Sunday, February 12, 2017

Oscar's Best 2016

It's Oscar time once again, and once again I've failed to be active on this blog.  So much for best intentions.  2016 has had a number of good movies, and overall I'm pleased with the best movie category.  However, unlike most years, I didn't find that singular standout movie to make my top choice easy.  My top two, and the next two, choices are almost interchangeable.  Only the bottom few were easy for me to categorize.  I did feel a bit self conscious for selecting all of the racially themed movies near the bottom, but that's just how it went.  As always, I welcome and encourage comments, either to agree or disagree with my ranking.  I understand that movies are art, and that we don't, and that we shouldn't, agree on what "good" art is.  The following list simply represents my humble opinion.  Be aware, there may be spoilers.

1)  LION:  This is an amazing "based on a true story" movie, by virtually unknown director Garth Davis.  It's the tale of a 5-year-old boy, named Saroo, who accidentally gets trapped on a train in India.  He's unable to disembark until he arrives in Calcutta, thousands of miles from home.  Saroo is eventually adopted, out of an orphanage, by a couple in Australia.  I'm not normally a fan of child actors in leading roles, as they don't typically have the range to show the "arc" of character development necessary.  However, Sunny Pawar is simply amazing as the young lost boy, and in my mind was overlooked by Oscar.  Dev Patel does get a nomination for expertly playing the grown and tormented Saroo, struggling to find his own identity.  Nicole Kidman, who plays his adoptive mother also deserves her nomination.  The film flows beautifully and captured my full attention.  The action, cinematography, acting, and direction are all top notch.  I was simply swept away.  My only slight issue came in the final act, which I felt lacked the same intensity, edge, and tempo.  Therefore, it did not hold my attention in the same way the rest of the movie did.  The ending of the movie ended up feeling a bit too much like a documentary.  That being said, this is an excellent film and should be seen by all movie lovers.  Bring Kleenex!

2)  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA:  I felt somewhat conflicted by this film.  The thing I didn't like about it initially, is the very thing I ended up liking most about it.  First let me summarize- the movie deals with the life of Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, a New England native, dealing with tragedy, sorrow, and guilt.  The source of his anguish is cleverly withheld until well in to the movie.  Lee is forced to move from his self imposed prison, a dingy basement apartment in Boston, back to the town at the heart of his suffering.  He's been named in the will of his deceased brother, to care for his teen aged nephew Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges.  I'm a huge fan of, and consistently find myself enjoying movies that are driven primarily by good acting, and this is clearly one such film.  Of course what makes extraordinary acting special is the writing.  Great actors given great dialogue makes for great cinema.  There is a two minute scene in which Casey Affleck chats with his ex wife, played by Michelle Williams (both appropriately nominated), that is simply magnificent.  Two of the best at their very best.  It's a scene that will stick with me for a very long time.  What bothered me most as I walked out of the theater was Lee's lack of "arc."  It's a deeply sad movie, about a deeply wounded man, who by the end of the film is nearly as sad and wounded as he was at the start.  He's lonely, hurting, and picking bar fights in the first act exactly the same as he is and does in the last.  Despite being around loving people, family and friends, who are struggling to move on with their own lives and their own hardships, he simply can't.  I left the theater feeling hopeless and depressed.  However, the movie is so powerful, so well written and performed, that it continued to haunt me.  In time, I ended up appreciating this movie for portraying a character who simply can't get over his guilt and loss.  Sure, there is a tiny bit of growth, but some wounds are just too deep to recover from.  Not every movie needs to have a happy ending, not every character has to see the light.  I respect that this movie was even made.  For such a dark movie, there was a lot of humor, some of which I didn't think fit all that well.  Lucas Hedges gives a fine performance, for which he got a nomination.  However, to me he's the weakest link.  It's not the actual performance as much as what his character seems to be about.  As paralyzed by sadness as Lee is, Patrick barely seems to recognize that his own father has just died.  He seems only to care about fishing, friends, and juggling his two girlfriends.  It's a great film, a must-see, but again, bring Kleenex.

3)  ARRIVAL:  Sci Fi at its very best.  Smart, rich characters, well acted, great script and superior direction.  Who could ask for more?!?!  Alien vessels have arrived and are hovering over a multitude of cities around the globe.  Are they friend of foe?  Merely observers or threats?  Amy Adams is a leading linguistics professor and is charged with decoding the "language" which the aliens are using to communicate.  I was fully hypnotized by the story, by the acting, by the pace, by the visuals, and by the message.  I have seen reviews and heard comments that this is a "snooze fest," "preachy" and "cliche-riddled." I couldn't disagree more vehemently.  Finally a movie about alien life that isn't simply a monster story.  A film with meaning and heart.  I was struck by the directors use of light and focus.  Many of the scenes are purposely dark, with only the object of interest in the light.  It's a seamless yet artistic way of drawing our attention.  A similar technique is used in which there is a short depth of field.  Only the object of interest is in focus, while the surroundings are blurred, with changing focus to draw our attention.  It's a unique story, beautifully shot, and worth a peek.

4)  HELL OR HIGH WATER:  A modern day western.  Instead of horses we have pick up trucks.  Instead of an evil land baron, we have evil banks.  Once again what makes this film superior is the acting and writing.  The surprising Chris Pine and the deliciously menacing Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner, cowboy brothers, who decide to rob banks for the money they need to save their family and their land.  The brothers both have dark sketchy pasts, but what they also have is a bond, and true love for each other.  Toby is fighting his darker nature and appears to be the good brother, while Tanner has malice just barely below the surface.  He's not even trying to hide or suppress his baser instincts.  The interactions feel real, honest, complex, and unique.  The other couple, or partnership, that is equally unique is between the Texas Rangers Marcus and Alberto, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham.  Once again Jeff Bridges offers a deep portrayal, inhabiting his character as comfortably as if it were his own skin.  He steals every scene he's in and makes it look easy.  He adds a levity but also a legitimacy to the film.  At the risk of sounding cliche, Jeff Bridges is an American treasure.  The direction of this film is superb.  David Mackenzie takes us on a beautifully paced and artistically filmed western adventure that is absolutely worth the trip.

5)  LA LA LAND:  I mean this as a compliment: LA LA LAND is a great little chick flick.  I should also add that in general, I am a fan of musicals- my favorite probably being HAIR.  As much as I enjoyed LA LA LAND I don't think it deserved a record number of nominations.  What makes this movie work is the incredible chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  Both are great actors in their own right, and are also magnificent together.  Damien Chazelle expertly backs up his amazing direction of WHIPLASH from 2014.  I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.  The movie is light and engaging as we learn to genuinely like and root for both lead characters  We also find an appreciation for the third lead, "Jazz."  Their courtship is sweet, even if it is somewhat predictable.  I found the first two-thirds of the movie enjoyable and fun, but the final third of the film is what makes it special.  All the great musicals I can think of have an edge, a darker side, to go along with memorable musical numbers.  Until the final act that edge was absent, which left it feeling simply amusing and "sweet."  My only other criticism has to do with the voices.  I've heard it said that the relatively sub-par (not awful by any stretch) singing voices of the stars is what gives it authenticity.  I'm not of that camp.  I found their singing a bit distracting, much as I did hearing Russell Crowe croak in Les Miserables a few years back. If I had to recommend any of the nominated movies for a fun date night out, this would be it.

6)  HIDDEN FIGURES:  When I saw the trailer for this movie I thought it looked quite Pollyanna and a candidate for the TV Hallmark Hall of fame.  After a friend, who saw it, told me it was "trite" I was sure I'd hate it.  Exactly the kind of movie I typically hate.  After seeing it, I was right, it was Pollyanna and even a little bit trite.  Even the images were all bright, colorful and cheery.  However, I actually enjoyed it a lot.  The story is compelling and important.  It's a part of our American history that we should all be aware of and I was hooked from the start.  It's the tale of NASA's endeavor to put a human in to orbit and eventually on the moon.  It's based on the real life significant contribution of African American women, who provided invaluable mathematical contributions to the US space program.  Taraji Henson is a captivating as Katherine Johnson,  Octavia Spencer is her usual charming self as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae portrays Mary Jackson, three "human computers."  Theodore Melfi artfully relays the story about these talented women, stressing the support they receive from their friends, family, and community.  It's a beautiful representation of life in the 60's and depicts a warm and loving African American community.  I was surprised how well a story largely about overcoming racism and bigotry was told without a sharp edge, without finger pointing, and without anger.  There is no violence, no cursing, and no gratuitous outrage.  Still, it's made evident how difficult the lives of African Americans were at that time, and how deep the injustices were which they had to endure, both socially, legally, and professionally.  I tend to like my movies a bit darker and with more grit, but this is an important true story, beautifully told and worth seeing.  An ideal family movie date.

7)  MOONLIGHT:  I'm still conflicted by this film.  There is no doubt that this movie was well acted and directed but I just couldn't connect or relate.  I was only able to appreciate it as a work of art.  In the end I just didn't find it terribly entertaining.  MOONLIGHT is the story of Chiron, aka Little, a homosexual boy, growing up in the drug infested projects of Miami.  The movie is told in three acts, with three actors representing different stages of his life.  Each actor is challenged by different aspects of his struggle, as he endeavors to understand his own sexuality and to be accepted.  He just doesn't fit in to his community, his school, or even his family.  His struggle isn't only external, but he also struggles to define and know himself.  He's the product of poverty and lack of opportunity; hungry for positive role models, as he's being raised by a drug addict single mom.  My primary issue with the film was once again a lack of "arc."  Each of the three actors playing Chiron do so almost stoically. Feelings and opinions are seldom verbalized and have to be inferred.  The youngest actor is almost comically silent.  There is very little growth, which may be the point, but it left me feeling empty and disconnected from Chiron.  This is the a classic "indie" type movie and I only recommend it for true movie lovers.  The film is raw, dark, and depressing, yet there is no doubt that it is a work of art.

8)  HACKSAW RIDGE:  I'm not sure I can be totally objective about this movie.  First, I tend to be hard on military movies, just as I am on medically themed movies, because I have some real life experience in those fields, making me more judgmental and more critical than I should be.  That real life experience for some reason also keeps me from getting fully immersed.  Second, I'm just not a huge fan of Andrew Garfield.  He was good in a smaller role in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, passable as SPIDERMAN, but in my opinion he is what kept 99 HOMES and SILENCE from being as good as they could have been; I might even say that he ruined them for me.  I do like Mel Gibson as a director, and as such he did a masterful job.  The movie is once again based on a true story.  Desmond Doss was a conscientious objector who served as a Medic during the battle of Okinawa.  He didn't carry a weapon and refused to "fight."  Still, he was a hero, saving lives, and earned the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot.  As such it's a compelling and important story.  Doss volunteers to serve and it comes as no surprise that in basic training his fellow recruits, as well as the cadre, want him gone.  Nobody wants to be in a foxhole with a solider without a weapon.  It also doesn't come as a surprise that by the end they all respect and appreciate him.  A significant sub-plot of the film deals with his courtship of a nurse.  During the romance Garfield continually makes the same ridiculously dopey expression that made me want to punch him in the face.  His social and political fight for acceptance is well documented by the film and as such it's interesting.  However, the heart of the movie takes place on Hacksaw Ridge.  It's probably the longest battle scene in history, or at least that I can remember, or maybe it just felt that way.  In any case, this movie has 6 nominations so someone liked it, I just wasn't one of them.

9)  FENCES:  I've stated that I particularly enjoy movies that are "actor driven."  Clearly FENCES is one of those films, and yet it's my least favorite of the Best Picture nominees.  Denzel Washington is a living acting legend and Viola Davis is on a short list of best living actresses, and they both shine.  That being said, I found this movie to be a series of long, often boring, speeches.  Very little action and a plot I couldn't relate to and didn't care much about.  The set of the movie is pretty much limited to a single house and the yard around that house.  When it was over I said "this felt more like a play then a movie."  I was embarrassed to find out that it was actually a Broadway show first, and that the show featured Washington and Davis.  Washington directs the action which takes place during the 50's and deals with family, race, loss, and forgiveness.  AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is another film based on a play, with similar issues, but is a far better film in my opinion.