The Martian 5

Finding the best moment in Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy is impossible as you have two actors playing the same person. Then there’s Elizabeth Banks. With Paul Giamatti you have one of the best ensemble performances of the year. Banks glides confidently through the film in a way we’ve never seen before. This is a woman who began her career in sports until an injury shifted her focus from sports to acting, eventually, and later, directing. What power she contains emanates from her throughout Love & Mercy because she’s the anchor and touchstone that ultimately saves Brian Wilson (John Cusack) from the horrific circumstances. Her moment is a tossup between the scene where we first meet her, shiny nails, a clipboard and tight skirt she puts Wilson immediately at ease and changes his life. Probably the scene that seals the deal is when she’s being confronted by Paul Giamatti behind a door. As he’s threatening and insulting her she whips open the door and stares him down. Banks strength is balanced by Brian Wilson’s vulnerability and crippling mental illness, embodied by two brilliant performances – Cusack’s struggle to come up and out from behind the oppressive drugs and controlling forces, along with Paul Dano’s bright young genius on the rise. In Dano’s performance, we see the Brian Wilson who was consumed by his own musical gifts that guided him different directions, some of them good, some of them not so good. Both actors capture that sweetness in Wilson, and, underneath it all, a man worth saving. All three actors give best of the year performances in Love & Mercy.

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Creed is that one movie that can sometimes come along and land in the Oscar race with absolutely no warning. It comes with an interesting Oscar story, one not unlike its subject, and its subject’s first film. Rocky is a story of an underdog and Creed has to be seen as one of this year’s underdogs, without a doubt. It wasn’t ushered in as an “Oscar movie,” and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of Oscar ads or fancy q&as, not yet anyway. It was a film that could have gone either way – but it landed like a champ. An A Cinemascore, maybe looking at a 35 – 40 million opening weekend, and hitting the sweet spot at Rotten Tomatoes with 93% puts Creed very much “in the conversation.” And if it isn’t then there is something very very wrong with Oscar season.

Creed is what my dearly departed friend David Carr would call a “movie movie” and is another example of how this year might really might be — or certainly could be — dominated by big studio movies for the first time in years. It’s too soon to know, of course, how the whole thing will settle. We won’t really know for a few more weeks at least. Joy and The Hateful Eight are still to be seen.

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In looking over last year’s predictions around this time we were still caught up in movies that hadn’t yet played and/or been rejected, so Unbroken was still riding high, as was Interstellar, even though it had been seen. See, we don’t really “know” anything. We’re just guessing. And last year, even the best of them weren’t on target. Anne Thompson, Thelma Adams and Tim Grey were the only ones who had 7 out of 8 right. The rest of us had 6 out 8 right, which still isn’t that bad. Overall, the Gurus had 6 out 8 right on Thanksgiving weekend, as did Gold Derby.

Like last year, we were messed up because of the late breaking films that embargo reviews until after voting for so many of the critics awards, like the New York Film Critics or National Board of Review. Such is the case once again with The Revenant and Joy at least. Therefore, even if we think they might not be/or might be Oscar nominees, we can’t get that confirmed until the movies get reviewed, seen, talked about. Thus, we’re in a bit of a vacuum even now.

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Given that Hayou Miyazaki sent a shockwave through American animation and the way Pixar and Disney have been influenced by him, it’s a little silly to think there could be any more movement in the animation genre here. But over the years, there has been. Some of it has been noticed, but some hasn’t. How many people even saw The Congress where Ari Folman blended animation with live action for a crazy kind of abstract vision of the future. The Congress went mostly ignored by ticket-buyers but what it was aiming for was interesting.

