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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Oscar Predictions 2013: Round 2

1. 12 Years a Slave (Previous Ranking: 34)
        Rave reviews everywhere it's played, over-due director, and V.I.M. (very important movie) status. No 2013 release has really come out and declared itself the frontrunner. As of now, 12 is looking like the movie to beat.
2. Gravity (Previous Ranking: 3)
        Tough one to rank: I find it pretty hard to envision the film winning best picture, but missing out on a nomination seems even more impossible. We'll go with #2.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis 
(Previous Ranking: 8)
        As if the Academy's pre-existing love of the Coen brothers wasn't enough, the film has been killing it on the festival circuit. Missing out on the big race would be a substantial surprise at this point.
4. Captain Phillips (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Already both a critical and box office favorite, CP should clean up in the technical categories. I personally don't see any real impediments on its path to nomination-town.
5. The Wolf of Wall Street (Previous Ranking: 1) 
        As previously mentioned, a Scorsese movie near the end of the year is almost a lock on principle. The fact that the four films listed above already have their staunch advocates causes TWoWS to slip a bit, but if early word is positive, watch out.
6. American Hustle (Previous Ranking: 5)
        Same as above, only David O. Russell isn't quite at Martin Scorsese levels just yet. That said, the academy LOVED his last two flicks (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook).
7. Nebraska (Previous Ranking: 7)
        Yet again we have a film-maker who's previously found himself on Oscar's, 'good list.' The pictures' smaller scale has me a little worried, but early word has been resoundingly positive.
8. Blue Jasmine (Previous Ranking: 49)
        It's Woody! It's Cate! It's on a very, very (see: very) short list of films Oscar was actually interested in during the first half of 2013. Ironically, that might help it stand out in voters' minds.
9. The Butler (Previous Ranking: 26)
        Huge box office success, 'important,' subject matter... and Oprah. Who cares if the reviews were mixed? There's plenty of pedigree here.
10. Saving Mr. Banks (Previous Ranking: 13)
        A film set within Walt Disney Studios? About the making of Mary Poppins? Starring previous winners Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson? There's a lot to like here, even if the film remains unseen.
As of now, I am predicting these ten films to be nominated (I don't have some crazy math equation that helped me determine this number; these just seem like the ones). The following is where I rank the next movies in line.
11. August: Osage County (Previous Ranking: 11)
12. All is Lost (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
13. Dallas Buyers Club (Previous Ranking: 24)
14. Her (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
15. Labor Day (Previous Ranking: 29)
16. Before Midnight (Previous Ranking: 10)
17. Philomena (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
18. Out of the Furnace (Previous Ranking: 21)
19. Mud (Previous Ranking: 22)
20. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Previous Ranking: Unranked)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Captain Phillips (Release Date: 10-11-2013)

        At first glance, the premise of Captain Phillips appears more than a little troubling. You probably already know the story: in 2009, a group of Somali pirates hijacked a U.S. container ship, taking the boat's captain (and this film's namesake) hostage, demanding millions in return. On paper, this pitting of innocent Americans against armed African assailants reads like star-spangled propaganda of the worst kind. Throw in Mr. Apple Pie himself, Tom Hanks, and you've got a sterling tale of perseverance, and courage under fire. As it turns out, it's not quite so easy.

        It never is with this Paul Greengrass guy! The british adrenaline junkie (see: film director) has always found a way to confound familiar storytelling rhetoric, wether it be his contained, humanized approach to the 9/11 attacks in United 93, or his choice to turn Matt Damon into a near-silent tragic hero in the actor's last two Bourne installments. He looks at each story he tells from innumerable angles, neglecting reductive thinking at every turn, making him the perfect helmer for CP messy globalization think-piece.

        Perhaps his and the team's finest decision this go-around is allowing Phillips to share co-protagonist duties with the pirates' feather-weight leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a juxtaposition that reveals the pressures and responsibilities each must deal with, creating a fascinating parallel between two hugely different worlds. The strategy wouldn't work is Abdi wasn't up to the task, but the first-time feature actor is Hanks' perfect foil, natural, nervous, aggressive, and unnervingly raw. Hanks, who will likely land his first acting Oscar nomination since 2001, deserves every last ounce of the golden man, at first underplaying the role before gradually peeling off layers of calm and cool, unraveling before our eyes. There's a scene near the end that's almost too astoundingly acted to believe; I'd elaborate, but you'll know when you see it.

