Catching up with The Past, Kill Your Darlings, and more

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As much as I try to see all of the major releases for a given year before the next calendar year begins, it’s simply impossible. Sometimes that is due to laziness on my part, but more often than not, it is beyond my control. For example, Inside Llewyn Davis would have been high on my Film Stage top 10 of 2013 list — likely in the top three — but it did not open in Buffalo until January.

That was the case with a number of other fine films, like Spike Jonze’s Her and Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, a truly stunning follow-up to A Separation that I finally caught. Here are some quick thoughts on those and other 2013 releases I have had a chance to see over the last couple months.

The Past: ****

A remarkable, intimate, note-perfect film, Farhadi’s drama features four of the finest performances of 2013: Bérénice Bejo as Marie, Ali Mosaffa as soon-to-be-ex-husband Ahmad, Tahar Rahim as her boyfriend Samir, and Pauline Burlet as her teenage daughter Lucie. (Burlet, in particular, was a stand-out, taking Lucie far from typical “troubled teen” territory, while Mosaffa may have given the best male performance of the year.) This is an involving, un-showy story of love and family, and culminates in one of the year’s most lovely closing scenes. I would have found it difficult to imagine, but Farhadi has made an even better film than A Separation.

Her: ***1/2

Spike Jonze’s Oscar winner is one I need to see again. The more time passes, the more I wonder if I actually overrated it … Yet so much is so right. Wildly unique, to be sure, and perhaps one of the finest “Grow up!” stories in recent memory.

The Fifth Estate: **

A dull, formulaic telling of the Wikileaks saga, only tolerable due to fine performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl.

Kill Your Darlings: ***

Compelling, if never truly startling, Darlings is a solid film, and further evidence of the maturation of Daniel Radcliffe.

Oldboy: **12

Hmm. Spike Lee’s remake of the Korean classic is strange and unnecessary, yet had an odd allure for me. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: ***

Wow. I enjoyed The Hunger Games (the first film, I mean; the book did nothing for me), but this was a major leap in terms of quality and style. The ending actually made me hungry for the next installment.

Rush: ***

I skipped this at TIFF but heard surprisingly strong reviews from critic friends, and they were not altogether wrong. While it is nothing we have not seen before, Ron Howard’s film is gripping and entertaining.

We Are What We Are: ***

A pitch-black, disturbing horror film that made me anxious to track down the original.

The Lone Ranger: **

Meh.

Enough Said: ***1/2

Here is a simple, funny, endearing film with great acting — especially Gandolfini. This is likely Holofcener’s finest film to date.

Closed Circuit: **

Meh.

Don Jon: **

Meh, and that’s disappointing. I expected good things from this one.

I’m So Excited: **1/2

Okay, this is minor Almodovar, of course. But don’t tell me it isn’t fun.

 

Photo credit: Pauline Burlet as Lucie; photo by Carole Bethuel © 2013, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Pondering the “Enemy”: A TIFF13 masterpiece opens in Buffalo

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I was unable to see Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, sadly. I had a conflict, with Visitors screening at the same time. This was disappointing, since I very much liked the director’s other TIFF entry, Prisoners, and also because the buzz out of TIFF was that Enemy was something extraordinary — and extraordinarily strange.

Correct on both counts. Enemy is a staggering success, a Cronenberg-ian mystery with the finest performance(s) of actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s career and the creepiest final scene in film history.

Yep, I went there. And I am not the first. Here is how critic David Ehrlich put it in his TIFF review:

Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” might have the scariest ending of any film ever made. While such a proclamation no doubt seems both wildly hyperbolic and uselessly broad (how to compare the sudden revulsion of “Don’t Look Now”’s final shots with the icy, germinating dread imbued into the haunting last shot of a film like “The White Ribbon”?), viewers of certain predispositions and phobias will invariably sign off on such a statement as “Enemy” abruptly cuts to its closing titles.

I could not agree more. It is so surprising, so utterly gobsmacking, that I literally gasped, and jumped. Days after seeing the film, I am still pondering it.

But that is true of the film itself, as well, the story of a college professor who spots his doppelganger in the background of a film. As he investigates, we learn more about him — and the actor who is like him in every way.

Perhaps it seems like cop-out to say one should not know any more than this going in, but I believe that to be true. The element of surprise is very important here.

What I can say is that this adaptation of José Saramago’s novel The Double shoots Toronto as I have never seen it before; features a wonderful supporting performance from Antiviral/Cosmopolis/A Dangerous Method star Sarah Gadon; costars (and slightly underuses) one of my favorite actresses, Melanie (“Shoshannnnna!”) Laurent; and is the kind of film that, like Lost Highway, inspires theorizing, contemplation, and fear.

Enemy joins Grand Budapest Hotel and Life Father, Like Son as the best film so far this year. It’s a must-see that some will truly hate. But others, like me, will be mesmerized. And if you want to talk about that ending afterwards, you know where to find me.

Review: “Omar” is a thrilling, noir-esque character study on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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“Omar” did not win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but it is quite interesting. I gave it three stars for the Buffalo News.

“Omar” did not win the Oscar for best foreign language film last weekend, and that is no shocker. As anyone who has seen the majestic Italian entry “The Great Beauty” can attest, topping that deliriously colorful film was not going to be easy.

Still, Hany Abu-Assad’s film was a worthy nominee, a smart, thrilling character study that tackles the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a film-noir-infused manner that feels fresh and insightful.

The film opens with its protagonist, a young Palestinian named Omar (Adam Bakri), standing by the mighty, graffiti-strewn wall separating him from his girlfriend, Nadja (Leem Lubany). The wall is omnipresent, a reality of daily life, and so is Omar’s method of circumventing it.

Omar, Nadja and her brother Tarek (Eyad Hourani) are portrayed as relatively normal young people. They tell sex jokes, do Brando impressions, reference Brad Pitt.

But Omar, Tarek and company also practice shooting rifles, call themselves “freedom fighters,” and become enmeshed in acts of violence. In one case, an Israeli soldier is killed, and Omar is arrested.

Within minutes (onscreen), Omar is dangling naked as an Agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), questions him, surprising the young man with intimate details about his life and offering a deal: Work for us. If not, Omar faces 90 years in prison.

From this moment forward, “Omar” becomes a noir-esque tapestry of secrets and lies, as the title character faces rumors of being a traitor, prepares for an ambush with his friends, and navigates an increasingly paranoid landscape. Paranoia is the key word. There is rarely a relaxed moment in the film.

“Omar” screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last spring, receiving the Jury Prize, and has since drawn raves at other film festivals. It is the latest film from acclaimed Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, whose great 2005 drama “Paradise Now” earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award.

“Paradise,” a story of Palestinian suicide bombers, was greeted with both praise and controversy. For the subject matter and setting of “Omar,” a response mixing acclaim and debate was an inevitability.

Abu-Assad’s portrayal of the Israeli military and intelligence figures is certainly unflattering. Only Agent Rami is presented as anything less than a monster; one of the film’s moments of humor comes when he must pause during an intense discussion to chat on the phone about who will pick his daughter up from day care.

How one feels about Abu-Assad’s approach, and about Omar will have a lot to do with how satisfying one finds the ending. It is punchy and surprising, but not as emotionally powerful as, say, last year’s terrorism tale “The Attack.”

What is undeniable is that the director has crafted a gripping, suspenseful film that has a sense of reality and consequence lacking from most thrillers. It is rooted in politics, but is more focused on the morality of being an informant, and what it means to be considered a traitor.

Indeed, we are deep in noir territory. The story could have been the basis for a picture shot on the Warner Bros. lot decades ago. Even the film’s quasi-twist ending would have felt at home, and it’s a testament to Abu-Assad’s talent that he makes these tropes feel original.

Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman: Everyman and master

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I just watched the second Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, and was a bit stunned at how much I enjoyed it. But the ending made me sad, since one of the final faces onscreen is that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I recently wrote a piece about the actor for Buffalo Spree’s Rochester publication, (585) Magazine. And here it is …

“Their art never lasts.” So says Philip Seymour Hoffman as the late rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s modern classic Almost Famous, explaining to his young protégé why it is better to be one of the “uncool” than one of the vapid “good-looking people.” It is a wonderfully self-deprecating line delivered with exhausted authority by the greatest actor of his generation.

Hoffman was born in Fairport, New York in 1967, attended drama school at New York University, and prior to his devastating death on February 2 amassed a resume as strong as any actor in film history. Consider: Boogie Nights; The Big Lebowski; Happiness; Magnolia; The Talented Mr. Ripley; Almost Famous; Punch-Drunk Love;  Capote; The Savages; Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; Synecdoche, New York; Doubt; Moneyball; The Master. That list does not even include the lesser works he elevated with his performances: Owning Mahoney, Love Liza, Flawless, Along Came Polly, Mission: Impossible III, A Late Quartet.

What these films, and, more specifically these characters, have in common is the feeling that no other actor could have brought the everyman essence that made Hoffman so exhilarating, so uniquely identifiable. I recall the exact moment in which I realized the rumpled Dusty from Twister was on the road to greatness. It was the last Buffalo-area showing of P.T. Anderson’s porn epic Boogie Nights, at an appropriately skuzzy, cheap-o theater whose audience consisted entirely of my seventeen-year-old, budding-cinephile self and a couple friends there to ogle Heather Graham. As the sad-sack Scotty J., forever lusting over Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, Hoffman was a revelation, creating a character as memorable as any in nineties cinema. His best work, in fact, came in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. The Master’s enigmatic character Lancaster Dodd should endure as Hoffman’s finest hour.

We will continue to see new work from Hoffman over the next few months, and hear more stories of his Rochester-area youth, his Hollywood majesty, and his sad end. The talk of his death may never go away, but neither will films like Synecdoche and The Master.

His art will last.

The great “Grand Budapest Hotel,” and the films of Wes Anderson

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I know it seemed like an endless wait, but Wes Anderson’s latest film, Grand Budapest Hotel, finally opens in Buffalo tomorrow, and the wait was worth it. I think this is one of the director’s best films, perhaps his LARGEST scale project to date: size, scope, vision. The performances, especially from Ralph Fiennes, are impeccable. And this is his freshest collection of characters in many years.

In fact, I believe Budapest is his best film since The Royal Tenenbaums. And that thought got me pondering all of his films, and how I would rank them. So without further ado, my ranking of the films of Wes Anderson.

1. Bottle Rocket

I am in the minority with this one, I know, but I believe Anderson’s debut film is hit most original, his most emotional, and his most gloriously fresh. There is a youthful spirit on display that is rarely captured onscreen — it FEELS young and naive, in the best sense. And I maintain Owen Wilson gave his finest performance to date as Dignan.

2. Rushmore

Anderson’s second film features his greatest character. No, not Max Fischer. Bill Murray’s Herman Blume. It also features his best soundtrack, his best opening, and his best ending. A perfect film, one that contains my favorite Anderson montage: the “Oh Yoko” sequence.

3. The Royal Tenenbaums

“I know you, asshole!” I could drop about 100 other classic lines, or refer to songs like “These Days” and “Need in the Hay.” But I’d rather just watch, and drink it all in again.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel

People will love this film. In fact, they already do. I predict it will land a Best Picture nomination.

5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

I will never forget seeing the trailer for Zissou, and being utterly gob-smacked, to the degree that a friend and I considered traveling to see the film before it opened in Buffalo. I still think it’s one of finest trailers ever made — all Murray magnificence, set to Bowie’s “Queen Bitch.” The film itself was more sour than I’d expected, and a bit too stylized, but still a success, to be sure.

6. The Darjeeling Limited

The forgotten Anderson film? Maybe. Great moments, great acting, yet it never quite gels. This is all relative; he has never made a bad film.

7. Moonrise Kingdom      

Overrated? Yes. Very good? Certainly.

8. Fantastic Mr. Fox        

Anderson’s weakest film, to be sure, but guess what? It’s still quite good. Of course. Criterion recently released Mr. Fox on Blu-ray, and it was a deserving reissue.

And now, to close things off, “Ooh La La.”

Review: Cary Fukunaga’s heartbreaking “Sin Nombre”

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On Monday, I linked to some interesting articles on True Detective. Today, a look back at the 2009 feature from the director of all eight of the show’s episodes, Cary Fukunaga: Sin Nombre. I gave the film 3 ½ stars for the Buffalo News in August 2009.

Cary Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre” arrives mere months after “Slumdog Millionaire” won over the world with its magic realism, its sense of optimism and its concept of the possibility of triumph over poverty through hard work and perseverance.

“Slumdog” is a wonderful film. But “Sin Nombre,” while not quite as flashily memorable, is a more impactful, heartbreaking saga about what’s really at stake in the slums of the world.

The third film from this previously unknown director, “Sin” is the story of the intersection of two lives: that of Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran teenager who accompanies her long-absent father and uncle on a quest to America, and Willy, aka Casper, a gang-banger with a teardrop-tattoo, played by an appropriately rage-filled young actor named Edgar Flores.

Sayra, the more relatable and likable character of the two, hopes to join her recently deported (from the States) father in New Jersey, where he has a new life and family. Willy, meanwhile, spends his time with his girlfriend, mentoring a young hopeful dubbed Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) and hanging with his gang “homies” — yes, homie is the seemingly appropriate term, according to the film.

The gang hangout is a nightmare of guns and flesh, as members simultaneously fondle firearms, talk trash and ponder their enemies. The king of this lair is Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a face-tattooed, soft-spoken monster who cradles his infant while ordering murders. Mago is the film’s most memorable creation, all the more for being such a bundle of contradictions.

Soon, Willy and Mago clash, and Willy’s life changes in a split-second. It’s no surprise that he and Sayra soon come into contact, but the way they do is sudden, violent and, as handled by Fukunaga, cinematically brilliant.

Fukunaga, also the screenwriter, also understands the power of succinct dialogue. “Sin Nombre” is anything but a wordy film, yet simple sentences tell us a great deal.

Take a lovely scene in which Sayra and her father rest in a stopped train car. Her feet are wounded from the day’s walk. He pulls out a map to show her how far they’ve traveled thus far, and how long it will take them to get to the border — about two weeks. Her face betrays her disappointment, and she asks where New Jersey is. “New Jersey is not on the map,” he replies.

Another line is chilling in its implication. One of the gang members tells the others, “We’ll have to call the leaders in L.A.” In other words, this is not a Mexican problem — it’s an American problem, too, and it’s demonstrated here in a way stronger and less overblown than in recent works like “Babel” and “Fast Food Nation.”

Perhaps that’s why North American audiences have taken to the film. “Sin Nombre” was honored at the Sundance Film Festival for its direction and cinematography, and it’s easy to see why.

Yet the film is not without flaws, chiefly: predictable scripting and occasional bouts of directorial obviousness. The ending, especially, can be guessed from about the two-minute mark. But it’s a testament to the cast and filmmaker that this does not detract from its impact.

“Sin Nombre” is pretty close to a great film, a searing, violent story that heralds the arrival of a dynamic young filmmaker. It will be fascinating to see what Fukunaga does next.

One note on the rating. “Sin Nombre” is rated R, and this is sensible, I suppose, for a film that features cold-blooded murders aplenty, the implied feeding of a human to dogs, children with guns, some fleeting nudity and attempted rape. Yet, I think young Americans are probably the film’s ideal audience. Here, unvarnished and without mercy, is a window into a world — on this continent — where poverty and death seem to ooze from the streets. I think teenagers will find the film riveting, relatable and downright eye-opening.

