Margot Robbie in The Big ShortAs is traditional, I’m taking my annual stab at guessing this year’s Oscar nominees a week before they’re actually announced: at 7:30 a.m. Central (5:30 a.m. for those sleepy souls in Hollywood!) on Thursday, January 14. As isn’t necessarily traditional, my guesses in nine categories are also in this week’s print edition of the Reader, which meant I had to make final decisions a full day earlier than usual. Which, in turn, meant that I made seven major prediction changes mere seconds before they were in my boss’ hands ... and likely would’ve made more if he got to the office just a few minutes later.

But I’ll also, in my head, no doubt be making additional changes up until 7:29 a.m. next Thursday, so enough waffling! Let’s get this fool’s errand over with!

 

Scott Beck (left) and Bryan Woods. Photo by Fred Hayes.

The train rumbles toward you, and then it's over you, throwing sparks. It's a short train, but it's nonetheless a harrowing seven seconds - looking, sounding, and feeling uncomfortably real.

That's because, on a practical level, it is real.

This happens less than 10 minutes into the new, nationally distributed horror movie Nightlight by writers/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, the filmmaking duo from the Quad Cities now based in Los Angeles.

"That whole sequence was a lot of fun to figure out," Beck said in a recent phone interview. The special-effects team proposed using computer animation for the train, he said, but he and Woods asked: "Could we actually get a real freight train on these tracks?"

We've been introduced to five teens who've come to a supposedly haunted forest for "flashlight games." One involves laying down a flashlight on railroad ties, running down the tracks to a specific point, and then running back and grabbing the flashlight. There's not much to it ... except for the train.

This bit lasts roughly a minute and 40 seconds, done in a single shot.

"The scene starts with the train incredibly far away, [and] it just gets closer and closer," Woods said.

We can only hear the train's horn as the first three people complete the task - getting louder with each blast. With the fourth teen, we can see the headlight peeking through the trees as the engine comes around a bend.

And after Shelby, our protagonist, puts her flashlight on the ties, we see the train itself, with her sprinting toward it and then back toward her flashlight.

She jumps away just before the train hits her, but her flashlight - which belonged to a friend who committed suicide and provides the point of view for all the movie's action - remains on the tracks, and the audience gets an unsettling understanding of what it would feel like to be under a freight train moving at full speed.

producer/writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and team members of Best Picture Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)Neil Patrick Harris, at the tail end of last night's Academy Awards ceremony, climaxed his hosting duties with the resolution to a magic trick he'd set up earlier in the evening. Much, much earlier in the evening.

 

Michael Keaton in BirdmanA big Birdman night but nothing for Michael Keaton? A not-bad Boyhood night but nothing for Richard Linklater? A year in which every single Best Picture nominee will go home with at least one lovely, gold-plated parting gift? Yes, yes, and yes - so long as those "yes"es have asterisks behind them signifying "maybe."

Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori in The Grand Budapest HotelIt was awfully early in the morning, 5:30 a.m. Pacific, when the nominations for this year's Academy Awards were read by actor Chris Pine, directors J.J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuarón, and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. (Also, for the first time ever, the nominees in all 24 categories were read live, meaning we prognosticators didn't have to wait an extra six minutes to find out just how badly we screwed up Best Sound Mixing.) It might even have been a little too early for Ms. Isaacs, who, when announcing their names, approached true Travolta-ness by calling Julianne Moore "Julianne Moren" and Mr. Turner cinematographer Dick Pope "Dick Poop."

Yet it's hard to imagine anyone in Hollywood - especially anyone with a vested interest in the results - falling back to sleep after the official Oscar contenders were revealed, because as wake-up calls go, this one was frequently a doozy.

Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest HotelIf you're reading this hot off the (electronic) presses, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences only have an hour or so to submit their online or - less frequently these days - paper ballots for this year's Oscar race. (Voting officially ends today at 5 p.m. PST.) So this seems like an appropriate time to make my own final guesses for January 15's nominees, even if a better time would be January 15 itself - preferably just after the Academy's official announcement of contenders.

Ellar Coltrane in BoyhoodThere are quite a few promising titles I've yet to see, including wintertime Oscar hopefuls such as Selma, American Sniper, Mr. Turner, Still Alice, A Most Violent Year, and Inherent Vice, and most everything bound to be nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Documentary Feature. The Quad Cities area is a relatively small movie market in the Midwest, and I don't get to Chicago (or New York or Los Angeles) very often. C'est comme ça.

So the films and the order of their placement on this list of "10 Favorite Movies of 2014" will, no doubt, eventually change. Baring a miracle, though, we're good to go on that first one.

Wa-a-a-a-ay back at the tail end of 2009, my editor Jeff Ignatius and I thought it'd be fun to compose lists of our 100 favorite movies of the millennium. That, of course, led to a completely predictable fight over which year the millennium actually started in ... .

But once we put that past us, it was a lot of fun. So we decided, with five additional years behind us, to do it again - if, in Jeff's case, slightly differently this time around. Creature of habit that I am, though, I stuck to a good-ol'-fashioned ranking of 100 favorites in preferential order. In doing so, I also made some interesting discoveries.

When Mike Schulz suggested revisiting and updating our lists of favorite movies of the 2000s, I looked back at my early-2010 article and thought: "Ghost Town? What the hell is that?" Sorry, Ricky Gervais, but it took a few seconds to recall anything at all about a movie I'd listed as one of my top 100.

Such are the perils of composing lists covering long periods of time with a memory as leaky as mine. Unlike my colleague Mike, I don't have a record of my thoughts about most of the movies I've seen, and therefore I can't say with much certainty whether I still like the 100 favorite movies I selected for 2000 through 2009. So I started from scratch here, with the idea that I wouldn't include anything so poorly (if fondly) remembered as Ghost Town. (Favorites from the 2010 list that aren't included here haven't necessarily fallen in my esteem; in many cases, I just don't have a recent experience or firm memory of them to rely on).

Zero MotivationSt. Ambrose University's educational initiative the Middle East Institute (MEI), which just began its first school-calendar year of programming, was designed to foster discussion and study of this frequently misunderstood and geopolitically critical region. And as institute director Ryan Dye says, when it came time to create an event schedule for the MEI's fall semester, "I consulted with our fine-arts department, and they were really excited about the idea of doing a film festival."

Through the art department's Clea Felien, Dye was put in contact with Ghen Zando-Dennis, a cinema-studies professor at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey. An Alaska native and occasional filmmaker herself, Zando-Dennis teaches a course in Middle Eastern films at Ramapo and was eager to curate the MEI's event. Zando-Dennis admits, however, that the curator position did come with a challenge for her.

"I didn't want to show work just because it's from this place we regard as 'the Middle East,'" she says. "I didn't want anyone to come away from it thinking it was a kind of survey, in any sense of the imagination, of Middle Eastern media art. And yet I'm programming a film festival that's called 'the Middle Eastern Film Festival.' So that's tricky."

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