Thursday, November 13, 2014

Contending With Variety's Best Documentary Feature Contenders

We are still two months away from the announcement of the 87th Academy Award nominations and three months away from the ceremony itself, but Variety is already weighing in on one of the least closely followed but always fascinating categories, Best Documentary Feature.  The industry paper lists 18 films contending for a nomination, ranging from the usual Best Documentary fare (Middle East relations and health care exposes) to far more unusual - and perhaps unlikely - selections.

While several of these choices appear to be strong contenders for a nomination, others seem unlikely.  I have only seen a few of these selections, but based on the Academy's recent history of nominees, I would like to take a quick look at the chances of each of Variety's selections to receive a Best Documentary Feature nomination.

Merchants of Doubt
Merchants of Doubt was the first film listed, and it is not hard to see why. The film is directed by Robert Kenner, who received his first career nomination a few years ago for Food, Inc. after a long career of filming television documentaries.  The film is inspired by the book of the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, and focuses on professional deniers: those whose job it is to deny the effects of climate change in order to slow attempts to address it.  Environmentally focused documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove have taken home Academy Awards in recent years, and Inside Job, which focuses on corruption of policy by interest groups, also won the Oscar.  Merchants of Doubt isn't a shoo-in, but it has all of the ingredients of a Best Documentary Feature favorite.

Nas: Time Is Illmatic
It's unlikely that Academy voters (median age: 62) hold the the Nas album Illmatic with the same reverence as do hip hop fans, but we should be careful before we write off the chances of the Academy recognizing hip hop.  The Academy awarded Oscars to Eminem and Three 6 Mafia and also nominated M.I.A. (Pharrell also received an Oscar nomination, but it was for the decidedly un-hip hop "Happy").  Most significantly for Nas: Time Is Illmatic's chances, Tupac: Resurrection was nominated for Best Documentary Feature, paving the way for a hip hop documentary to receive a nomination.  However, Tupac was much more well known than Nas, and his untimely death more dramatic than the story of the creation of an album.  Still, with music-centered documentaries like Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom recently gaining favor with the Academy, this doc has a chance.

The Salt of the Earth
Director Wim Wenders is a favorite of the documentarians branch, having been nominated twice before in this category (for Buena Vista Social Club and Pina).  The Salt of the Earth is a profile of photographer Sebastiao Salgado, co-directed with Salgado's son Juan Ribierto Salgado.  This doesn't seem like the type of subject matter that makes the Academy jump up and down, but Wenders's track record means that he should be taken seriously in prognosticating this category.

Life Itself
When I first saw Life Itself in August, I declared it a shoo-in for a nomination, and my opinion hasn't changed at all.  Roger Ebert, the film's subject, was a beloved figure in the film industry, beloved even by those whose films he criticized.  The film is a lovely retrospective of Ebert's life and career, but the scenes of he and his wife Chaz living through his illnesses are touching and beautifully rendered.  This film should be catnip to Academy voters, but is also entirely deserving of a nomination.

Finding Vivian Maier
Finding Vivian Maier has done well at some of the more progressive film festivals, but a documentary about a street photographer is unlikely to receive a nomination.  The film's chances are further hurt by the presence of The Salt of the Earth; the Academy is unlikely to nominate two films that profile photographers, and if they are to choose one they will almost certainly go with Wim Wenders.

Dancing in Jaffa
Along with Life Itself, this is one of the two films I am most confident in predicting a nomination.  The Academy famously loves to award trophies to films about Middle East relations, and this is the rare feel-good documentary on the subject, telling the story of Jaffa schoolchildren - both Israeli and Palestinian - finding commonality and fraternity in dance lessons.  It's hard to imagine this one getting left out.

Plot for Peace
This is a tough one to call.  Plot for Peace looks at Jean-Yves Ollivie, a South African diplomat who brokered many significant peace deals.  Any film about South Africa in the 1980's should get the Academy's attention, though Ollivie is a little known figure in the United States and thus this film could be forgotten.  After years of mostly irrelevancy at the Oscars, South Africa was nominated at the 77th Academy Awards for Zulu and won the Oscar the following year for the wonderful Tsotsi and garnered all kinds of attention for District 9.  This South African-produced film would also follow in the footsteps of Searching for Sugar Man, which, although not a South African film per se, prominently featured Cape Town.  This film has an uphill climb, but festival audiences have loved it.  If enough nominators see Plot for Peace, it could grab a nomination.

Fed Up
With Food, Inc. receiving a nomination a few years ago, Fed Up has to be taken seriously as a contender.  The film looks at the obesity crisis and the processed food industry, and if you believe the stereotype of Hollywood as a land of kale-chomping vegans, Fed Up would seem a natural fit.  Yet with constant news stories about the obesity crisis, it would take a unique viewpoint or an exceptionally well made film to get the attention of the Academy.  I haven't seen the film and thus can't say if Fed Up achieves this, but it would take a great film on this subject for a real possibility of a nomination.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Elaine Stritch is a beloved figure in the entertainment community, and this film is said to be a great telling of her life.  Still, the story just doesn't have enough emotional weight, outrage, or uplift to be much of a contender.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Tales of the Grim Sleeper has HBO Documentary Films behind it, and thus has a great chance of receiving a nomination.  It's a dark story that touches on many subjects that Academy voters love, and from everything I have heard it is a terrific film.  Definitely one to watch.

Code Black
Code Black was distributed by The Long Shot Factory, and while the film isn't necessarily a long shot, it's also not a favorite.  The film looks at the happenings of an emergency room, using the action to indict the American health care system.  While Academy voters have supported films of this subject, health care is not at the top of their minds the way it was before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.  There is still just as much to be outraged about in American health care, but unless this film is truly great (I have not seen it), this doesn't seem to be an Academy-favored subject.

Keep On Keepin' On
I am a huge jazz fan and occasional jazz writer, so a nomination for a documentary about the great Clark Terry working with prodigy Justin Kauflin would please me greatly.  Keep On Keepin' On has been picking up hardware on the awards circuit, but it isn't likely to get an Oscar nomination, especially with arts-centered films like Life Itself in the mix.  Still, this is the documentary I most want to see.

