The Granddaddy of Them All: My Oscar Picks

The day has finally arrived for a bunch of rich, old, white guys to tell us what movies from the previous year really inspired them.

Despite some obvious errors and omissions over the years, it really is an awards show like no other. (If nothing else, at least it isn’t the MTV Movie Awards where “Twilight” wins every category.)

Some of the movies I’m about to pick certainly weren’t my favorites, but this is the Oscars. For the movies I enjoyed most this year, check out my previous post.

And here are my last picks of the 2011-2012 awards season….

Best Documentary – “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (Although I wouldn’t mind “Undefeated”)

Best Cinematography – “Tree of Life” (Probably won’t, but totally deserves it. “The Artist” or “Hugo” for the win.)

Best Original Score – “The Artist” (I would have preferred “War Horse.”)

Best Original Song – “The Muppets” (“Rio” didn’t even deserve a nomination IMO)

Best Costume Design – “W.E.” (Ugh. Yes, the Madonna movie. Maybe “The Artist” can swoop in and save the Academy the embarrassment.)

Best Adapted Screenplay – “The Descendants” (Alexander Payne > Aaron Sorkin)

Best Original Screenplay – “Midnight in Paris” (Woody Allen by a mile IMO)

Best Foreign Film – “A Separation” (The Iranian film is the only holdover from Golden Globes, which it won.)

Best Animated Feature FIlm – “Rango” (Pixar needs to step up next time with “Brave.”)

Best Supporting Actress – Octavia Spencer from “The Help” (Melissa McCarthy would be a pleasant surprise though.)

Best Supporting Actor – Christopher Plummer from “Beginners” (Would make Plummer the oldest Oscar winner in history)

Best Actress – Viola Davis from “The Help” (would tie Glenn Close for being one of the unluckiest Oscar nominees in history)

Best Actor – George Clooney from “The Descendants” (But will probably go to Jean Dujardin for being just too darn charming in “The Artist.”)

Best Director – Martin Scorsese for “Hugo” (If the Academy had guts, it would be Terrence Malick for “Tree of Life.” If they are gullible, it will be “The Artist.” I decided to split the difference.)

Best Picture – “The Artist” (If you’re still awake at this point in the show, I commend you for finding the dull, obvious choices enjoyable.)

Well, that does it for my little preview. During the show, follow along on Twitter at @VC_Reviews or follow my friend Ian at @IanMenard. Share any opinions on my choices in the comments below.

Happy viewing.

 

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2011 in Review: My 10 Favorite Films

After a few days of putting this off, I thought it was about time for me to name my favorite movies of this past year. Better late than never, right?

Without further ado…

10. Barney’s Version

This movie REALLY went under the radar, as it was put into limited release during the Oscar season last year. For whatever reason, “Barney’s Version” got buried. It’s a shame because this movie was incredibly well-acted by Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman and a host of other supporting characters. What probably didn’t help the movie was a horrible trailer that made it look like a weird romantic comedy instead of the lifelong character study of Barney Panofsky. Although the actors are spot on and the writing is enjoyable, the one thing that kept this from being higher on my list was that the film, based on a novel of the same name, just felt waaay too long. Still, “Barney’s Version” ended up being my sleeper favorite of 2011.

9. Attack the Block

There’s something to be saild for filmmakers with real imagination. Although writer/director Joe Cornish shouldn’t be considered an elite director yet, this little sci-fi film of his was a real surprise. The story follows a group of young hoodlums who must band together when an alien species lands in their government housing area. For a genre that has seen pretty much everything, it’s always nice to experience a fresh take. A strong protagonist and some imaginative creatures make the premise work.

8. Margin Call

Another surprise favorite of mine was this take on the Wall street crisis which stars Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany and Simon Baker (tell me that casting list doesn’t give you goosebumps).

At the end of a long workday, an analyst at a financial firm discovers certain discrepancies that threaten to bring down the company. This begins a mad dash to fix the company’s bottom line before business resumes the next day.

What I loved about “Margin Call” was that its incredible cast was able to live up to the hype. Most times when a film like this comes along, big-name actors tend to get in each other’s way and the film feels a little disappointing. Each of this characters are fleshed out and everyone gets their time to shine. Combined with great pacing and a smart script, it’s a real winner.

7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I was wondering whether or not to include this since it’s a remake of a recent film, but I think its quality makes up for that fact. Besides, everything these days is based off a book, video game or TV show.

What made me love this one so much was the duo of Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. They really sold their characters from the Stieg Larsson novel. Throw in some great directing from David Fincher and a good score by Trent Reznor and you’ve got yourself a great movie.

6. Warrior

I’m not sure if there was another movie this year that surprised me as much as this one did. I went in expecting something marginally better than 2008’s “Never Back Down,” but found myself loving this film.

What on the surface appears to be a movie about mixed martial arts unfolds to be a compelling family drama. The scenes in the ring are great, but what really sells the film is the family dynamic. The recovering alcoholic (Nick Nolte, whose performance is an Oscar nominee) and his two estranged sons (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) steal the show in what could have been a very forgettable movie.

And now for the top 5…..

