Screening Room: Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

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‘St. Louis Superman’

The 2020 edition of the Oscar-Nominated shorts program is hitting theaters next week.

My review of the five-part documentary program, nearly all of which are fantastic if sometimes hard to watch, was published at PopMatters:

When assessing a short-film anthology, sometimes a theme presents itself and other times you have to go looking for one. The movies in The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary come from places far and wide, presenting an array of tones and personalities. But the thread that seems to link all of them together is worry that the future will not be an improvement on the problematic present…

Screening Room: The Oscars and ‘Joker’

Really? (Warner Bros.)

In response to yesterday’s fairly uninspiring Oscar nominations, here is a piece I wrote for Eyes Wide Open about why every single other best picture nominee deserves to win more than Joker:

Yes, that includes JoJo Rabbit. Even the cringey and self-congratulatory Nazi slapstick of Taika Waititi’s quasi-Wes Anderson anachronism-riddled World War II satire — which might have worked nicely if compressed into a 5-minute short — ultimately had something to offer, even if it was simply the not-quite-groundbreaking message that Nazis are bad. Not so Joker

 

Screening Room: ‘Les Miserables’

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(Amazon Studios)

French director Ladj Ly’s scorching new movie, Les Misérables, is set in the same poverty-stricken outer neighborhood of Paris as Victor Hugo’s novel and involves many of the same themes of systemic oppression, but the story is Ly’s own.

Les Misérables is opening this week and will be available later on Amazon Prime. My review is at Slant Magazine:

The giddy joy and strong sense of unity that pulsates throughout the opening montage of Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is as stirring as it is fleeting. A black kid dashes with his friends onto the Paris Metro, flying over turnstiles like a superhero as they rush to a crowded bar to watch France compete in the World Cup. They roar along as their team wins and pours out into the streets to join the crowds in front of the Arc de Triomphe. One of the boys wears a tricolor flag like a cape, joining what looks like a unifying wave of national pride. Several minutes later, Ly makes it clear that this sense of comity is little more than a bad joke…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Best Movies of 2019

‘Parasite’ (NEON)

Now that the holidays are upon us, it is time to do the truly important things, such as catching up on all the movies of the last year. No, it is not crucial to run out and see the latest Star Wars (you can already figure out pretty much everything that’s going to happen). And yes, it is worth braving the snow and the crowds to go see a movie with other people rather than streaming Game of Thrones again. There’s a lot of great things out there.

My year-end wrap-up of the 15 best movies of 2019 was published at Eyes Wide Open. It’s a diverse mix, with everything from Hitchcockian Korean horror-comedy to wartime drama, teen comedy, and a shockingly great Adam Sandler movie. Plus: Adam Driver sings Sondheim. Like I said, there’s a lot to see.

Screening Room: ‘Uncut Gems’

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Adam Sandler in ‘Uncut Gems’ (A24)

In the Safdie brothers’ newest movie Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler plays a wheeler-dealer whose world is always on the brink of greatness or collapse.

Uncut Gems is playing now in limited release and should expand wider later in the month. My review is at PopMatters:

He has a good line of gab, Howard, but what he does best is what every true operator understands: Just keep talking, never stop moving, and keep those plates spinning. Uncut Gems is an exhausting movie about an exhausting character, shot through with an intoxicating restless relentlessness powered in large part by Sandler’s ferociously hungry performance…

Screening Room: ‘Us’

Lupita Nyong’o in ‘Us’ (Universal Pictures)

In the latest horror/satire/commentary from Jordan Peele (Get Out), a family on vacation faces a terrifying threat: themselves, only not. It’s early, of course, but there is already some, likely justified, award buzz for star Lupita Nyong’o.

Us opens wide this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Us takes pieces from a few different genres, particularly home-invasion thrillers and subtext-laden George A. Romero-esque zombie movies, and stitches them together into a uniquely weird and hammer-intense experience….

Screening Room: Best Movies of 2018

‘The Death of Stalin’ (IFC Films)

Now that we’re almost to January, it’s time to take a look back at the year that was, movie-wise. My accounting of the best movies to hit screens, big and small, in 2018, was published at Eyes Wide Open:

The more things changed at the movies in 2018, the more they stayed the same. The year’s biggest box office hit was Marvel’s Black Panther, which finally smashed the old rule that white actors were required to head up superhero stories. Crazy Rich Asians proved that perfectly mediocre romantic comedies (which should not be taken as a criticism, it’s been a moribund genre for a while) didn’t require white casts for relatability; glossy shopping montages and feisty showdowns between a bride-to-be and her fearsome future mother-in-law translate across all cultures…

Screening Room: ‘Vice’

(Annapurna Pictures)

Yes, that’s Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in the latest dark comic take on modern American history from Adam McKay, who previously dissected the 2008 crash in The Big Short.

