nomadland-top

I didn’t feel the mixing of the two real actors with the amateurs worked but clearly I’m in the minority on that.

The 91st annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2020.  The nominations were announced on 15 March 2021 and the awards were held on 25 April 2021.

Best Picture:  Nomadland

  • The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Minari
  • The Father
  • Sound of Metal
  • Mank

Most Surprising Omission:  One Night in Miami…

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Personal History of David Copperfield

Rank (out of 93) Among Best Picture Years:  #45

The Race:  You can go here for a detailed description of the race as it unfolded from late November when the first awards came out up until the day before the Oscar nominations were announced.

The Results:  Reactions on nomination morning are here.  There are also reactions in the comments to the awards themselves.

When Nomadland lost Adapted Screenplay to start the night and then both Cinematography (surprising) and Editing (less so), it looked shaky.  But then when Picture was moved before the two lead acting awards, it looked like the show’s producers figured it was a gimme for Picture and that Ma Rainey would take Actor and Actress leaving Nomadland to be the only Picture / Director winner with no other wins.  But of course, that wasn’t the case and Nomadland still became unique (the only film to win Picture, Director and Actress but no other awards) but not completely unique (joined Gentleman’s Agreement in winning Picture, Director and an acting award).

The Ranking:  The ranking, as always, comes from dividing the film average by the average of the films where they land in the all-time rank of Best Picture nominees.  The film average is 87.88 which is almost **** and ranks at #24.  It lands there just between the previous two years with no dud like Vice or Joker but no films rising too high.  Trial, the best of the nominees, would have been the sixth best in 2019 and the fifth best in 2018.  Promising Young Woman, the second best of the nominees, wouldn’t have been the second best in any year going back until you hit 1999, well back into the 5 BP Era.  That leads to a lower ranking in the rank average.  With no film in the Top 150 (though also none below 375), it ranks at #49 there with a 252.25 score.  That leads to the full average of 2.87, good for 45th all-time, between 1948 and 1977.  It’s a few spots below 2016 but a few above 2011 so it’s not the weakest of the latest expanded BP era and is still better than any year from the pre 5 BP Era.  If next year’s rules were in place (back to 10 nominees) and if they had chosen One Night and Ma Rainey, it still would have only raised it about a dozen spots, above 2016 but still just below 2015.

nomadland

Not my #1 film but definitely a contender for my #1 poster.

Nomadland

  • Director:  Chloé Zhao
  • Writer:  Chloé Zhao (based on the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder)
  • Producer:  Frances McDormand  /  Peter Spears  /  Mollye Asher  /  Dan Janvey  /  Chloé Zhao
  • Stars:  Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
  • Studio:  Disney  (Searchlight Pictures)
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (McDormand), Editing, Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  350
  • Length:  107 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  19 February 2021
  • Box Office Gross:  $2,143,000  (#18 – 2021; through April)
  • Metacritic Rating:  93
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #27  (year)  /  #310  (nominees)  /  #65  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (McDormand)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35

It can be fun to go against the grain on a film that you feel didn’t get the appreciation it deserved.  When the future review of The Personal History of David Copperfield comes out, I will delight in explaining why it is my #1 film of the year and what people missed in it.  It is much harder and much less enjoyable to go against what everyone feels is the grain on a film and the harder part and the less enjoyable part are two different things.  I’m not talking about an Oscar winner like Titanic (a clearly populist film) or Green Book or Crash (films that were immediately and widely criticized for their wins).  I’m talking about a film like Vertigo which a large contingent of people have held up to be one of the greatest films of all-time and I write to explain why I think it’s great but not that kind of great.  Or a film like Mad Max: Fury Road or Nashville where people obsessively try to explain why they think it’s great when I’m not even sure I think it qualifies as good.  In the middle is a film like Nomadland which I think has some very good qualities about it, but, for a few reasons can’t make the leap into being a great film.  That’s tricky because I am writing this review in the wake of seeing the film a second time, to confirm how I feel how about it, but also in the wake of it winning the Oscar just a few hours before and the internet being awash with articles about how it’s the film of the time, how it’s great that it won.  The irony, of course, is that my guess is that most people haven’t seen it and never will see it, that even if hadn’t been 2020, this would be the lowest grossing Best Picture winner for any winner for which we have reliable information.  Not that box office gross is any indication of quality as Forrest Gump and Titanic were massive hits while Birdman was the second lowest grossing winner since 1977 in spite of almost 40 years of inflation.

But Nomadland is in a weird quasi-zone for me.  Through its long history, the Academy had tended to pick films that either I thought were great (****) or not even good enough to deserve talk of a nomination let alone winning the Oscar (*** or less).  Only five Oscar winners earn ***.5 from me, none since 1982 and only two since 1949 (Rocky, Gandhi).  Most films aren’t low **** either (of the 63 great films only nine earn an 88-91 from me and only one of those since 1988).  So the winners tend to be either worthy of the award whether it’s my winner or not or not even remotely worthy of consideration.  And then there’s Nomadland.

Nomadland is the story of Fern.  Fern has been living in a company town in Nevada and her life has been cut out from under her.  Her husband recently died and in the wake of the Great Recession, the mine has closed and Fern finds herself out of a job, and since she lives in a company town, pretty much out of a place to live as well.  So Fern ends up hitting the road.  That takes her to working in an Amazon distribution center, meeting people at a gathering spot in Arizona and even working in Badlands National Park.  She is a nomad now, wandering around, not having a home.

