Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Oscars 2016: The Acting Categories

Viola Davis, hopefully not reacting to her upcoming Oscar win for "Fences"
Thus far in our Oscars analysis, we’ve looked at categories both miscellaneous and technical, as well as the screenplays. Today, we’re running through everyone’s favorite fields: the acting categories. Let’s begin with the easiest race to predict and progress to the hardest.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

NOMINEES
Viola Davis—Fences
Naomie Harris—Moonlight
Nicole Kidman—Lion
Octavia Spencer—Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams—Manchester by the Sea

WILL WIN
Davis. Move along.

SHOULD WIN
As the remainder of this column reveals, 2016 produced an odd gender split in terms of high-caliber performances. In a refreshing change from the norm, cinema was flooded with outstanding portrayals from leading ladies; however, the number of quality star turns by men was relatively low. Conversely, my personal ballot in the Best Supporting Actor field runs 15 names long, whereas my corresponding ballot for supporting actresses is alarmingly thin.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Oscars 2016: The big techies; the screenplays

Jennifer Lawrence in "Passengers", a dual Oscar nominee
The Manifesto’s analysis of the 2016 Oscars continues. Yesterday, we checked in on eight different miscellaneous categories. Today, we’re finishing up the technical fields, analyzing five categories that I’m a bit more passionate about. And due to time constraints, we’re also looking at the two screenplay races. Let’s dive in.


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

NOMINEES
Arrival—Bradford Young
La La Land—Linus Sandgren
Lion—Greig Fraser
Moonlight—James Laxton
Silence—Rodrigo Prieto

WILL WIN
For casual moviegoers and Oscar-watchers, this year’s awards season has inevitably (and obnoxiously) centered around the question of whether La La Land, the clear Oscar frontrunner, is actually a good movie. (Spoiler: It is.) But for the historians, one key subplot underlying this year’s ceremony is whether La La Land will match (or even surpass) the existing record for Oscar wins, which is currently shared by Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (11 apiece). What’s interesting about La La Land is that, for all its magnificent craftsmanship, it isn’t your typical below-the-line showstopper; it doesn’t have the sheer size of Titanic or Lord of the Rings, nor the bravura special effects work of Gravity (which took home seven trophies despite losing Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave).

Monday, February 20, 2017

Oscars 2016: The odds and ends

A scene from "Zootopia", the favorite to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature
Welcome to Oscars Week! Over the next four days, we’ll be predicting the winners for each of the 21 feature categories at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. Today, we’re starting with some below-the-line fields—these categories don’t exactly capture the attention of mainstream movie audiences, but they could wreak havoc on Oscar pools. Let’s dig in.


BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

NOMINEES
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle
Zootopia

WILL WIN
With due respect to My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle (both of which are purported to be very good), this is a three-picture race. And while Kubo and the Two Strings has the strongest critical love and Moana has the best soundtrack, Zootopia is the clear favorite. It’s lively, it’s charming, and it’s woke.

SHOULD WIN
I haven’t seen My Life as a Zucchini or The Red Turtle, a failure that’s due to lack of distribution, not lack of interest. In any event, the remaining three are all good movies. (Frankly, I’m just relieved that the lousy Secret Life of Pets wasn’t nominated.) Moana is a slight but empowering story with some terrific songs, while Zootopia is a vibrant caper that doubles as a surprisingly powerful social commentary. But Kubo and the Two Strings is the best of the bunch, a scary and darkly beautiful tale of perseverance, triumph, and loss.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ranking Every Movie of 2016 (all 108 of them)

Much like these two, we watched a lot of movies last year
Following up on yesterday’s top 10, it’s time for the Manifesto’s silly annual tradition of ranking every movie we watched in the past year. This is an undeniably foolish exercise, but it’s useful as a recordkeeping function. Plus, it makes people angry, which is always fun.

Click on the hyperlinks to read my review for a particular movie. Per usual, for each film, I’m parenthetically adding the director’s name, as well as its Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores; both of those metrics are deeply problematic, but they do tend to reveal whether I conform to or diverge from the critical consensus. In addition, as a new feature this year, I’m noting if each movie listed is currently streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Go, or Hulu. So, even if you’re one of those worthless oafs who never goes to the theater anymore, this list can still provide you with some helpful viewing recommendations, free of charge.

