Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Summer 2017 movie preview

With Memorial Day come and gone, it’s time for the summer movie season to start ramping up in earnest, notwithstanding the odd “Guardians of the Galaxy” here or new “Alien” movie there. At first glance, this summer looks like more of the same old, same old: superhero flicks, franchise reboots, and franchise sequels nobody asked for. But look a little closer and there’s a lot to be excited about, including several films centered on strong female protagonists—at least five of which were also directed or co-directed by women. That shouldn’t be remarkable in this day and age, but it is. Here’s hoping that the films are also good - and almost more importantly, successful - so we can have more like them.

In order of release date, these are the ten movies I’m most looking forward to this summer:

How has it taken this long to make a Wonder Woman movie? Fortunately, early buzz suggests it was worth the wait, with newcomer Gal Gadot fulfilling the promising spark she showed in the otherwise-deadly-dull “Batman vs. Superman” as the Amazonian princess turned savior of humanity. Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) directs, and Chris Pine co-stars as Diana’s guide to WWI-era Europe (and, I assume, her love interest).

Based on a true story of a female Marine who finds a comrade for life in a military working dog named Rex, this movie seems perfectly poised to tug hard on the heartstrings. But who can resist a loyal dog who literally saves lives on the battlefield? In any event, there’s good reason to hope the movie won’t overindulge in cheap sentiment with Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who also directed the documentary “Blackfish,” at the helm.

This fever-dream of a tale about a wounded Union soldier who’s taken in by a girls’ boarding school in the Deep South, only to wreak hormonal havoc (and eventual violence) among his caretakers, was already previously made into a movie over 45 years ago, starring Clint Eastwood in his prime. Nonetheless, something inspired Sofia Coppola to take her own crack at it, and her efforts have been rewarded with a best director prize at Cannes. The film stars Nicole Kidman as the school’s headmistress, Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst as a teacher, and Elle Fanning as one of the smitten pupils, with Colin Farrell taking the soldier’s role originally played by Eastwood.

From the trailers, the film looks less like a riff on the Scottish play and more like a cross between Madame Bovary and Wuthering Heights. Adapted from a Russian novel by Nikolai Leskov, it centers on a young, unhappily married woman in 19th century England who finds forbidden love and, through it, a terrifying kind of agency. It was well received at the Toronto International Film Festival and, despite its period-piece trappings, looks like a timely expression of modern feminist rage.

DUNKIRK (July 21)
Christopher Nolan tries his hand at WWII drama in depicting the Miracle of Dunkirk, in which hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, hemmed in by the German army, against steep odds were safely evacuated from the French coast. Shot in IMAX and featuring a top-notch cast that includes Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy, this will probably be the major prestige release of the summer.

Charlize Theron as a (literally) kick-ass spy in post-Cold War Berlin? With action sequences directed by one of the stuntmen-turned-directors behind “John Wick”? Yes, please. Based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, the movie received a rapturous response at SXSW earlier this year and by all accounts will be exactly the shot of pure cinematic adrenalin we need to wake us up from the midsummer doldrums.

DETROIT (Aug. 4)
Gotta hand it to Kathryn Bigelow: she does not shy away from fraught and sensitive historical subjects in her choice of movie material. Her follow-up to “Zero Dark Thirty” focuses on the 1967 Detroit riots—specifically, the Algiers Motel incident—and, if she stays true to form, will probably be grim, tense, and tautly paced but tonally restrained, and will likely eschew easy black-and-white moral politics (no pun intended). It will likely also be, despite or perhaps because of those qualities, must-see viewing.

Taylor Sheridan, acclaimed screenwriter of “Sicario” and last year’s “Hell or High Water,” makes his directorial debut with a crime thriller starring Jeremy Renner as a Fish & Wildlife Service agent who discovers the dead body of an American Indian girl and Elizabeth Olsen as the FBI agent who’s called in to investigate her murder. The film screened earlier this year at Sundance and in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, where it won a director prize for Sheridan. It’s being distributed by the Weinstein Company, which could portend either very good or very bad things for its Oscar potential.

No, I haven’t read any of the books, so I’ve got no axe to grind or fears to be allayed. Even if the movie can’t possibly do justice to the sprawling Stephen King series, I’m willing to take my chances on a futuristic, science-fantasy/Western-noir mash-up starring Idris Elba as a post-apocalyptic Childe Roland and Matthew McConaughey as his relentless pursuer, the Man in Black. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel (“A Royal Affair”).

Young Russian ballet dancer falls in love and follows the object of her desire to France, where the pair join a modern dance company headed by Juliette Binoche. Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, this premise might not sound particularly summer-movie-ish, but there's nothing like a bit of Juliette Binoche to act as a classy antidote to all the bang, boom, and popcorn grease. (Also, I admit I’m a total sucker for dance movies - the good, the bad, and the ugly.)

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Oscar predix 2017

While 2016 was a very good year for movies, it's yielded a somewhat dull Oscars season - which is to say, the main debate has been about whether LA LA LAND will sweep and whether its dominance would be a travesty or toast-worthy. But if you look a little closer, there are, as always, some very tight races and others that seem completely up for grabs. And hanging over them all is the question of whether recent political undercurrents will push outcomes that hang by a thread in one direction or another. One thing's for sure: even if the results remain unaffected by our larger national politics, we can expect the ceremony itself to be more politically charged than usual. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, here are my predictions for the major categories:


Will win: La La Land

Should win: Moonlight

Dark horse: I really don't see La La Land not winning; the rest seem to have about equal chances of an upset (i.e., extremely low) - except for Fences, which has zero chance.


