As is my tradition, I watched every Best Picture nominee.
I'm really loving this trend of a smart sci-fi movie about space or aliens coming out each year. I had been looking forward to Arrival before I had a chance to see it because a lot of fellow nerds were saying it was their favorite movie of the year.
It was... fine.
I mean, I really loved the way that the movie stressed that the main problem was figuring out how to communicate with the aliens. No lasers, no explosions, no crap where the aliens learn our language because they're so smart, or speak to us telepathically or anything. Just, two wildly different species meeting and needing to figure out how to talk. I can't think of another film where this was the central tension, and I loved it.
Spoiler: Unfortunately I don't believe the twist works, and ultimately the entirety of the narrative impact of the film comes down to the twist. The entire film, they're trying to figure out what the aliens are on Earth for. And the answer, it is revealed, is their language itself. The reason why is that when you immerse yourself in their language, you learn how to perceive time as the aliens do, backwards and forwards. Okay, a bit of a stretch but that works.
Spoiler: But how does the film make this discovery have an impact on the audience? Well, Amy Adams realizes this because she's been having visions of her daughter dying the entire film. The audience was led to believe these visions were her memories, but it turns out they are visions of the future, because she never had a daughter. In other words, the entire impact of the film comes down to a narrative trick. Information is withheld from the audience and they are misled by common cinematic language so that the "twist" has meaning. Amy Adams constantly has these visions of her daughter, but at no point does she say to anyone that she's having dreams about a daughter she never had, because then the audience would know immediately what's going on. In fact, the OPENING SCENE of the movie is a flashback (but not really) of when her daughter died, and the audience is given no reason to think this is a future sequence - why is it happening right now at the start of the film? Amy hasn't met the aliens yet, and thus isn't "remembering" the future. It's just tacked onto the beginning to mislead.
In the end, the audience is being denied information that the characters on-screen possess, which is a major narrative cheat. And this cheat is the thing that makes or breaks the movie, so for me it breaks it. This is not a matter of me not liking twists or feeling like the movie tricked me (I guessed the twist fairly early on anyway), I just think it's kind of crappy storytelling, and it's ultimately the linchpin of the film. Still a great movie but the dependence on this trickery annoyed me.
Time is a flat circle
Alright, I'm just going to say it. The only reason this film was nominated for Best Picture was as a response to the #OscarSoWhite controversy. Fences is shit.
99% of the movie is just rapid fire babble done in a stereotypical "good ol' black folk" kinda way. Frankly I think if the movie had been written and directed by a white person, it would be seen as an offensive portrayal.
I've never seen the play that this was adapted from, but I could absolutely see the entire play in my mind's eye for the duration of the film. I could see the set, where characters were moving on stage, when the spotlights would single people out for long monologues, the long dramatic silences. All of it. It's just a completely stereotypical dramatic play, and it's been translated almost directly to screen.
Fences isn't a movie. It's a play that's been filmed. Utterly, unforgivably un-cinematic. Pretty much the entire movie takes place in Denzel Washington's back yard while they blabber on about "the devil, yessir" and "hush up, now" and lending out or not lending out five dollars. I'm not trying to be offensive here, this is actually how the characters in the film talk, and all they do is talk. This is a film from a parallel world where cinematic language never adopted "show, don't tell".
The film picks up and starts to be about something with about 30 minutes left in the runtime, but the entire movie is an astonishingly long 2 hours and 19 minutes. As long as the longest Star Wars movie. And you feel every excruciating minute tick by as Denzel Washington directs himself yammering non-stop at the camera for almost the entire movie.
If I wanted to see a play, I'd go see a play. I've seen plays be adapted successfully to the medium of film (Doubt comes to mind) by expanding the story to become somewhat more cinematic. There's a reason why plays tend to take place in a single location. Your movie shouldn't. It's a movie. When you're making it, ask, "does this story require the medium of cinema to be properly told?" and if the answer is no, stop making it.
Yessir, the devil done tricked me into watching a 2.5-hour play, oh lawdy.
Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water is a compelling and engaging story about two brothers who become bank robbers, but ultimately it's just a very well-done version of a fairly tired story.
The film doesn't offer much new or different, it seems like a cobbling together of a number of similar films with the edges smoothed out very well. I didn't find Foster or Pine particularly interesting characters, kind of a side effect of that stoic, silent heroism that westerns tend to like. The best characters were Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham's, I loved the dynamic between them and how that dynamic eventually comes to a head at the end.
Overall it's a good movie but it's just nothing to write home about, I'm kind of surprised it was nominated for Best Picture as it strikes me as fairly forgettable.
Brothers rob banks, have shootouts
Hidden Figures suffers a bit from biopic buffing: the situation where people decide to make a film about a person, a group of people, or a thing because that thing is so great, so the movie itself seems great as well because it's about that great thing. It happened with Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, Selma, and a variety of other recent biopics about something inspirational. The movie seems to gain an extra star just for being about the important thing.
Hidden Figures is, similarly, a mediocre film elevated to greatness because it's about something great. In this case, it's about the racism and sexism faced by a group of black women working at NASA during the space race, focusing on the mission to launch John Glenn into orbit. The movie makes a big deal about the fact that these women were largely forgotten about and not given proper credit for their accomplishments. I suppose that's true, but I'm honestly not sure I could name a single person involved in John Glenn's mission aside from John Glenn himself.
But yeah, the movie shows you what utter and complete bullshit these women had to put up with just to do their jobs. Separate bathrooms, separate coffee machines, constant goalpost-moving, being ignored and passed over for promotions. It's definitely frustrating to watch and you empathize with these women completely, and are so excited when they become critical parts of the mission success. It's inspirational as hell, but it's the events that are inspirational, not the film. Biopic buffing.
One thing I want to talk about is the performances. The three main actresses, in particular Taraji P. Henson, are being hailed for their performances. I'm just not seeing it. Janelle Monáe I thought was terrible, her performance seems to be way too aware of the fact that she's in a movie about racial and gender empowerment, almost every line is some kind of clever retort spoken directly at the camera, it's never how people speak. Taraji too, I thought was abysmal - she does this "stereotypical nerd" thing where she pushes her glasses up after every line and talks about math in this obnoxious way like it's magic. It reminded me of the way science is handled on The Big Bang Theory, which is interesting since Jim Parsons is also in the movie and also just wretched. Octavia Spencer, on the other hand, is phenomenal, I'm very glad to see she was the only one of the trio nominated for an acting award, I absolutely agree.
Don't you feel like a jerk for not knowing the names, genders, and races of all the NASA employees who helped John Glenn?
La La Land
Count me as part of the backlash against La La Land, this movie sucked on toes.
So many things about La La Land just completely irked me. It's not that I'm against the idea of a 50's-style musical set in the modern day, but I have almost no tolerance for when Hollywood makes movies about Hollywood itself, particularly celebrating the "golden age" of Hollywood or talking about the purity of trying to "make it". It's just so fucking self-obsessed, I find it utterly grating.
Combine that with the fact that I think most of the movie just doesn't work, and you have a recipe for disappointment. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling meet and single an entire song about how they don't like each other and would never fall in love. The purpose of songs in a musical is to underscore the central elements of the story and themes, so a song at this point makes sense. It's establishing that, okay, this is going to be a movie about how these two people are going to resist falling in love, but in the end they'll fall in love. Fine.
Except, the very next thing that happens is that they're in love and in a serious relationship. Why bother singing the song about how "ohhh we DEFINITELY aren't going to fall in love" if you're just going to have them fall in love immediately? Just skip the part about how they're resistant to it, that has no place in a movie that's about them BEING IN a relationship rather than forming one.
Shortly after this, the movie forgets it's a musical entirely for about an hour while fairly standard Hollywood drama unfolds. She's trying to get acting parts, he's contemplating selling out. And by the way, the notion of a white guy being obsessed with Jazz in a movie with almost no black people is just laughable. Pretty much the only black guy in the movie, John Legend, gets a fucking lecture from Ryan Gosling about what is and is not "true jazz". Joining Legend's band is the "selling out" that Gosling's character does. Tone-deaf.
Overall this movie is incredibly forgettable and I think it just underscores Hollywood's obsession with itself that it's in the running for so many awards. It reminds me of The Artist, a terrible and forgettable movie about how great Hollywood is so they loved it. Fucking get over yourself, Los Angeles, there's a whole world out there of interesting shit going on.
Blah blah bland.
Lion is just a cute little uplifting story about one man's search for his birth family after he gets lost in Calcutta and eventually adopted by an Australian couple. At least, that's the goal of the movie. What Lion actually winds up being is two movies smashed together.
The first movie is about a little boy who gets lost in Calcutta and has to learn to deal with the harsh realities of his environment while trying to figure out a way back home. This entire movie is in Hindi and Benghali, and it's excellent. The little boy is fantastic, and the movie does a great job of putting him into different situations to deal with. One particular scene is very powerful as he's taken in by a nice-seeming woman who then calls a creepy man to take a look at him. Nothing is ever really made explicit but you get a general uneasy feeling about the whole situation, and so does young Saroo. Eventually Saroo is taken to a nightmarish orphanage and then miraculously rescued by Australians who take him in and give him a good life, though he still misses his biological family.
At almost exactly the halfway, we cut to Saroo as an adult who decides to track down his birth family. The second half of the movie is the one where he searches using Google Earth, and all of the descriptions of the movie apply only to this second half. This second movie is mostly terrible. It's extremely uneven and feels thrown together, almost incoherent. There are multiple scenes of Saroo dealing with his abused asshole adopted brother but this character has no payoff at all and ultimately disappears from the film. There was no reason to include him aside from the fact that the end-credits feature a montage of pictures of the real Saroo and his family, and they contain two Indian boys instead of just one. Saroo develops a go-nowhere relationship with Rooney Mara, who also kind of just drops from the movie. You're supposed to get a sense that Saroo has become obsessive, but it's all told to us rather than shown, aside from some Beautiful-Mind-esque maps with a shitload of thumb tacks. Speaking of which, these thumb tacks are color-coded but never explained, we just cut ahead two years and see he's been doing tons of research. Are these areas eliminated? The movie doesn't explain because - and this is my biggest complaint with this section of the film - it skips over him actually figuring out where he's from.
Saroo using the internet and maps to try and find his birth home would have actually been fairly compelling, but we don't see any of it, not even as a montage. We just skip ahead and are periodically told he's obsessed. Eventually he gets frustrated and starts just clicking around and moving the cursor in Google Earth randomly, and basically happens upon a rock quarry he remembers by sheer luck. I guess "boy lost in Calcutta gets lucky looking at Google Earth" doesn't make for a compelling plot synopsis but having this be the ultimate mover of the plot is tremendously disappointing.
They say it's based on a true story so maybe the real-life tale is just that he happened upon something he recognized while randomly scrolling around the surface of the planet, but this does not make for an engaging story. Basically the entire second half of the film just fizzles out. He flies back to India and goes to his old house but it's been turned into a stable. He shows some random guy a picture of himself as a kid and the guy is just like "oh yeah, I know your mom, she's over here." How anti-climactic. You skipped all the interesting stuff, all the challenges a task like this would face. And it's a real shame that the second half is so lackluster since the first half is so great.
Stop the movie at the 57 minute mark
Manchester By the Sea
My wife really hated this movie, she thought it was super depressing just watching this guy's life go from bad to worse. I can see that angle, it's not an uplifting movie in the slightest, it's gutpunch after gutpunch. But I loved it.
I thought it was incredibly well-written, all of the characters had unique perspectives on their lives and situations, and everyone had different ways of dealing with grief. All of it seemed very true-to-life to me, and though it was a bummer I enjoyed seeing this sort of "slice of life" presented so well.
I enjoyed the moments of humor and levity that were tossed in as well, I felt like it overall made the film balance out to be an overall enjoyable depiction of something unenjoyable. All of the characters just have so much depth and dimension to them, it was really spectacular to watch it play out. It goes without saying that pretty much every performance in this film was perfection. I don't think the movie would have worked if even a single performance had been just a tad weak, and it worked so well because everyone absolutely 100% nailed their part.
I think this movie's greatest flaw is that, like Fences, it's not terribly cinematic. Aside from a few key scenes, Manchester by the Sea probably could have been a play. But unlike Fences, it masks this uncinematic nature with good shot composition, flashbacks, and cutting that make the movie feel like a real movie.
Overall, Manchester by the Sea is great, one of the best movies of 2016 in my opinion, and as fine a showcase as you could ask for to see the perfection of the craft of writing and acting.
Guy's life goes from bad to worse
Moonlight is everything that Boyhood was trying, but failed, to be. The film follows a boy at three different stages of his life, covering particularly formative times and events that turn him into the man he grows up to me. Unlike Boyhood, which goes nowhere with this idea, Moonlight absolutely goes somewhere.
This film is such a great commentary on masculinity and culture, you absolutely feel everything this kid goes through. Moonlight is one of those rare movies that could easily have been an hour longer and I'd have been just as engaged. It's really great.
I find it odd that Mahershala Ali is being so universally praised for his performance in this film. Don't get me wrong, he's fine, but his part is pretty small and I don't think as significant as it's being made out to be. Janelle Monáe, on the other hand, was fantastic, a complete departure from her cardboard performance in Hidden Figures. The real hero of the film, though, is Ashton Sanders as Chiron when he was a teenager. The middle part of the film contains all of the movie's performance heavy-lifting, and is inarguably the MOST formidable section of the main character's life. Ashton essentially carries the entire film's emotional weight on his back and does so effortlessly, seeing Chiron's childhood and adulthood play out as they do wouldn't have worked if the middle section of the movie wasn't spot-on. Ashton's lack of even a nomination is a complete crime, Mahershala Ali's nomination almost seems like an insult.
Overall Moonlight is absolutely fantastic, easily my favorite choice of all the Best Picture nominees.
Boyhood with a point
Mel Gibson apparently decided that, if he's going to attempt to make a comeback, he's going to make the Mel Gibsoniest movie ever made.
Main character super religious? Check. Religious characters treated like garbage by other people but ultimately vindicated through faith? Check. Ridiculously violent and gory? Check and double check. Simultaneously preaching a message of nonviolence while hypocritically reveling in portraying it on screen? Checkity check check.
They say that, when directors get older, they start making movies that seem to emulate the style of their younger selves. "Directors mimic themselves when they get old." I'd say that's fairly accurately the case here, Hacksaw Ridge almost seems like a different person set out to make the movie that Mel Gibson's entire directorial career seems to have been building to. In a lot of ways, Hacksaw Ridge seems like his magnum opus, where can he even go from here?
The movie is good, don't get me wrong. In fact, it might be Mel Gibson's tightest and most coherent film to date. Andrew Garfield is passable as Desmond Doss, though I felt his performance to generally be a bit too understated. It's a good movie, I think it deserves the Best Picture nomination, and I guess on some level I'm glad to see Mel Gibson making movies again, even if he is, you know, kind of an asshole.
By the way, this thing where the movie ends and then you've got a bunch of interviews with the real people at the end, like someone tried to make a documentary instead of a film but couldn't cut it together to feature length, so they just tacked on a 10-minute version at the end? Stop doing that. Patriot's Day did it too. Stop. It's super weird. I'm willing to tolerate the photos of the real people during the credits, and I'm even almost okay with showing them next to the actors who portrayed them. But the video interviews? Stop.
Passion of the Conscientious Objector
Hands down, The Handmaiden is my favorite film of the year. It wasn't nominated for Best Picture, in fact it wasn't even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (though I believe this is because South Korea didn't submit it for consideration).
The Handmaiden is a great erotic thriller with intrigue and twists and turns. It's got a great story, great acting, and the entire movie just absolutely sucks you into its world. Everything about this movie is perfection, it just does everything right. It's the perfect example of how a truly gifted filmmaker can take a trashy erotic thriller and turn it into something spectacular.
I had a tough time choosing between this film and "Moonlight" as my favorite film for 2016. Both films are completely captivating but simple, personal stories told with a 3-part chapter structure emphasizing different points in time. Both films deal with budding taboo sexuality as characters discover and act upon their true desires. Both films are perfectly directed, expertly crafted masterworks of filmmaking.
But ultimately only one of these movies features multiple lingering scenes of skinny naked Asian girls 69ing and scissoring so The Handmaiden wins.
It's art, goddammit.
The Neon Demon
You definitely have to be in the right mindset to like The Neon Demon, which is difficult because it's hard to prepare oneself for being in the right mindset without talking about the movie, and going into the movie without knowing anything about it is sort of what makes it enjoyable.
The Neon Demon is a total evisceration of superficial L.A. types, models and actresses and so on. I have a real appreciation for that sort of thing, I love to see L.A. taken down rather than glamourized as in La La Land. Basically it's Showgirls, a naive girl moves to L.A. to make it big, gets into a crowd of people who are basically dogshit, then eventually becomes dogshit herself. It's beautifully nihilistic and unsatisfying.
There's a bit more to The Neon Demon though. To say the movie is "artsy" would be something of an understatement, and you basically have to just be willing to watch and enjoy a movie where you don't fully understand everything that's happening on a literal level. It's a lot like watching a David Lynch movie. In fact the film reminds me a lot of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, you just sort of have to lay back and enjoy what's happening on screen rather than forcing your brain to "get" it.
And it almost goes without saying but The Neon Demon is shot absolutely beautifully, the visual aesthetic alone is supremely enjoyable and worth the price of admission. For what it's worth, I watched this movie with another immortal alien and they absolutely fucking hated it.
I don't feel like doing full writeups on anything else but I want to mention that I really liked The Nice Guys, 10 Cloverfield Lane (Goodman should have gotten a Best Supporting Actor nomination for it in my opinion), Snowden, and Swiss Army Man.
I absolutely despised Batman vs Superman, Suicide Squad, and especially Rogue One, I might wind up writing something up about how much I hated Rogue One or how terrible I think the DC universe is.
I also liked Passengers a lot more than critics and audiences seemed to, I thought it was one of the better films of the year and I'm disappointed in people for disliking it on the grounds that it's "offensive" due to what I see as them misunderstanding the film. I might do a write-up of this at some point, maybe after it comes out on video and I can rewatch it.
Usually I write these up after the Oscars have aired but this year I'm pushing it up early. The current frontrunner to win Best Picture is La La Land, but I'm putting Moonlight for my oscar pool because I think it's a better movie, and I think the nominations this year are a bit... let's say, politically motivated. So I think Moonlight stands a better chance than people are giving it.
Overall I think the nominations were pretty good, I have few complaints. And looking back, I seemed to really enjoy most of the films in this post, which is interesting because as 2016 came to a close, I struggled to think of movies that I really enjoyed over the year, it wasn't like last year which had so many excellent, standout films. I wish The Handmaiden could have been nominated for some things, but I understand why it wasn't. Like I said, Goodman should have gotten a nod for 10 Cloverfield Lane, and I think Neon Demon should have gotten a Best Cinematography nomination.
I think it'll be a crime if Doctor Strange doesn't win Best Visual Effects, or if Casey Affleck doesn't win Best Actor (and the accusations that he should be disqualified for reasons unrelated to his performance are ridiculous to me).
I can't believe that La La Land as a record-tying number of nominations, nor can I stomach the fact that Suicide Squad is nominated for any kind of Oscar.