My Oscar Ballot 2013

It’s that time of year again.  Time to prognosticate about the Academy Award winners as best I can.  Unlike past years, this time around I feel like I’ve seen a lot more nominees than in past years.  Granted the expanded size of the Best Picture pool helps with that, but still – I did pretty well.  And I’m not done yet – we have plans to squeeze in another 2 or 3 films this week, but my ballot for the office pool is due, so I’m going to just lock in my picks now and go with my best guesses.  As always, the fine folks at EW helped me a bit on the shorts and the docs.

Best Picture – 7 of 9 films seen

What I’m loving this year is that very few categories, including this one, are a foregone conclusion.  There is a real horse race here, and if you’d asked me a couple of months ago, I would have told you Lincoln was just too strong not to win.  It’s got a mix that the voters love – historical fiction, strong acting, and Spielberg.  But the awards season has put a lot of momentum behind Argo, and once I saw it I understood why; and it’s getting my vote.  A BP winner that isn’t nominated for Director is rare, but if there was ever a year it could happen, this is it.  The dark horse here could be Silver Linings Playbook, which has a thinner plot, but acting that will knock your socks off (hence 4 noms for the leads).

Actor – 3 of 5 seen

Let’s be honest, there is one category this year that is a lock, and this is it.  Put your money on Daniel Day-Lewis for his deeply engrossing portrait of our 16th president.  Which is a shame, because Bradley Cooper is really amazing, and Hugh Jackman is…Hugh Jackman.  Need I say more about him?

Actress – 2 of 5 seen

I’m feeling guilty for being under-informed here, as I’ve heard how all the nominees were stellar this year.  I think we will very soon see Jessica Chastain pick up an award, and little Quvenzhané Wallis is fierce in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but this year I’m going with Jennifer Lawrence for her on-the-edge woman who can stand up to DeNiro.

Director – 4 of 5 seen

I’m going out on a limb here.  Steven Spielberg certainly made a great movie, and he’s got a lot of love out there.  But Ang Lee took what was deemed an unfilmable book and made movie magic.  He’s a creative visionary full of new tricks every time, and I’d love to see him win for Life of Pi.

Supporting Actor – 4 of 5 seen

This is a really tough category this year, as all the men I saw did a remarkable job with very different characters.  Alan Arkin was gruff but funny, Tommy Lee Jones was at his blustery best in Congress, and Christoph Waltz creates charisma and chemistry in vast amounts.  I originally was going to put my vote in Waltz’ corner, but I worry his role is too similar to what he last did for Tarantino.  So I’m going with Robert DeNiro, who showed vulnerability, emotion and compulsion in a way I’ve never seen before.

Supporting Actress – 3 of 5 seen

This one is Anne Hathaway‘s to lose, and a few of her speeches this season made me worry she would grate on voters’ nerves, and they’d go with the safer choice of Sally Field.  But I still think her scenes in Les Mis are so shattering she’s got what it takes to win this.

Documentary Feature – 0 seen

It sounds like a 3-way race this year – the critics adore the unraveling secrets of The Gatekeepers, or they like the tale of an artist’s second life in Searching for Sugar Man.  I’m going to bank on the momentum of LGBT activism this year, and vote for How to Survive a Plague.

Documentary Short – 0 seen

No idea, so I’m relying on EW and picking Inocente, about a homeless artist.

Foreign Language Film – 0 seen

I think it will get passed over in other categories, so this award will go to the Austrian favorite, Amour.  But Denmark and Chile have the dark horse chances here.

Animated Feature – 3 of 5 seen

All three films that we saw were pleasant and enjoyable, but I question if any of them is strong enough to win.  Brave certainly was a triumph of animation (her hair!), but from what I hear, Wreck-It Ralph hits the right nostalgic buttons and should win.

Cinematography – 4 of 5 seen

Some great vistas in several of these movies, but Life of Pi was a profoundly visual movie that comes alive on the big screen.

Makeup & Hairstyling – 1 of 3 seen

Sure it’s tough to make dwarves and hobbits, but I felt like all the bad oral hygiene and wild hairstyles in Les Misérables were disturbing enough to win this award.

Production Design – 3 of 5 seen

You might remember this category as “Art Direction” but basically think of it as sets, props, etc.  I felt like they really tried to go for it in Les Mis, but there were a lot of varied locations in Lincoln that involved some challenging set decoration, and I think it will win.

