The Holiday watchlist, Part 6: Award heavyweights


There were 3 films that weren’t yet released in this part of the world when I did my run of movie-watching at the end of the year. I had been desperate to catch them because they feature some of my favorite directors and actors, and the 3 of them have collectively been nominated for 21 Oscars (including Best Picture). The deed is now done courtesy the extended break for Chinese New Year and it was well worth the wait!

Darkest Hour: This is the latest effort from 46-year-old British director Joe Wright, who is well known for his literary adaptations Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012)…all of which incidentally featured his lucky charm Keira Knightely. His last effort, the expensive fantasy epic Pan was a bomb and so it’s great to see him back at what he does best, another period piece set in the real world, this one focused on Winston Churchill during the early years of the Second World War. The film has been nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design and most critically for Best Actor and Best Makeup; Gary Oldman has been transformed into Churchill and it will be very surprising if the film does not win Best Makeup. Likewise, Mr. Oldman should probably be considered a joint front-runner with Daniel Day-Lewis for the Best Actor statuette. The performances of the two British actors are a study of contrasts, dictated by the characters they play. While Day-Lewis delivers an understated performance as the repressed head of a fashion house in Phantom Thread, Oldman is all fire and bluster as the man who almost single-handed, it seems, turned the tide of the war in favour of the Allies. The filmmakers have taken liberties with some of the facts, but all such considerations seem secondary, as the viewer is held in the grip of Oldman’s powerhouse acting. The film plays like a political thriller, with Churchill racing to create an evacuation plan for British forces trapped in Dunkirk, receiving no help from the then-neutral Americans, while trying to stave off attempts by members of his own party to overthrow him. Interestingly, Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk which tells of the famous evacuation from the viewpoint of the rescuers and the rescued, is nominated for Best Picture, along with Darkest Hour. Having recently watched John Lithgow as the older, post-war Churchill in Netflix’s The Crown, there was a strong sense of familiarity with the character while watching Darkest Hour. This film beautifully brings to life one of history’s most significant (though not particularly well-liked) figures.

The Post: Like Joe Wright, Steven Spielberg is also coming off the disappointment of his last venture, the fantasy film The BFG, which had a lukewarm critical reception and lost money at the box-office, a rare occurrence for history’s most successful filmmaker. Before The BFG, his previous three films, all based on historical events, received Best Picture Nominations – War Horse, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. Spielberg has gone back to that formula with his latest effort The Post, which tells the story of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ case in the early 70’s. The film has received 2 Oscar nominations, for Best Picture and for Best Actress (Meryl Streep’s 21st nomination!). This is the first time that Meryl Streep has worked with another of Hollywood’s biggest acting icons – Tom Hanks, or with Spielberg for that matter. Set during the most powerful days of the Nixon presidency (before Watergate), The Post is built around two themes which are relevant in today’s political and social climate – freedom of the press and equality for women. Streep plays Katherine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, a woman who has inherited the newspaper from her husband following his suicide, who has to deal with her own self-doubts and with being talked down to by her predominantly male stakeholders – the board of directors, investment bankers and lawyers. Hanks plays her editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee, the man whose desire to publish a set of leaked government papers puts the newspaper on a collision path with the US government and puts Ms. Graham on a collision path with her advisors. The film falls into the category of ‘journalistic thriller’, much like All the President’s Men (1976), The Insider (1999), Zodiac (2007) and the recent award-winner Spotlight (2015), with the protagonists fighting the clock and the establishment to get their story out. It paints a romanticized picture of the glory days of newspaper journalism and I was filled with admiration for this fast-diminishing breed of professionals who had to fight the odds day after day to do their jobs. I felt that in this film, Spielberg has dialed down his melodramatic touches and I thought this was particularly evident in the final scene; following the Supreme Court hearing, as The Post’s flashier rival, The New York Times is busy courting reporters in the front of the building, Katherine Graham descends the steps from the side and doesn’t seem to realize that she is walking past dozens of women who gaze silently at her, in admiration of her courage and resolve in challenging the (male) establishment. I kept waiting to see tears or some other obvious form of recognition, but the silence and the expressions on the faces of the women was much more powerful.

The Shape of Water: Unlike Joe Wright and Steven Spielberg who have received their biggest accolades when telling stories based on real people or real events, Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro is at his best when building worlds in which elaborate mechanical constructions co-exist with fantastical creatures. In his breakout movie Cronos (1993), an ancient clockwork mechanism is used to entomb an insect whose secretions can prolong life. His Hellboy films feature various devices which are used to control supernatural creatures. In Pacific Rim, mankind creates giant robots called “Jaegers”, to combat extra-dimensional monsters which are laying siege to our cities. And so we come to his latest film, The Shape of Water which is perhaps his most ‘human’ film. He initially conceptualized it as a sequel to 1950’s classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, as he wondered what would have happened if the ‘Gill-man’ had been able to romantically link up with the female lead. This eventually led to the story of the relationship between a bizarre ‘fish-man’ who has been pulled out of the Amazon river by the American military and the mute cleaning lady who works at the scientific facility where they are experimenting on him. Set during the 60’s at the height of the Cold War, del Toro’s trademark machines built to contain and control the ‘fish-man’ are relegated to the background, with the focus on the memorable characters who populate this love story. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, the young janitor whose expresses her passion and love for life with her eyes and hands. Her best friend at work is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a sassy, no-nonsense woman with a heart of gold. Elisa lives in a room above an old movie theatre and she is close friends with the tenant next door, an ageing artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), who struggles to sell his work to advertising firms while dealing with his own loneliness and closet homosexuality. At work, there is the new head of security, Strickland (Michael Shannon), a sadistic, misogynist who takes great pleasure in strutting around, torturing the fish-man and projecting his authority in front of the scientists and cleaning ladies. In a small but pivotal role, Michael Stuhlbarg plays the lead scientist who wants to learn from the creature without harming it. And of course, there is the creature, played by Doug Jones. Just as Andy Serkis has become “Mr. Motion Capture”, Doug Jones is the go-to actor who is willing to work under layers of makeup; he played Abe Sapiens in the Hellboy films, the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth and the alien Saru in Star Trek: Discovery. To understand why this film has received 13 Oscar nominations, you only have to watch the opening scene which is ‘pure cinema’. This is when one realizes the brilliance and vision of the director. There are many other delightful touches in the film and it’s really an extraordinary example of storytelling and characterization. It’s entirely possible that on Oscar night, it may lose out in many of the 13 categories to other nominees, but I do believe that this is a film where Guillermo del Toro has created something that is greater than the sum of its parts and I hope he will take home an Oscar for at least one of his 3 nominations – as scriptwriter, producer or director.

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Phantom Thread: Exquisitely crafted story of love as a power play


About half an hour into Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis’ character Reynolds Woodcock speeds through the British country roads in his maroon Bristol 405 sports car; the camera is mounted on the rear of the car and gives a glorious view of the landscape whizzing by. On one hand, this sudden change of pace from Woodcock’s stately and ordered life as shown in the first half hour comes as a surprise…I thought to myself, “the old boy’s not so stodgy after all”. On the other hand, this camera view of the road in front with everything else a blur, accentuates Woodcock’s tunnel vision of life…no one else matters,  only him and his craft.

And speaking of craft, Phantom Thread is full of it, both in its behind the scenes look at life inside a luxury fashion house in the 50’s and in the way the film is put together by 8-time Oscar-nominated American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. Both are full of meticulous detail, exquisitely crafted, in a way that reminded me of another American auteur Martin Scorsese.

Reynolds Woodcock and his sister Cyril run the reputed Woodcock fashion house like a well-oiled machine. Reynolds is the face of the business, an outwardly charming creative genius who is a god to his rich and royal customers; Cyril is the operational head, who manages the business and the house. They are served by a dozen or so experienced, quietly competent and highly reliable seamstresses. Behind the scenes, Reynolds is still a child, haunted by an obsessive love for his deceased mother and like so many outwardly successful people, racked by insecurity and a desire for control. Cyril is the person who is really in control, the gatekeeper who “manages” Reynolds, including helping him to get rid of lovers and muses who have become clinging and tiresome. And into this finely balanced set-up arrives young Alma Elson (played by Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a countryside restaurant who catches Reynolds’ eye and becomes his newest companion. Unlike the previous women, Alma has a steely resolve hidden inside the unsophisticated country girl exterior and quickly engages in a power play with Cyril on who exercises more control over Reynolds.

