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.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

A shout-out to BLINDSPOTTING

If you know anything about 21st century American pop culture, then you know there isn't any one centralized, universally acknowledged "mainstream American" culture anymore (if there ever was). That's not necessarily a bad thing. There's a lot of high quality entertainment - or "content," as we now call it - out there for all dispositions and predilections. (There's also a lot of dreck, but that's always been the case.) The flip side is we're not all watching or listening to, or even aware of, the same content, a trend that's only intensified with the seemingly endless proliferation of social media and streaming platforms. Hell, with rare exception - maybe Marvel movies, "Game of Thrones," Beyoncé, or maybe not even any of those - there aren't really entertainers or products that a cross-demographic majority of Americans have even heard of, let alone mark with any interest.

So it goes. It may be enough for most people that some subset of their friends, associates, and go-to cultural arbiters are excited about the same movies, shows, books, and/or musical artists that they are. Most of the time it's enough for me, even if it does reinforce the sense that each of us lives in a cultural bubble, contiguous if not perfectly coterminous with every other kind of social or political bubble we occupy. Occasionally, however, I come across something that I think is truly special and original, and that I suspect isn't on the radar of anyone else I know. And that makes me want to trumpet it to the world, even though I realize I'm just broadcasting to my own bubble.

Blindspotting is one of those things - both the 2018 film and the TV series that recently concluded its first (possibly only) season on Starz. I'm already on record singing the praises of the movie, which tracks the close but problematic friendship between two Oakland natives, one black (Daveed Diggs) and one white (Rafael Casal). The movie ended with Diggs' Collin and Casal's Miles parting ways, at least for the time being. The series, created and co-produced by Diggs and Casal, picks up with Miles getting arrested for possession and his long-term girlfriend Ashley (Jasmine Cephas-Jones) and their 5-ish year-old son Sean moving in with Miles' mother Rainey (Helen Hunt) and half-sister Trish (Jaylen Barron). Frictions both comic and serious quickly arise between Ashley and her in-laws (Rainey's a hippie, Trish a stripper who aspires to run her own strip club from their house), and in Ashley's own internal conflicts between her loyalty to Miles, concern for little Sean's psychological well-being, and desire to keep her job as concierge at a high-end hotel even as she rages at the injustice of a system that cossets the Haves while throwing the Have-Nots to the curb. Similar themes of social (in)justice wrapped in wry humor underpin the companion storyline of nextdoor neighbor Earl (Benjamin Earl Turner), gentlest, chillest parolee ever and new tenant of Collin's mom, and Collin's sister (and Ashley's BFF) Janelle (Candace Nicholas-Lippman), who just moved back to the neighborhood as well for mysterious reasons. (Diggs doesn't appear in person, at least not in season 1, though there's reason to hope he may make an appearance in season 2...if there is a season 2.)

That description may make the show sound heavier than it is. Rest assured it's also quite funny; for every sobering, thought-provoking moment there's a gag that provokes a belly-laugh, and the tonal shifts never feel awkward. Similarly, the quirkiness of the characters is tempered by the well-tuned performances and chemistry of the actors, with Cephas-Jones, Turner, and Hunt the standouts of an excellent cast. (Casal, too, is very good as the incarcerated Miles and imaginary companion/projection in Ashley's solo musings, and much less aggravating than he was in the movie, suggesting Miles has learned something since then.) The show isn't afraid to take its time developing the characters and letting their narratives breathe, or to incorporate artistically risky devices like fourth-wall-breaking freestyle rapping and outbreaks of slow-motion dancing, which some viewers might find off-putting but which I found a novel and effective way of expressing the characters' emotional states. And while much of the series was shot in L.A., it still evokes a loving and lovely, but not idealized, portrait of Oakland and the Bay area.

As of this post, it's unclear whether Blindspotting is getting a second season. The first concludes with one of the main narrative lines ending on a hopeful note, while the other just about broke my heart. Neither, however, provided any real closure. I truly hope the series gets renewed, though I'm not optimistic given how low-profile and unconventional it is. But if it does end here, that in a way is an all too appropriate reflection of our current social and cultural reality. We haven't earned a satisfying ending, or indeed any ending at all, as long as stories like these get buried under our collective radar. May we all learn to pay better attention, and to deserve more movies and series like Blindspotting.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

2021 Oscars predix

What a long, strange year it’s been, for the Oscars as much as for everything else. Delayed by the pandemic, the awards are finally being given out tonight. I’ve no doubt the ceremony’s ratings will be in the toilet and that whatever the outcome of any specific races, the media will pontificate on how irrelevant the Oscars are in this age of Disney/Marvel-ization on the one hand and cultural hyperfragmentation on the other, and how “no one” has even heard of, let alone seen or been talking about, any of the nominees. (Hell, they’ve already been nattering about that.)

