Tag Archives: Arrival

March Madness of Movies: Best Cinematography Since 2010 — Round 2

These matchups were vote on by the MovieMinis Staff.

Round 2 was a blood bath — not necessarily because of upsets, but because each matchup pitted such strong contenders against each other regardless of seeds.

But there were some fascinating results. While Roger Deakins went into round 2 holding on to all three of his entries, two of them got knocked out this time around. #2 seed Bradford Young for Arrival took down #3 seed Deakins for Skyfall, and #2 seed Hoyte van Hoytema for Dunkirk took down #6 seed Deakins for Sicario.

Young will compete against the powerhouse of #1 seed Mihai Malaimare Jr. for The Master, who beat #4 seed James Laxton for Moonlight. van Hoytema will face fellow Christopher Nolan cinematographer, #4 seed Wally Pfister for Inception, who (perhaps unsurprisingly, due to the popularity factor) upset #1 seed Andrew Droz Palermo for A Ghost Story.

In fact, van Hoytema remains as the most prominent competitor with two entries. His #1 seed work on Her worked by #5 seed Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for Call Me by Your Name. van Hoytema will battle #2 seed Linus Sandgren, who just squeezed by #3 seed Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity after a tie-breaking vote.

The final matchup features the last remaining entries of two of the strongest initial contenders: #1 seed Roger Deakins for Blade Runner 2049 vs. #2 seed Emmanuel Lubezki for The Tree of Life.

Breaking down the remaining contenders, half of them come from the past two years and the other four are spread between 2010 and 2013, offering a well-rounded and deserving field. The next round will be particularly painful as most of these are #1 and #2 seeds, which were so close to begin with in the initial seeding votes. And even if Wally Pfister, a #4 seed, makes it through, he’d be more than deserving as well.

Stay tuned for the round 3 results, which will be posted next week on Friday, March 30!

 

Featured image via Fox Searchlight Pictures/Paramount Pictures/Warners Bros.

March Madness of Movies: Best Cinematography Since 2010 — Round 1

These matchups were vote on by the MovieMinis Staff.

In “Best Cinematography Since 2010,” 13 of the 16 matchups went to higher seeds, with upsets only coming from middle competitions. #5 seeds Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for Call Me by Your Name and Wally Pfister for Inception bested #4 seeds Luca Bigazzi for The Great Beauty and Rodrigo Prieto for Silence, respectively, while #6 seed Roger Deakins for Sicario beat out #3 seed Dick Pope for Mr. Turner; although Roger Deakins winning is never really an upset kind of story as he’s always such a strong contender. Mukdeeprom and Pfister have big competition ahead in #1 seed Hoyte van Hoytema for Her and #1 seed Andrew Droz Palermo for A Ghost Story, while Deakins will take on #2 seed van Hoytema for Dunkirk.

While Emmanuel Lubezki had four entries initially, he only has two remaining, for #3 seed Gravity and #2 seed The Tree of Life. He’ll have a very tough road ahead of him, facing #2 seed Linus Sandgren for La La Land and #3 seed John Seale for Mad Max: Fury Road.

Both Bradford Young and Hoyte van Hoytema had three entries to start. Young’s only remaining one is his #2 seed Arrival, which will take on #3 seed Roger Deakins for Skyfall. Deakins for Skyfall is what took out van Hoytema’s #6 seed cinematography for Interstellar.

Deakins is quite clearly the strongest on this list, even if he didn’t have the most entries to begin with. All three of his are still in competition, and his #1 seed Oscar-winning work for Blade Runner 2049 will test its strength against #4 seed Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis. The final matchup will be a powerhouse of spellbinding drama photography: #1 seed Mihai Malaimare Jr. for The Master vs. #4 seed James Laxton for Moonlight.

Stay tuned for the round 2 results, which will be posted next week on Friday, March 23!

 

Featured image via Lionsgate/Warner Bros.

March Madness of Movies: Introducing the Brackets

Now that it’s March and the NCAA will be hosting its annual March Madness tournament soon, we at MovieMinis thought to have our own tournaments, but, of course, with movies.

In the bracket style of March Madness, we will run through four different topics in what we’re calling the March Madness of Movies.

But rather than stick to general topics, such as Best Superhero Movie or Best Animated Movie, we wanted to get specific, to vote on aspects of film that could potentially make for a much more fascinating tournament.

The four topics we ended up on are:

  • Best A24 Films
  • Best Superhero Villain of the 21st Century
  • Best Big Budget Directing of the 21st Century (cutoff at a $75 million production budget)
  • Best Cinematography Since 2010

In this write-up, we’re introducing the brackets, and in subsequent weeks, we will release the results of each round.

For each bracket, we laid out tons of potential contenders, and after a week of painful voting, we seeded each bracket. We must note that, in working through the seeding process, we were reminded of a terrible reality in the film industry.

In the potential contenders for Best Big Budget Directing of the 21st Century, with a cutoff at a $75 million production budget, there were only nine films directed by women, many of them with male co-directors. Only one ended up making our bracket, certainly not as a representation of talent, but as a magnification and emphasis of the problem. For perspective, there were literally hundreds directed by men, and the men were mostly white. This is a rampant problem in Hollywood. Women and people of color — and above all, women of color — are not only not given many chances, but when they are, failure, in any way, results in horribly unfair consequences; in essence, they’re less likely to get another chance than a white man is. This problem applies to cinematography too. In the potential contenders for that bracket, there was a proportionally similar compilation. While female cinematographers received votes, none made our bracket — again, not as a representation of talent, but as a magnification and emphasis of the problem. Hollywood must change, and part of that change comes from not ignoring the problem anymore. We need more big budget films directed by women and people of color, and we need more films, in general, lensed by women and people of color. We need women and people of color involved in every level of pre-production, production and post-production. For more statistics on female directors of big budget films, read Terry Huang’s piece on The Black List blog.

With that in mind, let’s move into how the brackets shaped up:

Best A24 Films

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Moonlight and Lady Bird earned #1 seeds. Joining them were The Florida Project and A Ghost Story. Those four films will face off against #8 seeds Green RoomMorris From AmericaDe Palma and Menashe.

The next set of top films, the #2 seeds, were Swiss Army Man20th Century WomenThe Lobster and Ex Machina, which will face off against #7 seeds The LoversWhile We’re YoungKrisha and Spring Breakers.

The #3 seeds were a mix of widely awarded films and incredibly acclaimed genre/indie pictures: LockeRoomThe Witch and Good Time. The #6 seeds that they’ll compete against leaned more toward the indie darling: The Spectacular NowThe Bling RingUnder the Skin and Enemy.

Finally, in the middle of the pack were #4 seeds American Honey, Obvious ChildA Most Violent Year and It Comes At Night, as well as #5 seeds AmyThe End of the TourThe Disaster Artist and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Best Superhero Villain of the 21st Century

This bracket is made up of four subcategories — MCU villains, DC villains, X-Men villains and villains from other properties — and we pulled eight contenders from each subcategory to compete. Instead of leaving them in their own sections, however, we then mixed them up and seeded from there. And we kept it to just eight per subcategory because it seemed more interesting than a likely lopsided MCU bunch had we not had that limit.

And this bracket is not just about performances. It’s about the villain, the character. That involves the writing and the directing of that character too.

With that said, the first three #1 seeds were rather simple to come to: Heath Ledger’s The Joker from The Dark Knight, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger from Black Panther and Ian McKellen’s Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto from X-MenX2 and X-Men: The Last Stand

Perhaps surprisingly to some who dislike the character, our staff showed strong support for Tom Hardy’s Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, who took that final #1 seed.