And so, Phantom Thread ends up being a film about Love and Power. Both women would swear that they do what they do out of love for Reynolds. The sister does so by pandering to his whims (and thereby making him dependent on her) while the lover seeks to break him free of his self-created social cage, but ironically wants him to be free only so that he can focus entirely on her (and eventually goes to unconscionable lengths to win the battle and establish control over him). And a willing player in this game is Reynolds Woodcock, a prisoner of his own inflexibility, a child lost inside a man, who subconsciously seeks a female authority-figure to replace the mother that he pines for. I was reminded of Day-Lewis’ character Newton Archer, from Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, another man who was caught in a power play between two women, outwardly in control of his life, but ultimately outwitted by his seemingly simple-minded wife.

The music, composed by Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood (for which he has received an Oscar nomination), is refreshing and distinctive; although recorded with a 60-piece orchestra, it stays simple and light, in keeping with the rarified, high society setting of the film. The film has also been nominated for Best Film (Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle founder Larry, receives her 4th Oscar nomination as co-producer), Best Director for Paul Thomas Anderson (his 8th nomination across directing, screenwriting and producing), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis’ 6th nomination – he has won thrice so far), Best Supporting Actress for Leslie Manville playing the stern, poker-faced sister and Best Costume Design. I think it would also have been nominated for Best Cinematography, but since the camera work was done by the director himself, uncredited, I suspect it didn’t comply with the Academy’s nomination rules. I am genuinely surprised it hasn’t been nominated for Best Production Design.

I had an interesting experience while watching this film in the theatre. Towards the start of the movie, I was distracted and irritated (as I always am) by the sound of someone noisily eating popcorn behind me; I turned around pointedly in the hope that this person would get the hint (the sounds soon stopped). Soon afterwards, in the film, Reynolds Woodcock gets supremely agitated with Alma’s loud eating and drinking at the breakfast table. She soon learns to eat her breakfast quietly so as not to disturb the great man’s early morning creative process, but later on she is back to her old ways and the noises of her eating visibly grates on Reynolds’ ears. In a film that is quite dark and serious, these sequences are played out with a degree of dry wit that had me (and the audience) chuckling in sympathy with Reynolds, giving me personally, a feeling of comfort that I was not the only person to suffer in this way!

This is not a film for all tastes, but if you have the patience to watch an engrossing, beautifully crafted film, with multiple layers of meaning and emotion, then do not miss this.

Andrew Garfield plays a different kind of superhero in Hacksaw Ridge


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Mel Gibson returns to the directing chair after a gap of 10 years with Hacksaw Ridge, which has been nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor. The commercial and critical success of this film is also a sort of redemption for Gibson after being a Hollywood pariah for several years following his various domestic and personal issues which were acted out very publicly.

Gibson’s film is about real-life American Desmond Doss, a ‘conscientious objector’ who was a medic in World War 2 and performed such feats of heroism in the Pacific theatre that he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman in 1945. Interestingly, although this is a film about an American Infantry division, most of the key actors are not American. Doss is played by Englishman Andrew Garfield and in order to qualify for tax incentives while shooting in Australia, the film features a predominantly Australia/ NZ cast with the likes of Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffith, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracy and even Gibson’s own son Milo. The most significant American actor in the film is Vince Vaughn in a welcome departure from his usual low brow roles; he plays the Army sergeant Howell, the proverbial tough guy with a heart of gold who is part of some genuinely entertaining moments in the early part of the film while Doss is in Army training camp. In some real-life footage at the end of the film, we see the real Desmond Doss and if anything he is even skinnier and lankier than Andrew Garfield. When Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) first sees Doss at the training camp he says, “I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques!” and then turns to his assistant saying, “Make sure you keep this man away from strong winds.”

