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Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Underdog Awards 2014: Part 8



The Underdog Awards

 



Welcome back for the final major award of the evening (or more like two weeks); The Underdog Award for The Best Film.

2013 was one of the most awesome years for cinema whether it be the blockbuster, the Awards fare or Independent Cinema. While Blockbusters are seemingly bogging down the Indies, there's still thriving piece of cinematic art that just blow your mind away.

As usual the awards season is an important part, people get thirsty to predict and know which films will win a bevy of awards and whom among the actors will be recognized, especially whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio will finally win the coveted Oscar.

Like with every Academy Awards year, there's the venom that comes when certain films are snubbed and when the Academies short sightedness and broken system reward undeserving films. Till this day my blood boils when I remember King's Speech winning over the sublime The Social Network, simply because the old contingent of the Academy refused to understand a film tailored to a younger generation.

This year the Academy got a lot more than usual right. Some people will complain years later or already have started to that Best Film was won by an Oscar Baiting (A film tailor made to the Academies tastes in order to gain an Oscar) film in 12 Years Slave. While the concept can be scrutinized as being such (Slavery), the film itself and Steve McQueen's vision of it was nothing short of pandering rather a raw emotional and strikingly honest look at the plight of black men and women during the darkest times of America. 

But still there are certain films every year that just don't get their fair due, some maybe even better than the aforementioned 12 Years A Slave. These films can't compete in the vigorous and political vicious campaigning cycle that plagues the Awards season. Films every year try to defame each other in order to take a leg up on competition and win the coveted award(s).

Certain films just get lost in the shuffle simply because they came from an earlier point in the year and therefore fail to catch steam during the awards season.

Most importantly the Academy fails or refuses to watch every film given to be screened for them, rather choosing from names they have heard are vying for a nomination for the Golden Statue.

Simply put, The Oscars and other awards are based on a flawed concept. Unfortunately the only one that is good enough to still work. So then come the Underdog's.

Why Underdog's and not Underrated?

Because these are films that are terrific and are overlooked for some reason or the other. They are far from underrated though, I can only watch films on TV, DVD or Streaming. I don't have access to festivals or really low key films released in theaters, it prevents me from finding those really underrated gems everybody talks about on the Internet. I try my best to find films you haven't watched or heard off, some of these nominees you will know and some you will hopefully discover and fall in love with like I did.

So here's to the Underdogs…

 

Underdog Award for Best Film

 

 


I've written enough, so let's get down to it.

Special Mention: The Lone Ranger…after both a critical and commercial bashing, The Lone Ranger was dictated as one of the worst films of the year. Sometime I just decide not to watch a film and chastise it because the reviews say so.

I'm embarrassed to say that I said things such as 'It's probably crap' when The Lone Ranger came out, I guess I was burnt by Disney cause of John Carter (which still isn't as underrated or good as people claim)and took it out on this film. So lo and behold when TLR turned out to be so much damn fun. Next time I'll watch the film before commenting apart from any Adam Sandler films because Grown Ups 2 definitely sucked (I haven't watched Grown Ups 2, but come on it's Adam Sandler)


Honorable Mentions: Pacific Rim, Enough Said, Metallica: Through The Never, Frozen, The Way Way Back, Crystal Fairy and The Magic Cactus, This is The End, Trance, The World's End, Only God Forgives, Pain and Gain, Warm Bodies, Out of the Furnace, Drinking Buddies, Welcome To The Punch and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa


And the Nominees are…


Fruitvale Station 

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Detailing the few days of his life before the death of Oscar Grant III, a man killed for no reason in particular by Cops at Fruitvale Station. Ryan Coogler's film is a stark look at a small but significant real life event that lends itself  to themes of race, status and family. Oscar Grant is a young man recently released from prison and bent on providing for his daughter and girlfriend. In a moment where he goes to sell weed, he gains an epiphany and dumps it all away choosing to lead a straight life and become a man that can be everything his daughter needs. His life is unfortunately cut short because a bunch of officers couldn't do their jobs right.

