My Prediction of the 90th Major Oscar Winners, 2018

February 19, 2018

Well, when Hollywood is getting ready for its biggest yearly party early next month, one can not forget that to Hollywood the past year was extremely dramatic and tumultuous, to say the least. First we saw the downfall of one of Hollywood’s most powerful men, czar of independent cinema, Harvey Weinstein. It was almost unimaginable just a few months ago that he and his company would be completely shut out at the upcoming party. Then, in connection to this dramatic development, we experienced the tremendous uproar of the #MeToo movement that spread virally on social media, targeting at the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. This also has an enduring impact on how people chose their Best Picture candidates, reacting more viscerally to the subjects that feature the marginal and suppressed groups. This year’s top contenders, namely The Shape of Water and Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, benefit from these events in Hollywood.

Besides the above, this year’s Oscar nominations also show a love for historical pieces. We have two films that are almost overlapping in their treatment of historical events: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. There are also three other films that loosely fall into this category: Call Me By Your Name (d. Luca Guadagnino, story taking place in 1980s Italy), The Post (d. Steven Spielberg, story about 1970s’ publication of the Pentagon Papers), and Phantom Thread (d. Paul Thomas Anderson, story taking place in post-war London’s couture world). In other words, there are only three films (out of 9) featuring stories that roughly take place in contemporary period: Lady Bird (coming of age story), Get Out (inventive genre mix), and Three Billboards. I think this will be also the trend in the following years, as historical pieces tend to be less controversial and less ambiguous in morality.

After finishing my self-imposed annual watching obligation, I came up with the following major predictions, two weeks ahead of the official ceremony and announcement:

Best Picture:

To be frank, the one (out of the 9 nominated films) I like best is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. I thought Nolan has created something quite new and fresh, something that is not only cinematic, but physically inviting as well. I call this “cinema of experience,” meaning that, whereas storytelling is still a purpose, it is more interested in getting the audience involved, both intellectually, emotionally and physically, in the narrative. Unfortunately, Academy members may not agree with my judgement, and they will overwhelmingly vote for either The Shape of Water or Three Billboards. This year’s battle from the very beginning is the one between these two, and I hope this time The Shape of Water will win, although Three Billboards appears to have gained momentum recently, winning BAFTA and re-enacted in the aftermath of the recent Florida school shootings. I don’t dislike Three Billboards, but I just feel it drags on a bit too long and almost becomes aimless toward the end. It also lacks Coen brothers’ dark humor. Fargo and No Country for Old Man are far more superior than this one.

Best Director:

I said this last year: “in the past several years, there has been a separation between the Best Film and Best Directing awards, a trend not necessarily healthy. The most controversial upset was when Ang Lee became the first non-white person to ever win the Best Director at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, but his Brokeback Mountain lost out to Crash.” But this separation once again happened last year, with Damien Chazelle winning the Best Director award but La La Land losing the Best Picture title to Moonlight. Will it happen again? Early indication seems to point to that direction, and it may end very much like this: Guillermo del Toro, one of the “Three Amigos,” winning the Best Director title (a sure thing) and Three Billboards winning the Best Feature title. I hope, it is only a hope, this trend stops this year. Let’s see how the story unfolds… Fingers crossed.

Best Actor in a leading role:

Despite recent rumors about his troubled marriages, it is almost 100% certain that Gary Oldman, the British versatile actor, will win this prestigious trophy for his exceptional performance in Darkest Hour depicting Winston Churchill in a historical juncture during WWII. He has won virtually all major acting awards and certainly won’t lose this time, possibly the most important one in his career. I was in London this past fall and had the opportunity to visit Churchill’s War Room, which looks exactly like the one featured in the film. Oldman’s acting helped me re-contextualize my visit and the days Churchill experienced in wartime. Believe me, living underground for an extended period of time is not a pleasant experience, and it takes tremendous courage and sacrifice to stay in that suffocating space. Can you believe Gary Oldman’s application to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) was rejected back in his college days?