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As Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield plays a bigger superhero than he ever could have in any number of Spider-Man films. In a squirm-inducing and almost unwatchable battle scene in the final act, Doss keeps going and going, like the Eveready bunny; powered by prayer and determination, he rescues more than 75 wounded soldiers from the top of ‘Hacksaw ridge’ on Okinawa island while under constant fire and bombardment. Like a marathoner who thinks “just one more stride”, Doss says “O Lord, help me get one more, just one more” and then goes back into the battlefield to find another wounded man. Garfield is perfectly cast and I can’t think of any other A-list actor who can play a character who is so pure and uncomplicated in his beliefs.

Hugo Weaving, who film fans will know as Agent Smith from the Matrix films or Elrond from Lord of the Rings does an outstanding job playing Doss’ alcoholic father, a WW1 solider whose self-hatred and violent nature was one of the key factors that fuelled Doss’ determination to follow a non-violent path as an adult.

Gibson as director brings several different moods and tones into this film. There is a lovely romantic interlude in the first act as Doss courts his wife-to-be, a nurse at the nearby hospital. Then there are the very entertaining training scenes in the 2nd act featuring Vince Vaughn’s Sgt Howell familiarising himself with the company of new recruits. This quickly morphs into intense drama as Doss stands his ground while the Army tries to get him discharged and court-martialled for failing to pick up a weapon. The battle scene in the 3rd act plays like something out of Starship Troopers or Aliens, with Doss’ company virtually overrun by hundreds of Japanese troops who keep coming and coming and coming. I felt it was even more brutal than the opening Normandy beach scenes in Saving Pvt. Ryan (and I know that film kept me awake the whole night). And then at the tail end of the movie, in the final assault on Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson injects a sort of spiritual mysticism into the scenes of the troops going into battle seemingly protected by the aura of Doss’ presence and his prayers.

At a time when the world is polarized into opposing camps with rigid beliefs and unyielding positions, this film throws a light on the power of a person’s convictions and how far he will go to safeguard them. It asks the question of what is right and what is wrong. Is right and wrong determined by the number of people who believe in that position? Can a man be right about something even if he is in the minority or perhaps, the only person who believes in it? History has shown us that indeed this can be the case, with philosophers, scientists, religious and social reformers all having had to wade against the tide of public opinion to put forward a new idea or be given the freedom to live by their beliefs.

With the stiff competition at the Oscars this year, I suspect it will be Moonlight or La La Land taking away best picture and best directing Oscars and I think Casey Affleck should pick up the statuette for Best Actor. So it’s possible that Hacksaw Ridge will come away empty handed although it could be a front runner for Sound Editing or Sound Mixing, given all the sound engineering required for the battle scenes. Irrespective of the outcome of the Oscars, this film is a must-watch, both for its story, for Mel Gibson’s mature directing and for the fact that it forms part of the increasingly impressive body of work that Andrew Garfield has built up in the past few years, starting with The Social Network in 2010, the 2 Spider-Man movies (in which he was the saving grace), 99 Homes and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. All this by the age of 33. Next is another possible ‘award-magnet’ role as a paralyzed polio survivor in Breathe directed by ‘Gollum’ actor Andy Serkis. As for Mel Gibson, I am so thrilled to see him return to the mainstream and that too with such success. I’ve loved all the movies he has directed (except Passion of the Christ which I haven’t seen), his visceral style and look forward to what comes next.

Moonlight shines with soul-stirring performances


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Barry Jenkins is a 37-year-old African-American filmmaker from Florida. His debut film Medicine for Melancholy was produced on a budget of USD 15,000 and did the rounds of a few North American film festivals. Not many people had heard of the movie or the director. Now with his second film Moonlight, Jenkins has rocketed to stratospheric levels of fame. With a Metacritic score of 99, the Golden Globe for best drama film and 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted screenplay and Supporting Actor/ Actress, Moonlight has moved to the head of the pack along with La La Land in the final lap of the 2017 awards season.

Moonlight is a ‘coming-of-age’ story set in a seemingly normal middle-class urban community, but one in which drugs and violence are always around the corner. More importantly, it’s a film that portrays the challenges of growing up ‘different’, not just in the US but in any modern society around the world.

The main character Chiron, is played by 3 different actors who cover three stages of his life – as a shy young boy, a conflicted high schooler and finally as a self-confident adult. Perhaps because each is on screen for only a third of the movie, none have received any acting nominations (all the accolades have gone deservedly to the two supporting actors, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris). But in fact, the 3 Chirons – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – are the ones who make this movie work, with former track athlete Rhodes as the tough young drug dealer ironically delivering the most heart-breaking performance of all.

I want to talk a bit about the ‘dinner table scene’ at the end of the first act. Young Chiron is at the home of kind-hearted crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards) who has become a father figure to him over the previous few months. The normally uncommunicative Chiron suddenly asks Juan: “What’s a faggot?”. Juan takes a few seconds to think (I was wondering what he would say) and answers: “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad”. Touché! The boy then asks: “Am I a faggot?” and Juan immediately replies “No”; at this split second, I thought to myself that Juan had no right to make that judgement, but then immediately afterwards, he adds: “You may be gay, but don’t let nobody call you a faggot”. It’s this sort of nuanced dialogue that shines through in Jenkins’ script (adapted from a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney). As if that wasn’t enough intensity for one scene, the boy then asks Juan if he deals in drugs and now realizes that the man who has been like a father to him is also responsible for his mother’s crack addiction; at that moment Chiron gets up and walks away without a word and you can feel the crushing weight of his disappointment, while Juan realizes the far-reaching impact of his chosen profession and we see him sinking into the depths of remorse.

The film is a meditation on love, trust, betrayal and forgiveness. I was fascinated by the arc of Chiron’s relationship with his emotionally abusive mother (Naomie Harris – the new Miss Moneypenny in the Bond movies), going from dependence to hatred to resentment to reconciliation over a span of about 15 years.

At the end of the final act, Chiron drives to another town to meet his childhood friend Kevin, with whom he had a brief moment of sexual intimacy as a teenager. They have not seen each other in 10 years, their last encounter in high school having ended in betrayal and violence. This touching reunion which starts out at Kevin’s diner and ends at his home, challenges our stereotypes of African-American men (much in the same way that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain challenged the macho image of cowboys). Kevin plays a song (Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis) on the jukebox which reminds him of their friendship and the two men tentatively start to express their old feelings for each other, with Chiron finally dissolving the hard shell he has built around himself over the years.

This fan-film made of clips from the movie synced with the Hello Stranger song is the perfect audio-visual synopsis for this amazing movie.

Moonlight is co-produced by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment and financed by fast-rising indie film distributor A24. I have become a big fan of A24; they take chances on edgy material, which the larger studios typically are not interested in. Virtually every critically acclaimed indie movie since 2013 has been distributed by A24 – Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Spectacular Now, Locke, The Rover, A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina, The End of the Tour, Room, The Witch, The Lobster

I hope that Moonlight will launch successful and fulfilling careers for its talented and passionate cast and crew. Definitely an important movie to watch in the run up to Oscars 2017.

Feeling good about second chances: Begin Again, Music and Lyrics, The Rewrite


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Yesterday I watched two very similar dramedies, both set in the entertainment industry. Combined with a third that I had seen a few years earlier, they could form a loose triple-header strung together on the common theme of feel-good films about second chances.

The films are Begin Again from award-winning Irish director John Carney and two Hugh Grant films –Music and Lyrics and The Rewrite – directed by his long-time collaborator Marc Lawrence.

All three have a formulaic storyline of an entertainment industry whiz kid fallen on hard times. He has hit a creative roadblock and is no longer in demand. His personal relationships are as troubled as his art and he must now go back to the basics to get his life back on track. A chance meeting with a bright but unsettled younger talent helps him rediscover his passion and connect with himself as a person.

The best of the three is Begin Again (2013). This is because the two leads – Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley – are top class actors who bring their A-game to every film they act in, be it epic or intimate, dramatic or comedic. The supporting cast of James Corden, Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener act like real people and are relatable and engaging. There’s the additional joy of seeing music industry icons Adam Levine, Mos Def and Cee Lo Green in various significant roles. John Carney is clearly a director who can bring the best out of actors and non-actors alike. Mr. Carney made waves in 2007 with the musically-themed drama Once, which went on to win an Oscar for Best Song. So, it comes as no surprise that the songs in this film (performed by Adam Levine and Keira Knightley) are also genuinely good. One of the songs, Lost Stars received an Oscar nomination for Best Song. I also loved Ruffalo’s 1963 Jaguar Mark X; I’d love to drive around town in one of those!