Those four will take on #8 seeds Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw from X-Men: First Class, Ed Skrein’s Francis/Ajax from Deadpool, Mark Strong’s Frank D’Amico from Kickass and Kurt Russell’s Ego from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The #2 seeds went to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from various MCU films, Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock from Spider-Man 2, the other Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) from the most recent X-Men trilogy and the second The Dark Knight inclusion, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent/Two Face.

The #7 seeds who will battle these four are Zach Galifianakis’ The Joker from The LEGO Batman Movie, Hugh Jackman’s X-24 from Logan, James Franco’s Harry Osborn/New Goblin from Spider-Man 3 and Michael Shannon’s General Zod from Man of Steel.

Two of the #3 seeds went to the last two Captain America films; Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo from Civil War and Sebastian Stan’s The Winter Soldier (not Bucky Barnes) from The Winter Soldier. Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins and Jason Lee’s Buddy Pine/Syndrome from The Incredibles earned the other two #3 seeds. 

Competing against them are #6 seeds James Cromwell’s Professor Robert Callaghan from Big Hero 6, Dane DeHaan’s Andrew Detmer from Chronicle, Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask from X-Men: Days of Future Past and the Sentinels that Trask unleashed onto the X-Men, also from X-Men: Days of Future Past.

In the middle of the pack, earning #4 seeds, were Cillian Murphy’s Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow from the entire The Dark Knight trilogy, Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin from Spider-Man, Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass from Unbreakable and Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue from Avengers: Age of Ultron and Black Panther. They’ll match up against #5 seeds Hugo Weaving’s Johann Schmidt/Red Skull from Captain America: The First Avenger, Brian Cox’s Col. William Stryker from X2, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes/Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Best Big Budget Directing of the 21st Century

This bracket was split up into four different subcategories. Those were “Superhero Directing” (in the upper left), “Franchise Directing” (in the lower left), “Prestige/Original/Non-Studio Franchise Directing” (in the upper right) and “Animated Directing” (in the lower right). We took some liberties with this. Mad Max: Fury Road is a part of a franchise, but we concluded that it felt more in line with its current group than it would’ve among the franchise contenders.

In Superhero Directing:

Christopher Nolan easily earned a #1 seed; many even believe that he should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for his efforts on The Dark Knight. He’ll face off against #8 seed Tim Miller for the subversive Deadpool.

Coming in behind Nolan in the #2 seed was Ryan Coogler for Black Panther, a cultural phenomenon that many believe could become the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture.

The #3 seed went to Joe Russo and Anthony Russo for Captain America: Civil War; the Russo brothers also placed in the #7 seed for Captain America: Civil War. James Gunn will take on the Civil War Russos with #6 seed Guardians of the Galaxy.

The middle match-up comes from 2017 films: the #4 seed James Mangold for Logan and the #5 seed Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman.

In Franchise Directing:

Peter Jackson quite easily snagged the #1 seed for his directing job on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. He’s the only Best Director winner out of five nominated efforts in this bracket. Facing of against him is #8 seed Martin Campbell for the first Daniel Craig James Bond film Casino Royale.

Sam Mendes, director of another Craig Bond film, Skyfall, made the bracket as the #6 seed. He’ll compete with #3 seed Matt Reeves for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Like Bond, Matt Reeves made his subcategory twice, earning the #2 seed for War for the Planet of the Apes. He’ll take on our perhaps surprising Star Wars inclusion, #7 seed Gareth Edwards for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Finally, with some of the most acclaimed films of the subcategory, #4 seed Alfonso Cuarón for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will battle #5 seed Denis Villeneuve for Blade Runner 2049.

In Prestige/Original/Non-Franchise Studio Directing

David Fincher’s Zodiac has become regarded as on the best films, in general, of the 21st century, so he glided into a #1 seed pretty smoothly. But his contender is a tough one: #8 seed Alfonso Cuarón for landmark sci-fi film Children of Men.

George Miller earned the #2 seed for his masterful work on Mad Max: Fury Road, and will face of against legendary director and #7 seed Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street.

Scorsese made this subcategory twice, taking the #3 seed for his directing job on The Aviator. His opponent is #6 seed Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk, who also made this subcategory twice, placing as the #4 seed for Inception. He’ll take on #5 seed Peter Jackson for King Kong.

In Animated Directing:

Quite predictably, Pixar dominated this bracket, with #1 seeds Pete Docter and Bob Peterson for Up, #2 seed Brad Bird for The Incredibles, #3 seed Lee Unkrich for Toy Story 3, #4 seed Andrew Stanton for WALL-E, #6 seeds Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen for Inside Out and #8 seeds Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina for Coco.

But other animation directors made it through with their beloved films. Rounding out the eight were #5 seeds Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders for How to Train Your Dragon, and #7 seeds Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall and Chris Williams for Disney’s Moana.

Best Cinematography Since 2010

Even with setting the parameter of cinematography since 2010, there were still an overwhelming number of potential contenders and our votes were widely varied, resulting in a bracket that truly represents a mix of our opinions.

The #1 seeds did stand out, however: Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s lensing of The Master, Andrew Droz Palermo’s work on A Ghost Story, Roger Deakins Oscar-winning efforts on Blade Runner 2049 and Hoyte van Hoytema’s unforgettable photography on Her.

In fact, both Deakins and van Hoytema made this bracket three times. Deakins also earned a #3 seed for Skyfall and a #6 seed for Sicario. van Hoytema’s other two were Christopher Nolan films, a #2 seed for Dunkirk and a #6 seed for Interstellar.

Bradford Young also made this bracket three times, taking a #2 seed for Arrival, a #7 seed for A Most Violent Year and a #8 seed for Mother of George.

But, of course, 3-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki placed more than everyone with four spots: a #2 seed for The Tree of Life, a #3 seed for Gravity, a #5 seed for The Revenant and a #7 seed for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

The rest of the bracket is filled with stunning photography. Oscar winner Linus Sandgren earned a #2 seed for his work on La La Land. Other cinematographers of 2016 took spots as well, with James Laxton earning a #4 seed for Moonlight and Rodrigo Prieto earning a #4 seed for Silence.

Work from 2015 films rounded out the #3 seeds: Dick Pope for Mr. Turner and John Seale for Mad Max: Fury Road. The other #4 seeds were Luca Bigazzi for The Great Beauty and Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis.

While Hoyte van Hoytema may have two Nolan films on this bracket, Nolan’s former cinematographer, Wally Pfister, earned a #5 for his Oscar-winning work on Inception. Rather recent photography also seeded #5: Rob Hardy for Annihilation and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for Call Me by Your Name.

In fact, a couple of Roberts placed here. Robert D. Yeoman placed in the #6 seed for The Grand Budapest Hotel and the #7 seed for Moonrise Kingdom. Robert Richardson also seeded #6 for Django Unchained, while Robert Elswit was another Paul Thomas Anderson cinematographer to place, earning a #8 seed for Inherent Vice..

Finally, the last few contenders are #7 seed Masanobu Takayanagi for Hostiles, #8 seed Darius Khondji for The Lost City of Z and #8 seed Seamus McGarvey for Godzilla.

 

Follow along throughout March as we vote on these brackets and determine the best of each topic!

 

Featured image via Marvel Studios/Warner Bros./A24.

Revising Oscar nominations from 2010-2016

Whenever Andrew Garfield appears in a film — Garfield’s most recent, Breathe, released this past weekend, and he’s getting Oscar buzz for his performance — it’s hard not to think about how he should’ve been nominated for his supporting role in The Social Network.

And once that ball gets rolling, it’s hard not to think about the other painful snubs across the past few years, of which there are plenty.

