Oscar picks: Animated Shorts

Are those animated shorts, or are you just happy to see me?

What I look for in artful animated shorts is something that appeals to both children and adults — as well as that combined entity: the kid in each of us.

The nominees

Feral (USA). The most abstract / avant-garde of the bunch. With broad brushstrokes, wild boys Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden introduce us to a silvery lad raised among wolves. He gets “rescued” by a shadowy hunter on horseback, who tries to civilize him, sending him to school in laced shoes and cravat tie. We witness that you can take the boy out of the woods but can’t take the woods out of the boy. Not much of a chuckler, but artsy.

Get a Horse! (USA) Get a life, Disney animators! That’s what we need: another homage to Mickey Mouse and the history of Disney animation.  Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim start with a vintage-style black-and-white cartoon reel, and when the villain Peg-Leg Pete knocks our hero “into next week,” out from the screen pops Mickey in full-blown, 3-D color. I’ll admit I found the flipbook section kinda cool (reminded me of “Ragtime”), but I wasn’t enthralled as the characters continued to cross the barriers of time and technology, using a full arsenal of cartoon gags. Gag me.

GAH0

Mr. Hublot (Luxembourg / France). Seems that every year a few “boy and his dog” shorts creep into the list. I thought “Feral” might satisfy that requirement, but had no idea this stop-motion, computerized hybrid by Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares would handsomely fill the bill. In a non-organic world of gizmos and gears, the OCD Mr. Hublot repeats the mechanized motions of his day … then spies a stray robotic dog from his industrial perch, which he invites to disrupt his ordered world. Their eventual bonding and “flowering” make the meat of the story. Beautiful.

Possessions (Japan). Although the two-dimensional, painted animation (not quite anime) is a bit off and the vocalizations are gruff (in Japanese, with subtitles), this folk story adapted by Shuhei Morita stuck with me like a nightmare. A Mr. Fix-It character gets caught in a storm and must take shelter in an abandoned house, where a bunch of junk is stored and “comes to life” to teach him a lesson about materialism. I doubt non-reading or non-transcendent kids would get much out of it, though.

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Loved the scene with the giant-sized cocktail umbrellas. I need a drink!

Room on the Broom (U.K.). As soon as this started, I suspected it was another installment from those “Gruffalo” folks, Max Lang and Jan Lachauer. When the squirrel and snake characters made cameos, I knew. Ho-hum. Set against the neat rhymes like a formulaic picture book  — witch with a cat on a broom encounters  dog, bird, then frog, interacts with each, and all-together-now fight off dragon — it was so predictable that I checked my watch. Good for kids and low-IQ adults.

My pick & prediction: Mr. Hublot

If you are lucky enough to screen the nominees in the over-produced compilation making the rounds in select theaters, you’ll also get also-rans, or “highly commended,” shorts.

My favorite of these was “The Missing Scarf” from Ireland, narrated by George Takei. This spoofs the “Room on the Broom” rhyme-query style to the delight of science fans everywhere. The whimsical French delight about stuffy chickens at Versailles, “A La Francaise,” had me in stitches. From the USA comes one to cure your rainy-day blues: the Pixar-made The Blue Umbrella, a charming love story combining live action and stop-motion animation that reminded me of 1956’s award-winning “The Red Balloon.” (Also, what’s with all of the umbrellas this year?) Would have relished seeing the umbrella one nominated over “Get a Horse!” Topsy-turvy world, this.

 

 

Oscar picks: Supporting Roles

This should be fairly straightforward. Besides my husband thinks I should write shorter posts. How’s this, dear?

Actor in a Supporting Role

It’s a fairly green field.

The nominees

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips). Too green, and too raw.

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle). He seems to be doing the same drill as in his Oscar-nominated role for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook.

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave). Who? Oh him. Steve McQueen’s pet actor. This is the third full-length feature McQueen has directed and Fassbender has starred in all three. Problem is: He’s not Jared Leto.

Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street). I’m rooting for him (this is his second nomination as sidekick). But he’s not Jared Leto enough, either.

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club). BINGO. Works for me.

My prediction & pick: Jared Leto

Here is a glimpse of Leto as the frontman for the band 30 Seconds to Mars. All of their music videos are produced like mini-movies. He is dreamy and, guess what? Apparently not  transgender.

Actress in a supporting role

Three of the five gals are new to the Oscar pool, while this is Julia Roberts’ fourth nomination (she won once for her leading role in “Erin Brockovich”) and Jennifer Lawrence’s third nod (she also won a leading role Oscar, last year for “Silver Linings Playbook”). I’m canceling both veterans out. It’s a race among newbies.

The nominees

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine). She is my one curveball. I like her, I really like her …  I kinda like her better than Cate Blanchett, and I might be crazy enough to pick her. Anyone nominated can win, right? (I have to say I didn’t even realize she was British until I saw she narrated the animated short nominee “Room on the Broom.” That makes her doubly good.)

Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle). Love her work and her acceptance speeches, but not this time, chica.

Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave). Smart money is on her, but no betting.

Julia Roberts (August: Osage County). Could happen. But I like living dangerously, at least in one catty category.

June Squibb (Nebraska). Her performance was a bit cultish. And every time I see her I think of Janet Yellen.

Sally-Hawkins

My pick: Sally Hawkins

My prediction: Lupita Nyong’o

Oscar picks: Best Actor

This year’s Actor in a Leading Role is the hardest category for me. The Academy often gets this one wrong, but thankfully there’s no wrong choice this year. So here goes.

