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Thursday, February 11, 2016

My Picks for the 2016 Academy Awards

            We’re here.  Thank the Lord, at long last we’re here.  All the other major awards, committees, and guilds have had their say, and that last bloated prestige ceremony, the Oscars, is almost upon us, after which 2015 will officially and forever be yesterday’s news. 

            Not that this year’s ceremony will take place without the customary controversy hanging over its head, and this year the debate has been particularly contentious.  For the second straight year, every single acting nomination slot has gone to a white actor or actress, and the Directing slot breaks up the homogeneity with a lone repeat nomination for Alejandro Inarritu.  Nothing for Tangerine or Chi-Raq (and the expected nomination for Idris Elba in Beasts of no Nation never materialized), and the only nominations for the otherwise very well-received Creed and Straight Outta Compton went to prominent white people involved. 

            This immediately prompted a resurrection of last year’s equally-merited hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, but this time things went even further when a host of prominent black film figures (including Spike Lee and Will Smith) announced they would boycott this year’s ceremony as a result.  This, in turn, prompted a surprisingly open announcement by the Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs that she would push for substantial change in Academy membership, including seeking to double the number of minorities among the voting ranks over the next few years, and even floated the idea of culling voting roles of anyone who hasn’t been active in the film industry for at least a decade. 

            And in turn, this (unsurprisingly) led to the typical tone-deaf backlash against the backlash, with older members claiming ageism and many publicly decrying such moves like these as effort to paint anyone old and white with the brush of racism- “I’m not racist!  I voted to give Sidney Poitier his Oscar all those decades ago!  I CAN’T be racist!” 

            Which, as always, completely misses the point of why this is a problem, why people are upset about it, and why the measures announced by Isaacs are an essential (if only an initial and incomplete) step towards fixing yet another part of American society that blindly perpetuates racial divides without even realizing. 

            To start off, no one is implicating any one individual or group of people as being explicitly, overtly racist.  To claim otherwise is to stonewall real discussion and create a strawman argument the ignorant can use to perpetuate their ignorance and avoid having to think too hard about what is, and I grant this without reservation, a very complicated, messy, and unpleasant topic to have to tackle.  And at any rate, individual or overt acts of racism are not the problem- it’s the structure of an entire industry that mirrors the various inequalities and white-skewing perspectives that nearly every other major American institution was built on. 

            Acknowledging that the current situation is what it is and that it needs to change, and that we all might have been contributing to the problem up to now without even realizing it, doesn’t make all of us awful people.  It doesn’t make us “racists” (at least not in the sense most people mean).  It does mean that we all need to think about why it is that an overwhelmingly old, white, male elite buddy club only seems to find traditionalist movies about white people doing great stuff worthy of getting “Best of the Year” labels, how we got here, and what needs to change in order for the organizations that take it upon themselves to celebrate the best of the best by handing out awards (and yes, award recognition DOES play a HUGE role in what sorts of projects get studio funding and what doesn’t).  We need to be honest, and we need to work really, really hard to make things better.  In the end, I don’t think that’s asking too much. 

            Alright, and now that we have the heady stuff out of the way, I have a confession I really should make- I personally was somewhat relieved by this year’s group of nominees.  Yes, the whiteness of the main categories is deplorable, but again, this problem is a longstanding structural one and it would have been foolish to expect that an Academy capable of denying Selma its due would come around and be charmed enough by a Tangerine or a Chi-Raq to offer it the time of day.  So I am disappointed, certainly, but hardly surprised. 

            What pleased me was that, although there were snubs aplenty this year, it is finally NOT the case that the snubbery can be tied to one particularly bad movie eating up a huge number of nomination slots.  Each of the last three years featured at least one completely average and/or downright bad movie (particularly American Sniper, American Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook, in reverse order) sucking in huge numbers of nominations, and denying precious ballot space for far better films (I challenge anyone to argue that Bradley Cooper’s awful Texan drawl in Sniper was actually more memorable that Oyelowo’s breathtaking turn as Dr. King in Selma).  Sure, mediocrities like Joy and Fifty Shades snuck in with a nom apiece, but that always happens.  At least the multiple award-works are the sort of films that deserve to be there, even if they aren’t nearly represented enough of a world where over 500 new movies come out every year.  So I choose to be grateful for the little things in life. 

            As always, because I am loathe to try and predict how Academy voters think, the following are not my predictions of who win what.  These are the movies and people that I personally feel deserve to win out of the nominated field.  I look forward to being completely wrong come February 28.  Let us begin. 