Will win: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Should win: Either Chazelle or Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. Moonlight is the better film of the two (although I loved both), but there's something about Chazelle's passion for his project and the difficulty of pulling off a modern-day musical that can't be denied.

Dark horse: Again, this is Chazelle's to lose. Even in the highly unlikely event that La La Land loses the big prize, I still think he gets this one.


Will win: Emma Stone, La La Land

Should win: It's a strong group, but none of them. This should have been Annette Bening's. Despite not even being nominated, her performance in 20th Century Women was one for the ages.

Dark horse: Again, I don't really see one, though Isabelle Huppert (Elle) is the closest thing to a threat.


Will win: Our first real toss-up! At post time, I'm gonna go with Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea over Denzel Washington for Fences. But this one could go either way.

Should win: Denzel. It's a big, theatrical performance, but that's also the essence of the character. Which is not to say Casey Affleck wouldn't be a worthy winner; he fully captures the pain of someone who's been completely emotionally gutted yet still nurses a core of intense pain and guilt that he can never dislodge.

Dark horse: Ryan Gosling, if La La Land really sweeps. But I'm not feelin' it. It's either going to be Casey or Denzel.


Will win: Viola Davis, Fences

Should win: Viola Davis, if you look past the fact that this is really more of a lead performance, not supporting. Although here is my best attempt at playing devil's advocate on that point.

Dark horse: None - this one's a lock


Will win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Should win: Ali - a tremendous presence, despite being in only a third of the film.

Dark horse: Dev Patel, who's excellent in Lion (although, again, his is more of a lead performance; or at least a co-lead with Sunny Pawar, who plays his character as a little boy)


Will win: Manchester by the Sea

Should win: The Lobster

Dark horse: La La Land, if it sweeps


Will win: Moonlight

Should win: Moonlight

Dark horse: Arrival, which for the most part very deftly adapts a seemingly unfilmable story.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Top Ten Movies of 2016

One of the few silver linings to an otherwise utterly wretched 2016 was the remarkable quality and variety of its movies. Even as we cringed at a presidential race that deteriorated from circus to nightmare, witnessed countries around the world succumbing to their basest us-vs-them instincts, watched helplessly as fascist regimes tightened their chokeholds on power, and mourned a seemingly endless parade of deaths of humankind's best and brightest, there was nearly always solace and temporary escape to be found at the movies. But as I reflect on the movies that made the strongest impression on me, I’m struck by how divided they are between movies brimming with the warmth and joy of human connection and movies that were unsparingly harsh in their view of humanity. (Tellingly, my #1 movie managed to be both.) Perhaps this whiplash says something about the state of my own mind and my extremely conflicted feelings about my fellow humans. But it in no way detracts from my love for these films.


Young black boy grows up introverted, gay, poor, and bullied, with few friends and a crack-addicted single mom – sounds like a recipe for misery, doesn’t it? But while there’s certainly great pain in “Moonlight,” there’s also great beauty and tenderness that acts as a much-needed salve for the pain. As much as it’s about loneliness and alienation, it’s more fundamentally about the universal hunger for love and affection, for the feeling that one belongs, that one's seen by and matters to someone else. Director Barry Jenkins manages to combine the structural formality of a three-act play with a cinematic richness and an emotional intimacy that resonates on both big screens and small.


Everything you’ve heard about it is true. An extraordinary labor of love by wunderkund writer-director Damien Chazelle, it’s a brilliantly-hued paean to Los Angeles, to old-school jazz (what else would you expect from the guy behind “Whiplash”?), and to the grand tradition of movie-musicals, from “Singin’ in the Rain” to Jacques Demy. So if you have affection for any of these things—or for Emma Stone and/or Ryan Gosling, who are both at their most beguiling here—you’ll enjoy the movie as much as I did. Yes, it arguably borrows more than it creates; no, the love story isn’t particularly original; and no, it doesn’t have quite the depth of “Moonlight” or some of the other films on this list. But damned if it isn’t the one that feels most like a treat. By turns exuberant and wistful, with a core of delicate melancholy beneath its candy-colored surface, it lingers like a ghostly chord or a bittersweet memory of a love long past.


Mike Mills’ answer to “All About My Mother” is less a coming-of-age tale than a snapshot of a specific place and moment (SoCal in the 1970s) and the most formative, mostly female figures in an adolescent boy’s life at that moment. It’s boosted by terrific acting across the board by Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, but the crown jewel is Annette Bening’s marvelous, beautifully layered performance as the complex, memorable, yet ultimately elusive woman at their center. Loose and largely plotless in structure, warm without being sentimental, and funny without trying to be witty, this is a movie that may not hit you right out of the gate but stays with you long after seeing it.


There’s a reason the most unexpected sleeper hit of last summer is still generating buzz months later, at the height of Oscar season. A brisk, sharp drama about two Texas brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, both excellent) who for highly specific reasons engage in a highly strategic, even surgical series of bank robberies, it’s also an engaging character study of both the brothers and the two marshals who doggedly pursue them (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, also excellent), a critical commentary on the socio-economic circumstances that created them, and an understated yet evocative portrait of a broader society in silent decline. As such, the film feels simultaneously like a throwback and a product of the current moment – timely and timeless. It also benefits from a tight, well-paced script that expertly balances tension and humor. There’s not an ounce of fat in the narrative, not a line that feels extraneous or a beat that feels out of place. Rarely does a Hollywood movie deliver so effectively on the old adage “less is more.”


This is a movie that’s guaranteed to make you squirm. (Though it’s almost cuddly compared to director Yorgos Lanthimos’ even weirder and more unnerving “Dogtooth.”) With its bleakly antiseptic yet surreal vision of a society in which every human must, upon losing a mate, find a new one within a short prescribed stay at a “resort” full of fellow newly single guests or be turned into an animal—or else hide in the wilderness with a band of outcasts for whom love is verboten—it’s hard to tell if the film is satire, allegory, science fiction, all or none of the above. Not that it matters. What does matter is the absurdist mirror it holds up to our own society’s rituals and mores governing love, partnership, and lack thereof, and the revelation that they aren’t any less arbitrary than those of the bizarre alternate reality on the screen before us. Assisted by the wonderfully deadpan affect of a stellar cast that includes Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw, and John C. Reilly, the film’s detachment is sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious, sometimes both, but never less than brilliant.


If “The Lobster” is guaranteed to make you squirm, here’s a delightful little pick-me-up that’s guaranteed to make you smile. While “La La Land” has been getting all the buzz for making musical movies hip again, John Carney (“Once,” “Begin Again”) has already been doing that for years now in his own low-key but just as charming way. “Sing Street,” Carney’s best yet, is at once a poignant nod to his less-than-idyllic youth in ’80s Dublin and a buoyant love letter to the music of that era. Here, that music provides the hook – in all senses – for an adolescent boy to court the girl of his dreams, and it’s both a hoot and a joy to watch the boy and his self-starter band cycle through seemingly every musical trend of that period. Sure, the band is way too talented and polished to be entirely believable, but that’s an easy flaw to forgive when the results are so pleasing.


I went into this film expecting to hate it, and came out of it a little stunned and unsure what I thought of it…except that I knew I didn’t hate it. Now, with reflection, I think it’s the boldest, most gripping movie I saw last year. It's controversial for a reason; I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone who’s been a victim of sexual assault, and I have qualms about how its subversive take on the subject might be (mis)interpreted by some viewers. But for everyone else, there’s a bottomless mine of fascinating material beneath the smooth-as-silk direction of Paul Verhoeven, who's no stranger to controversy and knows how to make it an asset rather than a liability. French screen legend Isabelle Huppert takes no prisoners as Michelle, the coolly stylish, quietly ball-busting female executive whom nothing seems to faze – not even the brutal rape that sets off the narrative and is replayed several times throughout the film. Those scenes are not for the faint of heart, but neither do they feel gratuitous or exploitative. What’s almost more disturbing is Michelle’s reaction: without giving too much away, let's just say she throws the usual script for a rape victim completely out the window. And although she eventually gets her revenge, you may not like how she gets there or what it reveals about her character. But you can’t deny the provocative power of her journey.


There’s good acting, there’s great acting, and there’s acting that sends chills up your spine. If you want to know what that last one feels like, go see “Fences” immediately. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their Tony-winning roles from August Wilson’s classic play about a black garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh who’s never quite able to shake off a lifetime of resentment over his unfulfilled dreams. While Denzel completely and convincingly inhabits the central role of Troy Maxson, a man at once larger than life and shrunken by disappointment, Viola steals the show as Troy’s wife Rose, who goes from quietly supporting to towering over him, and it’s a sight to behold. A small supporting cast rounds out this master class in acting—Stephen Henderson is a particular standout as Troy’s friend Bono, but they’re all superb. Denzel, who also directs, remains rigorously faithful to Wilson’s text; from the extended monologues to the circumscribed physical settings, you never forget you’re watching a play. But in a way, that’s a strength rather than a weakness; with a script and performances this powerful, you don’t need any stylistic distractions.


Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s greatest strength has always been his ability to probe compassionately into the messy, complicated mix of feelings underpinning the ties that bind, and to translate that insight into dialogue that sounds like actual human conversation. That ability’s on full display here in this literally and figuratively wintry New England tale of a man (Casey Affleck) who’s just barely going through the motions of living after suffering an unspeakable tragedy, only to return to the scene of that tragedy when he’s unexpectedly appointed guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges). The film’s anchored by strong, lived-in performances and graced by comic notes that offset the deep underlying sadness of the story and underscore the quiet absurdity of the characters’ everyday, mundane lives. (If Lonergan, who’s also a playwright, has a dramatic forefather, it’s gotta be Chekhov.) The movie’s not perfect: though not nearly as baggy as “Margaret,” it feels like it could be tightened up a bit, as Casey Affleck’s protagonist goes through perhaps one self-destructive cycle too many without the benefit of a true catharsis. That’s par for the course for Lonergan, though; he doesn’t really do tidy emotional closures, no doubt because life so seldom provides them.


