Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Oscars: Opinions and Predictions

It's that wonderful time of year again; when most of the good movies in the theaters are from last year, and normal people like us are finally able to weigh in on the films that have already won a handful of awards, and critics have already praised and included in their top ten lists. The Oscar nominations have been out for almost a week, so let's see how they did this year...

First, let me list some notable films from 2009 I have yet to see: The Blind Side, Bronson, Hunger, The Last Station, Nine, A Prophet, A Single Man, The White Ribbon. It pains me to include the The Blind Side as a "notable" film, but all of the awards for Sandra Bullock, as well as its two Oscar nominations have forced my hand. I've also included Bronson, which did not receive any nominations, but the critical response to Tom Hardy's performance has been significant.

Now, lets talk about the acting nominations. Ladies first:

Actress in a Supporting Role
There really isn't much to say here. I think Samantha Morton deserved a nomination for her role in The Messenger, as well as Vinessa Shaw in Two Lovers, but I can't say that the Academy got it wrong. Mo'Nique will win the Oscar, and she deserves it. Her monstrous character in Precious was beyond anything I've ever seen. Simply frightening. If I had to pick another contender, I'd go with Vera Farmiga from Up in the Air as a very distant dark horse candidate.

Actress in a Leading Role
I have a feeling that this category will be the most disappointing for me. Sure, it might be a bit unfair for me to judge Bullock's performance in a movie I haven't seen, but I have her entire filmography to show me that at best she's a mediocre hack. The fact that she's a the favorite to win is a crying shame. Just so you don't think I'm completely unreasonable, I will see The Blind Side, and will admit if I am wrong. Meryl Streep's role in Julie & Julia is at least nomination worthy, and she has almost as much of a chance to win as Sandra. The actual best performance by an actress in a leading role belongs to Cary Mulligan for An Education. She's in practically every scene and simply lights up the screen in each one. As I've mentioned before, the comparisons to Audrey Hepburn are justified. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe was probably the second best performance from a lead actress I saw in 2009 for her role as the abused teenager, Precious, but she has no chance at all of winning. It's a shame, because I think this category more than any other seems to be driven by politics more than merit (Note: Sally Hawkins didn't even get nominated last year).

Actor in a Supporting Role
Again, only brief thoughts on this category. Matt Damon for Invictus? Give me a break... Glad to see the nomination for Woody in The Messenger, and Stanly Tucci could have also been nominated for Julie & Julia, but I haven't seen The Lovely Bones. The fact is, Christoph Waltz was a force of freaking nature in Inglourious Basterds, and he's won every award leading up to the Oscars. He's by far the favorite, deservedly so, and the only upset I could fathom would be if they decided to give it to Christopher Plummer, for The Last Station, as a lifetime achievement award, but that is highly unlikely.

Actor in a Leading Role
I can't argue with many of these nominations, although I have to say that Morgan Freeman's was probably the weakest. I mean, I get it. There's no way they don't nominate him for playing Nelson Mandela, but there were others who deserved it more. Joaquin Phoenix gave a great performance in Two Lovers, and until two nights ago Sam Rockwell in Moon was by far my favorite. Two nights ago is when I saw Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges makes it look so incredibly easy. His performance as Bad Blake, an old washed up country star, has been garnered with about every acting award so far, and he will take home the Oscar on March 7.

Now for the writers of words and music:

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
I think the Academy got it right with this category for the most part (I think In the Loop is grossly overrated), and would be really happy if either Up in the Air or An Education won. I also think it's pretty cool that District 9 received a nomination. The favorite has to be Up in the Air. Jason Reitman is an exceptional director, but I think he's equally good at adapting novels. Thank You for Smoking was one of favorite films in 2005, and I'd love to see him recognized this year.

Writing (Original Screenplay)
This is a very exciting category this year, because the last time Quentin Tarantino was nominated for an Oscar, he won this award for Pulp Fiction, back in 1994. He is the favorite to win this year for Inglourious Basterds, and since that is my favorite film of 2009, I certainly hope he wins. A Serious Man by the Coen brothers is also nominated, as well as Pixar's Up, each incredibly deserving. The Hurt Locker and The Messenger are also great films, so this is a win/win category for me, but here's hoping that my favorite film maker, Quentin Tarantino, takes it home.

