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Out in Theaters: ‘GHOST IN THE SHELL’

Controversy has plagued Ghost in the Shell since the day Hollywood “It” girl Scarlett Johansson was cast in the pole position. Adapted from a serialized Japanese manga of the same name, Ghost in the Shell tells the story of Major, a Japanese cybernetic counter-terrorist agent. Before anyone starts yelling “Whitewashing!”, it’s easy enough to see the problem lurking. Even those without a ton of processing power may be thinking to themselves, “Hey, but Scarlett Johansson isn’t Japanese…what gives?” Indeed, what gives? Johansson being the most bankable actress in the world, teeing her up to lead an effects driven potential franchise starter makes perfect sense. From a financial perspective, the move is logical. But… Read More

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Blu-Ray Review: ‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’

Synopsis: “Political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability when the actions of the Avengers lead to collateral damage. The new status quo deeply divides members of the team. Captain America (Chris Evans) believes superheroes should remain free to defend humanity without government interference. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sharply disagrees and supports oversight. As the debate escalates into an all-out feud, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) all must pick a side.” Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’

Ever since Samuel L. Jackson cropped up in an eye patch in Iron Man’s post-credits, Marvel films have had their eye firmly planted on the future. Setting up incoming installments has been a precarious process, resulting in such face-palmingly clunky sequences as the infamous “Thor in a Bath Tub” scene and the entirety of Iron Man 2. When not preoccupied with teasing the oncoming comic strata or hogtying in easter eggs for uber-nerds to dissect and debate, Marvel has admittedly done fine work developing their roster of heroes, taking careful stock in ensuring that its non-comic reading audience has at the bare minimum a working sense of what drives these supers to strap into spandex and save the world. With Captain America: Civil War, a direct sequel to the events of Captain America: Winter Solider that employs nearly the entirety of The Avengers, those characters turn to the rear view to take stock of what has been lost along the way. Read More

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Channing Tatum is a Merry Sailor in Trailer for Coen Bro’s ‘HAIL, CAESAR!’

Have you ever wondered what Channing Tatum would look like in a little sailors outfit? Wonder no more. The trailer for Hail, Caesar!, the newest comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, has arrived and it looks nothing short of glorious (and features Tatum dressed oh-so-preciously) . Hail, Caesar! tells the story of a tentpole movie production halted when its leading man (George Clooney) is kidnapped and held for ransom. The sure-to-be winning picture is brimming with talent; in addition to Tatum and Clooney, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand are set to star with cinematography provided by all-star DP Roger Deakins. Read More

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Out in Theaters: THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

What to say about The Avengers: Age of Ultron? It’s certainly a Marvel movie; a spectacle-heavy rationing of motormouthed zingers, busy with whip-pan, slo-mo action montages and done up like a prom queen with CG glitz. It’s the insatiable younger brother to Joss Whedon’s initial compulsory corporate softball tournament; a large and in charge super-conglomeration that rarely stops to make time to make sense, and though darker (emotionally), bigger (logistically) and meaner (spiritually), it’s not nearly as much fun as when space worms were involved. The Marvel brand has been defined by its sense of “fun” and Age of Ultron certainly houses the brand of larger-than-life, escapist entertainment that Marvel fans have emptied out their pockets for in the past but it misses the shock-and-awe boat that installment numero uno rode in on, instead serving up a welting reminder of the inconsequential, aggressively episodic nature of this whole shared universe business. By the end of Ultron’s short-lived age, tables have been set but little has actually changed. This is Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Age of Redundancy. Read More

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Out in Theaters: UNDER THE SKIN

“Under the Skin”
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson
Drama, Sci-Fi
108 Mins
R

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Of the many masters of cinema, Stanley Kubrick bulges out an esoteric monolith; an unbound vision of dystopian tomorrowland. Knowingly or no, he redefined cinema and still has a hulking influence over modern pictures. He started making movies in the age of Hays Code, a totalitarian, aggressively Calvinist model of censorship that restricted the depiction of such things as “pointed profanity”, “any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette”, “illegal traffic in drugs”, and other horrors like “white slavery” (…). According to the master himself, these stringent policies ruined his 1962 adaptation of the controversial novel Lolita, a source riddled with sexual affront unsuitable for the likes of pre-Vietnam War gentleladies and gentlemen.

