Oscar Reflection | Best Picture & Best Director from the 84th Academy Awards

Written by Alexander Reams

The Artist: 42/100

There are some serious holes in my Best Picture and Best Director filmographies and I was given the idea to go through and watch them. I have seen most of the post 2010 Best Picture winners but I even have holes there. The latest film in my Best Picture/ Best Director journey in order from newest to oldest is Michel Hazanavicius’s 2011 film The Artist. This film took home both awards at the 84th Academy Awards. 

When looking back on The Artist, seeing it as a best picture winner seems obvious. It’s a movie about the movies, and Hollywood loves that. However that does not mean the film itself is good. Unfortunately that is the case here. The Artist is a great showcase in how weird/ experimental movies can still thrive in modern film society. However the film has major plot issues. Any attempt at trying to appeal to the audience’s emotional state fails spectacularly and in hilarious fashion. Jean Dujardin winning Best Actor for his performance is just one of many examples where The Academy fell for the Oscar bait hook, line, and sinker. There is very little substance to his performance, and even in the more somber moments of the film, I could never take what was going on screen seriously.

The Artist, while having great cinematography and costume design, is a failure on every other aspect of filmmaking. As well as very frustrating when looking back on what was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director that year. My picks for Best Director and Best Picture that year would have been Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life for Best Director and continuing with The Tree of Life winning Best Picture.

The Artist Trailer

The Artist is currently streaming on HBO Max, Netflix, Roku Channel, and Tubi.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

In the Heights

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

Back before Hamilton, when Lin-Manuel Miranda was still a sophomore in college at Wesleyan, he wrote the first draft of what would become In the Heights, which would eventually premiere on Broadway nearly ten years later in 2008. While Heights would later get overshadowed by Hamilton (practically everything gets overshadowed by Hamilton, to be fair), at the time it was a fantastic success, running for almost three years on Broadway. John M. Chu’s adaptation of In the Heights serves as an ebullient reminder of why Lin-Manuel Miranda entered the cultural consciousness in the first place, proof that he was headed towards something great from the very first.

Set in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, In the Heights follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, aka John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, taking over from Miranda, who originated the role on Broadway), a bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic one day. He gives us a rundown of his neighborhood in the energetic opening number, including Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from Broadway), who raised Usnavi after his parents died; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns a taxi company; Benny (Corey Hawkins), a standup employee of Kevin’s; Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s younger cousin; and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose confidence and good looks often make Usnavi put his foot in his mouth around her. Add to this group Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter who is returning home from Stanford for the summer, and you have the big players in the cast—it’s a big group, but Chu manages to (mostly) give each their due.

Set largely over the course of several days in the neighborhood with oppressive heat reminiscent of Do the Right Thing, but with Brooklyn swapped out for Washington Heights, In the Heights juggles all its residents dreams: Usnavi wants to go home, Vanessa wants to go downtown, Kevin wants to ensure his daughter remains the one who “made it out.” There are rising romantic tensions between Usnavi and Vanessa, and flames have reignited between exes Benny and Nina. There’s a blackout, fireworks, and a winning lottery ticket, but it’s really about the beating heart of Washington Heights: its people. The film may be culturally specific, but the joy resonates with everyone.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has become subject of some lightly mockery as of late, mostly from Gen Z, apparently no for no other reason than his honest sincerity (and maybe a certain unfortunate selfie pose)—because he still exhibits the type of hope that, for one reason or anything, seems to have gradually whittled over the years since the original In the Heights—and, later, Hamilton—came out. But something like In the Heights reminds us that no matter how easy it has become to slide into cynicism, there is still something to be said for buoyant optimism and unbridled joy.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its flaws: it does buckle at various points under the weight of all its characters, even having cut out certain plots and songs (sometimes to its detriment: cutting Nina and Benny’s duet “Sunrise” and bypassing certain beats for those two makes their romance less effective than it is on stage—if they are dynamite on Broadway, here they are only some powerful sparklers), and there is a rather ham-fisted plot about DACA that has been clumsily shoehorned in—not that we should keep politics and movies separate (that has always been both silly and impossible), but I do wish these moments had been added with a little more grace. 

But after more than a year of being stuck at home and isolated even within our communities, In the Heights is a breath of fresh air: its cast, in particular Anthony Ramos, is so charming that it’s impossible not to smile; the songs are catchy, the dancing electric, the colors beautiful. And after all the anger and uncertainty we’ve experienced, it feels damn good to go back into a movie theater and laugh, and cry, simply enjoy something with other people.

