Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 4 – A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born is a musical drama directed by Bradley Cooper (in his directorial debut) and co-written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters.  The film tells the story of a country musician named Jackson Maine (Cooper) who discovers and falls in love with a young, aspiring singer named Ally (Lady Gaga). Ally’s budding musical career quickly takes off, but all the while, Jackson’s own personal demons threaten to tear his down.

Star Gif 4This iteration of A Star Is Born is the third remake of the original 1937 film, following reincarnations in 1954 (starring Judy Garland and James Mason) and 1976 (starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). Despite trotting through familiar territory, the Cooper- and Gaga-led version feels undeniably new and wholly unique. As much as this film is about the music (and trust me, the music is flawless – I still listen to “Shallow” at least a few times each week), it is really much more about an exploration of Jackson and Ally and their obviously genuine, but altogether complicated, love story. These two characters clearly inspire each other in the most believable ways possible (both in life and in music), which makes their rollercoaster relationship that much more affecting for an audience. Star Gif 1Although the ease of buying into this tale of romance has a lot to do with Cooper and Lady Gaga as actors (their chemistry was organic, unforced, and utterly convincing), it can also be credited to the dynamic screenwriting trio, the X factor of which is Eric Roth. Roth has led a critically acclaimed career behind the pen, writing the scripts (and receiving Oscar nominations) for Hollywood heavy-hitters Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. With such an illustrious filmography, it is patently obvious that Roth’s fingerprints were all over the script for A Star Is Born.

Star Gif 3The movie also benefits tremendously from an exquisite directorial achievement by Cooper. Some of the most emotionally packed scenes in all of film this year came from A Star Is Born, and Cooper’s vision is at the root. Avoiding spoilers, I will say that the emotional climax of the film was, even for someone that hadn’t seen any of the previous iterations of the story, predictable. But despite that, Cooper still presented it in a way that felt raw and unexpected – it was single-handedly the most heart-wrenching scene of the year. (There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater.) Further, the main function of a director, aside from being the film’s chief visionary, is to get the best work out of the actors – in that department, Cooper far exceeded all expectations that could possibly have been set for him. As I will get into more detail about in a moment, Lady Gaga delivered an exceptional performance as Ally. Yes, she was clearly born to be a performer. Yes, she already has a small handful of acting credits. And yes, the film is about a singer, which Gaga already is in real life. But in the wrong director’s hands, a good performer could still fall flat – it happens all the time. Luckily, in A Star Is Born, the combination of Cooper’s shrewd direction and Gaga’s unquestionable talent came together beautifully to offer one of the year’s best acting performances. Star Gif 5It also says a lot that Sam Elliott, a pioneer in the acting world with a career that spans over five decades, received his first Oscar nomination of all time in the role of Bobby Maine, Jackson’s manager and half-brother. Not only did Cooper bring out the best in Lady Gaga, but he also found a way to elicit a career-defining supporting performance from a Hollywood legend. I am still quite a bit upset that Cooper was overlooked in the Best Director category – he definitely should have received a nomination for his work behind the camera.

Star Gif 2As alluded to above, Lady Gaga’s portrayal of Ally was amazing – given her background in music and her own rise to fame, Cooper could not have hit a more definite homerun in terms of casting than this. Gaga effortlessly commanded the complex emotional nature of Ally, portraying her vividly as a young woman who is at first apprehensive and lacking in self-esteem, and later confident and more comfortable in her own skin. However, even after Ally becomes more self-assured, she still maintains an innocent sense of vulnerability – Gaga depicts that remarkably. tumblr_pg469awrKr1qjde42o8_400Even though Bradley Cooper is the film’s creative mind behind the camera, he also turns in one of the best acting performances of his own career, justifiably earning him a fourth Oscar nomination in an acting category. Jackson Maine is a complicated character – despite Ally energizing his life in terms of love and music, he still struggles to keep up with his own personal battles. A life of alcoholism and self-sabotage trips Jackson up at every turn, and Cooper’s portrayal is haunting and dramatic – it was definitely a memorable piece of acting. A Star Is Born is rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity, and substance abuse.

A Star Is Born trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSbzyEJ8X9E&t=8s

Academy Award nominations for A Star Is Born:

Best Picture (Bill Gerber, Bradley Cooper, and Lynette Howell Taylor, producers)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Bradley Cooper)

Best Actress in a Leading Role (Lady Gaga)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sam Elliott)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Screenplay by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters)

Best Original Song – “Shallow” (Music and Lyrics by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andrew Wyatt)

Best Sound Mixing (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve A. Morrow)

Best Cinematography (Matthew Libatique)

Advertisements

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 9 – A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place is a horror film directed by John Krasinski and co-written by Krasinski, Bryan Woods, and Scott Beck. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that has been overtaken by mysterious blind creatures that attack their prey utilizing their acute sense of hearing, A Quiet Place follows the Abbott family as they live in silence in an attempt to survive.

