Tag Archives: Alfonso Cuarón

2019 Oscar Preview: Best Picture

Award season is almost at a close, and we’re only two weeks out from the 2019 Oscars.

Let’s start our preview with Best Picture.

Black Panther (Directed by Ryan Coogler)

The conventional wisdom was that Black Panther would get a nomination, but nothing else.  Hollywood would pat itself on the back for honoring a tentpole superhero flick, and then promptly return to awarding films about fish “love.”  That was, of course, before Black Panther took top honors at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.  The SAG awards are the best predictive award show for the Oscars for a reason – the actors are by far the largest voting block in the Academy.  Additionally, the abandoned proposal for a “popular film” category means that the Academy is getting nervous about the lack of awards for true blockbusters over the last few years (Best Picture hasn’t gone to a move that’s made over $100 million domestically since 2012).  Conclusion: Black Panther is a contender.

Blackkklansman (Directed by Spike Lee)

The late career makeup award is a time-honored Oscar tradition.  Just think about Al Pacino winning Best Actor for 1992’s lackluster Scent of Woman instead of any role he had in the 1970’s.  Great directors are more likely to be snubbed than great actors, with heavyweights like Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Stanley Kubrick never winning Best Director honors.  Blackkklansman is Spike Lee’s most commercially successful movie in a few years, and it has the added bonus of being some of his best work.  It feels like Lee could finally get that Best Director Oscar, but given the competition, Best Picture might be a stretch.  Conclusion: Blackkklansman is a borderline contender.

Bohemian Rhapsody (Directed by Bryan Singer, so says the credit)

An entertaining, yet ultimately paint-by-numbers rock and roll biopic, I’m surprised this one got nominated. The Golden Globes were overly generous to it, but the Globes mean exactly squat when predicting the Oscars. It’s simply not an Oscar caliber movie, and this is coming from someone who gave it a positive write up. Conclusion: Bohemian Rhapsody is a pretender.

The Favourite (Directed by Yorgos Lathimos)

This feels like the “actor’s movie” of the Best Picture selections. I mostly say that because it’s a period piece, and because it’s been winning a lot of individual acting hardware. That said, it didn’t win best ensemble at the SAG Awards, so I question whether it has enough umph to win the top prize. Besides, the Academy is rarely kind to comedies.  In the last fifty years, only six comedies have taken top honors (The Sting (1973), Annie Hall (1977), Forrest Gump (1994), Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Artist (2011), and Birdman (2014)).  Conclusion: The Favourite is a borderline contender.

Green Book (Directed by Peter Farrelly)

Green Book was an early favorite and checks most of the Oscar boxes. It’s a period piece, it has a strong cast, and it contains themes dealing with race relations in America. It’s also been a lightning rod for controversy. That, and it didn’t really resonate with critics or audiences. I think the voters end up putting the green book back on the shelf. Conclusion: Green Book is a pretender.

Roma (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

Roma is a heavyweight. Cuarón has created a neo-realist film that is comparable to the films of Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Fredrico Fellini.  It’s beautifully shot, achingly sad, and not entirely without humor. Cuarón has been honored by the Academy for Best Director for Gravity (2013), a film that would have won Best Picture in almost any other year it was nominated.   All that being said, the Academy has never, not once, given Best Picture to a foreign language film.  Then again, there’s a first time for everything.  Conclusion: Roma is a contender.

A Star is Born (Directed by Bradley Cooper)

A Star is Born got a lot of early buzz, but that buzz has faded.  For award show purposes, A Star is Born is Bradley Cooper’s character.  The other nominees are Lady Gaga’s character.  I just don’t see this movie turning things around, and it’s telling that Cooper wasn’t nominated for Best Director.  A Star is Born was well received by critics and audiences, but not by award show voters.  Conclusion: A Star is Born is a pretender.