The nominees

Christian Bale (American Hustle). Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout Matthew McConaughey’s transformation, but with Bale, a picture is worth 1,000 pounds. On the right is him with the 40 pounds he gained for American Hustle. At left is him a decade ago, in 2004’s cultish The Machinist.

ChristianBale

This Welsh-born Brit won his first Oscar for 2010’s The Fighter (supporting actor), again unrecognizable. Being a chameleon seems to be the hallmark of a great actor these days. Wasn’t Philip Seymour Hoffman among the best? Such a dichotomy that actors strive to make a name for themselves, while striving to not be recognized. Here is Bale disappearing again into his Bob Dylan persona in I’m Not There  (Bale is also a song-and-dance man from way back):

Unfortunately, we mustn’t award this Oscar based on body of work. He’s flawless, terrific  but the standout moments of Bale’s performance as grifter Irving Rosenfeld are searing and subtle and small, such as when he regrets duping his friend Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Don’t have a clip of that, but here is Bale talking about the role — and other than the accent, his gestures and manner as Bale suddenly seem a LOT like Rosenfeld’s (trailer follows). Not sure he deserves the Oscar on this one against such a superlative field of contenders. Interesting, though, how Amy Adams’ con is being high-class British and Bale’s con with this character is being a crass American. We’ve all been hustled!

Bruce Dern (Nebraska). Folks say this is 77-year-old Dern’s last major role, so there’s the lifetime achievement aspect to consider. He has never won an Oscar, and has received only one previous nomination — for a supporting role in 1978’s Coming Home. Moreover, he admits director Alexander Payne stretched him for this role. He wasn’t simply “doing a Dernsie,” he told Rolling Stone; he was given a character to play and played it well. His walk alone is a revelation.

But is it a stretch? Does that matter? Maybe it’s enough to be cast well and directed well. I hear Ringo singing “All ya gotta do is act naturally.” … Here is a revealing (but long) interview that shows he walks and talks like that in real life, and includes the news that Gene Hackman was also considered for the role. Drat, woulda loved that.

As much as I loved Dern as wandering Woody, I must agree with him that it was Will Forte’s performance (and directing and screenplay and cinematography) that made the movie so great. Still, Academy voters may be feeling soft for papa Dern. (Robert Redford is also 77, and he carried an entire movie himself. Hmmm. For that snub alone, I may have to choose someone else.) I only wish I’d known Laura Dern had a cameo in Nebraska, near the end, before I saw it, reinforcing the family message. Onward.

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street). Oh, Leo, Leo, wherefore art thou, Leo? I’ve always been a sucker for DiCaprio’s work. This is his fourth Oscar nomination and he has never won. What?! A look at his Oscar history:

1993 (66th)
2004 (77th)
ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLEThe Aviator {“Howard Hughes”}
2006 (79th)
ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLEBlood Diamond {“Danny Archer”}

In Wolf, Leo is a beast in that Quaalude scene … this is physical comedy in the vein of Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis. True art: DiCaprio is like a Salvador Dali painting come to life (only the roll down the stairs is a stunt man). And he told Ellen DeGeneres that he and Jonah Hill did 70 takes of the subsequent ham scene. Talk about hams.

I have to admit, the rest of this role was not a huge departure for pretty boy Leo. He did win the Golden Globe for this role, but Americans somehow don’t take him seriously enough. Maybe a comedic turn will do the trick … or maybe we wait until he’s 77.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Every year there’s the newcomer who steals the show. This could be Englishman Ejiofor’s year. I’ve told many people that 12 Years a Slave  struck me more as live theater than film — it was as if they were performing Shakespeare. I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I think Ejiofor’s regal forbearance and sense of dignity for his character is what touched me so deeply. The one languorous shot (above) in which we stare at Ejiofor’s face for a minute or more was as profound as anything I’ve seen on film.

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club). Not only did he wow us as a cowboy with AIDS, he was hilarious as Leo’s creepy mentor in The Wolf of Wall Street.

What’s brilliant about McConaughey as Ron Woodroof is he manages to imply duality in the real-life figure — some claim Woodroof wasn’t homophobic at all, rather a closeted bisexual. McConaughey manages to leave his angry, agonized, opportunistic character open to interpretation.

It was a true labor of love for McConaughey, with no trace of the work involved (except maybe the weight loss, which is work in itself). He gets my vote.

My pick & prediction: Matthew McConaughey

(although some days I think it could go to Ejiofor or Bale. Ask me in a week, ha.)

Oscar picks: Best Picture

Excuse my lapse — life got in the way of movies.

But with less than a week to go (Academy voting closes Feb. 25), I must make my final plugs. Starting with the top.

Best Picture

American Hustle. Heard of “A-List” entertainment? You don’t need me pointing out to you, I’m sure, that for the past two years, the Best Picture winning title started with “A” — i.e. ” Argo,” and “Artist, The.” Coincidence? Or should they simply stop alphabetizing the ballot because, as the list gets longer, voters seemingly can’t get through it?

628x471Since 1929-30’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” 11 “A” movies have taken home Oscar, including this threepeat from 1949-51:

(For those who forget how to alphabetize, the 11 winners do not include 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind” or 1966’s “A Man for All Seasons.”)

Didn’t expect such cutting analysis?

Seriously, you won’t find this anywhere else, and I’m happy to do the legwork for you. Besides “A,” have any idea what other initial letter has won more Best Picture Oscars?

It’s a tie. No, not “T.” (“The” doesn’t count.) And not “S,” silly.

