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Sunday, February 19, 2017

My Picks for the 2017 Academy Awards

            **for my Top 10 favorites of 2016, click here**

            It’s that time of year again!  With the final gaudy celebration of film just around the corner, I’ve done my usual prep and am now presenting my picks for the 2016 Academy Awards. 

            I don’t have much to add in terms of commentary.  It’s a wonderful relief that a lot of minority artists and minority-centered works have been nominated, but that is tempered somewhat by me knowing that the whitest film of the bunch, La La Land, is quite likely to waltz away with the most awards, including the big ones.  Not that that’s surprising, but since I already went off at length about this topic in lastyear’s picks, there’s not much new I have to say about that a year later, so this time around I’ll lay off the heavy politicking, and instead go straight to the goods! 

Writing (Original Screenplay): Hell or High Water, La La Land, The Lobster, Manchester by the Sea, 20th Century Women

My Pick: Manchester by the Sea

            Not a hard pick this year at all, with Manchester by the Sea far and away my favorite film on this list. 

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Arrival, Fences, Hidden Figures, Moonlight, Lion

My Pick: Moonlight

            Much in the vein of Linklater’s Boyhood, Moonlight masterfully weaves together the connecting threads of three very separate events in a man’s life to show what brought him to become the man he eventually became. 

Visual Effects: Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

My Pick: Kubo and the Two Strings

            Damnit, Kubo was amazing, and deserves all the awards (I will elaborate on this later). 

Sound Mixing: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

My Pick: Arrival

            Arrival had the best overall use of sound and music of any film I saw this year, utilizing its shifts and cues perfectly to alter the tone or feel of a scene.  This was especially potent in the “contact” scenes of the film, easily some of the best first interaction moments I’ve ever seen in this kind of movie. 

Sound Editing: Arrival, Deepwater Horizon, Sully, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land

My Pick:  Arrival

            Same reasons as above. 

Short Film (Live Action): Ennemis Interieurs, La Femme et la TGV, Silent Nights, Sing, Timecode

My Pick: N/A

            As always, none of these works got a wide release, and the only people with full access to them are insulated Academy members who don’t even bother to watchthem all, so as always, I can’t pick a winner. 

Short Film (Animated): Blind Vaysha, Borrowed Time, Pear Cider and Cigarettes, Pearl, Piper

My Pick: N/A

            See above. 

Production Design: Arrival, Hail, Caesar!, La La Land, Passenger, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

My Pick: Hail, Caesar! 

            It has been way, way too long since a Coen Brothers movie won an Oscar, and Inside Llewyn Davis was irresponsibly snubbed, so I’ll take what I can get.  My close second is Arrival, and it will probably win. 

Music (Original Song): “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land, “Can’t Stop The Feeling” from Trolls, “City of Stars” from La La Land, “The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story, “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

My Pick: “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

            Lin-Manuel Miranda needs an Oscar.  Right now. 

Music (Original Score): Jackie, La La Land, Lion, Moonlight, Passengers

My Pick: Moonlight
            I’m not that blown away by this year’s nominees, to be honest (where the hell is Arrival??), but out of all of them Moonight made the most out of its use of music, and it’s one of the nominees that most deserves some good award love over more overrated fare like La La Land

Makeup and Hairstyling: A Man Called Ove, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad

My Pick: Star Trek Beyond

            This and Original Song are always the weakest categories, since they often allow tripe like Trolls and Fifty Shades of Grey to sneak in and forever-after get to refer to themselves as “Oscar-nominated,” while legions of vastly more worthy films are denied.  Last year at least had Mad Max and The Revenant leading the pack, but this year isn’t quite as strong.  That said, having a Star Trek film take a trophy would be a nice change of pace for once. 

Foreign Language Film: Land of Mine, A Man Called Ove, Toni Erdmann, Tanna, The Salesman

My Pick: Toni Erdmann

            At long last, a German film is nominated, and I am pulling for it all the way.  German cinema has been on a solid upswing recently, something I might look at more closely in a future post. 

Film Editing: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, La La Land, Moonlight

My Pick: La La Land

            There, I picked La La Land for something, just to ward off the Bad Juju.  And the editing was really good. 

