BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:
Citizenfour– This documentary features an exclusive series of interviews with Edward Snowden, the man who revealed classified information stating privacy abuses from the NSA. Director Laura Poitras was one such person he contacted with classified documents. Now exiled in Hong Kong, he gives a private interview to reveal why he did it.
Finding Vivian Maier– What begins with a suitcase full of negatives becomes the mystery of a fascinating but reclusive woman. It begins at an auction, where director John Maloof won the suitcase. The suitcase is full of negatives from someone named Vivian Maier. The photos become a sensation in the art world with their portrayals of urban life in the 1950’s and 1960s. It begs the question; who is Vivian Maier?
Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel seek to solve the mystery of the woman. They learn she was an unassuming nanny who lived in a small room. Through interviews with former clients, this documentary goes from being a mystery to a portrait of a complex, reclusive woman with a fascination for photographing urban life but who didn’t want any attention.
Last Days of Vietnam– As the title clearly states, this documentary looks at the events that transpired in the weeks before the end of the war. The key focus of this film is the political chaos and the attempt by American soldiers to evacuate the South Vietnamese. Click the title to see the movie on Youtube.
The Salt of the Earth– Looking at these documentaries, I’m noticing most of them have photography/filming as their subject matter. Now here’s a film about a professional photographer named Sebastiao Salgado. The film focuses on his 40-year career in which he travels through countries in order to photograph landscapes, distant tribes and major events.
Virunga– A sign of how much of a major player Netflix has become is that the film Virunga has once again been nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Their nominated film last year, The Square focused on the Arab Spring of Egypt from the point of view of a journalist and his friends. This time, their latest documentary focuses on the Virunga National Park in the Congo; where the last of the world’s mountain gorillas dwell and where rangers are determined to protect the land.
Due to a combination of corrupt governments and rebel forces around their gates, the rangers have to carry automatic firearms. In addition, they now have to face a new threat in the form of big oil. These companies have already paid off rebels in the hopes of taking over the country to extract the park for oil. This doesn’t stop the rangers from fighting for the park. This time they have another weapon in their arsenal; the camera. With hidden cameras, they expose corrupt officials trying to bribe them and oil officials revealing their plans.
To watch this film is to see humanity at its best against humanity at its worst. These rangers have complete faith in their cause and are willing to die to preserve the land. And the scenes of rangers taking care of some young gorillas are heartwarming. Despite overwhelming odds, these heroes refuse to give up on the cause for they know what fate awaits it.
Who Will Win?
Many people expect Citizenfour to win. I’m not so sure. I think there’s a high chance the academy will get spooked in fear of possibly being seen as condoning an alleged “traitor”. But with it being one of the most popular, its win is still possible.
At first, I thought about predicting Finding Vivian Maier considering how well known it is. Though I wish Citizenfour would win, my hunch says they might go for the dark horse Virunga.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM:
Ida– Set in 1960s Poland, the film tells the tale of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novitiate nun. She is about to take her vows when she receives news that she has an estranged aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda reveals that Anna’s real name is Ida and that she was born of from Jewish parents. During the era of the Nazi occupation, the parents had given their daughter to the church in order to protect her from the holocaust. Anna/Ida begins her journey to find her parents and their history.
What makes this film fascinating is the sharp contrast between Anna and Wanda. Anna is a straightlaced young woman who never takes off her hood. In fact, she hardly ever reacts to anything. Wanda, at first, seems like a strict judge and a strong follower of the communist party. But during a trip to a hotel where a Jazz band performs, Wanda reveals herself as a drunk and a party animal.
Along with this category, this movie is nominated for best cinematography and for good reason. Whether in a saddle or filming a jazz band, every scene is shot with in a gorgeous black and white.
Leviathan– from Russia comes a modern tale of both David vs. Goliath and the tale of Job. A family man name Nikolai lives in a cottage built with his own two hands. But the location attracts the attention of the town’s corrupt mayor, who wants the land by the lake. So he tries to force the family to move out so he can demolish the house. Nikolai isn’t going down without a fight so he brings a lawyer friend to town to help defend him, but this causes more trouble for him.
This film can be seen as a satire of Russia under Putin’s reign. Surrounding this family, every corrupt politician and religious institution is trying to crush this family. Despite all of this, the family keeps fighting.
Tangerines– This film tells the tale of Ivo, an Estonian farmer who harvests tangerines in Georgia. The time is 1990, a time of war. Despite bloody conflict at his door, he stays behind to harvest his fruit. Conflict really comes to his door when he takes in a wounded man.
Timbuktu– As you can guess by the title, the film takes place during the time when Jihadists took over. The film focuses on a humble cattle herder who lives a quiet life with his wife and little girl. They find their simple lives amongst the dunes disrupted by fanatics determined to control their lives. This escalates in tragedy.
It starts out as a beautiful scene of a couple having a dance at a wedding ceremony, when the wife asks the husband who the long-haired woman is. The story gets even more awkward when she demands to know why one of his students has his phone number. The husband’s reaction alone is worth it.
Who Will Win?
The popular choice to win is Ida. Films about the Holocaust usually win. But the Holocaust is a distant memory. This film focuses more on how people cope with tragedy affecting their family. The beautiful cinematography adds to the film.
But I feel Leviathan stands a chance of taking the Oscar. It has already been a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival. This category has a particular habit of going against usual prediction. The exceptions were super popular films including The Barbarian Invasions and A Separation.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE:
Big Hero 6– This is the first Disney film directly based on a Marvel comic. You have most likely never heard of the comic series the movie is based on, but now it will certainly gain a higher cult following thanks to this movie.
Set in the Japanese-American hybrid San Fransokyo, our hero…named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) as a young orphan with a knack for building robots. Though his intelligence is prodigy level, he’d rather use his talents winning illegal robot battles. Meanwhile, his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) is honing his skills at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology in hopes of building machines that will help people. He wants Hiro to turn his life around, so Tadashi takes his little brother to the institute. There Hiro meets Tadashi’s group of friends; biker chick Gogo, nerdy Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), wimpy Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.) And Fred (TJ Miller) a slacker who hangs around in hopes their science can turn him into a Godzilla-like monster. What really impresses Hiro is Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable robot Tadashi has invented for nursing. Hiro enters the Robot exhibit in hopes of impressing Institute head Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell).
With his microbots, he not only impresses Callaghan, but also attracts the attention of a high tech guru but just as he’s managing to succeed with his microbots, the exhibit catches fire and Tadashi is killed. Hiro falls into a reclusive state of grief. Then he accidently turns on Baymax, who works to help Hiro through his emotional pain. Soon they find a mysterious masked figure has stolen Hiro’s microbots and is using it for villainous purposes.
Since this masked figure is obviously responsible for the fire and Tadashi’s death, Hiro gathers his friends and Baymax to form a superhero team. Equipped with super suits, they seek to find the identity of the masked man and proceed to stop him.
In terms of superhero characters, this one is pretty standard. It follows the common tropes of superhero origin stories. And the characters represent the stereotypical tropes. And as for the villain, it’s painfully obvious who that person is. That being said, it’s still very entertaining. Potter makes Hiro a likable character and one who we can relate to. This keeps us watching. The actors have a blast with these characters, especially Miller taking full advantage of his dopey slacker, especially when gets to put on the monster suit.
But the real standout is Baymax. First of all, his design really stands out from most robots. Then there’s Adsit giving Baymax a robotic but reassuring voice to accompany his cushy exterior. He is a robot designed to heal pain, but he only understands health within the context of his program. This provides plenty of humour, including repeatedly asking Hiro to rate his pain when multiple items keep falling on him. It also provides the heart of the movie, reminding me of the relationship between the Terminator and John Connor in T-2: Judgment Day.
But what makes this film unique is that the film uses the superhero trope to talk about grief. Disney films have dealt with death many times, but have never centered a film on what it feels like to lose someone. You can feel that crushing blow Hiro feels losing a loved one. He shuts himself out from his friends and his last family member Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph). Throughout the film, Baymax’s goal is to help him heal the internal pain Hiro is going through. Actually, Baymax brings an extra layer to the story. He’s more than just a robot and a friend. He is Tadashi’s legacy. He expresses the theme of living up to a loved one’s legacy and later shows how a loved one can misuse that legacy.
The Boxtrolls– Here’s an addition to the library of Laika, the studio gaining a cult following with its stop motion animated movies Coraline and ParaNorman. This time, they step away from the dark fantasy into a more lighthearted fantasy based on the book Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow.
Set in the cheese-obsessed town of Cheesebridge, the people hide inside their homes when the sun goes down because they fear being eaten by the Boxtrolls. A few years earlier, they kidnapped a child and devoured it. Well, that’s according to legend. In reality, the boxtrolls have raised the child as one of their own; a child who has grown up to be Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright). The Boxtrolls are actually gentle creatures who use garbage to invent new devices. And they have tried to avoid people for years.
In desperation, the head of the city Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris) hires Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kinglsey), a dastardly deviant troll snatcher. Snatcher seeks a seat in the fanciest cheese club and is promised such if he gets every last boxtrolls. Boxtroll by Boxtroll, Snatcher comes closer to reaching his goal. The only one standing in his way is the Lord’s daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning), who craves the macabre. Despite being disappointed by how nice they are, she agrees to make Eggs act like a human being and save the trolls.
Though it’s not at the level of Laika’s previous work, the film’s still an entertaining romp. The Boxtrolls are very likable; especially Fish (Dee Bradley Baker), whose relationship with Eggs brings a lot of heart in this film. But the real star of the show is Snatcher himself. A low class piece of white trash, Snatcher tries his best to present himself as high class as possible. And he goes out of his way to build the fear of Boxtrolls within the people of Cheesebridge. And Kingsley relishes the performance, having a blast with him. It’s especially hilarious to see how much he wants to be a part of a private cheese club despite the fact he’s extremely allergic to cheese.
How to Train Your Dragon 2– Set in the island of Berk years after the first movie, our favourite Scottish Vikings have developed a strong camaraderie with their new dragon friends. After bringing these former enemies together, Hiccup (voiced again by Jay Baruchel) wants to go further. With his beloved night fury Toothless, he sets off to map out more areas around Berk and find more dragons. Meanwhile, his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) wants Hiccup to think about eventually taking over his place as leader when he’s gone. Hiccup isn’t sure about his place.
While travelling, he makes two surprising discoveries. The first is a mysterious dragon rider, who leads a group of dragons of her own. Usually I’d hesitate to give away the rider’s identity, but the trailers pretty much give away that the rider is Hiccups’ long lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett).
This family reunion doesn’t last long thanks to Hiccups second discovery. In the distance, a group of pirates, led by the vicious Drago (Djimon Hounsou) travels the lands capturing dragons, even taking those that already belong to others. Stoick has encountered him before and knows how dangerous he is. Hiccup makes it his mission to make Drago see the error of his way and save Berk.
This is an example of the right way to make a sequel. A lesser sequel would have repeated the same storyline, have the characters act the same and use more special effects to cover it up. Wisely, DreamWorks Animation rose above that to elevate the sequel to not only equal the quality of the first movie but arguably surpass it. As well as with this movie, they’ve done this before with Shrek 2, and pulled it off again with Kung Fu Panda 2.
First of all, while a lesser sequel would have kept Hiccup a bumbling young geek, this film brings him back older and more developed. Despite having lost a leg in the previous battle, Hiccup has not only mastered flying Toothless, but also built a suit that will allow him to glide alongside toothless. He has long earned the respect of his colleagues. This doesn’t sacrifice Hiccup’s likability. He still has Baruchel’s droll delivery and the same sense of right and wrong. The other main characters are also older and more developed. This is especially true of his father, who in the first movie is embarrassed to see his feeble son in battle. In this film, he believes his son will make a great leader and wishes he would take his eventual place seriously.
Second of all, this film expands upon the mythology of this universe. The curious Hiccup explores more areas to create a map of the area. And the places he and Toothless find are gorgeous, especially the ice cave. And we not only get to see more variety of dragons, but gain more understanding of their nature. And we get more characters to interact with. First there’s Hiccup’s mom Valka, who shares her son’s love of dragons but doesn’t believe people can change. There’s Drago’s assistant Eret (Kit “Jon Snow” Harrington), a smug jerk who develops second thoughts of his profession. And then there’s Drago, a dragon-hating, power hungry sociopath. A villain you love to hate.
Finally, the story performs a balancing act of learning more complex lessons while still being fun and entertaining. In the previous film, Hiccup was teaching the Vikings how to show compassion to dragons. In this film, he learns lessons the hard way, namely, the dangers of ignoring their animal natures and how dangerous good animals can be in the hands of horrible people. Despite this, we still have the hope he will find a way in the end
Song of the Sea– And now for some classic hand-drawn animation. From Tomm Moore, the director of The Secret of Kells comes another family tale of Irish and Scottish mythology. This time it’s about the mythology of Selkies, people with magical skins that can turn them into seals. One such selkie was a wife and a mother of a boy and a girl. She disappears from their lives, leaving the boy a seashell and the girl some magic glowing skin. In time the girl named Saoirse finds out she is a selkie herself and can turn into a baby seal whenever she puts on the skin. But their grandmother forces them to move into the city. Saoirse begins her journey to return to the sea and free spirits from the urban jungle.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya– This is another classical hand-drawn animated movie, this time from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli, the studio behind such masterpieces as Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. The story retells a classic folk tale called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.
It begins with an old bamboo cutter and his wife. One day, they find a tiny, fully clothed baby within a stalk of bamboo. Because of the fancy clothes and how rapidly she grows into a young woman, her adopted parents believe she’s of royal blood. They start going out of their way to present her as a princess. But she’s reluctant about being presented as a princess and is unsure what her destiny is.
She attracts the attention of suitors and sets up impossible tasks to win her hand. But when the emperor wants her hand in marriage, this sends her in an ultimate dilemma when it comes to her life.
What’s interesting about the animation is how strongly it contrasts with previous Studio Ghibli. This studio’ films, especially those directed by Hayao Miyazaki are animated with an extreme attention to detail right down to a pop bottle in a stream. In strong contrast, this film is animated in the simplistic style of the classic Japanese artwork. It gives the film the feel of a storybook come to life.
Who Will Win?
It’s Big Hero 6 vs. How to Train Your Dragon 2. I’m going to lean on How to Train Your Dragon 2 being the first DreamWorks film to win the Oscar since Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit. First of all, the flying scenes are beautifully done. Secondly, it deals with more complex moral questions. Finally, it is one of those rare sequels that adds more story to the first film.