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: ‘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: Summer Movies, the Oscars, and ‘Wonder Woman’

My article “Wonder Woman was Fine but It Shouldn’t Win an Oscar” is now available at Eyes Wide Open:

The summer movie season is undergoing the usual August agita. That’s when industry watchers and studio execs wring their hands over what’s going wrong with the business. Traditionally, the swelter of summer was when people turned off their brains, went to the multiplex, bought tubs of popcorn, and luxuriated in the air conditioning while watching Michael Bay blow things up with subwoofer-shredding thunderousness. That’s less and less the case, and the empty-seat summer of 2017 is an object lesson in what has gone wrong. There are a few reasons for this…

Weekend Reading: March 4, 2016

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Oscar Guide: ‘Eyes Wide Open: 2015’

Questions:

  • So which film is going to sweep the Oscars on Sunday?
  • Will Chris Rock remind us of why he used to be America’s greatest and most biting comedian?
  • Is everyone watching going to wish that they served booze in the theater so that by the end of the evening, all those getting awards can be nice and sloshed?
  • Is there any reason to think any of it will matter?
  • Is there a book in which I can read about (nearly) all of the films nominated?

Right now, there is only a definite answer to the last question, and that of course is yes.

Eyes Wide Open 2015:

The Best (and Worst) Movies of the Year

Available now in paperback and ebook

Eyes Wide Open 2015-cover 1st

 

Department of Awards: ‘Whiplash’ Gets Bloody

Miles Teller drums and J.K. Simmons berates in 'Whiplash' (Sony Pictures Classics"
Miles Teller drums and J.K. Simmons berates in ‘Whiplash’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

A brutal and (literally) bloody musician’s tale that’s about many, many other things besides music (surprise), Whiplash was the little awards film that could. While never quite making a splash along the lines of a Boyhood or The Imitation Game, it plugged along for months on little more than sheer word of mouth. Just like movies used to do.

Whiplash, which was ultimately nominated for five Oscars, will be available next week on DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at Film Racket:

In Damien Chazelle’s steam-heated pressure cooker, socially maladroit student Andrew (Miles Teller) is determined to be a brilliant jazz drummer. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the demon-teacher at a New York music conservatory who Andrew thinks guards the entrance to greatness, sees potential in this student but won’t let him past without a serious flaying. From the second Andrew steps into Fletcher’s studio band, the insults and cutting remarks fly from Fletcher’s lips. The only question seems to be how long Andrew can tough it out. But since he and Fletcher have a surprising amount in common, the story then becomes more about who will outlast the other…

You can see the trailer here:

New on DVD: ‘Life Itself’

The writer at rest: 'Life Itself' (Magnolia Pictures)
The writer at rest: ‘Life Itself’ (Magnolia Pictures)

One of the better documentaries that ever-so-briefly graced screens in 2014 was Life Itself. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and based in part on Roger Ebert’s memoir, the film is a fascinating and curiously life-affirming story about ambition, creativity, and getting on with things.

lifeitself-posterLife Itself is available on DVD today; my review is at Film Racket:

James takes Ebert’s 2011 memoir as his source document. From there we get Ebert’s memories of growing up as a precociously verbal only child in downstate Illinois. (“My mother supported me like I was the local sports team.”) He describes himself as not just a born writer but a born journalist. This was not a kid who wanted to just write for high-brow publications. He wanted to be read and heard by as many people as possible. Thus the career that arced from working-class daily paper to syndicated TV show and appearances on Carson and Letterman. When called upon he could pen a learned piece for Film Comment (as he did in response to a Richard Corliss piece that called him out as an egregious “thumbs up/thumbs down” simplifier and bottom-racer). But as much as he admired the Pauline Kaels and Andrew Sarrises of the world, that was never going to be him…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ Deserves to Win It All

Ralph Fiennes lives it up while he can in 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' (Fox Searchlight)
Ralph Fiennes lives it up while he can in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (Fox Searchlight)

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated for nine (count ’em) Academy Awards. There’s no guessing exactly how it will fare up against the competition from Birdman and Boyhood, but it’s easy to say that whatever awards those films don’t get, should be sent Budapest‘s way.

grand_budapest_hotel-posterMy article about the film is at Short Ends & Leader:

Wes Anderson isn’t our greatest living filmmaker; his style is too narrowly defined for such a grand title. We tend to think of our greatest directors as both having a signature style but also being flexible enough to tackle many styles: Howard Hawks could move from urbane comedies to Westerns and epics, Martin Scorsese from urban grit to musicals and children’s’ fantasias, and so on. By contrast Anderson has one style, and each of his films simply refine it. All those twee little trinkets and fussy outfits could drive you mad, were one to watch too many in a row. But as perfectly Andersonian a spectacle as The Grand Budapest Hotel is, it also expands his reach in surprising ways. Being one of the year’s most unique spectacles, it’s also the first Anderson film made up of tragedy as much as it is comedy…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Tom Hardy in ‘Locke’

Tom Hardy in 'Locke' (A24)
Tom Hardy in ‘Locke’ (A24)

In the summer of 2014, a little film named Locke came and went from a few cinemas in an eyeblink. It’s not hard on the surface to see why: The secretive trailer promises only a one-man show: Tom Hardy in a car for about an hour-and-a-half, grousing and pleading on the phone. Just as audiences failed to find it, the Golden Globes also ignored the film, as most likely the Oscars will too.

