BEST DIRECTOR

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In addition to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which is being screened and will be reviewed soon, many women already have taken center stage in the Oscar race. Instead of unveiling just a thirty-minute showreel of Selma at the AFI Fest, director Ava DuVernay decided to go for broke, acknowledging that moments like these don’t come around very often. Go big, or go home was the idea. It paid off big time as it seemed that everyone involved in the film, including DuVernay, either didn’t know what a great movie they had on their hands or they were just so used to the door closing on women each and every time they’ve come up to bat.

Either way, Selma turned out to be not only magnificent, receiving not one but two standing ovations so far, but also that rare creature in the Oscar race that has the ability to take the Best Picture race as a late entry. Selma is now considered a major frontrunner to win that prize, as Mike Hogan, Katey Rich and Richard Lawson over at VanityFair.com have written. But hey, no pressure. It’s only a black woman who made a career change over the age of 40, started her own releasing company to bring more black ticket-buyers to the arthouse, whose indie career has been ticking along steadily, who won Best Director at Sundance in 2012 but was overlooked in the original screenplay category. This auteur steps into the Oscar race and the film industry as an original – there has never been anyone like Ava DuVernay. That makes it quite possible she has the ability to change the Oscar race as we’ve known it for a while.

As things stand right now, Selma is (to my mind) in the number 2 spot right behind Boyhood. I still think Boyhood could catch the consensus as it plays right into the Academy’s wheelhouse. But Selma could start winning stuff and not stop. It could Slumdog Millionaire or Million Dollar Baby its way right through this race. What helped it? Lowered expectations. Any film benefits from lowered expectations. The higher those expectations go the harder it is for any film to meet them – that is why it is important to get your movie out as early as possible, have it seen and then talked about. That is also why building momentum for late entries is so hard. Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle are two that caught the wave of last minute momentum but both were derailed for various reasons.

Even the notion of Angelina Jolie stepping into the race as a high profile director along the lines of Kathryn Bigelow, David O. Russell or Clint Eastwood is exciting and adds mystery to this race while also helping to erase the line between powerful and not powerful women. The more powerful Jolie is as a director, the better for all women in film. Even if the movie is a nominee and not a winner (we have no way of knowing and I’ll never be that person who predicts a film to win no one has seen) that is still a major win for women in film, that a woman could be powerful enough to shake up the race without her film even being seen. In another post I chalked that up to her celebrity – but even still, she’s using her celebrity to change the power dynamics in Hollywood and that is nothing less than admirable.

DuVernay has a distinctive signature as a director and is far more of a visual storyteller than are many of her female contemporaries. Not many women come at directing from a visual standpoint. Most tend more toward the Richard Linklater vein of depth of story and character. DuVernay’s Selma is a mood piece on the one hand, about the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of the players that worked with and against him leading up to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act.

Though it depicts a pivotal moment in American history, and is about an American civil rights icon, it always feels like a personal story from the ground up rather than a stodgy history lesson. It is alive and vibrant filmmaking by a powerful new voice in American film.

Do we even need to ask the question of how many black women have been nominated for Best Director? How about how many black women have even gotten close to being nominated for Best Director? Ava DuVernay’s nomination, should it come to pass, would make history in so many different ways — but Selma is a good enough film that making history is really the least of it, though the excitement of that possibility is going to be hard to resist.

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Gillian Flynn makes history in the adapted screenplay race as she stands to become the first female nominee to ever adapt her own novel. Plenty of men have done it. Only 2 women in all of Oscar history adapted their own material but they were plays already. Not only did David Fincher insist upon Flynn as the adapted screenplay writer (the studio wanted to go with a more well-known male writer) but his good instincts and Flynn’s talent as a writer have taken Gone Girl to #13 among the highest grossing films of 2014 — and still climbing. That level of success is extraordinarily rare and significant for any movie that isn’t a sequel or a family film. This hard R film is drawing both male a female audiences. Indisputable proof that women will show up if you give them something worth their time. Gone Girl not only gets credit for bringing women to theater, but it also dispels the tired notion, lazily floated by a defensive male demographic, that tries to dismiss the novel as “airport reading,” and claim that anything that appeals to women must be “chick lit” or “chick flicks.” That David Fincher is the director prevents them from totally disregarding Gone Girl, and its massive box-office haul makes further attempts to dismiss it sound flaccid.

Gone Girl comes wholly from Flynn’s imagination. Like DuVernay, she also made a mid-career change and at the age of 43 has achieved the kind of success most writers of any gender would kill for. Flynn bravely dives into the darker side of the female psyche. Amy Dunne in the book creates a necessary personal relationship with the reader. Women especially (although certainly not exclusively) recognize the various female tropes Dunne sends up in Gone Girl, the least of which is to harpoon at last the false notion that “cool girls” exist. This manifestation of every intelligent man’s dreams is a concoction by television and film to create a perfect woman – from the “manic pixie dream girl” to the hot chick who likes football and wears a size 2. Those women exist somewhere but they are usually a lot more flawed than they appear to be, as we all are. Flynn’s adaption of her own work is a collaboration with David Fincher, a director who always operates from his own vision, while allowing the writer their own “voice” within that collaboration. Compare The Social Network to Gone Girl to Zodiac. There are three various writer voices in three very different films. What unites them is what Fincher brings to cinema: a visual translation of the story on the page.

The same way that Stephen King’s The Shining is a wholly different experience from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, you don’t hire a director like David Fincher and expect the Gone Girl on film is going to be the Gone Girl on the page. Like Kubrick, and Paul Thomas Anderson this year as well, a cinematic interpretation becomes an artist’s rendering of a familiar story. The Amy Dunne as filtered through Fincher is far more monstrous than the Amy Dunne in the book, who, though clearly sociopathic seems like the girl next door. She’s plucky and containable. The Amy onscreen, Rosamund Pike’s Amy, is a cinematic blonde that plays into the female tropes in the language of film. Pike’s portrayal doesn’t necessarily reflect girl culture or literature. It’s cinematic instead — specifically, film noir, Hitchcockian. Fincher goes right there and together with Flynn’s funny dialogue creates an interesting concoction that gnaws at you throughout.

With Jolie’s film still hanging in the balance, Selma and Gone Girl are two strong contenders heading into the race which put women filmmakers front and center.

The other area where female directors are flourishing to an unbelievable degree is in the documentary film race. Right now, there are three strong contenders for Doc Feature that were directed by women. First, what I consider to be the best one I’ve seen so far, Rory Kennedy’s The Last Days of Vietnam about the mess we left behind when our country decided to cut and run and leave South Vietnam to be overtaken by North Vietnam. That war of ideology did not pay off in the slightest. The film is a powerful lesson about our empire, where we choose to exercise our power and why. Mostly it’s about the unsung heroes who helped the refugees flee Vietnam in the last days, risking life and limb to do so. It’s an incredibly powerful, suspenseful documentary.

The one that is getting more publicity is Laura Poitras’ CitizenFour about the moment Edward Snowden contacted Glenn Greenwald to release the information he had on our government’s NSA surveillance of its citizens and other countries. Many see this film as an important message for Americans, and see Snowden as a patriot whose goal was to get the truth across no matter what harm he did to himself and his privacy. Poitras was also contacted by Snowden at the time and was able to capture the drama behind the scenes as it unfolded.

There is also Fed Up, currently showing on VOD, directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Fed Up is one of the most eye-opening documentaries I’ve seen this year. It is about the dominance of the special interest food corporations making Americans fat and unhealthy then exporting that deadly diet to other countries. Why is there soda in schools? Why is there only junk food by well-known fast food empires? That is really what America has become: a fast food empire (or nation, if you will). Interviews with Bill Clinton, Mark Bittman and others, Fed Up is a film they should show in schools to help kids realize the harm our government is inflicting upon its citizens by its unwillingness to face down powerful lobbies. What a shame.

CitizenKoch (to which I am a Kickstarter donor!) bravely exposes the all-powerful Koch brothers for making ordinary Republicans in the red states bow to their every whim all in the name of Capitalism. Elena is a brooding, beautiful look at depression and suicide.

Indiewire puts the number of docs directed by women at 37% – which is astonishing. Other than those named above, here’s the list of women-directed documentaries up for consideration:

“Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq” – Nancy Buirski
“American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” – Grace Lee
“Anita” – Frieda Mock
“Art and Craft”- Co-directed by Jennifer Grausman
“Awake: The Life of Yogananda” -Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman
“Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity” – Catherine Gund
“Cesar’s Last Fast” – Co-directed by Lorena Parlee
“Citizen Koch”- Co-directed by Tia Lessin
“Cyber-Seniors” – Saffron Cassaday
“Dancing in Jaffa”- Hilla Medilla
“The Decent One” – Vanessa Lapa
“The Dog”- Co-Directed by Allison Berg
“E-Team” – Co-directed by Katy Chevigny
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” – Chemi Karasawa
“Elena”- Petra Costa
“The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden” – Co-directed by Dayna Goldfine
“Getting to the Nutcracker” – Serene Meshel-Dillman
“The Great Invisible” – Margaret Brown
“The Hacker Wars” – Vivien Weisman
“I Am Ali” – Clare Lewins
“Journey of a Female Comic” – Co-directed by Kiki Melendez
“Last Hijack” – Co-directed by Femke Wolting
“Little White Lie” – Lacey Schwartz
“Llyn Foulkes One Man Band” – Co-directed by Tamar Halpern
“Manakamana” – Co-directed by Stephanie Spray
“Monk with a Camera” – Co-directed by Tina Mascara
“The Only Real Game” – Mirra Bank
“Pelican Dreams” – Judy Irving
“Plot for Peace” – Co-directed by Mandy Jacobson
“Private Violence” – Cynthia Hill
“Pump” – Co-directed by Rebecca Harrell Tickell
“Remote Area Medical” – Co-directed by Farihah Zaman
“Rich Hill” – Co-directed by Tracy Droz Trago
“The Rule” – Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno
“Shadows from My Past” – Co-directed by Gita Kaufman
“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” – Mary Dore
“A Small Section of the World” – Lesley Chilcott
“The Supreme Price” – Joanna Lipper
“Tanzania: A Journey Within” – Sylvia Caminer
“Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence” – Co-directed by Elena Mannes
“20,000 Days on Earth” – Co-directed by Jane Pollard
“Under the Electric Sky” – Co-directed by Jane Lipsitz
“Underwater Dreams” – Mary Mazzio
“Waiting for August” – Teodora Milhai
“Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” – Lydia Smith
“Watchers of the Sky” – Edet Wurmfeld
“Watermark” – Co-directed by Jennifer Baichwal

Here’s the bad news. Oscar will only accept five of these wonderful documentaries — which is an embarrassing low number that does not, in any way, reflect this flourishing branch of the industry.

The other bad news? There is only one writer in the entire Oscar race thus far who is a woman: Gillian Flynn. Every other writing contender is male.

Finally, most of the stories heading into the Oscar race are still about men. It is as though women do not matter anymore and that their stories have become so marginalized, so worthless, the film community has just decided they are expendable.

I am heartened by these women in the Best Director race, because I know that their universal stories about American heroes will resonate across the board. I also know that the majority of voters in the film critic community and the industry are male. They seem to be unwilling to respond to stories about women unless they have more options on a ten nominee ballot. With only five, their preferences will continue to lean toward male-driven stories.

But hey, you have to start somewhere.
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86th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals

A funny thing is happening in the Oscar race. A film that most people haven’t seen, that hasn’t been reviewed by critics – major or otherwise – is being touted as this year’s Best Picture winner. At first it seemed business as usual. Then the film premiered in Australia with a strict embargo of December 1. The film is currently being screened with that embargo in place. I Many of us will see on November 30.  But the weird thing is, everyone is acting like it’s a go, like it doesn’t really even matter if the film is seen or not. She’s really that big of a star, that beloved by fans and the industry that it will get into the Best Director and Best Picture race anyway.

If Universal pulls this off it will be unlike anything I’ve ever seen in 16 years. We’ve had actors in the director race many times – big ones, like George Clooney and Ben Affleck. But their movies were seen first and the accepted or rejected by the awards voters. In fact, Clooney’s Ides of March seemed like it was going to get very close to the Best Picture race but did not. Ditto for Affleck’s The Town.   I’ve never seen a movie star lead the hype as the film’s director. They always do it when actors are involved.  This film is being rolled out as though Angelina Jolie were the star. And maybe, in the end, that will prove true.

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The surprising thing about movie stars and Best Director is that they really can be like a supernova descending. Ben Affleck’s star power during Argo was a major force for the film’s success.  If you’ve ever stood in a room with an actor-turned-director you can feel their charisma from all the way across the room and it’s nearly impossible to resist it. Affleck’s charm offensive was notorious. No one was safe from it. Everyone fell immediately in love with him upon sight – men, women, forget it. But Affleck had a movie a lot of people thought was really good. They saw the movie and then they celebrated him. With this, they’re celebrating Angelina long before they even see the movie – and I’m wondering if anyone cares.

Jolie is as big a star as Affleck and already has one major blockbuster behind her this year with Maleficent, to name just a tip of the Jolie iceberg. She was also given an Oscar last year for her humanitarian efforts.  She even flew off to make another movie with husband Brad Pitt while Unbroken was still in post – all the while raising six kids.

You have to wonder if, indeed, it doesn’t matter if Unbroken is good or not. The story is already so big perhaps it will devour the need for the film to be good. After all, they vote for whom they like anyway, right? This past week I’ve been told by Oscar pundits from experts to amateurs that Unbroken will win, including Entertainment Weekly and Oscar blogging veteran, Dave Karger.

