Oscars Countdown

Oscars Countdown: A Guide To What’s Actually Best Picture 2016

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A throwback to a more innocent time.
As I write this, we’re just hours away from the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, when once again the most hated people in the Divided States Of America (liberals) gather together to honour the great and the good of American film, including a much larger than usual number of actors of diversity and one French woman who’ll probably go home empty handed, but hey. We should all enjoy it before California is forced to secede from the union when Trump finally declares an orange fatwah on Meryl Streep. Next year’s Trump Oscars® will be hosted in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the main awards will see slight tweaks to Best Looking Actress / Supporting Actress and the obituary roll will feature a host of right wing actors who died in fake terrorist attacks.

Yes, there is a teeny tiny chance that the Oscars may become a smidge political this evening. That’s a real shame, because it’s actually been a pretty good year for film again, and if we’re going to try to celebrate the best that Western cinema has to offer, then that should at least get a look in. I don’t begrudge actors, producers or key grips the chance to use the forty seconds before the orchestra kicks in at fortissimo to make the point about press freedoms are being eroded or civil rights are being wound back about thirty presidencies, because we should all have focus on the world around us and quite how quickly it could go down the crapper if we’re not careful. Films give us a window into the world that can be escapist and uplifting or reflecting and deeply meaningful, so we shouldn’t lose sight of the goal of celebrating quite how good cinema can be at its best.

Maybe people feel that films don’t have anything to teach us about politics? But films aren’t just a window into the world, they can be a window directly into the most powerful political minds in the world. Bill Clinton once said that the greatest perk of being in the White House was the movie theater, which has around 40 seats and four comfy armchairs with footstools at the front. Jimmy Carter watched 480 films there in his four year terms and rumours abound that Nixon invaded Cambodia after he watched Patton twice in a week and couldn’t stop talking about it.

You probably haven’t missed, if you’ve been watching the news, that President 45 (yeah, I’m a liberal too, suck it up) has already had his first White House screening, a movie nominated this year for Best animation. I’m not sure what message the administration will have taken from Finding Dory – maybe they didn’t read too much into it – but as I go through the list of this year’s films, in keeping with the slightly more political leanings of the times, I’ll also pass a brief thought on the suitability (or not) of each of the candidates for another White House screening.

I’m also limiting my selections to the nine films nominated for Best Picture, so that you don’t have to put up with my usual grumbles around the flaws with a voting system that, once again, selected out of an extremely diverse list of 336 eligible films a collection of live action, English language films predominantly produced in America and featuring mainly American talent. Given that, even with my prolific cinema attendance record, I’ve only managed to see 148 of these 336 films so far – with many still to be released in this country – there may be even more injustices than I can list here.

Among the films that should have been in the mix are in a better, fairer system that doesn’t rely on large numbers of the voters having seen the films are American Honey (probably too long and rambling for the Academy to watch in large numbers), Captain America: Civil War (too blockbustery), The Edge Of Seventeen (too commercial looking), Everybody Wants Some!! (too testosteroney), The Handmaiden (too obscure – it didn’t even get South Korea’s nomination for Best Foreign Language), Hunt For The Wilderpeople (too much of an action sequence at the end), I, Daniel Blake (too worthily British), Jackie (too stylised), Kubo And The Two Strings (too animated), The Lobster (too old, it came out in 2015 here), The Neon Demon (too shallow), Paterson (too poetic), Silence (too late in getting released and Scorsese’s already had his career reward), Sing Street (too lightweight), Toni Erdmann (too foreign, particularly galling given how much of the film is in English), The Witch (too niche horror) and Zootopia (too cute). All of these are better than the first four films on this list and at least three of them should have been genuine contenders for the big prize.

Here, then, are the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, given my definitive, binding and indisputable ranking of the nine films up for the biggest gong. (Warning: some of the Trump comments contain very mild spoilers.)

The Least Best Picture Is Hacksaw Ridge

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Is it really a good idea to make a film about a pacifist who went to war and then to make war look so incredibly cool? The film treads water for the first hour with Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington playing pale imitations of the R Lee Ermey school of shouty military men, before Andrew Garfield finally makes his case for running into battle without a gun and the fun starts. For, while the film does a reasonable attempt at capturing the horrors of war, it also has men waving flamethrowers in slow motion and bullets ricocheting off helmets. It’s like a shinier, cheesier Saving 75 Private Ryans.

Why Trump should watch: It shows a shining example of a man putting his principle and his morals above violence and hatred.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: It makes war look so cool that it’s a good job it didn’t feature a nuclear holocaust, otherwise we’d all be ****ed.

Which is not as good as Fences

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Viola Davis would be a worthy winner of Best Actress, so maybe the Academy still has some diversity issues if she has to drop down to Best Supporting to get recognition. It takes a little patience to get through the first half hour, which is mainly Denzel refusing to let anyone else get a word in edge-ways, before it settles into stellar acting set pieces and gasp-inducing plot twists. However, watching Denzel Washington’s attempts to make yet another scene set in the back yard look visually interesting (camera pans slowly to the left; camera pans slightly more quickly to the right) can be excruciating at times, and if there was a vote to give this film a new name, the clear winner would be Stagey McStageface.

Why Trump should watch: To get an idea that it’s real people with real lives who live in the inner cities and working classes.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: It sees a man who’s committed a variety of crimes in his past and who isn’t that pleasant in the present eulogised and forgiven in the future. Don’t get any ideas, Donald.

Which is not as good as Hidden Figures

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There’ll be much made of the fact that this film does wonders for showing both women and black people as strong role models and in a positive light, but there’s a maligned group that this white man is also thankful to Hidden Figures for successfully bringing to the screen: mathematicians. Yes, not only do black women get portrayed in a deserved spotlight for their role in getting John Glenn into space, but this makes people who scribble complex equations on a blackboard or who program insane looking, room sized computers look amazing, and as a mathematics and computer science graduate that’s my wildest dream come true. As powerful as the story is, though, it’s telling remains fairly conventional.

Why Trump should watch: As a reminder that NASA do lots of really important stuff. Hopefully the sequel will focus on their vital work on global warming.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: The Russians come out on top at the start of the film when they win the space race. But it would be cool to be friends with Russia, right?

