Lessons from the New African Film Festival

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There is a clear and distinct privilege for people in metropolitan areas to be able to experience a wide variety of film offerings that you’d never get in a suburb or rural neighborhood. Take it from me, I lived most of my life in suburban New Jersey and even though it was more developed than most places, the nearest indie theater was 45 minutes away in Montgomery. In comparison, I can walk to the American Film Institute’s Silver Theater in D.C. area from my apartment. I can take a short 15 minute train ride to E Street Cinema to watch a Turkish documentary called Kedi on a lazy Sunday.

The New African Film Festival screening at AFI Silver in March is one of the best opportunities for global exposure to cinema that will never a theater near you for a weekly screening. Even those of you sneaky pirates who think they can find an online version of these will be sorely mistaken. Torrents are created for hits, and hits will come from movies that people already know about. African cinema is easily the most neglected cinema on the planet. It doesn’t make money, it doesn’t gain exposure, and in many cases, it never even escapes the mind of a creator, who is too often lacking in resources to make his vision, and even if he has resources, is discouraged more often than not by government censorships and bylaws meant to repress artistic expression for a variety of heinous political reasons.

Yet, for some reason, African cinema is rumbling. There are signs, noises, and whispers of a cinema that is ready to burst. In my continued discovery of cinema history’s offerings, I have only ever encountered 2 African mainstays in the global cinema discussion; the Senegalese masters Ousmane Sembené (Black Girl) and Djibril Diop Mambéty (Touki Bouki). Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine (Cairo Station) and Algeria’s Mohammed Lakdar-Hamina (Chronicles of the Years of Fire) are being rediscovered just now.

In recent years however, we’re seeing a variety of filmmakers from the forgotten continent emerge in major projects. Abderammane Sissako’s Timbuktu was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2015, the first ever film from Mali nominated. Chadian filmmaker Mahamat Saleh-Haroun is a Cannes regular spotlight artist. North Africans such as Mohammed Beni Attia (Tunisia), Mohammed Diab (Egypt) are being reinvigorated post-Arab Spring as filmmakers with strong social messages.

So it seems the New African Film Festival in D.C. is but a culmination of the years of struggle of these filmmakers and countries to break through. Cannes, Berlin, and Venice are nice steps, but even they are inaccessible to most of the regular public. To have a screening in a town like Silver Spring, Maryland a very unsuspecting place, it can be seen as a first step of the American public getting a taste of what African cinema has to offer.

But how exactly how far has it come?

 

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Kati Kati (dir. Mbithi Masya)

 

A sure sign of the massive technical and thematical progress of African cinema has come over the past decade, Kati Kati plays like a (good) Shyamalan thriller by way of Terrence Malick. Centering around a young woman named Kaleche who ends up in a mysterious village only to find out that it is a pergatory for the dead, the film unravels in layers, with clues beginning to connect and form a story behind each individuals journey to this purgatory, siphoned through Kaleche’s interactions with them. The movie’s narrative ties the audience’s anticipation with Kaleche’s (we and her are both as ignorant of the “rules” of this place) and Masya isn’t afraid of adding non-narrative flourishes, and experimenting with sound and cinematography, a style which more than reminded me of Malick’s The Tree of Life and David Gordon Green’s George Washington.

The movie’s ultimate reveals may seem conventional to those well versed in Hollywood and Bollywood thriller stock, which is clearly what Masya is playing off of here, but for a debut filmmaker from a nation just recently having dipped its toes into the narrative filmmaking world (Kenya has more of a history of documentary filmmaking), Kati Kati more than works. It deftly blends in a variety of genre spices, including a romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, sports, and historical allegory to Kenya’s political struggle into a bubbling stew which can be seen as a sort of resume for the nation’s film industry as a whole… the ideas and technical resources which are now ready to flourish and an industry of future filmmakers which can contribute to the growing production of African cinema, usually lost in global film discussion.

 

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Wúlu (dir. Daouda Coulibaly)

 

The second film I screened, Wúlu, was a much more accomplished work. Still it was from only a sophomore filmmaker, Daouda Coulibaly, but resolute in its vision of covering the cocaine trade in West Africa and the intricacies of its web, which entangles the main character, a young upstart named Ladji. The movie sets its premise with a familiar storyline of a young man who, in desperate need to get out of his current glut as a poor taxi servicer, decides to give himself to the service of cocaine dealers in Mali. Very much in Goodfellas fashion, Ladji climbs the ladder and gets the riches, but his life of crime continuously leaves him looking over his shoulder. His sister, who whores herself out for money, becomes enamored with his success and bathes herself in the new lavish lifestyle, which is volatile and unlikely to last. Added to the problems is Ladji’s budding romance with the daughter of an influential and intimidating state diplomat.

Coulibaly’s ability to shock us in even predictable situations is the gift of a talented filmmaker. His shaky-cam technique is not a gimmick but a deliberate style to mimic the volatile atmosphere the film’s characters constantly find themselves in. It focuses on the surrounding details rather than the people themselves. When Ladji and his two henchmen enter their bosses layer, there is no one there, and the camera suddenly starts wandering around just as Ladji’s eyes would, checking out the walls, the floors to find clues. Then, it focuses on blood smears by Ladji’s feet. The boss is dead. Throughout the film Coulibaly employs this technique and only during scenes within closed doors does the camera enter static mode; when we are officially barricaded from the hostility of Ladji’s work.

The turbulent existence of oppressed populations and the survival techniques of a hostile environment accurately reflect the realities of life of Africa’s unstable nations, ever-changing through the rise and usurpation of military rulers. One such ruler was Hissein Habré, dictator of the nation of Chad, and subject of Mahamat Saleh-Haroun’s latest documentary, Hissein Habré: un trágedie tchadienne. An expose on the mass murder, arrest and torture of citizens during Habré’s ruthless rule, the film focuses on subjects who tell their stories through some graphic body injuries, stuttering voices, and dejected outlook on the future. But the aim of Haroun was not only to give these people a voice, but have it be formed into action and ultimately justice. It’s a valiant documentary that, while you’re watching it, is a reminder of incredible neglect that the rest of the world has on some of the most vulnerable populations.

 

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Hissein Habré: un tragédie tchadienne (dir. Mahamat Saleh-Haroun)

 

Several instances throughout the film remind us of how Western politics uses war-gaming which results in, through a chain reaction, the murder of thousands. Yes, the rise of Hissein Habré is no small “coincidence” but a direct result of American and French funding. Yet, the powerful countries of the world are laser focused on only areas which serve their own self-interest, despite the fact that they declare themselves purveyors of “justice”. Justice for who? In filmmaker Haroun’s hands, the justice comes from within the community. The trial and sentence of Habré gave Chad a new era and a joyous renewal of faith for the hundreds of the thousands of lives he attempted to destroy. Likewise, our own faith may get restored, for the power of cinema and its spreading of knowledge, information and harsh truths can lead to action and ultimately, victory.

Not all stories end on such a positive note however, and we must always remember, that as first-worlders in countries where basic necessities and daily freedoms allow us a wealth of information also feed into an arrogance about the rest of the world. We feel that because of our elevated economic or social position on the global scale, that we have the power and ability to know other people’s situations and thus, patronizingly dictate to them how to solve it. Such a misnomer on that part of the privileged is brilliantly destroyed and buried by Mohammed Diab’s firecracker thriller Clash. Taking place entirely within the confines of a police van, the movie traverses the dangerous neighborhoods of Cairo following the Arab Spring and the rise of power of the Muslim Brotherhood. Within the van are individuals from all sides of Egypt’s complex socio-political uprising… Journalists, police officers, supporters of the former Mubarak regime and Muslim Brotherhood members. There are the young and the old, the radical and the centrist, the religious and the indifferent.