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I find myself conflicted over this. On the one hand, I’ve long championed women filmmakers and if Jolie and Ava DuVernay (whose film has been seen and highly praised already, which put her in the race – no star power needed) manage to get in the same year that would be a record breaking year for women and something to celebrate. Worse case scenario the movie is bad and she gets in on her star power. That’s still a woman in the race and lord knows they’ve nominated enough men who didn’t deserve to get included either.

On the other hand, if she does get in and she doesn’t deserve it that could be more devastating for women in the long run because people will say all you have to do is be pretty and popular and you can get nominated for Best Director with a sub par film. We already have one woman in the race whose movie is being praised with standing ovations at press screenings, which hardly ever happens. And yet, all I hear from my Oscar pundit pals is all about Angelina Jolie. I’m perplexed, Oscar watchers.

Then again, maybe the movie really is that good and her star power and popularity only enhances her position in the race, one she would get anyway even if she weren’t Angelina Jolie. Maybe it’s really that good – as good as Selma, as good as Gone Girl and Boyhood and Birdman. That would be the most awesome thing to happen to the Oscars since Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won on the same night.

Though stars can’t lose if they have a reasonably good movie, they are often looked upon negatively in the years to come, especially if they beat a much better film.  Robert Redford beating Martin Scorsese, Kevin Costner beating Martin Scorsese. Clint Eastwood beating Martin Scorsese.

What I sense with Unbroken and Angelina Jolie is a tsunami of good cheer and encouragement towards her.  I do not know if those accolades are well deserved or not. Yet. I will find out on November 30.  Either way, I’m fascinated by the way Universal is controlling the conversation with that embargo, while also taking full advantage of who Angelina Jolie is in American culture. That’s some really hot shit publicity at work, folks.

May the best woman win!

 

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Unbroken will be seen in various places before getting to critics and bloggers over here, mainly due to scheduling around the film’s director, Angelina Jolie, who will be doing appearances and Q&As to give the film the best possible landing. This is how films usually roll out at festivals, with directors there (at the very least) to give q&as after the screening. This does two things. The first, if “talent” is in the room the crowd is usually much more responsive. You can imagine how responsive they would be with Angelina Jolie in the room. But also it ensures people will at least SHOW UP to the screening, which ensures the film will be seen. In a competitive season, that becomes the most important thing.

Variety reported on the first screening, which said “largely well received” with “warm applause” and several gasps at the violence. I guess the best they could have hoped for was a standing ovation but from where I sit, that it was warmly received is good enough. The film is a victim of Oscar season hype already, being touted as the winner long before anyone has seen it. We put it on our list because it MIGHT be that movie. If it isn’t that movie we blame the movie, not ourselves. We see a movie in our heads and thus, if the movie falls short of that it suffers during this madness. This movie is being hyped as Jolie + Coens + Deakins + WWII + American hero – how can it go wrong? And the thing is, it might not go wrong, number 1. Number 2, unfortunately its goal now is to fill our cup not live out its own intended trajectory. Such is the insanity of Oscar season.

I don’t know what the film’s fate will be but being unable to talk about it right after it screened is causing a bit of an Oscar season flatline. There are too many people like me trying to come up with anything semi-exciting that isn’t just random publicity (interviews, profiles, pictures). Now, we’re just chewing off our own limbs and pretending it’s dinner.

One thing Unbroken has going for it over all of the other films in the race is the simple fact of Ms. Jolie herself. If you notice the different ways Unbroken is being rolled out compared to other films, or even Selma which is also directed by a woman, is that Jolie’s star power is so gigantic her face is almost all that is required to sell the thing. Those set pictures from Unbroken were like an Annie Leibowitz photo spread. She is so pretty that her face on the cover of Vanity Fair sells her movie. There is no other director in the race that famous or that famous for her looks. Ava DuVernay is also beautiful and thus, that will also help her in the race, being that women are always going to be judged on looks first. Always. Sadly.

Of course, Jolie is famous for many other things, too – her unsurpassed humanitarian efforts with refugees, her marriage to Brad Pitt, raising six children but at the end of the day human beings respond to beauty. They (we) like pretty people and for Jolie, considered one of the most beautiful people in the world, that is starting to look like her biggest and most powerful weapon in this regard. Many will come to screenings of the film just to have a look at her.

That isn’t to say she won’t be judged on her work but it’s interesting to watch how the publicity for her film is so tied up in ongoing obsession on her image. Then again, since the movie hasn’t been seen there isn’t much to go on. Oscar season hype has put it in the conversation but the conversation only has one place to go.

Since the film isn’t seen, there isn’t much to discuss except for my own private wish that her film wasn’t being predicted to win. When you start the race at the top like that you have nowhere to go but down. It isn’t her fault, of course. If anything, it’s the fault of Oscar season. We never seem to learn this one crucial lesson about sight unseen frontrunners.

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The Hollywood Film Awards launched the awards race for the muggles – that is, it seems like it might be the beginning of awards season. But really, it was the last gasp of festival season.  Award season starts officially in roughly two weeks. It is impossible to really know where the films are lining up. As Mark Harris reminds us, what is mostly going on right now is a conversation between a bunch of people who don’t vote on awards trying to predict how people who do vote on awards will vote.  Or, as Kris Tapley said more succinctly, it’s like farting in a room and then talking about what it smells like.  That’s the thing – we all have our rankings and our own narratives of how the race might go but in truth, nothing really happens until the major awards begin to announce.

The first out of the gate is the New York Film Critics Circle Awards (December 1), made recently famous by their decision to push their awards to be earlier than the National Board of Review, the group that traditionally announced first. Since the NYFCC did that, they’ve picked winners that hadn’t been widely seen yet, even though they were being predicted by pundits based on the usual things: pedigree, subject matter, etc. Zero Dark Thirty in 2012 and American Hustle last year were their two big late entry surprise picks. The only film left to be seen right now are Unbroken and Into the Woods. The NYFCC hat trick would then have to be one of those films and if either one wins it will be huge.

A day later, the National Board of Review announces (December 2). They list a Best Picture and then a top ten, plus acting categories. Both the National Board of Review and the NYFCC have a great track record for launching a film into the Best Picture race. It lends prestige to have that little award on your movie ad. No one really knows the difference, nor cares, whether the critics who vote are “legit” or not. The NBR has been picking respectable titles for years alongside the NYFCC.

The National Board of Review started, believe it or not, in 1927, presumably to help influence the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences awards. But it wasn’t until 1932 that they started giving out a winner.

A quick chart:

But did anything change after the AFI Fest? And is the consensus starting to take shape anyway, without any awards having been announced? There is a rough draft of the consensus but the shape won’t take place until we start seeing how people plan to vote on Best Picture of the Year.

There are a few things we do know, however.

1) We have our Best Actress frontrunner in Julianne Moore. She was already way, way overdue – is well liked and proved with her appearance at the Hollywood Film Awards that she plans to show up. She has, at this time, no major competition. Rosamund Pike and Reese Witherspoon could be the only competitors but Moore needed the chance to allow voters to award her and this is it. Kudos to Greg Ellwood at Hitfix for calling it first.

2) Ava DuVernay’s Selma is the only major game-changer out of the AFI fest. There are films that will have some impact, like A Most Violent Year, The Gambler and American Sniper but the one everyone was talking about as the only film that can give heat to the frontrunners to win is Selma. It is the only film so far of the late entries that has the stuff to win.  If it catches fire with any early awards it will all be over but the shouting. The NBR has a soft spot for Eastwood and indeed a win for American Sniper there would catapult it into the race.

3) Patricia Arquette is the strongest supporting actress contender so far. The reason? She plays basically a leading role and gives one of the few fully realized performances in that category. It’s unfortunate that the majority of male filmmakers who get a shot at the big time continually feel compelled to write such thin female supporting characters. It hurts the film overall and simply can’t withstand the test of time as the best films have the best characters — period. Once again, a good supporting female character is not one who exists merely to excite, prop up or inspire the male protagonist. They have their own character arc. But linklater is way too evolved to fall into those traps and has repeatedly delivered brilliant female characters. Also, Arquette would never have played any part that thin. She isn’t that desperate. Hollywood still doesn’t know what to do with her but so far she’s chosen interesting roles even when case in supporting parts. Ditto David Fincher who is way too smart to deliver pointless empty female leads or supporting. Gone Girl is full of great female characters with their own arcs. Leads made supporting tend to win because there is so much more information there. Those are the hardest to compete against, like Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained. The only possible competition she has is Jessica Chastain for A Most Violent Year, which would be both for the performance and for her stellar career. Arquette, though, has the advantage of being in what is considered right now the Best Picture frontrunner. Chastain is having another one of those years where she delivers one great performance after another, which makes it harder for a consensus to build around any one performance. She will once again compete against herself with A Most Violent Year and Interstellar.

4) Best Actor is still wide open. Before AFI it was two actor race between Michael Keaton and Benedict Cumberbatch being threatened by the charming and heartbreaking Eddie Redmayne. Then along comes David Oyelowo at Martin Luther King, Jr. and THAT performance could be the surprise winner in the category. Gun to my head right now I’d say Keaton gets it for two reasons. 1) he’s such a beloved vet, and 2) Birdman will win the actors and they are the biggest voting branch in the Academy. Before I saw Selma I thought Eddie Redmayne had it in the bag. Then I thought Oyelowo had it. But now I have no idea. I suspect the wins could be all over the place.

5) JK Simmons appears to have Supporting Actor lined up as he brings both a great performance and major veteran status to the game. Edward Norton is probably his biggest challenger in Birdman.  Josh Brolin steals the show in Inherent Vice – one of the best performances of the year but it’s hard to know if anyone is paying any attention to that film.

6) Boyhood doesn’t have many serious challengers yet for Best Picture. Birdman and The Imitation Game continue to present themselves as potential winners. Selma has emerged, at this time, as a formidable contender. But if the major critics do not support the film it will not be. Ava DuVernay’s inclusion makes history — the first black woman to be nominated for Best Director and that is significant. But it has passion and gravitas and historical importance, not to mention a history making black woman at the helm.  Finally, Gone Girl’s box office makes it harder and harder to ignore. Then again, Fincher notoriously does not “kiss babies,” which contradicts the silly notion that he “wants and Oscar.” He isn’t going to suck up for one and that could mean the difference. The win for Gone Girl is the money and Gillian Flynn’s history making adaptation.  That would likely be your five if there were five. But since there are more than five, you can extend the strongest contenders to include The Theory of Everything and Whiplash.  That’s seven. Interstellar makes it eight and if you don’t count Unbroken or Into the Woods that leaves you with one slot open.  There are plenty of contenders that might take it, from Mr. Turner to American Sniper to A Most Violent Year…

7) There are only two films left to be seen and one is already cursed with too high expectations.  Unbroken and Into the Woods will be seen in the next two weeks. But many pundits have proclaimed Unbroken the winner without a full screening and that, my friends, is always a huge mistake. I’ve never seen it pan out. In 16 years.  But the game must be played and so it marches on. They could both turn out to be great but they’re coming in under the wire. Good thing they are backed by hardcore star power. Angelina Jolie for Unbroken and Meryl Streep for Into the Woods ensures people will turn out for screenings for a glimpse of them and perhaps watch their movies.

8) If nothing else, Interstellar wins Visual Effects walking in the door.

9) If Alejandro G. Inarritu wins this year, that will make it the fifth consecutive year that a non-American has won Best Director for the first time in Oscar history (Ang Lee is a naturalized American citizen, though he considers himself Taiwanese, and was born there):

Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Though Americans dominate the list of contenders, the winning film and director right now include one American*, Richard Linklater.

Frontrunners:
Richard Linklater, Boyhood*
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
Morton Tyldum, The Imitation Game
James Marsh, The Theory of Everything

David Fincher, Gone Girl*
Ava DuVernay, Selma*
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash*
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher*

And the dark horse contenders:
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel*
Clint Eastwood, American Sniper*
JC Chandor, A Most Violent Year*
Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman*

And soon to come:
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken*
Rob Marshall, Into the Woods*
Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
Jean-Marc Vallee, Wild

Americans, it seems, are showing up with great films but they haven’t been in the winner’s circle since 2009. Make of that what you will.

10) Nobody knows anything. Sure, we think we know. But we don’t. We can look back on this time and laugh about how wrong we got it but we don’t learn our lessons. Films are still shelved and excluded from the conversation as we continue to second what “they” will do. The pile gets smaller and all the while we’ve kind of lost sight of the one thing that has always been true about films: they’re made for audiences.

We can only take our best guess, which is slightly more educated from experience alone than yours. It should all be taken with a huge grain of salt and more people should think outside the tiny little box we’ve created. We call it a weak year for film? I’d say it’s a weak year for the kinds of films that people like me focus on.