The two Hugh Grant-Marc Lawrence films are not in the same league, but sail along on the strength of Grant’s charm, his chemistry with his female leads and some interesting/ eccentric characters providing comic relief.

In Music and Lyrics (2007), Hugh Grant plays one-half of a successful 1980’s pop duo called PoP! (yes, it’s a send up of Wham!), now bereft of work. He takes on a song-writing job for an up-and-coming teenage pop singer Cora Corman (played by Haley Bennett in her acting and singing debut). Afflicted by writer’s block and running out of time, Grant discovers that his temporary housekeeper (Drew Barrymore) has studied creative writing and seems to have a knack for writing pop lyrics. As is normal with romantic comedies, the two fall in love, then come into conflict and eventually reconcile to a happy ending. As in the case of Begin Again, the film had some unexpectedly catchy songs, including Way Back Into Love, performed in the film by Grant and Barrymore and then again by Bennett in concert. All credit to Hugh Grant for singing those songs in spite of his limited vocal range (though not as painful as listening to Pierce Brosnan singing in Mamma Mia!); Hollywood actors have yet to discover the Indian film industry’s solution of playback singing.

Seven years later, Grant reunited with director Marc Lawrence for The Rewrite, which repeats the same formula, this time with Grant playing a washed up Hollywood script writer who takes up a teaching job at a university to pay the bills. Marisa Tomei is the accidental love interest who helps him rediscover both the joys of writing and some much-needed humility. Ironically, for a movie about script writing, this movie’s screenplay is rather shallow and I almost switched off after 20 minutes. Eventually, the actors themselves save the film, Besides Grant and Tomei, seasoned character actors J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney liven things up as senior faculty members and former Australian soap star Bella Heathcote has an interesting role as a student who competes with Tomei for Grant’s attention.

Of course, all these films pander to the male fantasy of having an attractive young woman who looks up to the middle-aged man and cares enough to both inspire and challenge him; a change from his existing relationships where the give-and-take seems to have fossilized. From that perspective, Begin Again avoided the cliché of a romantic hook-up; there is a brief moment towards the end when this seems possible, but better sense prevails and the characters stay good friends. Several years ago, Mr. Holland’s Opus explored a similar relationship between Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) and his charismatic, talented music student.

Regardless, these movies do give us some insights into the entertainment industry and the creative process. And more importantly, these guilty pleasures with their charming leads, catchy tunes and light comedy provide enjoyable escapist entertainment (Hugh Grant’s character from The Rewrite would tell you that last bit’s an alliteration).

And the alternative awards go to…


Since it’s awards season, I thought I would come up with a few of my own.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts Award

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A familiar script and conventional special effects would not be a recipe for success these days, but combined with some earnest acting we had the most satisfying movie of the year. Full credit to director JJ Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy for figuring out the pulse of the audience.

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Best opening scene

Bridge of Spies

The wordless opening sequence shows Russian spy Rudolf Abel start the day by putting the finishing touches on a self-portrait in his cramped apartment, then step out and walk through the streets of 1950s Brooklyn on his way to a rendezvous. The lighting and composition in those few minutes in the apartment can be a visual textbook for any student of filmmaking. And you already see why actor Mark Rylance deserves that Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Best ending scene

Youth 

Retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) conducts a performance of his Simple Songs, sung by Korean soprano Sumi Jo.

Phoenix

Nelly (Nina Hoss) sings Speak Low and her husband slowly realizes who she is; the phoenix has risen from its ashes.

Danny Collins

Danny Collins (Al Pacino) and his son (Bobby Cannavale) wait for the doctor’s verdict.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Cam Stuart’s (Mark Ruffalo) playful emotional blackmail almost works as his two daughters choose a play date over his offer to go boating on a beautiful day

Most disturbing/ unresolved ending

Z for Zachariah

John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Ann (Margot Robbie) lose their innocence in the garden of Eden

Best post-credits scene

Dope

Shameik Moore shows us his moves to The Humpty Dance by the Digital Underground. Pharrel Williams and Sean Combs were executive producers for this delightful coming-of-age dramedy.

Most horrifying scene

Agu’s (Abraham Attah) first kill (Beasts of No Nation)

Most emotional moment

Rocky confronts his own mortality in Creed

Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldanha break down as they try to figure out their lives towards the end of Infinitely Polar Bear

Best dance sequence

Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno boogie to Get Down Saturday Night in Ex Machina.

Best action sequence

Everything in Mad Max: Fury Road

Everything in Sicario

Everything in The Revenant

Best single shot

Adonis Creed and his team enter the ring for his title fight against Ricky Conlan; the camera follows them from the back room through the corridor into the packed stadium. Goosebumps.

Most disappointing character

Captain Phasma from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best (wordless) introduction to a character

Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in Bridge of Spies

Most over-the-top characters

Daisy Domergue played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

Coma-Doof Warrior played by Australian musician iOTA (Mad Max: Fury Road); check out the montage of scenes below

Best dialogue

Far From the Madding Crowd

“I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding if I could be one without getting a husband!”

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Best songs

Straight Outta Compton (songs by NWA)

Best color palette

The Danish Girl 

DP Danny Cohen captures the beauty of the Dutch skies and architecture while set decorator Michael Standish, production designer Eve Stewart and costume designer Paco Delgado skillfully coordinate the interior look (all 3 have been Oscar-nominated)

The Man from UNCLE

Costume designer Joanne Johnston and set decorator Elli Griff bring to life a glorious Italian summer by clothing their glamorous stars in 60s’ high fashion

Youth

DP Luca Bigazzi juxtaposes the cool beauty of the Swiss Alps and the opulence of a luxury resort against the barren lives of its residents

Most ubiquitous male actor

32-year-old Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson seemed to be everywhere this year. He played the naïve programmer who stumbles onto a dark secret in Ex Machina, the evil but needy General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the well-meaning commander of an ill-fated hunting party in The Revenant and the attractive Rugby player who steals Saoirse Ronan’s heart in Brooklyn. He is the son of veteran character actor Brendan Gleeson. Harry Potter fans may remember him as the oldest Weasley son Bill from the last 2 films.

Most ubiquitous female actress

27-year-old Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is one of the most talented young actresses around today. She was an eerily sentient robot in Ex Machina, portrayed British pacifist Vera Brittan in Testament of Youth and played sassy East German auto mechanic turned spy Gaby Teller in the big-budget revival of The Man from UNCLE. She ended the year with an Oscar-nominated performance in The Danish Girl as Gerda Wegener, the Dutch painter who stood by her husband during his tragic transgender journey. She also had a supporting role in the little seen Bradley Cooper flop Burnt.

Important films

Irrespective of the level of critical acclaim, entertainment value or filmmaking quality (all of which are very good), I consider these 3 films to be essential viewing for their subject matter

Spotlight 

The story of how the Boston Globe uncovered widespread cases of child abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area and the efforts by the Church to protect the offenders. This documentary-style, no frills movie features pitch-perfect acting. The lack of melodrama makes the story even more hard-hitting.

Beasts of No Nation

Set in a West African country torn by civil war, this is a fictitious account of a how a young boy is separated from his family and forced to become a child soldier. Loss of innocence on every level. This movie features mainly non-actors (plus a brilliant Idris Elba) and at times is unwatchable for the real-life horror it puts on screen.

Suffragette

Set in the middle years of the suffragette movement, this is the story of a laundry shop worker (Carey Mulligan) who is drawn to the cause by sheer chance. As her involvement grows, her husband throws her out and she undergoes many physical and mental trials; all of which further strengthen her resolve. Although a work of fiction, it showcases the ridiculous attitudes that existed towards women’s rights in the early 1900s.

QT’s The Hateful Eight: Not perfect but fun for fans and creditable for its ambition


The opening credits for The Hateful Eight inform the viewer that this is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film; a bit of self-aggrandizement, I thought. But then, he is after all one of the great ‘young’ (born after 1960) American auteurs, along with Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. OK, so maybe not Kevin Smith anymore, as he’s spent the last few years just being a fanboy without actually doing anything critically acclaimed.