 

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Clash (dir. Mohammed Diab)

 

The conversations that Diab strikes between his characters are wild enough to make our heads spin, the confusion of who is on who’s side is unclear enough to frustrate our ignorant and uneducated Western minds. I could tell, from the first 10 minutes of the movie, until its conclusion, that Diab’s film works both as a stark social commentary for an Egyptian filmgoer and a mocking satire of America and Europe’s feeble attempts to try to “pinpoint” the good and the bad of the Arab Spring. The film systematically obliterates our binary point of view when discussing tensions in the Middle East. Diab purposefully populates the back of the police van bit by bit with different groups, initially daring us to pick the good guys. Like the Western-educated rube I am, I fell for it. When the first group of journalists were stashed alongside Mubarak supporting youths, I took the journalists side because they had “Associated Press” tags. I villainized the youthful protestors. When the Muslim Brotherhood members came aboard I villainized them, and suddenly the Mubarak supporters started to elevate in likeability. This continued throughout the film whereby naturally, our minds try to organize people into groups, and organize morality into “levels” on a scale.

The lessons learned in films like these make it all the more important that they are presented at such events as the New African Film Festival. These films represent a cinema of a world, a continent, a people we probably do not think of very often. They are not in the microscopic focus of our government and news organizations, their events are not held as important even though they may be as directly affected by our nation’s actions as are events in the Middle East or Europe or Asia. African cinema is a cinema which has for so long been the kid in the back of the classroom, in the corner, the one everyone forgets has a voice and something to say. But we are starting to hear its voice, and it is growing ever louder and its words ever more important.

The Oscars 2017! or, something like that

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Ugh, these Oscars… the Best Picture nominees (except for Moonlight) this year are boring. The individual acting and directing nominees (except for Moonlight’s cast and director) are uninteresting and tired. The show is just going to be a sling of overused jokes about a toupeed orangutan all of us are tired of thinking about . I frankly care less about who wins or loses this year (but Moonlight is great, it should win) more than any year in the past.

So here’s just ONE THING you should keep in the back of your troubled minds while you’re sitting on your couch watching this charade thinking about the 6th Mass Extinction that scientists keep mentioning and wondering when it will finally take all of humanity with it:

The Real BEST PICTURE Nominees are in the BEST DOCUMENTARY CATEGORY:

I just made 3 straight not-subtle references to Moonlight if you were paying attention, but even that movie is nothing compared to the merciless bitch-slap across the face the Best Documentary category has in store for you. These movies are challenging, frustrating, the “I want to throw my computer against the wall because what I just watched pissed me off to no end” sort of great realistic, unapologetic and volcanic documentation of LIFE.
I mentioned in my Best Films of 2016 list that O.J.: Made in America was the #1 movie of last year. That hasn’t changed, and I wrote enough about it here to not have to go into an explanation:

But look at the other 4.

The 13th is a film by Ana DuVernay in multiple parts on the epidemic of unlawful and dangerous incarceration of black people throughout American history. There is zero excuse for you not to watch it considering it is on Netflix right now and I know all of you send them $7 straight out of your paycheck every month. Stop wasting that money watching F.R.E.I.N.D.S. for the millionth fucking time and support the voice of a filmmaker in DuVernay who is doing important work.

I Am Not Your Negro is probably the best title for a movie since Leos Carax’s Pola X (the explanation for that film title is here). On the manuscripts of James Baldwin, the film runs through his thoughts on and furious anger over the civil rights violations of a nation coming to grips with its own horrifically racist past, present, and if nothing changes, future.

The Italian documentary winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Gianfranco Rossi’s Fucoammare (Fire at Sea), showcases the lives of immigrants from Northern Africa who sail to find solace in Europe. The film’s raw footage gives the depth, danger, and peril of the journey of many of these individuals who understand the risks of death and proceed at all costs.

The final film is the least political, but still important. Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated showcases the coming of age a young boy with autism, who escapes the isolation and discrimination from society and learns to cope with his disability through his love for Disney movies. Most of our childhoods were defined by the Disney Renaissance, but for some, it wasn’t just a matter of nostalgia. This doc is a great testament to how cinema can change a life.

Watch these movies. If you have watched ANYTHING from the year 2016, makes sure you watch these:

OJ: Made in America (on WatchESPN for free)

The 13th (on Netflix)

I Am Not Your Negro (on Netflix)

Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) (on Netflix)

Life, Animated (on Amazon Prime)

Top 10: Best Movies of 2016

[Inset “2016 was the worst year ever” joke here]

2016 was terrible on many political fronts, but when it comes to cinema, it forces me to look at the best of things that have passed. As I moved to Washington D.C. I was surprised by the solid film culture that exists here. I guess (or at least I hope) that despite any changes in what goes on in the federal buildings of this district, the cultivation of theaters, movie screenings, and film community will continue to grow and offer more.

I look forward in 2017 to start watching more local cinema, created by D.C. filmmakers, reading scripts by D.C. talents and joining their ranks by continuing to film my own stuff. I also look forward to being more selective in the movies that I watch. As the year went on I succumbed to the glitz and glamor of major Hollywood releases, but I’m going to try to make a point to restrict myself to spending money on smaller filmmakers and production companies that really need the money and funding. I’m sure I’ll catch a big release here of there, but it will be less than last year. I’m also curious to see how this plays into the types of films I try to expose through recommendations. I’ve seen my Top 10 lists become more and more focused on smaller non-blockbuster movies as years go by. That trend I will continue, maybe next year I’ll have a list that is strictly geared towards giving exposure to movies you may have never heard of… trust me, that’s a good thing.

Anyway, here’s a list of 10 of the best movies I’ve seen this year of 2016. I also have additions at the end of the page for movies from past years which I watched for the first time this year (if that makes sense). Hopefully this will see some older movies you may not know you love yet.

#1   O.J. Made in America   (dir. Ezra Edelman  –  U.S.A.)

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OJ: MADE IN AMERICA positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson.

But the greatness of this documentary is brought forth in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Full review HERE

#2   American Honey    (dir. Andrea Arnold  –  U.S.A.)

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What sets American Honey apart is that it essentially treats seizing the moment as a survival tactic for its protagonists in conjunction with its traditional depiction as a rebellious act of pure free will…. Opportunistic capitalism meets the self-discovering millennial. The entire film rides an electric current that transfers itself directly from Arnold’s camera. The shaky-cam is a technique many have grown tired of, but its wandering, untamed eye captures the imagination of the film’s characters and their surroundings. Their dance circles bumping to trap songs have the aesthetic of a music video. Full Review HERE

#3    I, Daniel Blake   (dir. Ken Loach  –  U.K.)

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The theater was full of heavy sighs, groans, headshakes, and a clear frustration bouncing off the walls from every corner. Everyone left tsk-tsking. I’ve never seen such a vocally frustrated response from an audience for a character and a story. It made it that much harder to shake off Ken Loach’s remarkable and painfully relevant film.

Full Review HERE

#4   Cameraperson   (dir. Kirsten Johnson  –  U.S.A.)

