Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Third Man Alternative Oscars

Two weeks ago, The Oscars handed out awards in 24 different categories, approximately one third of which the average person might actually care about. Of course, just because the average person doesn’t care who wins the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing, that doesn’t mean the award shouldn’t exist. It should. But the point is that the Oscars have actually given us comparatively few ways to really discuss the year in film via normal conversation. That doesn’t seem right, does it? We actually talk about movies in so many more ways, don’t we? Yes, yes we do.

So let’s double the awards slate and add 24 more categories, representing topics that people debate and care about when looking back on the year in film.

Without further ado, I present the inaugural Third Man Alternative Oscars.

*The awards are presented alphabetically.
*The 24 categories are designed to be discussion points that exist every year, so some of them might not have particularly strong winners this year.
*Especially strong categories have second place and honorable mentions listed. Weak categories do not. 

Best Accent by an American Actor
Seriously, American actors tend to be terrible at accents. While British actors are staging a coup on American film and television, we’re completely incapable of exporting our most famous commodities because they’re completely incapable at sounding like they could ever be from somewhere else. But occasionally, a great exception emerges, like Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai, the Russian gangster and professional nude fighter in 2009’s Eastern Promises.

Winner: The dearly departed Phillip Seymour Hoffman as G√ľnther Bachmann, the umlauted German intelligence officer in A Most Wanted Man.

Best Action Sequence
This was a bizarre year in which there were a lot of very good action films of all kinds—super-hero action, sci-fi action, and old school action—but very few of the films really had great individual action sequences. Except one.

Winner: The climax of The Equalizer, in which Denzel Washington sets up a Home Alone-style death trap for the Russian mob at a Home Depot, was pretty damn sweet. And Killing the main villain with a nail gun in slow motion while the sprinkler systems are on full blast made for some pretty sweet action flick imagery.

Best Animal
Last year’s Best Animal winner was obvious, because the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis became the first cat in the all-time history of cats to actually do everything it was supposed to. If animated animals were eligible, the dog from the Oscar-winning Animated Short, Feast, would be the clear winner. But I decided animated animals aren’t eligible, and these are my awards. So for lack of a better candidate…

Winner: The dog from John Wick, which may only have a few minutes on screen, but in death, became a great action movie plot catalyst. The lesson: You can steal a man’s ‘69 Mustang, but you just don’t fuck with a man’s dog.

Best Chemistry
Truly great star chemistry is a priceless commodity that appears born from film divinity when it happens. And it’s priceless because it happens so rarely. (See kids, that’s economics!) Because this year really didn’t have many great options, I was tempted to go with something snarky, like Reese Witherspoon and her hiking boots in Wild, which memorably opens with her violently screaming “Fuck you bitch!!” as she chucks one of them over a cliff. But this category is about romance!

Winner: In Love is Strange, Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a recently married gay couple in NYC who must overcome losing their home and staying (separately) with relatives while they attempt to rebuild their lives. It’s a small, lovely story that partially works so well because of the deep affection you believe these two have for one another.

Best Climactic Scene
This is the easiest one on the board.

Winner: The final confrontation in Whiplash, when the sadistic Fletcher has set up Andrew to either reach true greatness or publicly die trying, and Andrew responds by launching a triumphant solo, shouting “I’ll cue you in” to the rest of the band, and then lip-syncing a particularly venomous “Fuck you!” to his nemesis.

Best Comedic Scene
And this is the toughest one on the board. The only good comedy of 2014 was Neighbors, which came out so long ago (and wasn’t quite that good) that I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it. 2013 didn’t even require a good comedy to make this pick a cinch, as anyone who saw The Wolf of Wall Street can attest to. The Lemmon Quaalude scene, which culminates in what the film refers to as “cerebral palsy phase,” was a time capsule worthy moment of hilarity.

Honorable Mention: The funniest scene of the year was actually on television, when the Silicon Valley team of stoner geniuses try to create an algorithm for how long it would take to jerk off 800 dudes, including such memorable quantifiers as “mean jerk time.”

Winner: The final sequence of Wild Tales, which takes place at a wedding reception in which the bride finds out the groom had been cheating on her with one of the guests, had me laughing out loud so hysterically that I actually shouted out the words “Oh, Jesus Christ!” in a packed theater. Part of me was hoping I wouldn’t have to pick this one because no one’s seen it yet, but it’s a deserved winner.

Best Credit Sequence
Credits, both opening and closing, often feel like waiting at a red light—an interminable but necessary part of getting where you want to go. But some movies make credit sequences key parts of their artistic arsenal, and when it happens (like in Apocalypse Now and Catch Me If You Can), it’s always particularly memorable.

Winner (Opening Credits): Mr. Turner was a fairly ho-hum movie that never lived up to its potential, partially because it gave us its most beautiful imagery during the opening credits, which showed J.M.W. Turner’s greatest paintings through swirling billows of smoke, playfully dancing across a black screen. Everything after was downhill.

Winner (Closing Credits): The end credits of 22 Jump Street, with the next 20+ sequels to the film quickly and ridiculously playing out on screen, was the best part of the movie.

Best Dance Scene
Winner: This.

Best Death Scene
Everyone that follows pop culture unanimously agrees that 2014’s best on-screen death was in the Game of Thrones episode “The Mountain and the Viper,” when the trial by combat between the two characters ended with The Viper gloating just a little too much, The Mountain seizing a brief opportunity, and then squeezing the Viper’s skull until it burst like a watermelon. Even for a show that’s conditioned us to be ready for any character dying at any moment, that was still pretty sobering and jaw dropping. It was the best TV moment of 2014.

But I digress. Even though 2014 didn’t give us a “Sonny at the tollbooth” level death, or anything as good as the dozens of memorable slayings in the Kill Bill films, there were still some good choices.

Honorable Mention: The gloriously insane Argentinian Oscar nominee Wild Tales has at least three on-screen deaths that would be contenders for this award if anyone had seen the movie. But it’s still a few weeks away from opening in most markets, so we’ll hold that thought.

Winner: The Godzilla reboot was a decent movie with exactly two incredible moments. The first appears further down these awards. The second is in the climactic fight, when a struggling Godzilla gets his second wind, grabs MUTU’s jaws and pries them open, and then shoots an explosion of hot blue flame down MUTU’s throat. In what was mostly a pretty slow and methodical movie, that sudden moment of giving the people what they want prompted cheering in my theater.

Best Facial Expression
Sometimes, a perfect marriage between film/actor/character gives us a moment where a facial expression is forever seared into our collective brains. Think of the first moment Clarice Starling sees Doctor Hannibal Lector standing in his cell, unblinking and perfectly still, or the look on Michael Corleone’s face when Kay tells him she had an abortion.

Runner-Up: When Amazing Amy finally returns in Gone Girl, hysterically driving home in her nightgown, covered in the blood of NPH’s throat, she gets out of the car, limps over to Ben Affleck, and fake faints in his arms. Affleck fulfills our dreams by incredulously looking down at her and saying, “You fucking bitch.”

Winner: There’s a scene about a third of the way through Foxcatcher, where creepy billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) is asking wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to get his brother Dave to train with them, no matter the cost. Mark tells John that Dave simply doesn’t want to come, and no amount of money will change his mind. Carell then just calmly stares at Tatum for a few moments, with his face and eyes completely unmoving, before uttering a high-pitched “Huh,” as though it’s the first time it’s ever occurred to him that money actually can’t buy everything. It’s an amazing moment, and one that stays with everyone who sees the film.

Best Final Shot/Moment
One of my favorite and underrated aspects of the cinematic arts is the way a film chooses to leave you. And I don’t simply mean a final scene, but rather a final few seconds, with a particularly powerful image before the credits start rolling.

Two recent great examples would be the final shot in Michael Clayton of George Clooney in the back of the cab, slowly coming to grips with what’s happened, and the ending of Zero Dark Thirty, where Jessica Chastain is sitting in the plane, Bin Laden’s corpse in front of her, with absolutely no clue what to do now that the singular obsession of her life has been eliminated.

Runner-Up: The two teenagers skateboarding off into the Brooklyn sunset at the end of Love is Strange is quite beautiful, signaling that the lessons of affection from the older generation have been properly passed down.

Winner: Mommy ends in such a perfect way that you can’t figure out whether to be sad for the fate of the characters or happy that they reached the tragically inevitable conclusion to their stories on their own terms.

Best First Appearance in the Zeitgeist
Some awards giving institutions like to honor things like Best Newcomer, but that’s always hard to pinpoint because most “best newcomers” have actually been working for a while, they just hadn’t been noticed yet. And even some people that receive huge accolades for their first film role, like Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, for example, already existed on the cultural radar in a different capacity. But what about those who made their first appearance on the Pop Culture radar in 2014?

Runner-Up: Whiplash’s Miles Teller and Damian Chazelle (respectively, the star and writer/director) did such amazing work on that film that greatness is now expected to be their new norm.

