Three parts of a life that equals one man.

The 89th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2016.  The nominations were announced on 24 January 2017 and the awards were held on 26 February 2017.

Best Picture:  Moonlight

  • La La Land
  • Arrival
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Fences
  • Hell or High Water
  • Hidden Figures
  • Lion
  • Hacksaw Ridge

Most Surprising Omission:  Deadpool  *

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Handmaiden

Rank (out of 89) Among Best Picture Years:  #40

note:  No serious Oscar pundit actually thought Deadpool would be nominated.  But there’s no other film to put here.  The top eight films in total awards points all earned Best Picture nominations.  All of the DGA films were nominated.  Nine of the PGA films were nominated (Deadpool was the other).  All of the Globe – Drama films were nominated.  Deadpool was the only film to earn Best Picture nominations from more than one group and not earn an Oscar nom (PGA, Globe – Comedy).  The two BFCA nominees not to earn nominations only earned one Oscar nomination each and had been completely blanked by the BAFTAs and mostly ignored by the guilds (Loving and Sully).  Nocturnal Animals and Jackie were the only film to earn more awards points than any of the Best Picture nominees (they earned more than Hidden Figures) and neither actually earned a Best Picture nomination from any group (and neither earned even a writing nomination at the Oscars).  Based on what had happened in the race up to the day of the Oscar nominations, there just weren’t any surprising omissions for the first time in a very long time.

note on Rank:  If the Academy had nominated 8 films and had dropped Hacksaw Ridge, this year would rank 24th, just barely ahead of 2014, which did have eight nominees.

The Race:

The Original Front-Runner:

  • The Birth of a Nation
    • By the time the Oscar race began in earnest in late August / early September (when Gurus of Gold generally does their first predictions), The Birth of a Nation had already sunk.  While front-runners have gone down before (The Phantom of the Opera, Nine), to go down before the race begins is rare.  That’s because front-runners that sink are usually because there are high expectations by a film that isn’t released until late December and the film doesn’t hold up.  In this case, it was life that didn’t hold up, as a rape case that director-writer-star Nate Parker was involved in resurfaced.  Suddenly, it wasn’t about the film at all (even though it wouldn’t open until October, to fairly solid reviews).  That it had won the Audience Award at Sundance and sold for the highest amount in the festival’s history no longer mattered.  To Oscar pundits, it simply no longer existed and that was born out by the awards groups as it didn’t receive so much as a nomination in any award that I track.  I actually thought the film was very good with solid direction and performances, especially from Parker, though there were significant weaknesses in the script.  But still, none of that mattered at this point to the Oscars.

The Second Front-Runner:

  • La La Land
    • Damien Chazelle had scored a Best Picture nomination with Whiplash and it had won three Oscars.  Now he was back with a full fledged musical that everyone was talking about.  It debuted at Venice then played Telluride and Toronto and the buzz kept growing.  It earned solid box office from the second it opened and started dominating at awards groups, winning a record seven Golden Globes, the DGA, the PGA and the NYFC and the BSFC.  The buzz included talk that it might even tie the all-time record with 15 nominations (which it would need to get nominated in every category it was eligible and earn multiple Best Original Song nominations).

The Critics Darling:

  • Moonlight
    • Moonlight was riding a wave of critical raves (the best reviews of the year), combined with timely issues (growing up black and gay in the shadow of the 2016 election).  Of the six major critics groups, it won three Best Picture awards, a Supporting Actress and five Director and Supporting Actor awards.  It would only win one Golden Globe, but it would be Best Picture – Drama.

The Other Critics Darling:

  • Manchester by the Sea
    • A movie without hyphens unlike the town itself.  Brilliantly written with two amazing performances that everyone was talking about.  It would only win one Best Picture award (NBR), but numerous acting and almost all the writing awards, which definitely made it a major contender.

The Directors Who Didn’t Come Through:

  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
    • From multiple Oscar winner Ang Lee, this film sank quickly once it was released, with accolades for its cinematography and almost nothing else.
  • Silence
    • Martin Scorsese’s new film just didn’t get released early enough to generate any momentum.  Some stubbornly clung to predictions for Scorsese himself to earn an Oscar nom but it just never gained any traction and earned very few nominations at all before the Oscars.

The Late Summer Critical Fave:

  • Hell or High Water
    • Anchored by a great supporting performance from consistent nominee Jeff Bridges and a real acting turn from Chris Pine, this film seemed set for nominations before the other Oscar films got released.

The Mid-Fall Critical Fave:

  • Arrival
    • Directed by an up and coming director who was also becoming trendy (getting handed the new Blade Runner film), starring a perennial Oscar bridesmaid and getting fantastic reviews.

The Pedigree:

  • Fences
    • Adapted, by the original author before his 2005 death, from one of the most acclaimed plays of the last 50 years.  Starring two actors who had won Tonys for being in the play and directed by one of them.  Co-starring an actress who was definitely due for an Oscar.

True Stories That Stumbled:

  • Loving
    • Predicted for major Oscars across the board, Loving, once it got released, kind of got buried.  In spite of a strong showing at the BFCA, after that it never gained traction in any category outside of Actress.
  • Jackie
    • In November, predicted as a top 8 Oscar film by almost all the Gurus of Gold and it stayed there until January, when Hacksaw Ridge finally pushed it out for more most prognosticators.
  • Sully
    • Directed by Clint Eastwood with Tom Hanks and good box office.  But, after the BFCA, had almost no awards support.

