And we are back for another decade of cinema history: the Best Pictures and box office rulers of the 1940s. Last installment was a dream for screenwriters, for it not only provided the looming presence of the Rise of Disney, but gave us a hero in Frontier Journalist and Vigilante Preacher Yancey Cravat, Attorney at Law, and a villain in C-grade Groucho Marx/Blackface Enthusiast Eddie Cantor. But as we leave the 30s behind us, it’s sadly time to say goodbye to impossibly noble Yancey, and thankfully also to Eddie.
You know, unless there’s a really good reason to bring them up.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the Golden Age of Hollywood was all about the producers. Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, that handsy son-of-a-bitch Louis B. Mayer, these were seen as the men behind the movie. Today, it’s the director who gets that acclaim, with the exception of Hollywood’s reigning king, Kevin Feige. Look at Argo. Did anyone make a fuss about the producers? No, and one of them was George goddamn Clooney. The possible first large exception to the producer being a bigger deal than the director came to Hollywood this decade, and we’ll talk about him very soon, but for now, it’s Goldwyn, Selznick, DeMille, and Mayer’s world.
What’s interesting to me about the 1940s is that black and white was still the default. Gone With the Wind was in full Technicolor, Wizard of Oz was mostly Technicolor, so obviously that was an option, but plenty of films we’re about to talk about, in this entry and the next one, were still black and white. I find this peculiar given how fast silent films dried up in the wake of The Jazz Singer. This blog series covers 166 films, and only three were silent: Wings in the late 20s, when sound was in its infancy; City Lights in the very early 30s, because Charlie Chaplin was loath to adapt with the times; and one in the 2010s of all damn places because someone thought it would be clever. But black and white stayed the standard for over a decade after Gone With the Wind.
(Yes I’m aware black and white film is still a thing but for good or ill it’s an aesthetic choice rather than a practical one, The Lighthouse wasn’t trying to save money.)
So while sound was an industry game-changer that every studio rushed to incorporate, the the 40s colour was more like 3D or IMAX now. Not every movie does them, fewer still use the right cameras the whole time, because that’s added expense, and you need to be sure you’re getting it back. The big tentpoles might shoot in 3D, or just get the post-production conversion, but your Get Outs and John Wicks, for example, do not.
So, if colour is only for the Big Shows, how would World War II and the post-war era treat cinematic tastes?
At least one very high high this decade, and a spectacular low, and they were the same year.
Okay, so, after ranking every best picture nominee for an entire decade, ranking this year’s crop should be easy, yeah?
Let’s see, gimmicks, gimmicks, what are this year’s gimmicks… well, let’s bring back some Out of Context Mulaneys, in protest of the fact that the Oscars have no host for a second year running when John Mulaney and Nick Kroll were an option…
…but in place of last year’s Hot Takes, I’m-a do something more positive. You see, a few of the better movies I saw last year didn’t get best picture nominations, which would mean I can’t talk about them in a Best Picture ranking blog… but I’m going to. I’m throwing in some “Things that got snubbed” sections. Plus one little question that kept coming up while watching these… in terms of rewatchability (not necessarily vital for a best picture, he said, nodding at 12 Years a Slave), how does this movie stack up to 2019’s most fascinating utter trainwreck? Simply put… Would I rather rewatch this or Cats?
It should have been a much easier bar to clear.
The Basics: Frank Sheeran has a long, long career with the mob, during which he had a close friendship with union leader Jimmy Hoffa… right up until Hoffa and the mob’s relationship sours. And then there’s still about 45 minutes of movie left as he gets old and contemplates mortality. Damn this movie’s long.
Here’s what you need to know about The Irishman. Two hours and forty minutes in, the central character and two others go to pick Jimmy Hoffa up for a drive because the mob has decided he has to go. The back seat of the car is damp because Hoffa’s son had transported a fish earlier, but didn’t know what kind it was. They discuss this for about five minutes. It should be a turning point of the movie but we’re talking about this fish for way longer than is warranted.
Every scene is like that.
This movie is easily an hour too long, and I know this because nearly every scene feels padded. A screenwriter was never told to reign in the filler dialogue, Martin Scorcese was obviously never told to bring down the run time. It’s languidly paced, overly indulgent in its bland dialogue riffs, it somehow feels longer than it is, and while the CG effects can make Robert Deniro’s face look younger, they skipped his hands and arms and it cannot make him walk or move like he isn’t over 70… there are elements of Scorcese’s better works in here but it’s all too long and too slow. About two hours in I was desperate for a cat to pop in and sing about how much he loves trains for seven minutes.
There’s a recurring bit where the film introduces characters, then pauses for a caption explaining how they died. In all but two cases, they died violently in 1979 or 1980, and I eventually kept thinking… where’s that movie? Clearly some shit went down between ’79 and ’80, and it sounds way more interesting than what we’re actually watching.
At least this year’s faux-Scorcese movie was faster and more eventful.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I could rewatch Cats twice in the amount of time it takes to watch The Irishman, and I goddamn would.
Snubbed: So Get Out gets a bunch of Oscar nominations but Us gets ignored? It’s like that, Academy? Mm-hm. So noted.
8. Worse Taxi Driver
The Basics: Arthur Fleck suffers from a variety of mental illnesses, but dreams of being a comedian. The world treats him poorly, however, and he eventually finds that hitting back is the one thing that grants him true satisfaction… setting him on a road to becoming Gotham’s greatest villain. Or he made the whole thing up, I don’t know, it’s not entirely clear. If you’re going to go the “unreliable narrator” route, you should have some visual storytelling tricks up your sleeve to help sell it.
It’s… fine, in places. It’s gorgeously shot, very well acted… but it’s… it’s a souffle. It’s a bunch of pretty cinematography and good performance fluffed up with “This Is Important” music beats and Scorcese references so that it looks filling but is mostly just air. You can’t dissect it, because there’s nothing to it. Like a souffle, it will collapse if you poke at it. So instead of trying to pick it apart, here is a brief list of movies I saw in 2019 that I think deserve a best picture nominee more than this… Knives Out. Dolemite Is My Name. Rocketman.John Wick: Chapter Three Parabellum. Shazam! Yeah I said it, Joker wasn’t even the best DC Comics movie of 2019. Movies I’m assured I would think deserve the nomination more: Uncut Gems. The Lighthouse. Booksmart.The Farewell, apparently?
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats?You know what, there are stretches of both movies where I think “This is the fever dream of a madman and nothing is happening for a reason,” stretches where I think “Why didn’t society stop this scene from happening,” and moments where I think “This bit’s actually okay if you don’t think about it much or at all.” Sure Cats leans more often into full-blown nightmare territory, so if I could replace Joker dancing down the stairs to Rock and Roll Part 2 (I’m not kidding, that was a weird choice that they definitely made) with Skimbleshanks*, it’d be Joker, but as it is… well, it depends a little on mood, but odds favour us grabbing a bottle of Jameson’s and watching Ian McKellan go HAM on a bowl of milk.
*The Railway Cat.**
**The Cat of the Raaaaiiiilwaaaaay Traaaaaiiiiiin
Snubbed: That Todd Philips has an Oscar nomination for this mediocrity and Greta Gerwig doesn’t for her sublime work on Little Women is a travesty. Her framing, sense of timing, visual storytelling, use of colour palette and saturation, and ability to create divine, beautiful chaos out of the four March sisters talking all over each other speak to a gift for directing that a bargain-bin Scorcese simulacrum just doesn’t.
7. Fast and Furious: Origins
The Basics: Lee Iacocca convinces Henry Ford Jr. that to end a sales slump, Ford Motors needs to win Le Mans, the world’s most prestigious race, one typically dominated by Enzo Ferrari. And so former champion driver Carroll Shelby and current low-tier, non-professional champion driver Ken Miles set out to build Ford a car that can bring down Ferrari… if only those damn suits would get out of their way.
This one hadn’t been getting much buzz, but it seemed right in the wheelhouse of voters who gave the top prize to Green Book, so I liked its odds.
This is a solid little movie, anchored around strong performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Sure asking us to see Ford Motors as a scrappy underdog is a bit of a stretch, but they get around that by making the actual scrappy underdogs Shelby (Damon) and Miles (Bale), whose attempts to win Le Mans for Ford are constantly held back by interference from a weaselly VP played by A-grade (if C-list) weasel character actor Less Likeable Aaron Eckhart Josh Lucas. Which… the whole “men of action held back by the suits at corporate” is a little paint-by-numbers, even if it is accurate.
Bale and Damon and are good, the racing scenes are very well done… but when actual “great” is on the table, “good” ends up back here, a notch over “fine.”
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I’d probably pick this one, unless I was in a mood for copious whiskey and self-destruction.
