Sunday, February 28, 2016

Your Guide to the Oscars

I achieved a feat this year I’ve never pulled off before - I saw every movie nominated in every category. It’s exciting to be able to judge the nominees with a full understanding of every category, and I’d hope that it will help my predictions score, though that’s hardly a guarantee.

Smart money would say that “The Revenant” is primed to make a sweep thanks to its strong awards season performance. I’m predicting it to take home three trophies: Best Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Editing, hardly a resounding haul. I’m predicting that “Mad Max: Fury Road” will take home four awards: Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, and - most crucially - Best Director. That leaves my predicted Best Picture winner, “Spotlight,” with just one other award, Best Original Screenplay, which may well be the lowest take for a Best Picture winner ever. I’m still sticking with it. This is the first time since I’ve been following the Oscar race that we legitimately have three films vying for Best Picture and no locked frontrunner. Though I predicted “Sideways” and “Juno” to eclipse competing nominees “The Aviator” and “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004 and “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” in 2007, I was wrong and there were only two films really in the race. I’m betting that “The Big Short” ends up with nothing more than its locked Best Adapted Screenplay win, but it’s also the film that’s won the least, taking home only the PGA, an award that has gone to a film that didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar seven times in its twenty-nine-year history. What’s cool is that three if not four films could feasibly win at the end of the night; it’s just a shame that “Spotlight” is easily the best of them.

There are a few wins that will definitely happen - DiCaprio, Larson, “Inside Out,” “Son of Saul,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for Best Visual Effects - and much of the rest is not set in stone. I hope that “The Revenant” doesn’t win everything, and the same for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It would be great to see the wealth spread a little bit. I’m also venturing in a different direction on Best Documentary, predicting “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” over heavy favorite “Amy” since I watched all five nominees within a two-week time period and that’s the one that I think will hit voters most. We’ll see!

What would make me happiest is if “Spotlight” won Best Director and Best Film Editing, but I’ll settle for Best Picture. I’m not going to bother rooting for other performances I’d love to see rewarded, like Michael Fassbender or Matt Damon, but I think I’ll be pretty content with most of the other winners. Below, click on category headings to read detailed predictions for each race, and film names for full reviews of each contender. My predicted winner is in bold. Comment if you agree or disagree! Enjoy the show!

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Best Director
Adam McKay (The Big Short)
George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (The Revenant)
Lenny Abrahamson (Room)
Tom McCarthy (Spotlight)

Best Actor in a Leading Role
Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)
Matt Damon (The Martian)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)
Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett (Carol)
Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)
Brie Larson (Room)
Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Christian Bale (The Big Short)
Tom Hardy (The Revenant)
Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)
Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)
Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)
Rooney Mara (Carol)
Rachel McAdams (Spotlight)
Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)
Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)

Best Original Screenplay
Bridge of Spies
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Straight Outta Compton

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Big Short
The Martian

Best Cinematography
The Hateful Eight
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Best Art Direction
Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Best Costume Design
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Best Film Editing
The Big Short
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Original Score
Bridge of Spies
The Hateful Eight
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Original Song
“Earned It” (Fifty Shades of Grey)
“’Til It Happens To You” (The Hunting Ground)
“Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction)
“Writings on the Wall” (Spectre)
“Simple Song #3” (Youth)

Best Sound
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Sound Editing
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Best Visual Effects
Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Animated Feature
Boy and the World
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

Best Documentary Short Film
Body Team 12
Chau, Beyond the Lines
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Last Day of Freedom

Best Animated Short Film
Bear Story
Sanjay’s Super Team
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
World of Tomorrow

Best Live Action Short Film
Ave Maria
Day One
Everything Will Be Okay

Best Documentary
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Best Foreign Language Film
Embrace of the Serpent
Son of Saul
A War

Predicted totals:
Mad Max: Fury Road - 4
The Revenant - 3
The Danish Girl - 2
Spotlight - 2
The Big Short - 1
Creed - 1
The Hateful Eight - 1
The Hunting Ground - 1
The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared - 1
Room - 1
Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 1

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Picture

The competition: The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, Spotlight

Previous winners: Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men
My winner: TBA
The facts: “The Revenant” has a whopping twelve nominations, “Mad Max: Fury Road” has ten, “The Martian” has seven, “Bridge of Spies” and “Spotlight” have six, “The Big Short” has five, “Room” has four, and “Brooklyn” has three. “The Big Short,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant,” “Room,” and “Spotlight” are all nominated for Best Director, and only “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Revenant” don’t have corresponding screenplay nominations. This year’s wins have not been united at all. “The Revenant” won the Golden Globe, DGA, and BAFTA. “The Big Short” won the PGA, “Spotlight” won SAG and the Critics Choice, and both films took home WGA Awards. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is only the second sequel to be nominated after the original wasn’t (“Toy Story 3” was the first), and, if it wins, it will become the third sequel to take home this award.

Who should win: I’m firmly behind “Spotlight” - it’s inarguably the best of this bunch. “Room” comes in second, followed by “The Martian.” I did like “The Revenant,” but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as “Spotlight.” It just feels overrated to me, and the same goes for “The Big Short,” which is also a good movie. I enjoyed “Brooklyn” back when I saw it at Sundance a year ago, but it’s not the best on this list. “Bridge of Spies” wasn’t terribly satisfying, and I can’t comprehend the hype behind “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which I did find more compelling than I expected but hardly worthy of a place here.
Who will win: I can’t understand why “Spotlight” doesn’t have this in the bag. From the moment it lost the Golden Globe, it was no longer the frontrunner, and it really is an Oscar movie! The problem is, whenever a movie has overtaken the Oscar race late in the game, it’s gone the distance. “Boyhood” was the frontrunner last year until “Birdman” started winning everything. The two things that are different: “The Revenant” won the first award, the Globe, and then won the DGA but not the PGA. The only time that a late-breaking film lost the PGA after winning the DGA was in 2004 with “The Aviator,” and “Million Dollar Baby” still won the Oscar. What complicates things is that “The Big Short” is also in the mix after its PGA win, and I, and others, are predicting yet another film, “Mad Max: Fury Road” to prevail for Best Director. It would be an incredibly exciting year if “Spotlight” wasn’t so good, since there’s no reason it should have to work so hard to win. The easy choice would be “The Revenant” given its momentum. If it starts winning a lot of technical categories early on in the night, it will probably make it to the top, but it’s worth noting that it only competes with “Spotlight” in three races - Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing - so we just won’t know. I’m still predicting Spotlight and rooting for it all the way.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Director

The competition: Adam McKay (The Big Short), George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (The Revenant), Lenny Abrahamson (Room), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight)

Previous winners: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men)
My winner: TBA
The facts: Inarritu won this award last year for "Birdman" after being previously nominated in 2006 for "Babel." Though Miller has been nominated for and won Oscars in other categories, this is his first directing bid. McCarthy was previously nominated for writing "Up" and is also recognized for penning the screenplay for his film this year. Inarritu won the Globe, the DGA, and the BAFTA, but in none of those cases have all of these men been nominated. Miller won the Critics' Choice Award. The last director to win this trophy back-to-back was Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1950 and 1951.