Which is not as good as Lion

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I am old enough that my first on-screen sight of Nicole Kidman was during a film night when on a school holiday at the age of eleven in BMX Bandits. Just a boat-based thriller with Billy Zane, a marriage to Tom Cruise, a dodgy Batman sequel, a Stanley Kubrick swansong, an Oscar-nominated musical, a duet with Robbie Williams, an Oscar, a BAFTA and a host more nominations later and seeing her up for her fourth Oscar nomination doesn’t feel like much of a surprise. Who’d have thought it? Looking forward to Sunny Pawar’s screen trajectory, which will presumably see him go the other way and after a tempestuous marriage to one of the Fanning sisters, he’ll end up in a cheesy Australian film about hoverboards. Anyway, Lion is a worthy, compelling true life tale that would have been a stronger contender had it not got slightly bogged down in the Dev Patel section.

Why Trump should watch: To see compassion, loyalty, humanity and stories of hope against the odds.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: It may just reinforce the idea that all the information you need is on the internet. Don’t forget your intelligence briefings, Donnie…

Which is not as good as Hell Or High Water

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This got shamefully overlooked on its release at the start of the awards period, probably because it hit cinemas in August in the States and September here. But somehow it managed to channel the small amount of momentum it had from its debut in Un Certain Regard at Cannes into nominations at the Oscars. While Jeff Bridges puts in the kind of solid, charismatic work we’ve come to expect from him, his other three co-stars (Gil Birmingham, Chis Pine and Ben Foster) are equally good in their own ways. Taylor Sheridan’s script mixes crisp dialogue with poignant reflection and David McKenzie’s direction brings it to thrilling life.

Why Trump should watch: It shows the desperate lengths modern Americans are driven to in a society which continues to channel wealth further and further to the rich.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: The Native American comes off worst. Let’s hope that isn’t an omen for the pipelines.

Which is not as good as Manchester By The Sea

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Have sexual harassment allegations against Casey Affleck scuppered not only his but the film’s chances? In a year when we seemingly can’t separate film from politics, maybe it’s no surprise that the slightest hint of impropriety, even deep in someone’s past, is enough to taint their candidacy as a leading actor. It would be a shame if it has, for while I can’t and won’t comment on Affleck’s private life, I do believe that he gives the best performance of any of the nominated actors this year. Michelle Williams also shows how it’s possible to command the screen with a bare minimum of screen time and we can but hope that this is just one of many beautifully nuanced character studies to come in the next few years from Kenneth Lonergan. Although I have to agree with Mark Kermode on one point: lose the Albioni Adagio next time.

Why Trump should watch: Misbehaving in the middle of the night can have devastating consqeuences which lead to bitterness and isolation, and these guys don’t even have Twitter.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: Women just pop up occasionally in the background.

Which is not as good as La La Land

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Did you hear about the woman who fell in the river in Paris? She was in-Seine! INSANE!! A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Anyway, I’ve had the soundtrack of this in the car on a loop since I saw it, so I pretty much knew all the words by the time the backlash kicked in. There are suggestions that La La Land isn’t revolutionary and relies too much on nostalgia for its thrills, among a thousand other complaints, but that overlooks Damien Chazelle’s laser-scalpel focus on his central characters and his ability to discard supporting characters the moment they’re not required. Let’s be clear: I’m not convinced that either Seb or Mia are great people – Seb in particular is a textbook definition of an arse – but it’s a modern couple that have both chemistry and realistic dancing and singing skills in a musical that mixes great tunes with a wistfulness about the passage of time and the small margins by which choices define our lives and separate beautiful dreams from bitter reality.

Why Trump should watch: A reminder that the arts are critically important, even if it is classic films that a film buff hasn’t watched or white man jazz.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: Man is obnoxious, rude, self-absorbed, mansplains simple concepts badly and still ends up getting everything he wanted.

Which is not as good as Moonlight

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I would be thrilled if this wins the main award, because it’s supremely beautiful and as quietly devastating as anything I’ve seen on screen in years. It’s difficult to know how Oscar will go sometimes: if the glamour and romance of La La Land triumph we probably shouldn’t be surprised, but if actors want to reward their peers for some magnificent performances (Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Ashton Sanders to name just three), gorgeous direction and cinematography and a script that delivers gut punches from the quietest of exchanges then they should have put their cross next to this one. There is a poetry in the scene construction and in the simpler moments that resonates long after the credits have rolled.

Why Trump should watch: Given the speed at which his presidency is rolling back the rights of minorities, a little understanding into how people explore their own nature and why it’s so important to value our differences could go a long way.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: There’s a few black people here doing drugs and getting in trouble. It’s not *all* black people.

Which means that…

The Best Picture Of 2016 Is Arrival

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While Moonlight is the most deserving film of the year, the one that had the most profound effect on me personally is Arrival. A commanding performance from Amy Adams that was shamefully overlooked in awards season, themes of communication that are achingly prescient in these times, sci-fi concepts that might not be completely original but that are extremely well handled and direction from Denis Villeneuve that should make everyone with a pulse excited about Blade Runner 2049. Rapidly becoming one of my favourite film makers, Villeneuve delivered one of my favourite films of the past ten years and for me, by just a tiny shade, the best film of the year. (Good luck Moonlight, though.)

Why Trump should watch: Above all, the themes of this film are rooted in making simple decisions which can have ramifications through our entire lives, the power of communication and the importance of getting your facts straight.

Why Trump shouldn’t watch: America manages to isolate itself from every other country in the world and white American people attack illegal aliens but that doesn’t stop things turning out generally OK.

Your bonus content: my annual list of how the films rank out of ten, including those I saw this year that scored a 10/10 that didn’t make the grade. See you next year, if we’ve not had a nuclear holocaust by then.

