Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Shape of Water leads Oscar nominations as Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele make history

Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War fairy tale The Shape of Water led all comers Tuesday morning when the nominees were announced for the 90th Academy Awards. In addition to Best Picture, the film garnered 12 other nods, including Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress and Original Screenplay, as well as a host of crafts nominations.

The story of the morning, however, is Greta Gerwig, who became just the fifth woman ever nominated for Best Director for her work on the magnificent Lady Bird. Gerwig, who is also nominated for original screenplay, joins del Toro, Jordan Peele for Get Out, Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk, and Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread, which also was a surprise nominee for Best Picture. Speaking of making history, Peele is just fifth black director ever nominated, and he also earned nods for his screenplay and as a producer on the Best Picture-nominated Get Out.

The biggest snub is Martin McDonagh missing out on a Director nod for Three Billboards ouside Ebbing, Missouri, which showed strength elsewhere, including with nominations for Picture, Actress (Frances McDormand), Original Screenplay, and two Supporting Actor nods (Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson). McDonagh is the sole screenwriter and a nominated producer, so he was not left out of the proceedings entirely, but it is a surprising miss for the presumed Best Picture frontrunner.

In addition to The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, Get Out, and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the nine-strong Best Picture lineup includes Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, The Post, and Call Me By Your Name.

Nolan’s World War II epic came in a distant second behind The Shape of Water in the nominations count with eight, including Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri was third with seven nominations, picking up recognition for Editing and Original Score, in addition to the above-the-line categories.

In Cinematography, Rachel Morrison made history as the first woman to be nominated for her work on the spectacular Mudbound, breaking a long and frankly shameful streak of all-male nominees in the category. Darkest Hour, The Shape of Water, and Blade Runner 2049 were also recognized for their lensing.

The love for Anderson’s crazed romance Phantom Thread probably was the biggest shock of the morning, and its six nominations are tied with Darkest Hour for fourth-most. Joining producer-director PTA are Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor and Lesley Manville for Best Supporting Actress. Radiohead guitarist and frequent Anderson collaborator Johnny Greenwoord earned his first nomination for Original Score, and Mark Bridges was nominated for Costume Design, which if he hadn’t been, the category should just pack up and go home, so good on the Academy.

Joining Day-Lewis in the Best Actor lineup are frontrunner Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), and Academy favorite Denzel Washington, earning his eighth career acting nomination (six lead, two supporting) for Roman J. Israel, Esq.

For Best Actress, joining McDormand are Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) and extending her own record with a 21st nomination, Meryl Streep for The Post.

Steven Spielberg’s newspaper drama, which looked on paper like a strong contender, wound up the weakest of the Best Picture nominees, pulling in just two nods for the top category and Streep, as Tom Hanks was left on the outside looking in. John Williams also missed for his score for The Post but extended his record with a nomination for scoring Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Lady Bird came away with five nominations, all in above-the-line categories. Get Out nabbed four nominations but was a surprising snub in Best Editing. Call Me By Your Name also garnered four nods, including Best Original Song for Sufjan Stevens’ “The Mysteries of Love,” though Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg were shut out of the Best Supporting Actor category.

Instead the Supporting Actor nominees are Rockwell and Harrelson for Three Billboards, Willem Dafoe for The Florida Project, Richard Jenkins for The Shape of Water, and Christopher Plummer for All the Money in the World. For Supporting Actress, the nominees are Allison Janney for I, Tonya, Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird, Mary J. Blige for Mudbound, Octavia Spencer for The Shape of Water, and Manville. Blige is a double nominee, also earning recognition for co-writing the original song “Mighty River” from Mudbound.

Overall, it was a morning light on surprises and heavy on frontrunners and Academy favorites. McDonagh missing out on Best Director puts a dent in the Best Picture hopes of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, but it opens the door for a race that will come down to the wire with del Toro’s nominations leader The Shape of Water and the crowd-pleasing Lady Bird the most likely beneficiaries.

I was pleased with four nominations for Mudbound, though I would have liked to see it in the Best Picture lineup, and Dee Rees, nominated for Adapted Screenplay, certainly should be in contention for Best Director. I am over the moon for Angès Varda and JR getting a Documentary nod for Faces Places, which might not have a shot at the win against some of the heavy hitters in the category but its nomination is my favorite of the year. Similarly, it’s good to see Steve James finally back in the Documentary lineup with Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. He has been shut out too long.

In Foreign Language Film, I was sad to see Foxtrot and In the Fade miss out, though I am happy to root for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless and Ruben Östlund’s The Square, particularly after Östlund missed out a couple years ago for his masterful Force Majuere.

I wish I, Tonya had gotten more play overall. Its acting nominations and Editing nod are all well deserved, but it is unfortunate the Academy missed the chance to recognize it in the Best Picture lineup, as well as for its stellar costumes and hair and makeup.

So there you have it. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri stumbles. The Shape of Water soars. The race is wide open, and due to the Winter Olympics, we have an extended window in which to analyze and guess at what might happen. We will have our answers come March 4.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Year in Review: Top 10 Moments of 2017

A film is a snapshot of the world at a place and time. It says, “This is who we are now,” and to future generations, it will say, “This is who we were then.” Films provide a metric for how far we have come or how little we have changed. What I would like to do here, then, is to take a snapshot of the snapshot, to pick images or sequences from some of the year’s best films that somehow represent a larger piece of our collective puzzle.

Traditionally, I have used this space in my annual Year in Review series for the Best & Worst column, identifying the positive and negative trends taking place in the film industry and filmgoing experience. That column frankly felt like a futile gesture this year in the wake of the ongoing sexual harassment and abuse scandal that has shaken Hollywood to its foundation. To call such abuse a negative trend feels glib and dismissive, however accurate, and no film business trends column would be complete without such a discussion.