Over time, the cinematic landscape has become more and more saturated with horror films, more so than most other genres. However, every so often, a movie comes along that injects something unique and refreshing into the genre, and I tend to gravitate to those remarkable adventures. For example, I really enjoyed the 2015 film It Follows, which didn’t really break the rules of traditional horrors films as much as it uncompromisingly set its own distinctive and memorable rubric for the genre. Further, in 2017, Jordan Peele’s Best Picture-nominated Get Out became the gold standard for mixing horror with invigorating social commentary. In the same vein as some of its noteworthy predecessors, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place not only redefines what makes a film scary and suspenseful, but it breathes life into a premise that builds upon both classic elements of horror and an infusion of inventive plot devices.

AQP3In this film, sound is dangerous, noises breed vulnerability, and safety resides in silence. In that sense, A Quiet Place is similar to the 2016 horror film Don’t Breathe – however, in Don’t Breathe, only some of the movie utilizes silence as a plot point (i.e., the scenes in the blind man’s house), as the remainder of the film includes ordinary dialogue. This is what makes Krasinski’s filmmaking here so impressive – the central foundation of this post-apocalyptic world is that, from the get-go, noise is bad. Thus, Krasinski can’t use ordinary character dialogue to progress the story or create tension at any point – instead, he must rely on visuals and non-verbal cues. In this aspect, Krasinski was masterful in A Quiet Place. Using the silence as a tool, Krasinski constantly tugs at the audience’s nerves, creating an edge-of-your-seat adventure.  I also greatly enjoyed the fundamental theme of the story – as Krasinski explained, “The scares were secondary to how powerful this could be as an allegory or metaphor for parenthood. For me, this is all about parenthood.”

AQP1From an acting perspective, A Quiet Place is wonderful. In particular, I was thoroughly impressed with Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds. Blunt (Krasinski’s real-life wife) plays Evelyn, the mother of the family, and her performance was incredibly balanced and emotive. The scene that sticks out the most to me as evidence of Blunt’s fantastic acting is when Evelyn (who is pregnant and nearly full-term) must attempt to remain silent despite her contractions – it was definitely one of the tensest scenes in the movie. Simmonds was also tremendous as Regan, the eldest daughter of the family. Simmonds is deaf, which lends a great deal of authenticity to her portrayal of Regan, who is deaf in the film and wears a cochlear implant. Obviously Regan’s deafness plays a key part in the development of the story, and Simmonds’s performance packs some of the film’s most vital emotional punches. A Quiet Place is rated PG-13 for terror and some bloody images.

A Quiet Place trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WR7cc5t7tv8

Academy Award nominations for A Quiet Place:

Best Sound Editing (Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn)

Top 10 Films of 2018, No. 10 – Black Panther

Black Panther is a superhero film produced by Marvel Studios based on the Marvel Comic character of the same name. Directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he becomes the new king of Wakanda, an isolated but technologically advanced African nation that is powered by a mysterious metal called vibranium. Soon after becoming Wakanda’s king and Black Panther, T’Challa is faced with an enemy (Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan) who challenges his reign, and he must rally both friend and foe among the nation’s tribes in an effort to secure the safety and longevity of Wakanda.

BP2I must confess at the outset that I am not a big fan of the live-action Marvel movies – I have only seen roughly half of the franchise’s films. But of the ones I have seen, Black Panther reigns supreme in the Marvel universe (sorry Guardians of the Galaxy). In fact, after my initial viewing, it quickly became one of my top five favorite superhero movies of all time. My lack of passion for most superhero movies (especially in the Marvel universe) is due in significant part to what I view as cookie-cutter plots and characters – yes, most of these films are very well acted and produced, but they generally involve low stakes and follow the same tropes that are trotted out in every predecessor. With Black Panther, the story is much more intimate, and unlike its Marvel counterparts, it has a truly distinct style and personality, both in terms of the plot and the characters.

BP5What sticks out the most for me in terms of Black Panther setting itself apart from most other Marvel films is its writer/director – Ryan Coogler was the perfect choice to be the film’s creative visionary. The 32-year-old filmmaker has built his budding career on the foundation of captivating stories about African-Americans – in his debut Fruitvale Station, Coogler created a thought-provoking sense of anger and heartbreak, and in Creed, he reinvigorated the Rocky franchise with storytelling that was simultaneously nostalgic and fresh. In Black Panther, Coogler takes his creative abilities to new heights, constructing a movie that fits the mold for a superhero movie (e.g., action, suspense, and triumph), while also bringing a certain intimacy and sensitivity to its plotline that induces a beautiful connection between the audience and the characters. Black Panther is a movie about identity, and this is, at its core, a product of Coogler’s imaginative excellence.

