cinecist vs. oscar 2018
Well. So the cinecist finds himself in the distressing but all-too-familiar position of having to apologize to you, his loyal readers, for a markedly imperfect outing. For reasons both personal and professional (OK, mostly professional), I simply find myself lacking the wherewithal to muster a comprehensive analysis of this year’s Oscars competition, or, sadly, even the rather truncated version that has become my custom in recent years. My shame is mitigated only by the secure knowledge that, really, only an unimaginably tiny segment of the population actually gives a shit whether I do this thing or not. To those precious few, I offer both my undying gratitude and my sincerest apologies.
Really, it’s too bad, because I made a valiant effort to see all the likely contenders, and I didn’t do badly, seeing all the Best Picture nominees save one, as well as several other quality films that didn’t make the cut but, in another year or slightly different world, well might have. And it’s a good crop overall, with more than a few flashes of genuine brilliance. Would that I could do them full justice. Seems we’ll all have to settle for somewhat less than that.
In the interest of making the best of a bad situation, I am changing up my usual method this time around. For those of you who, for reasons upon which I do not care to speculate, want to see my predictions at a glance, I am resurrecting that feature here after a long absence—though in greatly abbreviated form. Below, instead of analysis by category, I am simply providing limited commentary by title for each of the Best Picture nominees, with in-line speculation on what awards they might pick up. They are ordered according to my personal preference (among the nominees only, not among all films I saw) from highest to lowest.
As always, thank you for coming. Enjoy the show.
Alfonso Cuaron’s latest is the odds-on favorite, and it’s easy to see why. Small, quiet, melancholy, and, by the end, enormously moving, this love letter to Mexico and childhood and caregivers and the resilience of humanity is a work for the ages. It is, if not the culmination, at least the purest manifestation yet of Cuaron’s career-long exploration of childhood, from pre-birth through adolescence, meeting adversity. His treatment of the theme in Roma is subtler and more oblique than in many of his previous works. Think of Children of Men, in which a pregnant mother fights pitiless governments and a collapsing global infrastructure to bring her child into a post-apocalyptic world that hasn’t seen any new births for 20 years; or A Little Princess, in which a sweet young girl is subjected to cruel twists of fate and even crueler treatment by adults; or Y Tu Mama Tambien, in which two teenage boys facing impending manhood wrestle with libidinal chaos, mutual betrayal, and a pervasive sadness that is only explained in retrospect; or even the sci-fi blockbuster Gravity, in which one of the most important characters is the protagonist’s absent daughter, who died as a young child in a senseless accident. In these films and others, childhood for Cuaron is a battleground and a proving ground, the backdrop against which all human struggle is illuminated. No less so in Roma. The struggles here lean toward the mundane—infidelity, irresponsibility, economic misfortune, class disparity, unwanted pregnancy, routine political unrest—but they are lent immediacy and palpability by Cuaron’s obvious personal investment in this semi-autobiographical story. It is the children who will eventually have to take up these struggles, but their mothers—both biological and extra-biological—will stop at nothing to shelter and strengthen them for as long as they can.
Roma is beautiful at many levels, not least of which is the visual. Cuaron usually employs the knee-weakening genius of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, but in taking up the camera himself this time, his touch is flawless. His crisp, luminous black-and-white work here is note-perfect for a story that hides so much conflict and turmoil beneath its domestic surface. It would not be at all surprising to see it earn a Best Cinematography win, though it has strong competition in The Favourite. It’s a delight to see first-timer Yalitza Aparicio most deservedly nominated for Best Actress for her performance as Cleo the Mixteco nanny, but don’t expect to see her at the podium. Marina de Tavira is a bit of a surprise Supporting Actress nominee for playing the mother, and as good as she is, I don’t like her odds. Cuaron is nominated for Original Screenplay, which he could potentially take home as a pile-on prize for this universally loved film, but I think his chances are meaningfully diminished by the fact that it’s a non-English script.