Vice (Directed by Adam McKay)

Critics didn’t like Vice, and neither did audiences.  That said, the movie is getting some love for Christian Bale’s transformation into Dick Cheney.  However, every year there’s a movie nominated for Best Picture on the strength of the lead actor’s performance and not much else.  A good example of this phenomenon is Phantom Thread (2017), from last year’s show.  Daniel Day-Lewis was great in it, but the movie was kind of dumb.  Vice is this year’s Phantom Thread.  Conclusion: Vice is a pretender.

Conclusion & Prediction

There you have it.  If this were back when only five movies could be nominated for Best Picture, you would have Black Panther, Blackkklansman, the Favourite, Roma, and probably A Star is Born.  I think it’s going to come down to Roma or Black Panther.

So, what is Hollywood more nervous about?  The Oscars losing value because of too many fish “love” movies winning, or not giving foreign language films enough support over the years?  All the gold in Fort Knox couldn’t rectify decades of awards for Hollywood movies over superior foreign films, especially during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s when the some of the greatest masterpieces of world cinema were coming out of France, Italy, Japan, and Sweden.  I don’t think this is a big concern for the folks in Hollywood.  Remember, with the exception of a dozen or so British movies and The Artist (2011), the Best Picture Oscar is best understood as the award for best American film as viewed with a short term evaluation.

Therefore, I predict that Black Panther will win Best Picture.  Wakanda Forever!

(c) 2019 D.G. McCabe

 

 

Gravity (2013)

Gravity

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, U.S., 2013

When we think of space exploration, several iconic images come to mind.  The Earthrise and Blue Marble photographs.  The Apollo 11 moonwalk.  The Soyuz-Apollo meeting.  The Space Shuttle docking at the International Space Station. These images make us think of the adventurous, grandiose, and cooperative aspects of space travel.  What these images fail to convey is that interplanetary space is a hellscape of almost unimaginable danger.  Enter Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.”

Gravity is, of course, a thriller, so in order to fully enjoy it one must be kept mostly in the dark about its plot.  What I’ll share can be gleaned from the trailer and other promotional materials.  George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play astronauts Kowalski and Stone.  There is an accident that results in their spacecraft being ripped apart by a massive debris field.  They are drifting in space and must find a way to survive.

There are only a handful of speaking parts in the film, with Bullock and Clooney receiving 99% of the lines.  Cuarón doesn’t need any more actors.  There are no scenes showing a launch or reaction shots on Earth as there were in Apollo 13.  The astronauts are alone, and by making them alone their perspective becomes the audience’s perspective. It is the only perspective available.  We don’t get a break because the astronauts don’t get a break.

This may sound completely exhausting, and it is emotionally draining, but Cuarón’s genius is that the non-stop ride is punctuated by scenes of extraordinary beauty, thought provoking symbolism, and even humor.  The film is intense, but singularly irresistible.

Space travel is one of the most dangerous human endeavors, but is also one of the most inspirational.  Gravity allows us to experience both extremes without leaving our remarkable, and comfortable, homeworld.

You might like Gravity if: You have ever enjoyed a thriller, because it is one of the best ever created.

You might not like Gravity if: You just want to see a goofy comedy.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

Ranking the Harry Potter Films

Believe it or not, it’s been two and a half years since the last Harry Potter film was released (six and a half since the last novel).  Like the Up Documentaries, which have tracked the lives of fourteen everyday Britons every seven years since 1964, the Harry Potter films are an impressive and important cinematic project.  The eight films were completed over ten years with nearly the same cast (the key exception being of course the late Richard Harris being replaced by Michael Gambon after the second film) and four directors, and more or less stay faithful to the story told in the novels.

I’ve been watching the films again recently, and the thing that I notice most about them is that their quality level generally tracks the novels (exceptions noted below).  Anyway here’s my ranking of the films (with corresponding ranking of the novels):

8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Directed by Chris Columbus, 2002)

Chris Columbus’ second effort suffers from a variety of problems.  Much ink has been spilled pointing out that the CGI Dobby is needlessly annoying, unlike the charming, silly character in the books. Furthermore, the main cast had yet to settle into their characters.  The main problem, however, is the source material, in that Chamber is the weakest of the Potter novels, suffering from a convoluted plot resolved only through a series of endless deus ex machina moments.  It is still an above average film, as is the novel, but suffers in comparison to the rest of the story.  (Book Ranking – #7)

7. Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, Part I (Directed by David Yates, 2010)

If any of the books should have been split into two parts, it should have been Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  As good as Deathly Hallows is at times, it suffers from slow pacing in the first half of the book, so the first part of the movie has similar issues.  While the cast has at this point perfected their portrayals of the characters, splitting the last book in two just doesn’t work creatively, and this movie doesn’t work as a stand alone film unless you are going to watch the second, superior half in short order. (Book Ranking -#2)

6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone (Directed by Chris Columbus, 2001)

I find the first two Harry Potter novels to be the weakest, and the films bear this out.  Granted the adaptation of Sorcerer’s Stone does a magnificent job setting the tone for the series, but John Williams’ music and Stuart Craig’s production design can only carry the film so far.  Richard Harris captures Dumbledore’s sense of humor and warmth, but fails to capture some of the character’s more iconoclastic qualities (it could be argued that Michael Gambon takes the character in the opposite direction).  And like Jo Rowling was a young, inexperienced writer, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson were extremely young, inexperienced actors.  (Book Ranking – #6)

5. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Directed by David Yates, 2009)

Half-Blood Prince and Order of the Phoenix suffer from “middle book syndrome.”  While Order of the Phoenix is bloated, it is also arguably the lynchpin of the series.  The same can’t be said about Half-Blood Prince.  The book is all background material and set-up for the next book, and it doesn’t do a lot to advance the story considering its length.  The love story between Harry and Ginny feels even more tacked on in the film than the book, and the film fails to do justice to the book’s climax by cutting the important battle and funeral scenes.  Still, the cast has improved a lot by this point and Yates does a good job with the story’s numerous flashback scenes.  (Book Ranking – #5)

4. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Directed by David Yates, 2007)

This is probably the most divisive of the Harry Potter novels, in that some people rate it as their favorite and some people despise it.  The movie tamps down on some of the less successful aspects of the novel, like Harry’s teenage angst and ennui, and emphasizes what the novel does well.  This, after all, is the lynchpin of the plot of the entire series, it is where Harry learns about leadership, initiative, the cost of war, and the dangers of uncontrolled anger.  (Book Ranking – #4)

3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Directed by Mike Newell, 2005)

Goblet of Fire is the best of the Potter novels.  It doesn’t suffer from the slow start of Deathly Hallows and is structurally richer than Prisoner of Azkaban.  The Tri-Wizard Tournament is the best framing device of the entire series and the ending is both heartbreaking and terrifying.  The problem with Newell’s film is that it shrinks down the novel too much, and focuses too much on the characters’ frustrations (most notably Ron’s and Dumbledore’s).  Still, it does a good enough job of capturing the successes of the novel to be ranked in the top three films.  (Book Ranking – #1)

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (Directed by David Yates, 2011)

I toyed with putting this one as #1, since it focuses on what I consider the best written part of the entire series: the last third of the last book.  As with the end of any series, Rowling’s creative choices are much debated, and the final epilogue reads like Rowling wrote it fifteen years before the rest of the book (she actually did).  This film redeems the awkwardness of the written epilogue, but goes back on one of Rowling’s better creative choices (the final battle between Harry and Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort takes place in an isolated location in the castle and not in full view of the surviving armies).  Also, packing the weaker, first two thirds of the novel into their own film breaks up the action a bit too much to rank it ahead of number one.  (Book Ranking: #2)

1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, 2004)

Prisoner of Azkaban the best of the first three, “short” novels by far, and its adaptation actually improves upon the story.  As a shorter novel, it is easier to adapt, but it also had the best director in the Harry Potter films, Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Y Mama Tambien, Children of Men).  This film is a compelling argument that Cuarón was instrumental in cultivating the acting talents of the three leads and setting the darker, more serious tone of the rest of the series.  (Book Ranking – #3)

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe