Tag Archives: Oscars

La La Land is Many Places

bill-paxton-films

by James Davies

[Spoilers ahead]

 

Finest Picture, for All Mankind

9. Arrival
Starts off promisingly, with a nice establishing of the story and visual appeal. Continues its success slowly-but-surely up through Amy Adams’s character, super-refreshingly, declaring it is/has to be a “non-zero-sum-game.” Then the ending destroys the whole film. A child-focused part is initially used respectfully, groundedly, and connectedly, but then is turned into a Terrible Thing Fulcrum (TTF) on top of a magical-mystical deus ex machina containing the false core of “reproduction is what (most) makes us human–what gives us our fullest realization as individuals and a species.” (Related to its POV)

8. Moonlight
Too much of a hyperconstructed, inorganic-organic, leaden work. It’s a critic’s darling like Boyhood was in that way. Maybe they feel that kind of construction flatters criticism and thus them? There seems to be a class convergence between professional film critics and these kinds of films. The characters never much feel like fresh-and-blood people, and at worse are walking stereotypes.

7. Hidden Figures
The story is compelling enough, but something is lost from the page to the screen. It might be too slick and (inadvertently) rendering things more inevitable than they were.

6. Lion
“You kept telling me how little I am, but look how clever I am.” … “It’s magic.” … “I can lift anything.” … “You’ve come very far, haven’t you? And one day you’ll tell me all about it.” Establishes at the outset that it’s about going through dark tunnels, yelling in them, and coming out on the other side. Much of it is sheer set-up for the ending and the ending is powerful. The scenes with the young Brierley do draw you in, but the adult-Brierley scenes are rather flat until the end.

5. Hacksaw Ridge
I can see some of what thethirdrevelation is saying and think some of those criticisms can be answered by the historical and biographical accuracy. I might describe the first part as kind of hokey–but even in that vein, Vince Vaughan works well as a caricature of a military sergeant who’s then softened-up/epiphanied by Doss. I think it makes a nice leap to the last 2/3. The war scenes alone gave it a high floor for me. The film actually under-depicts the abuse Doss took from his unit. They do compress the saving of lives he does from a span of like three weeks to two days, but still, I was moved. It automatically gets several bags of popcorn for the “principles” message and for how graphic, realistic, and sobering-stirring the war scenes are.

4. Manchester by the Sea
Didn’t like it as much as I wanted to, nor near its level of critical reception, but maintains a pretty high floor. It’s not like I can think of many better portraits of grief. Ultimately, though, it relies too much on the TTF to bear its (emotional) weight. Upstream Color is an example of a film that uses its TTF probably just right, namely, doesn’t overuse it and has color and shape and life outside of the fulcrum, even if the fulcrum can be said to always be there. Manchester doesn’t really do anything else wrong though, and does contain several powerful scenes. Those and the very good acting throughout help it maintain that high floor. Good use of region and locations.

3. Fences
I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by Fences, which now sits alongside Doubt as a quality play-to-screen adaptation. Denzel does a lot of taut lifting of hegemonic hypermasculinity and Viola Davis is solid as long-suffering sounding board, then bell. They develop a believable push-pull chemistry.

2. Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water grew on me a fair amount as I compared it to the other Best Picture nominees. It’s a good genre film (neo-Western chase / cops n’ robbers), but also transcends it. It’s message and lessons about economic dislocation, pride, and justice are timely and reverberate loudly. Good casting, including Ben Foster at his manic best.

Ought to win: La La Land
Easily my favorite-best of the year, so I’m glad it’s the odds-on favorite for the big win. A lot of it is sheer set-up for the ending–about the same ratio Lion has–but boy what an ending. When you deliver one on par with Casablanca’s, your work is done here, with credit to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. My initial thought about it coming out of the theater was that Chazelle knew he had made a good enough film–had enough quality and craft laid down–to merit and support that ending. He slots it in there with confidence and panache; he is clear-eyed and full-hearted. That being said, I probably would’ve given it Best Picture right off as a riposte to the snobs criticizing the dancing and singing. Save your plastic pantomime, junkies. It’s been criticized for supposed nostalgia, but I think it’s more subversive than not on that front, and I agree with Charles Turner that “The making of modernity has sought to provide a defence of nostalgia as a critical tool of analysis. In this respect the nostalgic imagination may be a defensible, and at least an intelligent response to the end of the social.”* Relatedly, it exists rather independently of its Hollywood trappings and jazz parts, and is more universal than some critics are acknowledging. For one, New Englander Chazelle almost set in in Boston (he borrowed heavily from his own Boston-set film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench). It’s very explicit and knowing about this, like with the use of the on-lot coffee shop–going from “reality” to “dreamland” just so; the movers moving the picture of California orange groves; the cartoon depiction of Mia’s audition. This is all explicit attention to and a deconstruction of the artificiality, symbolism, and tropes here. It’s a meta-commentary. Maybe that’s an annoying self-innoculating move by Chazelle, but I think it works overall and I appreciated it. Other criticisms also seem rather misplaced, shading into the over-cynical. Gosling and Stone’s characters have been criticized as a Manic Pixie Dream Boy and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and as “narcissists who sacrifice love for self-interest.” Saying they’re both Manic Pixie Dreamers for each other seems to negate itself, and I’m pretty sure that criticism is incompatible with the second one. There may be some (Manic) Pixie Dream dust, but not a lot I don’t think–their characters are too independent. Also, I’m with the coiner of the term, Nathan Rabin, who has since renounced it in saying that “nuanced characters cannot be classified in such a restricted nature.”** I still think it can be a useful term in a narrow sense, but maybe at its sloppiest goes to Zoe Kazan’s charges of it being “reductive, diminutive, and misogynistic.” I also believe there can be manic pixie dream aspects alongside an equality between characters, and that seems to be the case here. Regarding the supposed narcissism and self-interest, I think that would have to overlook what is arguably the plot fulcrum of the whole movie, where Sebastian misunderstands/misinterprets a conversation Mia is having with her mother. From that overhear, he thinks she wants him to go the John Legend & Co. route. He thinks he’s pleasing her, which is the opposite of narcissism. That being said, the scene where they argue about it is frustrating. It seems artificially strained and too much of a shortcut. Finally, Seb is not some white savior of jazz. He doesn’t like the Legend Tour, but his purism and stubbornness is directly corrected by John Legend’s character, and I think the ultimate dream suggested, shared by Mia, is to have his own club that, if anything, is fusion and pluralist or whatever. It’s part of his evolution. I mean, his look at the end? That’s pure subjectivity.

Will win: La La Land

Bill Paxton in Terminator

Bill Paxton in The Terminator

Supportive Women in Cinema
5. Nicole Kidman
4. Octavia Spencer
3. Michelle Williams
2. Viola Davis
“Anything he can’t understand he wanna call it the devil.”
Ought to win: Naomie Harris
Does a lot with what little she’s given. Really hits those emotional high notes. “I just thought at the start of my career, I’m gonna make it my mission—or the criteria in which I choose roles—is gonna ensure that I’m representing positive images of women. So initially I had huge reservations about taking on the role, and it wasn’t until [director] Barry [Jenkins] explained to me that this was based on his own mother, you know, and that’s what really touched me, and I thought ‘Here is somebody who has a vested interest in ensuring that this character doesn’t become reduced to being a stereotype.”  “No Small Parts
Will win: Davis

Natalie Portman: Yeah, ‘cause there are, like, particular cultures in different towns and—
Michelle Williams: There were [?] and they were so particular about that. When I went up to this area there’s these towns that all abut each other…but they’re so distinct, you know, and like you go to Beverly and they’re like “Don’t you dare make it sound like Gloucester,” and you go to Gloucester and they’re like “We are nothing like Manchester-by-the-Sea’ and you’re like “Oh, God, I hope that you guys—I hope that it’s okay!”  “Natalie Portman & Michelle Williams — Actors on Actors” (Variety)

“The first time I saw Moonlight, the character of Paula felt like a misstep. In such a personal movie, to find what felt like an overburdened stock trope of black poverty was a disappointment. Then I saw the movie again. And I kept my eye on Harris: how she closes her eyes, warily, after a strange man brings her son home; how she barrels, spindly and unpredictably, toward Chiron when she’s locked out of the house; how her hand shakes while lighting a cigarette after years of being sober. As much as Moonlight is a movie about a time in a boy’s life, it’s also about the same time in his mother’s life. It’s advertised as a triptych tracing three distinct moments in Chiron’s journey. Telling that story means becoming a three-part series of snapshots of all the characters, including Chiron’s mother, whose life plays out as a nascent struggle with crack that becomes a full-blown addiction before finally evening out on the road to recovery. Paula is a supporting role, but a primary force, so much so that Harris is the only actor to appear in all three parts of the movie. The movie is very much like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) in that sense: shifts in the mother’s life loom so large in the story that she at times feels like a colead.”  “Naomie Harris’s Voice Is a Secret Weapon in ‘Moonlight’

Bill Paxton, Near Dark

Bill Paxton, Near Dark

Most Supportive Man
5. Dev Patel
4. Mahershala Ali
3. Michael Shannon
2. Jeff Bridges
Ought to win: Lucas Hedges
Will win: M.Ali

Our Man Michael Shan: I read that Christmas monologue, about that guy who hates Christmas.
I got the script in the mail, I read it, I thought, “Wow this is really bleak, I don’t know if this is for me.” … We [Shannon and Tom Ford] talked for a little while, I was like “This guy’s super smart. I bet he’ll make a good movie,” so I said yes; but I like the character Bobby because I’m really into those Jim Thompson books…so for me Bobby…could’ve been a character out of that genre. You know, playin’ a detective is fun, and all that.
Driver: You ever seen Fishing with John?
Shannon: No, I haven’t seen that show.
Driver: They’re really funny.
Shannon: People love that.
Driver: Yeah.
Shannon: Let me ask you somethin’: TV, stage, film–what do you prefer?
Driver: I don’t have a preference, do you?
Shannon: Theater.
Driver: Really?
Shannon: Yeah.
Driver: Why?
Shannon: There’s just less interference. There’s less people in your business, you know? You just get to go out there and nobody walks up and starts, like, touchin’ your face. [Driver laughs] You just go out there and say your lines and when you’re done, you’re done–you know?; and you can really–I just feel like it’s easier to get momentum on stage.
Shannon: I don’t want to get in a litigious situation here, but it wasn’t safe.”

Queen of the Castle!
5. Meryl Streep
4. Ruth Negga
3. Isabelle Huppert
2. Natalie Portman
“A woman should be allowed to be whole range of things, and just a complete human being on screen—the way men are portrayed.”  “Natalie Portman argues that ‘Jackie’ goes beyond ‘strong woman’ stereotypes
Ought to win: Emma Stone
Will win: Stone

“In an aptly exhaustive examination of the actor’s approach, Alex Abad-Santos over at Vox breaks down the historical significance of Jackie’s accent with the help of several linguistic experts. Not quite transatlantic and not quite New York, Kennedy’s accent was a product of her wealthy upbringing along with a childhood split between Southampton and Long Island. The driving force of her accent, though, came from her years in school in Manhattan. At this time, well-to-do students, much like Kennedy herself, were taught a mixture of American English with British English in order to encourage a seemingly posh dialect. Usually this was seen in the dropping of “r”s, referred to as non-rhotic affectation. Natalie Portman’s portrayal is rooted in a historical context, which is what makes aspects of her performance feel so unfamiliar. Jackie’s accent is not only an odd mixture of varied sources, inconsistent in the way only humans can be, but her accent exists in a time completely foreign to most people of a younger generation.”  “Natalie Portman’s ‘Jackie’ Accent May Sound Strange, But History Backs It Up

“Before the Oscars ceremony kicked off, Emma Stone had already cemented her place on the evening’s best dressed lists in an Oscar-gold old Hollywood gown. But her most noteworthy accessory was in service of a cause: a small golden pin in the shape of Planned Parenthood’s logo. Stone was not the only star who made a subtle political statement on the red carpet. Dakota Johnson sported Planned Parenthood’s logo on her clutch, and several stars —including nominees Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruth Negga—wore blue ribbons in support of the American Civil Liberties Union.”  “Emma Stone Made a Political Statement With Her Accessories Before the Oscars Even Began

Bill Paxton and Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies

Bill Paxton and Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies

Best Baby Boy
5. Ryan Gosling
4. Andrew Garfield
3. Casey Affleck
2. Denzel Washington
“Death ain’t nothin’ but a fastball on the outside of the plate.”
Ought to win: Viggo Mortensen
“Are they sick? Everyone’s so fat!” Mortensen is the Reluctant-but-Happy Warrior-Driver of an alternative schoolbus of a film that is propelled by supreme feeling and heart. As he usually does in roles, I love how he delivers such feeling, impact, and high stakes so quietly. He’s an actor’s actor.
Will win: Denzel

Bill Paxton in Aliens

Bill Paxton in Aliens

Finest Direction, in a Filmic Sense
5. Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
4. Dennis Villeneuve, Arrival
3. Melly Gibs, Hacksaw Ridge
2. Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Ought to win: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Will win: Chazelle

“The longevity and relevance of Gibson’s career up until 2006 was almost unparalleled. From his beginnings in 1979’s ‘Mad Max’ to the ‘Lethal Weapon’ franchise to his five ‘Braveheart’ Oscars that included best picture and director, the Australian-raised, devout Roman Catholic seemed to defy the career slumps that rendered many of his peers obsolete over the years. He has a particular gift for themes of redemption through violence and suffering; ‘Hacksaw Ridge,’ which has already been described as an ‘inspirational’ comeback and a ‘miracle’ for his career, follows that template. In the World War II drama about an army medic who also happened to be a Seventh Day Adventist and pacifist, a man’s faith is tested, he’s nearly destroyed, he repents, he’s exonerated. … When asked what he might tell his younger self if given the opportunity, Gibson answered: ‘Don’t be so caught up in the little things; take advantage of all the gifts the world has to offer; and live every day to the fullest.’ Then he added: ‘I’d also tell my younger self to shut the f— up.”  “Mel Gibson goes from most hated man in Hollywood to receiving a standing ovation

Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Kurt Russell, and Bill Paxton in Tombstone

Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Kurt Russell, and Bill Paxton in Tombstone

Topmost Writing That Now Has a Second (Lease On) Life, Which You May or May Not Have Seen Coming
5. Arrival
4. Moonlight
3. Lion
2. Hidden Figures
Should win: Fences
Will win: Moonlight

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Bacon in Apollo 13

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Bacon in Apollo 13

Writing Newly Born, Already Superlative
5. Hell or High Water
4. La La Land
3. Manchester by the Sea
2. 20th Century Women
Ought to win: The Lobster
Will win: Manchester

Bill Paxton in Weird Science

Bill Paxton in Weird Science

Film Editing
5. Hell or High Water
4. Moonlight
3. Arrival
2. Hacksaw Ridge
Ought to win: La La Land
Will win: La La Land

“After suggesting that a civil war would be the only way to prevent Trump from assuming the highest office in the land, Shannon asserts that if you feel okay about supporting his presidency, it’s probably time for you to just die already. ‘There’s a lot of old people who need to realize they’ve had a nice life, and it’s time for them to move on,’ Shannon said. ‘Because they’re the ones who go out and vote for these assholes. If you look at the young people, between 18 and 25, if it was up to them, Hillary would have been president. No offense to the seniors out there. My mom’s a senior citizen. But if you’re voting for Trump, it’s time for the urn.’ And if your parents voted for Trump? ‘Fuck ’em. You’re an orphan now. Don’t go home. Don’t go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Don’t talk to them at all. Silence speaks volumes.’ Despite being from the red state of Kentucky, Shannon says that no one in his immediate family ‘would ever remotely consider voting for Trump.’ So, it sounds like no one around his holiday hearth will have to sit frozen in terror as he stares them down with his severely threatening gaze.” Jordan Crucchiola, “Michael Shannon Tells Trump Supporters It’s Their Time to Die Now” Vulture, 11-17-16

*Charles Turner, “Sacred sociology: the life and times of Phillip Rieff” Theory, Culture and Society, 28(3): 80-105 (2011), as cited in Sociological Noir: Irruptions and the Darkness of Modernity (2016)

**From TV Tropes: “Unfortunately, the term ended up being misused to describe simply quirky female characters, with many who are actually well-rounded being given this label. Rabin would later disown the term, because instead of creating awareness of the ‘lack of independent goals in female characters’, the concept instead accidentally ended up suggesting that ALL quirky and fun women automatically merited this trope, whether they actually fit in or not. Despite all that (or because of all that), there are ways of utilizing this trope without falling into that pitfall.”

michael-shannon-hair

vs.

jccalhoun_400x400

Yale’s smart choice in renaming Calhoun College

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Oh Dear: The 89th Academy Awards; or, We All Pee the Same Color

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The Oscars come but once a year.  Who shall, shalln’t, and shouldn’t win that sweet, sweet Oscar gold?   It’s time to put some shrimp on ice, grab a crisp porter ale, and watch the thrills, shills, probably a La La Land medley, and big Jim Kimmel tell us a consoling thing or two about Dan Trimp!  Buckle up your britches, sweet ones!

To the lists!!

(Some spoilers ahead)

Finest Direction, in a Filmic Sense

5. Melly Gibbons

From Metacritic:

TrevorsView  Jan 13, 2017

This is what Spider-Man should have been all this time. Here is what Ben Affleck should have done with Batman. Here is a true hero that outshines anyone wearing a colorful, shiny million dollar suit. In fact, all he has to suit him up and protect him from death is the holy word of God. He won’t even dream of laying either an eye or a finger on a rifle. If today’s superheroes can’t help us through gun control, then this real-life hero of Hacksaw Ridge can.

Gib.  You’ve won the game.  You’re a gibbon now.

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4. Denis Villeneuve

Other than the noisome dead girl plot device there’s nothing too unethical going on here, and I applaud anyone trying out something like a cool sci-fi that thinks about how your language informs your thought processes.  It’s just such a fumble on the narrative logic and character interaction fronts.  Not much feels intuitive.

3. Damien Chazelle

Some good production design and cinematography.  I’m just in the camp that would have preferred some more song and dance. Either that or a more layered story.  And perhaps it was a fool’s errand to expect the pace and specificity that made Whiplash what it was to have been in La La’s DNA.  Still, Simmons’ presence in both films underpins my theory that they take place in the same universe, wherein Simmons is some sort of Two-Face like villain that alternately goes around dumbing down and heightening jazz to its furthest extremes.

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2. Kenneth Lonergan

I agree with everyone who liked the subtle black comedy elements and clever little touches that make Manchester breathe with authenticity.  I also agree that there’s something of a built in ceiling with how closely it hews to its one terrible event informing just about everything with regards to Affleck’s lead role.  But that’s more of a feature than a bug in a project that works at a high level at what it wants to do.

1. Barry Jenkins

There’s always something of a pendulum push-back effect when a critical darling like Moonlight is so characterized by the prominence of its cinematography (that critic’s delight) and a camp decries it as critic bait.  Sometimes they’re right.  When they’re right, it’s often because the film lacks clarity or panders to a fault.  I don’t think either is the case here, this is potent human stuff.  One note: the chair that broke the bully’s back really shatters pro-wrestling style.  We need better chairs, DeVos.

Shall Prevail: Barry Jenkins(!)

The idea seems to be that Moonlight is the only real dark horse to the La La Land Juggernaut, so let’s go out on a limb and say this year they split Director and Picture honors, thus spreading the wealth.  But yeah, probably Chazelle.

 

Most Supportive Man

5. Dev Patel

Very standard role in a very typical awards season biopic, Patel is an ol’ hunk emoting a great deal, just what the doctor ordered.  It’s just a tough film to love.  As with Viola Davis, hard to tell how this ends up in the supporting category.  He’s on screen for almost all of his half of the two hour running time.  And that…probably means they should’ve branched out a little.

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4. Lucas Hedges

I don’t know if the film sets up the role to be all that dynamic, with a lot filmed over his or Affleck’s shoulders, or outside the car as they bicker in the car.  Definitely convinces as a young man right at the center of mourning and puberty, leaves nothing wanted.  Would like to know what position he plays on the hockey team. He seems like a defenceman.

3. Mahershala Ali

Very memorable in a small role, and in a very dialogue-light film, delivers the best lines.  Would like to have seen some more of him, but his absence after the first act is deliberate, any more and Moonlight is a very different film.

2. Jeff Bridges

He’s somewhere on the spectrum of witty disaffection he’s been playing over and over now, and that mode may be wearing a little thin, but I for one am still having fun.  It’s a shame his half of High Water’s narrative is the more rote, but he does sell the pivot from comedian to revenge seeker well.  It’s a shame his story doesn’t seem to quite contribute to the film’s more interesting takeaways at first glance, but then again, the politics of revenge is not a bad way of putting what the film seems to be thinking about.

1. Michael Shannon

A Juggernautish favorite and a true champion in general, Shannon brings his effortless charisma and a Cohen Bros.-ian jolt of dark humor to the project.  He starts off seemingly untrustworthy, dismissive and antagonistic, only to inevitably reveal himself as a fierce knight of pulpy justice.  He’s exceedingly well-cast.  It’s a real shame Nocturnal Animals ends on an ill-advised, reductive twist.

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Shall Prevail: Mahershala Ali

 

Supportive Women in Cinema

5. Nicole Kidman

No complaints, she’s just not given much to do.

4. Octavia Spencer

Hidden Figures has as charismatic a cast as you could ask for.  Taraji Henderson, Janelle Monae and Kevin Costner are all pretty good too. I think this nomination kind of works as one for the entire team.  Teamwork is what it’s about.

3. Michelle Williams

Strong work in a small role, very effectively simulates the process of crying while trying to communicate in words that just want to jumble out at random; the panic and despair as an inevitable parting inevitably arrives.  I think it’s shrewd that we see her so little throughout the film before, makes that moment more powerful.

2. Naomie Harris

Delivers in a big way on the volatility front, including a scene that seems to want to evoke a panic attack on the part of the protagonist, and boy does she make a catalyst.  As Moonlight is set up as to depict the protagonist’s mindspace, she’s not allowed to reveal a ton of unexpected layers.  She’s remote, but she’s supposed to be because that’s how her son feels about her.

1. Viola Davis

Where the film is mostly shot in a minimal way evocative of the stage, which can sometimes leave actors to struggle when they’re not speaking or directly engaged by who is, does a really impressive job communicating without words.  And when she is speaking, look out.  Classically done.

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Shall Prevail: Viola Davis

 

Best Baby Boy

*Viggo Mortensen

Role unseen as of today.  The light of thethirdrevelation’s life reports, however, that’s he’s fine, just doesn’t have much material worth elevating to Oscar gold realms.

4. Ryan Gosling

Not to knock, but one wonders with both him and Stone how the whole project may have resonated differently with lesser known actors as Hollywood unknowns.  Narratively, I never got what turned Stone’s Mia on to Seb given the Debbie Downer routine she receives, short fusing the whole romance.  Whether that’s on the director or the actor is anyone’s guess.

3. Andrew Garfield

For what it’s worth, I did appreciate Garfield in Hacksaw, he certainly exudes what he’s asked to.  Not kidding, Spider-man had to be a good experience to be able to draw from for the hero’s tale.  I would say let’s hope Hollywood gets its ‘based on true events’ obsession out of its system, but that’s probably a pipe dream.

2. Denzel Washington

You can tell he’s spent time playing the character, I can only imagine seeing him live.  Perhaps the biggest feat is his ability to leave you any sympathy for the character despite allowing himself so little in the performance to elicit it.

1. Casey Affleck

He’s seems a little one note but that’s exactly the idea: he’s a man left hiding in a note. He’s a tough onion to peel, yet peel he does.  Tears ensue.  For those new to the actor, do yourself a favor and check out the excellent and little seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  Take a wild guess who Affleck plays.

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Shall Prevail: Denzel Washington

Which is also a great choice.

 

Queen of the Castle!

5. Natalie Portman

For someone perhaps under-educated as to the Kennedy family and the finer details surrounding the assassination, Jackie came off at times a touch hollow, perhaps geared toward the expert?  Portman’s shock, seething bitterness and despair register impressively, but I found myself regularly wondering if I was lacking context knowledge to understand layers of meaning behind why she emphasizes or chooses certain turns of phrase just so, leaving the screenplay feeling scattered as often as arch, especially when ruminating on legacy.  As far as simulation, which seems to be our raison d’être, the remake of the 1962 White House tour and production design generally is fairly captivating, though Portman’s approximation of Jackie’s accent and manner feels a little over-played.

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4. Emma Stone

Stone has one of the most expressive faces in Hollywood and it’s certainly on display here.  She’s deceptively great with the audition line readings, easily my favorite part of the film: some seem perfectly fine, some are a just little flat so you can see why casting would pass, and some are delightfully clunky.

3. Meryl Streep Sweet Sheep

I went into Florence Foster Jenkins with little knowledge of the woman or her singing.  The key bit of Streep’s performance is spent caterwauling incredibly badly, and for the uninitiated, it sounds impossibly over the top, and not as singularly hilarious as her audiences seem to find it (she couldn’t have been that bad).  Then, the film ends with a brief snippet of the real Jenkins’ singing and… we really would have been well served with that as a prologue because it turns out she was exactly that bad, and Streep is basically nailing it.

If one can ignore that the film portrays Jenkins as more oblivious than she may have been for effect, I actually enjoyed it.  Before things end with an inevitable melodramatic cudgeling, there’s a lot of razor sharp comic timing, along with a good balance of silly and sweet.  It mostly earns its warmness, and Streep is a treat.  Hugh Grant is also very good, resembling thirdrevelation favorite Patrick McGoohan in feature, regal posture and clipped intonation.

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2. Ruth Negga

Loving may be one of the most underappreciated films of the year, at least, coming from a fan of Juggernautish favorite director Jeff Nichols.  It’s fascinating how motifs from earlier Nichols films–here the paranoia is finally 100% clearly justified–naturally fit this story.  Negga is working with a high degree of difficulty, hitting home completely without the benefit of anything in the way of showcase moments.  She doesn’t need them.

1. Isabelle Huppert

I don’t speak a lick of French and this is a dialogue-heavy film so I’m limited in my appraisal, but even so, Huppert  is mesmerizing while owning the strange core of a Verhoeven project that seems to want to subvert every trope it can imagine and then double back again (maybe fecklessly at times).  None of it works if Huppert doesn’t command both such authentic and variously affected beats.  I’m not sure if any specific light bulb went on for me as far as agency, sex, aging, role playing, or any of the myriad themes at play in Elle, but that seems to be by design, for worse or better.  While I’m not sure how I feel about the film at the end of the day, Huppert is damn engaging.

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Shall Prevail: Emma Stone

 

Finest Picture, for All Mankind

For this section, we’re employing the first annual On Cinema At the Cinema style rating system, for your enjoyment and an enriched context, and so you know what to watch and what to skip.  All are champions of Oscar glory, they were nominated for Best Picture were they not?  It’s a 1 to 5 scale.

9. Lion — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe an Oscar, I think that’s the idea

The less known about it going in the better, as Weinstein co.’s true-story biopic comes with a ceiling on its dramatic stakes to begin with. Half Calcutta tourist flick about a lost little boy in an incredibly dangerous situation that seems hellbent on always pivoting away from implying real peril as quickly as possible, half gauzy award performance showcase, it at least benefits from not dealing with a major figure and the associated mangling of history (see The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, The King’s Speech, etc).

Like with so many biopics, it’s a shame there isn’t time to characterize anyone much beyond their immediate relation to Brierley’s central conflict. His girlfriend and adoptive family never suggest much of a life beyond, so their incredibly steadfast support feels neither here nor there.  The same lack of context goes for Bierley’s specific conflict—what’s he like when he’s not Googling his birthplace, nuzzling post coitus, or brooding (“We swan about in our privileged lives!!”)?  Does he have a dog?  A little…chow or something?

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8. Hacksaw; or, Dip and a Ridged Chip — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe a Bible–you forgot yours

Hacksaw Ridge just scans as too silly to gain any dramatic traction, coming off as propaganda, at least to the uninitiated.  I always appreciate a reluctant warrior story and a man sticking to his guns, so to speak.  Desmond Doss’ is a story worth knowing.  But this is rote and perfunctory to a surreal degree, kind of a time capsule from the conservative 50’s.  The stalker romance, the way he forgets his bible (of course he did!) just so.  Such a wonderful backlit boy.  The squad members who really terrorized Dodd reduced to lovable scamps.  The battles are well done in a sense, and the gore is appreciated insofar as, if you’re going to depict war, the more realism the better.  But this is consistently staged as a heart-pumping action flick: the two week campaign condensed into two days, the stormtrooper enemies that can’t hit our hero as he’s portrayed leaping from man to man just yards away, always at the nick of time, the force-fielded edge of the ridge where he keeps doing his pulley thing.  We seem to be closer to playing army guys than a Saving Private Ryan, which earned its melodrama more convincingly through the unflinching-take-on-war idea.  Garfield gives a strong performance for what it’s worth, he certainly exudes what was asked.

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7. Arrival — Five Bags of Popcorn, and maybe a Copy of David Bowie’s 1969 Album David Bowie, Featuring “Space Oddity”

Arrival is definitely to be applauded for the macro message on cooperation, and it tries to get there with some slick sci-fi imagery and the concept of linguistic relativity: the idea that language and thought processes influence one another, which is beautiful and true.  It’s gotten a lot of praise for being smart, and it is in a sense, but a disinterest in character building, along with multiple ticking-time-bomb scenarios there just to inject a sense of stakes that never feel credible, dulls things down.  Like Interstellar, another notably ‘smart’ sci-fi, it seems to want to turn you on to science (great!) but doesn’t trust the audience to follow along without an emotional gut wrenching it doesn’t really need.  If the dead little girl for the sake of pathos doesn’t ruffle you, fair enough, but at least a set up where the alien language grants Adams, maybe, keen foresight, or a new perspective on the situation, rather than full on reverse total recall would be welcome.  Arrival was adapted from a short story “Story of Your Life” and everything likely comes across more smoothly on the page, where I understand the action movie aspects are absent.  Hey,  at least now we know why McConaughey’s hero is himself five years in the future.

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6. Hidden Figures — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe enough fuel for the delta-V we need for re-entry burn

Four(!) years after Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity taught us to keep our heads down, we have a pro-space movie!  We could have trimmed a scene or two, but a solid ensemble cast and enough attention-capturing lines–“At NASA we all pee the same color”—leaves us in a stable orbit.  At $145m domestic, Hidden Figures was the top grossing film of 2016 that wasn’t a tentpole/franchise or animated sing-fest designed to become one.  Not incidentally, it’s also a standard-bearer for a year that saw a record number of top 100 films with female leads.

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5. La La Land — Five bags of Popcorn, and a big ol’ dumptruck, for all that Oscar gold

One narrative on La La Land is that it’s largely a setup to quite a payoff of an emotional punch at the end, and where you stand will depend on whether that punch gets through to you.  Well, it didn’t, but I’m not a hater.  From production stills and Chazelle’s excellent Whiplash I came in figuring that if nothing else this would have a very specific voice to it, one that may or may not strike a personal chord (and please, no cheap nostalgia) but something clear.  It turns out any nostalgia going on is nicely embedded in the production design and the story’s nothing if not direct.  Any really harsh criticism of Stone and Gosling’s song and dance routines is off base—what do you expect, Danny Kaye?—but for a musical that’s in part a love letter to musicals (right?) it’s a little short on songs.  So we just don’t have many opportunities for “wow” moments, say, on the level of Anne Hathaway’s show stopper from Les Mis or even Channing Tatum’s elaborate dance sequence in Hail, Ceasar! this year.  The romance didn’t do much for me, largely as we’re never really shown why Mia responds to Seb’s rude Debbie Downer in the first place, but I do appreciate the theme of keeping alive the spirit of worthwhile things, and how difficult that is.

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4. Fences– Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe a copy of Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune album, featuring “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”

I’m no great student of the stage, but made comment while watching Fences that I hate how critics seem to knock stage to screen adaptations for leaving things stagey, as if it’s a sin in and of itself.  That can be a tool too, guys.  A less inside-out approach could have made some of the monologues sound a bit less like, well, monologues, but a monologue once in a while isn’t so bad. Washington and Davis are both superlative.  The depiction of the disabled brother comes off as a product of the 50’s in more ways than one, though, kind of dated at best and a clunky narrative contrivance at worst.  The arc with the football-playing son is surprisingly moving.

Broadway Opening Night Celebration For "Fences"

 

3. Moonlight — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe a chrome grill, because I’m honestly still not sure how they work

Probably the best cinematography and command of texture and mood of the set, sometimes bringing Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) to mind without the freaky-cosmic.  Moonlight is effectively restrained in its storytelling, and if the surreal and minimalist tendencies are a little showy, I still found it pretty sumptuous, especially with it’s knack for being quiet.  This is a story about a quiet soul.   It may be limited by the thee part structure, especially where a hell of a lot happens unseen between the second and third act.  Just a bit more connective tissue there may have gone a way toward helping the emotional payoff land, but, then again, the lack of it lends the last sequence a unique sort of mysteriousness.

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2. Manchester by the Sea — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe a funeral pyre like they used in Medieval times

Putting a ton of pressure on Affleck, Manchester comes off even more singularly about its particular damaged protagonist than Moonlight, which feels like it speaks to more universal feelings and experiences.  Idiosyncrasy is the name of the game here, and Affleck comes through quite impressively, even if the persona he creates is so interior as to be perhaps not as indelible as some of the classic depictions of damaged people.  Your mileage may vary.  As abashfulharvestman pointed out to me, Manchester may be limited by hewing so closely to its “terrible thing fulcrum”; at the least, I’d like to have seen the characters explored from some more inconspicuous life events.  Still, excellent screenplay in its way, and I was torn between Affleck and Washington for best baby boy.

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1. Hell or High Water  — Five bags of Popcorn, and maybe a ticket to Westworld, because I keep having this dream I can’t wake up from and I’m not sure if I did something wrong

OK, in the end, I don’t quite know where to put Hell or High Water.  I’ll say this: it’s always nice to put something at the end of your list that strikes a personal chord, presenting something you noticed that maybe not everyone did.  Since we’ve been making these should-wins, Her struck that chord for me in 2013;  Whiplash, and even Amour almost did, Argo maybe not so much.

The revenge on the Banks angle is admittedly blunt as far as allegory, to start.  And I don’t know if the characters come to life perfectly: Pine is empathetic if not entirely convincing; Foster is exciting but maybe overacting; Bridges is very charming, but that particular mode of his is getting a bit predictable.  But the visceral takeaway for me, and I think it’s entirely purposeful, is the local civilians’ (who I think we’re to understand are also bank victims) universal and immediate eagerness to engage in high-holy ballistics.  To discharge their holy weapons, dispensing justice.  In this otherwise almost oppressively sparse, deserted, sleepy environment, they’ve been itching for it, for that posse. To be sure, this is in response to a bank robbery, with the pointing of loaded guns at people, so there’s a measure of balance here, some justification.  We’re not exactly demonizing.

Who’s being robbed?  Everybody?  So, some are robbing, and some are shooting robbers.  And even the robbers, for all we know, OK, probably, are voting for their banks, and their station, because at the end of the day, violence and mayhem is what we respond to and use.  I need to do a rewatch, but I believe the civilian shoots first in the botched bank job, not the cop or the robber.  The story of the cop partners may not tie into that theme as well as it could, but on the other end, it also ends up being a story about where and why you ought to point your gun.

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Shall Prevail: La La Land


2016 Oscars / Mad Oscar: Fury Carpet; or “The world’s always changing brightness, and hotness.”

[Spoilers ahead]

“This is not only for the survivors of this horrific situation. But for me personally, and [I’ll] only speak for me, this is really for the disenfranchised everywhere. This is for every Flint, Michigan in the world. This is for the powerless. This is for the powerful who take advantage of the powerless.”  —Michael Keaton

George Clooney: “I would also make the argument, I don’t think it’s a problem of who you’re picking as much as it is: How many options are available to minorities in film, particularly in quality films?”

 

Best of All Pictures

8. Brooklyn
Never rises much above your standard immigrant’s tale. I never cared whether she picked Ireland or the U.S., to the extent both places are depicted as boring and not a little bit stupid. Too much maudlin yearning for domesticity. America was never innocent, as the film often seems to suggest.

7. The Martian
A lot of the film is an extended commercial for NASA, which consulted heavily on it. Snugly slots into the recent series of space-catastrophe movies. Like the others, it’s rather well-done overall, but stays shrouded in its own next-frontierism fog.

6. Spotlight
Important story that’s hard to translate to the screen–the gravity and impact of the issue is difficult to fully capture. I love investigative journalism and appreciate the focus on it here, but the moves and discoveries lack the pop and sizzle they probably had in real life. Thethirdrevelation correctly predicted it to be a high-floor, good-but-limited-ceiling procedural. Tom McCarthy said he fought to keep in the two to three minutes of Excel spreadsheets shots and the like, and I love that for its accuracy and its implicit endorsement of putting the work in even if it’s mind-numbing at times. It all feels relatively bloodless though, with victims more peppered in than followed. There are a couple of scenes Michael Keaton has that are emblematic of the film’s high-floor, good-but-limited-ceiling character: you want them to be great, but they’re boxed into being good only. I did like him winning the New York Film Critics award for Best Actor. Good use of Boston as a filming location.

5. Bridge of Spies
Liked this more than I thought I would, after getting the impression that it was simply Spielberg moving his terrorized action-child theme to a protecting & principled-patriarch one. Whole chunks of it are rather cookie cutter–though not uninteresting or without heart–until the end, when the last few moments brought it home for me. It’s about doing things despite not knowing the payoff, i.e. going on principles. It’s also about the enormity of social and political issues and systems, and the idea that the individual can do something in the face of them. Has several well-constructed and well-placed taut scenes rife with symbolism. An arguably instant classic entry in the “Everyman Rises to the Occasion and Accomplishes Something Great” category (Reluctant Warrior supracategory), and raises the question of whether or not we have a thinner stable of quality leaders today than in the past. Depicts the high stakes well. T.Hanks delivers classic tenacity in classic T.Hanks style. Smooth performance by Mark Rylance. His character’s “Would it help?” is rather good as far as black-humor lines go. Leaves you with one special docket for your passport so you can do all the special negotiating you need to.

4. Room
The film isn’t much more than the performances of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, but that’s plenty. Larson meets the big challenge of having to do the character in both the character’s captured and freed states. Tremblay’s character has some choice “out of the mouths of babes” quotes, including the following after he escapes: “The world’s like all TV planets on at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen. There’s doors and…more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness.” Yeah, you’re telling me kid.

3. The Revenant
I continue to be leery of Iñárritu, and the film was certainly a little much–as thethirdrevelation pointed out–on the symbolic, the magic–including the magic Indians–and the narrative incoherence. Yet I might not deduct a lot on those, if for no other reason than I don’t expect much else from the guy. I didn’t mind the hyperreal. The whole thing is beautiful to look at and something to contemplate and meditate on, and that’s probably worth at least one bag of popcorn. A strong, and pretty well-depticted ravenousness theme runs through it; it may have actually lifted shots and scenes directly from Ravenous. I also liked Fitzgerald’s Nitschean squirrel speech–probably the best part of the whole film. The film does get a little too ponderous and is limited by its revenge theme. Leo vs. the Hardy Boy proves a solid foundation though, plus we get a serviceable Domnhall Gleeson who will think twice about mercy-killing you. From Wes Morris: “Melena, have you seen the Instagram photos of a Revenant screening/sleepover that Oprah Winfrey hosted? The people who love this movie *love* it. Apparently, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association had an ecstatic sleepover, too. I’m milder about it, but Mr. DiCaprio’s best actor speech, in which, at the end, he makes seemingly sincere acknowledgement of American Indians who play a larger more contemplative role in that movie and asserts that they deserve more from this country. Bravo. Still, this is a movie about the suffering of a man played by Mr. DiCaprio.”

2. The Big Short
The first third or so is shaky, marked by unsuccessful attempts at humor, but it builds up steam pretty well as it goes, namely as it gets more serious. The last third to half is solid, at least insofar as it’s getting at civilizational edifices, and the warp and weave of societal rot and the economic collapse. It uses (acquisitive) masculinities to criticize (rapacious) hypermasculinities to show the extremes to which we’ve been pulled; here it’s akin to Rust Cole telling Marty Hart that “The world needs bad men. We keep other bad men from the door.” We also get a tonic of Christian Bale doing Rain Man Light with an infusion of Patrick Bateman. The film is a good addition to a series that includes Inside Job and Margin Call. I liked it better than Wolf of Wall Street, which I didn’t think was critical enough. It leaves you with a dream of Wall St. regulations with teeth. As it tells us at the end, and as Bernie Sanders is pointing out on the campaign trail, this extraordinarily destructive, wanton gambling with other people’s lives through financial speculation is ongoing.

Michael Burry at work

Michael Burry at work

Goldman to Pay Up to $5 Billion to Settle Claims of Faulty Mortgages

Ought to win: Mad Max: Fury Road
A great, almost seamless blend of action, ideas, issues, and the meditative. Its feminism is in its depiction of men and women working together for mutual liberation. When Imperator Furiosa kneels in the sand, we acutely feel her pain.

Will win: The Revenant

 

Number One Better Half
5. Rooney Mara
4. Rachel McAdams
3. Alicia Vikander
2. Jennifer Jason Leigh
Ought to win: Kate Winslet
Will win: Vikander

Most Supportive Man
5. Mark Ruffalo
4. Sylvester Stallone
3. Mark Rylance
2. Christian Bale
Ought to win: Tom Hardy
Will win: Stallone

Queen of the Castle
5. Charlotte Rampling
4. Jennifer Lawrence
3. Saorise Ronan
2. Cate Blanchett
Ought to win: Brie Larson
Will win: Larson

Superlative Actor in a Leadership Role
5. Bryan Cranston
4. Eddie Redmayne
3. Matt Damon
2. Leonardo DiCaprio
Ought to win: Michael Fassbender
Will win: DiCaprio

Best of All Directors
5. Tom McCarthy
4. Alejandro Iñárritu
3. Adam McKay
2. Lenny Abrahamson
Ought to win: George Miller
Will win: Iñárritu

Best Adapted Screenplay
5. Brooklyn
4. The Martian
3. Carol
2. Room
Ought to win: The Big Short
Will win: The Big Short

Cinematography
5. The Hateful Eight
4. Carol
3. Sicario
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Ought to win: The Revenant
Will win: The Revenant

Visual Effects
5. The Martian
4. The Revenant
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Ought to win: Ex Machina
Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Film Editing
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
4. Spotlight
3. The Big Short
2. The Revenant
Ought to win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Production Design
5. The Danish Girl
4. The Martian
3. Bridge of Spies
2. The Revenant
Ought to win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Score
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
4. Bridge of Spies
3. The Hateful Eight
2. Carol
Ought to win: Sicario
Will win: The Hateful Eight

Sound Editing
5. The Martian
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
3. Sicario
2. The Revenant
Ought to win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Mixing
5. Bridge of Spies
4. The Martian
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2. The Revenant
Ought to win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Sometimes you have to ride off a cliff and be reborn from a dead horse to win an Oscar.

Sometimes you have to ride off a cliff and be reborn from a dead horse to win an Oscar.


2015 Oscars: Uses and abuses of biography and history; or, “You get what it gives you. That’s how this thing works.”

“By using real names, the film purports to be a documentary account. But it makes only gestures toward presenting all facets of the case… The documentary is a real medium of journalism; the docudrama usurps its authenticity, just as would an advertisement written to be indistinguishable from a news column… Real names, people and places are not common property that can be taken and remolded at will by thesis-builders. They should be reported with respect for the evidence in its own right.” New York Times, “The Chicanery of ‘Silkwood

“What this reveals is a lack of standards and ethics in the film industry that, if replicated in the fields of history or journalism, would have produced a scandal of the first order. Evidently, because it’s ‘just a movie,’ members of the filmmaking industry and the public seem to think that this is all right. Granted, filmmaking is generally considered to be entertainment, and so viewers tend to give it very great leeway where truth and believability are concerned. But when films purport to tell true stories — especially the life stories of living people — they should be held to a higher standard.”  –Maxwell King, “‘Beautiful Mind’ controversy: Hollywood’s truth problemPhiladelphia Inquirer, 3-20-02

“Notwithstanding their boosters’ claims about these films’ relation to the historical moments they depict, Selma and its recent predecessors, like other period dramas, treat the past like a props closet, a source of images that facilitate naturalizing presentist sensibilities by dressing them up in the garb of bygone days. And the specific sensibilities that carry the spate of slavery/Jim Crow-era costume dramas are those around which the contemporary black professional-managerial class (PMC) converges: reduction of politics to a narrative of racial triumph that projects ‘positive images’ of black accomplishment, extols exemplary black individuals, stresses overcoming great adversity to attain success and recognition, and inscribes a monolithic and transhistorical racism as the fundamental obstacle confronting, and thus uniting, all black Americans. History is beside the point for this potted narrative, as is art incidentally, which the debate over the relative merits of Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained demonstrates. The only metric that could make comparing such radically different films seem plausible is the presence or prominence of a black hero or black ‘agency.’ … It is past time to consider Prof. Legette’s aphorism [‘The only thing that hasn’t changed about black politics since 1965 is how we think about it.’] and engage its many implications. And that includes a warrant to resist the class-skewed penchant for celebrating victories won in the heroic moment of the southern civil rights movement as museum pieces disconnected from subsequent black American political history and the broad struggle for social justice and equality.”  –Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Real Problem with Selma: It doesn’t help us understand the civil rights movement, the regime it challenged, or even the significance of the voting rights actnonsite.org, 1-26-15

 

Accuracy is important; and in a world already swimming in inaccuracy, we should be quite careful not to add any more. Yet this year the Academy Awards is headlined by films featuring serious abuses of biography and history. There are camps defending it and there are camps saying it doesn’t matter. The use of the “artistic license” defense is now so overused as to be absurd. Our history knowledge is already at an appallingly low level, and the misinformation effect of inaccurate movies is serious. What’s particularly appalling, and so characteristic this year, is both the blatant and unnecessary nature of the changes that make the movies less interesting. Lots of source material, including books out for years, was either not consulted or blatantly changed, often to fit an easier, more predictable, and more saccharine narrative. Those narratives are insulting enough without adding the injury of misappropriating real people and real events. In other words, those filmmakers can’t have it both ways. They can’t have the privilege and trust of using the actual, just to shoehorn it into flights of fiction and easy stories.

Tonight we’re going Commando to safely get to the chopper.

 

Best of all Pictures:

8. Birdman
Thethirdrevelation and I discussed Birdman at length.

7. The Theory of Everything
Inaccurately goes more Godsmack than science, then heavily focuses on the domestic and arguably gets that even more wrong, with Jane Wilde short shrifted and Hawking made out to be nicer than he was. They also made the family less colorful than it really was, and thus the movie less interesting. For example, according to Biography, the family vehicle was actually an old London taxi; they kept bees in their basement; and they often ate dinner in silence, with each member of the family focused on the current book they were reading. The high gauziness overlaid on the stories ensures that even when events and emotions that we know to be dislocations appear on screen, they’re boring. Jane Wilde and Stephen Hawking’s lives were not this dull, and I’m not sure anyone’s life is.

6. American Sniper
Thethirdrevelation helpfully underlines the movie’s tonal oddities–it’s almost at war with itself, and for all I know that’s indeed because it’s Spielberg + Eastwood, though at the end of the day they’re probably more alike than different. Inaccuracy deductions off the top for inventing a super-sniper showdown between Kyle and a shooter from Syria, particularly because it’s used to deliver the film’s climax. The Syrian sniper was real, but in his memoir, Kyle said he “never saw him.”  Our obsession with snipers–off the top of my head, I can think of Navy Seals, Sniper 1-5, Saving Private Ryan, Enemies at the Gate, and Shooter as movies featuring snipers–is surely part of our larger dance with the myth of being removed from the costs of war. Rumsfeld tapped into this with his “quicker and lighter” emphasis. The film partly debunks it in a “things he carried” way–a fair amount of time is spent on Kyle getting traumatized and trying to recover; at one point, his wife, Taya, tells him he needs him to be human again, although this is within an incredulous portrayal of her as hysterical. Kyle’s own brother, deployed himself, says “Fuck this place.” However, this is still a “war is a force that gives us meaning” / “ideal soldier” story about the will, focus, and determination of the individual. Even when Kyle and others act akratically, this is encapsulated by fealty to hypervigilance and super-soldierdom. A central contradiction is that it showcases Kyle’s selflessness–and maybe he was on the battlefield–but leaves out his fabulism, self-promotion, and racism, save for one use of “savages.” Kyle himself was at least somewhat conflicted about being seen as an ideal soldier, saying that any profits made from his memoir should be considered “blood money.” At one point we get a sermon about the apostle Paul and judgment, and about how life is a puzzle and a mystery, that we can’t fully know it, really figure it out, or properly judge it. This is particularly problematic in the movie because American military involvement in Iraq had over-confident and over-entitled judgment all over it, to the point of corruption. No mystery there. Sometimes we have to leave our guns in the dirt.

5. Selma
The piece by Penn professor Adolph Reed quoted above is the best and most comprehensive one I’ve seen on the problem with Selma. Let me add historian David Garrow on the quality of the initial screenplay by Paul Webb, and Ava DuVernay’s rewrite: “It’s a tragedy that Selma wound up with these two [Webb and DuVernay]. This is a choice between two crap sandwiches: Do you prefer the one labeled Cat Poo, or the one labeled Dog Poo? The person who would have done it right is that Paul Greengrass guy.” The two most glaring and most-discussed inaccuracies in the film are its depiction of Johnson and its treatment of King’s marital infidelities. Garrow rates DuVernay’s depiction of Johnson as being reluctant on civil rights as “100 percent false.” DuVernay departed from available tapes and transcripts that show cordiality between Johnson and King, instead unbelievably depicting Johnson as whiny and contentious. DuVernay seemed to admit she didn’t do her homework when she said “I didn’t have to learn Selma to make Selma. I didn’t have to research what kind of place this is.” As Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg point out, DuVernay “rationalized that because her mother works in Selma today, she is herself somehow–mystically–connected to the city’s past.” Mysticism is insufficient and homework is not something you can sacrifice when doing a project of any significant scope. The film fails to capture the immediacy of the times, which, granted, is a difficult task. It feels too scripted, too pretty, and too romantic. It sets the Birmingham church bombing a year later than it actually occurred. Oprah is distracting, taking the viewer out of the action just when it’s most important to be drawn further in. Oyelowo is only okay as King and the film doesn’t really capture King’s political genius. Further reading:
Alvin Tillery, “Who disagrees with ‘Selma’s’ portrayal of LBJ? Blacks in the civil rights era
Elizabeth Drew, “‘Selma’ vs. History

4. The Imitation Game
The filmmakers go for a British A Beautiful Mind, with Turing as a socially awkward, constipated/tortured genius. Christian Caryl has the leading correction on this and the rest of the film:
“There’s no question that the real-life Turing was decidedly eccentric, and that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. As his biographers vividly relate, though, he could also be a wonderfully engaging character when he felt like it, notably popular with children and thoroughly charming to anyone for whom he developed a fondness. All of this stands sharply at odds with his characterization in the film, which depicts him as a dour Mr. Spock who is disliked by all of his coworkers—with the possible exception of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). The film spares no opportunity to drive home his robotic oddness. He uses the word ‘logical’ a lot and can’t grasp even the most modest of jokes. This despite the fact that he had a sprightly sense of humor, something that comes through vividly in the accounts of his friends, many of whom shared their stories with both Hodges and Copeland. (For the record, the real Turing was also a bit of a slob, with a chronic disregard for personal hygiene. The glamorous Cumberbatch, by contrast, looks like he’s just stepped out of a Burberry catalog.)”

3. Boyhood
“The film’s called Boyhood, but it could be called Motherhood, Fatherhood, [or] Bumbling Through Adulthood. As adults, we look back and see ourselves as fixed, but we’re anything but.” One sing-along to you with Ethan Hawke as your dad. Hawke pointed out that all of Linklater’s films have had “a unique relation to time” and that “all of us struggle with the passage of time.” The film succeeds with its point about punctuated, hebetudinous equilibrium, but for all its pretensions to verisimilitude it feels somewhat too constructed and too inorganic to be the Best of the Best.

2. Whiplash
What a depiction of the potential danger of the combination of talent and a will to please, achieve, and/or serve bad gods. Problematic ending in that it reinforces the notion of abuse as a pedagogical tool, but I essentially concur with thethirdrevelation’s view of it as the story of these two particular people.

Ought to win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
I hated The Royal Tennebaums and was thus sympathetic to this kind of criticism, but landed at what thethirdrevelation very aptly describes as “universal sentiments of guilt, the putting on of airs, and the elasticity of memories.” The parodies of Nazism work–they smartly help to desensitize–which deserves significant credit because they could have easily not.

Will win: Birdman

 

Number 1 Better Half
5. Emma Stone
4. Meryl Streep
3. Keira Knightley
2. Patricia Arquette. A precocious lil’ Samantha Linklater said Arquette’s character “doesn’t want to make the same mistakes her parents did.”
Ought to win: Laura Dern
Will win: Arquette.

Most Supportive Man
5. Norton. The whole role is too strained.
4. Duvall. Has scenes here that belong in a better movie.
3. Hawke
2. Ruffalo
Ought to win: Simmons
Will win: Simmons

Queen of the Castle
5. Jones
4. Pike
Gillian Flynn: “And also a guilty laugh…am I bad person?…what does that say about me?…I like those laughs.”
Gone Girl‘s main positive might be its showcasing of the extremes we can go to for and against another person, and how we act when we feel we don’t have to do anything in particular, or no one’s watching, or when no special (motive) forces are at play. It gains some yardage with its commentary on the public/private dichotomy, but ultimately fumbles the ball. It goes revenge fantasy instead of seeking collaborative solutions to sex equality. The tensions are internalized domestically and bodily instead of being sent outward productively-sociopolitically; the social, in part represented by the media, is conceded as lost. Unfortunately, the whole thing is marred by misogyny, taken to a faking-rape level. Almost everything that comes out of Amy’s mouth, and even the way she says it, is unreal and unrepresentative, and much of the film feels the same. They keep her quite at that cipher, blank-from-hell level Wesley Morris has referenced. It’s conventional in its exploitation of the “love is a drug” and “love makes us crazy/dumb” tropes, and they’re problematically yoked to what feels like a minimization of rape, abuse, and murder. It’s story malpractice to leave out as much explanation and sourcing of behavior and motives as the movie does. The book is apparently more nuanced and more ethical, in that Amy is acting more out of desperation and numbness, rather than the sheer malice the movie mostly consigns her to. There are a number of good quotes, ideas, and character interiority in the book that are omitted from the movie, which focuses on thriller and cat-and-mouse aspects at their expense. For example, in the book Amy says: “It had gotten to the point where it seemed like nothing matters, because I’m not a real person and neither is anyone else. I would have done anything to feel real again.” The movie could’ve sourced the unrealness & unrepresentativeness like that. Instead, it’s tonally similar to Fight Club and has similar problems with its symbolism. It’s arguably misanthropic. Some fans and critics are citing its satirical and supposed stereotype-breaking aspects, but the older woman right next to me in the theater seemed to be reading it straight, exclaiming with dismay at one point, “What a fucking bitch!”
3. Cotillard
2. Witherspoon
Ought to win: Moore
Will win: Moore

Superlative Actor in a Leadership Role
5. Redmayne
4. Keaton
3. Carell. Shows us the danger of leadership forms that are without substance; of husks without corn.
2. Cooper. “You get what it gives you. That’s how this thing works.”
Ought to win: Cumberbatch
Will win: Redmayne

Best of all Directors
5. Inarritu
4. Tyldum
3. Miller
2. Linklater
Ought to win: Wes Anderson
Will win: Inarritu

Best Original Screenplay
5. Birdman
4. Foxcatcher
3. Boyhood
2. Nightcrawler
Ought to win: Grand Budapest
Will win: Grand Budapest

Best Adapted Screenplay
5. Theory of Everything
4. Imitation Game
3. American Sniper
2. Whiplash
Ought to win: Inherent Vice
Will win: Imitation Game

Best Film Editing
5. Imitation Game
4. Grand Budapest
3. American Sniper
2. Whiplash
Ought to win: Boyhood
Will win: Boyhood

Best Makeup & Hairstyle
3. Foxcatcher
2. Guradians of the Galaxy
Ought to win: Grand Budapest
Will win: Grand Budapest

Best Visual Effects
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
4. Captain America: Winter Soldier
3. X-Men: Days of Future Past
2. Interstellar
Ought to win: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Will win: Interstellar

 

tom-hanks-trash-can


2015 Oscars: If I Get All the Way Out There and I Find that You’ve Been Lying to Me…I’m Going to Find You, and I’m Going to Take More than My Money Back. Is that Alright With You?

Best of all pictures:

  1. The Theory of Everything

What a real sweet treat, and a feat. Science: what a treat. What a timeless story of love, and a privilege to know. Sweet? Check. A treat? Check. This is a film you want to watch with the finest shrimp available to your community. One for the annals, and for the children as well. It made me look at the sky and think, “wow.” The ending kind of reminded me of, if you can remember, how on a VHS tape you would have to rewind it to watch it again, and you could actually watch the film in reverse if you left the TV on–kind of like going back in time. It’s like you were going through time. And sometimes you would pause it in the middle and it would kind of stop flickering between frames and you’d get a picture of a character about to blink and it would almost look like they were winking at you, like they knew you were there; like you were peeling back the veil of the universe to see the unthinkable machinery. It was really scary, kind of like a horror that nobody else would ever see.

  1. American Sniper

Brad the dad Cooper has been on the awards circuit explaining that American Sniper is about the neglect returning vets face. “We looked at hopefully igniting attention about the lack of care that goes to vets. Discussion that has nothing to do with vets or what we did or did not do, every conversation in those terms is moving farther and farther from what our soldiers go through, and the fact that 22 veterans commit suicide each day.” (NYT)

We’ve been swindled, Coop. We’ve been swindled. Swindled like babes left out on the driveway. Left out in the fallow field, for ‘coons to inspect. It was a wholesale job.

Such a film may have depicted:

  • A trip to a VA that has been constantly in a state of outright scandal due to mismanagement, resulting in thousands of veterans being wrongly denied benefits, having benefits delayed unduly, or being put through inordinate amounts of duress to claim them.
  • A spousal or parenting relationship that was affected more deeply and lastingly by tours of duty abroad than Kyle’s, wherein his wife–who is allowed to do nothing, nothing expect nag him for his absence the entire film–resolves the thread with the transcendental showstopper gush, “you are a wonderful husband, and you are a wonderful father.” Full stop.
  • A treatment of Kyle’s murder at the hand of Eddie Routh, a fellow PTSD sufferer and veteran featuring something more than a random demonic glare from said wife towards the actor portraying him, a hasty title card, and a congratulatory funeral montage.
  • A vet having difficulty finding his or her feet on returning to the U.S. in large part due to a lack of an internal or external training program that by and large provides veterans decent odds at gainful, stable employment after their service.

For a more fine-toothed look at the lack of care that goes to vets, see… Starship TroopersVideodrome? Eastwood is credited as director, and is not nominated for best directing ostensibly because the film was developed by Steve Spielberg with Cooper cast in the main role and over six months of principal photography having been shot before Spielberg bowed out due to creative differences. It shows in the tonal oddities. I have to imagine a significant set of spouses and families of veterans cringe at the depiction of Kyle’s wife as a creature whose seemingly only function in the world is to badger? The full reintegration into the family, especially for soldiers seeing extensive combat, deserving of so little screen time? Does Kyle himself depict things so simply in his book? The scene where Kyle successfully flirts with the wife by pointing a gun at her in front of toddlers? Is it possible Eastwood isn’t throwing us a curveball here? At any rate, two coworkers have, to date–unsolicited–imparted to me that American Sniper is in no uncertain terms the best film ever. But where was Tom Cruise? Get Tom Cruise in there.

  1. The Imitation Game

Biopic three: engage. Prestige piece B, 2015. Yet another biopic that would have been exponentially more interesting had it aimed for a remotely balanced portrait of the subject’s life. I was actually somewhat surprised they spared even a single scene directly addressing Turing’s subjection to chemical castration. Instead we focus on the faux romance and a delightful genius complex. “Sometimes it’s the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects”.

So. I continue to be a net fan of Cumberbatch, and the genius shtick is perfect for the solid BBC Sherlock series, but here without the implied campiness afforded by the TV format it just comes off as perfunctory. Threads of Turing’s landmark work on computers, minds and identity (do check out Turing’s work, it’s well written and impressively accessible given the ideas he’s working with) are suggested, but never really picked up. There is a much better film to be made of Turing’s work and legacy, too bad it’s not allowed to live here. Weinstein’s “Honor the Man.  Honor the film.” plea for awards recognition is the definition of beyond the pale.

  1. Boyhood

Was initially skeptical of the 12-year timespan, expecting it to be leaned upon overmuch so as to come off as a melodramatic gimmick.  Instead, I was surprised to see the film actually holds out against that pitfall until the last half hour or so. Mostly, things spool out organically, allowing the viewer to supply a lot of subtext; if anything, the passage of time is oddly unremarkable. I found myself appreciating the scene where the protagonist gets his head shaved, as the film had theretofore been using drastic hairstyle changes to accentuate the passage of time to the point where they started to become characters in and of themselves. The film is at its best when it’s comfortable being about ‘familyhood’ beyond ‘boyhood’, with some entertaining moments on that front especially in the early to middle stages. Finally succumbs to needing to explain/justify itself more and more towards the end as later teenage hangout scenes begin to feel wooden; boy begins to ask father “what’s the point of everything”; we begin to see the conversations I suspect parents have with their children in their heads and wish their children would solicit, rather than interactions that really happen. The last scene is a real thud as we’re offered a fuzzy glorification of “moments”: ah, yes, that’s what you’ve been providing us, you miracle of film you; thank you for that, thank you. The best film here tells the story of this boy’s boyhood, instead of flailing at a universal boyhood, particularly the implication that it is a suburban one.

  1. Birdman

Abashfulharvestman and I discussed Birdman at length. 

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

I’m not generally a big Anderson fan—his films too often consist of weak or excessively twee stories that seemingly exist as vehicles for the signature, highly specific to the point of high comedy motifs and aesthetics. I haven’t been fully into one since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, which was early enough in the catalog that the fashion was fresh. This is a different film than Tenenbaums, attempting more to evoke universal sentiments of guilt, the putting on of airs, and the elasticity of memories, whereas Tenenbaums dove into idiosyncratic characters with very rich and specific inner lives.  The latter may be a more fertile ground for Anderson’s sensibilities, generally, but Fienes as our comedic lead and Tony Revolori as his straight man foil make a very strong central pair, seemingly agents in Anderson’s world rather than affectations of it. The wide supporting cast is hit or miss–Adrien Brody is miscast and Bill Murray’s appearance along with other Anderson-regulars’ cameos are tedious boxes checked. Jude Law, Tilda Swinton and Jeff Goldblum fare much better.

  1. Selma

The only film of the set that got me emotionally choked up. The one biopic that perhaps was jostled from the flaming wreckage of the Doomed Biopic Mothership on atmospheric re-entry. Remarkably little history revision done for the sake of convenience or entertainment (there is some), and the flourishes there tend to constructively elucidate patterns and situations. I’m largely in agreement with Mark Harris’ good piece on it, and with respect to the lack of attention it’s receiving would emphasize simply that 12 Years’ deserving accolades last year have sapped the industry’s puny reserves of focus with respect to ugly pasts, black disenfranchisement especially. This is a year for propaganda, for revision.

I like that Selma tries to bring in lesser-publicized factions of various, often competing, civil rights groups of the time, but the actual logistics of things are rendered a little bit unclear for those of us who aren’t experts. Oyelowo deserved a Best Actor nom over any of Cooper, Cumberbatch, or Redmayne.

  1. Whiplash

This is a real throwback, replete with physical performances, scenery chewing, and the old *setting the table/working hard, hitting adversity hard, redemption* three-act arc. Does an exemplary job at conveying with efficiency, such as showing the protagonists’ background and giving a good sense of his dating life without a single note beyond what’s needed. I think it does at the end of the day traffic in the myth that education through negative reinforcement is effective, especially at mastery levels—or at least that it’s acceptable in the “big leagues”. But there’s so much going on here within the characters that I’m willing to look past that and focus on this as the story of these particular two people. There is some room for the idea that our virtuoso could have flourished without the abuse, the question’s tugged. The one fly in the ointment is that the last scene’s tone is a bit too broadly suggestive of reconciliation–it probably would have been best left more ambiguous, or, to somehow imply the boy’s fulfillment of his own agency transcending the demon teacher. As is, things end on a bit of a shrug. Music itself absolutely a plus. Very strong editing throughout, heightening not just the most dramatic tussles but the lighter moments, too.

Shall win: Birdman

Should win: The Homesman

—————————————-

Best of all Directors:

5. Morten Tyldum — The Imitation Game

Where’s Tom Hooper?  Get Tom Hooper in there!

4. Alejandro Innaritu — Birdman

3. Bennett Miller — Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher‘s tunneled focus and near complete lack of external context to the events depicted at the Foxcatcher farm lend it a lot of its claustrophobic, intense feel. It also becomes a major narrative handicap given how things are framed around the climactic tragedy. The script is actually pretty good and the acting’s there…it’s just glaring how the film seems not to quite capitalize on a great thread about wealth and isolation and megalomania, and how it throttles the world at large.

2. Richard Linklater — Boyhood

A mixed bag. While Foxcatcher needed to widen the scope a bit and speak more to broader things, Boyhood struggles a bit with the opposite problem. Strong work early on gives way more and more to stultifying waves at universal themes that aren’t there and didn’t need to be.

1. Wes Anderson — The Grand Budapest Hotel

We’ll interpret “best directing” this year as the one leading a project that best maximized its potential. Grand Budapest Hotel, despite a relatively complicated plot, displays the most effective control of tone and drama here.

Shall win: Richard Linklater

 

Superlative Actor in a Leadership Role:

5. Benedict Cumberbatch — The Imitation Game

Sometimes you feel like a treat.

4. Eddie Redmayne — The Theory of Everything

Sometimes a treat feels like you.

3. Brad the Swindled — American Treat

Coop really nails the ending of scenes by staring at a point about two o’clock high from the camera. What is he lookin’ at? A tango? A goat? Moral fabric? Patrick Duffy, he could have sworn? Regardless, keep working those baby blues. Practice better gun safety.

2. Steve Carell — Foxcatcher

Wins the Tom Hardy annual Most Fun to Try and Impersonate in Random Situations award. Seriously, though, if you’ve spent any amount of time around a wealth baby that’s been raised in an at least partially self-imposed valley of unreality and witnessed the mysteries that they present, Carell is really doing some good simulation here.

1. Micheal Keaton — Birdman

Last year, on the subject of Actor in a Leadership Role, this blog wrote, “With Daniel Day-Lewis out becoming a stone mason for the next five years, I think folks like Bale, DiCaprio, and Michael Keaton have a real chance to break through.”

Ethics 101.

Shall win: Eddie Redmayne

 

Most Supportive Man:

N/A — Robert Duvall — The Judge (role unseen)

4. Ethan Hawke — Boyhood

3. Edward Norton — Birdman

Kind of disturbing now that I know his role was in many ways, and self-avowedly, Innaritu himself.

2. Mark Ruffalo — Foxcatcher

Really brings into the communication posture lexicon the little t-rex thing wrestlers apparently develop. Exudes brotherly concern at hypercritical levels.

1. J. K. Simmons — Whiplash

The obvious hook is his ability to go over the top, but as with all the great roles it’s the little off-beats and pauses that really bring things to life. Draws out and gives room to a strong performance from co-lead and relative newcomer Miles Teller.

Shall win: J.K. Simmons

 

Queen of the Castle:

5. Felicity Jones — The Theory of Everything

This makes Ms. Jones the first actress to receive a nomination for a role in a Horror film since Ellen Page in Juno (2007). Good show!

4. Reese Witherspoon — Wild

3. Marion Cotillard — Two Days, One Night

2. Julianne Moore — Still Alice

1. Rosamund Pike — Gone Girl

One of the things that doesn’t seem to get discussed about Gone Girl is just the degree to which it really is a vehicle for her performance. Everything else is furniture.

Shall win: Julianne Moore

 

Number 1 Better Half:

N/A Meryl Streep (role unseen)

4. Keira Knightley — The Imitation Game

Pip pip, old boy!

3. Emma Stone — Birdman

I often tell friends they should start making films with the title and simple concept of “Actor A vs. Actor B”. For example, “Michael Shannon vs. Willem Dafoe” or “Tom Cruise vs. Tom Hanks”. We almost got “Nic Cage vs. John Travolta” with Face/Off, but even that strayed a bit from the core man vs. man dialectic. “Emma Stone vs. Jennifer Lawrence” could be good.

2. Patricia Arquette — Boyhood

Such unhappiness!

1. Laura Dern — Wild

Continues to be the most effectively alarming presence in unexpected jump cuts in film today.

Shall win: Patricia Arquette


It Doesn’t End Like This: The 86th Academy Awards

If things fall out as many are predicting, there’ll be much ado about suffering amongst the winners this year. To the lists!

Best Picture:

9. Philomena

Without a Tom Hooper offering, this crop’s prestige (most British, most agreeably middlebrow) film is apparently Philomena. It’s not as irredeemably sappy or disposable as Coogan’s character (a watered down incarnation of his usual dry-witted lout) describes human interest stories…but you still kind of get some of what he’s driving at here.

8. The Wolf of Wall Street

Wolf is very much a drug/drug taking film, smothering any real attempt to delve into real-world unethics, or America, or really any idea in a sustained way.  As far as drug movie black comedies go, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is perhaps a spiritual forebear, a tough act to follow and also adapted from a sort of memoir.  But where Fear and Loathing captures something of movements and eras, this feels more purely snuff.   I have to believe the debauchery is meant to be stimulating or disgusting but it quickly gets tedious, too caricatured and stylized to evoke life, and too unfocused to crystallize as any clear metaphor.

7. Gravity

Holy anti-space exploration, regressive Fundamentalist bents!  Where Her takes a nuanced look at a humanity struggling to find its place in a technological world, Gravity sticks with the standard prescribed apocalypse scenario, with choice Space Odyssey rip-offs for good measure.

Hyep: outer space makes you a star baby.  Really, I was expecting the heart-pounding action, but not all the apocalyptic overtones with the sudden mysterious destruction of seemingly all man-made satellites, including an inexplicably deserted ISS.  If the space apocalypse wasn’t enough to put us in our proper place, we also have our leaky wayward woman rescued and redeemed by the literal patron saint of masculinity (I must admit, a very likable George Clooney as himself).  Yes, let’s do keep our hopes and dreams in the mud, the afterlife, and our better halves.

6. Captain Phillips

I seem to remember from the trailers that this seemed like it was going to be about Captain Phillips bargaining for the crews’ lives with his employers and insurers?  How much money is an American worth: the cargo, that is?  A good documentary about the real life incident exploring the contexts and causes of Somali piracy and maritime commerce law would have been more worthwhile.  Something deeper is hinted at with the opening conversation between Phillips and his wife about how tough kids have it today (ostensibly due to baby boomers such as himself) juxtaposed with Somalis being forced into piracy.  There’s an analogy!  But we get a straight up and somewhat belabored hostage story. I enjoyed Hanks’ Boston accent, and his surveying.   Somehow I kept imagining what Tom Brady would have done in Phillips’ situation.

5. Nebraska

Here’s a deliberate little story that’s meant to transcend the journey depicted, though it seems to work best when it just focuses on what’s unique about its quest, rather than what’s universal.  For any who take offense to what may seem like a gross simplification of Midwesterners, I can say coming from such a family that the television-watching scenes at least are pretty spot on.  Would this film be nearly as talked about if it wasn’t in black and white?  Will Forte is really in his Forte portraying an epic and universally trampled soul, so it’s sweet to see him save the day in the end.

4. Dallas Buyers Club

McConaughey and Leto drive the bus here in a by-the-numbers activism film that gets a bit more right than wrong–theatrically, anyway.  A scene where McConaughey’s character says that he feels like his all-consuming quest to live has ‘gotten in the way of him living’ is apropos wherein a stronger film would have delved a little more into aspects of his personal life.  In reality Woodroof had a daughter and sister who were written out in favor of the Garner and Leto characters, each of which play as cinematic types: Garner as the well-meaning square who won’t commit at first but is eventually won over to the cause, Leto as the charismatic, tragic hard case.  I can also see that writing out Woodroof’s bisexuality is on some spectrum of being like “making Solomon Northup white in order to reach a bigger audience”.  Honestly, my gripe is that the film’s depiction of policy doctors and their FDA masters paints them almost too sympathetically; the prescription writing pill-bot from Elysium still gets the 2013 ‘most accurate portrayal of a medical experience’ award.  While DBC stumbles in oversimplifying and tidying LBGT issues around both Woodroof and the ‘buyer’s clubs’ of the 80s by making Leto’s character a symbol for all, it also resonates in a time where more people than ever are being denied basic medical services under increasingly fatuous rationales.  Any film on the U.S.’s wholly unchecked, monopoly-based medical industry is picking a worthy fish to fry.

3. 12 Years a Slave

Along with Her, 12 Years stands out for transporting cinematography, and gets bonus points for a memorable score, too rare these days.  Above all, I was impressed by how the film portrays its ultra-heavy subject matter with some surprising range.  There’s a sort of lyricism to the best scenes which reminded me of something out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent films, where things seem almost overtly scripted, yet somehow all the more true-to-life because of it.  Given the source material there isn’t a problem with keeping this a very micro, personal story, but it’s frustrating how Solomon’s rescue–more or less by happenstance–comes off as incidental: just Brad Pitt happenin’ through.  True, the story is about the utter circumscription of agency, but I have to imagine the resolution could have been framed to resonate more with Solomon’s unique suffering and situation.

2. American Hustle

A film where you can’t help but root for almost everyone at once, benefiting from a trove of talent and recent Academy Award stand-bys.   Bale, Cooper, Adams, and Lawrence have 10 major Oscar noms between them in the last 4 years, a whopping seven as co-stars in Russell films.  They should play off each other quite well by now, and do.  The only thing holding things back a bit is a slight lack of impact… we might expect that in a film about how “everything’s a con” there are going to be big twists along the way, more surprise affiliations, heavy consequences.  If you haven’t seen it yet, go in expecting a high-end comedy with a great cast, not a crime epic.  Best con of all: Louis CK’s interminable ice fishing story.

