Category Archives: Moving Pictures

All things film.

Veronica Mars, Leslie Knope and Bad Decisions

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(The following contains mild spoilers for the Veronica Mars movie and the most recent episodes of Parks and Recreation.)

Two weeks ago the Veronica Mars movie came to select screens, delivered to us through the magic of crowdfunding wherein thousands of fans donated their own cash to get the movie made (full disclosure, I am one of those fans). It was quite easily predictable, then, that the movie was going to go to great lengths to satisfy those fans, to prove their money was worth it. Director and writer Rob Thomas was very aware of this, stuffing the movie with as many in-jokes, cameos, character returns and smoldering stares from Logan Echolls as it possibly could.

But more importantly, just to get a usable plot, the film had to bring Veronica back to Neptune and her old life, so that it could tell a story that involves old faces and new murderers. On her way back to her P.I. roots and away from her cushy new New York life, Veronica had to make some bad (or at the very least, incredibly risky) life decisions, including blowing up a job offer that would promise stability, sanity and a life away from the 90909 zip code.

Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think of another cult show about a dedicated blonde woman living in a town that’s bad for her: Parks and Recreation‘s Leslie Knope. With a bit more comedic innocence, Pawnee, Indiana has put Leslie through the ringer just as Neptune, California has forever damaged Veronica. Leslie has been recalled from office, humiliated and degraded by Pawnee and some of its ridiculous citizens, all while constantly striving to make it a better place.

Even with a character as endlessly positive as Leslie Knope, sometimes it’s a little hard to watch her take these beatings over and over again. An overriding theme of the show is how genuinely good a person she is, and Leslie may actually be one of the nicest characters on TV.  Which is why the sudden appearance of a job offer from the National Parks Service a few episodes ago seemed like such a beacon of hope for her. There’s a big part of me that desperately wants Leslie to take that job, leave Pawnee and never look back. I want her and Ben to move on and have tiny nerdy children and live happily ever after.

But Pawnee, with all its overlarge citizens and rabid possums is also the source of the off-beat brand of comedy that makes Parks and Rec so great. And to be totally honest, without Pawnee, there just isn’t a show. The National Parks job seemed just perfect enough that I went online to double check that the show was renewed, because Leslie moving away would definitely be a way to end it. A happily ever after is an ending, after all. It’s a wrap up to the troubles and conflicts that made the meat of the series. There’s nothing particularly exciting about everything working out.

The same is true with Veronica Mars. If there are going to be anymore mysteries and adventures in Neptune then Veronica has to be living there, putting her sleuth skills to good use. It’s no secret that Thomas and star Kristen Bell want the franchise to continue, and even if there are no more movies or episodes, they have just published the first in a series of books. Veronica Mars, New York Corporate Lawyer doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Veronica Mars, Neptune’s best Private Detective. But even though I want this story to continue enough that I was willing to put up my own money a year ago,  it was so hard to watch Veronica literally ignore opportunity knocking when she kept silencing calls from her new law firm. I kind of wanted to scream at the screen. You went to law school for this reason! Don’t throw it all away!

Of course calling Veronica’s choice to stay in Neptune and Leslie’s potential choice to stay in Pawnee (as of the most recent episode she’s still thinking) “bad life decisions” is inherently judgmental on my part. There is nothing to say that more happiness would be found for either character in the “good” choices. But the stories do set up these options as something that has the potential to be better, because experience has proven that it’s tough to be in Neptune and Pawnee. So why shouldn’t they just leave?

Comparing Veronica and Leslie to a third blonde heroine with a “hell” of a hometown, Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the difference is that Leslie and Veronica have the choice to leave. Buffy had a duty as the mystical slayer, to stay in Sunnydale, California and guard the Hellmouth. Things would probably have been a lot better for her if she went away for college, but that wasn’t an option for her. And if you think about it, back when Veronica was in high school, she was stuck in Neptune because her father didn’t want to leave. Putting the choice in these protagonists’ hands creates this tension for the audience.

Both Parks and Rec and the Veronica Mars movie have tried to dispel this tension by giving compelling reasons to keep these women close to home. After receiving the job offer Leslie headed to her trusty Ron Swanson to inquire why she can’t leave when Pawnee treats her so badly. He reminded her that she likes trying to fix Pawnee, in spite of everything it routinely throws at her. New York may have a job for Veronica but Neptune has Logan, and of course, all that corruption and mystery. It might be easy to leave, but Leslie and Veronica have things to do. And many, many more stories to tell.

But I can’t be the only one wondering how Veronica is going to pay her law school loans? Right?

An Oscars Wrap Up

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And that’s it folks! The Oscars are over and done with, awards have been presented and Jennifer Lawrence tripped again. Now we have maybe two or three weeks before the inevitable buzz starts around 2014’s crop of prestige films. The ceremony itself was significantly better this year than in many years past, not just for the entertainment the telecast provided but the recipients of the awards (I only missed 3 in my predictions). So here are some final thoughts on Hollywood’s biggest night before we start this all over again next year.

For Once, the Academy Voters Get it Mostly Right 

Director Steve McQueen may have jumped for joy but I was breathing a sigh of relief when Will Smith said “12 Years a Slave.” Last night the most deserving film actually won, both when it comes to cinematic quality, and “importance.” But that’s not to say that Gravity, a stunning achievement, didn’t deserve its seven awards, including Alfonso Cuaron’s historic win as the first Latino to ever take the Best Director prize. McQueen made history too, becoming the first black man to actually take home one of the Best Picture trophies (given to the producers of the winning film). It was actually a good night (at least, by the Academy’s standards) for diversity, with Lupita Nyong’o taking Best Supporting Actress, John Ridley taking Adapted Screenplay and Mexican-born Emmanuel Lubezki taking Cinematography for Gravity. The big win was, of course, 12 Years‘ big win. One can only hope that in future years, the Academy will start picking the right movies when it comes to LGBT stories, too.