But you know what? That’s what they say every year, and yet the Oscars continue to hold relevance for those of us outside Hollywood who care about movies—and we still exist in significant, if declining numbers. For a long time now, the Oscars have never been about honoring movies that everyone already knows about; their main value is highlighting films that are less publicly visible, even if the Academy’s final selections regularly elicit their fair share of sighs and eyerolls. And the fact is that this year’s slate of nominees, despite or perhaps because of the absence of high-profile, big box office contenders, is one of the best in recent memory, as well as one of the most diverse. That 2020* was such a strong year for film, notwithstanding COVID and its decimating impact on theaters, is definitely worth celebrating, even with reduced pomp and general public attention.

(*into early 2021, per extended Oscar eligibility period)

For those of you who will be watching tonight or at least tracking the results, here are my predictions for the winners. They’re tough this year!

BEST PICTURE (You can find my rundown of all the BP nominees here)
Will win: Nomadland, though The Trial of the Chicago 7 definitely has a strong chance
Should win: Nomadland
Dark horse: Minari

BEST DIRECTOR
Will win: Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Should win: Zhao
Dark horse: No one – this award has Zhao’s name all over it

BEST ACTOR
Will win: Chadwick Boseman, posthumously, for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (though I wouldn’t count out Anthony Hopkins, who’s tremendous in The Father)
Should win: Hopkins
Dark horse: Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal

BEST ACTRESS
Will win: ???????? Wildest and most unpredictable race - I genuinely have no idea. I think it will end up being either Viola Davis (for Ma Rainey) or Carey Mulligan for Promising Young Woman, but it really could be any of them. Andra Day has the classic Oscar biopic vehicle as Billie Holliday (and she sings, too!), but the movie is not well regarded and she’s a total acting newbie (though it’s a fantastic debut). Frances McDormand is wonderful in Nomadland but it’s a very quiet, understated performance and she already has two Oscars. Still, if the votes are closely divided, as I expect they are, it’s anyone’s game.
Should win: Mulligan
Dark horse: Again, I wouldn’t be fazed by any result, though Vanessa Kirby would be the biggest surprise. (Not based on merit – she’s great in Pieces of a Woman.)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Will win: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Should win: Paul Raci, Sound of Metal - first, it’s a beautiful performance, but second and almost as importantly, it’s the only truly supporting performance of this bunch. All the rest are leads or co-leads (a very common Oscar “cheat,” but especially egregious this year in this category).
Dark horse: No one – Kaluuya has this locked up.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Will win: Youn Yuh-jung, Minari
Should win: Youn. My thoughts on why this performance was so good, and so personal for me here
Dark horse: Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy - if enough voters feel like Close is overdue (especially after her heartbreaking 2019 loss as the frontrunner for The Wife)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Will win: Another tight race. Since this is the one category where the “edgiest” nominee actually can win, I’ll go with Promising Young Woman. I could also see Trial of the Chicago 7 winning because Sorkin.
Should win: Sound of Metal
Dark horse: Again, literally any of the nominees could win and I wouldn’t be shocked.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Will win: It’s going to come down to Nomadland or The Father. I’m going with The Father because it really does an amazingly effective stage-to-screen transfer of director/playwright Florian Zeller’s play.
Should win: The Father
Dark horse: There isn’t really one, though in a less competitive year One Night in Miami would be a strong contender – it’s another excellent stage-to-screen adaptation by playwright Kemp Powers.

Also, in honor of my loyalty to the Oscars, this year I’m extending my predix beyond the eight majors to the rest of the awards.

Best Film Editing: Sound of Metal (though I could see any of the nominees winning)

Best Cinematography: Nomadland

Best Production Design: Mank

Best Costumes: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Emma also has a shot)

Best Makeup and Hair: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Best Visual Effects: Tenet

Best Sound: Sound of Metal

Best Score: Soul

Best Song: “Speak Now” from One Night in Miami

Best International Film (formerly Foreign Language Film): Another Round (dark horse: Quo Vadis, Aida?)

Best Documentary Feature: My Octopus Teacher

Best Animated Feature: Soul - this one’s a lock

Best Animated Short Film: If Anything Happens, I Love You (dark horse: Opera)

Other shorts (documentary and live action): No idea and haven't seen any of them, but based on what other folks are saying I'll guess A Concerto is a Conversation for doc and Two Distant Strangers for live action.

Happy 93rd Oscars, everyone!

Monday, February 01, 2021

Movie-watching in Pandemia, Part 2: Top 10 movies of 2020

Despite a pandemic that essentially shut down or reduced entertainment venues to shadows of their former selves, 2020 ended up being quite a solid year for movies. However, I still feel like we (or at least I) lost a lot by not being able to see the vast majority of those movies in an actual theater. It’s not so much the lack of a big screen or sound system I missed but rather that combination of (1) having a movie as an actual event or date scheduled on the calendar; (2) watching and sharing the experience of watching with a roomful of strangers (I’m fortunate, I guess, in that the movies and theaters I go to – or used to go to – tended to attract respectful and attentive fellow filmgoers, not jerks who would talk, text or bring their kids to child-inappropriate fare); (3) the immersive aspect of being in a theater and being compelled to give the movie my undivided attention.

That last element is the one I’ve felt the absence of most keenly, since I am easily distracted and have absolutely zero self-restraint when it comes to using my phone or laptop while watching anything at home. In my defense, it’s usually to look something up related to the movie (what do I recognize that actor from, how close is this to the real story/is this based on a real person, where was this filmed or is this CGI, who did this song/let me Shazam it, etc.), but the point is I let my attention wander and be diverted much more easily than if I were sitting in a theater – and the quality of my viewing experience is accordingly diminished. I tried not to let this propensity influence my judgment of a movie’s merits, yet I wonder if this list would look different had I seen these movies in a theater.

With that caveat – and the additional caveat that there were several highly acclaimed films, including Nomadland, Minari, and The Father, that technically got a festival and/or brief streaming release last year but that I unfortunately missed – here are my top ten films of 2020:

1. First Cow

I’ll be the first to admit Kelly Reichardt, while justly admired as a director, is not for everyone. Her films are very, sometimes painfully, slow, and even when they involve dangerous settings and situations, very little actually happens, at least in terms of outward action. This is no less true of First Cow, which focuses on the unlikely partnership of two even unlikelier adventurers in 19th century Oregon, yet I found myself completely engrossed by this strangely compelling story of a quiet baker and an entrepreneurial-minded Chinese immigrant who devise a business scheme of dubious legality that involves – you guessed it – the first cow to enter Oregon territory. The pacing may chafe those unaccustomed to Reichardt’s deliberate, unhurried style, but for the patient there’s great beauty in the verdant stillness of the Oregon woods and the moments of gentle rapport between the two protagonists (three, if you count the cow), and great suspense and dread as the invisible net tightens around them.

2. Mangrove

The first installment of Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s anthology series about the West Indian/Caribbean diaspora in 1960s-1980s London, it’s also the best. Based on the true story of the Mangrove Nine, it offers a rich portrait of a vibrant community and a searing depiction of the viciously racist and xenophobic policing that threatened to destroy it, as well as the courage and eloquence of the individual members who stood up in court to demand justice when slapped with a trumped-up criminal charge of rioting. The second half of the film, which focuses on their trial, bears many thematic similarities to Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, although for me, Mangrove was much more powerful – essentially it was everything I wanted Sorkin’s film to be and wasn’t. Yet what lingers with me longest from Mangrove are its images of joyful celebration of Caribbean culture and the abuse of power that so obscenely disrupted it – whether a long shot from a window of cops pursuing an innocent black man, or a close-up of a clattering colander following a police raid. McQueen makes these historical wrongs intensely, immediately personal in a way that perhaps only he could have done. (Amazon Prime Video)

3. Palm Springs

Yes, this is essentially a remix of Groundhog Day for millennials, set in the (literal, as well as figurative) desert rather than the snowy tweeness of Punxsutawney. That debt doesn’t prevent it from being an utter delight in its own right, a better romantic comedy than the original, and the perfect movie for the COVID pandemic. It benefits enormously from being a two-hander (three-hander if you count the always-great J.K. Simmons) between a never-more-endearing Andy Samberg and the effortlessly winsome Cristin Milioti (who really should be a bigger star). Outwardly light and breezy, the film plumbs unexpected emotional depths in the question of what it means to pledge yourself for life to another person – appropriate for a movie set at a wedding on endless repeat. (Hulu)

4. One Night in Miami

In a year of impressive female directorial feature debuts, Regina King gave us one of the strongest in her wonderfully cinematic adaptation of Kemp Powers’ thought-provoking play about what might have happened at a 1964 meetup between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (just before he became Muhammad Ali), Sam Cooke, and NFL player-turned-actor Jim Brown in Malcolm’s motel room. Powers, who also adapted the screenplay, imagines a probing, at times heated discussion between the four men – all at the cusp of a major moment in their careers – about whether they are doing everything they can to advance black power. The four leads (Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm, Eli Goree as Clay, Leslie Odom, Jr. as Cooke, and Aldis Hodge – my personal MVP – as Brown) are all excellent at bringing to life what could have been a rather stiff academic debate, while Powers and King, with the help of Tami Reiker’s beautifully fluid cinematography, do a terrific job incorporating external scenes and movement so naturally that the end result feels like an actual living, breathing movie, not just a filmed play. (Amazon Prime Video)

5. Promising Young Woman

Emerald Fennell (aka Camilla Parker-Bowles in The Crown and showrunner for Killing Eve) makes a head-turning debut feature with this razor-sharp tale of a woman (Carey Mulligan, fantastic) on a mission to teach the world – especially self-proclaimed “nice guys” – a lesson after her best friend is raped and nothing is done about it. Less a revenge thriller than a psychodrama with razor-sharp satirical edges, its pitch-black but carefully modulated rage striking an ironic counterpoint to the soft pastels of its visual style, the film continually, methodically pushes the viewer to recognize society’s complicity in not just the violation but the erasure of women who are denied acknowledgment of (let alone justice for) their wrongs. While the script repeatedly subverts expectations – sometimes at the expense of plot plausibility – and may give you tonal whiplash, that is very much by design, leading to a gut-punch of an ending that’s at once a fierce blow against rape culture and a concession to its primacy. Not everything in PYW works, but what does work exudes more energy and brilliance than just about any other film this year.