Documentary (Short Subject): Extremis, 4.1 Miles, Joe’s Violin, Watani: My Homeland, The White Helmets

My Pick: The White Helmets

            The White Helmets are volunteers who for years now have been risking their lives to save the lives of victims of the fighting in war-torn Aleppo, Syria.  They are true heroes representing the best of humanity, and deserve every bit of recognition and aid we can provide them with, and them winning an Oscar might prompt more people to go out and materially support them as well. 

Documentary (Feature): 13th, OJ: Made in America, Life, Animated, I Am Not Your Negro, Fire At Sea

My Pick: 13th

            I love the fact that 3 of the nominees this year are works centered around widely-ignored/misunderstood parts of the racial history of the US, and that another deals with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.  It’s one of the best-possible middle fingers the Academy could have given The Orangutan.  While I have heard nothing but good things about all of these films, 13th is still my film of the year, so it’s my pick here. 

Directing: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight

My Pick: Moonlight

            Barry Jenkins really draws out the best of everyone in his cast, bringing us up close and personal to experience their pains and trials with them, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. 

Costume Design: Florence Foster Jenkins, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Allied, Jackie, La La Land

My Pick: La La Land

            There, I picked La La Land for something, just to ward off the Bad Juju. 

Cinematography: Arrival, La La Land, Lion, Moonlight, Silence

My Pick: Arrival

            Arrival was, overall, one of the year’s best just in terms of creating a consistent mood, and its camerawork was every bit as integral to that as its Sound Design, which I’ve already lauded to the skies here. 

Animated Feature Film: Moana, Zootopia, The Red Turtle, My Life as a Zucchini, Kubo and the Two Strings

My Pick: Kubo and the Two Strings

            I know Zootopia will win in reality, but by God, it’s about time Laika won one of these, and Kubo really was the best animated work of 2016. 

Actress (Supporting Role): Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Nicole Kidman (Lion), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

My Pick: Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)

            This is a hard one for me.  Naomie Harris does a powerful job as the mother in Moonlight, and my sense is that she’s likely to win, but Hidden Figures is criminally underrepresented in the acting categories, and I want to see it win at least one trophy as well, so I’ll take a hard knock here. 

Actor (Supporting Role): Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Dev Patel (Lion), Michael Channon (Nocturnal Animals)

My Pick: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

            My favorite part of Ali’s character is how seamlessly he transitions from the street-tough dealer we see him as first (in many ways seeming to confirm the hardened stereotypes people have of such people) to the kind, fatherly softie who takes the main character under his wing.  Also, as far as I can tell, he would be the first Muslim to win an Oscar in an acting category, and in these times?  Hoo boy, would that be important. 

Actress (Leading Role): Isabelle Hupert (Elle), Ruth Negga (Loving), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Emma Stone (La La Land), Natalie Portman (Jackie)

My Pick: Ruth Negga (Loving)

            I have to be brutally honest; due purely to time constraints, I have so far only seen one of the movies nominated here (La La Land), and I may not be able to see any of the others by next Sunday (I refuse to see Florence), and to be frank, Emma Stone just didn’t impress me much.  It STAGGERS me that Taraji Henson from Hidden Figures was ignored here, because if she were, she would be my pick.  This is the price of determinedly nominated Meryl Streep for literally everything, all the time. 

            So here, I take out my Importance Hat again, and give my vote to the only woman of color here, who also happens to be nominated for a film about a part of American racial that a lot of people don’t think about much anymore, but that remains as necessary as ever. 

Actor (Leading Role): Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Viggo Mortenssen (Captain Fantastic), Denzel Washington (Fences)

My Pick: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)

            Another fairly easy pick for me, since part of what made Manchester such an emotional experience for me was seeing how much pathos Affleck managed to bring to his role despite rarely, if ever, altering his facial expressions. 

Best Picture: La La Land, Moonlight, Lion, Hell or High Water, Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, Fences

My Pick: Arrival

            Manchester by the Sea and Arrival are my two favorites out of this bunch, but while Manchester came in higher in my personal Top 10 list, I am flipping them here and to give Arrival Best Picture.  It may end up being more influential within its genre than Manchester, and its themes of broader communication and the need for human unity is something we will really, really need more of in the years to come. 