My current predictions before the race gets real, for what they’re worth:

FRONTRUNNERS

Best Picture
Boyhood
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Birdman
Gone Girl
Selma
Whiplash
Mr. Turner
Interstellar

Also in the running:
Foxcatcher
American Sniper
A Most Violent Year
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wild
The Homesman

Still to come:
Unbroken
Into the Woods

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman
David Oyelowo, Selma
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Miles Teller, Whiplash
Alt. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Also in the running:
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Mark Wahlberg, The Gambler
Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year
Ben Affleck, Gone Girl
Bill Murray St. Vincent
Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar
Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel s
Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood

Still to come:
Jack O’Connell, Unbroken

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Hilary Swank, The Homesman
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Also in the running:
Anne Dorval, Mommy
Shailene Woodley, The Fault in our Stars
Jessica Chastain, Eleanor Rigby
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle
Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars
Juliet Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria

Still to come:
Amy Adams, Big Eyes
Emily Blunt, Into the Woods

Supporting Actor
JK Simmons, Whiplash
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Also in the running:
Tyler Perry, Gone Girl
Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
Evan Bird, Maps to the Stars
John Cusack, Maps to the Stars

Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Laura Dern Wild

Also in the running:
Jessica Lange, The Gambler
Jessica Chastain, Interstellar
Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
Kristen Stewart, Still Alice
Suzanne Clément, Mommy
Viola Davis, Eleanor Rigby
Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
Naomi Watts, St. Vincent
Melissa McCarthy, St. Vincent

Still to come:
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Anna Kendrick, Into the Woods

Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
Ava DuVernay, Selma
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

Also in the running:
Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Clint Eastwood, American Sniper
JC Chandor, A Most Violent Year
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
Jean-Marc Vallee, Wild

Still to come:
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken
Rob Marshall, Into the Woods

Original Screenplay
Alejandro Inarritu et al, Birdman
Paul Webb, Selma
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
JC Chandor, A Most Violent Year

Also in the running:
E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson, Grand Budapest Hotel
Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, Interstellar
Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas

Adapted Screenplay
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Anthony McCarten, The Thoery of Everything
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, The Homesman
Nick Hornby, Wild

Also in the running:
Jon Stewart, Rosewater
RIchard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, Still Alice

Still to come:
Coens et al., Unbroken

Editing
Birdman
Boyhood
Gone Girl
The Imitation Game
Whiplash

Also in the running:
Interstellar
A Most Violent Year
Foxcatcher

Cinematography
Interstellar
Birdman
Mr. Turner
Gone Girl
Grand Budapest Hotel

Also in the Running:

Selma
A Most Violent Year
The Theory of Everything
Wild
Boyhood
The Imitation Game
Whiplash
Foxcatcher

Still to come:
Unbroken
Into the Woods

Production Design

Interstellar
Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Mr. Turner
Selma

In the running:
The Theory of Everything
Birdman

Still to come:
Into the Woods
Unbroken

Sound Mixing

Interstellar
Whiplash
Get on Up
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
American Sniper

In the running:
Guardians of the Galaxy
Transformers 4
Edge of Tomorrow
X-Men

Still to come:
Unbroken
Into the Woods

Sound Editing

Interstellar
Whiplash
Birdman
Get on Up
Big Hero Six

In the running:
The Lego Movie
Transformers 4
Guardians of the Galaxy
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Edge of Tomorrow
X-Men

Still to come:
Unbroken
Into the Woods

Costume Design

Grand Budapest Hotel
Belle
The Imitation Game
Mr. Turner
Selma

In the running:
A Most Violent Year
Get on Up
Guardians of the Galaxy

Still to come:
Unbroken
Into the Woods

Original Score

Gone Girl
Birdman
Selma
A Most Violent Year
Noah

In the running:
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Imitation Game
Interstellar
Mr. Turner
Grand Budapest Hotel

Still to come:
Unbroken

Foreign Language Feature

Mommy (Canada)
Ida (Poland)
Leviathan (Russia)
Winter Sleep (Turkey)
Wild Tales (Argentina)

Documentary Feature
Life Itself
Last Days of Vietnam
CitizenFour
Merchants of Doubt
Look of Silence

Also in the running:
The Overnighters
Seymour
Red Army
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart
The Salt of the Earth
Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles
Keep on Keepin’ On

Animated Feature
Princess Kaguya
The Lego Movie
Big Hero 6
The Book of Life
How to Train Your Dragon 2

Visual Effects
Interstellar
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
Transformers 4
Godzilla

Makeup
Birdman
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
Mr. Turner

Still to come:
Into the Woods

Song
Mercy is (Noah)
Lost Stars (Begin Again)
Glory (Selma)
Everything Is Awesome (The Lego Movie)
Miracles (Unbroken)
Split the Difference (Boyhood)

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I feel like I’m probably trying to make fetch happen with Gone Girl and Best Picture. It should come as no surprise to you readers that I loved the movie. It’s my favorite film of the year, followed very closely by Selma, Boyhood and Inherent Vice. So many of the movies this year are themes about men and though it’s fun to cheer them on from the sidelines and enjoy these wonderful films about them, Gone Girl, Selma, Inherent Vice and Boyhood are really the films that offered me personally a deeper, richer experience.  I understand that the Oscar race is about predicting what they’ll do – and they are not single mothers like me, mostly, but rather men. Still, this feels like one of the most wide open and confusing Oscar races in memory. Whether Gone Girl gets in or not seems to be the only suspense it has to offer at this point in time.

Why is that, well, most of the Oscar movies according to pundits happened already, way way back in September at Telluride. Not a lot has changed since then except Gone Girl and Selma.  While everyone waits for the two unseen films, Unbroken and Into the Woods, Best Picture seems to once again swirl around a few titles, if the pundits are to be believed.

Gone Girl might not have hit the target with critics but it certainly hit with Maureen Down at the New York Times and Linda Holmes at NPR, not to mention the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. But it’s a tough sell, if you ask any of the pundits or critics for two reasons. The first, it has an ambiguous ending that leaves you feeling uncomfortable. The second, it’s accused of being “airport novel” material and not high fallootin’ enough. And then there is the occasional asshole who chimes in with silly comments like “It isn’t an Oscar movie” or some such – an Oscar movie only means it’s one of the best films of the year and Gone Girl most certainly is that.

Either way, I would like to just point out the disconnect between the Oscar world and the regular world where Gone Girl, and the other films, are concerned. It feels like something is really off if a film is beloved on the one hand and disregarded on the other.  We’ll be checking back with this as the year progresses. For one thing, The Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher have not yet opened, nor earned enough ratings at any websites to be included in the chart.  But if you count the public at all, this is how it’s shaping up so far.

First, the Gurus of Gold at Movie City News queried before Selma and American Sniper and after. Here is how they look side by side:

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 12.22.36 PM

Now let’s look at the stats.

Usually Best Picture can be mostly determined by how the major guilds vote. To figure out a Best Picture contender I usually look at the the likelihood of the guilds to nominate the movie. For Gone Girl I feel like Producers Guild and Directors Guild are probably safe bets. For Screen Actors Guild an ensemble nod would not be out of the question, as the film has one of the best ensembles of the year.

The DGA is really a pretty good determiner for Best Picture, even though they will announce after Oscar ballots have been turned in.

Right now, I feel like the DGA five are:
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Alejandro Inarritu, Birdman
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Christopher Nolan, Interstellar or Morton Tyldum, Imitation Game
Ava DuVernay, Selma

In the end, I am not sure what to think of this year. It feels very weird and kind of thin, like many of the films that were supposed to be stronger bets aren’t quite there.

Where Christopher Nolan and David Fincher might make the DGA’s list, the Academy might not pick them and might instead go for Damien Chazelle for Whiplash, and Mike Leigh for Mr. Turner.

In 2012, the DGA went for Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper but the Academy went with Michael Haneke, David O. Russell and Benh Zeitlin.

Angelina Jolie and Rob Marshall’s fate are as yet unknown but a couple of dark horse contenders should shake up the race a bit and those include:
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
James Marsh for The Theory of Everything
JC Chandor for A Most Violent Year
Clint Eastwood for American Sniper

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 1.45.50 PM

Scott Feinberg hosted a roundtable with actors and filmmakers for Oscars 2014 – but honestly? Tilda Swinton’s hair for the win.

Each of the eight panelists were associated with top-notch 2014 indies: writer-director J.C. Chandor (AFI Fest opener A Most Violent Year); writer-director Damien Chazelle (Sundance grand jury and audience award winner Whiplash); Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard (Belgian Oscar submission Two Days, One Night, as well as 2013 Cannes selection The Immigrant); Oscar-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal (Toronto selections Nightcrawler and, from 2013, Enemy); actor Bill Hader (a best actor Gotham Award nominee for Sundance selection The Skeleton Twins); actress Michelle Monaghan (Fort Bliss); actress Kristen Stewart (Toronto selection Still Alice, as well as Sundance selection Camp X-Ray and Cannes selection The Clouds of Sils Maria); and Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer, as well as 2013 Cannes selection Only Lovers Left Alive and Berlin selection The Grand Budapest Hotel).

Read the full piece at Hollywood Reporter.

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Clint Eastwood’s best war film is Letters from Iwo Jima. Its partner film, Flags of our Fathers is also very good though more sentimental, less precise, and less revered. American Sniper is far more like the latter, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have brilliance to it. It just means that it’s not the sweeping statement of war, or even the Iraq war, that people might be thinking it is. In fact, like Flags of our Fathers, American Sniper is a tribute to a fallen war vet, a sincere memorial to a brave soldier’s legacy.

The movie I had in my head, which doesn’t count for a hill of beans, was a statement against the war after this sniper killed a record number of men, women and yes, children in Iraq so that when he came home he was a hollow man. That Chris Kyle was then famously “accidentally shot” at a shooting range is a big part of his story, a profound irony for the military’s greatest sniper, yet for this film it is merely a footnote.

Eastwood was not interested in making Kyle’s death the biggest part of his story and was clearly devoted to the notion that the vet ought to be remembered for his heroic and traumatic service at war time. The story about the gun, the subsequent shootout with cops as they pursued Kyle’s killer opens a debate about gun violence in the US, a futile, pointless death juxtaposed against the 160 Iraqis Kyle killed. That’s an interesting dynamic but it is not part of American Sniper.

Instead, this film is about the difficulties fighting that endless, horrific war (which continues to rage on) and Kyle’s refusal to accept that he was afflicted with PTSD, struggling with survivor guilt seemed to torment him more.

All the same, it’s difficult to know what to feel watching the film, though I suspect if you believe we fought the good fight in Iraq or that our thousands of soldiers killed over there was worth it you will find this story resonates more than if you are someone who opposes the war and believes that we had no business going in.

The film draws a parallel between 9/11 and Iraq that, from Kyle’s point of view, he was amped and ready to go when the towers were hit, never mind that they were hit by Al Qaida – his country called him to fight and he believed that’s what he was fighting for.

Thoughout the film, Kyle rages against the enemy and that rage is never undone, as it is in Kathryn Bigelow’s anti-war film, The Hurt Locker. Eastwood clearly feels that this man fought for his country and paid a high price as he tried to fit in to the life he was supposed to have back home, a happy love nest with his wife (Sienna Miller) and their two kids.

Naturally, the war scenes are the most vivid thing about the film. They are terrifying. Eastwood does not sugar coat what Kyle had to do, which included shooting children, though that was clearly the thing that troubled him most. He had to shoot any kid who aimed weapons with the intent to kill Marines. In once bravura sequence, the soldiers are caught up in a dust storm – and only then do we see any sort of commentary on this ongoing war.

Miller does her best with what she has to work with but indeed, those scenes have less impact than the war scenes because she doesn’t have much to do – Eastwood is great with women on film, always has been, and despite the clunky dialogue he gives her some nice moments.

The real standout and the reason to see this movie, however, is Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. Cooper disappears into the role, illustrating remarkable versatility. He packed on the pounds and nailed Kyle’s accent. In a competitive year of great male performances, Cooper’s is a standout.

But American Sniper suffers, like all films around this time of year, from inflated expectations of Oscar bloggers who called it as a strong Best Picture contender early on. That is how we end up with the movies in our heads and why sometimes that can be a detriment to the film ultimately.

It also followed Ava DuVernay’s Selma on the night it premiered at the AFI Fest, a cinematic experience that was the best anyone could hope for. American Sniper will make lots of money, particularly outside the big blue cities and deep in the red states.

We must never dismiss nor take for granted what our soldiers have done in service of our country. We train them to take the mission whether they agree with it or not. What a shame that their fates are in the hands of people who make such bad decisions with their precious lives.

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“If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was brought to vibrant life at the AFI Film Fest in Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary new film, Selma, about the civil rights protest that ultimately led to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Too many black men killed today; too many black men killed in 1965. Spike Lee wrestled with the opposing movements of the 1960s with “militant” Malcolm X and pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. That conflict is also present in Selma, as it would have to be in an era that almost demanded violence be answered with more violence. But King had a dream. His dream was bigger than the small minds that bound it. His dream is alive today, a wavering flame always threatened by hot air from stupid people who have way too much airtime in 2014.

That dream was a dream for equality — that all men (and women) are created equal, with the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless of the color of their skin. Many Americans probably don’t even know about the march on Selma. Indeed, when it was announced that DuVernay was making this film few even knew why it would be called Selma and what that represented in King’s legacy. The film dramatizes those very dramatic events as they unfolded. Like now, after Hurricane Katrina and Ferguson it took live TV cameras to show Americans what the racist authorities were doing to black citizens who were engaged in peaceful protests.

The irony of watching Selma last night was that it was featured preceding Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper the same evening. (more on that in a separate piece). In Eastwood’s film, insurgents were brutally murdering Iraqis who so much as spoke with Americans. In Selma, white protestors were beaten and murdered for standing alongside black citizens during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. The militant racist whites were as much terrorists as the insurgents and yet our government, our presidents, continued to look the other way until TV cameras brought it to America’s doorsteps.

In David Oyelowo, DuVernay has found the embodiment of her inspiration. His portrayal of King is not only one of the best performances of the year, but certainly the definitive portrait of the charismatic civil rights leader. Oyelowo said in the Q&A afterwards that he knew if he was going to play King he would have to “bang out a great speech,” and indeed, he delivers them ferociously. You can’t underplay what happened when King hit the mic — he isn’t considered one of the greatest orators in history for nothing. DuVernay and Oyelowo capture the man — the husband and father who found himself struggling with internal conflict of Christian pacifism and the growing fury at the obvious injustices unfolding daily in the South.