An admittedly odd pairing that exemplifies the “warm/cold” divide of the movies I rated most highly in 2016. On the one hand, you’ve got Richard Linklater’s relaxed, indulgent, typically Linklater-ish sketch of a group of male college freshmen jocks just beginning to learn to navigate their new world: sure, they’re a bunch of idiots, constantly horny and constantly trying to prank and one-up each other, yet there’s something at once funny and innocent about their ritualistic male bonding-through-rivalry that makes them endlessly watchable - even if you wonder about the darker side of their id that Linklater always seems so loath to show. At the opposite extreme, tonally and thematically, you have a gorgeous yet severe psychological close-up of one of the most famous women in the world at her lowest point, seeking to assert control over her husband’s legacy and her own image in the immediate aftermath of his assassination. Director Pablo Larrain brings an outsider’s eye to the mythos of Camelot and its carefully constructed nature; perhaps for that reason, despite the lush cinematography, “Jackie” feels deliberately distant, its mood at once elegiacally hushed and rife with undercurrents of tension that seem to throb in time to the chilly, unsettling score. What gives the film its animating force is Natalie Portman, who despite looking nothing like Jackie commits admirably to the role, conveying both the fragility of her patrician veneer and the fierce, desperate resolve just underneath.

Honorable Mentions:
Arrival, The Fits, Paterson, The Handmaiden, American Honey, Aquarius

...and really many others could've made this list, but I had to stop somewhere.

Caveat: I have not seen SILENCE, THE SALESMAN, KRISHA, HACKSAW RIDGE or (shamefully) *any* documentaries from 2016.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Summer 2016 movie roundup / Fall 2016 movie preview

Another summer come and gone, and if you didn’t see a single movie in theaters during that time, you didn’t miss much. Hollywood turned in a lackluster showing this season, both creatively and financially, yet still—heavy sigh—made enough money off its most underwhelming superhero properties to ensure plenty more of the same. I love a good superhero flick as much as the next person, but I’m sure I’m far from the only moviegoer who would really like to see studios develop ideas for their summer lineup that don’t depend on raiding back issues of Marvel and DC Comics.

Caveat: I didn’t see any kids’ movies, which by all accounts were some of the summer’s best offerings, even though I wanted & still want to see “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “The Little Prince,” and the “Pete’s Dragon” remake.

Best movie I saw this summer: HELL OR HIGH WATER, by a country mile. This little Western-that-could, about a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) and the Texas marshals (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) who pursue them, may be modest in ambition and not particularly original in concept, but it’s so well executed you hardly notice. From the pacing to the directing to the acting to the seamless modulation between humor and suspense, there’s not a single element that feels superfluous or out of place; this movie is tight as a drum.

Worst movie I saw this summer: SUICIDE SQUAD. The nicest thing I can say about it is it wasn’t as terrible as I expected it to be. Which doesn’t mean it was any good. Sadly, based on its boffo box office, we have almost certainly not seen the last of this franchise.

Best performance in a summer movie: Viggo Mortensen in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. Movie was gently engaging even if it too often went for the most obvious beats, but it was Viggo’s lovely, subtly shaded turn as the would-be-raiser of young philosopher-kings that held the whole thing together. Deserves Oscar consideration, though probably won't get it.

And now, for the season we’ve all really been waiting for!

I’ve already kicked off the fall by seeing THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by M.L. Stedman, starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz – aka three of the most gorgeous people to grace the big screen today. Visually, the film matches their beauty, and is something of a throwback – a weepie that seems to be going for a sweeping English Patient cinematic vibe but doesn’t quite get there. Nonetheless, it’s a well-made film that’s clearly aimed at a grown-up audience (rather refreshing after a summer dominated by juvenilia), and features a luminous pair of performances from Fassbender and Vikander, who became a real-life couple while making the movie.

With that one behind me, here are the ten other films I’m most anticipating this fall, in order of release date:

Guess we’re about due for another Disney-produced “based on a true story” sports tale of an underdog who against all odds becomes a champ. In this case, however, the sport is chess, the underdog is a young girl from Uganda whose mother and teacher are played by the very gifted Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, respectively, and the movie’s director is Mira Nair (“Salaam Bombay,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake”). Any one of those factors would have piqued my interest; the combination has my full attention.

To be honest, I didn’t love the book (I much preferred Gone Girl) and am skeptical about the casting of Emily Blunt, who’s fantastic but to my mind far too attractive and strong a presence to play the dumpy, self-hating protagonist. Still, I admit I’m curious to see if she can pull it off.

As an Asian American, am I irritated at the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One? Yes. But as a movie lover, I can’t ever be truly mad about casting Tilda Swinton in anything. And even as I bemoan the current glut of superhero movies, I admit I find the character of Doctor Strange more interesting than most of his Marvel brethren, especially when he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch and facing off against Mads Mikkelsen, who makes all movies better. (Also, I generally tend to be much more receptive to new movie superheroes than returning ones.)

ARRIVAL (Nov. 11)
I’m not all that excited by the trailer, but I am intrigued by everything else about this movie’s pedigree: the sci-fi story, Amy Adams as lead, and a director (Denis Villeneuve, of “Sicario,” “Prisoners,” and “Incendies” fame) who really knows how to ratchet up the suspense.

Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me,” “Margaret”) directs another movie about familial bonds, the kind that may strain and fray but somehow never completely break, and sometimes knit closer together. I am so there. Plus any movie with both Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler (albeit in small roles) already has two things going for it. The real star, though, appears to be Casey Affleck’s lead performance.

Haute couture royalty Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) returns to directing with what looks like a riveting and polished thriller-within-a-thriller about a writer (Jake Gyllenhaal) who may or may not be threatening his ex (Amy Adams) by writing a murder mystery that seems to be about them. Also, if you’re one of those unfortunate people who can’t tell Amy Adams and Isla Fisher apart, then this is the movie for you.

ALLIED (Nov. 23)
WWII film starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as an exquisitely dressed couple who might be spying for opposite sides in the war? Also starring Lizzy Caplan and Matthew Goode? Yes, please. This movie looks to give The Light Between Oceans a run for its money for Prettiest Cast Who Can Also Actually Act.

LA LA LAND (Dec. 2)
This recently replaced “Manchester by the Sea” as my #1 most anticipated film of the year. How could it not? It’s an original musical romance by Damien Chazelle, the writer-director of “Whiplash,” one of my favorite movies of 2014, is set in Los Angeles (city of my heart), stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and if the early teaser trailers and reviews from the Venice Film Festival are to be believed, looks and feels like a dream—the kind of dream you don’t want to wake up from. I only wish I didn’t have to wait till December to see it.

ROGUE ONE (Dec. 16)
At this point, I think I prefer the idea of a sub-narrative that takes place within the known Star Wars universe to movies that purport to expand the universe but really just recycle old canon narratives. (Sorry, “Force Awakens” fans.) Also, I like Felicity Jones. And see previous note re: Mads Mikkelsen.

I didn’t love Mike Mills’ “Beginners” as much as most people, but I did appreciate that it came from the heart and appealed directly to that core in all of us that’s just looking to connect with someone. And it’s hard to imagine him going wrong with a female-centric film that stars Annette Bening and Elle Fanning. (It’s true Greta Gerwig usually rubs me the wrong way, but I will try to give her the benefit of the doubt.)


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Oscars predix 2016

The Oscars race has been surprisingly quiet this year - I say surprisingly because it's one of those rare years where there isn't a clear favorite for best picture. In fact, there aren't just two but *three* bona fide contenders that could reasonably take home the top prize, which, if not unprecedented, is certainly pretty damn rare. That should make for an exciting match-up, no?

Thing is, though, that three-way race hasn't really changed much since the nominations were announced. There hasn't been backlash against any of the three front-runners, nor has any one of them gained significant momentum over the other two. We're pretty much back where we were in January, when it seemed like THE REVENANT was the one to beat, with THE BIG SHORT still holding a legit chance of an upset, and early leader SPOTLIGHT fading but still not out of the running. Meanwhile, the acting races have basically been locked up for the past month, except perhaps for supporting actress. Still, as always, we live in hopes that the Academy will surprise us.

Assuming they don't, here are my predictions for the major awards:


Nominees: The Revenant, The Big Short, Spotlight, Mad Max: Fury Road, Brooklyn, Room, Bridge of Spies, The Martian

Will win: The Revenant

Should win: Spotlight

Dark horse: The Big Short


Nominees: Alejandro González Iñarritu, The Revenant; George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road; Adam McKay, The Big Short; Tom McCarthy, Spotlight; Lenny Abrahamson, Room

Will win: Iñarritu, The Revenant

Should win: McCarthy, Spotlight

Dark horse: Miller, Mad Max


Nominees: Leonardo di Caprio, The Revenant; Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs; Matt Damon, The Martian; Bryan Cranston, Trumbo; Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Will win: Leo. Duh.

Should win: Fassbender, who totally sold Jobs despite looking nothing like the man

Dark horse: None. I will eat raw bison liver if Leo doesn't get this.


Nominees: Brie Larson, Room; Cate Blanchett, Carol; Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn; Jennifer Lawrence, Joy; Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Will win: Brie Larson

Should win: I love Brie and she's fantastic in Room, but I gotta give this to Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years. She did more with her eyes than most actors do with their entire bodies. Too bad she had to ruin her chances by making tonedeaf comments on the "#Oscarssowhite" controversy. (And mind you, I have my own issues with #Oscarssowhite, but *I'm* not up for an Oscar!)

Dark horse: None. I just don't see any of the others getting past Brie, not even the great Cate.


Nominees: Sylvester Stallone, Creed; Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies; Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight; Christian Bale, The Big Short; Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Will win: Stallone

Should win: Stallone

Dark horse: Almost any of the other nominees have a shot - but I really think Stallone has this one in the bag.


Nominees: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl; Rooney Mara, Carol; Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs; Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight; Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Will win: Vikander - Oscar loves a fresh new face for supporting actress, and 2015 was a breakout year for her.

Should win: Winslet

Dark horse: Winslet

N.B: This category was tarnished by not one but two of the nominees (Vikander and Mara) being put up for supporting actress, even though they're clearly co-LEADS of their respective movies, because the studios backing them thought they'd have a better shot at getting nominated in supporting (and in the case of Carol, probably didn't want Mara and Blanchett drawing votes from each other). They proved right. They shouldn't have! Don't get me wrong, both Vikander and Mara were great; but their nominations only pushed out true supporting performances that would have been worthy, e.g., Elizabeth Banks in Love and Mercy; Sarah Paulson in Carol.