True Stories That Didn’t:

  • Lion
    • Predicted strongly from the very first guesses in August and stayed true because, while it rarely won anything (only three awards total) it earned major nominations from almost every group before the Oscars.
  • Hacksaw Ridge
    • Mel Gibson’s comeback story and the Oscars love those.  Helped by strong BFCA and Globe support and a performance from Andrew Garfield that was seen by far more people than who saw Silence.

The Late Surprise:

  • Hidden Figures
    • Always on the fringes until it actually got released and started making really good box office.  At that point, helped by very strong guild support (almost half of its award nominations and all of its wins) and being timely (see the review).

So what was going to happen?  Looking back at the Gurus, they were right where I was the day of the nominations – with the same top four (La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester, Arrival) and the same next four (Hell or High Water, Lion, Fences, Hidden Figures) and the same ninth film (Hacksaw Ridge).

The Results:  A record 14 nominations.  If La La Land wasn’t already confirmed as the front-runner, it was the day of the nominations when it tied the record set by All About Eve and Titanic.  We were probably all wrong in the thought that Hacksaw would only get in if there were nine nominees since it earned a Director nomination (I had Hell as my fifth Director prediction) but it was also the only Picture nominee without a writing nom, so maybe we weren’t wrong.  It was really easy to predict all nine.  The only film to earn multiple Picture noms and not earn an Oscar nom was Deadpool, which earned Globe – Comedy and PGA noms but no one seriously expected it to earn an Oscar nom.  Nocturnal Animals, which wasn’t listed above, and Jackie tied for the most nominations among all groups without an Oscar nom and they were the top two in points but neither of them had earned a single Picture nom.  It was just too easy to predict the nominees.

But what about the winner?  The 14 noms made La La Land the frontrunner, but Moonlight actually had more Picture wins, at least until La La Land won the PGA and BAFTA.

On Oscar night, La La Land stumbled just a little, losing Editing and Sound but it had six awards to Moonlight‘s two going into Best Picture.  And then La La Land won.  Except it didn’t; Moonlight did.  And let’s try to forget that debacle ever happened, although kudos to all the filmmakers from both films, who handled that mess with grace.

The little film that didn’t, but then did!

Moonlight

  • Director:  Barry Jenkins
  • Writer:  Barry Jenkins  /  Tarell Alvin McCraney  (from McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue)
  • Producer:  Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Adele Romanski
  • Stars:  Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae
  • Studio:  A24
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Ali), Supporting Actress (Harris), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  390
  • Length:  110 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  21 October 2016
  • Box Office Gross:  $21.85 mil  (#92  –  2016)
  • Metacritic Rating:  99
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #175  (nominees)  /  #45  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Ali), Supporting Actress (Harris)
  • Nighthawk Points:  150

This film is broken into three sections, derived from an unproduced play that was designed to have three sets and three storylines going simultaneously with the viewers only gradually realizing that the main character was the same in all three stories (which is easier to do than you think since the character has different nicknames in the first two parts).  All three sections end with a thematically similar scene, of two black males, one of whom is the main character, Chiron.  In all three, the other male has a chance to make a connection to Chiron and in all three that other male has, in fact, made a connection to Chiron.  But in the first two, the other male has also failed Chiron in a very basic and important way and it is those failures that will help inform the choices that will make Chiron the man he is by the end of the film when once again there is a chance for the other male to reach out and this time he does.

In the first part, Chiron, known as Little, is a bullied, scared kid.  He finds his way into a drug den while trying to escape a bunch of kids who just want to beat the crap out of him.  They understand him in a way that he has yet to understand himself.  That’s because Chiron is gay and that makes him different from the other kids, especially from other black kids in a tough neighborhood in Miami.  There isn’t much for Chiron at home, just an overbearing mother who berates him for being gay, for being small, for being weak, for being different.  So Chiron is befriend by the drug dealer who finds him in the den, a man named Juan who struggles in his own way to do the right thing at times but nonetheless can’t escape the fact of what he does.  He is played by Mahershala Ali in a fantastic performance.  He’s the kind of man who wants to cut off a woman who does drugs because it’s the right thing to do but can’t escape that she is his customer base.  He wants to stand by Chiron’s side and protect him and he has a conversation with him about a specific word that is remarkable in its frankness and gentleness but in the end, it is undercut by the question that Chiron asks him.  Juan has tried to help him and yet, he knows that in a fundamental way he has also failed Chiron.

In the second part, Chiron is now an awkward teen known mainly as Black to his best friend Kevin.  Kevin is the closest thing Chiron has.  Yes, there is his mother, but she’s now not just a junkie but also selling her body.  She is the one actor who moves through all three stories, played in a powerhouse performance by Naomie Harris.  She hates her son for what he is and almost certainly hates herself for what she is and for hating her son in the first place.  So Chiron has Kevin and that’s it.  And Kevin offers him an act of intimacy that is one of the few times in his life that someone has done something for Chiron.  But in the end, that’s not enough, because Kevin isn’t strong enough to not be part of the pack of bullies that beat down Chiron and when Chiron finally strikes back, slamming a chair across the back of the main bully and is being escorted out by the cops, Kevin knows that there is nothing he can do for his friend.  He has already failed him.  They share a look and then Chiron is gone.

In prison, Chiron learns a trade.  It’s an illegal trade and it’s a horrible one and you would think he would learn from the lesson of his mother and Juan (who is dead by the time of the second part, presumably because of violence) but it’s now all that he knows how to do.  He has marginal contact with his mother but she’s just another burden on him.  So, when Kevin reaches out to him, perhaps looking for some redemption for his moment of failure, Chiron decides to connect with him.  What follows and concludes the film is a stark and honest conversation between the two men and a revelation between the two of them.

