The Washington D.C. Film Critics Nominate Coogler, Jordan, and The Favourite


Yesterday, the Washington D.C. Film Critics announced their nominees for the best of 2018.  While the big three contenders — Roma, Star is Born, and Green Book — are all present and accounted for, the D.C. Film Critics did take the time to nominate Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan for their work on Black Panther.  They also nominated The Favourite for Best Picture, which isn’t unexpected but The Favourite, like Black Panther, can use all the support it can get to prevent being overshadowed by the big three contenders.

(Before anyone asks what I’m basing my analysis on, allow me to point out that I’m not the first film blogger to pretend to be an Oscar expert and I’m sure I won’t be the last….)

Best Film:
The Favourite
Green Book
If Beale Street Could Talk
Roma
A Star Is Born

Best Director:
Ryan Coogler (Black Panther)
Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)

Best Actor:
Christian Bale (Vice)
Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Best Actress:
Glenn Close (The Wife)
Toni Collette (Hereditary)
Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Best Supporting Actor:
Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy)
Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Best Supporting Actress:
Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale)
Nicole Kidman (Boy Erased)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Emma Stone (The Favourite)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Best Acting Ensemble:
Black Panther
The Favourite
If Beale Street Could Talk
Vice
Widows

Best Youth Performance:
Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade)
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie (Leave No Trace)
Milly Shapiro (Hereditary)
Millicent Simmonds (A Quiet Place)
Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give)

Best Voice Performance:
Bryan Cranston (Isle of Dogs)
Holly Hunter (Incredibles 2)
Shameik Moore (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse)
Sarah Silverman (Ralph Breaks the Internet)
Ben Whishaw (Paddington 2)

Best Motion Capture Performance:
Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War)
Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One)
Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Solo: A Star Wars Story)

Best Original Screenplay:
Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade)
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (The Favourite)
Paul Schrader (First Reformed)
Nick Vallelonga & Brian Currie & Peter Farrelly (Green Book)
Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole (Black Panther)
Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (A Star Is Born)

Best Animated Feature:
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Documentary:
Free Solo
RBG
Science Fair
Three Identical Strangers
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Best Foreign Language Film:
Burning
Capernaum
Cold War
Roma
Shoplifters

Best Production Design:
Production Designer: Hannah Beachler; Set Decorator: Jay Hart (Black Panther)
Production Designer: Fiona Crombie; Set Decorator: Alice Felton (The Favourite)
Production Designer: Nathan Crowley; Set Decorator: Kathy Lucas (First Man)
Production Designer: John Myhre; Set Decorator: Gordon Sim (Mary Poppins Returns)
Production Designer: Eugenio Caballero; Set Decorator: Bárbara Enríquez (Roma)

Best Cinematography:
Robbie Ryan, BSC (The Favourite)
Linus Sandgren, FSF (First Man)
James Laxton (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
Matthew Libatique, ASC (A Star Is Born)

Best Editing:
Yorgos Mavropsaridis, ACE (The Favourite)
Tom Cross, ACE (First Man)
Alfonso Cuarón, Adam Gough (Roma)
Jay Cassidy, ACE (A Star Is Born)
Joe Walker, ACE (Widows)

Best Original Score:
Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther)
Justin Hurwitz (First Man)
Nicholas Britell (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Thom Yorke (Suspiria)
Hans Zimmer (Widows)

The Joe Barber Award for Best Portrayal of Washington, DC:
The Front Runner
RBG
Vice

It’s Better Than Last Stand: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016, directed by Bryan Singer)


X-Men_-_ApocalypseIt is easy to forget what a big deal the first X-Men movie was in 2000.  At a time when Joel Schumacher was still the industry’s go-to director for super hero films, X-Men announced that films based on comic books did not have to be campy, silly, stupid, or feature Alicia Silverstone.  When X-Men was first released, critics and audiences were surprised to see a comic book film that was intelligent, well-acted, and actually about something.

The only people who were not shocked were those of us who grew up reading the X-Men books.  We already knew that the X-Men was about more than just heroes with super powers and flashy costumes.  We knew that the battles within the pages of the X-books were always meant to serve as a metaphor for racism and real-world prejudice and, since many of us felt like outcasts and mutants ourselves, we related to the characters.  We already knew that Magneto was often a sympathetic villain while Prof. X was not always a likable hero.  We knew that almost every battle that the X-Men fought came down to the question of whether or not different types of people could peacefully co-exist.  Unlike the critics, we were not shocked by X-Men‘s subtext.  Instead, we were just happy that Bryan Singer did not fuck things up.

