And The 2014 Oscars Go To….

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2013 was a pretty damn good year for movies! And this year, there are 9 of them that have been chosen to represent for the right to be name the “Best Motion Picture Of The Year!” I can’t say that I have seen ALL of the films that have been nominated, but I have seen my share so I thought I would take a stab at who I think will be the big winners this year and which film I would pick to represent as the best of 2013. So…without further adieu…

Let’s just skip to what I think is gonna be a sweep in several of the smaller categories, shall we? Because I have a feeling, the sci-fi blockbuster “Gravity” is gonna clean house in several of them. So…”Gravity” takes BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN VISUAL EFFECTS, SOUND EDITING, SOUND MIXING, ORIGINAL SCORE, EDITING & CINEMATOGRAPHY. So, right out of the box, that puts “Gravity” with 6 golden statues!

Okay…now with the rest…

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: Although I WANT to give it to U2 for their song “Ordinary Love” from the soundtrack of “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom,” I think the film “Frozen” might sweep in and take this one with “Let It Go.” So…I’ll go with “Let It Go” and root for U2. And I won’t be upset if I got this one wrong!

COSTUME DESIGN: “American Hustle.” I mean…here you have 4 of the most recognizable actors in the business and I never once thought to myself, “Huh…Christian Bale looks ridiculous in a combover.”

PRODUCTION DESIGN: “The Great Gatsby.” I didn’t really care much for it overall as a film, but the production design on it is outstanding and possibly the only reason (other than Leonardo DiCaprio) to sit through its 2+ hour runtime.

ANIMATED FILM: “Frozen.” I haven’t seen it but the word of mouth (which is mostly from my daughter and her friends) is outstanding!

BEST WRITING, SCREENPLAY BASED ON PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED MATERIAL: “12 Years A Slave.” Despite being an outstanding film, I don’t think it will win in many of the other categories and I see the Academy wanting to recognize it in some capacity so….here it is!

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: “American Hustle.” Who is hustling who in this film? It’s a great script that carries through to the end. I thoroughly enjoyed it and so did everyone else. Other than possibly “Blue Jasmine,” I don’t think this one could be topped in this category.

BEST DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity.” Hands down. No question. It’s a done deal.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Having only seen 3 of the 5, I’ll go with who I would pick and that would be Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine.” But I have to imagine Jennifer Lawrence will get serious consideration also.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: I’ve heard Jared Leto is outstanding in “Dallas Buyer’s Club” but I haven’t seen it. So, until I do, I’m going with Michael Fassbender for his role as a plantation owner in “12 Years A Slave.” He’s also been a so many other films where he’s excellent that I think it’s time the guy got one…don’t you think?

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: THIS is a tough one! Here’s the deal…I HATED “Blue Jasmine.” And when I say HATE, I mean it in one of the nicest ways possible. Cate Blanchett is spectacular as a wealthy woman who is brought down to earth when her husband is indicted and sent to jail. Blanchett chews up the entire movie and I absolutely abhorred her character throughout the film. Then…you get to the end…and I found myself sympathizing with her and THAT is the sign of either A) a great actress or B) writing so amazing that the actor or actress can’t screw it up. So…which do I go with? Amy Adams’ character in “American Hustle” was dead on also (I even predicted her to win in my review of the movie) and I hear Judi Dench is also a possibility for “Philomena.” Well…I haven’t seen “Philomena” and “Blue Jasmine” was written & directed by Woody Allen. So…I’m going to go with my original first choice…Amy Adams wins for “American Hustle.” She is ultimately the absolute best in a role that I don’t think anyone else could have taken and made it what she did. Her performance is, quite frankly, the heartbeat of the movie and she deserves it!

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: I have to tell ya…Matthew McConaughey has had a pretty good year. And he’s nominated for “Dallas Buyer’s Club.” So…I can see where he might end up taking this one. But I haven’t seen this film (but I DID see “Mud” and he was excellent in it!) so I can’t say if he should win or not. I also have not seen “Nebraska” and I hear Bruce Dern is extremely good and has also been a noted high-tier actor in Hollywood for years. So HE could also be in the running. But for MY money, of the 3 actors that I HAVE seen this year, Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is probably the best. He is almost gleeful in the way he takes this reprehensible character and gives him life. Plus…we all know Hollywood loves DiCaprio and would love to see him win his first statue so…there ya go.

BEST MOTION PICTURE OF THE YEAR: When voting for the best film, I would have to ask myself…”In 15 years, which movie would I WANT to see again?” In this case, it’s an easy answer. For me, there is only one movie that I HAD to see again. It was everything I enjoy about the movies and it was everything I could ask for in a 90 minute package. “Gravity” may not be the most thought provoking film of the past year, but it was definitely the reason I love to go sit in a dark room with strangers, munching on popped corn kernels and drinking soda. It was exhilarating, breathtaking and as entertaining as any film I’ve seen in years. So, despite the fact that there are so many great films in this list of hopefuls, my vote is for “GRAVITY.” I’ve seen it 4 times already and it is, in so many ways, perfect. It’s an A+ in a year full of A’s…and so it gets MY vote as the best of 2013!

Django Unchained

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Quentin Tarantino is considered by most to be one of the most original directors out there today. I find this amusing because most of what he does is spin older B-films from yesteryear into more modern dramas. From “Kill Bill” to “Jackie Brown” to the classic “Pulp Fiction,” all of his films are throwbacks to when he was a kid, watching old movies in some tin can theater in Los Angeles, CA. His style has been called “grindhouse,” and this film, based loosely on the spaghetti westerns of the late 60’s, is another iconic film added to the Tarantino arsenal.

Set in the late 1800’s, this is the story of Django. When we first see Django (played by Jamie Foxx), he is being escorted by 2 old cowboys, shackled in chains and walking through the northern part of Texas with several other slaves. In rides Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter, who seeks Django’s help to find 3 brothers who are wanted by the law. The doctor promises Django his freedom once he has helped him find the 3 outlaws so that he can bring them in dead or alive for the bounty. Upon their “retrieval,” he then proposes that the 2 of them remain in business and promises that, once the winter has ended, he will help Django find his wife who has been sold into slavery in Mississippi.

All through the winter they ride and once spring finally comes, the 2 of them search for Django’s wife, Broomhilda. They find that she has been sold to a cotton plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and now lives in “Candie Land,” the third largest plantation in Mississippi. From there, they must find a way to get onto the plantation and rescue Broomhilda from Candie Land without breaking the law or causing a commotion in the dangerous south.

I won’t go into any more plot points because all of the accolades for this film (Oscar nominations, Golden Globe nominee, etc) are well-deserved and I don’t want to give away any more secrets. Tarantino has made a well-paced, tightly scripted movie here and I only could find fault in one aspect of the movie, which I will get to in a second. But first, I have to mention that all of the cast of “Django Unchained” are top notch in their performances. Between Foxx as the quietly composed Django, to Waltz as the cooly confident “Schultz” to DiCaprio as the complex “Calvin Candie,” every performer does great work here. One of the highlights was Tarantino favorite, Samuel L. Jackson, as Candie’s slave butler, Stephen.” Jackson, under makeup and almost unrecognizable except for his eyes and smile, gives a commanding (and often comical) performance as Candie’s right-hand man who does something that completely surprised me. Of all the performances, his was the one that totally made this movie worth the price of admission mostly because I hadn’t heard much about it and it was such a pleasant surprise!

The script is typical Tarantino. Lots of action, lots of fascinating dialogue and entire scenes that build to climax with humor and tension combined. Unlike most of his films, the film is pretty much all done in real time so there isn’t any jumbling of sequences like in Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill. This is a plus, I think, with only a few flashbacks to tell the story of Django and his wife. Sometimes keeping up with the flow of a Tarantino film can be confusing. Here he simply drops you in a time period and lets the story go from there.

The only negative I have about this film, and there have been some people who have cried “wolf” about a white man directing a film about slavery (see Spike Lee’s rant against it here), is the music. Usually Tarantino has excellent taste when it comes to using music that fits the flow and the time frame of his films. But in “Django,” I found some of the choices annoying. At one point he uses a Jim Croce song and then later he makes use of a Rick Ross track. This bouncing around in musical genres may work in some cases, but here it becomes somewhat annoying, especially since there are quite a few montage moments that require a musical touch. Not ALL of the music is poorly chosen, mind you. Actually, the opening sequence song is perfect for this type of spaghetti western style, but in some cases, the music was almost distracting because it just didn’t fit the movie.

That being said, this is definitely a great movie to see in theaters. How it sizes up with the rest of Tarantino’s movies is yet to be seen however I can say I enjoyed it more than “Inglorious Basterds” but not as much as “Pulp Fiction” or the “Kill Bill” films. On those terms alone, this qualifies it as one of the best movies of 2012!

Overall Rating: A

Inception

The definition of the word “inception”  is “beginning, start, commencement.” In the case of the latest Christopher Nolan psychological thriller, it’s the placing of an idea into someone’s mind. And the process of doing this is not as easy as you might think…or dream, as it were. Considered to be the juggernaut film for adults during a lackluster summer season (as of this post, it’s been #1 at the Box Office for 3 straight weeks), this movie is truly a visionary experience and it does live up to the hype.

Written by Nolan who has brought us the backwards mind-bender “Memento” and “The Dark Knight,” this film is a breath of fresh air, even when it does get a little heavy-handed with relationship drama and long-winded explanations. But even when it does get a little too involved, the scenery is so fascinating that it’s hard to not get swept away in it.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a mind thief. He essentially goes into your dreams and steals ideas or thoughts in order to make money. To do this he needs certain people to help him set-up the heist so that the “dreamer” won’t recognize the fact that his or her ideas are being stolen. It’s a fascinating idea that has been touched upon in other films, but in this case, Nolan takes it in a different direction. Cobb is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to go into another man’s thoughts to plant an idea. As simple as this sounds here, I gotta tell you…the painstaking way that Nolan develops this concept and makes it NOT so simple is a part of what makes this so thrilling! It involves going deeper and deeper into a person’s psychological dream state and planting an idea so small that it will evolve into something on its own. The perpetrators have to plant the idea without the subject knowing or the entire plan falls apart and leaves them with nothing. It’s a fascinating concept and there are multiple levels to what Nolan has created here.

Not to give anything away, DiCaprio’s Cobb is a complex character because he has his share of secrets and they tend to get in his way while he is at work. His arching storyline is what makes “Inception” more complex than it probably has to be, but it doesn’t deter from the plot of the film and, if anything, it adds more layers to it. It could have made this movie almost TOO much to keep up with, but it is with skilled writing and DiCaprio’s skills that Cobb’s issues become an important aspect of the movie instead of weighing it down.

Lots of great performances in this movie, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as DiCaprio’s right-hand man, Arthur, and a lot of big-name actors who are left with secondary roles that are important to the plot and pacing of the film. Ellen Page is a decent choice for “The Architect”, or someone who develops the dreamscapes for Cobb. Tom Hardy, Dileep Rio and Watanabe are excellent as the rest of the crew who help Cobb and Marion Cotillard plays Cobb’s deceased wife who haunts his dreams.

For me to give away any of the plot of this film would be a disservice. It’s fascinating to watch as Nolan takes us further & further along on this mind-twisting journey and I can honestly say I have never seen anything like it. It’s an amazing movie and one that I hope is as good on repeated viewings. I plan on seeing it again and hopefully there will be some new things that I missed the first time that will help me understand certain aspects of it. But overall, you can’t ask for a more thought-provoking summer film and I imagine there will be plenty of Oscar talk as the year rolls on!

Overall Rating: A+

Shutter Island

Martin Scorcese has a winning combination of Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Kingsley and a strong supporting cast. Then he has a suspenseful script and a spooky location and it should all equal an amazing movie…right? I wish I could say this is a blockbuster film, a quality followup to his award-winning “The Departed”. But I can’t. Actually, “Shutter Island” sputters along, reveling in all of the above almost to a point where it becomes TOO predictable, and that is where it suffers.

DiCaprio is Marshall Teddy Daniels, a former military man who is sent to the insane asylum island to investigate the case of a woman who has mysteriously disappeared from her holding cell. Once there, he & his partner, Mark Ruffalo, find the going tough as the doctors & nurses are very quiet on what has happened or how she could have escaped. During a hurricane, both investigators find they are trapped on the island and things are getting stranger with each passing night. It’s a great idea, however I found that Scorcese gives away too much as the film progresses and the “twist” ending isn’t exactly a surprise. As a matter of fact, if the movie hadn’t ended the way it did, I would have been very surprised. So it kind of jumps the shark, even though it doesn’t (if that doesn’t make any sense to you, it will after you see the movie).

As for the cast, it is superb. DiCaprio is excellent (as usual) and everyone has a meaty role. Ruffalo does well as Daniels’ partner, Kingsley is his usual superb self as the Chief Psychiatrist and Max von Sydow is limited in his role but effective.  Patricia Clarkson & Jackie Earl Haley both make appearances and leave a mark on the film.

And the location is perfect. Shot in Maine & Massachusetts, the ocean and the island itself play a huge role as the asylum and the island cliffs and woodlands take on a life of their own. They are almost like characters themselves, weaving themselves into the plot of the movie.

Needless to say, the directing is great and the cinematography is perfect. The soundtrack is a little annoying, but I can live with that. So it’s somewhat disappointing that I can’t give this film a “2 thumbs up'” It is a testiment to Scorcese and his amazing track record that this film doesn’t even rank in his Top 10 best. Any other director, this might have been the diamond in the rough. But for him, it’s simply a decent movie.

Overall Rating: B-