Sunday, February 24, 2019

On the 2019 Oscars

I didn't watch many movies this year, due in part to lack of time and energy. Ok it was mostly due to being lazy. That said, here are my thoughts!

The Pics

Game Night

  • This movie is about Max (Jason Bateman) learning that winning isn't about what you accomplish - it's about the people with whom you accomplish it. That's how he goes from being almost voluntarily infertile to putting a bun in Annie's (Rachel McAdams's) oven.
  • This may be heresy, but I think the opening sequence from Game Night is close to the same level as the one from Up. Both concisely tell the story of a life lived to the fullest between soulmates. Also, Game Night is the best movie of the year to feature Don't Stop Me Now.
  • A lesser movie would have made its female lead into a killjoy waiting for her man-child to grow up, all while making you wonder why she was ever into him in the first place. I love that this movie gives Annie a rich personality. She's just as competitive as Max, and she actually complements him rather than just putting up with him - McAdams has a lot of the best lines and gags in the movie. She wants to have a baby but it's not her defining character trait - if Max doesn't want it that's fine, not hard feelings, but she just won't wait around for him.
  • The subplots involving the side characters were really well written - you could describe those subplots without even mentioning Max and Annie and it would still be entertaining.
Eighth Grade
  • The camera always tells you to experience everything from Kayla's (Elsie Fisher) perspective - not with the detachment of someone who is far past 8th grade. The result is that the movie doesn't settle for cheap humor, but actually takes Kayla's problems as seriously as she deserves.
  • In my theater, a few people laughed during Kayla's first video when she says that "sometimes people think I'm quiet but really I just don't always feel like talking" (or whatever the exact line was). This may sound like irony, but it's not, as evidenced by the Rick and Morty scene at the end. This movie gets introverts in a way that few movies do.
  • The screenplay tells you so much about Olivia (Emily Robinson) through subtext. You can tell she sees a lot of her younger self in Kayla, and knows just how awesome Kayla will become the more she figures out her personality and her place in the world.
  • The way she learns it is often horrifying, but ultimately what Kayla learns (as evidenced by the videos she makes at the start of 6th and 9th grades) is that life rarely goes how you want ot expect it to go and that's ok.
  • This film perfectly captures the way social media makes us at once more connected and more isolated. One of the best scenes is the one in which Kayla tries to talk to Kennedy and her friend in the cafeteria - but she can barely get either one to look up from their phones. They're physically close but may as well be trying to communicate across oceans. But this movie never feels judgmental about it, just genuinely intrigued by a generation that connected primarily through their phones.
  • Josh Hamilton is perfect as Kayla's dad. He is so empathetic and patient. I especially love the speech he gives at the end about how well Kayla handle'd her mom's departure. In most movies that speech would have the eloquence of a political speechwriter. Instead, her dad knows exactly what he wants to say but can't muster up the words to adequately convey just how happy Kayla makes him. To me, this is much more realistic and moving.
Black Panther
  • This movie was such a refreshing departure from the typical MCU movie. It's not obsessed with setting up the next five movies - it's only interested in telling its own, self-contained story, and building up a rich, lived-in Wakanda that you'll want to visit again and again.
  • I was so impressed by the maturity with which the movie explores the dual personalities of competing ideologies that drove black liberation throughout America's history. The movie ultimately rejects Killmonger's (Michael B. Jordan) violent black nationalism, but it also has the utmost empathy for why those instincts would exist. So much discourse presents the civil rights movement as a fight between a caricature of Malcolm X and a sanitized version of Martin Luther King; directer Ryan Coogler challenges us to view the black experience with more nuanced eyes.
  • Some movies depict racism as an inconvenience that can be overcome if we can just get along peacefully (looking right at you, Green Book). Spike Lee never has and never will have any of it. For him, racism is a pervasive, smothering, and treacherous experience experience that haunted us in the 1910s, haunted us in the 1970s, and continues to haunt us today.
  • For those who aren't familiar, cross-cutting between different locations to establish a contrast within a scene is a technique first developed by D.W. Griffith for The Birth of a Nation...a movie that celebrates the brave heroism of the KKK. Progress in America often is one step forward, two steps back. Anyways, I loved when Blackkklansman uses cross cutting to establish contrasts between a Jerome Turner's speech and the KKK initiation that involves...watching The Birth of a Nation. That is how you marry style and substance.
  • Blackkklansman shows the how the logic used by white supremacists to justify their racism is both laughably flimsy and distressingly unbreakable.
Ocean's 8
  • I cannot remember the last time I was so disappointed by a movie. My favorite movie of all time is Ocean's eleven, and the Ocean's franchise is probably my favorite (only Star Wars compares). I have been anticipating this movie since its production was announced in 2015. I had high hopes from the trailer. fell completely flat.
  • The cast of this movie is excellent - in fact, they are the only redeeming quality of the movie. I would love to see this crew back with better writing - perhaps a heist-off between Debbie (Sandra Bullock) and Danny (who I refuse to believe is actually dead).
  • This movie fails because the heist is objectively terrible. Nothing goes wrong. There's never any need to improvise. The crew has the exact gadget for everything. Even when they get caught, the inspector decides to help them frame someone else. Nothing ever happened to convince me that the heist was anything other than an inevitability.
  • One of my favorite parts of the original Ocean's trilogy is that the movie develops a shared language between the con men, but never feels the need to explain every term to you. This adds to the group's mystique. Ocean's 8 does nothing of the sort.
First Man
  • When I saw this movie I was blown away - and also it immediately made perfect sense to me why the movie wasn't the big hit you would expect from a movie about Neil Armstrong. The movie isn't a thriller that lionizes America's unmatched heroism and vigor. Instead it's a deeply humanist look at the individuals who comprised the space program. The movie explores what kind of person it takes to make such an endeavor succeed, and what the human toll was for the space race.
