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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reflections: Thoughts on the 2015 Academy Awards

**awards season can be a painful, drawn-out, exhausting experience.  So to start off, a picture of a yawning cat** 



            And with that, another painfully long and dreadfully predictable awards season comes to a close.   This year the Oscars were actually well over a week earlier than they were last year, and yet, they always seem to drag on even longer one year after another, don’t they?  It never bodes well when an Oscar ceremony starts with an ad by the host ending with the line, “anything can happen.”  Sure, Niel Patrick Harris.  You can go on saying that.  No one on Earth who follows these things will ever believe you.   

            I gave up hope for adequate sleep when I glanced at my watch a half-hour into things and realized that, up to that point, we had gotten through a mere 2 awards.  Out of 24.  And the pace never picked up from there.  The sad reality is that, even when the Oscars are well-written and expertly produced (something that gets rarer each year, and this year refused to buck that trend), they have become little more than a marathon endurance test for the body and soul, determinedly finding every single possible way that things can be drawn out an extra few minutes.  Not that Harris was bad this year.  I found the ceremony to have rather more life than last year, although a great deal of wasted time was devoted to Harris pausing to collect himself after every.  Single.  Joke. 

            Seriously, did someone threaten to kill Harris if he made too many white jokes?  Every so often he seemed to want to really push the envelope and give the room a good roasting- his off-hand “Oh, NOW you like him!”  when people applauded David Oyelowo’s name was a good moment- but after every you could very nearly see the terror in his eyes someone wouldn’t laugh, and he would pull back. 

            That said, the show itself did have its moments.  More than the past few years, at least.  The opening number got everything off to a good start, Lady Gaga’s straight-up classical rendition of a Sound of Music montage was one of the best performances of hers I’ve yet seen, and no other performance of the nominated songs from recent years has come close to either the frenetic joy of “Everything Is Awesome” or the emotional swing of John Legend and Common going all out with “Glory.”  When balanced out, it was a decent show.  Not a great one.  Not an evenly enjoyable one.  But decent. 

            Perhaps my favorite part of the shows was how political and, in many cases, personal the speeches got.  We had a lot more “For The Cause” moments than we usually get, all of them much needed, as well as a few strikingly emotional ones touching on lost loved ones and mental illness.  Maybe the veil of silence really is being lifted for those struggling with issues unseen.  Maybe. 

            Oh, and before it slips my mind- poor John Travolta.  That poor, poor man.  He made an earnest attempt to right a silly wrong from last year, and almost immediately blew it right out his ass again, because, apparently, he literally can’t help but be impossibly awkward every day, all the time.  I am so sorry John.  We appreciate the effort.  Well….at least some of us do. 

            I actually didn’t realize it during the ceremony itself, but one of the commentaries I read later remarked that this year marks the first time since the expanded Best Picture category that every single nominee got at least one statue.  The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman tied for the most with 4, Whiplash pleasantly surprised with 3, and the remaining 5 all took home one apiece.  Granted, that included one for American Sniper, but hey, the world survived Silver Linings Playbook winning one, so it’s no real harm done.  Of course, I had hoped for more love for Boyhood, but in all fairness, even though Birdman continues the trend of Academy naval-gazing of the past few years, it is at least an actual, great movie, far superior to Argo and The Artist, each of which won out over vastly superior competition.  Boyhood’s staying power will be remembered regardless. 

            As with all years, only a few of my hopes were realized as far as who won what.  Citizenfour rightfully took home Best Documentary Feature, Interstellar got a statue, and Wes Anderson might finally become more of a household name after a film of his finally won a few.  There were some disappointments too.  I wish Birdman and Boyhood had at least split Best Picture/Director.  The worst one for me was, of course, Big Hero 6, as unoriginal a film as any that came out this year, beating out the fiercely creative, beautiful, and emotional Princess Kaguya for Best Animated Feature, which was also prefaced by The Rock’s now infamous statement that animation is a genre unto itself. 

            I would have gotten angrier about this in past years, but the collective ignorance regarding animation inherent in both the Academy (many voters admitted to voting for Big Hero 6 simply because their kids liked it) and society at large has become so thoroughly well-documented that it isn’t even worth it anymore.  It just makes me sad.  Like with Best Picture, it is this year’s losers that will be remembered far more than the winning film.  Which is a comfort in and of itself. 