Winner: As comic book characters, no one had ever heard of The Guardians of the Galaxy before 2014. That will never, ever be the case again…

Best Franchise Opener
…And the reason the Guardians of the Galaxy can never again languish in character obscurity is because their namesake film of 2014 was the best popcorn movie in over two years. At a time when every Hollywood studio is trying to find old properties to dust off, reboot, and cash in on once again, Marvel reminded everyone that it’s actually still possible to create a franchise out of thin air if you just make a really damn good movie that appeals to mass audiences. It’s pretty much the polar opposite of everything that was 2013’s disastrous Lone Ranger reboot.

Winner: The Guardians of the Galaxy. Obviously.

Best Inanimate Object
ESPN’s Chris Connelly, who covered the Oscars for many years with ABC, recently said in a Grantland interview that he thinks the Oscars should have an award for Best Inanimate Object, and I enjoyed the idea enough to go with it. Wilson, the Volleyball from Cast Away, is probably the best recent-ish example. He totally should have gotten a 2001 Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Runner-Up: The poor lava cake that Jon Favreau demolishes in Chef. “It’s fucking molten!!”

Winner: When we find out Amazing Amy is actually alive in Gone Girl, and she dives into her immortal “Cool Girl” speech, she’s in the car, gleefully eating the shit out of a Kit Kat bar like she’d been waiting a decade for that exact moment. A Kit Kat has never looked more delicious.

Best Line of the Year
A lot of movies have great lines, but only the best become immortal, to the extent that they enter the cultural lexicon and eventually become spoken by people that don’t know the source material, like Daniel Plainview shouting “I drink your milkshake” to Eli Sunday before drunkenly beating him to death with a bowling pin in There Will Be Blood. That immediately became the most fun movie line for an entire generation to quote at bars.

Honorable Mention 1: “Everything is awesome,” from The Lego Movie. ‘Nuff said.

Honorable Mention 2: In Godzilla, when the scientists have basically figured out that Godzilla exists to have Mortal Kombat with the MUTUs, and everyone’s panicking about what to do, Ken Watanabe comes to the forefront, dramatically stares out into the distance, and calmly says “Let them fight.” It doubled as 2014’s best fist pump moment.

Runner-Up: Two quotes from Whiplash are gonna get a lot of cultural mileage over the next several years, both actually from the same scene of the film. “Not my Tempo” and “rushing or dragging?” are words that can fit a multitude of contexts.

Winner: In Birdman, when Edward Norton says to Michael Keaton, “Popularity is the slutty cousin of prestige,” it was love at first sight for me. I knew I’d found a quote I would utter over and over again throughout my life. Especially in the bi-weekly “art versus commerce” debates I have with my cousin. 

Best Movie No One Saw
Three criteria for this award: 1) No foreign films or documentaries. Most great foreign films or documentaries go heavily under-seen, so that’s too easy. 2) Can’t have been nominated for any Oscars. All Oscar-nominated films get extra attention. 3) Must have made less than $10 million at the US box office.

Honorable Mentions: Blue Ruin, a great slow-burn revenge thriller, Locke, in which Tom Hardy’s entire life falls apart over the course of one car ride, and Only Lovers Left Alive, a Jim Jarmusch film about immortal hipster vampires who hang out in Detroit and collect old guitars instead of doing actual vampire things.

Runner-Up: Under the Skin, starring Scarlet Johansson as an alien taking the form of a seductive femme fatale to lure men and collect them, until the powerful experience of being a human woman makes her feel differently towards her mission. It’s not an especially new plot (human feelings are special!), but the images in this film will haunt you.

Winner: A Most Violent Year tried to be fashionably late to the Oscar party, but arrived so late that the bouncer had already locked the doors. Because the film’s business was meant to be dependent on awards attention that it never actually received, it went completely ignored by audiences. That’s too bad, because it’s a great story about the dark side of upward mobility and the American Dream, with an incredible and intensely restrained lead performance by Oscar Isaac.

Best Opening Scene
Everyone loves a flick that has us at hello.

Honorable Mention: The pre-credit wild tale in the glorious Wild Tales concludes with what Grantland’s Wesley Morris called the best freeze frame since Pumpkin and Honey Boney stick up the diner in Pulp Fiction, and the wordless opening to Starred Up, in which the main character gets indoctrinated to British prison life, is tremendously exciting.  

