Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reflecting on the Tenth Anniversary of the Animated Feature Film Oscar

Believe it or not, this year marks the tenth anniversary of the inception of the Best Animated Feature Film Academy Award. The original goals of adding the category way back in 2001 were to increase the awareness and prestige of a medium that had gone woefully unappreciated by the Academy for 64 years.

In 1937 Walt Disney introduced the cinematic world to the first ever full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That year, the Academy presented Walt with one full-size Oscar and seven minature statuettes to celebrate his "significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field." Over the next 64 years, 37 animated feature films garnered 64 Academy Award nominations and 15 Oscars in competitive categories—mostly for songs or scores, with one for BEst Picture (Beauty and the Beast), one for Best Original Screenplay (Toy Story), and one for Visual Effects (Nightmare Before Christmas). Until The Prince of Egypt won Best Original Song in 1998, no studio other than Disney had ever won an Academy Award for an animated feature.

The events that led to the Academy deciding to give animated features their own category actually began ten years before the category came to fruition. When 1991's Beauty and the Beast was nominated for six Oscars—the most for any animated film in history, including the medium's first-ever Best Picture nomination—it represented a turning point for animated features. While 1937–1990 had seen 17 films nominated for 29 Oscars and winning 5, from 1991–2000, 18 animated features earned 35 nominations and 10 Oscars. Though the majority of the awards were still in music categories, the '90s saw diversification in another way: 5 of the 18 films to earn competitive nominations were non-Disney fare, compared with just 3 in the preceding 54 years.

Many in the animation industry lobbied for a long time to give animated features their own category, and finally, a decade after Beauty and the Beast broke the glass ceiling the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar was created. Animators and fans alike hoped the new category would increase awareness and prestige for animated films and encourage the production of more and diverse entries. Initially the category was a temporary experiment; rather than making it a permanant category, the Academy determined it would need to be activated each year by the Academy's Board of Governors. Finally, for the first time for this year's Oscars, the category has become "permanant" and no longer needs to be activated each year.

As we approach the eleventh Oscar to be given for Best Animated Feature, it is worth examining whether the award has accomplished its goals. Some critics of the award argue it actually hurts animated films. By creating a mini Best Picture-type award for animated films, their logic states, you are essentially boxing animated films in and making them less likely to be taken seriosuly in other competitive categories. Many film critics and movie fans were up in arms in 2008 when WALL-E, one of the highest-grossing and most critically-acclaimed films of the year, failed to garner a Best Picture nomination. Some in the media even insinuated that the film had been deliberately snubbed.

Perhaps it was partially in reaction to this furor that caused the Academy to chance the Best Picture category the following year to allow ten nominated films to compete. If allowing more-popular fare to break into the top category was the Academy's goal then the move was immediately successful; that year, Up became the second animated feature in history to earn a Best Picture nomination.

If the overall goal of the Best Animated Feature Oscar was to bring greater prestige and attention to animated films overall, the category has arguably been successful. Having their own category does mean that every year, whether they earn any other nominations or not, animated films will have a place in the awards-season buzz. Additionally, animated films have continued to earn other competitive nominations over the past ten years—since 2001, 19 films have earned 42 nominations and 4 Oscars outside the Best Animated Feature category. The selection of films recognized by the Academy since the animated feature category was created has become more diverse as well. The last decade has seen the first animated film ever nominated for Best Foreign Language film, and animated films from Israel, France, Spain, Ireland, and Japan have received Oscar recognition. A category many feared would be dominated by Disney has actually helped bring more non-Disney fare to the forefront than might otherwise have happened. Since the category's inception, 26 of the 39 films nominated for Best Animated Feature have not been produced by Disney or Pixar, though 6 of the 10 winners have been. For the first time in 2011, a movie released by Disney/Pixar, Cars 2, failed to even make the cut for a nomination. Outside the Best Animated Feature category, 7 of the 19 nominated films were also non-Disney; that's almost as many animated non-Disney films as the entire previous 64 years.

Overall, though many have criticized the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and though it still remains to be seen whether any animated feature can actually win Best Picture or earn a nomination in an acting category, the inclusion of the Best Animated Feature in the annual Academy Awards has raised the prestige and visibility of animated films everywhere.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Predictions for the 84th Academy Awards

With just five days left until the 84th Academy Awards, it's that time again, folks: time for Oscar predictions! Last year I correctly predicted 16 out of 24 categories, tying Entertainment Weekly's Dave Karger and besting Roger Ebert who only got 14 correct. This year there seems to be a lot of agreement among prognosticators in certain categories and none whatsoever in others. As I write this, even though I planned out my picks yesterday, there are still two categories on which I am wavering (and may even change my mind by the time I get to them). So without further ado, here come my predictions for the 84th Academy Awards. Feel free to agree, disagree, or write your own predictions in the comments.

Best Picture

This year all the mystery centered around how many Best Picture nominees there would be; there was very little doubt going into the Oscar race which films would be the actual frontrunners. This has really been a two-horse race from the very beginning between The Descendants and The Artist. The Descendants nabbed a couple of early awards, but all signs point to the The Artist taking home the top prize.