DuVernay, working from Paul Webb’s screenplay, gives us enough information about what was going on then, what was most important — the right to register to vote, which means the right to sit on juries, which means the rights to help legislate laws to help their own communities. Attempts to preventing the black vote was a huge problem in the 1960s, and led to many protests, beatings, murders — countless deaths and ongoing intimidation. Incredibly, shamefully, it is still a problem 50 years later.

Selma is an important film but more than that, it is a great film. DuVernay directs with confidence, not trying to emulate anyone but trusting her own instincts as a visual director who really invests in character and story. She takes her time and never gives any character the short shrift.

If you’ve seen Middle of Nowhere you are already familiar with how DuVernay directs — she captures electrifying expressions on faces, puts the camera in places you don’t expect. When King speaks her camera is not aimed downward from up on high the way Orson Welles filmed Charles Foster Kane – rather, King is shot eye level as a way of demystifying the historic icon to bring him down to earth. DuVernay’s sensuality is evident in the ways she films men, but also in how her characters are not robbed of their sexuality, the way so many are in today’s films. This is not a sanitized look at King’s life – DuVernay was after authenticity and she surely gets it.

Indeed, the house was alive with good cheer when DuVernay’s film screened. A standing ovation, prolonged applause and even fan cheers for DuVernay afterwards was a good sign that this was no ordinary director screening any ordinary film. This was an historic moment and everyone knew it, particularly since all we’ve been seeing an Oscar season brimming over with stories about white men doing important or unimportant things. Not only is Selma full of women but here is a woman who has made a film that does not shy away from the feminine in her directing and surprise, surprise, it never lapses into fantasy or imaginary fairy dust. It is a great story brilliantly told by a director who is just starting to hit her stride.

If you look at who King was, how he was brought up and who he became, and contrast that with the piece of shit who took his life you will see the irony of how Americans viewed black men back then and how they viewed white men. One was clearly a “wrong one” and a right one who couldn’t have been more white is the kind of story that haunts our American history again and again. King’s bravery in the face of death threats are addressed in Selma, as is his infidelity and internal conflicts with other civil rights leaders at the time. DuVernay was not interested in whitewashing his story or making him better than he was. His life needs no embellishment.

The right to vote, the right to be viewed as equal in cities where black citizens held the majority, was what Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for before his life was taken at the age of 39. We are woefully now without our Martin Luther Kings as the age of apathy has drowned us in our own excess. But Selma shows us a different time, when there was still hope for change, a belief that black children could grow up in a country that judged them “on their content of character and not the color of their skin.” That was King’s dream.

The right-wing propaganda machine that is Fox News, and even some of my liberal brethren are engaged in a long, slow high-tech lynching of our first black president, who has been obstructed, intimidated and treated with unforgivable disrespect, it is clear that King’s dream still requires a long hard fight, even if intolerant white supremacists in the deep south are a dying breed.

King in Selma is a player who leads the nation to a much bigger victory – voters rights. America has much to atone for, even today, with voter turnout a pathetic 36% in mid-term elections, the lowest since we were at war in WWII. Watching Selma might start to knock some cold hard sense into Americans that our democracy requires that we vote. Insidious powerful forces conspire to prevent us from doing just that – from apathy (“who cares, it doesn’t matter”) to illegal suppression, oppression and subversion.

The battle to uphold the Voting Rights Act continues to play out today. John Roberts’ Supreme Court recently undermined key provisions to immediate and devastating effect. Voter suppression continues unabated. Black citizens continue to be robbed of the right to have any power even when they are the majority of citizenry, as we’ve just seen play out in Ferguson, Missouri.

As a director, DuVernay has worked more intimately in the independent world. Middle of Nowhere won the Best Director prize at Sundance yet no amount of advocacy could earn DuVernay a screenplay nomination. But the publicity around Middle of Nowhere was enough to boost DuVernay’s profile — she’s now an Academy member. That was one of the reasons she was approached by Plan B to make Selma, a film on a much bigger scale than she had been accustomed or allowed.

Early word about test screenings on the internet was mixed. Someone on Facebook incorrectly told me the following, “Selma is not good in any way.” He later wrote: “Note, though, that the film has been re-edited, re-scored, color corrected, and had additional sound work since the version I saw.” After the first trailer appeared a week ago, the prevailing winds online shifted dramatically.

With a film like Selma, perspective is everything. That’s okay – whatever brings us to the trough is worthy grounds for debate. Still, trying to sell some viewers on a film like Selma is futile. It’s not wrong to say that some people have the disadvantage of being born into privilege. The film industry often revolves around and caters to their tastes. Perhaps they never felt the strong arm of oppression. They’ve never had a woman clutch her purse when they enter an elevator at the same time. They’ve never had to live down a legacy of being bought and sold like property. And they’ve never been unilaterally prevented from voting or registering to vote. They just choose not to. So forgive me if I mostly disregard the opinions of people like that.

The Oscar race is a silly game that purportedly honors the ‘highest achievements in film” but when critics and bloggers watch a film for consideration these days they are watching it with a quibbling eye, looking for any “flaws,” looking to be wowed out of their cynicism. That kind of criticism forgets that movies are made for audiences. Not critics. Not Oscar voters. That dismissive midset has led to bland Oscar watching that says no more than it says yes. Vanilla product inevitably emerges in the wake of it.

DuVernay is smart enough to know that she is coming up against the sort of groupthink that prefers, quite frankly, the white male narrative. As a one-woman film movement, DuVernay has started her own production company that promotes black filmmakers but she is also committed to bringing black audiences to the art house. DDuring the AFI Fest — and, frankly, every festival or screening I’ve been to in the Oscar race so far — white-centric viewership has been unified and dismally dominant. How refreshing to sit in the Egyptian amid so many black audience members. At the end, it was no surprise that the poker-faced mostly white media sat there while the rest leaped to their feet to cheer the film they had just seen.

I know what’s coming next. I hope I’m wrong. It’s a dirty game. The stakes are too low for anyone to care much but there’s a reason our political leaders today are so bland. When you become too critical of the little things you lose sight of the big things. Selma is a big thing for film in 2014. Maybe the biggest, or close to it. It is now up to film critics to establish its rightful place in the Oscar race. And if critics won’t, I bet Oscar voters will.

Every so often I’m so deeply moved by the courage some people have to tell stories when all odds are against them. You see, women do matter. We matter in life, in art, in film. When doors are opened to us, we walk through those doors with style, strength and grace. That DuVernay’s film was such a success at last night’s premiere turned me into a soggy mess and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I am woman therefore I cry. I am so proud to be alive to witness this moment of hers, alive to see a black woman auteur succeed — and I know I’m not the only one.

I have three favorite films this year. I’ve written plenty about my admiration for Boyhood and Gone Girl. Selma now joins them, one of the best films I’ve ever seen period, and one of the best film about civil rights ever made. You can’t watch Selma and not think about 2014. The drumbeat of change could once again be upon us. We have the tools because we have the vote. What we need are more leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. to help light the way. We lost Dr. King far too soon but his spirit is with us forever, as long as we have filmmakers like Ava DuVernay to bring him back to eternal, shimmering, unwavering life.

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The lost boys that crowd Oscars 2015 have no real qualities to be leaders or heroes. They are fumbling around trying to avoid failure at all costs. That failure claps through the canyon like a falcon’s cry — who are we now? It’s an important question to ask. The country is more divided than it’s ever been. Hollywood feels the pull of international box office threatening to transfigure domestic product. Liberals put their faith in Obama only to then see their idealism thwarted. Terrorism, mass murder, random and frequent gun violence. Giant masses of trash floating around in our oceans, large percentage of wildlife destroyed in the past 40 years. How could anyone feel hopeful about the future? Is that why our cinematic heroes must either dwell in a past where hope did spring eternal or in the fantasy realm where our imaginations can take over and real life isn’t real at all but an irrelevant point in the workings of the plot? All the while a mishmash of social justice and political correctness working its way through the way we talk, the way we make movies, the way stars are built up then torn down. We are our political beliefs, our well chosen words, our Apple products, our environmental footprint. We’re powerless.

We’re not ready to give up on our ubiquitous male protagonists, however. Because they can’t be heroes, they flail around not being heroes — preserved in the 1970s model of Five Easy Pieces where there is nowhere left to go except inward. The present-day hero is a lost boy, a diminished manchild, incapable of being a leader in what feels like a world gone wrong.

The film of 2014 that lies outside the insular world of critics and pundits, outside the fanboy culture of comic book and superhero movies is the one audiences have been flocking to, talking about, reading about, wondering about, arguing about, breaking up over – and that’s David Fincher’s box office phenomenon, Gone Girl. That pundits aren’t even talking about this film as potential Best Picture winner, or even nominee, shows that we’ve failed in our industry. To second-guess Oscar voters, thinking they won’t nominate a film like that is absurd. And yet, that’s because we live in that world. We have a list of what Oscar voters will like. We have numeric measurements of such – and there are those pesky Academy screenings where a few dismissed the film outright, which does nothing more than prove that they’re the ones who have lost touch with what audiences want to see from a major studio that is aimed at adults. Remember that kind of movie?

What a thrill to watch Gone Girl’s opening scenes – flash cards depicting a decaying world. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross set the mood, Jeff Cronenweth’s camera puts the chilly world on display where something is just not quite right. Finches’ gift as a director is to deliver dual worlds. There is one thing on the surface. There is a whole other thing underneath. His expert collaborative team sends the message that you are in capable hands of a master at the top of his game. The criticisms ranged from men saying the film wasn’t Zodiac-y enough to women uncomfortable with the negative aspects of the female anti-hero. It’s a mistake to trap a filmmaker in what you define as his or her style. Fincher’s range as a director is impressive. Zodiac is a masterpiece, no question, but so is Gone Girl. It may take a woman to know it.

Watch from the first frame to the last a director at the top of his game, with such an assured hand – no one makes films that deliberately anymore, where every note of music, every article of clothing, every reflection in every piece of glass, even the seemingly random sounds have all been specific choices. It is rare to have any film come close to that level of exactness. Flynn’s and Fincher’s Amy Dunne emerges like a monster of that forgotten sex and lays it to waste with the “cool girl” monologue, which is more about what men want from women — what almost every film in the Oscar race has helped perpetuate — the myth that women are only here for men. Amy Dunne had a better idea.

The other definitive modern film about a lost boy is Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which works as both a somewhat fictional account of the DuPont murder, as well as an insightful commentary on how the 1% has screwed the middle-class. In this case, Channing Tatum plays a hopeful protagonist just trying to work hard and succeed within the confines of the American dream. He is usurped and manipulated by the tragic DuPont, who is so cut off from everyday life he has created his own ecosystem. Foxcatcher, like Gone Girl, depicts a haunting of a kind of American life — what once was and never can be again. They speak the truth, however, even if both dwell in the realm of black comedy.

The auteur in the Oscar race still surges. At the top of that list has to be Richard Linklater and Boyhood. Boyhood represents the film that no one hates, and the one that stands apart from all others because it took 12 years to make. The only negative anyone can come up with, and it’s blurted out from time to time by lazy thinkers, is that it’s “only a gimmick.” It isn’t a big moneymaker but it was made on the cheap with a lot of heart and dedication to the craft of filmmaking. It represents a smaller but thriving Hollywood independent film industry, but more than that, it represents the auteur as the singular force that drives cinema. Written by. Directed by. One person’s thorough artistic expression. Boyhood’s success is not simply that it was made by Richard Linklater and is about the passage and the meaning of life, but that it connects on some universal level to those who have grown up, had children, and felt first hand the swiftness of time. Boyhood beautifully illustrates that one of the best special effects can simply be to show how fast time slips away from us and why the memory of a sunset view with a pretty girl at the beginning college might be delicious enough to carry us on through the ravages of time and aging.

The auteur is also alive and well with Dan Gilroy’s sleeper hit Nightcrawler and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. They are both tightly written and directed and neither loses site of its film’s main point. If you went to film school you would recognize these as the kinds of films students are taught to make. They are precise, exacting and never deviate from their goal. They are also satisfying and entertaining films overall. Though it must be noted that even in the world of the modern auteur women are sidelined as supporting characters, though way more colorfully handled in Nightcrawler than in Whiplash. This won’t matter to Oscar voters, as it hasn’t mattered to critics. You can add J.C. Chandor to the auteur list, although his film isn’t as structured as the other two films and will have a harder time being placed neatly into the Oscar race.

The flipside of the precise auteurs would be the freewheelers like Paul Thomas Anderson who quietly made one of the best films of the year with Inherent Vice. No one will know what to make of it but it is one of the most fascinating, brilliantly rendered cinematic experiences of the year. It’s just that there’s no box to put it in for the Oscar race and, like Gone Girl, perhaps it’s better for it.

Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar feels like freewheeling auteurism, just with $165 million to spend. Though Nolan, like Alfonso Cuaron last year, is playing with state-of-the-art visual effects, he has earned the freedom to make exactly the movie he wanted to make. His fans have stuck with him through this, helped to understand his movie by wanting to understand him. To love an auteur’s work is to love the auteur. Thus, Interstellar isn’t just the one movie – it is all of Nolan’s work taken into consideration leading to this. The most divisive of his films and certainly the one the critics have been most harsh with, almost everyone is giving him a major pass for ambition and effort; how many big budget films in Hollywood would have dared to be as convoluted and daring as this? Is it a success? Who’s to say. It will be measured by the money it makes, by the awards it wins but none of those can compete against the fans who got exactly what they wanted.