Inside Out is that rare film that hits both the snooty critics and mainstream audiences. It has earned $356 million. As a Pixar movie. With a female protag. All of that talk about how animated films with female characters could not connect. (Doubts already dispelled by last Frozen two years ago). The thing about gender, though, is that our ideas about it are shifting ever so slightly. Most of us adults aren’t really paying attention to how fluid the notion of gender is becoming to younger generations, so that you can’t really be certain about those “rules” that say there has to be a male lead. More than that, by making Riley female, it adds a kind of complexity you could only have if your male character could be a little more flexible with gender. For instance, Riley plays hockey. She isn’t a typical “girly girl” although that’s very much a part of her inner world too – sparkly ponies, hot teen idols, rainbows and imaginary friends all occupy various parts of her inner world. The creators of Inside Out also gave her traces of “anger” usually reserved for boys, and didn’t just populate her inner emotions with female personas. Sure, her Joy and her Sadness are notably different kinds of females but there is so much else going on inside that young girl’s head clearly the writers were freer with how they set about defining that inside.

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Creed is really the biggest surprise of Oscar season, 2015. Even though we wrote about it being as much back in September, still it’s surprising to see how many critics are praising Ryan Coogler’s entertaining, moving film. Why Creed works so well? It could be a film on its own without any dependence on or attachment to the Rocky myth. Creed landed an A Cinemascore, which was expected — there are two bonafide crowdpleasers released so far this year — The Martian and Creed. Both films might bridge the gap between the ever-increasing insular world of Oscar voters and the ticket buying public. The end to that story is still waiting to be told. Either way, Ryan Coogler will be having a happy Thanksgiving, without a doubt.

TIME’s Stephanie Zacharek on Creed:

Ryan Coogler’s film has an unexpected grace that makes it much more than just a Rocky reboot

Sometimes when a movie does everything right, you don’t even think about how wrong it could have gone until after it’s over. Creed, out Nov. 25, could have gone wrong in so many ways.


Directed by Ryan Coogler—whose deft 2013 debut, Fruitvale Station, chronicled the last day of Oscar Grant III before he was fatally shot by a BART police officer in Oakland—Creed introduces us to the illegitimate son of heavyweight champ Apollo Creed, who first bounded into the ring in the 1976 underdog hit Rocky. In a movie landscape littered with resuscitated franchises, this runs the risk of being just more of the same. Like Rocky, a smash that spawned 1,000 sequels (or so it seems), Creed mingles go-for-broke romance with bloody pugilist thrills—but instead of feeling like a rehash, it works like gangbusters. Coogler honors and builds upon the Rocky formula so that it feels both comfortingly old-fashioned and bracingly new. Audiences instantly adored Rocky, for good reason—it’s a great date movie, and Creed is too. You won’t have to be a lover-not-a-fighter to love it.

And the New York Times’ AO Scott writes:

A boxing movie without clichés is like a political campaign without lies. “Creed,” directed by Ryan Coogler from a script he wrote with Aaron Covington, is self-aware without being cute about it. In the movie as in the world beyond it, Rocky is part of the cultural tapestry. Everyone in Philadelphia knows him. There’s even a statue! But Mr. Coogler, a 29-year-old filmmaker whose debut was “Fruitvale Station” (also starring Mr. Jordan), looks at the Rocky story and the tradition of Hollywood pugilism through a fresh prism.

“Rocky” was the story of a Great White Hope, and also a fable for an era of racial backlash. Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, was the heavy in that movie, and Rocky was the noble underdog. Later, they set aside their differences and faced a common Soviet enemy as the series turned its attention to Cold War geopolitics. By then, Apollo was the sidekick and the sacrificial friend, an injustice that “Creed,” by its very title, seeks to redress.

And the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern on Sly:

Mr. Stallone is affecting not only as Rocky, but as Sylvester Stallone taking on, yet again, the Rocky character. I’d love to quote from his long meditation on mortality, but the scene is too good to spoil with so much as an excerpted sentence. And if ever you were moved by the series, in spite of or indeed because of its manipulativeness, you’ll be moved yet again by the moment when the young boxer and his venerable trainer climb those 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one man moving briskly and the other very slowly, but with a determination that doesn’t need, and doesn’t get, a triumphalist anthem.