Briefly, the rampant sexual abuse perpetrated by powerful members of the Hollywood community – almost universally men – has been dispiriting but not shocking. I say not shocking because throughout history, wherever power has been consolidated abuse has thrived. This is true of the political and business worlds, as well as film. However predictable these behaviors, it does not diminish their evil. If any good can be said to have come from this, it is the hope the #MeToo movement has raised awareness of the disheartening prevalence and disgusting banality of these abuses and the problem, now named, can be fixed sooner rather than later.

Elsewhere in the cinema world, things continued apace with theater revenues dropping even as ticket and concession prices rose. The MoviePass subscription service rocked the industry with its business model of essentially giving away movie tickets to those willing to take them, and the theater business, ever fearful of change, tried to battle back the upstart by incentivizing the theatergoing experience any way it could. This will be an interesting development to watch as 2018 unfolds and perhaps serves as a litmus test for new vs. old business practices. It may even provide the key for just what it will take to get people going to the cinemas again, if this is even possible.

A State of the Cinematic Union, however, feels less vital this year than years past, which is not to say it will not return in future installments of this column. Instead, this year, I wanted to introduce a new feature, the Top 10 Moments. This will not be the first site to compile such a list, and I have thought for years about introducing one. Now, the time feels right, and two moments this year made it feel so – the No. 10 moment on this list and the No. 1.

These are the moments that will stay with us once the rest of 2017 has fallen away, the moments that will remind us of who we were and just what it meant to be us. These are the Top 10 Moments of 2017:

10. When Bobby lights a cigarette, and the motel lights come on – from The Florida Project, directed by Sean Baker

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) stands on the balcony at dusk. It has been another hectic day managing the Magic Castle, the motel on the outskirts of Disney World where mostly poor families have made their temporary homes. If this is a castle, then Bobby is its king, but he does not feel much like one. In fact, he has stepped out on the balcony to steal a moment of peace, a quick cigarette before returning to the backbreaking work of running his little kingdom.

He lights his cigarette, and the porch lights of every room in the complex come on. It is a fleeting moment – blink and you might miss it – but it encapsulates his character perfectly. The motel lights are on a timer, surely, coming on as the sun goes down, and we realize Bobby is, too. He lights his cigarette and the lights come on because they are on the same schedule, part of the same entity, inseparable from one another.

All of the moments discussed below take place over entire scenes or sequences. They build, some slowly, some rapidly, to an apex of shock or catharsis. This moment, though, is a flash, a brief flicker, and then it is gone. In the time it takes to light a cigarette, we learn almost all we need to know about Bobby and his world, and all the filmmaker asks of us is to pay attention. We’d be foolish not to.

9. When we learn what happened to the Engineers – from Alien: Covenant, directed by Ridley Scott

I am among the few who think Scott’s earlier Prometheus is a misunderstood masterpiece. In fact, I might be the only one. Its investigation of the origins of human life and religious belief resonated for me on a level it didn’t for most observers. That’s okay. I don’t mind being in the minority. But it was hard not to watch Alien: Covenant and feel vindicated. The latest installment in the Alien franchise is much more highly regarded than its immediate predecessor, but I believe for any issues viewers had with Prometheus, any lingering questions or doubts, the answers are there in Covenant.

Now, one could argue it shouldn’t take a whole second movie for the first movie to make sense, but that is neither here nor there. As great as I think Prometheus is, everything in Alien: Covenant makes it that much better, that much more interesting. Covenant brings the Alien franchise full circle in a way that is both satisfying and shocking. It somehow makes perfect sense yet is so radical it boggles the mind.

Prometheus leaves off on the question: Where did the Engineers, those mysterious beings from deep space who seem to be the creators of life on Earth, come from? Did some other being create them? I will not discuss the specifics here because they would constitute major spoilers if you have not seen the film – for which it would be best to go in blind – but Alien: Covenant’s manner of dealing with these questions raises the level of the entire Alien franchise to high art. The moment we learn what happened to our creators is at once profoundly beautiful, philosophical, nihilistic, and perfect.

8. When Kay makes the decision to publish – from The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg

All of The Post builds to this moment. The audience, if it has any sense of history, knows what is coming, knows what must come. That it lands so well is a testament to the genius of Spielberg, the brilliance of Meryl Streep, and the wonderful script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. While characters like Tom Hanks’ hard-charging journalist Ben Bradlee and the rest of the newsroom are clear in their aims, Kay Graham, as portrayed by Streep, is a slow burn.

Kay is the owner and publisher of the Washington Post, a position she inherited through her husband’s death but would have gotten by birthright alone, if not for the sexist nature of the industry. She is questioned and doubted and patronized by the men around her who don’t wield her power but by virtue of their gender believe they should have a seat at the table. It is difficult to watch as Kay struggles to find her voice, to find her cause, and that is what the Pentagon Papers provide.

Her business – and by association, the past and future of her family – is at stake. She stands to lose everything she built and worked for, so the decision to publish does not come lightly. Finally, though, she can longer bow to the men in her life – not even Ben. She makes this decision because she believes it is right, because she decides it is her time to come out of the shadows and flex the muscle she has always had but was afraid to use. She will no longer be silent, and neither will her paper.

7. When a dinner party art show goes wrong – from The Square, directed by Ruben Östlund

We talked in yesterday’s feature about Östlund’s investigation in The Square of how little separates order and chaos and how quickly the rule of law can devolve into the law of nature. We are not so far from our primal selves, Östlund argues, and the repeated use of primates and a primate-man performance art piece drives this point home.

