Monday, January 28, 2013

19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Award Winners

The Golden Globes turned out to be more of a prognosticator for awards season as this weekend reaped more awards for Ben Affleck's "Argo." The Best Picture nominee which, after Oscar nomination morning in the wake of Affleck's Best Director snub looked down for the count, is now the easy front-runner to win. And this comes after the film's win from the Producers Guild of America and Sunday night's Best Ensemble win at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

While a Best Ensemble win at the SAGs doesn't always mean a boost for Best Picture potential (see last year's win for "The Help"), it certainly does mean something when the picture is busy picking up other accolades, as well. And also when it was widely expected that other more actor-oriented films like "Lincoln" or "Silver Linings Playbook" would've nabbed the top SAG prize. "Argo" is giant right now and could likely become the first film in a very long time to win Best Picture without its director not only winning but not even earning a nomination.

Now it's pretty much guaranteed Ben Affleck will also be winning the Directors Guild of America, too. Where does that leave the Oscar director race? David O. Russell? Steven Spielberg? Ang Lee? Hard to say.

Three acting categories are locks after Sunday's ceremony. Anne Hathaway for "Les Miserables" will take Best Supporting Actress, Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook" will win Best Actress (in a tight race against running-mate Jessica Chastain for "Zero Dark Thirty") and Daniel Day-Lewis for "Lincoln" will win Best Actor.

Tommy Lee Jones winning Best Supporting Actor for "Lincoln" gives him a boost while Christoph Waltz for "Django Unchained" (not nominated for a SAG) won the Golden Globe. It's pretty much a toss-up between the two as I could see the academy going for either.

I'm thrilled about the awards success of "Argo." It's a great movie, Ben Affleck deserves the praise as a young and talented actor-turned-director (especially in light of that impossible-to-ignore Oscar snub) and it makes for a wild comeback story for Oscar history.

Check here for a full list of winners from the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

It was an astonishingly good year in film. While I wasn't fully on board with heavy critical hits like Kathryn Bigelow's searing retelling of the hunt for bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty," or Paul Thomas Anderson's highly-anticipated "The Master," the films still marked directors bringing new visions to their craft. Not to mention Quentin Tarantino who absolutely delivered with his "Django Unchained" which was not only a critical smash but an absolute hit with audiences bringing in his biggest box office numbers as a director.

Peter Jackson also gave us a welcomed (yet not for all) return to Middle-earth and Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis teamed up to bring the legend of Abraham Lincoln to amazing life. David O. Russell easily topped his previous awards-contender "The Fighter" with "Silver Linings Playbook" and gave Robert De Niro's career a kick in the butt. The summer brought us Wes Anderson's best film to date, "Moonrise Kingdom," and beyond that it was a summer alight with bold new talent including Stephen Chbosky's "Perks of Being a Wallflower," Rian Johnson's "Looper" and Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild." And what a year for Bond, eh?

Jennifer Lawrence (Oh, J-Law!) had a huge year with "The Hunger Games," which is the best new franchise of the year, and then later "Silver Linings Playbook" which is propelling her to a Best Actress Oscar win.

And before we get to the main list, here's a few honorable mentions.

The movie you didn't see but should've:

"Bachelorette" is the meaner, darker, more twisted stepsister of "Bridesmaids," very much its own devilishly independent creation from writer/director Leslye Hedlund. The three nasty girls at its center (Isla Fisher, Izzy Caplan, Kirsten Dunst) are not nice to their best friend (Rebel Wilson), pretty much unlikable and yet shocking in their relatability forcing us to hold a mirror up to our own imperfections. And if you squint hard enough, it's even a proudly feminist work spitting in the eyes of archetypal women portrayals.

The biggest disappointment of the year:

Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," the highly anticipated quasi-prequel to "Alien," turned out to be a muddled, convoluted mess with no real scares and empty storytelling. While technically awe-inspiring with stunning performances from Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, you couldn't help but feel a sinking feeling of missed opportunity. Ambition was too lofty in trying (and failing) to expand his original sci-fi classic into something more grandiose.