Fruitvale is packed with an emotionally powerful core narrative and some of the best performances of the year, Michael B Jordan lives the moment in Oscar's life and gives off one of the most raw commanding showings you'll ever see. He is simply magnificent. Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer are as effective in their roles, uninhibited in the final emotional scene. Coogler dives into the issue at heart with restrained but thought provoking brilliance. What works is that Oscar Grant isn't painted as a figure of white light, rather his flaws and his goods make him human which resonates superbly.


Before Midnight

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With the third part in the Before series, Richard Linklater gives a complete and well rounded narrative that produces one of the best if not the best, film trilogies in all of cinema. Before Midnight extends from one of the most awesome film endings of all time (Before Sunset). Linklater like a maestro hooks you in, bringing you as a viewer personally back into an experience after nearly a decade.

He and his writers/actors make you feel like your meeting old friends, at first it's awkward and  stilted, finally things begin to get comfortable until you realize a lot has changed. At any point in the film the audience is wary, to question whether Jesse and Celine should have just stayed the way they were in any of the prior films. It's a question of whether this sequel was needed at all and the answer for the first is questionable but for the second is a resounding yes.

The talk and more talk is simply perfect, never becoming a bore and going full scale in a scary (because will Jesse and Celine leave each other) yet eye opening scene between Jesse and Celine on their relationship and relationships in general. The climax is as ambiguous as Before, but it's simply delightful. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are cerebral performers, they build on these characters such that they are full rounded yet a mystery making them simply individualistic, unique and human. The camera captures every moment and every word of this terrific film. One of the best trilogies is now complete and that too in stellar fashion.


Frances Ha

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Influenced by classic Woody Allen and Jim Jarmusch films and set in and around New York making the city a vital character, is Noah Baumbach's coming of age story. At the core of the narrative is the ditzy, spirited and partially annoying character in France Halladay. She is failing in her life and is basically contempt in trying to gain a semblance of friendships and relationships yet alienating everyone and everything around her. It's the free flowing and disjointed sort of editing and writing that works in the films favor, exploring a typical arc at it's base but in such a manner that works. Here's where a lot of Allen and Jarmusch influences come into place, beyond of course the stylistic use of presenting the film in black and white the feature makes the city of New York and subsequent places such as France important. Instilling character onto where Frances travels, it adds a hint of depth to her financial and emotional plights.  Also there's the use of heavy and natural dialogue between characters.

But above all what Frances Ha succeeds because of is it's writer's understanding of the character, that thus allows her to give a splendid performance. There is a reason why awards sweeper Cate Blanchett mentioned her in her Independent Spirit Award winning speech, Greta Gerwig is simply a delight to watch on screen, whether it be her dancing, laughing or going through the little things as Frances. She clearly embodies the character in every aspect and gives a fully formed complex showing well beyond her own writing, making this enjoyable movie that much more. Watch Frances Ha mostly because of Greta Gerwig.


Prisoners

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In a true and just world; Prisoners would have been a much more celebrated film than it was. Simply because of how effectively the writing embroils itself in ethical and psychological questions that relate to the simplest of human emotions, and a base thriller plotline. The films greatest asset is that it has two complex protagonists to look through and engage the viewer with, to support that it takes two supremely talented actors.

Enter Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. Jackman gives what is one of his most brilliant performances, a force of nature on screen falling deeper into the abyss with each turn. Gyllenhall is simply the most understated actor whenever on screen, he let's his co-stars steal the show and in turn puts on a natural performance while peeling the layers of his character with great detail and understanding. Add in terrific character actors like Melissa Leo, Viola Davis and Paul Dano then you have a special film supported by power packed performances.

Then with Dennis Villeneuve, you get a somber, realistically simple yet visually stunning artistic interpretation making Prisoners one of the most complete films of the year.


Prince Avalanche 

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Independent cinema at it's best, take a simple and possibly dull concept steeped in realism, add in a heartfelt message or/and characters, a set or just two underrated but marvelous performers and capture the beauty of some natural habitat or small town.  That's what you get when you comes across Prince Avalanche.

