Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

2016 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Reviews

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was greatly delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Top Four, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

2016 was a decent year for movies, with many of the best being fairly intimate, character-based dramas. If there were a unifying theme, it might have been the utter stupidity of bigotry and its pointless harm, whether based on race, sexuality or religion. Most of the films tackling this did so in an effectively understated way, by focusing on the humanity of their main characters (Loving, Moonlight, Silence). Hidden Figures opted for a more typical Hollywood approach with flashier scenes and crowd-pleasing moments, but succeeded nicely on its own terms.

The big news about the Oscars was of course the worst screw-up in the award show's history. Despite multiple safeguards, the wrong movie was announced for the winner of Best Picture (La La Land instead of Moonlight). The best account I've read to date comes from The Wrap; basically, accountant Brian Cullinan got distracted and star-struck taking photos backstage, flubbed the envelope handoff, and then panicked and cowered backstage rather than correcting the mistake as his job required (Martha Ruiz, his compatriot on the other wing, did the same). It's a shame, because both movies are good, but Moonlight's win was much more unexpected and a coup given its subject matter, cast and budget. The gaffe distracted from its moment. (Side note: I have a friend who often works the Oscars and has worked with the stage crew of this one, but did not work this particular show.)

As for the rest of the ceremony, it opened with an energetic musical opener. Host Jimmy Kimmel did a pretty good job overall. His edgiest material was probably his repeated jabs at Mel Gibson, supposedly rehabilitated after his misogynistic and anti-Semitic tirades back in 2006. The most original bit was surprising a Hollywood tour by bringing them through the Oscars, although the whole thing went on too long (the wildest subplot was about "Gary from Chicago").

On the speeches and awards, Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali gave a nice shout-out to his teachers. It was neat to see the real Katherine Johnson (who's 98!!!) come on stage with the lead actresses from Hidden Figures. I thought it was a bit unfair that the 467 minute documentary O.J.: Made in America was eligible for Best Documentary Feature – it played at a few festivals and had a brief theatrical run to secure eligibility, but it was made for to be seen on television in installments. On the other hand, I saw the first installment and it was excellent, and director Ezra Edelman (son of children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman) gave a nice speech recognizing the victims of domestic and police violence. Zootopia had a nice rehearsed speech split between the three winners. Honorary awards justifiably went to the irrepressible Jackie Chan and tireless documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Viola Davis finally won her well-deserved Oscar thanks to a searing performance in Fences. Although I like Kenneth Lonergan's script and film You Can Count on Me much more than Manchester by the Sea, I was happy to see him win for Best Original Screenplay. I was likewise happy to see Moonlight win for Best Adapted Screenplay. Best Cinematography is usually a stacked category, but I thought some of the nominees were underwhelming this time – winner La La Land has some great camerawork but some bad lighting in some scenes; Moonlight likewise has some strong camerawork and interesting use of color, but soft focus in several shots (not unusual for an indie). Although La La Land's songs weren't overwhelming, I was glad "City of Stars" won as a less typical pick over standard Disney ballad "How Far I'll Go" from Moana.

Kevin O'Connell finally won an Oscar after 21 nominations for Hacksaw Ridge and had a great speech highlighting the support of his mom. I didn't see (or hear) Hacksaw Ridge , but did hear a story about O'Connell's work on the film. I've written about this before, but the continuing problem is that Oscar voters tend not to understand sound and the differences between the categories. Even if worthy films win, it's often in the less deserving category. Even more than the other "technical" awards, the sound awards are subject to bandwagon voting, and great sound jobs on not-great movies tend not to win. If you look at O'Connell's credits, there's a dearth of prestige films. Anyway, at least some Academy voters voted for O'Connell because of all his previous snubs, and good for him.

Meanwhile, the Oscars put together a great montage of international film lovers, and several winners spoke about the importance of funding the arts, which is always welcome. I always appreciate the Montage of Death, and on a personal note was happy to see that a teacher of mine made the cut.

As for other films in 2016, although I didn't see God's Not Dead 2 (the first film is supposedly awful), I think the filmmakers missed an opportunity by not naming it God's Still Not Dead.

On to the reviews. I'm including spoiler coding as I have for a few years, but my usual rule also applies: if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler.

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