Sunday, February 9, 2020

On the 2020 Oscars

Last year, for the first time in years, I didn't get around to watching all of the Oscar nominees - but I still got all but one of them. This year, due to a combination of being crazy busy, general apathy, and the inexplicable decision to push the ceremony to the second weekend of February, I didn't even get close to seeing all the movies! I never mustered up much energy to see Ford v Ferrari, Joker, or Jojo Rabbit, and I didn't see Parasite until two days before the ceremony. Similar deal for all of the other awards. In other words, take my entire ballot with a grain of salt.

The Pics

Little Women

  • If aliens came down to earth and asked me to explain what makes cinema so powerful, this is one of the movies I would use to make my point. It's not just that this is a really great movie - it's that it takes full advantage of the medium to enhance the story. Greta Gerwig makes masterful use of cinematography to set the mood, and she uses editing to crystalize each character's arc. Cinematography and editing are two disciplines that are native to film, and not inherited from literature or stagecraft.
  • I cannot overemphasize just how well this movie is - honestly, maybe my favorite movie editing since Inception. For those of you who don't know, the book actually advances chronologically; Gerwig completely reorganized the plot to advance thematically. This actually makes the plot easier to understand (for example, the book doesn't even mention Jo's novel until Amy burns it), it makes the growth of each character even more crystal clear, and it reinforces the theme that we must carry our younger selves with us without letting our past completely define us. Furthermore, this reorganization takes full advantage of the power of cinema. It would be really clunky for a book to try and go forwards and backwards in time so rapidly, but in a movie these transitions are seamless. The fact that this movie wasn't even nominated for best editing is beyond me.
  • I was not a huge fan of either Lady Bird or Mistress America, but I also thought both of those movies were enhanced by the editing. Clearly Gerwig has a special talent for editing - or at the very least, a knack for writing stories that make life easy on her editors.
  • I greatly respected the craft of Saoirse Ronan's performances in Brooklyn and Lady Bird, but this was the first time I connected with one of her performances on both a technical and a deeply emotional level. I saw many of my own personal struggles in Jo, and was proportionately moved by all of her triumphs and growth.
  • Timothee Chalamet is great at playing a classic protagonist - and as Greta Gerwig's two movies have demonstrated, he may be even better at playing a douchebag.
Toy Story 4
  • This franchise has basically told the same story four times - Woody is terrified of losing his standing and authority in the world, and he must learn to balance what he wants with what others need. And yet, Pixar always tells this story through fresh and ingenious challenges that keep adding layers to the same arc.
  • By contract, Buzz seems to play a different character every time, and yet it never feels incoherent within or between films. This is a credit to how well Tim Allen can disappear inside the character.
  • I always wished Bo Peep could have been included in some of the past heists (especially Toy Story 2), and I love that she finally got the role she deserved. If this were a video game, I think you can argue based on this movie that she would be character with the best abilities
  • The one thing I didn't love was when Buzz broke out of "toy mode" and reminded Bonnie about her backpack. That feels like it broke the rules of the universe.
  • This movie is about how capitalism pushes us to the extremes.
  • The first five minutes of this movie are absolute gangbusters - probably the best part. You are so viscerally immersed in the family's desperation, and are able to contextualize every choice they make.
  • I appreciate that the movie is class-conscious, but in a nuanced way. The Kim family aren't angels - they are craven, but for completely sympathetic reasons. By contrast, the Park family is really more clueless and ignorant than malicious. And both of these traits develop because that's exactly how the world incentivizes them to be.
  • The movie's hidden genius is in how quickly all of the poor characters will turn on each other before they turn on the people giving them breadcrumbs (while hoarding the bread).
  • Fox News doesn't just sell us fake news in the form of conspiracy theories and misreporting - it sells the fake news of protecting family values.
  • This movie does a great job of dramatizing the invisible forces that tie women down. Pretty much every piece of dialogue between the women in this movie is laced with vicious subtext about what might (read: will) happen if you try to stand up to workplace harassment.
  • Charlize Theron gives a spot on impression of Megyn Kelly, but I thought Margot Robbie gave the best performance in terms of dramatizing a character's arc. The scene with her and Roger Ailes is so haunting, with the camera panning back and forth between her losing inches on her dress and losing miles and miles of her dignity - and only one of those two things can ever be restored. Robbie's face holds back tears like a dam on the verge of cracking.
  • When I think of John Lithgow, I always associate him with being warm, comforting, and supportive. And then I remember that he was thisclose to being cast as the eccentric Doc Brown in Back to the Future (and I maintain the film wouldn't have missed a beat). And then I remember all of the great villains that he has played - and of those, Roger Ailes is his most menacing performance. What a treasure of an actor.
  • My favorite part of the movie is when Megyn Kelly desperately wants to corroborate Gretchen Carlson's accusations, but thinks twice about inviting the same scrutiny and harassment that followed her through her confrontations with Donald Trump. It concisely shows the cumulative effects of the toll that women go through.