Who should win: He hasn't won anything, but McCarthy is my choice. "Spotlight," which is definitely the Best Picture from among the nominated bunch. He was snubbed by BAFTA and I was worried Oscar voters would forget him too, but he did a tremendous job of guiding his film. Ditto Abrahamson, a fun inclusion who unfortunately knocked Ridley Scott, another deserving helmer, out of the race. Inarritu did a good job too, but this film was nowhere near as tremendous as "Birdman." McKay put in a solid effort for a good film, but he doesn't need to be here. And though it wasn't for me, I can appreciate Miller and, for whatever reason, think I would prefer to see him win than to see Inarritu repeat even if I think that Inarritu is more worthy of the award when it comes to these two over-nominated films since I liked "The Revenant" much more than "Mad Max: Fury Road."
Who will win: The last time this race was really wide open was in 2012 when Ben Affleck wasn't nominated for the locked Best Picture winner, "Argo." That race is up for grabs too, but here Inarritu is a frontrunner but by no means a guarantee. Abrahamson and McKay won't win, and I sincerely doubt that McCarthy could muster an upset, though that would make me happier than anything. It's sort of like two years ago when Steve McQueen didn't have a shot for Best Director even though "12 Years a Slave" ended up winning Best Picture - why shouldn't he be considered? Ultimately, I think that Miller is going to be honored for a body of work and for reinvigorating a franchise decades after it began. It could just as easily be Inarritu, but I'm betting against it.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actor

The competition: Bryan Cranston’s communist writer (Trumbo), Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut (The Martian), Leonardo DiCaprio’s determined trapper (The Revenant), Michael Fassbender’s brilliant inventor (Steve Jobs), and Eddie Redmayne’s transitioning artist (The Danish Girl).

Previous winners: Eddie Redmayne, Matthew McConaughey, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jean Dujardin, Colin Firth, Jeff Bridges, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis
My winner: Jacob Tremblay
The facts: This is the fifth nomination for DiCaprio, who last contended in 2013 for "The Wolf of Wall Street." This is the third nomination for Damon, who was honored for "Good Will Hunting" in 1997 and "Invictus" in 2009. Redmayne won this award last year for "The Theory of Everything." This is the second nomination for Fassbender, who was recognized in 2013 for "12 Years a Slave." Four-time Emmy winner Cranston earns his first Oscar nomination this year. Only DiCaprio and Damon's films are nominated for Best Picture. DiCaprio won at the Globes, SAG, BAFTA, and Critics' Choice Awards.

Who should win: I like DiCaprio but feel like his best performances were actually two Oscar ignored, in "Catch Me If You Can" and "The Departed." I don't mind him winning but I'm not rooting for him the same way everyone else seems to be. Cranston was good and it's a fun performance, and I'm still somewhat surprised that he made it all the way to the Oscrs for the role. Redmayne was great but it wasn't as astounding as last year's winning turn. For me, it's a toss-up between Fassbender and Damon, who were both excellent in terrific films, mixing drama and humor seamlessly to create truly memorable performances.
Who will win: There's no way this doesn't go to DiCaprio. Even though the other Globe winner, Damon, didn't compete at the SAGs, this exact lineup appeared at both BAFTA and the Critics' Choice Awards. With no new nominee to take on DiCaprio and no ill will against him, he has this in the bag.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Actress

The competition: Cate Blanchett’s unhappy wife (Carol), Brie Larson’s loyal mother (Room), Jennifer Lawrence’s struggling inventor (Joy), Charlotte Rampling’s loyal spouse (45 Years), Saoirse Ronan’s optimistic immigrant (Brooklyn).

Previous winners: Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Sandra Bullock, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard
My winner: Brie Larson
The facts: This is Blanchett's seventh nomination. She has won twice, in 2004 for "The Aviator" and in this category in 2013 for "Blue Jasmine." This is Lawrence's fourth nomination in six years. She won in 2012 for "Silver Linings Playbook." Ronan was nominated once before, in 2007 for "Atonement." This is the first nomination for Rampling, and the first for Larson, who took home the Globe, SAG, BAFTA, and Critics' Choice Awards. Larson and Ronan's films are up for Best Picture.

Who should win: This is a great list. I liked Rampling and Ronan but they wouldn't be my first choices. Blanchett was good too but I don't think it's her absolute best work. I personally think that Lawrence was absolutely terrific in her film, and that she deserves this nomination just as much as for her previous roles. Ultimately, though, it's Larson who astounds and will rightfully win this.
Who will win: Every award has gone to Larson, and she'll take home this one too. It will easily be the best win of the night.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

The competition: Christian Bale’s brilliant numbers guy (The Big Short), Tom Hardy’s impatient trapper (The Revenant), Mark Ruffalo’s dedicated journalist (Spotlight), Mark Rylance’s quiet spy (Bridge of Spies), and Sylvester Stallone’s aging Rocky Balboa (Creed).

Previous winners: J.K. Simmons, Jared Leto, Christoph Waltz, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, Christoph Waltz, Heath Ledger, Javier Bardem
My winner: Walton Goggins
The facts: Bale won this award in 2010 for "The Fighter" and was nominated again in 2013 for "American Hustle," making this his first bid for a film not directed by David O. Russell. Ruffalo was nominated in 2010 for "The Kids Are All Right" and last year for "Foxcatcher." Stallone contended in 1976 for "Rocky." This is the first nomination for both Rylance and Hardy. All but Stallone's films are nominated for Best Picture. Stallone won the Golden Globe and the Critics Choice Award but wasn't nominated for the BAFTA, where Rylance triumphed, or the SAG, which went to Idris Elba, who isn't even on this list.

Who should win: I'm not too happy with this list since SAG nominees Jacob Tremblay and Michael Shannon didn't make the cut. I would have preferred Michael Keaton over Ruffalo, but I guess a win for him would signify support for the film, which for some reason has not been universal. I'm a big fan of Hardy but don't know that he needed to be nominated for this role, though he was quite good. I wasn't wowed by Rylance like everyone was, and therefore I'm not rooting for him, though I wouldn't be too upset if he won. I'm also okay with the idea of Stallone since he impressed me much more than I expected with a fittingly invested performance in a strong film. The one nominee I really don't want to see win is Bale, since he didn't need to take a spot this year for an admittedly eccentric performance that was far from the best in his film. If I had to pick a winner from this list, it would probably be Hardy or Stallone.
Who will win: The standing ovation Stallone got at the Golden Globes indicates just how respected he is. Rylance might have similar support but his film wasn't nearly as respected, and he doesn't have the momentum that Stallone has. Hardy could win if his film swept, as could Bale, but both of those are unlikely. Ruffalo doesn't have a shot.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Supporting Actress

The competition: Jennifer Jason Leigh’s captured convict (The Hateful Eight), Rooney Mara’s impressionable salesgirl (Carol), Rachel McAdams’ determined reporter (Spotlight), Alicia Vikander’s supportive wife (The Danish Girl), and Kate Winslet’s loyal collaborator (Steve Jobs).