The Academy Awards will never, ever get it completely right, but sometimes they get it so wrong that, even years later, we’re still talking about it. Here are a few per year since 2010:

2010

Best Director
Insert: Christopher Nolan, Inception
Remove: David O. Russell, The Fighter

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Inception is one of the best and most significant blockbusters of the 21st century, an unparalleled vision composed with such perfect precision by director Christopher Nolan. The fact that this film works not only on a conceptual level, but also on a story level, is a feat that’s still under-appreciated today. But the technical craftsmanship is too obvious for Nolan’s omission to be understandable at all. While The Fighter is a good film, a really good one even, it’s no match for the achievement of Inception.

Best Supporting Actor
Insert: Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Remove: Jeremy Renner, The Town

Columbia/Courtesy

Jeremy Renner is just fine in The Town. Is he Oscar worthy? Not entirely. How the Academy overlooked Andrew Garfield’s amazingly committed turn as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network is shocking. Garfield is the heart of that film, embodying the source of its fascination and the weight of its humanity — a far more impressive accomplishment than even the film’s lead, Jesse Eisenberg, who was nominated. When we think of the powerhouse scenes, we think of Garfield’s high intensity back-and-forths with the rest of the actors portraying Facebook founders, an intensity that is almost wholly missing without him. Garfield should’ve even competed for the win, and could’ve taken it had Christian Bale been correctly nominated in the lead category for The Fighter.

2011

Best Director
Insert: Bennett Miller, Moneyball
Remove: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Columbia/Courtesy

Bennett Miller was nominated for Best Director for Foxcatcher. While that was deserved, his best directing job came with Moneyball. Similar to Adam McKay with The Big Short, Miller takes a niche and incredibly complex topic — baseball statistics and their implementation by the front office — and renders it palatable and human. The control of tone, the fluidity of pace and the composition of scenes — the trading for Ricardo Rincon comes to mind — are all signs of a director at his most refined. And while Brad Pitt did deserve a Best Lead Actor nomination, it’s Bennett Miller who makes the character of Billy Beane so utterly affecting. The juxtaposition of flashbacks, the editing and more all define the character of Beane in ways that other directors should study. Woody Allen may have deserved a spot on an objective, merit-based level, but Hollywood has to realize that the Oscars aren’t just based on merit. The Oscars celebrate figures, artists, and Allen is not one who should be celebrated.

Best Original Screenplay
Insert: Will Reiser, 50/50
Remove: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Summit Entertainment/Courtesy

The reasons to remove Allen are the same. Will Reiser, writer of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen comedy-drama about cancer, would be next in line, and arguably deserved a spot anyway. The year offered a nomination to Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo for the comedy Bridesmaids, and rightfully so, but 50/50 is just as brilliant of a script. The comedy is sharp, the plotting is incredibly spirited and the character work is powerfully vulnerable. It’s a comedy that realizes that horrible situations need humor, that they often spark humor, and that that humor comes from a very human place.

2012

Best Picture
Insert: The Master
Remove: Les Misérables

Annapurna/Courtesy

It was difficult to see how Paul Thomas Anderson could follow up There Will Be Blood, easily one of the greatest films of the 21st century and possibly ever. At first, many felt that he whiffed with The Master. But looking back, one can quickly realize that, somehow, The Master comes close to TWBB. A seering, haunting, strange and mesmerizing look at (allegedly) scientology, the film is a masterpiece on every front, a distinctly American tale that melds the best of prestige, arthouse and flare while remaining unpretentious. The screenplay is one of the most intelligently crafted of recent memory, with scientology’s ideology deeply rooted in every single detail, and the duo of Joaquin Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is genuinely unmatched, with Phoenix’s performance seriously rivaling Daniel Day-Lewis’ in PTA’s previous film. Evidently, it didn’t need recognition for us to come to this current conclusion of its greatness, but it’s a bit silly to suggest that Les Misérables is in the same league.

Best Director
Insert: Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Remove: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Columbia/Courtesy

Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director for The Hurt Locker. She deserved it. And then she followed that up with as viscerally affecting of a film in Zero Dark Thirty. She didn’t even get nominated. David O. Russell did just fine with Silver Linings Playbook, but no where in that film is there anything special about its direction. With Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow traverses years, complex political machinations, an unbelievable character arc and one of the most tense military operations of our time, and pulls each aspect off in such expert fashion. It’s a film that showcases the best of her directorial chops, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the film itself.

2013

Best Picture
Insert: Fruitvale Station
Remove: Philomena

Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions/OG Project/Courtesy

Oscar bait is a problematic term that shouldn’t be used. It’s difficult to find the right phrase to replace it. Whatever it is, though, Philomena is a film that represents it. It’s a fine movie, an enjoyable one, a harmless one, one that tells an emotional true story. But there’s nothing about the film that makes it one of the 10 best of its year, and it’s infuriating how the Academy, time and time again, goes for this kind of safe, standard and, quite honestly, boring type of picture. The best films of the year — granted, a problematic term itself — shouldn’t necessarily go to the most well-polished, but rather to the films that transcend the art. And Fruitvale Station is, undoubtedly, one of those films. Recounting the day leading up to the tragic killing of Oscar Grant by police, Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut breathes with life. It clearly has a message, but it injects that message into the veins of the film, bases and builds it organically, crafting empathy, joy and intimacy with such pressing reality. We’re not told an idea up front or too explicitly, but when we encounter that harrowing, soul-crushing final act, we understand it, without needing to say anything. The life built into the film vanishes, purposefully, and we’re moved in intangible ways. Coming a year after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Fruitvale Station is a necessary film that should be remembered, and the type of film the Oscars need to start recognizing if they actually want to honor the art of film.

Best Lead Actor
Insert: Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Remove: Christian Bale, American Hustle

CBS Films/Courtesy

It’s hard to remove Christian Bale, one of the best and most dedicated actors of our time. And in most other years, we couldn’t remove him. Yet, there are quite a few performances in 2013 that deserved that final spot more than he did. Tom Hardy in Locke is one of them. But Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis is one that not only should’ve been nominated, but one that should’ve made a serious run for the win. His character, Llewyn Davis, is a grumpy, tired asshole, which makes it so shocking that he ends up being one of the most soulful and human we’ve seen this decade. That’s all Oscar Isaac. Isaac brings a tired physicality, one that can be tangibly understood and seen in his body and his face, in the tonal quality of his voice. And not just that — Isaac performs his own songs, not only bringing immense musical talent but thoroughly adapting the character of Davis musically. Like The MasterInside Llewyn Davis is a distinctly American film, and like Joaquin Phoenix’s work, Isaac’s performance elevates that quality immeasurably, defining a face of the American psyche.

2014

Best Lead Actor
Insert: Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Remove: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Open Road Films/Courtesy

Benedict Cumberbatch is great in The Imitation Game, and offers a performance that makes it hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Removing him here doesn’t deny any of that. It simply recognizes that Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation for Nightcrawler is one of the best of the 21st century. Other than hairstyling, Gyllenhaal looks like himself in the movie. And yet, as Lou Bloom, we see nothing of the actor, and that’s because the transformation is of every facet of acting. Gyllenhaal’s tonal level isn’t changed, but his vocal pacing is entirely intrinsic to the character. His bulging eyes, quick movements and physical rapport with other actors are not only invasively terrifying, crafting awe-strikingly gripping scenes, but they’re informative of who the character is — such detailed work only the most masterful actors pull off. Nightcrawler is both a character study and a film about the terrible culture of video news, but those two aspects compliment and augment each other, and because of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, every bit of its collective impact is enhanced.