Besides a likely Best Picture win, Best Director is Roma’s other best chance. If the film takes Picture, we will probably see Cuaron take Director—but it’s not a gimme, not at all. He has to face Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman, in what is, inexplicably, Lee’s first nomination for direction. More on this in my discussion of that film. For now, I’ll just say that if there has ever been a strong emotional case for dividing the Picture and Director awards, this is it.
2. The Favourite
I first saw a preview for The Favourite sitting next to a friend in the theatre, waiting for some other movie to start, and we were gobsmacked. The diabolical humor and fierce intelligence and stunning spectacle captured in those 90 seconds hit like a punch. When the preview was over, my friend said, “That movie can’t really be as good as it looks, right? ‘Cause it looks like the greatest thing ever.” Well, it might not be the greatest thing ever, but it’s certainly one of the greatest things I saw this year. I considered putting it at the top of my list, above Roma. In the end, the abiding, melancholy humanity of Roma convinced me otherwise (you all know I’m a sucker for melancholy), but that doesn’t mean I don’t think The Favourite is a masterpiece. I can’t hope to convey the delight of watching this razor-sharp story of ambition and cruelty played out in the hands of three exceptional actresses working at the height of their powers and a director whose other work I now feel compelled to seek out. What I can say is that if you loved Dangerous Liaisons, this is like that, only funnier, wickeder, more cynical—ultimately less intellectually serious, but even more delicious to savor.
That’s not to say it’s all fun and games. There are deep currents of sadness to this story of the apparently rather tragic life of the emotionally and psychologically unstable Queen Anne. She’s a heartbreaking character, in her pettiness and privilege, and we watch with sympathetic dread as this already broken character gets even more broken. There’s something Shakespearean in her inability to step back from or see clear of the swirling miasma of betrayal she has allowed to envelop her, to re-assume a monarchical stance and put an end to all the insidious machinations that have sapped her regal power and are dragging down her realm. But then I guess that’s what monarchs in period pieces are for, right?
The Favourite should have a better chance at Best Picture than it has. It received 10 nominations, most in major categories, so there’s no questioning the respect the Academy feels for it. But costume-y period pieces about British monarchs aren’t exactly in vogue right now, and this one is going up against a field of contenders much more closely attuned to our cultural and political moment. The Academy, even with its membership roster expanded in recent years to embrace a more diverse cross-section of the Hollywood community, is still in many ways a vexingly obdurate institution. That leaves The Favourite in the running, but not well positioned.
Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz all richly deserve the nominations they have received. None more than Colman for creating an Anne who is peevish, capricious, overbearing, selectively dense—and immensely, pitiably human. But she faces an uphill battle against Glenn Close, who has ALL the experts in her corner for The Wife (didn’t see it—bad cinecist), and possibly against Lady Gaga too, though there’s evidence that A Star Is Born peaked a bit too early and is now on the down side of its trajectory. A win for Colman would be cause for celebration. Stone and Weisz, for their part, I would have expected to be battling for frontrunner status for Supporting Actress, but it’s not looking that way. Smart money puts Regina King in that position for her work in If Beale Street Could Talk. I didn’t see Beale Street. I intended to at first, but its low public profile convinced me I could safely deprioritize it. That might have been a bad call, given King’s Golden Globe win. If it’s not King here, Amy Adams is looking like the next in line for Vice. So Stone and Weisz are probably out of luck, even though both are superb. I do expect a win by The Favourite for Original Screenplay, and it’s a strong contender in Cinematography as well, for bringing far more visual energy and inventiveness to the screen than we have come to expect of a period piece.