Happens to be “G.” Think “Gone With the Wind” and the Godfathers. If “American Hustle” doesn’t win this year, I think “Grand Budapest Hotel” has a good shot at winning for 2014, based on the trailer alone — which would put “G” in the lead. Unless “Gravity” wins this year, which makes the “G” force supreme.

Gravity-posterSo does “American Hustle” have an “A” advantage? The full list of Oscar Best Picture winners, in alphabetical and backwards chronological order:

A’s

Oh, almost forgot. Should “American Hustle” win? I think if the Best Picture were only about acting, then yes. This flick is a marvelous showcase of A-list actors acting their best. It’s somewhat Argo-ish, reaching into our recent past with a fun Seventies sensibility. The plot is riveting, there’s just enough cleavage and comedy to make it feel all-American. But it’s not my pick.

Captain Phillips. We Americans like our sea crises, no? “Titanic” and “Mutiny on the Bounty” each won Best Picture, and 1972’s “Poseidon Adventure” won five of its 13 nominations. We also love us some Navy SEALs on the silver screen lately: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lone Survivor,” even “Dirty Wars.” Plus, the Maersk Alabama, almost as if on cue, is back in the news with the discovery of two dead former Navy SEALs on board.

Another factor to weigh: Tom Hanks, recently named Forbes’ most trusted celebrity but who was otherwise snubbed this year.

My sister clued me in that this film was also a high-seas adventure in acting for the cast. Hanks and the novice actors playing the Somali pirates (who all hail from Minnesota) had not met before shooting their first scene together, the storming the boat. It wasn’t until after the third take that they started hanging out as colleagues, which created the taut tension and realism. But is realism always what we want from a Best Picture? Not me, so I’m not picking this one.

Dallas Buyers Club. There’s something beautifully transformational here: a rough-hewn, homophobic cowboy is diagnosed with AIDS and ends up playing hero to the gay community. Matthew McConaughey is spellbinding, as is Jared Leto as his transgender business partner. But it was McConaughey’s disappearing act that gave this film such a high profile. The film itself may prove too much of a downer to claim Best Picture in this day and age.

Gravity. Smoke and mirrors. This film will be remembered for its leaps and bounds in cinematic wizardry. But while overcoming all of the creative technological hurdles, somebody forgot about the writing.2001 it is not. I felt more sickening isolation watching the red and yellow astronauts spin into obscurity in that Kubrick classic than watching Sandra Bullock tumble like a quilt in a dryer. I felt more isolation watching the old man eat cereal at the end! Besides, the inside of astronauts’ helmets should not fog up. That just bugs me. When I think of this movie, I think of Bullock’s heaving sighs. And, no, I didn’t see it in 3-D. But I refuse to give an Oscar to a picture that relies on 3-D for quality of experience. Give it the Oscar for Visual Effects, but BestPic? I’m holding out.

Her. As the story of an anti-social writer falling in love with an A.I.-infused operating system, this had great potential as a cautionary tale for the 21st century. But three-quarters of the way through, the story breaks down. For production design, it clicks. And it makes a good parable, or even SNL skit, but can’t carry its weight in Oscar gold.

Nebraska. Now we’re talking form and function. The black-and-white format is your first clue that herein lies an old-style “meaning-of-life” movie. Truly sets it apart from today’s mountain of docudramas ripped from the pages of newspapers and history books. With its brilliant stasis and slow takes, “Nebraska” moves you. As the only official “comedy” in the field of nominees, its message about family sneaks up on you: how roles get reversed with age — the parents who once doled out our sustenance eventually rely on us for wish fulfillment. The characters are created out of thin air and, as odd as they are, we relate whole-heartedly to them.

Philomena. Phew, this is a long list of nominees. No wonder no one gets past the G’s. Did the Roman Catholic Church fail to boycott this film? Could have gotten more attention if it had. The sad story of forced adoptions in Ireland spans continents and decades, and is part buddy flick between dame Judi Dench and a wry, charming British journalist, part indictment of a greedy and sinister church masquerading as charitable, but mostly a testament to a mother’s unflinching faith, hope and love. Not since “Doubt” has so much doubt been cast on religion. Forgive me for not picking this one.

12 Years a Slave. If you’re like me and go to the movies to get stirred up or emotionally pureed, this is your winner. No other film made me cry as much this year — in fact, the only other time I shed any tears during any of the other BestPic Noms was at the end of “Captain Phillips.” Beyond that, “Lone Survivor” —a bloody war movie! — and “Saving Mr. Banks” (manipulated by the Mouse!) were my only tear-jerkers. From its poetic production design to at times nauseating narrative, “12 Years a Slave” hit all my buttons. It’s as if we each time-travel with Solomon, live through the outrageous abuses, and then land back in modern day to realize: Not enough has changed. Those characters and the pestilence of racism persist.This movie deserves every accolade and award it shall receive. And I expect it to sweep the Oscars.

This blurb from Entertainment Weekly”s Hillary Busis sums it up. My sentiments exactly:

Why it should win: Because 12 Years is clearly the most Important movie nominated for the Oscars’ main prize this year; you won’t see any high schools adding, say, Philomena to their curricula. And even beyond its historical significance, McQueen’s film is a phenomenal artistic achievement: On a purely visual level, it’s more striking than any other nominee, save perhaps Gravity. (Good luck getting the time-lapse sequence of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s near-lynching out of your brain.) The acting, too, is top-notch, from the film’s three nominated stars down to its less-lauded bit players (Paul Giamatti’s jovial slave trader, Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam’s snake-oil salesmen, Benedict Cumberbatch’s so-called “good” master). And John Ridley’s script manages to ape 19th-century speech patterns without ever sounding too stilted.

