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by Sam Juliano

The Caldecott Medal winners as well as the Newberys and all the other Youth Media Awards were announced this morning at the convention center in Philadelphia.  Lucille and I traveled down Sunday morning to meet up with friends and to spend time checking out the exhibits.  We ended up at the Hard Rock Cafe to break bread with Brian Wilson and Lee Price.  We left late last night, opting not to remain for the announcements, but were still thrilled to attend for the one day.  “The Undefeated” by Kwayme Alexander with illustrations by Kadir Nelson won the Caldecott Medal. The three (3) honor books are: “Bear Came Along” by Richard Morris and LeUyen Pham; “Double Bass Blues” by Andrea Loney and Rudy Gutierrez and “Going Down Home with Daddy” by Kelly Starling Lyons and Daniel Minter. (All are absolute masterpieces!!) Only the Gutierrez book failed to receive coverage in my series.  I want to thank all who contributed to the series.  It was by way of social media sponsorship, site page views and comments the most successful of any previous year.  Thank you Jim and Valerie Clark, Ricky Chinigo, Duane Porter, John Grant, Brian Wilson, Wendell Minor, Florence Minor, Raul Colon, Tim McCoy, Frank Gallo, Celeste Fenster, kimbrac, Eric and Terry Fan, Raul Gonzalez, Barry Wittenstein, Peter Marose, Jack Marsh, Frank Aida, Leon Duncon,  Jamiepeeps, Wendy Wahmann, Fiona Robinson, Andtrew Hunt, Ed Spicer, Barbara McClintock, Daniel Minter, Kelly Starling Lyons, Susan Fabricant Hess, and so many others for your support either on social media or at the site, or in both capacities.

Late Saturday night the Director’s Guild (DGA) handed Sam Mendes Best Director for the enthralling WW1 drama 1917 After winning the PGA it is clearly now the film to beat for the Best Picture Oscar. Not remotely rock solid (Parasite is still very much in the game because of SAG) but nonetheless now seen as the favorite. I’ve repeatedly voiced my fondness for the film, counting it as my absolute favorite of all the nominees in any categories, so of course I applaud this development! (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Lucille and I will be driving down to Philadelphia early Sunday morning to spend a full day at the American Library Association’s annual mid-winter event where the Newbery and Caldecott winners will be officially announced bright and early on Monday the 27th.  We are not quite sure we will stay over for that announcement (we are currently 50-50 on that proposition) but we will avail ourselves on Sunday for many hours the various teacher’s exhibits in the vast convention hall where the event is being staged.  In all the years I have been involved in the children’s book awards including the long run of the Caldecott series here at WitD, I’ve never attended this celebrated event, so I am certainly excited.  I am also thrilled at the amazing response from the book community at large to this year’s series, especially since it is shorter than previous years because of the sadness and some health procedures to my family we’ve endured over the past months which necessitated my pullback.  Yet, the numbers at the site have been higher than any previous year, with this week’s review of Going Down Home with Daddy accumulating an astounding 700 plus page views, which hearkens back to the old days at the site.  Other reviews have done extremely well on that front as well (Vamos, When Aidan Became My Brother, etc.) but it has been a very long time since the site has seen that high a number for a single post.  The FB sharing by the authors and artists has never been as impassioned and again the number there is well higher than any other year.  I’d like to thank Jim Clark, Ricky Chinigo, Kimbrak, Karen R., John Grant, Frank Gallo,  Peter M., Celeste Fenster, Wendy W., Tim McCoy and others for their remarkable support and insights.  The series is not yet over as I expect at least four more essays before Sunday, maybe one or two more than that even.