Runner-Up: Part of what made Get On Up such a great James Brown biopic was its willingness to portray the totality of who he was—good, bad, and ugly. The film started off with a bang, literally, showing us an aging James Brown barging in on a meeting group that shared office space in his building, and firing a shotgun at the ceiling because someone used his private commode.

Winner: It may be exceedingly vulgar, but Dom Hemingway opening with the titular foul-mouthed gangster (Jude Law) vividly sermonizing about his penis, only for his ode to finally culminate in the reveal that he’s been getting a prison blowjob, was, at the very least, quite memorable.

Best Scene of the Year
Sometimes this is an easy category, sometimes it isn’t. Last year was not only an easy one, but one people largely agreed on—the interminably long scene of Solomon Northrup hanging from a tree, barely surviving on the tips of his toes, as normal life continued around him, was the most unforgettable moment of the year’s most unforgettable film.

This year doesn’t have a clear choice, and I still didn’t know what I was going to pick as recently as two weeks ago. But then I saw Mommy, and the answer revealed itself.

Honorable Mentions: The two best moments in the two movies everyone likes to compare to each other—the croquet scene in The Theory of Everything and the scene in The Imitation Game where Keira Knightley consoles a depressed Alan Turing about to undergo chemical castration. In the former, the future Jane Hawking sees for the first time the difficult struggle she and Steven will inevitably face, and she chooses it anyway. It’s one of the most powerful moments of true love I’ve seen in films in a long time. In the latter, with Turing lamenting why he couldn’t have been normal, Knightley tells him that, “just this morning, I took a train through a town that wouldn’t exist if you were normal,” reminding both him, and us, that his being abnormal was one of the most important gifts of the 20th century.

Runner-Up: The Are-you-rushing-or-are-you-dragging scene in Whiplash will be quoted and reenacted for years. It’s not as meaningful as the above scenes, but it’s a more visceral and memorable piece of filmmaking.

Winner: I won’t spoil too much about the scene in Mommy that won me over, because so few people have had the chance to see the film yet. While the majority of the film is framed in a 1:1 aspect ratio to maximize the emotional claustrophobia of the story, there’s one sequence just before the ending where the titular character imagines an alternative life for her son, in which she gets to celebrate all the typical parental life landmarks for her child, like graduation and marriage. For this sequence, the frame expands to the full 16:9 screen, the score crescendos with dramatic strings, and the wordless montage fades in and out of focus before crashing back to the square reality the characters face. It was a few minutes of cinema that mastered the elements which makes it my favorite art form.

Best Sequel
Honorable Mentions: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were well done summer movies, and arguably better than their predecessors…

Winner: …But How to Train Your Dragon 2 was everything you could want in an animated family film—hilarious, visually inventive, a good story with nice thematic elements, and great voice work. The only way to knock it, to paraphrase NPH at the Oscars, is that the title implies the first movie didn’t adequately teach people how to train their dragons.

Best Sex Scene
A lot of movies have sex scenes. Most of them are just excuses for gratuitous nudity or to jolt audiences back to attention around the two-thirds mark of the run-time. But every once in a while, a sex scene comes along that’s actually sexy, heavily adding to the style of the film and the emotional arc of the characters. Sadly, this year didn’t have one.

Maybe the reason we didn’t get any great sex scenes this year is because we got some all-time great ones last year. Yes, I’m looking at you, Blue is the Warmest Color. In a three-hour movie about a young and passionate lesbian relationship, so much screen time devoted to explicit sex felt necessary for the emotional core of the film. It was also damn hot.

Winner: (More like an honorable mention, since it’s really not a sex scene.) When Steve Carell—as Foxcatcher’s creepy billionaire wrestling enthusiast John du Pont—tries to join Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz in a wrestling demonstration for the assembled masses, Schultz obliges. What ensues is basically du Pont awkwardly dry-humping Schultz in front of a dozen people. It was really sexy, only the exact opposite.

Best Speech or Monologue
What 2014 film scene might future generations of high school students choose as the monologue they memorize for speech class? Some (inappropriate) choices…

Runner-Up: The scene in Birdman where Emma Stone goes to town on her dad, tearing him down—in one take!—for how unimportant he really is, would have probably won her an Oscar in most years. If this award were being handed out based on strength of delivery, this would probably be the winner.

Winner: From the moment Gone Girl hit theaters, the “Cool Girl” speech became one of the key talking points of the film. It may not be as showy a piece of acting as Emma Stone’s rant about human irrelevance, but as a piece of writing and dialogue, it’s amazing, to the extent that everyone who sees the film, male and female, find themselves wondering how often they’ve been seduced by the cult of the “cool girl” in their own lives.