Best Director

Most years, I would remind you that the conventional wisdom about the Best Director category is that it generally goes to the director of the Best Picture. Rules, though, are made to be broken. In fact, in the last eleven years the two top prizes have been split three times; Crash, Chicago, and Gladiator all won Best Picture but failed to garner a directing Oscar. I predict that will be the case again this year, with the award going to veteran and perennial nominee Martin Scorsese for his efforts on Hugo. Look at it as sort of a consolation prize for not giving the film Best Picture.

Best Actor

Though quite deserving of the nominations, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, and Demián Bichir never had a chance. From the very start it was between George Clooney, who won the Best Actor in a Drama prize at the Golden Globes for The Descendants, and Jean Dujardin, who took home Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for The Artist the same night. Early on it seemed as though Clooney had this in the bag. His film was well-liked and a strong contender for Best Picture; he had buzz surrounding multiple roles this year, which never hurts; and he is genuinely very good in The Descendants. But when Dujardin won the BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Award earlier this month, he cemented his place as frontrunner. Dujardin is the guy to beat, and Clooney is not going to beat him.

Best Actress

This is another case where it is sort of a two-horse race; Viola Davis got rave reviews for her portrayal of a black maid in civil-rights era Mississippi in The Help, but serial nominee Meryl Streep won the Golden Globe and started creating a lot of buzz around her role of former British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. It's also worth mentioning Michelle Williams won a couple awards and rave reviews as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. The late awards haven't helped much, as Davis picked up the SAG Award while Streep took the BAFTA. But since the BAFTAs are notoriously British-biased, and the SAG Awards are usually a better bellwether for the Oscars, I'm giving this one to Davis...but just barely.

Best Supporting Actor

There has never been any doubt in this category. Having picked up every imaginable award for his understated portrayal of a recently out of the closet widower dying of terminal cancer in Beginners, Christopher Plummer is the closest thing to a sure bet you will find this year.

Best Supporting Actress

This category is somewhat less cut-and-dried than its male counterpart. My gut tells me The Help's Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain risk splitting the film's support and throwing the award to Bérénice Bejo. My brain tells me that Octavia Spencer deserves the award and will probably win. This is one of the aforementioned I-could-change-my-mind-at-any-second categories, but I'm going to give Spencer a very slight edge over Bejo. A word to the wise: this category is often presented very early in the evening. If Bejo pulls off a win, it could be a sign that a major sweep for The Artist is about to start (think Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). If that happens then all bets are off, especially in the directing and screenplay categories.

Best Original Screenplay

Though The Artist is the most prominent film in this category, I'm going a little bit out on a limb (though not too far out; a handful of critics agree with me on this one) and predicting Woody Allen will win his fourth Oscar (his first since Hannah and her Sisters in 1986, though he's racked up 12 nominations since then) for Midnight in Paris. The film is fantastic and is definitely the most original of any of the nominated films. The Academy loves Woody Allen; they have shown him this with 23 career nominations, yet he has only won three Oscars.

Best Adapted Screenplay

There is some tough competition in this category; these are mostly really good movies with really well-written screenplays. Personally I think the most deserving is probably The Ides of March, a clever and gripping political thriller. However, since The Ides of March doesn't have any other nominations, I'd say it's probably out. This contest really comes down to The Descendants vs. Hugo, and John Logan's Hugo screenplay should emerge victorious.

Best Foreign Language Film

I'll be honest; I haven't seen any of these yet—though I hope to get in one or two this week before the Oscars. That said, generally when a film nominated in this category has broad-enough appeal to land it nominations in other categories, it is a pretty safe bet to win Best Foreign Language Film (think The Sea Inside, The Barbarian Invasions, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). In that vein, I'd give A Separation pretty good odds of winning.

Best Animated Feature

Best Animated Feature is another category in which I have waffled in recent days. In my opinion, the two foreign films, A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita, are the two best offerings, with A Cat in Paris being the cleverer of the two. That said, far more people saw Rango, even if few of them understood it. The animation and voice work in Rango are excellent, and the film seems to have much more support than the other nominated films. Finally, hand-drawn (or hand-drawn style) films have never been successful in this category; the last to win, which was also the last foreign offering to win, was 2002's Spirited Away. With category-favorite Pixar (they've won six of the ten years the category has existed) not competing this year, Rango should slither away with the award.

Best Documentary Feature

Every year there is a buzz-worthy documentary, yet every year some pundits try to pick an out-of-the-box choice for this category that never pans out. Face the facts: if there's a movie you've heard of on this list in any given year, it's probably going to win. This year, for those in the know, the "it" doc was Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the third film about the so-called West Memphis Three. The film has gotten great reviews, and I expect more people will be seeing it in the coming months. Its two predecessors are largely credited with helping the West Memphis Three go free, and the Academy loves influential docs (think An Inconvenient Truth).

Best Documentary Short

Honestly your guess is as good as mine. My best bet here is that the timeliness of "Incident in New Baghdad," about the slaying of two Reuters journalists during the Iraq war, will get the Academy's attention.

Best Animated Short

I really enjoyed three of these shorts this year, and I have to say, in my mind it's essentially a tie between "La Luna" and "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore." The films are equally memorable and both have a lot of heart. "La Luna" may have a slight edge since it's a Pixar offering in a year where Pixar didn't even get nominated in the animated feature category, but I think "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" will win because it is both funny and sad all while presenting a really cool concept.

