Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

2018 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

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

2018 had some good smaller-scale films in addition to two notable blockbusters, but was not a particularly strong year for film overall. As for the Oscars, the best news was that the Academy reversed a dumb decision to award some categories during the commercial breaks due to intense backlash. (Credit for correcting a mistake.) As Guillermo del Toro, put it, "If I may: I would not presume to suggest what categories to cut during the Oscars show but – Cinematography and Editing are at the very heart of our craft. They are not inherited from a theatrical tradition or a literary tradition: they are cinema itself."

Did The Oscars suffer from not having a host? Not really. It meant no opening monologue, which is a good host's chance to shine, but also fewer pointless time-wasters. Many of the presenters would have made good hosts, though, including the early trio of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. (A friend suggested the best idea I've heard: have Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady from Whose Line Is It Anyway? host the Oscars.)

The most spectacular presenter was easily Melissa McCarthy dressed as Queen Anne from The Favourite, complete with stuffed rabbits on her dress and a rabbit puppet. Sound awards presenters James McAvoy and Danai Gurira had fun playing with vocal dynamics. John Mulaney and Awkafina were also funny, presenting some of the shorts.

The winners were better organized the most years, with clear assignments for who would say what. Best Animated Feature winners for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse make neat remarks about how pleased they were that the film resonated with a diverse audience, as they intended. Anyone who thinks the short categories should be eliminated should consider that the people who make shorts often go on to make features they love. They should also watch the excitement of the winners for Skin. (I haven't seen the film, but I appreciate the enthusiasm.) Or thrill along with the young winners for Period. End of Sentence. who exclaimed, "I can't believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!"

Bohemian Rhapsody featured some great sound work (I've included links with my review), but I would have given Best Sound Editing to First Man for the tension-ratcheting sounds of its space program and Best Sound Mixing to Roma for its lovely (and occasionally disturbing) soundscapes. (Had They Shall Not Grow Old been eligible, it would have been a superb nominee for Best Sound Editing as well, as well as Best Documentary Feature.) I believe the tales that John Ottman's film editing saved Bohemian Rhapsody, and kudos for that, but I'm not sure he deserved the award. Vice's amazing prosthetics work justifiably won Best Makeup and Hairstyling. I probably would have given Best Costuming and Best Production Design to The Favourite – they play key roles in the film – on the other hand, it was a nice change of pace to see the elaborate Black Panther win both awards over a period piece. I'm not a big fan of Lady Gaga nor "Shallow," but the song was more central to its movie, the fourth (!) version A Star Is Born, than any of the other nominees, and there's no denying that Gaga and costar (and director) Bradley Cooper threw themselves into their performance.

I like Spike Lee's films, but I didn't think BlackkKlansman was his best work and wasn't sure it deserved Best Adapted Screenplay. I didn't object strongly, either, given how some of his other work has been shafted. Plus, he gave a spirited speech. I thought The Favourite deserved Best Original Screenplay over Green Book for its acid dialogue and greater originality. (I've heard good things about If Beale Street Could Talk and First Reformed, respective contenders, but haven't seen either yet.) I saw far fewer of the Oscar-nominated performances than usual. Mahershala Ali was excellent in Green Book and seemed like a worthy repeat recipient, regardless of one's other thoughts about the film. Sam Rockwell was funny as George Bush in Vice, but it's a much slighter role. I thought Simon Russell Beale deserved a nomination for The Death of Stalin, but alas, too few people saw it. I missed Regina King's Best Supporting Actress performance and saw the other four, which were all excellent, but I've liked King in other roles and buy that she deserved it. (Amy Adams is overdue for an Oscar, and she's great as usual as Lynne Cheney, but she's had better roles and surely will again.) I thought Rami Malek was the best thing about Bohemian Rhapsody and made the film. He gave a heartfelt acceptance speech. I didn't see Glenn Close in The Wife – I've heard it's another good performance in a not-so-great film –but I thought Olivia Coleman was tremendous in The Favourite – funny, terrifying and pitiable by turns. During Coleman's acceptance speech, she was overwhelmed, awkward, gracious, self-effacing and utterly charming.