That’s about it. Here are the Manifesto’s rankings of every movie we watched in 2016 (with the unfortunate caveat that I’ve still yet to see Toni Erdmann):

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 10 Best Movies of 2016

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"
Was 2016 a good year for cinema? Who can say? Each year at the movies is different, even if every year is also the same. The 100-plus theatrical releases that I watched over the past year were all distinct—admittedly, some were more distinctive than others—but they all contributed to that familiar emotional experience that is the movies, inspiring in me a vast array of feelings: disappointment and delight, frustration and pleasure, sadness and joy. And just as selecting 10 particular titles from a single year is a cruel and capricious task, evaluating a year’s disparate films as though they collectively form a cohesive whole is equally foolhardy. Put differently, 2016 was a good year insofar as it afforded us the opportunity to stumble into a darkened theater with the hope of seeing something vital and new. If that renders it the same as any other, well, that’s why we keep going to the movies.

In other words, I liked a good number of movies in 2016. I disliked many others, hated a handful more, and loved a precious few. These were my 10 favorites. (Note: Though I’ve done my best to see every critically acclaimed release, I have yet to see the much-beloved Toni Erdmann, as my local art house has been negligent with its bookings. I expect to see it within the next two weeks; if it ends up cracking my top 10, I’ll update this post accordingly.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2: Back in Black, But Check Out the Color

Keanu Reeves returns in "John Wick: Chapter 2"
Midway through John Wick: Chapter 2, the title character and a deadly foe engage in a ferocious, no-holds-barred brawl, complete with pistols, knives, and fists o’ fury. This type of fight is entirely familiar to action fans, but what happens next isn’t; after the combatants crash through the plate-glass window of a hotel, their vicious duel to the death is interrupted by the establishment’s proprietor. “Gentlemen!” he sternly admonishes them, raising his voice just a hair. “Need I remind you that business will not be conducted on Continental grounds?” The men, shrinking in stature from lethal death-dealers to sullen schoolboys being tsk-tsked by their principal, dolefully nod in assent, then agree to buy one another a drink.

This is the glorious insanity of the John Wick franchise. It takes the standard elements of your typical actioner—the gunfights, the car chases, the vendettas, the retired hero yanked back down to the underworld against his will—and situates them within an extravagantly tricked-out universe, a world with its own peculiar codes, currencies, and dialects. In the realm of John Wick, when the villain decides to put a bounty on his nemesis, he doesn’t scream or snarl or deliver a sneering speech. No, he takes out his phone, calls “Accounts Payable”, and places an order with a receptionist, one of a fleet of prim bureaucrats who may as well be fielding customer-service requests. “Murder Incorporated” was a snappy moniker; in John Wick, contract killing requires a literal contract.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Split: His Minds Have Something Sinister in Mind

James McAvoy as, er, a lot of people in M. Night Shyamalan's "Split"
To call Split a comeback for M. Night Shyamalan is both accurate and somewhat troubling. The cinematic Icarus of the early twenty-first century, Shyamalan’s rapid ascent and subsequent plunge was difficult to watch. But his transgressions were sins of commission rather than omission—even when he was failing, he was always trying. Yet his most recent film, the found-footage flick The Visit, heralded a director who had diluted his ambition with pinches of modesty and self-awareness. That trend continues with Split, a lean and spiky movie that feels as though it could have arrived in the ’90s, before its creator let those “the next Spielberg” claims go to his head. This raises the question: Should we really be applauding filmmakers for abandoning their fearless attempts at the new and instead returning to the cozy confines of the familiar?

If it results in movies as taut and entertaining as this one, then yes. Split may be a pure, unvarnished genre exercise, but it’s a damn good one, a superlative example of twitchy suspense and tightly controlled craft. During his period of failure—which, in this critic’s view, spans from Lady in the Water to After Earth but definitely does NOT include The Village—Shyamalan tried all sorts of new things; they didn’t work. Split does many things—it frightens, delights, stumbles, and amazes—but most simply, it works.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016: The Complete List

In 2016, we at the Manifesto watched 88 different TV shows. Now, we have ranked and written about them all. Here are those complete rankings—click on the header links to be transported to the particular page with detailed analysis of that group’s individual shows:


#s 88-71
88. House of Lies (Showtime, Season 5)
87. High Maintenance (HBO, Season 1)
86. Fear the Walking Dead (AMC, Season 2)
85. Baskets (FX, Season 1)
84. Idiotsitter (Comedy Central, Season 1)
83. One Mississippi (Amazon, Season 1)
82. Wayward Pines (Fox, Season 2)
81. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (FX, Season 2)
80. Vice Principals (HBO, Season 1)
79. Bloodline (Netflix, Season 2)
78. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, Season 2)
77. Better Things (FX, Season 1)
76. Divorce (HBO, Season 1)
75. 11.22.63 (Hulu, Season 1)
74. The Walking Dead (AMC, Seasons 6.5 and 7.0)
73. Gomorrah (Sundance TV/Sky Italia, Season 1)
72. Downton Abbey (BBC, Season 6)
71. Daredevil (Netflix, Season 2)