Best Live-Action Short

Years ago I was of the opinion that picking the film with the coolest-sounding name was as good a way as any to call the short film awards. Then several years back I started actually seeing the short films in hopes it would give me an edge in the overall predictions game (everyone knows the Oscar pools are won and lost in the shorts categories!), but this created a whole new problem: so many of them are good! "Pentecost," "Time Freak," and "Tuba Atlantic" are funny but not terribly substantial; "Raju" is sad and a little scary; and "The Shore" combines humor and heart. Using just what I think the Academy SHOULD like, I would lean towards "The Shore," but given the types of films that have triumphed in this category—the hilarious "God of Love" and "West Bank Story" to name a couple examples—I have to go with the lighter fare this year. In a year where many films seem to be, directly or indirectly, about time travel, I'm predicting "Time Freak" will be the winner.

Best Art Direction

Hugo, hands down.

Best Cinematography

I hated, hated, hated The Tree of Life, but if there's one thing I can say about it it would be the cinematography was very well done. It can't be easy to light dinosaurs and the apocalypse all in one film, but Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki worked very hard to follow a whole bunch of guidelines on how they wanted everything shot in this film, and some of it really does come through.

Best Film Editing

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the most exciting and riveting films of 2011, and it only works because of the masterful editing work of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall.

Best Original Score

They say when you lose one sense your other senses become heightened. In most films you barely notice the score because there is so much dialogue and other sound going on. In The Artist, the score is all you get for 99% of the film, so it has to not only complement the action, as most scores do, but has to enhance the action without distracting from it.

Best Original Song

This one is pretty obvious to me: it has to be "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets. When the Academy revealed a few weeks ago that the Best Original Song nominees would not get staged musical numbers at the ceremony, Perez Hilton launched a petition to "Get the Muppets on the Oscars," which has nearly 68,000 signatures to date. Everyone loves the Muppets. 'Nuff said.

Best Sound Editing

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Sound Mixing

Hugo

Best Visual Effects

Many people felt that the final installment in the massively popular (and profitable) Harry Potter franchise deserved some Academy recognition; I was not the only one hoping to see it land in the Best Picture category and there were more than a few fans hoping to see Alan Rickman score a supporting nod for his role as Professor Severus Snape. While Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 failed to score any major nominations, it will likely win a couple consolation Oscars in the technical categories. To date the franchise has earned twelve Oscar nominations and not a single statuette, but that should change this year, if only in a couple minor categories.

Best Costumes

What do Shakespeare in Love (1998), Marie Antoinette (2006), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), The Duchess (2008), and The Young Victoria (2009) have in common? All are period pieces, most take place in England, all take place 200 or more years ago, and all won the Best Costumes Oscar in the past 15 years. These criteria provide a fairly reliable formula for predicting the costumes category, and this year two films fit all the criteria. Between Anonymous and Jane Eyre, the Shakespeare-era drama Anonymous has the better duds and should win the prize.

Best Makeup

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2...see visual effects category above.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Help

The Help
Running Time: 146 minutes
Nominations: 4 (Best Picture; Best Actress: Viola Davis; Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain; Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer)
Availability in the US: On DVD and Blu-ray
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for thematic material

In a small town in 1960s Mississippi, Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer, turns her town upside-down when she decides to interview the black maids who have helped raise the white children of her town. The first maid who agrees to be interviewed is Aibileen (Viola Davis), Skeeter's best friend's maid. Meanwhile, after being fired for using the indoor bathroom rather than the outhouse during a raging storm, Aibileen's friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) goes to work for social outcast Celia (Jessica Chastain), who has little love for the social order of town.

From beginning to end, The Help is nothing short of excellent. It is, at turns, funny and sad, heartwarming and heartwrenching. As the brave and bold Aibileen, Davis is marvelous. Bursting onto the Oscar radar three years ago in Doubt, Davis shows range here that her previous nominated performance lacked. Octavia Spencer also shows impressive versatility as Minny, who is distrustful, mischievous, and yet understanding and caring. This is Spencer's first nomination and first real noteworthy film role, which would hurt her if the category were chock full of veterans, but of the five nominated actresses, only McTeer has ever been recognized before by the Academy. Chastain, whose role is rather small compared to Spencer's, is just as phenomenal and no less deserving of recognition, leading some to worry the two may split support for the film in the supporting actress category.

As one of the best films of 2011, The Help seems almost certain to garner at least one or two awards on Sunday; Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are both considered frontrunners in their respective categories, and Davis is almost a shoo-in. Spencer's success is less certain; her awards buzz peaked early, and a sweep of major awards by The Artist could bring Bérénice Bejo along for the ride, especially if Chastain syphons off some of Spencer's votes.

Grade: A+

Monday, February 20, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Running Time: 158 minutes
Nominations: 5 (Best Actress: Rooney Mara; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Sound Mixing; Best Sound Editing)
Availability in the US: Now in Theatres
MPAA: Rated R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language

Based on one of the most talked-about books of the decade, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he tries to figure out what happened to a girl who has been missing for 40 years. He is aided by a tattooed and pierced young computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) who has her own motives for wanting to solve the case.

