Friday, March 4, 2016

In which I review the other four Best Picture Oscar nominees

Last weekend the local AMC hosted the second part of their "Best Picture Showcase," presenting the remaining four of this year's eight Best Picture Oscar nominees back-to-back.

The first film was Brooklyn, a charming story about Eilis, a young Irish woman who immigrates to the United States on her own in the 1950s. She struggles at first, but eventually manages to build a fulfilling life for herself. But when she returns to Ireland temporarily after a family tragedy, she becomes torn between her homeland and the new life she's built for herself. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, and her performance was rightly nominated in the Best Actress category. The movie was enjoyable, but somewhat insubstantial compared to several of the other nominees.

Next was Spotlight, which would go on to actually win the Best Picture award. It dramatizes the Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team of journalists' brilliant investigation of the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s. It follows in the footsteps of other journalism films like All the President's Men and Zodiac, and it easily stands with the best of them. It was exhilarating and while it would not have been my personal pick for the Best Picture award (I liked Room a little better and I think Bridge of Spies and The Big Short were about on par with it) I think it's Oscar win was completely justified.

The day's third film was The Martian, Ridley Scott's tale of a stranded astronaut, based on the popular book. I had read the book, loved it, and already seen the movie once before. The movie is very faithful to the book, and holds up to repeated viewings. I enjoyed every moment of it and recommend seeing it, but like it's fellow nominee Mad Max: Fury Road, it's pretty lighthearted and I'm not sure it belongs in the same category as some of the year's harder-hitting dramas. Still, it's a worthwhile, eminently enjoyable picture.

Closing out the day was The Revenant, the film that would finally see Leonard DiCaprio receive a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. It's a brutal, harrowing tale of Hugh Glass, a 19th-century frontiersman left for dead by a fellow trapper after he is mauled by a bear. But Glass survives the attack, and attempts to make his way back to civilization and enact revenge on the man who left him to die. I understand all the accolades this film has received, but it was not my cup of tea.

I would actually have predicted The Revenant to win Best Picture, but was happily surprised on Sunday to see it go to the more-deserving-in-my-opinion Spotlight, one of several nominees I would have been perfectly happy to see take home the prize.

With The Revenant being the least satisfying of the films to my personal taste, this year was nevertheless a very good one for films overall, with an unusual number of films that stood out above the competition. As usual, I'm glad to have had the opportunity to view so many of the year's best in one go and can't wait to do the same next year.

Monday, February 22, 2016

In which I review four of the Best Picture Oscar nominees

This past Saturday was first day of AMC’s “Best Picture Showcase,” a two-part marathon of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

First up was Bridge of Spies, a Steven Spielberg film in which Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an American lawyer defending accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel during the Cold War. The justice system treats Abel’s guilt as a foregone conclusion, and Donovan is initially assigned to the case only to give the appearance that Abel is given a fair trial. But Donovan takes his duty seriously and serves his client to the best of his abilities, sparing him the death penalty. Later, the CIA attempts to exchange Abel for a captured American pilot, and Donovan travels to Berlin to facilitate the exchange.

I felt that the first part of the story, about Abel’s trial and Donovan’s defense of his civil liberties, was more compelling that the second, about the exchange. But the entire movie was enjoyable and everything came together strongly in the end. The best scene was one in which we see the American pilot being sentenced in a Soviet court following his capture. After many scenes of intense debate in Abel’s American trial, this single shot conveyed a lot of information in a very brief, powerful moment, as the audience realizes that the pilot must have gone through a parallel experience.

The second film was Room, a drama about Joy, a young woman who was kidnapped and held prisoner in a single room for seven years. Imprisoned with her is Jack, her five-year-old son, whom her captor fathered. Like Bridge, Room is divided into two distinct parts. The first shows what life is like for Joy and Jack, culminating in their escape. In the second, they attempt to adjust to everyday life after such a traumatic experience.

I thought both parts of the film were equally compelling, and they seemed to present a realistic picture of what this kind of horrific experience must be like. It was especially moving to see the ways in which Joy shielded Jack from the worst of the horrors, and the film had several surprisingly lighthearted moments as a result. Joy’s escape plan seemed a bit far-fetched and too reliant on their captor’s incompetence, but it played out in a believable way and was only a minor flaw in an otherwise outstanding film.

Next was Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth film in George Miller’s series, coming thirty years after the third installment and with a new actor (Tom Hardy) in the title role. This film received a surprising amount of critical acclaim upon its initial release last summer, focusing mainly on its strong female characters and feminist themes. I saw it at the time and while I enjoyed it, I felt that it did not live up to its hype. While there were a lot of strong women in the film, it was nevertheless mostly mindless action with little story or character development. Watching it again this weekend with a better idea of what to expect, I enjoyed the film a lot more. It might not have the most compelling story of the bunch, but it paints a fascinating picture of the future with outlandish makeup, costumes, and landscapes. It was fun to watch, though I still think it’s of a distinctly lesser caliber than its fellow nominees.

Finally was The Big Short, the more-or-less true story of the financial crisis of 2007–2008. It followed several real-life investors who apparently foresaw the whole thing and followed their mounting incredulity as Wall Street continued to let things get out of hand. The film did an amazing job of presenting the details of the housing market in an easily-understandable way, with characters explaining things to the audience directly in short, funny vignettes. The whole film was much more hilarious than I expected, but while underscoring the seriousness of the economic crisis it chronicles.