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The Wolf of Wall Street. I’m a Scorsese fan but, honestly, I’m not sure why this one is nominated for Best Picture. The kudos for Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio are well-deserved but quite enough this time ’round, Marty. Poor Leo. I always want him to do well come awards season, but this is another case of my boy crying wolf — he was so convincingly loathsome and lovable that voters are only going to be confused. In another filmmaker’s hands, this film would have been less interesting, sure, but it doesn’t deserve a Best Pic nom and won’t walk away with much — maybe Supporting Actor, if it’s lucky.

My pick & prediction: 12 Years a Slave

Note: I’m going with an alphanumeric pick that, if properly alphabetized, should come before “A.” It’s as good a prognosticator as any. But if I’m wrong, the winner will probably start with an “A” or a “G.”

Oscars picks: Makeup and Hairstyling

Quick and dirty on this category that most of you don’t care about.

The nominees:

♦ Dallas Buyers Club: Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews. Lee also worked on 12 Years a Slave and The Artist (2011’s Best Picture). Dallas Buyers Club was actually shot in New Orleans, not Dallas, and Robin Mathews is a local Nola makeup artist. She did an excellent job making all of the AIDS extras look credible, and Lee’s work on “12 Years” was terrificly horrific, but that one isn’t nominated, sorry. Still, this team has some powerful political influence among industry types, I’m guessing.

♦ Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa: Stephen Prouty convincingly makes Johnny Knoxville look like an 86-year-old prick, extending all the way to his genitalia — not that I would know about that. This was a highly entertaining low-brow romp that I would never have considered watching if not for Oscar marathoning. And precocious 9-year-old Jackson T. Nicoll makes a convincing Honey Boo-Boo in blonde wig and makeup.

♦ The Lone Ranger: Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua-Casny

But an 86-year-old jackass can’t hold a candle to Johnny Depp’s museum-quality Tonto. Holy cow. The makeup artistry in this Disney film goes beyond Tonto’s dreads and warpaint. All of those grizzled outlaws and frontierspeople not only look authentic (was that Smell-o-vision?), they made highly recognizable actors unrecognizable. I had to do a double take with the credits on William Fichtner. Even Tom Wilkinson took me a minute.

My prediction: Dallas Buyers Club

My pick: The Lone Ranger

With a little more than two weeks to go, I’ve seen 26 movies … but still have 17 full-length features on the list left to see. I think only 9 more are possible, because I can’t find the other 10 — not in local theaters, or on Netflix, Amazon and On Demand streaming services. (And I’m not buying any DVDs just to complete my marathon. That’d be crazy.)

Still, not too shabby, given I didn’t start until Feb. 2-ish. My Valentine’s Day movie this year was Her (last year’s was Amour). And if all goes well and I find my proper date (nudge-nudge, Patty Kime), I plan to knock off all of the shorts next weekend.

Charting my progress. How are YOU doing?

  1. American Hustle
  2. Captain Phillips
  3. Dallas Buyers Club
  4. Gravity
  5. Her 
  6. Nebraska
  7. Philomena
  8. 12 Years a Slave √
  9. The Wolf of Wall Street
  10. Blue Jasmine
  11. August: Osage County
  12. The Croods
  13. Despicable Me 2
  14. Ernest & Celestine
  15. Frozen
  16. The Wind Rises
  17. The Grandmaster
  18. Inside Llewyn Davis
  19. Prisoners
  20. The Great Gatsby
  21. The Invisible Woman
  22. The Act of Killing
  23. Cutie and the Boxer
  24. Dirty Wars
  25. The Square
  26. 20 Feet from Stardom
  27. The Broken Circle Breakdown
  28. The Great Beauty
  29. The Hunt
  30. The Missing Picture
  31. Omar
  32. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
  33. The Lone Ranger
  34. The Book Thief
  35. Saving Mr. Banks
  36. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
  37. All Is Lost
  38. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  39. Lone Survivor
  40. Iron Man 3
  41. Star Trek Into Darkness
  42. Before Midnight

Oscar picks: Best Actress

Activate claws. Competition for the Oscar in the Actress in a Leading Role category this year is as fierce as it gets. Frankly, I live for the day when a trans actor gets nominated, forcing the Academy to rethink its gender labels. But onward.

The nominees:

amy-adams-american-hustle-movie-photos_1Amy Adams (“American Hustle”). Of the five actresses nominated, none is a newbie nominee, but only one has never won an Oscar: That’s Amy Adams. This is also the first time her nomination has been for a leading role, vs. supporting. Does this give her an edge in playing the sympathy card? Heaping on more sympathy: Two of her previous nominations came for work she did with Philip Seymour Hoffman, in The Master and Doubt (for which Meryl Streep also was nominated). In light of Hoffman’s untimely death, Adams may indeed be touched by an angel. She also is the only nominated actress featured this year in more than one Best Picture nominee (“Her” being her second).

The Academy likes “fresh faces,” and at 39 Adams is the youngest we’ve got by five years — odds may be in her favor. But let’s take a look at her work (not just her cleavage). Playing a hustler looks doubly attractive on her: She’s the beauty and true brains of the outfit. Her tiptoeing dance between vulnerability and vaVOOM, American social climber vs. British financier, con and conniver is phantasmic. Can she hustle one more win?

Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”). She’s the safe bet, but the Woody Allen-Dylan Farrow scandal could truly (unfairly) taint her chances. Final ballots are due the Tuesday before the awards show on Sunday, March 2.