6. Another Round

Mads Mikkelsen and director Thomas Vinterberg team up again for this half funny, half melancholy Danish film about four friends who decide to test the hypothesis that drinking just enough to be mildly buzzed throughout the day will make their lives better, happier, and more productive. The results are about what you might expect, but the film refreshingly refrains from either endorsing or vilifying the experiment. Mikkelsen is marvelous and an entirely compelling reason in and of himself to see the movie; another is the delightful chemistry between him and the other three men who bond over their shared middle-aged male malaise.

7. Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Rogue One, HBO’s The Night Of) shines as a heavy-metal drummer who’s forced to cope with suddenly losing his hearing. Thoughtful and eye or rather ear-opening, the film doesn’t always go exactly where you expect it to go, and its last two scenes were the most moving I saw in any 2020 movie. The film also stands out for its sound design, which evokes the protagonist’s aural disorientation with stunning effectiveness. (Amazon Prime Video)

8. The 40-Year-Old Version

Here’s another terrific female-directed debut feature (by Radha Blank) about a black woman in NYC approaching 40 who considers reinventing herself as a rapper as her once-promising playwriting career stalls. Shot almost entirely in black and white, the film pays clear stylistic homage to Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It but quickly establishes its own fresh, wryly funny voice that’s at once compassionate (towards the difficulty of relinquishing one’s self-perceptions) and unsparing (towards the biases of liberal white cultural gatekeepers). Like the otherwise very different Another Round, this film should resonate with anyone who’s wondered whether they’ve given up on the dreams of their youth and/or whether it's too late to forge new ones. (Netflix)

9. Lovers Rock

This was most critics’ favorite of the Small Axe series, and it’s not hard to see why, even if it’s a little slow and low on plot for those seeking a narrative thread. More of a mood piece than a drama, it’s a sensuous evocation of both a particular place and time (an ’80s reggae house party in London) and the universal feeling of falling in love or at least hitting it off with someone at first sight. (Amazon Prime Video)

10. TIE: News of the World and Soul

In a year that severely tested most people’s optimism and faith in humanity, both of these films offered a measure of assurance that yes, life is worth living even when the bottom drops out of it or everything around you seems to be devolving into chaos and disaster. Directed with unusual stateliness by Paul Greengrass and based on the novel by Paulette Giles, News of the World stars Tom Hanks at his Hanksiest as a traveling newsman in post-Civil War Texas tasked with reuniting a displaced young girl (Helena Zengel), who was raised by Kiowa Indians, with her only known blood relatives. It’s in many ways an old-school, old-fashioned, and very white Western—but it’s also beautifully filmed and beautifully acted, with Hanks and Zengel playing poignantly off each other as two lost souls who find kinship in a bitterly divided and hostile world.

Meanwhile, Soul, a spiritual sibling of Inside Out (both directed by Pete Docter), only with much trippier animation and even deeper existential concepts, can perhaps be best described as a Pixar riff on It’s a Wonderful Life – if George Bailey were an African American whose lifelong dream was to make it as a jazz pianist and his guardian angel were an unborn soul. In its lighthearted, cleverly quippy, quirky way, Soul provides a welcome reminder to even the most jaded viewer that there’s beauty and meaning to life beyond what you specifically wanted or thought you wanted from it. (Between Soul, Another Round, and The 40-Year-Old Version, 2020 seems to have been a banner year for midlife crisis movies – or maybe I’m just more attuned to them given my own age.)

HONORABLE MENTIONS: On the Rocks (AppleTV); Wolfwalkers (AppleTV); Emma (HBO Max); Babyteeth (Hulu); Mank (Netflix); Never Rarely Sometimes Always (HBO Max); and the rest of the Small Axe series (Red, White, and Blue; Alex Wheatle; and Education) (Amazon Prime)

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Movie-watching in Pandemia, Part 1: Catching up on classics

Happy new year! Has it really been almost a year since my last post? In some ways it feels longer, and in others it’s hard to believe so much time has passed - one of the more insidious side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout 2020, my love of movies both helped and frustrated me. Helped in that there were always plenty of movies to watch at home that could take my mind off the grim reality of living in the United States of Pandemia. Frustrated in that until 2020, going to the movies (in theaters) was one of my primary activities and my preferred way of seeing them, but because of the pandemic I haven’t been to a theater since last March. (I recognize I’m in an extremely privileged position to complain about this, especially since it doesn’t directly affect my health or livelihood.)

However, one of the few silver linings to being cut off from theaters is that it’s left me a lot more time to watch movies at home—something I was very bad about doing before. In particular, it’s allowed me to make a small dent in the long list of older films I’ve been meaning to see for years, if not decades. What I opted to watch from this list, and when, was fairly random, driven largely by what was available through my streaming services and what came up next in my Netflix DVD queue. (Yes, the Netflix DVD program still exists, and their catalog still beats all the streaming services combined when it comes to the classics.) There were no patterns of note, though I did end up seeing quite a few seminal ’80s movies – movies that someone of my generation would really be expected to have seen but I had not – and, randomly, a good number of movies featuring Cary Grant and Keanu Reeves (not together, obviously).