The Hostess with the Mostess

It turns out Ellen was the perfect Oscar host. Safe enough that when she was announced, the focus was on how she would be the anti-Seth MacFarlane, not ruffle any feathers, and not turn the show into a sexist rampage. Leading up to the show, there was some murmuring about how, with such a broad choice as Ellen, the show could end up a little ho hum and boring, like her 2007 outing. That turned out to be definitively wrong. Apparently nice Ellen took a vacation and brutal Ellen took her place. Her monologue had zing after zing, going after everyone in the audience from June Squib to Liza Minelli to the general white guilt of the audience. (“Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility number two: You’re all racists.”) The Academy got its daring, edgy comedy, but it came in a package much easier for audience (in the room and at home) to swallow, for after she was done poking fun at movie stars she ordered them pizza and took a record-breaking selfie. She wasn’t necessarily my favorite host but she certainly got the job done in a way that it hasn’t for awhile.

Your New Best Friend Lupita Nyong’o is Amazing

If last night belonged to anyone, it was Nyong’o, who took home Best Supporting Actress for her very first film role, dazzled us with her dress and her speech, gave Ellen lip gloss instead of money, danced with Pharrell and was all around the best part of the Oscars. Also she brought her endlessly entertaining brother, who you’ll remember forever since he’s in the most retweeted selfie of all time. May Lupita long be attending the ceremonies and making them better for us all.

And the Best (and Worst) of the Rest…

Of course no Oscar ceremony is complete without its share of slipups and odd moments, it being live television and all. Some unscripted moments were nice, like when Bill Murray gave a quick shout out to the late Harold Ramis. Some were less than nice, like when John Travolta garbled Idina Menzel’s name when introducing her performance of “Let it Go.” The internet is not very forgiving, John. Speaking of “Let it Go,” co-writer Robert Lopez is now a member of the EGOT club (Tracy Jordan would be so proud). Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez also win for most exciting speech, delivered in alternating verse and featuring a snippet of Happy Birthday.

The Lopezes’ speech was short and sweet, so it made it all the way to the end before the orchestra started to play them off, but unless you are a Matthew McConaughey-sized star, you better be sure that you stay under the time limit. Here’s an idea for how to cut back on time, stop with the montages! Jim Carrey spent five minutes introducing a clip reel of “animated heroes” for goodness sakes. Everyone complains about the length of the ceremony, but clearly ABC wants the commercials all the way through midnight. So instead of padding the telecast with pointless montages around an arbitrary/shameless marketing theme (wasn’t it handy that Captain America himself was around to introduce one, when his sequel is coming out in May?), it would be nice to let below-the-line winners get their due.

 

And the Oscar Will/Could/Should Go To…

Another Oscar season has come and gone, peppered by an intriguing scandal and an actual horse race in the night’s top prize. One thing this season has shown is that the competition is always going, and being the frontrunner too early or too late is not always a good thing. When the nominations were announced I said the race was down to American HustleGravity and 12 Years a Slave. Not so anymore. Despite it’s 10 nominations, I’m predicting American Hustle goes home empty-handed, despite the fact I think it should win a few things. The Gravity folks, meanwhile, should probably start clearing some mantle space. My favorite (and obviously the best film of the year) 12 Years a Slave is no sure thing for any win, but it’s got good chances in a bunch of places, although I’m only actually predicting that it will win two (hey, Argo only won 3). So here are my predictions, presented in “will win, could win, should win” form. We’ll see how it all goes down on Sunday.

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Best Picture

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Could Win: Gravity
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave

It’s pretty rare at this point in the game not to have a real front runner in the Best Picture race. Despite early hyperbolic sentiments that 12 Years a Slave had it in the bag,  Gravity (and briefly, American Hustle) has been on its heels during the entirety of the season, splitting the precursor awards. Most notably the Producer’s Guild, which picks the Best Picture winner about 70% of the time and every time since the Academy changed its voting rules four years ago, had a straight up tie between the two films.

I have had a tendency, in years past, to fall in love with the also-ran film, one that is bound to be nominated for Best Picture but not really in competition to win (Life of PiHugo, The Social Network, etc). Prognosticators are tending toward Gravity, but, perhaps in a bout of wishful thinking, I’m putting my money not on the stylistic technical wonder, but on the deep substantive narrative that is the most affective movie I’ve seen, in years, possibly ever. It absolutely, positively should win, and I’m desperately hoping it will. But to be honest, anything could happen. Which should make for a night with some actual suspense.

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Best Director

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Could Win: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Gravity is a visual marvel. I don’t disagree about that in any way, shape or form, despite the fact that I thought the script was terrible. And after receiving the Golden Globe, the DGA and the BAFTA, this prize has become Cuaron’s to lose.   A Cuaron win here doesn’t really change anything about Gravity‘s chances for Best Picture, however. The Picture/Director split is only becoming more common. An increasingly likely scenario is that Cuaron will take this statue and lose Best Picturewhich happened just last year to Ang Lee and his similar CGI-spectacular Life of Pi. A win for Steve McQueen, however, would be a big indicator that 12 Years has broader support. Don’t count him out just yet. And it’s worth noting that of the many winners of this category over the past 85 years, all have been white males, save for Kathryn Bigelow and Ang Lee. Cuaron would be the first Latino winner and McQueen would be the first black winner. It’s likely history will be made on Sunday.

