Wednesday, August 22, 2012

R.I.P. Tony Scott

Sunday nights are usually a high point of the week for me -- friends, drinks, and bar trivia (more often than not a victory). Not so this past Sunday. We had just wrapped up a second place finish when I found out that director Tony Scott had killed himself. Any sense of revelry immediately fled. I leaned back in my chair and let out a heavy sigh. What the fuck.

For those who don't know, Tony Scott was an action movie director. Wait, that's not exactly right -- Tony Scott was *the* action movie director. Simply put, the modern action movie -- love it or hate it -- is what it is because of Tony Scott. Scott's combination of slick, stylized visuals, frenetic camerawork/editing, and elegant action choreography set the template later followed by myriad directors, including Michael Bay, Guy Ritchie, and Oscar winners Quentin Tarantino and Kathryn Bigelow. His fingerprints, while not on any Oscar statues (unless it's an honorary one down the line) are nevertheless on billions of dollars worldwide since he first splashed onto the scene with Top Gun (the best bad movie of all time) in 1986.

But enough of the history lesson. I'm not writing this because he influenced some of my favorite directors, or made billions of dollars, or was indirectly responsible for Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone," a timeless ballad and metaphor for the fragility of human existence. While most of that may be true, I'm writing this because I felt -- and still feel -- a personal connection to some of his movies. He's just an action movie director, I know -- Beverly Hills Cop 2 isn't exactly Schindler's List. But just like certain moments in your life have a soundtrack, some have video cues. And Tony Scott's movies are playing on the walls of my neural networks.

One of the first non-kid's movies I have distinct memories of is Top Gun. I couldn't have been more than 4 or 5, but I definitely remember my parents watching it on VHS at our shitty place on Windsong Dr. in Sedona, AZ. ("Danger Zone" is almost definitely responsible for me remembering this -- see? Timeless.) This leads me to wonder if my mom was a Tony Scott fan, because I remember watching The Last Boy Scout and The Fan for the first time at her place after my parents split up. She was the "cool mom" of divorce story clichés, the one who let us watch rated-R movies. It's very likely I wouldn't be the cinephile I am today if I were only restricted to the PG-13-and-under fare my dad allowed. So, uh, thanks, Mom (and Tony).

But far and away the movie that gets the most synapses firing for me is Man on Fire (probably his best film, right up there with True Romance). I first saw Man on Fire a few hours after my first girlfriend and I broke up for good (and a few years after my mom died). I thought it would be just what I needed -- loud, dumb, and violent -- to help me avoid thinking about the emotional turmoil I was going through, maybe provide an outlet. Man on Fire is loud and violent, yes, but one thing it's not is dumb (and Scott's movies rarely are). In fact, it it's pretty smart, and I found myself relating to the "man on fire" conceit in the theater that night. I saw a little bit of myself in John Creasey (Denzel Washington), a man who'd lost everything and was just sort of adrift in life, drinking his way through life with a burning in his soul. I mean, I was only 20 -- I really thought I had just lost everything.

And I won't lie, I lived like that, like Creasey, for a few years -- drinking, burning, trying to find the bottom in a new city. I eventually did, and, like Creasey, found that the bottom sucks pretty bad, as well as the means to pull myself up again. While I didn't save Dakota Fanning, or have sex with Radha Mitchell in a deleted scene (damn she's fine in that movie), I did finish grad school and eventually become a teacher. I've even shown Man on Fire in a class or two and gotten my students to see beyond the loud and violent parts and see it for the smart movie it really is.

And that's the thing about Tony Scott movies, and why he'll be missed so much as a director -- there was always more to his movies than just gun fights or explosions. You can't say the same for most Hollywood directors (especially not Michael Bay, whom I still love though). His movies had heart -- and I won't pretend mine didn't hurt a little on Sunday night when I first heard the news, and then later on the drive home when all those memories coalesced in my mind and I realized exactly why this celebrity death had me reeling.

Celebrities die all the time, and there's never any shortage of Facebook updates, Tweets, even blog posts when they do. I usually find these "tributes" trite at best, and narcissistic at worst. But sometimes someone whom you've never even met dies, and only then do you realize that they've made an impact on your life. That's what happened on Sunday, and it's taken me until now to put it into the right words. So, Tony, thanks for the movies, the memories, and the indelible connection the two will always have in the auditorium of my mind. Sad to think there will never be more. I hope you're partying with Heath.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

2012... So Far

We're a little past the halfway mark of 2012, and that much closer to the end of the world. So, just in case I don't get to do my usual year end listmania, I figured I'd give y'all the lowdown on my favorite pop culture of 2012 so far (as well as look forward to what I'm... looking forward to). Here goes...

My reading pace has slowed considerably since I started teaching, so I haven't read as much as I'd like. Here's what I've knocked out so far (roughly in order).

Saturday - Ian McEwan (started in 2011)
1Q84 - Haruki Murakami
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
Preludes & Nocturnes - Neil Gaiman (Vol. 1 of The Sandman)
Shakespeare: The World's a Stage - Bill Bryson
You Don't Love Me Yet - Jonathan Lethem
Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
Preacher - Garth Ennis (bulk of the series)

Saturday was gripping, but no Atonement ... I know it has its detractors, but I think 1Q84 is just stunning. So many threads and it *almost* came together perfectly. Just be prepared for a prolonged Act III stall ... The Hunger Games is the most overrated pop culture phenomenon since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which is far better, both book and movies). The book reads like an outline for a longer, better book ... Issue 6 of The Sandman -- 24 Hours -- is the single greatest comic book I've ever read ... Bryson is effortlessly readable on just about any subject ... You Don't Love Me Yet is minor Lethem -- there are a few great passages though ... Of Mice and Men: never read before, but wow ... Preacher is flawed, but fun.

Looking Forward To:
Honestly, with four fall classes, I doubt I'm going to get much reading done. I'll mostly be focused on my Banned Books class. Here's the reading list I assigned:

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
Preludes & Nocturnes - Neil Gaiman (Vol. 1 of The Sandman)
The Language Police - Diane Ravitch (currently reading)
Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut

It's actually been a pretty strong year for music. I had to cull this list down from about 20 albums.

10. Bear Creek - Brandi Carlile
9. Women & Work - Lucero
8. Arrow - Heartless Bastards
7. Celebration Rock - Japandroids
6. Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
5. Comet - The Bouncing Souls
4. Handwritten - The Gaslight Anthem
3. Rize of the Fenix - Tenacious D
2. Gossamer - Passion Pit
1. Synthetica - Metric

Carlile's record blends dirges and ditties, all held together by her haunting voice ... A disappointing Lucero record barely hangs onto a top 10 spot ... Heartless Bastards do their best Led Zeppelin III, which is pretty darn good ... Japandroid's album is aptly named -- whoa-oh-ohs over a big slab of rock 'n' roll ... Frank Ocean could easily rise a spot or three before the year is out ... The new Souls record is lean and mean -- and also, typically, a damn good time ... Although a bit samey, Handwritten has all the care and craftsmanship the name implies ... I was as surprised as you are, but the new D record ROCKS ... Passion Pit has obviously never heard of a sophomore slump (which I was more than half expecting) ... Good luck to ALL OF MUSIC in dethroning Metric -- a perfect sequel to Fantasies, one of my favorites of the last decade.

Here's a playlist of my favorite jams from 2012 so far. Maybe I'll find some time to put it on Spotify or something. Maybe. (Roughly in order of release date -- also fits onto a CDR... handy!)

"Cut You" - Cloud Nothings
"Skin and Bone" - Heartless Bastards
"Paddling Out" - Miike Snow
"Closer Than This" - St. Lucia
"Take the Heartland" - Glen Hansard
"Like Lightning" - Lucero
"Lost & Found" - Eve 6
"Roadie" - Tenacious D
"The House that Heaven Built" - Japandroids
"45" - Gaslight Anthem
"Take a Walk" - Passion Pit
"Yesterday (Circa Summer '80 Something)" - Cory Branan
"Friends of Friends" - Hospitality
"Rise Again" - Brandi Carlile
"Dead" - Jukebox the Ghost
"In Sleep" - The Bouncing Souls
"Flowers in Your Hair" - The Lumineers
"Timelines" - Motion City Soundtrack
"Breathing Underwater" - Metric
"Sweet Life" - Frank Ocean

Looking Forward To:
Infinity Overhead - Minus the Bear
Coexist - The xx
The Sound of the Life of the Mind - Ben Folds Five
New Kanye/Jay-Z/GOOD Music/whatever
Lightning - Matt and Kim
New Tegan and Sara

It's been a pretty good year for pretty good movies. There have been a lot of strong genre entries, but no real memorable Films (capitalization intentional), at least that I've seen (which is not a ton). We'll see what Oscar season brings.

