Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Oscars: My Picks for Best Actor

The Best Actor race: per usual, its one of the most crowded competitions of the year. However, since November, the competition has become more seperated, and with the exceptions of a few confusions (Is Dev Patel a lead or supporting actor?), the front-runners have been established. Here are my selections for the nominees. BEST ACTOR Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino - Supposedly, this is Eastwood's last on-screen role, as he will focus more on directing in the future. And, surprisingly, not only has Eastwood only been nominated for an acting Oscar twice (for 1992's Unfogiven and 2004's Million Dollar Baby), but he won neither one (Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx did, respectively). As grumpy war veteran Walt Kowalski, Eastwood delievers a profane, steely performance that also recalls the badass roles he used to take as Rooster Cogburn, Dirty Harry, and Blondie. Though he would be unlikely to win (again), a nomination would be fitting way to send off this acting legend. Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon - Langella has a lot on his side to help him land his first Oscar nomination. For one, he's been nominated for just about every other major award imaginable, and his invite to this ceremony is long overdue. Then, he is portraying Richard Nixon, one of the most complicated and fascinating real-life characters that Hollywood can't help but love (in fact, Anthony Hopkins recieved an Oscar nomination in 1995 for playing Nixon in Nixon). Langella fully embodies the role, and while detractors may point out that he does not physically resemble Nixon enough, he nails the speech and mannerisms, and brings an iron resolve to the man who would be a crook. And as a kicker, he is reprising his role from the stage version upon which the movie is based, and he won a Tony for it. All of this adds up to Langella being a lock for this year's nominations. Sean Penn, Milk - The Academy loves Penn. He has so far racked up four nominations, with one win (2003's Mystic River), even for the critically drubbed I Am Sam. But this year, Penn is not only a front-runner to win, but is also deserving of it for his true, fully-realized, tragicomic performance as slain San Fransisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay man to hold public office in the United States. Penn plays Milk as a crusader who is determined to make a change, not for just himself and the gay community but for everyone. He oozes charisma, making you understand why people followed him and supported him. Penn is also a lock for portraying the open homosexuality of Milk, engaging in intimate love scenes with James Franco's Scott Smith (why playing a gay character is still considered "a brave feat" still puzzles me, but more on that another time). Expect to see Penn in this category again. Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - He's become the center of the tabloid universe since his rise to fame in the early '90s, and is currently one-half of Hollywood's must powerful couple, Brangelina (interestingly, both Pitt and Angelina Jolie are strong contenders for Oscar nominations this year). All of this fame has somewhat eclipsed the fact that Pitt is also a great actor, and his body of work has usually been less praised than his body. He's been nominated before (for Supporting Actor for 1995's 12 Monkeys), and he should return to the ceremony this year after his engaging performance as Benjamin Button, a man who ages in reverse. In a role that required plenty of make-up and digital effects, Pitt was never consumed by them, always setting forth Button's humanity and emotions. Carrying the whole movie on his shoulders and never letting it crush him, Pitt is certainly deserving of nomination #2 this year. Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler - Here is a story that seems like only Hollywood could create: a man is at the top of his field, but when he falls victim to substance abuse and personal problems, he falls from grace, only to attempt a comeback years later that results in success. This is the story of The Wrestler, but it is also the true story of Mickey Rourke. In a role that converges with his own life, Rourke brings incredible vulnerability to Randy "The Ram" Robinson as he tries to reconnect with his career, his daughter, and his life. Expect Rourke to land his first career nomination for this role, as not only does the Academy love a comeback story, but he delievers one of the very best performances of the year. Tomorrow I'll post my Best Actress picks.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Oscars: My Picks for Best Director

