Saturday, January 28, 2017

Oscar Nominee Banned from the Oscars

The Oscar nominations are out and you might think I'm here for another discussion of the Academy's dismal record on race. Not today. In fact, this year's group of nominees is the most diverse in a long time. So diverse that one of the nominees can't attend the ceremony without breaking the law. This is no Polanski situation where he can't show up cause he'll be arrested for a past crime. Asghar Farhadi is a celebrated Iranian director who is currently banned from America thanks to Comrade Trump's ban on citizens and refugees from several countries in the Middle East.

When I first heard that this cold-hearted idea was actually going to become a real thing, banning entire nations of people from the United States (except of course, countries where Trump has business interests like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), I didn't expect to hear about it in this context. Farhadi is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, a category that he won in 2012 for A Separation. I typically don't include that category in my annual predictions, but it's not for a lack of interest. It's just usually not possible for me to see all the nominated films before the Oscars.

The front runner for this year's winner in that category has been a German film called Toni Erdmann, but a scandal like this could easily swing the vote. If Farhadi does win for his new film, The Salesman, what happens at the awards? We'll need someone to go up there and say "Well, the director couldn't be here because our idiot President thinks he's going to blow up the place." And if he does manage to attend, I'm sure he'll have thoughts on the matter. Either way, sounds like a recipe for the leader of the free world to complain on Twitter about how "overrated" Iranian cinema is.

Supposedly someone from the White House said to People magazine that Farhadi might be eligible for some special wavier that would get him through the ban. But if that's true, does it really make them look any better? A director can be an exception but not all the innocent children suffering in Syria right now? What the hell, man?

I don't think this will be the last time the impact of this policy will show up in unexpected places. Taking a shit on millions of people has wide-ranging repercussions. When Farhadi won last time, he made a really beautiful speech about how he believed the people of America and Iran could be friends one day if our respective leaders took it down a notch. I wonder if he still believes that. I never thought I'd be writing an Oscars post like this one.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The 2nd Annual Perfect World Awards

I had fun with this last year, so let's try it again. Oscar nominations are coming soon and it will be really hard for them to leave black people out this year, but you never know! Before the traditional grumbles begin, I've stacked the categories with my own wishlist while keeping in step with the Academy's rules. Let's start at the top.
Best Picture
The Invitation
Kubo and the Two Strings
Hell or High Water
The Monster
Sing Street

Plausibility: If you read my Top 10, you know I'm on Team Moonlight. Thankfully, it has a good shot at a nomination. So does Arrival. Hell or High Water may get in there too. The rest...unlikely. Animated films have to make a huge impact to land in this category - not even Inside Out could manage it last year. Sing Street wouldn't be seen as having enough gravitas. The Invitation can be a tough watch and alienates many viewers. And of course The Monster is a horror film and doesn't have a shot in hell, although Sean Spicer may argue otherwise.

Best Director
Jaume Collet-Serra for The Shallows
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
Karyn Kusama for The Invitation
David Mackenzie for Hell or High Water
Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

Plausibility: Pretty decent! Barry Jenkins and Denis Villeneuve have very good chances. David Mackenzie is a long shot but not impossible. Unfortunately for Kusama, it's hard for a woman to get in this category unless your name is Kathryn Bigelow and you make big manly war films. Nobody would consider a silly B-movie like The Shallows for awards, but Collet-Serra's underwater photography and use of scenery were really beautiful, to the point where it was a minor letdown when the killer shark actually showed up. Still, the mood and imagery of Moonlight still haunt me a few months after seeing it so it'd be great to see Jenkins get an Oscar.

Best Actor
Casey Affleck in Manchester By the Sea
Brian Cox in The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys
Do-Wan Kwak in The Wailing
Max Records in I Am Not A Serial Killer

Plausibility: Barely. Casey Affleck is highly favored for a nomination and possibly the win. The rest...not so much. Ryan Gosling will probably get in for La La Land, but I would prefer to recognize the hilarious comic performance he gave in The Nice Guys. Cox is an underrated actor who elevated what otherwise would have been a stock role. Do-Wan Kwak is going way out on a limb, since the Academy doesn't even seem to be aware that Asians sometimes appear in Hollywood movies, let alone movies that come from Asia. And once again, Max Records is in a horror film so no dice. It's a shame because his performance as a young man fighting against his recently diagnosed sociopath tendencies was the most complex, interesting take on this condition I've ever seen in a movie.

Best Actress
Amy Adams in Arrival
Ella Ballentine in The Monster
Rebecca Hall in Christine
Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch

Plausibility: Low. Amy Adams is the only one with a good shot. Henson might make it if Hidden Figures does really well. Ballentine and Taylor-Joy were great in horror films, so we know how that goes. Annoying, isn't it? You would think Rebecca Hall had a better chance given that Christine checks most of the Oscar boxes - real-life story set in the past, lead character has an illness, media sensationalism is a highly relevant topic now,etc - but I guess the release was just too small.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali in Moonlight
Michael Fassbender in X-Men: Apocalypse
Jack Reynor in Sing Street
Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight
Patrick Stewart in Green Room

Plausibility: Mahershala Ali is a good bet, but why stop there? Moonlight had a ton of good acting in it and the contribution of Trevante Rhodes as the older Chiron really brought things in for a solid landing. I would have thought Patrick Stewart had a better shot because it's so against type but I can understand Academy members not really wanting to think about Nazis at this particular moment in time. The last X-Men movie was one superhero film in a sea of them but Fassbender gave it 110 percent. My pick would be Jack Reynor, who really got to me as the frustrated noble older brother in Sing Street.