        As intriguing and unselling as Captain Phillips is as a geopolitical parable, it's at least as accomplished as white-knuckle thriller. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd imports all of the kinetic energy and tension he brought to The Hurt Locker and United 93 straight into the film, and editor Christopher Rouse keeps the heat on with his pace and sharp cuts. There have certainly been movies with more intense scenes or passages, but I honestly can't remember the last time an action movie had me on the edge of my seat for the length of time that Captain Phillips did (This could have been you, Gravity, but bless your zero-g heart for getting off screen while you were still way, way ahead). Two-plus hours have rarely gone by so fast, or conjured so much stress; if you take your movies with a healthy helping of sweat and a side of political intrigue, Greengrass' latest is an absolute must.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Gravity (Release Date: 10-4-2013)

        I have been waiting on Gravity for the better part of two years now, constantly checking for updates, chomping at the bit to finally get a peak. Director Alfonso Cuarón last made our collective heads spin with the stunning Children of Men, a masterpiece that belongs near the top of any Best-Movies-of-the-2000's list that's worth its salt, but that dystopian blast was released a long seven years ago. Mounting his follow-up epic was a messy process indeed, full of production delays and pushed release dates, all while the creative team involved struggled to create and tame new technology and techniques. But the buzz was always there: rumors about the movie's incredible visuals began circulating near the end of 2011, prompting me to rank the film as an early frontrunner in last year's Oscar chase (to be clear, the flick was released 541 days after I made that prediction). So when the film finally arrived, I went in expecting an ascent to heaven, a visit from god, an explanation of all things, and whatever else it is that a feature cannot actually provide. This, ladies and gentlemen, is no way to anticipate a movie.

        Which isn't to say that Gravity is a big let down or anything (pun intended); in fact, it's about as close to perfect as movies really get, relaying a notably small story across an impossibly enormous canvas. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski respectively, a pair of astronauts sent into orbit to perform simple satellite repair. Stone is new to this wrap, the very opposite of Kowalski, here on his swan-song mission, and laid back as all get-out.

        That's all we really get before tragedy strikes, sending our leads drifting off into the endless abyss of space, desperately seeking refuge (desperate might be a strong word for any Clooney character, really. Concerned, maybe?). In a twist that feels much more unfamiliar than it should, Cuarón and company feel no need to pad their tale of survival with cascades of backstory and cut-aways, nor do they mistake an epic runtime for an epic experience (the film lasts a lightning-fast 90 minutes). Clooney and Bullock are the only thespians we ever see, and with a touch of obligatory mother-daughter hang-ups, the film trusts that the charisma of its leads and the perils they experience will be plenty for the viewer to take in. It's right.

        Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who already has two of the most stunningly photographed films of the last decade on his resume (The Tree of Life, and the aforementioned Children of Men) simply must finally capture his elusive first Oscar. Regardless of the holes factual physicists are already poking at, experiencing Gravity on the big screen legitimately conjures feelings of weightlessness, drift, and impossible altitude, owing its visceral feel to Lubezki, and his brilliant use of 3D. Oh, and its impossibly beautiful, moments of tear-jerking grandeur spiraling into heart-pounding action seamlessly.

        So why the semi-downer intro? Because, as I watched Gravity, waiting for it to solve all of the mysteries of the universe, my expectations got in the way of my viewing experience, a problem I expect others who see its 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and hear their friends rant and rave will encounter. For such an ethereal viewing, Cuarón's film is remarkably disinterested in both pathos and ethos: it's almost more of a ride than an actual movie, like one of those video simulators at theme parks, taken to the grandest scale humanly imaginable. Deeply connecting with Gravity on an emotional level is nearly impossible, which was clearly the intention all along. This is a spectacle of the very highest order, and Cuarón doesn't want anything to get in the way of his audience's unparalleled ascent to the stars. Make sure to get a good grip on those armrests; you're gunna need 'em.

Grade: A-