Always a fun category, these are the directors who guided their films to the level of achievement they have reached. My picks for this category line up with 4/5 of the Best Picture nominees, which is how they usually do line up nowadays. BEST DIRECTOR David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Fincher is certainly the most deserving of a nomination, after being ignored for Se7en, Fight Club, and last year's criminally ignored Zodiac. Reteaming with Brad Pitt for the third time, Fincher brought an epic scale to Benjamin Button, but also, from what I understand, managed to examine the psychological effects of the backwards-aging process. The film also appears to stick somewhat to Fincher's usual style, but also looks like he has expanded his realm. Already a sure thing for this category, Fincher should finally recieve his due this year. Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight - It's not easy to get a direction nod when you're directing a summer blockbuster. Even more difficult is creating a film that is both mainstream-enough to attract huge audiences and intellegent enough to recieve some of the best reviews of the year, especially in a franchise that was all but left for dead after the Nipplesuit/Robin disaster. And yet Christopher Nolan masterfully accomplished all of these with the headiest superhero movie ever made, and should now recieve his first nomination in this category regardless of whether the film lands in Best Picture. Balancing real explosions with emotional and ethical ones, Nolan took the promise he showed in Batman Begins and his wonderful Memento and brought the film to fully-realized life. Like Fincher, he is more than deserving of a nomination here. Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino - The wild card of the year. He hasn't been recieving huge amounts of buzz for his direction in this film (much more for acting), but he's got a few good omens on his side. One is his fantastic direction, which has elevated the film from a profane Hallmark movie to one of the best reviewed films of the year. The film has also had a lot of buzz building, and thanks to strong word-of-mouth, its already a certified hit, claiming the #1 spot at last weekend's (1/11) box office. And then there's the simple fact that the Academy loves Eastwood, and will nominate him for anything they can. Though Revolutionary Road's Sam Mendes and Frost/Nixon's Ron Howard are also strong contenders, expect to hear Eastwood's name called the morning of January 21. Gus van Sant, Milk - The only other veteran in this category (he was nominated in 1997 for Good Will Hunting), van Sant faced a mighty task: taking the story of Harvey Milk and telling it in a way that would be both relevant to today (Prop 8 helped too) as well as a memorial to Milk without becoming a political Brokeback Mountain. And from what I can tell, he succeeded brilliantly (I will probably see the film tomorrrow night). It also marks a "return to form" for van Sant, who has spent recent years dabbling in independent films like Paranoid Park, Last Days and Elephant. His return to this category will certainly be a welcome one. Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire - Boyle perhaps has the most eclectic filmography of this group, with a gangster film (Trainspotting), an adventure story (The Beach), a zombie movie (28 Days Later), a family film (Millions) and a sci-fi thriller (Sunshine). However, he manages to bring an exhilerating energy to Slumdog Millionaire, and also captures India in a way that makes you want to be there, even in the slums. It's also the mark of a truly great director to pull great performances from child actors, as he does in the early part of the film. Though some have criticized his direction as being too shallow, he brings Slumdog to vivid life, and deserves his first Oscar nomination. Tomorrow I'll post my picks for Best Actor.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Jason's Top 10 Films of 2008

So here it goes: my 10 favorite movies of 2008, with reasons as to why. It probably differs a lot from some of the other Top 10 lists other critics have posted, but, hey, this is my list and I like what I like. Anyway. The Top 10 Films of 2008 1. Tropic Thunder - There was no movie this year funnier nor better than Tropic Thunder. A brilliant satire of the Hollywood system, war movies, and our country's foreign policy (think about it: a clueless director taking advice from a veteran with a not-quite-as-glorious-as-people-believe combat record and dropping "soldiers" into a place they don't understand. Sound familiar?) with a sharp, knowing wit. Ben Stiller's direction has never been better, and the script, written by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, is both uproarously hilarious and intellegently plotted. But the real draw here was the cast: Ben Stiller as an egotistic action star looking for a comeback (and respect), Jack Black as an obnoxious, heroin-addicted comedian, Matthew McConaghey (in his best role to date) as Tugg Speedman's agent, and, in the two best comedic roles of the year, Robert Downey Jr. as the Oscar-winner who really gets into the character of the black soldier (and deserves an Oscar himself for it) and Tom Cruise as the foul-mouthed studio executive backing the picture (his best role since Jerry Maguire). Satirizing the entire entertainment industry, Tropic Thunder proved that comedy really can be golden. 