Best Use of Non-Original Music
If I had the power to actually add any category to the Oscars, this would be it. For the 87-year history of the Oscars, we’ve been celebrating original music in films for 81 of them, both via full scores and original songs. For over three decades, that was a perfectly adequate way of honoring film music. But ever since Benjamin Braddock (and Dustin Hoffman, for that matter) came into our lives on an airport people mover to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” in 1967’s The Graduate, a new breed of film soundtrack was born.

Ever since then, so many of the most memorable music moments in film—from “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, and “You Make My Dreams” in (500) Days of Summer, to the entire filmography of Wes Anderson—the way directors use music in their films has heavily moved towards utilizing music we already know to facilitate specific emotional reactions that can often be more powerful than those created by music unfamiliar to us. Using non-original music has gotten to the point now where it’s one of the most potent weapons in a director’s arsenal, just behind editing and cinematography. We’re already several decades behind in honoring it, and it’s time to right the ship.

Winner (Single Scene): The Skeleton Twins was a good film that proved Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader—playing siblings with major issues to work out—have a lot to offer audiences in their post-SNL careers, but the emotional crescendo of the flick still arrived via the fucking Starship song from Mannequin. And it was awesome.

Winner (Entire Film): Guardians of the Galaxy was the best popcorn movie of the year, but part of me wonders if it would have been nearly as successful without a perfect trailer that presented the movie as a fun and ridiculous romp with bizarre characters rocking out to cheesy ‘70s pop songs. The way that film used its soundtrack may have been less artistically ambitious than what other films do, but it was the absolute pinnacle of how to create the appropriate mood within an audience.

For as well as the trailer used “Hooked on a Feeling,” that was just the tip of the iceberg. The opening credits wonderfully had Chris Pratt exploring an alien world to the sounds of “Come and Get Your Love” (even using a small creature as a microphone at one point), and the climactic battle halted its action for a dance-off to “O-o-oh Child.” Yes, that seriously happened. The soundtrack, which featured no original music, became one of the best-selling albums of 2014, eventually going platinum. There will be a lot of imitators.

Best Villain
A truly classic villain is a rare thing. This year had three.

Honorable Mention: Steve Carell created one unforgettably creepy billionaire in Foxcatcher. Anyone that sees the movie will forever remember the way he uncomfortably weaponizes silence and makes social ostracism look like the most dangerous quality someone can possess. The main reason he’s sitting in third place is that he lacks the same sense of motivation as the next two characters. Though the fact that Carell’s character never quite seems to possess actual motivation is horrifying in itself.

Runner-Up: Will Ferrell as President Business in The Lego Movie, demanding that all toys be played with precisely as they were intended, stifling the creativity and imagination of childhood. The revelation of who he is and what motivates him in the climactic scene of The Lego Movie is what vaults the film from highly entertaining to being an all-time classic kid’s movie.

Winner: J.K. Simmons as Terrence Fletcher in Whiplash (as though it could have been anyone else). No villain this year, or really, in any other year, better evoked the way the best of intentions can be turned into the most terrifying of realities. Believing that getting pushed to the brink is the only way to access true greatness, Fletcher took it upon himself to be the merciless one who pushes. Like so many of the great villains, he was the hero of his own story.

For three straight years from ’07-’09, the year’s best villain also won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (in order—Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight, and Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa—“The Jew Hunter”—in Inglourious Basterds), and after a few years of dormancy, it’s nice to see J.K. Simmons bring that tradition back.

Best Voice Work
Ever since Robin Williams memorably brought Aladdin’sgenie to life in 1992, there’s been a steady groundswell about the possibility of this being added as a real Oscar category. The big knock on the idea is the question of having enough to choose from to field three nominees in any given year, let alone a worthy winner. But the very best voice performances really do rest on the creativity of a great actor at the top of their game.

Jack Black as Kung Fu Panda and Andy Serkis bringing Gollum to life in the second and third Lord of the Rings films surely would have won this Oscar had it existed in their respective years. And Scarlet Johansson’s turn as a computer operating system that speaks passionately enough to fall in love with in last year’s Her would be the reigning champ.

Honorable Mention: Virtually every voice actor in How to Train Your Dragon 2 was fantastic, but none particularly stood out from the pack. (And while we’re here, why are Vikings always voiced by Scotsmen?)