10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Highlighted with a standout performance from Ezra Miller opposite an impressive Logan Lerman and Emma Watson in her first American role, this high school coming-of-age film directed by Stephen Chblosky and adapted from his own novel is brimming with passion and intimacy. It's a movie that understands the unique bond of friendship but also addresses the bittersweet truth that feeling like you truly belong is sometimes only fleeting.

9. Argo

Ben Affleck's third directorial feature is easily his best, most riling piece of entertainment, the perfect blend of incredible true story and Hollywood movie magic. It's a high-class popcorn pleaser that celebrates the transcending power of movies and reminds us why we go to the movies. Chris Terro's script creates breathless excitement in a thriller not through perilous car chases but instead through exquisite timing and careful plotting.

8. Looper

From Rian Johnson ("Brick"), this sci-fi mind-bender is a deft blend of Christopher Nolan's "Inception" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" marking itself as the new version of "The Matrix" and "Blade Runner" for this generation. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt shine in the lead roles following a script that doesn't use time travel as a gimmick but more so an artful means of storytelling.

7. Flight

In one of the best performances of the year, Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic pilot who lands a malfunctioning flight full of passengers with little casualty. What he faces in the aftermath, however, serves as his wake-up call. A robust supporting cast really makes the film a phenomenal ensemble piece including Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman as Whip's drug guru channeling his inner Big Lebowski and Melissa Leo in a single scene steals the film's climax. Director Robert Zemeckis' first live-action movie in 12 years proves he's still got it.

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Benh Zeitlin's directorial debut is a rush of magical realism that takes post-Katrina imagery and crafts a mythic and uncompromising world to get lost in. At its center is Hushpuppy, played by nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis who was only six at the time of filming. She gives a powerhouse performance ranking herself among the heroic female protagonists of the year, like Katniss Everdeen of "The Hunger Games" or Princess Merida of "Brave." This is a small story that also reaches beyond itself, questioning the makings of the universe and what it means to take control of life against the most profound of adversities.

5. Amour

A quietly devastating film that moves at its own pace and commands attention with its two phenomenal actors, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, this marks Michael Haneke's masterpiece with more humanism and profundity than we typically know from him ("Caché," "The White Ribbon"). It's a film about old age and everlasting love that is uncomfortable, unflinching but also crucial viewing. Riva's performance requires a physical deterioration while upholding a full register of emotion, and she stuns with painful beauty. It's the rare film that means something different to each viewer depending on the stage they are in their own life, and within such holds the movie's immense power.

4. Silver Linings Playbook

Even better than David O. Russell's "The Fighter," his oftentimes hilarious comedy centering on the excellent pairing of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence is a surefire crowd-pleaser that brings to life the idiosyncrasies of one dysfunctional family, co-starring Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver. De Niro, especially, looks more engaged than ever offering up his best performance in a long time. The film's lesson is finding your own silver lining in life, but the real silver lining may be this: no matter who you are, everybody's a little bit crazy.

3. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino rewrites history again, and just as he took revenge on the Nazis with his "Inglourious Basterds," this time he's even better and takes on the entire institution of slavery. Nobody delivers Tarantino's dialogue better than Christoph Waltz, so it's a treat to see his role expanded into leading this time around. Jamie Foxx as the accompanying Django also gets his moment for sweet vengeance while Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio play cruel manifests of humanity. Knowing how to savor a scene, the film is long but shouldn't be a minute shorter and escalates to a bloody good showdown reminiscent of "Kill Bill Vol. 1."

2. Life of Pi

Ang Lee's soul-searching odyssey adrift into sea is the best use of 3D in any film since the inception of the technology's use, even superior to "Avatar." The extraordinary story of a boy trapped on a boat with a Bengal tiger (adapted from the novel by Yann Martel) is a rumination on religion and faith but ultimately grows into a poignant film about seeing what life deals out to you and learning that sometimes you have to be ready to let go.

