Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Build me up, Buttercup

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Build me up, Buttercup. Don’t break my heart. It’s a good song but even better advice if you want to win Best Picture. The Academy, as much as it loves and honors great art and artists, wants uplift. It wants joy. It wants what Roger Ebert used to call Elevation. It is the feeling of warmth, hope, and generosity of spirit we experience when we see good people do good things. This is what makes Casablanca, enjoying a theatrical run now for its 75th anniversary, such an enduring piece of cinema.

Though I cannot speak for all time, I can say with great certainty never in my lifetime have we needed uplift in our art more than now. One looks at the world and, if seeing events through clear eyes, can hardly be blamed for wanting to escape, if only for two hours in the dark of the cinema and story of another place and time.

Academy members are like the rest of us in that regard, so it should come as no shock a confectionary delight such as La La Land leads this year’s Oscar race with a record-tying list of nominations. Damien Chazelle’s musical ode to dreams and dreamers is Elevation at its finest, which is not to say it does not deal in hard truths or difficult realities. It does but in such a way you leave the theater skipping and humming a tune.

The Hurt Locker in 2009, the first year of the expanded Best Picture lineup, was probably the last film to win the top prize without providing some kind of rousing, crowd-pleasing ending or at least the hope for a brighter tomorrow. Even Birdman, a dark, sharp-edged show-business satire, which won two years ago, found its moment of artistic transcendence. 12 Years a Slave, one of the darkest, most brutal Best Picture winners ever – and one of the best – ends on a note of quiet triumph. Those two films plus Spotlight last year, Argo, The Artist, and The King’s Speech are films whose ultimate messages consist of good will, inspiration, and the power of the human spirit.

This is not a knock on the Academy. Every one of those films has merit and a couple are stone-cold masterpieces. It is simply an observation and a way of looking at the Oscar race and identifying a trend. That trend’s place in this year’s race, then, seems self-evident. La La Land is a juggernaut, and while it may not sweep the ceremony, it will be the night’s biggest winner, scoring handfuls of awards and in all likelihood Best Picture.

The question is whether any other film can stand in its way. Hidden Figures, Lion, and Hacksaw Ridge all satisfy the desire for uplift and inspiration. As solid as they are, though, they cannot compare in that regard to La La Land – otherwise one of them would be the nominations leader and winner of most of the major, early precursors. Hidden Figures’ Screen Actors Guild win for best cast this weekend is a bit a red herring. Despite beating out Moonlight, Fences, and Manchester by the Sea, it feels like a true ensemble piece more than the others, making its victory seem more of the head than the heart.

No, the true challenger to the throne is and always has been Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. It is the critical darling and a Golden Globe winner, and while it is not exactly uplifting, its message of hope, understanding, and compassion is enough to rival La La Land for Elevation. The big, bright, bold Hollywood musical is sitting in the driver’s seat, but do not sleep on the indie darling. As soon as you think nothing else can win, that is when something else wins (see: Brokeback Mountain vs. Crash; personal confession, by the way, I think Crash is the better film by miles; I thought so at the time and still think so).

Of course, the possibility lingers we are looking at a sweep year. La La Land could very well take home a record number of Oscars, and the night could turn into a coronation for Chazelle as he becomes the new king of Hollywood. If such is the case, Emma Stone will likely be carried to the podium as Best Actress, though her win at the SAG Awards perhaps foretells this already. Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis are locks in their respective supporting categories.

Denzel Washington’s SAG victory throws the Best Actor race into some doubt, but I suspect the Screen Actors, with whom Washington had never won, finally wanted to honor one of the giants of the art form. He already has two Oscars, and the Academy will not feel the same pressure to reward him again, paving the way for Casey Affleck to resume his dominance of the season. If so, there could be very few, if any, surprises in the top categories when the envelopes are opened.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Academy Awards do not have to be about only who wins statues and which films win the most. Oscar night is an evening of celebration, a joyous paean to the art of cinema itself. In many ways, the nomination truly is the reward if the goal of a film ultimately is to be seen by as many people as possible. There is little advertising better than a shout-out from the Oscar stage.

The beauty of the Oscars, though, is that anything can happen, and until the envelope is opened, you never know. So, join me here every day in February for in-depth analysis of each of the 24 categories and come along for the ride as we make our way to that world-famous red carpet.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Academy Award nominations announced: La La Land ties record with 14 nominations

Moonlight, La La Land, and Lion all came away with multiple Oscar nominations this morning, including Best Picture.

There you have it. La La Land, from wunderkind writer-director Damien Chazelle, becomes just the third movie in Academy history to score 14 nominations, joining All About Eve and Forrest Gump. Both of those films won Best Picture, and the kind of momentum the throwback Hollywood musical is likely to receive from its record-setting nominations haul could carry it through to the big night.

In total, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated nine films for Best Picture this year, and those challenging La La Land for the top prize are those we pretty much expected: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight.

La La Land came away with every nomination it conceivably could have, being named for Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Ryan Gosling), Actress (Emma Stine), Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Costumes, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Original Score, and twice in Original song for “Audition (Fools Who Dream)” and “City of Stars.”

Mel Gibson directing Hacksaw Ridge
As we predicted here, the Academy matched the DGA 4-for-5, nominating Chazelle, Denis Villeneuve for Arrival, Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea, and Barry Jenkins for Moonlight but opting for Mel Gibson and Hacksaw Ridge over Garth Davis for Lion. Gibson’s big, bloody anti-war film came up big, also pulling down the all-important Editing nomination, notices in both sound categories, and recognition for Andrew Garfield in Best Actor.

Also with six nominations were Lion, which found room for both Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman in the respective Supporting categories, as well as Cinematography, Score, and Adapted Screenplay, and Manchester by the Sea, which as predicted secured only above-the-line nominations for Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and three acting awards, Casey Affleck in Actor, Lucas Hedges in Supporting Actor, and Michelle Williams in Supporting Actress.

Trailing La La Land with the second-most nominations were Villeneuve’s emotional sci-fi epic Arrival and Jenkins’ tender coming-of-age tale Moonlight, which each garnered eight nominations. Arrival’s haul was predicted, and it added Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Editing to its Picture and Director nominations. The strength of Moonlight, however, was the morning’s most pleasant surprise and indicates the Academy really loved this beautiful little film. In addition to Picture and Director, it picked up nods for Mahershala Ali in Supporting Actor, Naomi Harris in Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, and Score.

Hell or High Water (Picture, Original Screenplay, Jeff Bridges for Supporting Actor, and Editing) and Fences (Picture, Denzel Washington for Best Actor, Viola Davis for Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay) each came away with four nominations, while Hidden Figures trails the Best Picture nominees with three notices (Picture, Octavia Spencer for Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay).

Outside the Best Picture nominees, which sucked up most of the air in the room, the Academy spread the love around. Jackie came away with three nominations – Natalie Portman for Best Actress, Costumes, and Score – and no other film garnered more than two.

Ruth Negga in Loving
Joining Stone and Portman in Best Actress are Isabell Huppert for Elle, Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins, and, in a lovely surprise, Ruth Negga for Loving. Affleck, Garfield, Gosling, and Washington will be joined in Best Actor by Viggo Mortenson in Captain Fantastic. The Supporting Actress nominees – Davis, Harris, Kidman, Spencer, and Williams – all come from Best Picture nominees, as do four of the five Supporting Actor nominees – Ali, Bridges, Hedges, and Patel, who are joined by Michael Shannon for Nocturnal Animals.