3. A Star Is Born
Are you surprised to see this at #3 on my list? So am I. Or, more accurately, if someone had told me before I saw it that this would be one of my very favorite movies of the year, I would have been skeptical. But dammit, it’s really, really good. Some of the reasons are hard to explain, but obvious when you watch the film. It’s a music story, and one non-negotiable demand of that genre is that you believe in the music. You have to buy it, you have to believe that the music is real, that people in the real world would want to listen to it and see the artist performing it onstage. It has to feel “authentic.” Well, this movie passes that test about as successfully as any non-documentary film I’ve ever seen. The opening scene of Bradley Cooper as an aging rock icon performing one of his biggest hits feels like...an aging rock icon performing one of his biggest hits. It’s a great song, for one; I would buy the record. And Cooper is so good at performing it, so full of weary rock-star charm and ragged charisma, that I actually wondered for a moment if he had had a previous career I didn’t know about. There’s not a false note there (whoops, sorry), and that scene lays a foundation of musical credibility without which the whole project might just collapse and wither.
This being a love story as well as a music story, there is another non-negotiable demand: You have to believe the relationship. So often in love stories, we are given no discernible rationale for why two people even like each other, let alone fall in love. We’re just expected to take as a given their immediate mutual affection and let the story progress without our pesky questions. Not so here. Romantic chemistry is about as hard to explain as musical credibility, but, as they say, you know it when you see it. The chemistry between Cooper and Gaga is as plain as the fake eyebrows on her face and the booze on his breath when their characters first meet. The scenes that follow, of them getting to know each other, build upon that chemistry to work the precarious kind of magic that anyone who has fallen in love will recognize.
With those two pieces firmly in place, there’s almost no way for A Star Is Born to step wrong—though it does try at one point. The arc of Gaga’s ascent as a pop star in her own right is mishandled; it’s shorthanded and schematized in ways that are beneath a movie of this quality and threaten to derail it. But once it gets past that 15-minute sequence, it corrects its course and is right back to being the compelling, engaging, inevitably heartbreaking love story it sets out to be. Is it melodramatic? Of course it is. If you go to see A Star Is Born and then complain about the melodrama, the joke’s on you. This is a story of big passion and big tragedy, so don’t ask it to hold back. What’s so great about this telling of it (the fourth so far) is that it gets most of the big moments exactly right, and it gets all the small ones even righter.
It’s mysterious to me, even after all these years of paying fairly close attention to this stuff, how fortunes shift in the Oscars race. A couple of months ago, A Star Is Born was seen as a strong contender for Best Picture among numerous other awards, and Cooper as a shoo-in for a Director nomination—for his freshman outing, no less. Fast forward and now we have the movie sitting somewhere around the middle of the pack for Best Picture, and Cooper snubbed for Director in favor of Pawel Pawlikowski for the Polish-language The Cold War. Weird. Cooper got his nomination for Best Actor, but he’s a VERY long shot against Christian Bale for Vice and/or Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody. Lady Gaga fares perhaps a bit better in her bid for Best Actress (her performance, by the way, is basically flawless—what a talent), but still she would have to climb Mount Close and then fend off Olivia Colman, which is no cake walk. Sam Eliot for Supporting Actor? Probably not, with Mahershala Ali and Richard E. Grant in the field—though the Academy is unpredictable in this category. Adapted Screenplay? Nah. Cinematography? Nah. It looks like this very accomplished film may ultimately have to settle for the one award for which it is, as the Brits say, a dead cert: Best Song for “The Shallow.”
At this point, my personal ranking of these films starts to take a tenuous turn. There’s not a bad film in the lot; I enjoyed watching every one of them, except Bohemian Rhapsody, which I regret not seeing, because I’m sure I would have enjoyed that one, too. But when considering second-tier films (and starting here, they are all second-tier films, which is not in any way an insult coming from someone who considers the second tier to start at A-) personal preferences, biases, and other uncomfortably subjective criteria start to figure more prominently. And so it is my personal predilection for wild cinematic ambition that accounts for my ranking Vice at #4.
