Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Oscars and the Year in Review 2023

2023 had some notable films. Since the pandemic, I rarely go to movie theaters anymore, but did see Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Godzilla Minus One. At home I saw the twin juggernauts, Oppenheimer and Barbie, as well as Killers of the Flower Moon and Asteroid City. I was glad to see both documentary winners, 20 Days in Mariupol (feature) and The Last Repair Shop (short). More summer-ish fare included Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Gran Turismo and The Creator. Later this year I intend to see Poor Things, The Holdovers, Anatomy of a Fall, The Zone of Interest, American Fiction, Maestro, The Boy and the Heron and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

The Oscars show was memorable and fun this year, although it had some misses as well. It started on a good note, though, with Jimmy Kimmel thanking the crew for supporting the WGA and SAG strikes, and pledging support for future negotiations by other unions. He was joined on stage by the Oscars crew, and they all received a standing ovation.

I was not happy to see the Oscars bring back individual tributes to each of the acting nominees by past nominees. The tributes did move along quicker than last time, and the approach does honor each nominee rather than just the winner. But only the actors get this special treatment, and it slows down the ceremony. Yes, actors are the most recognizable nominees to the public, but filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and I'd like to see that emphasized and thespian narcissism discouraged.

The acceptance speeches had several good moments. Robert Downey, Jr. gave a sweet thank you to his wife. I'm always fond of the writers, and Justine Triet and Arthur Harari were charmingly French accepting Best Original Screenplay for Anatomy of a Fall. Cord Jefferson, winning Best Adapted Screenplay for American Fiction, gave probably my favorite speech of the night:

I’ve been talking a lot about how many people passed on this movie, and I worry that sometimes sounds vindictive. I don’t want to be vindictive, I’m not a vindictive person anymore and I’ve worked very hard to not be vindictive anymore. It's more a plea to acknowledge and recognize that there are so many people out there who want the opportunity that I was given. . . . I understand that this is a risk-averse industry, I get it. But $200 million movies are also a risk. And it doesn’t always work out, but you take the risk anyway. Instead of making one $200 million movie, try making 20 $10 million movies. Or 50 $4 million movies. There are so many people, I just feel so much joy being here, I felt so much joy making this movie, and I want other people to experience that joy, and they are out there, I promise you. The next Martin Scorsese, the next Greta, both Gretas, the next Christopher Nolan, I promise you. They just want a shot, and we can give them one, and this has changed my life. Thank you all who worked on this movie, for trusting a 40-year-old black guy who had never directed before, it has changed my life.

The Godzilla team, winning for Best Visual Effects, all came on stage holding Godzilla figures (and I later learned, wearing Godzilla-themed shoes). Hoyte van Hoytema, winning Best Cinematography for Oppenheimer, extoled the virtues of shooting on film. Although I still haven't seen and heard The Zone of Interest yet – it's one of the 2023 films I'm most eager to experience – I caught some interviews with its sound designer and heard some his innovative work, and cheered out loud when it won for Best Sound.

Mstyslav Chernov, winning Best Documentary Feature Film for 20 Days in Mariupol, which chronicles Russia's siege of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, gave a touching speech saying he wished his film didn't need to be made, and wishing for the return of hostages and for peace. (The film is on PBS' Frontline and can be seen if you have PBS Passport or possibly in reruns.)

I was happy to see The Last Repair Shop win Best Documentary Short Film, and director Kris Bowers gave a nice speech about the value of the arts and public schools. It's a lovely, moving film that received decent local coverage. Los Angeles County is one of the few school systems in the U.S. that still doesn't charge students for musical instruments, and inevitably, instruments have to be repaired. The film alternates between short interviews with students, many who would not be able to afford instruments on their own, and longer interviews with several employees at the shop, who all have extraordinary personal stories and clearly view their work fixing instruments for students as a higher calling. It's also got a sweet ending. Check it out if you can.

Of the presenters, John Cena did a funny nude bit. Melissa McCarthy has been hilarious in past ceremonies, but her bit with Octavia Spencer was disappointingly stiff. Kate McKinnon and America Ferrera were funny presenting the documentary awards, with Steven Spielberg in the audience part of the bit as well, as Ferrara explained to McKinnon that the Jurassic Park movies were not, in fact, documentaries. Emily Blunt and Ryan Gosling were great bantering, introducing a salute to stunt teams. (They're appearing together in a film version of the The Fall Guy later this year.) Ariana Grande pulled the impressive feat of performing on Saturday Night Live in New York City on Saturday night and then presenting at the Oscars in Los Angeles on Sunday... in a down comforter. John Mulaney gave the funniest individual speech of the night introducing Best Sound, started by talking about the history of sound in film and then shifting into a lengthy digression about the plot of Field Of Dreams and the rules of "ghost baseball." It was vintage Mulaney, thoughtful, geeky and hilarious.

The montage of death was particularly disappointing this year, the worst I can remember. The music was all right, Andrea Bocelli and his son Matteo singing, "Time to Say Goodbye," although classical instrumental music, dialed down, works better if the montage features any audio. Regardless, having dancers, and cutting to them for most of the segment, was an awful decision. Viewers should see the images of the people who died, and that was barely possible except for a dozen or so. The segment even ended with a wide shot listing a long list of names of people not pictured in the montage, and it was completely illegible for viewers at home, and probably for the attendees in the theater as well.

I was not a fan of Billie Eilish being given a Bond song because it's really not her style, her Oscar win notwithstanding. But I thought her Best Original Song winner this time for Barbie, the existential "What Was I Made For?" was great – hushed and wistful, right in her wheelhouse, and a song that works decently outside of the movie but extremely well inside the movie. It had a bad mix at the show, though, and I remain baffled that such occurrences happen so frequently at the Oscars.

"I'm Just Ken" from Barbie was not the best song, but was easily the best performance, with Ryan Gosling and a large cast going completely over the top the way only a comedy song or a Bollywood musical number can pull off. In an homage to Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gosling dressed in flaming pink, hammed it up and was joined by songwriter Mark Ronson, plus Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, Scott Evans and an entourage of other Kens. Taking the number all the way to 11, Slash appeared on stage, playing blazing guitar riffs. Apparently Gosling, the crew and most of the cast started rehearsals four weeks out, and Gosling made sure the steadicam operator Sean Flannery was cool with being pulled on stage and having his hand kissed. You can see the number here.

2023 seemed to have a number of genuinely good films. Here's to a good 2024 in cinema.

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