Thursday, February 23, 2017

If I Picked The Winners (and Predictions)

The Matties

Best Picture

The Nominees:  La La Land     Manchester By The Sea   Hidden Figures   Moonlight    Arrival  Fences   Lion   Hell or High Water  Hacksaw Ridge

What Will Win:   La La Land

What Should Win:    Manchester By The Sea

Should Have been Nominated:   The Lobster  (and also what should have won)


Does La La Land have some flaws?  Yes.  Is it the best musical ever?  No.  But it is maybe the most joyful film of the year and one of the few I have wanted to see more than once.  I already feel the backlash if it wins.  But it will not be a tragedy like Crash or Shakespeare In Love or others.  So calm down film snobs and elitists, who don't get the irony of their own racist attacks.

I would very much want to revisit La La Land on the big screen in 15 /20 years if/when they rerelease it.  Its a fun strong movie

Also, I would vote for Manchester By The Sea.




Best Actor

Nominees:  Denzel Washington  Casey Affleck   Andrew Garfield  Ryan Gosling  Viggo Mortenson

Who Will Win:  Denzel Washington

Who Should Win:  Casey Affleck

Should Have Been Nominated:  Colin Farrell (The Lobster)

Affleck has won nearly every award.  Garfield is strong.  As is Gosling as always.  Making things look natural and easy is actually to Gosling's awards detriment to this point in his career.

Viggo is strong in a pretty weak movie.

I like Denzel Washington.  He is a top tier actor.  But that does not mean I think he gives the best performance out of these choices.  He is strong as usual, but Affleck is more quietly heartbreaking. I'd place Denzel's performance as my 4th or 5th favorite of this list.

We know Matt Damon was originally cast and we can make an educated guess that Affleck is far superior to what Damon (a strong actor) could have brought to the role.

While Washington is strong in Fences, we don't have to imagine another actor in the role.  We can see James Earl Jones in the same role.  Just look it up online.  And Jones is superior.  People that win SAG, as Washington did, usually win the Oscar.  Affleck was accused of sexual harassment a few years ago and that is coming back to haunt him now.  That and making the Academy "more inclusive" could trip him up at the finish line.


Best Actress:

Nominees:  Emma Stone   Natalie Portman   Isabelle Huppert   Meryl Streep     Ruth Nega

Don't discount Streep's chances here.  She is playing up the Trump is evil card at every possible turn. Which voters love.  It has been confirmed with getting her more votes this awards season.  As divided as the country seems right now, voters might well salivate over whatever speech they know she would make.  She is a longshot but not as much as one might think.  Don't be shocked if her name gets called in this wide open field.

Who Will Win:   Isabelle Huppert

I am in the minority but I just see this happening.  Heavy favorite Emma Stone gives an Oscar caliber performance and I'd be more than happy if her name gets called.  But part of me thinks and has thought for months Huppert would take this one.  Maybe its just my intuition, which means very little.

Who Should Win:  Natalie Portman

Portman has a nearly impossible task.  Play one of the most famous people in the world.  Pull off heaps of emotion while at times seeming oddly cold.  Give an accent that is not quite this and not quite that but most concede is crazy accurate to the subject without being a carbon copy Rich Little imitation.  Look regal while also walking rigidly and sounding odd.  All things Jackie Kennedy was at this time.  Time has been kind to this first lady, who in footage was often stiff and uncomfortable.
And if at times Portman looks as if she is acting, it is because Jackie herself seemed to always be doing so.  When the cameras are not on her we get a different person.

While it might not be everyone's most enjoyable performance of the year, try and imagine anyone else doing it better or even as well.

Should Have Been Nominated:  Hailee Steinfeld   (The Edge of Seventeen) and Amy Adams  (Arrival or Nocturnal Animals)




Best Supporting Actor

Nominees:    Jeff Bridges  Mahershala Ali   Lucas Hedges   Dev Patel   Michael Shannon

Who Will Win:    Mahershala Ali

Who Should Win:   Lucas Hedges

Ali is great in a performance that feels as if it is just starting when "poof" we never see him again.  In an odd way this has played to his advantage as we want to see him again.  So I can not say his Oscar will not be deserving.  Still, it feels like unfinished work.   By contrast, Trevante Rhodes has a role that feels far more complete.  And his performance I think is even superior to Ali's.  Playing an older version of the main character, Ali looks like a bodybuilder that resembles nothing of the character we saw last.  But then just as quickly we see the younger version in his face through his surprising vulnerability.  It is the performance that should have been nominated from Moonlight.

Lucas Hedges performance is a breakout.  He holds his own as a teenager that is selfish, kind, grieving, and a bit of an asshole all at once.  Which feels quite realistic for most teenagers, in spite of or sometimes because of what tragedy they might be going through.  His performance is the one that would get my vote.  But he will have other chances and his nomination alone was a small surprise.

Should Have Been Nominated:  Hayden Szeto  (The Edge of Seventeen)     Hugh Grant (Florence Foster Jenkins)



Best Supporting Actress

Nominees:  Viola Davis   Michelle Williams   Naomie Harris    Nicole Kidman   Octavia Spencer

Who Will Win:  Viola Davis

Who Should Win: Viola Davis

Editing and direction can influence a performance.  Make it better or worse.  Davis cries to the point of doing that ugly cry; full of snot.  You almost can not watch it it is so uncomfortable both physically and what it represents as happening to her character.

I looked at her Tony Award winning performance of this same role on Broadway.  Same scene.  Same performance given.  And there you only get one take.  Davis is incredible in a career defining role. You can not find anyone else that plays the role better.  The only possible criticism being she outshines costar Denzel Washington she is so good.


Best Cinematography

Nominees:
 Moonlight   Silence   Lion   La La Land  Arrival

What Will Win:  La La Land

Who Should Win:  Pretty much any of these are worthy.  Maybe La La Land, Silence, Arrival, Lion, and Moonlight in that order.



Best Original Screenplay

Nominees:  Hell or High Water  La La Land  The Lobster  Manchester by the Sea  20th Century Women


What Will Win:  Manchester by the Sea

What Should Win:  The Lobster and Manchester by the Sea are both great screenplays.  The nomination is The Lobster's reward.


Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees:  Arrival   Fences    Hidden Figures    Lion    Moonlight

What Will Win:  Moonlight

What Should Win:  Arrival


Best Original Song

"City of Stars"    La La Land
"Audition (The Fools Who Dream)"  La La Land
"Can't Stop The Feeling"   Trolls
"The Empty Chair"    Jim:  The James Foley Story
"How Far I'll Go"   Moana

What Will Win:  City of Stars  La La Land

What Should Win:  Audition (The Fools Who Dream)  La La Land

What Should Have Been Nominated:    "Lovely Night"  La La Land     

My favorite song of the movie that contained both Gosling and Stone together.  I get the regard for "Audition."  If Stone wins the Oscar, maybe 40 years from now she and Anne Hathaway can do the Vegas circuit where she sings this and Hathaway sings "I Dreamed a Dream."  It will be nearly as big a reason she wins the Oscar as that song is to Hathaway.  But "City of Stars" is my least favorite song in the whole film. (Though lyrically important)





What Should Have Been Nominated:  "Drive It Like You Stole It"  Sing Street

Carney's Sing Street is not his best film, but it does have an exuberance that all his movies possess. Set in the 80's, this is a song meant to sound like one from that time period (it does) while also encapsulating the feeling of the young main character  (It does that too).  It's also pretty catchy.





Best Original Score

Nominees:
 Moonlight    Jackie    Passengers    La La Land    Lion

What Will Win:   La La Land

What Should Win:  La La Land

What Should Have Been Nominated:  Swiss Army Man



Monday, January 16, 2017

Top 10 Best Movies of 2016

Before we get to the top 10.  Ones that were amongst my favorites and I felt worth mentioning.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Yes, Streep is unsurprisingly good.  But the most interesting character is portrayed by Hugh Grant, who gives the best performance in the movie.














The Jungle Book


I was surprised how much I enjoyed this adaptation.  The animated Disney version is a classic with some now at least borderline questionable scenes in sensitive modern times.  (That's not always bad).

Director Favreau has King Louie now sing "Someone like me" as opposed to "An Ape like me," etc. (The song is considered racist by some, as portrayed in the original film).

But what Favreau was not concerned about was violence in a kid's movie.  This is some heavy stuff that might stay with a kid longer than Apes dancing in tutus.

Unsurprisingly Murray and Walken are two standouts.  Scarlett Johanasen is great as (hopefully the world's largest snake) Kaa.   Idris Elba's Shere Khan is one of the best villains of the year and newcomer Neel Sethi holds his own amongst the animal stars


Fences


On paper this is a brilliant adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Director Denzel Washington smartly keeps the performances the focus.  While "its just a play put on film," can be seen as a weakness in direction, it feels likely the proper decision.

And yet, something feels slightly off to me.  It is a great, well maybe very good movie.  But why it is not a masterpiece I can't quite place.  Maybe it is simply very good and that should be celebrated enough.  Maybe it feels a bit too much "Of Mice and Men" and "Death of a Salesman" at times.  It sums up that quote of "It is so very good you are mad its not great."

But Viola Davis should easily win the Oscar.  She should thank her skipping her Claritin D in her acceptance speech.


Hacksaw Ridge

"I humbly ask that you join me...in forgiving my friend of his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me and allowing him to continue his great and on-going contribution to our collective art without shame."       -Robert Downey Jr.

Well it is about time.  Just maybe Mel Gibson has now been let out of his movie purgatory.  And that is great news because he reaffirms here that he is a significant director.  One whose voice deserves to be heard.  Gibson has now directed five movies.  Four are very good and one is a masterpiece.  And one of the very good, won a bunch of Oscars.

Hacksaw Ridge is not a masterpiece, but it is proof Gibson still more than knows what he is doing.  Gibson is not the most subtle of filmmakers.  Though ironically The Passion of the Christ actually contained a few examples of this, Gibson is about as subtle in his filmmaking as is his public persona.  Normally when it comes to directing this has served him well.  

Going "Full Gibson" is something I kind of missed.  However, why this strong film is not better in my opinion, is that Mel did not go subtle enough in a few spots.

The father of Desmond Doss in this movie is less a character than a caricature.  It is an unfortunate thing when so much of this film goes so right.  Picture Kramer from Seinfeld's depiction of "Sorosis of the Liver" and you pretty much have the father character here.



I like to imagine through a clerical error, that Mel was hired to direct the latest Nicholas Sparks film.  Not wanting to let them down, he shows the studio execs dailies from only the First Act.

"Wow Mel!  This is just what we wanted!" they exclaim in delight, all the while Mad Mel stifles a giggle, as he can't help himself and whispers, "screw them, let's make it a war movie."

Vince Vaughn is expertly cast as Sergeant Howell.  Teresa Palmer is great as Dorothy and Andrew Garfield is wonderful as our hero Doss.  (Garfield has had a heck of a good year).  Take your pick which performance to give him an Oscar nomination for.

Gibson received a 10 minute standing ovation at the first public screening of this film.  I guess a minute for every year he was gone.  Fantastic and well deserved.  Lets get the next film out before another decade goes by.

 



Allied


Robert Zemekis is a director I can't quite wrap my head around.  He is obviously very successful and has made many good movies.  I'm just not convinced how many great ones he has made.  I would put Allied as maybe the closest to great he has done since Cast Away.

Flight contained many wonderful scenes but then kind of fell apart by the end.  Allied is more held together throughout.  It is like a modern day Casablanca story, and it's no coincidence they are actually in Casablanca for part of the movie.

The star of Allied  is without a shadow of a doubt Marion Cottilard, as she is in just about every movie she has ever been in.  She is wonderful in pulling off the "is she or isn't she?" intrigue.  She is easily one of our finest working actresses.  And if I got to stare into those eyes every day, the answer to the film's burning question would be of little concern to me.

One thing I can not decide is how good Brad Pitt is in this.  I would not go so far as to call his performance bad. It's not that exactly.  I think his underplaying you can chalk up, at least in part, to a spy having to be that way to stay alive.  But I think it is summed up well to describe Pitt as a "wonderful character actor stuck with a leading man's face."