Original Screenplay – 1 of 5 seen

Shocking!  Only 1 seen!  And quite frankly I don’t see the script as the strength of Django Unchained.  The buzz is this will come down to a race between Zero Dark Thirty (which has been skirting controversy) versus Amour.  I’m going with the former, because I think the Oscar voters are above the petty criticisms against Mark Boal’s journalism.

Adapted Screenplay – 5 of 5 seen

I think this is really coming down to two book adaptations – David Magee adapting an “unfilmable” novel (Life of Pi), and Tony Kushner distilling a huge tome of a book on Lincoln.  While my heart is with the former (because I read the book), I think Kushner created strong, believable dialogue from an academic work.

Animated Short Film – 0 seen

With both Pixar and The Simpsons entering shorts this year, it could be a tough race.  My friend Emily swears by Head Over Heels, and EW says it will be Adam and Dog.  I think I’m going with the latter just because I like animals.

Live Action Short Film – 0 seen

I’m going with Asad, which is about Somali refugees, which is very topical.

Visual Effects – 2 of 5 seen

Usually this would go to a superhero blockbuster like The Avengers (after all, The Hulk is fully animated).  But the seamless integration of an animated tiger (and a zoo of other animals) in Life of Pi should take the award in its sizable teeth.

Costume Design – 2 of 5 seen

The ones I saw in Les Mis and Lincoln were good, but with this category you should always go with the showiest period drama – so this year it will be Anna Karenina.

Film Editing – 4 of 5 seen

No question for me – the relentless tension of Argo, particularly in the final 30 minutes, is a testament to the power of strong editing.

Sound Mixing – 5 of 5 seen

I’ve seen all 5!  So you’d think I would  be able to tell you the winner without hesitation, but this is one of the toughest categories for me.  That being said, I think a musical is already a tougher challenge for a sound mixer (sound effects + music + singing), and we all know by now that Les Misérables used live singing.  So it gets my vote.

Sound Editing – 4 of 5 seen

This is the one where sound effects themselves are recognized, and I once read you should always vote for the loudest movie.  Of the four films I saw, that means I need to go with Skyfall.

Original Score – 4 of 5 seen

Lots of good choices here, but I have to give my vote to Life of Pi.  When you consider that for long stretches the movie has no dialogue, it’s the visuals and the score that carry it forth to greatness.

Original Song – 4 of 5 seen (heard?)

The song from Ted was cute (and I loved the movie), but Seth McFarlane is going to have to settle for the honor of being host for the night.  I looked at ScottE when “Suddenly” came on during Les Mis and mouthed, “What is this?” and then realized it was the Oscar bait that was added.  And it was not that great.  The clear, unadulterated winner this year will be the fabulous Adele, with the title theme for Skyfall – one of the best Bond songs in decades.

So that’s it!  As I said, I’m not done watching these movies – I’ll most likely catch Zero Dark Thirty this weekend, one of the other animated features, and perhaps a third movie if I can squeeze it in.  I’ll post in the comments before the Oscar ceremony if I think these viewings would have changed my ballot at all, but my pool picks are now locked.

How about you – any favorites you think I missed?  Do you think Spielberg and Lincoln can pull out top honors?  And what are you most looking forward to during the broadcast?  Post in the comments, or respond via Facebook or Twitter!

Best of 2012

So as we hit the end of 2012, I offer up my best in entertainment of the past year. Keeping in mind not all of these were released this year, it’s just what I saw/read.

Best Movie – Lincoln
Honorable mentions – Pina, Skyfall

Best Book – A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Honorable mentions – Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Best TV series (drama) – Mad Men
Honorable mentions – Downton Abbey, Sherlock

Best TV series (comedy) – Happy Endings
Honorable mentions – 2 Broke Girls, Modern Family

Best Music (album) – Magic Hour by Scissor Sisters
Honorable mentions – Some Nights by fun., The Truth About Love by P!nk

Best Music (single) – Somebody That I Used to Know by Gotye (feat. Kimbra)
Honorable mentions – We Found Love by Rihanna (feat. Calvin Harris), Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen

Best Theatre – Black Watch
Honorable mentions – Once, Now.Here.This.