At the end of the film, when Chiron once again seeks out a connection to another human being, this time someone answers.  It is not enough to overcome the lifetime of despair and misery and rejection that has filled Chiron’s life, but it might be a start.  The person making that connection is no longer failing him at the same time.  Then we are left with a single image to conclude the film, a young Chiron standing at the water where Juan took him when he was a child and he looks forward and then looks back.  And maybe that look back, just after he has finally found someone who has not failed him is a look of hope for something different than what has already come.

Just sitting here uploading this poster, my left hand started tapping out those opening notes of the score.

La La Land

  • Director:  Damien Chazelle
  • Writer:  Damien Chazelle
  • Producer:  Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt
  • Stars:  Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
  • Studio:  Summit
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Gosling), Actress (Stone), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Production Design, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Original Song (“City of Stars”), Original Song (“Audition (Fools Who Dream)”)
  • Oscar Points:  535
  • Length:  128 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  9 December 2016
  • Box Office Gross:  $151.10 mil  (#19  –  2016)
  • Metacritic Rating:  93
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #56  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Gosling), Actress (Stone), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Original Song (“Another Day of Sun”), Original Song (“City of Stars”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  650

I had a day off from work because I had to take my mom to the airport.  So, after dropping her off, I headed into to Boston and sat down for a morning showing of La La Land, which had finally made it to Boston theaters.  I was less than two minutes into the film when I realized I had made a mistake.  I should have gotten a babysitter and seen this with Veronica.  Some 20 minutes later, when the lead couple, who have had two, very brief, rather unpleasant run-ins, finally really meet, with one of the funniest uses of a song in recent years, I definitely realized that I needed to see this with Veronica, preferably in the theater where all of its glorious cinematography and choreography would be magnified, so I called a friend and asked her if she could watch Thomas the next night so that Veronica and I could go see it together.  I said nothing to Veronica about how I felt about this film.  I waited until after we had left the theater together the next night and asked her opinion before I mentioned two things.  The first was that I thought this was the best film since Lincoln and the second best film since Return of the King.  The second was that this film ranked just behind West Side Story and Singin in the Rain as the third best movie Musical of all-time (if you’re counting The Wizard of Oz as a Kids film).

As the film was rocketing towards film awards history, both good (a record 7 Globe wins, a record tying 14 Oscar noms) and bad (being told it won Best Picture only to have that corrected) I went to see it again because this film filled me with sheer, utter joy.  The first thing that did that was the music and that’s an incredible thing because, and I can not stress this enough, I hate jazz.  I didn’t come out of the movie liking jazz like Emma Stone’s Mia.  I came out of the film loving the music for this film (Veronica was supposed to buy me the soundtrack one day and accidentally bought the score and she thought, when I pointed it out, that I would want her to return it, but I kept the score and instead also bought the soundtrack with the songs) but that didn’t make me love jazz.  I loved what this film did with music, from the opening notes of “Another Day of Sun” (my favorite song in the film), through to the constant use of “City of Stars”, to the wonderful and funny “A Lovely Night” and the moving “Audition (Fools Who Dream)”.  This was the third of the three films that I saw in a couple of months that made me buy the soundtrack and that started filling up my iTunes (the others were Sing Street and Moana, and though I saw the films spaced over a month, the songs blur together because those other two soundtracks were both ones I gave to Veronica for Christmas).  In fact, “Another Day of Sun” fills me with so much joy, both in those opening notes, in the song itself, and in the glorious way it is filmed and then the ending moment, with the segue into the title and the hilarious caption “Winter”, that when we watched the film on DVD last night, after the film was over, I moved back to that first scene and watched the number again.  There are very few films of the over 14,000 I have seen (see below) that have an opening scene that has won me over this much.  It’s easy to see how these songwriters have so much talent that they can bring songs to life even if there’s not much there (not a commentary on this film, but on the rather predictable and somewhat cliched plot of Dear Evan Hanson, which is probably going to dominate the Tony noms which crushed it at the Tonys and which really has wonderful songs).

Of course, there are lots of films that have great music and that’s not enough to make them great films in and of themselves.  This film has so much more than that.  Indeed, the most humorous (and possibly sexiest) moments of the film use music that wasn’t even written for the film, but happens when Mia, who has been beaten down a bit by life at this point, meets the man who blew her off when his music had genuinely moved her and she decides to take some wicked awesome revenge.  That’s what leads into the romance of the film, when two people who are both struggling with their artistic intentions get a chance to meet and discover what they might have in common.  Of course, that leads to their first number together, a beautiful song which adds some lovely dancing (and makes me think that this number and “Another Day of Sun” should have earned this film a special Oscar just for choreography).  Their romance works because it feels like two real life people who are getting to know each other (it’s great how close attention that Sebastian pays to everything Mia says in their first real conversation, walking on the movie lot, that he is able to recite so much of it later – possibly my favorite moment in the film aside from that opening number is when Mia asks him how he tracked her down).  They are likable people in tough professions that are just hoping to succeed and we are hoping that they succeed together.

