Tag Archives: 2016

2017 Best Picture Nominees – Ranked From Worst To Best

Oscars Academy Awards
Every year I try and see all of the films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s a fruitless campaign – most people I know here in New Zealand don’t really give a hoot, and are just waiting for the next popcorn blockbuster to arrive after the awards season has ended. I like the annual challenge though; it keeps me sane.

BlunderOn some years I’ve managed to see them all before the awards ceremony – easy to do when there were only five films nominated. They increased this to a maximum of ten films from 2009 onwards, and so a mixture of late New Zealand release dates combined with increasing ticket prices and having children, has made this more and more difficult each year.

Blunder 2
This year, I’ve finally finished watching all nine nominees, just a month or so after the awards. It’s nicer to see the films before the awards, just so that the awards themselves don’t affect your opinion, but I’m happy just to have seen them. Here are the nine films ranked from worst to best, in my humble opinion of course:

Fences9. Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016)

In an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1985 play of the same name, Denzel Washington directs himself in the lead role opposite Viola Davis as his long-suffering wife. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a film not only so dull, but with such an unlikable lead character, it’s a wonder they didn’t develop a new category for it. Denzel has played unsavoury characters before (Training Day, American Gangster), but his portrayal of Fences’ Troy Maxson really takes the biscuit.

Maxson is a failed baseball talent who now supports his family in the 1950s by collecting the city’s garbage. He takes out his insecurities and anxieties on those around him, and with many speed bumps along the way, the film is ultimately a tale of redemption and forgiveness.

My main gripe about Fences is that it’s an adaptation from a stageplay – always a marker of a boring watch. Adaptations from plays always fail to feel cinematic, and Fences is no exception with the film taking place in only a handful of locations. As a result, the drama is as boxed in as the characters find themselves.

The other unfortunate result of a stage to screen adaptation is in the language. Stageplays usually have a very particular rhythm, a specific beat, and this can be jarring on film. I really struggled through the first act of the film – essentially a one man show, as Denzel does nearly all the speaking without letting up, designed to keep theatre audiences engrossed but not ideal for keeping cinema audiences entertained.

Viola Davis is as watchable as always, in a Best Supporting Actress-winning role, but even she doesn’t have much to do except for one particular Oscar-baiting scene in which she reacts to one of the film’s major plot points. Denzel seems to sleepwalk through his performance, but I think my appreciation of him diminished after seeing a few interviews where he came across as bitter – almost angry – at his low chances of being recognized as Best Actor or Best Director.

I’ll accept that Fences did come close to redeeming itself in its very nice final scene, but watching the film in its entirety had felt like such a chore. I even had to swallow it in 15-minute bite-sized portions in order to avoid being stricken with permanent narcolepsy.

Moonlight8. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins,2016)

The eventual winner of the Best Picture award – despite what Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway might say – Moonlight is a low-budget coming-of-age drama about a young black boy, Chiron, played by three different actors across three different stages of his life. The film also won for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali).

I was bored to tears with this film. It looked great, and the performances were fine, but the story just didn’t resonate with me. I’d like to think that the Academy awarded the filmmakers with Best Picture as recognition of what they managed to make with such a comparatively small budget (US$1.5m) and in such a short timeframe (twenty five days), but the cynic in me wonders whether the award was a political move to redeem themselves after the OscarsSoWhite contoversy of recent years.

Hidden Figures7. Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

A Sunday afternoon Hallmark movie by any other name, Hidden Figures tells the true story of three female African America mathematicians working at NASA during the early ‘60s space race. There’s nothing particularly exciting about this slow-paced film, and if anything the subject matter comes across as a little patronising to audiences (did you know, black people can be intelligent too?).

There is nothing particularly remarkable about this film, and if Moonlight wasn’t recognised by the Academy to tick a few diversity boxes, this one definitely was. The film’s inclusion in this list seems to prove that by extending the Best Picture category from five films to ten, there’ll always be a bit of deadwood in the mix.

Hacksaw Ridge6. Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson, 2016)

Hacksaw Ridge, directed by recovering alcoholic and practicing anti-Semite Mel Gibson, is a film of two halves. Another true story, the film concerns conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who enlists as a medic in the US Army during World War II.

The first half, a morality tale about Doss’ struggles through basic training, feels like it comes from the same Sunday afternoon Hallmark channel schedule as Hidden Figures. But then it turns into a war movie with a battle sequence turned up to eleven, deliberately intended to out-shock the beach landing opening of Saving Private Ryan.