Here is the full list of non-2020 movies I watched in 2020 – generally in order of the movies’ original release dates, not the order I watched them – and some quick thoughts on each one.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Lively and cleverly constructed, and Cary Grant is undeniably adorable, but boy, is Katherine Hepburn’s character annoying. (For whatever reason, Hepburn’s always left me a bit cold – I think I like the idea of her better than the reality.) Best in show: definitely Nissa, the scene-stealing trained leopard who plays both the good, tame “Baby” and her snarling, lethal doppelganger equally convincingly. Available on HBO Max.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Maybe screwball comedy just isn’t my thing? (Admittedly, the only other one I’d seen before this and Bringing Up Baby was It Happened One Night, which didn’t leave much of an impact when I saw it many years ago – but aren’t those three supposed to be the crown jewels of the genre?) This one left me frankly exhausted, and it didn’t help that Cary Grant’s character, for all Cary Grant’s charm, is kind of a manipulative dick. I did like Rosalind Russell as the titular girl Friday, though. Available on Amazon Prime Video.

Stray Dog (1949)

One of Kurosawa’s early collaborations with Toshiro Mifune, worth watching for its fascinating sketch of post-WWII Japan and an uncharacteristically understated performance by a very young Mifune. More thoughts here. Available on the Criterion Channel.

Tokyo Story (1953)

First and to date only Ozu film I’ve seen, though also his most acclaimed. And for good reason – it’s a quiet but subtly poignant character study of an older Japanese couple who pay a disappointing visit to their now-grown children in Tokyo and find themselves bonding most with their widowed daughter-in-law, who understands what it’s like to be lonely and marginalized. I’d say the film is very Japanese, which it is, but did you know it was based on a now mostly-obscure but even sadder American film called Make Way for Tomorrow? Tokyo Story evokes a softer sorrow, but one that lingers like a lovely, melancholy chord. Available on HBO Max.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Until this year, I’d never seen any Douglas Sirk films despite being a huge fan of Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven—which, along with Carol, do a beautiful job tapping into the racial and queer tensions lurking beneath Sirk’s glossy ’50s surfaces. It was fascinating to watch the original template (well, one of them—Sirk’s Imitation of Life, which I still need to see, also partly inspired Far From Heaven) and appreciate the depth of Haynes’ homage. Jane Wyman delivers a nicely understated performance as the widowed protagonist, while Rock Hudson is at his dreamiest as the soulful younger man she strikes sparks with— although it was impossible for me to watch him and not imagine his character secretly banging his good-looking male friend on the side. I imagine Todd Haynes felt the same.

Parts 2 and 3 of the Apu Trilogy: Aparajito (The Unvanquished) (1956) and Apur Sansar (World of Apu) (1959)

A long time ago I saw Pathar Panchali, the first installment of Satyajit Ray’s classic Apu trilogy, with my parents, who impressed on me that these were some of the greatest films ever made. Alas, I found the first film depressing and opted not to watch the rest. Well, better late than never—and perhaps better later, now that I’m old enough to appreciate the poetic B&W cinematography and deep emotional currents underlying the coming-of-age of a bright but poor Bengali boy. To me the trilogy is fundamentally a tale of love (of all kinds—parental, familial, romantic), its betrayal and abandonment, and, ultimately, redemption. Both Aparajito and Apur Sansar left me in tears (the good kind), although Aparajito struck deepest with Karuna Banerjee’s sublime and heartbreaking performance as Apu’s mother. (Between this film, Tokyo Story, and All That Heaven Allows, which all involve ungrateful children treating their parents like crap, I spent a fair portion of this year wallowing in filial guilt.) Available on the Criterion Channel.

Charade (1963)

Not sure how I’d never seen Charade before, given how many Audrey Hepburn films I watched growing up with my parents. Aptly described as “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made,” it’s quite delightful, despite the number of questions it left me regarding Hepburn’s character’s marriage and the odd strategic choices of Cary Grant’s and Walter Matthau’s characters. (Side note: I guess this was my year to catch up on Cary Grant classics, even though that wasn’t my conscious intention.) Plus it gave us this scene. Available on Amazon Prime Video.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Gotta admit this was a bit of a letdown for me—not sure why, as I’m a big Spielberg fan and this was right in what I call his “wonder wheelhouse.” But its most iconic moments are still killer, like the scene where the aliens infiltrate Melinda Dillon’s house and abduct her kid, the recurring image of the mountain, and the final meet-and-greet scene. I think I might have had a more visceral response to the overall film if I’d seen it in a theater.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Spellbindingly gorgeous, as Malick’s films always are, with visuals that reminded me at times of Andrew Wyeth and at others of Edward Hopper. The setting dwarfs the human characters and the (soap) operatic drama of their love triangle, but that doesn’t detract from – and in some ways adds to – the film’s power. Here’s another one I wish I could have seen on a big screen, but it still works on a small one. Bonus: Always good to be reminded that before he was a silver fox, Richard Gere was once a young hottie, as was Sam Shepard.

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Spike Lee’s debut film, about an independent young woman who can’t/won’t choose between three lovers, is charming, in some ways progressive but in some ways problematic, like so much of Lee’s treatment of female characters in his movies. Still, its pros outweigh its cons, and it’s an engaging love letter to New York (Brooklyn in particular) – the first of many. Available on Netflix.

Blue Velvet (1986)

Weird and unsettling, which is de rigueur for David Lynch, but unexpectedly coherent compared to some of his subsequent work. (I still prefer the twistiness of Mulholland Drive, though.) Dennis Hopper makes a memorably menacing villain and cuts probably the most vivid figure in the movie, while Kyle Maclachlan and Laura Dern are strangely touching (and so young!) as the innocents. Isabella Rossellini is haunting in a role that could have been (and has been criticized as) exploitative, but I don’t think it is. Watching this also reminded me that I really need to get around to seeing Twin Peaks at some point. Available on Hulu.

RoboCop (1987)

I’d heard this movie was disturbingly violent, which it is (especially the extended director’s cut), though in retrospect I don’t think it could have disturbed me any more than its cinematic cousin, the first Terminator, did. I also didn’t realize what a hoot it would be (I’m still laughing at “Nukem – get them before they get you!”), but what else would you expect from that sly mofo Paul Verhoeven? More thoughts here. Available on Amazon Prime Video.

Broadcast News (1987)

They don’t make ’em like this anymore. A romantic comedy with well-drawn, believable characters? That also manages to be an astute satire of news media and its inevitable decline & absorption into the business of infotainment? Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, and William Hurt do excellent work as the three equally sympathetic and flawed legs of the film’s romantic triangle, with Hurt doing the heaviest lifting as the guy the audience, like Hunter’s character, can’t help being drawn to even though he embodies everything we’re supposed to resist and resent. (Albert Brooks gets the best lines, though.)

Coming to America (1988)

I think I may be the only ’80s/’90s kid who never saw this growing up. (I’ve also never seen any of the Beverly Hills Cop movies.) Seeing it for the first time in 2020 – just in time for the sequel, apparently – was a bit surreal. The parts in Africa made me think about Afrofuturism and Black Panther. The parts in New York, on the other hand, scream “’80s! ’80s! ’80s!” to the rafters. However, the core story is surprisingly sweet, as is Eddie Murphy’s performance as the ever-positive, ever-romantic Prince Akeem. Available on HBO Max.

Die Hard (1988)

Now I know what all those Christmas Die Hard memes mean. Ho ho ho. I didn’t realize that in addition to being Alan Rickman’s first movie, this was also Bruce Willis’ first action movie—talk about auspicious debuts! Overall, the movie holds up. Stylistically, especially in the action sequences, it reminded me a bit of Speed, and no wonder, given that Jan de Bont was the DP. Available on HBO Max.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Another trip back in time for this late Gen Xer, prompted by the release of the third Bill & Ted movie. Seen back to back, the first two perfectly embody the cultural shift from the ’80s to the ’90s.

Goodfellas (1990)

Ok, I see what the fuss is about. Brilliantly directed and brilliantly shot, Scorsese’s most iconic Mob movie crackles with subversive energy. It’s also interesting to see this one after having seen The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman and observe how Scorsese’s approach to similar themes has evolved. However, as with WWS and frankly most of Scorsese’s films, I feel like it slightly outstays its welcome. Yes, we get the addictive pull of the criminal lifestyle, and the compounding complications, but at a certain point I just get tired of watching assholes be assholes.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

A strange, dreamlike Gus Van Sant concoction, more of a mood piece or meditation than a drama, although it’s ostensibly a contemporary riff on Shakespeare’s Henry IV mashed up with an intimate look at the drifting, rootless lives of male street-hustlers. The two parts don’t always jell, but what does hold the film together is River Phoenix’s intense yet delicate performance as the hustler with unrequited feelings for Keanu Reeves’ Prince Hal character. (Reeves is fine, good even, but Phoenix easily upstages him.)

Boogie Nights (1997)

It’s hard to believe Paul Thomas Anderson was only in his 20s when he wrote and directed this sprawling yet impressively assured tale of the rise and fall of a particular corner of the porn industry and one particularly well-endowed star (Mark Wahlberg, in the role that would establish his credibility as an actor). Boogie Nights is a great period piece (of the 1970s and early ’80s) and an engaging family saga – the “family” being the collection of misfits working for or with Burt Reynolds’ porn director. Anderson depicts them all with warmth, gentle humor, and compassion; it helps that he assembled a crackerjack cast including, besides Wahlberg and Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. As a narrative, the film’s a bit loose and shambling, and could probably have stood some harder editing, but by the end you feel like you really know and care about these characters and what happens to them. Available on Hulu.

Part 2 to come: Favorite movies I watched in 2020 that were actually released (on streaming) in 2020

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Top Ten Movies of 2019

Er…better late than never, right?

I realize we’re almost two months into 2020. We’re even past the Oscars – the unofficial “end” of the film year – albeit the Oscars were significantly earlier than usual this year. This list has been delayed mainly because I really wanted to catch up with some movies from 2019 that I either missed or didn’t have an opportunity to see in theaters last year. While I’ll probably never completely catch up, and per usual have seen nowhere near enough foreign films or documentaries to make this even close to a comprehensive tally, here are the ten films from 2019 that most moved and/or delighted me (along with links to reviews or other pieces I've written about them).

1. PARASITE
Yes, it really is that good. It begins as a broad social satire about a poor Korean family conning their way into the household of a rich one, only to morph into something darker, stranger, and quite frankly brilliant. Bong Joon-Ho returns to his favorite themes and tropes, as well as his fondness for head-spinning genre and tonal shifts, but weaves them into something unprecedentedly taut, entertaining, and ultimately – surprisingly – poignant. In its razor-sharp treatment of class inequities, it’s a reminder that some of the best films about that subject in recent years have been coming not out of the West but from East Asia.

2. PAIN AND GLORY
Pedro Almodóvar brings his signature warmth to this semi-autobiographical tale of an aging filmmaker (beautifully played by Antonio Banderas) who makes unexpected discoveries while revisiting bittersweet memories of his youth. Lovely and understated, it’s the kind of film that’s only grown and burrowed deeper into my consciousness in the months since I first saw it. It also features what has to be the most perfect ending shot of 2019.

3. 1917
It will go down in history as the Oscars best picture frontrunner that everyone had resigned themselves to accepting as the inevitable winner, only to be shoved aside in a stunning upset by the zeitgeisty juggernaut that was Parasite. And yet Sam Mendes’ gripping WWI film about a pair of young British soldiers dispatched on a hail Mary mission to deliver urgent orders across enemy lines deserves to be remembered for more than its also-ran status, or even for Roger Deakins’ spectacular cinematography, which manages the incredible feat of looking like one long, continuous, real-time shot tracking the soldiers as they move through the trenches and fields. With its spare, economic, stripped-down narrative and the veddy British restraint of its principal actors, it somehow gains a greater resonance than a more amplified emotional display would have achieved.

4. MARRIAGE STORY
I admit I went into this one with both my back and my dukes up (figuratively speaking), partly because I haven’t really been a huge fan of Noah Baumbach’s previous work, partly because I’d heard the script was based on his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh and figured it would inevitably stack the deck in favor of the man in the central divorcing couple. That preconception, however, was quickly overturned by the actual film, which is at once painfully raw, unexpectedly hilarious, and admirably even-handed. Sure, the viewer may feel bad for the seemingly blindsided, loving husband and father played by Adam Driver, but as the movie goes on it develops the perspective and very real grievances of his wife (Scarlett Johansson) with considerable nuance and compassion, balances out the sympathy quota (much more so than Kramer v. Kramer, one of its obvious spiritual forbears), and ends on an exquisitely tender, bittersweet note. Driver, ScarJo, and Laura Dern (as the wife’s take-no-prisoners lawyer) all turn in powerhouse performances, with Alan Alda playing a gentler but equally memorable counterpoint to the principals’ gloves-off brawling. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but once you start, you can’t look away.

5. ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD
Quentin Tarantino is a director I can’t help loving despite myself. For years now, he’s vexed me as the perpetual adolescent who’s never outgrown his youthful fixations (cinematic and otherwise), even as his success has basically given him a blank check to indulge himself in meandering, borderline-onanistic filmmaking exercises with no apparent purpose other than to pay homage to said fixations. And yet…something about these exercises nearly always draws me in; he has the singular power to claim my attention and hold it firmly in his grip up to and through the inevitable climax of orgiastic violence. So it is with this languorous, lazily enjoyable paean to 1960s Hollywood, which also has the added benefit of looking beautiful and bathing its beautiful principal players in that nostalgic golden light. The sadism of the ending may bother some viewers, and yet, once again, there’s something gleefully cathartic about the way QT willfully rewrites a tragic chapter of history.

6. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
I seem to be the only one who really liked Ed Norton’s (literally) decades-in-the-making labor of love, notwithstanding its frigid reception both on the festival circuit and in wide release last fall. Norton does something quite daring in transplanting the plot of Jonathan Lethem’s 1990s detective novel into the 1950s and adding a fictionalized version of NY city planner Robert Moses (Alec Baldwin), and to my mind, at least, he pulled it off. The film undeniably borrows heavily from other, greater predecessors, playing like a New Yorker’s homage to Chinatown and L.A. Confidential - yet it’s grounded in a quietly affecting lead performance by Norton as the protagonist who battles a Tourette’s like disorder while searching for answers to his mentor’s murder, and themes of racism, gentrification, and the corrupting effect of power that are still all too timely today.

7. A HIDDEN LIFE
Based on the true story of an Austrian farmer conscripted during WWII who steadfastly refused to swear loyalty to Hitler and suffered the consequences, Terrence Malick’s latest raises knotty moral questions that have no easy answers but plenty of contemporary resonance. Sure, it could have been about 20-30 minutes shorter and a smidge less aestheticized, but Malick’s flourishes don’t detract or distract from the film’s quiet power. His best work since Tree of Life.

