Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 January 2020

The King (2019)

The King is directed terribly. David Michôd, as ever, seems to have no sense of urgency or stakes. The whole movie is ponderous, as if everything is very, very important, but the direction never seems to communicate that importance, only assume it. There is, accordingly, a great deal of slow-motion photography and an overburdened but beautiful score by Nicholas Britell.

This is a shame because everyone is doing very good work here, especially the armorer, the costumer, Joel Edgerton, the production designer, and every other actor. I think Timothée Chalamet is miscast slightly, but he is still doing good work. Edgerton, who co-wrote the screenplay by telescoping Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV and focusing on a much adjusted version of Henry V, has given himself all the best lines and has turned Sir John Falstaff into a wise old sage. That is sort of delightful. There's even a gorgeous reference to a speech in Hamlet in The King's version of the St. Crispin's day speech from Henry V. But none of this can save this movie from what Michôd does to it.

Oh and the fights! I should say something about the fights. My housemate, who is a director and fight choreographer, watched the movie with me, and while we were watching I offhandedly said This looks like a fight from a Marvel movie. It makes no sense in the context of the medieval period we are watching. Turns out, the fights were choreographed by a guy who works on the Marvel stuff. Zzzzzz. Stop with all the punching! It's so boring. They're wearing armor, for fuck's sake!

27 January 2020

A Trio of Serious Challenges

I can't get excited about the Oscars this year, even though my three favorite films of 2019 (Pain and Glory, 1917, Parasite) did really well on Oscar nomination morning. I feel beat down by the Internet's response to the Oscar nominations, and I feel extremely bored by The Irishman and Joker, two movies the Academy apparently loved. I am also hearing a lot of complaints about the Oscar nominations this year... and I find myself really bored by these complaints. Not that I disagree with these complaints per se. But the solutions I hear people offering have surprised me by not surprising me at all.

My Beloved J.Lo. I would have nominated you!
People want Greta Gerwig to have been nominated for Best Director, for Jennifer Lopez to have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, for Taron Egerton to have been nominated for Best Actor. These suggestions have surprised me mostly because these three people in particular were probably very close to being nominated, and so what complainants are requesting is just a slight reshuffle at the top of the deck so that things look a little more diverse.

What people are not asking for is something interesting. In other words, I don't hear anyone complaining that Mati Diop or Céline Sciamma were passed over in the Best Director category or that Rob Morgan and Sterling K. Brown were ignored for Best Supporting Actor.

To put it another way, Academy voters are choosing between their favorites of the thirty movies that the studios told them were important and asked them to care about. They're watching the screeners they're sent and not thinking beyond that group of films. This is an abysmal state of affairs to be sure. But then all of these commentators on the Internet are doing the exact same thing.

Zhao Tao in Ash Is Purest White
Complaining that Eddie Murphy didn't get a Best Actor nomination makes sense. But Taron Egerton? ... And complaining that Jennifer Lopez didn't get a Best Supporting Actress nomination when she was clearly the lead actress in that movie seems like just another way of swallowing the line the studios tried to sell the Academy. That line of argument already accepts the terms set by the studios and their media blitzes.

And so... I have some (serious) challenges for anyone complaining about the Academy's favorite things this year:

Challenge One:
Forget the white folks altogether! Name twenty actors of color who you would have nominated for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor for 2019.

Challenge Two:
Name five films made primarily in a language other than English that you would have nominated for Best International Feature. You don't have to choose from the submission list – most of those films haven't been released in the U.S. yet. Just choose five really good foreign language films that you loved this year.

Challenge Three:
Watch only films and television directed by women for three months.

Of course, you're free to complain about what the Academy likes; we all are. That's part of the pleasure of the Academy's choices. We can all bitch about why they're wrong and who would've been better choices. But what we all need is better cinema. We all need to watch more stories about black people, people of color, women, and trans people. We should all be watching more foreign cinema. And we can really only expect the Academy to be better if we're better.

25 January 2020

Monos!


This is stunning. Julianne Nicholson is excellent in it. And one of the main characters is non-binary. I loved this movie.

