Each year, when I do these quickie reviews of Oscar nominees that I’ve seen, a few of them are marginal categories — like sound editing, or costume design — but this year I think I’ve got a better slice. I still may not necessarily love the winners, but I’m glad that doing my Oscar-viewing “homework” gets me to enjoy a few films that I would otherwise have overlooked.
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Adapted Screenplay
A film that I would definitely have watched (and not overlooked) regardless of if it had been nominated, Arrival falls into one of my favourite sub-genres: brainy sci-fi. The movie is about Amy Adams’s character, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is employed by the US military to translate for an alien race whose 12 ships have appeared around the globe. Part of what raises this story to a higher level is how it imagines the challenges of a task like this more realistically than previous sci-fi. The movie shows us how it would understandably be much more difficult than learning another human language. Nevertheless, it’s not just a dry science-y stuff about a first encounter situation. It’s also interwoven by a story of Banks’s own life experiences, having a child who dies of a fatal disease. The movie presents the story in a non-linear fashion, jumping around in flashbacks to various memories and moments in her life. The look of the movie, with its giant monolithic spaceships, and smoky-foggy atmosphere only add to the moodiness and dreaminess of the film — which seems par for the course with brainy sci-fi. That tone also seems to be cinematic shorthand for emotional depth and profundity. As you may have realized from my vague comments, this is actually a tricky film to pin down since it is very non-traditional. Nevertheless, I found it moving, thought-provoking, and really enjoyable — and I hope it wins Best Picture (4.5 out of 5).
La La Land
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Original Song (x2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Original Screenplay
On to the front-runner… I have to say that I found this movie (which has won a lot of awards already) to be way over-hyped. The semi-musical about an aspiring actress (played by Emma Stone — who I love!) and a struggling jazz pianist (played by Ryan Gosling — who I think is pretty cool) does not have that magic that makes it a Best Picture in my book. The movie tries to capture some old Hollywood musical flair (like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, or Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain), which it actually does fairly well. The scenes flow smoothly into song-and-dance numbers that are well done and look very nice. However, I didn’t feel like the musical numbers had any point other than as bits of flash. I like it when musicals use songs to allow characters to express themselves directly to the audience in a way that they might not be able to through dialogue. This movie starts out with a traffic jam that breaks into song, and later there’s a Hollywood party where the extras sing and dance — it’s all fluff. Stone and Gosling are on their third cinematic pairing, but I didn’t feel the chemistry this time between them. Don’t get me wrong, their scenes together still aren’t bad (and they’re both so attractive that it’s easy to think of them as a couple) but maybe it’s because they didn’t have as many scenes of good interaction as they should. To top it off, I didn’t find their voices very compatible, so when they sang together I cringed a little. The music wasn’t bad (and the haunting “City of Stars” theme is still playing in my head) but in the end, the overall movie was not very satisfying. The theme of following one’s dreams (in Hollywood) and what that might cost has been done to death. There was a bit of play with the storyline and “what-ifs”, and to that bit of editing and storytelling I would give some credit, but it still left the ending kind of flat for me. (3.5 out of 5)
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing
This true-life story really caught my attention, despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of war stories. Andrew Garfield plays US Army Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who would not pick up a gun despite tremendous opposition and pressure from everyone around him, including his commanders. Becoming a medic, Doss’s heroics saved many of his fellow soldiers, and turned a very difficult and almost hopeless battle into a victory against the Japanese. Director Mel Gibson has a visceral and gory style when it comes to violence in film (which is evident in an early pre-war scene of a young man who gets injured in a car mishap and his leg wound is spurting blood). Nevertheless, the main battle scene is very well done and conveys the kind of anxiety and tension that the soldiers must have felt fighting in the trenches. Unfortunately, the script has an overly sentimental and simplistic style: early scenes are always paid off later in the movie, or characters (namely Doss) start to feel larger-than-life and unshakeably noble. I was also bothered by the demonization of the Japanese (the few scenes depicting Japanese soldiers showed them either committing ritual suicide after defeat, or deceptively surrendering to US troops only to throw grenades when they got close). Overall, there was just a lack of sophistication to the script. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this movie, because I definitely did. It was thrilling, inspiring, heartfelt and moving in parts — and I guess that’s really what it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)
Florence Foster Jenkins
Nominated for Best Actress, and Costume Design
I watched this movie mainly because I am in awe of Meryl Streep, who inhabits her characters and never gives a bad performance. As good as she was playing the title character — a wealthy New York socialite and arts patroness during the 40s — I don’t really see why this movie was made, and why this true-life story was interesting to tell. Jenkins was a huge devotee of music and loved to put on concerts to an audience that gave her praise despite the fact that she was a technically terrible singer (and Streep is a good singer, so it’s even part of her good performance to be shrill and out of tune). The story was arguably sadder because Jenkins didn’t realize that the kudos and adoration often weren’t genuine, but means of getting her patronage. Even her husband (played by Hugh Grant) was living with another woman on the side. After Hacksaw Ridge, which is set in the same time period, it seems even more trivial that this rich woman was putting on concerts out of vanity while the war was going on. Coincidentally there was a scene(actually a pretty good one) that made this incongruity even more pronounced where Jenkins had given free tickets to some of the military troop for her performance at Carnegie Hall. The soldiers all came across as boorish and uncouth as they were laughing and booing Jenkins’s terrible singing. So much of this movie is about how everyone around her tries to protect Jenkins from learning the disappointing truth for fear it will break her heart. In fact, there’s even an almost so-bad-it’s-good admiration that many felt for Jenkins, along with a genuine appreciation of her magnanimous spirit. Interestingly, in a parallel way, it feels uncouth for me to dislike this movie. On the surface it seems trivial and vain, but to paraphrase one of the movie lines “it’s singing its heart out”. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m not appreciating the spirit of this film. Nevertheless, I still think it only merits at 3 out of 5.
A Man Called Ove
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Makeup & Hair
Going out to left field a bit, I also wanted to review a foreign film nominee. I have a sweet spot for Scandinavian cinema, so A Man Called Ove sounded like a good choice. A relatively subtle film about an old curmudgeon who lives in a suburban housing complex, Ove is very set in his ways. When he loses his job, it’s finally time to join his deceased wife and he decides to commit suicide. Unfortunately (or fortunately) every time he makes an attempt, he is interrupted by his disturbing neighbours and he starts to find reasons to stick around a little longer. Eventually he befriends (or he is befriended-by) a new neighbour — a pregnant Persian woman — who helps Ove’s life get brighter and brighter. I say this film is subtle because it’s not a single heartfelt incident, or an important and touching conversation that melts Ove’s heart. Instead, it’s a series of mundane events that bit by bit nudge his life and his character in a different direction. Interspersed through the film, Ove has flashbacks to events earlier in his life, especially with his beloved wife Sonja. It’s wonderful to see the triumphs and tragedies that led him to become the man we see. The Oscar nomination for hair and makeup is probably for the ageing of the main actor, who apparently looks nothing like the balding Ove. I’m not sure if this award is deserved (especially over movies like Star Trek Beyond or Suicide Squad) but even the physical transformation was very subtle to me. This kind of film is far from unique, but when done well it can be both touching and inspiring. I haven’t seen any of the other Foreign Film nominees, but I wouldn’t mind if this one won. (4 out of 5)
Nominated for Best Animated Feature
I really love Zootopia and think it deserves to win. It’s not as artsy as some of the other nominees, but this movie about a small town bunny who starts her career as a cop, is so enjoyable. On top of the cuteness and the fun, it’s also a great hybrid of an animated animals story with an actual buddy cop storyline. The characters are wonderfully (and hilariously) conceived, and their expressions and looks are memorably great. As a fan of animated movies, I also found this movie carefully-able to tread that fine line between animals that represent people (which is good) and animals that parody people (which is bad). Zootopia doesn’t just have animals acting like humans — which always leads to terrible puns — but it’s more like the animals are their own society based on humans. [I know I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this distinction — and you probably don’t care — but to me this makes all the difference between a Shark Tale and a Finding Nemo.] On top of the great characters, hilarious scenes, and fun adventure, this movie also throws in some bigger themes like racism, stereotypes, political corruption, etc. Whether or not this movie wins the Oscar (which I hope it does), I really want Disney to make a sequel as well (4.5 out of 5).