1. Skyfall

The re-invention of James Bond is the very best film of the year. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, there was no better time for Sam Mendes to take the helm of the franchise. Daniel Craig returns in the role as 007 more assured than before -- he's haggard but still handsome and with an added sly sense of humor. Judi Dench as the film's emotional center delivers a wallop while Javier Bardem gives us the best Bond villain yet. The brilliantly choreographed thrill ride with luscious locations and death-defying action sequences is an invigoration of the modern and a commemoration of the past. Adele's theme perfectly accents this 23rd entry in the series which was a smash at the box office and reaped the most Oscar nominations of any Bond yet.

Monday, January 14, 2013

70th Annual Golden Globe Award Winners

Let's start this off by stating the obvious: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, as expected, proved to be the best awards show hosts in recent memory. They absolutely killed it. Their opening monologue was full of quick one-liners and jabs that still stung but were always in good humor coming from them. This included zings at Kathryn Bigelow when Poehler said she hasn't been following the controversy of "Zero Dark Thirty," but "when it comes to torture, I trust the woman who spent three years married to James Cameron." James Franco was also targeted when Fey said to Anne Hatahway, "You gave a stunning performance in 'Les Miserables.' I have not seen someone so alone and abandoned like that since you were on stage with James Franco at the Oscars." Poehler then began describing the HFPA as HPV, and Fey labeled Quentin Tarantino as "the star of all my sexual nightmares."

As a hosting duo, they were consistently funny, self-deprecating with great timing, just enough bite and really made the biggest Hollywood party of the year feel like exactly that. Case in point, Seth MacFarlane has the toughest of acts to follow with his hosting gig at the Oscars.

As it was at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards on Thursday, Ben Affleck walked away with Best Director while his "Argo" took home Best Drama, which only continues to baffle the mind as to how the academy skipped over him for a director nod.

"Les Miserables" topped the night's wins with Anne Hathaway winning Best Supporting Actress, Hugh Jackman for Best Actor Comedy or Musical and the film taking the top prize of Best Comedy or Musical over "Silver Linings Playbook." Jennifer Lawrence represented the comedy with her Best Actress Comedy or Musical win while Bradley Cooper got beat out by Jackman. Such would be expected, however, as the HFPA is notorious for loving musicals. The love for "Les Miserables" here is no indicator of a push toward Oscar.

"Django Unchained" tied "Argo" for two wins as Quentin Tarantino had the surprise win for Best Screenplay over Tony Kushner for "Lincoln." This marks his lock for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars while Kushner can still take home Best Adapted. The other "Django" win went to Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor, which gives him a small Oscar boost as he was not nominated for a SAG award.

"Zero Dark Thirty" cashed in on just one win in the category of Best Actress Drama for Jessica Chastain's portrayal of female CIA agent Maya. Likewise, Daniel Day-Lewis represented the singular win for "Lincoln" for Best Actor Drama with his embodiment of Abraham Lincoln.

The night clipped along at a relatively fine pace with plenty of GIF-able moments throughout, which is always the sign of an entertaining awards show. This included Taylor Swift giving what looked like the stink eye to a bubbly and radiant Adele as she accepted her award for Best Original Song for "Skyfall," a win that will thrust her to Oscar gold.

Glenn Close played in on the fun as the hosts reappeared later in the evening announcing how drunk everyone was getting and then cut to the actress doing some sort of weird drunken jig in her seat. The best of the presenters were SNL veterans Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig who, while announcing the nominees for Best Comedy or Musical, hilariously improvised made-up plots for each movie pretending like they'd never heard of them.