In some ways, this is the aspect of the story that works.  Fern’s journey around the country gives a chance for some breathtaking cinematography (it’s true that it doesn’t make my Top 5 but it was close).  In an industry with gaudy production values often overcoming the potential for even a decent camera shot, Zhao clearly knows how she wants her films to look.  It was evident in her previous film as well, The Rider.  And, unlike The Rider, which was entirely peopled with non-professionals, Zhao clearly has a rapport with Fran McDormand.  The film is entirely taken up in her performance, bringing a magnificent authenticity to the role that The Rider never had.  But unfortunately, that’s where the problem comes in as well.  Fran is a great actress; that she’s only the second person to win three Actress Oscars magnifies that.  But her authenticity in the role is, in fact, acting.  She is surrounded, for the most part, by non-actors, the actual people that had been written about in the original book.  The Rider, which I had never wanted to see in the first place (multiple people recommended it apparently under the bizarre belief that after dealing with my son’s autism on a daily basis for 15 years that I would want to watch a film about autism) was beautifully shot but undercut by acting that is clearly not professional.  There’s a reason that professionals do their jobs.  But all the performances in that film worked that way.  This film might have worked better if Fran had been the only professional because it would have made Fern stand out more.  But in the Badlands she enters a relationship with David, a man played, quite well, by David Strathairn.  Adding a second actual professional (another really good one) makes it all the more obvious how much of the cast isn’t professional and the stark contrast throws the entire film out of whack.

The film, I felt, was also undercut by the writing.  I believed in Fran’s performance but I never really believed in Fern.  There is much talk today about this is a film about current America, about how people lose their houses and wander without having a connection.  But Fern has connections, she has a family that she pushes away and she has a chance for love that she also pushes away.  What’s more, it also means that Fern has a potential for financial support as well as emotional support.  When the film fades to black on Fern, on the road again in her van, we get the words on the screen: “Dedicated to the ones who had to depart.”  But that’s the thing; Fern might have had to leave her house in Nevada but she didn’t have to depart.  She chose to depart.

Which also brings up an interesting aspect about the film that isn’t really part of my criticism.  The film is the film it is and I shouldn’t try to think of it as the film it isn’t.  But it’s a film that starts with Fern on the road because the big corporation shut down the mine where she worked.  That would seem to be an indictment of the way corporate America works at the moment – how people hit the road because the country fails them.  But this is also a film that actually shot inside an Amazon fulfillment center without the faintest suggestion of the abuses heaped upon employees by that company, was started under Searchlight when it was still owned by Rupert Murdoch, one of the most vile corporate heads in the world and was released when Searchlight fell under Disney, a company that has so many things wrong about it I wouldn’t know where to begin.  This is not a film about the problems with corporate America, so it’s fine that it didn’t address those things.  It’s not a documentary.  But I feel it might have been better served by being a documentary, by not bringing in the real people to play themselves without the faintest notion of what was going on around them but actually just filming them (apparently the actor opposite Fran in her big scene describing the death of her husband didn’t know Fran was a professional and thought she was really describing the death of her husband – it’s an odd choice when the person on screen doesn’t know the other person on screen is actually acting).

Nomadland is quite a well made film and it’s nice that a non-white female director won an Oscar.  It’s nice that Fran McDormand, while the first female to be nominated for producing and acting in the same film, is the first to actually win both awards while the men nominated before her all lost Actor (and all but Costner and Eastwood (twice) lost Picture as well).  It’s clear that some of the issues with the film are issues I have with how a film works, that I don’t feel the writing takes me into it (and writing is such an issue with me – from Godard to Nashville to Mad Max, it’s the lack of quality writing that I often am at odds with critics films) and that the mixture of two really good professionals and a cast of amateurs doesn’t work.  It has nothing to do with my utter and complete loathing for Amazon and Bezos (as is clear since One Night in Miami, a film actually released by Amazon is my #4 film of the year).  In the end, I feel like it’s a film that really clicks in some ways but doesn’t come through as a whole and while it’s a far better choice than sanctimonious drivel like Green Book it’s still a far cry not only from most winners but all but one of the nominees from this year as well.

trial_of_the_chicago_seven

The first film since Return of the King where my Supporting Actor category filled up and could have included more just from one film.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

  • Director:  Aaron Sorkin
  • Writer:  Aaron Sorkin
  • Producer:  Marc Platt  /  Stuart M. Bresser
  • Stars:  Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Frank Langella
  • Studio:  Netflix
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Cohen), Editing, Cinematography, Original Song (“Hear My Voice”)
  • Oscar Points:  180
  • Length:  129 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Courtroom)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  16 October 2020
  • Box Office Gross:  n/a
  • Metacritic Rating:  76
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #167  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Cohen), Supporting Actor (Redmayne), Supporting Actor (Rylance), Editing, Ensemble
  • Nighthawk Points:  395