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Constructed from tape Kirsten Johnson has collected over many years of travel and documentation, CAMERAPERSON is the living breathing embodiment of the phrase “a film is made in the editing room”. All of the sequences in the film jump around geographically and temporally making their juxtaposition more jarring and their lack of context daring in making the audience piece together stories of individuals themselves. It’s as educational and personal of a documentary as I’ve ever seen, and its presentation will make almost anyone search and read endlessly about the topics and historical events it showcases… many of them leading to dark and painful places and revealing terrifying truths about our world.

#5   Moonlight    (dir. Barry Jenkins  –  U.S.A.)

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There is nothing better than seeing a filmmaker have his debut film emphatically stamped with his own vision. The best part of Moonlight isn’t that it sheds light on a neglected class of American society, but that it dares to examine and say a good deal about them with a completely unique perspective. Dee Rees’s sadly forgotten parable Pariah did something very similar.

#6   The Hunt for the Wilderpeople   (dir. Taika Waititi  –  New Zealand)

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I have been watching Taika Waititi’s career since his debut Eagle vs. Shark back when I was a junior in high school, and it’s always rendered as very hit-or-miss, with the misses coming more frequently and missing by a lot. He may have won me over however with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a fun New Zealander’s take on the American mismatched-pair buddy comedy. Its moments of family dynamics, what it means to be a “man”, and an undercurrent of racial disparities between New Zealand’s white and native Maori populations all come under hilarious satirical examination with Waititi’s ability to balance both cultural relevance and popcorn entertainment seamlessly.

#7   Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping   (dir. Jorma Taccone & Ariel Schaffer  –  U.S.A.)

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Popstar isn’t quite the comedic success that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is, but it manages to play to its central characters’ (Lonely Island trio) built internetz fanbase with hilarious and some cringy moments that make for a light and airy satire on the pop industry’s slow demise into utter ridiculousness. I only wished in addition to the whimsy, the film added a bit of bite the way Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady” track did on this same subject of “pop stardom” 15 years ago.

#8   Les Innocents   (dir. Anne Fontaine  –  France)

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Look here. For all the film critics and viewers fawning over Mel Gibson’s slathering faith-based conundrum Hacksaw Ridge that presents itself with the subtlety of hammering a nail into one’s palm, if you want a truly gut-churning film which both tests and reaffirms belief in a higher power and its place in a world slowly losing hope… look here.

#9   Sunset Song   (dir. Terrence Davies  –  Scotland)

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It’s hard to call the film merely a romantic period-piece because it doesn’t dwell much on its setting or its time-period as a major factor for the relationships of its characters. Yes, there is a war, and its clear its the Scottish country-side, but people can experience what Chris Guthrie goes through in almost any time period. Enduring the abusive relationship with her domineering father, the death of her mother, falling in love, having her loved one changed from the inside-out by war. Davies turns Sunset Song into more a film of human emotion transcending time and place, but the pre-war Scottish countryside adds the nostalgia by channeling a near fairy-tale like setting, but bombarding it with a devastating story filled with every bit of the harshness of real life, but also the warmth.

Full Review HERE

#10   Rogue One   (dir. Garth Edwards  –  U.S.A.)

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There was a lot of noise made about a particular Vox article with an ill-conceived clickbaity title suggesting that this Star Wars film, apart from any of the regular “canon films”, was the first one to acknowledge the “war” part of the Star Wars franchise. Watching this movie proved the article’s meat correct, despite its headline being manipulative. The fact of the matter is, the reason Rogue One resonates with people (me) not really all that enthusiastic about Star Wars movies is that it plays more towards the series biggest strengths, which is the mythos surrounding it and the humanization of its characters to being citizens under distress. Even when Leia’s planet of Alderaan was destroyed, there was hardly an acknowledgment of the weight of such a genocide occurring. It was brushed off as a plot point. We moved on. Rogue One takes the time to, for the first time in the franchise, calculate a loss within each individuals character’s contribution to the fight for a new hope. Rogue One‘s heart is more that of a war movie than it is “space-opera”.  That’s why I liked it better than any of the other ones.

Top Movies From Years Past that I Watched for the First Time in 2016 (in alphabetical order):

  • Babette’s Feast  (Gabriel Axel, 1987)
  • Colossal Youth  (Pedro Costa, 2006)
  • El Sur  (Victor Erice, 1983)
  • From What is Before  (Lav Diaz, 2014)
  • Lady Snowblood  (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
  • Mumbai Cha Raja  (Manjeet Singh, 2012)
  • My Home is Copacabana  (Arne Sucksdorff, 1965)
  • My Dinner with Andre  (Louis Malle, 1981)
  • Norte: The End of History  (Lav Diaz, 2013)  –  *masterpiece, 2010’s All-Decade List
  • Ratcatcher  (Lynn Ramsey, 1999)
  • Santa Sangre  (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)  –  *masterpiece, 1980’s All-Decade List
  • Shotgun Stories  (Jeff Nichols, 2007)
  • Take Aim at the Police Van  (Seijun Suzuki, 1960)
  • Warrendale  (Allan King, 1968)

The Oscars : 2016

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The Oscars were riddled with some serious controversy this year, sparking a change in the Academy’s selection process for membership. For thoughts on that whole debacle, CLICK HERE

Now, the awards. I’ve been saying this for 3 years running now but I will say it once again, THIS IS NOT A PREDICTIONS LIST. This “ballot” is movies which I believe should win the Oscar for their respective categories. I will, in passing, refer to the movies and people I think will win, but those are not as important. The main thing that I want to note is that for the Short Film categories, I have watched only a few of those movies, so those will be mostly uneducated picks..

For reference (click the link, in italics) here is my Oscar picks post from last year.

ONTO THE NOMINATIONS!

Non-Feature Categories

Best Live Action Short Film: Day One (blind guess)

This one sounds the most interesting. Day One is about a soldier working for the U.S. Army who must deliver a new-born child to the wife of an enemy bomb-maker. Very problematic, very perfect for the politically charged Oscar voter crowd.

Best Animated Short FilmSanjay’s Superteam (Only one Ive watched)

Pixar’s latest cutesy short film comes with a twist. This one is about an Indian boy who’s strict religious father forbids him from engaging in fantasy day-dreaming and fun at the detriment of his religious duties. It’s the only animated short film I actually saw so far, so it’ll get my vote.

Best Documentary Short SubjectA Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

An incredibly harrowing story, this doc is about honor killings in Pakistan. The documentary has created such a stir and such an outcry over the barbaric and storied ritual that has existed in the country for a long time, that it is actually kickstarting a movement to ban all honor killings in Pakistan and has ever gotten a number of other legislative policy reforms under way in the country. Be on the look out for if they are followed through.

The “Other Best Pictures”

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul (dir. Laszlo Nemes – country, Hungary)

This one was a lock for a long time now, but with the Oscars Foreign Film category, the most weird and outdated and badly in need of reform category at the ceremony, no lock is a sure lock. It should also be noted that the films nominated in this category are hardly the best foreign films released in the past year. Please don’t think Son of Saul is the best that non-American cinema had to offer in 2015. But out of these 5 nominees, it is clearly the cream of the crop.

Best Animated Film: Inside Out (dir. Pete Doctor & Jonas Rivera) 

I don’t have the emotional attachment to Inside Out that a lot of other people have accumulated over the past year. Even if Shaun the Sheep Movie won, it wouldn’t really faze me. But lets be honest, Pixar’s got this in the bag.