Previous winners: Patricia Arquette, Lupita N’yongo, Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Melissa Leo, Mo’Nique, Penelope Cruz, Tilda Swinton
My winner: Olivia Cooke
The facts: This is the seventh nomination for Winslet, who won in 2008 for "The Reader." Mara was nominated once before, in 2012 for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." This is the first nomination for Leigh, McAdams, and Vikander. Only McAdams' film is nominated for Best Picture, not that it matters too much in this category. Winslet won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, but in both those cases Vikander, who won the SAG Award and the Critics Choice Award, was nominated in the lead race.

Who should win: Leigh was entertaining in her film, but she wasn't the best of her talented cast (that honor goes to Walton Goggins). That's even truer for McAdams, who didn't add much to a lackluster role in a very strong film. Mara and Vikander are both questionable leads, but that doesn't hurt them, especially since they eclipse their Oscar-winning costars. I thought Vikander was terrific and I would love to see her win, but I also remember just how superb Winslet was in her underrated film. It would be a far more deserving victory than the film she actually won the Oscar for back in 2008.
Who will win: I'm not secure at all in the fact that Vikander will triumph, but it seems likely since she's won a handful of awards and really does stand out in her film. Leigh and McAdams don't have enough buzz to win, and Mara's film didn't receive a warm enough welcome for her to prevail. Winslet is the only one who might win, but I don't think voters loved the film enough to reward her with a second Oscar so soon.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Adapted Screenplay

The competition: The Big Short (Charles Randolph, Adam McKay), Brooklyn (Nick Hornby), Carol (Phyllis Nagy), The Martian (Drew Goddard), Room (Emma Donoghue)

Previous winners: The Imitation Game, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Descendants, The Social Network, Precious, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men
My winner: “Steve Jobs”
The facts: Hornby was nominated in 2009 for writing the screenplay for "An Education." McKay is also nominated this year for directing his film. All of the others are first-time nominees. All but “Carol” are nominated for Best Picture.

Who should win: “Room” or “The Big Short”
Who will win: It might be “Room,” but The Big Short is set to take this.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Screenplay

The competition: Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen), Ex Machina (Alex Garland), Inside Out (Josh Cooley, Ronnie del Carmen, Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve), Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer), Straight Outta Compton (Andrea Berloff, Jonathan Herman, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus)

Previous winners: Birdman, Her, Django Unchained, Midnight in Paris, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Milk, Juno
My winner: “Sleeping with Other People”
The facts: The Coen Brothers have been nominated for screenwriting five times, winning twice - in 2007 for "No Country for Old Men" and "Fargo." Both McCarthy and Docter were nominated for writing "Up," and Docter was also nominated for penning the screenplays for "Wall-E" and "Toy Story." Docter is nominated for Best Animated Feature this year and McCarthy also contends for Best Director. “Bridge of Spies” and “Spotlight” are up for Best Picture.

Who should win: “Spotlight”
Who will win: Even though it may not take home Best Picture (though I’m hoping it will), Spotlight doesn’t have much competition here, unless “Inside Out” staged an unexpected upset.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Live Action Short

The competition:
Ave Maria (B+)
This story of Orthodox Israeli Jews who find themselves stranded after a minor car accident at a nunnery in the West Bank is an entirely amusing and delightful tale, a refreshing case of clashing cultures in a highly temperamental area getting along rather well and providing plenty of entertainment in the process.

Day One (B+)
This short dives right into its intriguing mix of lightheartedness and intensity as an army interpreter in her first day on the job in Afghanistan goes from having to stop to pee after a short walk to having to deliver a bomb-maker’s pregnant wife’s baby. It balances a range of emotions well and tells an involving and complex story.

Everything Will Be Okay (B)
This film about a divorced father acting strange as he begins a weekend with his young daughter is big on the bond between parent and child. As it builds slowly towards an emotionally-charged finish, it conveys character sentiments but doesn’t hit home as dramatically when it comes to its narrative.

Shok (B+)
It’s hard not to like this sweet tale of friendship that takes place in the middle of an ethnic conflict in Kosovo with armed militants roaming the streets. There’s something wonderful about the enduring connection between two young friends that makes this film resonate strongly.

Stutterer (B+)
This film’s title gives away its plot, a heartwarming and enjoyable story about a man with a stutter who struggles to figure out a way to hide his impediment from the woman that he has been chatting with online and who is overcome by the stress of meeting her in person.

Previous winners: The Phone Call, Helium, Cufrew, The Shore, God of Love, The New Tenants, Toyland, The Mozart of Pickpockets, West Bank Story, Six Shooter

Who should win: They’re all pretty good. I would choose “Ave Maria” or “Shok.”
Who will win: Something tells me it will be Day One.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Animated Short

The competition:
Bear Story (B)
This is a sweet and well-animated tale of a lonely bear remembering happy beginnings and miserable endings through a marvelously lively portable presentation. The artistry involved is the best part, and the sad, tender plot makes it hard to shake.

Prologue (D)
The only thing I can compliment about this short, pointlessly brutal picture is that it does a magnificent job of manipulating space using animation. Its content, however, is entirely deplorable and unnecessary, making this unquestionably the worst of the bunch.

Sanjay's Super Team (B-)
This short played before "The Good Dinosaur." It acted like an inspirational, enjoyable fable about a child's imagination and what is important to his father, but I found it to be a bit of a letdown, engaging enough but hardly worthy of celebration.

We Can't Live Without Cosmos (B+)
This one is my clear favorite, an endearing tale of two lifelong friends training to be astronauts. The absence of dialogue is perfectly matched by inspiring visuals and a succesful capturing of the emotions of these two buddies with their heads in the clouds.

World of Tomorrow (C-)
I don't even know what to say about this odd, off-putting short. It starts out interesting, with a girl meeting a robotic future version of her consciousness, and then gets really dark and strange, and not in a good way. The animation is all over the place, purposely, and what should be a productive thought experiment is just puzzling and peculiar.

Previous winners: Feast, Mr. Hublot, Paperman, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, The Lost Thing, Logorama, Le Maison en Petits Cubes, Peter and the Wolf

Who should win: I would enthusiastically select “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos.”
Who will win: I think it's a race between Bear Story and "We Can't Live Without Cosmos." My money is on the former. Like all the other nominees except “Sanjay’s Super Team,” it’s still depressing but also clever and endearing.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Documentary Short

The competition:
Body Team 12 (B)
This 13-minute documentary doesn't get too far into its content, but does offer a decently compelling look at the cleanup operation following the ebola outbreak in Liberia. It doesn't achieve much, but presents a quick look at a country in crisis.

Chau, Beyond the Lines (B)
This heartwarming film spotlights a young artist who, due to the aftereffects of a chemical used by American forces during the Vietnam War, has limited use of his limbs yet yearns to achieve his dream. It's a fine if short and unfinished portrait.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (B+)
This affecting forty-minute film explores the filmmaker behind one of the most acclaimed miniseries of all time, and traces his journey in researching the Holocaust and going far in search of the truth. Lanzmann's own testimony is a particularly strong part of the film as he reflects back on his life and the difficult process of making "Shoah."

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (B+)
This shocking documentary follows Saba, a young Pakistani woman who survived an honor killing attempted by her father and uncle when she dared to marry someone deemed not good enough. What this film uncovers about her society is horrifying, and it's a thoroughly explored and haunting expose.

Last Day of Freedom (B+)
This is by far the most creative of the nominees in this field, utilizing hand-drawn animation to assist its narrative, which mostly involves one man being interviewed, in a very effective style reminiscent of “Waltz with Bashir.” This stirring tale of a war hero sent to death row is a contemplative, affecting exploration of a truly broken system.

Previous winners: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, The Lady in Number 6, Inocente, Saving Face, Strangers No More, Music by Prudence, Smile Pinki, Freeheld, The Blood of Yingzhou District

Who should win: I think I would choose “A Girl in the River,” but I would be happy with “Last Day of Freedom” or “Claude Lanzmann” too. These are all pretty good.
Who will win: I think A Girl in the River has the best shot, but this race is wide open.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Documentary

The competition: Amy, Cartel Land, The Look of Silence, What Happened Miss Simone, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Previous winners: Citizenfour, Twenty Feet from Stardom, Searching for Sugar Man, Undefeated, Inside Job, The Cove, Man on Wire, Taxi to the Dark Side
My winner: TBA
The facts: Only two nominees have been honored before – Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sorensen – who made “The Act of Killing” in 2012 and the follow-up “The Look of Silence” this year. Two documentaries about underrated musicians have won this award very recently. For how often they’re nominated, films about military conflicts in other countries don’t tend to win this award too much.

Who should win: The two documentaries that most spoke to me were “The Look of Silence” and “Winter on Fire.”
Who will win: Most people think that “Amy” is going to win, but I think Winter on Fire has a good shot at upsetting.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Foreign Film

The competition: Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia), A War (Denmark), Mustang (France), Son of Saul (Hungary), Theeb (Jordan)

Previous winners: Ida (Poland), The Great Beauty (Italy), Amour (Austria), A Separation (Iran), In a Better World (Denmark), The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina), Departures (Japan), The Counterfeiters (Austria)
My winner: TBA
The facts: This is the thirty-ninth nomination for France, which has won twelve times. This is the thirteenth nomination for Denmark, which has won three times. This is the ninth nomination for Hungary, which has won once. Both Colombia and Jordan are nominated for the first time. Every filmmaker is a first-time nominee in this category.

Who should win: “Son of Saul” and “Mustang” are the best films here.
Who will win: Except for when “Pan’s Labyrinth” lost, the undisputed frontrunner in this race usually wins. Having seen the other films, I don’t see anything knocking Son of Saul out of the way.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Animated Feature

The competition: Anomalisa, Boy and the World, Inside Out, Shaun the Sheep Movie, and When Marnie Was There

Previous winners: Big Hero 6, Frozen, Brave, Rango, Toy Story 3, Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, Happy Feet, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Spirited Away, Shrek
My winner: TBA
The facts: This category has existed since 2001. Pixar has won this award a staggering seven times out of nine nominations and contends this year for “Inside Out.” The Japanese Studio Ghibli has won once out of five tries, back in 2002 for “Spirited Away,” and now contends for “When Marnie Was There.” “Shaun the Sheep Movie” is the third stop-motion nominee from Aardman, which won in 2005 for “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” “Boy and the World” and “When Marnie Was There” are the eleventh and twelfth foreign-language nominees in the history of this category. “Spirited Away” is the only one from that list that won. “Inside Out” co-director Pete Docter has been nominated twice before and won for “Up.” “When Marnie Was There” co-director Yoshiaki Nishimura was nominated last year for “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.” This is “Anaomlisa” co-director Charlie Kaufman’s first nomination in this category, but he has been nominated for three screenwriting Oscars and won once, for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” I’m pretty sure that “Anomalisa” is the second R-rated nominee in this category after “Chico and Rita.”

Who should win: “Inside Out” is definitely the best of this bunch.
Who will win: There is simply no way that Inside Out doesn’t take this.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Visual Effects

The competition: Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Previous winners: Interstellar, Gravity, Life of Pi, Hugo, Inception, Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Golden Compass
My winner: The Walk
The facts: Though Best Picture nominees have won this award five times in the past six years, never have three nominees here also been up for Best Picture as they are this year. Sci-fi films often win unless there is a major frontrunner out there. The entire “Ex Machina” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” teams are first-time nominees. “The Martian” team has three nominations and one win between them. “The Revenant” team has one previous nomination. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” team has six collective previous nominations.

Who should win: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” or “Ex Machina”
Who will win: I’m hoping that “The Revenant” won’t eclipse the more deserving Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The competition: The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant

Previous winners: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Dallas Buyers Club, Les Miserables, The Iron Lady, The Wolfman, Star Trek, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, La Vie en Rose
My winner: Black Mass
The facts: Such non-Oscar films as “The Wolfman” and “The Nutty Professor” have won this award, as have Best Picture contenders. Every makeup artist and hairstylist nominated this year is a first-time nominee.

Who should win: I wouldn’t go with “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but the other two are fine.
Who will win: It could be one of the omnipresent films nominated in every category, but I’m going to trust that anyone who watched The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and saw the transformation of its protagonist will award that film.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Sound Editing

The competition: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Sicario, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Previous winners: American Sniper, Gravity, Skyfall/Zero Dark Thirty, Hugo, Inception, The Hurt Locker, The Dark Knight, The Bourne Ultimatum
My winner: The Walk
The facts: “Mad Max: Fury Road” sound editors Mark Mangini and David White are nominated for the fourth and first time, respectively. “The Martian” sound editor Oliver Tarney has been nominated once before. “The Revenant” editor Martin Hernandez has been nominated once before, and Lon Bender has contended three times before, winning in 1995 for “Braveheart.” This is the eighth nomination for “Sicario” sound editor Alan Robert Murray, who won for “Letters of Iwo Jima” and last year for “American Sniper.” This is the third nomination for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” editor Matthew Wood and the first for David Acord. War or action movies tend to win this award. “Star Wars” statistics here aren’t too relevant since there weren’t nominees in 1977 and 1980. Both episode six and one were nominated and neither won.

Who should win: “The Revenant”
Who will win: It might be “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but I think The Revenant will take this.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Sound

The competition: Bridge of Spies, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Previous winners: Whiplash, Gravity, Les Miserables, Hugo, Inception, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, The Bourne Ultimatum
My winner: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The facts: Each nominated team contains at least two sound mixers who have been nominated many times before, and some quick analysis indicates that it’s way too much information to filter and count. Usually, sci-fi films, action films, and musicals do well here. From the “Star Wars” saga, episodes four and five won this award, and six and one were nominated.

Who should win: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” or “The Martian”
Who will win: I see this going to Mad Max: Fury Road over “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” though it’s hardly a lock.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Song

The competition: “Earned It” (Fifty Shades of Grey), “Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction), “Simple Song #3” (Youth), “’Til It Happens To You” (The Hunting Ground), “Writing’s on the Wall” (Spectre)

Previous winners: Selma (Glory), Let It Go (Frozen), Skyfall (Skyfall), Man or Muppet (The Muppets), We Belong Together (Toy Story 3), The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart), Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire), Falling Slowly (Once), I Need To Wake Up (An Inconvenient Truth)
My winner: “See You Again” (Furious 7)
The facts: Only two musicians are previous nominees. Dianne Warren, who worked with Lady Gaga on “’Til It Happens To You,” has been nominated seven times before, including last year, and has yet to win. J. Ralph, who wrote “Manta Ray,” was nominated in 2012 for “Before My Time” from “Chasing Ice.” Four James Bond films have contended in this category. Only one – the most recent – “Skyfall” – took home the award.

Who should win: I’m not too big on these songs, so I guess I’d choose “Simply Song #3,” but I’m not too set.
Who will win: “Writing’s on the Wall” won the Golden Gloebe. I think this is going to ’Til It Happens To You.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Original Score

The competition: Bridge of Spies (Thomas Newman), Carol (Carter Burwell), The Hateful Eight (Ennio Morricone), Sicario (Johann Johannsson), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (John Williams)

Previous winners: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gravity, Life of Pi, The Artist, The Social Network, Up, Slumdog Millionaire, Atonement
My winner: Tangerines
The facts: Williams is the most-nominated composer of all time, earning his 45th nomination this year. He has won five times, including for the first “Star Wars” film. He was also nominated for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” Newman is the most-nominated living composer who has not win, with twelve career mentions. Morricone has been nominated six times, most recently in 2000 for “Malena.” Johannsson was nominated for the first time last year for “The Theory of Everything” and Burwell is nominated for the first time this year.

Who should win: “The Hateful Eight” or “Sicario”
Who will win: I don’t think this is the score that will win Newman his first Oscar, but I do think that it will be the charm for Morricone and “The Hateful Eight,” particularly because his score is actually featured as the overture of his film without any events playing out on screen, giving the Golden Globe winner a leg up on the competition.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Film Editing

The competition: The Big Short (Hank Corwin), Mad Max: Fury Road (Margaret Sixel), The Revenant (Stephen Mirrione), Spotlight (Tom McArdle), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey)

Previous winners: Whiplash, Gravity, Argo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, The Bourne Ultimatum
My winner: Wild Tales
The facts: Only Mirrione has been nominated before, winning in 2000 for “Traffic” and then cited again for a previous Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu collaboration, “Babel.” Only six films in the past thirty years have won this award without a corresponding Best Picture nomination, and only eight of the past twenty winners have also won Best Picture.

Who should win: I think “Spotlight” deserves this most of all, though I can see a case being made for “The Big Short.”
Who will win: I’m not sure. It’s probably a race between Mad Max: Fury Road and “The Big Short.” I’d love to see “Spotlight” win, but I don’t see it happening.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Costume Design

The competition: Carol (Sandy Powell), Cinderella (Sandy Powell), The Danish Girl (Paco Delgado), Mad Max: Fury Road (Jenny Beavan), The Revenant (Jacqueline West)

Previous winners: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, The Artist, Alice in Wonderland, The Young Victoria, The Duchess, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
My winner: The Danish Girl
The facts: This year brings Powell, a double nominee, to twelve nominations. She has won three times, most recently in 2009 for “The Young Victoria.” In 1998 she was nominated for two films and managed to win. This is the tenth nomination for Beavan, who won in 1986 for “A Room with a View.” This is the West’s third nomination and Delgado’s second. The last time a fantasy film won in this category was “Alice in Wonderland” in 2010.

Who should win: I’d go with “The Danish Girl,” but these are all decent choices.
Who will win: This is one place where the two omnipresent films probably don’t stand a shot at winning. The Danish Girl seems like a good bet, though “Carol” could also win.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Art Direction

The competition: Bridge of Spies (Adam Stockhausen, Rena DeAngelo, Bernhard Henrich), The Danish Girl (Michael Standish, Eve Stewart), Mad Max: Fury Road (Colin Gibson, Lisa Thompson), The Martian (Celia Bobak, Arthur Max), The Revenant (Jack Fisk , Hamish Purdy)

Previous winners: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Gatsby, Lincoln, Hugo, Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Sweeney Todd
My winner: Carol
The facts: Stockhausen won last year for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and was nominated the year before for “12 Years a Slave.” This is Stewart’s fourth nomination, Max’s third, and Bobak and Fisk’s second. Only one of these films (“The Martian”) is a contemporary film, and none of those have won any time recently. Other than that, this film often lines up with Best Costume Design, which three of these films are nominated for.

Who should win: “The Danish Girl”
Who will win: While it would be nice to see “The Danish Girl” triumph here, I think Mad Max: Fury Road is a pretty good bet.

Oscar Winner Predictions: Best Cinematography

The competition: Carol (Edward Lachman), The Hateful Eight (Robert Richardson), Mad Max: Fury Road (John Seale), The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki), Sicario (Roger Deakins)

Previous winners: Birdman, Gravity, Life of Pi, Hugo, Inception, Avatar, Slumdog Millionaire, There Will Be Blood
My winner: ‘71
The facts: Lubezki has won two years in a row now, with five previous nominations on top of that. This is the thirteenth nomination for Deakins, who has yet to win, and his fourth in a row. This is the ninth nomination for Richardson, who won for “Hugo,” “The Aviator,” and “JFK.” This is the fifth nomination for Seale, who won for “The English Patient.” This is the second nomination for Lachman. Only “The Hateful Eight” is not nominated for an ASC Award. “The Revenant” took home that trophy.

Who should win: All great choices! This is actually one place that I think “The Revenant” deserves an award and I would be happy to see it win. “Carol” or “The Hateful Eight” would be good too.
Who will win: All signs point to Lubezki winning his third consecutive trophy for The Revenant, though I suppose “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the other film nominated in every single category, could steal it.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Movie with Abe: Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky
Released October 9, 2015

With advances in technology over the past decade, public protest and revolution against oppressive regimes have transformed into something wholly different in nature than they used to be. Oscar-nominated documentaries such as “The Square” and “Burma VJ” have painted pictures of citizen urgencies that have put social media to terrific use to spread the word about their causes. One of this year’s Oscar nominees, “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” details another modern revolution, one spearheaded by efficient communication and defined by old-fashioned nationality and community determination.

Ukraine has not earned the best reputation since the establishment of its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In July 2014, a passenger airliner was mistakenly shot down during a war between Russia and the Ukraine for control of territory, and that event took place after most of what this film chronicles. Early on, this film establishes Ukraine as an independent state that always felt a tie to Russia that its people sought to break but its government insisted on keeping. President Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to move forward with an official agreement with the European Union was the catalytic event that triggered a protest in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) lasting ninety-three days and igniting a true spirit of change in its people.

“Winter on Fire” presents an extremely strong case for Ukraine defining itself as its own place, showcasing tremendous commitment to the cause across a broad spectrum of populations, all brought together by a passion for the Ukraine that they believe in. The energy of its people is conveyed in a fierce and unwavering way, as many protesters, ranging from a twelve-year-old boy with a hardened attitude and retired military personnel eager to help the cause, are interviewed about their allegiance to what they consider to the country they grew up in and want to continue to live in.