In the Heights Trailer

In the Heights is currently available to stream on HBO Max and view in theaters.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Journey to Italy

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

To say it’s about an unhappily married couple coming undone isn’t exactly a fair synopsis, as that suggests Rossellini spends the runtime building up to Katherine and Alex openly acknowledging their marital dissatisfaction and acting on it. In fact, and to my surprise, Rossellini quickly establishes that these bourgeois Brits have little passion for each other anymore. Alex talks of being “bored” during the opening car ride, and Katherine remarks in the following scene in their hotel room that they don’t really know each other at all. All it took was a break from domesticity and routine – what was meant to be a business trip in Naples with a couple days of relaxation tacked on – for their alienation from one another to be thrown in sharp relief.

And so they spend their Neapolitan sojourn mostly apart instead of together. Katherine ventures out alone to see the sights – sculptures at the museum, catacombs, volcanic activity at Mount Vesuvius – in moody, potent sequences, some of the film’s best. Evocative of history, death, and the mysteries of the earth, the marble figures, rows of skulls, and eddies of volcanic smoke stir up something in Katherine, as if they’re bringing her to the cusp of a spiritual or emotional breakthrough. Alex, meanwhile, hits the bars and eyes local women. I do wonder if Rossellini errs in showing his cards and revealing that he sides with Katherine; Alex’s leering is less flattering than anything we see Katherine do with her time alone. Nights together reveal simmering jealousies and bitterness.

The story approaches its emotional apex during Katherine and Alex’s lone outing together to see the excavation of two skeletons, lovers entombed by ash after Vesuvius erupted long ago. A symbol of love that endured until the moment it was swallowed by darkness. It prompts an epiphany to manifest in the finale that, while far too abrupt, sees them briefly driven apart but finding each other once again.

Journey to Italy Trailer

Journey to Italy is currently streaming on Criterion Channel, HBO Max, and Kanopy.

The Hidden Fortress

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

In a fleet-footed adventure, two clownish peasants with a comical love-hate relationship (famously the inspiration for C-3PO and R2-D2) accompany a princess in disguise and her samurai guard on a trek through enemy territory. In exchange, they’ll get a piece of the gold that they help to haul… that is, if they don’t succumb to temptation and try to steal it before journey’s end. 

Mostly light in mood, it shows Kurosawa playfully poking fun at human greed and the distrust it can sew between people, making up for a lack of complexity in character with captivating use of widescreen compositions (you wouldn’t know from the splendor of it that this was his first time employing the format). Most memorably striking are the high and low angle shots of the towering, jagged mountain peaks that the titular fortress is nestled between, where the peasants first meet their royal companions.

For laughs, the movie does rely heavily on the peasants quarreling and quickly becoming selfish, but for me, it stopped short of growing tiresome. It’s the blend of comedy and action that makes this a rip-roaring ride. The action is spectacularly staged, from the large set pieces (such as the early sequence in which a mass of imprisoned peasants revolt and flee from their captors) to the more contained confrontations (such as the spear duel between the guard and an old friend turned foe). The latter scene is shot with patience and deliberation, and is another clear inspiration for Star Wars, the spears reminiscent of lightsabers. 

The Hidden Fortress Trailer

The Hidden Fortress is currently playing on Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

Capsule Review: Down by Law

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Jack, Zack, and Bob: a layabout pimp who isn’t much of a talker, a downbeat DJ whose way with words is buttery smooth, and an Italian tourist with an ever-growing notebook of American idioms, an affection for American poetry, and a less than firm grip on English. A motley trio who land themselves in the Louisiana slammer, which they manage to escape from. This being a Jim Jarmusch movie, however, the prison break isn’t for the sake of thrills or suspense; Down by Law is a cool, languid, funny and fable-like hangout film, with Roberto Benigni’s Bob serving as its crucial ingredient, the spark that along with Robby Müller‘s pristine black-and-white cinematography and John Lurie’s evocative score brings the magic.

Bob might be the foreigner, but Zack and Jack are even more ineffective at meaningful communication. Rather than verbally hash out their beef with each other, they can’t help but get into physical tussles. “Do you say, in English, ‘I look-a at the window’, or do you say, ‘I look-a out the window?’” “Well, in this case, Bob, I’m afraid you gotta say ‘I look at the window.’” Language itself might be the film’s most wonderful motif.

Down by Law Trailer

Down by Law is currently streaming on Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

Written by Alexander Reams

59/100

Some will always say that the third film in a trilogy is the weakest, sometimes that is true, and sometimes it isn’t. This is the unfortunate instance where that rule is true. In the past 10 years the horror genre has had a resurgence, a fall, and another resurgence. Starting in 2013, after an abysmal year for the genre, in walks James Wan with his newest horror project, The Conjuring. One of the most notable and recent entries in the “serious horror” genre, the film focused more on characters and their relationships with one another than the scares. Characters have always led to the best scares in horror films. This is a lesson that the Conjuring-verse films forgot about after the first film, but were reminded with the second. With one film in particular applying this, Annabelle Creation (2017). However, after the critical failures that were The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), and Annabelle Comes Home (2019). The Conjuring was due for a resuscitation in quality, and to a degree that happens in this film. However this is also the first time in the trilogy that the film begins to care more about the scares than it’s characters. 