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Oscars Countdown: The Oscar Scorecard Of Discontent 2016

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The award for Best Repeated Re-Use Of Poor Quality Photoshopping From 2014 Goes To… The Movie Evangelist! (Aw, shucks, it’s an honour.)
Apologies, only a fleeting post for this year’s Oscar Countdown, as other things have taken over my life for the time being. I’m normally fairly dismissive of the Oscars and their inability to pick the correct films, and so for the past three years I’ve used the blog to vent my moderate disdain at some of the shambolic selections made, especially by predicting before the awards what will win, and what should.

As I spend more and more time working in other media away from my blog – I was asked by two different radio stations if I could help them with their Monday morning Oscar coverage, which I’ve had to regretfully decline – I also find myself somewhat significantly distracted this year by events in real life. I won’t go into details here, so as not to put a complete downer on your Oscar buzz – and most of those close to me will already know the details anyway – but I’m currently mourning the death of my mother just nine days ago, and on occasions such as this the glitz and glamour of Oscar night feels more trivial and less significant than ever. (Apologies if this is a bit too much detail but this is a blog, not a film review site, and you’ll occasional get bits of me stuck in here. Sorry.)

Anyway, good luck to anyone staying up tonight, and despite my hitherto unheralded levels of apathy, I still couldn’t resist being briefly distracted for long enough to complete an annual tradition: The Oscars Scorecard Of Discontent. For those that don’t know the drill, each year I summarise the Will-Wins, the Should-Wins, those films whose success will cause me to stomp around for days with my lip protruding like a sullen teenager in protest at the unfairness of it all, and a shout out for the most significant efforts that didn’t even make the cut. As always, the nominations for that last category would make a cracking film festival in themselves.

So here’s this year’s Oscar Scorecard Of Discontent. It’s a tough call on the main category, but almost every other award feels nailed on.

 And, of course, feel free to fill out your own copy if you’re staying up for the night so you can play along and keep a close eye on your own levels of discontent.

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Happy Oscar Night, everyone, and may all your favourites be picked.

Oscars Countdown: A Guide To What’s Actually Best Picture 2014

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Rachel couldn't stop laughing at pulling out the unexpected Z, but deep down she was saddened by the shonky quality of my Photoshopping.
Yet another excuse to roll out my dodgy Oscarz Photoshopping. I canz do lolz.

It’s that time again. The carpet is reddened, the bald heads are polished, the seat fillers are preparing to do their thing and the finest fashion houses on the West Coast are delighting at the sound of cash tills ringing or whatever noise 21st century cash registers actually make. Awards season reaches a climax on Sunday with the somethingth annual Academy Awards (the number’s not important, look it up if you’re really bothered, it’s eighty-something, they’re all basically the same anyway). There’s more reason than most this year to actually watch the awards, because Doogie Howser M.D. / Barney Stinson himself, Neil Patrick Harris, is hosting and I think it’s fair to say if he does it to the standard of the other awards shows he’s hosted, it should be a job for life if he wants it. Not convinced? Then try watching his opening number for the 2013 Tony Awards. If the opening to the Oscars is half as good as this, it’ll be the best thing to happen to the ceremony in years.

But it’s not just an excuse to have some song and dance and to see quite how poorly John Travolta can pronounce somebody’s name. (Am I the only one hoping he gets Best Foreign Language Film to present this year?) There are also some awards to be given out, and one film will get to stand alongside the other eighty-ish greatest films of all time already accorded the honour of Best Picture, including Crash, Chicago, The Greatest Show On Earth, Driving Miss Daisy and Titanic. Yep, I don’t even need to tell you that this awards ceremony is to justice and fairness what John Travolta is to public speaking, you already know it, but that doesn’t stop us all from some harmless speculation on who’s going to fare the best come the early hours of Monday morning.

I do wonder if the choice of host is in some way to compensate for what’s a fairly middling selection of films this year. At the end of the post you can see a breakdown of all of my ratings for films nominated for Best Picture since the award increased from five films, but even those at the top end of the chart aren’t the most inspiring films ever made. I weep just a tiny bit that the likes of Mr. Turner, Nightcrawler, Calvary, Under The Skin, Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice and Gone Girl haven’t picked up more recognition, but I won’t claim to be the slightest bit surprised. Equally inevitably, I can say that the three Foreign Language film nominations that I have seen – Ida, Leviathan and Timbuktu – are all comfortably better than at least half of the Best Picture nominations this year.

So as Oscar and his chums will get the final decisions wrong as inevitably as Transformers and Alvin And The Chipmunks sequels will continue to be inflicted upon us because we keep paying to watch the damn things, I’ve managed to see all eight Best Picture nominations so once again present For Your Consideration: the only ranking that really matters, my own view on the films that could walk off with the big one from least best to best. (Disclaimer: as far as I know, all of the Oscars are the same size, it’s just a figure of speech.)

The Least Best Picture Is The Imitation Game

Oh dear. The Imitation Game feels like it occupied a screen in my local cinemas for ever, but I fear they may have been the only one as Morten Tyldum’s film actually took slightly less money than Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie in the UK last year. Rapturous public acclaim from those who have seen it can only indicate that many of those people don’t actually watch many films, for there’s only really two good things about The Imitation Game. Those two things are named Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley and both deserve the nominations in this year’s acting categories they’ve won themselves, although the fact that neither is likely to actually scoop the award is also a fair assessment.

Where to start with the problems, then? First off is the direction, which is flat, lifeless and rarely does anything above pointing a camera in the direction of the nearest stationary actor. Then there’s the script, which botches almost every aspect of Turing’s life and is a structural mess. Most of the remaining background characters are well-acted but one dimensional cyphers, Turing is made out to be somewhere between a sympathiser to the opposition and a traitor (which is all swept under the carpet late on anyway) and the title cards over the final shot are so condescending as to be deeply insulting to anyone with an IQ more than their shoe size.

But it’s the general contempt for its audience that rankles most about this year’s Weinstein Company vehicle for awards success. I’ve visited Bletchley Park and the National Museum Of Computing, and it’s a deeply enthralling place that’s awash with momentous history. Here it’s reduced to man builds magic box, man turns on magic box, magic box works, the end, which is a narrative non-event of the highest order. Good performances will only go so far, and good luck to The Imitation Game for fleecing the British public of over $20 million, but this is a desperately average film at best and a Turing travesty at worst.

