Monday, January 22, 2018

The 3rd Annual Perfect World Awards

The Oscar nominations come out tomorrow and spoiler alert, people will be annoyed. Not sure exactly how yet, but they will be. In the meantime, I better get this done. If you haven't seen this before, it's just me stacking the top categories with movies and performances that really impressed me, indulging in a fantasy where the Oscars actually survey the entire year in film rather than a dozen movies released over a month's time. Let's get started!

Best Picture
Baby Driver
Brigsby Bear
The Florida Project
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Last Jedi
The Villainess

Plausibility: Middling. Dunkirk and Lady Bird are safe bets and surprisingly, so is Get Out. It won't win, but it will be nice to see a horror film in the line-up unless something goes awry at the last second. Brigsby Bear is too quirky and Baby Driver is way too much fun. The Villainess would give a good number of Academy members heart attacks with its intensity. The Last Jedi isn't completely implausible but the Star Wars fandom can be so obnoxious that the Academy probably doesn't want anything to do with it. That leaves The Florida Project, which was my favorite. It could certainly happen, but it's basically on the bubble and could easily be pushed aside by something else.

Best Director
Sean Baker for The Florida Project
Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird
Byung-gil Jung for The Villainess
Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk
Edgar Wright for Baby Driver

Plausibility: On the low side. Nolan's the only one I feel totally confident will show up. The Florida Project would need to have a major showing for Sean Baker to get nominated. Edgar Wright's movies are so delightful and I really hope he shows up here someday, but it won't be this year. Byung-gil Jung oversaw a handful of glorious action scenes that put Western blockbusters to shame in The Villainess, while also balancing them with a character-based melodrama. It's tremendous work, but the Academy's just too insular. That leaves Greta Gerwig. She has good odds, but we know from experience that it's unreasonably hard for a woman to get into this category unless her name is Kathryn Bigelow. If I had to make the call, I would say she gets in...and if she doesn't, be prepared for a shitstorm of the highest order, one that could feasibly push Lady Bird to a Best Picture win (like the Argo/Ben Affleck situation a few years back).

Best Actor
John Cho in Columbus
James Franco in The Disaster Artist
Hugh Jackman in Logan
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
James McAvoy in Split

Plausibility: Pretty much the same as Director. After his Golden Globe win, sexual harassment allegations came out against Franco, but I think Oscar voting was basically done by that point so I suspect he'll still get nominated. Daniel Kaluuya has a good shot, barring another "so white" year. John Cho was great in a movie that was very small, intellectual and understated - not Oscar material. James McAvoy did a hell of a job differentiating all of his different personalities in Split, but if a horror movie's going to break into Best Actor, it ain't this one. In a better world, Hugh Jackman would have had a good shot at this. His final performances as an old, desperate Logan was a great way to end his exceptional run as the character. Someday he'll be thought of as the Wolverine equivalent of Sean Connery's James Bond.

Best Actress
Carla Gugino in Gerald's Game
Ok-bin Kim in The Villainess
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards
Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project
Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird

Plausibility: Another two out of five (seems to be a theme this year). Wonder Woman was good but if you want to see a woman kick even more ass, have I got a movie for you. We've established that The Villainess will not be showing up anywhere this year, but if the Academy made an effort to see more movies in a given year (and if a nobody like me can manage it, they have no excuse), Ok-bin Kim might have made the list. McDormand is guaranteed a nomination and probably the win. Saoirse Ronan won't be far behind. Carla Gugino would have a shot if Gerald's Game wasn't a Netflix movie - old fogeys in the movie business are pretty salty about all this streaming business. Brooklynn Prince gave one of the most moving child performances I've seen in years, but this category is just too competitive.

Best Supporting Actor
Gil Birmingham in Wind River
Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project
Mark Hamill in Brigsby Bear
Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming
Pheoung Kompheak in First They Killed My Father

Plausibility: Not great! Willem Dafoe is The Florida Project's surest bet for a nomination and rightfully so. The rest of these are unfortunately out in the weeds and honestly, I could have stacked this category with ten people this year. The fate of Pheoung Kompheak's stoic Cambodian dad is foretold in the title of the film, but his sensitive performance makes you hope for some kind of miracle to save him. Michael Keaton brought tons of menace and character to one of Spider-Man's sillier adversaries. Mark Hamill's presence really elevated Brigsy Bear, which is in large part about our connection to pop culture icons (like Luke Skywalker, for instance). As for Gil Birmingham, he was only in about three or four scenes, but his performance as a frustrated and utterly devastated father in mourning is outstanding. It's the kind of performance that can open people's eyes to the injustice around us, but unfortunately Wind River was produced by the Weinstein Company and will be a casualty of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein's disgusting (if not altogether surprising) behavior.

Best Supporting Actress
Elizabeth Cappuccino in Super Dark Times
Carrie Fisher in The Last Jedi
Kiara Glasco in The Devil's Candy
Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird
Josie Olivo in The Florida Project

Plausibility: Laurie Metcalf saves this one from being a complete wipe-out. Super Dark Times is too....dark. Josie Olivo's role in The Florida Project is likely too small, but her character has a well-defined arc despite that. I have a soft spot for metalhead teen girls (in a perfectly safe paternal way, you pervs), so Kiara Glasco would be great, but The Devil's Candy is a horror movie. There's a lot of sentimentality going into this Carrie Fisher pick, but I couldn't help but have a sense of that Heath Ledger/Dark Knight melancholy as I watched a moving final performance from an actress who had already been dead for almost a year. The Last Jedi will get a lot of nominations in the tech categories but this is one that is also well-deserved.

That's all for this year. Predictions regarding the real nominations will be next.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Top 10 Films of 2017

Well, we made it. It's hard for movies to compete with the insane drama going on in our nation's capitol, but by the time we got to the end of December, there was a strong slate of movies to choose from and this list became surprisingly competitive. A dominant theme I noticed in most of the films I liked was the necessity of confronting hard truths. It could be the discovery of a terrifying new reality in a horror film, a legendary warrior forced to rethink everything he's ever known, or just a teenage girl forced to realize she has a lot to learn about the world. We could all benefit from some soul-searching of our own, to go beyond the details of one election and examine the broad issues in America that have led us to this dreadful place. If we survive this, the movies are going to get really interesting.

One adjustment for this year - thanks to streaming services, tracking down movies has become much easier and as a result, I can have a full list shortly after the new year, unlike past years where I scrambled for most of January to fill in some missing pieces. A few films that are taking their sweet time to open near me have been cut off (Sorry, The Post). I've also decided to replace the honorable mentions with an expanded list. The second set of films won't get full write-ups but I think it's interesting to see what came within striking distance of making the top 10. And away we go!

10. Get Out
This tense, cutting horror film perfectly captured the anxieties of its era, a typical trait of the genre but with a perspective that was sorely needed. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young black man who drives with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) into upstate New York to meet her wealthy parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). At first, they just seem like awkward but well-meaning old liberals but something sinister lurks beneath the “post-racial” fa├žade. Director Jordan Peele makes the oblivious behavior of the white characters painfully familiar until the big twist happens. I don't think this is a perfect horror film, in particular I found the third act a little too derivative of other “domestic terror” films. Still, its impact can't be overstated, especially since the film seems on track to (fingers crossed) become the first horror movie to get a Best Picture nomination in almost 20 years. And while I wouldn't call it a comedy (unlike the Golden Globes), there is some welcome levity and Lil Rel Howery in a supporting role as Chris's friend is hilarious.

9. Brigsby Bear
The title refers to a kid’s show with an audience of one: James (Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the film), who lives with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) in an underground bunker. When the police show up one day, James realizes that everything he’s known was a lie…although his main concern is how to continue “Brigsby Bear.” In less capable hands, the film might have turned into another smug hipster movie in love with its own irony. But it goes in the other direction and is genuinely sweet, with a complex, even-handed examination of how pop culture indoctrination affects us. The strong supporting cast includes Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Claire Danes and Andy Samberg, who also served as a producer. Good luck not being charmed.

8. The Void
The films of John Carpenter, particularly The Thing, are a clear influence on this lean and mean horror ride, one of the few of this nostalgic era that captures the wonder and dread of the movies it emulates. A police officer (Aaron Poole) discovers an injured drug addict and brings him to a short-staffed hospital, unaware that the building is the target of a mysterious cult connected to something beyond imagination. The cast includes Kenneth Welsh, Art Hindle and Ellen Wong, but the real star is the outstanding practical effects used for the various horrors that unfold. The story feels greatly incomplete by the film’s end, but in a way that will leave viewers wanting more.

7. The Shape of Water
What if the monster got the girl? This twist on Creature From the Black Lagoon takes place in a 1960s research facility, where a mysterious aquatic creature (Doug Jones, but not the new Alabama senator) has been captured in the Amazon rainforest and placed in a water tank for further analysis. In the meantime, the creature forms a strong bond with janitor Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who begins to plot his escape. The creature looks absolutely fantastic, the most impressive part of a film that boasts lots of visual splendor. It’s remarkably cohesive given how many moods it has - Guillermo Del Toro moves from gruesome violence to character-based comedy and back again several times, although the black and white musical number is a little much. The film also has a great supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins as Eliza’s comic relief neighbor and Octavia Spencer as her loyal co-worker.