Best Director
Insert: Ava DuVernay, Selma
Remove: Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Paramount/Courtesy

While we don’t have to deny how good Cumberbatch is in his film, we must refute any association of Morten Tyldum with the Best Director category. The Imitation Game is a fine film. It’s a crowd-pleaser. But it’s unfortunately reserved, and otherwise standard, suppressing a lot of the humanity that is actually there in this story. A film that is not reserved nor standard, and elevates its humanity, through the work of its director, is Ava DuVernay’s Selma. The technical craftswomanship here is stunning, with bone-shakingly rousing scenes of both action and conversation. There’s a liveliness, a humanity that’s extended to each facet of filmmaking — a testament to her guiding hand. On the intangible side, though, DuVernay’s grasp of the spirit at the story’s core can be felt in every scene, doing such profound justice to such an important story.

Best Animated Feature
It should’ve won: The LEGO Movie

Warner Bros./Courtesy

The audible gasps at the announcement ceremony when The LEGO Movie was not nominated for Best Animated Feature will haunt us indefinitely. If it was rules that caused its omission, as the film did feature a few live-action scenes, screw the rules. However, we don’t even want to think of what the reason might be, though, if not rules. Thankfully, everyone already knew that the film was the best animated picture of 2014, even before nominations. So there’s no case that needs to be made other than to point it out, and keep pointing it out.

2015

Best Supporting Actress
Insert: Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Remove: Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

A24/Courtesy

Rachel McAdams may be impressively committed in Spotlight. And if Alicia Vikander’s Oscar-winning performance in The Danish Girl was rightfully nominated in the Best Lead Actress category, removing McAdams would be unnecessary. That’s all semantics, however, as, regardless, Alicia Vikander’s other performance of 2015, as the AI Ava in Ex Machina, deserved a nomination. It may have gone unrecognized due to the artifice of the character hiding the true merit of the performance, but her turn is so utterly controlled and precise, nuanced and minutely accentuated in service of that artifice. Similar to Domhnall Gleeson’s character in reaction to Ava, we don’t immediately recognize the immense complexities of Vikander’s performance, and that’s purposeful. Ideally, Vikander would’ve won the lead category for The Danish Girl and the supporting category for Ex Machina. But ignoring a nomination for the latter altogether is frustratingly puzzling.

Best Supporting Actor
Insert: Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Remove: Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Netflix/Courtesy

How does an actor win the SAG, but not even get nominated at the Oscars? Well, sadly for Idris Elba, forces outside of the film and his performance resulted in that. At the time, Netflix was rather new to film production/distribution, with Beasts of No Nation being its first fictional narrative endeavor, and many hated the idea of what the streaming company might do to the film industry. While it’s technically speculative, those factors likely pushed Elba out. In a just world, though, Elba is inarguably nominated. His command of the screen is transfixing, his definition of character quite tragic. As much as we find heart, the humanity impacted by these wars, in lead actor Abraham Attah, we find the other end of that heart in Elba, a quality formed by his unforgiving take. It’s a performance we must encounter uncomfortably, but one we understand as necessary by the end of the film.

Best Adapted Screenplay
It should’ve won: Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs

Universal/Courtesy

Some contend with the portrayal of its central figure, but it’s ridiculous to ignore the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay. The dialogue is arguably Sorkin’s best, rapidly sharp and biting, reminiscent of The Social Network, yet wholly organic to the subject matter. The control of character and the composition of the many face-offs with the likes of Steve Wozniak and John Sculley are dynamic, electric and spellbinding. The script truly shows how there’s no one quite like Sorkin, and it does everything that The Big Short screenplay does, yet even more polished. How it was not even nominated will forever be a mystery.

2016

Best Lead Actress
Insert: Amy Adams, Arrival
Remove: Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Paramount/Courtesy

Florence Foster Jenkins is a problematic film, wholly unaware of the white privilege at its core and played for sympathy in rather off-putting ways. And Meryl Streep isn’t even good in it! It’s hard to call the performance impressive and impossible to point to any of her scenes as particularly engaging. It’s so bad that it makes the snub of Amy Adams even more difficult to stomach. In Arrival, Adams is tender and unknowing, lively and explorative. We sense something so real about her character’s bravery, and feel such raw, overwhelming heartbreak at her monologue in the final act. Adams doesn’t have a powerhouse scene of direct, overt emotion, but she delivers so many subtle scenes that are just as moving precisely because we can feel so much weight in what’s withheld and beneath the surface. Arrival is an incredibly important film about the need for communication, empathy and love, but it wouldn’t be that in its entirety without Amy Adams embodying each aspect.

Best Supporting Actress
Insert: Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
Remove: Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

A24/Courtesy

Greta Gerwig’s performance in 20th Century Women can be defined by many of the same qualities of Amy Adams’ performance — tender, unknowing, lively, explorative. Her character’s power comes from this willingness to embrace life in ways others don’t, toned simultaneously by a courage to take hold of life’s potential and by an honest vulnerability when some of that potential is taken away from her — all coming, distinctly and lovingly, from the eyes of an American woman in the 70s. Gerwig delivers a full picture of her character and is quite mesmerizing throughout. Octavia Spencer isn’t bad in Hidden Figures — she’s never not brilliant in anything — but, in terms of acting, there’s just not enough there to genuinely warrant the nomination over Gerwig. In a career full of wonderful performances, Gerwig’s turn in 20th Century Women might just be her best.

 

Featured image via Columbia Pictures.

Trial: What is ‘Blade Runner 2049’ director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Levi Hill
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘Blade Runner 2049.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s argument:

It’s not an easy task to take a beloved science-fiction classic — one that American Film Institute listed as the sixth greatest science fiction film of all-time — then one-up it. But that is exactly what Denis Villeneuve has done with his masterpiece Blade Runner 2049.

In an age of stale, repetitive blockbusters (lesser “replicants” of their former self), Denis uses this very meta-textual set-up to make an outwardly replicant of the original film. The original film followed a blade runner, Agent Deckard (Harrison Ford), as he begins to hunt down replicants that just want to be human. Because of this, the film created a human perspective from the outside looking in of things that just want to be treated equal to the humans they are modeled after. From this perspective, the film was calculated and cold. Ford played a detective tasked with murdering and murdering (mostly) innocent replicants — until he just can’t anymore because he has fallen in love with one, Rachael (Sean Young). All the while, he is increasingly haunted by memories of violence, and an unicorn running free.

The film leaves us cold, if visually enthralled.

Is Deckard a bad guy? Is he a replicant? Are memories only real for humans?

Wisely, Denis has created another cold, calculated story from Ridley Scott’s template, but frames the story entirely from the *spoiler alert* replicant perspective. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is indeed a replicant (Nexus 9 model), and once again, is tasked with hunting down the Nexus 6s and 7s that can live as long as humans, if not much longer. However, unlike other replicants we have seen, he has a timed life span, unable to live longer than any other human. He also is made to obey orders from the LAPD — facing a strange PTSD test that questions whether he has established any lasting emotional capabilities after each bloody mission of killing his own kind.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Think A Clockwork Orange’s eyes wide-open scene, but with the humanity removed.

Thus, when K experiences a “miracle” that threatens to “break the world,” Denis’ intelligent placing of the main character as replicant creates an emotional pay-off about the very definition of what constitutes a “human.” The audience’s alignment creates an emotional journey that explores the politics of a rebellion, the cost of human life in a looming war, the power of memories and the sacrifices people make for just wanting to be free.

Acting as a sequel or a “replicant” of the original story, Blade Runner 2049 is the only sequel I can think of that is finally more human than the original — “more human than human.”

Besides this storytelling ambition, that posits itself as a meta-textual statement on how stories can play on established world-building, Denis has also crafted a story more experimental than Enemy, more intense than Sicario, more sprawling than Prisoners and more intellectual than Arrival.