Nominees: Spotlight, Inside Out, Ex Machina, Bridge of Spies, Straight Outta Compton

Will win: Spotlight

Should win: Spotlight

Dark horse: Inside Out


Nominees: The Big Short, Room, Brooklyn, Carol, The Martian

Will win: The Big Short

Should win: Room

Dark horse: Maybe Room, but again, I am 99.9% confident that The Big Short has this.

And that's it for me! Tune in tomorrow night to ABC to see whether a man fighting off bears and snowy wilderness trumps investigative journalists and Margot Robbie in a bathtub. My money's on the bear, but despite that, I'm rooting for the journalists. They had a far more interesting story to tell.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Top Ten Movies of 2015

2015 may largely be remembered by most moviegoers as the year that dinosaurs and Jedi tore up the box office, and the Academy got shamed for its all-white slate of Oscar nominees. But strip away the nostalgia and controversy, and what you have is a very solid year for film. Generally, my favorite films fell into one of two categories: they were either steadily engaging, intelligently made, and well-acted, with no obvious fumbles or missteps, or they were flawed, but had moments of such beauty or emotional transcendence that they more than made up for the weak spots. Having these two categories also made it even more difficult than usual to rank my choices; does being consistently good trump being sporadically great, or vice versa? So with the caveat that the order could have been entirely different if I’d made this list a month earlier, or a month from now, here are my top ten films of 2015:


I saw this film before I saw most of the others on my list, yet it’s quietly maintained its place at the top. I’m a sucker for films about journalism and films with strong ensembles (the two often go together, of course), and “Spotlight” is an excellent example of both. It carries obvious echoes of “All the President’s Men” in its no-fuss, no-flash, yet utterly engrossing account of how a small team of investigative Boston Globe reporters methodically unraveled the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of its priests’ sexual abuse of children. But it’s also a fascinating study of the power of institutions and what happens when two long-established, amicably coexisting institutions come into direct conflict—and the different dynamics of being an insider, an outsider, or somewhere in between.


I had doubts that the novel Room could be successfully transferred to the screen, even if author Emma Donoghue was writing the screenplay. After all, it’s narrated from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who’s lived his entire life in a small room with only his mother for company, and doesn’t yet grasp the larger reality beyond those four walls; how could that possibly be translated into film? Quite wonderfully, as it turns out, thanks in large part to the stellar performances of Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay—but also to Lenny Abrahamson’s sensitive direction, which manages to make the boy’s gradually expanding view of the world our own.


It may technically be about a master martial artist, but don’t see it for the fights, as they are not the focus of Hou Hsaio Hsien’s intensely idiosyncratic foray into wuxia. It’s breathtaking in a different way, creating an immersive poetry of motion, color, and sound that seems to hail from a different world. True, Hou’s complete lack of interest in providing narrative context can sometimes make it difficult to follow some of the plot threads or understand the precise nature of the relationships between the various characters, but in the end those details don’t really matter much. The film’s best viewed as a kind of cinematic ballet depicting an evolving moral consciousness against a backdrop of corruption and chaos.

4. 45 YEARS

This is the kind of outwardly unassuming film that gets under your skin the more you ponder the questions it raises. On the most basic level, it’s a psychological study of a woman’s reaction to the revelation that there’s a crucial part of her husband’s past she’s never known about, despite being happily married to him for over four decades. Does that sound like the setup for a horror movie? Well, it is and it isn’t. No, the husband doesn’t turn out to be a serial killer or an alien, nor does the wife start seeing any literal ghosts. But nonetheless, on its deepest level this is a ghost story, or rather, the story of a woman who realizes her entire marriage has been a ghost story—only she didn’t know it. Lots of subtle, spot-on directorial choices that contribute to the film’s haunting quality confirm that director Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”) is one to watch, while Charlotte Rampling is, in a word, stunning as the woman whose placid sense of self slowly dissolves as she delves deeper into her husband’s secrets.


The visual pleasures alone make “Carol” worth seeing: every frame is so exquisitely composed it could be a work of art in and of itself. The acting, too, is exquisite, balancing Rooney Mara’s blank slate, to be gradually filled in over the course of the movie, against Cate Blanchett’s polished woman of the world, her affect so mannered it seems artificial until you realize it’s a mask (or rather, an armor), and rounded out by poignant supporting turns from Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson as Carol’s husband and best friend, respectively. In the end, it didn’t quite land the emotional gut-punch of Todd Haynes’ other ’50s drama, “Far From My Heaven,” but it’s still the kind of film that leaves images, scenes, and expressions burned permanently into your brain.


It’s a pity the public decided it had no interest in seeing more movies about Steve Jobs, because this is really the one they should have seen. As scripted by Aaron Sorkin, it crackles with energy and sharp, entertaining, but highly economical dialogue that trims back the Sorkin bon mots in favor of sketching vivid characters with minimal exposition or background. Steve Jobs thus emerges quickly as a selfish if brilliant asshole, yes, but just as quickly offers hints of a more complicated man with conflicting traits and desires, while the small cast of key supporting characters reveal their equally complicated feelings about this man who would alternately inspire, exasperate, and disappoint them. Because the film’s structured around three product launches, it has the tight structure and hermetic setting of a three-act play, but the performances on which it turns are very much built for the big screen. Among a gifted ensemble, Michael Fassbender appropriately stands out as the sun around which the rest revolve. Despite looking nothing like Jobs, he makes you believe in the man’s genius as well as his peculiar admixture of cruelty, kindness, insecurity, and self-confidence.


