Tag Archives: Movies

Review: Live Action Oscar Shorts

In my quest to watch as many of this year’s Oscar nominated films as I can, I checked out a screening of all five of the Live Action Short nominees. The results were… depressing!

That said, I did like 4 of the 5 films, to varying degrees. Below are my brief thoughts on each, in the order I watched them.

Mother

Mother (Rodrigo Sorogoyen, Spain)

Perhaps the ideal use of the short film format, Mother tells an economical story in a trim 18 minutes. It’s self-contained and propulsive, ratcheting up the tension by using a single shot for the majority of its runtime.

The acting is solid, selling this story of a mother who receives a call from her young son who’s been left by himself in an unknown location. Of course, things only escalate from there, but we always stay on the mother’s end of the line so the viewer is similarly left in the dark of what exactly is happening.

I would have liked a bit more character development to make it easier to get emotionally invested. But the slick filmmaking provides plenty of narrative stakes on its own.

Fauve

Fauve (Jeremy Comte, Canada)

Comte’s short is easily my favourite of the bunch, telling the story of two boys who are out exploring on their own and get into far more trouble than they expect. The child actors are excellent and Comte’s camera is patient, giving the film an extremely naturalistic feel. The story unfolds at the perfect pace, building to a subtle but emotionally impactful ending.

There is an artistry to Fauve that sets it apart from the others, and I’d be extremely interested to see what Comte could do with the feature-length format. He has a knack for visual storytelling. Because while like most of the other shorts in this programme Fauve is grim, it never wallows and instead earns its somberness. I would be surprised if this one won the Oscar, but it would certainly be worthy.

Marguerite

Marguerite (Marianne Farley, Canada)

The category’s second offering from Canada, Marguerite is actually the most uplifting of the bunch. Which is an interesting thing to say about a film that follows a dying elderly women thinking about the great regrets of her life. But there is a hopefulness and warmth to Marguerite that actually makes it quite lovely. There are only two actors in the film (Beatrice Picard and Sandrine Bisson) and both are wonderful, lending a lot of emotional heft to the proceedings.

The film’s character intimacy is its great strength. Less strong is the pacing, which feels a bit shaggy even at only 19 minutes long. While emotionally affecting and overall a strong showing, it felt like there was just one small element missing.

Detainment

Detainment (Vincent Lambe, Ireland)

I can almost always find a way to at least justify a film’s existence, but that’s not really the case with Detainment. Tackling the distressing true story of two 10-year-old boys accused of murdering a toddler, it comes across as not only exploitative (which would be bad enough) but also artless. There’s no real visual style, atmosphere, or narrative tension (beyond the general sense of dread stemming from the subject matter) to be found.

The bright spot (if you can call it that) of the film is the performance by Ely Solan as one of the two boys, the doe-eyed Jon. It is an unsettlingly excellent performance from such a young actor, to the point where it made me wonder about the ethics of putting child actors into such a disturbing (yes, fictional) situation.

There simply isn’t a reason for this movie to exist. It’s one thing to be bleak. It’s another to use real-life tragedy for shock value and do nothing more with it.

Skin

Skin (Guy Nattiv, USA)

I have mixed feelings on Skin. Partly, I think it suffered for being the last of the five shorts shown in the programme, forced to follow up all the grimness that came before. But more than that, I think it just goes overboard to make its point. The subject matter (concerning a racially-based hate crime in the small-town southern USA) is no doubt important. But while I think (?) the heavy-handedness is intentional (meant to be allegorical rather than taken at face value), the stereotypes and oversimplification of the complex themes is a bit hard to stomach.

That said it is beautifully shot, and the story flows well. The acting is also strong – Jonathan Tucker and Danielle Macdonald are experienced and talented enough to imbue some intricacy to what would be otherwise very one-dimensional characters. If only the story itself had an ounce of nuance.

Review: Cold War

cold war

I don’t often wish that movies were significantly longer than they already are, but I think Cold War easily could have added another 20-30 minutes to its run time. And not in the sense where I just wanted to spend more time with the characters (although also kind of that). It’s because a scant 89 minutes didn’t feel long enough to tell this story in a fully satisfying way.

Following the “romantic epic” model, Cold War bounces between years and countries to tell the complicated love story of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). But the story moves at such a clip that it’s not until the second act, taking place largely in Paris, where it feels like the film finally gets the space it deserves to let the story breathe.