  • The movie does a great job of showing just how badly Kayla wanted to work at Fox News, and how devastating she was when she saw the rot and deceit that filled it. But I do wish the movie had explored her personal politics more, and whether those changed from the events of the movie.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  • The best thing I can say about this movie is that it unified the people who liked The Last Jedi and the people who hated The Last Jedi. No matter how you felt, we can all come together over how disappointing this movie was.
  • Bringing Palpatine back was nonsensical, it almost invalidated the catharsis from Return of the Jedi, and (most importantly), it was such a naked attempt at fan service. I knew I was going to hate this movie within five minutes. Having Rey be Palpatine's granddaughter just made it worse, for those same reasons, and because it erases what I thought was one of the boldest and most refreshing themes from The Last Jedi. Also, why would you reveal a twist that big in the crawl???
  • When Rey hurt BB-8 during her training, I thought they were setting up the arc that Rey needs to learn to control her powers (and her anger), otherwise she will hurt those she cares about. When she is fighting with Kylo and suddenly creates a lightning bolt that appears to destroy the ship with Chewie, I actually felt pretty good about the movie following through on this arc. But instead of slowing down for Rey to let the consequences of her actions sink in, the movie hustles everyone off to the next set piece. Oh and it turns out that Chewie isn't actually dead, so this supposedly really important character-building/revealing moment didn't actually mean anything.
  • On a similar note, I hate that the movie restored C3PO's memory. It should have been a poignant moment for C3PO to sacrifice his (and our) most cherished memories in service of the resistance - but when he said that there was a small chance that R2D2 could restore him, I knew that he would. That's because JJ Abrams is afraid to make his movies anything other than delightful and nostalgic. He's the parent who feeds you ice cream for dinner.
  • Abrams sets up Finn revealing intimate character details to Rey. Does he love her? Is he force sensitive? I'll go with option C: Abrams never thought this through, because he just wants to set up the mystery without considering what would actually advance the movie's themes.
  • I've heard it argued that the movie's message is that anyone - including a scavenger, a spice runner, or a storm trooper - can be a hero. I think this is fair, but pretty charitable. The movie does seem hell-bent on insisting that Rey is noble blood, because obviously a plebeian could never be a jedi master.
  • Rose Tico (and Kelly Marie Tran) deserved so much better.
Ready or not
  • Get Out meets "Eat the Rich"
  • I love that the Le Domas family claims to value tradition and fair play, but will gladly bend the rules when their power is threatened.
  • Most high school movies are focused on the protagonists figuring out how they fit into a world of archetypes. I really like that this movie introduces all the archetypes, and then subverts basically all of them.
  • My one nagging gripe with this movie is that Amy and Molly are impossibly socially conscious. I think it's great that we have a high school movie focused on two intersectional feminists - this makes the movie feel more up to date and true to its time. But I have a hard time believing that even the young women giving speeches at their local Womens' Marches would use "Malala" as code for "please do this favor for me". This feels like Hollywood's sculpture of the perfect teenagers, rather than real kids who are still maturing.
  • I thought Bohemian Rhapsody was excessively bland and formulaic. Rocketman takes these flaws to the next level.
  • Steven Mackintosh doesn't play a distant father - he plays a caricature of one. I imagine the writers debated whether he should wear a shirt that said "I don't love my son". Maybe I'm not cynical enough, but I found this character so laughably unrealistic that I couldn't immerse myself in the scenes.
  • There were a couple of nice visual flourishes that stuck with me. First, I like that Taron Edgerton first appears in the middle of "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" - the movie is telling us visually that this song served as Elton's transition to adulthood. Second, I think the film does a great job of using framing to visualize Elton's descent into addiction. When Bernie ditches Elton for a different frame and Elton is stuck with a table of booze, you fully understand how lonely he is and where he feels compelled to turn.
Marriage Story
  • The best scene, and the one that sums up the movie, is the one in which Nicole is venting to her lawyer Nora about her marriage problems. Nicole goes into the bathroom to freshen up, as if she were getting her hair and makeup done. When she comes out, Nora sits on the couch like a director. Nicole walks around the office like a stage, and Nora use sly looks to prompt her "actress" to keep tapping into her deepest trauma. The message is clear: in practice, divorce proceedings end up being a medium for lawyers to pull our puppet strings; we think we're working out our problems, but it's mostly an act.
  • Laura Dern is the best part of the movie, and the Oscar nomination is well-deserved. Her big speech about God bailing on Mary is perfect - too perfect in fact. The speech is convincing, and has the perfect mix of sincerity and cynicism.
  • Maybe it's because I've never been married, but the big fight didn't really devastate me the way I thought it would. I guess I just didn't think the content of the complaints was commensurate with the intensity of the emotional reactions.
The Irishman
  • I only saw 2/3 of the movie but I was still greatly impressed. To me, Frank's early WWII story is the base of the cake, and the rest of the movie is the frosting. When you get into a life of crime, you are essentially digging your own grave and hoping against all odds that if you do a good enough job you might find a different fate.
  • I love that the movie has multiple layers of flashbacks, to really emphasize the degree to which Frank wasted his life.
  • Peggy Sheeran's eyes and silence speak louder than any verbal line could.
  • I wonder how much of this movie represents Scorsese's regret over the consequences of his movies - verifiable masterpieces that were tragically misinterpreted by generations of violent men.
Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood: This is Tarantino's solemn meditation on his own inevitable mortality as a filmmaker.