Old-fashioned can mean a lot of different things.  If I were to describe the 1969 True Grit as old-fashioned, it’s to point out that it’s slow and stolid in the same year as The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West and Butch Cassidy.  But to describe the best novels of John Irving as old-fashioned are because he deliberately eschewed modernism or post-modernism to take Dickens as his model for long, robust stories with fascinating, funny characters.  In some ways, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an old-fashioned film; it takes a tried and true sub-genre (the courtroom drama) to tell a historical story while also doing some manipulating of facts to benefit the story as it works on film (like, for instance, the fact that Bobby Seale had already been severed from the trial before Fred Hampton was killed rather than his being gagged being a response to the murder).  It also honed its focus; while it was Mayor Daley who refused the permits and sent the cops to beat the protestors, this film focuses more on how the Nixon DOJ responded to the defendants and their decision to prosecute.  That’s because this was also a film with a mission; it was deliberately released in October, before the election, because it wanted to remind voters of another period where people took to the streets to defend democracy and their right to protest and was met with the contempt of their government that decided they would prosecute, not because of the violation of laws but because they wanted to make an example.  Sorkin knew this and he wanted people to think about the administration that was running for reelection, the worst administration of this or any period in U.S. history and the way its DOJ didn’t give a rat’s ass about the law but only about political retribution.  There’s a stark reminder of that over the days between the Oscar ceremony and the writing of this review as President Biden learned about the raid of Guiliani’s home the same time the public did because this president understands that the DOJ does not work for him but for the American people.

An old-fashioned film, of course, can still be a great one.  The King’s Speech, which actually won Best Picture over a film that was more highly regarded and that was also written by Aaron Sorkin (I always wonder what the Sorkin-haters on twitter think of that film), was an old-fashioned film and it was filled with many of the same things that this film is filled with: smart, interesting writing that could add a surprising flair of humor to a film that is mostly dramatic (“Are we using the trial to defend ourselves against very serious charges that could land us in prison for ten years, or to say a pointless “fuck you” to the establishment?”  “Fuck you!”  “That is what I was afraid… Wait, I don’t know if you were saying “fuck you” or answering.”  “I was also confused.”), fantastic production values across the board (The King’s Speech had better sets and costumes, partially because it was set in an earlier period but Trial beats it hands down in Editing, crisply moving between the trial and the events that brought about the trial) and brilliant acting.  While it’s the writing and the editing that really make it quite a bit different than an old-fashioned film (Sorkin’s dialogue is anything but old-fashioned and you would never would have found the moving between times so swiftly and perfectly in films of an older era), it’s the acting that really makes this film such a triumph.

I understand where Abbie Hoffman is coming from in this film; hell, we even went to the same college. (Digression: When I went to Brandeis there was a guy who came through our dorm at 11 at night on weekends selling Chinese food, yelling “Chinese food man!  Is anybody hungry?”  It was such a brilliant idea I can’t believe I’ve never seen it done at any of the other schools I’ve ever attended.  The rumor, almost certainly untrue, was that Hoffman, when he was at Brandeis, was the original Chinese food man.)  I understand the notion of sticking your middle finger out at authority, at humiliating the judge (“And the record should reflect, that defendant Hoffman and I are not related.”  “Father, no!”), at giving insane answers to the man in Chicago in charge of providing a permit, ensuring that no permit will ever be provided.  Since I did not grow up in his era, though, since I have the benefit of being a white, male, raised as a Christian and since I have no arrest record, my government has never had the kind of contempt for me that it had for him, I also don’t fall in with him on a lot of things.  And that’s where we come to Tom Hayden.

This film, in some ways, is about the conflict, not between the government and the revolutionaries.  In some ways, it’s not about overcoming your enemy, whether you are in power and you feel the enemy are the people who have the legitimate right to speak your mind (and, given the relevance of this film to what was going on both when the film was released and afterwards – the traitors – and yes, I am going with that word – who supported the actions on January 6 in this country are part of that group – those in power who feel their enemy are the people who are legitimately trying to take it away in a manner that is both legal and responsible – the importance of this film is paramount because of what it says about all of this (and no – that’s not a pun on the fact that Paramount originally was going to release this film – by now you should know I hate puns)).  In some ways, it’s about finding the common ground with the people who only seem like they might be your friends.  As much as this film is about the government against the revolution, it’s about the revolution against itself.

There’s no question that I am Tom Hayden in this equation.  I would wear the proper thing to court, I would probably have stood, even as a gut reflex, for the judge.  I would argue about the importance of all of this in a practical way.  When Abbie says “Winning elections, that’s the first thing on your wish list? Equality, justice, education, poverty and progress, they’re second?” and Tom replies “If you don’t win elections, it doesn’t matter what’s second. And it is astonishing to me that someone still has to explain that to you”, I am absolutely with Tom.  I’m a liberal who is also a pragmatic.  And that’s a lot of what this film is about.  Hell, I even have Hayden’s tendency to drop words.  The sentences are fully formed in my brain and I type so fast that sometimes words get dropped and that can change meaning.  I might have done the same thing as Hayden when he forgets the word “our” at a key point and I would like to think that someone who disagrees with me would have stood up in the same way, that people who don’t agree with my actual reviews, including this one, would come to my defense, not just because of a belief in free speech, but because they actually feel a companionship for me in the things we fight for.

promising_young_woman

It’s hard to find an ending that more fits the definition of tragicomic.