  • Perhaps this makes a difference, but the first time I saw the movie I did not know about the deaths of Karen Armstrong or Ed White (Jason Clarke). But in some ways the movie hit me even harder the second time - every discussion of the risks of the program feel more aching when you know even more than the characters about just how real those risks are about to become.
  • I love how one of the early scenes shows Neil talking to a doctor while poring through his notes over Karen's condition. It shows how analytical he is. Karen's cancer was a puzzle he never solved, and that fact continually ate at him.
  • Ryan Gosling may well be the best actor working today. He's most definitely the most underrated. I was blown away by how he portrayed Neil's constant reluctance - his reluctance to embrace fragile connections that can be taken away in an instant, reluctance to acknowledge his overwhelming grief, reluctance to market himself and the space program as America's savior. I think his performance is getting sold short because it's not as expressive or visceral; instead, it paints Armstrong as a man whose mind is as vast and mysterious as the cosmos. Rather than telling you how to feel, Gosling invites you to venture into his feelings.
  • The script gives Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) very little to work with, but she makes the most of it. She's always trying so hard to repair severed connections to her husband, and convince Neil that it's ok to grieve. I was captivated by Gosling's performance, but the scene my girlfriend remembered most was Janet trying to convince herself that the Gemini project could be a fresh start - an adventure, the thing Neil might need to open back up to her.
  • Anyone over the age of 5 knew how the moon landing would go - and yet I was on the edge of my seat during the entire trip. There are a few reasons for this. First, instead of glorifying the technology used by NASA, the script does the opposite - it makes NASA's technology look like something out of a steampunk novel. This is a world of rickety structures, and seat belts that need to be fixed with Swiss army knives. Second, I love how director Damien Chazelle uses so many point of view shots during the flight, to make you feel the same claustrophobia that the astronauts did. I think a lesser director would have emphasized shots of a majestic rocket soaring through the sky. Finally, you can't say enough about the score - the tension builds with every note.
  • This movie doesn't just pay passing reference to questions about whether the space program was worth it. It seriously engages - both by explicitly showing the punishment that the astronauts take on the job, but also the worry endured by their wives, and acknowledging the wide sentiment that all that money would have been better spent on social programs. I don't think the movie ever denies that these are valid concerns - but through Neil's eyes, it presents one possible rebuttal. When you've been in space, and seen how fragile the atmosphere is, and seen how small we are in the vastness of space, you gain a different perspective. The film literalizes this by using grainy steadycam on the earth, and crystal clear imax in the sky. After Karen's death, Neil buried himself in work initially to distract himself. However, once he walked the moon, he gained a new appreciation for the miracle that is life on Earth. By conquering the moon, Neil conquered his grief over Karen.
Green Book
  • I had a gut feeling I would hate this movie when I saw the stupid fried chicken scene in the trailer. I knew I would hate this movie when I found out that Mahershala Ali had been nominated for best supporting actor - it told me that this movie was not about Don Shirley's struggle to overcome racism, but Tony's struggle to overcome being a racist. I saw the movie this morning and I did indeed hate it.
  • This movie draws a clear delineation between the northern racist, who simply doesn't like to interact with black people, and southern racists, who engage in active discrimination. It's designed to make people feel better about racism by painting it as a historical and geographical artifact.
  • There is room for a nuanced movie about Don Shirley's tenuous connection to the black community. This movie is not that. This movie seriously engages in the idea that Tony would be the driving force behind Don learning how to "be more black".
  • At best, the humor in this movie was unbearably predictable. At worst, the movie made comedy out of moments that I don't think felt very funny to Don. The one that sticks out to me was the second fried chicken scene - not the one from the trailer, but a later one. The hosts welcome Don, and say that they didn't know what to cook for him. So they asked the help, and came up with...a large plate of fried chicken. The camera cuts to Don's reaction, but only for a moment before jumping to later in a jovial evening. I have a hard time believing a moment like that wouldn't have ruined Don's entire evening.
  • Basically I really not interested in handing out gold medals to people who can tolerate black people (as long as they are as talented as Don Shirley or Aretha Franklin, rather than your plumber).
If Beale Street Could Talk
  • This movie is about the love that gets destroyed by our justice system designed to tear black families apart.
  • I love the distinct aesthetic that Barry Jenkins is crafting. When you see pastel-tinted cinematography and a camera that lives squarely in front of the actors, you know you're watching a Jenkins movie.
  • This is a star-making performance Kiki Layne and Stephan James, but I think it's a credit to Jenkins that he keeps getting such good performances out of newcomer actors.
  • Regina King's win is well-deserved. When she's on screen the scene orbits around her.
  • I understood the point of the editing - it shows how things can change in an instant, and the knowledge of what's to come creates heart-wrenching dramatic irony during the happiest times. But at times it was distracting.
  • It took me a couple viewings to start to fully appreciate this movie. It's a very slow buildup to the gut punches, but it's worth the wait.
  • The acting really carries this movie. Cuaron does little to drive your emotional reaction through the score.
  • I love how the black and white palate makes stark the contrast between Cleo and Marina. This movie adores the women who take care of us (and who also take care of the women who nominally take care of us). 
Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
  • This movie brings back to life everything that made Sam Raimi's spiderman trilogy so wonderful. It's ok to be overwhelmed by the responsibility thrust upon us - we get by with a little help from our friends.
  • Shameik Moore should be getting cast in so many more movies. He can make you cry with the smallest changes in his diction.