The Producer’s Guild close 1917 as best picture of the year this past week and last night in a modest surprise the Korean film Parasite copped the Screen Actor’s Guild ensemble award.  Many theories as to who or what will win have now been dashed sending some confident soothsayers back to the drawing board.  This coming Saturday’s Director’s Guild will seemingly clarify thing s a bit more.  Most are saying that Sam Mendes (1917) will win, with Bong Ho (Parasite) a real possibility as well. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The Academy Award nominations were announced this morning and for the most part they were in accord with all the predictors.  A few mild surprises like the unfortunate omission of Great Gerwig for Best director and the absence of Taron Egerton in the Best Actor lineup.  Personally I didn’t think Egerton deserves a nomination.  In any case the discussions are underway on social media and I have my own post which I will copy here:

Some initial observations on Oscar nomination announcement:

1. Joker leads with 11 nominations (I won’t even go there!)
2. 1917 nabs 10 (thrilled!)
3. Taron Egerton left off Actor (surprised but the right choice)
4. Little Woman gets Picture, Ronan, Pugh, music and script! (Yay!!!)
5. Hollywood snubbed for film editing!?!? (Bill Kamberger, what does this mean?)
6. Irishman scores 10 but sadly seems headed for only 1 win.
7. Parasite nabs six nominations (pretty much as predicted)
8. Honeyland score in documentary and international (Wow!!)
9. The Two Popes (Pryce, Hopkins) is obviously well-liked
10. Jo Jo Rabbit director tossed out as expected (But I much preferred Gerwig to Phillips)
11. Bravo on Antonio Banderas’ inclusion!
12. Obviously the lack of any recognition for two of my favorite films of the year (A Hidden Life and Waves) was expected but nonetheless ludicrous.
13. In actress I personally preferred Erivo to Lupito and Awkwafina, so i have no qualms there.

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by Sam Juliano

My Top 25 Films of 2019

That time of reckoning has arrived and after some final tweeking and crammed on-line viewings of a few films I never got around to, I am prepared to deliver a Top 25 (actually 26 with the #25 tie between two films) and a spirited runners-up list of very good films that simply couldn’t fit on the Top 25. Some films by my rules are ineligible until 2020 when they will get their USA theatrical openings, otherwise how could I include them for 2019 without having an opportunity to see them? I am referring to films like the Russian “Beanpole” the French “Les Miserables,” “End of the Century” and the German “Heimat is a Space of Time.” But there are plenty more. 2019 was an amazing year across the board and though it would be just as serviceable to list my favorites alphabetically I always opt for the “drama” of a numerical list, which also denotes a slight preference for the films by their order:

1. Never Look Away (Germany, Florian Von Donnarsmarck)
2. 1917 (USA, Sam Mendes)
3. A Hidden Life (USA, Terrence Malick)
4. Little Women (USA, Greta Gerwig)
5. Waves (USA, Edward Shults)
6. Uncut Gems (USA, Joshua and Ben Saftie)
7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (France, Celine Schiamma)
8. An Elephant Sitting Still (China, Hu Bo)
9. Transit (Germany, Christian Petzold)
10. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (USA, Quentin Tarantino)
11. Ad Astra (USA, James Gray)
12. The Irishman (USA, Martin Scorsese)
13. The Lighthouse (USA, Robert Eggers)
14. Synonyms (France/Isreal, Nadav Lapid)
15. The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
16. Parasite (South Korea, Bong Joon-ho)
17. Jo Jo Rabbit (USA, Taika Waititi)
18. The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao (Brazil, Karim Ainouz)
19. The Two Popes (UK/USA, Fernando Meirelles)
20. Woman at War (Iceland, Benedikt Erlingsson)
21. A Marriage Story (USA, Noah Baumbach)
22. Queen and Slim (USA, Melina Matsoukas)
23. Luce (USA, Julius Onah)
24. Cats (UK/USA, Tom Hooper)
25. Midsommar (USA, Sweden, Ari Aster)
and
Ash is the Purest White (Hong Kong) -TIE-

