Thursday, January 15, 2015


The Oscar nominations were announced early this morning of January 15 and as always the Academy is more than a little schizophrenic. They nominate “American Sniper” for six awards including Best Picture but Clint Eastwood is left off the directors’ list? “Foxcatcher” is nominated for five Oscars including Best Director but it doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination? True, directors nominate directors and everyone votes on Best Picture, but the fact that Eastwood's film did so well elsewhere but kept him off the list suggests inconsistency at best, and stupidity at worst. Same with the "Foxcatcher" inconsistencies.

Hard to explain such kind of balloting, but then the Academy Awards are nothing if not endlessly controversial and more than a little upsetting in those they pick or pass over. In fact, there were plenty of egregious omissions this AM. Here are the 10 worst:

1.) “The Lego Movie” wasn’t nominated for Best Animated Feature.
It could’ve been a nominee for Best Picture, that's how great this comedy was, and the laugh-a-minute family film was considered a shoo-in to win in the animated category by most pundits and prognosticators. But now that is not to be. Either the animators were jealous of its success as it even took Best Original Screenplay in a lot of year-end critics' awards, or they figured everyone else would be voting for it so they didn't need to. No matter, this was the worst snub of the slate this morning.

2.) Gillian Flynn was snubbed for her adaptation of her bestselling book “Gone Girl”.
Like “The Lego Movie”, Flynn was considered the lock for a win in her category, but she didn’t even muster a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Her transfer of her bestselling novel was masterful and should be taught as a "How To" in screenwriting courses. But the Academy was too blind to realize her achievement. Hopefully, the Writers Guild of America will correct Oscar’s slight and give Flynn their award for her work.

3.) “Selma” only received two Oscar nominations.
Did the bad press about its portrayal of LBJ hurt this terrific film? Did the lack of screeners being sent out to various guilds lower its visibility? Very possibly, because "Selma" could have easily been up for whole slew of prizes including Best Director, Actor, Screenplay and both Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress nominees. Instead it only received a nominated for Best Song and for the big prize of Best Picture. What happened?

4.) Jake Gyllenhaal was passed over for Best Actor.
In the final weeks of Oscar predictions, Gyllenhaal was considered an absolute lock. And “Nightcrawler” was coming on strong in balloting and thus expected to get nods in Best Picture, editing, cinematography and even the Best Supporting Actress categories. Instead, it came up way short with only Dan Gilroy’s snarky and clever screenplay getting rewarded.

5.) “Nightcrawler” was snubbed everywhere except for Best Original Screenplay.
Are thrillers just too ‘genre’ for the Academy? Or was the story of the sleazy videographer too pungent a commentary on today’s morals and entertainment? No matter what the reason, the snubbing of this edgy, of-the-moment film was inexplicable.

6.) “Force Majeure” wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
Once considered a three-way race between “Ida”, “Leviathon” and this darkly clever Swedish comedy, Best Foreign Language Film is now short of a great contender with this snub.

7.) “Gone Girl” was snubbed in every category except Best Actress.
Again, does the Academy deem thrillers as not serious enough or a lower genre to award with too many accolades? Pre-Oscar awards have seen tons of prizes go to Flynn, as well as the film’s score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. And its editing by Kirk Baxter and cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth should have figured in the nominations today as well. Heck, even director David Fincher was considered a top director contender. But the Academy said, “Done Girl.”

8.) Clint Eastwood wasn’t nominated for Best Director.
If you’re going to nominate “American Sniper” for six big Oscars including a surprise nomination for Best Picture, but you don’t nominated the venerable and acclaimed director of it, something is very off.

9.) Ralph Fiennes was an also-ran for Best Actor.
Granted, there were so many great possibilities for Best Actor this year that the list could’ve easily yielded 20 nominees. Still, if “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is going to warrant a walloping nine nods, then its leading man should have been in the bunch. It was the one of the truly great performances this year.

10.) “Life Itself” was snubbed in the Best Documentary Feature category.
The story of Roger Ebert made for one of the best films of the year, let alone documentaries, but once again, the documentarians that vote in this category must resent doc’s that do well at the box office or are too popular.

Still, for every questionable omission, there are those that are surprising and delightful. The score for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was delightful and the composing branch rightfully recognized that Alexandre Desplat deserved a nomination for that film as well as his work on “The Imitation Game.”

