The Last Oscars Piece You’ll Read

From 2012 to 2015, I wrote about many things at The Addison Recorder (pop culture dispatches from the Midwest) and increasingly I wrote about cinema, the result being that in 2014 and 2015 I saw more movies than ever, including seeing all the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars. Well, last year, thanks to volunteering and the priorities that go with it, I didn’t get to see a lot of movies. This year, I intend to change that with a steadier stream of attendance. For now, though, it meant I had to do a massive amount of catching up in the two months before the Academy has its fun night with little gold naked men.

I ended up seeing six of the nine Best Picture nominees, plus some other films that picked up a few nominations in other categories, so here, before Sunday, are some brief thoughts on what I’ve gotten to see, including my six nominees ranked best to worst (or more accurately, least good)!

In the Best Picture Class

I missed out on Hidden Figures (looked charming and predictable), Hell or High Water (came out in the summer), and Hacksaw Ridge (looked blah and, well, not keen on supporting Mel Gibson too much these days).

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Moonlight is one of those rare movies that had an extraordinary and moving effect on me. There’s been a lot of talk about how it’s power comes from its being a universal story, and it’s true that anyone can relate to its tale of Chiron’s maturity and journey to self-acceptance, but it is also so specifically rooted in a very particular culture with very particular norms that, by the structural and racial designs of our country, are not universal. The unblinking honesty of the screenplay by director Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney is thus a marvel: it shows us ourselves reflected in people too often ignored or despised, and does so with the revelatory magic of great storytelling that shocks, infuriates, and comforts.

The cast, especially Mahershala Ali as the wise, weary crack dealer Juan, is superb, and the mix of R&B with Nicholas Britell’s score is lovely, but the star is Jenkins, in collaboration with cinematographer James Laxton. This is one of the most confident breakout movies ever, to rank with Citizen Kane and Jaws. Jenkins never makes obvious choices, and his framing, pacing, and beat-by-beat construction heighten the emotional experience to a degree few others could. I firmly believe he can direct any film of any budget and make something special.

Moonlight is a film you simply need to see, but I’ll close this with one of my favorite dialogue exchanges of the year, from near the picture’s end as Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland muse on growing up, letting go, and moving forward.

“Damn, that’s real shit.”
“Yeah, but it’s a LIFE, you know? I never had that before. Like…I’m tired as hell right now and I ain’t making more than shoe money, but…I got no worries, man. Not them kind what I had before. That’s some real shit, that’s that Bob Marley shit.”

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Arrival is also a movie that simply demands to be seen, because Eric Heisserer’s screenplay (adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang) is one of the most carefully-written, dramatically-crackling, profoundly moving screenplays of the decade. It’s a script to teach in courses about how to build to a series of climaxes and twists without giving anything away. The story, about first contact with aliens and the wonders of the human mind in grasping and solving problems, doesn’t break too much new thematic ground, but Heisserer by way of Chiang tackles the tale with imagination and fun, and Denis Villeneuve’s direction maximizes the scant (by design) number of sets and the less-is-more visual effects. Like last year’s The Martian, it is simply an incredibly-well-made film, with the bonus that to say too much will ruin it. I will only add that the movie also makes a strong point for the power of a specifically female intelligence with its ethics of care and understanding, an intelligence so well presented in the movie’s heroine Louise that I ask, as another writer asked of Paul Newman in 1982 after The Verdict, what Amy Adams, not even nominated, has to do to get an Academy Award. (Newman got his four years after that query…Adams hopefully is due as well.)

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After gushing about Lion on Facebook, my longtime friend and cinematic sparring partner Alex Bean decried the Weinstein Brothers’ productions as “the same movie over and over again.” I was reminded of Dorothy Parker’s line about Ernest Hemingway: “it seems so easy but watch anyone else try to do it.” I appreciate the Weinstein brand of prestige filmmaking the same way I now adore A24 and Annapurna’s New Hollywood aesthetic—very few people make movies this way now such films seem more special. Lion is the most MOVIE of the Best Picture nominees I have seen this year, as first-time director (HOW?!) Garth Davis maximizes every sweeping shot of India and Australia and creates epic vistas of the countryside, crowded urban scenes, and apartments alike. The screenplay by Luke Davies is reminiscent of David Lean’s Great Expectations: a shorthand but deep retelling of a vast life story, every moment carefully selected and symbolic. And Davis gets the best out of his actors. In a perfect world as colorblind as we wish it was, Dev Patel would be a regular leading man: handsome, full of range, capable of carrying any project. Nicole Kidman hasn’t been this good in years. Most surprisingly of all, I have long been a fan of Rooney Mara, who can project iron will and fragility by turns, but has never been what I’d call warm. From a playful Chaplinesque introduction to her loving final scene, Mara is warm, strong, and morally resolute in a surprising performance—which makes me excited to see her play Mary Magdalene for Davis later this year.

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Peter Shaffer is my benchmark for films of plays. Amadeus is a masterpiece of cinema. Equus, while brilliantly acted, is a terrible movie because it never opens up from the stageiness. Denzel Washington’s film of August Wilson’s Fences falls in the middle. There are some well-devised montages and a few inventive moves at the beginning and end that do make it feel filmed, but for the most part Washington keeps to the house and backyard in late fifties Pittsburgh and a static camera. Such a choice doesn’t matter as much when Wilson’s dialogue and plot are so engaging and Washington and Viola Davis are so damn good. Washington pours all his energy into a full-throated, bravado performance that never tips into ham, while Davis, who is never bad, is here extremely good, playing off the cavalcade of men (including the magnificent Stephen Henderson as Washington’s best friend) coming into and out her house and life except for two or three scenes where she takes charge and shines, letting out controlled explosions of emotion. It’s not a great film, but it’s well-done and preserves Wilson’s text in a definitive form.

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Now let’s talk about that beautiful example of diminishing returns, La La Land. Molly Lambert and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have both written and spoken well of this movie’s shortcomings, but I want to add both my praise and my burying.

There are two genuinely thrilling aspects of La La Land. One is how Damien Chazelle draws upon his adoration of the Arthur Freed Unit and Jacques Demy to stage the most thrilling song-and-dance numbers you can imagine. From the eruption of “Another Day of Sun” onwards, you have to be cynical not be in. (Even the mopey “City of Stars,” which has somehow become the big tune, is always rendered with a certain playfulness, while the other, superior songs by Justin Hurwitz and company all pop.) The other is Emma Stone, who throws herself into the role of Mia and simply wins. She brings all she can to her rather simple dialogue and she sings and dances wonderfully (and my friend Deborah Blumenthal, who saw her Sally Bowles, assures me this film does no reveal all that Stone can do). Her climactic “Audition” is one of the sweetest moments in movie musical history.

And yet…everything else falls short. Ryan Gosling is no match for Stone on any front: an even more unlikable Oscar Levant to her Liza Minnelli and with few musical chops to boot. Gosling’s Sebastian, as we all know, loves jazz…so much that he will save it from the “villain,” the immensely charismatic John Legend, whose crime is that he wants to keep the music moving forward while Gosling insists on playing his solo piano in an ultra-traditional way of his own definition. (Similar to how so many progressives I know have their own definitions of “neoliberalism” and all of them are annoying…but I digress.) Chazelle is hung up on the idea of white men playing jazz, and here takes it to a new extreme by pushing the other cultures in L.A. to the sidelines, having his black crowd in a jazz club cheer on the white people, having Gosling use an elderly black couple on Santa Monica Pier as props in his solo number. And worst of all for me, the final theme is a good one: the tension between chasing a dream and building the committed relationships that make life fully worth living. But the screenplay lets the theme down with on-the-nose dialogue, too few supporting characters (barely anyone else is in the movie and they waste Rosemarie Dewitt), and a last fifteen minutes which are just confusing in terms of how people do or don’t get what they want. (I can talk about this more at length if you find me on Facebook or Twitter.)

So La La Land is a disappointment except in what it heralds, the promise that studios can spend medium budgets (this cost $30 million) and produce really well-made musicals, one of the finest genres of all. I do not want this to win Best Picture, but if leads to more and better original musicals, I will stand up and cheer as much as I wanted to during “Start a Fire.” (Why was that not nominated for Original Song?)

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Manchester by the Sea isn’t bad, but it’s…weird. Kenneth Lonergan, a competent director and outstanding writer, aims for a tone somewhere between high tragedy and darkly black comedy and never quite nails it, mixing shaggy dog humor with dramatic parts set to aggressively overwrought music. The film aims to capture a certain realism, but the fever pitch of the emotions keeps undercutting this aim. Lucas Hedges is very relatable, but Casey Affleck, while very good and giving 100% in all his scenes, never makes the leap where I connect with his troubled protagonist—he’s always a bit flat in voice or removed from the action. Michelle Williams is wonderful but barely in the picture, and the whole story builds to a certain semi-resolution that never fully rounds off. It’s a movie where the parts are less than the sum.

Some other nominees!

20th Century Women is my second-favorite film of the year after Moonlight, as Mike Mills, whose last movie Beginners was my second-favorite film of 2011, uses his singular blend of narration, quick-cutting montage, documentary aspects, and perfectly blended sound and image to recreate the experience of growing up in 1979. The three leads—Anette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning—are full of humor and love with the right amount of piss and vinegar, and the movie sends one home with a deep affection for the world at large and the women who raised us. How this only got a nod for Original Screenplay is a mystery.

 

Silence is Martin Scorsese’s worst film since Gangs of New York. And it’s still pretty terrific. Scorsese’s problem in his long-gestating Shuashku Endo adaptation is that he doesn’t nail a style or tone down until well into the second act, switching between adventure, meditation, and a cinema of cruelty. Andrew Garfield is also distractingly reminiscent of Barry Gibb. But Liam Neeson and the Japanese cast are outstanding, and the final half hour, when Garfield must come to terms with his life, faith, and mission and make profound choices, is some of the most devastating and moving filmmaking of Scorsese’s career.

 

The Salesman may well end up winning Best Foreign Film, but Toni Erdmann, the German comedy which took things by storm enough to have Jack Nicholson come out of retirement to star in the English language remake, will be no upset. The plot seems thin for a 160-minute comedy: a prankish, well-loved music teacher creates an alternate persona to get closer to his workaholic, globalization consultant daughter. But Marin Ade and her two fantastic leads, Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller, create an atmosphere where one can never predict what happens next and what happens, including an insane finale, always makes sense, and offers a clever commentary on society.

 

Moana is Walt Disney at its best, and one of their masterpieces of the 21st century and beyond. This is the film that carries through the revisionist promise of Frozen: now there are no love interests, the male characters are clueless or doofuses, and the female characters are the most dynamic in any Disney film. The animation is full of energy and fun, and Lin-Manuel Miranda fully integrates the delightful, catchy songs with the story. It helps that he has the powerhouse Auli’i Cravalho the lead and the wonderful Dwayne Johnson, and to a lesser degree Jemaine Clement, to provide the laughs.

 

Robert Valley of Aeon Flux and Gorillaz renown gives Pixar and the National Film Board of Canada (who have typically wonderful offerings) a run for Best Animated Short with his Pear Cider and Cigarettes. The 35-minute picture, written, animated, and narrated by Valley with no outside help, is a hard-boiled crime story where the crime isn’t important, and Valley’s tale of getting mixed up with a self-destructive friend who needs a liver transplant in China is engrossing to the highest degree.

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Finally, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the best Star Wars film since Jedi.

Yep.

Gareth Edwards takes the World War II movies that inspired George Lucas and creates an incredible adventure that builds to a thrilling third-act heist/battle that is close enough to perfect, and is recognizably part of the Star Wars mythos. The production values and Michael Giacchino’s score rule. Ben Mendelsohn plays a new kind of villain—a bureaucratic Nazi who is chillingly relatable. Alan Tudyk fails to out Anthony Daniels Anthony Daniels but has fun trying. And Felicity Jones as the woman thrust into heroism and Diego Luna as the honored warrior with something real to prove (his monologue at the end of act two gave me chills) are the best heroes for a world where the Empire seems to be winning…but remind us why we fight. Forget the unfortunate failure of James Earl Jones delivering the most cringeworthy line of dialogue ever (you know the one) and remember now and throughout the year the moving lines between Jones and Luna before Rogue One’s mission starts that I cannot forget.
“I’m not used to people sticking around when things go bad.”

“Welcome home.”

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