BP4As discussed above, Black Panther features some fantastic characters, which were brought to life by wonderful performances. In supporting roles, the film had many outstanding performances, including those from Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Winston Duke. However, the standout supporting performance was delivered by Letitia Wright, who was magnificent as Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister – Shuri is both spunky and fierce, and Wright’s superb performance helped land her the EE Rising Star Award at this year’s BAFTAs. Further, I enjoyed Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, but he didn’t blow me away. This is likely due to the fact that Michael B. Jordan simply stole the show – in fact, for his performance as the villain Killmonger, I believe Jordan should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Aided by a deep backstory that slowly becomes more evident and emotional as the film progresses, Killmonger became one of the greatest Marvel film characters of all time – this is due unequivocally to Jordan’s marvelous performance. Black Panther is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture.

Black Panther trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjDjIWPwcPU

Academy Award nominations for Black Panther:

Best Picture (Kevin Feige, producer)

Best Original Score (Ludwig Göransson)

Best Original Song – “All the Stars” (Music by Mark Spears, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, and Anthony Tiffith; Lyrics by Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, Anthony Tiffith, and Solána Rowe)

Best Sound Editing (Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker)

Best Sound Mixing (Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter J. Devlin)

Best Production Design (Production Design: Hannah Beachler; Set Decoration: Jay Hart)

Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (2018)

The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

WINNER: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)

AliIn the film Green Book, Mahershala Ali portrays Don Shirley, the real-life African-American jazz pianist. The film follows Shirley on his 1962 concert tour through the Deep South, escorted by his Italian-American driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. In light of the Jim Crow era setting, both men are thrust into a variety of racist issues throughout the tour, and the film tells the story of their personal journey and growth as they learn about life from each other. I enjoyed Green Book, but as many of you might know, it has been marred by controversy since its release – the debate revolves around Shirley’s family’s objections to the film and its screenplay, which was co-written by Tony Lip’s real-life son Nick Vallelonga. Despite the family’s issues with the depiction of Shirley and his relationship with Tony Lip, Ali admitted that in his performance, he did his best to honor the legacy of Shirley based on the information he had – and for me, that performance was impeccable. Although this controversy has dominated the headlines, it is nonetheless impossible to ignore the remarkable acting work of Ali – his mannerisms are nuanced, his emotions shrewdly portrayed, and his ability to impressively master Shirley’s fears and insecurities in light of the overt racism plaguing the nation in the early 1960s was unimpeachable. Mahershala Ali has evolved in the past few years into one of the most talented actors in the business, and if I had it my way, he’d walk away on Oscar night with his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the past three years.

2. Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Richard-E-Can-You-1In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a film about the real-life biographer Lee Israel and her attempt to invigorate her writing career by forging letters by famous celebrities and selling them for large amounts of money, Richard E. Grant plays the role of Jack Hock, a recent acquaintance of Israel who joins her in the exploitation of the fraudulent letters. In this film, Melissa McCarthy churned out probably the best dramatic acting performance of her career, but for me, Grant’s Hock stole the show. Despite not having a permanent home and appearing rather drifter-like, Jack Hock is flamboyantly lavish in his tastes and is as witty and charming as a character can be, making the film much more fun and entertaining. Mark Kermode, a film critic for The Guardian, summed up Hock brilliantly: “Jack seems to be in permanent performance mode, hiding his own insecurities behind a mask of bravado and bonhomie.” Despite being a recognizable face in the industry since his career-defining performance in his 1987 film debut Withnail and I, Grant has only ever been nominated for acting awards on a few occasions (and those were many years ago) – for his cleverly beautiful performance as Jack Hock, Richard E. Grant has justifiably reversed that history.

3. Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)

rev-1-ASIB-06247_High_Res_JPEGIn A Star Is Born, Sam Elliott plays Bobby Maine, the manager for and older half-brother of singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper). To put it simply – Sam Elliott was phenomenal during his limited on-screen time in A Star Is Born. Although Bobby Maine is the personification of a “supporting” character, Elliott – a legend in the industry – deftly executed every second of his performance. Two scenes stick out the most for me that made Elliott’s portrayal of Jackson’s brother so incredibly memorable – (1) the argument between Jackson and Bobby over their father’s land, and (2) the moment Bobby pulls out of Jackson’s driveway after dropping him off towards the end of the film. In that latter scene in particular, the passion Elliott put into portraying Bobby’s flash of emotion as he backs out of Jackson’s driveway is worth the price of admission. With a film career that has spanned over five decades, it is awesome and well-deserved to see Elliott celebrating his very first Oscar nomination.