Best Documentary Film: The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

It was incredibly sad that Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking doc The Act of Killing didn’t win in the year it was nominated, but that is the nature of this category…. if the Academy does not deem a topic “important enough” for them, then its hard to win. That shouldn’t be the case but it is. I know Asif Kapadia’s AMY is the frontrunner and most-likely winner and I’m really happy that Kapadia is finally going to get his due… but I’m going by what was clearly the most well-made and most eye-opening doc of the year, and that is The Look of Silence. Watch it, but be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart.

The Technical Awards

Best Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road

I’m sorry Star Wars fans, but unless its by some sense of pity or conselation, George Miller’s Mad Max reboot has your number this year in technical prowess. It’s not that The Force Awakens wasn’t impressive visually, its just that we’ve seen all that shit before, the Millenium Falcon, the space explosions, the alien creatures. The VFX team for Mad Max did something truly original, and it was no better captured than the race through the sandstorm near the beginning of the film. The swirl of tones and shades, the props, makeup, and dust and lightning all created a visual canvas that was unrivaled… so much so, that it looks all-time incredible even in Black and White:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5s62tpM5fo

Best Sound Editing: Sicario

I loved Sicario, so I’m going to unabashedly chalk this as a consolation prize for that movie. The sound editing in Sicario, from the opening heart-thumping scene inside the cartel house was utilized almost as a soundtrack in its own right, and Villeneauve’s ability to frame action sequences with such fervor allowed the sound to contribute to the growing tension and unease in every scene.

Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max : Fury Road

What set Mad Max apart from most other action flicks this year was the emotional weight of its character. Even without the benefit of nostalgia (Star Wars) or the heartbreak of a cast member passing away (Furious 7), Mad Max was still able to create a passionate plea for its own characters and the sound mixing, which coupled together a thrilling music score with the powerful, echoing voices of its cast made it happen.

Best Make-Up: Mad Max: Fury Road

Uhhh… Just click this

Best Costume Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

….. click again

Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s production team headed by Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson decided to go the old-school route with real props and real settings, which makes the production design of Mad Max even that much more impressive, that it didn’t come majorly out of doctored and fantasized video-game imagery, but from people making things with… their HANDS. Wow.

Best Original Song: “Simple Song #3” from Youth (music and lyrics by David Lang)

Simple Song #3 plays a major part Youth‘s main character, famous composer Mick Boyle, re-connect with the specters of his past which he has continually rejected in his old age. The violin interlude to the song itself gives such a beautiful feeling, that Simple Song #3’s is anything but simple.

Best Original Score: Carol (composed by Carter Burwell)

I always judge this category on how well the musical score stood out to me as memorable, and also how the film’s images, feelings, and nuances come rushing back into my brain the moment that I hear the music. Such is the case with Carter Burwell’s timely score for Carol… I can’t listen to this score on headphones without automatically seeing Carol and Therese’s burning stares from across the room, or a snowy Christmas afternoon in New York City. It just fits.

Best Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road (editing by Margaret Sixel)

The entire movie is basically one giant chase scene… and that puts a lot of the pressure on the film editor to keep things well-groomed, exciting and paced with moments of heart-pounding thrills but also some breif relief. What Margaret Sixel was able to do, keeping our attention glued to the screen in every sequence of what was just one giant road-rage venture is remarkable. You’d think at some point we’d turn away and say “alright already, get to where you want to go”… but Sixel made the rip-roaring journey a million times better than the eventual destination.

Best Cinematography: Mad Max: Fury Road (camerawork by John Seale)

Emannuel Lubeszki doesn’t deserve 3 Oscars in a row in my estimation, and Roger Deakins (Sicario), I feel for you man, having been nominated what seems like 10 times but never winning an Oscars… but this isn’t your year either. Mad Max‘s visual splendor is as much a product of John Seale’s beautiful panoramic framing as it is the VFX team and Production team’s prop making and action staging. This whole film was a production dream come true, where everyone contributed their share of filmmaking craftsmanship and artistry onto one glorious canvas.

The Supporting Cast

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Rooney Mara (Carol)

This year’s best Supporting Actress category is ruined by a gigantic problem. No, it’s not race-related, its politics related. Rooney Mara (Carol) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl… this year’s frontrunner) are clearly leading actresses in their respective movies, but the Oscars have been unabashedly shameful at allowing producers and promoters to be able to coin in leading performances as “Supporting” for a better shot at an Oscar, especially in years when the leading Actress category is loaded. Not only is this disingenuous, it is basically announcing to the world that you don’t care the Oscar ceremony is as much of a muddy politics game as the presidential race. I will choose Rooney Mara for this award but honestly, I hope no one wins.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

The internet’s love for Leonardo DiCaprio always makes people get pissed off at me when I say that Leo usually gets upstaged by his co-actors in most of his movies. Well, internet, hate me if you want, but it happened again. The best actor in The Revenant was Tom Hardy. His intensity, writhing bitterness, and raw biting ferocity was pitch perfect from first shot to last. This may be the best performance of his career and it blew any other supporting performance out of the water… maybe with the exception of Jacob Tremblay, who got snubbed from a nomination. If Sylvester Stallone really wins this year, it’ll be once again a case of Oscar politics over performance.

The BIG 5 Awards

Best Adapted Screenplay: Carol – written by Phyllis Nagy

The book The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith was a landmark novel for gay/lesbian literature because of its treatment of homosexuality in a positive and optimistic light amidst discrimination in America, and that comes with a lot of pressure. The personal depth with which the novel was written can always been hard to transmit on screen, but Phyllis Nagy’s script does an incredible job of allowing the film’s director, Todd Haynes, a master storyteller in his own right, to evoke all the emotions that novel displays. Out of all the other nominees in this category, hardly any of them tell as affecting a story as Carol.

Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight – written by Tom McCarthy  & Josh Singer

The subject matter of Spotlight is something I said earlier last year really blinded and engulfed any sort of critical discourse about the film’s merit as a work of cinema. This meant that I could never really give much credit or anything to director Tom McCarthy for the way this film was handled because as long as it was “competently made”, the subject matter and its implications in our life will carry it on its shoulders anyway. Spotlight‘s take on the Catholic Church’s horrific exploitation of young boys and the brave news team from the Boston Globe who brought this injustice to light, is showcased most appropriately in its writing. McCarthy may not get the benefit of the doubt from me as a director, but him and Singer surely do as writers, because their plotting and staging of interviews, probing of the issue and long agonizing periods of uncertainty in such a terrible case lend to the film’s successful unraveling of its nightmare.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Brie Larson (Room)

I remember watching Jennifer Lawrence in her first big performance in the movie Winter’s Bone. I knew when I watched her that her acting was something special. The same goes for Brie Larson, who I saw in the indie-Sundance film Short Term 12. It was a small unnoticed performance by those who don’t play close attention to the film circuit, but it was a showcase for the tornado of acting talent that is Brie Larson. Now, in this year’s Oscar-season favorite, Room, about a young mother and her son who try to escape their prison inside a small room being held by a sadistic kidnapper, is where Brie Larson makes herself known as Hollywood’s next great actress. Her performance is something to behold. Watch it, and yes, its okay if you cry through the whole thing, a lot of people have.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

Congrats internet. You won. Now you can move onto Gary Oldman to complain about being Oscar-less.

This year of 2016, we’ll watch 2 “lovable losers” win the big prize. Leonardo DiCaprio this Sunday at the Oscars…..