Analyzing True Detective, the best TV drama in years

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HBO’s True Detective finished up last Sunday, and I continue to be mesmerized by the show. Part of the fun, of course, was reading various fan theories about what it all would add up to, but even going through episode recaps was involving, for me. Here are just some of the articles that helped make me enjoy a great show — the best TV drama since The Sopranos — even more:

Of course, there is lots more to be found, including plenty of episode and series recaps. There are also reviews from viewers disappointed by the finale. I was about as far from disappointed as one could get. Did the finale rise to the level of earlier episodes? Perhaps not, but it was close. It was satisfying, yet open-ended enough to allow for even more theorizing.

In short, it was a fine ending for a masterful series. What could be better than that?

Review: “I Am Breathing” is a Genuinely Inspirational Documentary on One Man’s Last Days

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In September of last year, I reviewed this fine documentary for The Playlist. The film can be rented on the website www.iambreathing.com.

Actor Josh Gad recently called the Ashton Kutcher-starring Steve Jobs biopic “inspirational,” and why wouldn’t he? There is no doubt Steve Jobs the man continues to inspire, but that word—“inspirational”—is thrown around by actors, filmmakers, and even critics with reckless abandon. (My favorite came from a review of “Kick-Ass 2” that seriously stated: “[A] a sequel … that is both emotionally engaging and ambitiously inspirational.”) Calling “Jobs”—and “Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” and most other pleasant bits of Oscar bait, for that matter—“inspirational” is an insult to “I Am Breathing,” a stunning, profoundly moving Scottish documentary by filmmakers Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon.

It is the story of Neil Platt, a 34-year-old father in the U.K. diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease (M.N.D.), also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (A.L.S.) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It is no spoiler to say that we are viewing the last years of Neil’s life; his illness is terminal, and essentially, “I Am Breathing” documents his preparations for saying goodbye to his wife, Louise, and adorable infant son, Oscar. During the course of the 73-minute film, we learn about Neil’s past as an architect, discover that he inherited the disease from his late father, and watch as he writes a blog about his life called “Plattitude” (iambreathing.com/plattitude), puts together a letter and “memory box” for Oscar, and gradually loses his battle with M.N.D.

The filmmakers take the time to show the ordinary, mundane difficulties of everyday life, like his son Oscar’s avoidance of his baby food (Neil’s response to the taste of the “organic, sugar-free” food: “Blimey!”). His mother visits, and looks through an old photo album with glee at images of Christmases and Halloweens past. Neil works on his own funeral arrangements, and describes his attempt at cancelling his phone contract: “‘Can I ask you why, sir?’ ‘Because I’m dying.’” We listen as Neil crafts his letter to Oscar, explaining how he and Louise met, and “one thing led to another,” followed by “our first house … and then came the icing on the cake: you.” Life goes on, then, for Neil, Louise, and Oscar; as Neil puts it, “It’s amazing how adaptable we are, when we need to be.”

It is, at times, an almost overwhelmingly difficult viewing experience. Consider that this is a disease in which, Neil says, “your senses are not dulled at all—only the motor stuff. So you feel everything.” Lines like this make it nearly impossible not to be moved, but like “Amour,” a film that seemed even more dramatic to audience members who have watched loved ones in the grips of dementia, parents of small children are liable to find “I Am Breathing” an even more emotional experience than other viewers might. As the parent of a 3-year-old boy, I found it overwhelmingly hard to watch Oscar give his father a kiss, or see video of Oscar’s first birthday party. (Neil was already starting to feel the effects of the disease by this point: “At Oscar’s first birthday party, I was struggling to breathe,” he writes on his blog.)

“I Am Breathing,” however, is also packed with humor, much of it thanks to the “cheeky” Neil’s acerbic outlook on life. Yet even during lighter moments, the disease remains first and foremost on the minds of his family, and the viewer. The attitude of Louise is especially—here’s that word—inspirational. Hers might be the trickiest position of all. “How do I keep going? It’s because I’m [so] proud of him,” she says. Neil understands the toughness of his wife’s position better than anyone. “I’m not sure if anyone other than me can comprehend the physical strain, the emotional strength, and the sheer power of character my wife has,” he writes. As the film progresses, the humor lessens, and the effects of the disease become increasingly pronounced. The last twenty minutes, especially, are as difficult to watch as any moments onscreen this year.

Perhaps the only unnecessary element of “I Am Breathing” is the soundtrack. The background music is mostly unobtrusive, but certainly not needed. It seems to cheapen things, a bit—it feels Hollywood, and the rest of the film is so refreshingly anti-Hollywood that the effect is more negative than it should be. The style of the film is almost no style at all—handheld, fly-on-the-wall photography with many sequences that almost look as if they could have been shot by a family member. This aesthetic does not call attention to itself … unlike the music. Still, that is one small misstep for Davie and McKinnon.

What is most noteworthy about “I Am Breathing” is what it is not: horrendously depressing. Sure, it is incredibly sad, especially every scene with young Oscar. But “I Am Breathing” is not a documentary intended to induce sobbing. It is, instead, a film about dying that is stunningly alive, wildly optimistic, and always insightful and entertaining. You want to throw around that word, “inspirational”? Use it to describe Neil Platt, and “I Am Breathing.” [A-]

War Horse, Lear, and Henry IV — from stage to screen

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The Dipson Theatres chain regularly show opera and theatrical events on the big screens at the Amherst Theatre or the Eastern Hills Mall, and a few that are certainly of note are screening in the months to come:

War Horse (March 16, Amherst Theatre)

I must admit, I was not inordinately impressed with Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, a film that seemed far too syrupy to make any kind of lasting impact. But I have long heard that the stage production is a stunner, especially its use of life-sized puppets. It played Shea’s Performing Arts Center not too long ago, but for those who missed it (like me), here is an opportunity to see it live … so to speak.

King Lear (May 25, Amherst Theatre)

Lear is one of my Shakespeare favorites, but I have never seen it live. What makes this National Theatre production especially interesting is its director: Sam Mendes. I am dying to see what the director of Skyfall has brought to the table.

Henry IV: Part 1 (June 5, Amherst Theatre); Henry IV: Part 2 (July 10, Amherst Theatre)

I don’t think I could ever tire of Falstaff portrayals, and this one, by actor Antony Sher, is said to be marvelous.

One week later: My Oscar analysis

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The Oscars were more than a week ago, yet they seem a year ago. Some brief thoughts on the winners and losers:

Wow: I am happily stunned that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. Quite honestly, I saw it as far too strong for the voting crowd. Perhaps that is why it won. For most viewers, watching Steve McQueen’s film is an overwhelming experience. It must have lingered for most voters.

No alarms and no surprises: Cuaron, McConaughey, Blanchett, and Leto were deserving winners — as I said before the Oscars, I’d have given it to McConaughey as a thank-you for True Detective — but a few surprises in those categories would have been nice.

The night’s real acting winner: Lupita Nyong’o. She gave the best speech, has the most memorable story, and, I think, gave the best performance.

Zeros: I was very sad to see American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street emerge empty-handed. For Hustle, with 10 nominations, it’s a bit of an embarrassment. While Wolf had five, it was not expected to win any; I accurately predicted it would lose them all. I truly believed, however, that Hustle would take screenplay and picture. What happened? Perhaps the entertaining film just faded from memory. Perhaps it was seen as too lightweight. Perhaps it just was not good enough.

Screenplay surprises: I was 0-for-2 on these, but happy to see John Ridley and Spike Jonze emerge victorious. These are daring, widly original scripts, and they deserve the acknowledgment.

Gravity wins big: Predicting Gravity to sweep the technical and effects categories was not particularly bold. Still, it’s noteworthy to see the film’s haul. In fact, the more I think about it, the more surprised I am that Gravity did not win Best Picture. So maybe there were some surprises after all …