And it was wonderful to see that Marion Cotillard was remembered for her amazing work in “Two Days, One Night”. It’s a foreign language film but the Oscar voters were willing to read subtitles in this case, so good for them and us. It’s just a shame that the Academy missed so many other great choices across the board this year. It’s one of the most confounding ballots in some time.

But then, that’s the Oscars, isn’t it?

Saturday, January 10, 2015


Pundits and critics have complained long and loud about the shallowness of the potential female Oscar field this year. They couldn’t be more wrong. We all know that the Best Actor list is going to leave off a ton of worthy men when the Academy Award nominations are announced January 15. (Sorry, Miles Teller.) But it’s equally as shocking to realize just how many superb female performances won’t get nominated either. And that goes for the lead category as well as the supporting one.

Here are eight women whose performances have gotten raves and should by all rights be on the Oscar short list, but due to a number of factors, they will likely be passed over. 

Marion Cotillard in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

Her performance in this affecting character study should have been a shoo-in for a nomination. But despite winning a lot of critics’ awards for this role, Cotillard is for someone reason considered a dark horse candidate this year. As a woman fighting to hang onto her job, she is raw, desperate and heartbreaking. Cotillard is one of our finest actresses and won a Best Actress Oscar in 2006 for LA VIE EN ROSE, but since then she was passed over for NINE and RUST AND BONE. And she likely will be this year too. So what is Oscar’s problem? Is it because her performance is in a foreign film?  Perhaps not enough members are willing to read subtitles. Their loss. And Cotillard's, potentially.

Essie Davis in THE BABADOOK

Horror seldom gets its due at awards season. Thus, Essie Davis will likely not hear her name called for her stunning performance in THE BABADOOK. Her work as a frazzled mother trying to deal with a problem child, a prophetic book, and a supernatural demon in her home, was one of the best of 2014. And her knockout contribution helped make this Australian horror movie something truly special. Her work in THE BABADOOK is emotionally harrowing and every bit as physically demanding as actors playing handicapped, but Davis doesn’t stand a chance this year. Ellen Burstyn got an Oscar nod in 1973 for her similar turn in THE EXORCIST, so why not Davis? Is she too much of an outsider? Sometimes there is no justice in the Oscar race.

Shailene Woodley in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

Is she too young? Or too successful? Is this movie too much of a YA title for older voters? Why is this performance not getting more traction this awards season? For that matter, how did she not get a supporting actress nod for THE DESCENDANTS back in 2011? Woodley should have been a certainty then and now, but if prognosticators are right, she'll be left in the lurch. The Academy loves Jennifer Lawrence, so why not Woodley? Heck, she even played a dying character in this film and that’s usually catnip for the Academy. So what went wrong here?

And there are plenty of superb supporting performances that should be nominated this year too and are considered also-rans by most of the pundits at places like or Here are five that deserve better than that. 

Agata Kulesza in IDA

Kulesza has won a number of awards for her stellar work as a young nun’s aunt who harbors World War II secrets in Poland’s Best Foreign Language Film entry. Most notably, the LA Film Critics honored her and you’d think that would bode well for her in the Academy’s hometown. But it’s a long shot that she’ll be called Thursday morning because again, not enough voters seem to be willing to sit through movies with subtitles. But her work was one of the finest performances in 2014 and her likely oversight will be one of the most egregious this year if it happens. 


Some in Hollywood are predicting a strong showing for NIGHTCRAWLER, the sharp thriller about a tabloid TV cameraman willing to do anything to get lurid news footage. And Jake Gyllenhaal is expected to score a lead nomination. But Rene Russo, as his ruthless producer, should get a supporting nod as well yet she is considered a long shot. Russo was wonderful playing tough and tender in this complicated role and she's long overdue for Academy recognition. Still, it looks like this Hollywood vet will be waiting a little longer. 

Carmen Ejogo in SELMA

With all of the praise being heaped on SELMA, why is a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Ejogo considered to be so iffy?  Her portrayal of Coretta Scott King was strong, complex, and incredibly moving. And the role is a large one too. The bigger roles in the supporting category usually stand out. And Ejogo was every bit as compelling as Emma Stone in BIRDMAN and yet Stone's considered a lock and Ejogo is not. Maybe if SELMA opened earlier, and more people had seen it, that would not be the case. Still, Ejogo makes an incredible impact here and deserves Academy recognition.