A factory scene, with a grinding, synthetic score rivals the poetic, haunting, surreal beauty of anything Tarkovsky created in Stalker or even in the also lyrically tinged Enemy. A late stand-off between K and a highly-skilled foe adds more bone-crunching intensity than any of Sicario’s many gruesome shoot-outs. The scope of the film, that constantly reimagines what is capable for the medium of film, blows any recent Bond film out of the water and definitely dwarfs the complex, expanding mystery in Prisoners. Then, the very existential question of what it means to be human, and how one becomes “human,” carries more weight here than the equally intellectual questions regarding memory and communication in Arrival.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

With Denis’ controlled direction, each drawn-out, beautifully framed moment stands out as a work of art and the highest class of blockbuster filmmaking. With repeated overview shots of an overpopulated, water-soaked LA, or the orange dust clouds that pervade every frame in the Las Vegas setting, Denis creates a visual structure that only can be registered in all of its majesty on the big screen. It’s the first film Denis has made — and the first film this year, outside of Dunkirk — that visually cannot be truly appreciated without the biggest screen and the loudest sound.

And let’s not forget, this film is following one of the already most visually accomplished works of all-time.

Oh, and Denis proves why Harrison Ford, after many years of taking roles seemingly only for a paycheck, was once considered the most sought after actor. Ford arguably has never been better, and while the actor needs to be praised for bringing an unexpected amount of soul, much also has to be said about the bold choices Denis makes regarding the iconic character.

Every choice Denis makes here — in storytelling, composition, editing, sound, score, acting and design — acts as a culmination of what he has done before.

Not-so-simply-put, in every single facet of filmmaking, this is Denis’ home-run. This is his masterpiece. This is his classic.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Arrival is Denis Villeneuve’s best film because it is the sole entry in his filmography that will define and inform our national conscience for years to come. The film released in the US the weekend after the 2016 election, and it was a clarion call for empathy and rationality, and a denouncement of violence and xenophobia — all of these qualities coalesce to become, at once, a warning against belligerence and a message of consolation in the face of vitriol. There hasn’t been a more timely film in recent memory, a film that speaks to our hearts so frankly, elegantly and warmly. The film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer himself admitted that writing Arrival came from a place of necessity, the need to invite people to empathize and communicate with each other. It was a cinematic invitation that won him the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

On the level of craft, Arrival is made with precision and purpose, all of which make it yet more profound (especially when paired with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal score). Bradford Young’s cinematography is utterly jaw dropping, and while he might not have the experience of the seasoned Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator, Young delivers shots that are just as jaw dropping as any of Villeneuve’s Deakins-shot films — particularly Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) first glimpse at the heptapod spaceships, as clouds roll away.

Paramount/Courtesy

Choosing a mellow, soft color palette of blues and grays to reflect the film’s message of nonviolence was an inspired choice by Young, who shot the film digitally, leveraging the color grading that such a format allows. Arrival is an example of what humanity can strive for, but it is also a fine example of what digital filmmaking should aspire toward.

Then, the production design, the look of the heptapods and their language are astounding feats of design. The towering alien figures are as majestic as whales, but with just a touch of humanity. Their language is beautiful to behold, an example of how design mirrors theme, since the heptapod view of time is nonlinear. The meticulousness and originality that went into creating the heptapod language is itself worth the price of admission.

Ultimately though, Arrival is the story of a mother and her daughter, and we see how time spent with someone, no matter how brief, is worth it if there is love. That’s a message that, regardless of political era, is resonant and timeless. Beneath the film’s linguistic theory is a warm, beating heart, featuring arguably the most emotional climax in any Villeneuve film. Though Arrival is a film of our time, it is also one that prevails throughout cinema henceforth.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s rebuttal:

Harrison, I don’t disagree with anything you have mentioned above, except that Arrival is Denis’ best film. Rather, it is his second best film, as Blade Runner 2049 took everything that made Arrival a modern landmark, and then one-upped it by giving each of those themes (xenophobia, communication between different species, rationale before violence, familial bonds) a greater sense of purpose and clarity in Blade Runner 2049, albeit with the bigger risk of following up a top ten science fiction masterpiece, while maintaining the very pointed political critique.

Plus, it doesn’t have the most atrociously handled line of dialogue in an otherwise excellently written film — “let’s make a baby” — or the asinine plot contrivances of the Chinese General Shang telling Louise Banks, in the future, that her former/present self should tell his former/present self his wife’s dying words to create world peace. It still doesn’t make sense to me, how a film that did so well for 95% of its run time, can botch the last 15 minutes so severely. Should have it been powerful? Yes. Was it? If you like your movies overly sentimental and don’t fret about plot holes completely untouched, maybe it was — but not for me.

As for Blade Runner 2049, it’s hard to discuss the story at all, but the plot holes that might be present in the film are meant to be there. It’s not a conclusive picture of an entirely built world, but rather, it operates as a conclusive story for Agent K and in some ways, Agent Deckard. The audience is left to ponder real ideas, without given either/or answers. Arrival poses big questions, but rarely allows ambiguity to remain once the final frames brace us. If there is a flaw in Arrival, it’s that.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Say what you will about the lengthy run time of Blade Runner 2049, but if you take any individual scene out, the aura of the mystery, the power of the last 45 minutes and entire grandeur of the project are lost, like tears in the rain. Can you imagine if Lawrence of Arabia was condensed? 2001: A Space Odyssey? The Godfather? Lord of the Rings: Return of the King? Hell, even Interstellar cannot be trimmed and fully be seen as the experience it needs to be. Some films need that time to work us over and create new visual and audial scapes for us to experience. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those films.

Then Leto, yes, he sort of seems off in the film (to some, not me), as a less dimensional villain. However, isn’t that the point? He is one of the only human characters in the world given significant screen time, and humans have created this travesty of the earth where the ice caps have melted and we’ve become so overpopulated that people are crammed in high rises living in hallways, not rooms.

With this, does it not make sense to make the incomparably privileged and wealthy Wallace (Leto) an egotistical, calculated, business-is-cutthroat monster, hell-bent on seeing his own agendas accomplished? Great or fine, Leto’s performance here is not bad, and in fact, it works for the film’s message.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

This is a film that even refuses to paint the main antagonist of the film, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), as anything resembling simple. While a replicant and forced to obey Niander Wallace (Leto) at all cost, Luv even finds a sense of depth in her constructed humanity that Marvel, D.C. or any comparable blockbusters haven’t come close to since the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

Add in the symbolism of Wallace’s blindness, unable to see the world for what it is, and Luv’s uncontrollable tears when near him, and the duality of the two characters comment on how seeing is believing within Blade Runner — whether you are a human or a replicant.

There’s an immense sense of complexity in every frame, the most minute of details matter here. The opening shot of a green iris of an eye, followed by a match cut of the barren landscape of the outskirts of Los Angeles say more about the world and tone and theme of Blade Runner than most filmmakers accomplish in a career. And that’s not taking into account the more experimental flourishes that appear in Blade Runner — and are absent from Arrival — such as when Joi malfunctions in San Diego and, instead of quickly cutting, we see an extended take of her heartbreaking malfunction in stop-motion, as the world around her remains shot in real-time.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

I haven’t even touched on the fact that, somehow, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch may have outdone the original Vangelis score by adding more bombast to giddily jarring purposes, or that every female role in the film creates the agency and urgency in the story, or the other big fact THAT HARRISON FORD IS ACTUALLY 100% ACTING AGAIN, which, considering the potential of him showing up here simply being a fan service-y extended cameo, like what some have argued his scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are, says a lot about Denis’ care to make sure that every element of the film operates as a soulful, humanistic, impressionistic exploration of the fundamental question to existence: what does it mean to be alive?

