Tag Archives: Roma

The Oscars: A Partisan Rant

I wasn’t intending to do this; it’s over, it’s all been said, and even I’m tired of it. Except, movies matter to me, and as the major art form of our time they should matter to everyone, they should be understood as more than a superhero distraction. And now the Oscars.

I mean come on.

So first off, I’ve been examining my own reactions on viewing Green Book, which I admit I greatly enjoyed. It’s an endearing, well-written, and finely acted movie. I want to say I had qualms, and I did, but they weren’t specific; it was more an overall unease. Green Book is also a manipulative, feel-good film, but what, exactly, did I feel so good about? Today, having examined my response, I think it comes down to pride. If you identify with the white character, the movie is a congratulatory slap on the back. When it comes to racism you can be proud of yourself. That’s why I left the theatre with that happy-ending glow.

Well, crap.

While I have certain issues with Roma, it’s an incredible, beautiful film, and wonderfully acted. But of course it’s in black-and-white, and in Spanish, and about a housemaid, and worst of all from Netflix, that upstart challenger to the way things are clearly supposed to be. The Favourite, for all its admitted brilliance, irritated me; I don’t take pleasure from watching women at each other’s throats. I don’t find that particularly funny. So I understand the limited recognition given the first, if I can’t forgive it. And I don’t too much mind the partial snubbing of the second. And then A Star is Born, an ostensibly serious film, neglected to endorse any social cause whatsoever, instead promoting authenticity. Hollywood was not amused.

Netflix also financed the restoration of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, for over forty years the legendary “greatest film never made” and included on many top ten lists this past year, including my own. Its completion was nothing short of miraculous, granting us a new masterpiece from a filmmaker still far ahead of his time. Unfortunately it takes a fortune to campaign for an Oscar these days, and Netflix chose to support Roma. That’s understandable, even admirable; what isn’t is the rumor that the Academy was approached about some special recognition for the TOSOTW team but rejected the idea.

What can be said for either Bohemian Rhapsody or Vice, two films that aren’t even good enough to be considered mediocre? How could they be nominated for Best Picture? And why weren’t all ten of the available slots taken? Did no one see the wonderful Shoplifters? Or Zama? Or Burning? Are we only allowing one foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture, and that only once every couple of decades? Then what about Support the Girls, or the luminous If Beale Street Could Talk? As to the latter, it’s worth noting that James Baldwin’s novel wasn’t particularly successful when first published back in 1974. No one then was interested in hearing about a falsely imprisoned black man, or police racism. We’d moved past all that.

I imagine the final Best Actor voting results as a list with Rami Malek’s teeth on top, right over Christian Bale’s prosthetics, then Viggo Mortensen’s weight gain at third, and Bradley Cooper’s beard coming in fourth. Willem Dafoe was so outclassed in the ostentatious disguise category.

So let’s consider the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has spent the balance of the past year royally screwing up in its attempt to revive viewer interest in its broadcast. Forgetting, I suppose, that the Oscars aren’t the People’s Choice awards, but have something to do with rewarding excellence. Remarkably enough, they somewhat succeeded in boosting viewership; I think people tuned in hoping for a train wreck. Or possibly it was that Bradley Cooper – Lady Gaga thing.

Popularity is all very well when it comes to finances, but it tends to chase excellence out to the art houses. I can name exceptions: God knows Dunkirk or Get Out should have won over The Shape of Water last year. Anything should have won over The Shape of Water, even the terrible Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (In case you’re interested, the actual best picture of 2017 was The Florida Project, which wasn’t even nominated, what with fortune favoring the financially fortunate.)

All this rambling discourse because something about all this both infuriates and scares me. It might be the general dearth of excellent, provocative movies, although as I say, they do exist. Black Panther was so close, if ultimately just that tiny bit too comic book; it inspired earnest discussion – imagine that! Maybe it’s the unabashed divide between superhero fans and art house patrons that disturbs me, or the recent influx of similar films advocating for preapproved purposes like drugs or conversion therapy. Maybe it’s the insidious idea that popularity really does signify quality, or maybe it’s the equally stupid notion that it means the exact opposite. Maybe it’s all the new Oscar voters with their own agendas, decisively shoving forward or pushing back, or the preferential ballot system, or the people who, as a SAG voter friend of mine once told me, “usually just find something they love and stop there.” Why bother to see all the films nominated? Did Olivia Coleman win over Glenn Close because not enough voters bothered to watch The Wife?

