Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Way back in 2002, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers came out and it blew not only me away but Hollywood as well. It was even better than The Fellowship of the Ring and one of the main reasons was because of Andy Serkis' performance as Gollum. The scene that everyone talked about in particular was where he has a conversation with himself about whether or not he should kill Frodo and Sam. What the movie did was cause a debate with the question, "should an actor who plays a motion-capture CGI character get nominated for an Oscar?" It's been 12 years since Serkis caused that debate and I think his time has finally come.
I understand that this seems like a heavy statement that is overly dramatic but I mean every word of it; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a milestone in cinematic history that features achievements that mark a new beginning for the art. The movie is wonderful but the performance of Serkis and the technology that allows it to seem so unflinchingly real is a first. Never for a single second do you not accept every ape in the film as a real animal and a large part of that is because of the performances by the men and women who play them, mainly Serkis and Toby Kebbell (War Horse, Wrath of the Titans).
Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) believed in this so much that he starts the film with 12 minutes that features only the apes and zero dialogue. I know that sounds arty but I assure you Dawn still has everything you expect to see in a big budget, summer blockbuster. It still features all the action, explosions, violence and excitement but still has something to say, complex characters in challenging relationships and presented in such an artistic fashion that the whole thing commands to be taken seriously as a true expression of cinema.
The story isn't original and is pretty predictable but that's the furthest thing from your mind as you watch a film that features a fully CGI character as its star for the first time ever. It could have shown cliche characters doing cliche things but instead makes even the villains have justifications that are understandable and sympathetic. Gary Oldman (the Dark Knight trilogy, the Harry Potter films) is his usual awesome self playing a baddie that still wrangles enough saddness and desperation that every action he has is something you can never hate.
The other human characters are played Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby), Keri Russell (Felicity, Waitress) and the very grown-up Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In). They feel a little shoehorned into the plot for the sake of making the film relatable to a mainstream audience but not enough to ever once make you roll your eyes at their presence. But make no mistake that the stars of the film are the apes and the performances you see are the performers themselves. Sure the technology makes the physical manifestation possible but the heart and soul of the character is all the actors within.
The dinosaurs and a-holes that make up The Academy say that an actor who plays a CGI character shouldn't be considered for an Oscar because it takes a team of hundreds of artists to make the performance come to life. True, but what we see in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is no less an actor's performance as is any other actor who has won an Oscar for playing a character donned in hours of special FX makeup. This movie is one of the best films of the year and it's primarily because of the performance from Andy Serkis. If The Academy doesn't recognize that and give the man a well-deserved and overdue nomination I may have to start throwing my own poop.