8. LITTLE WOMEN
If anyone could breathe new life into this much adapted classic, it would be Greta Gerwig, who tackles the challenge with a bold yet faithful take on Louisa May Alcott’s tale of four very different sisters in post-Civil War New England. While the constant time-shifting of Gerwig’s screenplay between “then” and “now” can sometimes be a little disorienting, it’s more than offset by the gorgeous cinematography and strong acting, especially from Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Florence Pugh as Amy, who in her hands actually becomes a compelling character for once. (That said...the 1994 Little Women with Winona Ryder still remains my favorite.)

9. THE FAREWELL
When was the last time a film so culturally, peculiarly specific managed to feel so universal? You don’t have to understand the reasons underpinning Lulu Wang’s funny-sad true story of her family’s elaborate ruse to keep her grandmother from knowing she had terminal cancer; hell, you don’t even have to be Asian or an immigrant to understand or empathize with the complicated family dynamics that pull at the main character (Awkwafina, showing she has serious dramatic as well as comic chops), though it certainly helps. The beauty of The Farewell lies in its understanding of all people who have at some point had to leave home or family and had to reassess that decision.

10. HUSTLERS
A welcome feminist riposte to all them bad-boy Wall Street flicks, from, well, Wall Street to Wolf of Wall Street, Lorene Scafaria’s adaptation of a New Yorker article about a cadre of female strippers who schemed to fleece the fleecers is by turns entertaining, infuriating, and sobering, but never anything less than engrossing. This is due in large measure to the terrific performance of Jennifer Lopez as the coolly self-possessed den mother and mastermind behind the scheme. She may play a stripper, but she’s just as magnetic with her clothes on, and will leave you wanting more.


Honorable Mentions:
Ad Astra
The Irishman
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Ash is Purest White
Knives Out
Captain Marvel
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Ford v. Ferrari
The Mustang
The Two Popes

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Oscar predix 2020

Wow, have I really not posted to this blog since last summer? Apologies, the back half of 2019 ended up being busy for me and when I did have time to write about movies, it was usually for Nathaniel Rogers' excellent blog The Film Experience. You can find my articles here.

But the Oscars are the one time of year I will never miss here, for better or for worse, even though I've missed more of the nominees this year than I usually do. (Having the Oscars so much earlier than usual doesn't help.) Based on what I have seen, I have mixed feelings about these nominations...on the one hand, it is true that the best pic/director lineup tilted very MALE (not just in who was nominated, but the subject matter of their movies) and the acting nods very WHITE, but on the other, it's been amazing to see the South Korean film Parasite ride its zeitgeist to a heap of major nods, including for both Picture and Director. One can't overstate what a huge deal this is for the Academy, which has never nominated a Korean film even for best foreign film, let alone best picture, despite the fact that South Korea has been producing some of the most interesting and critically acclaimed cinema in the world for a while now. Well, Korea's finally not only arrived, it's smashed through, Kool-Aid man style. It may be a one-off, but it's still a remarkable accomplishment.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my predictions for the major awardage this year.

Best Picture

Will win: 1917

Should win: PARASITE

Dark horse: PARASITE. ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD is still in the mix, but PARASITE has all the possible-upset buzz right now.


Best Director

Will win: Sam Mendes (1917)

Should win: Bong Joon-Ho, but I wouldn't begrudge Mendes

Dark horse: I don't see anyone but Mendes winning, but I suppose both Bong and Tarantino have long shots.


Best Actress

Will win: Renee Zellweger for JUDY

Should win: Haven't seen JUDY, so will not opine

Dark horse: ScarJo for MARRIAGE STORY


Best Actor

Will win: Joaquin Phoenix for JOKER

Should win: Haven't seen JOKER, so will not opine

Dark horse: Adam Driver for MARRIAGE STORY...but I'm 99% positive Joaquin has this one in the bag, especially since he's never won.


Best Supporting Actress

Will win: Laura Dern for MARRIAGE STORY

Should win: Haven't seen RICHARD JEWELL...but I utterly adored Dern, so...

Dark horse: People are saying ScarJo again (for JOJO RABBIT), but I say bollocks. Maybe I'm biased because I didn't think she was that good in that movie. (Her nomination for MARRIAGE STORY, on the other hand, was well deserved.)


Best Supporting Actor

Will win: Brad Pitt for ONCE UPON A TIME...

Should win: Pitt was great, but gotta give props to Joe Pesci for an uncharacteristically understated (and terrifically effective) performance in THE IRISHMAN. Also Pitt's character was really more of a co-lead.

Dark horse: None. This is Pitt's to lose.


Best Original Screenplay

Will win: Toss-up between PARASITE and ONCE UPON A TIME... but I think, especially if PARASITE doesn't win best pic, this (along with foreign film) will be its consolation prize.

Should win: PARASITE

Dark horse: It's weird to call Tarantino a dark horse in this category, but if it isn't PARASITE, it'll be his.


Best Adapted Screenplay

Will win: JOJO RABBIT (sigh...I just did not care much for that movie)

Should win: LITTLE WOMEN

Dark horse: LITTLE WOMEN