The events of the final half of the film are so unbelievable that if it were fiction, it would be too fantastic to be taken seriously. A title card at the close of the film lists Doss’ achievements, and if anything the film can be accused of underplaying these accomplishments in order to retain believability.

Hacksaw Ridge is a good film, but not a great film, and only a shadow of what Gibson had achieved with the pure cinema of the last film he directed, Apocalypto.

Hell Or High Water5. Hell Or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016)

Voted as the best film of 2016 by New Zealand film critics, Hell Or High Water is a real head-scratcher of a nomination. Genre films tend to be largely ignored by the Academy – except in the technical categories – and so the inclusion of this unremarkable heist film doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The story of two West-Texas bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) and the two cops on their trail (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), Hell Or High Water could have been so much better, particularly with the acting talent involved. Taylor Sheridan’s script – despite a Best Original Screenplay nomination – doesn’t flesh out the characters very well, and the film felt like a wasted opportunity.

The one truly exciting sequence – involving a machine gun – was fantastic, and one of my favourite moments of 2016 cinema.

Arrival4. Arrival (Dennis Villeneuve, 2016)

As I mentioned before, genre films are usually ignored by the Academy, and none more so than Science Fiction. Arrival is slightly different to your usual sci-fi fare though, with a focus on the humanity of interacting with alien creatures.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner play scientists – a linguist and a physicist, respectively – who are enlisted by the US Army to make first contact with the inhabitants of one of twelve alien spacecrafts which have visited Earth.

The film has lots of new ideas, and a fresh approach to what is essentially a retread of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Plot holes aside – would they really have only sent a linguist and a physicist? What about a biologist at the very least? – the film was entertaining and engaging up to the last second, although I don’t think it warrants a Best Picture nomination.

Manchester By The Sea3. Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Selected as the Best Original Screenplay by director Kenneth Lonergan, and Best Actor in Casey Affleck, Manchester By The Sea is a tough watch. The film opens on loner Lee Chandler, a janitor with something ominous in his past, who is pulled back to his hometown after a death in the family.

Affleck’s acting win is well deserved, and he’s as magnetic as ever in the title role, with slowly revealing flashbacks eventually disclosing the events that have made him what he is.

Affleck’s accomplishments were overshadowed by two lawsuits by female co-workers, who accused him of sexual advances during the filming of the hoax documentary I’m Still Here in 2010. Both cases were eventually settled out of court. While I’m always suspicious about such matters (there’s usually no smoke without fire), it does seem strange that two essentially unproven incidents were brought up seven years later to discredit his nomination – particularly by those who had no involvement at the time.

La La Land2. La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

If Moonlight was the blackest film among this year’s nominees, La La Land was undoubtedly the whitest. I usually dislike musicals, so I wasn’t expecting anything special from Chazelle’s film. But what a surprise – catchy songs, likeable characters and a nice script left me loving the film.

La La Land tells the story of two people who fall in love in modern-day Los Angeles, one a struggling jazz musician (Ryan Gosling), the other a struggling actress (Best Actress-winning Emma Stone). The accusations of Hollywood whitewashing come from the subject matter of jazz music – originally an African American art form – being explored by a pair of honkies, with only one black member of the cast (John Legend) in a minor role. Well at least they didn’t get Harry Connick Jr. to play that role!

I’ve been humming the songs in my head ever since I saw the film, and I’ve even contemplated buying the soundtrack – something I never thought I’d hear myself saying about a musical in the 21st century.

Of the two frontrunners for Best Picture, do I think La La Land is a better film than Moonlight? Of course I do. But do I think it should have won Best Picture? No, that should have been awarded to…

Lion1. Lion (Garth Davis, 2016)

Lion affected me greatly, and it was the first time in a long time I saw a film and then asked everybody I knew whether they had seen it or not. Most films released these days don’t speak to me as personally as Lion did, and it’s usually only foreign-language films that provoke that kind of personal advocacy in me (2007’s The Edge Of Heaven (Fatih Akin, Turkey), and  2006’s Tell No One (Guillaume Canet, France) being particular favourites).

An Australian production, Lion tells the true story of a young Indian boy, Saroo, who by a twist of fate becomes separated from the rest of his family in India at the age of five. Adopted overseas into an Australian family, an older Saroo begins the impossible task of searching for his long-lost family.

In the hands of an American production, Lion could easily sway into the same Hallmark channel territory as Hidden Figures and Hacksaw Ridge. Instead, the film feels like a foreign-language film (the first half of the film is actually in Hindi and Bengali anyway) simply by merit of being produced outside Hollywood.

Sunny Pawar is absolutely captivating as the young Saroo, and while Dev Patel’s performance as the older Saroo was recognised with a Best Supporting Actor nod, it’s surprising that Pawar wasn’t recognised also.

Definitely my film of the year, I’ll continue to recommend Lion until everybody I know has seen it. If you can get to the end of the film without a tear in your eye, then you’re dead inside.

Honourable Mentions
Not every film gets blessed with recognition from the Academy – some wouldn’t even want it, as it can be both a blessing and a curse – but these are my other favourite films from the year (in alphabetical order):

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016) – a great, Hitchcockian thriller set in the confines of a bunker. Tense!

Deadpool
(Tim Miller, 2016) – Marvel Comics get sweary.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople
(Taika Waititi, 2016) – a funny, sweet slice of Kiwiana.

Midnight Special
(Jeff Nichols, 2016) – a wonderfully paced thriller harking back to classic ‘70s sci-fi.

Moana
(John Musker & Ron Clements, 2016) – Disney’s beautifully rendered love-letter to Polynesia

Sing Street
(John Carney, 2016) – a wonderful bit of ‘80s nostalgia from the director of 2007’s Once.

Split
(M.Night Shyamalan, 2016) – at last, a Shyamalan film we can all get behind with an outstanding performance by James McAvoy

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
(Gareth Edwards, 2016) – not without flaws, but a nice standalone war movie set in the Star Wars universe.

Zootopia
(Bryon Howard & Rich Moore, 2016) – another Disney animation to rival the best of Pixar’s output.

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Rocks In The Attic #575: The Rolling Stones – ‘Blue & Lonesome’ (2016)

RITA#575I’ve been burnt before by a blues cover album. In 2004, Aerosmith released Honkin’ On Bobo, a record collecting eleven blues covers and one original song. After 2001’s simply awful Just Push Play, the back-to-basics blues album was supposed to be their redemption. I nearly lost my shit when I first heard about it, especially as the advance word was that it was going to be produced by their old ‘70s partner in crime, Jack Douglas. How could this go wrong?

So I approached Blue & Lonesome with a degree of caution. I’d heard a couple of pre-release teasers (Hate To See You Go and Ride ‘Em On Down) and they sounded pretty good. When I finally picked up the album, I was overjoyed with it. It succeeded, where Honkin’ On Bobo failed, in the sheer sonic quality of the record. If Aerosmith’s album sounded too clean and polished, the Stones’ effort sounded ballsy and authentic.

I don’t buy many new releases. If I buy any at all, I might pick up one or two a year. So if I buy a new record and I don’t take it off my turntable for a while, it’s quite a big thing for me. I must have played Blue & Lonesome five or six times before I gave something else a chance.

The record might not be everybody’s cup of tea. It probably won’t be a big seller – compared to how Stones albums usually sell – simply because it’s not an original studio record. Not only is the choice of material restricted to one dusty, old genre, but the selections are quite obscure songs as well. These are the kind of songs that Keith Richards can be heard playing behind the scenes in a recent documentary, on a little record player in his dressing room.  In fact I had only recognised one of the album’s twelve songs (and that song, Willie Dixon’s I Can’t Quit You Baby, is only well-known from having been covered by Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck’s band in the late ‘60s).

The album was put together in a prompt three days of recording – incredible really, when you consider how long they could take. Eric Clapton appears on a couple of songs, having been drafted in from the studio next door to where the Stones were recording, but I don’t think his appearance really adds anything special.

My one criticism is that it would have been nice of the Stones to have paid a little tribute to Brian Jones, their blues-obsessed former leader. I’m not sure how they could have done this, but a great idea I heard was naming the record something like Brian Was A Blues Guy.

Be sure to check out the recent episode of Sit And Spin With Joe, where my good friend Joe Royland discusses his take on Blue & Lonesome.

Hit: Ride ‘Em On Down

Hidden Gem: All Of Your Love

Rocks In The Attic #574: Steven Tyler – ‘We’re All Somebody From Somewhere’ (2016)

RITA#574.jpgAmerica needs our help. A series of unfortunate circumstances in the second half of 2016 led to one man being given more power than he can handle. It’s something we should all be collectively terrified of; a landmark event which could potentially have far-reaching consequences over the next few years, and beyond. Yes, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler has released a solo album…

I have to admit, Aerosmith’s ’70s output is the very root of my musical DNA and I’ve always remained somewhat of a fan of the band despite their long, slippery artistic slope from the ’90s to the present day.