It was a morning short on surprises, but the biggest one was probably Gibson getting in for Best Director. Perhaps this means the industry has forgiven him for the multiple personal scandals that made him a pariah for years, or perhaps it means only his artistry in bringing Hacksaw Ridge to the screen could not be denied.

Shannon and Negga were wonderful surprises in their respective categories. Shannon likely got in over co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson (while Hedges probably pushed out Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins), and Negga’s mention meant there was no room for Amy Adams in Arrival or Annette Bening for 20th Century Women, a performance which sadly never picked up steam this season in a crowded field, though the film did pick up a well deserved Original Screenplay nomination for writer-director Mike Mills.

My favorite nominations this morning came in the Documentary category, where a trio of powerful films about race in America dominated – O.J.: Made in America, I Am Not Your Negro, and 13th – joined by Fire at Sea and Life, Animated. I was delighted to see The Lobster nominated for Original Screenplay and to see Moana pull down two nominations, for Animated Feature and Original Song for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go.” That August Wilson is an Academy Award nominee for writing Fences pleases me to no end, and both of Jackie’s crafts nominations were well earned.

It was unfortunate the Academy could find no room for Weiner in Best Documentary, nor anywhere for the powerful Irish drama I, Daniel Blake, which was a hit with the BAFTA but was probably too Anglo-centric for Oscar voters. I also wish the Academy would have given more consideration to Martin Scorsese’s masterful Silence, which was nominated only for its lush cinematography. Time will reveal Scorsese’s passion project to be the brilliant work of art that it is.

As for my predictions, I nailed Best Picture, with my nine most likely nominees all getting in. I had guessed Hell or High Water’s David Mackenzie bumping Lion’s Garth Davis over Gibson in Best Director. In Actor and Actress, I also hit four out of five, as the Academy went with Mortenson over my longshot pick, Jake Gyllenhaal for Nocturnal Animals, and Negga over Adams. I went 5-for-5 in Supporting Actress but just 3-for-5 in Supporting Actor, failing to predict Shannon over Taylor-Johnson and thinking Hedges’ age might keep him out for Grant. I hit Adapted Screenplay with a perfect 5-for-5 but missed 20th Century Women in Original, opting instead for Zootopia.

I have yet to see the online chatter – something I try to avoid under the best of circumstances anyway – but I enjoyed the Academy’s nominations show. It was fun seeing past nominees discuss what it felt like to wake up nominations morning and hear your name called, and I thought it was a breezy, fleet-footed affair that I would not mind seeing blown out even a little more.

As far as what might win when the statues are handed out, we will discuss that in great detail over the next five weeks, but La La Land is sitting pretty and could very well sweep this whole season. Moonlight, however, with its stronger-than-predicted showing, cannot be counted out just yet. We will know soon enough. Until then, I’ll see you at the movies.

For a full list of nominees, click here.

Monday, January 23, 2017

If I picked the Oscar nominees …

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will unveil its list of nominees for the 89th Academy Awards bright and early tomorrow morning. I went to some lengths to try to predict who and what the nominees might be, a process you can find here. As a film lover, though, this is even more fun – playing Academy member and filling out my own make-believe ballot, full of the kind of movies I would want to see nominated.

Of course, this is not how the Academy votes, so a brief refresher in that area is probably in order. Everyone votes on Best Picture, listing five nominees in order of preference. Beyond that, actors vote for actors, directors for directors, writers for writers, and so on down the line. A few categories such as Best Documentary, Best Foreign Language Film and the various shorts categories are done differently, but we will not worry too much about that now.

Also, for time and sanity’s sake, I will only cover the above-the-line categories, though I will probably toss in a few crafts I think worth mentioning below. With all of that in mind, Last Cinema Standing presents: If I picked the Oscar nominees …


In order of preference: O.J.: Made in AmericaSilenceMoonlightFencesThe Lobster

This category, of course, falls directly in line with my top 10 – or in this case, top five – films of the year. No further explanation necessary.


Park Chan-wook for The Handmaiden; Ezra Edelman for O.J.: Made in America; Barry Jenkins for Moonlight; Pablo Larraín for Jackie; Martin Scorsese for Silence

I have already said what a masterpiece Edelman has made with his epic crime documentary, and Park, Jenkins, and Scorsese each crafted a singular work of deep beauty and technical mastery. However, what a year Larrain has had. In addition to his stunning Jackie Kennedy biopic, he also had released his twisting, impressionistic, noir-inspired tone poem Neruda, on the life of Pablo Neruda, and his dark, neo-realist The Club, about a group of priests hidden away from society for their crimes. These three films would be a fantastic career, and for Larraín to have produced them all in such a short time frame is nothing short of amazing.

Actor & Actress

Actor: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea; Joel Edgerton for Loving; Colin Farrell for The Lobster; David Johns for I, Daniel Blake; Denzel Washington for Fences

Actress: Viola Davis for Fences; Sandra Hüller for Toni Erdmann; Isabelle Huppert for Elle; Ruth Negga for Loving; Natalie Portman for Jackie

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving
One of the sadder developments on the awards circuit this season has been the short shrift given to Jeff Nichols’ Civil Rights biopic-cum-character study Loving. It is a quiet, meditative film about the strength of two people who wanted only the rights they are owed and nothing more. Most likely, it is that quietude and meditativeness that have made it a hard sell for awards voters. It does not cry out for attention because that would be inappropriate for the story. Nichols’ film is perfect for what it is trying to accomplish, and so much of its success is due to the performances of Edgerton and Negga. They cannot be separated, and both are among the best of the year.

Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali for Moonlight; Tom Bennett for Love & Friendship; Jeff Bridges for Hell or High Water; Ralph Fiennes for A Bigger Splash; Michael Shannon for Nocturnal Animals

Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash is an oddity. The story of a famous rock music singer recovering from surgery and the various hangers-on she collects during her rehab at an Italian villa, I cannot say the film works for me, but it is a sight to behold, nonetheless. Tilda Swinton is the star, and she is as luminous as ever, but Fiennes is a lightning rod. Whatever energy this film has is thanks to him, and he is absolutely bouncing off the walls in this performance. Fiennes can play quiet, brooding, and mysterious, and he has done it quite well throughout his career, but to see him this unhinged is a marvel and a delight.

Supporting Actress

Judy Davis for The Dressmaker; Greta Gerwig for 20th Century Women; Naomi Harris for Moonlight; Lea Seydoux for The Lobster; Michelle Williams for Manchester by the Sea

Judy Davis in The Dressmaker
The Dressmaker was not well received upon its release. Critics did not rally around it, and audiences did not flock to it. I understand why. It is an abrasive, antagonistic, almost willfully strange film, and every time it threatens to become a crowd-pleasing romance or something similar, it pulls the rug out from under you and kicks you while you are down.

Director-co-writer Jocelyn Moorhouse does not need you to like her film. She needed only to make the film she wanted to make, and she has. Kate Winslet is magnificent in the starring role of the dressmaker, but Davis steals every scene as the dressmaker’s alcoholic mother and town pariah. She is equal parts filthy, angry, regretful, and full of heart. She is also a ton of fun, and she makes it all look effortless.


Original: Hell or High Water; I, Daniel Blake; Jackie; The Lobster; Moana
Adapted: Fences; The Handmaiden; Love & Friendship; Moonlight; Silence

With the exception of The Handmaiden, which is probably far too outré for the Academy, each of these has at least an outside shot at a nomination. I will be interested to see whether Academy members took to or even remember writer-director Whit Stillman’s early-year release Love & Friendship. One of the best-reviewed films of the year, if it had been a November or December release, I could see it competing in any number of above- and below-the-line categories, including Best Actress for Kate Beckinsale, Best Supporting Actor for Bennett, costumes, art direction, and hair and makeup. It will be lucky to score even a single nomination, but it is deserving of consideration for so much more.

The crafts

First and foremost, I would love to see O.J.: Made in America nominated for Best Editing. It is a remarkable feat of assemblage and montage, an eight-hour film only possible thanks to its pacing and perfect blend of archival footage and interviews. The Academy’s editors branch has shown a willingness to pull from the documentary world, as with Steve James’ equally epic and equally brilliant Hoop Dreams, so a nomination is not out of the question. Of all the longshots that seem possible, this would make me happiest.

For Costume Design, the Academy loves period work, and “best” often translates to “most” or “flashiest,” which is a matter of taste and with which it is hard to quibble. I, for instance, am a sucker for the subtle, nuanced designs of the mid-20th century. My favorite costumes last year were the 1950s chic of Carol, while the year before it was the ’70s cool of Inherent Vice. This year, the haute couture of Jackie and the California casual style of 20th Century Women stood out in particular.

We talk about the Best Original Song category every year, and every year, it is nothing but complaints. The best work is almost always overlooked or ineligible because of the branch’s arcane rules. This year, they have a real chance to get it right with songs from La La Land and Moana worthy, eligible, and likely for nominations. Elsewhere, though, a film like John Carney’s little gem of a musical Sing Street will probably be overlooked. That is a shame because “Drive It Like You Stole It” is a wonderfully poppy anthem about finding the better life for which we are all looking.

I could go on like this all day, but for your sake, I will not. The nominations are tomorrow morning, and by then, we will know everything, then it is on to the next phase. For now, enjoy the idea that anything is possible and anything could be nominated. After all, until it doesn’t happen, it could happen.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Holding pattern: The Oscar race ahead of nominations day

We know everything we are going to know leading up to the Academy Awards nominations. Voting closed last Friday, the critics have had their say, the Golden Globes were handed out, and the British Academy and major guilds have announced their nominations. The Oscar nominees will be announced Tuesday, leaving us with a few days to wait and wonder. So, let’s have some fun wondering.

It is a three-horse race and has been for some time, even as one horse seems to have pulled well in front. In the early phases of the race, the critics went in a big way for Barry Jenkins’ tender coming-of-age drama Moonlight. Meanwhile, the flashier awards shows such as the Golden Globes and Broadcast Film Critics Association spoke up for Damien Chazelle’s lush Hollywood musical La La Land. Where those films failed to gain traction – or more likely split the vote at the top – Kenneth Lonergan’s mediation on grief Manchester by the Sea snuck through to cement itself as the third major player in the race.

If you will recall, this is roughly where we stood last year at this time. Moonlight is in the Spotlight role as critical champion, La La Land is similar to The Revenant in its Globes triumph and its obvious technical bona fides, while Manchester by the Sea is the more middle-of-the-road contender no one hates like The Big Short. The parallels are not precise, but they are informative when trying to figure out where this race stands and just where it may be heading.

Outside the top category and outside the three frontrunners, the industry nominations from the various crafts and above-the-line guilds can lead us to the other films that could be making a major play for recognition. Trends emerge as we compare what films show up on most groups’ lists and which films are most hurt by their absence from such lists.

Here are the big guilds, what they have had to say so far, and what that may mean:

Producers: Arrival; Deadpool; Fences; Hacksaw Ridge; Hell or High Water; Hidden Figures; La La Land; Lion; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight

Directors: Denis Villeneuve (Arrival); Chazelle (La La Land); Garth Davis (Lion); Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea); Jenkins (Moonlight)

Actors: Best ensemble – Captain Fantastic; Fences; Hidden Figures; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight

Writers: Original screenplay – Hell or High Water; La La Land; Loving*; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight*. Adapted screenplay – Arrival; Deadpool; Fences; Hidden Figures; Nocturnal Animals

Editors: Dramatic – Arrival; Hacksaw Ridge; Hell or High Water; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight. Comedic – Deadpool; Hail, Caesar!; The Jungle Book; La La Land; The Lobster

Cinematographers: Arrival; La La Land; Lion; Moonlight; Silence

Art Directors: Period – Café Society; Fences; Hacksaw Ridge; Hail, Caesar!; Hidden Figures; Jackie. Fantasy – Arrival; Doctor Strange; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Passengers; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Contemporary – Hell or High Water; La La Land; Lion; Manchester by the Sea; Nocturnal Animals

BAFTA: Best film – Arrival; I, Daniel Blake; La La Land; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight

You can draw the line anywhere you like, and there are other guilds out there – the Costume Designers, Sound Designers, Sound Editors, etc. – but this sampling allows us to come to some pretty clear conclusions.

Best Picture

The strengths of the frontrunners are clear. La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea show up everywhere they conceivably could except for La La Land’s curious weakness with the actors. The Screen Actors Guild did not nominate it for best ensemble, but many would consider the film a two-hander rather than an ensemble piece, and both hands – Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling – were nominated for their lead performances. So, safe to say we can ignore that miss.

Sunny Pawar in Lion
Moonlight was not nominated by the Art Directors despite 16 nominations across three styles, while Manchester by the Sea and La La Land both got in for contemporary. That is mitigated by the fact Moonlight and La La Land were recognized for their cinematography, and Manchester by the Sea was not. Each missed in one place where it could have been nominated, but that is not enough to damage any of their places at the head of the pack.

What does the rest of the pack look like? Arrival and Lion appear incredibly strong, particularly having picked up key nominations from the Producers and Directors guilds. If this were the old days with five nominees, these two would join the three frontrunners, and that would probably be your list. However, these are not the old days, and we could have up to 10 nominees.

Fences and Hidden Figures have key support from the actors and showed up in a number of other places. Right behind those are probably Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water, which could each pick up a number of below-the-line nominations and be carried along to the top category. As for a potential 10th nominee, however unlikely that may be, you have to consider pretty much anything listed above from Captain Fantastic to Deadpool, as crazy as that may sound. My money, however, would be on Nocturnal Animals if the list were to stretch to 10.

Best Picture predictions (in order of likelihood): La La Land; Manchester by the Sea; Moonlight; Arrival; Lion; Hidden Figures; Fences; Hell or High Water; Hacksaw Ridge; Nocturnal Animals

Best Director

The thing to remember about Best Director is there is always a surprise. Always. It rarely matches the DGA 5-for-5. Usually four make it and sometimes only three. Last year, I predicted a perfect match despite issuing almost this exact warning. Four made it, and Lenny Abrahamson surprised for Room. I will not make the same mistake this year. Davis is probably the most vulnerable nominee among the DGA set, which is not a reflection on his stellar work but more of the competitive year in which we find ourselves.

The fifth nominee is almost certain to come from the Best Picture lineup, and David Mackenzie’s work on Western thriller Hell or High Water and Mel Gibson’s comeback vehicle Hacksaw Ridge stand out as particularly worthy. Martin Scorsese must not be counted out for his passion project, Silence, which looks weak elsewhere, but Scorsese’s stature alone could be enough. Remember, he also picked up a solo nomination for The Last Temptation of Christ, the parallels to this case seeming self-evident.