This is not a great film. But it has much greatness in it, chiefly the preternaturally effective performance of Christian Bale in the lead role of Dick Cheney. As I’ve probably said before, I don’t know how Bale does what he does. I don’t know how ANYONE does what he does. He does something that seems not just beyond my ability or the ability of anyone I know, but actually beyond the ability of what any human being should be able to do. He’s one of those exotic creatures of the cinema, Daniel Day-Lewis and maybe Sean Penn being the only comparables who come to mind, who are able to wholly efface themselves and their identities—their personhood—and disappear entirely into a fictional creation onscreen. Find someone who has never heard of Christian Bale and never seen any of his movies, and show them Vice, American Hustle, The Machinist, American Psycho, and The Fighter. Then tell them that was the same actor playing Dick Cheney, Irving Rosenfeld, Trevor Reznik, Patrick Bateman, and Dicky Eklund. And then watch their face melt. What Bale does is so extreme that I’m not even sure it’s acting. It might be psychosis. Whatever it is, we are the beneficiaries. In these films and so many others, Bale delivers performances so deeply and purely true to his characters and to the needs of the story that everything surrounding him tends to fade into insignificance. It’s an astonishingly generous gift to us, and I only hope the toll it takes on his own psyche isn’t unbearable for him. His performance in Vice is no different. He’s already won an Oscar, two Golden Globes and two SAG Awards, and he’s a strong contender to add to that pile this year, but his competition in Rami Malek is exceedingly stout.
Beyond Bale’s performance, if we can in fact get beyond that, there’s a lot of good stuff in Vice. Its herky-jerky narrative and brazen playfulness with Matters of Great Consequence make it a rollicking good time for a movie that is fundamentally a howl from the wilderness against what it sees as an undermining of all we hold dear in our blessed democracy. And then there are the asides, those moments when the narrative (such as it is) breaks all form and leaps with joyful abandon into wild fantasies and goofy speculative detours of the kind only hinted at in director Adam McKay’s previous Oscar contender, The Big Short (which was, for what it’s worth, a better movie). They don’t all work equally well; but The Shakespeare Scene and The False Ending go in the Hall of Fame. What it all adds up to is rather hard for me to say. But the energy and fearlessness win my heart.
Bale’s performance is the movie’s best chance for a win. Amy Adams seems to have a pretty good shot at Supporting Actress, but Regina King’s shot is better. If I may be blunt, I don’t think Adams deserves it. I love her, and she’s been given a very strong character to play in Lynne Cheney, which she plays well enough, but I don’t see anything really distinctive there—not compared to Emma Stone or Rachel Weisz in The Favourite, and not compared to work we’ve seen from Adams before (if you never saw Junebug, which brought Adams her first nomination, see it). Sam Rockwell, a solid but slightly too cartoonish George W. Bush, is a non-starter; he got his Oscar last year, when he really earned it. McKay can’t compete with Alfonso Cuaron or Spike Lee for Director, at least not this time. And nobody is putting any money on Vice for Original Screenplay, despite all the fun.
I was hoping to love this movie. Like, really love it. As someone whose socks, shoes and toenails were knocked clean off by Lee’s Do the Right Thing all the way back in 1989, I root—hard—every time a new Spike Lee Joint makes it into the theatres. It’s pure self-interest. I just want to feel once more that exuberant shock, that lacerating anger, that galvanic and galvanizing spark of absolute righteousness that planted his third feature film immediately and irremovably on this budding cinecist’s roster of the Greatest of the Great. It’s a ridiculous demand for me to make of a filmmaker, childish and unfair and wrongheaded. But a fellow wants what he wants. Since Do the Right Thing, Lee has made numerous good films (Mo’ Better Blues, Crooklyn, Get on the Bus, Clockers, He Got Game, to name just a few), several very good ones (Summer of Sam, Inside Man, Malcom X) and even another genuinely great one, 25th Hour, which I thought was the best movie of 2002. But none of them has satisfied my (unreasonable) craving for Spike Lee’s Next Masterpiece. BlacKkKlansman looked like it might....