Do yourself a favor and check out Locke, which is available on DVD and VOD now. My review is at Short Ends and Leader:

The prospect of spending an hour and a half with an actor in a car while they sweet-talk and argue with people on the phone would normally be straight tedium … But when the actor is Tom Hardy, it’s a different story. In Steven Knight’s spellbinding Locke, Hardy darts through the tense screenplay with such graceful ease that his work feels more like something lived than performed. By the time this downbeat nail-biter is done, it feels justified to finally go ahead and say that Hardy is easily one of the greatest actors of his generation…

Here’s the trailer:

2014: The Year in Movies

(Sailko)
(cinema image by Sailko)

Now that 2014 has drawn to a close, the theaters are full of all the films that opened in November and December that nobody has had any chance to get to. It’s not a bad thing, given the too-crowded flurry of awards-scrapping releases trying to make it in before the end of the year, mixed in with the occasional counter-programming piece of dross. But it’s also a useful time to think about how the year shaped up, film-wise.

My essay, “2014: A Most Mediocre Year,” ran this week at PopMatters:

The Interview was almost certainly not going to be in contention for anything in 2014, whether awards or places in people’s funny bones. As my colleague Rebecca Pahle over at Film Journal International put it, the movie is probably best skipped by people who “have a visceral hatred of jokes about things going into and coming out of butts.” Nevertheless, there was something about the entire hacking contretemps (on a non-geopolitical level, at least) that feels representative of where the film industry is today. Sony acted initially with brazen attitude, signing on to a comedy that never would have been contemplated, let alone released, by a major studio 15 years ago. They then folded so swiftly you could almost feel the breeze. Desperation mixed with an overabundance of caution is not a good combination for any industry. You can see both of those attributes everywhere in this year’s mostly pallid offerings…

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: ‘Eyes Wide Open 2013’

'Upstream Color': One of the year's best movies that didn't make it onto the Oscar shortlist
‘Upstream Color’: One of the year’s great movies that didn’t make it onto the Oscar shortlist

Just in time for the upcoming Academy Awards but way too late for the SAG Awards, Golden Globes, and just about every movie awards ceremony that means anything, here comes the newest iteration of my now-annual Best-Of and Worst-Of compilation: Eyes Wide Open 2013: The Year’s 25 Greatest Movies (and 5 Worst).

Eyes_Wide_Open_2013-_Cover_for_KindleThe title should be basically self-explanatory, but here’s the gist of it: I pulled together what I thought were the 25 best films from 2013—trying best as I could to cover the gamut from the awards magnets that actually deserved the accolades like 12 Years a Slave to lesser-seen fare like Stories We TellUpstream Color, and A Touch of Sin. I also threw in some other odds and ends like notable DVD reviews, shorter appreciations of great movies that didn’t get into the top 25, great quotes, and of course, the year’s 5 worst films.

2013 was a good year all in all, so the 25 best was much harder to compile than the 5 worst. A nice surprise, for once.

You can buy the book now either in handy-dandy ebook formats here and here. There’s also a paperback edition available here.

Best Movies of 2013: First Take

bestfilmtv2013-films

Since it’s a brand new year already featuring its own share of miserable, do-I-have-to-go-out-there? weather, what better time to sit back and figure out what exactly was the year that was? Film-wise, that is.

I contributed to a few of those lists at different websites this month. Over at PopMatters, you can see their gargantuan Top 35 films list here; they’ve also produced similar lists broken out into DVDs and foreign/indie films. I also contributed to their sections on the year’s worst films, and best female and male performances.

Sarah Polley's 'Stories We Tell'
Sarah Polley’s ‘Stories We Tell’

Also, the writers for Film Racket published their own individual Top 10 lists here. My list is something of a first draft that I’ll be going back over and redoing for the publication (hopefully later this month) of the new edition of Eyes Wide Open 2013: The Year’s 25 Greatest Movies (and 5 Worst). Here’s the short version:

  1. Stories We Tell
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. Gravity
  4. Before Midnight
  5. Fruitvale Station
  6. A Touch of Sin
  7. August: Osage County
  8. Gimme the Loot
  9. Room 237
  10. Captain Phillips