Designed from beginning to end to be enrapturing, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most accomplished directorial visions we’ve ever seen — taking an already highly touted vision and making it fresh, unique and cinematically groundbreaking all over again.

If that isn’t enough to convince someone Blade Runner 2049 is the greatest Denis Villeneuve film (so far), a film that not only excels with the given template of blockbuster cinema, but truly advances what is capable for big-budgeted storytelling, then I don’t know what is.

Blade Runner 2049 is what it looks like when the highest of art has finally perfectly synchronized with the spectacle of $150 million of pure, crowd-pleasing imagination. Seriously, the fact that an esteemed film critic has compared Blade Runner 2049 to an Andrei Tarkovsky film says a lot about this film’s poetic, epic beauty.

Take a bow, Denis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Without a doubt, Blade Runner 2049 is proving to be not just a great sci-fi film, but one of the greatest sequels of all time, deserving a place alongside Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. However, it is by no means a perfect film. For starters, Jared Leto has yet to wipe his take on the Joker from our memories, and his portrayal of Niander Wallace doesn’t do him any favors. He continues to harp about his method acting, which gives the character a built-in invitation for dislike. Even without such promotional antics though, his portrayal of Wallace is neither threatening, nor as profound as the rest of the film. In contrast, there isn’t a character in Arrival that is the least bit distracting. An ancillary performance from Forest Whitaker lends the film with a gravitas that Leto can’t pull off, while Stuhlbarg highlights the baser elements of our humanity. Leto might gesture toward grander ideas, but doesn’t succeed as well at conveying them as Arrival.

Additionally, while Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is noteworthy, it doesn’t pick up the baton from Vangelis as elegantly as it could have. Much of their score in Blade Runner 2049 veers toward bombastic sound design, and while this approach worked for Zimmer in Dunkirk, it feels jarring when the expectation is the melancholic synth-jazz riffs of Vangelis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Moreover, when it comes down to picking the best Denis Villeneuve film, choosing Arrival feels like the best representation of Villeneuve as a director. The aesthetic choices, production design and the internal logic of the world feel more unique to Villeneuve, whereas in Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is forced to play in a sandbox created by Ridley Scott. While Villeneuve succeeds in conforming to the rules of Scott’s universe, the originality present in Arrival makes it a better candidate for choosing Villeneuve’s best film. The endings of both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are very emotional, but while the latter film incorporates imagery and musical cues from its predecessor to elicit emotion, Arrival does not have such a reliance. Instead, the emotional finale of Arrival is achieved solely by the characters crafted within it, lending it a sense of originality that just slightly puts it ahead of Blade Runner 2049.

Even though Arrival is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, the characters onscreen and the subversion of sci-fi is still a wholly original cinematic experience. For once, we see a strong female intellectual be the hero of a film. Sure, we’ve seen various professors lead their respective films, but how often is it that a female professor is the star of a film, let alone a female humanities professor? It’s impossible to understate how significant it is that the humanities save the world in Arrival. Ultimately, Arrival boils down to a story about mothers and daughters, and when the box-office of Blade Runner 2049 is partly due to a lack of female audiences, Dr. Louise Banks, and the film she inhabits, is worth celebrating.

Kyle’s decision:

Both arguments are intensely passionate, informed and well-crafted. And this has proven to be one of the better Trials as the arguments and rebuttals are rather different. Levi jumps in with an expansive, overwhelming (in a good way) comprehension of film itself while arguing for Blade Runner 2049, placing it not only within Villeneuve’s filmography and not only in conversation with the landmark original, but within the landscape of film today and in harmony with the history it fits into. It’s an extensive but fluid argument — one that makes me feel the need to put a word limit on Trials as it becomes difficult to not be persuaded by so much excellent argumentation.

But Harrison fights back with fervor, making a more humanistic case for Arrival, a case that pleads for the importance of film outside of the boundaries of film itself. The parallels between Arrival’s themes and today’s problems are harrowingly emotional, and you brilliantly lay out how affecting Arrival is through not just the presence of those parallels, but through how expertly they’re pulled off. You also do a better job in your opening at pointing out the coherency of those intangible elements of the film, theme and emotion and humanistic importance, and how the color palette, the design and the subject matter exist truly as veins of the film, rather than just facets.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

After reading the openings, I realized that these arguments may be calling into question what “best” really means. Levi made the better case for Blade Runner 2049 as Denis Villeneuve’s most brilliantly crafted film, while Harrison made the better case for Arrival as Denis Villeneuve’s most important film. In the rebuttal, I needed more from Levi about Blade Runner 2049’s importance outside of film. I got more about the brilliance of it as a film in film history, in comparison to the original and in Denis’ filmography. I got some small rebuts of Arrival as a film. I got some superfluous detail that didn’t need to be there and threatened the stability of the argument. But I did end up getting that idea of the film’s importance outside of the art form it comes in, how it also has many of the relevant, pressing humanistic themes that Arrival has — not just ideas of humanity in general — and makes use of them well within its own story.

Harrison bounces back with a very fine rebuttal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t present enough in terms of Arrival’s brilliance within the scope of film nor does it take down Blade Runner 2049 in regard to those elements, only offering rebuts of a performance and the score. The rebuttal, however, solidified that, if this were an argument of “importance” rather than “best,” Harrison would be the winner.

But Levi does too well to be overcome. While you may slightly lose out in the “importance” battle (and “slightly” is the important word as anything more severe might’ve cost you), you are undeniably convincing in every other area in regard to defining what “best” is and placing Blade Runner 2049 into that.

Winner: Levi Hill

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different Denis Villeneuve film as his best? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 2-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-0

 

Featured image via Warner Bros. and Paramount.

Independent films that need to be seen by more

This past weekend, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 released to unbelievable acclaim. The blockbuster follows the landmark classic sci-fi original. Villeneuve’s last film, Arrival, is a stunning, beautiful science fiction tale, one that received eight Oscar nominations. If one were to think about Villeneuve’s other films, Sicario, a gritty, dark story about drugs on the U.S.-Mexican border, and Prisoners, a harrowing, haunting film about kidnapping, would likely come to mind.

Enemy wouldn’t for most, which is a shame, as it’s one of Villeneuve’s more enthralling and singular pictures, a Kafka-esque, macabre movie about a man who finds his doppelgänger. It’s one that more people should seek out.

Too often are absolutely brilliant, but rather small independent films criminally washed over. These films are always some of the best of the year, but factors outside of the movie’s control — marketing, star-power and so on — hold it back.

So, it is our job, as film critics, to point out these independent films, to give them their fair share of the spotlight and to hopefully bring some more eyes to them. Here are three wonderful gems to consider:

Desierto

STX Entertainment/Courtesy

Desierto was co-written and directed by Jonás Cuarón, who co-wrote Gravity with his father, Alfonso Cuarón. The film has some hefty credentials to it, and it doesn’t disappoint, offering thrills that unnerve throughout the film’s taut, purposeful 88-minute runtime. Desierto follows a group of Mexican migrant workers including Moises (Gael García Bernal) and Adela (Alondra Hidalgo) as they attempt to cross the border, and it becomes a horror film of sorts when sharpshooting vigilante Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his tracking dog start hunting them down one by one. The film is compulsory viewing for us in 2017, as the reality of the Trump administration’s xenophobia gets projected onto the characters, adding considerable weight to the conflict of the film.

