And Best Supporting Actress goes to…a woman of colour. Hollywood’s diversity problem as reflected by this awards season

As the red carpet is rolled out, and awards season rolls around once more, the question on everyone’s lips is will #OscarsSoWhite become a thing of the past? Has Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ initiative to make the Academy of voters more inclusive worked? Or will they be doomed to repeat the hegemonic mistakes of 2016? 

It doesn’t look that way. Already IndieWire have reported that several films boasting racially diverse casts and crews are battling it out for Oscar inclusion and will inevitably disrupt the status quo. However, before we wax lyrical about Hollywood’s newfound commitment to diversity, there’s another worrying trend that has caught my attention….

As campaigns gain momentum and various nominations are revealed – both the Golden Globes and the SAGs were announced this week – one thing particularly struck me. If you take a look at the four main acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress), across the predominant awards announced or decided thus far (Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Critics Choice, Indie Spirit Awards; the Oscars have yet to be announced), diversity is far less of an issue in the Supporting arena than it is in the Leading one.

The main Best Actor contenders this year are as follows:

  • Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea 
  • Joel Edgerton – Loving
  • Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling – La La Land
  • Tom Hanks – Sully
  • Denzel Washington – Fences
  • Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington is also a bit of a misnomer because he’s transcended the typical risk-aversiveness to black actors by securing a status of bankability.

The main Best Actress contenders this year are as follows:

  • Amy Adams – Arrival
  • Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
  • Isabelle Huppert – Elle
  • Ruth Negga – Loving
  • Natalie Portman – Jackie
  • Emma Stone – La La Land
  • Emily Blunt – The Girl on the Train (an SAG anomaly, not really a contender, to put it, well, bluntly).
  • Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

Represented across these two categories you have 2 people of colour out of 15, so roughly 13%.

The main Best Supporting Actor contenders are: 

  • Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges –  Hell or High Water
  • Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel – Lion
  • Michael Shannon  – Nocturnal Animals
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals
  • Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins

And finally, for Best Supporting Actress we have: 

  • Viola Davis – Fences
  • Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
  • Naomie Harris – Moonlight
  • Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
  • Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures
  • Nicole Kidman – Lion
  • Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Whereas in the supporting category you have 6 out of 15, where the percentage increases to 40%. This trend is particularly prominent in the Best Supporting Actress category, where out of 7 contenders, 4 are black women.

If we were to rewind and take a whistle-stop tour of the Academy Awards from it’s inception, this trend is repeatedly confirmed. That is, that women of colour are far more likely to be nominated, and to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar than they are a Leading Actress one.

And even then, the odds are unfavourably stacked.

Hattie MacDaniel was the first black woman to win Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for Gone With the Wind. It then took 51 years until the next: Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost in 1990. Another 16 years passed before Jennifer Hudson took home the gong for Dreamgirls.

To keep things recent, if we look at the period between 2000 and 2016, there’s been a comparative flurry of wins and nominations for women of colour in this category:

  • Lupita N’yongo won in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave
  • Octavia Spencer won in 2011 for The Help
  • Mo’Nique won in 2009 for Precious
  • In 2008, both Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson were nominated for Doubt and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button respectively.
  • Ruby Dee was nominated in 2007 for American Gangster
  • Jennifer Hudson won in 2006 for Dreamgirls
  • Sophie Okonedo was nominated in 2004 for Hotel Rwanda
  • Shohreh Aghdashloo was nominated in 2003 for House of Sand and Fog
  • Queen Latifah was nominated in 2002 for Chicago

Whereas in the Leading Actress category Halle Berry remains the first and only woman of colour to have accepted the award, for her performance in Monster’s Ball in 2001.

There have been a handful of nominations through the same period:

  • Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated in 2012 for Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Viola Davis was nominated for The Help in 2011
  • Gabourey Sidibe nominated for Precious in 2009
  • Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated in 2004 for Maria Full of Grace
  • Salma Hayek was nominated for Frida in 2002.

But the success rate is paltry when compared with Supporting Actress. Indeed, black actresses are 5 times more likely to win Best Supporting, than Best Leading Actress. And if that doesn’t hit home hard enough, a brilliant chart released by TIME last year visualises the scarcity of nominations at the Oscars for actors of colour. It’s a veritable sea of whiteness (or in this case yellow dots, which stand for white actors nominated).

ruthneggaloving

And this year looks to be no different. Despite attention being given to Ruth Negga for her performance in Loving, as well as the ensemble casts of Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences, odds are on Natalie Portman or Emma Stone to walk away with the Oscar.