The role of Salander was highly coveted throughout Hollywood, and there was even some discussion of Noomi Rapace, who played the role in the original Swedish version of the film, reprising the role. Ultimately Mara, a relative unknown, was cast in the role. The filmmakers could not have made a better choice. Mara transformed herself for the role, getting multiple ear, eyebrow, and nipple piercings, and she bares a lot more than her body in the film. Salander's character experiences an emotional rollercoaster from physical and sexual assaults, to the illness of her close friend/guardian, to the disturbing details of the unfolding mystery.

Fans of the book series and the original Swedish films were concerned about a Hollywood adaptation, but David Fincher's adaptation lives up to, and at times surpasses, the original film. I am often quite wary of my favorite books' film adaptations, yet I very much enjoyed this take on Steig Larsson's tale, and even look forward to the next two books being adapted. Craig and Mara are a big part of what makes this version so excellent. In any other year, I might be tempted to predict a win for Mara in this category—and with two more movies potentially on the way, this role may yet yield her an Oscar— but the competition this year is just too strong. The film's best chances at Oscars are probably in the two sound categories, but it could be a strong contender for Best Film Editing as well.

Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW: Beginners

Beginners
Running Time: 105 minutes
Nominations: 1 (Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer)
Availability in the US: On DVD and Blu-ray
MPAA: Rated R for language and some sexual content

Oliver Fields's (Ewan McGregor) life is turned upside-down when he learns his aging father Hal (Christopher Plummer) is homosexual and is suffering from terminal cancer. The film switches between Oliver dealing with the new realities of his father's life and Oliver some time later coping with his father's passing.

Ewan McGregor shows impressive range in this sad but sweet tale, but Christopher Plummer is truly incredible. Hal has spent his entire life living a lie and, a mere five years after the death of his wife, learns he is also dying. Coming to terms with both his mortality and his sexuality at once can't be easy, and Hal manages to make us laugh and cry in the process. From taking on a much-younger lover to hiding his illness from that lover, Plummer's portrayal is both understated and heart-wrenching.

Surprisingly, Christopher Plummer has never won an Oscar. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, until two years ago—when he earned a nod for the almost unwatchable The Last Station—he had never even been nominated. None of that matters now, however, as one of the most underappreciated actors of his generation is finally going to get his due. Plummer has won every major award this season and looks to be the closest thing to a shoo-in at this year's Oscars.

Grade: B

MOVIE REVIEW: Warrior

Warrior
Running Time: 140 minutes
Nominations: 1 (Best Supporting Actor: Nick Nolte)
Availability in the US: On DVD and Blu-ray
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material

I'm not a huge fan of sports that involve fighting (excepting hockey, of course), and yet every year around Oscar time, I find myself having to watch another film about them. First we had 2010's The Wrestler, then last year's The Fighter and now Warrior. The film follows two brothers who, unbeknownst to each other, enter a mixed martial arts tournament. The younger son returns home to ask his alcoholic dad (Nick Nolte) to train him, while the older son is forced to compete when he has trouble making his mortgage payments.

As with many films that earn a single Oscar nomination, Warrior is remarkable only for the nominated performance. Nolte is heart-breaking as Paddy Conlon, the 20-days-sober father whose children haven't spoken to him in years. When youngest son Tommy returns suddenly he sees a second chance at being a father, only to discover that's not quite what Tommy had in mind.

This is Nolte's most memorable performance since at least Hotel Rwanda (2004). Nolte has never won an Oscar—this is his third nomination—which in a role like this would work in his favor, but every pre-Oscars award has gone to Christopher Plummer, and the Oscar is likely to do the same.

Grade: B

MOVIE REVIEW: Hugo

Hugo
Running Time: 126 minutes
Nominations: 11 (Best Picture; Best Director: Martin Scorsese; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Original Score; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Costume Design; Best Art Direction; Best Sound Mixing; Best Sound Editing; Best Visual Effects)
Availability in the US: Now in Theatres
MPAA: Rated PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking

An orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) living in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris sets out to solve the mystery of an automaton left behind by his late father. Hugo must find the heart-shaped key that makes the automaton work, but he is stymied by a cranky old man (Ben Kingsley) who may have his own secret connection to the mystery.

While reviewers have touted Hugo as a movie about film preservation, it is really so much more than that. Though film preservation is a key theme, Hugo is also a surprisingly relatable tale. Everyone is looking for a way to connect with his past or lost loved ones; similarly, we all have things from our past we'd rather forget. Hugo and the old man represent these two opposing sides of our instincts. Hugo is a delightful and engaging trip through early cinematic history. The film works on multiple levels and for moviegoers of all ages. With an engaging story and clever writing, two hours pass so quickly you won't believe it's already over.

So far this awards season, Hugo has done very well, garnering accolades from multiple critics' associations and peer groups. Scorsese has similarly been lauded by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and other groups. Losing the Director's Guild Award to Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) may have hurt his hopes for a second Best Director statuette (he won his first for 2006's The Departed), but he is still certainly a top contender. With 11 nominations, Hugo looks to garner at least a handful of awards.

Grade: A+

MOVIE REVIEW: A Better Life

A Better Life
Running Time: 98 minutes
Nominations: 1 (Best Actor: Demián Bichir)
Availability in the US: On DVD and Blu-ray
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some violence, language and brief drug use

Carlos (Demián Bichir), a gardener in East Los Angeles, struggles to keep his 14-year-old son away from gangs and immigration agents while trying to give his son the opportunities he never had.

