I'd Like to Thank the Academy

(And the nominees are . . .)

This year, ten nominations each for Roma and The Favourite, both leading the pack -- I can live with that. Eight nominations for Vice gets something more akin to "whatever" from me, but at least the Academy doesn't seem to be too far out of line with my thinking generally this year. Well, except for one particularly notable snub: no nominations whatsoever for Eighth Grade, which just happens actually to be the best film of 2018.

This is all subjective, of course, and we're all just passing time with this crap. But I've been doing it for years and years, and I'll never stop! Also, if a superhero movie must be the first ever to be nominated for Best Picture, Black Panther is the one to do it. It won't win and it doesn't deserve to, but it sure as shit deserves a nomination; I was way of the possibility that it wouldn't.

There's actually a surprising number of nominees I haven't seen this year. A couple I've never even heard of. As usual of course I have seen the vast majority, so let's get into it.


Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity's Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Many months ago, I would not have said this was a tough one -- it's toucher now, only because Bradley Cooper's momentum has waned. And this year, the SAG Awards have yet to happen, so making this prediction today is a lot trickier than it will be a week from now. That said, considering the competition, if pressed, I would still predict Bradley Cooper. If not him, at the moment, it looks like it's close to a toss-up between him and Christian Bale.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: My vote since the moment I saw A Star Is Born has never wavered from Bradley Cooper, whose transformation is astonishing -- honestly, even more so than Christian Bale's, even though it's not as flashy and attention-getting.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: How have I not even heard of At Eternity's Gate, let alone seen it? Perhaps it's unfair to declare a performance I have not even seen should not win, but this is a movie that has not in any way been in the national conversation. It simply makes the least sense for that one to win.


Actress in a Leading Role

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I feel like this is the one race that nearly every year has the greatest competition, packed with great performances. Many people seem to think Glenn Close will win, largely because she has more nominations without a win than any other actor alive today, but it seems telling to me that The Wife has no other nominations. So this really is a tough one. I'm leaning toward Melissa McCarthy, but I'm probably wrong.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: And this may be sheer bias on my part -- because I actually feel Melissa McCarthy deserves the win.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I love Lady Gaga, but her performance in A Star Is Born was fine -- not great. She should get the Oscar for Best Song.


Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Given the sheer number of nominations for Vice, the unlikelihood of all others in this category, and his legitimately incredible performance as George W. Bush, I think Sam Rockwell has the edge here.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Upon further reflection, among these five, I think Sam Rockwell gets my vote as well.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I actively avoided seeing Green Book, as its production has been uncomfortably problematic in far too many ways: its cliched white perspective without bothering to get the story from the family of the black man it was based on; its writer's own bigoted comments (directly aligning himself with Donald Trump, no less); its portrayal of a gay man, just to name a few. Mahershala Ali is a great actor who has done great work -- he deservedly won an Oscar for Moonlight only two years ago -- but even without having seen this movie, I feel I know enough to conclude this is not a particular film that needs to be rewarded.


Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I have no idea! I'd want to give The Favourite the edge, except that it has two nominees in this category, which could split the vote. This is now Amy Adams's sixth nomination with no win, which could give it to her.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: I'm leaning toward Rachel Weisz here, but . . .
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: . . . I'd be fine with anyone in this category winning, really. Marina de Tavira's nomination was a genuine surprise; I'm not sure anyone was predicting acting nominations for Roma besides Yalitza Aparicio as the lead. And really, all five of these women are great. That said -- well, Emma Stone did win for La La Land only two years ago. She doesn't need to win for this. (Rachel Weisz also already has an Oscar, but it's been longer since she last won, in 2006, for The Constant Gardener.)


Animated Feature Film

Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I feel like this is a close call between Isle of Dogs and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. If critical response has any sway at all, it'll likely go to the latter.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Much as I did genuinely love Incredibles 2, for once I am not rooting for the Pixar film. Spider-Man is where it's at -- and I say this as someone who avoids superhero movies as a rule! This one is exceptional in far more ways than any of the others, though: the story, the animation, the themes, everything.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I don't know, Mirai, I guess? This answer is completely unfair since it's the one nominee I did not see. But, I hate anime. And Spider-Man deserves it, god damn it!


Cinematography

Cold War, Łukasz Żal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I'll bet my head on a spike that Roma will win this award.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Roma for the win! Not enough people saw this movie, but probably enough members of the Academy did. And, true to form for Alfonso Cuarón movies, the cinematography is jaw-dropping.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I truly loved virtually everything else about The Favourite, but the one thing I disliked about it was its fishbowl-lens cinematography, which I found persistently distracting. I could only get past it after seeing it three times. Even though I am clearly in the minority on this point, cinematography would be the single award I think that movie does not deserve.


Production Design

Black Panther
The Favourite
First Man
Mary Poppins Returns
Roma

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: This is always a hard one to predict. Maybe The Favourite will get this one, since the production design detail of Roma -- which is itself intricate and extensive -- gets a little lost in the black and white cinematography. And The Favourite was shot in opulent, vast palaces that really added to the tone of the story.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: I think I just convinced myself The Favourite should win.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Mary Poppins Returns was fun, but ... come on.


Costume Design

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth Carter
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary, Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I think I'm going to declare The Favourite as having the edge here as well. It's possible Mary, Queen of Scots actually deserves it, but only two nominations, that movie isn't likely to win anything.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: I actually think Black Panther also has a legitimately decent chance in this category, and you know what? If Black Panther wins any Oscar at all, it should be for its intricately African-inspired costume designs.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Seeing three nominations for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a little jarring; I did not expect it to get any, in spite of knowing it did get a very limited theatrical release just to qualify -- thereafter, though, it seemed merely to be a Netflix original streaming movie. Who ever expects Oscar nominations for such things? The times, they are a-changin'. It doesn't deserve this award, regardless. I mean, the cowboy outfits are nice and all, but they're still just cowboy outfits.


Directing

Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yargos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Conventional wisdom already says this will be another year with a split between Best Director and Best Picture, and in this category more than any other, Alfonso Cuarón is the one to beat. I was surprised to see a second foreign language film in this category (Cold War), but for that one, the nomination itself is the award.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Honestly? For every film here except for Roma, I feel that had they not been nominated for Best Director, that would have been fair. Only a Roma exclusion would have been a stunning snub. Roma is the only truly deserving winner here.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I'm going with Adam McKay and Vice. I'm most surprised by his even being included here -- what is with the love for that movie, anyway? It's all right, but also fails to justify its own existence beyond acting parlor tricks. Christian Bale as Dick Cheney is impressive, and also it's not fun to watch the story of Dick Cheney.


Film Editing

BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman
The Favourite, Yargos Lanthimos
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
Vice, Hank Corwin

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Hey, what! Roma isn't even nominated here. That's odd. I do think movies being in any way polarizing hurts its chances, even for a lower-tier award like Editing. And you know which is the only one of these films that is not notably polarizing in any way? The Favourite.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: The Favourite also gets my vote.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Green Book. Don't give that whitewashing movie any awards!