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No one in my business has a crystal ball. No one really knows what they’re talking about even if we pretend we do. There are a few things worth noting, however, from today’s Film Independent nominations. The Spirits gave a big boost to two films that really could use it – Cary Fukunaga’s uncompromising, brilliant masterpiece Beasts of No Nation, and Charlie Kaufman/Duke Johnson’s equally brilliant, uncompromising masterpiece Anomalisa. Both films represent the very best in independent film because they represent the true independent spirit. Both were put together on a wing and a prayer – with Anomalisa raising much of its funds through Kickstarter and Beasts of No Nation finally getting picked up by Netflix after every studio in town passed on it.

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The Oscar race hasn’t really changed now that The Revenant’s been seen. It has confirmed its place, especially if you were thinking of it as a nominee for Best Picture, but perhaps not the winner. For a film to win Best Picture usually means you can sit anyone down in front of it – cashier, stripper, teacher, princess, president, security guard, nanny – and they will get it if not love it. That’s because thousands of people vote to call it the best. How can you get thousands of people to agree your movie is good? What Alejandro G. Inarritu is going for with The Revenant is to make a piece of art more than a general crowdpleaser. And while the review embargo has not yet been lifted, there are a few things that can be discussed.

You can check all of the boxes for nominations — especially in the tech categories. The cinematography is beyond anything I’ve ever seen because I don’t know if any crew has attempted anything like this, ever. You might have to go back to the 1970s, when filmmakers were still kind of, sort of allowed to experiment on this scale. The score is also breathtaking. The art direction (Jack Fisk) is subtle because nature is really the art director here but it is nonetheless authentic, very McCabe & Mrs. Miller looking. Tom Hardy is as strong as expected for a supporting nomination. The sound design of the film is probably going to be one of the hardest contenders for Star Wars to beat. But really, more than anything, The Revenant is two things – a love letter to the natural world that we have all but destroyed in our thirst for more “things” and the bravest, hardest thing Leonardo DiCaprio has ever done.

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The Big Short is so worth seeing. If you ever find out the real life character Christian Bale plays in this film you will marvel at his brilliant portrayal. You’ll think he’s great anyway, but in this case the more you know, the impressive it gets. By the way, the stripper used as an example of someone who was sold bad loans at falsely lowered interest rates is nothing compared to what those guys really did – selling the same loans to immigrant nannies, for instance. That’s left out of the movie but it is one of the most insidious things they did.


Something hit me while watching Creed, and in ruminating on the upcoming Star Wars movie. They’re bringing back 1970s nostalgia to remind us what movies once were. In thinking about these films I wondered why everything seems so different now. Movies aren’t really the culture quakes they used to be. In the science of evolution we know that with little competition a species can thrive and quickly evolve. With lots of competition that evolution is slower. Movies only have ever had one major thing competing with them and that was television. Now, there is much more competition. That competition is seeing its own golden age and it is starting to look like that golden age is about to leave the greatest generation of cinema behind.

In his November 19th column, Peter Bart theorizes as to why “Good Films Are Failing at the Box Office in Awards Season.” Bart wondered why a movie he enjoyed so much (it was Burnt) was failing at the box office. He offered up a few theories. But really, it’s this that we should all be paying attention to:

The current crop of movies seems somehow diminished by the media fixation on the present “golden age of television.” The water cooler conversation — online version — focuses on binge-watched digital shows, or even an evanescent YouTube act. During the summer, the kids put that all aside, and respond faithfully to their must-see Marvel Comics movie opening. But come fall, their parents aren’t as ready to leave the house.

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We’re barreling towards the last gasp here for the Best Picture race and a few questions remain.

1) Can The Martian win over enough industry voters to become the first “sci fi” film to win Best Picture?
2) Is Spotlight going to be the first film about journalists to win Best Picture?
3) Can the recent celebrity push for Beasts of No Nation make it the first film by the growing cinema pioneer Netflix to get in?
4) Can Inside Out be the first animated film to get nominated for Best Picture since the Academy shrunk its nominee ballot from 10 slots to 5?
5) Will the upcoming movies Joy, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight make it into the Best Picture race after they screen this coming week?
6) Will there be four films about women in the Best Picture race for the first time since 1977?
7) Will Star Wars do what it in 1977 and get in for Best Picture?
8) Will Creed manage to do what Rocky did in 1976 and get in for Best Picture?
9) Will Todd Haynes finally manage to earn much deserved praise from the Academy with Carol?
10) Is Steve Jobs still a lock for a nomination?