Writing: Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies- Matt Charman, Joel and Ethan Coen
Ex Machina- Alex Garland
Inside Out- Pete Doctor, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Spotlight- Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Straight Outta Compton- Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff

Winner: Ex Machina

            Oof.  Right off the bat, this is an insanely hard one to pick, because all of these were great movies.  That said, I am giving this one to Ex Machina, since it was one of the thematically heaviest films nominated.  Inside Out certainly rivaled it in terms of the screenplay’s brilliant depth, but that movie is already a lock for another pick on this list, and I like to spread the love on my ballet around as much as I can.  

Writing Adapted Screenplay:

The Big Short- Adam McKay, Charles Randolph
Brooklyn- Nick Hornby
Carol- Phyllis Nagy
Room- Emma Donoghue
The Martian- Drew Goddard

Winner: Brooklyn

            Again, this is a remarkably good lineup, with no real bad pick.  However, I did just praise Brooklyn as my favorite book adaptation of the year, so I will stick to my guns here and pencil it in for this one.  If I had to pick a second choice (and one more likely to actually win), I would go with The Big Short

Visual Effects:

Ex Machina- Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington, Sara Bennett
The Martian- Richard Stammers, Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence, Steven Warner
Mad Max: Fury Road- Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams
The Revenant- Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith, Cameron Waldbauer
Star Wars: The Force Awakens- Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, Chris Corbould

Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road

            And once again, all the films here are worthy picks.  However, no movie struck me as quite so visually fascinating and unique (and colorful!) as Mad Max.  While its liberal use of practical effects and minimal CGI additions are laudable, what makes it stand out is not just that they did it, but that both were perfectly balanced in service of making a film that looked new and different, that really gave us a different world we could sink into. 

Sound Mixing:

Bridge of Spies- Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, Drew Kunin
The Revenant- Jon Taylor, Frank Montano, Randy Thom, Chris Duesterdiek
Mad Max: Fury Road- Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff, Ben Osmo
Star Wars: The Force Awakens- Andy Nelson, Christopher Scarabosio, Stuart Wilson
The Martian- Paul Massey Mark Taylor, Mac Ruth

Winner: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

            It’s amazing to see a Star Wars film back and getting several awards nominations, so I think it should get at least one of the big technical awards.  Here’s hoping that the next films keep expanding the narrative, so that down the line we can get a Best Picture nomination, and (fingers crossed!) an acting nomination for Daisy Ridley (please?). 

Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road- Mark Mangini and David White
The Martian- Oliver Tarney
Sicario- Alan Robert Murray
The Revenant- Martin Hernandez and Lon Bender
Star Wars: The Force Awakens- Matthew Wood and David Acord

Winner: The Martian

            Much of what made The Martian so much fun was its liberal use of classic disco jams (much to Matt Damon’s dismay), and their coming and going was a great bit of work on the part of Ridley Scott’s team. 

Short Film (Live Action):

Ave Maria- Basil Khalil and Eric Dupont
Day One- Henry Hughes
Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)- Patrick Vollrath
Stutterer- Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage
Shok- Jamie Donoughue

Winner: N/A

            Unfortunately, as is the case every year, there are virtually no ways outside of the film festival circuit to see the sort of movies that end up being picked for this, so I am not in a position to pick a winner. 

Short Film (Animated):

Bear Story- Gabriel Osorio and Pato Escala
We Can’t Live Without The Cosmos- Konstantin Bronzit
World of Tomorrow- Don Hertzfeldt
Prologue- Richard Williams and Imogen Sutton
Sanjay’s Super Team- Sanjay Patel and Nicole Grindle

Winner: N/A

            See above. 

Production Design:

Bridge of Spies- Adam Stockhausen, Rena DeAngelo, Bernhard Henrich
The Danish Girl- Eve Stewart, Michael Standish
Mad Max: Fury Road- Colin Gibson, Lisa Thompson
The Martian- Arthur Max, Celia Boback
The Revenant- Jack Fisk and Hamish Purdy

Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road

            For my money, while this is as solid a selection as most of the other categories this year, there’s no competition as to which film most deserves the prize.  The level of detail that went into designing every facet of this beautifully bizarre world is as much a marvel to behold as the terribly spectacular splendor of its action. 