21 January 2020

Rafiki (2019)

I really liked Rafiki (Friend). This Kenyan film about two women falling in love is simple and slight, but it's beautifully made, fun, and romantic in addition to articulating homophobia and the way it works in a Nairobi context.

19 January 2020

Her Smell

I found Her Smell painfully unwatchable. For most of the film I also couldn't understand what anyone was saying because the sound mixer didn't seem to think that was important. Elisabeth Moss is pretty great, but, like, in service of what? I liked Alex Ross Perry's last Elisabeth Moss movie (Queen of Earth) more than I disliked it, but this one was just not worth it. It's also 145 minutes, for some reason.

17 January 2020

The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969)

The Secret of Santa Vittoria is really fun, and Virna Lisi is legitimately brilliant in it. This also means that I have only three films left to see from the 1970 Oscars. (This is obviously a strange task that I've set myself, but it does mean I watch some really fun (and offbeat) stuff, this film included.)

15 January 2020

The Report (2019)

The Report is a dry business, and it's a shame because I think the torture report is super important. But this movie is just not interesting at all. For reasons I do not understand, Annette Bening was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes this year. Now, I love me some Annette Bening, but this makes no sense.

10 January 2020

J'ai Perdu Mon Corps

I Lost My Body is startlingly original. We are literally following a dismembered hand as it searches for its body. This is an incredible film. It also made me very uncomfortable for much of its run time. But what is extraordinary about Jérémy Clapin's film is that it manages to be deeply emotional and very touching while also surprising me constantly. It's an absolutely excellent film, and I loved it. It is definitely one of my favorites of the year, and I expect it'll easily be my favorite animated film of the year. (It's available on Netflix, so you should watch it as soon as possible.)

08 January 2020

The Irishman

This was so fucking boring.

And interminable.

People liked this?

De Niro's character has no arc at all – after three and a half hours. Is this for real?

And, like, who cares about these men and all of their misdeeds over which, in fact, they appear to feel no compunction (except for Joe Pesci... near the three hour mark)?

What was it all for?

If you know me, you know that Scorsese is already not my favorite, but, seriously... I don't get it.

I mean this sincerely: I'd rather rewatch Cats than rewatch The Irishman.

Best Actress 2019

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz. They are not in order of my preference. Instead, the actors whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.

ZHAO TAO, Ash Is Purest White (江湖儿女)

TAYLOR RUSSELL, Waves

JENNIFER LOPEZ, Hustlers

SCARLETT JOHANSSON, Marriage Story

RENÉE ZELLWEGER, Judy

Also loved:
Ana Brun, Las Herederas (The Heiresses)
Sheila Munyiva, Rafiki
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell

Apologies to:
Gemma Arterton (Vita & Virginia), Juliette Binoche (Frankie), Elizabeth Debicki (Vita & Virginia), Catherine Deneuve (Frankie), Adèle Haenel (Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu), Keira Knightley (The Aftermath), Noémie Merlant (Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu), Anna Paquin (Tell It to the Bees), Mary Kay Place (Diane), Natalie Portman (Lucy in the Sky), and Julia Stockler (A Vida Invisível), whose films I have not yet seen.

Related:
My Best Actress picks from past years (2004-2018)
My Best Actor picks from 2019
My Best Supporting Actress picks from 2018
My Best Supporting Actor picks from 2018

07 January 2020

Best Actor 2019

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz. They are not in order of my preference. Instead, the actors whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.


FRANZ ROGOWSKI, Transit

KELVIN HARRISON JR., Waves

SHIA LaBEOUF, Honey Boy

PAUL WALTER HAUSER, Richard Jewell

ADAM SANDLER, Uncut Gems

Also loved:
Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once upon a Time... in Hollywood
August Diehl, A Hidden Life
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
George MacKay, 1917
Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name
Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse
Matthew Rhys, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Apologies to:
Pierre Deladonchamps (Plaire, Aimer et Courir Vite), Jesse Eisenberg (The Art of Self-defense), Michael B. Jordan (Just Mercy), Félix Maritaud (Sauvage), Tom Mercier (Synonymes), and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (A Million Little Pieces), whose films I have not yet seen.

Related:
My Best Actor picks from past years (2004-2018)
My Best Actress picks from 2019
My Best Supporting Actress picks from 2019
My Best Supporting Actor picks from 2019

06 January 2020

Best Supporting Actress 2019

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz. They are not in order of my preference. Instead, the actors whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.

DIANA LIN, The Farewell

JULIANNE NICHOLSON, Monos

ZHOU SHUZHEN, The Farewell

KATHY BATES, Richard Jewell

NICOLE KIDMAN, Bombshell

Also loved:
Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dolemite Is My Name
Cardi B, Hustlers
Laura Dern, Little Women
Billie Lourd, Booksmart
Karin Neuhäuser, A Hidden Life

Related:
My Best Supporting Actress picks from past years (2004-2018)
My Best Actress picks from 2019
My Best Actor picks from 2019
My Best Supporting Actor picks from 2019

Best Supporting Actor 2019

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz. They are not in order of my preference. Instead, the actors whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.



ERIC BOGOSIAN, Uncut Gems

STERLING K. BROWN, Waves

DEAN-CHARLES CHAPMAN, 1917

Also loved:
Timothée Chalamet, Little Women
Joel Edgerton, The King
Vondie Curtis Hall, Harriet
Lucas Hedges, Honey Boy
Richard Madden, 1917
Juan Minujín, The Two Popes
Aleksey Morozov, The White Crow
Franz Rogowski, A Hidden Life
Song Kang-ho, Parasite (기생충)

Apologies to:
Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy), whose film I have not yet seen.

Related:
My Best Supporting Actor picks from past years (2004-2018)
My Best Actress picks from 2019
My Best Actor picks from 2019
My Best Supporting Actress picks from 2019

05 January 2020

Sublimity: 1917 and A Hidden Life

I am in love with Sam Mendes' 1917. In fact, I can't wait to see it again when it opens nationwide next weekend. In the first place, I love World War I movies – actually, I kind of love WWI everything. That period of time is so interesting to me, and WWI doesn't get enough press as an event that shifted the course of history, overshadowed as it is by the Second World War.

You probably know that 1917 is shot by the genius cinematographer Roger Deakins. You may also know – although this is not clear from 1917's trailer – that the entirety of Sam Mendes film is edited so that it looks as though it is a single long take. This is showy cinematography, and it works excellently. Of course, the fact that it appears to be a single shot means that one begins to pay more attention to the camera itself, where it goes, what it looks at, who it follows.

There are some drawbacks to this approach. As I say, this camera work is flashy, and there are moments in act two when I was so visually blown away by what I was watching that I was thinking more about Roger Deakins and less about the story. There is also the question of cuts. It's clear that there are some cuts, and so (at least in act one) I was playing a small game of oh they could have made a cut there. But all of this is worth it.

But this one-shot gimmick (and it is a gimmick, even though it works well and I loved it) also begins to work thematically. The camera never gets off the ground to look at the war from a distance. World War I is not a war that was fought from a distance. It was fought on the ground, in the mud, in ditches. And it was fought over lands that used to be filled with people – small towns, farmlands, churches. Because we never leave our two main characters, we feel the weight of their mission in a kind of horizontal way. They must get from here to there and they must cross through, go under. They must run. They (and we) are not allowed the relief of seeing the war from the sky or from the point of view of strategy of any kind. They (and we) see it as immediate, mundane. It's a brilliant filmmaking strategy.

There is also the question of time. This is a film in which two young men are given a mission that they must execute immediately. They must cross a large distance and they must do it quickly or sixteen hundred men will die. So the fact that the camera never leaves them, never looks away, is a kind of insistence, a demand that they move. The stakes in 1917 always feel very, very high.

1917 is a simple story designed to pack an emotional wallop. And it does. It also tells the kind of war story I like – one told from the perspective of the men and women who fought the war and one that is very, very clear about the effect of war on the bodies of the soldiers, the civilians, the land, and in the case of WWI, the animals. It's a wonderfully told story, and I was deeply moved. This has, also, in part to do with the excellent acting in 1917. Most of the roles in the film are quite small – little more than cameos – but these appearances are uniformly excellent. Andrew Scott has a brilliant section in act one, and my sister and I both looked at each other and smiled when Mark Strong showed up (she recognized him by his voice even before I knew it was him). Strong is, as always, superb. Claire Duburcq has a single scene, and she is also wonderful. And then there's Richard Madden, who has a gorgeous, extraordinary role near the very end of the film that I won't say anything more about other than to say that Madden absolutely knocks this out of the park and that I'm getting emotional just thinking about it. The film's two leads, George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman, are perfect. I loved both of them from the very beginning, and they're doing top-notch work throughout. I would give both Oscar nominations if it were up to me.