With censorship regulations lifted in 1968 (noticeably congruent to the proliferation of public access to the actual, and horrific, goings on in Nam), Kubrick led the charge into uncharted territory, stringing sex, violence, and gore like beads onto the necklace of cinema’s rebirth. Visually striking tableaus of the “dark side” came to define his conclusively arresting work as he quickly became a maestro of these newly unregulated waters. Only four years later, he released what is still considered one of the most disturbing and controversial films to ever hit the market, another adaptation: A Clockwork Orange. Heralded as a celebration of the nasty side of human nature, Clockwork was a whole new bag and met mixed response from the critical and filmgoing community. Even critic Godfather Roger Ebert dumped on it. Lasciviousness, sadism, and sexual perversion went on to define many themes that ebbed throughout the pantheon of Kubrick’s work and the many, many filmmakers who he influenced.

Jonathan Glazer‘s latest, Under the Skin, has drawn much early comparison to Kubrick’s work, most notably, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The similarities aren’t difficult to unearth as his work often feels like straight homage, if not strong stylistic replication. And when it’s not busy being magnificently inaccessible, Under the Skin‘s powerful visual topography and mundane scene work provide the audience an unnaturally vague stethoscope to cull their own meaning from Glazer’s work. His is a film that could be interpreted six ways to Sunday and still wouldn’t have one sound, “definitive” reading. It’s a tone poem for the sci-fi nutcase, a probing of what it to be human, ineradicably captured through the eyes of an alien.

Like Clockwork, Under the Skin unfolds in parabolic fashion with the rise and descent of our “heroine” – a mysterious seductress from another world. She’s not as uncouth as Alex but her victims are just as many. Glazer’s brazenly obscure opening sequence details our unnamed seductress in the belly of her inception. She’s pieced together with the wardrobe of casual victim the first, practicing newfound pronunciation, perfecting an English accent like Neo downloading Kung Fu. Wearing a Scarlett Johansson skin suit, the world is her oyster.

But Glazer refuses to walk on eggshells around his audience, nor does he yield to the straight-forward demands of the mass consumer. His work lives in a world where Kubrick is king, where pop sensibilities drown alongside the arbitrary family that surfaces in the film’s midst. It’s a film of coincidence and self-discovery, told through parabolic symbolism and vague iconography. We craft our own meaning around the uncertain infrastructure he’s presented. Reality is Inception limbo. We build, we destroy. Spin the top to make sure it’s all real.

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Johansson is in increasingly common adroit form, an apt femme fatale that serves as protagonist and antagonist both. Knowingly dressed down so her natural beauty can shine through, she doesn’t quite put in the caliber of career-topping performance one would hope for in such a one-woman-show. As her character pulls a reverse “Shining”, becoming increasingly tapped into the meaning of the human struggle, Johansson is afforded more opportunities to perform a killing blow but never manages quite the venomous sting one would expect. She plays her character like a living Venus Fly Trap. Cloying helplessness flows into a dastardly come-hither dance. She snares us all.  

What Glazer fails to capture of Kubrick’s cajolery is the subversive but populist appeal he purposefully built into the foundation of his work. No matter how out there Kubrick got, he maintained a semblance of mainstream magnetism. There’s a measure of esoteric relatability in Kubrick’s films that escape his many protege wannabes, Glazer included. Then again, Kubrick might be a master because of his unusual circumstance, his being a child of two eras of film. That he was forced to function within a box for so long, when he did broke out, he had all the tools and training to transcend generic storytelling tropes. In many ways, the cell of censorship made his blossoming that much more potent and purposeful. Glazer’s work is what happens when you start at Z and attempt to work your way forward.

