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

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

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

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.)

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.

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)

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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

Monday, May 27, 2019

Summer 2019 movie preview

Is it just me, or did this spring seem especially starved for good movies? Apart from Marvel’s one-two blockbuster punch of CAPTAIN MARVEL and AVENGERS: ENDGAME – both of which I enjoyed, the former surprisingly more than the latter – there just hasn't been much in theaters to stir any real excitement among movie lovers, give or take a JOHN WICK 3 (fun, but sates quickly). While we usually see the first crop of promising summer arrivals by mid-May, we seem to be getting off to a slow start this year. But never fear, there are plenty of buzzy releases just around the corner. And though it’s a fool’s game predicting which ones will take off, I hereby decree this (1) the Summer of the Asian American (aka post-Crazy Rich Asians Bonanza Summer) and (2) the Summer of Emma Thompson, who has at least two potential hits that seem calculated to play to her particular brand of awesomeness. Here’s hoping I prove correct on both counts.

In order of release date, here are the ten movies I’m most looking forward to this summer:

BOOKSMART (in theaters)
Olivia Wilde makes her directorial debut in what’s being billed as “the female Superbad” but sounds more like a continuation of Lady Bird’s lovely ode to teen girl friendship – and not just because it stars Beanie Feldstein. She and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12, Detroit, The Front Runner, Beautiful Boy) play best friends who are about to graduate high school and, after four straight years of all-work-no-play, decide to make up for all the fun they missed in one epic night. The results, by all accounts, are equal parts hilarious and heartwarming.

ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE (May 31 on Netflix)
Although I have deeply conflicted feelings about Netflix, given their ultimate goal to render movie theaters obsolete, I can’t say no to a rom-com that stars Randall Park (“Fresh Off the Boat,” The Interview) and stand-up comedian Ali Wong, and that refers to one of my go-to karaoke songs. Park and Wong play a pair of childhood friends who randomly run into each other decades later and strike sparks despite finding they’re in completely different life situations. Bonus: Keanu Reeves apparently has an offbeat cameo.

In recent years the Bay area has maintained a summer tradition of high-quality, thought-provoking films about the modern African American experience, from Fruitvale Station to last year’s Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You and now this labor of love by first-time director Joe Talbot, who also co-stars with his longtime friend Jimmie Fails. Based on Fails’ real-life story, the movie focuses on his quest to preserve the San Francisco family home built by his grandfather in the face of the city’s all-too-well known epidemic of gentrification on steroids. Timely and poignant? Audiences certainly thought so at Sundance, where it won raves and several awards earlier this year.

Mindy Kaling continues her march to conquer Hollywood in this comedy about a pathbreaking female talk show host (Emma Thompson) who hires her first female writer (Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay) in an attempt to gin up falling ratings. Their relationship starts off on a decidedly frosty note, as the new hire’s lack of experience runs up against her boss’s acerbic personality and longstanding reputation as a woman who hates other women. No doubt the ice eventually thaws; the fun is seeing how, and what happens when the two join forces to prove the naysayers wrong.

Ron Howard directs this documentary about the legendary tenor who brought opera to the masses. As someone who grew up to the sound of his golden voice pouring through my parents’ speakers and still regards him as the preeminent tenor of my time, I am pretty much the target audience for this movie. But even if you’re not, you should consider seeing it, if only to understand what an outsized impact the Pav had on making opera as popular and accessible as it’s ever likely to get—and to revel in that voice. Simply put, there will never be another like it.

I watched Men in Black 3 in large part because the great Emma Thompson was in it, and found it unexpectedly enjoyable. Now we have Dame Emma returning for the “international” installment, along with a fresh pair of leads played by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who demonstrated their chemistry in Thor: Ragnorak. Count these as reasons enough for me to see it.

2018's most delightful breakout star, the inimitable Awkafina, leads this dramedy about a young Chinese-American woman who travels to China after her grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The twist is that the entire family is hiding the truth from the grandmother and demanding that the granddaughter play along, much to the latter's discomfort. The film was well received at Sundance, and promises to resonate not just with other Asian Americans but anyone who’s confronted cultural or generational conflicts within one’s own family.

A cannily cast Jesse Eisenberg plays an overly meek, mild-mannered accountant who joins a karate class after getting brutally beaten up by a biker gang. Under the influence of his mucho-macho instructor (Alessandro Nivola), he discovers a whole untapped reservoir of hyperaggression within himself as he immerses himself in his new world. What follows is part study, part send-up of toxic masculinity that’s already evoked comparisons to Fight Club. In other words, probably an all too apt touchstone for our times.

Quentin Tarantino’s latest stars Leonardo di Caprio as a past-his-prime actor and Brad Pitt as his stunt double, in and around the time of the infamous Tate murders (with Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate). The latter, however, doesn’t seem to be Tarantino’s primary focus, so much as an excuse for him to compose his own personal love letter to late 1960s Hollywood. Judging from the film’s reception at Cannes, it’s a fun watch that largely succeeds on those terms.