But, and this is a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film, though I dearly hope you have because this film is so good that everyone should see it, they don’t succeed together.  At the end of the film we get a beautiful epilogue that shows what might have happened, but it’s just the kind of wish fulfillment that two people who see each other after a long separation might indulge in.  But does that mean that this film doesn’t have a happy ending?  This is what happens to a lot of people.  These two people both found their dreams fulfilled; unfortunately, they didn’t find their dreams fulfilled together.  Does that make it a happy ending?  Does it make it a sad ending?  I prefer to think of the former.  I look at that smile of Emma Stone and it reminds me of another film that ended with an Emma Stone smile that lead to that very same question.  In both cases, I find her smile to be a sign of a happy ending.  We don’t always get what we want, but sometimes we find that we get what we need.  What I needed was a film like this, a film so filled with joy, so filled with wonderful music, with two wonderful performances, with cinematography that takes your breath away (like the man leaping through the air into the pool), with glorious colors that fill the screen with its art direction and costumes, with direction that that makes you understand that a new star has absolutely been born.  Watching a film like this, for me, is like another day of sun.

“If I had known then, what I know now.” – “Red Mosquito” (Pearl Jam)

Arrival

  • Director:  Denis Villeneuve
  • Writer:  Eric Heisserer  (from the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang)
  • Producer:  Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, David Linde
  • Stars:  Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Production Design, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  265
  • Length:  116 min
  • Genre:  Sci-Fi
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  11 November 2016
  • Box Office Gross:  $100.54 mil  (#29  –  2016)
  • Metacritic Rating:  81
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #158  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Adams), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  325

So many films, within a few minutes, we can tell what they will be about.  La La Land is a glorious musical of sunshine and joy (you might notice that they stop singing when they are unhappy).  Fences is about relationships and how we build fences within them and around them.  Hell or High Water is a heist film.  But Arrival is not a film like this.  It defies expectations.  In fact, watching the first few minutes, I was reminded of Gravity, of what we learn about Sandra Bullock’s character’s life, about the daughter she had and lost and how that has informed what she is doing now.  And in the course of those 90 minutes in space, she learns to live again, to find a way that, at the end of that film, she is reaching for life, struggling with all her might to continue to live even though what she loved most was already gone.  Watching the opening minutes of Arrival, with Amy Adams’ Louise playing with her daughter (her use of the “tickle gun” was particularly poignant for me, as it’s a rare day when I don’t take Thomas to the “tickle farm”) and watching that daughter grow sick, I thought we would be on similar ground.  Then we move from that story into Louise’s life and the way she’s a bit distant from everyone and we wonder what we are seeing.  Then the story begins and takes us places that we could not have imagined.

At what point might we make First Contact?  It’s conceivable that we never will, that the distances to traverse are too great and that whatever intelligent life is out there might never find its way to us (or us to them).  Of course there is something out there, because it’s ridiculous to suppose that this is the only planet in the universe in which things worked out to develop intelligent life.  I am certain that somewhere out there some planet has life that is far more intelligent than ours.  But we don’t know when, if ever, that connection will be made.  So we imagine it.  Our imagination might find us going out into unchartered space or it might be alien ships that decided to rain down destruction on the White House.  Or it might be like this – aliens that come and learn slowly how to communicate with us so that we might find a connection.  In that communication we might misunderstand words or not realize that words can mean the same things or different things.  I stress the importance of language all the time; I refuse to continue conversations when people turn nouns into verbs and I refuse to acknowledge the existence of ridiculous made-up words in popular culture (in reading a paper for some college students a few years ago my most critical comment was “for the love of god, don’t use database as a verb”).  Language matters and how we use it matters.  Is that the word for weapon or tool?  One can mean the other.  As is pointed out in the film, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and of course, it’s easy enough for a hammer to be a tool and a weapon.

This is where we find Louise.  She is a linguist, and a good one (getting back to the language issue – she lets the Army colonel who is trying to recruit her discuss the Sanskirt word for “war” with the next linguist on his list and that linguist declares it means “an argument” while Louise says it means “a desire for more cows”), so when twelve alien ships land across the world and the American military is headed for the one in Montana, they take her along.  They need to communicate.  Communication is the first step for anything.  And she does learn to communicate and what she learns from those aliens and what they learn from her is extraordinary.  It sets her on a journey that I will not begin to describe here because it would cheat you out of what is one of the most extraordinary films of the year.  How, oh how, can Hacksaw Ridge win the Oscar for Editing when you have a film like Arrival among the nominees, where the Editing is so very important to understanding how the film works.  Because once you stop seeing things in linear terms, anything becomes possible.

What would make you chose a name for your child based on a linguistic trick?  When you know certain things and how they will come about, because you want things to have no endings or beginnings, to look the same in one direction as it does from another.  People always want to know what the future holds – so many Fantasy and Sci-Fi films revolve around that concept, but what would you really do if you knew?  Would you do anything differently?  Or would you, as Louise says, “Despite knowing the journey… and where it leads… I embrace it… and I welcome every moment of it.”

Arrival didn’t have a clear road to the Oscars.  It failed to earn a Picture, Director or Screenplay nomination at the Globes.  Amy Adams, in spite of easily being in the Top 5 at the Consensus Awards and giving a performance that rivaled Emma Stone for the best of the year, failed to earn a nomination.  Its hopes for winning Best Adapted Screenplay, like it did at the WGA, were dashed by having Moonlight be classified at the Oscars as an adapted script.  But it quietly kept going and years from now, I suspect it will be remembered as one of the most thoughtful, fascinating, and easily one of the best films of the year.

Sometimes people make choices to try and bring us back to life.

Manchester by the Sea

  • Director:  Kenneth Lonergan
  • Writer:  Kenneth Lonergan
  • Producer:  Lauren Beck, Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Kevin J. Walsh
  • Stars:  Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
  • Studio:  Roadside Attractions
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Affleck), Supporting Actor (Hedges), Supporting Actress (Williams)
  • Oscar Points:  305
  • Length:  135 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  18 November 2016
  • Box Office Gross:  $47.69 mil  (#69  –  2016)
  • Metacritic Rating:  96
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #160  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Affleck), Supporting Actor (Hedges), Supporting Actress (Williams), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  330

Lee Chandler doesn’t understand.  His brother has died and Lee has returned to his hometown to wrap up his brother’s affairs, which includes, for the moment, looking after his 16 year old nephew, Patrick.  But Lee is hoping to just get things done in a week or so and then return to Boston, where he lives in one room and works as a janitor, keeping very much to himself except for those low times where he picks fights in bars.  But when Lee goes to the lawyer to read the will, he discovers that he has been named Patrick’s guardian.  It’s true that Patrick’s mother is an alcoholic and a mess and is no longer in the picture and that Lee’s uncle, who he thought was supposed to get custody, has moved to somewhere in the midwest, somewhere crazy like Wisconsin or Minnesota.  But that doesn’t mean that Lee was supposed to be placed in charge.  His brother Joe couldn’t have really meant that, could he?  The lawyer is stunned, having assumed that Joe discussed this with his brother.  Lee is stunned because he can’t imagine that his brother could have ever thought that Lee would be okay with this.

As things unfold, not just in this scene (which is interlaced with flashbacks that help us to really get an understanding of Lee and what has happened to him), but through the film, we get an understanding of why Lee is so broken and, perhaps, we understand why Joe would have done this.  In fact, I think the audience gets a better idea of what Joe was trying to do than Lee himself does.  Because Lee is broken, the kind of man who will reach for a gun and try to end his life, only to be stopped by the men around him, the kind of man who has to promise his brother that he will call him from the motel by nine o’clock to let him know that he’s okay, that has to be told by his brother that they are going to buy some furniture for his room, because if he’s going to live in one room below street level, it will at least have some damn furniture in it.  Joe understands what Lee cannot, that Lee has lost most of what mattered to him in life and that it was through his own negligence, but that Lee himself might not be completely lost.  Because Lee does still love his brother and does love his nephew.  Joe has been suffering from congestive heart failure and knows that if he isn’t around then it might be the best thing for Lee to take care of Patrick.  Not for Patrick’s sake.  For Lee’s sake.  Because it is the last chance for Lee to connect with another human being in life in a way that doesn’t involve a drunken fist to the face.  Joe loves his brother and is trying to save him.

All of this unfolds slowly, with scenes moving back and forth in time as we slowly start to understand the situation as a whole.  It works so well because the flashbacks are never confusing.  We understand what is going on and we get the information that we need when we need it.  Slowly we start to learn about Lee’s life before he left Manchester and it quickly becomes apparent what must have happened to make him leave in the first place.  The editing is part of the brilliance of the film and is a reminder of films like Lone Star and The English Patient that also give us information across time that help us understand what is better happening in the present.  Which, of course, begs the question of how the hell the Academy didn’t manage to nominate this film for Best Editing.

But it did manage to nominate it for Best Actor, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress and there is good reason for all of these.  The three performances that make up the nominations are all outstanding, three damaged people who are trying to figure out how to go with life even though life keeps getting in the way.  The least surprising of these is Michelle Williams, who has been one of the best actresses at work for well over a decade now and her role is also the smallest, as Lee’s ex-wife, struggling to overcome what has happened and the gulf of grief that opened in their lives.  Perhaps the most surprising is Lucas Hedges, who has had small roles in Wes Anderson films (ironically, one of his girlfriends in the film is played by Kara Hayward, who was the lead in Moonrise Kingdom that Hedges was chasing across the island) but is magnificent here, especially in the scene where he freaks out because he goes to get something out of the freezer and can’t cope with the fact that his father will be kept in cold storage until the spring and the ground can thaw enough for him to be buried (yeah, so gonna make certain I don’t die in Massachusetts in winter).  And of course there is Casey Affleck, who managed to win just about every award on the year except SAG (breaking Bill Murray’s Consensus points record from 2003 for points without the SAG win, a record that covers all four acting categories).  Affleck plays well in the flashback scenes as a man with a sense of humor and a typical Boston guy and yet, is turned only a little when he is a broken man whose only human contact is those bar fights.

Manchester by the Sea, as painful as it is, is a reminder of what happens when we love someone and we lose that person.  It’s a reminder of what happens when that person is gone and how life continues to struggle on, how the people react to us, how we react to them.  Joe (the fourth main actor, played by Kyle Chandler in quite a good performance), even after his death, is hoping to help his brother, because he loves his brother and is hoping, that just maybe, he can help his brother reconnect to the human race.  And, depending on how you view the ending, perhaps he has managed to do that after all.

note: One little bit of trivia that has nothing to do with the film itself.  This was film number 14,000 in my own personal spreadsheet.  Yes, not counting documentaries, television or short films, I have now seen 14,000 films.

For those of you who never got a chance to see it on stage, here is one of the best plays of the 20th Century.

Fences

  • Director:  Denzel Washington
  • Writer:  August Wilson  (from his play)
  • Producer:  Todd Black, Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington
  • Stars:  Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Washington), Supporting Actress (Davis)
  • Oscar Points:  185
  • Length:  138 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Play Adaptation)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  16 December 2016
  • Box Office Gross:  $57.68 mil  (#57  –  2016)
  • Metacritic Rating:  79
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #14  (year)  /  #232  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress (Davis)
  • Nighthawk Points:  135

I used to know a guy like Troy Maxsin.  He was smart and he could be charming and funny.  He was also prideful to a fault and he had a deep well of anger at the world that he could draw upon at a moment’s notice.  He had that experience of bitterness at the world and it’s quite likely that racism (like Troy, he was black) had played a considerable part of his life.  But for him, it was never about what he might have done wrong, in his personal or professional choices.  It was all about what the world had done wrong to him.  He was so full of anger and pride that he never stopped to consider the moments when he might have been wrong; he was so determined to see himself as wronged that any mistakes he might have made faded into the background of his own mind.  No matter what the world might have done to him, there was no question that he was also getting in the way of his own success and couldn’t see it.

All of that is to say that Troy Maxsin, as written by August Wilson, and as played on screen by Denzel Washington has problems and can be an unpleasant and violent man, but he’s absolutely realistic.  He is the product of the world around him and also the product of what he has done to himself.  Troy is a garbage collector in Pittsburgh, a man who might have had a chance to be a big time ballplayer if he had come along a little bit later, although it’s hard to know how talented he truly was because he’s long past that point.  He’s developed the kind of deep well of anger and bitterness that when it’s pointed out that he had to wait for Jackie Robinson, that he tries to claim that he’s known teams that Jackie couldn’t make (which, of course, is ridiculous, because there have been very few men as all-around talented on a baseball field in the history of the game as Jackie, who could run, hit, hit for power and field so well that he played a full season’s worth at four different positions – if I were drafting a baseball team, he would be my first choice, even over Willie Mays, because you could put Jackie anywhere on the field and anywhere in the lineup and he would be great).  Now Troy’s bitterness is hitting out at his son, a son who has a chance to be successful in football and Troy is holding back, either because, as Troy would have you believe, because the white man won’t let his son succeed anyhow, or, if you believe his son, because Troy is bitter at his success.

The play had originally been written back in 1983 and then made it to Broadway in 1987 with a powerhouse performance from James Earl Jones that won the Tony.  It was so lauded as a play that it not only won the Pulitzer and the Tony, but just six years later, I was already studying it in college and realizing that it was one of the best plays of the century and that it made August Wilson perhaps the best playwright working in America at the time.  Wilson himself would write a script before his death in 2005, but because he insisted that it should be directed by an African-American, it kept sitting on the shelf.  After starring in a revival of the play in 2010 with Viola Davis, Denzel decided that he would direct it himself (and star) and bring his co-stars with him (which made sense since Denzel and Davis had both won Tonys).

The result is this film, with a sure directing hand from Denzel, a first rate script, of course, because it’s a rather straightforward adaptation of one of the best plays of my lifetime written by the original playwright and containing two powerhouse acting performances.  Davis wins the Nighthawk Award and if Denzel doesn’t, it’s a really, really close call between him and Casey Affleck.  We feel the pain between these people, partially because the performances are so good, partially because, with their time together on Broadway, the actors had really honed their chemistry, and partially because Wilson did such a good job of bringing such realistic characters to life in the first place.

Congrats, Chris Pine. You have been upgraded from “movie star” to “actor”.

Hell or High Water

  • Director:  David MacKenzie
  • Writer:  Taylor Sheridan
  • Producer:  Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn
  • Stars:  Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges
  • Studio:  Lionsgate
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Bridges), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  145
  • Length:  102 min
  • Genre:  Crime (Heist)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  12 August 2016
  • Box Office Gross:  $27.00 mil  (#95  –  2016)
  • Metacritic Rating:  88
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #15  (year)  /  #237  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Bridges), Supporting Actor (Foster)
  • Nighthawk Points:  100

The ending of Hell or High Water reminded me of the end of Monster’s Ball.  They might, at first glance, to seem very different, but there is one remarkable similarity and it is the credit of both films.  In both films, we have two people who have suffered losses, who are struggling to make it past what has happened over the course of the film.  One of the characters absolutely would be believable in reacting with pain and grief and violence.  Yet, in the earlier film, we get no real dialogue at all, but two characters who manage to find a measure of peace in each other as they sit together on the steps and eat their ice cream.  In this film, we have two men who do have a dialogue, who manage to talk to each other and perhaps even find a measure of understanding in each other.  Their conversation is interrupted but they make a connection and agree to continue the conversation at a later point.  You might see that as violence coming from one or both of them in the future, but what I see is two men who understand what has happened and why and want to move past the pain and the grief and, most importantly, the violence.  That’s why they are talking.  That’s the whole point of talking.  It’s a great scene and a great ending and absolutely the right one.

When Chris Pine was cast as Jim Kirk in Star Trek in 2009, I didn’t really know who he was and I wasn’t impressed by him.  He was clearly one of the weak links in the film.  Over the next two films, he grew a bit into the role but he was still one of the weaker links in the rebooted franchise.  I kept waiting for him to show that he could be a real actor.  And yet, this film, released just a few weeks after the most recent Star Trek film and making, in its whole theatrical run, less than half of what the mediocre Star Trek Beyond made in its opening weekend, Pine finally showed that he could act.  It’s a little unfortunate that in this film he is paired with Ben Foster, who has been proving as far back as 3:10 to Yuma that he is a gifted actor, especially when given a free hand of violence and chased by Jeff Bridges, who has been a great actor since before Pine was even born.  Nonetheless, Pine really comes through as a man who is desperate to set up something for the future of his sons.  He knows that his life has been kind of a waste and so he joins his violent brother in a desperate scheme to rob some banks.  I won’t explain precisely why they are doing the robberies or what their overall plan is, because I think it’s one of the more interesting things in the film.

