Two things to know before beginning: I haven’t seen everything, especially in the documentary, animated, and foreign film categories, and most importantly I have not seen Call Me by Your Name, which is a big blindspot in a situation like this, but there’s nothing to be done about it now. Anyway, if the movie isn’t talked about here, I haven’t seen it yet. Also, I’m going to slyly work in three capsule reviews of movies for which I have recently received screeners. Let’s see if you can spot them!
Ababcus: Small Enough to Jail (d. Steve James) – At one point in this documentary, which is about Abacus, a small, family-owned bank catering to New York’s Chinatown community, and the only bank to be prosecuted for fraud after the 2008 banking crisis, during the trial that is the spine of the whole thing, a recorded telephone call is played. On screen, as we hear the voices, a sort of audio bar graph of the sounds appears, as well as subtitles of everything said, should they be too garbled to be easily understood by the audience. Except that these subtitles lower, one word at a time, as each one is spoken, from the graph above it. This makes reading them actually kind of a pain in the ass. Watching the film I thought “What rinky-dink first-time documentary school jackass made this? This is the only ‘cinematic’ idea he or she had and it’s stupid.” I was a bit shocked to learn the director was, in fact, Steve James. This movie feels bored.
The Big Sick (d. Michael Showalter) – There was a time once when this movie would have been greeted with praise of the “Hey that was pretty good!” variety. And it would have even been deserved. Now, one gets the sense that this is the sort of movie that if you don’t get behind it a thousand per cent, then you, my good sir, do not understand cinema. It’s been nominated for best screenplay, I guess because in contrast to most modern comedies, it only feels kind of bloated, and because on some level it is about the Plight of the Comedian, which is of course the most dangerous and noble profession on Earth. I might also complain that star and co-screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani doesn’t seem to ever catch on to the disconnect when he portrays white racists as vile (fair enough) but portrays Pakistani racists with a “hey that’s just my family!” shrug. But I’m not going to do that! (Plus the film, and I suppose life before it, puts Nanjiani in an impossible situation, makes his girlfriend completely unsympathetic towards his plight, and apparently expects us to side with her.) Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are terrific.
The Boss Baby (d. Tom McGrath) – This quite honestly could have been worse; it is nevertheless still bad. Apart from all the run-of-the-mill objectionable bits – fart jokes, counting children and babies disco dancing and smirking as a joke, what appeared to be an actual blowjob joke so that the “adults” in the audience could be secure that there’s something in this one for them, too – the movie itself doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on. The premise, ostensibly, is that there’s this seven-year-old boy with a very active imagination – he imagines his parents’ jobs at a pet toy/food/etc. company to be glamorous, jet-setting, almost spy-like, and so on – is told that he’s going to be a brother. He’s having a great time as an only kid, so he objects, and then when the baby arrives, the baby is a suit-wearing domineering, manipulative jerk who thinks he’s king shit and takes all the parents’ love for himself. So the action of the film will be very heightened in the kid’s head, and what the audience will see as wild improbable adventure is in reality just mundane growing up stuff. Visually, the movie even points us there once: during a barbecue, a bunch of babies get into a chase/fight with the older kid backyard, one that includes explosions and swinging on shit and whatever, but at one point there’s a cut to a couple of parents looking from the house into the backyard and they see an extremely scaled-down version of the crazy adventure we’ve just seen. So it is all in the older kid’s head! Except that when this sequence is over, the parents find the aftermath, and everything we were shown seems to have actually occurred, including the explosion. So what the fuck was that cut to the parents for? What, to paraphrase David Mamet, was that in aid of? Furthermore, the parents can also see that the baby is in a suit. Is the baby in a suit? There are a couple of decent jokes here and there (Alec Baldwin as the suited baby, upon learning that the special formula that allows him to act like an adult corporate executive, will soon be unavailable: “Without it I turn back into a real baby: goo goo, ga ga, the whole bit!”) which is a couple more than I was expecting, but overall this movie is an idiot.