Music (Original Song):

“Earned It” (Fifty Shades of Gray)- The Weekend, Ahmad Balshe, Jason Daheala Quenneville
“Writing’s On The Wall” (Spectre) Jimmy Napes, Sam Smith
“Til It Happens To You” (The Hunting Ground)- Dianne Warren, Lady Gaga
“Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction)- J. Ralph, Anohni
“Simple Song #3” (Youth)- David Lang

Winner: “‘Til It Happens To You” (The Hunting Ground)

            God, what a bleak bunch of entries this year.  And….nearly all kind of boring too.  I had more interest in the Lady Gaga song from the start (partially because the subject matter of The Hunting Ground is particularly important), but it also stands out way more than any of the dreary stuff filling out the nominee roles (and I the only one immensely disappointed that the James Bond song wasn’t this?). 

Music (Original Score):

Bridge of Spies- Thomas Newman
Carol- Carter Burwell
Star Wars: The Force Awakens- John Williams
Sicario- Johan Johannsson
The Hateful Eight- Ennio Morricone

Winner: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

            All due respect to Morricone, who also made my Favorite Scores list, but the power of the Star Wars music is undeniable.  John Williams is more than overdue for another statue. 

Makeup and Hairstyling:

Mad Max: Fury Road- Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardegga, Damian Martin
The Revenant- Sian Grigg, Duncan Jarman, Robert Pandini
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared- Love Larson, Eva von Bahr

Winner: The Revenant

            This is another agonizingly close choice- Mad Max and The Revenant are both movies that feature some remarkably ugly/dirty/beat-up visages, and utterly believable ones at that, and that’s a trick all in the makeup.  So here, both are worthy picks in my mind.  However, I am already dishing out a lot of other awards to Mad Max, and as I said, I do like to spread the love where I reasonably can. 

Foreign Language Film:

Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia)- Ciro Guerra
Son of Saul (Hungary)- Laszlo Nemes
Mustang (France)- Deniz Gamze Ergueven
Theeb (Jordan)- Naji Abu Nawar
A War (Denmark)- Tobias Lindholm

Winner: N/A

            I was fortunate enough to see over 20 non-English language films this year, both in theaters and at film festivals, including some fantastic Japanese works and some genuinely groundbreaking new pieces from the German film industry.  Sadly, none of them fell within the depressingly narrow boundaries the Academy sets up for what movies are allowed to qualify for this award, so none of them are among the nominees list.  Hence, I am not able to pick a winner. 

Film Editing:

The Big Short- Hank Corwin
Spotlight- Tom McArdle
Star Wars: The Force Awakens- Maryanne Brandon, Mary Jo Markey
Mad Max: Fury Road- Margaret Sixel
The Revenant- Stephen Mirrione

Winner: The Big Short

            While Mad Max, Star Wars, and The Revenant all have a worthy claim to the gold here, there was a particular art to how well the hectic cutting and transitioning in The Big Short brought across as much about the world of its subject matter as any of the exposition could.  Also, there are precious few other categories where I can give this film an award, and The Big Short deserves at least one statue. 

Documentary (Short Subject):

Body Team 12- David Darg, Bryn Mooser
Chau, Beyond the Lines- Courtney Marsh, Jerry Franck
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah- Adam Benzine
Last Day of Freedom- Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness- Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Winner: N/A

            See the other Shorts above. 

Documentary (Feature):

Amy- Asif Kapadia, James Gay-Rees
What Happened, Miss Simone?- Liz Garbus, Amy Hobby, Justin Wilkes
Cartel Land- Matthew Heinemann, Tom Yellin
The Look of Silence- Joshua Oppenheimer,
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom- Evgeny Afineevsky and Den Tolmor

Winner: Amy

            This one’s pretty straightforward- Amy was my favorite documentary of the year, hence it easily earns the top prize in my book (although if I were in the betting market, I would put my money on Oppenheimer getting the prize, since he was denied last time around for The Act of Killing). 

Directing:

The Big Short- Adam McKay
Mad Max: Fury Road- George Miller
Room- Lenny Abrahamson
Spotlight- Tom McCarthy
The Revenant- Alejandro Inarritu

Winner: George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

            No doubt for me here- there is something remarkably inspiring (much like Scorcese’s inspired work a few years ago on Wolf of Wall Street) in seeing an already long-established director come storming back at an age when most of their peers are enjoying quiet retirement to put fellow artists half their age to shame with work as good as anything they’ve ever produced. 

Costume Design:

Carol- Sandy Powell
Mad Max: Fury Road- Jenny Beavan
The Revenant- Jacqueline West
Cinderella- Sandy Powell
The Danish Girl- Paco Delgado

Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road

            Sticking with my favorite film of the year on this one as well.  Mad Max all the way. 

