I Am DB

February 27, 2016

Oscars 2015: The Envelope Please

As usual, and despite all efforts to do better, I’m once again down to the wire with this post, so there’s no time to waste with lengthy introductions. Let me waste your time with the lengthy play-by-play instead. Away we go…
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BEST SOUND MIXING AND BEST SOUND EDITING
One of Oscar night’s big battles starts in these two categories (well…for our purposes, anyway; it’s not like these will necessarily be the first two awards presented). Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant face each other in 10 categories, and while Phase One of the season suggested that Fury Road would dominate below-the-line, The Revenant‘s emergence as a top-category frontrunner during Phase Two could easily trickle down to these races and shake things up. Poor Tom Hardy isn’t going to know who to root for half the night.

The big question as to whether Fury Road would get those Best Picture and Best Director nominations was partly a question of whether the film was more than just a critic’s darling. Would the industry show it enough love for the conservative-leaning Academy to take the hint? Well…they did. But how far will that extend? As Fury Road faces industry favorite The Revenant in category after category, will it have a chance, or get clobbered by the new kid in town?

As for these two categories, we’re not even talking about a one-on-one bout, as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Martian could totally take one or both of these. I think Sound Mixing nominee Sicario and Sound Editing nominee Bridge of Spies are out of the running, but everything else is in play, and where you can sometimes make a pretty strong guess as to which film has the edge when it comes to sound, there is no such clarity here. So for no reason other than having 17 more categories to get through, I’m guessing they’ll split this year: Sound Mixing will go to The Revenant and Sound Editing will go to Fury Road.

Which probably means they’ll both go to Star Wars.

Personal: As usual, I have no real investment in these categories. To the extent that I notice sound work, the only nominee that didn’t make an impression on me in that area is Bridge of Spies. I was probably most affected by the soundscape of Sicario, so I suppose I’d throw my Mixing vote in that direction. For Editing, any of them would make me happy except Spies…and it’s not like that would make me angry.

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BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

This category poses a conundrum. When there’s no obvious VFX game-changer, this award tends to go to a Best Picture nominee, or the closest thing in the category to a prestige film, even if there’s clearly better work elsewhere. See Gladiator‘s victory over The Perfect Storm, Hugo‘s over Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Interstellar‘s over Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. There’s no major breakthrough work in this year’s nonetheless admirable slate, so we should look to The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. But Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a wild card. A Star Wars movie isn’t a guaranteed winner; neither The Phantom Menace nor Attack of the Clones triumphed here, and Revenge of the Sith wasn’t even nominated. But those movies weren’t particularly well-liked outside the realm of fandom (and not always so well-liked within either). The Force Awakens, on the other hand, reignited everyone’s love of Star Wars, and the legacy of the franchise could be enough to make this return-to-form victorious.

All three films can make a strong case. The Revenant‘s bear attack is one of the most talked-about movie scenes of the year, and it looks incredible. On the other hand, it’s just one brief scene, and the movie’s other visual effects are more invisible. Fury Road is the rare nominee these days to feature a huge number of practical special effects, which makes the work seem that much more tactile and impressive. Star Wars can make that claim too, offering a balance of practical and digital work that also boosted its reputation after the overly CGI’d prequels. But still, Star Wars is a more traditional VFX movie; Fury Road has the charm of being something a little different. Once again, I have absolutely no idea what will happen, as each of these three is a viable winner. My shot in the dark is that it will go to Star Wars, the movie that’s synonymous with modern-day visual effects and is finally worth celebrating again.

Personal: Difficult choice, but I think I’d have to go with Fury Road. Like I said, it’s something a little different. That bear attack in The Revenant was mighty impressive, but I don’t like the idea of a movie that’s two hours and 36 minutes winning an Oscar for basically five minutes of its runtime. As for Star Wars, excellent work…but nothing we haven’t seen before. And since there are going to be new Star Wars movies every year until the oceans rise and cover the planet’s surface, it has plenty of other chances.

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BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Apologies to The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared. Nobody outside of the Makeup and Hairstyling branch that nominated you has any idea what you are. Which leaves…wait for it…wait for iiiiiiiiiit…Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant! And once again, they both have an excellent chance at the gold. Most pundits appear to be predicting Fury Road for the win. But I’m thinking that more voters, when sitting in front of their ballots and trying to recall the movies, will remember the beards and grime and dirt and blood and gashes and scalps and bad teeth and all around horrible, horrible hygiene of The Revenant before Fury Road‘s work, which is more inventive but perhaps less obvious. Then again, if voters mistake that crazy, instantly iconic face mask worn by Fury Road villain Immorten Joe to be a piece of makeup rather than a piece of costume design, all bets are off.

Personal: Mad Max: Fury Road, because I tend to be more impressed by the imaginative than the realistic.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Will it be Fury Road or The Revenant this time around? Trick question! Neither are nominated for Original Score! Among the films that are competing is The Hateful Eight, featuring music from the prolific Italian maestro Ennio Morricone. In 2006, Morricone was awarded an Honorary Oscar for career achievement, having been nominated five times previously. His first nomination was for 1978’s Days of Heaven, meaning he was never cited for any of his beloved Spaghetti western scores, such as Once Upon a Time in the West or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Now he stands to win his first competitive award for his terrific compositions from The Hateful Eight, which recall the work of those famous movies that have been such an inspiration to Hateful writer/director Quentin Tarantino. I wouldn’t call Morricone a lock, though; he faces another prolific titan in John Williams, who returned to his most famous and popular series with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Enthusiasm for that movie — which has been seen more widely than The Hateful Eight — could earn Williams his sixth trophy. Carter Burwell’s score for Carol is a dark horse, but I think it will come down to Hateful Eight and Force Awakens, with Morricone pulling off the win.

Personal: The Hateful Eight. Williams’ work on Star Wars was solid, and there were a couple of good new themes, but there was nothing in the score that matched the music of original three films. That won’t necessarily stop people from voting for Williams, but Morricone’s Hateful Eight score made a bigger impact on me than the overall score for The Force Awakens. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Sicario score is supremely effective in the movie, but I always gravitate toward scores that stand alone as a listening experience apart from the film.

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BEST ORIGINAL SONG

While trying to guess what might be nominated in this category, I expressed a lack of enthusiasm at the field of contenders. The final five (hear them all for yourself) haven’t done much to change my mind. Nice, fine, okay….these are some of the words that might describe them. Nothing too memorable or fun or beautiful or really worth getting excited about at all. But someone’s gotta win, and it will probably be Lady Gaga and Diane Warren for “‘Til it Happens to You.” It’s from a documentary called The Hunting Ground, about rape on college campuses. The importance of the issue, the star factor of Lady Gaga and the lack of a compelling choice among the competition should all combine to bring this tune a win.

If that happens, it will end one of Oscar’s notable losing streaks. This is Diane Warren’s eighth nomination, and she’s never won. Probably because most the songs she’s been nominated for are bland, forgettable ballads. Remember “How Do I Live,” from Con Air? Or “There You’ll Be,” from Pearl Harbor? Of course you don’t. How about “Because You Loved Me,” from Up Close and Personal? Do you even remember Up Close and Personal? (I do…but I’m a freak of nature.) To be fair, Warren does have one great nominated song to her credit: the epic, just-the-right-side of-cheesy-to-still-be-good-in-the-way-that-80’s-songs-could-be-cheesy-and-good-at-the-same-time “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” from Mannequin.

Anyway…I’m not trying to be a Warren hater. I’ve got nothing against her, and she is a renowned songwriter who’s worked with a long list of great artists. It’s always nice to see somebody finally win an award like this after so many times coming up short. And since she’s not going to beat someone who I’m rooting for, it’s all the same to me.

Personal: I’d vote for “Simple Song #3” from Youth, just because it’s something different from the norm.

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BEST COSTUME DESIGN

After a brief interruption in their nominations domination, please welcome back Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant. But to keep things interesting, let’s dismiss one of them right off the bat. I don’t think The Revenant will factor in here. And while The Danish Girl won the prize in the Period film category at the Costume Designers Guild Awards just a few nights ago, I think Academy voters will make this a three-way contest between Carol, Cinderella and Mad Max: Fury Road. And as with most of these below-the-line categories this year, there’s no obvious frontrunner. Cinderella‘s outfits are grand and colorful, which is the most common winning recipe, while Carol‘s are also strikingly colored, yet more conservative in style. Exquisite as both film’s sartorial selections are, however, I think the rugged and gritty outfits of Fury Road could win here, following triumphs with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the Costume Designer Guild’s Fantasy category. It’s no sure thing; Carol and Cinderella are more in line with the traditional winners of this award (and of those, I’d give the edge to Cinderella), so we’ll see if enough voters are up for a change of pace.

Personal: I love the work on display in Carol and Cinderella, but I think I’d have to go with Mad Max: Fury Road, for that aforementioned Immorten Joe mask, if nothing else. I mean…look at that thing!

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BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

I think most people — myself included — tend to think of this category as just sets and locations, but it also takes into account all the stuff in the movie. Keeping that in mind, Mad Max: Fury Road — with its tricked-out vehicles and wild, creative props — may have the edge here. The setting itself is mainly a vast, open desert landscape. But pretty much everything moving through that landscape is ingeniously conceived.

If voters remain stuck on the idea of location and backdrops, the path to victory becomes more hazy. The Danish Girl and Bridge of Spies faithfully recreate their period settings — 1920’s and 1950’s, respectively — but the visuals aren’t particularly eye-catching. The Martian‘s interiors have a standard spaceship look, and the beautiful exteriors, while impressive, are just natural settings that don’t seem to require much work from a design standpoint. The Revenant, like Fury Road, primarily takes place outdoors in vast, untouched locales. This award usually goes to movies with lots of interior work, and as with Costume Design, voters tend to favor flashy over muted. Or not; Lincoln was a surprise winner here in 2012, and Bridge of Spies — despite being set nearly 100 years later — has a similar palette. So really, this year’s line-up — in its own vacuum and compared to past nominees — is a study in contradictions.

It really depends on how broadly voters are thinking when they consider what makes up Production Design. I could see almost anything except The Danish Girl picking up the prize, and even though it’s outside the box, I think they’ll go with Fury Road.

Personal: Mad Max: Fury Road. All of the Mad Max movies exemplify brilliant world-building, with endlessly fascinating details in the sets, costumes, vehicles, accoutrements, etc. Sometimes they are just seen quickly, in passing, helping in their small way to tell the story of this brutal post-apocalyptic world. These flourishes might not be explained, but they speak volumes. This is one of the most impressive elements of the series for me, and it makes Fury Road a no-brainer in this category.

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BEST FILM EDITING

Here’s another contest where we can probably eliminate The Revenant right off the bat, unless voters really go deep for it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a bit of a surprise in this category, is also out. I doubt Spotlight can pull this off, but it’s not out of the question. It mainly comes down to Mad Max: Fury Road and The Big Short. This award often goes to a Best Picture frontrunner, unless there’s another film where the editing work truly stands out. That can apply to action movies like past winners The Matrix and The Bourne Ultimatum, or movies that are longshot Best Picture nominees like last year’s victor, Whiplash. In this case, we have one of each. The Big Short has a big shot at the big prize, while Fury Road has less of a shot, but showcases masterfully assembled action. Both movies are highly admired within the Academy, and I have no idea which side the majority of voters will come down on. Every year has one particularly difficult-to-predict, coin toss category, and this year’s is right here. I’m going with Fury Road, but this is a nailbiter…and if The Big Short takes it, watch out when Best Picture rolls around.

Personal: Mad Max: Fury Road. I thought the editing of The Big Short was a little annoying, truth be told. It wasn’t so much an example of best editing to me as it was most editing. There’s a difference.

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

There’s not a weak contender in this lineup, and there are several more films that could easily have been here, but it will boil down to the two most obviously difficult movies to shoot: Mad Max: Fury Road, with its mind-boggling mayhem of practical effects and stunt work; and The Revenant, with its remote locations, long takes and natural light. This time, look for The Revenant to take the gold, making Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki the first person to win this award three years in a row, following Gravity and Birdman.

Personal: It would be fun to see 70 year-old John Seale win for coming out of retirement to shoot Fury Road, but The Revenant is hard to deny. And as much as it pains me to think of Sicario‘s criminally Oscarless Roger Deakins losing for the 13th time while Lubezki wins his third, there’s a reason Lubezki keeps on winning. The guy is a magician, and these last three films have been unusually complex tricks.

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BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

I don’t know which of Inside Out‘s five emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger or Sarcasm — covers jealousy and disappointment, but those feelings will be working overtime in the heads of everyone not nominated for Inside Out. In one of the night’s few slam dunks, Pixar will celebrate its eighth win since this category’s inception 15 years ago. I wonder if Roger Deakins is interested in directing a Pixar movie…

Personal: Anomalisa and Inside Out were both funny, sad and beautiful. Either would be fine with me, but the creativity on display in Inside Out is tremendous.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Not a lot to say for the two writing categories this year, as each one has a pretty clear frontrunner. The Big Short has been far out in front of this race from the start, with more wins from regional critics groups than any of its competition, as well as wins from the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) and BAFTA. The movie has been a big hit with Academy voters, and all signs point to an Oscar win. Room has potential to surprise, but that potential is low. The Big Short will take it.

Personal: I like Room, The Martian and Brooklyn better than The Big Short, but I’d still give this award to the latter because I have no doubt that it was the most challenging book to adapt. The other three stories — as well as the remaining nominee, Carol — tell straightforward narratives, but The Big Short is not a traditional A to B to C tale. It’s a fragmented story following multiple, unrelated groups of characters and dealing with incredibly complicated, dense concepts, which the script illuminates with humor and clarity. Like I said in the previous post, I haven’t read any of these books (and I’m sure most voters haven’t either), but finding a compelling movie in the pages of The Big Short was probably no easy task.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Like The Big Short, Spotlight took home prizes from the BFCA, WGA and BAFTA, and nearly swept the critics awards, capturing even more than its adapted counterpart. While its Best Picture hopes may have faded, it’s still held in extremely high regard, and for good reason. It’s one of those films where everything just clicks, and that begins with the impeccably researched, unfailingly truthful script. It’s hard to imagine any of the other nominees coming up from behind.

Personal: I’ll be happy to see Spotlight take this, especially since co-writer and director Tom McCarthy is long overdue for this kind of recognition after being ignored for past work like The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win. Still, I’d probably go with Inside Out. I loved how it handled such abstract concepts as, well, abstract thought, short-term and long-term memory, and the subconscious. The imagination behind every detail of how the mind functions is just wonderful.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

I never thought that the phrase “Oscar frontrunner” would be used to describe Sylvester Stallone, but his moving and grounded performance in Creed has put him in that position. Stallone dominated the critics awards, and took home the Golden Globe and the BFCA prize. So with all that momentum, he remains the man to beat. But consider this…Stallone was not even nominated by SAG or BAFTA, which are the only two organizations that actually share membership with the Academy. Perhaps that shows some vulnerability.

Or perhaps not. Consider this: the SAG voting opened so early that Creed had barely been identified or positioned as an awards player. SAG voters had a brief window in which to view the unexpectedly acclaimed movie before ballots were due. As for the BAFTA awards, Creed didn’t open in the U.K. until mid-January, too late for 2015 awards consideration. (Oddly, it opened in countries like Kuwait and Pakistan much earlier. Go figure.) In addition, Stallone’s wins at the Globe and BFCA ceremonies were accompanied by long and enthusiastic standing ovations, which suggests big support from the industry. People seem genuinely moved by the narrative of a guy who created a character (let’s not forget that) 40 years ago, was nominated at the time, and now comes full circle to give what many have called the performance of his career in an acclaimed spin-off of his brainchild, conceived by a young filmmaker who was deeply impacted by that original film. That story could almost be a movie itself. So momentum remains with Sly, and betting against him would be unwise if you’re in this thing for money or even just bragging rights. Still…a surprise is not out of the question here.

Personal: Stallone’s journey is touching, no doubt, but the focus should be on the performance. His is great, but for me, it’s all about Ruffalo. Sure, he’s the one who gets the big emotional outburst scene that will almost certainly be the clip played during the telecast, but it’s not about that. It’s because he’s the one principal actor in the movie who is called on to transform, and he does it completely. His voice, his speech pattern, his walk, his entire physicality…he inhabits this guy so fully, and because it’s a guy who’s so intense and committed, it allows him to really get under the skin. It’s enough of a makeover that it could have been a showy performance, but it’s not, because the writing and directing are so grounded. I enjoyed Tom Hardy in The Revenant a helluva lot, but Ruffalo would get my vote.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Alicia Vikander has been leader of this pack, collecting the BFCA and SAG trophies, plus far and away the most critics awards (though for what it’s worth, most of those critics awards were for Ex Machina, while her nomination here is for The Danish Girl, as they were at the BFCA and SAG awards). The only major prize she lost was the Golden Globe, which went to Kate Winslet. That could have been dismissed as a fluke…until Winslet won the BAFTA prize as well. Now we have to stop and wonder if Vikander is on less solid ground than it initially seemed. I think she’s still the frontrunner, as the SAG award is generally a more reliable indicator of Oscar success than the BAFTA or Golden Globe. But the two taken together suggest that Winslet is closing in. Then again, Vikander was nominated for Ex Machina — not The Danish Girl — the two times she lost to Winslet. So…there’s that…whatever that is.

Winslet is an Academy darling, of course, with this being her seventh nomination, and she’s excellent in Steve Jobs, but as a co-lead in The Danish Girl, and by virtue of the story and her character, Vikander gets to go deeper in her role than Winslet does in hers. Not that Winslet’s work is shallow; it just isn’t as chewy a role as Vikander’s. The Swedish actress is young and still not widely known, and will surely have many more shots. But I think that on the strength of her work not just in The Danish Girl but also in Ex Machina, Testament of Youth (in which she gave another award-worthy performance), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (a fun, breezy summer movie that showcased her playful side) and Burnt (not much to do in her brief appearance opposite Bradley Cooper, but she looked great, for whatever that’s worth), voters will reward her for an incredible year full of shining performances.

Personal: I’d vote Vikander too. Although I’d have nominated her in this category for Ex Machina, she’s been fantastic in everything she’s been in this year. Any way you slice it, her work speaks for itself.

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BEST ACTOR

There’s not much to say here, as this award is one of night’s easy bets. Leonardo DiCaprio has reigned supreme all awards season long for the all-in, go-for-broke dedication he displayed in The Revenant. After years atop the Hollywood food chain, he will finally take home his first Academy Award.

Personal: Here’s the thing about DiCaprio. He gives an excellent performance in The Revenant, no argument, and his nomination is deserved. But he has given stronger performances, and he will again. Leo winning this Oscar is about two things: finally rewarding him for a career full of outstanding and committed work, and rewarding him for the physical extremes to which he pushed himself in order to make this movie. For his willingness to go to those extremes, I applaud him. But an Oscar win should be recognition of the performance, not the personal struggles. Leonardo DiCaprio, the Actor, buried himself in the experience of making The Revenant, but he doesn’t bury himself in the character of Hugh Glass the way he did with The Departed‘s William Costigan or The Wolf of Wall Street‘s Jordan Belfort or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape‘s Arnie or J.Edgar‘s title character or so many others. He doesn’t bury himself in Hugh Glass to the same extent because Glass, as depicted here, doesn’t require the same level of immersion. The story of The Revenant is primal and powerful, but it isn’t deep. That’s not a criticism; it’s just a fact. It doesn’t have to be deep to be great. It’s a story of survival and revenge, plain and simple. At the end of the day, what went into the performance is more impressive than the performance itself.