4. Sam Rockwell (Vice)

RockwellThe setup for Sam Rockwell’s portrayal in Vice is simple – he portrays George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States. All the acting buzz surrounding Vice centers predominantly on Christian Bale in the lead role of Vice President Dick Cheney (and rightfully so – more on that in a later post). But for me, one of the most underrated aspects of the movie was Rockwell’s performance. With some fantastic work from the makeup department, Rockwell did look quite a bit like Bush, way more than Josh Brolin did in Oliver Stone’s 2008 biopic W. However, what is truly more impressive about his portrayal (which also bests that of Brolin’s) is Rockwell’s seamless embodiment of Bush in terms of accent, mannerisms, and speech pattern. Rockwell nailed Bush’s trademark Texas twang, and his first-rate acting abilities (which garnered him an Oscar win last year in this category for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) made this performance one to remember.

5. Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)

DriverIn Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Adam Driver portrays Det. Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, the Jewish partner of John David Washington’s lead character, Det. Ron Stallworth. As Stallworth, an African-American officer, slowly starts to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan via telephone (posing as a white man), Zimmerman is tasked with being Stallworth’s physical stand-in for in-person meetings with the KKK – as famed film critic Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times described it, “We’ve got a white cop impersonating a black cop impersonating a white supremacist.” Although BlacKkKlansman didn’t make it onto the list of my favorite movies from 2018, it still was an enjoyable experience with some superb acting, particularly by Washington. In terms of Driver, though, I found his performance to be simply “good” and “serviceable” – nothing extraordinary in my estimation. Truthfully, I thought his nomination should have gone to the likes of Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther), or Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) instead.

The Best Films of 2018 – Honorable Mentions (11-15)

Before I start revealing my ten favorite movies of the year later this week, I want to take some time to talk briefly about five fantastic films that just missed out on making my year-end list – here are my Honorable Mentions:

No. 11 – Sorry to Bother You

STBYSorry to Bother You is Boots Riley’s directorial debut, a dystopian dark comedy that follows Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young African-American in Oakland working as a telemarketer at RegalView. After a veteran co-worker (Danny Glover) teaches Cash that the secret to success in this business is using your “white voice,” Cash quickly excels as he strives for the coveted promotion to “Power Caller.” All the while, Cash’s friends – and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) – plot to unionize the RegalView workplace in an effort to protest for better working conditions, which creates conflict with Cash as he continues to climb the ranks as a Power Caller. Life as a Power Caller begins to slowly unravel, and when a corporate conspiracy exposes itself, Cash is left to make a vital decision about his life.

In this film, Boots Riley takes a very simple concept (i.e., character comes from nothing, character gets success, character faces moral conundrum that pits that success against true happiness) and turns it into one of the most entertaining and unique movies I have ever seen. The dialogue pops, the characters are amusing, the acting is impeccable, and the satirical themes are absolutely spot-on. Riley’s story is one that brilliantly examines the concepts of “white privilege” and “capitalism” through its darkly comedic tone, and the satire reminded me a lot of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. However, Idiocracy made its comedy much more direct (and it really worked in that film), and after having seen both films, I much prefer Riley’s more natural comedic tendencies. This movie is a fantastic referendum on some very important social issues, and it just missed out on cracking my Top 10. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQKiRpiVRQM.

No. 12 – Roma

RomaRoma is a Spanish-language film directed, co-produced, written, co-edited, and shot by Alfonso Cuarón. Set in the early 1970s in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, the film (described as a semi-autobiographical story based on Cuarón’s childhood) follows Cleodegaria “Cleo” Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio), a domestic worker who lives with and works for the family of Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and Sofia (Marina de Tavira).

Roma is slow movie (like, really slow), although this sort of movie doesn’t always work, the cinematic style of Roma undeniably impresses – this is predominantly because Cuarón is its creator. In Roma, Cuarón’s dialogue is poetically deliberate, his camerawork is stunningly cautious, and his pace is delightfully unhurried. The Oscar-winning filmmaker – who has written and directed an amazing collection of films, including Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, and Gravity – has developed a film in Roma that tells a story that is deeply genuine and features plot points that are both heartwarming and heartrending. Aparicio is utterly outstanding in the lead role of Cleo – as various life events cause Cleo to endure a wide range of feelings, including happiness, sadness, loss, helplessness, and hopefulness, you feel each and every one of them right along with her throughout the entire journey. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BS27ngZtxg.

No. 13 – Isle of Dogs

Isle of DogsIsle of Dogs is a stop-motion-animated film by writer/director Wes Anderson. The film is set in a dystopian-version of Japan in the not-so-distant future where all dogs – following a canine flu outbreak – have been exiled to an unenviable island. Against that backdrop, the story follows a young boy named Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) as he joins forces with a few dogs on the island – including Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) – to find his lost dog Spots.