Demián Bichir, best known to American audiences as politician-turned-gangster Esteban Reyes on Showtime's Weeds, turns in a heartwrenching performance as he tries to give his son Luis a chance to live in a better neighborhood, go to a better school, and make something of himself, all while evading deportation over his illegal immigration status. Few films have done a good job of showing the plight of the migrant worker, but A Better Life steps up in this department. Audiences feel Carlos' frustration at the very limited resources available to him and worry along with him that his son may be falling in with the wrong crowd.

Actors very rarely win Oscars as the only nominee representing a particular film—the last to do it was Penelope Cruz in 2009's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Furthermore, Bichir, hardly a household name, is competing against the likes of Brad Pitt and George Clooney, as well as Jean Dujardin who, while also not well known, is at least in a film people have seen.

Grade: A-

Sunday, February 19, 2012

DOUBLE MOVIE REVIEW: The Iron Lady and Albert Nobbs

Two supremely talented, beloved, sixty-something actresses, both made to look uglier by the magic of modern cinematic makeup, and both nominated for Best Actress. (Both films are also nominated for Best Makeup, not surprisingly.) But Meryl Streep and Glenn Close have something else in common this year: both had shining performances in films that didn't quite match the leading ladies' luster. Films where actors have the only high-profile nomination (no picture, director, or screenplay nods) often suffer from this fault, but these are both particularly glaring examples.

The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady
Running Time: 105 minutes
Nominations: 2 (Best Actress: Meryl Streep; Best Makeup)
Availability in the US: Now in Theatres
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity

The Iron Lady follows the life and times of former British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher. The film takes place in the present, as Thatcher is slowly fading into old age and dementia, but the bulk of the film's action takes place through flashbacks to Margret's time serving first as a member of Parliament and later as Britain's first female Prime Minister.

At this point, after a record-setting seventeen career acting nominations (since breaking Katharine Hepburn's record of 14 in 2006, it's only her own record Meryl keeps topping), it's getting sort of cliché to talk about how fantastic Meryl's performances are every year. That said, Streep delivers an understated but emotional performance as one of the most-loved (or most-hated, depending on your political bent) figures in 20th century British politics. Unfortunately, Streep's elegant performance is not enough to lift this soporific biopic. The film focuses too much on Thatcher's present mental state and not enough on what viewers care about, her political life. One thing the film does very well, though, is age Streep—who is now 62, but you'd never know it to look at her—to a jowly 87. The Best Makeup contest is a tight one this year, but The Iron Lady has a chance.

As for Meryl's Oscar hopes, the chances aren't what they once were. There was a time in this Oscar race when Meryl was the front-runner, but I suspect that was before most people had seen the entire film. While I'd say it's never wise to count Streep out in Oscar season, that logic really only extends to nominations, as she hasn't won an Academy Award since 1982's Sophie's Choice, and she's had 12 stabs at it. Still, Meryl is still in the race for this one, even if she's no longer the favorite horse.

Grade: B-

Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs
Running Time: 113 minutes
Nominations: 3 (Best Actress: Glenn Close; Best Supporting Actress: Janet McTeer; Best Makeup)
Availability in the US: Now in Theatres
MPAA: Rated R for some sexuality, brief nudity and language

A woman living in 19th century Ireland (Glenn Close) poses as a man named Albert Nobbs so she may work as a butler at a posh hotel in Dublin. The charade is carried on for years, but when Nobbs meets a handsome painter (Janet McTeer), she looks to escape the lie she has been living.

Albert Nobbs is not a bad film by any means, but the overall production doesn't quite match up to Close's stunning performance. Glenn Close makes us empathize with the transgender Nobbs even though most of us will never know what it is like to walk in his shoes. As a woman trying to survive in a man's world, Nobbs's decision to pose as a man seems quite logical, as does her eventual realization that she wants more out of life. The film's flaw is most certainly not in its acting but in the screenplay. The film is quite funny at times, but it's never clear that the humor is entirely intentional. The dialogue also leaves much to be desired. The poor writing somewhat mutes the overall impact the film's stand-out performances should have.

Given the rather narrow release of the film and its overall script problems, Albert Nobbs seems unlikely to seriously contend for any Oscars. That said, as I mentioned in my review of The Iron Lady, a talented makeup team should never be counted out. It takes a great deal of skill to take the beautiful Glenn Close and make her into a rather unattractive and awkward-looking man.

Grade: B

MOVIE REVIEW: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Running Time: 127 minutes
Nominations: 3 (Best Actor: Gary Oldman; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Original Score)
Availability in the US: Now in Theatres
MPAA: Rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language

During the Cold War, veteran MI6 agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) comes out of retirement to root out a Soviet spy within the agency.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may be a spy film, but it is most certainly not an action film. The action unfolds at a snail's pace—typical for British dramas—and very little happens. Ultimately, the film contains worthy performances from Oldman and last year's Best Actor winner Colin Firth (The King's Speech), but, unless you really love Cold War films, this is one to skip.

First-time nominee Oldman is certainly long overdue for Academy recognition, but this will not be his year. His performance is the least showy of the nominees, and the film itself is mediocre. The film is also unlikely to contend in either the screenplay or scoring category.

Grade: C+

Friday, February 17, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW:Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris
Running Time: 94 minutes
Nominations: 4 (Best Picture; Best Director: Woody Allen; Best Original Screenplay; Best Art Direction)
Availability in the US: On DVD and Blu-ray
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking

Where does a writer draw his inspiration, from the people in his life or from the long-dead figures whose works delighted him as a child? Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris attempts to explore the juxtaposition of these two muses. Gil (Owen Wilson) and his fiancée Inez travel to Paris where Gil, a successful screenwriter whose work on his first novel has stalled, hopes to clear his head and end his writer's block. Hoping the City of Light will inspire him in some way the events of his own life have failed to, Gil wanders the streets late at night and comes upon a new and unexpected source of inspiration.

Midnight in Paris is one of the most truly enjoyable films I have seen in years. When I saw it last summer, I couldn't wait to go out and tell everyone I knew they needed to see it. Of course this wasn't an easy sell; in an effort to not spoil some of the film's most entertaining twists, I was willing to share very little about the actual plot of the film. (For an example on how to give away while pretending to summarize, see the above paragraph.) I've always enjoyed Woody Allen's films, though some are better than others— anyone who has seen 1996's Everyone Says I Love You, Allen's last film to portray Paris, knows what I mean—but this feels like a renaissance of sorts. Midnight in Paris is easily Allen's best film since at least 2000's Small Time Crooks and will delight both newcomers to Allen's work and longtime fans alike.

While many a Woody Allen fan, myself included, let out a hoot of approval when Midnight in Paris was announced as a nominee for Best Picture, it's difficult to see any path to actually winning the prize. Even if Hugo and The Artist were to split the film-preservationist/nostalgia vote, it's likely The Descendants would swoop in and steal the crown. Similarly, the films much-deserved Art Direction nomination will likely prove fruitless, though Midnight in Paris manages to make the City of Lights glow beautifully through several period shifts. The screenplay category is a different story, however. Woody Allen has 15 Oscar nominations for writing (and 23 overall nominations), the most of any writer in history, and 9 more than any other living writer. He is essentially the John Williams (46 nominations) of the Best Original Screenplay category. What's more surprising, though, is that Allen hasn't won an Oscar since 1986 for Hannah and Her Sisters, and I believe he is long overdue. Though there are some serious contenders in this category, I think Allen could FINALLY win his fourth Oscar.

Grade: A+

Thursday, February 16, 2012

News & Links 2/16/2012

The Academy has announced that 2005 Oscar host Chris Rock will present at the 84th Academy Awards ceremony. They have also announced Oscar winners Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted) will make appearances as well as actors Emma Stone; Bradley Cooper; Ben Stiller; and the cast of Bridesmaids, Rose Byrne, Ellie Kemper, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Maya Rudolph, and Oscar nominees Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig.

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The producers of the official Oscars pre-show, "Oscars Red Carpet Live," have announced that Robin Roberts, Tim Gunn, Louise Roe, Jess Cagle, and Nina Garcia will host this year's festivities. Executive producers Charlie Haykel and Juliane Hare said in a press release, "We couldn't be more excited to be working with this red carpet team. Each brings something unique and different that will contribute to the show's overall dynamic and creative direction."

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has entered into an agreement with Everyone Counts Inc. to exclusively develop an electronic voting system for the 85th Academy Awards, to be held in 2013. Everyone Counts will work with PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has tabulated Oscar ballots for 78 years. The Academy has stated PwC's role in tabulating Academy members' votes will remain unchanged.

Over the next year, the Academy will undertake a rigorous security and user-acceptance testing process. "This is the first of many steps that we'll be taking toward developing a secure and convenient electronic voting system, beginning with next year's ballot," said Academy Chief Operating Officer Ric Robertson. "We're excited to have found great partners in the people who do this best."

The selection of Everyone Counts is the result of an 18-month search conducted by the Academy.

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Oscar Night America (ONA), the Academy's grassroots program that enables local charities to host Oscar viewing parties and raise money for their organizations, kicks off its nineteenth year in 2012. This year, 49 cities will host official Oscar viewing parties during the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26.

"Oscar night is an event meant to be shared with others. This network of fundraising parties across the nation is a natural extension of that experience, and also represents the year-round philanthropic work the Academy does," said Academy CEO Dawn Hudson. "This February we are thrilled to be able to celebrate the movies with fans nationwide while supporting charities around the country."

The ONA 2012 locations are Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Charlottesville, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Grand Rapids (MI), Greensboro/Winston-Salem, Greenville (SC), Hartford, Honolulu, Houston, Indianapolis, Knoxville, Las Vegas, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Louisville, Memphis, Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Orlando, Palm Beach, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Providence, Raleigh, Richmond, Sacramento, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Springfield (MO), Tampa and Tucson.

Only one charity party in a given media market may participate in ONA. To set these parties apart from the thousands of other events taking place on Oscar Night, each ONA party receives from the Academy copies of the official commemorative poster and the official Oscar show program, among other items.

While most parties are black-tie affairs, some are less formal. Some partygoers dress up as famous couples and some events feature limousine arrivals and red carpets complete with local celebrities, paparazzi and press interviews for arriving guests. Events are entirely produced by local nonprofit organizations, with the active participation of the local ABC-TV affiliate station.