            So all in all, a fairly standard awards season.  Some good moments, some bad.  Some well-earned statues given, many less-so.  Some anger, but mostly just resignation that gaggles of old, white men will be old, white men regardless of whether or not the world has passed them by.  Now we can go back to living in the real world.  Until the next awards season in a year’s time, at which point we get to do the entire dance again. 


-Noah Franc 

Friday, February 20, 2015

My Top 10 Film Scores of 2014


            Of all the many parts that are put together to make a movie, one of the most fascinating and enjoyable for me is when, how, and why a film uses music.  As many a comedian, critic, and commentator have pointed out, simply changing or removing the music of a given scene (all else being the same) can change its meaning, effect, or tone entirely.  So, being as deep a lover of music as I am a lover of film, I find myself especially attuned to the music of a given film more than I am to almost anything else aside from the writing, acting, and cinematography. 

            I had wanted to do a list like this last year, but really, with a handful of notable exceptions (Gravity, Frozen, and maybe one or two others), there were simply no decent original scores of note to talk about.  2014, however, was much different, providing us with a wide variety of styles and sounds to enjoy along with our films.  Therefore, as a final, pre-awards look-back at 2014, I am counting down my 10 favorite original scores of the year. 

            Just so that we are clear, I am only considering films that had all original music written for them.  Meaning that soundtracks like the classic rock remix of Guardians of the Galaxy, regardless of how excellently put together, do not count. 

            Let us begin.

10. Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Antonio Sanchez)

            Yes, technically, two hours of unceasing drumming counts as an original score (allegedly it was discounted from Oscar consideration due to a handful of scenes that use classical music).  Nonetheless, this deserves a spot on top score consideration because of how it fulfills the primary duty of film music- to blend with the visual style and acting so fully as to be inseparable from the whole. 



9. The Theory of Everything (Johann Johannsson)

            I was actually surprised by how much I liked the score for this film.  I was expected unrelenting Oscar-bait cheese, but both the music and the film itself (mostly) did not go the routes I was expecting.  The highlight was the scene where this track plays, one of the few real emotional high notes the somewhat-restrictive screenplay gives Jane. 



8. Gone Girl (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross)

            David Fincher, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross are practically an institution now, with the eerily similar visuals and sound of their last three collaborations forming a sort of unofficial trilogy.  It is a match made in heaven mostly because of how profoundly unsettling the scores of Raznor and Ross are, putting them perfectly in line with the types of dark, twisted stories and worlds Fincher likes to create. 



7. Unforgiven (Taro Iwashiro)

            The soundtrack for this Japanese remake is pure, classic, Western pathos, in many ways mirroring the tortured anguish of the main character.  Old school all the way home, and I loved every wailing strain of it. 



6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Alexandre Desplat)

            I was actually surprised when I first learned that the soundtrack for this one was all original, since I just assumed Anderson delved into the works of an obscure Baroque composer.  But nope- apparently it’s Alexandre Desplat, doing a pitch-perfect imitation of the Baroque style.  Which makes his work here all the more impressive. 



5. The Wind Rises (Joe Hisaishi)

            Although it is far more downplayed than his more popular work (and isn’t even the best work of his on this list), Joe Hisaishi nonetheless provides a perfect, background ambience to Miyazaki’s quiet tale of a man striving to reach his dreams.  Give the compilation suite here a listen when you can. 



4. Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)

            I know Hans Zimmer is divisive, but I have never ceased to be a fan of his work, and I think his score for Interstellar is genuinely excellent.  Does it have his usual bombasticity?  Of course!  Who did you think you were getting, Jason Mraz?  And I counter anyone who says there is no artistry in it with this particular track- listen to the clashing time signatures in the middle between the two melodies, subtly playing off the fact that, in this scene, the characters are racing against two different speeds of time.  Brilliant.    



3. How To Train Your Dragon 2 (John Powell)

            The soundtrack for the first movie in this series still ranks as one of the greatest I have ever heard, and John Powell returns in style for the sequel, mixing in the main themes of the original, but with new variations on the melody in many instances, making it every bit as passionately energetic as the film’s lush and beautiful visual design. 



2. Under The Skin (Mica Levi)

            One of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, part of what makes Under The Skin so brutally effective in creating a thematically heavy atmosphere that will creep you the hell out no matter mentally settled you are is Mica Levi’s haunting score.  It is the most ruthlessly effective use of dissonance I’ve heard in a film since There Will Be Blood.  And it is a crime that it received almost no major awards recognition.  DO NOT listen to this music with the lights out.  Or without a security blanket close at hand. 



1. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Joe Hisaishi)

            No surprise that my favorite film of 2014 also featured my favorite original soundtrack of the year.  This is the best work Joe Hisaishi has done since Ponyo back in 2008, a gorgeous creation that provides more of his famous mixing of traditional Japanese instruments and Western-style orchestral arrangements, switching between the two at just the perfect moments.  Like the movie is accompanies, it is a work of profound depth and heart-rending beauty.  The suite featured here provides a wonderful run-through of the main themes, but it is a work that deserves to be heard in its proper context- as an integral part of a cinematic masterpiece. 




            And those are my favorite soundtracks of the year!  Check out my previous post to see my favorite trailers of the year, and to view my Top 10 Films list, click here.  Tune in to the Oscars this Sunday, February 22nd, and check here afterwards to read my bitching. 


-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Top 10 Most Effective Trailers of 2014

            I have always been a great lover of trailers.  As much talent and skill as making a decent full-length movie requires, there is an equally fine and subtle art to taking a feature film, distilling its essential themes, tones, characters, and moments into a handful of minutes, and making that in and of itself compelling and watchable enough to make anyone who sees it say, “Now, THAT is something I am going to give my money to!” 

            To provide just one example, I had never even heard of Watchmen before this little ditty played before my Opening Day viewing of The Dark Knight way back in 2008.  My first reaction- “Well, that looks stupid.”  But something about its ambient mood sat with me.  I found myself watching the trailer again and again, and before I knew it I had bullied my Dad into getting me the book as a Christmas gift, plowed through it in a few days, and was right up front in line for the midnight premier of the Snyder film the following Spring. 

            Another example- I credit a fair amount of my generally positive feelings towards the admittedly mixed and tonally confused Walter Mitty movie from last year to the fact that the trailer was absolutely perfect.  The trailer had months to stew in my head, letting my obsession with it build, and by the time I saw the actual film I found myself more than willing to ignore the egregious product placement so that my mind could coo over the crisp cinematography. 

            Another example- this fan trailer for David Lynch’s The Elephant Man will make you sob. 

            Okay, okay, I swear, I will stop there.  But I really could go on for endless hours, listing all of the expert trailers I have seen in my day, and explain why each one is a piece of art in and of itself.  I hope you see now that, for all of its brevity, a well-crafted trailer can contain every bit of the emotional heft of an entire movie.  And, for the first time ever, I am here now to recall the best and most effective trailers that came out in 2014.  For the purposes of this list, any trailer is eligible if the official version was officially posted to Youtube sometime in 2014, regardless of whether or not said film actually came out before 2014, during 2014, or is yet to grace the big screen. 

            Sit back, and prepare to get hyped up. 


10. Birdman Teaser

            Only half of this one shows off the long-take style that gives Birdman its unique feel, but that hardly matters, because throughout the entire thing we have a slowed-down, melancholy version of “Crazy” in the background to set the stage for what seems like a melodramatic tale of someone slipping into insanity. 

            But then we get the final scene with Michael Keaton and Ed Norton, and we know fun times are about to be had all around. 



9. Star Wars Teaser

            How good is this trailer?  It almost- almost- made me forget that J.J. Abrams directed this thing.  Not only that, it made almost no longer worried.  That’s not nothing. 



8. Tomorrowland Teaser

            Like a good teaser, when you first see this one, you aren’t entirely sure what, exactly, you are looking at, but you are certainly intrigued.  Seemingly normal out of our own world transported to a fantasy land simply by touching a pin?  Huh.  Wonder what this is? 

            And then the title popped up at the end, and I shat myself with joy. 



7. Guardians of the Galaxy Teaser

            I think this is one of the best examples of doing what most trailers try to do- give viewers a direct explanation of who in the cast of a movie is who- without making the result feel (like most trailers) artificially forced.  Given how unknown this property was prior to the movie’s hype machine getting cranked into gear, they needed us to know fast who each Guardian was and allow us a hint of their powers/motivations.  Their solution?  Take the headshot/lineup cop scene from early in the movie and repurpose it into trailer form.  As a vehicle for getting names and faces into our heads, it works absurdly well. 