But convoluted storylines are harder to place than exacting ones, which helps Nightcrawler and Whiplash and hurts Inherent Vice and Interstellar. It could be argued that both protagonists in these films are lost boys who then must be found. They are boys haunted by memories of women. Interstellar represents the oddly old-fashioned view of love — no sex. While Inherent Vice is one of the few films in 2014’s race to have any sort of sexuality present. That is because Paul Thomas Anderson’s world view includes sex, thank god. It is absent almost every other drama this year.

Wes Anderson has invented his own genre and it is built entirely on auteurism. The Wes Anderson oeuvre has reached its apex with The Grand Budapest Hotel – a delightful, odd romp that could only have come from the mind of Anderson. But as with all auteurs, to love the work it’s important to first to love the auteur — and many do. Just not many Academy members so far. That is neither here nor there. Though this film dwells in the past where finding heroes was much easier.

Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman is the critics darling of the year so far, and it’s no wonder. A perfect movie from start to finish, Michael Keaton’s Birdman is about a lost boy too. A fading actor whose only success that can be measured was his turn as a superhero. He really can’t move forward because he has nowhere to go except back to playing a superhero (he’d rather die) or reproducing a once in a lifetime stunt that goes viral on the internet. It’s a lose-lose. Probably too many film critics (save for dearly departed Roger Ebert) see film’s future as a lose-lose. No one wants to be stuck writing about superhero movies either. In Birdman they see their martyr for the cause, standing up for the roots of drama and organics of filmmaking. Only a few critics were insulted by the portrayal of the film critic. But that one bit in the film will have professionals in Hollywood cheering.

It is bravura filmmaking by an unrewarded director. The funny thing about Birman is that its so-called “gimmick” is the least memorable thing. Sure, the film seemingly shot in one take with the solo drumbeat score is kind of cool, but what you remember about Birdman is Michael Keaton’s face. His face and the dialogue so vividly rendered is equal to the camera work making for one of the most exciting films to watch this year. But Birdman is the antidote to what many industry professionals are lamenting about modern Hollywood. It is the one tiny protest against the wave of change, the dominance of superhero movies that no one can really stand except fanboys and ticket buyers. Many who work in Hollywood as actors or writers or directors did not get in the business to massage the inner 13 year-old of the American psyche, nor dwell in the realm of masked avengers. That has its own whole industry. Birdman is, therefore, a fist waving rallying cry, even if it seems futile.

But the Oscar race, as defined by pundits in 2014 is based on their recent history, which has rewarded films about heroes that took place in the past, a past we can all understand better. 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech. 2009’s The Hurt Locker was the last film to win that took place in present day. That puts The Imitation Game immediately in the winner’s circle. The People’s Choice winner in Toronto, and the most liked on the festival circuit, the film is being rolled out by the Weinstein co. That means it’s most likely one of your top three contenders this year, along with Birdman and the frontrunner, Boyhood.

In keeping with them is The Theory of Everything, about the life of Stephen Hawking, a surefire Best Picture contender and possibly Best Actor winner. In the same genre — Biopics, old-fashioned and British — you have Mr. Turner. Though this film is about a reluctant hero — a mad genius, in fact — whose painting was inexplicably full of light and hope where his personal life and personality was anything but.

If you take Oscar punditry out of the equation and look at the race for Best Picture of 2014 you are looking at three movies: Boyhood, Birdman and Gone Girl. When you factor in Oscar pundits, however, the Oscar race is still down to Boyhood, The Imitation Game (which hasn’t opened yet) and Birdman. Tonight, American Sniper and Selma will screen. They will either alter the dynamic or they won’t. Unbroken is still being held up by many as a potential frontrunner though it hasn’t yet been seen. A Most Violent Year and The Gambler are films that could have benefited from being seen earlier in the race as it takes time for opinions to be shaped. Out of the gate they aren’t going to get the kinds of reviews they need but sometimes films need the public to help shape their narrative. Though the Oscar race is decided behind closed doors long before the public even sees the films, sometimes audiences can make all the difference, as they maybe have with Gone Girl.

We are headed for darker days — the darker they get, the more Academy members seem to dig their heels in and reach for the films that signify the hero, the guy who can still overcome obstacles and succeed, the guy who makes life seem almost worth it.

Finding directors to make those kinds of movies, however, is getting harder. Most of the best of them are more fascinated by what confounds us and torments us, what makes our present day so hard for heroes to bloom and why those heroes can’t move forward but are thwarted, stuck back in some different time, preserved as boys who can’t ever become men.

Predictions

Best Picture

1. Boyhood
2. Birdman
3. The Imitation Game
4. Gone Girl
5. Whiplash
6. The Theory of Everything
7. Mr. Turner
8. Foxcatcher
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel
10. Interstellar

Haven’t been seen:
Selma
American Sniper
Into the Woods
Unbroken

Dark Horses:
A Most Violent Year
The Gambler
Fury

Best Actor
1. Michael Keaton, Birdman
1. Eddie Redmayne, Theory of Everything
1. Benedict Cumberbatch, Imitation Game
4. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
5. Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
6. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
7. Mark Wahlberg, The Gambler
8. Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year
9. Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar

Special mention favorite who won’t be considered: Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice

Unseen: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper, Jack O’Connell, Unbroken, David Oyelowo, Selma

BEST ACTRESS
1. Julianne Moore, Still Alice
2. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
3. Reese Witherspoon, Wild
4. Hilary Swank, The Homesman
5. Felicity Jones, Theory of Everything
6. Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars
7. Anne Dorval, Mommy
8. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle

Unseen: Emily Blunt, Into the Woods

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
1. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
2. Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
3. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
4. Emma Stone, Birdman
5. Laura Dern, Wild
6. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
7. Jessica Chastain, Interstellar
8. Kristen Stewart, Still Alice
9. Jessica Lange, The Gambler

Unseen: those from Into the Woods, Selma, American Sniper

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
1. JK Simmons, Whiplash
2. Ed Norton, Birdman
3. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
4. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
5. Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
6. Tyler Perry, Gone Girl
7. Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
8. John Cusack, Maps to the Stars
9. John Goodman, The Gambler

BEST DIRECTOR
1. Richard Linklater, Boyhood
2. Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
3. David Fincher, Gone Girl
4. Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
5. Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner
6. Morton Tyldum, The Imitation Game
7. Bennet Miller, Foxcatcher
8. James Marsh, Theory of Everything
9. Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
10. Wes Anderson, Grand Budapest Hotel

Unseen: Angelina Jolie, Unbroken, Ava DuVernay, Selma, Clint Eastwood, American Sniper, Rob Marshall, Into the Woods

Special mention favorite who probably won’t be considered: Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice

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Gone Girl’s box office has officially entered phenom status with its take domestically, $145 million and globally, $300 million. Phil Contrino at Box-office.com said it would end up with around $160 domestically but I think it will surge past that.

Big Hero 6, as predicted by Boxoffice.com and Boxofficemojo.com, overtook Interstellar – it was in more theaters and it’s three hours long. But Interstellar ties Gravity’s international opening with $80 million and should surge with global box office as well as domestic. Big Hero 6 is off to a great start as well. Nightcrawler appears to be generating good word of mouth for a tidy box office take.  But to me the real surprise, and it will come as no surprise to you, is Gone Girl. She’s got legs. She knows how to use them…

 

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Jennifer Kent, writer and director of The Babadook, shows the kind of promise not seen in the horror realm for quite some time and rarely by a woman. I would rank her film among the greatest horror movies ever made, from The Exorcist, The Haunting, Carrie, The Shining – this film is that good.

For some reason, The Babadook did not qualify for the Oscars, which is a shame. If the people in our business of covering film paid any attention to her whatsoever, the way they have ushered in her male counterparts, like Guillermo Del Toro for instance, she’d be much more well known than she is. Lucky for you, you’re about to find out about her now.

Kent’s long history of acting is probably why her horror film, like all of the best horror films, starts with character building and focuses heavily on the lead actress, giving her an array of emotions and directions. The lead performance in The Babadook, Essie Davis, is the performance of the year. It is not eligible for the Oscars but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is, quite simply and without any shred of doubt, the best performance by anyone, male or female.

Kent’s visionary, unpredictable work in this film would launch her immediately into the Best Directors race, though to be perfectly honest if Gone Girl and Birdman are “too much” for the Academy, The Babadook would shrivel their toes and turn their hair gray instantly. They would flee from the theaters and would have to then spend their remaining days trying to speak a simple sentence.

It’s a shame that the Academy has become so soft, yet soft they remain. And we can’t lay blame on the Academy, since the entire industry matches in their choices of the year’s best. We know what kinds of movies those are and The Babadook ain’t one of them.

Kent talks to Film Comment about her style:

There are a lot of references to old films, especially to Georges Méliès. He was a magician, and magic is a huge part of the film. He’s referenced many times, and the effects themselves are very simple illusions.

I’m a big lover of Méliès, and what he did for early cinema was incredible. I think that over the years we’ve lost that simple in-camera connection. I really wanted everything to be in front of the camera with very little post-production work done on it. I wanted to give the film a different feeling without resorting quickly to CGI. The energy of his films is very childlike and simple, yet a lot of his stuff is quite sinister by default, so that was very inspiring for The Babadook.

In many horror movies now, you see a lot of docudrama-style camera work. You chose a more still, yet very fluid, style.

I could never see this world in a contemporary way. To have a lot of loose movement simply didn’t suit me, nor did it match the psychological energy of that character. I’ve created a world in which there isn’t a resemblance to a lot of horror at the moment, which is good.

It’s refreshing. You wear your influences proudly, and that’s something a lot of filmmakers can be self-conscious about.

It can be a challenge to be inspired, and to let those inspirations show while owning the film. I felt very confident with the story, and I knew how I wanted to tell the story visually. It’s certainly an interpretation of those influences. I had a wonderful Polish director of photography, Radoslaw Ladcsuk, and we found our own language together. We created something unique to that world.

Take a look at Kent’s short film – and if you can stand it, try to watch The Babadook, one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Direct-TV.

Here’s the short Monster, which is a precurser to The Babadook:

Kent was immediately pounced on by several agencies and has signed with WME.

A Most Violent Year2

One thing that threads throughout JC Chandor’s work, with three films under his belt now, is that he devotes his time to organic filmmaking, the way movies used to be made and sometimes still are in the independent world. He has somehow bypassed the tsunami of showmanship or style over storytelling and takes his cues not from Tarantino and Cronenberg and Lynch but rather from Lumet and Cimino and Pakula. A Most Violent Year feels straight out of the time during which it takes place, the early 80s, and that makes it a bit of a salve for weary film critics who remember the days when movies were really movies and not the endless exploration into the boundaries of visual effects.

Visual effects are cool and all, but there’s something to be said for the need for storytelling – it is a vital human requirement, in fact, so that we can shape our past, present and future without always giving way to fantasy. Some of us go to the movies to be carried away to a different place but some of us go for somber reflection on who we are, what we’ve been through and what we fight for.

A Most Violent Year is about a man holding his business together when it is being threatened by competing thieves. Honestly, it isn’t the most exciting plot – but it isn’t so much the plot that matters. It’s the way Chandor slowly unravels the story, much the way he did in Margin Call, building scene upon scene until it all finally comes together at the end without giving any satisfyingly easy answers.

It is moody, quiet and contemplative, sometimes just letting the sound of breathing fill the frame. There’s a deep sadness to it, as though the main characters really don’t have much to hold onto at all because what they’re holding onto is slipping through their fingers. If Wolf of Wall Street was a story about success, A Most Violent Year is a story about success seeping out of its container. It doesn’t quite become a story of failure but these are not winners here. These are survivors doing what they have to do.

Naturally stealing the show is Jessica Chastain who indeed competes against herself, and frontrunner Patricia Arquette, for Best Supporting Actress. She’s ferocious in A Most Violent Year and that ferociousness becomes a bit of a problem for the film. One yearns to have the story be more about her – but once again, she is supporting. She’s great and no male writer out there is going to point this out because we’ve become accustomed and comfortable with great supporting turns by Chastain but isn’t it time she demanded and commanded more screen time? I think it is. But I’m not the one making movies and making decisions about those movies.

That doesn’t detract necessarily from the film overall, and no one reading this now is even going to notice because Chastain makes the most of her screen time. She is an actress who always makes a decision about where she is in a given scene, who she is and what her objective is. She is far more accomplished and talented than the younger women in the business for whom whole films are built around because they bring in the box office. Chastain isn’t quite there – she isn’t that tweener box office draw or the “it” girl. But she’ll be where Meryl Streep is one day. She will bring people to the movies just to see her in a film.

The versatile and talented Oscar Isaac holds the movie down with his singular performance. It is the polar opposite of his Llewyn Davis – you might not even recognize him as the same actor if you didn’t already know. The supporting cast are fine as well, including Albert Brooks in an understated cameo.

Chandor is such an unpredictable artist – when given the opportunity to write and direct he always takes us somewhere new and he does with deliberation and thoughtfulness. I always feel as though I’m in good hands with him because I know he knows where he’s headed. A Most Violent Year is, as all critics are deeming it, a “slow burn.” It falls in line, in that regard, with Foxcatcher, which is another slow burn of a film. Foxcatcher, though, leaves you with a chill at the end. A Most Violent Year leaves you with melancholy, the same kind of melancholy we’re all feeling a bit as our middle class collapses around us.