10. Haywire
9. Savages
8. Moonrise Kingdom
7. Magic Mike
6. The Dark Knight Rises
5. Prometheus
4. 21 Jump Street
3. The Avengers
2. The Cabin in the Woods
1. The Grey

Haywire has all of Soderbergh's style, and very little of his usual substance (which sounds like a jizz joke) ... Savages is an orgy of style and just enough substance, flawed ending aside ... Wes Anderson is a one-trick pony -- but it's a pretty good trick ... Remember the thing about substance? Magic Mike has it (rimshot), and style to boot ... [avoiding Aurora joke] Rises is the weakest of the trilogy, but still damn good ... Prometheus is probably the most polarizing film of the year so far -- I admire it for its ambition and wonder what could have been without the obvious flaws ... 21 Jump Street is perhaps the funniest mainstream comedy of the last 5 years ... The Avengers -- comic-book spectacle done right ... My husband's bulge for Cabin in the Woods hasn't gone away yet ... Totally not kidding, The Grey is the best movie of the year so far -- who knew Joe Carnahan could pull off an existentialist thriller? Also, NEESON FIGHTS WOLVES.

Looking Forward To:
The Master
Cloud Atlas
Silent Hill: Revelation
The Man with the Iron Fists
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Djando Unchained

Lots of good stuff to look forward to until the end of the year... whether it's December 21 or 31. Let's just put it this way -- if I don't get to see Django Unchained because of some stupid Mayan Calendar, I'm going to be pissed. Maybe I should find a sneak preview just to cover my bases. Anyway, hopefully I'll be able to check in with a movie review or random babbling here and there before the end of the year lists. Until then...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Review: Lockout

Lockout (2012)
Directed by: James Mather and Stephen St. Leger
Written by: Luc Besson, Mather, St. Leger
Starring: Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare, Lennie James

Lockout is exactly the kind of high-concept ridiculousness that we've come to expect from French action maestro (fun with languages!) Luc Besson: It's the year 2079, the United States is still a thing, and the President's daughter is being held hostage aboard a... wait for it... prison... in SPACE! And here we have the film's first (and perhaps most fatal) flaw (and there are many): the title. Why not just call the thing SPACE PRISON (caps necessary) and be done with it? Lockout implies a dark and gritty film (this is neither); SPACE PRISON implies ludicrous fun (which this definitely is). In terms of Besson, this is more Fifth Element than Léon.

In the Bruce Willis role this time around is Guy "Not Val Kilmer" Pearce. His character -- Snow (yup) -- amalgamates Willis' hard-luck loutishness and Brad Pitt's rakish 2nd-best, with just a pinch of Snake Plissken thrown in. Snow is the guy tasked with saving the aforementioned First Daughter (there's also something about a briefcase -- possibly the laziest MacGuffin in cinema history). Thankfully, he has quite a bit of fun with the cliched "only man for the job" role -- Snow flits from frying pan to (SPACE!) fire with the kind of maniacal glee that Besson (cowriter and producer here) usually saves for his villains. He takes the buckshot approach to one-liners, and a good number of them hit. He also establishes an easy rapport with co-star Maggie Grace (not terrible, which is the equivalent of Oscar-worthy considering the caliber of supporting talent) and generally does his best to elevate obviously weak material.

Shoehorned into the usual Gary Oldman villain role is a strangely restrained Peter Stormare. If there was ever a movie to unleash Stormare's Oldman-esque psychopathy (does anyone else remember his performance in an otherwise-awful The Brothers Grimm?) SPACE PRISON (er, Lockout) is it. Instead, he is confined to a role that's more Commissioner Gordon than Zorg as the somewhat shady head of the Secret Service. He meanders from scene to expository scene, rarely even so much as emoting or changing the tone of his voice. "That Guy" All-Star Lennie James is serviceable as Snow's confidante, and the two blokes who play the film's (randomly) Scottish (or Irish?) villains seem to be having a good time, but but didn't seem to get the memo that this wasn't a direct-to-DVD job.

Worse still are the rogue's gallery of stiffs that play the bit parts -- random prisoners, scientists, Secret Service agents, even the role of the President himself (one of the worst moments of acting I can ever recall seeing is when the President finds out his daughter is being held hostage -- the movie might be worth seeing just for that little chestnut). I know the film only had a $20 million budget and was filmed in Serbia, but come on. The budget deficiencies are even more apparent in the CGI (not even worth talking about, although you have to commend the effects editors for doing all they could with Microsoft Paint -- an early motorcycle chase scene stands out as especially cheesy).

Speaking of budgets, whoever built the space prison clearly cut corners (let's just say it clearly wasn't Japanese or German). Radiation leaks inconveniently pop up to thwart our heroes, guns are easily snuck past security checkpoints, there is a minor problem with its orbit may or may not send the whole thing crashing into the Eastern Seaboard, and, oh yeah, THERE IS A BUTTON THAT RELEASES EVERY SINGLE PRISONER AT THE SAME TIME. Why would anyone design that button, ever? (The far superior The Cabin in the Woods suffers from a similar... wait, the exact same, issue, so even supposed "smart" filmmakers like Joss Whedon are not immune from moronic movie tropes).

In short, Lockout (aka SPACE PRISON) is a profoundly stupid movie (wait until you see how Snow and the First Daughter escape said space prison), but not one without its charms, and one that I will definitely be buying on DVD (but only as soon as the local used record store has it for, say, five or six bucks, tops). This is not one of Besson's finer efforts -- some blame can definitely be placed on the writing, but much of it lies in the microscopic budget (and I'm assuming a good chunk of it went toward whiskey for Stormare) and uneven directing -- this is Mather and St. Leger's debut feature. While much of the entertainment value in Lockout may be unintentional, you could do much worse on a lazy Friday night with a six-pack of beer.

Rating: **1/2 (out of five)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: 21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street (2012)
Directed by: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Written by: Michael Bacall
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle

Early on in this "adaptation" of the late-80s cop show 21 Jump Street, the Metropolitan City police chief makes sure to mention the inherent hackery of "reviving" old ideas. This sort of meta-"wink, wink" -- both the name of the city and the tacit admission of guilt by the filmmakers (Lord and Miller, of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fame) -- is exactly what sets this version of 21 Jump Street apart from most hackneyed adaptations... and indeed most mainstream comedies of today. I certainly wouldn't have thought it going in, but 21 Jump Street is a whip-smart laugh-fest that isn't afraid to kick you in the balls, even as it winks knowingly.

It doesn't take 21 Jump Street long to start turning expectations on their head (all the better to to do the presumed beer bong). After the obligatory chunk of backstory and the training montage, the nerdy Schmidt (Hill) and ex-jock Jenko (Tatum), through a series of moronic events, wind up at 21 Jump Street, the headquarters for the whole "cops undercover in high school" unit that is the crux of the TV show and the reason for this adaptation. A (telegraphed) mix-up in the principal's office leads to their identities being switched. Suddenly, it is Schmidt who has to fit in with the popular kids, while Jenko is relegated to nerd duty.

Only it turns out that both of them are more suited to the task than they'd have thought -- which is where the movie really gets interesting. Nowadays, to Jenko's chagrin, the popular kids are multiracial (and sexual), tolerant, vegan, drama kids. In short: nerds. Gone are the traditional letterman jacket-adorned beefcake bullies. Schmidt, who wound up on the wrong end of that equation too many times in high school (usually, it is intimated, at the hands of Jenko), is overjoyed at the chance to be popular, while Jenko, now the outcast, is forced to bond with the science nerds (who are still outcasts here -- some things never change). This puts the now-buddy-buddy Schmidt and Jenko's partnership to the test as they try to get to the bottom (well, top) of a high school drug ring.

But before you can really say, "Hey, that's clever!" the movie begins an almost wearying (in a good way) assault of gross-out and physical comedy. With talent like Hill, Riggle, and bit player Chris Parnell, it is only to be expected. The movie's first (of many) truly gut-busting moments is when the duo are forced to try the new designer drug they are supposed to be investigating. The resulting trip takes them on a (magical mystery) tour of all the school cliques -- drama, band, track, science, etc., with the filmmakers mining as much humor out of the identity switch as they can. All the high school movie clichés are utilized as the movie progresses -- boy meets girl, a house party (another highlight), and, of course, prom -- but the distance provided by the main conceit allows for a fresh perspective, saving the film from the sand trap of worn out tropes.

The movie also riffs on the buddy cop genre -- jokes abound about car chases, explosions, and shootouts, while Ice Cube is a walking, yelling, self-aware stock character as the duo's angry black Captain (it's also great to see him out of the dreaded Murphy Territory). Viewers with a keen eye will also be rewarded with a variety of gags about the generic-ness of the setting (see the Metropolitan City mention above), as well as a number of references to the original series (aside from the one obvious one). All in all, this is a much more intelligent adaptation than the franchise probably deserves -- Hill (who co-wrote the story), Bacall, Lord, and Miller clearly put a lot of care into this. What could have been a one-note parody or dumb action-comedy is instead a slick, clever, self-aware nugget of pop culture gold. It leaves me wishing more filmmakers would give this sort of treatment to the rip-offs and hack-jobs Hollywood seems intent on shoving down our throats. Fortunately (although it is probably just a final poke at movie tropes), a sequel is hinted at just before the credits. If it's real, I'd be the first one in line for 21 Jump Street: The College Years.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of five)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: Rampart

Rampart (2011)
Directed by: Oren Moverman
Written by: James Ellroy and James Ellroy
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ice Cube, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi

Rampart marks Woody Harrelson's second collaboration with writer/director Oren Moverman, after 2009's The Messenger. The first go-round resulted in Oscar nominations for both (Supporting Actor for Harrelson, Original Screenplay for Moverman). This time, Harrelson and Moverman change uniforms -- instead of the Army, they explore the 1990s LAPD corruption scandal (with the help of L.A. milieu king James Ellroy, cowriter). While Rampart is not as successful -- it is a more uneven, less affecting ride as a whole -- it is also a vehicle for what is possibly Harrelson's finest performance to date. As LAPD (and Vietnam) veteran "Date Rape" Dave Brown, Harrelson is coolly evil, a self-aware sociopath in navy and Aviators.