My answers to these questions are as follows:
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The first frame of the original Rocky, as the famous music comes up, the date: November 25, 1975. You probably had to live through the Rocky phenomenon to understand just how big that movie was, what it gave audiences, and why it won the Best Picture Oscar in 1976, besting All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory. What most people don’t realize about that year looking back was that Sylvester Stallone – the unlikely lottery winner of that year – never won an Oscar, even though he wrote the script for Rocky.

How could he have beaten William Goldman for All the President’s Men or Paddy Chayefsky for Network? He couldn’t have. Both of those films, and Taxi Driver, launched a thousand filmmakers. A generation of filmmakers wanted to make movies that good, that revered. People like me spent many hours lamenting Rocky’s Best Picture win over the other, presumably better movies. That it won was a thing that the movie forever had to live down.

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2015 is providing us with an odd awards season because there seem to be so many different narratives with no clear leaders in any aspect of the Oscar race. We are one week away from any serious voting or awards announcement and each new honor bestowed will change the direction of the race. Who could have predicted, for instance, that last year the critics would have turned the Best Actress fifth slot nomination into a backroom war between Jennifer Aniston (punished for having produced a film that would give her a role to really showcase her acting ability) and Marion Cotillard, deemed the queen of actresses by the critics, a martyr for the cause of The Immigrant’s lack of marketing. Cotillard was suddenly the only actress who mattered and Aniston was thrown under the bus. No one could have seen that coming because it was an organic mutation of a season.

We don’t yet know what the mutations of this season might be, like which actor or film will get thrown under the bus either for spending too much money on the campaign or for chasing Oscar.

Here is a quick example of marketing psychology.  Liberal consumers, especially younger ones, are some of the most easily manipulated, especially since they are driven by ideas driven by social media. The recent “controversy” over holiday Starbucks cups of undecorated neutral red generated some talk that it was a war on Christmas, hence war on Christians. Suddenly, the backlash was so strong that it briefly became a bigger story to online warriors than anything else happening in the world. Starbucks cups were flaunted everywhere. Think pieces sprouted up. Our Facebook and Twitter timelines were littered with images of our friends holding Starbucks cups like a badge of honor. A marketing ploy or a real story? It’s hard to know. Either way, it worked to sell Starbucks because suddenly people felt valiant buying Starbucks. No more worrying about the environment dealing with all of those pesky cups and lids and stirrers. No more worrying about where all of that dairy product comes from. Buying it makes you feel good and that’s all that matters.
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Kris Tapley at In Contention talks up Sylvester Stallone in Ryan Coogler’s upcoming Rocky redux, Creed. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense for a perfect storm. There isn’t exactly a strong best supporting actor frontrunner right now, though plenty of contenders, and some we haven’t seen yet – who knows what will come from Tom Hardy in The Revenant or anyone in Joy or The Hateful Eight. On the other hand, come on.

Tapley writes:

With the Ryan Coogler-directed film, Stallone has now taken on the role of Rocky Balboa seven times on the big screen. He was nominated at the outset for 1976’s “Rocky” and lost to Peter Finch for the late actor’s fierce “Network” performance. But the truth is he might be even better this time around. I would be tempted to call it his best on-screen work to date as he finds such subtle, unassuming textures in the performance that both deepen a character we’ve grown to love over the last 40 years, as well as present him in a whole new shade.
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In this new clip from Joy, Jennifer Lawrence is giving a monologue to Bradley Cooper. She talks about immigrants and America, interestingly enough. Also, if you want to hear more about David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones, don’t forget to tune in to Karina Longworth’s latest podcast, You Must Remember This.