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2016: Murder, Prison, Hell, and Politics

Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown in "The People v. O.J. Simpson"
And here we are. After having already ranked 78 different TV shows from 2016, we finally arrive at the top 10. If you missed our prior posts, you can find them at the following links:

#s 88-71
#s 70-51
#s 50-31
#s 30-11


10. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 6; last year: 4 of 62). The biggest, baddest show on television, Game of Thrones finally betrays a few hints of strain in its sixth season, groaning slightly under its own gargantuan weight. The series has become so diffuse, its talent for racing through subplots and leapfrogging across continents can be exhausting as well as exhilarating. Yet the occasional sense of fatigue does little to diminish the show’s staggering achievement, its unparalleled ability to rip off one sequence after another of eye-popping spectacle. A character’s metaphorical rebirth at the end of the season’s fourth episode is an utter triumph—by contrast, the subsequent episode concludes with devastating tragedy—while “Battle of the Bastards”, the show’s rare narrowly focused hour, is an unrelenting assault that is dynamically staged and expertly choreographed. And the first act of the finale, an agonizingly slow reveal of a terrorist plot, is perhaps the greatest extended suspense sequence I’ve ever seen on TV, all roiling tension and ominous music and suffocating fear. Yet Game of Thrones is more than a mere collection of awe-inspiring moments. It is an epic work of scrupulous detail and sweeping drama, and in continually deepening its mythology—in their first season working without the safety net of George R.R. Martin’s books, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss acquit themselves just fine—it never neglects its characters. This is a show about kings and queens, pirates and dragons, but it’s also about the joy of friendship, the cost of perseverance, and the sting of loss. In other words, Game of Thrones is a story about real people, even if its universe is utterly, majestically otherworldly.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016, #s 30-11: Queens, Singers, Lovers, and Monsters

Winona Ryder in the internet sensation "Stranger Things"
We’re nearly finished with our countdown of every TV show we watched in 2016. For prior installments, use the following links:
#s 88-71
#s 70-51
#s 50-31


30. The Girlfriend Experience (Starz, Season 1). Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience may be something of a cult classic, but I’ve never understood why, as I find the film to be ugly, pretentious, and deeply boring. (Admittedly, its tagline is terrific.) I can easily envision Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s television adaptation similarly turning into a cult classic, but for far more justifiable reasons. Chilly, chic, and fiendishly provocative, the series retains the fundamental premise of the movie—examining the mundane ins and outs of the call-girl biz—but invests it with a squirming, throbbing humanity. Its plotting is arguably too ambitious—it wastes far too much time at a heavy-duty law firm—but as a character study, The Girlfriend Experience is mesmerizing. That’s due almost entirely to Riley Keough, the Mad Max: Fury Road alum who delivers a performance that’s both enigmatic and explosive. Because the show disfavors hand-holding, Keough is forced to internalize most of her emotions, and she does so with aplomb, silently revealing her law student-cum-prostitute as a woman of fierce intelligence and indomitable pride. Starz renewed the series for a second season, but Keough won’t be returning; I wish her replacements luck.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016, #s 50-31: Cops, Crooks, Cults, and Lawyers

Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki in "The Night Manager"
Before continuing with our rankings, a quick reminder that this list isn’t a bell curve—the majority of the shows on this 88-item list are above-average. It’s a little nuts that I can comfortably recommend 50-plus television series from a single year, but welcome to #PeakTV.

If you missed the prior installments of the Manifesto’s 2016 rankings, you can find them at the following links:
#s 88-71
#s 70-51


50. The Path (Hulu, Season 1). Hey, cults! The Path takes itself extremely seriously, which I suppose makes sense, given that it’s a series about people who are abused, damaged, and deluded (either by others or themselves). Yet the show’s solemnity is something of a detriment, as its exploration of an alternative “community” lacks the necessary verisimilitude—there’s some batty chatter about “The Ladder” and some portentous discussion of complex hierarchies, but it all feels thinly sketched. But whenever The Path veers into melodrama, it becomes wildly entertaining. Aaron Paul is steady as a middle manager struggling with his faith (Michelle Monaghan is a bit shakier as a true believer), but it’s the stuff on the margins that really sizzles; a forbidden teen romance is the stuff of Shakespeare, while Hugh Dancy is absolutely mesmerizing as a power-hungry manipulator. I wouldn’t call myself a convert quite yet, but The Path’s first season exhibits the potential of a show that can get its hooks into you.