Then there's the fact that you have a director like David Gordon Green (who I sadly forgot to mention in the previous post in Honorable), a director who returns to his Indie roots and creates such a mesmerizing picture that speaks volumes of friendship and camaraderie in it's singularly linear narrative. What helps is the capturing of a lush background of a devastated country side and the smallest of scenes of bonding between the two protagonists. But more than that is the brilliance that Green extracts from his actors on screen, Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd basically share the screen space alone for the whole runtime. In that they build a chemistry vastly similar and different as any movie on friendship and humanize their relationship. Sometimes it's the smallest and simplest of concepts that make an impact, and Prince Avalanche is proof of that.


Inside Llewyn Davis

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From the onset you know that Inside is as Coen as any of their previous film, which just means it's going to be terrific. Then you know that there's a little bit of just unique brilliance to this work. It's a character study revolving around an era and setting to a topic that seems to genuinely interest the brothers, more so it's a narrative that isn't as deft or particularly heavy then much of their previous works.

 Llewyn's life is in a downward spiral, after the suicide of his partner it's been a rough few months for the folk singer. He has nowhere to live, crashing on friends sofas and his ego prevents him from letting of either past successes or changing the way he works. Lllewyn is made to be this character to sympathize with as much as to hate. A basic artist's interpretation that resonates specifically for someone like me (a fellow artist).  

Add into it a brilliantly realized period setting and style of era with some terrific scenes shots to exemplify the melancholy yet unintentionally hilarious comedy that breaths into Llewyn's day to day life. You essentially have a Coen masterpiece. Then comes along a simply talented character actor, takes this leading role with his two hands and turns it into a performance for the ages. Oscar Isaac sings with heart and soul and performs with intent, simply dazzling the viewer at all turns. He's the man that hooks you in, and through the melancholy and somber narrative keeps you going.

Equal parts black comedy and equal parts slow burning tragedy, Inside is an example of when the Coens put pen to paper and writing to screen, no one can beat them.

(Plus once again to mention, the music is seriously awesome)


Byzantium

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Vampires are seriously becoming an annoyance. Yet then comes along Byzantium, changes up the rules a bit and is enamoring and enchanting to me. Why?

It’s a visual splendor. It's alluringly disturbing. And it has one of Gemma Arteton's most accomplished performances.

From the stream of blood to the moody and grey settings of Ireland and the Uk, Sean Bobitt crafts a successful color palette that is fitting to the dark story and presents a fantastical visual aesthetic. Director Neil Jordan navigates this murky and gritty world with great precision, creating a mythology very intriguing to follow. His writer Moira Buffini adds volumes to her two protagonists and brings on heady themes of gender and motherhood without being heavy handed.

There are things that don't work; the cop out ending, too little development on some fronts and tepid performances from Sam Riley and Caleb Landry Jones, including some questionable moments and dialogue. But what it is negated by is a show stopping turn from the very under appreciated Gemma Arteton and a restrained showing from Saoirse Ronan. Rightfully so, Byzantium is one of those films on my list you wont see on anyone else's but for me it was essentially a thrill to watch.


Stoker

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In my eyes, Park Chan Wook can do no wrong. His English Language debut is just an example of the command he has as a director over the narrative of his film and the small to big things that revolve around it. With Stoker he gets a very basic story with odd but interesting twists, that he just turns in over its head. He makes it as funny as it should be scary, and as erotic as it should be disgusting.

In my eyes, when you base your film around some divine Hitchcock influence than you can do no wrong. The core drive establishing some wickedly humorous and complex characters, in a very dark and somber atmosphere. A narrative with a lyrical pattern to it, working up a quirky coming of age tale based around the dissension of innocence. And the clear cut yet chilling definition of character and relationships. All this makes Stoker a masterpiece, and Wook as well as writer Wentworth Miller's work a stroke of brilliance.

Coupled with some dynamite performances from it's three main characters, you easily get the most epic film of the year.


In A World…

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All you need to know about In A World is that it is my favorite film of the year, I can’t explain why but it just is. Maybe because it's fun when it shouldn't be, the subject matter isn't serious but it's just there. Through In A World, writer/director/actor Lake Bell explores the concepts of gender prejudice in the voiceover industry. It works well cause of how clear cut and without shame, Bell places her message. It's literally but not by exposition pointed out about the Gender discrepancies and political machinations in the buisness. We are easily enamored towards Carol because of her down to earth demeanor and laid back style yet somewhat oddball actions and inflated ego. Just as easily we hate her father, who feels obligated to taste the success he never did before and in his blind ambition when he sees his daughter succeed pits himself against her knowing full well that he has years of unfair experience over her.

