Monday, February 22, 2016

Unlocking the Oscars: Best Picture

I have now gone through watching the majority of the films up for major Oscars. It was over a month of heavy movie viewing and reminds how narrow the vision of the studios is, releasing most of the top films of the year so late in the season. And yet some gems have emerged out of the rubble of their obsession with remakes, sequels, prequels and franchising. I thought I would briefly explore the films up for best picture, and some of the others that could or should have been on that list. Later, I will look at some of the other major categories and my thoughts on who I believe should (and probably will) win. For now, the films that are, or should be, considered for best picture.

Spotlight: A+
This tour de force had a disappointing Golden Globes, unable to win on any of its three nominations. That, however, should not undermine the appeal of this engrossing film, punctuated by an ensemble cast that played off each other with surprising cohesiveness, with Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery excellent, along with the rest of the players. The story covers the Boston investigation into allegations that the city’s Archdiocese covered-up countless incidents of sexual abuse by priests for many years. It fits smugly with the best newsroom films of all time, alongside Face in the Crowd, Network, Broadcast News and its closest analogous story, All the President’s Men. It is difficult to capture the slow moving nature of a story that took months (or years, if you want to be technical) to uncover and report, but the director and screenwriter Tom McCarthy (with Josh Singer) found a way to maintain the tension throughout, picking out elliptical moments that made the story come alive. The anger and shock one may feel as the story unfolds is well-founded, of course, and the film is masterful in revealing the subtle ways that so many players become complicit in this tragic tale. If one considers a film as a text made up of its component parts, from narrative, directing and cinematography to acting, editing and mis-en-scene, it is hard to find a better film this year.

The Big Short: A-/B+
A fascinating exploration of the financial crisis that intermingles images of the figures that foresaw the crash to come and those who most acutely felt the tidal wave of economic destruction. It provides a rich tapestry of the architects of the crisis as well, from the greedy Wall Street Kings of the World and their sycophantic ratings agent collaborators to the seedy figures across the real estate landscape. There is some excellent acting here, from Gosling, Carell, Pitt and the supporting players (though I was less impressed with Christian Bale than the Academy) and a crispness and experimental flair to McKay’s directing that seems to fit the tone of the story perfectly. Some will be turned off by the frequency with which the film breaks the fourth wall, but one imagines the average viewer needs the knowledge provided by a series of stand-ins (even if Selena Gomez seems an odd choice to explain CDOs). While 99 Homes provides a compelling, neorealist portrait of the personal costs of the 2007 financial crisis, The Big Short is another film, alongside the excellent documentaries Inside Job and Capitalism: A Love Story and the fictionalized Too Big to Fail and Margin Call, that seek to provide some context and understanding to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Combining humor with drama it digs deeper to ask the salient question of whether we need to do more now to ensure that past is not prologue once again and to address the growing inequality in the world that now sees 62 individuals controlling the combined wealth of the bottom 50 percent of the globe’s population. We need more films like this, that move beyond slick Hollywood malarkey to sift through the wreckage of our contemporary political, economic and social realities.

Room: A
It is hard to describe this small but moving film that seems to sneak up on you until it tears your heart to pieces. The performances of the two leads, the excellent Brie Larson and the inchoate talent Jacob Tremlay, is startling in its sincerity and intimacy, giving us a bird’s eye view of a mother’s love for her child and the lengths to which she will go to keep him safe. Lenny Abrahamson (Frank, What Richard Did) has constructed an emotional masterpiece, first capturing the claustrophobia of their confined space and then the awe and wonder of the world beyond it, through the eyes and voiceover of a child who has lived in an isolation so foreign, and yet familiar, to the audiences viewing these diametrically opposed spaces on film. It is a story so moving you will cry in despair and in the exultation of ultimate triumph, wondering if the resonant message transcends its humble limitation to speak to a larger universal truth. Brie Larson is my pick for Best Actress, following up her victory at the Golden Globes.

The Martian: B+
This is a very engaging and, surprising for Ridley Scott, funny movie that does a majestic job of creating a compelling world on Mars, with the juxtaposition of the enclosed spaces of our abandoned astronaut and the grandeur of the red landscape beyond the most fulfilling mis-en-scene seen this year. However, while I thoroughly enjoyed the film and thought it did a good job of building and then maintaining suspense throughout, it appeared to fall prey to a Disneyesque resolution and denouement that ultimately left me feeling like I had watched a Hollywood film from the 50s (or a Ron Howard “joint”). It is an amusing ride, without doubt, but a little too pat to compete for best film of the year, at least in my estimation.

Mad Max: C+ (Cinematography: A)
A visual spectacle without much of a plot, there is still something imminently watchable about this technical achievement by George Miller. The story is typical post-apocalyptic tripe, though with elements of feminist empowerment generally missing from these films (forgoing The Hunger Games and Divergent franchises) but it is the cinematography that truly stuns and makes up for a story a precocious seven-year-old could follow without much effort. On the other hand, the chase scenes are stunning, some humor is thrown in to soften the violence and I did, begrudgingly, find myself rooting for the heroes in the end.

Brooklyn: B+
There is nothing really unique or new in Brooklyn, except perhaps its focus on a female lead as the newly arrived Irish immigrant trying to make her way in America, while the people she left behind suffer her absence. Saoirse Ronan does offer a stellar performance and the budding love between Ellis and Tony (Emory Cohen) is compelling, if a little light on passion and poignancy. The supporting cast is excellent and it is one of those wonderful films that combine Hollywood’s penchant for happy endings with just enough artistry to move beyond the banal. My major problem with a film I thoroughly enjoyed was it seemed like she might have had a better life back in Ireland with a man who seemed much more interesting than the American who became her betrothed.  

The Revenant: A
Some have labeled this film "torture porn," and there is certainly an argument for that claim. And yet the film is so beautifully rendered that I think the survival and revenge narratives are almost beside the point, and one shouldn’t forget the events are based on a true story. Every shot seems perfectly structured from the costuming down to the natural lighting. Action scenes are dizzying in their complexity, one becomes an active participant in much of the action on screen and the grizzly bear attack alone is truly stunning. The movie does seem story light at times, but for a feature that clocks in at over two and a half hours, there is rarely a dull moment. This is down to the craft of Iñárritu and cinematographer Lubezki, who have shown extraordinary versatility in the films they have shot together. A cinematic achievement that is truly worthy of watching on the big screen, as I did last week.

Bridge of Spies: B-/C+
Like most Spielberg movies, this film is nice to look at and has its moments of suspense, but the story seems to lack the gravity we are led to believe is warranted and has a rather anti-climactic ending that one could have predicted from the very start. Tom Hanks is good without being excellent, overwhelmed at times by the exceptional performance of Mark Rylance as the unrepentant but likable Russian spy trapped in the middle of this true Cold War swap. As is often the case with Spielberg movies made for adults, there seems a rather Manichean structure of good and evil, the average man thrown into action for country and the heroic search for justice against the odds and a loving family in the background. It is a pleasant film that seems a couple of decades late and that I could have just as easily done without.  

Other Contenders

Carol: A-
Another film snubbed by the Golden Globes and Oscar nominators is this Todd Haynes picture, with two exceptional performances from the leads, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. The movie is a bit of a slow burn early, as the characters and narrative are methodically developed, but it comes alive in the second half as the mutual attraction is finally consummated and then, as one would expect, ripped apart by the conventions and homophobia of that era. Haynes has shown himself adroit at capturing an age in prior efforts, in particular the 50s (as he also did in his masterful deconstruction of melodrama in Far from Heaven), his use of color, set design and careful attention to the nuances of historic detail placing you squarely within that idealized but false utopian past. But what makes this film so compelling is the subtlety of the performances, the unfolding of attraction and a relationship that, but for one sequence, exists in innuendo, in body positioning and in the slightest shifts of facial expression. Mara’s character, Therese, is certainly a hard nut to crack with the sense that we never fully understand her mercurial nature or what she is really feeling, but juxtaposed against the regal tragedy of Blanchett as the eponymous Carol, the duo create the perfect romantic dyad. And as is the tendency with a Hayne’s film, the ending exists at a new uncertain beginning with the budding core of all great films - hope. Even as a case can be made for both actresses getting an Oscar nod, Blanchett for Best Actress and Rooney for Best Supporting Actress, we know beforehand that Haynes will have to continue his wait for the Best Directing Oscar he so richly deserves (he failed to even earn a nomination; as was the case with the film overall).

Steve Jobs: A
Even as I type this review on a MacBook Air, surrounded by my iPhone and iPad Mini, I have to admit a mild disdain for the “heroic” purveyor of “iLife.” Apple has improved our lives in countless ways with user-friendly products that fill ever corner of our digital age, but there is an abiding sense that, more than any other company besides maybe Facebook, Apple is at the heart of the insularity and alienation that same age has brought upon us. And so I stayed away from a film written by one of my favorite screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin, until two weeks ago. It is a mistake I am glad I finally rectified. For this is among the best films of the year without question. Michael Fassbinder is not so quietly making his case as the actor of our generation, protean in his ability to move through disparate roles and tonalities with an acuity few have ever exhibited. None of us really know what was going on in the mind of the troubled genius this biopic is based on, just as we can’t be sure Sorkin was right in his psychoanalytic exploration of Mark Zuckerberg, but even if the film is afield of the truth, it is a compelling portrait of genius and its costs. The film is rather insular itself, built around the precursor to the unveiling of three of the most important products in Jobs’ career. Yet the film is not really about any of these products, rather it is about the most important relationships of Jobs’ life – with his unacknowledged daughter, the co-creator of Apple, his mentor and his assistant. There is a certain theatricality to the narrative structure and one could certainly see it as a play, but director Danny Boyle’s (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) blocking and use of space and background throughout takes the setting and gives it filmic signatures that surround the story with visual splendor. Fassbinder should win the Oscar for this performance, though he might lose out to DiCaprio, but if I were to pick the most enjoyable moviegoing experience of the year, Steve Jobs would be right near the top.

The Hateful Eight: B
One cannot write about the best films of the year without at least considering Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film. And while there is wonderful cinematography and dialogue throughout, with some stunning shots of the wildly open landscapes in the opening sequences and some clever camera movement later on, the majority of the film takes place within an enclosed space that only allows so much of the filmmaker’s mastery of the language of cinema to shine (though one can argue he maximizes this space like few could). Unfortunately, while the first two acts are excellent, if below his best work, the third act sees the story fall apart and left me with a fundamental question that far too much Hollywood fare has over the past decade – what’s the point? The acting is excellent, if largely within the scope of the actor’s range, though the performance of Jennifer Jason Leigh certainly stands out. Samuel L. Jackson does Samuel L. Jackson rather convincingly, but without the material that has made him among the more interesting of Tarantino’s persistent players. The problem to me is the narrowness of the story, its tendency to feel almost formulaic within the Tarantino universe and its less than satisfactory conclusion, though I certainly understood the symbolism he was eliciting. Certainly a film to watch for Tarantino fans, particularly if you can catch it in 70mm, but arguably the least compelling film since Jackie Brown, which I still liked more than this more ambitious but ultimately disappointing Western.

Trumbo – B+
This smaller film did not make the cut for Best Picture, but Bryan Cranston did garner inclusion in the Best Actor category. It is a good film that might have been great but for its own relative insularity and unwillingness to move the story far beyond its micro concerns. Hollywood has made a number of films dealing with HUAC, the Hollywood Ten and the blacklist that followed, and this is arguably the best since The Front (1976). It does an interesting job of contemplating the most talented of those ten original blacklisted moviemakers, the surrounding figures supporting and challenging the anti-communist rhetoric and of exploring the relationship between art, commerce and politics. More impressively, it keeps us engaged as we contemplate a topic difficult to “show” on film – the process of writing a script. In the end, it is an entertaining film that never quiet captures the artistry of its subject’s best work.  

Honorable and Dishonorable Mentions

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (A-): while I found Spectre almost unwatchable in its constantly shifting vistas, non-stop action and unnerving solemnity, this was a nice fifth addition to the MI universe, coming four years after Ghost Protocol. I still prefer the first De Palma film, but the addition of Simon Peg over the past three installations has all but erased memories of John Woo’s spectacle-infused, plot-non-existent second film. One could argue, in fact, that this is a franchise that has now hit 80 percent, with four of the five films providing enough enjoyment to keep at least this viewer happy. The first film was one of the better adaptations of a television series onto film and found Brian De Palma at his maturing best. The second was the aforementioned unbearable John Woo film, that forget that character development, story and plot sort of matter when we pay money to see a film (though maybe he was just ahead of the curve in 1996). The third gave us an overwrought but exceptional performance by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman that juxtaposed well with a slightly more somber Cruise. And while the level of suspension of disbelief we need to watch the last two films with any semblance of seriousness is stretched to its limit, Cruise has gotten his groove back here.

Trainwreck (B+): 2015 was not a great year for comedy and so this film appears to stand near the acme, unless, of course, you agree that The Martian somehow belongs alongside this Apatow joint (maybe it actually did in 2015). I was less impressed than many with the film, thinking its crassness and then Disneyified ending undermined the much better middle section. Bill Hayder and LeBron James were both great, though, and Amy Schumer, though not necessarily my cup of tea, certainly brought the house down with some of her jokes. I have grown weary of contemporary comedy, with its tendency to go for the easy joke, to resort to racism when no easy joke is available, to bathe in scatology or to embrace schadenfreude with the verve of a Nazi torturer. Unfortunately, this film sometimes falls prey to those tendencies, unable to extricate itself from proximity to the gallows humor that passes for brilliance in contemporary America. It’s an entertaining film at times, that might have benefitted considerably by recasting John Cena to an extra, but hit most of the romantic comedy marks we seek.

Spy (A-): since I brought up comedy, I thought I would close with a pretty funny film I thought moved Melissa McCarthy beyond her own tendency to mire herself in the muck. Here director Paul Feig mixes physical humor with clever dialogue and adds a surprisingly funny turn from action-hero Jason Statham. It is a much better and more mature brand of comedy to me and, like Kingsman: The Secret Service from last year, though with much less violence, provides a timely remixing of the tired spy-action thriller genre.

50 Shades of Grey (C--/D+): there are an endless array of bombs one could select among the blockbuster successes of the year, but this stinker has the aroma of the worst of the bunch. The acting is stale, the lifestyle porn elements tiresome, the melodrama largely flat and, worst of all, the S&M that everyone was waiting to see more PG-13 than NC-17. The problem from the start, to me at least, was the lack of clarity of Anastasia Steele’s motivation (Dakota Johnson) and the Blue Steel coolness of Cristian (Jamie Dornan). Cringe-worthy dialogue, a love story we’re not really rooting for, too much sensuality where one assumes violence should have been placed and a completely unsatisfying ending all combined to make $571 million worldwide (on a budget of $40 million). Not bad for the worst hyped film of the year!

No comments: