Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Sundance with Abe: Ingrid Goes West

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I had the chance to see a number of films and will be posting reviews of everything I see!

Ingrid Goes West
Directed by Matt Spicer
U.S. Dramatic Competition – Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award Winner

Social media has taken the world to a new place. Many spend hours and hours on their phones and computers each day, compulsively giving electronical approval to a photo taken by someone they barely know, and how popular or liked someone is can be judged by the strength and volume of their online presence. While few would argue that this has positively benefited society, there are also far more serious issues that can arise from people posting where they are online for anyone to see and others latching on to a perceived real-life friendship with someone they have never even met. What better way to showcase that story than as a comedy?

Ingrid Thorburn (Plaza) is first introduced when she shows up to a wedding and pepper-sprays the bride, someone she follows online and deemed a horrible person for not inviting her. After some time in a mental institution, Ingrid starts a new stalking cycle when she reads about Los Angeles-based photographer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). After Taylor responds to one of her tweets, Ingrid takes the money her late mother left her, rents the first place she finds, and begins to insert herself into Taylor’s life by following her every move online and parroting back to her all the things she likes. Soon, Ingrid actually becomes Taylor’s best friend, but that kind of relationship is destined not to last forever.

There are elements of this movie which really aren’t funny, since Ingrid obviously does have grave problems that prevent her from understanding what friendship means and that she is crossing so many lines by invading Taylor’s privacy and trying to hijack into her life. Yet it’s an important lesson about just how much is put out there and how this kind of thing could easily happen in real life and surely does. Ingrid may lie about a lot of who she is, but little of what comes out of Taylor’s mouth and finds its way to the keyboard on her phone stands as a resounding thought or honest truth either (she and Annette from fellow Sundance feature “L.A. Times” would get along well).

Ultimately, this is a comedy designed to tell a funny story and provide laughs, and that it does. Anyone other than Plaza would not have been nearly as fantastic in this role, and she has a great ability to make Ingrid seem just over-the-top enough without making her totally ridiculous as a person. Olsen is great as the vainest character she’s ever played, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. is a fun supporting player as Ingrid’s Batman-loving neighbor. This film does offer plenty to think about regarding how in touch we are with social media and out of touch with everything else, and it’s just as worthwhile as a solid comedy movie.

This film was picked up at Sundance by Neon and should be coming out sometime soon!


Sundance with Abe: Landline

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I had the chance to see a number of films and will be posting reviews of everything I see!

Directed by Gillian Robespierre
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Gillian Robespierre made her feature film debut with “Obvious Child,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. Based on her own short film, the movie starred Jenny Slate as a comedienne dealing with an unexpected pregnancy emerging from a one-night stand. The film was a huge success, and therefore it should surprise no one that Robespierre’s follow-up is another collaboration with Slate, this time expanding the cast to include an entire family going through their relationship and adulthood troubles, set against the backdrop of New York City in the very recognizable 1990s.

Dana Jacobs (Slate) is the older of two sisters. She is newly engaged to nice guy Ben (Jay Duplass) but finds excitement when she runs into an old friend (Finn Wittrock). Her sister Ali (Abby Quinn) hates school and does her very best to flaunt her mother’s authority when she can, spending time with a male friend, sneaking out to clubs, and smoking. Their mother Pat (Edie Falco) seems to find no joy in the world, and certainly none from her lazy husband Alan (John Turturro), whose secret floppy disk, which his daughters discover, suggests that he has been writing love poems to another woman for quite some time. Through their intersecting lives, each member of the Jacobs family tries to return to a good place.

“Landline” features a fun story that could work in any time period, but choosing the 1990s helps to make it its own. Dana skips work to rock out to a CD in a store during the day and checks her messages via a payphone on the street. Pat sees First Lady Hillary Clinton wearing a pink pantsuit on television and promptly buys one for herself. The nature of communication in that era – not so long ago – is humorous when reflected back on film, and those simpler times help make this film all the more entertaining. This isn’t a movie about missed calls or technology coming to the rescue, but rather the moment in which the film takes place is just as much a part of it as its characters are.

Slate, who has recurred on television shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “House of Lies,” is truly one of the funniest actresses working today. She plays Dana as living in her own world, believing that what she does is right and that she doesn’t need to grow up if she doesn’t want to. Opposite her, Quinn, in her third film role, is the real find, displaying enormous sarcastic ability and a promising comedic future. Falco and Turturro are fine, as is Duplass, but this is a film about sisters growing up into adults more than anything, and it’s a really fun one at that.


Sundance with Abe: I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I had the chance to see a number of films and will be posting reviews of everything I see!

I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore
Directed by Macon Blair
U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize Winner

There’s an important lesson to be learned when you see a movie that isn’t anything at all what you’re expecting. As a rule, I try to read as little as possible about a film before I go into it, and when I need to select films to catch at festivals like Sundance, a quick glance at the cast and a check that it’s not a horror movie are usually enough. Melanie Lynskey has delivered great performances over the past few years in dramatic comedies, and so it stands to reason that her latest effort would fall somewhere between Tribeca’s “Little Boxes” and HBO’s “Togetherness.” I was, therefore, in for a rude – and very bloody – awakening when I sat down to watch her latest film, which is something altogether different.

Ruth (Lynskey) isn’t particularly happy with her life. She works as a nursing assistant and spends time around miserable people, and she lives alone in a small house. When she returns home one night to find her door open and her computer missing, along with some inherited china from her grandmother, she decides that she can’t take it any longer. After a detective refuses to indulge her, she turns to her bizarre neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood) for help in tracking down her missing items. Soon she finds herself embroiled with a trio of dangerous criminals (Devon Graye, Jane Levy, and David Yow) and ready to go head-to-head with these vicious people to make them understand that they can’t mess with her.

“I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore” belongs to a certain genre of film that thrives on celebrating chaos and violence. It’s akin to a much, much more comedic version of “Cold in July” where people are inherently evil and it’s just a matter of how much people stand for that or let it happen out of sheer terror. Ruth is relatively sheepish, but her ability to track her computer’s location on her phone gives the courage to go to the address and, with Todd’s help in the film’s most hilarious scene, break down the door and demand it back. There is little trace of reality here, but that’s not the point.

Lynskey is usually great in whatever she does, so clearly she wanted a break from the milder romance-based dramedies that she had been doing, and this is the result. Wood is perfect both on paper and on screen as Tony, imbuing him with a furious passion for theatrics and for doing what he believes is right, even if his communication skills could be greatly improved. This film is an absurd exercise, one that triggered applause and audience gasps during a number of its violent moments. It’s a head trip, but ultimately one that anyone who actually bothers to read the description and thinks he or she might like will probably enjoy.


Monday, January 30, 2017

Sundance with Abe: Rememory

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I had the chance to see a number of films and will be posting reviews of everything I see!