No wonder then that In the Skin is a conflagration of human genitalia. Penises – flaccid and fully boned up – float towards the siren’s call of Johansson’s perpetually undressing figure. An explicit experiment on just how weird humans are in their natural state or a celebration of turn of the century carnal liberation, Glazer’s intentions are as masked as the occult figurines of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

For all its lurid obscurity, Glazer’s film finds potency rejuvenating the strange in cinema. Obscurity is his landmark, blurry ideology his send off. Under the Skin is sure to be the talk of cinephile’s niche circles like Enemy was last month and for good reason: it’s engaging, seductive and totally fucked in the head. It’s just enough to temporarily numb your psyche and challenge your assumptions of what cinema ought to be.

But even when you’re inevitably scratching your head as the credits roll, the repeated vignette of Johansson’s stripping down the runway will prove burned in your mind’s eye, captivating and near medicinal purpose enough to warrant the indie theater ticket price.

B-

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Out in Theaters: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Toby Jones
Adventure, Action, Sci-Fi
136 Mins
PG-13

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Growing up in the 1940s gives Steve Rogers an excuse to not understand the mechanics of speed dial. But when neo-Nazi’s threaten the freedom of the entire world, you have to wonder why he’s not more focused on contacting his nuclear suit-wearing chum, Tony Stark, or the bad Shakespeare in the park actor/Norse God, Thor. Unless he’s gone on some spirit journey to be explained away in extra Blu-Ray bonus material, Tony’s probably just shambling around Stark Towers in his drawers. His billionaire skyline must be literally cast in shadow by the helicarriers of doom that Captain America’s trying to take down with the only weapons at his disposal: record-breaking sprinting skills and a shield.  The fate of the entire world is at stake and here’s good hearted Steve clearly taking a hell of an ass-whopping and he still doesn’t see fit to call up his Avengers pals? Or at least try? I’m sorry but you lost me there.

The one thing that Kevin Fiege and his Marvel Movie Universe croonies tend to get right is they suit the adventure to the adventurer. The threats Iron Man faced in his third outing were largely personal. A wronged colleague becomes a viable villain, he’s forced to deal with PDST from a near death experience and his personal arsenal of humanoid WMDs transforms him from a private citizen into national defense mascot numero uno. There were larger implications at play had he not gotten his guy but Stark at least felt well equipped to handle the charge. Thor’s arc in The Dark World involves intergalactic worm holes, gigantic frost monsters and 8-foot tall Dark Elves. But Thor wields a hammer forged in a dying star that gives him the ability to fly around like a blonde, bearded Superman. Being, you know, a god, Thor was the Avenger best equipped to handle such a mark. Sure, having other Supers alongside wouldn’t have hurt but this was a mission that suited Thor’s pedigree. Equipped only with a hunky body, a pure heart and strips of pure sinew for legs (made for putting fellow long distance runners to shame), Captain America (Chris Evans) just seems out of his depths.

Look at him in The Winter Soldier. His big mission involves a retread task (one we already saw a version of in The Avengers) that he’s simply unfit to handle because, well, his superpowers aren’t really that super. His third act heroics necessitate a flying wingman because he’s simply not equipped to handle the mission solo. Joining him is snarky sidekick Anthony Mackie as Falcon, an ex-Marine with a winged exoskeleton, because calling up Tony Stark or Thor was just… out of the question?

Part and parcel of enjoying these Marvel movies is digesting them with a spoonful of salt, especially when we’re looking at them from a logical standpoint and not a logistical one. Omissions are necessary from a budgetary standpoint and we have to be willing to overlook that… to some degree. But rather than make these shortcomings apparent, smart screenwriting would try to mask the need for the whole gang. This is where Captain America: The Winter Soldier fails hardest; an especially sad reality when contrasted to the contained spy thriller that it’s established as.