6. Selma Trailer #1

            At first, there’s not much in this trailer to distinguish it from legions of other Black History Oscar-bait movies we’ve gotten in past years (although those aware that we had never actually gotten an MLK film before would certainly have been interested from the get-go, if only out of curiosity).  Then the second half kicks in, launched by a hip-hop beat timed to the firing of a police gun, and the trailer kicks into an all-out, in-your-face high gear, and we know that we are in for something special. 



5. Inherent Vice Official Trailer

            What makes this one is mostly how much fun it is to watch Joaquin Phoenix get beat about by various elements of seedy, 70’s Los Angeles.  It tries so hard to make sense, and does, but yet doesn’t.  Much like the movie.  Also, I cannot get enough of Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot.  Molto Panacaku indeed. 



4. Interstellar Trailer #2

            Now, I happened to like Interstellar a lot.  Some people loved it.  Many did not.  However, regardless of where one falls on the Nolan Spectrum (which is now officially a Thing that Exists), there is no denying the captivating power of this trailer.  Did the movie live up to the vibe its trailer created?  Perhaps not.  Neither did Walter Mitty.  But that does not diminish what it achieves in under 3 minutes. 



3. Legend of Korra Book 4 Trailer

            The Avatar franchises have always set an extremely high bar for their trailers, the best of them all being probably the trailer for Book Two of Legend of Korra.  The trailer for the show’s final season continues this great tradition, and indeed follows the example of many of the greatest trailers ever made.  The voice-over opening aside (and a highly unnecessary plot spoiler at the very end), this is all visuals, music, and the psych-yourself-up atmosphere the combined two create.  A worthy final trailer for a worthy final chapter in the Avatar world. 



2. Nichtcrawler Teaser

            I had been passively interested in seeing this film after reviews started coming out, but it took just one viewing of this teaser to rocket the film up to the upper echelons of my “must-see” list.  This is a perfect teaser.  You get just a taste of the main character and story, and then the rest proceeds to freak you the hell out.  In the best way possible. 



1. Legend of Korra Book 3 Trailer

            How many times did I end up watching this trailer before it ceased to get my heart racing like I’d just won a marathon?  I don’t know.  I lost count somewhere after the 30th viewing, and it took a bit longer after that.  No other trailer that came out this year screamed “Sit down and watch this shit NOW” like this one did.  Its visuals and editing are arresting, hinting at the extreme tension of the episodes to come, and the pounding music might be the best villain theme the Avatar series has ever had.  It was the best, most artistic, and most effective trailer of 2014. 



            This is not the end of my pre-Oscars look-back at 2014!  Check back again soon for a listing of the year’s best soundtracks!  To check out my Top 10 Movies of 2014 list, click here.  


-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

My Picks for the 2015 Academy Awards

             On February 22nd, 2015, Niel Patrick Harris will host the 87th Academy Awards, colloquially known as the Oscars.  As always, there are some things to laud and plenty to be disappointed with regarding the selected nominations, not least of which is the startling whiteness of the acting nominee lists and the crushing maleness of nearly all of the major categories.  Not that that is in any way atypical of the Academy, an institution that is still 94% white and 76% male, with an average age of 63, but it is still immensely disappointing after seeing some glimmering hopes for diversity the past few years, including major award firsts for Katheryn Bigelow, Steve McQueen, and Ang Lee.  The world of our movies, like our politics, seems perpetually out of step with an ever-changing day-to-day reality, and is only allowing itself to change piecemeal.  And it will only change quicker if we collectively stand up and make it so, and no longer simply assume that whatever Hollywood studios hand to us as “awards-nominated art” is the only good stuff and the rest can be forgotten. 

            There are still many worthy accomplishments up for the gold this year; the wholly unjustified snub of Selma makes me all the more eager to see Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel win big.  And even though it won’t likely win, at least my #1 film of the year, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was nominated for Best Animated Feature.  So, like before, I will tune, keep things in perspective as best I can, and hope for the best. 

            And, same as always, the picks that follow are in no way meant as predictions of what WILL win, but rather what, in my opinion, SHOULD win.  Because as anyone who follows this sort of thing knows, there is often a vast difference between the two.  Such is the nature of the beast.      