Best Actress in a leading role:

Well, this year seems to belong to Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife and versatile actress active not only in film, but also on stage. She has won the Academy award once for her performance in Fargo, and this time she plays a stubborn mother who is determined to revenge the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, sometimes daring to take the law in her own hands. Like Gary Oldman, McDormand has won almost all major acting awards, and the second Oscar seems to be a sure thing. I also liked her acting, but sometimes felt she went a little too far in her acting and is a bit stiff, not as relaxed as that in Fargo. Of course this is only my observation. Maybe I liked Fargo too much. To me, that is a classic very difficult to compete with.

Best Actor in a supporting role:

In this category, only Christopher Plummer could rival Sam Rockwell, who plays a racist white cop in America’s Midwest. Plummer gives the audience a memorable J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World (the role was recast with Plummer after Kevin Spacey’s multiple sexual misconduct allegations), but Sam Rockwell’s role lingers in people’s mind much longer. It is perhaps because Sam Rockwell is known for his fondness for playing unlikable characters, this time a seemingly retarded but racist small-town cop whose only inspiration comes from his equally slow-minded mother. This is a character every one loves to hate, and it is no small matter for an actor to exactly convey this kind of feeling through the big screen.

Best Actress in a supporting role:

This year there are two strong mother characters on the screen, Laurie Metcalf’s in Lady Bird and Allison Janney’s in I, Tonya. Both are equally memorable and strong-willed, and both are coming from the working class background. Their problems lie in the fact that their daughters are equally strong willed and oftentimes rebellious. The Laurie Metcalf character, a nurse, has to curtail her daughter’s ambition, but the Allison Janney’s character, a waitress, uses every possible means to nurture her daughter’s ambition. In the latter case, the result is disastrous, whereas in the former case, the result is a little manageable. Comparatively speaking, the Allison Janney character is looming larger over her daughter’s career. Her towering presence can be felt almost everywhere in Tonya Harding’s life. I remember vividly when the incident happened, as I was in Los Angeles at that time and followed almost every detail of the story unfolding on TV. I don’t remember the coverage ever mentioned that Tonya has such a bitchy “helicopter” mother.

Best Animated Feature:

This is almost unanimous. I think every Academy member will vote for Pixar’s Coco. It is politically correct, as the story takes place in Mexico, a country/culture the Trump administration would like to wall off, and has repeatedly insulted. But it is more than politically correct to vote for this animated feature, as it is both artistically outstanding and visually mesmerizing. Most important, the story is universally touching and cross-culturally understandable. It was warmly embraced by people old and young when it played in China, and many of my friends actually started to research the culture of Mexico, and planned to travel to Mexico to experience the culture in the near future. I think the animated feature also made people less agonizing when their family members pass away.

Best Foreign Language Film:

Well, I had a hard time nailing down my choice. The five nominated films, Russia’s Loveless, Chile’s A Fantastic Woman, Lebanon’s The Insult, Sweden’s The Square, and Hungary’s On Body and Soul, each has its own unique traits and merits, but none of them really stands out as the front runner or unequivocal choice. It is unlike the previous years, when a single film always stood out. So, it’s everyone’s game and nothing is strange if the winning film ends to be Hungary’s On Body and Soul (uncomfortably bloody sometimes) or Chile’s submission (uneven). In comparison, just in comparison, I like Russia’s Loveless, as this film is more solid from the beginning to the end, whereas films like The Square begin with a promising premise but almost fall apart in the middle or in the end. In other words, nothing is very exciting about this category. This is in dramatic contrast to the previous years. I just hope this year is an exception rather than a norm.

Best Visual Effects:

This trophy should go to the all-time classic: Blade Runner 2049. As a matter of fact, I think this sci-fi ought to occupy a Best Picture nod, as in the future, time and again we will come back to this film when we talk about/teach cinema. The world it created is simply stunning. I mean it is both visually stunning and philosophically thoughtful, and the latter is not always easy to achieve. People may find it slow-paced and hard to follow from time to time, but it is truly a masterpiece, more unforgettable than Ridley Scott’s first one. If making a dead actor alive again on the big screen is not an easy task (Rogue One: A Star War Story), then it is equally challenging to present a world that only exists in people’s imagination. Blade Runner 2049 has successfully made this possible.

The 90th Academy Awards will be televised live from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, March 4, 2018 beginning at 5:30pm PT or 8:30pm ET on ABC, hosted again by Jimmy Kimmel. I hope last year’s stunning screw-up won’t happen again this time.

