Thursday, October 22, 2015

Early Oscar Predictions (Lead Acting Races)


  • Michael Fassbender in "Steve Jobs" - Though there's no runaway front-runner as of yet in this category, it appears as though Fassbender is out in front right now for his stunning work as Steve Jobs. Though I suspect he will be the winner when all is said and done, the next name on this list might have something to say about that.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant" - With "The Wolf of Wall Street", the "give Leo and Oscar" campaign rose to a fever pitch. If this performance delivers on its on-paper potential (and that trailer certainly looks impressive), this just might be the one.
  • Eddie Redmayne in "The Danish Girl" - This performance from the reigning champion in this category had high expectations which some felt it failed to meet coming out of the fall festivals. Regardless, most reviews were strong or at the very least for Redmayne and his popularity combined with the transformative nature of the role should carry it over the top. 
  • Matt Damon in "The Martian" - Still not sure if Oscar support for this film will amount to support for Damon, but it's a meaty central role in a hugely popular film and he's well-liked enough that I could see him getting in.
  • Michael Caine in "Youth" - Don't know much about this film, but Caine is a living legend and has gotten solid reviews for this film and looks to have a good chance at a nom here. Also, the subject matter should play well for the older-skewing Academy.
  • OTHER POSSIBILITIES: Johnny Depp in "Black Mass", Bryan Cranston in "Trumbo", Tom Hanks in "Bridge of Spies", Jake Gyllenhaal in "Southpaw"

  • Brie Larson in "Room" - From the film's debut at Toronto, she appeared to be a strong contender, and the popularity of the film has only seemed to increase since then. Also, her main competitor has very recently won her own trophy in this category which could work to Larson's benefit.  
  • Cate Blanchett in "Carol" - Seemingly a lock for a nomination, but with two wins under her belt already and one having come very recently for "Blue Jasmine", she seems unlikely to win again. Though there's been some suggestion that her other acclaimed performance this year in "Truth" could overtake "Carol" as her best shot at a nom, but "Carol" seems to be a stronger contender overall.
  • Jennifer Lawrence in "Joy" - Whatever else happens to "Joy" this season, I would be very surprised if Lawrence doesn't get a nomination here. Her track record for Oscar noms under David O. Russell is still a perfect 2 for 2 (including 1 win), and after playing second fiddle in those previous outings, she appears to be fully front and center in "Joy".
  • Saoirse Ronan in "Brooklyn" - She's been getting strong reviews for her work in this film since Sundance, and this looks to be two-time reigning BP winner Fox Searchlights' strongest contender overall. The previous nominee for "Atonement" should be in.
  • Emily Blunt in "Sicario" - I think most people who make Oscar predictions are woefully underestimating Blunt's chances of scoring a nomination. "Sicario" is currently the highest-grossing Indie of the year and the film has gotten terrific reviews (93% on RT), many of which single her performance out. This is combined with the fact that she is a very well-liked and popular actress who has yet to receive a nomination and this is her most acclaimed and unexpected work to date.
  • OTHER POSSIBILITIES: Charlotte Rampling in "45 Years", Carey Mulligan in "Suffragette", Cate Blanchett in "Truth", Lilly Tomlin in "Grandma"

Monday, October 19, 2015

Early Oscar Predictions (Best Picture)


While it's still early in the Fall movie season, the Oscar season has really started to take shape in the past few weeks. Many of the big contenders have started to play for audiences, giving us a better sense of who will be in the conversation come February. While there are still a handful of on-paper contenders that have yet to play for either audiences or critics ("Joy", "The Hateful Eight", "The Revenant"), films which will be included in these predictions below, I feel comfortable in taking a stab at who some of the front-runners might be for a nomination. These predictions will likely change a great deal as the season moves along.


