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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REVIEW: Selma

Selma movie

Selma
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson and Oprah Winfrey

Selma, Ava DuVernay’s stirring, forceful chronicle of the campaign for equal voting rights in Alabama, is one of the great political dramas in recent years.  Its greatness lies in its compassionate and nuanced portrayal of that struggle on all levels, from frustrated but determined residents of that Southern town to the activists who flocked there hoping to force a reluctant president to act.

The horrifying scenes of police brutality during Bloody Sunday that were broadcasted on TVs around the world are ferociously recreated here, and informed by the raw, intimate stories of the brave men and women involved in that march.  DuVernay wrests those historical images from the past and creates a totally immersive and shocking sequence here.   The Edmund Pettus Bridge becomes shrouded in a thick cloud of tear gas as police smash, whip and otherwise brutalize the peaceful demonstrators.

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REVIEW: Boyhood

Best-Boyhood

Boyhood
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke

The last shot of Richard Linklater’s 1993 film Dazed and Confused is the open road from the point of view of a high school senior-to-be. He’s one of the dozens of characters weaving in and out of that sprawling recreation of a single Texas day in 1976, maybe even the closest the movie has to a main character.  And like so many other characters in the movie, I remember things about him, and not his name (I had to look up that it was Randall).

I remember how he slings his arm around an incoming freshman and treats him like a little brother, and how that freshman’s wide eyes take everything in as he tries to figure out how to act cool around the big kids. Then there’s the moment where Randall “Pink” Floyd hangs out on a football field drunk and stoned with his friends, enveloped by the stars in the sky. His journey in the movie is deciding whether or not to embrace being labeled a slacker.

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Short Takes: Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Only Lovers Left Alive & More

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Edge of Tomorrow- This Tom Cruise action vehicle, directed by Doug Liman, is an occasionally thrilling summer spectacle.  Cruise plays Cage, a military talking head who is thrust into a world of combat that he isn’t prepared for.  The movie utilizes Normandy invasion imagery to ground its sci-fi trappings.  Cage is a man doomed to repeat the same beach invasion every time he is killed in combat.  He and Rita (a terrific Emily Blunt) are tasked with stopping the aliens from massacring everyone on Earth, restarting their mission every time Cage dies.

Liman keeps Cage’s repeating day varied, but occasionally indulges in redundant beach combat sequences.  The movie doesn’t develop its romance subplot well enough to create a satisfying payoff at the end, but Cruise and Blunt are reliably strong screen presences so it still sort of works.  Grade: C

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REVIEW: The Immigrant

The Immigrant 3

The Immigrant
Directed by: James Gray
Written by: James Gray & Ric Menello
Starring: Marion Coitillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner

The American Dream, that simulacrum of perfection and success, has been scrupulously examined in a number of films released in the past year.  From the party-girl criminals of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers to the celebrity-minded teenagers in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring to Michael Bay’s abhorrent bodybuilders in Pain & Gain, filmmakers, mostly established auteurs, are examining what it means to live in a country essentially founded on an illusory sense of entitlement. Most people living in this country nowadays know (or, at least, should) this isn’t how our (oligarchical, downright cruel) society works, but all anyone can do is try and live a life based on these bygone notions of freedom.

The aforementioned films took this idea to its endpoint, dealing with characters so far off the deep end—jaded from real-world banality—that they will do almost anything to reach an easy existence. James Gray’s new film “The Immigrant” portrays a character yet unaware of the Promised Land’s true nature; the totality of her being rests on a false promise.

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REVIEW: Under the Skin

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Under the Skin
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Walter Campbell (screenplay),  Michel Faber (novel)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson 

In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays a wolf that doesn’t quite know how to wear sheep’s clothing.  She is an alien prowling Glasgow and the surrounding Scottish countryside in a white van, seducing and luring unsuspecting men to their death.

Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, based on Michel Faber’s novel, is a gender inverse on a fairly common horror/thriller premise.  The story is told in long, bleak stretches, the camera accentuating the way the creature attempts to move and act human.  Johansson’s performance is crucial to this strategy.  She nails the way the alien flips an “on” switch to turn a dead-eyed stare into a warm, welcoming woman when she spots prey.  Glazer hints at an eroticism with his camera movement that the actress deliberately pushes away.

The most sexually tinged scenes are the bloodless killings.  ScarJo’s victims, blinded by lust, pursue her into what transforms into a totally black stage.  They each leave a string of clothes as they lurch across it, but the men sink into the floor and become trapped.  The rest of Scotland isn’t much more colorful save for a reliably flashy night club.

Despite the color palette, this is Glazer’s most visually accomplished and altogether thrilling film to date.  When I watched it I had no idea that many of the interactions that the alien has with men were filmed using civilians and a hidden camera.  There is a cool, confident stillness to the images that rejects that often on-the-fly filmmaking aesthetic.  The performances, on the other hand, seem unforced and genuinely spontaneous.

Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell capture the alien predator’s bizarre point of view by making it clear that she is trying to fit in but can’t.  The result is an odd uncanny valley effect that Johansson’s star power only enhances.  This is evidenced in fairly standard alien movie scenes, like when she tries to eat human food and vomits it up, but also in her everyday movement and posture.  Under the Skin would be nothing without her blank yet inquisitive stares.

under-the-skin-scarlett-johaasdnsson

The alien eventually begins to unravel during this vague man-harvesting mission.  In one of the most haunting and moving scenes I’ve seen in recent months, she stops to talk to a very deformed, quiet man on a rainy night.  She treats him as she does any of the other victims, but the script lingers on their interaction more.  She asks him if he gets lonely, then grabs his hand and caresses her face and neck with it.  The man’s darting eyes and nervous, muttered reactions are heartbreaking.

After this interaction, she lets the man leave her den, naked and wondering where he is.  He’s eventually collected and (presumably) killed by one of the undeveloped, motorcycle-riding henchmen who (presumably) clean up after her.  After that she wanders and begins trying more and more human things, including eating, riding the bus and sex.  The movie rejects any notion of redemption or change, though. It bounces humanity and their emotions off its central character instead of forcing her to become one of us.

Grade: B

REVIEW: The Unknown Known

unknown known

The Unknown Known
Directed by: Errol Morris
Starring: Donald Rumsfeld and Errol Morris

The latest Errol Morris documentary, about the political life and times of Donald Rumsfeld, is an intentionally infuriating and vague work.  With the former Secretary of Defense’s onslaught of non-answers, excuses, digressions and nervous smirks, Morris depicts a genuine heart of dishonesty and blithe unawareness.

The Unknown Known is not about a documentarian skewering one of the most notorious figures of the George W. Bush years, which is why I think many will be perplexed at how free Rumsfeld is to run away with many of the questions.  The structure of the documentary almost seems to play with that audience expectation, beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then switching to Rumsfeld’s political career before returning to that post-9/11 time period.

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