Monday, January 21, 2019

The 4th Annual Perfect World Awards

Time for another round of my alternative Oscar nominations. I typically try to get this done the day before the real ones come out, but I almost forgot this year and am now typing faster than a thin-skinned bro after watching a commercial for razors. I hope you can forgive the self-indulgence of this whole thing but it really is a fun little activity. You should try it!

Best Picture
Black Klansman
Cold Hell
Eighth Grade
The Hate U Give
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Quiet Place
Scream For Me Sarajevo

Plausibility: Black Klansman is the only sure thing. If Beale Street Could Talk has a good shot too. Eighth Grade would be a surprise but it could happen. Annihilation certainly had good enough reviews but is probably too out there for the Oscars, who prefer their science-fiction to be light on the fiction. Believe it or not, some pundits are predicting A Quiet Place makes it in. That'd be cool but I'll believe it when I see it. The lack of awards attention for a powerful drama like The Hate U Give is just baffling. Blindspotting deserves a nomination but its release was just too small. Documentaries never show up in Best Picture, but if someone were to adapt the powerful story of Scream for Me Sarajevo into a narrative feature it might do pretty well. If you saw my top ten, then you know my choice would be Cold Hell, a roller-coaster ride with an incredibly relevant story. Not gonna happen, it would have to at least get a Blu-ray release first.

Best Director
Panos Cosmatos for Mandy
Alex Garland for Annihilation
Tarik Hodzik for Scream For Me Sarajevo
Spike Lee for Black Klansman
Stefan Ruzowitzky for Cold Hell

Plausibility: You know you've gone out on a limb when the person on your list most likely to get nominated is Spike Lee. He's overdue but there's a case to be made for everyone here. Alex Garland did wonders with a mid-size budget in Annihilation. Tarik Hodzik elegantly shuffled between past and present in Scream For Me Sarajevo. Stefan Ruzowitsky combined the bright colors of the giallo with modern techniques, although he at least already has an Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film for The Counterfeiters). When it comes to a singular aesthetic experiences this year, however, I think of Mandy right away. In only his second feature, Cosmatos created a totally unique world for his surreal story to unfold in. Or maybe it's just because so many of the backdrops look like metal album covers.

Best Actor
John Cho in Searching
Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting
Ben Foster in Leave No Trace
David Howard Thornton in Terrifier
John David Washington in Black Klansman

Plausibility: Ah ha ha ha ha! I would pay good money to see the reactions of those old Oscar voters if they actually sat down and watched Terrifier. Even though extreme gore is not everyone's thing, Thornton gave an amazing, completely wordless performance as the unspeakably evil Art the Clown. John Cho should be a no-brainer, but none of the various Oscar controversies have made it any easier for Asian actors to get any respect. Daveed Diggs and Ben Foster were both great in small independent films that will likely be overlooked. The best shot here is John David Washington, son of Denzel and the star of Black Klansman, a movie that's looking to do pretty well tomorrow.

Best Actress
Toni Collette in Hereditary
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher
Violetta Schurawlow in Cold Hell
Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give

Plausibility: I was iffy on Hereditary. The hype was just out of control and mostly based on a single and admittedly shocking scene. The rest of it was pretty familiar stuff, but no demon-worshiping cult is anywhere near as scary as watching Toni Collette's character slip into grief-driven madness. She was incredible and there's been plenty of talk about her breaking into the final five at the Oscars. I suppose it's possible but I have a feeling we're in for a repeat of the whole Essie Davis/Babadook thing. The other one with a feasible shot is Elsie Fisher, who embodied that familiar middle school confusion where you think you should be acting like an adult but you don't really have any idea what that means. Definitely on the bubble but she has a much better chance than the rest. Maggie Gyllenhaal was great but the movie had a small Netflix release (if you're not Roma, this is still a pretty hard sell for the Academy). Amandla Stenberg hasn't shown up in this awards season, maybe because she's been overshadowed by Elsie Fisher and two teenage nominees is unlikely. Violetta Schurawlow kicked all sorts of ass, but (no pun intended) Cold Hell's flicker of a release in the Western Hemisphere, plus being a horror movie, plus being on a streaming service...yeah, you get the idea.