  • "Spotlight" (Open Road Films) - This was the big audience favorite coming out of the fall film festivals. I haven't seen the film and don't know whether it will be able to maintain its front-runner status as the season goes along and the inevitable backlash sinks in, but for right now it appears to be at the top.
  • "Steve Jobs" (Universal) - I've offered up my enthusiastic thoughts about the film, and it is setting the box-office on fire in limited release. How it plays in wide release for mainstream  audiences is yet to be seen, but "Steve Jobs" appears to be in the thick of the conversation.
  • "The Martian" (20th Century Fox) - On-paper, "The Martian" wasn't seen as a major Oscar contender, but with some of the best reviews of the year and outstanding Box-office, the film has forced itself into the conversation in a big way. If the Academy can overlook their bias towards sci-fi (which they nearly did with the similarly low-key "Gravity"), then this populist, uplifting film has a real chance for the win.
  • "The Revenant" (20th Century Fox) - The first of the sight-unseen contenders in my predictions. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the helmer of reigning BP champ "Birdman", and this looks to be a similarly ambitious film, if not even more so. If the film delivers on expectations, it will be a major awards player.
  • "Bridge of Spies" (DreamWorks) - The reviews have been very strong and, like much of Spielberg's work, this looks like it will play very well to the old-fashioned Academy audience. Don't know if it's a potential winner, but it's definitely a contender. 
  • "Carol" (The Weinstein Co.) - There have been suggestions that the film might be a bit chilly for audiences, but this looks like actors fodder with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara's performances. Also, this looks like the Weinstein's best play at the moment, and Harvey Weinstein is a pro at getting his horse in the race. 
  • "Room" (A24 Films) - The winner of the audience prize out of Toronto, which has been a benchmark for several previous Best Picture winners ("Slumdog Millionaire", "The King's Speech, "12 Years a Slave"), this has been a surprise entry into this Oscar season, given that it's a relatively small scale indie. 
  • "The Danish Girl" (Focus Features) - Received mixed responses out of the film festival circuit, but looks like it will play better to mainstream audiences. Mixed reviews certainly didn't hurt Tom Hooper's last Oscar contender, "Les Miserables".
  • "Inside Out" (Pixar) - Easily the best reviewed Pixar film since "Toy Story 3", the last one to receive a nomination in this category. Will likely depend on how well the late entires play, but this looks like a strong possibility for a nomination. 

  • "Joy" (20th Century Fox) - David O. Russell's recent Oscar track record suggests I should put a lot of faith in this as a contender, but I'm still a little reserved on this one. With "The Martian" and "The Revenant" also on their slate, will Fox really be able to get 3 films in? And is this maybe more of a Best Actress play for Jennifer Lawrence.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Steve Jobs": Review


It's hard to think of the last time I anticipated a movie as strongly as I did "Steve Jobs", and there are numerous reasons as to why that is. First, there's the presence of writer Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the brilliant, Oscar-winning script for "The Social Network", which is easily one of my favorite films of the last five years. Second, there's director Danny Boyle, who much like David Fincher, Sorkin's directorial collaborator on "Social Network", has a distinct visual style which makes an unlikely yet fascinating pairing with Sorkin's more verbose sensibilities. There was also the draw of an impressive and eclectic ensemble, featuring Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeff Daniels and the great Michael Fassbender in the title role. This is to say that I was drawn to "Steve Jobs" mainly because of the various pieces involved in the larger puzzle.

It shouldn't be surprising then that while watching "Steve Jobs", I was drawn into the individual components and the interplay between them more so than the overall product. That isn't to say that the overall product isn't satisfying, but "Steve Jobs" is such a unique film experience that you can't quite help but experience it through the pieces rather than the whole, which I actually found to be the films' greatest strength. 

The bottom line, all of the raw talent on paper brings their absolute A-game here, and it's just a thrill watching all of this talent at work. Though I hesitate to say this is a better script than "The Social Network", Sorkin has truly outdone himself here with this daring, one-of-a-kind approach to structure (more on that later). Boyle, who's films include "Trainspotting", "127 Hours" and Oscar-winner "Slumdog Millionaire", was an unlikely choice to direct this material, but he serves it beautifully without his signature style ever becoming diluted in the process. This is truly his best work as a director to date. Last but certainly not least, Fassbender, who's had a remarkable career trajectory in recent years with films like "Shame" and "12 Years a Slave", delivers the performance of his career here, tearing into this meaty role with unwavering commitment and focus. He is equally matched by his supporting cast, with Seth Rogen, in a role which requires the funny man to play it very straight and sincere, the unlikely standout as Steve Wozniak. 