So why doesn’t it? The story, of a young black cop in the 1970s who through ambition and serendipity finds himself in prime position to infiltrate and expose the KKK but, for reasons that require no explanation, can’t quite close the deal in person, would strain credibility beyond the breaking point if it weren’t, um...true. This is fraught territory, to say the least, and if anyone should be able to make the journey through it scintillating and infuriating and electric, it’s Spike Lee. But he doesn’t, not quite. The pieces are all in place, but the existential stakes never feel quite high enough, the danger never essential enough, the pain never biting enough. It’s an accomplished, mature and satisfying work, and it goes on the list of Lee’s very good films. But for some of us, that’s never going to be enough from him.
So let’s talk for a minute about Lee’s nomination for Best Director. Putting aside all I’ve said about my personal (entirely selfish) disappointment in his (overall incredibly impressive) body of work, it is inconceivable that he has never been nominated for this award before. So many lesser directors have been nominated for so many lesser works that one really is tempted to give credence to Lee’s default explanation, which is simple racism. He has long been outspoken with his opinion of the quality of his work relative to many of the past winners (i.e., his is better), and after a certain number of decades his argument has accrued some weight. Forget about the obvious travesty of him not getting the nod for Do the Right Thing, can you realistically imagine any white director not being nominated for Malcom X? I honestly can’t. But this year, in this time, there is finally enough in his favor that the Academy was compelled to do what they should have done at least a couple of times before. Movies from black filmmakers, telling stories of black characters and asking questions of black identity, are enjoying quite a run: Moonlight’s surprise win two years ago over the decidedly Caucasian favorite La La Land, Get Out!’s popular and critical coup last year, the commercial and social shock-and-awe campaign of Black Panther this year, these are all powerful indicators of the moment in which we are living, a moment in which Hollywood and the Academy are being forced to reevaluate their conception of what great films (and the people who make them and star in them) look like. Lee has a very good shot at taking this one home.
I feel I must point out that Lee’s main competition, Alfonso Cuaron, is Mexican. In four of the past five years, the Best Director winner has been not American or even British, but Mexican. Does this mean that the Academy is suddenly enamored of “Mexican” stories? Probably not, because I think you would be hard-pressed to make a case that any of the films these directors won for was specifically Mexican in content or presentation. But it does at least seem to indicate that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is growing more comfortable honoring “non-white” filmmakers. Of course, taken with the fact that no black director has ever won, deserving though some have been, it could also be demonstrating that the Academy, like the cultural constituency it represents, still sees shades of skin color: While white may be best, a bit darker is still OK. But the darker the skin gets, the less OK it becomes. Pale to brown to black remains a troubling progression, in popular art as on Main Street. Maybe the Academy is ready to take the next step this year. We’ll see how it plays out.
As for other awards, I don’t rule out Adam Driver for Supporting Actor, because he’s just so damned charismatic in nearly everything he does, but it would be a surprise. Far better chance of BlacKkKlansman taking Adapted Screenplay, where its main competition seems to be If Beale Street Could Talk, a much less flashy—and less popular—film.
6. Black Panther
I don’t, as a general tendency, watch superhero films. Lot of smart people tell me this is a mistake, and they might be right. (I also have never watched Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or The Wire. I have my reasons, which are probably bad or at least lame, but there it is.) So I am unusually poorly equipped to judge how Black Panther compares to other films in the “Marvel Universe.” Based solely on what’s on the screen, I would have to think it compares very favorably. This is a fantastic-looking film, full of insanely inventive visual design and effects, and it really does have a soul, a heart, a point of view. I enjoyed just about every moment of it. But for me, that still only lands it in the second tier, and the film didn’t do anything to convince me it belonged higher than that. I am absolutely comfortable admitting I’m the wrong audience for it, that it is playing in a world to which I have a certain indifference that might well be the result of personal biases to which this film or any film should give no weight whatsoever. As a critic and as a thinking person, I truly LOVE the level of loyalty and empowerment Black Panther seem to have engendered among audiences across the globe. When a high-quality work meets with this kind of adoration and adulation, I cheer—even if I don’t feel that same inspiration myself. But I can only see through my eyes and comment from within my own sensibilities, so my final assessment of Black Panther is that it is a Very Good Superhero Movie. I recommend it to anyone and everyone. And I think there are five movies on this list that are better.
