Tag Archives: Oscars

2020 Best Picture Nominees – Ranked

Oscars Academy AwardsAround this time every year, I list my picks for the Best Picture nominees (see these links for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 awards). I’ve endured the usual rush to see as many nominated films as possible before the awards. I managed to catch all the Best Picture nominees with about 10 days to go and have seen 90% of the rest of the films nominated in the other major categories.

This year is definitely the populist Oscars, with mainly big tent-pole films nominated for Best Picture, and movie stars nominated in the acting categories. The winners on the night might end up being safe bets, but I’m looking forward to some surprises. Just hopefully not Green Book-levels of surprise.

92nd Academy AwardsAs usual, my annual quest leads me to watch films that might otherwise pass me by. I haven’t seen a new Almodovar film since Broken Embraces (2009), but really enjoyed Pain & Glory (2019), for which Antonio Banderas is nominated for Best Actor. Similarly, I wouldn’t usually have watched The Two Popes, but was blown away by Anthony Hopkins (Best Supporting Actor nominee) and Jonathan Pryce (Best Actor nominee) spending a good portion of the first act speaking a range of languages including Latin! I’d be happy for a win by Adam Driver in the Best Actor category, but the award is Joaquin Phoenix’s to lose.

Harriet (2019) was another film I probably wouldn’t have sought out, but learning of Harriet Tubman’s actions in mid-19th century America was mind-blowing. Just like Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019), Harriet involves long journeys behind enemy lines. Judy was the dictionary definition of ‘not my sort of film’ but it had its moments, and Renée Zellweger more than deserves her Best Actress nomination. I’m hoping Saoirse Ronan strikes it lucky with her fourth acting nomination, but I think Zellweger’s got it in the bag.

Before we get to my pick of the year’s 10 honourable mentions, here’s my ranking of the Best Picture nominees, from worst to best:

Ford v Ferrari9th: Le Mans ’66 / Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold, 2019)

The natural successor to Green Book (2018), last year’s Best Picture winning film about racism for stupid people, Ford v Ferrari was created in a lab for boomers hungry for a hit of Jeremy Clarkson-era Top Gear. It’s not a terrible film but it feels pedestrian, pun very much intended. Trope after trope after motherfucking trope. Matt Damon and Christian Bale chew the scenery, as Bale’s accent drifts from Birmingham to Yorkshire to Derbyshire (his character, Ken Miles, grew up in Birmingham so he was right first time). Tracy Letts is as fantastic as always as the hard to please Henry Ford II, while Jon Bernthal and Josh Lucas take turns being slimeballs.

Originally shot under the title Le Mans ’66, and released as such in some European countries, the film was retitled Ford v Ferrari in the USA, presumably to prevent Americas from thinking it was a foreign film. It’s unfortunate as Le Mans ’66 is a far better title and the situation reminds me of The Avengers (2012) being retitled Avengers Assemble in a ridiculous attempt to prevent the UK elderly from confusing it with the ‘60s TV show.

The most unpleasant element of James Mangold’s film is its striking lack of diversity in the cast. In another year of #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Ford v Ferrari exists as the whitest picture of them all.

Marriage Story8th: Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019)

This first of this year’s two nominated films from Netflix, Marriage Story is a retread of the subject matter covered in Robert Benton’s Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). Middle-class theatre couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are in the middle of a messy divorce and their young song Henry (Azhy Robertson) is caught in the middle. It feels like a step back for Baumbach, with little of the post-Woody Allen humour that his films are usually known for. It’s surprising that Johansson picked up a Best Actress nomination for her role. She’s usually great, but not here; she seems to recite her lines with no feeling, as though she’s in a school production. Driver earns his Best Actor nomination, as does Laura Dern in the Best Supporting Actress category, but Ray Liotta also shines as the tenacious lawyer butting heads with Dern. A nice little film, but we’ve seen it all before.

The Irishman7th: The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)

I looked forward to this film as soon as I heard it announced back in 2014. Scorsese directing De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and Keitel, with a supporting cast including Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, Jessie Plemons and Anna Paquin? On paper, it sounds like the perfect film. But it has too much fighting against it.

First of all, the length at 3 hours 29 minutes feels self-indulgent. I was too excited to wait for its release on Netflix and caught the film at my local arthouse cinema. Not surprisingly, a man in the row behind me fell asleep and started snoring in the film’s final act. I can’t really blame him. Goodfellas (1990) was the perfect length at 2 hours 25 minutes, but its spiritual follow-up Casino (1995) felt bloated at 2 hours 58 minutes. The Irishman feels like next-level excess, and while the first act was relatively snappy, the pacing, like Casino before it, severely slowed the film’s second half.

Secondly, the much-admired digital de-aging of the principle cast was too much of a distraction. It felt like the beginning of a technology that will ultimately be perfected, but just like George Lucas’s CGI additions to the Star Wars Special Editions of 1997, it doesn’t quite work yet. Yes, there may be fewer wrinkles on De Niro’s face, but he still has the fuller face of present-day De Niro, and he physically moved like a 75-year old. The one thing to take you out of the picture was his weirdly blue glinting eyes, and you have to wonder if some of these digital effects artists truly understand the value of subtlety and nuance. Most won’t agree, but I thought the de-aging on Will Smith in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man (2019) worked much better.

Technology aside, both Pesci and Pacino were outstanding and truly deserve their Best Supporting Actor nominations. Pacino in particular would have been a worthy contender in the Best Acting category, given his amount of screen-time, but Pesci’s performance was my favourite of the three leads. It’s just a shame that Harvey Keitel’s role was little more than a cameo appearance.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood6th: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

I’ve already written at length of my disappointment with Tarantino’s ninth and penultimate film. I don’t think it’s a bad film, it’s just nowhere near the best picture of the year, and nowhere near the best of Tarantino’s work. In fact, I’d put it near the bottom of the list above Death Proof (2007), and Django Unchained (2012), another popular film I didn’t care for.

One of my major dislikes of the film is its casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead protagonist. I have been a fan of Leo, particularly since he smashed that glass ashtray into somebody’s head in The Departed (2006), but in recent years his star has seemed to eclipse his talents.

His performance in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) seems to have been the peak of his career, but he’s been playing up to the camera ever since, particularly in J. Edgar (2011), Django Unchained and The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013). When he tones it down, he’s great, but in Tarantino’s latest, he’s a burden. His character Rick Dalton shares a scene in the middle of the picture with the 8-year old Julia Butters, and that one particular moment slowed everything down so much, I couldn’t get back on board.