Best Director predictions (in order of likelihood): Chazelle for La La Land; Jenkins for Moonlight; Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea; Villeneuve for Arrival; Mackenzie for Hell or High Water

Best Actor

Casey Affleck has nearly run the table of awards so far and will likely steamroll to the win for Manchester by the Sea. Denzel Washington, as we have noted in this space, turns in work that cannot be denied in Fences. Ryan Gosling will probably be carried along by the love for La La Land.

Denzel Washington in Fences
Viggo Mortenson has been a surprising but consistent addition to the awards season for his performance in Captain Fantastic, while Andrew Garfield has picked up deserved recognition for Hacksaw Ridge, though not for his equally impressive work in Silence.

Hanging on around the margins is Jake Gyllenhaal for Nocturnal Animals, who could be due for some love after being ignored for Nightcrawler two years ago. Also out there are Tom Hanks in Sully, Chris Pine in Hell or High Water, and Joel Edgerton in Loving.

Best Actor predictions (in order of likelihood): Affleck for Manchester by the Sea; Washington for Fences; Gosling for La La Land; Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge; Gyllenhaal for Nocturnal Animals

Best Actress

Refreshingly up in the air, one of the strongest contenders might have to fight just to be nominated, though if she is, she is a threat for the win. That is Isabelle Huppert for her amazing work in Elle, whose chances at a nomination may hinge on whether most votes were cast before or after her endearing, heartfelt best actress speech at the Golden Globes. Meanwhile, Stone is the heart and soul of La La Land, and Natalie Portman carries every second of Jackie.

Annette Bening has not caught on this season as most thought she would for her performance in 20th Century Women, but the work speaks for itself. Meryl Streep is a somewhat depressingly obvious choice for Florence Foster Jenkins, though the performance certainly would be deserving of a nomination in a year with less adventurous choices out there. And yet, the more adventurous choices are out there, among them Ruth Negga in Loving, Sandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann, Amy Adams in Arrival, and SAG-nominated Emily Blunt, who is the only saving grace in the otherwise terrible The Girl on the Train.

Best Actress predictions (in order of likelihood): Stone for La La Land; Portman for Jackie; Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins; Huppert for Elle; Adams for Arrival

Best Supporting Actor

Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Nocturnal Animals
Mahershala Ali dominated the critics awards for his stellar turn in Moonlight and looked likely to sweep everything on his way to a well deserved Oscar. The Golden Globes threw a kink in that plan when they shocked everyone by awarding Aaron Taylor-Johnson for Nocturnal Animals. Taylor-Johnson followed that up with a surprise BAFTA nomination and now appears to have gained steam from out of nowhere. Whether that steam was picking up before the nomination ballots were turned in or after is yet to be determined.

Hell or High Water boasts two possible nominees in Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster, though support often gets thrown to one or the other, which is the same scenario that could block Michael Shannon from a nomination for his work in Nocturnal Animals alongside Taylor-Johnson. Hugh Grant could ride along with Streep to a nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins, while Lucas Hedges was an early contender for Manchester by the Sea who has dropped off the radar but is still out there. If Lion is truly as strong as it looks, Dev Patel could get onto the list as well.

Ali, Bridges, Grant, and Patel all earned both SAG and BAFTA nominations, while Ali, Bridges, and Patel were among the list of actors to lose to Taylor-Johnson at the Globes, where Simon Helberg replaced his Florence Foster Jenkins co-star among the nominees. Taylor-Johnson also has a BAFTA nomination, which would seem to leave Hedges the odd man out.

Best Supporting Actor predictions (in order of likelihood): Ali for Moonlight; Bridges for Hell or High Water; Patel for Lion; Grant for Florence Foster Jenkins; Taylor-Johnson for Nocturnal Animals.

Best Supporting Actress

We talk about category fraud every year, and here it is again, as blatant as ever. I would like nothing more than to see Viola Davis win an Academy Award, and there is about a 99 percent certainty she will this year. She has won nearly every critics award out there. She won the Golden Globe. Expect her to win the SAG award. Nothing is in her way. But her performance in Fences could not be more clearly a lead. She is Washington’s equal in every way. She should win Best Actress; however, the powers that be decided to campaign her as a supporting actress, everyone fell in line, and she will win this award instead.

Playing for second place are Naomi Harris in Moonlight, Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea, Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures, Greta Gerwig in 20th Century Women, Nicole Kidman in Lion, and Janelle Monae, who gives great performances in both Moonlight and Hidden Figures, though Hidden Figures is more likely to be recognized here. All are great and it will probably come down to which films have the most heat overall.

Best Supporting Actress predictions (in order of likelihood): Davis for Fences; Harris for Moonlight; Williams for Manchester by the Sea; Spencer for Hidden Figures; Kidman for Lion


Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water
One thing to note is both Moonlight and Loving were nominated for original screenplay by the WGA but were deemed adapted by the Academy. This has the effect of making the Original Screenplay race a little more open and really crowding the Adapted race, where Moonlight likely has the best shot for the win. Loving, on the other hand, probably won’t make it in the much tighter category. Fences is a lock because August Wilson is a genius, and that is indisputable. Arrival, Lion, and Hidden Figures are deserving adapted pieces, while Nocturnal Animals could be sitting this one out with Loving.

Over in the suddenly loose Original category, Manchester by the Sea and La La Land will duke it out for the win. Hell or High Water is a surefire nominee that could win if the top two split the vote. Dystopian fantasy The Lobster is the exact kind of eccentric project screenwriters often recognize when no one else does. Jackie, Zootopia, and 20th Century Women could all get in as well.

Best Adapted Screenplay predictions (in order of likelihood): Moonlight; Fences; Arrival; Hidden Figures; Lion

Best Original Screenplay predictions (in order of likelihood): La La Land; Manchester by the Sea; Hell or High Water; The Lobster; Zootopia

Below the line & final thoughts

If you are looking for a nominations leader, it will be La La Land, which should be nominated everywhere it is eligible. Mark it down for Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, both sound categories, Costume Design, Score, and Song. With two eligible songs, it could threaten to tie the nominations record of 14, but 13 is more likely. Nothing else this year will come close, and it could be the biggest winner since Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.

Moonlight is a safe bet for Editing and Cinematography, the latter of which it could win, while the other Best Picture frontrunner, Manchester by the Sea, is less of a technical juggernaut and might show up only in Editing outside the top categories.

Count on Arrival to show up in a big way below the line, where it could pick up nominations for Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Sound, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects, a haul which would likely put it second behind La La Land for total nominations. Lion and Hacksaw Ridge are likely to show strength, as well, with Editing and Cinematography in play for both. Hacksaw Ridge could also be in the mix for both sound categories, Art Direction, and Costume Design.

Films less likely to be in the running for the top awards that could still show up big for their crafts include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Jungle Book, and Passengers, all of which could show up in the sound categories, Visual Effects, Art Direction, and Editing.

Natalie Portman in Jackie
As far as what I would like to see, it has been a great year for documentaries – as evidenced by the pair of docs on my year-end top 10 – and it would be great to see them break out of the documentary ghetto and into the other races. O.J.: Made in America, my No. 1 of the year, deserves consideration in Best Picture, Ezra Edelman for Director, its editing and its remarkable score. Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is a remarkable feat, almost entirely the result of its editing. Gianfranco Rosi’s migrant crisis doc Fire at Sea is among the most gorgeous films of the year and deserves a place in the cinematography race.