Appearing in every scene -- indeed, nearly every frame -- Harrelson needs to be magnetic, and is. There is a certain manic glee to his performance, even as he spouts racist and misogynist vitriol -- Harrelson's irrepressible charm tempers Brown's acute misanthropy. There is also a certain frightening intelligence to Brown -- some of the film's most harrowing scenes don't take place in dark Los Angeles alleys or seedy sex clubs (although the film does go both places), but in LAPD conference rooms. Brown drops SAT words and legal jargon just as easily -- and just as convincingly -- as he does four-letter words and epithets. The scariest thing about Dave Brown -- and all cops, really, as the generic name seems to suggest -- is that he knows he can get away with anything if he hides behind the right precedent or procedure.

And Brown gets away with a lot. All the corrupt cop clichés are here -- drinking on the job, doing drugs, beating down (and worse) anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way. This might have well been called Bad Lieutenant: Los Angeles. No, Rampart does not break any new ground in the corrupt cop genre, but it walks a fine line that not many other entries in the genre have. Rampart neither completely demonizes nor completely humanizes Dave Brown. The film neither endorses nor condemns him. He uses his back story about killing a serial date rapist to get laid at a bar. He guns down a robbery victim only to give some of the money to the robber (before taking the rest for himself). Dave Brown may be a violent, racist sociopath, yes, but he's a violent, racist sociopath with a heart of... well, let's just say he has a heart. Probably.

This is evidenced by the scenes with his family. As an example of the film's unevenness, Brown lives with his two ex-wives, as well as one daughter from each -- one a nascent teenage lesbian, the other not yet old enough to hate him. The pseudo-polygamy is never explained, nor does it seem particularly important. Regardless, Harrelson gives Brown something approaching vulnerability when around his family. When soundly harangued by the younger of his ex-wives, he walks away, wordlessly and expressionlessly, but obviously devastated. You almost feel sorry for him until you remember everything she said was true. A later scene with his daughters is equally heartbreaking -- not for Brown, but for the daughter that finally realizes she should -- and does -- hate her father. And the father knows it. With such a wide range of emotional tones, Dave Brown is a meaty part, and Harrelson sets into it with fervor.

Rampart is basically a one-man show, and good thing, because most of the supporting performances fall flat. Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche are one-note shrews as Brown's exes, a ragged-looking Robin Wright never seems to fit into the bigger picture as a lawyer who sleeps with Brown, Steve Buscemi is wasted as an LAPD bureaucrat, and Ice Cube is rote as the Internal Affairs officer on Brown's tail (who curiously doesn't show up until the third act). Better are Brie Larson as Brown's conflicted older daughter and Sigourney Weaver, who holds her own going tête-à-tête with Brown, as his superior. Messenger star Ben Foster makes a cameo appearance as a mentally disturbed vet/vagrant as well. All are just butterflies in Brown's hurricane, however.

Nevertheless, Harrelson's performance is strong enough to elevate some of the more trying scenes to respectability. Where the film is at its weakest is in its technical aspects. While Ellroy's script is explosive and moving at times, Moverman's direction fails to reign in its tendencies to spiral into arbitrary tangents (the dueling ex-wives, the sex club) and lurching to uninteresting places (Ned Beatty's doddering gangster and pal of Brown's father). Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski's L.A. is washed out and lifeless (this ain't Michael Mann's L.A.), and the camera moves when it should stay and stays when it should move far too often. There was a time when Harrelson was tabbed as a dark horse Best Actor nominee (interesting that the fifth nomination went to another performance from an L.A. movie -- Demián Bichir in A Better Life). He obviously didn't get the nomination, although you can easily make the case that the blame lies elsewhere. This is Harrelson's show, yes, but he doesn't have a whole lot of help.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of five)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oscars 2012: The Best of the Rest

The Tree of Life - Emmanuel Lubezki
You don't have to like the movie to appreciate the beauty of its photography -- a true achievement. The Artist and Hugo are contenders here as well. 

The Artist - Anne-Sophia Bion, Michel Hazanavicius
I'd go for Hugo or Dragon Tattoo, but Artist won the A.C.E. award. Can't imagine the Academy would disagree, especially as they've matched up for at least the last 5 years. 

Hugo - Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo
Seems to be the most likely film to make voters aware that art direction is a thing. It had some truly gorgeous sets (ditto Midnight in Paris). Beware the ever-present Artist love. 

Hugo - Sandy Powell
If Colleen Atwood isn't nominated, go with Sandy Powell. #OscarNerdProTip 

The Iron Lady - Mark Coulier, J. Roy Helland
*Edit* Changing it to The Iron Lady, based on consensus. Whatever, don't really care, both it and Nobbs were pretty blah. Zzzzzzzzzs. 

The Artist - Ludovic Bource
Lock it in. Easiest call of the night.

The Muppets - Bret McKenzie, "Man or Muppet"
Um, did anyone see Rio? I played the shit out of Angry Birds Rio, that's all I know.

War Horse - Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson, Stuart Wilson
Because war films always do well here. And who doesn't love horses?

Drive - Lon Bender, Victor Ray Ennis
Because of pure obstinance. And because the foley was noticeably good.

Hugo - Robert Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman, Alex Henning
Hugo had some of the best 3D yet. (Although I thought Transformers was actually really good as well.) Planet of the Apes: James Franco Edition could be a triumph for the mo-cap crowd though.

Rango - Gore Verbinski
Haven't seen it yet (I *might* be able to get to it before the ceremony -- thanks, Netflix!), hear it's great. I actually quite enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 2. Fuck anything Shrek-related. WTF are the other two.

A Separation - Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
Saw it, thought it was excellent. It certainly seems to be the critical favorite (but critics don't vote). One of the others is apparently a Holocaust movie though, so watch out.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory - Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Celebrities seem to love those West Memphis Three kids. Let's go with that one.

Saving Face - Daniel Junge, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Because I literally just looked up a few predictions and a lot of them said this one. Maybe another crazy lady will try to hijack the acceptance speech again.

A Morning Stroll - Grant Orchard, Sue Goffe
Seen all these and I'm going against my gut here. The flying books one (The Fantastic Flying Books...) seemed to be the most Oscar-y of the bunch, but I picked against my favorite under similar circumstances last year and was wrong, so I'm hoping for a repeat. Plus, this one has a zombie.

Raju - Max Zähle, Stefan Gieren
The rest are more light-hearted, so it'll stand out more in the minds of the voters. Probably.

Extremely Blah and Incredibly Silent: Oscar Predictions

Well, I finally did it -- I managed to see all the major category-nominated films. I make it my mission every year, and this is the year I finally did it. If it's nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay, or any Acting awards, I've seen it. Unfortunately, it felt more like homework this year than any other I can remember -- 2011 was really a bummer of a year for Films. Note the capitalization. While there were a number of excellent genre efforts -- Drive, Contagion, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fast Five (seriously), etc. -- there just wasn't much in the "prestige picture" category. The best of the bunch, by my estimation -- Hugo and Midnight in Paris -- were clearly second-tier efforts by their (first class) directors. Enjoyable, yes, but essential? No. The Academy had a number of chances to nominate some genuinely interesting films -- Take Shelter or Melancholia, for example -- but passed in favor of nostalgia (some call it narcissism -- and no, I don't count The Tree of Life as "interesting"). Sigh. Surely this will prove to be a year to forget -- as seemingly all the major contenders have done, as most are set in -- or look back on -- previous years or eras (or, you know, prominently feature fucking DINOSAURS). Anyway, I have a feeling that this rant isn't anywhere near over, so let's just get on with the predictions. Read on if you dare. My picks are in bold (as if there would be any other reason for bolding one but not the others).

