Ashton Sanders in ‘Moonlight.’ credit: A24
Generally embroiled in foreign films, I like to check in on mainstream Hollywood once a year and look at the Oscar-nominated films. The few U.S. films I see, and like, are rarely represented here, but I always run into pleasant surprises I might have otherwise overlooked. They’re kind of humorless this year – no big-award love for Deadpool or The Force Awakens apparently. The Scorsese Silence snub’s a surprise (only cinematography), but you didn’t really expect American Honey or Paterson to be here either, did you? And perhaps we should celebrate how great so many films looked this year, and the invasion of really good Scandinavian and Australian cinematographers, not to mention Frenchman Stéphane Fontaine, who’s earned himself a well-deserved vacation (Jackie, Elle, Captain Fantastic). I say bring ‘em – pros are pros.
Arrival – Fans of the story upon which this film is based, “Story of Your Life,” admire the depth of emotion and compassion that author Ted Chiang is able to plumb without compromising the rigorous science at the heart of the story. Denis Villeneuve’s film, and Chiang’s story, is less about the mysteries and potential hostilities of the other and far more about the mysteries and potential hostilities of our own limited senses of time and memory. Applying the roller-coaster-vs.-haunted-house standard, Arrival is a haunted house; even the aliens here are sadder-but-wiser-types, not unlike Dr. Louise Banks (a superb Amy Adams, this year’s best-actress sacrifice to The Khaleesi Streep), their Earthling- appointed liaison into mutually-beneficial communication. Villeneuve’s visual strategies, too, are more luminist landscape than cartoon-panel, and thanks to cinematographer Bradford Young for that, but ultimately Villeneuve fails to impart any other larger importance than to this particular protagonist. Her story, involving some tricky contexts concerning love, knowledge and loss, is pretty interesting, and there are a few ooh-and-ahh moments in the larger story, but what’s this got to do with us? A nice cinematic experience, but nothing that’ll stick to your ribs…
Fences – This is the kind of well-constructed American tragedy I wish Manchester By The Sea had aspired to. As a theater script, August Wilson’s play is one for the ages, and Denzel Washington (who also directed) and Viola Davis give epic, own-the-joint performances. I think some of the more cinematic-on-purpose transitions are awkward and forced (especially near the end), but Denzel’s staging of the work is otherwise so straightforward and uncluttered that it’s hard for me to find fault – he makes no apologies for the dialogue-heavy, two-shot theatricality of the work. Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen does nice work here as well. Perhaps not the best film of the year, but certainly a heavyweight worth respect.
Hacksaw Ridge – If you have any familiar knowledge of films directed by Mel Gibson (Braveheart, Passion Of The Christ, Apocalypto), you know subtext or subtlety will be in short supply. If you have any familiar knowledge of war movies from the 50s and 60s, you know Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight’s stations-of-the-cross approach isn’t really anything new, but they’ve adapted a terrific true story, and the skilled Gibson, the Jimmy Cagney of directors, has no problem yanking us in. Luckily for us Andrew Garfield is in the lead – it’s tough to glean from Spider Man movies, but Garfield’s the real deal as an actor, as, by now, Martin Scorsese can attest as well. This is a very good war movie – I’d rank it well behind Saving Private Ryan, but much better than 2014’s American Sniper. The depiction of Desmond Doss’ pre-war life is a little old-school syrupy, and the usually reliable Hugo Weaving teeters perilously close to Graham Chapman territory here. But the film’s thrilling last half, as superbly orchestrated as it is, doesn’t spare you from any of Gibson’s gore-slathered grand guignol tendencies, non-violent-protagonist notwithstanding. You’ll have to make your own mind up about whether Gibson-the-person’s work is worth your support, but the man’s a real-live director.
Hell Or High Water – There should be 10 or 12 of these intelligently written, professionally-shot, admirably performed genre films every year. Clearly we tend to run short of that, so don’t neglect these few when they come around. Scotland’s David Mackenzie is kinda hit-or-miss (Young Adam, Starred Up), but he does nice work here with Taylor Sheridan’s efficient script, and he’s clearly fascinated with all of those Texas white boys havin’ all of those guns. Chris Pine and Ben Foster, as bank-robbing brothers with at least one heart-of-gold between them, do good work with good parts, and Mackenzie knows to just let Jeff Bridges be Jeff Bridges. A good film worth seeing, but Best Picture? Not so much…
Hidden Figures – Writer / director / producer Theodore Melfi has been cinematically chipping away and switching hats over the last fifteen years, getting a leg up with Bill Murray’s St. Vincent in 2014 and flat-out nailing it with this terrific film two years later. The eponymous book it’s been adapted from, by Margot Lee Shetterly, comes highly recommended as well. For the most part, Melfi tells the story in unadorned fashion: these women succeeded because of who they themselves were – smart, diligent and self-sufficient – not because anyone else allowed them to. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monàe are all excellent, and the film overall is refreshingly free of Valuable Lessons™. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, but I put it in the top 3 here.
La La Land – a sophomore misfire by the talented Damien Chazelle (Whiplash). His visuals are impressive (Linus Sandgren shoots here, and he may win Best Cinematography), and a few stylish showcase scenes – the freeway opening, the observatory dance – express some of the good ideas he had in mind, but he’s just not screenwriter enough to tie it all together in compelling fashion – yet. Homages to Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy are scattered throughout (not to mention Nicholas Ray, of course), but the characters are woefully underwritten. Emma Stone fares better than Ryan Gosling, but she has the more interesting arc, while Gosling is saddled with Chazelle’s own static conceits about jazz, selling out and long-view sacrifice. I just didn’t believe they were in love with each other, even though they have many swoon-worthy moments with which to convince us, and even though Stone and Gosling knock themselves out. And can we please get over the notion that Real Singers are somehow unnecessary in filmed musicals? Musical theater characters aren’t sensitive and precious and conversational, they’re passionate and impulsive and expressive. Real singers and dancers, and/or real singers who at least move well, are far more convincing. Chazelle will make many other excellent films from here – I’m glad he got this one out of his system.