Foreign Film

Capernaum, Lebanon
Cold War, Poland
Never Look Away, Germany
Roma, Mexico
Shoplifters, Japan

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I am actually including this category for the first time in roughly a decade this year, because for once I have actually seen most of them! Well, two out of three. I haven't even had a chance to see Capernaum yet, even though it's opening locally soon; also, what the hell is Never Look Away? Hmm, apparently a three-hour German romance about a tortured soul. Whatever, Roma is winning this award. Unless . . .
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: What are the odds that Roma wins both Best Picture and Best Foreign Film? Pretty much zilch, I would think -- and, in the absence of Eighth Grade, among the nominees, Roma truly deserves to win Best Picture. And if that should happen? Cold War should win Best Foreign Language Film. It actually is very good.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Honestly I could not see what the big deal was with Shoplifters. It was fine, but hardly Oscar-worthy.


Makeup and Hairstyling

Border
Mary, Queen of Scots
Vice

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Border? What the hell is that? -- oh, right, I nearly forgot: this actually did play locally and I never went to see it. Its main characters are borderline disfigured, hence the makeup nomination. It was a very small, Swedish movie that got almost no attention outside critic circles. Therefore, given the massive transformations of both Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell, Vice is sure to win this one.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Much as I hesitate to throw any awards at Vice, it probably does deserve this one. Maybe Border does too, but I skipped that one.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Mary, Queen of Scots seems too on the nose for this award these days, to be honest. Both the other nominees clearly deserve it more.


Music (Original Score)

Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I bet anything this one will go to Black Panther, which is packed with nuanced, meaningful details in all sorts of its production elements -- not least of which is its score.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Black Panther should get it. I'd be fine with If Beale Street Could Talk winning, but there is no question Black Panther had the greater reach, and deservedly so.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I won't go so far as to say any of these movies is patently undeserving, but I will say Mary Poppins Returns is least likely to get it, and that's fine.


Music (Original Song)

"All the Stars," from Black Panther, Music by Mark Spears, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth and Anthony Tiffith; Lyric by Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, Anthony Tiffith and Solana Rowe
"I'll Fight," from RBG, Music and Lyric by Diane Warren
"The Place Where Lost Things Go," from Mary Poppins Returns, Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyric by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
"Shallow," from A Star Is Born, Music and Lyric by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt
"When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings," from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Music and Lyric by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: If "Shallow" from A Star Is Born does not win this award, I will saw off my left arm.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Given its context in a great movie with great music about musicians, "Shallow" also deserves to win this.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: So I went online to refresh my memory of "What a Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings," and . . . no.


Visual Effects

Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: This one's hard. First Man is the only one of these movies for which I gave a solid A grade to its special effects, but that movie has so few nominations, who knows? And most of the others were much bigger blockbusters and therefore seen by many more people. I'm going to call this one for Avengers: Infinity War, which, at the very least, had far better effects than the dismal Avengers: Age of Ultron.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: First Man is without question the most impressive movie among these, in terms of its visual effects.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Ready Player One can fuck right off with its visual effects that were average at best. Why is it even nominated? Just having countless effects shots should not be considered a qualification!


Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Written for the screen by Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Screenplay by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: This award often goes to movies with no chance of winning other awards. Does that narrow it down? By that metric, at least after disqualifying The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for its unusually brief theatrical run, I suppose the award will go to Can You Ever Forgive Me?
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: I'm going for Can You Ever Forgive Me? here, but would also be perfectly happy with A Star Is Born, whose script spoke to me and made me feel seen in totally unexpected ways.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs's six chapters are far too all over the place to be deserving of this award.


Writing (Original Screenplay)

The Favourite, Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Written by Paul Schrader
Green Book, Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Roma, Written Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Written by Adam McKay

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: This one comes down to Roma and The Favorite, and considering the belabored pacing of the former, I think the latter actually has the edge in this category.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Much as I really want to reward The Favourite here, upon further reflection, Roma may actually be the most deserving. Its script is far and away the most nuanced of these five.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Oh have I mentioned, "fuck Green Book"?


Best motion picture of the year

Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: This is so hard to say, because a foreign film has never won this award before. I'll be happy to be wrong, but the alternative being A Star Is Born, I still think that's the most likely winner, and I'd be happy with that as well. It really spoke to me personally in pleasantly surprising ways.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: My #1 movie of the year (Eighth Grade) and my #2 movie (Blindspotting) both criminally received zero nominations -- but, my #3 movie was Roma, and that one received ten. Being forced to choose between these eight movies, Roma is the only choice to make here.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Hello, Green Book! That movie winning this year would be the most tone deaf thing the Academy has done since Crash won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain in 2006. Lucky for everyone alive, there's no chance whatsoever that movie will win this award this year.



(Nominations for documentary feature, documentary short, animated short, live action short, sound editing, and sound mixing were also announced, but I don't know enough about them to make any worthwhile observations.)

The 91st Academy Awards telecast will air on ABC Sunday, February 24 at 5 p.m. Pacific Time. .

COLD WAR

Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-
Music: B+

I don’t usually call out the music in a movie unless it’s a musical — or, as in the case of A Star Is Born, barely short of a musical because it’s about singers who are performing original music. In the case of Cold War, one of its many pleasures is its music, which features far more than expected. It doesn’t quite veer into even “almost a musical” territory, but the female lead, Zula (a captivating Joanna Kulig) is indeed a singer. It’s how she meets her star-crossed lover, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, mostly stoic), as he is a music director and she cons her way into a group of young musicians scouted from the Polish peasantry in the early 1950s.

These two are mismatched, their backgrounds are incompatible, they cannot let each other go, they cannot stand each other, they are doomed to love each other beyond all others even as their lives dissect intersect, though many years, well into the mid-sixties. This is an incredible time span to cover in a run time of all of 89 minutes, but somehow director and co-writer Pawel Pawlekowski (Ida) manages it.

From the Polish folk music beginning, the narrative moves to Berlin to Paris to Yugoslavia and back to Poland again, Zula’s career as a singer and Wikto’s career as a musician figuring prominently every step of the way. There are moments when the music subtly reveals itself to be subtly quite pretty, even when Zula is merely singing scales.

As you might have guessed, the Cold War is the literal backdrop of this romance that somehow manages to be epic even within a brief run time. If Cold War proves anything, it’s that a movie has no need for en endless run time to convey true depth. Granted, this is still a stylized foreign film, shot in black and white no less, that will test some short attention spans. It’s also a feast for the eyes of anyone who appreciates a striking and start aesthetic, as even without color, Cold War is beautifully shot.

I kept expecting something more overtly political to the story, but Pawlekowski keeps the narrative grounded firmly in romance, with Eastern European sociopolitical issues merely as its framework, or its lens. Perhaps there is a more overt metaphor at play here, a bit of food for the pretensions of film studies majors. I did not find anything particularly cold about the fire between these two, though — burning passions that veer between romance and resentment.

And then Zula is singing into a microphone at a club, and the sequence is captivating. She drinks a little too much, jumps into a crowd dancing to “Rock Around the Clock,” and the choreography and camera work are impressive. I can’t say I found Wiktor to be the most compelling character; he spends a lot of time staring expressionlessly. He looks good, though. That said, literally everyone in this movie does.

The ending takes a turn that will stay with me a while, especially with a uniquely perfect final line of dialogue. It seems to be the only fate for these two, who forge entire lives independent of each other and yet keep returning to each other, that makes sense. Cold War didn’t quite speak to me with as much profundity as it evidently is with most critics, but it certainly has a sensibility all its own, a point of view from a time and place that reverberates beyond its own confines. It somehow turns a universal concept into a singular experience.