Music (Original Score)
Here we go with more of the usual suspects with James Horner and Hans Zimmer. That's all well and good, but I feel two of the best scores were left out this year. Clint Mansell sets the mood incredibly well with his score for Duncan Jones' Moon. Besides John Williams, Clint is probably my favorite film composer working today. He was made famous with his haunting score for Requiem for a Dream, and created one of my favorite scores of all time with The Fountain, both films by Darren Aronofsky. The second guy who got the shaft is Marvin Hamlisch who crafted the wonderful music from The Informant!. Marvin has been writing music for film, television, and the stage for decades, and has been nominated for nine Oscars, winning one of them, but his work on The Informant! is truly worthy of recognition. It's probably due to the lackluster acceptance of the film itself that hurt his chances for a nomination. At least one of nominations are worthy of actually winning, and that is Michael Giacchino for Up. Simply a delightful score, both lighthearted and poignant. I hope it wins, and I expect it to.

Music (Original Song)
There usually aren't too many movies that feature "original songs," so there isn't really much to be snubbed. Of the nominees, I've seen The Princess and the Frog and Crazy Heart, which make up for three of the five nominees, Basically, everything about The Princess and the Frog was forgettable for me. I loved Randy Newman's score for Toy Story, but this just doesn't contain the same magic. The song that deserves to win, and will win, is "The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)". It perfectly depicts the tone and feeling of this small, special film. It reminds me of Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" from last year, except that it's actually used as a plot devise in the film, which to me makes it an even stronger contender.

The technical awards:

Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects
I fully expect Avatar to win all three of these Oscars, although I wouldn't be surprised if The Hurt Locker or Star Trek made off with one of the sound awards. I actually think they should just get rid of the sound mixing, because if Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen can get an Oscar nomination, that category is immediately deemed irrelevant.

Cinematography and Film Editing
I'm gonna keep this one short; Inglourious Basterds deserves to win both of these, but Avatar probably will.

Maestros of cinema:

I agree with all of these nominees except for probably Lee Daniels. Don't get me wrong, I actually like Precious much more than Avatar, but the fact is no one could have made Avatar except for James Cameron. His vision, tenacity, and relentlessly obsessive nature made it possible for him to persevere the years of hard work and create what is the most impressive technical feat of film making to date. Of course to a fault, he was unable to see the need to hire a real writer, thus hurting the film significantly. Oddly enough, it's his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, that is the favorite to win the Oscar for The Hurt Locker. This is a tightly directed film, made in the Middle East under some pretty tough conditions. I would probably agree with the masses in awarding her, if it wasn't for Quentin Tarantino. He is my favorite film maker, because he is a cinematic genius and a living film encyclopedia. These traits lead to the most entertaining and well made movies being made today. A film making team I would have loved to see nominated are Joel and Ethan Coen. Sure, they just won two years ago for No Country for Old Men, but they deserve it again for A Serious Man. Anyways, Kathryn will win.

And the best films are:

Animated Feature Film
Up will win. I think this is quite clear, but there were some very, very good animated films this year. Henry Selick's Coraline is a beautiful film and a masterclass in stop motion animation, while Fantastic Mr. Fox is a wonderful, quirky Wes Anderson film using the same medium. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't overly impressed with The Princess and the Frog, and I've never heard of The Secret of Kells. There were two other animated films that probably should have been there instead. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was a visual treat, but more importantly was laugh out loud funny. Ponyo was also very good, and more deserving that Disney's newest 2D project.

Documentary (Feature)
This is hard for me to judge since I haven't seen any of the nominees, however, I have seen a couple great documentaries this year. Both Tyson and Anvil: The Story of Anvil should be here. Both were captivating, funny, and at times touching. I seriously doubt that all five of the nominated films are better than these two. Having not seen them, I can only go with what I've heard, and it seems that Food, Inc. and The Cove have gotten the most press. I'd have to pick The Cove on this one. It really fits in with a lot of the Academies tree hugging tendencies.