Directed by Mark Palansky

Memory is an extraordinarily powerful thing. Director Mark Palansky chose to introduce a screening of his film “Rememory” at Sundance with a prepared speech that featured a stirring and fitting anecdote. He described the feeling of submitting a film to the festival and knowing the unlikelihood of getting accepted, and was thrilled when the film was in fact selected. But he knew, in that moment, that there were thousands of people who were rejected, and now had that memory to carry them through their lives and to their next rejection or acceptance. Framing his film in that way is a perfect explanation of why it is that memory matters so much.

Sam (Peter Dinklage) spends most of his time alone building models after the death of his brother in a horrible car crash. He attends a speech made by prolific scientist Gordon Dunn (Martin Donovan), who has created a device that records memories and extracts them to a playable device. When Gordon is killed in his office, Sam approaches his wife, Carolyn (Julia Ormond), and tries to track down the members of Gordon’s study to try to figure out who killed him. Sam tells Carolyn that Gordon talked him off the ledge when he was at his most vulnerable and that he owes him, but Sam’s real reason for working so hard to solve Gordon’s murder is a mystery.

Even though these are all invented characters, there is something incredibly powerful about seeing someone’s memories presented externally. Sam creates models of the people in the study based on what he sees them experience, since all of the memories are from the perspective of the person who sees and therefore do not show that’s person image. It is emphasized that revisiting traumatic memories can be crucial for being able to move forward and past a formative tragedy, but, as always with technological innovations that threaten to change the way the world works, the unforeseen consequences, like the corruption of memories or the inability to forget something previously buried, loom large.

Dinklage, who spends most of his time putting on a fake British accent on “Game of Thrones,” is a strong choice to play the mysterious character who commits himself to learning about these people who shared their memories to understand why Gordon died. Evelyne Brochu, who stars on “Orphan Black,” and the late Anton Yelchin, in one his final film appearances, stand out as patients in Gordon’s study who have been traumatically affected by their participation in his work. This film has a lot to say about memory and what it means as it follows an interesting plot towards a surprising and emotional conclusion.


Sundance with Abe: Thoroughbred

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I had the chance to see a number of films and will be posting reviews of everything I see!

Directed by Cory Finley

There are films that tell their stories in a non-linear fashion for the purpose of keeping audience suspense going and revealing important details about events and actions that then provide clarity on whatever happened or was alluded to earlier on. Other films have plots that begin at one clear point and end at another, and it’s figuring out whether the couple will get together or if they’ll solve the murder that provides the intrigue. And then there are films which just begin without addressing where they’re headed, introducing fascinating characters whose conversations slowly lead to some hint about the direction of the film.

Amanda (Olivia Cooke) arrives at the home of her childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) under the guise of testing preparation, but the antisocial, standoffish Amanda is well aware that her mother has paid Lily to spend time with her after Amanda’s brush with trouble and notoriety following her violent euthanizing of a wounded horse. As Amanda pressures Lily to be honest with her feelings and not put on a show, Lily’s own unhappiness becomes clear, caused by her horrible stepfather (Paul Sparks). Amanda’s casual comment that they should kill him is initially frightening to Lily, but as their friendship progresses, her attitude begins to change.

This is a fantastically dark film, one featuring two young girls who are wise beyond their years and clever enough to manipulate events around them to their will. The conversations that Amanda and Lily have are captivating, and the dialogue from writer-director Cory Finley is astounding. It is never fully explained how both these girls came to the place where they are, and how it is that they know so much despite rejecting society and disregarding their parents’ influence. That only enhances their effectiveness as characters, devoid of normal human emotions but possessing far more dangerous ideas and capabilities.

Both Cooke and Taylor-Joy were praised by the programming team at Sundance for getting their start at previous festivals; Cooke in the superb “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and Taylor-Joy in the horror film “The Witch” (which I have no plans to see due to its genre). United here, they are both tremendous, creating deeply dark and magnetic characters who say just as much with a dirty look as they do with their carefully-calculated words. Anton Yelchin, in one of his final films, rightfully earns a dedication at the end of the film for his supporting portrayal of a drug dealer approached to off the stepfather, and Sparks was born to play the cold, unkind man who is the object of his stepdaughter’s hatred. This stylized, suspenseful film is easily one of the best at Sundance, featuring spectacular performances and an entrancing, haunting story.


Sundance with Abe: L.A. Times

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I had the chance to see a number of films and will be posting reviews of everything I see!

L.A. Times
Directed by Michelle Morgan

There is a culture associated with Los Angeles that isn't particularly positive. While there are many wonderful things about Southern California, there is a tendency for residents to be somewhere vain and superficial, enjoying the nice weather, shopping all the time, and spending a disproportionate percentage of their lives on social media. Those people, especially at the extreme, can be intolerable, but they do make great movie subjects.

Annette (Michelle Morgan) is a self-obsessed socialite who uses most of the air around her to comment on other people's lives. She is dissatisfied with her relationship with Elliot (Torma Jaccone), whose primary offenses include wanting taking out the trash to be a two-person task and forcing her to walk everywhere all the time. Deciding that she needs to move on to be happy like her other couple friends, Annette tries to go it alone as her best friend Baker (Dree Hemingway) navigates a truly depressing dating scene.

The conversations in “L.A. Times” are not particularly deep, and that’s purposeful. Annette uses big words and speaks with authority about the topics she discusses, even if she knows little to nothing about a given subject. But in her mind, it’s how you’re perceived that matters, and therefore she projects an image of the person she thinks society wants her to be while judging everyone else for not being up to that standard. Her friends approach the world with slightly more realism, but find themselves utterly unfit for existence as it’s currently decreed, endlessly searching for a romantic partner who wants to see and experience the world from their perspective.

Morgan, who wrote and directed the film, joked before a screening that she has a “small cameo.” As Annette, she is so utterly detestable, but just as watchable, as she latches on to the wrong part of each thing someone says and twists it to make her sound right and everyone else hopelessly wrong. She’s a character who seems too outrageous to be real, yet as portrayed by Morgan, it’s possible to see much of many similarly-minded people in her. Hemingway plays well off Morgan as a resigned romantic hopeless to fall into the same unfortunate situations time and time again. This film is genuinely funny, mostly as a mockery of L.A. culture but moreso as an ode to a generation where nothing is all that honest anymore unless you really find the right person who is still willing to look at the world that way.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sundance with Abe: Sidney Hall

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I had the chance to see a number of films and will be posting reviews of everything I see!

Sidney Hall
Directed by Shawn Christensen

Authors can spend decades writing and still not manage to create something that reaches and is read by the public. A first novel is a massive undertaking and one that requires a deep commitment to hard work and endless revisions. Sometimes, however, the task can be simpler, like when a high school student known for saying and writing provocative things pens an entire novel while still in school, leading him on a straight path to success and almost instant fame.