With that in mind, my pick would be Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs. He had a much more challenging character to play, requiring him to hit notes grand and intimate, and to capture so many subtle and contradictory facets of the pioneering tech giant. He’s in nearly every moment of the movie, deftly maneuvering the acrobatics of Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue, and not trying to guide how the audience feels about his mercurial character. His performance is completely magnetic. He really is quite something.

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BEST ACTRESS

There’s little commentary or analysis required here either. Very early in Phase One, it seemed that this award might be a neck-in-neck race between Room‘s Brie Larson and Brooklyn‘s Saoirse Ronan, but Larson soon pulled ahead and built up a considerable lead that she hasn’t relinquished. With BFCA, SAG and BAFTA awards now on her shelf, as well as a Golden Globe, she’s got the Oscar all locked up.

Personal: This is an absolute heartbreaker of a choice between Larson and Ronan. Putting aside that I have major celebrity crushes on them both, their performances are so, so good. I’d have to give the tiniest, tiniest edge to Ronan, just because her role calls on her to play what appeared to me as a wider range of emotions. There’s no question that both actresses nail every beat. Ronan just got a more varied array of beats to hit, and when the choice is this difficult, you look for whatever you can to guide your decision.

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BEST DIRECTOR

The stars seem aligned for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who took home this Oscar last year for Birdman, to become the first back-to-back winner of Best Director since 1950, when Joseph L. Mankiewicz won for All About Eve a year after taking the prize for A Letter to Three Wives. Prior to that, the only back-to-back winner was John Ford, for 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath and 1941’s How Green Was My Valley. A few weeks ago, Iñárritu became the first person to ever win the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) award two years in a row. Given that award’s success rate at predicting the Oscar — only seven times since the DGA award was first presented in 1948 have the two not been in sync — a win for Iñárritu is extremely likely, especially when you add in Golden Globe and BAFTA victories. In what has been another tough-to-call year in the top categories, it’s always possible that this will turn out differently, but the momentum is definitely with Iñárritu.

Personal: George Miller, by a mile. I kinda don’t get why Miller isn’t the frontrunner here, or at least considered a major threat. I understand why people are impressed by Iñárritu’s achievement, but since so much of the admiration derives from his insistence on pushing the limits under such extreme conditions, how are people not in even greater awe of what Miller accomplished? I look at The Revenant and I see the beauty and the skill, and I admire Iñárritu’s drive for authenticity. But as hard as the movie surely was to shoot, it doesn’t feel impossible. Mad Max: Fury Road feels impossible. I look at that movie and I am completely blown away by the directorial skill on display. I look at that movie and I have absolutely no idea how Miller even begin to film it. How to even conceive of the specific beats of the action choreography, let alone actually capture it all on camera. It’s a towering achievement. With all respect to Iñárritu and The Revenant, as well as to nominated directors like Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and Lenny Abrahamson (Room), whose talents are absolutely evident even if showcased differently by the nature of their movies’ smaller scales, what Miller did with Mad Max: Fury Road was singular and stunning.

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BEST PICTURE

As Alejandro G. Iñárritu looks primed to win the directing prize, so too is his film The Revenant poised to capture the night’s top honor. But it’s not a sure thing. The only sure thing is that whichever movie does win, the victory will have been hard-won. This was an unpredictable awards season in many ways. (Do I say that every year? I probably say that every year. It must feel that way every year.) The precursor awards, which are supposed to help narrow the field — and ultimately take any and all suspense out of Oscar night — proved to be mostly unhelpful this year. It was one of the rare times when the Producer’s Guild of America (PGA), the DGA and SAG each went with a different movie. The producers chose The Big Short; directors rewarded The Revenant; SAG went for Spotlight. SAG’s Best Ensemble winner has the least impact on the Oscars, and Spotlight — an early frontrunner thanks to its dominance in Phase One — has seen its odds decrease.

With The Revenant‘s recent successes, The Big Short no longer feels like the movie of the moment, but here’s why it could win. Of all the other movie award-distributing bodies, the PGA is the only one to use the same voting system as the Academy uses for Best Picture. That would be the preferential ballot, and as I’ve included each of the past two years, here’s a video from The Wrap‘s Oscar expert Steve Pond explaining how it works.

The PGA and the Academy both moved to the preferential system in 2009, and every year since, the PGA winner has gone on to win the Oscar (with the only hiccup being when 12 Years a Slave and Gravity tied). That doesn’t really mean anything — these streaks are made to be broken — but it doesn’t mean nothing either. Then again, the PGA award has only been around since 1989. The DGA award has been around since 1948, and there have only been 14 occasions in the ensuing 66 years when the DGA winner’s film has not gone on to win Best Picture. But again, what do any of these facts ultimately mean? Some people doubted Birdman‘s chances last year because no movie had won Best Picture without a Best Film Editing nomination since Ordinary People in 1980. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King had its naysayers because the Academy had never awarded a fantasy film the Best Picture prize. Could the song Skyfall win an Oscar when no James Bond theme had ever managed the feat? Yes it could, and it did. These factoids are interesting to bring up, but eventually they all get defied. Other trivia, records and statistics that pundits have brought into the discussion for this category:

  • Only three films — Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, The Sound of Music and Titanic — have won Best Picture without a screenplay nomination, which The Revenant does not have. And no film has ever won Best Picture without either a screenplay nomination or a WGA nomination, which The Revenant also did not have.
  • There have never been back-to-back Best Picture winners from the same director, even though there have been back-to-back director winners. With Iñárritu’s Birdman the reigning champ, a victory for The Revenant would be a first.
  • Seldom does a movie win Best Picture without also winning at least two other awards. In the last 62 years, only one film — The Greatest Show on Earth — has managed it. So by that statistic, The Big Short — only considered a lock for Best Adapted Screenplay — would have to win one more to be a viable Best Picture winner. It’s a strong threat to take Best Film Editing, but can Christian Bale or director Adam McKay pull off upsets? (Spotlight faces the same challenge.)

We’ll see which of these talking points are altered come Sunday night. Other things to consider in the meantime? The preferential ballot favors consensus, so the movie that wins probably isn’t the one with the most first-place votes, but the one with lots of second and third place votes as well. The Revenant seems like more of a love-it-or-hate-it movie than The Big Short, which could have a better shot at placing higher on more ballots. Could that be why it lost with the PGA? Or has it just been more widely seen since the PGA – one of the earlier voting groups in Phase Two – presented their award? And who knows if I’m even right in that love-it-or-hate-it estimation? This is just intuition on my part. Really at this point, I’m just spinning my wheels, so enough is enough. In a tumultuous award season like this one, few things are certain. Something could come along and knock down The Revenant — most likely being The Big Short — but the odds seem stacked in its favor.

Personal: I’m a big fan of most of the nominees, so almost any of them would be fine with me. Only The Big Short or Bridge of Spies would disappoint me, though I definitely liked both. Still, once again I’d choose Mad Max: Fury Road, because the fact that it even got here is such a triumph, and I’d love to see it go all the way. And because, as I said in the Best Director commentary, the movie sorta blows my mind. I’m left to wonder again why The Revenant became The One to Beat. I think its Phase Two surge had more to do with the narrative behind the movie than the one in the movie — an effective bit of strategic campaigning on the part of the filmmakers and 20th Century Fox. What surprises me is that given how taken the industry at large seems to be with the movie’s behind-the-scenes lore, they aren’t showing more of that love to Fury Road. My conjecture is that they think The Revenant is somehow “important” and that Fury Road, at the end of the day, is still just an action movie and ultimately too frivolous to win the top awards. The irony is that The Revenant may have the appearance of depth, but is actually quite superficial (again, not meant as a criticism), while Fury Road, which appears to be just explosions and car chases, has much more substance brewing beneath the surface. Oh well. At least it made it this far. That’s worth appreciating on its own.

 

As usual, I’m sorry to say that I have nothing to really offer in the remaining categories. Son of Saul is the favorite to win Best Foreign Language Film, with Mustang being called the most likely spoiler. Amy is said to have the inside track on Best Documentary, though I don’t know; I’m not sure the subject matter of Amy Winehouse has wide enough appeal across the Academy. I might go for Cartel Land. As for the live-action, animated and documentary shorts…you’re on your own.

Hopefully it will be an exciting show, given some of these up-in-the-air categories, and it might be a bit of an uncomfortable show too, with Chris Rock and others commenting on the lack of diversity among the nominees. I still haven’t been able to write-up all my thoughts on that issue, so perhaps I’ll do a separate post. The issue isn’t going away, unfortunately.

To close, here’s a great bit from Chris Rock’s 2005 hosting gig.

February 14, 2016

Oscars 2015: And the Nominees Are…

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 7:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Complete List of Nominees

And so we are deep into Phase Two of awards season, with the Oscar nominations announced and the guild awards rolling out. I’ve already been asked several times who’s going to win the Oscar in this category or that. To which I’ve responded, “Does it matter? They’re all a bunch of racists, apparently, so who even wants one?”

Unfortunately, that’s where we have to begin this year, as the nominations set off a firestorm of controversy when acclaimed films about black characters like Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation and Creed were not nominated for Best Picture, and for the second year in a row, all the acting nominees are white.

A lot has already been said about this topic. Like…a lot. It’s been in the news nearly every day since the nominations were announced. I wrote about this in last year’s corresponding post, and having just re-read that, I feel it’s pretty spot-on, thank you. I don’t know what I can add this year, especially with so much already said by so many others. But it’s too big a story to ignore. I can’t get wrapped up in all the awards nonsense and spend all the time I spend writing about the Oscars and not wade into this mess. The whole reason I’m posting this a month after the nominations were announced is that I’ve been trying to stay abreast of all the developments and respond to specific points that have been made, but it’s been too much to keep up with. So for now, I’m going to leave it alone, and hopefully get to it in the next post. At this point, it’s well past time to review the nominations, so let’s stick to that.

It was another middling year for me on the predictions front. Of the 19 categories I covered, I only went five-for-five in two: Best Actor and (somehow) Best Sound Mixing. But in 10 others, I missed by just one…though perhaps I lose a point for expecting Alicia Vikander’s Best Supporting Actress nomination to be for Ex Machina. The Academy voters cited her for The Danish Girl — clearly a lead performance, but one that the studio campaigned as Supporting to give her better odds at a nomination.

Let’s drill down into some of the categories, shall we? While you want to glory in being as accurate in your predictions as possible, there’s also fun in seeing where you went wrong and what unfolded that went against your instincts, where your theorizing went wrong, and where it went right. If you consider any of this fun, that is.

BEST PICTURE
I once again predicted there would be nine nominees, and for the second year in a row there were only eight. I got seven of them, but missed Room. I opted for Carol instead, and also included Inside Out. In the previous post, I mentioned Room and Carol as movies I’d read were not being received as enthusiastically by Academy members as they were by critics. Goes to show that you can never be be sure how 6,000+ people are going to come down on something. Because Carol director Todd Haynes is a more established filmmaker than Room‘s director Lenny Abrahamson, I thought Carol would have a stronger base of support and would make the cut thanks to a small but passionate contingent. Instead, Room turned out to be the movie that got the necessary boost, and I’m thrilled to see it here.

As for Inside Out, I had thought that given its level of acclaim, it would have found a place here just like previous Pixar efforts Up and Toy Story 3 did in 2009 and 2010. But after the nominations were announced, I became aware of something I hadn’t realized. In 2009 and 2010 — the two years where the Academy went with a guaranteed slate of ten Best Picture nominees — voters were asked to list ten movies on their ballots. (I knew that part.) Beginning in 2011, however, when the change was made to a system that would result in anywhere from five to ten nominees, ballots reverted back to just five choices for voters to write down. I didn’t know that. If I had, I wouldn’t have predicted a nomination for Inside Out. With ten selections to make, voters are more likely to honor an animated film. With only five selections, they’re more likely to stick with live action and leave movies like Inside Out to the Animated Feature category. Live and learn.

Mad Max: Fury Road, meanwhile, overcame historical odds and landed in the Best Picture race, coming in behind The Revenant as the second most nominated movie of the year. In the narrow scope of this year’s award season, it may not be surprising, but given how outside the Academy’s “top award” box this movie is, the fact that it’s now a Best Picture nominee is pretty astonishing. It’s great to see the Academy recognize the artfulness of this movie — both the staging and creation of its incredible action, but also the character drama and underlying themes that propel the story. The movie is more than one big car chase, and the Academy’s recognition is a ringing endorsement of that fact.

BEST DIRECTOR
The most surprising omission from this year’s nominees came in this category, with The Martian director Ridley Scott being left out. He was supposed to be one of the day’s absolute sure things, with many at that point already dubbing him the sentimental favorite to win. Whether his omission was a matter of too many voters deliberately choosing elsewhere, or a matter of them thinking he was a lock and therefore giving their vote to someone else — something I suspect happened to Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow in 2012 — we’ll never know. I didn’t think Scott deserved a nomination for The Martian, so I’m okay with his absence. I loved the movie and he did a great job with it, but it didn’t strike me as such a strong directorial achievement as to be singled out among the year’s five best.

I only guessed three out of five in this category, expecting Scott to get in, and going for Steven Spielberg over Adam McKay. Overlooking McKay was a dumb move. I knew The Big Short was apparently doing really well with Academy members, and with the DGA nomination under his belt, I shouldn’t have underestimated him. I thought his comedy background would hinder his chances with this crowd. But the evidence for his nomination was all there, and I ignored it.

The other big surprise in the category was the man who took Scott’s perceived slot: Room’s Lenny Abrahamson. He was a real longshot, not expected to go the distance. So not only were those rumblings about Academy members staying away from Room unreliable, they belied how taken with the movie voters actually were. It may have only landed four nominations, but it was never going to place in the crafts categories, so its showing in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay is a huge victory. Too bad the actors branch couldn’t overcome their reticence to nominate children by recognizing the movie’s not-so-secret weapon, Jacob Tremblay. Given the enthusiasm for the movie, you’d think voters would have gone to bat for him. But with the exception of Best Picture, each branch votes for their own, and apparently not enough actors could find a place for him, even though their SAG counterparts did.

BEST ACTRESS
I was mildly surprised that Charlotte Rampling made the cut. Many pundits expected her to be nominated, but I left her off my list, thinking 45 Years was too small to get noticed, and her performance too subtle and quiet to stand out. I also thought the lack of a BAFTA nomination was a big omen, but I was obviously wrong. She made it…and promptly killed her chances with some poorly worded comments on the diversity controversy (seriously, Charlotte…you’re not helping.) No no, I’m kidding: ignorant and tone-deaf as her comments were, she didn’t kill her chances. She never had a chance. Her nomination is her reward.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Of all the non-white actors who were in the conversation this year, the one with the best odds of a nomination seemed to be Beasts of No Nation‘s Idris Elba. As we know, it didn’t happen. Some blamed the fact that Netflix didn’t have experience mounting an Oscar campaign. Some blamed the movie’s difficult subject matter. Some blamed a bias against black actors. The film’s subject matter is the only one of those possibilities I believe might have been a factor. But I’d bet a lot of people did watch the movie, and I’d bet a lot of those people did vote for Elba. Just not enough, in the end…though interestingly, he did go on to win the SAG award. Sylvester Stallone, Mark Rylance and Christian Bale survived from Phase One, while Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hardy — who were largely absent from the precursor awards — found a place too. I’ve been baffled all along by the consistent inclusion of Bale. He’s a great actor, of course, and I enjoyed him in The Big Short, but I just don’t see it as an award-worthy performance at all. If anyone from that movie should have been singled out, it was Steve Carell, and even he wouldn’t have made my cut. I remain disappointed that Jacob Tremblay didn’t get nominated for Room, as I mentioned above. He would really belong in Best Actor, but that was never going to happen, so Best Supporting Actor would have been his spot if he had made it. Still, Tremblay seems okay with being passed over. He’s having a blast, Instagramming his way from one starry red carpet event to another and making the talk show rounds, proving hilarious and adorable at every turn.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Despite a lot of attention paid to category fraud this year, Academy voters fell in line with studio campaigning and nominated Carol‘s Rooney Mara and The Danish Girl‘s Alicia Vikander in this category, despite both actresses being co-leads in their films. Vikander received far more attention during Phase 1 for her role in Ex Machina, but The Danish Girl always seemed more in the Academy’s wheelhouse. I still thought, as did several others, that her many critics citations for Ex Machina would translate here, but it did turn out to be The Danish Girl that earned her a nomination. She’s superb in both movies, so…either way, really.

It’s great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh finally earn an Oscar nomination after years of excellent work, and although Rachel McAdams has been around for far less time, she’s a versatile and always reliable actress, so it’s nice to see her here too. I wasn’t convinced she would make it for her strong but unassuming work in Spotlight, but the movie — whose fortunes some thought might be fading when the nominations came around — is still making a big impression on people.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
After Ridley Scott, the second most shocking omission this year came in this category, with Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs script failing to make the cut. This one astounds me. It should be the winner here, as far as I’m concerned. I haven’t read the source material for any of these contenders, but who are we kidding: neither have the voters. No one is ever really evaluating this category by how successfully the source material is translated to the screen. They’re going off the movie itself. Even without reading the source material, I doubt that any of the nominees — all of whom did excellent work — crafted anything as creative, unique, or just plain smart as what Sorkin did with Steve Jobs. Very disappointing.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
My risk in predicting The Assassin didn’t pan out, as the voters in the Cinematography branch stuck with a more expected set of nominees. Despite all the fanfare over The Hateful Eight‘s 70mm shoot and use of anamorphic lenses literally not employed since the 1960s, I thought the film’s mostly interior settings would hurt its chances. Not so, with three-time winner Robert Richardson earning his ninth nomination. Not at all undeserved; I just wasn’t sure it would happen.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
I was a little surprised to see The Revenant here. So much of the film’s settings and locations are natural landscapes; beautiful, but not appearing to require the work of a production designer so much as a location scout. That’s not to diminish the work that did go into the film from an art and set decoration perspective, but it does seem that with so much good design efforts to consider, this slot might have been more deserved by something like Carol, Crimson Peak or Ex Machina.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Again, The Revenant is a bit of a head-scratcher to me. Clearly, as evidenced by the field-leading 12 nominations, Academy members across all branches were big-time in the bag for this movie. But this nomination — and the Production Design nod, to a lesser extent — strike me as the kind of unimaginative thinking that leads voters to just fill in a favorite movie all the way down the line without really considering the options. If members of the Costume Branch were taken with the look of heavy furs and 1800s winter wardrobes, they’d have made a better choice going for The Hateful Eight, where the costumes at least had some creative flair. And for a branch that usually prizes color and elegance above all, a nod for the drab outfits of The Revenant over Brooklyn or Crimson Peak is curious.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Poor Vin Diesel. This was the one category where Furious 7 actually stood a decent chance of earning a nomination, but it didn’t happen. Diesel’s Oscar dreams have died hard this year, but he surely has another half-dozen Fast and Furious movies coming down the road that could finally end the series’ inexplicable Oscar drought. Keep on truckin,’ Vin.

At least Fifty Shades of Grey is now an Academy Award nominee.

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Still trying to figure out what the hell The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is.