Which Is Not As Good As American Sniper

American Sniper

Speaking of contempt for your audience, there’s nothing like showing you simply don’t give a stuff about the quality of your end product when one of the most discussed facets of your film is the incredibly fake baby that’s unconvincingly passed around to comedic effect in the second half of the film. It’s an insult to just about everyone when you can’t even be bothered to put that right, but sadly it’s also indicative of the slightly sloppy notes creeping into Clint Eastwood’s last few films.

There’s a problem with what American Sniper is, which is an unbalanced, flag waving action movie. That’s set the American box office alight but box office success and critical quality make poor bedfellows. There’s also a problem with what it isn’t, which is true to Chris Kyle’s story if the book is any judge; the film gives Bradley Cooper moral uncertainty and a sense of self-righteousness that aren’t exactly a reflection of Kyle’s own telling of his story, and you can’t help but feel that the more interesting film – and the one which the Eastwood of ten years ago might actually have made – would be one which steers closer to Kyle’s own public record of his motivations and experiences.

I would also like to go on record as being mystified that Bradley Cooper has been nominated for Best Actor or Supporting Actor three years in a row, which puts him in an exclusive club along with Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, William Hurt and Russell Crowe. I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke (and he’s also impressively bilingual), but not one of his three nominations has really been in the best of the year. Sorry Bradley.

Which Is Not As Good As Birdman

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Hopefully I made my feelings about Birdman pretty clear with my review. I understand that many people enjoyed this but I can’t help but feel it’s been rewarded for technical achievement rather than artistic endeavour. Actually, maybe that’s the way forward – a combination of two sets of scores, one for technical and one for artistic, in the same way as ice dancing. It couldn’t be any more convoluted than the current voting process.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Birdman, and I love almost everyone associated with it, but even thinking about it now, six weeks after having seen it, leaves me feeling slightly exhausted. I will be a grumpy Gus if this picks up the big award, but I have a horrible feeling it might because it’s packed full of Actors with a capital A and we’ve seen much worse Actors films (*cough* Crash *cough*) walk off with the main award in the past.

Which Is Not As Good As The Theory Of Everything

The Theory Of Everything

The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything have a lot in common: they’re two British films that have two high-flying British actors in significant roles, where the man has a role which features a requirement for an increasing level of acting tics and mannerisms. Both the lead actor and actress in each case have picked up an Oscar nomination of their own and both films were nominated for both best British film and best film at the BAFTAs. And in both cases, the two main performances are by some distance the two best things about the film.

The Theory Of Everything isn’t by any stretch of the imagination as frustratingly poor as The Imitation Game, but neither is it up to the standard of director James Marsh’s previous work, including Project Nim, Man On Wire and the excellent and overlooked Shadow Dancer. It’s a pretty standard narrative set in a chocolate box Cambridge that doesn’t pan out in the way that you expect such stories to – although many going in will already know the outcome – but it’s told in a conventional, straightforward fashion and it’s both showy and understated in a rather conflicted manner.

Then there’s rather a significant step-up in quality…

Which is Nowhere Near As Good As Selma

I don’t believe that the acting has been overlooked in Selma for reasons of race or colour, but I do believe that the nominated actors all have the attention-grabbing, theatrical roles that normally get nominated and it becomes that much harder for those whose work is less clip-worthy to nudge their way into the nominations. Selma has been all but excluded from the final breakdown. You have to go all the way back to Decision Before Dawn in 1951 to find a film with a Best Picture nomination and only one other nomination in a minor category, and that really doesn’t reflect well on the Academy’s voters who had plenty of opportunities to recognise the work done here.

There have been a few reports that the tension between LBJ and Dr. King have been overplayed, but this would hardly be the first film to adjust the truth slightly for narrative purposes (yes, that is a reference to you, The Imitation Game), but there’s still enough well placed fact here to pack the punch that the story needs to. From a gut wrenching opening explosion to scenes of focused tension when the gathered masses attempt to march out from Selma, director Ava DuVernay has a strong handle on the material and isn’t afraid to shock a little to get your attention. The song over the closing credits makes a contemporary reference to what’s happened in Ferguson over the past year and it serves as a direct reminder that the issues here haven’t gone away in the intervening fifty years; in fact, Selma could scarcely have been released at a more relevant time.

I do hope this will give career impetus to David Oyelowo, in a film littered with top draw performances from British actors such as Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth. Maybe the moral of the story is that if you’re a British, you need to be putting on an accent as posh as Keira Knightley’s plummy Imitation Game Brit-warble, rather than flawlessly mimicking the accents from across the Atlantic.

Which Is Not As Good As Boyhood

Boyhood

Yes, other films have watched children grow up, but never over the course of a single film to such remarkable effect as Richard Linklater’s latest towering achievement in direction: one that will, if there’s a shred of natural justice left in this overly glamorous farrago, see him pick up an award for direction that his career has long since justified. The Before trilogy may have inadvertently charted the evolution of a relationship over a quarter of a lifetime, but Boyhood is a timelapse on adolescence quite unlike anything that’s ever been attempted before.

And we shouldn’t just applaud the fact that twelve years is an insanely long time period over which to be producing a film, with no guarantee that the end product would have ended up even useful (or that the actors would have made it to the end of the process they started). Having to pick someone at the age of six and to hope he’ll still be interesting in a dozen years is an unenviable task, but Linklater gets round this somewhat by using Ellar Coltrane as the prism through which to examine the transition from childhood to adulthood, rather than the focal point.

Absolutely greater than the sum of its parts, the lead actors are all still magnificent – and Hawke and Arquette would probably both have one in a slightly quieter year, although Arquette hopefully still will – but the real power of Boyhood is in absorbing it, ideally in a single sitting, and allowing the repetition and the rhythms to wash over you.

