Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscar Countdown

Does anyone really care who wins the Oscars? I don't even know who the MC is going to be. But it's fun to reflect on the film year now past, and what better time to do it?

As I look down a long list of 2016 releases, I'm reminded of a few films that I had forgotten about entirely, and a few others that I wish I had.

The very good ones include—

Rams: Set in Iceland, this story of brothers who are neighbors but haven't spoken in decades is rich is diseased sheep, thick sweaters, big beards, festering grudges, and snow.

A Man Called Ove: A crabby old man loosens up while baby-sitting for his Iranian neighbors.

The Music of Strangers: The lives of folk musicians, assembled and mediated by Yo-Yo Ma.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: A charming tale of a juvenile delinquent given over to a foster family on the fringes of the New Zealand bush, and the numerous adventures he has with his "uncle."

Eight Days a Week: The Beatles at their youthful best

Marvelous Boccaccio:  The Taviani brothers cloth a few choice tales from the Decameron in painterly Renaissance style.

Florence Foster Jenkins: This underrated film is a study in deception, but also affection. It reminds us that an "arts community" is often less about the art than about the community. 

The Eagle Huntress: When was the last time you were in Mongolia? When was the last time you saw 48 golden eagles in a single frame? In any case, the film should have been nominated for best costume design.

Paterson: A New Jersey bus driver who writes poetry while his beautiful wife bakes cupcakes and learns to play the guitar. A paean to the artist in us all, it offers an effective cinematic correlative to the Ron Padgett poems that figure prominently in the script.

Less interesting were—

Dr. Strange: Fun enough. But I am Cumberbatched out. Sherlock has been going downhill since the second episode, and Cumberbatch's Hamlet was overwrought and under-nuanced. (I guess that means the same thing.) Dr. Strange is perfect Saturday matinee fare, but it also serves to remind us that special effects do not inevitably enhance a film experience. Here the collapsing cityscapes and dynamo hand gestures detract from the fight scenes. Watching it made me want to see House of the Flying Daggers, Heroes, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon again.   

Love and Friendship: Jane Austen without the charm, complexity, sentiment, or insight.

A Bigger Splash: Lots of vain, unhappy people who find it strangely difficult to enjoy a Mediterranean vacation. 

Then there are the nominated films. I saw six of the nine. In terms of artistic perfection the best of the lot was Hell or High Water. This is a film about two brothers, their love for one another, and the difficulties that arise due to their differing temperaments. It's the kind of film in which every throwaway line sounds perfectly natural, but also adds subtly to our understanding of where people come from and what they're thinking. This quality extends from Chris Pine and Ben Foster (who also played a crazy cowboy in 3:10 to Yuma) to Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, the Texas Rangers who track them down. Even the bank president and the waitress in the diner have some good lines. There is a fair amount of bloodshed in the film, but, like the dialog, it's subtly modulated and consistently kept in check by the pathos of the unfolding story.

Manchester By the Sea is an unusual and powerful film about grief, which is not to say that it's fun. It's difficult to watch a film in which the central character says little and is so consistently "low." Difficult but rewarding.

Arrival is a science fiction tale about alien visitors, though viewers looking for an action flick on the order of Independence Day or Starship Troopers are likely to be disappointed. The sky is often gray, and the tone of the film is brooding and personal. Yet Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and his crew do a good job of establishing a sense of profound foreboding, as if the end of civilization as we know it is just one diplomatic gaff away. The linguistic and metaphysical notions that drive the plot are highly questionable, but it's a lot of fun watching them "come alive" briefly on screen. It's the kind of film that gets better as you stand in the parking lot ten minutes after it's over, discussing what actually happened. Perhaps a film worth seeing more than once? 

La La Land is a piece of colorful California fluff, filled with romantic clich├ęs of the finest quality. If you can't enjoy this, then maybe you just don't like movies. If you think it's great, perhaps you haven't seen very many.

Hidden Figures follows the lives of three talented black women who worked in the space program at a time when the word "computers" referred to people. At true story, moving, inspirational. It's a conventional film, but a good one, and would make an interesting double feature paired with The Right Stuff.

Moonlight I didn't much like. In the first place, I don't like persecution/revenge films. Here the central character mopes but seldom talks, is harassed but never responds, and as time goes on it's not very interesting to watch. Who are his friends, how does he spend his free time? We have no idea, which is why the attention tends to remain focused on his mother, the drug dealer who befriends him, etc. The central character's third incarnation, as a prison-hardened drug dealer, is hardly recognizable as the same person. 

Jimmy Kimbel will be hosting tonight's show. (I just looked it up.)