Widows: A masterful exploration of power. Who falls where on the totem pole of power? How do those in power keep it that way? How do those on the outside get in?

Blockers: Why are we so afraid to let girls explore their sexuality in a safe, healthy way? The fact that we're so much more puritanical about teenage girls than teenage boys says more about us than about our own insecurities than anything else.

Deadpool 2: I don't think this movie was as funny or daringly shot as the first one. But I really liked the theme of making the world a better place not by trying to change the past, but by working hard in the present to make a better future.

Chappaquiddick: Why do we fetishize political families? They're dangerous, and somewhat antithetical to the principles upon which our democracy was founded.

A Quiet Place: A horror movie about the horrors we endure for our children.

Avengers: Infinity War: Are we supposed to take Thanos seriously as a villain with sympathetic intentions? It sure seems that way, and yet his philosophy has all the maturity of a 10 year old.

A Star is Born: A tale as old as the show business industry - when a star is born, another star fades.

Sorry to Bother You: This movie is painfully on the nose in so many cases. There are definitely times it is absurd just for the sake of being absurd. But ultimately it deserves credit for its much needed exploration of the intersection between racism and classism. Capitalism creates impossible choices.

Mission Impossible: Fallout: How is this franchise still getting better even? That is not supposed to happen 6 movies in. The stunts keep escalating, but what makes this movie so great is its exploration of the virtues of Ethan's ethical code. What makes Ethan a hero isn't his ability to leap tall buildings or attach himself to airplanes - it's the way he values every single life, no matter how big or small.

Bohemian Rhapsody: This movie is mostly a run through of Queen's best hits. It's a paint by numbers biopic if there ever was one. Thats perfectly fine - I had a great time, and Queen is one of the greatest bands of all time! But I'm not really sure what made the academy think this was one of the eight best films of the year.

Vice: I was entertained, but it's hard to deny that this movie is pretty one-sided without really shedding any new insights on Dick Cheney. I doubt anybody will come out of this movie with a different opinion of the man.

The Picks

Best cinematography: First Man

Best score: First Man

Best sound editing: A Quiet Place

Best sound mixing: A Quiet Place

Best Original Screenplay: Eighth Grade

Best Adapted Screenplay: First Man

Best Supporting Actor: Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Best supporting actress: Rachel McAdams (Game Night)

Best Actor: Ryan Gosling (First Man)

Best Actress: Viola Davis (Widows)

Best Director: Spike Lee (Blackkklansman)

My favorite pictures:
10. Sorry to Bother You
9. Blockers
8. Blackkklansman
7. Black Panther
6. Mission Impossible: Fallout
5. Widows
4. Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
3. First Man
2. Eighth Grade
1. Game Night

Best Picture
10. Black Panther
9. Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
8. Game Night
7. If Beale Street could talk
6. Mission Impossible: Fallout
5. Roma
4. Blackkklansman
3. Widows
2. Eighth Grade
1. First Man