And if you look at his best performances, they are almost all character actor type roles.  He does these wonderfully.  Down to how he holds his water bottle in Burn After Reading, or  attempts to convince a Nazi he is Italian in Inglorious Basterds.



He is great in the father role in The Tree of Life but that is also a supporting role.  He is not the protagonist.  Take note casting directors.  Pitt is a character actor.  Stop making him a leading man.
 

  Knight of Cups

In another life, I have given wine tastings to people.  When we get to the reserve section, I sometimes joke that this is the moment where we are allowed to act pretentious, which is half the fun of drinking good wine.

Knight of Cups is that best reserve wine on the list.  It is complex and not for everyone.  But the more familiar you get with it you wanna share a bottle to talk about all the flavors and aromas.

I'd suggest drinking it more than once.

When you give it another taste, you experience flavors like Kierkegaard and Plato and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

Terrence Malick assumes his viewers are either familiar with such references, or willing to seek them out.  And if you are not willing, I also do not think he cares.  Part of the success in what make Malick's films so great, is his ability to make films for himself first and foremost.

"Once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven as only creatures can.  But the soul lost its wings and fell to earth, there it took an earthly body, and now while it lives in this body no outward sign of wings can be seen, yet the roots of its wings are still there and the nature of these is to try to raise the earthbound soul into heaven."


Nocturnal Animals

Ford's second movie and first in 11 years shows the Fashion Designer exhibiting substance over style.

I think.

This is the movie that might a few months from now be completely off my list.  Or it might end up closer to the top just like the movie above. I warn here about upcoming spoilers, though I could describe the entire movie and most people would go "huh?"  It is not only the plot that is a spoiler, but the different interpretations of that plot.  It is a genuine David Lynch type riddle but with an actual answer.

I think.

(spoilers)

I will say the themes Ford touches on are male/female roles and just what it does to a man to be looked at as weak.  To be told to give up your dream and focus on something more defining of a husband role can feel like a sort of rape.

People have made a big deal out of the first scene.  Which is showing scantily clad to completely nude obese women dancing in slow motion; often holding some sort of fireworks as if it is the 4th of July.  We see this is some sort of art exhibit and Susan (Amy Adams) is in charge of the exhibit but doesn't think much of the display herself.  What is a film director who is also a fashion designer telling us by this?  A statement on art and fashion in general?  On America?  Are the lines of who is grotesque about to be blurred?

Ford depicts rednecks in this film in what struck me as about the most offensive depiction of poor white people since Deliverence.  Though it is the Jake Gyllenhaal character, Edward, a writer, who is writing these characters as his ex-wife Susan reads the story.  The characters in the book within the film are representations.

Edward writes a character (Tony) that watches his wife and daughter literally snatched away from him as he is too weak to stop it.  It is not for lack of budget that Gyllenhaal plays this character in the movie as well.  Edward is his character, Tony.  He sees himself as weak because Susan told him he was.

It is also not coincidence Isla Fisher plays Gyllenhaal's fictional wife.  I used to get her and Adams confused regularly.    

Edward uses his book (dedicated to Susan) as not a thank you at all, but as a giant middle finger.    Not only did Adams emasculate him via not supporting his career, she emasculated him personally by aborting their child.  But he is also admitting if he was only stronger he could have stopped it, just as Tony should have found a way to stop it too.  The novel is his way of telling her, "this is what you did to me, this is what I think of you." By the Tony character being weak until the very end, Edward admits to a large degree he was in fact not strong enough.

Is there more to it than that?  Sure.  I think Tom Ford has other thoughts.  And I don't think they are too kind to Susan.  Ex:  The "death scene" from the novel we see depicted is then seen in another form above her head in a piece of artwork.

It's not a film for everyone and maybe at times not even for me.

But I'm still thinking about it.


Arrival


(spoiler)

Yes I get it but what about her husband and the father of her child?  Does his feelings not matter for anything?

This is called a feminist pro woman movie and even a pro-life movie.  I get all that and agree with all of them.  But it sure doesn't feel like a pro husband/father movie.  Let's talk about that.


The Nice Guys

I'm so tempted to slip this into my Top 10 list I know I'll probably regret not doing so.

I realize this film is uneven.  But it has such a joyful element of risk taking.

Patton Oswalt called this his "New Big Lebowski." I'm hopeful that like that film, it grows in reputation over time.  Though not as consistent throughout as that cult classic example, The Nice Guys, when it works.... which is most of it... works so very well.

Gosling and Crowe have fantastic chemistry together.  And kudos for only occasionally playing it safe towards the end.  Even then nothing is tied up as neatly as you typically expect.  Much respect.






Top Ten



10.  Hell or High Water

This movie is both a blatant Cormac McCarthy/No Country For Old Men ripoff and something that feels fresh and original.  Being Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors, I'm ok with that. Like La La Land, borrow from the best.

Jeff Bridges is always great but the pleasant surprise of this film for me was Chris Pine. Not saying he is a weak actor, he is far from it.  But I think this is easily his strongest performance.

The loose canon older brother is a bit tired by this point, and even Ben Foster is no John Cazale.  But if I criticize every character I've already seen before (Jeff Bridges character is near retirement.  No really) I would have no list and there would be no movies.

What has been done before is forgiven when you see how well it is done here.  Enough social commentary to satisfy either staunch Republican or liberal Democrat.  A near pitch perfect last scene.





9.  La La Land

(spoilers) 


My key to appreciating La La Land is to not look at it as a musical exactly.  Of course it is, but yet it isn't quite somehow to me.  Part of why I say that is there just doesn't feel like there is enough music in it to be a proper musical.

This is director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) doing a jazz rendition of a musical.  As Ryan Gosling's Sebastian explains to Emma Stone's Mia, "It's conflict and compromise.  It's new every time."

That line is significant because it describes their relationship that is about to begin, as well as the ending of the film.

This is not a musical, it is a Chazelle version of one.  Which is to say its something you haven't quite seen before (at least lately), with a very healthy dose of what you have (each dance scene is a nod to a past film. Singing In The Rain,  Swing Time,  An American In Paris, etc).

Chazelle goes long stretches between songs.  Stretches where we are beat up emotionally.  Possibly even more than watching Nazi's chase the Von Trapp Family Singers.

But if I look at it genre aside, what am I left with?  I think a wonderful little movie with moments of whimsy and great performances.  It is far from perfect and people can argue just go see the other films it pays homage to.  But beyond the "If I can make it there," type movie cliches, it contains some moments that should also be recognized.  Like how Stone and Gosling (who at this point have developed maybe the best on screen chemistry of any actors their age) are really really great here.  Or how Sebastian does something utterly selfless for Mia and is never recognized for it; never explains himself and it goes unsaid by anyone just what he did for her.  We don't get a sister character to show up and tell Mia later on, "Oh by the way he did that whole thing for you."  It goes not only unsaid but maybe even unnoticed completely.

When Sebastian says to Mia "You like Jazz now?" Mia answers with a soft and unconvincing "Yes."  But Sebastian does not register it as unconvincing.  Because her yes is the answer to a different question.  In the way Emma Stone is able to convey this, is for me as much reason she would deserve to win an Oscar for this role as the Audition Scene.

In nearly every movie I see, I can think of at least one line that makes me cringe.  Whether it be more than one soldier telling Desmond Doss how he had him wrong using the exact same line.  Whether it be the order Brad Pitt's commanding officer gives a group of soldiers at the end of Allied.  Whether it being the end of Sully when one of the investigators at the hearing happens to mention the engine results just came in conveniently at this very moment.

When it happens and when it doesn't is a kind of theme for my list this year.

My favorite part of Chazelle's screenplay is what he left out.  Or as Lisa Simpson would say when explaining Jazz, "You have to listen to the notes he's not playing."  


8.    Hail, Caesar!

Coen Brother films are like a paper cut.  If paper cuts were pleasant.  You can leave a Coen Brothers film and think "Meh, that wasn't much," and then over time marvel at little details and moments they pepper with their films better and more uniquely than nearly anyone.

The below scene is one of the best discussions on basic theology I have seen on film.  Done within 2 minutes and with humor.  Somewhere Martin Scorsese saw this scene and started tearing his hair out.




Think I'm overreaching?  Maybe.  But then so is this guy.  And I'm not.






7.   Lion

The biggest tearjerker on my list, but I think it earns those tears.  And it has maybe the cutest kid in any movie I have ever seen.  Before watching Sing the other day, my wife had to nearly leave the theater because of the trailer for a dog movie.  I think if she watched this she would be in intensive care.

The First Act is hard to match and I am not sure they ever actually do.  But even if it lags a bit, it picks back up and we get a moving conclusion that does not feel over the top considering the subject matter.







6.  The Edge of Seventeen

Once a year or two we seem to get a really good "teen movie."  And I suppose that is true of many genres.  Many stink and then come awards season more good ones turn up.  But I do genuinely think (despite the fact I'm way past the age of the target audience) that there are less great films made in this category than others.

They don't trot these out late in the year, they come out earlier and if they are great like this one, performances are forgotten.  Which is a true shame because in a better world Hayden Szeto would be getting Oscar consideration for supporting actor.  Hailee Steinfeld proves True Grit was no fluke. She is fantastic.  Steinfeld is actually SO good, that instead of finding out more about her, I want to know nothing.  I don't want to know her eating habits or her political views or who she shows up at parties with.  I want to just know this performance.  And see the one that comes next.

And has Woody Harrelson gone from Woody Boyd to pothead to national treasure?

Talking about those lines that irk me again.  The end of this movie had one all lined up on a platter.  It was not exactly a bad line, just an expected one.  It was a hanging curve-ball and I knew they were gonna swing for the fences.  And then they didn't.  And I love them for it.

When "OK," is one of your very favorite moments in a movie all year.




5.  Hunt for the Wilderpeople

So many ways this film could have gone wrong.  And yet it never does.  It feels like Director Taika Waititi pulled off a magic trick.  At times it feels like the best Wes Anderson film he never directed.  And is even better than most he has.  But it is also very much owned by Waititi.

To pull this off, so many things must go just right.  I'm not sure the exact same people could remake it and it be just as good.

And that is much of the joy in watching it.




4.  Manchester By The Sea


When I made my Top 10 All-Time Greatest Films list some time back, I included the movie Tokyo Story.  I know some people are curious as to why that movie is so highly regarded, in the sense it does not have obvious groundbreaking camera shots like Citizen Kane (though it does contain some, just more subtlety).  It does not have any great twist or MacGuffin like Kane.  It is not over the top in your face brilliant like 2001.  It is just a fairly simple story well told.

But it is so well told.  From acting to directing and on down the line.  It is like so many other great dramas you have seen, just better somehow.  I have a similar feeling about Manchester By The Sea. No I'm not putting it in quite that high regard, but Manchester is just one of those films that seems to be clicking on all cylinders better than most.  It is not one big or two big things that makes this film, but a thousand small ones.

Critic Matt Zoller Seitz called Manchester By The Sea, "the funniest film about grief ever made."  I think a lot of people won't see it that way, and just see it as a heavy mother of a movie.  But there is truth to what he said.  Subtle touches like EMT's not able to properly get a gurney into an ambulance. A lesser filmmaker would have had a character yell at them or point it out.  Lonergan has no one say anything, which shows his confidence in the scene.  It is the right decision in a movie that makes most of the right ones.

The script is yes sad, but not in a manipulative way.  The ending is realistic yet deserved.  Actors John Krasinski and Matt Damon came up with the very basic idea of the movie, in which director Kenneth Lonergan then wrote the entire script.  Damon was originally supposed to star but stepped down, letting Casey Affleck take over.  Damon is a fine actor that would have done a serviceable job, but he could not have captured here what Affleck is able to.

"I can't beat it," is through him, honest and heartbreaking and real.


3.  Silence

I will start with a bit of a confession.  I'm not a huge Martin Scorsese fan.  That is not to say I am not aware of his ability.  He has made some amazing films.  It is just that most of them do not get me in any emotional way.  Most to me I see as technically impressive and then rather quickly forgotten. Even Goodfellas, the poster of which graced the wall of most guys my age in our late teen years, I saw once, felt, "that was well done," and never had any desire to see again.