BEST SOUND EDITING AND SOUND MIXING
I did surprisingly well in these categories, nailing the Mixing lineup and missing Editing  by just one. The frequent trend of four common nominees between the two categories and one loner in each continued, and I correctly guessed the shared contenders: Fury Road, The Force Awakens, The Revenant and The Martian. My shot in the dark that Bridge of Spies would land in Sound Mixing turned out to be right – go figure. I may ostensibly understand the general definition of these two categories, but I still don’t really get it, or have any idea how to evaluate it. Nevertheless, I know enough to know they made a good call by including Sicario in Sound Editing. The sound work in that movie was stellar, and huge contributor to its incredible sense of tension that was sustained throughout.

 

Chris Rock copyThat’s really all I have to say about the nominees at this stage. The big show is two weeks away, so we’ll see each other before then. Chris Rock is hosting, and in this year of racial controversy, who better to comment on the drama? I have a great idea for the opening of the show. The announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your host for the evening, Chris Rock!” And out walks Louis C.K., nodding and doing his understated, I’m-kind-of-uncomfortable-right-now Louis C.K. thing. “I…I know you were expecting Chris. You were probably expecting Idris Elba or Will Smith too, but you know…anyway the Academy quietly decided that in keeping with the theme this year…” and then he’d just kinda point to his face with a telling look. And it would go on for a minute until they figured a way to get Rock out there. I imagine maybe Louis calling Chris and tracking him down to Jerry Seinfeld’s house. They put Jerry on screen, Chris is over his place just hanging out in a tux, Louis and Jerry convince Chris that the show needs him, he agrees to come, and then Jerry drives him over, the ride becoming a riff on Seinfeld’s web series, this time called Comedians in Cars Getting Oscars. I dunno — it’s a work in progress. I’ve got two weeks to figure out the second part, but the opener is gold.

Anyway, after three years of being produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who insisted on stuffing the show with musical numbers, this year’s producing duties fall to the ebony and ivory team of Reginald Hudlin and David Hill. Hudlin is a writer/producer/director/executive with many credits in film and television, while Hill is best known for his work on live sporting events. Interestingly, Hudlin and Hill were talking about a focus on diversity at the show months ago, long before the nominees were determined. They’ve stated that diversity also means taking into account movies that are popular with audiences but don’t necessarily find themselves represented at the Oscars. (Furious 7, you may yet get your moment in the Oscar sun.). Hill, whose work in the sports world often focused on telling personal stories of the athletes in the game, talked of bringing that kind of device to the Oscars as a way to better acquaint audiences with nominees in the below-the-line categories. He also said he wants to construct the show in such a way that the awards are not given out in a totally random order, but that they have a flow and build to night’s final award, Best Picture. So…pretty much they’re talking about doing what was done for the 2008 awards, which is probably the overall best and most creatively produced Oscar ceremony I’ve ever seen, and did almost everything Hudlin and Hill have talked about, except for personalizing the lesser known nominees. Not a bad model to emulate. One idea I’m not crazy about, which was introduced earlier this week at the nominee’s luncheon, was asking all nominees to submit in advance a list of people they’d like to thank, and then the list will scroll across the bottom of the screen like a 24-hour news ticker. The idea is to encourage the winners to say something interesting during their time on stage, as opposed to just reading a list of names that have personal significance to them, but mean nothing to anybody watching. I understand the instinct, but the idea seems pretty crass to me. I kinda hope most people just don’t submit anything.

Okay…I’m sure nobody reading this cares about any of this stuff, so I’ll end it here. Your time would be better spent catching up on nominated movies.

(Class of 2015 photo from Nominee Luncheon. Click image to enlarge and scan for recognizable faces.)

 

 

January 13, 2016

Oscars 2015: Nominations Eve – My Absurdly Long Predictions Opus

Filed under: Movies,Oscars — DB @ 12:45 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Early in the premiere episode of the about-to-conclude-tonight American Horror Story: Hotel, Wes Bentley’s homicide detective is reviewing gruesome crime scene photos while listening to a recording of facts about the case to which they pertain. His notes identify the brutally mutilated victim as an Oscar blogger. I chuckled at that. Then I locked all the doors and windows and peeked out onto the street from behind the curtains to make sure no suspicious activity was afoot. I suppose if a deranged killer was out there targeting an Oscar blogger, there are several professionals for them to pursue. They wouldn’t bother with my small-time operation. So I’ll just continue toiling away here for the five of you who have showed up to read this. But in case this is my last hurrah, savor it. We who are about to die salute you…and still can’t believe Al Pacino wasn’t nominated for Donnie Brasco.

BEST PICTURE
To begin, it’s safe to say that whatever Vin Diesel might have promised us last April, Furious 7 will not be counted among this year’s contenders for the top Oscar. There are, however, an unusually high number of commercial films in the hunt that do have a legitimate shot. Mad Max: Fury Road, Straight Outta Compton, The Martian, Inside Out, Creed and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens all have varying degrees of momentum.

The big question mark is Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s one of the best reviewed movies of the year, and has collected several Best Picture wins from national and regional critics associations. Nearly every organization that didn’t give it their top prize, if they name runners-up or nominees, had it in one of those two positions. It’s far and away one of the two most honored movies of the year so far, which would appear to make it a no-brainer Best Picture contender…except that it couldn’t be further away from a typical Best Picture contender. This is a loud, crazy, high-octane action movie that begins at full-throttle and rarely lets up. Whatever intelligence and strong feminist themes run through it, it is on its surface a far cry from the type of films that earn Best Picture recognition. When this category was expanded to include more than five nominees, the move was believed to be, in part, a reaction to the Academy’s failure to nominate Christopher Nolan’s action drama, The Dark Knight. With a larger field of nominees, the thinking went, smart commercial movies could earn a place at this table. Alas, that isn’t really how things have gone…but then again, has there been such a film since The Dark Knight that has truly deserved that recognition? Maybe Skyfall. Definitely Fury Road. So this will arguably be the biggest test of the Best Picture expansion since its inception. Will voters make room for an acclaimed action film that has been embraced in all other corners as one of the year’s finest? Or will they ignore it in favor of more standard Academy fare that feels Moving, or Important?

The question is further complicated by the presence of The Martian. Ridley Scott’s sci-fi drama, with ample doses of crowd-pleasing laughs – so much so that it was rather questionably nominated in the Golden Globes’ Musical/Comedy categories, where it won Best Picture and Best Actor – is a box office success (more so than Fury Road), and also a big hit with critics (though less so than Fury Road). Crucially, it feels more like an Academy movie. I can’t articulate why, exactly. Whatever Oscar-friendly fortune smiled on Avatar and Inception – popular, mainstream films that have been nominated since the category’s expansion – also seems to grace The Martian. The Best Picture race will rarely accommodate more than two “popular” movies, and The Martian is a commercial film with a larger whiff of prestige than the gritty, grungy, in-your-face Fury Road, making it a more likely nominee. Given how well Fury Road has done in the precursor phase, it would be foolish to bet against its chances for a Best Picture slot. More importantly, it’s scored nominations from every guild to announce so far except one, which indicates support across the filmmaking community. Many voting members of the guilds are also Academy members. On the other hand, the film failed to land a Best Picture nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), which could be a bad omen…or could mean little, considering that BAFTA’s Best Picture race still only has five nominees. Like our Academy, the BAFTA is a large voting body comprised of filmmakers, so it can be a decent indicator of which way the winds are blowing, but it’s still just one of many such indicators, and must be weighed accordingly. On paper, Fury Road appears to have all the momentum it needs to score a Best Picture nomination. Yet the fact remains that there is zero precedence for a movie like it to be nominated, while there is plenty of precedence for critically adored and even guild-heralded movies to be shunned by the Academy.

Moving on to some safer bets, I mentioned that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the two most honored movies of 2015, at least based on the year-end awards. The other is Spotlight, which has captured the majority of Best Picture precursor awards so far. I expect it will be joined by Brooklyn and The Big Short, as well as aforementioned commercial prospects The Martian and Inside Out. So that’s five slots for sure, and six if we go with Mad Max: Fury Road. That leaves a maximum of only four spaces – five if we bet against Fury Road – and several contenders in the hunt: The Revenant (crowned with a Best Picture – Drama win earlier this week at the Golden Globes, though Oscar voting had already closed by then), Room, Carol, The Danish Girl, The Hateful Eight, Bridge of Spies, Steve Jobs, Joy, Trumbo, Sicario, Ex Machina, Beasts of No Nation, Son of Saul, plus Straight Outta Compton, Creed and Star Wars. That may seem like a kitchen sink list, but every one of those movies – even Star Wars – has legitimate potential to land a nomination. A solid case could be made for each, let me put it that way.

Once again, we don’t know how many nominees there will be. Last year there were eight, while the three previous years each had nine. I’m guessing nine again, based purely on the few years of evidence we have to work from. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with how many worthy films there are, or whether it’s been a strong or weak year for movies. It’s all about how many votes each movie gets. The way the numbers are crunched, a movie with a few hundred first place votes will be nominated over a movie with many more second or third place votes. (There are approximately 6,000 members of the Academy.) The passion vote is the key when it comes to the Best Picture nominations, and that’s tough to get a handle on. I’ve read, for example, that Carol and Room – while performing quite well with critics – have been less embraced by Academy members; the former for being perceived as too cold, and the latter for portraying difficult subject matter that has discouraged voters from watching it. Even if those rumors are true, there could still be enough devoted admirers who choose one of those films as their first choice, helping land it a coveted spot. (I’m counting on that passion vote to carry Fury Road over the finish line.)

Predictions:
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Carol
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Spotlight

Personal Picks:
Brooklyn
The Hateful Eight
Love & Mercy
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Sicario
Spotlight
Steve Jobs

BEST DIRECTOR
Whatever happens with Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Best Picture prospects, director George Miller’s chances in this race are a different ball game. As far as the critics awards go, Miller is miles ahead of the competition, having been named the top filmmaker of the year by nearly two dozen groups. The director’s branch usually makes room for one outside-the-box contender alongside a line-up of more traditional choices that align with Best Picture nominees. Miller could end up fitting either of those slots, depending on how things go. I imagine fellow members of his branch will want to honor him for getting out there at age 70 and mounting an immensely challenging production full of brazen physical effects and practical stunt work. It was a complicated endeavor with stellar results, and it’s hard to imagine his peers won’t honor him for it.

His peers in the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) did indeed honor him for it, nominating him alongside The Revenant‘s Alejandro G. Iñárritu (who also took the Golden Globe, in a minor upset), The Big Short‘s Adam McKay, Spotlight‘s Tom McCarthy, and The Martian‘s Ridley Scott. It’s the first such mention all season long for McKay, though he has collected his fair share of Screenplay honors. His slot comes at the “expense” of the only other director besides Miller, Iñárritu, McCarthy and Scott to be recognized during the precursor phase: Todd Haynes, director of Carol, who was honored by a couple of major critics groups.

What does it all mean for the Oscars? Well, as is the case with most of the guilds, the nominees rarely line up exactly. Scott and Iñárritu seem safe, as does McCarthy, having directed the presumed Best Picture frontrunner. Despite dominating the critics circuit, however, I’m not prepared to say that Spotlight will go all the way. And good as it is, it doesn’t jump out as a directing showcase…although the fact that it isn’t a flashy epic shouldn’t deceive anyone into thinking it’s not a superbly helmed film. So McCarthy could be the omission that will shock the pundits. I’m hearing that The Big Short is playing like gangbusters with Academy members, and that its popularity was hitting its stride smack in the middle of the voting period, so McKay could definitely benefit if people are loving the movie. On the other hand, might some voters be reluctant to hand a Best Director nomination to the guy behind Anchorman and Talledega Nights? You never know. I mentioned that the Director’s branch often goes for a less mainstream, more outsider candidate, and that can translate to “arty,” so I wouldn’t count Todd Haynes out.

Steven Spielberg could break into the race with Bridge of Spies, which has proven a surprisingly strong contender throughout both phases of the season, earning consistent mentions from critics in various categories, as well as nominations from several guilds and a field co-leading nine nominations from BAFTA. The movie is exactly the kind of sturdy, old-fashioned, handsomely crafted and entertaining production that older Academy members love…or at least greatly admire. Other than Spielberg, the only two people I can see sliding in – and they’re both huge longshots – are Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). I’d be surprised if anyone else showed up. There’s plenty of good, worthy work, but nothing that looks likely to push through. I don’t see Quentin Tarantino or David O. Russell getting in this year, nor up-and-comers like Lenny Abrahamson (Room), Ryan Coogler (Creed), or John Crowley (Brooklyn). Danny Boyle and Tom Hooper are past winners with prestige films in the mix – Steve Jobs and The Danish Girl, respectively – but nominations don’t appear to be in the cards.

We’ll see soon enough if I’m underestimating someone.

Predictions:
Steven Spielberg – Bridge of Spies
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott – The Martian
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

Personal Picks:
Quentin Tarantino – The Hateful Eight
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
Denis Villeneuve – Sicario
Danny Boyle – Steve Jobs

BEST ACTOR
This is typically a tough category to crack, overcrowded with excellent, deserving work. The competition isn’t quite as intense this year as it’s been the last few, but there are several viable contenders, and the category feels more pliable than in other years. Leonardo DiCaprio is the one true lock, for his all-in work in The Revenant, and he’ll likely be joined by Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs. The fate of that film seemed up in the air for a while when, despite strong reviews and big box office during its limited release, the movie faltered in wide release and disappeared from theaters far too quickly. But the critics revived it with constant mentions during Phase 1 of awards season, and Fassbender has been nominated for a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award and Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) award – a hat trick which doesn’t guarantee an Oscar nod, but doesn’t hurt.

Last year’s winner Eddie Redmayne has good odds of being back again, for The Danish Girl, but that movie’s reception seems just muted enough to make what might seem on paper like a surefire nomination be less of a guarantee. (He plays a real-life artist who was one of the first people to ever undergo gender-reassignment surgery.) Heading into the fall season, everyone assumed – and even hoped – that Johnny Depp’s work in Black Mass would be a return to form for the actor, and a surefire awards magnet. Unfortunately the movie was underwhelming, and Depp – while very good – was stuck with a script that gave him a two-dimensional character to play. There was nothing below the surface to dig into. He’s been largely absent from the awards conversation, but did score nominations from SAG and the BFCA, so he’s not completely sidelined.

Bryan Cranston has done quite well on the circuit for his role as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and Cranston’s popularity among actors (everyone loves Breaking Bad) as well as the boost of being in a movie about the movie industry – which tends to go over well with Academy members – give him an excellent chance of finding a spot. Matt Damon is a favorite for his versatile turn in The Martian, while Will Smith has garnered positive notices for his performance in Concussion.

Circling on the periphery with limited chances but just enough buzz to break through as a surprise, we have Michael Caine in Youth, Michael B. Jordan in Creed and Ian McKellan in Mr. Holmes. Tom Hardy and Jason Segel have garnered some critical attention for Legend and The End of the Tour, respectively, but neither have the momentum to push through into this race, while Jake Gyllenhaal might have had a shot for Southpaw had the movie made more of a splash. I’d bet there are many voters who would want to make up for him missing out last year with Nightcrawler, but Southpaw just didn’t catch on. I should also mention child actors Abraham Attah from Beasts of No Nation and Jacob Tremblay of Room, though they would probably find themselves in the Supporting Actor race – despite both being leads – if they make it at all.

Predictions:
Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
Matt Damon – The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

Personal Picks:
Abraham Attah – Beasts of No Nation
Matt Damon – The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Jacob Tremblay – Room

BEST ACTRESS
What I’m about to say will defy logic and make you doubt all that you have come to believe in and understand about the world, but just know that everything is going to be okay. Here goes: Meryl Streep starred in a movie this year and is NOT going to get nominated for an Oscar. It feels like heresy just to write that, but I must speak the truth. Meryl Streep’s performance in Ricki and the Flash is not part of the Best Actress conversation at all. It might have been, in a more typical year…”typical” meaning a year with a disappointingly small pool of great female roles from which to select. Happily for us all, this is not a typical year. In fact, the number of women in the Best Actress hunt is larger than it’s been in a long time, and the problem that has plagued Best Actor over the past few years – so much good work that no matter how the nominations turned out, some great performances were going to be left out – now impacts the ladies.

Two actresses that needn’t worry about the stiff competition are Brie Larson and Saoirse Ronan, who are comfortably positioned to be recognized for Room and Brooklyn, respectively. Whatever issues Room might have in cracking the Best Picture race, they shouldn’t impact actors’ desire to recognize Larson’s extraordinary work. Jennifer Lawrence is an Academy darling, and even though Joy hasn’t resonated as strongly as American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook – Lawrence’s last two collaborations with David O. Russell – her work in the film is admired enough to make her a likely nominee. She missed out on a SAG nomination, but ballots for those awards went out in mid-to-late November, well before the movie was completed and screening for guild members.

That leaves two slots and a dozen strong possibilities. In addition to Larson and Ronan, SAG nominated Cate Blanchett for Carol, Helen Mirren for Woman in Gold, and in a major shock, Sarah Silverman for the little-seen indie I Smile Back. Blanchett is probably a safe bet for an Oscar nod, and Mirren can never be discounted, but I suspect she’ll be squeezed out by more compelling work. Silverman’s SAG nomination is impressive, but a matching Oscar nod isn’t in the cards.

There’s been plenty of talk for Blanchett’s Carol co-star Rooney Mara as well as The Danish Girl‘s Alicia Vikander, but both of them are being promoted by their studios for Supporting Actress recognition. This has led to cries of category fraud, since both actresses are clearly leads. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the Golden Globes, rejected these categorizations and filtered Mara and Vikander into the Lead race, where both were nominated in the Drama category. Some critics organizations also put them into Lead, while others stuck with Supporting. Both actresses received SAG and BFCA nods, both in Supporting. Academy voters always have the option of ignoring the studios’ suggestions and placing performers in the category they feel is most accurate, though more often than not they go along with what is recommended. The danger for both actresses’ chances comes from the possibility that many voters will place them in one category while many will place them in the other, splitting their recognition such that they don’t collect enough votes in either category to break through.

A number of veterans have been in the conversation this year, from character actress Blythe Danner, playing her first lead film role in I’ll See You in My Dreams to Lily Tomlin for her acerbic turn in Grandma to Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van. But the only one from this over-65 club who seems to have a real shot is Charlotte Rampling, who has earned raves for 45 Years. The movie is a small one, but she’s received enough praise that if voters get a chance to see the film, she could land a spot. It’s a definite “if,” however, especially since her performance is so quiet and internalized. Voters prefer fireworks. She missed out on a BAFTA nomination (her assumed spot went to Maggie Smith), and that could be a bad sign for her Oscar prospects. If she couldn’t break through with a home field advantage, she may not have the votes to get nominated on this side of the pond.

Carey Mulligan turned in a pair of excellent performances, with Far from the Madding Crowd and Suffragette, and Emily Blunt was terrific in Sicario, though like Rampling, who has racked up far more mentions than Blunt, her work is probably too understated and nuanced to pop amidst such strong competition. There’s also Charlize Theron’s lauded performance in Mad Max: Fury Road, but while that would be great to see nominated, I have a hard time imagining she’ll collect enough votes to get her there.