More simply, Desierto also functions as a damn good horror movie — Sam is a Xenomorph while Moises and Adela are Ripley. For a film with a $3 million budget, there are genuinely good set pieces — an initial chase scene involving Sam’s bloodthirsty hound, and the final, desperate confrontation between Sam and Moises. One begins to see how the younger Cuarón might have influenced the thrills of Gravity. By all means, seek out Desierto for its rush of adrenaline, but more importantly, for a chance to walk away with some higher degree of empathy for those being hunted by the Sams currently in office.

— Harrison Tunggal

Neruda

The Orchard/Courtesy

Premiering only a few short months before his critically-acclaimed Natalie Portman vehicle, Jackie, director Pablo Larraín’s mesmerizing love-letter to his native Chilé, Neruda, defines the director’s mastery over the intricacy of the cinematic character study. Although the film wasn’t written by Larraín himself, Neruda is the kind of film wherein a director’s presence, his vision so to speak, can be seen and felt within every shot, line of dialogue and narrative beat throughout the course of the film. Those who have seen Jackie will know that Larraín is no stranger to and can adeptly capture the emotional weight behind a biographical drama, but crafting a cinematic enigma, part biopic, part fantasy, focused about the one and only Pablo Neruda cements the Chilean filmmaker within the annals of directorial history. Neruda is an undoubtedly personal film and it’s that personality that imbues a larger-than-life figure such as Pablo Neruda with an unbridled intimacy which cannot only be seen, but felt as well. While Jackie may have garnered Pablo Larraín the recognition he deserves on the world stage, Neruda will remain a testament to his honed technical skills as a filmmaker, willingness to take risks as a storyteller and unabashed pride as a Chilean.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

Locke

A24/Courtesy

Sometimes the word “cinematic” can be used to describe a massive, sprawling, experiential film such as Mad Max: Fury Road. And sometimes, “cinematic” can be used to describe a film set in one place, about one man. Locke’s 85 minutes play out (almost) entirely in a car, a space we inhabit with Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy alone (as Ivan Locke), and we’re taken on a Shakespearean journey about the mistakes of a man and his attempts to stop the world he knows from crumbling. That epic sense is driven into the viewers’ bones — Locke is surprisingly visual, making use of double exposure to imbue the dark-but-vibrant colors of the highway on top of Locke’s mental state. And Steven Knight’s screenplay is one built with history and scope beyond simply the car; we remain in it, but we feel the past of Locke and the magnitude of his impact. But what truly cements Locke as one of the truly special films of the decade is Tom Hardy’s performance. The British actor is entirely transformed, despite being at his most stripped down. Sporting a Welsh accent, Hardy delivers each line with a tangible, bodily desperation, an anger that can be seen building up to his shoulders and a raw vulnerability as that body shatters inside. On top of that, Hardy offers his most dynamic and engaging use of his eyes. Often, Locke is staring in the rearview mirror, imagining his father in the back seat, and we receive the visceral impact of his piercing gaze. If for Hardy’s performance alone, seek out Locke. You’ll get a tragic and beautiful tale on the ride.

— Kyle Kizu

 

Featured image via A24.

Top 10 science fiction films since 2010

With the release of the decades-in-the-making Blade Runner 2049 nearly upon us, the MovieMinis staff compiled a list of what we believe to be the best science fiction movies of the last several years. The genre has seen a bit of a resurgence in the past decade. Both big-budget and independent filmmakers have leaned on sci-fi as a means of approaching Hollywood from a new, daring angle. And while for every Interstellar there’s bound to be an unfortunate Battleship, there’s no denying that the good outweighs the bad (or, in Battleship’s case, the very, very bad). Without further ado, here are the MovieMinis picks for Top 10 Sci-Fi Films of the 2010s:

10. (Tie) Upstream Color

erbp/Courtesy

Shane Carruth will likely never get the mainstream credit he deserves, but, then again, even the cinephiles enraptured by his work have yet to agree on the meaning of either of his two sci-fi masterpieces: Primer and Upstream Color. Whether Upstream Color is more of an experimental exploration of a deteriorating relationship or, rather, an unsettling science fiction narrative about mind control and the unforeseen power of the natural world may still be up for debate. Yet, what is not up for debate is the technical brilliance and narrative abstraction working seamlessly together to create an uncommonly intelligent experience that expects the audience not only to be engaged, but to actively want to work for any semblance of an answer. If that isn’t a hallmark of the best sci-fi works across all mediums, then I don’t know what is.

— Levi Hill

10. (Tie) Snowpiercer

CJ Entertainment/Courtesy

Prior to the well-known Netflix film Okja, Bong Joon-ho started working with American actors on Snowpiercer, the adaptation of the French graphic novel La Transperceneige — and what he gave us is a science fiction film that the US film industry is not worthy of. While obvious in its commentary on the class system, the film is far more layered in that commentary, and that commentary is far more wide-reaching in scope, than it may let on. Not only deconstructing the upper class’ oppression of the lower class, Snowpiercer thoroughly dissects the idea of how flawed a rebellion can be and how malleable a the middle class truly is. And while that rebellion happens, always pushing forward, shot in stunning tracking profiles, the film focuses in on the two Asian characters who are always concerned with what’s outside of the train. In that, Joon-ho breaks down the barriers of the system, quite literally at points, to show that that’s not all there is.

All of that is simply the allegorical underpinnings of the story, which also features brilliant performances from Chris Evans, at perhaps his finest, and Tilda Swinton, in one of her most transformed roles. The action is breathtaking and the production design is integral, and feels organic, to the world that Joon-ho builds. Snowpiercer is inventive science fiction, in ways that both make the most of the storytelling style of the American system — a machine of forced, strict linearity — while also showing that perhaps the best kind of storytelling is that which can look outside of the system.

— Kyle Kizu

9. War for the Planet of the Apes

20th Century Fox/Courtesy

There’s arguably more “war” in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes than in War for the Planet of the Apes, but therein lies the success of this trilogy-closer — War is a methodical, elemental and profound examination of conflict, rather than an outright staging of conflict. As a result, we see Caesar (Andy Serkis, giving the performance of his career) fall to depths previously unimaginable, so, when he rises, it becomes a triumphant moment for the character, the franchise and the entire genre. Speaking of genre, this film returns sci-fi to its allegorical roots — before mother! unveiled its own take on the Bible, War turned Caesar into a Mosaic hero leading the film’s spin on the Book of Exodus. Forget The Batman, Matt Reeves already has a perfect trilogy on his hands.

— Harrison Tunggal

8. Looper

Sony Pictures/TriStar Pictures/Courtesy

That Looper is Rian Johnson’s only jump into science fiction filmmaking, prior to his small gig of directing the upcoming 8th episode of the biggest franchise in the world, is bizarre when considering the good amount of the craft, skill and storytelling that he proved within the genre. Starring a nearly unrecognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a wholly committed Bruce Willis — which is sadly rare these days — Looper takes a time-traveling high concept, that would work on its own storytelling premise, and wisely adds in a considerable amount of heart about the cycle of violence. The filmmaking ambition that Johnson illustrates with a third of the budget of most sci-fi blockbusters is exactly why there is an intense amount of hope behind the impending greatness of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

— Levi Hill

7. ex_machina

A24/Courtesy

Part psychological-thriller, part romantic drama and all science fiction, Alex Garland’s 2014 indie sleeper hit not only put actress Alicia Vikander on the map, but it also redefined the extent to which humanity can play an integral role in a cyborgian sci-fi film. By crafting a narrative centered around identity, autonomy and sentience on such a small scale, Garland elicits a much more personal chemistry between his three leads (Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac) that leads to more electric and shocking interactions over the course of the story. For a film to so fully resemble a character study that the existential debate it poses over technological consciousness becomes the least intriguing aspect onscreen (relatively speaking, of course) is not an easy feat, yet ex_machina accomplishes this in spades.  