Sarah Gadon in ENEMY

A supporting nomination for this up-and-coming Canadian actress doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell, but it should be on the list of five for 2014’s best anyway. The shoddy release of ENEMY doomed her chances, but nonetheless she gives a performance that is incredibly moving, tragic and deserves prizes. She plays Jake Gyllenhaal’s confused and cuckolded wife and her character is the moral center of the film. But nobody really saw her great achievement, so nada. Some day soon the Academy will know this bright star’s name. Just not this year.

Tilda Swinton in SNOWPIERCER

This was one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and yet the question remains on whether enough Oscar voters will have seen it to nominate it for anything. A well-liked actress like Tilda Swinton might have a shot in the supporting field, and her performance here is a hoot and a half. It's both funny and frightening, but she's considered anything but a lock this year. She was also terrific in her leading role in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE and in her cameo from THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, so maybe having such a banner year will get her deserved recognition. 

Ultimately, this year's Oscar for Best Supporting Actress is probably going to go to Patricia Arquette for her wondrous performance in BOYHOOD. And she is the frontrunner by a country mile, and deservedly so. But the list of others here should be in competition with her even if the Academy will likely nominate a different slate of actresses.

As for Best Actress, the smart money says it's Julianne Moore's to lose for STILL ALICE, so any of the other actresses nominated Thursday are likely going to applauding her when her name is announced as the winner on February 28th. Still, there is formidable competition here that would make the category more of a horse race.

The Oscars have always been political, and a performance alone rarely wins without campaigning. The timing of things also needs to be spot on and the Academy needs to deem one due to clutch the gold. Further complicating matters are those films that have an advantage by opening later in the season when their impact is fresher on voters. 

It would be lovely of course if performance was the only thing that mattered but that isn't how things work with Hollywood's top prize. Still, this year there are eight great performances that simply aren't getting their due. And come Thursday, it looks like Oscar will continue the oversights. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015


SELMA may be figuring in a lot of year-end lists, and it’s expected to be called when Oscar nominations are announced on January 15, but it didn’t open in Chicago theaters in 2014. Thus, it’s not on this 10 Best List. (INHERENT VICE and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR aren’t opening until January here either. What is it with tardy distribution in the Windy City?) But here are the superb films that did play here in 2014 and made this critic's Top 10 list.

Once Richard Linklater’s masterpiece opened August 15 it became the frontrunner for Best Picture and it hasn’t waivered from many critic lists including this one. The 12-year span of a boy’s life, filmed with the same actor a bit each year from age 5 to 18, was a truly new way to shoot a film. More than being a groundbreaking technical achievement it was a truly unique examination of growing up in America and how everything affects a child’s journey, from divorce to moving to the counterculture. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette did standout supporting work as the parents of Ellar Coltrane who coolly matured from sullen youth to introspective adult onscreen. We watched him go through his BOYHOOD and the experience was truly a once in a lifetime achievement.

This gem was not only the year’s best character-driven two-hander, but it also managed to create more tension than most spy thrillers or action pictures as well. Miles Teller played the cocky drummer butting heads with his demanding jazz band teacher (J.K. Simmons) and their battles kept everyone in the Cineplex on the edge of their seats. Damien Chazelle wrote and directed this January Sundance sensation and it continues to shine through the awards season we’re in now. Expect Simmons to take the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in February, and deservedly so.

The best foreign language film of the year is this brilliant movie from Poland. Pawel Pawlikowski’s story is also a two-hander with a na├»ve soon-to-be nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) on a journey of self-discovery with her hardened aunt (Agata Kulesza) in 1960’s Poland. The revelations of identity and crimes are heartbreaking. And each shot of this black and white masterpiece is considered with the utmost care. It’s a haunting and poetic stunner. 

David Fincher remains one of the film world’s most consistent, accomplished and compelling artists. He also manages to inject pulp material like Gillian Flynn's bestseller with social relevance and shrewd commentary on our modern world. Here he tells the twisty tale of a marriage gone wrong. And the couple played by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are sometimes terrifying, often hilarious, and all too recognizable as spoiled Americans. Kudos to the brooding cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth and the tense score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose that make this moody film even more disturbing. 