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:
Bérénice Bejo - The Arist
Jessica Chastain - The Help
Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer - Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer - The Help

I'll eschew the usual paragraph ramble for a much easier 'Fun Facts' format:
Fun Fact about Bérénice Bejo: She was Shannyn Sossamon's handmaid in A Knight's Tale, which is one of my favorite movies. Bonus: To type the 'é' character, hit Ctrl + Alt + 0233 on your keyboard.
Fun Fact about Jessica Chastain: She was better in both Take Shelter and The Tree of Life last year.
Fun Fact about Melissa McCarthy: She could very well win this thing. (Neither fun nor factual, I know.)
Fun Fact about Janet McTeer: She has really big boobs, which she displays in Nobbs.
Fun Fact about Octavia Spencer: She will probably win this thing. Feces figures prominently in both hers and McCarthy's performaces. Interesting.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:
Kenneth Branagh - My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill - Moneyball
Nick Nolte - Warrior
Christopher Plummer - Beginners
Max von Sydow - Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

This one figures to be a lock. You can tell by the fact that I italicized "figures" that it's not quite a lock (and there I go with the italicizing again). Branagh can be dismissed as a "tip of the cap to the veteran" nomination, Hill can be dismissed because he was -- sorry, but not really -- not that great, and Nolte, while certainly deserving (just saw Warrior a couple nights ago and DAMN was it great) and old, he can't quite touch the dueling octogenarians, von Sydow and Plummer. Von Sydow, a contender, make no mistake, was clearly the best part of a flawed, flawed film, and gets extra points for being in The Seventh Seal, but Plummer has simply won too many precursors for him not to take home the statue (plus von Sydow stole Albert Brooks' nomination for Drive... grr). Plummer was revelatory in one of the year's best -- and most underrated -- films, and will give Billy Crystal reason to make a Viagra joke. Veterans getting their due and boner jokes are two of my favorite things, so let's hear it for Plummer (who was, by the way, awesome in, and not nominated for, The Insider back in 1999).

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
Glenn Close - Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis - The Help
Rooney Mara - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep - The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams - My Week with Marilyn

This is a touchy category. Everyone seems to be in a tizzy (which actually sounds kind of fun) about the fact that Davis played A MAID. People (and by that I mean less than reputable journalists and bloggers) are crying "Racism!" and "Typecasting!" Whatever. She was the emotional pillar of an otherwise forgettable (and surely exploitative) "message" drama. She treated The Help like it was the heavyweight drama it could've been, not the lightweight Oprah episode it turned out to be (which is a good thing, if that wasn't clear). I think her closest competition is Close, what with all the makeup and genderbending and whatnot (and who could be a tempting choice for some voters). Streep misses out because a) Her film was an absolute snoozefest and, b) She so clearly undershot her own talent, doing an impression rather than acting for most of the film. Mara was great but has to wait her turn (in the parlance of awards season). Finally, Williams was wasted in an absolute trifle of a film. One of my least favorite movies of the year. I wanted to punch the lead in his smug face the entire time. Anyway, it would be a sizable upset if Davis didn't win.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Demáin Bichir - A Better Life
George Clooney - The Descendants
Jean Dujardin - The Artist
Gary Oldman - Tinker Tailor Solider Spy
Brad Pitt - Moneyball

I'll start with this:  The two best performances of the lot were Bichir's and Oldman's. But, because of their subtly, they have no shot. I'm a bit surprised to see two such finely-tuned performances nominated, actually. Normally, a more "showy" performance, like Michael Fassbender's (literally) would have made the cut (not that I'd have had any problem with that, as he was *very* good -- also, circumcision joke). But good on the Academy for nominating the world-weary Bichir and the restrained (for a change) Oldman. Moving on, there is some general competition here for the first time since 2008 (when Sean Penn wrongfully beat out Mickey Rourke). It's tough to choose between the distinguished triumvirate of Clooney, Dujardin, and Pitt. All have their pros and cons. Clooney has been raking in precursors, but his performance relies on the twin crutches of voiceover and wife-in-a-coma; Dujardin is the lead in the presumed Best Picture winner, but may have been upstaged by a Jack Russell Terrier; and Pitt was charming as always, but can a baseball movie win such a big award? I say no (although he'd get my vote). Between Clooney and Dujardin, I think the Academy will go with the Cloon-dogg because of his celebrity and the fact that the film might not win much else but voters will want to reward it where they can. The Artist will get its trophies. A Dujardin win is *very much* a possibility though...

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published:
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash - The Descendants
John Logan - Hugo
George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willmon - The Ides of March
Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin - Moneyball
Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Another tricksy category. Let's toss out March -- hey, they had to have five nominees (this is hardly Best Original Song), right? Hugo can go as well -- the Academy will surely shower it with technical gold -- it won't win here (also, pretty sure I just made a golden shower joke). I think Tinker's script is a real nocturnal equine though -- what happens if the two top contenders split the vote? Assuming that doesn't happen, it's between Descendants and Moneyball. I'll use the same logic as above -- Moneyball got a lot of nominations (6 of 'em, good for third-most) and figures to get a win somewhere. Plus, there's a lot of star power among those nominees. I thought that while Payne et al.'s script was strong (and, as stated before, it would be awesome to see Dean Pelton give an acceptance speech), it relied too much on voiceover in the first 30 minutes (maybe I've taken too many screenwriting classes). It could go either way, but I'm putting my (hypothetical) money on Moneyball.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumulo - Bridesmaids
J.C. Chandor - Margin Call
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
Asghar Farhadi - A Separation

This is always my favorite category -- AMPAS takes more chances here than anywhere else. We've got not one but *two* wild cards this year -- Margin Call and A Separation. Both were great -- multi-layered and uncompromising -- but all the old white dudes in the Academy probably won't be voting for scripts that make Wall Street look bad or are written by Middle Easterners. A Bridesmaids win would be a nice story, but the problem is that it's not entirely deserving (of a win, not the nomination). That leaves Hazanavicius and Allen facing off. I'll stick to the formula -- Paris has 4 nominations, and this is probably the best place to give it a win. Plus, you know, it had dialogue and whatnot. Maybe this is just me holding out against what very well could be an Artist sweep, but I don't think it will win as many trophies as most seem to think.

Best Achievement in Directing:
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne - The Descendants
Martin Scorsese - Hugo

Here's where the Artist love starts (or, rather, where it will begin to crest toward the end of the broadcast). I think (well, hope) it misses out on some of the other awards it's projected to win, but winds up taking the top two prizes. I just don't see it for any of the other nominees. Payne's the "Hi, happy to (finally) be here" guy. Allen is the "Screenplay is enough" guy. Malick is the "My 'art' does not need your validation" guy. And Scorsese is the "I'd be an honor, but..." guy. As in, but... it's clearly The Artist's year. Hazanavicius certainly deserves some recognition for the gumption to make a contemporary silent movie (especially interesting is that it comes on the heels of a movie about talking -- The King's Speech -- and a movie with a *lot* of talking -- The Social Network). I'm actually fine with him winning -- I just can't get that excited about the other nominees. A Scorsese win for his foray into 3D and kid's movies would be a delightful surprise, but I won't be able to muster anything but mild disappointment if/when he loses. About the only nominee that'd get a reaction out of me (other than surprise for Allen or Payne) would be Malick. I didn't like the film, to be sure, but it would certainly be deserving for the scale and visual supremacy of his direction, and a welcome "change of pace" nod form the Academy. But... it's gonna be Hazanavicius.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:
The Artist 
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close 

Midnight in Paris 

The Help
War Horse
The Tree of Life

A few things:  The Artist is going to win. I didn't think the film was all that great. I can't even bring myself to get that mad about it (a stark contrast to last year). There's just not a lot to get excited about here. The Help and Extremely Loud are both melodramatic and exploitative; Moneyball and War Horse are less than the sum of their parts; Tree of Life is an artistic triumph and a narrative disaster; Descendants is long on both charm and contrivance (and really isn't all that memorable); Hugo and Midnight are fine films and my two favorites of the bunch, but... eh, I just can't champion them with any sort of fervor (now if Drive was nominated... but it was never going to be). This AV Club column put it best: "The Oscars—and to varying degrees, all awards—are not about greatness, but about consensus. And The Artist is a point of agreement." It might not be the objective Best film of the year (whatever that means anyway), but it's the one about which the most people could say, "Yeah, that was pretty good." In a year like this, if that's the best we can do, I'll take it. And The Artist is. Pretty good, that is. That's all it is, and all it'll ever be, trophy or not.

Okay, so that wasn't as bitter as I was expecting. And only three Drive references! I'm proud. Anyway, the rest of the categories are up next (minus the rant). Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Safe House review

Safe House (2012)
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Written by: David Guggenheim
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard

Safe House is a fun, if not entirely routine, piece of genre fare. The setting -- some of the shadier parts of Cape Town, South Africa -- lends itself neatly to the premise that the supporting cast of Gleeson, Farmiga, and Shepard are slumming it a bit. You can't quite say the same thing for Denzel, since he's been immersing himself in these types of pictures for years. Nor can you say the same for Ryan Reynolds, who doesn't quite have the prestige or box-office draw to fit the "slumming" charge. Looking at the film through this meta, "bigger picture" microscope, Reynolds is really the only one with anything to lose here. Fortunately, he proves game and exchanges his trademark wisecracks for the same kind of stoic charisma displayed in previous genre films like Smokin' Aces. It's just a shame he still hasn't picked a top-flight film to showcase his impressive leading man chops (mmmm... man chops).

Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a CIA "housekeeper" -- a rookie in charge of a rarely-used South African safe house. Director Daniel Espinosa (apparently of Chilean-Swedish descent, because that's a thing) takes great pains early on to establish the tedium of Weston's position -- a position the audience can certainly relate to, having seen more than their share of these action movie tropes. But, as they so often do, things soon change with the arrival of Denzel's Tobias Frost (a surefire Bad Movie Name Hall of Famer), a rogue CIA agent and general badass. The usual fireworks ensue, leading inevitably to Weston's baptism by fire under the watchful (if not entirely willing) eye of Frost. If this sounds a bit like the aging Denzel passing the action movie torch to the younger Reynolds, that's because that's exactly what this is (à la Chris Pine in Unstoppable).

