The Fifth Annual “Countdown to the Oscars” and 2016’s Honorable Mentions

For the fifth consecutive year, welcome back to The Reel Countdown, my annual “Countdown to the Oscars” blog, which now, for the first time ever, officially has its own domain name: http://www.thereelcountdown.com. In just 14 days, the 89th Academy Awards will be broadcasted live from the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California, and over the next two weeks, I look forward to sharing with you my favorite films from 2016.

For the past few years, this blog has included a breakdown of my “Top 15 Films of the Year,” as well as my own personal Oscars ballot for the year’s major categories. However, starting this year, the countdown of my favorite films of the year will be reduced to a “Top 10”—life has gotten much busier since last year!

After a fantastic year of film in 2016, the lead up to the Academy Awards has produced a number of interesting storylines: La La Land tied All About Eve and Titanic for the most nominations by a single film (14!), the Academy nominated one of the most diverse group of nominees ever, Meryl Streep extended her own record for most nominations by a single actor to 20, Mel Gibson was effectively forgiven by Hollywood after notching a Best Director nomination, and O.J.: Made in America became the longest film to ever be nominated in any category (467 minutes). With late-night funnyman Jimmy Kimmel set to host for the first time, this year’s Oscars will surely entertain on all levels.

I am kicking off my fifth annual countdown by announcing the five films that just missed out on making my list of the Top 10 Films of 2016. Here are my five Honorable Mentions:

No. 11 – 13th

13th is a Netflix original documentary by director Ava DuVernay that explores race, the criminal justice system, and the social consequences of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In 13th, DuVernay examines how the drafters of the 13th Amendment, while ending slavery in its more traditional form, left themselves an “out” to continue enslaving blacks in America via imprisonment for shockingly inconsequential charges.

To put it simply, 13th is one of the year’s most important films. Not only is it important on a broad humanistic level, it is also as relevant as ever given Donald Trump’s extensive racially unconscious and divisive rhetoric (which director Ava DuVernay portrays in one particularly unflinching scene). Growing up and living in a vastly conservative region of the United States (where it is completely normal to see someone proudly flying the Rebel flag), I have seen firsthand how a wide range of people consider blacks to generally be “criminals,” and DuVernay, with meticulousness and dexterity, examines the roots of this unfounded terror and dehumanization. Exploring D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the “Jim Crow” laws, President Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” and President Clinton’s “Three Strikes” rule, DuVernay delineates how America has fostered a prejudice for those of color. Everything 13th investigates has clearly been done so with exhaustive, in-depth research, and DuVernay has created one of the year’s most thought-provoking films. Bravo!

No. 12 – Gleason

Gleason is a documentary that follows, with extraordinary access, the life of former New Orleans Saints hero Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed in 2011 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). This film tells the inspirational story of Gleason’s fight against this rare and incurable disease, delving deep into his relationship with his wife, the birth of his son at the beginning of his diagnosis, and his faith.

Gleason is definitely one of the year’s best films (documentary or narrative), and I advise anyone that subscribes to Amazon Prime to make it a priority to watch it. But I will warn you now: PREPARE FOR TEARS! The filmmakers explore Gleason’s diagnosis from every angle and do not sugarcoat anything—they show you the fight and determination of Gleason’s family as they react to the initial diagnosis, but they also examine the real and undeniable daily struggles that come with ALS. This film definitely hits the heart in astonishing ways, but despite the pain and sadness that embody the nature of Steve Gleason’s disease, the story of inspiration and hope reigns supreme.

No. 13 – Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a biographical drama directed by Theodore Melfi, with a screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. The film tells the true-life story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three black female mathematicians working for NASA during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Hidden Figures follows the three women as they break a wide range of racial barriers in the early 1960s, including Johnson’s integral role in calculating flight trajectories for John Glenn’s infamous Friendship 7 mission, where he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Hidden Figures is heartwarming and relevant as ever—not only does it tackle the severe racial tensions of the 1960s, but it also digs into the even more challenging life of a black female during the middle part of the 20th century. The film introduces the world to three extraordinary women who helped shape America’s role in space exploration, and it inspirationally communicates to all girls, especially young black females, that they are just as worthy as their male counterparts in all aspects of life. Hidden Figures is an empowering film, and it is just what America needed during this tumultuous time in our history.

No. 14 – Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is a war drama directed by Oscar winner Mel Gibson, with a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. The film tells the amazing true-life story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a combat medic during World War II who, as a devout Christian, refused to carry and/or use a weapon. During the Battle of Okinawa, Doss single handedly rescued over 75 American soldiers at Hacksaw Ridge, earning him the Medal of Honor—this was the first time the highest military honor had ever been bestowed upon a conscientious objector.

Over the past decade, Hollywood has unofficially blacklisted Mel Gibson following the anti-Semitic comments he made during a DUI arrest in 2006, which has been evidenced by the big studios’ blatant cold shoulder. However, with Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson has returned to the level of filmmaking genius that earned him numerous Oscars for Braveheart—clearly, the Academy took notice, bestowing upon Gibson another Best Director nomination. In addition to Gibson’s direction, Andrew Garfield gives one of the year’s best performances as Desmond Doss—Garfield provided poise and nuance to his real-life character, and the film benefits from his talent. Although the film is far too preachy for my tastes, the incredible action sequences make it well worth the watch.