Predictions:
Cate Blanchett – Carol
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl

Personal Picks:
Emily Blunt – Sicario
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Whereas the last two years have seen one actor dominating this race heading into the Oscars – Jared Leto in 2013 and J.K. Simmons in 2014 – this time around the race is wide open, with critics groups spreading their love across a dozen performances. The one to collect the most prizes so far, believe it or not, is Sylvester Stallone for his reprisal of Rocky Balboa in Creed. It’s a part he’s now played seven times, and he was a Best Actor nominee the first, back in 1976. Stallone is quite good in Creed, and gets to bring some lovely new shadings to the character. On the other hand, we don’t tend to think of Stallone and “great actor” in the same sentence, and although he’s in a frontrunner position at the moment, it wouldn’t surprise me if many voters felt that he hadn’t “earned” Academy attention. He did just win a Golden Globe, and is nominated for a BFCA award, but was passed over by SAG, which is the only one of those three voting bodies that has any crossover with the Academy. On the other hand, if the enthusiastic standing ovation he received at the Globes is any indication, his chances look good.

If we consider Stallone a lock, the only other person who enjoys similar status at the moment is Mark Rylance as the accused Soviet agent at the center of Bridge of Spies. Rylance isn’t well-known by film audiences, but he’s a Broadway fixture with three Tony awards, and has been a highlight of Steven Spielberg’s drama for those who’ve seen it. (I enjoyed the performance, but felt it needed to be more substantial in size to deserve an Oscar nod.)

From its earliest showings in September at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Spotlight was seen as having strong Oscar potential, with Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo the standout performers likely to earn award recognition. The only question throughout the fall seemed to be if the category would have room for both of them, or only one. Now the question is whether it will have room for either, as both have missed the cut with nearly every major group so far. SAG, BFCA and the Golden Globes all overlooked them. The thinking seems to be that they’ve split the vote, but I’ve said before that the long-held notion of vote splitting makes little sense to me. By and large, people will vote for the performances they most enjoy, whether or not there happen to be more than one in a given movie. If Spotlight does as well with the Academy as it’s expected to, I find it hard to believe that at least one of these guys isn’t getting nominated. But if only one, which one? Keaton could have support from what I’m sure is a large number of people who wanted to see him win last year for Birdman. Ruffalo, also widely admired by his fellow actors, is still awaiting his first Oscar, and he has the showier role in Spotlight. And in a late breaking boost, he got a BAFTA nomination last week. I think he’s going to make it, but it’s no sure thing.

Michael Shannon has garnered a fair amount of critical accolades for the searing housing crisis drama 99 Homes, and even landed SAG, BFCA and Golden Globe nods. But have enough Academy members seen that movie? Enough to go for Shannon over Keaton and Ruffalo in Spotlight, a movie many of them will definitely have seen? Only Shannon and Rylance have scored nominations from all three of those groups. Idris Elba was recognized by SAG and the Globes for Beasts of No Nation; Christian Bale by SAG and the BFCA for The Big Short; and Paul Dano by the BFCA and the Globes for Love & Mercy. Bale, Elba and Rylance have also added BAFTA nods to their tally. Tom Hardy picked up a BFCA nomination for The Revenant, while Jacob Tremblay scored a SAG nod for Room. SAG often goes to bat for child actors, but I’m unsure about Tremblay’s Oscar chances. People who’ve seen the film – actors who’ve seen the film, importantly – are definitely moved by his performance, but with someone so young, there’s often the question of the line between acting – making conscious choices about a performance – and playing a sort of make-believe guided by natural behavior. There’s also the category fraud issue again, seeing as Tremblay is unquestionably a lead in Room. As with Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander, Tremblay’s placement as Lead vs. Supporting has varied among critics groups.

Benicio del Toro garnered buzz for Sicario, and has been on the bubble all season long. He landed a BAFTA nod, but that’s the biggest honor he’s collected to date. The buzz may not have remained strong enough to get him in. Oscar Isaac is a longshot for his work in Ex Machina, and Joel Edgerton had a bit of shine around him early on for Black Mass, but his fortunes seem to have faded along with the movie’s. Still, if it somehow rebounds with the Academy – if they nominate Depp – he could benefit.

One more longshot that I have to mention is Harrison Ford for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He hasn’t been named by a single critics group, let alone SAG, the Globes or the BFCA…though to be fair, the movie wasn’t available for most of these groups to watch before they announced their nominations. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference. But consider: Ford is a beloved actor with only one nomination, way back in 1985 for Witness. He hasn’t even earned an Honorary Oscar yet. From George Burns to Don Ameche to Sean Connery to James Coburn to Alan Arkin to Christopher Plummer, this category often recognizes veteran actors who have never won before. With The Force Awakens, Ford returned to the role of an iconic character, also beloved, and slipped comfortably back into the part despite 30+ years elapsing since he’d last played it. The character is deepened in this new film, allowing Ford to bring new dimensions and play a more emotional arc than the earlier films allowed. All of these points, by the way, also apply to Stallone, though as popular a character as Rocky Balboa is, he doesn’t hold the same cultural significance as Han Solo. And those who’ve seen the movie know that Ford has one scene in particular that could go a long way toward earning him some sentiment for recognition. Do I think it will happen? No, probably not. Do I think it could? Absolutely. There are all kinds of factors beyond just the performance that voters think about when making their selections, and some of the things I’m mentioning here could propel Ford to a nomination.

Predictions:
Christian Bale – The Big Short
Idris Elba – Beasts of No Nation
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies

Personal Picks:
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina
Jason Mitchell – Straight Outta Compton
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Sylvester Stallone – Creed

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
We now come back to Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander. If voters fall in line with the studio marketing, both will earn their recognition here…and chances are good that both will earn recognition. In Vikander’s case, the mystery is whether her nomination will come for The Danish Girl or Ex Machina. While the assumption all season long has been that Vikander would garner recognition for The Danish Girl, she has quietly amassed a field-leading number of critics group wins for Ex Machina. I don’t know what to expect from that film in terms of how it will play with the Academy. It was nominated for Best Picture by the Producers Guild of America, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will repeat with the Academy. It’s been out long enough and received enough attention that I’m sure many voters have seen it. So in which role has Vikander most impressed the most people? And could she end up pulling double honors, with a Best Actress nomination for The Danish Girl and Supporting for Ex Machina, which she got from the Golden Globes and BAFTA? That’s what I’m predicting…but I’m not convinced about her Best Actress chances. I just had to make a choice and get on with my life.

Mara and Vikander and their category confusion aside, the safest bet here is Kate Winslet, who has earned consistent accolades for her work in Steve Jobs, and just picked up an unexpected Golden Globe win. Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of the finest actresses to never be nominated for an Oscar, could finally have her chance with a live-wire role in The Hateful Eight, and Helen Mirren is in play for a small role in Trumbo…much too small, in my opinion. She earned the SAG/BFCA/Golden Globe trifecta, but enjoyable as she is playing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, this is a spot that should go to someone who contributed more to their film. Like Elizabeth Banks, for instance, in Love & Mercy. The prolific actress gives one of her best performances, and although she has picked up some recognition in the precursor phase, she’s a dark horse for an Oscar nomination.

Another dark horse, though she has received a few major critic’s prizes, is Kristen Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria. I’m a bit baffled by the attention she’s received for this. (Last February, she became the first American actress to ever win a César, France’s equivalent of the Oscar. Bizarre.) Clouds of Sils Maria is a movie that stuck with me all year even though I had significant issues with it, and Stewart was good…but Stewart is rarely better than good. There is something compelling about her screen presence, but she’s not a great actress, and I can’t figure why she’s earning such high marks for this role. Her co-star Juliette Binoche is the one who should be in the conversation, for Best Actress, but there’s been nary a peep about her, or a single critic’s notice during Phase 1. The question of “deserve” aside, I seriously doubt Clouds of Sils Maria has been seen by enough voters to earn Stewart a spot.

While Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton have been unable to register as widely as expected, Spotlight‘s Rachel McAdams has carried the torch for the movie’s lauded ensemble, earning SAG and BFCA nominations. She’s solid in the movie, but it’s a pretty muted performance, and I’m not sure she would be singled out unless voters indeed can’t choose between Keaton and Ruffalo, and want to make sure someone from the cast is acknowledged.

Jane Fonda has a shot for her brief, memorable work in Youth, but like Helen Mirren in Trumbo – more so, in fact – the role is much too small to deserve a spot. It’s little more than an extended cameo, really, but it was enough to land her a Golden Globe nomination. With all due respect to these esteemed actresses and the admittedly fine work they did in their films, it would be a shame if their brief contributions were allowed to eclipse roles that are significantly more substantial, even if from less known performers or films outside the mainstream. Consider Tangerine, the Sundance breakout hit starring transgender actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who created two of the year’s most vivid and memorable characters. The movie’s producers, indie rock stars Mark and Jay Duplass, initiated an Oscar campaign for Taylor and Rodriguez, and while the movie surely remains too under-the-radar to actually land any nominations, it would be a breath of fresh air from the Academy if they were to honor either of these vibrant performances.

Predictions:
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
Helen Mirren – Trumbo
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Personal Picks:
Elizabeth Banks – Love & Mercy
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Mya Taylor – Tangerine
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Bank on Spotlight and Inside Out to land here for sure, with Bridge of Spies also a near-lock. Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell have both done well in the writing categories in recent years, but while QT’s The Hateful Eight is a good bet, Russell may not be able to repeat unless the Academy turns out to embrace Joy more enthusiastically than any other group this year. Straight Outta Compton, Sicario and Trainwreck all picked up nominations from the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) – alongside Spotlight and Bridge of Spies – but there are always several major players which are ineligible for recognition from the WGA, and this year’s victims include Inside Out and Hateful Eight. I’m sure the former will get a nomination, and the latter probably will too, so there won’t be room for all of the guild’s selections. Sicario may have the best shot of the three, but even that’s hard to say, seeing as the film has been on the bubble all season. It’s done well with guild nominations, but I can’t say with any confidence that things will play out the same way with the Academy. Ex Machina, which was also ineligible with the WGA, is another strong possibility here, though again, I’m have no sense of how the movie is playing with Academy members.

Predictions:
Bridge of Spies – Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Ex Machina – Alex Garland
The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino
Inside Out – Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Spotlight – Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer

Personal Picks:
Dope – Rick Famuyiwa
The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino
Inside Out – Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Spotlight – Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Sicario – Taylor Sheridan

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
There are six films that have come up consistently in this category throughout the season: The Big Short, Brooklyn, Carol, The Martian, Room and Steve Jobs. There’s only room for five, of course, and there are a few others looking to break in. Chief among those is Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman, whose work is always unique and admired. A few critics groups have nominated The End of the Tour, about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky’s interviews with David Foster Wallace near the end of his Infinite Jest book tour, but I seriously doubt that movie has the momentum to be a threat here. Others that have cropped up are Creed, 45 Years and The Diary of a Teenage Girl, as well as Trumbo, which landed a WGA nod. But again, ineligibilities always clear the way for some longshot nominees to have their day in the sun with the WGA. Brooklyn and Room were the most notable omissions this year, but both seem like safe bets for an Oscar nod. I’d say Carol is the most vulnerable here, but the fact is that all six of these are favorites, and something’s gotta give.

Predictions:
The Big Short – Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Brooklyn – Nick Hornby
The Martian – Drew Goddard
Room – Emma Donaghue
Steve Jobs – Aaron Sorkin

Personal Picks:
Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufman
The Big Short – Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Brooklyn – Nick Hornby
The Martian – Drew Goddard
Steve Jobs – Aaron Sorkin

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Sixteen films were submitted for consideration this year, a quota which means that up to five can be nominated…though I think there can be fewer. Inside Out is a no-brainer, and Pixar’s other 2015 release, The Good Dinosaur, is a safe bet too, though it was less well-received than most of the studio’s films, and could be bumped. The animation is often stunning, but the plot is fairly pedestrian. I’m not sure which of those qualities will be given more weight by voters.

Anomalisa and The Peanuts Movie will probably make it, so if we assume there will indeed be five nominees, the question is whether or not one of the more obscure, indie animated films can break through. Salma Hayek produced Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which might be able to land a slot. Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli, which has enjoyed several nominations over the years, has When Marnie Was There in contention, but I feel like that movie has flown further under the radar than other Ghibli efforts. Not that it matters, since the branch members have often selected little-known movies that have received no mainstream publicity prior to being nominated. I don’t think this is going to be one of those years, but that could well be because I have absolutely no framework in which to evaluate movies like Moomins on the Riviera or Boy and the World.

Predictions:
Anomalisa
The Good Dinosaur
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

Personal Picks:
Anomalisa
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Emmanuel Lubezki, who triumphed in this category the last two years, is going for a three-peat with The Revenant, shot in remote landscapes using only natural light. He’ll surely be keeping company with John Seale, the 70 year-old Oscar winner who came out of retirement to lens Mad Max: Fury Road, a monumental production with a dazzling visual style. And count on the brilliant, still Oscar-less maestro Roger Deakins to make the cut for his evocative work on Sicario. Those three are the sure things, with Carol‘s Ed Lachman probably right at their heels. Who gets the fifth spot?

Much has been made of The Hateful Eight‘s 70mm shoot and the decades-old lenses that were used, but will any of that ultimately be meaningful to voters on a film that, however well photographed, is largely confined to a single-room location? Robert Richardson is a three-time winner, nominated for Tarantino’s last two films, but I could see him getting edged out this time. Lubezki, Seale, Deakins and Lachman were all nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), which chose Janusz Kaminski’s work on Bridge of Spies to round out their list. Kaminski is another Academy favorite with two wins under his belt, but rarely does the Academy line up five-for-five with the ASC, and of these five impressively photographed productions, Revenant, Fury Road and Sicario seem immovable. Carol could get knocked out, but it feels too entrenched. The Martian has a good chance, as a movie that could hit a lot of these below-the-line categories and does have an exotic look thanks to its alien location. The employment of different film stocks, along with digital cameras, to capture the three distinct acts of Steve Jobs could earn it some votes, but the end result might not be viewed as dynamic enough to land a spot in such a competitive race. There is also plenty of deserving work that probably doesn’t have the momentum to make the cut, including Luca Bigazzi’s wondrous shot compositions in Youth; Maryse Alberti’s fluid work on Creed; Dan Lausten’s gothic play of light and shadow in Crimson Peak; and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s unflinching hold on child soldiers in the African jungle in Beasts of No Nation.

I could go on, as there’s no shortage of impressive cinematography to marvel at, but if the Academy offers up a surprise, it could be The Assassin. I missed the film, so can’t speak to it personally, but the Cinematographer’s branch of the Academy sometimes goes for a more obscure pick, and it’s often a foreign film. The Assassin has collected enough critics prizes to make me think it will be on voters’ radars, and while it’s definitely a longshot, I’m going out on a limb and guessing it turns up.

Predictions:
The Assassin – Mark Lee Ping Bin
Carol – Ed Lachman
Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario – Roger Deakins

Personal Picks:
Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario – Roger Deakins
Steve Jobs Alwin H. Küchler
Youth – Luca Bigazzi

BEST FILM EDITING
This category is closely associated with Best Picture, so some of the frontrunners are sure to appear here as well. However, the most obvious Editing nominee is Mad Max: Fury Road, even though its position here doesn’t necessarily reflect its Best Picture odds. It’s just a hell of a skillfully assembled movie. The Big Short moves between multiple storylines, and also uses a lot of rapid-fire imagery to convey its message, so expect a nomination for that. The Martian also shifts between different storylines, maintaining successful pacing throughout its running time, so I think it has a good chance too. As the current frontrunner for Best Picture, Spotlight would seem like a sure thing for Editing, but it was conspicuously absent from both the American Cinema Editors (ACE) and BAFTA nominees. That may be a bad sign, but given the history of connection between Picture and Editing, I can’t bet against Spotlight. ACE breaks things out into categories for Drama and Comedy, and The Big Short is named in the latter, where it feels like the only nominee that will also land with the Academy (it joins Ant-Man, Trainwreck, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and the only one I wouldn’t dismiss as a possibility, Joy. On the drama side, Fury Road and The Martian are up against The Revenant, Sicario and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. BAFTA threw Bridge of Spies into the mix as well. My guess is that Revenant, Sicario and Spies are fighting it out for the fifth spot, and I’m giving a slight edge to Sicario.

Predictions:
The Big Short – Hank Corwin
Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
The Martian – Pietro Scalia
Sicario – Joe Walker
Spotlight – Tom McArdle

Personal Picks:
Dope – Lee Haugen
Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
The Martian – Pietro Scalia
Sicario – Joe Walker
Spotlight – Tom McArdle

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Once again, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian are out in front. I’d be questioning the latter’s chances if “spaceship” movies didn’t do so well with the voters in this branch. Apollo 13, Gravity and Interstellar all picked up nominations here, so I’m guessing The Martian will follow suit, especially with the arid Mars exteriors lending color and character. While Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian are all technically science fiction, they portray realistic designs, as opposed to the more fantasy-based science fiction of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which could also find success here. Much of its design seems to take its cues from the earlier Star Wars movies, which might be a strike against it, and I don’t know if the category – which also favors period pieces – has room for both The Martian and Star Wars. But it very well might.

On the period side, Carol, Brooklyn and The Danish Girl seem the likeliest contenders, with Bridge of Spies also a strong possibility. The Art Directors Guild picks nominees across three categories – Contemporary, Period, and Fantasy – and still didn’t find room for Carol or Brooklyn, which came as a big surprise, though I think both are very much in the running for an Oscar nomination. Two additional strong contenders, bridging the gap between period and fantasy, are Cinderella and Crimson Peak. Also worthy of consideration is the excellent design of Ex Machina, but unfortunately films with contemporary settings – even ones like this that are not only uniquely stylish, but also serve the story quite organically –  are rarely given their due by designers. I’d love to be wrong in this case.

Predictions:
Bridge of Spies
Carol
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian

Personal Picks:
Carol
Crimson Peak
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Costume designers, like their brethren in the Production Design branch, favor period pieces and, to a slightly lesser extent, fantasy.  So while Mad Max: Fury Road is a probable nominee, the frontrunners are Carol, Brooklyn and Cinderella. The Danish Girl is also a strong possibility, and Bridge of Spies, though more muted in color palette than the films that do best here, also has a shot. Trumbo and The Hateful Eight have decent odds, while Far From the Madding Crowd, Crimson Peak, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Martian could all find a way in. Two other films that deserve to be mentioned are the tongue-in-cheek 60’s spy adventure The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the Will Smith-Margot Robbie con artist caper Focus. I’m sure neither earned any real consideration, falling outside the “prestige” purview, and in the case of Focus, being set in the present day. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at least has the period setting in its favor, and maybe it will collect some votes, but not enough to get nominated.

Predictions:
Brooklyn
Carol
Cinderella
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road

Personal Picks:
Brooklyn
Carol
Cinderella
Crimson Peak
Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Even with 74 eligible songs this year, the pickings are slim. Like…really slim. This list is comprised of lots of forgettable pop songs as well as tracks from movies you’ve never heard of. Vin Diesel’s promise of a Best Picture nomination for Furious 7 may not come true, but the unstoppable franchise may in fact land its first ever Oscar nomination, for the song “See You Again,” which serves as a farewell to the series’ late star, Paul Walker. In addition to that song, most of the critics groups that include a Best Song category have featured the same short list of titles: “Love Me Like You Do,” from Fifty Shades of Grey; “Simple Song #3,” from Youth; “Writing’s on the Wall,” from Spectre; and “‘Til it Happens to You,” from the documentary The Hunting Ground. There have also been a couple of mentions each for Shaun the Sheep Movie‘s “Feels Like Summer,” Pitch Perfect 2‘s “Flashlight” and Concussion‘s “So Long.” A number of critics groups nominated the Brian Wilson selection “One Kind of Love,” from Love & Mercy, but for reasons I’m not sure of, it didn’t qualify for Academy consideration…which is too bad. The lackluster category could have used the work of someone like Wilson.