I think it’s too early to declare A Most Violent Year’s Oscar prospects, though I expect it will be among the best reviewed films of the year. I think Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress are most assured. Best Actor would be too except for Oscar Isaac is entering the most competitive category at the Oscars – which makes it a tough road.

Depending on what directors think, Chandor could be looking at a Best Director nod as well. We’ll have to wait and see how the film settles with critics awards and early precursors. For now, it goes on the list.

ebertcb2

By now, with 134 entries for Foreign Language feature, it’s time for the Academy to acknowledge that documentary filmmakers are making an abundance of vital, important films right now. Five slots for Documentary Feature is simply nowhere near enough to honor the groundswell of non-fiction filmmaking. Since mainstream Hollywood seems more inclined towards fantasy, we need documentaries now more than ever. The Documentary category looks the way the feature film category SHOULD look and yet one allows for more than five and the other doesn’t.

Films directed by women are far more common in the documentary field, which would help greatly increase gender equality within the Oscars without breaking a sweat. But five does not adequately reward what is happening in the industry, the country and the world.

Sure, to have ten slightly diminishes how special the usual five are but let’s face it. So much has changed that the more popular documentaries get in while the most important, culture-altering ones do not. Blackfish has caused Sea World to scramble towards ending their barbaric (emphasis mine) practice of capturing and breeding Orcas in captivity yet Blackfish was shut out of the Oscar race. By anyone’s definition that film should have been included. It is the one category that should not come down to publicity, publicists and money and yet every year we see that dynamic play out.

How in the world are voters going to plow through 134 documentaries to pick only five? They never will. They’ll cherry pick the ones they’re either interested in or they’ve heard buzz about. The end result is always predictable and almost always disappointing.

While we’re at it, maybe the Academy ought to consider expanding the directing category from five to ten, since they now have more than five Best Picture nominees. It makes no sense to have five for director and not five for picture. They should expand both to an even ten and forget this herding cats version of choosing between 5 and 10.

If I had things my way I would divide the directing category by sex, the way the acting categories have done. Best Male Director and Best Female Director. That would mean several significant changes. The first, voters could no longer ignore the work of women but would have to acknowledge it to fill five categories. Second, it would help to motivate studios to hire more women to direct their Big Oscar Movies. This would be one of the coolest things anyone has ever done and yet I know it would never happen, the main reason being no one wants to admit that when it comes to filmmaking, there are the trusted directors (men) and the untrustworthy directors (women). This would be blatant affirmative action, in which I am a great believer. Affirmative action exists to provide opportunities to a group that has been systematically shut out, which women clearly have been in Hollywood, particularly Hollywood in 2014.

Imagine if voters had the freedom to choose five women and five men for director this year. Imagine how that would change things – how it would obliterate an ongoing problem. Since we’re splitting Picture and Director anyway, why not open things up for women?

Just a thought.

Neither of these things are likely to happen. The Oscars like things how they are. Very little has changed in the 16 years I’ve been covering them.

What do you think, readers? Good idea or bad idea?

The submitted features, listed in alphabetical order, are:

“Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq”
“Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case”
“Algorithms”
“Alive Inside”
“All You Need Is Love”
“Altina”
“America: Imagine the World without Her”
“American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs”
“Anita”
“Antarctica: A Year on Ice”
“Art and Craft”
“Awake: The Life of Yogananda”
“The Barefoot Artist”
“The Battered Bastards of Baseball”
“Before You Know It”
“Bitter Honey”
“Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity”
“Botso The Teacher from Tbilisi”
“Captivated The Trials of Pamela Smart”
“The Case against 8”
“Cesar’s Last Fast”
“Citizen Koch”
“CitizenFour”
“Code Black”
“Concerning Violence”
“The Culture High”
“Cyber-Seniors”
“DamNation”
“Dancing in Jaffa”
“Death Metal Angola”
“The Decent One”
“Dinosaur 13”
“Do You Know What My Name Is?”
“Documented”
“The Dog”
“E-Team”
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me”
“Elena”
“Evolution of a Criminal”
“Fed Up”
“Finding Fela”
“Finding Vivian Maier”
“Food Chains”
“The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden”
“Getting to the Nutcracker”
“Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me”
“Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia”
“The Great Flood”
“The Great Invisible”
“The Green Prince”
“The Hacker Wars”
“The Hadza: Last of the First”
“Hanna Ranch”
“Happy Valley”
“The Hornet’s Nest”
“I Am Ali”
“If You Build It”
“The Immortalists”
“The Internet’s Own Boy”
“Ivory Tower”
“James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge”
“Jodorowsky’s Dune”
“Journey of a Female Comic”
“Keep On Keepin’ On”
“Kids for Cash”
“The Kill Team”
“Korengal”
“La Bare”
“Last Days in Vietnam”
“Last Hijack”
“The Last Patrol”
“Levitated Mass”
“Life Itself”
“Little White Lie”
“Llyn Foulkes One Man Band”
“Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles”
“Manakamana”
“Merchants of Doubt”
“Mission Blue”
“Mistaken for Strangers”
“Mitt”
“Monk with a Camera”
“Nas: Time Is Illmatic”
“National Gallery”
“Next Goal Wins”
“Next Year Jerusalem”
“Night Will Fall”
“No Cameras Allowed”
“Now: In the Wings on a World Stage”
“Occupy the Farm”
“The Only Real Game”
“The Overnighters”
“Particle Fever”
“Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes”
“Pelican Dreams”
“The Pleasures of Being Out of Step”
“Plot for Peace”
“Point and Shoot”
“Poverty Inc.”
“Print the Legend”
“Private Violence”
“Pump”
“Rabindranath Tagore – The Poet of Eternity”
“Red Army”
“Remote Area Medical”
“Rich Hill”
“The Rule”
“The Salt of the Earth”
“Shadows from My Past”
“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry”
“A Small Section of the World”
“Smiling through the Apocalypse – Esquire in the 60s”
“Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon”
“The Supreme Price”
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper”
“Tanzania: A Journey Within”
“This Is Not a Ball”
“Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence”
“Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People”
“True Son”
“20,000 Days on Earth”
“Unclaimed”
“Under the Electric Sky”
“Underwater Dreams”
“Virunga”
“Waiting for August”
“Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago”
“Warsaw Uprising”
“Watchers of the Sky”
“Watermark”
“We Are the Giant”
“We Could Be King”
“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”
“A World Not Ours”

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boyhood11f-5-web

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”

The films that will define Oscar’s Best Picture race will be each member’s five selections for “the highest achievements in film” for 2014. It will be a list made up of a collection of agreed upon films that starts in a few weeks with the critics, runs through the Hollywood Foreign press, then gets filtered through the large industry guilds before finally settling with Academy members.

Christopher Nolan. Darren Aronofsky. David Fincher. Alejandro González Iñárritu. British film about a British hero who overcomes personal torment and helps end the war. Backed by the Weinstein Co. Two films directed by women possibly landing Best Picture nominations? A Birdman instead of a Black Swan. Is it 2010 all over again?

2010 was a battle of three films, really, much like this year, but the opinions of critics and industry voters were sharply divided. The critics went unanimously in ways they never had and never have since for The Social Network while the industry went unanimously for The King’s Speech. They couldn’t have been more opposite films – The Social Network wholly American by one of the country’s best and as yet unrewarded directors, David Fincher, about a self-made millionaire; and a film about a monarch with inherited wealth, British up one side and down the other, a film that could have been made in any decade.

The spoiler was Black Swan, and possibly Inception, both of which likely split the non-King’s Speech vote. But Black Swan, like Birdman, was a show about performers and their delusions, their vanity, their deepest fears – there is even a two-girl love scene in Black Swan, and a two-girl kiss in Birdman.

Interstellar might get into the Best Picture race as the biggest money maker but this time, the David Fincher film is going to own the box office as well. Moneywise, it is going to wipe up the floor with most every other Oscar contender vying for Best Picture, much like the King’s Speech did in 2010. It will even top the King’s Speech, as well as Argo and the Departed.

David Fincher risked much to hire Gillian Flynn to adapt her own novel. No woman has ever been nominated for an Oscar who adapted her own novel. Only Lillian Hellman yawning all the way back to 1941 was nominated for adapting her own play. They took a chance, the movie is a massive hit, with a 90 rating by audience members at Rotten Tomatoes. A film that has inspired lengthy, passionate essays by Maureen Dowd and David Bordwell. It is the most talked about films of 2014. But the one thing Gone Girl isn’t? An “Oscar movie.”

You see, to win Best Picture or to even get nominated, you have to fit into the tiny suitcase that fits into the tiny dollhouse of the sensibilities of this particular demographic. Think: 1930s. Think: Nazis. Think: puffy stuffed animals crowding out the monsters at night.

The two films up for Best Picture again this year, with Birdman being the potential spoiler, also pit an American story by an American director up against a British film by a British director. Boyhood, like The Social Network, has the critics admiration with a near record-breaking score of 100 at Metacritic. The Imitation Game, like The King’s Speech, has a kind of Masterpiece Theater quality that appeals to the old’uns and young’uns alike. Even the two publicity teams behind each movie are the same. Pins and needles.

The Oscar race for Best Picture may come down to three for the win: Boyhood, The Imitation Game and Birdman. As of now, these are the top three predicted by the Gurus of Gold and Gold Derby. Going back as far as I have been recording them, the top three predicted at this time of year has always yielded the winner. But Fandango’s Dave Karger has Unbroken winning. So does Tom O’Neil at Gold Derby. No one has yet seen Unbroken but to them it has a better chance that the three that are standing right in front of them.

Boyhood is too … IFC? The Imitation Game is too … Masterpiece Theater? Birdman is too … obnoxious?

Dave Karger, Kris Tapley, Scott Feinberg and Thelma Adams are all predicting no Best Picture nomination for Gone Girl, which is the only film in the entire race — in the ENTIRE RACE – written or co-written by a woman. It is also the only film singularly about a woman, a gone girl. Voters don’t like it, they say. Voters will like Unbroken and American Sniper better, they say. What perplexes me is that Gone Girl is going to hit $150 million, is directed by one of the most respected and revered directors in Hollywood. It stars one of the most popular actors. And yet — it is not Oscar-y enough, apparently. Only if the other unseen films fail, so the narrative goes, will these pundits predict this film.

Back in 2010, Dave Karger took a lot of heat from people like Jeff Wells and myself for sticking with The King’s Speech when there was such enormous support for the Social Network. “They” didn’t “like” the Fincher film, the echoing narrative went. It was still nominated for Best Picture, however. It’s funny to see the same people siding against the darker Fincher film, and the same people advocating for it (raises hand) and probably the same little birds whispering to their favorite pundits these talking points.

But Gone Girl, Birdman and even Boyhood – the films about right here, right now – are important narratives that look at how American life has changed so dramatically. In 2010, The Social Network was about how the internet was going to shape culture. These films are by artists reacting to those changes. They are prescient, relevant, exciting works by some of the best directors working today.

Gone Girl bravely looks at what our society is becoming. It joins several of the year’s best films that also meditate on our present day and the ways we’re selling ourselves out on the cheap – the way we are cocooned in swaths of narcissism, sacrificing all good things for the chance to be famous for five minutes.

2010 did not have a Boyhood, a film that is trying its best to stay quiet amid premature awards adulation but is earning slow and steady word of mouth. Just last night at dinner the four-top next to us exploded with talk of Boyhood. “Have you SEEN Boyhood?” A man of about 70 asked his fellow diners before leaning in and breathlessly explaining what watching Boyhood is like.

Boyhood also has the distinction of being a film that isn’t dark and twisty but also isn’t British traditional. It’s something new by a dedicated filmmaker who somehow held this whole thing aloft for 12 years.

Boyhood and The Imitation Game are both standing in the dark closet at the party, hoping people don’t notice that they’re not mingling among the guests. They are both waiting until the moment is right and hoping that word of mouth keeps them relevant but they aren’t toppled by hype, as so many films released in the later part of the year do. Though the films are slightly different, the Oscar power teams behind the two films are the same teams behind The Social Network vs. The King’s Speech. What most people don’t know is that Best Picture is often placed in the careful hands of a very select group of people who handle awards. Funnily enough, Fox Searchlight is the third film in the Oscar race so far with Birdman and in 2010 they had Black Swan.

With Intestellar, the Nolans go Inception one bigger. Though it isn’t going to be accepted by the general consensus, one can’t help but noticed the urgency in a film like Interstellar, nor in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Someday people will look back on 2014 and take note of the filmmakers who were paying attention to what was really going on in our world, whether their films were Oscar favorites or not.

The biggest difference between then and now, a difference that allowed Toy Story 3, The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone and Inception all to get nominated was that voters had ten slots for Best Picture. They were free to do crazy things like nominate an animated film for Best Picture and films directed by women and a sci-fi epic. Now things have gone back to five slots and that is going to make all of the difference. Because with five you’re headed deep into “their” kind of movie and far, far away from the films that really define the year.

You see, we can take pills that make us feel happy as our climate is working hard to shrug us off this planet. We can pretend that when we buy cheap stuff at Walmart that we aren’t helping to eradicate what this country was founded upon. We can distract ourselves with stories about missing pregnant women and their villain husbands or Kim Kardashian’s giant, comical boobs and ass or Renee Zellweger’s face while there have been 87 school shootings since the Newtown massacre. The Oscar race continues to exist in a floating orb of manufactured happiness and redemption.

Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher has been exiled to the same island as Gone Girl by the gun-shy pundits who think the Academy and industry voters don’t have the grit to go that dark. We know our middle class is being slowly snuffed out by the ballooning wealth of the 1%, which pulses through Foxcatcher and Gone Girl. These gun-shy pundits have profiled the Academy, talked to members – some of them invested publicists and some of them retirees with way too much time on their hands. The results are – the reflexive need to numb out through uplifting stories that mirror back our better selves.

Voters are going to snuggle up to what’s safe and familiar, much like they did in 2010, when they see The King’s Speech’s smarter cousin, The Imitation Game, emerge in the race. Same bat time, same bat channel.

Pundits amiably co along with it, a co-dependent relationship that keeps the Oscar race stagnated. But to my colleagues the only thing that matters is being the rightest. The critics bend towards Oscar by choosing the select films that “have a chance” to win, even the National Society of Film Critics picked Inside Llewyn Davis once word got out that the film was being shut out by the industry. They didn’t “like” it enough.

We never learn from our mistakes because there is no one keeping score of who’s right and who’s wrong. Like the self-appointed film critics populating Rotten Tomatoes who stumbled onto the internet one day and fancied themselves experts, so do we pundits pretend that what we do isn’t damaging to the film community. When we anticipate a film like Interstellar will be a top contending Best Picture contender without anyone having seen it we set it up for near impossible expectations. We should see the movie and then conclude “what voters will do.” But we don’t and we get away with it because no one would ever take Oscar watching seriously enough to care.

Even I have not learned from 2010. I should have been smacked down and taught the important lesson that the Oscar race is not about great films that define our right here, right now but about films that make us feel good about ourselves. I should have learned and yet here I am, passionately advocating for a Fincher film that the top pundits have deemed not good enough for “them.”

The only way to face down this middling consensus year after year is to lay there and pretend to like it, make the voters feel as though they are part of something bigger than the People’s Choice awards. Tell them how great they are and what big dicks they have. And when the time is right, fake it. Isn’t it romantic?

So pundits who are downgrading Gone Girl and Foxcatcher are doing it to make room for Unbroken and American Sniper, positioning those films for yet more high expectations action so that anyone who goes in to watch those movies are going to be looking, not for a great cinematic experience but a film that might please 6,000 upper-class industry professionals and/or retirees whose contact with the real world and the multiplex is limited to the occasional uptown screening (for free). Most films can’t pass muster when those expectations are that high. Rinse, repeat.

One thing remains constant year after year: there is nothing pretty about the Oscar race, except the way the movie stars twinkle against the blood red carpet that unfurls in front of the Dolby Theater, those shimmering jewels, those chiffon waves of fabric, all of that piled up hair to help perpetuate the romantic illusion of that Hollywood is still Hollywood. It’s all for the cameras, even the cluster of fans packed on the bleachers hoping for a sweaty handshake. By the time the show starts all of the marketing executives, Oscar strategists and pundits start calculating the results.

Important dates coming up:

New York Film Critics (Dec. 1)

National Board of Review (Dec. 2)

AFI’s Top Ten films of the year (Dec. 8)

SAG nominations (Dec. 10)

Golden Globe nominations (Dec. 11)

Current Predictions For Best Picture

Best Picture
Boyhood

The Imitation Game

Birdman
Gone Girl

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Mr. Turner

Foxcatcher

Interstellar


Films that haven’t yet been seen that could overtake:
Unbroken
American Sniper

A Most Violent Year

Selma

The Gambler

Dark Horse contenders hovering in the background

The Homesman

Wild

The Good Lie

Best Director

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman

Morton Tylden, The Imitation Game

David Fincher, Gone Girl

Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

Directors who have not been seen who may impact the race:
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken

Ava DuVernay, Selma

J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year

Clint Eastwood, American Sniper

Darkhorse contenders:

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Christopher Nolan, Interstellar

Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman

David Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars

Xavier Dolan, Mommy

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Original Screenplay
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
Alejandro Inarritu et al, Birdman
E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner

Adapted Screenplay
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl 
Nick Hornby, Wild
Anthony McCarten, The Thoery of Everything
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, The Homesman

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Hilary Swank, The Homesman
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Supporting Actor
JK Simmons, Whiplash
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Tyler Perry, Gone Girl

Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Laura Dern Wild
Jessica Chastain, Interstellar

Cannes 2014: Mr Turner

Mike Leigh’s swoony, moody epic, Mr. Turner, seems to be quietly residing under the radar right now. But in a quick conversation with Movie City News’ David Poland he pointed out that it’s possible the film could be one of the sleeper success stories in this year’s Oscar race, and I have to agree with that assessment. Just because the pundits aren’t talking about it, or it isn’t on many lists, that doesn’t mean it isn’t “in their wheelhouse,” as they say.

The first thing to know is that J. M. W. Turner is Britain’s most famous painter. The newly morphing BAFTOscars will very likely remember this and that might mean a BAFTA frontrunner. As the last remaining films are screened (Unbroken will screen on November 30) they may or may not make the cut. But, as always, it’s best to go with what you know versus what you don’t know.

To that end, I’ve decided to follow in Anne Thompson’s footsteps and only predict films that either I’ve seen or have been widely seen and agreed upon. I’m doing it as an experiment to see how the chips fall by year’s end. I think it’s important to view the Oscar race this way, first because it lessens the pressure on films coming up, lowering expectations, and second because it does not give short shrift to the known successes.

What sight unseen predictions can do is provide much publicity for the upcoming productions, giving them Oscar buzz that hasn’t yet formed into an embryo. That’s great for these films, especially the ones that are racing against the clock to get into the race. But there are ways of writing about them and keeping them on lists without actually predicting them for certain categories. I think it’s a crap shoot, really, with no “there” there but after 16 years of this I’m always interested in ways that might shake up the race a little.

If I had an aggregate site like Gold Derby or Movie City News I might think of separating myself out by only predicting films that have been seen, just to see, by year’s end, who ends up being more accurate. But most other Oscar sites are into the “hope springs eternal” form of Oscar predicting and usually glom onto that which has not yet been seen.

Either way, as the movies open and enter the race, they can succeed or fail. If they fail, that opens the door for films people already knew were good enough to be remembered. That could potentially mean good things for Mr. Turner, a Cannes favorite, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, one of the year’s earlier hits.

Most of the time, the some of the year’s Best Picture nominees do come from earlier in the year — sleeper films that pundits already whip through but that the Academy maybe didn’t get to see. We forget about them while the Academy voters see them for the first time. With a few notable exceptions, this seems to always be the case.

Might 2014 be the year everything changes? It might be. We can’t yet know.

Mr. Turner has very good reviews already and if that continues it could end the year as one of the biggest money makers. Full of notable British actors, with sumptuous cinematography, art direction and costumes — it seems to be one that should be regarded in higher esteem at this point in the race.

While The Grand Budapest Hotel is a Wes Anderson movie, and the Academy isn’t Wes Anderson friendly, at least where Picture and Director are concerned, one thing it has in spades is a large ensemble cast, like Mr. Turner does. The Academy is ruled by actors — their branch numbering over double any of the second largest branches. That means they’re likely to lean towards films that give actors their due. That favors Birdman and Boyhood, also Gone Girl, Whiplash, Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, but it also favors Mr. Turner and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Either way, something to think about on this Saturday.

Best-Director.png

Best-Director.png

“I feel like people are always talking about the business and how hard it is. But, [David] Fincher’s got a terrific movie. Alejandro’s got this movie. Wes [Anderson] has made one of his best movies ever. Richard Linklater made another great movie. Paul Thomas Anderson has made another great movie. Bennett Miller’s movie is incredible. Do you know what I mean? I mean like, c’mon. You can’t get cynical. I’ve been going to the New York Film Festival. Noah Baumbach’s got his movie. I’ve been going to the New York Film Festival every other night because there are so many. The Dardenne Brothers movie… what more do you want? How many good movies do you expect there to be?” Edward Norton talking to Indiewire

Some directors last. Some don’t. Some make you remember their names because each time they hold you in their capable hands in the quiet, dark calm of the movie theater they change you. The good ones do anyway. The best ones put their hands all over you, challenge your sensibilities, perplex you in unexpected ways. Not giving you what you want is often the best way to make a film. Because we judge movies by consensus on Twitter now and with various think pieces and/or social justice Tumblrs we often forget that art is not there to complete you.

The standout directors this year represent varying potential roads for the industry and Oscar voters. The Oscars put the period on the end of the sentence, claiming the right here, right now film to signify what captured their hearts and the zeitgeist to become worthy of being called one of the year’s best.

Throughout most of Oscar history, we’ve treated Best Picture and Best Director as conjoined twins. Splitting them was a rarity. The best picture was always credited to the director. In the silly awards community, this is somewhat “controversial.” I’m one of those who firmly believes that if it’s the year’s best picture the director should be the one who gets the credit. This is so with animated feature, documentary feature and the shorts. The director takes the credit. The only time they don’t is with the year’s top prize, where the producers take the credit.

The director is often awarded as a compliment to the year’s top film. Except when it isn’t. Though it’s rare, we’ve seen picture/director splits for the past two years. In 2012 the DGA announced after Oscar ballots were turned in. The consensus either had not yet congealed or the Academy’s choices for Best Director did not agree with that consensus. Either way, the two presumed “locks,” Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow, were not included on the list. Ironically, both films dealt with politics in the middle east. One comedically where Americans emerged the heroes. One more ambiguously, where Americans emerged victorious but lost. The combination of the likable alternative to the darker version of America, a popular actor who made good getting a perceived “snub” set the stage for a dramatic win for Argo, even without a Best Director nomination.

Once that extraordinary event happened, it seemed to represent an amicable “divorce” between Picture and Director. It suddenly seem fair game to judge picture and director differently, and/or to provide a simpler way to reward BOTH beloved films. In 2012’s case, Ang Lee became the default winner, topping the consensus favorite Steven Spielberg. Had Spielberg won, he would have joined an elite group of directors who won three Best Directing Oscars. Only three in all of their 87 year history have done it: John Ford, with 4, and William Wyler and Frank Capra with 3. Now, Ang Lee has won 2 directing Oscars (Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi) without his films winning Best Picture, another rarity shared only by George Stevens, who never won director the same year his film won picture (A Place in the Sun and Giant).

All the same, 2012 was not your usual split because the Best Picture frontrunner did not have a Best Director option. A true split happens when both are nominated and voters decide to split the vote. In Argo’s case they were going to choose it for Best Picture no matter what.

Last year, however, a more traditional split occurred, again breaking a historical record for “two splits in a row” and this time voters intentionally did it. Alfonso Cuaron would win for Gravity (which would then win the night’s most Oscars, seven in all) and 12 Years a Slave would squeak by with Picture, Screenplay and Supporting Actress. This same scenario played out in 1967 when voters settled on a split between In the Heat of the Night and The Graduate. But this split vote was traditional in the sense that the Best Picture winner won the night’s most Oscars, while The Graduate won a single Oscar: Best Director. While it happens that sometimes a film can win only one award for Best Picture and nothing else, it’s rare for a two-film race to give most of the Oscars to the film that wins Best Director but not Best Picture. Such was the case with Cabaret and The Godfather, and even 2012’s Argo and Life of Pi. It happens. It’s just not common.

The Academy’s small branch of 400 or so directors do seem to have their preferences when it comes to choosing great directors. For instance, they nominated Tom Hooper for the King’s Speech but have never nominated Christopher Nolan. The DGA nominated him three times — once for Memento, again for the Dark Knight and again for Inception. But the Academy? He’s been nominated twice for screenplay and once for producing Inception, which barely made it in with a Best Picture nomination on a ten nominee ballot in 2010.

While the DGA loves their success stories, the Academy tends to be more peculiar when it comes to choosing best. Generally, they fall in line with the DGA but lately they haven’t been. They chose Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin over Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck in 2012. Last year, Paul Greengrass got into the DGA but Alexander Payne was the Oscar branch’s choice.

Like Alfonso Cuaron last year with Gravity, and Ang Lee with Life of Pi, Interstellar fits nicely into what movies are likely to look like in the future: auteurs bringing that sensibility to effects movies, which aren’t traditionally the Academy’s favorite thing. The one thing these films all have in common, of course, is that they are both emotion driven and actor driven. That makes them acceptable to the Academy in ways that films like Avatar wasn’t.

But. Still. We’re talking about a version of Hollywood’s future that the actor-driven Academy might not be willing to give themselves over to. Some of them will make the jump easily — the composers, production designers, sound, animators, editors — while others aren’t going to go in so easily. For instance, last year’s win for Gravity for Director and Avatar’s massive popularity proved that writing isn’t the most important thing anymore. Visual effects can sometimes trump story. Also, fewer actors were needed to tell these stories. Again, visual effects trumped even the actors.

Many of the more traditional old-guard directors also might not be willing or even interested in throwing themselves into the effects-driven movies that are going to soon dominate the studios and multiplexes. Some of them don’t even like 3D yet. Making the leap to digital is one thing. Altering the art of storytelling, of the very fiber of filmmaking as we’ve known it for decades, is something else.

Therefore, we have once again two worlds converging on the Oscar race. Hollywood in the future and the grass roots traditionalism of what we used to call movies.

David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman scratch the skin layer off the ways we have deceived ourselves in modern life by buying into illusions. Gone Girl is about avatar living, knowing that there is always a better you waiting online, an image you can carefully cultivate to advertise your happy life. Fincher and Flynn have scissored the pages of the book and pasted it back together as almost a satire of its source, removing what so many fans of the book turned to for some sanity. Fincher has hollowed out Amazing Amy but brought to life the monster. This subtle but significant adaptation has unearthed a lean, surreal masterpiece that it is not easily run through the Big Mac-o-meter for quick and easy understanding.

