All the critics agree, it was a great year for film, but I’m not sure I buy that. Nor can I buy that it was a good year for women and minorities unless the Academy Awards nominating one movie by a Black writer/director and one by a woman are significant improvements, sigh. And, there’s no nail biter for best picture for me as I didn’t see many films that stayed with me for long. Realistically, a best picture award should be given for an extraordinary film and that would not happen every year. Nominate away but the flick selected should be exceptional.
That said, I’m still fascinated by the event and even more so by what the movies say about us and our moment in time so let’s talk about some of the nominees–and some that weren’t nominated but worked for me.
Since many movies ostensibly released in December are not available for viewing until January, February or March of the next awards year-and there are some you’ll never see on your local marquee unless you live next door to an arthouse-I’m going by the films I had an opportunity to view this year.
One of my favorite little movies of this year which actually opened in 2016 was Kedi. It’s Turkish for Cats and is a travelogue-documentary movie about the felines who live in every nook and ancient cranny of Istanbul, seemingly feral but lovingly attended to by the shopkeepers, waiters, and apartment dwellers of that cat friendly and vibrant metropolis. If you like people, cats or views of ancient architecture set along the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Aegean, this film is a little R & R. BTW, better to visit but for now, since the Turkish government recently reacted to the American government’s visitation restrictions by refusing visas to US residents, you’ll have to wait.
I couldn’t wait to see Get Out and caught it the first weekend. I wasn’t surprised that Jordan Peele made a horror movie because on his show Key and Peele with partner Keegan-Michael Key, the duo produced many skits in the horror genre. Here’s just one of their zombie sketches. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xyhVO-SWfM
It’s an iconic film, I believe, mostly because it’s one of the few films ever to openly poke fun at American racism from a Black auteur. The catch phrase, the sunken place, and the title itself , something audiences like to shout at the screen when the monster is about to burst through the door, are now part of our film (and social) lexicon.
But there are some small disappointments in this genre busting movie–is it horror, is it comedy, is it satire or all of the above? For instance, the fright scenes were frequently less scary than the build up to them, much of the movie was tongue-firmly-in-cheek, but at other times the tongue was more loosely-in-cheek and the payoffs were sometimes more academic than immediate. It is almost as if Peele wanted to tell us about our racism and confront us with our stereotypes without offending us too much. But it’s thought provoking and entertaining and ultimately one of the movies of this year that will stay with us, or at least until Peele’s next eagerly awaited project.
The Zookeeper’s Wife came out in March and made an impression on me at the time but the reviews were decidedly mixed–many were offended by Jessica Chastain’s Polish accent. Maybe that’s why she was nominated for an Oscar in Molly’s Game rather than this otherwise wonderful performance.
Here are 3 things I know about the problems with the Zookeeper’s Wife 1) it’s a little too glossy for a film set in war torn Warsaw, could’ve been a bit grittier given the subject, 2) the hero of the movie is a soft spoken seemingly naive woman, not the type of hero we want these days, see Frances McDormand, 3) most people including the critics couldn’t stomach the early long scene where the zoo’s tame animals are being slaughtered one by one by the soldiers. But it’s a true story of a couple that were honored by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations, and it’s inspiring without being smug. See it if you can.
Here are three more movies I also liked but only one of them got any Oscar nominations. They were: The Big Sick, made in indy style with an awkwardly slow beginning but its touching true story wins you over soon after–Holly Hunter’s acerbic mother has much to do with that and even though The Indy Spirit Awards and others nominated her for best supporting actor, Oscar ignored her. However, the clever husband/wife screenplay was nominated.
The Glass Castle which passed by unnoticed, a young woman’s memoir of a childhood spent with her extremely dysfunctional but fascinating parents. The critics apparently dispute that the main character was able to cull some good memories from her childhood and seemingly panned it for that reason. I was moved by its complex portrayal of family life or maybe it just made me feel better about my own.
And Marshall, which actually lost money, perhaps because so few people can recognize the last name of one of our most important Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall, more’s the pity. It’s a very interesting slice of his early life as an attorney traveling the country defending Black suspects and alternately commanding and alienating allies to the cause. It stars the very charismatic Chadwick Boseman whose next film has been sold out in theaters for weeks, the Black Panther. Maybe his star power can resurrect this movie so more people can see it.
There was Beatriz at Dinner starring Salma Hayek in a satire which hammered you with its message including an ugly peek at the lives of the rich and powerful entertaining each other in the decadent canyons of southern California. It might also be titled, “Everyone was Sad Today,” dunno, left me as cold as it was designed to do.
Should we talk about Wonder Woman, nah, let’s not. How about Wind River, yeah, beautifully filmed, touchingly acted, a modern-day cowboy flick [centered around the brutalization of young attractive women, what else is new and guaranteed money making?] also deeply sad, hmmm, is that a theme? I left the theater and then I realized, oh shit, once again, I was led down the garden path where the white people were the saviors and the Indians were the noble victims or the hapless criminals, substitute any other despised ethnicity and voila, the same old same old but with a touch of cultural sensitivity thrown in.
Locally, those of us who’ve been fighting for years to reform OPD, went to see The Force because the film’s producer also made the award winning The Waiting Room but instead we got the local version of mainstream media embedded with the troops in some foreign place. Here’s my longer review, https://draketalkoakland.com/2017/10/01/the-force-the-oakland-police-accountability-coalition-a-story-untold/.
And what about the phenomenon of 3 films revolving around the same WWII episode, Dunkirk, the story of the almost unbelievable rescue of 300,000 British and French troops from the coast of France right as the German army overran continental Europe and was poised to invade Britain.
In The Darkest Hour--it was so dark in those conference rooms and tunnels, I could barely see Gary Oldman’s Churchill giving the famous “we will fight them on the beaches” speech–would not have made much sense without having first seen Nolan’s Dunkirk, unless you’re a WWII history buff. Then finally there was the British tragicomedy Their Finest which I found as entertaining and moving as the other two.
Does this confluence mean that Winston Churchill, the conservative leader of the British Parliament who hated socialized medicine among other proletarian benefits, is the leader we long for? Perhaps, but I doubt it. To me it means we know we have just entered one of the scariest periods in modern history and we’re not sure how or if we will survive it.
In Dunkirk, the flick which shows the terror in real time as the powerful Luftwaffe bombs and strafes the retreating soldiers, we also see close up the human face of courage and compassion. In the Darkest Hour we get the one-person-stands-alone-in-the-face-of-confusion-and-cowardice [in truth much of the British aristocracy sympathized with the Nazis before they opposed them.]
In Their Finest, a film within a film which depicts the making of a British propaganda piece about the Allied troop rescue, we find the beating heart of humanity under the seemingly cynical manipulations of the media. The story within a story also illustrates the struggle of women’s changing roles during times when the men were sent to die by the hundreds of thousands, women were reluctantly allowed to take over some of their roles, including screenwriting (and we still struggle with women’s roles in that industry.)
The lesson for our time lies in how this heroic rescue took place-it worked because average British fishermen and their families took it upon themselves to become a navy of brave individuals with little coordination or top down command, and saved most of their army for the fight to come. Whichever angle you prefer to view that period from, people are drawn to these movies and they are all worth seeing.
I admit I didn’t see all the films nominated for best picture but I did see a few more that are worthy of your weekly latte money. Let’s talk about Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri which was filmed in and around Asheville, North Carolina. It was an obvious Oscar nominee. The writing was sharp to the point of painful, the characters were all played by outsized actors and the theme of (white) female rage hit hard and on target.
I admit I was in disbelief that the character Sam Rockwell played so well seemed to morph too easily into a human being from an idiotic and vicious racist cop. Of course, Frances McDormand’s badass grief-stricken mom was not so much believable as symbolic. McDormand served as the anti-hero that women have been craving, that is if you feel like tossing Molotov cocktails at buildings or people–and maybe you do.
The controversy-and there really could be many–is this your vision of feminism, who deserves redemption-centers around the ultimate acceptance of a cop who is known to have tortured Black suspects as a character who is capable of earning the sympathy of the viewer, depending on whether he in fact did earn it? Did indeed anyone and was anyone really redeemed? The movie doesn’t make that clear. Anyway, here is one critique if you wanna know more, Alison Wilmore in Buzzfeed, https://www.buzzfeed.com/alisonwillmore/three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri?utm_term=.wsZLVOyoDM#.mhaJv4gqX” “He [filmmaker Martin McDonough who is Irish] has a solid grasp of how a woman can be dismissed as crazy, as a bitch. But when it comes to American racism, he’s playing tourist.”
As to working class white women who can’t seem to fit the mold, there’s I, Tonya which takes the anti-hero and then flips it sideways. Its perfect sardonic tone takes aim at the audience because the film knows that we were as easily manipulated as Tonya, an abused girl who came close to achieving the American dream but became the punchline to a bad joke instead. It doesn’t answer any of the ultimate moral questions or explain away all the ugliness plus Margot Robbie is way too pretty to be the pinched face protagonist, much less playing her as a young teen. But the movie works, it’s entertaining and thought provoking, what more could you ask?
The Post came out in December and I saw it with a group of friends that first weekend. Sitting with a crowd at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, CA, watching a movie about what the press can do to an out-of-control-president is heartening enough to make it worth the price of the ticket. That the movie had an outstanding cast and an important message was even better.
There’s lots more to the story of Ben Bradlee’s cozy relationship with presidents and CEOs https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/the-newspaperman-the-life-and-times-of-ben-bradlee and to Katharine Graham’s ultimate betrayal of many of the workers who made her paper great that was barely hinted at by the film, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/wash-post-busted-pressmens-union-in-1975-strike-why_us_599eed71e4b0cb7715bfd3b2.
The only real fault I had with the set-up was Spielberg himself. Sometimes he just had to tell us how to feel by pumping up the John Williams score when silence would have sufficed. And what was that bit with the bewigged hippie spouting Mario Savio’s words in DC at a 1970 demo, “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”
Sorry, that was a different time and place, 1964, Sproul Hall, Berkeley at the height of the Free Speech Movement. For many in the media these days, the movement of the 60’s and 70’s from the Civil Rights era and the anti-HUAC struggles to Anti-Vietnam War movement and the Counterculture was one decade long period of foment but it was more complicated than that and those complications have consequences that still mean something today.
And now to the great Shape of Water divide. It leads the race with 13 Oscar nominations. I nominate it for silliest-and-darkest-version-of a-Fred Astaire-minus-Ginger-musical-fairy-tale, replete with stereotypes you haven’t seen since Stepin Fetchit, slack jawed dramatics, wince-inducing-preciousness-over-the-top–hit-you-on-the-head message movie of the year.
For instance, while Sally Hawkins was able to fill her bathroom with water almost to the ceiling by stuffing towels under the door (for you know, a romantic midnight swim) in her dreary apartment lit only by nostalgic movie theater marquees all the while with the same dumbfounded expression on her kisser, Octavia Spencer’s sidekick existed as a stereotype of a Black woman who chatters endlessly about her no-good husband and Michael Shannon reprises his trademark role as the vicious Trumpian villain. Ah well, gotta love the nostalgia and simplistic symbolism.
The headache inducing winner of the eye-roll contest was the Last of the Jedi, here’s hoping it’s the last of the Star Wars resurrections. Let’s remember the originals with fondness like you do old friends before they revealed they liked The Shape of Whatever That Was.
Here’s to not nominating any more beautiful films like Call Me By Your Name except of course for the cinematography, each frame a picture to behold, that is until you begin to worry this movie might never end and you have to use the restroom sometime. It was sort of s backlash to last year’s winner, no, not LaLa Land but Moonlight, that beautiful coming-of-age film set in Florida about a young man who had nothing and was loved by almost no one but which was able to maintain that quality of wonder that Call Me sought to depict.
Even as a middle class, reasonably well-traveled white woman, I could identify with very little about this wealthy, multi-lingual family vacationing at their summer villa in Italy while their young son develops a hot romance with a beautiful older man. I got the scenes of sweltering summer sexuality-when the search for romance and sex were all that counted. I just couldn’t relate to long scenes of cigarettes being inhaled while gently ordering the housekeeper to prepare dinner a little earlier this evening, thank you.
Since filmmakers so often replay the same stories, why not suggest some that haven’t been told. Here’s one of mine: The Warmth of Other Suns, the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, tells three in depth and true tales out of the millions of Black people who found their way north and west during the period between the two World Wars and beyond. The stories are as heartbreaking as they are inspiring and worth telling. Just one would make an epic film about the struggle for the American Dream. It would be hard not to make it entertaining and thought provoking and what else could a movie goer want?