Jodie Foster received her Cecil B. DeMille honor and gave a speech both very moving and heartfelt but also mystifying. Apparently it was widely expected, since this was considered a "lifetime achievement award," that she would use this as a coming-out speech. And while she broached the topic and jokingly sidestepped it, she also simultaneously hit it head-on and addressed matters of privacy in the public eye for celebrities. It was a mysterious speech that delicately told young viewers everywhere to be who they are without ever really saying it at all. And then there was teary-eyed Mel Gibson just staring at her intently. It was a very weird moment in the night that also unfortunately got accidentally(?) muted by the network during a crucial line. She then concluded with a beautiful message to her mom who suffers from dimentia and noted a potential turn in her own career. It almost sounded like she was retiring from acting, but later in the press room she corrected that implication.

The pseudo coming-out speech prompted Poehler to close the show with this: "We're going home with Jodie Foster!"

Jessica Chastain gave a tearful acceptance speech while a flu-ridden Jennifer Lawrence was pleasantly humbled as usual, and Anne Hathaway took time in hers to pay tribute to her fellow nominee, Sally Field, in a classy nod to a veteran actress.

What does all of this "Argo" and Ben Affleck winning mean for the Oscar race? Well, things are getting interesting. If Affleck were nominated for an Oscar, we'd be looking at an easy front-runner. Instead, we're left questioning the possibility of a Best Picture winner not having its director nominated. It seems unlikely and puts a lot of weight on the announcement of the Producers Guild winner, the Directors Guild winner and the winners of the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Long shots set aside, the more sensible choice appears to still be between "Lincoln" and "Silver Linings Playbook" for Oscar. And yet, the "Argo" momentum is hard to ignore. Is it really possible to have been stonewalled by the academy?

On the television side, I have to mention the triumphant win of 26-year-old Lena Dunham for not only Best Comedy Actress but also Best Comedy for her HBO comedy "Girls." So well-deserved, and it really marked the evening as one for progressive and funny women in television.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

85th Annual Academy Award Nominations

This morning's announcement of the 85th Annual Academy Awards sure had a lot of surprises to keep us on our toes. As they did last year, the academy went with nine Best Picture nominations: "Argo," "Lincoln," "Les Miserables," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Django Unchained," "Life of Pi," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Silver Linings Playbook" and Best Foreign Language nominee "Amour" for the ninth slot, which beat out other contenders like "The Master," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Skyfall."

"Lincoln," as it has been with the rest of awards nominations, led the pack with 12 nominations closely followed by "Life of Pi" with 11 and then "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Les Miserables" each with eight.

The biggest shake-up came in the Best Director category where the academy really wanted to show off their love for "Amour" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" as both Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin made their way into the category. Joining them was Steven Spielberg for "Lincoln," David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook" and Ang Lee for "Life of Pi." This left room for major snubs including Ben Affleck for "Argo" and Kathryn Bigelow for "Zero Dark Thirty" who were both widely predicted to get in. Also left out were Tom Hooper for "Les Miserables" and Quentin Tarantino for "Django Unchained."

The "Beasts" and "Amour" love continued into the record-setting Best Actress category as both the youngest, Quvenzhane Wallis at 9, and oldest, Emmanuelle Riva at 85, nominated actresses made it in. Joining them were Naomi Watts for "The Impossible," Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook" and Jessica Chastain for "Zero Dark Thirty." Marion Cotillard for "Rust and Bone," widely expected to get nominated, was left hanging.

Joaquin Phoenix for "The Master" ended up getting his nomination for Best Actor alongside the front-runner of Daniel Day-Lewis for "Lincoln," Denzel Washington for "Flight," Hugh Jackman for "Les Miserables," and Bradley Cooper for "Silver Linings Playbook." This left out John Hawkes for "The Sessions," predicted to make it in the category over Phoenix.

