Sunday, January 29, 2023

Top Ten Movies of 2022

Some years are better for movie lovers than others. 2022 was not one of the better ones. At least not for mainstream English language “prestige” fare, aka Oscar bait films, that get proper theatrical releases.

This was frankly a bit of a surprise for me, given how strong 2020 and 2021 were for exactly that kind of film. The dropoff could be due to a number of interrelated factors: delayed impact of the pandemic; the ongoing shift from theaters to streaming services for non-franchise films and character-driven dramas; and the broader decline of medium-budget prestige pics and the generally anemic box performances of those that do get released, which only feeds the other trends. But there’s also the simple fact that so many of the 2022 films that seemed promising on paper turned out to be critical duds. (I’m looking at you, Amsterdam, Babylon, Empire of Light, and The Whale – all of which I skipped due to poor reviews.)

Whatever the reason, the dearth of traditional awards contenders is reflected in the dominance of this year’s Oscar nominations by the delightfully out-there Everything Everywhere All at Once, German war movie/literary adaptation All Quiet on the Western Front, nihilistic chamber drama/black comedy The Banshees of Inisherin, and the action megablockbuster that “saved” the movies, Top Gun: Maverick. I saw those movies, and enjoyed or at least appreciated them. There were other bright spots, too, which I’ll highlight below. But for the most part, there were very few that I really loved or that knocked me flat. And that’s okay – like I said, some years are like that. I just hope it doesn’t turn into a trend.

First, before I get to the list for 2022: a special shout-out to two exceptional films that were technically released in 2021, but didn’t come to theaters near me until 2022. There are always a few of these – usually, as in this case, non-English language films – that fall between the cracks of my top ten lists. But particularly given what a weak year it was, I wanted to highlight them.

Compartment No. 6

I saw this tender and engaging little Finnish film – about a Finnish student who finds herself sharing a compartment with a young Russian laborer on a long train ride from Moscow to Murmansk, circa 1997 – the same day I saw Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (which, unlike Compartment, got Oscar nominated for Best International Feature). I liked both very much; yet Compartment is the one that’s lingered longest and that I think of the most often. It starts out as a kind of anti-Before Sunrise, as the two protagonists initially seem utterly incompatible – she’s reserved, gay, and worried about her relationship with her Russian girlfriend, while he’s an obnoxious boor who kicks things off by getting drunk and sexually harassing her. However, over the course of their journey they build a bond of affection and maybe something more. The movie really captures the drab, claustrophobic feel and forced intimacy of a post-Cold War Russian train, but also the unexpected moments of connection and camaraderie that develop as a result. It’s a wistful tribute to the idea that individual humanity and empathy can bridge gaps of nationality, class, and cultural identity.

Petite Maman

This tiny gem of a French film by Celine Sciama (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) centers on a little girl who meets and befriends a doppelganger in the woods outside her grandmother’s house. While that may sound creepy, it’s anything but. To say more would be to give too much away – not that that’s stopped too many other reviews from revealing the central conceit – except that the film itself doesn’t really try to hide what’s going on. It’s more interested in the emotional terrain explored by the girls, which ends up being both slightly melancholy and utterly charming.

And now, my top ten movies of 2022:

1. FIRE ISLAND
You heard it here: This is the best Jane Austen screen adaptation since the mid-1990s one-two punch of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. Joel Kim Booster’s contemporary gay spin on Pride and Prejudice is, simply put, a delight. Come for the clever reimagining of the Austen classic and/or the satirical skewering of 21st century gay social hierarchies; stay for the sweet chemistry between Booster and Bowen Yang, who play the movie’s Lizzy and Jane (with a touch of Charlotte).
2. EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE
An apt title for “the Daniels’” latest cinematic swing for the fences, wherein Michelle Yeoh, as a long-suffering laundromat owner named Evelyn, literally saves the world (all worlds) by channeling all of her character’s different existences across multiple universes. Wildly trippy, hilarious, exhausting yet exhilarating, it’s crammed with tributes to everything from moody Wong Kar-Wai romances to wu xia films to The Matrix and (I kid you not) Ratatouille. The result can feel overstuffed, but it holds together thanks to the wonderful performances of Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan as Evelyn’s husband, and Stephanie Hsu as her daughter/adversary. Ostensibly a multiverse action fantasy, at heart it’s a testament to deep familial love and, in particular, the complex relationship between an Asian mother and daughter. I guarantee you’ve never seen a movie quite like this before.
3. TÁR
Not just the tale of the downfall of a sexual predator or a vehicle for the great Cate Blanchett, Todd Field’s magnum opus is a satire of the classical music world, a ghost story/horror movie, and an unsparing but not completely unsympathetic portrait of a seemingly perfectly au courant woman who, without even realizing it, has fallen fatally out of step with her times. It’s nerve-jangling and, when you least expect it, cruelly funny; it’s definitely longer than it needs to be, but Blanchett is so mesmerizing you almost don’t notice. Field is careful to avoid telegraphing any judgment as to Tár’s (heavily suggested, never “proven”) guilt and whether her comeuppance is overdue justice or a byproduct of our social media-driven culture. Both could be true, and the fascination of the film lies in pondering whether it matters.
4. TOP GUN: MAVERICK
Yes, it’s just as much of a military recruiting poster and wish fulfillment fantasy of American machismo as the original TG was. Yes, it’s still centered on the bonding and conflict between white men, with women and POC in visible but ultimately dispensable roles. Yes, it hits all the beats you’d expect it to; yes, the airfighting sequences are the strongest element and the romance the weakest; and yes, Tom Cruise once again saves the day. And you know what? It was easily the best, most satisfying theatrical movie viewing experience I had in 2022. What’s most impressive is how it manages to take the same basic themes and narrative tropes as its predecessor and make it into something a thousand times better.
5. SHE SAID
Directed by Maria Schrader (who helmed the 2021 charmer I’m Your Man and the Netflix series Unorthodox), this dramatization of how NYT reporters Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey helped bring down Harvey Weinstein does an excellent job capturing the dogged shoe-leather work of investigative journalism in the grand tradition of films like Spotlight, The Post, and of course All the President’s Men. Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan are solid as Kantor and Twohey, as are the always-reliable Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher as Times editors Rebecca Corbett and Dean Baquet. However, the real show-stealers are the actresses playing Weinstein’s victims, especially Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle. In just a few scenes they capture the pain, fear, and impotent rage of all the women who were bullied and manipulated into silence by one powerful creep and the complicity of an entire industry.
6. AFTERSUN
The debut feature of Charlotte Wells stars Paul Mescal (my latest One to Watch, now an Oscar-nominated actor) and newcomer Frankie Corio as a young father and his 11-year-old daughter on holiday in Turkey, circa late ’90s. There’s no real plot here; this is a movie about remembering and how memories of a loved one can be at once indelible and fragile, vivid with emotional truth even as the facts are fragmented by unexplained blanks. Sequences of the unlikely pair’s vacation, idyllic on the surface while cross-hatched with small but telling tensions underneath, are intercut with glimpses of the daughter as an adult 20+ years later, trying to piece together her recollections of a dad she clearly feels she never fully knew. Quiet and lovely, the film reminded me a bit of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere – but hits a deeper chord. Mescal and Corio have an appealing and believable chemistry that leaves a pang when their time together comes to an end.
7. DECISION TO LEAVE
Park Chan-Wook’s lush homage to Vertigo (and other Hitchcock films) may be less outré than some of PCW’s previous works, but still exhibits plenty of his stylized violence, twisted plotting, and dark humor. Some may feel, not unfairly, that it’s more style than substance, designed to seduce rather than endure. What gives the film is emotional heft, though, is the first-rate acting by Park Hae-il as an insomniac detective and Tang Wei as the murder suspect/femme fatale who becomes the object of his obsession. Their faces have stayed with me long after the details of their machinations faded.
8. THE FABELMANS
Steven Spielberg’s contribution to the ever-expanding “Director Looks Back at his Youth” canon, is less interesting as an autobiography of Spielberg than as a canny reflection on the incredible, at times discomfiting power of filmmaking. Gabriel LaBelle is compelling as the teenage Spielberg stand-in, and Michelle Williams may have gotten most of the awards attention, but for my money the perpetually underrated Paul Dano is the most affecting as the proto-computer engineer dad who tries to be supportive of his loved ones despite not really understanding what makes them tick. While the pacing is a bit uneven, the ending is note-perfect, thanks to a memorable cameo that film nerds will love.
9. THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN
Martin McDonagh goes back to his roots with this tale of human folly and existential angst, set on a remote island off the coast of Ireland in the 1920s, in which a brooding musician (Brendan Gleeson) abruptly cuts off his longstanding friendship with a nice dimwit (Colin Farrell) who stubbornly refuses to accept being ghosted. Not surprisingly for McDonagh, the script feels a bit like a play – think Waiting for Godot if Vladimir suddenly stopped speaking to Estragon – but opens up nicely with some beautiful cinematography and thematically significant references to the concurrent Irish Civil War. Farrell and Gleeson are terrific, with strong supporting turns by Kerry Condon as the dimwit’s much brighter sister and Barry Keoghan as the town misfit. Overall, it’s a moving if bleak – and unexpectedly bloody – meditation on mortality, relationships, and what it means to endure.
10. AFTER YANG
This gently futuristic parable about a family struggling to decide what to do with their failing android companion probes quietly yet thoughtfully into the big questions of mortality, humanity, our relationship with technology and how it impacts our relationship with each other. Like Kogonada’s other work (e.g., Columbus), it’s a beautifully composed meditation that both exhibits and requires patience and careful attention to detail. Its contemplative, measured tone put me in mind of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Klara and the Sun.

