Sunday, March 27, 2022

On the 2022 Oscars

For the second straight year I barely watched any movies. I only went into theaters three: once in the Summer when I thought the pandemic was winding down (LOL), and once for what I (correctly) suspected would be the crown jewel of the cinematic calendar, and once to see Spiderman in IMAX. So for the second straight year, my opinions are strong, but quite limited.

The Pics

Don't Look Up

  • I thought this movie did exactly what it wanted and needed to do - it made me laugh out loud because the plot was both completely outlandish and infuriatingly believable. The best way I can describe it is a poor man's Dr. Strangelove.
  • I can't say I am surprised by the negative critical reviews. Don't Look Up unapologetically indicts the neoliberal worldview shared by (what seems like) the vast majority of film critics. 

King Richard

  • My wife (who played tennis in high school) and I made sure to squeeze this one in before the ceremony. Both of us enjoyed it a lot than I think either of us expected. One thing I really appreciate is that it manages to avoid the typical sports movie pitfall of being unbearably saccharine.
  • Initially I reacted pretty skeptically when I heard that the movie would be about Richard Williams, but when I learned that both Serena and Venus Williams were producers I felt more okay with this. My theory is that the two sisters wanted to celebrate their family, and they only wanted to take on the minimal amount of spotlight required to get the movie off the ground.
  • This is actually one of my favorite Will Smith performances. The movie wants to be a character study in the benevolent dictator; someone who cherishes control not out of malice or lust for power, but out of deep fear. This is not an easy role to write, and the script often suffers from tonal whiplash. In one minute Richard is pushing Venus and Serena to practice their serves during heavy rain; the next minute he's expressing horror at the helicopter parents he observedat the tennis tournaments. He has tunnel vision about molding the next two Wimbledon champions, and he also emphasizes the need to avoid burning out the girls at all costs. It's up to Will Smith to make this characterization feel coherent, and for the most part, he does.
  • Are there any other actors who can toggle between domineering alpha and lovable underdog as effortlessly as Will Smith?
  • My biggest gripe with the movie is how much of Richard's psychology is developed off of the screen. We hear about Richard's past - surviving growing up in KKK country, being magnetically attracted to Tennis, abandoning his cement business and his son - but we never see it. I thought it was an especially uninspired choice to have Richard recount being beat up in public while his father slinked away; how do you not show that through flashback?!
  • The movie is mostly focused on how driven and persistent (and in Richard's case, fraught with contradictory emotions) its three main characters are. The movie alludes to, but doesn't dwell on, the racism and classism the Williams sisters must have faced in ascending through the professional tennis ranks. There's some symbolism with the tennis net as barrier to the American dream. I think a different version of this movie (and one that I might have liked more) would have made this theme the central focus.
  • There are three comparisons that come to mind for me. The first is, naturally, The Pursuit of Happyness. The second is The Jacksons - An American Dream - an iconic American family centered around two prodigal siblings and their difficult father. The third one is the 2015 movie Mustang - in particular, the way in which the the camera frames the five sisters to present them as moving, thinking, and feeling as a single closely-knit unit.
The Green Knight
  • There are two titular "green" knights. There's the literal knight in Green who challenges Gawain to trade heads. And then there's Gawain himself - green with roguish youth, and green with envy for knights with tales of glory. His quest is to seek out the green knight one year later, but his true quest is to grow one year wiser. The green knight wields his axe like the grim reaper, suggesting that he symbolizes death; but as his color suggests, he ultimately serves to inject meaning into Gawain's life by taking aim at his head.
  • This is a visually stunning movie. The visual effects put so many modern blockbusters to shame.
  • The dream sequence is a highly innovative departure from the original story. Gawain flees the scene, and lives a feeble, hollow life of shame - or so we think. Instead it's a vision of his future should he forsake his agreement with the green knight (and with Lord Beltarik). It efficiently communicates the movie's thesis - while Gawain knows that chivalry is earned through bravery, he learns that accountability is a much higher form of bravery than aggression.
Spiderman: No Way Home: I thought this was a major upgrade over the first two MCU Spiderman movies, because Peter's choices have much deeper consequences, and his character arc feels much better-motivated.

In the Heights
  • One of the year's two highly anticipated love stories about the spanish-speaking residents of New York City. I thought the musical numbers translated exceptionally well to the screen, but the actual story did not.
  • I thought that Usnavi and Vanessa's romance was paper thin. I didn't feel invested in it at all. I couldn't tell you one thing about their relationship besides "they like each other". The bare bones treatment of their romance in the script is exacerbated by the lack of chemistry between the actors.  If this were a side plot it wouldn't be a big deal, but as the fulcrum of the movie it's a problem.
  • By contrast, Nina revealing the racism she experienced at Stanford was much a more emotionally gripping subplot. After just one scene she's already a rounder and fuller character than Vanessa. Furthermore, I thought it was really moving how everyone at the table reacted to her story - they knew exactly where the story was going well before she finished. It was a powerful depiction of generational and communal trauma.
  • I was very frustrated by the scene in which Usnavi explains the origin of his name. In particular, I think it was edited all wrong. The movie should have shown the kids realizing the punchline of the joke - and then cut to the picture of the U.S. Navy boats. That said, I am fully aware that these are the nitpickings of a snot-nosed armchair expert.
West Side Story
  • The other movies were fun. This is the only movie that I truly loved this year. It's the only movie that I'll actually be invested in on Oscar Sunday. This is a masterpiece, and a reminder of how lucky we are to have Steven Spielberg.
  • I was always familiar with the music, but I never actually saw the original movie from start to finish until Oscars eve 2021. I immediately understood why the movie - and Rita Moreno - are so beloved. Going into the remake, I was of two minds. On one hand, I wasn't sure why, in an age that's already saturated with IP zombies, we needed another version of WSS. On the other hand, I knew that if anybody could be entrusted with a classic of this magnitude, it was Spielberg. My optimism was ultimately proven correct.
  • From this movie it is clear just how important the original West Side Story has always been to Spielberg. This isn't a remake - this is a love letter, years in the making, and meticulously crafted by the GOAT filmmaker.
  • The movie starts by panning across the slums that are being razed to make room for the Lincoln center, before honing in on the hole that The Jets pop out of. Our characters are tragically unaware about their status as pawns in a much bigger and more sinister game.
  • The cinematography in the original movie is resplendent, and The Jets opening number looks like they were coached up by Tobias Funke. Spielberg chooses to go for a radically different and equally inspired aesthetic. The cinematography is dark and dreary; the Jets' choreographed movement is simply means to show how they move in lockstep; and in general, the opening number is significantly more violent and tense. If the original movie was a fairy tale, then Spielberg's version is a gritty underdog story.
  • During all of the musical numbers, Spielberg's camera effortlessly glides around the actors in a way that showcases the choreography without drawing attention to itself. In retrospect, it seems crazy that Spielberg never made a musical until 2021.
  • It would have been easy and understandable to do shot for shot remakes of all of the musical numbers. Instead, Spielberg did the unthinkable - he (mostly) improved the iconic numbers! In particular, the script finds creative pretenses for staging the numbers in a way that enhance their thematic connection to the rest of the movie. "I feel pretty" now takes place in the fancy department store where Maria cleans after hours - adding a new layer to her expression of blossoming optimism. "Officer Krupke" actually takes place at the police precinct. "Cool" has the same lyrics, but it's contextualized within an argument between Tony and Riff, and it fills in a lot of gaps about their backstory. "America" has the characters dancing through the neighborhood, and in the process actually literalizing the pros and cons of immigrant life in America.
  • Unlike Richard Breymer, Ansel Elgort actually gives a convincing impression of someone with a violent past. Rachel Zegler gives a performance so beautiful that, for a moment you can forget just profoundly weird it was for the original movie to cast Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican. Mike Faist and Ariana DeBose would run away with best supporting actor and actress in a fairer world.
  • If Spielberg doesn't win best director, it will be like those years when Michael Jordan or LeBron James didn't win MVP because of voter fatigue.
  • I think this is Spielberg's best movie since Saving Private Ryan. It might even be hist best movie since Schindler's List.
The Picks
Obviously I think West Side Story should win all of the awards, but it sounds like The Power of the Dog will win. I'm sure it's a fine movie. Otherwise, I have no idea how to predict the other awards. So instead of listing my 10 favorite films of 2021, I'll list my 10 favorite Steven Spielberg movies.
  1. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
  2. West Side Story
  3. Schindler's List
  4. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  5. Lincoln
  6. Bridge of Spies
  7. Saving Private Ryan
  8. Minority Report
  9. Jaws
  10. Jurassic Park
Note: I have not seen Close Encounters, The Color Purple, Amistad, or Catch me if you Can. Also I choose to acknowledge 3 and only 3 Indiana Jones movies