Snubbed: Imagine if The Disaster Artist was about making a movie that, while low budget and cheesy as all hell, people legitimately enjoyed and were proud to work on. Imagine if the attempt to make this weird, low-budget, ridiculous movie was actually uplifting and moving while also really funny to watch. That, friends, is Dolemite is My Name. Eddie Murphy plays comedian and “godfather of rap” Rudy Ray Moore, depicting how he rose to comedy stardom via his Dolemite character, and his attempts to forge his own Hollywood career by self-financing a Dolemite movie. I don’t necessarily want to be the guy shouting “The Academy doesn’t care about black people,” but Eddie Murphy shines in what’s probably the year’s best biopic which is also about movies, which they normally love, and yet nothing, so…
I guess you can’t be a movie about black people and on a streaming service and get award love.
6. Oscar Season’s Most Ironic Title
The Basics: Actress Nicole and director Charlie were married, and collaborators in Charlie’s beloved Brooklyn theatre company, but the marriage has ended. A process complicated by the fact that Nicole wants to move back to LA to get back into film and television (and landed a lead role in a pilot to help make that happen), Charlie thinks they’re a New York family and expects everyone to keep living there divorced or not, and their son can’t live in both places at once. Throw in some lawyers who see the divorce proceedings as a battle to be won, and what had been a sad but amicable split turns vicious.
Noah Baumbach has created a moving story here, with amazing performances from Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver as the collapsing couple, and Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as the various lawyers brought in to the process. Baumbach also does a great job of showing both sides… we see how Charlie can be self-centred and how Nicole is fed up with being just an extension of his ambitions; we also see how Charlie feels ambushed when the divorce process turns into a vicious street fight over custody, and it seems like Nicole has been laying groundwork for this fight for weeks, engineering the process to force him to choose between his life and career in New York and actually getting to see his son ever. And while it’s an inherently sad story, it’s also funny in places, mostly thanks to the lawyers. I also love that Baumbach trusted his cast enough to go with some long takes, really let the monologues play out, rather than fill scenes with quick cuts. It’s a very well done and engaging character piece that only occasionally made me worry one of these people would be dead before it was over. (Maybe one of them is, I ain’t telling.)
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Whoof. Hard to say. Marriage Story is demonstrably better but was a rough ride in places. Not “Aaaah no why is Judi Dench singing right at me about cats not being dogs” rough, no, but still…
Snubbed: You know what else is a perfectly crafted piece of filmmaking? Knives Out. A whodunnit with multiple perfectly executed twists, a stellar cast, and every-frame-a-painting direction from writer Rian Johnson. And the twists are honest: the clues are all there if you can piece them together. It’s an original mystery in every sense that revels in the classic tropes, subverts whichever ones it feels like, and is even more satisfying the second time. Knives Out was a treasure of a movie, and while I’m sure it’ll lose Original Screenplay to Quentin Tarantino, I’m just glad that it exists. See it immediately. Find a way.
5. Obligatory Hollywood Handjob Movie
The Basics: Another character study that, in its closing act, ventures into Tarantino’s historical-revenge-fantasy territory. Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) used to be big in television and movies, but times are changing. Rick’s gone from leading man to special guest star villain-of-the-week, and Cliff’s barely getting by as Rick’s driver and general assistant, since some… allegations about his past have made it tricky to get work. Also that time he picked a fight with Bruce Lee. Rick’s trying to hold his career together, Cliff’s trying to put a calm face on a lot of anger and frustration… and they and their famous neighbour Sharon Tate are on a collision course with a cult that’s taken up residence in an abandoned backlot, a cult following one Charlie Manson.
They say that the Manson Family murders, most notably Sharon Tate, were the end of an era for Hollywood, an era that’s clearly one of Tarantino’s favourites given this lavish tribute to it… but does it really need a historical revenge flick as much as slavery or the holocaust? No, obviously not, but that’s not a big problem. The bulk of the movie is two men facing the end of an era, and wondering where if anywhere they fit in what’s to come, and that works very well. Both DiCaprio and Pitt are excellent, Cliff’s run-in with the Manson Family (answering in Charlie’s absence to Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme) is perfectly tense. The movie takes some flak for not really giving Margot Robbie all that much to do as Sharon Tate, but she accomplishes her most important task… make Tate seem lovable enough that her fate matters, and the climax has some stakes to it. We don’t need to be told why slavery is bad* and Django is right to get all Unchained on it, but while every death is a tragedy, “Doesn’t it suck that someone murdered Sharon Tate” needed a little push.
Just a couple notes… why did Quentin think Bruce Lee needed to be taken down a notch; I get that this particular Manson girl is using her sexuality to honeytrap possible rides around town and/or recruits for the family, but once you tell us she’s a minor it’s very uncomfortable how aggressively horny the camerawork around her is; and wow Tarantino was filming feet like it was his last chance to do it this time, I mean even for Tarantino it was just a lot.
Still… good flick overall. It might win and you know what, fine, whatever, that is very Oscars.
*Well, most of us… well, some of us… less than I’d like.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Given how much my opinion of this film improved after I let it marinate in my brain for a while, I’d like to give it a second watch at some point.
Snubbed: I have not seen Hustlers or The Farewell so I can’t speak to their exclusion from the awards, but if you’re looking for POC who deserved acting nominations, Dolemite is My Name (yeah we’re back on that one) has some obvious picks. Eddie Murphy was great as Rudy Ray Moore, sure, but Da’Vine Joy Randolph also brought a lot of heart to the movie as Lady Reed, a single mother that Rudy makes his partner in comedy. She, above even Rudy Ray himself, sells why making Dolemite was such a worthy endeavour… “I’m so grateful for what you did for me, cause I’d never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” Inclusion matters. Also Wesley Snipes gives probably his best performance in… I want to say over twenty years.
4. The Help 2: The Revenge
We are now into “Any of these would make a good Best Picture choice” territory.
The Basics: In South Korea, a poor family gradually infiltrates the lives of a wealthy family through a series of forged identities and grifts, figuring “Why eat the rich like a lion when you can just subtly feed off their resources like a tapeworm.” Hence the title. And just when you’re thinking “Hey, maybe this is gonna work out,” things take a turn. But not the one you’d expect.
Am I the only one who gets the song “Parasite” by 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy bandthe Guys Next Door stuck in my head when I hear this title?
Am I the only one who’s actually heard of 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door?
Because the song in general is a bit of an up-tempo incel anthem but the chorus is weirdly somewhat germane to this–stop talking about 90s Saturday morning sketch troupe/boy band the Guys Next Door now? Yeah, you bet.
So. Parasite. First, I refuse to allow the fact that my inability to parse other languages keep me from praising the cast, who deliver a bunch of compelling characters that, for the first half to two thirds of the movie, make it hard to say that either the rich or poor characters are inherently good or bad. Anxiety-ridden wealthy mother Park Yeon-kyo is just as interesting as grifter patriarch Kim Ki-taek. Although if I had to pick a favourite… the cool, commanding confidence that actress Park So-dam brings to Ki-taek’s daughter Kim Ki-jung makes her my new favourite con artist this side of the Ocean siblings.
And it all goes chaotic and it’s still great.
It’s very clever, and juxtaposes the lives of the rich and poor in a really effective way (the two families experience very different inconveniences during a torrential rainfall). There are elements of good con movies, farces, and suspense thrillers here. Absolutely worth your time.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? This times fifty.
Snubbed? What the hell did they have against Frozen 2? I mean I don’t want to complain about lesser-known animated films getting a nod, but if the third (fourth? I lost count) How to Train Your Dragon was good enough, why not the return of Elsa, Anna, and company? It was emotional, funny, inventive, and delightfully anti-imperialist. Even if you could kind of see the seams from where “Let’s give Elsa a girlfriend” was yanked out of the story.
3. A Walk to Remember
The Basics: In spring of 1917, two British soldiers are tasked with crossing No Man’s Land to deliver orders calling off an impending attack before the battalion (including one of the soldiers’ older brother) charges into a German trap and is slaughtered. It does not go smoothly.
Anyone who’s read my choices for Best Fight Scene in the annual comic TV awards knows I love a good long shot. So an entire movie crafted to imitate a single, unbroken shot? That has my attention. It’s not a new gimmick, it was done as recently as Birdman, but 1917 doesn’t have any of Birdman’s fantasy elements or unreliable narration or time jumps (okay, one time jump) to give us distance from what’s happening. What we have is a (mostly) real-time trek through the horrors of No Man’s Land that manages a perfect amount of tension, only somewhat broken by the quintet of Notable British Actors doing cameos along the way (also Mr. Young from Good Omens). Every swing of the camera (and the camera movement alone is masterful) seems to reveal some new terror, either a horror that was or a menace yet to come. George MacKay does a perfect job conveying how the weight of everything he sees and experiences during the mission is gradually crushing him, until all that’s left of him is the need to see the mission through, an ember of duty glowing in eyes deadened by trauma. It’s an incredible, gripping ride on top of being an amazing achievement in technical film making.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? I mean… it’s bound to be less tense now that I know exactly what happens to who and when and how hard, like how no rewatch of The Fugitive ever matched that first time when it felt like I’d been holding my breath for two straight hours, but I might want to give it a second look just to appreciate the technical skill of the staging and camerawork. And that’s not something I’ve ever said about a Tom “Digital Fur Technology” Hooper film.