Honorable mentions: Women Talking; Turning Red; Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery; The Woman King; RRR

Have not seen but want to see: Corsage; EO; Armageddon Time; Elvis; Marcel the Shell with Shoes on; Living; more than a few non-English language films or documentaries

Do not want to see, thank you: Triangle of Sadness; Avatar 2

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Fall 2022 Movie Preview

If you thought the summer movie pickings were pretty lean this year, you’re not alone – notwithstanding the proclamation of movie-industry pundits that going to the movies is back, baby! Hollywood may have had a good summer, box office wise, but didn’t it seem like the only movie out there that anyone was talking about was Top Gun: Maverick? That’s no knock on Maverick, which was way better than it had any business being and hands down the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater so far this year. The fact is, though, that it didn’t have a whole lot of competition at its level, give or take a forgettable Marvel property here or yet another totally superfluous Jurassic Park World sequel there. And the counterprogramming options were even sparser, notwithstanding the modest charms of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On or Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (both of which I unfortunately missed in theaters).

Well, fear not, fellow movie lovers, for fall is here – and with it, the usual overflowing cornucopia of what, for lack of better phrase, I’ll call movies for grown-ups. Movies that require more active engagement but promise richer intellectual and/or emotional rewards in exchange. Movies that don’t need eye-popping FX (although there are a few of those, too) to draw us to a theater. In short, movies that make us truly excited to go to the movies.

Of course, guessing which of them will hit and which will miss is a fool’s game, even for those films that have shown at festivals (Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Telluride, etc.). Festival buzz doesn’t necessarily translate into box office or awards season success, and there’s nearly always at least one major sleeper in every season. Nevertheless, based on what I know, here are the 15 films I’m most looking forward to this fall:

THE WOMAN KING - in theaters now
I have some qualms about the way this film appears to rewrite the history of the Agojie (aka the Dahomey Amazons, an all-female warrior army in 19th century west Africa), although it certainly can’t be any worse than what Hollywood’s done to many another chapter of history. But who can say no to watching Viola Davis kick ass as the leader of said army? Plus it’s directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard, Beyond the Lights, Love and Basketball), who’s long overdue for broader mainstream recognition.
BROS - in theaters September 30
We’ve already had one near-perfect gay rom com this year (Fire Island), and I very much doubt anything can top it (no pun intended). However, this is the bigger-name, bigger-budgeted, more “mainstream” production that’s actually getting a theatrical release, and as such, seems like exactly the kind of movie to go see with a bunch of your friends (gay, straight, or anything in between or off the spectrum). Probably helps if you like Billy Eichner, who both wrote the movie and stars as the main character, an artsy type drawn to a hottie (Luke MacFarlane) he can’t quite believe he’s clicking with.
AMSTERDAM - in theaters October 7
Only Murders in…Amsterdam? Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington star in David O. Russell’s mystery-comedy-caper as a trio of BFFs who find themselves the prime suspects of a murder in the 1930s. That’s all I know, despite a snazzy-looking trailer showcasing a formidable if somewhat randomly assorted cast that includes Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Zoe Saldana, Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola (both dimming down their natural hotness as a pair of menacing detectives), Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, and Taylor Swift. The movie also basically confirms that Margot Robbie has become the new Jennifer Lawrence in terms of her ubiquity – though she should watch out for Anya Taylor-Joy, who apparently plays her sister(?) in this.
TÁR - in theaters (probably limited release first) October 7
Cate Blanchett got raves at Venice for her performance as a fictitious world-famous conductor whose past begins to catch up with her. Directed by Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children), it promises a dark but riveting psychological drama. Noémie Merland (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and Nina Hoss (the best German actress you’ve never heard of – see Phoenix stat if you haven’t) play Tár’s assistant and wife, respectively.
DECISION TO LEAVE - in theaters (probably limited release first) October 14
Park Chan-wook (best known here for Oldboy and The Handmaiden) directs this mystery/thriller/romance about a detective who falls for a woman (Tang Wei) who may have murdered her husband. Hitchcockian vibes, or just fucked-up PCW vibes? Either way, count me intrigued, especially since I haven’t seen Tang in anything since her sensational 2007 debut in Lust, Caution.
AFTERSUN - in theaters (probably limited release first) October 21
Earlier this year, after I proudly cited my 2012 post in which I pointed to Andrew Garfield, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hiddleston as actors to watch in the coming years, some friends asked me if I had my eye on anyone new now. Well, I give you Paul Mescal, a young Irish actor I’ve been monitoring with interest since his soulful turn in the 2020 Hulu miniseries adaptation of Sally Jenkins’ Normal People. He had a bit part in last year’s The Lost Daughter, but this year he has no fewer than three features coming out, including this one, in which a woman recalls a vacation she took as a young girl with her father (played by Mescal) and reflects on the difference between how she viewed him then vs. now. Cannes loved it.
N.B: Mescal’s other films this fall include God’s Creatures, where he plays Emily Watson’s troubled, probably rapey son, and Carmen, a contemporary musical retelling of the Bizet opera.

ARMAGEDDON TIME - in theaters (probably limited release first) October 28
Alfonso Cuarán’s Roma casts a long shadow. Following last year’s Belfast from Kenneth Branagh and The Hand of God from Paolo Sorrentino, we have more directors turning their lenses on their boyhood years. Steven Spielberg may be the most famous of this season, but the perpetually underrated James Gray (Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant, and my personal favorite Two Lovers) also tries his hand at the genre with this tale of a young Jewish boy growing up in 1980s Queens. Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong play his parents, and Anthony Hopkins and Tovah Feldsuh his grandparents. (In the weirdest casting switch ever, Hopkins replaced Robert De Niro.) Also, Jessica Chastain has a cameo as – wait for it – Maryanne Trump? Warmly received at Cannes, though the Europeans have tended to like Gray more than we do.
CALL JANE - in theaters October 28
When this film, along with the separate documentary The Janes, premiered at Sundance earlier this year, critics commented on their timeliness – but I don’t think anyone quite realized just how goddam timely they would be. Like the doc, this film focuses on the Jane Collective, a network of women who helped other women get abortions in the pre-Roe v. Wade days. Elizabeth Banks stars as a housewife who ends up joining the network; Sigourney Weaver costars.
BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER - in theaters November 11
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is dead, long live T’Challa. Glad they didn’t recast him, but very curious to see how the franchise moves on without him. At least the rest of the crew – Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, and Winston Duke (though no Daniel Kaluuya, due to filming conflicts) – are all returning, as is Ryan Coogler as director.
THE FABELMANS - limited release November 11, nationwide Nov. 23
Spielberg’s Roma (see above), but seems to owe just as much to Cinema Paradiso in the centrality of movies to the protagonist’s coming of age. We'll see the source of Spielberg’s demons, fascinations, and fixations (broken homes, lost boys, etc.), albeit thinly fictionalized and, I assume, more than slightly airbrushed. Nonetheless, the film got a rapturous reception at Toronto; Spielberg is nothing if not a master of pulling the heartstrings so effectively you don’t mind the manipulation. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play little-Spielberg’s parents, Judd Hirsch his uncle, and Seth Rogen as a family friend; if early reviews are any indicator, Williams may finally get her Oscar (after four nominations but no wins). Tony Kushner co-wrote the screenplay with Spielberg.
SHE SAID - in theaters (probably limited release first) November 18
Spotlight meets Me Too (the Harvey Weinstein story, specifically), based on the book by NYT reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan play Kantor and Twokey, and Maria Schrader (respected German actress and director who helmed the Netflix series Unorthodox and last year’s lovely romantic dramedy I’m Your Man) directs. Cast also includes Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, and Samantha Morton. (November 18)
WOMEN TALKING – in theaters (limited release) December 2. I swear the juxtaposition here with She Said is entirely accidental.
Welcome back, Sarah Polley! I wish she would get back in front of the camera more often, but equally happy to have her behind it. This time she’s adapted the novel by Miriam Toews, in which a group of Mennonite women discover they’ve been repeatedly drugged and raped by the men in their Bolivian colony and meet to discuss what they should do. The powerhouse cast includes Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Ben Whishaw. The premise sounds better suited to a play than a film, but I trust Polley and her actors to bring it to life.
THE WHALE - in theaters (probably limited release first) December 9
Brendan Fraser caps his comeback with an acclaimed turn as a morbidly obese man who seeks to make amends with his estranged daughter. Director Darren Aronofsky may also be back – or not, as some have criticized his portrayal of obesity as fat shaming. Regardless, Fraser is supposed to be terrific, and the film is sure to be better received than Aronofsky’s last two features, Mother! and Noah.
CORSAGE - in theaters (probably limited release first) December 23
Empress Elisabeth of Austria gets something of the Sofia Coppola-Marie Antoinette-esque treatment (this is a GOOD thing, in my book) only this empress is no lost little girl. Rather, as played by Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread, Bergman Island), she’s a jaded pushing-40 woman who knows the deal and is Over. It. Krieps reportedly aces the 19th century DGAF attitude and I am so here for it.
BABYLON - limited release December 25, nationwide January 6
Damien Chazelle returns to La La Land, only this time rewinding to the 1920s, when Hollywood was transitioning from silent to sound films. But this ain’t no Singin’ in the Rain or The Artist. Judging from the equal parts sumptuous and frenetic trailer, it looks more like a cross between Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. While Mexican actor Diego Calva appears to be the protagonist, the film also features Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie in comic-satiric mode as fictional movie stars of the period. Hard to tell exactly what tone Chazell is going for - divine decadence, or shades of Sunset Boulevard? However, since he’s three for three with me (Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man were all among my top films of their years) I’m confident he’ll make it work.
Other movies of interest, pending reviews:

THE SON – Florian Zeller’s follow-up/companion (though not direct sequel) to The Father starring Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, and Anthony Hopkins. Early reviews suggest it’s not a par on The Father, sadly, though the acting is good.

DEVOTION – Based on the true story of two Navy fighter pilots/wing men during the Korean War, one black (Jonathan Majors) and one white (Glen Powell, I assume much less smirky than he was in Top Gun: Maverick). Very promising subject matter, and Majors is an actor on the rise. Early reviews, however, have been a bit tepid.

EMPIRE OF LIGHT – Looks gorgeous (how could it not, with Roger Deakins as the DP) and Olivia Colman is reportedly superb as always, but early reviews of Sam Mendes’ latest have been mixed at best.

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY – Supposedly better and tighter than the original. But the only returning character is Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, whom I found to be the weak link of the first one.

WHITE NOISE – Think I should probably read the book first, and Noah Baumbach is hit-or-miss for me. Still, you gotta give him credit for going big with this one.

Should be interested but not really: THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN and TRIANGLE OF SADNESS have been tearing it up on the festival circuit and look well set up for major attention this awards season. However, I gotta say I don't really get the appeal of either Martin McDonagh or Ruben Östlund.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

2022 Oscars predix

It's Oscars time! In other words, time for the usual tiresome lobs of "irrelevant" and "who cares about movies no one's seen?"

We're also faced with the annoying though not completely off-base question of whether it makes sense to devote energy to something as frivolous as movie industry awards given everything awful that's going on in the world right now; this year we even get the extra treat of an international war and a bona fide nuclear threat! The only answer is that if we spent all of our waking hours doomscrolling or even actually trying to do something to avert or alleviate said horrors, all but the strongest of us would probably lose our damn minds. We need comfort and distraction where we can get it, whether it's movies and Oscars, March madness, or cats and travel pictures on Instagram. As long as we don't retreat permanently into our happy bubbles, I think they do us good. At least that's my justification for diving back into the weird micro-universe of Oscars handicapping!

But before I get into that, I must add my voice to the chorus of outrage at the Academy's boneheaded decision to cut EIGHT of the awards from the Oscars telecast this year: film editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, sound, and the three short film categories. Seriously, AMPAS? Cutting craft awards from the telecast is utter horseshit, and cutting shorts isn't much better if you're just going to fill that time with more comedy bits or musical numbers (which no one wants) or truly asinine ideas like recognizing Twitter "fan favorite" films. In fairness, this ire is more properly directed at ABC, who apparently freaked out at last year's ratings nose-dive and put heavy pressure on the Academy to cut even more awards. Regardless of who's primarily to blame, I'd like to remind all involved that YOU'RE NEVER GOING TO GET THE RATINGS YOU GOT 30 YEARS AGO, STOP TRYING, YOU'RE ONLY PISSING OFF THE PEOPLE WHO STILL ACTUALLY WATCH YOUR DAMN SHOW. Not that anyone's listening to me, or that plenty of others with more influence haven't made the same argument, to no avail. And I can't kid myself I won't end up watching despite my frustration.

Anyway, with all that off my chest, time to get predictin'...although this year's races are particularly uncertain. Good thing I'm not participating in a pool this year because I would have no confidence in anything other than losing my stake. But here are my picks, for what they're worth.