Winner: With all due credit to Vin Diesel, who was totally great at shouting “I am Groot” in about three different intonations (and probably received the largest dollar-per-word payout in acting history), this award has to go to Bradley Cooper, who brought Rocket Raccoon somemorably to life that an anthropomorphic, gun-toting raccoon became one of 2014’s breakout film characters.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 3

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers): 

Black Rain (Ridley Scott, 1989)
Mommy (Xavier Dolan, 2014)
The Interview (Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen, 2014)
The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2015)
Agent Carter: Season 1 (ABC/Marvel, 2015)

5 Thoughts:

1. Black Rain is the archetypal bad '80s action movie. Like Beverly Hills Cop, it's a fish-out-of-water flick about a certain kind of cop trying to catch someone in a city that doesn't like or want that kind of cop. Had Black Rain possessed one iota of humor, it probably could have been called Tokyo Hills Cop. Here's the gist: Michael Douglas is a tough, semi-dirty NYC cop who plays by his own rules. After he catches a Japanese murderer, he has to escort him to Japan to stand trial. He escapes, forcing Douglas to stay in Tokyo to finish what he started. 

So much wrong here. First off, this movie feels pretty racist now that it's 25 years old, with all of the Japanese cops reacting to Douglas as though the idea of gritty police work had never occurred to them. In that sense, it's a thinly veiled White Savior movie. Though the movie is by Ridley Scott, it feels far more like a Tony Scott movie. After Ridley had been on a losing streak for all of the '80s (remember, even Blade Runner bombed at the box office), and Tony's movies had mostly become mega-popular, Black Rain feels like Ridley admitting defeat, and just succumbing to well I guess that's the kind of movie I have to make. So it's just like the kind of hyper-stylish, excessively violent (as though all gunshot wounds came via shotgun), edited-through-copious-lines-of-blow movie that Tony would have made at the same time. The script is total formula. Would you believe that the opening scene of Douglas on an illegal motorcycle race under the NYC bridges actually foreshadows a climactic motorcycle showdown against the villain? Of course it does! And Douglas is playing the same character here that he did three years later in Basic Instinct. They even have near-identical names: here he's Nick Conklin, hot head controversial detective that plays by his own rules, and in Basic Instinct he's Nick Curran, hot head controversial detective that plays by his own rules. The creativity is overwhelming. 

Anyway, unless you're doing a dissertation on '80s action tropes, the only reason to watch this movie is for the cinematography by Jan de Bont, who also shot Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October around the same period, and Basic Instinct, which was clearly a sequel to this. He makes a bad movie feel slightly less bad. 

2. I didn't like The Elephant Man nearly as much as I thought I would. It certainly wasn't bad, but wasn't particularly engaging for most of its run time, and that seems like the worst thing you could ever say about a David Lynch film. This is definitely the safest he's ever been. Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt are quite good as the leads, though considering John Hurt has the greatest voice of any actor ever, it's immensely frustrating to put him in a role where he doesn't get to use it. The photography here is also quite good, capturing Victorian London as though it's a Jack the Ripper film where dear Jack never bothers to show up. Creatively, the best things are the first 8 minutes and the last 8 minutes, which are the only parts that actually feel like David Lynch. Everything in between can be vaguely watched while checking emails. 

3. The Interview and Agent Carter were pretty much just what I expected them to be. If anything they were marginally better than I was expecting, because my expectations were very, very low. I laughed a handful of times in The Interview, which was nice. But like This is the End, it was really a one-joke movie stretched to nearly two hours. I can't decide if this means that Rogen and Goldberg have gotten much worse since Superbad, or if I saw Superbad for the first time in 2015, I just wouldn't think it was very funny. Agent Carter was a lot better than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been, because at least Carter knows exactly what it is and focuses on being that, while S.H.I.E.L.D. can't seem to decide whether it wants to be The X-Files or not. While Carter isn't that exciting, Haley Atwell is very good in the lead, and she should have a nice career ahed of her. I also think the McGuffin that Agent Carter used was, as far as these things go, actually a really good one. 

4. Kingsman: the Secret Service was a fun movie for what it was, but I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was called Wanted. Seriously, they're identical movies. One has Angelina Jolie teaching an American loser how to be a super-assassin badass, while giving us Morgan Freeman saying "motherfucker," and the other has Colin Firth teaching a British loser how to be a super-agent gentleman, while giving us Samuel L. Jackson with a lisp. Everything else is the same, and the original stories were not-so-shockingly by the same graphic novel writer. But that major quibble aside, Kingsman was pretty entertaining, even if you can never quite tell whether all the gentlemanly stuff is meant to show how great the British are, or if it's all taking the piss. 