All signs point to the Academy breaking its ignominious stretch of years without a black nominee in the acting races with films like Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures all in line for multiple acting nominations. Even still, diversity is more than black and white, and great performances unlikely to be recognized include those of the Korean stars of The Handmaiden, the Japanese supporting performers in Silence, and the Iranian leads of Under the Shadow. This year could be a great start for diversity at the Academy Awards, but the international cinema remains underrepresented.

Ultimately, we should expect Tuesday to be a grand coronation for La La Land. Chazelle announced his presence on the Hollywood scene two years ago with Whiplash, and the Academy announced its love of his work with multiple nominations and wins for that film. The support and nomination counts for the other top contenders will tell us what kind of year we are looking at – a sweep by the feel-good hit of the winter or a more contentious battle in the top categories with several great films duking it out for supremacy. For now, we wait and see.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Year in Review: Top 10 Films of 2016

Here we arrive, then, at the annual tradition of narrowing the hundreds of films released and seen in a year to 10 or so. I have never come up with a satisfactory answer for why this is done. The closest I can come is this: Only the crazed and obsessive among us will approach seeing even half the films released in a year, and providing a top 10 or 20 allows those burgeoning but busy cinephiles to focus on a well curated selection of the year’s best offerings. Why order the list – a practice against which no less an authority than Roger Ebert once tried to rebel? Simply, if one sees only one or two movies in a year, start at the top and move down.

Our basic purpose defined, then what does this specific list mean? Almost every one of these films could be found on other lists out there – and there are a few I turn to more often than others such as the BFI Sight and Sound poll and the National Board of Review. Left for me to consider, then, is what if anything this specific list in this specific order means about me. I do not know if I am the most easily knowable person, but were one to try, he could do no better than a list of films I think are important. So as much as I wish this to be a guide for you, dear reader, to the movies I hope you seek out, it is a guide to me as a person and what I feel about the world right here and right now.

Before we get to the list, five other films you could do worse than spending two or so hours with: Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a glimpse of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of a man who lived and breathed it; Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, an anti-war protest film disguised as a horror movie set in 1980s Tehran after the revolution; Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a bracing, comprehensive study of black America’s struggle from its roots in slavery through the present; John Carney’s Sing Street, a beautiful ode to youthful rebellion and the uplifting power of music; and Jeff Nichols’ Loving, a quiet, meditative film that celebrates the strength of a single voice (or a pair of voices in unison) amid the din and clatter of hatred and bigotry.

10. I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach

What I, Daniel Blake comes down to is this: Systems will not help us; only people will help us. I am defining help broadly here as anything that improves our lives. No system ultimately can improve our lives as much or as efficiently as the people around us. Loach’s film, from a tremendous script by Paul Laverty (their second Palm d’Or winner together after The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006), is undeniably angry, fed up with austerity and bureaucracy and governments that care more about self-perpetuation than governing, but at its core, it is a deeply human story about small kindnesses.

Daniel (Dave Johns, a comedian in his film debut, though he has been on television and stage for years) is a widower with a heart problem. A carpenter by trade, his doctor tells him he cannot return to work as the strain on his heart would be too much. However, after a government physical, the state tells him he is fit to work and he will not receive his medical benefits. He goes on unemployment, but the strict rules for earning unemployment benefits – including using computer skills he does not possess – leave him without the means to support himself.

While he is in the employment office attempting to arrange his medical appeal, he overhears Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two forced from their residence in a homeless hostel in London due to squalid conditions. She is being railroaded by the same system as Daniel, and he has had enough. It is one thing to push him around, he determines, but he cannot sit by and watch it happen to someone else. He befriends her and her two children, and they form a makeshift family, out of necessity, yes, but primarily out of an innate desire to be kind to one another.

There are no easy resolutions in this film because the adversities experienced by these characters are real, and they are happening all over right now. People who want to work cannot for reasons medical, family, or elsewise, but the state does not see reasons, only statistics, only another jobless person to burden the government. This is what bureaucracies do – they reduce people to numbers in a formula, then remove humanity from the equation. Systems cannot tolerate humanity because they cannot understand it, so it falls to us, the people, to show to each other what no system can – compassion and kindness.

9. Jackie, directed by Pablo Larraín

The greatness of Jackie lies in a triptych of elements coming together to form a masterful portrait of perhaps the defining moment of the 20th century: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. No single moment provides as clear a schism in the American experience as that fateful split second Nov. 22, 1963, when a man pulled his trigger and shook the world. We have seen the assassination on screen before in countless ways from countless angles but never in this way from this angle with this director, this script, and this star.

It does not take long to realize you are in for a different experience. From the first moment Larraín and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s grainy footage washes across the screen, Jackie becomes an eerily subjective rendering of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in the White House. Often shot in extreme close-ups, the visual language of the film suggests a woman who must suffer the constant bombardment and invasion of a nation’s interest but who is smart enough to use that to her advantage. At first, Jackie seems overwhelmed, but at last, she seems – and is – powerful.

The script by Noah Oppenheim smartly zeroes in on Jackie’s mental state in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death. This narrow focus gives Larraín the freedom to make the film about the first lady’s subjective experience. Oppenheim takes this historical figure and finds what made her relatable and beloved while showing the calculation that went into establishing the Jackie O aura. Her concern for her husband’s legacy – at one point, she asks her driver his knowledge of another president who died in office; he has none – gives her a goal to focus on amid her grief. In so doing, she helps define one of the most enduring legacies in modern history.

Through it all, there is Natalie Portman as Jackie. I discussed her performance in depth yesterday in my Top 10 Performances column, so I will only briefly touch on it here, but suffice it to say, the film would not succeed without Portman’s stunning work at its center. Most great performances are like wonderfully written prose – precise, detailed, and nuanced. Portman’s Jackie, while full of precision, detail, and nuance, is closer to poetry, flowing seamlessly in and out of ideas and drifting along a rhythm of her own making. It carries us along, and by the end, we are thankful for the ride.

8. Moana, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Little in this life makes me as happy as being surprised at the movies. It does not happen often anymore. I am too inquisitive about films. I want to know what they are about, how they are regarded, what went into their development, all before I see them. So, even with great films, every other film on this list in fact, I had some idea going in they would be great, that I would appreciate them. Moana hit me like an arrow from Cupid’s bow. I had no idea it was coming, but I fell in love.

In every department, this is the best non-Pixar film Disney has produced in a long time. Beginning with the absolutely stunning animation, Moana pulls you in via a wordless opening sequence in which we meet the title character and learn her relationship to the ocean. The water effects alone impress, but the character designs, the small, in-world details, and the wonderful depth of explorable space all add up to the kind of rich experience rarely found in children’s movies.

The soundtrack, composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina, is gloriously realized and endlessly hummable. Songs like the opening number “Where You Are,” “We Know the Way,” and “You’re Welcome” demonstrate a fluidity with verse, daringness with style, and facility for arrangement lacking in lesser animated musicals. The show-stopper, “How Far I’ll Go,” a solo effort by Miranda as performed by Moana voice actor Auli’i Cravalho, belongs in the pantheon of great Disney songs with “Bare Necessities,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and “Let It Go.”

Finally, it is a winning story about a young girl with drive, ambition, courage, and talent, the kind of character rarer at the cinema than she ought to be. At every turn, the film is charming, exciting, and simply delightful, but its ending, which I will not reveal, is its true masterstroke. Where nearly every film of this kind before it took one path, Moana takes another, and rather than celebrate the destruction of something evil, it embraces and revels in the creation of something good.

7. The Handmaiden, directed by Chan-wook Park

This film is why words like “sumptuous” were invented. Adapted by Park and Seo-kyeong Jeong from Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith,” The Handmaiden is a twisting, twisted tale of love, passion, deceit, and betrayal told against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s. If I told you everything contained within this film, you would not believe me. There is even a chance you will see the film and not believe what you saw.

Con artists, double-crosses, triple-crosses, lesbian love affairs, insane asylums, and a library of every type of pornography imaginable – Park stuffs his film to bursting with so much lurid and illicit subject matter one could almost miss its studious formalism, its impressively byzantine narrative structure, and its outright beauty. Almost. For as much sex and sensuality as is trotted out, The Handmaiden is never prurient. The camera does not ogle these women, so neither do we.

Tae-ri Kim plays Korean con artist Sook-Hee, employed by “Count” Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to insinuate herself into the life of heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) in order to steal her fortune. She becomes the wealthy woman’s handmaiden, and the deeper and more intimate their relationship grows, Sook-Hee becomes less able to discern whether she is still pulling a con, genuinely falling in love, or being conned herself. The performances by all three actors are brilliantly mannered and cleverly insane.

By the time Park pulls the rug out from under the audience at the end of the elongated first act, he has so thoroughly brought us into his world we would let him do anything. This is good because the rug will come out at least twice more. As reveal after reveal and false reveal after false reveal pile on top of one another, your jaw drops at the sheer audacity of the strategy, and you are ultimately thankful for a movie that treats you as smart enough to keep up.

6. Weiner, directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

I saw this movie at the end of May, by which time we were all hopelessly enmeshed in the presidential election cycle and unbelievably had more than five months still to go. It still does not feel quite over, does it? My sneaking suspicion is it never will. It is a fine mess we made of democracy, a lovely theory but which has proved unsustainable. The writing was always on the wall, though, and in Kriegman and Steinberg’s probing (forgive me) political exposé, it is spelled out as clear as ever.

The First Fall of Anthony Weiner took place right around the time I began my journalism career. I had been told for years through school I should seek another profession, by friends, family, and well-meaning advisors. Journalism is dying, they said. There will be no jobs. Well, I have never had a problem finding work in the industry, but its death sure as hell came just the same. It is not a physical death or even a financial one – though that is occurring, too – but rather a spiritual rot at the core. The initial sexting scandal of the Democratic congressman from New York surely was not the first sign of a problem, but just look at its resonance now.

This documentary is a chronicle of the Second Fall of Anthony Weiner, when he ran for mayor of New York City and promptly got himself embroiled in another scandal. The film is a tale of hubris and dumbfounding illogic. Weiner is a deeply flawed man who could not get himself together for even a brief period, but as much as he may seem like a villain, particularly next to his long-suffering (now ex-) wife, Huma Abedin, he is no such thing. The villain, if there must be one, is us.

Who are we, so quick, so ready to judge? And what is it that we are judging exactly? Weiner was a hypocrite who was unfaithful to his wife. He was not the first to fit both those categories and will not be the last. His public profile made him a figure of ridicule and scorn, and ridicule and scorn him we did. Mercilessly. We chewed every bit of meat off the bone, and when there was none left, we ground the bones into dust. It was disgusting, every second of it. I do not defend the man’s actions, but I also refuse to point my finger and laugh. There is nothing funny about the end of civil public discourse, and it is not by chance the Third Fall of Anthony Weiner coincided with the rise of the current president-elect. It was not chance at all. It was a failure by all of us to recognize the design.

5. The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

The same themes explored by Loach and Laverty in I, Daniel Blake are taken here to their logical extreme by director-co-writer Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou. After we have removed humanity from our systems, what is there left but to remove it from ourselves? Lanthimos and Filippou craft a darkly funny satire that becomes less funny and less satirical the more you consider it until finally you are left with nothing but the dark.

In a world that is not too far in the future, the state determines humans belong in heterosexual pairs. Those who do not find a partner within a given set of time are transmogrified into the animal of their choosing. The metaphor is clear: The state defines humanity by couple-hood, without which we are simply beasts. It does not take long for us to meet a group of humans rebelling against the system, forced to live in the woods like … well, like the wild beasts they would otherwise become. They are militant in their singleness and fierce in their enforcement of individuality. Once again, the metaphor is clear: The rebellion becomes that against which it is rebelling.

If it were this simple and this clear cut, it would be entertaining and enlightening, but it would not be transcendent. The Lobster transcends because it introduces us to David (Colin Farrell) and the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel  Weisz). They are good people trapped by their systems – he by the state and she by the rebels. Within all of this, they somehow find each other. Thus, the film ceases to be a battle between two diametrically opposed ideologies but a battle against ideology itself.

David and the Short-Sighted Woman, played to perfection by Farrell and Weisz, wage a private war against the world. Theirs is the kind of intense personal connection meant to be crushed by these systems because it is the ultimate expression of their humanity, for which as we discussed above, systems have no circuitry. The film’s ultimate question, and its darkest, becomes whether two people molded by the system have the strength and power to end it. The film may not provide a clear answer, but one need only look around in our world to intuit what it might be.

4. Fences, directed by Denzel Washington

Fences is a movie so good we almost do not deserve it. That it exists at all is a wonderful gift to the world. Whose gift, then? First and foremost, it is from playwright August Wilson, who adapted his script for the screen. Wilson uses the English language the way Renaissance masters used a canvas or, in the parlance of his characters, the way Hank Aaron used a bat – gracefully, elegantly, effortlessly. Fences is an invitation by Wilson to understand this country and its people a little better by sitting on the porch and chatting with them, by walking a mile in their well-worn shoes.

It is also the gift of its director, Washington, for being smart enough and talented enough to know when to stay out of the way of the material and what he can do to enhance it on the screen. Not every great actor can be a great director. Some may not even be good directors. It takes a certain skill, an ability to see the larger picture. Actors, so trained to focus on detail and nuance, can easily miss the greater themes calling out for exploration. Washington does not make this mistake, and in the film’s final resplendent moment, he reveals just what a talent he is behind the camera.

Washington the actor has also given us this gift, along with Viola Davis and co-signed by the rest of this superb cast, small enough I will list them all here – Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, and Saniyya Sidney. Most of these actors had the benefit of appearing in the stage revival, including Washington and Davis, so familiarity and facility with the material is a given. However, to translate that familiarity from the stage to the screen takes a special talent, which is possessed by every one of these brilliant performers.

African-American life in this country has never been and will never be easy. Hell, life in this country is not easy, but to start from a place of systemic disadvantage makes it near impossible. The film’s main character, Troy Maxon, is not afraid to call out the systems that have held him and his family down for generations that have passed and generations still to come. Bigotry and racism must have a name to be fought, and we must be willing to call them by those names when we see them. This is Fences’ greatest gift, and we should cherish it, but we must also be willing to learn from it.

3. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins

Some movies are about transformations. Others are transformative. Moonlight, inspired by the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is both. It would seem impossible to walk out of Jenkins’ beautiful tone poem without thinking a different way about the world and our responsibility in it. The trick of the film is to bring the margins and its marginalized people to the foreground, to show you their lives as they experience them, and to force you to question everything you thought about what it means to grow up poor, black, gay, or all three.

When first we meet the 9-year-old Little (Alex R. Hibbert), he is precisely that, physically diminutive and small in the eyes of the world – his peers, his mother Paula (Naomi Harris). It takes a chance encounter with the local drug lord Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his wife, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), to give him even the first hint of self-worth. All of these people exist on the outskirts of a society that would rather they just disappear, but Moonlight serves as a reminder not just of their existence but their value.