This documentary is one that partially advocates for change but does a more commendable job getting into the trenches and understanding what really defines its people. Parts of the film are immensely disturbing and unsettling, as violence escalates and people are hurt and killed. Like other such documentaries, the solution to one crisis inevitably leads to another, so this cannot be considered a closed or resolved case. Yet this film does a masterful job of getting to the heart of what it meant to be part of a fight for freedom that united everyday people all across one particularly temperamental country.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Movie with Abe: Cartel Land

Cartel Land
Directed by Matthew Heineman
Released July 3, 2015

Borders between countries tend to have very poor reputations, and the United States-Mexico border is particularly known for being volatile and prone to the illegal crossings of people, drugs, and guns. Tensions are high on both sides, and often just a few miles can mean a vastly different quality of life. In some cases, on both sides there are those who feel that the government and official law is not doing enough to keep the peace, resulting in the formation of citizen brigades and militias. “Cartel Land” explores vigilante groups in Michoacán, Mexico and Arizona that chooses to deal with their situations in a proactive manner.

The point for paramilitary organizations is well made by this film’s American subjects, who highlight the risks of Mexican drug cartels bleeding in over the border and compare the situation to two animals in a cage fighting, which all but dooms two races to not get along. In Mexico, the prevalence of the cartels and the way that they ruin so many lives is conveyed by heartfelt testimony from locals about how they or family members were kidnapped and killed, all simply because they were employees of someone who couldn’t pay a debt to the cartel. The autodefensas and its leader, José Manuel Mireles, are introduced, an armed group that has taken it upon itself to go after the cartel and keep its citizens safe.

There is little hope to be found in this portrait of attempts at citizen peacekeeping, as armed power inevitably corrupts. Even more disturbingly, the line between the autodefensas and the people they seek to take down took little time to blur, simply transforming the monster from one menace to another. The level of access attained by filmmaker Matthew Heineman and his crew is impressive, and the testimonials from victims, perpetrators, and those who say plenty to suggest that they might be both are immensely informative and eye-opening. What this film shows more than anything is that there exists a severe problem that neither the Mexican government nor the United States government is equipped to handle or interested in addressing, and the solutions that have sprung up in place of any official action are equally troubling. This Oscar nominee for Best Documentary is an important and disturbing look at the root of the problem, and though it doesn’t offer explicit answers, it at least begins the conversation.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Movie with Abe: When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Released May 22, 2015

In 2001, the Academy Awards established a separate category to honor outstanding achievement in animation each year. In the fifteen years since then, it has served as a vehicle to recognize animated films mostly produced by Pixar, Disney, and other American companies that are fun for children and sometimes for all ages. Occasionally, however, the category also honors films from around the world that are most definitely not just for children. One country that has been cited numerous times is Japan, and this year the country is represented by “When Marnie Was There,” an exploration of one girl’s loneliness and the immediate mystical connection she finds when she is transplanted to a magical world.

Anna, a young girl living in Japan, begins narrating her story by explaining that there is an invisible circle where everyone is on the inside and she is on the inside. She has no friends, partially because her peers find her weird, but also because she is a loner with few social skills. Attributing her unhappiness to her asthma, her kindly foster parents send her to live with relatives, where she discovers a whole new and wonderful place that only appears when the tide is right and meets another lonely girl who will forever change her life: Marnie.

Animated films often deal with magic and imagined realities, and it remains unclear for most of “When Marnie Was There” whether what Anna is experiencing with Marnie is actually happening or not. It is not explicitly defined, and there are no mystical creatures that appear to signal that this is clearly all in her head. Ultimately, that is not important, since Anna becomes a different person when she is able to see someone else’s life and understand her own from a new perspective. It is a transformative and endearing journey, and the friendship that develops between Anna and Marnie is clearly beneficial to both of them.

There are few characters that appear in “When Marnie Was There,” with clear distinctions of different types of people existing in this world. There are the innocent children, like Anna and Marnie, who struggle to fit in. There are the generous adults who care for them as best they can, and those who ignore or abuse them, as well as other children too vain to live truly rich lives. The lessons here are heartwarming and genuine, and, as a film, this animated entry is a generally affirming and enjoyable exploration of friendship that does not reach incredible heights but succeeds well enough.


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Movie with Abe: Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the Serpent
Directed by Ciro Guerra
Released February 17, 2015

Conquering nations have not been known for their kind treatment of native peoples. Civilizations of immigrants all across the world have sprung up and become the defining people of the land, yet there are Native Americans, First Natives, and so many other groups that have lost claim to their possessions and their territories, and only in some cases have they received belated reparations. “Embrace of the Serpent” tells the story of two white men who embarked on quests to find a mythical sacred plant with the same Amazonian shaman who rightfully suspects their true intentions.

“Embrace of the Serpent” begins in stark black and white, presenting two simultaneous stories. In 1909, German scientist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) arrives in the Amazon searching for the yakruna plant and begins an expedition with a young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), who is wary of working with him because of what he has seen of white people. In 1940, a much older and wiser Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) meets American Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), who is also seeking the yakruna. These two parallel plotlines unfold together and are intertwined in a way that makes them seem timeless and undivided.

There are many connections between the two expeditions. Karamakate chastises both foreigners for their material attachments, particularly Theodor’s books and letters to his wife. When a compass is taken by an indigenous tribe, Karamakate is furious that a white man would try to tell anyone that they can learn even though the intention is to ensure that they do not lose their ability to navigate without technology. The cultural dynamics, including an untrusting priest who greets visitors with a raised shotgun because he believes them to be rubber barons, are immensely interesting and well-explored.

Though its content, particularly its construction of a narrative based on the writings of two travelers from different time periods with no one to corroborate their stories, is appealing, this film’s pacing leaves much to be desired. Clocking in at over two hours, it takes plenty of time to slowly reach its more intriguing moments. Colombia’s Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film is undeniably a creative international showcase, but it is far from the most invigorating or involving film of the year. Its black and white style matches its vintage nature – a fascinating portrait of a lost culture that takes some time to come to life.


Monday, February 15, 2016

Oscar Documentary with Abe: The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Released July 17, 2015

While sequels and remakes seem to be more prevalent than ever nowadays, it’s rare that documentary subjects are revisited a second time by the same filmmaker. In 2013, American director Joshua Oppenheimer released the haunting “The Act of Killing,” in which he traveled to Indonesia and invited those involved in the brutal murders of alleged communists decades earlier to reenact their crimes, which they gleefully and unapologetically did. Now, two years later, Oppenheimer has released a follow-up that centers on an Indonesian man whose brother was one of those killed and gives him the incredible opportunity to speak directly to those responsible.

“The Act of Killing” was a horrifying film that achieved that effect most notably by the way its interview subjects glorified their killings as they retold them, unashamed and unafraid to admit what they had done. An early scene in “The Look of Silence” finds Adi Rukun in shock that the education his children receive paints the time of his brother’s murder as one of legitimate and documented revolution against the communists. What Oppenheimer allows Adi to do here is to go further and ask questions that deeply trouble those still in power, and immediately bring them to end the interview and accuse Adi of talking politics.

The film’s poignant poster image features one of the older commanders being fitted for glasses. Adi travels from house to house with Oppenheimer and his camera and begins every conversation by checking each person’s eyes. That those he visits are so old and soft-spoken might serve to make them seem less threatening or more easily forgiven, but the way that they boast about the killings and the brutal manner in which they were carried out negates that effect. The words of the interviewees’ adult children speak even louder, as they liken it to the water under the bridge and profess that they couldn’t have known what their parents had done.

This documentary’s title gets to the unshakeable nature of the subject it probes. Multiple times throughout the film, Adi is seen watching footage from Oppenheimer’s previous film, including scenes in which the way his brother was killed is described in boastful detail. The look of silence on Adi’s face says it all, and every interview he conducts is filled with quiet passion and disbelief that none of the guilty men will take responsibility for the evil of what they have done. By pushing further than “The Act of Killing,” Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated follow-up is a strong, unshakeable piece that shines a light on something that no one seems to want to admit was an awful chapter in recent Indonesian history.


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Oscar Documentaries with Abe: Amy and What Happened, Miss Simone?

Directed by Asif Kapadia
Released July 3, 2015

What Happened, Miss Simone?
Directed by Liz Garbus
Released June 24, 2015

It’s almost inevitable that, when the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary are unveiled each year, a few of the five films cited will have a good deal in common. Often, it’s the topic of war, genocide, or environmentalism that unites the choices. This year, it’s music, specifically two female icons who led very colorful and memorable lives. Their music made an impact, but the way in which they saw the world and chose to use their celebrity was just as powerful. These two documentaries offer informative, eye-opening portraits of two unforgettable singers.

These two stories start from a similar vantage point, showing the artists bringing down the house in different venues and the adoration they commanded from many with their stage presence and commitment to their work. Both films waste little time in getting to the root of what created these two women and defined them, and how they stood out from the pack. Obviously, Amy Winehouse’s career was considerably briefer and more recent that Nina Simone’s, but both have certainly been thrust back into the spotlight by these award-winning features.

These films shouldn’t necessarily be taken together since Amy and Miss Simone both have very divergent stories and entirely different experiences. Amy came up in a more current era, and her fame was defined by erratic behavior and intense drug addiction which ultimately led to her death. Nina Simone was a beacon of the civil rights movement, even pushing further than many of her colleagues, choosing her own path in life that included a move to Liberia to get away from the poisonous nature of America, precipitated by mental illness. Neither icon is alive today, and so the impressive amount of footage amassed of both must serve as their only testimony and defense of their particular behaviors.

Where both films take the step from informative to truly passionate and transformative is when they showcase their respective subjects performing. Amy’s love for music comes out when she has the opportunity to sing with a legend from a different genre. Nina’s enthusiasm comes through when she pours her heart and soul into her singing, utilizing lyrics that speak volumes and delivering them with gusto. Neither film is perfect or fully engaging, but both tell enlightening tales of influential artists who might have had the chance to do so much more had their careers not been cut short by factors out of their control.

Both: B

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Oscar Movie with Abe: Cinderella

Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Released March 13, 2015

Usually, the unveiling of the Oscar nominees offers up a handful of films to see that wouldn’t otherwise be on this reviewer’s screening list. Yet this year, there’s just one film that doesn’t fall into the category of animated, foreign, or documentary that was honored with an Oscar bid, and that’s this, the umpteenth retelling of a familiar fable that ranks as a new adaptation no one was asking for. Unsurprisingly, it’s the costumes that were cited by Oscar voters, and it turns out that the movie, while unnecessary, isn’t all that bad either.

It’s important to start with an endearing Cinderella, and her origin story always varies a bit. In this case, her father came back from his travels with a new wife and two stepdaughters, and died soon after, leaving poor Ella to tend for her abusive new family members. Lily James, who plays Rose on “Downton Abbey,” is a fitting choice to play the very likeable and sweet Cinderella, and Cate Blanchett, who had a very busy year, is more than ready to chew scenery as the unapologetically evil stepmother who delights at treating her stepdaughter horribly.

Not much of this story is new, but there are still elements that work better than others. Helena Bonham Carter is a standout as the fairy godmother who doesn’t have an excellent handle on what she’s doing or on her sanity, and her few scenes are very entertaining. Richard Madden’s prince is charming as can be expected, and the chemistry he shares with James is definitely felt. Interestingly, this version of the story feels rather truncated, as not much happens between Cinderella’s first and only trip to the ball and the subsequent search for the wearer of the glass slipper who is nearly not found due to collusion between the stepmother and Stellan Skarsgard’s Grand Duke. But, of course, in the end, all works out well as it does with every fairy tale.

The costumes by Sandy Powell are, naturally, the main reason to see the film. Given the minimal plot involved, the visuals represent a large portion of the content of the film, and they are certainly dazzling. Ultimately, the appeal of this film should come down to whether this is an enticing story, since this version contains no musical numbers or grand effects. It’s a perfectly adequate and passable retelling with decent performances that makes for good if unmemorable entertainment.


Friday, February 12, 2016

Movie with Abe: A War

A War
Directed by Tobias Lindholm
Released February 12, 2016

Foreign films often tell stories that feel distinctly different from those that might be featured in American films. It’s not just the language that is not the same, but something about the culture and the way of living that feels unfamiliar and might allow for the showcasing of a new or unusual story. One of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film, “A War,” from Denmark, is an interesting exception because its plot is very similar to that of many contemporary American war stories. While its title is interestingly ambiguous and general, its focus on the current extended conflict in Afghanistan makes this an intriguing example of international cinema that should feel relevant throughout the world.

“A War” begins in a familiar setting, with soldiers patrolling a bleak landscape, fighting an extended war defined by infrequent but violent incidents amid an otherwise quiet eternity. When one member of a Danish platoon steps on a mine and is killed, the other members of his unit are hit hard. Their commander, Claus (Pilou Asbæk), takes it upon himself to personally keep up morale, going on patrol with them and taking careful steps to ensure the safety both of his people and of the villagers who find their lives threatened by the enemy that they are fighting. When he finds his unit under fire, Claus is forced to make in-the-moment decisions that later lead to his being under scrutiny and facing legal action for resulting civilian deaths.

Like recent American films such as “The Hurt Locker,” “American Sniper,” “The Lucky Ones,” “The Messenger,” and “The Dry Land,” this war film is as much about what it’s like to come home as it is about life on the battlefield. Claus’ wife Marla (Tuva Novotny) is prominently featured trying to take care of her three children as they act out and attempt to adjust to having their father away and only able to call in occasionally at odd hours. There is nothing about this particular story that feels novel or eye-opening, save for the fact that Claus is actually called to answer for his actions. The fact that Claus and his soldiers come from Denmark only serves to unite countries all over the world that fight for democracy and freedom. Seeing this story through a foreign lens does little to enhance or distinguish it, leaving it as a solid movie but hardly one worthy of note as one of the most outstanding foreign films of the year.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

AFT Awards: Best Ending

This is the twenty-second category of the 9th Annual AFT Film Awards to be announced. The AFT Awards are my own personal choices for the best in film of each year and the best in television of each season. The AFT Film Awards include the traditional Oscar categories and a number of additional specific honors. Click here to see previous years of this category. Nominees are pictured in the order I’ve ranked them. Beware spoilers for the films pictured above.

The winner:
Spotlight built to such an incredible level of drama that the phones ringing off the hook was the ultimate payoff, capped by the unbelievably long list of similar revelations all across the globe.

Other nominees:
Wild Tales took its characters to such a point that they had been through and put each other through so much that a moment of twisted happiness on the dance floor was perfectly fitting. Star Wars: The Force Awakens did exactly what franchise films should: built to a big reveal and ended on an epic note that sets it up for many follow-ups to come. Clouds of Sils Maria chose to close its saga with a wordless shot of that marvelous weather phenomenon, which was more than moving in itself. The Hateful Eight rebounded from some bloody second-act ridiculousness with a triumphant and resounding reading of a letter from one very well-known U.S. President.

AFT Awards: Best Opening

This is the twenty-first category of the 9th Annual AFT Film Awards to be announced. The AFT Awards are my own personal choices for the best in film of each year and the best in television of each season. The AFT Film Awards include the traditional Oscar categories and a number of additional specific honors. Click here to see previous years of this category. Nominees are pictured in the order I’ve ranked them.

The winner:
Beasts of No Nation started off on a wildly playful and optimistic note, with its protagonist eagerly talking about how he and his friends made the most of their lives before unspeakable events changed everything.

Other nominees:
99 Homes wasted no time in piling on the moral intensity with one of its two leads showing up to the scene of a suicide and treating it like a business meeting. Grandma revealed its title character’s true nature at the very start with her particular harsh brand of relationship-ending criticism. People, Places, Things sent its main character reeling with a hilariously awkward reveal that his life was about to change whether he wanted it to or not. Anomalisa began with an unexpectedly intimate innocent interaction aboard a plane that was certainly monotonous but not nearly as much as would later become clear.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

AFT Awards: Best Ensemble Cast

This is the twentieth category of the 9th Annual AFT Film Awards to be announced. The AFT Awards are my own personal choices for the best in film of each year and the best in television of each season. The AFT Film Awards include the traditional Oscar categories and a number of additional specific honors. Nominees are pictured in the order I’ve ranked them. Click here to see previous years of this category.

Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order):
Beasts of No Nation, Black Mass, Brooklyn, Carol, Creed, Ex Machina, Freeheld, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Grandma, Mustang, Room, Son of Saul, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tangerines, The Big Short, The Lady in the Van, The Martian, The Overnight, The Revenant, The Second Mother, The Walk, Woman in Gold, Z for Zachariah

99 Homes
Sleeping with Other People
Mississippi Grind
Steve Jobs
The Hateful Eight

The winner:
Spotlight was a true ensemble film, capturing the dynamic of its journalism team without really having a lead and casting so many background players as corporate controllers, religious leaders, and other elements of its fascinating story.

Other nominees:
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Wild Tales
People, Places, Things

AFT Awards: Best Limited Performance – Female

This is the nineteenth category of the 9th Annual AFT Film Awards to be announced. The AFT Awards are my own personal choices for the best in film of each year and the best in television of each season. The AFT Film Awards include the traditional Oscar categories and a number of additional specific honors. Nominees are pictured in the order I’ve ranked them. Click here to see previous years of this category, which is sometimes split into male and female and sometimes been combined.

Honorable mentions:
Amanda Peet (Sleeping with Other People), Chloe Grace Moretz (Clouds of Sils Maria), Connie Britton (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Dascha Polano (Joy), Juno Temple (Black Mass), Katherine C. Hughes (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Marcia Gay Harden (Grandma), Meryl Streep (Suffragette), Natasha Lyonne (Sleeping with Other People), Perla Haney-Jardine (Steve Jobs)

The winner:
Judy Greer (Grandma) was a formidable and believable opponent for Lily Tomlin’s torrential girlfriend, a young woman with aspirations and a handful of hurtful academic slurs to disparage her offender.

Other nominees:
Molly Shannon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) was one of the best consistent oddities in her film, always ready to share a glass of red wine with her daughter’s friends and live in her own version of reality. Dakota Johnson (Black Mass) felt like she fit in as a mobster’s wife but revealed in just a few scenes what she truly held valuable. Heather Lind (Mistress America) stole the show from a number of other talented players as a remnant of the title heroine’s past not too eager to let her live her mistakes down. Katherine Waterston (Steve Jobs) was a consistent thorn in her film’s protagonist’s side, there to remind him that he didn’t control anything and that she wasn’t willing to be forgotten.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

AFT Awards: Best Limited Performance – Male

This is the eighteenth category of the 9th Annual AFT Film Awards to be announced. The AFT Awards are my own personal choices for the best in film of each year and the best in television of each season. The AFT Film Awards include the traditional Oscar categories and a number of additional specific honors. Nominees are pictured in the order I’ve ranked them. Click here to see previous years of this category, which is sometimes split into male and female and sometimes been combined.

Honorable mentions:
Bryan Brown (Kill Me Three Times), Corey Stoll (Black Mass), David Harbour (Black Mass), James Badge Dale (The Walk), John Slattery (Spotlight), Jon Bernthal (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Luke Hemsworth (Kill Me Three Times), Michael Chernus (Mistress America), Peter Sarsgaard (Black Mass)

The winner:
Stanley Tucci (Spotlight) accomplished a careful balance between rightful paranoia and legal incompetence, crafting a believable and magnetic character in the process.

Other nominees:
Billy Crudup (Spotlight) was one smiling face assuring everyone that nothing was wrong, a perfect friendly symbol for the monstrous coverups of misdeeds, while Jamey Sheridan (Spotlight) painted a more human picture of the difficulty of deciding what to do in impossible situations. Nick Offerman (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) was hilariously obsessive about his strange meats and odd outlook on life, perfectly cast for a peculiar part. Michael Chernus (People, Places, Things) delivered a wonderfully funny and fresh take on the “other man” and all the awkwardness that comes along with that.

AFT Awards: Best Breakthrough Performance

This is the seventeenth category of the 9th Annual AFT Film Awards to be announced. The AFT Awards are my own personal choices for the best in film of each year and the best in television of each season. The AFT Film Awards include the traditional Oscar categories and a number of additional specific honors. Nominees are pictured in the order I’ve ranked them. Click here to see previous years of this category.

Honorable mentions:
Hannah Murray (Bridgend), Giulia Salerno (Misunderstood), Yanet Mojica (Sand Dollars), Joséphine Japy (Breathe), Lou de Laâge (Breathe)

The winner:
Jacob Tremblay (Room) truly inhabited the role of a boy who had never been outside of one small room, and demonstrated maturity and promise well beyond his few years.

Other nominees:
Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and RJ Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) were such vital parts of their film as two of the title characters, each so marvelously suited for their particular roles and their distinct perceptions of the world. Günes Sensoy (Mustang) demonstrated such an incredible sense of longing and dreaming for something more complex and rewarding than her lot in life, guiding her film through its miserable reality. Brooke Bloom (She’s Lost Control) kept her film’s title in check with a revealing and insightful lead performance.

Monday, February 8, 2016

AFT Awards: Best Visual Effects

This is the sixteenth category of the 9th Annual AFT Film Awards to be announced. The AFT Awards are my own personal choices for the best in film of each year and the best in television of each season. The AFT Film Awards include the traditional Oscar categories and a number of additional specific honors. Nominees are pictured in the order I’ve ranked them. Click here to see previous years of this category.

Honorable mention:
The Revenant

The winner:
The Walk marvelously and seamlessly recreated a landscape that everyone knows was tragically destroyed over a decade ago, setting it as the stage for its most impressive extended scene.

Other nominees:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Ex Machina
Avengers: Age of Ultron
The Martian