5. Saving the best for last, we get Mommy, which was without a doubt the best movie I've seen since Birdman opened in early October. Mommy is perfectly representative of why films are my life's passion. 

I saw a movie at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival called Laurence Anyways. Made by a 22-year old Quebecois filmmaker named Xavier Dolan, Laurence was a three hour film about a male high school teacher in 1980s Montreal deciding to start living as a woman. It was an absolute mess, way too long and with several scenes that just didn't work. But there were also three or four sequences that were completely brilliant, and all the more so for the fact that they were made by a 22-year old. I made sure to keep an eye out for Dolan's future work, and last year at Cannes, he won the Grand Jury Prize for his fifth film, Mommy, which proves every ounce of genius within him. 

At the center of Mommy is a parent child relationship that simply doesn't function--a poor mother who can't handle her teenage son who's been kicked out of juvenile detention and is incapable of going a full hour without causing major trouble. But Mommy isn't the downer drama that it sounds like. Much of the film is played like black comedy, and the comedic drama is offset by several sequences that play like music videos, featuring long, wordless passages set to songs by Oasis, Counting Crows, and several others, where we see the status quos of the emotional journeys the characters are on. The film is daringly framed in a 1:1 aspect ratio (something I don't think I've ever seen a modern film do), which Dolan used to enhance the claustrophobia of emotions in the characters, to convey how trapped they are with each other. There's one bit where the frame expands to full 16:9, as the mother dreams about what life with a normal child might be like, and it's my single favorite film scene of 2014. When the movie finally concludes, it does so in a way that's quite sad, but the strength of the filmmaking plays it for pure triumph, and it works. Dolan is just 25 now, currently shooting his first Hollywood film with Jessica Chastain, Susan Sarandon, and Jon Snow. Watch out for him. He's brilliant. 

What I Watched: 2015, Week 2

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers):

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, 2014)
Still Alice (Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, 2014)
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2014)
The Judge (David Dobkin, 2014)
Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)

5 Thoughts:

1. A second viewing of Boyhood confirms for me how good it is. For most people, myself included, you're caught up in the time lapses and aging of the characters the first time you see it, and it's easy to pay so much attention on the technique of the journey that you don't allow it to soak into you. I don't want to write too much more now, because my Best of 2014 piece will be coming up in a few weeks, and Boyhood will receive ample coverage there. But the last 25 minutes of the movie are wonderful. It's one of the most eloquent commentaries on the way the passage of time affects us that I've ever seen. 

2. I've actually only seen a few Luc Besson films, but Lucy seems pretty typical of his work--great ideas, sloppy execution. I loved the first half hour of the movie, which gets off to an electrifying start and sets up an intriguing premise. If the sole goal of a movie were to get you hooked as quickly as possible, Lucy would be a Best Picture contender. But where it goes from there… ugghhh. With the suspension of disbelief, I can more or less buy the idea that a person operating at 100% of cerebral potential could basically have the slow-mo reaction time of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. But once Lucy starts suddenly telekinetically controlling everything around her, I was out. Even science fiction movies have to follow their own rules, and this one shits all over them. It's still worth seeing not just for the cool effects and great opening 15 minutes, but also for a scene where Lucy calls her mother and breaks down over the phone, with Scarlett Johansson doing the scene all in a one-take close-up of her face as she finds her emotions slowly betraying her. It was a beautiful few minutes, and probably the best acting I've seen her do. 

3. Still Alice was the best horror movie I've seen in years. Maybe I'm cheating here, because it's a movie about a college professor getting early onset Alzheimer's, and is really not horror at all, but every single scene carries a level of mounting dread that her disease will result in terrifying consequences that it really does feel like a horror movie. Julianne Moore just won the (deserved) Oscar for it, but the critical narrative around the film seems to be that her performance is really the only reason to see it. I disagree. It's not a pleasant way to spend two hours, but for what it is, it's wonderfully done. The initial scene of Moore receiving her diagnosis from her doctor, where the camera never leaves Moore's face and we just watch her mindset slowly decay in real time, is one of the more powerful film moments of the year. 

4. The Judge is a movie that had an interesting thematic idea that it wanted to convey, but went about conveying it in a roundabout, somewhat stupid way. When the movie finally got around to its main point (more than two hours in), it was handled well. And enough of the rest of the movie is watchable due to Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall being their usual, high-quality selves. But this is a movie that mostly tricks you into believing it's far better than it is by the presence of great actors engaged in great actor-type scenes of gravitas. And of course there's a child of mysterious parentage. Remember: Just because you don't see a twist coming, that doesn't mean it's a good twist. It might just mean it's an excessively stupid one. 