Who would have thought a reboot of the “Rocky” franchise would end up being one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year? Rising young director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, who previously worked together on the terrific “Fruitvale Station” (2013), score again with this rousing tale of Apollo Creed’s out-of-wedlock son, Adonis, who wants to live up to his father’s name and seeks out none other than Rocky Balboa to help him do it. The film should feel tired and formulaic, but instead shows why and how the formula works: Jordan is believably young, driven, and just a little unsure beneath his veneer of bravado; the fight scenes are fantastically shot to maximize suspense with each round; even the stock part of the love interest (Tessa Thompson) is given unusual depth and nuance; and of course, the ace in Coogler’s back pocket is Sylvester Stallone, who delivers such a warmly appealing performance as Adonis’ trainer and mentor, it’s easy to see why he’s become this year’s odds-on Oscar favorite for best supporting actor. You may not be surprised at any of the turns the story takes, but you’ll still draw in your breath and pump your fist as if you’d never seen a boxing movie before.


Another bittersweet meditation on aging, mortality, and art from the still relatively young Paolo Sorrentino, yet somehow its elegiac tone never rings false. While the narrative can feel a bit disjointed, as it tends to treat subplots as little more than vehicles for striking images, it’s anchored by the quietly melancholy performance of Michael Caine as a famous composer in his twilight years. Not as good as “The Great Beauty,” but like that film, seamlessly combines gorgeous cinematography and music for a ravishing sensory experience even as it elicits sober reflection on what constitutes a life well spent.


A lovely adaptation of the Thomas Hardy classic that fully captures the pastoral beauty of the setting and the romantic melodrama that envelops the (mostly) willfully misguided characters. Carey Mulligan is fetching and sympathetic as a Bathsheba who comes across less as the headstrong creature of caprice of the book and more of an intelligent free spirit who hasn’t quite figured out what she wants. Matthias Schoenaerts is appropriately swoon-worthy yet dependable as the moral fulcrum of the story, the aptly named Gabriel Oak, while Michael Sheen cuts a quietly tragic presence as the ill-fated William Boldwood. Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but a very pleasing, old-fashioned romance.


Shot on an iPhone, but you wouldn’t know it from the vivid hues and fluid camerawork in this fast-moving, high-energy jaunt through a particularly eventful day in the life of two transgender sex workers on the streets of Hollywood. Builds to a masterfully orchestrated comic climax that’s as hilarious as it is cacophonous, yet the scenes you’ll remember most are the quiet ones: a sad yet sublime Christmas Eve solo performance in an empty bar and the final shot of the two main characters in a laundromat, silently reaffirming their friendship.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Phoenix; Seymour: An Introduction; Bridge of Spies; Sicario; Amy; Inside Out; Clouds of Sils Maria; I’ll See You in My Dreams; Joy; The Big Short; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; The Martian; Love & Mercy; Ex Machina; Chi-Raq

HAVE NOT SEEN: Anomalisa; Mustang; Victoria; The Look of Silence; Diary of a Teenage Girl; Beasts of No Nation; Straight Outta Compton

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Fall 2015 Movie Preview

The end of summer snuck up on me in a big way, mainly because I’ve been completely swamped at work. The only movie I saw in a theater in the entire month of August was “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” which proved to be a breezy and pleasant surprise - worth catching if you’re in the mood for Bond lite. Not that there was much I regret missing: August is usually something of a doldrums period, as Hollywood catches its breath from blockbuster season before launching into prime time for more cerebral films, prestige projects, and Oscar contenders. This August proved to be the rule rather than the exception, the only notable movie event being the huge success of “Straight Outta Compton.” (Between that and the juggernaut of “Jurassic World,” this summer seems to have been the summer where ’90s nostalgia ruled supreme.)

But it’s past Labor Day now, and the Telluride and Toronto film festivals have come and gone, meaning the fall movie season has officially begun. Here are the ten films I’m most looking forward to this fall, in order of release date:

1. SICARIO (already in limited release)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin

Blunt plays an FBI agent who joins an anti-drug cartel operation only to discover that the motives of her new cohorts may not be all they seem. I smell corruption, betrayal, and despair! But seriously, you gotta at least admit the talent is suited to the material: Villeneuve (“Incendies,” “Prisoners”) knows his way around dark, morally twisted films, and we’ve seen how well Blunt can play tough without sacrificing a whit of femininity (“Edge of Tomorrow”). And who better to play dudes of shifty moral sensibilities than del Toro and Brolin?

2. THE MARTIAN (Oct. 2)
Directed by Ridley Scott; starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristin Wiig

Although it’s based on a bestselling sci-fi novel about an astronaut who’s mistakenly left for dead on Mars, the premise of “The Martian” can’t help feeling a little like a retooling of Matt Damon’s character arc on “Interstellar”—one in which he presumably doesn’t go crazy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and Damon can do stoic and resourceful as well as, if not better than, he can do crazy. The real draw here, though, is Ridley Scott. Has he finally brought us the riveting space adventure we’ve been waiting for since, well, “Alien,” and that he failed to deliver in “Prometheus”? Glowing early reviews suggest he has, and then some.