Sidney Hall (Logan Lerman) is not a popular kid at school - not that he tries - and comes home to the wrath of his monster mother (Michelle Monaghan) and his disabled father. When an old friend who has since become a star athlete (Blake Jenner) asks for his help in finding something buried long ago, Sidney gets the inspiration to write an incredible book that catapults him to fame. Along the way, Sidney finds himself courted by his neighbor Melody (Elle Fanning) and pursued, much later in life, by a determined detective (Kyle Chandler) trying to find the recluse who has disappeared completely from the public eye.

The specific plot of Sidney's smash novel is never explicitly covered, but its general themes are revealed through the way that Sidney responds to developments in his life, gradually retreating from the spotlight, something he never wanted in the first place. Sidney doesn’t want to go to parties and socialize with people who respect him, and he rarely displays much excitement about what he has written. The way those around him speak to him and about him provide much help in determining just what kind of person he is, a natural talent whose work has been interpreted to be something else by many who read it.

Lerman, who is twenty-five, still looks relatively young, and having him play a role that spans a number of years doesn't involve him physically aging all that much, yet the depth of his portrayal makes it work well. Fanning is playing the same part she always seems to and excelling at it as usual. The rest of the supporting cast helps to guide Sidney's story as he tries to play as minimal a part in it as possible. A lot happens over the course of this film, and it's all told in an invigorating and enthralling manner.


Sundance with Abe: Call Me By Your Name

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I’ll be seeing as many movies as I can and offering reviews throughout the week.

Call Me By Your Name
Directed by Luca Guadagnino

There is something about being on vacation that can make anything seem possible. Being far from home and in a different setting can break down boundaries and inspire friendships and relationships between people who, in any other setting, would never be seen speaking to each other. A summer season only enhances that notion, since it is a freer and more relaxed time during which things are generally more pleasant and the allure of something unconventional or forbidden is even stronger.

Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is a seventeen-year-old boy who spends his summers and vacations in Northern Italy with his parents. The family lives in America during the year, and switches frequently between English, French, and Italian in everyday conversation. The arrival of twenty-four-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), a doctoral student interning for Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) invigorates an otherwise dull, sun-filled summer. While the only child initially resents this new temporary member of the family, interactions between the two young men show that there is a much deeper bond between them.

Director Luca Guadagnino is known for making artistic, colorful films about desire, usually set in his native country of Italy. “I Am Love” was a gorgeous and stunning experiment less rooted in conventional plot, while his most recent film, “A Bigger Splash,” was full of meaningful and suggestive moments but structured itself around four characters and their behavior in close quarters. “Call Me By Your Name” travels even further towards being a conventional narrative, housing an underlying hopeful romance under a standard story of people eating, drinking, swimming, and biking without a care in the world.

Hammer, who has been acting consistently in films since “The Social Network,” just this past year turned thirty, and he does have an ageless quality about him which allows him to present as mature and sophisticated to the adults and joyfully youthful when he spends time with Elio. Hammer’s performance is tied in with Chalamet’s and the way that Elio perceives Oliver, first as a threat and then as much more. The chemistry between the two is subtly executed and immensely powerful when it begins to show. The backdrop of sparsely-populated, sunny Northern Italy gives the film a dreamlike feel, and shots of the characters riding casually on their bicycles bring the audience into the experience and are hard to forget. This film’s 130-minute runtime really soaks in its setting, ending on a poignant note that acknowledges the depth of Guadagnino’s latest film.

This film was picked up at Sundance by Sony Pictures Classics and should be released soon!


Sundance with Abe: Rebel in the Rye

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I’ll be seeing as many movies as I can and offering reviews throughout the week.

Rebel in the Rye
Directed by Danny Strong

Famed artists tend to lead tortured lives. That’s especially true of writers whose most well-known works center on troubled characters who do not fit in with their society. One of the most famous books of the twentieth century is J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” and it stands to reason that its author led a compelling life that enabled him to craft such an unforgettable character. The formative experiences that shaped Salinger are more than sufficient for a biopic of a man who never desired to be what others wanted him to be yet still managed to exceed their expectations.

J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult), referred to as Jerry by those closest to him, is introduced as a young man very skilled at getting himself kicked out of school. When he enrolls in a Columbia writing course with a renowned professor, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), he finds his inspiration, and invests all his energy in trying to get a short story published by the New Yorker. As Whit becomes his mentor, J.D. begins writing about Holden Caulfield, an invented friend he brings with him when he goes to war and finds his life irreversibly transformed by his time abroad.

Though “Rebel in the Eye” begins with Salinger in 1946 sharing that he never intended for his life to end up this way and then flashes back to the events that led to that moment, the film is actually presented in a relatively linear and narrative fashion. It’s easy to see how Salinger becomes less and less tethered to society, angry that he has not achieved success and then, once he has, not eager to conform to anyone’s idea of what he should be – and certainly not willing to take anyone’s notes on his writing. He just wants to write and doesn’t want anyone telling him how he should do that.

Hoult, who broke out before his growth spurt over a decade ago in “About a Boy,” has recently made a number of films that show his range and adaptability to each character. Salinger may well be one of his less dynamic roles, but he still embodies it fully and presents a portrait of a man consumed by his craft. Spacey is a more than adequate screen partner for him, standing out among the supporting cast as the man who put Salinger on the right track. The film as a whole is engaging and interesting, and though it may not be the most eye-opening or invigorating film ever made, it’s still an educational and thought-provoking ride.


Sundance with Abe: Brigsby Bear

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I’ll be seeing as many movies as I can and offering reviews throughout the week.

Brigsby Bear
Directed by Dave McCary
U.S. Dramatic Competition

It's completely possible to shape someone's life by offering them a limited perspective of the world. Dystopian dramas imagine futures where people think emotions are evil or don't know that notions like democracy and free will can exist. Films like "Dogtooth" show a version of the present where people have been lied to and therefore have a vastly inaccurate picture of the universe. One thing is common among all these: the immersion into reality by anyone who previously knew something limited is sure to be rocky.

James (Kyle Mooney) lives in a bunker with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), believing that the outside air is toxic and spending an extraordinary amount of time watching and rehashing the television show "Brigsby Bear Adventures." When James is freed from his unknowing captivity, he must adjust to his real parents (Michaela Watkins and Matt Walsh) and a world that doesn't know Brigsby, his lifelong obsession. Though he is told that his father made the show just for him, James anchors his world to Brigsby, and, with the help of a detective (Greg Kinnear) and some new friends, he sets out to bring a new and final Brigsby chapter to life.

James is a mesmerizing specimen, someone who never had much human contact and tethered himself so strongly to so many untruths. He hangs on to Brigsby as the part of his manufactured childhood that never let him down, and this insanely corny, terrible show does something for him that it can only in an ironic manner akin to cult status for those who grew up in the real world. Brigsby embodies a simpler time, and the way that James idolizes and adores him has the potential to be truly inspirational to those who couldn’t have imagined taking it seriously.