I’m also an avid collector of the band’s output and so my shelves “need” this – Steven Tyler’s debut solo record. I dropped the needle on the first side with a mixture of trepidation and morbid curiosity. Could this record be as bad as it sounds on paper?

Recorded in Nashville, it’s an album of country rock songs – a genre that Tyler has focused on more and more ever since a joke song in the late ’80s surprised everybody and turned out to be way more popular than anybody could have expected.

If you recall the second commercial peak of the band – 1989’s Pump – the album ended with a ballad, What It Takes, that was nothing more than a straightforward parody. Tyler even sings it in a mock-country, southern drawl, and in the accompanying music video the band play the song in a bar, behind chicken-wire – their only experience of country music being the bar scene in The Blues Brothers.

The song was taken far too seriously and is still played in concert to this day. As a result, they overloaded their next studio album, 1993’s Get A Grip, with country rock ballads in an attempt to recapture this glory.

So it’s not a surprise that Tyler’s activities outside of the band have led him to Nashville, the home of country music, in an attempt to validate his efforts. Half of the record is produced by T Bone Burnett, so there’s another marker of authenticity for you.

As a whole, the record doesn’t sound too offensive. It’s the equivalent of combining all the more mediocre songs from the most recent Aerosmith studio albums, which themselves were a lesson in mediocrity.

Do you remember the Grammy Award winning Janie’s Got A Gun, from the Pump record? It was a song about sex-abuse, tastelessly sequenced in the middle of an album that was otherwise lyrically obsessed about the joys of sex. Even a country rock rendition of Janie’s Got A Gun on Tyler’s record isn’t as bad as it could have been, but having three quarters of Stone Temple Pilots as your backing band doesn’t hurt. Lindsey Buckingham turns up on one of the tracks too but his contributions don’t really stand out from the hired hands that make up the rest of the studio band.

The final song on the record – a cover of Big Brother & The Holding Company’s Piece Of My Heart – is probably the strongest song on the album. It’s a nice tribute to Janis Joplin, whose vocal style Tyler has aped from the very beginning, regardless of the lazy Jagger comparisons.

Don’t all thank me at once but I’ve been listening to Steven Tyler’s We’re All Somebody From Somewhere so you don’t have to!

Hit: Janie’s Got A Gun

Hidden Gem: Piece Of My Heart

Rocks In The Attic #573: Aerosmith – ‘Brand New Song And Dance’ (1986)

RITA#573I love a good Aerosmith bootleg, and this one’s a peach. Recorded on March 12th 1986 whilst touring the Done With Mirrors album, this captures the band in an energetic form. The show was recorded in Worcester, Massachusetts which makes it a homecoming gig for the band, and this probably explains why the show was professionally recorded and transmitted on radio.

I really love Done With Mirrors – it’s a lovely little album with a lot of charm, just mightily underproduced – and so it’s a real treat to hear them playing the songs from the record while they’re still fresh. Alongside five songs from that record, we also get treated to a rendition of No Surprize, a song that has long since slipped from Aerosmith setlists in the intervening years. As at the time of writing (March 2017) they haven’t played it live since 2002. Sweet Emotion is noticeably absent, but the full set-list for the performance lists them playing it that night. Also not captured on record was a rendition of Bone To Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy); another gem they don’t play live too often.

Looking at my Aerosmith collection, alongside all of the official studio records, live albums and many, many compilations, I now seem to have a burgeoning pile of Aero-bootlegs. I have recordings from the tours to promote 1973’s self-titled debut, 1975’s Toys In The Attic, 1979’s Night In The Ruts, 1987’s Permanent Vacation and now 1985’s Done With Mirrors. I might try to fill in some of those blanks, especially as I know that bootleg recordings exist on vinyl for most of their tours up until the 1990s. A new goal is born!

Hit: Walk This Way

Hidden Gem: Let The Music Do The Talking

Rocks In The Attic #563: Stone Temple Pilots – ‘MTV Unplugged 1993’ (2016)

rita563Thank f**k for bootlegs. I reckon I might be waiting until the end of my days for Atlantic Records to dig this one for an official release, so thankfully the enterprising Russian chaps at DOL Records put this out last year. DOL were also responsible for putting out Aerosmith’s 1973 radio appearance at Paul’s Mall, so they’ve come out of nowhere to be one of my favourite – ahem – enterprising record labels.

I used to listen to so much STP in my teens that I almost can’t tell when one songs ends and another one starts. They’re burnt into my DNA. I was sad to see it was the anniversary of Scott Weiland’s death at the beginning of December. What a loss, albeit certainly not an unexpected one.