**to see my own Top 10 list for the year, click here**



Writing: Adapted Screenplay

Nominees- American Sniper (Jason Hall), The Imitation Game (Graham Moore), Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson), The Theory of Everything (Anthony McCarten), Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)

And the winner is: Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)

            I still need to digest this latest P.T.A. offering, which will probably require a second viewing, but there were few other movies this year where I enjoyed the dialogue and characters more.  Anderson was also unfairly snubbed last time around, with The Master only garnering recognition in the Acting categories, because God help the Academy if they don’t nominate David Russel for anything, apparently.  So I consider at least one Oscar for this one his due. 


Writing: Original Screenplay

Nominees- Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo), Boyhood (Richard Linklater), Foxcatcher (E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)

And the winner is: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

            The Grand Budapest Hotel might not be the *best* overall movie in this nomination category, but while Boyhood was a powerhouse of an experience, its strengths came less from the writing and more from how effectively the actors balanced out each other on-screen and were complimented by Linklater’s great Directing instincts, so in this particular writing category, I think the best here is Wes Anderson’s latest balancing act between zany, whimsical hilarity and tragic melodrama. 


Visual Effects:

Nominees- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill, Dan Sudick), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Erik Winquist), Guardians of the Galaxy (Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner, Paul Corbould), Interstellar (Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, Scott Fisher), X-Men: Days of Future Passed (Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie, Cameron Waldbauer)

And the winner is: Interstellar (Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, Scott Fisher)

            I realize that Interstellar was more divisive amongst critics and audiences than most (including myself) expected, but if nothing else, it gave something different for our money than the usual litany of explosions set to the most detailed renderings green-screen technology can provide us with.  Seriously, I saw everything in this category (except Dawn, sadly) and Chris Nolan’s panoramas of space travel, wormholes, black holes, and one particular wondrous sequence towards the end (those of you who saw it know the one) stick out in my mind far more than any of the action beats we got this year. 


Sound Mixing:

Nominees- American Sniper (John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, Walt Martin), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Jon Taylor, Frank Montano, Thomas Varga), Interstellar (Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker, Mark Weingarten), Unbroken (Jon Taylor, Frank Montano, David Lee), Whiplash (Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley)

And the winner is: Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Jon Taylor, Frank Montano, Thomas Varga)

            This is one of those often-ignored technical categories where, if you pay attention, you will notice a lot of names popping up multiple times year after year for multiple films (Hi Jon Taylor).  Is the world of sound work really that small? 

            No matter.  Part of the fun of watching Birdman was its hectic and unending mish-mash of dialogue and free-form drumming, quite possibly a metaphor for the building insanity in Michael Keaton’s mind the whole time.  It never jumps towards the foreground through, and never drowns out the dialogue.  The balance between the two was always just enough. 


Sound Editing:

Nominees- American Sniper (Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Martin Hernandez, Aaron Glascock), The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Brent Burge, Jason Canovas), Interstellar (Richard King), Unbroken (Becky Sullivan, Andrew DeCristofaro)

And the winner is: Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Martin Hernandez, Aaron Glascock)

            Similar to my argument above.  Few movies used the changing and shifting of sound, both vocal and music, to the same level that Birdman did. 
           

Short Film: Live Action

Nominees- Aya (Oded Binnun, Mihal Brezis), Boogaloo and Graham (Michael Lennox, Ronan Blaney), Butter Lamp (Hu Wei, Julien Feret), Parvaneh (Talkhon Hamzavi, Stefan Eichenberger), The Phone Call (Mat Kirkby, James Lucas)

And the winner is: N/A

            I am always aggravated with the fact that the Shorts, be they Documentary, Live-Action, or Animated, are effectively impossible to find for general viewers outside of certain film festivals.  As a result, being someone who does not get all sorts of special access, and cannot yet do this for a living, I was not able to see any of the short this year, and therefore it would be highly unfair of me to vote for any of them. 


Short Film: Animated

Nominees- The Bigger Picture (Daisy Jacobs, Christopher Hees), The Dam Keeper (Robert Kondo, Dice Tsutsumi), Feast (Patrick Osborne, Kristina Reed), Me and My Moulton (Torill Kove), A Single Life (Joris Oprins)

And the winner is: N/A

            See above. 


Production Design:

Nominees- The Grand Budapest Hotel (Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pinnock), The Imitation Game (Maria Djurkovic, Tatiana Macdonald), Interstellar (Nathan Crowley, Gay Fettis), Into The Woods (Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock), Mr. Turner (Suzie Davis, Charlotte Watts)

And the winner is: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pinnock)

            How could I not pick the absurd daintiness of Zubrowka for this one?  This entire film looks like it was put together by hand.  By a 10-year-old girl.  With an eye for color balance worse than mine.  And I loved it.  I loved it in all its artificially-constructed glory. 


