Sunday, April 25, 2021

On the 2021 Oscars

Because of the pandemic, I barely watched any (new) movies this year, and I do not remember the last time I was less invested in the ceremony. Hopefully we can go back to the cinemas in 2022. Please go get vaccinated.

The Pics

Palm Springs: The only movie that I truly loved in 2020. The idea of a shared time loop feels like the start of a new era for the entire genre. I would give it all of the awards if I could. I wrote more about it here.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

  • A movie about the government responding to righteous protests by going to war its own citizens (and the specter of the "radical left"); this could have just as easily been about 2020. I'm not sure when this movie started production, but I love that it came out when it did.
  • I thought prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) had the most interesting character arc of the movie - principled and sincere in his belief in law and order, he slowly comes to realize that he has more in common with his supposed opposition than he was led to believe. I love that his psychology is set up so efficiently in his initial appraisal of the case: he doesn't like the protestors because they are "anti-establishment", but believes even more strongly that none of that matters because the law appears to be on their side. That said, I think choosing to write the character this way undercuts the impact of the movie. I just don't think Aaron Sorkin is capable of writing the kind of cynicism that this movie really needed.
Judas and the Black Messiah: I think the script is fantastic, but they really did themselves a disservice with the casting. This is not a criticism of Daniel Kaluuya or LaKeith Stanfield, two truly exceptional actors. But they're both grown men who can't possibly depict just how innocent Fred Hanpton and Bill O'Neal were. This hampers the movie from its full potential for depicting the story in its full absurdity (the FBI was terrified of a 21 year old kid) and tragedy (the FBI hoodwinked and bullied a 17 year old into helping them murder Fred Hampton).

Promising Young Woman
  • Cassie wears a different outfit every night, and yet she always gets taken advantage of by some creep. It's almost like clothing isn't the reason why women get sexually assaulted.
  • I thought it was an inspired choice to never have Nina appear on screen. She never gets to say her peace to or about her attacker. And while it may be cathartic for us to watch Cassie act as Nina's angel of vengeance, we're left to speculate on whether this is actually what Nina would have wanted. It shows just how little control survivors have over their own story.
  • In this movie (and in real life), enablers of sexual assault (like Ryan and Joe) are just as much a part of the problem as the predators who actually commit the acts of violence.
  • Cassie eventually serves justice for (one of) Al's crimes - but she literally kills herself doing so! But that's exact kind of nihilism that makes his movie as heart-wrenching as it needs to be for the subject it's tackling.
Mank: I got bored after 20 minutes and I never bothered to finish it. That probably says more about me than the movie. I'm sure it's a great movie. But while I'm here, let's talk about the movie that inspired this one. Citizen Kane is awesome and you should watch it. It's a movie that has developed a reputation for being "important" for academic reasons but boring and inscrutable for the average moviegoer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Charles Foster Kane's arc is truly fascinating: he goes from being a genuine populist to a the very plutocrat he once despised. In two hours Orson Welles gives a crystal clear lecture on cinematic language 101. If more people watch Citizen Kane because of Mank then I consider that a reason to give Mank an award.

Tenet: I have always defended Christopher Nolan. When I see people criticize his movies, it almost always comes from a deliberate refusal to engage with his movies for what they are instead of what the critic wanted them to be. That's not the case with Tenet. This is the movie that people (incorrectly) think Inception is. The plot is needlessly incomprehensible (at least on first viewing). The sound mixing made it impossible to understand some of the dialogue without subtitles. There's very little warmth or depth to the characters - which is not something that personally bothers me, but it is a common criticism of Nolan that I think holds more water than usual for this movie. None of this is to say I had a bad time - nobody makes a more immersive cinematic experience than Nolan. But I can't say it was anything more than that.

  • This movie came out at the exact time in my career when I was also faced with the agonizing choice between living somewhere desirable and attaining upward mobility. Suffice to say, watching it in 2021 hit me way harder than it would have in any other year.
  • The major theme of this movie - success - is crystalized in the scene in the doctor's office. Jacob wants - in fact, needs - to show his kids that he can be successful. Monica, like so many immigrants, believes that having a family and supporting your kids into adulthood is success. But Jacob has fully bought into the American ethos; the ultimate form of success is entrepreneurship, and taking ownership of a slice of this vast land.
The Picks
Palm Springs should win best picture, but I think Minari will win it. Otherwise, I have no earthly idea who is going to win anything. I barely know who got nominated. And I haven't seen nearly enough movies to give rankings for any of the categories.

Instead of listing my 10 favorite movies of the year, I'll end with head my 10 favorite depictions of the immigrant experience on film:
  1. The Godfather: Part II
  2. The Godfather
  3. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 
  4. Paddington
  5. West Side Story
  6. Bend it like Beckham
  7. Harold and Kumar go to White Castle
  8. Coming to America
  9. Minari
  10. Gangs of New York