The Departed, though a good remake, is hardly worthy of all the Oscars it received.  Scorsese's Academy Award for that film is essentially a lifetime achievement Oscar given as a make up for being past over too often.  Most of his movies of the past 25 years, feel to me as work that qualifies as "good," while all gathering glowing reviews people wish they had been around at the time to write about Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

And yet here we are with Silence, a film Scorsese spent 28 years attempting to get made, and one that has gotten almost zero awards consideration.  This for a man that gets awards as soon as he announces a new project.

So why?  Why has this film been ignored?  What's so awful about this one?  Well, actually nothing at all.  Quite the opposite.  I will go ahead and say something that Scorsese fans will find apostate.  This is his best film in at least 27 years.  For me, 35.

Now before you get out the torches, I understand few if any will agree with me.  This is a slow paced film driven by voiced over dialogue. Its not about gangsters its about Christian missionaries in the 1600's.

I found it captivating.

"This is not the sort of film that you 'like' or 'don't like.' It's a film that you experience and then live with."
 -Matt Zoller Seitz

Andrew Garfield plays a missionary that goes to not only spread Christianity in Japan, but find his mentor and teacher, who has been presumed "lost" to the faith.  This is quite a bookend of performances for Garfield, playing the nearly never questioning his faith Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge, to a Jesuit priest who questions if God really hears him.  Garfield is great, as is Adam Driver, who you wish had more screen time.  And Yosuke Kubozuka plays Kichijiro, maybe the most real character of many real ones, because his faith often felt most like my own.

The film raises theological questions.  Questions of what faith means in general.  Were these missionaries doing any good for the people they were there to save or only doing them harm?  What is the loving, "Christ like" thing to do when faced with a near impossible decision?  Who are the good and bad guys here?  Scorsese will not allow for a trite stock Hollywood answer.  And yet his ending felt tremendously satisfying.  Even if I am not sure I agree with some of his conclusions.

I have seen many videos with titles of how Silence is NOT a Christian film, and have read that many Catholics are not happy with it.  Sound familiar?  This is indeed not a Christian movie in the sense of God's Not Dead and the like.  This is a film that provokes thought and discussion, not another bad church endorsed movie that preaches to the choir.

And thank God for that


2.   The Witch

Sin.  No one can escape it.  Not even the best most puritanical.  For me, The Witch is the best true horror film in years.  Possibly the most disturbing film I've ever seen.

The script is taken at times word for word from transcripts of the Salem Witch trials.  Set 30 years prior, we are shown how maybe there was actual truth to it all.  But that's just one way to look at the film.  Because despite the best efforts of a family to be "better" than the ones they communed with before, maybe you can not run away from the Original Sin inside yourself.

First time director Robert Eggers has made a smart film that stands with if not above The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, of recent years.  Eggers is confident enough to cite The Shining and Bergman's Cries and Whispers as influences.

Anya Taylor-Joy gives a performance as Thomasin, that stands with Hailee Steinfeld's as unjustly overlooked.

Egger's is apparently working on a remake of Nosferatu next.  Interestingly enough, Werner Herzog's version (of course also a remake) is one of my very favorite horror movies.  While it seems like territory already well covered, I'm confident Eggers can bring something to the table worth seeing. He definitely did with his first feature.  







1.  The Lobster

The first time we see our main character, his wife of over a decade is leaving him for someone else.  And what the jilted husband thinks to ask about the other man is "does he wear contact lenses or glasses?"

This gives us an early clue for people in the world of The Lobster.  An assumed future that feels either a few years or  a few months away.  Where individualism is punished to the point of being a crime.

Loners are literally hunted.

Where being single is something you have 45 days to rectify.  Or...

People identify by things as seemingly trivial as glasses or nose bleeds.

"I have a limp.  That is my defining characteristic.  My wife also had a limp."  If you also have that characteristic, maybe we would be a good match.  That is about the extent of courtship, and people have over time had their personalities slowly stripped away, as we see in the wonderful plodding monotone depiction by Colin Farrell.

While I might agonize over which films to put in the Top Ten and which to leave out, my #1 choice has not been difficult at all.  This is the most original film I saw all year (and I saw one about a farting talking corpse)

A movie that is Dark Comedy.  Satire.  Drama.  Sci-Fi.  Suspenseful.  Touching.

The first English language Film by Greek Director Yorgos Lanthimos is a monster.  


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Greatest Movies of the last 20 Years



Mulholland Drive

I've never been that much of a David Lynch fan. My other favorites of his are the rare (semi) normal fare like The Elephant Man and The Straight Story.  But Mulholland Drive has become at this point, his almost unquestioned masterpiece, even over the likes of Blue Velvet.  It is completely deserved.  

It is one of his weird movies.  Which is actually by far the norm, not the exception.  But it is the weird one that seems to justify all the times he swung and missed on a film.  If this is what he was going for, we can forgive him some of the duds.

Now, I can not tell you what Mulholland Drive is about exactly.  It is one of those films that would probably get 50 different answers from 50 different people.  My answer would be, "Yes, I know exactly what its about.  No, I can't put it into words.  Just watch it."  






Inglorious Basterds

The more time passes, the more I have nearly convinced myself that this is Tarantino's finest film.  Pulp Fiction will always have that distinction, but what if this film had been released first?  It is as uniquely fresh and engaging as anything Tarantino has created.  

Previously harsh critic of Tarantino, David Bordwell was astonished by his love of the film.

There is cinema that asks you to empathize with its characters.  Then there is cinema that aims to thrill you with a cascade of vivid moments.  There is "How Green Was My Valley" (1941) and "Citizen Kane" (1941).  I think that Tarantino's films mostly tilt to the vivid-moment pole, seeking to win us through their immediate verve, the way film noir and the musical and the action movie do.

The emotions Tarantino aims for will arise not from character "identification" but from the overall structure and texture of the work.  We are to be stirred, enraptured, astonished by a procession of splendors big and small.  It's the tradition (again) of Eisenstein, particularly in the "Ivan" films, but also of Leone and, in another register, Greenaway. Formal virtuosity isn't necessarily soulless; it can yield aesthetic rapture.




