Movie News

Monday, November 10, 2014

Movie Award Season Begins... Chris's Early Thoughts on Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Birdman, Whiplash, and Dear White People

Every year, Christmas comes early for cinephiles – because with November, comes film award season. From early November (late October even), the studios roll out their big guns, the award-seeking missiles. Week after week, highly anticipated new films hit theaters week after week in hopes of riding the momentum into next year and the Oscars in February. 

12 Years a Slave director & cast at 2013 New Orleans Film Fest

With this time of year on the movie calendar also comes a myriad of film festivals. For the past several years, I have the honor and pleasure of covering the New Orleans Film Festival, a rapidly growing fest that is riding the tsunami wave of Hollywood South and the ever-growing film industry in the state of Louisiana. 

Last year, I got to cover the U.S. premiere of the eventual Best Picture Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, complete with interviews with director Steve McQueen and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and eventual Oscar-winner, Lupita Nyong’o. In addition to cool things like that, I also get to see a lot of films early, many of which are equally as highly-anticipated films.

This year, in addition to many smaller and local films, I got to see a handful of this year’s big name films and potential award contenders, including Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Whiplash, Black and White, and Dear White People.

Here are my thoughts on these films before they hit theaters later this year, in addition to my initial thoughts on Birdman, which I saw last week and is now playing. 

Foxcatcher (Dir. Bennett Miller)

One of the year’s most anticipated films, this atmospheric drama follows the true story of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic wrestler whose relationships with sponsor, John du Pont (an unrecognizable Steve Carell), and brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), leads to unlikely circumstances.

The film is led by three fantastic performances. In what seems like a showy, Oscar-bait role, Carell is refreshingly reserved and hauntingly off-putting. Tatum wrings intensity and emotion from his everyday meathead role, while Ruffalo brings a much-needed calmness and sanity to the tense story. The characters engage in bitter power plays with one another as their relationships with one another steadily dissolve.

Even with the great performances, plus the wonderfully washed-out cinematography and terrific music/sound design, the film still comes across as cold and distant. Given the story’s themes of loneliness and insecurity, this is likely intentional to a degree, but it still makes the film difficult to truly love. Definitely a major awards contender, but will likely fall short outside of an acting award or two.

* * * * out of 5 stars

The Imitation Game (Dir. Morten Tyldum)

Few films are more tailor-made for movie award season than this British film from perennial Oscar-players, the Weinstein Co. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, and a host of other esteemed Brits, the film examines the life of noted mathematician Alan Turing, who helped crack the supposedly unbreakable German Enigma code during World War II. Though a national hero, Turing was later prosecuted for his homosexuality soon after the war, which ultimately ruined his career and life.

Led by an outstanding performance from Cumberbatch, the film is a solid biopic full of tremendous emotion and great acting. Unfortunately, it is a bit too safe, and offers little new to the well-trodden prestige biopic genre, defined by former Oscar-winning films, such as A Beautiful Mind and The King’s Speech (which means, like those films, it will probably rack up). There is, however, one notable and hauntingly powerful scene late in the film, where a broken Turing delivers a heartbreaking monologue about emotion and homosexuality disguised as an explanation of computers and artificial intelligence. It’s a single scene that could land Cumberbatch an Oscar nomination at least, if not the win. A Best Picture nom (whether it deserves it or not) is also likely given the award-friendly subject matter and that patented Weinstein Oscar push.

* * * ½ out of 5 stars 

Whiplash (Dir. Damien Chazelle)

One of my favorite films of the year so far, this crowd pleaser models itself after underdog sports movies, though it is set in the world of jazz. A promising young drummer (soon-to-be huge star, Miles Teller) enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by a forceful instructor (J.K. Simmons, on the verge of an Oscar nomination) who will stop at nothing to realize a student's potential.

Through some creative camerawork and terrific editing, the film is really able to bring the music alive and match the powerful performances beat-for-beat. In the end, the film’s emotional rollercoaster shifts are just a setup for one of the most satisfying, well-earned, and crowd pleasing endings in recent years. Though a big hit at Sundance, the film may have an uphill battle towards the major awards. Though a Best Editing nom and certainly one for Simmons would be a fairly sizable slight.

* * * * ½ out of 5 stars 

Dear White People (Dir. Justin Simien)

Also one my favorite film of the year so far. This quick-witted, button-pushing social satire about modern day race relations is outstanding, made even more remarkable by its first-time feature film director and cast of relative unknowns.

The story follows the lives of four black students at an Ivy League college converge after controversy breaks out due to the ill-conceived theme of the campus humor magazine's annual Halloween party.

Though probably not a film for everyone, the film is not only entertaining, but a sure-fire conversation starter as it navigates the similarities, differences, hypocrisies, and misunderstandings between the races. Even more so than Whiplash, this Sundance hit is an award season dark horse, though a Best Original Screenplay nod would be more than deserved. 

* * * * out of 5 stars

Black or White (Dir. Mike Binder)

Black or White (originally titled Black and White) is a family drama centered on the custody battle of a young girl (Estell) between her white, maternal grandfather (Kevin Costner) and her black, paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer).

With gravel in his voice and scotch on his breath, a visibly aged Costner and a boisterous and fierce Spencer duke it out in a series of harsh truths and behind-the-back deals. Though many of the characters are well-developed and equally flawed, the film far too often falls into overdramatic cliché and dips way too much into the saccharine. Trying way too hard, the film is well-intentioned, but unremarkable. 

Though it gets a late Oscar-qualifying run, this film is certain to be on the outside looking come award season. There is just not enough there that we haven't already seen done better.

* * ½ out of 5 stars  

Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) 

A running theme in this article continues, as I once again, declare a new film as one of my favorites of the year (I mean, how many favorite films can a guy have? Well, a lot apparently). A wonderfully meta and industry-skewering comedy-drama, the film tackles a heap of grandiose themes and emotions without faltering. The film, which is spliced together from a series of long takes to appear as one continuous flow, follows a washed up actor (Michael Keaton) who once played an iconic superhero, but now must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.

Already tapped as the award season favorite, Birdman has to keep the momentum churning for several more months, but it is easy to see numerous nominations in the film’s near future – Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor (Edward Norton), and Screenplay are all likely.  

* * * * ½ out of 5 stars

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