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson have been playing these characters for over 8 years now, and with that comes good and bad. What’s good and borderline great about their performances is that over the time of these films you can see their relationship grow, just like in a marriage. Their flow on screen together gets better and better with each film. With their relationship being the best aspect of this movie. According to the films, they met 30 years ago, and it’s been 10 years in this universe since our introduction to this couple, according to the dates given. Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona), clearly let these actors do whatever they felt was right and trusted them to keep with the tone and style of relationship as the previous films. I definitely view this as a positive mark on the film because the last film Chaves made had very poor acting and direction. This time it is only in the direction that he stumbles. Valuing jump scares and set pieces over character development caused it to blend into numerous other generic horror films that audiences have grown accustomed to rather than a distinctive piece unto itself. 

One of his few saving graces is the way he shoots this film with DP Michael Burgess. Particularly in the last half hour of the film, the wide shots are beautifully captured on the Arri Alexa and Alexa Mini with Panavision lenses. Scenes in the medical bay of the prison are beautifully lit to create very macabre images which in turn make this film visually stand out in a way that the previous films hadn’t. While this film does not live up to the original films in the trilogy and is disappointing in terms of quality, I am not surprised that it was what it was. The direction is not even close to the level of James Wan’s and strays too far from the path that was laid before it. Despite this, it still stands very tall over the other various unwanted and poorly made spinoffs that this universe birthed along the way.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It Trailer

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is currently in Theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Written by Alexander Reams

78/100

Taylor Sheridan has already had a good year with his screenplay for Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse already released and now his second directorial effort is here. While this film has drawn criticism for being predictable, I have found that is because this film is vastly different from his previous film Wind River. Those Who Wish Me Dead is based on the novel by Michael Koryta and stars Angelina Jolie, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, and Jon Bernthal. It tracks Jolie as she protects a teenager from assassins attempting to kill him after he witnesses a murder. 

The story is very predictable. We’ve seen vast reiterations of these same tropes and character events throughout the years. What sets this film apart from these other iterations is the style that Sheridan brings with his direction. His sense of how to block scenes and where to place the camera is nothing short of brilliant, especially in a scene towards the end. 

Despite these negatives, the performances of Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Jon Bernthal, and relative newcomer Finn Little all make this well worth a watch. Along with a smart screenplay from Sheridan, Charles Leavitt, and Michael Koryta (based on his novel) and possibly Brian Tyler’s best score yet all make this film a highly enjoyable thriller that you just don’t see much of anymore.

Those Who Wish Me Dead Trailer

Those Who Wish Me Dead is currently streaming on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter.

Mortal Kombat (2021)

Written by Alexander Reams

79/100

Mortal Kombat is the latest video game to be adapted into a film. However this is not the first time we have gotten a Mortal Kombat film. Back in 1995, before Resident Evil fame, Paul W.S. Anderson made the first Mortal Kombat film. The 1995 film has since achieved cult status. While I have not seen the film, I find it hard to believe that it is better than the film we have received this year. I found that well filmed action sequences, brilliant special effects, and an entertaining score to be more than enough to make this film very much worth a watch. 

The fight sequences look straight out of the video game. While the footage I have seen from the 1995 film looks dated and pinnacle 1990s, the 2021 film looks so much more sleek and brutal at the same time. That is something that I feel no one can disagree about the film. The brutality is truly something to behold on screen. Simon McQuoid might be a first time director but he clearly has an eye for action and it shows throughout the fight scenes, especially one at the very end. 

You don’t go into a film like Mortal Kombat expecting a mindblowing script or profound themes that you would find in a Terrence Malick film. All I wanted was good cinematography and well choreographed fight sequences. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score was one of my favorites of his and one of the biggest surprises in the film. In the end my expectations were wholly met with this film and then some.

Mortal Kombat Trailer

You can currently stream Mortal Kombat on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter.

Godzilla (2014)

Written by Nick McCann

88/100

I don’t think Roland Emmerich fully understood the gravity of his situation. When he made his own Godzilla movie back in 1998, he not only took advantage of the name for his own gain but left a sore legacy. The box office bombing, critical panning, and fan backlash of that film gave little hope that we’d see another American production touch the property. But as time went on and others tried to get something going, Legendary Pictures finally got a reboot rolling. Although avant garde in many ways, it still delivers immense satisfaction.