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Best Actor

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Could Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Very soon we will be living in a world where this man has an Oscar. Dallas Buyers Club hits nearly every box on the Academy’s checklist for a win. Weight loss, white messiah (or this time, straight messiah), social message, based on a true story, terminal illness. Even before he took the Globe and the SAG, he had this in the bag. If anyone has the chance to upset, it’s DiCaprio or Ejiofor, with Leo the more likely. The Wolf of Wall Street, after many missteps at the beginning of its campaign, finished out strongly, nabbing a few more nominations than you might have predicted. DiCaprio might be able to ride that goodwill up to the podium. Maybe the fifth time might be the charm? As far as who should actually win, it’s no contest. 12 Years a Slave was entirely dependent on Ejiofor’s performance, and his commitment to the role plays a big hand in making the film what it is.

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Best Actress

Will Win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Could Win: Amy Adams, American Hustle (but not really)
Should Win: Amy Adams, American Hustle

Not even the ever-increasing controversy surrounding Woody Allen can stop Cate Blanchett, who was destined for this award from the moment she picked up her Blanche DuBois-inspired character’s first Stoli martini. Even in a field comprised of all former nominees and four former winners, there’s basically no contest here. Sure, there’s a lot of deserved, albeit late, love for Amy Adams’ turn in American Hustle, but it’s incredibly unlikely she’ll actually upset Blanchett. Which is a shame, because Adams is brilliant in Hustle, hands down the best part of the film. Her layered turn as a con woman who has basically lost herself in her own cons would have, in any other year, been the early favorite.

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Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club 
Could Win: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips (but not really)
Should Win: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Jared Leto’s hold on this category is almost as tight as Cate Blanchett’s is over Best Actress. Leto may have said some less than tactful things about portraying a transgender woman but other than that he’s had a golden campaign season. He’s got the Globe and the SAG and only lost the BAFTA to Abdi by virtue of not being nominated, but the Brits weren’t crazy about Dallas Buyers Club in general. I wasn’t crazy about the film either, and though Leto did an admirable job, his performance does not hold a candle, for me, to Michael Fassbender’s in 12 Years. His cruel and repugnant slave owner could have ended up a cartoon villain, but in Fassbender’s hands, even the worst of the worst has layers. 

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Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Could Win: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

It’s Lawrence vs. Nyong’o. This is the only acting category that isn’t sewn up. Nyong’o took the SAG and the Critic’s Choice and Lawrence took the BAFTA and the Globe. But just like American Hustle‘s Best Picture chances, Lawrence has been fading recently. It might be because she’s not really campaigning at all (she didn’t even go to the BAFTAs) while Nyong’o is out charming everyone everywhere and looking damn good doing it. But there has also been quite a bit of press about how Lawrence was not quite mature enough to portray a jilted housewife, occupying a role that was clearly meant for an older woman. Plus it’s a bit of a hard sell to give her another Oscar when she won just last year. It’s a bunch of little things that are pushing the race in Nyong’o’s favor. Which is only good news because of all the performances this year in any category, hers was far and above the best (sorry Cate). The word devastating doesn’t seem strong enough to describe her.

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Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Philomena
Could Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Before Midnight

There’s no fun in making predictions if you can’t swing for the fences a little bit, so here’s my big swing. The writing categories are a little bonkers this year, I’ll admit. So many films are ineligible for the WGA awards that they are little help as a precursor. Captain Phillips triumphed there, and while it can’t be counted out, it has too much to fight against this time. The smart money would be on 12 Years a Slave, a movie so relient on its source material and so driven by its adaptation.

But there’s this little British-movie-that-could, that now boasts a BAFTA. Writer Steve Coogan has Oscar juggernaut Harvey Weinstein behind a campaign that has gone all the way to the Vatican. The film had enough support to give it a slightly surprising Best Picture nod, and that might push it all the way in this category. The real absurdity of the category is that Before Midnight is forced to compete here, the writing category most often dominated by Best Picture contenders, the Academy having decreed that all sequels are “adapted” from existing characters. And as much as I love 12 Years, it’s hard to deny the achievement made by Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Eighteen years after Jesse and Celine met in Before Sunrise, their relationship has finally come full circle, in the beautifully crafted final chapter.

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Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Her
Could Win: American Hustle
Should Win: Her

What was that I just said about Best Picture nominees in the adapted category? Things have changed, mostly due to the expanded Best Picture field, and it’s harder for scrappy contenders to break into even those categories that were once targeting them. This year the only nominee without a Best Picture nod, Blue Jasmine, has absolutely positively zero chance at winning. The category instead comes down to two Best Picture also-rans, Her and Hustle. This is the best chance for both of them to take an award home, and while the goodwill that brought Hustle ten nominations is not to be discounted, the more topical, more obviously “original” sci-fi romance has the slight edge. It’s an edge well-earned, a tale of man and machine that’s both classic and groundbreaking, hitting on our contemporary worries and hopes about technology.  And really, a win for Her is pretty status quo for the category that once recognized Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

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Best Foreign Film

Will Win: The Great Beauty (Italy)
Could Win: The Hunt (Denmark), The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
Should Win: The Great Beauty (Italy)

Blue is the Warmest Color, Palme d’Or winner and critical favorite, was not eligible this year, but it wasn’t the only glaring absence from the category, which passed over Asghar Farhadi’s The Past only two years after giving the prize to his A Separation, as well as the first film ever produced in Saudi Arabia. But still, there are plenty of great films nominated. The Fellini-inspired The Great Beauty is the frontrunner, with The Hunt and The Broken Circle Breakdown trailing not far behind. But barring upset, the award should go to the lyrical and moving tour through the excess of contemporary Rome.

