Matt’s 2015 Oscar Picks

Best-Boyhood

Best Picture: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash 

  • Will Win: Boyhood.  Maybe I’m being overly optimistic that the Academy will choose this over the stale, one-note satire that is Birdman, but I have a feeling Boyhood’s marketing campaign (“It was 12 years in the making,” and “Nostalgia”) will be irresistible to voters.   It also helps that the movie is pretty great too.  
  • Should Win: Boyhood or Selma.  The only winners that would make me visibly upset are Birdman and The Theory of Everything, though.  
  • Left out: My personal favorite movie of last year, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, would never, ever be nominated for Best Picture.  Neither would many of my other favorites, like Only Lovers Left Alive, Abuse of Weakness, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely or John Wick.  However, many of my others could have reasonably been nominated here, including Inherent Vice, Gone Girl and The Immigrant. 

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Gravity

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Gravity
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a supreme technical achievement and a standard, if mostly engaging, story.  When I saw it for the first time, in IMAX and in 3D, I was astounded at the craftsmanship of some scenes but had an underlying “meh” about everything else.  After returning to the movie in theaters again, this time in a standard theater with the standard two dimensions, the flaws only became larger.

As Richard Brody aptly put it in The New Yorker:

Cuarón has done a formidable job of piecing together a plausibly coherent material world of space, of conveying the appearance of that setting and the sensations of the characters who inhabit it. But he has created those sensations generically, with no difference between the subjectivity of his characters and the ostensible appearance to a camera of those phenomena. He offers point-of-view images that are imbued with no actual point of view.

The movie works as well as it does because of the audience’s built-in history with Sandra Bullock, who plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a woman who is having a really bad day trying to get back to Earth after a space station accident.  Bullock carries the movie quite well, and is aided in parts by the effortless charm of George Clooney’s on-screen persona.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terrence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Kyle Chandler

One of the biggest bright spots in this year’s Oscar nominations is the amount of prestige bestowed on a three-hour spectacle of almost non-stop vulgarity.  I have a pretty good feeling that Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is nominated simply because of the pedigree of talent involved.  It is almost as polarizing (and misunderstood) as Shutter Island, which probably would have been nominated had it been released during awards season.

Scorsese, whether or not he likes it, is an Oscar mainstay now, and would likely have to tank in an almost unfathomable way to not get attention from the voters.  The Wolf of Wall Street looks kind of like an Oscar film on the surface, but it’s also everything that they typically dislike:

It’s a comedy.  It’s a black comedy.  It’s not self-serious.  It’s three hours and not about World War II or ancient history.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Captain Phillips

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Captain Phillips
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed

The final scenes in Captain Phillips are some of the most disturbing and haunting of the year.  They also somewhat erase the good guy/bad guy mentality and replace it with raw humanity. (Spoiler ahead) They involve Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) screaming his head off while covered in the blood of recently-killed Somali pirates who were holding him hostage.  It is a raw portrayal of trauma, and it resonates more than anything else in this taut if mostly unsubstantial movie.

Like Gravity, Paul Greengrass’ latest film operates on the built-in history audiences have with its Hollywood star.  Hanks doesn’t disappear into the title character as much as he uses his image to enhance the terror of the situation.  It’s the actor we are meant to see struggle with a pirate raid on his cargo ship while traveling off the African coast.  Those last scenes in particular are crucial reminders of that.