I really have no idea what will happen here, and I’m not sure I care. The selections could all be from this pool of pop songs, or maybe something out of left field will impress the voters. It wouldn’t be the first time. The Wrap‘s Steve Pond once again listened to every eligible song and filed this report, but he doesn’t really offer predictions; just his own thoughts. If you’re interested in a bird’s-eye view of the contenders, it’s worth a read. I didn’t listen to most of these songs myself, but nothing I’ve heard this year has left much of an impression. Maybe there are some gems I didn’t hear.

Predictions:
See You Again – Furious 7
‘Til it Happens to You – The Hunting Ground
Feels Like Summer – Shaun the Sheep Movie
Writing’s on the Wall – Spectre
Simple Song #3 – Youth

Personal Picks:
Uhhh…..I like the new Adele stuff. Was any of that in a movie? Can we figure out a way to nominate David Bowie for something?

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Fortunately, one of the music categories offers some work this year worth getting excited about. Despite a typically large pool of qualifiers – 114 this year – the conversation has focused around a small-ish selection of likely nominees. Fresh off a Golden Globe win, legendary Italian maestro Ennio Morricone is gunning for his first competitive Oscar (he received an Honorary statuette in 2006) for The Hateful Eight, and I can’t imagine him not getting nominated for this terrific work. Another legend, John Williams, returned to sacred territory with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to which I give 50/50 odds for a nomination. The popularity of the film and of Williams himself could be enough to get him a spot. Working against him? The score is good, but not great. He was nominated for each of the original three films, but none of the prequels, and the Force Awakens score is more on par with those later efforts.

Health issues prevented Williams from collaborating with Steven Spielberg on Bridge of Spies, making it only the second of the director’s 28 features since 1974 not to be scored by Williams. (Do you know the other? No Googling! And Twilight Zone: The Movie doesn’t count; Spielberg only directed one of that movie’s four segments.) Bridge of Spies was instead scored by Thomas Newman, who did nice work…though I preferred his score for Spectre. Newman, long overdue for an Oscar win, could be in the running again this year with either one. Another excellent composer who has never won – who has never even been nominated (not even for Fargo!?!) – is Carter Burwell, but he’s poised to finally join the club with his work on Carol. (He also won acclaim this year for Anomalisa.)

With The Danish Girl, last year’s winner – and a near-perennial at this point – Alexandre Desplat may collect his ninth nomination since 2006, and another of last year’s nominees, Jóhann Jóhannsson, could get cited for his moody, unsettling contributions to Sicario. That score might not make for the most enjoyable listening experience on its own, but works magnificently in the context of the movie. I generally favor scores that stand on their own as music you can listen to without the film, but what I favor has nothing to do with anything, and the Oscar for Best Original Score should first and foremost recognize music in service of its movie. Others this year that could land nominations for serving their movies well even if they might not be as compelling on their own include The Martian, by Harry Gregson-Williams, and Ex Machina, by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.

Spotlight (Howard Shore), Brooklyn (Michael Brook), Inside Out (Michael Giacchino), Cinderella (Patrick Doyle) and Steve Jobs (Daniel Pemberton) are all serious contenders, but two scores that have done well in the precursor phase – Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant – will be sidelined. The Revenant was ruled ineligible, while Fury Road features the kind of thumping score – more rock than classical – which the music branch voters rarely favor. One last possibility that should be mentioned is The 33, a movie that isn’t otherwise on the Academy’s radar, but which features music by James Horner, the Oscar-winning composer of Titanic, among many other great scores. Horner died in a plane crash over the summer, and it’s possible his colleagues will want to honor him one last time.

Predictions:
Bridge of Spies – Thomas Newman
Carol – Carter Burwell
The Danish Girl – Alexandre Desplat
The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone
The Martian – Harry Gregson-Williams

Personal Picks:
Ex Machina – Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Far From the Madding Crowd – Craig Armstrong
The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone
Sicario – Jóhann Jóhannsson
Spotlight – Howard Shore

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
The Academy has already taken a fair amount of guesswork out of this category by narrowing it down to seven contenders, of which three will be nominated. The lucky finalists are Black Mass, Concussion, Legend, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mr. Holmes, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and The Revenant.

If you’re anything like me, that list begs a few questions. Like, what the hell is the The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared? Or, are they retroactively talking about the 1985 Tom Cruise-Tim Curry fantasy Legend? Because what could they possibly be thinking about by including the Legend with Tom Hardy as twin gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray?

There are some unfortunate omissions from this shortlist that deserve a shot at the final three, including In the Heart of the Sea (this poor movie got the shaft in every way), Everest, Ex Machina, The Danish Girl, Trumbo, and maybe Avengers: Age of Ultron. But the seven finalists are generally a good lot. Seriously, though…Legend? Am I forgetting something from that movie?

Predictions:
Black Mass
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Personal Picks:
Same

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Like the Makeup and Hairstyling branch, the Visual Effects group goes through an organized process of elimination that began with a list of 20 films. That was narrowed down to 10, from which the final five will be selected. Our pool consists of Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina, Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tomorrowland and The Walk. Last Saturday, members of the branch gathered at an Academy theater for presentations by each film’s visual effects supervisor, immediately after which they cast their ballots. (The Makeup and Hairstyling branch held a similar bake-off event the same day.)

It’s an impressive line-up this year. There’s not a film here that doesn’t feature really high-quality work, so it’s a tough call. The voters love to honor visual effects from Best Picture-caliber movies, so that bodes well for The Revenant and The Martian. The primary work in both The Walk and Ex Machina, while excellent, is somewhat limited in terms of how much it’s employed. Ex Machina‘s effects create the visible robotic portions of the AI character Ava, but those parts are often concealed by clothing. The Walk, meanwhile, has one truly spectacular sequence that lasts maybe 20 or 30 minutes, but beyond that it’s not an overtly effects-heavy movie. I’m also not sure if both The Walk and The Revenant will make it. Each employs visual effects on major, buzzed-about sequences – the former on the breathtaking walk between the two World Trade Center towers, the latter on the harrowing bear attack – and both with stellar results. I’m trying to figure which one has the edge, but maybe they’ll both make it and push a presumed nominee like Jurassic World or The Martian out of the final five. As Yoda once said, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” No idea, he has. Predicting the Oscars he should try sometime, then talk to me he can.

Anyway, if you want an insider’s view, Variety‘s David S. Cohen was at the bake-off, and offered his take on the presentations and how they were received.

Predictions:
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Walk

Personal Picks:
Ant-Man
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Walk

BEST SOUND EDITING AND SOUND MIXING
I feel like a broken record when I reach the Sound categories each year, because I always say the same things: the difference between the two categories, the wide array of films that could turn up, and how I think there should be a single sound category honoring overall Sound Design. So first, the two categories. In simplest terms, sound editors create and/or fix sounds that couldn’t be recorded during filming or were not usable, while sound mixers combine all the elements – dialogue, music, sound effects, etc. – into a balanced whole.

Second, the array of possibilities. The categories are usually dominated by action movies, so we could see things like Mad Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Jurassic World, Tomorrowland, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Spectre, or Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We could see dramas that have strong action-ish elements, like Sicario, The Revenant, Everest, In the Heart of the Sea, The Hateful Eight (Tarantino’s last two movies have been recognized) or Beasts of No Nation. We could see something with a heavy musical component, like Straight Outta Compton or Love & Mercy (which employs sound mixing to great effect by using it to bring us inside Brian Wilson’s troubled headspace). We could see an animated film, which requires extensive creation of sound elements (several Pixar movies have been nominated). And we could also see the odd, straight drama that doesn’t seem an obvious candidate for recognition in Sound, but apparently is, because, well, what do we know? Bridge of Spies seems a likely bet to fill that potential slot this year.

Sound Editing Predictions:
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Sound Mixing Predictions
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Finally, in lieu of personal picks that I feel wholly unqualified to offer, I have my fantasy category of Best Sound Design, which I feel slightly less unqualified to offer. I’d go for Inside Out, Love & Mercy, Mad Max: Fury Road, Sicario, and The Revenant.

And that’s everything. Well…almost everything. As always, my sincere apologies to the Documentaries and Foreign Language films that I didn’t get around to seeing, as well as the short films that no one ever gets around to seeing until the nominees are announced and each category’s selections are released as a package…at which point I probably still won’t get around to seeing them, so advance apologies for that too.

It’s all in the hands of the movie gods now. The nominations will be revealed tomorrow morning, in two segments beginning at 5:30am PST. Ang Lee and Guillermo del Toro will announce 11 categories, followed by John Krasinski and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs with the remaining 13, including all the above-the-line categories like Picture, Acting and Writing. Will you be waking up to watch the gig live?? I will be!! Because, if you hadn’t figured it out by now, I’m waaaay too into this shit. Pray for me…

 

 

November 22, 2015

Tremors in The Force

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 3:00 pm
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It doesn’t seem so long ago that The Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm for roughly $4 billion dollars and announced a new slate of Star Wars movies were in the works, but in fact it’s been almost three years. Like any lifelong Star Wars fan, I had some thoughts on these matters, just as I did a few months later when J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of Episode VII. All was quiet on the official news front for a long while after that, and I thought the casting announcement would be a good time to check back in. Well…that came and went nearly a year-and-a-half ago, and I apparently had too much going on at the time to wade back in. With each new milestone – title announcement, trailers, Comic-Con, etc. – I wanted to weigh in, but could never find the time…partly because I was accumulating so many articles on the subject that I needed to go back through, the writing itself was always delayed by the “research.” Now, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens just a few short weeks (weeks!) away, it’s now or never if I want to get some thoughts off my chest before the movie is looming too large in front of us – not unlike the Death Star over a Corellian starship caught in a tractor beam – for it to matter anymore.

Not that it really matters now. Or ever did. But is that going to stop me?

CULLING THE CAST
Since casting was the topic I was so keen to discuss, why not start there? Abrams and company put together an impressive ensemble for the new film, and when they it was announced at the end of April 2014, the big question was how many of the rumored names would turn out to have made the cut. There were, after all, a lot of rumors. In fact, from casting to plot and everything in between, these new Star Wars movies have had the rumor mill churning so aggressively that they might yet break the mechanism.

It was known that Abrams met with a huge number of actors during the casting process. The names I saw connected to the film – whether by their own admission or by sources said to be in the know – were Benedict Cumberbatch, Zac Efron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Michael B. Jordan, Jack O’Connell (star of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken), Gary Oldman, David Oyelowo, Dev Patel, Alex Pettyfer, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Saoirse Ronan, Tye Sheridan, Ed Spleers (Downton Abbey‘s footman Jimmy), Sullivan Stapleton (of the Cinemax series Strike Back), and Hugo Weaving.

The names to surface during this period that actually made the cut were John Boyega and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as Adam Driver, whose casting was pretty much confirmed a few months before the full, official group was revealed. Just a few days before the announcement, Oscar Isaac’s name suddenly popped into the mix, and he too would be counted among the holders of this golden ticket. When the announcement came, accompanied by a table read photo featuring most of the participants, it was satisfying to see some people who hadn’t been mentioned in the speculation phase at all. Up and comer Domhnall Gleeson – son of the excellent character actor Brendan Gleeson – was a welcome surprise, as were Andy Serkis and Daisy Ridley, who along with Boyega, extends the tradition of casting newcomers in lead roles…not that we knew at that point that Boyega and Ridley would be the leads. I’m also a huge Oscar Isaac fan, so I loved seeing him thrust into the mix, and later learning that he rounded out the trio of central new characters alongside Boyega and Ridley. But perhaps the coolest inclusion of all? Max von Sydow, the now 86 year old veteran whose epic career stretches back to the classics of Ingmar Bergman. Dude played chess with Death!!  From Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing to Terence Stamp and Christopher Lee, the presence of older, esteemed actors bringing a charm and gravitas to these modern stories is another Star Wars tradition. With so much of the attention focused on younger actors during the frenzy of casting rumors, no one reported on the possibility of another veteran performer carrying that torch. I was thrilled to see von Sydow amongst the cast.

(Click image for larger version with labels)

Although their involvement was all but assured, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were confirmed to return as part of the big cast reveal, along with Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker (Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, respectively). But if there was one complaint amidst the general enthusiasm which greeted the casting announcement, (Stephen Colbert’s disappointment notwithstanding) it was the lack of women. Only Fisher and Ridley represented the ladies, but Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy were both quick to assure fans that a few key cast members were yet to be announced, and that the eventual names would likely appease the concerns. Within weeks, those additions came to pass, with Nyong’o going from rumor to real deal, and Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie coming aboard as well.

THIRTY YEARS LATER…
The combination of beloved old blood and exciting new blood was a promising indicator that Episode VII, as it was still known at that point, was on the right track. As the months went on, there was plenty more evidence to suggest that Abrams and Kennedy were making all the right moves. Before following that thread, however, I should jump back prior to the casting, to cover the big news that broke about the script during the early genesis of the new trilogy. When Disney first announced its intention to create Episodes VII-IX, they revealed that Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Arndt was already on the job of developing the new story, and had been for several months. So perhaps the first big surprise in the making of the film came when Lucasfilm announced that Arndt was moving on and script duties would be taken over by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, the latter returning to the Star Wars galaxy having co-written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

When the serious effort to create a new trilogy began, Kennedy assembled a brain trust – a term which has long been associated with Pixar’s team of creative leaders and has gained popularity in Hollywood these days as more shared universe film series are developed – which included herself, Arndt, Kasdan and Simon Kinberg (whose writing credits include Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sherlock Holmes and the last two X-Men movies). Kasdan’s deep history with Lucasfilm – he also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark – made his return to the fold a major coup. Once hired, Abrams joined this group to help develop the story for the new trilogy. By all accounts, there were a lot of ideas, but time wore on without any kind of actual story taking shape. Abrams told Entertainment Weekly recently:

 “[They] had just been hypothesizing and throwing out a bunch of what-ifs, but there was no story in place. It was, without doubt, a formidable assignment. There were so many options and so many paths that could be taken. Even when we were in debate — and sometimes it was frustrating and heated — it was always thrilling, because it seemed almost everywhere you looked there was something potentially extraordinary, which felt very much like the DNA of Star Wars itself.”

Kasdan said something similar in a Vanity Fair cover story from June of this year. “We were struggling to come up with a story. There were elements that we would come up with and say, ‘Oh, that’s good! That’s strong!’ But it was not coming together.” At the time, Episode VII was still scheduled for summer 2015, and with pre-production already underway, the script needed to take shape. However things went down behind the scenes, Arndt left and hasn’t made any public comments about his time on the project or his departure. In the press release announcing the changing of the guard, Kennedy said, “Michael Arndt has done a terrific job bringing us to this point and we have an amazing filmmaking and design team in place already prepping for production.” She also said she was excited about the story they had in place, though these more recent interviews make it clear that when Arndt left, there was no story in place. But hey, Kennedy is a consummate producer, and a little bit of spin goes with the territory. Abrams too, had praise for Arndt, but only a vague explanation about the changeover. It seems odd to me that in all the time Arndt was on the project – and he was on it for a while – there was no story in place by the time Abrams got involved. If he was initially doing a treatment before delving into the actual screenplay, there must have been more than just a random collection of ideas. I’d be quite curious to hear his unfiltered thoughts on all of this. (Fast forward to the present: Arndt retains credit along with Abrams and Kasdan as one of the film’s writers.)

With Arndt off the project, Abrams and Kasdan started nearly from scratch, incorporating some ideas from the brainstorming period but largely working from a clean slate. One thing they had all known from the start was that Hamill, Ford and Fisher were onboard, thanks to the efforts of George Lucas, who had met with each of them before selling to Disney, explaining his plans to hand over the company and, in the process, help launch a sequel trilogy. (Kasdan says he too was courted by Lucas to return.) While I give big kudos to Lucas for being instrumental in getting these members of the original trilogy involved in the new films, I can’t resist noting that the Godfather of the Galaxy Far, Far Away had his own story outline for Episodes VII-IX, which Disney and company decided not to use. It’s intriguing that Lucas even had an idea for post-Jedi storylines, since in the prequel era, he often talked  about Anakin Skywalker, not Luke, as the true central figure of the Star Wars saga. This article from The Verge contains a screenshot from an interview Lucas gave to Total Film in 2008, addressing that idea. Then again, the lore going back to my own childhood was always that Lucas had outlined nine stories, of which New Hope, Empire and Jedi comprised the middle three. Whether the ideas that Lucas floated to Disney were developed decades ago or more recently, the studio preferred to start fresh. Lucas told Cinema Blend, “Well, the ones that I sold to Disney and everything, they came up to the decision that they didn’t really want to do those. So they made up their own. It’s not the ones that I originally wrote.” Lucas sounds unfazed about it, though the Vanity Fair story attempts to suggest it’s a touchy subject for all involved. From the article, by Bruce Handy:

How Lucas felt about that seems to be a delicate topic, one that Disney and Lucasfilm executives declined to address. Decades ago, after Universal had made cuts in his second film, American Graffiti, against his will, Lucas constructed his career so that he’d rarely not get his way. As he told Bloomberg Businessweek while his new Star Wars ideas were still on the table, “Ultimately you have to say, ‘Look, I know what I’m doing. Buying my stories is part of what the deal is.’ I’ve worked at this for 40 years, and I’ve been pretty successful.” But another part of the deal was that he was paid a handsome sum to cede control, and however he felt about having his story ideas rejected, Lucas (who turned down an interview request for this story) is by all accounts supportive of the new films and eager to see them for the first time in theaters like any other audience member. “I talk to him and see him frequently,” Kennedy said. “And I’m telling you, every time I say, ‘Is there anything you want to know?’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, I want to be surprised.’ ”

In the article, the paragraph preceding the one you just read says that Lucas’ stories apparently focused on teenage characters, and we all know that didn’t work out so well in the prequels. Disney knew it too, as the article suggests. Whether the discomfort Handy alludes to around the situation actually exists or not is hard to discern based on things we’ve heard from Lucas. On one hand, he has expressed that he’s happy to be out of the loop and excited to see the movie along with the rest of the world. This past January, he told USA Today, “The only thing I really regret about Star Wars is the fact I never got to see it — I never got to be blown out of my seat when the ship came over the screen. The next one, I’ll be able to enjoy it like anybody else.” (Really? That’s his only regret? I’ll assume he means his only regret about the first movie specifically. His quote above about knowing what he’s doing — does he mean he knows what he’s doing when it comes to Star Wars? Because that hasn’t been true in a long time.)

On the other hand, a brand new, yet-to-air interview with CBS This Morning that will coincide with Lucas’ imminent Kennedy Center Honor, finds him revisiting — with faint traces of bitterness — the rejection of his story proposals by Disney and his lack of involvement with the new movies. So really, who knows what goes on in that guy’s head anymore…

A NEW HOPE
With the taste of the prequels still souring scores of fans, we all approached news of Episodes VII-IX with understandable trepidation. And yet with every announcement, every tease, and every peek, the enthusiasm has been palpable. As I said earlier, the evidence strongly suggests that Abrams and company have gotten it right. The signs started early, when we learned the movie would not be shot digitally as the prequels were — and so many movies these days are — but rather on good ol’ 35mm film (and in the case of one sequence, IMAX!). Shooting on film is an unimportant detail to most, but for movie buffs, a good sign. Additionally, the movie would not shoot in 3D, something I would not have put past any major studio to impose on the filmmaker for a movie like this. It will be post-converted, of course, so that 3D is an option, but again, power to the purists.
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Very early in the production, Abrams appeared in a video announcing a contest through UNICEF that could win a fan a walk-on part in the movie. His message was interrupted by a creature walking by, and it was joyful evidence that Abrams was going old school on the new movies. This wasn’t a CG character inserted after the fact, but a tactile, seemingly animatronic being interacting with Abrams and the rest of its environment. It backed-up what Abrams and others had been saying, that one big way the new movie would try to recapture the magic that eluded the prequels was by using real sets and practical effects as much as possible. Abrams would continue to send teasing messages throughout the production, offering visual clues that were like manna to the masses. A nod to the Millennium Falcon here, a callback to the Empire there…just fun, non-substantive nuggets, but enough to provide a jolt of excitement of the faithful.

That note about the leaks? It was no surprise that production was going to be off-the-charts in terms of intensive fan scrutiny. Speculation has run rampant since the casting phase we already discussed, and it hasn’t subsided. I don’t think there’s been a single day since the movie started shooting that I haven’t seen at least three stories about it on Yahoo‘s home page, and plenty of other websites have been plastering coverage as well. Hitfix contributor Donna Dickens has been doing near-daily countdown posts since I don’t even know when she started; this is her 287 Days Until Star Wars piece. It’s not even about Episode VII; it’s just random Star Wars stories. Really though? 287 days ahead of time?

Supposed plot and character details were constantly appearing online (and still are). In October 2014, a large number of images from the film leaked onto the web. (I love Entertainment Weekly‘s position that they wouldn’t post or link to the images because they’re stolen property, but describing them in detail was okay because the leak was newsworthy. Sorry guys, but that’s some bullshit. Report on the leak, by all means, but your journalistic integrity melts away when you start describing the material in detail. You’re as guilty as anyone at that point.) Personally, I’ve avoided all of this. I wanted to know nothing that wasn’t officially sanctioned by Disney and Abrams, the latter being well known for guarding his projects’ secrecy and being extremely deliberate about what he chooses to reveal and when. Bits of info slipped through my self-imposed firewall here and there, and things we have learned through proper channels by now have confirmed some rumors while disproving others. But even now, I’m trying to preserve as much surprise as I can. As much as I like the idea of going in completely blind, there’s no way I could ever remove myself from the build-up entirely. When that first trailer debuted almost exactly a year ago, the only debate in my head was whether to watch it online or attempt a trip to a movie theater over an out-of-town Thanksgiving weekend with family in order to watch it on the big screen. That lasted about five minutes, then the laptop came out. There wasn’t much to go on…but it was a perfect and potential-filled tease.

Reactions were overwhelmingly positive, though there were dissenters too. (This guy had some interesting thoughts). The rolling droid was an instant hit. The three-pronged lightsaber was an instant controversy (Abrams enjoyed that debate, and offered that there was plenty of back and forth about it among the filmmakers as well.) The narration was an instant puzzler. (Who is it?? Andy Serkis? Adam Driver? Someone else?) And the sweeping shot of the Millennium Falcon that brought it all home? I didn’t hear much chatter about that, though I’m sure it was divisive. It’s a cool shot, but it doesn’t feel like anything from the original trilogy. I was okay with that. It’s a good thing for Abrams to bring his own sensibility to the film, up to a certain point (i.e. let’s keep the lens flare at bay, J.J.). By and large, we all want the new movies to evoke the classics while carving their own path.

A few weeks after the trailer hit — which itself came a few weeks after The Force Awakens moniker was revealed — we got a superbly clever and old school introduction to some of the characters and scenes glimpsed in the trailer. These holiday gifts had to hold us over for a while, because it wasn’t until the annual Star Wars Celebration event in April that the next wave of goodies would hit.

More to chew over than in the initial teaser. A lot of enticing and promising imagery. Still not a lot to go on, but it did its job. I loved the piano notes at the end of that superb first shot; loved the hissing echo of Luke’s narration (a sound effect I was only recently able to finally decipher; listen and you’ll hear the phrases “my father has it,” “my sister has it” and “I have it” quietly repeat after being spoken); loved the figure that was soon dubbed the Chrometrooper, and the Death Star-like hallway it was walking down; loved BB-8 peeking around the corner; and odd as this sounds, I loved Han Solo’s hair. I admit to being concerned about whether Ford would be given Han Solo’s traditional style once again or whether he would have the shorter hair the actor naturally sports, which frames his face more vertically vs. the more rounded-face look that distinguishes Han from most of Ford’s other characters. That final image of Han and Chewie, which sent fans into a tizzy of delight, was satisfying to me because of Ford’s hair. What can I say?

This new trailer kicked off another wave of publicity that would continue over the next few months as yet more details were revealed. The aforementioned Vanity Fair cover story was the occasion for The Chrometrooper to be identified as Captain Phasma, with Gwendoline Christie underneath the foreboding suit. We also learned that Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis would be donning motion capture suits to transform into characters called Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader Snoke, respectively. (These revelations came as slight disappointment, since this means half of the movie’s primary female cast members won’t be seen as themselves — though maybe Captain Phasma’s helmet will come off, just as it appears Kylo Ren’s mask will; and because Serkis’ mocap bona fides are well established by now thanks to  Gollum, King Kong and Planet of the Apes‘ Ceasar. It would have been nice to see him in the flesh.) Maz Kanata wasn’t revealed, but we were told she is a pirate and has a castle that looks like the same sort of hip intergalactic hangout Jabba the Hutt once provided. And looking at this rogue’s gallery photo, many of these characters look as though they could have stepped right off the set of Return of the Jedi, further demonstrating the new filmmaking team’s commitment to practical makeup and creature effects.

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The next few months, with Comic-Con, Disney’s D23 convention, and an Entertainment Weekly cover story, would bring a smattering of new details and clues, from the identity of Domhnall Gleeson’s character — a villainous officer named General Hux, operating out of a location called Starkiller Base — to the possibility of appearances by Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb, two minor but key participants in Return of the Jedi‘s Rebel attack on the Death Star. But no doubt in keeping with Abrams mandate to maintain the element of surprise, the official hype machine had been quiet. Only in mid-October, with about two months to go before the release, did things finally pick up again. First there was the long overdue appearance of the film’s poster, followed closely by the third and final trailer U.S. theatrical trailer.

And so began the final marketing push. As we’re now in November, commercials have started popping up all over TV; more promotional tie-ins will be revealed; and talk show appearances will start up, beginning with Abrams, Boyega, Ridley and Driver on Jimmy Kimmel Live tomorrow night. But in terms of details, plot, etc., we still know so little, and it’s unlikely that we’ll learn much more between now and the movie’s December 18 release. Those who expected the final trailer to give us a more traditional preview of the story or to finally reveal Luke Skywalker were met instead with simply a longer tease which even recycled some shots from the previous trailers rather than offer entirely new footage. The Japanese trailer that followed gave us more enticing footage, but still few answers.

I’m fully in favor of this less-is-more approach, and while I never would have expected Luke to be completely withheld, I love it. And if some of the plot rumors that I failed to avoid turn out to be true — as it looks like they might be based on footage and official details we’ve seen — than I understand why we’re seeing so little of him. But really, how ballsy of Abrams and Disney to keep Luke Skywalker totally away from the ramp up to a new movie in which we know the character returns? He doesn’t even appear on the poster!

So with all of this unnecessary recapping out the way (sorry, but I had to justify the months worth of story links I’d been collecting with the intention of writing multiple posts over the last year and a half), and with the unveiling of the film rapidly approaching, here are some of my thoughts on what we’re in store for when the force awakens. I’m not one to go too deep down the rabbit hole of plot speculation (God knows there’s been more than enough of that plastered all over the internet day after day for months on end), but what we’ve seen — along with what we haven’t — has left me chewing on the following topics.

POE BOY
Oscar Isaac’s character, Poe Dameron, was revealed earlier this year to be one of the three leading protagonists of the new film. And yet we’ve seen surprisingly little of him so far. Not that we know much about Rey or Finn, but both have been featured prominently in all the publicity to date. Not so much with Poe. All we saw of him in the first trailer was a shot of him flying an X-wing. In the second trailer? Pretty much the same shot, and that was all. In the third trailer we see him twice, briefly both times: wearing his fighter suit as he passes Finn, and getting Force-raped by Kylo Ren in one of the trailer’s most captivating images. At Comic-Con, in lieu of a trailer, fans were treated to a behind the scenes video from the set of the film, and we got a shot of Dameron in civilian clothes and handcuffs being marched by a stormtrooper down a hallway strongly reminiscent of the Death Star detention cell block in A New Hope. There’s also this quick shot of him aiming a gun and looking alarmed, released just before the third trailer but not actually included in it. So why such mystery around Poe? How does he fit in? While on stage at the Star Wars Celebration, he said his character has “been sent on a mission by a certain princess and he ends up coming across Mr. John Boyega’s character, and their fates are forever intertwined.” Indeed, one of the newer photos making the rounds is a shot of these two together…though seemingly at a point in the story where I wouldn’t have thought they’d met yet. In the Japanese trailer, we see a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Poe standing close to Princess Leia in what looks a war room similar to the one from which Leia monitored the first Death Star attack. So that, taken with his description, indicates that he already has a connection to Leia when the story begins.

Part of the marketing lead-up to The Force Awakens has been a variety of books covering the period between the events of Return of the Jedi and the new film. Among these titles is a Marvel comic series called Shattered Empire, and apparently the central character of that series is Poe’s mother. So it’s likely that Poe — whatever his role in the story — is already deeply involved in what we presume is a struggle between the Resistance and the First Order (names — revealed at April’s Star Wars Celebration — which seem to have taken the place of the Rebellion/Rebel Alliance and the Empire, respectively).

Oh, and in a related question, how does America’s new sweetheart BB-8 figure into events? The trailers so far have shown him (him?) keeping company with Rey and Finn. But the packaging for the remote-controlled (sorry: “app-enabled”) BB-8 toy that is already the hit of the holiday season and maybe one of the ten most adorable things I’ve ever seen in my life, describes him as “the spherical, loyal Astromech Droid of the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron.” The third trailer does show BB-8 positioned in the rear of an X-Wing fighter, and a model of Poe’s X-Wing that was on display at the Star Wars Celebration showed  BB-8 nestled in the back. So which characters is this little droid rolling with, and when do Poe, Finn and Rey cross paths? (Yes, by the way, Force Awakens toys hit shelves as early as September, and the absurdity of that is a topic I’ll have to avoid for now since this post is already longer than the CliffsNotes for Hamlet.)

KYLO CHAMELEON
The casting of Adam Driver has been a point of interest for me from the start. He’s one of the most original, unpredictable actors to emerge in the last several years, most notably in his three-time Emmy nominated performance on the HBO series Girls. But he seemed an odd choice for Star Wars because there’s something about him that seems so…I keep wanting to say contemporary, but that’s not it; he’s had small roles in period pieces like Lincoln and Inside Llewyn Davis (opposite Oscar Isaac!), and he was not out of place in either. He just doesn’t strike me as an actor whose persona would translate to sci-fi, fantasy or something otherworldly. Maybe because on Girls he comes off as so real, so unscripted, the idea of him in something less grounded in reality, where the dialogue will have a certain formality to it, has puzzled me. Hearing him speak as Kylo Ren for the first time in the third trailer — even with his voice altered a bit to sound more mechanical — gave me a jolt of excitement. It was just one line, but something about it put me at ease. (Not that I was worried. Totally wasn’t worried.)

I’m also excited to see what the mass audience makes of him. I take my familiarity with his work for granted, but there are a huge number of people who are scarcely aware of his work. They don’t watch Girls; they didn’t see Inside Llewyn Davis, they didn’t see This is Where I Leave You — a bigger, studio movie in which Driver has a large role, but which wasn’t a huge hit — and they haven’t seen his work in other small indies or low-profile films like What If, a rom-com with Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. So this will be their first exposure to his untamed talent. I’m fascinated to see how it fits into Star Wars.

MAX FACTOR
I talked earlier about how excited I was for Max von Sydow’s involvement. His role has been kept entirely secret up to this point, even more so than Luke’s. There’s been nary a photo or cryptic hint about who he’s playing or what he’ll be doing, and I love that. So here’s some light food for thought. Given his age, whoever he plays must be somebody who will not only have been around during the years of the original trilogy, but also the prequel era…which means conceivably he could be someone who knew Anakin Skywalker and Anakin’s mother, Shmi. Just doing some very rough math, if von Sydow is playing a character near to his actual age of 86, and we’re now 30 years out from the events of Episodes IV-VI, which themselves began 30 years after the events of Episodes I-III, then von Sydow’s character would have been around 26 when Luke and Leia were born…so maybe in his mid-teens when Anakin was a kid. Before I ran those numbers, I wondered if he could turn out to be Anakin’s father — a random notion that popped into my head only because von Sydow and Pernilla August, the actress who played Shmi, are both Swedish. Like that would need to matter. I was probably just reaching for something to negate the idiotic Immaculate Conception idea that Lucas came up with in The Phantom Menace.  Anyway…my number crunching shows the character would have been too young to father Anakin (not incapable of fathering him, but c’mon, this is a kid-friendly movie), so it’s moot. And there’s no reason to think he will have a connection to Anakin. I just like the idea that he could. That whoever he is, he has probably been around throughout the events depicted in the six previous movies — a set-up that offers some tantalizing possibilities.

Or maybe his character will simply be relevant to these new events, and that’s that. Either way…Max von Sydow!!

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
It’s been known for a while now that Han Solo has a large role in The Force Awakens, while the size of Luke and Leia’s is said to be smaller. The absence of Luke from the marketing, and the things Abrams has said about him, suggest that his role, even if small, will be central to the plot. As for Leia, it’s tough to gauge. She’s been nearly as scarce in the marketing as Poe Dameron. One of the rumors I heard when Michael Arndt left the project — no idea if there’s any truth to it — is that he wanted to sideline the original characters in favor of new ones, whereas Abrams wanted them to play a larger role and receive a proper send-off. It could be argued that they got a proper send-off in Return of the Jedi and we should be content with that, but at the same time, continuing the story of the original trilogy without its stars figuring in somewhat prominently wouldn’t feel right. Just having them show up for obligatory cameos might be even more awkward than not featuring them at all. So we seem to be getting a story in which Luke, Leia and Han factor heavily. Based on everything I’ve seen so far, it feels right.

But there is that nagging worry of whether or not Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford can slip comfortably back into those characters after so long away. Do we really want to see Luke, Leia and Han 30 years older, or do we just think we do? Nostalgia has its allure, but it carries the risk of disappointment. We know they aren’t going to be the same as they were in the movies we grew up with, but will that knowledge make it any less uncomfortable to watch if they seem a little…off? Abrams has addressed the concerns too. In the Vanity Fair story, he said of Ford:

I knew that he had done in some movies a kind of more growly thing, and I didn’t want Han to be growly. But because of the backstory I wanted him to have evolved somewhat. I mean, when you’re in your late 60s you’re not the same person you were in your late 20s, and yet he had to be the character we know and love. So it was a balance that felt sort of emblematic for me in terms of this whole experience, which is it had to be what you know, but it can’t be exactly what you know.

From what he told The Seattle Times, he was not disappointed.

What was incredible from my point of view was how apparently easily they flipped back into these roles. I knew for a fact, for example, that Harrison Ford was going to be in this movie, but I couldn’t be certain that Han Solo would be. Meaning, I hadn’t seen Han Solo return after nearly 40 years, either. And it wasn’t until we got on set that I got my answer. It was a remarkable thing to see how effortlessly Harrison Ford became Han Solo again.

If we take his word for it, then they acclimated to their characters with ease and comfort. Like he says, however, they’re 30+ years older, and have surely accumulated experiences which have shaped and changed them into people who are the same but different. Will we accept those changes? Much of the Star Wars fiction that has extended the life of these characters over the last three decades has concerned offspring of Han and Leia, because of course the assumption is that the fiery princess and the charming scoundrel would stay together and have a family. But isn’t it kind of weird to think of Han Solo as a dad? The prominence of Daisy Ridley’s Rey in the marketing of The Force Awakens, and various clues gleaned from trailers and interviews, suggest that she might be the child of Han and Leia. If she is, in what kind of light will that recast Han? His relationship with Leia already had him softening a bit in Return of the Jedi. How will fatherhood have affected him?

From The Big Chill to Grand Canyon, Lawrence Kasdan has frequently dealt with questions of how people evolve as time and experience impact them, and he said in an Entertainment Weekly interview that those questions were part of what appealed to him about coming back to Luke, Leia and Han after so long.

I thought, ‘Wow, okay, these people have lived — they’re in a different place in their lives, Han and Leia and so on. They’ve lived the same 30 years I have. What would that be like? How would you see things differently?’ And I was trying to figure out how I saw things differently, and one of the surprises is that you don’t learn all that much. You haven’t become much wiser than you were, and things are not clearer to you, and the world is just as confusing as it always was — and that’s a kind of lovely thing to get to write about again. Age does not necessarily bring wisdom; it just brings experience.

If Kasdan’s personal insight can successfully inform the characters, adding layers of depth while still holding onto the traits we love about them — and if the actors can tap back into those elements even as they bring their age and experience to bear — then it could be a real joy to watch those performances. My confidence continues to hold. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen (and haven’t seen) so far, and I think bringing them back was the right move. We’re getting the best of both worlds, with a story that connects to the originals but launches a new group of characters and helps us invest in them by pairing them with their predecessors. So far it’s looking like a winning recipe.

COOL HAND LUKE
Another topic of feverish fan speculation has been the fate of Luke. His absence from the film’s posters and previews — with the exception of that confounding voiceover from the second trailer and the same clip’s hooded, metal-handed figure by the fire with R2-D2 that we all assume is our MIA Jedi — has elicited a lot of discussion. Abrams told Entertainment Weekly that one of the hooks Kathleen Kennedy dangled in front of him, enabling her to reel him into the project in the first place, was the opportunity to explore Luke’s post-Vader trajectory. “In the context of talking about story and laying out what we were thinking, I said one thing to him,” Kennedy recalls. “‘Who is Luke Skywalker?’ He said, ‘Oh my God, I just got the chills. I’m in.’ I mean, it really was almost that quickly.”

I find that question to be less chill-inducing that Abrams.’ Episodes IV-VI gave us a perfectly satisfying picture of who Luke Skywalker is, and Kennedy’s question seems like one that never needed to be asked. That doesn’t mean there isn’t more story to tell after Jedi, just that this notion of Luke Skywalker needing to be demystified kinda comes out of nowhere. Yet it seems the query truly was a guiding light for the filmmakers. Kennedy went on:

The themes and ideas that we all continue to talk about are the themes and ideas that were the inherent in the original movies. We’re looking, obviously, for aspiration, for characters who are conflicted between good and evil, dark and light. George spoke often about that tension in everybody between what’s good and bad. He always felt that it was easier to be bad than good. I’m not sure all people would agree, but I think that that’s always an interesting conflict to explore. So that’s a big part of the themes inside of Episode VII.

That might explain why Lucas often said that his favorite moment in the classic trilogy was when Luke, hiding in the Emperor’s Throne Room from Darth Vader, gave into his anger and suddenly, furiously attacked his father at the suggestion that Leia could be turned to the dark side. The Emperor applauded Luke’s crippling assault that left Vader on his back with his hand chopped off. This was the moment when Luke would give into the dark side. But he didn’t, as we well know. He was a Jedi, like his father before him. Last month, a 10 year old episode of the Independent Film Channel show Dinner for Five resurfaced, featuring Mark Hamill telling the group that he thought Return of the Jedi would see Luke succumbing to the dark side…for a while at least. He talked about how interesting that would have been to play. Of course, the reason the clip gained traction now was that J.J. Abrams was also on the show that night. So between this TV show and the talk from Abrams and Kennedy about the existential nature of Luke Skywalker and the delicate balance between good and evil, the big new theory was that The Force Awakens‘ Luke would be evil. That’s why they had to keep him out of the trailers. That’s why his place in the movie is such a secret.

I understand why people might think this. But it’s a terrible idea that would make absolutely no one happy. Nobody wants to see Luke Skywalker as a bad guy, and to portray him as such would demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what fans desire, but of the beloved character’s core values. Who is Luke Skywalker? He’s not the villain, that’s for sure. If he managed to stay true to himself in that moment of defeating Vader in front of The Emperor, if in that moment of indulging his fear and his hatred he was still able to keep his wits and tell The Emperor to go to fuck himself (in more PG-rated vernacular), he’s not going to give into the dark side now. What stakes could be higher than they were then? Besides, if Luke had gone bad, Abrams and company aren’t going to leave him that way, and then the story becomes about bringing him back to himself, and we’ve already had the story of a Skywalker’s redemption. We don’t need another one.

All that said, there’s still some room to play with in that idea of the struggle between good and bad. Presenting Luke as a man who continues to feel that conflict within him which The Emperor hoped would result in a transformation, who is tempted by his anger and his fear…that could all be interesting, rich material to explore. A recovering alcoholic will still grapple with the urge, even years after their last drink. We could be looking at something like that when we’re re-introduced to Luke. Perhaps he’s gone into hiding, isolating himself because he has lost his sense of place in the world. Wherever he is when The Force Awakens picks up, it’s likely that he’s separated from Han and Leia. But how long will that have been the case? What is the relationship between them now? He seemed at peace when he returned to Endor to join his friends in celebration, overseen by the spirits of Anakin, Obi-Wan and Yoda. What will have transpired to unsettle him during the intervening years? The fate of Luke Skywalker is easily the most captivating question among many captivating questions raised so far by The Force Awakens. As it should be. Let’s just hope the story doesn’t find him too far astray.

RED ARMY
Just a quick thought here. Has anyone noticed the prevalence of red in the footage and images we’ve seen so far? Not the red of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber or the red of other lasers and such, but red on objects? New images of C-3PO show him sporting a red arm. Both Finn and Poe have been seen with beige jackets that have red on the shoulder and above the breast pocket. (Hmm…are they actually the same jacket? Is Finn the stormtrooper who’s marching Poe down that corridor?? Does Poe give him that jacket??? Why????) The TIE fighters — or at least one of them, seen damaged and hurtling through space in the third trailer and then crashed on the ground — appear to be partly red. In a shot from the second trailer that I mentioned earlier, of Captain Phasma striding down a hall, there’s a big red area to her left. Also in the second trailer, there’s that huge red curtain at what looks like a First Order rally (see Trailer #2 embed above). There’s a lot of seemingly symbolic red going on here. But symbolic of what?

MORE TO COME!
We haven’t even seen Episode VII yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead to Episodes VIII and IX. Rian Johnson will pick up the reins from Abrams and Kasdan as the writer/director of Episode VIII. Johnson is the director of the highly original indies Brick and The Brothers Bloom, as well as the time-travel thriller Looper. He also helmed some Breaking Bad episodes that are considered among the series’ best. He’s a great choice for Star Wars, somebody who has talent and vision that he can bring into this familiar world, and he’s already been hard at work on the script, applying his own stamp to the next chapter in a story whose groundwork has been laid by Abrams, Kasdan and the rest of Kennedy’s brain trust. I don’t think it’s been made official by Lucasfilm or anyone in charge yet, but Benicio del Toro is all but confirmed to be joining the movie, and there are also reports that rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw has landed one main role, while fellow ingenues Olivia Cooke, Tatiana Maslany and Gina Rodriguez were also said to be among the top contenders for another. (That news came in September, and since then all three actresses have joined or are close to joining other films that might impact their availability for Episode VIII, which will return the series to its proper schedule with a May 26, 2017 release.) Maybe it was all the same role; we know too little about the movie right now to say.

Casting news always excites me, but I hope each new movie isn’t overloaded with major character additions. The original trilogy, and even the prequels, didn’t bring in too many new significant figures from film to film. The Empire Strikes Back obviously had a couple of key additions, but by and large the cast that we met in A New Hope stayed intact through Return of the Jedi. Abrams has assembled such an impressive line-up for The Force Awakens (the jury’s still out on Ridley, but she looks poised to nail it), and I hope that the movie doesn’t pull a Darth Maul and get rid of promising characters before they’ve had a chance to be developed. While the articles linked above mention that some of those actresses might have been screen testing with John Boyega, we really have no idea who will be back for Episodes VIII and/or IX. So far, the only actor I’m aware of to confirm their return for the rest of the trilogy is Anthony Daniels…which makes sense, since C-3PO and R2-D2 have been the connective tissue across every Star Wars trilogy. Boyega and Ridley are safe assumptions at this point, but who else? Harrison Ford has a big part in The Force Awakens, but is he appearing in the next two as well? And if so, how sizable will his role be going forward? If Luke and Leia are featured less prominently in this outing, will they be more central to the next two installments? Given how crucial it sounds like Luke will be to this film — regardless of how much screen time he has — doesn’t it stand to reason that he’ll remain a key figure as the trilogy unfolds?

And what about Lando?!? When so many original cast members were confirmed to return, there was vocal disappointment among fans that Billy Dee Williams wasn’t involved. But hints have been dropped that Lando will yet find his way into the new adventure, and having him join Episode VIII would mirror his arrival in the second film of the original trilogy. Williams expressed the same thought when asked about Lando’s return by some outlet called Cinelinx:

But I uh…I may very well…I have a feeling I’m going to show up. There’s nothing I can really discuss about it at this stage. People think of me as the original cast, but I didn’t come in until the second movie.  I did Empire and then I did Return of the Jedi, but I came in after everyone else was introduced…So I think they’re probably proceeding in that way. I can’t imagine them not bringing Lando back.  But we’ll see, I don’t know.

In his Vanity Fair interview, Lawrence Kasdan also provided hope, saying, “Right now, there’s no Lando Calrissian in this movie. But Lando I don’t think is finished in any way, shape, or form.” So hopefully we will see Billy Dee Williams back in action down the line. Assuming the new cast and their characters prove engaging in The Force Awakens, I already hope we’ll see most of them back too.

So Rian Johnson’s taking on Episode VIII. For Episode IX, Lucasfilm and Disney made a less exciting choice, tapping Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow. It felt like a knee-jerk reaction to his having lucked into making what this summer became — to universal shock (and Universal’s shock) — the third highest-grossing film of all time, domestically and internationally. I don’t want to come down too harshly on Trevorrow; he might prove a great choice in the end. It’s just that he’s only directed two features so far (the first being indie charmer Safety Not Guaranteed) and I’d consider the jury still very much out on him. I wish Disney and Kennedy would have gone with someone a little more proven. Not so much in the experience department — Trevorrow showed he was definitely capable of handling a big movie — as in the realm of talent and point of view. To be fair, Gareth Edwards, who won the assignment of directing the first Star Wars spin-off movie, Rogue One (which I just don’t have room to address in this post, but I’ll get to), also has just two films to his credit: like Trevorrow, an indie breakout (Monsters) and a blockbuster follow-up (Godzilla). His hiring was met with much more fanfare than Trevorrow’s, but I would argue that based on those two films, he’s expressed a stronger vision than Trevorrow has yet demonstrated. Now I liked Safety Not Guaranteed quite a bit, and I enjoyed Jurassic World well enough, but I’m not sure what he really brought to the latter that a number of other competent directors couldn’t have brought. The massive success of the movie is much more a testament to the subject matter and the Jurassic Park brand than to anything exhibiting vision on its director’s part. If the powers behind Star Wars were willing to hire someone like Rian Johnson, whose movies definitely have their own stamp, then they are obviously comfortable handing the reins of their precious $4 billion investment to someone who will apply that stamp. In a September 2014 conversation with director Terry Gilliam, Johnson addressed this:

It’s a balance. That’s been the great thing. Kathy [Kennedy] and her whole creative team have been just so insistent that all the filmmakers they’re hiring for these new movies, ‘We want you to take it and turn it into something that you really care about.’ We’ll see how the process plays out, but so far, that’s a big part of why I’m in it, because that seems to be their attitude towards it. It’s really exciting.

Trevorrow might have a strong voice of his own too, but if so, it’s still emerging, and Lucasfilm and Disney’s decision to hire him seems more concerned with playing it safe, whereas hiring Johnson was inspired. Obviously I want the movies to be great, so I’m rooting for Trevorrow all the way. He’ll have one more chance to show us what he’s got before tackling Episode IX, as he returns to the smaller scale of Safety Not Guaranteed with a drama called The Book of Henry, starring Naomi Watts, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Dean Norris and excellent young actors Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) and Jacob Tremblay (Room). Here’s hoping that film let’s him show us something promising and sends him into Star Wars with strong buzz that justifies the choice to hire him.

FINALLY…
Yes, finally…there’s this. I am fully aware that I’m a grown-ass man becoming giddy about the extension of a movie series that fueled my imagination when I was a little-ass kid. When I was growing up, Star Wars was still a new thing. It’s stature and significance has grown and grown into a phenomenon that I believe to be unequaled, and I came of age as that was happening. Star Wars is in my DNA. But I’m not a kid anymore, and I can’t expect these new movies to impact me the way those first three did. I think those who never caught the Star Wars bug and are able to view us fans from a distance believe that the reason we disdain so much about the prequels is that we expected them to stir us the way the original trilogy did, and they didn’t, because we had grown up.

That’s not it.

We disdain so much about the prequels because so much about the prequels is bad.

Today, those skeptics think we’re setting ourselves up for a bigger fall, because we’re even older now, and that much further removed from the state of being we existed in when Star Wars cast its spell on us. And that’s true. But I don’t expect or need these new movies to take root inside me the way the initial films did. How can they? I’m not an impressionable child anymore. I just need them to be good. To be charming and thrilling and exciting and fun and dark and emotionally grounded. To tell a story that builds on what came before but charts its own course, and makes me want to follow. In various interviews, Abrams has talked about the mood and spirit everyone involved hopes to achieve with these new films. He’s talked about what made the original Star Wars so special to so many and about trying to transport us back to that place. Sadly, we can never truly occupy that space again, but we can feel connected to it.

Even for today’s kids, it will be different. The world has changed. When I was a kid, there was nothing else that had the scope and scale of Star Wars. There was no competition. Today’s kids may love it, but the popularity of Batman, Superman, Spiderman and The Avengers is boundless. Kids have Harry Potter, they have Transformers, they have movies and TV shows that are rife with technical wizardry the likes of which, in my childhood, couldn’t be found anywhere except in Star Wars. With all of these influences (and more) competing for kids’ imaginations, Star Wars is just one piece of the pie. They may love it, they may go back for repeat viewings, but they’ll also move onto the next thing with relative ease. They won’t swim, soak and steep in it the way my generation and those just before and after mine did, because there are too many other exciting things vying for their attention. But the fact that a nearly 40 year old creation still holds such a powerful sway is a triumph in itself, and we need to keep all of this in mind as The Force Awakens takes its place in the world.

In a recent interview with Wired, Abrams spoke of developing the movie, saying, “I asked questions like ‘How do we make this movie delightful?’ That was really the only requirement Larry and I imposed on each other: The movie needed to be delightful.” It’s an interesting word for him to use, because while each trailer I’ve seen has suggested a movie that will live up to its expectations, “delightful” is not a word I would use to describe what we’ve seen. The trailers have been action-heavy, and even a little melancholy and a little dark. Who knows what the overall tone of the movie will be, but hearing Abrams use a word like “delightful” — a word that conjures all the things I said above that I want the movie to be — makes me feel like we really are in store for a treat, because this thing must have a tone that hasn’t been revealed yet. It’s a reminder that even with the exposure going into high gear as we enter the final few weeks before release, we have no idea what to expect.

We’re in the home stretch now. My excitement is high and I can only imagine the fever pitch it will hit as opening night approaches. My tickets are purchased, and while new commercials, articles, photos and interviews are starting to fly at us, I’ve cut myself off. I don’t want to know anything more than I do at this point. If I got more clarity about Poe Dameron with only a few weeks to go, I’d be disappointed. Abrams and Disney have laid down their approach to marketing the story, and I’m on board. If they’ve withheld Dameron from us for this long, then I don’t want to find out anything. If any light were shed on Max von Sydow’s character before I’m sitting in the theater on December 17 watching the movie, I would be sorely disappointed. So right now, I’m good. I feel the Force, and I can’t wait to see what Abrams, Kasdan, Kennedy and this cast of aces have in store for the worldwide community of Star Wars faithful.

I have a good feeling about this.

March 15, 2015

25 Movies I’m Looking Forward to in 2015

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 9:00 am
Tags: , ,

I haven’t gotten around to posting about my favorite movies from 2014, but since that might take until sometime in late summer, why not go ahead and consider what the current year has to offer? Yes, we’re two and a half months into 2015, but the best is yet to come. How many of these movies will be on my Favorites of 2015 list? Find out when that post gets published in October 2016! Until then…

25.
SICARIO
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Emily Blunt, Jon Bernthal, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Donovan
Release Date: September 18

Denis Villeneuve landed on my directors-to-watch list thanks to his impressive work on the 2013 kidnapping drama Prisoners, which was among my favorite films of that year. I wasn’t quite as high on his next film Enemy (actually made before Prisoners but released after), although there were things about it I enjoyed. His first true follow-up centers on a female FBI agent who is recruited into a CIA operation targeting the head of a Mexican drug cartel. In addition to my curiosity over Villeneuve’s upcoming projects, Blunt is a big part of the reason I’m anticipating this. She’s been killing it lately, and if she carries this film as well as I expect she will, the strength of her work — combined with excellent performances as anti-damsels-in-distress in Edge of Tomorrow and Looper — could send her already strong stock through the roof.

24.
ADAM JONES
Director: John Wells
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Daniel Brühl, Jamie Dornan, Lily James, Sienna Miller, Matthew Rhys, Omar Sy, Emma Thompson, Uma Thurman, Alicia Vikander
Release Date: TBA

Cooper plays a celebrated but wild chef in Europe whose bad habits derail his career and force him to rebuild his reputation. Buzz on the script, which has been kicking around for quite a while now, has been extremely strong, with word that the lead character is a meaty role for any actor lucky enough to play it. David Fincher was attached to direct Keanu Reeves at one point, and some other directors were involved before it went to John Wells. It will be interesting to see how the director of The Company Men and August: Osage County handles the material. Those movies showed he has a way with actors, but both were fairly talky. This film is rumored to have a different energy that will test his range. Still, all the ingredients seem to be in place for something tasty.

23.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Charles Leavitt
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Frank Dillane, Michelle Fairley, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Holland, Cillian Murphy, Charlotte Riley, Donald Sumpter, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw
Release Date: December 13

This maritime epic tells the true story of the Essex — a whaling ship out of Nantucket — and its encounter with a massive sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean, an episode which would become the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The movie was originally set for release this month, so trailers have been around for a while to tease what looks like a thrilling adventure with great cinematography from Slumdog Millionaire‘s Oscar winning Anthony Dod Mantle, who also collaborated with Howard and Hemsworth on the race car drama Rush. Until someone makes a film based on “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” by The Decemberists (seriously, that could totally be a movie), this might do nicely.

22.
TRIPLE NINE
Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Matt Cook
Cast: Casey Affleck, Clifton Collins, Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, Michael B. Jordan, Anthony Mackie, Teresa Palmer, Aaron Paul, Michael Peña, Norman Reedus, Kate Winslet
Release Date: September 11

There’s not a lot to say yet on this one. We know it’s about a group of criminals and corrupt cops working together to plan a large-scale heist that, in order to pull off, will involve killing a rookie officer. It’s mainly here because of that cast. Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz were attached at one point, but scheduling conflicts prevented their involvement. Not that a good cast is ever a guarantee of a good movie, but I’d like to think that with so much talent involved, or trying to be involved, there must be something great on the page to attract them.

21.
SEA OF TREES
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Chris Sparling
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts
Release Date: TBA

In what promises to be the feel-good comedy of the year, McConaughey plays a man who travels to Japan to take his own life in the woods at the base of Mount Fuji, an area known as “Suicide Forest” because it has attracted so many others with the same intention. An encounter with Watanabe’s character, who is lost in the woods, leads both men on a physical and emotional journey to find their way. We’ll see if this ends up being plot-driven, or if it’s more of a meandering meditation in the vein of Van Sant’s Elephant and Gerry. I always enjoy Watanabe’s performances, and this is also another nice move for McConaughey, who keeps picking interesting projects and quality directors.

20.
ANT-MAN
Director: Peyton Reed
Writers: Adam McKay, Paul Rudd
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Hayley Atwell, Bobby Cannavale, David Dastmalchian, Martin Donovan, Judy Greer, Wood Harris, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, John Slattery, Corey Stoll, John Slattery, T.I.
Release Date: July 31

The Marvel machine rolls on this year, with two of the summer’s most anticipated movies coming from the comic giant’s stable. While you won’t find it on this list, I’m definitely looking forward to Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I give a spot to Ant-Man, just as I did last year to Guardians of the Galaxy, because it’s an unknown quantity that seems full of fun promise. Marvel’s movies continue to strike the right tone between action, comedy and just enough legitimate pathos to add some depth. Guardians, especially, was as much comedy as fantasy action, and the choices of Paul Rudd to play the lead role in Ant-Man, and Will Ferrell’s creative partner Adam McKay (director of Anchorman) to co-write it, indicates that another supremely entertaining movie is in store. The project was marred a bit by the departure of original director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), whose vision apparently clashed with Marvel’s even after a long period of fruitful development. He brought most of the cast onboard before parting ways, and hopefully something of his spirit will survive to the finished film. He and his co-writer Joe Cornish retain story credit, while the actual script was rewritten by McKay and Rudd. McKay came close to directing it himself  a time commitment he was ultimately unable to make, but a near-miss that further suggests the tone we can expect from the movie.

Side-note: Those of you immersed in the Marvel film series will note that Hayley Atwell, from Captain America: The First Avenger and the Agent Carter TV series is set to appear in Ant-Man, as is John Slattery, who played Tony Stark’s father Howard in vintage footage during a brief scene from Iron Man 2, only to be replaced in Captain America and Agent Carter by Dominic Cooper. Perhaps Slattery is supposed to be an older version of Stark, but I don’t recall his scene in Iron Man 2 taking place so many years after the character’s time with Captain America and Peggy Carter that a markedly older actor would be required to play him. In fact, the switch from Slattery to Cooper has stood out to me as one of the few inconsistencies in the carefully constructed universe of Marvel’s movies. Maybe Ant-Man will clear things up for me.

Geek digression over.