Coco (d. Lee Unkrich) – With every new Pixar movie, more and more one-time fans seem to announce themselves as sick of the whole thing, so that not only are your Cars 3s and The Good Dinosaurs swept up in it, but so are the ones which are, to me, excellent. Now, mind you, Pixar is doing fine, I bet, and this negative reaction is a whisper next to the yawp of positivity the company’s films otherwise enjoy. But it sort of makes me not want to even bother talking about them, and instead just quietly enjoy the movies, and be emotionally broken by them, and damn all else (more on this sort of reaction later!). The upshot of all this is that I thought Coco was excellent – visually, it’s not just inventive, but it’s inventive in ways that are new to Pixar. Look at the character design, and colors used, for the fantastical creatures in the Land of the Dead. And yes, I cried quite a lot. One small thing I loved about Coco is that it’s named after a character who is barely in it. This choice has what they call resonance.
Darkest Hour (d. Joe Wright) – I’m having a hard time accepting that a movie like this can still be made and taken seriously. No offense to those who liked it, of course! But what Darkest Hour makes me think of, at least as far as Lady Oscar goes, is the 1967 Best Picture race, the nominees of which, as Mark Harris expertly illustrated in his book Pictures at a Revolution, are the perfect time capsule of an artform and culture in transitional uproar, something it would be conceivable to argue we’re going through again. If, say, this year’s equivalent to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde are, I don’t know, Call Me by Your Name (I’m assuming) and Get Out, then Darkest Hour is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Doctor Doolittle all smashed up together. I sort of wouldn’t mind pointing out that if I had a vote in 1967, the Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn movies would be shown the door right along with the Stanley Kramer and Richard Fleischer pictures. Of those available to me, I guess I’d have gone with In the Heat of the Night. Which this year is, I guess, The Post? This doesn’t mean if I had a ballot I’d be voting for The Post. Anyway, I love Gary Oldman as a rule, but this shit is complete nonsense. When Neville Chamberlain takes out his handkerchief at the end, Signifying Something Important, and telling the audience that now would be the time to cheer, I audibly sighed.
The Disaster Artist (d. James Franco) – A reasonably fun movie that I have decided is actually not very good. As a piece of filmmaking, The Room is both more entertaining and more interesting. The section at the beginning of Franco’s movie, with all the celebrities telling an audience (which Franco was probably hoping is largely comprised of people who have never seen The Room because otherwise his own film would sink to the bottom of the ocean without a trace (I guess it worked out okay)) what The Room even is, plus also why we should care, and additionally, too, why it’s actually a great movie that matters more than other movies, is, this section I mean, frankly embarrassing. Look at how Tim Burton accomplished with Ed Wood more or less what Franco was aiming for here, but with infinitely more ease, grace, artistry, and respect for his audience. It has some good laughs, though!
Dunkirk (d. Christopher Nolan) – See Coco. The only part of the release of a new Nolan film that I hate, even dread, is the wave of critics and film fans who feel compelled to insist that the director is a fake who literally has no idea what he’s doing. Now, we all have our opinions, and my guess is that I have done something similar in the past. But these people are just so fucking wrong, and countering them has been exhausting me for too many years now. Suffice it to say, Dunkirk is tremendous as far as I’m concerned, a loud, classically made (if not classically structured) war film, which disorients with its chaos, yet makes as clear as it can what being on those beaches, one of several thousand helpless targets, was like. It’s somehow both cold and emotional. Nolan’s focus on the pieces makes the ultimate heroism and relief all the more exhilarating, and melancholy. It’s probably his masterpiece.
Faces Places (d. JR and Agnes Varda) – A small, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may documentary placing the oddest, most charming pair of artists at its center. Young photographer JR and 89-year-old New Wave pioneer Varda travel through the French countryside, meeting all sorts of people who do all sorts of jobs, finding beauty, kindness, and humanity everywhere they go. Faces Places is completely free of the kind of condescension most American filmmakers would bring along to this material like a trail of slime. Absolutely wonderful.
The Florida Project (d. Sean Baker) – So the ending of The Florida Project, I kept hearing, honestly did not work, and that was too bad as the rest of the film was wonderful. While finally watching this, yes, terrific movie about daily life among the residents of a Disney World-adjacent motel (managed by a peerless Willem Dafoe, every bit as good as everybody says) as seen through the eyes of a little girl, daughter to a young, loving, fuckup of a mother, I was of course bracing myself for the moment when it was all gonna go pear-shaped. But that never happened, because the ending is entirely of a piece with what came before. It’s shot differently because the audience is now entirely in the head of someone who we had previously been following from the normal movie-audience remove. That’s why the last minute feels different: it’s showing us what we’ve already been watching, but didn’t realize it.