The latter half of Tarantino’s career has seen the director focus on revisionist history. First, we had Jews murdering Hitler in Inglourious Basterds (2009), followed by a black slave rising up against his former owners in Django Unchained. Now we have Tarantino applying that same logic to the horrible story of Sharon Tate. But for all its well-meaning camaraderie with Roman Polanski (in my film, brother, she lives to see another day), the fairy-tale ending comes off as a failure to give us the nuts and bolts of what happened. And that’s something I never thought the director of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) would shy away from.

I still stand by my alternate ending: the crane shot showing Dalton and Tate meeting on the driveway would pan back across the house…to show another black cruiser full of Manson children slowly edging up the drive, suggesting that fate cannot be stopped.

Little Women5th: Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)

If there was an Academy Award for Best Cast, this film would have easily won. And they’re all brilliant: Meryl Streep passing on her acting crown to Saoirse Ronan (aged 25 with four Oscar nominations under her belt), Emma Watson now almost unrecognizable from the world of Harry Potter,  Timothée Chalamet and Forence Pugh continuing their world dominance, Laura Dern adding to her late-career renaissance, and terrific turns from Tracy Letts, Chris Cooper, Bob Odenkirk and James Norton.

The trouble is that Greta Gerwig’s second feature feels a tad overly-ambitious. I spotted a couple of minor continuity errors, which could easily have been remedied in the edit, and the cinematography was all over the place. There was a particular shot early in the film, showing Jo (Ronan) writing in her New York lodgings, and she was ever so slightly out of focus (and not intentionally either). Gerwig’s aim is admirable, but the nuts and bolts of it are just not up to Best Picture standards (nor Best Director standards, I’m sorry to say).

The script was great. Pugh’s line ‘Jo, your one beauty!’ really made me chuckle, and I really need to incorporate ‘Capital!’ and ‘Cristopher Columbus!’ into my range of exclamations. But despite the fizz of the dialogue, the narrative was overly clunky. The time jumps were handled poorly, and I found myself rushing to catch up (not being familiar with the source material didn’t help). Being an adaptation of a literary classic, the film felt a lot less personal than Gerwig’s debut Lady Bird (2017), and while I was hoping she might return with something truly original with her next project, she’s announced to be directing a live-action film in the world of Barbie.

Joker4th: Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)

Another film I was looking forward to, since it was initially linked to Martin Scorsese producing. He has since distanced himself from the project, comparing comic-book superhero films to theme park rides, but Todd Phillips’ eventual film is steeped in references to Scorsese’s work, notably Taxi Driver (1976) and King Of Comedy (1983). Weirdly, it’s more of a homage to late-1970s American cinema than the supervillain origin story it should be.

I didn’t particularly like some of the narrative choices in the script, co-written by Phillips with Scott Silver. The lead character’s change of name from Jack Napier to Arthur Fleck was unnecessary, and the connection between Fleck and Bruce Wayne felt forced, particularly in the wake of Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE (2015) pulling the same trick in the James Bond universe.

Heath & Joaquin
But Joaquin Phoenix’s central performance is deserving of all the accolades that come his way. As bat-shit crazy as Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the role in The Dark Knight (2008), it would be fitting if the Oscar went to Phoenix. While many actors and actresses have been nominated for playing the same character, only one such instance has led to a winning pair – Marlon Brando won Best Actor for playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972) while Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for the same role two years later in The Godfather Part II (1974).

Jojo Rabbit3rd: Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019)

Waititi’s sixth feature, like many of his films, was marketed as a screwball comedy. The trailer couldn’t look any more like a Wes Anderson film if it tried, and the marketing team even spelled out that it was ‘an anti-hate satire’ just in case any Americans took it too seriously. But just like Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016), What We Do In The Shadows (2014) and Boy (2010), Waititi’s new picture is a slow-burning character piece with a huge, huge heart.

Thankfully, almost everything revealed in the trailer occurs in the first ten minutes of the film, and rather than the outdoors comedy we’re promised, the film mainly takes place within the confines of
the lead character’s home. Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old Hitler fanatic, living alone with his doting mother (Scarlett Johansson) and struggling to fit in in his local chapter of the Hitler Youth.

The comic relief mainly comes from Waititi’s deliciously camp turn as Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, and it’s this lightness of touch that has attracted the film’s only criticism. In much the same way Steven Spielberg was hounded by critics for treating Nazis as comic fodder in the Indiana Jones films, Waititi too has face similar accusations. It must be difficult to not understand satire. God knows what these dunderheads would have thought of The Great Dictator (1940).

Featuring an excellent Wes Anderson-level ensemble cast of Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant, the film is carried by Roman Griffin Davis’ central performance and New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie’s turn as the mysterious Elsa Korr. McKenzie landed onto everybody’s radar’s in 2018’s Leave No Trace, but her turn in Jojo Rabbit suggests she’s still on course for bigger, brighter things.

The cinema got a little dusty in the film’s final scene, and the inclusion of that song just floored me. I wish that Waititi had given us a longer sequence – hell, I’d forgive him for turning it into a full song and dance number – but the director’s deft touch holds the film back from oversentimentality and mawkishness. Those last shots intercutting between Davis and McKenzie are cinematic gold. Bravo!

Parasite2nd: Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho, 2019)

Having recently seen Bong Joon-Ho’s breakthrough Memories Of Murder (2003), I’ve been itching to see Parasite. Snowpiercer (2013) had some interesting ideas, but I never imagined the director of that high-concept thriller would be capable of this level of genius filmmaking.

Casual viewers may be put off by Parasite’s opening scenes, which come off as a run of the mill family drama, but most foreign-language films don’t abide by Hollywood conventions. The drama quickly turns into a slow-burning thriller, with dark, dark shades of black humour until the rug is pulled from under us and it’s suddenly a film about something else. To describe the film any further would give too much away.

Last year it became the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and stands a good chance of becoming the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar. My only reservations were in the denouement of the film, which felt disappointingly weak after such a thrill-ride of a second and third act.

19171st: 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019)

Mark Kermode calls cinema an empathy machine, and that description is none more fitting than with this masterpiece from Sam Mendes. Fresh from his double-dip Bond adventure (2012’s Skyfall and 2015’s SPECTRE), Mendes has co-written the screenplay, which he describes as ‘enlarged’ from his Grandfather’s experiences in the first World War.

The last big-budget war film from a big-name director, Christopher Nolan’s emotionally distant Dunkirk (2017), left me cold and wanting for human interaction. It was visually stunning and unbelievably tense but lacked any emotional depth given its scarcity of dialogue and arms-length characterisation.

1917 may be from a different war, but the short script and bleakness of the situation feels very similar to Nolan’s film. Much has been written about the film’s one continuous shot (effectively a series of long takes stitched together), and while it’s hardly an original idea – Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) set the standard and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) was the most recent example – Mendes has confirmed that the idea felt like a natural progression from the Mexico City pre-credits sequence in SPECTRE, also shot in ‘one-take’.

It’s not just a technical achievement though. Mendes, aided by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, uses the limitations of the one-shot device to put us right in the middle of the action. The camera doesn’t stray too far from the faces of our two protagonists, the plucky, happy-go-lucky Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and the more reticent Schofield (George MacKay). It’s a framing device similar to László Nemes’ Son Of Saul (2015), the Auschwitz-set Best Foreign Language winner. But where Son Of Saul was shot on long lenses, with the frame barely leaving the shoulder and head of the titular character, to shield the viewer from the horror of the events that are unfolding around him, 1917 takes a different approach. We get sweeping vistas, of no-man’s land or the deserted fields of France, but the camera always comes back to the rising terror on the faces of our two leads.

George MacKay

How George MacKay was overlooked for an acting nomination, I’m not sure. Not famous enough maybe? The Best Actor nominees this year all seem to be movie stars – Antonio Banderas, Leonard DiCaprio, Adam Driver, Joaquin Phoenix, Jonathan Pryce – but I’d put MacKay ahead of Banderas and Pryce’s more understated performances, and miles ahead of DiCaprio’s typically gurning turn.

Hopefully Deakins wins his second Oscar (after 2017’s Blade Runner 2049) for the cinematography, if only for the night-time sequence in the fire-lit French town. This is also the moment Thomas Newman’s score spills over into a glorious crescendo. Having coasted along with his two Bond scores for Mendes, Newman seems to have hit his stride again with his trademark ethereal pathos.

1917 is brave filmmaking dealing with the very subject of bravery. I’d be thrilled if Parasite or Jojo Rabbit won Best Picture, but Mendes’ film really deserves it. The only film that would come close to a repeat of last year’s Green Book farce would be Ford v Ferrari, and I think Marriage Story is only in there to make up the numbers. The rule-change in 2009, to at least five Best Picture nominees and no more than ten, feels silly this year with so many mediocre films propping up the bottom of the list.

* As a special postscript, I’d like to laugh in the face of all the Marvel fans who campaigned over the last year to get Robert Downey Jr. a Best Actor nomination for his turn as, well, Robert Downey Jr. in the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame. Didn’t quite work out, did it? *
Honourable Mentions

Here are my other favourite (eligible) films from the year (in alphabetical order):

Hon Mentions 1
Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, 2019) – An absolute knock-out documentary in terms of visuals (NASA have been sitting on crystal-clear 70mm footage of the mission all this time) and sound (composer Matt Morton wrote and recorded the soundtrack on period-era synths). It’s a film and a soundtrack that builds and builds in tension, with disaster lurking around every corner, to celebrate mankind’s greatest achievement. Just spellbinding. This year’s answer to 2018’s Free Solo.

Blinded By The Light (Gurinder Chadha,2019) – We’re really into boomer rock biopic territory now: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Rocketman (2019) and related films like Danny Boyle’s Yesterday (2019). This Bruce Springsteen-centred film has been my favourite pick of the bunch so far. Part coming-of-age / immigration drama and part musical, it tells the true story of Javed, a Pakistani schoolboy growing up in Luton, who finds unexpected solace in the music of The Boss. Inspired by the book Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll by Sarfraz Manzoor, the film’s script was co-written by Manzoor, with director Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges. Joyous!

Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019) – A teen-comedy, pitched as the female equivalent of the genre’s gold standard Superbad (2007) from actor / first-time director Olivia Wilde. The Superbad comparisons are hard to shake off – one of the leads, Beanie Feldstein, is the sister of Jonah Hill – but they make it their own film. A brilliant debut by Wilde, with nice supporting turns by Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte and Billie Lourd, but it’s the central performance by Kaitlyn Dever which steals the show.

Hon Mentions 2
Diego Maradona
(Asif Kapadia, 2019) – The master documentary filmmaker behind Senna (2010) and Amy (2015) turns his focus this time onto a subject who is still very much alive and kicking. This film was a hard watch, considering that I associate Maradona with the devil for breaking my 7-year old heart back in 1986. It could have been a character assassination of the Argentinian, but Kapadia wrong-foots the audience and delivers a stunningly balanced approach celebrating both his stratospheric rise, and his stratospheric downfall at the hands of the Naples mafia (and just a little bit of cocaine). Antonio Pinto’s Latin American-infused score was perhaps my favourite of the year, the perfect accompaniment to a film almost made me feel sorry for Maradona. Almost.

Maiden (Alex Holmes, 2019) – I love a good documentary, especially if it covers a subject I don’t know anything about. Sailing, and in particular women’s sailing, is a major blind-spot of mine, and so I welcomed this film from Alex Holmes. Telling the story of Tracy Edwards and the crew of the first all-woman crew in the Whitbread Round The World Race in 1989-1990, it’s a traditional documentary, narrated by talking heads with the crew themselves. A fascinating peek into a world I knew nothing about.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, 2019) – Just a sweet little movie. Shia LaBeouf has been criticised in the past for not picking his roles very well, and hopefully this is the start of a minor renaissance for him. He plays ne’er-do-well Tyler, a fisherman who befriends Zak, a young man with Downs Syndrome, who is on the run from the retirement home where he lives. With an interesting supporting cast – Dakota Johnson, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern and Jon Bernthal – I was most delighted to see former WWF superstar Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts in a small but pivotal role.

Hon Mentions 3
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese
(Martin Scorsese, 2019) – I’m not the biggest Dylan-head, but I really enjoyed this documentary from Scorsese. This period of Dylan’s career is another black hole for me, so it made for a revealing watch. Joan Baez telling tales about disguising herself as Dylan, Joni Mitchell playing an embryonic version of Coyote, and a post-Bowie Mick Ronson rocking out on stage. Just a blast.

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams, 2019) – Finally, the nine films in the Skywalker saga have come to an end. I’m not sure how history will view these three latest sequels. I enjoyed all three, but some people just can’t take them for what they are. Richard Marquand’s Return Of The Jedi (1983) is a weak film compared to its two predecessors, but I enjoy it just as much. Abrams’ new trilogy is the same – it has some stunning high points and some unfortunate lows (with Carrie Fisher’s premature death being the absolute worst).

Hon Mentions 4
Uncut Gems
(Josh & Benny Safdie, 2019) – A headache-inducing film about a compulsive gambler, with an against-type turn by Adam Sandler. Paul Tomas Anderson-levels of anxiety are mixed with Scorsese-esque naturalistic dialogue, under a weirdly hypnotic synth score by Daniel Lopatin. Uncut Gems is one of those films that you must see but will probably never want to revisit.

Wild Rose (Tom Harper, 2018) – While the rest of the world continues to coo over Saoirse Ronan, one of Ireland’s other exports remains relatively unnoticed. But not for long. Jessie Buckley’s first role in the largely unseen Beast (2017) showed a captivating actress with heaps of potential. She followed this with a key role in the Chernobyl (2019) TV mini-series, a small role opposite Renée Zellweger in Judy, and is next cast in the upcoming fourth series of Fargo.  In Wild Rose, she plays eternal fuck-up Rose-Lynn Harlan, a country-singing single mother from Glasgow. Beast is a better film but her performance in Wild Rose suggests Saoirse Ronan might not be the only Irish girl winning Oscars in the near future.

My Picks For The 24

Best Picture Green BookFinally, here are my picks for what the Academy will actually vote for on the night. I didn’t do too well last year, only picking 10 (42%) of the 24 winners, so I’ll be happy to crack 50% this year.

Best Picture: 1917

Best Director:
Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite)

Best Actor:
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Best Actress: Renée Zellweger (Judy)

Best Supporting Actor: Al Pacino (The Irishman)

Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern (Marriage Story)

Best Original Screenplay: Knives Out – Rian Johnson

Best Adapted Screenplay: Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi

Best Animated Feature Film:
Missing Link

Best Foreign Language Film: Parasite

Best Documentary – Feature: American Factory

Best Documentary – Short Subject: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Best Live Action Short Film:
Nefta Football Club

Best Animated Short Film: Kitbull

Best Original Score: Joker – Hildur Guðnadóttir

Best Original Song: I’m Gonna Love Me Again (Rocketman) – Elton John & Bernie Taupin

Best Sound Editing:
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker

Best Sound Mixing:
Ford v Ferrari

Best Production Design: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins (1917)

Best Makeup And Hairstyling: Bombshell

Best Costume Design: Little Women

Best Film Editing: Parasite

Best Visual Effects: Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker

Rocks In The Attic #743: Jerry Goldsmith – ‘L.A. Confidential (O.S.T.)’ (1997)

RITA#743Last week the Academy Awards were heading to a disappointing conclusion. As much as it seemed possible that Roma could be awarded Best Picture, Hollywood likes to congratulate itself too much to admit that it could be bettered by a film outside of its remit. That’s what Cannes and Venice are for, right? It seemed implausible that Best Picture would to go to any film other than Bohemian Rhapsody.

The Favourite was one of the strongest contenders, but perhaps too off-kilter (and also too un-American). A Star Is Born was the other contender, but you have to wonder what proportion of the Academy is comprised of menopausal women. BlacKkKlansman? Too left-wing. Vice? Too real-life.

The other strong possibility of course was Black Panther, the Marvel film that nobody was looking forward to. Upon its release, everybody slowly realised it wasn’t the snoozefest they were expecting – thanks partly to a great turn by Andy Serkis, as the most threatening villain the MCU has ever seen. But Oscar worthy? Surely not. If you’re going to award Best Picture to a superhero / sci-fi film, at least choose a good one.

It’s probably not even worth discussing Green Book. Surely a film with such broad strokes on racism wouldn’t show up on the Academy’s radar…

No, I hate to say it but it had to be Bohemian Rhapsody (or Bo-Rhap, as annoying Queen fanboys call the song). The film may have taken too many liberties with timelines – “Freddie, you’ve got AIDS, now go and perform at Live Aid. You’re on stage in an hour!” – but it also seemed to remind everybody how good Queen were. Then Rami Malek defied all odds – acting ability, charm, charisma, presence – and won Best Actor. Surely this would lead to the film winning Best Picture.

What? Green Book? Are you mad? Are Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway giving out awards again? How is this possible? Mahershala Ali might have won Best Supporting Actor for it, but I thought that was a sympathy vote. He looked so bored in the film, working with such a paint-by-numbers script, which even more unbelievably also won an Oscar. I thought he was doing that thing when hostage victims come to the door and try to signal to Police with their eyes that somebody’s pointing a gun at them. “No officer, everything…is…fine!”

Film Title: Green Book

The film was so on-the-nose, I’m surprised Viggo Mortenson wasn’t asked to record a painfully inane narration over the establishing scenes: “Hey, I’m Tony Lip, and I’m a racist. Gee, I sure wish I could meet one of those negro fellas. He could really help me out. It’d be real swell and maybe I could help him out with his problems too.”

No, The Favourite should have won. It was truly original, it had humour, suspense, three great acting performances and it transcended its usually stuffy, stale genre.

But it’s not the first time a truly great film has been overlooked for Best Picture in favour of a piece of dross, and it won’t be the last. At the 1998 awards, James Cameron’s Titanic tied with Ben-Hur for the most Oscar wins: eleven, including Best Picture.

It was a strong field – As Good As It Gets and Good Will Hunting would have won in any other year, but the academy decided to recognise Cameron for preventing the largest flop in Hollywood’s history. After what seemed like a doomed production, the film was eventually released, costing approximately a million dollars per minute of screen time.

Film and Television

Cameron won Best Director for his efforts, and despite all other wins being awarded for technical categories, Titanic bizarrely also won Best Picture. Yes, a film with no wins in any of the acting or writing categories was considered to be the best overall film of the year.

I don’t know about you, but I really question the ethics of a film that uses a real-life major maritime disaster as the background for a soppy romance. Where’s the line between good and bad taste? What’s next, a rom-com starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson set in Auschwitz? Tagline: ‘This summer, even their love couldn’t keep them together.’ Or maybe one set in the World Trade Centre? Tagline: ‘Aviation fuel could melt steel beams, but could Jack melt Sandy’s heart?’

Maybe I’m just sore. But the film that really should have won Best Picture that year was L.A. Confidential, co-written and directed by the late Curtis Hanson.

I persuaded some friends to go and see it with me, on a tip from Barry Norman (remember those days?). At first, like most audience members, I regretted the decision. A relatively slow start made the film seem like it was going to be a bit of a chore. My friends would blame me for the bad choice. Thoughts immediately turned to how much I could hold Barry Norman accountable.

But then something unexpected happened. A seemingly innocuous housecall by Guy Pearce’s inexperienced detective turns into a tense shotgun chase through the neighbourhood. One of my friends literally moved to the edge of his seat, leaning on the row in front. I was saved. Thank you, Barry.

RITA#743cWhat follows is a work of art. Two opposing archetypal detectives, played by the then-unknown Guy Pearce (the brain) and Russell Crowe (the brawn), join forces to fight the corruption at the very heart of the city’s police department. Kevin Spacey, fresh from his Swimming With Sharks / The Usual Suspects / Outbreak / Seven breakthrough of ’94 / ‘95, turns in a great understated performance as the charismatic Sgt. Vincennes, leading to one of the most unexpected – but poetic – on-screen deaths of the decade.

Of course, any film noir set in old-timey Los Angeles will always draw comparisons to Chinatown. It almost seems a little forced that Hanson would employ the services of Chinatown’s composer, Jerry Goldsmith, to score his film. As always, the workhorse Goldsmith knocks it out of the park, basing his soundtrack on a motif from Leonard Bernstein’s score for On The Waterfront (perhaps in an attempt to avoid the Chinatown comparisons). The exciting, uptempo sections remind me of the pulsating parts of Morricone’s Untouchables score.

Despite nine Academy Award nominations, the film only went home with two Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson). It almost seems like a fool’s errand, but I wonder what might have happened had Titanic not been released in 1997. That hypothetical game could be played every year – what would the Best Picture have been in the absence of the actual winner? Or, perhaps more relevant these days, if the nominated films were pared back to a choice of just five in the category?

Hit: Bloody Christmas

Hidden Gem: Rollo Tomasi

RITA#743d

2019 Best Picture Nominees – Ranked From Worst To Best

Oscars Academy AwardsAround this time every year, I write about my picks for the Best Picture nominees. This is the third year running I’ve done this (after the 2017 and 2018 awards) and it’s something I’ve really started looking forward to.

It seems to be a really shallow pool this year, with all of the major awards being spread across a relatively low number of films. I usually struggle to watch all of the Best Picture nominees in time before the awards (given New Zealand’s position in the world when it comes to release schedules), but this year I’ve managed to watch almost all of the films nominated in all the major categories.

The only films I’ve yet to see are If Beale Street Could Talk (nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress) and Cold War (nominated for Best Director). Still, it’s the best I’ve done for years. I’ve seen everything else nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, and everything else in the acting and writing categories. It’s good timing too, as this is the first time in years I’ll be able to watch the awards live on TV – it’s been wrestled away from Sky TV and is being broadcast on Free-To-Air in New Zealand. I’ve taken the afternoon off on Monday so I can watch it all by myself. I told my boss that this is my Cup Final, and would happily sit in the pub watching it if I could, drinking beers and shouting “You’re not singing, you’re not singing, you’re not singing anymore!” at the screen (a chant that could be utilised when people lose out in the awards, and also when people finish singing the musical numbers).

Before we get to my pick of the year’s 30 (!) honourable mentions, here’s my ranking of the Best Picture nominees, from worst to best:

Black Panther

8th: Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)

As many have pointed out, this wasn’t even the best Marvel film to be released last  year. I’m all for genre films starting to get nominated for Best Picture again – it used to happen in the 1970s before the ‘message’ films of the 1980s started to focus the Academy’s gaze – but if you’re going to do it, at least pick a better film.

Last August, the Academy announced a new category – Outstanding Achievement In Popular Film – such was their desire to recognize this film (before changing their minds following a public outcry that it trivialised the awards). Their need to recognise Black Panther, for its predominately African-American cast, together with it being the highest-grossing film of all time by a black director, seems to be a purely political move. This is very strange in a year when multiple nominations awarded to BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk would have spared the Academy from any accusations of white-washing.

As a result of their misplaced focus on making sure Black Panther gets some awards attention, the Academy has completely overlooked female directors. Susanne Bier (Bird Box), Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Dorota Kobiela (Loving Vincent), Lynne Ramsey (You Were Never Really Here), Josie

Rourke (Mary Queen Of Scots) and Chloe Zhao (The Rider) were all overlooked for both Best Director and Best Picture. I don’t think there should be a quota in place to ensure female and black directors are recognized. It should be a meritocracy, and each one of these films is a far better picture than Ryan Coogler’s superhero film.

Black Panther: A marvel only in its mediocrity.

Bohemian Rhapsody7th: Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer, 2018)

I’ve already written at length about my problems with this film. I’m kind of jealous that everybody enjoyed it so much, but the historical inaccuracies just overshadowed everything in my eyes. Maybe if I didn’t already know so much about Queen, I might have enjoyed it. The attention thrown at Rami Malek in the acting categories is also surprising. His low energy / none-existent charisma just doesn’t translate, and a pair of false teeth does not a Freddie Mercury make.

Green Book6th: Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018)

A film about racism for stupid people.

 

A Star Is Born5th: A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018)

Having avoided the original 1936 version, the 1954 remake with Judy Garland, and the most recent 1976 version, I didn’t really know what to expect with A Star Is Born. The Joy Of Sex poster for the 1976 version, featuring a naked Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, just put me off watching any of them. It almost put me off cinema for good. I didn’t rush to see this one either, as I met somebody late last year who spoiled the ending within minutes of us being introduced. Yeah, thanks.

It seems an odd choice for a Best Picture nomination. Even with a brand new script, the simple fact that three versions of the film already exist suggests that innovation and originality isn’t a high priority for Academy voters. It’s a joke that this film was nominated when other more deserving films – First Man in particular – were overlooked.

Still, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga turn in fine performances, and the music is solid enough. 2009’s Crazy Heart – surely a point of reference for debut director and co-writer Cooper – was a far better film in a similar vein.

BlacKkKlansman4th: BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018)

I’m hot and cold about Spike Lee. Once you get beyond his first couple of seminal films (joints?), his hit rate really starts to suffer. For every Inside Man (brilliant!), there’s a Summer Of Sam (laughable!). Advance word of BlacKkKlansman was strong, and despite me initially getting it mixed up with a Dave Chappelle sketch about a blind black man joining the Klan, I really enjoyed it.

In the lead role, John David (son of Denzel) Washington shows he has a bright future, Adam Driver is as watchable as ever, and it was great to see Topher Grace back in the spotlight playing the slimy KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. What a dumbass.

Roma3rd: Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

Cuarón was the first Mexican-born director to win Best Director (for 2013’s Gravity), and while it looks very likely that he’ll repeat that accolade this year, a Best Picture win would actually make him the third Mexican winner in the last five years (following Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillmero del Toro).

Roma is a beautiful film. Beautifully shot, beautifully acted and beautifully told. The fact that it’s possible to see such a film on a streaming service is either a positive or a negative, depending on how you look at it. While it’s availability on Netflix massively increases its potential audience, ultimately it could mean that future art-house films will follow this down the path of least resistance: streaming rather than screening.

Joint 1st: The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018) and Vice (Adam McKay, 2018)

The Favourite

I was so impressed by both of these films, that I just can’t separate them. On one hand, you have bizarro Greek director Yorgos “is as good as mine” Lanthimos with period black comedy The Favourite, his follow-up to The Lobster (yay!) and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (nay!). On the other hand, you have Adam McKay’s Dick Chaney biopic Vice, his follow-up to The Big Short.

Vice

Both films are served by incredible acting performances. In McKay’s film, Best Actor nominee Christian Bale puts in a career-best performance (in a career full of career-best performances), inhabiting the role of Vice President Dick Cheney, with Best Supporting nods to Sam Rockwell (George W. Bush) and Amy Adams (Lynne Chaney). While in Lanthimos’ film, British national treasure Olivia Colman (Queen Anne) is nominated for Best Actress, with both Rachel Weisz (Sarah Churchill) and Emma Stone (Abigail Masham) up for Best Supporting Actress.

The Favourite A

Both films are nominated for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (Adam McKay for Vice, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara for The Favourite), and Best Film Editing (Hank Corwin for Vice and Yorgos “is as good as mine whether I can make this same joke twice” Mavropsaridis for The Favourite). A couple of additional nominations in Production Design, Cinematography, Costume Design round out The Favourite, while Vice also picks up a nomination for Makeup & Hairstyling.

The reason it’s so hard to choose between the two films is that in addition to everything else, they’re both very strong in defying convention. I’d usually run a mile from a historical period drama and a political biopic, but The Favourite and Vice transcend their respective genres. The Favourite is more concerned with the interplay between its three principals and a few choice insults (“You look like a badger”), while Vice borrows the fourth-wall narrative framework of The Big Short with Jesse Plemons explaining Cheney’s actions to the audience in bite-size chunks.

I really like the fact that The Favourite is spelt with a ‘u’, and the use of Elton John’s lovely harpsichord ballad Skyline Pigeon (from his oft-overlooked 1969 debut album) almost makes up for the horrible typeface they used on the closing credits.

Mark Gatiss and Nicholas Hoult round out the cast of The Favourite, but the supporting cast of Vice is something else. Alongside Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell leads a supporting cast including Alfred Molina, Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry and Alison Pill.

Vice A

Bale looks, sounds and acts incredibly like Cheney – stopping mere inches short of over-egging his mannerisms, and the rest of Bush’s White House administration look just as authentic. Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice all look fantastic and as close to the real thing as you could get.

Both films deal with what goes on behind the doors of power. But the fact that we’re all still living with the consequences of Cheney’s actions makes Vice all the more frightening, and for that it’s the most important film of the year.

Honourable Mentions

 

Here are my other favourite (eligible) films from the year (in alphabetical order):

Honourable Triptych 1

American Animals (Bart Layton, 2018) – True story retelling of a group of college kids carrying out a major robbery. Part-documentary, part-heist thriller, it’s narrated by the participants themselves. The story is told in a really clever way, dealing with differing viewpoints and conflicting memories.

Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018) – The year of the Netflix movie got underway with this creepy sci-fi mystery, directed by the author of The Beach and screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Sunshine.

At Eternity’s Gate (Julian Schnabel, 2018) – Willem Defoe turns in a career-best performance as Vincent Van Gogh during his final years. Aside from some over-egged camera-work and editing, I really enjoyed this poetic struggle between natural beauty and personal insanity.

Honourable Triptych 2

Bad Time At The El Royale (Drew Goddard, 2018) – After 2012’s excellent Cabin In The Woods, Drew Goddard was definitely somebody to watch out for. Like his previous film, he has again scripted another interesting story set in a locked-off location. A messy waste of a second half, but the Tarantino-esque set-up in the first half is just glorious.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2018) – Another Netflix movie, this anthology film sees the Coens return to the western genre (after 2010’s True Grit); although aren’t all Coen Brothers films westerns to an extent? Some episodes resonate stronger than others, but a solid watch all the same.

Beast (Michael Pearce, 2017) – Hauntingly beautiful romantic thriller set on the island of Jersey. Stellar performances from leads Jessie Buckley and muso Johnny Flynn.

Bird Box (Susanne Bier, 2018) – Yet another Netflix offering, Sandra Bullock stars in a tense thriller somewhere between The Walking Dead and A Quiet Place. It feels very strange for Susanne Bier to direct a genre film, but I’ll take it. Features a great score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who seem to score every film these days).

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018) – Wonderful true story account of author Lee Israel making ends meet by faking letters from literary giants. I spent the entire film imagining that Richard E. Grant’s Jack Hock was a later-in-life Montague H. Withnail, as the timeline sort of works out. It’s been fantastic to see Grant so enthused to be nominated (for Best Supporting Actor), posting selfies on Instagram with everybody he’s gleefully met on the awards circuit.

Chappaquiddick (John Curran, 2017) – Australian actor Jason Clarke is good in anything you put him in, and he shines here as Senator Ted Kennedy, underachieving younger brother to John F. and Robert. A low-key examination of a major cover-up by one of the most powerful politic families in history.

Honourable Triptych 4

Death Wish (Eli Roth, 2018) – Being a fan of the original Charles Bronson films, I wasn’t looking forward to this; surely another pointless remake. My low hopes were rewarded with an enjoyable slice of b-movie action, in a revitalised revenge / vigilantism genre (Taken, The Equalizer, Mandy, Revenge) that shows no signs of stopping.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (Gus Van Sant, 2018) – Joaquin Phoenix keeps on circling that Best Actor Oscar with this, his portrayal of disabled cartoonist John Callahan. After losing out for Walk The Line (2005) and The Master (2012), could this be his year?

First Man (Damien Chazelle, 2018) – You can smell the grease and hear the rattle of the 1960s technology that (allegedly!) put man on the moon, in this superb biopic of Neil Armstrong. His second collaboration with Chazelle, Ryan Gosling mumbles his way through the perfect film for him – as much a meditation on the grief of losing a child, as a celebration of the technological advances of mankind. A crime this wasn’t nominated for Best Picture.

Honourable Triptych 5

Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin, 2018) – Documentary following the ‘will he / won’t he’ climbing of El Capitan without ropes by Alex Honnold. As gripping (credit to my wife) and tense as cinema gets, this was a very, very hard watch.

Game Night (Jeff Tomsic, 2018) – Hollywood has made some really solid comedies in the last decade – Horrible Bosses, 21 Jump Street, We’re The Millers – and Game Night continues the tradition (last year’s Tag was also a good watch). Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams and friends get involved in a murder mystery they think is just a game, but turns out to be very real.

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018) – Hollywood horror has been largely overshadowed by stronger foreign films for most of the last ten years, preferring instead to shovel up predictable jump-scares and pointless remakes. Hereditary is a return to form and something far more real and disturbing. Marketed as ‘this generation’s Exorcist’, it’s more of a retread of Rosemary’s Baby. So good, I re-watched it almost immediately; psychological horror done right.

Honourable Triptych 6

Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, 2018) – A sequel to the best Pixar film so far could have been a mistake, but under the same director in Brad Bird, it just about works despite some messy plotting in the final act.  The absence of the definite article in the title is disappointing though.

Instant Family (Sean Anders, 2018) – Solid comedy with its heart in the right place, despite the usual amount of Hollywood schmaltz. Gets close to doing for comedies what 2017’s The Big Sick did for rom-coms.

Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018) – Subtle drama about a war veteran and his teenage daughter attempting to live off the grid. Ben Foster – as fantastic as always – shines alongside newcomer (and New Zealander) Thomasin McKenzie.

Honourable Triptych 7

Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela / Hugh Welchman, 2017) – The last 12 months have been a drought in terms of trips to the cinema. Kids, work and other things have got in the way. One of my biggest regrets is not catching this on the big screen. Beautifully hand-painted, this rotoscope-style animation tells the tragic tale of Van Gogh’s short life. Part mystery, part love-letter to the Grandfather of modern art.

mid90s (Jonah Hill, 2018) – A nostalgic tribute to the skate-culture of his youth, Jonah Hill has written and directed an impressive first film.  Another score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross alongside hip-hop gems from the period.

Mile 22 (Peter Berg, 2018) – Peter Berg has made some really solid action films with Mark Wahlberg – Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day – and this is their fourth collaboration, with a fifth due later this year. This one finds Wahlberg’s CIA team tasked with moving a high-priority asset twenty-two miles through a South East Asian city. As tense as thrillers get.

Honourable Triptych 9

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018) – The Cruiser’s Mission: Impossible films should have run out of steam by now. Despite the wet squib that was John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2, the rest of the series has been fantastic, and this sixth film didn’t disappoint. Features a brawl in a men’s restroom that might just be the best action sequence I saw all year. Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson: take note.

A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018) – The horror community seems to be divided on whether this qualifies as a horror film or not. Who cares when the film’s this good? John ‘Jim From The Office’ Krasinski stars and directs his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, as their family try to survive in silence after an alien invasion.

Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018) – Presented entirely via computer and smartphone screens, this shouldn’t work. After a few scenes you just get used to it, as you follow John (Harold, of Harold & Kumar fame) Cho’s frantic search for his missing daughter. Pitched as the first ever mainstream Hollywood thriller to star an Asian-American actor (my blind ignorance doubted that at first, but it seems to be correct), this innovative film treads similar ground to Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013) and offers a horrifying peak at how such events unfold in today’s digital world.

Honourable Triptych 8

Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2018) – Japanese drama about an odd family unit living in poverty. Has the same, shuffling pace as something like 1953’s Tokyo Story, but deals with the social class at the other end of the spectrum. The gradually unfolding explanation of who everybody is, in relation to everybody else, is really well handled.

Sorry To Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018) – Nuts dark comedy about a young black man who puts on a white voice to excel in his telemarketing job. I stayed on the ride as long as I could, but it lost me in its final third.

Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino, 2018) – Remake of Dario Argento’s seminal horror places the action in 1977, the year of the original film’s release. Dakota Johnson joins a dance academy in divided Berlin, where all is not as it seems. Quite a muted film for a horror…until its roaring finale.

Honourable Triptych 10

Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (Peter Rida Michail / Aaron Horvath, 2018) – An incredibly fun blast through a thousand pop-culture superhero references, this requires multiple viewings to catch everything. A great fart joke in the first few minutes sets the ball rolling nicely, as all fart jokes should.

Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018) – Engrossing documentary which first marvels about the bond between identical triplets separated at birth, but then leaves you seething at mankind for the actions of those pulling the strings.

You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017) – After 2002’s excellent Morvern Callar, and the success of 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, we had to wait another six years to see what Lynne Ramsay would do next. This taut, gritty thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix fits somewhere between Taxi Driver (1976) and Drive (2011). The role couldn’t be any different to Pheonix’s part in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, but while Ramsay’s film won him the Best Actor at Cannes last year, it seems too much of a leftfield choice for the Academy.

My Picks For The 24

Finally, here are my picks for what the Academy will actually vote for on the night. I’ll try to remember to mark these next year to see how close I got!

Eight A.jpegBest Picture: The Favourite

Best Director: Roma

Best Actor: Christian Bale

Best Actress: Olivia Colman

Best Supporting Actor: Adam Driver

Best Supporting Actress: Emma Stone

Best Original Screenplay: Vice

Best Adapted Screenplay: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

 

Best Animated Feature Film: Isle Of Dogs

Best Foreign Language Film: Roma

Best Documentary – Feature: Free Solo

Best Documentary – Short Subject: Lifeboat

Eight BBest Live Action Short Film: Skin

Best Animated Short Film: Bao

Best Original Score: If Beale Street Could Talk

Best Original Song: Shallow from A Star Is Born

Best Sound Editing: First Man

Best Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody

Best Production Design: The Favourite

Best Cinematography: Roma

Best Makeup And Hairstyling: Vice

Best Costume Design: The Favourite

Best Film Editing: Vice

Best Visual Effects: Ready Player One

2018 Best Picture Nominees – Ranked From Worst To Best

Oscars Academy Awards
This time last year, I wrote about the nine Best Picture nominees.  With just 48 hours to spare, I’ve managed to watch all nine nominees in this years’ Academy Awards. Here’s my ranking, in descending order:

Get Out9. Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

Get Out was an enjoyable and innovative genre film. Nothing more, nothing less. As such, it doesn’t deserve to be in this list, especially when better films didn’t make the cut for a Best Picture nomination. The film’s first two acts were an intriguing study into racism in the 21st century, but it loses points with a messy, typically Hollywood final act.

It really makes me wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.  It’s an incredible achievement for Jordan Peele, but one has to wonder if he’s being nominated here out of merit, or just to tick a box?

The Shape of Water.jpg8. The Shape Of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

Yes, I know it’s the most nominated film this year, and as a result it looks likely to be the big winner on Sunday night, but del Toro should be ashamed for stealing so much from Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

A green colour palette, a quiet elfin brunette, a friendship with an old hermit neighbour who watches an old black and white television set, an unusual love story. I know they say that nothing under the sun is original, but did del Toro even think about what he was doing here?

In Consequence Of Sound’s picks for the Oscars, their writer Blake Goble wrote that Blade Runner 2049 is not deserving of the Best Production Design award as it’s ‘a work of homage – to other artists like Tarkovsky and Ridley Scott. Done bigger and louder.’ In contrast, he claims that ‘The Shape Of Water is actual creation.’

So says another American who hasn’t seen Delicatessen or Amelie.

The Post.jpg7. The Post (Steven Spielberg, 2017)

A nice film, especially in the way that its final scene segues nicely  into Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men – itself a Best Picture nominee in 1977; great – but not career-best – performances by Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep (together with a great ensemble supporting cast), but…that’s…about…it. A 2-hour film featuring little other than people talking to each other in offices – no matter how riveting – does not a Best Picture make.

Call Me By Your Name6. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)

This year’s picture postcard to heartbreak – following last year’s Manchester By The Sea – the cinematography and exuberant piano score in Call Me By Your Name is more than worth the price of admission.

