infinitesimal fraction of the actual 6,000 members of the Academy), but it should.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Best Films of 2013

There are, as always, a stream of foreign films that I should have seen already, but I have not (e.g., Farhadi's "The Past," "The Great Beauty," "Blue is the Warmest Color"), so take that into account when perusing what I feel are the best films of the past year. 2013 proved to be quite a strong year, with some great entries from some of our most talented directors.

1. "Only God Forgives"--You will see this movie on no one's top-ten list this year, I swear it. Nicolas Refn's bloody romp through the underworld of Bangkok received some of the worst reviews of the year. It was simultaneously booed and applauded when it premiered at Cannes this past spring. "The Guardian" posted diametrically opposed reviews of the film: one calling it revelatory, the other insisting it was mere revenge porn. The way I felt about this film was the way many fanboys felt about Harmony Korine's "Springbreakers:" I was in love and watched it 3 times in one 24-hour period. The film has no viewers who are ambivalent: it is either full-on fascination or disgust. What no one denies is that the film is gorgeous. Refn and his cinematographer Larry Smith have created an amazing succession of beautifully composed scenes. I would argue that you could pause the movie at any point and find yourself a wonderful tableau. Many critics have missed the wonderful use of camp in this piece. Kristen Scott Thomas plays a terrifying matriarch, who is clearly Lady Macbeth tinted with the spray tan of Kris Jenner. It is this character who has the most dialogue in the entire film, even delivering the fiercest Oedipal monologue you have ever seen. This universe is upheld and set in motion by the strange Thai Javert-like police lieutenant who says little, but delivers some stirring karaoke performances and beats the heck out of Ryry Gosling. It is available streaming on Netflix. Watch it now.

2. "Gravity"--Alfonso Cuarón's cinematic artistry has never been questioned, whether it was "Y tu mama tambien," or the 3rd Harry Potter, Cuarón has been able to inject a singular directorial vision into all of his work, even within the Potter universe. "Gravity" is thin on story; he fought with his studio to avoid placing flashbacks for Bullock's character that would have explained in a literal fashion her desire to be in space. But this avoidance to spell out the details leads to some of the tensest 90 minutes of cinema you will ever see. I realized partly way through that I had not let go of the arm rests of my seat because I was convinced that I, too, would go hurtling towards the earth, if I let go. Cuarón's technical feats, which are many, are complemented by the fact that he chose to cast a woman in the lead, rather than Clooney in the main role. In a day and age, when even I think to myself, I can wait for that to come out on Netflix, Gravity forced people out of their home entertainment systems and back out to theaters.

3. "12 Years a Slave"--bell hooks and other scholars have certainly criticized the sentimental aspects of this narrative, but I would argue that the sentimental structure of this piece helps lead to its political importance. By taking on "Gone with the Wind" with its own language, Steve McQueen has succeeded in creating a vision of slavery contained within the very universe of Scarlett and Rhett. The luscious cinematography and fine performances forces us to rethink the mythology of the "Lost Cause," simply because we can imagine the scenes of brutal oppression happening in the universe of Roots, GWTW, or Raintree County. This film demolishes any notion that women on a plantation could form alliances between races, mostly through the vital and powerful performances of Lupita Nyong'o and Sarah Paulson, who expose the various forms of oppression and misery on an antebellum plantation. Even the putative "kind" slaveowner is implicated in a gross system of continual denial of the humanity of its victims. I always think of the adjective "necessary" being appended to a description of a movie as hyperbole, but here I think it is fitting.

4. "The Act of Killing"-- Another real upper. This time we follow the lives of several paramilitary leaders in Indonesia who massacred supposed Communists after Sukarno's fall in 1965. In most such films, the director would have interviews where the alleged criminals would deny any wrongdoing, or a set of excuses that would range from Nuremberg to twinkie defenses. Not here; rather, these men celebrate their crimes, seeing them as necessary to the nation's security. They are excited to tell of their murders. When Joshua Oppenheimer does mention that they are being filmed and could be brought up on charges in The Hague, these men become even more excited, proposing to Oppenheimer that they re-enact their crimes, so it can be more like a De Niro gangster picture. It is a disturbing and important movie demonstrating how much work is to be done in the arena of human rights.

5. "Her"--Spike Jonze's film about a man falling in love with Siri on his 10th generation iPhone is a powerful meditation on how we fall in love with the reality we construct in our minds. Joaquin Phoenix's character has structured a deep, romantic relationship with a cyborg with whom he only speaks. When only one sense is involved, it allows that individual to imagine a reality that exists nowhere outside of his mind. All of us are susceptible to imagining our realities in such a way that they can never be achieved. This movie takes a powerful look at the dangers of trying to achieve that reality.

6. 'Philomena"--Stephen Frears and Steve Coogan collaborated on a movie that sounded like a Hallmark TV movie: an Irish widow goes searching for the son she gave up for adoption. Instead, this piece maneuvered very deftly the territory between tragedy and comedy, never losing its sense of humor in the face of very dark circumstances: Irish nuns actually sold Philomena's child, and many others, to the highest American bidder. Judi Dench has proven herself, yet again, to be one of the great actresses, in a performance of heartbreaking subtlety. Although Cate the Great's performance in "Blue Jasmine" is far showier, Dench demonstrates the very difficult terrain of resignation, hope and emotional solidity in the face of grand obstacles. No other actress could have pulled it off and kept you laughing when she says for the millionth time: "I wouldn't have imagined it in a million years."