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Since the events of The Avengers, Cap and his shield shield S.H.I.E.L.D. Before this, Iron Man 2 was the first MMU film to tackle the build towards The Avengers head on and got far too bogged down in the goings on at that shadowy organization to stand as a film itself. The Winter Soldier has becomes it’s Phase 2 predecessor. Like Iron Man 2, it suffers from a fatal diagnosis of teaser syndrome. It’s all about what’s to come, not what’s happening in the now. By the end of the film, the chapter isn’t closed, it’s just beginning. Even it’s titular character, that mysterious Winter Soldier (played by a hollowed out Sebastian Stan), is relegated to a minor role with only an inkling of character.

If only Marvel would realize that not ever venture needed a third-act calamity, that millions must not be dumped on visual effects and that telling a self-contained story is a virtue in itself, then this could have been a rousing triumph. As it is, Cap 2 works so much better when its sights are centered on the smaller scale, when Steve and Scar Jo‘s Black Widow are traipsing around hunting for clues, trying to put a name to faceless villainy.

Give me more super-noir, less hapless explosions. Give me the humor and tragedy of Cap being a man lost in time. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely show savvy sneaking in some current political hot buttons as subtext but fail to tell the more personal story of a lost man adapting to a whole damn new century. But this is bane of the Russo Bros’ film; it takes one step forward, two steps back. Every cheer is followed up with a few jeers. With character resolution left dealt with in post-credit stingers and a third act that may as well have been helidropped in from some other movie, the modest enjoyment one gets from Captain America: The Winter Soldier just doesn’t justify the $170 million dollars spent. It’s too busy shoulder tapping you to go see The Avengers 2.

C

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2013 Silver Screen Riot Awards

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With the majority of 2013 awards winding down and the Oscars gearing up for next month, it’s time for me to reflect on the best parts about last year’s films. I’ve already published my top ten list alongside the absolute worst movies of the year but with these awards, I focus on the performances, direction, music, scene work and artistry of 2013.

At first, I tried to pigeonhole five nominees into each category but found that didn’t give me enough leeway to recognize all the talent I wanted to. When I then expanded to ten, it felt like there were times where I would be putting names down to fill up spots and didn’t really work for me either. So, instead of making an arbitrary number of nominees for each category, I opted to just recognize as many people as I saw fit in each category. So while the best actor category has 11 names of note, best foreign film only had 6 nominees and so forth. I know a lot of these may see overlap with other award nominations but I tried to recognize talent from all walks,  the old to the new, and award what stood out as my personal favorites.

Look out for a short breakdown in the actors and directors sections but the other categories speak for themselves.

Best Actor:

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WINNER: Leonardo DiCaprio ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Runner Up: Christian Bale ‘Out of the Furance’ & ‘American Hustle’
Honorable Mention: Ethan Hawke ‘Before Midnight’

Also:
Matthew McConaughey ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ & ‘Mud’
Joaquin Phoenix ‘Her’
Mads Mikkelsen ‘The Hunt’
Chiwetel Elijofor ’12 Years a Slave’
Bruce Dern ‘Nebraska’
Tom Hanks ‘Captain Phillips’
Michael B. Jordan ‘Fruitvale Station’

It’s no secret that I’m a big Leonardo DiCaprio fan and it’s performances like his in The Wolf of Wall Street that earns him such a high ranking amongst my favorite working actors. With manic physicality, hypnotizing stage presence and wonderfully potent comedic timing, his take on amoral but lovin’ it Jordan Belfort is a role to remember. Christian Bale did wonders in Out of the Furnace and, even though I wasn’t head over heels for American Hustle, his performance there was nothing to balk at and one of the strongest features of the film. The most underrated performance of the year is Ethan Hawke who embodied humanity and boyish charm in my favorite film of the year Before Midnight. The film rests squarely on his and Julie Delpy‘s compotent shoulders and had their performances been any less, the impact wouldn’t have been nearly what it was. 

Best Supporting Actor:

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WINNER: Jared Leto ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Runner Up: Jonah Hill ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Honorable Mention:  Geoffrey Rush ‘The Book Thief’

Also:
Woody Harrelson ‘Out of the Furnace’
Michael Fassbender ’12 Years a Slave’
Barkhad Abdi ‘Captain Phillips’
Ben Foster ‘Lone Survivor’
Daniel Bruhl ‘Rush’
Matthew McConaughey ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Alexander Skaarsgard ‘What Maisie Knew’

Another crowded category, I had to go with a somewhat calculated choice, a man more than likely to win at the Academy Awards this year, Jared Leto. His performance, almost moreso than Matthew McConaughey‘s, grounds the heartbreaking tale of Dallas Buyers Club and brings humanity to those that are too often dehumanized. On the other side of the coin, Jonah Hill was a riot in The Wolf of Wall Street and between his introductory scene and subsequent cousin soliloquy and the unhinged energy he brings to the Lemmons scene, his is one of the most unforgettable performances of the year. Another under-appreciated role takes my honorable mention slot with Geoffrey Rush‘s lovely performance in the otherwise forgettable The Book Thief. Rush is an acting giant and watching him effortlessly capture our sympathy just goes to show his monumental range.

Best Actress:

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WINNER: Meryl Streep ‘August: Osage County’
Runner Up: Julie Delpy ‘Before Midnight’
Honorable Mention: Scarlett Johansson ‘Her’

Also:
Cate Blanchett ‘Blue Jasmine’
Brie Larson ‘Short Term 12’
Judi Dench ‘Philomena’
Adele Exarchopoulos ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’
Shailene Woodley ‘The Spectacular Now’
Greta Gerwig ‘Frances Ha’
Emma Thompson ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

I know Cate Blanchett is the name on everyone’s lips right now and there’s no denying that her performance is a showstopper but, for me, was not quite the most impressive of the year. Speaking of cinematic giants, I just couldn’t help but give my top award to Meryl Streep for her poisonous performance in the ensemble drama August: Osage County. Streep is a chameleon and we’re used to seeing her, for the most part, play loveable roles so seeing her transform into an utterly despicable train wreck of a pill popper showcases why she is the monolithic actress she is. Watching Julie Delpy embody the role of Celine for the third (or fourth if you consider Waking Life) time, you can see how much she has sank into this role and it’s simply a beauty to behold. Although deemed ineligible for the Oscars, Scarlett Johansson is able to achieve wonders with just her voice and deserves a pile of praise for that.

Best Supporting Actress:

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WINNER: Julia Roberts “August: Osage County”
Runner Up: Margot Robbie “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Honorable Mention: Kristen Scott Thomas ‘Only God Forgives’

Also:
Octavia Spenser ‘Fruitvale Station’
Jennifer Lawrence ‘American Hustle’
June Squibb ‘Nebraska’
Lupita Nyong’o ’12 Years a Slave’
Emily Watson ‘The Book Thief’
Melissa Leo ‘Prisoners’

Easily the least impressive of the four acting categories, the best supporting actress category just didn’t have quite as much to offer as the rest did this year. Going through my nominees, it was hard to choose a top spot because all were commendable but none were absolutely unforgettable. I would hardly consider Julia Roberts as someone whose films I anticipate so was caught offguard by her fantastic work in August: Osage County. She holds her own against Streep and at times even shows her up. Color me impressed. I gave the second slot to Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street because of an unforgettable scene she shares with DiCaprio that’s sexy, tortuous and hysterical all at once and would have been nothing without the presence she brings to the scene. And for all the flak Only God Forgives caught for lacking dialogue, Kristen Scott Thomas stood out as the only character with true personality and she absolutely chewed through her deluded sanctimony. She’s menacing, repulsive and commanding and totally owns every scene she’s in. And just to preempt those offended by my lack of pedastalizing Academy darling Jennifer Lawrence, I enjoyed what she did in American Hustle but could never really take her character seriously. It was fun but not near worthy the level of praise being heaped on. And Lupita Nyong’o was certainly stunning in her 12 Years a Slave scenes but remember, this is my favorites and her performance is nothing less than a chore to watch.

Best Director

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WINNER: Spike Jonze ‘Her’
Runner Up: Richard Linklater ‘Before Midnight’
Honorable Mention: Steve McQueen ’12 Years a Slave’

Also:
Martin Scorsese ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Jean-Marc Valee ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Alexander Payne ‘Nebraska’
Denis Villeneuve ‘Prisoners’
Alfonso Cuaron ‘Gravity’
Destin Cretton ’12 Years a Slave’
Coen Bros ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

I have to give a leg up to the director/writer combos so it’s no surprise that Spike Jonze has secured the top position. The humanity he brings to this technological world and the insight he’s able to provide is simply stunning, aided by his sharp visual style and realistic futurism. Richard Linklater may not be the world’ most hands on director but the palpably freedom he affords his actors gives them the capacity to create the caliber of tender moments we see in Before Midnight. He’s no bleeding heart but he’s not quite a cynic either and I love watching the way he sees the world. On the more difficult side of things, I’ve seen all three of Steve McQueen‘s films and, though this comment may be hotly debated, think 12 Years a Slave is actually his least tortuous. At least to watch. It’s an amazing effort that drags us through hell and yet there is a string of hope that runs throughout the story. I guess that only someone from outside of the states could bring such honesty and power to a distinctly American story.

Best Ensemble:

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WINNER: American Hustle
Runner Up: The Wolf of Wall Street
Honorable Mention: August: Osage County

Also:
12 Years a Slave
This is the End
The Counselor

Best Cinematography

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WINNER: Sean Bobbitt ’12 Years A Slave’
Runner Up: Emmanuel Lubezki ‘Gravity’
Honorable Mention: Roger Deakins ‘Prisoners’

Also:
Phedon Papamichael ‘Nebraska’
Hoyte Van Hoytema ‘Her’
Bruno Delbonnel ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
John R. Leonetti ‘The Conjuring’
Yves Bélanger ‘Lawrence Anyways’

Best Foreign Film

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WINNER: The Hunt
Runner Up: Laurence Anyways
Honorable Mention: Populaire

Also:
Wajdja
Blue is the Warmest Color
Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus

Best Documentary:

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WINNER: The Act of Killing
Runner Up: Cutie and the Boxer
Honorable Mention: Dirty Wars

Also:
The Crash Reel
Blackfish
The Square
Somm

Best Song

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WINNER: “Fare Thee Well” – Inside Llewyn Davis
Runner Up: “Young and Beautiful” – Great Gatsby
Honorable Mention: “Doby” – Anchorman 2: The Journey Continues

Also:
“Please Mr. Kennedy – Inside Llewy6n Davis
“The Moon Song – Inside Llewyn Davis
“In Summer – Frozen
“Oblivion” – Oblivion

Best Scene:

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WINNER: Her ‘When it All Goes Dark’
Runner Up: The Wolf of Wall Street “Lemmons 714”
Honorable Mention: Before Midnight ‘Letter from the Future’

Also:
Captain Phillips “Check Up”
August: Osage “Family Dinner”
Nebraska “Mt. Rushmore”
This is the End “Backstreets Back”
Gravity ‘Opening Sequence’
Out of the Furnace ‘Hot Dog’
Inside Llewyn Davis ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’
The Conjuring “Basement Exorcism”
Lawrence Anyways “It’s Raining Clothes”

I’d love to hear where you guys agree and disagree and would encourage you to share your own lists in the comments section below.

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