A couple in stark relief.

A couple in stark relief.

Overall: B+

DESTROYER

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

For all its impressiveness, Destroyer is also kind of a stunt. Sure, Nicole Kidman is mostly unrecognizable as beat-up Detective Erin Bell, and it’s thus one of the most amazing transformations of her career. But how badly did we need this transformation? How many times do we need to marvel at beautiful Hollywood actresses “playing ugly”? Perhaps not since Charlize Theron in Monster (2003) has a “gritty” transformation been this dramatic. (Try Googling “beautiful actresses playing ugly” — you’ll find mostly supposedly “brave” portrayals that called for no makeup, or the appearance of no makeup.) But the question remains: why not just hire a perfectly good actor who already looks kind of like the character you’re looking for? Surely that would make the movie cheaper to make. On the other hand, would anyone then be interested in the film? I suppose that is really the pertinent question.

And no one can fault clearly talented actors for being interested in challenging themselves. Nicole Kidman has long been an actor of a caliber few others have matched. Still, casting her so far against type, as a grizzled detective, does have an unintended effect: People come to the movie to marvel at the trick of her transformation, rather than at the quality of the movie itself.

Destroyer is also directed by a woman, Karyn Kusama (her first feature film credit since 2009’s Jennifer’s Body), working from a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. The three previously worked together on the very poorly reviewed live action film of Aeon Flux in 2005, so I guess this is a massive step up from that, thirteen years later. I’ll say this about Destroyer’s script: a twist comes at the end that I did not at all see coming.

In the opening scene, Detective Bell approaches the body of a recently murdered man. She tells the other cops already on the scene, who are clearly already conditioned to be frustrated with her, that she knows who did it. The rest of the story unfolds in a way that puts us under the impression that this murder case is integral to Bell’s part in it. For Bell’s part, though — she’s uber-focused on the realization that one Silas (Toby Kebbell), the ringleader of a group of criminals she once got entangled with under cover, has resurfaced. She’s out for vengeance.

It is a little jarring to see the likes of Nicole Kidman occasionally kicking the shit out of people — perhaps most significantly here, a lawyer played by Bradley Whitford. Slightly more often, she’s also getting the shit beat out of her. This has already been pointed out by others, so I cannot take credit for the observation, and I do wonder if it would even have registered had I not heard about it prior to watching the movie: There is a certain satisfaction in one key element in which Destroyer is unusually realistic. Unlike most movies, characters here are completely winded after a foot chase that lasts just a couple of minutes. And after Detective Bell receives a good number of kicks to the abdomen, she spends pretty much the rest of the movie limping and wincing from its lasting pain. These characters suffer injuries that are actually grounded in reality.

The psychological tolls of bad mistakes are well handled too. We get occasional flashbacks to the bank robbery gone wrong — this is seventeen years ago, so here Kidman gets presented as younger than her actual 51 years. It was around this time that she got pregnant, hence the 16-year-old troubled daughter she now has (Jade Pettyjohn, well cast). The present-day Bell looks aged far more than 17 years; she could be sixty. But, to say life has not been great to her in that time would be an understatement, so it makes sense.

Taking the novelty of Kidman’s transformation — which is impressive, as is her performance — out of the equation, it’s difficult to assess the overall quality of Destroyer as a film. I’m not sorry I saw it; it had me engaged from start to finish. Do you need to see it, though? Maybe that depends on your definition of “need.” The plot structure seems novel in its own right, until upon further reflection it becomes clear that it’s a device pretty well worn these days.

I can’t think of any particular reason to tear down Destroyer; gimmick or not, it is a unique experience. That’s not nothing. What sets it apart amounts to pretty superficial elements, and there is maybe not as much depth as at first it may seem. But how many people besides someone with a film critic’s eye are going to consider such things? Plenty of people will marvel at this movie, and be happy to have done so. Anyone who asks me, though, will be told that part is just a trick, and Destroyer is a decent but ultimately unremarkable film.

SHUT YOUR FACE that’s Nicole Kidman??

SHUT YOUR FACE that’s Nicole Kidman??

Overall: B

BEN IS BACK

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

What is it about movie ideas that seem to come in twos? From Dante’s Peak and Volcano in the nineties to Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached less than a decade ago, with countless other examples in between and since, this tendency to greenlight remarkably similar movies at around the same time seems to never end. Well, this year it’s heartwrenching family dramas about drug addict sons.

It’s too bad Beautiful Boy is getting all of the attention, because as it happens, Ben Is Back is the better of the two.

Ben Is Back is not without its own flaws, what with so much going on, crammed into a bit too little time to tell it all, an entire family history revealed over the course of one Christmas Eve. That said, writer-director Peter Hedges (who happens to be father of star Lucas Hedges) has some skill within that framework, revealing background details through the action currently unfolding, and never once resorting to flashback. In this film, the narrative is propelled forward from the start, with the Ben of the title (that being Lucas Hedges) suddenly showing up unexpected at his upper-middle-class home when he’s scheduled to be at his recovery facility over the holiday.

Things sort of spiral from there, albeit at a tolerable pace and in a fairly organic fashion. Ben is doing the best he can, and Hedges makes it easy to root for him in spite of his clear and many gargantuan failings. That doesn’t stop it all from being . . . a little much. In the end, Ben Is Back is not easy to watch, especially if someone you care about or are close to is also an addict. You’ll want to keep tissues handy. And the emotional hits, while deceptively minor at first, ultimately come hard and heavy. A sudden burst of hope can come imbued with heartbreaking skepticism.

I don’t usually like to do this, but with the two movies coming out so close to each other, comparisons are inescapable. Beautiful Boy frustratingly left the causes of its protagonist’s addiction untold; Ben Is Back provides that background, and does it by showing rather than telling. Beautiful Boy hardly seems aware of its characters’ quite obvious white privilege, much less mentions it; in Ben Is Back, Ben’s stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) is black, has produced two half-siblings for Ben, and he even utters the line, “If he were black, he’d be in jail by now.” I wonder how many people might roll their eyes at what seems like a line shoehorned in, but the fact remains: we can’t be reminded of that truth often enough. It also remains true that empathetic portrayals of addicts are not nearly often enough about people of color, but at least this movie acknowledges the disparity.

Ben does have another sister from his mother’s previous marriage, Ivy (Big Little Lies’s Kathryn Newton), who is immediately and understandably skeptical and resentful upon his return. The crux of the story, though, is between Ben and his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts, who has never been better). So yes, once again, it’s a story about how one kid’s chaos-inducing addictions have torn a family apart, but more specifically, affected his relationship with his closest parent.

Ben is trying to be honest and do by right by those he loves (and those who love him), but increasingly dire consequences of past mistakes catch up with him quickly. Maybe a little too quickly, what with how closely this story flirts with becoming overwrought. Whether it quite crosses that line, or the degree to which it does, could be up for debate. Either way, if you’re looking for a good cry, Ben Is Back will do the trick, with impressively constructed if sometimes subtly contrived storytelling. If nothing else, the performances are good enough that you won’t be able to look away, much as you’ll often want to.

Julia Roberts tries to negotiate with someone who tells her he can’t be trusted.

Julia Roberts tries to negotiate with someone who tells her he can’t be trusted.

Overall: B

MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

Hey, fundamentalist Christians! You know that King James whose Bible you love so much? The one who also presided over the unification of the Scottish, Irish and English Crowns? A pretty consequential individual, yes? And a quite deliberate existence, the result of Mary, Queen of Scots uniting with Henry Stuart to produce an heir to the throne.

As you might imagine, Mary, Queen of Scots is not about him, although he clearly plays a key role in the history on display here. Instead, it is about the disputed claim to the throne between Mary (a great Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, fantastic).

Director Josie Rourke, working from a script by Beau Willimon based on a biographical book by John Guy, moves the narrative back and forth between Mary and Elizabeth, who were cousins, and their respective counsels either advising or outright manipulating — or, in some instances, worse — their queens, fearful of the other posing a threat to their own monarch’s position. There are occasional messages sent back and forth, by the two women share all of one scene together, a rather consequential one near the end of the film. Aside from the choice to have them walking through hanging linens as though in a maze, it’s a tense exchange that’s worth the wait.

It comes perhaps as little surprise that the trailers to Mary, Queen of Scots would suggest it is only about these two women vying for power. In a different era, they may well have gotten along better, but for the men surrounding them with their superiority complexes. The way the story is told here, it would seem Queen Elizabeth’s choice never to marry was a shrewd one, as it kept those conspiring to usurp her at bay. Mary of Scotland, widowed twice over, was not so lucky.

Still, this movie presents both these women as having natural assumptions of their own superiority, a very specific kind of hubris borne of bloodlines and perceived birthrights. They both have faith in their own rightful claim to the English throne. And Mary, having been raised a Catholic, returned from France after being widowed at nineteen to a country largely wary of how she would approach bloody rivalries between Catholics and Protestants that have gone on for centuries.

It is this backdrop that is slightly oversimplified in Mary, Queen of Scots, one zealot constantly cut to as the movie goes on, showing him half-screaming sermons in a church to a rapt audience, systematically convinced that Mary is a harlot undeserving of their respect.

And Mary does not have the greatest luck with relationships, Henry Stuart evidently having more interest in the men in her court (and one in particular) than in her. Both women are playing the same game, but with a different set of rules. Elizabeth keeps the romance, and even the close relationships, at an arm’s length, and it proves to be a choice to her advantage. Mary is just as convinced of her own savvy as well as her own righteousness, and her quickness to produce an heir was itself a smart move.

As to which of these formidable women ultimately came out on top, that is perhaps up to debate — and food for thought as this story plays out. Given both history and the fact that the film’s opening scene depicts the lead-up to it, it’s hardly a spoiler to say Mary was ultimately beheaded. But with one single child she changed the course of history. Did she lose?

There’s no denying the feminist bent to Mary, Queen of Scots, and how appropriate it is to the time might better be determined by historians with more intimate knowledge than I possess. There is no question that it’s appropriate to the present day, though it does make one wonder about the extent of poetic license, embellishment or anachronism. Either way, it makes for a compelling story.

Mary and her not-so-merry men.

Mary and her not-so-merry men.

Overall: B

SHOPLIFTERS

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

I left Shoplifters kind of wondering what all the fuss was about, but that’s on me, really. I mean, what “fuss”? Have you ever heard of this movie? It’s Japanese, and about a multigenerational family living together and getting by on petty thievery. And I fell into the embarrassingly simple trap of getting too easily impressed by the forty critics aggregated at MetaCritic.com, averaging to a “MetaScore” of a whopping 93. This must be one hell of a movie!

And maybe it is, and I just can’t see it for some reason? I’m not obliged to doubt myself just because of incredibly high critical praise, though. I don’t have to agree with everyone, damn it!

Besides, Shoplifters is still . . . fine. Would I insist that you see it? I’m not prepared to do that. Far too many other movies in theatres right now have actually wowed me in one way or another. Shoplifters kept me engaged, but it didn’t wow me. In fact, the plot turn that seems to be impressing so many others, where this family turns out to be harboring secrets that vary in levels of shame — I didn’t find it that impressive. I would have liked this movie more if it were just this unusual portrait of a family with a specific socioeconomic status in another country, how they lived their day to day lives, and that was it. Why the need for left-field reveals?

I also found it kind of hard to follow how everyone was related. There’s a sort of matriarch, “Grandma,” a sweet old lady living off her late husband’s pension; her son, injured on the job as a day laborer; his wife who has a precarious position at a laundry fallen on hard times; a young lady presented as her sister; a preteen boy presented as their son, although he is not yet ready to call them “Mom” or “Dad.” Early on in the film, young Shota (the boy) is aiding the man on their little shoplifting excursions at grocery stores, and on their way home, they find an apparently lost little girl, scratched and hungry, who they decide to take home with them and call her Lin.

They do nearly return her to her parents the next day, but when they overhear them yelling and Lin’s dad abusing her mom, they opt to keep her. Miyu Sasaki, the little girl who plays Lin, is adorable as hell. She starts learning quickly about how to work together to distract store owners in order to steal groceries. It’s not long before it turns out at least one store clerk is not as distractable as they thought.

Most of Shoplifters is rather meditative in tone, just a pleasant look at a downtrodden family that seems to be proving surprisingly functional. They clearly love and care for each other. They offer Lin a kind of love she’s never known. On the other hand, the local news has caught wind of this missing neighborhood girl. This scenario is clearly not sustainable. Their living situation even before finding her was ultimately untenable.

Writer and co-director Hirokazu Koreeda works in subtle moves, and until the plot takes that hard turn, small hints are dropped here and there about how this semi-makeshift family came to be. A reference to a sister “with a different mother.” A quick mention of the car in which they “found” Shota when he was much younger. Who is exactly whose parent, or in some cases where certain parents even are, is not always clear.

Shoplifters is not predictable, I’ll give it that — and there’s a certain satisfaction in a story that’s neither predictable nor particularly shocking. I was always interested in where these characters were coming from, if somewhat frustrated at times with a lack of clarity. You won’t be amazed by a movie this quiet, but then, not all movies have to amaze. I must admit, the more I think about this movie, I put it in higher regard. It’s very well constructed, but its incredibly thoughtful, measured pace and tone also renders it not for everyone. Even I am not likely to remember it very vividly much more than maybe a week from now.

I suppose if you have some direct connection to Japan or Japanese culture, Shoplifters would be for you. In that case, you’re likely to get a fresh angle on something already familiar. It’s a fresh angle either way, but when it comes to lasting impact, results may vary.

Let’s spend some time figuring out exactly how all these people are related.

Let’s spend some time figuring out exactly how all these people are related.

Overall: B

VICE

Directing: B
Acting: A-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

Vice is packed with super-famous faces and personalities stepping in to play famous — or, depending on your perspective, eminently infamous — real-life faces and people, and the results can be distracting. There’s not one bad actor here, and in fact the acting is far and away the best thing about this movie, but there’s also the issue of, say, Steve Carell playing Donald Rumsfeld, at varying stages of his life. It’s impossible to forget you’re actually looking at Steve Carell. The same goes for Tyler Perry as Colin Powell.

On the other hand, Christian Bale is astonishing as Dick Cheney, the unremorseful, power-hungry Vice President we came to know and hate during the Bush Junior Era. He gained 45 lbs for the part, shaved his head, bleached his eyebrows, and adopts an almost creepily accurate half-sneer, half lip-curl, even in the scenes from Cheney’s earlier years. No one else in this movie packed with famous actors is more famous than Bale, and yet Bale makes the most impressive achievement: he makes you believe you’re actually looking at Dick Cheney.