The SAG nominations released on Wednesday saw three women of colour nominated in the supporting role category; Naomie Harris as a crack addicted mother in Moonlight is joined by two other black actresses (Fences‘ Viola Davis and Hidden Figures’ Octavia Spencer), marking the first time women of colour have been nominated in the majority.

moonlight-naomie-harris davis la-et-mn-hidden-figures-trailer-20160815-snap

 
N.B. Entertainment Weekly incorrectly reported that this also happened at the 15th SAG Awards in 2009 where Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis and Penelope Cruz were all nominated, alongside Kate Winslet and Amy Adams. However Cruz is Spanish and therefore considered White, not Hispanic.

It’s a highly competitive category, but my money’s on Davis, Harris or Williams to win, once again placing the chances of a woman of colour securing a highly prestigious award with Best Supporting, rather than Leading. Which might seem like the epitome of a #FirstWorldProblem. ‘Oh no, you get to wear a beautiful dress and Hollywood applauds you whilst you pick up a shiny gold man and thank everyone you know in front of the entire world. Poor you’. Right? Except this trend speaks to a wider issue within the industry, and that’s the vitiation or peripheralization of women of colour in film.

So why is that? It can’t be coincidence that ethnic female actresses are more likely to get nominated in the supporting category. And you’d be right. It’s not coincidental. At risk of sounding like the chorus of Greased Lightning, it’s epidemic, systematic, bureaucratic and quite frankly racist. The issue is far more deep-rooted than governing bodies such as HFPA, AMPAAS and SAG-AFTRA are simply more willing to recognise women of colour in supporting than leading roles. It’s that the leading roles don’t exist in the first place for them to be recognised.

Viola Davis has spoken out about the relegation of black actresses to marginalised roles. She believes that there’s “a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles” which young white actresses can look up to. “You can’t say that for a lot of young black girls.”

Indeed, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University report examined the 100 top-grossing films at the US box office in 2015, noting the ethnic and gender makeup of 2,500 characters. Executive director Dr Martha M Lauzen found that women made up just 22% of key players, up from 12 per cent in 2014. The proportion of female characters was the highest since records began in 2002, when the previous best figure of 18% was posted.

The same upwards trend wasn’t discovered for female actors of colour, however. The survey found their representation in top Hollywood films was largely unchanged compared with 2014: 27% of leading female characters and 13% of all female characters were identified as being from ethnic-minority backgrounds in this year’s report.

If the representation isn’t there, then the critical reception and subsequent awards recognition simply can’t be.

As a report for The Economist delineates,

For most of the past 15 years, the Academy has largely judged what has been put in front of them: minority actors land 15% of top roles, 15% of nominations and 17% of wins…. The view behind the scenes is perhaps more revealing. Blacks really are much more under-represented in the director’s chair, where they account for 6% of directors of the top 600 films, according to the Annenberg study. Black women are nearly nonexistent there (two of the 600, Ava DuVernay being one).

If consumers want their films to reflect the society in which they live—as they do their parliaments and executive boards—it is these areas that must see improvement.

20160123_woc197

However, the representational issue is largely an economic one.

Studios, ultimately, hold the financial power to greenlight which movies get made and which don’t, and sadly they’re the crux of the issue when it comes to Hollywood’s homogeneity problem. Because believe it or not, most of the Hollywood’s top dogs and studio executives are white men. If you want to click through a depressingly honest slide-show that evidences this fact, be my guest. And in a very insightful breakdown of who has ‘greenlighting power’, The Wrap illuminates the fact that aside from Warner Bros. Entertainment’s chief executive Kevin Tsujihara, the top leaders of the 10 biggest movie studios in the world are white. And two are women. (Though this was published in 2013, so the dynamics might have shifted slightly…but you can guess where the majority still remains).

Martha Lauzen agrees that we’ll “see greater diversity on-screen when we see greater diversity behind the scenes”.  It’s a problem that needs solving from the inside out. But herein lies the obstacle. Studios don’t like when there’s not a precedent for something. They like reliability. They like established fan bases. They love franchises.  And there isn’t a precedent for all-black movies with a plethora of roles for women of colour, because this be America y’all and if the election of Trump taught us anything it’s that the US is profoundly sexist and racist, and so the likelihood of those kinds of movies getting made isn’t just slim, it’s anorexic.