Get Out (d. Jordan Peele) – If I’m somewhat skeptical of the seemingly endless blurt of adoration that Peele’s directing debut has been enjoying for almost a full year now, it’s because I’ve seen a few horror films in my time, and yes, this is certainly one of those. Which sounds a bit more dismissive than I actually feel about Get Out, but it’s a film that struck me as being very much part of a long tradition within this genre. The most impressive thing to me about the film – apart from a terrific score by Michael Abels – is the lead performance by Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, the young black man who, as the film begins, is hitting the road with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to meet her family, whose White Liberal bona fides, we will learn, mask something sinister. What Kaluuya does that’s so striking is that before the horror material really kicks in, he made me feel an intense discomfort due to a situation that I’ve never been in and can never be in: the only black guy in a house of white people who, racially-speaking, are acting weird, specifically because I’m there. And he just has to bear it. Viscerally communicating that is not nothing.
Birdman of Alcatraz (d. John Frankenheimer) – I watched this film, newly out on Blu-ray from Olive Films, right after watching Darkest Hour, and the transition from Joe Wright’s horseshit to John Frankenheimer in his prime was, and I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic, not unlike the transition from illness into good health. This biopic about Robert Stroud, a two-time murderer (one was a prison guard) who spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement, along the way caring for, bonding with, and studying what must have been hundreds and hundreds of birds, could conceivably give the viewer whiplash in its turns from clear-eyed brutality to sentimentality, but I think Frankenheimer and star Burt Lancaster (who was never better than here) navigate all of this with quite a bit of elegance, pretty much completely avoiding the worst pitfalls inherent in such a story. The black and white photography by the great Burnett Guffrey is pure 60s social realism starkness, which I mean as a high compliment. It’s a beautiful film, and the Blu-ray looks superb. That the film drops off a bit once Stroud actually gets to Alcatraz is both ironic and not that big a deal, since it comes pretty late in the 150-minute movie. Telly Savalas and Karl Malden are as great as you’d expect.
The Hallelujah Trail (d. John Sturges) – Also just out from Olive Films, and also starring Burt Lancaster, this movie…well, listen. I’m not a big fan of the criticism “That film is dated,” which means, I guess, “That film was made in a year other than this one.” But The Hallelujah Trail is of a type of movie – the epic comedy -- that as far as I can tell nobody makes anymore, and I’m not convinced we as a society have lost anything because of this. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is of course the ne plus ultra of this sort of thing, and The Hallelujah Trail is neither as epic nor as egregious as that one. It’s not much good, though. There is some historical fascination in watching these movies, of the “movies were sometimes like this at one time, and actors like Burt Lancaster and Lee Remick sometimes starred in them” variety, such that I was with this one for about the first hour or so. The problem is that this is, like Birdman of Alcatraz, 150 minutes long, and if your question to me is “Is it possible to get through the last 90 minutes of The Hallelujah Trail?” my answer must be, as John Lennon once sang, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy. You know how hard it can be.” The dividing line between what’s bearable and what’s not is just before the first big action setpiece. This is a Western, by the way, in addition to everything else, and the plot revolves around forty barrels of whiskey, which everybody wants, including Remick’s temperance leader (so she can get rid of them) and the city of Denver, led by Dub Taylor, so that they may drink them, and the Businessman Who Is Unlikable (Brian Keith), whose barrels they are but who is selfish and unreasonable, etc. This last bit counts as the Social Commentary element of the film, an element also found in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and giving as little insight; though I have no idea if it’s true I do wonder if maybe this facet, which includes some nod towards labor rights, got Lancaster involved in what is otherwise a very off-brand film. In any event, the whiskey is also desired by a group of Sioux Indians, who, The Hallelujah Trail being a Good Liberal Hollywood movie, are goofy present-grubbing doofuses who are played by people like Martin Landau and Roy J. Wilke. But anyway, there’s this big shootout between the Cavalry and the Indians. It’s set during a dust storm, and Elmer Bernstein’s score drops away, and so in another Western the stage would have been set for something bleakly violent. Except this is a madcap comedy, so though the mood is foreboding, nobody gets shot, and things like for instance a group of Cavalry shooting, realizing they’re being shot at from behind so one says “Cover your rear!” so they all turn around and now they’re being shot from the front and the back and they say “Cover your rear!” and they all turn around – things such as this, as I was saying, keep happening. And then Lancaster, who wasn’t there for the shootout, shows up and says to the commander who was in charge “You mean to tell me all those bullets were fired and nobody was killed??” This, as I say, was the dividing line between watchability and almost the opposite.