We cheer when she wins over him, but also learn more about the insides of this industry and why sometimes to gain gender equality you just have to play as dirty as the other side. Beyond that there's a sweet little romantic story and some awkwardly laugh out loud moments. Like with Gerwig in Frances Ha, all this is supported by one of the most genuinely likable performances by Lake Bell. She simply brightens the screen with her presence. Plus kudos to her as a director for bringing in a bunch of talented actors and giving them scope to play their parts whether it be the criminally understated Rob Corddry to the little seen Michaela Watkins and the refreshingly funny Ken Marino.


Short Term 12
 
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Bolstered by a very real and affecting topic and the naturally stellar performance by Brie Larson, Short Term 12 is effective in conveying it's message and film without faltering for one second.

Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton's film is so heartfelt just because of how important the subject is to him, you know this because it is an adaptation of his own short film so as to reach a wider audience. The presentation in a realistic manner highlights the thought provoking social message that is genuinely touching, without resorting to melodrama rather transcending onto a new level of emotionally resonance.

He marvelously avoids the pitfalls of making this self indulgent, simply thanks to the way he latches onto his complex protagonist supported by the most natural form of acting through Brie Larson. A power packed film with a power packed message, conveyed through a three dimensional character fully realized by one of the most wonderful actors working today.


All is Lost

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While a trifle bit self indulgent, All is Lost is a technical masterpiece on par with last years Gravity. It boasts stunning effects, a cinematography that captures the magnificence of the seas and nature and in essence creates a character from it, but most importantly a director who explore the breadth of the man vs. nature conflict. JC Chandor explores a very rich character arc simply by subverting his lens towards the imminent and destructive presence of Nature, in it he creates a compelling reason to connect with 'Our Man' and defines a great purpose to his story and title. Several motifs from willpower to letting go add tension to the thin script, providing thrilling moments of splendor as well as silence. Towering above all this is a powerhouse performance by Robert Redford, he speaks volumes in his silence and expresses all in one dialogue. His narration is effective barring it's inconsistency, and his body language never wavering under turmoil. It's a film for the ages simply because it's a performance for the ages.


Rush

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While I'm not a formula one enthusiast, this was my most anticipated film from last year and one I had expected to acclaim a lot of Awards season buzz barring it's release date. While it did get recognition, it just didn't get it enough. Considering that it released around the same time as awards favorites Captain Phillips and Gravity, I was a tad bit shocked but more than that disappointed.

Ron Howard simply navigates a very true and engaging story, yet makes sure to balance it with the thrill of the sport of Formula One Racing. Rush is the story of the storied rivalry between racers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. It fleets through with great montages on their life, yet keeping intact much of their drama as the center of conflict. It has some dazzling and choreographed races that never become too little or too much. It mines the depths of issues of the regulations of racing during that era, and the troubles it can cause for the racers. It does so by exploring a season that would change the lives of its two protagonists and the way they forever saw each other and the game.

Simply put, this is a film with a narrative that is well versed and complimentary to how captivating it is shot and brought to life on screen. This isn't even counting two career defining performances, where the  vastly underrated Daniel Bruhl made splashed with his supposed 'supporting turn', Chris Hemsworth proved what everyone suspected; that he is a master-class actor beyond fantasy films.  From Bruhl's pitch perfect transition into Niki Lauda, to Hemsworth's brilliant understanding of the pure heart behind the playboy James Hunt (and that accurate English accent). These were two leading man (yes Bruhl was leading) performances in a film that never got its due.


Filth

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If people liked the morally questionable but entertaining antiques of Jordan Belfort, then they'll go batshit crazy for the mentally depraved and screwed up schemes of Bruce Robertson. A brilliant dark comedy that takes a deliberately paced look at a very unlikable character and by its end makes you sympathize for his situation, thanks to a well executed twist.