The average production budget of a studio film is between $50M and $100M, on top of which there are marketing costs, which is a hella zeroes. Hence why studios are overwhelmingly reluctant and hesitant when it comes to backing films, especially when they’re new and innovative and don’t possess that all-important template for success. Hence why they prefer to pump their money into Transformers 9 and Mission Impossible 7.

Don Cheadle spoke candidly to Robbie Collin for The Telegraph in promotion of his Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, in which he laid bare the realities of film financing and the risk-averse (read: mainstream, read: white) nature of the industry;

Problem one was finding people to fund an unusual jazz biopic with a black lead character. As Cheadle says, “Everyone but everyone wanted to be the second person to say yes.” In the end, he had to chip in an undisclosed sum himself.

“It was a chunk,” he says, wadding up the last word like papier-mâché in his mouth. “Biggest investment of my life, no question”.

Similarly, Viola Davis and Tom Hanks in their ‘Actors on Actors’ interview for Variety confirm that a racially diverse cast, or indeed a predominantly black cast, does not yet equal ‘commercial success’ in Hollywood and as ever, ethics comes second to economics. (Now would be the point I’d trot out my Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery to win the American Civil War, not because he was a moral crusader argument, but that’s another essay).

actors1

“I’m used to playing housewives and maids and crack-heads…if it is a black movie, at best it’s a biopic”, says Davis on Hollywood’s diversity problem. Writers, casting directors and studios are still confined to stereotypes, generalisations and broad-strokes when it comes to characters of ethnic backgrounds. The nuances and realities are simply not there.

Hanks goes on to confirm “a film has to play overseas to make its investment back…it becomes a barrier to [diversity]”.

This filters back to the Oscars, because, you guessed it, those campaigns cost money. Earlier this year, AdWeek reported that according to conservative estimates, anywhere from $3 million to more than $10 million is invested to lobby academy voters on behalf of the Best Picture nominees alone”. Ultimately, this means that films being distributed by bigger studios (Paramount, the Weinstein Co., Universal) are more likely to get their players in the game, because they have the cash to splash. Certainly independent studios and outfits are starting to penetrate that elite circle and films with smaller budgets are increasingly earning wider audiences, as proved at the 2016 Oscars when Fox Searchlight’s Brooklyn, A24’s Room and Open Road’s Spotlight landed a combined 13 Academy Award nominations. But, look at the casts of those films – not a single one contains a minor role, let alone a leading one for women of colour.

The obstacles to racial equality in cinema are monumental and whilst this means we must celebrate every nomination a female actress from an ethnic background achieves, we must also be careful to vindicate this year as a ‘sea-change’. It might be a turning point, but it’s only a starting point.

Without trying to minimise the achievement that is earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination, we shouldn’t consider this ‘job done’ and think that one year where an awards season is more reflective of diverse talent pool signifies the end point for this conversation. Just because there’s no hashtag, doesn’t mean the debate has died. Women of colour are capable of more than supporting, and enabling their white co-stars. They should be elevated to the title of leading actress wherever possible and given the platform and support that increases their visibility, both during awards season and in general. They have stories of their own to tell, and the film industry needs to do better at sourcing, producing and green-lighting those stories.

maxresdefault

So yes, based on last year, awards season has become a picture of progressiveness. But that wasn’t exactly difficult. The Oscars literally left a blank, stark white canvas beckoning to be coloured. The issue here is that recognition in the Best Supporting Actress category is still a marginalisation of sorts. For women in general, who are more often than not circumscribed by ancillary characters. And for women of colour, who are still usurped by the ruling class, who must watch as their white female peers get nominated once again for Leading Actress, whilst they settle for the next best thing. Sure, Best Supporting Actress is a pretty fancy consolation prize. But bottom bunk is still bottom bunk.

Review: Room

A film ‘inspired by’ the notorious Josef Fritzl case and warning of a ‘strong abduction theme’ could easily be dismissed as harrowing awards fodder, replete with tearful reunions and traumatic flashbacks.

But Lenny Abrahamson (last seen unleashing quirk in full throttle with Frank) is a smarter director than that, and screenwriter Emma Donoghue knows the source material better than that (she did after all pen the novel it’s based upon). Together, they’ve stripped the story back to its most gripping core and Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack’s (Jacob Tremblay) story is ultimately one of survival.

Despite assumptions, it’s not all desperately sad. At its heart, Room is about a mother and son, and if nothing more, it tingles with the triumph of the human spirit.