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Best Film Editing

Will Win: Captain Phillips 
Could Win: Gravity
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave

Since 1981, every single Best Picture winner has had a Best Editing nomination and about 2/3 of them have taken home both statuettes. So it’s worth noting that the five Best Picture noms recognized here are likely the ones that would have still been nominated in the old five movie field, and also leads to an actually competitive category, which is nice. The guild rewarded Captain Phillips for drama and American Hustle for musical/comedy, which surprised many who were expecting Gravity to continue its sweep of the technical awards. So it really comes down to the Gravity and Phillips, the former potentially riding its Best Picture coattails and the latter with the potential to ride on its own merit, much like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo did two years ago. I’m going with Captain Phillips, but you might as well flip a coin. My personal preference would be for the seamless passage of time and slow rhythms in 12 Years a Slave.

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Best Cinematography

Will Win: Gravity
Could Win: Prisoners (but not really)
Should Win: Gravity

The sixth time will be the charm for Gravity‘s Emmanuel Lubezki, who, like last year’s winner for Life of Pi, worked with the real and digital worlds to create a masterpiece. It’s only bad news for this category’s other perennial bridesmaid, Roger Deakins (11 nominations and counting), whose work in Prisoners was among his best, but just not quite enough to unseat Lubezki.

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Best Production Design

Will Win: The Great Gatsby
Could Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: Her

The Great Gatsby was pretty much all production design, recreating iconic landmarks from the novel, straying away from historical accuracy and heading for something close to fantasy. It’s polar opposite, the minimalist, futuristic and sleek Her is an achievement of a different sort, creating a world you could see yourself living in. While Gatsby is the favorite, if the voters are looking for a more somber, less anachronistic choice (like Lincoln last year) they may go with 12 Years.

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Best Costume Design

Will Win: The Great Gatsby
Could Win: American Hustle
Should Win: American Hustle

Most times this category goes hand in hand with production design, rewarding lavish period pieces with a lot of flash. So here again, I’m going with Gatsby and all its attendant sparkles, feathers and flashes. But don’t discount the sparkle and flash of American Hustle, where the costumes were so integral to the characterizations, despite how horrendous the wide lapels were to actually look at.

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Best Original Score

Will Win: Gravity
Could Win: Her
Should Win: Her

That Hans Zimmer’s haunting 12 Years a Slave score was snubbed here in favor of John Williams just because he’s John Williams is still egregious, and I’m clearly not over it. But looking at the actual nominees, it would be amazing for the fuzzy Arcade Fire score to win over the established composers, but don’t count on it. Expect Gravity to add one more award to its shelf for the music that filled the silence in space.

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Best Original Song

Will Win: “Let it Go,” Frozen
Could Win: “Ordinary Love,” Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (but not really)
Should Win: “Let it Go,” Frozen

Come on folks. This one is easy. “Let it Go” is a cultural touchstone, a Disney anthem that would give the classics a run for their money. U2 can do as many spontaneous acoustic renditions of “Ordinary Love” on talks shows as they want, but the snow queen has this one locked up.

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Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: Gravity
Could Win: Captain Phillips
Should Win: Gravity

The distinction between the sound categories is best described as how the sounds come together (mixing) and the sounds themselves (editing). One film often sweeps both categories, and they tend to go in for action films and musicals, so here’s another for Gravity.

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Best Sound Editing

Will Win: Gravity
Could Win: Captain Phillips
Should Win: All is Lost

All is Lost is pretty much all sound, with sole star Robert Redford not saying very much. That’d mean something if voters weren’t just likely to continue checking the Gravity box on all the below-the-line categories.

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Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: Dallas Buyers Club
Could Win: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Should Win: Dallas Buyers Club

Do you really think Jackass or The Lone Ranger is going to win an Oscar? Me neither, but there is an outside chance, given that Johnny Knoxville’s age makeup is a genuine achievement. Such a shame Explosion at the Wig Factory wasn’t nominated here. But Dallas Buyers Club created fading AIDS patients on a budget not much more than what I used in school theater productions, and it’s obviously the prestige pick.

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Best Visual Effects

Will Win: Gravity
Could Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity

Do I really need to write anything here? Gravity is a stunning visual effects achievement for the ages. And in fact, those effects are buoying it all the way to a potential Best Picture win.

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Best Animated Feature

Will Win: Frozen
Could Win: The Wind Rises
Should Win: Frozen

In the few years that this category has existed, a Disney feature has never won that didn’t also have “Pixar” in the credits. It’s only fitting that the honor should go to the best film the Mouse House has created in nearly twenty years, a film that crosses age barriers, features two female protagonists and just can’t get out of your head. Legendary animation director Hayao Miyazaki’s maybe final film, The Wind Rises, has huge critical support (I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t make a judgment), but the mature cartoon might be a tough sell.