Vice opens on Christmas Day. My review is at PopMatters:

The Cheney presented in Vice is pretty close to the one we saw in those terrifying years after 9/11. The one going on Meet the Press to talk with barely repressed glee about going to “the dark side” to fight this wrong war against the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. (Bale takes the sideways silent snarl seen in that chilling appearance and runs with it.) The one who popped up with creepy regularity in the behind-the-scenes books, pulling strings behind a clueless George W. Bush and not-so-secretly operating the machinery of a government, having long yearned to break free of the chains of democracy…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Roma’

Alfonso Cuaron’s latest movie, Roma, is playing now in limited release and on Netflix. If at all possible, see it on the big screen.

My review is at PopMatters:

You could argue that Alfonso Cuarón’s gorgeously imagined and intimate epic Roma invokes politics when convenient for dramatic impact but ignores their context in order to move forward with the family melodrama at its core. Why, for instance, does nobody talk about why the students are protesting in the massive street demonstration that some of the characters are shocked to be caught up in?…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘A Fantastic Woman’

The Oscar-nominated A Fantastic Woman, directed by Chile’s great Sebastian Lelio (Gloria), is playing now in limited release.

My review is at PopMatters:

The most romantic element of …  A Fantastic Woman comes early and its absence is never quite filled. Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a 57-year-old Santiago businessman with a gentle sort of gravitas, is finishing up his day at the office and heading out to meet his girlfriend. Walking into a dinner club, he pauses to listen to the beautiful singer of the mediocre band. As she croons a tart little ballad about how “your love is like yesterday’s newspaper”, Orlando watches with eyes that simply drink her in like someone newly smitten…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: The Oscars Get It Wrong

You would have thought that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have thought that 2017 was a good year for engaging with a raging body politic and fracturing republic. Not so much.

You can read “In a Turbulent Year, the Oscars Retreat to Fantasy” at Eyes Wide Open:

What did [the Academy] decide? That in the midst of skyrocketing levels of economic inequality, near-weekly threats to the norms of American democracy, occasional panic about the itchiness of not one but two megalomaniacs’ nuclear-trigger fingers, and the normalization of white nationalism, the most nominated movie of the year was a fantasy about a woman in love with a merman.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Screening Room: ‘Hostiles’

The latest movie from Scott Cooper (Black Mass) is a pitch-black, viciously violent Western starring Christian Bale as a cavalry officer nearing the end of his string and Wes Studi as the Indian chief who Bale has to partner with for survival.

Hostiles opens in limited release tomorrow and expands widely in January. My review is at Film Journal International:

Hostiles is a western that wants to encompass the entire moral history of the Indian Wars into one fell, vengeance-rattled saga. Of course, it doesn’t succeed—that is the fate of westerns that overextend themselves. It doesn’t completely fail, either. There are images here that will bang around in your head with a chilly echo for days afterward, not to mention a nagging sense that one has just witnessed a great and unsolvable crime…

Dept. of Awards: ‘The Florida Project’ and ‘Mudbound’ Tie for Best Picture

A curious thing happened today at the awards meeting of New York Film Critics Online: We couldn’t agree on a best picture of the year. So we went with a tie (and they’re both great movies, so it’s really no issue): The Florida Project and Mudbound. Here’s the full list of awards:

Picture 
The Florida Project (A24) and Mudbound (Netflix) (tie)

Director 
Dee Rees, Mudbound

Actor 
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

Actress 
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

Supporting Actor 
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project

Supporting Actress 
Allison Janney, I, Tonya

Screenplay 
Jordan Peele, Get Out

Breakthrough Performer 
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name

Debut Director 
Jordan Peele, Get Out

Ensemble Cast 
Mudbound (Netflix)

Documentary
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Zeitgeist)

Foreign Language
In the Fade (Magnolia)

Animated
Coco (Disney/Pixar)

Cinematography
Dan Laustsen, The Shape of Water

Use of Music
Steven Price (music by) and Kristen Lane (music supervisor), Baby Driver

Top 10 Films
Call Me by Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics)
Dunkirk (Warner Bros.)
The Florida Project (A24)
Get Out (Universal)
I, Tonya (Neon)
Lady Bird (A24)
Mudbound (Netflix)
Phantom Thread (Focus)
The Post (Fox)
The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight)

Screening Room: ‘The Shape of Water’

A nearly sure-fire debt for some awards in both acting and design categories is Guillermo del Toro’s ravishing fairy-tale romance The Shape of Water, which is playing in theaters now.

My review is at PopMatters:

The Shape of Water is ostensibly a love story between a solitary woman and a merman. But the true object of the movie’s affection is its star character, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), and rightly so. Elisa is just about the fiercest woman on screen right now; a less complicated but no less determined heroine than Frances McDormand’s blowtorch vigilante Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A mute cleaning woman who lives above a grand old movie palace, she has a closely-followed a litany of daily habits that are treated more like chiming celebrations than rote compulsiveness…