Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sundance 2016: 11 Things I Loved From the First Half

1. Captain Fantastic

The best film of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (so far) stars Viggo Mortensen as a father raising his six children in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, teaching them, on the one hand, to live off the land and physically take care of themselves, but also multiple languages, political theory, and advanced philosophy. When the death of their mother forces Viggo to bring his children back into society, some hilarity ensues, and yeah, this plot sounds excessively “Sundancey.” But writer/director Matt Ross (you know him as the villainous and Lumbergian Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley) isn’t here to make a charming comedy about a quirky family. Ross uses this high concept to weave a truly poignant story about what it means to actually educate and prepare your children for the world, and how you can still never totally get it right.

2. Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea  

For a brief 24-hour period, Manchester by the Sea had notched the all-time Sundance record for most lucrative distribution sale (before it was shattered the next day by The Birth of a Nation), selling to Amazon for a reported 10 million dollars. The film is great, but the real reason Amazon paid so much for it is because Casey Affleck already feels like a sure-thing Oscar nominee. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret), Manchester by the Sea continues his fascination with normal people dealing with the aftermaths of traumatic experiences, but this is his best iteration yet. Affleck plays Lee, a Boston maintenance man forced to care for his 16-year old nephew after the death of his brother, but a tragedy in his own past is preventing him from being able to emotionally provide for another person. As Lonergan slowly brings us into Lee’s story, never revealing things too quickly, Affleck exudes all of the pain, distance, and repression of the most tragic PTSD survivors. This is how good we always hoped he’d be. 

3. Under the Shadow Finding the Horror Balance

I don’t like most horror films, because most of them are terrible. Under the Shadow is a great horror film because it understands what that means. Taking place in Tehran during the 1980s, in the midst of the Iran/Iraq war, this is the story of a mother and her young daughter, who is maybe being haunted by a djinn that stole her doll and has marked her for death. Structurally, Under the Shadow is much like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, revolving around a mother who at first doesn’t think anything’s wrong, then maybe thinks something’s wrong, and finally knows something’s wrong. Also like those two classics, Under the Shadow doesn’t have a single scare for probably the first 40% of the film. It draws you in slowly and makes you care about the setting, characters, and circumstances, knowing that only then does it have the power to truly make you scream for sweet Jesus. And you will. 

4. Kevin Smith's Speech About Sundance

The new Kevin Smith film, Yoga Hosers, about two teenage girls working at a Winnipeg convenience store and using yoga to  fight Nazis reincarnated as sausages (…I’ll just wait here while you make sure you read that right), is about 20 minutes of a funny, promising film followed by over an hour of a pretty terrible one. Smith described it as a mix of Clueless and Gremlins, which is accurate thematically but definitely not qualitatively. And yet, attending that screening is something I’ll always remember, because of the long speech(es) Smith gave about what Sundance meant to him, and why being creative is so important, even when you suck. (“Most of my films suck,” Smith said.) While he was physically born in Jersey, Smith said he was really born at Sundance in 1994, and it changed his life forever. He’s been back nine times since then, and Sundance is his “personal Lazarus Pit,” referring to Ra’s Al Ghul, the Batman villain who is constantly reborn every time he enters a Lazarus Pit. Smith then switched gears and spoke about how important it is to just be creative, because all of us “can be content providers,” and no matter how much of the content may suck, someone will still walk up to you one day and say that something you created changed their life for the better. It’s a little too cliché to say that Smith’s words have changed my life, but they meant a lot to me and I’ll always remember them.

5. Miles Ahead Breaking the Biopic Formula

Since Ray and Walk the Line struck Oscar gold a little over ten years ago, we’ve seen an increasingly large number of musical biopics in recent years. After Straight Outta Compton and the Hank Williams film that premiered in Toronto, Miles Ahead is the third biopic of a major musical innovator that I’ve seen in the last six months. It’s also the best one, because it wants nothing to do with being a musical biopic. Starring and directed by Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead focuses on a specific moment in Miles Davis’ life, at the beginning of the ‘80s, when he hadn’t released any new music in five years. From there, it swerves into left field, fabricating a fever dream of Miles’ mental state and inner traumas, attempting to reach a truth (via contrived characters and events) about what would cause one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century to stop touching his instrument. The result is something that takes an almost fan-fiction route to actually capturing what made someone tick. Cheadle nails the lead performance, but even more importantly, comes off like a seasoned director embracing real experimentation with the form. 