The same goes for the incredible Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush himself, who plays a smaller part in this story than you might expect, but still an obviously vital one, given, you know, history. There are moments in Vice where Rockwell’s performance moves into the realm of uncanny. A couple of times his look and manner are so spot on that I actually thought to myself, Holy shit.

Amy Adams is equally as impressive as Dick’s wife, Lynne Cheney, even though she isn’t quite as readily known as a personality on the national stage. Regardless, Adams plays her as a woman so deeply committed to he ideas of the righteousness of conservative values, it’s subtly unsettling.

But does a pack of amazing acting performances alone make a worth movie seeing? In the case of Vice, I’d say . . . maybe?

Because the thing is, this movie is fucking depressing. Surely it’s a story that should be told, but is 2018 the right time to tell it? I am not quite convinced. A movie like this would probably play better — do Democrats like myself, anyway — during any era besides the Trump Era, as it would leave audiences with at least a vague sense of relief: the idea that things aren’t this bad anymore. But instead, they are worse, and the current state of our country can be directly traced to Dick Cheney’s time in the white house, and his work on consolidating and expanding Executive power and overreach.

In other words, Vice demonstrates to us how and why things are so fucked up right now. Does that sound like fun to you? Admittedly, I would never say that “fun” is an absolute prerequisite for all film. We need to know all this stuff; the country is far too easily distracted from it by the catatonic effect of popular culture in general; this is clearly what writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short) is telling us. But this kind of messaging is a little cheapened by the parlor trick nature of the performances in this movie, however impressive they may be.

Vice also has an air of “cool” in its stylized editing and cinematic in-jokes, from the psych-out “end credits” in the middle of the film, to Dick Cheney ultimately breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge our judgment and then pointedly refuse to apologize for anything. The dialogue is occasionally a little oversimplified (somehow I doubt Lynne Cheney ever literally said “That’s just how it is for us girls” to her daughters), but this is one of several moments weighted in hard truths.

One can only assume McKay is playing to liberal audiences by characterizing the Cheneys as callous and heartless, with the one curious exception of their acceptance of one daughter being gay — a complication that only gets more darkly complicated as familial relationships evolve from there. I could also easily see hardline conservatives watching this movie and rooting for Dick the entire way. Vice feels like a movie made just to give people permission to be cynical. It certainly got me thinking about how much shame there is in American legacy, the hypocrisy behind so-called national pride.

So what Adam McKay has given us is an expertly acted, moderately well-written, and ultimately deeply depressing movie I can’t imagine recommending to anyone specific at all. The question has been posed of Vice: Who is this movie for? As impressive as it is on multiple levels, that’s just a question for which I have no answer.

“ Half the people in this room wants to be us, and the other half fears us,'“ she says.

Half the people in this room wants to be us, and the other half fears us,'“ she says.

Overall: B

Cinema 2018: Best & Worst

Below are the ten most satisfying and memorable films I saw in 2018:

phantom thread 11. Phantom Thread A-

Okay, okay, this year I'm doing something new and actually listing the eleven most satisfying and memorable films I saw in 2018. I include Phantom Thread here because it should have been included in my 2017 top 10 but, frustratingly, was not released until January. So, to compromise when it comes to listing strictly 2018 movies, I sort of include this one as "honorable mention." Because this treatise on the relationship between a devoted young woman (Vicky Krieps), her self-absorbed fashion designer lover (Daniel Day-Lewis), and his longtime business partner/sister (Lesley Manville) was so esquisite, I went to see it twice.

What I said then: This movie takes its time at it, but it goes in unexpected directions that are subtly disturbing. And if a movie must be disturbing, subtle is perhaps the best way to go. It makes a movie richer with repeat viewings, and I will certainly be watching this one again.

we the animals 10. We the Animals A-

Presented with the dreamlike haze and fractured structure of memory, We the Animals is a portrait of three young brothers with parents more concerned about their own problems than the welfare of their children -- and it builds up to a rather unexpected reveal regrding one of the boys. It's that turn that elevats this film to greatness, but every shot has a succinct contribution to the whole, the story arc finely threaded with what only seemed to be unrelated vingettes. It's difficult to describe a unique theatrical experience when it is truly unlike any other, but suffice it to say that anyone with a sensitivity to the awakenings of puberty is likely to be moved.

What I said then: This is fiction -- and increasingly stylized as the story unfolds. This is not a straightforward depiction of reality. This is art. And it is by turns charming, sad, and beautiful. Sometimes shocking. I

a star is born 9. A Star Is Born A-

It's not often that a movie comes along that exceeds expectations at every level: Bradley Cooper's achievement as a director; his revelatory performance as an alcholic fading rock star; his ability as a singer; Lady Gaga's ability as a serious actor; even this movie's knowing acknowledgment of its previous iterations' legacy as vehicles for gay icons. A Star Is Born is a story now decades old, nearly a century in fact, and still this version of it updated its sensibilities so effectively that, even though at its heart it's a simple love story just like countles others, it made me feel seen and understood. I felt a personal connection to this movie that I did not expect, with so much empathy and understanding at its heart.

What I said then: The things that are great about A Star Is Born are just so great — it makes for a genuine crowd pleaser which, beat for beat, hits all the right notes. You could even call this film subtly subversive. What’s not to love about a flawed man who makes terrible mistakes but through it all has eyes only for this one wide-eyed woman, who in turn progressively overcomes a lack of confidence and ambition to showcase awesome talent? A story almost pointedly lacking in sexism, and featuring a seamlessly organic sensibility of inclusion? Which even treats alcoholism and addiction realistically as a disease to be treated without judgment?

science fair 8. Science Fair A-

If you want to see a movie packed wall to wall with unbridled joy, keep a look out for this one. A documentary about a worldwide science fair? Indeed! Seeing these kids from all over the globe giddy at the chance to showcase how they will change the world is both inspiring and inectious, and provides a truly welcome beacon of hope in an otherwise dark world. This movie is overflowing with charm, a delightfully ironic wave of movie magic that happens to be about science.

What I said then: I found Science Fair to be deeply, deeply affecting — in a profoundly positive way. How often does a documentary make you cry tears of joy?

a fantastic woman 7. A Fantastic Woman A-

Attention to all those who lament the dearth of trans actors playing the trans roles that tell their stories: look no further than A Fantastic Woman, a delicately executed Chilean film about a young trans woman facing the vicious prejudices of the older man she's in a relationship with after he dies unexpectedly, as well as the broader prejduices of her culture. It's a sad story, true, but nowhere near as sad as it could have been, and the performance of the lead actor, Daniela Vega, is indeed fantastic.

What I said then: While Marina endures emotional traumas one after another ... she moves through this story as a paragon of resilience and strength -- and without contrivance. She occasionally makes ill-advised choices, but never fatal ones, and stays a course that runs between resolve and defiance. Even in the midst of a life turned upside down by a random, tragic event, of all the people in this movie, Marina emerges as the hero.

foxtrot 6. Foxtrot A-

A beautiful Israeli meditation on grief in three acts, the first and third focused on one of two grieving parents, the second on the son killed senselessly while stationed at a Palestinian checkpoint. When dancing the foxtrot, you always end up right where you started: so it goes with these characters, in a uniquely stylized, provocative and contemplative film.