See, it’s not just me, we’re all so everywhere anymore, and this year’s Oscar results reflect our fragmented reality. Obviously too many of us are in whatever place voted for Green Book as Best Picture. Maybe it’s only surprising that we were surprised. Maybe movie goers were always crass and self-indulgent; people do want fun and thrills and self-affirmation and that’s fine, except that too often it’s all they want. And again, all this really matters to me, and should matter to everyone. Movies are not incidental to contemporary culture, they’re central, only these days too many other things come first, and art for art’s sake, that hoary bromide, is an afterthought at best, and at worst righteously overruled.

And that’s what’s wrong; that’s what’s driving me crazy. That, and the fact that not enough people seem to care. But we have to care, and we have to try harder, especially now that everything’s so available for streaming. Even if there are subtitles, even if there isn’t a heartwarming happy ending, even if we actually have to think. Even if we have to put our own presumptions and prejudices and passions aside for one entire minute and just listen.

Art is supposed to lead and astonish and question and enlighten and overthrow.

Not placate. Not pamper. Not even, necessarily, please.

Movies matter, and we need to honor them properly.


NOTE: The Reader Alert for Worthy of This Great City remains up on the Home page, so check it out, along with the Prologue on the Excerpts page. The Kindle sale, alas, has ended.

Photo credits: Oscars, David Torcivia (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Global Panorama, Oscar Award Image Courtesy Davidlohr Bueso (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Filmstrip by Mike Jennings (CC BY 2.0)

Screen and Stream 2018

What a marvelous movie year! Any film mentioned on this page is far superior to all last year’s awards winners. Below are some very brief comments to add to the general discussion, since even those movies I didn’t personally enjoy are admittedly excellent and well worth watching and talking about. My top eleven and a half (I couldn’t trim it to ten) follow.

The Favorite made me squirm. I greatly admired so much about it: the intelligent pathos, the contrasting harsh poverty and preposterous extravagance, the sharp but offhand humor. But in the end I was instinctively outraged at yet another deliberate depiction of women set against each other by the exploitative machinations of men. I concede the specific and cultural bona fides, but they don’t excuse either the choice of material or the perverse expectation that I delight in this cruel,  misogynistic display.

Green Book likewise beautifully presented a questionable tale, one perhaps not quite true but apparently well meant. But it was a master class on how to make a hokey, un-woke white-savior buddy film, and I enjoyed it even while knowing better. That’s on me.

I didn’t particularly enjoy The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen Brothers clever compendium of Western-themed essays on death. The story with the chicken literally left me traumatized.

And I was fortunate enough to catch a theatrical showing of Tarkovsky’s Stalker not that long ago, so Annihilation had a high hurdle to leap, and to my surprise it did a pretty decent job of it. Not enough to clear the top, certainly, but the concepts and sensory effects were excellently creepy and disturbing. The confused science and silly ending could have used a little work.

BlacKkKlansman I thought terrifying for the sheer ineptitude and ignorance of its pathetic but dedicated villains, but this movie’s heroes ran a bit bland. I appreciated the spot-on period look and feel, and that finger pointing straight at today. (This movie requires the viewer to block out any natural outrage regarding what’s now known about government infiltration of black organizations.)

I’ve loved Joaquin Phoenix since The Immigrant and I wanted to love You Were Never Really Here but I didn’t see the brilliance, only the blood. I understand about the purity, the character’s own confusion, the depth of pain exploding into violent reality. It’s a small poem, if you like, but not one that speaks to me. In similar fashion, the equally sparse, indeed almost clinical Leave No Trace left me cold, but here I had additional concerns regarding its essential veracity, in so far as that criteria applies to fiction. (See my review here.)

I initially figured The Rider a shoe-in for my year’s best list, but while I still love this movie I’m not sure it isn’t more of a documentary, or anyway something else entirely. It’s an amazing movie, though: a bleak but loving testament to the modern West and rodeo culture.

I consider Eighth Grade this year’s Lady Bird. As with that film, I just don’t get the raves. Imagine it with a twenty-something traditional beauty playing the lead and tell me that doesn’t diminish its power.

Happy as Lazzaro was a delight, with a driving sense of impending tragedy that matched its barren, beautiful setting. I’m not sure yet regarding the introduction of magical realism: it’s a perfect solution but I think it loses its way, or anyway it felt to me as if the present didn’t adequately reflect the past. I was loving the sharp wit of Sorry to Bother You until the horse thing came in and it got too silly. Searching proved an engrossing if unremarkable detective story, with its investigation of the Internet world that’s increasingly our world, but I was a tiny bit disappointed because a final realization from real life.

