Oscars 2016: Predictions

This has been a crazy year. We had planned another series of posts like last year’s, detailing each of the Oscar nominees and our predictions, but time got away from us, as it is wont to do. That being said, it has also been a crazy year for film. So, this will be a long read, but it’s one that has been on my mind for a long while now. And one that I’ve been looking forward to writing. I will offer brief thoughts (or maybe not so brief, at times…) on the films in each of the big categories. (Sorry, short films), then who I predict Will Win and then who Should Win. The Should win category may bring in films I believe should have been nominated or actors who should have been tapped by the Academy, or just the ones I think should win based on the nominations.


The Big Short

Bridge of Spies


Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant



Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: Room

This is a crowded category, as it has been for awhile. Each one of these films deserve its spot at the top, and they all got there for widely disparate reasons. I could make arguments for each one, except maybe The Big Short, which maybe was nominated for the sheer audacity of making a non-boring film about the housing bubble. Bridge of Spies is a long-awaited reminder of Steven Spielberg’s greatness, and who could fail when pairing a Cold War legal grilled with Tom Hanks? Brooklyn, penned by Nick Hornby and starring the brilliant Saoirse Ronan, is just solid and good and beautiful, a classic from the start. Mad Max: Fury Road is the crowd favorite, blowing the doors off of all expectations that anyone had, though I was slightly underwhelmed (maybe it was all the hype?). My favorite film of the year was The Martian, for sheer rewatchability and utter excellence, through and through. The second most likely film to take the Best Picture is The Revenant, which is an excellent movie, constructed and executed with brilliance; if I’m choosing between the two, The Revenant will win over Mad Max, but as we know the Academy doesn’t choose back to back winners.  Spotlight, for its subject matter echoing All the President’s Men, cries out for acknowledgement for the justice they sought. Ultimately, hands down, Room should win for sheer power and heart-wrenching storytelling and acting. 


The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant



Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller

Should Win: The Revenant – Alejandro Iñárritu

Again, and not for the last time, we are torn between Mad Max and The Revenant. Both of these films demonstrate the power of the director’s will, with Iñárritu’s Fitzcarraldo-like wilderness epic and Miller’s resurrection and transcendence of a cult-franchise, blowing it into the mainstream and redefining the action genre. Both deserve this win, yet because of Iñárritu’s previous victory, his chances are low here.


Bryan Cranston, Trumbo

Matt Damon, The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio

Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio

I mean, if Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win this, I think the Internet will burn down. He put forth an astonishing performance, putting everything physically (literally) possible into this role, and he fully deserves it. On the other hand, Matt Damon and Michael Fassbender can both hold their own. If it wasn’t for that bison liver…


Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Will Win: Brie Larson

Should Win: Brie Larson

I’m not going to spend time on the subpar performance that the normally brilliant Cate Blanchett gave with Carol, and Jennifer Lawrence’s perfectly good Joy. It’s all about Charlotte Rampling, Saoirse Ronan, and Brie Larson, each of whom handily deserve to take the win. 45 Years is led by Rampling’s complex portrayal of a woman during a troubling time in her marriage. Saoirse Ronan is honest and conflicted in the story of an immigrant girl trying to find her place in the world. And then Brie Larson steals it all as Ma, who must care for her son while trapped indefinitely in a room and deal with all the ramifications attached to that predicament.


Christian Bale, The Big Short

Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Will Win: Sylvester Stallone

Should Win: Sylvester Stallone

Stallone brings with him all the weight of history as Rocky Balboa at the end of his career, without ever feeling like a gimmick or pandering. It works completely, and Stallone outshines his competition, followed closely by Tom Hardy (whoever thought anyone could speak less clearly than Rocky?) and Mark Rylance.


Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight

Rooney Mara, Carol

Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Will Win: Rooney Mara

Should Win: Jennifer Jason Leigh

Despite the fact that this is the year of Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara seems to be a lock for Supporting Actress in the overrated Carol, though staring seems the key component of that film. Kate Winslet did a great job, arguably the best of the bunch here, yet Jennifer Jason  Leigh  cackled her way to the top of the pile as. The only woman among a group of other burly, manly men and holding her own with memorable ease.


The Big Short



The Martian


Will Win: Room

Should Win: The Martian

Both of these films are excellent adaptations of their source material, and while Room maintains the emotional impact of the book, The Martian does this and more. Instead of falling into the bleak territory of Castaway, it keeps the drama of it while keeping the essential humor from the novel.


Bridge of Spies

Ex Machina

Inside Out


Straight Outta Compton

Will Win: Straight Outta Compton

Should Win: Ex Machina

Following the recent controversy, Straight Outta Compton seems a shoe-in, and it certainly deserves the honor. However, Ex Machina is a truly excellent piece of science fiction mixed with a locked room psychological thriller.



Boy and the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep Movie

When Marnie Was There

Will Win: Inside Out 

Should Win: Inside Out



Cartel Land

The Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Will Win: Amy

Should Win: Cartel Land



The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant


Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: The Revenant

Once again, another face off between these two films, and the most common reason for Mad Max‘s inevitable victory over The Revenant is the recent win by its director.  Both films have distinctive visual styles, but Iñárritu’s challenge to only use natural light makes his feat all the more impressive.  


The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant


Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road


Embrace of the Serpent


Son of Saul


A War

Will Win: Son of Saul

Should Win: Son of Saul


Bridge of Spies


The Hateful Eight


Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: The Hateful Eight

Should Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Quentin Tarantino’s films rank among my favorite, particularly for their distinctive music. However, this holds no candle to  John Williams’ long-awaited Star Wars or Carter Burwell’s haunting score to Carol (the only good part of the film). Burwell’s deserves a place in the Should Win column here, but my money is on Star Wars due to  a combination of nostalgia and brilliance.


“Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey

“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction

“Simple Song #3,” Youth

“Til It Happens To You,” The Hunting Ground

“Writing’s On The Wall,” Spectre

Will Win: “Til It Happens To You,” The Hunting Ground

Should Win: “See You Again” from Furious 7, though of the nominees, Sam Smith earned it. 




The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: Cinderella


Mad Max: Fury Road

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared

The Revenant

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road


Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

Will Win: Bridge of Spies

Should Win: The Martian


Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant


Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road


Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Should Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Bear Story


Sanjay’s Super Team

We Can’t Live without Cosmos

World of Tomorrow

Will Win: World of Tomorrow

Should Win: World. of Tomorrow


Body Team 12

Chau, beyond the Lines

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness 

Last Day of Freedom

Will Win: Body Team 12

Should Win: Body Team 12


Ave Maria

Day One

Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)



Will Win: Shok

Should Win: Shok

Top 10 Reads of 2015

2015 was a big reading year for me, as I found a way to get some reading done in my spare time, whenever I was able to. I stumbled on quite a few new ones, but I also tried to knock a few outstanding books off of my To Read Shelf. Take a look on Goodreads to see more specific stats for my reading year. You’ll notice a hefty amount of Brandon Sanderson, who has quickly become one of my favorite authors of all time. I made it another one of my goals to try and finish all of his Cosmere novels this year–his YA offerings aren’t really to my taste, but I’ll try again. Also, not listed here are rereads of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

So, I took on the difficult task of ranking the books I read this year. They did not have to be published this year–I was trying to check off books from my long To Read list. Here are my Top 10 Reads of 2015:

The Martian novel1. The Martian by Andy Weir

This is probably the best book I’ve read this year. The Martian is thrilling, suspenseful, and hilarious. Mark Watney’s narrative voice is utterly readable and memorable–almost addictive. This is a fantastically compelling story of a man and all that he will do to keep on living.

Hero of Ages2. Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

At the close of the Mistborn trilogy, Brandon Sanderson brings everything together with a heartfelt, satisfying (albeit surprising) ending. It took me awhile to finally pick this up after I finished Well of Ascension, and I regret not immediately continuing on to this epic finale.

Words of Radiance3. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Another Brandon Sanderson, I know! Don’t worry, it’s not the end by any means. This hefty tome took a long, long time for me to finish: over a year. From March 7, 2014-March 12, 2015, I slowly waded through it, picking it up and putting it down, because I wanted to give it my full attention. I was rarely able to do so, which meant that each time I picked it up again I had to back up a bit. Eventually, I powered through and finished. I loved it, and it was a pleasure to work through.

Armada4. Armada by Ernest Cline

It must be difficult to follow Ready Player One, which was such a unique smash hit a few years ago, but Cline did it. Armada is funny, thrilling, and packed to the gills with deep pop culture references. It’s Space Invaders meets Ender’s Game, but without the subterfuge (sort of). I read it in just about 24 hours–I could not stop.

the magicians5. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This is one of those books I didn’t know I needed to read. People had mentioned it, but no one had really described it well, other than it’s “adult Harry Potter.” While that’s certainly true, it’s more like: Harry Potter goes to college and then goes to Narnia to defeat Edmund. This was engrossing (no pun inte
nded) and mind-bending at times. I totally loved it.

Alloy of Law6. Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

I don’t think he’s the first to do this, but he’s the first I know of: while most fantasy novels are just medieval and stay there, age after age, Brandon Sanderson takes us beyond that level of culture and technology to the Victorian era. This isn’t steampunk–it’s still Scadrial, just naturally developing from where Hero of Ages left off. It’s a swashbuckling, shoot ’em up adventure, with wit and, as always, a great magic system.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

This is another book that took me just a day or so to read. It’s The Fault in our Stars meets Perks of Being a Wallflower, with some of the wit of Paper Towns. It’s a great example of high school life and dealing with impending tragedy in different ways. The narrative style also varies throughout, from script to prose narration, which adds a unique flavor to this fun story of friendship.

Gray Mountain8. Gray Mountain by John Grisham

This surprised me, I’ll be honest. Maybe that’s why it’s so high on my list. It had been a long time since there had been a really excellent Grisham novel: maybe not since 2007’s Playing for Pizza have I really loved a new Grisham. Gray Mountain dealt with current economic and environmental issues while keeping it close and personal. This could easily be optioned as a TV series, and it could be a cross between Justified and The Good Wife.

Do Hard Things9. Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris

Do Hard Things impacted me personally this year, as I was working more closely with my students on trying to impact the world around them. We discussed the challenges offered by this book, which encourages teens to defy the low expectations that people have of them and to step up and be a part of the world they’ll soon inherit. I loved it.

Invisible Man10. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I’m surprised I hadn’t read Invisible Man before this, but I picked it up on a friend’s recommendation and I blew through it on the flights back home for Christmas. It’s completely relatable, with an easy narrative voice, and it demonstrates the wide breadth of struggles that the African-American community has faced from Reconstruction to the 1950s.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

  1. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  2. Finding Truth by Nancy Pearcey
  3. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
  4. Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
  5. Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
  6. Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson
  7. It by Stephen King
  8. Giants Beware by Jorge Aguierre
  9. We Were Liars by e. lockhart
  10. Damsel Distressed by Kelsey Macke
  11. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
  12. Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson
  13. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
  14. Alias, Vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis
  15. Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith


Film Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

In an attempt to be different, Fantastic Four leaves out everything lovable about superhero films – including fun.


After months (possibly years) of bad press and mixed anticipation for Fox’s reboot of Fantastic Four, the film released to scathing reviews and some added behind-the-scenes drama. The movie, helmed and co-scripted by Josh Trank, director of Chronicle, seeks to do something different in the superhero genre.

The story we probably know from the first series of films. In the name of science, a (future) husband and wife, her brother, and their friend, are essentially infected with different powers. They must learn to harness their abilities, while working as a team, to save the world. 

The first two films were largely disliked for their goofy tone and cartoonish plot. In this 2015 reboot, they attempt to ground the film as hard as they can in reality, so as to not make the same mistakes as the other films.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a brilliant young scientist who, with help from his childhood best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), builds some impressive spacetime-bending equipment. Noticed by Dr. Storm (Reg. E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara) at a high school science fair (I guess they were just browsing random science fairs? Not too clear on the reasoning there), Reed is given a scholarship in exchange for help building the Quantum Gate with the Storms and the moody Victor Von Doom. Oh yeah, and Johnny Storm crashes a car and is punished by being made a high-valued member of the Quantum Gate team, for some reason.

Von Doom’s entire part in the film is completely inexplicable. From his introduction where he’s simply an angry brat who hates everyone, to his only occasional feelings for Sue Storm, to his on-again off-again friendship with Reed, to whatever his motives are for briefly trying to destroy Earth, Von Doom just doesn’t make any sense.


There are some admirable aspects to Fantastic Four. I appreciate the attempt at a grounded, realistic tone, but “realistic” doesn’t have to mean it sacrifices fun. In fact, there’s almost no action in the entire film. Isn’t that why we go to superhero movies? There’s only one real fight scene, and it’s horribly predictable.

The film started to really interest me when the four returned with their powers. Each was under observation, and everyone was scared for what could happen. Just when I thought the film would really explore the fear and psychological effects that these strange powers would have, the film jumps ahead a year, skipping the interesting part! I was so disappointed.

In the end, Fantastic Four had a lot of potential, ultimately wasted by forgetting why people see superhero films: to have fun and see crazy action. Without either of those elements, replaced by a really confusing and uninteresting story, Fantastic Four is a bust.

Sidenote: There was a lot of talk about either Trank being really hard to deal with or Fox putting too much pressure and control on a creative, leading to this mess. Without any of us truly knowing what happened, it’s hard to put the blame on any one person. For an interesting timeline of the bad press, check out this great article from Film School Rejects.


Film Review : The Gift

The Gift surprises and impresses at almost every turn.


At the start, The Gift appears to be a traditional thriller. The setup is so average that the viewer could assume he knows the plot and the twist within the first few minutes. As the film progresses, however, it becomes fairly clear that nothing is as expected.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move from Chicago to California, close to where Simon grew up. Soon enough, while out shopping one day, the couple runs into an old acquaintance of Simon’s, named Gordo (Joel Edgerton). Everything feels pretty standard; Gordo is a weird dude who hangs around a bit too much, creeping out the couple. Things go in very unexpected directions more than once, keeping you on your toes.


The audience of course tries to guess where the film is headed at every turn. Every time it seems like you may have figured it out, the film completely surprises you. The writing here is really strong. Not only does the plot trick you, it’s not even the type of movie you think it is.

In addition to his excellent performance, Edgerton writes and directs this very promising debut. There may not be anything groundbreaking here, but The Gift is a very enjoyable, tense, and unexpected delight. Edgerton is certainly a filmmaker to keep our eyes on.


Film Review: Ricki and the Flash

Stuffed with Oscar winners, Ricki and the Flash delivers a fairly unsurprising plot with a nice polished exterior.


Meryl Streep stars as Ricki Rendazzo, the wannabe-rock-star and nonexistent mom trying to figure out how to reconnect with her family. When her daughter Julie, played by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer, attempts suicide after losing her husband, Ricki returns home to help her pull herself together. Of course, Ricki must learn to pull her own life together first.

The premise alone is pretty unremarkable. We’ve heard this all before. Luckily the film has enough charm and superb performances to make up for the cliches.

Ricki and Greg (Rick Springfield) lead The Flash, the aging house band at a tiny bar in Los Angeles. The film opens on their performance, a great sequence that starts only on the band, leading the audience to believe it might be a successful group, until swiftly cutting to the small, old, and odd crowd in the bar.

Once Ricki returns to the family in Indiana, the family drama shines. Ricki’s ex Pete (Kevin Kline) is fairly uninteresting, but the family dynamic keeps things snappy. A dinner sequence with the whole family in particular overcomes so many predictable moments with hilarious dialogue.


As with every Streep performance, we’ll see this performance coming into the awards conversation soon, but it’s deserved. Ricki is a severely insecure character who covers with false confidence. Streep’s subtleties let the insecurity feel so true. Mamie Gummer holds her own alongside her mother: Julie’s depressed character also steals the show. While it may not be groundbreaking or Oscar-caliber, Gummer deserves awards talk of her own.

Ricki and the Flash is nothing new in the family drama realm, but the humor and performances make it an enjoyable, if unremarkable, film.


Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

  The Martian is Castaway in space.
Astronaut Mark Watney is marooned on Mars and is left to survive on his own for hundreds of days. He needs to deal with a diminishing food supply, as well as the innumerable hazards that come with being the only inhabitant on a lifeless planet. This is the epic story of survival and humanity banding together to save a man’s life. 

This is probably the best book I’ve read this year. The Martian is thrilling, suspenseful, and hilarious. Mark Watney’s narrative voice is utterly readable and memorable–almost addictive. This is a fantastically compelling story of a man and all that he will do to keep on living. 

Finally, other than the excellent writing, I appreciated the accessible hard science fiction here. Like Michael Crichton, Andy Weir has made this a book that doesn’t dumb down the technical aspects but brings the readers up to what they need to understand while also not wasting time on the minutiae.

The Martian is a rare book, and I look forward to seeing how the film adaptation treats it. The one thing they can’t leave out (which the trailer seems like it may…) is Watney’s irascible sense of humor. It’s an essential aspect of his character that should not be lost. It’ll be hard to replicate the “captain’s log” inner monologue format, but that helps keep the book from getting too dark. 

The Last Man on Earth – TV Series Review

**Contains spoilers for the pilot episode of The Last Man on Earth**


You had me at “Chinese hello.”

In a sitcom landscape populated with crowded ensembles and overused concepts, here comes Phil Miller, the last man on earth.

The Last Man on Earth starts around two years after some unexplained catastrophe hit earth. Phil Miller (Will Forte) travels the country looking for another human alive, but to no avail. He settles down in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona, and tries to survive on his own. He does, but he’s going pretty crazy.


The loneliness is getting to him. In one of the best scenes of the pilot, Phil decided it’s time to off himself. It’s surprisingly heartbreaking for a sitcom, even if we know he’s not going through with it. With confidence, The Last Man showed the audience that it’s not afraid to get dramatic.

It’s a sad concept if you think it through. That would be true lonliness. That’s why we immediately sympathize with Phil, and we want him to find another human.

And find one he does. Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal) is everything Phil did not want to find in a partner. She’s corrective, annoying, and hilarious.

What I love about The Last Man is that in this wholly original concept, it finds it’s way back to sitcom tropes. The relationship between Phil and Carol is similar to many marriages in older sitcoms, with a nagging wife and the slacker husband. But here we have a whole new spin on things. They’ve got to get along or die alone. It’s pretty black and white.


The concept drew me in, but it didn’t stop there. The visual comedy is some of the best on TV right now. Sight gags and funny cuts are used heavily, separating it from many of the dialogue driven sitcoms that are so prevalent (not that those are bad, mind you).

The Last Man on Earth has an immediately intriguing premise and pitch-perfect comedy, with two stars that we can’t help but root for. As long as Forte and director/producers Phil Lord & Chris Miller have a long-lasting plan for the series, The Last Man on Earth will be well worth tuning into for years to come.