"Skyfall" wasn't able to crack any of the major categories, as the greatest hope was for Javier Bardem to sneak into Best Supporting Actor. Instead, the nominees were Robert De Niro for "Silver Linings Playbook," Tommy Lee Jones for "Lincoln," Alan Arkin for "Argo" and Christoph Waltz got in for "Django Unchained" over Leonardo DiCaprio or Samuel L. Jackson.

The Best Supporting Actress category included Anne Hathaway for "Les Miserables," Helen Hunt for "The Sessions," Sally Field for "Lincoln," Amy Adams for "The Master" and filling the fifth up-for-grabs slot was Jacki Weaver for "Silver Linings Playbook." Weaver's inclusion in the category means that "Silver Linings" is the only movie to have an actor nod in each category.

John Gatins for "Flight" received a surprise nomination in the Best Original Screenplay category along with Michael Haneke for "Amour," Wes Anderson for "Moonrise Kingdom," Quentin Tarantino for "Django Unchained" and Mark Boal for "Zero Dark Thirty." Left out was Paul Thomas Anderson for "The Master" and Rian Johnson for "Looper."

Best Adapted Screenplay included Chris Terrio for "Argo," Tony Kushner for "Lincoln," Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," David Magee for "Life of Pi" and David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook." No surprises in there.

"Skyfall" wasn't completely left out as it nabbed five technical nominations including Roger Deakins for cinematography, Thomas Newman for score, Adele's theme for song and then sound mixing and editing.

It's also curious that with all the love for "Beasts," the score from Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin didn't get a nomination.

What does all this mean for the race to Best Picture? Well, "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Argo," the front-runners before today, can now be both counted out as each of those directors weren't nominated. Simple logic tells us the new front-runners are "Lincoln" and "Life of Pi" as they received the most nominations. "Pi" is still a far cry, however, as "Lincoln" has always had the awards momentum from the beginning. It was easier to ignore before, but now with other top contenders having lost their steam, Steven Spielberg's historical drama is now the one to beat.

The real competition for "Lincoln" comes from David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," which received a huge boost with its collection of nominations nabbing nods for all four actors, director, editing and writing along with Best Picture.

The 85th Annual Academy Awards air live at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. on ABC hosted by Seth MacFarlane. Check here for a full list of nominations.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

85th Annual Academy Award Nomination Predictions

The Oscar nominations being pushed so much earlier has really created a lot of turmoil. Has it made the nominees any less predictable? Perhaps. Only because Academy voters seemed to be scrambling to get their ballots in. Yet here we are, and I'm ready to cast my predictions in all major categories for this Thursday's announcement for the 85th Annual Academy Award nominations.

Best Picture
1. Lincoln
2. Les Miserables
3. Argo
4. Silver Linings Playbook
5. Zero Dark Thirty
6. Life of Pi
7. The Master
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild
9. Django Unchained

I predict there will be nine nominees, but here's the rest if it gets expanded to ten:

10. Moonrise Kingdom

Best Director
1. Ben Affleck, "Argo"
2. Kathryn Bigelow, "Zero Dark Thirty"
3. Tom Hooper, "Les Miserables"
4. Ang Lee, "Life of Pi"
5. Steven Spielberg, "Lincoln"

Best Actor
1. Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
2. Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"
3. Denzel Washington, "Flight"
4. Hugh Jackman, "Les Miserables"
5. John Hawkes, "The Sessions"

Best Actress
1. Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"
2. Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"
3. Marion Cotillard, "Rust and Bone"
4. Naomi Watts, "The Impossible"
5. Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"

Best Supporting Actress
1. Anne Hathaway, "Les Miserables"
2. Sally Field, "Lincoln"
3. Amy Adams, "The Master"
4. Helen Hunt, "The Sessions"
5. Maggie Smith, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

Best Supporting Actor
1. Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Master"
2. Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"
3. Javier Bardem, "Skyfall"
4. Alan Arkin, "Argo"
5. Robert De Niro, "Silver Linings Playbook"

Best Original Screenplay
1. Amour
2. Moonrise Kingdom
3. Django Unchained
4. Zero Dark Thirty
5. The Master

Best Adapted Screenplay
1. Lincoln
2. Argo
3. Silver Linings Playbook
4. The Life of Pi
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild


It's late at night somewhere in Texas when a carriage rolls up to two slave traders transporting their merchandise. A giant molar bobs on a spring atop the carriage owned by German dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). He's eerily polite with a demeanor that's both charming and off-putting and shows he can turn lethal at the drop of a hat when, once the slave traders turn hostile, he guns them down without hesitation. Waltz turns in another excellently charismatic and unpredictable performance after his star-making turn as a lunatic Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds." It may feel a bit familiar, like a good guy version of the aforementioned character, but when an actor delivers lines of Quentin Tarantino's dialogue as well as he does, why hire anybody else? He brings lightning to the writer and director's penned wordplay.

Schultz recruits a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) from the traders who will be able to identify one of his bounties. He may kill men for money, but he's a man of the law. Released from servitude by Schultz, Django first flaunts his freedom by wearing a gaudy blue garment of his own choosing -- but quickly learns how to take true advantage of his freedom. Feeling responsible for Django's fate, Schultz offers to team up for the winter helping him collect his bounties. Their first adventure takes them to a plantation run by Big Daddy (Don Johnson) who seems despicable but is only a mild evil compared to the horrors to come when the two take on the kingpin of the slave world.

Tarantino proves with "Django Unchained" that "Inglourious Basterds" was no artistic fluke. He's at it again, rewriting history and delivering long overdue justice. He punished the Nazis in a twisted vision of World War II, and now he dishes out sweet vengeance on the entire slavery institution circa 1858. This is the awards season alternative to Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." Tarantino is recklessly irresponsible, fearless and totally in control, a risk-taker who's a film crusader of our times. He's styled "Django" into a spaghetti Western and blaxploitation hybrid complete with drastic camera zooms and a clamorous soundtrack. He addresses the ugly nightmare of slavery head-on with a tightrope balancing act of tragedy, farce and an absolute seriousness toward his own playfulness. It's a knock-out, a dynamite display of pure cinematic craftsmanship that we can only expect from Tarantino, a distinctly singular creative voice in the medium.

H also knows how to savor a scene, letting his actors really chew on the sumptuous dialogue. Sequences of insanely sustained tension cultivate in the film's latter half which takes Schultz and Django to Candy Land, a sprawling Mississippi plantation run by a human abomination named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  He's gleefully sadistic, a soulless tycoon whose favorite recreation is pitting two slaves against each other in a fight to the death. Our two heroes must enter Candie's lair in order to rescue Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the real crux of the film's storyline.

DiCaprio is insidious as Candie giving the facade of Southern hospitality a horrifying aftertaste. Another instance of inspired casting comes in the form of Candie's house slave Stephen, a smiling old servant played by Samuel L. Jackson. At first you can't help but chuckle at his appearance, but once Stephen's conniving ways come to fruition, you suddenly can't picture anybody else in the role.

It all leads to a showdown reminiscent of the Showdown at House of Blue Leaves from "Kill Bill Vol. 1" except instead of the Crazy 88s, we get a crazy band of rifle-toting Southern racists. And in very much the same vein as the "Kill Bill" saga, "Django" is at its core an epic revenge tale, and there's no better filmmaker for the job. Jamie Foxx as Django, in an otherwise restrained and stoic role, gets to finally wave his flag of victory against his captors, and it's triumphant giving Foxx the best performance of his career.

This is also arguably Tarantino's funniest movie to date, especially with a scene involving a pseudo-Ku Klux Klan mob whining over the eye holes in their masks being poorly cut. In every waft of spontaneity, no scene ever feels out of place either. From start to bloody finish, it really is a delirious pleasure -- even better than "Inglourious," more spirited and outlandish -- the most audaciously entertaining movie of 2012.