….and the Chicago Cubs in October in the World Series. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Best Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (The Revenant)

Difficulty in directing a project really shouldn’t be a factor in determining who should win best director, but when the product that you churn out is this good, this exciting, and just a jaw-dropping wonder of depth and intense gut churning treachery to behold, I’ve got to give it to you. Innaritu has been a prolific filmmaker, and there’s only really one movie that he made that I would consider sub-par (his 2006 hyperlink miscalculation Babel). With The Revenant, Alejandro continues his Oscar success with another captivating film, just one year after another movie I loved, Birdman.

Best Picture: The Revenant

I have given The Revenant 4 Oscars in this countdown… and none of them are for the technical brilliance of its cinematography, stage-setting, makeup, and metaphysical elements, and that’s only because Mad Max: Fury Road was so dazzling. But in the end, Innaritu’s The Revenant has all the pieces that make a solid epic Oscar-winning film, and while it won’t be a time-transcending important classic like 2013’s 12 Years A Slave, it will be an enjoyable showcase of directorial ambition and the performance that finally landed Leo DiCaprio the elusive statue.

My last two favorite Oscar-nominated Best Pictures both won… 12 Years A Slave and Birdman. Unless Spotlight steals the Academy’s moral strings and captures votes for its all-important message, this year should make it 3 in a row.

THE TALLY (Films with more than 1 win)

Mad Max: Fury Road – 7 wins

The Revenant – 4 wins (Best Picture)

Carol – 3 wins

The Oscar (of) Race

The-Oscars-2015-logo

We didn’t get a White Christmas this year thanks to El Nino, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for the second year in a row, didn’t hesitate to bestow upon us a White Oscars. There have been hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite) and continuous discussion from all angles about this topic. I’ll try to touch on a series of prompts I have read and heard throughout this whole debacle (yes, these are real prompts that have been stated in the past week):

Who votes for the Oscars?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an elite group of industry members, who are invited to join by current members. The membership is divided into groups based on craft. This means, that there is a Directors Division, an Acting Division, a Music Division, a Cinematography Division and etc. for all the different categories which are awarded Oscars. Each division votes within themselves for nominees and winners, and everyone votes for nominees and winners of Best Picture. There are currently more than 5,300 members in the Academy. Of those members, a whopping 94% are Caucasian, and 77% are male. This is incredibly lopsided to one particular demographic. To add to the problem, only 2% of the Academy is black.

What does this mean for Hollywood as a whole?

The reason that the Academy’s lack of diversity is a big problem in regards to Hollywood diversity is not because we have an overwhelming amount of Caucasian males voting for awards, but the fact that these statistical demographics reveal a sample of a whole population. The Academy’s racial skew, or incredible lack of diversity directly reflects the fact that Hollywood doesn’t deliver an equal amount of opportunity for minority individuals to be nominated and succeed within the industry. This works as a cyclical and almost inescapable barrier for current black actors and directors who want to get recognition in the Oscars. Why? Because you need to be prominent in order to even be considered for invite into the Academy. It’s viciously systemic.

Black/Minority individuals in Hollywood:

Can’t get invited as members of the Academy because they can’t get recognition in Hollywood because they can’t get voted for Oscar nominations because they can’t get invited as members of the Academy because etc….. get it?

But I thought Hollywood was LIBERAL?

The reason that Hollywood has gained the notoriety of being a very liberal entity is because its individual members are very outspoken on political, social, and economic issues that promote liberal positions. But this is only on an individualistic level, its on a personal statement level, where actors, directors, and other industry folk have opinions about things and because of their public stature, express them more freely and openly because they feel a moral obligation to.

The thing that people need to understand is that the individuals in Hollywood are not Hollywood. Hollywood is an industry. That means that it functions based on the same principles as any other industry: “what sells?”

From this standpoint, there is hardly any doubt that the business model of the Hollywood film industry is by and large fiscally conservative and purely capitalist. It’s the same as with politicians in Congress. While few may be hard-headed individuals willing to be wrecking balls that destroy everything for the sake of a personal set of beliefs, such as Ted Cruz, most politicians from both sides of the isle, will “play the game” behind the closed doors while publicly decrying the “establishment” in front of the camera (Marco Rubio).

Hollywood works the same way. When you’re in those focus groups and meeting rooms trying to make money off of films, there are many personal beliefs and decisions “for the moral good” that you need to set aside to make the business model work. If you’re casting for an action movie, you’re going to choose an actor who has cross-cultural appeal, and in most cases, that guy is white. If you’re making a romantic comedy, you’re going to cast a couple who most Americans can identify with, and in the Hollywood boardroom, the conclusion will arrive at a white couple. If you’re casting a movie about coming-of-age, you’re going to pick a kid who’s experience growing up most resembles that of the average American kid in the suburbs… again, a white kid. This isn’t racism, this is a business model. This isn’t because Hollywood execs hate black people or minorities, its because for their money’s-worth, they have to take the best bet, and the best bet in their eyes, will be the average white person on the silver screen.

But it’s certainly a problem, because it shows that executives and American audiences still haven’t warmed up much to the fact that an action hero, or a leading actress in a drama, or a cute couple in a romantic comedy, or a young kid growing up, can come in all colors and shapes. This needs to change, and the way it can change is through trial error. Keep in mind, it used to be inconceivable for a black man to have a universal appeal and liking in a big Hollywood film. Movies like Shaft and others in the “blaxploitation” era were targeted at the African-American demographic because that was the only demographic which seemed interested in black-actor-centric action films, and other films starring great black actors like Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night) and Harry Belafonte (Carmen Jones) were generally exclusive artistic endeavors and critical darlings with limited commercial appeal. It wasn’t until Denzel Washington and Will Smith that for the first time, we got minority leading men who appealed to white individuals as much as they did to black individuals. You could put Will Smith in any action movie and it would sell. Denzel was the guy every guy wanted to be. This was a cultural breakthrough, but it also highlighted that conservative business model… Hollywood will reward and cast the black individuals who appeal to white audiences. Again, we have to ask, is this a case of subtle racism, or is it just the laws of economics? If it is the laws of economics, the trend of having diversity in big budget franchise films (the two lead characters in The Force Awakens are not white-males) should be pushed forward, for the sake trying to shift these laws to favor diversity.

But…how can black people in America demand racial diversity when they only make up 12% of the U.S. population?

This is a problematic question. First of all, it assumes that just because a section of a population is in the minority, it has no right to express itself on the same pedestal as every other sect of the population. In fact, this type of questioning is exactly why slavery and Jim Crowe and segregation and racism existed in the United States for as long as it did. Because there was a preconceived notion that “democracy” is a be-all-end-all game of majority wins. This may play out without much consequence when kids are voting on what sport they want to play during gym class, but in the real world, where actions reach far and wide and human beings become marginalized, “majority wins” is one of the worst rules in human history (I don’t think I need to give the litany of examples as to why, it should be fairly obvious).

Since the advent of the Academy Awards back in 1927/1928, there have been a grand total of 12 black acting Oscar-winners… in 88 years. That means that 88 years of Oscar-nominees, 4 acting nominees each year, that’s a grand total of 352 winners of an acting Oscar. 12 black acting Oscar-winners makes up only 3% of that. In addition, there have been only 3 black directors ever nominated for Best Director: John Singleton (Boyz N Tha Hood), Lee Daniels (Precious) and Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave), with none of them winning. Again, that’s in 88 freaking years of the Academy’s existence. So, black directors make up 0.7% of the Academy’s directing nominees and 0% of their winners. That is astounding.