Foreign Language Film
I'm certainly disappointed to not see Gomorrah or Sin Nombre nominated, because they are two of my favorite films this year. Again I haven't seen these nominees, but I've heard a lot about A Prophet and the Cannes Palm Dior winner The White Ribbon. I think it's a toss up between these two films, but then again I didn't see Departures coming at all before it won last year over the highly praised Waltz with Bashir. There's really no telling with this one.

Best Picture
The Academy infamously decided to nominate ten films for best picture, due to the fact that films like The Dark Knight and Wall-E weren't nominate last year, hurting their ratings. It's clear that a negative side affect of this decision is that it waters down the honor of being nominated. We all know that the five films that would have been nominated had they not made the change are Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air. I must say though that out of the remaining five films that made the cut, three of them are in my top five. Never have so many of my favorite films in a given year been nominated for all of the major categories. The experts have been calling this category a battle between the ex-spouses, Cameron and Bigelow, Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker. I feel that because many aspects of Avatar are so weak (note: no acting or writing nominations) that The Hurt Locker is indeed the favorite to win this year. Obviously I'd love for Inglourious Basterds to win, but it's probably about the third or fourth most likely to win, along with Up in the Air.

I've been a little vague about where I rank certain films, because I'm going to publish my top ten of the year very soon. I just want to watch a couple more films first. Stay tuned, and please, leave a comment and tell me what you think about the Oscars this year.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

The latest from German director Werner Herzog is not a sequel to the 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, directed by Abel Ferrara. In an interview, Herzog has mentioned that he's never seen that film. After seeing Herzog's film The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, it is easy to believe Mr. Herzog. It employs the name simply as a marketing ploy because one of the producers owned the rights. The only other similarity is that each film centers around a police lieutenant that does some very, very bad things...

Nicholas Cage is in top form as Terrance McDonagh, a police officer recently promoted to Lieutenant for his act of bravery in rescuing a prisoner from a rapidly flooding jail cell during the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina. This same act left also left Terrance with a serious case of chronic back pain. I'm not sure if this guy really needed an excuse to be reckless and deviant, but the back pain definitely seemed to be the catalyst for a rapidly deteriorating drug habit, mostly procured from crime scenes and the evidence locker. Staying high pretty much all day long, his methods are questionable at best, and frequently criminal. The narrative focus is on a heinous murder investigation that Terrence is the lead detective on, but the real focus is on Terrance, and the way he deals with his pain, his drunk father, his prostitute girlfriend, his gambling habit, and his drug dealer business partner. In the midst of all this insanity, he still tries to do his job as a detective the best he can.

The tone of this film drifts from serious police drama to dark absurd comedy, leaning more towards the latter. Herzog spends a lot of time entertaining Terrance's periodic hallucinations as well as giving the audience some interesting points of view. Without giving too much away, there are some hilarious shots featuring reptiles, on more than one occasion, that linger to a point beyond comfort and managed to evoke much nervous laughter from my friends and I at our private screening. While I understand that this is pretty far from mainstream entertainment, it's still a shame that not more people are seeing this film.

I'm a big fan of Nicholas Cage. I have been ever since the mid/late nineties, when he gave us The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off, and Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. John Woo's Face/Off is still one of my favorite action films ever, and his over the top performance as criminal mastermind Caster Troy is a joy to watch. It didn't take me long to catch up with some of his other landmark performances, including Leaving Las Vegas, for which he won his Oscar, and his hilarious role in the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona. In the twenty-first century he's given us several good films, including Matchstick Men, Lord of War, The Weather Man, The Family Man, and Adaptation, which features his best performance yet. Sure, he had a bad stretch here recently, late in the decade, but I assure you, Nicholas Cage is back and better than ever! His performance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is completely ridiculous, while at the same time being some how understated. It's a joy to behold, and quite simply Mr. Cage makes this film well worth seeing. I hear his contribution to the upcoming film Kick-Ass is also great, and I look forward to many more great performances from this under-rated actor.