This adaptation of a bestselling novel about a brilliant architect turned stay-at-home mom who suddenly, mysteriously disappears, told from the viewpoint of her teenage daughter, interests me less for its premise (I haven’t read the book) than for the people involved in its making. A film directed by Richard Linklater, with Cate Blanchett in the title role? Color me intrigued, if not 100% sold.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Oscars predix 2019 - basically, I have NFC

It's been, to say the least, a very weird Oscars season. Between the Academy's maddening obsession with making the Oscars more "relevant" - leading to uniformly terrible ideas for the show that they've invariably had to walk back - to the controversies swirling around several of the nominees, many Oscars lovers I know are either perpetually scratching their heads or wringing their hands. Me, I veer between annoyed at the Academy's tinkering with the telecast (if you really want to make it shorter, guys, just cut all the stupid skits and filler, and no, that does NOT include any actual awards!) and oddly fascinated by the schizophrenic nature of the best picture roster. Because you couldn't get a more perfect picture of the current fault lines that run through Hollywood than that lineup: old vs. new, "artsy" vs. commercial, "woke" vs. conservative. Which forces will triumph tonight? Damned if I know, which is why I haven't felt this uncertain about my predictions in years. But here are my picks for the major categories, for whatever they're worth:

Best Picture

Will win: Smart money is on either GREEN BOOK or ROMA, but especially with the complicated math of Oscars ranked voting, this really could be anyone's game. At this time I'll go with what appears to be the (hesitant) consensus for GREEN BOOK.

Should win: ROMA, but I'd be less unhappy than most if GREEN BOOK takes it. Despite its flaws, the backlash over its racial politics, and the increasingly ugly revelations about its conception and creators, at its core it's a sweet and engaging movie that works very well if you don't take it as a prescription for How to Fix Racism. That said, I almost think it would be better for Green Book if it *doesn't* win.

Dark horse: Again, literally any of these films could win. Any of them. Well, probably not VICE, although I might be biased since it was the only nominee I actively disliked.

Best Director

Will win: The Academy loves Alfonso Cuarón almost as much as it loves his fellow amigo Alejandro Iñárritu, and he's gotten a boatload of awards this season for ROMA - so he's probably got this locked up.

Should win: Cuarón (who wrote, directed, and shot ROMA) would be a worthy winner, but I secretly wish the Academy would give it to Spike Lee. He's overdue, and BLACKKKLANSMAN was excellent.

Dark horse: Spike Lee

Best Actress

Will win: Glenn Close. Not only is strong in THE WIFE, she, too, is overdue (7 nominations, no wins), and has been pitch-perfect on the awards circuit. See, e.g., her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.

Should win: Close

Dark horse: Olivia Colman for THE FAVOURITE

Best Actor

Will win: Probably Rami Malek for BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, though there will no doubt be great wailing and gnashing of teeth if that happens.

Should win: I still haven't seen At Eternity's Gate, and I loves me some Willem Dafoe, so I will abstain on this question.

Dark horse: Christian Bale for his transformation into Sith Lord Cheney

Best Supporting Actress


Should win: Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE, though she's really a co-lead (as is Rachel Weisz, who's also very good in a quieter performance - but Stone is just so much fun)

Dark horse: Rachel Weisz, though never rule out Amy Adams (who's been nominated a ridic number of times but still hasn't won - hopefully it won't be for VICE)

Best Supporting Actor

Will win: Mahershala Ali, who's remained untouched by the controversies surrounding GREEN BOOK

Should win: Richard E. Grant, who's truly sublime in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Dark horse: With a meatier role, I'd say Sam Elliott (who's quite good in A STAR IS BORN), but I really think Ali has this one in the bag.

Best Original Screenplay

Will win: Another tough one - as tough as best picture. If GREEN BOOK wins this, it's probably winning best picture. But I will pick THE FAVOURITE since this is the one major category where the Academy does sometimes go with the edgier choice. Plus, the controversies over GREEN BOOK will probably hurt it even more in this category than in the best picture category.

Should win: For sharpness and originality, THE FAVOURITE. For enjoyability - well, don't shoot me, but I did prefer GREEN BOOK. Turning in my critic's card now.

Dark horse: Excluding GREEN BOOK, which is really almost a co-front runner, I wouldn't count out ROMA. As with GREEN BOOK, if it wins this award, it's probably winning the whole shebang.

Best Adapted Screenplay


Should win: I haven't read any of the original source material for any of the nominees, but CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? did an amazing job bringing to life the prickly character/author behind the very odd, initially off-putting story that somehow ends up being surprisingly touching and funny.

Dark horse: Not really one I can think of, unless there are more people than I think there are in the Academy who share my feelings about CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?