The interplay between Reynolds' eager rook and Denzel's seen-it-all vet largely works, although the same can't be said of any of the other cast members (aside from a quick-but-memorable cameo from Panamanian actor Rubén Blades). The underrated Farmiga, stage veteran Shepard, and stalwart Gleeson (but wasn't it just last year that he was absolutely maniacal in The Guard?) all just go through the motions as CIA honchos, one of whom, it is clear from the first 20 minutes, is definitely the bad guy. (Note: The trailer definitely gives it away.)

The central conflict is (stop me if you've heard this one before) something about a super-secret file that will expose high-level traitors in all the big intelligence agencies. It's barely worth mentioning, largely because the film itself barely spends any time on it, window dressing for the action set pieces that it is. Said set pieces come at you relentlessly, both in number and execution. The whole film -- from exposition to car chase to shootout to denouement -- is chopped to hell by Espinosa and his team of (presumably) Chilean-Swedish sous chefs/editors. Safe House is the latest in the trend of handheld shot/quick cut action movies (and here I thought the trend was dying) -- only they don't stop at the action scenes. If the filmmakers can't be bothered to stop for three seconds to let an ancillary character explain the why the aforementioned file is so important, why should the audience care?

They shouldn't and, I'm guessing, largely don't. Elements such as plot and character development are decidedly secondary in a paint-by-numbers actioner such as this. This is where the title really starts to make sense. For all the whizbang thrills and displays of gruff machismo, Safe House by and large plays it safe, sticking to well-established action movie conventions. I'm sure you can guess who lives out of the headlining duo, and if the one that doesn't make it has a quietly dignified death scene. Or if the file is recovered. If the bad guys get their comeuppance. Etc., etc., etc. While playing it that close to the vest means Safe House can't fail -- not really, not with its built-in safety net -- one can't help but walk away feeling disappointed. It's really too bad that, after biding his time for so long, Reynolds cannot get what Weston does -- a chance to really show what he can do when the pressure is on.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Top Films: 2011

I had to look a bit harder than usual to find my kind of movie in 2011. I usually find one or two one or two summer tentpole movies worth talking about beyond the usual explosions and car chases (think Inception), but most of the blockbusters this year were either underwhelming (any Marvel movie) or kinda sucked (the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, for example). Oscar season almost always provides 3-4 top ten type movies, but this year, the main "prestige pictures" -- The Descendants, The Artist et al. -- fell flat (at least in my book). Hence, my top ten this year is chock full of critically ignored movies, early year releases, forgotten genre exercises, and -- okay, you got me -- a couple of explosion/car chase movies. Here goes nothing:

Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically):
Carnage, 50/50, Fright Night, The Ides of March, Melancholia, Paul, The Skin I Live In, Take Shelter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

10) Fast Five / Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (tie)
Directed by: Justin Lin / Brad Bird
Written by: Chris Morgan / André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson / Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton

Let's start off with an ode to the ludicrous. No, not the ludacris, as some of my students would say, but the sheer, jaw-dropping ludicrosity™ (new word) of the two action set pieces that serve as the centerpieces of these movies. In Fast Five, it's the climactic bank vault chase scene. In Ghost Protocol, it's the wall-scaling Dubai scene. Both scenes are ridiculously, unbelievably, ludicrous. It's almost like the filmmakers are daring the viewers to call their bluff -- "You tell us when it's too much and we'll stop." But nobody says "stop." We know that what we're watching is pushing the limits in terms of credibility -- any further and the filmmakers veer into parody territory -- but I think both of these films do a great job of going into that gray area between realism and that parody. It's like they hit the G-spot of suspension of disbelief. The result is, of course, action movie orgasm (guest-directed by Michael Bay, whose latest Transformers movie was the premature ejaculation of action movies -- in a good way). But enough of the extended orgasm metaphor. Both of these movies are pure spectacle in the best possible way, and they carry on the proud tradition of the best action movie of all time, Point Break.

9) Margin Call
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons

Although it's not a horror movie, Margin Call might have been the scariest movie of the year. J.C. Chandor's debut feature gives us an (obviously fictionalized) glimpse behind the scenes in the hours leading up to the 2007-08 financial crisis.  Zachary Quinto is our young naivete who stumbles upon a secret -- and soon wishes he hadn't.  Slowly, the inner workings of American financial institutions and the machinations of those who run them are revealed. Quinto, soon joined by an unusually sympathetic Kevin Spacey and an excellent Paul Bettany, is taken up floor by floor to various bigwigs as the magnitude of the situation becomes apparent, a kind of reverse Dante's Inferno. Satan himself isn't quite waiting up top, but close enough, as Jeremy Irons plays the most chilling, smooth-talkingest devil to hit the screen in some time. His climactic speech to Spacey trying to justify the carnage he is about to inflict on the American economy is one of the finer bits of acting of the year. The Academy fittingly rewarded the film with a Best Original Screenplay nomination, but I wouldn't have hesitated to nominate it for the big prize. Equal parts Glengarry Glen Ross and The Insider, Margin Call combines intelligent writing, a top-notch cast, and a topical story to create one of the year's best -- and most essential -- films.

8) Hanna
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: David Farr and Seth Lochhead
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett

Hanna is a slick, stylized action movie from one of the least likely action director/actor duos in recent memory -- Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) and Saoirse Ronan (Briony Tallis, she of the unfortunate haircut and Oscar nominee from Atonement). But the movie works mainly because of the talents of its two central personalities. Each of Wright's features has proven he has a keen eye behind the camera (think That Shot from Atonement, and there was even beauty to be found in The Soloist's Skid Row), while Ronan has consistently displayed an almost unsettling maturity in her brief screen career. Both of those talents are put to good use in Hanna. Particularly memorable are the titular character's escape from a government compound toward the beginning and a shipyard chase scene toward the end. (I would also be remiss to not mention the pulsing Chemical Brothers score, which keeps the tension at level 11 throughout). Both scenes are artfully framed and seamlessly edited. They wouldn't work, however, nor the movie as a whole, without Ronan's heartbreakingly believable performance as a steely-eyed killer who just wants her father back. Just look at those eyes in the poster and you'll see what I mean. They go from hard as steel to soft as rain effortlessly, and I very much doubt there are many actresses PERIOD who could pull that off, much less as a teenager. Hanna is the kind of genre masterpiece that typically gets ignored in year-end lists -- but not here. (P.S. This also has one of the best uses of an end title card I've ever seen.)

7) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Steven Zaillian
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård

Let's get one thing straight: the teaser was better. It's a first ballot Trailer Hall of Famer, right up there with Jarhead and 300. (And I'm just putting it out there, but Prometheus could be well on its way). However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came closer to the promise of the trailer than either of the first two movies mentioned. I mean, did you see the opening title sequence? Of course, it used the same song as the trailer, so maybe it's just Trent Reznor and Karen O. that deserve the lion's share of the credit. But no, that would be doing a disservice to David Fincher, the real star of this show and probably the most interesting mainstream American director working right now. Girl picks right up where The Social Network left off, what with all the meticulous shots, obsessive details, brooding atmosphere, and excellent score courtesy of Reznor and Atticus Ross. The whole this is a workshop in filmmaking technique -- Zaillian's script is taut and tense, Jeff Cronenwith's lense work is top-notch, and Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall's editing keeps everything moving briskly along (even if a scene or two feels chopped to hell). Of the "actual" movie stars, Daniel Craig is serviceable as an almost anti-James Bond, Plummer is excellent if not underused, Skarsgård plays it close to the vest, and, of course, Rooney Mara is the main attraction and lives up to the hype. (For what it's worth, I think her performance is about even with Noomi Rapace's in the original.) Although the film wasn't as successful, critically or financially, as many had expected (hey, maybe don't release a movie about rape basically ON CHRISTMAS), it still did more than enough right to crack this list (unlike some others).

6) Contagion
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet

Very rare is the film that makes everyday objects -- a doorknob, a pair of dice, bar peanuts, a credit card -- seem so terrifying. But that's exactly what prolific director Steven Soderbergh does in Contagion, a film at once about a global viral pandemic as well how vulnerable we all are -- as living things, as families, as societies. The movie virus cuts through immune systems just as easily as it cuts through decency, restraint, order -- the very bonds of our society. In doing so, Contagion lays bare the human condition. When the crisis hits, some characters fight the disease (Cotillard, Fishburne, Winslet), some seek to profit from it (Law), and some just try to survive it (Damon, Paltrow) with varying degrees of success. The same can be said of all the characters though, and one of my favorite things about this movie is that Soderbergh pays no mind to whose name is on the poster -- anyone is fair game, and not all the big names make it through. But for a movie so huge in scale -- what with the A-list cast, globe-hopping storyline, weighty moral questions, and, you know, examining the possible extinction of the entire human race -- it's those small, terrifying moments that really make this movie: the camera lingering on a door knob, the slow motion swipe of a credit card, even a simple handshake. This movie really drives home the point that the world is a lot smaller than it used to be. One thing's for sure though: I'm never eating bar peanuts again.

