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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Oscars for 2015 Films

Best Actress Academy Awards
Photo credit: Cliff on Flickr.
The Academy Award ceremonies are tonight and my wife and I have again been using some of our leisure time to view nominated films and acting performances. Regular readers may recall that I only saw one of the films nominated for best picture during the 2015 calendar year. Until 2016, I didn't see any of the nominated acting performances either.

In any case, based on my recent attempts to see many of the contenders, I'm going to rank-order the films and acting performances. Obviously, this is my completely subjective perspective -- and hardly an ideal way to think about art. Plus, I can only rank the performances I watched. That is a big limit since I failed to see three of the Oscar-nominated Best Picture nominees (including the favorite) and I've yet to see most of the acting performances.

Keep in mind that these are not my predictions about winners in each category. Go to the Hollywood Stock Exchange if you want predictions based upon betting markets. Spoiler Alert: Revenant is the favorite for Best Picture and its star Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be the biggest favorite in any of the major categories.

Note for future readers: Films and performances shaded in yellow below will indicate additions/edits after the Oscars are awarded (and the original blog posting).

Best picture

Spotlight **
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Big Short **
The Martian
Bridge of Spies
Room
The Revenant
Brooklyn

Comment: Spotlight is a very good film and the acting performances are uniformly great in a fairly large cast. One of my favorite shots in the entire film is a aerial view of the Boston Globe building with an adjacent billboard advertising AOL. The movie, of course, challenges the legitimacy of an enduring institution, but this scene implicitly challenges the endurance of an upstart institution that helped destroy the newspaper industry (a fact that is briefly mentioned in another scene when revenues from classified ads are discussed).

I assigned Mad Max in my spring 2016 film course, after class members voted in the fall 2015 Honors section to see it as the "student choice" selection. We debate whether it makes a feminist argument about global politics and/or the environment.

I enjoyed all of the other films too, though they are not without flaws. I'm guessing The Martian is the one I'm most likely to watch again in the future.  If that means anything.

Best director

Tom McCarthy - Spotlight
George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro G. Iñárritu - The Revenant
Adam McKay - The Big Short
Lenny Abrahamson - Room

Best actor in a Leading Role

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Matt Damon, The Martian

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Comment: Several of these films were just released for home viewing, so I'll probably see them very soon.

Best actress in a Leading Role

Brie Larson, Room
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy **

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Comment: Jennifer Lawrence was good in Joy, but I again thought she was too young for the role she was cast to play in a David O. Russell production. And the film was simply not very good.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Rooney Mara, Carol
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Documentary Feature

I failed to see any of these to-date before the Oscars:

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Amy
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
Winter on Fire

Comment: Netflix had 3 of these documentaries available to stream prior to the Oscars, including two of their own films: the politically-themed Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom and the biopic What Happened, Miss Simone? Amazon Prime has Amy.

Best Foreign Language Film

And I haven't seen these either:

Embrace of the Serpent
Mustang
Son of Saul
Theeb
A War

Animated Feature Film

Inside Out
Anomalisa

Boy and the World
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

Comment: Maybe it was because I viewed it on a long airplane flight, but Inside Out did not live up to expectations. It made me laugh, sometimes, but it didn't really click for me. I am unlikely ever to see those bottom 3 films.


** I saw these films in the theater.


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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Syria and War as an Institution

Scholars like Ohio State's John Mueller have been arguing for decades that war is declining -- and that war deaths have decreased dramatically. Foreign correspondent John Andrews summarizes the long-term trends in The Economist earlier this year:
The death toll from the first world war was around 16m; the toll from the second world war was at least 55m. Yet even as the global population rose from 3 billion to 7 billion in the 50 years to 2010, the number of war-related deaths plummeted: that average was 180,000 a year during the four decades of the cold war; 100,000 a year in the 1990s; and 55,000 a year in the first decade of this century. The downward trend reflected the fact that, with rare exceptions, such as the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, states no longer send their armies to wage war against each other.
Andrews notes, however, that deadly conflicts in Syria and South Sudan cast doubt on the meaning of those stats:
The bad news is that 2016 will confirm that the trend has reversed itself. Instead of fighting each other, states battle religious, ideological or ethnic insurgencies, or help allies supress insurgents—or fall apart in civil wars that defy easy resolution. The civil war in Syria alone has been enough to move the trend upwards: the country’s descent into chaos since 2011 has claimed some 250,000 lives; since December 2013 civil war in South Sudan may have cost over 50,000 lives.
Is Syria an anomaly from recent trends, or does it reflect evidence that international war involving great powers is always possible? Even today, barely a week after a Syrian ceasefire agreement was announced, some experts fear the possibility of war between Russia and Turkey -- a NATO ally. The risks of escalation would be intensified in that scenario.

The apparent lesson is that neither scholars nor states can take non-violence for granted. The prevalence of violence and war went down for a number of reasons, but some of them require difficult diplomacy. And of course, great power restraint is a huge plus.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Laughing off a Zombie Apocalypse

Zombies Ahead
Photo credit: *Keith
Ready for some shameless self promotion? A revised version of my 2014 ISA conference paper (which was itself based on a blog post) has now been published as an advanced access 2016 journal article. Here's the full citation, with a working link to the Oxford University press website:


Rodger A. Payne, "Laughing off a Zombie Apocalypse: The Value of Comedic and Satirical Narratives,"  International Studies Perspectives 2016; doi: 10.1093/isp/ekv026. 


Kudos to Dan Drezner for making me think about this.





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