Last year's ONA celebrations had 17,332 attendees and raised over $3.5 million—all of it remaining in local communities—for such charities as the American Red Cross, Ronald McDonald House, Special Olympics, United Way, Starlight Children's Foundation, and the Ellie Fund.

For more information, or to find your closest ONA location, visit http://www.facebook.com/OscarNightAmerica.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

DOUBLE MOVIE REVIEW: War Horse & The Tree of Life

I love movies; that's why I have a blog and a website all about movies. When I watch any film, I go into the experience wanting to enjoy it. Sometimes I fail miserably at that particular aspiration. This year we have nine Best Picture nominees, and I fully enjoyed seven of them. Two of them, however, were downright dreadful. In an effort to expunge all my negativity at once, I've decided to combine their reviews into one post. So now, ladies and gentlemen, I present the two worst Best Picture nominees in recent memory:

War Horse

The Tree of Life
Running Time: 146 minutes
Nominations: 6 (Best Picture, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing)
Availability in the US: Now in theatres
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence

War Horse is the tale of a young boy named Albert who joins the British army during World War I so he may travel Europe in search of the horse his father sold to the cavalry. The horse—whom Albert named Joey, but who earns several other names throughout the course of the film—passes from owner to owner over the course of several years, serves both the Entente and Central Powers, and somehow miraculously avoids being shot about 2,000 separate times.

I'll admit I went into this film with a slight bias: I'm not a horse person; I don't like horses or movies about them. That said, War Horse is a particularly good example of why I don't care for the "horse movie" genre. First off, horses can't act. I'm not particularly big on dog movies either, but at least those guys can be kind of cute and have some ability to make facial expressions. Secondly, Joey is only extraordinary in his ability to inspire love in every human being with whom he interacts. Other than that (which is poorly executed on the human actors' parts, I might add), if the swelling music is any indication, we're supposed to get excited about the horse pulling a plough, jumping over a ditch, and running in a straight line for no conceivable reason. Isn't this what horses are supposed to do? Why is Joey so special? Because a possibly-mentally-handicapped boy named Albert thinks so?

This film was boring, predictable, poorly acted, and completely pointless. The only good thing I have to say about War Horse is that at least it's not as bad as The Tree of Life

Grade: C-

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life
Running Time: 139 minutes
Nominations: 3 (Best Picture; Best Director: Terrence Malick; Best Cinematography)
Availability in the US: On DVD and Blu-ray
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material

So this is the part of most reviews where I describe the plot of the film; unfortunately, The Tree of Life has no plot, at least not one that can be clearly discerned. I sat through all 139 excruciating minutes of this film, and I can honestly say I wish I had gotten a root canal instead; it would have been less painful. The film centers around a family with three sons in the 1950s, or at least most of it does. There is also a twenty-minute portion of it that shows the history of the universe starting with the Big Bang, continuing through the planet's volcanic period, lingering for a few minutes on dinosaurs roaming the earth, moving along to early humans, and finally resting in the 1950s. A similar segment follows the main action of the film, which shows what is presumably the future of our planetary fate and all the film's characters meeting up in what appears to be some sort of afterlife—if Heaven is essentially a backwoods bus station.

Maybe it's good when a film leaves you asking questions, but I doubt the questions I had are what any filmmaker has in mind. What is this movie about? Is Brad Pitt's character bi-polar? Do you only have to pay Sean Penn half his usual rate if he doesn't speak at all and most of his screentime is the back of his head? Is that blob of orange light supposed to be God? Does Heaven really look like a backwoods bus stop? Has there ever been another Best Picture nominee that featured dinosaurs? (On this last point, I've determined that Toy Story 3 does not count.) Who voted for this dreck? Most importantly, who do I speak to about getting two hours of my life back?

All I have to say is if this wins any Oscars, we all need to seriously reevaluate how we determine what the best films each year are.

Grade: D

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

News and Links 2/7/2012

Final Oscar ballots for the 84th Academy Awards were mailed this week to the 5,783 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences late last week. These ballots allow members to vote in 19 of the 24 competitive categories. Separate ballots for the Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, Foreign Language Film, Animated Short Film and Live Action Short Film categories will be distributed to members who attend mandatory screenings of the nominated films.

The ballots are due to be returned to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) by 5 p.m. (PST) on February 21. Late ballots will not be counted. PwC will tabulate the votes and place the winners' names in sealed envelopes to be opened on-air on February 26.

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The Academy has announced that Oscar winners Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Forest Gump) and Halle Berry (Monster's Ball); Academy Award nominee Tom Cruise (Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia); actress and performer Jennifer Lopez; and actress Cameron Diaz will be among the presenters at this year's Academy Awards. The Academy also announced actress Milla Jovovich will host the Scientific and Technical Awards on Saturday, February 11, at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills. Jovovich will present 10 awards to 30 individual recipients during the evening. Jovovich will also likely appear at the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26 to introduce a clip from the Sci-Tech awards dinner.

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Over 150 nominees for the 84th Academy Awards gathered yesterday at the Beverly Hilton for the Academy's annual Nominees Luncheon. In attendance were all 10 nominees in the lead acting categories along with 8 of 10 nominees from the supporting categories (only Jessica Chastain and Christopher Plummer missed the event). Best Director nominees Martin Scorsese and Michel Hazanavicius were also in attendance.