Best Supporting Actor
Adam Driver in Black Klansman
Brian Tyree Henry in If Beale Street Could Talk
Russell Hornsby in The Hate U Give
Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther
Rich Sommer in Summer of '84

Plausibility: Adam Driver will probably get a nomination. Michael B. Jordan might too if Black Panther gets a wide sweep. A stronger than expected showing for If Beale Street Could Talk would be good news for Brian Tyree Henry, whose character gave a haunting monologue about the indignities of prison life. Rich Sommer as the police officer who may or may not be a murderer is the main reason why Summer of '84 worked. My top choice would be Russell Hornsby as Mav Carter, the charismatic, hotheaded and noble father from The Hate U Give.

Best Supporting Actress
Nadia Alexander in Blame
Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place
Shayna McHayle in Support the Girls
Debra Messing in Searching
Gina Rodriguez in Annihilation

Plausibility: Forget Mary Poppins, this was the 2018 Emily Blunt performance that will be remembered. Nobody who saw A Quiet Place will forget the scene where she has to give birth while trying not to make a sound. She just might get nominated too. Everyone else here doesn't have a chance unfortunately. Gina Rodriguez made her character's paranoid meltdown super intense. I didn't know Debra Messing was capable of the type of performance she gave as a police detective in Searching. Nadia Alexander's final scene in her movie was one of the most emotional moments of the year. The biggest mystery might be why Support the Girls, a "dramedy" in tune with modern anxieties, has been shut out of the awards season. They usually love this kind of thing.

That's all for now. I'll be back in a month or so to predict the results of the real (and surely less interesting) nominations.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Top Ten Films of 2018

My self-imposed deadline for these lists is the weekend of the Golden Globes. In the past, I've had a hard time meeting that goal but not so much in the last several years. With more streaming sites popping up eager for "content," many movies that otherwise would have gone straight to obscurity are easily accessible. There were just a lot of movies in general - two movies about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, two movies about gay conversion "therapy," horror movies named both Terrifed and Terrifier, two documentaries directed by Morgan Neville that profile creative geniuses, you get the idea. I still didn't manage to see a few of the year-end films - I really wanted to get to If Beale Street Could Talk, the latest film from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, but I just didn't have the means - but there were many other movies to keep me busy.

There are two parallel stories that sum up the movies of 2018. The first is a major influx of films in all different genres that focus on the types of people who rarely get this sort of attention. Most of these films also had directors who knew the experiences depicted in the films firsthand. The activist and social media fueled push for diversity in our entertainment is bearing fruit and if these films are an indication, this is absolutely the path to continue on. The other notable trend is the explosion of independent horror films. I've been talking about this for most of the decade, but this year may have been the peak. This genre is thriving in a way I've never seen. I suppose with all this in mind, it's not a surprise that my top pick is an illustration of both of these developments. Let's get started.

10. A Quiet Place
In this taut and suspenseful horror film, Earth has been overrun by blind, fast-moving creatures that attack anything that makes noise. Krasinski and his real-life spouse Emily Blunt play parents who have managed to survive by communicating in sign language and maintaining almost compete silence in their home. The mother is also pregnant, which is borderline suicidal given how noisy infants are. The long stretches of quiet make any sudden noise into its own special type of jump scare and the tension reaches a fever pitch when the creatures invade the home just as she is about to give birth (Blunt’s performance is seriously intense). In addition to being very frightening, the attention to the relationships between the parents and children (especially the deaf daughter played by Millicent Simmonds) adds a layer of affecting drama. The cinematography and sound design are also top notch.

9. Free Solo
It would be difficult to find a movie with a more arresting opening shot than Free Solo. A downward view of El Capitan, the towering 3,000 foot cliff in Yosemite National Park, with one man hanging precariously without any ropes or safety gear. This hit documentary follows professional climber Alex Honnold as he trains for years before attempting to climb El Capitan in the absurdly dangerous “free solo” style. The directors put a lot of effort into profiling the eccentric Honnold while still keeping the focus on the impending climb and reckoning with the chance that they might be inadvertently making a snuff film. The knowledge that Honnold completed his climb (there wouldn’t be a movie if he hadn’t) is easy to forget during the final ascent, which looks so difficult it’s almost beyond comprehension. Along the way there is also plenty of beautiful footage of Yosemite, an area that can outdo any computer-generated landscape in terms of grandeur.