Advertisements

My Prediction of the 89th Major Oscar Winners, 2017

February 20, 2017

oscars2017-best9

Those who still have a fresh memory of last year’s Oscars are at least assured that this year’s nominations are exempt from the label of “color-blind” or “being whitewashed,” for three of the nine Best Picture nominations directly deal with the racial issue in the United States: Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences. Whereas Moonlight is set in contemporary period, the other two are set in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when the issue of race started to surface in American consciousness and would eventually erupt in the civil rights movement. In addition, Lion tells the story of an adopted Australian who desperately wants to reconnect himself with the place of his origin: India, and Hell or High Water is not only a story about two brothers’ desperate act to save their mother’s ranch, but also a story about two Texas rangers’ longtime friendship, and one of them is a native American.

This year’s Oscar nominations are also diverse in genres. We have a war film, a sci-fi, a musical, a Western, a film adapted from a well-established stage play that looks very much like a Shakespearean play, and two coming-of-age stories. Also, for the first time in my memory (might be wrong), the Weinstein company did not win many nominations, only six for the less promising feature Lion (including adapted screenplay and best supporting actor), a blow to the company’s legendary indie “godfather” Harvey Weinstein.

After finishing my self-imposed annual watching obligation, I came up with the following major predictions, a week ahead of the official ceremony and announcement:

Best Picture:

La La Land (2016) Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Well, not a single reason can justify why a film that wins 14 nominations, a significant tie in Oscar’s history (tying the record set in 1950 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve and in 1998 by James Cameron’s Titanic), shouldn’t be the Best Film of the year. Yes, I am talking about La La Land. Every indication points to the final moment of the Oscar ceremony when La La Land is crowned with this trophy. Yes, it looks like a old-fashioned musical, but who does not love this slightly narcissistic retro-film that looks at the la la land  so romantically yet so heart-broken? Hollywood now and then loves to look at its self reflection. Remember The Artist several years ago?  Yes, La La Land is The Artist of 2017, and the only difference is that the latter is from the POV of a French, whereas the former is a tribute to Hollywood and the city of Angeles from the eyes of an American young man.

Best Director:

damienIn the past several years, there has been a separation between the Best Film and Best Directing awards, a trend not necessarily healthy. The most controversial upset was when Ang Lee became the first non-white person to ever win the Best Director at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, but his Brokeback Mountain lost out to Crash, a story about race relations in Los Angeles. I don’t think the same will happen this year. Damien Chazelle, a Harvard graduate, will win the Best Director title for La La Land. Despite his young age (born in 1985), Chazelle has already shown his exceptional talent in Whiplash, particularly in the areas of film music and rhythm. La La Land cements Chazelle’s place in Hollywood history and, in the years to come, people will remember the film as a classic on pal with An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Best Actor in a leading role:

caseyIt was almost 100% certain that Casey Affleck, Ben Affleck’s younger brother, would win this prestigious trophy for his exceptional performance in Manchester by the Sea until Denzel Washington won the Best Actor award at SAG for his equally memorable performance in Fences. Now Denzel is the one to beat and Casey Affleck is considered an underdog. Although I admire Denzel’s role as a black street cleaner in 1950s’ America, I think the title should go to Casey Affleck, who conveys a man’s sadness and melancholy in such a subtle yet powerful way that few people could match. Manchester by the Sea is in fact a one-man show. Without Casy’s exceptional performance, the film would be far less powerful and emotionally absorbing. I could be wrong, though. Maybe the Academy members will choose Denzel instead, who is more charismatic and eloquent.

Best Actress in a leading role:

emma-stoneWell, this year belongs to Emma Stone. For some reason, her big eyes are mesmerizing and intoxicating. I think this is the very reason as to why she has won almost all the major acting awards since last year, and the only exception was the Golden Globe, at which French actress Isabelle Huppert was surprisingly crowned for her performance in Elle. This won’t happen at the Oscars, though, as SAG just gave the title to Emma Stone. Too bad her former lover Andrew Garfield, despite being nominated, could not share the stage with her with a Best Actor trophy in his hands.