The whole mood of “Brigsby Bear” is one of spectacular entertainment, as the peculiarity of James’ situation in captivity is indeed very strong, and everything he does once he reenters his whole life is filled with puzzling and resultingly humorous words, actions, and decisions. Mooney, who cowrote the film, is superb as James, committing himself entirely to his endless energy for all things Brigsby. The rest of the cast, particularly Kinnear and Hamill, assist in making this film an involving experience that is able to turn this relatively outlandish concept into something that seems totally believable and immersive, not to mention very funny.

This film was picked up at Sundance by Sony Pictures Classics and should be coming out soon!


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Sundance with Abe: Walking Out

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I’ll be seeing as many movies as I can and offering reviews throughout the week.

Walking Out
Directed by Alex and Andrew Smith
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Where a person lives can make a big difference in how they perceive the world and what they do every day. Urban and rural settings can look nothing alike, and each person’s decision on how to adapt to their surroundings and to take advantage of modern technologies also influences the way they go about their lives. A hunter’s philosophy in mountainous Montana is definitely different from a suburban Texan teenager’s outlook, and putting the two together will evidently result in a clashing of behaviors, as it does when two such characters are united in the film “Walking Out.”

David (Josh Wiggins) is a fourteen-year-old kid who lives most of the year with his mom in Texas. At the start of the film, he lands on a small plane in Big Sky, Montana, where his father, Cal (Matt Bomer), picks him up. Sporting a cowboy hat and a hunter’s attitude, Cal describes the adventures that await them over the next few snowy days. They will ascend a mountain so that David can make his first kill and bring home his dinner. As the snow continues to fall and intensify, unforeseen circumstances in the wild cause troubling consequences that threaten the ability of father and son to make it back to safety.

This is an extraordinarily intimate film that mostly features just three characters – David, Cal, and Cal’s father (Bill Pullman), seen in remembered flashbacks as Cal recounts his memories of his first hunt when he was his son’s age. The setting of Big Sky, home to co-directors Alex and Andrew Smith, is enormously effective, presenting a vast landscape of heights and scenery that, while Cal is able to distinguish one spot from another, looks all the same to David and to audiences. This is an arduous adventure movie, one that offers up the intensity of nature and the wild as its driving force.

Bomer, best known for his affable, charming role on USA’s “White Collar,” undergoes a complete transformation here as the single-minded Cal, who simply wants to teach his son how to be a hunter and to be able to provide for himself. While he clearly loves his son, it’s far from a gentle embrace, and even when he does offer a compliment, it mainly circles back to excitement about a shared accomplishment related to the hunt. Wiggins, who starred in the Sundance hit “Hellion,” delivers an equally compelling and mature performance, and the two do a tremendous job of inhabiting their harsh environment and pushing through to survive no matter what the trip entails. The film utilizes its actors very well, and this strong, suspenseful drama is a completely captivating journey.


Sundance with Abe: The Last Word

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I’ll be seeing as many movies as I can and offering reviews throughout the week.

The Last Word
Directed by Mark Pellington

Most people want to go out on their own terms. There are those who ask not to be hooked up to any machines or to remain alive only if they are mentally aware of where they are and what is going on. How they are perceived by others - their legacy - can be important, but it doesn't usually come first. Obviously, priorities are different for someone who commissions the writing of her obituary while she's still alive.

Harriet Lauler (Shirley MacLaine) is not a particularly nice person. She would pride herself on not meeting that description because she values other qualities, like drive, persistence, and sensibility. Realizing that her days might be numbered, the former businesswoman co-opts Anne (Amanda Seyfried), an obituary writer for the local paper, to interview everyone she knows to craft a fitting tribute. It proves to be a difficult task, as no one has anything remotely positive to say about Harriet, prompting her to try to turn over a new leaf and reshape her impact on the world near the end of her life.

MacLaine is a respected, Oscar-winning actress who has been making films for over sixty years. This is exactly the kind of part that would go to a woman of her age who is still acting regularly, and it is so wonderfully refreshing to see that, unlike a number of her colleagues, there is absolutely nothing phoned-in about her performance. Every line lands, and her delivery is spectacular, enhancing an already funny script. Her pairing with Seyfried is a true success, since Anne does not give in to the fear that Harriet uses to intimidate most in her life and instead gives her plenty of attitude, making for some great interactions.

There are some elements of the trajectory of the story in “The Last Word” that are predictable and follow an expected course based on the prototype of this kind of last-hurrah movie. Yet the way it is crafted and structured allows it to work very well, and this trip is full of laughs throughout thanks to the smart performances from MacLaine, Seyfried, and newcomer AnnJewel Lee Dixon as an underprivileged girl Harriet decides to mentor to bolster her reputation. This is an occasionally heartwarming, more often hilarious comedy that is sure to please audiences looking for an above-average comedy with a great cast.


Friday, January 27, 2017

Sundance with Abe: Their Finest

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I’ll be seeing as many movies as I can and offering reviews throughout the week.

Their Finest
Directed by Lone Scherfig

Propaganda is usually a bad word. The Nazis, in particular, were well known for their effective usage of this tool, and other totalitarian nations today keep their populace at bay by circulating false or incorrectly-framed material designed to glorify the government and vilify an enemy. Propaganda, can, however, be a positive thing, when used to bolster the attitude and morale of a people at war or in crisis and keep their hopes up for the future.

Catrin (Gemma Arterton) interviews for a secretarial position with the British government during World War II and finds herself hired to write “women's dialogue,” also known as “slop,” for films made to help the war effort, with writer Tom (Sam Claflin). Production soon begins on an outlandish retelling of a heroic rescue mission Catrin hears about, starring a vain veteran British actor (Bill Nighy) and a hapless American soldier (Jake Lacy), and her own embellishment of the truth is far from its most exaggerated part.

"Their Finest" comes from director Lone Scherfig, whose first major film, "An Education," was a huge hit at Sundance eight years ago. Scherfig knows how to tell female-centric stories well, and here she positions Catrin as an independent woman who takes a job to support her struggling artist husband (Jack Huston) but keeps it because she values her work. The times are against her, as she is explicitly told that they "can't pay her as much as the chaps, of course," and she must continually fight to be taken seriously.

This film could well be termed a comedy because of the lighthearted - and absurd - nature of the film-within-a-film that is being made. Yet there is a backdrop of war and constant uncertainty, as the ground begins to shake and everything can change in an instant. This film succeeds best when it features its more comic elements, like the hilarious Nighy, and in its portrayal of the banter-driven relationship between Catrin and Tom. Its 130-minute runtime is a bit on the long side, and it's possible that not every scene in the film was vital to its story. As a portrayal of a strong-willed woman determined to be heard, however, this is another fine showcase for Scherfig.


Sundance with Abe: Band Aid

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I’ll be seeing as many movies as I can and offering reviews throughout the week.

