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.

This 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. Although 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.

The 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. It 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.

As 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. Even 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:

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)


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

Last 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

In 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

Black 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

Top 15 Films of 2014, No. 9 – Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians2The Guardians of the Galaxy is a Marvel-superhero production directed by James Gunn and written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman. The film follows Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an earthling that was “beamed up” by a spaceship some twenty years prior. Quill, who in outer space goes by the name “Star-Lord,” finds himself at the center of a dangerous bounty hunt after stealing an orb that the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace) wants to procure. In order to evade the stalk (and ultimately save the entire galaxy due to the orb’s true potential), Star-Lord must befriend a band of intergalactic misfits: the warrior princess Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the revenge-centric, “Hulk”-like Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), the derisive-tongued raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Rocket’s sidekick Groot (voiced and motion-captured by Vin Diesel), a tender walking tree

Guardians3Most superhero movies are the same. Obviously the plots differ somewhat and the characters are not the same, but generally speaking, they all follow the same mold: a dramatic story of how the superhero came to be, coupled with an action-packed/dramatic unraveling of the plot. There is always some sad music and some overwhelming thespian-like dramatics. Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy has some of those elements, too; but it is how this film breaks the traditional mold to carve out new ground in the superhero genre that makes its inclusion on this year-end list worthy.

Guardians4How does this Marvel production stand alone at the top in a genre that has seen box-office giants like Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and the Avengers produced by the very same production studio? Well, it is a culmination of multiple things. First, the film’s opening sequence (like that of most superhero movies), lays the foundation for the background of the story in a far superior manner to most films of this variety. The back-story for most of Marvel’s popular superheroes is only depicted because of its necessity—those films do not seem to take seriously the opportunity that they have to establish a character’s background story in a way that will evoke true, meaningful empathy from the viewers. I could not care less about how Thor’s story begins because its filmmakers did not beckon any emotion from me. This film changes that by giving viewers a more serious-toned set of circumstances that could be a quality scene in an Oscar-nominated drama.

Guardians7Second, despite the seriousness of the opening scene, it quickly turns comedic. And I do not mean “comedic” in the slap-sticky way that most superhero movies try to throw it around at random times to keep the tone on a more even keel. Instead, Guardians of the Galaxy is snappy with its humor—it is streamlined by the writers in a way that allows the movie to take on a positive, amusing tone throughout its duration like you might expect out of a critically acclaimed “comedy.” Needless to say, the dialogue is galactically represented by just the kind of wit that makes a film great.

Guardians9Third, the movie’s musical component is of much better quality than that of other superhero films (hell, even other movies in general). Not only did it contain a notable original score, it boasted an even better musical soundtrack. It features a wealth of great songs from the late-60s, 70s, and 80s (such as “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 and “Moonage Daydream” by David Bowie), and director James Gunn was quoted by IGN as saying that the music plays a culturally significant role in the story’s progression: “It’s striking the balance throughout the whole movie, through something that is very unique, but also something that is easily accessible to people at the same time. The music and the Earth stuff is one of those touchstones that we have to remind us that, yeah, [Quill] is a real person from planet Earth who’s just like you and me. Except that he’s in this big outer space adventure.” The soundtrack went on to claim the number-one spot on four separate Billboard charts (200, Top Soundtracks, Top Rock Albums, Top Digital Albums), and it even garnered a Grammy nomination. This unique sound took the film to great heights.

Guardians1Finally, the casting choices were about as good as it gets. But not only were the casting decisions made superbly, but the actual actors backed up an action-filled, hilarity-packed movie with more dynamism than the likes of Chris Evans as Captain America or Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk. The band of Avengers were obviously picked out individually for their own solo films, but the Marvel producers intended to eventually combine forces for an adaptation of the Avengers series—I say this because they do not gel with one another well whatsoever in those films. And I refer not to the characters but instead to the actors. I enjoy those movies (somewhat), but after each of them, I always feel like Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Hemsworth are, by themselves, carrying the story because the rest of them do not make me care about their respective roles. In Guardians, I bought into every single character and his or her individual plight, and the actors’ chemistry on screen is what made the movie dazzle.

Guardians5The much-in-demand Chris Pratt is a riot in his starring role, and his past work in exceptional comedies (TV and silver screen) prepared him well for this memorable performance. Zoe Saldana fits into this out-of-this-world world much smoother than Scarlett Johansson does in the Avengers series. She is more believable as a superhero, and her marvelous role as the sole female of the gang is deserved of much acclaim. Dave Bautista, as Drax, does not have to rely on CGI to appear massive on the screen (like Ruffalo as the Hulk)—he services his character well by being physically stacked (thanks to plenty of time in the weight-room, I presume), and this key feature makes the menacing character of Drax the Destroyer so larger-than-life. Vin Diesel did a noteworthy job with the motion-capture of the walking tree Groot, and this non-human character is one of the film’s most remarkable—I still walk around saying, “I am Groot.” Guardians6The best performance of all, though, is that given by three-time Oscar-nominee Bradley Cooper. The CGI creation of Rocket is marvelous in its own right, but the voice-acting performance that Cooper delivers is incredible. Obviously he is a big star in other movies, and Cooper taps into his ever-growing acting chops as the loud-mouthed Rocket to portray the sarcastic, but vulnerable nature of the group’s shortest/smallest member. Guardians of the Galaxy is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.

Guardians of the Galaxy trailer:

Academy Award nominations for Guardians of the Galaxy:

Best Visual Effects (Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner and Paul Corbould)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling (Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White)

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

  1. Birdman
  2. Fury
  3. Calvary
  4. Interstellar
  5. Gone Girl
  6. The Lego Movie

Best Original Score

The Oscar for Best Original Score is awarded to a musical composer for the best body of musical work in the form of underscoring for a particular film.  This is perennially one of my favorite Academy Award categories because in my opinion, music is essentially what makes or breaks a film.  A movie is just a bunch of images and words, but with the addition of a musical score, the film develops feeling and emotion in a way that better connects with the viewers.  This year’s nominees include four composers with deep roots at the Oscars and one well-known composer earning his first nomination (Mychael Danna).  Between the four previously nominated composers in this year’s group, they have received 61 nominations in the Best Original Score category, winning six of those.  The following is my Oscars ballot for this category, Best Original Score:

WINNER: Thomas Newman (Skyfall)

2. Mychael Danna (Life of Pi)

3. Alexandre Desplat (Argo)

4. Dario Marianelli (Anna Karenina)

5. John Williams (Lincoln)