All of the comic books films that have followed have owed a debt to critical and commercial success the first X-Men movie.  Without that success, there would probably have never been a Dark Knight trilogy or even an MCU.

FallofmutantsThe success of X-Men has also led to a 16 year-old franchise of movies about mutants and their struggle to live in a world that fears them.  X-Men: Apocalypse is the 9th installment in that franchise and it is based on the Fall of the Mutants storyline, which ran through several Marvel comics in 1988.

Continuing the pattern set by X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse takes place in the past, back when Charles Xavier was still James McAvoy and Magneto was still Michael Fassbender.  (Unlike Days of Future Past, neither Patrick Strewart nor Ian McKellan makes an appearance.)  The year is 1983.  Ronald Reagan is President.  The Cold War still rages.  The music is better than it is today.  Xavier is running his school for gifted mutants youngsters.  Magneto is living, under an assumed name, in Poland.  Magneto is married and has a young daughter and as soon as I saw them, I knew they were going to die.  Magneto’s family never survives.

In Egypt, an ancient and powerful mutant named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) is awakened after being entombed for centuries.  Readers of the comic books will immediately recognize En Sabah Nur as Apocalypse.  Planning to destroy the world so that he can rebuild it in his own image, Apocalypse recruits his four horseman — Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto.  Apocalypse also wants to recruit Xavier to his side but Prof. X still believes that humans and mutants must learn to co-exist.

livingeraser1What’s interesting is that, even though Fassbender and McAvoy share a few scenes, this is the first X-Men film to not feature any sort of debate between Xavier and Magneto.  Magneto, one of the greatest comic book villains of all time, is actually a little boring here and, without those debates, Apocalypse lacks the subtext that distinguished the best of the previous X-Men films.  The emphasis is less on what it means to be an outsider and more on defeating Apocalypse.  Unfortunately, Apocalypse is a great character in the comic books but he does not translate well into film.  Unlike Magneto, who has several good and justifiable reasons for not trusting humanity, the film version of Apocalypse is portrayed as being pure evil and little else.  His plan to destroy the world never makes much sense and he is almost as bland as Dr. Doom in the latest Fantastic Four reboot.  Apocalypse could be any villain from any comic book movie that has been released over the past 16 years.  He could just as easily be the Living Eraser.

Apocalypse is also an origin story, showing how the modern incarnation of the X-Men first came to be.  We meet young versions of Scott Summers, Jean Grey, and Nightcrawler (played by Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) makes a brief appearance that feels like it was mostly included to set up the character’s third stand-alone film.  Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Evan Peters also return in the roles of Mystique, the Beast, and Quicksilver.  Peters is featured in the movie’s coolest scene, though that scene is basically just a redo of Days of Future Past‘s coolest scene.

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(There’s also a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Dazzler, which I guess means that Marvel’s disco queen will eventually be appearing on movie screens.)

X-Men: Apocalypse is not as good as either First Class or Days of Future Past but it’s still better than The Last Stand.  (Since Apocalypse takes place in 1983, Scott and Jean go to see Return of the Jedi and talk about how the third film of any franchise always sucks.)  It’s entertaining but, without an interesting villain or any sort of examination of what it really means to be an outcast,  Apocalypse is also forgettable in a way that X2 and Days of Future Past never were.  As a lifelong fan of the X-Men, I could not help but be disappointed.

Plus, this movie needed more Deadpool! (Note: Deadpool is not in X-Men: Apocalypse.)

Plus, this movie needed more Deadpool! (Note: Deadpool is not in X-Men: Apocalypse.)

One thing that especially bothered me is that Days of Future Past ended with Xavier promising to explain to Wolverine why he, Scott, and Jean were all still alive despite having been killed in The Last Stand.  If you were hoping Apocalypse would clear that up, don’t hold your breath.  I guess that question will remain unanswered until the 10th film.

Speaking of which, First Class was set in the 1960s and Days of Future Past largely took place in the 70s.  Apocalypse is an 80s movie so the next installment should be set in the early 90s.  Will Scott be listening to Nirvana or will he be playing air guitar to November Rain?  I guess we’ll have to wait to find out!

x-men-apocalypse1

Playing Catch-Up: The Stanford Prison Experiment and The Tribe


The_Stanford_Prison_Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir by Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells a true story.  It’s important to point that out because this is one of those films that, if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you would probably be inclined to dismiss as being totally improbable.

In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted a psychological experiment at Stanford University.  A fake prison was built in the basement of a campus building, complete with cells and even a room to be used for solitary confinement.  15 students volunteered to take part in the experiment.  For $15.00 a day, some of the students were randomly assigned to be prisoners while others got to be guards.  The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but Zimbardo ended it after 6 days.  Why?  Because the students had started to the take the experiment very seriously, with the guards growing increasingly sadistic towards their “prisoners.”  Afterwards, many of the prisoner students claimed to have been traumatized while the guard students felt they were just playing a game.

(As one of the guards says in the film, “Am I still going to get paid?”)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells the story of that controversial experiment and it is, at times, quite a harrowing experience.  Interestingly, when the film begins, the focus is on the prisoners.  I immediately noticed that Ezra Miller was one of the prisoners and, being familiar with his work in Perks of Being A Wallflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin, I naturally assumed that the majority of the film would revolve around him.  After all, among the actors playing the prisoners, Ezra Miller was the “biggest name.”  And, when the film began, it did seem to be centered around Miller’s likable and rebellious presence.

But then something happened.  Miller faded into the background.  In fact, all of the “prisoners” faded into the background and the actors became almost indistinguishable from each other.  Instead, the film started to focus on one of the guards.  Outside of the prison, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano) is a laid back and rather amiable California college student.  But, once he shows up for the night shift, Archer starts to talk about all of the prison films that he’s seen.  He starts to speak in a Southern accent.  He says stuff like, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  And soon, Archer is making the rules inside the prison.

In much the same way that Christopher Archer takes over the experiment, actor Michael Angarano takes over the film.  While Zimbardo and his colleagues watch Archer’s actions with a mix of fascination and fear, the film’s audience becomes enthralled with Angarano’s intense performance.  Wisely, neither Angarano nor the film allow Archer to turn into a cardboard villain.  He’s not a bad guy.  Instead, he’s playing a role.  He’s been told to act like a guard and that’s what he’s going to do, regardless of whatever else may happen.  The most fascinating part of the film becomes the contrast between Archer the likable student and Archer the fascist authority figure.

It’s frustrating that more people didn’t see The Stanford Prison Experiment when it was released in 2015.  Considering the blind trust in authority that is currently so popular in certain parts of the American culture, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film that a lot of people really do need to see and learn from.

The_Tribe_poster

The Tribe (dir by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Anyone who says that they truly understand everything that happens in the disturbing Ukrainian film The Tribe is lying.  Taking place at a school for the deaf and exclusively cast with deaf actors, The Tribe is a film where everyone communicates in Ukrainian Sign Language and there are no subtitles.  However, the actors are often filmed with their back to the camera and occasionally, their hands are out of frame so, even if you do know Ukrainian Sign Language, there’s still going to be scenes where you have no idea what anyone is saying.

And it’s appropriate really.  The Tribe is a film about alienation and, by refusing to give us either an interpreter or subtitles, it forces the audience to feel the same alienation that the film’s characters have to deal with on a daily basis.  It quickly becomes obvious that these permanent outsiders have created their own society and the least of their concerns is whether the rest of the world understands it.

What can be learned about the film’s story largely comes from the body language of the actors and the audience’s own knowledge of gangster movies, which is what The Tribe basically is.  A new student at a boarding school for the deaf is recruited into a gang that deals drugs and pimps out two female students as prostitutes at a truck stop.  When the new student falls in love with one of the girls, it leads to some truly brutal acts of violence, all of which are somehow made more disturbing by the fact that they take place in total silence.

(The talkative criminals of most gangster films allow audiences to focus on something other than the violence.  When people talk about the opening of a film like Pulp Fiction, they talk about John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talking about Amsterdam.  They don’t focus on the guys getting gunned down in their apartment.  In The Tribe, there are no quips or one-liners before people are hurt and we are forced to pay more attention to the consequences of brutality.)

The Tribe is made up of only 34 shots.  The wide-angle lens forces us to consider these alienated characters against the barren Ukrainian landscape and the camera constantly moves with the characters, tracking them as closely as fate.  Intense and dream-lie, The Tribe is a hauntingly enigmatic film.  It’s not an easy film but it is a rewarding one.