Band Aid
Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones
U.S. Dramatic Competition

All couples fight. Those who say they never fight are often looked at as dishonest or delusional, or even worse, unhealthy. Some couples find themselves at each other's throats on a regular basis and present combatively and viciously around other people. Others keep their disagreements more private. It's rare that a couple decides that fighting is inevitable and therefore their only way to move forward to find a creative way to frame their arguments, though it might be a wise recommendation to help those who think they’re constantly miserable to find some relief.

Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) don't consider themselves particularly happy. They are married without children - despite constant questions and pressure from parents - and both are stuck in mind-numbing jobs. Anna drives awful, self-obsessed people around for Uber and Ben designs logos from home without much motivation. Dishes sit undone in their sink since neither party wants to take responsibility for contributing more to the pile. Sick of their incessant yelling, Anna suggests that they should turn all of their fights into songs and start a band.

The film's title is a clever reference to how this kind of temporary solution might be viewed. It's not as if Anna or Ben thinks that this can be the answer to all of their problems, but rather that they can achieve some sort of happiness by finding a fun way to get out their feelings without being truly hurtful. This film might be a comedy with many laughs, but it also has plenty of dramatic insight into what relationships can be like.

Lister-Jones is often the scene-stealer of any project she stars in, and she steps behind the camera to write and direct her first feature, which is a resounding and affirming success. Casting herself in the lead role is a wonderful choice, since her singular sarcastic energy works tremendously for her character, who is similar to others she has played in the past yet has her own distinct personality. Pally plays excellent off her, and the two are clearly having fun as they fight and sing their way through this endearing and entertaining film. Smart supporting choices, like Fred Armisen as their weird neighbor who joins the band and a handful of Lister-Jones’ costars from “Life in Pieces” and “New Girl” in small roles, make this film a very funny winner with some decent music to boot.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sundance with Abe: Where Is Kyra?

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I’ll be seeing as many movies as I can and offering reviews throughout the week.

Where Is Kyra?
Directed by Andrew Dosunmu

Movies that include a question in their title are by nature about transformation or a lack thereof. This film’s title might immediately make audiences think that its protagonist has gone missing, either in a very literal way or a more metaphorical sense. In this case, the latter is truer, as one woman’s attempt to deal with a devastating loss and a realization that she has lost control of her life forces her into a major struggle to cope and come out ahead. Answering this question, however, is far less enticing, as this very lackluster film demonstrates.

Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer) has recently moved to Brooklyn to be with her aging and ailing mother, and has had little luck finding a job after being laid off two years earlier and getting divorced from her husband. Her mother’s death sends her over the edge, and realizing that she has accidentally switched two numbers in her mother’s social security number, she goes to extreme measures to maintain the illusion that her mother is still alive to cash her checks and pay what she can of her mounting bills. A newfound relationship with her neighbor Doug (Kiefer Sutherland) offers some hope, but Kyra can’t seem to dig her way out of the hole in which she’s burrowed herself.

“Where Is Kyra?” is not a happy film. Even when Kyra and Doug flirt and share a brief moment of positive energy, the mood of the movie returns to a melancholy state. Frequent close-ups show the emotion, or more accurately, lack of feeling in Kyra’s face as she faces the world each day. She fearlessly walks into offices and fast-food restaurants to face immediate rejection, yet her presentation, full of forced enthusiasm, doesn’t recommend her as a worthwhile candidate in any environment. Doug presents some notion of stability, but ultimately it’s Kyra driving her own journey headed towards nothing good.

Three-time Oscar nominee has not anchored a film in a number of years, though her work in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrate her excellent ability. Here, however, she’s detached and miserable, which may be what the role calls for but doesn’t really get at the root of her character and what defines her aside from a lack of definition. Sutherland is capable in the nice-guy part he occupies, but this is Pfeiffer’s show more than anything. The tone of the film is bleak and its events just as unenlivening, and it’s hard to find anything of value to latch on to in this plodding film whose ending makes the whole journey feel completely pointless.


Sundance with Abe: Marjorie Prime

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I’ll be seeing as many movies as I can and offering reviews throughout the week.

Marjorie Prime
Directed by Michael Almereyda

Saying goodbye is never easy, especially to an older loved one. It’s likely that most would cherish the opportunity to extend their time with someone they have lost. Technological advances have already helped to lengthen the average life span and cure a number of diseases, but there are surely even more innovative ways to prolong life coming in the future. “Marjorie Prime” imagines one such scenario where holographic versions of deceased people are available to aid their loved ones in coping with their loss, presenting an incredible privilege plagued with ethical questions.

Hamm and Smith star in the film

Marjorie (Lois Smith) is an older woman whose husband Walter died years earlier. She spends her days mostly alone, but has recently found comfort in the form of Walter Prime (Jon Hamm), a projection of her dead husband at a much younger age. Walter Prime asks questions about Walter’s life and Marjorie’s experiences, digesting the details and absorbing her stories as fact. When she suggests something should have been different, he replies that he’ll remember it that way next time. Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins) have conflicting feelings about the existence of Walter Prime and what it means for Marjorie, and both explore their own relationships with this reimagined relic of the past.

Hamm stars in the film

Before a screening of his film at the Sundance Film Festival, director Michael Almereyda shared that people had called the movie a meditation. “It’s not a meditation, it’s a movie,” he joked, adding that the pace is not quick and he did not want audiences to have false expectations. This film features only its four main characters, immersed in deep dialogue with each other about what they’ve been through and, occasionally, what’s coming next. Based on the Pulitzer-nominated play from Jordan Harrison, also starring Smith, this film definitely brings up a lot of quandaries about what keeping someone’s memory alive means if it’s taken very literally. Davis likens it to interrupting the grieving process and halting it permanently at denial.

Me with Hamm and Smith at a roundtable for the film

During a roundtable interview at Sundance, Almereyda, Hamm, and Davis all point to Smith as the driving force of the project. Hamm says that, to play Walter Prime, he did not look at other portrayals of robotic versions of people, but instead tried to be as neutral as possible. He noted that there is ideally an evolution as the prime gathers more information and becomes more effective in his portrayal, and that it is a challenge to do nothing and be interesting. He said that he shaped Walter Prime as a good listener, which was convenient since Smith’s Marjorie was such a good talker.

Davis and Almereyda at a roundtable for the film

Smith, who has been starring in films since the 1970s, hits a career high with this rich, honest performance of a woman who still has her bearings and knows who she is but is also more than happy to indulge the actualized – and romanticized – memory of her late husband. Hamm, Davis, and Robbins play off her portrayal wonderfully to create nuanced characters still trying to get to know themselves. The script is full of stirring dialogue and meditative ideas, brought together in a haunting – and at times surprisingly funny – exploration of what it means to live.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

SAG Winner Predictions: Best Ensemble in a Motion Picture

The competition: Captain Fantastic, Fences, Hidden Figures, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight

For your information: “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight” both have three actors nominated, “Fences” has two, and “Captain Fantastic” and “Hidden Figures” each have one. Since the SAG Awards were first handed out in 1994, there has only been one eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture – “Braveheart” – that wasn’t nominated here, a statistic being used against “La La Land,” which only really has two main cast members. Only one winner of this award – “The Birdcage” – went on not to be nominated for Best Picture, and eleven of the winners took home the Best Picture award.