6. Julianne Moore as a Danish Intellectual

In Maggie’s Plan, the delightful new comedy from Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis), Greta Gerwig stars as a New Yorker that wants a baby, and has her eyes set on the already-married Ethan Hawke to give her one. Julianne Moore plays Hawke’s insufferable Euro-intellectual wife, who’s set up as the pseudo-villain in the film’s first half. That eventually switches, and it’s a credit to Moore’s acting and Miller’s script that the switch never feels forced or the result of suddenly-different characterization. And Moore is hilarious as a Scandinavian ice queen, weaponizing her pretentious accent. 

7. Whit Stillman's Character Introductions

Whit Stillman films aren’t usually my thing, but he always finds a way to include some little tick or flourish that I love. With his Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship, it’s the character introductions that set the tone and make the film. As each character enters the story, we cut to a shot of that person standing outside their provincial estate, turning toward the camera, and awkwardly smiling as their personalized title card comes up on the bottom of the screen, often saying innocuous things like “She packs and unpacks.” They never got old. 

8. Tom Bennett's Supporting Turn in Love & Friendship

The British aristocracy has never been more hilariously inept.

9. Werner Herzog as Opening Narrator

The opening moments of Herzog’s Lo and Behold, a documentary about the internet, take us to the UCLA building where the internet was born, and Herzog chimes in, as truly only he can, with the words “Here in this repulsive looking hallway…”

I wish Werner Herzog would narrate my life. 

10. Christine's Character Work and Production Design

Christine Chubbuck, a young, ambitious, and emotionally troubled Sarasota news reporter, killed herself on air in 1974, inspiring the screenplay for Network. This film version of her life in the months leading up to her suicide is way too long, which sadly undermines what is otherwise a really painstakingly detailed and thoughtful character piece about a troubled woman in a calm and quiet emotional spiral. The look of this film, from the costumes and the sets to the ‘70s color palate that gets saturated in smoke, effectively absorbs you into this world, and Rebecca Hall has never been better as the titular character. With better editing, this would have been a great film. 

11. Getting to See a Teen Sex Comedy From India

The film in question, Brahman Naman, was not very good, and its best moments involve a Jethro Tull song. But how cool is it that Sundance brought a teen sex comedy from India all the way to Utah? Pretty damn cool. Plus, it led to the best audience Q&A question I’ve ever heard: “Was that really your penis?” 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Predicting the 2016 Oscar Nominees

It's that time again--predicting what the Oscar nominations will be for the eight major categories. The goal is always to go 45 for 45, but this year is much more of a crapshoot than normal, as there's very little consensus on what the best films are, and the huge differences in the nominations for the Golden Globes and the various major guilds prove that Tuesday morning could have a lot of surprises. So let's get right to the wrong answers!


The Sure Things:
The Martian
The Big Short

The Safe Bets:
The Revenant
Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Out
Steve Jobs

The Possibles:
Bridge of Spies
Ex Machina

The Long shots:
Straight Outta Compton
The Danish Girl
Beasts of No Nation
Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The most important thing to remember here is how the nomination process works in this category: for a film to receive a Best Picture nomination, it must get at least 5% of the first place votes. Translation: In the nomination phase, it doesn't really matter how many Academy members like a film, it matters that at least 300 of them think it was the best film of the year. That's why I'm discounting the six long shots right off the bat; no matter how well-liked they may be, I just don't picture 300 Academy voters thinking any of them were the year's best film. 

After that, it gets really tricky. I'l start by assuming the five "Safe Bets" will get a nomination, though all of them are at least slightly vulnerable. I'll also make a daring prediction that this is the first year we'll get the full ten nominations since the rules changed in 2011. In picking which two "possibles" will get the final slots, what you're really trying to figure out is which of those films will be the most widely seen by voters. I like Room's chances; because Brie Larson is considered the Best Actress front-runner, voters will feel obligated to check it out. For the final slot, I'll go with Bridge of Spies, because of the Spielberg factor, and because of how much it might appeal to the oldest demographic of voters. But keep an eye out on Ex Machina--the guild awards proved how much people love that film. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Spotlight, The Martian, The Big Short, The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, Steve Jobs, Inside Out, Room, and Bridge of Spies


The Sure Things:
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

The Very Safe Bets:
Matt Damon, The Martian
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Who the Hell Knows
Michael Caine, Youth
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Michael Keaton, Spotlight
Ian McKellan, Mr. Holmes
Will Smith, Concussion

Damon bizarrely didn't get a SAG Award nomination, and Redmayne seems potentially vulnerable because extremely tepid critical response to The Danish Girl could keep some voters from watching it.  But I'm going to assume both are in. 