2. The Dark Knight - This one is just obvious. For darker fare, it was easily the best movie of the year, not just the best Batman or even superhero movie in general. Christian Bale brought new depth to Bruce Wayne, and Aaron Eckhart was stunning as the "white knight" of Gotham as Harvey Dent. However, the true star of this movie was the late Heath Ledger, who took the Joker from what could have been hammy and jokey and turned it into one of the scariest, richest, most vivid performances of all time. The story touched on themes that went way beyond the usual summer fare (Wiretapping? Check. Terrorism? Check. Difficult questions of ethics? Check.) and, in a brilliantly written script by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, made them stick to you without being preachy (like most Iraq war films as of late). Christopher Nolan's exsquist direction led to the creation of a dark, terrifying world that was all the more frightening in that it mirrored our own reality. The Dark Knight will stand in history as a classic, a look at what the superhero genre can be, and set the bar high for all who follow it. 3. Wall-E - Whereas The Dark Knight showed us the hidden storytelling potential in the superhero genre, Wall-E showed us the majesty and endless bounds that lie within animation. The story itself is simple enough: a lonely robot on a future Earth that is now a wasteland falls in love with a sleek, modern robot sent to find signs of life, and together they embark on an adventure across the stars. However, the movie was anything but simple. Part silent film, part comedy, part romance, part sci-fi, and part message film, the movie presented us with a world that was almost impossible to not be amazed by, and the most believable on-screen romance this year between Wall-E and Eve. And, for a supposed "kid's movie," Wall-E touched on themes that were decidedly adult: global warming, obesity, consumerism. Not only was it Pixar's best yet, it was the best animated film in the last decade, perhaps ever. 4. Religulous -Those who come to see this movie for an unbiased exploration of world religion will be greatly disappointed. This is a documentary that is not meant so much as to educate the masses, but it rather serves as Bill Maher's thesis on religion, and his message is pretty simple: religion will be the end of the human race. Whether you agree with him or not, he does present a logical, well-developed and convincing argument, complete with fascinating evidence that will at least leave you curious enough to do some research of your own. Some say that Bill Maher showboats too much, or that he intentionally chooses the targets he pursues, but that's his point. He doesn't care about being fair to all sides, and the results are equal parts hilarious, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing (the Creationism museum that features Jesus with the dinosaurs, for example). Religulous was thoughtful and thought-provoking, and deserves to be seen. 5. Cloverfield - Say what you will about it, but Cloverfield was one of the smartest monster movies ever made. Focusing on the attack from the point of view of a group of people caught in the middle of it, it takes the Blair Witch Project (one of my favorite movies of all time) route and gives us a unique look that films like Godzilla did not provide: a human perspective. The audience became part of the madness, and though the cinematography was dizzying, it was engaging and realistic. Another wonderful aspect of the movie was how little was actually revealed: we saw the monster, but just like the characters, we knew nothing about it, nor did we know what was happening in the grander scheme of the attack. Cloverfield was the kind of film that lived up to all of its marketing hype, and produced a movie that was terrifying, exciting, and completely original. 6. Iron Man - I won't lie: I am a huge Robert Downey Jr. fan. And Iron Man lived up to the hype that it recieved. A smart, fun superhero movie, it managed to take a Marvel superhero whom few really knew about beforehand and made him an engaging, layered character. Tony Stark was not a moody billionaire nor a pure-hearted do-gooder; he was an eccentric weapons manufacturer who could care less about the effects of his actions- until he finds himself facing the consequences. Though Gwenyth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard (who unfortunately will not be returning in Iron Man 2) all hold their own on screen, this is completely the RBJ show, and he delievers a performance rivaled only by his own as Kirk Lazarus. Downey Jr. adds layers of depth to Stark without ever sacrificing what makes him unique, and for it Iron Man was one of the most fun movies of the year. 7. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist - It was a small, under-the-radar film that few people were eagerly awaiting. But Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist was something completely original in the teen comedy genre: original, refreshing, and honest. Starring the achingly/awkwardly funny Michael Cera as Nick and the wonderful Kat Dennings as Norah, the film felt real; this is how teenagers really react around each other, and the chemistry between Cera and Dennings helped sell the romance that bloomed as they both searched for an elusive band one night in New York. Best of all was a criminally underrated performance by Ari Gaynor, whose drunken Caroline had some of the funniest scenes in the movie. The film was sweet without being sacchrine, and honest without being boring, and, best of all, featured layered, interesting teen characters. N&NIP was the most pleasant surprise of the year. 8. Vantage Point - Or, Crash At A Presidential Assassination. Told from the viewpoints of six different characters, we see the attempted assassination of the president at a summit in Spain, but through these different outlets we see all the puzzle pieces of the plot. And the fitting of these pieces reveals a twisty, complicated plot that is never what it seems. A thriller that aspires to be Hitchcock-worthy (but doesn't quite reach it), this was another surprise, and delievers great performances from its cast, particularly from Forest Whitiker as an American on vacation who becomes