Quest for the Best (Picture): The Best-Laid Plans Edition

Film ReelWell, Candice and I were on a roll to get to all nine Best Picture nominees prior to Sunday night’s Academy Awards show.  But then two sold-out theatres (when we tried to see Fences and Lion), trips to Tennessee (both of us) and Florida (Candice), a board meeting, and a very bad head cold (the last two are mine) intervened.

So the four I ranked on February 18th are the only ones we’ll see prior to the awards show.  I’m sorry we did not see the other five nominees, and especially Fences and Arrival.  This was an especially rich year for Best Picture nominees.

Of the four that we saw, the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar is La La Land.  It is a delightful movie, but compared to the other three we saw, it is a lightweight.  What most reviewers note is that the voters love nothing better than to award good films about making films.

In reflecting on the other three – Hidden Figures, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight – I think they all would be worthy Best Picture winners.  Moonlight and Manchester are the better films from the standpoint of the craft of film-making.  Hidden Figures is such a good story for our times.  My heart is with Hidden Figures, but if I were voting, I would go in the following order:

  1. Moonlight
  2. Manchester by the Sea
  3. Hidden Figures
  4. La La Land

Well, let’s see what the Academy does on Sunday.

More to come…


A Quest for the Best Picture (2015 Edition)

Film ReelAs we entered our empty nesting period, Candice and I took the plunge in 2012 and made a pledge to try and see all of the year’s films nominated in the Academy Awards’ “Best Picture” category.  We (almost) succeeded – seeing eight of the nine 2012  nominees – and every year since we’ve taken on the same challenge.  While we seldom get to all the films (we generally avoid the gratuitously violent ones such as 2013’s Django Unchained), we’ve seen the vast majority and have really enjoyed talking and – in my case  – writing about them.

This year there are eight nominees, and as we enter the final month we now have three under our belt.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is a wonderful, lush, and very funny film by Wes Anderson, which we saw in March when it was first released. The acting by Ralph Fiennes as the concierge, along with that of the rest of the ensemble, is delicious while the plot is convoluted and crazed.  This is a very good film…but not the winner!

On Saturday, we walked to the historic AFI Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring to see The Imitation Game. The story of Alan Turing, who helped break the German code in WWII and pioneered the computer in the process, is simply terrific.  There is so much to consider when watching this movie. It covers three periods of Turing’s life – his unhappy childhood, his work during the war, and his arrest after the war for his homosexuality.  His physical and mental deterioration is such a sad ending for a unique talent.  The line that spurs Turing in his youth, he then uses on fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke, and she ultimately uses to encourage him during his last year of life sums up the wonderful message of this movie:  “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”  Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley as Clarke are both remarkable.  They turn in top-flight, Oscar-worthy performances.  Highly recommended, and a great candidate for Best Picture.

Earlier today, we returned to the AFI Silver Theatre to watch The Theory of Everything, about the life of physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane Hawking.  This was another excellent movie, with incredible performances by Eddie Redmayne as Stephen and Felicity Jones as Jane.  Hawkings’ diagnosis of motor neuron disease, soon after he meets Jane, sets up the challenges of increasing fame and increasing physical deterioration that drive the movie forward.  Both The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game demonstrate that movies without animation and action – and focused on brilliant minds, no less – can still be gripping, powerful, and moving.

Candice didn’t have a favorite between the last two, but I feel that The Imitation Game has more depth and is ultimately more satisfying.  So with three down, the completely untrained but joyfully opinionated DJB rankings for Best Picture stand as follows:

1.  The Imitation Game

2.  The Theory of Everything

3.  The Grand Budapest Hotel

Come back next weekend, as we’ll have at least two others to add to the list.

Let’s go to the movies!

More to come…


Quest for the Best (Picture) Final Edition

Film ReelIn this final installment of thoughts from our unqualified but enthusiastic movie reviewer about the 2014 Best Picture nominees, I’ll provide thoughts about why each of the six pictures I saw could, should, or won’t win the Best Picture award.