What happens from there is anyone's guess. Smith got a Golden Globe nomination, while Depp got a SAG nomination, but I don't think either will make the cut here because their movies are being mostly forgotten about among such tepid reviews. Keaton and Bale are both possibilities here, because Oscar voters can place actors in whichever category they want (lead or supporting), and there's definitely some confusion about which race these guys belong in. But I think they'll have a much better chance with Supporting Actor. That leaves Caine, Cranston, and McKellan. McKellan is the long shot, and I'm not ballsy enough to pick him (though I think he's the most deserving of the three). Cranston received nominations from both SAG and the Globes, and if I were playing it safe, he seems like the most likely choice for the fifth slot. But man, the Oscars do love them some Michael Caine. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: DiCaprio, Fassbender, Damon, Redmayne, and Caine


The Sure Things:
Brie Larson, Room
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

The Category Fraud Travesties
Rooney Mara, Carol
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

The Other Possibilities
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold
Maggie Smith, Lady in the Van

What happens in this category really depends on what voters decide to do with Mara and Vikander. Both are absolutely deserving of nominations, and both are leads in their films. But for reasons that have everything to do with trying to win awards (and nothing to do with the reality of the movies they're in), they're being campaigned  for the Supporting Actress category. This is blatant category fraud. Both of their films (Carol and The Danish Girl) are about two people trying to figure out how to love each other, despite societal difficulties relating to their sexual proclivities. What neither film is about is one character trying to love a second, less important character. Trying to pretend that's the case, and that one character is the sole "lead" role, is an attempt to change the very nature of the film's narrative. It's ridiculous, and it's cheating.

But, sadly, I'm also assuming voters will go with it. So that leaves two open slots, and four likely candidates. Jennifer Lawrence seems highly unwise to bet against, and I'm not unwise. That leaves three classy old English dames fighting for the last slot. Mirren has the advantage of being in the biggest commercial hit of the three, and Rampling was in the biggest critical hit. So I think Maggie Smith is out, by virtue of not fitting either voting angle. Mirren is the safe choice here, because she's Helen Fucking Mirren. But Rampling has never been nominated, and her film, 45 Years, is just beloved by all who see it. She absolutely carries it with a lovely, nuanced performance, and I'm pulling for her. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Larson, Blanchett, Ronan, Lawrence, and Rampling


The Mostly Sure Things:
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Please God Make It So:
Michael Keaton, Spotlight
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Probably More Likely:
Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Christian Bale, The Big Short

Probably Less Likely:
Benicio del Toro, Sicario
Jacob Tremblay, Room

For a solid three months, everyone assumed that the Supporting Actor category would come down to the two Spotlight co-stars, Keaton versus Ruffalo. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Oscar nominations: they got left out of all the precursor races. Neither got a Golden Globe nomination, and neither got a SAG Award nomination. So now here we are. What does it mean? Are they for sure not getting nominated? Are the previous snubs circumstantial, and not really to be trusted? You can make a cogent argument for "yes" as the answer to both questions, and that's the problem.

If they both get left off, those two slots could go in several directions. Shannon got nominations from both the Globes and SAG, but it still feels like his film, 99 Homes, went wildly underseen by the Academy, and isn't a safe bet here. Bale has been coming on strong, but is also facing the problem of category splitting; the Globes slotted him as a lead, and if voters can't decide one way or the other, he may be toast. The various guild nominations have proven Sicario is far more highly regarded than we'd thought, but that still didn't help del Toro with the SAG nominations. And with this level of competition, Tremblay will probably get left out in favor of the major names. 