Original Song:

Nominees- “Lost Stars” from Begin Again (Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois), “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me (Glen Campbell, Julian Raymond), “Grateful” from Beyond The Lights (Diane Warren), “Glory” from Selma (John Stephens, Lonnie Lynn), “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie (Shawn Patterson)

And the winner is: “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie (Shawn Patterson)

            There’s no contest here, right?  There should really be no contest here.  Especially since this movie was completely ignored in the Best Animated Feature category.  Therefore, it earns its gold here. 


Original Score:

Nominees- The Grand Budapest Hotel (Alexandre Desplat), The Imitation Game (Alexandre Desplat), Interstellar (Hans Zimmer), Mr. Turner (Gary Yershon), The Theory of Everything (Jóhann Jóhannsson)

And the winner is: Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)

            I was actually surprised by how much I liked the score for The Theory of Everything (sadly, it was my favorite thing in the movie).  Nonetheless, my favorite from this year’s batch was, hands-down, Hans Zimmer’s latest effort for Interstellar.  I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there is a grandeur and majesty to the sweep of his work here that I think reaches far beyond a lot of his other works. 


Makeup and Hairstyling:

Nominees- Foxcatcher (Bill Corso, Dennis Liddiard), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Frances Hannon, Mark Coulier), Guardians of the Galaxy (Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou, David White)

And the winner is: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Frances Hannon, Mark Coulier)

            Like with the production design, there is a certain hand-made quality even to the people in Wes Anderson’s world that makes his cinematic creations wholly unique, making them all the more special in a world full of overblown digital effects usually used to alter appearance. 


Foreign Language Film:

Nominees- Ida (Poland- Pawel Pawlikowski), Leviathan (Russia- Andrey Zvyagintsev), Tangerines (Estonia- Zaza Urushadze), Timbuktu (Mauritania- Abderrahmane Sissako), Wild Tales (Argentina- Damián Szifron)

And the winner is: Leviathan (Russia- Andrey Zvyagibtsev)

            Sorry Ida.  I know you are a critic’s darling and the likely winner, but there’s something about the wry humor mixed with bleak despair of living in Putin’s Russia that Leviathan brings across so well, and which really sat with me after I saw it.  One of the best films of the year I saw period, let alone within this category. 


Film Editing:

Nominees- American Sniper (Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach), Boyhood (Sandra Adair), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Barney Pilling), The Imitation Game (William Goldenberg), Whiplash (Tom Cross)

And the winner is: Boyhood (Sandra Adair)

            And here we get to one of the best aspects of this wonderful, wonderful movie- the way the cuts between times are so effectively and subtly done, you often don’t recognize at first that another time jump has happened.  And then what a jolt when one of the characters walks in and has suddenly aged!  It’s one of many ways that the film slowly draws you into its magnetic power.   


Documentary: Short Subject

Nominees- Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (Ellen Goosenberg Kent, Dana Perry), Joanna (Aneta Kopacz), Our Curse (Tomasz Śliwiński and Maciej Ślesicki), The Reaper (La Parka) (Gabriel Serra Arguello), White Earth (J. Christian Jensen)

And the winner is: N/A

            Yup.  See above.  Again.  Grrrrr. 


Documentary: Feature

Nominees- Citizenfour (Laura Poitras), Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof, Charlie Siskel), Last Days In Vietnam (Rory Kennedy, Keven McAlester), The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, David Rosier), Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel, Joanna Natasegara)

And the winner is: Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)

            There is a common belief or attitude, if you will, that documentaries are not really “movies,” the assumption being that they do not use or require the same level of artistic talent and commitment that a fictional tale does.  Citizenfour is a brutally effective rebuke to that notion.  It never makes any claims to complete objectivity, but there is no denying the skill with which Poitras shapes her narrative of the first days of the Snowden leaks, and their immediate aftermath.  She creates a singularly eerie setting for the scenario, and more than once I had to remind myself I was not watching an old-school spy-thriller.  It is a masterly crafted film, and effective and powerful as any of the Best Picture nominees (and vastly superior to a few of them). 