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Best Documentary Feature

Will Win: 20 Feet From Stardom
Could Win: The Square
Should Win: The Act of Killing

The Academy changed the rules last year, allowing all members to vote for this category by virtue of sending out screeners rather than forcing a small segment to prove they’ve seen the films at certain screenings. This change is only good news for the crowd pleasing feel good docs like 20 Feet From Stardom, which gives much deserved due to back up singers. (It was also good news for last year’s musical winner, Searching for Sugarman.) It’s bad news for a film as out there as The Act of Killing, where director Joshua Oppenheimer had Indonesian mass murderers renact their crimes on film. A spoiler could come in the form of The Square, a document of the uprisings in Egypt since 2011, one of the more “important” films nominated.

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Best Animated Short

Will Win: Get a Horse! (That short you saw before Frozen)
Could Win: Mr. Hublot
Should Win: Get a Horse! 

I’m thinking it will be a good year for Disney Animation Studios.

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Best Documentary Short

Will Win: The Lady in Number 6
Could Win: Facing Fear

The Lady in Number 6 is an emotional heavyweight that follows the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, a Czech concert pianist, who died just last week at 110.

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Best Live Action Short

Will Win: The Voorman Problem 
Could Win: Helium

The Voorman Problem, the first effort from a few British film school grads, managed to grab Martin Freeman as a psychiatrist and Tom Hollander as an inmate who claims he is God.

So there you have it. Here’s to hoping that the Academy makes the right decision on a lot of these. I wouldn’t mind being wrong if it meant they were going to spread the love a little. But you never actually know what’s going to happen. Which is kind of the fun.

7 Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations

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Where there are Oscar nominations there are Oscar snubs. It is a fact of life and it’s also what kind of keeps them interesting. The nominations for the 86th Oscars went out today and there were snubs and mild surprises aplenty. My predictions were okay this year, I went 9 for 9 in the Best Picture category but I was a little blindsided by the acting categories, I will admit. Overall I got 37/44 in the categories I predicted. But more than just a list of who’s in and who’s out, the nominations can also be very telling about how certain films are doing in the overall race. So here are a few thoughts on what this all means.

1. The David O. Russell Effect is a force to be reckoned with. Two years in a row now he’s scored an acting nomination in all four categories, which hadn’t happened for thirty years before Silver Linings Playbook. His four nominees today have all been previously nominated for a Russell film, and two of them won.  Russell is an actor’s director, plain and simple, and the acting branch is the single largest voting branch in the Academy. But it’s not just acting. American Hustle walked away tied with Gravity for most nominations, today. Hustle may seem unstoppable at this point, and indeed it scored important nominations in Editing and Screenwriting, but it was viciously snubbed for Hair and Makeup. The auteur picture Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, however, got that key nomination.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street was not too racy for the Academy. Not at all in fact. With five nominations, including directing, screenplay, picture and two for acting,  it looks like the voters were digging three hours of drug-fueled insanity. Despite this unexpected love, the film isn’t really in play for Best Picture, as it missed out on Editing, and no film has won Best Picture without an Editing nomination since 1980. But hey, we now live in a world in which Jonah Hill is a two-time Oscar nominee. So think about that for a bit.

3. Noprah! (And some other acting snubs). Speaking of Wolf and Hustle, those late-breaking acting nominations did not come without a price. It’s Bale and DiCaprio over Tom Hanks and Robert Redford in leading actor, and Hill and Cooper over James Gandolfini and Daniel Bruhl in supporting. In the Best Actress category I learned that you should never, ever bet against Meryl Streep, and with her and Amy Adams in there was no room for Emma Thompson. But then we turn to Best Supporting Actress where I was happily surprised to hear Sally Hawkins’ name called first (as I’ve said before, I think Cate Blanchett owes a great deal to Hawkins) and then happily astonished when Miss Winfrey’s name was absent. I thought Hawkins might sneak in over Roberts but apparently voters hated The Butler more than they hated August: Osage County. I think the worst part of Oprah’s snub is that we will not get to see or talk about her Oscar dress. Oh well, there’s always the SAGs.

4. Philomena over-performs and Captain Phillips underperforms. When it comes to films based on a book that’s based on a true story about people with the letter “P” in their name, it was better to bet on an old woman searching for her long lost son than a ship captain battling Somali pirates. Philomena was able to grab four nominations, including a surprising Best Picture nom (which I predicted and am so very happy about). Phillips on the other hand, walked away with six nominations (including the ever-important Editing) but lost out on Director and Actor, which many predicted it would get (Tom Hanks has not been nominated since Cast Away, if you can believe it). At this point it might be the film with the most nominations that doesn’t actually win anything on the actual night, but we’ll see. And if Jonah Hill’s nomination count freaked you out, you should note that Steve Coogan grabbed two this morning, for writing and producing Philomena.

4. Saving Mr. Banks, The Butler and Inside Llewyn Davis are left out in the cold. If I had told you yesterday that The Lone Ranger would net more nominations for Disney than Saving Mr. Banks, what would you have said to me? It’s what happened today (and while I think it’s hilarious, I actually can’t figure out which movie I disliked more). Banks was just one of a few early frontrunners to really crash and burn today. The Butler was completely shut out and Llewyn Davis only managed two nominations (Cinematography and Sound Mixing, both deserved but not nearly enough).

5. Dallas Buyers Club continues to show its wide-ranging support. The Wolf of Wall Street missed an Editing nomination but Dallas Buyers Club did not. It also grabbed Original Screenplay and Makeup and Hairstyling in addition to the acting noms and Best Picture. That’s a lot of below the line nominations for a not particularly technically ambitious film, which shows the support the film has in the voting body as a whole (which I really, really don’t get). This only bodes well for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who are definitely the film’s best shots at winning.