I will stop talking about this movie, but I want to say that if much of the pleasure of watching 1917 was, for me, witnessing the extraordinary filmmaking that Mendes and his team did, the film always feels grounded, deep, and honest. It doesn't get lost in its own flash. The filmmaking is in service of something much larger, and I don't think Mendes' film loses sight of that ever.

Oscar: I would expect a boatload. Sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects, Thomas Newman's score (which is by turns action-packed and gentle), cinematography (obviously), picture, director, and screenplay all seem like slam-dunks to me. Film editing and production design both seem possible as well. Makeup and hairstyling could happen, too. It might be as many as 11. They're deserved.

* * *

Another gorgeously shot movie is Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life. Now, I love Malick very much – The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life are some of my favorite films. But his approach has started to feel a bit repetitive, as if he's stuck in something of a rut and can't quite get out of it. Malick is invested in nature and nature photography, especially the relationship of human beings with the land.

But A Hidden Life has more of a script – and maybe more of a plot – than Malick's last few films. This movie is about a conscientious objector in Austria during World War II. August Diehl and Valerie Pachner are farmers in the mountains of Austria who live in a small village beneath gorgeous towering cliffs and a waterfall. It's an idyllic, beautiful space, and it's shot lovingly by Jörg Widmer. Malick's usual voice-overs are, in this case, actual letters that Franz and Fani Jägerstätter wrote to each other while he was imprisoned by the Third Reich.

The film didn't totally work for me. It's beautiful, of course, and Malick's ability to capture affection and care and his meditations on family and community all work very well. But there's something indirect or tired here, for me. Maybe it is that Malick doesn't really seem to be investigating anything here. He knows the answers already, and so the story feels over before it begins. In many ways, the whole film (and it is a long one) is played in one key, as if it is over before it begins. This is, perhaps, a philosopher's approach, but for me it lacks dynamism.

Like 1917, A Hidden Life has a lot of appearances by great actors. Matthias Schoenaerts, Alexander Fehling, and the late great Bruno Ganz all have small parts. Franz Rogowski, who is so great in this year's Transit, is excellent as Franz's friend.

I want to highlight a very strange but very cool choice that Malick made as he crafted A Hidden Life. The film is not shot in sets that look like Nazi prisons. Instead it's shot in prison ruins. At times we are in rooms where there are dozens of bed frames but no beds, for example, or where plants are coming in through the walls. (Even the churches in A Hidden Life are actively being restored during the course of the movie.) So what we see instead of a realistic portrayal of Franz imprisoned by the Germans is a kind of strange rumination about this philosophical or ethical question as a kind of haunting of the German prison. This is a fascinating choice, and for me this made much of the prison stuff feel strange and spiritual in a very good way.

Oh! Side note: in 2019 I read George Eliot's Middlemarch, from which this film's title is taken. I loved this novel, and I've shared the quotation before, but it's worth sharing again. A Hidden Life and Middlemarch both end with the following: "Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

After the film, I wondered aloud what all of these meditations on nature have to do with the Nazis and political imprisonments and Dayne said something like If you appreciate life, you can't choose to kill or It is much easier to destroy life when you don't know how beautiful it is. Dayne is, of course, right about this, and it does help me see A Hidden Life in a smarter way. But I do feel like this movie is a bit too repetitive ("do you think this matters to anyone?" is repeated a great many times) and just a bit too one-note.

Oscar: James Newton Howard's score, which is absolutely beautiful, is overshadowed in the movie (Malick always does this) by music by Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki so much that JMH was certainly disqualified in this category. Widmer hasn't made a lot of films, and so it seems to me that the cinematographers branch probably won't nominate him. The actors are all European... in short, I don't think we're looking at any nominations, despite the obvious quality of the filmmaking.