So even if you wanted to use the 12% excuse for lack of representation, the numbers clearly show that even 12% is an exponentially higher percentage than black representation within the Academy and their awardees.

Finally, we can point to percentages of population when it comes to minority groups in certain areas, but that argument consistently breaks down when we get into the why of the matter in regards to their lack of representation, lack of opportunity, and lack of populace. When people point out the incredibly small percentage of Native Americans in the United States, approximately 2% of the current population, we already know why this is. They had been marginalized, discriminated against, and in the darkest of times, murdered off in genocidal campaigns for the sake of “manifest destiny”. It’s the same reason why Judaism is the least followed major religion in the world (yes, behind even Buddhism). But when it comes to black individuals in America, we tend to brush aside the fact that their history in this country for the most part, was a living hell of consistent beat-downs with absolutely no hope of upward movement. People talk about racism and segregation like they are century old grievances that are now mere hieroglyphs on the walls of ancient tombs, when in reality, if you’re in your 20’s, then segregation still existed in the United States when your parents were kids and even when they were in college. Remember, just because the Civil Rights Act abolished segregation via court mandate in 1964, doesn’t mean our good friends in the South didn’t claim “states rights” and continue to discriminating against people of color anyway.

But I digress… the fact of the matter is that for many people, the completely minuscule proportion to which black individuals in Hollywood have been nominated or recognized for honors in comparison to white individuals is not representative of black individuals presence in the industry. In other words, the percentage or proportion of black individuals in industry is not done justice by their statistical numbers when its comes to being honored with at least a nomination for an Oscar. This is undeniable.

But I don’t hear other minorities like Latinos, Asians, Middle-Easterners, Native Americans complaining. Why is it always black people?

One of the biggest pieces of information that people always leave out in these minority comparisons is that the ancestors of black individuals did not come to the United States (for the most part) by choice. They came specifically via capture and imprisonment in one of the most vicious and morally bankrupt events in the establishment of America: the slave trade. Yet, the presence of black individuals in America was woven into the fiber of the country, with every aspect of film and music in the United States today having been in some way influenced via the African-American culture. While blacks were treated as non-human property for much of their existence when first being brought here, they still managed to make a marked effect on the way America operated. Their songs, their culture, their ideas paved a way for generations of talented artists, writers, philosophers, and eventually Presidential candidates to stake a claim that the black community in the United States had as much of a history, as much of an impact, and as significant of a moral and positive effect on the shaping of what we know America as today as did white folks. For this reason, their “minority” stature, for all regards and purposes, is but a statistical misnomer. African Americans compared to every other statistical minority in America, are very much an indispensable fabric of the United States as the European settlers*. For this reason, which really has 200 years of American history on its side, the comparison of blacks in the U.S. in equal footing with other minorities is a false equivalency. I say this without hesitation as a member of an “other minority” (Indian).

*(I do want to note on Native Americans because whenever we talk about America, we do it at the detriment of the race of individuals who were unjustly stripped of all possessions and claim to a land that was essentially theirs to begin with… please read up on this here)

So what about the BET Awards, or the Black Reel Awards, or the NAACP Awards? Don’t they promote segregation against whites?

No. The fact of the matter is that the BET, Black Reel, and NAACP awards were not created as an exclusionary award system against whites, rather they were created as award systems to congratulate and recognize accomplishments within a particular community in the United States. It isn’t different from the Movieguide Awards, an award show and academy which promotes and celebrates the accomplishments of Christian filmmakers and Christianity-inspired films.

Now, religion and race is of course, two different things because religion is a personal choice while race is not, but even then, the fact remains that these awards which are centric to a particular sect or group of people are promotional, not exclusionary. There have been white people who have won and been nominated for BET Awards:

  • The film The Help, about black maids in the south dealing with oppression, won Best Movie at the awards ceremony… the white director, Tate Taylor received the award.
  • Eminem has been nominated for 5 BET Awards. Justin Timberlake has been nominated for 8 BET Awards.
  • The NAACP has awarded, for movie achievements, Bryce Dallas Howard, Angelina Jolie, Justin Timberlake, and Emma Stone.

Even if the Oscars had racial diversity to the point where black actors did not feel left out or discriminated against, the BET and NAACP Awards would still exist, because they are awards which people in the black community use as a recognition of the best achievements within their culture. Are we to say that the Jewish Book Council shouldn’t exist because there is already a good deal of Jewish writers in America, some of whom have won Nobel and Pulitzer prizes? Should we say that the ALMA Awards for Latino achievements in film and arts promote segregation against non-Latino individuals in film rather than promote the achievements of individuals in or associated with projects about Latino culture?

For those questioning why we can’t have an award ceremony just for white people in the film industry, that’s like asking why we have International Women’s Day but no International Men’s Day.

What do you personally think about the Oscar situation?

I think the best performances and the best efforts in film for that year should be nominated. That is a wholly subjective take on the issue, but the biggest problem I have always had with the Oscars is that the ceremony is guided more by politics and campaigns than it is by merit. The same way people get fed up with the Presidential election process, I get fed up with a lot of the decisions that the Oscars make in terms of who gets nominated and who doesn’t. Maybe this is why there is such a dearth of African-Americans and other minorities nominated for the Oscars… because while their performances and achievements may be Oscar-worthy in all regards, they don’t get noticed because their presence isn’t as strong. The last time I have seen a clear and undeniable example of an actor/actress winning despite zero campaigning was Mo’Nique who won Best Supporting Actress for Precious. Maybe that’s a case that has Oscar campaigning been outlawed and artistic merit been the focal point, black performers would get more recognition as it is.

That’s the crux of my argument against Charlotte Rampling’s statements as well. She bases this notion of racism against whites in this debate on the fact that all the white performers who were nominated undeniably “deserved” their nominations. Well, I call bullshit mainly because there has never been a single year when all of the Oscar nominees, or even any of the Oscar nominees, got there on merit alone. Never. Ever. I will debate anyone on that, and I will win that debate.

You can’t tell me that, especially in a year when we are blindly allowing Rooney Mara (Carol) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) to be considered “SUPPORTING ACTRESSES” for roles that anyone with even one fucking eye and half a fucking brain knows were LEADING ROLES, that all of these acting nominees were selected because they were clearly the creme of the crop in performances. These nominations were not merit nominations, they were campaign strategic nominations. The Best Leading Actress category is so loaded this year with incredible performances that pitting Rooney Mara against her co-lead Cate Blanchette clearly made the producers of Carol fear that they could lose out on both nominations via vote-splitting. It’s no different from the Republican Party doing Trumps bidding for now in fear that if they scorn him, he will run third party, thus vote-splitting and allowing the Democratic nominee to run away with a victory. It’s all political, it’s all war-gaming. Don’t tell me, Charlotte Rampling, about racism against whites, when the Oscars have been a campaign war devoid of much recognition towards real artistic merit for as long as they have existed, which in direct effect has effected more black individuals in Hollywood than anyone else (need I remind that Spike Lee has never been nominated for Best Director, yet was given a Lifetime Achievement Award)? The fact that Charlotte Rampling even got nominated this year was an act of affirmative action on behest of the Academy because 45 Years was hardly on any American radar outside of some minority critical spheres… we can say, perhaps that, a Brit getting nominated for a British independent film is a minority occurrence in itself for the Oscars. Maybe that’s a case of imperialistic classism against Charlize Theron, who’s performance in the American film Mad Max: Fury Road, didn’t make the cut.

But all jabbing aside, this debate on #OscarsSoWhite is a case of social inequality more than it is a case of what connotes an Oscar-worthy performance… at least I hope so. I will say to the black individuals in Hollywood, I don’t agree with nominating black actors for performances that don’t deserve a nomination… I don’t want to see someone getting a nomination because they are a minority, and I think that such an occurrence does more harm to the cause of black and other minority actors than it does any good. Wouldn’t you want recognition because what you did truly deserved it? I ask this even to the white nominees… are you telling me that even excluding a Harvey Weinstein promotional campaign you’d still get nominated (hmm, Rooney Mara? Supporting actress?).

But I do see the #OscarSoWhite argument’s point in the context that Oscar acting nominations have hardly ever been purely about artistic merit to begin with… and in regards to the greater picture of diversity in casting and opportunity in Hollywood. Let’s not forget, merit or no, an Oscar nomination goes very far in launching careers: I always ask myself, would Jennifer Lawrence even be a thing if she hadn’t gotten that nomination for Winter’s Bone? She got her opportunity, and she seized it and hit a grand-slam with it. Yet, Lupita Nyong’o is still waiting post her Oscar-winning triumph in 12 Years a Slave, and the two castings she did get (Star Wars The Force Awakens, and The Jungle Book), hide her in a dark room, doing voice-overs for CGI characters. Just something to think about.

Is there hope for change?

Of course. The Oscars have changed their strategies when faced with major backlash several times before. While the previous two most notable occurrances were very much movie-centric,

In 1994, the Academy’s failure to nominate two of the most critically acclaimed and celebrated documentaries in American history, Steve James’ Hoop Dreams and Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb for the Best Documentary Oscar, the backlash forced the Academy to revamp its nomination process and criteria for future years.

In 2008, while getting 8 total Oscar nominations, Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight was snubbed for Best Picture in favor of Stephen Daldry’s dry Holocaust romance-drama The Reader, creating a negative outlook of the Oscars as an “old people’s ceremony” with no outreach to younger audiences and millennial film fans. The Oscar ceremony’s dead-in-the-water viewership ratings being the hammer with the biggest force, the Academy decided to expand the Best Picture nominations to 10 nominees, allowing more young-viewer-appreciated films like Avatar, District 9, Inglorious Basterds, Inception, Toy Story 3, Up, Life of Pi, and this year, The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road to get significant representation for the biggest prizes.

So clearly, the Oscars, when push comes to shove, will change, and just today, the Academy has already kicked off the revamping process (click for info) to bring in more women, more minorities, and younger fresher film industry members into the Academy’s voting block while deactivating older members who have been inactive in the industry for some time.

Let’s see how it goes, and what effect it has. Stay tuned. The 88th Academy Awards are on February 28th , 2016 and hosted by comedian Chris Rock. My Oscar picks are forthcoming in the next few weeks.

 

My Top 10 of 2015

Another year, another list of movies

Here are the Top 10 Best Movies of 2015. If you can, watch them. Consider this a major recommendation:

Click on the title of each movie to be transferred to a review of the film.

1. Tale of Tales – Matteo Garrone (Italy)

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2. The Revenant – Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (U.S.A.)

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3. Heaven Knows What – Ben Safdie & Joshua Safdie (U.S.A.)

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4. Phoenix – Christian Petzold (Germany)

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5. Bridge of Spies – Steven Spielberg (U.S.A.)

 

6. Carol – Todd Haynes (U.S.A.)

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7. Sicario – Denis Villeneuve (U.S.A.)

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8. The Duke of Burgundy – Peter Strickland (U.K.)

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9. Chappie  – Neil Blomkamp (U.S.A.)

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10. Court – Chaitanya Tamhane (India)

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87th Academy Awards

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The Nominees for Best Picture – 87th Academy Awards

Another year, another Oscars. As with last year, keep in mind, THIS IS NOT A PREDICTIONS LIST. This “ballot” is movies which I believe should win the Oscar for their respective categories. I will, in passing, refer to the movies and people I think will win, but those are not as important. The main thing that I want to note is that for the Short Film categories, I have watched NONE of those movies, so those will be complete blind picks. I did get one right last year actually.

For reference (click the link, in italics) here is my Oscar picks post from last year.

ONTO THE NOMINATIONS!

Non-Feature Categories

Best Live Action Short Film: Butter Lamp (total blind guess)

Best Animated Short FilmFeast (I’ve heard of this one, so I’m picking it)

Best Documentary Short SubjectOur Curse

Our Curse is a very deeply affecting documentary about new parents who have to deal with their newborn child having a debilitating incurable disease known as congenital central hypoventilation syndrome. Its a disease in which the child, among other things, forgets to breath…. which means it could die in any instant. This disease is awful, and for parents who should be happy about their new child, are instead left with a curse. It’s an important documentary, and one which I hope will win and raise awareness.


The “Other Best Pictures”

Best Foreign Language Film: Timbuktu (dir. Abderrhamane Sissako – country, Mauritania)

Rarely, if ever, is an African country front and center in the Oscar race. Abderrhamane Sissako is one of Africa’s leading filmmakers, and his film Timbuktu about a village community’s invasion from Islamic extremists, who murder mercilessly and place a Shariah Law on the village which plagues the individuals under religious oppression and perpetual poverty, is one of the most celebrated films of the year. It’s very emotional, and very disturbing. I prefer movies which deal with peril and social issues rather than bleak and slow historical dramas, which is why the current frontrunner film, Pawel Pawlikosky’s Polish drama Ida is not the film I’m voting for.

Best Animated Film: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (dir. Isao Takahata) 

I really hate this category this year. The Lego Movie was not voted in as a nominee and it’s one of the most inexplicable snubs I’ve seen in more than 6 years… the last one being The Dark Knight not getting a Best Picture nomination. Out of spite, I’m voting for the obscure Japanese animated drama Princess Kaguya. I watched this film while I was flying back from San Francisco, and it had an incredible air of simplicity and naturalness that you don’t get from the very much cluttered and sleek curved Pixar and Dreamworks movies. This movie was hand-drawn by a single artist…. something that shows a dedication and personable work ethic that should be crowned nowadays. Add to that that the movie has a very interesting folk story that only a Japanese filmmaker could dream up with such grace.

Best Documentary Film: CitizenFour (dir. Laura Poitras)

The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune was my personal pick as the #1 movie of 2014. That film however, unfortunately didn’t make the cut for the final 5 nominees… not that I expected it to. The Oscars love documentaries which talk about important global and national level issues that relate to modern times. A documentary about an ambitious filmmaker’s failed adaptation of a science-fiction book isn’t exactly what the Academy would put as “national priority”.

So thus, I pick the Edward Snowden documentary CitizenFour because, well… it’s the best made one. Filled with inside information and technological conspiracy that would make the current Silicon Valley-generation salivate a river, as well as important political points that keep you on your toes and force you to rethink everything you knew about government surveillance and the laws that protect it, CitizenFour puts together a jigsaw puzzle of events and comes out creating a grand painting of Snowden’s domino effect on how America and its citizens will deal with national security.


The Technical Awards

Best Visual Effects: Interstellar 

Chris Nolan’s own Spacey Odyssey Interstellar didn’t exactly have many detailed special effects, most of it was barren or a giant swirl of painted colors on a black background… but the reason it should win is because it served the greatest purpose to the success of the film. They looked really good, and were a perfect miss of beautiful and terrifying adding to our curiosity, but at the same time, giving us caution, as outer space always does.