The museum at the center of the story hosts a dinner party for its donors and patrons. The moneyed elite gather to be entertained, to be pampered, to be coddled, and in some respects, to be thanked for their contributions. In essence, they are here to reaffirm to themselves and everyone else there would be no museum without them. It is a giant pat on the back, a self-congratulatory evening of conspicuous consumption. It is, by most definitions, order. 

Enter chaos, in the form of the aforementioned performance art piece in which the artist, aided by a pair of mechanical arm apparatuses, bounces around the opulent dining hall, imitating a chimpanzee or other primate. It begins innocently, amusingly enough, but ever so slowly, the situation escalates. This is no longer performance art but assault – an assault on these wealthy donors’ values, on their primness, on their beloved social structure. When they sense what is under attack, they fight back in the most shocking and brutal way imaginable. It is precisely what the artist intended, if perhaps not the outcome he predicted.

6. When Mildred Hayes sees a deer in the field – from Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, directed by Martin McDonagh

McDonagh’s moralist revenge thriller is a lot of things, but peaceful it is not. There is no peace in Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) life, not since her daughter was brutally raped and murdered. There is no certainty even that her quest to find the killer, if completed, will bring anything to her but more grief and ever-more focused rage. The world has let her down time and again, and her remorseless path of destruction through the system is what keeps her going.

But it can’t all be pain and rage. There must be some relief. As Mildred tends to the flowers she has planted in front of the billboards that give the film its title, a deer arrives in the meadow. It stands just yards from Mildred. They lock eyes. It is an otherworldly moment in an otherwise heavily grounded film. Time seems to stop. They linger in silence. McDonagh’s cinema brand is such that you half expect a gunshot to ring out and a hunter’s bullet to pierce the animal’s heart. But no such break in tension is coming.

Finally, Mildred tells the deer: “You’re pretty. But you ain’t her.” In a beautiful stroke of the pen, McDonagh denies us the easy metaphor. Of course we see in this beautiful, innocent creature the daughter Mildred lost so senselessly and violently. That is what we are meant to see. But Mildred will not be placated by such symbols. She has already turned away god in the form of the town preacher, and now she turns away nature itself. Only the real-world justice she seeks will do. And like that, the deer is gone.

5. When two inmates hug and all we hear is the beating of a heart – from The Work, directed by Jairus McCleary and Gethin Aldous

Toxic masculinity is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot, enough that its meaning has somewhat muddied, particularly for the uninitiated. It is essentially the cultural pressure felt by men to uphold standards of masculine gender roles – violence and anger, mostly, with a general inability to express emotion thrown in for good measure. This leads to all sorts of societal ills and takes men places both privileged and less so. For the subjects of McCleary and Aldous’ magnificent documentary, it has brought them to Folsom Prison.

The men in this film are almost all criminals, most of them violent offenders, but what they truly share is the capacity to change. They are the film’s subjects because they have chosen to break the cycles of neglect, abuse, and violence that brought them here. They choose to undergo intensive rounds of group therapy that at times devolve into primal screaming sessions. It is all meant to unleash the emotions these men have so long held back, to force them to confront their deepest fears and insecurities with no safety net but the support of the group.

It is a powerful film, deeply moving, and it feels revolutionary to watch hardened criminals bawling unselfconsciously about thoughts of suicide, their fathers, their friends, and all the promises they have broken and lives they have damaged. In one particularly brutal stretch, an inmate suggests he will kill himself, and another pleads with him not to. They lock eyes, and one makes the other promise not to kill himself. Then they hug, and they hold each other so closely, the microphones strapped to them pick up only their hearts beating. It is the thump of pain, resilience, and ultimately change.

4. When “the incident” goes down – from I, Tonya, directed by Craig Gillespie

The filmmakers know what you came to see. Everyone knows. We all want the same thing here in one way or another. Yeah, there’s the interesting character study and the wonderful dissection of class in America. There are the bravura performances and stellar direction. The finely tuned writing. All of that is there, and surely some of us entered the theater to be wowed by it. But deep down, we are all a little curious. We want to see what the film refers to as “the incident.” We want to watch as poor Nancy Kerrigan’s knee is busted by some thug.

Gillespie has taken heat in some corners for directing I, Tonya like Scorsese-lite. The film’s trailer even plays up these comparisons, proudly wearing the badge as the “Goodfellas of figure skating” movies. Admittedly, there are flashes of that, but Scorsese’s influence is far and wide, and it is to be expected even in the most unexpected places – say a figure skating biopic. But this gives Gillespie too little credit. He has constructed something else, something that operates on its own time, its own wavelength. When this sequence arrives, it feels like it could only be a piece of the puzzle I, Tonya is meant to reveal.

Just before the sequence plays out, as we all know it must, Margot Robbie, delivering the year’s best performance, snarls into the camera: “This is what you all came to see!” Then from the low gliding camera to the pulsing music, the performances to the dramatic irony of the whole situation, Gillespie does not disappoint. It is tense, propulsive, wild, and inevitable. By this point, it is more Shakespeare than Scorsese, a grand, fatalistic tragedy. And we got to see it all.

3. When Elisa and the Amphibian Man share a dance – from The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro

For everything else The Shape of Water wants to be – all of which it is, from Cold War thriller to satire to romance – it is most of all a loving tribute to film itself. There is no other reason to put Elisa’s (Sally Hawkins) apartment directly above a movie theater than to proclaim loudly and for all to hear that this movie loves the movies. Del Toro has spoken of his direct influences, including the great old monster-movie actor Lon Cheney, and those drip through in every frame.

Yet it is not a monster movie that inspires the film’s most lively and gorgeous sequence. Rather, the inspiration comes from the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, rewritten for a deaf-mute woman and the lonely Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) she loves. In a fantasy sequence of the highest order, the soundtrack swells, the real world melts away, and Elisa and the creature are transported to a black and white wonderland where the curtains shimmer and dance floor reflects their love back up to them.

It is a perfect choice, made all the more perfect by the actors’ performances. Hawkins, of course, is brilliant, but Jones truly mesmerizes in this sequence. Buried beneath layers of prosthetics, make-up, and visual effects, Jones makes us feel the warmth and passion simmering within this ancient creature. He makes the unknowable known, and it is no longer a question of how a woman could fall in love with an Amphibian Man, but rather how the rest of the world couldn’t.

2. When a woman cries in the rain – from Foxtrot, directed by Samuel Maoz

On their surface, the top two moments here deal with much the same subject matter, but each film comes at its story from a markedly different angle. While the No. 1 moment is about fostering empathy, this moment of quiet devastation is achieved by demonstrating a complete lack of empathy. We spoke yesterday about Maoz’s film as a condemnation of the dehumanizing effects of war, both on soldiers and citizens. In this heartbreaking moment, the writer-director drives that point home.

The second act of Foxtrot takes place entirely at a roadside checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers. We see the monotony of their day as minutes and hours tick by, offering little interest or excitement. It is rare even that this road is used, but the soldiers sit at their posts, automatic weapons in hand, ready for the action or adventure the army promised them. Instead, day after day, there is just boredom. So they make their own brand of cruel fun.

With the exception of Israeli military personnel, the only cars that ever seem to come by here belong to Palestinian citizens. One evening, in a torrential downpour, a car pulls up. The soldiers stop it and notice a well dressed husband and wife, clearly on their way to an event. For no reason in particular, they force the man and woman to get out of the car and stand in the rain. As the woman’s gown and makeup and hair are ruined, the soldiers just look on. She tries to remain strong, but the effect of their cruelty – in fact the very reason for it – is to break her. She cries, and in the rain, it appears as a never-ending stream of tears. And we cry with her for a world so drained of humanity and decency.

1. When Jeannine sees her portrait on the front of her home – from Faces Places, directed by Agnès Varda and JR

Another woman brought to tears on a dreary day, but this time, it is because she is overwhelmed by the depth of feeling and connection she senses. Faces Places is an attempt by Varda and JR to recreate through their art the souls of the people they meet and places they visit. Their canvasses are found in the world around them, and their subjects are the individuals who inhabit those worlds. Fleeting as the physical portraits they create may be, their impact remains long after the poster paper JR works with has been washed away.

The film is broken down into a series of scenes and meetings. Varda and JR visit several farms. They visit the docks. They visit an industrial work site. They visit a small seaside town. In all of these places, they document what it means to be a person existing among other people, inseparable from your environment. Each sequence has its own style of resolution and catharsis, and each sticks its landing wonderfully, but none hits as hard as the filmmakers’ first visit to a small mining community that has been left almost entirely abandoned.

A row of houses, where once legions of miners came back after long, grueling days of work, now sits mostly empty but for one woman, Jeannine, who refuses to leave. This is her home, and she will not be going anywhere. Varda and JR rightly see in her the spirit of a freedom fighter, a revolutionary, and they post her portrait on the front of her home as big as the house itself. When they bring her out to see it, it is as though she is seeing herself for the first time. She is seeing herself in a new way, through the eyes of a pair of admiring filmmakers who saw in her something worth capturing and preserving. One wishes more films even tried to capture such beauty and soul, if only for a moment.

Check back tomorrow as we conclude our Year in Review series with Last Cinema Standing’s 10 Top Films of 2017, and be sure to go back through all of the Year in Review pieces posted throughout the week.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Year in Review: Top 10 Quotes of 2017

To be honest, this is the column I look forward to writing each year. The best performances, best films, all of that, they are fun but sometimes feel like work. The Top 10 Quotes of the year are a joy to write about, a joy to compile, and a joy to share.

In the past, there has been an overarching structure or theme to the quotes – whether it was to define the movies they were contained within or to speak to the world outside – but this year more than any other, I went with my gut. These are the quotes that stood out immediately for one reason or another. And in ways large and small, I have thought about each since seeing them spoken on the big screen.

Last Cinema Standing’s Top 10 Quotes of 2017:

10. “It’s good in a peculiar way” from School Life, written Etienne Essery, Neasa Ní Chianáin, and David Rane

School Life is the kind of gem of a film it is hard to find and even harder to see. By which I mean, even for those of us lucky enough to live in a place where it might play in theaters, it does not necessarily stand out as a must-see or appointment viewing. It is a little documentary about a year in the life of a modern Christian boarding school in Ireland, and I can identify at least four words in that sentence that will drive some people away. They shouldn’t.

The film follows the day-to-day travails of husband-and-wife team John and Amanda Leyden, teachers at the Headfort School. They are nearing the ends of their careers, but through all the years, they seem to have maintained a sense of duty and pride in their work, helping children take their first awkward steps into adolescence and eventually adulthood. They act as educators, confidants, wardens, and substitute parents all at once, leading the kind of quiet, humane lives so often ignored by a world obsessed with the grand and the flashy.