Lion – The Weinstein Company’s annual entrant is also Garth Davis’ feature film debut, and it’s good on both counts. Another compelling true story, featuring a terrific child’s performance by Sunny Pawar, it tells the story of Saroo, separated from his family as a child and forced to survive with thousands of other homeless children in Calcutta until he’s adopted from an orphanage by a loving Tasmanian family. As an adult, the capable but still-haunted Saroo (now Dev Patel) decides to look for his original family back in India. Davis keeps things narratively efficient – he’s got a good commercial eye, and keeps visual interest without imposing. And Luke Davies’ screen adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s book balances squalor and intrigue well – the journey’s compelling, but the hardships aren’t softened. My only problem was a muddled middle sequence with adult Saroo that lost so much of the rhythm Davis had otherwise established. The actors clearly liked Davis as well – all do very good work. Another that’s worth seeing, another just shy of being actually competitive.
Manchester By The Sea – A slow-motion human train crash that never transcends its vicarious-therapy intrigues to become genuinely universal tragedy. There are dysfunctional-family dramas that aspire to larger things – hubris, catharsis, wrong choices for the right reasons, etc. – and have a universal resonance within our own lives. Sam Mendes gets this (off the top of my head…), Scorsese… and there are certainly others. I’d like to put Kenneth Lonergan in that league, but I see this as a big step backwards from You Can Count On Me and Margaret. The world is full of people just like these, chasing their own emotional tails, dragging their heartbreak behind them, but making a really long movie about them, especially one with so little rhythm or dynamic variation, doesn’t compel me to care about them. August, Osage County might have been the last straw for me – well-written, well-acted, but enough already. Obviously, many disagree – this was one of the highest-rated critical successes of the year, and is the likely favorite. Additional points off for being this year’s standard-bearer for White People’s Problems; the casting of the reliable Steven Henderson in a tiny role must have been an oversight.
Moonlight – My favorite of these nine. Director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney find a fierce common wavelength, and deliver a complex and compelling personal history. Many filmmakers would feel obligated to fill in the local and cultural backstory, and introduce the characters within that context; but here the focus is always interpersonal, always intimate, all about faces and conversations, which paradoxically describes their larger world far more effectively. Simple visual choices abound – well-orchestrated, purposeful Steadicam, subtle but deliberate colors (it is Miami, after all…). Every scene unobtrusively describes the room, the place, the specifics of each environment, with oddly graceful 360° movements – cinematographer James Laxton does such good work here it may save him from ever having to work for Kevin Smith again. Every actor here does fully committed work, starting with the three who play three ages of our protagonist (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders (so good) and Trevante Rhodes), the three Kevins (his friend, and then some, across his life) (notably Jharrel Jerome), and outstanding support from Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monàe, Patrick Decile as a disturbingly charismatic bully, and Naomie Harris, who does astonishing work for only having been on set for three days. A long shot for Best Picture, sadly, but you shouldn’t miss this.
Best Picture –
should win – Moonlight.
Will win – La La Land or Manchester By The Sea.
Best Director –
Should win – I like Barry Jenkins best here. I guess Gibson’s
my number two, but, y’know, that’s problematic …
Will win – Kenneth Lonergan.
Best Actor –
Should win – Andrew Garfield or Denzel Washington.
Will win – Denzel.
Best Actress –
Should win – Isabelle Huppert or Natalie Portman.
Will win – Emma Stone, but Huppert would be a well-deserved surprise.
Best Supporting Actor
Should win and will – Mahershala Ali
Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis should walk away with this, but don’t underestimate the love for Michelle Williams. She should win at some point – just not here. Naomie Harris – wow… This category could really be any of the five, though it’s a shame Taraji P. Henson couldn’t squeeze in here somewhere.
Best Foreign Film – One of the best films of the year, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (France) is conspicuous in its absence here; hell, it’s conspicuous in its absence from Best Picture. Also deserving were Sieranevada (Cristian Puiu – Romania) and Neruda (Pablo Larrain – Chile).
Should win – Land Of Mine (Under Sandet) (Martin Zandvliet – Denmark), though I must confess Tanna (Martin Butler and Bentley Dean – Australia) is an impressively close second. Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Forushande) (Iran) is a political favorite, but isn’t as good as his last two (A Separation, The Past).
Will win –Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade – Germany) is the clear favorite here, to my unpleasant surprise. The American remake is already brewing.
Movie I didn’t expect to like so much (Last year this was The Big Short.):
Jackie – Natalie Portman’s affectations take you by unpleasant surprise until you head over to YouTube and check the real Jackie – Portman nailed it without flat-out impersonating her, a tall order with such a loaded historical figure. But Pablo Larrain’s rigorously stylized film about her is also about cultural contrivance, hierarchies of loyalty, personal branding, managing legacies and ‘What Becomes A Legend Most?’ May be the most genuinely modern film of this year’s whole batch.
Movie I wanted to like but didn’t (Last year this was Spectre.):
Manchester By The Sea – I found watching this film to be hard labor. Hard, unrewarding labor.
Toni Erdmann – a complete whiff from my end. Nothing interesting, nothing engaging, nothing even remotely laugh-inducing other than my exasperated gasps that he was pulling out those f***ing fake teeth again… You get it or you don’t – Toni Erdmann and I aren’t even in the same zip code. Another interminably long, critically-beloved head-scratcher.