6. Big names in documentaries, foreign films and animation are snubbed. Perhaps the most successful nonfiction film of the year, Blackfish, missed out on a nomination, and the French love story and Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color wasn’t even eligible (weird Academy rules). Monsters University, meanwhile, becomes only the second Pixar movie not to be nominated for Best Animated Feature (the other one was Cars 2, and yeah I was okay with that snub). Perhaps the most disappointing documentary snub was director Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, which is a fantastic film that had a lot of critical support behind it. But here’s to The Act of KillingThe Great Beauty and The Wind Rises, who will hopefully take the prize in their respective categories.

7. There were a lot of shakeups today, but the Best Picture race is still between 12 Years a SlaveAmerican Hustle and Gravity. It was always these three, wasn’t it? They’re leading the nomination count and the conversation this morning. 12 Years missed out on two nominations that many thought it would grab, Original Score and Cinematography (because John Williams has to be nominated every time he works, even on a terrible movie, and apparently Nebraska was like, in black in white or something), and so has nine nominations to Hustle and Gravity‘s ten. I’ve seen that described as “underperforming,” to which I would only have to laugh. If anything, I think it’s Gravity that is losing steam. Although it rightly received a slew of technical nominations, it is the only Best Picture nominee without a screenwriting nomination, which also fits (the story was just a little silly).

12 Years is heading back to theaters just in time for Martin Luther King Day, and there are plenty more awards and interviews to get through before the field really starts to clear up. The number of nominations isn’t necessarily so indicative of number of wins. At this time last year the defining talking point was about how Argo had no shot because of the infamous Affleck directing snub, and Lincoln was leading the field in nominations. Silver Linings Playbook had a similar spread that Hustle has now, but at the actual ceremony the film only walked away with Lawrence’s Best Actress win. And if Gravity is comparable to anything from last year, it’s Life of Pi, and I would not be surprised at all if Alfonso Cuaron pulled an Ang Lee (a win for Directing but not Picture). But really, you never know what’s going to happen. Any one of these three could grab momentum at any time between now and March 2nd.

2014 Oscar Nomination Predictions

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It’s that time of year again. The silliness of the Golden Globes is behind us (I only got 3 out of 9 of my wishes!) and now it’s time to get down to some serious awards business. (Well as serious as we can be about rich people handing each other golden trophies.) The Oscar nominations are coming tomorrow and so I am here to bring you my tried and true predictions for the big categories. Overall I think I stayed pretty safe with my predictions, but I also tried to predict any wild and crazy upsets. There are pundits and precursor noms and all that, but in the end you never really know what will happen.

Best Picture:
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

The weighted Best Picture voting means that there an be anywhere from six to ten nominees. I’m going for nine with the caveat that Blue Jasmine and/or Saving Mr. Banks could sneak in if there’s a tenth spot. The race has actually had quite a few twists and turns so far this season, what with Inside Llewyn Davis fading almost entirely from guild consideration and American Hustle getting boosts just about everywhere. The Wolf of Wall Street is super divisive (I myself was not a fan) but I’m giving it last year’s Django Unchained wildcard spot for divisive films. Philomena is perhaps my boldest choice but it has a lot of British enthusiasm and the new voting system favors small groups of fervent support over large swaths of general support.  And this is all despite the fact that the real race is still between 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and American Hustle. Expect those three titles to come up without a doubt.

Best Director:
Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
David O. Russell (American Hustle)

The Director’s Guild may have nominated Martin Scorcese over Payne, but if the past few years are any roadmap, the Academy’s director’s branch likes to make its own choices. Last year’s category was a little bonkers and Ben Affleck’s snub was actually the beginning of the groundswell for Argo’s eventual Best Picture win. So you never know what could happen and whether it’s actually a bad thing. Cuarón, McQueen and Russell are Affleck-style locks, so expect Affleck-like backlash if any are snubbed. Greengrass and Payne are kind of safe choices for the last two spots, I’ll admit. They’re both former nominees in this category, while Spike Jonze would be a bolder choice, but Her is still a quirky genre film, and the Academy has never been a huge fan of sci-fi.

Best Actor:
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Dern, Ejiofor, Hanks and McConaughey are dead locks for the first four spots (if any of them are left out, that’s where the big shocking snub will be). As far as the fifth nomination goes, there are four guys with a really decent chance at claiming it: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) Forest Whitaker (The Butler), Robert Redford (All is Lost) and Christian Bale (American Hustle). Redford had the early momentum but that has mostly dried up. Whitaker got a big boost from the SAGs but hasn’t really been heard from since. Bale got a late boost from BAFTA, but it may not have been enough. I’m going with Leo as part of the general groundswell for Wolf of late. But really, I might as well have picked at random.

Best Actress:

Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)

I thought when I picked Adams over Meryl Streep for this category, I might be swinging for the fences. But it seems that lots of pundits are picking this particular swap, and that’s probably due to general antipathy towards August: Osage, the seemingly non-stop power of American Hustle and Adams taking Streep’s spot at the BAFTAs, where there is quite a bit of voter crossover with the Academy. When it comes to personal taste, I think Adams is the most deserving of all the Hustle hopefuls, even more so than Jennifer Lawrence (more on her later), and I would be ecstatic if she took the fifth spot.