Dano is by far the most likely "maybe" to get into the top five. But fuck it. I love Spotlight, and I'm going with my heart here. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Rylance, Stallone, Elba, Ruffalo, and Keaton


The Sure Thing:  
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

The Very Probable
Helen Mirren, Trumbo

The Egregious Category Frauds
Rooney Mara, Carol
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

The Quite Possibles
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Jane Fonda, Youth

The Spoilers:
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

If you assume that the studios get away with scamming Mara and Vikander into the wrong category, which will probably happen, that leaves one likely open slot. As aging Hollywood mavens playing aging Hollywood mavens, I think voters will ultimately choose between Mirren and Fonda, and won't vote for both. I'll give Mirren the edge, not just because she got nominations from the Globes and SAG (Fonda was left off of the SAG ballot), but also because I expect some voters will play the old, "Well, I didn't vote for her in Best Actress, so I'll be sure to mark her for Supporting" game. 

That probably means the last slot will go to Jennifer Jason Leigh, unless voters also play the old, "Well, I didn't vote for any of the guys in Spotlight, so maybe I should really fit McAdams on my ballot" game. Voters and their damn games. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Winslet, Mirren, Mara, Vikander, and Leigh

Best Director

The Sure-ish Things
Ridley Scott, The Martian
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant

The Almost Sure-ish Thing
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Many Possible Narratives:
Todd Haynes, Carol
Adam McKay, The Big Short
Ryan Coogler, Creed
J.J. Abrams, Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies
Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs

Even though McCarthy feels slightly vulnerable (Spotlight just got shut out at the Globes), I still have to assume he's in. The fifth name really depends on narrative. Haynes is the "Honor the art-house" pick; McKay is the "My baby boy's all grown up" pick; Coogler is the "honor the prodigy" pick; Abrams is the "Honor the box office" pick; and Boyle & Spielberg are the "Honor the Winners Club" picks. McKay got the last slot on DGA ballot, but the Academy directors branch tends to be a little more esoteric and artistic than the far-more-mainstream DGA. Based purely on recent precedent with these things, Haynes and Coogler should have the best shot. I'd love to see Coogler make it in, but Haynes is the safer pick. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Scott, Miller, Inarritu, McCarthy, and Haynes

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Sure Things:
Steve Jobs (Aaron Sorkin)
The Martian (Drew Goddard)
The Big Short (Charles Randolph and Adam McKay)

The Spoiler:
Trumbo (John McNamara)

Three Films for One Slot:
Brooklyn (Nick Hornby)
Room (Emma Donoghue)
Carol (Phyllis Nagy)

The Martian was somehow left off the Golden Globes nominations, but that shouldn't matter here. It's one of the most loved and rewarded films of the year, and its screenplay is undoubtedly one of its strongest aspects. Trumbo is hard to figure out here. It's not a particularly great screenplay, but it's a screenplay about one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history standing up to the rest of the industry, so you can bet everyone in the Academy's writer's branch watched their screener, and probably loved it on principle. That likely means it's in, and stealing a slot from a more deserving film. Of the three films vying for the last slot, Room made it in with the Globes, and Carol got a WGA nomination. But I actually think they'll both miss out here. Brooklyn has been coming on strong, and is also more of a "writer's movie," while Room and Carol depend more heavily on the strength of their performances.  Plus, we've seen Nick Hornby show up in this category before, for 2009's An Education

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Steve Jobs, The Martian, The Big Short, Trumbo, and Brooklyn

Best Original Screenplay

The Sure Thing:
Spotlight (Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer)

The Safe Bets:
Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen)
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

The Safe-ish Bet:
Inside Out (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, & Josh Cooley)

Probably One of These:
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Sicario (Taylor Sheridan)
Straight Outta Compton (Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff)

Why Do They Hate Us:

Trainwreck (Amy Schumer)

The Hateful Eight and Bridge of Spies probably get in here on pedigree alone, as both Tarantino and the Coen brothers are long-time veterans of this category. There's also decent precedent of Pixar movies showing up here, which bodes well for Inside Out (even though it got left off of the WGA nominations). The WGA nominated Trainwreck, but you have to remember that half of the people in that guild are comedy writers, and the Academy hates comedies. That leaves Ex MachinaSicario, and Straight Outta Compton competing for the last slot, and the latter two received WGA nominations. Because the writers branch of the Academy tends to not care about box office, Straight Outta Compton doesn't hold any advantage here. Sicario's deft lead character switch in its final act is the kind of trick that writers love, but I don't think they'll love it as much as the dialogue-heavy logic puzzle that is Ex Machina

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, The Hateful Eight, Inside Out, and Ex Machina