In alphabetical order…

American Hustle – Great ensemble acting.  Any of the four principals would deserve an award.  And yes, I love anything that Jennifer Lawrence is in. Amy Adams is pretty amazing as well. But the story line doesn’t hang together for me. (When I read this NY Times article on David O. Howard’s filmmaking style, I realized why.) While American Hustle is one of the favorites, I think there are several better movies in the running this year.

Gravity After seeing this movie on the plane earlier this week, the Tina Fey line at the Golden Globes about the lengths George Clooney will go in order not to date any female his own age finally made sense!  Seriously, this is a terrific movie.  Clooney is Clooney. (These days, he appears to just be playing himself in most movies, like a latter-day Jimmy Stewart. And that’s okay. He’s very good.)  Sandra Bullock is wonderful. The visuals were stunning on a small screen…I can only imagine what this looked like in the movie house.  Gravity is another pre-awards-show favorite, but to me it doesn’t hold up as well against the three that I felt were terrific movies.

Her A very well-crafted, but somewhat spooky, movie (especially if you spend as much time in front of your computer as I do). Joaquin Phoenix was terrific, and we were lucky this year to get another dose of Amy Adams (and those eyes!).  I don’t see this winning, but I want that little earplug and the hand-held smart phone/computer now.

Nebraska The more I think about this movie, the more I like it.  The black and white photography is stunning.  The acoustic roots chamber music is haunting.  And Bruce Dern is pitch perfect.  I’d be very happy if this film won, in a shocker.

Philomena This Judi Dench tour de force is also one of the sleepers of the year. The story – which is true – is a real plot twister that ends up where it began. Another one of my personal favorites for Best Picture. Again, it probably won’t win because – like Nebraska – it is a movie for adults and doesn’t have the amazing technical achievement of Gravity and doesn’t boast of a fabulous ensemble cast of actors like American Hustle.

Twelve Years a SlaveI felt this movie should win the moment I walked out of the theatre, and I still have a strong bias in its favor.  But it may get the Lincoln treatment from last year – great movie, epic story, well told, but…perhaps just a bit too serious for Hollywood.  That would be too bad to see that happen two years in a row.

So, while I didn’t get to see Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Wolf of Wall Street, I feel as though I’ve seen the winner.  That sentiment was supported by the Times‘ “Carpetbagger” column. But only Sunday night will tell…so let’s do this already.

Thanks for reading, and more to come…


Quest for the Best (Picture) Update

Film ReelIn our quest to see all the Best Picture nominees before the March 2nd Academy Awards show, Candice and I find ourselves well behind our pace of recent years.  We’re going to blame it all on February.  Have I mentioned that I really hate February? Why does this month even exist?

But enough with the excuses…we’ve now seen four of the nine nominees.  I wrote earlier about the first two, so let’s focus on the most recent films we’ve seen.  Both were very satisfying.

Philomena stars the incomparable Judi Dench who – as Philomena Lee – undertakes a search for a son she was forced to give up for adoption some fifty years earlier by the nuns of an Irish convent.  This is a deeply moving true story, that is lovingly filmed.  Steve Coogan, as the journalist Martin Sixsmith who uncovers Philomena’s story, interacts very effectively with Dench on the screen.  I won’t spoil it for those who have not seen the movie, but this is one I strongly recommend.  Philomena is a terrific movie.

Earlier today, Candice and I walked up to AFI’s Silver Theatre (we really love our neighborhood theatre!) to see Nebraska.  Bruce Dern, as the elderly Woody Grant, is in search of what he believes is his $1 million sweepstakes winning pot. His son David (Will Forte), is the only family member who understands the search for what it really is, and after a couple of missteps he agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln, Nebraska, to “collect” the winnings.  June Squibb, as Woody’s long-suffering wife Kate, has some of the funniest – and most hurtful – lines in the movie.  Her response to Woody’s extended family as they try to shake him down is priceless.

Nebraska has so much to recommend it.  The beautiful black-and-white photography captures the bleakness of the Midwestern landscape, and the life of the Grant family. Tin Hat’s haunting acoustic chamber music is so evocative of the sadness and sweetness found in this story. The ensemble acting with Dern, Squibb, Forte, Stacy Keach as Woody’s old business partner, and Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s son Ross, is superb.