Who should win: I was blown away by the cast of “Manchester by the Sea” and I think it deserves it. “Captain Fantastic” is a fun inclusion but doesn’t get my vote. “Fences” is also a good choice, as is “Moonlight.”

Who will win: Honestly, it could be “Hidden Figures,” but I think Moonlight might take this as a way of honoring the portrayers of its protagonist that aren’t individually recognized.

SAG Winner Predictions: Best Actress in a Supporting Role

The competition: Viola Davis’ loyal wife (Fences), Naomie Harris’ troubled mother (Moonlight), Nicole Kidman’s devoted mother (Lion), Octavia Spencer’s talented supervisor (Hidden Figures), and Michelle Williams’ devastated ex-wife (Manchester by the Sea).

For your information: This is Davis’ third nomination and Spencer’s second. Both won in 2011 for “The Help.” This is the fourth nomination for Kidman and the third for Davis. Harris is the only first-time nominee. All but Kidman are also recognized as part of their ensembles. The winner of this award has gone on to win the Oscar all but six times since it was first given out in 1994, with 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, and 2007 as the outliers. Only once – in 2000 – was the eventual Oscar winner not nominated by SAG. This year, this list is identical to the corresponding Golden Globe and Oscar list.

Who should win: I like Williams best, though Davis was great too.

Who will win: I don’t see anyone stopping Davis.

SAG Winner Predictions: Best Actor in a Supporting Role

The competition: Mahershala Ali’s father figure (Moonlight), Jeff Bridges’ dogged detective (Hell or High Water), Hugh Grant’s entertainer (Florence Foster Jenkins), Lucas Hedges’ opinionated nephew (Manchester in the Sea), Dev Patel’s transplanted student (Lion).

For your information: This is the fourth nomination for Bridges, who won in 2009 for “Crazy Heart.” This is the second nomination for Patel and the first for the other three. Ali and Hedges are also nominated as part of their film’s ensembles. Nine times since the inception of the SAG Awards, the winner of this award did not go on to win the Oscar. 2012 was the first and only time that the eventual Oscar winner wasn’t even nominated by SAG (Christoph Waltz), and that will only happen this year if Michael Shannon wins. Or, like last year, the winner of this award (Idris Elba), won’t even get nominated for an Oscar.

Who should win: These are all good choices. I’d vote for Hedges with Patel in second place.

Who will win: I think that Ali should have a clear path without a wild card like Taylor-Johnson in the mix.

SAG Winner Predictions: Best Actress in a Leading Role

The competition: Amy Adams’ linguist (Arrival), Emily Blunt’s discombobulated witness (The Girl on the Train), Natalie Portman’s first lady (Jackie), Meryl Streep’s ear-piercing socialite (Florence Foster Jenkins), and Emma Stone’s aspiring actress (La La Land)

For your information: This is the eleventh nomination for Streep, an impressive feat given that the SAG Awards have only existed for twenty-three years. She won once, in 2008, for “Doubt.” This is Adams’ fourth nomination. This is the second nomination for both Portman, who won in 2010 for “Black Swan,” and Stone. Blunt is the only first-time nominee. Interestingly, none of them are nominated as part of their ensembles. The winner of this award has gone on to win the Oscar all but six times since it was first given out in 1994, with 1994, 1999, 2002, 2007, 2008, and 2011 as the outliers. Adams and Blunt both aren’t nominated for the Oscar.

Who should win: I liked Adams, but I’d vote for Stone.

Who will win: I would have thought that Portman was the frontrunner until she won the Golden Globe, so I’ll go with Stone instead.

SAG Winner Predictions: Best Actor in a Leading Role

The competition: Casey Affleck’s antisocial uncle (Manchester by the Sea), Andrew Garfield’s conscientious objector (Hacksaw Ridge), Ryan Gosling’s struggling pianist (La La Land), Viggo Mortensen’s eccentric patriarch (Captain Fantastic), and Denzel Washington’s traditional father (Fences)

For your information: This is the fourth nomination for Washington and the third for Gosling. This marks the second nomination for both Affleck and Mortensen, and the first for Garfield. Interestingly, all but Gosling are also nominated as part of their ensembles (his film doesn’t really have one). The winner of this award has gone on to win the Oscar all but three times since it was first given out in 1994, with 2001-2003 as the only outliers.

Who should win: I’m a big fan of Affleck, but Washington and Gosling were also terrific.

Who will win: I think Affleck takes this along with most other Best Actor prizes this awards season.

Movie with Abe: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train
Directed by Tate Taylor Released October 7, 2016

There are so many movies coming out every week these days that it stands to reason that one or two will have the same name. With all the countries in the world producing films factored in, it’s even more likely. This reviewer strongly remembers the 2010 French film “La Fille du RER,” released in the United States as “The Girl on the Train,” which focused on a non-Jewish young French woman who invented stories of an anti-Semitic attack against her on a train. It’s hard not to compare it with this far more high-profile 2016 film of the same name, and, sadly, this newer film doesn’t hold a candle to the “original.”

The plot isn’t all that different in its origin, though this film is based on a popular novel by Paula Hawkins rather than inspired by true stories of events that took place in France. The crucial similarity here is a young woman who rides a train regularly and whose version of events is highly suspect. The difference is that Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is far less trustworthy to begin with, mainly due to her alcohol addiction and her recent divorce from her husband (Justin Theroux). Two other women, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Haley Bennett), factor heavily into the story as the case of one missing person spirals into something dark, mysterious, and unsettling.

It’s not easy to write a summary of this film, and that’s mostly because it’s a mess. Its plot is confusing at times, but most importantly, the structure of the film doesn’t lend itself well to a narrative. While it is meant to offer some information and purposely withhold other equally important facts and confirmation, the result is disjointed and off-putting. Rachel is at a loss to describe what is going on, and it’s hard to imagine that viewers will be any more up for the task based on the way this film presents its developments.