This is Australian Blanchett’s sixth nomination. Her lone Oscar (supporting actress) came her second time out for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator.” (Hepburn still holds the record for most acting Oscars: four.) Blanchett is the only one among the five nominees to have had two nominations in the same year: 2007, for her leading role as Queen Elizabeth I in the sequel to the film that gave her her first nomination in 1998 … and as Jude in I’m Not There — playing a man, a Bob Dylan doppelganger. She certainly wins the chameleon prize.

I-m-Not-There-1

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.”

Even though critics say she’s channeling Blanche DuBois, Blanchett seems to be the only one of the five nominees who invented an iconic character in the role she’s nominated for — the Rx-addicted, fragile, fractured Jasmine. (Streep was iconic but only in re-creating Violet.) People in the future likely will say “you know, like Blue Jasmine.”

video-undefined-1BA51708000005DC-288_636x358Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”). Bullock has a perfect batting average, having won her first Oscar the first time she was nominated (2009 for The Blind Side). I especially love her non-flightiness, her groundedness; interestingly, she’s the only brunette in the bunch. She carried this whole movie, elevating some of the most banal lines like an aerialist. Of the five nominees, she had the most physically demanding task — she’s the Matthew McConaughey of the bunch, whittling herself down to dancer form to be suspended and manipulated like a puppet and to lie like Pinocchio. Unfortunately, the movie itself eclipses her achievements, and she likely won’t win.

Judi Dench (“Philomena”). This is the dame’s seventh nomination; she also won her second time out. Interestingly, she won for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I (“Shakespeare in Love”), a character she shares with Blanchett — it’s a royal showdown!

shakespearejd3blanchett-as-older-liz

I loved the light that shone through Dench’s Philomena — she delivered grace, piety, forgiveness — all of the values inherent in Christianity playing opposite some pretty unsaintly nuns. Her Philomena was both savvy and a simpleton. I loved how knowing and tolerant of others she was. But I got distracted examining Dench’s upper-lip wrinkles and eye creases and couldn’t always stay with her, preferring to think of her younger self (a rapturous Sophie Kennedy Clark). With all due respect, Dench is the easiest nominee for me to eliminate.

Meryl Streep (“August: Osage County”). Is this the year Streep will tie Hepburn’s record? I think she deserves that and more, plus she’s not getting any younger. This is her 18th nomination, of which she has won three Oscars (Kramer Vs. Kramer, supporting; Sophie’s Choice, leading; The Iron Lady, leading). Like Blanchett and Dench, she first won on her second nomination. Obviously, she killed in this role. Her name is synonymous with star power /acting goddess. I would not be sad at all if she proved victorious.

However, this is a race between Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams. And I think it’s Amy Adams’ year. No justification for that but a gut feeling.

My prediction & pick: Amy Adams

Oscar picks: Cinematography

The nominees:

The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sound). How do you translate Terrence Malick into Chinese? Bingo. Every shot here is painstakingly precious — the super-slow-mo kung fu gang warfare in a downpour is an explosive but choppy opening.  Impressive that the cameras didn’t get waterlogged. This movie does play like an epic poem.  Eventually, though, the effort to make every frame a piece of framable art (or velvet painting, in some cases) gets cumbersome. Cinematography should be the medium, not the entire masterpiece. Solly, Chalrie, too indulgent for my tastes. The trailer deceives you into thinking there is more story there — the movie feels more like a brochure for a martial arts school than a history lesson. Could it be the language barrier?

Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki). Contrast the choppy opening of The Grandmaster with Lubezki’s 12- to 20-minute continuous opening shot (depending on your source). OK, now that’s just showing off. Academy voters are likely to vote for this because the vista of space tickles their fancies — even though it was all done with wires and “mirrors,” i.e. the Light Box that I’m sure you’ve read about. Great invention, this 3-D projection chamber with 4,096 programmable twinkly lights.  I simply can’t vote for robotic cameras and puppetry in this category. For visual effects, sure, hands-down, it wins the Oscar, but give me humans operating a camera any day.

Inside Llewyn Davis  (Bruno Delbonnel).  Now we’re talking cinematography. Delbonnel did Amélie — he has a magic touch. This movie was like a painting, so lyrical … mostly blue hues, with spots of brown marking Llewyn and the cat, little splashes of red opportunities and life flashing by. It’s the kind of film you can watch with the sound off and it will still hold your interest. The cinematography supplies half of its character. Perfection.

Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael).  I’m really torn between the previous nominee and this one, a rare black-and-white entry. Papamichael also shot 2011’s The Descendants — he’s a master at narrative photography. And that’s what he calls it, “photography,” so in that respect I feel the images were a bit static. Sometimes I got the sense I was looking at a storyboard not a finished film. But the black-and-white wasn’t flat at all —it somehow helped bring the bleakness of these folks’ lives to life.  There was one shot that made me disgruntled, though —one weird rack focus moment in which Will Forte and Bruce Dern switch places in their vehicle, and the camera lens changes shape then rights itself — I tsk-tsked that, was it intentional? Made me dizzy. But overall this is a true contender. Stacy Keach! That was Stacy Keach. At 72,  he’s only five years younger than Bruce Dern, but man, he looked 20 years younger.

Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins). I may be the only one who saw this movie showcasing Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo and Viola Davis. I know, right? The cinematography was so suspenseful it pulsated like a horror movie, even though it’s your basic twisty crime detective story —expertly crafted.  Sadly, because no one saw it, it can’t possibly win.