The Orchard End Murder (d. Christian Marnham) – Christian Marnham made very few movies. One of them is this oddball 50-minute short exploitation feature which was apparently often paired as a double feature with Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried, also a horror film, but one which seems to me to cinematically, conceptually, though maybe not quite philosophically, rather a wholly other thing. I called The Orchard End Murder exploitation, but it is and also isn’t. It’s about a young woman (Tracy Hyde) who one day happens upon the whimsical cottage of a railroad employee (Bill Wallis). She’d like to see his yard ornaments, and he’s happy to oblige, although she treats him with a curious mix of rude distaste and complete openness and trust. It eventually ends up that she was right the first time, and she’s finally killed, not by the railroad employee but instead by the violent meathead idiot who does odd jobs nearby. The rest of the movie is about what the two men do about the body, and what happens after that. It is, as you might guess, all very compact, and in its way queasily effective – the murder, which occurs in a pile of apples, is both awful to watch, and like an image from a fairy tale. In its simplicity and lack of adornment, The Orchard End Murder is one of the bleaker views of humanity I’ve seen.
Incidentally, included on the new Kino Blu-ray is a short 1970 documentary by Marnham called The Showman, about a knife-throwing carnival nudie-show “impresario” (as Kino describes him). This is a fascinating and subtly unnerving look at a vanished form of entertainment. I’m glad Kino included it.
END OF INTERMISSION
The Insult (d. Ziad Doueiri) – By the end of this political drama/thriller(?) about a seemingly mundane clash between a Lebanese Christian man and a Palestinian construction worker that blows up into a national scandal, Doueiri has forced his audience to consider the matter from an angle he had not previously hinted to them that they might want to think about. For that, I am grateful. For the movie that surrounds that idea, which is an indifferently shot story filled with TV court drama twists and nonsensical trial scenes, I am not.
Lady Bird (d. Greta Gerwig) – A film I kind of wish people would calm down about at the same time I acknowledge that it is very good. It seems that I want it both ways. Gerwig’s debut film, about a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) in Sacramento who can’t help but kick back at her family, who has less money than most of her classmates, and who while all this is going on is heading towards her first sexual experience(s), is funny, sweet, honest – all the things it had dang well better be, in other words. The two things I like best about Lady Bird is that Gerwig was willing to show all the many bad sides of her protagonist, her selfishness, her thoughtlessness, even her stupidity; and the way it deals with the whole concept of liking things, and if you like something that others persist in telling you is bad or, worse, uncool, well, fuck them. Like it anyway.
Logan (d. James Mangold) – I won’t spend too much time on this one. All I’ll say is that back when Darren Aronofsky was set to direct a Wolverine movie, before that fell through, this is pretty much what I was hoping that film would end up looking like. That that same movie ended up being made by James Mangold is not something I could have ever predicted.
Mudbound (d. Dee Rees) – Quite a bit better than I thought it was going to be. Garrett Hedlund and Mary J. Blige are as good as advertised; meanwhile, Jason Mitchell and Rob Morgan, who no one seems to be talking about, kind of quietly walk away with the thing. The last twenty minutes are merciless. After the worst of it, the audience demands something, and they get it, but it is not satisfying. This is certainly the intent.
Phantom Thread (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – Well, I mean. Phantom Thread looms so large in my mind as unquestionably the film of the year – by which I mean, in addition to its obvious greatness, in terms of film history 2017 will always be the year that Phantom Thread came out – that in capsule form, I have even less of an idea where to begin than I ever do with any of these, and believe me, I never have any idea where to begin with a capsule review. At any rate: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, and apparently Daniel Day-Lewis’s last, is an exquisitely unexpected, precise and complete, original work of art. Funny, eerie, suspenseful, graceful, and intense, while watching the film it’s not hard to believe that Paul Thomas Anderson had already imagined everything about the personality and lives of his characters and the world and time in which they live, and filmed the part that is Phantom Thread. It brings to mind what the man once said about sculpting a horse: you take a block of stone and chisel away everything that doesn’t look like a horse.