When the lights come up, Gone Girl demands you dig deeper to think about what you just saw without ever telling you exactly what you should be feeling. The chill it leaves you with takes time to shake off — but once you do, and if you go back and watch it again, a completely different movie emerges. Now you know where it’s headed, so watching the knot untangle backwards is an experience unmatched by any other film this year.

Fincher brings to this year’s Oscar race a career full of unpredictable turns, with critics not knowing exactly how to define his work. They want to say Gone Girl isn’t Se7en or Fight Club until they remember that those films were head-scratchers when they came out but over time resonate more brightly than they ever did. They want to say Gone Girl isn’t Zodiac, nor the one film they all could agree on as perfection, The Social Network. What they aren’t comfortable concluding yet is that he doesn’t do what Tarantino does — make essentially the same type of film that pulls the same types of ingredients from the bag. He doesn’t have a “return to mob” movies like Scorsese, or a “return to sappy sci-fi” like Spielberg. At best, they can conclude he is most interested in making his viewers uncomfortable, the one unifying theme of all Fincher’s films.

Gone Girl could be called a “departure” for Fincher — certainly it’s made money faster than any of his previous works and is on track to be highest earner — but the one thing it has that’s similar to his other films is that extraordinary eye for framing and that gift of insight that always looks for the alternative take, the unexpected reaction, resulting in a viewing experience where you have absolutely no idea what’s coming next and you can’t easily read the people you’re watching on screen.

Also departing from his usual oeuvre is Alejandro G. Inarritu, whose Birdman is filmed and edited to look like one long take. There are roughly 40 cuts, according to Kris Tapley, but they are seamless. With a drumbeat score and a rapid-fire script, Inarittu owes a debt to Chivo (his and Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar winning cinematographer on Gravity) who captures the entirety of Birdman with what appears to be a handheld camera. Watching Birdman is a dizzying, electrifying experience, and unlike anything we’ve really seen from Inarritu.

Birdman, like Gone Girl is virtuoso directing by an artist at the top of his game, and another film in the race that slyly comments on the right here, right now of 2014. The question of relevance, and more importantly, how fame now can mean simply being filmed running through Times Square in your underwear and cheap stunts that go viral than offering up anything of substance to the gaping collective that waits, saliva dripping, for the next humiliation.

Both Fincher and Inarritu are are directors at the top of their game, working with masters of the craft from music to writing to acting to cinematography and editing. These are the type of films that Best Picture contenders are usually made from — a collaboration of various expert arms of the film industry.

The frontrunner in the category is Richard Linklater who has, as a writer and director, taken on a 12-year project with Boyhood. While Boyhood is not so much a departure for Linklater, it’s the realization of an entire career. It takes elements from so many of his films, and is complete with his soul brother and muse, Ethan Hawke, and is a rumination of life. Linklater is a writer and director who has not stopped asking questions, or wondering about the precious time we have in our too short lives. Boyhood is the only film that really captures that breathtaking speed of time passing before your eyes. To return again and again to the story, which feels like it was filmed in a couple of months.

Other films that are fictional accounts include Wes Anderson’s crazy/magical The Grand Budapest Hotel and the upcoming Into the Woods, and Interstellar. Wes Anderson, like Linklater, has yet to be embraced by the Academy, despite a growing and already impressive canon. The Grand Budapest Hotel defied expectations and made a good deal of money, surprising given its early release date. Gorgeous art direction, costumes, cinematography — this is a film that hails wholly from Anderson’s own imagination, much like Interstellar, where we will once again have the chance to deep dive into Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s abstract storytelling set amid state of the art special effects.

Interstellar screens tonight but I won’t see it until tomorrow. Already it’s earning buzz and raves by those who have seen it, though the critics and voters haven’t yet gotten a crack at it. It’s sure to be the year’s highest grossing film, or close. It will have to beat Guardians of the Galaxy but if it does, it will do it without pre-branding, no easy feat these days.

The rest of the Best Picture race is made up of true stories, or bending the truth slightly stories. Most of those upcoming are of heroes — like Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Or films based on true events, like A Most Violent Year.

Bennett Miller heads for a nomination threepeat with Foxcatcher, possibly his third Best Picture nomination for the third film he ever made. Foxcatcher is one of two films based on a famous but heroic figure. Miller takes the story in a slightly different direction in that it’s easy to see what American has become through the lens of this film — the poor get screwed and the rich get away with it.

Miller’s own legacy is two great films, Capote and Moneyball. Foxcatcher makes three. It is being downgraded for Best Picture right now because pundits deem it “too dark” to make it in. The relatively unknown James Marsh (Theory of Everything), the Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year and Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle are the new kids on the block. Either all of them will get in, pushing the vets out the door, or they won’t. It’s tough to gauge right now.

One funny thing about this year is that pundits seem convinced that the Academy “is cool” on David Fincher when he’s been nominated twice already, and at the same time they have Christopher Nolan as a lock for Interstellar when he’s never been nominated. While I agree that, sight unseen, Nolan seems like a lock for the category, it would be a break from tradition if they went for it, which they probably will. You never hear pundits talk about their “Nolan problem,” though. Either they aren’t interested or they aren’t paying attention.

Even with Nolan’s collection of box office hits, only Inception has cracked the Best Picture lineup and it did it with ten nomination slots, not nine. Voters now have only five slots. They will pick their five favorites of the year. Right now, we have no idea what those will be because of so many late breaking movies that many of us have not seen. Still, money has a way of deciding things, at least where Best Picture is concerned. But it matters for Best Director now, too, after the past two years have given Best Director to an effects driven blockbuster.

Here is how Best Picture breaks down over ten years, from cost to domestic take. Split vote years are bolded.

2013 – 12 Years a Slave – cost $20 million/Domestic take $56 million

2012 – Argo – cost $44 million | Domestic take $136 million


2011 – The Artist – cost $15 million | Domestic take $44 million

2010 – The King’s Speech – cost $15 million | Domestic take $135 million

2009 – The Hurt Locker – cost $15 million | Domestic take $17 million

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire – cost $15 million | Domestic take $141 million

2007 – No Country for Old Men – cost $25 million | Domestic take $74 million

2006 – The Departed – cost $90 million | Domestic take $132 million 

2005 – Crash – cost $6.5 million | Domestic take $56 million
 (Ang Lee, BM’s box office take: $83 million)
2004 MDB – cost cost $30 million | Domestic take $100 million

2003 – ROTK cost $94 million | Domestic take $377 million

And this year?
Boyhood – cost $4 million | Domestic take so far $23 million and counting

Gone Girl – cost $61 million | Domestic take so far $111 million and counting

The Grand Budapest Hotel cost $30 million | Domestic take $59 million

Birdman – cost $18 million | Domestic take so far in limited release $538 thou and counting

Whiplash – cost $3.3 million | Domestic take so far in limited release $401 thou and counting

In the end, Best Director and Best Picture continue to be up in the air, with a few choice names leading the pack. Though it feels at once like we’re waging war against superheroes, it also feels like there’s more opportunity than ever before. It’s nearly impossible to do what David Fincher has done with Gone Girl, it must be repeated: create a studio movie starring an adult woman that is aimed at adults with an ambiguous ending and dark subject matter that can earn $100 million in three weeks? Maybe he’ll pry open a door that’s been closed for far too long. Open doors, open windows, new life, new light.


american_sniper_poster-600x888

american_sniper_poster-600x888Directed by Clint Eastwood, American Sniper stars Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal who is on record as holding the most sniper kills.
Jason Hall adapted the script from Kyle’s autobiography, and follows his journey from rodeo star to America’s most lethal sniper. Sienna Miller, Jake McDorman, Luke Grimes, Navid Negahban and Keir O’Donnell also star in the film which is set to open on Christmas Day.

A new poster was unveiled today showing Cooper in uniform with the tagline “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S History.”

If you haven’t already seen the trailer, we get our first look of Cooper playing Kyle, showing us glimpses of his life. Many Oscar pundits have put this on their prediction lists. What are your thoughts?

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Boy, that escalated slowly. If it seems like only yesterday twhen we saw the first teaser for Foxcatcher, you’re almost right: it was over a year ago. Sept 26, 2013. Wise move for Bennett Miller to bide his time so he could squeeze in a trip to Cannes to pick up his Best Dorector prize. At last the teaser phase is over and we now have a full-length trailer. || The true story of Olympic Wrestling Champion Mark Schultz who decides to get justice after schizophrenic John duPont killed his brother, Olympic Champion Dave Schultz. (sorry, Spoiler Alert?)

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Awards season can ruin every great thing about movies because films are set up to succeed or fail based on criteria.  Ratings and scores, rumblings from Academy members, opening weekend – we’re all a Greek chorus of judgmental experts deciding on the success or failure of a film to either be a success with audiences (at best) or an Oscar frontrunner, which is supposed to be defined as: one of the best films of the year.

But beyond that, beyond the silliness, there are real conversations to be had. Both the New York Times and especially The New Yorker are bringing those conversations to hungry film fans eager to read something beyond the thumbs up, thumbs down mentality that grew like a weed and is killing its host.  No one can really believe the amount of in depth think pieces on David Fincher’s Gone Girl except that it points to how few adult movies there are to talk about at all. How many think pieces can a person write about Guardians of the Galaxy?

Gone Girl has tapped into something – even if there are those who just don’t bother to go looking. It, like Boyhood, like Birdman, like Foxcatcher feels very right now. There is something to be said for the whir of modern life and how artists respond to what’s happening around us, as opposed to the safer reflections backwards, the comforting nostalgia of the past.

In case you missed them, the New Yorker rises to the top of the pile with in depth think pieces on Gone Girl. While their critic on record, Anthony Lane, did what Manohla Dargis and Todd McCarthy did at first — express a measure of disappointment in what they perceived as Gone Girls pop sensibility and pulp roots. You might never dig deeper and read Richard Brody’s review of the film:

Kubrick and other key directors whose careers overlapped with his (such as Hitchcock and Howard Hawks) put their sense of style to the test with violent emotions and violent actions. They found ways to expand their style to reveal what was latent in that style all along; they infused the frippery of society with the wild content that it already concealed. Fincher’s style is a strange and modern fusion of sincerity and cynicism. It’s a destylized style that arises from the movie’s subject, the style of someone who knows he’s being watched. His cinematic manner reveals an intense, almost unbearable self-consciousness, an awareness (one that’s found in the story as well) of the ubiquity of media and of life lived in perpetual performance, on a permanent stage. At a time when every image is at risk of flying out onto the Internet, attaching to a celebrity, and both gaining a life of its own and becoming a part of that celebrity’s image (a phenomenon that’s central to the story of “Gone Girl”), Fincher’s images seem to neutralize themselves, to become even colder and less expressive than the blank, voracious media gaze that they represent.

The next piece by Joshua Rothman, What Gone Girl is Really About:

As in many postmodern narratives, the heroes and villains in Fincher’s “Gone Girl” aren’t people but stories. We hope that the familiar, reassuring ones will win out (they don’t). In fact, the film is so self-aware that none of the stories it tells can be taken at face value. As my colleague Richard Brody has written, the movie’s drama and characters have been streamlined so as to reveal their “underlying mythic power.” But “Gone Girl” is also anti-myth. When Amy (Rosamund Pike) says, of her plot against her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), “That’s marriage,” you’re not supposed to believe her. If the myth of the perfect marriage is poisonous, then so is the myth of the continual “war of the sexes.” The question the movie asks is: Are there any stories that we can tell ourselves about marriage that ring true?

If that question sounds familiar, that’s because, in some ways, with “Gone Girl,” Fincher has returned to the structures of “Fight Club,” substituting a married couple for Tyler Durden and his gaggle of disenchanted bros. In both stories, the characters rebel against the unbearable myth of attainable perfection, substituting for it an alternative one of transcendent, authentic, freedom-giving destruction. “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need,” Tyler Durden says. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t.” Durden’s response to his disillusionment with contemporary masculinity is to embrace a seductive, violent, and supposedly more genuine idea of “real” manliness—but that alternative turns out to be a disastrous illusion. In “Gone Girl,” it’s the mythos of coupledom, not the mythos of masculinity, that’s oppressive. But the imagined solution is the same: “We’re so cute I want to punch us in the face,” Amy says.

And if two brilliant essays weren’t enough, the New Yorker brings a third piece, Marriage is an Abduction by Elif Batuman:

But perhaps “Gone Girl” ’s greatest insight is that the men aren’t mere brutish exploiters. Where a more simplistic narrative would posit that every loss for women is a gain for men, Flynn shows again and again that nobody is a winner—everyone is a dupe. Girls are set up for a horrific disappointment, but boys are set up to be horrifically disappointing. Boys are taught to protect, but how do you protect someone who has the same basic rights as you do, and from whom you are also demanding a huge sacrifice? How do you protect someone who is too good for you—not too pure or too lofty but actually better than you at day trading, running marathons, and looking like a million bucks?

Before a TV interview, Nick, the most hated man in America, is instructed, “You have to admit you’re a jerk and that everything was all your fault.” “So, like, what men are supposed to do in general,” he replies. This line got a lot of rueful laughs at the screening I attended. “Gone Girl” is as much about the near impossibility of being a good husband as it is about the anguish of being a good wife. The bat-shit preposterousness of the marital “accord” ultimately reached by Nick and Amy is an indictment of the state of marriage, and of heterosexual relations more broadly.

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It’s a film that grabs you by the collar and doesn’t release you until the end credits. This clip gives you a better idea of what the movie is like in terms of tone and rhythm and camera and dialogue.

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