My prediction: “Gravity”

My pick: “Nebraska”

(Ultimately, because these are American awards, Nebraska should win over the foreign-feeling Inside Llewyn Davis — also probably too many words in the title for folks to remember, as this is The Year of One-Word Titles. Nebraska is like an American Gothic, or Wizard of Oz without the color fantasy section … but I wouldn’t be sad if Inside Llewyn Davis took home an Oscar.)

Quiet on the set! for ‘All Is Lost’

One-man and one-woman shows are at home on Broadway and other stages. They’re easy to produce, if not so easy on the actors wielding those 90-minute monologues. But in the movies? One cast member? That’s crazy minimalist for such a dilatant art form.

I won’t officially review All Is Lost — who can top this New York Times treatment, anyway. What he said.

photo (11)

Thar she blows, just one lonely credit drifting by …

The J.C. Chandor-directed movie is not quite The Old Man and the Sea nor Life of Pi — it’s Robert Redford in a boat hell-bent on self-destruction, proving that he who ends up with the most toys does not necessarily win. Still, amid the deep thematic undertow of this telescopic tale, I had to laugh at the end when the single cast credit rolled. Not often does one see that.

It got me thinking: What other movies dare deal in lone-wolf casting?

Certainly not 1958’s The Old Man and the Sea, which starred Spencer Tracy, a feisty marlin and about 12 bit players including Ernest Hemingway himself (cameo as a tourist ) and his fourth wife (and widow), Mary. Tracy did get an Oscar nomination for his sea crusade, which is more than I can say for Our Man Redford, at age 77 snubbed even worse than Tom Hanks was this year. How many more commanding roles dooyaspose Redford has left in him? He even has to sit idly by while Leo’s The Great Gatsby gets … oh, never mind. That remake nabbed only two nominations, for costume design and production design (the original won for costume design). So as Gatsby the Great, Leo got snubbed just as badly as Redford 40 years ago.

Old man indeed. Tracy’s Old Man was also nominated for best color cinematography (in those days the Academy once broke it down into color and black-and-white — so sorry, Nebraska). It clinched a lone Oscar for score, because in a movie with few other frills, music helps provide much of the thrills.

I never would have dialed up the fatalist feature All Is Lost On Demand if it weren’t for its solo Oscar nomination, for sound editing. I’m soooo glad I did, though. If you want to truly understand what sound editing is all about, plunge into this film.

all-is-lost-robert-redford

Redford had five able-bodied stuntmen standing in for him, but he proved he’s still a pretty able body at 77.

There’s hardly any dialogue. What Redford elicits with his sage, rugged face is a thrumming inner monologue.The lapping waves against the boat’s hull. His fidgeting with ropes and jibs. The rustling of plastic bags, sloshing of water, flapping of the sails, grunts and sighs, probably all of it overlaid in post-production to mask Chandor’s direction. Save for the opening voice-over narration, Redford’s voice isn’t heard until 20 minutes in — an SOS call. And then not again until 1:10, a one-word line beginning with “F.” It’s a wordless wonder, masterfully mixed.

The soundtrack, though, is nothing to write home about —a morose Jaws-tinged theme. But that mix. As shipshape as Redford.

What an achievement. A movie dare that defies formula. The Academy is just getting it all wrong lately.

I asked my friend and movie animal Jon Briggs, another man of few words (spoken, anyway), what other movies have featured just one cast member. I hesitate to say it — because he faithfully reads my blog (when I nudge him) — but the man is a genius. How it went down:

Me: “Hey, Jon, can you think of any movies with just one cast member in them besides Robert Redford’s All Is Lost?”

Jon: “You gonna credit me again in your blog?”

Me: “Mebbe.”

Jon (looking ceiling-ward to activate data sensors, eyes flashing, 20 seconds later): “I think there’s Secret Honor, with that one guy I always get mixed up with Philip Seymour Hoffman [because he goes by three names, starts with Philip, has a face]. … Yeah, I think it was just the one guy. But I never saw it.”

Who does that? Remembers details of a film they’ve never seen? But he’s right, it was Philip Baker Hall, doing a “fictional meditation” of Richard Nixon in a 1984 Robert Altman film. How’d I miss that!? It did win one award: the FIPRESCI Prize from the Forum of New Cinema. Hey, isn’t the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences supposed to represent the arts? Where’s the art? Where’s the science?

Jon’s answer for everything: “I vote for The Counselor.” Not nominated.

But now, in the midst of my Oscar-nominated marathon, I am sidetracked to see Secret Honor. The whole 90-minute shebang is on Hulu, courtesy of The Criterion Collection (part of Jon’s bucket list, and why he hasn’t gotten to it yet — it’s down in the S’s).

Or, SPOILER ALERT, if you’d rather just watch the final scene:

(For other posts featuring Jon Briggs, see:)

Oscar’s snub of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ resurrected (mommytongue.com)

Moonlighting at the movies (mommytongue.com)

Goodbye, Mr. Chipmunk: Pick the best rodent flick (mommytongue.com)

When an actor’s true character is revealed

1391380866_philip-seymour-hoffman-greatest-roles_1Character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s currency was storytelling. And yesterday, his untimely death at age 46, in an apparent heroin overdose, was the big story.