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Our Favorite Movies of 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street movie

1. The Wolf of Wall Street- The funniest film of the year was made by one of the world’s greatest directors, Martin Scorsese, who is now into his 70s and nearing the very end of his career. You wouldn’t know it watching The Wolf of Wall Street, an impossibly energetic riff on the true-life exploits of Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort. The film depicts behavior most would find irrefutably lewd, misogynist, or downright amoral; most of which is played for uproarious laughs. The men in Wolf act out of humanity’s basest impulses; snorting drugs and screwing prostitutes in the office just because they have no one there to tell them “no.” Scorsese, much like the protagonist, never slows down to moralize anything on the screen, keeping the focus on the excessively sexual and drug-fueled life of Belfort and all of his brokers. It is in these outrageous slapstick moments and revolting conversations that the director becomes a sly satirist, allowing us to laugh at and observe this lifestyle from the self-aggrandizing narrator’s point of view. The uniformly great supporting cast, paired with DiCaprio’s career-best performance, carry out exhilarating, even visceral, comedy scenes that keep the film bouncing through its three-hour run-time.  Scorsese’s damning portrait of greed has a well-secured place in the canon of America’s great black comedies.

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2. Spring Breakers- The perverse pleasures of cinema were mined and radicalized in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, an apocalyptic beach party and an unforgettable deconstruction of modern America’s excesses and wastelands. Aesthetically, it mirrors the sex-and-drug infused paradise of an MTV spring break, filmed under bright pink skylines and seedy red nightclubs. Malevolence has always been a way of coping with marginality for Korine’s characters, but for Brit, Candy, Faith and Cotty, it is a way to reach the ultimate high; attaining a transcendent euphoria, not through debauched revelries but through dominance and power. Big Arch and the indelible Alien are the walking, boasting incarnations of this ever-lasting Dream, and the girls’ eventual foray into criminal warfare is all an inevitable part of their quest for insatiable pleasure. As a major release in 2013, Spring Breakers is purposefully indefinable, and so nonplussed reactions from Gen-Y are unsurprising (strangely, our drug-obsessed culture doesn’t seem too interested in art inspired by drugs?). But not working directly as an obvious critique of anything is exactly why the film will endure; by evading a definite “purpose,” it is a piece of art that can be observed from a multitude of angles. If anything, the year’s masterpiece will serve as an important corrective: it’s not style over substance, style is the substance.

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REVIEW: Philomena

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Philomena
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (screenplay), Martin Sixsmith (book)
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark and Mare Winningham

Though Philomena is about a journalist writing a human interest story, it is thankfully absent the easy emotional payoff that such stories are often intended to have.  That reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), hates the idea of writing a fluff piece, but he’s looking to occupy his time after being canned from a job as a government mouthpiece. (Ironically, that involves quite a bit of fluff).

Director Stephen Frears wastes little screen time before thrusting Sixsmith and the movie’s real protagonist, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), together for the article.  Philomena is a cheery old Irish Catholic woman looking to connect with a son that she had out of wedlock.  Her family dropped her off at a convent, where she was held in servitude and only allowed to see her son for one hour a day.  Then, he was sold to an American family for adoption.

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Debatable: Do most moviegoers dislike art movies?

Debatable, one of our newest series piloted earlier this year with a discussion on video-on-the-go, pins CyniCritics contributors together to tackle big picture movie-related topics through back-and-forth dialogue. The latest prompt asks editors if general movie audiences dislike art movies and if so, why.

Matt: I don’t think the “general public” is opposed to art movies in general. It’s mostly about distribution and marketing. The biggest marketing tool for successful art movies is the Academy Awards. However, the taste of Oscar voters leaves out many films that don’t fit into a specific mold or go too far away from narrative convention. That taste then translates to the public, who has limited choice and is more likely to look for stars or be influenced by a memorable trailer.

Luke: I think you bring up an interesting point with the Academy Awards as a marketing tool. There are countless art movies released in the year that find little commercial success until the holiday and awards season. Once the Academy, critics and marketing push a handful of “must-see” films, they start making a lot of money at the theaters because audiences feel these are good films they shouldn’t miss out on. No one would have seen Slumdog Millionaire without the buzz. Nominations and such also translate into good DVD rentals, which explains why Netflix’s top 10 rented movies are mostly Best Picture nominated films. Before then, people just don’t know what is good or don’t know how to find what is good and are too afraid to take a chance. This might explain why it’s easier to go see Mission: Impossible over Hugo. Continue reading