The essence of this movie is captured after Woody learns that he hasn’t won the million dollars promised in the magazine sweepstakes letter.  Woody leaves the office of the Nebraska marketing company and David turns to the receptionist to ask if this happens often.  She replies that it does happen on occasion, often with older people like Woody.  She asks is Woody has dementia.  David replies, “No, he just believes what people tell him.”  “Oh, that’s too bad,” replies the receptionist.

And there, dear reader, is one of the horrors of modern life.  We say things all the time that we don’t mean.

But (spoiler alert)  the ending is sweet.  This movie is well worth a viewing.

Now, after four movies, Candice and I have the same rankings in the Best Picture contest:

1.  Twelve Years a Slave

2.  Philomena

3.  Nebraska

4.  American Hustle

We hope to see Her tomorrow, at which point we’ll pass the halfway point.  Look for further updates from your unqualified, but enthusiastic, movie reviewer.

More to come…


Quest for the Best (Picture), Year III

Film ReelYes, we’re at it again.  As has been the case the past two years, Candice and I are out to see all of the Best Picture nominees (or as many as possible) before the Academy Awards show.  We began this new tradition two years ago after we became empty nesters, and I have to say it  has raised my stock as a husband. One of my major failings in life before I came up with this brilliant idea was not making an effort to go to the movies. What can I say…

However, we got a late start this year.  (Once again, the “sure things” we went to see early in the year – I’m looking at you Lee Daniels’ The Butlerdidn’t make the final cut of the Academy.)

So here it is February 1st – with the awards show just weeks away, and we’ve only seen two.  However, I’m pretty sure we’ve seen the winner.

If there is any justice in the world, 12 Years a Slave will win in a rout.  I don’t care what the other movies have to offer, this is a film that should win in almost any year.  It is difficult to watch, but 12 Years a Slave is powerful and compelling.  The violence of the slave life/economy is shown in all its horror.  As Candice said as we headed out of the AFI Silver Theatre and started our walk home –  (by the way, it is great to have such a wonderful theatre in our neighborhood) – “You hear about violence today, but it has always been a part of life in America.”  Yes. As a country we continue to pay for our original sin.

That’s the winner.  I’m laying down that marker now.

We’ve also seen American Hustle, which many of the media pundits see as the only film that can upset 12 Years a Slave.  The acting in American Hustle is terrific. Christian Bale has one of the great 1970s comb-overs of all time.  Amy Adams…oh my. I’m still in love with Jennifer Lawrence.  But…the film itself is disjointed.  And while I found it ultimately satisfying, let’s face it: this isn’t a “Best Picture.”  It is a vehicle for great ensemble acting, but the story isn’t compelling and it takes a while to sort it all out.  Sorry, I wouldn’t mind if this crew took two or three of the acting awards they are up for, but Best Picture…I don’t think so.

Now that I’ve been so demonstrative after seeing just two, we’ll head out again and try to get as many of the others under our belt this month as possible.  So we’ll see you at the movies!

More to come…


And the Winner Is…

Film ReelWow! What a great year for movies.

On the eve of the Academy Awards, I’ve seen eight of the nine nominees for Best Picture.  (You can read my earlier posts here, here, and here.)  The only missing nominee?  That would be Quentin Tarantino’s Django UnchainedI saw Tarantino’s Inglourious Bastards with its similar fantasy-laden subject area and over-the-top, almost cartoonish violence a few years back, and I simply decided that Django wasn’t Best Picture quality in my book.  The fact that it is never mentioned in the top five contenders just confirms my decision.

But this afternoon, I saw another controversial – but much more substantive – movie, Zero Dark Thirty.   Despite the controversy surrounding the movie, I’m here to say that it works on many levels and deserves the consideration for Best Picture.  Jessica Chastain is a real force, carrying the movie forward with her fine acting.

In the end, however, I have to agree with Timothy Egan of the New York Times, who writes about the problems of  Zero Dark Thirty.  The lack of a larger context is – in the end – much more problematic than the torture scenes.

