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

avaduvernay13th 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.

13thTo 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-1Gleason 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-2Gleason 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 Day 41

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-2Hidden 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

hr-1Hacksaw 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.

mel-gibson-hacksaw-ridge

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-anton-pootsGreen 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.

green-room-2The 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!

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My Review of the 87th Academy Awards

 

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A15Well, this year’s Oscars have officially come and gone, and at this point, I am already excited for next year’s show. But before I start preparing for another amazing year in film, I wanted to share my reactions of last night’s broadcast with all of you. I really enjoyed the look of this year’s show. I could not get over the backdrop that the presenters walked out from to the stage. It looked like an old-school movie theater and included vintage-clothed ushers—it was awesome!! As I have stated in years past, the Academy Awards simply cannot continue lasting 3.5+ hours. By the time it finally gets to the final six awards or so (which are usually the ones people care about anyways), everyone in America is dead tired—yes, that includes me, the giant film fan! I did greatly enjoy Neil Patrick Harris as the host (as I suspected I would), and his vast experience as a showman paid large dividends to the quality of last night’s ceremony. However, his attempt at comedy did not live up to the “gold standard” that Ellen set last year (PLEASE BRING ELLEN BACK).

This year’s Oscars, like most years, had some tremendous moments, some not-so-tremendous moments, and some downright unforgettable moments, and I am pleased to share my reactions to all of the major highlights from a successful Academy Awards ceremony:

Best Moment: (Tie: The show’s opening number AND Julie Andrews)

A7As I predicted about a month ago, Neil Patrick Harris utilized his time during the traditional “monologue segment” to sing and dance—it did not disappoint. NPH performed a song called “Moving Pictures,” a fantastic ode to the movies over the years that spark an undeniable imagination in each of us as viewers of cinema (the song was penned by Robert Lopez and wife Kristin Anderson-Lopez—the couple took home the Oscar for Best Original Song last year for “Let It Go” from Frozen). The song poked some harmless fun at Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and included a fantastic cameo from Into the Woods star Anna Kendrick. One of the funniest parts of the musical number was Jack Black, rising from the crowd to the stage to perform hilariously cynical lyrics about the film industry, only to have Kendrick throw her Cinderella slipper at him for ruining the moment. It was a breath of fresh air compared to the usual joke-filled, completely oratory monologue.

A5Also, let’s give a round of applause for Julie Andrews. When it comes to musicals, Dame Julie Andrews is the best to ever do it! This year is the 50th Anniversary of the iconic film The Sound of Music, and Lady Gaga delivered one of the best musical performances of the night in her tribute to the film’s best songs. Julie Andrews (the star in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music) long ago set the bar extremely high for what a musical performance on the silver screen should look and sound like. She is one of the greatest actresses in film history, and her presence (and validation of Gaga’s performance) was amazing.

Worst Moment: (Sean Penn’s “green card” comment)

A14Last night Sean Penn brought some actual racism to the show. When announcing the winner of the night’s biggest award (Best Picture), Penn preceded his reading of Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s name by stating, “Who gave this son-of-a-bitch his green card?” Although Penn and Iñárritu are friends (Penn acted in Iñárritu’s 2003 film 21 Grams) and Iñárritu later called the joke “hilarious,” it was a bit too much. Although some people knew of the two men’s history, most probably did not, and this makes for plenty of material for critics to blast the Oscars for racism.

Most Endearing Moment: (Tim McGraw’s performance)

A16Tim McGraw performed “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” the final song ever written by country-music legend Glen Campbell (the song was nominated for Best Original Song). Gwyneth Paltrow introduced McGraw by telling the story of Glen Campbell’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Campbell wrote the song to tell his family that the one silver lining to his bout with Alzheimer’s is that he will not be able to feel the pain of his loved ones. His family was in attendance, and McGraw delivered one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the entire night.

Most Boring Moment (Neil Patrick Harris’s Oscar-prediction gag)

87th Annual Academy Awards - ShowAt the beginning of the show, NPH teased that he is amazing at predicting the Oscars. He then introduced a briefcase that had been locked and overlooked by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm that tabulates the Oscar ballots. He picked out past Oscar winner Octavia Spencer from the crowd to “keep an eye” on the briefcase box during the show (which she awkwardly accepted to do), and every so often, NPH continued to discuss the locked box containing his predictions. At the end of the show, he had the box opened, revealed his predictions (which were 100% spot on about all of the night’s most memorable moments), and the crowd half-heartedly laughed along. Although it sort of had a funny ending, the gag went on way too long, and the ridiculously long ceremony should have cut that completely from the script—it was an utter waste of time.

The Most Awkward Moment: (The “Dress Covered in Balls” Lady and NPH’s subsequent, ill-timed joke)

A13When Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry were announced as winners in the Best Documentary – Short Subject category, I could not help but laugh. My amusement had nothing to do with the film but everything to do with Perry’s dress and star-struck demeanor. The two won for their documentary Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, a film about a very serious, touchy subject. Perry, dressed in a black gown that was covered with giant black pom-poms, stood on stage gawking at the stars and awkwardly waving to them. I felt bad about my entertainment with her as she then announced that the film was special to her because her own son committed suicide. It then got noticeably serious in the room. That was until NPH returned to the stage and could not help but to poke fun at Perry, stating, “It takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that.” Although Perry had just dropped the suicide bombshell on everyone, it was still ridiculously hilarious (which I admit I felt bad about, considering her revelation on stage). NPH’s double entendre was one of the best jokes of the night, but it sort of came at a less-than-opportune time.

Best Joke: (Poking fun at John Travolta’s infamous “Adele Dazeem” moment)

A17The best joke from the entire show was poking fun at John Travolta for his horribly memorable mispronunciation of Idina Menzel’s name (aka Elsa from Frozen) at last year’s ceremony. Neil Patrick Harris made a hilarious reference to Travolta’s mistake by stating that Benedict Cumberbatch is “the sound you get when you ask John Travolta to pronounce Ben Affleck.” I literally fell on the floor laughing. Then, as Idina Menzel came to the stage to announce the winner for Best Original Song, she brought out Travolta for a bit of playful revenge, introducing him as “Glom Gazingo.” Even though Travolta completely blew his chances for redemption (by weirdly stroking Menzel’s face and acting, well, like John Travolta), it was still the most hilarious moment of the night.

Worst Joke: (NPH’s A Million Ways to Die in the West reference)

A19While introducing Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain as presenters, Neil Patrick Harris referred to the two actors’ film successes, while additionally stating his own: he mentioned that he is the guy that pooped in his hat in A Million Ways to Die in the West. Some people laughed, while others did not—I was a proud “did not” laugher. For me, the joke sucked because it forced me to remember that A Million Ways to Die in the West actual was a movie that was made and that I had personally wasted nearly two hours of my precious life watching it—terrible memories, for sure.

The Most Honest Dude in the Room: (Mat Kirkby—Oscar winner for Best Live Action Short)A11

During his acceptance speech for winning an Oscar for his live-action short The Phone Call, writer/director Mat Kirkby was hilariously honest about his giddiness for winning a coveted Academy Award. Kirkby, a native of Suffolk, UK, stated, “I’m particularly happy because this now means I can get a free doughnut at my local bakery, the Pump Street Bakery.” His funny, but honest speech is a reminder that not all of the Oscar winners are multimillionaire film stars—some of these “little guys” are simply happy to be there and revel in their victory in many ways. The name-drop, however, is sure to land Kirkby more donuts from his local bakery than even he expected. A12The owner of the British bakery was later quoted as saying, “I think an Oscar win deserves more than one free coffee or doughnut, so we’re definitely going to be giving him free doughnuts for good now, as a thank you for the mention.” Looks like Kirkby’s honesty earned him a deserved treat!

Best Acceptance Speech: (Paweł Pawlikowski—the director of Ida)

A4For the very first time in Academy Awards history, a Polish film received the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film; thus, writer and director Paweł Pawlikowski had plenty to be pumped about. He gave a heart-felt speech, that included genuine emotional sentiment and some comedy, and it was the product of a man that was sincerely appreciative of the award he was simultaneously hoisting on the big stage. It had all of the same elements that other great speeches over the course of the night contained, but for me, I was most impressed by Pawlikowski giving the greatest “F.U.” to the orchestra’s “play-off” music (although he did not do it whatsoever in a rude manner). I have long been a critic of the Academy’s direction to the orchestra to cut off speeches that it deems too long because in my opinion, these speeches are not the actual cause of the horrendous length of the ceremony—instead, it is the structure of the ceremony in general by the Academy. The orchestra tried to play Pawlikowski off of the stage, and after a while (when he had not stopped thanking people) they quit. Then, shortly after, the orchestra tried again, and it was only at that point that Pawlikowski finally wrapped up. Winners of these “not-so-significant” awards are never allotted much time anyways, and if the Academy is going to recognize these winners, it needs to show the same amount of respect for them that it does for winners of awards like Best Original Score and the like. Kudos, Pawlikowski.

Best Musical Performance: (The Lego Movie’s “Everything Is Awesome”)

A10You may not believe that The Lego Movie was the best movie of the year (and you would be correct). You also may not believe that it was the best animated feature of the year (which would be debatable, but that view is clearly warranted). But I will wholeheartedly disagree with anyone that believes The Lego Movie was not one of the five best animated movies from 2014—it absolutely was. Despite the snub, “Everything Is Awesome” was still nominated for Best Original Song, and the performance that accompanied this nomination was by far the highlight musical moment from the night. Tegan & Sara and The Lonely Island both brought their respective A-games, and their performance brought an amazing “fun factor” to the traditionally buttoned-up Oscars ceremony. A6The performance included Questlove on the drums and a cameo by Will Arnett as Batman (his character in the film), and the Lego Oscars that were simultaneously handed out to various stars in the crowd added a perfect childlike flare. It was, pun clearly intended, AWESOME!

Worst Musical Performance: (Maroon 5 performing Begin Again’s “Lost Stars”)

A3I have seen Maroon 5 live in concert, so I have firsthand knowledge that lead singer Adam Levine is an impeccable performer outside of the studio. With that said, last night he sounded terrible. Now let’s be honest, I am not Simon Cowell—I simply do not know the technical intricacies of “singing.” But like most laypeople, I know when something sounds blatantly off-pitch and horrendous; unfortunately, that was Adam Levine last night. The performance was restrained and boring to start off with, and the dreadful vocal performance did not help its cause whatsoever. With amazing musical performances from the “Everything Is Awesome” collective, Jennifer Hudson, and Lady Gaga, Levine’s performance stands out—and NOT in a good way!

Top 15 Films of the Year, No. 13 – Fruitvale Station

Original byline: RON KOEBERER/

Fruitvale Station is a film written and directed by Ryan Coogler.  The film is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a young man who was killed in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer.  The movie follows Grant (Michael B. Jordan) on his last day alive as he spends time with his family before the New Year’s celebration.  The film is a scant 85 minutes in length.

Fruitvale 2Fruitvale Station is the feature-length debut by Coogler (pictured at the far left with Michael B. Jordan), a 27-year-old filmmaker who has previously made three award-winning short films.  Coogler takes a story that everyone going in already knows the ending to, and yet, he does so in a way that made me emphasize with each character, praying for the inevitable ending not to happen.  The movie has such a limited storytelling, considering it takes place all in one day (with the exception of a short flashback scene), and Coogler uses this to fully immerse the viewers into the world of Oscar Grant.  It is simple, but stylistic; heartbreaking, but beautiful.  This may be the first film from Coogler, but his inspiring debut effort has garnered critical acclaim from everyone in Hollywood—he has signed on to direct Creed, a spin-off from the Rocky series that is sure to be a blockbuster affair.

Fruitvale 1Apart from Coogler’s striking filmmaking, the movie succeeds with tremendous acting, especially from Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer.  Little by little, I have followed Jordan’s young acting career, from his early roles in the Keanu Reeves film Hardball and HBO’s The Wire to his recent appearance in Chronicle (2012).  Even from his early days in the business, I could tell Jordan had a wealth of potential, and I am glad to see that coming to fruition.  In Fruitvale Station, Jordan acts with incredible dexterity as he portrays a troubled young father trying to escape his past to provide a better life for his family.  At times, the character is brash and angry, but at other times he is sensitive and caring—Jordan’s delineation of the complicated Grant made me feel for his character no matter which way he was leaning on the emotional spectrum.  I was hoping that Jordan would receive either a Golden Globe or Oscar nomination for his performance, but this film proves that he will most likely get there, deservedly, in the near future.

One performance not to be overlooked in this film is that of Octavia Spencer in the role of Grant’s mother.  Spencer is a particularly established actress, having won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Help (2011), and even though you do not spend a large amount of time with her character, her performance is what acts as the glue to hold this tragic story together.  She plays the character with honesty and command, and her performance was definitely one of the film’s many gems.  Fruitvale Station is rated R for violence, language throughout and some drug use.

Fruitvale Station trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crMTGCCui5c

Academy Award nominations for Fruitvale Station:

NONE

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

14. The Place Beyond the Pines

15. Dallas Buyers Club