The montage of death had a nice accompaniment this time – the LA Philharmonic, led by Gustavo Dudamel, playing music by John Williams.

Roma deserved all its awards, although there's a controversy about writer-director Alfonso Cuaron accepting sole credit for its cinematography as well as taking an editing credit.

Now to the big controversy: Best Picture. I'd say Green Book is a good movie when taken on its own merits, an odd couple road movie with two strong lead performers with great chemistry, which is rarer than we'd like and nothing to dismiss. But the film also has problems, and it shouldn't have been nominated for Best Picture, let alone won. Four of the Best Picture nominees dealt with race pretty prominently: Roma, BlackkKlansman, Black Panther and Green Book. Even superhero movie Black Panther deals with race more incisively than Green Book, a throwback film that places racism safely in the past and centers on a white protagonist learning a valuable lesson.

Of the nominees, I'd have given Best Picture to Roma. It told a story we don't see often in cinema, and did so with a natural grace. My other favorites weren't even nominated: First Man, The Death of Stalin and They Shall Not Grow Old. I thought BlackkKlansman was decent, with a few excellent scenes, but if you know the Colorado KKK wasn't nearly as dangerous as depicted, the stakes feel much lower. The strongest scenes by far were the documentary footage used to end the movie, which Spike Lee choose to include but weren't written or directed by Spike Lee. I'd rank Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get on the Bus and 25th Hour as his best films, and BlackkKlansman a tier below. I wouldn't have been upset if BlackkKlansman won, but I would have seen it more as a lifetime achievement award for Spike Lee; I didn't feel he got robbed. (I did note, as did many others, that he keeps losing to movies about chauffeurs.)

Likewise, although Do the Right Thing was one of the best films of 1989, by no means was it clearly superior to all the rest. Whereas 2019 wasn't a strong year for film, 1989 was. Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture that year. Few people would knock Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman as performers or Bruce Beresford as a director, but it seemed like the safest of picks, and disappointing in that regard. The other nominees were pretty good: Born on the Fourth of July is a pretty gutsy film about war, disability and fake versus true patriotism; Oliver Stone won Best Director. Dead Poets Society is one of the great films about both teaching and love of the written word, featuring a memorable performance by Robin Williams and dealing with suicide, among other things. Field of Dreams is a fantasy, but one that's awfully hard to dislike; Burt Lancaster's scenes alone make it worthwhile. My Left Foot is an acting tour-de-force by Daniel Day-Lewis (winning him the first of his three Oscars) and also won Best Supporting Actress for Brenda Fricker. Good films that weren't nominated included Do the Right Thing, but also Glory, Henry V and Crimes and Misdemeanors. It was a year the five-film nominee limit seemed particularly frustrating. Glory was more impressive for its time than it is now – it'd be nice to spend less time on the white officers, for example – but the battle scenes have some admirable realism and the film justifiably won Denzel Washington his first Oscar. I'm personally fond of both Dead Poets Society and Field of Dreams. But in terms of innovation and cinematic achievement, I'd probably list three films as the best of 1989: Do the Right Thing, Henry V and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

First, Do the Right Thing. It's got an undeniable energy and attitude, and Spike Lee is innovative with his camera, having characters speak directly to the camera, leading to many of the most memorable scenes: a montage of bigoted insults, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) explaining hate versus love. It's got more craft than a casual viewer might realize – Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and local DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) serve as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action. The movie explicitly tackles bigotry, and does so primarily from a black point-of-view, delivering insights and perspectives that many previous films on race didn't necessarily have. It's a confrontational movie, and thus not easy viewing for all audiences, but the film is also a question and a discussion rather than a statement, ending with contrasting quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. That's some of the good stuff. As for the bad: Spike Lee plays the central character, Mookie, and he's not a great actor (although he's probably better in Do the Right Thing than in Malcolm X and Mo' Better Blues). Reportedly, Spike Lee wanted Sal (Danny Aiello) to have less dimension and be more racist, and Aiello fought to give the character more nuance. (We see a good side, but he's still pretty bigoted.) Women aren't given much of a role. All that said, it's a good film, and I'm looking forward to revisiting it when Criterion comes out with its edition later this year.

Second, Henry V: it's one of the best Shakespeare films ever, but it's also just a great film. Director Kenneth Branagh, who was a mere 29 at the end of 1989, delivered one hell of a first film. His own lead performance is stellar, with the most rousing rendition of the famous St. Crispin's speech I've yet to see. The other performers are impeccable, giving master classes in inflexion, particularly Brian Blessed and Derek Jacobi, but there's also Ian Holm, Paul Scofield, Michael Maloney, Emma Thompson and Judi Dench (plus a very young Christian Bale). It's got a stacked cast. If you're a Shakespeare buff, the film makes a striking contrast with Laurence Olivier's 1944 version; Olivier was rallying the war effort, and his Henry is great because he transcends any human frailty; Branagh's Henry is great because he suffers and gets dirty, and struggles through his trials. The score by Patrick Doyle is fantastic, and Doyle worked closely with Branagh during filming (and has a small part). Cinematically, Branagh stages one of the great medieval battle scenes, with a fantastic use of editing to build tension during the French charge at the start, and then uses a lengthy unbroken tracking shot over the battlefield at the very end. It would be hard to overstate how impressive Branagh's Henry V is; it's a staggering achievement. Its successes may be less innovative than, say, Do the Right Thing, but if we're talking sheer craftsmanship, I'd have to say Henry V was the best film of the year.

Third and last, we have Crimes and Misdemeanors. Regardless of what one thinks of Woody Allen as a person, he's made some notable films (if not for all tastes). Crimes and Misdemeanors is exceptionally well-written and features a moral complexity rarely seen in cinema (or even novels). It's shot by the great Sven Nykvist (best known for working with Ingmar Bergman), and a nighttime crisis of conscience scene during a thunderstorm is particularly stunning work. Martin Landau gives a fantastic lead performance as Judah Rosenthal, a highly successful man considering dark deeds, and Woody Allen gives him one of the greatest character lines ever: "God is a luxury I can't afford." It's amoral, and bullshit, but it exemplifies the character and his perspective. The film packs in a ton of wisdom, but also asks more questions than it answers. I've taught the film before, and have colleagues that have used it since, and it possesses a depth and complexity that spurs great reflection and discussions. It's not a flashy film, but it's a great one.

Back to Spike Lee: he's a good filmmaker and I'm glad he's making movies. I think he probably deserves more Oscar nominations than he's gotten, but I don't think he was robbed by not winning Best Picture in either year. He was given an honorary Oscar in 2015, and those are essentially lifetime achievement awards, and also a way for the Academy to honor people who haven't won competitive Oscars (or not as many as perhaps they deserved). I have friends who think honorary Oscars don't count, but I strongly disagree – I think they matter more, because they can amend past losses and they represent a longer view at a person's career. A great performance might occur in a so-so film. The same is true for great technical work; a great sound job on an otherwise bad movie tends not to win, if it even gets nominated. A performance that might have won one year might have stiffer competition the year it was eligible. And so on. Peter O'Toole had epically bad luck and never won a competitive Oscar, despite being nominated eight times and one of great film actors. Robert Altman never won a competitive Oscar, either. Akira Kurosawa had won Oscars for Best Film in a Foreign Language, but his honorary Oscar was a well-deserved lifetime achievement award. Audrey Hepburn won Best Actress, but also received honorary Oscars later. Stanley Donen gave what was probably the most gracious acceptance speech ever when receiving his honorary Oscar. I was happy to see all of them get their awards, and yes, they matter.

Side note: 2018 had a welcome trend of women playing tech geniuses or at least proficient hackers, in Black Panther, Incredibles 2, Ready Player One and Ocean's 8.

On to the reviews. As usual, I try to label spoilers, but also follow a simple rule: if it's in the trailer, it's not a spoiler.

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