Black Panther was just outright fun, with a nice moral dilemma to boot. Wakanda Forever! And Crazy Rich Asians was almost as enjoyable as the book(s) – perfectly cast, costumed, and played.


11. Madeline’s Madeline: I started out a little hesitant, stuck with it, and wow! What a kick-ass little film! This little improvisational experiment about a girl involved with an improvisational theater group is not heading in any direction you can rationally foresee, but just trust it and it’ll do right by you.

10. Support The Girls: All about one truly horrible day at a Hooters-type restaurant, this movie is so heartfelt and so real, and so much the welcome antithesis of The Favourite, with a wonderful performance from Regina Hall.

9. Isle of Dogs: The absolute nature of canine devotion versus municipal corruption, with science and junior journalism to the rescue – what more could you ask? I fell hard for Wes Anderson’s stalwart mutts. (No, I’m ignoring all the cultural appropriation stuff. Have you seen those adorable dogs?)

8. If Beale Street Could Talk: Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, this movie shares both the eroding terror of racism and the insistence of steadfast love, with nothing either trite or overblown about it. One part of my mind was thinking: “At least he wasn’t shot outright; what a relief.” In that respect it felt almost quaint.

7. Angels Wear White: The stark tale of two molested schoolgirls and the teenaged motel worker inadvertently caught up in the crime, this movie compels through its virtually unemotional depiction of children calmly going about the business of resolving the horrendous problems adults have landed on them, as if that were the expected and ordinary thing to do. Never mind that Marilyn Monroe statue on the beach, skirt flying up, as usual carrying more than her share of weighty symbolism.

6. The Death of Stalin: Political satire done right, and what a lovely line it walks between insanity and history – or does that line even exist?

5. First Reformed: I did have some issues here. The sparse settings were sometimes the emphasis they meant to be, but at others I found myself thinking: no wonder that man killed himself. Take those plain stoneware mugs: if that woman had brought out brightly colored mugs with funny sayings it would have been more human and more genuinely tragic. And I had reservations regarding the floating spiritual connection as shown, but I’m not sure how else it could have been done. The point is, we must cling to each other in order to cling to life. The point is, that accommodating difference between real and acceptable Christianity.

4. Zama: A tale of an abandoned lesser dignitary on some desolate South American shore. I slogged through it, sweated through its humid, dense, unmoving environment, getting nowhere but taking forever to do it. Now remembering it makes me smile; in fact I feel kindly towards its pathetic, lazily immoral protagonist, and I love the way the movie reminds me of that precious human ability to remain alive.

3.5 I haven’t included documentaries here, but special honorable mention to Shirkers, so special on so many levels. Ultimately this story is about the creative process itself – about the necessarily collaborative nature of making movies, and who gets to control all that inventive power. What could be more important?

3. Shoplifters: How do you make a film about extreme poverty and borderline immorality in a marginalized population, end by cruelly undermining already fragile lives and endangering a tiny child, and somehow end up with a joyful narrative about the triumph of light and love? This movie is an absolute miracle.

2. Roma: Ah, how achingly, outrageously excellent, every frame telling its own complete story, the whole incredible to view. Not that it’s faultless; indeed I have several issues with this film, chiefly its dependence on coincidence and the convenient event, but then perfection is always boring. This love letter to a family maid in 1970s Mexico City is occasionally about a servant, but it’s really any young woman’s story, and it unfairly benefits through choosing the universal over the particular. I was not so much emotionally moved by this film as utterly overwhelmed.

1. The Other Side of the Wind: The late Orson Welles’ story of an aged, legendary director returned to Hollywood to make his comeback film, lovingly assembled according to Welles’ own notes and the forty minutes of film he managed to edit before his death, and with a new score by Michel Legrand, this movie is the ultimate thesis on the exhausting nature of creative genius. (Read my full comments here.) A traditional tragedy still far ahead of its time and thus far from being fully appreciated – I would have worried were it better received than it was – Wind is acerbic, unflinching, unrestrained, and dazzling.

[Please note that I haven’t seen a number of films that might otherwise be part of this discussion, including Burning, The Sisters Brothers, The Tale, First Man, Lean on Pete, Cold War, or Vox Lux. And I deliberately avoided A Star is Born because I’ve had enough of that one. I think there are some deep, important feminist reasons behind that one, but this isn’t the place to unearth them.]

Next post: 2018 in novels.

(ALSO PLEASE NOTE: The Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City is on special sale this January, about as low as it goes without being free. (It was going to be a holiday sale, but I was busy and forgot.) Before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credits: Nick Ansell, York Theatre Royal refurbishment – 9 (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Personal Creations Movie review card (CC BY 2.0)