            And finally, a tally of which films gets what in my book, for those of you who are like me and obsessively keep score. 

Arrival- Best Picture, Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing (4)
Moonlight- Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Directing, Supporting Actor (4)
Manchester by the Sea- Best Actor, Original Screenplay (2)
Kubo and the Two Strings- Visual Effects, Animated Feature (2)
La La Land- Film Editing, Costume Design (2)
Hidden Figures- Best Supporting Actress
Loving- Best Actress
Star Trek Beyond- Makeup/Hairstyling
Hail, Caesar!- Production Design
Moana- Original Song
Toni Erdmann- Foreign Language Film
The White Helmets- Documentary Short
13th- Documentary Feature

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

My Top (Nine) Film Scores/Soundtracks of 2016

            **for my Top 10 Films list for 2016, click here**

            I have a particular penchant for looking at the use of music in film, whereas many others often quip that the best soundtracks are the ones you don’t hear at all (or that simply feature the most generic collection of rock hits imaginable).  For me, the right score is what can push a good film to greatness and make an otherwise uneven or passable one good.  So looking back at 2016, what were the films that had the best original music and made the best use of it?  These are my picks. 

9. Star Trek: Beyond (Michael Giacchino)

            For all its ups and downs, the music has been one of the most consistently excellent parts of the Star Trek reboot, and the latest (and by far best) of the trilogy is no exception.  And not only was the score good, the soundtrack gets an extra point for featuring a musical call-back to the very start of the first movie way back in 2009, one that I might have been the only person to catch. 

8. Kung Fu Panda 3 (Hans Zimmer)

            Since this had the misfortune to come out in the Dreg Month of February, not many people saw this one, and it was all but forgotten by year’s end, but the consistent excellence of Dreamworks when it comes to making good sequels continued here, and like the first two movies in the franchise featured a fitting original score by Hans Zimmer, one of the finest composers working in film today. 

7. Moana (Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i)

            While Disney still isn’t quite back to Beauty and the Beast/Hunchback/Lion King levels in terms of its animated musicals, Moana was the best step in that direction yet taken, the first of them since Princess and the Frog to have both a score and song set that actually heard and felt like they were written for each other for the film.  We all know how awesome Lin-Manuel Miranda is, but Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i deserve equal credit for coming together to collectively create the most solid musical of the year (yes, substantially better than that other one). 

6. Midnight Special (David Wingo)

            Another early-year release that most people seem to have forgotten about already, this gripping little thriller about a boy possibly possessing deity-like powers and being pursued by both the government and a religious cult is not just a great underrated movie everyone should see right now, it also had a beautifully ambient score to accompany its sharp visual style. 

5. The Handmaiden (Cho Young-wuk)

            As fittingly-crafted as the film’s writing and visuals, the score by NAME is another one of the key puzzle pieces that came together perfectly with the others to make this masterpiece a reality. 

4. Arrival (Johann Johannsson and Max Richter)

            Featuring a score by two of my favorite film composers (you may notice this isn’t the first time Johannsson has appeared on these lists), this movie has arguably the best sound design of any film that came out this year, perfectly tuning in the music to unsettle, elevate, calm, or sadden a given scene as needed. 

3. Kubo and the Two Strings (Dario Marianelli)

            A good fantasy film always calls for a good, old-school orchestral score to match its soaring emotions, the danger and intensity of its action, and the strength of its quieter moments, and Marianelli’s work for the latest work by Laika delivers in every way it had to, especially in how it works in the instrument the main character specializes in playing and the melodies he calls upon to cast his powerful magic. 

2. The Nightmare (Steffen Kahles and Christoph Blaser)

            With its thumping beats, dubstep-style aesthetic and furious pace, the score for this twisted psychothriller makes the audience feel every bit as harried and pursued as the main character does as she tries to find out the truth behind a creature sneaking around her house, and whether or not her basic grasp of reality has slipped away entirely.  Like the film, its harsh tone must be set to LOUD to have the proper effect, and boy, does it work. 

1. Swiss Army Man (Andy Hull and Robert McDowell)

            Easily one of the oddest scores of the year, Swiss Army Man’s music is almost entirely acapella, featuring only the chanting/humming/muttering voices of its two lead actors (Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe).  It’s mostly quiet, reflective, almost meditative in its sadness and somberness, but with one key exception; the montage track, used to excellent effect several times over the course of the movie (and featured in the trailer), is easily the most exuberant, joyful, and fist-pumpingly inspirational bits of music to come out in a time and place that desperately needed (and still needs) more joyful energy.  For this, and for the wonderful creativity and uniqueness of each of its tracks, Swiss Army Man gets my vote as the best film score of 2016. 

            A brief apology for not being able to my more silly awards this year- time simply has not allowed it, especially if I am to get my Oscar post out before the ceremony itself.  Hopefully it will make a grand and spectacular return next year. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 2016

            Yes, this is late, and I do apologize, but now that I am (mostly) caught up on the Oscar-nominated films, we can finally get to the goods- my favorite films from the offerings of 2016.  As of this writing I have seen over 60 movies from 2016 that fall into my personal rules (either a theatrical or festival release in the US or Germany), roughly a third of which were non-English, and here are my absolute favorites of those. 

            As always, this is in no way an attempt to objectively rank films based on their value, and not being on list in no way means I didn’t think a movie was good.  I can’t always quite express why I might like one movie more than another, but I’ll do my best. 

            We start with, as always….

Honorable Mentions: Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick), Hail,Caesar! (the Coen Brothers), A Lullaby under the Nuclear Sky (Tomoko Kana), The Whispering Star (Sion Sono), Censored Voices (Mor Loushy), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins), The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos) 

10. Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

            The latest work from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, this is one of the most interesting takes on the idea of a ghost story I’ve ever seen, focusing on the redemption such a condition could provide rather than its uses for revenge or shock scares.  Kurosawa proves himself once again an absolute master of cinematic tone- I’ve never seen a scene’s emotional vibe change so abruptly (and flawlessly) simply by raising or dimming the lights. 

            There are plenty of solid, detail-packed works on climate change and the threats from it we will face in the coming years, but this is my favorite because of how it digs deep into the darker side of activism in fighting what often appears to be a doomed battle.  Confronting a reality so impossibly huge isn’t possible without, from time to time, simply being overwhelmed by it all.  And as Josh Fox discovered, while this can easily lead one to moments of profound despair, it is what we do after those moments that may, in the end, make all the difference in the world. 

8. Silence (Martin Scorsese)

            Martin Scorsese’s decades-long passion project is a fictional story of Christian missionaries in Japan, and the suffering and torture inflicted on them and on the handful of villages that follow them by Japanese lords determined to stamp out all foreign influence in the country.  Andrew Garfield plays the lead as a particularly devout priest forced to confront the limits of his beliefs in the face of true earthly suffering.  A trying, painful, and complex work that asks, but doesn’t resolve, a host of questions about colonialism, religion, and the nature of true faith, whether or not you like this will depend on how you react to the conclusion Garfield’s character reaches in the film’s final act.  Some will love it, many will find it too much (or too confusing), but I felt profoundly moved, and haven’t been able to get the film out of my mind since then. 

7. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)

            I am not in the position to make a case whether or not this Korean film by Chan-wook is a proper cinematic representation of lesbians (especially since, yes, it was made by a man), but it’s filled with so much narrative detail about themes far beyond female sexuality (though that certainly is a focus) that I could spend hours unpacking it.  It’s also an expertly crafted narrative about character, lies, and deception that yanks the audience around just as much as the main characters get yanked around in their tortured bids to outthink and out-smart each other.  Like Journey to the Shore, it’s such an expertly crafted work in terms of seamlessly combining its technical effectiveness with a top-notch screenplay that I would feel ashamed of myself for not having it on this list. 

6. The Nightmare (Achim Bornhak)

            A slick thriller about the lines between fantasy and reality (and possibly a narrative metaphor for mental illness and/or eating disorders), Der Nachtmahr is a visceral trip down psychedelic lane- a teenage girl begins to see a strange, Gollum-like creature around her house, but is perplexed to find that it disappears whenever she tries to reveal it to anyone else, and soon she finds herself down a very deep rabbit hole indeed, possibly one entirely of her own making.  Or maybe not. 

5. Arrival (Denis Villenueve)

            This was easily one of the best and most original sci-fi films to come out in years.  Taking the classic First Contact scenario, it delves into the complications of language and communication as barriers for understanding (and catalysts for fatal misunderstanding) between peoples.  Like the best of the sci-fi genre, the parallels and lessons for our own world and the crisis of confidence and common purpose we currently find ourselves in are impossible to miss.  Mix in one of the year’s best soundtracks, viscerally gripping cinematography, and another top-of-the-line performance by Amy Adams, and it’s not hard to see why this topped so many Best Of lists. 

4. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)

            As always, the latest from Laika got little love from either audiences or the awards cliques, but that in no way diminishes the quality of what is easily the studio’s best film behind ParaNorman (and it’s a close second).  A film that involves both losing one’s parents and being a target of cruelty from relatives doesn’t sound like much of a pick-me-up, but Kubo takes these fairly dark ideas and, without shortchanging them or losing any sense of danger, creates an uplifting reminder of the power of art, music, and storytelling to rebuild and reshape ourselves even when faced with the greatest obstacles.  And it doesn’t hurt that it further pushes the envelope of what stop-motion animation can do. 

3. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)

            No other Best Picture nominee this year hit me so deeply.  Grief is hard to experience, hard to relate to, and harder still to write about and express properly in a performance, but everyone involved in this movie turns out career-best work, especially Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges.  This is the first time I’ve seen Hedges in a movie since Moonrise Kingdom, and holy cow, do we need to keep an eye out for this guy.  This isn’t a movie where much happens- we mostly just sit with these people as they seek to understand how their lives are being reoriented by the death of a loved one- but in a way, that’s everything there is in life. 

2. Swiss Army Man (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

            This year’s Mood Indigo, Swiss Army Man is possibly the best film in Daniel Radcliffe’s career to date.  Playing a possibly-supernatural living corpse that appears to rescue a stranded Paul Dano, the two of them embark on what alternates between being a survival tale, an action movie, a whacky slapstick comedy, and a psychological exploration of gender, sexuality, and the self.  It is utterly absurd in its story conceit, unfathomably bizarre in its execution, and endlessly willing to haunt anyone put off by graphic talk of the many fluids and functions of the human body.  And I adored every second of it. 

            And my #1 film of 2016 is….

1. 13th (Ava DuVernay)

            13th is DuVernay’s follow-up to her last masterwork, Selma, and I could hardly imagine a more fitting topic for her to turn to incredible talents towards.  Examining a tiny loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which formally ended legal slavery in the United States BUT allowed for exceptions for anyone “duly convicted of a crime,” she winds us through 150 years of subsequent history, breaking down how systematic disenfranchisement and oppression of African-Americans continues to shift and change shape to meet the times, making the post potent case I’ve yet encountered as to why it’s not only ignorant to insist that systematic racism no longer exists, doing so is actively destructive to those who are still caught in its maw. 

            All of that being said, since we are talking about my #1 film choice for 2016, I feel compelled to go a bit deeper as to why I put this ahead of other types of films that otherwise usually top these lists, including absurdist philosophical wanderings (Swiss Army Man), performance-centered character dramas (Manchester by the Sea), and gorgeously-animated fantasy (Kubo and the Two Strings).  There is a moment, towards the end of the film, where DuVernay cuts to a montage playing mostly audio (and some video) clips from Donald Trump’s campaign rallies set over black-and-white footage of Civil Rights activists being attacked, arrested, beaten, and brutalized.  It is the most succinct and effective summation of the entirety of the 2016 Presidential campaign, and what the rise of Trump really signifies.  For this scene, the most affecting I saw in any other movie for 2016, it earns this spot as my favorite film of the year, and as the one I consider the most important and essential viewing for, and I do mean this literally, everyone

            And there we are.  Another year of film, summed up.  I will be back shortly with my favorite soundtracks/scores of the year, followed by that most dreadful of yearly tasks, deucing out my Oscar picks. 

-Noah Franc