Which Is Not As Good As Whiplash

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I’ve seen a few reviews which take issue with a number of aspects of Whiplash. They can be broken down into two main categories: firstly, that the events of Whiplash are somewhat lacking in realism. Your average hospital drama does a fairly appalling job at accurately portraying the finer points of medicine, so I don’t believe we should get too hung up on the mechanics of music school. However, this also applies to some of the story structure (one character being explicitly and repeatedly told not to do something at all costs, before doing that in less than thirty seconds in a manner that’s then never explained or referred to again). While I can see where that’s coming from, I believe that Whiplash – almost perversely for a film based around jazz drumming – operates at the level of an opera, with two main characters going to extraordinary lengths to win the approval of their audience and their peers and as such, any plot manoeuvres are best not dwelt on for too long.

The other criticism, and one which carries a little more weight, is the idea that Whiplash is at best ignoring the perils of bullying, and at worst justifying that as a means to an end for artistic greatness, almost as if genius cannot be attained without suffering. I have a different take: J.K. Simmons’ Terence is modelling Miles Teller’s Andrew into his own image, even if he’s not doing so intentionally, and this is a classic power struggle, a battle for dominance between two alpha males at the cost of their very souls, and neither can reflect on their actions with any sense of pride by the end.

In between theatrical plot twists and enhanced egos there lies Whiplash, a film oozing confidence and doing a much better job of its jazz drumming soundtrack than Birdman managed to. For the first two-thirds it’s a compelling character study, but then as the plot moves up a tempo or two we reach a breathtaking climax that had my heart almost beating out of my chest. Whiplash is darkly enticing, thrilling without the promise of evolution or redemption and it does so with a jazz soundtrack that might even win a few converts. If nothing else, it elevates J.K. Simmons to the level of recognition he’s long since deserved.

The Best Picture Of 2014 Is The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

There’s probably around a dozen or so directors who, if marooned on a desert island, I would be content if nothing else but the products of their career’s labours washed up beside me. (Ideally a giant TV to plug in next to the palm tree would be nice). While Wes Anderson continues to make films that flirt with the deep sadness of the human condition but yet in which every single element is lovingly crafted, his last pair of films – this and Moonrise Kingdom – have been not only as good as anything else in his career, but are as deep, meaningful and hysterically enjoyable as anything else being made anywhere today.

If you want to know which film brought me more pleasure than any other last year, then look no further. But The Grand Budapest Hotel ups the ante by setting itself across four eras, each of which comes shot in its own typically relevant and period friendly aspect ratio and which emphasise the evaporation of time that comes to the best of us before we can even come to terms with it. Anderson might just have perfected the formula he’s been honing since Bottle Rocket and before.

The cast is astonishing, even those in barely a couple of scenes able to walk off with entire films elsewhere, but the pairing of Anderson with Ralph Fiennes is a masterstroke that I hope history will look back on and regard with greater significance. (Admittedly I only placed Fiennes eleventh on my performances of the year last year, but I think I was maybe being a tad harsh.) You can see why Anderson migrated entirely to stop-motion for The Fantastic Mr Fox for his films have a love, a care and an attention to detail that’s rarely seen outside the world of physical animation. It’s that unbelievable attention to detail and the total delight of the script, the direction and the performances that cause me to rate this film top of the Oscar pile for 2015. Expect the Academy voters to have totally ignored me.

And finally, as promised, my rankings out of 10 for all the Best Picture nominees in the six years since the category expanded. Sorry I’ve missed five of them, but I still think that’s a pretty good record. It doers hopefully show that this isn’t a great year, but I will keep my fingers crossed that one or two decent films  will pick up something before the Oscars are over for another year.

Best Picture Rankings

Previous years:

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2013

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2012

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2010

Oscars Countdown: The Oscar Scorecard Of Discontent 2015

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It’s Oscar night, and that means two things:

1. I’m going to bed because I’ve got better things to do than stay up until 5 a.m. watching an awards show when I will most likely bitch about the result.

2. If you’re reading this then you may actually be watching the ceremony. Good luck to you.

Having noticed a sudden spike in traffic of 100% today to my blog, mainly composed of people searching for the search terms “Oscar” and “scorecard”, although well done to the one person who arrived here by searching for “reese witherspoon can’t act” and, more bizarrely, the two people who both searched for “composition of air 3d pie chart”. Just for you two:

If you don't get this joke, Google "Moon Safari".
If you don’t get this joke, Google “Moon Safari”.

For the rest of you, here’s my completed scorecard for this year with my usual categories:

Oscar Scorecard 2015

And here’s a blank one for you to fill in while you wait for Neil Patrick Harris to shuffle along:

Oscar Scorecard Blank

Whatever you’re doing tonight, have fun!

Oscars Countdown: The British Are Going (Mad)

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2015/01/img_2587.jpg

The nominations for the BAFTA film awards have been announced this morning, and once again those compiling the nominations have between them managed to prove at best case that two good performances are all you need to make a good film, and and worst that the British film is simply a pandering lapdog still craving the attention and validation of America rather than attempting to stand on its own two feet. The nominations in particular for Best British film have left me so irked that I’m currently sat in the cafeteria at Stonehenge trying to get this off my chest, having toured one of the world’s great heritage sites full of 5,000 year old monuments and I’m left to wonder if these stones could talk, would they come up with a more contemporary, relevant and worthy set of picks. Each year I publish a handful of posts in the run-up to the Oscars in an effort to remind myself that awards are meaningless and just because they don’t reflect my own opinion, it shouldn’t ruin my day when they’re announced.

But wow, this year takes the biscuit in a category already renowned for encouraging the receipt of flour-based baked goods. In the time since I started blogging, an era during which the BAFTA film awards have moved to a pre-Oscar slot in a desperate attempt to secure an influx of Hollywood glitterati and so seem pointlessly relevant, the following films have been the “Best” British Film:

– In 2011 The King’s Speech beat out Another Year and Four Lions
– In 2012 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy overcame Shame, Senna and We Need To Talk About Kevin
– In 2013 Skyfall came out on top of Anna Karenina and Les Misérables
– Last year, Gravity beat The Selfish Giant and Philomena

The awards twelve months ago embodied everything wrong with the dual main categories: no-one in their right mind would have considered Gravity a British film, with it beating not only a stunning piece of work from deserving British director Clio Barnard but also arguably a better awards season type film in Philomena. But the Best Film was 12 Years A Slave, and this wasn’t even nominated for Best British Film despite a sufficient qualifying connection, a British director and two outstanding lead performances from British actors.