My phone on a faraway table glissandoed with the news alert one nanosecond after I hit the button on my latest post about the upcoming Oscars. My mind, bloated with movie scenes, was taking stock of the days I have left to soak up every stellar performance, each gripping tale … each grip and best boy … before the envelopes get unsealed In a month, the judgments served. So my husband helpfully grabbed my phone to bring it to me … and, without further explanation, moaned, “Nooooooooo!” He wouldn’t (couldn’t?) tell me, I had to read it for myself, and then he proceeded to his basement lair to binge on Hoffman movie clips. My daughter’s reaction an hour later, posted on Facebook, was similar: “No no no no no!” which she apparently deleted and edited down (Take 2?) to one, economic “NO!”

Hoffman as Rusty in 1999's "Flawless." A flawless performance, and the first Philip Seymour Hoffman movie I felt I had to own.

Hoffman as Rusty in 1999’s “Flawless.” A flawless performance, and the first Philip Seymour Hoffman movie I felt I had to own.

I’m pretty confident that NO was the whole world’s first reaction; like Whos trapped on this spinny blue-green ball, our collective resistance hurtled us off balance, thrusting through space, aching for something to bang into. Hoffman was one of those actors whose name would prompt the same response from everyone and anyone: “Oh, he’s my favorite!” “I love him!” I never met anyone who did not admire his work, whose body didn’t go limp with respect, recalling him as De Niro’s drag-queen voice teacher, Rusty, in Flawless (my absolute favorite role of his); or as a self-righteous bully in Doubt in which he defended his long-fought reputation; or as scrappy music journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. On and on.

esq-09-exclusive-sundance-portraits-philip-seymour-hoffmanWhat do you suppose went through Hoffman’s mind as he was lying on that bathroom floor fading to black? I am not judging; just morbidly curious. Did he know he was leaving behind legions of mourners? Was he rehearsing some lines in his head? His latest movie role, or how he might explain this away at the hospital or on 60 Minutes? Or was his mind nowhere as he tried to elevate himself above the pain of being human, of knowing and feeling too much? Was that his secret — the key to being a character chameleon?

We all have to die, and the beauty of Hoffman’s life is that he left behind oodles of clips and insights into human character. We all related to him, and now some of this flawless actor’s flaws are exposed. I mourn with the rest of the world.

I couldn’t easily get to sleep last night, though, and it had nothing to do with Hoffman. It was all about that other character, Woody Allen.

bee2d12c-1378-4515-8cbd-ef0d22df2589_AP080518047180_65Also in the news yesterday was the story that Allen’s adopted daughter had finally come forward to relate, in her own words, what life was like growing up around the highly revered film star. I read her letter to The New York Times. It sickened me. As the parent of a sexual abuse victim who spent years bottled up, I found her words somehow rang true.

We’ve learned, again and again, that a celebrity’s stature does not insulate them from horrible character flaws. Flaws?! Sometimes sadistic aberrations.

So while everyone else was combing YouTube for Hoffman clips, I began reviewing Allen’s “genius.” In her open public letter, Dylan Farrow challenged us to name our favorite Woody Allen movie. Suddenly I found I couldn’t even smile watching the ejaculation scene from 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask):

During Allen’s period of alleged perversion, this is the list of works that came out, leading up to the 1992 “trains in the attic” horror story:

1988: Another Woman
1989: New York Stories (segment “Oedipus Wrecks”)
1989: Crimes and Misdemeanors
1989: Somebody or The Rise and Fall of Philosophy (Short) (story “Mr Big”)
1990: Alice
1991: Shadows and Fog
1992: Husbands and Wives

woodyWhile others dissect the scourge of addiction, that seductress that snatched one of the planet’s greatest acting talents before we were ready, I can’t help but plumb the psyche of a mouse of a man, Mr. Big Shot, who perhaps after 22 years thinks he can get away with a heinous crime of nature. I hope there’s some serious detective out there somewhere doing the same.

I know, innocent until proven guilty. But let’s all just take a deep collective breath and try to accept that celebrities — actors — are masters at hiding their true issues. With them, we can be guilty of suspending our disbelief far too long.

And please, stop gaslighting children. She was a child of 7!!! when she first told her story to those around her. And these things always take years to come to light. Innocent until proven sex toys. The emperor is wearing no clothes, and is potentially pummeling the soul of a child in the attic.

I want to scream: NOOOOOOOOOOO! for her.

I don’t mean to defame a comic genius here. But “de-faming” him — stripping him of his position as idol, superstar, mentor, even feminist, Diane Keaton — may shortly prove in order. Then who will be in mourning? What would become of his art?

I’ve always known we must separate the art from the artist. A friend reminds me: “Think of all the terrors and narcissi who’ve created great works.”

But, ugh, what a gruesome Hollywood story in the making. Everything we always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.

Oscar picks: Documentaries

What every documentary filmmaker is born knowing; Real life can be stranger than fiction — and 50 times more horrific, dramatic, tear-jerking, whatever you’re going for in the storytelling. Above all, documentaries can incite a typically passive moviegoer to outrage and action.

Michael Moore, on Oscar night.

Michael Moore, cleans up well for the 2003 Academy Awards. His Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” is a timeless treatise on gun violence.

IMHO, it took Michael Moore, a master documentary maker, to raise the genre to an art form, combining all of the above, plus humor. He also inserts himself into his movies — analogous to a first-person-column approach in a newspaper. Not that documentaries ever aimed to be objective; their hallmark is advancing an agenda, from awareness to anarchy. So judging them on artistic vs. sociopolitical merit can be tricky.

What Moore does is mix the flavor of 60 Minutes and Mission: Impossible into an awesome sauce of smart sass. Maybe the theory is: to get more people to watch documentaries, you must inject them with more mainstream movie technique.