In a remarkable narrative gambit, we jump forward seven years in Little’s life to when he becomes Chiron (Ashton Sanders), his teenage self, who is full of anger at the way the world has treated him and feeling the weight of a developing sexuality he does not understand. Kevin (played in the film’s first act by Jaden Piner, the second act by Jharrel Jerome, and the third act by André Holland) is Chiron’s closest friend along the way. With an abusive mother and a now-absent father figure, Chiron turns to Teresa and Kevin for comfort and compassion. When Kevin betrays him, it sets in motion the events that will lead to Chiron becoming the man we meet in the third act, Black (Trevante Rhodes).

Act III is Jenkins’ biggest gamble and greatest achievement. It is here where he diverges from the play, which featured only the first two acts, and forges his own path. It would be a disservice to the film to reveal any more, but in its final stretch, Moonlight overturns every preconceived notion we might still have had about Little, Chiron, and Black. It demonstrates humanity in ways rarely shared on screen, showing him to be flawed but worthy of love, guarded but open to connection, but most of all, like the rest of us, complex and real.

2. Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese

Every film takes a different path to the screen, and some are more harried than others, but for a film like Silence, it is a miracle it even exists. Scorsese spent decades trying to bring Shûsaku Endô’s novel to the big screen. Beset by production delays and embroiled in lawsuits, it seemed a longshot ever to come together, but Scorsese is no stranger to long-delayed passion projects. This is the director, after all, who spent nearly 30 years trying to make Gangs of New York. If anyone could put his vision down on film, it would be Scorsese.

So he has, and in such a way as to make every minute, every second spent fighting for its realization seem worth it. The evidence of the master filmmaker’s passion is in every frame of Silence – the moody, fog-filled photography of its early passages, the spare but evocative set design of later sequences, and the languid pace, not often associated with Scorsese’s films, that allows viewers to soak in every luscious moment. This is certainly the director’s most beautiful film since Raging Bull, which is not a fair comparison because their forms are dictated by their functions, which are so very different.

If Silence were only a magnificently mounted project, it would be worthy of Scorsese’s efforts and the nearly three hours of an audience’s time it demands. However, it is also the most richly layered and doggedly inquisitive film Scorsese has ever made. As a lapsed Catholic brought up in a devoutly religious home, Scorsese has wrestled with questions of god and faith his entire life, thus he is the perfect director to adapt Endô’s work.

The film follows a pair of Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), on a mission in 17th century Japan, where Christianity is outlawed and practitioners of the faith are hunted down and forced to deny their beliefs on pain of torture and death. The story allows Scorsese to explore questions such as what faith means, who is worthy of forgiveness, whether the eponymous silence is proof of god’s absence, and what right men have to speak on behalf of god. Silence is a film that must be viewed and viewed again and again even to scratch its surface. Its thematic depth and aesthetic pleasures, however, make a daunting endeavor an experience to treasure.

1. O.J.: Made in America, directed by Ezra Edelman

Take a good look at that picture above. There is a good chance you recognize it. Some of you just said to yourselves, “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” You probably know a lot about that image and could tell tales of your life directly related to it. Contained within that moment, which is the culmination of many smaller moments, is everything about us, our society, and the world we have built. It is our cultural Waterloo, after which we could never engage with anything the same way again, much to our detriment.

Some will cry foul at the inclusion of O.J.: Made in America on this list, let alone at the top, suggesting that despite its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and its limited run in theaters, it is a television show. I might respond by saying with the proliferation of Netflix original movies, video-on-demand, day-and-date releases, and the like, what even constitutes a “proper film” anymore is up for debate. If such matters concern you, simply cross this film off the list and make due with a top nine.

However you wish to define it – TV show, miniseries, film – O.J.: Made in America is the defining chronicle of our times. It takes the landmark O.J. Simpson murder trial and expands its scope, extrapolates back through time until the portrait is not of a controversial football player but of the United States itself. And it is a damning portrait the film paints.

Nobody comes out clean in this. O.J. Simpson is no hero. The Los Angeles Police Department is criminally corrupt. The prosecution is laughably inept. The defense is brazenly manipulative. The jury is willfully dismissive. The media are cravenly pandering. The world is gleefully entertained. The Trial of the Century was a freak show in a hall of mirrors. We came to gawk and saw only ourselves, but with the image distorted, we could not recognize our own faces, so we laughed and pointed anyway.

Had O.J.: Made in America focused solely on the trial, it would have been an intriguing, entertaining document, a snapshot of a moment frozen in time. Instead, Edelman’s grander focus turns the trial into the denouement of a Greek tragedy set in motion long before any of the players could have known what was to come. Our world now is simply the epilogue of this story, and we are all scarcely more than bit players in the greater narrative.

Take a look around and see the evidence of this on every newsstand, on every television channel, in politics, in civic interactions, in the worsening hell of our social discourse. Yes, the culture died on that day in 1994 when a retired football player on trial for the brutal murder of two people failed to put on a pair of gloves. That much seems self-evident. Edelman takes on the noble task with his film of trying to explain why. I think the answer is right there in his title: This is who we are, made as we are, in America.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Year in Review: Top 10 Performances of 2016

Much of this list speaks for itself – and in the many words written below – but I would be remiss not to point out the top two performances below come from the same film. They are, taken together, remarkable in such a way as to exist beyond the bounds of a list such as this. They represent two of the finest actors in the business delivering some of the greatest lines ever written in a way that nearly breaks the form. I discuss them individually below, but in truth, they cannot be separated. They are dependent on one another in the way the Earth is dependent on the sun. Make of this what you will.

Before we get to the top 10, here are five more performances worth your time and attention: Annette Bening in 20th Century Women; Rachel Weisz in The Lobster; Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in Loving; and Ralph Fiennes in The Big Splash.

10. Tom Bennett for Love & Friendship

The world of Jane Austen, as filtered through the lens of writer-director Whit Stillman, is one of high class and high manners, of subtlety and sobriety, so leave it to Stillman to splash a character like Sir James Martin across the screen. As played by Bennett, Martin is a dolt of the highest order, his profound ignorance matched only by his guileless good humor.

He marvels at peas – yes, the vegetable – praises the 12 commandments then is shocked to find out there are only 10, and is delighted to have realized the name of the estate at which he is staying is Churchill and he need not have searched for a church on a hill. Staying firmly within the Stillman tradition of rapid-fire dialogue and sharp satire, Bennett pitches his performance to just the right level of absurdity as to stay believable but transcend into hilarity at the drop of a hat.

9. Sandra Hüller for Toni Erdmann

Writer-director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is remarkable for many things, not the least of which its success at turning a serious condemnation of sexism in the business world into a three-hour farce littered with humor and pathos. Its star, Hüller, carries the weight of both ends of the story. She must be a woman marginalized within her office, frustrated by her obvious talent being overlooked, but she must also exist in the absurdist comedy world Ade creates. Hüller is more than up to the task.

For evidence of this, look no further than Hüller’s much discussed, rightly lauded performance of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” somewhere after the midpoint of the film. By this time, she is exhausted by her father’s shenanigans – and plain exhausted and overworked – but somehow, she lets him talk her into performing for a group of strangers at a party. Hüller’s slow build from reluctant participant to hammy belting is a thing of beauty. She is a joy to watch, as is this film.