Best Supporting Actor:

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Daniel Bruhl (Rush)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
James Gandolfini (Enough Said)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Despite the fact that Jordan Catalano– I mean Jared Leto has the actual win all but guaranteed, this is actually the most fluid category. Leto is a surefire nominee, and Abdi and Fassbender are the next surest things. As far as the last two spots go, well, take your pick. Bruhl has the SAG and BAFTA noms, something he only shares with Abdi and Fassbender (Dallas Buyers Club was completely shut out by the BAFTAs), so I’d say he’s a good bet. The last spot? Well it seems to be down to Bradley Cooper in American Hustle and Gandolfini. I’m going with Gandolfini, if only because it is the last chance to reward a beloved actor for a lifetime of great work.

Best Supporting Actress:

Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)
Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler)

Despite the fact that I think Lawrence’s performance is being overpraised (she was fine, but Adams was better), she’s pretty much in a three-way contest with Nyong’o and Squibb for the win (one guess who I’m rooting for). Then there’s Oprah, and whatever you thought of The Butler, there’s no denying that Oprah really went for it. Plus she’s Oprah. The last spot will most likely go to Roberts for her turn in August: Osage, but lately there’s been a swell of support for Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine, who took Squibb’s spot at the BAFTAs. If she does get nominated over Roberts it would be indicative of two things: Meryl Streep will almost certainly miss out on a Best Actress nom and Blue Jasmine might sneak in a Best Picture nom. It’s not super likely but it definitely could happen.

Best Original Screenplay:

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska

Original Screenplay is the category where the Academy allows itself to get the quirkiest (think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). That said, this year it’s dominated by heavyweights and is more competitive than Adapted Screenplay. Inside Llewyn Davis was left out by the WGA, but I feel like this nomination is the consolation prize the Academy might throw the Coens.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Philomena and 12 Years were ineligible for the WGAs, which will count for a big departure here since 12 Years is currently tipped to win. I’d say this category is pretty much all sewn up (even if you, like me, think it’s super weird that Before Midnight is being called adapted) but there might be a possibility for a spoiler from Osage‘s Tracy Letts, who adapted his own Tony and Pulitzer-winning play, two large precursor awards in themselves.

9 Golden Globes Wishes

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The Golden Globes always win for silliest award show of the year. Not just because they have a long history of drunkenness or that their majesties Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are hosting for the second year in a row. No, the true silliness of the Golden Globes lies in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, an organization of a few dozen international journalists who have a tendency to nominate the biggest stars they hope will show up (Angelina Jolie in The Tourist, anyone?).

But that doesn’t mean we won’t tune in and talk about who wins and who doesn’t. And it doesn’t mean this won’t affect Oscar and Emmy chances down the line. So here’s a smattering of some hopes I have for the big night, for both the film and TV side of the awards. They’re probably not the best of predictions, but it would be truly awesome if all of them came true.

1. 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture, Drama. The Oscar best picture race is largely between 12 YearsGravity and American Hustle, so it would be interesting to see who goes here. There’s absolutely no voting cross-over between this and the Oscars, but it was this category that Argo first started its roll of domination last year, mere days after Ben Affleck’s famous director snub from the Academy. There’s been some talk that the insane hype 12 Years premiered with is slowing down, so since it’s actually the best film of the year by far, here’s to hoping we still talk about it.

2. Amy Adams wins Best Actress, Comedy/Musical. Hear me out on this one. I liked Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle just as much ast the next breathing human, but she didn’t knock me over the way Adams did. To me, American Hustle would have failed without Adams, hers being the most nuanced and realistic performance. So far the best actress category has been pretty sewn up until Adams took one Miss Meryl Streep’s spot in the BAFTA nods this week. We all know that Cate Blanchett is a Daniel Day-Lewis level mortal lock for this Oscar, but Adams has a real shot here to potentially break into the nominations.

3. Michael Fassbender wins Best Supporting Actor. Have I mentioned I really liked 12 Years a Slave? Because I really, really liked 12 Years a Slave. Fassbender has only shown up in a handful of nominations so far, perhaps in part due to his early declaration that he wouldn’t do any campaigning. But who cares? Fassbender took on a role that could have easily gone cartoonish in the hands of a less competent actor, and instead created the kind of evil you could expect to see walking down the street one day. And that, like so much else in the film, is a huge achievement.

4. Sally Hawkins wins Best Supporting Actress. How great would this be? I mean, Cate Blanchett is amazing and very deserving of the Oscar she will eventually win, but performances like those aren’t complete without someone amazing to play off of. Hawkins really pulled her weight in Blue Jasmine, and made the film that much better for it.

5. Parks and Recreation wins Best TV Comedy. Besides the fact that Amy Poehler would have even more to do during the broadcast if her sitcom wins, I just think it’s about damn time someone recognized how great this show is. This fall’s sixth season may have had rocky moments (please, please no more Councilman Jamm) but the second half of season five, which aired in early 2013, was pretty outstanding. I could watch “Leslie and Ben” over and over and over again.

6. Tatiana Maslany wins Best Actress in a TV Drama. It’s insane how good Maslany is in Orphan Black. Like, crazy insane. I recently rewatched the series and I think the highest laurel I can give to her is that I constantly forget that the clones are played by the same actress. They are so different, so nuanced and just so good. Maslany is finally up for a big ticket award, and there has frankly never really been anyone more deserving.

7. Elisabeth Moss wins Best Actress in a TV Miniseries or Movie. Have you seen Top of the Lake yet? No? It’s on Netflix, go watch it and tell me that Moss isn’t freaking incredible. I dare you. 

8. Monica Potter wins Best Supporting Actress in a TV Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture. Despite some issues this season, Parenthood is still one of my favorite shows on television, and Potter’s work during last season’s cancer storyline was top notch. You might not have believed that this show could make you cry anymore, but it did. 