At last, Wes Anderson is back – and by “back,” I mean “wow, Wes Anderson has finally returned to the wonderful storytelling and filmmaking that made me a fan of his in the first place.” I know Anderson’s last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was nominated for nine Oscars and won four of them, but I hated it – I found the story to be bland, the dialogue to be stilted, and the film as a whole to be too heavily reliant on Anderson’s signature style. But in Isle of Dogs, Anderson has won me back over – it is essentially a combination of the distinctive stop-motion-animated style that made Fantastic Mr. Fox so remarkable and the sweet, funny, and selfless depiction of childhood innocence that made Moonrise Kingdom one of my favorite movies of all time. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dt__kig8PVU.

No. 14 – Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap is a documentary by filmmaker Bing Liu. Filmed over the course of more than a decade, Minding the Gap chronicles the lives of Liu and his two friends, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan, with the common thread being their shared love of skateboarding. Although the movie starts out with this simple premise, it slowly evolves into a deep and emotional exploration of the lasting traumatic effects of issues relating to race, economic hardship, and domestic abuse.

For me, the best documentaries are those that make you think and make you feel in a unique way – Minding the Gap definitely checks those boxes with ease. One of the most intriguing parts of this film is the fact that the director is personal friends with his film’s subjects – but Liu pulls no punches. Instead, he examines the complicated lives of Keire and Zack with raw emotion and undeniable honesty, and it is this aspect of purity in Liu’s filmmaking that makes Minding the Gap so emotionally affecting. Despite the remarkable exploration of his friends’ lives, the highlight of the film was when Liu turned the camera (and the plot of the film) back onto himself and his own upbringing – what a moment! This film is currently streaming on Hulu, and I encourage everyone to go check it out – you will not be disappointed. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5Vm_Awe3bw.

No. 15 – Crazy Rich Asians

asians6.0Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic dramedy (directed by Jon M. Chu and written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim) based on the bestselling novel of the same name, which follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese American economics professor at NYU who travels overseas with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to meet his family. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick’s family turns out to be among the wealthiest in all of Singapore. Dating one of Singapore’s most eligible bachelors, Rachel finds herself having to fend off envious women within Asian high society. But the more imposing task for Rachel is vying for the approval of Nick’s domineering mother (Michelle Yeoh).

I will be honest – generally speaking, romantic dramedies aren’t my cup of tea. Unless they are done exceptionally well, I just can’t get into them. With all of that said, Crazy Rich Asians is definitely one of the best I’ve seen in the genre (ranking up there near my favorites, such as Love Actually and Crazy, Stupid, Love). Although I have not read the film’s source material, director Jon Chu’s vision in bringing this unique story to the screen was magnificent – this beautiful movie was the first from a major Hollywood studio in 25 years to feature an Asian director and a mostly Asian cast, all helmed by an Asian director. The story was refreshing, the visuals were colorful and arresting, and the movie’s cast of characters was absolutely entertaining – aside from the superb performances by the film’s leads, Awkwafina nearly stole the show as the wacky sidekick Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s best friend from college. Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQ-YX-5bAs0.

The Return of My Annual “Countdown to the Oscars” and Best Original Song and Score

Dolby TheatreLast year, after five consecutive Academy Awards seasons of active blogging here on The Reel Countdown, I was unable to devote any time at all to posting about the year in movies due to a very busy work schedule – in fact, my only post during the run-up to the Oscars last year was simply sharing my ballot and providing a ranked list of all the movies I had watched from 2017. However, I am thrilled to say that my annual “Countdown to the Oscars” is back (is this where I say “and better than ever”?), and I am looking forward to sharing my thoughts with you on the best in film from 2018 over the course of the next three weeks as we approach the 91st Academy Awards ceremony, which is set to take place on Sunday, February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California.

Since it has been a couple of years since I’ve blogged through an Oscars season, here’s a recap on the structure of posts you can expect to see on The Reel Countdown: (1) my “Top 10 Films of the Year” (including an “Honorable Mentions” post within the next couple of days, which will break down the five films that just missed out on cracking my list this year), (2) my own personal Oscars ballot (i.e., not a prediction of who will win but rather how I would vote if I had one) for some of the year’s major categories, based on this year’s nominees, and (3) a recap of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony, which will highlight the most noteworthy moments from the broadcast.

I am kicking off this year’s edition of The Reel Countdown with my ballot for the two musical categories at the Oscars – Song and Score!

My ballot for Best Original Song is as follows:

WINNER: “Shallow” from A Star Is Born – Music and Lyrics by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andew Wyatt

rev-1-asib-trl-9090r_high_res_jpeg-1-_wide-3afaaddfb18a9a5732dbd6843e417c693a5949fb-s800-c85In my opinion, no original song better embodied the spirit of its film’s story arc this year than “Shallow,” a beautiful ballad performed as a duet in the film by Jackson Maine (played by Bradley Cooper) and Ally (played by Lady Gaga). The lyrics and musical composition are clearly stunning, but it is the chemistry of the film’s lead characters and their undeniable harmony on the song that truly make “Shallow” one of the film’s greatest assets. Needless to say, I was very excited to see the video pop up online this week of Lady Gaga bringing Bradley Cooper on stage at a Vegas concert to perform the song with her. I cannot wait to see these two light up the stage again on Oscars night – sign me up for any chance to see Gaga belt out her now-iconic “haaa-ah-ah-ah, haaawaah, ha-ah-ah-aaah” line!

