Director: Garth Davis Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman
Lion is the kind of movie that you leave feeling compelled to do some investigating because even if you can accept that its incredible premise is true, you have a hard time believing that it could actually have happened the way that the movie tells it. Yet it did. Real life is stranger than fiction can ever hope to be, and more heart-warming, too. That natural sense of awe that flows from the fact that the story is true ends up doing a fair bit of the heavy lifting in Lion, which is overall a fine film with great performances, but which is strangely uneven in its storytelling, getting off to a rollicking start, slowing way, way down in its second half, and then unfolding its finale at lightning speed. But man, what a finale that is.
Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg isn't quite a documentary, nor is it entirely a fiction. Commissioned by the Documentary Channel, it's something like a magic realist memoir, an evocation of time and place filtered through nostalgia and fantasy and personal mythology. In certain respects, it's a film that's not even about Winnipeg at all, or even Guy Maddin despite the deeply personal way he approaches the city that he has called home for his entire life. Rather, it's about the sense of loss that comes from growing up, seeing the things that were so familiar to you during childhood change and modernize in your adulthood, and it's about the restlessness to leave one's place of origin, to break out and into something new. My Winnipeg is more about a feeling than it is about history, and so it's a story about anyone's hometown, really, which is probably why this absurdist and surreal love letter/Dear John letter to a city is so moving.
Every year has them and this one is no different. Here are the biggest snubs and surprises from this morning's nomination announcements:
Surprise: Ruth Negga for Best Actress
It was a particularly crowded field this year in the Best Actress race and the fact that Ruth Negga was left off the Screen Actors Guild's list of the year's best, in combination with the fact that Loving seemed to find so little traction generally this awards season, made it look she would be one of 2016's worthy also-rans. Instead she made the cut in a field that includes Natalie Portman for Jackie, Emma Stone for La La Land, Isabelle Huppert for Elle, and Meryl Streep netting her 20th nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins.
It's that time once again. This year's Oscar nominees will be announced tomorrow, but ten years ago today the nominees for the 79th Academy Awards were announced. Let's take a look back on what AMPAS deemed "the best" from 2006, focusing primarily on the categories of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor.
The Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday. For those still trying to make their predictions (or those just curious) here's a run down on the films and artists who have won so far. Note that for special categories where nominees are chosen from a field reduced to a short list I've only included the potential nominees that actually made the shortlist.
Director: Ava DuVernay Starring: David Oyelowo Country: United States/United Kingdom
Taken together, Ava DuVernay's Selma and 13th act as a compelling thesis on the power of words and images. The one (13th) making the case for the power of words, specifically regarding how they can be used as a tool to safeguard power in the hands of those who have always had it, the other making the case for the power of images to do the work that words simply cannot, specifically to make real and urgent issues that feel intangible to those not personally suffering their effects. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great speaker, but it took the images of the violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge being broadcast across the United States and to the rest of the world to finally galvanize the sympathetic but complacent into seeing that the voting rights movement was not a "black issue," but a human issue. The impact of images is at the heart of the story that the film is telling, but it's also a key to the film's success. Viewing the story of the Selma to Montgomery marches not from the lofty heights of power and the perspective of politicians, but from the ground and the perspective of those suffering the indignities and pain of racism, DuVernay creates powerful, bracing visuals that allow Selma to sidestep the trap that many historical/biographical films tend to fall into. This is not a reverent but dryly academic examination of "An Important Thing That Happened," but a work of passion and great impact.
It's hard to know what to make of Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash at first glance. It's a film where many of the important events take place off screen, that seems determined to look just off to the side of the story rather than directly at it. The film is as shrouded in mystery as the characters are exposed (this may very well be the "nakedest" mainstream movie of 2016). It's only when it gets to the end that you begin to see it for what it really is, which is a story about how the wealthy and privileged can run roughshod over everything around them while the vulnerable and the disadvantaged are treated like the real dangers to society. An opaque film to be sure, A Bigger Splash is the kind of work that grows on you with subsequent viewings.