Runners-Up (in no order): A Sword of Trust (USA); Scheme Birds (Scotland); Giant Little Ones (Canada); The Last Black Man in San Francisco (USA); Knives Out (USA); The Mustang (USA); Ford vs. Ferrari (USA); Honey Boy (USA); Give Me Liberty (USA); Pain and Glory (Spain); The Peanut Butter Falcon (USA); A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (USA); Wild Rose (USA); Dark Waters (USA); Monos (Columbia); Birds of Passage (Columbia/Denmark); Sorry Angel (France); Atlantics (Senegal/France); Honeyland (North Macedonia); Colewell (USA); Sauvage/Wild (France); Dolemite is My Name (Craig Brewer); Meeting Gorbachev (Russia/USA); The Place of No Words (UK); 17 Blocks (USA); Gay Chorus Deep South (USA); Changing the Game (USA); House of Hummingbird (South Korea); One Child Nation (China); The Apollo (USA); Rocket Man (UK); Blinded by the Light (UK); Harriet (USA); The Biggest Little Farm (USA); Apollo 11 (USA)

I will try and put together my director, acting and craftsmanship favorites soon as well. Over the next week I will compile my Top 25 of the Decade list (2010-2019) with runners-up.

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by Sam Juliano

I’ll be spending the morning of New Year’s Eve (Tuesday) in a rather unusual place, as a result of lamentable scheduling that I was foolish not to contest.  Alas I will be drinking those deplorable laxatives on Monday night in preparation for a combined colonoscopy-endoscopy procedure which isn’t being done for any other reason other than it has been eight years since I last had one (colonoscopy) and maybe six since I had an endoscopy.  The latter is common for anyone like myself who is maligned with acid reflux (Gerd).  No big deal of course but definitely a bizarre bit of scheduling.

Jim Clark again posted his inspiring essay for the holiday season “Dylan Thomas, James Herriot and the Spirit of Christmas” at the site on Thursday.

Lucille, the boys and I spent Saturday evening taking in a splendid doo wop presentation by our friend’s group “Four Man Trio” at the Lakeside Restaurant in Wayne, and on Friday we drove down to Asbury Park for a pinball session at the waterfront Silverball Museum.

Two of the very best films of the year opened on Christmas Day and Lucille, the gang and I caught one of the greatest war films ever made (#2 WW I film behind “All Quiet on the Western Front”) at 9:20 on Xmas evening and by far the finest and most achingly sublime adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic novel “Little Women” yet from the renowned Greta Gerwig, chock full of spirited performances and writing on Thursday afternoon.

1917, directed by Sam Mendes based on a story told to him from his paternal grandfather is technically as adroit as “Dunkirk” but the film goes so much further in character development and narrative, and the final fifteen minutes are altogether shattering. The lead actor who plays Lance Corp. Schonfield (George MacKay) delivers a powerful, awards worthy turn, Roger Deakins’ searing cinematography is first-rate as is Thomas Newman’s haunting score, and the film’s single take gimmick is surprisingly successful. A gut wrenching experience with a well-earned tour de force of an ending.

Little Women represents a watermark in Gerwig’s career and for adaptations of the novel a new poll position placement. The lovely Saoirse Ronan aces her beguiling performance as “Jo” and the entire cast delivers such as Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern and Timothee Chalamet. Alexander Desplat’s score is lovely and a perfect fit for the material and the cinematography, production design and costumes conspire to fuel this engrossing screenplay (also by Gerwig) with ravishing period flavor. In my opinion this film is even better than the director’s previous “Ladybird” and her best work to date. Both films rate 5/5. I also thought the Boston Film Critics nailed it giving Ronan their Best Actress prize!

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by Sam Juliano

The Wonders in the Dark staff (James Clark, J.D. Lafrance, Jamie Uhler) as well as Lucille and I would like to wish our dear friends and loyal readers a very Merry Christmas this coming Wednesday!  I always say the same thing, but isn’t it amazing how time flies.  We are on the cusp of another new year and we are a year older.  The site recently completed its eleventh year, another remarkable achievement.  This past year on a personal note had more than its share of heartbreaks and adversity.  We lost our 89 year-old Dad in October, our favorite pet, a cat named Dylan two weeks after that and Lucille had that frightful benign tumor radio surgery which was a success.  Here at the site we continue to receive extraordinary reviews from Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance as well as another year of Jamie Uhler’s fantastic horror fest writings and chairmanship of the annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival, which is moving towards its fourth year.  My ongoing Caldecott Medal Contender series -in its eighth year- is moving forward, albeit as a slower pace than in the past because of all the roadblocks I’ve mentioned.  I want to thank the reading community for the amazing comment and page view numbers that again have greeted the series.  We hope everyone has a peaceful and happy time for the end of the year festivities.  Lucille and I (along with Sammy and Jeremy) attended the annual holiday bash Saturday night in Butler, N.J. at Lucille’s sister’s home.