Promising Young Woman

  • Director:  Emerald Fennell
  • Writer:  Emerald Fennell
  • Producer:  Emerald Fennell  /  Ben Browning  /  Ashley Fox  /  Josey McNamara
  • Stars:  Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham
  • Studio:  Universal  (Focus Features)
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Mulligan), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  235
  • Length:  113 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  25 December 2020
  • Box Office Gross:  $6,449,795  (#37  –  2020)
  • Metacritic Rating:  73
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #197  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Mulligan), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  230

If I was to tell you that Promising Young Woman is a throwback among this very weird year of nominees you probably wouldn’t guess what makes it unique among these eight films.  But the answer is: it’s the only Best Picture nominee to be on the BOM list for 2020.  Three films come from studios that barely release films in theaters and don’t report box office earnings and the other four all didn’t come out until 2021 (although in two of those cases they were shown at festivals in 2020 and only got pushed back to position themselves for the screwed up awards season).  Of course, outside of box office (where this film is still the highest grossing of the nominees with an amount that would have made it the lowest grossing Best Picture nominee since The Dresser in 1983) this film is anything but a throwback nominee.  It’s directed by a female (still fairly rare for a Best Picture nominee and even rarer for a Best Director nominee), written by a woman, stars a woman and is even produced by women (just the fourth film ever with a female nominated in all four categories after The Piano, Lady Bird and Nomadland).  What’s more, the topic deals with one of the problems dominating not just the film industry but all of society itself: the ways that males interact with females.

There was a moment part-way through the film where I began to wonder about this film viewed men.  Does it think all men are potential rapists?  Does it think we wait around just for the right moment and will take advantage of someone?  In the opening scene, we get someone who seems like he will be a nice guy but then starts to take advantage of a clearly drunk woman until that revelatory moment when a question gets asked in a different tone of voice and he (and we, the audience) know that this situation is not what it seems to be.  It’s a starkly cold moment, no less so then because he seemed at first to be an okay guy.  Then there is a second scene where the same female has been brought home by another man and when he starts coming on to her, talking about how much he has connected with her, she immediately turns it back on him, daring him to even say her name.  Then I realized that the problem wasn’t the movie and it wasn’t me either.  The movie wasn’t saying that all men were rapists because Cassandra, the woman who is doing this, isn’t hanging out with all men.  She’s not searching for all men.  She’s deliberately hanging out at bars and trolling for men who are looking to pick up women.  And these are the kind of men who absolutely will do this; the statistics on date rape bear this out.  So yes, some of this men will seem like they are helping a drunk woman and some of them might mean to actually help them and a lot of them will find themselves taking advantage of her because they can.  It’s not all men.  It’s the men who hang out in those type of places because they’re not looking for love or something long-term or something meaningful.  They’re looking to get laid and sometimes they will take it anyway they can get it.

With that out of the way I could focus more on the film and how well it was made, how brilliantly it was written, how much it understands its lead character and how it finds itself on a road towards tragedy that nothing can change.  Cassandra works in a coffee shop, a med school dropout who, as we will discover, left because her best friend was raped and no one, including the school, did anything about it.  So she lives an easy to deal with life during the day and at night she goes around trying to push the kind of men who would rape a drunk girl back with fear.  She’s not killing them, she’s not attacking them, she’s driving them back with shame and fear and reminding them of what it feels like to not have control.

People seem to have suddenly discovered Carey Mulligan in this film over a decade after she should have been a household name.  In a reminder that I don’t care about who has previously won a Nighthawk Award before I do my awards, that my awards are simply based on the performances, Mulligan has already won an award and she wins one again in a tight race over Viola Davis, who has not won one and would have won easily had she been placed in supporting.  But, long after An Education, in which we watch her grow into a young woman (even though she was already well into her twenties when she filmed it), we see the full range of her performance here.  Watch her performance in character at being drunk and then the look in her eyes when the pitch of her voice changes the situation while asking the same question.  Watch her tear down the man who claimed to be connecting to her.  Watch her rage when she can’t take it anymore and she lashes out at a nearby driver.  But also watch the pain and grief in her eyes in the most gut-wrenching scene in the film when she was so close to finding what might have been a measure of happiness only to have it all torn apart because the truth matters and what we do or don’t do in life matters.

I am far from perfect and there are probably times in my life when I should have stood up for something or someone and I didn’t.  But I also dealt with that concept in my life and did what I knew was the right thing, even if it did not work.  I thought of that when I watched another of the painful scenes in the film (much of the film is painful and it’s interesting that ACE would list it as a Comedy when they are the same group that lists Up in the Air, Her and Parasite as Dramas), the scene where Cassandra confronts the man who defended the man who raped her friend.  This scene has extra poignancy to it, of course, because the defeated man in front of her is played by Alfred Molina, the same man who in An Education played her father and just wanted to do what was right for her.  She has a measure of revenge planned for him but in the end feels that she can not do anything that he has not already done to himself and that he’s already damaged enough.  She will, in fact, emerge from this with the feeling that this is a man she can trust.  The way he apologizes and talks about how he did not live up to what he should have done reminds me of Michael Chabon’s apology yesterday for having worked with Scott Rudin (a man, ironically, who is one of the other listed producers on one of those four films listed above with women nominated in all of those categories) and how he should have done more.  People live with their failures and sometimes that is all that can be done.

Then we come to the ending and in some ways it’s the most brutal ending of the year and in some ways it’s the best ending of the year.  It’s certainly the moment where the film feels most like it turns back into the Comedy that at times seems to be peeking out from behind the curtains.  Yes, there’s been a horrible tragedy, but she has had her revenge and things, in a way, have gone to plan.  In fact, in a way, it’s possible they went entirely to plan.  I am reminded of the great moment in Watchmen (the graphic novel), where, before leaving for what was almost certainly a suicide mission, Rorschach writes his final journal entry: “For my own part, regret nothing.  Have lived life, free from compromise and step into the shadow now without complaint.”  She made preparations for what could happen but there is also the question of whether this is perhaps actually what she wanted to happen.  Either way, she does it with a flourish and justice comes, too late for some and perhaps not nearly enough, but it does come.

judas_and_the_black_messiah

Ignore the names above the titles. They’re apparently both supporting.

Judas and the Black Messiah

  • Director:  Shaka King
  • Writer:  Shaka King  /  Will Berson  /  Kenneth Lucas  /  Keith Lucas
  • Producer:  Shaka King  /  Charles D. King  /  Ryan Coogler
  • Stars:  LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Kaluuya), Supporting Actor (Stanfield), Cinematography, Original Song (“Fight For You”)
  • Oscar Points:  225
  • Length:  126 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  12 February 2021
  • Box Office Gross:  $5,383,770  (#12  –  2021, through April)
  • Metacritic Rating:  85
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #210  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Kaluuya), Cinematography, Sound, Costume Design, Original Song (“Fight For You”), Ensemble
  • Nighthawk Points:  255

I’m not quite sure how to take the Academy’s reaction to this film.  On the one hand, they nominated it for Best Picture which I didn’t do, although I only nominate five films and it was my #6 film of the year, so if I followed the Academy’s policy, I would have nominated it.  They didn’t nominate it for Best Director which I did.  It was the only one of the Black themed historical films to earn a Picture nomination even though I have it (barely) as the weakest of the three.  Then, there is the acting.  Daniel Kaluuya, though really a co-lead, had been pushed early and often for Supporting Actor and is the only one of the winners to sweep all of the awards, which I am fully on board with since he was my #1 in Supporting Actor from the night the film was released on HBO Max and we watched it.  Three years after trying to remember why I knew him (see my Get Out review), I had no problem remembering him or his riveting performance as Fred Hampton, a revolutionary leader who was basically murdered by law enforcement.  What’s more, all that he did (he is also depicted in Trial of the Chicago 7), he did by the age of 21.  But then, the Oscars also nominated LaKeith Stanfield for Supporting Actor in spite of Warners having pushed him as the lead because, well, he’s the lead of the film.  This isn’t a complete ensemble piece without a real lead like Trial.  It had a lead (two of them, actually) and the Oscars decided it didn’t because, well, who the fuck knows.  But at least they saw one of the best films of the year and a couple of the best performances of the year (what the nomination did was move Stanfield from just missing out on a Nighthawk nomination for Best Actor to just missing out on a nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and nominated them which is better than they’ve done in a lot of years.

I didn’t come into this movie cold.  I had read a lot about the various people depicted in Trial when I saw that film (a good couple of months before Judas) and I already was somewhat familiar with the life of Fred Hampton because one of the collections I worked on at my job is the Radical Ephemera and Underground Publications collection and the Black Panther Community News Service is one of the periodicals in the collection.  Hampton is an important part of American history; it’s not often in American history that important political and social leaders are actually murdered by the government.  Abbie Hoffman knew the contempt that his government had for him but as a white man he was less likely to be flat out killed.

But the film doesn’t just explore Hampton’s life and that’s why this film is so much better than a traditional biopic.  If you watch a film like Malcolm X, you get the life of a man but the dramatic arc is limited.  Instead, King takes the period towards the end of Hampton’s life and explores it through the eyes of the man who betrayed him and lead to his death: Bill O’Neal.  That’s what gives us the title and actually makes the film comparable to Jesus Christ Superstar.  That’s an interesting musical (less so as a film but that’s the filmmakers fault), not the least of which is because they approach the story of Christ’s final week by looking at it through the prism of Judas.  Here, O’Neal is the lead (no matter what the Oscars might think) and we get a measure of who he is.  He’s a low-level hood, running a scam to steal a car and then getting lucky not to be beaten to death.  Instead, it lands him with an FBI agent willing to take on O’Neal in the hopes of getting rid of what he (and his piece of shit boss Hoover) thinks of as the real danger: Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party.  So O’Neal goes undercover and becomes a part of the revolution.  It starts to suck him in, he enjoys the life he leads, he starts to understand what they are going through and what they are trying to accomplish (that giving people education, health care and basic social services that the state is doing very little to provide for them was revolutionary in the late 60s is depressing; that it would still be considered revolutionary is downright nauseating).  But he has a role to play and he’s going to play it through because he knows it’s probably the only way he doesn’t die by gunfire.

Like so many great films (and no question this is a great film, just barely missing out on my Best Picture nominations), it tells a story that is both specific and timeless.  It’s kind of sad that this film is as timeless as it is because these kind of things continue to happen in this country.  The government focuses on the wrong people and good people die needlessly.  But we get a very strong performance from Stanfield, a solid one from Dominique Fishback as Hampton’s wife and a truly great one from Kaluuya, a big step up even over his Oscar nominated performance in Get Out.  Just last night I watched him again in Black Panther and I see him there with Boseman and I wish they could have celebrated on Oscar night together.

minari

A heart-warming American story. That just happens to be mostly spoken in Korean.

Minari

  • Director:  Lee Isaac Chung
  • Writer:  Lee Isaac Chung
  • Producer:  Christina Oh
  • Stars:  Steven Yuen, Youn Yuh-jung, Han Ye-ri, Alan S. Kim
  • Studio:  A24
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Yuen), S. Actress (Youn), Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  255
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  12 February 2021
  • Box Office Gross:  $2,345,468 mil  (#16 –  2021 through)
  • Metacritic Rating:  89
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #245 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, S. Actress (Youn), Original Score, Foreign Film
  • Nighthawk Points:  135

Both the Oscars and the Golden Globes have problems when it comes to their Foreign Film categories.  The Academy has finally renamed their category to International Film so it’s more excusable that a film like Minari could be left out, although their process (one submission per country) is still flawed aside from that.  The Globes call their category Foreign Language Film, which is basically what mine is (though I don’t write the extra word because it takes up more space and time) so it’s excusable to have a film like Minari but then they make those films ineligible for Best Picture.  When Minari (rightly) won the Globe, some of the reactions were that it was the most American film of the year which really wasn’t the right point to make since the category is correctly named and their Best Picture is open to non-American films in English.  The Critic’s Choice Awards get it right by having all films not in English eligible for their Foreign Film award and all films irregardless of language eligible for Best Picture and Minari correctly won the former and was nominated for the latter (it doesn’t earn a nomination in the latter for me because I only nominate five but clearly if I went with ten it would have).  I keep my category, not because I feel the need to represent world cinema, as I clearly do that already, but because I want to acknowledge films that I have to watch through sub-titles to understand because there is a barrier there and it’s possible there are things I can’t quite catch.

Now, on to the notion that Minari was the most American film of the year and I would say, that while the argument wasn’t the right one to make as a complaint against the Globes, it is a valid point about the film in general.  Minari is a film about a family that moves from California to Arkansas and tries to scratch out a living from their land.  They run into all sorts of barriers (a buyer who backs out, financial concerns, family health concerns), the parents are concerned that their marriage cannot survive the strain, they are far from the friends and family that they had and they worry that everything might collapse.  What makes this film different, of course, is that the family is Korean by descent (the kids were born in America) and for much of the film, when they are at home at least, they speak in Korean.

The film takes place mostly in Arkansas (there is an important trip to Oklahoma City) so you can’t escape the white people that are mostly surrounding this Korean family or the way that church will become an important part of providing structure in their lives.  Yet, there are ironies; for instance, the most religious man in the film doesn’t go to church but spends his days dragging a large wooden cross up the road, something for which he is mocked by the local church kids.  But he does that because he feels the sacrifice of his Messiah and he’s also learned the lesson about loving thy neighbor, which is why he’s willing to help out.  But there are also two young kids involved and moving when you’re a young kid is traumatic especially when you move to the middle of nowhere and your parents are fighting all the time.

Minari, at its heart, is a simple story.  A family moves, the grandmother comes to live with them to take care of the children, there is a tragedy and they are able to overcome.  But reading that simple description makes the film feel like a cliche and this film feels like anything but a cliche.  Perhaps it’s because of the embodiment of the American Dream in a family that doesn’t look like the people around them, doesn’t grow the same kind of crops and often doesn’t even speak the same language.  Or perhaps that’s what makes it so universal – a reminder that it doesn’t matter what we like, what we do or what we say; in some ways, we’re all striving for the same dream.

father_ver3

What do we owe our children? What do they owe us?

The Father

  • Director:  Florian Zeller
  • Writer:  Christopher Hampton  /  Florian Zeller  (from the play by Zeller)
  • Producer:  David Parfitt  /  Jean-Louis Levi  /  Philippe Carcassonne
  • Stars:  Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Rufus Sewall, Marc Gattiss
  • Studio:  Sony Pictures Classics
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hopkins), Supporting Actress (Coleman), Editing, Production Design
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  97 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Play Adaptation)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  26 February 2021
  • Box Office Gross:  $1,627,007  (#19 – 2021; through April)
  • Metacritic Rating:  88
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #9  (year)  /  #257  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hopkins), Supporting Actress (Coleman), Editing, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  180

Memories are not like photographs or video recordings.  It is not something that we can play back with precision.  I think of the line that Bill Pullman says in Lost Highway: “I like to remember things my own way … How I remembered them.  Not necessarily the way they happened.”  The problem that Anthony has is that it’s not quite clear how he’s remembering them.  Is he remembering them at all?  Or is he constructing them out of different events?

Anthony is an older man, living in a flat in London.  He has a daughter, whose name is Anne.  Honestly, beyond that, there is not much more that we can be clear about through the course of the film, at least until the end when things start to finally break through the fog.  Part of the issue is that we are mostly seeing this film through Anthony’s eyes.  There are conversations repeated, there are arguments to be had again and again but it’s never quite clear whether they are in the present or the past, who they are with, who the person they are with looks like.  Anthony is fading into dementia and we are getting a taste of that as we watch him interact with his very limited world (the film almost never leaves the flat) and we have to hope to cut through the fog.

At the heart of the film lies the question of how much we owe our children and how much our children owe us.  Anne is taking care of Anthony and checking in on him (or, he is living in her flat depending on how the truth of all this plays out).  But she is sacrificing her life to do this.  Does Anne owe it to her father, who has already lost one daughter it would seem and can not even remember that fact but instead buries it deep in his mind that she is simply away and not visiting, to continue to care for him?  Or does Anthony owe it to Anne to allow himself to be placed in a home where he can get consistent care and let her go on and live her own life?  The film doesn’t take a side in this, although at least one character does, twice, played by different actors, depending on how you look at things through Anthony’s memory.

The film is a triumph of film-making but there are several things that specifically deserve to be noted.  The first is the performances, both of Olivia Colman as Anne in a difficult role to play and who manages to win the Nighthawk because Viola Davis was placed in lead, and Anthony Hopkins, whose virtuoso performance would most likely have managed him a second Oscar had Chadwick Boseman’s performance not been so dominating (obviously I wrote that line before the Oscars).  There is also the writing.  I never got to see Zeller’s play but the script does a masterful job of looping things around, helping us to understand them as we see them again, sometimes with different actors, sometimes from different viewpoints.  That also brings us to the editing, which is what helps shape the film as we move back and forth in Anthony’s idea of what is happening and if he isn’t living in the present, then we can’t either and the editing helps to the feeling of Anthony’s confusion.  Last is the art direction.  In a simple one location film it doesn’t usually get attention, but it’s the way that things change, that the similarities and differences are so stark in every scene that really gets the attention and makes you realize that what we’re seeing, in a sense, is not a movie, but a memory and the memory can’t always get everything right.

sound_of_metal

Ask yourself what you would do if the thing that your life hinged upon was taken away.

Sound of Metal

  • Director:  Darius Marder
  • Writer:  Darius Marder  /  Abraham Marder  /  Derek Cianfrance
  • Producer:  Bert Hamelinck  /  Sacha Ben Harroche
  • Stars:  Riz Ahmed, Paul Raci, Olivia Cooke
  • Studio:  Amazon Studios
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor (Ahmed), Supporting Actor (Raci), Editing, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  120 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  xxxx
  • Release Date:  20 November 2020
  • Box Office Gross:  n/a
  • Metacritic Rating:  82
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #12 (year)  /  #259  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Ahmed), Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  105

I used to run.  I was never that fast, certainly not as fast as my brothers, but I ran anyway.  I ran cross country through high school and for years afterwards, I used it not only to keep in shape, but also as a way to chase away demons.  It could be done anywhere with no warning and with nothing necessary other than running shoes.  These days, I watch my cousin and my older sister, two people that I don’t ever recall running once in the days when I used to run, run and talk about running and it’s painful.  It was not an overwhelming passion, not like my love of film, for example, but in these days where bone spurs make running even a minimal amount quite painful, I know what it’s like to have to set something aside.  Thankfully, it was never the defining passion of my life and it wasn’t my livelihood, so giving it up didn’t wreck my soul and I was able to simply stop.

Life is not so easy for Ruben.  He’s a heavy metal drummer and he is losing his hearing.  For him, his hearing is not just an important part of his life, but a means to his livelihood.  He needs to be able to hear in order to do his job.  What’s more, the other member of the band, the singer / guitarist Lou, is also his lover, which ties in the personal part of his life.  And to wrap it all together, Ruben is a man with demons that continue to chase him, a drug addict who is using this life he has built with his music and his love to help him get through every day of his life.

Ruben (playing in a magnificent performance by Riz Ahmed) at first refuses to admit the problem, keeping it from Lou and refusing to listen properly to what the man who tests his hearing tells him.  He believes that implants can solve things and keep his life the way it is, but his hearing is basically gone, he has no money to do this and he needs to stay sober.  What’s more, Lou believes in him and wants him to make certain to get help (she has her own demons).  To that end, their tour is cut short and Ruben finds himself at a rural shelter for deaf addicts in recovery.  To stay there, he is required to give up Lou (she can’t stay) and give up his RV.  Lou deals with Joe, a strong-willed man dealing with his own demons, stemming from losing his hearing in Vietnam.  Joe is played by Paul Raci in a great performance (that can’t quite manage to make my Top 5), the kind of thing a good character actor longs to be able to give after working for years without much name recognition.  But Joe understands that with recovery must come certain rules and he needs Ruben to understand that as well.

Sound of Metal is a fascinating film, not the least of which is because the absolutely brilliant job of sound editing and mixing that accompanies it.  It almost certainly would have earned a 7th nomination (placing it 2nd place instead of a 6 way tie for 2nd) and a second win if the Academy hadn’t decided to do away with the Sound Editing category.  We follow Ruben’s descent out of the world of hearing and his broken path back when he does get the implants and is forced to leave a place that he was starting to think of as home.  We follow him into a final scene of serenity and we wonder if this will be the final path for Ruben or if he will allow himself somewhere in between the broken bits that come through the implants and the serenity of silence that he has been evading.

mank

Between this and Benjamin Button, maybe Fincher should stop working with Eric Roth. Then maybe I would stop using the world “bullshit” to describe the film.

Mank

  • Director:  David Fincher
  • Writer:  Jack Fincher  (with uncredited re-writes from David Fincher and Eric Roth)
  • Producer:  Cean Chaffin  /  Eric Roth  /  Douglas Urbanski
  • Stars:  Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance, Lily Collins
  • Studio:  Netflix
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor (Oldman), Supporting Actress (Seyfried), Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  320
  • Length:  131 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  4 December 2020
  • Box Office Gross:  n/a
  • Metacritic Rating:  79
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #54  (year)  /  #373  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Oldman), Cinematography, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  80

There are 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t.

That’s a joke, of course, but it cuts to the core of things: the world can always be divided in two and it’s not very hard to do.  When it comes to a lot of things, not just art, but politics, religion, just life in general, there are starkly disparate viewpoints that can not be reconciled.  In film, there are a lot of binaries, although of course a lot of them have subtleties that defy the binaries.  There are those who think Godard is brilliant and those who think his work is merely experiments that cover up a shallow core.  There are those who think Kubrick is brilliant and those who think his films are unemotional and cold and push people away.  There are those who believe Pauline Kael’s assertion, first brought up in her seminal 1971 article “Raising Kane” and those who prefer to believe in facts.

The Kane binary reminds me of the Shakespeare binary: that there are those who believe someone else wrote those plays.  There’s never been any reasonable proof that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays and plenty of evidence from the time suggests that he did and the people who refuse to listen to the evidence on that have some deep-seated need to believe that Shakespeare didn’t write it and it’s rather pathetic and the only worthwhile comment I’ve ever heard that goes against it is a joke on The Muppet Show, set up by an earlier in the show discussion over whether Bacon wrote the plays and later Miss Piggy quotes him and says to Kermit, “that’s Shakespeare”, allowing Kermit to get in the really brilliant comeback: “sounds more like Bacon.”  The big difference here, of course, is that the versions of the script exist and can actually be studied.  You can read all about the evidence here.  Yes, that site is devoted to Orson Welles, but it also has the actual evidence that backs all of this up and shows that Kael’s essay, while important and well-written, is also horseshit and that people believe it, let alone anyone would write a film based on that evidence is just pathetic.  There are ways to write a film that appreciates Herman J. Mankiewicz without making it so completely full of bullshit.

Of course, as you can read in that essay, it’s not just the notion that Mank wrote the script by himself and Welles came in, refused credit to Mank and then took all the credit himself.  Most of the movie is crap and I mean that in terms of truth to events and I mean that in terms of armchair psychology.  The movie is an attempt to say that Mank enjoyed the high life of Hollywood, that it allowed him to apparently drink so much that he would look like 63 year old Gary Oldman while his wife, who has two months older, would still look like Tuppence Middleton and that Marion Davies, who was ten months older, would still look like Amanda Seyfried.  It’s true that drinking can be hard on you – my boss (and I feel the need to point out my boss was female) at one of my old bookstores said of a particular blonde talk show host who gave a reading of her book at our store that she looked like she had “been rode hard and put away wet” to explain why she looked so much older than me and was younger than me – but not that hard.  But the film also wants to say that his times in Hollywood started coming crashing down because he accidentally suggested how to defeat Upton Sinclair in the 1934 gubernatorial election.  That such tactics were used by Hollywood to discredit Sinclair are true but that Mank had anything to do with it is not.  Then to suggest that it was guilt over that that prompted him to bring down William Randolph Hearst is not only bullshit but also pathetic psychology 101 motivations that didn’t exist.

This film plays like someone (originally Jack Fincher and then when he died without his bullshit script being produced his son David – how nice to have a son with major play in Hollywood so that his crap could be made into a film) wanted to make a movie about Mank but didn’t really know how to do it.  That the film is credited as an original screenplay is even more galling.  Even if you don’t read the linked article above, it’s clear that most of what is original in the film is a lie and most of what isn’t original comes from actual documented moments and should have at least been attributed to Mank himself.  Anthony Lane summed up the film well in the end of his New Yorker review: “Many viewers of “Citizen Kane” are disappointed by that narrative dingus, with its link to a lost childhood, and Welles himself disparaged it as “dollar-book Freud.” But it’s meant to be disappointing; the Grail is worth less than the quest, and the quest provides that film with its immortal swagger. “Mank,” by comparison, is a story of a story, and, for all its great beauty, it winds up chasing its own tale.”

So, in the end, what do we have?  A film that held up the first time I watched it as well-made.  Oldman gives a fantastic drunken performance, the film’s editing is well-done, even if much if it is to support its bullshit notions, the cinematography is superb, though not enough to win it the Nighthawk and the art direction would have won the Nighthawk in most other years that didn’t have Emma’s brilliant color (in that sense, I feel like the black and white, which I think was a boon to the cinematography actually hurt the art direction a bit).  Fincher directs well, of course, because Fincher is an extremely talented director.  But the film didn’t hold up so well on a second viewing to write the review and slipped below ***.5.  Too much of the construction of the script shows through, the performances aside from Oldman really don’t hold up (I never had Seyfried on my list at all and fail to understand the kudos for her performance) and the production values can’t make the film come through as a whole.  Even the wine and fish bit seems just like a staged set-up for the line; too much of the film relies on the famous Mank moments that fill the screen, often erroneously or moved around just to fit the construction of the script.  Unlike Trial, they don’t seem to flow together in support of the film.  And that’s all before we get the bullshit denouement with Welles.

Like McBride (the linked article above), I have seen a lot of portrayals of Welles and while I am sometimes less critical than he (I rather liked Angus Mcfadyen’s performance in The Cradle Will Rock for the performance, aside from what it might have been saying about Welles), this is the worst.  Tom Burke may sound like Welles but I don’t buy him as Welles for a moment, not the least of which is that he doesn’t resemble him at all.  And the entire scene is one of the worst in the film, made all the more worse when Mank appears to then mock Welles and add a scene to the script.  Then we get that ending with the Oscar.  I may not think much of the lack of listed sources in Inside Oscar, but I’ll let them say why Mank wasn’t there in the words of “Poor Sara”: “He did not want to be humiliated.  He thought he’d get mad and do something drastic when he didn’t win.”