A film about saving the mountain gorillas of Congo produced by Leonardo DiCaprio?  This film has everything going for it: an environmental theme and major star power.  This film is amongst the strongest contenders for a nomination, especially if DiCaprio and Netflix put their weights behind it.

Happy Valley
When the Academy rewards sports-themed films, they look for feel good stories.  Happy Valley documents the recent Penn State scandal, exactly the opposite of what the Academy likes.  It's hard to imagine a depressing documentary about college sports in rural Pennsylvania getting much love from Oscar voters.

Kids for Cash
Unlike Happy Valley, this Pennsylvania-set film is more in the wheelhouse of the Academy: an outrageous story of corruption and injustice perpetrated on children.  Kids for Cash is neither a lock nor a long shot, but it is easy to see the film outraging Academy voters enough to pick up a nom.

The Great Invisible
The Great Invisible picked up the Grand Jury Award at South by Southwest, instantly making the film an Oscar contender.  It's a meticulously produced expose of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, looking at both the damage perpetrated on the environment and Gulf Coast residents who rely on the Gulf waters for their livelihoods.  I'd be surprised if The Great Invisible isn't nominated.

Jodorowsky's Dune
Ever heard of the cult Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky?  Neither have all but the most avant-garde Academy members.  This film details the filmmaker's aborted attempt to adapt Dune for the screen.  If the much more accessible Lost in La Mancha couldn't get nominated, it's unlikely Jodorowsky's Dune can.

Alive Inside
As mentioned earlier, the average age for Academy voters as of 2012 was 62, and films about the aging tend to get noticed by the Academy.  Alive Inside was given the Audience Award at Sundance, and an inspiring look at the benefits of music therapy for senior citizens.  If the category is dominated by emotionally draining, hard-hitting films, look for Alive Inside to eke out a nomination.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Backdraft (1991)

3 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing - Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns
Nomination: Best Effects, Visual Effects - Mikael Salomon, Allen Hall, Clay Pinney, and Scott Farrar
Nomination: Best Sound - Gary Summers, Randy Thom, Gary Rydstrom, and Glenn Williams

Firefighter GIF

I was seven years old when Backdraft was released, and though my parents - in a rare but understandable moment of parental censorship - did not allow me to see the film, I lost many nights of sleep while dreaming of my house burning in the fires shown in the trailer for Backdraft and experienced at the Backdraft attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.  While countless films and television shows have had scenes of dramatic fires since Backdraft, none have felt as real or dangerous. 

One of the best remembered (and most ridiculed by real firefighters) lines from Backdraft comes from Robert De Niro's character Donald Rimgale: "(Fire is) a living thing.  It breathes, it eats, and it hates."  Yes, this line is goofy and overtly anthropomorphic, but it accurately describes the film's fires.  The team of Mikael Salmon, Allen Hall, Clay Pinney, and Scott Farrar did outstanding work in creating the film's fire scenes.  Though computer-generated effects can offer cinematic experiences that could never be produced by conventional effects, there's something about traditional effects that hasn't yet been replicated by computers.  The fire scenes are dramatic in large part because the audience knows that real people are running through the fires as the scene is being filmed.  Yes, they are stuntmen, but they are in much more danger than an actor in front of a green screen.  Director Ron Howard and the effects team, working with the sound effects team of Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns, do wonderful work together in creating suspenseful, exciting, and oddly beautiful action sequences.

The scenes without fires, however, were not nearly as successful.  One of the film's very first decisions - casting Kurt Russell in the dual roles of a father and a son - left me questioning Howard's judgment, and the bad decisions keep coming.  William Baldwin's performance is easily mockable, the motivations behind the actions of characters are as silly as they are confusing.  The film's biggest issue is that there are just too many plotlines, causing the film to wander.  I loved De Niro's Rimgale, and would have gladly watched a film about his inspections of fires.  Donald Sutherland is equal parts campy and scary, and J.T. Walsh is as great as always.  Each of these characters could have been the protagonist of a film, and it's hard not to get the sense that any of these films would have offered a more compelling story than Backdraft.  

The main story of the film, the rivalry and battles between brothers Steven and Brian (Russell and Baldwin, respectively), isn't terribly interesting.  We've seen these brotherly battles before and since, and there are no surprises here.  I always enjoy Kurt Russell, and his screen presence is undeniable, but with a weak script and a co-star that is fighting far above his weight class, Russell can't do much.

The structure is a mess, the acting is uneven, and the personification of fire all drag the film down.  Yet with the one-two punch of unforgettable action sequences and the gifted trio of De Niro, Sutherland, and Walsh, I'll never change the channel when Backdraft is on TV.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis
Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Cinematography - Bruno Delbonnel
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing - Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland

Since watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I have read several glowing reviews and articles about the film, searching for an explanation of what I missed.  The vast majority of critics and thinkers about film, including several who I deeply respect, loved Inside Llewyn Davis, praising the Coen Brothers for the moody and ambiguous nature of this brooding film.  Though I loved a few aspects of the film - especially its musical performances - and take no exception with its two nominations, I still feel that I must be missing something.  I thought Inside Llewyn Davis was a terrible film.

This shouldn't be the case.  I have more Bob Dylan songs in my iTunes library than any other artist, and have many tracks by Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the two primary models for the film's protagonist.  I watched Martin Scorsese's epic Bob Dylan documentary while vacationing in the Bahamas, choosing to watch black and white footage on my iPad rather than gaze at the technicolor beaches.  I blazed through Greil Marcus's often rambling but never boring discourse on Dylan, and have inhaled every tale of the early days of the New York folk scene.  This was a film that was made for me, and yet I hated it.

Joel Coen said, perhaps speciously, that the film "doesn't really have a plot," which is why they "threw the cat in," referring to an ongoing element of the plot in which Llewyn loses his friends' cat.  It's hard to know if Coen was just being glib, and he and his brother have certainly made similar dismissive comments about their other films.  Yet the comment is all too true regarding Inside Llewyn Davis.  The lack of a plot isn't the problem, it's the thrown in elements.  We are left to watch Llewyn wander, sabotaging himself and making more poor choices than a prom queen in a slasher film.  We don't know what drives these self-destructive choices, we don't know why he's making the choices, and, as a result, we don't care about the choices.  Something meaningful is clearly happening to Llewyn, but we're never let in on the secret.

The film would be almost completely unwatchable if it weren't for Bruno Delbonnel's moody cinematography and the wonderful music produced by T Bone Burnett.  When a film features musicians as its subjects, the importance of the music is elevated, and T Bone Burnett was both the obvious and perfect choice to handle the film's music.  The recurring folk standard "Dink's Song" is lovely throughout, and is at its best when duetted by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.  Several other songs are simultaneously evocative of their era and completely original, but "Please Mr. Kennedy" is by far the most memorable.  Sung by Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver, the song is a desperately needed moment of levity in the film, and one of the film's true delights.  

The Coen Brothers are never boring, and I have always found their worst films compulsively watchable.  Inside Llewyn Davis made me question this.  The film is saved, to an extent, by its music; without the Cafe Wha?-esque music, I'm not sure I could have made it through Inside Llewyn Davis.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)

Johnny Knoxville in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Photo Courtesy Paramount Pictures

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling: Stephen Prouty

Had Stephen Prouty won the Academy Award for his work on Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, it would have supplanted Three 6 Mafia's victory for the song "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" as the oddest victory in Oscars history.  Sadly, we missed out on this opportunity for true weirdness when the Academy gave the nod to Adruitha Lee and Robin Matthews for Dallas Buyers Club, the only "serious" film of the three nominees.

What is interesting about the makeup work in Bad Grandpa is that it is the only one of the three nominees, and one of the few films ever made, to have actual and tangible proof of the success of its makeup work.  Bad Grandpa is the type of fake documentary that puts a made-up character in the real world, and thus the reactions of everyone except the film's stars are genuine.  While we don't know how many of the people approached by Johnny Knoxville saw through his disguise, we know that at least several people were fooled by Prouty's makeup, even while standing just a few feet from Knoxville.

Yet despite its realism, Prouty's work was in no way deserving of the Oscar, and not just because of the moronic film of which it was a part.  While the work is technically impressive, there have been countless films that have successfully employed aging makeup, and Bad Grandpa doesn't push the form forward in any meaningful way.  While Knoxville's transformation was impressive, it doesn't compare to the transformation of Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger or Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club.

At this point in my review, I am pretty proud of the fact that I have written three paragraphs and included just one reference to the lameness that is Bad Grandpa.  I don't see myself as one of the stuffy old critics unable to appreciate the juvenile humor of the film.  In fact, I am a member of the generation reared on Jackass, and I will gladly admit that I have often laughed at their stunts.  However, what is successful in a brief television show often is not successful in a feature film, and the humor from seeing a fake old man act grossly wears thin all too quickly.

I found myself thinking about Borat, a film that I loved with a similar premise: an actor plays a character who acts inappropriately in real-world situations, causing actual people to respond with horror.  I started to wonder how I could love Borat but hate Bad Grandpa.  Was it just that the jokes were funnier?  That seemed too simple.

The truth is, Bad Grandpa and Borat are very different films, despite their seeming similarities.  Borat is a complete joke, while Bad Grandpa is just a setup without a punchline.  What makes Borat so funny isn't just the ridiculous things he do, but the reactions that his behavior solicits.  The character of Borat is so disarming that the people Sacha Baron Cohen interacts with slowly begin to reveal who they truly are.  This moment, in which people show a side of their true selves to the camera, is where the best humor of Borat comes from.  Yes, his ridiculous questions to his driving instructor about women driving are funny.  But the punchline isn't Borat's questions, but the reveal of who the instructor really is through his response.  Bad Grandpa, on the other hand, finds little humor in the response.  Most of the people that Knoxville interacts with just look at him with horror or laugh uncomfortably.  Yes, Knoxville's behavior and dialogue is ridiculous and sometimes funny, but without a meaningful response, it's just a setup with no punchline.

It has been awhile since I've seen Borat, and if nothing else, I'm glad Bad Grandpa made me recall and appreciate that far superior film.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Captain Phillips (2013)

Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips. Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures

6 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Motion Picture of the Year - Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, and Michael De Luca
Nomination: Best Performance By an Actor in a Supporting Role - Barkhad Abdi
Nomination: Best Achievement in Film Editing - Christopher Rouse
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Editing - Oliver Tarney
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing - Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, and Chris Munro
Nomination: Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay - Billy Ray

I expected to hate Captain Phillips.

I'm not sure why this was the case.  There might not be a working actor with a better "lifetime batting average" than Tom Hanks (though Larry Crowne was bad enough to impugn his credibility for awhile), Paul Greengrass is a talented director with a strong individual voice, and the true story of Captain Richard Phillips is the stuff of which great suspense films are made.  Maybe it was the bland title of the film, the long running time, or my reluctance to sit through any film in which a non-New Englander attempts to perform the accent.  If nothing else, the name Billy Ray on the screenplay should have been enough to give me faith in the film, as Ray wrote and directed two of my favorite political suspense films of the past few decades, Breach and Shattered Glass.  While my concern about the film's running time was well founded, the filmmaking team behind Captain Phillips more than assuaged the rest of my films, and Captain Phillips was one of the films of 2013 that I most enjoyed.

Captain Phillips is really two films.  The first is the story of the takeover of the Maersk Alabama by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his team of Somali pirates and the response of Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew.  This section takes up approximately half of the running time, and Ray's script beautifully and methodically reveals the characters through the rising action.  Lesser screenwriters write two kinds of scenes: scenes that move the plot forward and scenes that develop characters.  Like the best writers, nearly every scene in Ray's screenplay does both.  Christopher Rouse's editing is superb in these scenes, and the first half of the film flies by with Rouse's editing and Greengrass's sharp direction.

The second half of the film begins (minor spoiler alert to follow) once the attempt to trade the captive Muse for Phillips is botched, resulting the pirates escaping with Phillips as their hostage onto a lifeboat. Though there are some wonderful moments of suspense and emotional drama in these scenes, the film loses its momentum.  The suspense of these scenes is not nearly as intense as in the first half of the film.  The script shifts its focus from the relationship between Muse and Phillips to a greater focus on "Will Captain Phillips survive or not?"  Because Captain Phillips is based a true story and Phillips was prominent in the news after the highjacking, the suspense of the film evaporates.  Hanks, however, is brilliant in these scenes, portraying deep vulnerability even as he performs the bravest of acts.  His final scene of the film is one of the great moments of a legendary acting career, and in another year might have been enough to secure him his sixth Academy Award nomination.

The revelation of the film is Barkhad Abdi, appearing in his first film after previously working in mobile phone sales and limousine driving.  Abdi is an untrained actor, but I never would have guessed this if not for the fact that it was mentioned a thousand times in the month before the Academy Awards.  Abdi walks with a natural swagger that belies his slight frame, yet also shows a vulnerability similar to that of Hanks.  This is the type of role that is probably going to be career-defining rather than career-making, but Abdi is brimming with talent and will hopefully continue to find opportunities to develop as an actor.

Phillips and Muse are two men who have very few choices available to them to support themselves and their loved ones, and though the film never forgives the acts of piracy and violence, it does successfully provide context to the actions of the pirates that elevate them from stock villains to developed characters.  This allows them to be fully realized foils to Phillips, and the interactions between the men provide just as much suspense as the film's most action-oriented scenes.

Captain Phillips didn't have much of a chance in the technical categories, with Gravity dominating the below-the-line awards.  I can't argue with the voting of the Academy.  Captain Phillips was the second or third best in each of the six categories for which it was nominated, but wasn't the best in any category.  Rouse's editing work is the one possible exception to this, but it's hard to argue with the absolutely brilliant editing work by Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger for Gravity.

If you can ignore the bland title and the occasionally suspect accent voiced by Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips is a wonderful and memorable film well deserving of the six Oscar nominations it received.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer from 20 Feet from Stardom
Photo Courtesy

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Documentary, Features

It has long been a truism that if you are having difficulty picking the winner of either the Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject in your Oscar pool, choose the film that deals with the subject of the Holocaust or AIDS.  Rather than judging the film that best documents its subject, the Academy has a tendency to reward the film that tackles the most serious subject.

For this reason, it has been surprising that the Academy has bestowed its Best Documentary Feature award to crowd-pleasing documentaries about musicians for the past two years, first to Searching for Sugar Man and then to 20 Feet From Stardom.  While I thought that Searching for Sugar Man was an enjoyable but underwhelming documentary and that the Oscar should have gone to David France's How to Survive a Plague, 20 Feet From Stardom is an absolutely wonderful documentary that is much deeper and it first appears to be.

20 Feet from Stardom Poster
Photo Courtesy of
Director Morgan Neville, a veteran of documentaries on the subject of music (he has made documentaries about Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, and Stax Records), both follows the current lives and documents the long careers of several of the most notable backup singers in the history of popular music, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Taga Vega, and several others.  These women, though largely unknown to the majority of music lovers, have played essential roles in some of the most significant records ever made, with perhaps the best example being Merry Clayton's searing vocals on "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones.  Neville documents how these women came to become unknown legends of the music industry, the significant challenges they faced as they grew older and the music industry evolved, and celebrates their accomplishments.

But while the film at first seems to be merely an attempt to rectify the lack of attention these women have received by celebrating their contributions to music on film, Morgan Neville uses this story to explore the idea of how our dreams evolve as we get older, and how we either adapt or fail to respond to the unexpected directions our lives takes us.  None of the women profiled in this film set out to be backup singers, and each did so only to support themselves while they continued to seek their own stardom.  As the title suggests, these women stood a mere twenty feet from the stars they sang behind, but so much more separated them than physical distance.  For whatever reason, these women never became the superstars that they believed they would become, and it certainly wasn't due to a lack of talent, as they were more talented than many of the stars they supported.  As Sting explains in the film, to become a star requires more than just talent and hard work, and there is some essence that these women just did not have.

As their own attempts at stardom faltered, some of the women were able to accept this about themselves and were content to be great backup singers, while others could never give up on their dream of becoming true stars.  Few people achieve exactly what they dreamed they would when they were young, and we all to some degree accept unexpected roles for ourselves and must decide how we will respond.  While few of us achieve our exact dreams, few get even 20 feet from these dreams, and what these women accomplished and the legacies they made for themselves are truly incredible.

20 Feet from Stardom is a celebration of the amazing careers of these women, even if these careers are far different from what they dreamed of for themselves.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Interview with Academy Award Nominee Jeffrey Karoff, Director of CaveDigger

Jeffrey Karoff, Director of CaveDigger, in a Ra cave
Jeffrey Karoff, Academy Award nominated director of CaveDigger

Of all of the Academy Award nominated films I watched last year, none surprised me more than Jeffrey Karoff's CaveDigger, nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject.  Prior to watching the film, I was unaware that the art of cavedigging even existed, let alone that there was a practitioner capable of such awe-inspring beauty as what the film's protagonist Ra produces.  Karoff's film is unlike anything I have seen before, and I give it my highest possible recommendation.  CaveDigger can be viewed on Amazon, Vimeo, and iTunes.  Links to all three formats are available here.

Jeffrey Karoff was generous enough to speak with me about CaveDigger and his experience as an Academy Award nominee.  

First, can you briefly tell me a little bit about CaveDigger, how you found out about Ra's work, and why you decided to tell this story?

I met two of the principal characters in the film, Shel and Liz, during the time they'd commissioned a Paulette cave and while Liz was battling cancer. The cave in progress was astonishing and its sheer visual, visceral impact made it seem ripe subject matter for film. But even after I launched into the filmmaking I wasn't sure what story I was telling beyond the glory of Ra's work. It wasn't until I was well into the process that I stumbled upon a recurring theme that included Shel and Liz's consternation with Ra's process, and an age-old artist/patron conflict.

At what point after you started screening CaveDigger did you start to realize that an Academy Award nomination was a real possibility? 

Ra in his cave, from Oscar nominee CaveDigger

Never. I was entering a lot of festivals and completing the Academy qualifications was really a continuation of that festival-entry process.  I knew that CaveDigger was the kind of serious subject matter that the Academy might appreciate, so it wasn't entirely a Hail Mary, but I didn't actually think it would be nominated. But there was a turning point that led me to submit the film: At my very first screening to an invited audience, another filmmaker, Alex Rotaru, told me I should shorten CaveDigger from 47 mins to under 40 and submit it to the Academy as a short because, he said, "...the Academy eats this stuff up." I thought he was smoking crack, and I had no intention of going back into the edit bay after so many months of labor to get it finished. Weeks later, Sandra Ruch, a consultant who was helping me navigate the festival terrain, again suggested I shorten the film to allow it to compete as a short in all festivals. That was the push I needed, and I did so. Shortening the film, obviously, was a terrific idea.