Blunt is a great actress who has been on the verge of the role that will earn her an Oscar nomination for years. This performance netted her a SAG nomination, and while she does commit to it, it’s not her best work primarily because the character is so uneven and unpredictable. Neither of the other leading ladies manage to steal the film from her, and everyone in the cast – including the usually dependable Theroux and Edgar Ramirez – can’t save a film that doesn’t really offer a compelling case for its existence (sure, people loved the book). This reviewer’s advice is to go back and find the other “The Girl on the Train” instead – it’s a far more fulfilling experience all-around.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Oscar Nominees: Best Picture

My predictions: 8/9, picking “Silence” over “Hacksaw Ridge”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight

I predicted nine nominees and that’s what we got, but my ninth choice got switched out for my tenth. “Silence” managed only a Best Cinematography bid, while “Hacksaw Ridge” earned six nominations, including Best Director. All but “Hacksaw Ridge” snagged a screenplay mention, and, sadly, all but “Arrival” scored at least one acting nomination. Based on what we saw from precursors, this list isn’t at all surprising, and there’s nothing that was doing well enough to be left off; just a question of if anything would surge. My three favorite films of the year (coming soon) are on this list, which isn’t always the case. I’m glad that I’ve seen all of these nominees and look forward to analyzing the race in the other categories in more detail since…

My current bet to win: …it’s all but guaranteed to be La La Land.

Oscar Nominees: Best Director

My predictions: 4/5, picking Martin Scorsese over Mel Gibson
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

So, there wasn’t a big snub. I actually saw this category announced first since I sat down to tune into the nominations announcement a big late, and so I knew what was coming. Scorsese couldn’t make the cut here, and Garth Davis wasn’t a huge snub since it is his first film, and it still managed six nominations, which isn’t bad. Instead we got Gibson, a surprising inclusion in some ways given his past actions, and I just wish I was more enthusiastic about the film, which still wasn’t bad, just not the tightest or most consistent direction or execution I’ve seen. I’m thrilled about the other four nominees, though I do wish David Mackenzie could have been here for “Hell or High Water.” I know that many are excited for Villeneuve to finally be an Oscar nominee, and the other three directed the most highly-acclaimed films of the year and would have been in big trouble if they weren’t here.

My current bet to win: I still think Chazelle takes it.

Oscar Nominees: Best Documentary

My predictions: 3/5, picking “The Eagle Huntress” and “Weiner” over “Fire at Sea” and “I Am Not Your Negro”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Fire at Sea, I Am Not Your Negro, Life Animated, OJ: Made in America, 13th

I did okay here without having seen anything. That’s my next step – I know that I can watch both “Life, Animated” and “13th,” I have to decide how much of “OJ: Made in America” I want to watch, and I need to check back through screening invites to see if I can still catch “Fire at Sea” and “I Am Not Your Negro.” No thoughts otherwise to offer at this point!

My current bet to win: I think 13th might be able to pull it off.

Oscar Nominees: Best Foreign Film

My predictions: 4/5, picking “It’s Only the End of the World” over “Tanna”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Land of Mine (Denmark), A Man Called Ove (Sweden), The Salesman (Iran), Tanna (Australia), Toni Erdmann (Germany)

I did pretty well here, missing only the fifth slot. I’ve seen “Toni Erdmann” (didn’t particularly like it), I’m hoping to see “The Salesman” when I get back from Sundance, and I know that “A Man Called Ove” is out on DVD. “Land of Mine” should be released soon in theaters, and I’m hoping to catch “Tanna” if I can at some point. I hadn’t seen any of the other finalists; it’s just a few of the non-finalists and non-submissions that I was lamenting not being here.

My current bet to win: At this point, I’d say Toni Erdmnan, but I just don’t know without having seen them.

Oscar Nominees: Best Animated Feature

My predictions: 5/5
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, Zootopia

The past two years, there’s been a huge snub here that no one saw coming. Anyone who thought “Finding Dory” still had a strong shot (it was a possibility) hasn’t been paying attention to the awards race. We had our strong three – “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Moana,” and “Zootopia” – and then two other foreign contenders. As I predicted, “My Life as a Zucchini” scored only here and not in Best Foreign Film, and “The Red Turtle,” which I believe is now playing in New York and which I hope to see when I return from Sundance, rounds out the list. I’ve only seen two of these – more thoughts closer to Oscar time!

My current bet to win: It should still be Zootopia.

Oscar Nominees: Best Visual Effects

My predictions: 3/5, picking “Arrival” and “Captain America: A Civil War” over “Deepwater Horizon” and “Doctor Strange”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I did better here than last year, and realizing that it was eligible makes me recognize the second major snub for “Arrival,” though the effects aren’t really what make the movie, which is part of why it’s so good. “Deepwater Horizon” scored one of its two bids here, as did “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a rare animated film to make the cut. “Doctor Strange” and “The Jungle Book” have their only bids in this race, and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” has one other nomination. I still have to see two of these movies, and “Deepwater Horizon” looked mildly interesting when I saw someone watching it on a recent flight. Probably not the best medium to judge a film’s visual effects though…

My current bet to win: After last year’s surprise win, I don’t know. I feel like The Jungle Book could pull it off.

Oscar Nominees: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

My predictions: 0/3
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: A Man Called Ove, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad

Well, this is an embarrassing first. I didn’t guess a single one of these films and haven’t seen any of them. “A Man Called Ove” is contending for Best Foreign Film and the other two find their only nominations here, which is interesting. This category has never had much of a correlation with the rest of the races, but it’s nonetheless pretty interesting. I’ll have to try to see these before Oscar night.

My current bet to win: Who the hell knows now? I’ll predict Suicide Squad for now.

Oscar Nominees: Best Sound Editing

My predictions: 3/5, picking “The Jungle Book” and “Rogue One” over “Deepwater Horizon” and “La La Land”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Arrival, Deepwater Horizon, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Sully

I’m surprised not to see “Rogue One” here and juggernaut “La La Land” in its place, joined by “Arrival” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” which did well in the technical races. “Deepwater Horizon” scored this and a bid for Best Visual Effects, and finally we have the lone nomination for one of the best films of the year – “Sully” – which totally deserved this bid and many others.

My current bet to win: I actually think it might be Sully.

Oscar Nominees: Best Sound

My predictions: 4/5, picking “The Jungle Book” over “13 Hours”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Four of these nominees were expected, marking one of just two bids for “Rogue One” and another nomination for the well-recognized “Arrival,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” and “La La Land.” And then we have a film from out of nowhere – “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” – which I feel like was released years ago and still haven’t seen. Not much to write home about here!

My current bet to win: I think La La Land can win this.

Oscar Nominees: Best Original Song

My predictions: 4/5, missing the song from “Jim: The James Foley Story” in favor of “Drive It Like You Stole It” from “Sing Street”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: “The Empty Chair” (Jim: The James Foley Story), “Audition” (La La Land), “City of Stars” (La La Land), “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana), “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” (Trolls)

I’m so glad that “Audition” got in along with “City of Stars” since I think it’s just as illustrative of its film’s wonderfulness (unpopular opinion these days) as the Golden Globe-winning song. Both animated hits from the Golden Globes – I prefer Justin Timberlake’s feel-good “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” – got in, and to round out the list we have a tune from a documentary that I haven’t yet heard. I look forward to listening to it!

My current bet to win: This should be City of Stars without much of a problem.