Between that were in for a joy ride with the devil himself; from Bruce Robertson's pranks against his co-workers to his sex and coke fuelled life. Each scene is just highbrow zaniness upon zaniness, the way the script works is that it keeps the viewer in the loop with narration by its anti-hero and examines the things he does against the people he is associated with. Constantly there are great shifts that director John Baird takes, which hint at a larger mystery in place revolving around a simple case for officer Robertson.

All this to stomach would be impossible without a magnificent turn by James McAvoy, on the cusp of mega stardom McAvoy is so impossibly charming that he hooks you in and never lets go. From frame one to the climatic suicide, McAvoy just intensifies his talents into giving one heck of a showing. It's a tantalizing performance that makes the film.


Mud

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As I mentioned before, Mud is basically Jeff Nichols exploring his birth place in the lens of his childhood wide eyed glory of mysterious adventure. A coming of age drama blended with a romantic thriller, Mud is a cinematic brilliance because of how suitably Nichols dictates the pace of the film and makes the little things in Arkansas fill a sense of amazement in the audiences eyes thanks to his young protagonists. Specifically Ellis's pure view of the concept of love is so touching and then heartbreaking when issues crop up that it defines a great balance between fantasy and reality, creating an adventure in lieu of boyhood books.

The best work comes from a director when he believes and adores his subject, and when it comes from a place true to his heart and experiences. The earthly beauty captured in the cameras is the vision of Nichols and as such makes the feature much better than it already is. The way in which he gets Jacob Lofland and Tye Sheridan to perform screams his own childhood methods. His enigmatic focus and scope given to McConaughey, shows the trust he has on his actor and the centerpiece of his film influences. Not to say that the three don't put an individual, they do and it's such that the film is a gem for it.


The Place Beyond The Pines

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At first I was excited when news came out about Derek Cianfrance's next film after the heartbreaking Blue Valentine. It was promoted as a chase thriller between honest but ambitious cop Bradley Cooper and biker thief with genuine motives played by Ryan freaking Gosling.

So then too my surprise came a three act, three story narrative that divulged in themes of legacy, fatherhood and a semblance of the American dream. To me the film was a genuine surprise when this happened, and turned out to be much better than promoted. The first act gave breadth to the concepts of a world hidden from view that in it delved into an enigmatic and charismatic man who leaves everything he knows for a son he doesn't. In just those first steps, the writers have you grasped in their fists. An early twist shakes everything up and goes on to explore the larger weight of corruption and more importantly an honest cop broken by guilt yet awakened by the dread around him to put himself through any means in a position to do right.

It's in the third and final act when everything turns around, the exploration of the two cop and robbers sons fortune relationship basks in the interests of legacies and how they define you and how the sins of the fathers can make or break the sons. All this gives a compelling dense structure to a film that is surprisingly easy to comprehend and enjoy if you can indulge Cianfrance for a long time. It also boasts some of the best career performances, particularly for Bradley Cooper, Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. Not to mention terrific turns by Ben Mendelsohn, Eva Mendez and Ryan Gosling. Also includes a score and cinematography that defines brilliance and power. I watched it early last year, yet it's still memorable, so it goes to show you how great a film it is.


The Conjuring

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Old school horror at it's best. While The Conjuring is slightly clichéd, it holds itself up because Horror films at this day and age have become so inorganic that when director James Wan turned the tables and made a film with practical effects it is more chilling than seeing a eerie ghost rendered through animations.

Wan does the little things right, crafting a film with detail and bringing to life the world of the Warrens with uninhibited entertainment. His driving point is a simple horror story that doesn't shy away from it's concept but also admirably succeeds in giving flesh to his characters specifically what the Warrens go through during their trials against the spiritual world. He surprisingly balances this with some tantalizing sequel baiting moments.

Still as mentioned, it's just the horror that catches you and keeps you intrigued through and through. Though the performances aren't shabby either, with the underrated duo of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson giving competent performances the define the complexities of their characters and a chilling turn by Lili Taylor.


Spring Breakers

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I've said this again and again, it took me three viewing to really understand what Harmony Korine tells us through Spring Breakers. What's great is that, he doesn't have any particular flow in his film that shoves his intended message down out throat. Korine as wacky as he is, is smart to let the film be open for interpretation thus focusing it towards divisive reception that makes his film that much more memorable.

