November 10th: 12 Years a Slave

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Release Date: 2013
Director: Steve McQueen
Why I picked this: Oscar-talk

Coming soon

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February 23rd: Zero Dark Thirty (Oscar Week Day 7)

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Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actress (Jessica Chastain), Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing

It is a wonder that this movie was made so quickly. This movie attempts to chronicle the search for the then-leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, after the events of September 11th, 2001. It takes place during the long stretch of time from then to May 2nd, 2011, in which bin Laden is killed in a raid conducted by Navy SEALs. Between this time, the narrative focuses on Maya, presumably a composite character, a CIA officer played by Jessica Chastain. Maya essentially devotes her entire career on the trail for bin Laden. She and her colleagues find themselves in the midst of some major terrorist incidents while on this trail, which led to some shocking and tense sequences. In building a narrative of the past decade or so, this film may go on to define this era, as it not only depicts important events, but touches upon many of the political issues that arose over this search for the “world’s most dangerous man.” One interesting change was the change from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration; the earlier parts of the film had the use of enhanced interrogation techniques to gain information; after Obama takes office, their methods obviously have to change. However, these time jumps are sudden, and we are left wondering what occurred during the time in between. The concept of the Maya character is interesting; as mentioned, her entire career is focused on this one manhunt. She comes across as a very strong and determined character, who grows more hardened as the years pass by. But she makes some bizarre choices, such as her use of a profane word during an essential meeting with the CIA Director, for example. I personally did not enjoy Chastain’s performance. While not bad, I found her moments of intensity and anger to be unconvincing. It is clear when the movie is a political thriller/action film, and when it is a character study. The thriller/action scenes are far more compelling. This movie never glosses these real life events. This movie has a visceral feel, and there are moments that truly shocked me. Sometimes shock may be generated from an unexpected explosion; sometimes you may just feel tension from encounters and the potential of danger. None of these sequences fail to be gripping. By far the most compelling sequence is the raid near the end of the movie. Seeing this raid with no music and from various perspectives is a truly intense experience. The sound of each individual bullet shot should have some sort of jump effect, and the moment of the actual killing, without telling too much about how it is presented, is very appropriate. Even the sequence afterwards which depicts the cleanup is intense. While I never got into the characters, I must admit that the ending moment was very powerful. Kathryn Bigelow, along with her editors and sound designers, have crafted a very realistic looking and sounding film that is very timely, though a bit lengthy.

Shocking, gritty,  and real, this movie has some of the most intense sequences put on film. However, the movie skips around time messily, is very long, and its characters might not be as compelling as one might hope for.

February 21st: Lincoln (Oscar Week Day 5)

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Director: Steven Spielberg 
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Supporting Actress (Sally Field), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Design, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing

It’s a period piece directed by the most famous director of our time, written by a prestigious playwright and starring a two-time Oscar winning method actor as America’s most famous President. This movie is exactly what you would expect from that combination. This movie focuses on the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency, mainly on the end of the Civil War and his efforts to have the Thirteenth Amendment passed by Congress, while also focusing on some aspects of his personal life. It begins with a scene of brutality, depicting a battle during the Civil War. Besides a few scenes showing observations of destruction, the movie rarely focuses on this aspect of the time period. Instead, the movie focuses mostly on the political atmosphere at the time. The House of Representatives is depicted as being more vibrant and loud compared to the present day. Congressmen yell and openly insult each other on the floor; they jeer and scream in either anger or celebration. We also see the work of political operatives, mainly Republicans played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson. Their sometimes amusing methods of winning votes from Congressmen form the more lighthearted moments of the movie. At the center of the movie, we have Daniel Day-Lewis going all out as Abraham Lincoln; he has transformed into the man himself, adapting a historically-accurate voice along with various other subtleties in his body language. Day-Lewis performs long monologues and tells drawn out stories to convey the relaxed and pensive nature of the 16th President, but he is loud and intense when he needs to be. Opposite Day-Lewis is Sally Field as the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. The First Lady has been through much before the events depicted in the movie, such as the loss of a child, which is reflected by her unstable nature. This movie has an expansive cast, and one of the best ensembles in recent memory. This would include Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as Secretary of the State William Seward, and most prominently Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens is stern, loud, bold, and colorful in his language. Steven Spielberg’s direction takes a backseat in favor of Tony Kushner’s script and the acting; this movie is full of monologues. But visually, this is still an impressive film. Washington D.C. is made vibrant and lifelike, and the production design is very detailed.

As a way of understanding how politics worked during the time of the Civil War and the character of Abraham Lincoln, this movie excels, especially thanks to its wonderful performances. Its play-like nature may turn off a few, however.

January 14th: Princess Mononoke

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Release Date: 1997
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Why I picked this: Recommendation and lack of exposure to Miyazaki

Beautifully animated and with an outstanding attention to detail, this historical fantasy epic can be appreciated by anyone who admires traditional hand drawn animation and Japanese art. The forests and towns look amazing, the sometimes graphic violence is smooth, and some sequences feature an extra layer of computer animation that seamlessly enhances the hand drawn animation. The story of the movie blends both historical and fantastical elements to create a relatable and magical world. This world truly feels alive with likable human characters and both charming and intimidating animal and spirit characters. The movie has very basic themes about hate, and the environment, nature, and how the humans ultimately affect it. The movie showcases the humans as progressing and innovating, developing newer technologies such as the gun and the grenade. The struggle between the two forces is not exactly black and white, and Ashitaka, the protagonist, does his best to fight for both sides. All of the female characters are as strong as the male characters, some even being stronger, with San and Lady Eboshi being the most interesting characters of the movie. However, I didn’t feel that the main characters got what they deserved when the chaos in the movie ended, and I felt uninterested some parts in the middle of the movie. Still, any appreciators of animation should give this epic movie a watch.

Crisp and smooth hand drawn animation with a layer of computer animation, this Japanese fantasy film is beautiful. A bit on the long side, but that’s to be expected from such an epic.