Snubbed: With Bombshell,the screenwriter ofprevious best picture nominee The Big Short tackles another infamous scandal… the sexual harassment accusations that managed to dethrone the head of the anti-feminist right-wing-propaganda engine Fox News. Sure it’s not as narratively clever as The Big Short or its director’s follow-up Vice, both of which used fourth wall breaks and meta-elements as a chocolate coating for their difficult messages… moreso Big Short, which was the best of the three… maybe director Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph work better together than apart on this subject matter, I don’t know. McKay seemed to have a livelier style withThe Big Short and Vice than Jay Roach, the director of the Austin Powers trilogy, does here. Still, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and Kate McKinnon are quite powerful, and it’s very engaging… another year I might say “Sure, I can see not nominating it for best picture,” but… [gestures emphatically at the bottom of the list]
2. The One Where Women Have Thoughts and Feelings and Also Dialogue
The Basics: In case I’m not the only one who didn’t read the book… At the tail end of the US Civil War, the four March sisters juggle their dreams, responsibilities, and the harsh sting of reality. Jo wants to be a writer, Amy wants to marry rich, Meg wants love and family but would also love not to be poor, and Beth just wants to do right by the world and maybe play the piano when she can. And their rich neighbour Laurie just wants to be part of the gang… especially if it gets him closer to Jo. Things go bad, things go well, and it’s all so delightful.
Elephant in the room… at this point if Greta Gerwig were directing Cats 2: Way More Creepy Milk Parties and cast Saoirse Ronan in the lead I’d be there opening night.
Gerwig has written a superb adaptation of a classic novel, cutting back and forth between past and future (well, slightly more recent past, to us), and giving Jo an incredible new ending that I don’t want to spoil. The young cast playing the four sisters are all so good that I occasionally forget that Meryl Streep is also in this movie. Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep all came to play, but Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen still own every scene… fine, also Timothée Chalamet. The four sisters bounce off each other magnificently, their individual arcs are all touching in different ways… this movie is a delight.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? Not even a choice. Not even Skimbleshanks (who, you might recall, is The Railway Cat, which is to say The Cat of The Railway Trains) can compete with this one.
Snubbed: Look. Obviously a lot of people, including every award show, seriously overvalued Bohemian Rhapsody last year. No question. That paint-by-numbers toothless biopic hit every worn-out trope of the genre you could name, we all know that now. But Rocketman didn’t deserve the bill for that. Rocketman, a warts-and-all biography of Elton John, succeeds in every way that Bohemian Rhapsody fell flat. It’s visually gorgeous, uses Elton’s hits to turn the story into a musical rather than a way to pad a soundtrack; has a much better framing device than “Don’t you know that before he sings, Dewey Cox Freddie Mercury has to remember his entire life?” as Elton tells his story to a support group, gradually stripping away the glitz and glamour of Elton until all that’s left is a man grappling with his pain; star Taron Egerton actually sings and sings well (Rami Malek’s big clip for last year’s ceremony was a scene of him lip syncing, what the hell); and the movie has a gripping central theme. To paraphrase The End of the F***ing World… when a person is raised without love, they don’t know what it looks like… and that makes them easy to trick. Elton is chasing the love that he’s never known, and in its place he finds a lot of bad choices, and it can be heartbreaking to watch.
1. Calvin and Hitler
The Basics: It’s 1945 in Berlin, and young Johann, Jojo to his mother and one close friend, is excited for his first day in the Nazi Youth, with hopes of making it into Hitler’s personal guard and being best friends… just like he is with his imaginary friend Hitler (writer/director Taika Waititi). But when a… mishap with a grenade demotes him to poster duty, his loving mother tries to nudge him away from Nazi life… just in time for him to discover there’s a Jewish girl secretly living in their walls. Jojo and Imaginary Hitler are in quite the pickle, and it’s hilarious right until it very much isn’t, it’s incredibly moving and I’m mad that I’m not watching it right now.
Jojo Rabbit is basically perfect. As a satire of the Nazis and other dictatorships, it’s spot-on, insightful, and hilarious. Taika Waiti expertly juggles amazing comedy, genuine suspense, powerful emotions, and perfectly shoots the scene where young Jojo meets his secret houseguest like a horror movie. Also the cast is phenomenal, from leads Roman Griffith Davies and Thomasin McKenzie, to Scarlett Johansson killing it as Jojo’s kindhearted but energetic mother, Sam Rockwell’s hilarious turn as the one Nazi soldier who seems to know he’s on the losing side (strategically and, perhaps, morally), Stephen Merchant’s simultaneously funny and terrifying appearance as an SS agent, and Taika Waititi’s amazing work as Imaginary Hitler. It’s great, it’s just great, I could watch this one over and over, I love it so much.
Would I rather rewatch this or Cats? If I’ve pulled out the Jojo Rabbit Blu-ray I will inevitably own, and you say “Or we could watch Cats instead,” I’ll punch you in your face. Well, no, but I’d be real tempted. I’m definitely not giving you any of the good whiskey.
Snubbed: I got so spun up about Greta Gerwig getting snubbed for best director, it took me all that morning to notice that Taika Waititi didn’t get nominated either, and that is also a shame. Jojo Rabbit is phenomenally put together. There is more artistry in the scene were Jojo discovers his houseguest than all of Joker put together.
So that’s the rankings for this year. Once again, my personal favourite is unlikely to take the top trophy, but I guess I’m just more into new, different, and interesting movies than the Academy. Also I like female directors and dislike “Yay for this white dude from history” biopics and for some reason the Academy just won’t get on board with the former or give up the latter.
It’s disappointing that my Big Annual Event Thing that I get excited about the way other people get excited about sports has to have such a narrow idea of what Good Film looks like, but…
The Oscars are just around the corner, and despite deep flaws in their voting board and a long, storied history of blown calls, they remain my Superbowl. They’ve once again rolled out nine films they’ve nominated as best of the year, once again I have some quibbles, but not on the same level as, say, last year.
Once again, I’ve seen them all (only partially so you don’t have to), and once again I’m here to rank them for you, say if they’re worth your time, and whether or not I think they’d even exist without Oscar season.
Enough intro. Lots to cover. Allons-y, Alonso.
I kid, I kid, the only thing this and last year’s winner have in common is gay youths finding their chosen loves difficult to pursue. I mean, that’s all they can have in common. Turns out that being gay, like everything on this Earth save for pulling off cornrows, is way easier when you’re rich and white rather than poor and black. So if this isn’t Moonlight, what is it?
In the early 80s Elio, his father the American professor (Oscar Season 2017 MVP Michael Stuhlbarg) and his French (Italian? Both?) mother, are spending the summer at the family’s villa in small-town Italy. When his father’s summer research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), arrives… eh, describing it in detail bores me. They don’t like each other, but that’s because they do like each other and this isn’t the easiest time to be gay, even in Europe, and then eventually they bang until the summer ends. There are a lot of pretty shots of the lush Italian countryside and a heartfelt speech from Stuhlbarg near the end, but that’s basically it. It’s a well-acted, prettily shot, but paint-by-numbers star-crossed romance flick that happens to have arrived at a time when doing a movie like this about two men is no longer so scandalous that it would earn an X rating and be banished to the back shelves of independent video stores, but not so commonplace that it doesn’t garner attention.
And frankly… it’s slow and a little dull. The stakes are low, the editing is self-indulgent, the whole thing is at least half an hour longer than it needs to be, the ending is soft (the only other thing it has in common with Moonlight)… it’s not great. Not, I would argue, Oscar calibre. I can think of several movies from last year that deserved the nomination more… The Big Sick, The Greatest Showman, and even War for the Planet of the Apes off the top of my head.
And as to the title… as pillow talk, Oliver says to Elio “Call me by your name… and I’ll call you by mine.” And Elio goes for it, instead of saying “Those are terrible codenames, everyone will see right through them” or the more simplistic “What? Why?” Naming the book/movie after this one doofy moment is like calling the first X-Men movie “What Happens to a Toad When It Gets Struck by Lightning,” or calling Age of Ultron “Avengers: Thor’s Magical Spa Day.”
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I doubt it? Not my usual thing. Glad you did? I’m not upset that I watched it, but… before long, I will forget it, and its absence in my memory will leave no hole.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? There’s every chance. Oscars How White? Rich people in rural Italy in the 80s. If this movie were any more white it would be an albino.
8. That Other Time Fighting Nazis Was Somehow a Controversy
Darkest Hour focuses on the rocky first month of Winston Churchill’s first stint as Prime Minister of Great Britain, from when Neville Chamberlain resigned as PM due to the opposition parties’ unwillingness to form a coalition with the architect of the appeasement policy, to the day of Operation Dynamo, the civilian-aided evacuation of the British forces from Dunkirk. During this time, Churchill tried to rally his country for war against Hitler, while facing pressure from Chamberlain and his first choice of successor, Viscount Halifax, to instead negotiate peace.
Chamberlain valued peace. He didn’t want his country in a second world war. Any other time in history, that might have been admirable. As it stands, his legacy is to be a historical cautionary tale, and to be one of the antagonists in a movie about his successor.
Gary Oldman is nigh-unrecognizable as Churchill, and he gives his usual great performance, so it has that going for it. But that’s kind of the problem. It feels like it exists as a “Great man in his most noble moment” Oscar-bait biopic and that is a genre I feel needs to die. There isn’t a lot of tension nor engaging material in watching Churchill attempt to keep his position and motivate the government to stay in the war. Movies about “that guy you’ve heard of is just as great as you’ve been told, and here’s an actor trolling for an Oscar playing him” just feel a little… empty.
Also I can’t watch this sort of biopic and not wonder how hard they’re working to make the adversaries worse than they need to be. Chamberlain isn’t done many favours (that he was dying and just wanted to see his nation at peace before the end is a little sympathetic?), but Halifax? With his angry glowers, unflattering hair, and Elmer Fudd speech impediment (which might be historically accurate, I don’t know), he is played as a straight-up villain. He didn’t want to be at war with Germany because they’d just watched all of western Europe be conquered at alarming speed, and he didn’t want England to be next. Sure it was the wrong call, we all know that now, obviously there’s no way to depict “Let’s negotiate with Hitler” positively, I’m just saying that maybe history is judging them enough and they didn’t need to play Halifax like he murders puppies when he gets home.
Parliment is well-shot, though.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Maybe? I do like Gary Oldman. Glad you did? Eh.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? This movie reeks of “Win Gary Oldman an Oscar.” Oscars How White? There’s a black guy in a pivotal scene in the London underground. He gets lines and a name and everything. Which sounds like a goddamn pittance but puts this one in the top half, diversity-wise.
7. Obsessive Compulsive Vs. Passive Aggressive: A Love Story
Phantom MenaceTollbooth Thread is the story of a waitress named Alma, who encounters a famous dress-maker named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he’s claiming is his retirement performance). Some would say Woodcock is the central character. I dispute that assertion. Anyway, Woodcock asks Alma to be his live-in model, she falls in love with him, buuuut…
See, in their very first interactions, Woodcock makes it abundantly clear that he is extremely controlling. Sure, at first he does it with a smile on his face and a song in his heart but still. Shortly thereafter, he also makes it abundantly clear that his routines and his work will always take precedence over the happiness, comfort, or any feelings of those around him, save possibly for Cyril, his razor-tongued sister and business partner. But despite his cold-to-the-point-of-cruel reactions to any kind gesture Alma makes that even remotely disturbs his work or habits, she is determined to be allowed to love him and be loved back on her terms.
Also I get the feeling he’s supposed to be gay. When she asks him why he never married, he gives the following responses:
“I make dresses.”
“I’m a confirmed bachelor. Incurable.”
“Marrying would be deceitful.”
At least one of those is old-timey-Hollywood code for “homosexual.”
But that ultimately doesn’t matter to the story. The point is, she wants to be a partner, but he’s determined to treat her like an accessory, and their various dysfunctions go to quiet, bitchy war.
This one gets tons of hype behind it, because Paul Thomas Anderson is a known quantity for quality films and Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t get out of bed if there’s not an Oscar nomination in it for him, but it’s… just pretty okay. I didn’t see anything that special in it. Also, Day-Lewis will not be getting one last Oscar. His performance is good, but subtle. The Academy doesn’t have a track record of rewarding subtlety, especially not when “Bombastic, in a biopic, with a lot of facial prosthetics” is on the table.
Also… I know there is nothing to this, but… the director’s name is two letters away from the auteur of the implausibly successful Resident Evil movies, Uwe Boll thinks they stole his poster design for Bloodrayne, and the male lead shares a penis-joke of a name with a failed and terrible-looking Billy Bob Thornton comedy. All of that is meaningless but it’s a weird confluence of shit cinema surrounding a prestige picture.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Doubtful. Glad you did? The ending was actually pretty neat, but it was a long road to get there.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis do not work together for other reasons. Oscars How White? Like the driven goddamn snow.
6. Remember Journalism? Man. Those were the days.
Jebas, the cast on this thing. Even aside from Streep and Hanks, nearly every frame had someone I know and like from somewhere. Alison Brie, Zach Woods, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford, Fat Matt Damon Jesse Plemons… David Cross and Bob Odenkirk? Big year for sketch comics doing prestige pics. But it is a Spielberg picture. People show up for Spielberg.
Meryl Streep is Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Tom Hanks is her editor-in-chief, who’s eager to publish the leaked Pentagon Papers which revealed damaging secrets about America’s involvement in Vietnam. A masterful director and solid cast tackling a topic of depressing relevance: the responsibility of news media to hold the government accountable. But as legendary and Oscar-attracting as Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep are… this isn’t really any of their best work. I mean, even Spielberg’s B-game is pretty watchable, but this one is likely to get shut out and not for no reason.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I’d have gotten to it. Glad you did? Yep.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? You know at this point I think Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks just do whatever they want and if it gets Oscars, it gets Oscars. Oscars How White? Couple of black women in the crowd scenes. Jesus. This is a white-ass year.
5. Worst Layover Ever
The British army, in full retreat from the Nazis, find themselves trapped on a beach in Dunkirk, waiting for a miracle, while a massive fleet of civilian craft sailed in an attempt to rescue the troops before the panzers arrived. Christopher Nolan tells the story through three perspectives, each with a different time frame: the men in Dunkirk (primarily Tommy, who is particularly eager to get away), which covers a week; one of the boats heading for Dunkirk, and a rescued sailor quite determined not to go back to Dunkirk, which covers a day; and one air force pilot (Tom Hardy, doing some intense but silent eye-acting for most of his screentime) desperately trying to keep the German bombers from sinking the rescue ships, which covers an hour.
The various, non-synced timelines mean we encounter a few key moments from multiple perspectives, but if you’re paying attention it’s not hard to follow. Actually kind of cool realizing that the “sea” plot has caught up to “air” and whatnot.
It’s super tense, well done, and there are some solid performances throughout. I just ultimately liked a few others more.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I never miss a Nolan movie except Interstellar for some reason. Glad you did? Yeppers.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? The Oscars have taught Nolan to make movies for other reasons. Oscars How White? White chocolate dipped in vanilla. Come on, man, there had to be people of colour in that army. They had an empire.
4. Awful People Trying to Do Good, also Explosions
You’ve heard of this one. Grieving mother Mildred (Frances McDormand, who makes the character a force of nature), filled with anger that her daughter’s killer hasn’t been caught yet, rents out three billboards to shame the local police chief (Woody Harrelson), angering many in the town. None more so than Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who has problems with anger. And alcohol. And racism. And basic human empathy. He’s a mean drunk with a badge.
Writer/director Martin McDonagh is pretty good at throwing together deeply flawed people and getting a pretty solid story out of them (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). The central theme this time around is that people in pain lash out. Mildred lashes out at the police (and others), Dixon lashes out at her, her billboards, and anyone connected to them. Also it’s made clear he does this a lot.
That, then, is the centre of the Three Billboards backlash: the redemption arc for the violent, racist, drunk cop. Because I guess people would rather that bad people stay bad people? I mean the point, right, the point of his arc is not that “Sure he’s a racist, violent thug of a cop, but that doesn’t mean he’s all bad.” The first step of his redemption is realizing, with a push from the chief, that he is a bad person now, but he doesn’t have to stay that way. Woody Harrelson delivers a beautiful speech, the central thesis of which is “Hate never solved nothing, but calm did.” Or as The Doctor put it… “Hate is always foolish, and love is always wise.”
Because a topic the film tackles, one that I am just now seeing, actually, is that perhaps the line between justice and revenge is love and forgiveness. The chief gives Dixon the push, but an act of forgiveness that he had not earned makes sure the push takes. Whereas Mildred’s rage just brings more destruction.
There are a lot of layers here. A lot to unpack. Which is why it ranks higher than the others: sometimes I’d rather my best picture nominees start a conversation rather than just say “Wasn’t Churchill great,” or “There was a time when Stephen Hawking was bangable.” Also it’s got a great cast bringing their respective A-games.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I had every intention. Glad you did? Indeedy.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? This is the first real Oscar buzz McDonagh’s gotten, so I imagine so. Oscars How White? Just “Mostly.”
3. None Suffer Like White Drama Kids
A coming of age tale set in Sacramento, California, Lady Bird is about a teen girl (Saoirse Ronan, earning the crap out of her third Oscar nomination) on the verge of college trying to find an identity outside of her parents. Her family’s poor, her mother is passive aggressive, controlling, and short on kindness, so she tries to break away. By changing her name to Lady Bird, dating boys (with a few variations of failure on that score), getting into drama (though not exactly landing any leads), trying to trade up friend groups, and eyeing school in New York, waaaaaay away from home, which her parents do not love.
Do I have anything in common with Lady Bird? No. Well, mostly no. I was a drama kid and there was a hot minute in grade, I wanna say three, when I thought I wanted my name to be Robert instead of Dan. Then my dad called me “Robert” to play along and it felt weird and I never brought it up again. I lacked Lady Bird’s commitment to reinvention. Where was I? Right. I’m not much like Lady Bird, but I surely connected with her more than that stoner punk from Boyhood. It’s a film rich in charm, wit, and emotion, with outstanding performances from Ronan and Laurie Metcalf (poor woman, stuck doing the Trump Apologist Roseanne Reunion). I quite adored this movie.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Look, she may have had to do an American accent, but if Saoirse Ronan is involved I’m probably gonna show up. She is concentrated adorable. Glad you did? Oh my yes.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Yes, but the studio would have buried it and we’d be poorer for not knowing it exists. Oscars How White? A few people of colour in significant supporting roles. So, “Very.” Very white.
Elisa, a mute woman working as a cleaner at a government lab, encounters their latest discovery: a fish man brought up from the Amazon. She and the fish man grow attached to each other, but the head agent is more interested in torturing and vivisecting him to see if they can find something to help with the space race. Elisa, her friends, and a surprising ally scheme to liberate Fishy.
Also Elisa wants to tap that amphibian ass.
Guillermo Del Toro directed one hell of a romance adventure here. Visually it’s great, the cast is outstanding, and it’s subtly subversive. Well, maybe not that subtle. I’ll explain. Who are the heroes? A mute, a black woman, an older gay man, and a communist. Outsiders. The marginalized. Who’s the villain? A personification of white US-style patriarchy and intolerance. People who find something miraculous and want to tear it apart to see how it works. People who see outsiders and think of them as “less than.” It makes the case that pretty is no substitute for kind.
Quite delightful, this one.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Sure would. Looked fun, was fun. Glad you did? Darn tootin’.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Nothing about this screams “Oscars” at all. Quality won out over Oscar bait box-checking. Oscars How White? Octavia Spencer has the largest role for a person of colour in eight out of nine best picture nominees, but pretty damn white. The fish-man counts as “white,” ’cause the actor is white.
1. White People are Horror Monsters, Literally This Time
A horror movie directed by a sketch comedian with black protagonists is a serious Oscar contender? Is this real life?
Whoo boy this one was a ride. Tense, creepy as all get-out, Jordan Peele in his directorial debut nailed racial awkwardness as horror fodder. See, it’s not that the villains are stereotypically racist. They don’t hate black people. They seem to even admire them. But that doesn’t make them good people, that doesn’t make them good at dealing with race. They still try to claim ownership of black bodies. The whole situation is demonstrably uncomfortable even before the really creepy part kicks in. It’s like it’s calling out white liberals, saying “Hey, you’re not as woke as you think.”
And man is that the horror movie America needs, since it turns out a huge swath of the country was so mad about eight years of a black president that they would elect an incompetent orangutan to the White House if it meant undoing Obama’s legacy. [spoiler title=’You probably know this but just in case…’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]And because so many white viewers can’t process that Allison Williams’ character is indeed just as much of a monster as she seems. No she’s not mind controlled, no she’s not a victim, she harvests black bodies and keeps trophies, that is some evil right there.[/spoiler] When people show you who they are, believe them. Otherwise you end up married to mentally abusive dressmakers. FULL CIRCLE! BOOM! … Crap, Phantom Thread was number seven. Less of a circle and more of a spiral. Damn it.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I did. I did watch it without Oscar nominations. Glad you did? Surely am.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? A black-led horror movie released in February? They can’t have thought Oscars were on the table. Oscars How White? Only, like, half white! And the good guys are both black!
…Not the best year. Nothing was Fences bad, but nothing was Spotlight good, either. The prestige picture industry was so off their game that a horror film and a fantasy romance snuck onto the shortlist.
Also a really damn white year. Get Out and Black Panther are not swinging that pendulum as fast as you’d like.
The Oscars are almost upon us. Once again, my friend Daisy and I have striven to watch all of the best picture nominees so that you don’t have to. And once again, it’s taken way longer than we’d like to manage it. So without further ado, let’s rank some nominees. And say whether I’d have bothered watching them without a nomination. Or if it even would have been made if it weren’t fishing for awards (by way of a for instance, The King’s Speech, Theory of Everything, and Imitation Game seem to have no purpose outside of Oscar season). And what actors from superhero or equivalent projects are in them.
I guess there was a little ado left after all.
9. Denzel Washington Won’t Shut Up
I’m-a spoil this movie because it’s bad and you shouldn’t watch it.
You don’t need to be told that this movie is based on a play. Denzel Washington’s direction is only a step or two removed from just filming a stage performance. Anyway, apparently Denzel enjoyed doing this play on Broadway so much that he got all the cast back together and made it a movie.
Which baffles me. Because this movie is bad. And I assume the play was bad as well.
Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker in the 1950s, who is consumed with bitterness over the fact that his professional baseball career came and went before the league was desegregated. As a result, he’s shitty to everyone in his orbit. He’s a bad husband, to the point where he fathers a child with another woman and doesn’t even bother to apologize for it when he comes clean. He’s an awful, awful father, with one son who grew up while Troy wasin prison, and a second he actually raised, but since that second son lived in a house (paid for with the money Troy’s brother got for being brain-damaged by the war) and didn’t starve to death, Troy keeps waiting for his Father-of-the-Year trophy. Putting aside refusing to show even the slightest affection for his own child, he acts like a job in a grocery store is the best his son could ask for, blocks a college recruiter from signing him because sports are involved (after all, why would he want to play football and get a full college scholarship when he has already has a menial job that can sustain a minimal quality of life?), nearly chokes his son to death with a baseball bat for standing up to him, then kicks him out of the house. And you know what, let’s not put “refusing to show even the slightest affection” aside, let’s bring that right back, because that pushes the equation from “disillusioned by life thanks to racist America” and fully into “is just a complete asshole” territory. Whites-only water fountains did not force him to hate his own child. And yet any time he’s confronted over this, he pulls out the fact that he’s provided food and shelter, you know, the absolute minimum amount of parenting you can do and not end up in court, like that’s some huge unimpeachable favour. As Chris Rock put it… You’re supposed to do that! What do you want, a cookie?
He’s awful. He’s painful to watch, and not in a good, cathartic way, just in the “why are you letting this man have two hours of my life” way. And 90% of the movie is him delivering long-winded monologues that take a lot of words to say practically nothing. Seriously, Troy Maxson has more dialogue than the protagonists of three other best-picture nominees combined*, and yet not one word of it is relatable, interesting, or able to generate sympathy, or indeed anything but contempt, for this utter waste of a person.
And if that weren’t bad enough, when he finally manages to die, there is an epilogue that feels about 45 minutes long (probably closer to 10, but feels longer) in which everyone stands around pretending that Troy wasn’t as demonstrably, irredeemably terrible as we just saw him being. His widow claims Troy somehow did a good job raising his son, as though his son’s every accomplishment were because of Troy rather than in spite of him, and says she’s going to raise Troy’s illegitimate daughter the same way. And if that isn’t all Child Protective Services needs to hear to step in, what could be?
Viola Davis does her best, but Troy is so remorselessly long-winded that Denzel Washington sucks the air out of every scene not focused on his brain-injured brother. If you want to see Viola Davis in something, you’d be better off watching Suicide Squad yes I said it Suicide Squad is better than Fences COME AT ME.
It’s bad. It’s just bad. It is very nearly Tree of Life bad and I hate that it exists.
*Lion, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight, for those keeping score.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Good lord no. The trailer was terrible and the movie is worse. Glad you did? No, no, a thousand times no.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Probably. I mean, it looks like an “actor showcase,” a movie designed to get actors awards, but it was a passion project for Denzel and that’s all it took. Featuring: Amanda Waller.
8. Turns Out Death is Sad, Who Knew
Years ago, Lee Chandler suffered a horrific, unspeakable tragedy that has come to define his entire life. He’s a hollowed out shell who’d rather pick a drunken fight with a stranger than get picked up by a pretty woman. But when his chronically ill brother passes away, he has to return to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea (where he’s become a person of infamy) to take care of his teenaged nephew.
The point, the central thesis of this movie, is that no matter the tragedy, no matter your pain, it cannot stop life’s inconveniences. This is encapsulated in a moment where a woman, on the worst day of her life, is being loaded into an ambulance… but the gurney won’t fold up, and the paramedics spend long enough futzing with it it becomes a moment of comedy… which is surrounded by unspeakable tragedy.
That’s not the worst central theme. And there are certainly some very strong performances* in it. But… now that you’ve got all of that, I don’t know, maybe tell a story. There is very little narrative, just a lot of shots of Casey Affleck looking sad or emotionally blank, and then eventually it just trails off and rolls credits.
Critics seem to adore it. Great reviews everywhere. I just… I don’t get it. I was just kinda bored.
*Casey Affleck’s performance is somewhat overshadowed by revelations that he is allegedly pretty shitty to women. If that costs him the Oscar, well, maybe don’t be shitty to women, Hollywood stars. I just wish that didn’t mean it would go to Denzel Washington, because Fences doesn’t deserve awards, it deserves to be spat on.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? No. No human being could hear the description and think “That sounds like a fun night out.” Glad you did? Meh.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Kind of unlikely but I can’t rule it out. Featuring: Green Lantern’s dad.
7. Jesus and Explosions
In our first (of four) “based on a true story” movies, Desmond Doss wants to go to war to serve his country, but his Christianity and deep personal convictions against violence forbid him from even holding a gun. Naturally, the army doesn’t care for this, and makes boot camp as unpleasant as they can to drive him out. But when he is ultimately allowed to serve as an unarmed combat medic, he ends up at the battle of Hacksaw Ridge in the South Pacific, where he stays behind after a US retreat, spending days getting wounded soldiers off the ridge to safety in an improvised harness. Which, as far as the movie is concerned, inspires the US troops into a more successful attack. Finding out that the Japanese troops had tunnels didn’t hurt either.
This one was better than I expected based on the trailer, which kind of sums up the whole story. The second act, where the army hates Desmond’s commitment to pacifism, dragged exactly as much as I thought it would. It is the primary weakness of the movie. But the first act, where we get to know Desmond, is far more charming than I expected, and the third act is pretty spectacular. Braveheart with explosions and flamethrowers.
Which brings me to the other flaw*. Through Desmond, the movie tries to portray the nobility of pacifism, how it’s possible to serve without violence, celebrating his refusal to throw a punch or take a life. But through every other US soldier, wow but the movie is celebrating violence. You’re not going to find a movie this in love with gore outside of, or frankly even including, the Saw franchise. So it’s kind of a mixed message. Is Desmond noble because of his pacifism, or is he noble because his pacifism inspires the other soldiers to be better at war-murder? Pick a lane, Hacksaw Ridge.
*Yes, Mel Gibson said terrible things about Jewish people that time, and no, I don’t have any concrete reason to think he’s stopped thinking them, but he keeps it out of the movie, at least. Well, if you’re Japanese, you might not have the best time, but it’s about US troops in the Pacific theatre, there’s not a great way to depict the Nazi-allied Japanese troops favourably.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Probably not. That second act looked excruciatingly tiresome. Glad you did? A little. Slightly indifferent.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Probably. Hollywood loves them some World War II movies. Featuring: Spider-man, Elrond, the Avatar guy… VInce Vaughn has zero comic book movies? Or Star Warses? Bonds? Just a lesser Jurassic Park movie? Huh. Weird.
6. Google Earth To The Rescue
“Based on a true story” number two, and also the second the show the real people involved under the credits (Hacksaw did it too). As a small child, Saroo… okay, let’s just get this out of the way, he only thinks his name is Saroo because that’s how young he was, his properly pronounced name means “Lion,” that’s why it’s called that. As I was saying. Young Saroo idolizes his older brother Guddu so much that he insists on following him to his night job lifting bales, despite being a) too small to be doing heavy lifting, and b) too young to be up that late. Predictably, this goes very, very wrong, and he wakes up alone on a moving train, and ends up stranded in Calcutta, on the far side of India from home.
(I don’t mind spoiling the general plot here, because it is all very, very obvious. There are not two ways this movie can go.)
Unable to even correctly name his village, he ends up (after some ordeals) in a Calcutta orphanage, where he is adopted by an Australian couple in Tasmania. Years later, having grown into Dev Patel, an encounter with an Indian dessert he’d coveted as a child reminds him of his life pre-Calcutta, and of the brother and mother he left behind. A classmate suggests that this new program called “Google Earth” might help him take his decades-old memories and reverse engineer the location of his village. Haunted by the thought of Guddu and his mother desperately searching for him (he also had a sister, but doesn’t seem to care much), he becomes consumed with trying to find home.
That’s the premise. And like I said, there aren’t a lot of ways it can go. If Saroo just went a little crazy and then eventually saw a therapist and moved on, there’s no movie. So here’s the first issue… every stage of the story lasts just a little too long. When you know exactly where the story is going, the movie needs to work extra hard to keep you from getting impatient for the next beat. Allied managed this quite well, considering there’s an hour of movie before the part that’s in all the trailers. Lion occasionally struggles. Second, while the director is mostly effective at evoking emotional response, it can be a little nakedly emotionally manipulative. People want to emotionally respond to a movie, and the director is supposed to make you do that, but nobody likes to see the strings.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? There’s every chance. I do like Dev Patel. Glad you did? I think so. It’s kind of touching.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? There is every chance. It’s not too showy about being uplifting, doesn’t scream “actor showcase.” Featuring: Aquaman’s Mom, Faramir, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the manager of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (not a blockbuster but check it out, it’s so charming)
5. It’s Hard to be Gay in the Ghetto
The story of Chiron, a young gay child in a terrible neighbourhood, being raised by a drug addict single mother. That his life is not easy goes without saying.
We see three stages of Chiron’s life: as a young child, who ends up under the wing of a caring drug dealer and his girlfriend; as a bullied teen, whose drug dealer surrogate father is apparently dead, I think they mentioned that and I just missed it; and as an adult, after being poor, black, and ostracized have left him with precious few options in life, reuniting with the only man he’s ever loved.
(This is based on a play that was based on the life of the playwright, so he gets better, not that you’d know from this movie.)
At first I had trouble with this movie, as I can have difficulty connecting to protagonists who are largely defined by silence, as young Chiron is. But after the non-stop blather coming out of Fences’ Troy Maxson I have a new appreciation for it.
It’s very well done, with some very strong supporting performances from Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris. It does, however, have even less of an ending than Manchester by the Sea. It just kind of… stops. I mean, some stories don’t really have a nice “tie it with a ribbon” ending but seriously, this practically goes to credits mid-scene.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? It got enough buzz that I might have had to check it out. Glad you did? Pretty much.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it should. A far more valuable story to tell than “Stephen Hawking loved a Christian.” Featuring: Cottonmouth, Moneypenny
4. Love in the Time of Space Squids
Louise Banks is a mother whose child succumbs to a rare form of cancer. She is also a genius linguist who gets tapped by the US military when 12 alien spaceships arrive on Earth and we need to figure out how to talk to them. Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly lead the US attempt to talk to our new visitors, while the Chinese get ornery and society straight-up panics.
But why are the aliens here? What do they want? What’s the thing I’m not telling you? Well, I’m not telling.
It’s quite well done. The music, which resembles the odd horn-like speech of the space squid aliens, is highly effective. The visuals work. I would watch Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in anything short of a Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat movie (fun fact, I hate that show more than almost anything). The actual science behind “How do we communicate with a race whose mere manner of speech and writing is absolutely alien to us” is pretty fascinating. And they pull off a twist I didn’t see coming, and that ain’t easy, because like most modern audiences I’ve seen enough twists that I can sense them coming from the narrative hints. But they pulled this one off.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Lord knows I meant to. Glad you did? Yep yep.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Given that sci-fi movies and the Oscars go together like Mel Gibson and a “friends of Israel” dinner, I’d have to say yes. Featuring: Lois Lane, Hawkeye, Saw Gerrera
3. In Which Banks Suck Worse Than Bank Robbers
And sometimes the Oscars choose to nominate a really well done crime movie.
Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Cross) hatch a plan to save their family ranch, swimming in debt after their late mother’s long illness. They begin robbing branches of the bank that holds their mortgage, laundering the money at an out-of-state Indian casino so they can pay off the mortgage with it. Paying off the bank with its own stolen money.
Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges is a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement who catches the case, and tries to stop the robberies before they get bloody.
I can’t promise they don’t get bloody. Tanner is not overburdened with self-control.
This one is just good. Really good. The cast is excellent, the direction is solid, there’s suspense and humour… and a subtle view into the economic blight that has hit rural America as globalization and mechanization reduce the need for a blue-collar workforce*. It’s just really quite good.
*The movie does not spend time pontificating as to why times are tough in rural America, that was me, it just casually points out that this is so. After all, if it weren’t for for-profit health care and predatory lending, maybe nobody needed to rob any banks**.
**The movie doesn’t spell that out either but it’s not exactly a tough conclusion to reach if you’re paying attention.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I’msurprised it took me this long, I heard nothing but good things back in the fall. Glad you did? Hoo-rah.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? Damn skippy. Featuring: Captain Kirk, Angel from the worst X-Men movie, Obidiah Stane
2. Obligatory “Ain’t Hollywood Great” Movie
If there is one thing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves, it’s movies about World War II. If there are two, it’s movies about how great the movies are.
(Actually for the full list of things the Academy loves, watch The King’s Speech)
La La Land was greeted with wave after wave of accolades when it was released. And for good reason. It’s fun, moving in places, the songs are fun, and I really enjoyed what they did with colour schemes. Seriously, for something defined by music, it’s hella impressive visually. The leads might not be musical prodigies but they’re plenty charming.