The Post (d. Steven Spielberg) – For me, this is mid-tier Spielberg, which I will accept happily. That he can go from the decision to turn this script into a movie to its actual release into theaters in a matter of months and still turn out something this slick and professional and even artful, for all its flaws, is really quite something. Seeing this dismissed as hackwork is frankly depressing.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (d. Dan Gilroy) – An imperfect movie that is both not at all what it was marketed as, and much better than its reputation. Denzel Washington plays an activist attorney who spends the film going through a catastrophic moral crisis (as opposed to an activist attorney who spends the film lifting the world up on his admirable shoulders, which is what I was expecting); if the character is written to be a little too much of an oddball, it was a sharp move to cast Washington, who sells it all beautifully. Israel is a unique character in that, while he’s certainly a Movie Type, this particular Movie Type has not existed in this story before, at least not that I’ve seen. I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad Washington got nominated.
The Shape of Water (d. Guillermo del Toro) – One of my favorite directors is probably going to win an Oscar for the worst film he’s ever made. A morally thoughtless wagonload of bullshit that believes it’s a morally superior “fable,” The Shape of Water is often beautiful and engaging, and it features a game and terrific cast, but finally it judges not just its villains but finally the whole world based on how it reacts to del Toro’s pure heroes. Anyone who looks askance at any part of this is not just immoral, but might even actually deserve to die. It’s an ugly movie that has sold itself as a beautiful one. And it’s not that I believe del Toro thinks this way; it’s that I don’t believe del Toro thought at all.
The Square (d. Ruben Ostlund) – It’s, I mean, you know, it’s fine. I liked Elisabeth Moss a lot (I'd actually call hers one of my favorite performances of last year), and I liked the ape man scene. The rest of it passed the time amiably enough, though I’m not sure this is the sort of reaction Ostlund wanted.
Strong Island (d. Yance Ford) – To mostly just repeat what I said about this on social media, because frankly I’m starting to run out of steam here, I have some serious issues with Strong Island which are inherent with the modern state of socio-political documentary filmmaking, in that it presents one version of events which it demands the audience accept without question (for the record, I believe the story of the murder of William Ford and its aftermath as told in this documentary is probably pretty accurate, but I resent the implied moral judgment that would come with wondering if it might be otherwise), as a personal and poetic documentation of grief, Yance Ford’s film is occasionally breathtaking.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (d. Martin McDonagh) – And so we end with the most divisive film on the least. Oh alphabet, how you have betrayed me. My feelings about this pitch-dark crime semi-comic examination of societal what-have-yous is that it’s sort of okay, mostly, though it piles so much shit on its already Big Story about an abrasive mother’s (Frances McDormand) quest for justice for the rape and murder (“Raped While Dying” reads the third of the titular three billboards, a nauseating combination of words that that all by themselves set up writer-director McDonagh with quite a task ahead of him) of her teenage daughter that the absurdity it achieves is probably not always the kind of absurdity McDonagh is after. When Woody Harrelson’s sheriff reveals to pain-in-his-ass McDormand that he’s dying, I thought “Jesus, this damn thing has cancer in it, too??” But on the other hand, during a fraught interview between the two later on, when Harrelson suddenly coughs blood into McDormand’s face, stares at her in horror and shame and says “I didn’t mean…” and McDormand, previously so combative with him, suddenly turns soft and sad and heartbroken and says “I know baby” and tries to help him, I thought that this was all shocking, absurd, and beautiful. Then again, on the other other hand, outside of this scene, at no point does Harrelson seem like a man who, according to the film, has literally only months to live (and his wife, played by Abbie Cornish, absolutely does not act like a woman whose husband is going to die in a few months).
Of course, none of the above is what people talk about, because the controversy is all about Sam Rockwell’s racist, abusive cop character, who by the end achieves, according to some, undeserved redemption, but who, according to others, only achieves the thought that something might be wrong with him. I think the movie is clear that it’s the latter – look at where he’s going at the end of the film, and ask yourself if this is the sort of thing a mentally and morally healthy person would consider redemptive or epiphanic. What makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri kind of hard to talk about in this specific regard, or to debate productively, is that what’s actually on screen could not be clearer. What each of us thinks counts as redemption seems to be more central to the argument than anything else. If I liked the movie more, I might feel more inclined to pick a side, but I don’t. Though I do lean faintly towards those who like the film, so if a shooting war breaks out over this I guess I’ll have to march with those guys. There are too many implied, or baldly stated in some cases, insults coming from the other side for my comfort.
What a nice note on which to close out! Happy Oscars, everybody!