Godzilla doesn’t immediately go for the throat compared to other blockbusters. The script loves to twist certain conventions on their head, tease the monsters and build up for massive payoff. Combined with Gareth Edwards’ direction, the film builds suspense and realism the likes of which we haven’t seen much of in monster movies. I would even say it’s got the Steven Spielberg touch of wonder and intrigue(including some fun homages). At the same time, you feel an earnest respect for the character and what he stands for. Some aren’t going to get on board with this rendition of Godzilla wherein he is not constantly in sight or the sparse destruction presented, and that’s fine. But if you’re patient and willing to let it play out, you’ll be well rewarded.

This execution of the familiar Godzilla story finds itself a lot more character focused. I quickly grew to like the characters , they may seem like a typical ensemble but their parts are well defined and performed superbly by the cast. Bryan Cranston is the stand out, throwing it all on the table he’s our solid emotional center. Sadly he isn’t around for too  long but the impression is made and lasting. Aaron Taylor-Johnson also makes for a capable protagonist, Elizabeth Olson nails believable reactions, David Strathairn is a refreshingly likable military leader and the always excellent Ken Watanabe fits like a glove. The most important test to the cast’s durability is that they can each say Godzilla’s name straight-faced and not have it be silly.

Which brings us to the king himself. Godzilla! His look retains the classic design while going for something more nature inspired. The special effects team realizes a grounded (and sometimes personable) Godzilla for modern audiences. His two opponents in the M.U.T.Os aren’t too shabby either. Their looks, abilities and overall characterization as a pair give them their time to shine in the wide range of Toho’s monster stable.

Whether alone or all together, these creatures seem to be able to bring the house down. The focus on build-up makes the set pieces feel gratifying and weight. They manage to find ways to have our human characters get suddenly caught up near or in the middle of the monster attacks, further giving the situation a realistic viewpoint. The ace in the hole is the cinematography, making liberal use of street view and the feeling of being someone in the middle of it all. These monsters feel massive and the damage they cause is more impressive because of it.

Sound design shouldn’t go unnoticed either. Godzilla’s new roar, the various combat engagements, buildings crumbling, explosions. Everything has an audible power. Alexandre Desplat delivers a brilliant score. There may be a lack of the classic Toho theme cues, but his music still captures the monster’s enormity and the human character’s marvel. It’s equal parts emotional and hair-raising.

Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla is where I look to when I think of reboot films done right. For all the conventions it does different, it never forgets to deliver on what you want. Again, some will be put off by a character-focused monster movie where the monsters aren’t always turning cities into pebble piles. Trust me when I say it’s all worth it by the end. There are spectacular fights, a great cast, and direction that’s as confident as it is respectful. The King of the Monsters finally got his shining moment in America and it’s only led to further excitement and anticipation.

Godzilla (2014) Trailer


You can watch Godzilla (2014) on HBO Max.

You can connect with Nick on his social media profiles: Facebook and Letterboxd.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Written by Alexander Reams

100/100

I’ve always been a fan of DC, their comics, TV shows, and film. Yes, even the highly controversial DCEU. Three, almost four years ago when Justice League was released most, including myself, were let down by the half baked film. Now after much campaigning from the fans we have Zack Snyder’s original, uncut version, much to the glee from fans and filmmakers alike. Especially after the numerous reports coming from the 2017 Justice League set in which Joss Whedon at best behaved poorly. This in conjunction with reports of Warner Bros. tampering with other DCEU films, Suicide Squad being a major example led many to speculate just how much more grandiose and joyful Snyder’s version might be.

    Martin Scorsese criticized superhero films broadly claiming they were like “theme parks” and not “cinema”. Zack Snyder’s Justice League seems to be the closest example of what a superhero film might look like after the advent of the Avengers that Scorsese may like. There is a clear vision and style to the film. Shot differently than most contemporary superhero films and brimming with a fantastic cast who work well together. Ray Fisher has long been a big campaigner for the Snyder Cut to be released. After watching this rendition of the film you can clearly see why, as he’s it’s heartbeat.

    There’s been talk about the runtime, 242 minutes is a long film, and the longest superhero film of all time, beating Snyder’s previous record with Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut. The runtime feels completely earned, at this point in the DCEU we had not been introduced to Aquaman, Flash, or Cyborg. So this is a continuation of Wonder Woman’s story as well as a sequel to Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and an introduction to those respective characters. Something that’s easy to forget now, on the other side of those films release.

    By the end of the film, I was in tears, there are some of the best fan service moments I’ve seen. I don’t want to delve into spoilers but the last 80 minutes of the film are some of Snyder’s best filmmaking in his career. I hope to see the Snyderverse restored, expanded on, and continued in the future. This is better than any film the MCU has put out yet. I loved this film so much and I can’t say that enough. To me this film is perfection. 

#restorethesnyderverse

Zack Snyder’s Justice League Trailer

You can watch Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter.