Best Picture Oscar: Fences [2016]

Troy Maxson is a working class man just about to hit his declining years. He is gripped by a sense of discontentment that’s mirrored by each member of his family. As an absolute patriarch he clashes with his family over different perspectives, often sublimated into exaggerated parables and fables. Eventually he reaches a crisis moment, precipitating changes in everyone’s lives.

This film exists to showcase acting talent, living or dying on the ability of the key performers to engender the sympathy and empathy of the audience. It’s emotionally complex and dialogue heavy, betraying its origin as a stage play in virtually every shot. The film allows all its characters to eloquently advocate for their choices and their positions, declining to offer a judgement on any of the decisions they make – there are no bad or good decisions, just differing magnitudes of changes. Taken as a package, that makes the characters portrayed feel as real as cinema can offer, despite the perfection of their speech.  The actors take full advantage of this; Viola Davis in particular displays a supremely well-judged performance that includes both the grandstanding moments from the trailer and the most delicate conveyance of emotion that must be suppressed.

The trade off for this powerful focus on the family unit inside the family home is that the film feels myopic. It’s a film where the characters tell us an awful lot about themselves, without finding the time or space to show us. As a cinematic experience, it feels like too literal a translation, bringing the limitations of the stage into the new medium; with only a tiny handful of interjections from a voice-over narrator, the film could work as an audio-play perfectly well. It’s not quite from the Clint Eastwood school of pointing a camera at the actors and hoping for the best, but Denzel Washington displays no real directorial flair. I understand that he brought most of the Broadway cast with him to the film, in which case you’d almost have to argue that because the strength of this film is the performances, that Broadway director deserves the lion’s share of the credit, for getting those performances in the first place.

For all that it felt limited, it also felt perfectly confident and assured in what it was doing. The characters are compelling, fascinating even, and I was gripped throughout, never really anticipating the next development. I could definitely see myself re-watching this and trying to unpack some of the dense socio-political commentary. While this yet another film grappling with masculinity at the expense of fully exploring the problems of the sole woman in the film, it’s sophisticated perspective on a kind of masculinity that is under-represented in films: there aren’t too many major releases out about black working class men in the 1950s. I liked this film a lot, just perhaps not enough to award it the Best Picture Academy Award.

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Best Picture Oscar: Moonlight [2016]

A young boy tries to find his place in the brutal eco system of the Miami public school system, finding scarce comfort or connection with others in the world around him. Not exactly a study of race, education, narcotics, or sexuality, the film threads through and around these topics looking for the right question to ask. This film is a punch directly to the emotions without ever feeling manipulative.

This film was another careful study of a masculine figure unable to express his emotions, showing the coping mechanisms he develops. Whereas Manchester by the Sea showed the stoic lead in virtual shut down and denial, Moonlight depicts a character earnestly searching for a way to find an expression for his emotion, and a venue for that expression. Much more than usual, the film explores the environmental factors that force the character into dumb numbness and prevent their healing. This film also explodes the usual timeframe for a narrative, allowing the same characters to be revisited over the decades, to show how they’ve adapted to their circumstances. Like BoyhoodMoonlight selects its scenes carefully to show a thematic continuity so that it feels like three chapters in a unified story of developing an identity.

While possessing a lot of excellent qualities, Moonlight is far from perfect. Like all narratives about closed-in characters, it is a struggle to empathise with the lead character. That’s not saying much more than the problem with this stone is it’s very hard. It is also very hard on its female characters. More important than failing the Bechdel test is that it has a kind of Manichean perspective on the two major female characters: not quite whore versus madonna, but certainly opposite sides of the moral spectrum. While both actresses dominate the screen while they’re there, they nevertheless aren’t asked to do much outside of a certain range. I found the two women to be the most fascinating characters, far more interesting than the main character, and the underdevelopment of their stories feels like a major and critical omission. Having said that, this is still the most substantial role I’ve seen for Naomie Harris in a long time, though I missed Mandela, which was purported to have a major role for her.

My snap review of the film was that it was the major contender with La La Land for the Oscar, but as the days have rolled past, the film’s limited ambitions seem increasingly difficult. It’s selection of a central taciturn man searching for personal growth is a well-worn rut that’s substantially enlivened by being about a (probably) homosexual black man – but the additional factors that brings to the table all feel sketched rather than fully drawn, and the genre-consequent omission of interest in the equally ground-breaking stories of the influential women in his life are an unfulfilled promise.

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Best Picture Oscar: Hell or High Water [2016]

Roughneck brothers Toby [Chris Pine] and Tanner [Ben Foster] stage a series of small bank robberies around Texas, trying to raise enough money to buy out the reverse mortgage on their parents’ old homestead. They are pursued by dogged and dog-eared Marcus Hamilton [Jeff Bridges]. This reminded me of outlaw tales from the high period of the Hollywood system like High Sierra [1941] or the Oklahoma Kid [1939].

Hell or High Water takes well-worn leitmotifs of grumpy sheriffs, wild outlaws, and The Man ™ and polishes them up with a modern sheen, to be a modern commentary on an ancient antagonism. The performances are committed, even if they are a little archetypal.

For all that this is an impressive production, I never felt like it really committed to itself, retaining a basic ambivalence to its characters and its story. There’s a moment late in the film where Toby is confronted with what he’s done “Four people are dead, and for what?” and the basic problem for me was that the film treats this as a rhetorical question, when it’s just a question for which the film offers no answer. For all that the brothers do, and for all they sacrifice, I never found myself caring about their end game: their goal was unimportant to me. Yet the film didn’t commit to what I think the interlocutor was getting at, which was an existential nihilism where nothing matters. The basic problem is one of closed-down Manly Men ™ unable to process or express their emotions, and at this point that just feels like laziness rather than a profound statement of stoicism.