2. “All the Stars” from Black Panther – Music by Mark Spears, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, and Anthony Tiffith; Lyrics by Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, Anthony Tiffith, and Solana Rowe

3. “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Music and Lyrics by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

4. “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns – Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

5. “I’ll Fight” from RBG – Music and Lyrics by Diane Warren

 

My ballot for Best Original Score is as follows:

WINNER: Black Panther – Ludwig Göransson

Ludwig+Goransson+Los+Angeles+World+Premiere+pQZWs79_UlAlBlack Panther is obviously one of the best superhero movies of all time – the acting is superb, the story is unique and fresh, and writer/director Ryan Coogler’s vision is magnificent. But for me, the glue that held all of Black Panther‘s many incredible pieces together was Ludwig Göransson’s thrilling musical score. Göransson’s composition offers brilliance in all of the classical aspects of film scoring, but what sets Black Panther apart is his masterful incorporation of traditional African instrumentation and booming sounds influenced by today’s hip-hop (the latter of which comes as no surprise, considering Göransson is a frequent collaborator of rap’s inimitable Childish Gambino). The Black Panther score is truly magical!

2. Mary Poppins Returns – Marc Shaiman

3. If Beale Street Could Talk – Nicholas Britell

4. BlacKkKlansman – Terence Blanchard

5. Isle of Dogs – Alexandre Desplat

Review: My Oscars Ballot and Countdown (2016)

For the fifth consecutive year, my annual “Countdown to the Oscars” has concluded. And, the Oscars are TONIGHT! In preparation for tonight’s ceremony, I have provided below my personal Oscars ballot—it includes my ranking of each nominee in the eleven categories in which I have seen each nominated film/performance. I have also included my final list of the Top 10 Films of 2016.

Check out my ballot, revisit my reviews of the year’s best films, and make sure to tune into the 89th Academy Awards tonight at 7:30pm (CST) on ABC, live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, CA. Enjoy, film fans!

89th Academy Awards Nominations (My Ballot)

Best Picture

  1. Manchester by the Sea
  2. Hell or High Water
  3. Arrival
  4. Moonlight
  5. Lion
  6. La La Land
  7. Fences
  8. Hidden Figures
  9. Hacksaw Ridge

Best Actor

  1. Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
  2. Denzel Washington (Fences)
  3. Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
  4. Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
  5. Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)

Best Actress

  1. Natalie Portman (Jackie)
  2. Emma Stone (La La Land)
  3. Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
  4. Ruth Negga (Loving)
  5. Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
  2. Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
  3. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)
  4. Dev Patel (Lion)
  5. Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
  2. Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)
  3. Viola Davis (Fences)
  4. Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
  5. Nicole Kidman (Lion)

Best Director

  1. Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
  2. Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
  3. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
  4. Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
  5. Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)

Best Original Screenplay

  1. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
  2. Hell or High Water (Taylor Sheridan)
  3. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
  4. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)
  5. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou)

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney)
  2. Fences (August Wilson)
  3. Arrival (Eric Heisserer)
  4. Lion (Luke Davies)
  5. Hidden Figures (Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi)

Best Original Score

  1. La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
  2. Lion (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka)
  3. Moonlight (Nicholas Britell)
  4. Jackie (Mica Levi)
  5. Passengers (Thomas Newman)

Best Cinematography

  1. Arrival (Bradford Young)
  2. La La Land (Linus Sandgren)
  3. Moonlight (James Laxton)
  4. Lion (Greig Fraser)
  5. Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)

Best Film Editing

  1. La La Land (Tom Cross)
  2. Arrival (Joe Walker)
  3. Hell or High Water (Jake Roberts)
  4. Moonlight (Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon)
  5. Hacksaw Ridge (John Gilbert)

Top 10 Films of the Year:

  1. Manchester by the Sea
  2. Hell or High Water
  3. Arrival
  4. Moonlight
  5. Lion
  6. O.J.: Made in America
  7. La La Land
  8. Fences
  9. Zootopia
  10. Nocturnal Animals

 