Lisa’s Homestate Reviews: Arkansas and Mud


Mud

When it comes to Arkansas, people seem to automatically think of two things.  Arkansas is the former home of Bill and Hillary Clinton and it’s also the state that accused three teenage boys of committing horrific acts of murder, largely on the basis of the fact that one of the boys used to dress in black and listen to heavy metal music.  Between the state’s largely rural image and repeat showings of Paradise Lost on HBO, Arkansas does not exactly have the best reputation.

Myself, I have a lot of childhood memories of Arkansas.  Some of them are good and some of them aren’t so good. My grandmother lived in Fort Smith so, even when my family was living in another state, we would still always find the time to come visit her every summer.  As well, I had (and still have) cousins spread out all over the state.  Almost every road trip that I’ve ever taken has involved at least a few stops in Arkansas.  When I think about Arkansas, I don’t think about the Clintons or Damien Echols.  Instead, to me, Arkansas is where I used to get excited whenever I saw we were approaching grandma’s house and where my mom once grabbed me right before I stepped on a snake that was hidden in the high grass that surrounded my cousin’s farm.

As often as I visited Arkansas while I was growing up, I also actually lived there twice.  I don’t remember the first time, because I was only two years old at the time, but my family spent 3 months living in Ft. Smith before going back to Texas.  Then five years later, we returned to Arkansas and, over the course of 19 months, we lived in Texarkana, Fouke, Van Buren, North Little Rock, and, finally, Ft. Smith once again.

Originally, for Arkansas, I was planning on reviewing The Legend of Boggy Creek, a 1974 psuedo-documentary that deals with a bigfoot-like creature that was said to live near the town of Fouke.  It made perfect sense as not only was The Legend of Boggy Creek filmed in Arkansas but it was produced by an Arkansan as well.  It remains one of the most financially successful independent films of all time and, because it’s presented as being a documentary, it features authentic Arkansans in the cast.  Even more importantly, my family actually lived in Fouke from August of ’93 to May of ’94.  I’ve been down to Boggy Creek!  (Though, to the best of my memory, the monster never made an appearance while we were living in Fouke.)

But then I thought about it and something occurred to me.  The Legend of Boggy Creek is not that good of a movie.  I watched it a few weeks ago and, once I got passed the fact that it was filmed in a town that I have vague memories of living in back when I was seven years old, I found the film itself to be almost unbearably dull.

So, instead of unleashing my snark on a 40 year-old exploitation film, I’m going to use this opportunity to recommend another film that was shot in Arkansas.  This film, however, was one of the best films of 2013.  It’s a film that, if you haven’t watched it yet, you owe it to yourself to see.

It’s a film called Mud.

Directed by Jeff Nichols (who previously gave us the excellent Take Shelter), Mud takes place in the town of DeWitt, Arkansas.  Two teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) spend their days going up and down the Arkansas River.  Ellis, the more introspective of the two, dreams of escaping his homelife with an abusive father (Ray McKinnon) and a compliant mother (Sarah Paulson).  Quietly watching over the two boys is Tom (Sam Shepard), an enigmatic older man who lives across the river from Ellis’s family.

One day, Ellis and Neckbone come across a mysterious man living on a small island.  The man’s name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and he tells them that he’s waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Whitherspoon).  Mud explains that he killed a man who once pushed her down a flight of stairs while she was pregnant.  Ellis and Neckbone agree to help Mud, secretly supplying him with food and delivering notes from him to Juniper.

However, the father (Joe Don Baker) of the man who Mud killed has arrived in town as well.  He’s brought an army of mercenaries with him and, each morning, he gathers them together for a quick prayer and then sends them out to track down and kill Mud…

Mud is a wonderful film, one that is full of visually striking images and excellent performances.  (If Dallas Buyers Club hadn’t come out later that same year, Matthew McConaughey could have just as easily been nominated for his charismatic and sympathetic performance here.)  Even more importantly, the film is full of authentic local culture and color.  If, decades from now, someone asked me what Arkansas was like in the early 21st Century, Mud is the film that I would show them.

Much as how Richard Linklater can capture Texas in a way that a non-Texan never could, Mud is fortunate to have been directed by a native of Arkansas.  Watching Mud, it quickly becomes obvious that Jeff Nichols knows and understands Arkansas and, as such, he presents an honest portrait of the state.

Every state should hope to inspire a film as well-made and entertaining as Mud.