9. Somebody does something super drunk. It has been remarked upon that the Globes are kind of a schwasty award show. Remember Glenn Close last year, anyone? Besides Tina and Amy’s inevitable show of hilarious hosting, drunken flubs are likely to be the most entertaining part of the evening. It’s not like it’s the Oscars or anything, so nobody has to be too serious.

‘Catching Fire’ Was Always Going to Be a Better Movie

Reviews of the Hunger Games sequel have been nothing short of rapturous when it comes to comparing the new film’s director (Francis Lawrence) to his predecessor (Gary Ross). Critics are crediting Lawrence with taking Suzanne Collins’ unwieldy second novel and turning it into a tight, suspense-filled thriller all the while judging the shaky cam snooze fest that (apparently) was the first movie.

While I will categorically agree that Catching Fire has surpassed the original movie in terms of cinematic scope and quality, I will say that there’s more going on than just a change in the man behind the camera. Although I’m not sad to see the shaky cam go — in fact when I watched the original last week, I actually got a little nauseous —  Ross didn’t do all that bad a job, given what he had to work with. And that’s really the crux of the issue here: with Catching Fire, Lawrence was definitely dealt a much better hand of cards. It was inevitably going to turn out into a better movie.

There’s No Way to Spin Kids Killing Kids 

Trying to keep the rating PG-13, the first film tripped all over itself to gloss over this important factoid, with shaky cam, a lack of blood and an emotional distance that leeched anything that might have been considered “stakes” out of it. By trying to smooth over the idea of kids killing kids, the first movie also sanitized the emotional import of a society in which kids are forced to kill kids. And this decision, whatever the motivation behind it, definitely hurt the movie.

The second time around, there are no kids in the arena. There’s no problem with a teenaged Katniss Everdeen taking out a forty-something hulking dude coming at her with a spear. Nothing particular of emotional import there. Just self-defense. And so Katniss can finally fight, a little blood can be shown, and she can be genuinely scared of these hulking monsters who are genuine threats to her and Peeta’s survival. And it’s no different than any superhero taking out the minions of the super villain.

Home Is Where the Backstory Is 

The Hunger Games had so much to cover in so little time there’s very little wasted on Katniss’s home town of District 12 besides some brief shaky cam shots of dirty children looking Appalachian. But just like JRR Tolkein made sure to introduce us to Hobbiton before he sent Frodo off to Mordor, Collins spends a lot of time in the first book introducing us to District 12. Unfortunately she does it in flashbacks that are hard to translate into the flow of an action film. So it’s not till Catching Fire that we really get to see what Katniss is fighting for. The film gets to spend nearly a whole hour of its time with Katniss’s friends and family, establishing relationships merely hinted at the first time around (Gale it’s nice to finally meet you!).

Love You J.Law, But I Can’t Read Your Mind

Almost as problematic as the whole children murdering each other thing is the fact that wide swaths of the first novel are first person narration without Katniss speaking to another living soul. And even when she’s talking to Peeta once they team up, she’s constantly reminding the reader that her relationship with him was an act for the cameras. In the first movie, for someone who’s never read the books, that subtext is almost entirely lost. Jennifer Lawrence does her level best at it, but it would help if she could talk.

Catching Fire has ample opportunity for the Girl on Fire to speak her mind. After spending a significant portion back in District 12 the book takes her back to the Capitol and the arena, but instead of sending her off in search of water and climbing trees, she is immediately thrust into an alliance full of relationships and dysfunction and all sorts of good stuff. Beyond actually getting at characterization, it’s simply more interesting to have her in a group and interacting with people than to have her tied up in a tree by herself.

The Clock is Cooler Than a Forest

The arena in the first novel is your pretty standard forest. Barring CGI fire and CGI dogs, there wasn’t much threat besides the other kids. Not so in the sequel. The arena itself is a much more hazardous place. Tidal waves, lightning, killer baboons, rain of blood. It’s not just more eventful, it’s more visual. A panning shot of the the clock jungle is just a better picture than a plain forest. Plus when there are threats that aren’t people, Katniss is allowed to fight and shoot with reckless abandon. Who cares how many rabbid monkeys she kills? At least they’re not kids.

Just Like Oreos, the Best Bit is in the Middle

Call it The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers rule. Without being bogged down with lengthy exposition or a conclusion that ties everything up in a bow, the middle chapters of series have an undeniable advantage over the beginnings and endings. They get to just tell a story in an already established world without anything that even resembles an ending. In fact, the more of a cliffhanger, the better. More people will line up to buy tickets to the midnight showing of the last movie (or, er, the last two movies).

Lawrence (Francis, not Jennifer) undoubtedly brought a fresh take and a better eye to the series. He certainly brought fresh new faces to the franchise, and achieved near perfect casting when it came to Sam Claflin as Finnick and Jena Malone as Johanna. The manic arrogance Malone has and the twinkling bravado that Claflin brings to the table are exactly how the characters were portrayed in the book, and exactly what the movie needed. Characters almost as intriguing as Katniss to (maybe) root for. And yeah, it was really good to get rid of all that shaky cam. But really, Gary Ross didn’t do all that bad. And he did cast Jennifer Lawrence, and the internet shall be forever in his debt for that.

None of this is to say that Mockingjay is going to turn into a good movie. As has already been noted, there are some really big problems with that novel that are going to be hard to turn into an exciting film. So we’ll just have to wait and see what Francis Lawrence gives us.