Full List of Films I Saw from 2016: Ranked from 1 – 53

1 Manchester by the Sea
2 Hell or High Water
3 Arrival
4 Moonlight
5 Lion
6 O.J.: Made in America
7 La La Land
8 Fences
9 Zootopia
10 Nocturnal Animals
11 13th
12 Gleason
13 Hidden Figures
14 Hacksaw Ridge
15 Green Room
16 Captain Fantastic
17 Don’t Breathe
18 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
19 Sully
20 Jackie
21 Weiner
22 20th Century Women
23 Morris from America
24 Finding Dory
25 Hands of Stone
26 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
27 Elle
28 The Birth of a Nation
29 Tickled
30 The Program
31 Silence
32 The Witch
33 Amanda Knox
34 Loving
35 The Shallows
36 Bad Moms
37 Florence Foster Jenkins
38 Allied
39 Keanu
40 Office Christmas Party
41 Nerve
42 The Lobster
43 Passengers
44 The Brothers Grimsby
45 The Neon Demon
46 Sausage Party
47 Me Before You
48 The Girl on the Train
49 Suicide Squad
50 The Secret Life of Pets
51 Moonwalkers
52 The Choice
53 The Divergent Series: Allegiant

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 1 – Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a drama written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. The film tells the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). Following the sudden and unexpected death of Lee’s older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee becomes the legal guardian of Patrick, Joe’s son. The story then follows Lee back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, as he must deal with his new role while balancing issues with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the North Shore community.

In every single way, Manchester by the Sea is an absolutely and unequivocally perfect movie—and it all starts with its visionary filmmaker, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan. As I wrote when I briefly previewed the film on the Honorable Mentions post of my Fall Preview last August, until Manchester by the Sea, I was completely unfamiliar with Lonergan as a director. However, I did have some understanding of Lonergan as a screenwriter, as he was previously nominated for Best Original Screenplay for penning the dramatically intense and entertainingly sharp script for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002). It was this fact that originally piqued my interest in the film. man8Although Gangs of New York was stunningly imaginative in its storytelling, it is in Manchester by the Sea that Lonergan has penned his magnum opus. I will not sugarcoat anything, though—this story is sad, distressing, and emotionally heart-wrenching, and it had me crying throughout. However, Lonergan spectacularly mixes in the perfect dose of humor. In Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan has crafted one of the most comedic melodramas known to cinema—although that sounds like a textbook oxymoron, Lonergan embraces the contradiction and defies all traditional notions of screenwriting principles.

Lonergan’s storytelling techniques in Manchester by the Sea are nothing short of incredibly effective and manifestly felicitous.man5 The story is simple: Lee, a dejected handyman living in a basement apartment in Boston, must return to his hometown following his brother Joe’s death, where he learns that Joe has chosen him to be the legal guardian of Patrick, Joe’s teenage son. We quickly learn that Lee is angst-ridden with the return to his hometown, and Lonergan brilliantly refuses to give the audience any quick answers as to why Lee is so particularly apprehensive about coming back—all that we know is that Lee lives a despondent life due to some family tragedy. Over the course of the film, Lonergan slowly unveils the heartrending truth behind Lee’s downward spiral, impeccably utilizing flashbacks to tell that story. To say anything more about the plot would give away far too much—but I assure you, the truth is more painful than you can imagine, and Lonergan tugs at the audience’s heartstrings relentlessly.

In order for Lonergan to most effectively tell his story, he assembled a cast of performers who far exceeded any expectations I could ever have had. In the lead role, Casey Affleck is superlative as Lee. man4In the present, Lee is as miserable and melancholy as one could be, but in the flashbacks, he is an upbeat and enthusiastic family man. Lee is truly a tale of two men, and Affleck is better than ever in this divergent portrayal. I have always been a fan of Affleck’s work, especially in Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the latter of which earned him his first Oscar nomination, but in Manchester by the Sea, Affleck has cemented himself as one of the elites. He is quite deserving of the Oscar he will surely win for Best Actor.

Michelle Williams is also nominated for an Academy Award (in the Best Supporting Actress category), and her performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi was emotionally driven and vital to the story. Although her screen time comes at a premium, Williams, who has previously been nominated for two Oscars, brings an emotionally packed punch to every scene she is in.

MBTS_3869.CR2

One of the single greatest scenes in the film, which truly captures the pain and sorrow of its plotline, depicts Lee and Randi unintentionally encountering one another in town. Again, to speak about the scene in any more detail would reveal far too much about the story, but trust me when I say that it makes for the textbook tear-jerker. Both actors bring a keen sense of virtuosity to the scene, and it stands out as one of the biggest highlights of the film.

Further, the film features exquisite supporting performances from Kyle Chandler and star-in-the-making Lucas Hedges. Chandler is a seasoned film veteran, and as Lee’s brother Joe, he is superb—each flashback scene benefits greatly from his presence and acting prowess. But Lucas Hedges nearly steals the show as Patrick, Joe’s teenage son. Patrick tries to hide his emotions about his father’s death by focusing on hockey, his rock band, and his two (yes, two) girlfriends. 636149906567091653-mbts-1236-rHedges brings a refreshing sense of innocence to his character, but he does so with spectacular deftness, as if his filmography was busting at the seams with experience. His apt for acting is particularly elucidating in scenes where Patrick is at his most vulnerable—when he finally comes to grips with father’s death, the moment hits you like a ton of bricks, all thanks to Hedges’s passionate commitment to the role. This kid is sure to do big things in the years to come. Manchester by the Sea is rated R for language throughout and some sexual content.

Manchester by the Sea trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsVoD0pTge0

Academy Award nominations for Manchester by the Sea:

Best Picture (Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck, and Kevin J. Walsh)

Best Director (Kenneth Lonergan)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Casey Affleck)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Lucas Hedges)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Michelle Williams)

Best Original Screenplay (Kenneth Lonergan)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. Hell or High Water
  2. Arrival
  3. Moonlight
  4. Lion
  5. O.J.: Made in America
  6. La La Land
  7. Fences
  8. Zootopia
  9. Nocturnal Animals

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 2 – Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is a western film directed by David Mackenzie, with an original screenplay by Taylor Sheridan.  The film follows Toby (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) as they carry out a series of bank robberies in West Texas in an effort to scrape together enough funds to save their family’s ranch. However, two Texas Rangers, led by Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), are right on the Howard brothers’ heels the entire way.

To be completely honest, until Hell or High Water was released theatrically in August, I had barely any knowledge about what the film was even about—if it were not for my favorite film podcast reviewing the movie shortly after its release, I would not have even been able to give someone a cursory description of the plot. I did not end up seeing the film until December, but when I finally did, I tweeted this:

hell5If my No. 1 film did not exist this year, Hell or High Water would have clearly ended up with my coveted “Best Film of the Year” moniker—the movie is exhilarating. Hell or High Water is directed by David Mackenzie, who is a familiar face on my list: Two years ago, his unbelievably raw prison drama Starred Up ranked as my No. 4 film of the year. This year, Mackenzie is back with an even better movie. Just as with Starred Up, his knack for shameless filmmaking is clearly evident here, and his direction is self-assured and impeccable.

161112a_0092-683x1024Helping Mackenzie along the way is Taylor Sheridan’s perfect (yes, perfect) script. Sheridan’s screenwriting debut was in last year’s Sicario, another of my favorite films, and in Hell or High Water, he has continued to tap into his screenwriting strengths, penning a script that is both emotionally visceral and distinctively enigmatic. Hell or High Water is the single greatest modern western since the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture-winner No Country for Old Men (2007), and to be honest, I actually like this one better (which seems almost sinful to say, considering No Country for Old Men is utterly amazing)—Hell or High Water is a much broader and deeper character study, causing you to be emotionally invested into the back-stories of nearly all of its characters. Needless to say, Mackenzie and Sheridan have crafted a classic in the western genre.

hell3To top it all off, Hell of High Water is masterfully acted. Chris Pine has made his mark in Hollywood as the current Captain Kirk in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, but in this film, he proves that his acting chops are worthy of broader critical praise. His character devises the plan to rob local banks in order to “stick it to the man,” as those very banks threatened to take his family’s ranch. In carrying out these robberies, Pine’s Toby is focused and resolute. This is much the opposite of his brother Tanner, brilliantly played by Ben Foster. In films like Alpha Dog, 3:10 to Yuma, and 2016’s The Program, Foster has long proved that he is an incredibly talented artist; however, he gives the best performance of his career as Tanner Howard. 1_HR6A9395.CR2Tanner is a former convict who has been recently paroled, and the idea of risking his freedom for more crimes does not faze him one bit—in fact, Tanner embraces it. While Toby is more concentrated during the robberies, Tanner is a bit more erratic. In one scene, while the brothers are taking a break from their robberies to eat lunch at a local diner, Tanner walks across the street to single-handedly rob another bank, risking the entire operation. Tanner is intense and unpredictable, and Foster portrays these characteristics with precision.

hell1However, as can be expected, the show is stolen by a vintage performance by Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Bridges is clearly one of the best to ever do it, and he channels that first-rate acting in Hell or High Water. Closing in on his retirement, Marcus spends much of his time joking with his partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), and contemplating life. However, when it comes to chasing the Howard brothers across West Texas, Marcus is as focused as ever. The character is methodical and precise in his investigation, and Bridges plays it beautifully—this is definitely one of those performances I will remember for a long time. Hell or High Water is rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality.

Hell or High Water trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQoqsKoJVDw

Academy Award nominations for Hell of High Water:

Best Picture (Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jeff Bridges)

Best Original Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan)

Best Film Editing (Jake Roberts)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016: 

  1. Arrival
  2. Moonlight
  3. Lion
  4. O.J.: Made in America
  5. La La Land
  6. Fences
  7. Zootopia
  8. Nocturnal Animals