Best guilty pleasure – Pitch Perfect
Honorable mentions – Revenge, seeing Betty White live and in person

Best Board Game – At the Gates of Loyang
Honorable mentions – Seasons, Airlines Europe, Heartland

R.I.P. Whitney Houston

Hoping her demons are finally quiet. Here’s my favorite Whitney song of all time.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would actually give this book about 4 1/4 stars. It read at a feverish pace, as Martin takes you along for the ride at breakneck speed. Court intrigue, pitched battles and family honor dominate this tale in a mythical world that feels like what we dream medieval England would have been like in an alternate universe.

What I enjoyed was the changing perspectives, as the book follows the thoughts and lives of a few characters and through them we get a lens into the overall action. The plot moves along effortlessly even as the perspective shifts. Although the book could drag at times in lengthy descriptions of past events, and an overwhelming number of names, on the whole it’s easy to breeze past it.

Richly drawn characters that you want to root for – even the nastier ones. I look forward to picking up book 2 when i can, and checking out the HBO series.

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One of the more perplexing mysteries in society is the monetary valuation of visual art.  This is especially true when we look at contemporary work, which has not withstood hundreds of years of critique to determine its intrinsic worth.  While one person may look at Mark Rothko’s Green and Tangerine on Red and say it just looks like a couple squares of paint, others see deep meaning, earning it a prime location in Washington D.C.’s Phillips Collection.

To get a better understanding of how contemporary art is valued and sold, I encourage you to learn more about the subject.  The first half of Ulrich Boser’s The Gardner Heist provides some insight into how art is acquired by museums and private collectors.  You may also enjoy this podcast by NPR’s Planet Money, that looks at how pricing works in the art market.

But if you want to experience the unpredictable world of buying and selling paintings for yourself, then you need look no further than Reiner Knizia’s masterpiece of a game – Modern Art.  This is a game with broad appeal that puts you right in the middle of the wild and wonderful world of art auctions.  The game is published in the U.S. by Mayfair Games, and is not to be confused with Modern Art: the Card Game, which is a vastly inferior impostor.

In Modern Art, each player is involved both with buying and selling paintings by five fictional artists.  While this makes certain thematic sense (museums generally only sell art to purchase other art), I’ve found it easier to explain as players wearing two hats.  First, you’re an art dealer, anxious to unload a painting to the highest bidder.  Secondly, you’re a museum director, looking to acquire something by the Next Great Artist.  Think of the art dealer being in cahoots with the museum director – he may sell it to his best pal, who has a little insider information about what’s about to hit the market.

The game is played over a series of four rounds, and the winner is the player with the most cash at the end of the game.  At the start of the first three rounds, players are dealt a hand of cards, each of which has a painting by one of the five artists.  These cards represent the holdings of your art dealer side (paintings acquired by your museum will be played on the table in front of you).  Those cards also each have a symbol which represents the type of auction that must be used to sell the painting.

Moving around the table in turn order, players will offer up a painting for auction to everyone, including themselves.  The card symbol tells you how to conduct the auction – it may be traditional, each player may only get one bid, it may be a secret sealed auction, or the painting may be offered at a single fixed price.  There are also cards that require a double auction – two paintings by the same artist go on the block at once.  Then the bidding begins!  Players are trying to determine what they think the painting is going to be worth at the end of the round – because that’s when the art really pays off.

At the end of the round (which happens when the fifth painting by a single artist is played), everyone looks at the three top artists – those that had the most of their art sold.  Each painting by the #1 artist pays out at $30,000, the #2 artist’s work gets you $20,000 apiece, and #3 pays $10,000 each.  The other two artists just didn’t make it big this time around.  All cards on the table are discarded, and a new round begins (players keep unsold paintings in their hand to carry over).

The game really heats up in later rounds, because those payouts are cumulative!  So if, for example, Karl Gitter is the #1 artist in the first round, and in the third round he’s the #2 artist, his paintings are now selling for $50,000 each!  Which means the bidding goes higher and higher…  The challenge is that players are trying to do quick calculations in their head as the game goes on; “If he ends up being #2 this time, I could get $50K , so I think I’m willing to bid up to $40K to get it.”  You’re working with limited information based on what you see on the table, what you remember has been sold in the past, and what cards you hold in your hand.