Post-accolades, there was wave after wave of backlash, mostly having to do with how white the characters are. And you know what, I’m leaving that topic alone. It just gets me in trouble. I mean, I could say “The black character isn’t trying to sell out jazz, he is arguing against being a strict traditionalist in a musical style that is, by its very nature, experimental.” I could say “Sebatstian is not ‘mansplaining’ jazz to Mia because she doesn’t know anything about jazz and you can’t just throw the word ‘mansplaining’ around willy-nilly and not have it lose meaning and power.”
But we’ll move past that. This is my personal ranking list, so I’m-a just say it’s fun, charming, sweetly melancholy, and I enjoyed it a lot. So it stays at number two, and everyone shouting that it winning Best Picture is some sort of Hollywood apocalypse can consider chilling out.
Gladiator won Best Picture and the world didn’t end. Relax.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Most definitely. Glad you did? Yeppers.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? I don’t know, would the film industry need to jack itself off without getting trophies for it? Featuring: Gwen Stacy, J. Jonah Jameson
1. Black Women Do Math and Be Awesome
Now Hidden Figures is the whole package.
Set in a time when “Computer” meant a person who does a shit-ton of calculations by hand, Hidden Figures is based on the little-known true story of the black women who proved instrumental in getting America into space. Hidden Figures centres on three women: mathematical genius Katherine Johnson, who goes from checking white men’s numbers (right before it becomes obsolete) to inventing the math needed to get John Glenn back from orbit; Mary Jackson, who fights to become a full NASA engineer, despite needing to go to court to win the right to attend night school in segregation-era Virginia; and Dorothy Vaughan, who sees that all the women she supervises (in all but title and pay scale) will soon be put out of work by the new IBM machine, so teaches herself how to work it better than anyone else, then passes it on to her staff. These three women each play a key role in NASA’s mission, while struggling against the realities of life in racist Virginia.
This is an important story about a part of history that’s been largely ignored: the vital contribution of women of colour, marginalised then, marginalised now. And if that weren’t enough, it’s also got an amazing cast and is legitimately fun to watch. Sure, there are a couple of white saviour characters, the most notable being the saint-like John Glenn, who as far as these things go ranks just below Brad Pitt’s Canadian Abolitionist Jesus from 12 Years a Slave, but, well… desegregating NASA needed someone at the top to be on board. And if that means seeing Kevin Coster take a crowbar to the “coloured bathroom” sign, I’m down with that.
And just in case anyone wanted to breathe a sigh of “Things are better now,” the movie opens with the women afraid for their lives after being approached by a white police officer (and how’s that going, America?) and has the best piece of shade thrown at the “I’m not racist, but…” crowd. When a white superior tries to make nice with Dorothy by saying “I actually don’t have anything against y’all,” Dorothy sighs, and replies “I know. I know you probably believe that.” Perfect.
Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I think so. The buzz was so strong I was considering it before the nominations were announced. Glad you did? Sure am.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? I’d really like to think so. I don’t, but I’d like to. Featuring: Pa Kent, Mary Jane, Cottonmouth again
So that’s the lot. Sure there’s more to say, from “What the hell accent does Andrew Garfield think he’s doing in Hacksaw Ridge, it is just aggressive” to “Where is Amy Adams’ Oscar already” to “Seriously, what is it about Fences anyone liked,” but this is all we have time for.
Hello readers. I return, and apologize for my absence… although, one could argue that there is an amusing symmetry in going from writing about the adventures of Dominic Toretto’s Fast and Furious family to discussing the eight films that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has chosen to claim were the year’s best.
A claim that grows more dubious the more we look at their storied history of blown calls, and the entire genre of movies that’s sprung up whose sole purpose seems to be pandering to the Oscars, but… eh, what can you do.
Let’s look at this year’s nominees, in my personal order of preference. And because I’m me and that one scene of Birdman really stuck with me, I’ll also be tracking how many superhero/Star Wars actors are trying to do something of substance in between tentpole flicks.
In a nutshell: When a fellow trapper kills his son and leaves him for dead, Hugh Glass (Leonardo diCaprio) must overcome his horrific bear-related injuries, a harsh environment, and a band of natives on their own vengeance quest, in order to find and punish his betrayer. Featuring: Bane, General Hux
A lot has been made of how this movie was shot. How Alejandro Iñárritu insisted on using only natural light to shoot (meaning some shoot days lasted an hour and a half), how Leonardo diCaprio actually did eat raw bison liver and swim in freezing rivers, and so on and so on. Here’s the thing about that, though… none of that is the narrative. It’s the meta-narrative. It’s fuel for the DVD special features, not relevant to a discussion of the film’s quality. Using exclusively natural light resulted in a lighting effect I would describe as “adequate, not exceptional.” Tell me “Leo actually did all of those things,” and I’m going to point you to his five stuntmen. He actually ate raw liver? He was lying two feet from a fire and had, in fact, eaten that day, so from a narrative perspective, nobody needed to eat raw anything, especially if doing so was just going to make them throw up.
Also, saying “When Glass throws up after eating the liver, that was Leo’s authentic reaction…” well, that isn’t acting. It’s reacting. If diCaprio deserves an Oscar for that, then Johnny Knoxville deserved an Oscar for Jackass.
Ultimately? It’s a little dull. What few action sequences there are were well-shot, I’ll give it that, but they end up few and far between. The whole thing could be thirty minutes shorter and you wouldn’t miss anything. Watching Glass struggle across frozen tundra for two hours just… gets old.
But at least that’s the worst I can say about it. A little dull. Not “It shouldn’t even be considered a movie” like Tree of Life, not “desperately and annoyingly cloying” like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, not “actively evil” like American Sniper. When a character in The Revenant calls the natives (Cree, I think?) “savages,” it’s someone we’re rooting against, not the supposed hero of the movie (looking your way once again, American Sniper), and said natives’ rampage might be horribly misguided, but it’s for good reason. They’re trying to recover one of their women who was kidnapped by white men… sadly their strategy of “murder every white man we encounter and hope they’re the right ones” is just god-awful.
Still though… eight nominees, and the weakest one is just dull. Normally I’d be angrily questioning why certain films had been nominated for a while yet, but not this year. #OscarsSoWhite aside (and not having seen Tangerine, Beasts of No Nation, or Straight Out of Compton, I can’t really speak to that)… not a bad crop.
7. SUCKER! You learned stuff!
In a nutshell: Several finance industry outsiders see the impending collapse of the US housing market, and risk everything by betting against the American economy. And if you’re not careful, you just might learn something. Featuring: Batman, and a cameo by Harley Quinn
Here’s what I respect about The Big Short. They are really trying very hard to hoodwink mainstream American audiences into learning how the 2008 economic collapse was caused through corruption and fraud on the part of the banks. They lure you in by telling you it’s a movie from the director of Anchorman and Ant-Man and a cast including Steve Carell in a wig that’s about a group of misfits finding a way to screw over the big banks.
That’s not what happens, by the way. If you recall, when the collapse did finally happen, the big banks (or at least their top executives) managed to be some of the only people not screwed over.
What this movie actually is, is the story of how a select few largely unconnected people managed to see that the housing market was a bubble, and that it was on the verge of bursting. Along the way, they walk us, the audience, through the steps involved in the housing market collapse. Whether it’s by having Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team investigate the actual houses involved in the mortgage-backed securities (many of which were given perfect ratings, but were clearly filled with mortgages on the verge of foreclosure), or by having frequent narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) literally say “This is all really technical and kind of boring, so to explain, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.” And then yes, Margot Robbie explains sub-prime mortgages to you while sipping champagne in a bubble bath.
The result is a harrowing if still entertaining look at how corporate greed caused a global economic meltdown. The frequent fourth wall breaks, both celebrity cameos to explain the more technical issues and characters addressing the audience to explain how they’ve stuck to or deviated from actual events, help to keep the story engaging. And that’s good, because it’s a super important story that not enough people understand.
Honestly, it would be much higher on the list, except for one little thing. Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, the hedge fund manager who first identified the housing bubble, and was the first to bet against the housing market. He leans fairly heavily into playing Burry as somewhere on the autism spectrum (though not, like, Sheldon Cooper-level, just a certain amount of inability to interact with people or conform to societal norms), which makes him almost seem to be in a completely different movie than anyone else. And that would all be fine, but once his fund starts to lose money because he’s put everything into his bet against the banks, Burry’s plotline loses all momentum. There is nothing happening with him that isn’t also happening in a more engaging fashion with the rest of the cast, and every time they cut back to him (which is somewhat frequent), it’s dead air. Revenant aside, which was heavy on dead air, no other film on the list has that problem, so Big Short gets knocked down a few pegs.
6. No, not The Room, thank you
In a nutshell: Joy and her son Jack live in captivity, Joy having been kidnapped two years before Jack’s birth. When they finally manage to escape, both must adjust to life outside of the small shed known as Room, the only place Jack has ever known. Featuring: The Shoveler
The opening of Room is a fairly successful blend of sweet and horrifying. Sweet from the bond between Joy and Jack, horrifying from the fact that they are imprisoned in a shed by Joy’s kidnapper/rapist/abuser, who… goddamn. Does that monster ever work as a perfect depiction of male entitlement’s worst case scenario. “I deserve love and sex, so I will keep a woman prisoner so that I can demand both of those things from her at my convenience.” Ugh. UGH.