Film Review: Joe (dir by David Gordon Green)


Joe and Cop

A lot of people have given up on Nicolas Cage.  I’m not one of them but I can understand the sentiment.  After all, it was hard not to feel a bit frustrated watching an obviously talented actor continually give performances in films that were so obviously beneath his ability.  For every Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, there seemed to be a dozen generic action films in which Cage seemed to be mostly concerned with positioning himself to get a supporting role in the next Expendables film.  To many viewers, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that Nicolas Cage just didn’t care anymore.

Well, for everyone out there who has given up on Nicolas Cage, I recommend that you make the effort to track down and watch a film called Joe.

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Cage plays Joe Ransom, an ex-con who is struggling to stay out of trouble.  As the film quickly makes clear, that’s not always easy in Joe’s case.  Joe is in alcoholic with a quick temper and a thing for prostitutes.  He’s been arrested enough times that he’s on a first name basis with every single cop in the backwoods Southern town that he calls home.  Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t go into the details of Joe’s past.  Even when he explains how he ended up in prison in the first place, both the script and Cage’s performance gives us reason to believe that he might be lying.  In many ways, Joe remains an enigma throughout the entire film but Cage gives a performance of such power and focus that we feel like we know who the character is even if we don’t always fully understand him.  One need only look at Cage’s haunted expression or watch the brilliantly acted scene where a drunk Joe searches for his dog to understand both the character’s demons and his heart.

Joe is in charge of a group of laborers who, under the direction of the local lumber company, spend their days poisoning old trees and planting news ones in their place.  As the film makes clear, Joe may be a fuckup in his personal life but “professionally,” he’s a hard worker and a good boss.  When Joe hangs out with the members of his work crew (all of whom are played by nonactors, which brings a good deal of authenticity to the film), he’s confident and responsible in a way that he can never be in the “real” world.

When 15 year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) and his alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter) join the crew, Joe starts to find it difficult to maintain his usual detached attitude.  Despite his attempts to remain aloof, Joe becomes a bit of a mentor towards Gary.  Once he discovers that the alcoholic Wade is both beating his son and prostituting his daughter, Joe is forced to take matters into his own hands.

Joe

As good as Nicolas Cage is, the rest of the cast deserves a lot of credit as well.  Gary Poulter turns Wade into a pathetic but frightening monster, a man who shows hints of his former humanity even while doing some truly disturbing and viscous things.  Wade is a terrifying villain because he’s real.  When, halfway through the film, Wade commits one of those most shocking (and pointless) acts of violence that I’ve ever seen, it’s effective because we all know that there are countless real-life Wades out there right now.  Gary Poulter, himself, was a homeless street performer who was recruited off the streets of Austin.  He made his film debut in Joe and sadly, he died before the film was released.  Those who assume that Poulter was just playing himself are doing both him and the film a great disservice.  Regardless of how much his background may or may not have mirrored Wade’s, it takes genuine talent to give a performance as effective and thought-provoking as Gary Poulter’s work in Joe.

Gary Poulter in Joe

Gary Poulter in Joe

Joe was directed by David Gordon Green, who comes from my hometown and who obviously has a feel for and an understanding for the type of rural community that most film directors either ignore or treat with the usual yankee combination of condescension, fear, and loathing.  As directed by Green, Joe is a moody and atmospheric southern character study.  It’s also one of the best films of 2014 so far.

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(Interestingly enough, this is actually the 2nd film called Joe that I’ve reviewed for this site.  You can read my review of the 1970 Joe by clicking here.)

 

 

The D.C. Critics Embrace 12 Years A Slave


Oscar season continues!

A lot of observers (like me) were a bit surprised to see neither Los Angeles, New York, nor the National Board of Review name 12 Years A Slave best picture of 2013.

However, 12 Years A Slave has been doing well with the smaller critics groups.  Earlier today, it was named best picture by the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association.

Here’s the full list of winners from D.C.:

Best Picture: “12 Years a Slave”

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”

Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyongo, “12 Years a Slave”

Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave”

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, “Her”

Best Art Direction: Catherine Martin, “The Great Gatsby”

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, “Gravity”

Best Editing: Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger, “Gravity”

Best Score: Hans Zimmer, “12 Years a Slave”

Best Foreign Language Film: “The Broken Circle Breakdown”

Best Animated Feature: “Frozen”

Best Documentary: “Blackfish”

Best Acting Ensemble: “12 Years a Slave”

Best Youth Performance: Tye Sheridan, “Mud”