Yesterday: This film is about Jack learning that the joy of music isn't in the fame, money, or appreciation that it bring you; its true value is in its communal aspect. When is Jack at his happiest? When he brings his friends to tears by singing Yesterday, when he is able to form a connection with the two other people who remember The Beatles, and when he is being paid a teacher's salary but getting to give his music students the gift of discovery.

1917: The action in this movie is extraordinary, and I will not complain if/when the movie wins best picture. But I found the single take gimmick pretty distracting. I am no longer a huge fan of the movie Birdman, but I didn't mind the movie's single take style because I thought that this matched the movie's pacing quite well. By contrast, I really think 1917 would have benefitted from saving the long takes for the most tense set pieces instead of diluting them with slower ones.

Knives Out: A comedy about the correlation (or lack thereof) between having and deserving power. The people who act as gatekeepers to the American dream are often the ones who understand it the least.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: I didn't see this movie, but I believe Tom Hanks should win an award simply because he was born to play this role, and there's no way it could have been anything less than sublime.

Klaus: I enjoyed this movie, but the reliance on slapstick is very clearly targeted to young children. I think the appeal for adults is limited.

Avengers: Endgame: I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I expected I would. I felt moved by Tony and Steve finally finding peace and closure - it's a tribute to just how successful Phase One of the MCU was. That said, this movie really did Scarlett Johansson dirty.

Best Sound Editing: 1917

Best Sound Mixing: 1917

Best Animated Picture: Toy Story 4

Best Original Screenplay: Knives Out

Best Adapted Screenplay: Little Women

Best Editing: Little Women

Best Supporting Actor: Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)

Best Supporting Actress: Margot Robbie (Bombshell)

Best Actor: Robert De Niro (The Irishman)

Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan

Best Director: Greta Gerwig (Little Women)

My Favorite Pictures
10. Avengers: Endgame
9. Booksmart
8. The Irishman
7. 1917
6. Bombshell
5. Parasite
4. Knives Out
3. Ready or Not
2. Little Women
1. Toy Story 4

Best Picture
10. Marriage Story
9. Bombshell
8. Ready or Not
7. Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood
6. 1917
5. The Irishman
4. Knives Out
3. Toy Story 4
2. Parasite
1. Little Women