Sunday, February 26, 2017

Classic Man

(Oscar thoughts)

Best Picture (ranked)

Moonlight — A film so far outside the purview of the Academy that for it to be declared “best,” in the context of the other eight movies, would be, if not a disservice, a huge understatement. Still, whatever gets more people to see it. I can imagine a new American film language ready to carry us through to the end of the century, with nothing older than Moonlight (and American Honey, and The Fits) in its vocabulary. Let’s have more movies about the absence of love and touch, about how the weight of self makes it so impossible to speak that it takes every ounce of strength and willpower to say one true thing.

Hidden Figures — Like Queen of Katwe, Hidden Figures plays as a referendum on the beat-the-odds uplift narrative, in this case as recognition that these scenes still play out in every workplace in America. A white viewer like myself for once can’t root for his own absolution via sanitized history so must root for the protagonists instead, for their genius, perseverance, private moments of joy, indifference to anyone’s sense of guilt.

Fences — I’ve never understood why a re-staging of a classic work needs to find fresh cinematic framing or contemporary significance, if it’s well done, and Fences is very well done.

Manchester by the Sea — Funny, but smart enough to recognize humor as a meaningless gloss. Casey Affleck effectively conveys inarticulate grief, but it’s Michelle Williams, of course, who carries the film, grieving in her own quiet way while also tracing unseen contours in Affleck’s performance. Without her faltering attempts at communication as a mirror to his own longing to speak, his suffering remains opaque.

Hell or High Water — A good yarn, if a bit too slow in shaking off dead weight (Ben Foster, halfway to self-destruction, falsely equating the plight of poor exploited whites with that of dispossessed Native Americans; Jeff Bridges nearing forced retirement along with his racist slurs and stereotypes) and pushing forward the Western in ways it initially seems well-positioned to pull off. It should’ve been Gil Birmingham on that porch at the end.

Arrival — The first hour is astounding, but then the movie strains for purpose beyond applied linguistics and inventive alien design, thus earning a place on this list. Some have called Arrival a balm for post-election anxiety but I found it quite the opposite, maddening in its benign view of international cooperation. Maybe it plays better outside the U.S., but the ending just made me long for the realism of Dr. Strangelove.

La La Land — I’m still willing to accept the sincerity of everyone involved, I guess, but every choice made in the telling of this story is the wrong one, to wit:

a. Why borrow the ending of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for a romance without a single ounce of regret? Both characters succeed wildly, and lose all use for each other long before a climactic what-if sequence tries to resurrect a feeling where none exists.

b. If Stone is the movie geek and Gosling is the jazz geek, why is he the one who introduces her to Rebel Without A Cause? An overly schematic movie can’t even get its schemata right. And for all the examples of his piano-playing and the application of his craft, her talents as a playwright remain unknown. Stone is hideously underserved throughout and still saves the movie, a workload too often required for a Best Actress Oscar.

c. Why would a dance crew squeeze onto such a small stage, with the kind of band that would never employ dancers? Could the audience possibly have missed the idea that Gosling has sold out his dreams? The movie registers a contempt for his artistic compromises that it wouldn’t dare visit upon those of Stone’s successful Hollywood actress. Music demands a purity that moviemaking does not, apparently, so while he can achieve success on his own terms, she must wait to have it granted from above.

Hacksaw Ridge — Andrew Garfield’s retractable upper lip suggests his character’s innate, unthinking goodness, but I left wondering about the interior life of the real Desmond Doss, even as the movie insists he didn’t have one. Despite his beliefs he’s an instrument of war; his vegetarianism is treated as a throwaway detail.

Lion — Simply put, I didn’t see it.


Animated Feature: Mainstream animation companies continue to expend their imagination on storytelling methods, not structures, so here come two more exquisite and inventive presentations of the holy configuration of man, woman and child. Kubo and the Two Strings and The Red Turtle, both stupendous technical achievements, ultimately bring nothing new. The latter is a more significant disappointment, as it seems primed to consider animal suffering at human hands only to retreat into allegory at the exact moment of a wrenching death. That leaves, among the nominees I’ve seen, Zootopia, which does indeed confound the tendency mentioned above, finding a way to map a story of human injustice onto animal actors without any of the icky side effects of too-broad analogy.

Documentary Feature: Like last year’s Animated Feature category, this one embarrasses any Best Picture category of the last few decades. Likely winner O.J. Made in America affirms its greatness in the way it becomes more incomplete the longer it gets. To think back to its beginning from its ending has a dizzying effect. Its flaws run no deeper than the availability of interview subjects, so that some sections, like the one covering the Rodney King protests, end up dangerously lopsided. But the movie’s at its best as a character study, a fact underlined by its devastating final word: “Please.” I Am Not Your Negro is perhaps disqualified from winning in the year of La La Land, as it would be a grim hypocrisy to applaud Baldwin’s close readings of film history and then give Best Picture to the movie that exemplifies the “grotesque appeal to innocence” he finds in Doris Day and Lover Come Back. Impossibly broader in scope than either of these is 13th, its thoroughness especially impressive given that Ava Duvernay has no central figure to organize her arguments. It’s the fourth great film she’s directed, and no two are alike.

Foreign Language Film: Julieta (not nominated) left me levitating, but Toni Erdmann and The Salesman, both of which layer random incident in no immediate need of resolution, all the while building toward unexpectedly heightened and audacious final half-hours, suggesting a commensurate dearth of patience in American filmmaking, produced a similar breathlessness.

Actress: Ruth Negga is the driving force of Loving, even if the what I’d call auteurist quirks of Jeff Nichols require the perspective to be weighted slightly toward Joel Edgerton and his role as a provider. And yet he’s a blank, empty of everything but love, happy to live anywhere, while she has to adopt an equally unassuming stoicism but still carry the conflict.

Actor: Re-watching Malcolm X this month it became obvious that Denzel Washington should be the most-winning actor in Oscar history.

Supporting Actress: The same feat achieved by the three actors who play Chiron, Naomie Harris achieves on her own, the not-what-I-expected contours of a life smoothed out by continuities of gesture. I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering if she really shouts that word, the one the movie presents silently and, like everything else in its compass, no matter how painful, as an act of love.

Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, for what I guess you’d call paternal warmth. For how he says “little man,” and for how quickly he responds “no.” It’s all new to me.

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