For me, this film is more like a modern mythic fable than a story about flesh-and-blood people. A parable that can’t commit to a moral determination might be full of entertaining moments, but it’s a hollow experience about a hyper-masculine concept of justice and just desserts. You can read more of why I don’t think this is a Best Picture contender in my previous review.

I think if you like this film you should check out my favourite film from a couple of years ago, Mississippi Grind, which takes similarly broken and closed-down characters and finds a way through their journey to show you the underlying meaning in the characters’ lives. If you want to see how to tell a compelling but emotionally low-key story, watch that instead of this.

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Best Picture Oscar: Manchester by the Sea [2016]

Manchester by the Sea follows Lee Chandler [Casey Affleck] for the few months after his older brother’s death, explaining the way he handles things via flashbacks to an earlier difficult time in his life. It’s a movie that’s light on plot per se, being more of a meditation on loss and how life goes on afterwards.

It’s an assured piece of filmmaking that deftly handles long single takes and a low-key emotionally-real style of performance. The sense of realism and tragedy is expertly heightened by the inclusion of minor absurdities of the kind I can certainly recall experiencing at times of heightened emotion. The entire cast work hard, delivering pitch-perfect deliveries, including all the human frailties of real speech. As a result of all this, I felt myself tearing up a few times, completely empathetic with the plight of Lee.

All of these excellent qualities are double-edged at best. The assurance to follow long takes also carries the attitude of self-indulgence: it’s a film that takes a damned long time to do what it’s doing, so that the eventual emotional pay-off often feels like too little too late to compensate for some fairly tedious stretches. I checked my watch 4 times during the film, wondering how much longer it could really go; I was surprised and disheartened at the first time-check that barely 45 minutes had passed. More difficult is it’s pigeon-holing of all the female characters. None of them show the slightest agency and the film spends zero time exploring any of their emotional responses, so that almost half the cast seem to function purely as foils for masculine emotion. As a consequence the film fails the Bechdel test.

The rapturous critical response to this film is somewhat surprising to me. I’ve seen great films that don’t do a lot on the surface, but this film is just too long, too self-indulgent, and while Chandler’s emotional devastation is explained, we never see behind his stoic mask, making up a central character I could pity but not like. I wouldn’t have put this film in for any awards of any kind – it’s a top-end Hallmark made-for-TV outing that pulls out three or four show-stopping emotional body-blows amidst an ocean of tedium.

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Best Picture Oscars

I’d like to say I’d taken the Academy Awards as seriously as Phil, but aside from one or two aberrations they’ve never recognised the films I liked best in any given year – this year is no exception, with none of my top-5 making it onto any major Oscar category. I think the last ceremony I watched was the 76th, where Lord of the Rings: Return of the King stole the “Best Picture” award from Lost in Translation. Nevertheless the idea is fascinating, which is why it’s endured. At its best, the Academy Awards are a chance to celebrate all the best things about film, and why we love them. When sitting down to write this post I had  a quick flick through the winners for the last few decades and I’m not in sync with the Academy voters, but there also aren’t many films that don’t deserve to be celebrated and enjoyed on those lists.

This year I decided to try and make sure I saw all the Best Picture nominees to see how I’d rank them, though I think barring some kind of divine intervention the award is going to La La Land. At the time of writing I’m still missing a couple, but I’ve put the ones I have seen into order and I’m going to offer a half-hearted stab at thinking about them as Big Awards Winners, from my least favourite to the best. This is a different kind of approach to my usual, because I’m not trying to understand the film per se, instead focusing on it as a received object, it’s reception.

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • Hidden Figures
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Moonlight

And then once the Oscars are over, we can get to the most important awards event of the season, the Kermode Awards.

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Live by Night [2016]

The 1920s are defined in the modern Western imagination by the Volstead Act, Prohibition, and the  criminal underworld it created. The reason is partially that the most successful and most powerful bootleggers of the age wanted it that way. Al Capone, for example, was basically a public figure as a bootlegger. Bootleggers have a unique advantage in the telling of their tales: history is basically on their side viz-a-viz their basic criminal activity. Narcotics, prostitution, armed robbery, gambling are all more-or-less tainted by abuse and human degradation, while having a dram of whiskey or a glass of the finest red wine after a hard day’s work is practically mandatory for huge swathes of the population. Famously, when asked of his plans at the end of Prohibition, Eliot Ness, the most famous foe of bootleggers, the scourge of the underworld, the leader of the “Untouchables” said “I think I’ll have a drink”. Checkmate on that moral argument. Continue reading

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Micro-procedurals in Urban Fantasy

When Buffy the Vampire finished up its run, I was ready for it to be over. I had loved the show, but over the course of the seventh season I’d been feeling a palpable sense of de ja vu bordering on boredom with stories that felt well-worn. It was Episode 6 “Him” that really killed my interest, and even though the second half of the season tried to turn everything around and change all the rules, it felt very much like more of the same. As time has worn on, I’ve found myself revisiting Seasons 1-4 with interest and enjoyment, but when I try to pick up and run with anything after that it’s not that it’s bad, it just always feels like an inferior version of something that came before. So it’s been with some confusion that I’ve been catching up with Supernatural and enjoying it despite the show almost explicitly recycling the same stories they’ve done with fractionally different results. How many more times can I watch Sam and Dean discuss whether Sam really wants to be a Hunter – i.e. the main dramatic tension from the very first episode? Apparently as many as they’ll make. So I watched another couple of episodes of late-run Buffy to try and figure out what the difference was, and my usual structuralist emphasis broke down pretty hard, because each show appears to have the same basic monster-of-the-week procedural structure. Continue reading

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