Oscar Nominees: Best Original Score

My predictions: 3/5, picking “Hidden Figures” and “Nocturnal Animals” over “Jackie” and “Passengers”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Jackie, La La Land, Lion, Moonlight, Passengers

I got three that were Best Picture frontrunners, all of which are good choices here. I didn't bet on "Jackie," a score I found to be very obnoxious but joins the film's costume designer and star Natalie Portman today. Rounding out the list is one big name, Thomas Newman, with a bid for "Passengers," which also got in for Best Art Direction. I'll have other scores to honor when I make my picks, and I’ll be listening to these whenever I can until then!

My current bet to win: I think La La Land takes this.

Oscar Nominees: Best Film Editing

My predictions: 4/5, picking “Manchester by the Sea” over “Hacksaw Ridge”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, La La Land, Moonlight

Every year for the past few years, there has been some excellent film that doesn’t make the cut here completely out of the blue. Sadly, this year, that’s “Manchester by the Sea,” which is my favorite of the year and definitely belongs here. I’m not so excited about “Hacksaw Ridge,” which made a strong showing with six bids. I’m much happier about the other four nominees, most notably “Hell or High Water,” which I’m ecstatic is here. “Arrival,” “La La Land,” and “Moonlight,” as usual, round out the list.

My current bet to win: I think this will be La La Land but it could be “Moonlight” also.

Oscar Nominees: Best Costume Design

My predictions: 3/5, picking “Hail, Caesar!” and “Hidden Figures” over “Allied” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Allied, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Florence Foster Jenkins, Jackie, La La Land

I didn’t see “Allied” coming and I’ll have to decide whether it’s worth seeing just for this bid. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” also scored in Best Art Direction but missed out on Best Visual Effects. This is the only nomination for “Florence Foster Jenkins” aside from Meryl Streep, and it’s one of three bids for “Jackie.” And add this one, very deservedly, to the nomination haul for “La La Land.”

My current bet to win: I’ll bet on Jackie bumping “La La Land.”

Oscar Nominees: Best Art Direction

My predictions: 2/5, picking only “Arrival” and “La La Land”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Hail Caesar, La La Land, Passengers

I’m not sure what to make of this list, but there are also three nominees here I haven’t seen. I expected “Hail, Caesar!” to show up in Best Costume Design instead, and I underestimated both “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Passengers,” both of which scored two nominations but not for Best Visual Effects. Both “Arrival” and “La La Land” dominated here as well as other categories, and I’m satisfied with my prediction for the latter, which some thought wouldn’t make the cut here.

My current bet to win: I think it will be La La Land.

Oscar Nominees: Best Cinematography

My predictions: 4/5, picking “Hell or High Water” over “Silence”
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Arrival, La La Land, Lion, Moonlight, Silence

This is a carbon copy of the ASC list, representing the one and only nomination for Martin Scorsese’s epic “Silence.” I don’t think this is where I would have recognized it, but I suppose it’s not a bad choice. I was really pulling for “Hell or High Water,” but so much for that. I’m completely on board with the other four nominees, which were all filmed wonderfully to create four of the best cinematic and visual experiences of the year.

My current bet to win: I feel like it could be Silence, but I’m probably crazy.

Oscar Nominees: Best Adapted Screenplay

My predictions: 5/5
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Arrival, Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, Moonlight

This is completely as expected, with five Best Picture nominees in the running. I’m relieved that the ugly “Nocturnal Animals” didn’t show up here, and these are some pretty strong screenplays. No more comments for now – my list might look different, but I’m happy with this one.

My current bet to win: It’s going to be Moonlight.

Oscar Nominees: Best Original Screenplay

My predictions: 5/5
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Hell or High Water, La La Land, The Lobster, Manchester by the Sea, 20th Century Women

What an awesome list! These are some truly superb scripts, and I’m so happy to see that, despite zero other nominations, both “The Lobster” and “20th Century Women” made the cut. I have only good things to say about this field, and I’m thrilled that I got a perfect score here.

My current bet to win: It should be La La Land.

Oscar Nominees: Best Actress in a Supporting Role

My predictions: 5/5
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Nicole Kidman (Lion), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

Well, this category never had too much excitement this year. These five women were pretty much set across the board, with Greta Gerwig and Spencer’s costar Janelle Monae never really drumming up enough enthusiasm to beat any of them. This is a good list, to be sure, and while I think I’m still team Williams, Davis really was great, and any of these would be good choices. My list will definitely look different, but I’m fine with this one for the Oscars.

My current bet to win: It’s going to be Davis.

Oscar Nominees: Best Actor in a Supporting Role

My predictions: 4/5, picking Grant over Shannon
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Dev Patel (Lion), Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

I’m much, much happier here than I was last year. I’m glad that Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t here, balking a statistic about the Globe winner always being nominated, and in his place, we have costar Shannon, who was probably the best thing about that miserable movie. The interesting thing about Shannon is that I think he should have a handful of Oscar nominations under his belt, and I was so sad that he was snubbed last year for “99 Homes.” But I wouldn’t rank “Revolutionary Road” or “Nocturnal Animals,” his two actual bids, as his best performances. I’m surprised not to see Hugh Grant here since Meryl did get nominated, but I wasn’t particularly rooting for him. The other four nominees are all from well-received Best Picture nominees. I’m a big fan of them all, particularly Hedges, who I’m so thrilled to see here.

My current bet to win: With Taylor-Johnson out of the way, expect this to be Ali.

Oscar Nominees: Best Actress in a Leading Role

My predictions: 3/5, picking Adams and Bening over Negga and Streep
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Ruth Negga (Loving), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Emma Stone (La La Land), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

And this is where we have it – this year’s most egregious snub. I realized it as soon as I heard Huppert’s name – which was a moment of joy – since that meant Amy Adams missed out. She’s such a huge part of that movie – it would have been like Matt Damon getting snubbed for “The Martian” last year (director Ridley Scott did), even though the total nods for “Arrival” is actually eight. Hopefully anyone who wins for the movie will acknowledge her profusely. It’s nice to see Negga here even though I would have preferred Annette Bening, but it’s a strong inclusion and a nice acknowledgement of a film that was originally poised to be a major contender across the board. I don’t think we needed Streep here (not saying she’s overrated, just that there were others who were better), and everyone expected Portman and Stone.

My current bet to win: Between Huppert and Stone, I’m not sure, but I’ll go with Stone because of the film’s popularity.

Oscar Nominees: Best Actor in a Leading Role

My predictions: 5/5
My ballot: Come back in February!
The nominees: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic), Denzel Washington (Fences)

Well, no surprises here. Mortensen pulled through all the way from his Globe and SAG nods, though he is the lone representative of his film today. That’s not true of any of the other four, which all scored Best Picture bids and healthy nomination totals. I still can’t understand why Tom Hanks wasn’t ever a serious contender for “Sully,” but oh well. Congratulations to Garfield on his first nomination, even if I think I would have left him off.

My current bet to win: It should be Affleck - nothing about the race has changed.