Best Sound Editing: Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

Birdman was a film which experimented and warped many technical aspects of cinema. What it did with sound, gunshots, orchestras, stage changing, and cuts between a giant colossus of audience applause and then the deafening silence of Riggan Thompson’s personal quarters…. this movie had Sound Editing which actually impressed. American Sniper might be the more automatic choice, but it settles for rat-tat-tat gunshots. Eastwood’s film doesn’t offer and cool experimentation. Iñárritu turns Sound Editing into an art in itself.

Best Sound Mixing: Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

I was really torn between Birdman and Interstellar here, but Innaritu’s film again holds that interesting experimentation of sound that revolves around the stage and outside in the city. By contrast Nolan’s films “sound” is really just blasting Hans Zimmer’s score and then cutting it to silence. It’s more utilitarian than it is creative. Birdman wins.

Best Make-Up: Foxcatcher

Can I get an amen for making Steve Carrell look creepy as hell but also still like an actual person? The subtlety will certainly get drowned out by Wes Anderson’s topsy-turvy make-up in Grand Budapest Hotel, but subtlety is usually harder to control and implement than just letting the artist “run with it”.

Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The costumes of Anderson’s film evoke that pastel-upholstery charm that he loves and distinctly seem Central European. Mr. Turner would be a close second, but its more a history research job for them. The costume design team for Grand Budapest was working straight out of the eclectic charm of their director through themselves.

Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

This one’s a no brainer. No film manages to transport its audience to vividly and fruitfully into the world of its script than Grand Budapest. This movie really was Wes Anderson’s passion project because he honestly held nothing back in terms of his creativity and his eclectic tastes… and it shows and fits perfectly with what he was trying to do.

Best Original Song: “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie (music and lyrics by Shawn Patterson)

This song. Couldn’t get it out of my head, and considering The Lonely Island were involved a little bit in its creation, I was sold. It’s the only song that interests me from any of the nominees. +1 for it also being an integral part of the story of The Lego Movie.

Best Original Score: Interstellar (composed by Hans Zimmer)

The music (or in some cases the abject absence of it) for Interstellar was the key ingredient in the fluctuations of mood and intensity throughout the film. As always Zimmer delivers something that affects more than just your ears.

Best Film Editing: Boyhood (editing by Sandra Adair)

Editing comes down to how scenes unfold. Several sequences in Boyhood reveal many facets of the disturbing and awkward moments of growing up. From the cut to Mason’s mom crying on the floor of the garage after being abused by her husband to the scene where Mason and his girlfriend are discovered in bed together, Boyhood keeps things interesting and many times, moving, with its editing.

Best Cinematography: Birdman (camerawork by Emmanuel Lubeszki)

Once again we come back to the fact that Birdman‘s technical beauty and innovation in driving its narrative wins out over everything else. Lubeszki’s cinematography is brilliant, and it truly captures the frenetic, whirlwind of putting up a stage-play on Broadway and its continuous (seemingly non-edited) panning gives the effect of sleeplessness that the main character faces in trying to put together the project of a lifetime.


The Supporting Cast

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Playing the struggling mother of 2 children, Patricia Arquette is our annual, coming out of nowhere to win an award person. Last year it was Jared Leto. Arquette is a firecracker in Boyhood and her performance is one of genuine emotion. Her laughter, crying, and yelling all feel natural, and I guess when you work on a project for 12 years, you get a bit more personable with the character you play.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Edward Norton (Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

This category is already sealed and done… JK Simmons is going to win for Whiplash, but I personally like Norton because his performance comes through with a surreal type of eccentricity that blurs the line between an actor and his acting. There’s many moments throughout the film which Norton switches gears from his character to his character’s character and in those moments, we see the brilliance in his performance because it faint tonal shifts that we can detect in the way he talks and walks, but its such a thin line to travel across and Norton does it with ease. It’s a truly underrated performance.


The BIG 5 Awards

Best Adapted Screenplay: Inherent Vice – written by Paul Thomas Anderson

This is a very weak category this year. Nothing really stands out. Whiplash is really more about the performances than about the story, which is simply “ok”. The rest of the nominees are your run of the mill true-story real person dramas, but they don’t transcend their character into great scripts, just kinda let the character’s reputation speak for itself. It’s noble, but not interesting. PTA’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s completely incoherent novel Inherent Vice is weird as hell, and a movie most people won’t even begin to understand, but its worth its Oscar because it provides a narrative that thinks completely outside of the typical framework and translates an almost Gonzo-esque fable of crime and mystery into a strangely hilarious and surprisingly illuminating drug-infused romp. Its’ weird, strange, cool, and above all, an original even when its adapted.

Best Original Screenplay: Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance – written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo

Filled with witty and whirling dialogue, and a story which blends its narrative between fantasy and reality, we get to see something ambiguous, interpretive, and dreamlike within an internal struggle of an actor trying to revive his career. Birdman‘s story may not be for everyone, but even people who don’t “get” its purposefully cryptic teasing can appreciate the fact that it never takes the easy road in analyzing its characters. There is much deeper thought here than just a story.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)

What a performance. Its hard to pick between Pike and Cottillard, but I chose the character who was more difficult to play. The character of Anne, a housewife and part-time sociopath, required so much of deceiving and conniving fakery through half the film… a facade that had to slowly melt away to reveal the true darkness that existed in Anne, was definitely a feat for Pike and she nailed it… because every dude who saw that movie despised her, which is exactly what she aimed for.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Steve Carrell (Foxcatcher)

It pains me to not pick Michael Keaton who I am praying… PRAYING to win the Oscar over the ever-predictable and typical choice of Eddie Redmayne’s disabled quadriplegic Steven Hawking.

But STEVE CARRELL stole his film… just hijacked it from everyone else in the cast and nailed every scene he was in. There was an air of this incredible uncomfortable intensity which existed in every room Carrell’s duPont character entered into, and his creepy and pathetic attempts of gaining the affection of his mother played out so brilliantly in the wrestling practice facility. Enough can’t be said about Carrell’s transformation from lovable geeky comedian to mentally demented billionaire.

Best Director: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Filming a movie over the period of 12 years. Is it a gimmick? Maybe, but to capture the trust and belief of an entire cast and crew for that long and come out with such an emotionally resonant film that makes you nostalgic and feel for that generation of growing up, Richard Linklater did something truly remarkable. He’s an incredibly talented filmmaker, and his leadership through such a long on-and-off process and still being able to maintain that teamwork to get this project done is a directorial feat that deserves to be recognized.

Best Picture: Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

Interesting, innovative, deep, and personal, Birdman is a movie which is totally unlike any other this year. You can’t say that very often, especially for Oscar nominees, but what Iñárritu did here was give us something to think about and enjoy at the same time. Its filled with jokes and quirky charms, but fills in the gaps with dialogue that makes us question our culture of film, our approach to cinema, and how perception of oneself and the perception through viewers blend. There are many questions surrounding what it all means, but thats the fun of it. In a long time, we get a Best Picture film which transcends the argument of “good or bad film”.

THE TALLY (Films with more than 1 win)

Birdman – 6 wins

Boyhood – 3 wins

Foxcatcher – 2 wins

The Grand Budapest Hotel – 2 wins

Interstellar – 2 wins