5. Virunga, one of '14's Oscar-nominated documentaries, is now streaming on Netflix, and I recommend people check it out. It's about a major national park in the heart of the Congo, and the fight several people are waging to keep it safe in the face of mounting civil strife, rebel uprisings, and international oil conglomerates trying to use the land. Specifically the film takes the point of view of a small preserve within the park that's nursing three injured gorillas back to health, and the film tells the story of the Virunga park through the eyes of those gorillas and the people trying to care for them amidst the turmoil. It's quite well done.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on February 25, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 1

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers):

*Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)
*The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
*A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 2014)
*Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014)
*Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
*Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)
*The Oscar nominated animated shorts
*The Oscar nominated live action shorts

Five thoughts: 

1. A Most Violent Year was fantastic, and after All Is Lost in 2012, J.C. Chandor is officially on watch as one of the most intriguing new filmmakers. It's a film that's advertised and marketed completely wrong, but I understand why. Trailers are supposed to make you want to see the movie, so of course they make it look like a gangster film. It's not. It's actually about the head of a fuel distribution company trying to figure out who's hijacking his trucks during the worst year for violent crime in the history of NYC. What I love about Chandor's films is how much restraint they show in the service of the slow build that never quite culminates. Both of his last two films show a man watching everything he has slowly fall apart, but refuse to fall apart himself. Robert Redford in All Is Lost and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year never lost their cool, but you could perpetually see in their face how much loss they were experiencing internally. And Oscar Isaac has vaulted himself on the list of best young actors in the world. 

2. I'd spent the last 21 years assuming that Anna Paquin's Oscar win for The Piano was the result of a combo "she's young and cute" and "we have no one better to give it to this year." Man was I wrong. Now that I've finally seen the movie (which I'd been meaning to for all of those 21 years), I can verify that she earns that Oscar with every second of her amazing performance. She was only ten years old in the movie, but the work she does with her accent, her gestures (signing to her mute mother), and how she handles being the catalyst of the film's pivotal plot twist, are all truly wonderful, and would be Oscar-worthy for any actor three times her age.

3. Mr. Turner has some gorgeous opening credits, and a few individual shots that are stunningly composed and lit, but overall I was pretty disappointed. Mike Leigh has distinguished himself as a great chronicler of the every day mundanities of British life, creating a sort of romanticism around the normal. But with Mr. Turner, his subject matter was one of the great visual artists of the last 200 years. J.M.W. Turner is not a figure for which we want to see the mundanities. And yet that's what the film gives us: his dealings with his father and house keepers, the annoying process of mixing paints, the way he creepily grunts and snorts before saying "expose your breasts" to the prostitute he visits, and so much more that really has very little to do with the subject of why he matters as a subject. If the movie really had something to say about his art, then all of the extra little details might have felt in service of something. But with no centrality to the narrative, everything else is just sort of there. 

4. Into the Woods, Calvary, and Dear White People are all good films that I'm glad I finally saw, but none really connected with me on an emotional level. Into the Woods was the most fun, because it's very well crafted and you can tell the actors are enjoying themselves, especially Emily Blunt. Though Streep heavily overacts (and is definitely not deserving an Oscar nomination unless we're just at the point where we're reserving her a slot every year regardless of what she actually does) and Johnny Depp needs to make a fucking movie where he's not wearing ten pounds of make-up and prosthetics. How long has it been?? It's almost like he's actually afraid of looking in the mirror and seeing himself. Calvary and Dear White People are stories of great emotional and intellectual ambition, and mostly service those ambitions well, but something never quite comes together in either of them for me. My big question is: What was the set like on Dear White People? Did the mixed race cast continue to discuss and have fun with the issues in the film when the cameras weren't rolling? How integrated were their after-hours activities? These are the things I wonder.

5. I'll write about the Oscar Nominated Shorts later this week when I do my big Oscar prediction piece, but my favorites were Feast & Me and My Moulton (animated), and Aya & Boogaloo and Graham (live action). Overall, I wasn't as impressed with the shorts this year as I have been in years past. Feast was the only one that I'd call truly great. They're all watchable, but it didn't feel like there were many risk-takers in this year's crop. Especially in the live action grouping, none of them made me think "Man, I wonder what that director will be able to do with a feature film?" Oh well.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on February 16, 2015