8. Ben Foster for Hell or High Water

If Foster were not so good at playing live wires and loose cannons, I would say it was time for him to move on to something else, but he just is that damn good. This is a bit reductive, of course, as Foster has shown plenty of range throughout his career, from early work on Six Feet Under to The Messenger. However, it is the wild, unhinged characters, capable of anything at any moment, equal parts frightening and seductive, for which Foster will always be best remembered.

He reaches perhaps the apex of that kind of character – though never count out Foster for finding new levels of insanity to portray – as Tanner Howard in David Mackenzie’s widely loved western cops-and-robbers saga Hell or High Water. As a bank robber just recently out of prison but fighting alongside his brother for a just cause, Foster imbues Tanner with enough heart that no matter where the script takes the character – and it gets plenty dark and violent – the audience never loses sight of his true purpose. He is a man who wants to do right, but his only path to it is through wrongdoing.

7. Isabelle Huppert for Elle

How many actresses get to this point in their careers – more than 100 credits to her name, international acclaim, a storied career working with some of the most brilliant directors around – and choose to do a movie like this? Only Huppert, I imagine. Only Huppert could take such a risk on a Paul Verhoeven vehicle about rape, revenge, fantasy, and womanhood. Only Huppert could have the courage to play a sexual assault survivor as both victim and pursuer. Only Huppert could play a woman facing down the demons in her soul, as well as the evils that surround her. Only Huppert.

After making her onscreen debut in 1971, Huppert has spent a lifetime taking chances, and she has never shied away from the ugly, dirty, angry side of the characters she plays. Her character in Elle, Michèle Leblanc, is often cold, cruel, and calculating, and Huppert makes us sympathize with her without softening her. She is allowed to be strong and confident without worry for what others will think. It is a radical and bracing portrait of femininity few actresses would dare tackle. In fact, I can think of just one.

6. Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea

Affleck has been among the best actors of his generation for some time. He has not exactly been prolific of late, but what he lacks in volume, he makes up for in quality, never failing to deliver authentic, lived-in performances whether in ensemble heist comedies like the Ocean’s series or in dark, impressionistic thrillers like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints or The Killer Inside Me. Reports of his treatment of the women he has worked with, including multiple claims of sexual harassment, cannot be ignored, but the work stands apart from that.

As Lee Chandler, grieving as much for the life he could have lived but did not as for the death of his brother, Affleck delivers a typically on point portrayal of pain, anguish, and fear. Lee has shut himself off from the world so long, he no longer knows how to reach out and connect, even when he knows he must. For his sake and the sake of his family, he tries over and over again to bring out something in himself that must have been there once – we see it in flashbacks – but he is fishing in a river that has run dry. Affleck expertly sells the weight of this struggle in his body, his voice, and his whole being.

5. Mahershala Ali for Moonlight

Moonlight is broken into three distinct acts, each showing a different stage in the life of a boy growing up in Miami. Ali appears only in the first act, but the monumental force of the character he and writer-director Barry Jenkins create brings into being the rest of the events of the film. Moonlight is predicated on its ability to challenge the assumptions we make about others, and nowhere is that more clear than in the character of Juan, the gentle drug lord who takes a scared young boy under his wing.

Juan does not seek to mold the boy into anything. He simply shows him kindness, which in this world is enough of a miracle. Ali, probably best known for his work on Netflix series House of Cards and Luke Cage, does not force his will onto the character. There are no big, showy moments, no actorly affectations. He lets Juan flow through him so naturally and gracefully it simply sweeps the audience along.

4. Natalie Portman for Jackie

Jacqueline Kennedy is an icon, her place in the public imagination firmly entrenched. As an icon, she is an ideal to which people aspire, an inspiration, a shining example of the best of who a people can be. Yet, she was also a person, a woman, a wife, a mother, whose life was marred by tragedy and whose grief was felt on the grandest stage imaginable. The world is quite familiar with the icon, but Portman’s daring, subtle, and sublime work in Jackie shows us the person.

Taking place mostly in the few days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Portman takes us into the mind of a woman who has been forever altered by her circumstances but refuses to be broken. The actress nails the mannered speech patterns and stiff gait of the upper-crust debutante, but the performance is not built on its imitations. It is built on the quiet, devastating moments in which Jackie is alone, looking at her tired visage in the mirror and wondering what could possibly come next for her. This is where Portman shines.

3. Colin Farrell for The Lobster

What a ride it has been to follow Farrell over these 20-odd years. He has been in enough bad films and disastrous flops to kill five careers, but he keeps coming back, and every once in a while, he gives us a gem like this. Though he has never seemed like a vain actor, Farrell has always projected an easy cool, a breezy charm that makes him easy to root for in his performances. There is none of that here. As the schlubby, awkward, near-sighted David, he inhabits the character so fully the entire movie-star persona he has cultivated just disappears.

At first, Farrell would seem an odd pairing with a director as iconoclastic as modern Greek master Yorgos Lanthimos, but as a man trapped within a dystopian bureaucracy, he embodies the perfect mix of vulnerability and resignation, hope and despair. Lanthimos creates a world that has beaten down its characters until they are empty husks, flat, monotone cyphers on which the system can project its own needs. Farrell commits to this risky characterization so thoroughly he brings the audience along into this disquieting world and makes us long for his release from it.

2. Viola Davis for Fences

If it is not clear by now, it should be made so: Davis is a national treasure. She is an actress of such skill and range as to elevate instantly whatever material she is given. Imagine then some of the greatest material ever written placed in her hands, and you will have some idea of what she achieves as Rose Maxon, Troy’s long-suffering wife. She has stood by him and shown nothing but kindness, patience, and grace, but she is not weak, far from it. She is the rock on which their marriage is founded, and her shock and anger at her husband’s misdeeds are as righteous as anything you will see.

Davis has been onscreen for 20 years and onstage longer. Her early roles included parts in several Steven Soderbergh films, as well as Denzel Washington’s directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, but I suspect most of us first took real notice of her for her brilliant, shattering work in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. She has only one scene, but her impact is so great it leaves a void in the rest of the film.

She has gone on to great acclaim and notoriety with her television show, How to Get Away with Murder, and like all great actors of this era, she even joined a comic book universe for DC (Suicide Squad, remember what I said about elevating material?). She should probably already have an Oscar or two, and if she does not win for this performance, it will be a scandal. She is the heart and soul of Fences, its emotional center of gravity, and she makes it look as effortless as cooling a pie on the windowsill.

1. Denzel Washington for Fences

What else could this be but Washington in the role that should come to define the latter portion of his career? Washington might be the most consistent and consistently wonderful actor of all time. His carefully curated career is marked by excellent genre work, smart crowd-pleasers, and a handful of stone-cold classics. He is incapable of giving an inauthentic performance, and as much as his movie-star persona informs his screen presence, he never lets it inform his acting.

As retired ballplayer and garbage man Troy Maxon, the first half of the film is given over almost entirely to Washington reciting playwright August Wilson’s many stirring monologues. Washington finds every moment, every nuance, every turn of phrase and makes it his own. He hugs the curves of Wilson’s words like a racecar driver, steering into the littlest details and taking us along for the ride.

This obviously was a deeply personal project for Washington, who directs and stars in this adaptation not long after finishing his run in the Broadway revival of the play. As personal as it must be for him, though, Washington’s performance makes it universal. Troy is every one of us who longs for more than he has been given, but he is no mere symbol. He is a living, breathing human being, and that is thanks to Wilson’s words and Washington’s career-topping performance delivering them.

Check back tomorrow as we conclude our Year in Review series with Last Cinema Standing's Top 10 Films of 2016.