5) Midnight in Paris
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Cory Stoll

The fact that this film is so great despite its leads -- Wilson and McAdams -- really speaks to the talents of Woody Allen and the large supporting cast. Wilson does his best "Aw shucks, just happy to be here" routine (think the second act of Wedding Crashers) while McAdams basically plays Mean Girls' Regina George all grown up. It works, however, because we're not supposed to like McAdams, and Wilson plays the straight man to the varied and eccentric supporting cast. I won't give the central plot device away, but just know that literary and artistic luminaries such as Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein (a blustery Kathy Bates), and Salvador Dalí (a charming Adrien Brody) show up, among dozens of others. The best by far, however, is Cory Stoll as Ernest Hemgingway. Stoll clearly had a blast with the character, delivering his lines (Ex.: "No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.") with the same famous tacitness as Hemingway's prose -- and no small dose of irony. It's details like this that are typical Allen -- the characters' idiosyncrasies and the script's biting humor keep the film form falling victim to its own whimsy (which it easily could have). The result is a paean to nostalgia that's sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, and, ultimately, just poignant enough to make it Allen's first Best Picture nominee in 25 years.

4) Hugo
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: John Logan
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley

We all know that Hollywood loves nothing more than to fellate itself. That's why in a couple of weeks, at the end of the nigh-on four-hour smugfest full of self-congratulatory speeches and handshakes, dry tributes, and pomp and (because Billy Crystal is hosting) circumcisions known as the Oscars telecast, the Academy will reward a movie that looks back fondly on an earlier era of moviemaking. Unfortunately, they'll be rewarding the wrong movie. Likely Best Picture winner The Artist is a silent movie, yes, but but it's not silent to make a point or revelation -- no, it's silent because it has *nothing* to say. The same story has been told hundreds of times, and better, and now we're supposed to laud it because it's silent? Not me. The Artist, well-made though it is, is not a revisionist take on the genre so much as a revisiting of it, a nostalgic trip to your childhood home only to find that nothing has changed, no new perspective offered after so many years. Your playthings as you left them. And that's all The Artist is -- a plaything. You enjoy it for a spell, then you leave it behind. No so with Hugo. Hugo reminds us that filmmakers trade in dreams, not trifles, and that an old dog (Scorsese) learning new tricks (3D -- and one of the better uses of it thus far) is much better than a new dog showcasing the same old tricks (both literally and a METAPHOR!). Hugo is the rare film that truly transports its audience to a different place, a different time, into the dream of its maker. It's because of this (and, you know, the fact that none of my top 3 were nominated) that Hugo would get my (hypothetical) vote for Best Picture.

3) Beginners
Directed by: Mike Mills
Written by: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurant

The plot of Beginners -- McGregor's recently-widowed 75-year-old father, Hal (an Oscar-nominated Christopher Plummer), comes out of the closet and then, just as quickly, begins slowly succumbing to cancer -- is not immediately relatable to at least 99% of the population. Most can relate to parts, certainly, but not the whole (especially once you throw in the fact that he also starts dating a French actress). Yet, Beginners is the year's most humanistic film, and its exploration of the moments of soul-crushing confusion that life sometimes presents us with is something anyone can relate to. That confusion is mirrored in the film's structure -- the film flits between past and present, with Hal's death as its fulcrum (this would be spoilers if not for the fact that Hal's death is announced within the film's first few minutes). There is Pre-and Post-Hal, if you will. Pre-Hal, McGregor's Oliver struggles to come to terms with his father's sexuality (resulting in some of the year's most genuinely funny moments). Post-Hal, he meets the aforementioned actress (played by a very winning Mélanie "Shoshana" Laurant) and struggles with his inability to form long-term relationships (resulting in some of the year's most genuinely sad moments). The story's eventual ending is not as important as the journey, which is the structural and emotional equivalent of a roller coaster. Perhaps McGregor spends too much time in the dumps (his graphic designer character spends much of the film working on a project titled "The History of Sadness"), but Plummer's effervescent performance (and his little dog too -- way better than the one in The Artist) more than makes the occasional spell of doldrums worth it.

2) Bellflower
Directed by: Evan Glodell
Written by: Evan Glodell
Starring: Evan Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, Tyler Dawson, Rebekah Brandes

A preface: I've never seen anything like Bellflower. Never. With every other movie on this list, there's something else out there like it (except for maybe Melancholia -- that ending, good god). But not Bellflower. Set in the colorless urban sprawl of Los Angeles, it's part romantic comedy (complete with meet-cute at a cricket eating contest), part road trip, part acid trip, and part study of misdirected machismo. The largely plotless film is a series of interconnected vignettes (they're even titled) about a group of aimless California twentysomethings (none of whom seem to work), centering on Glodell's Woodrow, who, along with his friend Aiden (Dawson), idolizes Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior villain Lord Humongous. The guys spend most of their time building flame throwers and whiskey-spewing automobiles in preparation for the coming (wished for?) apocalypse. But, as so often happens, boy meets girl, then (SPOILERS, but not really), girl breaks boy's heart. The narrative, such as it is, gets more and more fractured from there as the film careens toward its end, spiraling into multiple plotlines as it explores Woodrow's tortured (and and somewhat stunted) psyche. The last act or so has a sort of fever dream quality, which is augmented by the film's unconventional cinematography -- Glodell and cinematographer Joel Hodge shot digitally on some kind of homemade Go-Go-Gadget camera, the likes of which could probably have built by Woodrow and Aiden. Oh, and did I mention the entire thing was filmed on a $17,000 budget? It takes a filmmaker with a singular vision to pull this off, and Glodell is that filmmaker -- Bellflower is that vision realized.

1) Drive
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston

Instead of the usual rambling paragraph, here's a list of my Top 10 Favorite Things About Drive:

10) The Pacing
That is to say, the editing. (Matt Newman was robbed of an Oscar nomination.) This isn't your typical crime thriller film, which bounds from one action set piece to the next. No, in Drive, the quiet moments of character building are just as important as the action scenes (which are few and far between). This is a film that unfolds at its own -- perfect -- pace.

9) The Pink Titles
See the poster above. Love 'em, and the retro look they give the film.

8) The Violence
As I said before, the action scenes are few and far between. But when they come... oh man. Exclamation points in a sea of ellipses. The motel scene, the strip club scene, the "Albert Brooks stabs a guy in the head with a fork" scene, and, of course, The Elevator Scene that everyone talks about. Sudden, visceral, and utterly unforgettable, all of them.

7) The Acting
Whether it's Carey Mulligan's ethereal object of affection, Bryan Cranston's wounded yet prideful mechanic, Ron Perlman's loutish gangster Jew, Albert Brooks' (again snubbed) paternal psychopath, or Ryan Gosling's nuanced Driver, each cast member elevated their archetypal characters and delivered precise performances...

6) The Dialogue (And/Or Lack Thereof)
...despite a script that was reportedly less than 80 pages (a film of Drive's length would typically have a 100+ page script). One of the most immediately noticeable things about Drive is the dearth of dialogue, especially when it comes to Gosling's nameless, almost wordless antihero (silent performances are all the rage this year). But what is absent on the page is made up for on the screen -- his Driver is the epitome of the old Fitzgerald proverb "Action is character." That said, what dialogue there is is very good. Consider Gosling's "My hands are a bit dirty," to which Brooks replies, "So are mine." The script is full of smart writing like that.

5) Homages
Drive is full of homages to directors like Michael Mann (the Los Angeles at night milieu), John Carpenter (the score as well as the creepy, Halloween-esque beach scene -- a personal favorite), Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï is an obvious inspiration), Sergio Leone (Driver would be right at ease in those old Eastwood roles), as well as dozens of others. Drive wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but it updates them and elevates what could have been a simple pastiche to a work that fits right alongside those that inspired it.

4) Los Angeles
I'm a sucker for any film that takes place in L.A., and especially one that can make even its grittiest parts (downtown, parts of the Valley) look cinematic. A tip of the cap to Newton Thomas Sigel's photography here as well.

3) Ryan Gosling's Scorpion Jacket
I mean, c'mon. That thing just looks good.

2) The Music
From Cliff Martinez's airy, synthesized score (he clearly has a diploma from the John Carpenter School of Film Scoring) to the electro-pop of the soundtrack, the music fits the tone of the film tighter than Gosling's leather driving gloves. Two of my favorite songs of last year came from the film. The first is Driver's theme, College's "A Real Hero":

A great song, and kitschy European pop always makes a movie seem more artsy. The second one plays over the opening titles, "Nightcall," Kavinsky featuring Lovefoxxx (of CSS fame):

Moody and low, it fits the film perfectly. Good to see Soundwave from Transformers is still getting work as well.

1) The Opening Sequence
Absolutely flawless filmmaking. Probably the most deliberate -- and intense -- chase scene ever filmed. My jaw is still on the floor.