There are hints and allusions in this film to other films.  When you see the two men on the run and a smart, elderly marshall going after them, you might think of A Perfect World, one of the most under-appreciated films of the 90’s.  Or you might think of Sugarland Express, another film about people on the run in Texas.  Or even Heat, with the lawman trying to stop the robbery before it happens by studying the previous robberies and figuring out the pattern, as well as having a fascinating conversation between the criminal and the cop that doesn’t end in violence.  But this film also becomes its own film.  It creates real characters, fills them with fascinating actors who give it their all and gives them a very smart script to work with.

The Academy missed the boat a bit in the Best Editing category.  They went for the over-blown editing in the war film (Hacksaw Ridge) while passing up the amazing work in Manchester by the Sea that helps the film unfold upon us.  But when I wrote down my guesses in all the categories so that it would easier to mark down the actual nominees on the morning of the nominee announcement, I put this film, one of the few I had seen by that point, down in the Best Editing category even though neither the BFCA or the BAFTAs had nominated it.  It turned out that I was right.  The editing is part of makes this film so good, holding everything together, moving back and forth between the robberies and the law, keeping us invested in the story and wondering if we should be rooting for the criminals or the cops (made much complicated by Foster’s character).  In the end, what we get is a very well-made, intelligent, fascinating film that is definitely among the best of the year.  It might not make my Top 5, but I have no problem seeing it in the Oscar lineup.

Pretty standard film. Very extraordinary women.

Hidden Figures

  • Director:  Theodore Melfi
  • Writer:  Allison Schroeder  /  Theodore Melfi  (from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly)
  • Producer:  Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams
  • Stars:  Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Spencer)
  • Oscar Points:  120
  • Length:  127 min
  • Genre:  Drama (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  25 December 2016
  • Box Office Gross:  $169.34 mil  (#14  –  2016)
  • Metacritic Rating:  74
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #33  (year)  /  #347  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actress (Spencer)
  • Nighthawk Points:  30

I am, by experience, a cynic (I was going to say by nature, but, like most cynics, I am, by nature, a romantic and have had that beaten into cynicism).  So I could say that the Best Picture nomination for this film, a film about three remarkable people who happen to be 1 – women, 2 – black and 3 – mathematicians was a response to the election of a man a month before this film was released who is 1 – a misogynist, 2 – a racist and 3 – an idiot.  But that wouldn’t be a cynical thing to do; it would be a churlish thing to do.  This film is a solidly made film with very good acting, and a compelling mostly true story (true in essence with a lot of changes to make it more Hollywood); this is, essentially, the kind of film that the Academy has been nominating for Best Picture since its inception (or, more precisely, since 1936, when it nominated The Story of Louis Pasteur and gave the Oscar to The Great Ziegfeld).  To suggest that it was nominated because of the election is to ignore the fact that this film, while not, in my opinion, good enough to merit the nomination (but no more so really than Lion and it’s a lot better than Hacksaw Ridge) is perfectly in line with the history that the Academy has embraced and it shouldn’t be viewed as a token.  That it became the highest grossing of the nominees is probably due in no small part to the timing of its release but good for this film to be able to get people to go see a film about female black mathematicians at a time when all three of those things are being deliberately undervalued by people in power.

This film contains all the tropes that you would expect from a film that is about a period when blacks were kept down by the government, by other people, by expectations.  So we have a supervisor who says that she has no prejudice against the women working for her just because they’re black (the person she tells this to responds ‘I think you believe that too’).  We have a man who doesn’t look down at the main mathematician, Katharine Goble because she is black but because she’s a woman.  We have a boss who just cares about getting the job done and will tear down a sign and prejudice in his way.  None of these are historically accurate but they make people feel good to see them on film.

The more important thing about this film, though, is the performances from the three main actresses in this film.  Taraji P. Henson gets to really show off a very different range than what she shows on Empire with her brilliant Katherine, the one person who can be counted on by John Glenn to get him up to space and back home again safely.  Octavia Spencer holds in her anger much better than she did in Oscar winning performance in The Help as a supervisor who has all the responsibility but the not the title or the pay.  Janelle Monae gets to prove that she’s not just a beauty and a singer but a serious actress as well (which she also proved in Moonlight), the most assured of the three, working her way up with her education and fighting for her right to do so.

Hidden Figures is a solid *** film and if it doesn’t rise any higher, it’s because the writing and the direction don’t take it any higher.  But it’s a fascinating film with a compelling story and one that deserves to be told.  It’s not as good a film as The Right Stuff, partially at least, because we don’t get that sense of heroism (also partially because its writing, direction, cinematography, sound and music don’t match up) but this is the companion story to that one; heroes rarely get to where they were without someone guiding their hand.  In The Right Stuff, you got to see how Yeager’s bold determination paved the way for the Mercury Seven but here, we get to see how these mathematicians, who went unknown for so long, were the ones who made certain that those seven men had any chance to strut that right stuff to begin with.

Now that’s how you use Google.