I don’t think I ever saw the original transmission of STP’s Unplugged set back in the day on MTV. While it might have been in heavy rotation across the Atlantic, it definitely didn’t see that kind of airplay in the UK. In fact, once Kurt Cobain killed himself, pretty much all of the rock programming on the channel was taken over by Nirvana.

When STP released their second record, Purple, they released one of the singles, Vasoline, with a couple of songs from the Unplugged set. I know these versions of the debut album’s Crackerman and David Bowie’s Andy Warhol like the back of my hands, and have always wanted to hear the full set. The wonder of the Internet allowed me to watch the show a couple of years ago, and then I finally got my hands on this disc last year.

Hopefully an official version will see the light of day someday. DOL are great at finding unreleased material to put in stores, but their mastering leaves a lot to be desired. On that early Aerosmith record, they change the running order of the songs to make them fit on the two sides better, and on this STP record there’s a one-second gap of air in the audience reaction between a couple of the tracks, like a badly mastered home CD. Still, beggars can’t be choosers.

Hit: Plush

Hidden Gem: Crackerman

Rocks In The Attic #547: Various Artists – ‘Now That’s What I Call Music – The Christmas Album’ (2016)

rita547I saw this in a record store a few weeks ago, and couldn’t resist it. I’ve had my eyes out for the original 1985 compilation, hoping that I’d come across it in a charity shop, but it hasn’t happened yet. Forty notes does seem a bit steep for this new version – a bunch of songs I’ve heard a million times – but this is usually the soundtrack to present opening in our house on Christmas Day every year, and it’ll be nice to do it from my turntable, rather than through the iPod.

It’s slightly disingenuous to refer to any of these songs as a hidden gem – they’re all so ubiquitous – but the format of my blog forces my hand. I’ve therefore chosen Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, if only for the mental image it provides of Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin from Home Alone, putting on a fake house party with cardboard cut-outs and mannequins.

The song choices on this record are slightly odd – it’s a mixtures of ‘70s and ‘80s British songs (Slade, Wizzard, Wham!, Shakin’ Stevens, Band Aid, John & Yoko, Kirsty MacColl & the Pogues), together with a handful of older American hits (Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and the aforementioned Brenda Lee). The only jarring inclusion is Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas – a song I’ve always liked but never loved, wondering if it’s the same journey he recounts in The Road To Hell. Bloody December traffic…

Merry Christmas everybody!

Hit: Do They Know It’s Christmas – Band Aid

Hidden Gem: Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee

Rocks In The Attic #538: Jack White – ‘Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016’ (2016)

rita538Does the world need a collection of Jack White’s acoustic recordings? I’m not sure. The whole concept of a compilation album seems to be everything White stands against. It’s music for product. Remember, this is the guy who – in the early days of the White Stripes – never told the press anything truthful because he wanted to remain enigmatic.

Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016 is a double-LP collection of White’s acoustic-leaning songs with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and assorted solo recordings. The real gems are the rarer songs taken from b-sides or soundtracks, and these leave you wanting more. I’d kill for an album worth of b-sides and unreleased material – a White Stripes Past Masters next please, Third Man Records.

The real gem of the album is City Lights, a previously unreleased leftover track from Get Behind Me Satan. Previous White Stripes collaborator Michel Gondry surprised White by filming a lovely little music video for the song, and only notified White’s Third Man records when it was completed.

At least it’s not just a straightforward ‘Best Of The White Stripes’ compilation. That really would be a little too hard to stomach. But we do get something almost as mawkish – a cover photo of him looking all moody, in monochrome of course. He looks like a handsome balladeer, and his mournful good looks probably wouldn’t look out of place next to this Christmas’ undoubtable Michael Bublé release.

The liner notes, by Greil Marcus – who else? – paints a picture of Jack White as the next in a long line of Delta blues guitarists, passing the torch down from the likes of Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. Hmm…maybe…you think. But then you read the song credits and notice that White wrote one of the songs specifically for a Coca Cola commercial in 2006. Hmm…maybe not then.

Still, Jack White means a lot to me and always will. He was a key component in the shift back to the roots of rock music. After grunge, alternative rock became stagnant with nowhere to go, but then a couple of players – most notably the White Stripes and the Strokes – seemed to reset the dial.  They brought analogue recording back into the mainstream, and shorter, sharper running times of records; thirty minutes rather than the CD-bursting 50- or 60-minute snoozefests.

But I still can’t get over the fact that a compilation record just feels wrong for White…

Hit: Hotel Yorba

Hidden Gem: City Lights