Phantom Thread5. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)

Paul Thomas Anderson films used to be a tray of donuts; now they’re a cake stand at high-tea. Phantom Thread finds the director disappearing down the hole he started drilling in There Will Be Blood and The Master, but it’s nothing compared to the sleeze of Boogie Nights and the tension of Magnolia.

Once again, Daniel Day Lewis gives us a masterclass in how to portray petulance on screen (with some delicious put-downs), in what is touted to be his final film role. Here he seems to flesh out the male subject of Charlie Kauffman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, particularly in his intolerance of people eating loudly.

Still, the film does contain perhaps the greatest breakfast order ever seen on film:

Alma: Good morning.

Reynolds: Morning.

Alma: What would you like to order?

Reynolds: A welsh rarebit….With a poached egg on top, please…Not too runny…And bacon…Scones…Butter, cream, jam…Not strawberry.

Alma: No. Raspberry?

Reynolds: What else?

Alma: Coffee or tea?

Reynolds: Do you have lapsang?

Alma nods.

Reynolds: I’ll have a pot of lapsang please.

Alma: Good choice.

Reynolds: And some sausages.

Alma: …And some sausages.

Darkest Hour4. Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017)

In a lovely bit of serendipity, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour could play in a double-bill with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. They could probably be intercut, as Wright’s film opens with the bureaucracy behind the  Dunkirk problem that is the sole focus of Nolan’s film.

Both films are outstanding – Darkest Hour from a performance viewpoint (Gary Oldman playing an – erm – old man, in a career-best performance), and Dunkirk from a technical viewpoint. However, the weakness of each film is the strength of the other, and vice versa.

Dunkirk3. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

Nolan’s tenth feature-length picture is a beautiful – yet tense – retelling of the Dunkirk evacuation. It would probably top this list if there was a bit more humanity in the film, but Nolan instead focuses on the technical aspects of filmmaking rather than characterisation or dialogue. Filmed almost as a silent picture, it’s Nolan’s most distant work yet – perhaps to symbolise the distance of the stranded forces, so near yet so far away.

Nolan’s films are always outstanding, particularly in the way he utilizes IMAX camera technology. Filmed entirely in huge 65mm stock (75% of it using IMAX cameras), Dunkirk looks stunning and was a treat to see (and hear!) in an IMAX cinema. Quite how they filmed the spitfire cockpit sequences with huge IMAX cameras will eat at my brain forever, but I’d rather not know, I’d rather not peek behind the curtain.

This year’s Best Picture nominees feature a wealth of fantastic musical scores, but Hans Zimmer’s work on Dunkirk is well deserving of the Best Original Score award.

Lady Bird2. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Greta Gerwig has been a star on the rise for the past decade, and here she offers her directorial debut. She’s also up for the Best Director award – only the fifth time in history a female has been nominated (with only one going on to win the accolade – Katherine Bigelow for The Hurt Locker).

The always watchable Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular character in a coming-of-age dramedy, with an impressive supporting cast featuring Laurie Metcalf (‘Jackie’ from Roseanne), Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges (also appearing in Three Billboards) and Timothée Chalamet (nominated for Best Actor as Elio in Call Me By Your Name).

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2017)

None of the nine nominees this year have really struck a chord with me, like my top three of Lion, La La Land and Manchester By The Sea from last year’s line-up. Three Billboards is therefore the best of a just very good bunch.

Frances McDormand is great – but has been better before (it’s Margot Robbie who deserves the Best Actress award, for I, Tonya), McDonagh’s script walks a tight balance between tragedy and comedy, and Sam Rockwell easily earns his Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Honourable Mentions
Here are my other favourite (eligible) films from the year (in alphabetical order):

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017) – a love story that transcends time, dimensions and bedsheets.

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017) – a stellar pop soundtrack and quite possibly the last time we will ever see the once fantastic, now disgraced, Kevin Spacey on the silver screen.

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017) – a wonderfully respectful sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, with director Denis Villeneuve still going from strength to strength.

Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary, 2017) – a nice slice of feel-good fish-out-of-water comedy from three former Saturday Night Live cast members.

It (Andy Muschietti, 2017) – could anybody make Pennywise the clown creepier than Tim Curry’s portrayal in the 1990 TV mini-series? The answer – in the form of Bill Skarsgård – is a big fat yes. One of the most innovative horrors I’ve seen in years. Look out for rising star Sophia Lillis.

I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie, 2017) – “…and the award for ‘Best Sporting Moment Set To The Music Of ZZ Top’ goes to…”. An early career peak by Margot Robbie in a more worthy contender than Get Out for Best Picture.

Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer, 2017) – Aubrey Plaza plays to type as a creepy stalker to Elizabeth Olsen’s perfect It girl. Unnerving, like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver with smart-phones instead of guns.

Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017) – Hollywood can still knock out a decent B-movie if it puts its mind to it.

Logan (James Mangold, 2017) – after the endless junk of Marvel and DC films over the last decade, at last something a bit different from the usual template.

Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016) – I’ve never really understood the appeal of James McAvoy until now. A great twist too, as Shyamalan returns to his trademark curtain reveal.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017) – thankfully the most anticipated film of 2017 wasn’t a let-down, even if Rian Johnson did sweep the table of most of the questions posed by J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII.

The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, 2017) – finally, a rom-com that breaks the mould. Contains a great 9/11 joke. Too soon?

The Disaster Artist (James Franco, 2017) – overachiever James Franco directs and stars in a passion project about the making of 2003’s The Room, one of the best worst films ever made. Very funny, particularly for those already in on the joke.

The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017) – Best Supporting Actor nominee Willem Dafoe is dependable as the manager of a motel near Disneyworld (the film is named after the construction name for the theme park). Almost a companion piece to Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016), the film deals with the trials and tribulations of those stuck in temporary accommodation on the outskirts of Orlando.

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017) – the other mega-respectful sequel of 2017, Danny Boyle’s film spliced joyous nostalgia with a stinging sense of regret. Also, I was lucky to get to meet him when he was in New Zealand promoting the film.

Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017) – from one of the greatest trailers ever put together, came a film that followed through on its promise of a fun, fun ride. I’m not sure how it will be viewed in the future – particularly next to the other films in the series – but it sure beats all the po-faced posturing by Captain America and the rest of the Avengers.

Voyeur (Myles Kane, Josh Koury, 2017) – documentaries these days are so well produced and directed, they really entertain and envelop you in a narrative that wouldn’t be possible with the restrictive talking head format of yesteryear. This film follows celebrated New York journalist Gay Talese as he tackles the story of a Colorado motel owner who claimed to have been spying, unimpeded, on his guests for decades.

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017) – Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell Or High Water) can pen a decent story, usually concerning law enforcement fighting a losing battle, and Wind River is no different. Elizabeth Olsen plays an FBI agent sent to Wyoming to investigate a murder on an Indian Reservation.
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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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