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 2015, No. 1 – Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is an action adventure film directed and produced by critically acclaimed Australian filmmaker by George Miller, with a script written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris. Set in the near future in a desert wasteland where gasoline and water are scarce commodities, the film follows Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a hard-hitting solider under the control of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), as she is tasked with driving a fuel truck (known as “War Rig”) across the desert to an oil-producing station. MMFR8However, Furiosa has other plans, as she reroutes her journey in order to accomplish her true objective: She has rescued Immortan Joe’s sex slaves (known as “The Five Wives”) and intends to speed across the desert in order to free them from their concubinage. When Joe realizes what Furiosa has done, he sends out his “War Boys” to track her down and return what is his. During the chase, Furiosa eventually teams up with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a mercenary who, at the beginning of the film, was captured by Immortan Joe, and the two go to extreme lengths to ensure their survival.

MMFR10“Oh, what a day. What a lovely day.” That quote from Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of Joe’s War Boys, is one of the best quotes from Mad Max: Fury Road; but better yet, it will go down as one of the greatest quotes in film history. Not only does the quote sum up the intense action of the film’s story perfectly, but it also brilliantly describes my experience in an IMAX theater watching the movie for the first time—what a lovely day it was. In the past, deciding which movie would be ranked No. 1 on my year-end countdown was pretty easy—most of the time one sticks out above the rest. But this year, my process was incredibly difficult. MMFR3After watching The Revenant, I spent weeks constantly moving it and Mad Max interchangeably between the Nos. 1 and 2 spots. But when I decided to finalize my list, I simply could not ignore the genius of Mad Max: Fury Road. Even though the film was released in May, it has stuck with me, day in and day out. Rarely have I ever had such an engrossing experience in a theater watching a movie. I was mesmerized by everything director George Miller threw at me—with every passing minute, I knew I was witnessing pure greatness. So when it came time to decide which movie would come in at No. 1 on my list, one thing became immeasurably clear: Although The Revenant was a visionary masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road would go down as one of my absolute favorite films of all time!

MMFR16The genius of Fury Road starts with its imaginative creator, George Miller. For those that do not know, Fury Road is the fourth installment in Miller’s acclaimed Mad Max franchise (Mel Gibson played the original Max in the previous three films). Miller’s original Mad Max film and its sequel The Road Warrior are considered by many film scholars to be some of the best movies of all time. In fact, Spike Lee created a list years ago of essential films for all aspiring filmmakers to see, and both Mad Max and The Road Warrior were listed. The original films were so powerful because Miller created some of the most memorable characters, scenes, and stories to ever hit the silver screen with an incredibly small budget. The original film’s budget was just an estimated $280,000. MMFR15The third film, which boasted the most expensive budget in the franchise’s history at the time, was a meager $10 million. This is why I was so pumped for Fury Road: It would feature the same creative filmmaker making another Mad Max film, but this time he would be doing it with seemingly unlimited resources (his budget for Fury Road was $150 million). Although The Road Warrior is considered the greatest in the franchise, Fury Road beats it hands down. Rarely does a franchise’s fourth film trump the rest in terms of cinematic quality—but Fury Road has done just that.

MMFR12George Miller’s classic innovation is radiantly on display in Fury Road. The film, for all intents and purposes, is a 120-minute-long chase scene—2 hours of violent, action-packed, dusty, intense, thrilling, and downright amazing chase scenes. The visual effects are stunning, yet Miller uses mostly practical effects to execute his action sequences—the film features very little CGI. One of my favorite aspects of the film, though, is the music. Junkie XL has crafted one of the greatest scores, for me, in film history—it is a shame it was not nominated for an Oscar. MMFR5The way the music is interpolated into the plot is outstanding. Throughout the chase, Immortan Joe’s convoy features a variety of War Boys who play music during the chase—they are essentially a war band, featured smack dab on the frontline. The music the War Boys band plays is the film’s score—it is a brilliant juxtaposition of score and story. The best part of the band: The Doof Warrior (Australian entertainer iOTA), a heavy-metal musician who hangs from the front of a truck, blasting his twin-necked electric guitar, which itself doubles as a flamethrower. Only someone as groundbreaking as George Miller could think this stuff up.

As everyone knows, I am a devoted fan of Tom Hardy. In Fury Road, he takes on the iconic role of Max brilliantly. However, his speaking parts are limited and his worth is merely conveyed through subtle “looks.” Despite not speaking much, Hardy portrays Max with soulful air of mystery, and this nuanced performance is effective. MMFR6The real story of the film, however, is Imperator Furiosa and Miller’s feminist ambitions. In a film where Tom Hardy’s character leads in the titular role, Charlize Theron steals the show (for which she really should have received an Oscar nod). Fury Road is truly an exposition of female domination, and I bought in 100%. Max is merely a placeholder at times, while Theron’s Furiosa is the real protagonist—she is the heroine modern film so desperately needed. Although Furiosa only has one arm (the other is a prosthetic), she never pities herself. She is a strong, independent woman who is tougher than nails. MMFR4Her goal: to rescue Immortan Joe’s “Five Wives” from their sex slavery. Can it get any more “girl power” than that? I read this week that George Miller actually brought in Eve Ensler, the author of “The Vagina Monologues,” to prepare the “Five Wives” (Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee Kershaw, and Courtney Eaton) for their roles in the film—this only adds to the obviousness of Miller’s intentions. In a franchise where Max and a variety of other “he-man” characters have pervaded the storyline, Fury Road ushers in an unsurpassed era of female gallantry. Mad Max: Fury Road is rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout and for disturbing images.

Mad Max: Fury Road trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEJnMQG9ev8

Academy Award nominations for Mad Max: Fury Road:

Best Picture (Doug Mitchell and George Miller, producers)

Best Director (George Miller)

Best Cinematography (John Seale)

Best Costume Design (Jenny Beavan)

Best Sound Editing (Mark A. Mangini and David White)

Best Sound Mixing (Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff, and Ben Osmo)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling (Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega, and Damian Martin)

Best Visual Effects (Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, and Andy Williams)

Best Film Editing (Margaret Sixel)

Best Production Design (Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. The Revenant
  2. The Big Short
  3. Sicario
  4. Ex Machina
  5. Spotlight
  6. Straight Outta Compton
  7. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  8. Steve Jobs
  9. Creed
  10. ’71
  11. Room
  12. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  13. Beasts of No Nation
  14. The Martian