7. "Blue Jasmine"--No other Woody Allen movie since "Interiors" has ended on a such dark note. As I said when I left the theater: 'That movie makes me want a strong drink, a Xanax and a shower." The entire film rides on Cate's powerful performance of a 21st-century Blanche Dubois, flittery and fey, unable to focus, but a victim of tragic circumstances. Cate's performance seems to fight against Woody's attempts to showcase the silliness of the character. Cate has committed to the tragedy of this woman, and somehow your sympathies are with her, something solely attributed to this powerful performance. I truly wish I could give Oscars to both Cate and Judi this year.

8. "All is Lost"--Correct, this is "Gravity" in water, but watching Robert Redford attempt to navigate his tiny yacht through the Indian Ocean as it slowly sinks makes for some powerful cinema. Unlike Zemeckis' "Castaway" that focused on the context of someone being lost at sea and the consequences of that separation on the loved ones once he returns, JC Chandor's film has no interest in backstory or context, he simply asks: how would someone try to survive? There is no volleyball to talk to, no one to miss and long for, it is an old man and the sea. Robert Redford has never been better, and yet again he was passed over for an Oscar nomination. This is not the first time: in 1985, Jon freaking Voight was nominated for "Runaway Train," over Redford in "Out of Africa."

9. "Saving Mr. Banks"--Another film that suffered in the avalanche of Oscar love that went to Russell's "American Hustle." Emma Thompson, who could have easily phoned in a performance that would have been good, was actually electrifying in her performance of PL Travers. Her emotional restraint covered her traumas that were revealed slowly and masterfully. John Lee Hancock's overly sentimental direction gave a bit too much time to his never-ending flashbacks, but Emma holds the movie together showing us a woman with little heart who gave the world a great literary character of depth and heart.

10. "The Wolf of Wall Street"--The film has been a lightning rod of discussion. Some have criticized its misogyny and its celebration of hedonism. I am not sure that Scorsese is advocating for either of those. In fact, Scorsese has given us an incisive and penetrating (in all senses of the word) representation of white male privilege. Jordan Belfort treated his women like valuable possessions to be showed off, and Belfort, after serving time in prison, returned to American society without much repercussion becoming a bestselling author, motivational speaker, and now the subject of a Scorsese biopic. That is the American dream, right there: fuck up and end up getting rewarded with a movie made about you. Of course, the great irony is that Belfort's dealings were small fry in comparison to the large systemic greed implemented by the financial giants at Goldman Sachs, AIG, Countrywide, Lehman, etc., leading up to our great crash of 08.

11. "Inside Llewyn Davis"--I am actually surprised that this film has underperformed in Oscar nominations and in commercial receipts. The film highlights the numerous traits of the Coen Bros.: their ability to gain sympathy for rather unsympathetic characters, their brilliant use of John Goodman, the creation of a lush T Bone Burnett soundtrack (along with the brilliance of "Please, Mr. Kennedy"). Somehow in as crowded a year as this, the Coen Bros. get ignored completely.

12. "Frozen"--Disney has not had an animated movie garner over $300 million at the domestic box office since the Lion King (barring Pixar movies). The movie has some problems: its marketing campaign made it seem like it was a tale about a snowman and a reindeer, it is a movie with musical elements but not a full-blown musical. When Frozen shines, it sparkles. "Do you wanna build a snowman?" is the most heartbreaking movie in animated cinema since the opening of "Up," while the snowman's aria is one of the most uplifting moments in cinema this year.

The rest:
13. "Nebraska"--I avoided this for weeks, but ended up enjoying it because of the fantastic June Squibb. "I loved her, but what a whore!" Best line of the year.
14. "Fruitvale Station"--Complex and complicated, ethical but not moralistic. Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan will go on to great things.
15.  "At Berkeley"--I watched all four hours (!) of Wiseman's documentary about a day in the life at the famed California institution of higher education and loved it. If you have any interest in the operations of a university at its highest level of administrative (mal)functioning, this is a must see.
16. "Frances Ha"--Gorgeous cinematography, a deft performance from Greta Gerwig, and an ending that pays off the frustrations of the first hour.
17. "Before Midnight"--Although I think Ethan Hawke is no better than James Franco--pretentious, arrogant, not as talented as he believes--the third part of this trilogy shows the continued navigation that a couple must face as they continue to age and fight the inevitable growing apart that eveyr couple endures. 
18. "Museum Hours"--A charming tale of the sort of romance between a Dutch museum guard and an American tourist.
19. "Short Term 12"--The lead male character irritated me as the writer-director's own self-idealization, but Brie Larson's complex performance makes up for some of the problems in character delineations.

A word about "American Hustle:" I am in full Russell backlash mode, much like last year with "Silver Linings Playbook," or "The Figher," two years before that. Each time I have fallen for the hype, convinced I will view a vital, even necessary, piece of American cinema. For the first thirty minutes of a Russell movie, I believe that this time he has pulled it off, this will be his masterwork, but, inevitably, by the end I am confused, irritated and convinced that Russell has failed me yet again. No different with "American Hustle." Here we have two great actresses at the top of their game and the only brief scene they are given is to argue over a fat, bald Christian Bale. It was a failure of the Bechdel test at its most epic level. So much that was set up in the first act went nowhere: why was everyone contributing voiceover narration, only to vanish by minute 45; the only moment of tension dissipates over a rather comedic set piece. I did, however, love the wigs, thus I am surprised that it failed to get a nomination for makeup and hair.

All in all, this year gave us a crowded field. There are certainly ten performances in each of the leading acting characters that deserved nominations. A powerful set of films on the long list for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film. We will be catching up with our Netflix queues for several months.