3. STEVE JOBS (Oct. 9)
Directed by Danny Boyle; starring Michael Fassbender, Jeff Daniels, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook

Yes, this story’s been told before in multiple iterations (most recently, the documentary “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”). No, Michael Fassbender looks nothing like Steve Jobs. But he’s really good at playing compelling assholes, and Aaron Sorkin is almost as good at writing them. I’m sold.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES (Oct. 16)
Directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda

The Cold War is hot right now, both on the world stage (thanks, Putin!) and in entertainment (if you aren’t watching FX’s “The Americans,” get it on Amazon Prime stat). So it’s as good a time as any for this film about a historical 1960s incident in which a U.S. spy plane was shot down by the Soviet Union and the pilot released as part of a prisoner exchange for a Soviet spy. If anything, I’m surprised the film is so under the radar right now, given the involvement of Spielberg and Hanks – hope it’s not a sign of quality issues. Hanks plays the lawyer who negotiates the exchange; Rylance plays the Soviet spy.

5. ROOM (Oct. 16)
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; starring Brie Larson, Joan Allen, William H. Macy; based on the novel by Emma Donoghue

I liked the book a lot more than I expected – an initially harrowing, ultimately thought-provoking read about a boy who’s spent his entire life imprisoned in a tiny shed with his young mother, until the latter begins to plot their escape. While I wasn’t sure how well it would translate to film, I’m encouraged by positive early reviews from the Toronto Film Festival, including a rave from a highly trusted source. By all accounts, and to the surprise of no one who’s seen “Short Term 12” (a woefully smaller number than it should be – definitely see it if you haven’t!), Larson – one of the best actresses 25 & under working today – knocks a difficult role out of the park. The rest of the casting is a plus too, and I quite enjoyed the director Abrahamson’s previous feature, the quirky but unexpectedly poignant “Frank.”

6. SUFFRAGETTE (Oct. 23)
Directed by Sarah Gavron; starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Romola Garai, Meryl Streep

If you share my peculiarities, you may be tempted to break into a chorus of “Sister Suffragette” from “Mary Poppins” every time this movie is mentioned. But this is a very different, much more earnest treatment of the women’s suffrage movement in turn of the century Britain. Possibly too earnest, if early reviews are any indicator. Still, as a woman and a fan of Carey Mulligan (reportedly excellent as the chief protagonist), I can’t not see a film about the history of women’s rights that’s directed, produced, and written by women. There are sadly too few of those to let this one pass by.

7. CAROL (Nov. 20)
Directed by Todd Haynes; starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler

Based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (of Ripley and Strangers on a Train fame) about a lesbian romance in 1950s New York, this film won raves for both Blanchett and Mara at Cannes, with the latter nabbing a surprise best actress win. Performances aside, the themes of gender and sexuality, class, and 1950s social mores are totally in Haynes’ wheelhouse (“Far From Heaven,” “I’m Not Here,” “Velvet Goldmine”), and I fully expect him to have made the most of them.

8. MACBETH (Dec. 4)
Directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis

Generally well received but not rapturously acclaimed at Cannes, the film got picked up by the Weinsteins, which isn’t good news for any film’s distribution unless it turns out to be one they deem worthy of a massive Oscar push. This doesn’t seem to be one of them, alas; it looks like it may get the “Coriolanus” treatment (limited release, minimal marketing). However, with that source material and that cast, it’s a no-brainer for anyone who likes Shakespeare on screen.

Directed by Ron Howard; starring Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson; based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick

The inspiration for Moby Dick! Ok, one of them, anyway; Melville drew from various sources besides his own imagination, including this true story of a 19th century whaling ship that was sunk by a whale, forcing its crew to desperate measures (read: cannibalism) to survive. It should be a gripping yarn, and adventures at sea naturally lend themselves well to the big screen. Some may question whether Ron Howard, the director film snobs love to hate, is up to the material; but a recent rewatch of “Apollo 13” reminded me how good he is at white-knuckle survival scenes and conveying the unspoken language of male bonding in tense situations. Plus I’m not going to miss a film that has Thor, Cillian Murphy, and Ben Whishaw in it.


Do I really have to explain this one?

Other fall releases of note:
“99 Homes” (drama set against the 2008 housing meltdown, starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, and Laura Dern); “Spotlight” (about the Boston Globe’s unraveling of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal); Guillermo del Toro’s gothic fest “Crimson Peak” (starring Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska); “Spectre” (007’s latest outing); “Brooklyn” (lush period romance starring all-grown-up Saoirse Ronan as a mid-century Irish immigrant to NY): “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II”; “The Danish Girl,” true story of the first known transgendered woman ever, starring Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander (I’d be more excited if it weren’t directed by Tom Hooper, who has yet to do anything but severely underwhelm me – though he does get good performances out of his actors); “Son of Saul” (highly acclaimed Holocaust drama); “Joy” (David O. Russell’s latest outing with Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the inventor of the Miracle Mop); “The Revenant” (more Oscar bait from last year’s big winner, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Leo Di Caprio); “The Hateful Eight” (Quentin Tarantino’s latest bloody Western).