This dark comedy about an actor’s comeback attempt is both a searing indictment of the entertainment world and a hopeful piece on redemption. Michael Keaton made a great big comeback with his lead performance here, and he’s ably supported by a stellar troupe including Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts. Inventively directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, expertly shot as if it’s all one long take by Emmanuel Lubaski, and scored with a single percolating jazz drum by Antonio Sanchez, this film pushes the medium dramatically even as it laughs at show biz all the way.

Wes Anderson has always been a clever filmmaker with his stylized settings, camera POV and silly characters. They’re all here but there’s also a great sense of melancholy and hurt as a once grand hotel and its concierge struggle to maintain their dignity during a Fascist onslaught in Europe during the 1930’s. Ralph Fiennes is both hilarious and heartbreaking as the man clinging to grace and savoir faire but losing the battle in the gauche new world. Composer Alexandre Desplat wrote the best score of the year here and it may be his best work ever too.

Of all the films released in 2014 who would’ve thought this one based on a toy line would be the year’s best animated feature and the LOL funniest too? An eye-popping and hellzapoppin comedy designed for kids and adults, this film satirized everything from superheroes to religion to commercialism in movies. And it did it while still remaining a ringing endorsement for the toy line. Umpteen sequels may diminish the returns but the success of this original work as art and commerce was wondrous.

The best horror movie of the year was also one of 2014’s finest love stories. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston played a vampire couple having lived far too many centuries and wondering if immortality is truly worth it. They’ve lost too many friends, and are out of synch with the modern times. Heck, even their hometown of Detroit appears deader than they are. Jim Jarmusch brings his unique and eccentric take to the genre and ended up fashioning a poignant and movingly eerie romance that the TWILIGHT series couldn’t begin to touch.

Speaking of horror, this psychological thriller about a driven tabloid TV cameraman willing to do anything to rise to the top of his profession was a scarier movie character than GODZILLA or any other ghoul or goblin on the big screen this year. Jake Gyllenhaal gave a career best performance as Leo Bloom who blooms in the mud here. Together with his performance in the little seen but sublime ENEMY Gyllenhaal is the actor of the year. This film, like NETWORK and BROADCAST NEWS, is a brilliant commentary on the state of TV news. And the portrait here is an ugly one. 

There aren’t enough films centered around women characters but this sharp and popular Reese Witherspoon vehicle should encourage studios and producers to make more of them. She plays a woman who’s lost her way after her mother’s death and her marriage ends, so she decides to clear her head and her slate by going on a hundred mile hike up the Pacific Crest. Along the way, she discovers what’s important, like everything from the right fitting boots to how to fend off the drooling wolves she attracts. (The human kind, that is.) Her journey is funny, harrowing, and utterly courageous, and the fact that it’s based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed gives it all the more resonance. Cheryl strayed indeed, but she found her way back. And her story made for one of the year’s treasures.

Other terrific films that deserve merit are the two British biopics sure to make Oscar’s top 10 list – THE IMITATION GAME and THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. The aforementioned ENEMY should not have been unceremoniously dumped on VOD but given a wide release and given a chance in Chicago theaters. And superb frighteners OCULUS, “ANNABELLE, CHEAP THRILLS, LUCKY BASTARD and HONEYMOON advanced what the horror genre can do. They surprised and shook audiences without having to resort to excessive blood and gore.

Also worth mentioning is the underrated THE GOOD LIE, which deserved far more accolades and attention than it got, especially since it contained another wonderful great Witherspoon performance. The Spanish/American THE BOOK OF LIFE was an eye-popping animated delight for the family. And the best and smartest laughs of the year could be found in THE GUARDIANS OF  THE GALAXY, BEGIN AGAIN and TOP FIVE.

Documentaries like LIFE ITSELF and CITIZEN FOUR were two of the year's best documentaries. SNOWPIERCER played well on the big screen and VOD, and gave the tired action/adventure genre a exciting new spin.  And Shailene Woodley gave two incredible performances this year in both THE FAULT IN OUR STARS as well as WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD.

Those were the movie highlights of my year. What impressed you the most?