The big question is, do the obvious quality and brain-busting popular success of Black Panther ($1.4 billion earned worldwide, and counting) give it a shot at Best Picture? Within the current cultural zeitgeist, and looking at the Academy’s markedly increased sensitivity to black films and black filmmakers in the past few years, I think the answer is yes. But not a very good shot. I put it in the running behind Roma, Green Book, BlacKkKlansman and probably The Favorite. The fact that it received no other major nominations (Director, Actor/Actress, Screenplay) boosts my confidence in this assessment.
7. Green Book
I didn’t see Bohemian Rhapsody, and perhaps Green Book’s position at #7 is the beneficiary of that omission on my part. This film is a solid B. Not a B+, just a B. It’s a note-for-note retelling of a story you’ve heard a thousand times before, given life by charismatic performances and well-placed dollops of good-natured, meat-and-potatoes humor. There is, by my count, exactly one surprising moment, and I won’t rob you of that by describing it here. Actually, now that I think about it, there’s a second surprising moment, which I WILL share: the moment in the end credits where we learn the film was directed by Peter Farrelly—yes, that Peter Farrelly, the one who teamed up with his brother Bobby to brings us the gloriously (and hilariously) profane Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary. I’m not sure if Green Book represents a step up or a step down from those crude masterworks, but it is certainly a step sideways.
The story is of “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, an Italian-American meathead bouncer in NYC who gets hired as driver, bodyguard and general fixer for Don Shirley, the preeminent black pianist who is undertaking a concert tour of the Midwest and then the segregated South in the 1960s. Guess what? This thick-necked, racist mook and his highfalutin, arrogant charge end up becoming...friends. Yep. And guess what else? It’s based on a true story. I guess it would have to be.
I don’t mean to belittle such a good-hearted story, and in all honesty, I truly like this movie. It musters up a genuine charm, and it certainly knows where to place all its pieces for maximum effect. I can forgive its lack of originality because it’s so good at engaging us anyway in what is ultimately an admirable project in empathy and humanity. I’m less inclined to forgive the ludicrous pasta-and-red-sauce stereotyping it employs in its portrayal of Tony’s home life, which bookends the admittedly sentimental but still much more nuanced story of their journey together. I say this not as an Italian-American, but as a proponent of good filmmaking. Those scenes are just lazy, and they belong in a far inferior film.
I would also like to point out that the acting nominations for Green Book threaten to give the lie to all I’ve been saying up to now about the Academy’s nascent sensitivity to matters of race. Viggo Mortensen is nominated for Best Actor, and Mahershala Ali is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Looking at what’s on the screen, this only makes sense as a weird, atavistic spasm of Academy reactionism—especially ironic for this particular film, this particular story. I’m not sure how one sees Mortensen’s role as “leading” and Ali’s as “supporting” unless one is naturally inclined to view their relationship along those lines based on their relative skin color. So boo to the Academy for that. But yay for, in all likelihood, awarding Ali his second Oscar—unless his win in the same category two years ago for Moonlight persuades Academy voters to give Richard E. Grant the trophy in what could well be his one and only shot at it. That fact that Green Book actually has a fighting chance at taking Best Picture away from Roma is less yay-worthy. These films aren’t even playing the same game; Green Book, even with its charm and good heart, is a softball. But it’s just the kind of softball the Academy loves: comforting, reassuring, affirming what voters believe to be their own best qualities. That has been enough to win countless Oscars in the past, and things haven’t changed so much that it might not do so again.