Cinematography:

Carol- Ed Lachman
The Revenant- Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario- Roger Deakins
The Hateful Eight- Robert Richardson
Mad Max: Fury Road- John Seale

Winner: The Revenant 

            Yet another packed category, and one of the hardest picks for me.  I was sorely tempted to go with Mad Max again here, but I am already laying heavy attention on it in other categories.  I thought the opening shot alone for The Hateful Eight was one of the most inventive uses of a camera I’ve ever seen.  But it’s hard to go against Lubezki, even though he won last year as well, and DAMN, The Revenant just looks so good. 

Animated Feature Film:

Anomalisa
Boy & The World
Inside Out
Shaun The Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

Winner: Inside Out

            Like with Amy, this is an easy pick.  Inside Out was my favorite animated film of the year, and this year I expect the Academy will actually agree with me. 

Actress in a Supporting Role:

Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)
Rooney Mara (Carol)
Rachel McAdams (Spotlight)
Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)
Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)

Winner: Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

            I really wish we had more of the cast from The Hateful Eight to pick from in the acting categories this year, but sadly, we don’t, so Jennifer will have to do.  Her treacherous Daisy is just one of the many acting delights this work has to offer, and while she certainly isn’t the only reason to give the film a watch, she sure helps its case. 

Actor in a Supporting Role:

Christian Bale (The Big Short)
Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)
Sylvester Stallone (Creed)
Tom Hardy (The Revenant)
Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)

Winner: Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

            While I am not as high on Bridge of Spies as a lot of awards committees have been, but it is a great piece of classic Cold War thriller-drama from one of the greatest living filmmakers starring one of the greatest living actors, so yeah, I can very well see where the praise comes from.  As much as I adore Tom Hanks though, Mark Rylance’s unruffled, sober, and somewhat grim Soviet spy has left an indelible impression on me.  His quiet, oft-repeated line, “Would it help?” and the meaning the film associates with it has resounded in my head through a few hard personal situations, and that’s the kind of subtle acting craft I feel should be rewarded. 

Actress in a Leading Role:

Cate Blanchett (Carol)
Brie Larson (Room)
Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)
Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

Winner: Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

            Brooklyn was one of the most emotional theater experiences I had all year, and much of that can be attributed to Saoirse’s carefully-crafted performance of a woman coming into her own through sheer force of will.  The performance itself was every bit as much a work of art as the film, and it turned Saoirse into one of my favorite actresses currently working. 

Actor in a Leading Role:

Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)
Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)
Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)
Matt Damon (The Martian)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

Winner: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

            Alright, let’s get this bit of unpleasantness out of the way: The Revenant is by no means one of DiCaprio’s best performances, nor does it rank among the best films he’s attached his name to.  Which means that, since it’s all but inevitable he will finally win one this time around, the Academy is set to continue its long tradition of its acting award picks being either downright mistakes, or apologies for the mistakes, or apologies for past apologies for mistakes; see Jennifer Lawrence winning for the mediocre Silver Linings Playbook as an apology for not winning for the vastly superior Winter’s Bone, which was the year they gave another Oscar to Meryl Streep as an apology for all the better past roles they’d made the mistake of not awarding her for, as just one example of the sort of endless cycle this creates. 

            That said, this is a pretty weak year for male acting nominees in general, especially compared with some of the greatness of the past two years, and DiCaprio’s physical dedication to the role is never less than impressive.  So while I wouldn’t consider DiCaprio’s work to be among the best of the year overall, I did think it was the best out of this particularly narrow selection we have to choose from.  Which at least makes this one more in tune with the spirit of the award than a simple pity selection. 

Best Picture:

The Big Short
Brookyln
Bridge of Spies
The Revenant
The Martian
Room
Mad Max: Fury Road
Spotlight

Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road

            Surprise surprise, my #1 film of the year is also my pick for Best Picture, and in a just world, I could feel safe calling this a prediction too.  Sadly, while I think the film will pick up a few of the technical awards, I think will end up being way too out there for the Academy to give it the top prize.  If this ends up being the case, I would also be fine with The Big Short, Brooklyn, or The Martian as a second choice.  Just not The Revenant.  Please, not The Revenant



            Phew.  Done and done.  That’s it!  My picks for the 2016 Academy Awards.  If you weren’t keeping score at home, here’s my final breakdown-

Mad Max: Fury Road (5)- Visual Effects, Production Design, Directing, Costume Design, Best Picture
The Revenant (3)- Makeup & Hairstyling, Cinematography, Leading Actor
Brooklyn (2)- Adapted Screenplay, Leading Actress
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2)- Sound Mixing, Original Score
The Big Short (1)- Film Editing
Ex Machina (1)- Original Screenplay
The Martian (1)- Sound Editing
The Hunting Ground (1)- Original Song
Amy (1)- Documentary Feature
Inside Out (1)- Animated Feature
The Hateful Eight (1)- Supporting Actress
Bridge of Spies (1)- Supporting Actor

             Tune in for the Oscars with me (and follow my exhaustion-fueled Twitter stream at https://twitter.com/NoahFranc) to get good and angry at how totally off all my predictions will inevitably be.  Until then! 


-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Top Original Film Scores/Soundtracks of 2015

            **for my official Top 10 Films list, click here**

            **for my personal film awards, click here**

            I love music.  I also love movies.  Therefore, it stands to reason that I would be slightly manically obsessed with the great music that often walks hand-in-hand with great movies.  In fact, given the rise of studio pop and the popular decline of classical composition, I am of the opinion that a very large percentage of the best music written in the past 50 years consists of original film scores.  And after I had such fun last year listing my favorite new sets of music, I am back to opine briefly on my favorite original works from 2015. 

            For this list, I only consider movies with scores/soundtracks either completely or mostly original, which means nothing that used a mixed track of other works.  That said, I must proffer a brief shout-out to The Big Short, which supplemented its fantastic editing with a topically perfect selection of classic rock/heavy metal tracks (here’s to getting a Mastodon song in an Oscar-nominated film!). 

8. The Salt of the Earth (Laurent Petitgand)

            It’s unusual to associate great original music with a documentary (at least for me), but part of the appeal in this moving portrait of an artist almost losing all faith in humanity, only to find it again late in life, lay in the quiet undertones of its score, providing an ambient background and was a perfect addition to the start beauty of the photographic works of art it discusses. 

7. Ex Machina (Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow)

            Sci-fi has always provided us with some of the most enduring musical themes, and while Ex Machina might not have anything as infectious or catchy to its music as another sci-fi film from 2015 we’ll get to shortly, it’s no slouch in the audio department.  The undercurrent of the soundtrack expertly matched the surreal smoothness of the cinematography, effectively building an atmosphere that, almost from the word “go,” seems to whisper, “Something’s not right here…”

6. The Hateful Eight (Ennio Morricone)

            Ennio Morricone made a big turnaround from heavily criticizing Tarantino’s use of music in his movies just a few years ago, and provided a wholly new original score for his latest romp into the territory of the quasi-Western flick.  Much of it is precisely the kind of over-the-top that just about any Tarantino film needs, but a big part of what drew me into the experience of the film was the expertly-crafted groove of this quieter, more subtle opening track. 


            Is there any point in me elaborating on why this is on here?  It’s John.  Fuckmothering.  Williams. 

4. Pale Moon (little moa and 小野雄紀/山口龍夫)

**there is currently no way to find the soundtrack on Youtube, so here is a link to the Itunes page**

            Given how big a fan I am of the work Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have done on David Fincher’s films, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the mix of score and song provided for my favorite Japanese film of the year, much of which falls under a similar vein sound-wise; a mixture of ambience and slick electronic beats that further immerse the film in its setting. 

3. Inside Out (Michael Giacchino)

            Like with John Williams, no surprise here, since Pixar’s best works have almost always included fantastic original scores.  Inside Out joins the ranks of Up, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and other great works by the animation giant that deserve to be heard just as much as they deserve to be seen. 

2. Mad Max: Fury Road (Junkie XL)

            Of course this is on the list.  Just listen to that main track.  Pulse-pounding.  Gets your rage on.  Makes you want to fling flaming guitars at a polar bear.  Bear witness to this, my friends, for THIS is how the right music can make a solidly great action film into an experience of genuinely epic proportions. 

1. Chi-Raq (Terence Blanchard)

            For the first time in Lord knows how long, we got a great musical movie that actually used original music.  The fact that it was great music in and of itself was a huge part of what makes Chi-Raq such a unique viewing experience, and for this, that made the excellence of the music here a more crucial key to the effectiveness of the film than any other original work that came out this year.  As a result, not only does Chi-Raq have a well-deserved place on my Top 10 List, its soundtrack also earns it the distinction (in my mind, at least) of being the best original film music to come out last year. 



            This officially concludes my own look-back at what I found to be the best in film for 2015.  Up next, my picks for the 2015 Oscars, after which we can finally close the book on last year and look forward to whatever 2016 has in store for us.  

Monday, February 1, 2016

Noah’s Official 2015 Movie Awards

**for my official Top 10 Favorite Movies list for 2015, click here**

            Continuing with our final look-back at the movies of 2015, and after a hiatus from doing this last year, I am back to provide a little bit of added color to my Top 10 list with some of my own personal awards to remember the best, worst, quirkiest, and most memorable stuff I had the fortune of witnessing over the course of watching the roughly 5 dozen films that currently sit on my “Seen” list.  All awards are of my own design.  I expect to receive full credit and funding from the Academy any day now. 

            Oh, and a great big spoiler blanker from here on out.  Last warning. 

The Anti-Twilight Award for Best Vampire Film- 
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night


            For too long, the existence of Twilight has hung over the world of the sexily undead like the carcass of a massive, sparkly albatross.  No more, for the Iranians have arrived to remind us in the West of how a REAL vampire gets down to business.  Despite lacking the pure physical presence of the classic Vlad Draculs, Sheila Vand is a stunning anchor for this combination horror/love story.  It ends up feeling oddly appropriate (and maybe even a bit subversive?) that, even as a vampire, she drapes herself in the full-body dress that restrictive regimes like those in Iran have made so infamous.  The single, all-black form seems to suck in all light around it, giving the character her own unique way of striking terror into the hearts of both her victims and the audience. 

The Laverne Cox Award for Best Unexpected Trans-Related Side Story-
Predestination


            Predestination was a tightly-written and wickedly clever bit of sci-fi madness, second only to Ex Machina in that particular genre this year.  But I more or less expected that going in.  What I was wholly unprepared for was a sudden deviation from the main plot in the second act when a new character walks in unannounced, and begins to tell us the whole story of how he, designated as female at birth, eventually (for several very specific reasons I won't detail here) had to transition to being a man.  How this ties into the larger plot of the movie I won’t dare spoil, but I will say that the real miracle isn’t that what amounts to a short-film-within-a-film  ends up being surprisingly moving and emotionally touching, but that the switch from it out of the realm of time-traveling sci-fi is handled so flawlessly that, at first, you don’t even realized you’ve been detoured into a whole other film. 

The Facepalm Award for Year’s Biggest Letdown- 
Queen of the Desert


            For a while, it looked like this one would go to Tomorrowland, easily the weakest Brad Bird vehicle so far when compared to The Iron Giant and the incredible work he’s done with Pixar.  However, the film did have a few scenes or moments of real poetry, plus an absolutely perfect ending to a shaky story that at least made the film worth seeing, if only once.  It was a misfire, but a creatively interesting one. 

            Queen of the Desert, on the other, disappoints in how utterly unremarkable it is on every conceivable level.  Nothing about is actively bad- there are no offensive historical errors or stereotypes on display, the acting is fine, and it’s competently made- but given how hugely underappreciated Gertrude Bell is, and how much rich material there is in her life to make a Grade A masterpiece out of, the film being this boring is arguably worse than if it had been straight-up awful.  Even the camerawork is surprisingly unnoticeable, especially given Werner Herzog’s legendary propensity for being so extremely devoted to getting the perfect shot, he actually advocates getting arrested if that’s what it takes.  What a bummer. 

The Happy Feet Award for Best, Most Bodacious Dance Number- 
Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina)


            We all thought we loved Ex Machina for its brilliant and multi-layered story, sleek visuals, stunning effects, jaw-dropping ending, and breakout performances by Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and a fantastic Alicia Vikander.  But we were wrong.  We loved it for the scene where Oscar Isaac breaks out his moves and makes every dancer who’d spent a lifetime training weep in utter shame at their lack of grace and craft.  Simply marvelous. 

The Alpha and Omega Award for Most Ubiquitous Screen Presence- 
Domhnall Gleeson


            Every now and then, for no particular reason, an actor or actress will have a year where they make the jump from being occasionally recognizable from a few early bit roles to suddenly being everywhere, and even for casual moviegoers there is no escaping them.  This year that person was Domhnall Gleeson, who had lead or significant side roles in 4 major big-screen movies.  Even more amazingly, all of them either directly made my Top 10 list (Brooklyn and Ex Machina) or eked out an Honorable Mention (Star Wars: Episode VII and The Revenant), making him the most-represented actor in any such list I’ve yet made. 

            Only time will tell if this is just a flash in the pan or if he will be part of the next generation of great screen actors, but given how he’s impressed so far (plus the fact that he’s the son of the legendary Brendan Gleeson), I’m willing to bet money it’ll be the latter. 

The Puck Award for Best On-Screen Narration- 
Samuel Jackson (Chi-Raq), Ryan Gosling (The Big Short)



            Chi-Raq and The Big Short are both great, remarkable movies (hence why both cracked my Top 5), and a big part of what makes them such a joy to watch are the two cheeky, wisecracking, all-knowing narrators that guide us through the scenes of destruction and depravity each film makes us bear witness to. 

            Samuel Jackson always seems to be playing the same character in all his films, but damn, he does it so well I just can’t help but love it anyway.  We all love it.  As Dolmedes, he slips in between the lines of racial division to deliver a potent mix of jokes, wisecracks, polemic admonitions, and lyrical wisdom, which, in addition to a stellar lead performance by Teyonah Parris, ends up being the glue that holds together the film’s many disparate parts. 

            Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, I think has always been a bit underrated by people (possible because his name and face bear a close resemblance to the significantly less-talented Ryan Reynolds).  He might not be nearly as crass or as fascinatingly horrible as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfourt, but his curious blend of smarts, slime, and quasi-racist humor are their own fascinating sideshow, even though its surrounded by an entire class of top-level actors doing what they do best. 

The Wrench-Your-Heart-Out Award for Most Moving Death Scene- 
Still The Water

            Still The Water is, in a sense, a very Japanese film in how minimalist it keeps its scenes and overall story.  This is no better displayed than right around the middle, when the long-suffering mother of the main character passes away, surrounded by her family and seemingly half the town.  It seems to drag on for ages; she grows weaker with each passing minute, but she can’t quite let go just yet, and eventually she asks the women of the town to sing to help her soul along.  It’s agonizing, painful, and uncomfortable to watch, and in that sense perfectly conveys the deep sadness of having to wait and watch for the end of a loved one. 

The Cloning Award for Strangest Duplication of Character Design and Story Role- 
Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) and Evangeline Lilly (Ant-Man)


            Alright, someone needs to fess up.  One of you copied the other.  We all know it happened, now just tell us who the guilty party is.  I mean, forcing two great actresses into side roles where they struggle with poorly-explained emotional issues and get a romance shoe-horned in in the most awkward way possible is bad enough, but then you go and do THIS? 

            Seriously, look at them!  Blink and they are one! 

The Pacific Rim Award for Most Mind-Fuckingly Insane Action Sequence- 
Colin Firth and the Westboro Baptist Church (Kingsman: The Secret Service) WARNING: VIDEO VERY NSFW

            Jesus Christ, what the hell.  This scene.  Holy shit. 

            As part of their efforts to thwart the bad guy’s plan to use mind control technology to destroy the world, the Kingsmen send Colin Firth to investigate a famously racist and homophobic church (okay, it’s not CALLED the Westboro Baptist Church, but who do they think they’re kidding?) where they believe he will test it.  Lo and behold, he does, and Colin Firth the trained world-class assassin is caught up in it.  What results is one of the most spectacular, mind-numbing, excruciatingly brutal bloodbaths I have ever seen.  The madness needed to think up every step and every way in which Firth slaughters a room full of the worst of humanity AND to see it through to completion boggled my mind.  What has been seen cannot be unseen. 

The Screw High School Award for Best Use of Pomp and Circumstance- Kingsman: The Secret Service (VIDEO ALSO NSFW)

            After the Westboro Massacre (see above), I thought I had seen the ballsiest, nuttiest, dare-you-not-to-laugh-at-this thing I would see all year.  I was wrong. 

            At the very end of the movie, as the action climax in the villain’s bunker comes to a head, the day is saved when the good guys are able to reverse-engineer the chips in the necks of the villain’s army and allies (which include, we learn, almost every world leader INCLUDING Barack Obama), causing them to quite literally blow the head off of every single bad guy around the entire globe, leaving the mastermind of the whole affair alone and defenseless (sort of). 

            For reasons I am too emotionally well-balanced to fathom, the filmmakers chose to depict this sequence of events by having each head blow up in a cloud of multi-colored smoke, and each set or group of exploding noggins goes off in time to the strains of that infamous high school graduation classic, Pomp and Circumstance.  And it is glorious. 

The Loony Tunes Award for Most Absurd Situational Survival Feats- 
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

            I liked The Revenant a lot.  It was gorgeous to look at, it was terrifying seeing the lengths to which Leonardo DiCaprio was forced to push himself in his (hopefully no longer futile) quest for Oscar gold, and the scenery made me really, really, really want to go to Canada.  But let’s be honest, as well-made as the endeavor was, the things the main character survives get pretty ridiculous by the end, to the point where I almost felt it would have made more sense to replace Tom Hardy with a roadrunner. 