Best Actor in a supporting role:

aliMy favorite in this category is Michael Shannon, who plays an about-to-die Texas ranger in the Western Nocturnal Animals. If he does not win, then the next one on my list is the veteran actor Jeff Bridges, who also plays a Texas ranger in Hell or High Water. Maybe that’s because I have a soft spot for Westerns, or maybe the two actors have perfectly captured the rawness of the Texas landscape with their acting style. Despite my personal preference, I think this title will go to Mahershala Ali, as many signs, including the SAG award in the same category, indicate he will be the winner. I liked Ali’s poetic and subtle depiction of a Miami African American, but I think his “sudden” and complete absence in the third episode of the main character’s life, “black”, seriously weakens his talented performance as well as his competitiveness (Yes, the audience has no knowledge about where the Ali character has gone in the third part of Moonlight).

Best Actress in a supporting role:

violadavisUnequivocally, this title will go to Viola Davis, who plays a resilient, resolute, yet oftentimes considerate black mother living in 1950s’ racially segregated Pittsburgh. Despite Denzel Washington’s towering presence, she stands out in her own right in the film adaptation of Fences. It is no wonder that she has been crowned for this title at ALL the major awards ceremonies, including the Golden Globe, SAG Award, BAFTA, and Critics Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress. An Oscar trophy will only add one more title to this already successful black lady, yet the most important one, as she has been nominated three times but without a final win.

Best Foreign Language Film:

salesmanIt should and will (I hope) go to The Salesman from Iran, directed by Asghar Farhadi. This is not only because crowning The Salesman will show the moral solidarity of the filmmaker community, and highlight the principle that art transcends the nation, religion, race, and ideology, but more importantly because the film IS the Best among the five nominated ones. It seems Farhadi plans each frame, each shot, and each cut in advance. With extreme care, The Salesman, despite its lack of music, feels like a rhythmic piece with perfect tempo and pulse. This is the sign of a master in the making, and it proves great art could come from a politically restrained or repressive environment, as long as one sticks to his/her principle. Of course, in order to win this title, the “enemy” to beat is Farhadi himself, as he was awarded the same trophy five years ago for his extraordinary directing of A Separation.

Best Animated Feature:

zootopiaPeople of all ages loved Zootopia, and I think this love will translate into the Oscar award. Whereas the love is almost universal, and the animated feature is simply funny, smart, and pleasing to the eyes, the animal world is a lot like the human one, as it replicates the discrimination and social stereotypes of the human world. This is probably the reason as to why many critics also voted for this animated feature. To me, the funniest animal is the three-toed sloth, whose slow-motioned speech and act reminds me of my own traumatic experience at DMV many years ago.

Best Visual Effects:

rogueoneIt should go to Rogue One: A Star War Story. The reason is quite simple: making a dead actor alive again on the big screen is not an easy task, despite the fact that digital technology has made a lot of progress in this area. Rogue One, however, proves that we can, and we will. Here I am quoting Kyle Smith of New York Post: “The greatest special effect in Rogue One isn’t a planet being wiped out or the whizzing dogfights of the rebels’ X-wing fighters. What’s really breathtaking about the new Star Wars movie is the way its technical wizards show they’re close to conquering the final visual effects frontier: the human face.”

The 89th Academy Awards will be televised live from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 26, 2017 beginning at 5:30pm PT or 8:30pm ET on ABC, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.


My Prediction of the 88th Major Oscar Winners

February 16, 2016

oscars2016

I must first confess that I haven’t watched ALL the nominated films this year, particularly the ones in the “Foreign Language category.” This is partly due to the fact that I was not in the states after the nomination list was announced. Despite this, I managed to watch all the major ones on DVD, and felt comfortable to make the following predictions:

Best Picture:

revenantThe eight nominees are decent and deserve our long-lasting attention. But somehow I felt this year’s candidates are relatively weak and not a single one captures my immediate attention and compels me to vote for it (if I was qualified to vote). The one that stands out is once again Mexican American filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. To me, this film goes beyond survival and revenge, but captures the poetic and mysterious (sometimes religious) nature of the grand American West. The only odds against it is that the film is oftentimes bloody and violent, the elements that might turn some Oscar voters (particularly the old ones) off.

Best Director:

oscars201503It’s time to write a book about this cinematic genius called Alejandro González Iñárritu, or more generally about the “Mexican Invasion of Hollywood” (represented by the three “Amigos” active in Hollywood: del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu), a cultural phenomenon that rivals the “German Invasion of Hollywood” in the 1920s. I vote for Alejandro González Iñárritu, because he is not only a filmmaker, but an artist, a poet, and a philosopher as well. I hope the following won’t affect Oscar voters’ decision: if he wins, this is the second consecutive year Alejandro G. Iñárritu receives the best director and best film trophies.

Best Actor in a leading role:

leonardoFinally this year belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio. The inside joke “Dear Academy, why do you hate me?” should eventually evaporate at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony. Leo deserves to have this golden statue and the Academy owes him a great deal for his continuous contribution to the film community. In this category, Leo’s only rival is Eddie Redmayne, who plays the first transgender person in 1920s’ Denmark in The Danish Girl. But Eddie’s disadvantage is actually to compete with himself, meaning that he has to top his depiction of Stephen William Hawking last year in order to win again, which he didn’t.

Best Actress in a leading role:

brie-larsonIt seems none of the nominees in this category stands out as convincingly as its male counterparts. The various awards prior to the Academy Awards, including the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, the Critic’s Choice Award, the Independent Spirit Award, and most notably the SAG Award, indicate that Brie Larson, the relatively unknown actress and singer in Hollywood, will win this trophy. I liked her performance in Room, in which she depicts a kidnapped mother in a strikingly realistic manner. But I also found Saoirse Ronan’s performance in Brooklyn convincing and captivating. For the sake of prediction, though, I go for Brie Larson.

Best Actor in a supporting role:

mark-rylanceIt should be unanimous and unequivocal: the Oscar goes to the British actor Mark Rylance, who portrays a Cold-War Soviet spy in Steven Spielberg’s new feature Bridge of Spies. I didn’t like the film, and thought Spielberg has exhausted his talent and passion in filmmaking after the WWII epic Saving Private Ryan, and there is always a little contrived American moral superiority when he deals with historical subject. Despite this, there is no denying that Mark Rylance’s performance uplifts this otherwise mediocre film. He is calm, restraint, canny, but at the same time smart, dignified, and understanding. It is strange that, just like last year, the “Best Supporting Actor” is usually the easiest to predict and pick (remember last year’s J.K. Simmons in Whiplash?).

Best Actress in a supporting role:

kate-winsletI am still debating on whom I should pick in this category: Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs or Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl? My intuition tells me that Kate Winslet will probably win this title, and it would be a historical moment if Leo presents the golden statue to Kate, a symbolic reunion of the two after their screen romance in Titanic. Just for this reason, I go for Kate Winslet, although Alicia Vikander’s performance is equally unforgettable as a woman painter in The Danish Girl.

Best Animated Feature:

inside-outI think Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out will win. It caused quite a splash among critics when this animated feature came out last summer. Although it is a little too childish, to be able to visualize a girl’s inside thought and emotion and present them on a big screen is itself a marvelous achievement. This is the primitive form of what I call the “brain screen,” meaning that the camera is no longer mainly interested in the depiction of what happens outside a character’s mind, but of what happens inside a person’s mind. Although it is oftentimes simplistic (only a few emotional elements are represented), this animated feature has at least made the initial attempt toward this direction.

Lastly, some general comments: the 88th Academy Awards mark the triumph of big studios, with the 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney, and Warner Brothers receiving 24, 14, and 11 nominations for each. This year’s Oscars is once again not free from controversies, and chief among them is the lack of diversity in its nomination list, or more bluntly, the “White Oscars” phenomenon as many people dubbed it. My reservation, however, is more concerned with the quality of the nominated films. As I said in the beginning, this year’s candidates are relatively weak and far from artistically outstanding. Maybe my expectation is too high, and let’s just enjoy the show, which will be televised live from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 28, 2016 beginning at 5:30pm PT or 8:30pm ET on ABC.


The “Birth” of a Box-Office Monster

July 31, 2015

Los Angeles Times Beijing Reporter Julie Makinen’s article about how the record-setting film Monster Hunt was born reveals the volatile nature of filmmaking in today’s China, which is even true for a seemingly safe and family-friendly live-action/animation hybrid. Here are some excerpts:

China's summer popcorn movie "Monster Hunt," directed by Raman Hui and produced by Bill Kong, becomes the top-grossing Chinese movie of all time, earning more than US$250 million domestically.