Exit Through The Gift Shop

Bansky is the only street/graffiti artist that is a house hold name or close to it. 

This Bansky directed film, about a friend of his (Mr. Brainwash) who almost immediately became as big as he was, by emulating Bansky's style, is one of two documentaries on my list.  But is it exactly a documentary?  The whole thing, from Mr. Brainwash's comedic antics to the fact we never see Mr. Brainwash actually create anything, is all very likely some sort of hoax or joke put on by the two men.  Which in turn would be a great statement on what people value in art, and why they do.  

One example:  Mr Brainwash was almost a literal overnight sensation.  Madonna had him start designing her album covers.

What Bansky has created is either a deep philosophical look at the art world.  Or just a bunch of fun nonsense.  Most likely, it is both. Certainly, he has achieved a highly entertaining movie. 




The Act of Killing


The second documentary on my list is far more serious, and yet feels no less absurd.  

The Act of Killing documents past perpetrators of heinous war crimes, who now are more than happy to tell the filmmakers what they did.  Even re-enact things for the movie.

We also see them acting loving to their children and grandchildren.  Or going into a "cha cha" dance right after demonstrating how to kill people with as little amounts of blood as possible.  The contrast is striking.  Leading up to one of the best and most profound endings to a film I have seen.  



The Tree of Life




Lost in Translation

I was just talking with a friend about many 80's comedies that are beloved, that neither one of us can really pinpoint as to why.  Ghostbusters. Stripes.  Meatballs.  Caddyshack. Mediocre films at best, that are held in such high regard.

The only thing I can figure is, Bill Murray elevates mediocre movies.  He has been doing it his entire career.  

So when the (all too seldom) occasion arises that a filmmaker wants to give him a movie worth his talent, that can form something truly special.  

Sofia Coppola wrote Lost in Translation specifically for Murray.  And she was not even sure the actor without an agent would show up for filming until the very moment he did. 

What they created was a movie that is just beautiful in its honest emotions.  Murray says it is his favorite film he has ever been in.  The quality of his movies has increased since (thank you Wes Anderson and others).  But the nexus of his entire career was captured in this simple, low budget masterpiece.  

What if one of the most important relationships of your life, lasted only a week?  


Once

Similar in theme to Lost in Translation.  Once is the story of two people finding each other, and how powerful the two right people can be in making each other better.  

Director John Carney recently insulted the acting of his leading lady, Keira Knightley, in his film Begin Again.  In Once, he famously cast two non-actors in the lead roles.  Irish musician and childhood friend Glen Hansard, agreed to write the music.  Then when the lead actor fell through, Carney insisted Hansard play the lead himself.  Hansard suggested Marketa Irglova for the female lead; a young Czech musician whom Hansard had grown fond of through a strong friendship with her father.    

What this wrought for Carney was a chemistry that not even the talents of Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightly could match in Carney's follow up.  Hansard also just happens to have charisma to spare.  Maybe this is why he went back to non-actors for his latest film.

The result was an Oscar for Hansard and Irglova (Best Original Song) two albums together on top of the soundtrack, a tour and a fairly lengthy real life romantic relationship.  And a Broadway play in which they got musical credits.  For Carney, previously a director of no renown, a career to make any film he wants.  Not a bad gig if you can swing it.   

Oh and it also has a lovely Lost in Translation-esque piece of dialogue, that no one ever talks about.  Shot for nothing with friends as the actors and no real plot.  The result is magic.  If only it always felt so easy.  




The Thin Red Line


A Simple Plan

Director Sam Raimi does not get quite enough credit for his skills, outside of Evil Dead or Spiderman fanboys.  A Simple Plan is his best film.  A morality tale that I see now in moments of tv shows; Bloodline and Breaking Bad.

We'd like to think we would always make the moral decision. 




Once Upon A Time in Anatolia

 Tinker Tailor Solider Spy

I'm still upset Michael Keaton did not get the Oscar for Birdman.  Gary Oldman was equally robbed.  One of our very best actors got his first ever nomination in this smart and expertly made movie. 




The One I Love

Just fun and original.  This is what "sci fi" should be more often. 





The Perks of Being a Wallflower


If I was 14 when this movie came out, I'd probably have seen it about 20 times.  Looking at it now you can see how ridiculous teenagers act about everything.  How important the now seemingly silliest things are.  But at the time when our emotions are at peak levels, these things matter more than anything imaginable.     




Drive

The best 80's, Michael Mann directed movie ever made, that was not made in the 80's or directed by Michael Mann.  


 Man Push Cart

Director Ramin Bahrini is from Winsten-Salem, NC and it makes me proud that I live near where he grew up.  Any one of his first three films; Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, or Goodbye Solo, is worthy and a highly impressive run of films.  

Today I'm feeling this one.  The one that started it all.  I prefer the NC set Goodbye Solo, but Bahrini asked Roger Ebert to watch his debut movie (Man Push Cart) when he met him in line one day. Ebert did, gave it a glowing review and a career was born.  One in which every time a new Bahrini film is released, it has the potential to be a masterpiece.  



Ship of Theseus

Film critic Jugu Abraham turned me on to this film and I am very grateful.  It is a monster. Just fantastic movie-making.  



The Hunt

Another fantastic foreign film, that makes you want to search out nothing but foreign films. Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal TV Series) is outstanding.  American critics should have found a way to get him an Oscar nomination.  

Sometimes whether a crime actually happened is not what matters.  



Locke

Another performance that should have gotten an Oscar nomination was Tom Hardy for Locke. Save the first scene he is the only person we see in the entire movie.  For an hour and a half, inside his car, talking.  A mediocre actor couldn't pull this off.  Hardy proves he is well up to the task.  




Ex Machina

My favorite film of 2015.  The three main actors should have careers for decades.



Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Easily my favorite film of 2014.  If I was a director I would put Amy Ryan in everything.

http://mattbailey97.blogspot.com/2014/11/birdman.html



Kill Bill

I tried not to include this film, and yet there is nothing I have found that gives me more joy in re-watching, for the sheer fun of it.