19.
SISTERS
Director: Jason Moore
Writer: Paula Pell
Cast: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz, Samantha Bee, James Brolin, John Cena, Rachel Dratch, John Leguizamo, Heather Matarazzo, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan, Maya Rudolph, Dianne Wiest
Release Date: December 18

Fey and Poehler play sisters who decide to throw a party at their childhood home before their parents sell it. But honestly, does it matter what the movie is about? Haven’t we gotten to a point where anything that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler do together is something we all just watch, no questions asked? If somehow your answer is “no”, consider that writer Paula Pell is a damn funny lady in her own right. She’s been with Saturday Night Live for years, including the Fey-Poehler era, and presumably knows exactly how to write to their strengths. Then there’s director Jason Moore, whose credits include Avenue Q on Broadway and 2012’s comedy gem Pitch Perfect. Satisfied?

18.
BLACK MASS
Director: Scott Cooper
Writers: Scott Cooper, Mark Mallouk
Cast: Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, W. Earl Brown, Rory Cochrane, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Sienna Miller, Julianne Nicholson, Jesse Plemons, James Russo, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Jeremy Strong, Juno Temple
Release Date: September 18

Those of us who have been eager to see Johnny Depp wipe off the makeup, shed the silly voices and reconnect with his gifts as a dramatic actor may finally have found the movie we’ve been waiting for. Well…okay, he’ll still be in makeup. And…alright, he’ll probably be doing an accent. But the transformation will be in the service of something more serious than Jack Sparrow (great at first, getting old now), the Mad Hatter or Tonto. Depp will play “Whitey” Bulger, the infamous Boston crime figure who eluded capture for 16 years and was, for most of that period, number two on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, second only to Osama Bin Laden. (Bulger was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s crime boss Frank Costello in The Departed). Further proof that Depp won’t be fooling around: Black Mass is directed by Scott Cooper, who previously helmed Crazy Heart, for which Jeff Bridges won an Academy Award, and Out of the Furnace, a brooding drama with superb performances from Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson. Cooper is a thoughtful filmmaker who always looks for a personal angle to keep him invested. Hopefully he’s found one here, as the project didn’t originate with him. He came on after Barry Levinson left. Even if this is more a director-for-hire job than his last two films, he’s a pretty good director to hire. Bulger’s story should provide him, his excellent cast, and the man who was once Donnie Brasco with a lot of material to dig into.

17.
KNIGHT OF CUPS
Director/Writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas, Wes Bentley, Jason Clarke, Brian Dennehy, Ben Kingsley, Joel Kinnaman, Thomas Lennon, Isabel Lucas, Nick Offerman, Ryan O’Neal, Teresa Palmer, Frieda Pinto, Imogen Poots, Shea Whigham, Michael Wincott
Release Date: December 11

Terrence Malick’s latest metaphysical drama debuted in February at the Berlin Film Festival, and secured U.S. distribution with a small indie company, although I can’t locate an actual story or article confirming the release date listed above, which started showing up around the web out of the blue. The movie centers on Bale’s character, an actor struggling with the same existential quandaries that most of Malick’s characters grapple with these days. The director shows no signs of moving back toward a more straightforward narrative. In fact, Cups is said to go even further toward the fragmented style of his recent films The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. I figure that by the time Malick’s next movie comes around, it won’t actually be a movie, but rather some kind of performance art piece where after buying your ticket, you’re taken to a beach or a field of tall grass and asked to stand around contemplatively while a voiceover talks cryptically of love, loss and God. Hey, I’ll still show up. Even in their sometimes frustrating abstraction, I find Malick’s work transfixing. To the Wonder was kind of a slog, but I’m hopeful that the urban, Hollywood setting of Cups on display in the trailer will inject a little more life into the proceedings.

Incidentally, Joel Kinnaman, while promoting another movie, was asked about working with Malick, and offered this classic response:

I had a one-day shoot, and I had a 17-page monologue. It was a crazy day. It was great to get to be part of the Malick world for a day. I have no idea what the movie’s about. I barely know who my character was. We’ll see if I’m in it or not. I remember, we’d be shooting, and I’d be on page 12 of my 17-page monologue, and I’d turn around and see that he was 100 yards away, shooting a pink dog.

That sounds about right.

16.
DEMOLITION
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writer: Bryan Sipe
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper
Release Date: TBA

I don’t really know anything about this movie. Brief descriptions I’ve found say it’s the story an investment banker who re-examines his life after enduring a tragedy. That’s a pretty damn vague synopsis. But here’s what I do know: Jean-Marc Vallée, director of Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, is emerging as an excellent filmmaker who knows how to tell dramatic human stories that skillfully walk the line between naturalistic and cinematic; Jake Gyllenhaal is making great choices and inhabiting his characters with intense commitment; Naomi Watts, likewise, is also picking really good projects lately; and Chris Cooper can do no wrong. With that line-up of talent, this is a no-brainer for me, whatever it’s about.

15.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
Director/Writer: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks
Release Date: November 25

Nichols, whose most recent effort was the terrific Mud another of my favorites from 2013 has his biggest film to date, both in scope and budget, with this sci-fi thriller about a father (Shannon, who has appeared in all of the director’s films) trying to protect his young son who has unique abilities that have caught the attention of both the government and a religious cult. Nichols has said that he’s going for something in the tone of John Carpenter’s Starman, the 1985 drama starring Jeff Bridges as a stranded alien who takes the form of a woman’s dead husband. Seeing the filmmaker apply his grounded style to this type of story has my curiosity piqued.

14.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR
Directors:
Peter Sohn, Bob Peterson
Writers:
Bob Peterson, Enrico Casarosa
Cast:
Judy Greer, Bill Hader, Neil Patrick Harris, John Lithgow, Frances McDormand, Lucas Neff
Release Date:
November 25

What if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out by an extinction event? That’s the question that sets up the first of Pixar’s two  count ‘em, TWO  new movies this year. Beyond, that, I’m not really sure what the movie is about, other than that it focuses on a teenage dino from a family of Apatosauruses and a human boy. Based on the kid’s garb in the teaser posters, it looks like we’re still dealing with prehistoric society, as opposed to a contemporary world where dinosaurs still exist; more The Flintstones than The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The movie may have changed considerably from inception to completion, having undergone an overhaul that saw original director Peterson replaced during production (not an uncommon or necessarily negative occurence at Pixar given the way they’re structured; Toy Story 2, Ratatouille, and Brave all hit similar roadblocks and turned out just fine). Toy Story‘s beloved Rex is not going to have his inferiority complex helped by the fact that Pixar is making an entire movie about dinosaurs and not including him, but for the rest of us, two new movies from Pixar  originals, at that  is cause for celebration.

13.
TRAINWRECK
Director: Judd Apatow
Writer: Amy Schumer
Cast: Amy Schumer, Barkhad Abdi, Dave Attell, Vanessa Bayer, Mike Birbiglia, John Cena, Jon Glaser, Bill Hader, LeBron James, Brie Larson, Norman Lloyd, Tim Meadows, Method Man, Ezra Miller, Randall Park, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton
Release Date: July 24

I’m not too familiar with Schumer. I don’t watch her Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer, but I’ve seen bits and pieces of her work, and I always like what I’ve seen. Here she plays a successful magazine writer whose anti-monogamy views are challenged when she meets a nice-guy doctor (Hader). Being largely in the dark about her, Apatow is the main the attraction for me. I’m a big fan to begin with, but I really like that he so supportive of other comedic voices. This is the first film he’s directing that he didn’t write, and it was simply because he wanted to be in business with Schumer, who he encouraged to write the film in the first place. He’s often perceived as a guy who makes dude movies, so I like seeing him show once again (he also works closely with Lena Dunham on HBO’s Girls) that he’s an equal opportunity comedian whose aim is to nurture funny people with unique voices.

12.
ALOHA
Director/Writer: Cameron Crowe
Cast:
Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, Alec Baldwin, Jay Baruchel, Michael Chernus, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Ivana Milicevic, Bill Murray
Release Date:
May 29

This one was on last year’s list, but Sony bumped it from an intended holiday season release. The project has been bouncing around for a while, and it’s nice to see it finally coming in for a landing, especially since the trailer provides the impression that it will be vintage Cameron Crowe: charming, romantic, funny, earnest, and boasting a sublime cast. From what I’ve gathered, Cooper plays a defense contractor at a low point in his career who returns to a military base in Hawaii for a new operation. There, he confronts his past in the form of a now-engaged old flame and considers his future with a pilot involved in his project. Crowe has been a bit off his game with recent movies, and I would love to see him hit a home run with the kind of old-fashioned romantic comedy that has all but disappeared from the landscape.

Oh, a note to Sony and whoever made that trailer: while it’s true that Cameron Crowe is an Academy Award nominated writer, he’s also an Academy Award winning writer. That might have been the way to go.

11.
THE MARTIAN
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Drew Goddard
Cast: Matt Damon, Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kristen Wiig
Release Date: November 25

Ridley Scott is amazing. At 77 years old, the guy is pretty much putting out a movie a year. So is Woody Allen, at age 79. But unlike Allen’s modest, dialogue-driven movies, Scott’s are large in scope, usually requiring massive production efforts, both pre and post. And the list of projects he has in development is lengthy. All that said, the films themselves can be hit or miss, and at this point he’s overdue for a hit. Whether or not The Martian will deliver I can’t say, but the potential is certainly there. In fact, the story behind the film might be worthy of a film itself. It’s based on novel by Andy Weir, who self-published it and then saw it explode on Amazon, earning praise for its detailed and carefully researched science as well as its wry humor and appealing central character. That would be an astronaut (Damon) who is accidentally stranded on Mars when his crew, believing him dead, departs without him. Scott has corralled a terrific supporting cast, and if the script and story are strong, his skill for creating arresting visuals while also coaxing good work from actors should serve this material splendidly.

10.
BRIDGE OF SPIES
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Tom Hanks, Alan Alda, Eve Hewson, Domenick Lombardozzi, Billy Magnussen, Peter McRobbie, Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance
Release Date: October 16

The fourth collaboration between Spielberg and Hanks has been flying quietly under the radar. Hanks will play real-life attorney James B. Donovan, who was tasked with negotiating the release of an American pilot shot down over the Soviet Union while doing reconnaissance. The historical drama sounds like good material for Hanks, and another chance after Lincoln for Spielberg to put story front and center.

9.
SPOTLIGHT

Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writers: Thomas McCarthy, Josh Singer
Cast: Billy Crudup, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schrieber, Jamey Sheridan, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci
Release Date: TBA

Sometimes you hear the plot of a movie, you see the cast, the director, and you just have a feeling it’s gonna be good. Well…I do, anyway. I have that feeling about this journalism drama, the true story of The Boston Globe’s investigative reports into sexual abuse of children within the city’s Catholic Archdiocese. The series exposed a scandal which had been known but ignored for years, and earned the Globe‘s Spotlight team a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Tom McCarthy directed The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win, all warm relationship dramadies, but here moves into more straightforward dramatic territory. I’ve compared his films to those of Alexander Payne in the past, and griped that he doesn’t get the level of acclaim that he’s deserved. Maybe this movie will change that. I certainly hope so. This has tremendous potential. (For what it’s worth, I like the irony of the guy who played a journalist fabricating a story on The Wire now co-writing and directing a movie about journalism at its finest.)

8.
TOMORROWLAND
Director: Brad Bird
Writers: Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeff Jensen
Cast: George Clooney, Pierce Gagnon, Judy Greer, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Hugh Laurie, Tim McGraw, Britt Robertson
Release Date: May 22

A decade or so ago, Walt Disney Pictures started looking inward, developing movies based on their theme park rides. Happily, that yielded Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Less happily, it yielded Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears. The studio is still looking to its own vaults for inspiration, resulting in two newer trends: turning its animated films into live action ones (Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella, the upcoming The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo) and perhaps more oddly, making movies out of its business decisions. That trend kicked off with Saving Mr. Banks, and now we have the more mysterious Tomorrowland. There’s been a lot of secrecy around this project, originally titled 1952, but it does appear to involve the futuristic park that exists within the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland and Disney World  though to be fair, I think the idea was brought to Disney, as opposed to being generated within the studio. Damon Lindelof, who initially conceived of the story and eventually collaborated with Jeff Jensen  who covered Lindelof’s Lost for Entertainment Weekly and came up with theories as thrilling and creative as much of the show itself  and The Incredibles writer/director Brad Bird, has said the movie doesn’t actually take place in the park, but there is definitely a connection. What does seem clear is that the parties involved are aiming for a family-friendly sci-fi adventure that seeks to capture a tone of hope and optimism that’s become increasingly rare in our views of the future  real and imagined.

7.
THE REVENANT
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu , Mark L. Smith
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Lukas Haas, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleeson, Will Poulter
Release Date: December 25

While Birdman was soaring across the movie awards circuit in the last several months, its now Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was keeping busy shooting his next project, a long-in-development story about a fur trapper in the 1800’s who is robbed and abandoned by his fellow travelers after being mauled by a bear. (Stephen Colbert’s gonna love this movie!) He survives, and goes after those who left him for dead. Just as Birdman was a sharp turn from the heavy dramas for which Iñárritu was known (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful), The Revenant’s revenge drama roots are unexplored territory for him. And just as with Birdman, I imagine that this exercise in genre will have much more on its mind than simple brutality or emotional satisfaction.

6.
SPECTRE
Director:
Sam Mendes
Writers:
Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Cast:
Daniel Craig, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, Jesper Christensen, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ben Whishaw
Release Date:
November 6

I didn’t grow up immersed in the James Bond series, but while longtime fans understandably consider Sean Connery to be the quintessential Bond, can we all agree that the last installment, Skyfall, was among the four or five best  if not the single best  movie in the series? I’ll assume we can. As such, the weight of expectation here is considerable, as it often is with sequels. Director Mendes and writers Purvis, Wade and Logan are all returning, and while the chance of capturing lightning in a bottle twice in a row is unlikely, we can hope. Skyfall is special for many reasons, occupying a unique position in the Bond canon as both pivotal and transitional. Most Bond films are primarily just “the next adventure,” but this one, whatever it is, will be very much the result of Skyfall‘s events, to a degree that none of the previous 23 films  even Casino Royale‘s follow-up Quantum of Solace  have been so directly impacted by their predecessor. As for where the story might be headed, fans recognize SPECTRE as the criminal organization that Bond has contended with in several of the earlier films and in Ian Fleming’s books, and it will be fun to see how Mendes brings the group into the more gritty, contemporary milieu that the Daniel Craig era has ushered in.

5.
INSIDE OUT
Director: Pete Docter
Writers: Michael Arndt, Pete Docter
Cast: Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith
Release Date: June 19

Pixar’s second release this year  though it will be the first to hit theaters  is a pretty ingenious idea. As an adolescent girl facing the major life change of moving to a new city finds herself on an emotional rollercoaster, we go inside her head to see those emotions personified in the form of Joy (Poehler), Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling), Fear (Hader) and Sadness (Smith, from The Office). That’s some inspired casting right there. This sounds like the perfect Pixar movie to me, something that will see the studio do what it does best: tell a universal story in a world related to but separate from our own, with plenty of fodder for humor but also a genuinely touching throughline. My expectations are high.

4.
JOY
Director: David O. Russell
Writers: David O. Russell, Annie Mumolo
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Édgar Ramiriez, Elisabeth Röhm, Isabella Rossellini
Release Date: December 25

It’s not so much that this particular story excites me as it is that anything David O. Russell does these days excites me. With Joy, he re-teams with Lawrence, Cooper and De Niro for his third time in a row to tell the story of Joy Mangano, a Long Island housewife, single mother and aspiring inventor who struck gold with the creation of the Miracle Mop. Russell co-wrote the script with Annie Mumolo, who penned Bridesmaids with Kristen Wiig, and her comedic voice should nicely complement Russell’s, yielding a quirky biopic in the vein of Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt.

3.
STEVE JOBS

Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Jeff Daniels, John Ortiz, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Kate Winslet
Release Date: October 9

Another biopic, but another one that promises to be unconventional. Based on Walter Isaacson’s best-selling book about the Silicon Valley titan, Aaron Sorkin’s script is structured as just three lengthy scenes, each one taking place backstage at a seminal Apple product launch before Jobs steps in front of the curtain. Sorkin’s script is said to be a massive 181 pages (though earlier descriptions from the writer have described it as more along the lines of 90, so who knows) and as the set-up suggests, it will be extremely dialogue-heavy. No problem there. Sorkin’s dialogue, although self-plagiarized from time to time, can always be counted on to delight the ear.

I surprise myself that the movie places so high on my list, but when I crunched the numbers, did some computer models and ran it all by the boys in the lab, this is where it landed. Prime placement considering my disappointment that the original incarnation of the project fell apart. It was initially shaping up to reunite Sorkin with his Social Network director David Fincher, who wanted Christian Bale to play Jobs. I was over the moon at the thought of that line-up. Unfortunately, Fincher left the project, apparently because the studio (Sony, at the time; it’s since moved to Universal) wouldn’t meet his demands for salary and creative control. Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle came aboard, and courted Leonardo DiCaprio (great actor, but totally the wrong look), who opted to make The Revenant instead. Then Bale officially boarded, only to depart a short time later, stating that he didn’t feel he had a handle on the character. Sorkin championed Tom Cruise (could have been great), while the studio considered the usual A-list suspects regardless of whether they seemed right for the part (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper). In the end, the part went to the versatile Fassbender.

I can’t help but be let down that it didn’t pan out with Fincher and Bale. Not for nothing though, the combination of Sorkin and Boyle is intriguing in its own right. Boyle’s movies are high-energy, lots of editing…there’s a thumping beat to his work that seems contrary to a project that will feature only three extended sequences and limited locations, so seeing how he approaches such unlikely material will be fun. And while Bale seemed like the perfect guy to take on Jobs, Fassbender is no slouch. I have every confidence he will give a performance worthy of such a fascinating figure. Apple’s slogan in the late 90’s was “Think Different.” Looks like with this unusual approach, that’s just what these filmmakers are going for. If they don’t end up doing a big thing badly, it could really be quite something. And you know it.

2.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Director/Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Zoe Bell, Demián Bichir, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, James Parks, James Remar, Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, Channing Tatum
Release Date: TBA

Tarantino’s latest almost died on the vine. After completing the first draft of his script, he handed copies to six people, including actors Dern, Roth and Madsen, and one of his Django Unchained producers. Apparently one of them showed the script to their agent, and soon enough it had leaked online. The director was none too pleased about this, and decided to abandon the film, saying he might revisit it a few years down the road, and would perhaps publish it as a novel instead of filming it. He even sued Gawker for enabling wider dissemination of the script, though the lawsuit was dismissed by the court. Tarantino then staged a live read of the script at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with an all-star cast of actors, (most of whom will reprise their roles in the film). Sometime between the leak and the live read however, Tarantino revised the script (the leaked version had only been his first pass) and decided to make the movie after all. The live read featured the initial draft, which is not the same version that will ultimately be filmed.

So that’s the behind the scenes drama. What can we expect for on-screen drama? The Western takes place in Wyoming a few years after the Civil War, and focuses on two bounty hunters escorting a female prisoner to her trial when a blizzard descends, forcing them to take shelter in a haberdashery. During their stop, they encounter a number of unsavory characters, some of whom may pose a threat to their assignment. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to assume that tensions will mount, blood will be spilled, and a lot of tough-guy dialogue will be chewed with gusto. With the exception of Bichir, Leigh and Tatum, all the players here have worked with QT before…and since Roth, Madsen and Dern are still involved, there must be no hard feelings about that script leak.

1.
STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasden, J.J. Abrams
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, Kenny Baker, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels, Warwick Davis, Adam Driver, Domnhall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Max von Sydow
Release Date: December 18

I mean…come on. Was there even a question?

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