Obviously it was Pawlikowski’s intention to present the story more in snippets or as fragments of a relationship. I’m just not sure I agree with him that that was the best way.

You may be surprised to learn, though, that my review of the movie is a positive one. The truth is that I liked everything else about the film so much that I still think it’s ultimately a success, and quite a visual achievement in particular. The black and white cinematography (as was the case in Pawlikowski’s previous film, Ida) is absolutely stunning, heightening the tension, longing, and volatility of many a scene.

The performances, too, are excellent. Kot is equal parts sadsack and dreamboat (to great effect), while Kulig deserves every word of praise she’s been getting for her turn. Zula is a fantastically complex and fiery character, and Kulig brings both the charisma and depth to carry her off perfectly. (I’ve been seeing a lot of Jennifer Lawrence comparisons, but there are many moments where she seemed to me the spitting image of a young Gena Rowlands.)

It was a thrill simply watching the central relationship play out. While I did feel the narrative structure made Cold War feel remote at times, ultimately the spirited performances and dazzling visuals brought it right back into the here and now.

Final 2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions

a star is born

Although I usually don’t do too badly predicting the Oscar winners, my track record prognosticating the nominees is… a bit shaky. Beyond some solid bets, it’s anyone’s best guess as to who will round out most of the categories. And there are always at least a couple shockers on nomination morning. That’s what makes it fun!

Below, I’ve outlined my final predictions for this year’s nominees in the major categories, plus the screenplay, animation, foreign language, and documentary categories. Nominations are announced January 22.

Lists are ranked by how likely I think each person/film is to get nominated (not necessarily win).

Best Picture
A Star is Born
Roma
Green Book
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
The Favourite
Vice
Bohemian Rhapsody
If Beale Street Could Talk

I will be shocked if any of the first seven films on this list don’t get a nomination. The last two are more vulnerable, but if the Academy sticks with its pattern of having nine Best Picture nominees, I don’t think there are many other really solid bets.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron – Roma
Bradley Cooper – A Star is Born
Peter Farrelly – Green Book
Spike Lee – BlacKkKlansman
Adam McKay – Vice

This is a weird category? Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) is also a strong possibility, but did get snubbed by the DGA. Barry Jenkins, who on paper should be a shoe-in has been pretty absent from nominations all awards season. There’s no one else I can really see sneaking in.

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper – A Star is Born
Viggo Mortensen – Green Book
Christian Bale – Vice
Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody
Ethan Hawke – First Reformed

My greatest (possibly futile) hope for this awards season is that Hawke lands himself a nomination. And he’s remained a steady dark horse presence throughout the season, so it might actually happen. Right now his biggest competition for the fifth slot is BlacKkKlansman’s  John David Washington, and I could really see it going either way.

Best Actress
Lady Gaga – A Star is Born
Olivia Colman – The Favourite
Glenn Close – The Wife
Melissa McCarthy – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Nicole Kidman – Destroyer

Again, it seems like there are two people fighting for one spot: Emily Blunt for Mary Poppins Returns, and Kidman. (Yalitza Aparicio from Roma – my personal favourite in this category – also has an outside chance.) Oscar loves recognizing A-list actresses in semi-obscure films, which is why I think Kidman has the slight edge.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali – Green Book
Richard E. Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Adam Driver – BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott – A Star is Born
Timothee Chalamet – Beautiful Boy

Ali and Grant are pretty much locks at this point, and Driver, Elliott, Chalamet, and Sam Rockwell are the four contenders for the last three spots. Elliott’s nomination should be a given, but his surprising snub at the Golden Globes makes me think it’s possible he could go the way of Albert Brooks in Drive (i.e. veteran actor considered nearly a lock to WIN the Oscar, gets snubbed by a major precursor, and then doesn’t even get nominated). Maybe it’s foolish to bet against last year’s winner (Rockwell), but I also can’t really see anyone else from this line-up missing.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams – Vice
Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone – The Favourite
Rachel Weisz – The Favourite
Claire Foy – First Man 

Regina King’s snub by SAG makes me fear for her chances of winning, but I think the Academy will diverge from SAG here and still nominate her. I’m going with the Globes line-up.

Best Original Screenplay
Green Book
Roma
The Favourite
Vice
Eighth Grade

Is my Eighth Grade prediction just wishful thinking? Quite possibly. However, there is an open spot with no clear fifth shoe-in. Fingers crossed.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
BlacKkKlansman
If Beale Street Could Talk
First Man
A Star is Born

This is a sort of low-profile category this year, so there’s room for a wildcard to sneak in (Leave No Trace, The Death of Stalin, Wildlife, etc.) This one is hard to predict.

Best Animated Feature
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Isle of Dogs
Incredibles 2
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Fireworks

There’s no way Spider-Verse isn’t winning, right?

Best Foreign Language Film
Roma
Cold War
Shoplifters
Capernaum
Never Look Away

I always find this category tricky, even when there are only nine shortlist options to choose from. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the shortlist get nominated and the only ones I’d be shocked to see snubbed are Roma and Cold War.

Best Documentary
Won’t You Be My Neighbour
Free Solo
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
Three Identical Strangers

This category is always a weird balance of very crowd-pleasing fare (think previous winners 20 Feet From Stardom and Searching for Sugar Man) and more “serious” entries and this year’s 15-film shortlist is divided almost right down the middle between the two options. There were quite a few more “accessible” docs that got a lot of attention this year (Won’t You Be My Neighbour, Three Identical Strangers, Free Solo, Minding the Gap, RBG, Shirkers, and Hale County This Morning This Evening) and while I don’t think they’ll all make the final cut, I can’t see the Academy turning down most of its more high-profile options for this category.

Ranked: Best Animated Short Oscar Shortlist

Last year I discovered the wonderful world of Oscar shorts when, for the first time, I checked out the full lineup of nominated documentary and animated shorts. This year, I took things a step further and have now watched all ten animated shorts that made Oscar’s recently-announced shortlist.

Watching all ten shorts in a concentrated period illuminated some common themes (which will probably become clear) but also how much animation can vary. From the glossiest, most vibrant Pixar productions to some frankly, well, weird low-fi experiments, animation can encompass a lot.

Now, after just espousing how there’s room for everything in animation, I’m going to pit these vastly different shorts against each other. It’s worth noting that I enjoyed all 10 shorts (and they’re all better than last year’s WINNER in this category, the Kobe Bryant-produced Dear Basketball). But because this is how my brain works, below is how I rank them in terms of my own enjoyment. (Predictions for what I think will actually get nominated come at the end of the post.)

At the time of publishing, all 10 shorts are currently available online through YouTube or Vimeo. Click each film title to watch.

bilby

10. Bilby

Telling the story of the unlikely friendship between an Australian bilby and a tiny (adorable) bird, Bilby feels like Dreamworks’ answer to the antic-filled shorts that used to be a staple of the Pixar canon. It’s very cute and features a stand-out montage (the two friends narrowly avoiding the various threats that nature poses), but ultimately feels a bit too light to be truly memorable.

age of sail

9. Age of Sail

Age of Sail is one of the few Animated Short contenders with some star power behind it, since it stars Ian McShane as a grizzled sailor whose search for solitude at sea is interrupted when he has to rescue a girl who has fallen overboard from a nearby passenger ship. It’s directed by John Kahrs, who is a previous winner in this category for 2012’s Paperman.  But while the illustration-style animation is used to great effect during a bravura shipwreck sequence, the film’s character-based storytelling it too simplistic to fully carry it for its 12-minute run.

bird karma

8. Bird Karma

At just 4:45 minutes long, Bird Karma is the shortest of the bunch by a fairly wide margin. And the brief runtime suits the simplicity of this morality tale about a greedy bird. The traditional animation style is used to colourful and creative effect, though it doesn’t necessarily push the limits of the medium.

one small step

7. One Small Step

This is the first of several shorts on the list that seem to take inspiration from the emotional tug of the opening of Up. It tells the years-long tale of a serious-minded girl who pursues her dream of becoming an astronaut, sometimes to the detriment to her family relationships. Animated by TAIKO Studios, One Small Step has an extremely vibrant, warm style. The story is a bit predictable, but that doesn’t lessen its emotional impact.