Sorkin's much talked about approach to this material, which was to present a portrait of Jobs through a three act structure with each act taking place in real time during three different Apple product launches, works like gangbusters. Though that framework would seem dramatically limiting, under the energetic direction of Boyle, it makes for an exhilarating cinematic experience. By stepping outside of his comfort zone with this material, Boyle demonstrates that the quality which makes him a great director isn't his visuals, but his humanist instincts. Jobs is not a warm character, but the film doesn't work without him registering some semblance of a human pulse, which Boyle manages to pull out of him by the end. 

I was nervous while watching "Steve Jobs" that, as entertaining as this all was, the structure wasn't working towards a satisfying dramatic conclusion. This fear was alleviated by the time the last act rolled around, where the revolving door of personalities in Jobs' life all seem to converge on him at the moment where he seems to have finally achieved true success. Having been characterized through the entire film as a visionary who would bulldoze over anyone to achieve his goals, these characters force Jobs to confront the realities of his cruelty in getting to where he is. It is in these moments where Sorkin, Boyle and especially Fassbender let us see a more vulnerable side of Jobs. Through just a handful of escalating face-offs with Fassbender, Rogen delivers a performance of great empathy and pathos as Wozniak. Without spoiling the moment itself, his final confrontation with Jobs is the dramatic highlight of the entire film.

Regardless of one's conclusions about the film, this is if nothing else a brilliant conceptual work. For me, I found this to be both immediately absorbing and, ultimately, a dramatically satisfying film experience. Easily one of my favorites of the year so far. 

Grade: A

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"The Martian": Review


This is a late review, as Ridley Scott's "The Martian" has been in theaters for two weeks now (and is setting the Box Office on fire), but I wanted to take this opportunity to offer my two cents on what is the best film I've seen so far this year. 

A lot has been said about how surprisingly great "The Martian" is given Scott's recent trend of misfires ("Exodus: Gods and Kings", "The Counselor"), and I think a lot of the credit for that ought to be given to Drew Goddard for his impeccable script. It was never that Scott, first and foremost a visual stylist, lost his touch, but there'd only so much even the most sophisticated technician can do when working with lousy material. 

Beyond the overall quality of the screenplay, what also helps to separate "The Martian" from other recent Scott films, as well as similar entries into the sci-fi genre like "Interstellar", is the undeniably light and surprisingly witty approach to what is essentially a survival story. At it's best, science fiction tends to be a pretty grim and cerebral genre (something Scott has demonstrated on his own two genre masterpieces, "Alien" and "Blade Runner"). In that sense, the tone of "The Martian" has less in common with Scott's previous sci-fi films, but is instead closer to something like Ron Howard's "Apollo 13". The film rides a fine line between sincerity and corniness, but it remarkably maintains that balance and never dips over into the later. 

While I've already sung the praises of the script in selling the humanism of "The Martian", a lot of credit is also due to Matt Damon, who gives one of the best performances of his career in a role that requires some dramatic heavy lifting while acting opposite only himself. He is tasked with playing a character with an almost absurd level of optimism in the face of dire circumstances, but he sells that aspect of his character every step of the way through both his intelligence and charisma. The rest of the large, diverse supporting cast are also uniformly solid in the moments where the film shifts away from Damon's one man show and onto what's happening back on earth. "The Martian" is a perfect example of how casting big names in what amount to smaller roles can help give us a sense of the characters as fully formed people and not just plot points. Every actor here is playing to type; Jeff Daniels is stern and authoritative, Jessica Chastain is determined with a maternal side, Kate Mara is bright-eyed and inquisitive, Chiwetel Ejiofor (perhaps the closest thing to a stand-out) projects empathy and intelligence and Donald Glover provides some springy physical comedy. That being said, nobody feels underutilized in these roles, marking this as a true ensemble cast, with every role working towards the larger story. 

If I had any reservations while watching "The Martian" it would be that it has such a light touch that I felt a lack of tension at times in what should be a tense premise. That being said, the optimistic, uplifting tone of the film felt authentic to me in so far as anybody in the position that Damon's character finds himself in would likely need that type of determination of spirit to survive that situation in the first place. The film also throws just enough curveballs our way in key moments to remind us of the true peril our protagonist finds himself in without ever becoming grim. "The Martian" is a survival story where the main tool our character has to survive is his own intellectual resourcefulness. As cheesy as that description sounds, "The Martian" sells it through a refreshing mixture of humor and humanism. 

Grade: A