Screen-Shot-2015-09-09-at-10.58.15-PM-640x360

Room immediately depicts a sense of claustrophobia, using tight close-ups to showcase the sparsely-furnished prison – objects all personified by 5 year old Jack – and to illustrate the startling intimacy of a mother and her child, obligated to breathe the same squalid air day in and day out. However, by envisioning the space from a child’s perspective it becomes a canvas for his imagination, as yet unburdened by the agonising circumstances of his existence.

As a result, their relationship is both fraught with the frustrations of their limitations (Jack is mad at Ma for forgetting the candles on his birthday cake, not awed by her ability to whip one up at all), and the site of overwhelming tenderness. Ma has lovingly created a routine (involving ‘track’, reading, play, tea and bath-time) and a sense of normality for her son. In some regards she has sacrificed her own sanity to enable her son to live freely and contently, for Room is all he has ever known.

16ROOM-master675.jpg

When their captor ‘Old Nick’ – a man only ever glimpsed by Jack through wardrobe slats, as he pay regular visits to restock their cupboards and rape Ma – reveals his on-going struggle to provide for them, Ma knows his ‘kindness’ wouldn’t extend to keeping them alive. It’s at this point Room becomes a story of gripping intensity, as Ma hatches a plan to escape, reliant on Jack’s ability to both understand and operate in a world he has never been a part of, let alone knew existed.

Despite assumptions, it’s not all desperately sad. At its heart, Room is about a mother and son, and if nothing more, it tingles with the triumph of the human spirit.

Brie Larson avoided the su64176n and lived on a protein-rich diet to gain the pallid complexion and sinewy limbs of a young woman forced to spent 7 years of her life in an 100 square foot room. But her transformation runs deeper than the appearance of obvious deprivation. For an actress predominantly seen in comedic supporting roles (21 Jump Street, Trainwreck), you could be forgiven for describing her performance as revelatory. More than that, it’s astonishingly layered. In Ma’s eyes, we witness every strain and every patience tested. We feel the urgency of her revealing the truth to Jack and we glimpse her remembrance of a life outside of Room, of a childhood innocence brutally snatched away. Even in acts of seeming cruelty – wrapping her son up in a rug as he plays dead and willing him to repeatedly roll himself free – we sense nothing but unconditional love. Ma is a woman on the brink and Larson imbues her with a tenacity and shrewdness, conveying both her devastating vulnerability and bristling with a maternal fierceness.

Of course the very nature of the plot requires a young actor able to hold his own against Larson’s powerhouse performance. And Jacob Tremblay does just that. It’s not surprising he calls Larson his ‘best friend’, for the closeness they exude is remarkable. At every turn Tremblay manages to express Jack’s innocence, petulance, curiosity and finally, his wide-eyed wonder in experiencing a series of firsts.

Room-1200x794.png

Joan Allen and William H. Macy provide reliable, understated support as the parents having to adjust to their daughter’s return and taking small steps to introduce their grandson to the realities of the world. The clever design of their home and the suffocating presence of the media also hint at whether Ma and Jack are just as much captives outside of Room.

RoomLennyAbrahamson1We’ve seen Abrahamson achieve a balance between absurdity and hilarity with the wondrous Frank and with Room he proves himself adept at crafting an intelligent and intense drama from a child’s perspective without succumbing to mawkishness. He never milks Jack’s naiveté, but rather carefully harnesses it to create moments of severe poignancy and potency. Tremblay’s scenes with the underrated Allen (who isn’t seen in enough movies) are particularly wrenching, as Jack innocently reveals details of the torment he and Ma endured.

As agonizing as the transition process is for all involved – the audience especially – it’s a testament to all involved that you can never tear yourself away. In a malevolent and unpredictable world, where Ma’s kindness was met with an act of unimaginable cruelty, Abrahamson finds a beauty and solace.

Verdict: Disturbing and absorbing in equal measure. Whether or not it takes home the Best Picture Oscar, Room is a real win for independent cinema, and a brilliant showcase for how a film – small in scope and budget – can have a big impact.

Review: The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, is a sensual and occasionally moving film, but one that altogether lacks gumption or dynamism.

Telling the story of Lili Elbe, an artist who became one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, Hooper employs a sedate and sumptuous approach that may have suited his Oscar-winning biopic The King’s Speech, but feels somewhat inappropriate here.

We first meet Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) as the picture of marital bliss. Flirtatious, loving and both artistically-inclined, theirs is a relationship of complete affinity, so much so that Gerda describes her first kiss with Einar as though it was like ‘kissing myself’.

It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.

The couple are bohemian royalty, with Einar enjoying relative fame and success as a landscape painter and Gerda – though slighted by her own lack of recognition as a portraitist – content to frolic at society parties and lavish amid the dreamy surroundings of Copenhagen circa 1926.

The_Danish_Girl_trailer.jpg

However that happiness is no sooner established than quickly punctured by Einar’s apparent fetish for femininity and all that comes with it. Asked to sit in for their ballet dancer friend (a playful Amber Heard), whom Gerda is painting, Einar – feigning reluctance, though visibly animated – dons stockings, shoes and a dress and adopts an elegant pose. The picture is all too funny for Gerda, but for Einar it stirs a feeling of deep-seated dissatisfaction with his masculine identity. Touching the silk fabrics, there are already glimmers that he might feel more complete, more himself, were he to embrace a different persona altogether.

It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.

Gerda, still caught up in the heady hilarity of her husband’s pantomime, encourages Einar to attend a party with her dressed as a woman. Together they conjure up Lili, a bashful cousin of Einar’s, whom bears a striking resemblance to him. As Lili gradually begins to manifest full time, the film become more parodic.

Redmayne does a marvellous job of conveying Einar’s inner turmoil, and certainly as he gazes at himself in the mirror, distorting his own body to adopt a womanly form, one can’t fail to be convinced of the transformative talents of the very actor that became Stephen Hawking for last year’s The Theory Of Everything. But here the very casting a cisgender man lends falseness to the entire film, for Redmayne cannot very well become a woman. Despite his earnest attempts at delicacy and elegance, he is ultimately playing dress-up and his performance often consists more of certain poses, movements or facial expressions than it does of an underlying sense of womanhood. Redmayne captures the subtleties of body language, but all too often it feels affected and superficial.

the-danish-girl-tdy-pc-tease-ae_9feb44192d5a1d032e31c8f03c130f4f.jpg

As Einar begins to consider the possibility of becoming Lili full-time, and consulting doctors that could grant his wish, Gerda’s career begins to soar. Her portraits of Lili find an audience in Paris and as she becomes increasingly visible to society, her husband slowly disappears.

Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film. Where Redmayne is all poise and grace, hers is a performance that feels spontaneous and raw, every emotion possible flickering across her face as Gerda grapples with Einar’s new identity. The scene where Gerda begs Lili to give her her husband back is perhaps the most gut wrenching.

the-danish-girl-review-004.jpg

It’s hard to fault the filmmaking. Hooper is a director obsessed with perfection and wherever you look there is more exquisite scenery and furniture and fabric to absorb. The protagonist’s lives might be falling apart, but dammit their sofas can be flawlessly upholstered. It’s this tendency to prettify that becomes the film’s and ironically, Lili’s, undoing.

Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film.

The precise, calculated style feels too measured and not messy enough for the subject matter at hand. The painterly aesthetic might reflect its protagonist’s craft, however it doesn’t do justice to the challenge and trauma of Lili’s transition. Even when threat looms in the form of prejudiced assailants or dangerously conventional doctors, it feels tentative and performative rather than real and frightening.

Hooper and co-wreddie-redmayne-alicia-vikander-the-danish-girl.jpgiter Lucinda Coxon have not only neatened Lili’s story and presumably made it more palatable for mainstream cinema-going audiences (and no doubt Oscar voters), but rather worse cut it short. Lili died at the age of 49 from a fatal womb transplant after enduring a series of operations, and therefore it seems unlikely she had a moment of epiphanic self-acceptance before conceding to death in Gerda’s arms, shortly followed by an overwhelmingly saccharine scene – that practically yells SYMBOLISM – where Lili’s scarf drifts across the Danish landscapes she hitherto committed to canvas.

Indeed Gerda’s own life took a sour turn. She did not get swept off her feet by the dashing Matthias Schoenaarts (as Hooper would have you believe), but married an Italian officer who drained her of all her financial resources. (Read more about the true story here).

The Danish Girl, for all its good intentions, is a contrived vanity project that sadly diminishes the struggle of Lili’s transformation. I walked away from the cinema thinking it was all very lovely, which I fear, was hardly the point.

10 of My All-Time Favourite ‘Best Picture’ Oscar Winners

hero460_oscars There’s a little awards ceremony happening this weekend that recognises emerging talent in the film industry, colloquially referred to as the Oscars. If you know about film, you might have heard of it? In celebration of this grand occasion, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite winners in the Best Picture category.

 

12 Years a Slave (2013) 1915593

Unflinching, visceral filmmaking at its most powerful. 12 Years a Slave not only proved cinema as an art form of great integrity, but one of absolute necessity. Unlike 2005 Best Picture winner Crash, which despite being a good film, I felt was awarded the honour for all the wrong reasons, 12 Years a Slave thoroughly earned it’s place in a long and prestigious history. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so exhausted and shaken by a film, and if that’s not testament to it’s power, I’m not sure what is. The films it was up against that year were artistically adventurous (Her, Gravity, Nebraska), topically risky (The Wolf of Wall Street) and ideologically important (Dallas Buyers Club). But 12 Years a Slave was all of that combined. And then some. See full review here.

Titanic (1997)

titanic-movie-picture-11I’ve unashamedly harboured a profound, undying, unsinkable love for Titanic ever since I saw it at the age of 12, and became promptly besotted with Jack and Rose’s love story. Though with hindsight, it’s a little dated and yes, long, to me it represents everything momentous that cinema can achieve. In all it’s vastness and awe-inspiring production design however, the detail is never lost. We are with Jack and Rose every step of the way – engulfed, submerged and utterly lost in their tragic adventure. Every time I watch it (going on 14 times), I somehow think (SPOILER ALERT) Jack might just cling on this time slash Rose might just have the sense to budge over. At the time of it’s release it was the most expensive movie ever made, and continued to drown in superlatives as it bagged 11 Oscars and became the highest-grossing film, only to be ousted by another James Cameron blockbuster: Avatar.  I’m a romantic at heart, and Titanic taps into that notion. Oh sure, it’s corny and melodramatic and I’ll never not find it ridiculous just how many times Jack and Rose are forced back down into the lower decks. But I’ll also never regret investing 3 hours in a film that is so epically, painstakingly and beautifully constructed.

Forrest Gump (1994)

originalWho can fail to fall in love with Forrest Gump? In the unravelling of his story director Robert Zemeckis has created one of the most enduring, universal and magical films of its time. Indeed, of all time. The only other two real contenders that year were Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, but both took their time in receiving the same level of acclaim as Forrest Gump. It was the out and out winner if just for its sheer ability to touch even those irredeemably, unfathomably cynical.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) The-Silence-of-the-Lambs

This has crept in above the likes of Casablanca, The Godfather Part II and The English Patient because though it’s not a cinematic artefact, the creme de la creme of its genre, or a sweeping love story, it is an expertly-crafted and thoroughly terrifying psychological thriller that manages to incite fear some 20 years after its initial release. (Seriously, look at the picture to the right and tell me your spine isn’t shivering). Taking a leaf out of Hitchcock’s book, Jonathan Demme cranks up the tension to an unbearable degree as Clarice Sterling is forced to make an unlikely ally in Hannibal Lecter in order to capture spine-chilling, serial-killing Buffalo Bill. In blending the macabre with the masterful, Demme creates a film that simultaneously has you hiding behind a blanket/your hands/an unwitting companion and not wanting to tear yourself away.

Dances with Wolves (1990)

dances-with-wolves-8A somewhat nostalgic selection that recalls Sunday afternoons spent with my father watching movie classics (Field of Dreams, The Last of the Mohicans, The Great Escape, e.t.c). Traversing the American landscape with an astute and beloved eye, Kevin Costner is at his peak as both actor and director. As Lieutenant Dunbar immerses himself in the Sioux tribe – learning of their customs, language and traditions – we too are invited along to both marvel at, and sympathise with, the Native American people. It’s an ambitious and visionary piece of filmmaking that recalls and subverts the forefathers of its genre; at once romanticising the great open plains, but never falling back on racial polarisations or dichotomous stereotypes. Set during the American Civil war at a time of savage conflict and bitter rivalries, Dances With Wolves proved itself to be an antidote to the era’s brutalities – an elegiac saga, but one charged with passion and appreciation for its subject. A sublime, spectacular story and a Sunday afternoon well-spent.

Rain Man (1988) tom-cruise-rain-man-1988

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise as the polar opposite Babbitt brothers provide two compelling performances, in a sincere road movie of sorts. Thought-provoking without being didactic, Rain Man fostered a changing of societal perceptions towards autism, encouraging people to embrace savants rather than alienate them. Arguably simplistic and sentimental, this film is nevertheless illuminating, heartfelt and frequently hilarious. In a year that pitted it against Working Girl, Mississippi Burning, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Accidental Tourist, where the others are entertaining, Rain Man is enduring. I’ve been trying to correctly guess the number of cocktail sticks in a box ever since.

Ordinary People (1980) optimized-redford-hutton-ordinary

Ordinary though it may seem, therein lies the charm of Robert Redford’s suburban family drama. Searingly intimate, there are times this portrait of the unravelling Jarrett family feels more like a documentary. There are no sublime special effects or mind-boggling technical feats, Redford simply harnesses the power of the two greatest tricks of cinema – acting and storytelling. As the various foibles and conflicts of the characters are explored, Redford displays astonishing restraint, nuance and assurance, coaxing Oscar-worthy performances from his cast. The death of a son may have been dealt with repeatedly in cinematic terms, but perhaps never so extraordinarily. (Though it has to be mentioned, this was the same year Martin Scorcese’s boxing masterpiece Raging Bull was nominated and in both the categories of ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’ I am surprised it didn’t win – had it, it would’ve most definitely earned a place on this list).

Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)

kramer3 Another humdrum family drama elevated by the standard of acting delivered within. This time Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play a sparring couple in a bitter custody battle. Technically, there isn’t too much that warrants our curiosity, but when a relatively un-outstanding story manages to engage its audience and tug on your heartstrings, well then attention is deserved. Even the kid playing the kid is fantastic. What’s more, is that it’s quite unique in that it’s the mother who leaves the family in search of freedom and fulfilment and the father who’s left behind to pick up the pieces and juggle his family and a career. I also found myself not taking sides as dramatically as I had expected. Kramer Vs. Kramer fleshes out all of its main characters beautifully, in a way that’s believable and touching and doesn’t encourage you to pass judgment, but rather to empathise with a complex and painful decision. Despite the havoc that divorce wreaks, the film is a hopeful one, and all the better for it. Though I would still advise you to keep a box of tissues nearby.

The Sting (1973) 1973_the_sting_008

This is one of my all-time favourite films; let alone whether it was nominated, or succeeded to make good on that nomination. The Sting is irresistibly cool and seductive cinema at its finest, what’s more, it pairs up Robert Redford and Paul Newman, who in my eyes can do no wrong. It’s Chicago in the 1930s and the pair are con-men making their mark for the ultimate swindle. It’s sizzling, energetic storytelling – a crime caper in which the two leads are the kind of bad you root for regardless. There’s poker, period costume and laughs aplenty; its old-school razzle-dazzle Hollywood at it’s most bewitching.

The Godfather (1972)

godfather-brandoNo ‘all-time favourite’ list would be complete without The Godfather. This sumptuous family saga is what the words ‘timeless’ and ‘classic’ were made for, and Francis Ford Coppola achieved a feat that little do – he made a film dripping with both style and substance. Immersing himself in the sinister, yet loyal trappings of the Corleone family, he created the mother – or godfather – of all organised crime films. He defined a genre. As youngest son Michael Corleone resists his calling, with brutal consequences, the underbelly to the gangster world is unveiled in all its horse-beheading glory. With a magnificent cast that includes Marlon Brandon, Robert Duvall and Al Pacino, Coppola manages to both engage his audience – and dare I say it, elicit their sympathy – whilst simultaneously explicating the rampant violence as vengeance mounts upon vengeance. Transcendent, explosive filmmaking; an offer you’d be imbecilic to refuse.

***

And there you have my list. Disagree at your behest. I could certainly have made an argument to include On The Waterfront, American Beauty, No Country For Old Men and The Artist, but these are the films I visit time and time again; for inspiration, for nostalgia, for pure enjoyment. This year’s nominees are:

American Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Find out this coming Sunday which one will take home the historic accolade. I’ll be live-blogging every win, every false smile, every J-Law stumble right here.

5 Female Directors You Should Know…

The paucity of female filmmakers has almost reached the point of media saturation. It doesn’t take long to find statistics or editorials decrying the severe scantiness of a female perspective in the film industry. As well as being an all-white affair, this year’s Academy Awards are once again male-dominated, with zero women being nominated in the Directing or Cinematography categories. However, I would contend that it’s not because there is an actual lack of talented, insightful and masterful women helming films but rather fewer opportunities presented to them.