On a surface level it's a film about partying that just feels like one big party thanks to it's bursting color palette and blinding aesthetic. A cinematography that fuses with the sounds and gives a visual experience unlike any other, becoming that pop song Korine craved for.

Then when going deeper, with it's characters and subsequent performances it highlights an important vision of the American Dream through the eyes of a youth that is far too easily losing its innocence. It's no coincidence that there is subtext to every image Korine renders, the bright lights and colors alluring these young girls in darker atmospheres. The ambiguous nature of scenes walking the tightrope between exploitation of these girls or their own exploitation of the situations to their advantage. Simply put the breadth of Korine's work is hard to comprehend, but there is meaning to a film many people too easily judged.

Of course I cannot fail to mention an unbelievable turn by James Franco that should netted him more than just praise, and some high energy music from Skrillex and Cliff Martinez. 

Kudos to Korine and his promotional team for getting in as many audiences as they could through their casting and surface level story, people might have walked in expecting a cinematic rave and they got more than that especially an Indie film.


Ain't Them Bodies Saints

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Poetic in every context is David Lowery's slow burning romantic crime drama. ATBS is as technically sound as it is intricately written, the film boasts a very easy story but with heavy and earned melodrama at it's heart. The editing smoothes out the film, allowing it's director to take time in coming to the lovers reunion yet never feeling like the film is overstretched. It's cinematography captures the dank colors of its time and breathes in the southern atmosphere.

Sure it's depressing but if you appreciate richly textured cinema, then this is your kind of movie. Above all else Lowery knows how to intensify and focus scenes to extract the absolute best from his performers. Ben Foster is just the epitome of brilliance as the heartfelt and sincere Patrick, Rooney Mara as Ruth and understated force given much of the meat of the film and Casey proving once again why he is the better Affleck brother (when it comes to acting). A sensational film worth the time.


Much Ado About Nothing

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Joss Whedon's adaptation of the bards comedy play Much Ado About Nothing, was conceptualized and shot at his holiday home in between the shooting of his mega blockbuster The Avengers. With just a few weeks on schedule, the effort shows as you get a film with finesse and one that is a faithful modern representation of the classic play.

Much can be said about the dialogue being taken from stage to screen without any visible changes, its faithful to it's final credits and is such so that it never prevents the audience from enjoying the experience. While I will admit it feels odd at the start, once gotten used to the film feels like a breeze thanks to it's pleasing grey tones, easy lighting and camera work that makes the noir aspect appealing ever more, the wittiness with which Whedon structures the play on screen and a whole host of terrific performances from past Whedon collaborators. Much Ado About Nothing is the most enjoyable experience you'll have watching a Shakespeare play come to life on screen if at all.


The Spectacular Now

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What James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now does so well, is make you reminisce of the best times in most teenagers lives; the time spent in High School, especially the last few months. TSN is a bit typical as an Indie romantic film, but what it has a leg up one are two vividly sketched out characters who feel as real as you. Sutter's journey unto becoming a better person, not to mention one far different from his Father is an arc worth investing in. He is alcoholic and believes in living in the moments, the characters interactions with the equally problem faced Aimee Finecky are moments worth living simply cause of how well defined their relationship and the development of it is. With music and shots that exemplify the sensation of those final moments, the last days among friends and the heartbreaks in the wake of new beginnings.

It helps that Ponsoldt is such a terrific actor's director, in 2012 he extracted the best female performance of that year from Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the marvelous and criminally underrated Smashed. Here he utilizes the typical looks and aspects of his two protagonists and makes them perform to their utmost.  Miles Teller makes a breakthrough with an emotionally drenched performance that you simply marvel at and then on the opposite is Shailene Woodley who is restrained and so subtle that it seems like the character is a natural fit for her. Boasting two young talented actors and a very touching and easily resonating story, Ponsoldt directs one heck of a film.


And the Winner is... 


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Before Midnight!

And that ends the award season! and the Underdog Awards!...don't forget to meet us next year!


'Nuff Said

Aneesh Raikundalia

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