Late Afternoon

6. Late Afternoon

Another tearjerker, Late Afternoon follows Emily, an elderly woman whose memory is becoming increasingly fragmented as a result of Alzheimer’s. With vibrant, almost child-like animation, it does a great job of portraying the disjointed, impressionistic format Emily’s memories have assumed. It’s not subtle with the sentimentality of its storytelling, but it’s effective nonetheless.

animal behaviour

5. Animal Behaviour

Coming from the veteran animation team of Alison Snowden and David Fine (winners in this category for 1994’s Bob’s Birthday), this comedic short portrays what might happen if a variety of animal species came together for group therapy. It takes a more traditional storytelling approach than some of the other shortlist picks, relying on spirited vocal performances and sharp writing. The result is an engaging and funny romp that comes across as quite unique among the nominees.

lost and found

4. Lost & Found

Maybe the most adorable AND the saddest of a pretty uniformly adorable and sad bunch of films, I really loved the knitted stop-motion animation used in Lost & Found. (Apparently this is its own subgenre, which is news to me.) It’s part romance and part thriller, showing a daring rescue mission involving a fox and a dinosaur. It certainly pulls on the heartstrings (heart-yarn?) and the stop-motion animation is done with jaw-dropping precision. It’s a testament to the strength of these shorts that this only made it to #4 on my list.

bao

3. Bao

Likely the frontrunner to win this category, Bao would be a worthy champ. Domee Shi has crafted a layered look at maternal love wrapped in a rich animation style that shows Pixar is continuing to innovate. Heartfelt and more complicated than it originally appears.

weekends

2. Weekends

The top two films on the list landed where they are because, to me, they represent an extra little step of creativity and innovation. Weekends feels like a tone poem. It follows a young child of divorce as he splits his time between a neurotic mother living in the country and his “cool” dad who lives in downtown Toronto. Clocking in at 15:17, it’s the longest of the bunch and earns each second with its artistry and subtle emotion. Quietly beautiful, sad, and strange all at once, Weekends is perhaps the most significant artistic achievement of the bunch.

grandpa walrus

1. Grandpa Walrus

Taking the top spot for me by just a hair is Grandpa Walrus, from French animator Lucrece Andreae. It follows a family mourning the recent death of their family’s eccentric patriarch. Their visit to a favourite seaside spot of brings out a lot of simmering emotions, to say the least. With macabre touches and a unique hand-drawn animation style, Andeae has crafted something that feels deeply personal yet universal in its themes of family tensions and loss. It’s off-beat enough that it’ll probably be an underdog in this category, but it really worked for me.

Predictions

So which five from the shortlist will ultimately get nominated for an Oscar? If I had to guess, I’d put my money on Bao, Late Afternoon, Weekends, Lost & Found, and One Small Step.

Nominations are announced January 22.

Review: Sorry to Bother You

sorry to bother you

When I saw a quote on the cover of Sorry To Bother You’s DVD case proclaiming it to be “Get Out on acid” (courtesy of Dana Harris from Indiewire) I thought that was a bit of topical marketing hyperbole. Turns out it’s actually a fairly accurate assessment.

Boots Riley’s debut film tells the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who finds himself quickly rising in the ranks at his new telemarketing job. As he gains more and more success it comes at the cost of his more socially-minded roots, alienating him from his union pals at the company (Jermaine Fowler and Steven Yeun) and his activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He also begins to learn more about the extent of corporate greed and… well, things spiral from there.

Sorry to Bother You mines its social satire through a dystopian-esque world that is equal parts whimsical and bleak. In this version of reality, for example, citizens revel in a show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me. (So in other words it’s heightened, yes, but not THAT many steps away from our current reality.) Riley recalls the work of Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze in his off-kilter, daydreamy visual innovation, lending Sorry to Bother You a bite and creativity that only strengthens the very blunt statements Riley is making.

In fact, I’d argue that there are actually a few too many ideas at play at times, muddying Riley’s otherwise clear vision. Had certain ideas or plot points been pushed further (and others done away with entirely) they could have made even more of an impact. His social commentary is vibrant and important, but it feels like he’s still figuring out the best ways to cohesively convey it.

Some reviews seem to feel that Sorry to Bother You gets a bit too, well, weird for its own good by the end. But while things certainly escalate quickly and go in unexpected directions, that’s part of the appeal of this bold film. And the fact that this got a wide release in theatres is perhaps a minor miracle. It’s an insanely ambitious first film and while it doesn’t entirely stick the landing, it works far better than it should and promises all sorts of exciting things to come.