I was reading a piece in The Guardianthe other day about a film critic who is vowing to watch films only penned, or purposed by women. Her justification for including male-directed, but female-written film is as follows:

“A lot of times a woman will write a script and in order to get it made, she’ll need a male director. If she goes to a financier, as a female screenwriter with a female director, she will be turned down. But if you have a female screenwriter and a male director who has one or two films behind him – or even if it’s his debut – financiers are more likely to back a film by a man”.

And in that brief statement, Gates articulates the core issue. Gender discrimination in Hollywood is pervasive, and destructive. It’s like a community sitting atop a vast field of untapped oil, and being told it doesn’t exist – that those resources are somehow inferior, or less visible than the ones they have access to. That would be a massive squandering of potential, and quite frankly, ridiculous. Yet the difficulty women have making movies, or making money making movies, is often viewed as ‘just the way it is’.

Here to prove that point – that it’s not a lack of female directors, but a lack of opportunity – are 5 up-and coming or established directors who are doing their thing, and doing it quite brilliantly. Of course there are plenty more that deserve your curiosity, but these are the ladies currently capturing my attention…

5. KKat+Coiro+Case+Premieres+Tribeca+Film+Festival+a1ZquC2imW_lat Coiro

With three feature-length projects under her belt in as many years, Coiro is perhaps the most prolific director of my selection. Her films And While We Were Here, (which I review in my last blog post), Life Happens, and A Case of You, often focus on the difficult choices that women are faced to make, such as between career and family. The critical response to her films has been mixed, however her female leads are all intriguing, flawed but ultimately likeable people that don’t necessarily have their shit all figured out. Particularly interesting in A Case of You is how the male lead (playing by the affable Justin Long) is the one trying to change, and mould himself to lure his love interest, which is so often the other way around in romantic comedies directed by men. Her films are in turn delicate, nuanced, witty and beautifully realised. And While We Here particularly showcases an artistic vision and her potential as a director of great potency.

In_a_World_poster4. Lake Bell

If you haven’t see In A World… steal a friend’s Netflix password immediately. It’s hilarious and relevant, and reveals actress Lake Bell to not only be a great comedic performer, but also a very astute director. It’s a satirical piece that charts a young woman’s attempt to compete in the male-dominated world of voiceovers and Bell never misses a beat nor an opportunity to underscore the double-standarded nature of the entertainment business. In A World… is a pacy and well-crafted feature length debut for Bell, and one that has me incredibly, insatiably excited for her collaboration with Noah Baumbach for her next project The Emperor’s Children. 

Amma Asante3. Amma Asante

Belle might be better known for launching EE Rising Star nominee Gugu Mbatha-Raw into the spotlight, but behind her confident, multi-faceted performance is Ghanian-British director Asante. Tackling the slave trade – especially after awards-sweeper 12 Years a Slave – in an original and sensitive way, is no mean feat, but it is one that Asante achieves with the deft of a director considerably more experienced. This is her first big-budget film, after her smaller 2004 debut A Way of Life, which won a handful of awards and lots of praise. Powerful, poignant and intelligent, Belle is a mischievous, and much-needed divergence from traditional period costume-dramas and one that has me hoping it doesn’t take Asante another 10 years to release a film.

fid131102. Haifaa Al-Mansour

Al-Mansour is from Saudi Arabia, a country where extreme restrictions and limitations are placed on the female population; where they aren’t allowed to wear certain clothes, drive cars or compete in sports, let alone direct a groundbreaking and thought-provoking film. But against these curtailments of her freedom, that’s exactly what Al-Mansour did with Wadjda in 2013, a courageous, endearing and important film that picked up several awards nominations on the film festival circuit. Al-Mansour is to make the cross over to Hollywood with a Mary Shelley biopic, in which Elle Fanning is slated to star in the titular role. Let’s hope she continues to push boundaries upon arrival.

BN-FZ257_ava2_DV_201412111612591. Ava DuVernay

If there’s one name you should remember from this year’s awards season, its Ava DuVernay. Though she just missed out on a Best Directing nomination for her Martin Luther King biopic Selma, she has done something arguably much more admirable – broken through the glass ceiling. Historical films such as this are predominantly the reserve of a male director and it’s rare for a woman to be charged with detailing the events surrounding one of the most important victories for the Civil Rights movement, as spear-headed by the most important figure of the Civil Rights movement. And yet she does it in blistering, gutsy and and complex style. She’s got filmmaking verve by the bucketload, and shows great amounts of restraint and intelligence in her formal approach. DuVernay might not pick up any awards, but she should win herself a legion of fans and cement her position as a talent to take serious note of.