Monday, February 29, 2016

Oscars 2015 Recap: Spotlight Stuns in a Weird, Wacky Night

A scene from "Spotlight", the surprise winner of the 2015 Best Picture
When I recap the Oscars every year, I always remind readers that I'm a movie critic, not a fashion/gala/whatever-the-hell-the-Oscars-are critic. So I can't pretend that I'm qualified to analyze the 88th Academy Awards, or Chris Rock's performance in hosting it. I'll just say that hosting the Oscars is an awkward job in general, but this year it was an especially tricky task, given that controversy swirling around the white-washing of the nominations. Rock had to chastise the Academy for its biases while simultaneously ensuring that he didn't lose the audience's goodwill.

It's a tightrope that he walked reasonably well, even if it resulted in a performance that featured more barbs than laughs. Rock made it clear that he wasn't especially happy to be there, which gave his opening monologue—so typically a rote exercise in congratulatory back-slapping—some unpredictable juice. (His most caustic zinger: his promise that the annual "In Memoriam" montage would exclusively comprise black people murdered by police on their way to the movies.) Yet as the show went on, Rock's act wore somewhat thin, and his obligatory attempts to rub elbows with the celebrities—as in the limp extended bit involving Girl Scout cookies—fell flat. (I also wonder if Rock will receive flak from other minority groups for focusing his ire exclusively toward the lack of representation for black actors, which would be quite the irony.) But again, hosting the Oscars is hard, and if Rock lacked the charm and improvisational gifts required of a great host, he was at least appropriately transgressive.

On to the movies. This year, the Manifesto went just 16-for-21 (76%), a step down from last year's 17-for-21 performance. That brands me a poor prognosticator, which is just fine with me; I'll happily trade some predictive cachet in exchange for some legitimate surprises.

On to a quick recap of the show, with the awards listed in order of their presentation:

Friday, February 26, 2016

Oscars 2015: Full Prediction Roundup

Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant"
Last year, the Manifesto did a respectable if unextraordinary job predicting the Oscars, hitting on 17 of 21 feature categories. (I never pick the shorts. Deal with it.) We're hoping to improve this year, though with an unpredictable Best Picture race and multiple heavy hitters competing in the technical fields, things could get dicey.

So be it. Here are the Manifesto's official Oscar predictions; they're sorted alphabetically for ease of access, but I'm also including confidence points, just so you can see where I'm shaky and, well, less shaky.

Best Actor
Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio—The Revenant (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Michael Fassbender—Steve Jobs
Worst snub: Tom Hanks—Bridge of Spies

Best Actress
Will win: Brie Larson—Room (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Saoirse Ronan—Brooklyn
Worst snub: Nina Hoss—Phoenix

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: The Big Short—Adam McKay, Charles Randolph (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: The Big Short—Adam McKay, Charles Randolph
Worst snub: Steve Jobs—Aaron Sorkin

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Inside Out (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Inside Out

Best Cinematography
Will win: The Revenant—Emmanuel Lubezki (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: The Revenant—Emmanuel Lubezki
Worst snub: The Assassin—Lee Ping Bin

Best Costume Design
Will win: Cinderella (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Carol
Worst snub: Chi-Raq

Best Director
Will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu—The Revenant (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: George Miller—Mad Max: Fury Road
Worst snub: Denis Villeneuve—Sicario

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: Amy (confidence: 3/5)

Best Film Editing
Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road—Margaret Sixel (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Spotlight—Tom McArdle
Worst snub: Sicario—Joe Walker

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: Son of Saul (confidence: 4/5)
Worst snub: Mommy

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Worst snub: Predestination

Best Original Score
Will win: The Hateful Eight—Ennio Morricone (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Carol—Carter Burwell
Worst snub: Z for Zachariah—Heather McIntosh

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Spotlight—Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Inside Out—Josh Cooley, Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve
Worst snub: About Elly—Asghar Farhadi

Best Original Song
Will win: The Hunting Ground—"Til It Happens to You" (Lady Gaga and Diane Warren) (confidence: 2/5)
Worst snub: Dope—"Don't Bring Me Down" (Awreeoh)

Best Picture
Will win: The Revenant (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Brooklyn
Worst snub: Inside Out

Best Production Design
Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Worst snub: Crimson Peak

Best Sound Editing
Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road (confidence: 2/5)

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road (confidence: 2/5)

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Sylvester Stallone—Creed (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Tom Hardy—The Revenant
Worst snub: Oscar Isaac—Ex Machina

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Alicia Vikander—The Danish Girl (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Kate Winslet—Steve Jobs
Worst snub: Elizabeth Banks—Love & Mercy

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: The Revenant
Worst snub: The Walk

Oscars 2015: Best Director and Best Picture

The terrific cast of "Spotlight"
And we've come to the end. So far in our Oscars analysis, the Manifesto has analyzed the technical categories (both big and small), the screenplays, the supporting actors, and the lead actors. Now, to wrap things up, we look at the two biggest awards of the night.