Directing:

Nominees- Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Boyhood (Richard Linklater), Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson), The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)

And the winner is: Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

            While Alejandro and Anderson would certainly be worthy winners had these films come out any other year, and I definitely want Wes Anderson to win this award in the future, there’s really no holding a candle to the dedicated creative effort made by Linklater over well over a decade to conceive of and then craft one of the most interesting (and effective) ventures to hit the big screen in years.  There are many ambitious projects like this conceived, but so few of them pull through to the end, and even fewer of those succeed as works of genuine art.  Boyhood is one of the few. 


Costumer Design:

Nominees- The Grand Budapest Hotel (Milena Canonero), Inherent Vice (Mark Bridges), Into The Woods (Colleen Atwood), Maleficent (Anna B. Sheppard), Mr. Turner (Jacqueline Durran)

And the winner is: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Milena Caconero)

            Like with the deliciously hand-made sets, the outlandish dress of Gustav, Zero, and their companions is yet another layer in this adventure I can’t get enough of.  I wish I could compress this world into a cake.  Even if one bite would probably give me diabetes. 


Cinematography:

Nominees- Unbroken (Roger Deakins), Mr. Turner (Dick Pope), Ida (Lukasz Zal, Ryszard Lenczewski), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Robert Yeoman), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Emmanuel Lubezki)

And the winner is: Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Emmanuel Lubezki)

            Lubezki is at a dizzying best here, carefully selecting the motions of the camera to create the most sweeping effect, and combining that with very precise editing to make the film not only interesting as a film to watch, but also a fantastic drinking game of “Spot the Edit.”  It is easily the most well-earned statue the movie is likely to get. 


Animated Feature Film:

Nominees- Big Hero 6 (Don Hall, Chris Williams, Roy Conli), The Boxtrolls (Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable, Travis Knight), HowTo Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois, Bonnie Arnold), Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore, Paul Young), The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, Yoshiaki Nishimura)

And the winner is: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, Yoshiaki Nishimura)

            Yeah, big surprise that my favorite film of 2014 is, hands-down, my pick for the lone award the apes running the Academy will allow it to be nominated for.  It is highly unlikely that it will win, which is a shame, because even though this was a pretty good year for animation, none of the works on this list come even close to the level of artistic achievement that Kaguya does.  Which is especially painful for me to say, given that another Laika production is up for the award this year, and I have been hankering for them to win one for years.  Ah well.  Maybe next time? 


Actress: Supporting Role

Nominees- Boyhood (Patricia Arquette), Wild (Laura Dern), The Imitation Game (Kiera Knightley), Into The Woods (Meryl Streep), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Emma Stone)

And the winner is: Boyhood (Patricia Arquette )

            Emma Stone in Birdman might be the only other performance here I would like to see win (that said, I have not yet had the chance to see Wild).  Meryl Streep gave one of her better performances in Into The Woods, but she seems to not be in the running anyway, and Kiera Knightley was ultimately let down by a script that gave her nothing to work with.  Arquette, meanwhile, perfectly inhabits the role of an over-stretched Mom, bringing across all the complex emotions involved in one of the most trying, and for many one of the most rewarding, jobs on Earth. 


Actor: Supporting Role

Nominees- The Judge (Robert Duvall), Boyhood (Ethan Hawke), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Ed Norton), Foxcatcher (Mark Ruffalo), Whiplash (J.K. Simmons)

And the winner is: Boyhood (Ethan Hawke)

            This is a rather tricky one for me, mostly because I have not yet seen several of the nominated performances here yet, but even with the good things I have heard regarding The Judge and Foxcatcher, my vote for this category goes to Ethan Hawke for Boyhood, for how well he plays the seemingly-carefree, often absent father opposite Patricia Arquette’s ever-present mother.  It’s a dichotomy that very much mirrors the many different directions Mason Jr. feels himself being pulled in as he grows up.  I also love the easy charm Ethan Hawke brings across seemingly as simply as breathing.  A lot of actors would be hammy if they tried something similar.  Or sleazy.  Or some sick combination of both. 