Lion

  • Director:  Garth Davis
  • Writer:  Luke Davies  (from the book Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly)
  • Producer:  Iain Canning, Angie Fielder, Emile Sherman
  • Stars:  Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Sunny Pawar, David Wenham
  • Studio:  The Weinstein Company
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Patel), Supporting Actress (Kidman), Cinematography, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  120 min
  • Genre:  Drama (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  25 November 2016
  • Box Office Gross:  $51.72 mil  (#66  –  2016)
  • Metacritic Rating:  69
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #34  (year)  /  #349  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Patel)
  • Nighthawk Points:  60

Two boys have been up on a train, stealing coal.  Part of it is a matter of survival, making some money when you’re on the bad side of the poverty line.  But part of it is just fun, two brothers kind of at play with each other.  Back at the train station, the little one is tired and falls asleep.  When he wakes, his brother is gone.  So, he gets on a train to find him.  When he wakes up, he is in Calcutta.  He is a thousand miles away from home (though he doesn’t know that) and he doesn’t know the language.  He is lost and can never find his way home.

But in the time that he grows up, from 1987 to 2007, the world changes.  He is adopted by a nice couple in Australia and is living the life of a young adult when he first hears about Google Earth and realizes that maybe he can make a try at finding where he was from.  He remember the land, he remembers images, perhaps he can figure out where he came from?

All of this makes for the kind of film that often wins awards (and did – it won the BAFTA for Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor) and that the Academy loves.  But how good of a film does it make?  Well, a bit of a mixed one.  The first third of the film, dealing with the boy on his own and what he goes through before being adopted is sad but it isn’t all that compelling.  The film definitely picks up a notch when he arrives in Australia and gets adopted by David Wenham (not much in the film) and Nicole Kidman (a strong performance).  But it goes up yet another notch when 20 years pass and now we have Dev Patel, giving a performance that far surpasses what he did in Slumdog Millionaire.  He obsesses upon this goal, trying to find where he comes from, where he can hopefully return to, in search of his birth family.  He is passionate, desperate, driven and while the writing and direction of the film can’t quite keep up with his performance, Patel himself keeps things moving forward.

In the end, Lion is a good film, but like so many other inspiring true stories, never really rises above the level of a high *** film.  It takes too long to find its footing and spends too much time with imaginary visions of his lost childhood and his distant memories.  When it focuses on Patel, that’s when it finds the right step and really hits you at the gut level.

You know what, whoever wrote that tagline? Fuck you. Heroes don’t need guns – that’s often part of what makes them heroes.

Hacksaw Ridge

  • Director:  Mel Gibson
  • Writer:  Robert Schenkkan  /  Andrew Knight
  • Producer:  Bill Mechanic, David Permut
  • Stars:  Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving
  • Studio:  Lionsgate
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Garfield), Editing, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  240
  • Length:  131 min
  • Genre:  War (World War II)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  4 November 2016
  • Box Office Gross:  $67.20 mil  (#46  –  2016)
  • Metacritic Rating:  71
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #110  (year)  /  #473  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Points:  n/a

There’s a moment an hour and thirteen minutes into this film that highlights the problems with the film.  The problems of the film are also tied into its achievements.  The men are crawling along, into a possible attack.  One man puts his hand on what he thinks is a dead body and the body sits up and screams.  The other man screams as well.  Then they are cut down in a hail of bullets.  It is grotesque and overwhelming and very much the directorial hand of Mel Gibson.  It’s the same hand that has a man, less than a minute later, carry half a body in front of him so that he can run forward gunning down Japanese.  It’s the same hand that, towards the end of the film, has a shot of the hero, finally having climbed down from the ridge, being washed off with a bucket of water.  It goes into slow-motion as this man, who has refused to carry a gun or harm anyone, has the blood washing off him in the morning sunlight.  This is a film about a man who stood up to serve his country in a time of war, had the courage to stand up for his beliefs and not use a gun in war, but is overwhelmingly violent and never shies away from showing that on-screen.

That alone would be enough of an irony – the glory of war onscreen in a story that is ostensibly about a man who refused to even pick up a gun.  What increases the irony is that the film, as a film, only really starts to pick up once it lands in the war itself.  The war scenes are, well, I was about to write “the best”, but that’s the wrong way to describe it.  The war scenes are the most artistically depicted.  They are a reminder that sometimes Mel Gibson can actually be a director with real vision.  Braveheart, for which he won the Oscar, was not a good film and it wasn’t even well-directed.  But, in the middle of the overwhelming violence in both The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, you could see a director who knew what he was doing, even if what he was doing was repulsive.  It is in those war scenes that the film comes closest to earning its other Oscar nominations, the ones for Editing, Sound, Sound Editing, and most importantly, Actor.  But it takes half the movie before we get to the war.  First we have to go through all the scenes at home and learn who Desmond Doss is, how he came to have those beliefs, and what he is fighting for.  Unfortunately, those scenes aren’t very good.  They’re cliched, they’re poorly written and the acting isn’t even particularly good.  In fact, while Gibson clearly shows he knows how to direct action scenes, it is still questionable how well he can direct actors.  The one acting triumph in the film, that of Andrew Garfield, seems to be a measure of Garfield’s talent (and inferior to his performance in Silence).  It is really in the war scenes where Garfield’s performance finds its stride.  Before that, he is hampered by the weaknesses of the script.  Even the basic training scenes aren’t enough, because they’re just unbelievable in any way that officers wouldn’t know that this soldier has rights and that a medic can serve without carrying a weapon (the Geneva Convention long predates the actions in this film) and the idea that his father comes into the middle of his court-martial to point that out is just ridiculous.

The sad thing, though, is that this film doesn’t even show what Gibson could be capable of if someone could curb his tendency towards extreme violence in his films.  That’s because those scenes outside the war are so clunky, so cliche.  Gibson doesn’t do well with them; he only finds his stride when he gets into combat.  So if we give him an entire film without combat it doesn’t look like there’s much to hope for.

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