6. The Last Jedi
Don't look at me, I'm as surprised as anyone. The Force Awakens played things so safe and while Rogue One was solid, it also felt like the beginning of a transformation for the Star Wars series, one that would turn it from a special event into another corporate machine churning out films every year like the Marvel films, which while rarely bad, have grown increasingly indistinguishable from one another. I certainly didn't expect the best Star Wars movie in...what? 35 years? Maybe more? Picking up right after the last film ended, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks training from Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has become a bitter old man haunted by past failures. Meanwhile, Princess Leia (the final performance of Carrie Fisher brought about some Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight deja vu) and the scant remains of her resistance force are barely staying ahead of the evil First Order. While filled with rip-roaring action and beautiful locations (both real and digital), what makes this film stand out among its peers is a rich subtext about the perils of hanging on to the past while the present changes rapidly. This challenge to the more purist elements of the fanbase, combined with director Rian Johnson’s delight in subverting expectations whenever possible, antagonized a lot of the whiniest fanboys but bowled over this fair weather fan. J.J. Abrams is back in the director's chair for the next one, he better not screw this up.

5. The Villainess
I could not tear myself away from this breathtaking movie, which opens with an assault on a crime boss’s headquarters shot like a first-person shooter. After about five minutes of jaw-dropping mayhem typically associated with male action heroes, someone calls the attacker a “bitch” and her face gets slammed into a mirror. That’s how the audience is introduced to Sook-hee (a terrific performance by Ok-bin Kim), who is subsequently recruited by the government and promised eventual freedom in exchange for ten years of service. Assigned as a “sleeper” agent in Seoul, Sook-hee grows fond of her newfound domestic existence with her young daughter, but the dangers of her other life are a constant threat. Byung-gil Jung wisely doesn’t try to top the phenomenal first scene until much later, allowing a character drama to unfold slowly in layered flashbacks that can occasionally get confusing. While the action is brilliant, it’s not exactly a “popcorn” film - those not used to the ruthless crime dramas that get made in South Korea might find it too upsetting.

4. Dunkirk
A suspenseful, beautifully-shot film that recreates the famous evacuation during World War II. In 1940, British and French troops have been boxed in by the Germans and gather on the beach in Dunkirk. Their only hope lies with a fleet of ships crossing the English Channel, many of them civilian boats answering the call. The story is divided into three perspectives - land, sea and air - and while these plots are occurring at different times, Christopher Nolan’s signature propulsive editing makes them all mash together into a solid overall arc. The cinematography, particularly during the air sequences, is worthy of David Lean. The cast includes Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance, along with a group of other dark-haired young men who can be difficult to tell apart. Critics love it, but the biggest endorsement may have come from Ken Sturdy, a 97-year-old Royal Navy veteran who was actually at the Battle of Dunkirk and said he was moved to tears by the film.

3. Lady Bird
Coming of age films rarely feel this convincing and effortless. Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to be called “Lady Bird,” is desperate to leave her hometown of Sacramento and get away from her difficult mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). In the meantime, she spends her senior year of Catholic high school struggling with her identity and dealing with the usual troubles with friendships and boys. The dialogue is great and both Lady Bird and her mother have rich character arcs, able to remain sympathetic even while acting like jerks. Greta Gerwig, best known as an actress in independent film, had co-directed a film years ago but really made waves with this one. Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges and Beanie Feldstein are all invaluable in supporting roles.

2. Baby Driver
I'm not typically into cool car movies, but I'll watch anything by Edgar Wright and he really delivered this time. This joyous caper stars Ansel Elgort as Baby, a quiet young man with tinnitus (constant ringing in the ears) that he drowns out with constant musical accompaniment (he's a big fan of 1970s rock and R & B). He’s also a masterful getaway driver, able to choreograph daring criminal escapes to his favorite songs, a feat he uses to pay his debt to a powerful mobster (Kevin Spacey...yeah, I know. Ick.). However, Baby gets a girlfriend (Lily James) and begins to hope for a different life. The thrilling car chases feature real vehicles on display, no CGI trickery and the results speak for themselves. With Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm in fun supporting roles, this delightful movie outdoes most blockbusters with three or four times its budget.

1. The Florida Project
It's not as commanding a number one pick as last year (films like Moonlight don't come along often), but what drew me to it was its touching empathy in a time when America seems to have abandoned that concept altogether. The movie is an honest, quietly tragic slice of life which takes place primarily at a three-story purple hotel in Orlando just outside Disney World. These hotels were once tourist destinations but are now something more like housing projects and little Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) couldn’t be happier and prowls the grounds with her friends daily, oblivious to the struggles of her loving but immature mother (Bria Vinaite). William Dafoe, who has played freaks and weirdos for most of his career, finally gets to play a more down to Earth character, the stressed but noble hotel manager. There are also strong supporting turns from Mela Murder and Josie Olivo. The colorful and gaudy setting is Florida incarnate and also helps along the film’s message about struggling Americans forgotten by their neighbors, who are having too much at the theme park down the road. The emotion in this film really sneaks up on you, but it's totally earned. How long will we continue to let people suffer like this? I don't know, but a movie like this is a nice little step forward.

11. Super Dark Times
12. The Disaster Artist
13. Personal Shopper
14. Wind River
15. It
16. Logan
17. First They Killed My Father
18. Coco
19. Wonder Woman
20. The Devil's Candy

Happy 2018, everyone. The Perfect World Awards are coming in a few weeks and then of course, the Oscars. Should be a really interesting year.