In one of the film’s many standout sequences, Amanda helps the students put on a Shakespeare play, and after a particularly odd, energetic performance, she tells a student: “It’s good in a peculiar way.” This is kindness distilled to its most basic form, telling a child – away from home, away from his parents for the first time, lonely and scared – something positive in a way that doesn’t sugarcoat, coddle, or condescend. The same could be said of this film, which is peculiar only in its commitment to generosity and openness, so rare in these times.

9. “The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring” from The Square, written by Ruben Östlund

Östlund is perhaps the foremost progenitor of high comedy rung from the slowly cracking social facades that keep us bound within ourselves. In his superlative Force Majeure, he took a broad swipe at the falseness of masculinity and the social structure that requires reverence to such. At Cannes in 2017, where Östlund walked away with the prestigious Palme d’Or, he returned with The Square, broadening his critique and sharpening his sense of satirical wit on a story of class, entitlement, and the thin line between order and chaos.

Christian (Claes Bang) is the curator of a contemporary art museum, confronted on all sides by both the ludicrousness of the art world and the need to find meaning in something greater than the self. He glides through his world, often seeming to hold himself at a remove from it, perhaps for fear of realizing he is no better than anyone else in his orbit. He engages with few and engages deeply with even fewer. His connections are surface-level at best, a start contrast to the art he surrounds himself with, where the surface does not begin to reveal its meaning.

“The Square” is an art installation in front of the museum. It defines the brutality and inhumanity of the outside world by creating a separate space, outlined only by a series of lights arranged in a square. “The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring” reads the plaque placed next to the installation, and the implication is clear. If within this space – no more than a few feet by a few feet – there has been made room for trust and caring, then we have failed to make in our world space for such values.

8. “We don’t like each other, but we’re friends” from BPM (Beats Per Minute), written by Robin Campillo and Phillipe Mangeot

Activism depends, more than anything, on the group, on collective action, on working together to achieve a common goal. Thanks to great leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi – or rather, the way we are taught and learn about such figures – we tend to have a romanticized view of protest and rights movements. We envision an impassioned man or woman standing up in front of a giant faceless crowd and pointing the way forward. We revere these people and study them, but in truth, as great as they are, it is the faceless crowd and every individual therein who truly effects change.

If you saw the great 2012 documentary by David France How to Survive a Plague, you will be familiar with the American chapter of ACT UP, the AIDS activist group that pushed for change in the medical and health care rights of AIDS and HIV patients. In BPM, Campillo portrays the work of the French chapter of the group, of which he was a member, showing the nitty-gritty details of putting together and maintaining a real movement, the work often ignored by more perfunctory histories.

The film’s greatest strength comes in showing how groups of people from disparate backgrounds, sometimes sharing only the goal of living with their disease just a little longer, can come together and how tough it is to stay together. Members fight, they bicker, they back bite, they disagree, but at the end of the day, they have only one goal, which they all share: to survive. So they don’t have to like each other, but they are friends.

7. “Hi. This is Jonathan. I’m at the end of the world and have no reception. I’ll call you back someday” from Foxtrot, written by Samuel Maoz

War, even at its most righteous, is an absurd endeavor. It devalues the lives of those fighting, those dying, and even those nowhere near but still touched by it. All arguments toward war are founded on the same premise – that somehow the lives of others are less than our own. It is, at its base, the worst of us-vs.-them thinking. The act of war is an act entirely devoid of empathy.

Now comes the brilliant Foxtrot, from Israel, where it should be noted military service is mandatory. It addresses the falsehoods of war at home and abroad in personal terms that cut so close to the bone they are hard to watch. It deals with grief in ways so painful and daring, few films have ever endeavored to portray them, and many of those that have pale in comparison.

In the film’s enthralling first act, a father and mother learn of the death of their son at war. They grieve in separate ways, and eventually the father (Lior Ashkenazi) finds himself pulling out his phone and calling his son over and over, knowing he will never answer. Instead, he calls to hear his son’s voice the only way he can, on his outgoing voicemail message: “Hi. This is Jonathan. I’m at the end of the world and have no reception. I’ll call you back someday.” That he will not call back now is a given because he was sent to wherever the end of the world may be, for what reason no one can say.

6. “The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish” from The Post, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer

Steven Spielberg’s handsomely mounted The Post is about one thing above all else: the importance of speaking truth to power. Set in the 1970s amid the Pentagon Papers scandal and the administration of Richard Nixon, its modern-day parallels are immediately obvious. One need not look closely to see modern counterparts in the Nixon administration, a group of powerful men doing whatever they can to stay in power by obfuscation, intimidation, and outright abuse.

Yet as much as the film is a critique of the current administration and its many failings and abuses, it is also a celebration of the freedom of the press and need for that press to perform its duties and perform them well. After The New York Times is barred from doing its job by a fearful government, the Washington Post takes up the mantle of defender of the First Amendment. The movie revolves around the decision whether to publish the classified documents that will unveil to the people – you know, those from whom the government derives whatever power it has – the full history of the Vietnam War.

Early in the film, the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), makes it clear where he stands, when speaking about an entirely unrelated matter. The Post has been barred from attending Nixon’s daughter’s wedding, and Bradlee says they will write about it anyway, even if it angers the government. “The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish.” This is the film’s mission statement, and it does not matter if you are printing wedding gossip or classified government secrets, its truth remains. In the end, we must defend our rights by exercising them, whatever the cost.

5. “We’re all looking for something real” from Blade Runner 2049, written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green

If I haven’t made it clear by now, I think we have a hard time as a society fostering empathy for each other. On the whole, we are too wrapped up in ourselves and those closest to us – read: those most similar to us – to worry about anyone else. Yet, as bad a job as we do feeling for our fellow humans, that doesn’t compare to our failures to consider the rest of intelligent life on this planet. For the most part, if it isn’t human, we treat it like it isn’t alive.

This is perhaps not the primary concern of Denis Villeneuve’s belated Blade Runner sequel, which is several movies at once and most of them pretty good, but it is among them. K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant, in the film’s parlance, investigating a mystery, at the end of which he believes he will discover something miraculous about his own origin. Similar to Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, it is at its core a Pinocchio story. The android dreams of being more than he is, even if he cannot be quite human.

His boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), visits one night and offers her insight into K’s predicament, which will take him to the far reaches of their society in a search for what he believes is the truth. But it never gets more honest than Joshi’s assertion: “We’re all looking for something real.” We all want truth. We all want meaning. We all want something more. It is often an endless search, and as K will discover over the course of the story, even if we reach the end, we do not find what we were looking for.

4. “Anyway, it amused us at the time” from T2: Trainspotting, written by John Hodge

Trainspotting, from 1996, is a modern masterpiece. A sequel has never felt particularly necessary to Danny Boyle’s rollicking ode to and indictment of a generation raised on sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. T2: Trainspotting, down to its tongue-in-cheek title, disproves this notion handily. Reteaming with Hodge, who wrote the original, Boyle finds new life and fresh ideas to mine still from Irvine Welsch’s dense, inscrutable work. They combine these with their own observations on being 20 years older and having little to show to produce another searing work of depth, insight, and not just a little fun.

The best remembered sequence of that original film is probably its opening, set against the thumping strains of “Lust for Life.” It is the “Choose life” speech, wherein Renton (Ewan McGregor) lays out his and his friends’ philosophy on getting high, getting laid, and getting through your miserable life by numbing everything that makes life worth living. It was a gutsy call to revisit the speech for the sequel, but this updated version, while perhaps lacking the energy of the earlier incarnation, earns its place by being something even deeper and darker.

Renton, speaking to his betrayed old friend’s girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), unleashes 20 years of anger, regret, and pain in explaining what he and his friends meant by “Choose life.” He attempts to undercut it by framing it as a joke on an old anti-drug ad, but the feelings it evokes are real. Finally, he ends the speech with a melancholy chuckle: “Anyway, it amused us at the time.” As so much did 20 years ago, but nothing remains the same. Time colors all things a little darker, a little sadder, and that which we loved so much then no longer means what it once did.

3. “Love’s tough. That’s why they call it love” from The Big Sick, written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani

No one knows what they are doing. We are all just feeling along in the dark, hoping we make good decisions. Hopefully, those decisions bring joy to us and others or, at the very least, cause no pain. But no one has any answers. No big ones, anyway. Within all that randomness, we cling to those we love in an attempt to make some sense of it and not feel so alone. Even that isn’t always easy, but it’s all we have, so we keep going.

Gordon and Nanjiani’s real-life love story is the basis for this delightful romantic comedy that speaks to the similarities among all people at heart. It argues that love is enough of a guiding force to carry us through even the darkest times. The crisis in The Big Sick comes when Emily (Zoe Kazan) is struck by a mysterious illness and put into a medically induced coma. Through this ordeal, Kumail (Nanjiani) bonds with her parents, Terry and Beth (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), while they endure their own marital strife.

Terry ends up on Kumail’s couch after an argument with his wife, and the two men talk late into the night. Kumail looks to the older man for advice, and Terry offers up: “Love’s tough. That’s why they call it love.” Kumail rightly points out this is nonsense that means nothing. Terry confesses this is true, but it speaks to the deeper truth they share – no one knows anything. These are good people trying to do the best they can, and that’s all that can be asked of them.

2. “Why walk if I can’t dance” from Mudbound, written by Dee Rees and Virgil Williams

Set in World War II-era Mississippi, director-co-writer Dee Rees’ Mudbound is a masterful portrait of multigenerational racial tensions in the rural south. Two families – the McAllans and the Jacksons – live in a fragile peace founded on the understanding that the white McAllans are in charge and their authority is not to be questioned. In return, the Jacksons are allowed to work the McAllans’ land, to live in a home on the McAllans’ land, and to lead a life under the thumb of their supposedly benevolent masters.

They work themselves near to death for not a fraction of what the McAllans have. The McAllans are not so well off themselves, but at least they own their fate. They determine their destiny in a way the Jacksons cannot. This point is driven home when the Jacksons fall behind on planting their crops after Hap (Rob Morgan) breaks his leg. Due to economic, social, and racial pressures, he is compelled to try to return to work too soon, injuring his leg even worse in the process.

As he heals from this second disaster, he shares a tender moment on the porch with his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige). His leg still in a cast, he stands and asks his wife to dance. She warns him he will hurt himself even further and, if he does so, may not even be able to walk. He asks: “Why walk if I can’t dance?” Then he shares a dance with his wife. He will determine his fate. If only in this small matter, he will say what he can and cannot do, and in this moment with his wife, no tragedy befalls him.

1. “It all depends on how one sees things” from Faces Places, written by JR and Agnès Varda

In its quiet, delightful way, Faces Places is as experimental as anything you will see this year. A travelogue documentary collaboration between a young artist on the rise and an old master on perhaps her last go-round, the film is a tribute to the people and things we touch without knowing it and those that touch us. It is about finding beauty in places where few see it and creating beauty in places that lack it. JR and Varda travel the French countryside, spreading love and joy in the ways only they can.