We saw three films in the theater this past week (one will actually be watched tonight, Richard Jewell, so I will return to this post to revise).    I’m mad. In all the years I’ve watched and sometimes reviewed movies for various publications dating all the way back to my college newspaper days I can’t remember an instance when I thought a film was tons better than a critical consensus as awful as that which greeted Tom Hooper’s “Cats” based on the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical. In short I really liked “Cats” and found the director’s phantasmagorical approach a perfect fit for the undisciplined material culled from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Film critics too often look down their noses at musicals, yet the far more uppity theater critics lavished much praise on the show, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical and ran for 18 years, most at the Winter Garden Theater where I witnessed this alluring and infectious hodgepodge of feline immersion four (4) times. After seeing some really extraordinary films over the past weeks I was due to see a dud and the vast majority of reviews are promising that “Cats” is exactly that. But no, put on the brakes. Hooper makes terrific use of London backdrops, and opens up the work to incorporate a bonanza of dance, ballet and song, with a few clear showstoppers like Jennifer Hudson’s “Memory”, “Mr. Mistoffeles,” “Macavity: The Mystery Cat,” “Shimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” and “Old Deutoronomy.” Francesca Hayward is absolutely smashing as Victoria, Ian McKellan is wonderful as Gus and Judi Dench is charming even with her non-existent singing voice. Laurie Davidson and Robbie Fairchild are splendid, though Taylor Swift is severely underused. Hooper is bold and takes some risks (not all of them work) but largely I found “Cats” a major surprise. Let the critics hate and use this film for their negative status quo but for some of the rest of us we can renew our vows in accepting how and why we loved this Broadway show in the first place. Oh yes, the cat fur CGI was effective and Hooper gets away with breaking every rule of narrative flow and continuity. On film this feat is tricky as opposed to the stage where a “revue” can be workable. The film is captivating! 4/5 with a half star upgrade still possible. Lucille, Sammy and I saw the film at the Teaneck multiplex Thursday evening. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The cataract surgery is completed.  All went well but vision restoration is seemingly still a ways off.  Some people need two to three weeks for it to return and I am waiting (im) patinetly.  Ha!   This past Thursday I attended our annual teacher’s Xmas party in Carlstadt, New Jersey.  It was a fun time for all and a moment to unwind before the early Friday morning eye surgery.

This past week both Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance published banner reviews on Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg and Sidney Lumet’s Night Falls on Manhattan.  RIP Danny Aiello, a gentleman and wonderful actor who was iconic in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Lucille and I saw one film in theaters this week as things were too hectic to do more.  But we have one set for this evening and more later in the week.  We saw:

A Hidden Life *****   (Sunday)  Cinema 1

“A Hidden Life”: A Terrence Malick masterpiece

There is precedence when we apply the word “masterpiece” to a Terrence Malick film, but his newest work, a cosmic investigation into defiant heroism, based on a real story set in Nazi Austria is the most linear film the acclaimed director has made in quite some time. Yet this lyrical work set in a scenic Sound of Music-styled hamlet in northern Austria is nonetheless one of the director’s finest films and one of the top 2 or 3 I‘ve watched this year. Fueled by a piercing voice over narration, lovely cinematography by Jorge Widmar and music by James Newton Howard “A Hidden Life” relates the story of conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter who doggedly refuses to serve under Hitler while rebuffing numerous efforts from family and friends who contend his unwavering principals will bring him certain death. Like other Malick masterworks the film weaves an introspective spell. Lucille and I saw the film yesterday afternoon at the Cinema 1 on 3rd Avenue with friend Bill Kamberger.

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