1. Her

Her is about identity, and how we ascribe it: the personas of people we build in our minds, never the same as how they know themselves. Her. How love happens in the will to navigate the difference.  It’s about the voices we perceive: from people, from letters, from computers, from corporations.  It’s about depression, and unrequited desires to be touched and known, when technology makes so much accessible, anonymous, and long-distance.  It’s about a world where a man makes a living as a writer of poignant, heartfelt letters of love, regret, and sorrow for people who can’t find the words within themselves, yet are ready and willing to purchase them.

Any film attempting a premise like Her‘s runs a dangerous risk of feeling flatly satirical, and it’s possible that for some, a note here or there may feel contrived (does everyone in the future live in a NYC penthouse?)  For me, the clever sets, another irreplaceable performance by Joaquin Phoenix –Jonze supposedly wrote his script with him expressly in mind–and a pretty inspired screenplay overall keep any major plot-point objections at bay.   Things could be said to peter just a bit in the third act, but the resolution to the journey is a satisfying and a fitting one.  After all, no relationship culminates in unequivocal bliss, blessedly few in lasting apocalypse.

Should Win: Her

Much is made on this blog about much being made and fetishized about the apocalyptic lately.  In hopes of jinxing the film by picking it (worked last year when I picked Zero Dark Thirty) let’s again take this exercise to it’s most cynical possible conclusion.

Will win: Gravity

Best Director:

5. Martin Scorsese

I’m generally a fan of Scorsese, but where otherwise strong films sometimes bloat on him (see Gangs of New York, The Departed) this one totally gets away.  I think the at least somewhat warranted outcry that Wolf not only fails to criticize white collar crime but glorifies it comes through in part because excess for its own sake is so valued in our society.  In discerning the excesses depicted as glorifying we’re in part expressing a more general outcry that such behaviors are so valued at all.  See The Hangover and any number of recent films, songs and advertisements pushing the idea that it’s through excess and great irresponsibility that we truly find ourselves, that we truly live.  YOLO.

4. Alfonso Cauron

See above re: aversion to Gravity’s message.

3. Alexander Payne

Nebraska is, in a year of black comedies, a black and white comedy.  Payne serves Nebraska well in telling a story about earlier times and older people without being either pettily dismissive or merely nostalgic.  

2. David O. Russell

Probably his best film in what has become a career worth of very-solid to amazing stuff.  Why aren’t more people talking about him as an all-time great?  My only quibble is that American Hustle finds itself in an odd place where you are expecting something a little more heavy-hitting to go down… it’s at once a credit to the strong drama in what’s otherwise a comedy, and perhaps a bit of a tonal issue.

1. Steve McQueen

McQueen delivers almost all one could hope for out of a film adaptation of 12 Years A Slave and probably then some, though my reservations about the resolution stand.  I give him the slight nod over Russell because I feel Hustle succeeded so much based on the talent of its actors rather than editing, script or cinematography, while 12 Years is more of an all-around project.  We seem to live in a place where actors are given the vast majority of credit for their performances rather than those who direct them; if Hustle wasn’t so packed with sure stars, I’d be more inclined to give credit for putting them in position to shine.

Should win: Spike Jonze

What, Cauron for the fetus shot?!  Let’s rather give Kubrick a posthumous award.  McQueen and Russell both would be worthy picks.

Will win: Steve McQueen

Best Actor:

5. Bruce Dern

Dern renders his addled, Alzheimer’s afflicted man so compellingly it can feel almost impossible to imagine he’s not simply being himself.  All the nominations this year are well deserved, though I think this spot could likely have been filled by Joaquin Phoenix or Robert Redford for All is Lost.

4. Leonardo DiCaprio

DiCaprio is for my money on a very short list of our best and most entertaining actors.  He’s good here, maybe excellent.  He wrings out some memorable sequences, especially in the “Bond villain” yacht scene, which gives him a straight man to play off.  But in most of the film he’s rendered strangely inert, where while he’s usually so effective as the source of electricity in a scene (see last year’s Django Unchained), here he’s more of a conduit in something that’s trying to be the biggest thunderstorm ever recorded.

3. Chiwetel Ejiofor

Don’t think he has much of a chance due to relative anonymity: where McConaughey gets lots of acting points for breaking expectations not only in the type of character he portrays but frankly how far he’s come from vehicles like Sahara, Ejiofor’s equally difficult performance doesn’t afford the same “wow I can’t believe he came and did that” factor.

2. Christian Bale

So fun, and such a delicate performance!  Such a delicate boy that he presents.  With Daniel Day-Lewis out becoming a stone mason for the next five years, I think folks like Bale, DiCaprio, and Michael Keaton have a real chance to break through.

1. Matthew McConaughey

Here’s your prototypical impressive physical transformation, and McConaughey gets lots of points for being a known quantity transformed, someone we’ve seen many times before and can paint as finally reaching his apex and potential.  Of all the nominees, this feels the most like a Best Actor performance, with all the requisite seriousness.

Should and shall win: Matthew McConaughey

 

Best Actress:

5. Judi Dench

Pretty soft-serve stuff.  Philomena lacks anything approaching a real “Oscar scene” through no fault of Dench’s.

4. Sandra Bullock

Given the chauvinistic bent of the film I can’t be impressed by the terror, fragility displayed given the message it’s going toward.  You want a woman fighting existential battles in space?

Redeem that, George.

3. Meryl Streep

If some ding August: Osage County for being merely a ring wherein Streep and Roberts spew baggage at each other, color me very impressed and entertained by Streep here.

2. Amy Adams

Oh, that subtle greatness.  I must point out that American Hustle does not pass the Bechdel Test, as the scene where Lawrence makes out with her has them fighting over Christian Bale.

1. Cate Blanchett

Seemingly a role she’s been playing awhile: rich and eccentric, sometimes with a southern accent.  Overacting?  Of course!  How else does one play a character defined by her overacting?

Should and shall win: Cate Blanchett

If Adams does take it, consider that it may not just be due to anti-Allen sentiment: Blanchett’s Jasmine really shares similarity with her Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, the role for which she deservedly took Best Actress.  Jasmine features a larger, more demanding, and even more impressive performance, but the similarity between it and an already recognized role only heightens Adam’s case for being “owed.”

 

Best Supporting Actor:

5. Jonah Hill

Hill has the property of somehow making any film or scene he’s in feel like a raunchy comedy, and Wolf is a raunchy comedy.  Somehow I feel I have to qualify that as just a raunchy comedy.

4. Barkhad Abdi

Not allowed nearly as much depth as he should have been.  Really can’t give Captain Phillips credit for any intended audience takeaway other than “Thank Jesus America rescued Tom Hanks from those scary black men.”

3. Bradley Cooper

Keeps getting better, this is his best performance yet.  Does anyone feel sorry for him in the end?  Is he not still Bradley Cooper?

2. Michael Fassbender

Fassbender does an amazing job portraying such rage and hesitancy at once.  His is such a commanding presence that it’s getting to a point where I just don’t buy him in roles where he’s not integrally an authority figure, such as this year’s The Counselor.

1. Jared Leto

It’s ironic that the most typic character of the list here is still arguably the most memorably and most impressively rendered.  Leto’s performance fits too perfectly into what we traditionally consider gold-standard as far as Oscars and acting performances go to lose this.

Should and shall win: Jared Leto

If anything, Leto’s a lock because his role is so much more Important than Cooper’s, and I think the voters have to be aware of a potential trend of giving awards to white actors in films about black issues after Christoff Waltz’s much deserved and surprise win last year.

 

Best Supporting Actress:

5. June Squibb

What a cute button nose!

4. Sally Hawkins

If we give an award to the most likable character, I might give mine to Hawkins, who is sneaky good and very much fits the term ‘supporting’.  Where Blanchett’s character is a modern update of Blanche DuBois in a world where class difference has become even more dizzyingly wide, Hawkins’ Ginger represents a more hopeful update of Stella.   Where Stella is a woman who is true to herself and suffers for it in the end, Ginger is a creature who may not really know where she belongs, but can find it in herself to be happy.

3. Jennifer Lawrence

Fierce again and undeniably commanding, Lawrence takes the award for most acting done, if not best.  She sets a very interesting dynamic in American Hustle where while all the con-artists are so coolly and subtly convincing, Lawrence as the what-you-see-is-what-you-get hellcat is the only one who comes off like she’s consciously putting on a performance.

2. Julia Roberts

Lawrence rules as Hollywood’s female id, imbued with all that carpe diem immediacy it needs now more than ever since we only live once and the apocalypse is so nigh, wrapped in that particularly all-American down-home body America responds to so much (all that is all-american and down-home being so embattled).  Yea, we hearken back to the reign of Julia Roberts, who reflected perhaps simpler needs: the courage to be ourselves, to be heard, to transgress gender roles just a little, as to ever more clearly define them.  Interesting that even still, Roberts continues to play the underdog, the ugly duckling, the misfit.  I seem to have enjoyed August: Osage County more than most, and thought Roberts was spot on.

1.Lupita Nyong’o

Another powerful portrayal of suffering, after Anne Hathaway’s in Les Mis last year.   Nyong’o doesn’t get that much screen time, but very few ladies do.

Should and shall win: Lupita Nyong’o



Kultur Klatch / And the Oscar should go to…

Here are my Oscar picks and predictions for this year.

Supporting Actress
5. Sally Field, Lincoln
4. Jackie Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
3. Amy Adams, The Master
2. Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Ought to win: Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Will win: Hathaway

Supporting Actor
5. Alan Arkin, Argo
4. Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
3. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
2. Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Ought to win: Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Will win: De Niro

Actress
5. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
4. Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
3. Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
2. Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Ought to win: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Will win: Lawrence

Actor
5. Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
4. Denzel Washington, Flight
3. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
2. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Ought to win: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Film Editing
5. Silver Linings Playbook
4. Life of Pi
3. Lincoln
2. Zero Dark Thirty
Ought to win: Argo
Will win: Argo

Sound Editing
5. Django Unchained
4. Argo
3. Skyfall
2. Life of Pi
Ought to win: Zero Dark Thirty
Will win: Zero Dark Thirty

Sound Mixing
5. Lincoln
4. Argo
3. Skyfall
2. Life of Pi
Ought to win: Les Miserables
Will win: Les Miserables

Best Visual Effects
5. The Avengers
4. The Hobbit
3. Snow White and the Huntsman
2. Prometheus
Ought to win: Life of Pi
Will win: Life of Pi

Adapted Screenplay
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
4. Argo
3. Life of Pi
2. Lincoln
Ought to win: Silver Linings Playbook
Will win: Argo

Original Screenplay
5. Zero Dark Thirty
4. Amour
3. Django Unchained
2. Flight
Ought to win: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
Will win: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Director
5. Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
4. Michael Heneke, Amour
3. Ang Lee, Life of Pi
2. Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Ought to win: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Will win: Spielberg

Best Picture
10. Zero Dark Thirty
9. Amour
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild
7. Argo
6. Lincoln
5. Les Miserables
4. Life of Pi
3. Django Unchained
2. Silver Linings Playbook
Ought to win: The Master
Will win: Argo

Meryl Streep watches David Blaine eat a wineglass