Click the image below for the high-resolution version. Photo caption is included after the break.


MOVIE REVIEW: The Artist

The Artist
Running Time: 100 minutes
Nominations: 10 (Best Picture; Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius; Best Actor: Jean Dujardin; Best Supporting Actress: Bérénice Bejo; Best Original Screenplay;Best Original Score; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Costume Design; Best Art Direction)
Availability in the US: Now in theatres
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture

A silent film star falls into obscurity and spirals towards insanity at the dawn of the talking pictures era; sound like a film you've seen before? To the cinephiles among you, this may sound a lot like 1951 Best Picture nominee Sunset Boulevard, but in fact we are talking about 2011 Best Picture front-runner The Artist. While Sunset Boulevard takes place several years after The Jazz Singer made silent films a thing of the past, The Artist starts in 1927—just before The Jazz Singer. The film follows silent-film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who, upon seeing a demonstration of a film with sound, insists talkies are just a fad and that no one wants to hear actors speak on screen. Meanwhile, a young dancer named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo)—whom Valentin cast in his last film—seems to be on the verge of her big break. When the studio stops production on all silent films in favor of talkies, Valentin refuses to take part. His career, his marriage, and his life begin to fall apart as he fades into Hollywood obscurity. Conversely, Miller's star grows bigger and brighter as she becomes America's sweetheart in a series of talking pictures.

Films about bygone eras have been Oscar-bait for years, so what makes this film special? Well, there's a bit of a twist: Instead of just being about the silent-film era, The Artist is actually a black-and-white silent film. The film's lack of spoken dialogue (some intertitles are used, but they are used sparingly) in no way mutes its emotional impact. The Artist is at times funny, tense, gripping, and heart-breaking. Dujardin and Bejo effortlessly revive the art of silent-film acting as if it hasn't been dead for nearly 90 years. The film is a love-letter to old-time cinema, and the cast and crew's devotion to the authenticity of the time period shows. Michel Hazanavicius chose to use color film and add the black & white as an effect in post-production in order to allow for fuller grays, and the decision paid off as the images burst from the screen as vibrantly as if the film were in color. The Artist is a nearly perfect film, so get over your reservations towards silent films and go see it!

The Artist looks to potentially make Academy Awards history in several ways if it wins big on February 26. At present the film is considered a front-runner for Best Picture; if it wins, not only will it be only the second silent film ever to win the Academy's top honor (the first and, so far, last was Wings (1927/28)) but it would also be the first fully black-and-white film to win since 1960's The Apartment—though 1993's Schindler's List was primarily in black and white. The Artist could also potentially be only the second black-and-white film to win Best Cinematography since the separate categories for Black and White Cinematography and Color Cinematography were combined in 1967.

The Artist is the front-runner in a number of categories, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography, and perhaps Best Art Direction. In a weaker year, Dujardin and perhaps even Bejo might have a shot, but up against George Clooney and Octavia Spencer, respectively, they don't seem to have much hope. Still, never discount the possibility of Academy voters going sweep-crazy and giving The Artist all kinds of unexpected awards.

Grade: A+

Friday, February 03, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Running Time: 129 minutes
Nominations: 2 (Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor: Max von Sydow)
Availability in the US: Now in theatres
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language

My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. He never talked much about his experiences during the Holocaust, and in 1993, when Schindler's List came out, he flat-out refused to see it; even 50 years after coming to America wounds were still too fresh and too deep. I never quite understood how simply seeing a movie could reopen those old wounds, but then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Though my experiences during 9/11 don't come anywhere near what my grandfather experienced in Poland, I finally understood how something so terrible could happen that it would feel off-limits even to movies. I vehemently avoided seeing United 93 when it came out and had managed to avoid all other 9/11-related films, true and fictitious. I felt almost as though I was channeling my grandfather when I told friends, "I lived through it, I remember it, I don't need a movie to remind me!"

Last week I broke that streak and went to see Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. The film follows a young boy named Oskar whose father (Tom Hanks) died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. A year after "The Worst Day," as Oskar refers to 9/11, Oskar finds a key among his father's things and sets off on a mission—one that will take him to all five boroughs of New York City—to figure out what the key unlocks; he is convinced whatever it opens will contain a message from his deceased father. He is aided by a mysterious old man (Max von Sydow) who rents a room from Oskar's grandmother and who hasn't spoken a word in decades.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is not an easy film to watch. Although Oskar's father dies in the first few minutes of the film, flashbacks abound, and 9/11 is a major theme throughout the film; I can't remember the last time I cried so much and so hard throughout a film. That being said, Oskar's determination and his journey are inspiring and heartwarming. At its core this is a film about life, not death; about moving on, not looking back. Max von Sydow's character (referred to in the credits simply as "The Renter") manages to make you laugh, cry, and throw up your hands in frustration, all without ever uttering a word. His embodiment of the character is masterful; few actors could have pulled it off even half as well.

Though von Sydow gives an Oscar-worthy performance, he is up against Christopher Plummer (Beginners) who has won nearly every pre-Oscar award. In the Best Picture category, only time will tell, though most of the buzz has been with other films. Still, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is worth seeing; just make sure you bring a box of tissues.

Grade: A-