What I said then: There's a sort of elusive perfection to this movie, a clear precision, a unique finesse, without spelling out exactly what [director] Samuel Maoz is trying to say. Certainly plenty of Israelis feel they understand it, as this movie has proved controversial in its country of origin. That's hardly surprising. For the rest of us, further removed from those cultural biases, it's easier to take Foxtrot as a beautifully artistic portrait of familial grief, and how perception can radically alter meaning.

can you ever forgive me? 5. Can You Ever Forgive Me? A-

Melissa McCarthy gives the best performance in the best movie of her career, starring opposite the wonderful Richard E. Grant as two embittered and aging gay best friends who conspire to make money by forging letters by literary giants. Oh and did I mention this is based on the true story of Lee Israel, who did exactlty that? Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dramedy at its finest, the kind of untold story one loves to discover, told with both gravitas and deliciously dark humor.

What I said then: Can You Ever Forgive Me? presents its audience with characters who range from abrasive to literally criminal, yet are unavoidably compelling, even fun. It shows them doing terrible things and refuses to pass judgment — it leaves that up to the viewer. The script has wit to match that of Lee Israel herself, and is given depth by on-location shoots in places such as the real-life Manhattan bar Israel actually spent a lot of time at in the early nineties, or the many New York book stores she visits.

black panther6. Black Panther A-

I would hesitate to call Black Panther the best superhero over made, but it comes close -- and I would not begrudge anyone else making such a claim. This is the one movie this year that I saw three times in the theatre, after all, and I have not done that with a superhero movie since the 1992 release of the only truly perfect superhero movie ever made, Batman Returns. One could even make the case that Batman Returns was similarly progressive, at least in how it treats and presents its female characters. It's 26 years later now, though; one cannot argue the fact that Batman Returns is exceedingly white; and in spite of a male protagonist and male villain, Black Panther's many surprises and delights include its unparalleled feminist sensibilties. This is not just another Marvel Comics movie aimed at little more than cashing in; this is a film with real depth, a heft to the historical context of its proceedings, both onscreen and in the real world. The cultural impact, and specifically the positive cultural impact, of this movie cannot be overstated.

What I said then: This is perhaps what impresses me most about Black Panther: even in a movie packed with action, a movie still recognizable as a comic book adaptation, none of it is contrived -- that being the key difference from nearly every other superhero movie of the past decade. It characters of royal blood and themes of family rivalry are almost Shakespearean. It deals with succession to the throne and ritual battles, all with production and costume design with fantastically authentic African influences. The hero just happens to be a man who suits up in an alien technology-enhanced panther costume.

roma 3. Roma A-

Here is an "art movie" that is truly a work of art: a stunning visual feast in every frame, every scene based on actual memories of director Alfonso Cuarón growing up with a maid in the Mexico City neighborhood after which this film is named. Cuarón is well known for stunning technical cinematic achievements, and even though they are far more subtle here, Roma is still no exception. This movie is short on action and perhaps not for those with particularly short attention spans. But there are rich rewards for losing yourself in this movie, and giving attention to its depth of detail.

What I said then: All this is to say Roma can catch you off guard, provided you have the patience for the time it takes. It seeps into you slowly, its roots slowly digging into your soul. It somehow justifies itself after the fact, well after the credits have rolled, as it slowly dawns on you how much better it is than it seemed in the midst of it.

blindspotting 2. Blindspotting A

This story about best friends Collin and Miles, a black guy struggling to make good and a white guy who gets away with far more than his friend ever could, is a lot more entertaining than it sounds. For some viewers, it's even a bit much -- I found it to be nearly perfect. The story, after Collin witnesses the police shooting of an unarmed black man, is propulsive. It even provides a fair amount of humor, perhaps to catch the viewer off guart with some cultural unpleasantness we should all be forced to face. There's no way to do this movie justice without simply insisting it must be seen.

What I said then: Blindspotting is beautifully specific, in both its sense of a place in transition, and of a culture in crisis. Rafael Casal is excellent as Miles, the best friend who is slow to realize what he really gets away with compared to most of the people in the local culture he both emulates and is a product of. He's just as much to blame for the crime that landed Collin in custody, but guess which one of them had to serve any time?

eighth grade 1. Eighth Grade A

I have been singing this movie's praises for months -- since its release in July, in fact -- and I won't stop now! I knew then it was the best movie I had seen thus far this year, but given its "small indie movie" status and sensibility, it did not occur to me until later that perhaps it would indeed be the best film of 2018 in the end. Well, it is! Its many moments of painful awkwardness are a big part of what make it so great: movies never get made about this specific period in a person's life, and yet movies are never this universally relatable. Elsie Fisher gives a superb, knowing performance in the lead role as a middle school girl with a single dad, just trying to manifest some kind of self-actualization in the fact of crushing self-doubt. And it's her performance, as well as every one else's in this movie, that makes the story so tender, funny and moving. We don't know if she will be okay as she moves on in life, but we are reassured that she just might be, and that is exactly what we need.

What I said then: Even though Eighth Grade is relentlessly awkward, it pulls off a rare magic trick in that every scene is also either a delight, a tightrope of tension, or an emotional gut punch. For the great many people poised to relate to this movie in a way they perhaps never have to any other, rooting for Kayla feels like rooting for one's former self.

Five Worst -- or the worst of those I saw

ready player one 5. Ready Player One C+

This movie admittedly has its moments, but to call it gimmicky might be the understatement of the year. It's a transparent money grab trafficking in a kind of nostalgia that will itself be dated far sooner than it's presented to be in this supposedly futuristic dystopian world. Ready Player One does have some great action sequences, but that alone does not a great movie make.

What I said then: It still could have stood some substance to call its own, instead of borrowing it from countless other properties and weakening it to nothing of consequence in the process.

a wrinkle in time 4. A Wrinkle In Time C+

This one might win the 2018 Award for Biggest Failure at Living Up to the Hype. In the midst of all the mesmerizing special effects, substance itself proves persistently elusive. I never read the book, so maybe that makes a difference? Based on the movie alone, I struggle to come up with any real reason for its existence.

What I said then: I'd say that A Wrinkle in Time had great potential that it failed to realize, except I can't even figure out what its potential was. I left the movie just wondering what was the point.

final portrait 3. Final Portrait C+

If I didn't quite find this movie boring, it could still be called . . . tedious. This is a rare film with a decent critical response that I could just not muster a lot of enthusiasm for -- and neither could I imagine any single person I know having any genuine interest in it. It's about an eccentric painter dragging out the process of painting a portrait for an admiring friend, and in doing so the movie drags as well.

What I said then: Are you fond of Armie Hammer? Geoffrey Rush? Swiss Italian artist Alberto Giacometti? Still portraits? Well, then Final Portrait might still not be the movie for you! It might be if you enjoy watching people stare off into space though.

the seagull 2. The Seagull C+

If re-reading my original review of a movie still doesn't quite ring a bell, maybe that makes it by definition completely forgettable?