So what’s gotten me so riled up this year, that’s possibly even worse than last year’s farrago? Part of the problem stems from what’s actually been an outstanding year for British film, in which we are so spoiled for choice that you could fill British film two or three times over with quality picks. What the voters of BAFTA have come up with for Best British film is:

’71
The Imitation Game
Paddington
Pride
The Theory Of Everything
Under The Skin

That’s not a bad list, and there are a couple of excellent films on it. The first problem is that those films are Paddington and Under The Skin, and the two films from that list that have made it to the Best Film overall list are certainly the two least interesting and arguably the two worst: The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything.

The Imitation Game is a real frustration as its only two positives are the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch – a man now so all powerful he can get a lead role in an animation about penguins despite being demonstrably unable to say penguins – and Keira Knightley. Other than that it’s a film that fudges its issues and has barely the merest pretence of drama, an Emperor’s New Clothes of acting mannerisms with a narrative that does poor service to both the war effort and Turing himself; no mean feat when it actually overplays his war contribution in many ways.

I enjoyed The Theory Of Everything, but again it’s a film that survives on the performances of its two leads and precious little else. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are both exceptional, but the rest of the film is placid to a fault and it’s a chocolate box Cambridge that explains science politely and tries its hardest not to cause offence at any other time. It’s not a patch on director James Marsh’s last two films, Man On Wire and Shadow Dancer. I still believe that Under The Skin will be being discussed in ten years’ time; I find it hard to believe that too many people will remember The Theory Of a Everything in ten weeks.

But not only have the two films most likely to find the common denominator even though they’re not very good made the Best Film, I would argue that there are at least another ten films more worthy of a place on the Best British Film list for last year. In descending order of greatness, they are:

Mr Turner
Calvary
The Double
Next Goal Wins
Starred Up
Kajaki: The True Story
Lilting
The Possibilities Are Endless
Belle
Northern Soul
(And possibly an eleventh: I haven’t seen The Testament Of Youth as it’s not out yet.)

I can accept that you may believe not all of these ten films or the four in the Best British Film category are better than The Imitation Game or The Theory Of Everything, but if you can sit there with a straight face and tell me that none of them are – for that is the implication of the BAFTA nominations – then can I politely suggest that you don’t watch enough films. Anything on that list of fourteen which didn’t make the Best Film list above would be an ideal way of starting to put that right.

But before I go, I must also mention the most egregious omission from the nominations. As I’ve indicated, Mr Turner didn’t make it into the nominations, but Mike Leigh has at least picked up awards for various categories in the past for Secrets And Lies and Vera Drake. However, the snub handed out to what to me was the performance of the year by Timothy Spall has left me incredulous. There truly is no justice at awards time, but that probably won’t stop me getting my knickers in a twist when the Oscar nominations come out. Joy of joys.

Oscars Countdown: The Oscar Scorecard Of Discontent 2014

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I just have this horrible feeling American Hustle's going to win everything. Will they never learn, Matt? WILL THEY NEVER LEARN!
I just have this horrible feeling American Hustle’s going to win everything. Will they never learn, Matt? WILL THEY NEVER LEARN!

You might think it’s odd that someone who professes to like the Oscars so little tends to write so much about them. It’s not that I’m opposed to recognising greatness – you only have to take a look at the list-based awesomeness that is my end of year review each year, which can be found by clicking on any of those “Review Of…” links just up above – it’s just that Oscar and his 7,000 Hollywood mates get these decisions completely right about as often as Halley’s Comet passes.

I don’t stay up for it these days, not least because I tend to use my annual leave either for seeing Mrs Evangelist or for spending my time in film festivals, but for those who do it can be a somewhat tortuous endurance event, with four hours of occasionally handing out an award to someone you’ve never heard of for a film that you might not have seen broken up by the host – this year it’s Ellen DeGeneres but frankly it could be your mum for all the difference it makes – desperately trying to be funny while not offending anyone and for UK viewers, some Z-list celebs giving hollow opinions to whoever’s hosting on Sky Movies this year (I can’t be bothered to look it up).

Anyway, if you’d like something to pass the time between now and stupid o’clock GMT when the awards start, here’s my annual Oscar Scorecard Of Discontent. You can see what I’ve gone for, then I’ve made a blank one for you. Just print it off, fill it out, and then tick it off as the awards come round. If you’ve then mostly circled “Must Not Win Or I Will Sulk All Day Monday” in about eight hours, then you have my deepest sympathies.

If you are staying up or having a party, good luck, we’re all counting on you, have a great time and I’ll see you in the morning, nice and refreshed for either elation or bitter disappointment. Or, as is usual, a fair old mix of both.

Oscar Scorecard 2014

Oscars Countdown: A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2013

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It's as if his eyes follow you round the room. Well, his eye dents, anyway.
It’s as if his eyes follow you round the room. Well, his eye dents, anyway.

It’s nearly over. The extended farrago over who’s better than who and the flood of yet more pointless platitudes from the supposedly great and good of Hollywood comes to an end for another year in the early hours of Monday morning UK time, with the 497th Academy Awards (probably). It’s not been a bad year for films, and the awards voters in Hollywood have got a lot more right than wrong this year. Gradually, the large field of contenders has been whittled down to just nine, through a process of expensive advertising and devious marketing, and the times when The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, The Monuments Men, Saving Mr. Banks or The Counselor were being considered seriously for awards greatness – in other words, before people actually saw them – have long since passed, and we’re now firmly at the business end. In just over two days, Hollywood will allow a select band of people to upgrade to “Academy Award Winner” when they’re mentioned in trailers for serious films, while a host of others will have to remain content with “Academy Award Nominee” or, somewhat inexplicably the best he can yet do, “BAFTA Award Nominee / SAG Award Nominee / Independent Spirit Award Winner Paul Dano”.

For the third time in the four years that the blog has been running, I’ve managed to see all of the nominees in all of the big eight categories (picture, director, acting, writing) by the time the awards happen, compared to the two occasions I could claim that before I started blogging. However, this has led me occasionally to be sat in front of a film simply so I could claim a full house on my Oscar bingo card – mainly because I like to feel informed when I criticise the Academy for its poor decision making – but this year my only real regret was seeing The Butler about two days before it seemed to lose all of its awards momentum. At least I got to claim a full house at BAFTA as well, and I could answer the question as to whether Oprah Winfrey deserved a nod ahead of June Squibb. (Answer: no. I’m sure Oprah will be crying herself to sleep on a giant bed made of money and success at my decision.)

The process has, inevitably, thrown up a few films that should have got more love, but were inhibited either by their very nature or by the resistance of their distributors to spend flipping great wodges of cash taking out ten page ads in Variety asking voters to please, please, pretty please remember their film when casting their vote for Best Art Direction or Sound Editing. In a different year, with a slightly different sensibility, or if the Academy actually understood what people in general mean by “Best”, we might have seen Short Term 12 (too indie), Frozen (too animated), Prisoners (it looked too generic from the trailer – it wasn’t), The Great Beauty and The Hunt (too subtitled, even when one stars an actual person famous to Americans in Mads Mikkelsen), Iron Man 3 (too mainstream), The Act Of Killing (documentaries should know their place, apparently), Inside Llewyn Davis (too miserable without being melodromatic) or Before Midnight (too sequel-y). All of them are better than the first three on this list, Before Midnight better than most, but we should at least be grateful the list we do have doesn’t have any real stinkers in it.

So, for the third time in four years, here’s my ordering of the nominees for Best Picture, from least best to most best.

The Least Best Picture is Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club

We should all be duly relieved when something of the quality of Dallas Buyers Club is the least of the nominees in a given year. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy about Dallas Buyers Club: the performances of both Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are excellent and I wouldn’t begrudge either the awards they’re nominated for (although they’re not necessarily the best). Details of Ron Woodroff’s real life may have been somewhat sketchy, leading to this being a little more myth-making than accurate reporting, but it’s the kind of story that needs a little myth-making when all’s said and done.

There are three main problems with Dallas Buyers Club. First is the lack of other characters: Jennifer Garner – who, apropos of nothing, looks amazing for 41 and being married to Ben Affleck – only develops into a living, breathing character around the halfway mark, and no-one else gets a look in; the lack of character development for Ron’s fellow club worker Denise, for example, is almost breathtaking. Secondly, it’s a story in need of a better ending, saddled with a feeling of anticlimax. And thirdly, although it has no bearing on the quality of the finished product, there really should be an apostrophe in that title.

Which is not as good as American Hustle

Christian Bale;Amy Adams

American Hustle is the movie equivalent of a decent Chinese takeaway: satisfying and enjoyable while you’re consuming it, but for some reason leaves you unfulfilled not long after. Much of what there is to enjoy is down to the performances, from Bradley Cooper’s tightly wound FBI agent to Christian Bale’s sleazy conman. While Jennifer Lawrence might be a little miscast, it would take a genuine curmudgeon to take too much offence with her stroppy headbanging, but the real highlight is Amy Adams once again twisting any man in a five mile radius round her little finger.

But beyond the quality of the acting, the rest feels as threadbare as Christian Bale’s wig / comb-over combo. There feels little new  about the story or its handful of twists, and David O. Russell’s direction lacks the narrative drive or visual flair of many of his contemporaries. It’s undoubtedly in awards contention thanks to the quality of the performances and the large voting bloc that the actors make up in the Academy, but whether or not that support will carry Hustle to the big prize remains to be seen. It won’t quite be a Crash-level shock if it does, but it will be almost as unjustified.

Which is not as good as Philomena

Philomena

I have to confess that I was checking my watch around an hour into Philomena. It wasn’t for any lack of enjoyment, as Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script was doing an efficient job of pitching up the cultural differences between Coogan’s journalist Martin Sixsmith and Judi Dench as the titular Catholic mother looking for the son taken from her decades earlier, but it had never quite caught fire. Treading a tricky line between serious issue drama and gentle Brit comedy, it wasn’t so much that it couldn’t decide which to settle on, more that it was content to be a reasonable example of both.

But the power of Philomena comes in the last third, when the true nature of events has unfolded and the gentle events of the first two acts actually work to blind side you to what’s coming. Dench is, unsurprisingly, outstanding but Coogan also proves his dramatic chops and shown that he can be more than just Alan Partridge. It was a good year for Coogan, with Partridge’s big screen foray also being well received, and stranger things have happened than Philomena picking up a screenplay award in the big shakedown.

Which is not as good as Nebraska

Nebraska

Alexander Payne is becoming a reassuring brand of quality, but after the slight dip of The Descendants – hamstrung by too much repetition of scenes of explaining that someone had died – Payne has once again found his groove with a slice of family life in the American Midwest. Pulling in a wide variety of family members, it’s a slightly skewed road trip led by Bruce Dern’s befuddled father insisting that he’s come up trumps in the lottery. While Dern has drawn the lion’s share of the acting plaudits, June Squibb also has an Oscar nomination for her efforts and Will Forte has redeemed himself for a fair chunk of over-the-top comedy performances with his restrained showing.

But it’s not just the director that’s pulled his weight. Bob Nelson’s script feels so in tune with Payne’s sympathies I did a double take when seeing Payne didn’t write it as the end credits scrolled. Phedon Papamichael’s black and white cinematography also avoids cliché and justifies the decision for monochrome shooting, and Nebraska is beautifully paced and allows you to fall in love with its characters despite their flaws. It looks as if nominations are the best that Nebraska can hope for, but against the quality of the opposition, there’s no shame in that.

Which is not as good as Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

It wouldn’t be the Oscars if there wasn’t a huge and unfair omission from the list, and probably the person most justifiably allowed to bear a grudge – even though he already has two shiny gold man-shaped bookends at home – would be Tom Hanks. Stoic and restrained for the majority, his performance in the denouement is gripping and fearlessly honest, and to not even take a nomination is a shame. Paul Greengrass also does his usual bang-up job with the direction, and if that award wasn’t filled with so many strong contenders he would have also been worth a nomination.