No. 15 – Green Room

Green Room is a thriller written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. The film follows the Ain’t Rights, a punk rock band traveling through the Pacific Northwest who, in desperate need of cash, agree to play a gig at a neo-Nazi skinhead club. After the concert, band member Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) returns to the green room to retrieve a cell phone, only to witness a recently committed murder. When Pat and his band members attempt to alert the police, the club’s brass, at the direction of ringleader Darcy (Patrick Stewart), lock the Ain’t Rights in the club’s green room. In thrilling fashion, the rest of the film follows the group’s attempts to make it out alive.

The first time I came across the work of Jeremy Saulnier was in 2014 when I watched his masterpiece of a film, Blue Ruin. Although Green Room does not achieve the same degree of amazement as his previous film, Saulnier has returned to the same well to craft an exhilarating adventure that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Green Room is harrowing and sadistic in its depiction of the dark side of the punk rock scene as it relates to the skinhead subculture; however, Saulnier constructs this horror with composed skill. Led by exceptional performances from the late Anton Yelchin and Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself (Patrick Stewart), Green Room is a wild and crazy adventure that is a must-see!

Top 15 Films of 2014, No. 7 – Blue Ruin

BlueRuin1Blue Ruin is a thriller written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. The film follows Dwight (Macon Blair), a mysterious vagrant who learns that the man convicted of killing his parents is being released from prison. Dwight then spirals into a rage of vengeance, simultaneously putting his estranged family in harm’s way.

BlueRuin2I am guessing that most of you (if not all of you) have never heard of Blue Ruin (it is streaming on Netflix, though, so go check it out now). The project is only the second feature film by its relatively unknown director Jeremy Saulnier. The story of how Blue Ruin came to be is extraordinary. After years of obscurity, Saulnier wrote the script for Blue Ruin and threw all of his eggs in one basket to get this thing filmed—he and his wife essentially sacrificed every last dollar they had to help fund the movie. How they got the rest of the money for the budget (which is said to have been less than $300K) is the truly remarkable story—it was achieved via a Kickstarter campaign. With enough money to produce the film, Saulnier enlisted his childhood best friend Macon Blair to serve as the movie’s leading man. An independent movie at its very core, Blue Ruin ended up winning the coveted FIPRESCI Prize as a part of the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. This accolade led to Saulnier being able to run his film up and down the film-festival circuit, and its growing critical success landed Blue Ruin theatrical and VOD releases in April of 2014. The film’s story (which I will get to next) is masterful, and given the fact that the film’s own production once hung so delicately in the balance, I am most appreciative for its release.

BlueRuin6Blue Ruin is not your average revenge thriller. This is so for two obvious reasons: (1) how quickly Saulnier’s ditches the actual revenge and (2) the fumbling, untried nature of the film’s “hero.” Most revenge thrillers thrive off of the retribution storyline for the entire duration of the film—Saulnier shreds that stereotypical feature into pieces. The film is just an hour and a half in length, but within 20 minutes, Dwight has already faced his parents’ killer and that strand of the story is complete. That leaves 110 minutes for this film to continue with the most obvious plot-point already over. This is what makes Blue Ruin so good—it dispenses with the retaliatory scheme and moves on to something even more brutal, violent, and exhilarating. So the revenge was only the beginning; it is merely a starting point for the story of a grudging family feud that acts more as an exposition on the limits of “settling scores.” The entire film is shot beautifully, and Saulnier’s storytelling technique is dark, bleak, and unnerving, and Blue Ruin succeeded in constantly keeping me on the edge of my seat.

Blue Ruin3The film’s lead character Dwight is one of the most out-of-place people in revenge-film history, and that is exactly why it works so seamlessly with the bigger story in Blue Ruin. Macon Blair portrays the drifter effortlessly, and he does a stellar job in bringing out the more obvious of Dwight’s characteristics, as well as the subtle ones. Most revenge/thriller movies have a heroic character that jumps in to save the day in the most macho-like ways. The character will usually be a tall, strapping individual with a penchant for fearlessness; however with Dwight, you will get no such thing. He is a small, soft-spoken, and inexact man, and these qualities make for the most implausible of avengers. Throughout the movie, you feel for Dwight as he struggles to face the violent events that have unfolded, and the fear in his eyes is unbearably noticeable—how will he ever live to see another day? Dwight’s complexities are portrayed immaculately, and Blair’s leading performance anchors this astonishing indie film.

BlueRuin4The film also has some valuable supporting performances that ensure the film’s plot is carried out creatively throughout its duration. Most of the actors will be completely unknowns (including its lead Macon Blair, for that matter), but there are two that you will know, even if you do not immediately recognize them. Playing the role of Ben Gaffney, one of Dwight’s old high-school friends, is Devin Ratray—you know him better as Buzz from the Home Alone films. BlueRuin5Also, there is a surprise appearance from Eve Plumb, better known as Jan Brady from The Brady Bunch—the 56-year-old actress portrays Kris Cleland, a member of the family that is out to get Dwight. Blue Ruin is rated R for strong bloody violence and language.

Blue Ruin trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJo1qrr_8Hc

Academy Award nominations for Blue Ruin:

NONE

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2014:

  1. American Sniper
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. Birdman
  4. Fury
  5. Calvary
  6. Interstellar
  7. Gone Girl
  8. The Lego Movie