For an event at the Museum of Modern Art, there’s Cate Blanchett, being honored by the museum, flanked by two of the greatest living American directors. Todd Haynes and Martin Scorsese.

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Some of the films that stand out as the year’s best, which we’ll be digging into soon, might not even get into the Best Picture race. Cary Fukunaga’s uncompromising masterpiece, Beasts of No Nation sits atop that list. Perhaps too “difficult” for a consensus group that really needs to feel good about what it’s voting for, Beasts will perhaps be set adrift in the collective consciousness, destined to appear in film discussions for years to come. All the same, it gets down to the horrors of war without imposing morality or bowing to sentimentality – refusing to ever let up on the viewer. Right up there are other less accessible films. Like Black Mass, which dares to paint the mob as it really is, in all of its ugliness. The Big Short might be too wonky and weird for some Oscar voters but it gets to something about the American psyche that no other film has touched this year.

Before the overall landscape of the race can be assessed, however, there are still three big films by three big directors as year draws to a close, and that’s not even counting the last minute entries Creed and In the Heart of the Sea. Our attention is instead drawn to Alejandro G. Inarritu’s eagerly anticipated wintry survival epic, The Revenant; Quentin Tarantino’s wintry western, The Hateful Eight; and David O. Russell’s first film centered entirely around a woman, Joy. All three films have passionate support heading into their debuts and the heat is on. The heat is not only on, the pressure could not be more intense.

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“Even the losers get lucky sometimes.” – Tom Petty

If you watch Adam McKay’s uniquely brilliant film The Big Short and attempt to review it without giving it some time to settle in, you do yourself, the film, film criticism overall and the world of cinema a disservice. This happens too much lately. We need snap judgments. We need a thumbs up or thumbs down. We need to know if it succeeds or fails. But The Big Short is a movie that throws so much at you it requires time and contemplation to settle in. You might walk out saying, “Wow, that was great,” but still have no idea what you just saw. You might walk out – as a Bernie Sanders supporter might – saying, “Yeah, those evil crooks on Wall Street, those 1%ers really stuck it to the poor people! Fix it Bernie!” Or you might walk out saying, “What the fuck was that?” The Big Short flies by like a truck of headless chickens dancing to Uptown Funk. You think you know what you just saw but what did you really just see?

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Now that this year’s AFI fest has come to a close, a few questions still remain. In 2014, the AFI delivered unto Oscar the juggernaut American Sniper and Selma. They were the only two late breakers to land in the race, despite a few other big titles that came out by year’s end. Last year was dominated by several films that had opened earlier in the year – or as we like to say around these parts, “before festival season.” We might still be looking at a year like that, or we might not. We have a few major films to go yet, namely Joy, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight. Continue reading…


Whenever I get an opportunity to talk to Nick Hornby, the conversation always shifts away from the topic at hand and instead veers towards our unadorned love for Bruce Springsteen’s music. Hornby’s love for music in general shows in every book and every screenplay he writes: “High Fidelity” was a love letter to the “record store”, “About a Boy” had countless references to pop music, and in “Wild”, Witherspoon’s lonesome hiker marches on her epic way, humming the 1987 Springsteen song, “Tougher Than the Rest” before declaring, “Sing it, Bruce!”

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While The Martian might be among the strongest contenders for Best Picture right now, there is no telling which way the race will go from here. We’re heading into the last gasp of the Oscar race, believe it or not, because by the end of this month it will be time for many key precursor groups to start voting.

Fifteen years ago Ridley Scott was up for Best Director for Gladiator. It was the strangest year for Best Picture, one that no other year has really matched since. Ridley Scott’s film was the one to beat. But it had strong competition from two films: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.

Ang Lee won the Directors Guild Award, which which set the stage for an unpredictable Best Picture winner. I remember this year very well because it was the first year I started Oscar blogging. Back then, there weren’t really blogs, however. We all built our sites on html before blogging software came along, before opinion-based writing dominated all media, before the Oscars were a 24/7, year round business, before Facebook, before Twitter – practically before cell phones.

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