BEST PICTURE
Will win: CODA, though The Power of the Dog still definitely has a strong chance.
Should win: Either Drive My Car or The Power of the Dog
Dark horse: Belfast (once the frontrunner, then it swapped with CODA)

BEST DIRECTOR
Will win: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Should win: Campion
Dark horse: No one – this is one of the few locks, notwithstanding Campion's recent cringetastic attempt at a joke with the Williams sisters.

BEST ACTOR
Will win: Will Smith, King Richard)
Should win: I can't believe I'm saying this in a year when both of my longtime loves Andrew Garfield and Benedict Cumberbatch have been nominated, but none of them. This should go to either Oscar Isaac for The Card Counter or Nicolas Cage for Pig, and the fact that neither was nominated is a frickin' disgrace. That said, I'd be happy if either BC or AG won, not that that's happening.
Dark horse: No one. Smith is a lock.

BEST ACTRESS
Will win: Jessica Chastain, I guess? She seems to have the momentum, she's overdue for an Oscar, and no one can deny her commitment to the role of Tammy Faye. But unlike the other acting categories, this one is still very much a toss-up.
Should win: Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter, though Penélope Cruz would also be worthy.
Dark horse: Honestly, any of them could win.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Will win: Troy Kotsur, CODA
Should win: Kotsur
Dark horse: No one, especially with the two Power of the Dog guys likely splitting votes

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Will win: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Should win: Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Dark horse: No one. DeBose has been steamrolling the precursor awards.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Will win: I honestly have no idea. Smart money says either Belfast or Licorice Pizza, but the former is bland while the latter is baggy and problematic. Don't Look Up had a moment that seems mostly to have passed, but who knows.
Should win: The Worst Person in the World by a country mile.
Dark horse: The Worst Person in the World

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Will win: Another tight race. But CODA is peaking at just the right time, despite the fact that its writing is by far its weakest feature.
Should win: Drive My Car. What it does with the Murakami short story and its expansion of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is brilliant.
Dark horse: Really any of them could win, though I'd be surprised if Dune did.

And the rest (I'm putting the snubbed-for-primetime categories first):

Best Film Editing: Most folks seem to be saying Dune, but I feel like it's going to get amply rewarded elsewhere so voters might want to give this to another nominee. No idea which one, though I hope it's Power of the Dog and not Don't Look Up.

Best Production Design: Dune (dark horse: Nightmare Alley)

Best Makeup and Hair: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Best Score: Dune

Best Sound: Dune

Short films (animated, documentary and live action): Didn't see any of them this year, but based on what others are saying I'll guess Robin Robin for animated, The Queen of Basketball for doc and The Long Goodbye for live action.

Best Cinematography: Either Dune or The Power of the Dog

Best Costumes: Cruella

Best Visual Effects: Dune, unless the Academy feels like throwing Spider-Man a bone

Best International Film: Drive My Car

Best Documentary Feature: Summer of Soul

Best Animated Feature: Encanto (dark horse: Flee)

Best Song: The song from Encanto, even if Disney didn't submit the one that ended up becoming really popular

Again, I make no promises any of the above are correct - except for makeup, costumes, international film, and doc feature, where I feel pretty confident. But I could still be wrong! That's the fun of the Oscars, telecast or no telecast.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Top Movies of 2021

As we approach the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to feel discouraged and wonder when or even whether it will be over. It’s especially hard to stay optimistic after that brief post-vaccination moment last summer when we thought we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Turns out we were just seeing the headlights of the oncoming variant train, driven by all the humans who couldn’t or wouldn’t get vaccinated.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that we are still so much better off than we were this time last year. Thanks to the vaccines, those of us who’d previously been in lockdown have been able to see our family and friends in person and move about with more if not perfect freedom. And for movie lovers, vaccines allowed us to look forward to a bumper crop of new movies and to venture to theaters again. This might seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but it isn’t. At their best, movies aren’t just a distraction, they’re balm for the soul. Without being an actual religion, they can feel like one – and theaters are our places of, if not worship, then spiritual renewal, catharsis, and communion. I still remember the joy I felt last March returning to a movie theater for the first time in over a year, and have savored every trip I’ve made since.

Admittedly, with first delta and more recently omicron casting new doubts on the safety of going to the movies, I’ve been cutting back on those trips. As a result, I have not yet seen Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, Jockey, A Hero, or Spider-Man: No Way Home, and as of this post, The Worst Person in the World, Compartment No. 6, Petite Maman, and Cyrano have not yet opened in theaters near me, even though I do want to see all of them at some point. I also missed Mass and Red Rocket in theaters (and King Richard in its initial HBO Max window) and am waiting for them to come to one of my streaming services or Netflix’s DVD program. Additionally, I have not seen (and frankly have very little interest in seeing) Annette, Titane, or House of Gucci. And – my usual failings – I have seen relatively few documentaries, foreign films, or animated films from 2021. With those many caveats, here are my top 15 films of 2021. It is probably not a coincidence that nine of them (and seven of the top ten) were films I saw in theaters rather than at home, though whether that was causal or correlative is difficult to say.