Captain Phillips is taut and compelling in all the ways that Greengrass’s earlier features, from United 93 to the Bourne films, were and that his previous film Green Zone wasn’t, so if nothing else it’s just a relief to see Greengrass back on top form. He’s also pulled some great performances from his Somali novices, and Barkhad Abdi is a standard bearer for that part of the cast. Captain Phillips avoids any feelings of exploitation and gives a balanced view of the story, as is so often the case with Paul Greengrass, but it’s not quite at the level of those earlier classics.

Which is not as good as Her

Her

Observation 1: Joaquim Phoenix and Amy Adams should always make films together, if The Master and Her are the benchmark of the quality of their collaborations. They get a lot more screen time together, and while Scarlett Johansson’s OS is the object of Phoenix’s affections, it’s Adams that gives him a warm, balanced human interaction. Observation 2: Spike Jonze, we’ve missed you. Only one film since Adaptation in 2002, let’s hope that Jonze can find more stories that inspire him, especially as Her shows that the quality of his writing is easily the equal of his directing and feels in tune with his earlier work from other writers.

Observation 3: Even five years ago, it’s difficult to imagine a film like this working as well as it does, but Jonze’s timing is impeccable, our acceptance of technology now enabling us to accept such a concept so readily. Despite being saddled with the most unlikely name in the history of movies and facial hair that verges on comedic, Theodore Twimbly draws in your sympathies and you find yourself rooting for his and Samantha’s relationship to work. Observation 4: What keeps this from true greatness is the slightly fudged ending, which while being brave enough doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as the rest of the film.

Observation 5: Any film that can actually make me start to like Arcade Fire is doing something clearly right.

Which is not as good as The Wolf Of Wall Street

The Wolf Of Wall Street

It’s three hours, Matthew McConaughey is relegated to an extended cameo and it’s been accused of not being sympathetic enough to the victims while its misogyny poorly serves the female characters. Does that stop it being one of Martin Scorcese’s top tier films? Not in my view. The length works in its favour, giving true scope to the true excess that defined Jordan Belfort’s era of ultimate debauchery. It would have been lovely to have more of McConaughey, but there’s enough in the other characters, from DiCaprio’s physical comedy to Johan Hill’s cheesy grin and a whole array of entertaining supporting turns.

The sympathy for the victims is trickier, as we only see one person being sucked into the scheme, but whereas the comparisons to Goodfellas are well founded, that was an indictment of a lifestyle on the fringes of society. The Wolf Of Wall Street is more of a condemnation of the culture that arose, and where the desperate needs of so many allowed them to be so easily exploited by Belfort and his cronies. As for the treatment of female characters, this is a realisation of Belfort’s view, and to attempt to give a politically correct balance to the characters would have undermined the callousness of Belfort’s world. It isn’t quite Goodfellas, but frankly, what is? When Scorcese’s legacy comes to be written, this should deserve a decent paragraph.

Which is not as good as Gravity

GRAVITY

Watching the making of videos for Gravity serves to underline quite what a technical achievement Alfonso Cuaron’s film is. The sheer level of new techniques, melded with established practices pushed to their very limits, creates a cinematic experience unlike any which have gone before and despite the success of space-based epics such as Avatar and 3D improvements like Life Of Pi, Gravity is immersive and impressive in ways that truly haven’t been seen before, and as much as I’m about to rave about 12 Years A Slave in the next section, I can’t help but feel for his breadth of vision and the clarity of his purpose, Cuaron deserves the best director award this year.

The story is painted with broad strokes but deals in metaphor and has slightly alienated some; there are no shortage of character moments, and Sandra Bullock has overcome the technical challenges imposed by the role to deliver a sympathetic study in loneliness. It will be remembered for what’s seen – and to a certain extent, what’s heard, as the music and sound design complement the visuals perfectly – but the quality of the other departments, in both writing and acting, doesn’t in any way let the side down. Gravity is one of a number of films touring cinemas as part of awards season, so if you haven’t seen it on the big screen yet, don’t let the chance pass you by, and make sure to see it in 3D.

The Best Picture Of 2013 is 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave

I’ve been a fan of Steve McQueen’s cinematic work since his first film, Hunger, and I rated Shame as my film of the year in 2012. You can understand that I then approached 12 Years A Slave with a little trepidation: as McQueen edges ever closer to the mainstream, would his vision be compromised? Could his third film possibly live up to the hype? Such questions seem almost trivial once you’ve seen the film, and McQueen has once again delivered a near perfect blend of his own direction, coupled with an acting masterclass and a script that judges just the right moments to deliver a searing portrayal of life in the slave trade.

I’ve been known to cry in the cinema before, from the heartbreak of the final meal in Of Gods And Men to the tragedy of a life told in montage in Up. It is fair to say that I am in touch with all of my emotions once I’m in the darkened environs of a cinema. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that 12 Years A Slave completely destroyed me. Rather than sobbing, tears just streamed down my face at regular intervals, I had to sit in the car for best part of half an hour while I composed myself afterwards and required a beer at the hotel I was staying at for work afterwards to enable me to sleep.

McQueen’s shot composition is from the man of a mind that grew out of art galleries but is now equally comfortable in cinemas. Here he proves beyond any doubt that he’s equally invested in his characters, portrayed as they are so devastatingly by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. John Ridley’s script has a wonderful ear for the dialogue of the era, and 12 Years A Slave is supremely dramatic and heartbreaking without ever feeling overwrought. The only misstep might be the inclusion of producer Brad Pitt in a small role, but that’s easily forgivable given the offscreen influence he’s likely to have been able to bring to getting this made. If 12 Years A Slave wins big, then McQueen shouldn’t have any difficulty attracting whoever he wants for his next project.

12 Years A Slave is an aspect of slavery rather than a complete picture, as last year’s Django Unchained and Lincoln also explored different facets. But it exceeds either of those films in its insight into both human suffering and ultimately compassion, tinged with hope as much as it is burdened by suffering and anger. In my view, Steve McQueen has now made the two most compelling films I’ve seen this decade, and I can only hope that Hollywood shares this feeling and duly rewards it tonight.

Previous years:

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2012

A Guide To What’s Actually The Best Picture 2010