8. Bohemian Rhapsody
As I’ve made clear, I didn’t see this one. If I am to believe the critical consensus, which is a bit dangerous but still my default, I didn’t miss much other than a spectacular performance by Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. If I believe the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which awards the Golden Globes, I missed the best dramatic film of the year. (A rather long aside: Two Golden Globes are awarded for Best Picture each year, one for Drama and one for Musical or Comedy. But based on their list of nominees this year, they are reaching a point where that distinction is becoming precarious. If Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie about the band Queen structured around recreations of some of their legendary stage performances, and A Star Is Born, a movie thoroughly steeped in the world of pop music stardom in which several of the key narrative moments are played out in musical performances, are both nominated in the Drama category; and serious films with some wit to them—Green Book, Vice and, for Pete’s sake, The Favourite—are all nominated in the Musical/Comedy category; well, then, what exactly is being accomplished by these category assignments? Sure, there’s some plain opportunism at work, as studios who are afraid they can’t compete in Drama lobby for their films to be considered in the “easier” Musical/Comedy category. But as these examples demonstrate, the criteria for making this distinction are becoming tortured beyond reason and the decisions increasingly arbitrary, until you end up with a musical film about a band—Bohemian Rhapsody—winning for Drama and a dramatic film about race relations—Green Book—winning for Musical/Comedy. Oy vey. Back to the Oscars.)
Malek’s clean sweep of the Globe, SAG and BAFTA awards for Best Actor, coupled with his universally lauded and Emmy-awarded lead role in TV’s Mr. Robot, make him a formidable contender here. But he has to duke it out with Christian Bale (who, by the way, won the Globe for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy), which would give any sensible person pause. Two weeks ago I was predicting Bale would edge Malek out, but in just the last 10 days Malek’s stock has risen dramatically, in the mysterious way those things suddenly happen, and now I think he has the upper hand. But if he loses out to Bale, that will be the least surprising of what will likely be several missteps in my predictions this year.
The cinecist’s Humble Suggestions for Additional Viewing:
The actual best movie of the year, of those I saw, is a somber, gentle masterpiece called The Rider, the semi-(or perhaps quasi-)fictionalized story of a young Lakota rodeo rider who sustains career-threatening brain damage in a bull-riding competition, written and directed by, of all people, Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao. My characterization of this story is cryptic by design. If you see it—and PLEASE do see it—I strongly recommend you do so before reading anything else about it. Watch it and you will be mesmerized, then look into the backstory of the people who made it and you will be awed.
Eighth Grade achingly captures the angst and insecurity of early teenhood in the 21st century, flawlessly embodied by Elsie Fisher in a performance that was destined to be overlooked by the Academy and the general movie-going public not in spite of its perfection but because of it. It’s easy for a 14-year-old girl to play a 14-year-old girl, right? Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s probably harder now than it has ever been before. Try to watch this film and not fall a little bit in love with Kayla, with her earnest yearning to be a “normal” kid even as she grasps so desperately at the things that will make her “special.” And then try to hold back the tears when she and her bewildered dad finally open up to each other around the backyard fire upon which she is burning her “hopes and dreams.” The cinecist could not. Probably the best scene in any movie last year.
In Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson proves once again, as he did in 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, that the ostensibly outdated technique of stop-motion animation is actually a perfect medium for modern cinema—for his brand of modern cinema, at least—allowing for stunning visual innovation and wit while retaining the capacity for considerable emotional heft. I didn’t see any of the other nominees for Best Animated Feature, but I cannot fathom any of them being better than this one. Watching Isle of Dogs, I found myself contemplating how Anderson’s great previous films like The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Royal Tenenbaums might well have been even BETTER had they been stop-motion animation. Let me be the first to call for Mr. Anderson to abandon live action and make all his future films this way.
Vice may be a wild ride, but it has nothing on Sorry to Bother You, the first feature from rapper-activist-weirdo Boots Riley. This movie starts out as a goofball satire of the professional and economic plight of a young black man in Oakland, CA and then flies gloriously off the rails into a dark, absurd, post-Swiftian, post-Orwellian sci-fi parable of institutional racism and class struggle. Sound like fun? Oh, it is.
The concept of A Quiet Place is so compelling, and the execution so flawless, that many seem to have been persuaded it is something more than just a great monster movie. It’s not. But really, that’s more than enough.