8. Mandy
An otherwise familiar revenge tale is rendered in vivid colors and powerful imagery. In the year 1983, woodsman Red Miller (Nicolas Cage, giving his best performance in who knows how long) and artist Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) have found a peaceful life in rural California. When a bizarre cult led by a failed musician (Linus Roache, giving the strangest performance in a movie full of them) upends their lives, Red begins to hunt them all down. The trance-like pacing and droning soundtrack owe a lot to David Lynch, but Lynch never made a movie where a man fights demonic bikers with a steel battle axe. This one has divided audiences but I found the wild production design and unique tone to be absorbing and quite satisfying to watch. 80s character actor Bill Duke has a cameo.

7. The Hate U Give
The late Roger Ebert once described movies as "a machine that generates empathy." This is especially true in the case of this drama, although the people that most need to see it probably won't. Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) lives in two worlds - her poor black neighborhood and a posh private school. The boundary between those separate lives collapses after she witnesses her childhood friend’s murder at the hands of a police officer. She is reluctant to take on the system but the callousness and bigotry illuminated by the shooting pushes her into activism. It’s a movie of immense emotional power and honesty and despite the countless real-life examples that give context to the story, only one or two scenes ever feel forced (there's one conversation in particular that feels like it was cut and pasted from a social media argument but it's easily forgiven). Stenberg guides her character through a fully realized arc and leads a large cast of interesting characters. Russell Hornsby is particularly good as Starr’s hot-tempered, righteous father.

6. Eighth Grade
For most people, eighth grade is their first experience with fascism. Kayla (an exceptional performance from Elsie Fisher) only has to get through one more week but it won’t be easy. She is kind and intelligent but has been cowed by the daily abuse from her classmates, using her spare time to post videos of herself giving the sort of advice that she rarely takes. Her doting father (Josh Hamilton) tries his best to communicate with her but he can’t do much to help Kayla deal with the pint-sized brownshirts. Times and technology may change, but adolescence is still a hellish time where kids are constantly seeking the approval of peers who will either ignore them or dump shame and humiliation on them. It’s not the first film to explore this difficult time, but it’s one of the better ones thanks to the authentic performances from the teen actors and the distinctive synth soundtrack.

5. Blindspotting
A movie stuffed with heavy themes about gentrification and identity that still manages to be frequently hilarious and entertaining. Daveed Diggs gives a charismatic lead performance as Collin, who is on probation following a year in prison (he got into a fight with a hipster and accidentally set him on fire). With his probation almost over, Collin tries his best to stay out of trouble despite witnessing a police officer shooting a fleeing black man and the antics of his loose cannon best friend Miles (Rafael Casal). The real-life friends Diggs and Casal wrote the screenplay based on their own lives growing up in Oakland, which is becoming a very different place than they remember. It’s funny, involving and bursting with life as the two leads interact with a variety of interesting characters (Wayne Knight as a nerdy artist, and Utkarsh Ambudkar who hilariously recalls the incident that got Collin thrown in jail) and occasionally busting out improvised rap verses. There’s real anger about police violence and gentrification in this film but it balances the social commentary with buddy comedy for a very effective result.