A character known as "Mad Molly" sort of demands to be played in a scenery chewing way, and that's exactly what Judy Davis does in The Dressmaker, but in a skilled fashion that not a lot of actors can pull off. Few can go "big" while still being sincere and grounding the character in some emotional truth, but Davis does it with her portrayal of a woman who was basically driven crazy, robbed of everything that mattered, outcast and treated like the town joke, left to languish in filth. The turnaround she makes during the course of the film is subtle, built incrementally scene by scene by Davis as her character redeems herself and helps give her daughter the power to give their hometown exactly what it deserves.
As the older brother who knows everything worth knowing but who has descended into a rut he can't extricate himself from, Jack Reynor steals the show in Sing Street. Gifted with a great monologue towards the end, Reynor rises to the occasion and provides the film with fire and vitality, so much so that the spiritual victory of the finale, which sees the protagonist and his love interest ride off into the sunset, feels like it belongs more to Reynor's character than to anyone else.
Like an anti-hero in a classic western, but dressed like a femme fatale in a classic noir, Kate Winslet's character in The Dressmaker steps back into her dusty hometown, sets down her suitcase, lights a cigarette, and makes the above pronouncement. Though the film then takes a bit of a detour, making it appear as if it's going to be something else, it eventually comes back to the acid promise of these opening moments in a fashion as grand and flamboyant as everything else in the film.
Bearing in mind that I haven't seen the following films, which may (but may not) have altered the rankings: Certain Women, Toni Erdmann, 20th Century Women, Hidden Figures, Elle, Silence; I'm kicking off my Top 10 Week with the runners up who just missed making my lists of the best Films, Performances, and Scenes of 2016.
Scenes of 2016
The Escape, The Handmaiden
Technically two scenes, but most scenes in The Handmaiden are technically two scenes due to its split perspective. In the first part of the film, the escape is viewed from above, watching as the two women enter and exit a series of buildings via their sliding rice doors. In the second part, the film is on the ground with the women and allows them a moment of pause as one considers the consequences of failure before soldiering on and following through. The exhilaration on her face as she takes those steps into freedom is one of the film's highlights.
Director: Damien Chazelle Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling
Sometimes all that matters is how a movie makes you feel. At a time of year when just about everything at the cineplex, and some of the things outside of the cineplex, is just so heavy, a movie like La La Land, so light, so breezy, so determined to win your affection, is sometimes exactly what you need. By no means a film without flaws, it's nevertheless an utter charmer that put a smile on my face more times than I could count and left me feeling better about this crazy world of ours than any other film I've seen in months. From an opening which hearkens back to Hollywood's past by promising a picture in CinemaScope before moving into a lively opening number set during a traffic jam, to a finale which lovingly references An American in Paris, Funny Face, and Singin' in the Rain, with a seemingly endless list of things in between that manage to be adorable for their worship of old Hollywood rather than annoyingly precious, La La Land is a film that's in it to win you over and does so fairly easily.
Well, more like the two weeks. Here are the picks from the Austin Film Critics Association, North Carolina Film Critics Association, North Texas Film Critics Association, Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, Central Ohio Film Critics, Seattle Film Critics, and Online Film Critics Society
La La Land: North Carolina Film Critics Association, North Texas Film Critics Association, Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, Central Ohio Film Critics
Moonlight: Austin Film Critics Association Awards, Online Film Critics Society, Seattle Film Critics
History isn't what happened, it's how what happened is remembered. That's why a phrase like "history is written by the victors" exists, because the legacy of an event is not a passive thing that simply occurs naturally, but something that is actively created and shaped for a specific purpose. Of course there are multiple versions of the legacy of John F. Kennedy, including the legacy of conspiracy created by his assassination, and the legacy of ambition tied to tragedy that hangs over the Kennedy family in popular imagination, but Jackie is specifically about the romantic legacy of Camelot, that enduring image of the Kennedy administration as being bathed in a golden, glamorous glow, as fragile and fleeting as it was beautiful. Jackie is about the creation of that idea, first given voice in an interview of Jackie Kennedy for Life magazine, and it's a raw, brutally intimate portrait of personal grief played out on a national stage. It's also a great movie that centers on what may prove to be the defining performance of Natalie Portman's career.
Director: Denzel Washington Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis
Fences is a great collection of performances. I'm not sure that it's great cinema, per se - in fact it's so aggressively anti-cinematic and so tightly tied to its theater origins that director/star Denzel Washington might as well have just filmed it on a stage a la Dogville. To be fair to Washington, even if he had found a way to open things out a bit more and take advantage of the scope that film is able to capture that theater simply cannot, the sheer talkiness of the screenplay (which playwright August Wilson adapted himself) would set Fences apart from most of what's at the cineplex. Fences unfolds as a glorious hurricane of words that help some truly great performances (Washington and Viola Davis are the stars and are as excellent as you would imagine, but there is no weak performance anywhere to be found) take flight. Watching these actors on screen is a captivating experience. I'm just not entirely sure it's a "movie."
Director: Gareth Edwards Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn
With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story we officially enter the period of Star Wars Anthology films, stand-alone films that will ensure that we'll get a new Star Wars movie every year until the end of time (in 2017 we'll get Episode VIII, 2018 a young Han Solo film, 2019 Episode IX, and 2020's release will reportedly be a film centering on Boba Fett). I'm somewhat confused as to how Rogue One can be considered a "stand-alone" film, in that it does technically have a sequel, it's just that the sequel predates it by 39 years, but that's really neither here nor there. Rogue One is a great start to the era of "all the Star Wars you could possibly want," giving renewed context and emotional weight to the events of the original trilogy while also doing something slightly different from the Star Wars films that we've already seen. Fair warning: since Rogue One has now been in release for 17 days, I'm going to assume that anyone concerned about spoilers has already seen it and I'm considering everything fair game for discussion.
Life goes on, but maybe, sometimes, it doesn't. Maybe there are wounds that run so deep that they never heal and only ever become manageable. Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By the Sea, his third feature after 2000's You Can Count on Me and 2011's Margaret, is a portrait of grief, of a man who will live the rest of his days in the psychic space left by the worst moment of his life. It's a fine film, often moving, sometimes funny, well-observed when it comes to the minutiae of relationships and of place, and filled with great performances, from its star right down to actors who only appear in a scene or two. It's everything, basically, that you expect from a movie released at this time of year. I'm not convinced, on first viewing, that it's anything more than that, a film that you admire as it burns brightly in the heat of Oscar season and then never feel compelled to revisit - but, then again, I felt that way about You Can Count On Me for a long time, too. Sometimes you have to grow a bit before you can engage a movie on its level and recognize its quiet genius, and maybe that's the case with Manchester By the Sea.
Director: Richard Kelly Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal Country: United States
It’s interesting to ponder what Richard Kelly’s career as a filmmaker might have been if he had made his films just a little bit later. I’m not just referring to the fact that Donnie Darko, his feature film debut in which the inciting incident is a jet engine falling from the sky and into a suburban home, was released mere weeks after September 11th, dooming it to an extremely limited release; but also to his two subsequent films, 2007’s incomprehensible Southland Tales and 2009’s underseen and even less loved The Box. While Darko would ultimately be saved from obscurity by becoming embraced as a cult classic, allowing Kelly to revisit it in 2004 with his Director’s Cut and win over some of the critics who were not persuaded by the theatrical cut, there would be no second chances for Southland Tales or The Box, and Kelly hasn’t written or directed anything since. But if The Box had come out in a post-Snowden world of paranoia about the reach of the NSA, and Southland Tales, which was designed to be an “interactive experience” that required a familiarity with a series of graphic novels in order to understand the context and plot of the film, was released now, in an era where audiences seem to want pop culture that can be endlessly dissected and present as puzzles waiting to be “solved,” then maybe Kelly’s career would be entirely different.