Frankly, I’m seeing the lines blurring both ways. Best Picture nominees are becoming more docudrama-esque. Most of this year’s pool are based on “true stories”(American Hustle is about Abscam; 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street are all derived from memoirs) — history vs. “story” story. Of the remaining three, two are fantastical cautionary tales (Gravity and Her, both sci-fi nightmares that advance only slightly today’s horrors of technology and artificial intelligence to navel-gazing effect). The lone Nebraska is novel in its novel approach. But more on BestPicNoms in a future post.

Even when you’re up on the news and know the story inside and out, the structure of documentaries is delightfully unpredictable, compared with your typical blockbuster. And it’s nearly impossible to correctly guess which one will take home the Oscar.

So here’s a hand. I’ve seen all five of this year’s crackerjack crop of nominees. They are so good, I hesitate to present summaries lest you decide you don’t need to see them.

You need to see these. They will make you smarter.

Four are available for live-streaming on Netflix, with the fifth, 20 Feet From Stardom, coming at a higher premium on Amazon ($3.99 for Amazon Prime members).

The nominees, in alphanumerical order:

20 Feet From Stardom

This slick, music-soaked testament charts the careers of backing vocalists, specifically the black women who supported the careers of artists such as Lou Reed (“… and the colored girls sing doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo …), The Talking Heads, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Elton John, Luther Vandross (the latter two got their starts as backing vocalists, didjaknow?; we learn that Vandross backed Bowie on his soulful hit “Young Americans”). Specifically, we meet Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Tata Vega — if their names ring any bells and, really, they should — that’s the point. It explores why some people “make it” and others never will. A handful are brought back for a reunion recording session.

Note: This is the ONLY nominee that doesn’t depend on subtitles. For that reason, and the star power behind it (Bruce Springsteen kinda narrates), I’m thinking it appeals most to Hollywood and will win.

The Act of Killing

Based on synopsis alone, this one may garner Academy votes. It’s got a great gimmick. The filmmakers found former executioners who spent 1965-66 helping to purge a million “Commies” in Indonesia — thousands at their hands alone. They interview the killers (self-dubbed “gangsters”) in present day, taking them back to the scene of their war crimes and inviting them to tell their stories by re-enacting the brutal slayings. It plays out as a twisted form of therapy for some of them, but void of justice.  As documentaries go, it is too contrived, rambling and poorly edited, for my tastes. If you want to skip one, this is at the bottom of my heap. Which is why I fear it may win.

NOTE: So far, these first two are what I call “hindsight” documentaries. They rely on vintage footage and modern interviews and reunions to make the meat of the movie. The following three all required more “vision” on the part of the filmmakers to capture the story as it unfolded. That quality raises a documentary in my estimation.

Cutie and the Boxer

This is an art-for-art’s-sake film in the vein of Inocente, which won the Oscar for documentary short in 2013. That film followed a homeless Hispanic teenage artist’s journey to being celebrated at her own art show — while gaining self-esteem and independence along the way. “Cutie” refers to the doppelganger of Japanese artist Noriko Shinohara (more like a graphic cartoonist) who came to America at age 19 to pursue her career but got sidetracked after she met and married her mentor, Ushio “Gyu-chan” Shinohara, a Japanese Neo-Dadaist who famously creates paintings by boxing at the canvas. This film is the couple’s reality show, showing their humble suffering while living for art, the warts of marriage and alcoholism (they are separated in age by 22 years and The Boxer is turning 80 as the film starts). It also focuses on their chasm of recognition and satisfaction, as they journey toward their first husband-wife gallery show in hardscrabble NYC. It is Noriko’s story of finding her voice and independence (“I am woman, hear me ROAR”), so for that reason Academy voters, always swayed by feminist themes, may vote for it.

Dirty Wars

Fearless investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill (The Nation) should not only win the Academy Award for this exposé of the repercussions of America’s “War on Terror,” he should win a medal. Using spooky, artsy night-vision effects, gritty black-and-white-and-blue-and-green hues, he follows the country’s collective dawning that a Joint Special Operations Command even exists — a force nicknamed the “American Taliban,” which seems impervious to fact-finding or flak and was ultimately outed with the killing of Osama bin Laden. As one observer puts it: A potent “hammer searching for a nail.” Scahill is the star of the film, with Art-of-War-Zen-like narration, but also in the model of Michael Moore. It is mind-blowingly shot, tautly edited, expansive and gripping. It may also dent your American pride a bit while opening your eyes to why the rest of the world hates us so much.
A MUST-SEE.

The Square

This film serves as your Cliffs notes for the Arab Spring, tracking revolutionaries during the uprising in Egypt’s Tahrir Square from repression under Mubarak to his overthrow to the election of Morsi to repression under him to his overthrow and Egypt’s uncertain future. One young instigator I particularly fell in love with was Ahmed Hassan, an articulate and charismatic kid; another, Magdy, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. And they’re tight friends! Folk singer Ramy Essam’s storyline is particularly wrenching, and the main guy, Khalid Abdallah, is actually Scottish and movie-star-handsome. And there are women featured, too. If the image in your mind when you think of these Cairo demonstrations is macho heathens or the shocking assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan, this movie will change your mind about these masses who are together more enlightened than the bulk of Americans seem to be. Against the backdrop of Dirty Wars, this movie makes Egyptians the most heroic tribe on Earth. But it won’t win, because it is too much like the documentaries shown in school. Still, it could win due to the uprising of Netflix, for which it was produced.

To wrap up:

My prediction: 20 Feet From Stardom

My pick: Dirty Wars