China’s summer popcorn movie “Monster Hunt,” directed by Raman Hui and produced by Bill Kong, becomes the top-grossing Chinese movie of all time, earning more than US$250 million domestically.

Monster Hunt (捉妖记), a new Chinese family film that features real-life actors interacting with computer-animated monsters, has shattered box-office records on the mainland this month, earning more than $250 million and becoming the top-grossing Chinese movie of all time.

But about nine months ago, director Raman Hui (许诚毅) was literally in tears, unsure how he would ever bring his dream movie to screen.

The Hong Kong native had considerable Hollywood experience, having worked on DreamWorks Animation films including Antz, Shrek and Shrek 2, and even co-directing Shrek the Third. Yet whatever challenges Hui had faced over the years in dealing with the grumpy green ogre, one major upside of a cartoon leading man like Shrek is that he can never get busted on drug charges and throw an entire production into jeopardy.

That, however, is precisely what happened on Monster Hunt. And how the production bounced back is a remarkable tale of determination and hustle in China’s rough-and-tumble movie market, where box-office receipts are surging but regulations are often vague and unevenly applied.

Produced by Bill Kong (江志强, known for critical and commercial hits such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero), Monster Hunt had finished shooting in 2013. By last summer, the sets had been junked and the special effects were about 70% done.

Then suddenly, Hui’s star, Taiwanese actor and singer Kai Ko (柯震东), was arrested in Beijing in August 2014 and admitted using marijuana. Hui — who had never before directed a movie in China, nor one with live actors on screen — initially figured the situation and attendant bad publicity would just delay the release a little from its planned opening in February 2015, during the prime Chinese New Year holiday.

“My first reaction was, oh … that means I’ll have more time to make the special effects even better,” recalled the bubbly, compact Hui, who looks far younger than his 52 years. “Silly me!”

One day last fall, Hui’s phone rang while he was reviewing some special-effects shots.

It was producer Doris Tse. She and Kong, who had shepherded the project since its inception around 2008, had come to a decision. Morals-minded mainland Chinese authorities seemed unwilling to allow the showing of a film with a drug-using headliner anytime soon. “She called to say, ‘I think we are serious about reshooting,'” recalled Hui.

It would be a massive undertaking costing millions of dollars; they would have to refilm 70% and redo 25% of the special-effects work, call back the cast and crew, find a new leading man and rebuild sets. Kong was hoping it could all be done in time for a July 2015 release.

Hui hung up and went back to work. “After two shots, we looked at one [scene] with no actors, just monsters. And my reaction was, OK, this shot is safe. We don’t have to change this,” he remembered. “Then I started crying. I just burst out in tears.”…

For the whole article about how Hui was able to pull off, please go Here.


My Prediction of the 87th Oscar Winners

February 11, 2015

Oscars2015

With the exception of American Sniper (released by Warner Brothers) and Selma (released by Paramount), this year’s Oscar nomination list showcases a slew of independent features. A celebration of “small films” or “quality films,” Academy members paid little attention to box-office figures and voted overwhelmingly for the ones that are at odds with the taste of ordinary moviegoers, a trend consistent with the previous years when The King’s Speech (2010), The Artist (2011),  Argo (2012), and 12 Years a Slave (2013) garnered Best Picture trophies. Gone are the years like 2004, when Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogywon all the categories (11 of them) for which it was nominated at the 76th Academy Awards. Probably a “backlash” against last year’s winner (12 Years a Slave), black-themed films and artists are conspicuously absent in this year’s nomination list, prompting some to dub the 87th Academy the “Year of White Oscars.”  For better or for worse, there is plenty to celebrate at this special occasion as the results are about to come out. The following are my predictions of the major 87th Oscar winners:

Best Picture:
oscars201502The battle between the “Two Bs,” namely Boyhood and Birdman, is getting more and more intense, with Boyhood just winning the title of the “British Academy Awards” (BAFTA) and Birdman scooping a slew of PGA and DGA awards. Personally I am in favor of Birdman, although I also admire the spirit of the making of Boyhood, a 12-year-long arduous and lonely journey that is both unprecedented and hard to embark on again. But Birdman‘s smart mix of the real and surreal, its unique presentation of the split mind of the protagonist, as well as its hand-held tracking shots make it stand out in this year’s best picture nominees.
First Choice: Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance);
Second Choice: Boyhood

Best Director:
oscars201503Once again, the battle will be waged between the “authors” of the “Two Bs.” For the same reasons, I am in favor of Birdman‘s director Alejandro González Iñárritu, one of the “Three Amigos” who have brought fresh vision and creativity to Hollywood and invigorated the American film industry (the other two being del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón). But there is a high possibility that this category may end up with Richard Linklater winning the trophy, as it is very hard to keep everyone equally involved in the same project in a 12-year span.
First Choice: Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman);
Second Choice: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Actor in a leading role:
oscars201504It will no doubt go to Eddie Redmayne, who portrays the young Stephen William Hawking in The Theory of Everything. As much as I liked Michael Keaton’s schizophrenic acting, this year belongs to Eddie Redmayne. His performance elevated Hawking while at the same time added a flavor of humor and mischievousness. His role in Jupiter Ascending (2015), written and directed by the legendary Wachowskis, is dubbed “dreadful” by many critics. I just hope Academy members won’t even bother to watch this Wachowskis flop before they cast their votes by the 17th of February.
The Oscar Goes to: Eddie Redmayne

Best Actress in a leading role:
Julianne MooreCompared to their male counterparts, this year’s female nominees are relatively weak and less impressive. Despite this, the front runner is clear: Julianne Moore in Still Alice. She depicts a 50-year-old linguistic professor at Columbia University who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The gradual process of mental deterioration is meticulously presented in her dealings with everyday details.
The Oscar Goes to: Julianne Moore

Best Supporting Actor:
oscars201506In this category, no one can top the performance of J.K. Simmons, who portrays a music conductor in Whiplash everyone hates to love. Depending on your perspective, he is either a perfectionist who could whip out your innermost talent, or a sadistic psychopath who could be your worst nightmare. His extraordinary performance almost single-handedly elevated Whiplash to the status of a modern classic. The film is my favorite after Birdman.
The Oscar Goes to: J.K. Simmons

Best Supporting Actress:
oscars201507Meryl Streep is once again nominated, but this category belongs to Patricia Arquette in Boyhood. In a 12-year span, she is aged in real life and on big screen, which makes her on-screen struggle as a single mother all the more convincing and realistic. I still vividly remember her incredible performance as a call-girl-turned-romantic-lover in Quentin Tarantino’s early crime thriller True Romance (1993).
The Oscar Goes to: Patricia Arquette

Best Foreign Language Film:
oscars201508This year’s nominations are dominated by the productions from the former Soviet bloc: Russia’s Leviathan, Poland’s Ida, and Estonia’s Tangerines. The best feature will come out of these three. Personally I favor Poland’s Ida, as it looks at Anti-Semitism during WWII from a unique and entirely fresh angle. Its black and white cinematography is both bold and beautiful. The front runner Leviathan is good, but to me the story drags on a bit too long.
The Oscar Goes to: Ida from Poland

In addition to the above, I also predict that either Big Hero 6 or How to Train Your Dragon 2 (didn’t like it) will win the Best Animated Feature title and Citizen Four will win the Best Documentary Feature trophy. The awards ceremony will be globally televised on ABC (Channel 7), February 22nd, 4pm (Pacific Time) or 7pm (Eastern Time). Let’s see how the results will turn out!


My TV Interview on Chinese Cinema of 2014

February 6, 2015

I was recently interviewed by Los Angeles-based Chinese TV program “LA Living” hosted by Juliette Zhuo, during which we talked about the trends in Chinese cinema of 2014, including the “usual” but still dramatic growth of the Chinese film industry in the past year: box office reaching almost 5 billion US$ (North America: 10 billion US$), number of theater screens reaching 23,600 (North America: close to 40,000), and the largest international market for U.S. films, etc.

