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Thursday, January 7, 2016

2015: A Year of Two Great Actors Working Together

Will Oscar Shine a Spotlight on These Fine Films and Performances?

By Chris Sabga

The Weinstein Company studio co-chief Harvey Weinstein wrote an editorial for "The Hollywood Reporter" lamenting that several worthy films and performances will probably end up being snubbed by the Academy when it comes time to hand out Oscar nominations. Among those he cites are Ian McKellen in "Mr. Holmes" and Helen Mirren in "The Woman in Gold." Both are indeed wonderful performances. Weinstein also carries a torch for "Burnt," which I did not enjoy nearly as much as he apparently did. Of course, his motives are probably not entirely magnanimous – he is obligated to promote and defend his own studio's films, after all – but that doesn't mean he has any less of a point.

It's blasphemy to say in some cinematic circles, but I'm completely bored with the Oscars. Even though the Best Picture award now includes up to ten films, there are always ridiculous omissions. It's worse in the other categories, which still contain only five nominees – not that I'm advocating for an increase, because I'm definitely not. Don't get me wrong: I still love the excitement and frustration that accompanies every Oscar season, but the show itself is usually a bloated bore.

I don't have a crystal ball, but I am going to assume that most of these – but perhaps not all – will be absent when the Oscar nominations are announced. I'll be happy if I'm wrong.

My favorite Silver Screen Surprise of 2015 – "Predestination": I went back and forth on this one, but ultimately, this movie checked all the right boxes for me: Ethan Hawke, time travel, a great story (adapted from Robert A. Heinlein) with an authentic retro feel that kept me hooked, and fantastic performances (especially from Hawke and Sarah Snook). The Blu-ray is routinely $5 or $10, so you owe it to yourself to check it out. It's likely not for everyone, and it probably won't be on too many other lists, but keep an open mind and sample this mind-bending sci-fi treat.

My favorite television show of 2015 was "Wayward Pines." I am a sucker for these "special events": self-contained shows that are ten episodes or under ("Gracepoint" – which was my favorite in 2014 – was the same way). "Pines" was destination television for several weeks and the source of constant discussion. Terrence Howard, in particular, was memorable as the rum-raisin ice cream-gobbling sheriff facing off against Matt Dillon's frustrated gumshoe. As it turns out, a surprise season 2 is coming for "Wayward." Without spoiling anything, I'm not quite sure how that's going to work. I was excited when I first heard the news, but now I'm nervous.

My favorite performances of the year all featured two great actors working together and bouncing off each other. In "Mr. Holmes," Ian McKellen as an aging Sherlock Holmes and Milo Parker as his young apprentice made for a delightful duo From my review: At the heart and soul of the movie is the tender mentor-student relationship between Holmes and the boy. As Roger, newcomer Milo Parker delivers an outstanding performance that is every bit the equal of Ian McKellen's. That's no easy feat, because McKellen himself is fantastic as he switches between the great man with a gleam in his eye to the aging, fading legend who can barely get out of his own bed. He makes his incredible acting appear effortless – but it isn't, of course.

It shouldn't surprise anyone for Kate Winslet to turn in yet another stellar performance, as she did in "Steve Jobs" opposite Michael Fassbender, who was absorbing to watch as Jobs. What I wasn't expecting was for Winslet to almost take the movie for herself with her riveting portrait of Jobs lieutenant Joanna Hoffman. As I wrote at the time: The best supporting roles make you want to see a movie about them. Just as Tommy Lee Jones accomplished that as Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln," so does Winslet as Joanna Hoffman in "Steve Jobs."

I have a soft spot in my heart for Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro in "The Intern." Was there a cuter "couple" in 2015 than these two? They make it look so effortless that it's easy to forget they're really two acting heavyweights volleying back and forth.

And, of course, Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook take up most of the screen-time in "Predestination" – and they're spellbinding together.

I saw several older films too, and the most memorable was undoubtedly 1985's "The Last Dragon." In 2015, "racebending" – changing the race of an established character or archetype – became a major point of contention in movies, comics, and other forms of entertainment. Yet, "The Last Dragon" did exactly that with almost every character – and it worked. It helps, though, that its intentions were purer. The movie never felt like it was trying to be "progressive" for the sake of it. All anyone involved in this project wanted, it seems, was to have some fun and create an homage to the type of films they loved. Even though a black teenager is playing a martial arts master, Taimak still manages to give the role heart and authenticity.

A surprisingly great year for horror: I am not a big fan of the genre – that's what I don't pay Matt Wintz to write about – but I saw several great ones over the past twelve months. From 2015: "The Atticus Institute," "What We Do in the Shadows," and "Maggie." From earlier: "Trick 'r Treat," "The Babadook," and "Horns."

The best $1 DVD I bought all year: "Nothing But the Truth" – inspired by the real-life incidents involving CIA agent Valerie Plame and New York Times writer Judith Miller – is a fictional drama about a reporter who refuses to give up her source, despite mounting legal pressure. It features an incredible cast: Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Angela Bassett, Alan Alda, Vera Farmiga, David Schwimmer, Courtney B. Vance, and Noah Wyle. It would be easy to credit "Wayward Pines" as the reason I thought so highly of "Nothing But the Truth" – Matt Dillion plays very similar roles in both – but that would be shortchanging just how good this is. I have no idea how Alan Alda, especially, was passed over for an Oscar nomination. I'm glad I found it for a buck, but this is worth seeking out at any price. I loved it so much that I even bought extra copies to hand out as gifts.

The jury is still out on the Oscars. For all we know, Ian McKellen, Kate Winslet, and all of my other personal favorites from 2015 will sweep the nominations. It could actually happen for Winslet – she is an Oscar darling who is seemingly being positioned by the Academy as the modern Meryl Streep – but "Steve Jobs" was a commercial flop, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (what an earful) sometimes tends to shy away from those. Any nomination for "Steve Jobs" would probably be enough of an excuse for its studio, Universal, to re-release it in theaters in the hopes of capturing the audience that wasn't there the first time.

No matter what the Academy recognizes or doesn't, there will be plenty to talk about – and plenty more to see. I can't wait!

Today marks the third anniversary of Silver Screen Surprises. Whether this is your first time on the site or you've been here all along, thank you for reading!

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