Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Best Films of 2018

The Top Films of 2018

This past year showed a greater than 5% increase in box office receipts from the previous year, and it gave us a slate of popular films that were met with critical acclaim. The overall feeling of the industry, however, seems to be one of crisis.  Beyond the increasingly lengthy list of men being faced with lawsuits and criminal indictments for allegations of harassment and sexual assault, the industry has shown little real progress in diversification. The proliferation of online streaming platforms has eaten into the number of tickets sold and the freedom granted to filmmakers in this new platinum age of television allows stories to be told over ten hours, rather than limits of 120 minutes. What compels anyone to leave the house to patronize the neighborhood movie theater these days? The tent-pole films of this age seem to be spectacular superhero movies that can appeal to the widest audience, both domestically and internationally. I have listed what I believe are some of the best films of the year below.

1. The Favourite: Yorgos Lanthimos has not directed a corpus of film that is known for accessibility. His narratives are often interested in the violence prevailing under a sheen of bourgeois respectability. He revels in the uncomfortable, pushing his actors from Nicole Kidman to Colin Farrell to engage in pause-laden scenarios of seething hatred. He is not one for easy conclusions or pat endings. When it was announced that he was directing a film about the court of Queen Anne, I worried that any attempt of historical accuracy would be tossed out the window. The results, however, are a surprisingly fresh rendition of the early eighteenth century. Not everything is accurate, especially those dances that are certainly not a gavotte or quadrille, but the cast of Rachel Weisz (as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough), Emma Stone (Abigail Hill), and the indomitable Olivia Colman as the Queen have presented us with an excellent rendition of the events in the last years of her troubled reign. We may not know whether lesbian acts were committed by these women, but we do know that Sarah accused Abigail of "acts of tribadism." The film is rich with humor and intriguing takes on the courtly protocols of a rarefied air. And it is a costume drama that does not feel like homework. (I wasn't even ambivalent about Emma in this one.)

2. Roma: Alfonso Cuarón’s lovingly told reminiscences of his childhood in the eponymous neighborhood of Mexico City does have its detractors, but the masterfully crafted and shot narrative holds a compelling vision of a city riven by distinctions of class and ethnicity. The exquisite black-and-white cinematography captures the city in its post-68 era in a part of the city that was hit hard by the 1985 earthquake (and the earthquake that hit in 2017, as well). Yalitzia Aparicio has been the breakthrough star of the film, becoming only the second Mexican to be nominated for Best Actress (the first was Salma Hayek for Frida). As the maid who caters to her middle-class employers, she serves as the film’s conscience (even if critics allege that Cuarón fails to present her without objectification), and the harrowing centerpiece of the film is almost exclusively focused on her. The hosting of a foreign film of such depth and magnitude on Netflix has its drawbacks. This is a film that deserves a big-screen viewing; however, providing widespread access on a streaming platform of foreign films may actually encourage the viewing of more such films by the broadest audience possible.

3. Cold War: This haunting tale of the love affair of a singer and her musical director seems to give credence to the axiom that "the personal is political." They are often separated by the vagaries of Polish communism and its place behind the Iron Curtain situated between the East Germans and Soviets. The musical director's dissidence of his country and escape set the stage for a story of over a dozen years of being separated and coming together. The film is worth watching both for its romance set in a time of simmering tensions (much like Casablanca) but also for its staggering lead performances and the simply stunning cinematography. This is a modern classic. Every shot is composed in a manner that harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, French New Wave, and yet never sacrifices Pawel Pawlikowski's unique perspective and voice. I may just watch it again tonight.

4. Green Book: Look, I know this is Driving Miss Daisy in reverse. It has its issues, and trades in clichés, but it serves as the best exemplar of what I term a “Mom movie.” You can take your mother to lunch and then see this as a matinee, and she will think it is charming and that Mahershala and Viggo are delightful. It is the type of heartwarming Hollywood tale that doesn’t receive financing any longer, but the film provides an excellent platform for Mahershala Ali to display his many gifts as an actor. In addition, the exposure that audiences are receiving of the work and legacy of Don Shirley is an unheralded benefit of this film. Don Shirley struggled to gain respect as a classical pianist and he often felt himself relegated to playing what audiences expected of a jazz pianist (blues, and popular hits from Berlin and Porter), while he sought to master technical virtuosity. The musical sequences of the film restore Shirley as a visible marker in the tradition of black pianists from Ellington to Herbie Hancock. Regardless of whatever dumb things screenwriter Nick Vallelonga has said on the Twitter machine, a film that celebrates Shirley with a sensitively crafted performance from Mahershala is worthy of your time.

5. Eighth Grade and Mid90s: I am cheating here, but these two coming-of-age films mesh so well that they can be slotted in the same place. Bo Burnham and Jonah Hill (yes, that Jonah Hill) have helmed directorial debuts that provide a new perspective on the bildungsroman. There is no compulsion to identify the awkward age of middle school as simply a step on the ladder to adulthood but to provide a glimpse into those years that are often tormented and tormenting. With skilled child actors in both parts, these first-time directors structured their films in a way that respect the characters. These are touching, complex figures, and rarely are eighth graders presented in that way, even if we all remember the lack of understanding from our families during that time or our own struggles in communicating the ever-shifting emotional terrain of those years.

6. Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Lee Israel was a respected biographer with a drinking problem who faced a bit of a cash-flow problem, so what did she do? She forged letters from literary luminaries, such as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, and sold them to unsuspecting collectors, until the FBI caught up with her. It is a true story that beggars belief. Melissa McCarthy plays the part with pathos, without sacrificing humor, and is paired with Richard E. Grant in the type of role that allows him to break free from the stilted costume drama he was almost pigeonholed into in the 1980s and 1990s. This is the type of character-driven movie that you expect to be in full supply in awards season, and yet this year they seemed to be few and far between.

7. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Cheating again. This was a phenomenal year for non-fiction cinema. I could throw into this category Three Identical Stranger, Whitney,  Reversing Roe, and those Fyre Festival docs. This could actually be a golden age of documentaries. Not only is the supply gargantuan, but they are making money (Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Grossed over $20 million at the North American box office). These particular films focusing on Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers seemed to speak to discontented liberals irate with the Trump administration and the fraying of all norms of political life. These films gave us a sense that perhaps this national nightmare could someday end and we could return to a sense of normalcy where kindness and expertise were once again possible.

8. Black Panther: I often find myself increasingly frustrated at Marvel movies. I sit there often trying to remember what happened three Iron Man movies ago, or wondering why I am learning about Captain America’s parents in a Thor movie (and then expected to remember this detail at the next Captain America movie two years from now!). Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther did not raise my hackles in the same way. It felt like a standalone film that did not require intense understanding of the minutiae of the Marvel universe. Additionally, it felt like the event film of the year, and, unlike all Marvel films previously, it contained a political edge. There on the screen were gathered some of the finest black actors of our generation in a film about a mysterious African nation with the most advanced technology. It may not have quite achieved the radical status of Afro-futurism, since it came clothed in Disney capitalism, but it may be the closest we come for a movie that grossed $1.3 billion worldwide.

9. The Wife: This is a perfect film for our current #MeToo moment. A prominent American novelist is awarded the Nobel Prize. As soon as the early-morning call from Stockholm arrives, something seems amiss in his marriage. A foreboding sense of unease pervades the first three-quarters of the film, until all is upended in a masterful twist. The film is marred by the presence of Christian Slater (what is he doing there in Sweden? I mean, who paid for his flight?? How does he know any of this? What is his backstory? I don’t understand!), but Glenn Close is Glenn Close in all of her nuanced glory. If she doesn’t win the Oscar this time (her seventh nomination!), I may just scream.

10. Isle of Dogs: Another film with many detractors. Allegations of cultural appropriation and insensitivity have run rampant. Several of these criticisms are very valid. Wes Anderson's work embodies the problematic category of precious, as well. Yet I connected formatively to this tale of a young boy who has gone searching for his dog who has been exiled to an island with all the other dogs of this Japanese prefecture. The animation is visually stunning. I cried multiple times--multiple times. 

11. If Beale Street Could Talk: I found Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight disappointing. It has some beautiful photography, stunning performances from Stephen James and Regina King, and a script adapted from a fantastic James Baldwin novella, but it failed to hang together. There were tonal shifts that felt jarring. Regina King needed a couple more scenes to shade her role, and Kiki Layne’s blandness failed to capture the layers of Baldwin’s character. There is no denying that Jenkins has a definitive voice and viewpoint, and his fortitude and directorial grace merit attention.

12. Boy Erased: I am all in for this new phase of Nicole Kidman’s career where she plays steely moms whose cracking under pressure somehow leads to renewed invigoration. IT is akin to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken pottery is repaired with molten gold. She has done this now with The Beguiled, The Killing of the Sacred Deer, and now with Boy Erased. I am still confused as to why a cast and crew of Australians (Director Joel Edgerton, Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Troye Sivan) decided to make a movie about gay conversion therapy in Texas, but it is an earnest and serious film. It may be a little heavy on the moralization, but Lucas Hedges has proven himself to be a formidable actor. However, it is Nicole who stood out and softened to moralistic tone with her quiet glamor.

13. A Quiet Place: From Crazy Rich Asians to the latest iteration of Mission: Impossible, a group of high-budget and high-grossing films hit that cinematic sweet spot of critical and commercial acclaim. Besides the aforementioned Black Panther, I would also list John Krasinski’s literally quiet horror film as one of the year’s best. A harrowing tale of a family living in some wretched, horrifying post-apocalypse, where sounds trip off alien invaders to your presence and imminent death. The anxiety is almost immediate because Emily Blunt is pregnant early on. How it god’s name is she going to give birth silently? Brace yourself for white-knuckle viewing.

Honorable Mentions:

Hereditary: So weird, so strange, perhaps a bit nonsensical, but oddly compelling.

Colette: A sober, and yet very pretty biopic of the French novelist, most famous for Gigi. Keira Knightley has cornered the market on these types of historical personages.

Vice: Just for the makeup and Bale’s transformation. The movie itself is a mess.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Top 20 Films of 2017


Caveats: I am desperately behind with this year’s slate of foreign films (sorry, Diane Kruger), and have yet to see Coco, which I am told would be in my top ten.

1.       Phantom Thread:  P.T. Anderson’s dark comic examination of a mid-century couturier has been a divisive work among viewers. There is a consensus that the film is beautiful with a shaded performance from Daniel Day-Lewis in what he claims to be his final role. (I’ll believe that when Cher actually retires.) The film begins as a rather nostalgic, languorous view of a staid, repressed fashion designer with a set of odd neuroses and a prim sister who runs the front of his couture house. He discovers a new muse waitressing in a local pub and begins to craft a new line around her. The third act, however, clearly goes off these classical Hollywood rails and the film delves into Oedipal fissures that cut through the relationships of this triad. For some, the jarring exploration of complicated sexual desire may not fit what feels like a Merchant-Ivory film, but this rather shocking tonal shift demonstrates why this will remain a standout work within Anderson’s catalog and indicative of his approach to narrative and sexuality.

2.       Mudbound: It has been reported that this penetrating look at sharecroppers’ lives in the Mississippi Delta around the second World War faced few offers for distribution deals when it was on the awards circuit. Some have argued that this was because several studios did not feel that there was a sufficient audience to see in theaters a two-and-a-half-hour film that can be rather bleak and trying at times. Netflix bought it and aired it on its streaming platform, providing viewers with a chance to watch it at their leisure. The film succeeds in its evocation of its context. One feels mudbound while watching it, the thick, dark mud of the Delta is everywhere. In addition, the air hangs heavy with outright brutal, violent racism. The perceptive representation of specific forms of white privilege is masterfully handled by Dee Rees’ adaptation and able, sure directorial hand. To put it one way: you will need a shower after viewing, both to scrape off the mud that you are sure is caked on your back and in your hair, and to scrub the vile prejudice that you have experienced for that 150 minutes.

3.       I, Tonya: “The Tonya Harding Story” would be a wonderful Lifetime movie. It could have been cast with former stars from daily soaps and had an earnest portrayal of “a girl born on the wrong side of the tracks, tempted by the alluring world of competitive figure skating.” Director Craig Gillespie threw that playbook out the window and crafted an ironic send up that interrogates our fascination with fallen celebrities and the myriad ways we deem it suitable to label and dismiss categories of poor white people. The film does not try to answer the questions of who knew what when. Rather, it constructs a narrative through the web of lies, deceit and narratives individuals construct that contradict the stories they are well aware are being told of the same event. Allison Janney gives a one-note performance of Harding’s ill-tempered mother, but Lord have mercy, what a note it is. Janney maintains a consistent disregard for her child at the same time as holding an unfailing certainty in her self-righteousness.

4.       The Disaster Artist: I am just as shocked as you are that I have included James Franco’s directorial telling of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, a film that I have held dear to my heart for almost 15 years. This could have gone so wrong in so very many ways. The piece manages to maintain the hilarity of the world’s best worst film while demonstrating the earnestness of the filmmakers involved. Clearly, the best shots in the film are the side-by-side recreations of scenes from the Room. “Oh hi, Mark.”

5.       The Post: This is the anti-Trump movie that your Aunt Rita has been asking for all year. She probably even wore her pink pussy hat to the theater to see Queen Meryl and Tom be directed by Spielberg. The film was impressively thrown together and filmed in a matter of months. The wooden performance of Hanks can be forgiven only if you have never seen Jason Robards as Bradlee in All the President’s Men, but you are treated to a captivating bit of theater by Ms. Streep as she (gasp!) plays a woman who has little capability of being decisive. The final shot linking the Ellsberg paper SCOTUS decision to Watergate is such breathtakingly good cinema that I stood and clapped in my living room. It is just so satisfying.

6.       Lady Bird: Oh, there are stories to tell about Sacramento. That’s neat. When did Laurie Metcalf become a celebrated tragedienne? She won a Tony this year for an imaginary sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and could win an Oscar in March. I still only think of her as Roseanne’s sister. She does give a shaded, nuanced performance of a mother that has a tumultuous, troubled relationship with her daughter. Saoirse Ronan goes from the beatific angel she played in Brooklyn to a pretentious, contemptible teenager, but manages to elicit sympathy because she is just that darn good.

7.       Victoria & Abdul: I don’t care what anyone says about empire nostalgia or the historical inaccuracies in this film. I have no patience for the hateful things people say about Dame Judi trying to reclaim lost glory for replaying the part that gave her an initial taste of Hollywood respect and glamour. She has never lost any glory! I do not care what any person says to disparage this film. I will watch this movie again and again. I will laugh in the same places and get choked up at the end every single time. Judi can do no wrong.

8.       Three Billboards…: Martin McDonagh is a strange man. I have now seen two of his films and three of his plays. His aesthetics of violence are interesting but troubling. There is a Tarantino flavor to them: cycles of violence are dictated by revenge. But in Tarantino, the bad guy is always defeated, there is a moral universe of right and wrong that can be known. McDonagh does not think the cycles can ever end, nor that we can know what is necessarily right and wrong. This adds an interesting, complicated nuance, but he never pushes the question to understand exactly what purpose is the violence serving: if we cannot always know what is right, then why does everyone continue to be the aggressor (and everyone is an aggressor in McDonagh’s world). I cannot say I loved this film, but it leaves you with a plethora of questions. And Frances McDormand, even more than Gal Gadot, is the heroine we need this year.

9.       Manifesto: This little-seen art film from Julian Rosefeldt cuts and pastes over two dozen manifestos from prominent artists of the last two centuries into 13 monologues for Cate Blanchett to perform. Each situation is unique and provides Cate the Great (why isn’t she a Dame yet?) an opportunity to demonstrate why she is one of the greatest actresses alive. I actually don’t know if Meryl could pull this off as gracefully and in as controlled a fashion. These 13 different characters were filmed over twelve days, for god’s sake.  

10.   Patti Cake$: A young Jersey girl on the more zaftig side wants to be a rap star. Yawn, you say? No, you are in for a treat. A diverse and wild set of characters sets out to put together her first EP with some beats provided by a nihilistic teenager who eschews hip-hop for punk and an Indian pharmacist who provides his own rhymes. There is a clichéd mother character trying to keep her daughter from pursuing the same dreams that she witnessed crushed years ago, but the ending scene where both are vindicated is just truly heartwarming. At least one song from this romp should be nominated for an Oscar. Also, watch for the unheralded return of Beverly D’Angelo. For an additional delightful, underseen indie of the year: Ingrid Goes West provides a witty yet sensitive portrayal of a woman obsessed with those she cannot have.

11.   The Beguiled: Sofia Coppola’s remake of a Clint Eastwood vehicle clad itself in millennial pink and propped up Nicole Kidman in one of her numerous comebacks of 2017. The film queers the original by privileging the women’s experiences over Eastwood’s as the previous vehicle had portrayed the original women as closer to harpies than humans. However, the original had a breathtaking scene where Geraldine Page imagines Eastwood as a battered Christ fallen from the cross that links her religious upbringing to her sexual identity. Couldn’t we have allowed Nicole to reinterpret that?

12.   A Quiet Passion: Terence Davies’ telling of the life of Emily Dickinson is a bizarre bird. The dialogue is written in Dickinsonian meter and slant rhyme, which for the first twenty minutes is jarring and often painful. Once you grow accustomed to that (or if), the film turns into a penetrating psychological portrayal of one of our greatest poets, who was both constrained and liberated by her situation. She published only a handful of poems while she was alive, and since she never chased fame her collection of poetry was one of the truest collections ever amassed by a visionary simultaneously repressed and freed by a society that shunned and from which she herself recoiled. Cynthia Nixon, who has been shut out from awards consideration, should truly be a leading contender.

13.   Call Me By Your Name: I had abnormally high expectations for this movie and they weren’t quite met. I shouldn’t blame the film for that, but I just left with a sense that there was a bit of a missed opportunity here. This film, penned by James Ivory, directed by Luca Guadagnino, could have been a sumptuous erotic view of young men in love in the Veneto. It came off to me more like two frat boys fumbling around in the dark.

14.   Get Out: Clink clink. I am still sure that some white people left the theater thinking: wait now why was Brian Williams’ daughter dating that man? There are academics in American Studies programs across this country who will be spending their career examining this flick. This and The Big Sick did point to the abilities of genre films to speak to wider cultural issues in serious ways that could be accepted as serious films.

15.   The Big Sick: Here was the rom com we needed for the year of #MeToo. Was Kumail always a stand-up guy? No. Did he treat his future wife rather shabbily? Yes. Did his mom, played by an ever-forceful Holly Hunter, disdain him for such missteps? Yes, rightfully so. Here we had a strictly genre movie that managed to speak to a wide(ish) audience about some serious political and cultural concerns and not sacrifice comedic timing or character delineation.  

16.   Shape of Water: A pretty film, intentionally derivative with allusions to the Black Lagoon, Astaire-Rogers, and Alice Faye. Richard Jenkins gives a delightful performance and shows us again why he should be cast in more films. Octavia gets to be a sassy janitor. And Sally Hawkins is mute. (I thought she was deaf at first which I found confusing because I kept thinking why do these people keep talking to the back of her head?? She can’t hear YOU!) Is the creature a metaphor? And what is driving Michael Shannon to be so evil? I wished parts of it congealed better.

17.   The Florida Project: An interesting film that suffered from an ending that felt false and tacked on (and shot clearly on an iPhone). I had thought Willem Dafoe was gliding to his first Oscar on this balanced performance that gave us a male character who protected the motley crew of tenants in his motel, but pushed them to help themselves. It was a character seemingly devoid of toxic masculinity, but now it seems that one of our most toxic male characters in a toxically masculine movie (Sam Rockwell in 3 Billboards) may beat out Dafoe. That would be a shame.

18.   Darkest Hour: We have all seen this movie before, at least thrice on PBS. Churchill hated Hitler. We get it. He saved Britain from the brink. We get it. Britain would have capitulated without Churchill. We get it. He was ornery. We get it. Give Oldman his lifetime achievement Oscar now. The makeup is very good. I don’t understand how they got his jowls to move and bounce like that.

19.   Wonder: No one is celebrating the fact that Julia Roberts had her biggest hit since Ocean’s 11 in this touching adaptation of a young adult novel about a kid with a facial deformity facing loneliness, banishment and bullying, yet emerging triumphant. This is the type of movie that we don’t see much of anymore, earnest, intentionally manipulative, but a well-made movie. It is not art, but if you aren’t crying at the end, you may not be human.

20.   Wonder Woman: Why not?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Top 20 Films of 2016

1.       Hidden Figures. This rather traditional Hollywood drama about the black female scientists at NASA who helped propel John Glenn into space feels like a reverberating bomb of political resistance in these trying times. After a brutal election campaign and the opening days of an increasingly autocratic ruler, a movie about the quiet pursuit to fight against entrenched systemic racism and conventional wisdom seems to be an antidote to “alternative facts” and fake news. Centered around three fantastic performances from Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, the film seems radical by not calling into question how refreshing it is to have a film about black women where nary a one is playing a maid, but rather are serious, qualified bureaucrats and intellects. Every time the film finishes in top five grossing films of the week, America shows that its civic values may still be in place, even if the new Fuhrer seeks to destroy them.

2.       La La Land. Damien Chazelle exploded onto Hollywood’s radar with Whiplash in 2014. The small independent film, which won several Oscars for editing and best supporting actor, demonstrated Chazelle’s unique talents for filming music. He had an uncanny knack for bringing the vitality of jazz to the screen with some quick cuts and beautifully composed shots. His latest film is a musical ode to Los Angeles and the millions who migrate here for the weather and chance for stardom. Emma Stone and Ryry Gosling may not be of the caliber of Astaire/Rogers or Judy and Gene, but their (literal) missteps demonstrate the hard work necessary to make such a complex musical set piece work. Their errors erase the fetishized perfection of MGM musicals and give us a sense of the fragility of our labor. The third act has far too much talking, and should have been punctuated with a musical number, but the opening number filmed on the 710 Freeway on a blistering day in July and the coda with its references to An American in Paris, Moulin Rouge, and Les Girls are some of the best Hollywood had to offer this year. Additionally, I quite enjoy the fact that the Westside is virtually absent from the film. Long live downtown!

3.       Moonlight. This expertly crafted and beautiful take on one man’s life growing up in Miami does what few films can offer: a unique perspective on the world that changes its audience’s view of that same world. Barry Jenkins’ film does not shy away from violence, but refuses to sacrifice the humanity of his characters. Jenkins has the confidence to allow his camera to wordlessly frame and narrate his characters without manipulation or triteness. A fabulous ensemble cast, including this year’s frontrunner for Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali, and the incomparable Naomie Harris, bring into focus a community often critiqued and criticized but never fully understood.

4.       Elle. Paul Verhoeven is a much-maligned filmmaker. In many cases, rightly so. His casual sexism and distaste for female sexuality that is unconfined seems to posit women as driven mad by their own desire. In his latest flick, we have the usual Verhoeven set up: a masked intruder brutally rapes a woman in the opening scene, and the trauma of the event transforms her into something almost subhuman. What saves this troubling narrative is the stellar performance of the famed French actress Isabelle Huppert. She fights the descent to madness that Verhoeven craves. She maintains her rationality and her anger through her trauma. Her pursuit of her rapist is twisted by her own desires of sex and revenge, but she is aware of this, not blithely unaware, as Verhoeven’s previous heroines have. The beautiful final scene opens a new possibility free of male predators where women have found allegiance.

5.       Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan is a master of understated, character-driven dramas. Ever since he was nominated for an Oscar for You Can Count on Me (a film that made Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo into bona fide film stars), Lonergan has crafted tight narratives of loss and identity. In this touching film about the effects of grief, Casey Affleck gives a restrained performance with such a powerful arc that critics have fallen over themselves to praise him. The tension that explodes near film’s end is palpable, and even as one of the saddest films of the year, it inspires in its pursuit of relief from the loss and the consequences of our own mistakes.

6.       Lion. A film about Google maps? That can’t possibly be good. Oh, how wrong you are, my friend. Based on a memoir by a young Australian man of Indian descent who was adopted by white Australians in the 1980s, the film follows his quest to find his birth family by using, you guessed it, Google Earth. Dev Patel, a reliable, quirky romcom lead (as seen in Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), shines in the shaded layers of conflict he feels about his adoption and his multiple levels of identity. Nicole Kidman displays her talents in two quiet, but devastating, scenes. This is the tearjerker of the year about the families we create and sustain.

7.       20th Century Women. Mike Mills’ charming portrait of his eccentric mother is evocative of 1979 America and the political and cultural crises washing over the country. Mills somehow manages to create a film as memoir. Of course, aspects are fictionalized, but there is a sense of the competing voices seeking to narrate the travails and triumphs of a struggling, non-conformist family. Annette Bening, who was shamefully overlooked for an Oscar nomination, portrays a woman emboldened but also confused by the growth of her son and the world transforming around her. This film also had one of the best uses of a Talking Heads song in recent memory.

8.       OJ: Made in America. Two people, who have absolutely no interest in football, were shocked when they discovered I had not yet watched this eight-hour documentary about OJ. I replied: I watched the Ryan Murphy miniseries. Isn’t Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark enough? No, they emphatically replied. Thus, I doggedly decided to try it one night, and I found myself awake until 2 am on a school night because I watched three back-to-back episodes. This is not simply a documentary about the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and the subsequent trial of Orenthal James Simpson for said crime, but a history of Los Angeles and its race relations. How did OJ become the darling of a white and conservative university like USC, and then how did he suddenly transform into a symbol of oppression for the black community? It is incisive and fascinating.

9.       The Handmaiden. This Korean erotic thriller by Park Chan-wook is based on a novel by Sarah Waters set in Victorian England. This film transposes that novel to Korea under Japanese occupation. This masterful adaptation brings to light the particular sensibilities of Korea in the 1930s. The twists and turns of its plot is narrated through each of the main characters, and the performances of Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri crackle with sexual subversion and intensity.

10.   Hell or High Water. This riveting tale of bank robbers narrates the plight of the common Trump voter, but it points liberals to the way that these voters can be shown how the powerful world-order espoused by Trump actually harms them. The film maintains its tension through withholding the motives of its robbers until the very end, when Jeff Bridges, as the intrepid US Marshal, cracks the case in one of the most satisfying endings of a film this year.  

11.   Weiner. When Anthony Weiner allowed a film crew complete access to his bid to be mayor of New York, he should have probably foreseen what a terrible decision that was going to be. Unfortunately for Weiner (and the Democratic party), he is so myopic and stubborn that he didn’t even conceive of the possibility of his Twitter sexting rearing its ugly head all over again. And boy, did it. His twitter handle of Carlos Danger is revealed and everything proceeds to collapse around him instantaneously; all of it captured on film. Huma Abedin looks pained and angry as her marriage continues to face an array of personal problems. It seems patently obvious that she would have rather not have any of it filmed. Let us hope she is happier alone.

12.   Love & Friendship. Whit Stillman’s ingenious take on a piece of Austen juvenilia sparkled with the type of wit that is often devoid from your common BBC costume drama. Charming performances from Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny (“Hello, America, I’m Chloe Sevigny”) demonstrated the relevance of Austen to American audiences in the 21st century, especially with quotes, such as “Facts are such horrid things.” We probably shouldn’t allow the Trump staff to see this one, except the characters are pretty dismissive of the ingrate Americans.  

13.   Hello, My Name is Doris. Sally Field stars as a hoarder who falls in love with her very young co-worker, played by Max Greenfield. His hipster friends see her eccentric tastes that mark her as an outsider to her peers as symbols of her non-conformity. Finally, a woman in her sixties is allowed to feel sexual desire and not be portrayed as a blood-sucking vampire. She doesn’t end up with her younger man, but she is nonetheless transformed by her encounter.

14.   Zootopia. If Disney did anything right this year, it was making a film for children that instructed them about racism. We will need to show this one to our kids frequently for the next four years.

15.   Jackie. Pablo Lorrain’s at times overwrought and melodramatic interpretation of Jackie Kennedy’s days following the assassination of her husband displays a deft hand at narrative and camerawork. The pounding score and breathtaking shots follow Jackie as she washes the blood from her hair and battles LBJ’s incoming staff on the proper way to honor her recently deceased spouse. Natalie Portman seemed to be the leading contender for Best Actress, and that seems to have faded, but this will stand as one of her finest performances.  

16.   The Lobster. Singletons are sent to some sort of camp to be paired with someone or risk being turned into the animal of their choice. It is an odd and charming piece about the demands of compulsory coupledom, and the unreachable demands and expectations we place on ourselves and those around us. Forster exhorted his readers to “only connect,” and The Lobster echoes that. In order to that, we must dismantle the psychological barriers we place before others.

17.   Eye in the Sky. This drama about drone warfare, helmed by the director of Tsotsi, exposes the fraught decisions at the heart of this new, impersonal way of battle. Additionally, it handles the legal and diplomatic issues during such elevations of hostilities in a nuanced way. Helen Mirren, as always, provides a portrait of a military commander both surprising and honest.

18.   Toni Erdmann. This German film tracing the troubled relationship of father and daughter is strange, and too long at over two-and-a-half hours, but it is rather haunting. It poses a rather vexing ethical question: in late industrial capitalism can we even achieve fruitful relationships?

19.   Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortensen leads a rebellious left-wing family on a journey to bury his wife. With civil liberties now eroding, this film gives us a romantic portrait of what our communes will look like when we disengage from the grid.

20.   Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A troubled Maori boy is adopted by a white New Zealand couple, and all seems well. Then the adopted mother drops dead of a heart attack. The rather gruff husband, played by the underrated Sam Neill, must now take charge of this boy, except Child Protective Services wants to take him back. In order to escape, they flee into the hills and forests. There is a troubling anti-government narrative in here, but the bonding between these two men who seem so distant is lovingly portrayed.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Oscar Predicitons: 2016 Edition

Oscar Predictions: 2016 Edition

In a couple of days, a large group of white people are going to gather and celebrate a bunch of films starring and about white people. Here is what is likely to win.

Best Picture: The Revenant. Of the nominated films, Iñárritu's revenge epic has all the trappings of a bona fide Oscar hit. it has grossed over $160 million; it is beautifully shot; it required Leo to suffer as an actor. Basically, it is David Lean-lite, and the Academy eats this stuff up.

Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu. As the sole non-white winner in a big category, Iñárritu will be carrying the night's racial weight on his shoulders. It is unclear whether he will address the situation, since he deferred at the BAFTAs two weeks ago, but it is clear that this win would be a spectacular achievement for the Mexican director. The last time a director won back-to-back Oscars was when Joe Mankiewicz did it in 1950-51.

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant. There was a period where it seemed as if DiCaprio was going to turn into our generation's Burton or O'Toole, constantly nominated, but never invited to the podium to accept the golden doo-dah. Finally, the universe has conspired to bring together a perfect storm for the Academy to shower praise on Leo. The film is respected and successful, and there is a sense that he does deserve it for the brutal, physical performance he was able to muster.

Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room. Larson has won virtually all of the big prizes, from the Golden Globe to the SAG Award and the BAFTA. This undeniably good streak gives her sure-fire odds to repeat her win on Sunday. I hope that the Oscar win will prompt more people to see this viscerally charged performance that has as much raw physical power as DiCaprio's.

Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl. The film received mixed reviews, but even critics who were unimpressed with Redmayne and the rather muddied and muddled script of the film praised Vikander for her nuanced, finely wrought performance. Additionally, she gave a fine performance in Ex Machina this year, as well. She could win simply by exploding into the cinematic consciousness this year, much in the same way that Jim Broadbent was able to win for Iris in 2001, after he made star-making performances in Moulin Rouge and Bridget Jones' Diary in the same year.
However, nostalgia and sentimentality could get the better of the Academy and the award could go to Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs. Although the film was not a critical or commercial success, and Winslet's performance was marred by a wandering accent and a terribly written third act, who doesn't want to see Winslet and DiCaprio win Oscars on the same night?

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed. I am less sure about this prediction than I was a week ago. Mark Rylance, a fine theatrical actor, is nominated for Bridge of Spies, seems to be gaining some momentum. Although his performance is subtle and keen, he does not have a lot of screen time, nor does he have a scene that established a major emotional impact. Stallone would be a sentimental win for playing a faded, wiser version of Balboa. In this case, it could go either way. Or these two could divide the vote and allow Tom Hardy to win.

Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight. In December, Spotlight seemed to be the frontrunner for Best Picture. It was amassing critical awards, and slowly building an impressive total at the box office. Then, the Revenant crashed onto the scene. Spotlight will win this award as its consolation prize.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short. Adam McKay who made a career directing sophomoric Will Ferrell vehicles has reinvented himself in order to direct a serious film about the 2008 financial crisis. The screenplay is noted for its handling of explaining the technical details of credit-default swaps and the different tranches of high-risk debt without losing its eye for comedy. Since the film has also grossed almost $70 million, it is also a testament that a smart, funny film need not be a film that is solely seen on DVD or streaming platforms.

Best Documentary Feature: Amy. About a decade ago, I bemoaned the fact that documentaries about pop culture never seemed to break through in this category. Fine pieces about Dylan, Wilco never seemed to receive nominations, while every single one that did win involved war or the Holocaust. Now, it seems the pendulum has swung the other way, and serious films about genocide in Indonesia, sexual assault in the military lose to slight, ephemeral pieces about back-up singers or long-forgotten pop singers. Amy follows the tragedy that was Amy Winehouse and is notable for demonstrating how those closest to her enabled her addictions, and in some cases even hid, encouraged, and supported them. It is touching, and of those nominated this year, is the best.

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out. As the most successful animated film of the year, both critically and commercially, Pixar has its lock on this category yet again. It will win because of Bing Bong, and it should.

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul. It's a Hungarian movie about the Holocaust. Enough said. This will be Hungary's first win at the Oscars ever.

Best Cinematography: The Revenant. Emmanuel Lubezki will pick up his third consecutive Oscar, after winning for Gravity and Birdman. Revenant, regardless of what you think of its revisionist history, or celebration of white-male hegemonic masculinity, is a beautiful film.

Best Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road. Mad Max became a surprise summer hit and a rallying cry for third-wave feminists. If Revenant was not the main contender this year, this movie could conceivably win Best Picture.

Best Costume Design: Carol. Many are predicting Mad Max will win this, and it did win the BAFTA, but Carol's careful attention to the delineation of its characters had so much to do with the exquisite clothes that I am rooting for it to win here.

Best Production Design: Mad Max. I would probably rather see Danish Girl best the competition here, but Max's desert apocalypse is worthy.

Best Make-up: Mad Max. Although I am very pleased that the little seen Finnish movie, The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and wandered about outside, received a surprise nomination here, Mad Max clearly has to win here.

Best Score: Hateful Eight. I am torn here: I would love to see Morricone finally win a competitive Oscar (he was given an honorary Oscar in 2007), but his score for Hateful Eight is not entirely memorable or extensive. For me, the best score of this year was Mad Max's harrowing drum and guitar-riff-heavy pounding score that riveted you in your seat for two hours. However, it failed to secure a nomination.

Best Song: "Til It Happens to You." Lady Gaga has a lot of good will towards her right now (she will also be the first person EVER to perform at the Oscars, Grammys and Super Bowl in the same year). Also, Diane Warren has never won an Oscar. I do prefer the lushness of Sam Smith's Bond theme, and it did win the Golden Globe, but this song is attached to a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, and has the sort of social consciousness and critique that the Academy prefers (and needs, since we have no actors of color nominated).

Sound Effects Editing and Sound Mixing: I am sending these Mad Max's way. Watch for Mad Max to be the big winner with up to 5 prizes to its name for the evening.

Visual Effects: The Revenant. Simply for the Bear. Simply for the BEAR.

Best Documentary Short: Body Team 12. It's a brief (mercifully) look at medical workers who had to clear bodies from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Best Animated Short: Bear Story.

Live Action Short: Shok. It's about two boys surviving during the war in Kosovo.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Top Films of 2015

Top Films of 2015

1.       Brooklyn—I have here chosen a problematic film for this year as my top choice. Yes, this is the whitest movie of a very white year of Academy nominations. Here we have an old-fashioned, safe, innocuous story of love found and questioned by an Irish immigrant in post-war America. This charming narrative, however, is riven by our very present concerns of inclusion and diversity. Here we have a story of a New York borough where the only diversity comes from Italians and Irish girls trying to deal with their own xenophobia. How have we created a vision of Brooklyn in the 1950’s that erases the presence of blacks, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Jews? This film in its  technicolor glory and its superb, tight script by Nick Hornby (based on a novel by Colm Toibin) exposes the blindness of all aspects of the Hollywood studio system; it serves as an indictment of a system that refuses to change. As Viola Davis stated in her Emmy acceptance speech in September, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” With a slate of films that investigate, probe, or sometimes simply celebrate whiteness, we have not overlooked black actors (except in the case of Idris Elba), we have simply ignored them in casting them in anything other than a funny sidekick, a nefarious criminal, or faces to bring in local color. Although Brooklyn is the most charming film of the year, it is a film that demonstrates how far we have yet to go to create an American culture of inclusivity that respects and honors the voices of those that live outside the confines of whiteness, however broadly defined.

2.       The Revenant—In a masterful revisionist western, Alejandro G. Iñárritu has constructed a view of the harsh, violent reality of the nineteenth-century frontier. Following the trials and tribulations of Hugh Glass, who experiences some of the most brutal details of survivor narratives, the film exposes the racism, aggression, and fear that undergirded the experience of these explorers and furriers. The “whoosh” of arrows, the dark unknown beyond the trees, and the constant terror of dangers both manmade and natural around every corner create the tense atmosphere of a slasher film; however, what Iñárritu achieves is a radical re-assessment of the Western. These are not the Indians of Hopalong Cassidy; this is not the honor system of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; this is a brutal world of male exhibitionism that simply masks a culture of death and dread.

3.       Mad Max: Fury Road—In another revisionist Western, George Miller has outfitted the legendary Australian outback post-apocalyptic with a refreshing feminist lens. Eve Ensler famously served as a consultant on the film to provide the female characters with such shocking things as motivation, delineation, and desire. Charlize Theron has become one of the most complex frontier women since Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge dueled in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). She rages; she cowers; she storms. The plot may have a few problems: they travel a very long way, only to decide to turn around and go back the way they came. The interplay between a set of well-defined characters brings this franchise into the 21st century.

4.       Carol—Todd Haynes’ quiet adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel traces the lines of desire between two women divided by class and upbringing in 1950’s Manhattan. Cate the Great Blanchett constructs a woman of fragility and passion masked by a façade of icy superiority. Rooney Mara shines as an upstart store clerk, unsure of her own feelings. In this film, the men are brutes unaware of their selfish demands that see women as merely the accessories of their successful lives. The drama emerges from this conflict of women wishing a fulfilled existence that negates the presence of men. These men fight these tendencies but with absolutely no understanding of the pleas of these women with whom they wish to outfit their homes of domestic bliss. Cate’s final monologue is a master class in poise and control.

5.       Spotlight—A superb ensemble cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James relates the story of the Boston Globe’s attempts to expose how the pedophilia scandal of the Catholic Church reached into the highest echelons of the structure of the institution in the fall of 2001. The desires of this journalistic team to expose a story and  to give voice of the victims of sexual abuse comes into a direct conflict with their editor (Live Schrieber) who is certain that the story is deeper and bigger. The uncovering of how the Church moved priests time and time again to different parishes leads to an explosive set of stories that no good Catholic in Boston could ignore. The scandal was at every level of the Church and it was not a mere example of a bad apple or two.

6.       Room—A harrowing film based on Emma Donoghue’s novel about a woman kept imprisoned for years in an environment of rape with her son bred of this assault is a fine example of cinematic relation of trauma and resilience. How do we imagine a child who has known only two individuals for his six years of life would be reintegrated into a society he has never known? Brie Larson’s finely crafted and raw performance takes an interesting character in a novel into a fully-fledged example of pain, persecution and survival. She does deserve the Oscar. The film has not performed terribly well at the box office (currently grossing only $7 million in the North American market), but it is a film whose power is undeniable, even if it proves for difficult viewing material.

7.       Beasts of No Nation—Cary Fukunaga is a master of crafting narratives that take characters whose motivations may seem morally repugnant and investigating exactly how such individuals can rationally come to make such decisions. Here we find Idris Elba (in a role for which he should have been nominated) playing a commandant of a small army of child soldiers in Ghana during a brutal civil war. Although the film does not do enough to trouble the narrative of the exceptionalism of African violence, we do witness the story of a brutal commander who sees his role as a protector and savior for the nation and his children, even if that paternal role results in the sacrificing of children to the horrors of war or to his own sexual desires. It is a complex and complicated piece.

8.       Ex Machina—The film industry managed to create a set of films that questioned the received structures of genres, such as the western, the boxing film, and here a scifi piece. We see a cyborg created with emotional human tendencies, including deception and self-aggrandizement. Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander perform off one another’s strengths in a tug-of-war of power. Isaac, who has become one of our most prominent actors (without being labeled and pigeon-holed as a Hispanic actor), delights in a performance that hovers around a morally ambiguous center but never fully disposes of humor. His vacillations keep both the other characters and the audience uncertain of what may happen next.

9.       Inside Out—Pixar created a bold vision of how the emotions in our head battle each other for prominence, only to learn that they all must work together in order to create the individual whom they drive. If you fail to feel anything at Bing Bong’s last scene, you are dead inside.

10.   Straight Outta Compton and Dope—Two fine hip-hop films demonstrated the pressures of the film industry to craft films that relate the black experience without pandering to the audience. Straight Outta Compton’s brash, big Hollywood-style portrayal of the rise and fall of NWA harkens back to musical biopics from the 1950s about Lorenz and Hart, Lillian Roth, Jane Froman or Cole Porter. These stars witness a meteoric rise, only to encounter obstacles created by the industry, their relationships with one another, and the demands of fame. Some fail to rise again, while others adapt. Dope, on the other hand, took a quiet approach to following a group of youths who revel in nostalgia for early 90’s hip-hop, unsure of where they fit in their neighborhood and culture. This small indie, which was a huge hit at Sundance, made only a fraction of Compton’s box-office intake, but, in fact, broke through more stereotypes in its crafting of characters forging their own identities that appear to be in conflict with those around them.

11.   The Martian—I have become a huge fan of having a big space movie every fall. First, it was Gravity’s technical prowess that stunned us, then Interstellar demonstrated a perhaps pretentious but fascinating narrative of spiritual angst in the universe. Ridley Scott’s film doesn’t quite achieve either of those two films’ high aspirations, but it does tell a rollicking good story guided by a tongue-in-cheek performance from Matt Damon. It is fun, and it is relevant with our latest discoveries from Mars that demonstrate that perhaps in Interstellar McConaughey should have just taken his group to Mars rather than going through wormholes.

12.   Creed—Rocky Balboa punched his way into the American consciousness in 1976. Nearly forty years later, Stallone comes back to train the son of his former rival, Apollo Creed. This is a fine example of a genre film that makes us question the usual structures of that genre. Ryan Coogler, who became an indie darling with Fruitvale Station, has now demonstrated soundly to Hollywood that he can direct a big-budget film as well.

13.   Clouds of Sils Maria—Kristen Stewart received heaps of praise for this film, including becoming the first (?!) American actress ever to receive a competitive César Award (the French equivalent of the Oscar). However, it is not Stewart that dominates this complicated tale of an actress revisiting one of her earlier successes in a new film. Juliette Binoche commands her presence, and her generosity as an actor allows Stewart to appear more human than she ever has on screen. Binoche occupies a storied place among French actresses, along with Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, only Marion Cotillard rivals her for force and variability.


Honorable Mentions:

Noah Baumbach has softened his navel-gazing ways in a recent stream of movies. Although his characters are still troubling narcissists, his films have become more highly attuned to competing desires and narratives with a keener eye for visual ingenuity and more satisfying structures. This year, he told the stories of a set of rather bumbling misfits in Mistress America and While We’re Young that form an interesting trilogy with Frances Ha.


The Big Short narrates a complicated set of events that underpinned the collapse of financial markets in 2008. Adam McKay, who previously directed Will Ferrell gross-out comedies, has not traded in comedy for serious Oscar fare, but rather has directed his eye towards more sophisticated stories while still maintaining that comedic flare.


Far from the Madding Crowd is typical Thomas Hardy fare. Love triangles, missed connections, returns of ghosts, and a woman who is faced with obstacles that verge on the sadistic. Carey Mulligan’s intensity is on display yet again, and its timid portrayal marks her as someone who should be more highly sought after than she is.