Yeah, it's February already, but some of these weren't even in theaters in my neck of the woods in 2011 (and I had to catch up on a few on the 'Flix). Better late than never, right? For kicks, the Worst Movie I Saw This Year was either the remake/prequel of The Thing (just not necessary) or The Iron Lady (pure Zzzzzzzzzs). Feel free to let me know if you think I'm over- or under-rating anything. Next up: Oscar predictions!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oscar Nominations Predictions

This originally opened with "I'm gonna try to keep this one short." Yeah, that didn't quite work out. Anyway, Oscar nominations are just a few hours away, so I figured I'd put in my two copper Lincolns. So here goes (roughly in order of likelihood):

* = early winner prediction
^ = haven't seen (aka never saw it)

The Artist*
The Descendants
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo^
Just missing the cut:
War Horse^
Tree of Life

Comments: I'd love it if Hugo could somehow sneak its way in and snag the statue (it's currently my #4 movie of 2011 -- list forthcoming), but I don't see it happening. I think the top 5 are locks, while it wouldn't surprise me if any of the "just missed" movies slide in ahead of Girl or Moneyball. Those two would seem to have support from more branches though. If there were 10 nominees guaranteed this year, I really think Drive would be there. As it is, that's the movie I'm pulling for most. As far as The Artist perhaps winning, ugh, but whatever. Still better than The King's Speech over The Social Network.

Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist*
Martin Scorsese - Hugo
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
Alexander Payne - The Descendants
Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life
Just missing the cut:
David Fincher - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo^
Steven Spielberg - War Horse^

Comments:  This is a really tough one to handicap. Each of these 7 has a great shot. I could go into all the precursor awards and whatnot, but ZZZZZZZZZZs. I think Payne is actually more vulnerable than Malick, but The Descendants figures to have a ton of nominations across the board and I can't see Payne being ignored. Malick has cultivated quite a legendary presence, maybe even more so than Scorsese or Spielberg, and should get in as a lone director (meaning his film isn't nominated for Picture -- nor should it be, as it was a narrative disaster, albeit a beautiful one). Both Fincher and Spielberg obviously have a great shot, but their films seem to minor in the grand scheme of their careers. That said, I'm perfectly prepared to see one or both of their names when the noms come out. AMPAS rarely splits Picture/Director anymore, hence Hazanavicius's asterisk.

George Clooney - The Descendants*
Brad Pitt - Moneyball
Jean Dujardin - The Artist
Michael Fassbender - Shame
Gary Oldman - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Just missing the cut:
Michael Shannon - Take Shelter
Demian Bichir - A Better Life^
Leonardo DiCaprio - J. Edgar^

Comments:  This will sound familiar -- the top 3 are locks, after that, who knows. Fassbender should get in for the most daring performance of the year -- you know, a real ballsy bit of acting. I may just be putting Oldman in there as a sentimental favorite, but I think there's more than a decent chance I'm right -- the whole "never been nominated for an Oscar" thing is a real shame and I think a lot of voters will take this chance to rectify that error at the expense of two former nominees (who should be back). I've barely heard of Bichir and his movie, but, you know, all that precursor stuff (and remember Bardem's nomination here last year?). Leo's Globes nomination screamed of the HFPA's "Look! A famous person! Let's nominate them!" antics. Clooney's the frontrunner for now, but if Payne isn't nominated for director, I'll take that as a Descendants backlash and give Pitt the coveted asterisk.

Viola Davis - The Help*
Meryl Streep - The Iron Lady^
Michelle Williams - My Week with Marilyn
Glenn Close - Albert Nobbs^
Rooney Mara - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo^
Just missed the cut:
Tilda Swinton - We Need to Talk About Kevin^
Comments:  Toughest one yet. I'm about 72% sure I'm wrong about Swinton not making the cut. Precursors, yadda yadda yadda. But she's got a couple things going against her: 1) She's already got a statue (for Michael Clayton), and 2) I haven't seen it, but the movie just looks weird. I'm not sure how many voters will actually have watched it (especially non-actors). I think Mara sneaks in by virtue of the transformative nature of the role -- a lot of voters will have heard/read about the piercings and the tattoos and, of course, the nudity. All that said, I think these are the only 6 contenders (although a WTf? Kristen Wiig nomination would be awesome), and I think Davis is the only real lock -- I could see any of the others missing out for various reasons. Hence her asterisk.

Christopher Plummer - Beginners*
Albert Brooks - Drive
Kenneth Branagh - My Week with Marilyn
Nick Nolte - Warrior^
Jonah Hill - Moneyball 
Just missed the cut: 
none -- this 5 seems pretty set
Gun to my head WTF? nom:
Patton Oswalt - Young Adult

Comments:  Barring any surprises (Oswalt? Big Vig? Corey Stoll??), this is your Supporting Actor field. I think Plummer is also the surest bet in any major category at this point -- the perfect role for a respected vet. I would like to see Drive get some love, but I also think Plummer was better than Brooks. Branagh was solid in a very weak movie, I haven't seen Warrior yet (although I'm not sure how I missed it with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton... oh wait, now I remember, the trailer sucked -- misleading?), and I really don't get the Jonah Hill thing. He was just kind of... there. Maybe I missed something. I'll have to rewatch it.

Octavia Spencer - The Help*
Berenice Bejo - The Artist
Jessica Chastain - something (most likely, The Help)
Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids
Shailene Woodley - The Descendants
Just missed the cut:
Jessica Chastain - various things (The Tree of Life, Take Shelter), Janet McTeer - Albert Nobbs^, Carey Mulligan - Shame or Drive

Comments:  Another fustercluck of a category. Again, repeat with me now: top 3 locks, after that, who knows. I think McCarthy will get in as the Academy's occasional bone to mainstream comedies (i.e. RDJ for Tropic Thunder). Woodley should be in unless the aforementioned Descendants backlash is a thing. Chastain will be nominated, and deservingly so, but if I had a vote (one day), I'd give it to her work in The Tree of Life -- she was the second best thing in that movie after Lubezki's photography. I haven't seen Albert Nobbs yet, but McTeer has been getting rave reviews -- but can that movie really pull off two major noms? Carey Mulligan is the real dark horse to me -- I'd love to see her name called for either role. Spencer is the presumptive favorite after the Globes win -- but, again, can her movie pull off two major awards?

Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris*
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Kristin Wiig, Annie Mumalo - Bridesmaids
Will Reiser - 50/50
Asghar Farhadi - A Separation^
Just missed the cut:
Mike Mills - Beginners
Jeff Nichols - Take Shelter
Tom McCarthy, Joe Tiboni - Win Win^
Diablo Cody - Young Adult
Sean Durkin - Martha Marcy May Marlene
Many others

Comments:  Ah, Original Screenplay is easily my favorite category. I am an occasional practitioner of the screenwriting arts (thus far only on the amateur level, but still), and this is the category where the Academy takes the most chances, often nominating some brilliant, under-appreciated work (think In Bruges). All that said, repeat the chant: top 3 locks, after that, who knows. Reiser's true-to-life 50/50 is the exact kind of story voters usually like, while Farhadi's script is my WTF? special (there's always one in this category -- last year, it was Another Year). Obviously, any of the others listed and plenty more (Tree of Life? Shame?) could very well hear their name called. I think Allen edges out The Artist when voters realize, "Wait, did I just vote for a silent movie for a screenplay award? Let me change that..." Also: It has no shot, but I'd like to give a shout out to Bellflower. See it if you haven't.

Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian, Steve Cherwin - Moneyball*
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash - The Descendants
John Logan - Hugo
Tate Taylor - The Help
Bridget O'Conner, Peter Straughan - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Just missed the cut:
Steven Zaillian - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo^
Hossein Amini - Drive
Lee Hall, Richard Curtis - War Horse^

Comments:  A curveball (get it??) on the formula -- this time, the top 4 are locks (especially given their likely Best Picture noms -- although Moneyball could get left off). For the fifth spot, I'm doubling down on my Gary Oldman prediction -- plus, the screenwriting duo were husband and wife, and the wife died before the film came out. Sad, and probably the kind of thing that voters will think of when struggling for a final nominee. There could obviously be a left field pick (9/11: The Movie, A Dangerous Method) by a former winner, but this field is a lot more settled than Original. I gave Moneyball the asterisk not only because of the prestigious names, but the whole "baseball movie that isn't really about baseball" is more of an achievement in screenwriting than dead mothers and cloying voiceovers. (Although, again, it must be said that, "Dean Pelton, Oscar winner" has a certain ring to it.)

Short this was not, but I get excited about my awards season. Maybe I'll even get up to watch the announcements (Disclaimer: I say that every year but never do.) I'll sign off with this: Go Drive! It should get a Best Costume Design nomination alone for the scorpion jacket. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Golden Globes Crapshoot

The most important thing when it comes to prognosticating the Golden Globes is this: No one knows what they're doing. Not me, not any other blogger, not movie critics, and certainly not the Hollywood Foreign Press Association themselves. They always do the unexpected -- like giving The Hangover the trophy for Best Comedy two years ago. Or last year, when they eschewed the seemingly tailor-made for the HFPA The King's Speech in favor of the decidedly American (and decidedly superior) The Social Network. So what'll it be the surprise this year? Bridesmaids getting a trophy? George Clooney getting Director? I have no idea. Not even the slightest clue. But here's my best guesses for the main categories anyway. The ball's in your court, HFPA.

*indicates a film/performance I have not yet seen
bold indicates my pick

Best Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
Bérénice Bejo - The Artist
Jessica Chastain - The Help
Janet McTeer - Albert Nobbs*
Octavia Spencer - The Help
Shailene Woodley - The Descendants

Logic: Going wild card right off the bat. The Descendants has a lot of support (5 nominations), and Wooldley is the breakout star of the film. The ladies from The Help could split (Spencer was great, but I don't see the film winning more than one award), McTeer doesn't have a realistic chance, and Bejo, a presumptive frontrunner (in the most-nominated film), lacks the pizzazz that the HFPA typically goes for. A sweep for The Artist wouldn't shock me though.

My Hypothetical Vote: Spencer. I thought she gave the best performance (with Woodley second).

Snubs: Chastain in Take Shelter or The Tree of Life, Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids, Kirsten Dunst - Melancholia, Kiera Knightley - A Dangerous Method

Best Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
Kenneth Branagh - My Week with Marilyn
Albert Brooks - Drive
Jonah Hill - Moneyball
Viggo Mortensen - A Dangerous Method
Christopher Plummer - Beginners

Logic: Plummer is the clear frontrunner and likely Oscar winner, but a case could be made for any nominee besides Mortensen (great, but not up to his usual transformative standards). Brooks is a close second and a legitimate Oscar threat, but Drive clearly didn't resonate with the HFPA. Branagh is just the type of actor and performance that usually does well here. Hill is, I think, a real dark horse (especially if Moneyball picks up any other awards). Plummer seems overdue for some awards recognition though, and this should be his year.

My Hypothetical Vote: Brooks. Just so Drive could win something (and I think the performances are about equal).

Snubs: Corey Stoll - Midnight in Paris, Patton Oswalt - Young Adult

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
Jodie Foster - Carnage
Charlize Theron - Young Adult
Kristen Wiig - Bridesmaids
Michelle Williams - My Week with Marilyn
Kate Winslet - Carnage

Logic: God bless the HFPA for actually recognizing comedic performances. And, yes, Williams was great as Monroe, but the movie wasn't a comedy (or a musical) -- more of a lightweight diversion. Not the stuff awards are made of. And since The Artist seems poised to win Best Comedy, this will be the voters' chance to reward the surprise hit of the summer, Bridesmaids. As for the others, Theron was very good (the movie, not so much), and Carnage was excellent but ultimately too small of a film to be a threat.

My Hypothetical Vote: Wiig. The Carnage ladies were second, but they split my hypothetical vote of one.

Snubs: none

Best Performance by An Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
Jean Dujardin - The Artist
Brendan Gleeson - The Guard
Joseph Gordon-Levitt - 50/50
Ryan Gosling - Crazy, Stupid, Love*
Owen Wilson - Midnight in Paris

Logic: HFPA + French dude. 'Nuff said. But I'll expound (as I'm wont to do). The Artist was the most nominated film and could very well walk away with the most awards. I don't think it was actually as good as that, but it does seem to be right up the HFPA's alley. And Dujardin is certainly deserving -- it's the showiest performance of the year (in a good way). Gleeson and JGL were both excellent, but they picked the wrong year. Gosling and Wilson are just here because they're famous.

My Hypothetical Vote: Gleeson. The most unique performance/character of all the nominees. Dude crushed it as well.

Snubs: Both John C. Reilly and, especially, Chrisoph Waltz for Carnage, Charlie Day - Horrible Bosses

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama
Glenn Close - Albert Nobbs*
Viola Davis - The Help
Rooney Mara - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo*
Meryl Streep - The Iron Lady*
Tilda Swinton - We Need to Talk About Kevin*

Logic: So yeah. I've only seen one of these performances. So this is purely based on what I've read. Mara and Swinton don't figure to be serious threats (I'm looking forward to both films though). Close and Streep are respected veterans and can't be dismissed (and I'm not necessarily looking forward to either film). I think Close especially has a good shot at an Oscar. But I'm going with Davis because a) the movie/subject matter is total awards bait, b) the movie had a lot of other nominations but might not win anywhere else, and c) she's actually quite good (although not as good as Spencer). So there.

My Hypothetical Vote: Davis. Only one I've seen.

Snubs: Saoirse Ronan - Hanna, Elizabeth Olsen - Martha Macy May Marlene

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama
George Clooney - The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio - J. Edgar*
Michael Fassbender - Shame
Ryan Gosling - The Ides of March
Brad Pitt - Moneyball 

Logic: He's George fucking Clooney, that's why. Pitt is a real challenger, but it's a baseball movie and it's the HFPA. His performance also didn't require as much range as Clooney's. Fassbender was actually probably better than both of them, and I thought his schlong could have snagged a Supporting nom. Gosling was nominated for the wrong movie (Drive, duh) and Leo is this year's "Makeup Is Not The Same As Acting" nomination (presumably, as I haven't seen it, nor was I particularly interested).

My Hypothetical Vote: Fassbender. It's a flawed movie, certainly, but nobody portrayed a flawed character better than Fassbender this year.

Snubs: Ryan Gosling - Drive, Michael Shannon - Take Shelter, Gary Oldman - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash - The Descendants
George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon - The Ides of March
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Cherwin - Moneyball

Logic: Talk about a loaded category. The only one that would surprise me with a win is The Ides of March, which wouldn't be here without Clooney's name attached (and probably shouldn't be anyway). I think Moneyball goes away without a trophy, although Zaillian and Sorkin's names certainly gives one pause. Believe me, I know a lot more goes into a screenplay than dialogue, but I can't see The Artist winning (especially as the story was largely derivative). I really think The Descendants has a great shot, but this has the makings of a "spread the wealth" night, so Woody Allen takes this in a mild upset (great script though).

My Hypothetical Vote: Allen. Although it would be great to see Dean Pelton from Community give an acceptance speech.

Snubs: Hossein Amini - Drive, Mike Mills - Beginners, Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza - Carnage, Annie Mumulo and Kristen Wiig - Bridesmaids, Will Reiser - 50/50

Best Director - Motion Picture
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
George Clooney - The Ides of March
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Alexander Payne - The Descendants
Martin Scorsese - Hugo

Logic: Man, this is one tough three-horse race to handicap. Allen and Clooney don't figure to be in it, but I could see the trophy going to any of the other three. Despite a lack of support in any other category, I think Hugo has a real shot at the two major awards. I'm not sure if I've ever seen such a charming love letter to cinema -- and I'm not sure if I've ever described a Scorsese movie as "charming" before either. I would probably put Payne in 3rd place at this point, but he's definitely not out of the running. In the end though, I think the voters go with Hazanavicius for the boldness of making a more-or-less silent film in this century.

My Hypothetical Vote: Hazanavicius. The movie was clearly very meticulously made, and both Payne and Scorsese have better directing jobs on their résumés.

Snubs: Nicolas Winding Refn - Drive, Steven Soderbergh - Contagion, Pedro Almodóvar - The Skin I Live In

Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
The Artist
Midnight in Paris
My Week with Marilyn

Logic: I previsioned it. But seriously, I don't see it going down any other way. Bridesmaids is the only serious challenger (maaaybe Midnight in Paris), but the HFPA usually goes with movies that will also likely be nominated for Oscars in this category (and The Artist is probably the current Best Picture favorite). Both 50/50 and Midnight in Paris are deserving nominees but aren't heavyweights here, and I can't for the life of my figure out why My Week with Marilyn is nominated here. It's gotta be The Artist here.

My Hypothetical Vote: Midnight in Paris. Probably top-5 of the year for me. A whimsical meditation on nostalgia that overcomes its excess of Wilson.

Snubs: Beginners, Carnage

Best Motion Picture - Drama
The Descendants
The Help
The Ides of March
War Horse*

Logic: While I would love to see Hugo pull off the upset (and I think it can), The Descendants has too many nominations in other categories to not win. Although it is the HFPA and they don't play by the normal rules, I can't see a movie with no acting (Hugo, War Horse), writing (same two, plus The Help), or directing (The Help and Moneyball again, plus War Horse -- how did that one sneak in, by the way?) nominations winning. Interesting that The Ides of March is the only other film with nominations in all three categories. But I think it's too indelibly American to win. On the other hand, The Descendants' story is pretty universal. That, combined with Clooney's star power and the previously mentioned other nominations, puts it over the top.

My Hypothetical Vote: Hugo. I was surprised by how taken I was with the movie. It hit all the right notes -- pitch-perfect.

Snubs: Drive (obviously), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Melancholia

TV Awards: I don't pay nearly as much attention to the TV awards, so I'll abstain from guessing. I'll just say that I hope Game of Thrones wins everything and that Glee loses everything. Get on that, HFPA.

That's my fiftieth of a dollar, and I'm sticking to it. Caveat: All picks subject to change. Eagerly awaiting the show -- can't wait to see Gervais in action again. Oscar nominations are just around the corner, and I'll post my best movies list after I see the last few awards contenders. Until then...