Lenny Abrahamson—Room
Alejandro González Iñárritu—The Revenant
Tom McCarthy—Spotlight
Adam McKay—The Big Short
George Miller—Mad Max: Fury Road


Oscars 2015: Best Actor and Best Actress

Saoirse Ronan in "Brooklyn"
On Thursday, we looked at Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Now, we're moving on to the lead dogs.


Bryan Cranston—Trumbo
Matt Damon—The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio—The Revenant
Michael Fassbender—Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne—The Danish Girl

DiCaprio. For those of you out there whispering about a potential Bryan Cranston upset, you're nuts, unless he secretly swiped his audition reel for Trumbo and replaced it with his work on Breaking Bad.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Oscars 2015: Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress

Alicia Vikander in "The Danish Girl"
Earlier today, we looked at the screenplay categories. Now we're moving on to the races for best supporting actor and actress.


Christian Bale—The Big Short
Tom Hardy—The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo—Spotlight
Mark Rylance—Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone—Creed


Oscars 2015: The Screenplays

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in "The Big Short"
Yesterday, the Manifesto analyzed the technical categories. Today, we're looking at the screenplays and the supporting actor/actress awards. You can find the latter here; for the former, read on.


Bridge of Spies—Matthew Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Ex Machina—Alex Garland
Inside Out—Josh Cooley, Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve
Spotlight—Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Straight Outta Compton—Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Oscars 2015: The Big Techies

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
Today, the Manifesto is analyzing the technical categories at this year's Oscars. For our look at the eight "smaller" craft fields, click here. On to the (relatively) sexier categories.


Carol—Edward Lachman
The Hateful Eight—Robert Richardson
Mad Max: Fury Road—John Seale
The Revenant—Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario—Roger Deakins


Oscars 2015: The Little Techies

Tom Hardy in "Mad Max: Fury Road"
The 88th Academy Awards are airing on Sunday. Are you excited? Neither am I. OK, that's a lie. As much as we complain about the Oscars, whether because of their racial homogeneity or their self-congratulatory atmosphere, the fact remains that they routinely honor some pretty good movies. Besides, the Manifesto has been obsessively analyzing the Oscars for the last 14 years, so we aren't about to stop now.

This means that we have 21 feature awards to predict between now and Sunday. (Per usual, I'm excluding the three short-subject categories.) Today, we'll be looking at a number of below-the-line categories that tend to be buried early in the show. For those interested in some sexier (but still technical) fields, you can find our analysis of those here. Tomorrow and Saturday, we'll dig into the high-profile categories.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Ranking Every Movie of 2015 (yes, all of them)

Jennifer Lawrence in "Joy"
The Manifesto has already delivered its list of the top 10 movies of 2015. Now, it's time to look at the rest. What follows is a ranked list of every 2015 theatrical release that I've seen up to this point. It's far from comprehensive—as ever, there are a number of films that I've failed to see, whether through lack of theatrical distribution, laziness, or bad luck. (The only movie that I truly regret being unable to include here is Son of Saul; I'll be seeing it this weekend, but I just couldn't hold off on publishing that long.)

As for the movies I did see, well, there were still quite a few. And while this post is just a pure list, I've added hyperlinks to the 56 different titles that I formally reviewed, so you can click over to those for more detailed analysis. Per my custom, I'm also including each film's director in parentheses, as well as its respective scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so you can see whether I confirm with or diverge from the critical consensus.

I'll dispense with the usual rhetoric about the arbitrary nature of list-making (besides, I already did that yesterday for the top 10). But please, when you find yourself tempted to exclaim, "How could this idiot possibly rank [X] ahead of [Y]!" just bear in mind that the list is more of a guideline than a firm set of rules.

That should do it. Here are the Manifesto's rankings of every movie we watched in 2015:

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The 10 Best Movies of 2015

Maika Monroe in David Robert Mitchell's "It Follows"
We all know top 10 lists are meaningless—arbitrary attempts to objectively quantify highly subjective works of art. But top 10 lists can also be meaningful, not just as encapsulations of the year that was, but as snapshots in time. Were I to pick the 10 best films from 2015 a month from now, or a month ago, this list would assuredly look different. Those who prefer their year-end collectives to be cemented in stone may deem that sentiment overly tentative, but I've always accepted that my opinions of movies are like my memories: fluid, changing with time, and susceptible to multiple feelings and interpretations.

But here we are today, and here I must enumerate my thoroughly impeachable rankings of the year that was. In reviewing 2015 at the movies, I am struck by how many big-budget pictures I enjoyed. From the thrilling action scenes of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation to the equally thrilling dance sequences of Magic Mike XXL, from the interplanetary collaboration of The Martian to the intergalactic warfare of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, studios routinely served up rousing entertainment at the multiplex, and they should be commended for it. (Yes, they also served up the usual dreck.)

None of those high-profile movies, however, is on my year-end list. Instead, my top 10 is populated largely by more intimate stories focusing on relationships—mothers and sons, bosses and employees, men and women (and women and women). This should not, of course, reflect a value judgment on my part in favor of "smaller" films. I like all good movies, regardless of the scale of their production or the size of their target demographic. This year, I happened to gravitate toward more independent fare, but that is a coincidence rather than a signifier of taste.

But while the following 10 movies may not have been commercially successful—only two made more than $50 million at the box office, and just one topped $100 million—there is nothing small about their artistic achievements. They told beautiful stories, and they did so with clarity, vigor, and passion, lingering in my mind's eye for some time after I watched them. They may span countries and eras and genres, but they are all powerful, provocative pictures, with their own singular style and vision. Here are the Manifesto's 10 best movies of 2015:

Monday, February 15, 2016

Deadpool: A Wisecracking Superhero Takes Aim at Bad Guys, and a Genre

Ryan Reynolds as a smartass superhero in "Deadpool"
There's truth in advertising, and then there are the opening credits to Deadpool. Soundtracked to Juice Newton's '80s ballad "Angel of the Morning", the camera pans and pulls slowly through a frozen still of interrupted carnage, and amid the suspended bullets and geysers of spurting blood, there peeks out a People Magazine cover. In that 2010 issue, People named Ryan Reynolds the sexiest man alive, so this would seem to be an opportune time for the title sequence to announce Reynolds's presence in this madcap meta movie. Instead, the credits read, "Starring: God's Perfect Idiot," followed by other trivializing labels that summarize the remaining cast members: "a hot chick," "a British villain," "the comic relief," "a CGI character." The sequence concludes by informing us that Deadpool was produced by "asshats", written by "the real heroes here", and directed by "an overpaid tool".

Is this anarchically funny or pitifully defensive? Who says it can't be both? An ultraviolent superhero origin story filtered through the self-aware parody of send-ups like 21 Jump Street, Deadpool seeks to eviscerate the formula that pervades the Marvel Cinematic Universe while simultaneously hewing to that very template. (For the record, Deadpool is a Marvel production but is not formally associated with the MCU.) This means that it comes wrapped in a shield of protective irony that makes it virtually impervious to criticism. That is, how do you judge a pointless comic-book movie that so clearly knows it's a pointless comic-book movie? Many MCU pictures are like schoolyard bullies, browbeating their mass audiences into submission through brute force. Deadpool is more like the class clown; accuse it of being stupid, and it's likely to retort, "I know you are, but what am I?"

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hail, Caesar! Give Me That Old-Time Hollywood, with Smirking Sincerity

George Clooney as Baird Whitlock in the Coen Brothers "Hail, Caesar!"
There is quite a bit going on in the latest eccentric movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, beginning with its title. It is called Hail, Caesar!, and it is about the making of a sword-and-sandal epic called Hail, Caesar!, which comes complete with a subtitle, "A Tale of the Christ." Students of Hollywood history will recognize that caption as the same one affixed to Ben-Hur, the Charlton Heston-starring colossus that seized 11 Oscars in 1959, but the Coen Brothers are interested in more than just nostalgic homage. Early in Hail, Caesar!—the real one, not the fake one, though it is occasionally difficult to distinguish the two—producer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, fighting trim) assembles a quartet of religious cognoscenti and beseeches them to tell him if the script for his big-budget behemoth could possibly offend members of their respective faiths. This leads to a predictably funny whirligig of insults and confusion—the rabbi in attendance is constantly denigrating the views of his Christian brethren, while the minister insists that the film's chariot-jumping scenes are narratively dubious—but the on-screen collision between religion and cinema is hardly incidental. For the Coens, filmmaking isn't just a vocation. It's God's work.

But what about for Eddie? As Hail, Caesar! opens, he is experiencing a crisis of faith, one that has him rushing to the confessional at regular 24-hour intervals. Eddie is the fixer for Capitol Pictures, one of those titanic Old Hollywood studios that churns out star-powered, machine-authorized hits in the vein of Cecil B. DeMille blockbusters, Busby Berkeley musicals, and John Ford westerns (plus plenty of junk, too). He's wrung out, exhausted from the endless hours and disturbed by the seedier aspects of his job. That doesn't stop him from working. After we first see him unburdening himself to an apathetic priest, he hightails it to the Hollywood Hills and slaps around one of his stars, berating her for posing for naughty photos (the studio owns her glamorous likeness, you see) and sending her to rehab to dry out. Then it's off to the back lot to wrangle obstinate directors, soothe haughty starlets, and divert nosy gossip columnists, the latter of whom are always sniffing out the latest scandal. This is to say nothing of the pictures themselves, many of which are behind schedule; when Eddie finally finds a moment to review the most recent dailies of Hail, Caesar!, he discovers that one of its major set pieces is interrupted by a title card reading, "Divine Presence to be shot."

Friday, February 5, 2016

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2015: Dragons, Witches, and Redheads

Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, and Nathalie Emmanuel in "Game of Thrones"
And finally, the Manifesto presents the top 10 TV shows of 2015. If you missed our earlier posts ranking every TV show of the year, you can find them here (with a complete list of rankings at the end of this post):

Nos. 62-51
Nos. 50-40
Nos. 39-31
Nos. 30-21
Nos. 20-11

10. Show Me a Hero (HBO, Season 1). David Simon's shows have always cut against formula, but they've also focused on headline-friendly topics (the drug war, the race war, the Iraq war). Yet with the six-part miniseries Show Me a Hero, it's almost as if he's trolling his audience. A six-part miniseries about the desegregation of low-income housing in 1980s Yonkers, New York, it's the kind of esoteric material that seems to defy conventional dramatic storytelling. Yet Simon, with an assist from director Paul Haggis, improbably makes this true story not just compelling but powerful. The show's ambitions are large, covering everything from the intransigence of city politics to the entrenchment of racial prejudice, but Simon grounds it in recognizably human characters. This makes Show Me a Hero less a political drama that a series about people battered by politics. And while Nick Wasicsko, the champion of the show's title, is the mayor of Yonkers, he's also just a man—hopeful, ambitious, decent, flawed, and ultimately broken. He is believably all of these things because he's played by Oscar Isaac, who delivers a magnificent and heart-breaking performance as the show's tragic figure. There are many characters in Show Me a Hero, and Simon gives each of them an impressive sense of individuality, so we never feel like we're watching archetypes. But while Show Me a Hero makes a number of important points about how we live now, its lasting image is that of Wasicsko seated in his house, tears streaking down his face as the sun streams cruelly through a nearby window. In moments such as this—and in so many others—Isaac bares the soul of this broken civic leader, a man filled with hope and wracked with pain. The series' title is the first clause in a two-line quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. After watching this beautiful, devastating show, you will not need me to fill in the second part.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Ranking Every TV Show of 2015, #s 20-11: Clones, Robots, Doctors, Killers

Tatiana Maslany and... Tatiana Maslany in "Orphan Black"
Here lies the penultimate post in the Manifesto's 2015 TV rankings. If you missed them, here are the previous installments:

Nos. 62-51
Nos. 50-40
Nos. 39-31
Nos. 30-21

20. Orphan Black (BBC America, Season 3; last year: 3 out of 50). Things are starting to get a little crazy on Orphan Black. That's saying something, given that the show's pilot featured a suicide, a theft, a sniper attack, and a disturbingly inventive use of hand soap. But the show's enormous creative success—derived primarily from Tatiana Maslany's phenomenal performance(s) but also from some very smart and sharp writing—has in turn engendered heavy expectations, and in its third season, Orphan Black occasionally groans under its own weight. It is the curse of serialized television: Each new season is obliged to deliver bigger thrills, badder villains, and a general sense of more. But even if Orphan Black is now chaotic and overstretched, it remains a furiously entertaining and fascinating series, coursing with humor and intelligence and impish glee. I wrote last year that Maslany's work on this show is the greatest TV performance I've ever seen, and Season 3 only strengthens my confidence in that claim. She plays even more characters this year (she even voices a scorpion, for Christ's sake), constantly emphasizing new facets of her kaleidoscopic clones while still imperceptibly exhibiting the inherent toughness that binds them all together. And while Orphan Black's supporting cast will always feel small when standing next to Maslany's titanic performance, the ensemble does quality work: Jordan Gavaris deepens his sense of angst, Ari Millen lets loose with his own set of distinct identities, and Kristian Bruun is downright hysterical as an over-his-head amateur drug dealer. (Plus: James Frain, again!) It's often impossible to follow just what's going on these days on Orphan Black, but that hardly matters. As long as Maslany is around—protecting her family, outsmarting her enemies, and asking for mangos—Clone Club is always welcome.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Ranking Every TV Show of 2015, #s 30-21: Terrorists, Zombies, Spies, and Sex

Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in "Masters of Sex"
Continuing its annual exercise, the Manifesto is ranking every TV show we watched in 2015. If you missed them, here are the previous installments:

Nos. 62-51
Nos. 50-40
Nos. 39-31

30. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, Season 2). Less a reboot than a rewiring, the second season of Halt and Catch Fire retains the best elements of its initial campaign—the sharp character work, the excitement surrounding creativity—but slyly shifts its center. Rather than building around Lee Pace's Joe MacMillan (aka Don Draper 2.0), it zeroes in on the budding partnership between Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and MacMillan's protégé, Cameron Howe (the electric Mackenzie Davis). It's a brilliant maneuver, and not just because MacMillan is a more poignant character when he's trying to climb the mountain rather than staring down from its summit. Donna and Cameron make a killer team, the former trying to juggle motherhood and marriage with her own need to do fulfilling work, and the latter wrestling with the tedious obligations of corporate reality as she tries to spearhead her fledgling company into something meaningful. (The one downside: Scoot McNairy is effectively sidelined as Donna's husband; there's some potential to the storyline of a man confounded by his wife's success, but here it never quite lands.) Despite a period setting and Pace's good looks, Halt and Catch Fire was never going to be the next Mad Men, but that's OK. In focusing on its characters rather than its industry, it's developed its own identity, one that, as befits a show obsessed with invention, feels quietly revolutionary.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Ranking Every TV Show of 2015, #s 39-31: Nimble Comedy, Heavy Drama, and Superheroes Light and Dark

Bruce Campbell (center) with Ray Santiago and Dana DeLorenzo in "Ash vs. Evil Dead"
The Manifesto is ranking every TV show we watched in 2015. If you missed them, here are the previous installments:

Nos. 62-51
Nos. 50-40

39. Agent Carter (ABC, Season 1). The hook of Agent Carter—it's a Marvel show led by a woman!—is noteworthy, but focusing on its protagonist's gender does the show a disservice. Sleek and lean (the first season runs just eight efficient episodes), Agent Carter is a different animal from the typical Marvel property, and not just because its hero wears blouses and heels (and hats!). It derives considerable appeal just from its 1940s setting, and the stellar costuming and production design give it a welcome sense of chic. But the greatest strength of Agent Carter lies in Hayley Atwell's nimble lead performance. Emphasizing her heroine's smarts and toughness while also playing up her vulnerability, Atwell creates a true three-dimensional character that's rarely found in the Marvel universe, female or otherwise. Agent Carter's hokey storytelling can be a bit rough, and its action scenes still lack the zip of its cinematic counterparts. But it's a well-made series with a terrific central character, and it's more interested in her humanity than its otherworldly aspects. In that, it redefines our notion of what superhero shows can do.

Ranking Every TV Show of 2015, #s 50-40: Greedy Presidents, Corrupt Cops, and Sad Nazis

Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in "True Detective"
The Manifesto is ranking every TV show we watched in 2015. If you missed our first installment, you can find it here.

50. House of Cards (Netflix, Season 3; last year: 33 out of 50). In many ways, Netflix's flagship show—the one that started this whole binge-watching craze—actually improved in its third season. Its characters are drawn deeper, its plotting is more realistic, and its overall tone is more restrained. The problem is that depth, realism, and restraint are the exact opposite qualities of what made House of Cards such a cheesy sensation in the first place. Admittedly, there's some dogs-chasing-cars poignancy to this season's arc, which finds Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood, having finally ascended to the summit, struggling to find his identity. And the marriage between Frank and Robin Wright's Claire is explored with far greater nuance than I would have thought possible from such a blockheaded series. But like Frank, this updated House of Cards never feels comfortable in its newfound skin, and it often plays like a cut-rate West Wing, awkwardly trafficking in realpolitik without evincing any real passion. There's something to be said for the show's earnest attempt to reinvent itself, but if the rejiggered House of Cards is going to be this sedate, it might be time to let the monster back out of its cage.