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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Top 15 Films of the Year, No. 3 – Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark

Zero Dark Thirty is a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow, with a screenplay written by Mark Boal.  The film tells the story of Maya, a CIA operative who, for over a decade, is dedicated to a single mission—to find Osama bin Laden.  She spends every waking moment interrogating detainees and doing intense research in order to track down the world’s most wanted man.  After years of devoted work, some clues to the whereabouts of bin Laden emerge, and even though most high-ranking officials in the US government do not fully trust her about his location, Maya remains steadfast in her belief that she has finally found the infamous terrorist.

This is the second collaboration between Bigelow and Boal, the first being their Best Picture-winning film The Hurt Locker (2008).  After seeing their latest partnership at work, it is clearly evident that these two have an uncanny knack for creating spellbinding war-related movies.  Even though there are stark similarities between the two films, Zero Dark Thirty is based around true events of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden.  The movie was met with controversy due to its take on torturing detainees, but I quite enjoyed the veracity of these scenes, and without those, I feel the movie would have been significantly lacking a punch.  I truly believe this was one of the year’s most amazing films, and it will definitely be a top contender for the highest Oscar honors; with that said, it still does not quite meet the standards that The Hurt Locker originally set.

The story behind the creation of this film is fascinating.  Bigelow and Boal had originally written a screenplay about the notorious Battle of Tora Bora, and they had planned to tell the story of the long, but unsuccessful hunt for Osama bin Laden.  They were actually about to begin filming when news of bin Laden’s death broke.  Immediately, they stopped working on their original film and began to work on a brand new original screenplay about the killing of bin Laden.

Just like The Hurt Locker focused most of the movie on one particular character and his life during the war, Zero Dark Thirty concentrates on the emotional and professional growth of a single character, Maya (Jessica Chastain).  Even though there are some key supporting characters, like Dan (Jason Clarke), Patrick (Joel Edgerton), and George (Mark Strong), Maya’s character is the central figure the film uses to develop the plot.

Chastain is an actress who is rapidly gaining immense popularity due to some impressive performances in The Tree of Life (2011), The Help (2011), and Lawless (2012), and in this movie, she shows everyone why she is an Oscar-nominated actress.  She begins the movie as a shy, reluctant character, but quickly she becomes a fiery force to be reckoned with.  I was blown away by her portrayal of Maya, and this striking depiction may just earn her an Academy Award for Best Actress.  Zero Dark Thirty is rated R for strong violence, including brutal disturbing images, and language.

Zero Dark Thirty trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxC_JNz5Vbg

Academy Award nominations for Zero Dark Thirty:

Best Picture (Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, and Megan Ellison, Producers)

Actress in a Leading Role (Jessica Chastain)

Film Editing (Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg)

Sound Editing (Paul N.J. Ottosson)

Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal)

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

4. Skyfall

5. Django Unchained

6. Life of Pi

7. Amour

8. Les Misérables

9. Beasts of the Southern Wild

10. Looper

11. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

12. The Dark Knight Rises

13. Flight

14. The Master

15. Argo

Top 15 Films of the Year, No. 14 – The Master

The Master

The Master is a film written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson.  The movie follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran that returns home and struggles to establish a steady life outside of the military.  He eventually meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a philosophical movement, and Dodd, along with his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), accept Freddie into their group to help spread the word of “The Cause.”  Over time, however, the issues Freddie has with alcohol dependency and adapting to a post-war society create significant difficulties for the Dodd family’s advancement of “The Cause,” and Lancaster and Peggy attempt to use the ways of their teachings to help Freddie fix himself to become a disciple for their movement.

I have been a huge fan of P.T. Anderson’s films over the years, specifically Boogie Nights (1997) and There Will Be Blood (2007), so it was a given that I was going to go see this film in theaters shortly after its release during the summer.  Considering it took five years for Anderson to release his follow-up to There Will Be Blood, one of the most amazing movies of our time, I knew it was sure to be well thought out and intricately fascinating.  After the viewing the film, I instantly thought that Anderson had created a movie that was sure to receive some assortment of award nominations, but the over-complication of the plot made it something I, along with most viewers leaving the theater that day, was utterly confused by.

Given that the plot centers on the teachings of a post-war cult, it is no wonder that the film seemed rather disconnected and uninviting.  The beginning of the film started out strong—it truly seemed like P.T. Anderson’s latest film was going to be gloriously masterful, pun intended.  However, as the storyline fully came into focus, it only proceeded to drag on with exaggerated repetition.  Anderson created some downright complex characters, but by the end of the film, I did not feel like they had grown very much—it was like they all ended up right back where they began.

With all that being said, The Master is still a solid film.  In my opinion, the film is wholly carried by three stellar acting performances from the main characters.  In Phoenix’s first feature film since his fake retirement from acting a few years ago, he reminds us all why he has always been heralded as one of the best actors of his generation.  Philip Seymour Hoffman also turns in a fantastic performance in his role as the leader of the cult.  However, the brightest display of sheer acting ability came from Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd.  While she seems like an innocent and docile wife, the film, coupled with Adams’ amazing performance, reveals Peggy to be much more of a woman that pulls the strings from afar—I would argue that her character is the actual “master” that the title of the film implies.  If this film does not sound like it’s for you, at least give it a shot just to take in an astounding representation of acting by a stellar ensemble.  The Master is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, and language.

Academy Award nominations for The Master:

Actor in a Leading Role (Joaquin Phoenix)

Actor in a Supporting Role (Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Actress in a Supporting Role (Amy Adams)

The Master trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ1O1vb9AUU

And the Oscar goes to…

83rd Academy Awards, Oscar Envelope

Hey everyone!  The Oscars are only 19 days away, and this blog is about to heat up starting tomorrow.  Over the next 16 days, I will be updating this page with posts nearly every singe day.  Below I have provided a schedule of dates when I will post and the content that will be included each day.  This way, you can make sure to visit this page on any day that provides a topic that you are interested in.  These topics will include categories from my Oscars ballot and a countdown of my “Top 15 Films of the Year.”  After my Oscars ballot and list of “Top 15 Films of the Year” have been revealed, I will provide additional commentary leading up to the actual ceremony.  Feel free to comment and leave me any of your thoughts or suggestions.  Check out the schedule and make sure to follow all of the updates.

SCHEDULE OF POSTS:

2/6: #15 on the list of Top Films, Best Supporting Actress

2/7: #14 on the list of Top Films, Best Supporting Actor

2/8: #13 on the list of Top Films

2/9: #12 on the list of Top Films, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

2/10: #11 on the list of Top Films, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing

2/11: #10 on the list of Top Films

2/12: #9 on the list of Top Films, Best Adapted Screenplay

2/13: #8 on the list of Top Films, Best Original Screenplay

2/14: NO POSTS

2/15: #7 on the list of Top Films, Best Original Score

2/16: #6 on the list of Top Films, Best Actress

2/17: #5 on the list of Top Films, Best Actor

2/18: #4 on the list of Top Films

2/19: #3 on the list of Top Films

2/20: #2 on the list of Top Films, Best Director

2/21: #1 on the list of Top Films, Best Picture