5. Drive

Some people found this movie very slow and boring. I am very glad to not be part of that group.

Is it a little slow? Yes. Boring? Not in the least. The film had my attention by the end of the first car chase. What I really liked about “Drive” was the way each scene was shot. It seemed like everyone took their time and milked each moment for what it was worth. Films these days can be in too much of a hurry and I appreciate the careful craftsmanship of director Nicholas Winding Refn.

On top of that there are some great performances in the film. Most notably Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston and Oscar nominee Albert Brooks.

4. The Artist

Yes, it’s supposed to win all the Oscars and I have it at number 4. I don’t really care. Even though I gave the film a near-perfect review myself, I still wouldn’t say it was my favorite movie of the year.

“The Artist” checks all the boxes for award material and it IS a great little film. However, I don’t think it hit me at the core like any of the films in my top 3 did.

3. The Descendants

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I wasn’t too interested. It looked it was trying too hard to be quirky and George Clooney films are often overrated. The film turned out to be a bit of a surprise for me when I left the theatre, though.

I’ve said before that family is one of the most powerful elements a film can have and this film really explored the family dynamic. Clooney does a great job of playing the patriach trying to keep his head above water after his wife falls into a coma. Between hospitals, visiting family members and trying to raise his daughter his character is given a lot of wiggle room (which he does very well with).

Alexander Payne is also a very gifted writer/director and the film works wonders with him at the helm.

2. 50/50

I almost have to call the decision between this film and my number one a tie. They are both great and really made an impact on me.

“50/50” is about a twenty-something (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is diagnosed with cancer and everything that comes after this revelation.

The film dances on the difficult line of mixing comedy and tragedy and walks away unscathed. Part of how it does this so well is the smart script by newbie writer Will Reiser. The rest can be found with the film’s very good cast – Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston and Philip Baker Hall.

And for my top choice….

1. Hugo

If you had told me a year ago that my favorite movie of the year was going to be a 3D movie, I would have laughed in your face.

Some people say it feels too long or that it can’t decide what it’s about, and I get that. There are few times that a movie actually feels magical and this was one of those times for me. I was swept away by pretty much every minute of this film.

Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are great together onscreen and the supporting performance by Ben Kingsley is fantastic. His scenes in both the present and his early filmmaking years are probably the best parts of the movie.

As for the directing, Martin Scorsese delivers a well-crafted love letter to cinema which can be enjoyed by anyone who has ever fallen head over heels while sitting in a theater chair.

That’s it for my ten favorite films of 2011. Did I miss your favorite? Let me know.

Check back on Sunday for my Oscar picks and follow along on Twitter as I’ll be covering the show at @VC_Reviews.

Happy viewing.

Review: “The Grey” (2012)

The only thing colder than the icy death stare of Liam Neeson is the Alaskan wilderness he struggles to survive in in his latest film, “The Grey.”

Since his career-altering role in 2008’s “Taken,” Neeson has found himself visiting our local theatres at the start of every year to remind us just how well he can throw a punch.

Things are a little different this time around, though, as Neeson’s character, John Ottoway must brave the harsh conditions of the Alaskan winter with six other survivors after a plane crash.

As they quickly learn, the cold weather and lack of food/water aren’t the only threats to their survival. A pack of wolves continually hunts the survivors, picking them off one by one.

Their choice is simple: stay put and hope the wolves don’t kill them all before a rescue party finds them or try to find their own way home.

Neeson is in top form with this survival tale. He still carries the macho man attitude and hardcore dialogue that people expect of him these days, but his character is much more than that. It is a layered performance that should remind audiences that this is the same actor from movies like “Schindler’s List.”

After taking a short break from good filmmaking to make 2010’s “The A-Team,” director Joe Carnahan has returned to his early signs of promise with this film. The early plane crash scene is fantastic in that it is both well shot and really gives the audience the feeling of what a plane crash would feel like if you were there.

While I wasn’t too appreciative of the choice of shaky cam in a couple of scenes and the director’s need for almost every shot to be a close-up (Let the camera explore the wilderness!), Carnahan puts together a pretty solid film overall.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was the great soundtrack by German composer Marc Streitenfeld. It fits the film incredibly well with moments of despair, tension and horror. Near the end of the film, it fits perfectly with what is happening onscreen.

As for the negatives, there are mainly two complaints that I have. The first has to do with the realism of the film’s circumstances. Would wolves be attacking 7 men? Are Neeson’s character’s ideas the best? While I do appreciate realism in films at times, I don’t feel like the lack of it here takes away from the film too much. It would have been nice, but it’s still great to watch.

Secondly, there is little-to-no character development for 70% of the people onscreen. When watching the credits afterward (side note: stay until after the credits for a little bonus scene), I found myself asking twice “Wait. That guy was in this?!” Most of the characters have facial hair and are constantly covering their faces so it can be hard at times to know who is who.

Aside from those two things, I felt like this film was lightyears ahead of what we usually see at this time of year. While some may find the ending a little unsatisfying, it fits the movie’s message and I thought it worked.