The Hateful Eight is technically a Western, set in Wyoming in the late 1800s, some years after the Civil War. But it is also a locked-room mystery, like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And although it was shot on 65mm film with Panavision anamorphic lenses to give an ultra-widescreen cinematic experience, it could just as easily have been made into a small play…in fact, Tarantino conducted a public live reading of an earlier draft of the script at a theater in LA.

When you think about a QT film, it’s ultimately all about the ensemble of characters, about their interaction and dialogue. About the “art of the protracted scene”, as one film critic puts it. And blood. Lots of it.

There are 4 actors that really stood out for me in this movie.

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Daisy Domergue is easily the most hateful of the eight people stranded in an isolated cabin in the midst of a blizzard. In fact, she could be right up there with the most hated female screen characters of all time along with Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Baby Jane (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?).

Kurt Russell started his career playing squeaky clean teenagers in Disney movies and TV shows (check out The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes from 1969). For me, his most memorable performances have come after the 1980s playing rough-hewn, morally ambiguous characters in Westerns and quasi-westerns like Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Tombstone, Stargate and more recently in QT’s own Death Proof. His bounty hunter John Ruth (aka “The Hangman”) in The Hateful Eight falls into the same mould.

Samuel L. Jackson has the most screen time in the film. I think back to the first time I saw him, as the chain-smoking chief engineer who “can’t get Jurassic Park back online!”. He was so earnest, serious and straightforward (I hadn’t seen his earlier Spike Lee films yet at that point). He then hit the big time in QT’s Pulp Fiction and since then, has become well-known for his angry, outspoken, over-the-top characters (except for the forgettable Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels). He continues in the same vein here as an ex-Army Major turned bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren, a man who has spent a lifetime facing racist hatred and has plenty of hatred to give back.

Tim Roth’s plays Englishman Oswald Mobray. His almost-fruity mincing accent reminded me of Christoph Waltz’s over-cultivated manner in Inglourious Basterds. I would’ve enjoyed having more screen time from him.

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The music is composed by 87-year-old legend Ennio Morricone who has partnered with QT for many of his other films as well. In fact, he has a Golden Globe nomination for this film and I would love to see him get an Oscar nom as well for this minimalist composition that almost feels like a horror movie score at times.

I loved many little touches in the film, all of which have been carefully planned and are not there by chance:

  • The credits appear during a single shot of the carriage approaching through the snow, with a wooden Jesus in the foreground.
  • Out of the six horses pulling the carriage, the front right horse is white.
  • While the characters are talking inside the carriage, you can hear the constant yelling of the driver whipping the horses through the snow.
  • The passing scenery seen through the carriage window looks ‘flat’, like it’s been projected on a screen (as it would have been in a cheap 1970s film, which all QT films are homages to).
  • The inside of Minnie’s Haberdashery appears too large in comparison with its appearance from the outside.
  • There’s a jelly bean (yes, they’ve been around since the 1860s) fallen in the gap between the floorboards near the coffee pot; the significance becomes clear later.
  • Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s characters while eating their stew behave like a long-married couple, which is hilarious considering their actual relationship in the movie
  • Bob plays Silent Night on the piano while Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) describes what he did to General Smither’s (Bruce Dern) son; the simple and pious tune makes what Major Warren is saying even more horrifying.
  • The many, many times the front door of the cabin has to be hammered shut.

In the end, all the people who deserve a comeuppance get their comeuppance. Since this movie is called The Hateful Eight, you can kinda guess how the movie ends! Here’s a clue: there’s lots of blood. I’ve discovered through trial-and-error, that I can handle gunshot wound blood better than knife/ sword wound blood. Hence my discomfort watching Kill Bill Vols. I and II.

After the movie ended, a cliché paraphrased into my mind: “QT could film paint drying and I would watch it”. I’m pretty sure he would be able to infuse something interesting into such a mundane event.

This is not going to rank as my favorite QT film (that continues to be Basterds). But full credit to the man for attempting something different and challenging. His attention to detail – both dialogue and sets – is astonishing. Metacritic gives it a score of 69, well below Django Unchained (81), Grindhouse (77), Kill Bill Vol. II (83), Reservoir Dogs (78) and Pulp Fiction (the highest at 94). I believe that as the years go by, the film will rise in the estimation of critics and film historians.