Thursday, January 14, 2016

Nominations for the 88th Annual Academy Awards

Christmas Eve has finally arrived! Yes, I know that it's actually January 14 and Christmas Eve is over 11 months away (or just three weeks past, if you're a glass-half-empty type). But the day of the Oscar nominations is mine and every Oscar fan's Christmas Eve, the day the Academy brings us a fun grab bag of recognition that we will trash and complain endlessly about for the next two months and debating and studying for years. For the next few weeks, these will either be the greatest films ever made or the absolute worst examples of the form. They will confirm the joys of cinema and prove that it is dead. And ultimately, none of it will matter, because all of this is subjective and Oscars are a horrible way of evaluating films. But they are a great entryway into thinking critically about cinema and, most importantly, they're so much fun to debate and discuss.

With that mission statement out of the way, let's talk about the actual nominations. Alejandro G. Iñárritu's brutal Western The Revenant leads the way with a total of 12 nominations, with surprising critical darling Mad Max: Fury Road close with 10 nominations (for the record, that's 10 more than the previous Mad Max films combined). There are a fair number of surprises - that Best Director lineup! Jennifer Lawrence! Straight Outta Compton! - but for the most part the nominations reflect the wide spread of films that received praise this year. That nothing was overwhelmingly dominant (outside the aforementioned leaders, which both missed out on the screenplay categories, it should be noted) should be evidence that it was a good year for quality films.

(Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is an Oscar nominee, which should derail that argument, but don't lie to yourself - you love The Weeknd's silky Screamin' Jay Hawkins riff "Earned It.")

Below is a full list of the nominees with commentary. Did your favorites make the cut?


The Revenant; Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mary Parent, and Keith Redmon, producers

Spotlight; Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, and Blye Pagon Faust, producers

Mad Max: Fury Road; Doug Mitchell and George Miller, producers

Room; Ed Guiney, producer

The Martian; Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, and Mark Huffam, producers

Bridge of Spies; Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt, and Kristie Macosko Krieger, producers

The Big Short; Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner, producers

Brooklyn; Finola Dwyer and Amanda Poser, producers

Given the divisive nature of the awards season, I'm surprised there aren't more than eight nominees. And they're an interesting bunch: Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies managed to sneak in after everyone assumed they'd been forgotten, while Room and The Big Short made good on their late surges. The biggest surprise here, though, is Carol: where is it? Given the passion surrounding the film with critics, it seemed like a shoo-in. But the Academy apparently felt otherwise (perhaps two women in love with each other is too much for them?). 

Also, if you're feeling sad about Star Wars: The Force Awakens missing out here, don't cry too much for them. Now that it's the biggest film of all time domestically and still breaking box office records (in addition to making "Weird" Al Yankovic seem like prescient genius), I don't think J.J. Abrams, Lucasfilm, and Disney are losing too much sleep over it. Besides, its five total nominations are the most for a Star Wars film since the original in 1977, and matches the combined nomination total of the prequel trilogy. So technically it did pretty well today!


Brie Larson, Room

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Rampling doesn't come as much of a surprise to me because I predicted her. In recent years, there's been at least one acting nominee who missed out at the Globes and SAGs but came up with an Oscar nod: Marion Cotillard last year, Christian Bale in 2013, Emmanuelle Riva and Quvenzhane Wallis in 2012. Rampling fit the bill and, with an esteemed career and the best reviews of her life, she makes sense as a nominee. More surprising, however, is Lawrence. She's her film's only nomination, which, coupled with the 0-for-10 record of American Hustle two years ago, seems to suggest the Academy is ready to move on from director David O. Russell (praise Thor). With her fourth nomination at the age of 25, she surprises Jennifer Jones' nearly 70-year-old record for the youngest actor to reach four nominations. 


Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Matt Damon, The Martian

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

This is pretty much exactly how it was expected to happen, with newly-minted comedian (though not always very funny) Matt Damon seeming like the only one capable of catching up to presumed frontrunner Leonardo DiCaprio (he almost died for this, you know). Cranston is the only newcomer in the group, and for him a nomination only seemed like a matter of "when," not "if."

The rest of the nominees after the jump.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Final Predictions for the 88th Annual Academy Award Nominations

This is definitely a bit of a rush job, so I apologize for that, but below are my final predictions for the Oscar nominations tomorrow morning. I haven't been able to keep up with the season's pandemonium as much as I have in the past, so several of these are just shots in the dark. Keep that in mind if you're making last-minute bets: I could definitely be wrong, but if I'm right, well, bully for me.

Anyway, check them out and be sure to check back here tomorrow for a full rundown of the actual nominees.


I'm predicting nine:

The Revenant
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
Bridge of Spies
The Big Short

If more than nine, then...

Inside Out


Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Rooney Mara, Carol

After originally posting this, I realized that I left off presumed frontrunner Brie Larson (Room). I'm very much rooting for her, don't get me wrong, and I honestly just forgot about her when I was slapping these predictions together. But you know what? I'm running with it. Mara is going to be nominated, giving us two nominees from the same film in this category for the first time since 1991, and Larson will go down as an Affleck-for-Best-Director level snub, which will then propel Room to a Best Picture win. You heard it here first!


Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Matt Damon, The Martian
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl


Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Joan Allen, Room
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria


Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Todd Haynes, Carol
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road


The Martian
Steve Jobs
The Big Short


Inside Out
Bridge of Spies
Ex Machina
Son of Saul

See the rest after the jump.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: The Best (Previously Seen) Films of the Semester

I'll conclude my first-semester experience with films that I had previously seen and enjoyed, but haven't written about on this site. Some of these films I may have made mention of before, but I have not written about more than in passing. I highly recommend seeking out all of these films; all of them are classics that deserve to be seen by cinephiles and casual viewers alike. So, without further ado, eight films that you should definitely seek out.

From "American Masterworks"

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols, 1966)

Mike Nichols would go on to have an incredible career as one of the United States most notable directors, and he made one hell of a debut with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the film adaptation of Edward Albee's hit play. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor - a Hollywood power couple famously on-the-rocks at the time - are perfectly cast as bitterly resentful couple George and Martha, playfully toying with young couple Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis). As the booze flows, so do the pent-up frustrations and passions, as just about every character unveils their most unseemly attributes. Nichols orchestrates everything with perfect pitch, reining everything in with precision. That this film was only the beginning of his illustrious career only makes it all the more impressive.

The Best Years of Our Lives (dir. William Wyler, 1946)

Mark Harris' incredible nonfiction book Five Came Back has a phenomenal account of Wyler's time serving the United States during World War II. Given his experiences, it's no surprise that his first project after the war was The Best Years of Our Lives, a stunningly intimate account (given its nearly three-hour running time) of three servicemen returning from the war to the same hometown. Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell (a veteran who lost both of his arms in the war, making his acting debut) deliver captivating, heartbreaking performances as their characters struggle to make the adjustment to peacetime domesticity. Wyler demonstrates his prowess as a director through deep-focus photography that keeps the characters' environments perpetually in focus, paradoxically isolating them while also integrating them. There is perhaps no greater document of the adjustment after war than this film.

Films from Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, and more after the jump.

Dispatches from Film School: The Best (New to Me) Films from This Semester

Now that we've covered the most challenging films of the semester, we'll move on to the films that I greatly enjoyed and were new to me. Afterward we'll get to the great films that I'd seen before but hadn't written about here yet.

But for now, check out these fascinating films.

From "American Masterworks"

The Manchurian Candidate (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1963)

The Manchurian Candidate is a truly remarkable feat of political-thriller filmmaking. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) return to the United States after being captured in Manchuria during the Korean War, with Shaw returning home to his power-minded mother (Angela Lansbury). Marco, however, suspects that something happened in Manchuria that neither one of them fully remembers, setting off a chain of events that unravels a terrifying conspiracy. Frankenheimer imbues every scene with unnerving paranoia, and he makes terrific use of the film's editing to further disorient the viewer. The performances are also great, especially Lansbury in what may be the greatest work of her career, though that could be said of Harvey and Sinatra as well. My advice: skip the 2004 remake with Denzel Washington and check out the classic.

Angels with Dirty Faces (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1937)

Perhaps the finest of the Depression-era gangster films, Angels with Dirty Faces stars James Cagney as gangster Rocky Sullivan, recently released from prison and hoping to go straight. His childhood friend Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien) is now a priest, and it's through him that Rocky becomes a quasi-mentor for a gang of children that call themselves the Dead End Kids. Naturally, Rocky's old life comes back to haunt him, forcing him to make a choice between going back to his old ways or continuing on his new path. Cagney and O'Brien are both terrific in their roles, and Curtiz creates a fully-realized world for these characters to inhabit in the detailed, lived-in neighborhood. It's a fine example of studio-system filmmaking.

Films from Douglas Sirk, Andy Warhol, and Michael Powell after the jump.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: The Most Challenging Films I Saw This Semester

After a long absence, I'm finally back! I'm happy to report that I survived my first semester of grad school, and I've come away from my four classes with a renewed appreciation for a number of films, both old and new. And what better way to return to the blog than by sharing some of those films with you? I'll publish my favorite films, both previously-seen and new to me, later this week, but for now I'm going to start with the films that were the most challenging for me. "Challenging" means films that I felt conflicted about, either in the content they presented or the way that content was presented (or both). These are films that I am glad to have seen, but I don't know that I would watch them again or recommend them to others.

I've organized these films by the class I viewed them in: American Masterworks (a survey history of cinema in the United States), Avant-Garde Cinema (an examination of the avant-garde), and Horror and Gender (a study in how gender is represented in horror films - not just Final Girls). My fourth class, Television Theory and Criticism, didn't require many viewings, so I've left it out.

And so, here are six films that I found challenging this semester.

From "American Masterworks"

The Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1915)

I consider this one challenging because of the place in film history that it occupies and my personal conflict with appreciating it. Griffith's film is a breathtaking spectacle of the silent era, spanning a sweeping historical era and employing a number of then-innovative techniques such as cuts that alternated between two spaces and expressive acting. From a purely filmic standpoint, the film is a phenomenal achievement. It is also, however, deeply unsettling in its racism, hailing the Ku Klux Klan as heroes of American morality and depicting its black characters (most of whom are white actors in blackface) as lascivious brutes incapable of human characteristics. This is what makes the film a challenge: it's a hugely important film in the development of cinema, but it comes with monstrous baggage.

Avant-garde and horror films after the jump.