This on the surface is a straight-forward game, but the right group of people can turn it into a party game.  I first learned Modern Art with a bunch of theater-folk, and we naturally found ourselves naming each art piece as it was played, adding back-story about the artists, and working hard to convince each other to BUY THIS PAINTING!  Believe me when I say this makes the game twice as much fun.  Sometime I’ll tell you the story of how my sister-in-law named a Yoko painting simply with a sound effect.

It’s really a fantastic game, and represents auction games in the purest form.  The agony of knowing that you need to spend your money to make money, and you also need that money to win is just delicious.  The game works for 3 – 5 players, but I strongly prefer it with 5, as you get the maximum excitement in the bidding process.  Modern Art is a contemporary classic that gives you a window into the wild and wonderful world of art acquisition – and it remains one of my top ten games of all time.  Check it out!

The Walking Dead Compendium Vol. 1The Walking Dead Compendium Vol. 1 by Robert Kirkman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first hefty graphic novel I’ve read in quite awhile. It’s definitely entertaining and you want to keep reading.

But it can also get really depressing. I’m not spoiling you by saying people die – a LOT of people die. More than in a Shakespearean tragedy.

So if you want to delve into this, I’ll pass on the same advice my friend Austin who loaned this to me said – “Don’t get too attached to any of the characters.” He’s not kidding.

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In case you hadn’t heard yet, my lovely friend Jessica Spotswood is an author and on the verge of becoming a household name.  She has an exciting book coming out, and today the cover was revealed – check it out below.

I hope you’ll pick this up when it comes out next year – it’s going to be a hit – mark my words!  (Or Jess’ words, really.)  You can even pre-order it on Amazon here.

A Scattered LifeA Scattered Life by Karen McQuestion

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book follows the lives of three different women and although they don’t serve as narrators in their respective chapters, they are written from their points of view. Skyla is a restless spirit looking for an anchor in her life when she realizes her husband and daughter aren’t enough. Roxanne is the gregarious mother of five that she befriends. And Audrey is Skyla’s mother-in-law, full of rigid ideas and seeking a place where she’s really needed.

In general this was an enjoyable read, but it lacked depth that I kept hoping was around the corner. The book ended too quickly, and the characters had profound changes happen faster than I think is believable. If you’re looking for some light summer reading, this will do nicely.

Part of the reason I was curious to try this is that Karen McQuestion originally self-published this for the Kindle, and I think it’s always worth checking out authors that haven’t found the right publisher yet.

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Reviewing The Help

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book reminded me a lot of Fannie Flagg’s writing with its easygoing dialogue between friends. But the subject matter here is far more serious as the life as a black person in 1960s Mississippi is one of constant danger.

On the whole I really enjoyed this book which blazed by in no time. Perhaps the ending was a little too pat (perfect for a Hollywood movie). I mostly appreciate Stockett’s ability to juggle three very different narrators, giving each her own voice.

I’m only sorry I didn’t pick this book up much sooner.

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Agatha Christie's Secret NotebooksAgatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First let’s be honest – this is a book meant for hard-core fans of Agatha Christie. But it might also be a curiosity for other authors that are interested in the creative process of the most widely published writer in history.

Curran unearthed a treasure-trove of Christie’s notebooks where she sketched out ideas for most of her work. It sometimes reveals fascinating insight into possible alternate endings, how she developed the names of characters, and how/when she decided on a detective for a given book.

So for the Christie fan, this is all quite interesting. It mainly just got me excited about going back to some of her novels to read them again. Even though this book is full of spoilers, it’s easy to forget them when you’re reading so many.

My two main criticisms…

First, the book is not ordered in the most logical way. Curran has chosen to group notes on books based on a few themes, such as book titles based on famous quotes, or books that take place in foreign locales. Perhaps it’s more interesting than a chronology, but sometimes the books grouped together are just too disparate.

Secondly, the author is extremely opinionated, and sometimes offers up his opinions as fact. He lavishes praise over novels like Crooked House and Endless Night, while pointing out perceived faults in others. And it appears that he has no love for the Tommy and Tuppence books, which are not examined in any detail. All this is not to say that Christie’s work varied in quality, but I just found it presumptuous that Curran expects we will agree with his opinions. Sometimes I did (yes, Hallowe’en Party was weak) but other times I strongly disagreed (Endless Night was an unsurprising retread in my eyes).

In summary, taken with a grain of salt, this book is invaluable to any true fan of Agatha Christie.

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