For the convenience of non-Chinese speakers, four trends were delineated during the interview: 1) the sustained popularity of romantic comedies/youth films/chic films, as evidenced by Tiny Times IV and The Continent, and many similar “so bad it’s almost good” films; 2) Socially engaged and cinematically daring independent films such as A Touch of Sin and Lou Ye’s Blind Massage; 3) Big-name directors such as Zhang Yimou, John Woo, and Tsui Hark falling in love with historical dramas, with Tsui Hark most successful at the box-office; 4) Hard to categorized filmmaker Jiang Wen releasing his controversial, half-musical-and-half-thriller satire Gone with the Bullets, sequel of his box-office miracle Let the Bullet Fly. It became the most-talked-about work among Chinese movie buffs as the year of sheep draws near.

Part I of the interview was originally aired on LA Channel 18, January 26, 2015 (above, first You Tube link), and Part II (above, second You Tube link) was first aired on January 30, 2015.


Old Gems Brightened SIFF

July 8, 2014

At the end of the Shanghai International Film Festival, which ran from June 14 to 22, 2014, few people cared too much about which film won the Golden Goblet award, who won the best actor and actress titles, but almost everyone was excited about the old films, I mean old Chinese films, they saw at the festival. Digitally restored and remastered, these old flicks brightened the otherwise lackluster films in competition.

Monk Xuanzang on his journey to retrieve Buddhist sutras from India, is tempted by beautiful spider spirits in "Pan Si Dong" or the Cave of the Silken Web.

Monk Xuanzang, on his journey to retrieve Buddhist sutras from India, is tempted by beautiful spider spirits in “Pan Si Dong” or the Cave of the Silken Web.

Top the chart was The Spiders (盘丝洞), a 1927 Chinese silent film produced by the Shanghai Shadow Play Studio, long thought to be lost but recently discovered in the archives of the National Library of Norway (intertitled with both Chinese and Norwegian). It remains a mystery as to how the film traveled to Norway, but according to the National Library of Norway, The Spiders is the first Chinese film to be shown in Norwegian cinemas, a testament to a period when cinema was considered a truly international medium that was not so much bound by national borders and languages. Thanks to the Norwegian government, which not only returned the film to China but also restored the nitrate print and remastered the film digitally, the Chinese audience, particularly film historians and scholars, were able to see this rare gem first-hand. It is of vital importance for China’s ongoing project of re-writing early history (especially Chinese cinema of the 1920s) of Chinese cinema, which has been long neglected and relegated  to a less important position.

Ruan Lingyu plays a young girl, apparently growing up in a rich Shanghai family, in "Love and Duty," a 1931 silent film released before leftism dominated Chinese cinema and culture.

Ruan Lingyu plays a young girl, apparently growing up in a rich Shanghai family, in “Love and Duty,” a 1931 silent film released before leftism dominated Chinese cinema and culture.

Another silent gem was shipped from Taiwan. Titled Love and Duty (恋爱与义务), the 1931 production features China’s silent movie queen Ruan Lingyu, who committed suicide four years later after this film. Ruan shows her versatility and remarkable talent by playing four different roles in the film: a teenage girl full of romantic dreams, a runaway wife enduring hardship with her dream lover, an old woman who must pay the price for her moral betrayal, and a young girl who grows up not knowing the old woman in front of her is really her biological mother. Not tinted by leftist messages, Love and Duty reveals to the audience another dimension of early Chinese cinema. The film’s screening at the Shanghai Film Museum was accompanied by a “benshi” from Taiwan, who provided live narration in addition to live piano performance.

A snapshot of the 4K restored "Stage Sisters" (Xie Jin, 1964), featuring one of the sisters (left) being enlightened by an underground female Communist agent.

A snapshot of the 4K restored “Stage Sisters” (Xie Jin, 1964), featuring one of the sisters (left) being enlightened by an underground female Communist agent.

Behind the restoration of Love and Duty was the magical “brush” of Italy’s  L’Immagine Ritrovata Film Restoration Laboratory in Bologna, which was also responsible for the full 4K restoration of Stage Sisters (舞台姐妹; China, 1964), Xie Jin’s propaganda piece with high historical values. The meticulously restored print actually opened the Shanghai International Film Festival on the 14th of June. The festival also screened another Chinese film restored by L’Immagine Ritrovata, In the Heat of the Sun (阳光灿烂的日子; Jiang Wen, 1994), completed in 2013 for Orange Sky Golden Harvest Entertainment.