Best Supporting Actress
Tammy Blanchard in The Invitation
Naomie Harris in Moonlight
Allison Janney in Tallulah
Soo-an Kim in Train to Busan
Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters

Plausibility: Almost a complete wipeout if not for Naomie Harris, who has a good chance. Blanchard and Janney both gave very emotional performances in films that have been absent from this awards season. Even though the Ghostbusters remake was (pathetically) the most controversial movie of the year, Kate McKinnon's scene-stealing greatness seems to be generally agreed upon. My favorite was little Soo-an Kim, who showed off a huge range. However, the movie is Korean and is about a train full of zombies, so we're way outside the realm of Oscar awareness here. It's a shame, because you'd think they really were meant to represent an entire year's worth of film, not just all the middlebrow dramas released right before New Year's Day.

That's all for now! I'll be back to predict the results of the actual nominations soon enough.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Top Ten Films of 2016

It's been established ad nauseam that 2016 was a wretched year for humanity, but how were the movies? At first glance, it seems on the weak side but it turned out to be one of those years where I had to dig a little deeper to fill out this list. While most of the attention goes to the parade of sequels, reboots and desperate appeals to 80s/90s nostalgia (an Independence Day sequel? Really?), the ever growing realm of streaming services has given movie fans a chance to find gems that had only a tiny stint in actual movie theaters. Even a classic crowdpleaser like Sing Street would have gone totally unnoticed if not for Netflix. Combined with strong showings by the horror and animation genres, the year turned out to be a little better than I first thought. Let's go through some of the high points.

Special Mention: O.J.: Made in America
Eligibility for this one was tricky. This is a five-part documentary made for ESPN, but it also had an awards-qualifying theatrical release that should come in handy this awards season. Ultimately, I decided the massive difference in length gave it an unfair advantage over the rest, hence the special mention. Highly detailed but never boring, the epic chronicle begins with Orenthal James Simpson’s rise as a record-breaking football player, commercial star and comedic actor in the late 60s to the early 80s. Then he was arrested for the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. The rest is history, but you’ve never seen it like this. Director Ezra Edelman contrasts Simpson’s ascent with a series of high-profile conflicts between the police and black residents of the running back’s native Los Angeles. With this as a preface, it becomes clear why the trial of a man who had distanced himself from the black community became an unlikely referendum on decades of appalling behavior by the LAPD. Following the trial, the filmmakers continue to follow Simpson on his sad decline into decadence and crime. It’s a towering experience to watch, with somber music and haunting archival footage expertly accompanying the comments of an army of interviewees.

10. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier’s gruesome, nerve-shredding movie stars a small-time punk band in need of money who find themselves playing in a venue full of Nazi skinheads somewhere in the Oregon woods. After they witness a murder, the band (including the late Anton Yelchin, who sadly passed away this year) barricades itself in the green room and the skinheads outside make increasingly brutal attempts to clean everything up. Patrick Stewart plays way against type to tremendous effect as Darcy Banker, the monstrous but oddly paternal leader of the thugs. The tension pins the viewer to the screen for the entire standoff and when it ends, the audience is left to reflect on the pockets of hateful white rage that have been growing in the corners of America while so many of us fooled ourselves into thinking things were getting better.

9. The Witch
This period horror film follows a family too extreme in their beliefs even for the Puritans who are exiled and find themselves living uncomfortably close to a genuine witch. After stealing the family’s infant child in an early scene, the witch prefers to menace them from afar while isolation and unsuccessful attempts at farming begin to strain their relationships. Despite the presence of a very creepy goat, the true horror of the film is watching this family slowly collapse and Eggers stages some brutally intense scenes where they turn on each other. Only the eldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to really understand what’s happening and is central to the thought provoking ending, which goes totally against the conventional wisdom for tales like this.

8. Sing Street
The 80s nostaglia thing might be getting out of hand, but it can still be done really well. This delightful coming of age story takes place in 1980s Dublin, where sensitive teen Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is dealing with the crumbling marriage of his parents and being transferred to a joyless Catholic school. When he meets the glamorous Raphina (Lucy Boynton) he tries to impress her by telling her he’s in a band. Despite knowing very little about music, he relies on the expertise of his older brother (Jack Reynor, the heart of the movie) and gathers a group of nearby young musicians who quickly cohere into a real band. It’s pretty familiar stuff, but it works wonders thanks to the sincerity of the cast and the infectious fun of the songs themselves (composed primarily by Gary Clark). There is also a surprisingly heartfelt subplot about the pain older brothers endure so that their younger brothers have a better chance for success.

7. The Monster
For me, this was the year's biggest out of nowhere surprise. It’s a familiar setup – young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and her mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) get into a car accident on a rainy night and then figure out that a mysterious creature is lurking in the nearby woods. What makes this film stand out is the emotionally intense relationship between the two lead characters. Flashbacks explore the family’s dysfunction and this is not the typical “my mom doesn’t understand me stuff,” these are unsparing glimpses of domestic life gone wrong. Director Bryan Bertino wisely uses the monster sparingly and when it does appear onscreen it looks fantastic. There are no explanations given for its existence, which will annoy some viewers but keeps the focus where it belongs – the powerful family drama playing out during the scares.

6. Zootopia
Are we in the midst of another Disney renaissance? The surprising depth and visual ingenuity of this animated buddy-cop movie makes a pretty strong argument. The story takes place in a giant city where predator and prey have long since evolved from their primal ways and live in harmony. An idealistic rabbit (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) defies expectations for her species by becoming a police officer and teams up with a con-artist fox (Jason Bateman) to solve a series of disappearances. The colorful setting, made up of several ecosystems, is constantly delightful to look at and there’s always something interesting to see. There is also a surprisingly detailed examination of prejudice and identity politics buried beneath all the sight gags.

5. Arrival
This smart and surprisingly optimistic tale of man’s first contact with an alien race depicts a point in the not too distant future where a dozen spaceships touch down at various points on the Earth’s surface. Lonely linguistics professor Louise (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to try and decipher the circular ink-blots the tentacled aliens use to communicate. Meanwhile, panic gradually sets in across the globe and a war could erupt if Louise and her partner (Jeremy Renner) don’t crack the code soon enough. The main breakthrough in figuring out the language seems to happen during a montage, leaving the audience with disappointingly little insight into how it works, but Director Dennis Villeneuve’s majestic visuals and a major twist conveyed with surprising grace make this a powerful film. If the day ever comes where we meet aliens, I hope it turns out to be more prescient than naive.

4. Kubo and the Two Strings
So I wasn't a big fan of The Boxtrolls, but Laika Studios came back in a big way and turned in another top-notch production with this classic hero’s journey tale about a boy (voiced by Art Parkinson) trying to find three magical artifacts to protect himself from his wicked grandfather (Ralph Fiennes). Along the way, Kubo is joined by a foul-tempered monkey (Charlize Theron) and a bumbling samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Some of the attempts at humor can feel strained but the film’s gorgeous animation feels as effortless as it is spectacular. You can't overstate just how amazing the stop-motion work here is. Kubo has the power to manipulate paper but the only one who can conjure more magic than him are the animators.

3. The Invitation
Two years after the tragic death of his son, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is invited to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband (Michael Huisman). In the midst of the reunions, the couple babbles new-age nonsense about expelling bad feelings and Will isn’t having any of it. In general, things seem unusually tense for a gathering of friends but are we right to be suspicious or are we just viewing things through Will’s agitated perspective? How much passive-aggression and intimidating behavior should anyone tolerate for the sake of politeness? The ensemble cast is excellent and Director Karyn Kusama directs everything masterfully, withholding answers as long as she can and dragging the audience to the edge of their seats.

2. Hell or High Water
Most modern takes on the western are dour, but this is a surprisingly fun morality tale of cops and robbers that nonetheless makes powerful observations about how the American West’s history of domination and exploitation continues in the form of modern capitalism. Texan brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) carry out a series of robberies to try and save the family ranch from foreclosure, slowly pursued by a smart-ass Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering partner (Gil Birmingham). The emphasis on banter, memorable side characters and dark comedy (it’s tough to keep robbing places in a state where seemingly everyone is carrying a gun) does its job and the audience will be heavily involved with all the characters by the time things get intense in the final act.

1. Moonlight
This soft-spoken but intensely emotional film follows Chiron, a fatherless black boy with a crack addict mother (Naomie Harris) who is quietly trying to piece together his own identity. The movie follows Chiron at three points in his life – he is played as a boy by Alex Hibbert, a teen by Ashton Sanders and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes, all of whom give great performances. While much of its subject matter, such as drugs or bullying, may be familiar, the strength of the actors and Barry Jenkins’s inventive cinematography make it feel totally unique. With its colorful yet desolate depiction of Miami and sometimes unsettlingly personal dialogue, the film is a involving portrait of people whose lives are rarely explored in movies. It’s Chiron’s story but the other roles are also filled out by talented performers, particularly Mahershala Ali as a drug dealer whose growing attachment to the boy force him to confront the reality of his trade. The late Roger Ebert once said that at their best, movies are "a machine that generates empathy" and in a year where empathy was violently kicked to the curb, we need movies like this one more than ever. There will be plenty of righteous takedowns of Trump-era ideology in the years to come but movies like Moonlight, which draw attention to important issues simply by exploring the lives of our fellow man, are likely to make more of a difference in the long run.

Honorable Mentions: The Little Prince, I Am Not A Serial Killer, Audrie and Daisy, Captain America: Civil War

That's all for this year. Soon I'll take another stab at my Perfect World awards, hopefully out one day before the Oscar nominations get announced.