Grade: B

Come back in the next few days to see the second half of my favorite films of 2011. Next week I’ll start getting ready for one of my favorite nights of the year, the Academy Awards.

Happy viewing.

 

I Swear I’m Not Dead (My Favorite Films of 2011, Part One)

Let’s call this post “The Honorable Mention” list.

I try to not use the word BEST because this stuff is so subjective already and that way I can leave out your favorite movie without finding a horse head in my bed the next morning.

So let’s take a look at the movies I thought were good, but just fell short of my Top Ten.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

I know certain people will hate me for not making this the No. 1 movie of all time, but I can live with that.  I was a late bloomer on this series, as I hadn’t seen any of the movies until last year and I still haven’t read a page of the J.K. Rowling books. That being said, I enjoyed this movie more than any of the others in the series and it felt that director David Yates and the entire production team put out a fitting end for the series that coincided with many people’s childhood.

A Better Life

This one flew under the radar for many in mainstream audiences since it didn’t have any big names attached and came out this past summer when most people were thinking about “Transformers” or “Super 8.” I believe one of the most powerful dramatic elements of film is the family. We all identify with family one way or the other and there are a lot of different angles to take. This film focuses on the relationship between a father and son and really hits home at its emotional core. Some people are angry about Michael Fassbender not getting nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Shame” (and they should be) but I’m really glad the Academy remembered Demian Bichir at the time of casting ballots.

X-Men: First Class

This was not a perfect movie. There are questions about continuity with the Hugh Jackman franchise, a horrible performance by January Jones and confusing character motivations to say the least. However, the film was able to somewhat revitalize a franchise that I myself wanted to bury in a dark, unmarked hole after the mistakes of “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender also nailed there parts in my opinion. The latter finally gaining the mainstream attention he deserved was icing on the cake.

Rango

I have always hated how quickly the Western was thrown under the bus after the Clint Eastwood years in America. “Rango” was a great introduction to Westerns for the younger generation as well as a good animated movie. It may not have been Pixar-ian in its ability to connect with everyone on the same level but it was certainly better than that studio’s release, “Cars 2,” this year.

Mission Impossible 4

Action movies tend to be overlooked during the awards season with the exception of technical categories. While I’m perfectly fine with that 90% of the time, I do feel that its worth at least mentioning when a blockbuster does everything right and delivers a film better than the average cannon fodder.

Super 8

Despite his constant upstaging of my name on Google search results, I really like JJ Abrams. His work here did seem to unravel a bit as the film progressed, but it was a great homage to both monster movies and the kind of early start filmmakers had back in the day. In a different era and with a completely different tone, seeing the kids work with cameras and make-up reminds me of other movies this year that were about the filmmaking process.

The Ides of March

I don’t want to say this film is a disappointment (it is, after all, on my list), but given the cast it had (George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, etc.), “The Ides of March” could have been a grand slam. Instead it was a nice home run.

Well, that’s all for this post. Check back later this week when I’ll have the final list of my ten favorite films of 2011. Feel free to agree/disagree with my choices in the comments below.

Happy viewing.

Review – “War Horse” (2011)

Sometimes when an amazing director gets older, his films start to get less and less impressive. It could be because there are no longer people around him that will say “no” when it needs to be said or maybe the director is only working on passion projects at this point and is a little too close to the project to make necessary choices. Regardless of reason, I’ve seen it from one of my film heroes recently (Clint Eastwood) and it’s far from an isolated incident.

With that introduction, let me say that I was a little nervous about Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” when I was headed to the theatre.

The story begins with the birth of Joey, a thoroughbred horse who is purchased by an old farmer (Peter Mullan) much to the dismay of his wife (Emily Watson). The farmer’s son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), offers to train Joey and, over time, develops a close friendship with the horse. This all changes when Albert has to sell Joey to a military officer (Tom Hiddleston of “Thor” fame) as England is called into WWI.

From what you might call a series of unfortunate events, Joey changes hands between a series of characters on both sides of the battle lines all the while on a journey to make it back home.

As you could probably determine from the title, Joey is the main character in this film. His birth is the beginning of the film and the plot is his story. This might be a detriment to the film for some but Spielberg does a good job of making the horse feel like a human character. Not only do we feel for him in times of trouble but he even has a companion for most of his journey (a fellow horse, not like a cutesy bird or something far-fetched).

It may be Joey’s story, but he is far from alone throughout the film. The supporting cast includes the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis and the always amazing Niels Arestrup. These actors and the characters that they portray give the audience a human element to see the film through. This keeps the film from being too cartoonish and will certainly aid in storytelling.

At its best, “War Horse” is soaked with an emotional core that drives the film to excellence. From the beautiful cinematography to a moving score by John Williams, the film is sure to move you.

On the other side of things, the fact that audiences are forced to endure an animal as a protagonist isn’t always the easiest sell. While it usually works, I think most audiences would rather watch a human being (not that that would make any sense within this story frame, but it probably swayed a few minds at the box office).

Coming in hesitant, I found myself being wrapped up in the story of a young man and his best friend. Is it Spielberg at his best? No, but it’s still Spielberg.

Grade: B

Happy viewing