1. Tie:

THE POWER OF THE DOG
Jane Campion’s latest, based on the Thomas Savage novel about a 1920s rancher in Montana (Benedict Cumberbatch) who reacts...poorly when his brother and ranch co-owner (Jesse Plemons) brings home a wife (Kirsten Dunst) with a teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is a tense psychological drama in the handsome trappings of a Western. This is an “iceberg” film, in which everything is in the subtext, the gazes, the body language, and the words left unsaid. While Cumberbatch is superb as the anti-hero at war with himself, his three co-stars also play superbly off him and each other.
DRIVE MY CAR
More of an expansion than an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Cannes hit is an achingly poignant, empathetic film about people burdened with memories of complicated and fraught past relationships. Despite the three-hour run time, I found it completely engrossing from beginning to end. It helps that it’s centered both literally and thematically on one of my favorite plays, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which the evolution of the film’s protagonist (Hidetoshi Nishijima) echoes in ways both obvious and not. Nishijima delivers an impressive, moving performance as Kafuku, the actor who suppresses as much as he projects, but I was equally struck by Park Yoo-rim, who’s luminous as the mute Sonia to Kafuku’s Vanya.
3. WEST SIDE STORY
No, it isn’t better than the 1961 version but it's right up there, striking just the right balance between respectful homage and thoughtful, well-conceived update. Commercial flop or no, it deserves to become a classic. And I say this as someone who ranks the 1961 WSS among my favorite movies of all time.
4. THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are very good as older, wearier versions of the murderous Scottish thane and his wife, but what really stands out about Joel Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is its spare, minimalist, yet appropriately eerie staging, accentuated by the heavily chiaroscuro-ed B&W cinematography and 4:3 aspect ratio and the brilliantly spooky performance by Kathryn Hunter as the three witches-in-one. The film leans both into and away from its own theatricality, feeling less like a play and more like a Bergman dream.
5. SUMMER OF SOUL (OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED),
Questlove hits documentary gold with the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, aka “Black Woodstock,” which was filmed but astoundingly never picked up by any studios or TV stations at the time despite featuring a powerhouse lineup ranging from blues legend B.B. King and gospel queen Mahalia Jackson to then up-and-coming Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, and 19-year-old Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone and Sly & the Family Stone at their peak. Their loss is our gain, as the performances are electric even half a century later. Questlove smartly edits and cross-cuts them with archival news footage of the period and present-day interviews with attendees, performers, and other commentators to underscore the historical significance of the event. But ultimately the concert footage speaks for itself, showcasing American history and black culture at an important inflection point via awesome live music.
6. PIG
One of the year’s best surprises, this offbeat, unexpectedly tender film about a recluse (Nicolas Cage) who’s forced to return to the city – and his past – when his beloved truffle-hunting pig is stolen rarely goes where you expect it to go and is ultimately all the better for it. It's also a welcome reminder that despite his, um, checkered filmography, Cage is a terrific actor – one of our best when he wants to be.
7. PASSING
A slow-burn, delicately crafted film directed by Rebecca Hall and based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen about two black women in the 1920s (played by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga), playmates as children, who reconnect later in life when one of them (Negga) is now “passing” for white. Thompson and Negga are both excellent, and the film is brilliantly shot in black and white, underscoring how many shades there are between black and white and how many ways to see both oneself and others.
8. DUNE: PART 1
World-building at its most mesmerizing. A capital-M movie with the kind of epic sweep and scale that epitomizes why we go to the movies in the first place.
9. C’MON C’MON
Mike Mills’ latest film, about a radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) who finds himself temporarily looking after his 9-year-old nephew (Woody Norman) is a characteristically low-key, quietly perceptive character study that derives most of its power from the wonderful performances. Its portrayal of how frustrating, bewildering, yet rapturous the experience of parenting can be will resonate most with parents, but I still found it affecting as a non-parent. Equally effective is its nuanced treatment of the complicated but loving sibling dynamic between Phoenix’s character and his sister (an excellent Gaby Hoffman). There aren’t enough movies about brother-sister relationships, and luckily this is a good one.
10. PARALLEL MOTHERS
Ostensibly a twisty melodrama about two mothers who give birth at the same time and how their lives become unexpectedly intertwined, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is really about confronting history and heredity in a much broader sense. It’s a lot to take in – the time jumps are dizzying, and the narrative and emotional jumps even more so! – but it’s a gorgeous, absorbing film, and Penélope Cruz delivers a knockout performance.
11. SPENCER
A beautifully shot, oddly dreamy psychological horror show that I initially wasn’t quite sure how I felt about yet grew on me the more time passed. It’s too heavy-handed with the symbolism and is so ensconced in its fictionalized Diana’s perspective it doesn’t even try to humanize anyone in the royal family other than her two princeling sons. Nor was I ever really able to see Kristen Stewart as Diana so much as a Kristen Stewart riff on a Diana-like character. Still, it’s a strangely compelling watch so long as you’re not looking for mimicry or historical accuracy, and earns bonus points for the exquisite costumes and art direction and for Timothy Spall’s dryly hilarious supporting turn as the palace watchdog.
12. THE CARD COUNTER
Oscar Isaac is the reason to see Paul Schrader’s latest Dark Odyssey of a Morally Tormented Man. He delivers what is still, in my opinion, the best performance of the year in a powerful if flawed and overly schematic study of moral guilt, as I’ve detailed previously.
13. I’M YOUR MAN
This German rom com (really more of a rom-dramedy) about a woman (Maren Eggert) asked to try out a humanoid robot (Dan Stevens) who’s been programmed to be her perfect love match, is funny, sharp, more poignant and less predictable than it initially seems. It’s essentially a harder-eyed but still warm-hearted German version of Spike Jonze’s Her that explores thought-provoking questions about living in a society where you can have everything designed to fit your tastes and preferences. Stevens is perfect as a kind of Gigolo Joe 2.0 who evolves (or does he?) into something more complex, while Eggert is even better as his test-pilot, almost too cerebral and skeptical for her own good, who can’t help warming up to him even as she remains keenly attuned to the dangers of doing so.
14. ZOLA
Last year’s indie film sensation brings to life a viral Twitter thread about two strippers who took a, let’s call it road trip to Florida that went super-sideways. Its discomforting brilliance lies in how deftly it shifts between WTF, hilarious, horrific, and sometimes all three at once, without once losing its deadpan tone. Much of the credit goes to the perfectly calibrated performances by Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, and Colman Domingo.
15. THE LAST DUEL
I liked Ridley Scott’s “Rashomon in 14th century France” a lot more than I thought I would, despite the grim, somber visuals (medieval muddiness) and even grimmer subject matter (rape and medieval justice). Scott knows how to direct battles and other scenes of violence with unnerving effectiveness, and the ongoing relevance of the rape storyline is highlighted by the tripartite script by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, based on a historical incident and book by the same name. Damon and Adam Driver are fine as the two duelists, but the real MVPs of the cast are Jodie Comer as the accuser and Affleck as the higher-ranking lord who plays a key role in setting up the conflict.

Honorable mentions: Black Widow; The French Dispatch; Tick, Tick…BOOM!; The Green Knight; The Lost Daughter; The Hand of God; Bergman Island; Belfast; CODA; Don’t Look Up; In the Heights

Special commendation for documentaries (basically, all the docs I saw this year – admittedly not many – were excellent): in addition to Summer of Soul, cited above, I highly recommend Procession; The Rescue; Flee; and Gunda.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Movie-watching in Pandemia, 2021 edition: The "how had I never" list

Another year of staying mostly at home meant another year of catching up on more movies I should have seen ages ago. All – well, almost all – were worth watching, but this year I want to highlight five that especially impressed me. I don’t mean they were objectively the best five or that the others were disappointments – just that these five exceeded my expectations and really stuck with me.

Z (1969)
Hands down the best movie I saw in 2021. The Costa-Gavras classic begins with a tense lead-up to the assassination of a Greek opposition hero of the left (Yves Montand) before shifting focus to the efforts of a lone straight-arrow magistrate (a young Jean-Louis Trintignant) to unravel the right-wing military and police conspiracy behind the murder and its cover-up. Why did I wait so long to see this? Z is every bit as gripping and infuriating today as it was in 1969 and also still far too politically relevant, even half a century later.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Still working my way through his filmography, but Stanley Kubrick’s range and precision of vision never cease to impress me. Keeping an ironic distance that’s 100% Kubrick but would have done Thackeray proud, the film somehow makes its titular hero (Ryan O’Neal, in an underrated performance) compelling even as he becomes increasingly unsympathetic in his actions. It’s also absolutely gorgeous to look at, calling to mind a series of Watteau paintings. While it may not have had the cultural impact of some of Kubrick’s other films, it’s still a masterpiece.
The Color of Money (1986)
Sharp, well-crafted, and highly engaging, Scorsese’s take on the sequel to The Hustler has the structure and vibe of a caper film, filled out with the substance of a character study. I’d always thought of Paul Newman’s Oscar win for this movie as an “it’s his time” award. Boy, was I wrong! He’s magnificent as an older, not necessarily wiser hustler who still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Beetlejuice (1988)
Would Hollywood greenlight a movie like this today? Pure OG Tim Burton in all its glorious weirdness, Beetlejuice is a vivid reminder that a bigger budget and more advanced F/X technology do not a better film make. If nothing else, it will live in my mind forever for its inspired use of Harry Belafonte, Jr’s calypso hits – from the astonished expression on Catherine O’Hara’s face as she finds herself irresistibly compelled to belt out “Day-O” at her own dinner party to the ecstatic one on Winona Ryder’s face as she levitates and dances to “Shake, Señora” in what is now one of my favorite film endings ever.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Before there was No Way Home, there was Into the Spider-Verse. The MCU might be all about the multiverse now, but Sony got there first and set a ridiculously high bar with this wonderfully inventive and brilliantly animated adventure linking multiple alternate-universe Spideys, each one more delightful and surprising than the last. Easily the best of the Spider-Man movies I’ve seen.


And here are the rest – in order of the year they were released, not preference or the order I saw them:

Now, Voyager (1942)
Didn’t get as swept up in the romance as I wanted to be (maybe because I’m not really a romantic), but did love Bette Davis’ transformation from beaten down ugly duckling to attractive, glamorous, independent woman. Also, who knew lighting two cigarettes in one mouth could be so seductive?
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
A nuanced and perceptive look at the difficulties of adjusting to post-war life, William Wyler’s multiple Oscar winner is a classic for good reason. A strong three-hander by the three leads, though it’s Frederic March as the oldest veteran whose melancholy demeanor lingers longest in my memory.
The Heiress (1949)
Another Wyler winner. Talk about actress transformations – Olivia de Havilland’s is even more impressive than Bette’s in Now Voyager, if also more devastating. An incisive adaptation of Henry James’ leanest and least forgiving novel.
The Searchers (1956)
A more shaded and ambivalent Western than I was expecting even if some aspects obviously haven’t aged all that well, including most of the attempts at humor and romance. That final shot, though – whew. Also interesting to see one of the myriad influences on Star Wars.
Imitation of Life (1959)
A hell of a weepie – in a good way. Juanita Moore is unforgettable in a role that verges on thankless; in her hands, though, it’s transfigured.
The Hustler (1961)
Watched this in conjunction with The Color of Money, to which it provided an intriguing contrast in both style and moral tone, although the final moral takeaway ultimately isn’t all that different. Still, maybe it’s just the more modern sensibility, but I preferred the later film and Newman’s more mature performance in it.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
Well made, and Richard Burton’s world-weary air is a good fit for the character of burned-out, disaffected Alec Leamas. However, it didn’t have quite the impact of the book, which is a knockout in how cleverly it’s constructed and deconstructed.
Two for the Road (1967)
Style to burn, in both fashions and automobiles, and Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney have an appealing, if prickly chemistry. Was this the first film to do a non-linear depiction of a relationship gone sour?
The Lion in Winter (1968)
Rides hard on the powerhouse performances of its powerhouse cast. They’re good enough to make you forget the film is less historical drama than family melodrama (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Easy Rider (1969)
A fascinating (counter)cultural snapshot and frankly a more compelling movie than I was expecting. I also wasn’t expecting it to be a Western. Yes, it’s totally a Western.
Klute (1971)
Pakula paranoia at its finest. Ostensibly about a serial killer, the film doesn’t seem all that interested in sustaining the mystery of the killer’s identity, yet remarkably manages to sustain its atmosphere of fear and suspense. Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland make a hot odd couple.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Oof, this was a punishing watch, even for Bergman. Can’t quarrel with the acting or the visuals, though. His use of the color red will haunt my dreams.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Yeah, yeah, I know. One of many giant holes in my cineaste credentials (I’m especially spotty when it comes to Scorsese). Liked it more than I was expecting to – or maybe “liked” isn’t quite the right word. It succeeded in getting under my skin, as it’s supposed to. The seediness of 1970s New York is effectively deployed, as is De Niro’s legendary turn as the troubled Travis Bickle. The film’s treatment of women, though, is squirmy, even if intentionally so.
Rocky (1976)
More ’70s seediness, this time in Philly rather than New York, and more squicky gender dynamics, although here they’re smoothed into a scrappy, irony-free underdog romance. It still holds up pretty well.
Killer of Sheep (1978)
Poetically filmed impressionistic sketch of black working class life in L.A. (Watts). Unfortunately I had a hard time focusing on it because I had a hard time hearing any of the admittedly sparse dialogue even with the volume turned way up.
The Elephant Man (1980)
One of the less weird entries in David Lynch’s filmography, though still keenly attuned to the grotesque and cruel side of human nature. I didn’t love John Hurt’s vocal affectations; Anthony Hopkins, on the other hand, is excellent.
Crimes of the Heart (1986)
The less said about this movie, the better. A few thoughts here.
Children of a Lesser God (1986)
A sensitively drawn romance with great performances by Marlee Matlin and William Hurt. Also surprisingly cinematic for being based on a play.
Dekalog (1988)
A justly acclaimed testament to the human condition, if a rather heavy watch. My favorites were One (idolization of science) and Eight (false witness).
Bull Durham (1988)
Of the two Kevin Costner baseball films I saw this year, this was the superior one. A genuinely sexy grown-up romance, which has become a sadly rare species. I may not care for Susan Sarandon’s politics, but she’s damn good in this.
Field of Dreams (1989)
It’s like mainlining nostalgia, which isn’t without its charms, though I’m not really the target audience for this one.
Mississippi Masala (1991)
Young Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury are very appealing in this under-the-radar Mira Nair gem about the kind of interracial romance and setting we don’t often get to see on screen.
Dead Man (1995)
A bit too meandering for my taste, even for Jim Jarmusch, though elevated by the evocative black and white cinematography and a dryly funny turn by Gary Farmer as Nobody, the unlikely spiritual guide for Johnny Depp’s doomed William Blake.
Bring it On (2000)
Not sure how I never saw this one before. A bit dated and rather slight, but still fun, with Kirsten Dunst at her most charming.
Pollock (2000)
A fairly meh biopic, notwithstanding strong performances by Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Hayden.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
The film that put Cartoon Saloon on the map, and for a reason: the hand-drawn animation is exquisite and its uniquely Celtic accents felt – still feel – like a breath of fresh air in a CGI-dominated era. It only pales in comparison to Cartoon Saloon’s subsequent films, especially Wolfwalkers.
Uncle Boonmie Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
This one was a little too arcane? Abstruse? Impenetrable? for me. Think it might have played better in a theater.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
A thought-provoking meditation on the implications of devoting one’s entire life to perfection of a single pursuit or calling. Very, very Japanese.

Monday, December 27, 2021

West Side Story: 1961 vs. 2021

Just saw the new WEST SIDE STORY, and before I say anything else, you need to know these three things:

1. In my opinion, West Side Story is the greatest Broadway musical ever made.

2. Robert Wise's 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story is one of my all-time favorite movies. I know every beat and scene of it almost better than I know myself, and I think it's superior to the stage version. I also acknowledge it has its share of issues that are mostly products of the time it was made (hello, brownface?) Still, I was highly skeptical, to say the least, that we needed a new movie version, even from as great a director as Spielberg and as great a (play) writer as Tony Kushner.

3. I saw Spielberg's version. And I absolutely loved it.

No, it isn't better than the 1961 version. But it's right up there going toe-to-toe with it, delicately balancing between respectful homage and thoughtful update. Sadly, it's underperforming severely at the box office, though I imagine the pandemic may be a factor there. (And before you say SPIDER-MAN, I'll note the target audiences for these two movies are quite a bit different, with WSS's more likely to be COVID-cautious and, to the extent they're older, more vulnerable.) If there's any justice, though, in time it will become a classic, just like its predecessor. In the meantime, here are some thoughts and reactions I had in comparing the two.

What I liked about the Spielberg version:

-It really evokes a graphic, tactile, specific (though still highly stylized) sense of place, i.e., that this is taking place in 1950s New York. Even if it's still mostly sets, they feel both grittier and more vivid than the backdrops of the 1961 version, which I wouldn't call generic so much as...minimalist, mostly just there to highlight the choreography. Whereas the way the camera here transitions from semi-realistic urban spaces to set pieces for singing and dancing is impressive in its seamlessness.

-This movie also does a better job making the hoodlums, especially the Jets, look dirty and desperate, and accentuating just how pitiful and ephemeral the Jets' ambitions are.

-Casting actual Latinos/Latinas as the Puerto Rican characters, duh!

-Tony's character arc, as rewritten by Kushner: Makes him more believable as a former Jet leader trying to go the straight and narrow.

-Making Chino (Maria's "intended") not a Shark but kind of a dork, with aspirations to better himself. This gives his fate an extra layer of poignancy that it didn't have in the 1961 version.

-Giving Doc's role to Rita Moreno and giving her "Somewhere" - adds a whole new poignant gloss to that character and that song.

What I still prefer about the 1961 version:

-The choreography overall. Justin Peck is a gifted choreographer, but let's face it, it's hard if not impossible to top Jerome Robbins. I often think of the 1961 WSS as a filmed ballet with songs, rather than a musical. Although that has its limitations cinematically, the film really works on that level.

-The filming of the choreography, especially in the dance at the gym. While Spielberg's version goes more for close-ups, I missed the long shots that show not only the differences between how the two sides dance, but also how they treat the dance floor like another extension of their turf war. Same goes for the moment Tony and Maria first lock eyes across the room and come together, as if in a dream, to dance the cha cha.

-The sequencing of the songs. Getting really into the weeds here, in the original stage version of WSS, "Cool" is performed before the rumble, while both "I Feel Pretty" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" are after. Tonally, it's a jarring shift having these light-hearted songs (although admittedly "Gee, Officer Krupke" has a pretty angry edge) follow the deaths of Riff and Bernardo; so much so that for the 1961 movie, Sondheim had them moved up to the first half (before the rumble) and moved "Cool" to post-rumble. In my opinion, this works much better. In Spielberg's version, for some reason, they put both "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "Cool" before the rumble but "I Feel Pretty" after, a decision I'm still scratching my head over.

-Differentiating the Jets (other than Riff and Tony): In the new version, they're all excellent at the singing, dancing, and acrobatics, but the only ones I was able to identify as characters were Baby John and Anybodys. Whereas, in the 1961 version, Ice, A-Rab, and Action all emerge as distinct personalities. (Alas, in both versions, most of the Sharks, other than Bernardo, are barely defined at all.)

-Bernardo and Anita: Don't get me wrong, David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose are excellent as the leader of the Sharks and his lady. They're just not a patch on George Chakiris (brownface and all) and Moreno for sheer charm. Not for me, anyway.

-"Gee, Officer Krupke": This is subjective, since it depends on whether you want a funnier version or a darker/angrier version. You get the former in 1961, the latter in 2021. Either way, it still resonates; I prefer the former.

It's a draw:

-Tony and Maria: Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler get automatic bonus points for doing all their own singing (and doing it beautifully), and they are both quite good when they're not singing, too. Kushner's script also tries - maybe a little too obviously - to make the 2021 Maria a more independent, self-sufficient character than the docile, demure 1961 version. But, well, Natalie Wood. That says it all. (I'm also one of the few defenders of Richard Beymer as Tony, though I wouldn't say he's better than Elgort, who seems - somewhat unfairly, in my opinion - to be getting cooler reviews than his castmates. I can't help wondering if part of that is due to the sexual assault allegations against him.)

-Riff: Mike Faist is phenomenal as Riff with a death wish. However, as with my comment on "Gee, Officer Krupke," what you gain in dark edge you lose a little in the comic goofiness that made Russ Tamblyn's Riff so engaging. Totally legit to prefer Faist's take as more realistic...but I have a soft spot for Tamblyn.

-Costumes: Both movies effectively draw a stark color contrast between the Jets and the Sharks, although they allow a few more flouncy skirts to the Jets' ladies in the new version. Maria's iconic white dress with the red belt (which I coveted as a kid) remains pretty much the same. But I miss Anita's purple dress.

All in all, while my loyal heart still belongs to 1961 WSS, I fully acknowledge that Spielberg has accomplished something truly extraordinary with his version. He's made a West Side Story that both fans of the prior version and newcomers can enjoy. Here's hoping more people will discover and embrace it as time goes on.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Fall 2021 Movie Preview

With the arrival of fall and the persistence of COVID, we movie lovers find ourselves in a weirdly discombobulated, in-between state. Theaters are open, the big film festivals have already jump-started lively conversations among cineastes, and the fall movie season is packed with exciting releases – some of which are opening only in theaters, others on streaming, and still others in some combination of both. This leaves those of us who prefer to see movies in theaters constantly calibrating our COVID comfort levels and trying to decide which movies we “need” to see on the big screen and which we can be content with seeing at home. I’m still working out that calculus myself. It’s complicated by the fact that so many of the films I want to see are from Netflix – whose MO for awards contenders is a short, limited theatrical run before releasing the film on streaming. But regardless of how or when I see them, these are the movies I’m most looking forward to over the next few months:

THE CARD COUNTER – in theaters now
I actually saw this one the other day, but am keeping it on the list because it’s definitely worth your attention. Oscar Isaac plays a low-stakes card shark with a very dark past who unexpectedly finds himself torn between a potential uptick in both his romantic and professional prospects (represented by Tiffany Haddish – a curious match that somehow works) and the ghost of his crimes, embodied in a troubled youth (Tye Sheridan) he takes under his wing. Don’t be fooled by the trailer, which makes the film look like an updated The Color of Money - this is very much a Paul Schrader Journey into the Soul of a Morally Tormented Man. To be frank I did not find the writing to be as convincing as the acting – but, my god, the acting! Isaac is fan-fucking-tastic in what may be the best performance of his career to date, and the film’s worth seeing for him alone.

I’M YOUR MAN – in limited theaters September 24
This German sci-fi romantic comedy directed by Maria Schrader (Unorthodox) stars Dan Stevens (I almost wrote “Matthew Crawley,” even though he’s actually had a pretty interesting film career since Downton Abbey) as a robot programmed to be a perfect romantic partner for whoever buys him and Marin Eggert as the skeptical woman who’s asked to give him a trial run. Yes, apparently Dan Stevens speaks fluent German. Early reviews have been very good, and Germany’s already selected the film as its Oscar submission for Best International Feature.

MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY – in theaters now, begins streaming on Amazon Prime October 1
From the folks behind “R.B.G.,” a documentary about another truly remarkable woman who should have as much recognition as – well, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A civil rights lawyer cited by both RBG and Thurgood Marshall, Murray laid the groundwork for both Brown vs. Board of Education and Reed vs. Reed, the case (argued by RBG) that extended the Fourteenth Amendment to cover discrimination by sex. Always extraordinarily ahead of her time, Murray also sat at the front of the bus 15 years before Rosa Parks did, was the first African American to earn a DJS from Yale Law School, and the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. Did I mention she was also gay and possibly/probably transgender? Like I said – a remarkable woman whose story deserves to be amplified.

DUNE – in theaters and on HBO Max October 22
No, I’ve never read the book(s) or seen the previous gonzo adaptation by David Lynch. But I really liked Denis Villeneuve’s last venture into iconic sci-fi (Blade Runner 2049) and early word is his take on the first part (half? Third?) of the Frank Herbert classic is just as visually stunning and immersive. Even though it’ll be on HBO Max, this is one movie I can’t imagine seeing on anything but the biggest screen I can find. Timothée Chalamet leads a stacked cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgaard, Zendaya, and many more.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH – in theaters October 22
Wes Anderson’s latest confection, set in (1960s?) France, is a love letter to the New Yorker and, more generally, foreign-correspondent journalism of a bygone era. Will it be overly stylized and precious bordering on twee? Almost certainly. But even at their most artificial, WA’s films still have a certain wistful, escapist charm that’s agreeable in the right doses. As usual, this one boasts an impressive array of A-list character actors (Tilda, Frances, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, Benicio del Toro, many others) plus current arthouse heartthrob du jour Timothée Chalamet.

PASSING – in limited theaters October 27, begins streaming on Netflix November 10
Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about two mixed-race women (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) and childhood friends whose paths diverge when one of them (Negga) chooses to “pass” for white – only to cross again later in life. Shot in black and white, which seems almost too apropos, and was well received at Sundance.

SPENCER – in theaters November 5
While I’ve never really understood the world’s (ok, mostly Anglo-American) fascination with the British royals, color me intrigued both by the casting of Kristen Stewart as Princess Di and by her pairing with Chilean director Pablo Larraín. As you’ll recall, Larraín guided Natalie Portman to an Oscar nomination for embodying the closest thing America ever had to its own female royalty in Jackie. All early signs point to him bottling lightning a second time with Stewart. The film focuses on a (fictional) weekend at the Queen’s winter holiday estate during which Diana decides to end her marriage.

BELFAST (theaters) – in theaters November 12
Kenneth Branagh goes personal with this semi-autobiographical coming-of-age B&W film about a young boy growing up in – you guessed it – Belfast in the 1960s. Winner of the People’s Choice Award (basically, the audience favorite award) at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival], it features a strong cast that includes Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench as Branagh-surrogate’s grandparents and Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe as his (remarkably good-looking) parents. Shades of an Irish Hope and Glory with the Troubles standing in for WWII? We should be so lucky.

TICK, TICK...BOOM! – in limited theaters November 12, begins streaming on Netflix November 19
Based on a semi-autobiographical musical by the late Jonathan Larson (better known for Rent) that chronicles his early-career angst and fear of failure, its poignancy is underscored retrospectively by his tragically premature death just before Rent’s wildly successful Broadway premiere. I’m taking a bit of a flyer with this one since I’ve never seen the musical on stage. However, given that it’s by Larson and that the film is directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and stars Andrew Garfield, I feel pretty bullish about its quality.

THE POWER OF THE DOG – in limited theaters November 17, begins streaming on Netflix December 1
Fans of Jane Campion have been salivating over this one – her first film in over a decade – since its announcement. Based on the novel by Thomas Savage, it’s a modern (20th century) Western about a psychologically fucked-up rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) who, following the unexpected marriage of his brother (Jesse Plemons) to a woman (Kirsten Dunst) with a teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), proceeds to harass and torment both mother and son…and perhaps also himself? Not a spoiler since I genuinely don’t know more about the story, but I smell suppressed homoerotic vibes here. Won the Silver Lion for best direction at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

C’MON C’MON – in theaters November 19
Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) delivers what looks like another tender exploration of complicated, not-quite-conventional, but loving family dynamics. This one’s in black and white, for some reason, and stars Joaquin Phoenix.

THE HAND OF GOD – in limited theaters November 24, begins streaming on Netflix December 15
Another semiautobiographical coming-of-age tale – this one from Paolo Sorrentino, director of the La Grande Belleza and Youth, as well as the HBO series The Young Pope. If you, like me, are a fan of Sorrentino’s sumptuous, plangently melancholic style, it sounds like we won’t be disappointed by his latest effort. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize (the runner-up award) at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

THE LOST DAUGHTER – in limited theaters December 17, begins streaming on Netflix December 31
Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut with an adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel starring Olivia Colman? Yes, please. Winner of best screenplay at Venice. Maybe last year’s success of female directors and/or actresses making their directorial debuts wasn’t a fluke – here’s hoping, anyway.

PARALLEL MOTHERS – in theaters December 24
Pedro Almodóvar. Penelope Cruz. Mothers. SOLD. No, really – have you seen Volver? Pain and Glory? All About My Mother? Broken Embraces? Ok, that last one isn’t really about mothers, but it’s still one of my favorite and most underrated ’Modo films, and Cruz is great in it.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH – in theaters December 25, begins streaming on AppleTV+ January 14
Joel Coen (sans Ethan) directs this B&W adaptation of the Scottish play, which stars Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. I’d be more excited about this one if I didn’t remember being excited and then let down by the Justin Kurzel Macbeth (2015) starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. But then Kurzel has a very different style from Coen – or at least the Coens - so I will keep my hopes up for now. It’s scheduled to premiere at the New York Film Festival this week.

A couple more I’ll probably be too curious not to see, though I’m definitely waiting for streaming:

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE - in theaters now
The makeup and prosthetics look a little much - although you could argue that is true to Tammy Faye, who was always more than a little much - but Jessica Chastain is supposed to be terrific despite them. And my honey Andrew Garfield is also reportedly spot-on as Jim Bakker.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN - in theaters September 24
Yes, yes, I know all the issues with this one: panned by the critics, problematic story, problematic casting of a 27-year-old Ben Platt who can no longer pass plausibly for a high school student (at least not on the big screen). However, the fact is that Platt, who by the way has a stunningly beautiful voice, originated the role on stage and won a Tony for it, and I’m still bitter I missed the chance to see him in the musical's pre-Broadway run in D.C. back in 2015 - I tried but was too slow to get tickets. So if this is the only way I can see Platt as Evan Hansen, so be it. Plus the film’s directed by Stephen Chbosky, who still has some residual goodwill points with me for The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

And finally, a few more films I’m keeping an eye out for – or at least for the reviews:

THE LAST DUEL – in theaters October 15
A Rashomon-like take on a 15th century French tale of a knight (Matt Damon) who challenges his friend (Adam Driver) to a duel after his wife (Jodie Comer) accuses the latter of raping her. Directed by Ridley Scott, but the screenplay’s by the unusual combo of Damon, Ben Affleck (who’s also in the film), and Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing, Enough Said, screenplay for Can You Ever Forgive Me?). Alas, most of the early buzz has been less about the film’s merits than about the unfortunate hairstyles sported by Damon and Affleck.

LAST NIGHT IN SOHO – in theaters October 29
I’m not a big Edgar Wright fan, and early reactions to his latest – a psychological thriller about a young woman (Thomasin McKenzie) who comes to London to be a fashion designer and finds herself channeling the spirit of a glamorous swinging-’60s night club singer (Anya Taylor-Joy) – have been decidedly mixed. Still, there’s no denying it looks divinely cool. Then again, so did Baby Driver, which started out promisingly only to turn into a tedious slog.

ETERNALS – in theaters November 5
Knowing nothing of the comics or the characters, I have no strong feelings about the next chapter in Phase Four of Marvel’s world dominance. I do, however, have strong (positive) feelings about director Chloé Zhao. We’ll see what imprint, if any, she leaves on the Marvel machine.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY – in theaters December 17
Guillermo del Toro takes on a 1946 novel – previously adapted in a classic film starring Tyrone Power – about a con man who hooks up first with a circus and then with a psychopathic psychiatrist. Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett star in this version, along with Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, and more. The question is will this be more Crimson Peak or Pan’s Labyrinth / Shape of Water?

THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS – in theaters and on HBO Max December 22
Loved the first Matrix, found the second deeply disappointing, and didn’t bother seeing the third after a friend told me it was literally the worst movie he’d ever seen. So, nearly two decades later, where does that leave me for Matrix 4? Stay tuned…

9/28/21: Edited to add LICORICE PIZZA - in limited theaters November 26, nationwide by Christmas
I go hot and cold with Paul Thomas Anderson, but in returning to the (San Fernando) Valley he looks to be returning to his roots, which brings back fond memories of BOOGIE NIGHTS, his warmest and most appealing film. One reservation: the story seems centered on two screen newcomers, Alana Haim (better known as a member of the band Haim) and Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour. However, I love Haim and there's no denying Hoffman has great acting genes. So we'll see.