entangled in the whole ordeal. Its a thriller that delievers the thrillers, and rewards the audience for keeping up. 9. Forgetting Sarah Marshall - The Apatow factory has produced some great comedies over the years, but in 2008, this was easily the best, and the second-best of all time (behind the brilliance that was Superbad, of course). Written by and starring the fantastic Jason Segel, the film wrangles gut-wrenching laughs from the worst possible situation: going on vacation to get over a recent breakup, only to end up at the same resort as your ex and her new boyfriend. Segel brought a pathetic, hilarious humanity to Peter, and supporting players Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Russell Brand and Paul Rudd brought huge laughs to the screen. A smart, tender, uproarous comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall proved that the worst of breakups can provide some of the biggest laughs. 10. Burn After Reading - After the dark, bloody glimpse at hell (aka 1980s Texas) that was the brilliant No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers returned with this dark, bloody comedy that was one of their best original works since Raising Arizona. With a plot that was ripe with deceit, conspiracy, and complete buffoonary, the movie gleefully let us glimpse at the ridiculousness of the intellegence network and the ingenuity of complete fools. With top-notch performances by John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, and an incredible Brad Pitt, this was a Coen comedy that was not only pitch-black in its humor but also a humorous take on the fears of our government and the relativity of intellegence. As a final note, I would like to point out that, to me at least, 2008 was a great year for comedy, as 5 of my 10 films could be considered such, not to mention other comedies such as Pineapple Express, Baby Mama, Charlie Bartlett, Get Smart and Be Kind Rewind. Here's hoping 2009 is even better.

The Oscars: My Predictions for Best Picture

As an aspiring writer/director and a huge movie geek, its only right that I should be hugely into the Oscars. And believe me, I am. I've been watching the races carefully since September, and have been trying to see as many awards-contention movies as possible (and I've seen a good number over the past year). And so, based on the races as I have seen them, here are my predictions for who will be nominated next week, along with an explanation for why. Each day I will post a new race, starting today with Best Picture. BEST PICTURE The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - I haven't actually seen this one (yet; I want to), but it has all of the hallmarks of a Best Picture nominee: epic scope, timeless story, based on a book (well, short story, but still), a brave performance by a well-known actor, peak work by an underrated director. I'd be surprised to not see it on this list. Doubt - A lot of people have already counted this one out, but after it's recent Best Cast nomination at the SAGs, I think it stands a real chance at a nomination. Again, I have not yet seen this one, but from what I can tell it looks to have just the kind of moral ambiguity that Oscar loves so much (see last year's Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, and No Country For Old Men). Plus, the gifted cast should help elevate John Patrick Shanley's supposedly mediocre direction. Milk - Another Oscar favorite: the biopic. I intend on seeing this one tomorrow night, so I will post my thoughts and reflections on it then. However, led by Gus van Sant's direction comeback and star two of the best actors in Hollywood (Sean Penn and the horribly underappreciated Josh Brolin), its hard for me to imagine this film getting shafted, especially considering the relevance of the film in light of the Prop 8 ordeal. Slumdog Millionaire - I saw this last night, and I can now say that I fall in with the crowd that is hailing this one of the year's best films. A great screenplay that could have gone horribly awry works wonderfully in the hands of director Danny Boyle, who infuses the film with the kind of inspirational get-up-and-cheer energy that has been sorely missing from recent Best Picture nominees (Juno was the only upbeat film in last year's set, and it was about teen pregnancy). A wonderful set of actors, led by Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto (where are her awards?), bring the type of honesty to the roles that makes you want to know more about these characters. Like Jamal Malik, the film is an underdog who is surprising everyone, and it deserves every bit of that success. The Dark Knight - Overrated? Not even close. This was my second-favorite movie of 2008 (I'll be sure to post my Top 10 list soon, along with my favorite performances of the year), and it was so much more than just a Batman movie. TDK went into territory that is usually reserved for awards movies, not summer superhero flicks; in exploring the dark side of all of the characters' souls, the movie asked us: how different is this from our own reality? It also produced the most frightening character of the last decade: The Joker, a terrorist who has no plan, no intentions other than to cause as much chaos as possible, irregardless of the consequences. It was bold, dark, and most importantly, incredible, and it deserves to be the first superhero movie to be a Best Picture nominee. These are my picks. Enjoy and comment. Tomorrow I'll post my Best Director choices.