Varda is the French New Wave genius who brought us such great films as Cleo from 5 to 7 and The Gleaners and I, but this may be her crowning achievement. And go figure, the 89-year-old genius hits her stride just as she is losing her eyesight. What a terrible thing to happen to anyone, but particularly someone who has changed her small corner of the world by the very way in which she sees it. It is her unique view of life that has always been her greatest asset, so to lose her eyesight must truly be a tragedy.

Well, “It all depends on how one sees things,” she tells JR. And that is the beauty of this collaboration. While JR has the vitality of youth and a willingness to try anything, Varda has taken the long way to get here and has gained the perspective that comes with it. JR, who never removes his dark sunglasses, has his head down, buried in work, ready to produce at a moment’s notice, but Varda is more measured, less mercurial. She’s here not only to smell the roses but to reflect on what they mean. Eyesight or not, in her reflections, she will still find new ways to see things.

Check back tomorrow for more of Last Cinema Standing’s Year in Review as we present the Top 10 Moments of 2017, and keep checking back each day for more reflections on the year that was, leading up to the reveal of the Top 10 Films of 2017.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Year in Review: Top 10 Performances of 2017

It still fascinates me, after years of writing for this site and even longer studying acting and cinema, how much of performance is communal. Great performances seem to come from the push and pull of great actors driving one another ever higher in the search for truth or meaning or whatever else they seek. Six of the below performances come from just three films, pairs of actors working in congress to bring to life worlds known and unknown to us. It is a wonderful thing to watch and the 10 performances below, plus six honorable mentions, are evidence of just how important it is to be part of a community experience.

Before we get to the list, six more performances I could not ignore: Allison Janney in I, Tonya; Diane Kruger in In the Fade; Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!; Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird; Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour; and Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me By Your Name.

Last Cinema Standing’s Top 10 Performances of 2017:

10. Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

We shouldn’t like Officer Dixon. In point of fact, we should hate Officer Dixon. He represents everything the hero of Martin McDonagh’s black-comic thriller is fighting against. He is uselessness, abuse, and ineptitude all rolled into one. To his credit, Rockwell does not try to make you like his character. That would not be appropriate for the film. However, through empathy and commitment, Rockwell forces the audience to understand the character. You don’t have to agree – really, you shouldn’t – but you are damn well going to know where he stands and why.

It is a near-impossible task in McDonagh’s magic trick of a movie. The audience believes all along, through action and implication, that Officer Dixon is the antagonist of this story, then the rug is pulled out from beneath that belief. Were it not for the performances Rockwell and his co-star (more about her farther down this list), viewers would be left adrift, wondering where to turn and what to think. However, because Rockwell has so perfectly played all facets of his character, the audience is quickly grounded in the new reality of McDonagh’s film, and what a marvelous reality it proves to be.

9. Willem Dafoe for The Florida Project

Dafoe is known for a lot of things, and in a career spanning decades, it makes sense he has brought to life a wide range of people from all walks of life and experiences. However, softness has never been a word much associated with Dafoe. He surely has a soft touch as an actor, delicately inhabiting the lives and worlds of his characters, but tenderness and vulnerability have rarely been the hallmarks of those performances. Well, leave it to the 62-year-old Dafoe to find a new side of himself to show us.

As Bobby, the exasperated but caring manager of a motel just outside Disney World, Dafoe strikes a balance between kind-heartedness and practicality that any businessman must have when operating on the margins of society. There is a moment in the film – featured heavily in the trailer – when a resident yells after him, “We love you, Bobby!” He turns, without breaking stride, and shouts back, “I love you, too!” And your heart breaks for the sense he wishes he could do more for these people but knows he cannot.

8. Brooklynn Prince for The Florida Project

Prince is 7 years old, but she is an old pro at this. Having been on the covers of magazines essentially since she could stand, it does not seem as though anything fazes her. In interviews, she is eloquent and unflappable. What once might have been referred to as star quality, she has it. But none of that is what makes Prince so impressive. All of that can be taught or learned or, in some cases, ingrained. What is so impressive is the way all of that disappears in her performance. All the sheen of a young starlet in the making washes away, and the audience is left with a single remarkable character.

Writer-director Sean Baker did not craft the children in his film to be wise beyond their years, to be too clever by half like so many kids in movies. He has crafted a film that is about the wonder of childhood but set against the backdrop of crushing poverty. Moonee, as portrayed by Prince, is the epitome of this dichotomy. She is precocious, joyous, and celebratory, diving into new adventures at the drop of a hat, without regard for her circumstance. But when the real world arrives to interrupt the idyll of her childhood, she breaks in a way few actors of any age could convey, and there is not a dry eye in the house.

7. Michael Shannon for The Shape of Water

This will sound negative, but I mean it as a compliment, so bear with me. I have lost the ability to be surprised by Shannon. His level of talent and skill has been so consistent over the years that I now expect greatness. I see his name and I settle in for something exciting and wonderful and that I have never seen before. He never disappoints, and of course, he sails past any expectation I might have anyway. So as Richard Strickland, the self-righteous embodiment of government oppression, Shannon once again delivers something wholly unique and, yes, surprising.

Shannon digs into Strickland with his usual ferociousness, but what makes it so compelling and remarkable is the way the actor gives shape and nuance to a character meant mostly as a fairy tale villain. There is never a question that Strickland is evil, but Shannon’s performance allows us to get at the root of that evil. He is what the society around him demands he be, but he is not oppressed by it. Rather, it enlivens him, empowers him. He revels in it. That is his madness, and that is what Shannon so well communicates.