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

6. Interstellar

Paramount/Courtesy

Interstellar may not be Christopher Nolan’s best work — that honor could be argued for Inception, The Dark Knight or even Dunkirk — but it is, after retrospection and consideration of the value of film as art, undoubtedly his most important. There are few films in recent memory, if any at all, that try to tackle our purpose, our mission, our existence as living beings on a massive scope, while still basing that investigation in the deeply personal quite like Interstellar does. Immediately throwing away the egocentric idea that the Earth is “ours,” Interstellar forces us to consider our place in the universe and asks what continued survival really means. Is the decimation of those on Earth worth the prolonged existence of humans as a species? Or is it our very connections, our very love that we create with one another that is the key to our survival, and thus cannot be thrown away? In proposing those questions, Interstellar utilizes perhaps the strongest, most imprisoning and debilitating antagonist not only in film, but in life: time. We’re all bound by time, intrinsic to our existence as three dimensional beings, and cannot stop the ever moving train of life that will lead us to inevitable death. With that, epitomized by Cooper leaving his family behind to go on his mission, the film asks: how do we reconcile ourselves with the fact of existence of billions of others, and how do we honor that reconciliation without truly abandoning those we love?

While it may not be the most well-made of Nolan’s films, it has various aspects that epitomize his greatest strengths as a storyteller. Nolan’s collaborations with Hans Zimmer reach their pinnacle with Interstellar, as Zimmer composes his most vulnerable and affecting score yet. Nolan’s work with actors is notably less involved than some other directors, as Nolan leaves a lot of the responsibility up to the actor to understand the character within the story first and foremost. With Interstellar, that understanding finds a symphonic unity with Matthew McConaughey, who turns in his most committed performance. And while Nolan may not be a subtle writer, his screenplays are always haunting in at least some regard. The goodbye scene between Cooper and Murph is an example of tragic poetics, as is the video message scene, both written with an intimacy, love and sense of human existence within the many questions he presents that all coalesce stunningly. And the potential of Nolan’s practical chops as a director are fulfilled in the action sequence — the docking scene should go down as one of the most triumphant, and brilliant composed, in science fiction history.

Interstellar, already with so many singular qualities, even further distinguishes itself in the genre of science fiction by not only basing itself in accurate science and legitimate theoretical astrophysics, but organically utilizing those elements within its narrative. The visuals of the wormhole and the black hole were created from genuine equations written by executive producer and notable astrophysicist Kip Thorne, which lends a sort of tangible credence to them (and even helped Thorne write two papers on scientific discoveries from the visual effects). And, in regard to the narrative, time is inherently connected to astrophysics, and Nolan’s use of time as a narrative device to score the tragedy of humankind, and specifically the tragedy of a father and a daughter, is overwhelmingly heartbreaking.

Interstellar presents the type of big questions, and ways of tackling them, that we should demand from science fiction films that venture out into space because few other films genuinely try to answer them, let alone propose them in the first place. Interstellar does both, and is not afraid to embrace the intimacy of our humanity either.

— Kyle Kizu

5. Arrival

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In Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, alien spacecrafts descend upon the earth, hoping to end the cycle of violence that has always withheld humanity from achieving its full potential as a species. The aliens arrived when the people of earth needed them most. Eerily, Arrival did the same for us, releasing in the US three days after the 2016 presidential election. To the millions of people to whom Donald Trump poses an existential threat, the film was a reminder to not lose hope — an affirmation that our baser human instincts don’t hold a candle to empathy and communication. To the rest of the country, the film was a warning that vitriol is never the basis for progress. It’s hard to think of a film more urgent than Arrival, harder still to think of one more beautiful and profound.

— Harrison Tunggal

4. Her

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Though less overtly “sci-fi” than most other films on this list, Spike Jonze’s Her is one of the most thoroughly, organically defined. The film is set in a near future where artificial intelligence exists and people have distanced themselves from each other even further, and the design of each and every single frame, which acts to set forth those notions, is breathtaking. From the wandering souls walking through a much larger Los Angeles (shot partially in China) to the stunning skyscraper-high apartments, Her is arguably as well built of a world as Mad Max: Fury Road, yet on the other end of the spectrum. But Jonze doesn’t simply present a new kind of world; he crafts characters that feel like genuine parts of that world. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as Theodore Twombly, and the simultaneous intense disconnect and vulnerable sincerity have remnants in today’s world, just brought to their extreme here. And the love story told — between a man and an artificially intelligent device — is one of the most tragically beautiful and heartbreaking ever put to film. Her is a true gem, one that only the mind of Spike Jonze could conjure up.

— Kyle Kizu

3. World of Tomorrow

Bitter Films/Courtesy

Watching the 16 minutes that comprise animator Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, one feels as though every frame of it could inspire multiple film adaptations, novels aplenty and one or two television shows. The short film tackles capitalism, time travel, cloning, the evolution of the internet, mortality, the limitations of art, slavery, artificial intelligence, love (the love of sparkly rocks, aliens named Simon and clones named David, specifically), economic recessions and depressed poetry. But this isn’t to say that the film is incoherent — it is a delight to discover, and its endless invention is a joy to experience as it washes over the perplexed, awed viewer. As an older version of Emily explains the titular future world to her younger self, one begins to grasp the futility of explaining the foibles and idiosyncrasies of our own times to the more innocent people we were as toddlers. Futile as such an attempt might be, one can’t help but feel excited for the sequel Hertzfeldt has planned.

— Harrison Tunggal

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Warner Bros./Courtesy

George Miller’s return to the franchise that he started way back in 1979 was the most welcome of returns. Who knew a four-quel that features endlessly bombastic sound and rapid-fire editing could be not only one of the best science fiction films this decade, but truly ever. Using the Mad Max mythology of Earth becoming a completely desolate wasteland and humanity becoming even more desolate in their compassion, Miller retools the story and setting to not only create a powerful environmental message against misunderstanding sustainability, but also a tale about the tyranny men preside over others, women in particular. Acting as a not-so-subtle allegory for triumphant women and the resistance against their male oppressors — which grows more relevant by the day under the current presidential regime — Mad Max: Fury Road is just a hell of a movie. In fact, in an era of blockbusters mostly devoid of risk and danger or even vision, Fury Road was the adrenaline needle, straight to the heart, that we needed — just to remind us that there’s no art form quite as emotionally exhilarating as cinema.

— Levi Hill

1. Inception

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Following the release of The Dark Knight, there must have been those who thought director Christopher Nolan had undoubtedly crafted his magnum opus with the comic book crime epic. That was, until Inception hit theaters. Conceptually daring in its coupling of the time-tested caper film with the more abstract and imaginative idea of transitory dreamscapes, Inception represents a paragon of contemporary science fiction cinema. From the kaleidoscopic manipulation of Wally Pfister’s beautiful cinematography to Hans Zimmer’s now iconic score (complete with brass fanfare), Nolan and his crew created a motion picture that has made a lasting impact on the cultural zeitgeist. When “your mind is the scene of the crime,” there’s a lot of room for interpretation on the inner workings of the human psyche, and Nolan’s idea to not only enter that arena but to incorporate his signature style of paradoxical large-scale intimacy lets players like Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard and Tom Hardy to fully realize their character’s roles within a larger, engaging and cohesive script.  The methods through which Nolan tests the limits of his audience’s suspension of disbelief, and of reality itself, are grounded by a through line of realism so that whether it be the instantaneous degradation of a building or a slow-motion free fall off a bridge, the audience is kept captivated through and through. Inception will somehow make you feel simultaneously astounded, satisfied, confused and frustrated as you find yourself asking – was it all just a dream?

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

Honorable mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian, Source Code, Gravity

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.