Sunday, February 25, 2018

Among Oscar’s Slimmer Pickings, (Just) a Couple Stand Out This Year

I’m getting worried. This is the second year in a row that I am unenthused about the Oscar nominees. I am starting to believe that it’s the continuation of a trend, an inexorable decline in the film industry. Last year, I believed that all the nominated films were good, though none of them great. This year, I think my top two picks among the nominees are classics, but there are others that may not have been nominated in a better year. Some are out-and-out bad!

We may be witnessing a sea change where the best works are not being produced by traditional movie studios, but by upstarts like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Are less worthy projects and talents getting greenlighted today in Hollywood? I suspect that is the case.
For those of you who know my annual blog, you also know the drill: These are not my choices of the best films of 2017, nor are my predictions of who will win. This is how I rank this year’s Academy nominees, from worst to best, according to their innovation and uniquely cinematic quality. I often quote Roger Ebert’s single criterion: Which movie made me feel differently about film this year? That’s what I am looking at, and for the most part, I am underwhelmed.

It’s criminal that Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River received no recognition this year. Attribute that to the producer, that major persona non grata, Harvey Weinstein. Anything connected to him is cursed in Hollywood this year, maybe forever.

As director and screenwriter Sheridan showed in Hell or High Water, he is a master at many elements of cinematic storytelling. Here, a master tracker with the Fish and Wildlife Service (played with cool efficiency by Jeremy Renner) helps to investigate the murder of a young Native American woman in Alaska. As the story unravels, so does a tale of isolation, male dominance, cultural segregation, and, ultimately and hopefully, redemption. Well-acted throughout, a special shout out goes to Elizabeth Olsen, who gives a fine supporting performance as a law enforcement officer assigned to the case. (NOTE FOR LATER:  I felt much more connected to this theme of heartache over a young woman’s murder than I did months later with an ostensibly similar film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.)

9. The Phantom Thread — Mark Twain quipped that a classic book is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Same with some “prestige” films like The Phantom Thread — people feel they should see them, but most can’t sit through them. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread starts well enough as a handsomely detailed character study of 1950s London fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (stunningly played by Daniel Day-Lewis). The film shows Woodcock’s devotion to his craft, but with little room for anything or anyone else. Then enters Alma (Vicky Krieps), who eerily and without explanation becomes Galatea to Woodcock’s Pygmalion.  As we sit through Woodcock’s cakewalks, his personal quirks, and a murder plot that seems to come from another movie, the film eventually goes nowhere. The last cryptic shot of the film embodies the feelings of the audience with whom I shared this film: What was that about?

8. The Post —Director Steven Spielberg tells the story of how The Washington Post struggled to publish the Pentagon Papers, a classified document whose release helped end the Vietnam War. Meryl Streep gives a perfectly fine and nuanced performance as publisher Katherine Graham, though I never for a moment bought Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee. As a film about journalism, we get some cinematic flourishes, like close-ups of flashing phone buttons and trucking shots through a newsroom, spicing up an otherwise static story (this is Spielberg, after all). But I feel as though I saw this movie 40 years ago when All the President’s Men was released (which received a respectful nod in The Post’s final shot). Ultimately, The Post is much like eating your broccoli. Yes, it’s good for you and much more nutritious than other sugary fare. But it’s also not particularly interesting or very much fun.

7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri — If I could give an award for “most overrated film of the year,” this would win hands down. I admit that I liked Frances McDormand in a focused, flinty performance. Another underappreciated favorite of mine, Sam Rockwell, injects some semblance of subtlety into a role that is grossly overwritten (emphasis on gross, in view of the gratuitous homophobic violence he commits). Both performers deserved more than this hot mess of a script — a grab bag of melodramatic, cheap theatrics with no narrative cohesion. Also, I felt no connection with any of the film’s characters, which is inexcusable in a film about an unsolved rape & murder. It all leads to an opaque and equivocal ending that is less thought-provoking than it is a device for ending the film because the screenwriter had nothing left to say.  This may well win Best Picture, but I didn’t like it one bit.

6.  Darkest Hour — This could have turned out to be just one more account of how Winston Churchill singlehandedly dragged the U.K. by its collective lapels into World War II. But it turns out to be more. Directed crisply by Joe Wright (a tidy 89 minutes!), we first see Churchill’s late-life rise to power as Europe begins falling to Hitler’s lust for domination. Churchill stands alone as the leader who recognizes der Fuhrer’s threat, and we see how the Prime Minister rises, falls, and ultimately triumphs in guiding Britain to leadership. The film is ultimately driven by Gary Oldman’s bravura lead performance. (Please, let’s just hand this most respected actor the Oscar he has been denied so long.) The Book of Proverbs says that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Darkest Hour reminds us to thank our stars that Churchill arrived in time to promote a singular vision of a free world.

5. Call Me by Your Name — In its Italian pastoral setting, Luca Guadagnino’s film strikes a somnambulant tone that is sometimes too much (too little?) to bear. But look more closely to uncover its universal theme of longing and burgeoning adulthood in this story about Elio, a seventeen-year-old boy, and Oliver, a charismatic older man. In one of the most moving performances of the year, Timothée Chalamet conveys attraction, metamorphosed into love, only to lose that fleeting happiness to the realities of the world. Though the film is too languid for my tastes, there is no mistaking its tenderness, captured perfectly in the heartbreakingly long final shot. Special note: Watch actor Michael Stuhlberg performance in a poignant penultimate scene as Elio’s father. This fine actor is unrecognizable in The Post, The Shape of Water, even as Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo. Look for him in other films, if you can find him.

4. Lady Bird — More than another coming of age film, Lady Bird is a sweet memoir that felt as fresh to me as its title character, played by the wondrous Saoirse Rowan.  (How does this young Irish woman play American so well?) Rowan is supported ably by the rest of the cast, particularly Laurie Metcalf as her all-too-human mother, Tracy Letts as the supportive and understanding father, and Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan, the Catholic school principal.  (The good sister has one of the most poignant lines when she compliments Lady Bird on the fullness of her writing. The girl says, “I guess I pay attention.” Sister Sarah Joan responds, “Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”)  Likewise, Lady Bird flourishes under the attention of director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig, who shows us just how challenging it is to grow into adulthood. A familiar story told touchingly by the ascendant Gerwig.

3. The Shape of Water — Much to love in this magical movie about a mysterious, saturnine amphibious creature that is captured in a Cold War-era lab and subjected to a cruel study. The flawless design evokes both the time and the Silver Age of DC comics, which were awash in sci-fi settings. Sally Hawkins is luminous as Elisa Esposito, the mute cleaning woman who begins communicating with her fellow misfit. Though Director Guillermo del Toro weaves these elements into a unique vision, he goes astray in several ways: A fantasy dance sequence seems lifted from The Artist. A room flooded for a romantic encounter strains credulity, even for a fantasy. Add interspecies coitus, and this overly long (by at least 20 minutes) concoction turns…silly; no other word for it. Del Toro will likely win Best Director, and I agree he shows a gift for using film to create an otherworldly world. This movie would be at the top of my list if he had also shown some restraint.

2. Dunkirk — With 2007’s Atonement and this year’s Darkest Hour (both directed by Joe Wright, coincidentally), plus this epic by Christopher Nolan,  it appears the “miracle of Dunkirk” is getting new attention — a miracle because in May 1940, nearly 340,000 Allied forces were rescued from the French seaport of Dunkirk, mostly by civilian boats. (Had those troops perished, it is likely that the Nazis would have prevailed in World War II.) Dunkirk eschews the templates of previous war movies; rather than telling the story through characters, this movie places us directly in the bedlam of war, alternating between land, sea and air. Driven by highly credible re-creations of battle and anchored by powerful and compact performances, Dunkirk’s ultimate moral is how individuals can combine their forces to make a huge difference. Nolan makes large scale, larger-than-life filmmaking fashionable again.

1. Get Out — I have long admired comedian Jordan Peele’s witty takes and commentaries on race, violence, the National Football League, and other pertinent social issues as half of the Key and Peele TV show. But that insightful work didn’t prepare me for his jaw-dropping debut as a screenwriter and director in Get Out. With this film, he reinvents the horror genre in a way I would never imagine, injecting a social theme (specifically, race relations) into it, and it is not merely a perfunctory exercise. It is trenchant and powerful.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, an African American student and photographer, who is preparing to visit the home of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams of Girls, in an underrated performance). He asks if her parents know he is black; after all, he knows all too well the danger (or at least the discomfort) that lurks in such a situation. She assures him that all is okay. Instead, when Rose’s parents meet Chris, they are actually very accommodating, even a bit nervous. Overbearing, in fact. There are some patronizing comments from the dad, Dean Armitage (deliciously played by Bradley Whitfield). Example: “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could have.” Mother Missy (an eerie Catherine Keener) stays more in the background, making her formidable presence known later.

Eventually, we learn that Dean, Missy and all their friends have a keen interest in black people, but for a horrifying reason. Chris’s uncovering of that secret forms the ensuing plot of this clever and fast-moving film. But don’t be misled by the chase scenes and comic relief (the latter supplied mostly by comedian LilRel Howery in a hilarious turn as Chris’s friend, Rod, proud of his stature as a TSA agent). Peele makes pointed statements about how we as American people cannot talk to each other, and also how racism causes many people to devalue others. As an auteur, he is smart, insightful and resourceful. Most important to his filmmaking aspirations, Peele is also efficient and polished: Get Out is well paced, clocking in at just an hour and 44 minutes, certainly not bloated as many first films can be. And it is economical. The film was made for just $5 million, and having grossed more than $30 million, it is profitable several times over. That alone should boost Peele’s stock in Hollywood. I can’t wait to see what new projects will come his way as a result of this success. Same for Daniel Kaluuya; he is a revelation in his role as Chris, and he was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for his nuanced performance.

For its witty and perceptive screenplay, the integration of special effects, a uniformly high caliber of performances, and above all, its consistent vision of its theme, I see Get Out as the best film among the Oscar nominees this year.

On March 4, Oscar turns 90, and it is satisfying to see so much diversity behind the camera in many craft categories being honored this year. They are all well-deserved, adding a special touch to this year’s ceremony. I will be looking forward, past this year’s ceremony, toward the 2018 crop of films, hoping that they can raise the ante a little bit for next year’s ceremony.

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