After the highly tense sequence leading to Joy and Jack’s escape, we shift gears, watching Jack try to adjust to an alien world: so many people who are neither his mom nor the “imaginary” people he’d see on TV (yes, they had a TV, which their captor probably demanded all sorts of thanks for, I HATE HIM–sorry), buildings filled with rooms. With Jack as our POV character, every shot of an empty room becomes highly significant. It soon becomes clear, though, that it’s Joy who’s having the most trouble adjusting to life outside, as once she escapes Room, and the day-to-day life of simply trying to stay alive and provide any sort of happy life for her child, seven years of trauma refuse to be repressed.
It’s anchored by impressive performances from Brie Larson and nine-year old Smurfs 2 veteran Jacob Tremblay. It’s definitely worth watching once. Can’t say I’d go back for another round. Well, maybe, if I could… you know, skip to the part where the cops find Jack and figure out where he came from. I liked that part. Even if it involved less of their captor being hunted by Batman than I’d like. No, Daredevil. No, the goddamn Punisher.
5. Spielberg. Hanks. You know you want it, Oscars.
In a nutshell: At the height of the Cold War, an insurance lawyer finds himself negotiating a prisoner exchange between the US, the USSR, and an East Germany eager for a seat at the table. Featuring: This one’s clean. Two people from The Wire, though, that’s neat.
In 1957, New York attorney James Donovan is handed the least enviable case possible: publicly defending accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel in a country at the peak of anti-communist paranoia. And from there it only gets more complicated… after alienating his family and firm by going above and beyond defending Abel, when an American pilot flying a spy plane is captured by the Soviets, Donovan gets pulled into a prisoner exchange between two superpowers on the brink of war.
And it gets worse for him. An American student studying economics in Berlin waits one day too long to get his German girlfriend out of East Berlin, and gets grabbed on the wrong side of the newly-constructed Berlin Wall. The East Germans see this as a chance to gain formal recognition from the West, and try to hijack the prisoner exchange.
It’s Spielberg’s fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks. Is it their best work? Probably not, but I am awfully fond of Catch Me If You Can. Hanks goes with quiet strength over flashy dramatics, which is the right call, because it’s only that quiet strength that keeps Donovan in the game. And the fact is that at this point, Spielberg’s B-game is, in fact, still Oscar-worthy.
It’s that rare historical movie that not only has awards appeal but doesn’t feel too Oscar-baity. I can picture this movie existing for a reason besides attracting Oscars. Not something easy to say about, say, The King’s Speech, The Imitation Game, or The Reader.
4. NO! SLEEP! TIL–
In a nutshell: A shy girl from Ireland tries to build a better life in New York, only to have her home town try to lure her back.
Featuring: General Hux (again, dude’s everywhere all of a sudden), Felicity Smoak
If you don’t come out of this movie a little bit in love with its lead character you’re some kind of robot.
Saoirse (pronounced “Sur-sha”) Ronan plays Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) Lacey in the biggest collision possible of aggressively Irish names lacking any sort of intuitive pronunciation. A timid, traditional girl working part-time in the shop of a horrible, horrible woman, Eilis is sponsored by the church to immigrate to New York in the 1950s. With an entire ocean separating her from her friends and family, she has to forge a new life.
What I appreciate is that they steer towards some of the stereotypes, but then veer away at the last second. Her new boss seems to be a “mean boss,” but turns out to be supportive when it counts. Yes, Ailis stays in one of those boarding houses for ladies that, yes, forbids men and encourages good Christian behaviour, but the landlady isn’t the cruel tyrant of, say, Agent Carter, but the nicest, most accepting, most helpful, still rigidly Christian landlady I’ve seen on TV or film in a while. And the Italian lad hanging around her church’s dances is a perfect gentleman, charming and romantic yet respectful. Probably helps that Italians are often just as Catholic as the Irish.
Now… the second half? I’m not sure I reacted to that the way I was supposed to. When a tragedy causes Eilis to return home for the first time in months, her home town is quick to offer up all the things her new life in Brooklyn had been offering, but in the comfortable familiarity of small-town Ireland. Her sister’s old bookeeping job (which is exactly what she’d been studying in Brooklyn), a charming and handsome fella to spend time with… actually, they’re weirdly quick to offer all these things up. Suspiciously quick. Almost aggressively quick. Quick enough that I didn’t think “Hey, you know, maybe there is no place like home,” but instead reacted to her hometown like we’d entered a horror movie. Every time some new thing made her rethink returning to Brooklyn, I thought “RUN, IT’S A TRAP!”
That said, I had a better time watching the less oppressively dark metaphorical prison of small-town Ireland than the literal and horrifying prison of Room. But that’s neither here nor there.
It’s a delightful, charming, and moving. Okay, sure, elephant in room, a movie about an immigrant of colour trying to adjust to life in the US would be very different, would be considered an “issue” movie from the word go, and would probably get shut out of the Oscars, but… this is still delightful. Also, I saw Domnhall “General Hux” Gleeson in three movies in a matter of weeks and if his nose were less distinctive, I’d have had no idea it was the same guy (let alone the same guy as the excellent sci-fi flick Ex Machina), so, nicely done, that man.
3. Saving Private Ryan… IN SPACE
In a nutshell: In the not-too-distant future, astronaut/botanist Mark Watley is accidentally stranded on Mars, and must find a way to stay alive long enough for NASA to send help.
Featuring: The Winter Soldier, Invisible Woman, Boromir, Ant-Man’s kinda offensively stereotypical Latino sidekick, Dr. Strange’s probable nemesis
It’s not The Martian’s fault that it will spend the next year or two serving as the poster child for Category Fraud (when a movie or TV show claims to be a comedy because the “best drama” category seems too hard to win). It isn’t, strictly speaking, a comedy, so the fact that it won “Best Comedy” at the Golden Globes feels hinky. That said… it doesn’t lack humour. For a movie about someone left stranded on a far-away planet, it’s got wit when it wants to, but it also impressively tense when it’s time to put Mark in increased danger.
Matt Damon is excellent. He could easily have carried this entire movie, Castaway-style, but he doesn’t even need to, thanks to equally great work from an all-star supporting cast. No other movie this year has made me think “Awesome, it’s that person” so many times. It’s delightfully pro-science (if, I hear, less so than the book, but that would happen), never dull, sometimes thrilling, and overall incredibly satisfying. It’s hard to think of more to say that wouldn’t just boil down to me reciting my favourite parts. You should probably just watch it if you haven’t already.
2. The Fast and The Furiosa
In a nutshell: In a post-apocalyptic future, Imperator Furiosa tries to escape warlord Immortan Joe, bringing along five women he kept as breeding slaves. A road warrior named Max and a Warboy named Nux get dragged along for one awesome, feature length car chase.
Featuring: Bane, Beast
There’s a lot of talk about how out-of-touch the Oscars are. This is mostly aimed at that time they snubbed the Dark Knight in favour of the vastly inferior The Reader, then expanded the best picture category to avoid shunning popular films, but then kept doing it. So sure, it was a surprise when Mad Max: Fury Road started breaking the trend and attracting award buzz. So why this movie?
Because it’s freaking amazing, that’s why.
It’s masterfully shot and edited. It gets strong performances out of not just Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, but X-Man Nicholas Hoult and supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whitely of all damned people. The action is incredible. The story is above and beyond what a Hollywood blockbuster would go for, despite being so simple that it takes less time to describe than The Revenant. It’s a revival of a thirty-year-old franchise that isn’t weighed down by nostalgia, wink-nudge references, or franchise building.
Every element comes together to create an action movie far, far better than it has any right to be on paper, and that seems to have gotten Awards Season’s attention.
Also it pissed off MRAs, which I find delightful.
1. Extra extra, vows of celibacy screw with your head
In a nutshell: A periodpiece set in the long-forgotten time when print journalism made a difference (2001), the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe looks into child abuse accusations inside the Catholic church, and discovers a systemic cover-up bigger than they ever expected.
Featuring: A different Batman, Bruce Banner, Sabretooth, Dr. Erskine, Dr. Manhattan, Old Howard Stark, Dr. Strange’s probable love interest.
Remember journalism, you guys? When men and women employed by newspapers would really dig into a story, doing months of research if necessary, to ensure that the news you were reading was not only important but true? Man those were the days.
Spotlight is the story about how one team of journalists uncovered the story that the heavily Catholic city of Boston did not want told: that priests had been molesting children. For years. Decades. The more they look into it, the more victims they find, and the more extensive the cover-up is revealed to be.
The cast is phenomenal. Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and more, all doing some incredible work. The horror at the extent of the abuse and cover-up, the determination to put it right, and the gnawing realization that people inside the paper may have helped keep it all quiet once before.
It’s a gripping story, one that manages that trick of injecting suspense into a foregone conclusion. This is a movie I was determined to seek out the moment I saw the trailer, Oscars or no Oscars, and I’m glad I did. Highly recommended.