6. Vicky Krieps for Phantom Thread

It takes something truly special to out-crazy a Daniel Day-Lewis performance in a Paul Thomas Anderson film, but witness Krieps’ pulsing, obsessive, rigidly mannered muse, Alma, and know she has pulled off that something special. Phantom Thread is Anderson’s strangest film, operating on a wavelength few films before ever have known. Krieps pitches her performance to that wavelength perfectly and never allows herself to drift into either self-seriousness or parody. It is a high-wire act of the highest magnitude and it is a thrill to watch.

The German actress will be mostly unknown to American audiences when she glides onto screen here, but the impression she leaves won’t soon be forgotten. Like so many great performances, this begins with Krieps’ eyes, so deep and still, communicating a thousand things at once with the flicker of an eyelash or a long, unbroken stare. Krieps takes Alma from passivity to control so subtly you might miss it, but when it hits you, it does so with the force of a truck. It sneaks up on you. It shocks you. It makes you yearn for more.

5. Barry Keoghan for The Killing of a Sacred Deer

I can promise you one thing: You have never seen spaghetti eaten like this before. Keoghan, who also appeared in this year’s Dunkirk in a wildly different role, tears into this part with the fire and intensity of a ravenous dog fighting for scraps. The character Martin is more than a villain, as Keoghan plays him. He is barely human. He is the harbinger of doom shrouded in a white cotton T-shirt. He is impenetrable, invulnerable, unstoppable, but Keoghan carries the weight of this as if it were a feather, embodying this other-worldliness as if it were only natural.

The wonderful Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos always pitches his films a few degrees left of center, and you are either okay traveling there with him or you are not. More than travel there, Keoghan seems like that is where he has always been, where he was always meant to be. Lanthimos intends for The Killing of a Sacred Deer to be a play on classic Greek mythology, and Keoghan comfortably embraces the mythic nature of his character to cast a strangely hypnotic spell over the film.

4. Frances McDormand for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mildred Hayes is an instantly iconic character, and one it feels like only McDormand could have brought to life. The Academy Award-winning star of films such as Fargo, Almost Famous, and North Country, she has the experience, the wisdom, and the guts to portray the fiery sword of vengeance meant to pierce the heart of this film. Mildred comes off initially as a loaded weapon, full of righteous anger and ready to unleash hell on those in her path.

But McDormand – and, it must be said, McDonagh – is not interested in the tawdry revenge that provides the surface of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. She is after something deeper, exploring the soul of a grieving woman who somehow has not lost sympathy for a world that has none for her. She battles both the literal and figurative flames alone because if she did not, she cannot be sure where her grief would take her. McDormand finds the heart at the center of Mildred’s anger, and once she makes us see it, we wonder how we ever could have missed it.

3. Timothée Chalamet for Call Me By Your Name

Two things must be said right off: First, what a year for the 22-year-old Chalamet with his breakout role in this film, his wonderful turn in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and his smaller but no less impressive work in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. On the basis of these three performances – all as different as colors in the rainbow – Chalamet should have a long, impressive career ahead of him. Second, I do not think Call Me By Your Name is a good film. I happily exist in the minority with this opinion, and over the next two months, I will likely find myself writing about this film often as a major Oscar contender.

The saving grace in a film that is otherwise vapid, empty, self-indulgent, and tone deaf is its cast. Armie Hammer, Stuhlbarg, and in particular Chalamet take this frothy curio and make it, if not worth watching, at least less of a waste. Chalamet takes the clichéd, boring role he is given and infuses it with vulnerability and longing that exists nowhere in the text of the film. Chalamet somehow pieces together a banquet of life from the table scraps of character director Luca Guadagnino’s film provides. It is a miracle of performance that tests the young actor’s every skill. He deserves better in the future than to have to rescue a mess of a film like this.

2. Sally Hawkins for The Shape of Water

There is nothing easy about portraying Elisa, the deaf-mute heroine at the center of writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s fairy tale romance. By taking away voice, you have taken away 50 percent of an actor’s toolbox. Hawkins then must rely only on her physicality, her ability to wordlessly express the world of emotion swirling around in Elisa’s head as she embarks on a journey she could never have predicted. Hamstrung by the lack of a voice, she must then convince the audience to come along with her in falling in love with an amphibious humanoid creature in the film’s central romance.

So, the degree of difficulty is off the charts. Hawkins’ performance, however, stands out for how effortless she makes it all seem. From her first moments on screen, Elisa feels like a fully lived-in character, with a rich inner life she simply has trouble expressing to most of the world. But we see it because Hawkins allows us in, brings us with her to see the passionate, intelligent, strong person her disability has hidden too long. She is no ordinary fairy tale heroine, and Hawkins does not play her as such. In fact, there is nothing about this performance that is ordinary.

1. Margot Robbie for I, Tonya

There are few actors working now who can match the fearless bravado of Robbie. She burst onto the scene for most in 2013 with her scene-stealing work in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. She proved to be one of the only good things to come out of the dreadful anti-hero comic film Suicide Squad, so much so the studio was essentially forced to center a film around her character. Now, with I, Tonya, Robbie finally gets a leading role worthy of the energy, ferocity, and brilliance she has displayed in everything else she has done.

Robbie’s greatest accomplishment is to take someone we all think we know – Tonya Harding – and transform her from the caricature she became in the media back into the person she was and is at heart. Robbie embraces all the twists and turns, contradictions and convolutions of Tonya’s life and rediscovers the humanity of the person standing at the center of the storm. She walks along the knife edge of insanity, and every time she appears ready to fall into hysterics or histrionics, she ascends, taking the audience to another level understanding and empathy. It is what screen performance, at its highest level, was always meant to be.

Check back tomorrow for Last Cinema Standing’s Top 10 Quotes of 2017 and all week for more Year in Review.