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. 15 – The Martian

The Martian is a science-fiction film directed by Ridley Scott, with a screenplay by Drew Goddard, which is adapted from Andy Weir’s award-winning novel of the same name. The film follows Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his crew during a manned mission to Mars. In the midst of a ferocious storm, the crew presumes Watney dead, and they are forced to abandon the mission and leave Watney behind. However, it turns out Watney survived. Stranded on Mars with only limited supplies, Watney must utilize his cleverness and resourcefulness in order to signal to his counterparts on Earth that he is still alive.

The Martian 3Back in August, I ranked The Martian #7 on my list of most-anticipated films for the fall movie season. Rightfully so—this movie did not disappoint. Director Ridley Scott is one of Hollywood’s kings of science fiction (having directed Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus), and The Martian could be his best yet. Last year’s Interstellar was a science-fiction film that I greatly enjoyed, mainly because filmmaking genius Christopher Nolan was behind it. However, my only beef with it was that it was a bit too convoluted and highbrow—understanding the science was unfathomable. That complexity is what makes The Martian work. Ridley Scott did not reinvent the wheel (I mean, this movie is basically Interstellar on Mars), and yet it works on a level that most science-fiction films can never reach. That is due to the brilliant filmmaking combination of the legendary Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard. Goddard’s script is at times thrilling, but all the while humorous; it delves into scientific intricacies but keeps the tone light with constant wit. The Martian is a tasty concoction of comedy and drama, and Scott and Goddard hit this one out of the park.

The Martian 2Matt Damon received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance in The Martian, and the Academy could not have gotten this one more correct. Despite an ensemble cast, Damon rarely spends any time on screen with any of those actors and actresses; his performance is as “solo” as Harrison Ford in Star Wars (bad joke, I know). In order for a movie to work where its main character spends 90% of the film alone in solitude, it has to have a remarkable performance from its lead—Matt Damon, a seasoned veteran, supplied just that. Over the course of the film, we watch him display a wide variety of emotions: he moves from scared, to humored, to terrified, to hopeful, to exhausted, to thrilled, and Damon does so with skill and radiance. He is obviously one of the better actors of his generation, and I am hard-pressed to find any performance in his film arsenal that rivals his acting in The Martian—he gave us the perfect blend of comedic and dramatic acting.

The Martian 4In the previous paragraph, I mentioned the film’s ensemble cast; this stellar group of actors aided in the movie’s success. When we are not with Watney on Mars, we are in one of two places: (1) with Watney’s crew as it travels back towards Earth, or (2) with NASA staff back on Earth as they plot a way to rescue Watney. Those respective segments of the film work flawlessly because of the performers assembled. Watney’s crew includes Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara, and both of these stunning actresses shined in their limited screen time. Back on Earth, we see some outstanding performances from Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kristen Wiig. The Martian 5However, my favorite supporting performance was from Donald Glover (also known as “Childish Gambino,” one of my favorite rappers in the game). Glover portrays an astrodynamicist that masterminds the plan to bring Watney home, and he hilariously and charmingly portrays his character as a socially awkward savant—a genius with some fumbling eccentricities. Glover definitely stole the show in each of his scenes. The Martian is rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.

The Martian trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ej3ioOneTy8

Academy Award nominations for The Martian:

Best Picture (Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, and Mark Huffam, producers)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Matt Damon)

Best Production Design (Celia Bobak and Arthur Max)

Best Sound Editing (Oliver Tarney)

Best Sound Mixing (Paul Massey, Mark Taylor, and Mac Ruth)

Best Visual Effects (Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence, Richard Stammers, and Steven Warner)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Drew Goddard)