How did you find out you had been nominated for an Oscar?  What was your reaction?

I had a colleague who was at the Academy on the day. She'd told me that she would text me the second she found out, 'yes' or 'no'. The phone buzzed -- my wife looked at the text and broke into tears of joy. I shot it all on my iPhone. It was a stunning day.

Did you attend the pre-Oscar ceremony luncheon for all of the nominees?  This luncheon famously mixes up people from all of the categories at the various tables.  Who did you dine with?  Any good stories from the luncheon?

Just about every nominee, in every category and including me, was at that luncheon. I sat at a table with Jeff Pope, one of the writers from Philomena, and right next to Bradley Cooper, who was kind and funny and interested in my film. He told me a great story about living with his mother, a version of which I heard a few days later on Ellen.

Were you particularly starstruck by anyone at the Oscars?  What was it like to walk the red carpet? 

I'm not starstruck. But I am an admirer and appreciator of talent. I was able to thank personally, for what I consider gifts, Scorsese, Amy Adams, and Roger Deakins. And Bradley Cooper, whose performance in American Hustle was outstanding. I approached all these people at the luncheon, which was more intimate and presented an easy environment in which to interact.

Other than your own film, if you were an Academy member, which of the films in your category would you have voted for?

My favorite was Edgar Barens' Prison Terminal. Important subject matter, sensitively handled. Our culture has a 'throw away the key' mentality about prisoners. Edgar's film humanized even capital criminals. I found the genuine affection amongst the men deeply moving.

What does it mean to you to have the title "Academy Award Nominee" for the rest of your life?

It's not bad. Really not bad.

What's next for you?  Are you working on any films?

I have a couple of doc projects swirling, but for the moment I'm at my day job, directing commercials and fundraising films. I just finished a mini doc for Robin Hood Foundation, a NYC-based philanthropic organization, about New York's immigrant population. They showed it at their annual fundraiser and brought in about $60mil that night.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975)

1 Win, 1 Nomination

Win: Best Documentary, Features - F.R. Crawley, James Hager, and Dale Hartleben

The Man Who Skied Down Everest features one of the most heart-stopping and terrifying sequences I have ever seen on film, in which a man skis 6,600 feet down the tallest mountain on the planet in just two minutes and twenty seconds before falling 1,320 feet and finally arresting his fall just 250 feet from a deadly crevasse.  Unfortunately, that sequence doesn't come for more than an hour into the film, and the first hour isn't terribly compelling despite truly horrendous circumstances that should have led to a far more interesting narrative.

Directors Bruce Nyznik and Lawrence Schiller documented Japan's Yuichiro Miura's incredible effort not only to ski down Mount Everest, but first to ascend it, no small task.  Climbing Mount Everest is a slow and deliberate process in which climbers must methodically climb the mountain, stopping frequently along the way in order to acclimate to the altitude.  This process is depicted in painstaking detail, but because the film doesn't allow the audience to get to know the people on the expedition in a meaningful way, the periods of inactivity grind the film to a dragging pace.  The narrator, Douglas Rain (who should sound familiar to those who have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which he voiced HAL), tells the audience of the dangers and hardships, but this is an example of the pitfall of telling rather than showing.

The 1970 Japan Everest Expedition of which Yuichiro Miura was a part was an ambitious effort to ascend the mountain the mountain's southwest face in addition to Miura's ski, and resulted in one of the worst tragedies in the mountain's history.  Eight Sherpa climbers died in an avalanche during the ascent, and this horrendous event, the reaction of the Sherpa community that followed, and their resolve to carry on are emotional and touching.

Perhaps a more apt title for the film would have been The Man Who Slowly and Methodically Climbed Up Everest and Also Skied Down.  Any successful effort to climb Mount Everest is an exciting event worthy of documenting, but several more recent films have captured this far more successfully than The Man Who Skied Down Everest.  The footage of Miura's descent down the mountain is shocking and jawdropping, but seems almost beside the point after the rest of the film.  Still, the film is worth watching for this sequence alone, and any mountain climbing geek like myself will enjoy The Man Who Skied Down Everest.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Cutie and the Boxer (2013)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Documentary, Features - Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher

Cutie and the Boxer Poster
Photo Courtesy
I've watched a lot of documentaries following the stories of artists, and they almost always follow the same arc: a forgotten or unfairly overlooked artist is on the brink of a new exhibition that will finally earn him or her the recognition he or she has been unfairly denied.  I was previously unaware of Ushio Shinohara's work, and expected that I would spend the 82 minute running time learning that Mr. Shinohara had been unfairly ignored by the art world, but that the film would resolve nicely with a warm critical reception for the octogenarian artist.

Motorcycle Van Gogh by Ushio Shinohara
Photo Courtesy
Cutie and the Boxer did indeed start with a look at the struggles of Ushio Shinohara and end with an exhibition of his work, but there is a whole lot more to this film than the usual narrative.  Widespread acclaim has escaped Shinohara, but it is as much due to his own failings as it is the fickle nature of the art world.  Shinohara put his art above everything in his life, except perhaps alcohol.  His artistic talent has subsumed everything around him, including the considerable talent of his wife Noriko who has sacrificed her own ambitions because of her belief in Ushio's gifts.  Just as the art world is beginning to pay due recognition to Ushio's talents, Noriko dives into her own art, creating work found to be worth exhibiting by the art cognoscenti, but deemed inferior by Ushio.  Noriko loves Ushio and views it as her role to help him to make his work, and even as her anger grows at his dismissal of her talents, she still cannot fully confront Ushio.  Whether this is out of habit, her own insecurity, or her desire to protect Ushio is not clear, but director Zachary Heinzerling offers a remarkably compelling view of a marriage made of equal parts love and admiration.

Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara
Photo Courtesy
Ushio Shinohara has an active and vibrant method of making art that gave the film the second part of its title, a method that perfectly lends itself to film.  Instead of watching a painter slowly and deliberately consider a canvas, we watch a small, elderly man violently and joyfully punching a canvas covered in paint.  Ed Harris had a similar benefit in his film Pollock, but while Jackson Pollock was deliberate as to where he dropped his ink, Shinohara paints like a jazz musician, relying instead on his momentary instincts.  Yet even with the visual nature of the painting scenes, Heinzerling wisely minimized the number of scenes of Shinohara painting/boxing, instead focusing more on his and Noriko's reactions to their successes and failures, and their attempts to survive both.

Cutie and the Boxer is neither a traditional massive crowdpleaser nor a depressing record of a social injustice, and thus the film had little chance to receive the Best Documentary Oscar, an award that went to 20 Feet From Stardom.  Yet it is likely the most original and personal of the documentaries nominated in its year, and both a crowdpleaser and a record of social injustice in its own unique way.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Lone Ranger (2013)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling - Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua Casny
Nomination: Best Achievement in Visual Effects - Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, and John Frazier

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip

One of the challenges of the Every Oscar Ever project is that my expectations are almost always high at the start of a film.  If the Academy admired the film enough to bestow upon it one or more nominations, then I expect it will be a good film.  Thus, unless a film is truly outstanding, I often find the films I watch for this project falling short of my heightened expectations.

This was never going to be the problem with The Lone Ranger.  The film received withering reviews from critics, earning a 30% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with Rolling Stone's Peter Travers perhaps saying it best: "Your expectations of how bad The Lone Ranger is can't trump the reality."  The fact that the Academy recognized the film in two technical categories did little to raise my expectations for the film, and I turned it on with trepidation.

Well the critics did me a huge favor and made my life a lot easier, because my low expectations allowed me to enjoy The Lone Ranger far more than I could have imagined.  Yes, the framing device was unnecessary and killed the film's pacing; yes, Armie Hammer demonstrated a complete lack of charisma and is fighting several weight classes below his co-star Johnny Depp; and yes, its hard to determine whether the plot or the characters is less developed.  But because I expected every one of these things to be the case in advance of watching the film, I found myself able to accept the film's many limitations and enjoy the few things the film does well, namely the two things the film was recognized by the Academy for.

The visual effects by Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, and John Frazier are pretty spectacular, and the train crashes, a long and proud Hollywood tradition, are the best I have ever seen.  Like Iron Man 3, which I recently reviewed, the film had no chance against the brilliant Gravity despite its wonderful effects, but they are definitely worth seeing.  Similarly, the makeup and hairstyling work by Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua Casny is notable.  The makeup used for Johnny Depp as Tonto was promoted by the studio, but it is the makeup of the old Tonto that is truly impressive.  While the visual effects team had no chance against the Oscar powerhouse that was Gravity, The Lone Ranger was nominated against Academy favorite Dallas Buyers Club and the far less auspicious Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.  Harlow and Casny's work was impressive, but not especially breakthrough or unusual, and I am not terribly surprised that it lost out to Robin Mathews and Adruitha Lee's work for Dallas Buyers Club.

I can't recommend The Lone Ranger, as it really isn't a good movie and is a poor adaptation of a wonderful character.  Still, if you take Calvin's advice and expect the complete disaster described by the majority of critics, you might just enjoy yourself.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ieri, Oggi, Domani (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) (1963)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Foreign Language Film - Italy

Had the producers of Ieri, Oggi, Domani - known in the English speaking world as Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow - released the film as three separate shorts instead of one compilation film, perhaps they could have earned three Oscar nominations in the Best Short Subject Live Action Subjects category, shutting out the competition and guaranteeing themselves an Academy Award.  But even by taking the more conventional route and earning a nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category in a particularly competitive year, Ieri, Oggi, Domani was able to beat out the beloved The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to earn Italy the Academy Award.

Ieri, Oggi, Domani, directed by the legendary Vittorio De Sica and co-starring the equally legendary Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, is a compilation of three short films loosely tied together by the theme of women (each portrayed by Loren) who survive using the tool of sexuality.  Di Sica made his wisest choice in deciding that if anyone could convincingly portray three different sides of a woman's sexuality, it was Loren, perhaps the sexiest actress in the history of film.  My exposure to Loren's work is embarrassingly low, and before this film was limited to Man of La Mancha, and, I hate to admit, Grumpier Old Men.  Though Loren's beauty was obvious, I never understood what the fuss was about, thinking of her as a mediocre actress who relied on her looks.  I now understand just how wrong I was.  Much like Penelope Cruz, Loren is just fine as an actress when working in English, but when working in her native language she is inspired.  Whether playing the "woman next door" Adelina of the first segment, the cold yet glamorous Anna of the second, or the overtly sexual Mara of the third, Loren masterfully and entirely convincingly fills each roll.

A film like Ieri, Oggi, in which the same actors must play different roles, is a particularly challenging effort.  Even many of the best actors are just minor variations of themselves in each of these films, but in the month between their releases we fail to recognize how similar the performances are.  But when two actors are forced to play three different roles with only short title sequences separating the efforts, the performers need to push themselves to make sure that the characters don't bleed together.  As great as Mastroianni is, he can't match Loren in the energy she brings to each of the three roles.  Despite the fact that each character is, in essence, just a different interpretation of the same model, Loren has created three wildly different characters.

The first and third segments of Ieri, Oggi, Domani are lighthearted comedies, amusing but with little real originality, and the second segment is a melodrama of simple beauty.  The film would be largely forgettable, but Loren's verve-filled performance steals the show and singlehandedly won Italy the Oscar.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Iron Man 3 (2013)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Visual Effects - Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, and Daniel Sudick

Iron Man 3 Poster
Photo courtesy Marvel Studios
In nearly every superhero film of the past two decades, the filmmakers have struggled with the scenes of the hero's alter-ego.  Without the crutch of action-filled set pieces, most filmmakers have been unable to make the scenes that drive the plot and characters even remotely watchable.  The first two films in the Iron Man franchise were just the opposite, with the scenes of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark sizzling with witty banter and humor while the big action scenes fell flat.  After the departure of director Jon Favreau from the franchise, Marvel Studios turned to Shane Black, the master of action-comedy screenplays, to direct and co-write the third film in the series.  Though Black doesn't quite match the two previous films in the quality of the non-action scenes or in the screenplay itself, Iron Man 3's action sequences are such an improvement over the first two efforts that it is more than worth the sacrifice.

When I saw the first Iron Man movie, I proclaimed that it was certainly the best superhero film since Tim Burton's first Batman film, and possibly since the first Superman film.  Though the action scenes were not great, Robert Downey Jr. was so perfectly cast as Tony Stark that all they had to do was give him a decent script and a competent director and the Tony Stark scenes would have worked.  Instead of mere competence, they paired Downey with Jon Favreau, a director with a few clunkers under his belt, but one who at his best is capable of smart, funny, and irreverent films.  Unlike the excruciating Daredevil (2003) or the first X-Men trilogy, Iron Man never took itself too seriously.  Downey's Stark never bemoaned his powers like Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man films; he embraced them and had fun with them, and as a result Iron Man was fun as well.

Less than three months after the release of Iron Man, The Dark Knight was released, and there was no doubt in my mind (or most others' minds) that we had a new greatest superhero film, and other superhero efforts sought to follow the dark brooding style of the film.  The sequel to Iron Man still maintained much of its humor and verve, but did appear to pick up some of the moodiness of The Dark Knight.  Downey was still his wonderful, wisecracking self, but Iron Man 2 was a forgettable experience.

Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce went back to the basics for Iron Man 3.  The storyline is simpler and cleaner than the muddled mess of Iron Man 2's script, and Downey spends much of the film outside of his hero uniform, a decision that would send most studios into convulsions.  The decision was a good one, leaving Downey to be Downey.  When Downey does get into his suit, Black shows off some very strong action sequences.  Action scenes are always a challenge in the Iron Man films, since the hero's face can't be seen unless the shot is inside his mask; thus, the filmmaker must always choose between showing action with zero emotion, or showing emotion with zero action.  Black and editors Peter S. Elliot and Jeffrey Ford get the mix just about perfect. 

Of course, the action scenes in a film like Iron Man 3 would be nothing without visual effects, and Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, and Daniel Sudick earned their paychecks with their Oscar nominated effort.  There's nothing we haven't seen before, and the effects can't compare with the game-changing effects of Gravity, but the Iron Man 3 did a tremendous job and the nomination was well deserved.

Read my previous preview of Iron Man 2.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Von Ryan's Express (1965)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Effects, Sound Effects - Walter Rossi

Frank Sinatra Trevor Howard Von Ryan's Express Oscar Academy Award
Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox
April 18, 1966 was a great night for the crews of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago, with the two films combining to win ten Oscars, including five in the technical categories (Color Cinematography, Color Art Decoration-Set Decoration, Color Costume Design, Editing, and Sound).  The only two technical categories in which they were eligible that they did not receive nominations for were the two effects categories: Sound Effects and Special Visual Effects.  This was good news for Sound Effects designers Treg Brown of The Great Race and Walter Rossi of Von Ryan's Express, and the Special Visual Effects designers John Stears of Thunderball and J. McMillan Johnson of The Greatest Story Ever Told, because with only two nomination slots in each category, the absence of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago gave them the openings to earn Oscar nominations in the only two technical categories in which the two films did not take home trophies or even receive nominations.  Unfortunately for Walter Rossi, who received the sole Oscar nomination for Von Ryan's Express, he lost the coin toss in his category and missed out on winning his second Academy Award as Brown took home the Oscar following the sole nomination of his career.

Von Ryan's Express was based on the novel of the same name by David Westheimer, who like his protagonist was shot down over Italy and spent time in a prison camp run by the German Wehrmacht.  Unlike his protagonist, Westheimer did not lead an escape of his fellow prisoners by stealing a train and taking his men to freedom in Switzerland.  The story is an exciting one, and the screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Joseph Landon perfectly mixes tension, action, and comedy to create a very exciting story out of a simple premise.  The only thing they failed to do was to create a compelling lead character, and despite Sinatra's unrivaled screen charisma, Colonel Ryan has no evident personality.  There are scenes early in the film that attempt to set him up as an antihero reminiscent of Paul Newman's Hud, but these aren't developed much further and the resulting character is almost entirely one-dimensional.

Though the supporting characters are equally underdeveloped, the supporting cast is wonderful, particularly Trevor Howard (who I also appreciated in Sons and Lovers) and Edward Mulhare.  Raffaella Carra is seductive in her performance of the poorly contrived Gabriella, but brings little to the role other than her beauty.

Von Ryan's Express is full of scenes of train engines, gunfire, airplanes, and gunfire from airplanes, and thus was all but a lock for a nomination in 1966.  Walter Rossi did outstanding work, and I'm curious to see The Great Race to see what topped him for an Academy Award.

With a more compelling protagonist, Von Ryan's Express could have been a truly wonderful film.  Without one, it is still an enjoyable and well plotted POW escape film, but ultimately it falls short of many of its contemporaries.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Open Heart (2013)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Documentary, Short Subjects - Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern

The Academy is prone to nominating documentaries and documentary shorts that tell amazing, inspiring stories, whether or not the story is told particularly well.  I always hope the Academy will recognize filmmakers who tell their story particularly effectively, rather than rewarding the story itself.  Of course, there are the rare occasions in which content and form excel simultaneously, creating a documentary truly deserving of award recognition.  "Open Heart" is such a film.

Director Kief Davidson tells the story of eight children in Rwanda in need of heart surgery who travel to the Salam Centre for Cardiac Surgery in Sudan.  Davidson details both the brave journey taken by these children, who must travel without their parents and face the surgery alone, as well as the doctors who are simultaneously working to keep the hospital doors open.

As a person with a touch of hypochondria and a low tolerance for pain, it's impossible for me to imagine the bravery required for these children to travel without their parents to face open heart surgery.  When I was their age I was upset if my mom was late picking me up from school, but Davidson elegantly demonstrates the fortitude shown by these children.  That fortitude is nearly matched by their doctors, who battle a lack of governmental support and bureaucratic maneuvering to continue to help these children who have no other access to the health care they need.  Davidson wisely chooses to involve himself in the action as little as possible, recognizing that he was gifted with a beautiful and compelling story and deciding not to "overtell" it.

As much as I was touched by "Open Heart," I agree with the Academy's decision to award the Oscar to  Inocente, one of the best documentary shorts I've seen in years.  Both films tell compelling stories, but the team behind "Inocente" were able to show more creativity in the storytelling due to the nature of the story being told.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Animated Feature Film of the Year: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin, and Christopher Meledandri
Nomination: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song - Pharrell Williams for "Happy"

For anyone with a radio, television internet connection, or just a pair of ears, it's been pretty much impossible to avoid the ubiquity of the Pharrell Williams song "Happy" from Despicable Me 2.  The song is exactly as described, an upbeat Curtis Mayfield throwback capable of making even the most despicable smile.  The song is the perfect match for Despicable Me 2, a charming and upbeat film that has little in the way of drama or story, instead focusing solely on making its audience smile.

At the outset of Despicable Me 2, we find the former supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) enjoying life as a parent, but he seems to have moments where he longs for the excitement of his former life as a villain.  This would be the obvious direction for the sequel, allowing for Gru to return to his attempts at villainy.  Instead, Gru is recruited for a spy mission, allowing him to use his dastardly powers for good.  Gru quickly locks in on the target, and despite resistance from his partner (voiced by Kristen Wiig) and superiors, he is soon proven right.  Sure enough, Gru attempts to stop the target's plot, and has little trouble doing so without any real excitement or ingenuity.  Every character is exactly as they seem, no one has hidden agendas, and no one must make any difficult decisions...for any deviation from this might cause the audience not to be happy.

But despite the lack of story, Despicable Me 2 has one thing going for it, and in a big way: minions.  Universal Pictures struck gold with the breakout stars of the first Despicable Me film, as the minions have stolen the show from the other characters and become the most memorable thing about the Despicable Me franchise.  The minions are wonderfully weird, adorable creatures, and they steal every scene they're in.  The filmmakers clearly knew what they had in the minions when making this film, and while they were used somewhat sparingly in the first film, the minions have been unleashed in the sequel, dominating nearly every scene.  And that's just fine with me.  I was still far from sick of them by the end of the film, and must admit that I'm excited about the upcoming film Minions.  Without the minions, Despicable Me 2 would have been pretty much a total flop, but they make the film watchable and even enjoyable.

Despicable Me 2 was beaten by the Disney smash Frozen in both of its categories.  Despicable Me 2 almost certainly would have fallen short of winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film in another year due to its slightness, but I can't think of a year in recent memory in which "Happy" wouldn't have taken home the trophy.  The Academy loves to reward big hit songs in this category, and "Happy" is a very good and immediately enjoyable pop song that has torched the Billboard charts.  But no song was going to beat Frozen's "Let It Go" this year, and Pharrell Williams will have to comfort himself with his seven Grammys.  With the year he's had, working on "Get Lucky," "Blurred Lines," and the songs from Despicable Me 2, I'm guessing that he is indeed quite happy.

All Is Lost (2013)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Editing - Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns

This past year, Academy voters fell in love with a film telling the story of an individual fighting for survival in the most dire of circumstances in an escape vehicle after the destruction of a ship.  Unfortunately for J.C. Chandor and team behind All Is Lost, this film was Gravity.  While the Academy rewarded Gravity with ten nominations and seven Oscars, it almost completely ignored the similarly themed All Is Lost, granting it just a single nomination for sound editing.

Many were surprised by the lack of recognition by the Academy for All Is Lost, with many expecting a nomination for Robert Redford, perhaps none more than Mr. Redford himself, who blamed the distributors for poor distribution and a lackluster Oscar campaign.  However, the true reason why All Is Lost found little recognition from the Academy is far simpler: it didn't deserve to.

All Is Lost is far from a bad movie, in fact I enjoyed it quite a bit.  The film is largely a silent film with only one character, and the film moves at the most brisk pace imaginable, with the boat's first accident coming just after the film's opening voiceover.  The successes of the film are due nearly entirely to Redford's acting and Chandor's directing.  Redford is one of the all time great movie stars, and All Is Lost is the best performance he has given in many years.  Few actors are able to convey much emotion without dialogue for even a few minutes, let alone a whole film, and fewer still are able to do so without resorting to cheap theatrics or overacting.  The few recent successes of actors alone on screen that come to mind - Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Tom Hanks in Cast Away - still allowed for the actors to interact with imaginary figures, a returned George Clooney in the former and Wilson in the latter.  There are no such moments in All Is Lost, with Redford's character focusing entirely on his survival, calmly and rationally.  Redford demonstrates the skills of an expert sailor, at least to my non-sailing eyes, and never waivers from his focus or resolve until shortly before the end of the film.  Yet while the lack of emotional theatrics is admirable, All Is Lost goes too far, and there's little for the audience to connect to on an emotional level.  While I was tense throughout Gravity as I considered Bullock's character's fate, I had no investment in the outcome of Redford's character.  Because he has no backstory, no personality outside of his calm expertise, and even no name, there is nothing other than Redford's commanding presence to make the audience care one way or the other whether he lives or dies.  For a survival movie, this is critical, and without it I found myself just wondering when the next calamitous event would come.  For an ocean survival movie, one expects storms, leaks, and sharks, and all three occur with little originality.  With nothing unique about the story and no emotional connection with the main character, viewing All Is Lost is ultimately a hollow experience.

The fact that the film had no character development or plot, yet still held my interest, is a testament to Chandor's direction.  I was a fan of his previous film Margin Call, which gained him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and was impressed by his restrained direction in All Is Lost.  Film shoots on water are notoriously difficult, and it's hard to create and maintain visual interest in one man on a raft, even if that man is Robert Redford.  Chandor holds back from anything flashy, and his direction is smart and subtle.

The film received its sole Academy Award nomination for its sound editing, and the work done by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns is well deserving of its nomination.  The rumbling of the storms and the crashing of the waves sound great, but it's the creaking of the boat that really stands out.  Sound is at its most important in a film largely without dialogue, as audiences will notice the sound far more than in a conventional film.  Boeddeker and Hymns rose to the challenge and did top-notch work on All Is Lost, and their nomination was well deserved.

I would not have been surprised if Redford had been nominated for his performance in All Is Lost, and I understand his frustration at the lack of nomination.  Still, it was a tough year in his category, and despite his unrivaled presence, with little character development in the script and no chance to show any emotions other than steady resilience, Redford was failed by the decisions of the screenwriter, not the distributors or the Academy.