I argue its a bit deeper than it gets credit for.  But yeah, its just a lot of fun, really.



The Apostle

Maybe Robert Duvall only has one great film in him as a director.  But wow, what a film.  



No Country For Old Men

A movie that is so perfect in every moment, that somehow that actually turned into a criticism. The Coen Brothers almost always make good movies.  But sometimes they make phenomenal ones.

This was my pick for best film of it's decade, and I still stand by that choice.  





Babe: Pig In The City

Critic Gene Siskel's final top ten list, made shortly before he died, contained two movies on this list. The Thin Red Line as his #2 choice.  And his number one pick of 1998 was Babe:  Pig in the City.

This caused snickering, that a dying man would choose the film as his final "best" movie. I would merely switch his #1 and #2.  Otherwise, the man was spot on.

This has to be one of the most criminally underappreciated family films ever made. Superior to the original in nearly every way, Pig in the City is joyous to watch in its art direction and animal/voice performances.



Cache

Hanke's best film I have heard is being remade by Scorsese.  Not even Scorsese can better this movie.  




Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind




The Witch

Buy a goat 



 


Pan’s Labyrinth




In The Bedroom

The entire film is summed up in this boat scene.

Marisa Tomei proved she is easily an Oscar caliber actress, no matter what anyone
wants to say about her win for My Cousin Vinny 



We Need to Talk About Kevin 


and 

Ratcatcher

Two films by Lynne Ramsay that prove she is a force of nature.  She needs to get another film out soon.  



The Passion of the Christ

One could make the argument this film was as influential as any made in the last 20 years. Beyond any controversy, one thing gets lost.  Is it any good?

I think it is an outstanding bit of film-making, top to bottom.  I hope one day more people focus on that.       




Fargo





A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night


The new Tarantino?  At least one critic has said so.  If filming a familiar genre in a fresh way is what that means, then Ana Lily Amirpour might qualify.  Of course she also feels like an artist who is uniquely her own.


Hopefully in a few years people will be asking who the next Amirpour might be.  







The Place Beyond The Pines

No actor of Ryan Gosling's current stature enjoys taking more risks than he does.  He scored with Cianfrance's Blue Valentine and again in his The Place Beyond The Pines. Lars and the Real Girl was not exactly conventional, and earned him an Oscar nomination.  He missed badly with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn's follow up, Only God Forgives.  Also his directorial debut (Lost River) was largely panned.  But no one could say he played it safe. 


Up soon will be the next Terrence Malick movie.  These are not the kinds of movies or roles, most fans of The Notebook will rush to see.  


Once upon a time, Nicolas Cage and even Johnny Depp were the actors taking these types of risks.  Let us all say a prayer Ryan Gosling keeps up his desire for original films as long as possible.



Thursday, April 14, 2016

Worth Having















I went to an estate sale the other day and found an original Uncle Wiggly game for sale. Ridiculously, I bought it.  It reminded me of fond memories of playing that game at my grandparents' house in Richmond, Va.

It brought back a lot of great memories from my childhood.  My Big Wheel.  How cool it was to use their rotary phone.  Watching Song of the South over and over.

Song of the South is a groundbreaking film that used "live animation;" cutting edge in its day. It contains one of the most memorable songs ever put to a children's film, or really any film.

It is a depressing day when you find out one of your favorite films is racist.

But is it completely?  Or does that even matter?  Or how much is it?  And does not intent matter?

But beyond all those considerations, does it not still deserve to be seen?

All of these thoughts have gone through my mind when I first started to write this post seven years ago. For seven years I have started to write this, assumed I would not get the tone I was going for correct, and abandoned the article.

I think of this now because often the first thought that comes to mind when you bring up this movie is, "Oh that's racist."  End of discussion.  But why is it this film?  Meaning, why can it not even be discussed?  Or seen?  It seems Birth Of A Nation, is easier to find.

This film has not been available to be seen in the United States since the 1980's.  Disney has all but disowned it here.  But not abroad.

Multiple Disney films have racist scenes or characters in them.  I am not arguing, "so what's the harm in one more."  I am asking why is this film, imperfect as it might be, the only film Disney has never released on DVD, and the only Disney film they seem to refuse to ever show again?  Why when its central character is a strong black man?  A hero to the children.  In how many other Disney films is a black man the hero?

What about the racist stereotypes in Dumbo, The Aristocats, even the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp?  By contrast, Song of the South has some redeemable, even honorable elements to it.


Uncle Remus is the hero of his own Disney movie.  A black man.  A former slave who is now treated as an equal with everyone he encounters.  He is downright beloved.  At a time when films were still very much tone deaf in regard to race, a black actor is the focal point of a big movie.  He is not a villain or betrayed as stupid.  He is the smartest person in the movie.  Years later, this will be looked at as a negative.  The "magic negro," concept.  But in 1948 what was more surprising?  This or the stereotypical black man that was portrayed as always drinking and trying to avoid work, such as Rochester on The Jack Benny Show?

Another way to look at this movie is how groundbreaking it was for black actors going forward.

Halle Berry did not accomplish as much as she wanted to take credit for by winning her Oscar. She does not have to play maids (unless she chooses to).  To cry and state that what she accomplished was now going to pave the way for so many, was disregarding many of the actors that came before and paved the way for her.  That played the roles many would now see as beneath her.

Hattie McDaniel is sometimes looked at, justifiably, as a groundbreaking performer who paved the way for other black actors and actresses.  She famously said, "Id rather play a maid than be one."

But James Baskett is never mentioned in the "groundbreaking" discussion.  That is a crime.  Those who came after owe him a debt.

Both of these actors, as well as others, had to deal with things no actor has to worry with today.  Not even mentioning the obvious day to day racism, Baskett was not allowed to attend the film's premiere in Atlanta.  He was the star of the movie!  When becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award, Hattie McDaniel was not allowed to sit anywhere near the other Oscar nominated actors.  She was at a table for two at the very back of the ballroom.  A ballroom that movie executives had to beg to get her into at all.

"Halle Berry is here.  Whose win last year broke down barriers for unbelievably hot women."
                     -Steve Martin

Song of the South is a classic film no one wants to admit being a fan of.  Kind of like the previously mentioned Birth of A Nation, or Triumph of the Will.  But while those films' intentions were never honorable, Song of the South, one could argue, at least naively, desired to be honorable. And in some ways it succeeds. And in this we (and Disney) have our conundrum.

Disney World as well as Disney Land have a ride called Splash Mountain. It is based on the film Song Of The South.  But while you hear Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit, you will not be able to purchase anything from the film in which this very popular ride is based. And Uncle Remus is conspicuously absent. In all other ways but Splash Mountain, Disney does not want you to remember the film ever existed.













But the mistakes and reasons to criticize the film are not hard to see.  One huge mistake is that people are led to believe Uncle Remus is a slave. And a very happy one. But every story by author Joel Chandler Harris was set in the POST Civil War South. Maybe Walt Disney (who loved the Uncle Remus stories as a youth) assumed people would know this. But it is never made clear and people assumed instead of a depiction of a man happy to be free, it is a depiction of a man who could care less he is not.

The next and biggest reason to criticize the film is the Tar Baby story. No matter what one might argue about original intent, (and this was a parable told by slaves) there is plenty that now makes this scene uncomfortable. Was it uncomfortable to me as a kid? No. I never once thought, "hey, is this offensive!?"  What can seem 100% magical as a child can then years later, through the prism of life, become something else.

That racism is taught might seem a bit trite of a sentiment. But it does not make it not true. I suppose this film embodies that sentiment. We can look at how a white child is helped by a black man, and race is not an issue with either. We can also see elements, as we get older and "learn" racism, that we would never have even noticed previously.

True of many, Walt Disney was more complex than simply "a racist;" though there is some argument that he was.  Andrew Jackson was responsible for "The Trail of Tears." He also adopted an American Indian Boy and raised him as his very own son. People are more complex than a Disney Villain might be. And such it was with Walt. Walt Disney not only loved the stories as a child, he was a huge fan of James Baskett. He called him one of our finest actors.  And by accounts in private conversations, not to sell movie tickets.

For his portrayal of Uncle Remus, Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award, becoming the first black male performer to be awarded an Oscar. The award was in no small part championed by Walt Disney.  Argued Disney, Baskett had worked "almost wholly without direction," and had alone, devised the characterization of Remus.  He was also the voice of Brer Fox, as well as Brer Rabbit in one sequence.

Receiving his Oscar from Ingrid Bergman


















After Baskett's death, just two years after the release of the film, Baskett's widow would write to Walt Disney.  "You have been a friend indeed and (we) certainly have been in need."

I can remember so many years ago seeing clips of Baskett singing "Zip A Dee Doo Dah" during movie or awards' shows.  Or, "The Wonderful World of Disney."  But now I can not remember the last time I have seen any clip from the film from any television program.  With outrage from black actors that they are not getting enough Oscar recognition, there is no foreseeable way we will see clips honoring this work ever again.

But the film is not without its defenders.

Herman Hill in The Pittsburgh Courier believed that Song of the South would "prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations," and considered criticisms of the film to be "unadulterated hogwash of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days."

It was slaves that created these stories.  Think about that for a second.  A man with the education to do so, (Joel Chandler Harris) wrote down these wonderful stories he heard and shared them with the world.  In many ways preserving a part of a culture's history.

Joel Harris was always hanging out with black Americans as a youth.  He would spend hours in the slave quarters because he was fascinated and entertained by them, and eventually wrote down the stories they shared. He believed as an illegitimate son of an immigrant, he was allowed inside their inner circle in a way others may not have been so quickly.  One argument is that Joel Harris helped preserve black history when few black people had the power to do this for themselves. A white man who loved stories told by black people, helped bring them to life and preserve them. Until we allowed ourselves to find them offensive. Harris began writing the Uncle Remus stories as a serial to "preserve in permanent shape those curious mementos of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future."

The 185 Uncle Remus stories became incredibly popular among readers of all races in both the North and the South.  The Northern readers were especially fascinated by a dialect that few had heard.

This was not a mocking but a celebration in a time where that did not happen to a large degree.  Mark Twain said in 1883, "In the matter of writing [the African-American dialect], he is the only master the country has produced."

President Theodore Roosevelt stated, "Presidents may come and presidents may go, but Uncle Remus stays put. Georgia has done a great many things for the Union, but she has never done more than when she gave Mr. Joel Chandler Harris to American literature."

Even today, some educators have their students read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" over Twain's masterpiece, ""The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."  Because "Finn" is "racist."  When of course it is the complete antithesis of that. But having these kinds of discussions seems no longer an option, if certain words or vernacular are used.  Accuracy is irrelevant.

If  pegging a dialect of speech, that was accurate to the time period, as racist...then is  not  that thought, a misguided and prejudiced one?

In a time when we must take down all statues of Confederate Soldiers, tell Native American High Schools the mascot they handpicked for themselves is racially insensitive, and attempt to completely wipe out any history worthy to discuss and learn from...how much do we lose, and what is really gained?

"Telling these tales gave the slaves hope and faith that they could survive and persevere in the face of their troubles just like Brer Rabbit."    -Diane Ferlatte 

Diane Ferlatte is a wonderful storyteller that often uses various Brer Rabbit stories in her performances, as well as audio recordings.

She continues in a way, the work made famous by Joel Chandler Harris; as a voice for this part of history.  Because that history has some roots in sadness, does not mean a prime example of perseverance beyond it, should now be lost.




"Listen to the story that came out of the mouths of slaves."

Joel Chandler Harris retold these stories.  So did Walt Disney.  So did James Baskett; an incredibly talented and too often forgotten actor.

Wiping Song of the South from existence, is maybe not as moral and helpful an act as Disney would now have us believe.

"I believe that certain groups are doing more harm to our race in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the positive images Mr. Disney shows in this film."
    -James Baskett

The Uncle Remus stories are popular internationally and have been translated into over 40 languages.

"I'm convinced that this charming film will eventually be made available to all to enjoy-and maybe even argue over.  After all, some arguments are worth having."

-Floyd Norman, (Disney's first black animator)