4. Black Klansman
Yes, I know there is an extra "k" wedged in there but that makes my eyes hurt so I'm leaving it out. Gimmicky title notwithstanding, this simultaneously rollicking and sobering movie draws sharp parallels between the 1970s and the 2010s. Spike Lee hadn’t changed his approach much in the 30 years since he made Do The Right Thing, one of the definitive films about race in America. However, the culture at large has gone back and forth in terms of how his work has been received. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, America had convinced itself that we had come far enough on race issues that we didn't need a confrontational filmmaker like Lee. Better to explore the problem with subtler, more even-handed dramas. That didn't work out. Overt racism has enjoyed such a resurgence that Lee was sorely needed and we ought to be grateful he's still willing to bring the fight. Based in part on a true story, detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in order to expose their violent plans. However, as Stallworth is black he needs Jewish officer “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go undercover in his place. Lee doesn't get enough credit for how fun and entertaining his films can be, but he still doesn’t let the audience off easy and concludes the film with footage from the instantly notorious Charlottesville white supremacist rally of 2017. Progressive film buffs will also appreciate a righteous takedown of the vile silent film Birth of a Nation. On a more personal note, I am greatly looking forward to seeing people try and pronounce "BlackKklansman" at awards shows.

3. Annihilation
A hypnotic, visually stunning film that takes the premise of H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Colour out of Space" and expands it into a very ambitious film that leaves viewers pondering the weighty matters of life. Biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is shocked when her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns after being presumed dead for a year, following an investigation into a bizarre environment created by a meteor impact. Lena and a team of other scientists end up exploring the place themselves and what lies within is best left unspoiled for those who haven’t seen it. The production design owes a great deal to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, although generally more engaging and with a wider variety of moods - for example, this is not a horror film but has one of the absolute scariest scenes of the year. The truth of the “shimmer” evokes the reality that someday, perhaps sooner rather than later, our own world (and us with it) will change beyond recognition. The gravity of the story and the wondrous images the filmmakers created with a mid-tier budget make this an unforgettable experience to watch.

2. Scream For Me Sarajevo
I may get accused of bias, but this moving documentary gives a triumphant example of how powerful music can be in the right circumstances. After the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, the city of Sarajevo was besieged by Serbian soldiers for years. In 1994, two United Nations personnel in the city invited Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson (who was estranged from the band at the time and releasing material with different musicians) to perform. Dickinson accepted, not totally understanding that this was one of the most dangerous places in the world during those years. The concert may have inspired the film, but Dickinson doesn't even appear on camera until about a half hour in. This is foremost the story of the people of Sarajevo who lived through Hell and found a true light in the darkness at a metal concert, if only for one night. The director Tarik Hodsik elegantly shifts between past and present and while there are harrowing stories told in the interviews, the film ultimately ends on a triumphant note as Dickinson returns to the city over 20 years later and the participants reunite and marvel at what they managed to survive. It's highly emotional, with just about everyone who gets interviewed fighting off tears at one point or another. A story like this can appeal to anyone, but those who enjoy this sort of music will find the experience of watching this film almost transcendent. If you've ever cried listening to "Tears of the Dragon," just wait until you see the final scene.

1. Cold Hell
A serial killer targeting Muslim women stalks the streets of Vienna, Austria. Ozge (Violetta Schurawlow), a taxi driver of Turkish descent, witnesses one of his murders and finds herself targeted. However, she’s an aspiring kickboxer with a lot of unresolved anger and will not go down easily. That’s the simple setup of this thrilling movie that delivers exceptional suspense while offering a weighty subtext about how women and minorities (especially people who are both) get treated by the system. With its colorful production design and the occasional use of digital video to add immediacy during the action scenes, the movie is like an Italian giallo shot by Micheal Mann. Schurawlow is awesome in the lead role, turning Ozge into a heroine the audience cheers for even though she acts like a surly grouch most of the time. Given how great this film is, I really wish it was easier to see. It's not yet available in America on DVD or Blu-ray and I originally saw it on Shudder, which has quickly become the premiere streaming service for horror fans thanks to savvy acquisitions like this one. In a year full of white guys acting like complete psychopaths over immigration, a movie like this is immensely cathartic. The changes happening in the world can't be stopped and if you can't deal with that and keep acting out, not everyone will put up with it forever.

11. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
12. They'll Love Me When I'm Dead
13. Searching
14. Roma
15. Sorry to Bother You
16. Leave No Trace
17. Black Panther
18. Support the Girls
19. Blame
20. Terrifier

Happy 2019, everyone. Well, I'd honestly settle for just a decent 2019 at this point.