I thought that all four films were enjoyable, and that Bridge of Spies, Room, and The Big Short were truly excellent. I’d probably give the edge to Room of the four of them for telling a unique story unlike any I've seen before, but there are four more nominees coming up next week in part two of the marathon. I plan to review them as well, though my schedule will probably preclude me from doing so before the Oscars on Sunday.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 2

Yesterday was day 2 of AMC's best picture showcase, a marathon screening of the remaining five of this year's nominees for the Best Picture Oscar: Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity.

Nebraska was a funny, quirky movie about an elderly man, played by Bruce Dern, who believes he has won a million dollars in a mail-in sweepstakes and has his son take him on a road trip to collect his prize from the sweepstakes headquarters. It was very funny, and the acting was excellent, particularly Bruce Dern, who is rightly nominated for Best Actor. It was shoot in black-and-white, which gives the picture a quaint feeling that suits the material.

Captain Phillips, which tells the true story of the captain of an American cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates, was very thrilling and  suspenseful. Is especially impressed by the way the ending shows the aftermath of such an episode. Not surprisingly, Tom Hanks was superb in his role as the title character.

Her takes place in the near future, and is about a man who falls on love with his computer's artificially-intelligent operating system. It creates a plausible vision of the future, and tells a thoughtful story of how people interact with technology. The characters were relatable and the plot believable, given the premise. It is my personal pick for best movie of the year.

American Hustle is about a con man and his female partner helping an FBI agent in a sting operation after he busts them. It's plot was actually somewhat difficult to follow. The '70s aesthetic was charming, and the music was great, but I didn't think the movie was anything special otherwise. It also uses that annoying technique I complained about last week, opening with a scene from the middle of the story before flashing back to the beginning. At least in this case, the filmmakers used the opportunity to dive the Christian Bale character a memorable introduction.

Finally, Gravity, about two astronauts stranded in space after their shuttle is destroyed by debris, was as thrilling as they say, and was technically very well-made. It was also filled with a lot of very typical Hollywood-style nonsense science, at least some of which would be obvious to any viewer, regardless of their level of scientific literacy or familiarity with spaceflight and physics in particular. I don't always find this sort of thing distracting in a mindless action picture, but it should preclude a film from being considered one of the years best and so I'm a bit puzzled that Gravity was even nominated.

Overall, I enjoyed all nine of this year's best picture nominees, several of them a great deal. I think this was one of the better years in recent memory in that respect, and as always I'm glad to have seen all the nominees.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine

Though it was not nominated for Best Picture, Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine was up for several other Oscars and so I decided to watch it recently.  Despite the lack of a Best Picture nomination, Blue Jasmine has been highly praised as one of the year's best movies, a view of the movie which completely eludes me.

The characters were mostly unpleasant, were mired in unhappy situations, and made bad decisions.  The story was dull, and I was totally uninvolved in anything that happened to anyone on screen.  I have not seen very many Woody Allen movies, but I did see Midnight in Paris, which was nominated for Best Picture two years ago, and I really enjoyed it.  In contrast, Blue Jasmine was just difficult to sit through.

Even the acting seemed uninspired.  Cate Blanchett, who plays the main character, is nominated for Best Actress, and while she was good in the role, nothing about her performance really stood out to me in a way that says, "this is possibly the best performance in the movies this year."

If anyone who really enjoyed Blue Jasmine wants to share what they enjoyed about it, I'd love to hear it.  My personal recommendation is to pass on it.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 1

This past weekend, I watched four of the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, as part of AMC Theater's annual "Best Picture Showcase," in which all the nominees are screened during two consecutive Saturdays. The four movies featured during this first day of the marathone were Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a slave.

All four were excellent. Interestingly, all were based on true stories. The first two, Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club, I knew virtually nothing about before watching. Philomena in particular was excellent. It tells the story of an elderly lady, played by Judi Dench, trying to track down her long-lost son with the help of a journalist who wants to write a story about her experience. Judi Dench was funny and charming, and the story was affecting and sad without seeming overtly manipulative. I even cried a bit during some especially moving scenes.

Dallas Buyers Club was also very good, telling the story of an HIV-positive man fighting the medical establishment for medicine he believes could save his life. It turns out to have been filmed locally (in the New Orleans area), and I recognized a lot of places onscreen. The story was interesting, but I was somewhat uncomfortable with what I think was an unfair demonization of the medical indistry in general, with a seeming contempt for the practice of science as it pertains to the controlled study of the efficacy of drugs.

The Wolf of Wall Street was outrageous and fun, but it was also rather shallow. It's certainly one of those films to have benefited from the recent increase in the maximum number of nominees from five to ten. It was enjoyable, but I didn't really think it was anything special and I don't think it was quite on the same level as the other movies in contention.

Finally, 12 Years a Slave was extremely good. It could have been the best of the day if not for a couple of confusing narrative points. Notably, it indulges in a pet peeve of mine, which is to begin the movie with an out-of-context scene from the middle of the narrative, then flash back to the beginning of the story. This is a fairly common technique, but it feels lazy and unnecesarry to me. I can think of a few movies that use this specific structure (including The Wolf of Wall Street), but none whose story benefitted from it. I'm not opposed to non-linear or otherwise unusual narratives, but this just seems like a lazy way to give a movie an attention-grabbing opening with no real effort. But maybe I'm making too big a deal out of what was honestly a relatively minor criticism in an otherwise excellent film.

Of the four movies I saw on Saturday, Philomena is my pick for the best so far, though there are five more (Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity) to come next week. I've already seen two (Her and Gravity), but I'll save my thoughts on them until I re-watch them with the other nominees on Saturday.