It’s not just the torture and its inherent message that young, attractive Americans got the ultimate payoff in part by doing what German bad guys used to do in the movies.

It’s the omissions. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” several larger truths — the many intelligence mistakes, the loss of focus and diversion of resources, and the fallout from the folly of the Iraq war — are missing. This is a crucial point, because the film is likely to end up as the most popular version of the singular trauma in the first decade of the 21st century.

Given that, the flawed movie is still worth watching and I recommend it.

So…it is time for the envelope.

Best Actor:  This seems the easiest of all the choices.  Daniel Day-Lewis so becomes Abraham Lincoln in a commanding performance, that all the others pale in comparison.

Best Actress:  There are three great nominees for this award, and I think it may be the most difficult.  As noted above, Jessica Chastain is terrific.  Emmanuelle Rive turns in such a wonderful performance in Amour. And I fell in love with Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook.  I think Lawrence will win, but I’d be happy with any of these three ladies.

Actor in a Supporting Role:  This category also features a great deal of talented actors.  Robert De Niro was outstanding in Silver Linings Playbook, a performance matched by Alan Arkin in Argo.  But I am betting on Tommy Lee Jones, whose Thaddeus Stevens came alive on the screen and held its own with Lewis’ Lincoln.

Actress in a Supporting Role:  The fan favorite is Anne Hathaway for her role in Les Mis, but I would give the award to Sally Field, who did a superb job with the very difficult Mary Todd Lincoln.

Best Picture:  The rumor mill has Argo as the winner.  And why wouldn’t Hollywood want to give the award to a film that has Hollywood coming to the rescue! I could live with that – it was a terrific movie. My favorite remains Lincoln, which was compelling and it had an important story to tell. I’d also be thrilled if Amour pulled off a surprise win.

Behind those three, I have Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook.  These five films were all very good-to-terrific. After that, they drop off for me, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy Life of Pi or Les Mis.  In any event, here’s my final list:

1. Lincoln

2. Amour

2A. Argo

3. Zero Dark Thirty

4. Silver Linings Playbook

5. Life of Pi

6. Les Mis

7. Beasts of the Southern Wild

8. Django Unchained

It has also been fun to read other predictions, perhaps the most interesting coming from Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog.

So let’s sit back tomorrow night, and see what the evening brings. Bring on the popcorn!

More to come…


Amour Enters the Conversation

Film ReelAs we enter the homestretch of the quest to see all the Best Picture nominees, Candice and I are now through seven of the nine pictures…and the plot thickens.  That’s because today we had the opportunity to see the achingly sad yet well crafted French movie Amour.

Candice and I had the afternoon free here in Southern California between a swim meet, lunch with Claire, and dinner with Claire’s swim team members, coaches, and parents.  We found that Amour was playing nearby, and took the chance to see this gem of a picture.

The movie, about an elderly pair of music teachers and their life together after the wife suffers a stroke, hit so many deep emotions – many of them close to home.  There was less action in the entire movie than what I expect to see in five minutes of Django Unchained, but the emotional depths that are plumed are raw and rich.

Emmanuelle Riva is wonderful as Anne, the wife, and well deserving of a Best Actress award this year.  She was beautiful and vulnerable and so much more.  People talked about crying through Les Mis…well, for my money Amour is a much better film and truly worthy of the tears that come at the end.

So, I have a bit of a shake-up in my list now, having seen 7 of the 9 nominees.  Lincoln is still my top choice, but I have Amour just edging out Argo – perhaps a 2 and 2A selection.  Here’s how the list looks now:

1. Lincoln

2. Amour

2A. Argo

3. Silver Linings Playbook

4. Life of Pi

5. Les Mis

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Like me, Candice’s list saw a shake-up as she also ranked Amour second.  Her list:

1. Lincoln

2. Amour

3. Les Mis

4. Argo

5. Silver Linings Playbook

6. Life of Pi

7. Beasts of the Southern Wild

We’re only a few days out.  I’m going to try to see Zero Dark Thirty at a minimum before the night of the show.  Until then, feel free to give me your thoughts – or your list – in the comments section below.

More to come…