The Homer Award for Most Lyrical Script- 
Chi-Raq

            A really, really good screenplay (or script) is incredibly hard to write.  How much harder must it be to use a storyline that’s thousands of years old, update all the language to make it sound like a fit in the 21st century, have almost the whole damn thing rhyme, and STILL get actors who can make it sound natural as breathing?  That is the task Spike Lee set out to accomplish with Chi-Raq, and he succeeded marvelously.  I adore the language of this film, every broken-meter bit of it.  This is the rare film I plan to watch again with subtitles just to make sure I can savor every sentence (and to catch all the inside jokes and literature references I missed the first time around). 

The Step Aside, Katniss Award for Best Breakout Female Action Hero- 
Rey (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VII) AND Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road


            Slowly but surely, we are getting more hard evidence to counter the pig-headed notion of the Studio Ancients that action/fantasy/sci-fi/blockbuster franchises starring woman can’t be smart, fun, or financially successful.  The Hunger Games franchise alone proved this, but truth be told I never found the films to be that great, especially since they (like David Russell) tended to criminally underuse the long-ignored talents of a certain J-Law. 

            Thankfully, along came these two ladies this year to push things forward a bit.  Rey and Furiosa were fun, interesting, and emotionally complex characters, grounding both of their respective films and providing the bulk of the narrative heft to each, which was particularly welcome given the previously male-dominated nature of their respective franchises.  Plus, they’re both badass as all shit.  More of this please, 2016.  I want more. 

The Star Wars Prequels Award for Biggest Missed Opportunity- 
The ending of Victoria

            There was a very specific moment in Victoria- a German film that, unlike Birdman, actually WAS done in a single, exhilarating take- when I firmly expected and wanted it to end, a point that would have made the ending ambiguous and given the story a wonderfully dreamlike quality.  It’s a sign of how strong I found the first half of the film to be that, if it had ended there, it would have easily soared into a spot on my Top 10.  

            But it doesn’t end there.  Instead, it goes on.  And on.  And on.  And on.  And it soon becomes clear that it’s doing this just for the sake of “completing” its story, to provide full closure to each character and everything that happens, even though it was never necessary to do so.  The result is a second half that drags way too much and, sadly, spoiled a lot of the goodwill I had for it up to that point.  This doesn’t in any diminish how impressive of an accomplishment the film and its performances are- it’s a remarkable movie either way and absolutely worth seeing- but it does, in my view, hold it back from the greatness it could have achieved. 

The LOTR Award for Best Translation from Book to Film- 
Brooklyn

            Translating the prose of a great novel to the screen is always a challenge, since much of what makes a book powerful is antithetical to what a movie needs to achieve the same effect.  And for all the films that pull it off, there are just as many, if not more, than fail in the translation as are lesser works as a result.  This year, I found Brooklyn to be the best adaptation because the filmmakers clearly understood that the core of the story’s power comes in its straightforward and unvarnished presentation of the main character the world she inhabits, and a profound understanding of the sacrificial nature of life, and knew exactly how to bring that same sense across in movie form, which made it not only the best book adaptation of the year, but also one of the best movies of 2015 overall. 

The Whiplash Award for Worst Turnaround Following an Oscar Win- 
Eddie Redmayne (A bulging sack of impotent rage, Jupiter Ascending)

            Oh Eddie Redmayne.  Clearly you won gold for the wrong film.  Eddie’s somewhat-overblown Oscar moment was almost immediately followed by the general release of what many consider to be one of the biggest, most bloated, and most disappointing bombs of 2015, an original sci-fi work by the Wachowski’s that failed spectacularly at the box office and may have further damaged the prospects of future original sci-fi works for some time as a result.  And the glorious crowning moment of this failure was every single time Redmayne opened his quivering lips to deliver some of the most deliciously over-wrought dialogue since the glory of Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons.  Shine on, you crazy diamond. 


            And finally, my 4-Star club, for all the films I saw this year that, whether or not I officially reviewed them, I consider to be worth a 4 out of 4 star rating. 

4-Star Club:

Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
Amy
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
45 Years
Crimson Peak
Brooklyn
Room


            And there you have it!  Coming up next, a quick celebration of the best in film scores AND, at long last, my picks for who should win gold out of this year’s particularly controversial slate of Oscar nominees.  Til then. 


-Noah Franc