What I said then: Tepid may be the best word for it. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

SUSPIRIA 1. Suspirira C+

This movie could have been . . . something. Anything! I would have settled on coherent. I'm not sure on what level a horror movie that is never especially frightening quite works. There is at least one scene that is effectively horriying, but it sits in the middle of this incomprehensible and overlong movie about witches running a ballet school, without much in the way of other horror strands tethered to it. Then it ends with a ritualistic bloodbath that is excesive by every measure, to the point of bewildering desensitization. In the plus column, it does have one pretty great dance sequence.

What I said then: Some say this movie exists in a theoretical region where any viewer can ascribe any label they like to it, and perhaps that is true. So I’ll take my own stab at it: this is a movie with literally nothing to say.

Complete 2018 film log:


1. 1/4 The Greatest Showman C+
2. 1/6 I, Tonya A- (2nd viewing)
3. 1/7 The Post B+
4. 1/11 Phantom Thread A-
5. 1/19 Hostiles B+
6. 1/28 Phantom Thread A- (2nd viewing)
7. 2/1 The Commuter B
8. 2/10 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action B+
9. 2/12 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated B+
10. 2/16 Black Panther A-
11. 2/17 Shadow of a Doubt *
12. 2/18 Black Panther A- (2nd viewing)
13. 2/20 Early Man B-
14. 2/24 Game Night B+
15. 2/25 A Fantastic Woman A-
16. 2/27 Faces Places B+
17. 3/2 The Party B
18. 3/5 Annihilation B
19. 3/11 A Wrinkle in Time C+
20. 3/15 The Death of Stalin B
21. 3/18 Love, Simon B+
22. 3/19 Oh Lucy! B
23. 3/21 Loveless B
24. 3/24 Black Panther A- (3rd viewing)
25. 3/25 Thoroughbreds B+
26. 3/30 Ready Player One C+
27. 4/4 Goldstone B
28. 4/7 🐓 Blockers B+
29. 4/9 Outside In B+
30. 4/10 Foxtrot A-
31. 4/16 Lean on Pete B+
32. 4/23 You Were Never Really Here B+
33. 4/24 Final Portrait C+
34. 5/7 Tully B
35. 5/9 The Endless B
36. 5/12 RBG B
37. 5/15 I Feel Pretty B
38. 5/17 Book Club B
34. 5/19 Tully B (2nd viewing)
35. 5/22 Three Identical Strangers A- ***
36. 5/24 Solo: A Star Wars Story B
37. 5/26 Live, Gilda B ***
38. 5/27 Won't You Be My Neighbor? A- ***
39. 5/28 Disobedience B+
40. 5/29 The Most Dangerous Year B+ ***
41. 5/30 Prospect B+ ***
42. 6/1 Leave No Trace B+ ***
43. 6/2 Catwalk: Tales From the Cat Show Circuit B ***
44. 6/4 First Reformed C+
45. 6/6 Sadie B- ***
46. 6/8 Ocean's Eight B
47. 6/17 Incredibles 2 B+
48. 6/19 American Animals B+
49. 6/20 Tag B
50. 6/25 Jurrasic World: Fallen Kingdom B
51. 6/27 The Seagull C+
52. 7/1 Sicario: Day of the Soldado B
53. 7/7 Whitney B+
54. 7/10 The Last Suit B-
55. 7/13 Skyscraper C+
56. 7/16 Sorry to Bother You B-
57. 7/20 Eighth Grade A
58. 7/23 The Cakemaker B+
59. 7/28 Mission: Impossible - Fallout B+
60. 7/30 Blingdspotting A
61. 8/2 Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot B+
62. 8/7 Christopher Robin B
63. 8/9 BlacKkKlansman B+
64. 8/13 The Miseducation of Cameron Post B+
65. 8/15 Crazy Rich Asians B
66. 8/21 Puzzle B
67. 8/24 BlacKkKlansman B+ (2nd viewing)
68. 8/29 Operation Finale B
69. 9/2 The Happytime Murders C+
70. 9/5 The Little Stranger B
71. 9/7 The Wife B
72. 9/8 We the Animals A-
73. 9/14 Pick of the Litter B+
74. 9/18 A Simple Favor B
75. 9/20 Fahrenheit 11/9 B+
76. 9/23 The House with a Clock in Its Walls B-
77. 9/24 Assassination Nation B+
78. 9/25 Lizzie B
79. 10/1 Science Fair A-
80. 10/3 A Star Is Born A-
81. 10/5 Colette B+
82. 10/8 The Sisters Brothers B+
83. 10/10 A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night B (2nd viewing)
84. 10/12 A Star Is Born A- (2nd viewing)
85. 10/13 First Man B+
86. 10/15 Bad Times at the El Royale B
87. 10/16 The Hate U Give B+
88. 10/22 Beautiful Boy B-
89. 10/24 The Old Man & the Gun B
90. 10/28 Free Solo B
91. 11/2 Suspiria C+
92. 11/4 Bohemian Rhapsody C+
93. 11/6 Wildlife B
94. 11/9 Can You Ever Forgive Me? A-
95. 11/12 Boy, Erased B-
96. 11/18 Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald B
97. 11/19 Instant Family C+
98. 11/21 The Front Runner B-
99. 11/25 Widows B+
100. 11/27 Ralph Breaks the Internet B+
101. 12/2 Maria by Callas B-
102. 12/5 The Favourite B+
103. 12/6 Roma A-
104. 12/8 Schindler's List A- *
105. 12/11 Anna and the Apocalypse B-
106. 12/17 Mary Poppins Returns B
107. 12/20 On the Basis of Sex B+
108. 12/21 Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse A-
109. 12/27 If Beale Street Could Talk B+
110. 12/30 Vice B


*Re-issue (no review)
**Advance screening
***SIFF festival screening

[posted 9:49 am]

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+

If Beale Street Could Talk is a movie full of beautiful people, perfectly framed and gorgeously lit, navigating increasingly sobering lives, an earnest romance at their center. Based on the book by James Baldwin, whose work I have never read, it’s still unsurprising that Baldwin should present a story so frank about both the emotional nuances of everyday lives, and the stark realities of black lives, here presented in early 1970s Harlem.

Director Barry Jenkins, who adapted the screenplay himself, here presents his follow-up to Moonlight, the best movie of 2016, so this has a lot to stack up against. Moonlight remains Jenkins’s definitive achievement, but If Beale Street Could Talk has plenty of its own to offer. Much of the cinematography is similar (James Laxton shot both films), so virtually every frame is stunning to look at — even when the characters are gazing directly into the camera, which happens a lot.

There is something about the trailer, however, that seems to have been slightly misleading. We’re led to believe this story is primarily about young Tish and Fonny’s respective families reacting to Tish being pregnant. The opening scenes are all focused on Tish breaking the news: first to Fonny through visitation glass at the prison where he’s serving time for a crime he did not commit; then to her mother; then to her father and sister; then to Fonny’s parents and sister.

This family visitation sequence goes on for some time, intercut with flashbacks of Tish and Fonny’s budding romance, after years of friendship since childhood. Fonny’s mother in particular is hardcore religious, all judgment in the name of Jesus. It seems curious that there should be such focus on this woman, played excellently by Aunjanue Ellis, only to have her never appear in the story again. Even Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) appears a couple of times after this, however briefly.

So, at first, If Beale Street Could Talk seems to be about families with clashing viewpoints on the single thing that promises to keep them linked forever — Tish and Fonny’s baby. But then we learn why Fonny is in prison, and although there is complexity in the details, the reason is broadly simple: the racist scapegoating of black people. It’s an interesting time to be seeing a movie whose plot hinges on a false accusation of rape, but we might do well to remember that this happening to black men, thereby absolving white men of responsibility, is not exactly without precedent.

It would be easy to pick apart If Beale Street Could Talk on grounds of supposed political correctness — a moment of domestic between the older parents is basically gleaned over by everyone present; Fonny jokingly refers to the baby as a “midget” that kicked Tish from inside the belly. But it’s important to keep the proceedings in historical context. American culture was in a very different place in a lot of these aspects in the early seventies — except, of course, for systemic racism, which far too many people are happy to ignore while nitpicking at these other issues. One wonders if Barry Jenkins might be making a subtle point about this.

Because If Beale Street is by and large made of subtleties, executed with great finesse. This movie certainly stands apart in terms of the story it’s telling, how it’s being told, and the people it’s about — all things it also has in common with Moonlight. This is a romance of unique sensitivity, and in the context of its setting, it’s striking to see a young woman met with such tenderness by her entire family when faced with the prospect of her being pregnant at nineteen. This tenderness includes both her own father (Colman Domingo) as well as Fonny’s father; Tish gets great emotional support as well from her mother (Regina King) and sister (Teyonah Parris).

Jenkins fills his films with indelible imagery, often deeply affecting, whether it be the one love scene depicted between Tish and Fonny, or a wonderful shot of baby, mother and grandmother moments after a home birth. And without exception, Kiki Layne and Stephan James are lovingly shot as their great performances serve as emotional anchor to the arc of their story. From beginning to end, If Beale Street Could Talk has a tone and effect that could only be described as hypnotic.

This movie is no fantasy, though, and it ends with a sense of resignation rather than anything particularly joyful. Upon deeper reflection, it remains a testament to the power of love and devotion, which comes with it at least some sense of uplift. Here is a powerful story which pointedly demonstrates that even when it comes so naturally, love isn’t easy.

Looking into a bottomless well of romantic notions across a narrow divide.

Looking into a bottomless well of romantic notions across a narrow divide.

Overall: B+

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-
Animation: A
Special Effects: A-

Now, here comes something truly unexpected: the second superhero movie within the space of a year to qualify as truly exceptional and worth seeing — more than once, even. It’s no secret that as a general rule I avoid going to theatres to see superhero movies. This “Marvel Cinematic Universe” crap overstayed its welcome and over-saturated the market ages ago, ten years and twenty movies in having long since adopted the same story arc over and over, and over and over. Maybe their blockbuster special effects extravaganza aesthetic still wows the kids, but for bona fide grownups, it’s frankly boring as hell.

How many times do we need to sit through the same plot where the entire world — or hell, the entire universe — is threatened by less and less memorable villains, then “saved” by increasingly bland heroes in which we have no emotional investment because we know they are generally immortal? Okay, I hear — spoiler alert! — half the heroes in the latest Avengers movie perish, so one might argue that raises the stakes. I would continue arguing the opposite, in a cinematic world now characterized by remakes, reboots, and sequels that find creative ways to resurrect characters. I stopped caring because these stories stopped giving me reason to.

—Except! As with anything, I still make exceptions for the exceptional. And when one of these movies comes along that branches out from the primary goal of turning every multiplex into mere housing for superhero movies made to break box office records, and has something vital to say or represent, I will give it a look. I did for last year’s Wonder Woman, a solid-B movie with its heart in the right place but still marred by a forgettable villain who, as usual, just destroys everything in his wake in a battle meant to be climactic but in its roteness was rendered anything but. I did for this year’s Black Panther, a film so nearly perfect that it is rightfully expected to become the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture.

And now, I do it for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a film that surprises at nearly every level: storytelling, themes, truly gorgeous animation, special effects, cinematography. How could a movie be this good coming after not one, but two franchise reboots in the past decade alone, or after the character has appeared in eight films in the past sixteen years? Well, it does it by changing the rules.

Here’s a novel approach: what if a comic book movie literally felt like you were inside the pages of a comic book? Characters read comic books about Spider-Man; the screen splits into panels; occasionally comic-book style text boxes appear in the midst of the beautifully rendered action. Mind you, this occurs relatively sparingly, which keeps the technique fresh.

3-D is another thing I generally avoid as a rule, finding it to be a racket to raise ticket prices for visuals not at all enhanced by the process. Again, there are exceptions, usually thanks to visionary directors deliberately doing something new with the medium. Actually being shot in 3D instead of having the effect grafted on retroactively is by and large a prerequisite. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 3D but found it to be my only option at the showtime I needed to see it. With an AMC Stubbs “A-List” monthly membership it comes at no extra cost, so I thought, what the hell. Now this is one of the rare films I would recommend be seen in 3-D. There is little doubt it works fine in standard 2-D, but the 3-D enhances the effect of being inside comic book panels, and does it quite well.

And then of course, does anyone remember the racist uproar over the idea of Marvel Comics introducing a black Spider-Man several years ago? As it happens, that was specifically about the character we are introduced to in film here, Miles Morales (charmingly voiced by Shameik Moore). He’s got a Black dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Puerto Rican mom (Luna Lauren Velez) and they live in Brooklyn. This is a story about a young Black/Latino Spider-Man and it’s wonderful.

It’s also effectively self-aware, with narration saying things like “Okay, let’s go through this one more time,” and quickly recapping how our hero was bitten by a radioactive spider. There being such a thing in the underground New York tunnels where Miles is doing spray art with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) doesn’t make much sense, but who cares? The spider logo eventually seen on the “Black Spider-Man” suit being rendered as though spray painted is an especially nice touch.

And I haven’t even gotten into the whole multiverse idea, have I? Here is where Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse mercifully ignores the typical MCU idea that all Marvel superheroes exist in the same world (thereby overwhelming virtually all stories about them) — here, there is only Spider-Man. Well, in this dimension, anyway. This film’s primary villain, The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), has built a particle accelerator meant to retrieve his dead wife and son from another dimension, but when this world’s current Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine) is fatally mixed up in its use, it brings several versions of Spider-Man from other dimensions into this one: “Peter B. Parker” (Jake Johnson); Gwen Stacey’s Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld); the anime-style Japanese girl from the future, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), with a robot friend powered by her radioactive spider from fourth-millennium New York; the black and white “Spider-Man Noir” (Nicholas Cage) from 1930s New York; and even the cartoon “Peter Porker / Spider-Ham” (John Mulaney).

This is a whole lot of detail to cram into a two-hour movie, what with its opportunities for humor as well as endless references to characters and stories that all previously existed in actual comic books (most of which I probably missed; this movie will be a comic book nerd’s dream). Amazingly, even with two writers (Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman) and three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman), all these references and comic touches are seamlessly woven into a tightly packed and tightly polished narrative. From beginning to end, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a swiftly paced, gorgeously rendered animated film authentically honoring comic book storytelling in a way other films about superheroes never do.

This is a film with nothing cynical at its heart, even as it recognizes how overplayed some of its tropes are. This is one movie that builds on those tropes rather than rehashing them, and it’s a consistent delight throughout.

Diversity in action: the Spider-Verse gang.

Diversity in action: the Spider-Verse gang.

Overall: A-