Actress: Leading Role

Nominees- Two Days, One Night (Marion Cotillard), Gone Girl (Rosamund Pike), The Theory of Everything (Felicity Jones), Wild (Reese Witherspoon), Still Alice (Julianne Moore)

And the winner is: Gone Girl (Rosamund Pike)

            Given the firestorm of debate about this story ever since the book was first published, it is perhaps not surprising that it would be almost universally shunned by award groups, even though I think it’s actually a much stronger David Fincher work than his last film (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).  And part of what makes it such a powerhouse of an experience is Rosamund Pike’s terrifying turn as one of the most insane characters we’ve had hit theaters for some time now.  This is Heath Ledger’s Joker levels of chilling.  Pike had me squirming in my seat by the end with uncomfortableness.  Which is just another sign of a truly great performance. 


Actor: Leading Role

Nominees- Foxcatcher (Steve Carell), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Michael Keaton), The Theory of Everything (Eddie Redmayne), American Sniper (Bradley Cooper), The Imitation Game (Benedict Cumberbatch)

And the winner is: Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Michael Keaton)

            There is no greater evidence that the Academy exists mainly as a vehicle for insanely rich people to gift gold statues to their personal friends than the fact that Bradley Cooper has now been nominated for the third straight year, something only a tiny number of performers achieve.  Even more astonishingly, all three have been remarkably average performances for movies ranging from mediocre to pretty awful.  Meanwhile, Joaquin Pheonix, as part of his whirlwind return to the big screen, has given us one dynamic, unforgettable performance after another in great films, daring creative works that are off-beat, strange, and on the whole different from the schlock that infests theaters most of the year.  And how many nominations has he gotten over the same period of time?  One. 

            In fact, for the sake of comparison, let’s look at each of the 3 major performances from the last years by these two side-by-side, shall we? 

2012:
The Master- Pheonix creates a personality viscerally physical in his urges, with an agonized stare capable to transmitting worlds of emotion in a single scene
Silver Linings Playbook- Bradley Cooper yells a lot. 

2013:
Her- In one of the most important movies to come out in recent years, Pheonix’s Theodore is a bundle of tortured loneliness, exuding a gentleness and a kindness, yet also showing an overwhelming inability to really cope with the world (and his life) as it is, until Samantha comes along. 
American Hustle- Bradley Cooper yells a lot. 

2014:
Inherent Vice- Pheonix is Doc, a high-off-his-ass private investigator who sees the world through a persona that is almost childish in its simplicity, especially when compared to the vapidness and insane levels of corruption that surround him, yet is never less than fun to follow along with as he wades his way through the underbelly of LA. 
American Sniper- Bradley Cooper stares into the void. 

            And some people wonder why I am sick to death of Cooper as an actor? 

            Alright, alright, I realize I am prevaricating around the bush here, and I apologize for that, but before discussing Keaton, it must also be noted that, in a fair world, this award would have belonged to David Oyelowo the day the nominations were announced.  Selma could not have come out at a more poignant time, reminding us in the wake of Ferguson of how fragile racial progress is, and how important leadership from within the ranks of the oppressed is to push those in power to act.  But I guess, since 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture last year, we are all done with that Black stuff and are now living in a post-racial Utopia.  Joy. 

            So, with the stunning absence Oyelowo and the obligatory Cooper-bashing addressed, the only person left on this list I felt any comfort voting for was Michael Keaton’s performance in Birdman.  Which is a great performance, a return to form for a criminally underrated actor, and is the key that makes the whole film work.  Keaton is so effortlessly selfish and even insane in his characterization that you could almost be fooled into thinking he is simply acting as himself.  Which, in a way, is what all great actors giving great performances do. 


Best Picture:

Nominees- American Sniper, Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Boyhood, Whiplash, Selma, The Grand Budapest Hotel

And the winner is: Boyhood

            In my mind, there is no competition here.  No other movie nominated from 2014 took as many crazy risks and was able to make them pay off so immensely well as Richard Linklater’s latest challenge to movie-making convention.  Few others reached such powerful emotional depths with such seeming ease, by reminding us of the commonality of growing up and trying to come to terms with a world that refuses to make things easy for us. 


            And those are my picks for this year’s Oscars!  For those of you keeping track, a numerical breakdown of who, in my opinion, should be the big winners of the night:

Boyhood- 5
The Grand Budapest Hotel- 4
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance- 4
Interstellar- 2
Inherent Vice- 1
Citizenfour- 1
The Tale of Princess Kaguya- 1
Gone Girl- 1
The Lego Movie- 1
Leviathan- 1

             The Oscar broadcast will be on February 22nd, the Sunday after next.  Tune in with me to rant, and rave, and by the next morning, blissfully forget. 


-Noah Franc